© Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia 2017. ABN 12 792 347 015
Once upon a time. A long time ago. There was a very famous blacksmith who lived in a land far, far away. It may have been China, it may have been Japan. It may even have been Spain. No one really knows anymore. He was renowned far and wide for making the very best swords. He worked iron and steel like a necromancer conjuring spirits with the dark arts. Metals seemed to come alive in his skilled hands and take on a life of their own.
There was one particular sword that he had worked on for many years. It was his magnum opus. His greatest achievement. The true, hidden meaning of his life. He had spent long hours in the heat and the cold hammering and forging the steel in exotic ways. He did not know the truth of what he was doing because science was not what it is today. By will and pure instinct, he hammered and hammered like a blind man groping desperately for light. The steel heard his prayer and responded. His strokes gave birth to the finest strands of steel and carbon deep within the metal of his blade. Today we might call these strands ‘carbon nanotubes’ and ‘steel nanowires’ but back then they had no name, nor were they known to men. Coiling in complex spirals, like crouching leopards about to pounce on unsuspecting prey, they would give the sword supernatural strength and bite. The term ‘legendary weapon’ does not do it justice. It was in fact a force of nature. Like the sea, a mountain or a mighty river. After decades of tireless forging, he hung the finished product on his wall alongside other inferior blades of his making. Inferior though they were, they were still perhaps some of the greatest swords in existence at the time.
Years passed, and the sword hung on his wall gathering dust and waiting patiently for the hand of the person who was worthy of wielding it. One day, an imposing man came to visit the blacksmith’s forge. He was a prince. The son of a distant king. Dressed in flowing black satin cloth with flashing silver gilt. His boots sparkled with gems. He was accompanied by a hundred brightly attired men-at-arms who stood to attention outside of the humble shack that housed the blacksmith’s forge. With much aplomb and a resounding fanfare of trumpets, the prince strode into the forge. He was tall, well-fed and very well knit. The whole forge seemed to shrink in awe at his presence.
He stared down at the blacksmith and spoke, “I have come because you are said to be the maker of the best swords. Is this true?”
The blacksmith bowed only slightly and replied, “May my lord be the judge of that. My wares hang on my wall for all to see.”
The prince seemed surprised and offended that the blacksmith did not grovel. He turned to survey the wall.
“I will purchase your very best sword, then.” he said.
He snapped his fingers and a nervous attendant sprang into the forge carrying a small chest. The attendant flung back the lid of the chest and the forge fire caught the shine of gold exploding in a dance of flickering light on the sooty walls.
“You will see that I am willing to pay many times what your swords are worth.” stated the prince, disdain clearly showing on his immaculately shaven face.
The blacksmith nodded, “That is indeed many times what I ask in return for one of my swords, but as to what my swords are worth, that depends.”
“On what?” smirked the prince.
“My lord, on whether or not they are the only things standing between you and eternity. In that case, they are worth a thousand times everything you ever owned.”
The prince’s face grew dark, “Enough idle talk. I will have your finest sword now.”
The blacksmith gestured to the wall, “Behold my greatest sword. It should be clear to one of your stature and discernment.”
The prince nodded, “Indeed it is.”
He reached out and took the sword from the wall. It shone even brighter than gold. It was twice the length of any normal weapon but the prince’s powerful grip mastered it effortlessly and he twirled it about himself in an elaborate display of ostentatious swordsmanship. The rubies in the hilt flashed like the eyes of a tiger and the prince beamed in happiness, his cold, jaded exterior momentarily thawed by the sheer beauty of the weapon.
“You have chosen wisely, as I knew you would.”, said the blacksmith, “May it serve you well in your endeavours.”
The prince scowled, realising that he had dropped his guard. He gestured to the attendant who carefully placed the chest of gold at the blacksmith’s feet before sprinting back out of the forge with a look of profound relief on his flushed face.
The prince stalked to the door and turned back to face the blacksmith. His frame filled the entire doorway. “You will only ever see me again if it fails me. In that event, I will extract a heavy toll from you, blacksmith.”
The blacksmith merely nodded as the prince and his noisy retinue mounted and rode off into the distance. Silently, he followed them out to watch them taking their leave. He stood for a while just outside of his forge as they disappeared over the distant hills. After the dust of their passing had settled, the blacksmith turned back and it was then that he noticed another man standing patiently at his door.
The man was not short, but he was also not tall. His countenance appeared dark and brooding but his eyes were open and clear like a windswept beach. He was solidly built, but next to the prince, he would have garnered no attention. He was dressed plainly in well-worn clothes and carried a weather-beaten sack over his shoulder. Ugly white scars criss-crossed the exposed skin on his arms. He stood silently until the blacksmith addressed him.
“Good day to you, sir. What can I do for you?” asked the blacksmith.
“Good day to you too. I have heard that you are the maker of the finest swords. I find myself in need of a new sword and I would like to purchase one if I may.”
The man’s voice was deep but respectful.
The blacksmith gestured to his door.
“Step inside, sir. My wares hang on my wall for all to see.”
The man nodded and entered ahead of the blacksmith.
The blacksmith indicated the wall with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “Behold my greatest sword.”
The man hardly seemed to notice what the blacksmith had said. He had set eyes on one sword in particular and seemed mesmerised. He spoke in hushed tones, awe clearly showing in his face. “It is truly the greatest sword ever made. The stories are true. May I handle it?”
The blacksmith smiled and nodded. The man reached up and took hold of a simple blade. In fact, the plainest-looking sword on the wall. No diamonds or rubies embellished the hilt. No sparkling lights played on its blade but deep within its steel, coiled spirals of carbon nanotubes and steel nanowires, like crouching leopards, seemed to vibrate and purr with pleasure at the touch of their new master.
For just an instant, the forge fire reflecting grey off the sword’s length glittered in the man’s eyes and the blacksmith was struck with the thought that he could not tell where the sword ended and the man began. It was then that the blacksmith saw the truth. Here was the only one worthy to wield the blacksmith’s greatest sword. As the blacksmith had been forging this sword, this man had been forging his mind and body. Each merciless impact felt in his flesh, each harsh life-lesson learned, each piercing arrow of truth into his heart had been echoed by a cruel blow of the hammer on steel. Mind, muscle and sinew grew stronger even as steel hardened. This was no simple business transaction. This was not a sale. This was a meeting of brothers. Or lovers. Two forces of nature colliding and joining together. Two powerful tributaries coming together for the first time to form a great and mighty river whose impact could tear mountains apart, swamp whole cities or turn the desert into a vale of plenty.
Overcome by emotion, a tear fell from the blacksmith’s eye. An eye that was seldom moist.
The man did not look away from his prize, “I do not have much, but I am willing to pay you everything I have for this blade.”
The blacksmith shook his head, wiping away the tear with the back of his marbled hand.
“I cannot ask you for anything in return for that sword. I can see now that it made itself by my hand and has waited for you ever since. Besides, my previous customer has paid in full for it.”
The man grabbed the blacksmith’s hand and shook it joyously and vigorously, the size of his callouses and the strength of his grip surprising even the work-hardened blacksmith.
“I will forever be in your debt, kind blacksmith. If you ever need my help, I will come to your aid.”
The blacksmith smiled wryly, “Perhaps I may. If my previous customer ever decides to test my ‘no returns’ policy.”
Written by: SiFu Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia