The emperor of nihon ja, p.36
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.36

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

  Halt shrugged uncomfortably. ‘Not exactly. You’d be free to return once things were more settled here. You could even raise some of the southern clans against Arisaka.’

  ‘And the Kikori?’ Shigeru asked. ‘What would happen to them if I were to abandon them?’

  Halt made a dismissive gesture. ‘You’re using emotive terms here. You’re not abandoning them…’

  Shigeru snorted derisively. ‘I’m leaving them on the eve of a battle they’re fighting in my name,’ he said. ‘A battle that even you say is a risky one, with no guarantee of success. Wouldn’t that count as abandoning them?’

  ‘But they’d understand. They’re fighting for you.’ Halt had to keep trying, although he could see he would never convince the Emperor.

  ‘Which is all the more reason for me to stay,’ Shigeru told him. Then, after a pause, he continued, ‘Tell me, Halto-san, if I were to escape, would you and your friends come with me?’

  Halt hesitated. Then he replied, knowing that Shigeru deserved to hear the truth.

  ‘No, your excellency, we wouldn’t. We’ve trained these men to fight. It’s up to us to stay here and lead them when they do.’

  ‘Exactly. And I’ve asked these men to fight in my name. It’s up to me to believe in them when they do. So, like you, I have to stay and take my chances.’

  There was silence between them for some time. Then, with a barely perceptible lift of his shoulders, Halt capitulated.

  ‘Well, I suppose we’d just better make sure we win,’ he said.

  Shigeru smiled. ‘Which is precisely why I need to be here.’

  The four gojus slipped through the palisade gate two hours before dawn. With each group of fifty formed up in three files, they set out down the pass.

  Discipline was excellent, Halt noted approvingly. Aside from a few muted commands to march, there was no sound other than the jingling of their equipment and the rhythmic tramp of their boots on the rocky ground of the valley below Ran-Koshi. For the time being, at least, the walls of the valley should mask those sounds from the sentries at Arisaka’s camp.

  When they reached the mouth of the valley, the leading goju – the Bears – wheeled left in response to a hand signal from their leader and doubled round the bluff to their appointed position on the flat plain. The Bears, formed now into two ranks, would cover the left of the Emperor’s battle line, with the obstructions assembled by Jito’s workers protecting their left flank. Selethen’s Hawks came behind them, taking position on the right.

  The final two gojus – the Sharks and the Wolves – took position behind the others, in a slightly staggered formation that covered the gap between the two leading gojus.

  Moka, with fifty of Shigeru’s Senshi warriors, formed a mobile reserve behind the gojus, ready to react to any breach.

  The battle line formed with a minimum of noise and confusion. Each man knew exactly where he was supposed to be and went to his place without hesitation. They were all in place before the first grey fingers of light started to streak the sky in the east. Will, Horace and Selethen moved among the Kikori, telling them quietly to rest and relax, saving their strength for the coming battle. The men sat in their ranks, laying their heavy shields aside. Some of the women, organised by Jito, moved among them with water, pickled rice and smoked fish.

  Other members of Jito’s work party were putting the finishing touches to the hedgehogs. Horace strolled over to inspect the devices at closer quarters. You had to hand it to Halt for ingenuity, he thought. First the false wall at the palisade during the first attack, now these.

  Each hedgehog was constructed of six sharpened poles, two metres in length. The poles passed through a central rope yoke, with six closely spaced loops to hold them in place. The sharpened poles were thus formed into a shape that resembled three large X’s bound together. They were light and easy to assemble. But once in place, they were difficult to push aside, as the wide-spread feet tended to dig into the ground. In addition, each set of four was linked together by stout poles and chains, making them even more difficult to displace. As a final touch, the array of hedgehogs was draped with rope, looped around the arms and trailing loosely between the individual units. The ropes were festooned with sharp iron hooks, Horace knew. They were small, so not easily seen. But they would snag an attacker’s clothes or equipment and slow him down while he struggled to free himself.

  Beyond the lines of hedgehogs was the drop-off – a small cliff some four metres high, which put an extra barrier in the path of a flanking force from the left.

  He heard a slight noise behind him and turned to see that Will had joined him, inspecting the defences.

  ‘All in all, not a bad job,’ Horace said.

  ‘I wouldn’t care to be one of Arisaka’s men tangled up in those hedgehogs,’ Will said. ‘Have you seen Mikeru and his dartmen practising?’

  ‘I have. They’re frighteningly good, aren’t they? Another one of Halt’s better ideas.’

  Will was about to reply when they both heard the sound of distant shouts of alarm, followed by a strident bugle call ringing over the plain. They both looked in the direction of Arisaka’s sprawling camp.

  ‘Sounds as if someone’s seen us,’ Will said. He gripped Horace’s hand. ‘Good luck, Horace. Take care.’

  ‘Good luck, Will. See you when we’ve sent Arisaka running.’

  ‘He won’t run,’ Will answered. ‘But if we can settle with him before Yamada’s army turns up, we’re in with a good chance.’

  ‘And if we can’t?’ Horace said.

  Will met his gaze in silence for a few seconds. ‘I don’t want to think about that,’ he said eventually.

  Horace nodded and unconsciously loosened his sword in its scabbard. ‘I wonder where the girls are?’

  Will’s expression, already grim, grew a little more so.

  ‘I’m guessing they didn’t make it. If they’d managed to convince Nimatsu and his people to help us, they should have been here a week ago. I’m afraid we’re on our own.’

  Arisaka’s army assembled in their usual loose formation – a large curved front, three or four men deep. They moved steadily across the plain towards the silent, waiting ranks of the four gojus. Unlike the Kikori, they didn’t march in step, but simply moved in a loose gaggle. The Senshi preferred to fight as individuals and they moved the same way.

  There was one change to their normal deployment. Arisaka had been told of the dangers of the Kikori shield wall and he knew he had to break that rigid formation. Will had surmised that he might use something similar to the Macedon Phalanx – a wedge formation armed with long, heavy lances, designed to smash through an enemy’s line. His guess was a little off target. Arisaka knew nothing about the Phalanx.

  But he knew about battering rams.

  At intervals along the line were five young tree trunks, trimmed and sharpened, and borne by six warriors each, the men holding onto rope handles spaced along the logs’ six-metre lengths. The sharpened logs, swung underhand at waist height by the long rope handles, would act as battering rams and smash great gaps in the enemy’s defences before the Kikori could come to grips with their attackers. No shield bearer could withstand such a shattering impact. And once the integrity of the shield wall was breached, the Kikori lost their greatest advantage – their ability to fight as a team, with each man supporting and protecting his neighbour.

  ‘So that’s what he’s got in mind,’ Horace muttered to himself. He watched as the Senshi line advanced, overlapping the Kikori line at either end. As the space available closed down, those outer wings would have to fold back in behind Arisaka’s front ranks. They’d be poised three and four deep behind the rams.

  Will was running across the rear of the two leading gojus, shouting to attract Horace’s attention.

  ‘Doorway! Doorway!’ he called and Horace waved in acknowledgement. They’d practised to defend against a wedge of heavy lances. The rams were essentially the same thing, and they had a tactic they could use
against them. Will continued to run to pass on the same message to Selethen.

  Horace hurried to join his goju. He moved quickly behind the second rank, calling to his men.

  ‘Use the doorway tactic when they get close!’ he called and he saw section leaders in the front rank turn briefly and indicate that they understood.

  The advancing Senshi were fifty metres away now, almost within effective javelin range.

  ‘Second rank, open order!’ Horace yelled and the rear rank responded as one man, stepping back three paces to give themselves throwing room.

  ‘Javelins ready!’

  Twenty-five arms went back, the javelins angled upwards.

  ‘Aim for the rams!’ Horace ordered. He watched the approaching army, judged they were in range. ‘Throw!’

  The javelins hissed away on their arcing flight. Several seconds later, he saw sections of the Senshi line collapse in confusion as the heavy missiles struck home. One of the battering rams crashed to the ground as half its bearers were hit and the others were forced to release their grip on the rope handles. The heavy rolling log caused more confusion among the attacking Senshi. But they reformed and came on. There were still two of the battering rams aimed at the Bear Goju.

