The emperor of nihon ja, p.34
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.34

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

  Understanding dawned in the Kikori youth’s eyes as he held the dart, with the tensioned leather thong extending back over half its length, retained in place by the cord passing over the knot.

  ‘Now try it,’ Halt said.

  Mikeru grinned at him, sighted on the breastplate, leaned back, then hurled his body and arm into the throw. The leather cord acted as a lever extension for his arm, adding enormous extra thrust to the throw. As the missile hissed away on a murderous, arcing flight, the knotted end of the thong simply came free and fell clear, swinging from Mikeru’s wrist.

  The dart just missed the breastplate, then thudded point first into the ground some eight metres past it. Mikeru shook his head in wonder.

  ‘This is good,’ he said. ‘Very good.’ He started out to retrieve the dart but Halt stopped him, pointing to the roll of canvas. There were three more darts lying there.

  Mikeru was a natural athlete, with excellent hand-eye co-ordination. And he was already an expert spear thrower. It didn’t take him long to become accustomed to this new technique. His fourth cast smashed into the leather armour, the heavy iron point tearing a jagged hole.

  Halt slapped his back in encouragement.

  ‘Show this to your friends,’ he said. ‘Make more of them and practise with them till you can all do it. We’ve got another seven or eight weeks until spring and I want thirty of you trained and ready with these weapons when we face Arisaka again.’

  Mikeru nodded enthusiastically. He had been chafing at the fact that so far he had taken no active part in the battle against the usurper. And he knew his friends felt the same way. This would be their chance.

  ‘We’ll be ready, Halto-san,’ he said, drawing himself up to his full height and bowing formally.

  Halt nodded in acknowledgement. Then he and Will turned away, leaving Mikeru to retrieve the darts and continue perfecting his new skill.

  ‘Now let’s see what happens if they try to outflank us,’ Halt said.

  ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Evanlyn asked anxiously.

  Alyss glanced up from where she was checking her equipment.

  ‘No. I’m not. But it’s an idea, and it’s the only one we’ve got. I just hope you’re as good as you say you are with that sling of yours.’

  ‘I never said I’m all that good. Other people might have said it, not me,’ Evanlyn protested.

  Alyss regarded her cynically. ‘Maybe. But I never heard you contradict them.’

  The discussion was interrupted by a light tap on the door frame of the room they shared.

  ‘Come in,’ Alyss called and the screen door slid open to admit Lord Nimatsu. The Nihon-Jan nobleman wore a worried look on his face. He glanced at the bed and saw Alyss’s equipment laid out ready.

  ‘Ariss-san,’ he said, bowing to her, ‘I see you are determined to go ahead with this.’

  ‘I’m afraid I have to, Lord Nimatsu. Your people won’t go through that forest unless we show them that we have killed the Terror. And this is the best way I can think of to do that.’

  ‘But couldn’t you try with another pig – or a goat, perhaps – as bait?’ Nimatsu asked.

  Alyss shook her head. ‘The Terror has shown it’s not interested in animals. It only killed the pig to silence it, so that we’d get no warning that it was there. But once that was done, it didn’t touch the carcass. It sat under our tree for hours, waiting to see if we’d come down. It wants people. It’s a man-eater. So this time, I’m the pig.’ She waited a second and glanced at Evanlyn. ‘You could always object to the way I phrased that,’ she suggested.

  Evanlyn made a disclaiming gesture. ‘This is too serious to joke about, Alyss. You’re putting yourself in terrible danger. And you’re putting a lot of trust in my skill with the sling. Why don’t we draw lots to see who’s the bait?’

  Nimatsu’s gaze switched quickly between the two girls during this exchange. He nodded several times.

  ‘You are risking a great deal, Ariss-san. Is Ev-an-in-san as skilled as you say?’

  ‘She’s a lot better than I am with the javelin,’ Alyss told him. ‘So it’s logical that I’m the bait and she’s the hunter. A friend of ours says she can knock out a gnat’s eye with a shot from her sling.’

  ‘I’m not sure I’m that good,’ Evanlyn said doubtfully.

