A new chapter of Samurai NOT
Samurai NOT 27
The moment she stepped out of the temple, Ei shut the door.
When she became alone, the pain in her heart overwhelmed her and the girl felt the urge to cry. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and did her best to stop the tears.
I can’t cry… I can’t cry, Ei told herself over and over until the feeling of desolation diminished and became somewhat bearable.
The cold and relentless breeze howled against her. Ei didn’t cover her face; on her sweated and warm cheeks, it was a relief. But part of her knew the wind had nothing to do with it.
With her head against the door of the temple, the girl exhaled all the air in her lungs and fought the urge to cry again.
I need to… collect wood… yes… collect wood… we need to keep him warm…
Even while fighting the desolation in her soul, the girl knew what she had to do. But deep down she knew it was only a way to avoid looking at her master’s face.
Ei looked around the clearing of the fake temple, her eyes searching the ground for any piece of wood decent enough to feed a fire. Oh yeah… I already got everything in this area, she thought slowly when she didn’t find even a twig.
She knew where she could find firewood. But when Ei turned to the forest and saw the darkness creeping beyond the first trees on the edge of the clearing, she shut her eyes. Even so, no matter how much she wanted, the girl knew she had to leave the clearing. She had to get away from the temple, from her master.
We need to keep him warm, her teacher’s voice echoed in her head.
With those words in mind, Ei forced her legs to walk. When she reached the first trees the edge of the clearing, she looked back. The temple was still there, completely undisturbed. Ignoring the pain in her chest, she forced herself to look away and move.
Ei collected everything useful, but there were mostly twigs and splinters along the way. It wasn’t near enough. Ryuu-sensei must’ve collected everything around here too…
Fighting the urge to look over her shoulder and see the temple, the girl kept looking for firewood. Finally she had found. But as Ei walked slowly towards it, she halted near a tree, a few steps from her objective.
She looked between the firewood and the tree, running a hand over the surface, feeling each protrusion of the trunk with her cold fingers.
It was the same tree as the others, indistinguishable from the ones around if not for a big and deep man-made cut. This is the limit, the girl thought, her fingers circling the mark.
Ei had made the cut herself. On this tree and on several other trunks around the temple. Those marks represent the area she didn’t dare to leave. Even if she couldn’t see the temple, this was the limit she could drop anything and run back if she heard the priest’s whistle.
It was a way to protect them if villagers decided to retaliate. Ei herself had the idea. Ever since they came to the fake temple, she had been patrolling the area when she couldn’t stand being inside the temple anymore.
But until now, there was nothing. So far they hadn’t seen a single soul. No one besides them seemed to be alive in the area. Even the animals seemed afraid to get near the fake temple. But, even if the villagers seemed to ignore the death of their own, including their leader, Ei wasn’t going to drop her guard.
Ei had no idea if the absolute silence was good or not. Even so, every time she walked away far enough so the temple was out of her sight, she pricked her hears, afraid to listen to the sound of the whistle.
With her fingernails on the deep gash on the trunk, the girl looked around for any sign of life. She saw nor felt anything that could present any danger. Even so, she still hesitated to exit the area.
Pressing her lips and straining her ears, Ei raced and reached her hand out as fast as she could. But her numb fingers had trouble picking around the firewood. She shook her hand and closed and opened her fist quickly. When the blood flowing made her fingers warm enough, she picked up the firewood.
Ei cut herself when she jumped back inside the invisible barrier she had made herself. Then she turned towards the temple, her heart thumping fast, her breathing irregular. But she heard nothing.
When she could breathe normally, the girl noticed her finger was bleeding, but the numb hand couldn’t feel any pain. Licking the blood, she made her way back to the temple, the place where she wanted to be, but at the same time, wanted to stay away.
With numb legs and her breathing forming a fog, Ei raced back to temple. When she reached the clearing, she looked around, her hand on the handle of her sword. But there was no sign of change. Neither from a villager nor from someone inside the temple.
Everything was just as before. Including her dying master.
A pain crossed her heart and Ei felt the urge to cry again. But the disciple refused to let a single tear fall. Not as long as Tadayoshi is still fighting…
When she regained herself, Ei walked out of the forest and towards the temple. The moment she opened the door, the heat overwhelmed her.
The priest was leaning over Tadayoshi body, but he turned around the moment he heard the door. He was ready to blow the whistle, his face strained and full of fear. But when he saw Ei, he let the little piece of bamboo tied on a string around his neck fall from his lips. Then Ryuu-sensei showed a tired smile as the relief filled his face.
“Thanks, Eiko-chan,” he said when she handed him the firewood, touching her hand for a moment. “Your fingers… you should have used gloves.”
