Sengoku Tales, 1

[A while ago I tried my hand at working on a tale of a fictionalized Japan’s war period. I wanted demons and magic and ninja and samurai and maybe some love and political intrigue thrown in. I was probably influenced by the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings tabletop RPG as much as, if not more than, any actual historical novel. Things were just getting started when I trailed off and abandoned the characters. Maybe I’ll share more. Maybe I’ll write more. Let me know any comments or critiques.

The Battle
Tachikawa checked his armaments once again. The haft of his spear was sturdy; its leather wrapping sure to give a good grip. His sword drew easily from its sheath. Looking over his chest plate, he found it to be as he had left it, which meant ready for use. His attachable thigh and shoulder guards were the same. He grunted as he put on his helmet. Something inside was poking into his scalp. Taking the helmet off, he smoothed down the lining. He would need to remind himself to check it once again in the morning. He wished for some hind of stone to put in inside in the hopes of flattening the lining. With nothing to be found, he would just need to be careful in the morning. Come morning, it would be time for battle and once his helmet was put on, it was likely that he would not be able to readjust it for quite some time.
Three thousand men of Joshu we assembled on the northern hills of the Minakami plain. On the southern side, just on the banks of the Tone sat the Hogo forces, numbering four thousand. Soon after the first rays of light the armies would assemble, come together, and one side would emerge victorious. Many Joshu men were less than optimistic about the outcome, and not just due to the numbers. Most of their army was made up of peasant conscripts with little understanding of why they were about to fight and likely die. The samurai, many of whom were tasked in organizing the peasants, likewise had little knowledge of why they were to fight, but that was not of their concern. They were warriors and as such only needed to know where the fight lay. The why of the fight was the concern of the lords or the most elevated of their samurai brethren.
Or at least, that is what they were supposed to believe. In truth, many of the samurai gathered on the Joshu side had heard rumor that this battle was to be fought over a poem. Or, to be more specific a critique the Hogo lord made of one of the young Lord Joshu’s poems. To die over a maligned verse seemed a pointless death to those wanting to return home to children, wives, and mistresses. Still, they could no more refuse to fight than the moon could refuse chasing the sun. And so Tachikawa checked his arms yet again.
Tachikawa Akira was born into the samurai cast eighteen summers ago. His father, Tachikawa Jo, was of enough importance that he had seen that his son had the right tutors and attended the right swordsmanship schools. Akira managed to distinguish himself enough to be placed on police force of Yoshioka capital of Joshu, and was now to enter his first battle commanding twenty of the peasant militia. If he managed to survive tomorrow, his name would grow stronger and most likely we would see an increase in pay. Of course, coin was supposed to be of little worth to a samurai, but his new wife, who was tasked with running the household, would appreciate it all the same.
It had only been three months ago that Jo had secured the introduction of his son to Takagi Aiko and while Aiko was only the third daughter of the uncle to a Takagi who was known to practice archery with a cousin of Lord Joshu it still put the Tachikawa family closer to the ruling family. Akira was well aware of the political benefits of his marriage, but that did not blind him to the other marital benefits he now had access to. Aiko may have only been the third daughter but she was by far the prettiest in his mind. The image of her pale skin and raven-black hair burned brightly in Akira’s mind. He was more than pleased with her delicate frame and the softness of her touch. In many ways they were opposite, he was darker where she was fair. Her sharp features stood out against the wideness of his face and his thick shoulders and arms stood out in contrast to her slenderness. He hoped that his tanned skin and broad frame pleased his wife. The eagerness in which she consummated the marriage drew him to that conclusion. Except for when her moon’s blood was upon her, they had coupled near daily and with a fire that his experiences with the Butterflies of the Night had not matched. The frenzy of their parting brought a lusty smile to his face.
The sounds of the men around the fire brought Tachikawa out of his reverie. He was not yet important enough to merit his own tent and he did not want the men underneath him to read his expressions. Looking over at his squad he was fairly certain their thoughts barely went past the cook-fires and the rice and fermented beans that were their supper. You couldn’t expect peasants to fully understand the longing a samurai felt. They were contented to work in fields and mate atop their dirt floors while the children played outside. Still, Tachikawa reminded himself, that was their lot and the Kami made peasants way because they had work that needed to be done that was unfit for samurai hands.
