If Ei were to describe what she saw before her in few words, she would choose death and destruction.
After a long time traveling, she and Tadayoshi had finally found a village. Or what was left of one. Most houses were either destroyed or consumed by fire and snow threatened to bury the ones still standing.
With broken pieces of swords, spears, arrows, and armors spread throughout the houses and the fields nearby, it wasn’t hard to know imagined had happened. But that sight didn’t compare to what was partially buried by the snow falling relentlessly.
There were so many bodies Ei couldn’t count them all. How many more are under the snow? The girl cleaned a bit of the snow with her foot; the little patch of grass she could see was tainted red with the blood of the, now, former villagers. Was the entire village slaughtered?
When a cold wind blew, the girl trembled and hugged herself to keep warm.
“Aren’t you glad you listened to me?” Tadayoshi asked in a presumptuous voice.
He had warned to pack heavy clothes and prepared herself for cold. Summer ended a while ago and a colder than usual autumn had begun. Ei hadn’t believed it would be already cold enough to snow, even this north. Now she was glad she packed more than he had advised, though would never tell him that. He doesn’t need an ego boost, she told herself, pulling her clothes closer.
“Awful…” It was the only thing Ei could say as she looked at the fate of the villagers again. She winced at the unpleasant memories brought by the scene. “My village could’ve ended like this… if you hadn’t appeared…”
“No. Your village got caught in a crossfire thanks to a greedy idiot,” her master said, staring at the villagers. The conviction in his voice was more comforting than Ei would like to admit. Tadayoshi’s expression hardened when he indicated two bodies still holding their weapons. “This was… war…”
Ei turned to the warriors but didn’t see any real difference between them. Both were big, full of scars, and wore shattered armors. One had died with an arrow through his head and held a sword carved into the other’s chest. She got closer and finally noticed what Tadayoshi wanted her to see.
The armor of the one holding the sword had four yellow cherry blossom petals inside a circle as an emblem. She couldn’t figure out the other one’s emblem; the sword in his chest had pierced through it. Even so, the girl could tell it was different.
Looking beyond them, Ei saw many broken banners. Some had the same petal emblem, but others had two swords crossing inside a red circle.
“A fight between two armies,” Ei told her conclusion in a low voice.
Tadayoshi nodded as he picked up a helmet almost broken in two. He ran his thumb on the crack and then dropped the helmet on the ground, which broke with the impact.
“I think the fight began in the plains near the river. The losing army must’ve retreated and ended up bringing the fight to the village.”
Ei kept quiet. After everything she had seen, it wasn’t hard to imagine that. To lose everything in the blink of an eye…
“Let’s find a place to sleep,” said Tadayoshi, looking at the top of the mounting. I’m not in the mood to sleep halfway. Especially under this snow.”
The moment he finished talking, Ei already knew what they had to do. While she collected firewood, Tadayoshi would look for a house or anything that still had four walls and a roof standing. Her master had already started his task, walking between the burned houses, but the girl hadn’t moved.
A soldier’s body caught her attention. He died holding the fatal wound to his stomach, but there was something the way he had fallen. It’s like he died and fell on top of something, the girl thought, walking towards him. Then she found out what it was.
The soldier had died on top of a woman hugging a kid as if shielding. Ei brought her hands together and made a silence pray for the mother, daughter, and the village before go looking for firewood.
Her task was easier than her master’s. There was plenty wood for fire scattered outside the houses, already cut and ready to be used. While she had collected enough, Tadayoshi still hadn’t found a decent place for them to sleep.
Despite the village being small, the houses were spread apart on a big area, some even build between the threes. Even if they made the village like this, it wasn’t enough to save them, Ei thought, watching her master appearing and disappearing. The sun had set by the time he found a good enough structure that wasn’t destroyed by the war.
After he threw the useful things he found on the floor, Tadayoshi lite a fire and warmed his hands. Neither one of them made any food preparation; they had already before reaching the village. Ei was glad for that. She knew she would lose hunger after she saw the village.
Even after everything she had seen and done by Tadayoshi’s side, even if she was surrounded by violence and death, the girl had never seen a massacre. Though she had killed in order to survive, it never crossed her mind to kill innocents for that.
Could I do something like this? Kill people who didn’t raise their weapons at me? Ei wondered, glancing down at her sword. She wanted to say no, but something deep inside her held the answer. Her fingers ran along the scabbard and the guard. Then she closed her hand around the handle, her palm a perfect match for it after so much use. Ei could even hear the sound when she drew in her mind.
