Chapter Forty-Six: Struggles
"When you struggle against the moment, you struggle
against the universe."
None of it made sense, Ujirou told himself as he rocked quietly on his haunches in the darkness and cold of night. Inside the ramshackle hut were the sounds of movement and muttering; outside, where he was, there was only the shadows the draped the moonless night. The boy told himself that he was here to protect his sensei and the monk physician, but the truth would not so easily fooled.
The man inside might be a healer, but he was also filled with a chi that was both dark and unknowable, and the power of his stare and his spirit had driven the boy more surely than the monk's simple words.
It had been more than an hour, and Kutsu had toiled in the darkness, his hands taking strange positions and his breaths measured and low. When Ujirou dared a glance, he thought he could see a strange tenderness in each sweeping motion of those fingers…those same fingers that still bore the marks of split blood and shattered bone.
It was then, as the student was lost in thought, that a deep voice cleared itself behind him, causing the young warrior to bristle head to toe.
"Your sensei is strong. He will be well with time," Kutsu said, his bald forehead shining with sweat in the dim light of Ujirou's small fire, "though he will not be waking for some time. The genin used a more potent venom than I believed."
Ujirou managed a weak smile, "Thank you, sama."
Kutsu smiled back at the boy, a smile that seemed quite normal and mundane, "An hour ago, you did not trust me enough to let me beyond your sight with your master. I wonder what has made me worthy of your trust."
"You helped my sensei, sama, and that is something that I could not do. No matter what I think of you, I know that I owe you much."
Meeting the boy with an even gaze, the monk offered him a little nod. "Thank you, little one. You can serve whatever debt you think is owed by fetching some water from the stream for the both of us; you are tired and dirty, and I am wet with blood."
Making a face at the sight of bloodstained fingers, the young Crane was off into the night.
The next day and night passed with an uncomfortable silence, as both men spent it resting, healing the damage to their bodies and their spirits. Kutsu remained crouched in quiet meditation, Koshin's sleeping body a constant target for his eyes. Outside, Ujirou dozed in the sliding shade of the hut's slanted roof, his katana always at his side.
By the third day, the bushi was resting more comfortably, his kimono rolled up to one side. Koshin tossed and turned from time to time, but even Ujirou could see that the wound had begun to heal.
"You should not be neglecting your studies," Kutsu said as he retied the bandage. "I will watch your sensei, Daidoji. Find some peace and train." As if the discussion was finished, Kutsu spread his ruined shirt beneath him, settling down to the swordsman's side.
The moment that he had stepped into the forest, Ujirou was glad to be free. The silence of the hut had been oppressive, a quiet that seemed to press down upon him, punctuated by short, regular breathing, and the occasional shifting of clothes. Here, amidst the trees and the sounds of nature, he found a chance to free himself, trying to set his thoughts aside.
Thought had no place in the draw of the sword.
I will not be weak, the little boy told his target, a single leaf, dangling on the edge of a lonely branch.
"I admit that it was a terrible thing to do, using the presence of an innocent to my advantage…my only question is…what will you do?"
The sword sliced the air in one hard motion, its edge slashing the branch from the tree. Ujirou hissed in annoyance as he looked down at the fallen appendage, its single leaf still jerking in the rising wind. His stroke had been wide by nearly three inches…so the student chose another target, and prepared to strike again.
"I told you…I fight…alone."
With the second cut, the katana sheared through the green banner freely, slicing it neatly in two. The boy watched as half of the leaf fluttered free, floating down to catch in the briars near the tree.
"I expect him to learn that there is no substitute for excellence."
This time, the samurai sheathed his blade and turned it, setting himself for a strike. In his mind's eye, Ujirou felt frustration ache and set his chi in motion, building to a torrent wholly focused on the blade. It rose up, threatening to consume him, pouring into his small fingers, rushing out from every frustration in his soul. His mother was a hero that he could never live up to, and he served a sensei who forever stood alone.
This time, the stroke was perfect. It was not angled to strike down any leaf or sapling; the katana slashed into the heart of an ancient tree. Ujirou's small hands grew in strength and conviction, the muscles Koshin had given him adding power to the driving blade.