Despite the exhaustion, there was a real concern in his voice. Even so, Ei noticed the priest didn’t meet her eyes.
Her mind somewhere else as she opened and closed her fingers slowly. The girl knew she should have worn gloves, but part of her didn’t think the numbness spreading from the tip of her fingers to the toe was that bad.
But if the numbness didn’t bother Ei, the priest’s stare did. Or the lack of it. Since they brought her master to the fake temple, Ryuu-sensei didn’t meet her eyes once.
The last time he looked me in the eyes was after the incident with the villagers…
After the leader of the village was dead, the priest stared Ei right in the eyes. It only lasted a moment before he turned back to Tadayoshi. But in that brief instant, the swordswoman saw something in his eyes.
He was terrified of me… terrified of what I did… how I did…
Tadayoshi will be proud… for protecting us… I’m sure he’ll praise you once he… gets better… The priest had told her.
Ei said nothing. She knew he had forced himself to say those words. But even if he hadn’t, both things were so strange to her. It only got a hollow chuckle in her mind. Her master wouldn’t praise her, not even when she actually deserved it. But that mattered not. She had done nothing to deserve a praise, nothing to be proud.
The blood was still dripping from her blade. How could master be proud of me for killing a defenseless old lady…?
The leader wasn’t innocent. She too had blood on her hands, and probably deserved to die. But it didn’t matter.
Even if Ei had saved them, what was carved in the girl’s soul was only one thing; the old lady was an unarmed opponent. But that didn’t stop the swordswoman from slashing the leader’s throat.
And she died without letting a single scream, Ei remembered as she sat on the corner of the temple, hugging her legs. All she did was stare at me with her eyes full of hate until the end…
There was also another thing in the back of the girl’s mind. She didn’t kill the leader out of hate. She did it because of for their survival.
I’m not like those bandits that killed my mom… I didn’t kill the leader because I wanted… I didn’t enjoy… I had to… I’m not like them… I’m not…
The sound of the firewood crackling in the fire brought Ei’s mind back to the temple. Shaking her head, she watched the priest tossing the twigs into the fire as well, making the room even hotter and suffocating. Then she stared at the fire.
“Eiko-chan, please help me change the bandages,” Ryuu-sensei asked in a low voice after a while.
Her heart froze, her eyes empty as the words echoed in her mind. Ever since they brought him to the fake temple, she avoided looking directly at her master. The disciple knew she should be there, ready to help any way she could. But it was too hard for her.
Just thinking about her master’s state made her heart a wreckage. The thought of Tadayoshi, the person she admired and aimed to become, lying in that fragile state between life and death made her entire soul numb.
But now she could no longer avoid.
Ei forced herself to sit beside the priest. With great care, she raised Tadayoshi’s arm and unwrapped the bandage. The cloth was moist with the mixture of herbs, but there wasn’t a drop of blood.
That’s good… the wound is closed, the disciple thought. Even so, she couldn’t feel any relief. While wrapping the new bandages with a fresh mixture of herbs, Ei realized something. Despite the intense heat from the fire inside the room, her master was cold.
“We’re done, Eiko-chan.” While she was lost in her thoughts, the priest had finished changing the rest of the bandages. “He’s getting better. Look, he’s stronger.”
It was true Tadayoshi’s chest moved up and down faster. Before, it looked like he would stop breathing at any time. Even so, Ei had trouble letting her hopes grow.
According to the priest, her master was out of mortal danger. But he had no idea when the swordsman would wake up. The thought that would never happen crossed Ei’s mind more than once, and every time it destroyed her on the inside.
Until now, no matter how strong was the enemy, Tadayoshi won. Then he showed her that annoying smile, as if the deadly fight was nothing and everything was okay. Seeing him like this, so frail and serene, shocked her more than she believed possible.
Ei had taken care of his body full of scars before, but until now, she had never truly looked at him. Each one of those scars had a memory from his previous battles. Battles where he betted his life.
Guess I never thought he was betting his life… No matter how difficult the fight was, deep inside her, she never believed Tadayoshi would lose. I’m a failure as a disciple…
It’s your fault! You made me think you were invincible… made me think you were the strongest, she thought glancing down at that serene face that missed the usual smile.
Don’t you dare die… You can’t… You still have a lot to teach me…
I promise I’ll change… I’ll become a good disciple… that you’ll be proud one day…
So please… wake up… Despite the hot room, her cheeks were wet.
Master… please… don’t die…
“Eiko-chan, could you please get some food?”
The priest’s voice startled her. There was no need for him to ask; she had been getting the food to keep herself busy.
Ei cleaned her cheeks and nodded, thanking the chance to get out of there.
