Back home in Tokyo, Kaoru would send her kendo students out to practice their strokes in the rain when they were being lazy or mouthing off. She was beginning to feel that punishment had been too harsh. Despite the warm air, the downpour in which she was training had chilled her skin and made her muscles twitch as she slashed the air with the sword Enishi had given her. Her feet slipped in the mud and her soaked hakama clung to her legs. Willpower alone kept her attacks from growing unforgivably sloppy.
“Never seen moves like that from a swordfighter,” Enishi remarked, dry and comfortable on his teak chair beneath the eaves of the covered porch. He’d been sitting there all morning oiling his watou blade as the tropical storm had flooded the yard and stolen the grace from Kaoru’s strikes.
“I’m used to using a solid wooden bokken, not a naked blade,” Kaoru reminded him. She brought the sword down with an experimental technique she had been developing. “And I have to modify my style for Sansa’s world. I need to be ready when I get sent back.”
Enishi tilted his head as he gazed at her over the top of his spectacles. “When you get sent back? How do you know you’ll go back at all?”
Kaoru attempted the strike again, starting from a narrower stance this time. “It’s not over yet. Don’t know how I know. I can just sort of feel it.” She grunted as her sword came around. The move still wasn’t quite right. She straightened up and glanced back at Enishi. “You saw that enormous ancient weapon I brought back with me. That’s the kind of stuff I’ll have to face there.”
“Your speed and accuracy will overcome the differences in sword weight and length,” Enishi replied, yawning. He was trying to look bored, but Kaoru knew he was watching her closely. Pathetic, she thought.
“Of course,” she agreed, doing her best to keep the exasperation out of her voice. She was no farmer’s daughter who had never handled anything more dangerous than a kitchen knife. “But I must be able to disarm and incapacitate, not take lives.”
Enishi’s handsome face wrinkled up in a sneer. “What’s the point of wielding a sword, if not to take lives?”
She’d been thinking about that issue for far longer than she’d known Enishi. Swords were fast becoming obsolete in her rapidly modernizing Japan. Even the most skilled sword wielders -- even Enishi, even Kenshin -- couldn’t defeat a gangster with a gun. Someday soon, if she lived through this current torment, she would have to lay down her weapon forever and find another way to preserve the hard won peace of the Meiji Era.
But it wasn’t like that in Westeros. There, Kaoru’s sword skills would be essential to staying alive. She ignored Enishi’s words as again she shuffled toward an imaginary attacker and lashed out. It still wasn’t right. She could still accidentally kill someone with that strike.
Enishi lapsed into silence, and for many minutes Kaoru heard only the rainfall, her heavy breaths, her sloshing footsteps as she practiced. Finally, she straightened up and wiped her slimy hair out of her eyes to look at her companion.
He was staring past her, where the horizon would be if the low clouds weren’t blotting it out. He clenched his fists as his eyes flicked back to hers. “You’d do better to run away from your enemies. Swords are for killing. Even Battousai knows that, deep down. It’s how he took my sister’s life.”
Tomoe sacrificed herself to save Kenshin, Kaoru thought to herself but knew better than to say aloud. “Well, I vowed to use my sword to protect people, even strange attackers in that other world. Never to kill.”
Enishi glared at her. “You’ll die there, with that philosophy. Here, too.”
Or maybe I’ll save some lives, Kaoru thought as she lunged forward with her weapon. That time, she got the move just right.
“And that’s how I got the scar across my knuckles,” Sandor said, concluding a story about a scuffle near Casterly Rock that had also meandered through a tale about a mob of fishmongers and a dog that squealed like a pig. He laughed and coughed and slid his eyes in Sansa’s direction as if to check what her reaction would be.
“Hmm,” Sansa caught his eye and nodded with as much politeness as she could muster. She reached out and brushed her fingers against the mossy stone wall beside her. The rough stones provided as much distraction from her aching, empty belly as Sandor’s stories did, which was to say, not much.
Sandor apparently noticed her lack of enthusiasm, but he didn't seem offended. “Not one for battle stories? No matter. I can tell you about the secret passageways in the Red Keep, or the vaults of Golden Tooth, or --” he broke off as he looked at Sansa’s face, and he must have read the misery in her eyes. He seemed to want to reassure her that they were actually making progress toward attaining their goal. “We’re not far from the woods witch now. Just past the Stoney Sept here --” he patted the town wall -- “And about three more days through the hills, if we can keep this pace.”
Three more days? Sansa could hardly imagine three more days of eating sandy watercress for every meal while jumping at every possible sign of danger. She bit down on her lower lip to keep the complaints from spilling out. She remembered the strange but enticing smells emanating from Enishi’s distant kitchen and wished she’d had the foresight to grab some of whatever had been cooking before she’d come hurtling back into her own world. Just thinking about it caused her stomach to gurgle audibly. “Do you think the woods witch will have food?” she asked.
“Oh, aye, a great feast table set for all the woods witch’s guests, with roasted venison and boiled potatoes and pheasant smothered in prune gravy,” Sandor cackled.
A simple ‘no’ would suffice, Sansa thought to herself. She was in no mood for teasing.
Stranger whickered beside his master as if joining in on the fun. But then this probably was fun for him. After all, he didn’t mind eating weeds, and he was getting yet another rest from his only duty.
Sansa, for her part, had assumed that they could ride the warhorse indefinitely, but Sandor had quickly disabused her of that notion, and she had the blistered, sore feet to prove it. Her stomach made another noise. “Perhaps --” she began with hope in her voice.
“Absolutely not,” Sandor rumbled. “We wouldn’t even be walking past this town if it weren’t the fastest route to the witch.”
Sansa stopped talking. Over the past few days, she had learned that Sandor would only slide her first name across his tongue when he was trying to save her from misfortune. He had spit it out in a whisper to silence her as a handful of Lannister scouts had passed their hiding spot in the bushes; he had shouted it to stop her from stepping into a hunter’s trap; he had murmured it into her ear as she had fought off the suffocation that enveloped her when she thought of spinning back into Kaoru’s world. Now, as then, he was acting as her protector.
“Thank you, Sandor,” she responded finally, feeling more confident in speaking his name, as if using it were a second way to show her appreciation. “I will not ask again about going into the town. You’re simply keeping us both safe.” She brushed her knuckles against his, which was the extent of touching that Sandor allowed her while they were traveling.
Sandor stared at their hands for a moment, then jerked his chin slightly, as if disagreeing with himself. He shifted away from Sansa and coughed, then scratched the back of his neck and looked up at the sky.
Sansa followed his gaze. The clouds looked like combed wool.
From beside her, Sansa heard Stranger yanking grass up at the roots and chomping it heartily. All three of them had stopped moving forward, and Sansa hadn’t even noticed until now. She looked down at her boots and started walking again. “Um -- didn’t you say you were going to tell me about the vaults of Golden Tooth?”
Sandor laughed, and to Sansa it sounded like he was relieved to talk about something else. “Of course,” he replied, shaking Stranger’s reins to bring the horse’s head up. “You think you’ve seen glittering treasure’s at King’s Landing? It’s nothing compared to the solid gold blocks they store in the chests of --”
And suddenly, he shoved Sansa so hard that she flew against the wall and was knocked breathless. As she gasped air back into her lungs, Sandor drew his sword and kept his massive back to her.
“Would be best for you to move along,” he growled toward the trees. “Sansa, hold on to Stranger,” he muttered quietly over his shoulder. “Now.”
Still stunned, Sansa managed to scuttle forward and pick up the leather reins that Sandor had dropped, as if she could actually control the enormous beast. As she did so, she peeked around Sandor’s great frame and saw three ragged men slipping out from the shadows of the trees.
“Don’t mind us,” croaked the tallest of the men. Like the others, the color of his skin and hair and clothes were concealed by a thick coat of brown grime, but his sword was unsheathed and gleamed in the sunlight. “We’re just fellow travelers on this road.”
“And I’m the Knight of Flowers,” Sandor replied, taking a step forward.
“Give us the horse we’ll be on our way,” The man grimaced, revealing a mouth devoid of teeth as he raised his sword.
One of the shorter men added, “Give us the girl, too.” His face was pinched and his sword was mottled with what looked like dried blood.
“I’ll die before that happens,” Sandor snarled as he took another step.
“That’s the idea,” the third man replied.”
A twig snapped and Sansa turned away from the brewing fight and looked back toward the woods. “Sandor, there’s two more men coming out --”
“Stay behind me and Stranger -- shit!” he cried as an arrow whizzed past his ear and stuck the pommel of the horse’s saddle.
Stranger whinnied and pranced about as the tall man shouted to someone in the woods, “Don’t aim for the horse, idiot!” Sansa held tight to the reins and prayed to the Seven that Stranger wouldn’t rear up, that she wouldn’t get hit by an arrow, that Sandor wouldn’t get slaughtered before her eyes.
Sandor used the distraction to charge the three in front of him. Sansa knew better than to watch, with an unknown number of other fighters somewhere in the trees. She grabbed her knife from her boot, useless though it would probably be in her hands, and did her best to use Stranger as a shield.
The two men from the other side scuttled out of the bushes. One grabbed Stranger’s reins. The other ran toward Sansa, sword extended toward her.
“No!” Sansa screamed. The man reached for her, but just as his fingers were about to grab her sleeve, Sansa’s world began to spin.
“Sandor!” she called, but it was too late for him to save her now. Her attacker froze in front of her, and he faded along with the wall and the path and the sunlight. The sound of swords clanging together echoed and grew muffled and curled into the sound of rainfall. And then, instead of the attacker, Kaoru stood before Sansa. The young woman was soaking wet and held up a long, narrow blade.
Kaoru’s dark eyebrows furrowed and she stood up straight. “Sansa?” she said. She started talking in that other language. “Can you understand me? What should we --”
There was no time for this. “You're going into the middle of a swordfight!” Sansa cried. The words came out in the Common Tongue, but Kaoru must have understood, because she dropped into a strange stance and held the blade straight before her.
“How many?” Kaoru asked. Her sword quivered, and she swiveled her head around, as if attackers were about to jump out into this swirling in-between space.
“Six or more. Swords and someone shooting arrows from the trees, too.”
Kaoru blanched. “Where’s Sandor?”
“He’s fighting three of them.”
Kaoru jerked her chin down. She steadied her blade. “I’m ready.”
The spinning slowed and Sansa felt the first droplets of rain. Kaoru faded.
“Tell Sandor I’m unhurt,” she called. And then, almost as an afterthought, “May the Seven protect you.”
“Uh . . . right. Same to --” Kaoru’s words were drowned out by thunder as she disappeared.
Suddenly it seemed as though someone had poured a trough of warm water over Sansa’s head. She was standing in a pool of shallow mud that was once the yard in front of Enishi’s house.
From the covered walkway, Enishi sighed. “You again,” he grumbled, sounding disappointed. “Kamiya was just beginning to interest me.”
[to be continued]