  The nearest ram broke from the Senshi front line as its bearers went from a steady tramp to a run. They lunged forward at the Kikori shield wall, their sudden increase in speed catching Horace by surprise. The heavy, sharpened log swung forward on its rope handles, bludgeoning into the front rank. Three of the Kikori went down and the men on the ram moved quickly to consolidate their position. The second rank had closed up again after throwing their javelins. Now they used their reserve weapons to stab over the heads of the front rank, at the ram and its bearers. The ram swung back, then forward to smash into the shields again. More Kikori went down and the waiting Senshi screamed in triumph as they saw the previously impregnable wall disintegrating. The ram went back again.

  ‘Doorway! Doorway!’ Horace yelled, his throat dry and his voice breaking.

  This time, as the heavy log swung forward, the Kikori facing it stepped back and to the side, opening a gap in front of it. Without any resistance, the battering ram whipped forward through thin air, throwing the men wielding it off balance. The second line of men opened as well and some of the Kikori grabbed the ram and dragged it through their ranks. As the men on the rope handles staggered through the gap left for them, the deadly stabbing blades of the Kikori went to work. The surviving ram wielders found themselves in the clear behind the second rank, bewildered and isolated. As they realised their predicament, ten men from the front rank of the Shark Goju moved forward and quickly surrounded them. Within a few seconds, Arisaka’s men lay still. But, in the more open style of fighting, they had taken a toll. Five Kikori lay dead beside them.

  With a shout of rage, the Senshi line surged forward. But the doorway closed as quickly as it had opened and they found themselves facing that formidable line of shields. They cut and slashed ineffectually, denied the space they needed to wield their swords to best effect. The short swords of the Kikori flickered in and out between the shields, wounding, maiming, killing.

  The Senshi backed away, moving out of range of the shorter weapons. Now some of them began a more careful attack, lunging at the small gaps between the shields with their longer katana. This time, however, forewarned of the Kikori tactic of jamming shields together, they withdrew their blades almost immediately. It was an effective technique. More Kikori fell, their places taken by men from the second rank.

  Horace glanced down the line to see what had happened with the second ram. The men wielding it, having seen what happened to their companions, were more circumspect in their attack. They swung the ram in short, savage jabs at the wall. Shields split, men went down. Then the men on the ram drew their unwieldy weapon back and hurled it into the Kikori front line, immediately drawing swords and following it through the gap they had breached.

  For a few minutes, they had the situation they wanted – a disjointed Kikori line, which gave them room to use their long swords. They took a dreadful toll on the defenders. Then the second rank joined in, using their javelins to stab at long range, moving forward as a unit to fill the gaps in the front rank. Horace came charging down the line from his vantage point, his sword swinging and thrusting into the Senshi, his shield deflecting their katana. His speed, and the power of his sword strokes, took Arisaka’s men by surprise and they began to fall back before his one-man assault. Seeing this, Horace bellowed to his Kikori.

  ‘Advance! Advance! Issho-ni! Issho-ni!’

  The Bear Goju, discipline and formation restored, began to tramp steadily forward, crowding the enemy, buffeting them, shoving and stabbing. But even in retreat, the Senshi’s katana were taking a toll of the advancing goju’s ranks.

  On the right flank, Selethen’s Hawks were faring a little better. There had been two rams aimed at Selethen’s formation and they were some metres behind the rams attacking Horace’s section of the line. Selethen was able to order the doorway tactic when the first ram came forward. The Kikori peeled aside, letting the ram blunder through, while Selethen’s men stabbed at them with javelins and short swords. Then the line closed again to face the following Senshi.

  The second ram never made it to the Hawks’ front line. Four of its six bearers were struck down by a salvo of black-shafted arrows. Halt, standing with Shigeru on a raised vantage point thirty metres to the rear, nodded in satisfaction as he saw the result of his shooting. The remaining two bearers, unable to control the heavy log by themselves, allowed it to fall to the ground. It bounced and rolled, knocking over four of the Senshi who were planning to follow it into the enemy’s ranks.

