From its place in the star dotted sky, the full moon bathed the land in its dim white light. On a rock before a babbling brook, which cut its swathe through the forest, a man sat surrounded by the sound of the water leaping and dancing over the rocks, the chorus of the crickets, and the gentle wind susurrating through the leaves in the tall trees, yet drawing no comfort from it. From the man's broad shoulders hung a magnificent white cape with red trim. Hiko Seijuro XIII, who had inherited his name from a long line of swordsmen, raised the saucer of sake which reposed in his right hand to his lips. Upon tasting it, he winced slightly. The sake did not taste good to him tonight.
'They are afflicted. These times and the mind of man,' Hiko thought grimly as he looked up at the moon, which peered down at him through a hole in the canopy of trees.
Abruptly he rose to his feet and walked away, carrying a large clay sake jug at his side. Gently pelting against his left side was his shirasaya nihonto, which reposed in a wooden sheath, ready to be drawn at a moment's notice.
The only sound to be heard was the turning of the wagons' wooden wheels. The caravan full of people moved along in nearly complete silence, enforced by the lash of the slavers' whips.
In the line were three young women and the little boy who walked with one girl on each side of him, holding their hands and continually looking up to them for comfort. The eldest of the three girls smiled softly down at him while squeezing his hand. The little boy returned the squeeze and smiled up at her, grateful for the reassurance.
Hidden in the tall grasses up ahead, unseen by those of the caravan, a blade glinted silver in the moonlight.
Hiko walked along aimlessly, his mind mulling the hopeless state of human affairs.
'The world hurdles toward destruction and death. Even if a powerful man were to arise, he would be unable to stop it.'
Clouds rolled over the face of the moon, plunging the landscape into total darkness.
The caravan was in complete disarray as the slaves, made bold by their fear, broke ranks and fled from the swords and pikes of the bandits, which were a much greater threat than the slavers' whips.
The bandits pounded after the escaping slaves, slashing them with swords and skewering them with pikes. No one was quick enough to get away and within minutes, almost all the slaves were dead. Seeing this, all the bandits approached their remaining prey, the three slavers and the last four slaves.
"See here! You bandits have picked the wrong caravan to assault!" cried Ushio indignantly. "Kazuma, Neishi!"
Kazuma and Neishi drew their swords and charged, only to be disemboweled and beheaded respectively and sent crashing to the ground in frightful displays of blood and death.
"Shit!" cried Ushio, standing frozen, unable to think of anything to do or of doing anything even if he had thought of it.
A quick slash across the chest was all it took to dispatch him. Ushio fell to the ground, blood erupting from his open mouth. As he went down, his katana flew from his hands and landed in the dirt with a soft clanking sound before the rigid form of the small boy, who had taken in everything with wide, frightened eyes.
Now though, seeing their last line of defense gone, the boy made a quick decision. As the only boy in the group, he knew he must do his best to protect the three young women who had been so kind to him. Although he was only the son of a farmer and now reduced to slavery, he lunged down and picked up Ushio’s katana.
The blade was heavy and unwieldy in the boy's inexperienced hands. Still he did his best to hold it steady as the huge bandit approached, blood dripping from his brandished blade. Seeing that the man was going to attack, Shinta attempted to raise the katana and charge him. Before he could, hands grabbed him and pulled him back, causing him to drop the sword.
Shinta found himself being held in Kasumi's arms as she tried to block the terrible scene from his eyes.
"Don't look, Shinta," she whispered to him.
But how could he not look? Shinta's wide eyes took in the whole grisly scene as Akane and Sakura threw themselves in front of him and Kasumi, pleading with the bandit to spare the boy.
"Please! Spare the child!" begged Akane.
She was answered by being slashed down the middle.
"Akane!" screamed Sakura just before the bandit's sword sent her after her sister.
"Shinta, listen to me! You must not die now. You are just a child and haven't been able to choose how to live your life as we have. You must live on for those who died here tonight," sobbed Kasumi, doing her best to shield Shinta with her body. "Please live, Shinta!"
Kasumi was torn away from Shinta by the bandit, who yanked her up by her hair and plunged his sword through her neck, then dropped her to the ground. Kasumi looked at Shinta as the light faded from her eyes.
"Live on, Shinta. Please, live..."
Her words were cut off as the bandit's sword plunged into her throat.
Shinta stared dumbfounded at the bodies of his three friends. Horrified by all the carnage, the small boy finally closed his eyes and imagined that he was in his village with his parents and brothers.
Suddenly, there were sounds of yelping, struggling and the clang of steel. The boy heard voices from the darkness beyond his eyelids.
As Shinta's eyes opened, they beheld a white and red blur cutting through the bandits, sending them all crashing to the ground, blood gushing from their twitching bodies. The blur stopped, revealing a huge swordsman with long black hair pulled back in a low ponytail, sharply chiseled features and a huge billowing white cape with red trim.
