The young girl crashes through the underbrush, desperate to escape the cackling soldiers at her back. After catching her in a tryst with a local farm boy, they intend to execute her for her sin. She runs for as long as she can, finally collapsing outside a shrine where a traveling nun sits with her flute. When the soldiers arrive, the nun sets her flute aside, drawing a legendary sword. She kills the men easily and sets the young girl free. Though she tried to avoid it, Tomoe Gozen has shed blood once again.
After countless battles and endless wandering, this legendary samurai has renounced Bushido and taken the oaths of a wandering nun. But though she disguises herself as a mendicant, trouble will find her still. Tomoe must engage in one last fight—this time for the sake of her soul.
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Thousand Shrine Warrior
The Tomoe Gozen Saga, Book Three
By Jessica Amanda Salmonson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Jessica Amanda Salmonson
All rights reserved.
The Nameless Nun
The woman, pale with fright, hurried through moonlit woods, stumbling, breathing heavily, trying not to cry out. The cloth obi, which ordinarily wrapped around her waist several times to hold her kimono together, was half undone. It trailed the ground behind her, catching on fallen branches. Her kimono threatened to open altogether. Behind her, she heard rude laughter. One of the three men called to the others,
"This way, Chojiro," a laughing voice replied. "Over here!"
"No!" shouted the voice of the one called Chojiro. "This way! I see her!"
Panicked, she fell, drew her long obi inward so that it would not trip her again, then rose and dashed onward. The laughter behind her grew louder. She could not outdistance them.
Somewhere up ahead she heard the mournful notes of a shakuhachi, a heavy bamboo flute. She ran toward the sound, thinking it might be a priest playing for the moon's sake or for his night's meditation. But the sound echoed weirdly under the canopy of evergreens, confusing her about the direction to run. She dropped the end of her loose obi and it caught on something, coming off entirely. She did not try to retrieve it, but held the front of her kimono closed with both hands and continued forward.
When the three men happened on the obi, one of them—Chojiro, the thickly built fellow—picked up one end. He sniffed it, grinning some more.
"Now she will be easier to get at," said Yojiemon, a man younger and prettier than the other two, but somehow more cruel in appearance. Chojiro let go of the obi and tried to scan the dark woods. Due to the fact that he was somewhat overweight, he breathed harder than the others. The third man, Takeno, was the least winded by the chase. He was the strongest in appearance, in a lean and wolfish manner.
All three men bore two swords apiece, proof that they were samurai and not common ruffians. But they were drunk, as befits no samurai of merit. Takeno, the quieter of the three, raised his hand and pointed in the direction of a momentary flash of color in the moonlight. The three were off again, leaving the woman's obi snaked across a bush.
She was hiding behind a thick tree, trying not to let her breath be heard. The men passed by, so close she smelled their sweat and the wine they had been drinking. They did not go far before stopping, looking left and right.
Chojiro was the most befuddled by the saké. "You saw her go this way?" he asked, panting. "You're sure?"
Takeno did not answer.
"What Takeno sees is certain," said Yojiemon.
"Where can she hide?" asked Chojiro. "A matter of pride that we catch her! Especially after she kicked Takeno that way!"
"Takeno has an iron groin," said Yojiemon. "Still, she escaped before we could finish our business with her. Not real men if we let her go!"
New notes from the shakuhachi drew the woman out. She ran toward the sound again, and the men saw her. "Hoi! Hoi!" shouted Chojiro who led the chase in clumsy bounds. The sleek samurai and the one with young, cruel visage and mirth followed casually.
The echoing music confused her again. She dashed in a new direction and was cut off. The three men surrounded her. Yojiemon's laughter did not abate. Chojiro smacked fat lips lustfully, nearly drooling. Takeno kept quiet but was the most frightening for that.
"You want her, Chojiro?" asked Yojiemon. "Prove you know how!"
"I will!" said Chojiro as he untied his hakama, the split skirt worn over his kimono. He placed his long and short swords against a tree while doffing the hakama, then began to untie his kimono's obi. The woman lunged not away from Chojiro, but toward him, grabbing for his swords by the tree. Takeno was quick to kick her away, but she had managed to get the shortsword in her hand. She unsheathed it. Yojiemon's cruel laughter was louder. Neither he nor Takeno moved to help Chojiro.
"To lose your sword is to lose face!" chided Yojiemon. "How will you handle her now, Chojiro?"
She stabbed and stabbed, but Chojiro evaded her easily. He was not in as good shape as a samurai should be, but he was battle-trained nonetheless, and she was helpless against him. She stabbed again, but missed her mark as before. The other two men began to approach, seeing that Chojiro could not take the knife away without some help. It would not be possible to fend off all three at once, so she darted around the tree, then took off through the woods again.
As she had Chojiro's shortsword, it became a matter of honor for him to get it back without his friends' help. They might not hold back to give him the chance, however, for they weren't the sort to be concerned with Chojiro's loss of face. They would probably tell everyone about it, too, unless he got the weapon back immediately. The woman was uncertain if grabbing the sword had improved or worsened matters for herself.
