Where are… where are the enemies…?
Ei looked around, trying to find them. But she saw nothing. A glimpse of metal, a shadow of a person, a movement between the threes. Nothing. Not even a sign of an animal lurking by.
Except for them, that area was empty.
And yet she could feel the killing intent enveloping her like a cold hug.
Ei lost control over herself. Despite the wind, she sweated. Her breathing became rapid and shallow. The cold air filled her lungs, making even harder to breathe. Calm down, she told herself. You have to calm down or you’ll die, Eiko!
With difficulty, Ei forced her stiffed fingers to close tighter around the handle of her sword. Calm down, Eiko, she thought, looking up at her master, hoping to find any reassurance.
Tadayoshi was completely still. With his right hand on his sword, ready to draw, he didn’t even seem to breathe. Only his eyes moved, searching for the source of such killing intent.
What kind of enemies can make master like this? The idea felt like a cold blade stabbing her in her gut. It was even colder than the killing intent she felt around them. But even so, she believed in Tadayoshi.
Everything will be okay with him around, she told herself. With her master in mind, the girl still tried to control her breathing. Even if her throat was so dry it hurt, she stopped panting. Ei grabbed the handle so hard it made her fingers throb and looked around once again. Where are the enemies?
Everything was still the same. Nothing had moved. Even the air seemed to stop due to the killing intent…
Suddenly, Tadayoshi drew and spun so fast Ei couldn’t keep up with his speed. His sword was nothing but a blur to the girl as it passed above her head. She could feel the force behind the blow.
Ei fought her instinct to duck and scream. She even she wasn’t strong, even if she was still so far she could barely see his back, she was the disciple of Tadayoshi.
Even though she barely saw the blade, Ei heard metal hitting metal twice above her head. The sound rang in her ears before she realized what had happened. Tadayoshi had blocked two weapons, which fell on the girl’s feet.
Two iron bars, crossing each other, with sharp edges. Ei had seen those weapons before. Shuriken… weapons of a ninja. Now she understood her master’s uneasiness. They had had much trouble with ninjas. Shaking her head, Ei turned in the same direction of Tadayoshi, ready to draw her sword.
This time Ei heard the sound of metal cutting the air behind her. Even though she knew where the attack was coming, she couldn’t react in time.
By the time she turned, Tadayoshi’s sword was already blocking the throwing weapon. He defended two of the three shurikens. The one he missed carved into his arm.
Her master gritted his teeth and ignored the pain. Tadayoshi didn’t even glance at his wound or the weapon as he pulled it from his arm; his eyes never stop darting through the threes, looking for the next attack.
Ei stared at the weapon, seeing her master’s blood after a long time. Then she gulped as one of his teachings echoed in her mind. You can’t lose concentration during a fight. Not even for an instant.
During their sparring fights, he would sometimes say something stupid or a completely unrelated topic, or use anything to distract her, like kicking a rock at her. The moment she lost her concentration, he would take advantage and hit her with the wooden sword. Hard.
She shook her head and raised her sword before her, like she had done countless times during her training. But this isn’t a training…
“Get out of the forest!”
The moment Tadayoshi shouted, Ei obeyed. As she ran back to the village, she looked around but still couldn’t see where the attacks were coming. Nor how many people surrounded them.
Two more shurikens flew on her left. Ei knew she had to block them with the sword. But in the few instants she lost thinking about it, she already knew she wouldn’t make in time. Her mind went blank as stared at the end of the deadly metal weapon. Even so, she raised her sword.
I’m gonna die, she realized, feeling her body going numb. She stopped hearing. She stopped breathing. There was only her death coming.
Her master’s sword appeared out of nowhere and hit both weapons at once. After he had saved her, Tadayoshi didn’t even glance at his disciple. Ei felt relieved; she was too embarrassed to look him in the eyes.
They were back on the village. Tadayoshi ran to the ruins of a house. With his back against the wall, he turned to the entrance of the forest. Ei did the same, her sword in hands.
