Tadayoshi sat up slowly and turned toward the voice, all his sleepiness gone. He was right; it was a child.
Smaller than others, though the clothes were the same. Simple and worn out by daily use, the color was already fading due sunlight. The sleeves and hem were shorter than it should, not covering entirely the arms and legs, tanned by the sun. Probably from working on the fields, Tadayoshi decided.
The kid had a short black hair tied in the back with two loose strands and a bang covering his forehead, but unlike his clothes suggested, the kid’s face was rather delicate, and the eyes…
Tadayoshi almost stood up when he noticed the child’s eyes. His stare had something... Then he finally realized. The kid’s expression was empty. The face of someone who knew sorrow and suffering. Something common in these times, the man thought. If it weren’t for Kaguya and Taichi, I’d be the same right now, Tadayoshi knew.
“No, no. I’m no thief,” he said, standing up slowly, trying not startling the child. “But don’t worry. I took care of them.” He flashed the same smile he had used with the bandits, though with a different meaning. It was the same as nothing.
The child stood there, staring the man he accused. “You’re a thief,” the child said again, the voice in the same emotionless tone. “Those peaches weren’t yours.”
The man looked the kernels near his foot. “I found them on this tree,” he pointed up, “so I assumed they belong to the nature.”
“Wrong. They belongs to my village.” The boy’s stare went to the same thing that caught the bandit’s attention; the katana. His eyes lingering on the handle for a while, a sort of glow awakening behind them. “A samurai must repay everything he received. You’ll do a job for my village.”
It’s not even a request, Tadayoshi thought, chuckling for a heartbeat. He stopped smiling almost right away. To demand something from a stranger, especially one with a sword. That’s a bold brat… or maybe he’s too desperate…
“First of all, I’m not a samurai,” Tadayoshi complained. He was accustomed by now, but it bothered him even so, and he denied every time. I’m not like my master. “I don’t owe you or your village anything, but maybe I can help you.” Beats sleeping out in the open again. And it’d be great if I could get some clothes.
Still with his empty expression, the boy nodded and turned around, walking back to the main path. Turning his back to a stranger… Tadayoshi followed at some distance, trying to sense any presence nearby.
“What’s this job anyway?” Walking this long with someone in silence was tedious. The first time someone doesn’t run or attack me in weeks turns out to be a quiet brat… “I’m Tadayoshi by the way,” he added, remembering he hadn’t introduced himself nor knew the kid’s name.
“Protect my village,” he said curtly.
Tadayoshi held his impulse to sigh. So it was something like that…
The swordsman expected more, but the boy kept his silence again. The man could tell the kid wanted to say more, and he would if Tadayoshi asked. Something made him wait without saying a word though. This kids needs to say on his own, he realized and waited.
“My village was attacked…” the boy spoke after a long while. Though his voice remained the same tone, Tadayoshi noticed the kid’s breathing slowed down. He’s suppressing his emotions… The boy took a deep breath and said, “We fought back and made them go away, but they’ll come back. Today or tomorrow.”
They said nothing more as they got back to the main path. The kid went on the same direction Tadayoshi was going before his pause. The path divided at some point, but the boy went straight ahead without hesitating. The swordsman glanced the other path, his eyes going to the footprints erased by nature. He could tell they were recent, and it made him uneasy.
Could be those bandits… Did they run to their hideout… or the nearby fortress? Without realizing, his hand was over his scar. Tadayoshi pulled his clothes closer the most he could without ripping.
Even though the village wasn’t far, it took them a long time to get there. The child’s steps didn’t compare to his, but the only thing Tadayoshi could do was match his. By the time they arrived, the sun had begun to set on the horizon and the villagers had already lit a few torches.
It was the same as others villages; small houses, a few bigger constructions, probably the harvest and tool shed and where they held their meetings. At the back, the fields stretched until the surrounding forest. If it not for the burned houses near the entrance, there would have nothing standing out of other villages. A few had some walls remains, but the fire had consumed most houses in that area. There was still some soot on the floor.
