As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
“Che… What do I want with a stupid brat like that littering up the place? He’ll just be another mouth to feed.”
“Hah, think about it another way. An extra pair of hands to help you, make your work lighter. Not be sneezed at, as your bones grow older.”
“That shrimp? He doesn’t look like he could be much use.”
“Looks can be deceiving. Strong bones, this one.” A hand grips Zoro’s shoulder and hauls him forward into the lamplight, while keeping a tight grip on him. “Tough as a piece of bamboo. And he’ll grow like a bamboo shoot too, see if he doesn’t.”
“I don’t doubt he will, eating our food.” The wiry man with a twist of beard stares down at Zoro, with an expression of dislike. Zoro returns it with interest. “Bah, he looks like trouble to me. How come he’s yours to give away? His family didn’t want him?”
“No family. No trouble.” The man with his hand still firmly clenched on Zoro’s shoulder speaks confidently. “I’d put him to work myself, but I already have two apprentices and keeping them in line wears out my whipping arm.”
The bearded man grunts. “All right… I’ll take him.”
“A wise decision.” Zoro feels the hand that has been bruising his shoulder release, and shove him forward. “You’ll bless the day you favoured him with your charity. He’ll become a credit to you.”
The bearded man regards Zoro with a jaundiced eye. “He better.”
After the man whose name he has never known hands him over and leaves, Zoro and his new guardian stand for a moment and look at each other. There’s something in the man’s eyes that sends a quiver through Zoro’s stomach, but he keeps it out of his face. He’s already learned that showing fear never averts whatever misfortune might be on its way.
“Bah.” His guardian snorts with what sounds like disgust. “I must be going soft in the head…” He looks Zoro up and down. “That’s all you’ve got with you?” He gestures disparagingly at Zoro’s clothes, which are much-patched hand-me-downs; the scuffed boots that are too big for his feet. Zoro nods. “So I’ll have to clothe your worthless self, as well as feed you.” The man sounds annoyed at the prospect. “Well then: you’d better start earning your keep.”
He leads Zoro out into a back yard, cluttered with randomly stacked heaps of timber and oddments of junk, and points to a nearby well. “You can fill up the water barrel in the house. Spill any on the floor and I’ll take it out on your hide.”
It takes Zoro three goes to lift the well cover, which is heavy and almost as big as he is. The bucket on the rope is heavy too, so he can only fill it halfway and still raise it from the water twenty feet down. It takes him a while to fill the two other buckets that stand beside the well, before staggering with them to the house. His arms stretch under the weight of the water: he is only just tall enough to carry them without the buckets dragging on the ground.
Inside the house is dark and smells of woodsmoke and the sour tang of damp clothing drying. Zoro guesses the way to where the water barrel might be found and luckily is right, finding it in the corner of the main room. At the hearth in the centre his new guardian is sitting cross-legged, while a woman with hair twisted up into a bun leans over a steaming pot on the fire. She glances at him, before saying to the man, “So that’s him?”
His guardian grunts, slurping tea from a cup. “That’s him.”
The woman says nothing more, her face wary; her gaze on Zoro is assessing. It looks as though she is considering that her place at the bottom of the pecking order may just have shifted for the better.
Zoro takes the lid off the water barrel, before lifting one of the buckets. Getting it to the barrel’s rim, which is at his chest height, is almost more than he can manage. For one dreadful moment he feels the bucket start to tip the wrong way; but the man’s threat rings in his head and he wrestles the heavy burden back and manages to pour the water where it should be. The second one is easier now he’s got the hang of it; but he can tell from the sound of the water falling that the barrel is almost empty and it will take several more trips to fill it.
He trudges in and out from the yard with water, until his arms ache and his legs are shaking. When he has poured the last bucket in and water rocks gently just below the barrel’s rim, he replaces the lid and takes the empty buckets back to the well. That done, he returns to the room where the man and woman still sit by the hearth, eating breakfast. Zoro stands near the door and waits, not saying anything; but his eyes follow every mouthful.
After some time, the man glances up from shovelling rice porridge into his mouth and frowns at him. “Oi. Stop staring.”
Zoro looks down at the floor. After a moment, he hears the man grunt at the woman, “Give him what’s left.” Then raising his voice, he commands, “If you want to eat, come here and get it.”
Zoro is at the hearth and taking the bowl and spoon that the woman diffidently holds out to him before they can change their mind. He doesn’t sit near them, as the man’s sharply-jerked thumb indicates a spot on the floor at a distance which is evidently his rightful place. The bowl is nowhere near full and the okayu is the sticky scrapings from the bottom of the pot, but he eats it as rapidly as he can manage without drawing attention to himself. When he’s done he sits cross-legged with the empty bowl in his hands and waits for the next thing to happen.
At last the man lets out a mighty belch and stands up. Scratching his belly, he looks around: his eye falls on Zoro and he frowns, as if he’s only just remembered the boy is there. “Ehh…” He points at the door. “Outside.”
The man leads the way across the yard to a small barn behind the house. Like the house itself it’s not in good repair: the thatched roof is mouldering and the timbers are cracked. Zoro follows the man into the gloom inside, where the smell of hay and animals fills the air. The man stops and points to a rickety wooden ladder leading up to a hayloft. “You sleep up there.”
Zoro eyes the ladder. He’s slept in worse places recently. And at least sleeping in the barn will have the advantage of being further away from the house, where the man who already doesn’t like him and the woman who doesn’t care will be.
A cuff on the back of his head makes him stagger forward a couple of paces. “Rukodenashi! Where’s your gratitude?”
Zoro knows how to deal with this. He ducks his head and says, “Thank you, onjin-san.”
His guardian narrows his eyes at him. “Better work on your manners, brat. Or I’ll work on them for you.”
Zoro swallows. The back of his head feels warm from the slap: his new guardian has a hard hand. He doesn’t know what to answer that is safe, so elects to stay silent. The man looks at him for a while longer… before pointing at one end of the barn. “You’ll fetch firewood, every morning. There’s an axe and a rope down there. If we run out in the house because you’ve been idle, I’ll warm myself up by warming you up. Understand?”
Zoro nods. He understands. He follows his guardian as the man takes him about the place, pointing out all the chores that will be Zoro’s from now on: fetching wood and water, feeding the chickens, weeding the untidy vegetable patch, sweeping the floors. It’s a seemingly endless list and Zoro suspects that from the start he will never quite be able to do everything he’s supposed to, which means trouble. Trouble however is something he’s getting used to. He supposes there must have been a time when things were not this way, but he can’t clearly remember it. Nor does he want to. He’s long given up on wishing things were other than they are. His new life here looks like being an unpromising one, but that at least has a familiarity that while not comforting, at least is something known he can deal with.
He settles into his new home quickly, with the sting of his guardian’s blows to help him. Neither he nor the woman ever ask Zoro his name. Early on the man takes to addressing him by flinging out a single word: kudaranai. Worthless. Sensing that Zoro doesn’t like it, his guardian takes pleasure in summoning him peremptorily with the name; uses it in front of others, so that before too long even the other children in the village take their cue from the adults and Zoro is kudaranai to all and sundry.
About the village children, Zoro could care less. He regards them as a bunch of dumb brats anyway: what do they know about the realities of life? He pretends a deaf ear to the name-calling until it gets really annoying, when he gets some satisfaction from retaliating on the nearest of his tormentors and pounding his face into the dirt until he’s grabbed and dragged off by the boy’s father. What follows with his guardian soon afterwards is a lot worse than he’d expected, and after that Zoro learns to take any name-calling from the other kids with nothing but a stony-faced expression.
Kudaranai isn’t the worst thing he’s ever been called, or at least he tries telling himself that. His own name dwindles within him, like a candle flame shrinking for want of air. Sometimes at night he whispers it aloud, in the hay-smelling darkness. He’s not sure why he does this, except it feels comforting. As if by saying it, he can stop some small part of himself from disappearing.
The months go by, and the years. Despite the scanty meals he grows, though not much. Now he can lift the well bucket when it’s full, and carry three bundles of firewood at a time back from the forest. Every day is pretty much the same, with only the changing seasons to bring variety. Zoro personally likes spring the best, because it finally gets warm enough that he can fall asleep without shivering for a couple of hours. Summer is hot and miserable, with a seemingly unending array of back-breaking tasks looking after the few crops that grow in the small patch of land adjoining his guardian’s house. Autumn is usually wet, and his boots always have holes in the soles; and winter is bitingly cold.
His guardian’s sour temper and the daily monotony of village life make for time passing slowly. Sometimes Zoro’s not sure whether the boredom is worse than the beatings, but either way he finds a slow core of miserable anger building up deep inside him. Sometimes when the man is taking out his resentments with his hands Zoro fantasizes about being able to magically grow big and strong and turn the tables. His own still too-small hands clench into fists and shake, but that’s as far as it goes, magic apparently being in short supply. If his guardian notices the stormy weather on his face, Zoro generally gets an extra few licks for insolence; so he tries harder to keep the anger hidden within.
One late spring morning Zoro is running an errand in the village, returning a tool his guardian borrowed from a fellow villager, when he notices a small crowd gathering around the village’s only inn. A quick survey shows that his guardian is not amongst the people there, so Zoro seizes the chance to find out what potentially interesting thing has drawn the dozen or so villagers together.
Sometimes being small has advantages: he worms his way between the adult bodies, receiving only a light swipe on the ear and a couple of curses, before finding himself at the front. The sight that greets him is a man, sitting on the bench that stands outside the inn’s front door. He’s drinking heartily from a mug of ale and exchanging pleasantries with the people nearest him; he’s big and broad-shouldered and he occupies the bench with a lazy self-assurance that suggests that although he’s a stranger in town, he’s not in the least bothered about what people think of him. But what really fixes Zoro’s attention are the two things about the man that are both intimidating and exciting. There is a deep ridged scar on the man’s face, running the length of his cheek down to his jaw. And at his left hip, hanging from his belt, is a katana in an ebony black lacquered saya, polished so that the spring sunshine gleams along its length.
The swordsman lets out a laugh at something one of the villagers has said, his head throwing back. It’s a loud laugh, and Zoro likes it. In fact, everything about the swordsman is somehow… loud, or confident, or larger than life. Amongst the villagers, who mostly live on short commons and wear out quickly after a life of toil, the swordsman looks like some exotic mythical creature: a glossy-feathered crowing cockerel in a yard full of scrawny bantams.
The swordsman takes a big pull at his mug of ale, before his eyes falls on Zoro, standing at the front and studying him closely. He meets Zoro’s gaze, before giving him a wink. “Shut your mouth, chibi, or you’ll catch flies.”
Zoro shuts it with a snap, before giving the swordsman a frown: the nearest he can manage to outright defiance, because even if this glamorous stranger is the most exciting thing to have happened in the village since Zoro has lived there, he still doesn’t like being mocked.
The swordsman chuckles, before taking another swallow of ale. Then he turns as a villager asks him a flurry of almost-polite questions that barely conceal the burning curiosity that everyone has about the outsider: Where has the swordsman come from, How long is he staying, Where is he going? To which the swordsman grins and merely says he’s just travelling through, and that as the ale here is good he’ll favour them with his company and stay the night at the inn. Which even Zoro can tell is a fairly unsubtle way of ensuring that he’ll be bought free drinks all night, as long as his traveller’s tales keep coming.
The villagers seem pleased by this. It’s been a long cold dull winter and any traveller passing through is always a welcome source of news and entertainment, so buying the swordsman a few beers as encouragement would be a fair bargain. Although Zoro, watching the way the big swordsman downs his mug of ale, suspects that perhaps the villagers are in for a more expensive night then they bargained for.
Zoro is pleased as well. He makes up his mind then and there that he will hear the swordsman’s tales too, although that will mean sneaking out at night to the inn which if he’s caught will lead to all kinds of unpleasantness. He weighs the risk for perhaps half a second before he decides it’s worth it. Travellers don’t come through the village very often, and there’s something about the swordsman that draws him like a moth to a lantern.
For now though he’s already late returning from his errand. So with a final glance at the swordsman – who, wearing a broad and lazy grin, is now accepting another mug of ale from a villager – Zoro burrows back through the crowd and runs all the way back home.
He arrives out of breath and grimy from a slip at the muddy corner at the foot of the hill where he lives. Stealing back into the yard he manages to appear from around the corner of the barn as though he’d been behind it all along, earning only a quick glance from his guardian who is mending the hen house door. “Where’ve you been?”
The man knows he’s been to the village to return the tool, because he sent him the best part of an hour ago. But Zoro knows he needs a convincing answer to account for the extra time he spent investigating the swordsman outside the inn, so he settles for something that will hopefully produce the least inquiry. “In the privy. I had a belly ache.”
His guardian makes a sound of disgust. “The amount of food you devour, little surprise.” He sends a nail driving into the wood of the doorframe with a single blow. Though not much to look at, he has surprisingly strong hands and arms. Zoro knows this from first-hand experience.
The woman comes out into the yard with a dish of scraps for the chickens, and spots Zoro standing there. More specifically, she notices the mud on his clothes. “Ah!” She strides over and grabs Zoro by the arm, giving him a shake. “What is this! Do you think I have nothing better to do than wash laundry?”
Zoro lets himself be shaken, on the theory that it may avoid further trouble. Unfortunately his guardian decides to get involved as well. Setting down his hammer, the man comes out of the chicken pen and glares down at Zoro. “Were you fighting in the village?”
Zoro shakes his head vehemently. “No, onjin-san.”
His guardian narrows his eyes. “Then what happened to your clothes?”
“I fell down.”
“Baka!” The man’s hand slaps across the side of his head. “You’re a fool as well as lazy. This wife of mine can barely keep this house halfway tidy as it is, without you making extra work for her.” By saying this he manages to criticise his wife, while simultaneously putting Zoro in the wrong for the offence of crossing her. It’s a skill that the man has always managed well, putting them both in relative positions of lesser and greater sinners. Zoro is usually the worst sinner, however: this seldom varies. His cheek burning from the slap, he lowers his head and waits in silence for the next move. Saying anything at this point is unlikely to help.
After a pause, the man speaks again. “Kudaranai…” The familiar growled insult is intended to catch Zoro’s attention, so he looks up, because to not respond to his given nickname will definitely mean another slap across the face. His guardian jerks his thumb towards the well. “More washing means more water, and wood to heat it. Get busy.”
Zoro moves quickly to do as he’s been told, happy to have got off so lightly. It must be a lucky day: perhaps his guardian is more irritated with his wife than with Zoro. That sometimes happens, though not often.
All through the long day as he goes about his chores, Zoro’s thoughts keep going back to the scar-faced swordsman. He has plenty of time to think of a plan for tonight; although in the end, it’s a simple one. Wait until dark, then slip out of the barn and sneak back up to the village and into the inn. He’s pretty sure he’ll be safe enough, because although his guardian likes to drink he’s too mean to treat others, so he doesn’t go to the inn except for the occasional village celebration of some festival or other.
It’s dark when he finally clambers down from the hayloft and tiptoes across the yard. The gate creaks as he opens it and for a frightening minute he thinks it will wake the chickens who will then sound the alarm. But luck is with him and there are only a few creaky clucks from the shut-up hen house, which quickly subside. Zoro holds his breath as he shuts the gate behind him, then runs up the muddy track that leads to the rest of the village.
When he reaches the inn, warm light glows from its windows and door, and there’s the sound of loud voices and laughter. Going in the entrance would likely lead to some adult stopping him, but Zoro knows that round the back there’s a place where the men go to piss and a door that leads into the inn from there. He steps lightly between the trees and waits while one man stands directing a seemingly endless stream into the bushes; then follows behind as the man re-enters the inn by the back door. No-one notices Zoro as he slips inside in the crowd, but he’s careful to keep to the shadows as he threads his way through the tables of laughing, drinking men.
The inn is an old building, its beams stained with years of smoke, and there’s a smell of spilled ale and unwashed men. But it’s warm in there and almost cheerful with lanterns, and no-one seems remotely interested in Zoro as he steps carefully amongst the drinking crowd, so after a little while he relaxes a bit. He’s looking around and wondering where the swordsman might be, when he suddenly hears that booming, confident laugh. There’s a knot of men clustered around a couple of tables pushed together and Zoro tries to wriggle his way through in the direction the laugh came from, but it’s packed pretty tight and all he succeeds in doing is receiving a blurry stare and a swipe from one man whose ribs he jostles.
Zoro falls back for a moment to consider his position. Looking around then down he realises that although the villagers are packed in closely, once you get down to floor level there are gaps between legs that are definitely fittable through. He grins and heads in again, crawling between table legs and knees and listening to try to judge what direction he needs to aim for. When he hears the swordsman’s hearty voice almost overhead, Zoro decides to risk surfacing for a look, using the corner of a table to pull himself up so that his head rises up over its edge. Unfortunately his reckoning has been slightly too eager, and what he finds himself face to face with is the swordsman himself, pausing with his mug of ale half-lifted to his mouth with an expression of surprise as Zoro emerges from under the table like a demon from the underworld.
There is a moment’s lull in the noise around the table, as every man there stares at Zoro as if they’d never seen a boy before. Zoro looks around and goes hot and cold: it now occurs to him that children do not as a rule go to the inn, and the looks he’s getting from some of the men are by no means friendly. For want of a better plan he looks behind him, instinctively seeking escape… but of course that is where the swordsman sits, and the big scarred face is close to his, the dark eyes taking him in with a slight frown.
All of a sudden his great adventure seems like the worst idea Zoro has ever had. He meets the dark frowning gaze and swallows hard. The swordsman sets his mug of ale down on the table with a heavy thump, before reaching out. Zoro feels the edge of the table hard against his spine as he backs up, he’s got nowhere to go and his stomach tips with panic because the swordsman’s fists are a lot bigger than his guardian’s. One of them closes on Zoro’s shirt.
“Oi…” The swordsman’s voice rumbles low in his chest. “Where did you spring from, boy?”
Zoro’s mind is almost blank. The only thing he can think of to say is the truth. “Under the table.”
The swordsman regards him narrowly for a moment… And then the unthinkable happens. The fist holding Zoro’s shirt clenches, and then Zoro feels himself suddenly swung up and sideways and he is sitting on the bench beside the swordsman, wedged in between him and one of the villagers. The swordsman lets go of his shirt and lets out a chuckle, which quickly becomes a laugh. “Well, of course!” He laughs again, and thankfully most of the men around the table join in. The swordsman picks up his ale again, and takes a drink, before grinning sideways at Zoro. “Join us, mysterious traveller from the underworld.”
Zoro isn’t quite sure if he’s being mocked, but at least he isn’t being hit, and that is always heartening. He feels his heart slow a little from the furious preparation for flight it was beating out a few seconds before. He’s slightly squashed between the muscled bulk of the swordsman and the somewhat hefty villager on his other side, but it’s bearable and by shifting in careful increments he manages to find a niche where he can at least breathe and take in what’s going on around him.
The swordsman is resuming a tale which was evidently interrupted mid-flow by Zoro’s appearance. It’s somewhat confusing coming in halfway through, something about a farmer and his wife, or about a farmer’s wife at least, and judging by the amount of sniggering and knowing looks on the villagers’ faces the tale features the smutty stuff that adults seem to lap up. Zoro’s not particularly interested, but when the swordsman starts a new tale about a sword fight he won against bandits while travelling in the mountains it’s a different matter. Zoro listens until he forgets where he is. So much so that he winds up with both elbows planted on the table, gazing at the swordsman steadily in case he misses a word of it.
When the tale concludes, to general acclamation around the table, the swordsman picks up his mug and peers into it with a look of surprise. “Ah, I’m dry… All that talking, works up a thirst.”
Several villagers offer to buy him a refill: two men almost squabble over who will get the honour of treating their glamorous guest. Within a short time the mug is back filled to the brim; the swordsman salutes his entourage and declares cheerfully, “A little break to wet my throat, and then I’ll tell you how I took down the notorious horse thief of the northern plains.” There’s a general sound of approval, and everyone falls to drinking.
The swordsman picks up his own mug and downs a gulp, before turning and regarding Zoro cheerfully. “Not drinking, young traveller from the underworld?”
Zoro looks at him carefully. He’s pretty sure that only adults are allowed booze, and frankly the effects he’s seen it have on them haven’t been much of an inducement to try it. He opts for a shrug, a convenient catch-all response. The swordsman grins at his shrug, before pushing his mug across the table towards him. “Go on, wet your whistle. It’ll put hairs on your chest.”
Zoro looks at the swordsman, then at the mug, before cautiously reaching out and picking it up. It’s heavy enough that he needs both hands to bring it up to his lips, where he hesitates before taking a large gulp, assuming that this is how it should be drunk. It tastes almost as awful as the herbal medicine he gets dosed with when he’s ill enough not to be able to do his chores, and he swallows it with an effort. Setting the mug back down on the table he pushes it back to the swordsman, who chuckles at the expression on his face. “First time, eh? Don’t worry, once you get a taste for it it’s not so bad.”
Zoro is certain he won’t ever be getting a taste for it. It’s a mystery how adults not only drink the sour stuff, but actually seem to enjoy drinking it.
“Oi, hold still.” The swordsman reaches out with his thumb, and before Zoro can duck back the man swipes off the moustache of foam the ale has left on the boy’s upper lip. “That’s better. Give it a few years and you can grow your own face fungus and strain your ale through it.” He takes a drink of ale himself. “So, traveller from the underworld: do you have any tales to share of your adventures in the nether regions?”
Zoro shakes his head. The swordsman smiles. “A pity. Then it looks like I’ll have to earn the beer for the both of us.” And with that he gives a wink, before raising his voice and announcing that he’s ready to start his next tale, which draws a round of ragged cheers.
Zoro finds himself settling in quite comfortably to his situation. The inn is bright with lamplight and the villagers are mostly cheerful, growing more so as the night wears on. Wedged between two bodies Zoro is warm, and the swordsman’s tales keep coming. So does the ale, and as the swordsman takes to offering Zoro a sip from every mugful, pretty soon Zoro has revised his opinion of alcohol. It still doesn’t taste exactly pleasant, but it becomes less objectionable. He finds that he’s starting to feel pleasantly unworried about anything, and sometimes even laughs out loud along with the swordsman at his jokes. As the hours slide by he finds himself stealing mouthfuls of the swordsman’s ale when he’s not looking. Or at least, so he thinks; until he catches the man giving him a quick sidelong glance, which makes Zoro freeze with his fingers clutching the sides of the mug… whereupon the swordsman gives him a wink. “Oi, little drunkard. Take it steady.”
Much later still, and Zoro finds himself sliding back onto the floor under the table, because he now feels too hot to stay jammed between the two men on the bench and for some reason the idea of lying on the floor and taking a little nap seems like a good one. He uses the swordsman’s feet as a pillow, and lets the rumble of voices and laughter above him lull him to sleep.
He’s not sure how much later it is when he wakes up. His eyes are still shut but the voices above him come back into distinct awareness, and he feels a gentle nudge from the swordsman’s foot. Zoro blinks up at the underside of the table above him: then a voice that he knows all too well brings him sitting up with his heart starting to hammer.
“…Seen that little no-good in here?” His guardian sounds angry, not that he often sounds anything else. Zoro hears a few hesitant replies, and realises it’s only a matter of moments before someone rats on him. Scrambling to his knees he crawls hastily towards where the table ends: maybe he can slip between the forest of legs and be off before he gets spotted. Once he’s out however he only gets a few inches before a hand fists in his hair and drags him to his feet, then his guardian transfers his grip more securely to Zoro’s shirt and shakes him until his teeth rattle. “I thought so! Rukodenashi - thought you could sneak out and I wouldn’t notice, eh?”
Zoro doesn’t answer, not least because the shaking is doing horrible things to his stomach. Even when it stops the inn keeps rocking around him. He has a moment’s awful realisation that a bad situation is about to become immeasurably worse, before his guts heave and he noisily throws up over his guardian’s trousers.
Ale as it turns out tastes even worse coming up than it did going down, so Zoro is pretty occupied for a little while. When he manages to draw breath he becomes aware of two things. The pleasant unworried feeling has definitely disappeared. And he is in deep shit.
The hand on his shirt tightens, before his guardian pulls him upright. Zoro gets one quick look at the disbelieving rage in the man’s eyes – before a closed fist slams into his face, knocking him down hard onto the floor. It hurts quite a lot, and when Zoro opens his eyes and sits up he can taste salt in his mouth and there’s something trickling down his chin. He puts his hand up to his mouth and it stings; then a foot steps close beside him and he looks up wide-eyed into the furious eyes of his guardian. The man looks angrier than Zoro’s ever seen him, and he reaches down and yanks Zoro to his feet as if the boy is a small-boned chicken that he’s planning to wring the neck of.
Zoro never cries out any more when he’s beaten, but as he’s shaken and hit hard a second time he can’t hold in the gasp of air. His head is ringing and he feels a dreadful need to escape, but the fist clenched on his shoulder is far too tight and anyway his legs won’t hold him up. He shuts his eyes and grits his teeth, waiting for a third blow – but it doesn’t come. Instead, a loud voice speaks clearly through the murmuring that has risen. “Oi. The kid’s had enough.”
Zoro feels the world pause. He risks opening his eyes. His guardian is looking away, across the table to where the swordsman is watching them both. The big man is smiling, but it’s a smile that doesn’t go anywhere near his eyes. One finger is tapping the table slowly: it’s not a threatening gesture, but nonetheless there is something warning about it.
His guardian lowers his fist, but keeps hold of Zoro’s shoulder. “Mind your own business.”
The swordsman smiles wider, a grin showing his teeth. “Want me to make it my business?” He lets the silence stretch a moment, before continuing. “Me and my friends here are trying to enjoy a relaxing drink. You’re disturbing us.”
Zoro sees his guardian consider his options. After a few moments of thinking, he decides to choose retreat. “Bah…” He turns away and shoulders his way out through the crowd, dragging Zoro with him.
The walk home in the dark goes quickly, anger being an efficient driving force. His guardian keeps his hand fisted in Zoro’s shirt all the way: when the boy stumbles, he’s yanked up and hauled onwards before he touches the ground.
There’s a full moon breaking through clouds: Zoro doesn’t remember seeing it earlier when he set out to the inn. It’s the last thing he sees before the man shoves him into the barn and takes down the bamboo cane he uses for driving the ox that ploughs the small field behind the house.
Full moon, full moon. Its silver disc hangs behind Zoro’s tightly closed eyelids as he takes what’s coming to him. Clouds drift dark across its shining face and he falls into the night.
He thinks the only thing that stops the man at last is that he doesn’t want the trouble of fetching his own wood and water tomorrow.
Zoro can’t remember if he climbed up to the hayloft, or if he was put there. Sometime in the deepest part of the night he wakes and moonlight is pushing cold grey fingers through the cracks in the barn wall. The hay is soft underneath his face, a contrast to the fire elsewhere. He shuts his eyes again and makes the moonlight go away. He thinks, or he thinks he dreams, of the warmth and the golden lamplight in the inn. The swordsman’s easy laugh. His knowing wink at Zoro’s attempted sleight of hand on his mug of ale.
The cockcrow wakes him just before dawn. Zoro tries to roll over before he remembers, then curls up still for a moment, breathing hard. After a minute or so he’s able to sit up, using his arms to lever himself upright in the hay.
Every bit of him hurts. His back and shoulders from the whipping with the cane: his face from slaps and punches; his ribs and legs from being forcibly dragged back home. He’s stiff and cold and his stomach feels queasy, but before he has time to think about it he is crawling to the edge of the hayloft and clambering down the ladder.
This time when he creeps out the gate there is a heedless recklessness about it. To be doing this again is beyond stupid, if he’s caught this time he doesn’t doubt he will get an even worse beating. But the miserable cold core of fury in his chest makes him not care, even as his hands tremble as he softly shuts the gate.
Walking as it turns out is a good thing: it warms him up and eases the stiffness, although his shirt rubs against his back enough to set his teeth on edge. When he reaches the village square and takes up a vantage point tucked behind a tree where he can watch the inn door, he hopes he won’t have to wait long.
His patience is rewarded. It’s been light only a little while before the inn door opens, and the swordsman emerges, shutting it quietly behind him. He pauses and gives a stretch, letting out a loud yawn; ruffles a hand through his short-cropped hair; then settles his travelling pack more firmly on his shoulders, before turning and walking away towards the road that leads out of the village. His strides are big ones and Zoro has almost to run to keep up, dodging from tree to wall to bush, following sources of cover as they go further from the inn and the houses start to thin out.
At last the houses stop altogether and they are on the open road. There’s an old crumbling stone wall flanking the road here: a relic of some long-fallen country estate, badly maintained and much-pillaged by villagers as a source of building material. It offers enough cover for Zoro to keep hidden behind however, as he shadows the swordsman’s progress. When the big man has been walking for the best part of half an hour he looks around; steps right up to the wall and sits down on it with a sigh. Shrugging off his pack, he reaches into a pocket and pulls out a clay pipe, which he stuffs with tobacco. Zoro hears the rasp of a match struck against stone; smells the warm wisp of smoke. He’s crouched down at the foot of the wall, a few yards away from the swordsman, who has his back towards him. The swordsman seems to be regarding the valley, inhaling easily on his pipe. As the man smokes Zoro slowly lets himself relax, until the sound of the swordsman’s voice suddenly reaches him.
“Oi. Show yourself. It’s not polite to sneak up on a man like a bandit.”
Zoro’s heart thuds: for a moment he freezes, hugging his knees.
The swordsman takes out his pipe and speaks again, smoke clouding his words. “Come on. I’m not partial to conversing with people I can’t see.”
Slowly getting to his feet, Zoro takes a step away from the wall. The swordsman turns his head just a little, but doesn’t look around. “Here, round on the road. You come at a man from behind and you’re asking for trouble.”
Trouble is something Zoro definitely doesn’t want any more of. He sets his foot on the crumbling stones and carefully clambers up onto the wall and over, before sliding down the other side. Doing this jars all the hurts singing around his body so that he has to clench his teeth: he straightens up and takes two steps forward, stopping in front of the swordsman just beyond the man’s furthest reach.
The swordsman regards him, taking a last few puffs on his pipe. Then he takes it out of his mouth; taps out the ashes, and replaces the pipe in an inner pocket. That done, he nods at Zoro. “So, it’s my friend from the underworld. Good morning, little drunkard.”
Zoro says nothing to this. The swordsman raises an eyebrow. “Not a good morning, then? That’s the problem with drinking. The morning after… That’s why I came out here at daybreak. When I’ve a head on me after too much ale, I’d rather have my first smoke of the day without having to listen to people yammering at me.”
When Zoro still stays silent, the big man sighs. “Oi… Of course, there’s such a thing as being too quiet.” He leans back on the wall, long legs stretched down to the road and crossed at the ankles. “What do they call you, little drunkard?”
“Kudaranai.” The answer comes automatically. It’s what the swordsman asked, after all: it’s what people call him.
“ ‘Worthless’ ?” The swordsman frowns. “What kind of a name is that?”
Zoro shrugs, as if it’s no business of his what people call him.
The swordsman regards him steadily for a moment. When he speaks again, his voice is different. Quieter. “I’ll rephrase my question. What do you call yourself?”
“Roronoa Zoro.” It sounds almost strange, to say it out loud in front of another person.
“Roronoa Zoro.” The swordsman nods seriously. “That’s a good strong name.”
Strong name? The idea is a surprising one. Zoro finds he wants to study it, and locks it away inside himself for future consideration.
“So, Roronoa Zoro.” The swordsman folds his arms and looks him up and down. “It appears that you’ve been in a little trouble.”
Zoro feels the blood rise into his face at that, the familiar burn of shame that comes with being recognised as the good-for-nothing he’s constantly reminded that he is. As always, the feeling makes him simultaneously want to hit out, and simply cease to be. He falls back on his usual defence, of reckless denial. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh?” The swordsman regards him consideringly. “Someone did, by the looks of it.”
Zoro is suddenly reminded of the bruises on his face, his split and swollen lip; remembers that the swordsman was after all there in the inn, when Zoro’s guardian set about him. He scowls, humiliated by the memory and unable to deny the evidence, but not willing to admit it. When his silence persists, the swordsman chuckles. “If looks could kill…” He tips his head on one side a little, nodding at the wall beside him. “Oi. Sit down.”
Zoro does so, because he’s used to doing what adults tell him, especially adults who look like they can use their fists. But he keeps his hands braced on the top of the wall either side of himself, in case he needs to make a quick escape: because the other thing he’s used to is dodging out the way when he sees trouble coming.
The swordsman however doesn’t seem interested in picking a fight. He opens his travelling pack, pulling out a wrapped bundle. Unfolding the bundle, he produces two rice balls, slightly squashed from being carried about. He takes a bite from one, then holds the second out to Zoro. Who stares first at it, then at the swordsman, suspiciously.
“Go on.” The swordsman gestures towards him with the rice ball. “I don’t know about you, but when I’ve had a night’s drinking, I always feel better the following morning for a proper breakfast.”
Zoro’s stomach reminds him that it’s been a long time since he last put anything in it. Cautiously he reaches out and takes the rice ball, before cramming half of it into his mouth in one go. It’s tasty and he’s so distracted by how good it feels that he has devoured all of it and is licking his fingers before he remembers to look up at the swordsman. Who is now regarding him with an expression that is half-appalled, half-impressed. “Eh… Quite an appetite you’ve got there, chichikurin.” And he takes another bite of his own rice ball.
Zoro isn’t sure if he’s done something wrong, but he’s swallowed the rice ball now so at least there’s no chance it can be taken back. He just stares back at the swordsman and tightens his grip on the wall, ready to run if the need arises.
However, the swordsman simply takes his time finishing his own food, before brushing his hands together and folding away the cloth which the rice balls had been wrapped in. That done, he turns his attention back onto the boy beside him. “Now then. That bandy-legged goat who nabbed you in the inn last night. That your father?”
Zoro shakes his head, grinning inwardly at the thought of his guardian being a goat. It hadn’t occurred to him before, but the swordsman is exactly right: his guardian’s narrow eyes and wispy beard do give him a goat-like look. It’s a sweet thought to be enjoyed some other time.
“Not your father?” The swordsman frowns at him. “Then where does he get off knocking you about like that?” Zoro shrugs, and the swordsman clucks his tongue with annoyance. “Tchh, fit your lazy tongue around some words, chibi. I’m doing all the work here. Who is he, if he’s not your old man? Your uncle?”
“No.” Zoro isn’t going to suffer being related to his guardian in any way, shape or form. “I live at his house. He’s my guardian.”
“Guardian, is it?” The swordsman folds his arms, one finger tapping slowly. “Where’s your family, then?”
Zoro shrugs again: he can’t help it, he’s never found the memories or the words for that and he’s pretty sure he never will.
The swordsman studies him a moment longer… before giving a nod. “So that’s the way of it. Well, no help for it, then. Sometimes we get stuck with the shitty end of the stick, ne?”
Zoro’s eyes widen slightly at this grown-up frankness, but he’s quite enjoying the swordsman’s apparently relaxed attitude towards cursing. He himself has a growing store of curse words which he often silently imagines himself yelling at his guardian. Not that he’d ever actually do it, because he’s not stupid enough to earn himself an extra kicking.
“But you know what, Roronoa Zoro?” The use of his name holds him. “Just because you wind up being under another man’s thumb, doesn’t mean you have to lie down under it.”
Zoro isn’t quite sure what this means and it must show on his face, because the swordsman shakes his head impatiently. “So you’ve got a miserable old goat for a guardian, who’s a bit too handy with his fists. That doesn’t mean you let him get in here.” He reaches out and Zoro jerks back instantly, jumping to his feet and ready to run. The swordsman halts his hand, spreading it in an open palm towards Zoro: a peace-making gesture. “Easy, chichikurin. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Somehow Zoro knows that’s true: normally adults are simply slaps and kicks waiting to happen, but the swordsman’s eyes lack that restless desire to hurt that is the thing Zoro’s most familiar with. Heart thumping, he stays standing where he is: not wanting to sit down but too curious to run.
The swordsman gives him a smile, before slowly curling his hand, leaving just the index finger extended. Still smiling, he lifts it and very gently taps Zoro on the forehead. “In here.” The calloused hand drops down, finger still extended, and taps again, this time on Zoro’s chest. Above his heart. “And in here.”
Zoro waits, feeling the pressure of the swordsman’s finger resting on his chest. He doesn’t altogether understand, but he’d like to. The swordsman sees the uncertainty in his eyes, and takes his hand away. “All right. Listen up.” His expression becomes one of all seriousness. “There’s two kinds of people in this life, Roronoa Zoro. Those who fight, and those who don’t.”
That’s it? Zoro feels disappointed. Like he needed telling that his life was one big fight. The swordsman sees his look of let-down, and grins, but grimly, the scar down the side of his face pulling it crooked. “Ah, you don’t get it. People come in all sorts, you’ll find that out as you grow. There are crooks and heroes and tricky bastards and saints and sinners, and sometimes all in the same man. But what gets you through – what keeps the bastards out of here and here - ” he taps his own forehead and chest “ – is being strong. Fighting back. When they push, you push back. When they knock you down, get right back up. Don’t be like them, ruled by fear. Face fear: shove your way through it. That’s the only way.”
Zoro blinks. There’s a curious feeling in his chest, a bit like something is opening up in there. It’s good and at the same time makes him want to be sick, so he’s not entirely sure whether he wants to let it happen.
The swordsman watches him and sees the something is happening, whether Zoro wants it to or not. He gives a nod. “Good. Remember that, Roronoa Zoro. And the next time someone asks you your name, tell them it. None of this ‘kudaranai’ bullshit. That’s not you. That’s your old goat of a guardian. He only gave you that to carry around to make himself feel bigger. So fuck him: stand up for yourself. Don’t give him space in your head and heart. There’ll be plenty of people come along later in your life you can let in there: for now, it’s yours to be in.”
Zoro considers this for a long moment. The swordsman gives him time to adjust his world view, one corner of his mouth still hiked up in that fierce but somehow unthreatening smile. When almost a minute has passed, Zoro meets the swordsman’s gaze – and gives a single, definite nod.
“Okay.” The swordsman’s rumbling voice sounds pleased. “Now we’re making progress.” He settles back more comfortably on the wall. As he does so his katana catches on the stones, and with an easy movement he takes it from his belt and props the sword, still in its shining black saya, against the wall. Zoro’s eyes follow it, and the swordsman notices. “Want a closer look?” Zoro nods. The swordsman picks up the katana and draws it smoothly from its saya, holding it up in front of himself. “Mayonaka.”
Midnight. It’s a good name. The katana’s handle is black, like its saya. As the swordsman angles it slightly, the spring sunshine runs along its blade and Zoro sees the metal is not just silver but blue-white and slate grey. Patterns dance in the blade, like sharp waves just under the surface. He stares at them, his gaze growing wide-eyed as he looks the katana up and down.
The swordsman brings the sword down to horizontal, and points to the place on the blade where the pale silver and the darker colours meet. “See that? That’s the hamon, the temper line from when the sword was forged. You want a good sword, you look for a nice bright hamon.” He turns the katana slightly in the sunlight again and it flashes. “Every sword is different. Like people. I could recognise Mayonaka from a thousand others.” His finger traces along the silvery waves. “Gunome midare. Out of all the swords I’ve carried so far, Mayonaka is the best.”
Zoro watches the light dance along the katana. As it shifts, the silvery waves become moonlit clouds, bright against the night sky of the steel. For a moment he remembers seeing the full moon the night before and holding it behind his eyelids, bright against the dark.
His hand goes out before he can prevent it. He wants to touch the sword so much it draws him like falling. Just in time he catches himself and stops, clenching his hand into a fist. His eyes flick up to the swordsman’s face.
The man regards him for a moment, his gaze thoughtful… Then he opens his right hand, sliding it under the katana’s hilt. Gives Zoro a nod. “You want to hold it? Go ahead. But be careful, eh?”
Zoro’s eyes widen still more. He looks down at the katana, taking a breath… Before reaching out with his left hand and closing his fingers around the hilt.
“Oho, a southpaw?” The swordsman grins.
Zoro looks up at him again, unsure. Using his left hand instead of his right for doing things has been one of the sins that his guardian has often tried to forcibly correct, with the result that Zoro can now do pretty much anything with either hand… But when he doesn’t think about it, or when no-one is looking, it’s his left that he always uses. He makes as if to take his hand away, but the swordsman gives him an encouraging nod. “That’s a handy thing in a fight. Easier to take most people by surprise.”
Thus encouraged, Zoro closes his fingers again and grips the hilt of the sword. As soon as he starts to lift it he becomes aware of the weight pulling against his wrist and arm, but after years of non-stop chores Zoro isn’t bothered by having to put in a little effort. He tightens his grip and brings the sword carefully up to vertical, the blade lifting off the swordsman’s supporting hands more or less smoothly. And then he’s holding it: the sunlight catching the patterns on the katana’s blade as he turns it a little.
“That’s good. But don’t grip it so tight.” The swordsman gives Zoro’s fingers an appraising look, tilting his head slightly. “You want to be able to control a sword, but be able to move it, too. If you hold it with all your strength, it’s fixed. You need to be able to swing it, change positions quickly.” He runs his eye up Zoro’s arm to his shoulder. “A good fighter has to be strong all over, but quick too.”
Zoro listens hard to the swordsman’s instructions, frowning in concentration as he slackens the grip of his fingers just ever so slightly. He tilts his hand, trying to angle the katana sideways as the swordsman did – and all at once the weight is too much. His hand shakes and his fingers clench, making him gasp – but the swordsman’s hand is already there supporting his wrist, adding his strength. “Easy does it, Roronoa Zoro. It’s quite a length of steel to be swinging around when you’re not used to it.” His voice holds no hint of reproval, though. He gives Zoro a reassuring grin, before tapping the boy’s hand gently with one finger to signal him to yield up the weapon. “I’ve got it.”
Zoro opens his fingers and lets the katana be lifted away. His eyes follow it, as the swordsman slides the blade back into its saya and props it back against the wall. Zoro lets out a sigh without even realising he’s doing it: his left hand drops down to his side, fingers clenching, feeling empty.
The swordsman looks up at the sigh. “Oi… Cheer up.” He nods at the wall beside him. “Come on, take the weight off your feet for a while.”
Zoro sits, resting his hands in his lap. The swordsman rubs a hand through his hair and yawns. “Rahhh… So what do you do when you’re not drinking or sneaking up on travellers, chichikurin?”
Zoro considers. “Chores.”
“Good for disciplining the mind.” The swordsman nods approvingly. Zoro doesn’t say anything, but his mouth twists a little at its corner: this is the first thing the man’s said that is disappointingly like what every other adult seems to think. The swordsman sees his wry look and chuckles. “Not what you wanted to hear, ne? Another thing you’ll find in life, my young friend, is that there are always things we don’t want to do, but that need to be done anyway.” Zoro shrugs. He’s familiar with the concept. “Well… So if you could do what you want, what would that be?”
Zoro looks down at the katana in its black saya. “Be a swordsman.”
The swordsman laughs loud at this, but then he catches the look on Zoro’s face and sobers quickly. “O, is that right?”
Zoro has never even thought before what he wants from life. And for sure no-one has ever asked him. But he knows what he wants now, with certainty. He’s held the katana’s hilt in his hand and felt its living weight like a part of him, and more than anything he wants to feel that again. “Yes!”
The swordsman’s brows pull together a little: he too glances at his katana, then back to Zoro. “Hmm.” He folds his arms. “Well, it’s a worthy ambition. But a hard path to follow.” He reaches up and strokes one finger down the ragged scar on his cheek. “Doesn’t leave a man looking too pretty, either.”
Zoro isn’t in the least bothered about the possibility that he might lose his looks, as no-one so far in life has been remotely complimentary about them anyway. “I don’t care.”
The swordsman folds his arms again. “Is that right? I suppose you think being a swordsman is a fine exciting life, as well. Full of adventures and victories…”
“That’s what you said in your stories,” Zoro points out.
Fairly caught, the swordsman purses his lips. “Che… I only tell the stories that people want to hear. Some things don’t make for good tales.” He looked sideways at Zoro. “Not being able to sleep because your belly’s not seen a good meal in days. Always on the move, never settling down. Spending weeks laid up because some son of a bitch got lucky and caught you off guard.” He watches the effect of his words on Zoro, then appears to decide they need reinforcing. He reaches to his shirt and hauls up one edge, revealing his side and chest. Zoro’s eyes widen: the skin on the swordsman’s body is marked with not one but several ugly scars, as seamed and knotted as the one on his face. One particularly fearsome one stretching several inches around his side, just below his ribs, looks to be fairly recent. The swordsman lets him look for several seconds, before dropping his shirt again. “So. Maybe you might want to think again, chichikurin.”
Zoro shakes his head. He considers for a moment that if it comes to the business of displaying scars, his own back probably looks pretty impressive right now… But he doesn’t want to seem as though he’s not taking the swordsman’s words seriously, so he doesn’t mention this. Instead he simply restates his original intent. “I want to be a swordsman.”
“Saa… It can’t be helped.” The swordsman sighs. “Far be it for me to tell anyone what path to follow.” He regards Zoro resignedly.
Zoro is pleased that he’s won his point. But it would still be useful to have some guidance. “How do you become a swordsman?”
“Train, train, and train.” The swordsman grimaces, as if remembering something tiresome. “And then train some more. With a good teacher, one who can pass on what he knows.”
Zoro looks round at this, his eyes fastening on the swordsman with a hungry question in them that’s plain before he even opens his mouth. “Will you teach me?”
“Me?” The swordsman’s eyebrows hike up, and he makes a swiftly emphatic reply. “No.” Zoro’s gaze stays fixed on him, and the man repeats his answer more gently. “No. The life I lead is no sort of a life for a youngster. I travel fast, and I travel alone.” He sees Zoro’s shoulders drop, the boy turning his gaze away and down to the ground. “Besides, I’d be a lousy teacher. And I’m a bad-tempered son of a bitch most of the time, you’d soon get sick of knocking around with a reprobate like me.”
Zoro says nothing. He’s used to life coming up short, but he didn’t realise how much he wanted this until the swordsman’s flat refusal hits him like a punch in the belly. His chest feels hollow and cold and he has to keep staring at the stony road at his feet so the man sitting beside him won’t see what’s showing in his face.
“Oi, Roronoa Zoro.” The low voice rumbles. “There’s more than one way to climb a mountain. If you truly want something… If becoming a swordsman is truly your path, then you’ll find a way to follow it. I said I can’t teach you, and I meant it. But there are plenty of good teachers out there, who could train you. Find one. Go to a dojo: there’s enough of those about, too. Work at it. Learn. Train. Get strong. If that’s what you want, then that’s the way to do it.”
Zoro swallows, still staring at the ground. Then he feels the swordsman’s hand rest on his shoulder; the strong fingers give him a comforting squeeze, before lifting away.
For a little while they sit together in silence. Zoro still stares down at the road in front of him, but the cold hollow feeling has given way to something else. He’s not sure what, exactly. The swordsman’s words reverberate inside him; and from where the big hand had rested on his shoulder, he has a sensation of being both pushed forward and lifted up.
“Eh… The morning’s half gone.” The swordsman gives a short sigh beside him. “Time to be off.”
Zoro looks up then. The swordsman gets to his feet, picking up his katana and sliding it back onto his belt: reaches for his pack and heaves it onto his shoulders. Zoro jumps to his feet too. “You’re going?”
“Yep.” The swordsman nods, settling the weight of his pack more evenly. “It’s a good stride to where I’m heading, and it won’t get any shorter. I’d best be on my way, see how much traipsing I can fit in before nightfall.”
Zoro says nothing then. Just stands and looks up at the swordsman, his mouth set in a tight line.
“Well, then…” The swordsman looks back at him. A slight smile turns up the corners of his mouth. “Till we meet again, Roronoa Zoro. Good luck.” He holds out his hand.
Zoro takes it, and feels the strong calloused fingers clasp his. A single firm shake, then the swordsman lets go. He seems about to turn away… then stops. Lifting his hand he extends one finger and stretches it out; touches Zoro first on his forehead, then on his chest. “Remember what I said.”
“I’ll remember.” Zoro nods.
He will remember, everything. He stands in the middle of the road and watches the swordsman walk away. The road slopes up, following the contour of a hill: as he reaches the crest the swordsman lifts one hand high, without turning round. Then he walks over and is gone.
It is almost noon by the time Zoro makes his way back into the village. He could have been back sooner, but on the way he makes a detour into the forest to collect as big a bundle of firewood as he can carry, hoping that maybe if he turns up with that it will be enough of an alibi to avert another beating.
When he reaches the gate and shoulders it open with his arms full of branches, his guardian is there in the yard waiting for him. He glares at Zoro. “Where the hell have you been, brat?”
Zoro takes deep breath. “Getting firewood.”
“One bundle?” The man regards it dismissively. “That won’t last long.”
“I forgot to take rope.” Usually Zoro ties three bundles together across his shoulders, but one was all he could carry like this.
“Baka.” His guardian gives a disgusted shake of the head. “Well, the water barrel needs filling. You should have done it before you went out.”
Zoro just walks quickly to the lean-to on the side of the house where the firewood is stacked and lays down his load, before heading to the well. He can almost feel his guardian watching him, narrowly: trying to sniff out what Zoro might have done or not done that he can be justifiably punished for. As he bends to lower the bucket down the well Zoro’s shirt catches on his back and he pulls in a sharp breath. His heart is thumping under his ribs, and he realises that he’s straining every nerve to sense if his guardian is staying where he is; to hear the scrape of a footfall coming up behind him. He fills the bucket as quickly as he can and starts carrying water to the house.
All the rest of that day Zoro works at his chores and keeps his head down. This gives his guardian no excuse to deal out any more beatings, or maybe it’s just that after last night’s exertions he doesn’t want to be bothered. Whatever the reason, Zoro is grateful. At nightfall he climbs up into the hayloft and curls up on his side in sweet-smelling hay and lets out a long breath, feeling the tension that’s been humming in his muscles finally release.
He’s so tired that he knows he won’t be awake long, but as he lies there he does give silent thanks for being spared any more blows this afternoon. He then wonders what tomorrow will bring, and how best to prolong this state of affairs.
He’s halfway through pondering whether to get up even earlier than usual and get a head-start on his chores while the man and woman are still asleep, when something chimes in his memory.
- Don’t give him space in your head and heart.
He almost feels the firm press of a finger against his forehead, then on his chest.
- What gets you through, what keeps the bastards out of here and here, is being strong.
Zoro lies absolutely still, his eyes open. The moon has risen and silvery light is finding its way through the cracks in the barn walls.
He thinks of the swordsman. Of the man’s muscled shoulders, broad chest, powerful hands. Zoro then holds up one of his own hands and turns it this way and that in a stripe of moonlight, examining it. It doesn’t look like much. Not against the swordsman’s. And not against his guardian’s.
- Roronoa Zoro. That’s a good strong name.
Slowly Zoro closes his fingers and wraps his thumb over them, until his hand is a tight clenched fist.
The kind spring weather holds, and over the next few days there’s plenty to be done in the crop field behind the house. After he’s finished his other chores Zoro takes the tools from the barn and gets to work. Most of the small plot of land is planted up now, but there’s a narrow strip left to be ploughed before sowing, which his guardian does, walking behind the slow-moving ox.
Almost a week has passed since full moon: it’s another warm day, and the crops are growing well. So are the weeds, and Zoro is kept busy with a hoe until his back and arms ache. When the sun is overhead the woman comes to the field to deliver food and a jug of water for the midday break, which she takes to the man first while Zoro keeps working. Only when his guardian gives a grudging grunt and nod at him is he able to stop for a little while, sitting on the gently warming earth slowly devouring the rice ball that the man has left and washing it down with gulps of water from a cracked old cup.
The rice ball reminds him of the one the swordsman gave him to eat, days before. Zoro swallows his last mouthful and gazes at the ground just in front of him, wondering how far away the swordsman is now. Too far to be caught up with, he’s pretty sure. Not that this is an option anyway.
