The emperor of nihon ja, p.37
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       The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, p.37

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

  And they had taken their toll of the Kikori. Knowing what to expect, the Senshi hadn’t attacked blindly as they had done before. They were more disciplined in their approach and knew when to withdraw.

  Now, by mutual consent, the two forces backed off and faced each other, each assessing the damage they had done, the losses they had suffered. Halt looked up as Will approached. He saw that his former apprentice’s quiver was half empty. Obviously, Will had accounted for some of Arisaka’s men as well.

  ‘How’s it looking?’ Halt said.

  The younger Ranger shook his head. ‘It’s not great. We’ve lost over twenty men. And there’s another ten wounded.’

  Halt whistled slowly. That was a third of the men who had been engaged in the two leading gojus. ‘Can we stand another attack?’

  Will thought about the question before he answered.

  ‘I’d say so. Arisaka lost nearly two hundred men in that attack. We’ve got two gojus intact and ready to fight. They’re fresh troops. I’ll push them forward to replace the Hawks and the Bears.

  ‘In addition, we’ve got Mikeru’s dartmen. They did a great job. Plus we’ve got fifty Senshi ourselves.

  ‘I think we can handle whatever Arisaka throws at us – so long as those reinforcements don’t turn up.’

  The moment he said the words, he regretted them. The superstitious thought occurred to him that by mentioning the possibility, he might make it a reality. Then he shrugged the thought aside. Things didn’t work that way, he told himself.

  Across the field, from Arisaka’s army, he heard a sudden burst of cheering. He looked up.

  ‘What have they got to cheer about?’ he asked.

  Halt pointed grimly to a file of men, just visible in the south-west corner of the plain.

  ‘It’s Yamada,’ he said. ‘He’s arrived.’

  Stony faced, Will watched the new arrivals approaching from the south-west. They marched in a large, irregular gaggle and the weak midmorning sun glinted off their weapons and armour. At least three hundred of them, he thought.

  Halt’s voice snapped him out of his grim reverie. ‘You’d better get moving if you’re going to reorganise your troops,’ he said. ‘Or do you plan to surrender?’

  Will shook himself angrily and ran down from the slightly elevated spot where Halt and Shigeru stood. He sent a detail to recover as many of the javelins as possible, and ordered the Wolves and Sharks forward into the front line, replacing the two badly depleted gojus who had borne the brunt of the fighting so far. Horace and Selethen would command the two new gojus in the front line. The three friends had a hurried consultation.

  ‘They won’t have any rams this time,’ Will said, ‘so I guess it’s business as usual. Use your javelins. Two volleys each, no need to save them for stabbing. And close with them as soon as you can. Our men did well when they got in close – and the Senshi don’t like it.’

  His two commanders nodded. Horace glanced to where Shigeru stood, in full ceremonial armour.

  ‘Any chance you can convince Shigeru to get away?’ he said, lowering his voice.

  Will shook his head. ‘Halt tried. He’ll stand by his men, win or lose.’

  ‘I always thought he would,’ Selethen said quietly. All of the foreigners had come to respect the strength of character and the quiet dignity of the Emperor.

  ‘In that case, we’ll just have to win,’ Horace said. But the very fact that he’d asked the question showed that he didn’t believe that was possible now. They all knew their best chance had been to smash Arisaka’s force before Yamada’s men arrived. That opportunity was gone.

  They could hear the irregular tramp of feet and rattle of equipment from Yamada’s force as it drew closer. In a few minutes, they’d be fighting for their lives again.

  ‘All right,’ said Will, ‘I guess this is it. Time we –’

  ‘Chocho! Chocho-san!’

  The clear young voice carried to them and they all turned to see Mikeru running towards them. The tube of darts slung across his back slapped up and down as he ran, setting up a rattling counterpoint to the thud of his feet.

  ‘What is this chocho business?’ Will muttered to himself. But his friends overheard the comment.

  ‘It’s a term of great respect,’ they chorused, and he glared at them.

  ‘Oh, shut up,’ he said. But now Mikeru had drawn up with them. He leaned forward, regaining his breath, heaving in deep lungfuls of air, his hands on his thighs.

  ‘Mikeru, we’re going to need you back with your men,’ Will began. The small but potent force of dartmen was stationed on the far side of the line. But Mikeru was shaking his head as he gathered enough breath to speak.