A moment later, the katana tore free. The Daidoji stumbled as he felt the ground shudder, the slain target tumbling, throwing dust and grass into the air. All around the little warrior, the land was suddenly tensed and silent, waiting to see what he would do.
Waiting to see…what more destruction his sword would bring.
"I am sorry, sensei," the little boy whispered as he stared at the fallen tree, wondering if Koshin could feel its spirit draining away.
With that, Ujirou set himself to strike again. It would be many hours before the young warrior would finish his training, but though his heart begged to cut and do damage, it no longer had the power, compared to the new conviction of his soul…
"You are a diligent student," Kutsu said impassively as Ujirou returned. Outside the small hut, the fire cracked and roared in the evening sunlight, its edges no redder than the rest of the sun-stained plain. "Your sensei is most fortunate."
Ujirou felt as if he would fall over, but instead he merely bowed. Plopping down beside the fire, the boy felt his stomach rumble, and wondered how far he would have to walk to find some food.
As if sensing his intentions, Kutsu thrust something crackling beneath the boy's nose. Ujirou's eyes crossed as he considered the item with confusion, taking a moment to recognize the image of a well-cooked frog. The boy took it from the monk with a cautious hand, holding it gingerly and making a most unpleasant face.
"It will not harm you or your cleanliness, samurai," Kutsu said as he bit down on his own frog, "and the nearest village is too far to walk tonight. Consider it a sacrifice for your sensei; it would not do well to place your pallet above his life."
The boy's face went from utter shock to resignation in a moment, and the big man shook his head as Ujirou pinched closed his eyes. With a steeled will, the Crane clamped down on his morsel, making an impressive display of wolfing it down.
Sticking his tongue out as far as he could, Ujirou gagged as he swallowed, his pale Crane face turning an impressive shade of green. The big monk chuckled beneath his hand as the samurai continued to alter his color with more talent than a Scorpion actor, his own mouth chewing evenly with no bit of discomfort or concern.
"It tastes awful!" Ujirou announced after another moment, refusing the offer of another frog. Considering how unclean such a beast was made the young man again consider his recent decision, but in the end, Kutsu's gravely laugh drew his attention from the food.
"You samurai are a strange people. Full of pomp and circumstance, yet you never tire of drawing human blood." There was an insult somewhere in those words, and Ujirou felt it strike him…for some reason, that Kutsu would insult him somehow hurt.
It hurt that he might be right.
Setting his daisho aside, Ujirou moved towards the hut's dark interior, feeling the cold of the night. In the small room, Koshin's breath was calm and regular, a bit of warmth against the chill. He knelt to sit to one side of his master, feeling the full pressure of the long, fruitless day.
The boy has a great strength to him, Kutsu considered as he listened to what was said inside. Despite his young age, Ujirou already possessed many of the strengths and virtues that the big monk found so lacking in the Empire's ever-noble protectors. Even against Kutsu himself, the little samurai had found the conviction to stand and even fight.
But despair was an enemy that Kutsu, that all true warriors knew well, and he could not help but pity the young man. Turning to glance back into the darkness, the monk saw nothing, but his other senses were not so limited as his eyes.
The boy's chi was suddenly calm and freely flowing, telling that Ujirou had found the solace of sleep.
Shaking his head, the monk turned back to the fire and beyond that the darkness, again wondering what else his eyes were being denied. Kutsu detested the feeling of the Goju and their cowardly tricks; their methods were ignoble, and their desires were not pure.
They were not worthy of the fight.
Strangely, at that moment, as he contemplated the qualities of a true warrior, Kutsu concluded that he did not hate Kakita Koshin, did not have any enmity at all. Indeed, the strange swordsman was in many ways a kindred spirit; both men seemed to understand, if not fully agree upon, the nature and purpose of strength.
That understanding, ever more true and real than any conceived notion of rivalry or hatred, was why Kakita Koshin had to die. Not for any dream of mastery or glory, not to appease the meaningless, corrupted ideology of any sensei, sect or clan. If Kutsu were to murder a man of the bushi's potential and character, the he would do it for the only thing that he had ever believed in…the power of his hands.
"He will teach you the nature of power, Ujirou, but only you can choose
what to learn."
Night has Fallen…