“Oi.” His guardian’s sharp voice penetrates Zoro’s thoughts. “Kudaranai! Stop day-dreaming and get back to work.”
Zoro gets to his feet automatically, his hand reaching out for his hoe as he does so – before something stops him.
Slowly, very slowly, he lets his arm fall back to his side. Stands where he is, without moving. His eyes lift to where his guardian is also getting to his feet, slapping dust off the seat of his trousers before looking up. When he sees Zoro standing there, the man scowls. “What, are you deaf as well as stupid? I said, get back to work!”
Zoro doesn’t move: after a few seconds more, his guardian narrows his eyes. “You want to play games? I’ll make you move, you lazy little brat.” He stomps across the field.
Zoro stays with his feet rooted to the spot. His heart is shaking his ribs and his breathing feels loud in his ears, but his hands clench slowly into fists and he stands and waits and watches as the man bears down on him.
“Wipe that look off your face, or I’ll wipe it off for you.” His guardian stops just in front of him, his hand raising threateningly. “Pick up that hoe and get to work, or you’ll feel this.”
Zoro meets the man’s gaze for a long moment – and then slowly and deliberately shakes his head.
The slap comes straight away, Zoro’s head knocked to one side by the man’s swinging hand. He’d been expecting it but it still hurts. He grits his teeth and blinks, catching his breath, before turning his head back to face his guardian. The man hisses angrily through his teeth. “Not wised up yet? Need another?” He brings his hand back the other way, hard.
Zoro’s lip is still sore from the beating days ago and his guardian’s backhanded blow splits it again. He tastes blood in his mouth for the second time in a week, but steadies himself; brings his face back to the front and stares his guardian in the eye.
The man stares back at him. He looks furious, but underneath it Zoro can see something else: surprise. “Rukodenashi… I’ll knock that witless head off your shoulders, if you don’t get moving!”
Slowly and deliberately Zoro folds his arms, his eyes never leaving the man’s face.
Letting out a wordless growl, the man hits him a third time, hard enough that Zoro staggers sideways. But he immediately recovers himself: stands straight and folds his arms again.
The man blinks. Confusion is starting to blot out the anger in his features and Zoro sees sweat forming on his forehead. A memory surfaces in Zoro’s mind of the swordsman sitting at the table in the inn, fixing his guardian with his steady gaze; beating the man into submission with that fearsome grin.
Zoro lets his own mouth pull into a smile, keeping his eyes fixed on the man in front of him. The cut on his lip stings but he doesn’t care.
His guardian raises his hand again; but his eyes have widened slightly. The raised hand wavers, staying in the air for long seconds. Then it lowers back to the man’s side. “Bah… What are you grinning at? You’re wrong in the head.”
Zoro says nothing. His smile broadens a notch, while his eyes blaze back at his guardian from under brows lowered and gathered together like stormclouds. His fists are still clenched but they’re not shaking. His heart is beating hard but instead of it making him tremble he feels instead as though he is expanding, filling with strength as if it is pouring into him through the soles of his feet from the earth itself.
“One more chance.” His guardian tries to speak threateningly, as though the spell hasn’t been broken, but his voice is hoarse. “Pick up that hoe and get to work, or I’ll fetch the stick and teach you another lesson.”
Zoro glances down at the hoe, before looking back at his guardian. “No.”
The man swells like an offended toad. “I’ll wear out the skin on your back - ”
“And I’ll wait till you’re sleeping one night, then come and bash your brains in,” Zoro answers.
His guardian’s jaw sags. “Eh?”
Zoro shrugs. “If you hit me again. I’ll hit you back.” Then he bares his teeth in a grin. He suspects from the salty taste in his mouth that his lip is still bleeding and he probably looks pretty gruesome, which is a heartening thought.
His guardian stares at him in disbelief. He’s sweating quite a lot now. “You’re not a child, you’re a demon.”
Zoro lets out a snort. If this is how being a demon feels, he’s happy with it. “I’m going now.” He’s sure that the man won’t stop him, so sure that he simply turns his back and walks away over the field, his boots sinking a little into the soft earth.
“Kudaranai!” The man spits it after him like a curse.
Zoro pauses, just for a moment: looks back over his shoulder. “That’s not my name.” Then he keeps on going.
It takes surprisingly little time to walk away from everything he has known for the past few years. Zoro doesn’t really know which way to go, so he just follows the road through the village and out into the countryside, remembering how he shadowed the swordsman days before. He doesn’t worry that all he’s got are the clothes he’s wearing. There’s nothing from this life he wants to take with him anyway.
As the first heady surge of freedom subsides a little, he does wonder what he will do if his guardian comes in pursuit. But as he keeps walking and the hours and the miles pass, the less likely this seems. Zoro suspects that as a submissive chore boy he was a convenience: but an unpredictable demon-child is probably something that his guardian is less likely to go to the trouble of pursuing to drag back. And it would have to be dragged back: Zoro knows he wouldn’t go any other way.
The day wears on and by nightfall he hasn’t reached the next village. There is however a small farmhouse in sight, with its barn a little to one side. Zoro waits until dark has properly fallen before approaching the barn: he’s already watched for a while to make sure there is no dog keeping guard. Inside the barn he finds the ladder that leads to its upper level and clambers up, before burrowing into the pile of hay up there and pulling it over himself until only his face sticks out.
His feet and legs ache a little with all the walking and his stomach growls: it’s been a long time since the rice ball at midday. But hunger can be borne and his aches will ease while he sleeps. The hay is comfortingly familiar and Zoro shuts his eyes and lets go until the morning.
When the cock-crow wakes Zoro from deep sleep, he sits up so that hay falls away from him in a shower. He blinks at the unfamiliar place he’s in, before memory returns. Getting up he climbs down from the hayloft and washes his face in a trough of water while two puzzled goats watch him. That done he slips out of the barn into the growing morning light, hurrying away across the fields back to the road before the farm’s inhabitants start stirring.
A morning of walking finally brings him to a village, where he wanders more slowly until he reaches what looks to be the village’s central gathering place. There’s a large tree which must give good shade when the summer heat comes, with three or four cracked wooden benches ranged underneath it. Currently only one of them is occupied, by two elderly men talking with their hands resting on their knees. They regard Zoro curiously as he comes into view: he almost hesitates under their scrutiny, but on the other hand his feet are tired and the benches are as good a place as any to improve that situation. So he walks nonchalantly to the nearest bench and sits on it, letting out a breath.
The two old men study him a moment longer, before one of them says, “Good day to you, young stranger.” Zoro nods politely in return. “Have you travelled far?”
“Yes.” Zoro decides this is the answer that will pose the least potential problems.
The old man nods slowly. “And have you far to go?”
This is such an unknown that Zoro considers for a moment, before replying, “I’ll see.”
“Heh.” The man grins, revealing an impressive lack of teeth. “Good answer, youngster.”
Initial enquiries having been pursued, they settle into an almost companionable silence sitting under the tree. Zoro takes off his boots and lets his bare feet dangle in the fresh air, swinging his legs slightly and wondering how one goes about securing food when one has no money. Food is definitely a priority: his stomach has passed the growling stage and is now beginning to nag at him with an insistent empty ache that is hard to ignore.
Across the open space where the three of them are sitting, a woman appears, pushing a handcart which is piled high with baskets and sacks. She struggles a little as the cart’s wheels hit some ruts in the roadway: the cart jolts and some of the precariously-balanced sacks tumble off, spilling their contents across the ground.
Zoro jumps up, sliding his feet back into his boots before hurrying across the open ground to where the woman is bending down trying to gather up her spilled load. The sacks were full of dried beans, which now cover the road in little drifts. Zoro kneels down beside the woman and starts scooping up handfuls back into the open sacks, working quickly and carefully. The woman gives him a surprised look, but doesn’t seem to mind the free assistance.
Between the two of them they soon get as much of the beans as are salvageable up from the ground; once the sacks are refilled the woman ties their necks tightly shut, before Zoro heaves them up onto the cart for her. That done, they stand and look at each other for a moment. The woman nods at him. “Thank you.” She goes to take hold of the cart’s handles, but Zoro pre-empts her: stepping there himself, he grips the wood worn smooth by countless journeys’ worth of pushing. “I can do it. Where are you going?” Looking surprised again, she merely points. Zoro grits his teeth before bracing his arms and pushing: the cart bumps into motion and he trundles it carefully across the ground.
They soon reach their destination: a small village store, where Zoro helps the woman unload the cart into the store’s dusty and cool interior. That done he trundles the empty cart around into a back yard that the woman leads him into. She then points at a log to one side, set on its end. “Wait there.”
Zoro sits. The woman disappears into the store through a back door. A little while later she reappears, carrying a bowl from which steam is rising. She stops by Zoro and holds out the bowl. “Thank you for your help. Please: accept this food in return.”
