20-5 Yuushou concluded that the only way to get rid of those bothersome catapults was to have the air cavalry destroy them one by one.
As he observed the progress of the battle, a commotion erupted in the camp behind him. Ukou pushed his way through a crowd of befuddled soldiers and strode toward him. With a glance at his disheveled state, Yuushou returned his attention to Anpuku.
Ukou came within speaking distance. The next words out of his mouth hit Yuushou like a bucket of ice water.
“I ran into Gyousou.”
Yuushou spun around. “What did you say?”
“It was Gyousou. In the flesh. No mistake about it. It looks like somebody already rescued him.”
“You met Gyousou?” Yuushou didn’t bother trying to quash the surge of excitement in his voice.
Ukou nodded. “West of Anpuku. I was circling around their flanks when we crossed paths.”
“Circling around their flanks?”
Yuushou hadn’t issued any such orders. Nobody in this conflict was attempting to outflank anybody. He couldn’t take anything Ukou told him at face value.
“Were you by yourself?”
“I was leading my Red Armor platoon. I don’t know what happened to the rest. But shouldn’t we be going after him? At this rate, he’s gonna get away.”
“Was he by himself?”
“He had a bunch of guys with him. At least twenty. They weren’t soldiers. Probably mostly land gang members.”
Yuushou looked at Ukou. “To the land gangs, Gyousou is the enemy. Do you really think they’d team up now?”
“I’m telling you, it was him!”
“Did he tell you his name?”
“We weren’t exchanging introductions! One look was all I needed. Not a doubt in my mind.”
Unusual for him, Ukou was fit to be tied. Whatever happened out there had thrown him off his usual game. He must have come face to face with something he never expected to encounter.
Yuushou turned to his retainers. “Muster a platoon. Ukou will show you where to go.”
“A single platoon won’t be enough. Three at the very least.”
“Two, then. Move out!” In the off chance that Ukou was telling the truth, he added, “Don’t kill anybody and don’t get yourselves killed. If you run across anybody suspicious, capture them. Unharmed.”
The platoons returned not long after they departed. Shishin, the platoon leader, reported to Yuushou, his face contorted with naked fury.
“They got away, eh?”
“They headed west and we gave chase. They had wounded with them so they weren’t making rapid progress. Their numbers grew as they retreated, further slowing them down. The big problem was troop morale.”
Shishin nodded. He balled his fists so hard his arms trembled from the tension. “The soldiers had no interest in moving forward. The Red Armor circled around to the west of Anpuku at their own discretion, slaughtering any land gangs they encountered, along with women and children.”
At that point, as if unable to keep the anger and disgust dammed up inside him, he unleashed a stream of profanities.
“Beg your pardon, sir. The land gangs in the vicinity caught wind of a military unit crossing the river and warned members of the outlying hamlets to go into hiding. Ukou forded the river and attacked two of them. They killed the land gangs hiding there. Seven dead in the first hamlet. Probably the only people there. Three dead in the next. Assuming their populations were similar, the rest must have taken shelter further west. However—“
Shishin faltered, his face flushed with anger. He paused to get a handle on his emotion.
“Between those two hamlets was an abandoned village. Several woman and children fleeing Anpuku must have stopped there to rest. We found the bodies of a grandmotherly type and a younger woman and a child.”
“Ukou and his men killed them?”
“Saying they killed them is far too benign a term to describe the situation. They literally tortured them to death. They didn’t leave corpses behind but remains.”
The mother died holding the child in her arms. The child was cut in two from the head down.
“The soldiers who found them raised a stink. They lost whatever morale they had left after that. A few said they should bury the remains before picking up the chase. And then all of them refused to take another step. I couldn’t blame them. The woman’s legs were severed in three places, and the child’s entrails wrapped around her head.” His voice shook. “It’s Ukou that has to be brought to justice! Those aren’t the acts of a human being.”
Yuushou was at a loss as to how to respond. As he stood there in shocked silence, Shishin asked, “Why would Asen-sama trust such important matters to a beast like him?”
“Good question,” was the only response that came to mind.
His old commander would have court martialed a soldier like Ukou without a second thought. No matter how ugly and distasteful the task, he never would have placed it in the hands of a man like that. But here the reality was the exact opposite. Ukou was given the job precisely because he was such a beast.
