I'd let the lantern go out in order to run. I could have hunted for Kenshin's trail as I made my way back down the road, but that would have slowed me down, and this way is faster in the long run. When tracking, it pays to be methodical. I relit the flame and started again.
It was faster going here than it had been in the forest, especially since I was now looking for only one thing: where Kenshin had left the road. And I promptly gave up on being methodical. There was no need to track his every footstep; all I needed was to find some trace every several yards that told me he'd still been on the road. When the trail ran out, I'd know where to search for him.
I held down my panic. It had already wasted me forty minutes, and I couldn't help feeling that every one of those minutes counted now. I'd seen no sign that Kenshin had stopped to rest while crossing the forest. That he'd stopped here, when he was almost home, on the easiest part of the walk....
The trail ran out just a mile from the cottage. I stopped, listening hard as I turned back to pick it up again. He must be nearby, though I could hear only the wind in the trees.
"Kenshin!" I yelled. "Kenshin, can you hear me?"
"Shishou! I'm here..."
I felt a rush of relief. His voice was faint, but surprisingly close by, just off the left side of the road. He was still alive.
I hopped across the ditch and onto the embankment. It took me a second or two to spot him; he'd hidden himself quite well under the dense lower branches of a fir tree.
"Don't move," I said, and lopped off the tree at its trunk, kicking it aside and showering Kenshin with a flurry of fir needles.
Kenshin was trying to sit up. "No, don't," I said, setting down the lantern and crouching next to him. "Just lie still." He subsided back onto the ground, looking up at me with wide eyes. Under the streaks of dirt and blood his face looked worryingly pale.
I looked him over quickly. He seemed to be in one piece, at least, and he hadn't cut up his shirt after all. He'd only cut the tails off, so that it still provided some minimal warmth, though he couldn't tuck it in and it was hanging open in the front. He'd used the tails to bandage his right leg, which had bled rather badly. Other than that, he seemed to be in reasonably good shape, aside from cuts and scrapes and some painful-looking bruises. The fact that he was still alive meant there wasn't any serious internal bleeding.
"I'm sorry," he was saying. "I broke your cup."
I paused to follow his eyes. The fine ceramic was lying in three pieces in the fir needles in front of him, beside his sword. He'd carried the pieces back all this way.
"Don't worry about it," I said. "I can make another." I felt his scalp, checking for head injuries. He had a goose-egg just above his forehead -- probably where he'd whacked it on the bridge as he fell -- but nothing else. Lucky. He'd managed to avoid the rocks.
"Shishou," he said again, "I didn't make it to the mountaintop." He was trying to sit up again. I pressed him down gently.
"It's all right," I said.
He looked a little agitated. "I shouldn't have fallen. I should have been more careful. If I'd jumped faster--"
"No, it's all right," I repeated. "You did very well." No obvious sprains or broken bones -- anything like that would have swelled up in the past twelve hours and would be hard to miss. Some pretty serious bruising on his left shoulder and down that side of his back. He'd probably hit a rock after all. The broken ceramic had gouged him in the stomach. That's the downside to carrying things in your shirt. His skin was awfully cold.
I glanced at Kenshin's face to see how he was doing before moving on to his bandaged leg. He was watching me, his eyes big and worried, looking like he was about to say something. I untied the cloth and quickly unwrapped his leg. He tensed, wincing.
"Sorry. It'll just be a minute." I inspected the gash on his thigh. It looked horrible, ragged and uneven and covered in blood, but on second glance I could see that it wasn't all that deep. It was angled in such a way that walking had kept pulling it open. It must have hurt like hell. Since Kenshin had been lying still, though, it had pretty much stopped bleeding.
I couldn't treat it properly here. I pulled out the roll of gauze that I'd grabbed when I'd stopped by the cottage for the lantern and bandaged up Kenshin's leg again. Then I laid my cape on the ground and lifted him onto it, wrapped him up and scooped up the whole bundle into my arms. I swear, that cape must weigh at least as much as he does.
"Doing all right?" I asked him. He'd yelped when I'd moved him, and was still trying to catch his breath again. His breathing sounded a little off. Water in the lungs?
"I didn't make it home..." His voice was faint.
I picked up the lantern and Kenshin's training sword and started briskly up the road. "You did fine, Kenshin," I said, in a soothing voice. "I've got you now. We'll be home soon."
I'd expected him to nod and relax, but instead he stared up at me, looking stricken. Had I just tweaked his bruises or something? I shifted my grip on him.
"Shishou? Am I going to die?"
I almost dropped him. "What?!" Sure, it must hurt a lot; sure, he was cold and tired; but his injuries weren't life-threatening. He should know that. But then, he'd probably never been hurt like this before, and he'd therefore be looking to me for a judgement of how serious it was. And I had said...
'Don't worry about it. I can make another.'
I had said...
'It's all right. You did very well.'
I had said...
'I've got you now. We'll be home soon.'
Good grief! I'd said THAT? No wonder he was worried! Well, no more. I glanced down at him and raised an eyebrow.
"Die? You'd better not. Not till you've done your kata and those five hundred sword swings."
It took a moment for this to sink in, and then Kenshin's eyes widened. "Five hundred? But this morning you said--"
"Ah yes, of course. I said six hundred, didn't I." I seriously doubt he can do six hundred sword swings in one day. His arms will feel like they're falling off by four hundred and fifty.