"Who the hell are you?!" bellowed the lead bandit.
"There's no point in naming myself to dead men," declared the giant swordsman in a booming voice that promised swift death to his enemies.
"YAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!" cried the lead bandit as he charged at the giant swordsman.
Quicker than Shinta's eyes could make out, the giant swordsman slashed him in multiple places, causing his body to explode into bloody chunks.
The giant then noticed the little boy sitting, staring blankly at the scene.
"You were an unlucky child. The Bakufu's laws have been lax since the black ships arrived six years ago. More and more ronin prowl this area as bandits," said the swordsman in his booming, but not unkind, voice.
The little boy didn't respond or even meet the gaze of the giant, who flicked the blood from his nihontou, wiped it off and sheathed it.
"Somehow, I happened to come this way and have taken revenge for you."
"Hating these men will not bring back your family. Such things happen every day, everywhere in today's Japan. Just be glad you survived," he continued.
Still no response. Was this child dumb or in shock? The swordsman couldn't guess one above the other. Still he was but a child, and the giant felt the unusual stirrings of compassion in his heart.
"If you go to the village at the foot of the mountain and tell them your story, you will be cared for," he said before turning his back and leaving the red haired boy.
The little redhead sat for hours after the giant swordsman left. Neither his mind nor his body could move. The air he breathed was thick with the stench of blood and decay; the screams of the dying still echoed in his ears. The moon moved toward the horizon and was just slipping under by the time he found the will to stand.
There would be no sleep for the waif any time soon. He had work to do.
Hiko continued on his way, pondering the carnage he had just witnessed.
'It no longer surprises me. The smell of blood is now as common as the scent of white plum blossoms. Mankind lives in the hell of being slaughtered by bandits. That boy lives in the hell of being orphaned. It happens every day, as in the past and in the future,' he thought grimly as he paused to look up at the full moon.
When he finally reached his mountain top home, Hiko shut his hikido firmly before removing his white cape, revealing a heavily muscled body. The swordmaster whipped out a jug of sake and poured it into a saucer. As he drank, he found that strangely, his thoughts were traveling back to the scene of the carnage. Images of the little boy with the startling red hair popped into his mind and wouldn't leave even when he tried to banish them.
The child had been so small, fear and grief rolling off his ki in waves. Hiko had seen his share of carnage before, but never had he seen a child sit so still and so silent; most children screamed or cried. What was it about this child that was so different?
The next morning...
Try as he might, Hiko couldn't get the image of the little boy sitting in mute misery among the squalor of the corpses out of his mind. When he found himself dreaming about the child after finally falling asleep, he realized he would have to go to the village and see if the kid was alright if he were ever to have any peace again.
Hiko decided he would wait till evening as he always got a splitting headache when he found himself surrounded by the untrained ki of other people in crowded villages and towns. He spent a leisurely morning practicing his kata, a series of moves that involved drawing his sword from its sheath quicker than the eye could see, leaps, thrusts and other intricate movements. After working up a sweat, Hiko sat down on a log, poured himself some sake and sat drinking it, watching as the sun slowly made its way through the sky.
As he watched the sun, Hiko again found himself thinking about the little redhaired boy. Surely by now, he was in the home of some kindly woman who was smothering him with affection, cooing to him that everything would be alright forever and preparing a piping hot bowl of stew for him to eat. However, Hiko knew this was only hopeful supposition until he saw for himself.
As the sun began to make its way toward the western tree line, Hiko made his journey down to the village under the presumption of buying sake from the old man he had bought it from since he had settled on the mountain a year ago. This man knew all the goings on in the village and would be able to tell Hiko if the redhaired boy had in fact gone there.
Hiko arrived at the house and pounded on the hikido frame. Fudoro, the sake vendor, peered out the barred window. Upon seeing who it was, he grabbed a jug of his finest sake and slid his hikido open.
"Greetin's, Hiko-san," he said.
"Greetings, Fudoro-san. Would you happen to know if a small boy with red hair showed up in the village in the last day?" Hiko ventured.
"Not that I've seen," answered Fudoro.
"He's not here?"
Hiko was taken aback. He had thought for sure the boy would go to the village. Who would want to stay in a field full of corpses?
"Nope. No kid, no stray cat. Nobody's come this way for a week," was the sake vendor's emphatic response.
Not knowing what else to say, Hiko paid for the sake and left. His feet took him back toward the scene of the massacre. As he walked, he pondered the boy's fate and the state of Japan.
'Suicide in despair? It's certainly common enough these days. Even when I wield my sword according to Hiten Mitsurugi's principles, very often I can't save a soul. I kill and kill, and still the villains, like maggots, spring from Japan's rotting corpse. There will be more and more of these atrocities, and all I can do is bury the victims.'
