Disclaimer: This fan fiction is based on the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime series. Rurouni Kenshin characters are the property of creator Watsuki Nobuhiro, Shueisha, Shonen Jump, Sony Entertainment, and VIZ Comics. This is a nonprofit work for entertainment purposes only. Permission was not obtained from the above parties.
Written by: Terry L. McElrath
It was quite early, just after breakfast, and Himura Kenshin was in his room, sitting in front of the open shoji that led to the balcony that ran the full-length of the inn, watching the clouds drift slowly to the north. He had found out some time ago that cloud-watching calmed him, allowing him to feel a measure of peace for a short while. He treasured these moments, which were too few, too seldom. A soft knock at the shoji leading into his room brought him back to his surroundings with a jerk. Extending his inner senses told him who was outside his room. "Come in," he called.
"Forgive me, Himura-san," Tsunoda, the innkeeper, apologized as he slid open the shoji, bowing nervously. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but Katsura-san requests that you attend him in his office downstairs."
Kenshin stood up smoothly, slipped his daisho through his obi, and walked past the innkeeper, murmuring "thank you" as he left his room. Moving through the inn with the silence of the assassin he had been, he quickly arrived at the door to Katsura's office. Upon hearing Katsura's quiet "enter" after knocking, Kenshin slid the shoji open and stepped into the room, bowing respectfully to the man kneeling behind a low table.
"Good morning, Kenshin," Katsura Kogorou said pleasantly, waving negligently to a cushion near the table. "How are you this morning?"
"Good morning, Katsura-san. I am fine, thank you," Kenshin replied, laying his daisho on the floor after kneeling facing Katsura.
"I'm glad to hear that, Kenshin. It's much too nice a day to spend indoors," Katsura remarked, indicating a stack of papers waiting to be reviewed. "So I'm going to let you spend some time outside today." He looked expectantly at Kenshin, obviously waiting for him to say something.
Kenshin, not sure what Katsura wanted him to say and not being comfortable with small talk, anyway, simply sat patiently, waiting for him to continue.
Katsura mentally sighed. Trying to engage Kenshin in conversation was like trying to chat with a rock. He had never been one to talk much; but since his return from Otsu, he had been even less communicative than ever. Katsura felt a tremendous sense of responsibility for the young man's suffering. He had brought Kenshin into the Ishin Shishi and asked him to become a shadow hitokiri, even though he was only fourteen at the time. When it had become too dangerous to stay in Kyoto after the attack on the Ikedaya, it was his decision to send Kenshin and Tomoe to Otsu, to live together posing as man and wife. He had been surprised when they had actually married. Unfortunately, Katsura had asked Tomoe to become Kenshin's sheath to protect his sanity and, in a way, that had led to her tragic death at Kenshin's hands. He felt it was his duty to keep the lines of communication open with the former hitokiri as a way of stopping him from retreating further from contact with others. In this way, Katsura hoped to be able to help Kenshin retain the humanity for which Tomoe had sacrificed everything to help him recover.
"A shipment of Western armaments has arrived from Osaka. Because of the plan to destroy the main Shogunate supply depot in three days, those arms are needed immediately, so there will be time to distribute them before the troops move out. The weapons are, therefore, being taken to the northern mountain training camp this morning," Katsura stated, getting straight to the point.
Surprised, Kenshin responded, "You are sending the shipment during the day? That's very dangerous. How many carriers?"
Nodding, Katsura agreed, "Yes, I know it's dangerous, but we really have no choice. I'm only sending the one wagon. I want you to accompany it, along with three other men. It will appear that two merchants are delivering a load of rice and you will be posing as a guard."
Eyes narrowed in concentration, Kenshin considered the situation. Katsura was risking the entire cargo, with only four guards? Usually a shipment would be split up into a number of small loads and sent out over a period of several days, to minimize the danger of losing the valuable supplies. The Ishin Shishi must need the weapons badly, indeed. Well, he remembered, there have been some serious losses recently. With only four men guarding the wagon, it was unlikely that any Shogunate spies would become suspicious. There was no question of refusing the mission, of course. Kenshin had sworn to do whatever was necessary to bring about the new era and he had taken on more difficult assignments in the past. "It's a bold plan, Katsura-san."
"Yes, Kenshin, and the very boldness of the plan may be its saving grace. It is certainly unlike anything we have done in the past. I probably wouldn't have agreed to do this, if you weren't going to be there. I have great confidence in your ability to handle anything that comes up." In fact, Katsura considered Kenshin's extraordinary abilities as a fighter to be the equivalent of sending a full troop along as protection. And the apparent lack of guards would be excellent camouflage for the shipment.
Kenshin bowed his head in acknowledgment of the compliment Katsura had paid to him. He had no doubt as to his ability to cope with any situation that might arise. Kenshin deeply respected and – more importantly – trusted Katsura, and would do everything within his abilities to accomplish any task he set.
Katsura continued his instructions on the assignment. "Go to the Shimizu warehouse near the Kamo River in the Shimogyo-ku," he said, handing a slip of paper with the address to Kenshin. "Report to Iwamura Kazuhiro. I believe you know him?"
"Yes, Katsura-san, I have worked with him before," Kenshin confirmed, glancing down to memorize the address before placing the piece of paper back on the table.
"Good. He will introduce you to the others who will be escorting the wagon with you. From there, you will accompany the shipment to the training camp." Katsura picked up two envelopes and handed them to Kenshin. "Give this one to the sentry at the camp. And give this letter to Commander Suga Hatsuke, he is expecting it. Wait for his answer. Once the weapons have been delivered, I want you to return to Kyoto as soon as you can."
"Yes, Katsura-san," Kenshin agreed, slipping the envelopes inside his gi before standing and sliding his swords into place. "I will report to you as soon as I return this evening." Bowing, he left the office and went back to his room.
Once there, he began going through his clothes, looking for a suitably nondescript outfit. He had decided he would appear to be an ordinary ronin and, for that, he could not look particularly noteworthy. He found a dark brown hakama and gi, choosing a tan yukata to wear under the gi. Changing quickly, he picked up his hat on his way out of the room. He always wore a hat when he went outside during the day; it helped cover his distinctive red hair. Within minutes he was leaving the inn, heading toward the southern district.