No one came running after them. But the killing intent was still there, coming from the forest as if a beast was lurking just outside their sight.
Time passed slowly as they waited. Ei could hear her master’s breathing deep. She was about to look at him when she caught herself. I need to focus, damn it!
Only then Ei noticed she was trembling. Right away she knew it wasn’t because of the cold. I almost died, she thought, trying to shake the idea and focus on the now. But she couldn’t.
Of course it wasn’t the first time she had been through dangerous and deadly situations. There were times when she could have died if she had made the slight mistake. But this was the first time ever since she started training for real with Tadayoshi that she couldn’t react.
Out of the darkness of the forest, two more shurikens flew at them. Tadayoshi blocked them with ease, but when the third came, he had to jump out of the way. He pushed Ei and they fell on the snow. Without wasting time, they both stood up. But then they sensed someone behind them.
Standing right in the middle the village, and blocking their path, was a young man. He looked younger than Tadayoshi, judging by his appearance. In fact, the boy seemed to be barely older than Ei. But, in contrast to his appearance, the boy had a daisho, a set of swords on his waist. And the katana was already draw.
Ei turned back to the forest, but the attacks had stopped. So that’s what happened, she thought, glancing back at the boy samurai. Whoever attacked us in the forest only did it to lead us to this boy.
As the tried to keep the boy samurai and the entrance of the forest within sight, one person came from between the threes. To Ei’s utter surprise, that powerful killing intent came from that man alone.
Just one person…? Our attackers was just this one ninja…?
The man had black shoulder-length hair and with the black cloth, it was impossible to see his face entirely. But the little the girl could see was intimidating. Especially his eyes. His clothes were a dark blue, invisible in the lightless forest.
Ei knew right away. He’s not just any ninja… he’s strong… maybe even more than master… She glanced at Tadayoshi, waiting for any order.
But her master hadn’t even glanced at the ninja. He didn’t even look at her. All he did was stare at the boy samurai, his sword lowered.
What are you doing, master? There are enemies around us! She wanted to shout at him, but when she saw the pain and sadness in his eyes, she lost her voice. Ei had seen that expression many times before. He’s related with Yasuhiro-sama, she knew as she turned back to the samurai boy.
“It’s been a long time, Kenshin… young master. How’s… how’s Inori?” asked Tadayoshi in a low voice, a sad smile on his face.
The boy’s reaction frightened Ei. His eyes widened, his face twisted in hate and his breathing became hard and shallow. The few greeting words were enough to infuriate the samurai.
“How dare you!” he shouted. “You lost the right to call me by my name. You lost the right to even ask about my sister, Tada… nameless…”
Ei had heard countless times people calling Tadayoshi traitor, man without loyalty and many other things. But when people called him nameless, it was different.
Denying the name Yasuhiro-sama had given him hurt more than insulting him. Every time, Tadayoshi would swallow his feelings and fight. But there was something different this time. Now, her master closed his eyes and pressed his lips. When he opened them again, they were watery.
“Ken… young master, I…”
“Shut up! I won’t hear the words of someone who betrayed my father, the man who gave you everything!”
The boy samurai said nothing more and drew his sword.
Tadayoshi didn’t raise his sword. Nor prepared any defense. All he did was stare Kenshin with the pain and sadness growing in his eyes.
Ei held the handle of her weapon with both hands and turned to the boy samurai, leaving her back, and the ninja, to Tadayoshi. She would face the suitable opponent for her, as she was taught.
If you can’t run, there are two ways to fight against more than one enemy. If you’re alone, concentrate on them all, never losing sight of any of them. If you’re with someone, protect each other’s back, Ei heard his words. She didn’t have to think; it was clear she wasn’t a match for the ninja. If even master had trouble defending his attacks. I have no chance at all.
