The emperor of nihon ja, p.11
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.11

         Part #10 of Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan

  ‘Take the one at the back with the purple turban, Will. I’ll take the one beside him,’ Halt said quietly. Will nodded.

  ‘Now,’ said Halt and they brought their bows up, drew and released in almost one movement.

  The two arrows, one black and one grey, shot away, climbing into the hot air, then arcing down.

  The riders Halt had singled out were in the act of shooting again when the two long, heavy arrows hissed down and struck them. Halt’s target yelled in pain, dropping his bow and clutching at the arrow that had suddenly slammed into his upper arm. The man in the purple turban made no sound. He toppled sideways out of his saddle and hit the brown sand with a dull thud.

  There were yells of confusion as their five companions scattered in panic. The message was all too clear. Their own volleys had fallen short of the target, while the two return shots had hit targets at the rear of their group, farthest from the ship. Which meant all of them were within easy range. Suddenly, they felt very, very exposed. They wheeled their horses away from the bank and rode over the crest to safety, the riderless horse following them.

  Only the man in the purple turban remained, lying unmoving on the sand.

  A few seconds later, the men on the south bank seemed to realise that their ambush had been detected. They appeared above the crest of the bank, waving weapons and yelling insults and curses at the ship as it glided arrogantly by. There were over two score of them, raggedly dressed and armed with an assortment of swords, spears and daggers, with several short bows among them. The bowmen shot a few ragged volleys but they were all well short of the ship. Will looked at Halt, then glanced down at the bow in his hands, but the bearded Ranger shook his head.

  ‘Leave them,’ Halt said. ‘They can’t hurt us and now they know it’s safer to leave us alone.’ He turned to Gundar. ‘All the same, it might not be a good idea to anchor anywhere midstream for a rest.’

  The sun was setting astern of them, a giant ball turned blood red by the tiny particles of sand that hung in the desert air, when they slipped quietly out of the Assaranyan Channel into the Blood Sea – a narrow gulf that led eventually to the wide spaces of the Eastern Ocean.

  ‘I guess that’s where the name comes from,’ Will said, jerking a thumb at the water’s surface behind them.

  The intense glow of the sunset was reflected in the surface of the water, turning it to the same spectacular red colour, shimmering and shifting on the waves as they trapped and reflected the last light of the day so that the water itself looked like a sea of blood.

  A gentle sea breeze sprang up from the south once they were several hundred metres offshore. It was warm, but nonetheless welcome after the stultifying heat that had engulfed them as they rowed through the channel.

  ‘Make sail,’ Gundar ordered. In the absence of roaring wind and waves, he could give his commands in a much calmer voice than his normal bellow. The sail handlers hurried to unfurl the port sail and hoist the slender boom that supported it to the masthead. As the wind caught the canvas and it bellied out, he gave more quick orders.

  ‘Sheet home. In oars.’

  The long oars rose, dripping, from the water. There were a few seconds of clattering and banging as the rowers drew them inboard and stowed them along the line of the ship. At the same time, the sailing crew hauled in on the sheets controlling the triangular sail. Initially bellying out loosely in the wind, it now hardened into a smooth, efficient curve and the passengers felt the harnessed thrust of the wind take effect. Wolfwill heeled a little to port, then Gundar leaned his weight on the tiller, heading the ship at right angles to the wind.

  ‘Loosen off,’ he called. He could sense that the sail, sheeted too tightly, was causing the ship to heel further than was necessary and this was costing them speed. Wolfwill steadied, came a little more upright, then swooped over a long, slow swell like a gull.

  Gundar looked around at his passengers and couldn’t help grinning at them.

  ‘I never get tired of that!’ he said and they smiled in return. The ship’s motion was exhilarating, particularly after the hours of heat and tension as they passed through the Assaranyan Channel.

  ‘So what can we expect from the Blood Sea, Gundar?’ Will asked the big, burly Skandian.

  Gundar braced the tiller with his hip and spread the Genovesan sailing notes on the small chart table beside him. He consulted the carefully lettered script for a few minutes, then looked up at Will.

  ‘At this time of year, we should have steady winds,’ he said. ‘Although in a month or two there’d be a good chance of being becalmed.’

  Sailors, Will noted, always wanted you to know the worst news, even when things were looking good.

  ‘And,’ Gundar continued, ‘the notes say to avoid other ships as much as possible. Apparently the sea here is crawling with pirates.’

  ‘Pirates?’ Halt asked.

  Gundar nodded, jerking a thumb at the notes. ‘That’s what it says here. Pirates.’

  Halt raised both his eyebrows for once.

  ‘Pirates,’ he said. ‘Oh, goody.’

  ‘Yes. I know the way to Ran-Koshi,’ the timber worker told them. Shukin and Shigeru exchanged a quick glance. They had begun to fear that the fabled fortress of Ran-Koshi was just that – a fable. Now, it seemed, they might have found a guide.

  ‘You’ve been there?’ Shukin asked. It was one thing to say you knew where a place was, another entirely if you’d actually been there.

  ‘It’s where we get our supplies of the fragrant timber,’ the villager said.

  Shigeru frowned, wondering what trees he meant.

  Seeing the expression, Shukin said quietly, ‘Camphor wood.’

  Toru, the villager, nodded. ‘Yes. I’ve heard it called that.’ He saw the relieved expressions on the faces of the two Senshi and added a warning. ‘It’s a difficult place to get to. You’ll have to go on foot from here. Horses will never manage the mountain trails.’

  ‘Then we’ll walk,’ Shigeru said with a smile. ‘I may be the Emperor, but I’m not a fragile little flower. I’ve done my share of travelling hard.’

  ‘You may have. But what about those?’ Toru said, sweeping his hand around the cleared communal space at the centre of Riverside Village. The three men were seated on low stools on the polished wood verandah of the village headman’s house. The headman, Jito, had summoned Toru to speak to the Emperor when he learned that the Senshi party were seeking the ancient fortress of Ran-Koshi.

  Now, at Toru’s gesture, Shukin and Shigeru looked at the rows of injured men gathered around the square. At least a third of the Senshi who had escaped Arisaka’s army were wounded – some of them seriously. Many would have to travel on litters or stretchers, and even the ones who could walk could only travel slowly because of their wounds.

  ‘Our village headman would offer to look after them here if you asked him,’ Toru said. ‘But you would be causing great hardship to the villagers if you did so.’

  Shukin made an apologetic gesture, touching his hand to the money purse at his belt.

  ‘Naturally, we would pay,’ he said but Toru shook his head.

  ‘Winter is nearly here. The villagers have stockpiled barely enough food to last them through the cold months. They can’t eat money and there wouldn’t be enough food in the local markets for them and these extra people.’

  It had been a different matter at the previous village, Shukin thought gloomily. There, the villagers only had to provide for a dozen people for one night. He knew Toru was right. They couldn’t ask a small village to care for and feed thirty wounded men for several months. And in any case, he was reluctant to leave the Senshi behind. Many of them would recover and that would provide Shigeru with a nucleus of trained warriors. Not an army, perhaps, but a start towards one. They couldn’t afford to abandon such a potential force.

  ‘The wounded will come with us,’ Shigeru said, interrupting them. His tone showed that there would be no discussion. ‘We’ll just have to manage.
And we’ll have to move quickly.’

  Toru shrugged. ‘Easily said. Not so easily done.’

  He was respectful to the Emperor but not in awe of him. The Kikori were practical people and he saw no reason to agree with Shigeru when he knew he was wrong. That would not be doing the Emperor and his men any favours.

  ‘Nevertheless, we will do it,’ Shigeru said. ‘Perhaps some of the stronger men of the village would act as stretcher bearers for us. Again, we would pay.’

  Toru considered this. The season for wood gathering was over. Some of the younger men might be willing to supplement their income. Hard cash like that could be set aside for the warmer months, when the markets would have more items for sale.

  ‘That’s possible,’ he agreed. Ever the bargainer, he was about to add that the men would be entitled to charge extra for the hardship of leaving their homes and families and trekking through the mountains in the oncoming winter weather when raised voices from the edge of the forest distracted them all.

  They turned to look and saw a group of people emerging from the trees. Roughly twenty of them, and Kikori, by their dress, Shukin thought. Then he frowned. The thickset man leading the group, an axe held casually in his hand, looked familiar.

  ‘Strangers,’ Toru said. ‘What brings them here, I wonder?’

  He looked pointedly at the two cousins. His thought process was obvious. One way or another, they had brought the strangers to Riverside Village. Then Shukin recognised the leader of the newcomers and it seemed that Toru was right.

  ‘It’s Eiko,’ he said, rising from his low stool.

  Shukin and Shigeru stepped down off the verandah and walked towards Eiko and his companions. Toru followed them as other members of the village gathered around the newcomers. The Kikori weren’t a particularly gregarious lot. Individual villages tolerated their neighbours but tended to keep to themselves. Each group had their own secret sources of timber and they guarded the locations of these resources from outsiders. The villagers greeted the strangers politely, but not effusively.

  The headman stepped forward.

  ‘I am Jito, headman of Riverside Village. What brings you here, stranger – and how can we help you?’ His tone left no doubt that his offer of help was a formality only.

  Eiko bowed politely – a quick lowering of the head that was all protocol demanded for a village headman.

  ‘Greetings, Jito-san. My name is Eiko.’ Then, looking past Jito, he saw the Emperor and Shukin, easily distinguished from the villagers in their Senshi robes. This time, he bowed more deeply. ‘Greetings, Lord Shigeru.’

  Jito looked sharply at the Emperor as he heard Eiko’s words. He was not entirely happy to have even more strangers descend upon his people. The wounded Senshi had put a heavy strain on Riverside Village’s resources. At a time when they should be making final preparations for the coming winter, the villagers were distracted by having to care for the wounded warriors.

  ‘Good morning, Eiko. Is there some kind of problem?’ The Emperor’s keen eyes had noticed that some of the newcomers were injured. Half a dozen were bandaged and three others were being assisted by friends.

  ‘You know these people, my lord?’ Jito asked suspiciously.

  Shigeru nodded. ‘They offered us their hospitality last night. I’m afraid that may have cost them dearly.’ The last statement was really a question to Eiko, but even before the villager answered, Shigeru thought he knew the answer.

  Eiko nodded. ‘That’s true, Lord Shigeru,’ he said. ‘But no fault of yours. Arisaka’s men reached our village a few hours after you were gone.’

  Shigeru heard a quick intake of breath from his cousin.

  ‘But we saw Arisaka’s army! They were two or three days behind us!’ Shukin said.

  ‘His main force, yes. This was a scouting party who had come on ahead. A dozen warriors, well mounted and travelling light.’ Eiko’s lip curled in contempt. ‘So light that they didn’t bother bringing their own supplies. They simply took whatever they wanted from our people.’

  There was a murmur from the Riverside Villagers who were listening to this exchange. It was a mixture of anger and fear in equal amounts. In the past, they had all experienced the depredations of marauding Senshi parties. Eiko acknowledged their reaction with a meaningful nod.

  ‘You’re right to worry about it,’ he said. ‘They’re checking all the villages in the region. They’ll be here before too long.’

  That statement evoked a storm of exclamations from the villagers. Some were of a mind to abandon the village and hide in the forest. Others wanted to stay and protect their belongings. Jito held up his hand to still the babble of excited voices.

  ‘Be quiet!’ he shouted and the voices died away to an embarrassed silence. ‘We need to plan calmly, not run around like headless chickens.’ He looked back to Eiko. ‘Some of your men are injured. I take it these Senshi didn’t simply stop at stealing supplies?’

  Eiko shook his head bitterly. ‘No. They searched the village for anything of value – as they usually do. And –’

  ‘And they found the coins we gave your headman,’ Shigeru finished for him, his face grim.

  ‘Yes, lord. They saw the royal crest on those coins and wanted to know how we had come by them.’

  Horace had been a silent spectator to all of this. After days of hard riding, he had indulged in the practice of all experienced warriors to catch up on sleep whenever the opportunity arose. Hearing the voices from the village square, he had emerged, rubbing his eyes and pulling on a shirt as he came. He had been in time to hear Eiko’s account of events and he remembered the coins Shukin had given to the Ayagi, the headman. They were gold, which would have been enough to raise suspicions in such a poor village. But to compound the problem, they had been clearly marked with the Emperor’s symbol of three cherries. They could only have come from one source.

  ‘Ayagi-san refused to tell them where he had got the coins,’ Eiko continued. ‘They killed him. Then they ran amok through the village, burning cabins, killing women and the old people.’ He indicated his companions. ‘Some of us managed to escape into the forest in the confusion.’

  Shigeru shook his head bitterly. ‘He should have told them,’ he said. ‘They would have known anyway.’

  ‘Perhaps, Lord Shigeru. But Ayagi was a proud man. And he was loyal to you.’

  ‘So I’m responsible for his death,’ Shigeru said in a tired, defeated voice.

  Eiko and Jito exchanged quick glances. The individual Kikori villages might treat each other with suspicion. But they were true to the ancient ways and they were united in their loyalty to the Emperor – both the concept and the man himself.

  Jito said firmly, ‘You were not the cause, Lord Shigeru. The blame lies with the oath-breaker, Arisaka. These actions have set him against the Kikori.’

  ‘If anyone was to blame, it was me,’ Eiko said. The pain was all too evident in his voice. ‘We watched like cowards from the forest as they killed our people and destroyed our village. We did nothing!’

  Shukin shook his head. ‘You couldn’t do anything against trained Senshi,’ he said. ‘And losing your own lives wouldn’t have helped your people.’

  Horace had been edging forward through the crowd. Now, he decided, it was time for him to take part.

  ‘Nor would it have helped your Emperor,’ he said, and all eyes swung to him. ‘He needs men to help him fight Arisaka, not to throw away their lives to no purpose.’

  He saw Eiko’s shoulders straighten and sensed the new resolve in the stocky timber worker. A murmur of assent ran through the people of both villages. Years of resentment at their high-handed treatment by the Senshi were suddenly focused into an opportunity for defiance – an opportunity centred on the person of their Emperor.

  ‘Well said, Kurokuma!’ Shukin called to him, smiling. He turned to the assembled Kikori. He too could see the new sense of purpose infusing them. The tall gaijin had an excellent sense of timing, he thought, and an ex
cellent choice of words to fire the spirits of these people.

  ‘We do need you. The Kikori will be the loyal heart of the Emperor’s new army. We will train you. We will teach you to fight!’

  A roar of enthusiasm and defiance greeted these words. Many felt that arrogant, overbearing Senshi such as Arisaka had enjoyed their own way far too long in Nihon-Ja. Even without the cold-blooded destruction of the neighbouring village, Arisaka’s act of treason towards the Emperor was enough to harden their hearts against him. But there were still some who favoured caution. As the cries of defiance died down, one older woman voiced their thoughts.

  ‘But what if Arisaka’s men come here? We’re not ready to fight them yet.’

  Horace saw the doubt begin to spread among the Kikori. They didn’t believe in their own ability to face armed Senshi warriors. But they were forgetting one important fact. He stepped forward into the clear space around the Emperor, Eiko and Jito.

  ‘You said there were a dozen in the scouting party?’ he asked.

  Eiko nodded. ‘A dozen. Maybe a few more.’

  Horace smiled at the answer. He looked around the assembled group of Senshi loyal to the Emperor – a dozen in his immediate bodyguard and at least another twenty-five uninjured survivors from the battle at Ito.

  ‘It seems to me,’ he said, ‘that for once we have Arisaka’s men seriously outnumbered.’

  Evanlyn and Alyss were practising their fencing skills on the foredeck, under the somewhat bemused eye of Selethen.

  Evanlyn’s exploits in Skandia and Arrida in recent years had been widely reported throughout Araluen – she was, after all, the crown princess and enjoyed a certain amount of celebrity. As a result, many Araluan women and girls had been influenced to take a greater interest in weapon skills. Alyss was one of these, but her motivation went beyond following what was currently seen to be fashionable. She had been more than a little frustrated by her inability to defend herself effectively when she was captured by the traitor knight Keren at Castle Macindaw. She had determined that she would never let that happen again. This new emphasis on martial skills was evidenced by the fact that her dagger, part of the Courier uniform, had changed from a narrow, needle-pointed ceremonial design to a more practical – and more lethal – heavy-bladed fighting knife.

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