Ronin

The sun baked the road under the lone figure’s sandals.
He walked the barren, vacant road with the slow pace of the weary. Wind flapped the faded clothes he wore and plucked at the peasant’s straw hat that hid his features from the sun. A small traveling pack hung on his back. His clothes carried no mon symbolizing his family or clan, and the fabrics were too worn and mismatched. Only the katana at his belt gleamed with care, the hilt, scabbard and trappings were maintained like new. He walked into the peasant village at his steady pace, not varying a bit. He followed the sounds of haggling and came to the village market, crowded with locals bartering their produce with each other, trading what they had for what they needed.
The traveler’s head rose slightly as he reached the edge of the square and he turned towards a crude tent sheltering bags of rice. A wave of silence passed as the farmers took in the stranger in their midst. Their eyes caught the sparkle of silver inlay on the black sheath of his sword, fine as that of the noblest lord. But this man bore only the katana; no matching wakizashi complemented the long sword. A traveler in poor clothes carrying the sword of a samurai without the shorter honor sword could only be an outcast, a ronin. Samurai were of the noble class, for whom honor was life, more important than their own death. Ronin were failed samurai who had lost their lord or failed to uphold their honor. Most were ordered or volunteered to commit ritual suicide to atone for their failure. But this one had either refused to die honorably or had been denied permission to do so.
The peasants would treat him respectfully, but more out of fear. A ronin was still of the samurai caste and could legally kill anyone of a lower caste who displeased him. But, with no patron to avenge him, the peasants would slay him like a mad dog and rob him if they thought they could.
The ronin approached the old woman trading rice, who bowed fearfully to him once, twice, three times. He returned a single respectful bow and pointed to a small bag of rice, perhaps enough to feed a single man for a few weeks. He did not speak, nor did he raise his face to meet her eyes. The old woman looked at him in confusion until he produced a small bag and jingled the coins within.
She nodded and named a price, somewhat on the high side, expecting the stranger to haggle down to a reasonable amount. Instead he dumped the coins into his weathered hand and regarded the amount: scarcely enough to pay. He sighed deeply and handed the full price to her without a word, tucking a few small coins back in his pouch.
She bowed again, murmured thanks to his back. The traveler ignored her as he ignored the stares of the villagers. He walked away at his steady pace as a commotion arose from the crowd. Three men elbowed their way out of the spectators. Two were large, simply dressed and not particularly bright looking. Their leader was much better dressed in a kimono of dark red with gold trim. His moustache and the ponytail at the rear of his clean shaven head showed the care he spent on his appearance. He bore no sword, but a pair of curved hilted jitte daggers thrust through his belt marked him as a magistrate. He spat on the ground and walked forward, his henchmen lifting heavy, iron studded tetsubo maces.
“You there, stop!” ordered the magistrate as he approached the stranger. The shuffling figure took no notice, the rice bag swayed on his left shoulder in time with his steps.
“Stop!” again, no response.
The magistrate bared his teeth in a growl. He looked at one of his henchmen and nodded. The deputy shifted his weapon to his left hand and reached out for the stranger’s shoulder…
The stranger whirled with amazing speed. A loud, reptilian hiss split the air and sunlight flashed in their eyes. The ronin now stood facing them, rice bag held in his left hand as a makeshift club. His right arm was at full extension, his katana resting against the other man’s throat, the razor edge caressing the skin above the artery. The tip of the blade extended several inches past the man’s spine, and had the swing been completed, his head would have been rolling in the dirt.
The ronin spoke for the first time: “No man lays hands upon me.” His face was still hidden by the hat; his voice was dry and raspy as if he had not spoken for days.
“Drop your weapon! You are under arrest!” The bluster had gone out of the magistrate, but his voice fired up as he repeated the familiar words.
The stranger’s head rose at last. His face was weather burned and rough with beard stubble. But his eyes. They were dark wells of anger and his gaze was that of a snake, cold and unblinking. The magistrate flinched as the dry voice spat “For what?” in contempt.
“Sur-surrender your weapon or be judged in outlaw!”
The ronin drew back his arm and held the sword at an angle across his chest. “Breath of the Dragon is mine to bear; it shall not be taken from me.”
A writhing dragon was engraved along the flat of the blade. When he spoke, the engraving began to glow red, from tail to mouth. When the entire design burned with fire, flame burst from the raised tip and ran down the spine like burning oil running downhill. Flame burned in the samurai’s eyes, perhaps a reflection. Perhaps not.
The magistrate paled and his men stepped back in fear. The watching market crowd was as silent as the dead. “Are you master Tomaru?” whispered the ashen faced magistrate.
“I am Tomaru”
The magistrate threw himself at the stranger’s feet and tore the hem of his fine robe in contrition. “Forgive me sensei! I mistook you for a simple ronin. I will offer my apologies to you and your ancestors on the altar tonight.” The henchmen, confused, knelt on the ground as well.
The stranger whipped the katana around in a flourish and sheathed it. The flame was gone and the blade seemed to hiss in disappointment as it was put away. “I am a simple ronin,” the samurai repeated. “And master and sensei no more.” He turned his back on them all and walked away, the rice bag over his shoulder once more.

