Chapter Notes:
– Rating: R (swearing & descriptions of violence, implied original character death)
– In addition to the careful and sincere exploration of Tolkien’s work, I’m lovingly exploring Japanese culture and ideas; it all comes from a place of respect and curiosity. Details of Japanese culture and ideas are based out of academic research and mixed with my own fantasy world. This is not intended to be a 100% historically accurate truth about Japan or the Japanese, but the story will navigate familiar concepts, periods, and social aspects of the Japanese samurai. The plan is to avoid hurtful stereotypes and offensive material, so please give feedback if you feel I’ve written something disrespectful. I will edit or remove it.
– It is my full intention that this will neither be a 10th walker story nor a Mary Sue trainwreck.
– The story’s R rating is for descriptions of violence (as seen at the end of this chapter), cursing, and suggestive scenes in planned chapters.
– Content taken from LOTR, the Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s Bestiary by David Day will be emphasized and cited.
– Content taken from sources on Japan and Japanese history will be emphasized and cited.
– Reviews and reviewers will be treasured.

Mizu no ko- CHAPTER ONE

“I won’t remind you again Gādonā, arms higher,” Mizu no ko waited for the one-eyed maid’s corrected stance to continue. “Begin,” Mizu no ko braced the hay stuffed dummy. Gādonā hesitantly struck the dummy with a pattern of blows. Straw flakes puffed out with every hit Gādonā landed, but still Mizu no ko masked her disappointment. Training was anathema to the maid, after a fortnight of lessons Gādonā failed to emulate the routine drilled into her day-after-day. “Stop,” a panting Gādonā immediately obeyed the samurai’s terse instruction.

Mizu no ko tugged at her kimono sleeves in vexation and signalled the maid to follow. The women took seats on the training yard’s modest stone bench. Mizu no ko crossed her arms, ruminating on how to broach the subject of poor performance with Gādonā, for the gentle creature was as fragile as porcelain of late. The one-eyed maid blotted the sweat from her brow with her sleeves, wincing when she disturbed the bandage covering her facial wounds.

Finally, Mizu no ko gave into her usual manner, brusqueness, “I would know your mind.” Gādonā remained mute. Mizu no ko silently cursed the maid’s obstinance. To the day no manner of chiding, reprimanding, or haranguing broke Gādonā’s silent acrimony. “Thought and action are one,” Mizu no ko tried, “disharmony in your form betrays your mind.” She shifted to face Gādonā, “if you but gave voice to your mind, perhaps that would assuage your condition.” A guarded eye was the only response Gādonā offered, the rest of her was as carven stone. Mizu no ko met that single hazel orb with her own brown pair; she found in it only suppressed raw and tired pain. “We will train more tomorrow,” Mizu no ko made no effort to mitigate the surely unwelcome news. Gādonā nodded and stood. “You should wash up and lay down, your father will see to changing your dressings,” Mizu no ko stood and brushed straw bits from her own garb. They exchanged bows and Gādonā departed towards the bathhouse. Mizu no ko retook her seat, exasperated.

Deep down, the warrior acknowledged time was the only sure-fire remedy for the despair that crippled her humble bukeyashiki . Justice for Gādonā was beyond Mizu no ko’s reach, a fact that distressed her slightly less than the knowledge that, as the head of House Ryōshi, she was ultimately responsible for what occurred. Mizu no ko swallowed back down the caustic rage bubbling within her. She could no sooner succomb to her anger than Gādonā could her despair. Training the one-eyed maid would save them both, no matter how hard Gādonā resisted. One way or another, Mizu no ko would see Gādonā transform from a lowly gardener to someone stronger. If that made Gādonā despise her, so be it. As head of her house, Mizu no ko recognized the amassing social forces beyond the bukeyashiki’s gate. Two months was the most the house could afford to spend in disarray, they all had to recover.

Sofu’s approaching shuffle summoned the woman from her considerations. Mizu no ko straightened her posture and temporized his interruption, “The gardens need weeding.”

Sofu, unfazed, chuckled dryly and eased himself onto the stone bench beside her, “Sofu is blessed to serve the keenest of samurai, for Mizu no ko can see the garden all the way from the training yard.” He shifted to squint in the direction of the gardens, “Sofu’s old eyes see only plaster and wood.”

“That’s the house, Sofu,” the samurai pinched the bridge of her nose. She would never understand his peculiarities.

“Sofu must simply lack bushidō training,” the sage cook stroked his stark white beard and settle back onto the bench.

“The gardens are overrun. They are unfit,” Mizu no ko tugged sharply at her sleeves, “We cannot hide behind our walls Sofu, it’s unseemly to keep the gate shut anymore. We must prepare for visitors.”

