The mountain hut's wooden hikido slid open to reveal a large muscular swordsman with chiseled features, clad in a white cape with red trim. The great swordsman stepped outside and started forward, trailed as always by the pupil who was the antithesis of his Master: short, thin and angel-faced.
The tiny boy noticed immediately that the Master wasn't leading him down to the training grounds with the posts, but instead out into the large field. The last time Kenshin had done any training in the field was during the week Hiko had had him practice the So Ryu Sen over and over again to strengthen his arms.
"Stop right here," Hiko commanded.
Kenshin obeyed, watching as the Master walked a few yards ahead, then turned around and faced him.
"Attack me!" Hiko commanded.
"Oro?" was Kenshin's brilliant response as he stood rooted to the spot, staring cluelessly at Hiko.
"Do you know what the word 'attack' means?" chided Hiko.
"Then why are you still standing there?" Hiko asked.
Kenshin stared at the Master's stony visage, which held not even a trace of humor in it. The Master was being serious and actually wanted him to attack! Kenshin gulped deeply and scuffled his sandaled feet on the grass. Even though Hiko could be kind of mean at times, Kenshin had no desire to raise his sword against him.
"I... I don't want to hurt you," Kenshin stammered out by way of explanation for his hesitancy.
For a moment, Hiko was silent. Then a smile spread quickly across his features and he began to laugh openly.
"HA HA HA HA HA! You, hurt me? Boy, you are years and years away from landing so much as a scratch on me, if that ever happens at all!" Hiko chortled.
Kenshin's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in anger. The Master was underestimating him!
'I've been training for four months and I've mastered the So Ryu Sen! How can the Master be so sure I wouldn't hurt him if I attacked?' he thought in disbelief.
"When I saved you from those bandits, how many of them were able to cut me with their swords?" Hiko asked.
Kenshin's memory of that chaotic night was blurry, but he definitely remembered that not one of the bandits had been able to get near Hiko.
"None of them," he answered.
"Then what the hell makes you think a scrawny little runt like you could?" jeered a wickedly grinning Hiko.
Kenshin's eyes blazed. His short stature had always been a sore point with him.
"I could! I may be small, but I'm fast!" the boy declared.
Hiko blinked. For the first time, his subdued, slavish little pupil was openly contradicting him. This was exactly what he wanted. A smirk played on the swordmaster's lips.
"Fast or not, you couldn't cut me in a million years," he taunted.
"You're underestimating me!" Kenshin challenged, staring defiantly at Hiko.
"You're overestimating yourself!" Hiko barked back at the boy.
"I am not! I could slash you if I wanted to!" Kenshin hollered back, cheeks flushing.
"Then quit yapping and show me!" Hiko commanded.
'That arrogant jerk! I'll show him! I'll slash him!' Kenshin thought as he quickly pulled the sheath from his obi and charged at Hiko, sheath clutched in his left hand.
When he judged himself within range, Kenshin drew his sword in battoujutsu.
'HITEN MITSURUGI RYU...'
In the blink of an eye, the Master pivoted himself from his position in the path of Kenshin's attack to just behind him and to the right. Twisting his body as he moved, Hiko drew his nihontou in a rapid battoujutsu and slashed Kenshin's right arm.
'HITEN MISTURUGI RYU - RYU KAN SEN!'
PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP!
Kenshin was sent flipping head over heels, feeling the blinding pain blossoming in his right arm.
"MASTER!" he screamed, certain his sword arm had been slashed completely off.
"Quit whining, I didn't cut deeply enough to injure you," said Hiko.
Kenshin dragged himself to his feet and looked down at his arm. Surely enough, even though there was a stinging, bleeding cut, it wasn't at all deep. He looked back up at Hiko.
"That move... was another type of battoujutsu, right?" Kenshin asked.
Hiko smirked, pleased that even in the midst of being slashed and knocked over, Kenshin had caught enough of the move to recognize its basic nature.
"Correct. This was the Ryu Kan Sen or Dragon Spiral Strike, a defensive battoujutsu move that involves twisting your body as you draw your sword. The twisting motion adds power to the already powerful blade draw and allows you to instantly kill your opponent, or in this case, knock him on his ass," teased Hiko.
Kenshin scowled as he resheathed his sword.
Hiko dropped into his battoujutsu crouch and slashed forward.
Not missing a beat, Kenshin performed his battoujutsu while twisting his body to the right as he had seen Hiko do.
'RYU KAN SEN!'
Their blades met as Kenshin was able to block the Master's slash.
Realizing he wouldn't have enough power to stay on his feet, Kenshin gave a push and leapt back out of Hiko's range, stumbling badly and having to touch the ground with his left hand to keep from wiping out completely.
'He was clumsy, but he did manage to block my slash with his Ryu Kan Sen,' Hiko thought, actually quite pleased with Kenshin's first defensive battoujutsu.
"Not too bad. That's enough for now. We have to attend to your wound so it doesn't fester," instructed Hiko.
Kenshin winced and bit down on his lower lip to keep from yelping as Hiko liberally applied rice bran soap and water he had boiled to the shallow slash that ran from his shoulder to his elbow.
'The Master must have really great control of his sword to be able to cut me without actually hurting me,' Kenshin realized as he watched the Master clean his cut out.
"How does a swordsman have enough control over his sword to be able to only cut the skin, but not actually go all the way down to the bone?" Kenshin asked.
"Years and years of training," Hiko answered as he began winding a bandage around Kenshin's arm. "I took many such slashes from my own Master during my training. The only way to truly respect the sword is to feel the pain it can inflict. Remember that pain always whenever you desire to raise your sword against someone."
"I will," Kenshin replied softly as he watched the Master wind the white linen around his upper arm.
Today's spar had shown him something very clearly: that life with the sword would be a life of pain, both receiving and inflicting it.
'When the time comes for me to raise my sword against someone in serious battle, I have to understand what I'm doing. A sword is a deadly weapon and swordsmanship is a way to kill. My sword must be a sword that protects the innocent and only kills if there's no other way to settle things. I have to know my reasons for fighting and my heart must be in the right place when I do it or I won't be any better than the bandits who killed Akane-san, Sakura-san and Kasumi-san,' Kenshin thought as he gazed solemnly at his now bandaged arm.
Hiko saw the pensive look on his pupil's little face and nodded to himself. Today's lesson had been a harsh but necessary one. Now that Kenshin had some idea of what it was like to be slashed with a sword, he would be thoughtful and would not attack impulsively as he had today. This was the difference between a true swordsman and a wanton murderer.
'And a true swordsman is what he will be, wielding his sword according to our school's teachings,' Hiko thought confidently as he went to put everything away.