Last week you were exposed to (or treated to) the cover of the latest Hilda adventure. It is now my pleasure to hand you the first chapter of the story. I really hope you will enjoy it! (And if the title of this chapter reminds you of an ancient Western series, that would not be coincidental.)
1. The Nihonian
“There is a person coming.”
“What kind of person?” Hilda, draped on the purple couch, wasn’t impressed by the announcement that the house made. Often people would come and they would pass by without bothering the magical couple that lived here.
“The kind that has a horse beneath it.”
“It’s not dropping anything, is it?”
“No, the person isn’t.”
“Crappedy crap, house, don’t try to outsmart me. You know I mean the horse.” Hilda sat up as she put the book she was reading on the table.
“The horse isn’t dropping anything either,” the house said. “Yet.”
At that moment William came into the house. “Someone’s coming.”
“On a horse, I know,” Hilda said as she got up. “The house has one of its days and tries to make things difficult.” Together they stood at the window and waited for the horse and the rider to arrive. Surprisingly enough the figure on the horse didn’t even acknowledge the house, he just kept going. “That’s strange.” Usually people coming this way came to her or William, they didn’t just trot by.
“Hilda! Hilda!” A clear voice rang through the room.
“We should have given her my old crystal ball.” Hilda turned to said object. “Sister. How almost nice of you to call again, it hasn’t even been half a day ago.”
“I just want to make sure it still works,” Charisma said. “I’m so happy with this ball and it looks so nice in the corner where I put it.”
“Corner? I thought you had it on the table.”
Charisma laughed. “I did, but I put it on a pedestal in the corner. It’s darker there. On the table it’s so difficult to see anything in it.”
“I told you so.”
“Yes, I guess you did but I didn’t listen. Now I’ve figured it out on my own.”
Hilda turned her head towards William. “Sometimes I can’t believe she and I share the same parents.”
“I can. There are lots of times that you don’t listen either,” William pointed out.
“That’s different.” Hilda didn’t argue about the not listening comment though, which was a small triumph for the wizard.
“Hilda, listen!” Charisma’s urgent voice made the wicked witch pay attention. “Just a moment ago I saw a rider come past.”
“So did we. What’s so special about that?”
“Nothing but I thought it would be fun to let you know. To talk with you again.” Hilda groaned loudly; it failed to make the intended impression on her sister. “I have to go now, we have some things to do but I’ll call you again if there’s something important!” And with that the image of the blond witch with the Runes tattooed below her eye faded.
Hilda looked at William. “We?” she said in harmony with him. The wizard had heard it too. “Why do I suddenly feel the need to ask her what that means?”
William shrugged. “I don’t need to answer that. You’re as curious as I am.”
“I am not curious, wizard, I’m merely worried about the well-being of my little sister.” Hilda tried to keep a serious look as she said it but only a moment later both of them burst out laughing.
The next day Hilda was outside, sitting on one of the reclining beds that William had made long ago. She was mending an older broom that tended to lose a few bristles on each flight and that had to be fixed. As William came outside with tea and coffee he said, “Guess what’s happening?”
“The goldfish drowned?” the wicked witch asked as she chuckled. The goldfish on her magical mug couldn’t drown.
“No. There’s a rider coming.”
Hilda put down the broom and sat up. Indeed, in the distance she saw a rider coming. “A different one from yesterday, but it’s weird. Someone seems to have misplaced riders and they all need to come our way.”
“Hilda! Hilda!” A voice from inside a crystal ball inside the house made it to the outside.
“And there goes the silence,” the wicked witch sighed, “after she’s been quiet all morning.” As she passed William she took her mug and walked to the ball. “Hey you. Let me guess. A rider came by.”
Charisma looked surprised. “How did you know?”
“We have one passing by at the moment too.”
“That’s strange. Why do we suddenly have so many riders ride by?” Charisma shared Hilda’s wonder about that. “I haven’t heard about lost armies or so. Did you?”
“Nothing of the kind here either,” Hilda confirmed. “I suggest we wait until tomorrow and if the same thing happens again we’ll stop our riders and ask what they’re doing.” Her sister agreed that was a good idea. Perhaps there was nothing behind it, perhaps it was just something brought about by the weather, but it would be good to get to the bottom of this. William was surprised to hear about another rider near where Cassie lived.