For the next two days, the ronin traveled his slow pace along the road. At night he slept rolled in a threadbare blanket. Morning, noon and night he ate rice, boiled in stream water, cooked over his small camp stove. He seemed to care little for himself, but he obviously treasured the sword. Every morning he would clean the blade and scabbard, drying any dew that had formed overnight. Every evening he would spend an hour with it, practicing cuts, parries, feints and disarms against imagined foes. His speed, skill and grace were amazing. Sometimes he talked to the weapon. And sometimes, he seemed to hear answers…
The next day, the stranger was still walking down the road, his pace the same weary shuffle. He wore the same clothes. He saw few others, some peasants moving produce or merchants with their wares. None spoke to him and he ignored them all. But, shortly after midday, he was approached by a group of mounted men. Most were samurai, dressed in the great armor favored by wealthy warriors. The last man wore a courtier’s robe of fine red and gold silks and the two swords of a samurai as well. The armored warriors wore pennons from wands on their backs; the flags bore the same clan and family markings as the magistrate from the village. They dismounted a little ways ahead of the traveler, and the escort tended the horses while their leader came on and bowed. “Are you master Tomaru?”
The ronin stopped and returned the bow. “I am Tomaru” he replied, then continued down the road. The courtier looked surprised, and then followed, walking a little behind and to the left of Tomaru. “I am a messenger for Lord Nimuren, whose lands these are. He has an offer for you.” The courier pulled a scroll of heavy parchment from his pouch. Red silk tassels dipped in gold hung from the ends.
The ronin stopped and took it. He broke the gold wax seal and began to read. When he finished, he re-rolled the scroll and handed it back. “Lord Nimuren’s offer is very generous, but I am not worthy of such. Please convey my sincere regrets and hopes that he will find another to accept his offer.” He turned away and resumed his slow walk.
“But honored sensei, surely his offer is most enticing. To have a home and servants of your own, and the honor and rewards of a champion.” The messenger followed along at his side.
“Wealth does not bring happiness, fine clothes do not warm your heart and a full belly of good food does not mean satisfaction.”
“But as a champion, Lord Nimuren can give your honor back.”
The ronin stopped so suddenly that the messenger went on a step or two without him. The courier turned to see the ronin’s head lifted, and the anger in that cold stare pierced the messenger and froze him in place.
“Honor is not given,” spat the older man. “It is earned for your deeds. No man can give my honor back. It was not taken from me, I threw it away.” He lowered his head again and walked away, faster than he had before, and left the stunned messenger behind.
When he stopped for the night, the ronin’s exercises were particularly vigorous. A small sapling almost suffered for his anger, and he bowed an apology to the spirit of the tree. Several dead sticks were thrown into the air instead and sliced to kindling. After cleaning and inspecting his blade, Tomaru was calm enough to sleep.
But his dreams robbed him of peace. Over and over, he saw his opponent and the duel, and the final lightning stroke repeated in slow motion. He heard the applause of the court; saw the tears of his opponent’s mother. The clan lord’s face with its mix of emotions: remorse at the loss of his son and heir, regret that he had not prevented the matter from coming to death. There was also relief that his oldest son had died a quick and honorable death and that the duelist grandmaster still lived to protect and serve the clan.
Now the dream changed and the master knelt, katana sheathed but the short honor sword held before him as he begged to die and atone for killing the clan heir. The lord struggled with his decision, but ordered his champion to live. Denied his wish to die, Tomaru threw the wakizashi in the great fireplace of the court. He saw himself riding out on his horse, wearing the fine armor and clothes that he had torn the clan symbols from.
Tomaru woke, dawn was just lighting the eastern sky. His horse, armor and clothes were long gone, sold to buy food and supplies. Several years of walking the back roads of the empire had aged him and his body complained as he stood and exercised to loosen up. He relit his fire and put some water and rice on, then turned to the sword. The morning ritual was completed carefully and he regarded the amount of oil left in the flask. That cleaning oil was his only luxury, for Breath of the Dragon deserved the devotion he gave it.
Another day had begun and he continued his aimless journey. He could not say where he was going, or why he took one road instead of another. He just did.
That afternoon he came upon a little girl sitting on the side of the road. She played with a pair of dolls made from tied bunches of straw and dressed in spare scraps of cloth and seemed to be playing them as two noblewomen sharing tea. Her long, black ponytails bobbed as she looked up at the stranger coming down the road. She saw his sword and jumped up, gathering her dolls. As the ronin reached her, she spoke: “Are you a great warrior?”
Tomaru stopped and looked down at her sideways. The child was dressed in well made peasant clothes, clean but for an endearing smudge of dirt on her cheek.
“Yes little one, I suppose I am.”
“And do you have a spirit sword? All the stories say great warriors have spirit swords.”
Tomaru smiled beneath the brim of his hat. “Yes, I do.”
“Can I see it?” She asked.
He frowned at her, but it was hard to maintain the proper chastising expression. “Little one, it is rude and very dangerous to ask a samurai you do not know to see his sword.”
“I know, I’m sorry…but can I see it anyway?”
Tomaru sighed and slowly drew his katana from its sheath with a whisper. The little girl’s eyes opened wide. “Does it have a name?”
“Do you have a name?”
“Of course, I’m Fubuki!”
“Well Fubuki, this is Breath of the Dragon.” A red glint ran through the dragon’s lines.
“Is it truly magic?”
“Truly” Tomaru replied as he slid the blade back.
“Then maybe you can fight the monster for us!”
Tomaru’s gaze sharpened. “Is there a monster here?”
She nodded emphatically. “The old women are always warning us about being alone in the woods or outside at night.”
“Are you sure they aren’t just trying to scare you?”
“No! I’ve heard my father talking with his friends late at night when I’m supposed to be asleep. They say how terrible it is that the monster takes so much of their crops. Sometimes they are sad when the monster kills someone in another village. And they are very angry when the monster takes someone’s daughter or wife away from them. That’s why we have to be careful.”
“I see.” Tomaru wasn’t smiling anymore. “And what will you pay me with?”
“What do you mean? Heroes are supposed to fight monsters; that’s what they do!”
“But doesn’t the hero get a reward in the stories?”