It was a big fire, Tadayoshi thought, avoiding the piles of burnt wood. Was that supposed to be a barrier or something? He realized something else. The women and children worked on the fields, planting the rice seedlings. He had seen the rice-planting ritual a few times, but what he saw now was the opposite. There was nothing resembling the festivities. There was no dancing or singing for the inadama, the spirit that dwells within the rice. The expression of the men around the field said it all; no one in the village was in the mood for a festival. They only stood there around the field. No, they're protecting, the swordsman realized.
The boy ignored the burnt houses and went on, answering the few villagers’ greetings with curt a nod, never stopping. Nobody greeted Tadayoshi. Instead, they stopped their chores and whatever expression they had turned into a suspicious glare when they saw him. That’s… a warm welcome, the man though. At least it’s better than usual. Tadayoshi looked around again. It’s like they’ve given up…
They stopped in front of the second biggest construction in the village, almost at the center. Tadayoshi could hear shouts coming from inside, but even concentrating his hearing, it was hard to understand what they were saying. Without taking his sandals, the kid opened the door and stared the swordsman.
Tadayoshi shook his head and didn’t move at all. There’s no way I’ll jump in the middle of that… especially with a sword, he told himself. The kid turned his back and entered the house.
The room was crowded. A few people were standing up, but most men and women were sitting on opposite sides with their back turned to the door. The few faces Tadayoshi saw cried, but he what he sensed it was beyond sadness. Frustration and hate.
The only one who seemed calm was the old man sitting at wall opposite to the entrance. The chief, Tadayoshi assumed. With the eyes closed, it was impossible for the swordsman to know what went behind the serene expression.
“So what we’re gonna do?” a young man shouted to the old man and then he looked around, looking for support. No one answered. Everyone turned their head, avoiding meeting the man’s eyes.
“I found someone to help,” the boy announced. Though he spoke on a normal tone, no one heed him any attention.
“We want us to fight?” a voice echoed among the villagers.
“We’ll just die,” a woman said and many mumbled agreeing.
“So we’re just giving up?” The young man shouted again. Only now, as he turned in every direction desperate for any support, Tadayoshi noticed he had a bandage over one eye.
“I found someone who can help,” the boy said again when the silence took over the room. Little by little, the eyes of everyone turned to him. “A samurai.”
The silence only grew as reaction. The men and women stared the boy and then exchanged looks between them, never noticing the man sighing at the door. I’m not a samurai. The young man with the bandages bit his lips.
“Ei… we appreciate, but we can’t…”
“Who’d help us?”
“Trusting an outsider…”
The number of murmur grew so much it was hard to identify who was speaking. They’re right, boy. I don’t know what happened here, but is best to survive than to throw away your life in a meaningless fight…
“We’re giving up?” Ei said above the voices. Though he said the same thing as the young man with the bandages, the boy had no desperation in his voice, and the words hit the villagers like a katana.
Even under the eyes of everyone, he shows no emotion… that boy’s a lot like me back then, Tadayoshi thought, tightening the grip around his sword. What happened to him?
“Of course not!” Bandages was shouting again. “We sent someone to ask our lord… he should be back soon. Until the soldiers arrive, we should—”
“The lord’s never done anything!” a woman interrupted Bandages. “Our homes burn and we die because of his enemies!”
A few cried in silence while others pressed their lips and looked at the floor. But the boy never changed his expression, his eyes unwavering. It’s almost like a permanent mask, Tadayoshi thought, staring the Ei’s face. He observed as the mood got heavier and heavier, and the uneasiness filled the room, the time stretching. The swordsman realized no one in there would break it, not even Bandages.
The sun had set and the stars shone in the sky when a shout throughout the village broke the silence. Tadayoshi unconsciously tightened the grip on his sword and turned around, stepping aside. The villagers who weren’t on the meeting held torches around something.
Everyone in the house rushed outside, still not noticing the man with the katana at the door. The old man was the last one. Little by little the others gave passage to him, opening a path to the center of the commotion; a lone rider. The only difference between him and the villagers was the wood axe on his waist.
The rider was talking with nearest him, but the moment he saw the chief, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Dai-jii,” he said in a heavy voice, looking at the ground. “I couldn’t even talk with the lord. He was too busy,” he spat the word, pressing the bridles so hard his knuckles were white. “The only who talked to me was the advisor. He said they couldn’t send any soldiers right now because there is a risk of invasion, but he’d try sending someone to investigate when he could…”
As the rider pressed his lips, the villagers looked at the ground, covering their faces. A few turned to chief, their eyes full of terror and begging for any hope. Try sending someone it’s the same as nothing right now, Tadayoshi knew, and he suspected the reason. If there were a risk of invasion, most lords would abandon any town or village to defend themselves. Though this village was too far to receive any quick aid, even in safe times.
