Promises to Keep
Kambei always keeps his word.
Kambei had never expected to live this long. He had lost so many battles; surely one of his foes would have cut him down by now. But still he stood. He was old and ruined now. Few people who met him even saw him as a threat any more. He had not managed to throw his life away. Over the years, he'd wondered why. There was no place for him in this world of merchants. Old samurai were met with distrust, not respect. And the Nobuseri were no more, thanks to the last of the samurai.
Shichiroji had returned to the Firefly House and his previous life. They both had an unquenched love of battle, but his old mate had other loves, as well. One look at Lady Yukino, and no one could blame him. Kambei had stayed there with him briefly, but in the end, he had moved on alone. It had been a hungry existence as a rogue outlaw, but he had made his way. In time, he did not even need to worry about being identified as the man who killed the emperor. His ancient crime was forgotten, and there was no one left to punish him for it.
It was over, now. His body was less cooperative these days, his movements less sure. Old injuries bothered him, and his joints complained in damp weather. But he could make this journey, at least. He owed them that much.
He rested at Wing Rock before ascending to the bridge. The air was more rare in the mountains than in the valley below. Still, in the old days, he wouldn't have minded that. He waited until nearly evening, so he would not have to face the walk in the sun. And, if he admitted it, he was not eager to face anyone else, either.
He crossed the bridge, and smiled to see the name. "New Kanna Bridge" – he wondered if the bridge or the village were new. He had left neither the same in his wake. The villagers had rebuilt the homes on the far side of the bridge, and the wounds of that battle were long healed. The land had bounced back, as it tended to. Heihachi would be happy to see all the rice fields; it was nearly harvest time again.
He remembered the way to his destination, though he had not been here in years. The winter spent in Kanna was forever stamped in his memory. He knew he would have to pass the Mikumari's house, and he wondered what he would find there. Perhaps his presence would go unnoticed.
He should have known better. No sooner had he stepped from the woods and seen the water shimmering down the stone shrine, than a girl had exited the nearby house. She gasped in surprise at the sight of him, but he also stopped in his tracks. Her brown hair and wide eyes were very familiar.
She took a few hesitant steps forward. "Welcome to our village, grandfather," she said hesitantly, breaking the spell. "We are honored by your presence." Her voice was different, and held no recognition.
"The honor is mine, water priestess."
"Oh, I'm not the water priestess. That's my older sister. I won't be water priestess until she marries. But how did you know that? I've never seen you before." She noticed his sword, and looked at it curiously.
"This is not my first visit to your village."
"Oh, are you one of those samurai?!" She threw her hands up over her mouth. "You must be!" Without warning, she ran forward and grabbed him by the wrist, dragging him towards the door. "Mama will be so happy to see you!"
He was not really prepared for this reunion, but he did not resist, and allowed himself to be dragged to the house. "Look! I found one of the seven samurai!" the girl announced as she entered. There was a clatter as a bowl was dropped, and the sound of water spilling. Then he stepped in.
He bowed his head politely to the water priestess and her mother, but made no move to come in further. He could not be certain of his welcome.
"Kambei-sama? Is that really you?"
He nodded, and was not quite prepared when Komachi threw herself at him. "It's been ages! We had no idea you were still alive."
"Sorry to disappoint you," he said wryly, not quite able to hold off a coughing fit. Komachi had never done anything by halves, not even hugging.
"Not at all." She turned to her younger daughter and frowned. "Kiku, is that any way to behave towards an honored guest? To just spring him on me like that?"
"Kiku?" he asked in surprise, looking at the young girl more closely.
"I've always thought it was a nice name," Komachi defended herself.
"It is a very nice name for a young lady," Kambei agreed, and the girl in question blushed.
Kambei looked away hastily. "And how is your family, Komachi?"
"We're keeping well enough. Farmers' lives never really change. You know that."
"I see." He supposed that was their strength, though even Komachi had to realize that things were different now that the farmers sold their rice and paid tributes rather than give up the crop to bullying. Looking around, though, things had not changed a bit. So perhaps she was right, and in the end, the farmers were still poor. Poor but free, at least.
"If you want to see my sister, she's over at the elder's house right now." Komachi looked at him half-expectantly. "She should be back soon," she added helpfully.
"That's alright. I won't be staying long." Liar, his conscience accused him, but he ignored it.
"Long enough to eat a bowl of rice," Komachi insisted, gesturing for him to take a seat. He could not argue; he was hungry after the walk here.
"You can tell us of your travels," Kiku said enthusiastically.
"There is not much to tell," Kambei warned, but he still managed a few stories for the girls. It was clear that they were Komachi's children; they were as bold and kind-hearted as their mother had been as a girl; and just as brashly blunt, too. He'd missed this place. Before long, they were carrying on as families do, and in this way he learned that Rikichi and Sanae had a son – one who made Kiku's older sister blush. It would not be long before Kiku became water priestess, it would seem.
All too soon, they were interrupted.
"We're back, honey," a tall, broad-shouldered man said before stopping abruptly at the sight of his guest. "Honored samurai, forgive me," he said with a bow.
"Forgive my intrusion," Kambei said. To think that this was one of the boys who had played at being a samurai all those years ago.
"Kambei?" said a voice from behind the young man, who quickly stepped aside.
It was Kirara. She had not changed a bit. Well, to be fair, she looked a good deal older. Her hair held only a few strands of silver, but her face was lined with the cares of life. Her spirit, though, was still the same. They simply stared at one another for awhile.
"You've come back," Kirara said, finally finding her voice. It too sounded older.
"I've come back," he agreed.
"And this time…will you stay?" she asked hesitantly.
He looked at her for a long time. "I will," he said at last.
"I see." She looked down sadly, and suddenly realized that her sister's family was staring at her. "Please, stay with us tonight."
He shook his head. "I have come to pay my respects. I should not impose on your hospitality any further."
"It would not be an imposition," she said quietly.
"Even so, I cannot."
She nodded unhappily. "Tomorrow, then."
"Yes, tomorrow." He could tell she knew there was something he was not saying, but she did not press him any further. He stood and took his leave of all of them with a heavy heart. Still, it was good to have seen them again. All he would accept was a bucket of water and some firewood; he would not need a place to sleep tonight.
The graves were waiting for him on the edge of the cliff, just as he'd remembered. He kneeled in silence, bowing his head to each one in turn. Then he stood, and approached the second grave. "Thank you for your patience in waiting for me. I am sorry I did not come as soon as I had thought. Allow me to prepare your swords for one last battle." The blades came out easily enough, so he took it his offer was accepted. His strength was no longer what it had been.
He methodically built a fire, and by its light he could see the blades. They were in very bad shape; the passing of years had not been kind to them. It saddened him to see this, but he would do what he could to clean and sharpen them. He got out the whetstone he had brought with him, and got to work. He worked silently, occasionally glancing up at the other graves. It was peaceful here. Finally, he finished. There was no moon tonight, so he was not sure how late it was. The stars had wheeled about considerably since he'd arrived here, but he lost track of their movements in the scattered clouds. He doused his fire and put away the whetstone. It would not be used again. He returned the swords to their grave.
"We have a score to settle, but you would find no challenge in fighting this broken body. Still, I have allowed no one else to cut me down, so I hope you will be pleased that that honor has been saved for you alone. My back is no longer turned, and I have fulfilled all my obligations."
Kyuzo was as silent as ever. His memory of Kyuzo had not changed since the other samurai had died, so he was perpetually young. It was strange to think of him that way, when he himself was now so old. But soon that wouldn't matter. Suddenly, his memory gave way to a vision.
Kyuzo stepped forward to meet him. His red coat was whole and unmarred, but still, despite the breeze on the hilltop. The young samurai eyed Kambei from head to foot, and clearly found him lacking.
"I am sorry to disappoint," Kambei apologized.
"You kept me waiting, but you have kept your word," the vision of Kyuzo acknowledged him.
Kambei placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw. Kyuzo responded by drawing the swords from the grave. By now, Kambei realized that the distinction between vision and reality had been blurred.
"I was never going to survive this battle," Kambei admitted, drawing his sword nonetheless.
"Let's go," Kyuzo said, ignoring him.
Kambei raised his sword in preparation for the onslaught.
The next day, the villagers of Kanna found the body of an old man next to the graves of the samurai. The remains of a fire and an unstained sword only puzzled them. The old Mikumari insisted that he be buried next to the others in equal honor, and made a habit of visiting his grave each day until she died. Occasionally, her nieces joined her. He received no other visitors.
Author's Note: I am imagining about 30 years have passed since the end of the anime. Kiku really is a girl's name. It means "Chrysanthemum." ( I found this out by reading IMDB's Trivia page for the original Seven Samurai.) Komachi's husband is probably nearly 40; he is only a 'young man' in Kambei's eyes. Kirara never married. What happened between Kyuzo and Kambei is left (mostly) to your interpretation. Katsushiro and Shichiroji would have visited the grave if they knew it was there, I think. But I don't see either of them returning to Kanna. And it is so like Kambei to only allow the others to get him in death ;).
The title is taken from Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.