The emperor of nihon ja, p.24
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.24

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

  ‘Use it as a battering ram! Smash through the wall!’ he yelled. Half a dozen more men, suddenly seeing what he was about, joined the two Senshi wielding the log. They charged at the wall and, with one of them counting tempo, slammed it again and again into the brittle timbers of the palisade. Two of the old logs shattered and split, a third sagged away at the next strike of the ram. More rocks hailed down on them, but the defenders’ aim was not as accurate as before. Panic, the captain thought. He screamed at the men with grapnels, pointing to the top of the palisade.

  ‘Don’t try to climb it! Pull it down!’ he ordered. The grapnels whirred around, then sailed upwards, each one trailing a tail of rope behind it. One clattered back but two bit into the wood and held fast. Instantly, eight or nine men tailed onto the ropes and heaved and strained backwards. A three-metre section of the wooden parapet gave way and came crashing down in a cloud of dust and splinters. The men heaving on the rope staggered and fell but recovered quickly and cast again. The grapnel that had missed with the first cast was now solidly buried in the timber at the top of the wall. As the attackers further down the wall saw what was happening, more of them streamed to join the assault on the western section. The tree-trunk battering ram smashed into the wall again, tearing a rent between two of the upright timbers. More men joined in the assault, swinging the ram with even greater force.

  Rocks and spears showered down on them now but the attackers were mad with battle rage and they knew that the section of wall was almost breached. They could see the defenders deserting the ruined wall, running in panic to escape before it came crashing down. Yelling their battle cries, they surged forward triumphantly as, under the combined force of the ram and four grapnel ropes, the wall finally gave way and a four-metre breach appeared. They clambered up over the shattered timbers, swarming through the gap.

  The first men through stopped, bewildered, faced by a new, lower wall that enclosed them on three sides. But the press of their companions behind them forced them forward into the enclosed space. More and more of them poured in before they realised they were in a trap. Horrified, they saw a line of heads appear over the top of the new palisade – at least fifty of them. Then a storm of hurled rocks and spears broke over them – and this time, the defenders seemed to have regained their former accuracy.

  ‘Go forward! Keep going forward!’ The captain who had begun the assault was still alive. He brandished his sword now to lead the Senshi to a new attack. There was no way they could get back through the crowded, crammed breach. Their only hope was to scale this new, lower wall in front of them.

  As they started forward, he heard a strange cracking, grinding noise from above. Looking up, he saw what appeared to be a section of the mountain wall suddenly tearing loose. A vast pile of rocks, earth and timber tumbled end over end down the wall, bouncing, smashing, crushing anything and everything in its path.

  A log smashed the sword from his hand and a jagged rock slammed into him, driving him to his knees. As earth and rock thundered around him, he toppled sideways, knowing the assault had failed – then everything went dark.

  The stunned attackers, with almost of a third of their number killed or injured in the trap devised by Halt and Selethen, slowly began to withdraw from the palisade, leaving their fallen comrades behind them. They straggled back down the valley in small groups, to face the wrath of their commander. General Todoki, leader of the advance party and one of Arisaka’s most ardent supporters, watched in disbelief as his defeated men shambled out of the valley, bruised, bleeding and disheartened. He screamed at them, his rage making him lose all control and all sense of dignity. For the most part, they ignored him. He hadn’t been there with them and they’d left over thirty comrades behind them, without any chance of decent burial.

  That night, winter took care of that for them. The snow began in earnest, and by morning, there was nearly two metres piled up in the valley. The pure white carpet obliterated all sign of the previous day’s carnage.

  ‘How do you propose to get this thing down the cliffs to the lake?’ Halt nudged the kayak dubiously with one toe. The narrow craft was nearly four metres long, with a light wooden framework covered by oiled linen, stretched to drumskin-tautness. He’d seen kayaks before. As Alyss had said, she had one herself at Castle Redmont, and this one looked similar, so far as he could remember. The Kikori had done an excellent job constructing it, under Alyss’s watchful eye.

  ‘Eiko solved that problem for us,’ Evanlyn replied. ‘The Kikori will lower it down by rope, doing it a stage at a time.’

