Blood and Steel
The thunder of charging horses gave way to the clang of swords as two armies met on a field in the highlands of Japan.
From the saddle of his horse, Yoshiro Shimezu fought with a combination of power and grace. He whirled and slashed, maneuvering his steed with precision, all without hakusha, or spurs. The samurai did not use them.
Clad in brightly painted armor, Yoshiro sported wide shoulder boards, heavy gauntlets and a helmet adorned with stag horns. He wielded a gleaming katana that caught every bit of the light as it cut through the air.
With a flick of the wrist, he disarmed his nearest adversary. A backhanded cut followed, snapping another opponent’s sword in two. As that soldier fled, a third foe lunged at Yoshiro with a pike. The tip struck his ribs, but his scaled armor that lay in pleats prevented mortal damage. Yoshiro wheeled around and killed the man with a downward hack.
Free for a second, he turned his horse in a tight pirouette. The horse, dressed in armor to match Yoshiro’s, reared up, kicking with its front legs and then leaping forward.
Its iron-clad hooves smashed a pair of attackers in the face, sending them bloodied and battered to the ground. It came down on a third man, crushing him, but enemy soldiers were now massing on all sides.
Yoshiro turned one way and back again. He’d taken the field against the Shogun, who arrived with overwhelming numbers. The battle had gone predictably and Yoshiro was facing the end.
Determined to take as many foes with him as possible, Yoshiro charged the closest group, but they pulled back in a defensive formation, raising shields and long pikes. He turned and galloped toward another formation of troops, but they, too, held their ground, cowering behind a forest of spears.
Perhaps they meant to capture him. Perhaps the Shogun would demand he commit seppuku in front of the court. Such an end Yoshiro would not accept.
He urged his horse one way and then the other. But with each move, the foot soldiers drew back. Yoshiro pulled up. He had no wish to see his steed uselessly killed. It was a beautiful animal and his only advantage.
“Fight me!” he demanded, turning from quarter to quarter. “Fight me if you have any honor!”
A primal grunt caught his attention. A spear was hurled his way. With superb reflexes, Yoshiro parried the incoming missile, slicing through the wooden shaft with his sword, both deflecting and dividing it. The weapon fell harmlessly in two pieces.
“Do not attack!” a voice shouted from behind the mass of troops. “His head belongs to me.”
The soldiers straightened at the sound of the command and one section of the circle opened, allowing the rider to enter.
Yoshiro recognized the silk draping of the horse, the golden breastplates of the armor and the winged helmet. The Shogun had come to fight at last.
“Kasimoto!” Yoshiro called out. “I did not think you’d have the courage to cross swords with me in person.”
“I would not allow any other to vanquish a traitor,” Kasimoto said, drawing a sword of his own, a katana like Yoshiro’s, though it was a darker weapon with a thicker blade. “You swore allegiance to me as feudal lord. You are in rebellion.”
“And you swore to protect the people, not murder them and steal their land.”
“My authority is absolute,” the Shogun bellowed. “Over them and over you. I cannot steal what is already mine. But if you beg for it, I will be merciful.”
The Shogun whistled and a small group of prisoners were brought out. Children. Two boys and two girls. They were forced to kneel while servants of the Shogun stood behind them with daggers.
“I have more than a thousand captives,” the Shogun said. “And with your rabble defeated, nothing stands between me and the village. If you surrender now and take your own life, I will kill only half the prisoners and leave the village standing. But if you fight me, I will slaughter them to the last man, woman or child and I’ll burn the village to ash.”
Yoshiro had known it would come to this. But he also knew that many in the Shogun’s ranks had grown weary of the brutality, expecting it to land on them sooner or later. That gave him one flicker of hope. If he could kill the Shogun here and now, wiser minds might prevail. At long last, there might be peace.
Yoshiro considered his chances. The Shogun was a cunning warrior, strong and possessing great expertise, but he and his horse were unmarked by blood, sweat or soil. It had been a long time since the Shogun fought for his life.
“What answer do you give?”
Yoshiro kicked his horse in the side and charged, raising his gleaming sword above his head.
The Shogun reacted slowly but deflected the attack at the last moment and urged his animal forward, passing Yoshiro on the left.
The warriors swapped sides, turned and charged once again. This time, the armored animals collided at the center of the circle. Both horses buckled from the impact. Their riders were thrown to the ground.
Yoshiro sprang up first, attacking with a deadly thrust.
Kasimoto parried the assault and jumped to the side, but Yoshiro spun and slashed downward.
With each clash of the swords, sparks flew from the blades. The Shogun regained his form and an uppercut from him tore Yoshiro’s helmet off, opening a gash on his cheek. A return strike from Yoshiro took off one of Kasimoto’s shoulder boards.
Angered and in pain, the Shogun came on furiously, slashing, feinting and hacking, using a deadly combination.
Yoshiro reeled from the attack, nearly losing his balance. The Shogun went for his throat with a cut that should have separated head from body, but with a desperate flick of the hands, Yoshiro deflected the strike with the flat side of his sword.
The impact should have broken his weapon into useless pieces, but Yoshiro’s blade took the blow, flexed and deflected the strike away from him.