  ‘Chocho,’ he managed to gasp, ‘there are men coming. Soldiers!’

  ‘We know,’ Horace said, jerking a thumb at the approaching Senshi. ‘Be a bit hard to miss them.’

  But Mikeru waved his hands in a negative gesture. ‘Not there!’ he said. ‘There!’ And he pointed to the east.

  Three sets of eyes snapped around to follow his pointing finger. To the east of their position, past the end of the left flank and the low cliff, lay another ridge line, two kilometres away. Emerging from behind it, and onto the plain, was a huge body of troops. As the three friends watched, the column kept streaming out from behind the ridge, dust clouds rising to mark their movement.

  ‘It’s the girls,’ Horace said quietly. ‘They made it. And they brought the Hasanu with them.’

  ‘There must be thousands of them,’ Selethen said, as the column continued to emerge into sight. And now they could hear the faint sound of a distant chant. Will realised they could hear it because the cheering from Arisaka’s army had died away as all eyes turned to the east.

  ‘Kotei! Kotei! Kotei!’

  ‘What are they saying?’ he asked Mikeru.

  The young fighter grinned at him. ‘They are saying “Emperor! Emperor! Emperor!”’ he told them.

  Will let go a huge sigh of relief. He glanced round to where Halt stood and saw his old teacher, his cowl pulled back and his head bared, nod quietly to him.

  The Hasanu had deployed fully onto the plain and they began to advance towards Arisaka’s Senshi. The chant grew louder and louder as they approached and Arisaka’s men turned uncertainly to face the oncoming horde. Even with Yamada’s men, they were outnumbered at least three to one and they watched apprehensively as they began to make out details of the Hasanu. Huge figures, over two metres in height, covered in what appeared to be long reddish hair and brandishing spiked clubs, pikes and heavy spears. Unconsciously, the Senshi grouped closer together as they faced this terrifying new threat.

  And as they did so, they seemed to forget that behind them were the deadly fangs of the Wolves and the Sharks. Will glanced at the two goju, in perfect, disciplined formation. He realised that this was the ideal opportunity to smash Arisaka’s army. His small but highly trained force would be the hammer. The huge Hasanu army would be the anvil upon which they broke Arisaka once and for all.

  ‘Mikeru,’ he said, ‘get your men to advance as far as the hedgehogs. Hit the Senshi from the flank. Let ’em have all your darts, then run for it.’

  The young man nodded and sprinted away. Will turned to Horace and Selethen.

  ‘Advance all four goju and hit them in the rear,’ he said.

  The two commanders nodded and ran to their positions. Orders rang out. There was the familiar crashing sound of the massive shields being raised into position, then the Wolves and Sharks stepped out in perfect unison, the depleted gojus of Bears and Hawks formed up behind them.

  Some of Arisaka’s men sensed their approach and turned to face them. The rebel army were trapped. The wings of the massive Hasanu line would encircle them within the next few minutes. And the grim-faced Kikori fighting machine was in their rear. But the Senshi were warriors, and trained in a hard school. They might have no chance, but they would sell their lives dearly. Those at the rear turned to face the steadily adva
ncing Kikori gojus. Forty metres out, Horace called for the Kikori to halt, then for the rear ranks to open out, their javelins poised.

  ‘Stop!’

  The voice, deep and resonant, rang out over the battlefield.

  Will spun round, and saw Shigeru, with Halt beside him, striding towards the Kikori line. After a moment’s hesitation, the young Ranger moved to join them. Shigeru was holding a green branch above his head, the Nihon-Jan equivalent of a flag of truce. A hush had fallen over the battlefield as thousands of warriors waited to see what was about to transpire. The green branch was an inviolable symbol and must be respected.

  Halt, Will and Shigeru strode across the plain, until they stood between the Kikori gojus and the Senshi line. Shigeru stopped, still holding the green branch high above his head.

  From the Hasanu force, they saw another group of figures, also bearing a green branch, detach from the main group and begin to move to join them. Will’s heart surged with relief as he recognised Alyss, with Evanlyn beside her, trying to match the taller girl’s long strides and still retain her dignity. They were walking a pace or two behind a tall, aristocratic-looking Nihon-Jan in warrior’s armour. As they drew closer, Will met Alyss’s eyes and they smiled at each other.

  ‘Lord Nimatsu,’ Shigeru said, ‘it’s good to see you.’

  The tall Nihon-Jan bowed deeply. ‘I am at your service, your excellency, as are my people. Give the order.’

  Shigeru said nothing for the moment. He turned to the rebel forces, now barely fifty metres away from him.

  ‘Arisaka!’ he called. ‘We have to talk.’

  For a moment, nothing happened. Then a movement rippled through the rebel ranks and the Senshi warriors parted as a group of three men moved through them – Arisaka, his face hidden by the almost demonic-looking red lacquered helmet, and two others. They stopped. On Arisaka’s right was one of his lieutenants, a stocky Senshi nobleman, bearing a huge recurve bow. On the left was an older nobleman, also in armour.

  Shigeru bowed to this last person. ‘Lord Yamada, do you recognise me?’

  The older man peered at the figure before him. He wasn’t sure. His eyes weren’t as good as they used to be and the person was some distance away. But he definitely looked like the Emperor.

  ‘I was told an impostor had taken the Emperor’s place,’ he said, his voice uncertain.

  Suddenly, the bowman on Arisaka’s right moved, drawing back an arrow he had already fitted to the string.

  ‘Death to the impostor!’ he screamed as he shot. Shigeru stood, unflinching, as the arrow pierced his left upper arm, below the protective armour. Blood began to stream down over his white linen sleeve.

  A roar of protest rose around the battleground, from friend and foe alike. The green branch of truce was sacrosanct. To breach it was an abomination in the eyes of the Nihon-Jan. But before anyone else could move, or the bowman could prepare another shot, Will whipped an arrow from his quiver, nocked, drew, sighted and released in one movement.

  His arrow punched through the nobleman’s armour like a hot knife through butter. The man staggered under the impact, his recurve bow falling from dead hands, then he crumpled to the ground.

  The crowd grew suddenly silent, stunned by Will’s lightning reply to the treacherous attack. Voices started to murmur again, uncertainly at first. But again, Shigeru stilled the crowd. Quickly, he took a scarf from around his neck and knotted it around the wound in his arm. Then he put his uninjured hand on Will’s bow and took it from the young Ranger. His voice rang out once more.

  ‘Enough! Enough bloodshed! Lord Arisaka, let’s end this now.’

  Arisaka’s sword hissed from its scabbard. Once more, a murmur of strong disapproval rippled across the plain, both from his own men and his enemies. To draw a weapon in the presence of the green branch was a gross breach of the Senshi code of behaviour. Even Arisaka’s troops could not condone such an action.

  ‘This will only end with your death, Shigeru!’ Arisaka screamed.

  Yamada turned to him, the anger and shame he felt all too obvious on his face.

  ‘Shigeru?’ he repeated. ‘Then you’ve known all along that this is no impostor? You lied to me and my men?’

  Arisaka, furious beyond reason, tore the helmet and face piece from his head and hurled them to the ground in rage.

  ‘He’s weak, Yamada! Weak and dangerous! He will destroy everything that we hold sacred!’ He glared now at Shigeru, his face flushed, his eyes blazing with hate. ‘You want to destroy the Senshi class and everything it stands for! I will not allow you! I will stop you!’

  ‘Arisaka.’ Shigeru’s deep voice was calm and reasonable by contrast. ‘I will not destroy the Senshi. I am a Senshi. But for too long, the other people of Nihon-Ja have been repressed and downtrodden. I want to rule for all people. Like the Kikori here, and the Hasanu. The ordinary people have the right to have a say in our country. Tell your men to lay down their weapons now and let’s live in peace. Let’s live together in peace.’

  ‘No!’ Arisaka’s voice was a shriek. ‘My men will fight you. We will die if necessary! You may defeat us, but this will not be a cheap victory. Thousands will die here today!’

  ‘That’s something I cannot allow,’ Shigeru said.

  Arisaka laughed, a shrill sound that showed how close he was to snapping.

  ‘And how will you stop it?’ he demanded.

  ‘I will stand down,’ Shigeru said simply.

  Arisaka recoiled in surprise, and exclamations of amazement went through the crowd.

