"What news, Toshi-san?" calls out the Shinjo sentry as the Crane
rides into the small Unicorn encampment huddled almost in the shadow of the
"There is much to tell," says Daidoji Toshi, as he reins in his horse. "All the Empire is at war. I must speak with Shinjo Kurahashi-sama."
The Crane swiftly gets his wish, as he is ushered before Shinjo Kurahashi, the captain of the cavalry company. The men huddle closely about them, eager for news of the outside world.
"The Crab march against the Crane, as expected," Toshi says. "Unfortunately, the Crane have been forced to fall back." One of the Unicorn troopers snorts loudly, and Toshi suppresses a wince. It is not cowardice to fall back before the onrushing tide, he tells himself.
"The Khan rides against the Phoenix, and your cousins earn much glory there," he continues. "It seems likely the Dragon and Lion will come to blows soon as well."
Kurahashi nods, stroking his moustasches thoughtfully. "Thank you, Toshi-san. This is good to know."
"There is more, Shinjo-sama," says the Crane. "I...I have been within Shiro Toritaka!"
A confused babble erupts among the Unicorn, who had been raiding the Toritaka province for weeks now. One of the troopers is indiscreet enough to cry out, "Treachery!"
"SILENCE!" shouts Kurahashi. "Finish your tale, Daidoji-san."
"It is no treachery," says Toshi. "The Kuni daimyo, Lady Yoriko, summoned me, and others, there for a matter of honor." It had seemed strange to Toshi that Lady Yoriko would ask for aid from the enemies of her Clan. And though the great lady maintained perfect face, there was a hint of bitterness in her voice when she admitted the Crab Champion would not spare a single man for a mission into the Shadowlands. Not while war waged in the north.
"I enjoyed the hospitality of Lord Toritaka for a day and a night," continued Toshi. "I saw...much...of their defenses. The Toritaka province has been stripped of men, to support the war machine of the Beast, Gojiro. Though the walls are thick, I doubt more than 20 men hold Shiro Toritaka. And two family daimyo of the Crab Clan reside within -- a prize beyond measure!"
There was a moment of silence. Then Kurahashi says, in a seemingly noncommittal tone, "So. You hope we will assault the castle?"
"Yes, if it please you, Shinjo-sama," says Toshi.
"Horsemen against castle walls?" asks Kurahashi. "This is not the way of the Unicorn."
"The way of the Unicorn is to strike where the enemy is weak," replies Toshi. "To attack a nearly undefended province, while their army marches elsewhere? Surely, this is the epitome of the way of the Unicorn."
"And if we capture the castle, Toshi-san? What then?"
"We burn it to the ground," Toshi says firmly. He has ridden with the Unicorn long enough to know the horsemen will never agree to garrison the castle, hiding behind its walls. "Capture or slay the two daimyo. We ride off, laughing, with a fine tale to tell your cousins, a great deed finer than anything they might've done warring against the Phoenix."
Toshi suffers a guilty twinge of regret, speaking of the deaths of Toritaka Tenkei and Kuni Yoriko, who were among the few Crab that he had come to respect. But the Crane suppresses this unworthy feeling. It is war, he tells himself. They are samurai. The Crab understand the nature of Duty.
And from the gleam in the men's eyes, Toshi is certain he has scored a point. The tiny detachment had been sent against the Crab to keep the word of the Unicorn diplomats, yet they, too, hungered for glory. But their captain's face is as neutral and impassive as that of any courtier.
After some thought, Kurahashi finally speaks. "It is a good plan, Toshi-san," he says, finally committing himself, and the fate of the little company. "Tomorrow, we ride for Shiro Toritaka. For the Khan!"
The soldiers roar their approval. "FOR THE KHAN!"
* * *
They waited until the night after a merchant caravan left, taking with it a small escort of Crab bushi, to ensure the castle defenses would be at their weakest. Under the cover of darkness, they rode for the castle walls. The Shinjo scouts were quieter than Toshi would've thought horsemen could be; yet some keen-eyed Toritaka sentry quickly spotted them and raised the alarm.
A hail of arrows rained down upon them, emptying several saddles before the cavalry charge carried them close enough to return fire with the short horsebows. Though the Crab archers held the higher ground, they were few, and once they closed within range, the superior numbers of the Unicorn horse archers swiftly took their toll.
Daidoji Toshi led his squad right up to the walls, where they flung up ladders, hastily assembled from bamboo and rope. Toshi had been charged with leading the first wave over the wall. He had only nodded when Kurahashi assigned him this task; though the Unicorn was too polite to say so, it was understood that if this was some trick, the Crane would be the first to die.
Glowing characters of warning appear on the castle walls as the ladders touch them, and one of Toshi's men cries out in pain as he is seared by magic. The Iuchi shugenja with them begins chanting, clutching a meishodo amulet, and the magical wards begin to fade. Toshi isn't all that confident in this gaijin magic, but he does what he must. He swarms up the ladder, shouting, "Follow me!"
As Toshi climbs, he momentarily sees a Crab bushi, tetsubo in hand, at the top of the wall waiting to greet him; but then an arrow sprouts from the Crab's face, and he falls back, and then Toshi is over the wall. In an eyeblink, the blade Kikuzakura is in his hand, flashing first left, then right; and two defenders are falling, as dismounted Unicorn soldiers start pouring over the wall.
An old greybeard lies fallen on the parapet, pincushioned by a dozen arrows. His glazed eyes become clear for a moment as they recognize the Crane. "Lord Tenkei-sama expects better behavior from his guests, Toshi-san," says Toritaka Atoku mildly.
"I must apologize for my poor manners in person," replies Toshi. "Where IS Lord Tenkei?"
"You are too late." The karo of the Toritaka province blinks slowly, as his life ebbs. "Too late...." The old man's eyes close for the last time.
The Unicorn had taken the outer walls. As the few remaining Crab make their last stand, Toshi leads his men to search the keep for the two daimyo; but without success.
The castle gates are flung open after the gatehouse falls, and Shinjo Kurahashi rides proudly into Shiro Toritaka on his Unicorn steed. "Where are the daimyo of the Toritaka and the Kuni?" he demands.
"They are not here," admits Toshi unhappily. "The castle folk say they left only yesterday, no doubt with the caravan we let go."
Shinjo Kurahashi frowns. But he does not long dwell on the prizes that have escaped; there is still the prize that he has won. "Set fire to the castle," he commands. "Put the people to the sword." The Unicorn hurry to do his bidding. Torches are pitched onto rooftops and the castle begins to burn.
The flames lick hungrily along the roof of the falconry, and Toshi remembers Toritaka Tenkei's boyish pride in his hawks and falcons. An ill end for such noble birds, Toshi thinks, and he enters the burning falconry, where the birds shuffle restlessly in their cages. A slash from his katana cuts the wooden twine keeping the first cage shut, and he swings the cage door open; but the hooded falcon refuses to move.
Toshi reaches a hand into the cage and yanks the hood off. The bird instinctively lashes out with its talons, gashing the Crane's hand deeply, before flying free, out of the burning building. It is the first wound Toshi has suffered in the battle. From a falcon, Toshi thinks. How fitting. He is more careful when freeing the other birds of prey.
Afterwards, Toshi has his wound treated by the Iuchi. Above them, a falcon circles once above the burning castle, then flies to the south. "The falcon flees before the Unicorn," grunts the shugenja. "A good omen."
"Perhaps," says Toshi. "Or perhaps the falcon's destiny lies elsewhere."