Author's Note: 'Tsubaki' is the Japanese name for the camellia plant. Camellias are in the same genus as the tea plant, but this usually refers to either the tea blossoms (used in white tea) or to the three best known ornamental varieties. Cultivated varieties of the common camellia, Camellia japonica, have many overlapping petals and come in the full range from white through pink to red (the tree Noriko and Izark find is a red camellia. The leaves are four inches long, dark green, and glossy. Though broad leaved, camellias are considered evergreens. Common Camellias can grow to be thirty feet tall.
The warrior dropped the wood he had been carrying and whirled, fingers flying to the hilt of his long sword. His reaction, however, proved totally unnecessary.
Noriko skidded to a halt, just managing to avoid a collision with her guardian, who stared for a moment in bewilderment. She was holding the canteen he had given her; had she gone to fill it at the stream they had heard? Her breathing was heavy, as if she had been sprinting, but why? He could sense no enemies, nor anything that might frighten her. For that matter, the expression with which she now looked up at him was not fear. Even the slight shyness with which she usually addressed him was gone, replaced by brisk intensity.
She was tugging his sleeve, or rather, trying to drag him in the direction she had just come from.
Ah, she'd picked up a new word. Until recently, she had only been able to name basic nouns and descriptors, like objects and colors. About half a month ago, however, she had discovered that all mighty word, that question that all parents worship and fear:
Before that, she had stumbled upon what and where when a passing farmer enquired as to their destination, and Izark had been obliged to teach her when as they walked by a shop full of hour glasses and sundials. How was acquired upon the purchase of an intricately wrapped kind of preserved vegetable. To complete the set, an inn keeper's wife had asked Noriko for her name, inadvertently supplying the girl with who.
She hadn't stopped using those words since she learned them. While who's weren't so common outside of towns, whats and wheres, whens and hows were in constant supply.
There was no end to the whys.
The tailor they visited for a change of clothing: Izark, who?
The different grains standing in fields they passed, the weather, a fence: Izark, what?
The country, the city, the area, the landscape, their destination: Izark, where?
Time in general, day as opposed to night: Izark, when?
The process of tacking up the horse, of oiling a sword, of mixing ink: Izark, how?
The things they bought. Any action, the benefit of which was not immediately obvious. The reason for all things under the heavens: Izark, why?
It didn't seem to matter if she understood his replies or not. At first, he had given one word answers or, if he could not, he had told her as best her could that she wouldn't grasp his meaning. It worked, but only until they happened upon another situation. Also, there were times when he found himself explaining despite the language barrier.
Following Noriko though the sparse trees, the young man thought back to the most recent of those incidences.
He was tacking up the horse. Noriko stood at the horse's head, holding the reins. His mind on not cinching the girth too tightly, he responded without thinking, gesturing here and there as he spoke.
"You put the bridle on first and hold the reins, so that the horse can't walk away. Next comes the saddle pad. You have to put it on extra far up, because it will slide back when you put the saddle on. The breast plate goes on over the neck. Then the saddle goes on, and you have to set it up far and then pull it back so it won't pinch the horse or rub her fur the wrong way. The girth should be attached to the saddle on one side. You attach the breast plate to the saddle with these buckles, pass this strap through the front legs and run the girth through this loop here. Then you tighten the girth like this…"
He stopped speaking abruptly. What was he doing? There was no way she could understand all those complex phrases!
The warrior turned his head to look at the girl, only to find her gazing with utmost concentration at the horse. Her lips were moving as she touched first the bridle, then the breast plate. Izark watched as she silently mouthed the name of each piece, running her hands over the leather and metal as she fixed words to images and vice versa. And he understood, finally, why she bothered to ask hows and whys.
The young man had rarely declined to explain something since. Granted, there were times when he thought his tongue might fall off, but as long as he kept talking, she would keep listening, and learning.
Suddenly the trees fell away. Before them stretched a small clearing, overgrown with shrubs and tall grasses, and in the center…
Noriko had stopped. Walking up, Izark could not help but stare. A single tree towered in front of the girl. Though it was now high autumn, its leaves were still dark green, and many large, crimson flowers bloomed on its branches.
No wonder Noriko had run to find him. Obviously, she wanted to know what the tree's name was. The warrior halted beside her, waiting for the girl to turn and ask for an answer.
The question did not come. Perplexed, the warrior looked at Noriko, only to find her gazing as if spellbound at the great tree.
The young woman started, then dragged her eyes away from the tree to look at Izark. When he was sure he had her attention, the warrior pointed to the tree and named it. "Hana. A Hana tree."
Silence met his words.
Noriko stared up at her guardian, trying with all her might to connect what she knew with what he was telling her. Finally, she managed to stammer out,
"H- hana? Hana… tree?"
He was nodding, puzzlement in his eyes. What is going on here?
Noriko looked back at the tree, then at Izark, then at the tree, wondering how to say what she wished to tell him. One word. I need one word, and an example. She turned around, searching for the thing she needed in the clearing. When she found it, she whirled back to the warrior and held up her hand, said, "Wait," and trotted away, leaving Izark stock still and utterly mystified.
The young man watched as Noriko ran to a tall, blooming sedge, plucked off a flower, and returned. Holding it up before him, she pointed to it with her free hand.
"Flower," she told him, as if to make this very clear.
"Yes…?" he responded, not following her at all. But she smiled, and nodded. Walking passed him, she stepped up onto the roots of the tree and, leaning on the trunk, stretched up on her toes, reaching for the lowest of the red blossoms. But no matter how she tried, she couldn't get her hand high enough to touch the bloom.
She heard a rustle behind her, and a long arm came into view above her head. Balancing perfectly on another root, Izark carefully picked the bloom, then gently put it in her up stretched hand.
Only to have it immediately shoved under his nose.
"Flower," Noriko stated again, reminding him of the tutor he had had as a very small child.
"Yes, flower," the warrior told her, trying his best to keep the exasperation from his voice.
Again, Noriko beamed at him. Stepping down from the root she had been standing on, the girl took her hand from the trunk and transferred the sedge blossom from that hand to the one holding the red flower.
The next word she spoke was, as she knew it would be, extremely confusing to Izark.
"Hana," she said, pointing to the flowers in her hand.
…Maybe she's confused. "No, this red one is a hana flower. The purple one is an autumn sedge. This tree is a hana tree. It is quite rare, and usually only grows in gardens, but the sedge…" he trailed off as Noriko shook her head so vigorously that he wondered if she would get dizzy.
"Iie. No," she told him firmly, then modified her tactics. She pointed to both flowers at once. "Here– Zago. Flower. Nippon– Hana."
She knew Izark understood when the frown he had been wearing vanished, to be replaced by wonder. Slowly, he reached out and touched the blossoms.
"The word for flower in your language… is hana."
His discovery was rewarded with a blinding smile, but Noriko was not finished. Instead, she pointed to the tree.
"Here– Hana tree. Nippon– Tsubaki."
It was Noriko's turn to watch as Izark stared, amazed. If she meant what he thought she meant…"So… So, the word you use for flower is the one we use for this tree. And your word for the tree…"
"Tsubaki!" The girl was grinning, delighted.
This was food for thought. It was the first time Noriko had ever tried to teach Izark the Japanese name for something. And such a rare tree, with a name that was practically a cognate for flower… She had dashed back to find him the minute she saw it. She had recognized it, meaning… Meaning–
He had been staring at the Hana, the Tsubaki. Looking down, Izark found that Noriko had been staring at him, waiting for him to speak. She was still holding the two flowers.
Looking up at him, Noriko thought she saw pity in those unfathomable eyes.
Slowly, Izark reached out and touched the petals of the red camellia.
"Keep this. I'll show you how to dry it. It would be a shame not to, since you might be the only one who knows its real name. Keep it," he said again, folding her hand more firmly around the blossom's twiggy stem.
Both the warrior and his charge were silent as they made their way back to the campsite, Noriko carrying the red flower and the now full canteen, Izark holding a few large, flat river stones. After finishing the fire pit he had been making when the girl interrupted him, Izark showed her how she might preserve the blossom by pressing it in her diary, using flat stones as weights whenever they stopped.
It was morning. The warrior had been alarmed when he found that, while everything else was prepared for departure, his traveling companion seemed to have disappeared.
"Noriko!" He tracked her presence to the hana tree– or, as she called it, the tsubaki. There she was, sitting at its base, gazing up into the glossy green leaves. She didn't seem to have heard Izark at all.
For a moment, the young man stood, unsure as to the gentlest way to break the trance she appeared to be in.
Suddenly the girl sighed, shook her head, and scrambled to her feet. After taking a few steps, she turned, took one last look at the tree, then whipped around and ran.
Straight into Izark.
"Izark! I… I sorry!"
"It's all right. Just come along. Anyway, it's 'I am sorry.'"
Author's Note: Yes, I do ride horses, so I know how to tack up. I found including the process in this story quite enjoyable. My family's mare, Sparkle, is a chestnut Arabian- Quarter Horse cross. Since her back is a little narrow, we use a breast plate to keep the saddle from sliding backward.