The samurai was close enough for Tadayoshi to distinguish his eyes. They’re familiar, thought the man who denies being a samurai. I’ve killed someone with those same eyes.
“Are you Tadayoshi-dono?” he asked in a rough voice, as if he hadn’t used in a while. He stopped a few paces from the swordsman, his hand ready to draw his weapon.
He’s outside my reach, Tadayoshi realized, putting his hand on his own sword. The swordsman observed his enemy, wrapping his fingers around the handle with more force than he wanted. If he’s just as strong as he looks, I’m in deep shit.
The man wasn’t just tall; he was so large even his shadow covered Tadayoshi. He must compensate the lack of speed with brutal force. And with a sword like that, the swordsman thought, narrowing his eyes. The handle and the blade were the biggest he had ever seen. A Zanbatō, the horse-slaying sword… If he swings that with full force… If I don’t lose concentration, he won’t be able to hit me. But if I make one mistake…
“Yes, I am Tadayoshi.” Like you don’t know. There’s no way you have such killing intent if you weren’t sure who I am. “Is there anything you want from me?”
“I want a fight for Asahi. That sword belongs to my family.”
The sword? Family? Tadayoshi held the urge to look at where Ei was, where Asahi was. So that’s why his eyes are so familiar, the swordsman thought. I can’t see his face, but they do have the same presence… This samurai was bigger and more intimidating, but had the same aura as Konkawa Jirou, the samurai Tadayoshi had killed in Ei’s village.
“I got the sword after defeating Konkawa in a fair fight. But if it belongs to your family, I’ll give it back.”
With that much blood thirst, the sword is just an excuse for an honorable fight. Even if he wasn’t after revenge, a samurai would never accept the sword back without a fight, Tadayoshi thought, sighing in his mind. That’s why samurai are so bothersome.
The man held took a deep breath and clenched his teeth. As I thought. He’s offended by my proposition. Tadayoshi closed his eyes, exhaled, and drew his sword. If this fight is just hard as with the brother…
When Tadayoshi opened his eyes again, he didn’t see a samurai looking for revenge. He didn’t see a man thirst for a fight. All he could see was an enemy he had to kill if he wanted to survive another day.
“Asahi belongs to my family,” the samurai said again in a low voice. Even so, it couldn’t contain all his rage. With his eyes fixed on Tadayoshi, he drew his sword. “And just like this sword, Yuuhi, they both belong to me now.”
Asahi and Yuuhi… Sunrise and sunset… nice name for a pair of swords. Tadayoshi took the stance, glancing for a heartbeat at his katana before staring at his enemy. Did the old man give you a name too? He let out a dry chuckle. I can’t remember. But master was known as the strange samurai. I bet he never bothered to name his swords too.
The samurai took a deep breath. “The name which I attend is Konkawa Ichirou,” he screamed at the swordsman, at the entire world. “Tadayoshi-dono, prepare to fight.” He said nothing more as he advanced with large steps, raising his sword above his head.
He’s the older one? Tadayoshi wondered. But that was the last thing he thought before raising his defenses. In mere instants, the distance between them almost disappeared. He’s faster than he looks. Even so, he doesn’t come close to his brother’s speed.
The way he moves his body, and this sound… Despite his speed, Konkawa’s movements were stiff, and there was a sound of metal jingling with each stride he took. What’s this sound? When the samurai was coming towards him and Ei, Tadayoshi had heard the same strange and faint sound. But now, as the enemy raced in his direction, it was much louder. He’s wearing an armor, he realized. What a rotten luck I have…
The samurai would be within Tadayoshi’s sword reach with just a few paces. Ei must be watching, he knew. I told her to hide, but there’s no way my stupid disciple would miss this fight. Then I’ll her show how it’s done. In the blink of an eye, the swordsman jumped forward, almost zeroing the distance.
The samurai widened his eyes behind the mask. But his surprise only lasted for a heartbeat; in the next moment, he swung down his weapon to where Tadayoshi’s head would be.
His reactions are faster than I’d thought. The swordsman raised his own sword above his head and tilted the blade down, defending himself in the same way he had taught his disciple. You better be watching this, Ei.
Tadayoshi realized his mistake the moment both blades collided. Despite the Zanbatō never touching him, the small gap between his arm and the sword vanished in a heartbeat, and he felt the enormous raw strength. What an absurd! I knew he’d be powerful, but this is too much for a human!
Even if only lasted a heartbeat, even if he was safe from harm as the samurai’s blade slid on his weapon, Tadayoshi felt his body trembling. If I hadn’t surprised him, he’d have used all his force and I’d be thrown…
But even with this huge difference in brutal strength, I can’t hesitate. Before the blades parted, Tadayoshi jumped diagonally. Thought he was still within the samurai’s sword reach, when he wasn’t under that pressure anymore, his body stopped shaking. If I don’t take any chance, I’ll die, the swordsman thought, clenching the handle of his sword.
I need to take him off guard and end this as fast as I can. Not wasting any moment, Tadayoshi turned around swinging his weapon the instant he landed, aiming at the enemy’s waist. Even if you have an armor, I know all the weak spots.
The samurai noticed and jumped forward to escape the attack.
Slow! The swordsman changed the direction of the blade. His new aim was the back of the right leg his enemy had used to impulse himself. The sword would hit the samurai’s ankle before he got away.
For a brief instant, a strained smiled crossed Tadayoshi’s face when the sword reached its target. But when he didn’t feel nor hear the familiar sensation of metal slicing flesh, the smile vanished.
The swordsman stood up facing the samurai with the weapon before him right away. Without taking his eyes off the enemy, he confirmed; the blade was clean. Shit…
The samurai turned to his enemy, his sword before him, ready to attack again.
Time stretched, and the world went silent as they faced each other, neither man taking the first step. He knows I’m faster, Tadayoshi thought, ignoring the sweat coming down his face, controlling his breathing. Even though he wants to kill me, he’s aware of his limitations and it’s waiting for me to make the first move… Shit… I’d rather fight against arrogant enemies.
A breeze lifted the hem of the samurai’s clothes and Tadayoshi bit his lips when he saw underneath the hakama. Konkawa wasn’t just wearing an armor; he had a full set.
“My bad luck continues to surprise me. To fight against someone prepared for war…” Despite his unpretentious words, Tadayoshi clenched the handle of his sword harder.
He won’t rush and make a mistake… I have to create an opening. With a deep breath, the swordsman advanced the same way the samurai had. But there was one difference; the speed. With few steps, the enemy was within Tadayoshi’s reach.
The samurai reacted by reflex, his sword going where the swordsman’s head would be.
Tadayoshi didn’t change his path nor slow down. I need to avoid in the last instant, he thought, suppressing his instinct of getting away from that sword. It was harder than he imagined. He saw the blade moving towards him, he could feel all the strength behind that metal…
The blade was before his eyes, but in the last moment, Tadayoshi moved out of the way. Without wasting any time, he attacked trice.
The swordsman had never owned nor worn an armor. But his master had made his disciple memorize all the weak spots. Every one of Tadayoshi’s attacks were on the vulnerable places on a full armor; the elbow, the waist, and the thigh.
Once again Tadayoshi didn’t feel his sword slicing flesh, only the sound of metal against metal and leather. Without showing any expression, he jumped backwards, putting some distance between them.
With part of his clothes ruined, the samurai put the left hand inside the sleeve and undressed.
Tadayoshi had no words. It wasn’t just a full armor; it was modified.
The dou, the abdomen protector made from iron plates tied with leather strings, had more than the double the usual. The kusazuri, the crotch and hip protector tied to the dou with a leather belt, was also made with an absurd number of iron plates. The haidate, thigh protectors made from small iron plates, had plates spaced behind to protect the vulnerable spots left for movement. The suneate, shin protectors made from stretched slabs of iron attached directly to the mail tied to a cloth around the leg, had iron plates around the knees.
Iron chains connected the haidate and the suneate, covering the knees. It compromised the movement, but offered more protection. On the arms, the samurai wore han kote, iron gauntlets that protected only the forearm, and the iron mail underneath, protecting the rest of the arm. The elbow, where should be the weakest part to not compromise the agility, was protected by chains connecting the han kote and the iron mail. The sode, the shoulder protector also made from iron plates, seemed to be the only part not modified.
What’s that…? How can he move with that…? An armor should protect without compromising the agility… but that… How can he move wearing that? That thing is too heavy! Even with his massive strength, he shouldn’t be able to fight with that!
Tadayoshi had no time to think. The samurai ran, shortening the distance the swordsman had gained. Despite changing the order, Konkawa’s attacks were the same; a vertical strike, a thrust and a side slash, each one with an absurd force behind it.
I thought he was slow, but without that armor, he might be as fast as his brother, Tadayoshi thought, raising his sword. He blocked the first strikes, but then stopped and started avoiding the attack. I’ll get tired soon if I keep defending them all. His body was already feeling the toll of clashing the swords.
Despite his simple attacks, the samurai did not create many openings, and the few Tadayoshi saw, were protected by the modified armor. This’ll turn into a fight of resistance… If he’s used to long fights wearing that, I’m in trouble…
The swordsman avoided the unstoppable sequence of strikes as best as he could, but each time cost its toll. After some time, Tadayoshi was sweating and panting, and had to start blocking some of the attacks.
Tadayoshi’s master was someone who never avoided a duel, especially an honorable one. According to Yasuhiro, the best way to find out about someone was through the blades. The swordsman knew that was true, though he only had experienced something like it few times. The last time was against his own master. Now, exchanging blows with Konkawa, Tadayoshi experienced once again.
He does care about Asahi, but that’s nothing compared to what he feels for his brother. The sword’s just an excuse. He talked about honor, but all he wants is to avenge his younger brother. No… that’s not it… He mourns his brother more than he hates me…
This fight will only end with one of us dead, Tadayoshi understood. And if I don’t find a way through his armor, it will be me.
He’s getting faster… no… I’m the one who’s getting slower, Tadayoshi realized when he stopped the samurai’s sword for the third time in a row. I can’t let this drag any longer! Each moment the fight prolonged, the enemy’s monstrous physique made the difference and his advantage only grew. Whenever Tadayoshi gained some distance, his enemy narrowed it, not letting him rest. Shit! I have to create an opening!
With a thrust, the samurai began a new sequence of attack.
Instead of retreat, avoid or block, Tadayoshi took a step forward. I have to stop his rhythm! The swordsman lowered his weapon, shifted his body to the side and broke into his enemy’s territory.
The tip of the samurai’s sword went by where his face was instants ago. Tadayoshi felt the blade a hair’s breadth from his ear but he didn’t blink nor stop. All in his mind was to finish the fight as fast as he could.
Tadayoshi raised his sword, placing it between the samurai’s arms. He put all his strength into his attack, aiming at the enemy’s head. Just a little more and I’ll win! Tadayoshi could see his victory as his sword was getting closer to his target. Despite his empty expression, he couldn’t stop the triumph in his eyes.
But before his sword reached its target, something heavy slammed against the side of his head.
The samurai had to let go of the handle of the sword and hit Tadayoshi with his arm, the gauntlet hitting his the swordsman with all its weight.
Using the impact, Tadayoshi managed to get some distance. With his head throbbing and a ringing in his ear, he raised his defenses right away. But as he stared at the samurai, he felt the familiar scent of blood and then half his vision went red. He placed a hand on his head and he confirmed. He was bleeding. And a lot.
Shit… If I’d tried this before, I’d have won, Tadayoshi thought, breathing hard. A wave of pain went through his body. Shit… Another one of that and I’m done… Think! The head is the most vulnerable place, but he’s too tall and his defense is too high to get in close enough… I can only attack his arms and legs, but most attacks won’t make any difference on that damn armor…
The samurai advanced again, and Tadayoshi could see the fear in those eyes behind that mask. Even though he managed to escape, he’s afraid. Now he wants to finish in the next move. So even he gets tired, he thought, chuckling despite his situation.
The swordsman prepared himself, but then there were two enemies running towards him. Is he a ninja too? He thought for a moment, shaking his head, sensing another pang. I can’t believe the blow’s made me this crazy. If I lose my conscious now, I’m dead…I can’t die…not now… not yet!
The image of his master dying crossed his hazed mind. Find a reason to live, Tadayoshi. Then the image changed. It was Ei, and she was doing something he had barely seeing her do ever since she met her; smile. I won’t die yet, he said to himself.
Tadayoshi closed the red eye and took a deep breath to regain the control over his body. After the pain diminished enough for him to keep fighting, he placed the blood-drenched hand on the handle and lowered his sword. He was now defenseless.
The samurai hesitated for an instant, but didn’t stop. When he was close enough, he placed every bit of his strength in the sword.
The trust in his armor is too big, Tadayoshi thought, keeping his mind empty and the sword lowered despite his instincts.
The samurai attacked and Tadayoshi moved backwards, already prepared for the next blow. As he expected, Konkawa used the same pattern, attacking with the thrust.