  Alyss raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, this isn’t the best time to tell me that.’

  Evanlyn let the comment pass. She knew Alyss’s sarcasm stemmed from nerves. The tall girl was putting herself into a position of appalling danger. She might try to pass it off lightly, but it was only natural that she should be fearful of what was to come.

  ‘In any event,’ Alyss continued, ‘once it all starts, I’ll be safely tucked up under my shield. You’ll be the one out in the open, having to deal with the big kitty cat.’

  She indicated the big wooden shield that had been made to her instructions. Almost two metres high, it was rectangular in shape and formed into a shallow curve. It was, in fact, identical to those being used by the Kikori and she planned to use it to protect herself from the Kyofu’s attack.

  Nimatsu sighed deeply. He admired this tall, courteous girl and he feared that she wouldn’t survive the coming night.

  ‘I still say, I don’t like this idea,’ he said, with a note of finality in his voice. He sensed he would not dissuade her. Alyss grinned at him, but there was little real humour in the grin.

  ‘I’m not mad about it either. But currently, it’s the only idea going round.’

  Somewhere close to hand, an owl hooted at regular intervals. When she had first heard the sound, Alyss’s hair had stood on end. Now she had become accustomed to it and it had become part of the overall tableau of the night, along with the occasional rustle of small, nocturnal animals moving under the trees and the soft breath of the wind through the branches.

  She stood with her back to the largest tree she could find, the heavy shield planted in front of her, her arm through the support strap, ready to lift it into position. Only her head showed above the rim of the shield. In a scabbard on her right hip, she wore Evanlyn’s saxe knife. The shorter weapon would be more useful and easier to wield than her long sabre – assuming everything went to plan. Her two javelins were rammed point down into the ground beside her. She doubted they’d be any use, but she’d brought them anyway. Her head, face and right arm were wound with tough leather for protection against the Terror’s claws. By now she was convinced that it was some form of giant predatory cat. She had heard tales of tigers and their almost supernatural ability to take prey silently and unobserved. She couldn’t imagine a bulky, clumsy animal like a bear doing that.

  She leaned back against the tree. Her legs were aching. She’d been standing here for several hours and the unrelenting cold was creeping up her legs, stiffening the muscles. She longed to sit down for a few minutes but knew that would place her at a disadvantage if the monster appeared. Standing, she could move instantly, bringing the shield up to face an attack from the front or either side. The tree protected her rear.

  She moved her legs, trying to get the blood flowing, easing her weight from one to the other. The momentary ease only made the discomfort worse when she placed her weight on the tired muscles once more. She wondered what time it was. The narrow moon had long departed and the shadows under the trees were deep and inky black. She looked up to the platform they’d built in the tree opposite her position. She could just make it out, and see the dark bulk of Evanlyn’s form as she kept watch. At least Evanlyn could sit down, she thought. And that was…

  Something was wrong.

  She sensed it. Something in the forest had changed. Her heart pounded as she tried to pinpoint the difference. Then, she had it.

  The owl hadn’t hooted. Without realising it, she had been counting in her mind after each hoot. The owl had been making its mournful sound regularly, after she had counted between one hundred and fifty and one hundred and sixty. Yet her automatic, almost subconscious
count had just passed one hundred and seventy-three.

  There was something here. Something close by. Above the rim of the shield, her eyes darted from one side to another, searching the shadows, trying desperately to gain her first sight of the predator, striving to discover where the attack would come from.

  ‘Alyss! Left! Left!’

  Evanlyn’s warning cry shrilled through the forest and Alyss swung to her left, lifting the shield as she saw a vague blur of movement coming at her.

  Something huge slammed against the shield and sent her flying several metres. She gripped the handles desperately to retain her hold on the shield, her only hope of safety. She crashed onto her back on the ground, skidding in the powdery snow, the breath driven from her body in one explosive grunt. Then something huge and heavy and incredibly strong was on top of her, with only the curved wooden shield between them as she cowered under it, drawing herself up to protect her head and body and feet, clinging desperately to the handles as the monster tried to tear it away to get at its prey. Now she could hear the blood-chilling snarl of the Kyofu as it tore at the wood with its claws, and bit at the top rim of the shield with its massive teeth.

