L5R : Jade Winds
Hida Nakamuro had been practicing with the dai tsuchi for about an hour when he felt someone watching him. At first he ignored the sensation, continuing to swing the hammer through the forms. He remembered this particular kata from his training in the dojo, but he’d never managed to perfect it. Now he knew it was just a matter of time. After another few repetitions, however, his concentration frayed, and he stopped, breathing heavily as he turned to face his silent observer. Shosuro Naoki was watching him intently, as she sometimes did, sitting on a nearby rock in the sunny field near their campsite. When he looked her way, she stood and smiled, bowing gracefully, and then approached, offering him a bamboo container of water. He bowed in return and took it gratefully, draining most of it in one long draught. As he handed it back to her, his fingers brushed hers, sending a shock through him. Outwardly he made no sign, but her smile deepened as if she had felt it too, and he flushed slightly.
“It is a beautiful kata,” she said, gazing up at him. “Your hammer moves like the swallow in flight. May I try?” He offered the dai tsuchi to her, grinning, and chuckled as she pretended to drop it. “But it is so heavy! Sama, aren’t you tired?” She shook her head in mock despair. “Tsk tsk. And your hair is a mess again.”
He felt the familiar unease as he looked at her, clad in her stained traveling clothes, marveling at the simple grace in her movements as she handed the well-worn hammer back to him. He thought briefly about setting his practice aside to attend to whatever nonsense she had dreamed up this time. But he had been feeling apprehensive for days now, and he did not like the territory they were traveling through. It was too open, and he feared they were being watched. They had been lucky so far, but luck was not to be relied upon.
He said, a bit gruffly, “Lady, it is not even midday, and I am not tired.” Seeing the beginnings of a pout, he added, in a fit of desperation, “Perhaps my Lady would like to train with me?”
Her face lit up, and she clasped her hands eagerly, bouncing on her toes, all disappointment forgotten. “Yes! Oh Sama, could I?” Then she frowned. “But Sama, how?”
He thought rapidly, forcing himself to look at her as he would his ashigaru, going over the possibilities. His frown of intense concentration stilled her; she stood quietly, waiting for him to speak. When he did, it was in the clipped voice of command. “Get your bow.”
She ran quickly to her gear, taking out her bow and stringing it in one fluid motion, then hurried back to him. He was pacing, noting the layout of the many rocks that littered the area. There were no trees, and the grass was yellow and dry in the summer’s heat. “Stand behind here,” he said, pointing to a flat-topped black rock about half her height. “Ernestu!” he shouted suddenly, startling her. His ashigaru, who had been half-heartedly making preparations for the noon meal, jumped up, looked wildly around for a moment, and then came running. “Your spear,” he said. Ernestu groaned, but in less than a minute, he was back with his spear, looking resigned to his fate.
“Lady, watch,” Nakamuro said, and led Ernestu over to a trampled spot about 20’ from her rock. He went through the kata again, Ernestu attempting a token resistance to his movements. At one point he slowed, exaggerating one of the motions. “Here, do you see?” He did the kata once more, slowing at the same point. “Shoot now, at Ernestu.” As the ashigaru turned white, he added, almost offhandedly, “No arrows yet.”
He did the kata again, slowly, and Naoki held her bow and pretended to draw it, watching for the right moment. The first time she guessed late, and the second time as well. But as he repeated it again and again, she settled herself, watching the pattern, forgetting everything but the sweep of the dai tsuchi and the feel of the smooth grain of the yumi in her hands. Her motions became surer, her release automatic. When he felt she knew it well enough, the Hida called a short halt, and directed her to gather together all the bamboo shafts she had. The three of them spent the next few minutes outfitting them with blunted tips, all of them quiet, still caught in the kata’s spell. She arranged the arrows to her liking on the rock in front of her, which was growing warmer as the sun crept higher in the sky.
Then they began again. Naoki set the first arrow to the string, concentrating. Now Nakamuro moved more quickly, and she found she could feel rather than see it, the precise moment when she should release the tsuru. The practice arrows flew straight and true, hitting Ernestu again and again. The kata became an endless cycle, each of them part of the dance, and when Ernestu finally stumbled and fell, she was shocked to see how much time had passed — it was well past noon, the sun was hot on her back, her arms ached, and her stomach grumbled over the absence of the midday meal. She had not seen them approach, but Yonaka and Toro stood together nearby, talking quietly as they watched. At her glance, Yonaka made a short bow, his sudden smile warming her even more.
Nakamuro strode over to her, smiling widely, and clapped her on the back, making her stumble. He steadied her almost casually with one large hand. “Lady!” He smelled of sweat and was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed unaffected. Ernestu, on the other hand, sat on the ground, his head bowed, exhaustion writ large on his slumping form. A practice arrow still protruded from his armor. “Lady!” Nakamuro said again, and then seemed to remember himself. He bowed to her, still grinning. “You are skilled with the bow, Lady.” He started to clap her on the back again, and noticing her wince, he restrained himself, saying, “Your pardon. It is well done. We will practice again tomorrow. This time we will use real arrows.”
Ernestu, who had started to get to his feet, let out a short high-pitched shriek and fainted dead away.