In the grey light of half dawn, Kurenai woke to the pounding of distant hoofbeats. She tensed, her heart racing with a sudden fear. Pressing her back against the gnarled oak she’d slept against, she looked to the left, peering through the cover of thorny bushes and low hanging branches, to the stretch of road just beyond. She held her breath, hoping she was well enough hidden. Her jo staff lay across her outstretched legs. She kept one hand clutched around the polished wood as the sound of riders grew louder. Then, a flash of brown. The scent of horses and sweat. Ragged breaths. Running feet.
Kurenai waited for the silence to fall before she allowed her shoulders to relax. She took a breath. They were gone. Had they been after her? Or just simple travelers in a hurry to get through the pass? There was no way to tell.
She pushed herself to her feet, using her staff as a brace, and brushed off her clothes, dusty from yesterday’s travel and wrinkled from the night spent in the dirt. The first rays of the sun filtered through the fiery leaves overhead, and swallows fluttered in the branches above. The forest air carried a hint of fall’s chill; she drew her cloak, damp from the morning dew, tighter around her shoulders and shivered, wishing she’d been better prepared for this journey. She hadn’t exactly planned any of this. The day before, the samurai of the village, including her father and brother, had been called to attend a ritual at the shrine. She had seen them leave during her morning workout, and taken the chance their absence provide. She’d run, slipping out the side gate, still wearing her practice hakama and dogi, stained with sweat from training, and carrying her oak jo staff. She didn’t pause for supplies and she didn’t look back.
She’d chosen to head south, through the pass and into the low country along the coast, hoping that she could avoid the worst of the fall storms until she was better equipped to deal with them. She didn’t have much of a plan besides that.
Today would have to be different. She needed food and supplies. Most of all she needed a direction. A purpose. Where should she go? Kurenai shook her head. Away. She had to get farther away. She’d traveled as far as her feet could take her that first night, finally coming to a stop when the moon was high overhead and the fireflies flitted on the side of the road. But she was still much too close to home. The farther she got, the better chance she would have of finding a samurai who would be willing to take her on - and not just return her to her overprotective, overbearing father.
Staff in hand and the first of the fallen leaves crunching under her feet, Kurenai picked her way through the maple trees. She ducked to avoid a low hanging branch and stopped at the side of the trail, considering. Though it had its dangers, she would make better time if she stayed on the path. She looked down the road leading west, the way shaded from the morning sun by a wall of golden trees on either side. She would just have to hope that she’d hear anyone who rode up from behind before they caught sight of her. It should give her time enough to hide. It would have to be enough. Using her jo as a walking stick, she set out along the road, shaded from the morning sun by the wall of golden trees on either side.
The mountains closed in around her as the day wore on and the sun moved across the sky above. Despite the uncertainty of her situation, she felt lighter the longer she walked. She’d wished for this for so long and now she was finally doing it. She took a breath of the tantalizing mountain air, free of the life that held her down. No more would she act the proper, demure Japanese girl, bound by the restrains of her gender and class. Here on the open road, she could do anything she chose. Become anything she chose. A samurai. Bushi. She could do it, she knew. She was strong enough, skilled enough, worthy enough - as much as any man. She would show her father and her brother that they were not the only ones who could bring honor to their family name.
Lost in thoughts of blood and glory, she came around a bend in the road and stopped. A man sat in a patch of grass on the edge of the path, head bowed and eyes closed. Calloused hands rested slack on crossed knees. Her gaze caught on his swords, lying beside him within easy reach. Her eyes widened. He was samurai.
Kurenai walked closer hesitantly.
His eyes shot opened at the sound of her steps and he looked up at her. She froze.
Neither of them spoke. She gripped her staff, “Hello,” she finally said.
The samurai nodded a greeting.
She should have just walked past, but she couldn’t make her feet move. She’d set out to find a samurai, and here one was, less than a day’s journey from her home. She had to talk to him, at least, “Can I sit?” She asked after a moment of thought.
He gestured to the ground beside him. Kurenai folded her legs under her and sat, laying her jo along her right leg.
He glanced at her staff, “Jo-jutsu?”
Kurenai followed his gaze, surprised. Most warriors wouldn’t consider the jo a proper weapon, let alone the study of it a jutsu. Even her brother, who had seen her practice and knew her skill, still thought it a primitive cudgel, little better than a walking stick in an actual fight.
Looking back to the samurai she nodded, “It was the only thing my father would allow me to study.” Truthfully she loved the jo - it was always overlooked, always underestimated. But if wielded right it could be a match for any sword. And yet…her eyes locked on his katana and her heart filled with longing.
The samurai saw the emotion in her glance, “You follow budo?” he asked, a strange note in his voice.
She met his eyes, “I want to be bushi,” her voice hardened, “samurai.” She felt defensive, suddenly. Would he tell her the same as her father had? As her brother had? A girl cannot be samurai. A girl cannot fight, cannot be measured by the same standards as a man, with the same loyalty and honor and courage.
But he only nodded, fingering the tassels on the sheath of his blade, and looked away, staring into some unseen past. He didn’t seem like the samurai she knew back home, she thought as she studied him, noting his simple clothes and weary eyes. His quiet voice and pensive silence was so unlike the proud and hot-blooded men of her family.