“And did you remember to ask about we?”
“Crappedy crap, I forgot! Let’s hope there is a rider tomorrow so I can ask her!”
The world didn’t dare to disappoint Hilda: the next day there was a rider again. It was the same one they’d seen two days ago. The magicals stepped into the horse’s path. The rider however wasn’t impressed and steered the steed around them. “Hey, you. Stop.” The rider had already passed them but pulled at the reins. The horse stood still but the rider didn’t turn. William and Hilda walked to the horse. “Who are you?” The wizard wondered where the horseman’s strange attire came from. It looked like wooden armour.
The shape on the horse now looked to the side and down to the witch and the wizard while a gloved hand slowly pushed up the metallic visor. To their surprise there was a woman’s face behind the mask. “My name is シズカ.”
“What?” Hilda rubbed her ear, making sure it was there. What the woman had said hadn’t sounded like something a proper person should bring forth.
“シズカ.” The woman seemed to understand that her sounds didn’t make much sense to the people on the ground. “Shizuka,” she then said.
“Ah. That’s something I can pronounce,” said Hilda. “Shizuka. I am Hilda and this is William. Why are you here?”
The woman’s jaw set. “That is not of your concern.”
“You look Japanese,” said William, “and when you pass our house twice in a few days it’s our concern.”
Shizuka flashed him a sharp look. “I am Nihonian.”
“I don’t care if you are from the moon,” Hilda said. “What’s your business here?”
Shizuka looked as if she wanted to escape but seemed to decide against that. “I am looking for someone.”
“And who might that be?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Should we call a doctor?”
Shizuka sighed. “I am looking for someone named Ken.”
“Ken?” Hilda frowned. The noise the young woman had made just before had sounded a lot longer. “Say, why don’t you come down from your horse? It’s easier to talk and my neck would appreciate it.”
The woman in wooden armour shook her head. It made most of her parts rattle. “I’d rather stay on the horse. I’ve been here for weeks already.”
“Weeks?” William couldn’t imagine how the woman had to smell beneath all that stuff. “You’re in need of a bath!”
“That is true,” the horse rider agreed, “but then I’d have to come down from the horse.” She sounded scared, so Hilda and William offered to catch her. “It’s not that. I don’t know how to get back on the horse again with all this protective armour.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll help you up.”
Shizuka told the two to step back a little. As they did so, she simply let herself fall from the horse.
“How nice of you to drop by,” William grinned as they helped her to her feet. The couple stood by as Shizuka unstrapped more and more parts of her attire which then fell to the ground. The woman who’d appeared enormous on the horse slowly shrunk to a black-haired, black-eyed puppet even smaller than Hilda.
“Crappedy crap, there’s not enough of you to strap all that stuff on to!” the wicked witch exclaimed when Shizuka finally stood there in thin, black pants, an equally thin, pink shirt and a cloud of odour that made the horse step to the side. “Wait.” Hilda popped up her wand and did away with the smell that escaped from the woman. “That’s better.”
Shizuka stared at Hilda and the wand. “You are 女魔法使い!”
“You’re doing it again…”
“I am sorry.” The young woman bowed. “You are Onna Mahou Tsukai. A witch.”
“You got that right, and a pretty good one too,” Hilda beamed. “Now come and let me fix you a bath.” William said he’d take care of the horse and the tiny mountain of armour that Shizuka had peeled off. “Good idea, wizard, you may have to de-odour that as well.” As she ushered the tiny woman into the house, Shizuka first picked up her two swords and then went inside.
“You know,” said William to the horse as he guided it around the house, “your rider reminds me of Japanese people I’ve read about long ago. I never thought I’d see a girl Samurai.” The horse didn’t comment.
By the time their visitor had cleaned herself up Hilda had done some magic on her clothes. The scents of both person and clothes were now acceptable for noses again and the person was devouring a good stew that William had prepared after looking after the horse. The small woman forked the food away as if she hadn’t seen a decent meal in days. Between bites and swallows she did her best to convey her story and the reason for her being there. “I am searching for an escaped operative. He has not completed his training yet and ran off. This is not allowed so I am sent to bring him back.”
“And how long have you been searching already?” William asked as he studied the woman. She looked too Japanese to be real in this world of magic.
