The katana was heavy and unwieldy in the small boy's inexperienced hands. Still he did his best to hold it steady as the huge bandit approached, blood dripping from his brandished blade. Seeing that the man was going to attack, Shinta attempted to raise the katana and charge him. Before he could, hands grabbed him and pulled him back, causing him to drop the sword.
Shinta found himself being held in Kasumi's arms as she tried to block the terrible scene from his eyes.
"Don't look, Shinta," she whispered to him.
Still, how could he not look? Shinta's wide eyes took in the whole grissly scene before him. Only hours after the caravan had set out, they had been waylaid by a group of sword-wielding ronin. Kazuma, Neishi, the other slavers and slaves were already dead. Only Shinta and the three sisters now remained.
Akane and Sakura threw themselves in front of Kasumi and Shinta, pleading with the bandit to spare the boy.
"Please! Spare the child!" begged Akane.
She was answered by being slashed down the middle.
"Akane!" screamed Sakura just before the bandit's sword sent her after her sister.
"Shinta, listen to me! You must not die now. You are just a child and haven't been able to choose how to live your life as we have. You must live on for those who died here tonight," sobbed Kasumi, doing her best to shield Shinta with her body. "Please live, Shinta!"
Kasumi was torn away from Shinta by the bandit, who yanked her up by her hair and plunged his sword through her neck, then dropped her to the ground. Kasumi looked at Shinta as the light faded from her eyes.
"Live on, Shinta. Please, live..."
Her words were cut off as the bandit's sword plunged into her throat.
Shinta stared dumbfounded at the bodies of his three friends. Horrified by all the carnage, the small boy finally closed his eyes and imagined that he was in his village with his parents and brothers.
Suddenly, there were sounds of yelping, struggling and the clang of steel. The boy heard voices from the darkness beyond his eyelids.
As Shinta's eyes opened, they beheld a white and red blur cutting through the bandits, sending them all crashing to the ground, blood gushing from their twitching bodies. The blur stopped, revealing a huge swordsman with long black hair pulled back in a low ponytail, sharply chiseled features and a huge billowing white cape with red trim.
"Who the hell are you?" bellowed the lead bandit.
"There's no point in naming myself to dead men," declared the giant swordsman in a booming voice that promised swift death to his enemies.
"YAAAAAAAAAAH!" cried the lead bandit as he charged at the giant swordsman.
Quicker than Shinta's eyes could make out, the giant swordsman slashed him in multiple places, causing his body to explode into bloody chunks.
The giant then noticed the little boy sitting, staring blankly at the scene.
"You were an unlucky child. The Shogunate's laws have been lax since the black ships arrived two years ago. More and more ronin prowl this area as bandits," said the swordsman in his booming, but not unkind voice.
The little boy didn't respond or even meet the gaze of the giant, who flicked the blood from his nihontou, wiped it off and sheathed it.
"Somehow, I happened to come this way and have taken revenge for you."
"Hating these men will not bring back your family. Such things happen every day, everywhere in today's Japan. Just be glad you survived," he continued.
Still no response. Was this child dumb or in shock? The swordsman couldn't guess one above the other. Still he was but a child, and the giant felt the unusual stirrings of compassion in his heart.
"If you go to the village at the foot of the mountain and tell them your story, you will be cared for," he said before turning his back and leaving the red haired boy.
The little redhead sat for hours after the giant swordsman left. Neither his mind nor his body could move. The air he breathed was thick with the stench of blood and decay; the screams of the dying still echoed in his ears. The moon moved toward the horizon and was just slipping under by the time he found the will to stand.
There would be no sleep for the waif any time soon. He had work to do.
The giant swordsman, Hiko Seijuro XIII was his name, continued on his way, pondering the carnage he had just witnessed.
'It no longer surprises me. The smell of blood is now as common as the scent of white plum blossoms. Mankind lives in the hell of being slaughtered by bandits. That boy lives in the hell of being orphaned. It happens every day as in the past and in the future,' he thought grimly as he paused to look up at the full moon.
When he finally rached his mountain top home, Hiko shut his door firmly before removing his white cape, revealing a heavily muscled body. The swordmaster whipped out a jug of sake and poured it into a sakazuki. As he drank, he found that strangely, his thoughts were travelling back to the scene of the carnage. Images of the little boy with the startling red hair popped into his mind and wouldn't leave even when he tried to banish them.
