The sun was just creeping into the sky from the eastern tree line as a tall, muscular man in a white cape emerged from his shack, followed by a tiny wisp of a boy with hair the color of a burning flame.
Hiko couldn't believe it had already been two weeks since he had taken in the small waif Shinta, whom he had renamed Kenshin. Already, the shack seemed like a completely different place, infused with the pulsating vibrancy that only a child could bring, even a child as emotionally damaged as Kenshin.
The past week had been spent training young Kenshin in how to hold and swing a wakizashi properly. Kenshin had done surprisingly well for a beginner. However, he was very small and frail and it was difficult for him to hold his sword for long periods of time. During the first week, the boy would frequently get winded and end up dropping his sword clumsily to the ground. Seeing that Kenshin was a beginner, Hiko would merely glare at the boy and allow him to take a five-minute break when this happened. However, Hiko was determined to wean him off that because in a true battle, no one got a break when they got winded, except the permanent break.
Hiko stood to the side as Kenshin drew his wakizashi and began swinging it in the rhythmic kata that was starting, even now, to become instinctual to him. This was good; Hiko nodded his approval. However, swordsmanship was way more than just knowing how to grip and swing a sword. In the heat of battle, true mastery meant keeping one's sword on one's person at all times, even if they were beyond exhaustion. If the sword was separated from its wielder, the wielder's fate was sealed.
Hiko stood watching as his apprentice swung, at first with sharp, rhythmic strokes, then as the sweat began to bead on his brow, with sloppy and wavering strokes. Suddenly, Hiko lunged forward and struck Kenshin's right hand on the knuckles with his sheathed nihontou, sending his apprentice's wakizashi clattering to the ground.
"OW! MASTER! Why did you attack me?" yelped Kenshin, clutching his throbbing hand to his chest and staring up at Hiko with pained betrayal in his eyes.
Why had the Master attacked him just now? Had he done something wrong?
Inwardly, Hiko winced at Kenshin's pained expression. Up till now, the boy's eyes had shone with gratitude and admiration (and well they should!), but it couldn't stay that way. Hiko was training an apprentice, not raising a son. It wouldn't do for them to love each other too much, so he had learned from his own master.
Kakunoshin Nitsu knelt before his huge ogre of a master Hiko Seijuro XII, a large imposing man with long black hair, a full beard and the most feral, piercing eyes one could imagine. The eight-year-old pupil clutched his dislocated right shoulder, his wakizashi lying uselessly at his side, as he glared up at his huge, stern master.
"You dropped your sword!" Hiko barked.
"Because you dislocated my shoulder!" Nitsu screamed, tears coursing down his cheeks from huge gray eyes.
"Tears?! In the midst of a spar?! A true warrior never shows tears when he wields his sword!" shouted Hiko, smashing his sheathed sword into Nitsu's hurt shoulder, sending the boy rolling a few feet.
Slowly, Nitsu struggled to his feet, still clutching his shoulder and fixed Hiko with a wrathful gaze.
"You bastard! I hate you!" he ground through clenched teeth.
"Good," said Hiko, pausing to take a swig of sake. "It'll make beating your worthless ass down that much more enjoyable."
Hiko picked up Nitsu's wakizashi and tossed it at the boy, striking him in the head.
At the blow to his brow, Nitsu keeled over backwards, his world exploding in pain, a curtain of purple clouding his vision.
"Now pick up your sword and attack me!" came the Master's voice from beyond the fog of pain.
Wincing and shaking his head to try and clear his vision, Nitsu gingerly picked his wakizashi up in his left hand. He clumsily positioned the weapon in his non-dominant hand.
"Hurry up, stupid! We're burning daylight and you still have chores to do when we get back to the hut!" barked Hiko.
'Chores? When I can't even use my right hand?! What is it with this bastard?!' thought Nitsu. 'If he wants me to attack him, I'll make him regret it!'
"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!!!" raising his sword clumsily over his head in his left hand and ignoring the jarring pain in his head and right shoulder, Nitsu charged toward Hiko to attack him with a Ryu Kan Sen.
Smirking to himself, Hiko drew his nihontou in a graceful move and easily batted aside Nitsu's attack, sending the boy flying into the bushes.
"You have to be the stupidest apprentice in the history of swordsmanship," declared Hiko as he took another swig of sake. "Now get back on your feet and attack me for real!"
No. Nitsu and Hiko XII had not been close by any stretch of the imagination. But Hiko XII wouldn't have molded Nitsu into Hiko XIII had he been soft with him. Neither would Hiko XIII mold Kenshin into Hiko XIV by being soft with him. Hiko steeled his soul against the sympathy he felt for his student and leveled a glare on the little redhead.
"You dropped your sword," the Master reprimanded severely.
"Because you hit my knuckles!" protested an irate Kenshin, caressing his hand.
Hiko smiled inwardly. It was very rare for Kenshin to challenge anything his Master said or did and moments like this were a welcome change from the slavish obedience that still weighed the boy's soul down much of the time.
"If you were in a real sword fight, what do you think would happen if your opponent knocked your sword from your hand?" Hiko challenged.
Kenshin opened his mouth to answer, then promptly closed it, realizing there was but one answer.
"No matter what I hit you with, or how I hurt you, or how tired you get, from this moment forth, you must never let go of your sword. A warrior's sword is his life!" lectured Hiko, steely eyes boring into the little boy's large ones.
With a big gulp and a quick nod, the tiny redhead knelt down to pick up his sword, his lifeline, warily eying Hiko all the while. Kenshin stood up again, clutching his sword before him and staring at his imposing Master.
"Well, what are you just standing there gaping for?! Practice your kata!" Hiko commanded sharply.
Kenshin nodded and began swinging his sword once again, still watching Hiko for any sign of suspicious movement. When the Master made no further move to knock the wakizashi from his hands and instead sat on his log to drink sake, Kenshin relaxed a bit and concentrated more on his kata.
As Hiko watched, it didn't take long for Kenshin to start to tire again. With a sadistic smirk, the swordmaster rose to his feet and disappeared behind a clump of bushes, circling around behind the small redhead, who was still swinging his sword.
Suddenly, Hiko lunged out of the bushes at said small redhead, giving the boy a shove and sending him sprawling forward.
Kenshin felt the impact from behind and saw the ground rapidly approaching. The only thing he could think of was the Master's firm command.
'Hold the sword! Hold the sword! Hold the sword!'
Kenshin felt his poor little face get scuffed up by the hard ground, but to his relief, he felt the weight of the wakizashi's hilt still in his grasp. Rejoicing in this small accomplishment, he stood up and turned around to see what had shoved him from behind.
Standing behind him was Hiko, that wicked smirk on his face. Hadn't the Master been sitting on the log, drinking sake?
"Master! Why did you shove me from behind?!" Kenshin cried in agitation.
"Do you think all your enemies will attack you honorably from the front?" Hiko challenged.
Kenshin opened his mouth to answer, but again stopped short. No... They probably wouldn't... At length he shook his head unhappily.
"A warrior must always keep his senses tuned to his surroundings and be ready to fend off surprise attacks from any angle," Hiko warned solemnly.
"Yes, Master," sighed Kenshin, looking down at the ground.
"Now, do 200 more swings. Then you can fetch water from the river for our midday dinner," said Hiko, settling himself back on the log and whipping out a jug of sake to drink.
"Yes... Master..." *sigh*
It was a warm, clear spring day on Hiko's mountain. The 13th inheritor of Mitsurugi stood outside his shack appraising the kata of a teeny-tiny red-haired boy that he had taken on as his apprentice just last month. He had found the waif about to die at the hands of bandits, all of whom he had cut down. The next day, he had returned to the scene of the carnage to find that this wisp of a boy had buried all the dead, including the bandits! Hiko had concluded on the spot that this little boy was worthy to inherit Hiten Mitsurugi, with which he would one day protect the people of Japan.
In his month under Hiko, Kenshin had shown surprising competence at swordsmanship, grasping the basic stances that Hiko had shown him with surprising alacrity. He had also learned very quickly to keep his grip on his sword, even when Hiko would suddenly try to knock the sword from his hands by whacking his knuckles with his sheathed nihontou, knocking the boy to the ground or tripping him. Through everything, he always kept his sword in a tight grip, even when it resulted in bruised and bloody knuckles.