He fights like a demon.
During the expedition, Yuushou had seen it enough times with his own eyes. The martial abilities of Ukou and his platoon of Red Armor defied common sense. No rumors of swordsmen with such skills had reached his ears. Their existence had completely escaped his attention. The reason the Red Amor had been held in such low regard was because Ukou kept their capabilities well hidden.
“Scattered around the women and child were several bodies of Red Armor soldiers. Six in total. Each one was dispatched with one or two slashes. Again, these were the Red Armor, so we’re talking about an extraordinary swordsman.”
Yuushou leaned forward. “The weapon?”
“Had to be a sword. With a frighteningly sharp blade.”
No doubt about it. Yuushou clenched his fists. He didn’t want to admit it, but when it came to the art of killing, Ukou and his platoon stood head and shoulders above his own men. He couldn’t imagine any of his soldiers dispatching six of them with one or two strokes of a sword.
Even a soldier like a fox loose in a henhouse, killing anything that moved in a delirium of destruction, taking out six was beyond belief. As loathe as he was to admit it, Yuushou was not capable of carrying out such a feat. And neither was Asen.
Yuushou knew of only one person in the world who could.
“Send a messenger to Sokou to move out. We are leaving too. The whole army.”
“Looks like Ukou wasn’t making up stories, after all. That was indeed Gyousou.”
Yuushou was already donning his riding gear and summoning his staff officers. “I promise we will deal with Ukou when the time is right. For now, our sole target is Gyousou.”
“It’s already sundown!”
“I am aware of that. Have Gen’yuu bring up the rear.”
The enemy was on the move. The soldiers positioned at the bridge on the opposite bank withdrew from their positions. Then the army started to move west like water escaping an overflowing pool.
“Now they’re moving west?”
Standing on the watchtower, Kyuusan leaned forward. Of the military formations he could make out, a sizable portion of them were indeed marching west. Moreover, as far as he could see, the entire army appeared to be mobilizing, not just a couple of battalions. Camped out by the bridge, the entire Imperial Army was pulling up stakes.
“Hoh, what’s this? They’re just going to ignore us?”
Had they decided that taking Anpuku wasn’t worth the bother and decided to cut their losses? They’d probably move west beyond the range of the catapults and then cross back across the river.
“It’s sundown! They aren’t taking us seriously at all!”
Shokyuu approached him in a clearly flustered state of mind. “Kyuusan, I’ve got to leave right away. The women have already fled. At this rate, they’re going to get overrun.”
Kyuusan nodded. “We’ll have the advantage once the sun sets. If that last battalion moves out, then so do we. Don’t let them out of your sights.”
Kyuusan’s men hastily prepared preparations for the pursuit. A few suggested that somebody should stay behind to man the catapults on the cliffs, just in case. But by evening, the remaining battalion had left the camp, so they withdrew as well. With the enemy gone, there was no point to leaving anybody behind. Kyuusan simply didn’t have that many followers, not enough to go toe to toe with the Imperial Army. He couldn’t spare a single man.
“We were always ready to sacrifice Anpuku to give the women and children time to escape. No problem abandoning it now.”
Kyuusan split the forces he had into twenty-man teams. Once he’d determined that the Imperial Army had put enough distance between themselves and Anpuku, they all set off in its wake.
“I don’t hear any whistles. They must have gone as far as they could before crossing to the other side of the river and heading west.”
Their compatriots would be hiding along the north bank of the river. If so, they should have heard their whistles when the Imperial Army forded the river. Only silence greeted them. Running through the falling night, they spotted the gleam of a torchlight. The enemy had already crossed the river. Several scouts crept into the hamlet. They returned with shocked looks on their faces.
The hamlet had been wiped out.
“Damn it. When did it happen?”
The ten or so residents of the hamlet were all dead. “Every corpse cut to pieces. Something awful took place there.”
Expending so much effort simply to prolong the pain of the victims reminded Kyuusan of past encounters with the infamous Red Armor. During the troubles with the land gangs and the extermination campaigns that followed, that was the calling card of the Red Armor, a platoon of soldiers with deviant tastes who wore red and black armor and stalked the countryside like a pack of hungry wolves.
No less mortifying was the devastating talent they had for killing. Not even the land gangs measured up to their level.
“So they unleashed the Red Armor as their vanguard unit. Trash.”
When it came to winning a war, the ends justified the means. And so Bun Province had been trampled underfoot time and again by merciless armies employing the most brutal of means.
“We will have our revenge! After them!”
They knew the lay of the land. The sun had set, but wouldn’t lose their way in the dark. With the enemy all but announcing its position with their torches, one last chance for victory had not yet slipped beyond their grasp.
Sharing words of encouragement, they stuck close to the column of soldiers as it marched west. Aiming at the torches, they snuffed out the light one after the other, sowing confusion among the soldiers grouping their way through the sudden darkness.
Kyuusan and his men had marked their weapons with mulberry. They could launch their attacks without worrying about hitting each other. This particular species of mulberry came from the Yellow Sea. Dye made from the flower of the shrub was expensive but had the unique property of glowing in the dark. A mark using mulberry dye was stamped on the handles of their weapons, in places easy to cover with their hands. Exposing a portion turned it into a secret passcode.
The kind of knowledge passed on by those who’d lived their lives in the darkness of the mine tunnels.
Bearing the brunt of an unexpected attack, the rear of the Imperial Army column collapsed in confusion. By the time they realized to their relief that their fears exceeded the actual threat, conditions on the ground began to change. The soldiers gathered their torches together and moved into a battle formation. With order restored to their lines, they confronted the attacking land gangs. At that point, the land gangs posed no threat to them.
Kyuusan broke through a platoon at the perimeter, but stripped of one of his two battle axes, he retreated the way he came. Along the way, he ran across a subordinate carrying a colleague on his back as he hurried along.
“Are you okay?”
The man he was carrying was already dead. Kyuusan thought the blood-stained clothing looked familiar.
“Is that Shokyuu?”
His subordinate was pretty sure he was. He’d been hit hard enough in the head a heavy projectile that smashed and disfigured his face beyond recognition.
“He’s dead. You can put him down.”
With an exhausted sigh, he set the body on the ground. His face filled with grief, he gave the corpse a parting pat on the shoulder. Kyuusan did the same. For a long time, Shokyuu had long served as one of his right-hand men. He’d always been on the timorous side, but he was devoted to his family and carried out whatever task he was assigned with a minimum of fuss and bother. They’d conversed only hours before, and now he had to leave him behind in this state.
“Let’s go,” he said.
As they retreated, they joined up with more of their fleeing comrades and found a place to lay low for a while. They’d taken heavy damage. Even knowing the lay of the land, the land gangs were at a profound disadvantage when it came to fighting a larger force in the field. In a more positive light, at least their pursuit had brought the army to a halt. They interrupted their westward march and formed a line of battle to face the pursuing Kyuusan.
“What now?” Sekihi asked. “Go back?”
Kyuusan shook his head. “The longer we can tie up the Imperial Army here, the more distance our friends can put between us and them. We’ve got to hold our ground for as long as possible.”
“We’ll be in a heap of trouble if they go on the offensive.”
“Then we apply just enough pressure to keep them from going on the offensive. We’ll hit them in waves. We’re not looking for a win here. Push them back an inch and retreat. As long as they stay in formation, we should have plenty of room to run to safety.”
“Got it,” Sekihi said with a nod.
He made a headcount of the gang members who’d made it back to their position and formed new teams. When he had enough to form a team, he sent them forward to harass the Imperial Army. As soon as they withdrew, he sent in the next team. With each engagement, fewer men came back. But no matter how exhausted, they had no choice but to go once more into the fray. If they gave the Imperial Army enough breathing room to turn its full force on them, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Despite their dwindling numbers, they had to stay on the offensive and keep the enemy dug in right where they were.
“It’s going about as well as could be expected, almost to an almost eerie degree.”
“Looks like this strategy was right on target.”
“On target to the extent we had the dumb guts to face down the Imperial Army. That’s what it means to be a member of the land gangs, I guess.”
Another big reason they’d fought the army to a standstill was because the archers couldn’t use their crossbows at night. Though that was likely the least of their problems. They could attack the land gangs or continue marching west. Kyuusan was pretty sure the Imperial Army commanders were right now stuck on the horns of that dilemma.
Kyuusan had it right. Yuushou wanted to move the column forward. If Gyousou was here, they had to track him down. Yuushou had been ordered to conduct a reconnaissance of Kan’you Mountain, but that was for the sole purpose of opening the mines and taking Gyousou into custody. The odds were high that Gyousou wasn’t under the mountain any more. He was in the immediate vicinity. In that case, their first priority was to find him.
Except they couldn’t do either. Rancor against the Red Armor was running high among the rank and file, a roiling resentment over the fact that Asen had given such a important assignment to Ukou. The conduct of Ukou and his men was, to Yuushou and his retainers, intolerable. The willful insubordination, engaging in violent acts unrelated to the order of battle, to say nothing of the actions themselves, all constituted grave and indisputable court martial offenses
Even when it became necessary to use their swords against civilians, the army had a code of conduct and moral principles it adhered to with pride. Soldiers were rightfully angry when those principles and that honor were trampled underfoot. There was no ignoring the clamor of voices calling for Ukou and the Red Armor to be arrested and punished. They deserved no free pass.
Despite Yuushou’s promises to discipline Ukou, he and the Red Amor sneered at such threats and defied him. Brandishing Asen’s name and attempting to negotiate a compromise only aroused more anger from the troops. In the end, knowing the tide was turning against them, they hightailed it out of camp.
A platoon of soldiers set off in pursuit. Yuushou suspected that a company commander had acted on his own and issued the arrest warrants. But if Yuushou called him to task, he’d have a mutiny on his hands as well.
He had to calm down the troops and reestablish the normal chain of command. With that much already on his plate, the land gangs attacked the rear of the column. They didn’t constitute a strong military threat, but harassing them in waves, they proved difficult to deal with.
He eventually got his own forces under control. Around the time the platoon chasing Ukou was persuaded to call off the search and return to the column, dawn was breaking. With a constant cold wind blowing, the lack of any forward progress was as exhausting as an active engagement. Morale was sinking like a stone.
Yuushou sighed. “For the time being, let’s retreat to Anpuku.”
“What about Gyousou?”
“We are never going to catch up with him at this rate.”
His staff officers sighed as well and agreed with him.
“Send reinforcements to back up Gen’yuu. Destroy the land gangs and march back to Anpuku. But first free up a company to search for Ukou.”
Once again configured as a unified force, the Imperial Army wheeled itself around to return the way it came to Anpuku.
Kyuusan noticed the shift in maneuvers and quickly grasped that the tide was turning.
“Looks like they’re coming our way.”
Their constant and increasingly futile assaults had whittled down their numbers. The sky was beginning to brighten. It wasn’t yet light enough to distinguish friend from foe, but once the dawn broke and archers entered the fray, they didn’t stand a chance.
“We’re heading back to Anpuku,” he called out to those around him.
They beat a steady retreat only to find the air cavalry occupying the skies over Anpuku.
“Damn. They left a reserve force behind.” Kyuusan clucked to himself in frustration. He was so sure the army had moved on, he’d left Anpuku undefended. A major blunder on his part. If they couldn’t take refuge in the city, the archers in the surrounding hills and fields would pick them off like sitting ducks.
The enemy had seen an opening and seized the opportunity first.
Right now, the Imperial Army was little more than a human wall. But once it rolled into action, it’d crush them like an avalanche.
“Damn it all. What a bunch of amateurs we are.”
“So you’re only figuring that out now, sir?” Sekihi said with a wry chuckle.
This far in his life, he’d always been able to rely on his fists. He knew at some point they were going to fail him. Whether age or injury, the causes were innumerable. Kyuusan knew a life that depended on his fists had its limits, but he had no other choices. No, those choices were there. Living a life to its limits, those forks in the road never entered his vision. And now he could not even point to the road not take, or say for certain if it had even been there at all.
“We were born in an ugly era.”
Looking back on his life, that was all he saw, all that ever came to mind.
Responding to the doleful look on Sekihi’s face, Kyuusan smiled and said, “You and me, good fortune was never part of the plan.”
Sekihi responded with dry laughter and a shake of his head.
That was when they saw the faint outlines of the Imperial Army moving through the gray morning light. A big shadow bore down on them, reeling from side to side like a great shuddering beast.
“They’re coming! Run!”
Kyuusan could only tell them to run for their lives, open up the distance between them, and head for the hills. Anpuku was out of the question. Stragglers dropped away from the group and collapsed. The Imperial Army pressed down on the them like a giant wave. Kyuusan and his men ran on as the Imperial Army started to cut through their group, splitting it in two.
“Run!” he shouted until his voice grew hoarse and picked up his own pace.
If the advancing army punched through their center, they’d have to flee north and south. But the river lay to the south. The mountains loomed over them to the north. They had literally run out of room to escape. Knowing that the final assault was upon them, the option left to them was to circle around the enemy’s flanks.
Maintaining as much distance between them as possible, he headed west from the north flank. Stretching out like a cresting wave to the east and west, the Imperial Army began attacking north and south.
A platoon of horses charged at Kyuusan and his men. There was too little light to make out anything more than the dance of shadows in the morning haze, but that was enough to aim a bow. If they came within range, they would be clean out of options.
As this realization struck him, Kyuusan stopped in his tracks and turned to face the horse coming at him. He readied his battle axe. It was not a weapon designed to fight a mounted soldier. But in this do-or-die moment, his only option was to aim at the horse’s legs as it galloped past.
He’d set his resolve when the ground shook. That how it felt, though it was the combined voices of a great number of people.
Hundreds of startled and confused voices shouting out a chorus that reverberated through the early dawn sky.
“What?” he exclaimed, reflexively turning toward the sound.
The westward edge of the Imperial Army appeared to disintegrate. The cavalry charging at Kyuusan veered off in all directions, frantically bringing their mounts around and pointing them west. The soldiers pursuing the land gangs along their eastern flank followed suit. Right in front of his eyes, the battle line of the Imperial Army started to tear apart to the left and right.
Still in the dark, Kyuusan started moving again. He picked out Sekihi further to the west, so that’s where he headed. Sekihi stood there in stark disbelief.
“What is going on?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a fresh supply of troops?”
Peeling their eyes, the Imperial Army was indeed under attack.
“If they are enemies of the Imperial Army, I wouldn’t call them fresh troops.”
“Then—reinforcements? For us?”
Why was anybody reinforcing them? He couldn’t think of a single military force the land gangs could count on to come to their aid.
He and Sekihi stood there gawking. Ahead of them, several of their mates starting jumping up and down and waving. They shouted, “It’s Risai! She showed up!”
Kyuusan gaped. Then he yelled, “That woman is out of her mind!”
Risai and the land gangs were not colleagues. They were enemies by nature. They cooperated on occasion when the occasion called for it. But then and only then. Taking their fight into the open like this only raised the odds of their existence being revealed to a near certitude.
They had no business being here. And yet one company after the other smashed into the Imperial Army. These weren’t amateurs like the land gangs. The evidence was right in front of his eyes. The Imperial Army’s line of battle disintegrated in disarray as its soldiers fled the fight.
“Did she forget she’s a wanted fugitive? How stupid can you be?” he shouted at her, though at the same time he felt a stinging in his eyes.
A platoon of soldiers rushed toward him. He wasn’t their target. They were simply scrambling with all their might to get away, flailing at whatever was in front of them. Kyuusan and his men just happened to be standing there. Kyuusan formed a line and they turned aside the impromptu assault. A lance stabbed at him. Kyuusan hacked off the blade and smacked the shaft into the air. Deprived of his weapon, the flustered soldier scampered off.
Spreading its black wings, a kijuu swooped down and punched a gap through the crowd of soldiers milling about in confusion.
A kijuu, fast and powerful. Astride the kijuu was none other than Risai, wearing armor and holding a sword. Without a moment’s hesitation, she hacked a path through the surrounding soldiers and in a rush of wind alit on the ground in front of him.
“Are you all right, Kyuusan?”
All Kyuusan could do at first was stand there and bob his head. Then he said, “You are a damn fool.”
“That makes two of us.” Risai smiled. “Go west. Have everybody retreat to Kan’you Mountain.”
“It’s okay,” she said with a nod. “You head out first. Your families are waiting for you further on.”
With Risai’s words, life returned to the faces of the land gang members, as if they could finally breathe again. Brandishing their weapons and attacking only those soldiers blocking the way forward, they escaped to the west.