  ‘I will abdicate if that is the only way to stop this madness. Appoint another Emperor,’ Shigeru continued. ‘Lord Yamada, and Lord Nimatsu, I look to you to ensure that a proper choice is made. But I will not stand and watch thousands of Nihon-Jan, my people, lose their lives to preserve my pride. I will stand down.’

  ‘You’re bluffing, Shigeru!’ Arisaka said. ‘You won’t give up the throne.’

  ‘I swear that I will, if that will prevent thousands dying here today.’ Shigeru let his gaze run round the faces of Arisaka’s men as they watched this clash of personalities. ‘I swear on my honour, before all of you here.’

  Silence greeted his words as those watching realised that he was in earnest. Then Yamada’s men began to mutter among themselves. They had come here under a false belief. They realised now that Arisaka had lied to their commander to make them break their oath to the rightful Emperor. If Arisaka ordered them to fight, their commander would refuse. And so would they. Now Arisaka could depend only on his own men.

  Matsuda Sato was a low-ranked officer in Arisaka’s army. He commanded a small group of twelve men and had led them in the service of his lord for seventeen years. In all that time, he had received scant recognition for his service or his loyalty. He had watched Arisaka brutalise his men, driving them mercilessly and punishing them severely if he believed they had failed him. Arisaka never rewarded good service, only punished that which he deemed to be bad. Sato, knowing no alternative, had always assumed this was the sign of a strong leader. Now he realised he was witnessing real strength – a man who would forsake the highest position in the land to save the lives of his subjects. This was leadership, Sato realised. This was a man to follow. Arisaka was exposed as a deceiver and an oathbreaker. Sato slid his katana, still in its scabbard, from inside his belt and dropped it to the ground in a sign of peace.

  ‘Shigeru!’ he shouted, raising his clenched fist above his head. The men around him looked at him in surprise. Then one of them copied his actions and joined him. Then another. Then two more. Then a dozen.

  ‘Shigeru!’

  The cry began to spread throughout Arisaka’s men. The rattle of swords hitting the ground became continuous, like some monster hailstorm, and the voices swelled, another dozen, then fifty, then a hundred, then more.

  ‘Shigeru! Shigeru! Shigeru!’

  Then the Kikori joined in, letting their shields and javelins fall to the ground and adding their voices to
the swelling roar of acclamation. And finally, the deep-throated Hasanu as well, till the mountains around them rang with the name.

  ‘Shigeru! Shigeru! Shigeru!’

  Wild-eyed, furious, goaded beyond reason, Arisaka swung his gaze around his followers. The chanting was now deafening and the sight of his own men cheering the Emperor was too much. His sword flashed and the man nearest him fell with a cry.

  Matsuda Sato, commander of twelve men, looked up at his former lord, puzzled and wondering why he was seeing him only through a red haze. He felt numb where Arisaka’s sword had opened the massive wound in his chest. Then the red changed slowly to black.

  A horrified silence spread over the plain as men realised what Arisaka had done. He stepped forward and turned to face his troops, hurling abuse at them as they instinctively stepped back, away from him.

  ‘You have betrayed me!’ he screamed. ‘You have shamed me! You defile my honour!’

  ‘You have no honour!’

  He spun round, the bloodstained katana still in his hand. The speaker, whose words had carried clearly to the men around him, was one of the foreigners. A young man, wearing a strange green and grey cloak. Arisaka’s eyes narrowed. This was the one who had shot so quickly in reply to his lieutenant’s arrow. But now the foreigner’s heavy longbow was in Shigeru’s hands and he was unarmed.

  ‘You are a traitor and a coward and a man without honour, Arisaka!’ the foreigner continued.

  Arisaka raised his katana, pointing it at the calm young face. ‘Who are you, gaijin? What do you know about honour?’

  ‘I’m called Chocho,’ Will said. ‘I’ve seen honour among these Kikori warriors, men I’ve trained to fight you. They are men who understand loyalty and trust. And I see it now in your own men, now that they recognise the true Emperor of Nihon-Ja. But I see no honour in you, Arisaka. I see a crawling, cowardly, lying traitor! I see a man with no honour at all!’

  ‘Chocho?’ Arisaka shouted, goaded beyond control. ‘Butterfly? Then die, Butterfly!’

 

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