Sensei Chimatsu was tough, not prone to mercy or quarter; he pressed every advantage and seemed to find every opening with a quickness and severity that belied his age. He moved with the flexibility of a wet reed in a hurricane.
Sora’s clothes were sodden and splattered with mud because he kept knocking her back down into it as fast as the rain rinsed it off.
“You are distracted today, Sora. To be distracted in combat is to die.
“Tell me,” he said, taking her legs out again, making her fall, “is it your family?” Splat!
“Your friends?” Splat!
“The boy you love?” Splat!
“Thoughts of home?” Splat!
Unable to rise from Chimatsu’s onslaught, Sora lay there heaving, wondering if this crazy old man was *trying to paralyze her.
Chimatsu bent and lifted her chin on the tip of his gnarled, hard fingers.
“Return to your father’s house, Sora.”
He helped her up, the rain washing the mud from her clothes and face, cutting the bitter saltiness of her tears, and making her cold and miserable on the outside as well.
Appraising her for what seemed like forever, his expression remained neutral as stone.
She shivered, sniffled, and hugged herself, not meeting his eyes though she felt more angry than ashamed. She imagined this was how bare trees felt when their leaves were gone and they stood denuded in clusters, as prone to nature’s fury as she was to this man’s whim.
But she was alone, and rootless on the muddy ground.
He seemed to sense this, grunting as he turned his back and walked away, not caring if she followed or went back to the guest cottage where she stayed.
She stood there in the rain, hearing the iron finality of his words echo in her mind:
Return to your father’s house, Sora.
Her father would not take it lightly and would not be pleased with either of them; she would not let him shame her before her father.
When the door to Chimatsu’s dilapidated house closed, she took a deep breath and went through the forms until it got dark, the rain felt like an icy second skin, and her clothes felt heavy as armor.
Armor is for warriors, Sora. Earn your armor.
Breathing hard and pushing herself to go faster, she kept it up until she was shivering too violently to do them anymore and could no longer concentrate.
The mud pulled and gripped over her ankles as she made her way off the practice field, forcing her to march a little, her spirit as soaked and heavy as her clothes and hair.
Before she opened the shoji screen, she used the water pump and filled the two buckets Chimatsu left there, the muscles in her arms screaming as she carried them inside.
Grateful to be out of the rain, in the scant relative warmth of the guest cottage she took off her slimy shoes and left them outside, then made silty barefoot tracks across the floor. She hung the iron pot on its pole, wincing from the pain of the effort. After she poured the buckets into it she hurried to make a fire.
As it warmed the modest room she waited by the screen door looking at the rain batter the ground as it erased all trace of her presence, and her defeat.
You are distracted, Sora…
When everything was warm enough, she poured the heated water into a small tub that barely fit her, then stripped and bathed. Her hair, coming untied in the drubbing, needed a bath of its own.
She massaged her arm muscles and aching knees, and raked between her toes. Checking her body for red marks and bruises she knew she’d have to stretch to keep the muscles from stiffening. She’d still feel the pain in varying intensity.
Still for all his ferocity Chimatsu didn’t break or fracture anything; he’d been at this long enough to know how to do that.
She spent extra time on her hair until the water grew tepid and gelid.
Getting out, she dried off and examined her body.
On the whole, she’d definitely gotten stronger, if not better; her body was lean and taut, and muscles she didn’t know she had were defined and firm all over. She looked great, and felt like a hundred horses trampled her.
Wrapped in the damp towel, she sat on the edge of the futon with her legs folded under her as sore and tired muscles began to protest being kept upright. She concentrated on the fire, her breathing deepening, slowing, as she relaxed and sidled into bed. She gave her limbs and extremities a final cat-like stretch, spreading her fingers and toes and flexing them again.
She turned her face toward the warmth of the fire, and watched the flames gradually decrease.
Father will not be pleased, but Mother will. Marriage awaits, and a quiet life. I hope to be able to live that way, but I’m not sure I can. I must find out why the need to fight consumes me, and the only way to do that is to wield the weapons themselves.
Gods, help me find my path and heed my calling. Chimatsu says I’m not fit to be a warrior; I say I am not fit to be a wife. Help me to choose wisely.
Movement along the wall caught her eye as she turned on her back, and she smiled, spending an extra moment to look as the shadows of her ‘pet’ mice crept furtively toward the warmth. She regretted not leaving them any food. They were harmless enough, and one was bigger than the other. One day she was going to name them, right now she was too tired. Besides, she didn’t have anything to eat either.
The warmth of the crackling fire, the soft blankets, and the patter of rain on the roof and against the screen worked their magic, soon sending her into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Armor is for warriors, Sora….