Even as quickly as he could walk, it took him nearly an hour to arrive at the Shimizu warehouse, what with the crowds and all the horse-drawn vehicles congesting the streets. He made a mental note to tell the other men protecting the wagon that it would take longer than usual to get out of Kyoto.
Kenshin knew he was being watched several blocks before reaching the warehouse, as he sensed the fighters' auras of a number of men scattered on rooftops throughout the area. Unobtrusively, he wandered through the streets, checking out the situation. Without seeming to notice, he carefully located the various observers, seven in all. It took him only a few minutes to discover a route to the warehouse that was not visible to the guards. Sloppy, he thought disapprovingly. It shouldn't have been that easy to bypass the security. Of course, he was accustomed to avoiding traps. It was a skill he had honed to a fine art during his time as the Ishin Shishi's best Shadow Hitokiri and it had served him very well many times.
He slipped into the warehouse through a window that faced onto a blind alley, having entered the alley by dropping down from the roof of one of the facing buildings. Moving between the rows of merchandise as silently as a ghost, he listened to the voices of the men moving around inside. The others were unaware of his presence as he stood in the shadows watching them. He recognized Iwamura Kazuhiro immediately. Iwamura was directing seven other men as they loaded barrels of rice onto a large wagon.
Conversation ceased abruptly and two men drew their swords when Kenshin suddenly appeared in their midst. Kenshin completely disregarded the blades and looked steadily at Iwamura, who laughed, surprising the swordsmen.
"Himura-san, you enjoy scaring the daylights out of people, don't you?" Iwamura asked, chuckling. "Relax, men, this is Himura Kenshin, he's on our side."
"Your security is lax," Kenshin stated severely. "I've been listening to you for a while, and I could have killed all of you without any difficulty. Who set up your defenses? How long have you been using this warehouse?"
Iwamura sobered up immediately. "Katsura-san's new second in command, Uchida-san, arranged for the use of the warehouse and guards, and this is the first time. What's wrong?"
Kenshin ignored his question, asking another, instead. "How many lookouts are there around the warehouse?"
"Six. Why?" Iwamura asked, suddenly very serious.
"You're sure it's six?" Kenshin queried, looking sharply at Iwamura. "Do you know where they are located?"
"Yes, to both questions."
"Show me," Kenshin demanded.
Iwamura didn't hesitate, walking over to a dusty counter. Using his finger, he drew a crude, but effective, map of the area surrounding the warehouse. "They're on the rooftops of these buildings," he said, marking each spot, creating a roughly circular pattern surrounding the warehouse. "Each site commands a good view of the streets leading here. What's going on Himura-san?" he asked again, wiping the markings away with a sweep of his hand.
"Not good enough. I didn't have any trouble getting here without being seen." Kenshin thought for a moment before continuing, "There are seven observers out there. Stay here and finish loading the wagon, but be on guard. I'll be back in a few minutes." Nodding once, he left, moving as silently as before.
Back in the blind alley, Kenshin easily leaped to the roof of an adjacent building. From there, he crossed two more roofs before jumping back down into another alleyway, avoiding any possibility of being seen. Recalling the map Iwamura had drawn for him, he used several back streets to come up behind the building concealing the unexpected spy. Kenshin had spent the extra time getting here considering the possibilities. This observer's post was outside of the Ishin Shishi perimeter and not in direct sight of the warehouse. It seemed likely that the agent wasn't specifically watching the warehouse itself, but probably the general area, instead. He had to be taken care of, however. Because of the man's location, it would not be possible to get the shipment past him without his knowledge. Granted, he might not suspect anything, but Kenshin was not prepared to take that risk.
Taking time to make sure there were no witnesses, Kenshin jumped to the roof, landing noiselessly behind a chimney. Scanning the rooftop, he didn't see anyone, but his ability to sense ki said that he wasn't alone. Where are you? Ah . . . very tricky. The spy was hidden in a cleverly concealed niche, which posed an interesting problem: how to get to the man without exposing himself to attack first. One of his Shishou's training exercises came to mind, when he had taught Kenshin how to use his ki to convince an enemy that he was helpless. Let's see just how sensitive you are. Kenshin concentrated on some of his more painful memories, sending the sensations toward the unseen observer. Gradually, he began strengthening the mental image, building a picture of pained helplessness. Just as he was beginning to think the man was incapable of receiving the impressions, Kenshin heard the scuffle of sandals on the roof. Curious, the man walked toward the back of the building, looking down into the alley for the source of the distress he had detected. Moving around the other side of the chimney, Kenshin stood behind the spy and stopped projecting his ki. "You're looking in the wrong direction," he said quietly.
Sakoda jerked at the unexpected voice, but smoothly continued the motion, spinning to face his adversary. He drew his katana and smirked confidently when he saw the small man standing there. The agent easily stood a foot taller, and was at least ninety pounds heavier. He had no doubt as to the winner in this confrontation. "Where are the others?" he asked, looking around for the expected ambush. "You're pretty puny bait."
"There are no others."
He was a bit confused by the little man's relaxed manner, but quickly regained his confidence. After all, he held the title of best swordsman in his troop. "Then you die alone," Sakoda replied, laughing harshly.
The Shogunate spy charged forward, feinting a slash toward the swordsman's unprotected right side, only to change the swing at the last moment, expecting him to try to dodge the strike. His target disappeared, but his momentum carried him forward two more fateful steps. Sakoda started to look to his right, expecting the man to have slipped to the side to avoid the stroke. Out of the corner of his eye, though, he saw him suddenly appear at his left and felt white-hot pain blossom throughout his abdomen. Stumbling to a stop, Sakoda looked down disbelievingly as his guts began to protrude through the slice that had nearly cut through his spine. Falling to his knees, his sword slipped from his numb grasp as he feebly tried to hold himself together. He was dead from the massive shock to his system before he fell face-first into a pool of blood.
Kenshin cleaned his blade and sheathed it before he searched the body, looking for information and finding none. Unfortunately, the hidden niche proved to be empty as well. It appeared to be a permanent lookout, however, indicating this was a regular post. Looking around at the other buildings, Kenshin wondered if there was more than one observer. He had to assume so, although it would take far too long to find any others. Besides, even if they saw the wagon, it would be difficult to pinpoint which warehouse it had come from, now that this lookout had been eliminated. He had to get back to the others quickly, though, as the Shogunate would know soon that their spy had been discovered. They would most likely begin to search the area immediately. The weapons must be long gone before that happened.
Kenshin was pleased when he found that the wagon was loaded and ready to go. The men were standing guard at the doors and windows, watching for any sign of attack. "Iwamura-san," he said softly, almost laughing when the man jumped.
"Damn it, Himura-san! Don't do that!" Iwamura complained. "All taken care of?"
"Yes. We need to leave now. I've got a message for Uchida-san. Tell him that the Shogunate has set up permanent lookouts around this area, at least, and they're well disguised. There will be a search of the buildings as soon as they discover their spy is dead, so you will have to clear out immediately. It won't be safe to use this warehouse again, so make sure he warns Shimizu."
"I'll be certain Uchida-san gets the message, Himura-san." Fists on his hips, he turned to glare at the men who had been watching the hitokiri. "All right, you heard the man! Get moving!" Iwamura ordered, making the others scramble, some going to the wagon, others heading toward the main doors. "The armaments are loaded and ready to go, Himura-san. The bed of the wagon has a large hidden compartment and most of the barrels of rice have false bottoms. It wouldn't be a good idea to let any of them fall. Many of the barrels are packed with explosives."
Kenshin's eyes widened slightly with the realization that the shipment was dangerous in more ways than one. He then walked over to the wagon, giving the three men standing there his undivided attention. Two were dressed as moderately successful merchants, their kimonos well-made, but not flashy. The third man was dressed more roughly, since he was the driver. Of course, they weren't wearing swords; it wouldn't have been appropriate. That was his cover, being their guard.
Iwamura walked over. "Sorry, Himura-san, I haven't introduced you to the others yet. They are Hagino Ichiro, Tsurubuchi Danno, and Ikeda Mashiro." Each man bowed slightly to Kenshin as his name was given. "They are very good fighters, the best in my troop. Their weapons are hidden where they can get to them quickly."
Nodding, Kenshin walked toward the doors. "Let's go," was all he said. Once they were out on the street, he forced himself to relax as he walked alongside the wagon, keeping his hand away from the hilt of his sword and looking slightly bored. After all, he was guarding rice, not treasure. He automatically masked his ki to make sure he didn't attract any attention. Kenshin was on high alert, his inner senses ranging outwards, seeking any indication of more than casual interest. The crowds of people made it very difficult to separate individual impressions, though. It was nerve-wracking, knowing there were Shogunate spies watching. The key to the success of this mission lay in the very ordinariness of their actions. Hagino and Tsurubuchi, the two 'merchants,' rode on the back of the wagon, as befitted their status. Ikeda swore colorfully at any and all of the people who got in his way, just as any normal teamster would. Slowly, they made their way through the crowded streets of Kyoto.
It was well over an hour before they were north of the city, moving more quickly now that they were on the main road. It is a beautiful day, Kenshin thought, reflecting on what Katsura had said earlier. If he hadn't been so keyed up about the mission, he could have enjoyed the warm weather. Fortunately, there was a brisk breeze, which kept it from becoming too hot.
After traveling for another hour or so, Kenshin became aware of a presence following them. The ki indicated it was a man. It was faint, but staying at a constant distance. It could be a traveler following behind us. Certainly they weren't the only people going north on this road. But something didn't seem right. He couldn't pinpoint what was wrong and that bothered him. Maybe he was being paranoid, but he wasn't going to take any chances. Kenshin carefully focused his senses on that aura and tried to read it, with no luck. There were no changes in the sending, no indications of emotion, and that was what had alerted him. He was accustomed to the wild variations within the untrained auras of ordinary people. But this ki was under tight control, and that indicated a highly trained individual, possibly a samurai or ninja. But if that was the case, why wasn't the ki being completely hidden? Is this man a decoy? He began scanning the surrounding area, trying to spot the exact location of that faint ki. It was behind him, perhaps fifty yards and a little to the right of the road. Are there others? He could not detect any other auras, but that was not conclusive.
Now that it appeared that they were being followed, it was imperative that they not lead them to the hidden camp. Casually, Kenshin dropped back to walk alongside the driver. When Ikeda glanced at him curiously, he spoke quietly, without looking at him. "Take the next road we come to and don't look around." Ikeda slouched on the seat of the wagon and managed to look even more bored. Good man, Kenshin thought approvingly. If he remembered correctly, there was a road a couple of miles further on that led to a number of small villages. If their shadow followed, then he would take care of the problem. Under no circumstances would he allow either the shipment or the training base to be endangered.
Nothing changed as they approached the road, except the wind picked up, blowing steadily from the south. Kenshin kept his senses trained on the surrounding forest, hoping for an indication of how many men there might be surrounding them. Turning right onto the less-traveled road, they continued at the same leisurely pace, moving deeper into the countryside. Their observer kept his position, neither trying to catch up nor fall behind. Kenshin had moved back up to lead the wagon, apparently unaware they were being followed. Now he was looking for a good place to slip off the road and into the forest without alerting their spy. The road narrowed for a distance, thick shrubs crowding the sides, creating a screen where his movements would be hidden. He took his hat off and disappeared into the undergrowth, moving with the ease of years of practice on his Shishou's mountain.
Ikeda blinked when Himura literally vanished without a sound. Without turning his head, he warned Tsurubuchi and Hagino, "Himura's gone after whoever's out there. Be ready for a fight."
