For some strange reason, the only thing I remember of my father was him sitting me down a long time ago and telling me that he won’t always be around, and that a man must make his decisions and stand by them, because no matter what decisions he makes, some people will always be unhappy with him. I was very small then, and the truth was that I didn’t fully understand what he said, but I shook my head all the same in agreement. Of course, years later, I understood he was leaving for one of the several wars of the time. He never came back. But stories are still told till today of his kindness, strength, loyalty, honour, sense of duty and bravery. His Lord took me under his wings, and I was trained by a great master in the ways of the Samurai and duty to one’s Lord. In time, as my Lord grew older and portlier, I became one of his most trusted advisers and commander, having distinguished myself on several fronts.
The dynasty came to an end, and the land became fief-doms of neighboring Lords, who jousted for power and land. My Lord, wise and diplomatic, was able to secure peace with his neighboring Lords, such that we had a measure of peace despite the volatile times. As more Lords sought such sometimes uneasy alliances, some measure of peace and stability descended on the land.
But with peace comes the chance for idle hands and little minds to be restless and mischievous. Strict training and ways of living get relaxed and Samurai who would otherwise not contemplate their mortality needed other forms of distraction.
My fame as a master of the sword was by no means small though I have never personally claimed it to be so.
Nishimura was another Samurai from a well-known family, who was really a Ronin having parted ways with his clan after the death of his Lord. He was able to depose another Lord and was now in fact, a Lord of his own new clan having possession of a quite sizable area several hundreds of ri from the capital.
To this day, I do not know how or who started the rumour, but soon it became common knowledge that I and Nishimura would face each other in a contest to determine who was the best swordsman in the entire kingdom. I did not even know I was counted as one of two possible best. I came to suspect that “Nishimura-san” himself may have started the rumour, with an idea to advance himself by forcing a contest which would have increased his fame and struck terror into the hearts of his opponents by being declared the greatest swordsman in all the land. That is of course if he bested me. Which though won’t be a small thing generally, but his speed is legendary and his kills a litany that many a young Samurai knew by heart. In short, he was obviously better than me (I, having witnessed him in a duel on a couple of occasions)
At first, I ignored the rumour and so did my Lord since no one had mentioned it publicly, but things came to a head, when my Lord’s brother, a Lord himself, mentioned it to my Lord in a semi-formal way. While there was still no formal challenge, it was obvious it would only be a matter of time before the challenge is delivered formally. So it was no surprise when Nishimura’s emissary appeared before my Lord seeking his gracious permission for a visit.
My Lord, who can very blunt, brought up the topic once the feast was over and the guests had rested. Nishimura at first feigned surprise but after being pressed by my Lord agreed that such a duel would not be unattractive to him. I of course remained silently seated behind my Lord. The question being thrown to me, I differed to my Lord’s judgment on the matter and so it was that a suitable date was agreed on for the duel.
While I was not afraid of Nishimura, I still had to consider that there was the possibility that I would start the great journey at his hands. It was also a little confusing that a Lord who stands to lose a lot would force such a confrontation, unless he was sure he would come out the victor.
I brooded over this for a while and decided on a course of action to take leading up to the day of the duel.
So I went to an Izakaya (drinking house) several ri from my house. A place that sold cheaper fare to lower class Samurai, Ronins and others that have fallen on hard times. I went alone despite the danger: I may get challenged fairly or a Samurai of no honour with something to avenge may jump me.
Despite my low-key dressing, and setting out alone without having told anyone where I was headed, it is amazing how news travel: and how fast, for the proprietor of the place still met me on the threshold looking as if he had been expecting me for a good quarter of an hour. With much bobbing and bowing, he greeted me and accompanied me to what was the choicest sit in the house.
“Master, you do my humble establishment a great honour with your presence. It goes without saying that everything is on the house”
“Thank you very much” I responded, and making sure those close enough could hear, “but seeing this may be the last Sake I enjoy on this side of eternity. I will go much more peacefully the way of my fathers, if I don’t have on my conscience the cost of several Sake kegs respectfully but reluctantly offered eh?” I said this with a broad smile and patted him on the back.
“Most gracious of you master, but surely the first cup is on the house, I must respectfully insist” at which we both burst out laughing. Wise fellow, he agreed too quickly to my decision to pay!
“Next round is on me!” Several appreciative looks were thrown my way, and several gasshos (two palms together in greeting)
I became a regular fixture at the drinking house. Always ensuring I buy several rounds for the men present and ultimately drinking little myself. Too much drink makes a man slow and lose his wits. I needed time which I did not have to come up with a plan.
I had taken the proprietor into my confidence and as such under my protection so I knew I could count on his loyalty to a certain extent. My plan was simple – I needed it to be known that I was drowning my sorrow in drink due to my belief that I was about to meet a sure but certain end at the hands of Nishimura. It was no easy fit, because I needed to keep up the pretense both in public and private knowing fully well that he would have his spies monitoring my every move.
On the day before the duel, I had gone to the drinking house as usual. Only the proprietor and myself knew that all the drinks I was served was water and nothing else, while as usual I bought several rounds for the “house.”