  Seizing on their confusion, Selethen echoed Horace’s order.

  ‘Forward! Issho-ni!’

  The Kikori, their fighting blood roused, took up the chant as they moved forward like a tide.

  ‘Issho-ni! Issho-ni!’

  They slammed into the Senshi and the slaughter began. But, like the Senshi facing Horace’s men, these warriors knew better than to allow the Kikori to get too close. They gave ground, all the while stabbing into the gaps and over the tops of the shields. Men died on both sides, although the close quarter fighting suited the Kikori better. Selethen, like Horace, patrolled the line, dashing in where necessary to lend support with his flashing curved blade, using his small hand shield to deflect the thrusts and cuts of the katana.

  He glanced across at Horace’s goju and saw that his men were moving ahead of Horace’s, opening a dangerous gap. Instantly, he shouted an order.

  ‘Hawks! Halt! Withdraw! Withdraw ten paces!’

  Moving as one, the Hawk front line disengaged from the Senshi and moved backwards. As they had trained to do, the second rank seized the shoulders of men in the front rank. They turned to face the direction of the withdrawal, guiding the steps of the front rank so their comrades never had to turn away from the enemy. The goju simply moved backwards, formation still intact, any gaps in the shield wall closed by men from the second rank.

  Selethen gauged the distance to the Senshi force and glanced back to the Shark Goju behind his men. He signalled their commander and the man turned and bellowed a series of orders.

  Arisaka’s men, their view obscured by the enemy directly in front of them, had no warning of the shower of javelins from the Shark Goju as they hurtled down over the heads of the Hawks. Senshi went down all along the line as the heavy weapons struck home. Selethen, seeing that the rams were all out of action, signalled for another volley and watched as great gaps were punched in the Senshi line.

  A Senshi commander screamed an order and his men, never knowing when a third volley might arrive, turned and ran clear of the killing ground.

  Horace now saw that his men were advancing too far ahead of the Hawk formation. He too called a halt and the two front lines faced each other. The Senshi weren’t about to try another frontal assault that would take them within range o
f those stabbing swords. But now a group of fifty Senshi warriors detached from the main force and began to try to work their way through the wooden obstructions they could see on the enemy’s left flank. They shoved and cut their way through the star-shaped hedgehogs, gradually forcing a path through them. Then several of them were pulled up short by the hooks in the tangle of light rope that covered the ground at knee height.

  None of them paid any attention to the horn blast that came from the raised ground where Halt stood watching. And very few of them saw the lightly armed group of young men rise from the cover of the rocks on their right.

  Mikeru looked to the distant figure in the grey and green cloak. He saw Halt raise his hand slowly, twice, then point to the rear. The young Kikori nodded, understanding, and issued his orders to his thirty dartmen.

  ‘Two darts,’ he said. ‘Then retreat.’ Each man carried eight darts in a leather tube on his back. Halt was obviously aiming to conserve their weapons as far as possible.

  ‘Ready!’ Mikeru called. He looked down the line of throwers, saw they were all prepared, and called the executive order.

  ‘Throw!’

  The iron-tipped darts, whipped on their way by the taut throwing cords, made a distinctive whistling sound as they flew. Some of the men struggling among the hedgehogs heard it and looked up, curious to know what it was. Then the thirty darts smashed into them and there were screams and cries as they fell, their armour ruptured by the iron tips. Before they could recover, another flight of darts savaged them.

  Fifteen of their number were left hanging awkwardly, draped over the hedgehogs. Eleven of the survivors made it through the tangle of obstructions and found themselves facing Moka’s fifty warriors, who were eager to strike a blow for their Emperor. There was a brief, uneven battle. None of the attackers survived. Seeing the result, the remainder of the flanking force withdrew.

  Across the field, the same thing was happening. Arisaka’s men, thwarted in their attempt to force a way through the shield wall, were drawing back to take stock of the situation. They left a lot of their comrades on the field of battle but they were by no means beaten.

 

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