Once off the road, Kenshin moved through the bushes silently, heading at an oblique angle toward the man following them. He had no intention of confronting the person until he knew exactly what the situation was. The forest opened up into a small glade, breaking the solid canopy of trees, allowing enough sunlight for grass to grow. Having kept the faint ki within his awareness, Kenshin knew that the spy was approaching the clearing. Moving behind a large tree at the edge of the meadow, Kenshin jumped easily up into the branches. His brown ronin uniform served him well, easily blending with the bark and hiding him within the shadows. Kenshin had no fear of being discovered until he revealed himself. His ki was still completely masked, as it always was during an assignment. He waited patiently, unmoving, as the man kept coming toward him.
Kenshin continued scanning the forest for signs of other pursuers: inappropriate sounds, the silence of disturbed birds, an animal running away from something. Nothing. Admittedly, it was not likely that there were many men coming after them, but he could not believe that there was only the one spy. Before long, Kenshin spotted movement at the furthest edge of the glade. After pausing to check out the situation, a figure stepped out into the open. He was dressed in a mottled green shinobi shozoko. A ninja, as Kenshin had suspected. He watched as the man cautiously made his way across the open area and melted into the forest on this side. It was obvious that he didn't know that he was being observed, or that his ki was not fully hidden. Kenshin thought he might be young; but if that were true, then he should not be working alone. Where was his companion and why had he allowed the more inexperienced ninja to leak his aura that way? Even more suspicious of a trap, Kenshin continued to wait, only his eyes shifting, as he studied the surrounding forest.
Eventually, his patience paid off. A branch of a tree opposite the one Kenshin was standing in moved against the wind, alerting him. Ah. One travels on the ground, the other in the trees, Kenshin thought, nodding to himself. It made sense. Maybe the less experienced ninja was a decoy, of sorts. If he was discovered, perhaps no one would think to look in the trees. Kenshin had not been deceived, however, for his Shishou had taught him to always expect the unexpected. His Master had stalked him through the woods innumerable times, attacking him unmercifully every time he succeeded in sneaking up on him. It had been a very effective training method. Kenshin still fondly remembered the first time he had been able to turn the tables on his Shishou. Hiko's cursing after being hit on the head with a branch had been most satisfying. His Master's retribution had been a small price to pay.
Kenshin could sense nothing of this individual. Assuming it was another ninja, then this person was more experienced and, therefore, more dangerous than the younger man. Will he cross the meadow? Kenshin wondered. He suspected the ninja wouldn't, but was pleasantly surprised when he jumped down and warily approached the open area. Apparently he had been reassured that they were undiscovered. That's your second mistake. Kenshin had no illusions about how dangerous his opponent was. This would be a very tough fight, especially since there were two ninjas. His best course of action lay in defeating the more experienced ninja first, hopefully before the other could come back. This man – at least Kenshin assumed it was a man – was wearing the same shinobi shozoko as the other ninja, but carried a short bow and quiver of arrows slung across his back. It was good strategy for the second ninja to be able to carry out long range attacks, but it would make it even more difficult for Kenshin to fight him.
He watched as the ninja carefully crossed into the trees, almost walking under the tree Kenshin stood in. Kenshin didn't move until after the man was under cover, correctly assuming he would relax his guard slightly once he was out of the open. Silently, Kenshin moved from branch to branch, keeping him in view, since he could not sense the man's ki. The ninja quickly climbed up the trunk of a tall tree, moving with the ease of a squirrel. He settled on a limb briefly, before following after the other man, Kenshin easily keeping up with him.
Kenshin waited until he saw his opening a couple of minutes later. By now, he was standing on a thick branch that was quite a bit higher and several feet to the side of the one the ninja was crouched on. With no warning, Kenshin jumped feet-first from his limb, aiming directly at the unsuspecting ninja. At the last possible second something warned the man and he started to turn to look at his attacker. However, it was a case of too little, too late, and Kenshin's feet landed solidly against the ninja's shoulders, knocking him off the limb. Because he had been turning, the ninja fell awkwardly, desperately trying to turn in midair to land on his feet. He partially succeeded, although he stumbled badly.
Perfectly balanced, Kenshin landed lightly a few feet away, having already drawn his katana. Not wanting to give his opponent any time to recover, he immediately went on the offensive, moving in swiftly from the right.
Panting from the jolt of pain that flared from his badly twisted left ankle, Morikawa frantically prepared for the swordsman's attack. Taking three shurikens from a pocket on his left arm, the ninja quickly threw them with a flat throw from the side. They would not kill, but were intended to distract the swordsman. The three shurikens spread out in a fan formation, two bracketing the man – one aimed just to the right, the other to the left – and the third directly at his attacker, making it impossible to avoid all of them. One was certain to hit, giving Morikawa time to move back and regroup. To his surprise, the man didn't even slow down. His katana flickered almost imperceptibly, knocking the center shuriken aside easily. Morikawa jumped awkwardly to his left, barely avoiding the first cut and earning another bright stab of pain from his injured ankle, while giving a piercing whistle at the same time. Instantly, the swordsman corrected for the second strike, which the ninja avoided by dropping to the ground. Even as he fell, Morikawa struck out with a leg sweep, intending to use the ashiko strapped to the bottom of his foot to deliver a crippling blow to his enemy's leg. The swordsman jumped into a high forward somersault right over the top of the ninja, slashing at his leg at the same time. The blade connected, cutting the thick thigh muscles to the bone. Morikawa bit back the scream that rose in his throat as his leg exploded in pain.
Kenshin knew he had at most only a couple of minutes before the first ninja joined the fight. He did not want to have to fight two ninjas at the same time, even if one was injured. He spun to face the man as he landed, catching a glimpse of him taking a short piece of bamboo out of a pocket and putting it to his lips. Without hesitation, Kenshin dove aside, not knowing what was in the small blowgun. A cloud of powder appeared, but was quickly blown away by the wind.
Even though the blinding powder had been ineffective, the distraction was enough for Morikawa to regain his feet and draw two throwing knives. However, his target had continued to move and was now safely behind a tree. The ninja stood shaking, blood running in thick rivulets down his leg. A quick glance told him that the major artery in his thigh had not been cut. Otherwise, he would have bled to death in a matter of minutes. That did not mean he was out of danger, however, because he was losing a lot of blood quickly. Never letting down his guard, he took a cord from another pocket and wrapped it high above the wound, using the blowgun to tighten the improvised tourniquet, and then tying it down to hold it in place.