Chojiro's headlong rush was reckless. His obi had been half-untied before the woman caused so much trouble, so he was not in the position to catch someone. Still, he almost had her—except that she reeled about and slashed blindly, scratching him by sheer luck.
"Shimatta!" he cursed, lurching back and inspecting his minor cut. He said again, "Damn!" His friends caught up with him, one carrying his hakama, the other his longsword. He took the hakama and threw it away angrily. Yojiemon said, "A crime to steal a samurai's sword. You will have to kill her now. No other way to regain face." Chojiro tied his obi quickly and took his longsword from Takeno. Takeno said to Yojiemon, his voice strangely gentle,
"We would have killed her anyway. What would happen to us if she told?"
"Yes, but now Chojiro will have to do it. I don't think he has killed a woman before."
"Can you?" asked Takeno quietly.
"Good," said Yojiemon. They heard a fallen branch crack under a footfall and were after her again.
At the wood's edge, she stumbled into a cemetery. She hurried along paths between small stone gods and monuments. She kept running until she came to a section of the cemetery where the poor were buried close to one another. A thousand sticks poked high into the air, bearing the names of the individuals whose ashes were in the pots below the ground, or bearing sutras for those whose names were unknown. There was barely room to run between these high slats.
A strap of one of her sandals broke. She fell hard against a little stone deity, nearly losing consciousness. She heard the men close by and it shook her from her daze. Rising, she stumbled onward, hobbling with one foot bare. She had dropped the shortsword and her head hurt so much that she hadn't thought to look where the sword had fallen.
A cloud passed before the moon. In the darkness she could not keep to the narrow paths through the forest of slats. She knocked the closely placed markers awry; they rattled like bones as they struck eath other. She was sorry to desecrate their sad, destitute graves, but too frightened to stop and apologize to the spirits whose places were upset.
The sound of the shakuhachi ended abruptly. Yojiemon's laughter behind her was much closer; of the three, he seemed to enjoy this the most. She looked back to see them as the cloud moved away from the moon. Takeno moved swiftly and with grace, making no sound. Yojiemon bounced as he ran, like a child on a lark. Chojiro huffed and puffed, red-faced and angry about his sword. When she looked forward again, she saw that she had nearly run into a toolshed at cemetery's end.
She banged on the door, hoping a caretaker or vagrant or someone was inside. She finally cried out, "Help! Help me!" She could not get the toolshed door to open, not that it was a wise hiding place if she succeeded.
"Hold there!" shouted Chojiro, coming up behind her. He grabbed her shoulder, spun her around, struck her with the back of his hand. "Where's my sword!" he demanded, but she could only stare at him, dumb and petrified. She knew she could not escape them a third time. She resigned herself to her fate, letting him strike her a second time.
"Beat her up later!" said Yojiemon. "We want her fresh right now."
"But my shortsword!"
"Look for it," said Yojiemon, pulling Chojiro away and looking at the woman eagerly. At that moment, the door of the shed flung open. In it stood a dark shape no one could quite make out. The three men backed away, hands to hilts of longswords.
Chojiro demanded, "Who is in there!" sounding less belligerent than he might have wished.
The dark figure stepped out.
"A woman!" said Chojiro.
"Our lucky night," said Yojiemon. Their hands moved away from their swords. The woman who stepped out of the shed was a nun, but not of an ordinary sort. She wore dark, unpatterned hakama over a kimono neither bleached nor dyed, therefore the natural cream color of raw silk: strong cloth, and suggestive of high station before she became a Buddhist nun, yet not a pretentious cloth, nor soft. Over this she wore a long, black vest, which looked to be made of hemp but was a loose, coarse weave of silk. Her sandals were made of straw; they tied around her ankles. She carried two swords through the straps of her hakama and the obi underneath. A martial nun, then, perhaps the retired wife of a slain general.
The three men could not tell if she were beautiful, for a large amigasa or "incognito hat" of woven bamboo hid her face. In her hand was the shakuhachi, a thick bamboo flute nearly as long as a shortsword.
The nun was unperturbed by the three men facing her. She seemed to ignore them as she put the shakuhachi in a silk embroidered bag, then placed the bagged instrument through her belt behind her back.
"Bikuni!" said Yojiemon, recognizing her as an esoteric nun. "Tell me what convent you belong to, so I will know which order I defile!"
"I have no convent," said the woman, her voice even and deeper than expected. Perhaps she was older than they thought. They could not see any feature of her face, so dark were the moonshadows beneath the large hat. "I am of Thousand Shrine Sect, a wanderer."
"Beggar-nun!" chided Chojiro, having heard of this mendicant sect.
"I play my shakuhachi at city gates and temples, it is true, and before the kitchen doors of houses and fronts of stores. I am paid by whoever has been pleased to hear me."
"Same thing!" Chojiro said with a childlike spitefulness. "A beggar!"