She opened her mouth to break the silence, then stopped at the sound of a distant rider. She glanced around, her legs tensed for flight. Should she make a run for the tree-line? Before she could get her feet under her she saw the dark shape of a horse round the bend of the road. Too late, she knew, running would do no good. Kurenai glanced at the samurai; he watched her with a question in his eyes. She cursed softly - she could do nothing but wait for the rider to pass and hope that her fears went unfounded.
As the rider drew closer, Kurenai knew that she would have no such luck. Baka, she said to herself, you should’ve run. Her stomach sank to her knees as the rider came to a stop a dozen feet from the seated travelers. He was a young man in worn riding leathers, with dark eyes and fierce brows. Her brother. She pushed herself to her feet, face screwed into a scowl, “Ni-san. How did you find me?”
Kusuo dropped to the ground, feet sending up a plum of dust. He gave her a scathing look, “I know you, it wasn’t hard to guess which way you’d go.” He walked over, “What were you thinking, running off into the mountains, with no supplies and no food?”
Her fists clenched around the base of her jo. Kurenai didn’t say anything, irritated that she’d been so predictable.
Her brother’s eyes flicked behind her, “Who is that?” His hand, she saw, had shifted to grasp the hilt of his katana.
The samurai hadn’t moved, “Only a wanderer.” he said simply.
Kusuo’s eyes narrowed, “Who do you serve, samurai?”
At this the samurai hesitated, as if the answer pained him. Finally he shook his head. “No one.”
Kurenai started in surprise. She looked at him. A ronin? He didn’t meet her eyes. She didn’t know quite what to think. He did not fit the image of ronin she had formed in her mind. She glanced at her brother, and saw the disdain clear on his face. After a moment, he tore his eyes away and reached out to grab her arm, “Come on, we’re going home.”
Kurenai took a step back and shook her head, “No, ni-san. I have just as much right as you to follow the Way.”
Her brother glared, his jaw clenched. He would not give in so easily, she knew. He was not one to be swayed by words alone. But what else was there? How could she make him see?
The ronin’s quiet voice broke through the tense silence, “I have a solution. A duel.” Kurenai shifted to look at him. His hand lay across his swords, “If you win, she’ll return with you; if you lose, she is free to do as she wills.”
Kusuo narrowed his eyes. Kurenai could see his reluctance to cross blades with an honor-less ronin. Finally he nodded, “Accepted.” He pulled his sword from his scabbard, tossing its sheath to the side. “Ready?” he asked, raising the blade between them.
The ronin did not rise. He did not draw his sword. Instead he inclined his head to her.
Kurenai stared blankly at him for a moment. He meant for this to be her duel? She saw a slight smile on the corner of his mouth. Oh yes, she thought, I like this plan. She grinned and switched to a fighting grip on her weapon. “Ready,” she said.
Kusuo’s eyes widened and he lowered his sword, “Wait. I’m not going to fight you.”
She didn’t say anything. She would make him fight her. She would beat him, and prove that she was just as strong as he. She would make him see. And he would let her go.
With a yell, Kurenai attacked, taking advantage of his reluctance with a quick forward strike, knocking his blade to the side. Another strike, to the head this time. She forced him to block. Parried. Jabbed. Stepped back. Strike to the side. Finally Kusuo went on the offensive and they traded a flurry of blows. She kept the razor edge of his katana from cutting through her wooden staff. Barely. She gritted her teeth and adjusted her grip, finger nails digging into her palms, slick with sweat. He sliced his sword down. She dodged to the left and swung the butt of her weapon down on his wrist. His blade dropped to the ground. The tip of her jo went to his throat. He cursed, his eyes meeting hers. She saw his mouth twitch. An answering smile curled her lips. She stepped back and lowered her staff, breathing heavily.
Her brother glanced away, stooping to pick up his fallen sword. After checking the edge for nicks, he retrieved his sheath, and slid the blade home. He turned to look at her, “A promise is a promise,” he paused, worry in his eyes, “and now you have to promise, Kure-chan, to be careful.”
“When am I not careful?” She asked with a laugh.
Kusuo raised an eyebrow and shook his head. Walking across the path to his horse, who stood calmly grazing, he untied a leather saddle bag and held it out to her. “Food, money, clothes. Its all I could bring.” He shrugged at her surprised look, “I didn’t really think I’d be able to get you to come back.”
Kurenai took the bag. She didn’t know what to say - he’d been planning to let her go from the beginning? He’d been ready to trust her, even before the duel? She smiled, eyes shining, and simply said, “Arigatou, ni-san.”
Kusuo hoisted himself into the saddle, his horse dancing beneath his weight. He gave her a half smile, “Travel fast, I don’t know what father will do when he finds out you’ve gone.” He turned his mount and urged it to a gallop. With a fading smile, Kurenai watched her brother ride away until the trees blocked him from view.
She felt a wave of pride to have won his respect, even if only a little. She almost wished he could have come with her. She gripped her staff. Almost. But this was her journey, and she had to make it on her own. She would bring honor to her name, and become a samurai equal to that of her father.
Kurenai turned to the ronin, who had yet to move from his perch in the dirt, and bowed low, “Hontou ni arigatou.” Thank you, she thought, for giving me the chance to fight for myself.