“Well, sometimes he marries a beautiful princess…my sister is very pretty! Would you like to marry her?”
Tomaru laughed, loud and long. “Little one, you and your sister are worth many monsters each. No, that would be too much. Does your village have anything else?”
The little girl sat down on a rock and pouted while she thought. “Is there anything your village has a lot of? Something else they can give me?”
“We have food…and cloth, you look like you need a new robe.” Tomaru poked a finger through a hole in his sleeve. “Yes, I suppose I do. Very well, for some food and clothes, I will fight your monster.” He smiled down at her. “Could I have a blanket too?”
“Well, its only one monster.”
“But there might be more. And I have a spirit sword. Doesn’t some food, clothes and a blanket seem a reasonable amount?”
“Very well, you drive a hard bargain.” She sounded like she was imitating someone.
“And so do you. Take me to your father so I can ask him where the monster lives.”
Fubuki jumped up and began to run to her village. She would wait impatiently for him or circle back to skip beside him. They came to her village in the late afternoon, a circle of huts along a stream, fields spread out beyond the village. He saw peasants at work in the fields. She led him to her hut and asked him to sit and wait. Then she had run off, calling for her father.
The hut’s door rustled behind him and he turned to look over his shoulder. A pretty young woman looked through the gap fearfully. When she saw his sword, she opened the door and knelt down facing him. “My lord, how may we serve you?”
“First, get up; I am no one to call lord anymore.” She rose hesitantly and he saw her resemblance to his young guide. “Are you Fubuki’s sister?”
“Yes my L..Yes I am.”
“You are even prettier than she said. Relax; I am not here to harm anyone.”
Fubuki came around the corner of the huts, trailed by the men Tomaru had seen in the fields. They carried their farming tools and did not look happy. Or friendly. Fubuki ran up to him. “See, I told you! He is a warrior and has a spirit sword and he’s going to fight the monster for some food and clothes!”
“And a blanket.”
Fubuki pouted. “I thought you might have forgotten about that.”
“It is not safe to bargain dishonorably. You promised me a blanket, too.”
“My lord, I am sorry.” Fubuki’s father knelt, and the others followed. “I apologize that your time has been wasted because of a child’s stories.”
“But father…” began Fubuki.
“Little one, perhaps you can help your sister. I will talk to your father.”
“Alright” Fubuki walked inside and her sister quickly shut the door.
“Now, let us talk.” Tomaru got up and walked towards the village’s well. “My name is Tomaru, but I am no longer anyone to abase yourselves before.” He took a seat on the edge of the well. “Now, do you have a monster problem here, or not?”
“No we do not; Fubuki is wasting your time.”
“Then you and the other men of the village do not talk late at night about a monster that kills people, takes your crops and steals women and girls from their homes?”
Some of the men realized what the ronin meant. They lowered their faces or looked away. Fubuki’s father knelt in the position of one who admits his guilt and expects punishment. “The monster is our overlord, Lord Nimuren. We did not wish to speak his name aloud.” He explained haltingly.
Tomaru slid his sheathed katana from his belt and rested it across his legs. “Your overlord has the right of life or death over you. You are subordinate to his justice. Are you saying it is more than that?”
“Justice? Hah!” one of the men in the back spat on the ground.
“Explain” and Tomaru was again the commanding presence of a samurai master. The villagers felt it and knelt, heads bowed before him as they explained.
“He takes not just his lord’s tithe of five bushels in ten, but sometimes seven or even eight.”
“His men take women from their husbands and sometimes daughters from their families. The women rarely return, those who do won’t speak of their treatment, but it shows.”
“Village elders and men who protest are often put to the sword.”
Tomaru’s face was grim below the sun bleached white straw of his hat. “And what do the priests say?”
“We have few wise men; most will not tarry in Lord Nimuren’s lands. Some come to the villages for major holy days, but there are few here.”
“I see. You do have a problem, but Fubuki spoke more truly than you wish to admit.” Tomaru returned his sword to his belt. “Return to your work. I think you owe me a meal, at least. Prepare nothing special for me, I will dine with you.”
The men rose and bowed and walked slowly back to the fields with many uneasy glances back. The ronin remained by the well, caressing the hilt of his sword and meditating. When the men returned from the fields at dusk, Tomaru joined Fubuki’s family for dinner. He thanked them for a chance to eat someone else’s cooking and praised their generosity.
Tomaru went outside after the meal and retrieved his blade from where it rested, leaning against the doorframe. Weapons were not brought inside by guests unless they wished to show they distrusted their host. Tomaru planned to leave the village and meditate alone before carrying out his evening exercises. He stopped short when he saw torches coming along the path towards the village and heard many hoof beats. He returned to his seat on the lip of the well instead.
Around him, the village seemed to close in on itself as the people reacted to the approaching horses. Horses meant mounted warriors, either samurai or bandits, and the ronin had no doubt either would be unpleasant. The mounted samurai emerged into the village square, five abreast, two more flanking the nobleman who rode in the center and five more guarding the rear. The ten spread out to guard the edges of the square, the others followed their lord to approach the ronin at the well. One led an extra horse. The nobleman, resplendent in a suit of red great armor trimmed in gold, rode up to the well. Even his saddle and reins bore gold decorations which glinted with the orange setting sun.
“Master Tomaru, it is a pleasure to speak to you at last.” Tomaru rose and bowed deeply. “Lord Nimuren, surely it was not worth your journey to greet a lone ronin.” His head did not lift, his face remained in shadows.
“Well, if you would not accept my invitation, it seems I must make time to speak with you.” Nimuren’s face and voice remaind pleasant, his bodyguards’ did not.
“It is dishonorable to accept a gift you do not deserve, or an invitation you are not worthy of.”
“Nonsense,” boomed Nimuren, “Surely a swordsman of your skill is worthy of a place in my service.”
“I would not want to shame you before others when they see you have a ronin like myself in your service.”
“The prowess of a warrior such as you will only add to the power and glory of my house and strike fear into the hearts of my rivals at court.” The lord’s expression of friendly welcome didn’t change, but the samurai to his left snorted audibly.
Tomaru’s head rose and turned. “You do not agree with your lord’s estimate of my skill?” The bodyguard returned his look insolently. “You are not what you once were. You are nothing but an old warrior who now only fights hunger and the cold at night. I am surprised you have not sold your noble blade for some saki and a whore.”
The ronin dropped his left hand to the katana’s sheath. His thumb pushed forward on the sword’s circular guard and exposed an inch of shimmering steel. To touch ones sword in conversation was an insult, to expose the blade was a threat.
“Nagumo, you provoke this man at your own risk. If you answer him, you will do so without my protection or promise of retribution.” Lord Nimuren’s face was set, but Tomaru thought he saw anticipation. A staged exchange? Perhaps the lord was willing to lose one of his men as a test for the ronin?
The samurai swung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. Nimuren’s other bodyguard took his horse’s reins and bent over to speak to his fellow, a wish for success probably. Tomaru’s challenger waved him off and advanced to a standard dueling distance. Tomaru bowed to him in acceptance of the challenge. The guardsman brusquely nodded in return and the two set hands to hilts and began the duel.
A duel between samurai is a mental one at first. Each concentrates on the other and it becomes a contest to see who would flinch and draw first. For minor situations, a duel might not even involve swords, simply the psychic duel of personalities. But this was a duel to the death, for no conditions had been set and gross insults exchanged. This was an iaijatsu duel. It would end in a single lightning fast draw, carrying through in a single lethal stroke. Evenly matched opponents had been known to draw simultaneously and kill one another in the exchange.
The samurai stared into the eyes of the ronin, concentrating and pouring his will into the confrontation, waiting for his older opponent to flinch and leave himself open for the killing stroke. Tomaru on the other hand was relaxed. The samurai’s furious concentration flowed into his eyes like water down a drain, gone without a trace or result. As the moments ticked by, Tomaru began to smile.
The samurai’s face flushed with anger as the ronin’s smile grew and the moment came as Nagumo gave in to his anger and began to draw. He was fast, but the former iaijatsu master was so far above his skill that it didn’t matter. The guardsman’s sword had barely begun to move when Breath of the Dragon leapt from its sheath with a roar that startled the onlookers. It flashed red in the light as Tomaru’s backhand stroke slashed in under his opponent’s right jaw and out through the left side of his neck, severing the head in one smooth motion that was slowed little by flesh or bone.
The man’s head fell forward as the body toppled backwards into the dust, right hand locked in a death grip on the half drawn katana. Tomaru flicked Breath of the Dragon in a blood shedding flourish and sheathed it. The blade slid home with an obviously satisfied sound. The samurai guards were angered by the death of their comrade, but stunned by the master’s speed. Not one thought he could prevail against the ronin in single combat, but all wished their lord would give the word and they would strike together.
Nimuren appeared pleased. “Your skill has not left you sensei. You are exactly what I am looking for. Come, ride back to my estate and we will discuss it. Hito, make sure the peasants bring Nagumo’s body home in the morning.”
Tomaru bowed. “My lord, I have not ridden in many years. I would not want to delay your return to your estates. I will stand guard over your man’s body and arms; the villagers will bring them home in the morning and show me the way to your noble estates.”
Nimuren paused and considered the setting sun. It was already late and he had no intention of being kept from his bed and other pleasures.
“Very well sensei. Have the peasants wrap his body in a shroud and bring it in a wagon to my home before noon tomorrow. You will see that the villagers do not steal any of his belongings and present yourself when you have delivered the body.” Nimuren turned to his men and gestured for them to ride out. Tomaru bowed low “Your wisdom is undisputed.” He stood beside the body as the lord and his men rode off into the night, then called for Fubuki’s father, Ejiro.
“Yes, sensei?”
Tomaru sighed. “Tell the women to bring cloth for a shroud to prepare the body. I will want you to drive the wagon tomorrow and show me the way.” He bent and took the money pouch from the dead man’s belt. He opened it and took a few coins, placing some in his pouch and handing the rest to Ejiro. “Give some money to whoever has cloth for the shroud, more to whoever has a wagon and team for tomorrow. Keep the rest as payment for dinner and a place for me to sleep tonight.”
“Master, Lord Nimuren will be angry if he…”
“How will he know how much money a dead man had in his pouch? I swore no villager would steal anything and you have not. And what would he do? Call me a liar, insult my honor? Challenge me to a duel?” Tomaru’s head came up and he smiled. Ejiro felt a trace of fear. “Lord Nimuren would run out of men to challenge me before I lost the strength to swing my blade.”
The ronin turned and looked down the path to the road. “I think you can tell Fubuki I will do something about your monster.” Ejiro bowed and backed away fearfully as the warrior stood staring into the night, his hand rubbing the katana’s hilt like a huntsmen petting his favorite hound.

Late the next morning Tomaru walked besides the wagon as it approached the gates to Lord Nimuren’s estates. He had admired the layout from a rise in the road, now he eyed the quality of the stonework and the wood of the massive gates. Lord Nimuren had spent a great deal to assure his safety. At the gate, Ejiro and the wagon were directed one way while a young soldier was assigned to escort Tomaru to Lord Nimuren. The old sensei examined the young samurai. His weapons and equipment were not new but well cared for and the young guide was carefully polite, not staring at the older man’s worn clothes. The ronin was led through the defensive maze of walls and courtyards, coming at last to a sheltered inner garden. They knelt at the entrance until given permission to enter.