The child had been so small, fear and grief rolling off his ki in waves. Hiko had seen his share of carnage before, but never had he seen a child sit so still and so silent; most children screamed or cried. What was it about this child that was so different?
The next morning...
Try as he might, Hiko couldn't get the image of the little boy sitting in mute misery among the squalor of the corpses out of his mind. When he found himself dreaming about the child after finally falling asleep, he realized he would have to go to the village and see if the kid was alright if he were ever to have any peace again.
Hiko went to the village under the presumption of buying sake from the old man he'd bought it from for the past five years. This man knew all the goings on in the village and would be able to tell Hiko if the red-haired boy had in fact gone there.
Hiko arrived at the house and pounded on the door frame. Fudoro, the sake vendor, peered out the barred window. Upon seeing who it was, he grabbed a jug of his finest sake and slid his fusuma open.
"Greetings, Hiko-san," he said.
"Greetings. Would you happen to know if a small boy with red hair showed up in the village in the last day?" Hiko ventured.
"Not that I've seen," said Fudoro.
"He's not here?"
Hiko was taken aback. He had thought for sure the boy would go to the village. Who would want to stay in a field full of corpses?
"Nope. No kid, no stray cat. Nobody's come this way for a week," said the sake vendor.
Not knowing what else to say, Hiko paid for the sake and left. His feet took him back toward the scene of the massacre. As he walked, he pondered the boy's fate and the state of Japan.
'Suicide in despair? It's certainly common enough these days. Even when I wield my sword according to Hiten Mitsurugi's philosophy, very often I can't save a soul. I kill and kill, and still the villains, like maggots, spring from Japan's rotting corpse. There will be more and more of these atrocities, and all I can do is bury the victims.'
Hiko was lifted from his gloom by the sight that revealed itself to him in the field. Instead of a battlefield of rotting corpses, the place had been transformed into a makeshift graveyard. In the middle of the field, before three rocks, stood the red haired boy.
Hiko walked out onto the field and stood behind the boy who again did not look at him. The child was filthy, hands bloody and raw from having dug holes and moved the corpses of grown men into them, then burying them. What sort of child was this?
"You buried not only your parents, but the bandits too?" Hiko asked.
For the first time, the child spoke.
"They were slavers, not my parents. My parents died of cholera last year," he said in a sad, soft voice. "Bandits or slavers, once they're dead, they're just bodies."
"Still, you made graves for them?" asked Hiko, unable to believe what he was witnessing.
Hiko's eyes traveled to the three stone graves.
"What are these three stone graves?" he asked.
"Kasumi-san, Akane-san and Sakura-san," explained the boy. "All three were taken from their parents by force as payment for debts. I only knew them for a day, but I was the only boy here and an orphan. So I thought, even if I die, I have to protect them. But instead, they shielded me and begged the bandits to spare me. I was too young to protect them. I wanted them to have special graves, but couldn't find any nice stones. I looked for flowers to offer, but couldn't even find one."
Stepping up beside the child, Hiko uncorked his sake jug and poured it upon the three stone graves. Finally, the little boy looked up at him with huge, soft violet eyes that were far too old for such a young child.
"Man or woman, to move to the next world without knowing the taste of good sake is a crime. A good sake is the least I can do," said Hiko in an unusually low voice as he continued to pour.
There was no doubt about it. This boy was the one!
"What's your name, boy?" Hiko asked as he corked the jug.
"Shinta," said the little boy softly.
Hiko's stomach quailed. No way in Hell would he have an apprentice with a name like that!
"A child's name, unfitting for a swordsman. From now on, your name will be Kenshin. I shall teach you my most precious knowledge," said Hiko.
Without another word, Hiko began to move away from the grave yard toward his home. It was getting late and he was hungry. Whether Shinta, or Kenshin, followed was up to him.
Not a moment later, Hiko heard the sound of soft footsteps behind him and smiled to himself. The boy was awfully small to learn a sword style like Hiten Mitsurugi, but he had a maturity of spirit and strength in his heart that would give him power where his physical strength would fail him. Hiko knew he had chosen well.