He stared at me for a second or two, and then I felt him relax. "Hai," he said, and smiled a little.
"You should watch this if you can. Kenshin?"
Kenshin opened his eyes. He'd dozed off while I was carrying him home, and I'd laid him on some blankets next to the fireplace while I built up a nice fire and got my first-aid stuff ready.
I started unwrapping the bandages on his leg. "I said, you should watch this if you can. It's something you'll have to learn sooner or later."
He tilted his head slightly to get a better view -- rather unenthusiastically, I thought. His eyes looked dull and clouded.
I inspected the gash in his leg again, thinking out loud for Kenshin's benefit. "It looks like this was made by a broken branch in the river. Yes?"
"I don't know," Kenshin whispered.
"Hah. You should pay more attention to that kind of thing. It can be important." I tilted his leg to get a better view. "I'll have to make sure there aren't any splinters left in here. That's an infection risk. Or any dirt from the riverbank." I slid a towel under his leg and dunked some gauze in hot water.
"Did you try to wash this out before you bandaged it?" I asked him as I started cleaning out the wound. He gasped and shuddered, squeezing his eyes closed. I stopped. He looked awfully pale, and his breathing had gone ragged and forced. Maybe I'd have to teach him this later.
"Or you can pass out, if it makes you feel better."
"...thank you..." he whispered.
He kept his eyes closed after that. But I don't think he actually passed out until I rinsed the gash with sake.
Great stuff, sake. A hundred and one uses. I sipped the last of it from my cup and smiled sardonically.
The jug was empty. I'd used almost all of it on Kenshin's leg, plus his other less serious cuts and scrapes. I'd be damned if I was going to let his wounds get infected. Doing the stitches had been nice and easy. There are some benefits to knocking out one's patient.
Kenshin had come round an hour or so after I'd finished. He'd seemed disoriented and in a lot of pain, in no condition to do anything but sleep, so I'd forced him to drink some medicinal herbs and lie back down. He'd drifted off again soon after.
I wasn't too worried. Kids heal fast, and my apprentice seems to be especially durable. I've never even seen him sick, in the two years that I've had him with me; even I caught a cold once in that time. But somehow I just didn't feel like sleeping that night, so I stayed up and kept an eye on him.
By the following morning, Kenshin had developed a horrible cough which shook his whole body and sounded like his lungs were full of mucus. I'd thought his breathing had been a little off the night before. I watched him, and waited, and worried about pneumonia. I was sure by then that he'd gotten a lungful of river-water, and he'd been borderline hypothermic when I'd finally found him by the roadside.
But aside from the cough and a mild fever, nothing else happened, and even those had subsided by the third morning. His wounds were well on the way to healing, and of course with my medical skills there was no infection. He couldn't get out of bed yet, but by then he was alert enough, so to keep him busy I decided I'd teach him how to read and write. No way am I going to bring up an illiterate as my apprentice. It turned out he already knew the hiragana -- his parents had taught him; who knew? -- so I started him right out on the simpler kanji. And when his head was as full of kanji as it could get in one day, I showed him how to sew and had him mend his clothes.
He was back on his feet after a week. I wouldn't let him do his kata yet -- he was still limping badly and I didn't want him to do any more damage -- but I gave him permission to practise sword swings if he could avoid hurting himself in the process. Then I headed down the mountain to do some shopping. I needed rice and miso, and most importantly more sake.
When I got back, Kenshin was lying sprawled on the ground, training sword still in one hand, gazing up at the afternoon sky. I raised an eyebrow.
"I thought I told you not to hurt yourself again," I said.
"I'm just resting," he replied, sitting up with some effort. "I'm not done yet. That was only four hundred and eighty."
My other eyebrow joined the first. "I see," I said. Of course, he was completely useless the day after that, since his arms were so sore. So I taught him a bunch more kanji. No use just having him lie around.
It's been a fortnight now, two weeks since Kenshin's little misadventure, and he's finally stopped limping. It's certainly about time! I'll teach him that new kata this afternoon, and tonight we start on tracking. But first, I had something to deliver.
Though I couldn't teach Kenshin much while he was laid up, I hadn't been wasting my time. I'd done some experimenting with my glazes, trying new blends and firing them up in batches on scrap pottery to test the colors. I'd found one I was happy with -- a subdued blue, almost violet, the exact color of Kenshin's eyes. That color went on the new cup. And this time, I carried it up the mountain.
I'd repaired the bridge, a few days ago. Normally that was the kind of chore I'd have Kenshin do, but maybe I'm still a little paranoid. I very carefully checked the rest of the planks for soundness, something I wouldn't normally have done.
The last stretch up to the shrine is a long flight of stone steps, hundreds of years old. I had Kenshin sprint it, as usual, watching his motion carefully for any sign of remaining soreness. When he reached the half-way point, I started after him.
He beat me to the top. By six steps.
"Not bad," I told him, as I stood around letting him catch his breath. "You're getting faster. I'll have to give you less of a head start next time."
Kenshin smiled up at me. He looked genuinely happy. Probably just glad to be out and running around again.
I couldn't quite help smiling back. He may be an idiot, but he's the only apprentice I've got.