Lord Nimuren was holding an outdoor court, reclining on a hand carved dais of stone. Rugs and pillows covered its surface and a sun awning shaded Nimuren and his attendants. Petitioners knelt before the dais in the direct sun, heat on their backs encouraging them to be brief. A group of musicians performed quietly in one corner and serving girls brought Nimuren and the young man at his side refreshments. None were offered to those waiting their turn.
When the current supplicant had finished his plea and been given his answer, the younger man pointed to Tomaru and his escort kneeling in the entryway. Lord Nimuren answered him and turned to look. The young man stood and clapped his hands. “Lord Nimuren proclaims court is over until after the midday meal. Petitioners may return then.” He turned and gestured for Tomaru’s escort and they rose to approach as Nimuren’s guards hustled scribes, petitioners and musicians out of the garden. The ronin and samurai bowed when they reached the dais, then Nimuren invited Tomaru to have a seat and dismissed the guard to the garden’s entrance.
“So sensei, welcome to my home,”
“It is a magnificent abode, my Lord.”
“This is my son and heir, Ichiro. Ichiro, this is the sensei we spoke of.” Nimuren’s son had his looks but was in better shape, staying in fighting condition, unlike his father who obviously enjoyed his privileges a little too much.
“This is the man who will succeed for us where others have failed?”
“Indeed, with sensei Tomaru among my retainers, we cannot lose.” Nimuren was very confident, and Tomaru began to worry about what they were trying to use him for. “My humble apologies my lords, but what is it you need me for? To train your men so none can stand against your forces?” Tomaru appeared to be uncertain, but after last night’s duel he was sure it would be for something unpleasant.
“We are disputing some territory with a neighboring clan. It is a rich farm valley surrounding a town that serves as a crossroad. It was lost in a border skirmish years ago and we have attempted to reclaim it. The imperial magistrate will not let us wage open warfare for fear of disrupting trade, so it is a matter of challenge and duels between champions.”
Nimuren’s son took up the tale. “In the first challenge, their champion barely defeated ours. And we have not had a champion of our own as skilled as Kanyuo, our original champion. So anyone we send is defeated and we have lost a total of five challenges.”
“But you,” broke in lord Nimuren "are without peer locally and among the best in the Empire. You will easily be able to defeat their champion, the clan heir Kaiten.” Tomaru’s eyes darkened at the thought of killing another clan heir. “What can you tell me of him?”
“Kaiten is the son of lord Kusanagi. He is quite impressive, a hand span taller than yourself and very strong. He is an excellent swordsman and spends an equal time practicing unarmed combat. He often gives demonstrations at festivals and has been known to spar with two or three lesser opponents at a time.”
“But not my match with a sword, neh?”
“No sensei, he is not. I have already sent the challenge to them; we should hear back tomorrow or the next day.”
“I assume you did not name me as your champion?”
“Of course not! They would shake in fear and never respond. We will surprise them when it is too late, and they have already accepted the challenge.”
“Perhaps then, my lord, we can wring a greater profit from this exchange.”
“How so?” asked Nimuren’s son.
“I’m sure my lord will reward my service with fine clothes and armor so I may proudly display my allegiance?”
“Of course, you will be my champion and I will provide you with a residence, servants, clothes, arms and armor.”
“Thank you my lord, but I will appear at the challenge as I am now.”
“Why in the name of Heaven?” Nimuren burst out. “They will not take you seriously.”
“Precisely my lord. They will take me for what I was, an expendable ronin. They will taunt us as you put forth a clan less wanderer as your champion. And we will use their insults to raise the stakes. We will ask for the valley and the surrounding lands. We must get as much as possible, after this others will fear you if my sword is in your service and such a reward will not come our way again.”
Nimuren’s son glanced back and forth between his father and the ronin, eyes glittering with greed. Nimuren’s eyes were half-closed as he considered the risk. “It is a tempting plan…
Tomaru sensed it was time to shift tactics. “Tell me of lord Kusanagi, is he a strong leader? Will he be able to see through our plan?”
“He is clever, but I do not think he has true strength. His lands could make him wealthy, but he does not take full advantage of them. He is too generous to his peasants and deprives himself of income by coddling. His men are well trained and reasonably equipped however.”
“But not as well as they could be under a lord who would maximize the use of his lands? And what of his stronghold, is it as superior as your own?”
“No, lord Kusanagi’s palace is well made and secure, but lacks beauty.”
“Truly, your estate is both strong and pleasing to the eye. What of the priests and wise men? Does he listen to their prattle?” Tomaru spoke in a tone to indicate disdain, which he knew from the villagers that Nimuren himself felt towards Heaven’s mortal messengers.
“Excessively! There are always priests in attendance at his court and he spends far too much on donations to their temples and to raise prayer arches at all his villages. Foolishness.” Nimuren snorted the last into his cup.
Tomaru bowed to the lord and his son. “Thank you for me about our opponents. I will of course wait upon your summons to attend the challenge and defeat your enemies. Is there someplace I may bathe and rest until I am needed?”
“Of course. As my champion, there is a suite prepared for you. I will have an escort for you until you are familiar with the estates. Go and refresh yourself, clothes have been laid out for you and my armorer is waiting to take your measurements for new armor. He also has a selection of wakizashis for you to select from.”
“Perhaps Master Tomaru would like to see our troops? He can observe them later as they practice.”
“Very good idea, my son. After you have taken care of your needs, your guide can show you to the practice fields. Any comments on my men will be welcome; you will be overseeing them yourself in the future.”
“Of course my lord, if I may be excused?”
