20-6 With the land gangs forging on ahead, Risai and her crew began a slow and steady retreat. Winning was not the objective. It’d be enough to save the land gangs and create a safe zone where they could find shelter. All the better if they could stop the enemy from advancing and make a clean getaway.
After that, they’d reconfigure their forces and commence with the recon and mopping up operations. But until then, they’d either take refuge in Rokou or abandon the region around Kan’you Mountain.
“Sorry about all this. I gave too little thought to leaving Anpuku,” Kyuusan apologized. He was bringing up the rear in their line of retreat.
Risai shook her head. “You had the right idea getting everybody out of Anpuku. If you’d left anybody behind, we’d have to back to get them.”
Anpuku had catapults, making it risky to stray too close. If the Imperial Army seized those installations and then went house to house in the city clearing out the land gangs, rescuing them would be difficult in the extreme. It’d be no different if the land gangs managed to maintain control of Anpuku. Any rescue would have to start with them abandoning the city. If Kyuusan couldn’t be persuaded to leave, they’d have no choice but join forces in the city, raising the odds that the entire effort would get bogged down there.
The Imperial Army was strong. The sudden arrival by Risai and her men was taken as an ambush and at first sowed confusion among the troops. But slowly and surely, they were restoring order to the ranks. Once they did, Risai wasn’t about to defeat a more numerous and better equipped opponent.
With the rear of the Imperial Army column chasing the land gangs and the front of the column getting attacked by Risai, the column divided in two. She’d managed to scatter the head of the line, but she couldn’t bring enough forces to bear to finish them off. In the meantime, the remnants of the Imperial Army to the east fortified their positions and began to push back.
They retreated under fire, but soldiers lying low here and there were proving hard to deal with. If they rejoined the rear of the column, all the more so. Before that happened, Risai and the land gangs had to either withdraw to the west or double back to Anpuku.
We don’t have enough soldiers.
Risai had the two thousand entrusted to her by Gamon Temple. Add a few more from Hakushi and Sekirin Temple and a complete regiment was in reach. At least two battalions short, the Imperial Army was not at full regimental strength. That still left them with fifteen hundred. Even in terms of equipment and experience, neither side would prevail with roughly matched numbers.
The soldiers who confronted Risai and her forces head on must have noticed they were fighting Gyousou’s retainers. At this point, they had no desire to cede the field. If possible, they’d rather take the Imperial Army as prisoners of war but woefully lacked the means.
Risai resigned herself to the inevitable retreat. Just then, a cheer erupted from the west. She raised her head in confusion and turned her attention toward the river valley. A fresh band of soldiers rushed into her field of view.
She was wondering who they were when Seishi cried out, “It’s Kiro!”
Kiro was a retainer of Sougen. Kiro was the first familiar face she encountered back in Koutaku.
Kiro called out, “Risai-sama! How are you doing?” He ran over before she had time to reply. “The Provincial Guard shows no sign of mobilizing. So Sougen-sama gave us the go-ahead.”
Not only Kiro. Toushi was a step behind him. Together, the two of them had three thousand soldiers under their command.
“I can’t thank you enough.”
Kiso said with a nod of acknowledgement, “Many still harbor hard feelings against the land gangs. But they also know that not everyone in the land gangs deserves that enmity. We can sort everything out once we’ve reclaimed Kouki. Right now, our primary objective is to make sure any reports of our presence get delayed as long as possible.”
He urged on Toushi and glanced back at her. “We’re going to hit the main body of the army. We’d like you to round up any soldiers who come your way.”
Risai nodded. Kiso and Toushi moved with their men to their forward positions. Risai remained behind, tending to the wounded and issuing orders to capture stragglers from the Imperial Army. Soldiers who’d marched double-time throughout the night were honestly grateful to stop there and catch their breath.
Yuushou watched from a distance as an enormous mass of humanity poured forth from the river valley. He gulped in surprise.
They had this large a force in reserve?
He’d heard the land gangs numbered no more than a thousand. Yet well more than a regiment erupted out of that valley. His weary forces retreated, in sharp contrast to the reinforcements coming at them in high spirits. Confronting them, the fatigue of Yuushou’s troops only deepened. Dispirited and listless, they had no energy left to maneuver.
The only option left was a retreat to Anpuku. Yuushou again issued orders and turned the column around. Just then a platoon of air cavalry flew in from Anpuku, the platoon he’d seen in the sky over Anpuku. Reserves in Sokou on standby must have had the sense to dispatch the air cavalry ahead of the infantry to occupy the abandoned Anpuku.
But as they drew closer, the blood ran cold in his veins.
That’s not our air cavalry.
Of the two platoons of kijuu, Yuushou did not recognize any of his men among them. They wore a wide variety of armor and carried a wide variety of weapons. These platoons had clearly been cobbled together with riders from different units. But there was nothing ad hoc about the kijuu. And they were carrying winter weapons. That ruled out the land gangs and mercenaries.
A significant number of military veterans were collaborating with the land gangs. The way these riders carried themselves, they were no amateurs at waging war.
They could have attacked much earlier.
They could have struck at the rear of the column. Instead, they waited in the sky over Anpuku and showed no signs of going on the offensive. Yuushou and his retainers mistakenly assumed they were Imperial Army reinforcements rushing to offer them support. But they did nothing, as if nothing was amiss. They held back until the forces under his command abandoned the field and fled back to Anpuku.
“Damn it all!”
The events that had transpired since Asen had singled him out and ordered him to Kan’you Mountain rose up in Yuushou’s thoughts.
The vastness of the territory occupied by the land gangs. The gross underestimation of their size and strength. Being ordered by Asen to take Ukou with him. The wanton and indiscriminate actions of Ukou and the Red Armor. The rage they aroused among his own troops. The stubborn resistance of the land gangs. The equally unexpected growth in their military might, with veterans fighting alongside them in significant numbers.
Taken all together, Yuushou had a hard time grasping how all these factors could have come together at the same time and in the same place. He’d been maneuvered into a no-win situation. He was Asen’s retainer, a man appointed to positions of great responsibility and power by the late emperor and by Gyousou, the emperor who replaced him. They had served him and his senior staff with pride and confidence.
And now it was all dust before the wind.
Caught ahead and behind by the enemy, Yuushou’s army broke ranks and fled in a total rout.
“So those aren’t the bad guys?” a flabbergasted Kyuusan asked Risai. What he’d taken for enemy forces were attacking the rear of what was left of the Imperial Army.
“The air cavalry, you mean?”
“They were in the sky over Anpuku. I was certain a contingent of the Imperial Army stayed behind in Anpuku,” Kyuusan said, admitting he was having a hard time wrapping his head around the most recent developments. “They were supposed to take out the catapults. I figured the Imperial Army’s air cavalry was still there, laying low and waiting to hit us when we least expected.”
“Oh,” was Risai’s response.
She didn’t know where those airborne forces hailed from either. She asked Seishi but he was equally in the dark. Risai didn’t have enough kijuu and riders under her command to form a platoon in the first place. And there were only so many soldiers with those flying skills.
Kyoshi ran up to them. “Who are those guys?”
“Don’t know,” Risai said.
The Imperial Army was falling apart in front of her eyes. The arrival of Kiro and Toushi put them at a distinct disadvantage. A platoon of air cavalry again struck the rear of the column, removing any doubts about the outcome of the battle. The column began to disintegrate. Risai’s forces and her allies swarmed over the fleeing solders, mowing them down and knocking them to ground and apprehending them.
By the time the sun lay low in the sky, it was all over. Hard to believe, but it was a decisive win for Risai’s side.
A platoon of the air cavalry that had helped arrange this little miracle swooped down and alit on the ground in front of Risai. She recognized one of the kijuu.
With a startled cry, she exclaimed, “Is that Kishun?” And then noticed the kijuu’s rider. “Oukou!”
One of her retainers and a regimental commander in the Jou Provincial Guard.
“Risai-sama, it’s nice to finally see you again.”
He jumped off the back of his kijuu and ran over as Risai dismounted from Hien.
“Where have you been all this time?” she asked.
“I owe my life to Danpou Temple.” He smiled. “You appear to be doing well too.”
“And the rest of my senior staff?”
Of her five regimental commanders, three, including himself, had survived.
“We lost too many officers and soldiers. Still, I’d say a least half of your division is left. They’re lying low in the borderlands between Jou Province and I Province. As soon as they heard that Risai-sama had returned, they started moving toward Bun Province under Kouyuu’s command, doing their best to stay out of sight.”
Oukou grasped Risai’s hand. “We decided you were due a status report without delay, and so put together the minimum viable force and paid you this unannounced visit.”
Risai returned the gesture. “That is most reassuring.”
She was, in fact, amazed. She’d heard her retainers had been executed in Jou Province without so much as a hearing or a trial. She believed that Oukou and her regimental commanders also numbered among the dead. Up until this day, she was certain that she had lost everything. Yet three members of her senior staff had survived.
Along with the soldiers still under their command, they joined forces with the rebel factions of the Jou Provincial Guard. Thankfully, in recent years, Asen had paid less and less attention to the provinces outside the capital. Because of its distressed and impoverished state, his wariness toward the once unrelenting Jou Province must have slackened as well.
This had become especially clear of late. People on the move toward Bun Province met with few obstacles. In fact, while taking all due precautions, they’d been able to hasten there without much trouble.
Once Kouyuu arrived, together with Tonkou’s cooperation, they should be able to attack the castle of Bun Province from within and without and capture it. With the castle well defended against the inevitable siege, they could then unfurl their flags in all their glory and bring the fight to Asen himself.