Hiko was lifted from his gloom by the sight that revealed itself to him in the field. Instead of a battlefield of rotting corpses, the place had been transformed into a makeshift graveyard. In the middle of the field, before three rocks, stood the red haired boy.
Hiko walked out onto the field and stood behind the boy who again did not look at him. The child was filthy, hands bloody and raw from having dug holes and moved the corpses of grown men into them, then burying them. What sort of child was this?
"You buried not only your parents, but the bandits too?" Hiko asked.
For the first time, the child spoke.
"They were slavers, not my parents. My parents died of cholera last year," he said in a sad, soft voice. "Bandits or slavers, once they're dead, they're just bodies."
"Still, you made graves for them?" asked Hiko, unable to believe what he was witnessing.
Hiko's eyes traveled to the three stone graves.
"What are these three stone graves?" he asked.
"Kasumi-san, Akane-san and Sakura-san," explained the boy. "All three were taken from their parents by force as payment for debts. I only knew them for a day, but I was the only boy here and an orphan. So I thought, even if I die, I have to protect them. But instead, they shielded me and begged the bandits to spare me. I was too young to protect them. I wanted them to have special graves, but couldn't find any nice stones. I looked for flowers to offer, but couldn't even find one."
Stepping up beside the child, Hiko uncorked his sake jug and poured it upon the three stone graves. Finally, the little boy looked up at him with huge, soft violet eyes that were far too old for such a young child.
"Man or woman, to move to the next world without knowing the taste of good sake is a crime. A good sake is the least I can do," said Hiko in an unusually low voice as he continued to pour.
There was no doubt about it. This boy was the one!
"What's your name, boy?" Hiko asked as he corked the jug.
"Shinta," was the soft reply.
Hiko's stomach quailed at the sound of such a wimpy name.
"A child's name, unfitting for a swordsman. From now on, your name will be Kenshin. I shall teach you my most precious knowledge," Hiko announced.
Without another word, Hiko began to move away from the grave yard toward his home. It was very late and he was hungry. Whether Shinta, or Kenshin, followed was up to him.
Not a moment later, Hiko heard the sound of soft footsteps behind him and smiled to himself. The boy was awfully small to learn a sword style like Hiten Mitsurugi, but he had a maturity of spirit and strength in his heart that would give him power where his physical strength would fail him. Hiko knew he had chosen well.
As they climbed the mountain to Hiko's shack, young Kenshin began to lag behind the large man. Hiko, with his back to the boy, didn't even notice this until he heard a moan and a soft thud. Turning to look, he saw Kenshin lying prone, sprawled out on the ground. Rolling his eyes, he knelt down and shook the boy's shoulder.
"Kenshin! Wake up!" he said, a bit gruffer than he'd meant to.
"Kenshin!" he said again.
Still no response.
Hiko rolled the boy over to check if he was still breathing, which he was. With an inward sigh, Hiko picked the tiny redhead up in his arms and carried him the rest of the way to the shack. When they got in, Hiko got out a spare futon and set the boy down on it. He opened Kenshin's kimono a bit, revealing a frame that was far too thin and bony.
'No wonder he collapsed! This kid is skin and bones,' Hiko thought. 'I can't begin training him like this. I have to feed him and put some flesh on him first.'
Hiko went to the fire pit and kindled a flame. The boy wasn't to the point of emaciation, so he could probably handle a bowl of miso soup alright. Soon Hiko had a pot of miso cooking. The room filled with the delicious scent.
Hiko heard the rustling of cloth behind him, turned and saw Kenshin sitting up on the futon, looking around with confusion in his violet eyes.
"So all it took was the scent of cooking soup to rouse you from your nap, I see. This is my hut. You'll be living here from now on. I have a spare room in the back that I just use for storage. When you're a bit stronger, I'll have you clean it out and you can stay there," he said.
Hiko glanced at the boy and decided the first thing he needed was a good bath.
"Kenshin, how old are you?" asked Hiko.
"I think ten new years," answered Kenshin quietly.
"Old enough to wash yourself. You positively reek and I don't want my house smelling like blood and corpses," said Hiko, heading over to a shelf.
Hiko handed Kenshin some rice bran soap, a scrub brush and the smallest shirt he could find. With Kenshin following mutely behind him, Hiko pointed to the river flowing a few yards away from his house.
"Leave your clothes on the shore and wash yourself from head to toe. That's the smallest shirt I could find. It'll swim on you, but I expect just about anything will. I'll wash your clothes for you this one time and tomorrow we'll see about getting you some new clothes. The soup should be ready by the time you're finished," the swordmaster instructed.
Kenshin nodded, went down to the river bank, undid his ponytail, stripped and then headed out into the icy water, shivering from head to toe. Hiko knelt down and picked up the filthy, ragged slave clothes and took them to his house. First thing tomorrow, that kid was getting some decent clothes made!
Kenshin waded out to his chest, dunked himself under the water, then lathered up the scrub brush with the rice bran soap. He worked quickly, his breath coming out in vapor streams in the cold evening air. Goose bumps rose on his skin, but he had to admit, it felt great to scour the crusted dirt, blood and filth off his skin.
Finished soaping and scrubbing, Kenshin dunked himself again and came up soap free. Without the dirt and blood on him, naturally pale skin and a beautiful, almost angelic face were revealed. Lathering his loose hair with the rice bran, Kenshin scrubbed it vigorously several times before dunking his ruddy head.
When he came up, hair as scarlet as a sunset was revealed, having been freed from its long entrapment in dust and offal. With the pale skin, violet eyes and incarnadine tresses, young Kenshin was truly a sight to behold. Shivering in the light of the dying sun, Kenshin emerged from the river, water dripping from his thin frame and long hair.
Using the towel, he quickly dried himself off and slipped into the shirt, the bottom of which came down past his ankles. The sleeves were so long, his hands didn't even stick out. Kenshin rolled the sleeves back and pulled his wet hair back into its low ponytail. Picking up the soap bar and scrub brush, he made his way back to the hut before he caught a chill.
When Kenshin got back in, he saw his dripping wet clothes hanging on a line in front of the fire pit. Hiko looked up at the clean but bedraggled looking child and had to choke down a laugh. With his hair dripping and the long shirt trailing past his feet, Kenshin was a funny sight to behold.
"You look like something the cat dragged in," said Hiko with a smirk.
Just for a moment, Hiko thought he saw a glint of anger in Kenshin's eyes. It was so brief, he thought he could have imagined it, but it was definitely there.
"Well, enough chit-chat; soup's on," announced the magnificent swordmaster, gesturing for Kenshin to sit on the floor beside the fire pit to dry his hair off.
Hiko poured the miso into two equal bowls and set one before Kenshin.
"Thanks for the food," said Hiko softly before tucking into his bowl.
When he didn't hear Kenshin follow suit, he looked up and saw that Kenshin hadn't even touched his bowl or chopsticks and instead sat staring at it.
"What? You don't like miso soup?" asked Hiko, pausing his own meal.
"It's impolite to answer a question with silence, Kenshin," reprimanded Hiko. "Do you like miso soup?"
The boy nodded, looking down at the soup.
"Then eat it! That bowl is for you," said Hiko.
Only after Hiko had given this command did Kenshin pick up his chopsticks and begin going after the vegetables and meat that floated in the broth.
'Ah, I see. He thinks he needs to wait till I give him permission to eat. Typical of a slave, I suppose,' Hiko thought sorrowfully.
"Kenshin," said Hiko.
The boy looked up wide-eyed from his soup with a bit of fish dangling from his mouth. Concealing his amusement, Hiko spoke.
"When I give you food, you're to eat it right away and not wait for me to tell you to, or I'll take it for myself. Understood?" said Hiko.
Kenshin nodded and quickly went back to eating. The last thing he wanted was to lose food.
'This is going to take a while. His soul is in far worse shape than his body,' Hiko thought as he returned to his own meal.
After they were finished, Hiko had Kenshin put his bowl away to be washed tomorrow.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to turn in. I'd suggest you do the same so you can start putting some flesh on that scrawny body of yours," said Hiko with a smirk.
The brief flash of anger again. There was definitely a fighting spirit in the boy. It just had to be drawn forth. Hiko pointed to the futon he'd set Kenshin in earlier.
"That will be your futon from now on. Tomorrow, I'll show you around my land and what I'll expect of you," said Hiko before disappearing into his bed room.
After Hiko had gone, Kenshin lay down on the futon, snuggling into the warm blankets. The sun had set, leaving a starry sky outside. The fire flickering behind the kimono hanging from the line cast eerie shadows on the walls. Other than the sound of crackling wood and Hiko's prodigious snoring from behind the closed hikido, the shack was as silent as a grave yard. Kenshin was afraid to sleep. When he had last slept, he had dreamed of the massacre and the three girls dying before his eyes. Tonight didn't promise to be any different, even if he was clean, full and in a warm bed.
Despite his misgivings, sleep overtook the exhausted boy easily enough. It wasn't long however, till the nightmares started.
Shinta looked on in silent horror at the still corpses of his parents, lying in the futon. Suddenly, his mother's violet eyes opened wide and looked at him sadly.
"Shinta, you're all alone in the world. Come sleep with Mommy and Daddy," she pleaded, reaching out toward him.
Shinta scrambled back against the wall, his tiny body quaking as his parents' bodies came to life, stood up and started advancing toward him.
"We miss you, Shinta," moaned his father.
Shinta's eyes filled with tears as he shrank from his parents' advancing forms. He felt hands on him.
His eyes opened and saw the scene shift. Now Ushio, Kazuma and Neishi loomed over him. Shinta struggled but was helpless as hands touched him where they had no business to.
The scene changed again to the battlefield. Kasumi, Akane and Sakura died before Shinta as each girl was slashed with a sword. Their eyes flew open and like his parents, they called to him.
"Come with us, Shinta. We miss you," they called out mournfully.
The bandits advanced, lust in their eyes. Suddenly, there was the swing of a huge nihontou and the large man, Hiko, appeared behind the bandits, cutting them down.
"Come with me if you want to live," said Hiko, holding out a hand.
Shinta took the swordsman's hand and left the battlefield and mournful voices behind him.
Kenshin's body jerked as he came awake. Breathing heavily, he looked about the room. Where was he?!! Then he remembered; he was in the hut of the big swordsman, the man who would be his master starting today. The fire had died down to just a few embers and his kimono looked like it was nearly dry.
Kenshin looked out the window and saw that the sky was still dark, but gradually lightening in the east. There would be no getting back to sleep now. Might as well get up and look around a bit.
Kenshin began to move and realized something was terribly wrong; his sheet was wet. Closing his eyes, he berated himself for being so childish. What would his new master think of him when he found out about this?
Standing up, Kenshin stripped the covering off the futon, then folded the bed and put it away. Going over to the clothes line, he touched his kimono and was relieved to see that it had dried overnight. Stripping out of the way-too-large shirt, Kenshin quickly dressed in his own clothes, which although threadbare, were familiar.
Grabbing the stained sheet and a handful of the ricebran soap, Kenshin headed out to the river where he dipped the bed sheet and began scrubbing it in the icy cold water with copious vigor.
A feeling of fullness brought Hiko to wakefulness. He turned over in his futon, trying to get comfortable so he could ignore the feeling, but it would not subside.
'That's it. No more sake right before bed,' the swordmaster thought to himself as he threw back his blanket and got to his feet.
Hiko slid the hikido open. Instinctively, his eyes fell on the spot in the main room which was supposed to have a futon spread out on it with a small redhaired waif sound asleep in it, but was instead empty.
Hiko stepped down into his sandals and out the sliding hikido. As he walked toward the river, he cast out his ki and was answered by the timid wavering ki of his charge, down at the river bank. Hiko stole a glance through the bushes and found the small form huddled over the river, scrubbing away furiously at something.
After quickly pausing to relieve the fullness, Hiko approached said small figure to find out just what was going on.
"Kenshin, what are you doing?" barked the Master, startling the little boy and causing him to turn around quickly and look up at him with fear-stricken eyes before quickly averting them to the sheet in his hands.
"I wet the bed," said the little boy softly to the giant towering ominously over him.
A trembling Kenshin kept his head bowed, expecting the blow to come any time.
'Oh great...' thought Hiko.
Of all the pupils he could pick, he would have to pick an emotionally traumatized slave with bed-wetting issues. This was going to take a lot of patience and a lot of sake.
"Kenshin, stop trembling like that! I'm not going to beat you for an accident," said Hiko irritably.
Kenshin looked up at Hiko with moist violet eyes. The boy's slavishness would definitely have to be overcome if he were ever to become a swordsman.
"When you're finished washing the sheet, hang it up to dry from one of the tree branches by the hut and we'll have breakfast, then I'll show you around," said Hiko.
After a breakfast of rice and fish, behold master and student walking away from Hiko's hut out to the training grounds. Kenshin's eyes took in everything. There were thick wooden posts and trees to be practiced on and a huge waterfall that fell into the river that he had bathed in last night. What a beautiful sight to someone who had looked on so many unlovely things in his life.
"This is where you'll start training next week," announced the haughty swordmaster. "Right now, we're going to the village and getting some suitable training clothes for you."
Kenshin walked up to the training posts and looked them over. They were sturdy and looked like they had taken a lot of punishment from Hiko's nihontou. Kenshin looked up at Hiko with a question in his eyes, but stopped short of asking.
"If you have a question, ask," said Hiko.
"What happens if I break one of these posts?" asked Kenshin.
"Then you'll go into the forest, cut down a tree and make a new one," Hiko snorted.
Kenshin opened his mouth to say he didn't know how.
"I'll teach you when the time comes," said Hiko. "Alright, come on. Time to get some clothes made for you."
Kenshin fell in behind his master and they headed out. Hiko led the way down the mountain, going at half his usual pace so Kenshin could keep up. Even with the slower pace, Kenshin was completely winded by the time they reached the village.
Hiko took Kenshin to a tailor's shop where he was greeted by a matronly-looking old woman with her hair pulled back in a bun that was held in place by long hair pins.