Late at night, I “staggered” home looking for all the world as if I was about to pass out from my “drunkenness.”
Having done all I could to get ready, I had a good night sleep.
Early the following morning with the sea salt on the winds, I made my way with uncertain steps to the place chosen for the duel. Nishimura was already there, his clothes looking new and the lines straight. He made an imposing figure. I, on the other hand, looked a little worse for wear.
Addressing me respectfully, he suggested that if I wasn’t up to it this morning, we could postpone the duel (which was a disguised insult).
I declined, stating that fate has brought us together on so clear a morning and that what will be will be.
A Samurai duel is a strange thing. It is personal. I have seen the Englishman’s duel. A truly impersonal thing. Two men standing 20 paces apart shooting balls of metal at each other. I do not see the point: while skill at shooting definitely has its place, they might as well beat each other to death with their bare fists.
A Samurai duel between two equally matched opponents is a spectacle to watch, lethal yet graceful: a dance of fate. It may take a minute or ten, but the conclusion is a split-second of dazzling light playing on flashing swords. Then it is all over. There may be a victor, or none.
We both intended the duel to end quickly, because economy of movement is a Samurai’s ultimate demonstration of skill.
Nothing is of course certain, steps must be taken carefully, and decisions made quickly but with the weight of experience. I was going to force this duel to a close as quickly as I could and much quicker than Nishimura expects. I approached him directly, ready to do battle but obviously unsteady on my feet. I intended to give him an opening he couldn’t resist. Thus raising up my arms in a two handed grip with the intention of a downward stroke, he reacted by going for a cross-cut across my belly. With his sword rebounding from the layers of metal and clothing across my mid-section, he was completely committed to the stroke and the last expression on his face was a mixture of confusion and surprise as I brought the sword down across his neck. Confusion, because I should be falling to the ground not completing a sword stroke that obviously still had strength behind it.
It is well known that the Samurai sword can cut through anything – well, almost anything. I had devised a specially arrangement of an alloy of iron, and clothing into an armour that was thin and at the same time would require several strokes of a Samurai sword delivered precisely to the same point for it to penetrate. The opening I offered, combined with the “knowledge” that I was drunk, made Nishimura so certain of his victory that he was not as careful as he would normally have been.
I was the victor, but it came at a price I was willing to pay. There was a division as to whether I acted with honour concerning the armour I wore. This was a none-issue to me, the choice of not wearing armour usually came down to a balance of being too slow because of the weight versus the extra protection it offers. After much back and forth, it was obvious that I could not be faulted along those lines, but the outcome was that I got a somewhat derogatory nickname – “Iron Samurai” which in itself would ensure I got involved in several other duels as a result. The armour still protected me, but as it was now common knowledge, the only reason I won those duels was because I was more skilled than my opponents.
No one calls me the Iron Samurai to my face, at least no one alive. Yet, I secretly enjoy the “title.”
One bright and sunny day, when it appears the Gods themselves have lifted the burdens of all men briefly, I visited the site of my “inebriation” when my very life was up for a gamble. Young Samurai, sometimes arrogant beyond their ability were everywhere throwing their weight around. I aimed for a quiet corner but not before the proprietor caught a glimpse of me and thus followed the usual fawning and so on. He showed me to a seat in the corner I indicated. I asked for Sake and he hurried off briskly to see to it personally. I allowed my eyes to roam round the room without making any eye contact. There had been a lull in the conversation when the proprietor had welcomed me and as the conversation began to ebb and flow again, it was obvious I had become the point of discussion among some of the groups scattered across the room.
A particular collection of young men seemed to be more interested than the rest and I could have sworn I heard the words “Iron Samurai”. I looked at them out the sides of my eye and I was contemplating getting up to leave because I sensed they were likely to be trouble, when the whole little group of about eight rose to their feet.
One of them then proceeded to stand in front of me. I pretended not to notice him, but he cleared his throat and gave a greeting of respect.
“My Lord (sniggering from behind him), I perceive you are the great Iron Samurai. May we see this iron belt of renown? That is if it’s always on you to protect your softer parts.”
“I perceive you have taken too much of Sake, and have thus taken leave of your manners, senses and better judgment. I advise a hasty retreat back to your friends.” I answered.
“What!?” he exclaimed in anger.
He was slow, and not because of the wine. His teacher should be ashamed of himself. I gave him more rope than I usually would, but he clearly thought he could best me. So I took his arm. He looked down at his hand and sword on the floor in bewilderment for a split second, then at his stump spurting blood, then he started to scream. I was feeling better already. The dreariness was almost gone. So I thought better of it and took his head as well. His headless torso stood upright briefly and then fell backwards, blood all over the place.
His friends looked on in shock, unable to move. “Honoured brothers,” I said to the house, “apologies for the mess, the next round is on me.” That had an immediate effect as voices were raised again in various discussions practically ignoring the dead body, which peasants were already attempting to take outside.
Such is the boisterousness of youth. But that notwithstanding, appearances must be kept up; examples must be made; and honor … to hell with honor. I am after all, the Iron Samurai.
* Ri – (or li) – a traditional Chinese unit of distance – currently about 0.5KM.
* Sake – is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice.