January 5, 1862
It was a bright, cold winter's day. The sun had just risen above the eastern tree line and was now causing the snow crystals to twinkle and glitter like so many diamonds.
Amidst all this hibernal beauty walked a tall, muscular man with long black hair pulled back in a low ponytail, white cape hanging from his shoulders and at his side, a short, lithe boy with long red hair pulled back in a high ponytail, green shitagi concealing his slender frame. Master and pupil strode purposefully forward, their paces matching perfectly. At each swordsman's waist hung a sheathed blade. The master used a wooden hilt nihontou while the student used a wakizashi, as he had been too short and frail to hold a real katana when the Master had taken him in almost three years ago.
Hiko turned his head partway to look at Kenshin. For the first time, he found himself becoming aware of the physical changes that had taken place in his student. His hair was longer, thicker and if Hiko were the type to care for aesthetics, he would have said it was a deeper red, closer to crimson than it had been when Kenshin had first become his apprentice. The boy's face had lost much of its babyish roundness and was beginning to show the more distinct jaw and angular lines of young manhood. And while his limbs and body were still lithe, they were no longer scrawny looking, but instead were wiry with well-trained muscle.
Continuing his appraisal of the boy, Hiko smiled inwardly. Gone was the sad, timid little boy he had rescued from the squalor of a battlefield. In his place was a well-trained young swordsman whose moves were precise, stance sure and the slash of his blade unyielding during their spars. True, the boy had yet to land a blow on him, but he was able to dodge and block nearly all of Hiko's blows by now. Kenshin probably didn't realize it, but he was already at a level higher than many of the finest samurai in Japan, a level that while nowhere near the Master's, would serve him well on any battlefield once his training was complete.
'And if I didn't know any better, I'd say he's actually grown a few inches...' Hiko thought as they arrived at the training grounds.
Master and student took their usual positions, facing each other and bowed from the waist. This done, they dropped into their respective battoujutsu crouches.
For a seeming eternity, all was still as Master and student faced off, sizing each other up. Not a muscle on their bodies twitched, not even their eyelids. Even the wind seemed to have stopped blowing, as though anticipating what was to come.
"BEGIN!" Hiko commanded.
The stillness broken, both swordsmen drew their blades simultaneously.
The greater wind from the Master's more powerful battoujutsu rushed toward the student who leapt into the air to dodge. Instantly, the Master was charging at him from the ground, blade held horizontally before him.
RYU SHO SEN!
Kenshin held up his wakizashi and was barely able to block Hiko's charge from the ground. The boy dodged to the side and countered with a swing to the side
RYU KAN SEN!
This was blocked by the Master's blade. The two pushed against each other for a moment, before returning to the ground, the Master landing with perfect ease, the student stumbling back a few steps, but staying upright.
'Not bad, kid,' Hiko thought, face betraying no emotion.
One moment, Kenshin was standing before Hiko. The next, he was in right front of Hiko, sword held horizontally before him as he launched himself toward the Master's throat.
RYU SHO SEN!
Caught off guard, Hiko had to raise his blade quickly to block Kenshin's attack.
Kenshin went flying back, flipped, landed upright and charged again.
Kenshin gave all of his strength, throwing every attack he knew at Hiko, seemingly all at once. This time, he was going to land a blow on his pompous ass of a Master!
RYU SO SEN, RYU KAN SEN, SO RYU SEN!
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
Hiko blocked and dodged all of these attacks, but had to acknowledge that it was not with the same ease as even a year ago. Kenshin was a ball of energy in perpetual motion and Hiko knew that if he even blinked, Kenshin would be able to get past his defenses and land the blow he had been trying so desperately for.
Wishing to put an end to this barrage, Hiko suddenly kicked out with his right leg with the intent of tripping up his student. However, instead of connecting with the boy's body, Hiko foot hit empty air. A flicker of movement from above was his only warning.
RYU TSUI SEN!
Again, Hiko was barely able to raise his nihontou and knock Kenshin's attack aside. However, instead of falling on his rear or even stumbling back as he would have in the past, Kenshin reached out, grabbed a low-hanging tree branch and pulled himself up into the tree. Master and student glared at each other from their respective stations on land and tree.
'I wonder if he knows how close he came to landing a blow on me,' Hiko thought as he looked up at the boy who wasn't quite a boy anymore.
'I was so close!' Kenshin thought as he glared down at Hiko.
"Enough!" Hiko barked, resheathing his sword to show that the spar was over.
Upon seeing this, Kenshin dropped gracefully from the tree branch, landed and drew himself upright.
"I was close, wasn't I?" he asked, looking at Hiko with bright eyes.
"Close to what?" asked Hiko.
"To landing a blow!" Kenshin answered with a bit of irritation.
"The difference between landing a blow and coming close is the difference between surviving or being killed in battle," was Hiko's answer.
"I know that," said Kenshin with a frown.
"Then don't waste my time with stupid questions. Now, I'm going to the village. There are things I need to purchase," replied Hiko, turning and walking back to the hut.
"Can I go with you?" Kenshin asked hopefully as he trotted along at the Master's side.
"Not today. The hut is filthy and needs a good going over. I'll expect it to be spotless upon my return," was Hiko's answer.
Kenshin's head lowered and his shoulders sagged. How he hated sweeping and dusting! But he knew better by now than to argue, as arguing only ever got him more hateful chores, such as laundry detail. He still shivered inwardly when he recalled washing out the Master's fundoshi!
"Yes, Master..." he said.
A scowling Kenshin watched from the window as the Master's white-caped form disappeared down the hill, walking the trail that led to the village.
'The Master knows I love going to the village with him. Why couldn't I go with him and do the dusting after we got back?' the boy thought unhappily before turning mind and body to the onerous chore at hand. 'After all, I'm a swordsman, not a maid!'
With a sigh of derision, Kenshin picked up the broom and started herding the dust particles toward the edge of the floor.
Kenshin was just putting the last touches on his dusting when he heard the hikido slide open. The boy quickly put the cloth away and turned to help Hiko put away their supplies.
"Your sweeping and dusting are as half-assed as ever. I've a good mind to make you do it again," Hiko criticized as he surveyed the spotless interior of the hut while Kenshin began putting things in their place.
'What?! What the hell is his problem! I worked my butt off and got every last speck of dust and debris out of the house!' Kenshin thought, body tensing for just a second as he continued to put things away.
"Really? I was sure I'd gotten it all," he replied in a soft, apologetic tone.
"I'm sure you were sure. Well, never mind. I'll let it slip this time because we have all this crap to put away. Take those two bags of rice out to the storage shed!" commanded Hiko as he took a jug of sake he had just purchased and plopped down to drink it before the fire pit.
"Yes, Master," said Kenshin. ‘When he says we, he really means me...’
After stepping into his sandals, Kenshin exited the house and headed for the storage shed, carrying the two heavy rice bags tucked under his arms. As he stepped outside, he was hit by the chilly air, which was warmed not one iota by the bright sun that shone overhead. Ignoring the cold and passively watching as his breath exited his mouth in vapor trails, Kenshin made his way through the snow toward the storage shed, heavy footsteps making loud crunching sounds as he went, due to the added weight of the bags.
Kenshin slid the hikido open and entered the shed, a small, dim room lit only by the sun's light shining in through the slatted window. In the back reposed the last bags of rice from their previous foray into the village. As Kenshin knelt down to deposit the two new ones, he noticed something lying behind the old bag and went over to investigate it.
Lying on the floor was a sheathed sword, several inches longer than his wakizashi. Kenshin picked the sword up and slid it part way from its sheath. The polished blade gleamed in the sunlight and reflected his large violet eyes right back at him.
'A full-sized katana! I wonder whose it is,' he thought as he slid the blade back into its sheath.
"Master! Look what I found in the storage shed!" Kenshin cried as he quickly slid the wooden hikido open, bounded across the genkan and out of his sandals and leapt across the room, all in one graceful move.
"Quiet down, idiot! You're making enough noise to rouse the dead!" was Hiko's gruff response.
Kenshin pulled himself up short.
"Sorry, Master," he said with a bow.
Nothing daunted, Kenshin held the sword out.
"Look what I found! Is it yours?"
"Well, if it was in the storage shed, I highly doubt some stranger just randomly left it there," answered Hiko.
"So it is yours?" pressed Kenshin.
"Not really. I've no need of a katana when my nihontou suits me just fine," replied Hiko.
"So whose sword is it?" persisted Kenshin.
Hiko's eyebrow twitched.
"Well, the two of us live here, so if I don't lay claim to the katana, then it must belong to..." Hiko trailed off, hoping for Kenshin to finish the sentence.
Kenshin blinked cluelessly and cocked his head.
Hiko took a big gulp of sake and sighed inwardly. For a student who was so bright with swords, the boy was profoundly stupid with people.
"It's for you, dullard..." he finally said with a sigh.
The next thing Hiko knew, Kenshin had leapt up from his place on the floor and wrapped his thin, wiry arms around the Master's thick, muscular neck.
"My first real sword! Oh, thank you, Master! I'll make you proud!" Kenshin cried as he hugged Hiko.
"If you want to make me proud, try acting like a real swordsman instead of a besotted maiden!" growled the Master.
"Oro! Sorry, Master!" Kenshin apologized as he meekly returned to his place.
The boy picked up the sheathed sword and again pulled the blade part way from the sheath.
"Yes. That sword is for you. You've been here just under three years now and are simply too tall for the wakizashi to be a good weapon for you any longer, so it's time for you to have a full sized katana," Hiko explained as he stirred the stew.
"Can I go outside and test it?" Kenshin asked eagerly.
At Hiko's nod, the boy tore outdoors, stopping only to step into his sandals as he went. In the wintry air, Kenshin held the sword out before him, testing its weight and balance in his grip as Hiko had taught him to. The sword felt absolutely perfect. He gave it a few test swings, the blade making a fine whooshing sound as it sliced through the air. Kenshin's eyes brightened and his whole being was suffused with effervescent joy.
After taking a breath to steady himself, Kenshin launched into his kata, working his way up from the basic forms he had mastered during his first year with Hiko to the mid-level forms he had mastered the second year, then to the advanced forms in which he was still training. As Kenshin moved, he could feel the difference in the power between his old wakizashi and this katana. The cuts were more precise and the thrusts packed a greater punch.
'My kata is completely different from before! I'm a real swordsman now!' Kenshin thought in elation as he wound his kata down, moving slowly to cool himself off.
From his vantage point inside the hut behind the slatted window, Hiko nodded his approval at his student's graceful kata and the shine of confidence he saw on his boy's features. Seeing that Kenshin was about to make his way inside, Hiko quickly retreated to his cushion and took up his saucer of sake.
"Thank you so much, Master. My new katana feels perfect!" Kenshin said upon reentry.
"You can thank me by training hard tomorrow," was Hiko's answer.
"I will!" Kenshin said happily as he knelt down and rested his new katana at his right side.
"The stew's finished," announced Hiko.
"Thanks for the food!" the two swordsmen said in unison before picking up their chopsticks.
All the while they ate, Kenshin's eyes drifted over to the sword that reposed at his side. Right at this moment, his pride and joy knew no bounds.
After they had finished and put away the dishes to wash tomorrow, Hiko decided that he was spent for the day.
"I'm turning in. Be ready for a hard day's training tomorrow!" declared the Master.
"Good night, Master," said Kenshin.
"Yeah, yeah..." was Hiko's response as he disappeared into his room.
Kenshin did his final chores of the evening, which were making sure the hikido was securely bolted and the fire was doused in the fire pit. These tasks completed, Kenshin retreated to his room for the night. Inside the room, he unfolded his futon and climbed in, depositing his new sword carefully at the head of the bed, within easy reach.
The next morning, Hiko and Kenshin again stood facing each other in their battoujutsu crouch.
"Begin!" Hiko shouted.
Immediately, master and student yanked out their swords, meeting with a resounding...
Kenshin and Hiko pushed against each other for a moment, then broke apart, Hiko taking a step back, Kenshin stumbling back, but keeping his footing. Immediately, they charged again, Kenshin attacking with a Ryu Tsui Sen, Hiko answering with a Ryu Sho Sen. They met in the air, pushing at each other, before breaking apart. Hiko immediately charged forward with a Ryu So Sen, which Kenshin dodged by jumping to the side and countering with a Ryu Kan Sen, which Hiko barely blocked.
As they fought, Hiko felt the burgeoning power behind Kenshin's slashes and thrusts. With a real katana in his hands, the moves contained twice the power they had before. The Master knew it was now only a matter of time before the boy would be able to land his first blow during their spars. This meant that it was really time to ramp up the training and make Kenshin work to land that blow. He would be doing the boy no favors by making it easy for him to land a blow as this would only lead to false confidence.
With that in mind, Hiko summoned all of his godspeed, effectively disappearing from Kenshin's sight.
Kenshin sensed the burst of kenki from behind him and just to the left. On instinct, he turned and raised the iron sheath, meeting the downswing of Hiko's blade with a loud...
Kenshin pushed up. Hiko pushed down. A contest of strength was no contest at all and in seconds, Kenshin felt his legs buckle underneath him as the Master's weight pushed him down on one knee. Still he wouldn't give up and continued to push up with the sheath. Hiko pressed in more. This forced Kenshin to do the unthinkable: drop his katana aside and push up on the sheath with both hands.
When Hiko pressed in again, Kenshin decided the only way to end this and come out with his dignity intact was to get away. Suddenly, he tucked and rolled out from under Hiko's blade, causing the Master's sword to hit the ground. While rolling, Kenshin was able to grab his katana off the ground.
Again the blast of kenki warned Kenshin and the boy was able to raise his katana and block the Master's swing, immediately jumping back and out of Hiko's range.
The battle continued thus for the rest of the day, two or three times Kenshin came perilously close to striking Hiko, but Hiko wasn't a Mitsurugi master for nothing and was still able to thwart the boy's attempts. However, he found that he could no longer spar while leisurely sipping sake. Kenshin was an opponent that he had to fight seriously now.
'It's just as it should be,' Hiko thought as Kenshin blocked his Ryu So Sen.
As the sun set, Hiko and Kenshin made their way back to the hut. As was always the case, Hiko strode along easily, not a hair out of place while a winded and flushed Kenshin stumbled along behind him, the katana that had galvanized him earlier now a dead weight clanking mercilessly at his hip.
When they reached the hut, Kenshin still had no rest as it was his night to cook. After the burdensome chore of fetching water from the river, Kenshin began laboring over the stew pot while Hiko settled on his cushion next to the crackling fire.
'He's better than I ever hoped he could be. If all goes well, I'll be able to pass the secret on to him in about two years. Then will come my time to rest,' Hiko thought as he leisurely sipped his warm sake while he watched the boy labor.
Tomorrow would be another arduous training day.