Slipping the bow over his head, Morikawa quickly strung it and nocked an arrow. All the while, he was searching the area for the other man's ki. He didn't really expect to sense it, since he had not felt it earlier. Given the extraordinary skills the swordsman had already exhibited, he was obviously a highly skilled warrior, not just the simple ronin he had appeared to be. This was significant. It meant that his suspicion about the wagon had been correct.
He and his apprentice had been returning from a meeting and it had been pure luck that he had recognized one of the men seated on the wagon as an Ishin Shishi fighter. It had seemed odd to Morikawa that the fighter had been wearing a kimono instead of the usual hakama and gi. It appeared to be a disguise and that aroused his curiosity. The wagon was probably loaded with food supplies for one of the Ishin Shishi camps. They were just leaving Kyoto and there wasn't time to inform his superiors, so he and his apprentice had followed at a safe distance. Once they knew where the wagon was going, he had intended to send Yoshihito back with the information, while he did some reconnaissance. Everything had seemed to go well. The men with the wagon didn't know they were being followed, so this was a good training opportunity for his apprentice. Obviously, he had been wrong. It now appeared that they had been led into a trap. Right now all he wanted to do was hold off the swordsman until Yoshihito got here. Between the two of them, it shouldn't be difficult to defeat the swordsman, or at least injure him enough to make it possible for them to escape.
Kenshin sent his senses out, seeking the ki of the other ninja. It was getting close, he would be here in less than a minute. This is not good. Yes, the second ninja was injured pretty seriously, but he was far from out of the fight. Kenshin had no doubt as to his ability to use the bow he now held in ready position. Kenshin's long-range options were pretty limited and would require that he expose himself to attack, not something he was anxious to do unless he had no choice. After a moment's thought, he decided to go after the weaker ninja before he could join forces with the older man. He faded back and moved soundlessly through the undergrowth until he found the younger man.
Yoshihito's eyes widened when a swordsman with amber eyes that seemed to glow faintly in the dim light filtering through the trees stepped in front of him, already attacking. He jumped back, both hands reaching for weapons. Four throwing spikes flew toward his assailant, while he unsheathed his ninja-to. The swordsman simply slid to the side and casually swung his blade toward his chest. Yoshihito automatically blocked with his sword – feeling the tremendous power of the blow – only to see the blade cut in two, half of it flying into the bushes. In desperation, Yoshihito threw out one end of the manriki gusari he held hidden in his left hand. The weighted end of the chain wrapped around the katana and he tried to yank it out of the other man's hand. Rather than get involved in a tug-of-war, the ronin unexpectedly jumped forward, causing Yoshihito to lose his balance and putting slack into the chain. The warrior quickly disentangled his blade and prepared for another attack.
Kenshin wanted to end the fight swiftly and began to move forward to give the final blow to his opponent. Suddenly he sensed an object flying toward him. Instantly, he leaped upward to land on an overhead limb. The arrow that would have buried itself between his shoulder blades flew harmlessly through the space he had occupied just a moment ago, missing the young ninja only because he was falling at the time.
Not allowing the swordsman's surprising move to distract him, Morikawa immediately nocked another arrow and fired it at the warrior in the tree. Springing to another tree, the man used the trunk as a shield.
Morikawa had become suspicious when the ronin didn't make any further attacks after getting behind the tree. Worried that Yoshihito wouldn't be able to handle the skilled fighter by himself, he began stumbling in the direction he expected him to come from. Walking was a nightmare, with his right leg barely able to hold his weight, the pain almost unendurable. Only his training and iron discipline allowed him to keep moving. He had to get to his apprentice; he didn't have the experience he needed to defeat the swordsman in a one-on-one confrontation. His fears were confirmed when he saw Yoshihito stumble off-balance and the fighter moved in for the kill. When the swordsman neatly avoided his first arrow by jumping into the tree, Morikawa was astounded. What kind of warrior is this man?! he wondered, but pushed aside his shock to fire a second arrow as quickly as he could, only to see the ronin leap safely to another tree. Shaking his head, Morikawa readied another arrow as Yoshihito got to his feet. Fortunately, their adversary was limited to face-to-face strikes. They could keep him at a distance and he would be unable to avoid their attacks for any length of time.
Kenshin watched as the younger ninja got to his feet and began walking toward the other. His attention appeared to be focused on the injured man standing some yards away. Moving around the trunk of the tree to get in a better position, Kenshin's hair became entangled on a short branch. Jerking his head impatiently, he freed himself, not noticing that his hair tie was ripped loose in the process. Carefully calculating the angle, Kenshin launched himself downwards toward the trunk of a tree behind the retreating ninja. Flipping end-for-end, his long hair flying wildly, Kenshin hit the tree trunk with both feet, absorbing the shock of the landing by bending his knees deeply. Instantaneously, he leaped again, spinning his body in the spiral of a Ryu Kan Sen Tsumuji, the battoujutsu beheading the young ninja before he even knew he was in danger, his blood splashing onto Kenshin's gi. Twisting to land on his feet, Kenshin struck the ground with his katana, sending the shock wave of a massive Do Ryu Sen toward the injured ninja.
Struck repeatedly by flying rocks and debris, as well as the actual force of the Do Ryu Sen, Morikawa was thrown backwards, barely conscious. He had watched in stunned disbelief as Yoshihito was beheaded by the flying swordsman. He had been so horrified, he was unable to shoot his arrow accurately, missing the warrior by nearly a foot. He struggled to stay conscious as his enemy approached. He walked through a patch of sunlight, his vibrant red hair blazing around his head, trailing like flames past his shoulders down to his waist. Red hair?! A phenomenal swordsman with red hair? As the warrior stood above him, Morikawa saw the cross-shaped scar on his left cheek. "You are the Battousai, are you not?" he whispered painfully.