Sofu stiffened sharply, “this bukeyashiki has suffered enough vis-”

“We will not cower from the world,” Mizu no ko snapped. Her hand gripped the hilt of her wakizashi, “We will prepare ourselves and our home to weather the world.” She glared pointedly in the direction of the bathhouse. “As we have always done before,” Mizu no ko finished.

Sofu did not reply immediately. After a time he spoke solemnly, “The weather of the world carries an unprecedented foulness of late. Sofu will offer more prayers to both the kamidana and butsudan.” The samurai saw some sense in this; imbalance in otherworldly forces would only espouse more misfortune.

“Do what you will, but weed the garden first,” Mizu no ko stood to dismiss the cook.

“No,” Sofu folded his arms over his belly.

Mizu no ko growled, “No?”

“Gādonā can do it,” the elder calmly stated.

The samurai turned to face him, her face blooming. “She cannot, she,” Mizu no ko struggled for the appropriate expression, “lacks the capacity.”

Sofu tugged on his beard, “My little Gādonā is wholly capable.”

Mizu no ko bit back a cruel remark; instead she countered with, “It will… strain her abilities.”

The old man eased himself to his feet, “Gādonā practices the foreign art of Wing Chun from dawn to noon without complaint. Is that not more taxing than tending to what Gādonā has lovingly nurtured?”

Mizu no ko, much to her chagrin, could not bring herself to look at Sofu as she at last spoke her opinion, “She will not be able to pull all the weeds.”

Sofu stared boldly at her, “Pull them or see them?”

Mizu no ko, in a rare moment of grace, said nothing. Sofu stroked his beard, refusing to alleviate her embarrassment.

“She should still rest,” Mizu no ko muttered as she surveyed the small training yard.

“Indeed,” Sofu nodded, “I have prepared tea for Gādonā.”

“Her bandages need changing as well,” Mizu no ko looked to Sofu. Sofu bowed. Mizu no ko returned the bow and headed towards the mu ren zhuang posts at the other end of the training yard.

Sofu’s voice called from behind her, “A task has slipped old Sofu’s mind.”

Mizu no ko turned to address him, “What task is this?”

“Today is Consignment Day,” Sofu’s voice grew thick, his expression guarded.

Mizu no ko tightened her features. Kukku’s ashen face danced behind her eyelids. She took deep even breaths and bitterly announced, “We have enough food.” After all, now they had six weeks of rations in the stores.

“Sofu trusts Mizu no ko remembers the expectations outside the bukeyashiki,” Sofu spoke softly and shuffled toward the uneasy samurai, “charity will come no more.” The cook was right, their neighbors and scarce supporters wouldn’t bring them anymore food. Decorum demanded a public appearance from House Ryōshi. Mizu no ko knew she could not ask Sofu or Gādonā to brave what was to come at the consignment stand. She, Ryōshi Mizu no ko would be expected today, by everyone. Biliousness crashed through the samurai, but she stood firm. She couldn’t afford to lose face.

“I will go,” Mizu no ko clenched her free hand tightly. Sofu paused, his silent appreciation of what he was asking her to do, then bowed deeply and left to tend to his wounded daughter. She headed to her private room.

The samurai took her time preparing her appearance for the public appearance. Mizu no ko tried to quash her trepidation of dressing without Meido’s assistance; the girl had grasped the intricacies of the samurai’s formal clothing. The samurai made a mental note to advertise for a new maid, one of the seven now vacant positions for her house. As best she could, Mizu no ko donned her kamishimo, reset her hair into a topknot, and slipped her prized katana through her obi. The woman reviewed the outcome of her efforts and judged it to be acceptable. She offered a prayer that she wouldn’t bring further shame upon them by violating the Shogun’s strict edicts on samurai dress.

House Ryōshi’s consignment crate sat in its usual place in the kitchen, among the pots. The symbol of her house, two koi fish swimming in a round, was charred into its pale flesh. The shattered pieces of the wheelbarrow Kukku had used to carry the crate lay with the firewood. Mizu no ko bent down and lifted the crate. It would be a handful after she collected their rations, but she’d manage.

The samurai exited her bukeyashiki cautiously, so those out in the street wouldn’t have full view of the wild courtyard garden. The Shogun’s city streets bustled with the same vigor as two months passed. Broods of rag clothed children screamed and gave chase to their playmates. Questionable vendors fended reeking beggars away from their stands. Old toothless men drank cheap sake in their doorways, while the women folk tended to the chores. Shabby figures carrying dirty empty sacks trudged up the hilly street, towards the Shogun’s palace. Mizu no ko joined them, following the winding path that lead to the consignment stand, an official yet rough structure erected in the shadow of the palace. Mizu no ko stared over the rooftops at the palace, replaying the bushido code in her mind. She hardened her spirit with the mantra and set her features in a neutral state.