  They were standing in a half circle around the newly completed boat. Evanlyn and Alyss wore an air of excitement and proprietorial pride. Will and Horace looked extremely doubtful about the whole project. Halt, who had known about it for some time, was more or less resigned to it. But he wasn’t enthusiastic.

  ‘That’s going to take a bit of handling,’ he said. But Alyss put up a hand to stop him saying any more and knelt beside the kayak.

  ‘Aha, that’s the beauty of this design. Watch,’ she said. She worked two wooden retaining pins out of their sockets and removed one of the four bulkhead sections that created the cross-section profile of the kayak. The ribs that ran the length of the boat collapsed inwards slightly, and the oilskin covering lost some of its tension. She repeated the action with the other three formers and within minutes, the kayak was nothing more than a bundle of light ribs, frames and oilskin. She rapidly gathered them together, then used the oilskin to wrap the ribs into a tight bundle. She stood back from the result – a narrow bundle of long, light wooden stakes.

  ‘There!’ she announced. ‘We simply collapse it so that it’s a much more manageable bundle. Tie a rope round one end and we lower it down the cliffs, hanging vertically.’

  Will stepped forward and eyed the narrow bundle critically. When it was assembled, it had looked like a boat. But now the frailty of the design was far more evident. It was nothing more than sticks and cloth.

  ‘Will it float?’ he asked doubtfully and Alyss smiled at him. She knew the reason behind his lack of enthusiasm and she couldn’t help being a little pleased by it. By the same token, she wasn’t going to allow it to go too far. Will might worry about her, and she knew he loved her. But that didn’t mean he owned her or could dictate what she might or might not do.

  ‘Of course it will float,’ she told him. ‘And if it doesn’t, we’ll just have to come back up the cliffs.’

  ‘Well…I don’t like it,’ Will said.

  Horace echoed the sentiment. ‘Neither do I.’

  ‘Your dislike for the project will be duly noted,’ Evanlyn told them coolly.

  ‘And ignored,’ Alyss added. The two girls exchanged a quick smile.

  Will opened his mouth to speak further but Selethen stepped in to prevent any unfortunate statements.

  ‘Personally, I think it’s a good plan,’ he said smoothly. ‘What’s more, I’ll sleep soundly through the winter knowing that there is the prospect of a relieving force arriving in the spring.’

  In Arrida, the women of the desert tribes lived in a hostile environment and took their share of dangerous tasks. They often ranged far into the desert, hunting for food and fighting off the predators that attacked their herd animals. He knew these two girls and was confident they had the ability and the courage to carry out the mission they had taken on. And his comment about feeling a sense of comfort at the prospect of a relieving force was the truth. Selethen, like the others, knew that they could not simply occupy this defensive position indefinitely once the snows melted. Arisaka would eventually be victorious, by dint of his overwhelming numbers.

  ‘Yeah…well…maybe,’ Horace said. He was a little surprised that Selethen was supporting the girls. Will looked at Halt.

  ‘What do you think about this, Halt? Are you really going to let them go?’

  At the words ‘let them’ both girls bristled with indignation. But Halt held up a hand and they held their peace for the mome
nt.

  ‘I can’t say I’m happy about it,’ he began and Will nodded knowingly, glad to see that his mentor was in agreement with him and Horace. But Halt’s next words wiped out any sense of satisfaction he might be feeling.

  ‘But I wasn’t happy in Arrida when you went off searching for Tug,’ he said. His gaze moved around to include Horace. ‘Nor when I heard you two had assaulted Castle Macindaw with just thirty men.’

  ‘Thirty-three,’ mumbled Horace. He was beginning to see where Halt was heading.

  The Ranger gave him a withering look. ‘Oh, pardon me…Thirty-three men. That makes a lot of difference. Look, we live in a dangerous world, and both Evanlyn and Alyss have decided they want to do more than sit by and watch while we menfolk take care of them.

  ‘They don’t want to be spectators. They’re courageous and imaginative and adventurous. That’s why you like them. They fit into the world you’ve chosen for yourselves. If you’d wanted a pair of silly, primping maidens who are good for nothing but gossip and needlepoint, there are plenty of those around. But I doubt they’d interest you.’

  He paused, watching to see if his words had sunk in. Slowly, Will and Horace began to nod agreement with what he’d said. Halt himself had come to terms with all these points many years ago, when he had fallen in love with Lady Pauline. He’d had to accept that she would fulfil the duties of a Courier – which would inevitably take her into harm’s way. And he had to trust in her ability to look after herself – as she had learned to trust in his.

  ‘Now, what Selethen says is true. We are going to need help in the spring. We can’t simply sit behind the palisade and hope to hold Arisaka off forever. And the only available source of that help lies across the lake, with the Hasanu. Is that right, Lord Shigeru?’

  The Emperor nodded. He had been following the discussion with great interest. The evenings he’d spent talking with Evanlyn had shown her to be a young lady of remarkable courage and determination. And she was highly intelligent and articulate – qualities that would be necessary if she were going to carry his request for help to Lord Nimatsu.

  ‘Lord Nimatsu has the only viable force that can help us defeat Arisaka,’ he said.

  ‘Then it makes sense for Evanlyn and Alyss to enlist his aid,’ Halt finished, eyeing the two young men.

  ‘I know all that,’ Horace replied. ‘But I can’t help feeling –’

  He got no further. Alyss interrupted him.

  ‘Stop feeling, Horace, and start thinking! Let’s face it, when it comes to straight-out battle, you have an advantage over us. Right or wrong, you men are physically stronger than we are. That’s a fact of nature, and physical strength plays a big role in close combat. I could work on my skills with the sabre till I was blue in the face. But even if I were as fast and as skilled as you, Horace, you would still be stronger than me. That’s the way of things. And I know Evanlyn might knock one or two, or even a dozen, of the enemy over with her sling. But once they came to close quarters, she’d be in trouble.’

  ‘This is our chance to do something constructive in this war!’ Evanlyn said, taking up the theme. ‘Our chance to contribute! And if we do it, we don’t weaken your forces. That’s the beauty of Alyss’s kayak. If we travelled overland we’d need some of the Kikori to come with us as guides and bodyguard. But on the lake, who can touch us?’

  There was a long silence while Horace and Will digested all of this. In their hearts, they knew that Halt and the girls were right. The plan was logical and well thought out – even down to the detail that Evanlyn had just pointed out. Travelling across the lake, they wouldn’t need the services of any of the Kikori. It was just that…

  ‘I’ll worry about you,’ Will said, looking into Alyss’s eyes. She smiled at him and took his hand in hers.

  ‘Well, of course you will. I’d hope you would. Just as I’ll worry about you, trapped here with hundreds of Arisaka’s men baying for your blood. Just as I worried about you when you were in Hibernia. Or in Arrida. Or on any of your other missions. Of course I worry about you. But I never tried to stop you going, did I?’

  ‘No,’ Will agreed reluctantly. ‘But…’

  Alyss held up one finger in warning. ‘Don’t dare say “this is different”,’ she said and he closed his mouth hurriedly. Selethen gave vent to a deep chuckle and they all turned to look at him.

  ‘A good tactician always knows when to retreat from an untenable position, Will,’ he said. The young Ranger grinned reluctantly.

  Evanlyn turned to Horace. ‘What about you, Horace? Will you worry about me?’ she said, a smile lurking behind her lips.

  Horace went red in the face and shuffled his feet. He didn’t meet her gaze.

  ‘Ah…well…yes. Of course. And Alyss too, of course. Both of you. I’ll worry about both of you.’

  Evanlyn turned to the others and shrugged. ‘I guess that’s all a girl can expect from a strong, silent type like him.’

  ‘I’m glad that’s settled,’ Halt said. ‘Now, down to details. When do you plan to leave?’

  ‘We thought tomorrow,’ Evanlyn said and Alyss nodded assent.

  ‘Tomorrow!’ Will and Horace chorused in surprise. All eyes turned to them.

  ‘I mean, isn’t that rushing it a little? Why go so soon?’ Will added uncertainly.

  Alyss shrugged. ‘Why wait? The weather will only get worse. And the sooner we go, the sooner we’ll be back.’

  ‘That’s true, I suppose. But…tomorrow?’ So far, they’d been discussing the concept of the girls’ leaving. But now there was a reality and an immediacy to the whole thing.

  Halt dropped a hand on his shoulder. ‘Best get used to it, Will. If you’re involved with a Courier.’ He paused and then included Evanlyn. ‘Or a madcap princess…’ He favoured her with a faint smile so she wouldn’t take offence. ‘This is not going to be the last time you see them off on some hare-brained scheme.’

  For a moment, he studied the two girls. He had to admit to a certain proprietorial feeling about them. Alyss was his wife’s protégée and he’d watched her grow into a resourceful and courageous young woman. Will’s account of her strength of purpose and her coolness under pressure during the siege of Castle Macindaw had confirmed his favourable opinion of her. As for Evanlyn, he’d watched her in action, battling the Temujai riders in Skandia and the Tualaghi bandits in the desert. There was no question of her courage or her ability. They would make a good team, he thought. And if they could overcome the residual jealousy that still existed between them, they would be formidable. Perhaps this trip would help them do that.

  ‘I’ll compose a letter for you to take to Lord Nimatsu,’ Shigeru said to Evanlyn. ‘And tonight, I’ll ask my servants to prepare a suitable farewell meal for you both.’

  ‘Sounds good,’ Evanlyn said cheerfully. ‘What will we be having?’

  Shigeru smiled at her. ‘The same hard rations we have every night,’ he said. ‘But tonight, the table setting will be exquisite.’

  Halt looked around the group, satisfied that the matter had been settled and that Horace and Will realised the need for the girls to contribute to the campaign, and the value in their doing so. But there was something else that had been on his mind for some time now. He caught Selethen’s gaze. The Arridi saw the challenge in the Ranger’s eye and smiled, knowing what was coming.

  ‘Tomorrow it is then,’ Halt said. ‘But before Alyss and Evanlyn leave, I think we’d all like to see what Selethen and Will have been up to these past weeks.’

  ‘It’s a little early to be showing you this,’ Will said, as he led the curious party uphill towards a secluded corner of the valley. ‘So far, we only have equipment for ten men. The others have to take it in turn to train and practise.’

  ‘Practise what?’ Evanlyn asked but Halt signalled her to wait.

  They stopped at a point where a grove of trees screened a smaller gully. Will and Selethen ushered them forward and they came to a flat section of land, forty metres by twent
y.

  Horace pointed to a line of fascines – bundles of light branches tied together, each about the size of a man – standing at the far end of the gully.

  ‘What are they?’

  Will grinned at him. ‘They’re the enemy.’ He looked at Selethen. ‘Do you want to take over?’

  The Arridi warrior shrugged deferentially. ‘It was your idea. I’m just an assistant.’

  Will nodded, gathered his thoughts for a second, then proceeded.

  ‘I got the inklings of this idea when we first arrived here and I saw the Kikori at work. Their group discipline was excellent.’

  Shigeru nodded. ‘It has to be. Timber cutting is a dangerous business.’

  ‘Exactly,’ Will said. ‘Then Horace, I think, said that the Senshi, with their years of training, excelled at individual combat. How one on one, they were generally superior to our Araluan warriors.’ He glanced a question at Horace, who also nodded.

  Halt settled back, leaning comfortably against a rock, smiling at his former pupil. He thought he could see where this was heading, but he wasn’t sure how Will planned to achieve it.

  ‘Now all of this rang a bell in my memory. I’d heard this sort of thing before. It drove me mad for a few days, then I remembered where it had been.’ He paused and Halt’s smile widened as the others unconsciously leaned forward, waiting for him to continue. His young pupil couldn’t resist the opportunity for a little drama.

  ‘I recalled General Sapristi saying much the same things.’

  ‘General who?’ Horace asked, totally puzzled.

  ‘He was a general in Toscana who arranged a demonstration of their fighting methods for us,’ Will explained. ‘The Toscan legions have developed a system of fighting as a team. It’s simple, so there’s no need for them to learn or practise complex swordplay. They just have to jab and stab and shove. The secret is, they all work together.’ He paused. His throat was a little dry with all this talking and he gestured for Selethen to take up the story.

 

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