"Yes. You were a worthy opponent," Kenshin replied, acknowledging the skill of the ninja he had fought.
"It is an honor to be defeated by the legendary Battousai." Morikawa closed his eyes, preparing himself for the deathblow.
"What is your name?" Kenshin asked, raising his katana.
"Morikawa Seiji, of the Tatsumaki Clan. My apprentice was Yoshihito Hideki, also of the Tatsumaki Clan," Morikawa answered faintly, almost unconscious.
"I will remember." Calmly, Kenshin delivered the mercy stroke, putting the ninja out of his pain. After a quick chiburi, Kenshin finished cleaning his blade with a cloth before sheathing it. He moved through the trees until he came to the road and began walking quickly to catch up with the wagon. As he passed where he had previously left the road, he retrieved his hat, grateful for the protection it offered from the hot sun.
Tsurubuchi spotted Himura first. Turning, he called out to Ikeda. "Stop! Himura's back."
Hagino watched curiously as Himura walked up to the wagon. "Any problems, Himura-san?"
"No," Kenshin replied. Walking up to Ikeda, he ordered, "Turn the wagon as soon as you can. We've lost enough time already." He unsheathed his wakizashi and cut a short length of cord from one of the barrels. Using it, he tied his waist-length hair back into its usual high ponytail, disregarding the interested gazes of the other men. Replacing his hat, he walked off ahead of the wagon.
It was several minutes later before Ikeda found a spot wide enough to carefully turn the wagon. Fortunately, Ikeda was an experienced teamster. He guided the horses with skill, managing the difficult maneuver with apparent ease. They had lost a total of more than an hour of travel by the time they were back on the main road, heading north once again.
Kenshin was not pleased when Ikeda called to him an hour later and told him they needed to stop soon.
"It's the horses, Himura-san. We're entering the mountains now and they need to rest before we begin the really difficult part of the trip," he explained, answering Kenshin's questioning look.
"How long do we have to stop for?" Kenshin asked.
"Oh, half an hour should be enough time. We can eat lunch while we wait. There's a good resting place up ahead, with a stream where we can water the horses."
Kenshin just nodded and kept walking. Soon they came to a wide grassy meadow, surrounded by trees, with a stream running through the middle. Ikeda quickly unhitched the horses, leading them to the stream to drink. Afterwards, he hobbled them and allowed them to graze. Hagino and Tsurubuchi brought out some bento boxes, giving one to Kenshin. He took his, murmuring "thanks" softly, and sat down next to the wagon. The other three men settled down a little further away, giving Kenshin some privacy.
"Himura doesn't talk much, does he?" Hagino said, between bites of onigirii.
Tsurubuchi cautiously looked over at the young man resting beside the wagon. "No, but he doesn't have to. I've heard he's the best fighter in the Ishin Shishi. You wouldn't know it to look at him, would you? I wonder what happened back there."
"I doubt if we'll ever know, and I wouldn't try asking him, if I were you," Ikeda answered, shaking his head. "Have you looked at his eyes? They tell the tale. He's the best all right. I'm glad he's here."
After a short while, Ikeda got up and began hitching the horses to the wagon. He carefully checked their feet before they continued the journey. It wouldn't do to have one of the horses become lame in the mountains. They had already lost enough time as it was.
Several hours later, Kenshin resisted the urge to cough as choking clouds of dust rose from the dry road. He refocused his awareness on the area surrounding the wagon he was walking beside. They were nearing their destination and now was not the time to lose concentration. Although he had not detected the presence of enemies so far during this leg of the trip, that was no excuse for letting down his guard, especially considering what had happened earlier. Only a couple of miles to go, he thought, with satisfaction, then it's back to Kyoto. He felt ill at ease, exposed, out here in the countryside. It was odd how quickly he had become re-accustomed to the violence and danger that was Kyoto. It was almost as if the quiet and peace he had known in Otsu had never been. He quickly shied away from the memory of those days, before the pain could overwhelm him. Kenshin shook his head, clearing his mind of the bitter memories.
It was very late in the afternoon now, almost dusk, the sun lowering in the sky. Unfortunately, the wind had died down shortly after they had eaten, and the rest of the trip had been hot and dusty. Kenshin was covered with a layer of tan dirt. Even his hair, where it wasn't covered with his hat, was brown. He would be so glad to get back to Kyoto this evening. He intended to take a bath as soon as possible
Finally, Ikeda turned onto a faint track leading away from the side road they had been on for the last few miles. Kenshin was well aware of the guards surrounding them. He pointedly stared at each of the hidden men, before ignoring them completely. The word would be spread around the campfires tonight that there was no use in trying to sneak up on the Battousai. He would probably kill you, if you tried.
Two sentries stepped out of the trees and stopped the wagon. One man walked up to Kenshin. "Identify yourselves," the senior man ordered cautiously.
Kenshin slowly reached into his gi and brought out an envelope, given to him by Katsura that morning, and handed it to the man, who looked familiar.
He took it, opening the envelope and carefully reading the letter inside. "Please, would you remove your hat, sir?"
Kenshin reached up and took off his hat, the setting sun bringing out golden highlights in his bright red hair. "You're Tsuji-san, aren't you? We met just before the Ikedaya massacre."
Tsuji's eyes widened, as he took in the red hair, cross-shaped scar and amber eyes. "Yes, Battousai-san, you have a good memory. We only met the one time."
"Yes. Can we go in now?" Kenshin asked, anxious to complete his mission.
Nodding, Tsuji quickly answered, "Yes, Battousai-san. Go straight into the camp. You will be met and guided to where the wagon will be unloaded."
The track led directly into the center of the training camp. Kenshin looked around, noting the neat rows of tents for the fighters. Each row was identified by a troop flag. There were a few temporary buildings: an infirmary, a kitchen, and an armory. An aide to the camp Commander met them and led them over to the armory. He asked Kenshin to follow him to the Commander's tent, while several men arrived to begin unloading the wagon. The aide escorted Kenshin into the tent, bowed to both the Commander and Kenshin, and then left.
