The emperor of nihon ja, p.22
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.22

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

  ‘They’re well disciplined,’ Will commented.

  Horace nodded. ‘Yes. They co-operate well. I’d say it’s because they need to work as a team when they fell really large trees and then move them down the mountains. Each man has to be able to depend on the men next to him.’

  ‘Horace,’ Halt interrupted, ‘just stop them for a moment, will you? Stop them from what they’re doing.’

  Horace looked at him in surprise, then called to the foreman and told him to let the men stand down. He turned back to Halt.

  ‘Is something wrong, Halt?’ he asked and the Ranger shook his head.

  ‘No. No. We just might have an opportunity here.’ His eyes narrowed as he studied the damaged section. Then he seemed to come to a decision. ‘How many men does Arisaka have? And how long before they get here?’

  ‘Five or six hundred warriors, as near as our scouts can figure,’ Horace told him. ‘The bulk of his army is about three weeks away. We forced them into a long detour when we cut the footbridge down. But if he runs true to form, he’ll send a party on ahead at double time to try to get in here before the snows block the valley.’

  Halt nodded. It was what he had expected. ‘So we might expect a party of maybe a hundred men sometime in the next ten days?’

  ‘That’s right. It could be sooner, but I doubt it. Even travelling light and with no real baggage, it’s difficult country.’

  ‘And if we could give them a bloody nose, it would be helpful,’ Halt said.

  Again, Horace agreed. ‘Any reduction to Arisaka’s numbers would be helpful.’

  ‘All right. Here’s what we’ll do. Stop the repairs on that section. Patch it up but do it badly. Use the old rotten timbers that were there. Make it an obvious weak point.’

  Horace nodded thoughtfully. ‘You’re planning to concentrate their attack in one area?’ He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but he’d never known Halt to have a bad one.

  ‘A little more than that. Inside the weakened section, build a second wall – make it U-shaped and a little lower than the palisade so they can’t see it. We’ll let them create a breach. When they charge through, they’ll find they’ve got walls on three sides – strong ones this time. We’ll have them concentrated in one area and we can really do some damage to them. We’ll have logs and rocks on the palisade walkway so that once they’re inside, we can drop them into the breach and trap them. At least, we’ll make it hard for them to retreat.’

  Selethen was nodding, his eyes roving the palisade and the steep stone wall beside it.

  ‘We could also pile up rocks and logs on that rock face,’ he added. ‘It’ll be easy enough to build a retaining wall to hold them in place. Then, once the enemy are inside, we collapse the retaining wall and bring an avalanche down on them.’

  Halt glanced quickly at the Arridi. ‘Nice,’ he said.

  For the first time in several weeks Horace could smile at the thought of the impending conflict. There would be little hand-to-hand combat involved. The Kikori would have the advantage of fighting from the top of the palisade. Rocks, spears and logs would be effective weapons. They could destroy any small attacking force before they ever got to close quarters.

  ‘I’m so glad you lot turned up,’ he said.

  ‘At the very least, we’ll cut Arisaka’s numbers down,’ Halt said. ‘The trick will only work once, but it’ll slow him down and by then the snows might be here.’

  Horace beckoned the foreman over and they explained the new plan to him. His eyes lit up as he grasped the idea and he nodded eagerly, smiling at Halt and Selethen as the authors of the stratagem. There was no need to give him detailed plans for the new section of wall. He would be more than capable of planning that. They left him to reorganise the workers and moved on to watch the small group of Senshi who were practising their swordcraft. As Horace had been, the three new arrivals were impressed with the speed and precision of the Nihon-Jan warriors’ technique.

  ‘They’re good,’ Selethen said. ‘Very good.’

  Horace looked at him. ‘Man for man, I’d say they’re better than our Araluan knights,’ he said. It pained him to admit it, but the fact was unavoidable. ‘Our best warriors would be pretty much equal to their best, but it’s the next level down where they hold the advantage. The rank and file Senshi are more skilled than the average graduate from an Araluan Battleschool.’

  Halt agreed with him. ‘It makes sense,’ he said. ‘You told us they start practising when they’re ten years old. Our Battleschools don’t accept pupils until they’re fifteen.’

  Selethen stroked his beard. ‘I agree,’ he said. ‘As individuals, they’re impressive.’

  The words fanned a spark of vague memory in Will’s mind. He frowned as he tried to place it, but for the moment it escaped him. He looked away, distracted, to the workers down the valley, who were climbing over the palisade, placing new timbers in position and now working on the logs that would form the new inner wall section. He noted how well they worked in harmony with each other. There seemed to be no wasted effort and no confusion in their actions. He shook his head, a little annoyed, as he tried to retrieve the tantalising thought that was stirring in his memory. What had Selethen just said? As individuals, they’re impressive. That related somehow to the sight of the disciplined teams of Kikori at work.

  ‘It’ll come to me,’ he told himself, and hurried to catch up with the others.

  Once again, Moka was working with his small group of Kikori, trying to turn them into swordsmen. There was some improvement, Horace thought. The Kikori were fit and well co-ordinated. But the gap between these new trainees and the Senshi they had just been watching was all too evident.

  ‘How many fit Senshi do you have, ready to fight?’ Halt asked.

  ‘Maybe forty. Enough to hold the palisade against one attack. But after that…’ Moka gestured doubtfully. He knew Arisaka would not be daunted by early casualties. Once he had overwhelming numbers in place, he would keep throwing his men at the wooden wall.

  ‘And Arisaka has…how many? Five hundred?’

  ‘Something like that.’ Horace’s tone was dejected. No matter what tactics they could devise to delay Arisaka, sooner or later, they would have to face his large, expertly trained warriors.

  ‘And you’ve got two hundred Kikori who’ll fight?’ Selethen asked and, as Horace nodded, he added, ‘What about weapons?’

  ‘Axes,’ Horace said. ‘Some knives. And most of them have spears. We did find a stockpile of old weapons further up the valley when we first got here. The place has been used as a fortress more than once over the years. But they were old and mostly rusty. I wouldn’t trust the temper of the blades, they’re hardly usable.’

  Halt looked at the sky. There were grey clouds scudding low above them, their bellies swollen with moisture.

  ‘Let’s hope it snows soon,’ he said.

  ‘So, how are things between you and Will?’ Horace asked. Alyss turned to him and a slow smile lit up her face.

  ‘Lovely,’ she said. ‘Just lovely.’

  It was two days since the Araluans and Selethen had arrived at Ran-Koshi. In that time, the work that Halt and Selethen suggested had advanced well. As Horace had remarked earlier, the Kikori were a useful group to have with you if you needed to build in timber. The young warrior had felt a sense of relief at being able to hand over these details to older, more experienced heads.

  ‘I’m not a planner,’ he had said to himself. ‘I’m a doer.’

  Today, Halt and the Arridi Wakir were supervising the placement of the retaining wall Selethen had suggested. Evanlyn was cloistered in another long discussion with Shigeru. The Emperor was interested in learning about the social structure in Araluen. It was a far less oppressive hierarchy than the one that had existed in Nihon-Ja for centuries and he thought he might be able to use it as a model for his new society.

  Horace and Alyss, finding themselves with no pressing duties, had taken the opportunity to have a few hour
s off together. The two were old friends. They had grown up together as orphans in the Ward at Castle Redmont and they were at ease in each other’s company. They had taken their midday meal to a rock outcrop above the valley, where they could relax and look down upon all the work going on. The sounds of hammering and sawing, and the cries of the Senshi drill masters, mingled together and drifted to them.

  ‘You know,’ Horace said, ‘when we were riding home from Macindaw that time, I thought I was going to have to take you two and knock your heads together. It was so obvious that there was something going on and neither of you would admit it.’ He smiled at the memory. He was delighted with the relationship that had developed between Alyss, whom he thought of as a sister, and Will, his best friend.

  ‘Yes,’ Alyss said, ‘each of us was afraid to say anything in case the other person didn’t feel the same way.’

  Horace laughed quietly at the memory. ‘Trouble is, you two think too much. I said that at the time. I believe if you feel that way about someone, you should just come out and say it.’

  ‘Is that right?’ Alyss said and Horace nodded, doing his best to look wise and knowledgeable.