The sun was ebbing and the glow for the cook-fires around him seemed to grow. He could begin to see the dots of fire on the other side of the plains. The number of them seemed impossible and he wondered if the Joshu flames seemed as numerous to the Hogo men camped by the river. Soon he would need to instruct the men to sleep. They most likely did not have the sense to go to sleep early without being told. On the eve of battle, rest was important. But before that there was one last issue to take care of.
Sorting through his pack he found the single small sheet of white parchment wrapped around his ink brush. Near the bottom of the pack he found the black ink stone. A few drops of water from his gourd soon turned the color of pitch after touching the dish shaped rock. Those who had enchanted the rock had done their job well. Tachikawa found the ink that came from the rock was darker and fuller than ink made in the traditional method. Although he wasn’t sure how shugenja accomplished their feats, he did no it was effective. He was also glad that treaty prevented either Hogo or Joshu from using shugenja in the battle tomorrow. In his mind death by steal was much preferred to death by sorcery.
Smoothing the paper out between two weighted rods, Tachikawa cleared his mind. Should he fall tomorrow, this death poem would be all the last remembrance his family received of him. It was also said that Lord Joshu himself read all the death poems of those samurai who fell in his service. Words did not come easy to Tachikawa. He wanted to express his feelings for his lord, the honor of his father, the glory of his awaiting death and thoughts of home. It was too much for one short piece. In dying what would he most want to remember?
He smiled as the answer came to him. He picked up his brush and began to write.
* * * *
Tachikawa awoke in the pre-dawn hours. Everything was still and quiet. This lack of motion and lack of sound contrasted with the soon to be chaos of battle made him smile. That any man could sleep deeply at such a time made him want to laugh at loud with the preposterousness of the idea. They should be enjoying what might be their last few hours, not wasting them on dreams. He wanted to ride a horse, have a drink of good sake, coupling with his wife. After all, weren’t those some of the things that made life worthwhile?
Then he remembered his teaching and the smile slide from his face. He should consider himself dead so that he would not fail his lord. He pulled himself off the ground and started to dress for battle.
As he was finishing, Matsuo, a more senior retainer, came to him. Matsuo gave a nod which Tachikawa took as approval of his readiness. “Come. We’re to revue the plan of battle,” Matsuo. Tachikawa hurriedly followed the samurai in silence, not wanting to embarrass either of them with questions. He didn’t know what to expect at the briefing. He was told on the way over that it would be his duty to watch Matsuo during combat and move his twenty peasants accordingly. In return Matsuo, head of their unit, would watch the signaling general and move Tachikawa and the other five sub-commanders as commanded. Tachikawa was a little surprised that anyone would think his role important enough to know the battle strategy. As if to answer Tachikawa’s unvoiced question Matsuo spoke to him. “If I fall, you will take my place. Listen well.”
Tachikawa almost tripped at that. Was he ready for such an honor? This was his first real battle and to be put in charge of so many was almost unthinkable. Was this a reflection of his skills? Did it show Matsuo’s certainty of their living past tomorrow? Perhaps this was just another positive result of his marriage. No doubt he would mention this to Aiko on returning home. Perhaps she was then to speak well of Matsuo into the right ears. That made sense. Matsuo could no longer be considered a young man and although he was considered very capable on the battlefield he was mostly ignored in court. He could use friends who spoke well of him due to his own words carrying little so little weight.
Tachikawa would remember. He would watch out for this old bear, as long as they both survived. Tachikawa smiled again as he realized that if Matsuo was maneuvering for the future then he must not be thinking of himself as dead. Maybe that thinking was only used in lessons, not on fields of war.
A crowd of men were gathered in front of the general’s tent, more than Tachikawa expected. He recognized some of the more renowned men. A short, squat man whose armor was tied with blue cord must be Sakurai, arguably one of the best duelers in Joshu. Nest to him was a tall man; whose unfastened face plate bore the likeness of a bird of prey with a single extending tooth was Kato, the fanged eagle, a master strategist. The man whose most distinguishing feature was the long mustachios that drooped past his chin was Shiraishi. He had no nickname but was known for his frequent visits to the Butterflies of the Nights. Tachikawa’s back straightened, not wanting to embarrass himself in front of such respected men.
Then out came Maeda, the Boar King. He was by far the oldest active general in the service Joshu lord and must have been approaching his sixties if he had not already exceeded them. His white hair was pulled into a thick top. His pate was freshly shaved, although none could see as he towered over most of the encircling men. While the years had shrunk the thick arms that hung from his side, they were still far larger than a man his age should possess. His armor was plain and worn, but it was obvious that it was as well tended as it was well used. His sharp eyes traced over the gathering men and Tachikawa could swear he felt the gaze burning him and igniting his desire for victory.