"Commander Suga-san," Kenshin said, bowing respectfully.
Suga Hatsuke, Commander of the training camp, stood up and bowed in return. "Himura-san. Please, come sit and join me in some tea. I expected you to arrive earlier. Did you have any problems on the way here?"
Kenshin crossed the tent to kneel on the cushion the Commander had indicated, removing his daisho and setting them beside himself. He then gave a brief account of the incident with the two ninjas.
Commander Suga looked relieved when Kenshin finished his report, detailing that the ninjas had been unable to pass on any significant information. "I see. I'm glad you were there, Himura-san. Now then, I believe you have a letter for me."
Kenshin retrieved the other envelope from within his gi and handed it to Commander Suga.
The Commander took the proffered envelope and set it down. He poured tea into two cups, handing one to Kenshin, who took it with a quiet, "Thank you." Suga then broke the seal on the envelope and removed the letter.
Kenshin sipped his tea, waiting patiently while Suga read the letter. Rather than sit there watching the Commander, Kenshin looked around the tent. Since the officers met here regularly, it was the largest tent in the camp. There were two tables, one tall, which was currently covered with maps; the other, a low table being used as a desk. One corner was partitioned off with a curtain, behind which was a futon. Obviously, Suga slept there. Commander Suga cleared his throat, getting Kenshin's attention.
"It will take me a few minutes to prepare the report that Katsura-san has requested. Why don't you go to the kitchen and get something to eat, Himura-san. I should have the report ready by the time you are finished."
It was a gentle dismissal and Kenshin immediately stood up after retrieving his swords, bowed politely, and left the tent. He walked over to the kitchen and found Ikeda, Hagino and Tsurubuchi there, already eating. After getting a tray of food, he sat down beneath a tree, slightly away from the others and began eating.
Ikeda walked over and crouched down to talk to Himura, who regarded him with curiosity. "Himura-san? We're staying here tonight and were wondering if you would like to go back to Kyoto with us tomorrow," he inquired, somewhat nervously. Talking to Himura made him a bit uncomfortable, but he thought it would be rude to not ask.
Kenshin swallowed before answering, "Thank you, Ikeda-san, but I must return to Kyoto in a few minutes."
Ikeda stared in surprise, before remembering his manners. "Uh, sorry, Himura-san. I was just surprised, is all. You're going back tonight? After everything you've done today?" He shook his head sympathetically. "Well, thanks for protecting the shipment and us, too. Maybe we will work together again sometime."
Kenshin looked at Ikeda, somewhat perplexed. Why was he thanking him? Did he really want to work with the Battousai? No one ever wanted to work with him. "It was my job, that's all," he said.
"Yes, but I still appreciate it," Ikeda replied, standing up and turning to rejoin the other two men. But Himura's soft voice stopped him.
"Ikeda-san, I would . . . like to work with you again, too."
Ikeda smiled, pleased by Himura's acknowledgment. "Great! Be careful on the way back to Kyoto, Himura-san."
Kenshin nodded, thinking how unusual it was for someone to be pleased by the prospect of working with him. After finishing his meal, he leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, intending to rest for a short while. A few minutes later he felt the ki of the Commander's aide approaching. He opened his eyes and stood up before the man could speak, startling him.
"Excuse me, Himura-san, but Commander Suga would like to see you," the adjutant said apprehensively. He wasn't comfortable around the Battousai, even though he knew they were on the same side.
Kenshin walked past the man without bothering to speak. His reaction was what Kenshin was accustomed to, what he expected from the men around him. He had been isolated from the other Ishin Shishi fighters ever since he became a hitokiri. In the time since then, he could count only a handful of men who were comfortable around him . . . and Tomoe . . . the aching pain of her memory filling him with grief . . . but he refused to think of that now, he had a job to do.
Kenshin walked into the Commander's tent and up to the low table he was sitting behind. He bowed, then stood relaxed, waiting for Commander Suga to finish writing. After signing his name with a flourish, Suga inserted the document into an envelope and affixed his seal on the flap.
Looking up at Himura, the Commander handed the envelope to him. "Himura-san, this document contains valuable information and is for Katsura-san's use only. I'm sure I don't need to remind you to be cautious as you return to Kyoto."
"No, Commander Suga-san. If you will excuse me, I will leave now. Thank you for the hospitality of your camp." Bowing, Kenshin turned and left.
Walking quickly through the camp, Kenshin soon reached the outer perimeter. Extending his senses to cover the area around him, he broke into a long distance hunter's pace. He could maintain that gait for miles without exhausting himself. Katsura-san wanted him to return to Kyoto as quickly as possible and Kenshin didn't intend to disappoint him.
To Be Continued
Author's Notes: I would like to thank all the people who have taken the time to read this story. Domo arigatou gozaimasu, minasan!
On November 21, 2005, Fan Fiction Dot Net announced that reviewer responses will no longer be allowed, so I have removed the reviewer responses that had originally been included with this chapter. I will reply individually to signed reviews from now on. Anyone who wishes to leave an anonymous review will have to give me an email address, if you want me to respond to your review. I wish to thank all the people who take the time to review my chapters. You have no idea how much I appreciate your letting me know what you think about my stories!
ashiko - spiked claws that were worn strapped to the feet; they helped the Ninja climb faster and more efficiently, but were also used in combat to deliver deadly kicks
battoujutsu - The act of drawing the sword out of the sheath while pressing the blade's edge against the inside of the sheath, which can increase its speed two- or three-fold. In this way, the attacker may strike the opponent before there is time to react. In other schools, this same technique is known as 'iai' or 'nuki.'