"Good morning. How may this humble woman serve the great samurai?" asked the seamstress, noting Hiko's nihontou and bowing low.
"This boy needs to be fitted for sword training clothes, three shitagi, two monpei and three sets of tabi," ordered Hiko.
"Ah. Right this way," said the seamstress.
Hiko and Kenshin followed her inside, stepping out of their sandals as they went.
She led Kenshin and Hiko to the back and gestured for Kenshin to stand on a small pedestal. At her instructions, Kenshin held his arms out to his sides while she measured him circumferentially, vertically and horizontally.
"Alright. I'll have the clothes ready by week's end," said the seamstress.
"Very good. Kenshin!" called Hiko, turning to leave.
Kenshin turned from admiring the pretty rolls of fabric and followed his master outside, stepping into his sandals as they started for the path to home.
Later that day, Hiko stood staring at the small redhead, who sat mutely before the fire pit, staring blankly into the lambent flames. Kenshin's body was immobile, except for his eyelids blinking every few seconds as he continued his silent vigil, his mind seeming to be thousands of miles away from where his body was.
After their return from the village, Hiko had allowed Kenshin a few hours' leisure, as the boy was still too frail to begin sword training or even chores. Just the walk up and down the mountain had left him winded and sweating. From that point up till now, Kenshin had remained before the fire, as still as a statue.
With an inward sigh, Hiko stood up, picked up his nihontou and headed for the hikido. It was time for him to practice his kata. He thought about having Kenshin come down and watch him, but decided it would be best to wait till he was actually ready to begin instructing Kenshin in swordsmanship before he showed any of his moves, as otherwise the boy might get impatient and try to start training before he was ready.
"Kenshin," Hiko called.
Startled out of his reverie, the boy's head snapped to the side and looked at him with those large, sad eyes of his.
"I'm going outside for a bit. I'll be back later," Hiko said.
Kenshin blinked, nodded, then returned his attention to the fire.
With an inward sigh, Hiko slid the hikido open, stepped out and closed it behind him. He walked away from the hut and out to the training grounds. Once there, Hiko dropped into a deep crouch, gripping his sheathed sword. At some unseen signal, he wrenched the nihontou from its sheath and swept into the kata his old master had trained him in as a boy.
Hiten Mitsurugi was a sword style that had been designed in the Feudal Era to protect the innocent from oppression by those who were stronger than they were. For 300 years, those who mastered the style had taken the name Hiko Seijuro and traveled the land, protecting the weak from those who would prey upon them.
After an hour, Hiko ended his kata and resheathed his sword, sweat glazing his forehead and breathing a bit faster than usual, but otherwise not a hair out of place. Satisfied with his kata, Hiko returned to the house, slid the hikido open and was dismayed to find Kenshin still staring into the fire, seeming not to have moved at all this past hour.
Hiko decided then and there that he had to do something to snap Kenshin out of this, for his own mental well being as well as the boy's. Hiko went over to a shelf and procured some ink and paper.
"Kenshin, come here. I've something to show you," he commanded.
Startled, the little boy again snapped his head in the direction of Hiko's voice and blinked like an owl roused from its nap. Brain finally kicking into gear, Kenshin gathered his legs under him, rose and walked over to where the Master was sitting.
With Kenshin staring attentively at him, Hiko drew two kanji on the paper with sure, practiced strokes: Ken (Sword) and Shin (Heart).
As the Master drew the lines on the paper, Kenshin watched intently. He knew the Master was writing something out, but beyond that, could guess nothing more.
"Can you tell me what these kanji say?" Hiko asked.
Kenshin looked at the kanji, squinted his eyes, cocked his head, then shook it sadly, as he couldn't even read hiragana much less kanji.
'As I thought,' thought Hiko.
"This first kanji is Ken and the second is Shin," Hiko explained, pointing at each one.
"My... name..." faltered the boy.
"That's right. The name Kenshin means Sword Heart. You have a great desire to protect other people. That's why I chose this name for you," explained Hiko. "Someday, when your training is complete, you will have a powerful tool that will allow you to protect everyone you see before you."
"Protect everyone I see?" parroted Kenshin, eyes lighting up just a bit.
"Yes. The sword wielded by a Hiten Mitsurugi master is always wielded to protect the weak and prevent the shedding of innocent blood," said Hiko solemnly.
At the mention of bloodshed, Kenshin paled and shivered, visions of the three sisters flashing into his mind's eye.
'Damn,' Hiko thought, seeing the change in his pupil.
Before Kenshin could withdraw into himself, Hiko thrust the ink box, brush and a blank paper into the boy's hands.
"I want you to copy these kanji just as I've drawn them. In addition to swordsmanship, you will also learn how to read and write," Hiko announced.
"Read and write?" Kenshin parroted again.
"Absolutely. A true swordsman is a master of brush strokes as well as of sword strokes," Hiko answered. "Now get to work."
"Yes, Master," said Kenshin softly, sitting down with the paper before him and dipping the brush into the inkwell.
As Kenshin lifted the brush out, large drops of ink dribbled from its bristles.
"Too much ink," said Hiko, immediately covering Kenshin's hand with his own and showing him how to wipe the brush along the rim of the inkwell to keep excess ink from dripping onto the floor. "There. That's how you do it."
"Thank you," said Kenshin softly, now concentrating on the paper.
Hiko sat back and watched as Kenshin laboriously and haltingly copied the strokes of the kanji, trying to remember the order the Master had drawn them in. The first result was unbecoming, to say the least, when Kenshin held it up for inspection.
"I can't even begin to read that. Try again," Hiko instructed.
"Sorry, Master," Kenshin mumbled as he dipped the brush, wiped it on the rim of the well and took it to the paper a second time, moving slowly and carefully.
Hiko watched, silently nodding his approval as Kenshin's strokes were just the tiniest bit more certain this time around. The second results weren't much better than the first, but were at least legible to Hiko's eyes when Kenshin held the paper up.
"This looks more like chicken scratches than kanji, but at least I can make it out this time," was Hiko's warm praise.
Over the rest of the week, Hiko continued to feed Kenshin a high protein diet to get some flesh onto the boy's thin body. He was pleased to notice that within three days, Kenshin was beginning to look more like a real boy and less like a waif of the world. His eyes were brighter and the hollow spots on his face and frame were beginning to fill out. His skin was still pale, but perhaps that was normal.
Now that Kenshin was a bit stronger, Hiko introduced his pupil to his regular chores which included: Chopping the firewood, gathering water from the river, washing the dishes and cups, dusting, sweeping and scrubbing the floor. Keeping the boy busy with chores from dawn till dusk served two purposes: beginning to build up strength and endurance and keeping the boy from getting lost in his own head as he always seemed to do when idle.
Kenshin also found himself washing his bed sheet every morning.
"New rule. Nothing to drink for 30 minutes before you turn in," said Hiko on the fourth morning of Kenshin's stay at his hut as he watched the boy scrub yet another bed sheet.
Kenshin could only nod in agreement.
"When you're finished with the sheet, we'll go and see if they're ready," said Hiko.
After Kenshin hung the sheet out to dry, he followed Hiko down the mountain to the village. As they walked, Kenshin found that the journey, while still long and arduous, didn't tax him quite as much as it had the first time.
When they came to the tailor shop, they went inside and stepped out of their sandals before stepping up into the store. The seamstress recognized them immediately.
"Ah, yes. They're all finished," she chirped. "Wait here and I'll get them for you."
Hiko nodded while Kenshin stood still beside him, again admiring the pretty fabrics.
The seamstress returned with the clothes folded in a pack with a string tied around them so they could be carried easily. She made to hand them to Hiko, but he stopped her.
"They're not mine," he said, gesturing to Kenshin.
The seamstress handed the pack to Kenshin, who took it in his arms. Hiko paid the seamstress, then turned to Kenshin.
"Well, she made them for you. Aren't you going to say something to her?" he asked.
"Thank you for the clothes, madam," he said so softly that he could scarcely be heard.
"You're most welcome, little one," said the seamstress, not believing Kenshin any older than eight.
Kenshin's cheeks turned scarlet at being called "little one," but he decided it prudent not to rebuke her in the Master's presence.
"Kenshin!" called Hiko as he turned and headed to the genkan.
Kenshin followed Hiko out of the shop, stepping into his sandals as he went. Back up the mountain they walked, Kenshin finding it quite difficult to navigate with the clothes in his arms, but not daring to drop them, nor to ask for help.
Finally, blessedly, they reached the shack. As soon as they were in, Hiko turned to his apprentice.
"Alright, Kenshin. I want you out of those rags and in your training clothes in five minutes. Your week of leisure is up as of today," announced the Master.
Kenshin frowned. He hadn't found the week too leisurely, what with Hiko making him do writings and chores nearly from sunrise to sunset. Hiko turned and strode from the cabin.
Laying down the pack and untying the string, Kenshin lifted the clothes out. There were three shitagi, one blue, one gray and one dark green and two monpei, both the same shade of gray. Kenshin selected the dark green shitagi for his first day.
Quickly, the boy stripped down to his fundoshi, picked up the dark green shitagi and slid his arms into the sleeves and folded the left flap over the right, then stepped into the monpei, pulled them up and tied them. Next he pulled the tabi onto his feet as far up as far as they'd go. He then stepped outside the hut, stepping into his sandals as he went.
