The girl didn’t know where she was, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to feel.
The world was empty; there was no sound, smell, warmth, nothing… it had lost everything.
There was only a darkness embracing the girl.
There was only a cold and numbing sensation filling her.
Even so, she knew one thing; she could not let go of the sword, no matter what happened. She kept her eyes closed, her fingers squeezing the handle even tighter despite having no strength left.
All the girl remembered was the samurai running towards her. He stopped at the foot of the tree and looked up, looking for something. For me, she thought at the time. No… I’m no one… he wants the sword…
She drew the weapon and held with both hands. But she shook so much the metal rattling gave away her position.
The samurai looked towards the sound and their eyes met.
The girl lost control her breathing. With her head blank, before she realized, she screamed and jumped.
And then… I…
She stared into his eyes as the blade pierced his hand and face.
She watched as the light faded from his eyes and the man’s soul left this world.
I killed him…
I killed someone…
From somewhere far, a voice called her name. It was less than a whisper, so low the girl couldn’t tell if it was real or just her imagination. Without realizing, she put more strength into her fingers, so much it hurt. But she didn’t let go of the sword.
Something touched her hand. It was so light it felt as if warm air enveloped her cold fingers.
The voice called her name again, stronger this time. It was still a whisper to her ears, but she heard it; she wasn’t imagining.
The air around her hands became warmer and heavier. As the warmth coursed through her fingers, driving away the numbness and cold, she felt them tingling. Little by little, the feeling came back. From her hands to the rest of the girl. But with it, came the shaking. And she couldn’t stop.
The world was still empty and silent, but from amidst the darkness embracing her, a low sound reached the girl. She couldn’t tell where it came from, but that didn’t matter. To the girl, the sound was proof the world was still alive, that she was still alive.
She focused on her breathing. With each breath, her body awoke from the numb sensation. Her fingers began to throb painfully. When it became unbearable, she opened her eyes.
There was only blood before the girl. Her breathing became rapid and shallow. She tried to regain control over herself the way someone, someone important, had thought her.
It took a while, but she realized the blood was not from her. The red-dyed fingers didn’t belong to her.
“Ei… Ei… EIKO!”
Someone was screaming by her side. Someone screaming her name, for her.
The girl recognized that voice. It was familiar and comforting to her. She stared at the red hand again. Slowly, her eyes followed the arm and she to whom it belonged. She recognized that face, those eyes. They belonged to him, the someone important to her. Tadayoshi, her master.
The darkness around her gained life once again. She almost lost consciousness when the world overwhelmed her senses. The sound of the river flooded her ears, the smell of wet earth penetrated her nostrils. The taste of blood filled her mouth. The cold wind made she shiver.
She turned her master, looking for a safe place, for reassurance. Despite the fear in those eyes, despite not having his usual smile, that face still comforting to the girl.
Ei woke from her stupor with a cry. She didn’t try to stop the tears and let all out, her voice echoing through the plains and the river.
The moment she let go of the sword, the color returned to her fingers. With her hand still numb, she wrapped her arms around Tadayoshi and buried her face in his belly.
Tadayoshi hugged her back and she cried even louder, her voice muffled on her master.
Ei had no idea how much time had passed, but she didn’t care. All she wanted was to stay as she was with her master.
The moment she felt him about to let her go, the girl hugged him with even more strength, holding on to his clothes.
Without saying a word and with her arms around him, Tadayoshi took the sheath from her waist. Ei didn’t do anything to stop him. The next moment, she felt him pull the sword with some difficulty, swing, and sheath it.
Then Tadayoshi put a hand on her head. She stopped crying.
“Ei.” Despite being low and holding back his pain, his voice was firm. Still with her arms around him, she looked up at Tadayoshi. “Look at your hands.”
Without understanding, she nodded and did as told. With her left hand still tugging his clothes, she looked at the other. Ei became paralyzed as she stared at her red fingers.
When Tadayoshi had taken her hands from the sword, she saw the blood. But now she realized; her hands were soiled with blood too.
At once she knew. It wasn’t hers. Nor Tadayoshi’s.
It belonged to the samurai.
The blood on her soiled hands belonged to the man first man Ei had killed in her life.
The tremor overtook her as a feeling of emptiness filled her. Before she knew, before Tadayoshi could say anything, the girl raced to the river, dipping her arms inside the water. She washed and rubbed her hands with force, again and again. Until the blood was gone.
