Kusai sat on the steps of the temple, leaning on the hilt of her sword. The cool spring breeze carried flurries of delicate cherry blossoms from high up in the temple orchard, swirling across the wide stairs and lazily down the hill, to where the farmers were tending the rice terraces and leading lines of Dusk Beetles to the pastures ready for the onset of summer. Kusai sighed and was content in that moment; behind her, up the hundred or so steps, sat the imposing Aghtai Pagoda. Her master, Gutoa, would be holding court and giving the attendants a hard time for the slightest error in their strict morning routine while quietly laughing to himself.
All these things made Kusai smile as her eyes roved over the valley that stretched away from the holy hill and out into a wide, glittering harbour. It was their home. Years of hard work had raised it up from barren land and swampy paddies on the sloping sides of a derelict mound of hard clay, to a green and pleasant land in which thousands of people lived comfortably; protected by the swords of the temple-dwellers. The hundred “Hamurai” as they were being called in the provinces, were formed by the wisdom of Gutoa, who had wandered the lands for over fifty years; both defending the weak and bringing justice to tyrants.
Kusai was his first student – Long ago, she followed a trail of destruction for three weeks as he systematically dismantled a fierce bandit ring that was terrorizing a group of villages. It’s leader was a Ferret named Kai-Lang; A legendary warrior whose very presence struck fear into even the twenty-foot tall Tanuki of the mountains. Gutoa fought with Lang for hours after easily dashing his elite bodyguard to the four winds. A silent village had greeted her and a trail of bodies led to a ransacked tavern, the battered door hanging off it’s iron hinges. Cold yellow light of many buckled lanterns spilled faintly out onto the blood-stained porch. Kusai entered and found her prospective master unconscious and barely breathing, his gnarled claws still wrapped around the handle of the bandit-king’s wickedly curved blade which protruded from the matted fur of the ferret’s belly.
She carried him out into the night after picking him bodily up and wresting the crimson knife from his grasp, replacing it with the shattered remains of his own sword which he reflexively clutched to his chest. Rain washed his enemy’s copious blood away but a worrying amount remained as many wounds ran thickly all over the old hamster’s bent frame. Kusai could hardly believe this little rodent, seemingly so frail, had carved such a swath of destruction in his diminutive wake. She looked around, counting twelve bodies in the village square and terrified eyes peering from every window and behind every door.
The people slowly came out; they were mice, hamsters, voles and shrews. All beetle herders, petty craftsmen or grain farmers. Yelling was heard as the apparent tavern keeper grabbed some local men and began hauling bodies out. It was then that the crowd came together. Kusai could hear them whispering: “Could it really be Gutoa the hero?”, while she stood holding this drooping warrior under his arm. Out of it all an old female vole rushed up dragging a litter: a triangular frame of wood meant to carry the injured. She laid the litter beside Gutoa and shouted around, scolding the onlookers for allowing their saviour to stand there, letting his life’s blood drain into the gutters.
Fifteen days passed without him regaining consciousness. The old vole, who was skilled in medicine and whose name was Juki, plied her healing trade as best she knew but the prognosis looked dire. Kusai never left his side, only pacing back and forth from the small straw bed to the door. It rained constantly upon the enormous pile of offerings that the villagers had presented to Gutoa and of which she picked modestly to sustain herself, refusing all the food Juki prepared, instead feeding the thin vegetable broth slowly and carefully to Gutoa, one laborious mouthful at a time.
On the sixteenth night, Kusai could only stare mournfully out into the stormy scene which reflected the tear stains trailing down the fur of her cheeks. A creaking caused her ears to pivot back and her head followed. Over the last two weeks, Gutoa had moved very little, only shifting convulsively from one ragged wound to another. This time however, her eyes widened as they locked onto his. Gutoa, inimitable master of the sword, who had looked so tiny and impossibly frail now held her in an iron grip with those dark eyes. Pain wracked his face, but he was back.
“I have become too old it seems…to go galavanting around the countryside…you followed me all this way, I know…and you became my student the minute I entered that tavern. I will never fight again, but you will.”
Kusai slowly padded across the straw mats and bent to his side, she grasped his outstretched paw, it trembled.
“Master Gutoa, I should not have doubted that you would return to us, but I did. I am sorry.”
The old hamster batted weakly at her paw.
“Fool girl, I am not some immortal spirit…Just good at what I do…it was you who saved my life. We shall rebuild this place…The infestation that plagues these lands shall be driven out by your sword…You will teach me how much good I can do when I trust in others…I have been a fool to wait this long to train an apprentice. Now, I shall sleep the sleep of the living and not the dead. Tomorrow we change the world.”
Kusai opened her eyes to the blossoms floating on the wind, fresh tears streaming down her face as she looked out once again into the valley. She took in the sweet smells of the place that would soon be shattered by what was coming. Ten years had passed, new dangers had arisen, and a shadow loomed over them all.
To be continued.