She didn’t have to look for the food. There were a few good fruit trees nearby. They had been eating only from them this entire time. Even so, Ei didn’t rush, enjoying the cold air against her harm face. Just the previous time, the sensation spread over her body, along with the relieving numbness.
The fruits were more than ripe, some already rotting. Squeezing one by one, Ei checked fruits and picked enough for them. The bests were for Tadayoshi. The disciple herself had been smashing and mixing the fruits with some herbs. But the feeding itself she left to the priest.
Halfway back, Ei felt a stab in her heart. The feeling was so strong it made her drop the fruits. She stood where she was, looking around, clutching her chest. Then she widened her eyes and ran back to the temple.
Ei heard the priest’s voice when she was about to open the door. It was so low she had no idea if she actually heard or had imagined. But even so, her body stopped obeying. That single word had stolen all her strength.
This time Ei was sure. Her knees gave in, her entire body numb, her mind blank.
The image of Tadayoshi appeared in her head and she forced herself up. Ei was his disciple, and one of the many things he had taught her was to keep going, no matter what.
She touched the door, but her fingers trembled too much to open. Then the girl heard a low cry coming from inside, and lost all strength.
Ei stopped hearing everything. The world became silent to her.
She had no idea how long she stood there, but all she did was watch as her hand opened the door by itself.
The priest looked at her, the tears rolling down his face. Then he lowered his head and looked back at his friend.
Ei didn’t hear him cry. She didn’t want to see, but her body moved on its own, slowly turning towards her master.
Tadayoshi was as before; lying and covered with the furs, his body all wrapped with bandages. It didn’t seem to have any change.
But the disciple noticed; his chest wasn’t moving anymore.
Ei had no idea how to react, what to think. Everything seemed distant and strange to her.
No… it’s not true… It’s just one of his stupid jokes… yeah… at any moment… he’ll open his eyes… eye… and will show me that familiar and annoying smile that makes me feel safe…
According to the priest, her master would never see with the right eye again. But she knew the swordsman she admired would brush off as if nothing. The shoulder too. The wound was deep, but it wouldn’t rob him of the movement.
It’ll be hard, painful and stiff… but he’ll overcome that easily… yes… he’s that kind of man… Capable of overcoming any challenge with the stupid smile…
“Stop… playing around… master…” Ei wasn’t sure if she spoke or not. The voice she heard was barely a low hoarse. “C’mon master… you still… still have a lot… to teach me…”
She walked closer to him and shook him gently.
Someone called her name and hugged her. Ei turned towards the man and vaguely recognized the priest. As his warm spread over her, something woke.
When she stood up, Ryuu-sensei let her go. Then Ei left the fake temple and was walking out of the clearing.
“Eiko-chan? Where are you going?” the priest asked as he ran after her.
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t. As she grabbed the handle of her sword, her entire being was focused on one thing; kill those responsible.
“No!” Something grabbed her hand. She tried to get rid of it, but whatever it was, was strong. “You can’t kill them!”
It took a while for her to realize it was the priest.
“It’s their fault…” She let out a low whisper and full of hate. Ei tried to get rid of him again, but his grip was too strong. “Let me go!”
“If they hadn’t awakened that demon, then master…” would still be alive… The words burned in her throat.
“Even so, you can’t kill them, Eiko!”
She was ready to get rid of him, but when she saw him crying, she stopped.
“If they hadn’t…”
Ei tried, but the tears were stronger. She fell, hitting her knees on the ground. But she barely felt any pain. The numbness embraced her. Then she couldn’t hold anymore and cried.
“Please, Eiko… Wouldn’t you have done the same…?” The priest hugged her tightly. “They were afraid… you know how it’s like… Feeling afraid and weak… seeing all your friends and family dying and not be able to do anything…”
I know… I know… but if they hadn’t… she cried louder, her voice echoing in the silent forest.
Ei was still crying when the priest brought her back to the temple. He made her sit away from Tadayoshi but she looked at her master.
Before, he looked frail, but now he looked empty.
Dead… she cried again.
The world seemed to awake. The smell of wood burning, of herbs, smells she knew well filled her nose. But the strongest one was the stench of death.
Despite the fire, she felt cold, and no matter how many furs the priest placed around her, the numbness hugged her.
The sounds came back slowly. Ei could hear the birds chirping, the leaves rustling, the temple howling as the winds flew through the tiny cracks on the wood.
But nothing from her master.
He was just as silence as a rock on the bottom of a river.
Suddenly she knew it wasn’t a dream.
She knew her Tadayoshi would never open his eyes again.
She would never hear his voice again. Or feel his strength when he hit her with the wooden sword.
She would never again be the target of his jokes…
The world went on.
And Ei would have to live in a world without her master.
Thanks for reading.