“Five cycles of the moon,” was the answer. Five months. “I have found traces of him here and there. When he gets tired he leaves tracks, and sometimes people give him shelter. I can find those people but it is hard to find Ken.”
“Ken. That’s his name.”
“Yes,” the eater nodded, “Shuri Ken.” She frowned for a moment. “Maybe I should not tell you this but he is being trained to become shinobi.”
“A what? Is that something like you?” Hilda wasn’t certain if bringing this woman into the house was a good idea when she spouted all these odd words that made no sense.
“No, I would be kunoichi, female shinobi. But I am onna-bugeisha. It is more honourable.” To emphasise her words Shizuka bowed her head and then looked at her empty plate for a moment. Her eyes conveyed that she wouldn’t turn down another serving so Hilda took care of that after which Shizuka took care of that.
William was intrigued by all these strange things. “What does a shinobo do?”
“Shinobi. He kills people.” These words triggered a silence that was only interrupted by a fork scraping on the plate.
“He kills people.” William noticed how Hilda also was more than surprised by that. Slowly a few things fought their way to their place in his head. “And maybe I’m way off here, but does he usually wear black?”
Shizuka dropped her fork. “How do you know? Have you seen Ken?”
“No, but I have heard about people like that. Only they weren’t called shinobi then but ninja.”
“Sssst!” The tiny woman jumped up faster than either magical would have deemed possible and clamped her hand over William’s mouth. “Do not say that word. It is a bad word.”
“Why?” did the wizard ask after the small but powerful hand was removed.
“Those people kill others,” was the answer.
“But so does your buddy Ken. What’s the difference?”
Shizuka sat down and ate a few more bites. Then she said, “Shinobi kill with honour. Ninja kill with vengeance.”
“Sounds like the result is the same,” Hilda grinned, “but we probably miss something that you know. Do you have any idea where your friend is going?”
“He is not my friend. He is my target. And I do not know where he goes. We know that he received a letter and two days later he was gone.” She looked disgusted.
“And what was in the letter?”
The tiny woman stared at her fork. “We do not know. It was not written in the language of the Nihonian. It was written in the hand of 外人. Gaijin.” She looked at Hilda and William. “Foreign people.”
“Well, that’s not a big help then. Do you have that letter with you?”
Shizuka nodded. “It is in the saddle bag. But I can not show it to other people because then they know where I am from and where our shinobi training place is.”
“How would they know that?” Hilda wondered.
“There is an address written on the letter,” was the rather simple explanation. In the realms where addresses didn’t exist and messages were sent by archer this was of course not something familiar but William understood.
“Suppose you hand us the letter and fold over the place with the address,” the wizard suggested.
“I can not. I do not know which part is the address,” Shizuka said.
“Without the letter we know even less than you so then we can’t help you. Do you want more stew?” Hilda was impressed with how much their visitor had wolfed down already and wasn’t surprised that Shizuka announced she was full. She looked tired too. “Maybe you should sleep for a while. We have a spare room.”
“No. Thank you. I must go on to find Shuri Ken.”
“But you don’t know where he went, so how are you going to find him?” Hilda and William talked to the woman for a while until she agreed that sleep was important and that this worked better in a bed than on horse back. William agreed to the demands that her armour would be moved into the room with her. Shizuka helped with that of course, skilfully holding her two swords while carrying things into the spare bedroom. Then she said she wanted to be alone for a while so Hilda closed the door and joined William who was sitting outside. “Odd person, isn’t she?”
“She is.” William nodded affirmatively
“Reminds you of something from your old days.” It wasn’t a question.
William explained to Hilda what he knew about samurai and ninjas, and that Shizuka reminded him of a samurai because of her two swords and the excessive armour. “I just never knew there were female samurai.”
After a few hours, the afternoon was drawing to an end, Hilda went to check on their visitor and found her slumped against a wall, sound asleep. Using some magic she put the sleeping woman on the bed in a manner that wouldn’t make her wake up with a sore back and an almost broken neck. “Our samuresse was sound asleep,” she chuckled as she joined William again. “Do you think we should wake her up for tea or coffee later?”
“We’ll see if she wakes up by herself. I think it’s good for her to sleep for a while.”