But before she could do anything, a hand touched her shoulder. Ei raised her head and saw that Tadayoshi wasn’t facing the ninja. He was still staring the boy samurai as he walked towards him.
Master… he’s not someone who’d let his emotions get in the way of his survival. But when it’s concerned Yasuhiro-sama…
Ei took a deep breath. She knew she had no chance at all, but still ignored her instinct and turned her sword towards the ninja. But the warrior hadn’t moved as well. He didn’t even seem to realize she was there. His eyes were fixed on the samurai and the swordsman.
It wasn’t the first time Ei wasn’t recognized as a real adversary by the foe. Every time it happened, she felt a wicked delight and couldn’t wait to prove the contrary. But today, she was thankful for that. Even if he didn’t emanate that killing intent, he was too intimidating for the girl. She took her left hand off the handle and closed it hard, trying to make the trembling go away.
The ninja didn’t show any sign he would attack her or Tadayoshi. He’s just there to keep us from running into the forest now, Ei thought. Betting her life on it, she turned slowly, ready to react to any movement. But even when she was vulnerable, she was ignored.
Kenshin screamed and ran towards Tadayoshi, brandishing his sword. But even then, the swordsman didn’t raise his.
Only the samurai attacked. Her master avoided them all with ease, just like as if he was training with Ei. But unlike what he did to her, he wasn’t making fun of the boy samurai. But unlike him, the girl never showed a blood thirst so big that even from this distance made her sweat.
It wasn’t rare for young people to have such killing intent. Ei herself felt that before, but not with Kenshin had something different. It was intense, but it was a blood thirst mixed with hate and fury.
As Tadayoshi avoided every attack with no trouble, Ei noticed Kenshin’s style was similar to her own. Even the speed was about the same. Guess that’s expected… He learned to fight with Yasuhiro-sama, just like Tadayoshi… So even a peasant like me has the same fighting style as that hero…
The boy samurai tried to get some distance, but Tadayoshi didn’t let him. Her master was always one step ahead. He read every movement and annulled them all. It was a way to not let your enemy use his weapon and force an opening to attack.
Tadayoshi did that a lot against her. But this time he hadn’t used his sword once.
He doesn’t want to fight. It was clear to Ei. And to Kenshin as well. The boy samurai got more and more enraged. But all it did was to make his movements stronger, but less precise.
He’s not using his feelings right, she thought, watching with a strange feeling in her. All his rage is doing is hindering his blade. The sword is nothing but a tool in his hands.
Ei remembered one of her first training. Tadayoshi’s words from that day were burned in her memory. After the fight against the samurai Ichirou, after she had killed for the first time in her life. During the first sparring matches, Tadayoshi noticed she still carried a lot of hatred for the bandits that attacked her village, that killed her mother.
“There’s nothing wrong with using your hate and anger as motivation,” he said at the time. “Everyone has those feelings and how to use it is up to themselves. But you can’t let them hinder your blade. Your sword isn’t a tool in your hand, but part of you. Don’t hold the handle with so much force you can’t fight properly. If you do that, you’re letting your feelings get in the way your sword and your real strength won’t come out. Make your sword reflect you.”
Ei had understood somewhat of what he said. She was picturing the bandit that killed her mother, imagining as if he was right there in front of her. Without realizing, she was holding the handle with so much strength the blade tremble slightly and her knuckles had lost its color.
After she was aware of that, she took a deep breath to calm down. She took her hands from the handle one at a time, closing and opening her fist a few times to let the blood back. Then she grabbed the sword again, ready to train.
The girl felt the difference right away. Her arms became less stiff and she moved her sword with more speed, though not nowhere near she imagined. Ei didn’t understand about letting her feelings reflect on her sword, but she stopped picturing the bandit.
When she confided in her master she hadn’t truly understand, Tadayoshi showed what he meant. His expression didn’t change at all, but when they exchanged the first blows, Ei felt the difference.