A long breath issued from under the hat, as though the woman's patience were beginning to feel tired. "If you catch me begging," she said, "I would be grateful if you put me out of my misery. I would do the same for you."
"Big talk for a woman!" said Chojiro, but he seemed a little cowed.
Takeno whispered something to Yojiemon, so softly no one else could hear. Yojiemon nodded, then said to the nun in a tone of magnanimity, "Since you are Buddha's woman, maybe we will let you go. But the girl at least is ours."
The frightened woman moved away as Yojiemon tried to grab her. She scurried to the bikuni's side, then behind her, hidden by the long sleeves of the nun's kimono. "How is she yours?" asked the bikuni.
"We caught her in a tryst with a peasant," Yojiemon revealed. "She serves the daughter of our Lord Ikida Sato. A bad example to other maids that she has mingled with the lower class."
"It should be taken up with your Lord," said the nun. "Perhaps she should be dismissed for her behavior, forced to marry into a peasant clan."
"That would not be punishment enough!" exclaimed Chojiro, puffing. "She would probably be happy if that happened!"
"So you would punish her yourselves? Before your Lord and his daughter know anything? What if you are found out? It soils the honor of samurai that you become drunk and unseemly then threaten a girl. She'll lose her position in Lord Sato's house for her tryst; but if you complicate the crime yourselves, you may find that seppuku is your own reward. Are you brave enough to slit your bellies? Already it may be too late for you."
"Cheeky nun!" exclaimed Chojiro, but he was beginning to sober up a little. His upper lip was sweaty and quivering. His hand moved toward his sword. He exclaimed to his two friends, "Kiru!" meaning, "Kill her!"
"Agreed," said Yojiemon, flashing a smile. Three swords slid from their scabbards. The three men readied themselves to attack. The nun did not draw her sword. She said,
"I came to this place to honor one among the thousand shrines I must visit on my ceaseless pilgrimage through the sixty-six provinces of Naipon. It was my desire to play my shakuhachi for the spirits here tonight, especially for those who died by violence. It would dishonor them if I fought you in their graveyard. Please do not make me fight."
The bikuni started to bow politely. Chojiro used this chance to try to cut her. She stepped backward so that he missed. She turned quickly and pushed the frightened maid into the cemetery's toolshed. When her back was turned, Chojiro struck again, barely missing her but clipping the shakuhachi, which she had put behind herself in the silk bag. She reeled about and her sword was suddenly in her hand. Chojiro had not seen the swift draw. He stepped backward, suddenly afraid.
The nun looked at the tip of her shakuhachi on the ground and sucked in a long, angry breath. "That was made by my instructor, who taught me to play," she said. "He is dead now and it cannot be replaced. Your lives are like that, too. There is still time to run away."
Her arm raised slowly. Moonlight played up and down the length of the sword's polished steel. "Careful," Takeno whispered as he and Yojiemon attacked together. She stepped sideways, evading Takeno and slicing Yojiemon from shoulder to opposite thigh. His body fell two ways at once. Takeno was quick to attempt vengeance for Yojiemon, but the nun did not even turn to face him. Her sword reached sideways and he stuck himself on the weapon's point.
Chojiro saw his second friend spitted through the throat, saw him stand there making gagging sounds while the nun held her sword motionless, still looking another direction. The spitted Takeno dropped his own sword, reached up to grab at the blade in his voice box. He gurgled and blood gushed from his wide-open mouth. Finally the bikuni pulled the sword out and let the man fall to the ground to die. Chojiro threw his longsword away and fell onto his knees, realizing the terrible error in attacking this woman.
"Please!" he said. "I was led astray by these other men! I will abide by the Way the rest of my life if you will pardon me tonight!" He bowed several times, striking his head on the hard, cold ground.
"A tragedy that you have become a beggar," said the nun. "I will keep my promise to you!" Her sword swept up and down and the craven samurai's head rolled between grave markers. The nun took a piece of paper from her kimono, wiped the blade of her sword clean, and dropped the paper on one of the corpses. As she sheathed her sword, the woman in the shed came out and fell before her savior, saying over and over, "Thank you! Thank you very much!" The nun picked up the clipped mouthpiece of her shakuhachi and started to walk away, but the woman she left behind ran after her, threw herself down to block the path, bowing again.
"Don't bow to me!" said the nun. "Go home!"
"I am too dishonored!" said the woman, who began to weep horribly. "I disgraced myself and my family by having that affair! Those men found me out and captured me afterward. How can I live? You must complete your duty and kill me, too!"
"Did those men touch you in the woods? No, do not tell me; no one needs to know. Why should you die for it? Once I was a samurai and as such would have killed you for the sake of your own honor. That was a long time ago. Life is too precious; so much so that I will feel compelled to build those three men a shrine to atone for what I have done tonight. But since they are dead, who will know your secret?"
"I will know!" said the woman, no longer crying, but aghast. "How can I live with it?"
Excerpted from Thousand Shrine Warrior by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Copyright © 1984 Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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