It’s miso soup with greens and egg, and it’s possibly the best meal Zoro’s eaten in his life. When he’s finished it the woman takes the empty bowl away then brings it back refilled with a smile. Zoro enjoys it almost as much as the first.
When he leaves the village with a full belly and a grin on his face, he feels ready to take on the world.
The road unwinds and the days slide past. Zoro falls into a pattern of sorts: walking from village to village, earning food where he can by doing chores. Sometimes he gets lost, but as he hasn’t got a destination in mind that doesn’t really seem to matter. Most places are friendly, although he does have the odd bit of trouble from people who think he’s a thief or a beggar and seem to think it their civic duty to move him on. Mostly he just dodges their kicks or cuffs and outdistances them quickly enough. Others are friendlier; some are nosy; but the longer he travels, the better he gets at reading people from their faces and anticipating their reactions. It’s a skill he’d already cultivated with his guardian anyway: it’s nice to find it has its uses in the wider world.
Zoro’s been travelling for a month and a half when he comes to a small village set high in the hills. When he gets there it’s late afternoon: he’s been walking all day and it’s been warm, so when he reaches the village square and sees a well in its centre, it’s a welcome sight. He heads straight for it and takes hold of the bucket at its rim, dropping it down on its rope until it hits the water below with a splash. When he pulls it up hand over hand the water is clear and cool and he doesn’t bother with niceties like using his hands. He just plants his sweaty face in the bucket and drinks in huge gulps, before ducking his head in to wash off the dust of the road.
After he surfaces and gives his head a shake, he hears someone sniggering close by. Wiping water out of his eyes, Zoro looks around. Leaning against one of the houses a few yards away are some older youths. They are watching Zoro and grinning. One tall and skinny lad points at him. “Oi, see that? The moss head’s giving himself a watering!”
Zoro’s eyes narrow. Having just shed one unwelcome nickname, he’s not about to let anyone saddle him with another. He folds his arms and glares at the youth. “What did you say, chopstick?”
The youth receives the insult with outraged surprise. “Watch your mouth, shrimp!” He pushes himself off the wall he’s been propping himself on and heads towards Zoro, hands clenching into fists.
Zoro watches him come with a steady gaze. He steps away from the bucket and waits.
“I’ll knock your teeth down your throat,” promises the youth as he closes on Zoro. He swings a punch, which Zoro evades easily, before swinging out his boot and catching the youth a hard crack on the shin. The youth howls and makes a grab at Zoro: then the two of them are scuffling on the ground.
Zoro has fought other children, but the youth is bigger than him. What works for his advantage though is that he has absolutely no reservations about doing whatever it takes to win. The youth has evidently thought Zoro would be easy meat, but the ferocity of Zoro’s counter-attack takes him by surprise. Zoro uses fists, feet and teeth and before long the youth rolls away and struggles to his feet, backing away several paces. “Shit!”
Zoro gets to his feet too. His nose is bleeding and there are a couple of new tears in his shirt, but he is more than happy to continue if that’s what’s needed.
A few cat-calls come from the edge of the square: the youth’s companions, partly egging him on and partly mocking his performance so far. And beside them have appeared some adults, men looking on with evident interest. One of them says speculatively, “Did you see that little ‘un go? He’s a fighter, that one.”
“Fifty beli, says he can take Atsuo down!”
The men cheer on the fight: the youth’s friends urge a return to action too. The youth looks at them, then at Zoro. His lip is cut and he spits hard on the ground at Zoro’s feet. “You’re dead meat, moss head.”
Zoro grins. And when the youth runs at him he lets the tall boy’s impetus carry him onwards, tangling his legs with the youth’s so that they both crash onto the ground. The only advantage the youth has is height and now Zoro has just removed it. That done it’s basically a case of who can get the most effective hits in first and Zoro is not going to stop unless he either wins or the youth knocks him out, which he’s already decided isn’t going to happen.
After trading blows and wrestling for a good few minutes, the youth manages to grip both Zoro’s wrists and hold them tight, scowling up at the smaller boy. “Gah – give it up! I’m gonna flatten you!”
Zoro braces his arms, then swings down and forwards, head-butting the youth square in the face. It hurts quite a lot and Zoro sees shooting stars for a few seconds, but the grip on his wrists releases and when Zoro finally blinks his vision clear the youth is lying on his back slightly cross-eyed with a nose that looks like it will never be quite the same again.
Slowly Zoro pushes himself up and gets to his feet, staggering just a little because effective though the head-butt was, it’s not without its drawbacks. The youth stays down, groaning a bit. From over the square the other youths are starting to head towards them: Zoro watches them slightly fuzzily, hoping he hasn’t got to fight anyone else at least in the next five minutes. But as it turns out the youths have just come to tidy up their vanquished friend: they pick him up still groaning, give Zoro wary or incredulous looks, before beating a swift retreat.
A slap on his back between his shoulder blades nearly sends him flying. “Eh, good fight, little ‘un! You showed him!” The men who’d also been watching have drifted over and now they stand about, chattering, grinning, and in some cases paying up bets made on the outcome of Zoro’s fight. The man who’d dealt the congratulatory slap was evidently one of the successful gamblers, and he gives Zoro a satisfied smile. “I thought you could do it. You’re good luck, little ‘un. Here.” And he tosses a coin through the air. Zoro is so startled he just catches it with both hands, before looking at the man who laughs again. “Your share of the winnings.”
Zoro has never had money before. It’s useful stuff. The coin the man has given him is enough to buy supper in the village’s inn, with change left over. It feels a little strange to be sitting at one of the inn’s tables with his feet not quite reaching the floor, working his way through a generous plateful. Word has got around about his victory and more than one local comes up to comment and chuckle, before leaving Zoro to concentrate on the more interesting business of finishing his food.
“Oi, little ‘un.” It’s the man who gave him the coin. “You look like you’re eating to fill your boots.” Zoro eyes him, before swallowing his mouthful. The man grins. “Not only a mighty fighter, but a mighty eater too, ne?” Zoro shrugs. “Well, winning a scrap like that gives a man an appetite. Keep on like this and you’ll be able to give any boxer round here a run for his money.”
Zoro shakes his head. “I don’t want to be a boxer. I’m going to be a swordsman.”
“O, yes?” The man laughs. “Then where’s your sword?”
Zoro just looks at the man as though he’s mentally deficient. “I haven’t got one yet.”
“Well, you’ll need one, that’s for sure. And you’ll need to learn which end of it to hold.” The man is grinning, entertained by his own humour. Which is good because Zoro is frankly getting tired of it. “There’s a dojo in the next village, down in the valley. I daresay they could show you.”
“A dojo?” Zoro is suddenly listening very hard. “They teach sword fighting there?”
“Sure, sure.” The man sees Zoro’s attention and nods at him. “A place with a fine reputation for turning out strong fighters, or so I’ve heard.”
“Then that’s where I’ll go.” Zoro smiles.
“Yes? A good plan.” The man slaps him heartily on the shoulder. “You should certainly go there. A mighty fighter like you, they’ll be sure to snap you up.”
Zoro senses the man is mocking him and he scowls. “I will go there. And I will become a swordsman.”
“Heh.” The man nudges him in the ribs. “Of course, you’ll have to prove you’re worthy.”
“How do I do that?”
“How?” The man looks at him with a serious face. “You challenge the strongest man there to fight you, of course. If you win, you’ll be proved worthy.”
Zoro considers this for a moment. “Okay.”
The man laughs and slaps him on the back again. Zoro lowers his brows, before resuming the serious business of eating.
The next morning Zoro wakes up early and gets underway while the grass at the sides of the road is still wet with dew. He’s used to walking long distances now, so he soon settles into a pace that steadily eats up the miles that lie between him and the village with the dojo that the man told him about last night.
As he walks, he can’t help wondering how exactly he should go about fighting the dojo’s strongest man, once he gets there. All that Zoro knows about dojos is what the swordsman told him: that they are places to which you can go, to learn how to fight. So it’s likely that this will not be quite as simple as taking down the lanky youth in the last village.
Since standing up to his guardian however, the world seems a more possible place. So Zoro eventually just decides that he will win, and that’s all there is to it. Being strong is a habit he’s getting attached to. If becoming a swordsman means he needs to be the strongest, then that’s what he’ll do.
It’s a little after midday when Zoro finally reaches the hill overlooking the village in the valley. He stands there looking down at the view below, chewing on a twig as he surveys the prospect with satisfaction.
He remembers the swordsman’s words, that you can choose to face your fear and be strong: feels the truth of them. His bruises ache from his fight with the youth the day before, but Zoro doesn’t care, because he won. This power, of knowing that life is a fight but that he can win it, is all he needs. No-one will call him kudaranai again, and if they do he will make them swallow their words.
I will be the strongest.
It’s a bright sunny spring afternoon and the birds sing in the trees. Grinning, Zoro sets off along the path that leads down the hillside. Sets his sights on the dojo that is waiting in the valley below.