Because of this, Hiko decided to start teaching Kenshin some of the actual Mitsurugi moves, the basics of which was battoujutsu, the art of drawing the blade from its sheath in a fast arc and instantly cutting down one's opponent.
"Alright, Kenshin. You have a decent grip on the fundamentals. Now I'm going to train you in battoujutsu, the art of drawing the blade," said Hiko, standing up from the log and approaching his student, who had just finished his kata.
"I can do that," said Kenshin brightly, slowly drawing his wakizashi from its sheath and holding it before his Master. "See?"
"Yes, I see," said Hiko patiently. "And in the amount of time you took to draw your sword, I could've hacked you to bits."
Kenshin quickly resheathed his wakizashi. Hiko slid the sheathed nihontou into his belt. He then crouched down, spine curved, legs bent at the knee, right leg forward, left hand on the sheathed sword and right hand hovering over the hilt. Kenshin watched and waited as Hiko stood still for what seemed like an eternity, large eyes taking in and memorizing every aspect of his Master's stance. Suddenly, in a blur of motion, Hiko took a step forward, his right hand grasping the hilt and yanking the nihontou free of its sheath in an arc of motion so swift that it generated a powerful wind which knocked Kenshin over backwards.
What a difference there was between merely drawing one's sword from the sheath and this art of battoujutsu!
"I trust you took all that in?" asked Hiko, straightening himself up and resheathing his blade.
Still quite overwhelmed by the power of his Master's battoujutsu, Kenshin got shakily to his feet.
"I, I think so," he said, eyes as wide as saucers.
"Well, one way to find out. Do what I did," commanded Hiko.
Kenshin's little face scrunched up as he played back everything Hiko had just done in his mind. Seeing as his little dummy's eyes were closed in concentration, Hiko permitted himself an amused smile, which disappeared as Kenshin's eyes opened. Focusing his gaze intently straight ahead, Kenshin slowly assumed the stance he had seen his Master use: spine curved, legs bent at the knee, right leg forward. His left hand securely held the sheath in his belt, thumb unlocking his wakizashi from the sheath by pushing up on the tsuba. His right hand hovered over the hilt.
"Left leg farther back. Right knee bent more," corrected Hiko.
Kenshin corrected his posture.
"Unsheathe!" commanded Hiko.
Kenshin's right hand seized the hilt of his wakizashi and yanked it from its sheath in a silver blur as he stepped forward. However, he failed to maintain a secure grasp on his wakizashi, which went flying out of his hand as soon as it was freed from its sheath. The sword whirled straight toward Hiko, who stepped aside to avoid it, and embedded itself in the trunk of a nearby tree.
"Oro?" yelped Kenshin, looking with horror at his empty palm.
"Moron, what did I tell you about losing your grip on your sword?" chided Hiko.
"If I lose my grip on my sword, I'll die," answered the shamefaced little boy.
"Get your sword out of that tree and do it again. This time, grip it tightly," commanded Hiko.
"Yes, Master," said Kenshin meekly as he ran to retrieve his wakizashi.
Kenshin yanked at the wakizashi, but it was fast in the tree's thick trunk. Gripping the hilt with both hands, Kenshin planted the soles of his feet firmly against the tree's trunk and gave a mighty yank. The blade found its way out of the tree trunk and sent the little redhead pitching backwards and rolling several yards back.
PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP PLOP!
"Ororororororororoooooooo..." groaned the poor, swirly-eyed little boy, lying flat on his back on the ground.
During this entire scene, Hiko had to choke down the urge to laugh at his apprentice's mishaps. Instead, he barked out a sharp order.
"Hey, stupid! This is training time, not nap time! On your feet now!"
"Sorry, Master," mumbled the small boy, carefully getting to his feet and shaking his head so the world would stop spinning.
"Now, repeat the battoujutsu with a firm grip on your hilt," ordered Hiko.
Kenshin nodded at his Master, then resheathed his wakizashi and resumed the battoujutsu crouch, mindful of his Master's earlier stance corrections. His thumb against the tsuba loosened it from its locked position.
"Unsheathe!" commanded Hiko.
Kenshin yanked his wakizashi free of its sheath and stepped forward, this time keeping his grip on his sword tight as it swung out to the right. However, he wasn't fully prepared for the power of a proper battoujutsu and found his whole body twisting around to the right, causing him to lose his footing and land on his left side.
"Dullard..." mumbled Hiko, burying his face in the palm of his hand.
"I kept hold of my sword," pointed out Kenshin, pulling himself to his feet.
"You kept your sword but lost your footing. Guess what the end result of losing your footing would be in a real fight," challenged Hiko.
Kenshin gulped, looking up at Hiko.
"The same as losing my grip on my sword?" the boy asked.
"Ah, so you do have a brain in that empty space you call a head," said Hiko with a smirk.
"Master!" chided the boy.
"Enough battoujutsu practice for now. It's time for midday dinner. We'll pick up again after you've got something in that bottomless pit you call a stomach," teased Hiko.
Kenshin was about to protest that his stomach wasn't a bottomless pit when it protested its empty state loudly.
"I'll go get the dishes," said the subdued boy.
"You do that," said Hiko, going to kindle a fire to cook their ton soup, which they would eat outside since it was such a beautiful spring day.
Kenshin returned with the dishes, chopsticks, a cup for himself and a saucer for his Master. He then sat and watched as Hiko added the pork and green onions carefully to the ton, stirring slowly. The Master's food was the best he had ever tasted, even better than his mother's had been. Kenshin hoped to be able to cook as well as Hiko one day, so to that end, watched carefully whenever his Master prepared food.
Soon, the delicious ton was piping hot and ready to be served. Hiko ladled out the stew and they took up their chopsticks to eat.
"Thanks for the food!" they said in unison before digging in.
Eating mechanically, Kenshin played back Hiko's and his battoujutsu in his head. Hiko's, of course, had been flawless. His own was full of flaws; first losing his grip on his sword, then over-rotating and falling over. Kenshin was determined that on his next try, he would perform a flawless battoujutsu!
The ideal of battoujutsu was to yank one's blade from the sheath while taking a step forward and slashing the enemy, all in one fluid motion. What Kenshin had to do was find a way to draw his sword quickly from its sheath, yet not so quickly that it flew out of his hand or made him fall. Both of these blunders would be lethal in a true battle.
'My next battoujutsu has to work. How will I ever get strong enough to protect people if I'm so clumsy?' the boy berated himself.
As he ate, Kenshin heard a soft rustling in the bushes near where he and Hiko sat. His eyes traveled to the cause of the noise to behold a pit viper watching a small field mouse intently, staying as still as a statue. The small mouse, oblivious of the danger to it, got closer and closer...
In a blur, the snake lashed out, biting the mouse with its toxic fangs, grabbing it in its mouth and yanked its head back, swallowing the mouse all in one motion.
As his huge eyes took the primal scene in, Kenshin instantly juxtaposed the snake's strike with his Master's battoujutsu, both lashing out in one perfect movement. Kenshin looked back from the snake to his big Master. If the Master and that snake could perform a perfect battoujutsu, then so would he, even if it killed him.
After the midday dinner, Hiko and Kenshin again stood on the training grounds. Kenshin stood with his eyes closed, once again replaying the viper's strike and Hiko's perfect battoujutsu in his head. Their perfection was what he had to aim for.
"Are you going to stand there daydreaming all day, or are you going to attempt a battoujutsu?" the Master's voice cut in.
Kenshin's eyes snapped open as he looked to his Master and nodded. He then dropped into his battoujutsu crouch, eyes fixed straight ahead.
Kenshin yanked the wakizashi loose from its sheath and swung it in front of him while taking a firm step forward. This time, he felt the weight of the sword still in his hands and the firmness of his stance as he went forward.
'I did it!' he thought exultantly.
Hiko felt a slight breeze from the boy's motion and nodded his approval. It was a clumsy beginner's battoujutsu, but the fundamentals were there.
"Well, that's a slight improvement from that mess this morning," was Hiko's warm compliment to his expectant pupil.
"Thank you, Master," said Kenshin with a dispirited sigh.