The emperor of nihon ja, p.31
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.31

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

  The camp was largely as they had seen it from the lookout point high above. Tents were pitched in haphazard lines, in a large, amorphous mass. A few sentries could be seen, pacing dispiritedly around the outer perimeter. In the time the two Rangers watched, not one seemed to lift his eyes from the frozen ground a few metres in front of his pacing feet. They were preoccupied with remaining hunched down in their cloaks, conserving as much body warmth as possible. The grey light slowly strengthened and Will and Halt could make out more detail.

  In the centre of the low, utilitarian tents stood one larger, and rather ornate, pavilion. Two men stood guard outside and banners were planted at the entrance, streaming out in the wind.

  ‘Can you make out the central banner?’ Halt asked. There was a heraldic device on the flag in the centre of the group. The others were inscribed with Nihon-Jan characters. Will shaded his eyes and peered more closely.

  ‘An ox, I think,’ he said. ‘A green ox.’

  ‘Not that it means anything to us,’ Halt replied. ‘Although Shigeru should know who it is.’

  Will glanced at him. ‘Is that important?’

  ‘It’s always important to know who you’re facing,’ Halt said quietly. He surveyed the lie of the land between them and the Senshi encampment. For the most part, it was relatively even ground but there was one section covered in tumbled rocks. Beyond the rocks, to the east, the land fell away in a low cliff. Ahead of them, to the south, the plain sloped down towards the tents.

  ‘That’s our position,’ he said, indicating it to Will. ‘That broken ground will give our left flank some protection and the Senshi will be attacking uphill.’

  ‘Not much of a hill,’ Will observed.

  ‘We’ll take whatever advantage we can get,’ Halt told him. ‘Now, let’s head back and start the ball.’

  They made their way back to their waiting companions and held a quick council of war. Will described the broken ground on the left.

  ‘We’ll start there,’ he said. ‘Then we’ll advance in line. Put the men in two ranks so we have a longer front. Selethen, put your men on the right of Horace’s goju and about ten metres behind. That way, when the enemy try to work round his right flank, you can advance and hit them in the rear. Horace, when they do that, remember the plan we made last night.’

  ‘I know. Swing the gate shut with my second rank,’ Horace said. ‘I have done this before, you know.’

  ‘Sorry,’ Will said. ‘Later this afternoon, I’ll teach your grandmother to suck eggs.’

  The two old friends grinned at each other. Shigeru and Selethen both looked a little puzzled.

  ‘Why does his grandmother want to suck eggs?’ Shigeru asked.

  The Arridi warrior shrugged. ‘I have no idea.’ He looked at Halt but the Ranger waved away the query.

  ‘Long story,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you later.’

  ‘Oh, Shigeru,’ Will said, remembering a detail. ‘The enemy commander has a green ox as his symbol. Does that mean anything to you?’

  The Emperor nodded. ‘That is General Todoki. He’s one of Arisaka’s most ardent supporters. His men attacked the palisade. He’ll be eager to avenge that defeat.’

  ‘Good,’ Halt said. ‘That’ll mean he’s more likely to act without thinking. Always a good thing to fight an enemy who’s angry.’

  ‘Let’s get moving!’ Will said and the five of them shook hands, then moved to their positions. At a word of command, the men of the two goju, who had been resting on the ground, conserving their strength, climbed quickly to their feet.

  They formed in three files and set out at a steady jog, their equipment and weapons rattling in rhythm to the thud of their feet. They rounded the bluff and the enemy camp came into view.

  As the two gojus reached their positions, Halt, Will and Shigeru diverted to a small hillock from where they could observe the battle. They were a little behind the Kikori ranks. Moka, Shigeru’s senior bodyguard, had wanted to accompany them but Shigeru refused.

  ‘I want the Kikori to see that my trust in them is complete,’ he said.

  Moka had remained with ten Senshi at the entrance to Mikeru’s Pass. If the worst came to the worst, it would be their task to hold the pass against Arisaka’s men while the Kikori made their escape up the secret path.

  The gojus deployed now, forming into two extended ranks, twenty-five men long. Each man in the second rank held two javelins. The front rank were armed with their stabbing blades only. All of them, of course, had their massive shields on their left arms.

