The emperor of nihon ja, p.27
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.27

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

  ‘I thought you might say that. And it occurs to me that if you are fighting beside them, leading them in fact, you will need a sword.’ Shigeru gestured to the hilt of the katana where it protruded from Horace’s sash. ‘How do you find your katana?’

  ‘It’s a fine weapon,’ Horace said, careful not to offend. ‘But it feels unfamiliar to me. It’s not what I’ve been trained with.’

  ‘Hmmm. I thought this might be so. A warrior needs the weapon he knows and trusts. In that case…’ Shigeru turned towards the smaller side room, where his servant had retired after serving tea.

  ‘Tabai! Bring the sword!’

  The servant entered again, carrying a long bundle wrapped in oilcloth. He went to present it to the Emperor, but Shigeru clicked his tongue and pointed to Horace. Tabai proffered the parcel to the young knight, who took it curiously. He glanced up at Shigeru.

  ‘I found it yesterday among Shukin’s baggage,’ the Emperor said. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to go through his things any sooner and frankly, I had forgotten about this.’ He gestured for Horace to unwrap the parcel.

  Horace cast the oilskin cover aside, coming forward onto one knee to inspect the parcel more closely. Inside was a sword. His sword, in a finely oiled leather scabbard. The plain steel crosspiece, the brass pommel and the leather binding of the hilt were all familiar.

  ‘But…this is my sword!’ he said, in amazement. The sword had plunged into a deep ravine, with a rushing torrent at its bottom. He couldn’t conceive how it could have been recovered.

  ‘Look more closely,’ Shigeru told him. When he did, Horace noted that the leather binding on the hilt was fresh and new, unstained with the perspiration of a score of encounters and hundreds of practice drills. He went to draw it from its scabbard, then remembered that this was a gross breach of protocol in the Emperor’s presence. But Shigeru gestured for him to go ahead.

  The blade zzzzinged clear of the scabbard and Horace held it aloft, a little confused. The balance was perfect – just as he remembered. It could have been his old sword. But now he could see the blade itself, slightly blued, showed a repeating pattern of half circles beaten into the steel that appeared as a series of wavy lines. It caught the dim light and gleamed as his old sword had never done.

  ‘It was Shukin’s gift to you,’ Shigeru explained, and Horace remembered Shukin telling him to look for a parcel when he had left them to defend the ford. ‘He “borrowed” your sword one night in the summer lodge and had his own swordsmith copy it exactly.’

  ‘But…’ Horace began, wondering why Shukin had gone to such trouble.

  Shigeru, sensing what the question was going to be, held up a hand to forestall it.

  ‘There is one difference. This blade is Nihon-Jan steel – much harder than your old sword and able to take a much sharper edge. Now if you fight against the Senshi, you will do so on even terms.’

  Their first night had been uneventful, save for Evanlyn’s groans as she lay in their small tent, trying unsuccessfully to ease the waves of pain that swept through her shoulder and thigh muscles. She and Alyss had paddled for several hours across the placid waters of the lake, eventually landing on a small island. A quick scouting trip showed them that the island was uninhabited – it was barely more than a rock thrusting up out of the water, dotted with shrubs. They had made camp on a tiny sandy beach and settled in for the night.

  ‘There are muscles here I never knew I had,’ Evanlyn told Alyss the following morning. ‘And every one of them is burning like fire.’

  Evanlyn was fit and in excellent physical condition. The active life she led saw to that. But the action of paddling, hour after hour, had her using muscles that she never normally put under strain.

  Alyss, more used to the motion, was stiff herself. But she knew it was worse for Evanlyn. Still, she reasoned, there was nothing to gain by allowing the princess to wallow in misery. Evanlyn’s constant low moaning through the night had kept Alyss awake, and this morning she was a little snappy about it.

  ‘You’ll get used to it,’ she said.

  Evanlyn looked at her sharply, saw she’d get no sympathy from that quarter and set her mouth in a grim line, determined to show no further sign of discomfort.

  The water was boiling on the fire and she took the kettle out of the coals and poured it into a small metal teapot, over the leaves of green tea they’d brought with them.