It’s now or never, the swordsman told himself, squatting.
The samurai’s sword and arms passed above Tadayoshi’s head. He looked up, searching desperately for his tiny target; the gap between the gauntlet and the chains at the elbow.
Tadayoshi felt the surprise in his enemy, but he knew the samurai couldn’t react in time. Time seemed to move slower as the instants stretched. But if I miss this opportunity, I’ll die, he knew.
When he finally found his target, he jumped up and raised his sword, putting all his weight behind it. The blade went between the chains and through the iron mail.
For the first time in the fight, Tadayoshi finally felt his sword puncturing flesh and bone. Using what remained of his strengths, the swordsman pulled his weapon to the side, tearing out the samurai’s right arm and hitting the gauntlet from the other arm.
The arm and the sword flew and fell on the ground near Tadayoshi and Ei’s still alive fire.
The enemy’s screams filled Tadayoshi’s ear, silencing even the river.
The samurai grabbed what was left of his arm and tried to stop the bleeding. Clenching down his jaws to stop his screams, he stared the swordsman.
Tadayoshi could feel his hate in that stare. The samurai truly looked like a demon with the mask now. But a samurai without a sword is nothing more than a fangless and cornered beast, Tadayoshi thought, standing in the way of the sword and the owner.
The samurai looked between Tadayoshi and his sword, but the only thing he could do was to run.
I can’t let him get away, the swordsman thought, trying to gather what was left of his energies. He’ll be back… I know… he loved his brother too much… But even with just one arm, I’m not sure I can win again…
Tadayoshi tried to chase his enemy, but his wounds wouldn’t let him. His vision lost focus and became blurred and his legs lost the rest of his strength. He thrust the sword into the ground and used it as support, taking deep breaths to keep his conscious. Damn it… that blow to my head… was worse… then I thought… He felt the urge, but couldn’t stop the vomit.
With another deep breath, Tadayoshi managed to stop the dizziness. He took a hand from the sword and cleaned his mouth and the sweat and blood from his eyes. With some effort, he looked around, trying to find his enemy.
The samurai was still running, but he hadn’t gotten far.
So the wound and the exhaustion got to him too, Tadayoshi thought as he stared Konkawa’s back. I have to chase him, he told himself.
The samurai was going towards a lonely tree near the river.
The same tree Ei was hiding.
Tadayoshi widened his good eye. No… no… no…
The samurai had lost the fight, but he would at least get his family, his brother’s sword. He saw Ei carrying it… He won’t hesitate to kill her to get the sword. Tadayoshi couldn’t let it happen. I can’t lose someone… not again…
Tadayoshi pulled his sword from the ground, but the blade didn’t budge at all. He closed his eye and ignored his exhaustion. Gathering what was left of his strength, he pulled.
Little by little, the sword got out of the ground. But Tadayoshi had no energy left to lift it, let alone to run. Even so, he forced himself to take a step, and then another.
But the samurai was too far from him, out of his reach. I’ll never get him in time, Tadayoshi thought, forcing his legs to move.
Konkawa was almost at the tree and Tadayoshi had barely left his place.
The samurai had reached the tree. He was underneath it, looking at the branches, looking for the girl, looking for the sword. Konkawa stopped, his eyes fixed at a branch.
It was too far to Tadayoshi to see, but he knew the samurai had found his disciple.
No! Tadayoshi screamed in his heart, too weak to use his voice.
What happened next unfolded slowly before the swordsman’s eyes.
Ei screamed and jumped from one of the tallest branches, the sword unsheathed in her hands.
Tadayoshi felt his heart stopping and his body going cold. There was nothing he could do to save his her.
The samurai looked in the direction of the sound. He took the remaining hand from the mangled arm and raised it.
From that distance, Tadayoshi could not tell if the samurai was trying to protect himself or to reach out for Asahi. But then, the samurai was finally reunited with his brother sword.
The tip of the blade pierced the palm of his hand. But with Ei’s entire weight behind it, the sword didn’t stop.
The samurai fell backwards, but couldn’t change the direction of the attack. The sword went on and broke the mask, piercing him between the eyes.
Tadayoshi finally dragged himself to the tree.
Ei was still on top of the samurai, holding the sword as if her life depended on it. She put so much strength her hands were colorless. But the girl didn’t tremble. Nor showed any reaction.
A living statue.
Tadayoshi placed his hand over her cold fingers.
But the girl didn’t notice her master besides her.