Two young pages rushed forward dressed in simple hakama consisting of a simple kimono covered with wide-legged, pleated trousers. Into their obi’s was tucked the short sword signifying their station, but missing was the long sword showing that the two were not yet warriors. One of the pages was carrying a small table with he placed in the center of the circle of men. The other page carried a map which he spread across the table. A smoothed stone went to each corner of the map, weighing it down. Their duty complete, the pages bowed to the company, bowed to their master and left. For a moment all was silence, and then the Boar King spoke.
Tachikawa focused on the map as the Boar King’s grizzled words washed over him, quickly outlining the flow of the battle. While understanding the entirety of the plan was something he considered beyond him, Tachikawa felt he had a good notion of his role in it. Being on the far left, he and Matsuo were to sweep around and come in, hopefully trapping the Hogo troops on three sides. This would weaken the lines, but it should also split the attention of the Hogo troops weakening their focus and giving their superior numbers less meaning. Under the rules of this engagement shugenja and horses were not allowed, so the men would have to trust in the speed of their legs to get them into place.
The council was over sooner than Tachikawa had expected. Men bowed to Maeda and left to prepare. Tachikawa had to hastily pay his respects to the general who barely took notice, and then hurry to catch up to the departing Matsuo. Upon catching up, “Get your men together and meet me on the line,” was all Matsuo had to say.
* * * *
Looking over the armies, with there pennants and colors it seemed as if they were all on the verge of a tremendous game. At the very front were archers, who were awaiting the horn that would signal them to loose their arrows. After few volleys the archers would retreat to the rear to protect the General. The relative safety of being an archer was enviable in terms of surviving, but seldom rewarded much glory and as such was disdained by those who considered themselves true keepers of the warrior’s code.
Behind the archers were the dishonored. This motley collection of criminals and samurai who had either violated the tenets they were supposed to follow in life, or how had just fallen out of favor with their masters, was equipped with only the cheapest of arms and virtually no armor. All wore white summer kimono, which was supposed to be symbolic of their soon to be earned purity. Some claimed the true reason was to better help the enemy locate them in battle, for their real task was to die. For the samurai, their death would cleanse the stained honor of their family. If there had not been a planned battle then most of them would perform the ritual suicide necessitated by their lord. There was no real benefit of honor to drive on the criminals. Still, a quick death on the battlefield was often preferable to whatever slow and often agonizing death that would have been planned for them.
The next rank was the foot soldiers. Mostly made up of samurai of lower ranks who wished to be noticed for there prowess, and also hopefully for surviving. If they were not to survive then all hoped for spectacular death; one memorable enough so that their family could profit in prestige from it. These men were grim for not only did they had to contend with the enemy, but hey were also competing with each other so as not to be outperformed on the battlefield. There often seemed to be little cooperation between individuals, let alone between men. Each man wore light armor consisting of a chest piece made from leather and cheaply lacquered wood and a helmet. Some also were guards on there arms keeping their sleeves from getting in the way and on their legs fastened over their blousing trousers. All wore a bamboo pole which extended upwards from their armor. On the poles hung pennants that displayed their general’s sigil and their unit sigil. A few of the pennants even held family crests of the samurai wearing it.
Next were the riders. Which served not so much a cavalry but as a mounted infantry. Their tactics were to quickly move to a spot on the battlefield, dismount, and take up the fight. If possible they could remount and relocate, but often this was too risky a move to perform as mounting meant taking their concentration away from the enemy. As their rank and social position tended to be higher than the standard infantry, their armor was sturdier, and tended to cover more. Also, many also wore face plates of elaborately carved wood. Most of the faces were designed to look ferocious and were intended to terrify the opposing forces. A grinning demon is more likely to sap the will to fight from the enemy than the scared, pale face hiding behind the mask. It was in this group that Tachikawa served.
Underneath him his horse shifted nervously. It too seemed to feel the heaviness in the air. Tachikawa adjusted his mask, wishing that the eyeholes had been made larger even if it left his eyes less protected. Could he defend himself with so much of his vision cut off? He felt his stomach roll as he though about the unseen strike. He would like nothing more than to cough up the morning’s rice, but he worried that would make him look weak. Instead he adjusted his mask again, this time thankful that his fear was also hidden from those around him.
Deep horns and pounding drums broke him out of his shouts. Looking towards the rear he could make out the General waving his signal fan. Closer, higher ranked samurai waved their own fans as they bellowed orders. Soon after, the musical strum of bowstrings sounded. Even through the continuing bleat of horns and thunder of drums it seemed quite as every ear strained to hear the rustle of incoming arrows, so close to but unlike the sound of rain. Tachikawa was out of range but seeing bodies fall in the first three ranks made the danger seem very real to him. The riders counted five volleys, which to those caught in the feathery rain, seemed endless, until new orders were given. The archers fell back and the white robbed warriors came forward on both sides of the clearing.
The men rushed to the front of the ranks with guttural screams, eager to show their warriors pride. Overall it was a small amount, with both sides totaling less than two hundred. From his position close to the flanks, Tachikawa could almost make out a few faces in profile. Most were twisted and distorted with raw emotion. He couldn’t make out if the emotion was anger, fear or bloodlust, but as the signal was given he watched the men advance in awe. The two lines broke into a run, some men seemed eager for battle and hurtled to the center with great speed, while others barely seemed to jog, motivated only by the rumors that archers would gladly shoot the dishonored like dogs if they didn’t fight. Still though the men moved further their cries seemed to grow louder. As the warriors met Tachikawa imagined he could hear the sounds of metal tearing through cloth and flesh, so different from the sound of steel and armor. It quickly seemed to turn to chaos. As all were in white, side did not seem to matter, only who was living and who was dead.
As the fighting in the field gave over to death orders were given again. Now it was the infantry’s turn. Unlike those before them, they marched in clearly ordered units. As the two sides approached, Tachikawa felt he could see the different strategies. It seemed like one of the board games he played, players moving around on a map, vying for dominance. Still when the soldiers meet it was eerily similar to the first wave. At least the colored armor and pennants seemed to help keep enemy and ally organized the thick of the fight seemed like all too much like chaos and the disorganized brawl of children en masse.
Then he heard a thunderous voice near him announce it was their time. His fellows plunged forward, which motivated him, or more accurately his horse, to move as well. The breeze that moved through his eyeholes itched and dried. His throat felt dry. He made sure his sword was ready to be drawn and loose in the scabbard. The horses angled toward the unprotected flank of the enemy. The plan seemed to be working. At a signal the unit slowed their horses and dismounted. Tachikawa felt his foot catch in the stirrup and for a moment worried he would fall until he caught himself. All that was left was to advance. He felt more than heard the roar around him and added his voice to it. Raising his sword high overhead, he prepared to cut down the first man he came upon.
The crush of the two armies was chaotic. The sounds of sword on armor, spear tearing flesh, and the constant cries of those either in the heat of bloodlust or the fire of pain. Tachikawa struggled to both keep alert for the enemy around him and for Matsuo. Everything was reduced to shapes. Matsuo was the square to the east. The jagged diamonds around him were to be cut down. His left shoulder ached and his sword would no longer swing that way. He hacked at the diamonds on his right. His teacher’s words steady flow of the sword seemed meaningless now. All that mattered was the constant slash he kept up to his right, and the moving to keep the diamonds to his right.
Suddenly he saw a line extend from the square that was Matsuo. His mind tried to make sense of that as his sword bit deeply and his face grew damp. Shoving the dead away from him, his mind figured it out as the line pulled out and the square slumped down. Matsuo was down. It was his turn to lead. He slashed wildly in front of him, trying to clear away the foes. His forces weren’t advancing. They had to move. “To me!” he bellowed, hoping his voice rose above the din. “To me, Joshu! Advance!” His legs pumped, finding hold on the blood soaked earth beneath him. His sudden surge startled those around him. Tachikawa waved his sword and saw a diamond cut in twain. His kick toppled another, and a quick down thrust stilled it. “Advance!” he bellowed again. He rushed into the opening his fury had created. He sucked in air for another cry and felt a strange pinch.
His air was gone. His side hurt and his left arm was limp. Trying to breath he looked left and saw a dirty, barely armored man holding a thin spear that connected the two men. How long had it been like that? He could swear he’d been looking at that dirty, little man for far too long. He needed to move away from this man and his thin spear and his arms. Why couldn’t he move away? The man’s thin arms pulled and the spear came with it. Everything was quiet. The world shifted up. There was a distant thud and Tachikawa was on his. Just out of focus he could make out thin arms. No, not thin, slender. But strong. Aiko had such lovely, slender arms. He was tired. He hoped she would come to bed soon. His beautiful Aiko.

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