The power around here belongs to two fortress, Tadayoshi recalled. The important one is near the border… which makes the most probable target. The other fortress belonged to a small noble with no importance. Both lords answered to the Matsudaira clan. This village belong to which lord? Dealing with minor bandits shouldn’t need too many soldiers… Or this lord’s in a pinch, or there’s something else…
“What we’re gonna do?” an old man spoke to the chief, holding his sleeve. “We can’t abandon our homes…
“We need to fight!”
“We got no weapon…”
“We have weapons,” someone said. Silence took over as everyone turned to the speaker. It was Ei
Tadayoshi widened his eyes when he saw. It’s not only the lack of desperation that sets him apart from Bandages, he realized. Ei’s eyes weren’t empty; they burned with determination. He, like countless other, was someone who knew deep pain and sorrow, but hadn’t given up. Such determination… something rare these days, and in someone so young…
“We have the swords they left behind. And we have a samurai.” For the first time the villagers noticed Tadayoshi’s presence. “We’re not giving up our home.”
“Ei-chan… who’s this man?” a woman said, pulling the boy closer. “We don’t know who he is. Besides, relying on strangers…”
“He could be with them…”
Everyone turned towards him almost at the same time. I need to do something before it gets out of hand, he thought, clearing his throat. “The name which I attend is Tadayoshi. I’m travelling and ended up in this area.” A nervous smile appeared across his face. Hope this crowd’s different from the last one. “In the woods, this kid made a request and brought me here. As I need rest and food for my journey, I would appreciate if you allowed me to stay here.” With no reaction, Tadayoshi decided to make a bet. “May I see the weapons left behind?”
Now they reacted, whispering between themselves. The murmur made him nervous. Damn it! If you got something to say, then say it! Tadayoshi wanted to scream, but held his silence. This won’t help me. The swordsman took a deep breath and looked directly to the chief, their eyes meeting each other.
The villagers turned to their leader one by one. The old man ignored them, his stare never leaving Tadayoshi. The chief’s clear eyes reminded him his master. The swordsman almost flinched, but he managed to hold off his instinct to look away and stared back.
After long time, the old man nodded and someone in the crowd ran and came back holding three sheaths. Two long, like his own, but the third was smaller. Ei didn’t hesitate handing the weapons to Tadayoshi. The swordsman suspected the kid would have stayed by his side the entire time if not for a woman pulling him away.
Aware each movement he made frightened the villagers, Tadayoshi picked up one of the long sword and unsheathed slowly. It still scared them; the nearby ones backed away and some even pushed the others to get out of range. At least stay still with those torches, he thought, sighing. The swordsman turned his attention to the blade, analyzing each detail of the sword without engraves nor ornaments.
It’s a well-crafted sword, though the metal isn’t the best. Even under the torch light, Tadayoshi could tell. The curved of the tip is just right and the curvature in general is decent. It made him unease. Would normal bandits get ahold of this? Made by someone who knew what they were doing, but didn’t bother to do their best. There’s no comparison with the bandits’ this morning. He balanced the sword on his left hand. The weight distribution is too good… Someone could sell for a good price. That made him even more suspicious. Tadayoshi stared the handle. They cleaned it, but there’s still traces of blood… The swordsman sheathed the sword and picked up the other katana, reaching the same analysis. The same with the wakizashi.
The villagers watched the stranger looking the weapons in dead silence. When Tadayoshi stood up, they backed away a bit, and when he offered the weapons back, no one dared to move. Only Ei stepped forward, staring him without saying a word as he got the weapons back.
“I think this village is in deeper trouble than you believe,” Tadayoshi said to the chief. “Whoever made theses swords knew what they were doing. The balance, the sharpness, the weigh, everything has it quality. Though the metal isn’t the best, it's unlikely commons bandits would possess swords like these. Probably made in a castle forge… or a fortress.”
