Red Jade: No Warrior’s Path

Still wanting to fight, Sora begged Chimatsu to continue.

Seeing her determination, and going against his better judgment for the sake of her father, he agreed.

The winter months flew by in a haze of pain, adrenalin, and feelings of inadequacy.

His litany of her wrongs seemed endless:

You’re fighting in anger.

You hesitate.

Your defense is lacking.

You’ve been captured.

You’ve been killed.

One day he did not come out to train her.

She practiced her forms alone, considering it a test of some kind, looking at the door to his swaybacked house, but it didn’t open.

The next day she practiced her weaponry, knowing he was watching, but nothing happened to make him open the door.

The next day she practiced longer, but he still stayed inside.

Enough of this!

She went to confront him as the day was ending.

She raised her fists to pound the door, only to find it was already open a crack.

A little thrill of fear made her peer inside, thinking she might find him dead.

He was sitting in front of a large, warm fire, drinking tea and eating a bowl of rice and some savory fish.

Her mouth watered and her stomach growled.

He knew she was there, but didn’t acknowledge her; he offered no food nor a seat by the fire.

“What’s going on, sensei?”

He set his bowl and cup down on a tray, then leaned back and steepled his fingers under his chin as he gazed into the fire but spoke to her.

“It’s simple enough; I can no longer teach you.”

“But I’ve been practicing!”

He shook his head. “To no foreseeable end. You lack skill, Sora, not heart. But in an actual battle, you’d be among the first to fall.

He sighed. “I’ve already written to your father. I will take no more of his money, and waste no more of my time, or yours.”

“So you’re saying…”

“What I’ve said before: the life of a warrior is not for you.”

“So what am I to do?”

“Rest, heal, spend the night, and in the morning, return to your father’s house.”

“I meant about my fighting.” She moved in front of him, blocking the fire’s warmth.

His eyes seemed to look through her as if she wasn’t there at all; her world was shrinking, and he wouldn’t even look at her.

“What am I to do about my fighting?” she asked again, her voice hitching.

He surmised that she needed to hear him say it, and as much as he didn’t want to, her refusal to leave forced it out of him.

He looked at her then, his eyes sad and somber, the firelight dancing in their depths; to her he looked like an ancient god in transition.

“Fight no longer. Marry, and raise children, a son perhaps; one who can take the road you seek.

“Your skills are adequate, but they need to be superior, and for that, you have not the skill.”

Her fists clenched, she began to pace. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong about this! About me!”

Again he shook his head, the fiery eyes tracking her.

“No, I am not wrong. Here is what I am: too old, and too slow to help you improve.

“The truth is, Sora, I’ve enjoyed your company, but as a student of the killing arts, you will be the only student I have failed.”

That made her stop, her face betraying shock, and she spluttered and swallowed whatever she’d been about to say in protest.

He rose, shifting his weight like a log in the fire, poured her a cup of tea and shambled over to give it to her while he gave her advice.

“Abandon this road, and live a longer, happier life as a civilian. The warrior’s path is not for everyone to walk.”

She took the proffered cup because she needed something to focus on to keep from screaming, and because she didn’t know what else to do.

All this time, he’d not said a kind word, or did a kind deed, but now that he was done with her he was almost gentle, and even a little sad.

It made no sense.

He returned to his chair, and indicated with a small sweeping gesture toward the pot that she could help herself to some food.

She looked at him, but his eyes were closed now and she couldn’t tell if he was sleeping.

Emotions fought within her, but there was too much and nothing more to say.

The bowl steamed in the cooling evening air as she sat on the steps, watching the shadows lengthen on the ground.

Swarms of gnats and small butterflies played around high stalks of flowers in the persimmon rays, and the birds began their evensongs.

She concentrated on the beauty of the scene in front of her, and felt the rhythm of her heart slowing.

Eating without tasting, she finally finished everything and left the bowl and cup on the steps.

On her way back to the cottage she began to turn Chimatsu’s words over in her mind.

Inside, looking around at the sparse furnishings there came a realization that as harsh and uncomfortable as it had been, she’d endured it, and that was something.

If nothing else he’d released a side of her she didn’t know she possessed.

He said the warrior’s path wasn’t for her, but maybe it just wasn’t a straight one. The truth was, she loved the feel of the weapons, loved the hum and swish as she sliced the air to chunks and the straw men to ribbons.

It thrilled her.

And yet, for all her joy, Chimatsu had basically shown her that even at the end of his fighting days, over before Sora was born, he could still beat her; he would brook no excuses as to his reputation.

“Your opponent doesn’t care who you are.” Splat!

Still, his name struck fear into hearts of enemies and allies alike; he’d went through both with equal alacrity and aplomb. In his time it was considered an honor to fight beside him, and a death sentence to fight against him.

He told her she would never be worthy of being considered either, and in the cold, empty embrace of this strange place in a strange land, alone where no one could see, she allowed herself to cry.

Red Jade (1): The Final Fight

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 unmoved 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 grunted her dismissal 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.

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….

In Olden Tymes

“So what were you before…?”

“I was a knight: a defender of the weak, a protector of the realm, and a servant to the crown.”

“And what makes you believe that in 2017?”

” I always write about it. I see it in my head: the pastoral scenery, the castles, the nobles and peasants, I smell the wheat, the dung, and the hay, I feel the sparks of the forges burn into my forearms, hear the clang of metal, smell the tang of smelted steel. I’ve seen new blades gleaming in the sunlight over time become nicked and scratched by battle.”

“I’ve seen the gore of the enemy dripping from both.”

“I see the hills covered in winter snow, and springtime wildflowers. I smell the perfumes and sweat of the women I’ve known.  I’ve wiped their smudges and circled their nipples with my thumbs, kissed their tears, put my hands where they let me, and sometimes where they wouldn’t.”

“I smell the alleys of trash and waste, redolent and pungent in the rain and the heat of summer.”

“I hear the creaking of the rocking ships, the ding and clang of chains and anchors, and I hear the ancient sailor songs in languages I’ve never heard, from places I’ve never been, carrying heavy burdens and tying thick ropes. I hear the harbor rats, feral cats in their wake or on the hunt.”

“I see the grand, high-ceiling halls full of intricate sculpting, paintings, candles, garlands, splendid gowns and noble robes. I hear the lilt of lute and pipe and mandolin, I hear the torches sizzle in their sconces, see the idols of forgotten gods on the hilltops, and smell the rot of forgotten kings in their tombs.”

“I’ve been to the armories of kings of empires, and seen the high pyres of the dead from wars, plagues, famines, disputes, and fires.”

“I’ve traveled with players’ troupes in colorful wagons, tumbling in air and throwing knives.”

“I’ve seen the candles burn in the wizards’ towers and the sorceresses cottage, and the witches’ caves, and the mad hermits’ burrows.”

“I’ve heard the forest whisper, scream, sob and laugh when no one was there.”

“I’ve been in the dank of rat infested dungeons, staring at hungry red eyes.”

“I’ve been trampled, burned, butchered, beheaded, and strangled in my bed. Then I returned the favors.”

“I’ve lost my life to the raging sea and the calm, relentless desert sun.”

“I’ve been poisoned, robbed, and tortured at length.”

“I’ve scaled walls into treasuries and bedrooms.”

“I’ve fought in tournaments of backwater villages, and in arenas of cheering crowds, and in taverns of ill repute of both food and customers.”

“Everything in my blood harkens back to olden tymes.

“And I possess it still.”

The Mark

The Mark

Chapter 1:  Foundling:

A gibbous moon pressed down on the sky like the thumb pad of a jaundiced god. A ragtag band of villagers chased a boy into a forest clearing, surrounding him, but not rushing to seize him.

He felt every inch the trapped animal, save he had no claws or teeth. There was only a single knife which he clutched more as a talisman than a weapon. Crackling torches forced him to put up a hand to block the glare, and the mark on his cheek became visible again.

Murmurs of curses, prayers, and amazement buzzed and hummed in his ears. The light in the mark was fading but he could still feel its heat.

An elder couple stepped forward as a walking keg of a man thrust his torch closer to the boy’s face, making him drop the knife as he stepped back and put up his other hand. From what he briefly saw of them, the woman seemed to hold some concern for him, lightly pressing her husband’s wrist down to lower the torch; she wouldn’t stop him from doing much else, but for that at least, the boy was grateful.

Walking Keg had bristly brown and gray whiskers, the moonlight a nimbus in them as he leaned forward and glowered, his free hand poised in the air, uncertain of its purpose. He seemed to want to touch the mark, but didn’t.

The fear in his eyes belied the gruffness in his voice. “How came you by this mark, boy?” The uncertain hand now pointed a meaty finger at the mark.

The boy swallowed, and when he spoke his voice was small in his own ears. “I killed my little sister.”

*************

Thunder had ever frightened him, and this storm had proven no different. In the small cottage at the top of the hill, where he lived with his parents and younger sister, they were more vulnerable than most to lightning strikes.

Seeking his parents for comfort as he always did, the tableau he walked in on shook him to his core with horror.

      His little sister was out in the rain, naked, arms outstretched to the sky, eyes closed and a beatific smile on her face. She seemed to be speaking, or praying; he wasn’t sure, but she had a knife in her hand with blood and rainwater dripping from it, washing the blade clean.       Stomach lurching, heart pounding, he ran toward his parents’ bedroom but stopped when he saw the small, bloody footprints that lead from the open door.

      “Nylii, what have you done?” He ran from the house toward his sister, and when he came to she was dead beneath him, his hands on her throat, his cheek sliced open from the knife, and the clouds clearing to reveal the dim light of a sickle moon. Her eyes were open, and save for the fact she wasn’t breathing, she looked like she was about to tell him a secret.

      Revulsion and horror made him scramble up and make it to the edge of the wet, dank woods as he heaved up the contents of their last dinner. Gasping for air, burning with thirst and wanting to scream, he wiped the stringy, rank spit away with a handful of leaves. His cheek was on fire, and there was blood on his chest and shoulder. He touched the wound to see how bad it was, and it flared, searing under his touch.

      He opened his mouth, but the ensuing pain had him back on the ground unable to scream. He felt something go wrong with his blood.

      She’d cursed him, marked him. For what, the gods only knew.

     “Nylii, what have you done? What have you done?” He realized he was shouting. Panicking, leaving the bodies for scavengers, he ran and never looked back.

                                                 ************

     More murmurs, louder this time as what he said was conveyed to those who couldn’t hear. He’d played whisper-down- the-line with his friends; he’d be a legend or a monster by the time it got to them.

      The couple stepped back.

     “She was afflicted?” the woman asked.

    He wasn’t sure what ‘afflicted’ meant, but he nodded: “She killed our parents at Reaving Moon. A blood sacrifice.”

      Cries and gestures against evil rippled outward through the mob.

     “What should we do?” the woman asked her husband.

      “Kill him, is what we should do…”

      The boy was tired, thirsty, hungry, and his adrenaline from running had spiked and dipped several times. Now he was just scared and angry.

       “I’ve done no harm to you! You came after me!”

        The husband glared and stepped closer. “Yer damn scar was shinin’! We din’t know what the hell ye were!”

       The woman spoke again. “We’ve children in th’ village, boy. Not much older n’ yew. Y’understand?”

      The boy fell to his knees. “I beg you, for one night, let me sleep. I’ll sleep here, outside of your town, and I won’t come in. I promise. Please just go. I’ll be gone in the morning.”  

      After some hesitation, the wife took the husband aside, away from him and the crowd. He stayed on his knees; the weight of the rabble’s stare was almost palpable as they openly regarded him with an unhealthy mix of fear and fascination. The couple’s conversation, judging from gestures and faces, was brief but heated.

 Read more at the link below on Niume. 

Source: The Mark

Maker

They say nights are quiet, silent even, but that really isn’t so.

It makes noises of its own.

Even the seemingly silent glide of the hunting owl whistles keen as wings slice wind, and prey screams before talons crack it open, spilling red life like the contents of a leaky whiskey barrel.

A late autumn cricket chirped in vain, born too late for mating. It too, will freeze and die in the cooling mornings, no progeny for spring.

I stared at the wheeling moon and stars, thinking I would stay here.

Believing I could.

I’ll leave tomorrow.

The chilled wind seized and shattered my breath’s vapor as it floated through the air.

My worn cloak had thinned into little more than a long rag full of holes where the cold poked at my legs like children’s fingers.

I took a look around the cemetery; everyone I knew was here.

Did they know that I was among them?

Could they hear my heart, see my breath, and hear the lonely cricket’s solo above the blowing, rustling leaves clattering against the tilted, faded headstones?

Did their wandering ghosts find it as beautiful as I did?

I shuddered in anticipation of the change to come when I heard the voice behind me, as if the very air itself had spoken:

“Are you ready?”

The anticipation turned to fright, the fright to something I couldn’t name.

The stink of him was overwhelming; his beauty, unparalleled by anything I could name.

No doubt he knew what I thought already; he let me fall into the power of his silent, evil presence, quiet and feral, an old snake full of intelligent insanity.

I used the headstone I’d sat against to pull myself up, not trusting my legs, then brushed off what autumn detritus didn’t fall on its own, as if appearance mattered now.    I wanted to run screaming, to call him vile things, to spit in his bloody face after I beheaded him.

As he watched me struggle with myself, I sensed his patience start to crumble before the slow rise of his anger.

“Are you sure?”

His low, deep voice pierced my ears, a nail coated in honey, lethal and sweet, challenging me to defy him, laced with desire to punish me if I did.

In the silence of my trembling, looking into the jade and gold of his gleaming eyes, the tatters of my will fell to the cold, hard ground along with my bedraggled cloak.

It slipped from my shoulders, the cares of this world trapped in its filthy folds.

“Yes.”

He held out his hand

I went to him.

 

Of Muirgen, Lost at Sea

And now she wanders ‘neath the waves,

her raven hair pulled tight,

dark eyes upon the ocean floor.

She walks it through the night.

The ship she rode was shattered

on a rocky coral shore,

And now poor Muirgen, lost at sea,

will ride the waves no more.

Loved lass she was, and passing fair,

the sailors all did say.

No favor gave she when they’d stare;

she sent them on their way.

A new start was her final wish.

The village grew too small,

and passage bought with man and fish,

they sailed into a squall.

The vessel fought it bravely,

but the waves kept rising higher,

and cracked the mast and broke the deck,

and lightning started fire.

And there was Muirgen, lost at sea,

to bear a bitter fate.

She never would see land again,

but had no one to wait

at home upon the seaside shore

to grieve her soul’s demise,

no family or caretaker.

For Muirgen, no one cries.

They say that you can see her

when the moon and stars are nigh,

serene beneath the rolling surf,

the southern wind her sigh.

We sing of Muirgen, lost at sea,

the world no more to roam.

The current of her passing soul

will guide us safely home.

The current of her passing soul

will guide us

safely

home.