“Certainly sensei” Lord Nimuren called one of his guards over and instructed him to serve as Tomaru’s guide around the estate. As Tomaru and the young samurai left, they heard Nimuren calling servants to bring his meal and musicians.
Tomaru went to his quarters, which were quite spacious. He was bathed in a private room by servant girls and his hair was trimmed, but he told them not to shave his beard, in order to maintain his vagabond appearance for the challenge. Next, a visit to the armory, so he could be measured for a new suit of great armor. He also selected a wakizashi with a black scabbard to complement Breath of the Dragon. The spirit sword was drawn for the weapon master’s inspection, but Tomaru apologized that the sword would not allow another to handle it unless needed. Both armorer and escort thanked him for the honor of seeing the legendary sword.
Next Tomaru wandered the drill fields watching the samurai and regular soldiers practice swordplay, archery and horsemanship. The skill levels were good and many were pleased by the sensei’s presence. Others, primarily officers and samurai, were not. Tomaru understood why, since he was an outsider who might be placed in charge. Oh, and an honor less ronin too.
One thing struck him, good or bad, friendly or not, there were too many warriors. It was the core of an army of conquest or repression.
Tomaru joined Lord Nimuren and his key advisors for the evening meal. Like the troops, some were honored by his company, most obviously felt threatened and were antagonistic. Except for servants, there were no women. The old ronin contributed modestly to the discussions, trying to pass the evening quietly and without confrontation. But it confirmed his suspicions; Lord Nimuren and his followers were high born scum, their brutal appetites barely checked by bushido, the samurai code of honor. Tomaru knew everything he had heard in Fubuki’s village was true and more.
When he returned to his rooms, he was not alone. A young woman, barely into adulthood, knelt at the side of his bed, clad in a very tight and revealing silk gown. She bowed deeply as he eyed her. “And who might you be?”
“I am Shinobu my lord; I am your companion for tonight.” Her face was heavily made up in court fashion, but he could see her unhappiness.
“My companion?”
“Yes my lord. Though if I do not please you, there are others…” She stopped at the anger on his face and was surprised to hear what seemed to be a very reptilian hiss coming from the sensei. No, not from him, her eyes widened as she realized it was his sword. Flames from the lantern seem to flicker in his eyes.
“I have no need for a companion” Tomaru growled as his clenched fist trembled on Breath of the Dragon’s hilt. “You may go.”
“Master if I go, I will be punished for not pleasing you.” She shrank back as the hiss was repeated louder and her mouth opened in shock at the burning flames in the pupils of his eyes.
Breath of the Dragon was a nemurani, an awakened object. It was known that spirits were everywhere and in everything. In trees, animals, streams and rivers, lakes and forests. And sometimes, magic and prayer could awaken a spirit in a crafted item, artifacts of great and exquisite construction. The katana was such an item.
And it was not a mere enchanted item. The spirit of fire resident in the blade was aware; it had desires and attitudes. Bearing such a spirit sword had an effect on its wielder. Breath of the Dragon did not like to be handled, and neither did Tomaru. The katana’s owner could call fire from the blade, but when angered, the fire manifested in the ronin.
Tomaru shuddered as he regained control of himself. The fire faded from his eyes and the hiss trailed off. The sensei drew the swords from his belt and placed them in a rack beside his bed. He turned back to the frightened girl, still kneeling on the floor.
“Go back to your quarters and prepare for bed, wash off that make up and return. If anyone questions you, tell them I said I prefer plain faced peasant girls, not over painted court beauties. You will sleep here tonight, but that is all you will do. You will not reveal that to anyone, do you understand?”
“Yes my lord.” She bowed and scrambled to her feet and fled, sliding the paper and wood door shut behind her.
Tomaru pressed his hands to his head. He had been a regular at court in his youth, and was no stranger to concubines, mistresses and affairs. But to be so blatantly offered the services of such a young woman against her will was dishonorable…but tempting. It had been a long time…
The sword hissed.
The sensei lowered his hands and looked at the blade. Images ran through his mind. He saw dead warriors, servants fleeing with stolen precious items. The main house burned and Tomaru stalked through it, flaming sword in his hands as he sought Nimuren and his son and struck them down.
“No.”
Tomaru knelt and meditated. He knew what the sword wanted, but he would not give in. Breath of the Dragon was not evil by any means, but it knew only one way to deal with enemies and it was powerful, but not sophisticated. And he had his own plans.
By the time the girl returned, he was calm and kneeling by the bed in a night robe. A pallet of spare blankets was made up beside his bed. “Master, what if someone checks? Lord Nimuren sometimes spies upon his guests.”
Tomaru sighed deeply. “Very well, you will sleep in the bed. I will sleep on top under another blanket. If this is questioned, mention merely that I found it difficult to sleep in a proper bed after so much time on my own.”
The next morning at breakfast, one of the lord’s henchmen asked if the sensei had enjoyed the sleeping arrangements. Tomaru replied that they had been very satisfying and hoped for the same arrangements every night. Lord Nimuren assured him that Shinobu would return, but promised the sensei his choice of other peasant girls when Lord Kusanagi’s lands were returned to their rightful lord. Some of the men laughed, others smiled in agreement. Tomaru called on his long disused court skills to smile in return.
That day and the next passed in a similar fashion. Tomaru spent his days inspecting troops and began to show them some tricks and test them in mock combat with wooden swords. His spear work was fair, his archery abysmal, rising to poor due to long lack of practice. But, sword in hand, no man could land a blow, even Nimuren’s son. Tomaru fought a practice bout against Ichiro, who wore full armor. The sensei wore only his court robes and still managed to drive the younger man to his knees.
On the third day, Tomaru was summoned to Nimuren’s private chambers. The lord’s son and advisors were present and none of them looked happy as Nimuren cursed at the document he held, marked with jade green stamp of an Imperial Writ.
The sensei bowed humbly. “My lord, how may I be of service?”
“Look at this! That dog Kusanagi has run to the Imperial Magistrate for protection!” Nimuren flung the document down the table to Tomaru, who picked it up and read it calmly.
“The magistrate commands my son and I to appear at the challenge and he also says that this will be the end of the matter, no further disputes between us over the territory are to be allowed on the pain of the Emperor’s retribution. How did he manage to bribe the magistrate?”
Tomaru raised his head “This is better than I hoped my lord.” One of the advisors blurted out a short insult but Ichiro raised his hand. “What do you mean sensei?”
“They have made our trap deeper than we could hope. Once we have won the challenge and claimed the land, it will be yours with no hope of appeal. This is only to their advantage if I lose…” Nimuren and his advisors looked thoughtful. “And in front of the magistrate,” continued Tomaru, “they will not want to lose any more face and it will be easier to goad them to increase the stakes.”
“Hmmmm. Kusanagi is cautious. He may try to hide behind the magistrate.”
“You may need to gamble my lord and offer some of your lands as a prize to encourage him to agree.”
“You expect us to risk a great deal on your skill, samurai.” Spoke one of the more hostile advisors.
“True, I am only offering to risk my life. If someone here doubts my skill will be sufficient, I would be honored to go outside and demonstrate to them in person.” Tomaru smiled as he laid down the challenge. Men leaned back with concerned looks and Lord Nimuren smiled as he realized the threat of the old sensei would work on his followers as well as his enemies.
“Still, I understand the point. I only risk my life, and if I fail, I will not be alive to suffer the consequences. I will make this offer to display my certainty: I will make out a deed that if I am killed in the duel, my sword will pass to Lord Nimuren’s family.”
Nimuren’s and his son’s eyes glittered with greed. Breath of the Dragon was one of few such swords in the empire. It was possibly more valuable than the land they were trying to gain.
“I accept your generous offer, sensei. A scribe with writing materials will come to you so you may document it. The duel is tomorrow at noon, we depart at first light.”
The next morning, Lord Nimuren rode out accompanied by his son, closest advisors, Tomaru and a dozen samurai. All were dressed in their finest, except for the ronin. He once more wore his old traveling clothes and pack, although they had been cleaned and the tears mended. Tomaru rode carefully, a few days practice had not quite restored his body to handling the stresses of riding.
The party rode to the village on the river at the heart of the disputed territory. The village was crowded with peasants come to see the Imperial Magistrate, who sat on a temporary reviewing stand, guarded by samurai in imperial colors. A cleared dueling ground had been set in the town square, and was bordered by more Imperial samurai. Lord Kusanagi and his entourage waited on the other side. The lord was clad in full armor, but his son and champion Kaiten was not. A duel was a matter of honor, decided by swordsmanship, not the strength of your armor.
The Imperial Magistrate stood as Lord Nimuren’s party took their places. All bowed to the magistrate.
“We are here to witness the confrontation of clan champions, between Lord Kusanagi and Lord Nimuren over the disputed land of this valley. By my decree as the Emperor’s magistrate in this area, this will be the last dispute over this matter.” He eyed Lord Nimuren until he nodded in agreement. “Present the champions.”
From the crowd beside Lord Kusanagi, Kaiten strode boldly onto the dueling ground and bowed to the magistrate. All eyes turned to Lord Nimuren’s party. Tomaru walked forward from the center of the group where he had been hidden. He wore his peasant’s hat, old robes and only Breath of the Dragon. He walked slowly into the open and bowed without grace or style. There was a loud hiss as the crowd realized he was a ronin, then laughter from all but Nimuren’s men, the Imperial guards and the magistrate.
“You are Nimuren’s champion?” asked the magistrate harshly.
“I am” nodded Tomaru. The magistrate’s eyes widened at the courtly accent from a poor ronin, but he was interrupted before he could follow the thought.
“What are you doing Nimuren? Why not just give up your claim rather than drag us out here for this farce?” Lord Kusanagi seemed to be both angry and amused. His son was studying the old ronin carefully.
“It is no farce, I stand behind my champion” boasted Nimuren. “I am so sure of him, I will offer up another parcel of land equal to the disputed valley as proof of my conviction. Are you willing to do the same?” Nimuren was calm and smiling at his rival. Kusanagi stared across the circle and spat.
“You are fool enough to offer up this unworthy excuse of a champion, I know you are not to be trusted and neither is any offer you make!”
“My lord magistrate, Lord Kusanagi publicly insults both the honor of my champion and my honor as well, even though I offer more land than he does. I trust and back my champion even if half my lands were at stake here.”
“You would wager half your lands on the skill of a ronin? Are you drunk? Your ancestors’ spirits must suffer in torment at your stupidity!”
“Magistrate, my opponent continues to insult me, my champion and now my ancestors. I WILL offer half my lands as prize in this contest if Lord Kusanagi dares to match them, especially after his dishonorable insults.”
The square was silent. The magistrate looked between the smug Nimuren and the red faced Kusanagi. He was sure something unusual was going on. Before he could open his mouth, Tomaru spoke again. “I do not think he has the courage to accept your terms, my lord. He will not risk it, even to back up his insults.”
“Very well, Nimuren, half my lands as well to back my son and champion.” Some of his men looked concerned. So did the magistrate. But the lords’ exchange had set things in motion. “Very well, send forth the champions.”
Tomaru and Kaiten advanced to the center, then turned and bowed to the magistrate. “Kaiten, son and champion of Lord Kusanagi, you are well known to me. Who are you, champion of Lord Nimuren?”