His words were a final blow. If some still had any hope, it was gone, replaced by the growing terror. Even Bandages’ face tightened. “Why should we listen to you? You could be with them!” he screamed. A few mutters joined him and it made Bandages more confident. “You’re trying to make us give up without a fight!” A few more voices joined him now, and some villagers even moved to stand side by side with him.
Tadayoshi ignored them again and turned to the chief. The old man’s face didn’t change, his eyes clear as before. Almost as if my words just confirmed something he already knew…
“We should talk in private,” said the chief, ignoring the pleas and protests.
Tadayoshi followed the old man, focusing on his back. Soon they were back to the same house the villagers were before the lone rider arrived. The chief took off his sandals, walked to the same place he was before and sat down.
The swordsman took off his sandals as well, taking his time to not ruin the rest of it. He was about to sit down when he stopped himself. Damn… it’s hard to remember all those idiot etiquette, master. Even though you never care much yourself, he complained in his head, waiting until the chief invited him to sit.
Now close enough, Tadayoshi could see the chief seemed near his fifties, perhaps more. And the fear for the village’s future makes him look older. His hair was almost all gray, the black disappearing in the little he had left. Though he had no visible scars, the fatigue of someone who had worked hard all his life showed in his wrinkled face.
“I’m Daisuke and I’m this village chief.” Just talking seemed to tire him. He took a deep breath and stared into Tadayoshi’s eyes.
The brown eyes had a familiar deepness that bothered Tadayoshi. This old man’s reminds my master too much. The swordsman moved a little, pretending to adjust his position. It was uncomfortable be under that stare for so long. He’s looking for lies…
“Excuse this old man, but who are you?” the chief asked bluntly. “I don’t think you’re someone dangerous, since Ei-chan knows how to judge people. Are you a samurai?”
Even though he brought a complete stranger to his home, he’s suspicious. Maybe this village still has a chance. “I’m not a samurai.” It was the first thing he said after considering his words. Sometimes it surprised him how much he hated the misunderstanding. His master and his sons were. He wasn’t. “After eating some peaches, that kid called me a thief saying the fruits belonged to this village and I should repay,” Tadayoshi said. After a moment, he decided to tell the truth. “I only went along because I need some decent rest.”
The chief kept quiet. Tadayoshi opened his mouth, but bit his lips the next instant, holding his impulse to say anything else. I… can’t risk my life. Not now, not here. Not for people who means nothing to me. Against his will, his master's voice echoed in his mind, using the same tone when he was serious. ‘Do what you think is right, live how you believe is right! You learn with mistakes. Regrets you carry.’
Shut up… you’re not here anymore…
Tadayoshi closed his eyes and breathed slowly, regaining control of his emotions. It took some time for the voice to go away. “Daisuke… dono” he added, remembering the etiquette, “I’m afraid I cannot offer any help. I’m only one man.” A thin smile appeared on his lips. Master would never say he’s only one man.
The old man stared back, his expression the same. The only change was in his eyes. For a brief moment, there was a light in them, but it soon vanished, as if never existed. Daisuke-dono wouldn’t cling to any false hope.
“It is better this way,” the old man finally spoke. “If they believed you might help us, it would stir them to fight… and die…”
“I’m… sorry…” Tadayoshi said, looking away. I must keep my mouth shut, he told himself. “All I ask is for some food and shelter. And all I can pay is this, but I’m not sure you want…” He took the knife from inside his clothes and held the blade by the tip, offering the handle to the chief.
The old man held his breath and stared the weapon, his eyes shining again. For a moment, Daisuke-dono’ hand trembled and went for the blade, but then he pulled back before he touched it. “We can offer some food and shelter, but put that away… please,” the chief said, looking away.
Tadayoshi did as bid, putting the blade back to where it was. What a tremendous willpower… he wants to fight, he wants to protect his home, and yet he choose the path of survival, and not as a coward. Guess that kid’s determination isn’t so surprising…
Daisuke-dono gestured and Tadayoshi stood up. The chief took his time to do the same. The swordsman thought of offering a hand for an instant, but dismissed the idea. He’s too much like my master.
The house had a window and three doors. Daisuke-dono went to the door opposite to the window. Standing a respectful distance from the chief, Tadayoshi spied the woman cooking inside the kitchen. She fill two wooden bowl with the food, but when the picked up a third one, she stopped. Suddenly she trembled, dropped the bowl and covered her face with both hands.
Daisuke-dono said nothing as waited until the woman finished crying. She cleaned her face and turned around. More tears threatened to fall when she looked at the chief, but then her eyes widened when she saw the stranger standing behind the old man. “Sumire, don’t worry. This is our guest, Tadayoshi-sama, and he’s gonna eat with us,” he said in a low voice. The woman nodded her head, but the fear never left her eyes.
That’s more like it, Tadayoshi thought, holding back an awkward smile. Someone using honorific with me is weird enough, let alone ‘sama’. Even when he was younger and travelled with his master, everyone treated him as a servant, never as disciple. The way Sumire-dono glanced at him while filling another bowl with millet actually made him more comfort. But when the silent tears fell again, the swordsman looked away and pressed his lips.
Tadayoshi helped moving a table crammed in the kitchen to the main room. Sumire-dono brought the bowls and three plates with a fish each. Soon the only sound was them eating. This is awkward… this must be one of the most silent meals I ever had. Might as well be eating in the woods again… At least the nature’s sounds are better than this.
They finished without saying a word. Sumire-dono left the house as quickly as she could after taking the bowl and plates to the kitchen, never looking at the swordsman. Daisuke-dono said Tadayoshi could sleep in the main room and said if he wanted, he could get some straw so he wouldn’t need to sleep directly on the floor. Then the chief was gone to check the village.
Tadayoshi gathered some straw and after an instant wondering where to put it, he choose the corner opposite to the main entrance. And I thought I had lost this habit, he thought, a meager smile appearing on his lips. When he was a kid, whenever he slept inside a house or a stable or anywhere with walls, he always chose one of the corners, as to never let his back opened. It took some time for me to grow out of that, even after master found me…
With his eyes becoming heavier, the straw pile seemed too tempting to postpone, but even after he laid down his head, something at the back of his mind bothered him. When he heard the chief and his wife outside, Tadayoshi stood up and stepped out.
For a moment the old man narrowed his eyes as he stared the man blocking their path to their own house. He moved as to stand between the swordsman and Sumire-dono and she grabbed her husband’s sleeve.
“I know it’s not my business, but could you please tell me what happened here?” he asked in a low voice. “And also… to that kid…” Tadayoshi voiced what he truly wanted to know.
Daisuke-dono’ face froze under the torch light. He looked at his wife and nodded, his neck so stiff if barely moved. She gulped and walked past the swordsman, her eyes crying again.
When they were alone, the old man looked back to Tadayoshi. His eyes lost focus, but soon any trace of emotion disappeared, his face unreadable. No, it’s not unreadable… Though he’s hiding his pain, it hurts him the most, the swordsman realized. I don’t think he wants to share anything with a complete stranger. Tadayoshi knew that, but waited in silence anyway.
“Two days ago… we were preparing for the rice-planting ritual,” he started speaking in a heavy voice. “Six bandits came and said the village was theirs now and… and if we still wanted to live, we had to leave…” Daisuke-dono couldn’t hold anymore and the tears fell. He never tried hiding with his hand nor looking away.
Tadayoshi noticed one thing. Despite the tears, the old man never let out a cry. This man’s already beyond his limits but he’s still trying everything he can to make sure his friends and families survives, realized Tadayoshi.
It took some time for Daisuke-dono’ tears stopped. He cleaned his face and went on. “No one accepted, but some raced to the toolshed looking for anything to fight back. The bandits set nearby houses in fire before anyone could do anything.” He closed his eyes and took many deep breaths. “Ei-chan was helping with the ritual and raced home, but one of the bandit grabbed that kid by the hair and threatened with a sword the moment Aiko got out of the burning house. When she saw her kid in danger, she jump at the bandit’s back. His companion pulled her and killed her. My grandkid was the first back from the shed and attacked right away.” He started crying again, but didn’t stop this time. “Others followed and they managed to kill three, but we had already lost too many. The bandits set more houses on fire to scare us, but we were beyond fear at the time. We threw rocks and they gave up, running away, but they said they’d be back. We ran to put out the fire, but it had grown too big. If it wasn’t for the rain…”