Kenshin walked down to the training ground, conscious of how different he felt in these clothes. He had never had new clothes in his life, having worn his brothers' outgrown clothes as a peasant and rags as a slave.
Ah, there was Hiko by the large training posts. Kenshin stood before him.
"About time. I was beginning to think you didn't know how to tie your monpei," teased Hiko.
Kenshin flushed scarlet with indignation.
"M-Master!" he cried.
Hiko snorted, then looked Kenshin over with a critical eye.
"Hmmm, you still look like a stray puppy with that ponytail. C'mere," he said.
Kenshin stood before his Master, who turned him around, pulled his hair out of the ponytail, smoothed it down a bit, then caught it and yanked it up into a high tail.
"Quit yelping. I'm almost done," said Hiko, binding Kenshin's hair in its tie. "There. I'll teach you how to do it yourself tonight."
Kenshin reached up and felt his hair, now pulled up in a high ponytail on the back of his head, just like the samurai. It gave him a queer feeling.
Hiko pulled a pair of gauntlets out from his cape and held them out to Kenshin, who took them slowly and slid his hands into them.
"They were mine as a boy. They'll serve you well," said Hiko.
"Thank you, Master," said Kenshin softly.
"Now, just one more thing," said Hiko, again reaching into his cape.
Hiko pulled out a sheathed wakizashi and held it out to Kenshin. Skin turning paler than usual, the boy quailed and took a step back. Hiko blinked.
"Well, what are you just standing there for? Take it!" he barked.
"A real sword?" asked Kenshin in a subdued voice.
"Of course a real sword," snorted Hiko. "What did you think you'd train with, a stick?"
Kenshin nodded dumbly.
"What a stupid student I have," chided Hiko.
"Look Kenshin, I'll tell you this once and only once: A sword is a deadly weapon. Swordsmanship is a way to kill. Whatever pretty words you call it by, that is its true nature," said Hiko, again holding out the wakizashi.
Kenshin reached for the wakizashi, but his hand began to tremble so violently, he had to pull back. He looked at Hiko with shame in his face. What kind of student was he when he couldn't even hold a wakizashi?
"You're thinking of those girls," said Hiko.
Kenshin started. How did the Master always do that? Mutely, he nodded.
"That memory can either destroy you or make you stronger," said Hiko.
"I want to be stronger," said Kenshin, meeting his Master's gaze.
"Then use that memory as your driving force. You will get stronger so you can prevent what happened to those girls from happening to anyone else you see," said Hiko.
Kenshin nodded, eyes starting to blaze up as the fear was replaced by the determination to grow strong.
'Good,' thought Hiko.
"Enough talk. Training begins!" said the Master, again holding the wakizashi out for Kenshin.
'It's heavy,' the boy thought to himself as he took the sheathed weapon into his hands.
"Well, are you going to spend the day marveling at it, or actually begin learning to use it?" asked Hiko impatiently.
Kenshin looked up at his Master and nodded, all the doubt gone from his eyes.
'For Kasumi-san, Sakura-san and Akane-san,' Kenshin thought as he slowly drew the polished blade from its sheath and slid the sheath into his obi.
"Now the first thing is how to hold the sword. Do as I do," said Hiko, gripping his nihontou with his left hand at the bottom end of the hilt and his right hand at the top, just below the juncture between the hilt and the blade.
Kenshin adjusted his grip and held the wakizashi tightly. Hiko gave his nihonto a few basic swings and Kenshin followed suit. Although he was clumsy as any beginner would be, Hiko detected definite ability. Kenshin just needed proper training and he would go far with the blade.
For the rest of the afternoon, Hiko demonstrated the basic slashes and stances while Kenshin watched and mimicked him. Sometimes he caught on right away, sometimes he needed some coaching.
"Not like that, dummy! Do it again and get it right this time!" barked Hiko after a very sloppy horizontal slash.
"Yes, Master," said Kenshin.
He repeated the slash more smoothly and looked to Hiko for approval.
"Acceptable," he said while quickly moving on to the next one.
With an inward sigh, Kenshin continued. He put more strength and determination into each swing as he went. With each movement, Kenshin overcame his fear of the blade and instead began to embrace it as his way to get stronger. One day, with a sword at his side, Kenshin would defend the common people from the tyranny of the stronger. His strength would be theirs!
When Hiko was certain Kenshin wasn't looking, he nodded his approval. He could sense the determined spirit in the boy's ki. With each swing, the shackles of slavishness fell away a bit more, revealing Kenshin's true spirit.
Their practice continued even as the sun slipped toward the horizon. As the sun set and the birds and woodland creatures returned to their homes, Hiko carried an exhausted Kenshin back to the hut. The boy would get stronger and would be a worthy successor in a few years. It would be an honor for Hiko to pass the Hiten sword onto him, then he would be able to rest at last.