She could feel something behind the bokken. Each one of his attacks had a huge hate behind. It seemed he had become someone else but still had her master’s appearance. Though Ei knew it was part of him, she still feared it, and never wanted to see that side of him again.
That boy samurai is like that, she realized.
Kenshin wanted to kill Tadayoshi so badly he couldn’t fight with his real strength. It was the same as a kid fighting against an adult. The boy samurai tried using any of his technique, but then he realized no matter what he did, he couldn’t touch Tadayoshi. His hate and anger took over and he simply swung his sword.
Even I could defeat him like this, Ei thought. But unlike me, that boy samurai probably has been training ever since he could walk.
Kenshin attacked and attacked, his sword never close to reaching Tadayoshi. But then, the boy samurai slashed at him in the exact same way Ei did. And just like against his disciple, out of reflex, her master took the opportunity and grabbed Kenshin’s hands, twisting hard.
Even in the situation they were, Ei couldn’t help but smile. Every time he could, Tadayoshi did that to her, saying she shouldn’t let him get so close. But, unlike what he liked to do with her, her master didn’t sweep the boy samurai’s legs to make him fall.
The swordsman himself seemed surprised by his own actions. When he saw Kenshin’s face twisting with more rage, he let him go and took a step back. The boy samurai took advantage of the momentary opening and attacked.
Tadayoshi widened his eyes and swung his sword. Despite the huge opening on Kenshin’s defense, the swordsman didn’t attack. All he did was redirected the blow. But it was so heavy the boy samurai didn’t manage to change the direction and hit his own foot.
The boy samurai’s screams filled the village, but he quickly closed his mouth shut. He stared at Tadayoshi, his face twisting with pain and even more rage. And the swordsman’s concern only made Kenshin even angrier.
Ei felt a sudden movement behind her and froze. Shit, I completely forgot the ninja! Raising her sword, she turned around, but the enemy wasn’t there anymore. The path to the forest was free. Where is the ninja? Her first instinct told her to run away, but she ignored it and forced herself to turn back to the boy samurai.
Behind her master, she saw the ninja by the boy samurai’s side. With one hand, he took the sword from the foot and was already pressing the wound to stop the blood. When did he pass by us?
From Tadayoshi’s expression, it was clear he wanted to go to Kenshi’s side and make sure he was alright. But the hatred from the boy samurai made him walked towards Ei. He looked over his shoulder many times but didn’t stop.
When Tadayoshi was by her disciple side, Ei noticed his arm was red and there was blood all over his clothes. Without taking her eyes from the enemies, she looked for any wound apart from the one made by the shuriken. She found nothing, but his arm was bleeding too much, his sleeve drenched with blood.
For the first time, the boy samurai seemed to notice Ei. He looked between the swordsman and the girl. When he fixed on her, his eyes seemed to be looking the man he hated through her.
Tadayoshi moved to stand before her, shielding her from that hate. Despite the situation, Ei smiled again. Even in the middle of all this, he wants to protect me from that. Even after so long with him, her master’s kindness still surprised her.
“Who’s that girl, Tada… nameless?” he asked, not hiding the hate from his voice.
Tadayoshi glanced at her before answering. “She’s Eiko, my disciple.”
Those words infuriated the boy samurai. “You’re not teaching my father’s style, are you?” he shouted, trying to get rid of the ninja and go to them. “How dare you? How dare you?”
The ninja finished wrapping the boy samurai’s foot with bandages. But when Kenshin tried to stand on it, he pulled right away and used the ninja as support.
The girl ignored the shouts of the boy ninja and focused on the ninja. What he wanted was to force Tadayoshi to fight Kenshin, Ei realized, glancing back at the forest. But even if the ninja didn’t seem interested in fighting them, she couldn’t show any openings.
But her worries were unnecessary. The ninja took a small ball out of his pocket, snapped his fingers and the wick lit. He threw the ball on the floor and grey smoke involved them. When the smoke was gone, they weren’t there anymore.