In a counterattack, Yoshiro unleashed a powerful crosscut that found Kasimoto’s midsection. The edge of the blade was so sharp and the strike so fierce that it gashed through the painted steel plate and the hardened leather, drawing blood from the Shogun’s ribs.
A gasp came from the soldiers gathered around. Kasimoto stumbled back, clutching his side. He gazed at Yoshiro in astonishment. “Your blade remains in one piece while my armor is carved like wet cloth. There can only be one reason for that. The rumors are true, you hold the weapon of the great swordmaker. The Masamune.”
Yoshiro held the gleaming sword proudly. “This weapon was handed down to me from my father and from his father before him. It’s the finest blade of all the Master’s works. And it shall bring an end to your vile life.”
The Shogun pulled off his helmet in order to breathe and see better. “A powerful weapon indeed,” he said. “One I shall treasure when I pull it from your dead hand—but my sword is the greater of the two. It is the blade that thirsts for blood.”
Yoshiro recognized the katana in the Shogun’s hands. It was the work of Japan’s other great swordsmith: Muramasa, protégé to the famed Master.
It was said the two swordmakers had lived in a state of bitter contention and that the Muramasa had infused his weapons with the jealousy, hatred and darkness he felt for the one who had taught him. They had become weapons of conquest, destruction and death, where the works of Masamune were used to uphold the righteous and to bring peace.
Legends to be sure, but there was always some truth to them.
“Trust in that dark sword and it will bring you to ruin,” Yoshiro warned.
“Not until it brings me your head.”
The two warriors circled each other, wounded and catching their breath, each of them preparing for the final clash. Yoshiro was limping and Kasimoto bleeding. One would soon fall.
Yoshiro would have to act decisively. If he missed his mark, Kasimoto would kill him. If he struck a wounding blow, the Shogun would retreat out of fear and order his men to swarm over Yoshiro. If that were to occur, even the magnificent weapon he wielded would be unable to save him.
He needed a lightning strike. One that would kill the Shogun instantly.
Limping more noticeably, Yoshiro came to a halt. He assumed the classic samurai stance, one leg back, one leg forward, both hands on the sword, which was kept near the back hip.
“You look tired,” the Shogun said.
The Shogun responded with a defensive stance of his own. He would not take the bait.
Yoshiro had to act. He lunged forward with surprising speed, the flaps of his layered armor spreading like wings as he charged.
In close, he thrust the katana at the Shogun’s neck, but Kasimoto blocked the attack with an armored gauntlet and brought his own blade downward.
It sliced into Yoshiro’s arm. The pain was excruciating but Yoshiro ignored it. He spun in a full circle and launched into a new assault.
The Shogun staggered backward under the weight of the attack. He was pushed to the right and then back to the left and then over to the right again. His legs shook. His breath came in gasps.
Overpowered by the attack, he tumbled, by chance landing beside one of the young prisoners. As Yoshiro began a lethal stroke, the Shogun pulled the child in front of him.
Yoshiro was already in the process of striking, but the sword caught neither the Shogun’s head nor the child’s. It continued down, glancing off the Shogun’s ankle and plunging its tip into the soft trampled earth.
Yoshiro pulled, but the blade stuck in the ground for just a second. That was long enough for Kasimoto. He threw the child aside and swung for Yoshiro with both hands on the hilt of his weapon.
His blade sliced through Yoshiro’s neck and took his life instantly. The samurai’s headless body fell in a heap. But the dying was not over.
Kasimoto’s forward lunge had brought him up from a crouch. As he stepped down, his ankle buckled where it had been smashed by Yoshiro’s final blow. He stumbled forward, reaching out toward the ground to break his fall, and he turned the point of his own sword back toward himself.
It pierced his chest where Yoshiro had cut the armor away, puncturing his heart, skewering him and holding him off the ground.
Kasimoto’s mouth opened as if to scream, but no sound came forth. He lay there, propped up by his own weapon, his blood running down the length of its curved blade.
The battle ended this way, as did the war.
The Shogun’s men were tired, weary and now leaderless. They were many weeks from home. Instead of pressing on and burning the village, they gathered up their dead and left, taking with them both the gleaming sword of the Masamune and the blood-soaked weapon forged by Muramasa the apprentice.
Tales of the battle would grow from that day forward and soon became embellished until the claims were beyond imagination.
Yoshiro’s katana would eventually be known as the Honjo Masamune, the ultimate creation of Japan’s greatest swordsmith. It was said to be unbreakable and yet able to bend nearly in half as it swung and whipped through the air. One legend insisted it shined from within, casting enough light to blind its opponents. Others said the blade was so finely honed that when Yoshiro held it before him, it split the light into a rainbow and rendered him invisible.
The Shogun’s dark sword would become only slightly less famous. It was a charcoal color to begin with and was said to have grown darker and reddish in tint after soaking in Kasimoto’s blood. It came to be called the Crimson Blade. Over the centuries, its own legend would grow. Many who took possession of it came to great wealth and power. And most of them came to tragic ends as well.
Both weapons would be passed down from samurai to samurai, from feudal lord to feudal lord, becoming national treasures of the Japanese people. They would be held by the powerful families, revered by the public and prized, until they vanished without a trace in the chaotic days at the end of World War II.