The whispers started as soon as the walls of her bukeyashiki were out of sight. A samurai, especially one in her disgraced situation, carrying out consignment in lieu of a cook or some other servant was worthy of their ridicule. The jibes and defamatory gossip of commoners she could withstand; commoners had nothing to gain from her discomfort beyond a few days of entertainment. It wasn’t until she made her way to the more politically favored section of the city that the true torment began.

The samurai houses of higher standing lay closer to the palace, forming a gauntlet for Mizu no ko. Each samurai house proudly displayed its sigil, resulting in the most decorated street of the city. Every samurai house was aware of the precarious standing of House Ryōshi. These houses reveled in the complex plots and schemes it took to gain the favor of the Shogun; it would be far easier to crush an already crumbling foe, than to tangle with each other. The street running through the samurais’ bukeyashiki echoed with cries of hundreds of neophytes training diligently. The commoners moved on to admiring the majestic scene of flags and dedicated soldiers, however Mizu no ko bolstered her resolve by fixating her gaze on the palace. The rush of activity at each bukeyashikis’ gate announced that news of Mizu no ko’s march reached eager ears. She wondered if they had set lookouts or if her form and stature were that recognizable in the crowd.

Gangs of advanced students hooted and hollered from their respective gates, gleefully acknowledging her presence as if she were a dancing bear.

“Perhaps the fisherman samurai has taken to grocery,” a rat-faced goon called out.

“Nay, it gives me hope that she’s taken another profession,” shouted a fat squire, “I should hope to see her fishy lips one night soon.” Uproarious laughter summoned the neophytes to the gates.

“Who’s to say she hasn’t traded her steel away? I bet the bitch carries bamboo now,” another nameless face cried.

“Someone should check, I can’t see from here,” the speaker feigned grasping one of her eyes in pain. Her theatricality was applauded. Mizu no ko gripped the crate in her arms tightly, but dedicated herself to give no other outwardly sign of her feelings. The defamation continued on from house to house. Sometimes the insults were refined by later houses, a new house corroborating the barbs of the prior house across the street or down the lane. More merciful houses would only allow the students a few moments to carry on, before an angry order would send them scurrying back inside.

It was an hour before she reached the palace courtyard. Her arms ached from the weight and awkward shape of the crate. The walk back would be an easier pace downhill, however the box would be heavier from the rations. Mizu no ko knew she would just have to endure, for she would rather chew dung than appear weak. The sun was unrelenting as she waited in line, by the time she reached the shade of the consignment stand Mizu no ko felt thoroughly cooked under her many layers. She could only fervently pray that she still looked presentable. The shade of the stand was at least some respite.

Carefully, Mizu no ko placed the crate on the consignment table. “House Ryōshi,” she reported curtly to the clerk marking records onto scrolls.

The clerk tutted and ran his finger over a column on the scroll before him. “Ryōshi,” he mused.

The samurai clenched her jaw. She recognized this clerk from court. He was Kōshiki, a sniveling court official who viciously exercised his bureaucratic powers. Kōshiki would know exactly where her house lay on that scroll. He was simply prolonging his enjoyment. It was everything within her to not knock the courtly black hat off his head. Mizu no ko grunted, “It’s three.”

Kōshiki glared at her, “Silence, do I instruct you on how to perform your… job?”

Mizu no ko’s sword hand twitched, but she remained silent.

“Ah,” Kōshiki’s finger finally paused on the appropriate row, “three rations.” The clerk’s assistants scrambled behind him to fill the order. Three bags of rice appeared, each constructed of rough white linen and stamped with the Shogun’s sigil. The assistants placed the ration bags within the crate. Mizu no ko, eager to escape back into the crowd, reached for the crate. Kōshiki’s hand snapped out and yanked the crate back off the table, smashing it on the cobblestones.

Shocked, Mizu no ko snarled, “What is the meaning of this!”

Six yari blades pressed suddenly against her throat. Six palace guards stood posed to cut her down. The courtyard was completely silent. Mizu no ko slowly released the hilt of her katana she grabbed out of reflex. At Kōshiki’s signal the guards retreated to their posts. The clerk cleared his throat, though his voice still quivered from the power trip, “It is the Honorable Shogun’s policy that only samurai houses of sufficient membership may receive consignment in house crates.”

Mizu no ko drew herself to her fullest height, “I am Ryōshi Mizu no ko, head of House Ryōshi, sworn blade of the Honorable Shogun.”

Kōshiki offered a seated bow to her, “The most loyal of the Honorable Shogun’s samurai, I’m sure. It is my duty to point out that to qualify for the necessary status you must have at least five sworn persons to your house.” The clerk tapped the scroll twice, “By our most recent count, you only have,” he paused for effect, “three.”

Mizu no ko bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted copper.

The clerk crooked his finger at his first assistant, who produced an unmarked sack and set to picking the three ration bags from the ground. The filled sack he handed to the clerk, who in turn handed to Mizu no ko. Stiffly, the samurai accepted the sack and bowed. She slung the sack over her shoulder, turned on her heel, and walked away with measured steps. Sound returned to the courtyard as she passed; the slackjawed and gap-toothed couldn’t wait to recount what they’d all just witnessed.

Numbness freed Mizu no ko from recalling what fresh insults the favored samurai houses had for her on her return trip to her humble bukeyashiki, the farthest one from the palace. Unfortunately her duty pulled her out from her mental defenses. Charity was one of the central tenants of the bushido code Mizu no ko repeated over and over in her mind. She didn’t ignore a single beggar who approached her, serving them handfuls out of one of the ration bags. When she arrived home, the samurai kept her proud posture and walked confidently past a kneeling Gādonā. A newly bandaged Gādonā was dedicatedly plucking weeds and correcting overgrowth in the courtyard garden. The maid didn’t notice her mistress right away, but her suddenly gasp announced clearly when she spotted the unmarked ration sack. Mizu no ko made her way to the kitchen, where she found Sofu working on the cooking fire. She plopped the sack down where the old crate used to be. Mercifully Sofu made no recognition of the sack or her state.

The samurai retired to her room and went through the motions of removing her kamishimo and katana properly. Dressed once more in her informal garb, Mizu no ko went to the only place not visible from the street through the gate, the training yard. There she stood before the mu ren zhuang posts. The woman stood frozen, staring blankly at the polished wood, until the unadulterated rage within her exploded. In her mind, her blows landed not on the solid wooden pegs, but on the laughing faces in the street, the vicious and unhonorable students, that bombastic clerk, and finally the imagined faces of the men who so recently violated her house. Mizu no ko ceased her brutal strikes only when every part of her ached as much as her soul.

Later that night, Gādonā, Sofu, and Mizu no ko didn’t speak during supper. Sofu cobbled together their usual meal of rice porridge mixed with edible herbs from the garden. He served Mizu no ko’s favorite tea, even though it clashed with the meal. They ate with the doors open to take in the sunset and evening breeze. Gādonā almost nodded off at the table and was sent to bed. Mizu no ko ate with a mechanical purpose. Sofu savored the tea. Once the meal was over, he broke the silence, “Time to close the gate.”

Mizu no ko placed her utensils down and rose to her feet. It was a servant’s job to close the gate and blow out the lantern, however Mizu no ko now insisted on carrying out the chore herself. She kept one hand on her wakizashi hilt as she made the rounds. No beggars or intruders presented themselves at the gate, so the samurai shut the gate and slid the new wooden lock into place. Sofu cleaned as the samurai finished her task. They walked together to the sleeping chambers. Sofu gestured for Mizu no ko to wait with him outside the servants’ room. Gādonā could be heard snoring on her sleeping mat through the door.

Sofu smiled warmly at the noise, then turned to his mistress, “Mizu no ko will continue to train Gādonā in the morning?”

Mizu no ko was in no mood for his guff. She barked, “Until I see fit.” Gādonā’s snoring ceased.

Sofu crossed his arms, “Gādonā is gardener to House Ryōshi, not a soldier.”

“She is sworn to my house, she will do and be what I say,” Mizu no ko’s sentiment was entrenched in her raw nerves.

“The honorable samurai wishes to torment the gardener,” Sofu countered.

“The honorable samurai wishes to make her strong,” mocked Mizu no ko.

“A fist does not make a person strong, Mizu no ko,” Sofu urged. “Serving this house as Gādonā was meant to will,” Sofu folded his hands before his gut in a pleading gesture.

Mizu no ko gesticulated violently, “Yes I can see that. Fulfilling their duties as cooks, students, and handymen clearly saved Kukku, Kōhai, Benri-ya, and all the others from their fate!”

Sofu bellowed, “It was your fault they died!” The samurai deflated immediately and, forgetting all sense of propriety, stared at the cook in stunned silence.

“Will that notion make Mizu no ko stronger? Does giving voice to the samurai’s deepest fear put an end to this mad endeavour?” Sofu’s voice cracked and quivered.

Mizu no ko’s hoarse reply did not come immediately, “They are dead Sofu, all dead and burnt.”

Sofu pushed on, “Mizu no ko is not responsible for the evils of the world, especially when Mizu no ko returned from the battlefields a day after they struck.”

“I am still responsible for you,” the samurai shook her head. “I wasn’t able to save the others or Gādonā’s eye,” she pinched the bridge of her nose to hide her eyes from him. Sofu sighed.

“I cannot change the past Sofu,” Mizu no ko studied the door to the servants’ room, “but I will do everything within my abilities to keep you both alive.” She took a stressed breath and finished, “even if it means losing your favor.”

Sofu rubbed his eyes wearily, “Is that what Mizu no ko wants? To be a samurai who makes soldiers out of geezers and gardeners?”

Mizu no ko laughed hoarsely, “What I want is justice. Justice against men I could never identify before the Shogun, because the only survivors refuse to speak of them,” Mizu no ko gestured between Sofu and Gādonā.

Sofu shook his head, “There is nothing to tell. It was a band of brigands, the likes of which we will not see again.” Mizu no ko nodded in a defeated manner. After a moment he spoke again, “Sleep Mizu no ko. Sofu and Gādonā will be here to look after their samurai for years to come.” Sofu bowed deeply to her.

Mizu no ko returned the bow and retired to her room. Once the door slide shut, she collapsed on her sleeping mat. Darkness took her then and she slept deeply.

In the middle of the night a cacophony of splintering wood, screams, and a thunderous crack startled Mizu no ko awake. In seconds she drew her katana from its stand and tore out of her room for Sofu and Gādonā. If those murdering brigands had returned, they would not have them. Sofu stumbled out with his daughter in his arms. Terrified, blood drained from both their faces. “Not again,” whispered Sofu.

“Get to the horses, ride to the palace,” ordered Mizu no ko. She turned and ran toward the terrible racket with murderous intent.

Nearing the source, the kitchen, the samurai silently came to a halt in the shadows of the hallway. Panicked male voices chattered in an unfamiliar language. Mizu no ko did her best to count the voices, carefully preparing a strategy for the impending ambush. Three voices, no five. Mizu no ko offered a quick prayer to her ancestors. She would have to strike fast and true. If she failed to kill even one of the enemies she encountered, they would outflank and kill her.

The samurai had no time to formulate a plan, for a tall golden-haired disheveled figure wielding a bow stumbled out into the hallway. Bright green cat eyes blazed in the darkness, spotting Mizu no ko’s crouching form. He produced an alarmed sound, but her throwing dagger found his shoulder before his arrow notched. Blood spurted out and he fell backward. Mizu no ko sprinted past him before he hit the ground.

The destroyed kitchen housed four panicked children, a stout creature with an enormous axe, an ancient man wielding a gnarled staff, and two male warriors. Severely outnumbered, Mizu no ko could only proceed on instinct. The warriors rushed her; one carried a shield, the other a long sword. She met them head on. A screech of steel on steel sounded as her katana met the long sword. It’s wielder bore down on her and the shield warrior circled to her right with the intent of bashing her. Mizu no ko took the opening to her left. She slammed her fist into the sword-wielder’s side, registering the crunch of his ribs, then rolled away with the aid of the shield bash. The strike numbed her right shoulder entirely. Mizu no ko kicked off a nearby fallen kitchen beam and rocketed back onto the shield-bearer. The long sword swung wildly as the man gasped for air, but he couldn’t avoid his shield companion smashing back into him. Both men fell to the ground. Mizu no ko leapt up and switched her katana from her right to her left hand. A booming voice sounded and a blinding flash of light sparked. Pain as Mizu no ko had never experienced struck her spine, vibrating through her whole body and sending her flying out of the kitchen to crash through the hallway wall. It was the ancestors who saved her from being impaled on her own katana. Paralyzed on the hallway floor, Mizu no ko could only watch the elder man close in on her. She made futile efforts to move, because of her audacity she failed to kill the intruders. She tried to take peace from the knowledge that Gādonā and Sofu had escaped on horseback. At least her death would serve that purpose.

“No,” came the anguished feminine cry from down the hallway. A warm and soft figure appeared, shielding her from the elder man. It hugged her close and smelled of earth.

More confusion as Sofu’s voice rang out, “Gādonā! Mizu no ko!”

Mizu no ko’s darkening view was of Sofu’s fat body shielding her and Gādonā from the elder man.

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