Battousai - The nickname for Himura Kenshin when he was a hitokiri; it means 'master of the battoujutsu sword technique.'
bento - lunch; a box lunch
chiburi - the act of flicking the blood off of a sword
Choshu - also known as Nagato Province, it is now part of Yamaguchi Prefecture; it was one of the most anti Shogun provinces, fought for the Ishin Shishi
daisho - term used to refer to the pair of swords carried by a samurai: one long (katana), and one short (wakizashi)
domo arigatou gozaimasu - the most formal version of 'thank you very much'
Do Ryu Sen - (Earth-Dragon Strike): a Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu technique; the user strikes the ground with the tip of the sword and projects Ken-ki (sword-ki) outward, causing massive destruction to anyone or anything standing in the way
futon - the thin, soft mattresses many Japanese sleep on; they are folded and stored in cabinets when not in use
gi - a kimono shirt; a fighter's or sword practitioner's shirt
hakama - A divided or undivided skirt, rather like a very wide pair of pants, traditionally worn only by men but now worn also by women, and also worn in certain sports such as aikido or kendo. A hakama typically has pleats, and a koshiita - a stiff or padded part in the lower back of the wearer.
Himura Kenshin - The main character of the manga and anime series, Rurouni Kenshin, created by Watsuki Nobuhiro. A swordsman of legendary skills and former assassin (hitokiri) of the Ishin Shishi. Kenshin means 'heart of the sword.'
Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu - Flying sword to heaven philosophy. Himura Kenshin's sword technique, used more often for defense than offense. An ancient style that pits one against many, it requires exceptional speed and agility to master.
hitokiri - manslayer, assassin
Ikedaya Affair - massacre of Ishin Shishi leaders by the Shinsengumi at the Ikedaya Inn on June 5, 1864
Ishin Shishi - the name given to the pro-emperor forces from Choshu and Satsuma during the Bakumatsu (another name for the civil war that pitted the anti emperor Shogunate forces against the pro-emperor Ishin Shishi forces); also known as Imperialists, Revolutionaries, Patriots, and Rebels
katana - a Japanese daito or long sword, worn blade up through an obi; the blade of a Japanese long sword is longer than two shaku (60 cm or 23.6 inches) long; most katana are about 42 inches long from tip to pommel (the end of the hilt) and the blade averages 70 cm (27.5 inches) long
Katsura Kogorou - Born in 1833; he was a man of many names. He was born in Choshu province, the second son of Wada Masakage, and was named Kido Takayoshi. At the age of seven he was adopted into the Katsura family and became known as Katsura Kogorou. Educated at Yoshida Shoin's academy, he adopted Shoin's philosophy of Imperial loyalism. By 1858 he had begun to work against the Shogun and occasionally used the alias Niibori Matsusuke. Katsura was instrumental in establishing the Satchodomei (the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance, March 1866), and became one of the three leaders of the Ishin no Sanketsu (the other two are Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori). The Satcho Alliance proved to be critical in overthrowing the Shogunate and the subsequent Meiji Restoration. Following the overthrow of the Shogunate bakufu, he began using the name Kido Koin and became an Imperial Councilor, helping to draft the Five Charter Oath and initiating policies of centralization and modernization. He was active in the new Meiji government and traveled to the United States and Europe, and was especially interested in western educational systems and politics. He died of natural causes in 1877, at the age of 43. He is Himura Kenshin's 'boss.'
ki - a person's 'aura,' or his swordfighting spirit; the Asian concept of a life force or life spirit; it's used a lot in martial arts anime; 'Ken-ki' is used in Rurouni Kenshin in reference to swords
kimono - originally a word that referred to all types of clothing, but the word eventually came to refer specifically to the full-length robe-like garment still worn by women, men and children today
-ku - means ward or district
Kyuushutsu - rescue, extricate, reclaim, deliverance
manriki gusari - a three-foot long chain, weighted at both ends
minasan - everyone
ninja - a mercenary agent who is trained in the martial arts and hired for covert operations such as assassination and sabotage
ninja-to - a ninja sword, it was a straight blade, only 24 inches long and made much more crudely than a samurai's swords because most ninjas did not have the money to purchase high quality swords or have the resources to make them; a ninja-to was used with thrusting techniques, rather than slashing
obi - the Japanese equivalent of a sash or belt, which is used for a kimono, yukata or hakama; obi are generally worn differently depending on the occasion, and they are usually more intricate for women
onigirii - rice balls wrapped in seaweed
ronin - a masterless samurai
Ryu Kan Sen Tsumuji - (Winding Dragon Flash Spiral): a Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu technique; an airborne, spinning battoujutsu
samurai - Japan's ancient warrior class, officially abolished at the start of the Meiji era (1868)
-san - an honorific; carries the meaning of 'Mr.,' 'Ms.,' 'Miss,' etc., but used more extensively in Japanese than its English equivalent (note that even an enemy may be addressed as '-san')
Satsuma - a southern province, now the western half of Kagoshima Prefecture; it was very anti Shogunate, but it had a long history of bitter rivalries with Choshu province
Shimogyo-ku - a ward (district) in southern Kyoto
shinobi shozoko - the 'uniform' of a ninja; it completely covered the body, except for a slit for the eyes, and the hands; there were many pockets to hold the ninja's many weapons and tools; the ninja wore tabi boots, with a slit between the big and second toes to facilitate climbing ropes and walls; usually in three colors: dark, for working at night; white, for snow conditions; and mottled green camouflage, for forests
Shishou - a master teacher of swordsmanship; Himura Kenshin's master, Hiko Seijuro, the Thirteenth Master of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu
Shogunate - the military rulers of Japan, they ruled from 1192-1868
shoji - rice paper sliding door
shuriken - metal throwing blades that come in a variety of types: swastika, flat, triangle, cross, star, crossed star, and straight; the points can be poisoned; although they were usually thrown, they could be used as a hand weapon as well
tatsumaki - tornado
Tomoe (Yukishiro Tomoe) - Himura Kenshin's wife, he accidentally killed her in a fight to the death with a Shogunate samurai
wakizashi - short sword (between 12 and 24 inches long, with 20 inches being average) worn by samurai (along with the katana)
yukata - An informal unlined summer kimono usually made of cotton, linen, or hemp. Yukata are most often worn to outdoor festivals, by men and women of all ages. They are also worn at onsen (hot springs) resorts, where they are often provided for the guests in the resort's own pattern. Yukata are also worn under a kimono or gi, and for sleeping.