Tomaru lifted his head and spoke clearly. “Tomaru, iaijatsu master.”
There was a pause, a frozen moment, then Kusanagi and his men burst out yelling. Kaiten’s face fell as he realized who he had been maneuvered into facing. One of the magistrate’s guards banged on a small golden gong until the crowd calmed. Kusanagi’s face was contorted with fear and fury. Nimuren smiled at his rival. The magistrate stared at Tomaru, who had drawn himself up and stood straight as his opponent, radiating skill and confidence.
“Tomaru, there have been many rumors about you since you left the service of your clan. It has been a few years since any new tales about you appeared.” He turned to face Lord Kusanagi. “I understand your feelings and I know the arguments you would put forth. But, there has been no violation that would let you overturn this matter. Unless you are willing to concede the challenge and surrender the lands you and Lord Nimuren have verbally agreed to in front of witnesses?”
“But my Lord Magistrate…”
“I’m sorry, there will be no debate. Will your champion face Tomaru or do you concede?”
Kaiten glanced at his father who was struggling to decide between loss of land and son or loss of land and honor. Kaiten did the honorable thing and took the decision out of his father’s hands as befit a champion and samurai. “My Lord Magistrate” he said, stepping forward, “I will meet my honorable opponent today.”
Tomaru bowed to him. “The honor is mine. My Lord Magistrate, we will begin the duel momentarily, if you will indulge me the services of two of your men first.” The magistrate nodded in curiosity and the sensei pointed to two of the guards. “You two, attend us here in the circle.” His voice carried the crack of command and the two samurai advanced to the champions’ sides and bowed. Tomaru turned to face Kaiten. “I have heard much of your martial skills, especially in unarmed combat.” He drew the sheathed Breath of the Dragon from his belt and handed it to startled guard at his elbow. “Let us settle this ourselves, without the assistance of our noble blades.”
Everyone was stunned, but Kaiten nodded and passed his two swords off as well. The guardsmen retreated as the champions bowed to one another and took up fighting stances.
“I protest!” thundered Nimuren. “This is not…”
“You will be quiet!” cut in the magistrate. “Your champion specified the conditions of the duel and I will not overturn his decision for you anymore than I would bar his participation as Lord Kusanagi had wanted.” He faced the champions, frozen as they waited. “Begin!”
There was a moment of anticipation, and then the old ronin and the young champion launched into combat. Hands flashed in attack or defense and the two moved in an intricate, weaving dance until Kaiten slammed a foot through the older man’s defenses and knocked Tomaru to the ground. He rolled away from the follow up and regained his feet facing the tall champion. The sequence was repeated twice more, with Tomaru striking several telling blows against his opponent. But the younger man’s strength and skill were too much for the sensei. The duel was settled when Kaiten managed to throw the ronin to the ground and Tomaru was knocked out. A bucket of water was tossed on the older man and he awoke with a start. He climbed painfully to his feet and bowed to the young victor.
The magistrate stood. “Lord Kusanagi’s champion is victorious. The disputed valley and half of Lord Nimuren’s lands are forfeit as agreed.” The champions bowed to the magistrate and reclaimed their swords, bowed to one another again. Kaiten walked to his father and embraced him as Nimuren and his men stormed onto the empty dueling ground.
“What have you done, you fool?” You were supposed to kill him!” Everyone turned to watch the confrontation and the magistrate smiled.
“My lord, I said I would fight Lord Kusanagi’s champion.” Tomaru was trying to wring water from his robe. “You never specified I had to use my katana, nor did I say I would kill him.”
“You treacherous, honor less dog! You knew what I wanted. Now I have lost half my land listening to you. At least I will have your blade; maybe I can sell it to Kusanagi to regain my lands.”
“I’m sorry Lord Nimuren, but Breath of the Dragon is mine. I promised it to you only if I died in the duel. I’m still alive, so the deed is void. As for your lands, I’m sure the people living there will be happier under Lord Kusanagi.” Tomaru smirked at the enraged and reddening lord.
“You traitor! I will see you dead!” and Nimuren slapped the ronin and reached for his katana.
“NO MAN…” Tomaru’s angry reply was lost in the roar as Breath of the Dragon cleared its sheath. The sensei swept it in an upward stroke. The edge slid in under the plates of Nimuren’s armor and sliced his belly open. Severed coils of intestine and blood poured from the wound as Nimuren fell back.
“Breath of the Dragon!” yelled the ronin and the raised sword burst into flame. Ichiro was next, as Tomaru swung the spirit sword down, chopping his victim through the left shoulder and halfway down into his chest. His body slumped, flesh and clothing afire. Tomaru did not pause, but continued his attacks, whirling in the center of Nimuren’s advisors until he was surrounded by dead and burning bodies. The head had truly been cut from the serpent.
The magistrate watched from behind a double row of his guards, their swords drawn to defend their position. The flame along the sword died and Tomaru wearily sheathed the blade. He bent and took a full money pouch from Nimuren’s belly and turned to look at the stunned samurai of the dead lord.
“Some of you may be worthy to serve under Lord Kusanagi, for he is lord of half your former lands and will need more men. The rest of you should throw yourselves on your swords or retire to monasteries and seek forgiveness before your victims seek revenge upon you.” He bowed to Kusanagi and his son and the magistrate, and then turned to leave.
“Sensei Tomaru, wait.” The magistrate pushed forward through his men and came to the circle of bodies. “Why did you do this?”
Tomaru stopped, but didn’t look back. “A little girl asked me to slay a monster.” And he walked from the village with the slow pace of the weary, his hand on the hilt of his companion.

Copyright 2007 James Meggenhofen