  As huge cats do, it had drawn up its hind legs to disembowel its prey with one savage downstroke. But the raking claws met not flesh but hard wood, reinforced with iron. They splintered the first and gouged deep grooves in the second.

  The beast snarled in frustration and fury as long splinters of hardwood stabbed into the pads of its paws. Somewhere beneath this unyielding surface, it knew, was warm flesh and blood, and it redoubled its efforts to get to it.

  Evanlyn saw the sudden blur of movement from the edge of the clearing as the Kyofu launched its attack. She just had time to shout her warning before the monster slammed into the shield, sending Alyss flying. So far, Alyss’s plan was working. She’d managed to keep the big shield interposed between the predator and herself. Now it was Evanlyn’s turn. She kicked the coiled rope over the side of the platform, slid down a few metres, then dropped the remaining distance to the forest floor.

  Her sling was already in her hand and as she regained her feet, she was feeding one of the heavy, egg-shaped lead shot into the central pouch. She wanted maximum velocity, so she spun the sling twice, then released, whipping the brutal projectile across the clearing at the predator.

  The scene seemed to unfold slowly in her vision. She could see now that the Kyofu was a huge cat – much larger than the sand lions Selethen had pointed out to her when they were travelling through Arrida. This was immense, and its coat was white, marked with blurred dark grey stripes.

  A snow tiger, she thought. Then her shot hit the animal with a sickening crack, taking it on the left shoulder, smashing and splintering the bone beneath the fur. She moved automatically, reloading the pouch, whirling the sling, releasing again.

  Smash! The second shot slammed into the creature’s ribs, fracturing them. The tiger howled in agony and fury and swung its head to see where its attacker lay.

  Beneath the shield, Alyss heard the violent, thudding impacts as the two shot hit the beast in quick succession. At the first, she felt a lessening of the pressure on her right side, as the creature’s left foreleg was smashed at the shoulder, leaving it limp and useless. Then she heard another cracking thud and the Kyofu was no longer intent on tearing the shield loose. As it raised its head to search out Evanlyn, the weight on Alyss was suddenly lessened and she could move her right arm. She released her right-hand grip on the shield and, with the strength of desperation, clawed the saxe from its scabbard.

  Evanlyn placed her third shot carefully, sending it crashing into the animal’s rear left hip. Again, bone crunched and the tiger’s left rear leg suddenly went limp, so that its intended leap towards the figure it could now see beneath a tree across the clearing came to nothing. It flopped awkwardly, without thrust on one side.

  The agony in its rear leg flared and, mad with pain, it snapped at the injury with its massive fangs.

  As it twisted to do this, Evanlyn’s fourth lead shot hit its head with shocking force.

  And at the same instant, Alyss reached round the edge of the shield and drove the razor-sharp saxe deep into the creature’s underbelly, cutting upwards to create a wound almost half a metre long.

  The monster roared, a shrill note of baffled terror overriding the heart-chilling savagery of its normal challenge. Crippled, gutted and dying, it collapsed sideways on the snow, now running red with its blood.

  Desperately scrabbling with her feet, Alyss forced her way backwards from under the shield, sliding on her back to escape the reach of the horrible creature. Evanlyn ran to her, grabbed her arm and dragged her clear, bringing her to her feet. The two girls clung to each other. Then the Kyofu gave one last shuddering screech and lay still.

  ‘It’s dead,’ Evanlyn said numbly.

  Alyss said nothing. Overcome by shock at her ordeal, reacting to the terror of those minutes crouched under the shield, she felt her stomach heave and was violently sick.

  When daylight came, they dragged the monster’s dead body back to Nimatsu’s castle, hitched behind a pair of horses borrowed from the Hasanu village.

  It was, as Evanlyn had guessed when she first saw it, a snow tiger. But it was an immense one, measuring nearly five metres from nose to tail. As the small cavalcade made its way through the main street of the village, the Hasanu came out in awe to watch them pass. There were cries of amazement as they saw the size of the dead cat, its white and grey striped body smeared with blood and dirt. The signs left by Evanlyn’s shot were also clearly visible – the left foreleg was smashed and twisted at an oblique angle. The shattered lower jaw was nearly separated from the creature’s skull, held in place only by a network of sinew, and the jaw and neck were covered in dried, frozen blood.

  Most remarkable was the half-metre-long gash in the beast’s belly, with the fur around it saturated in blood as well.

  The beast’s head bumped over the uneven ground as the two horses drew it slowly through the village. The eyes were half closed, glazed over. But even in death, the animal still earned its title – Kyofu. The Terror.

  The word flew from mouth to mouth as the Hasanu gaped at the beast that had terrorised the countryside. Then they looked from its enormous corpse to the two girls who had conquered it. Both were drawn and pale, battling shock and the after-effects of fear as much as weariness. Seen beside the limp body, they looked tiny, almost insignificant. Alyss’s jacket and breeches were torn and stained from the rough ground she had fallen onto. She had discarded the protective leather from her face and arms. The shield was slung over the left-hand horse’s yoke and daylight revealed the extent of the battering it had taken from the Kyofu’s claws and teeth. The top edge was splintered and split and there were massive gouges in the curved wood that formed the major part of the shield. The iron reinforcing strips showed bright scars where the creature’s massive claws had scored deep into the metal.

  As the two slender figures, dwarfed by the Kyofu and by the massively built Hasanu people themselves, progressed down the main street of the village, the villagers began to bow, the bending bodies and lowered heads moving in succession, resembling wheat yielding before a sudden breeze that sweeps across a field.

  ‘Should we wave or something?’ Evanlyn said out of the corner of her mouth. Trained as she was in protocol, this was a situation that her tutors had never envisaged.

  ‘You can. I’m too tired,’ Alyss responded. She looked up to the end of the central street of the village, which ran uphill towards the castle. The tall figure of Lord Nimatsu stood waiting for them. As they came closer, he stooped into the lowest possible bow before them.

  Alyss and Evanlyn exchanged a glance, then made vague hand gestures and stiff little bobs of the head in response.

  ‘Ariss-san, Ev-an-in-san,’ the nobleman said as he straightened once more, ‘you have done my people a great service.’

  Evanlyn nodded, looked around and ges
tured at the huge body on the ground.

  ‘Lord Nimatsu, here is your Kyofu. Dead.’

  ‘I can see. I can see,’ Nimatsu replied softly. He stepped forward to examine the Kyofu more closely, taking in the terrible injuries that these two slightly built foreigners had inflicted on it.

  ‘You are unharmed?’ he asked.

  Alyss shrugged. ‘I’m sore and battered, and my backside has bruises all over it.’

  Evanlyn gave a tired grin. ‘And I’ve had the bejabbers scared out of me. But apart from that, we’re fine. You should see the other fellow.’ She paused, then added in mock surprise, ‘Oh…you can.’

  ‘It’s a snow tiger,’ Nimatsu said softly. He went down on one knee beside the limp body, reaching out to touch the white fur. ‘I’ve never seen one so big. I thought they had been driven out of these parts years ago.’

  ‘Well, this one decided to hang around,’ Alyss told him.

  Nimatsu looked up from the dead tiger and met the eyes of the two gaijin girls. In his life, he had seen many brave deeds in battle. Never before had he seen courage to equal that shown by these two. He turned to the gathered Hasanu, now watching silently.

  ‘Hasanu people!’ he said, raising his voice so that it carried down the street, where hundreds of faces were upturned to watch. ‘The Kyofu is dead!’

  It was as if they had been awaiting official confirmation of the fact. There was a giant, wordless roar of triumph from the assembled villagers. Alyss and Evanlyn stood awkwardly, not sure how to respond to the moment. Truth be told, they were both eager to escape from public view and recover from the terrifying night they had spent.

 

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