  ‘Always the best plan,’ he said definitely.

  ‘So, how’re things between you and the princess?’ Alyss asked abruptly and was delighted to see that Horace’s face went a shade of pink as he hesitated to answer.

  ‘Well…ah…what do you mean, me and the princess?’ he managed to blurt out after a few seconds. But the hesitation told Alyss all she needed to know.

  ‘Oho!’ she said. ‘I thought as much. Why, she could barely keep her hands off you when we first arrived! She was all over you like a coat of paint.’

  ‘She was not!’ Horace insisted.

  ‘Oh, come on! I’m not blind. She went rushing to you, threw her arms around you and hugged you.’

  ‘So did you,’ Horace pointed out but she waved that aside.

  ‘I didn’t re-crack any of your ribs,’ she said. ‘Besides, do you think it’s completely normal for the Crown Princess to set off across the world on a quest to find one knight who’s gone missing?’

  He dropped his gaze and she saw a shy grin forming on his face.

  ‘Well, maybe, since you put it that way…’

  Alyss hooted with delight. ‘So there is something between you! I knew it! I told Will but he wouldn’t believe it.’

  ‘Well, let’s not make too much noise about it, all right?’ Horace said. ‘It mightn’t come to anything. It’s just that, before I left Araluen, we had been…seeing quite a bit of each other.’

  ‘I guess that’s why Duncan sent you away,’ she teased and was instantly sorry when she saw the doubt cloud his face.

  ‘Do you think so? That did occur to me. After all, she’s the princess and I’m a nobody…’

  She took his arm and shook it, annoyed with herself for putting this doubt in his mind.

  ‘Horace! You are definitely not a nobody! How could you say that? Duncan would be happy to have you paying court to his daughter!’

  ‘But I was an orphan. I’ve got no noble background…’ he began but she cut him off.

  ‘Duncan doesn’t care about that! He’s no snob. And you are a hero, don’t you realise? You’re the foremost young knight in the Kingdom. He’d be delighted to have you as a son-in-law.’

  Now panic flared in Horace’s eyes at her words. ‘Whoa! Not so fast! His son-in-law? Who said anything about being his son-in-law?’

  ‘It was just a passing thought,’ Alyss said. ‘Figure of speech. Nothing more than that.’ Horace relaxed a little but she smiled inwardly. If Horace seriously had no thoughts in that direction, he would have simply laughed off the idea. I knew it, she thought. I wonder if he knows it too?

  Looking for a way to change the subject, Horace cast around and his gaze lit on Will. The young Ranger was lower down the valley, sitting on the ground, deep in conversation with a group of the older Kikori.

  ‘What’s he up to?’ he asked.

  There was a lot of gesticulating and sketching on the ground with sticks. Hands would wave, voices would babble, adjustments would be made to whatever was drawn and then the group would reach agreement, nodding and laughing, slapping each other on the shoulders as they reached a common point of view.

  Alyss was still smiling to herself over what she considered to be Horace’s slip. ‘Don’t know. He’s been quiet for the past two days. Wanders off a lot by himself. Something seems to be wrong. I’ve asked him but he shies away from the subject.’

  But Horace had seen this sort of behaviour from his friend several times before and he knew what was happening.

  ‘There’s nothing wrong,’ he said. ‘He’s planning something.’

  In the small cabin she shared with Alyss, Evanlyn was hunched over a map drawn on a sheet of linen paper, chewing distractedly on one of the fine brushes that the Nihon-Jan used as pens. It was late. The single lantern on the table left dark shadows in the corners of the room, and was really inadequate to allow her to read the finer details of the map. She had contemplated lighting another lantern but Alyss was curled up on her mattress against one wall and Evanlyn didn’t want to disturb her.

  The two girls had spent more time in each other’s company since arriving at Ran-Koshi. They were the only two females in their group, and now that they were surrounded by an even wider group of warriors and timber workers they tended to be thrown together. There were women in the Kikori settlement, of course, but they treated the two foreigners with awed respect, and the language differences, along with the heavy regional accent of the Kikori, made it difficult to become close to them.

  It couldn’t be said that Alyss and Evanlyn had become good friends. But they were both making an effort to get along with each other – aside from the occasional moment of friction. Had they been close friends, Evanlyn probably would have lit another lantern. But, because they tended to tiptoe round each other, she didn’t want to give Alyss any cause for complaint.

  She rubbed her eyes and leaned closer to the map. She wished she had a normal-height table and a comfortable chair. These low Nihon-Jan tables and benches were hard on the knees and the back. She heard a rustle of bedclothes as Alyss turned over.

  ‘What are you doing?’ the tall girl said. Her voice was thick with sleep.

  ‘Sorry,’ Evanlyn said instantly. ‘I didn’t mean to wake you.’

  ‘You didn’t wake me,’ Alyss replied. ‘The light did.’ Then, realising that Evanlyn might take this as a sign that she was annoyed, she added quickly, ‘That was a joke.’

  ‘Oh…well, sorry, anyway,’ Evanlyn told her. ‘Go back to sleep.’

  But Alyss was sitting up. She shivered in the chill mountain night and hastily draped a Kikori sheepskin coat around her shoulders. Then, disdaining to rise, she moved on all fours across the room to sit beside Evanlyn.

  ‘Light another lantern,’ she said. ‘We’ll go blind trying to read that in the dark.’

  Evanlyn hesitated, but Alyss gestured impatiently for her to do as she suggested.

  ‘You might as well,’ she said. ‘I’ll never get back to sleep wondering what you’re doing.’

  Evanlyn nodded and lit a second lantern, pulling it close to the first so that the light was doubled. Alyss moved a little closer and studied the map with her.

  ‘Where did this come from?’ she asked. She could see it was a chart of Ran-Koshi and the country to the north.

  ‘Shigeru and I drew it up, with advice from Toru and some of the other Kikori. Of course, the general lie of the land here was no secret. The only unknown factor was the exact location of Ran-Koshi.’ She tapped a finger on the section of the map that showed the valley and its steep surrounding walls.

  Alyss nodded thoughtfully, then she pointed to a broad, featureless expanse directly to the north of the valley.

  ‘What’s this?’ She read the name lettered on it. ‘Mizu-Umi Bakudai?’

  ‘It’s a huge lake. And round here,
on the far side, is the province where the Hasanu live.’

  ‘I’ve heard people mention them several times. Who are the Hasanu?’

  There was a teapot on the table and Evanlyn reached for it to pour herself a cup of green tea. ‘Like some? It’s still quite hot.’

  Alyss shook her head. ‘I’m fine.’

  ‘The Hasanu are a wild mountain tribe that live in this remote area on the other side of the lake. Some people think they’re monsters. There are apparently a lot of legends about weird mountain creatures, trolls and demons and such. But Shigeru thinks that’s superstition. He believes the Hasanu are human. They’re simple folk. They’re said to be much taller than the average Nihon-Jan and covered in long, reddish body hair.’

  ‘How attractive,’ Alyss commented.

  Evanlyn allowed herself a brief smile. ‘Yes. But they are apparently amazingly loyal to their lord, a Senshi noble called Nimatsu, and he’s loyal to Shigeru. And they’re quite formidable warriors,’ she added meaningfully.

  ‘Hmmm. So if Shigeru could recruit them, he might have a reasonable force to engage Arisaka,’ Alyss said. Like all of the Araluans, she was aware of the shortcomings of the Kikori as warriors. ‘Are there many of them?’

  ‘Thousands,’ Evanlyn told her. ‘That’s the beauty of it. There are plenty of clans loyal to Shigeru who would oppose Arisaka, but they’re all small in numbers and they’re not organised. Arisaka’s supported by his own clan, the Shimonseki, and one other, the Umaki clan. Numerically, they’re the two largest clans in the country, so he has a strong, co-ordinated power base.

  ‘But if we could call on the Hasanu for help, we’d have Arisaka badly outnumbered. Which might encourage the other clans to stand up for Shigeru. Only problem is…’

  She paused and Alyss finished for her. ‘The Hasanu are on the far side of this huge lake.’

  ‘That’s right. And the path around the lake goes through mountains even wilder than the ones here. Shigeru says it would take at least two months to get there and another two back.’

 

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