  Remarkably, there was no reaction from the enemy camp. Not one of the slouching sentries seemed to have noticed that one hundred armed men had suddenly appeared barely one hundred and fifty metres away.

  Halt shook his head in disgust. ‘I thought this might happen,’ he said. He took out a fire arrow he had prepared the night before – a standard shaft with a bunch of oil-soaked rag tied around the head. ‘Light me up, Will.’

  The younger Ranger worked briefly with flint and steel and in a few seconds set a tongue of flame to the oil-soaked rag. Halt waited until he was sure the flame had taken and was well established. Then he glanced at the enemy camp, raised his bow to almost forty-five degrees, drew and released.

  The fire arrow left a thin black trail of smoke behind it as it rose into the overcast morning sky.

  They lost sight of it as it plunged down past the apogee of its flight. Then Will saw a bright tongue of flame flare up at Todoki’s ornate pavilion. After a second, the entire roof of the pavilion, daubed with oil to make it waterproof, burst into flames and they could hear shouts from the camp as several men ran out of the tent, one falling in his haste.

  ‘I’m afraid you’ll have made Todoki-san very angry now, Halto-san,’ said Shigeru.

  Halt smiled grimly. ‘That was the general idea.’ He glanced at Will and nodded. The young Ranger filled his lungs and shouted across the intervening space to Horace.

  ‘Horace! Go!’

  Horace drew his sword and raised it in the air. Selethen mirrored the action. There was a rattling crunch as the heavy shields were lifted from the rest position on the rocky ground. Then, at a word from Horace, the fifty Kikori bellowed as one.

  ‘Issho ni!’

  Selethen’s men echoed the cry.

  ‘Issho ni!’

  Then all one hundred men began chanting their war cry as a cadence, marching in time to it as they advanced across the plain towards the Senshi camp. Horace and Selethen halted them after twenty paces, but the war cry continued, booming across the plain.

  Todoki’s men, roused by the sudden fire in their commander’s tent, were now fully awake. Their initial alarm at the sudden sound of the Kikori war cry and the tramp of their boots turned to anger as they realised that they were being attacked by mere Kikori – despised peasants who had no right to raise arms against their betters. Arming themselves, Todoki’s Senshi began streaming out of the camp in an unco-ordinated mass, hurrying to attack these presumptuous fools. They formed into a ragged line as they ran towards the waiting Kikori. Then Horace gave an order and a shrill whistle sounded among the two waiting gojus.

  With a crash, the shields in each front rank were presented round to the enemy and the charging Senshi found themselves confronted by a seemingly solid wall of hardwood and iron. Two quick whistle blasts sounded and the wall of shields started to tramp steadily towards them.

  This was an insult that could not be borne! The leading Senshi threw themselves against the shield wall, seeking an enemy to engage. But the Kikori were hidden behind the huge shields. Furious, the first Senshi swung their katana in sweeping overhead strokes. But the top edges of the shields were reinforced with iron. The swords bit into it but, with the support of the hardwood beneath it, the iron held, stopping the murderous downstrokes. The Senshi who were engaged struggled to free their swords. But now a new danger arose.

  The Kikori had not stopped their steady advance and the men in the second rank were lending
their weight to the front rank, shoving them forward. The shields smashed into the Senshi, sending them reeling. In some cases, they lost their grip on the hilts of their katana, leaving them embedded in the shields.

  Now, those engaged closely could see vague glimpses of the enemy through narrow gaps in the shield wall. Several tried to stab through the gaps but as a blade went between two shields, the Kikori holding them suddenly clashed them together, overlapping them like giant shears and twisting the sword from its owner’s grasp. Instinctively, the Senshi reached to retrieve their fallen weapons, only to realise their mistake.

  Short, razor-sharp iron blades began to stab out of the gaps in the wall, skewering arms, legs, bodies, aiming for gaps in the Senshi armour. One Senshi warrior drew back his sword for a mighty cut at a Kikori on his left, exposed by a momentary gap in the shield wall. But as he did so, he felt a sudden massive pain under his arm as a blade darted out, wielded by a Kikori on his right – unseen until now. His katana fell from his hand and his knees gave under him as he heard the battle cry ringing in his ears.

  ‘Issho ni!’

  It was the last thing that many of the Senshi heard that day. Horace and Selethen, swords drawn and ready, moved between the two ranks, looking for any weakness where they might be needed. But they found none. The Kikori, drilled and trained for weeks, and with their Emperor’s eyes upon them, performed like a machine. A machine that stabbed and cut and smashed and shoved at the Senshi in a perfectly co-ordinated programme of destruction.

  Some of the Senshi did manage to cause casualties. They attempted high, overhead stabbing lunges that went over the huge shields and, in some cases, they found their marks. But few of them lived to celebrate the fact. The act of reaching high over a shield left them critically exposed to the men either side of the Kikori they were targeting.

  For the most part, they found themselves cramped and forced back, without sufficient room to wield their long swords effectively, without opportunity to employ the elaborate, baffling sequences of sword play they had learned and practised since childhood. And all the while, they were buffeted by the shields, while those wicked iron blades flickered in and out like serpents’ tongues, stabbing, cutting, wounding and killing.

  Todoki’s men had never experienced a battle like this before. A Senshi was accustomed to finding an enemy in the battle line, engaging him in single combat and either winning or losing. But there were no individuals facing them – just this impersonal wall of shields that pressed into them like a mobile fortress. Confused, disillusioned, not knowing how to counteract the inexorable force before them, seeing their comrades falling, dead or wounded – the latter soon to be despatched by the second rank of Kikori – they did what any sensible men would do.

  They turned and ran.

  ‘I regret to say that I am unable to help you,’ Lord Nimatsu told Evanlyn.

  They were seated in the audience room of his castle. The castle itself was a vast, sprawling timber building, four stories high, set on top of a prominent hill and surrounded by a deep moat. Each storey was set back from the one below, creating a series of terraces that would provide comfortable recreation areas in good weather, and defensive positions in the event of an attack.

  The roof was constructed in blue tiles. It was a shallow pitch, and the corners swept upwards in an exotic style that was foreign to the two girls, although quite common in Nihon-Jan buildings.

  The room was spartan in character. They sat on large cushions on the polished wood floor, around a low blackwood table where Nimatsu’s servants had served tea and a simple meal. Several tall banners hung from the walls, each inscribed with Nihon-Jan characters. They were simple in form, yet beautiful, Alyss thought.

  Their reception at Nimatsu’s castle had been a gracious one. He made them welcome, recognising the ring that Shigeru had given to Evanlyn, and offered them his hospitality. The girls had bathed, revelling in the hot water after the long, cold trip across the lake and a further day spent walking to Nimatsu’s castle. They found fresh clothes waiting for them when they emerged from the baths – including the wrap-around outer robes favoured by the Nihon-Jan. They dressed and then joined the castle lord for a meal.

  Evanlyn had explained the reason for their visit and put Shigeru’s request for support to Nimatsu. The Hasanu lord considered her words for a few minutes in silence. He was a tall, slender man who appeared to be about fifty years old. His head was completely shaved and he wore no beard or moustache. His cheekbones were high and prominent, his eyes steady and deep-set. He met his visitors’ gaze without any sense of awkwardness or deceit.

  But now he had refused Shigeru’s request for aid.

  The two girls exchanged a glance. Evanlyn, who had done most of the talking so far, looked a little nonplussed by the unexpected refusal. After all, Nimatsu had been at pains over the meal to point out how much he respected the Emperor and how deep his loyalty to the man and the office ran. She gave a small nod to Alyss, asking her to take up the debate while she, Evanlyn, took time to think and plan their next move.

  ‘Lord Nimatsu,’ Alyss began and the dark eyes turned to her. She thought she could detect a trace of sadness in them. If this were related to his refusal, perhaps she could use it as a lever to change his mind. She spoke carefully, choosing her words so that there was no hint of disrespect for his position.

  ‘You are a loyal subject of the Emperor,’ she said. It was a statement but it was posed so that he must answer it.

  He nodded. ‘That’s correct.’

  ‘And your people are loyal to you – and the Emperor?’

  Again, he nodded his agreement, bowing forward from the waist to do so.

  ‘Surely you have no respect for General Arisaka,’ she said and he shook his head immediately.

  ‘I consider Arisaka to be a traitor and an oath-breaker,’ he said. ‘As such, he is an abomination.’

  Alyss spread her arms in consternation. ‘Then I cannot understand why you would refuse to help Lord Shigeru,’ she said. Perhaps, she thought, she could have phrased it in more diplomatic terms. But she felt it was time for plain speaking.

  ‘Forgive me,’ Nimatsu said. ‘Of course I will offer my help to Lord Shigeru. I phrased my statement badly. I am sworn to support him and so I will.’

  Frowning, Evanlyn attempted to interrupt. ‘Then…’

  Nimatsu held up a hand to stop her as he continued. ‘But I am afraid the Hasanu people will not.’

  ‘They won’t follow you? You won’t order them to?’ Alyss said. He shifted his steady gaze back to her.

  ‘I won’t order them because I won’t put them in the position of refusing to obey an order from their rightful lord. To do such a thing would cause them enormous shame.’

  ‘But if you order them, they must…’ Evanlyn stopped. The frustration was all too obvious in her voice and she strove to control it, knowing that to show anger would not advance their cause. As a princess, she was used to issuing orders and to having them obeyed immediately. She couldn’t fathom why Nimatsu was reluctant to do the same.

  Alyss, more used to the oblique nature of polite diplomatic negotiation, thought she saw a glimmer of hope. Nimatsu’s refusal was a reluctant one. He would obviously prefer to help them but, for some reason, he was unable to.

  ‘Lord Nimatsu, can you tell us why you cannot ask the Hasanu people to help their Emperor?’ she asked. She chose the word ‘cannot’ advisedly. It was less confrontational than ‘will not’ and she felt that there was more to this than a wilful refusal to help. There was something preventing him from doing so.

  He looked back at her now and his eyes told her that she had guessed correctly.

  ‘The Hasanu are afraid,’ he said simply.

  Alyss leaned back in surprise. ‘Of Arisaka?’

  He shook his head. ‘To travel to Ran-Koshi, we would have to first pass through Uto Forest,’ he said. ‘The Hasanu believe there is a malign spirit loose in the forest.’

  ‘A malign
spirit?’ Evanlyn asked.

  Lord Nimatsu bowed his bead briefly in apology to them. The girls sensed that this was a painful subject. He had no wish to hold his simple followers up to the ridicule of outsiders. Then he seemed to come to a decision.

  ‘A demon,’ he said. ‘They believe that an evil demon roams Uto Forest and they will not set foot inside it.’

  ‘But this is superstition!’ Evanlyn said. ‘Surely you won’t…’

  Alyss laid a restraining hand on her arm. There was nothing to be gained by forcing an argument with Nimatsu. He noticed the gesture, registered the way Evanlyn forced herself to cut off her vehement protest.

  ‘This is a superstition that has already killed seventeen of my people,’ he said simply.

  Evanlyn was completely taken aback. The Hasanu might be shy of strangers. But they were huge and powerfully built and their reputation said they were fierce fighters. What could possibly have killed so many of them?

  ‘Do you believe in this demon, lord?’ Alyss asked. Again, those calm, steady eyes met hers.

  ‘I believe there is some terrible predator at large in the forest,’ he said. ‘A demon? No. I don’t think so. But that’s not important. The Hasanu believe in demons and they believe there is one in the forest. They will not pass through it. And I will not order them to. There is no point giving an order that I know will be refused. That refusal would shame me and the Hasanu equally.’

  ‘Is there nothing we can do?’ Evanlyn asked.

  He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I can’t think of anything you could do to persuade them.’

  Alyss took a deep breath, then set her shoulders. ‘What if we kill the demon?’

  General Todoki watched, first in disbelief, then in mounting fury, as his men began streaming back in retreat. Initially, there were only a few, but as they broke and ran, more of their comrades followed them, trying to place as much distance as possible between themselves and the terrible, impersonal wall of shields and darting blades.

 

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