Tadayoshi shifting in his seat brought her mind back. He leaned closer to the fire, his hands almost touching the flames. Even covered by fur, her master shivered. Despite not asking for anything, Ei opened the bag she carried and looked through its content. Soon she found one of the bear pelts they used to protect themselves against the cold nights.
Tadayoshi grabbed the pelt moment he saw it, covering himself with it. He closed his eyes and seemed to enjoy the sudden warmth. His breathing became slower, but Ei still saw the fog forming before his face.
“Aren’t you glad I suggested this?” she said in the smuggest voice she had, showing him the bag.
He looked at her and then back at the flames, mumbling something she didn’t understand. Even so, Ei saw the smile behind his lips and chuckled.
When she suggested the bag, he was genuinely surprised. They bought it after selling Ichirou’s armor. Though it wasn’t big, it had the necessary for a long trip, something Tadayoshi had never thought about it.
Her master told she would be the one carrying right after they bought it, saying something about being part of her training. When she suggested the idea, the girl knew she would be the one carrying anyway. So Ei didn’t complain at the beginning.
However, after a while, she started bugging him about it. Not that she wanted him to carry. In fact, she was glad he never carried for her, no matter how exhausted she was. She would never be able to carry something this heavy before.
Still, from time to time, Ei complained about the weigh or the straps digging into her shoulders, knowing full well that he would never carry nor even offer to do it. She just did it to annoy him.
Tadayoshi stared at the flames, swaying back and forth slowly. Suddenly he shook his head and widened his eyes, trying to fight the sleep. But soon he gave up, find some straw in the house and dragged near the fire.
Ei held her laugh as her master fell asleep. She knew fighting against sleep was a losing battle; she herself was losing that battle. It’s been a long day. Coming so far north was harder than we thought.
Since they avoided the main roads whenever they could, they traveled through the forests and hills. Those paths were full of twist, steeps and many times they had to get off the trail due to a fallen tree or a boulder on the way. Ei also had a strong suspicion her master got lost a few times. It wasn’t the first time he made us walk around in circles until he found the right way, the girl thought, yawning.
Ei rubbed her face. Keeping her eyes open became harder and harder with time, but she still refused to close them. Even if her master sensed no danger, there was something strange on this mountain. She could feel it. It wasn’t the massacre. Ever since they got near the mountain, she had a bad feeling.
Trying to dismiss the feelings, she closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, letting her awareness reach out. Ei could only feel the cold and death around them. It’s like there’s a presence around me… with a blade at my neck, she thought, shivering.
The girl pulled the other bear pelt from the bag and lied down with her back against Tadayoshi. The warmth coming from him was more comforting than the fire. Despite her uneasiness, the exhaustion won.
The next morning, Ei woke moments after her master. The fire had gone out in the middle of the night, so she pulled the pelt as close as she could. Having more trouble than she should, the girl put all the useful stuff Tadayoshi had found inside the bag and then joined him in the search for food.
Despite the lack of hunger, she wanted to eat as soon as possible and leave that place. She didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary. The massacre still wrapped her stomach. But as they collected any food from the houses, her eyes went to the corpses of mother and daughter.
Thinking about her own mother, Ei picked up a shovel in the warehouse and began digging two shallow graves. She knew it had no meaning; there were so many dead parents and children around her burying just them was useless. Still, she kept digging.
Her master wanted to say that it was meaningless too. She could tell as he glanced at her and sighed. But, for his disciple, he kept his mouth shut. As she worked, Tadayoshi searched for anything useful amongst the soldiers.
Ei knew he was just making himself busy to let her dig in peace—it had been a long time since they had to sell swords and armors for money—and she was thankful for that.
After a while, he gave up and walked to her side. With his help, burying mother and daughter was faster much faster. The graves were simple and had no decorations whatsoever, even so, Ei was satisfied with it.
They both panted and sweated despite the cold. Her arms throbbed a little, though nothing compared to her trainings. But even after all the work, she didn’t feel hungry. Ei forced herself to eat some of the fruits, but Tadayoshi ended up eating almost all.
She was still nibbling her third fruit when her master took off the fur and stood up with the wooden sword in hand, pointing at her. Ei smiled, ate the rest of the food in one bite, took off her fur and stood up drawing her sword as well.
Some time ago, her trainings had changed. Her master stopped teaching her anything new and now only sparred with her. When she asked the reason, Tadayoshi said he had already taught her everything he knew.
Now, according to him, the only thing she needed was what he couldn’t teach her; experience. The closest he could do for her was fight against her, always getting a bit harder and harder each day.
Ei could already feel the results. She could already feel surpassing her limits with each fight. In the beginning, she always lost count how many times he had hit her; now it was less than a hundred.
The first thing Ei noticed was the distance between them. She was outside his sword reach, but still took a few steps back. It was necessary in order to analyze the adversary’s movements and find any opening.
But it was useless against her master. They knew each other too well, not to mention they and were training together for so long. Because of that, Ei knew any opening in Tadayoshi’s defense were made on purpose so that she could advance thinking it was possible to finally hit him for the first time.
Tadayoshi advance with his sword raised before him. It was his way of not letting her know from where his strike would come. Ei knew he would aim at her head or arms. To him, she was too short to aim at her legs or hip. He could also strike at her hands, but after an incident where he hurt her pinky finger and she couldn’t use a sword for days, he never aimed at her hands again.
She was free to hit anywhere she wanted. That is, if you can, he had said with his presumptuous smile.
The first attack was at her head. It was a simple tactic he used to make her take a step back and lose the balance. It had worked too well in the first fights. Almost every time Ei raised her sword to block it out of reflex, but when she realized he was too fast for her to defend, she jumped backward and tripped on a rock or a root.
Every time, the only comment from Tadayoshi was dead with the tip of his sword almost at her neck. Then he waited for her to stand up before attacking again.
By now, Ei knew what to do and redirected his attack the right away. But, despite not using all his strength, Tadayoshi was much stronger than she. The girl knew she would exhaust herself too soon if she redirected every attack.
Without taking her eyes from her master, Ei took advantage of her height and ducked before his next attack. The moment his sword passed above her head and she was safe, the disciple advanced, trying to take him off guard. Her targets were his knees or shins. Ei knew from personal experience people had trouble defending attacks from below.
Tadayoshi already expected that, however. Before her sword could reach him, his weapon seemed to appear out of thin air and blocked hers. Ei showed a bitter smile without realizing. She knew that would happen. It was always like that.
Also like always, Tadayoshi didn’t stop due to her failed attack. Using her moment of distraction, the swordsman stabbed her in the shoulder. “Dead.”
Ei held her scream and ignored the pain. Shit! He’s never hit this strong, she thought. Little by little, in each training, he fought a bit more serious. Even so, the girl knew her master wasn’t even using half his true strength. When she realized it, it surprised her how much that didn’t bother her.
Though Ei would never tell him, she enjoyed the fact she was far from fighting Tadayoshi for real. He was her goal, who she aimed to be. The further the distance between them, the stronger she would be when she finally reached him.
“That’s all for now,” Tadayoshi announced, putting on the fur right away.
Ei tried to get her fur as well, but she fell facing the snow, exhausted and in pain. The sparring hadn’t lasted long, and she wasn’t even hit that much; by her estimates, it was less than eighty times. But the last blow, on the back of her knee again, was too much.
Despite the pain, she managed to keep standing at the time. According to Tadayoshi, if she fell in the middle of a fight, it could mean her death. But now that the sparring was over, it felt as if all the pain had accumulated and she couldn’t move anymore.
Her master opened the bag, took two bamboo bottles and tossed one to her, along with the fur. Ei wrapped herself with the heavy fur, took the pin and turned the bottle over her mouth, choking with the cold water. She cleaned the lips with the back of the hand and drank again, glancing at her master. Despite the difference between their speed not being that much, she felt the frustration fill her.
He was faster, sure, but with a lot of effort and concentration, she could keep up with him. Or at least she thought. But every time she felt her sword closer to reaching him, her master’s sword would appear out of nowhere to block. Despite being hit less time today, she was nowhere closer to hitting him.
Ei let out a heavy sigh. It’s useless to think about that. The only thing I can do is to train and then train some more. She drank the rest of the water, put the bottle back in the bag and took a small wooden bowl and a cloth full of herbs. After choosing, she pummeled the plants into a yellow and green paste leaking out a foul smell. At least it’s not as bad as the last one, she remembered, wincing.
With a deep breath, she dipped her fingers in the paste and pulled the fur with the free hand. Even if it was for a short while, she trembled with the cold. Ei rubbed the medicine first on the biggest bruises on her arms, almost covering from hand to shoulder.
I’ll have to wash the fur as soon as we get out of here, she thought after she covered her arms. Ei knew it would be hard to clean anything on this cold mountain. It was most likely they would stink until they got off the mountain. How long that’s gonna take?
The moment they started hearing a few strange rumors, Tadayoshi decided to go north. The further they went, the stranger the rumors became. Things like people climbing the mountain and never coming back. Or screeches of death coming from the peak. Or people saying they saw a monster lurking around.
To the girl, they were just weird lies people told to scare bandits from the mountains, like many others they heard. But to her master, they were important and every time some out of the ordinary rumor pricked Tadayoshi’s interest, they went to verify.
Ei had no idea where those rumors would lead them. Nor had a clue why Tadayoshi was so obsessed with them. But she knew one thing for sure; whatever the reason, it had some connection to do Yasuhiro-sama.
Her master had shared a lot about his own master. Many stories about their travels, their fights, the truth behind the tales, but mostly about Yasuhiro-sama’ trainings. Tadayoshi liked to tell how Yasuhiro-sama was much harsher than he was, and Ei should feel lucky to have such kind master.
But apart from those stories, she had heard nothing about the night when Tadayoshi’s master died. Nothing ever since their talk about her being ready to hear. It was frustrating at first. She thought her master was being annoying as usual.
Only after a long time, Ei finally realized the truth. It was hard for him to talk about what happened that night, even now. As if it’s still hard for him to believe what happened… even if he’d never denied Yasuhiro-sama had died by his hands.
Tadayoshi stared at the yellow paste in the bow with disgust. Ei chuckled at her master’s expression. He had some trauma with herbs and always avoided that kind of treatment. Something about having a bad reaction and ending up with a strong rash for days. She liked to bring that up whenever he was annoying her beyond normal. He hated so much he became in a foul mood and stopped teasing her.
Of course, her master never told her that story. Tadayoshi would never reveal anything that might make him embarrassed; he would rather embarrass his disciple.
She only found out when they visited a temple where, surprisingly, Tadayoshi wasn’t hated. And even more to her surprise, her master had people he would call friends. One of those few peoples, a priest named Ryuunosuke, or to her, Ryuu-sensei, told many things her master would rather keep her from ever knowing.
Tadayoshi liked using his own stories as examples during her trainings, but she had never heard about his screw ups. But thanks to the priest, Ei knew her master had got half his scar on the belly after fighting a bear because of a lost a bet.
Or that once, during a fight, he rolled on a pile of shit and the enemy let him go because couldn’t stand the smell anymore. Or that once he and had had to flee the village the same way he was born. Afterwards, no one wanted to treat the wounds he had due to riding a horse without a saddle.
That wasn’t all the learned from the priest. Ryuu-sensei knew a lot about plants and medicine. Every time she and Tadayoshi stayed a while at that temple, he taught her a little bit. That knowledge helped them a lot during their journey. Her master knew nothing about medicine beyond treating simple wounds and scratches. And, also according to the priest, Tadayoshi only learned which plants and herbs he could eat after hallucinating.
As Ei learned, she was surprised by her master’s profound lack of knowledge. More than once she asked herself how Tadayoshi had managed to survive traveling alone without any kind of preparation. Even the idea of provisions had baffled him. She never asked him though. She knew that with a lot of people after him, he became used to travel light.
“Hey, if you’re done with that disgusting thing, let’s go,” Tadayoshi said, taking her out of her daydream.
He tossed another fruit to her and turned to face the peak before walking towards the forest. Ei ate her food in few bites, picked up the bag, tossed the herbs and the bow inside and went after her master
Tadayoshi stopped near a creek and handed her the bamboo bottle. Ei sighed when she understood. Her master wasn’t going to put his hand in the cold water just to fill his bottle. Ei had noticed a while ago that, sadly, she was too used to her master’s whims and didn’t even get angry with something like this anymore.
The water was so cold that even holding the bamboo with just the tip of her fingers made her lose sensibility and almost drop the bottle. After she filled both, she quickly put the pin and tossed in the bag. Then she rubbed and breathed on her hands to warm them up. Tadayoshi said nothing.
Not even walking seemed to drive away the cold. Ei was still trying to warm up herself when a freezing wind blew. It didn’t last even an instant, but she felt the shiver, her body trembling from head to toe, the hairs on her arms standing despite the fur. She couldn’t keep walking anymore and stopped to hug herself.
When she stopped trembling, Ei realized that Tadayoshi had stopped as well. But unlike her, he wasn’t hugging himself. His hand was on the handle of his sword, his real sword, his face hard and serious.
Ei didn’t notice or sense anything that could make her master worried. Even so, she did like him, grabbing the handle of her sword, ready to draw Asahi at any sign of movement. Her eyes analyzed every inch they could see, but she saw nothing suspicious nor anything that could catch her master’s attention. She glanced up at Tadayoshi.
Her master looked to every side, his face harder. He’s sensing danger… Ei controlled her breathing, inspiring and exhaling slower, expanding her senses with each breath. She looked for a presence beyond them.
Suddenly a killing intent embraced her, so powerful she froze.
We’re… we’re surrounded, she managed to think, out of air.