  ‘Wish we had coffee,’ she said. In her travels with the Rangers, she’d grown to like the beverage nearly as much as they did. She passed a cup to Alyss, who was studying her map of the lake, planning the next stage.

  ‘Me too,’ Alyss replied absentmindedly. She sipped at the tea, enjoying its warmth, and spread the map on the sand between them. It was a simple chart. There was, after all, little to show on a map of the lake, aside from the islands that dotted its surface at irregular intervals.

  ‘Today will be a long day,’ she said. ‘The closest island to us is way over here.’ She tapped the map, indicating a land mass marked in the expanse of water.

  Evanlyn looked at it, compared the distance to it to the distance they had already travelled, and whistled softly under her breath.

  ‘That’s quite a way,’ she said.

  ‘There’s nothing closer,’ Alyss told her. ‘We’re just going to have to do it. And I’d prefer to make it before dark. At least the wind hasn’t got up.’ She knew from experience how difficult it could be paddling into a headwind. ‘I figure we’re going to be paddling for five, maybe six hours.’

  Evanlyn groaned softly. ‘Oh my aching arms and shoulders.’

  ‘You’ll be okay once we get going,’ Alyss told her. ‘The kinks will ease out when you’re working the muscles and you get warmed up.’

  Evanlyn began to gather up their breakfast utensils. She felt a little encouraged by Alyss’s comment. ‘Well, that’s something, at least.’

  ‘Of course,’ Alyss added, a trifle maliciously, ‘once you cool down tonight, and they stiffen up again, they’re going to hurt like merry hell.’

  Evanlyn paused in the act of strapping her travel pack shut. ‘Well, thank you for those kind words of encouragement,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to know I have that to look forward to.’

  They packed their supplies into the kayak and pushed it clear of the beach. Once again, Evanlyn climbed in first, still a little clumsily, while Alyss held the boat steady. Then Alyss boarded as well. This time, when the boat rocked suddenly under her weight, Evanlyn didn’t tense up. The previous day had seen her grow accustomed to the fact that their little craft moved on the water. It rocked and plunged from time to time. But she’d learned that such movements didn’t presage sudden disaster. Once she managed to relax, she found that she could counteract the kayak’s motion with a loose-muscled response, balancing her weight without panic or tension.

  Her paddling still left a little to be desired and from time to time she miscued a stroke, sending a shower of near-freezing water splashing back over her companion. The first few times this happened, Alyss had responded, with icy politeness, ‘Thank you for that, your majesty.’

  After that, her comments were less audible, consisting of indecipherable mutterings.

  Each time, Evanlyn gritted her teeth and resolved not to make the same mistake again. Inevitably, she did and had to endure more of the almost, but not quite, inaudible comments from the rear seat – comments that she knew were unladylike and uncomplimentary in the extreme.

  But there was nothing she could do about it, as she realised that she was in the wrong each time she unwittingly threw a faceful of water at Alyss.

  They paused every thirty minutes or so to rest. When the sun passed the midday mark, Alyss announced that they could take a break to eat and drink. They sat drifting on the lake, lulled by the now familiar pok-pok-pok of the wavelets against their hull. There was little wind and no current, so they tended to stay pretty much in one position. When they had rested, but before Evanlyn’s muscles had time to cool
and stiffen, Alyss called a start again. She had a Northseeker needle with her and she turned the kayak to face west of north-west, then began to paddle once more. As the little boat moved off, Evanlyn glanced back over her shoulder to get the timing of the stroke and joined in. The kayak surged forward under the increased thrust, then yawed as Evanlyn missed a stroke and threw more spray onto Alyss.

  ‘Thank you so much,’ Alyss said.

  Evanlyn said nothing. She had apologised so many times that the words now seemed meaningless. Besides, Alyss should know by now that she wasn’t doing it on purpose. Grimly, she concentrated on her paddling, digging the blade deep into the water, and finishing the stroke before she raised it again. This time, a good forty minutes passed before Alyss caught another bladeful of water in the face.

  ‘Thank you so much,’ she said mechanically.

  Evanlyn wished her companion would come up with something new to say, or revert to her bad-tempered muttering.

  In the midafternoon, the wind rose, blowing sharply across their course from the south-west. Alyss had to consult the Northseeker more frequently to keep them on course. The wind also raised a spiteful little cross-swell and larger waves than they had previously encountered began to slap against the left-hand side and bow of the kayak. Spray sloshed over the gunwales and into the boat.

  At first, it was no more than an inconvenience and a discomfort as the icy cold water swirled around their feet. But as more and more water slopped in, the little boat became heavier.

  ‘I’ll keep paddling. You bale her out for a while,’ Alyss ordered. They both leaned to the side as Evanlyn stowed her paddle down the inside of the little boat, then took the baling bucket that Alyss passed forward to her.

  ‘Mind the skin of the boat,’ Alyss warned her, as she scooped water out of the bottom of the kayak and tossed it overboard. Unthinkingly, she threw the first bucketful over the left, or windward, side. A good proportion of it was caught by the wind and flung back over the two of them.

  ‘Thank you for that,’ Alyss said.

  ‘Sorry,’ Evanlyn said. Next time, she threw the water to the right.

  It was a wet and cold and exhausting afternoon. Evanlyn’s arm muscles, shoulders and elbows were aching from the alternate actions of paddling and baling. Alyss stayed doggedly to her task of paddling throughout and, in spite of the acid comments when Evanlyn accidentally soaked her, Evanlyn felt a growing admiration for the tall girl’s strength and endurance. Alyss never flagged, keeping the narrow craft driving forward through the waves.

  ‘At least,’ she said at one point, her words coming between grunts of exertion, ‘this wind is giving me something to steer by. So long as I keep it on our left front quarter, we’re heading more or less for the island.’

  ‘Unless it shifts,’ Evanlyn said, sending another bucketful overboard.

  There was a long silence. Finally, Alyss spoke again. ‘Hadn’t thought of that. Better check.’

  The kayak gradually slowed and sagged off downwind as Alyss stopped paddling and produced her Northseeker. It took a few minutes for the needle to settle, then she grunted in satisfaction.

  ‘No. It’s held steady. Let’s go.’

  Evanlyn had used the brief stop to clear most of the water out of the boat. She took up her paddle again and joined Alyss in driving the boat forward, quickly regaining the distance they had lost as they drifted. Her shoulders were on fire. No more groaning, she told herself grimly, and she bit the side of her mouth to prevent herself from making a sound. Head down, she reached forward with the paddle, placed it in the water and dragged the boat forward. Then she lifted it out, feathering the blade as she did so, and reached forward on the other side. With each stroke, her shoulder muscles and the muscles on the underside of her upper arms sent shafts of pain stabbing through her. But she was determined not to stop before Alyss did. No more groaning. Just keep going. The unspoken words formed a rhythm in her mind and she worked to it, hearing the two phrases like a strange mantra.

  At least I’m not cold, she thought. Although her feet and hands were frozen, she could feel perspiration on her body. She paddled on, determined not to stop before Alyss did. The light was fading now as the winter sun sank low to the horizon. Her viewpoint was confined to the sharp prow of the kayak ahead of her and the pewter-coloured water around her.

  No more groaning. Just keep going. Over and over again. Stretch, thrust, pull, lift. Stretch, thrust, pull, lift. She hated the lake. Hated the icy water. Hated the paddle. Hated the kayak. Hated everything about this journey. And above all, she hated Alyss.

  ‘We’ve made it,’ Alyss said. ‘We’re there.’

  Evanlyn could have kissed her. She looked up and there was the island, fifty metres away. It was larger than the one they had camped on the previous night and there were trees here, where there had been nothing but low shrubs on the other island.

  They dragged the boat up onto a shingle beach, then fell exhausted to the ground, both groaning in agony as they lay there. Alyss gave them a few minutes of rest before she roused Evanlyn, shaking her shoulder.

  ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We have to set up camp before we stiffen up.’

  As Evanlyn rose wearily to her feet, she decided that she had been too quick to forgive Alyss. She hated her again. But she also knew the tall girl was right. Staggering with weariness, they built a fire and pitched their tent close to it. Then they changed out of their sweat-dampened inner clothing and fell on their bedrolls, pulling their blankets around them, too tired to eat.

  The long, mournful howl penetrated through the fog of exhaustion that had wrapped around Evanlyn, bringing her awake.

  Had it been close by, or far away? She had no way of telling. She’d been asleep when the cry came. Maybe, she thought, she had dreamed it.

  Then it came again and she knew it was real. And it was close. It sounded as if it were only a few metres away from the back of the tent.

  ‘Alyss?’ she said uncertainly. Nobody could have slept through that noise, she thought.

  ‘What is it?’

  ‘That’s what I want to know. It sounded like a wolf. Are there wolves on these islands?’

  ‘Well, it certainly didn’t sound like a kitty cat, did it?’ Alyss threw off her blankets and crouched in the low headroom of the tent, fumbling with the gear stowed beside her bed. Outside, the fire they had built up before going to sleep was almost dead. A few yellow flames flickered and cast weird shadows on the tent walls.

  Evanlyn heard the quick hiss of a blade being drawn and saw Alyss with her sabre in her hand. ‘Where are you going?’

  ‘Out to see what all the noise is,’ Alyss told her. Hastily, Evanlyn tossed off her blankets and scrabbled around in the dim light for her own sword. She pulled on her boots, leaving them unlaced, and followed Alyss as she crept on hands and knees out of the tent.

  ‘Oh dear,’ Alyss said as she emerged.

  Evanlyn joined her a few seconds later and she pointed to the half circle of grey shapes ranged around the camp site, at the edge of the pool of light thrown by the fire.

  ‘Wolves,’ Evanlyn said. ‘Are they likely to attack?’

  Alyss shrugged. ‘I don’t know. But my guess is they didn’t just come here to pass the time of day. At least the fire seems to be keeping them back.’

  There was only a handful of firewood left – a few branches that they had left to rekindle the fire in the morning. Evanlyn threw two of them onto the small pile of coals and flame. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the intense heat of the coals asserted itself and the two new branches caught and flared up.

  The semicircle of silent watchers edged back a few paces. Alyss glanced around. The wolves were on the inland side of the camp. The way to the kayak, and the lake beyond, was clear.

  ‘Back into the tent,’ she said. ‘Grab your pack. We’re making for the kayak.’

  ‘The kayak? What are…?’

  Alyss cut her off. ‘You can wait here until the fire dies dow
n and see what the wolves have in mind if you like,’ she said. ‘I’m launching the kayak and sitting offshore till morning.’

  ‘Can wolves swim?’ Evanlyn asked doubtfully, although Alyss’s idea seemed logical.

  Alyss shrugged. ‘Not as fast as I can paddle when I’m terrified,’ she said. ‘And if any do come after us, we can brain them with the paddles. Now let’s get moving, unless you’ve got a better idea.’

  They backed towards the tent. As they did so, the wolves edged in closer, still staying on the rim of the pool of firelight. Inside, they hastily shoved clothes and gear back into their packs. Then, still carrying their bare swords, they emerged once more. A rumbling growl went round the half-circle of grey watchers. The firelight was down to a few low flames now.

  ‘Don’t turn your back on them,’ Alyss said. Carefully, they backed away from the camp site towards the kayak. As they went, two of the wolves rose and started to pad slowly after them. Alyss raised her sword and hissed a challenge at them. The steel caught the red light of the fire and reflected it around the camp. The wolves stopped. The girls moved off again and the wolves kept pace with them.

  Evanlyn took a light grip on Alyss’s jacket. Looking over her shoulder, she steered the other girl towards the kayak.

  ‘You watch them. I’ll watch the boat,’ she said.

  Alyss grunted in reply. She had feared that the wolves might try a flanking movement, circling round to put themselves between the two girls and the boat. But the animals had no idea what the long, narrow shape was. As far as they could see, they had these strange creatures trapped against the water.

  They stopped and Alyss could see the kayak in her peripheral vision.

  ‘Get it in the water,’ she said. ‘And get aboard.’

  Evanlyn heaved and got the boat moving, sliding across the small pebbles and into the water. She moved it offshore a few metres, waiting as Alyss backed after her, her sword still presented to the following wolves. Evanlyn sheathed her own sword – she didn’t want to risk its sharp edge cutting the oilskin covering of the boat – and sat clumsily into the boat. It rocked wildly for a few seconds but she rode the motion and waited till it steadied. She stowed her sword and took up her paddle.

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