Ei pulled her arms out of the water. There was no trace of the blood left; her hands were clean.
But even if there was nothing there, she could still feel the blood, could still smell it, could still see the marks of invisible red. With her hands trembling even more, she thrust her arms into the water again. She rubbed, washed and scratched again and again. Her hands were raw and throbbing, but she didn’t stop.
Until Tadayoshi grabbed her arm. She looked up to her master in tears. He let her go and placed a hand on her shoulder, turning her away from the river. The girl didn’t resist; she had no strength left for that.
Tadayoshi took his hand from her shoulder and with difficulty, he sat on the riverbank next to her. He placed the scabbard on the side and showed her both hands. They were much redder than hers.
She trembled and flinched, but didn’t avert her eyes. She forced herself to watch as he dipped one arm in the river and let the water wash away the blood. When it was clean, he pulled his hand and showed to her again.
The water had washed most of the blood away, but there was still traces of red here and where. He lowered his hand and looked her in the eyes.
“Eiko. You can clean as much as you want, but you’ll always have that blood on your hands.” Tadayoshi used the same firm voice that tried to hide how much pain he was suffering.
Ei turned her palms and stared at her own hands, feeling them grow cold and her mind going numb. “I’ll always have blood on my hands…”
“Yes. Always.” he said in a stronger voice, gently taking her trembling hand. She looked into his eyes, seeing the same Tadayoshi as ever. The one who protects and the one who kills. Her master. “You’ll always have that blood. The same way as I do.”
This time the same words made her stop trembling. Ei stared at their hands. They couldn’t be more different. And yet, to the girl, they looked somehow similar now.
Tadayoshi picked up the scabbard and used it as support to stand. “Do you remember the words I told you to never forget?”
Ei hadn’t forgotten, but she could barely remember. But as she tried to remember, something appeared at the back of her mind. She tried speaking, but the memory was too muddled for her to say the same words. Clearing her mind the way her master had thought, she forced herself to relive the conversation.
The Tadayoshi in her mind was speaking, but he lost the voice when he spoke the words she wanted. The mouth moved, but no sound came from him. She forced herself to relive it once more. This time, he spoke the words she wanted, though too low. The girl repeated the scene again and again until she heard Tadayoshi speaking and said at the same time.
“Some live… some die… in the way of the sword…” she managed to whisper, her voice hurting her dry throat.
With his face empty, her master nodded.
Ei felt the words branding her soul like hot iron. No… more like a deep wound made from a sword… Just like the scar on her arm Tadayoshi had made, those words were part of her forever. Even if the girl wanted, she could never go back; she was someone who lived in the way of the sword now. And someday she would die in the same path.
“I’ve killed many that deserved to die and many that didn’t. I don’t know which side the samurai belonged. He wanted to avenge his brother, but I felt more grief than hate from him.” Tadayoshi took a deep breath, wincing in pain. He leaned even more on the sword, the effort of speaking draining the rest of his strength. “There are times when we must fight, when we must survive no matter the cost. When it comes, we cannot grieve the lives we take. All we can do is learn and move on.”
Tadayoshi closed the good eye and pressed the side of his head with the free hand, trying to stop the blood. He panted, and his face lost some of its color, but he showed a weak smile when he turned to Ei again.
“That time is different for each one of us. I can’t teach it to you. No one can. You must learn that on your own. I just hope that when that time comes for you, you’ll wield your sword with no regrets and when you meet your mother, you won’t lower your head ashamed for the life you lived.”
Even with her mind still numb, Ei understood. Deep within her soul, she feared that. To kill without care or regret. To become like the bandits that changed her life. She told herself she would never become that type of swordswoman, but the fear of losing herself in the sword was always there in her heart.
Before she realized, there was a weak smile on her lips, to her own surprise. Ei truly hated the fact that Tadayoshi knew what was on her mind.
The girl looked at her cleaned hands again. Even if I can’t see, they’re stained, soiled, red forever… I’ll have to carry these for the rest of my life. The thought didn’t seem as heavy as before. In her mind, she screamed the same thing she said when decided to follow Tadayoshi. I wanna be strong! I will be strong!
She tried standing, but her knees cave in. With a deep breath, she forced herself to stand up anyway. Her master didn’t offer a hand. For a moment, Ei thought it was because he couldn’t, but she realized it wasn’t that and was grateful for her master once more. In this world, I need my own strength to stand, to survive, she told herself.