The Crane lands, Ichigun province, summer 1503
Doji Matsui turns his head, careful not to disrupt the work of the
servant lacing up the ties on his armor. "Hai, what is it?"
The scout kneels in the entrance to his tent. "The Crab army has
arrived, Doji-sama. It appears to be.. significantly larger than expected."
"What? How is that possible?" Matsui helps the servant finish tying
knots. "Summon my officers at once."
"Hai, Doji-sama." The scout hurries out of the tent. Matsui follows
him a few minutes later, tucking his daisho under his obi. His
shirieken are already gathering outside; he gestures sharply to them
before swinging onto his horse. The shaggy pony utters an unhappy snort
as he spurs it into a gallop.
The officers pull up on a low hillside, looking down into a grassy
valley. Doji Matsui grunts to himself at his first sight of the Crab
army, sprawled across the valley in a seething mass of dark gray and
brick red. Scores of banners flutter in the light summer breeze.
"That is... at least twenty legions," one of the shiriekan says after a
"Impossible," Matsui shakes his head, trying to deny the reality in
front of him. "They sent sixteen legions to the south, to attack the
Yasuki lands. That would leave them only eight for this front. Did
It is Daidoji Ketsura, the commander of the scouts, who answers him.
"No countermarch. Look at the banners, my lord. The eighteenth Hida
legion, the eleventh... those are Wall units."
"They have stripped the Wall? Madness," one of the shiriekan says.
Ketsura shakes his head. "Not madness. An intelligent gamble. The
Shadowlands have been silent for years. I served on the Wall ten years
ago, after my gepukku. We could have held it with one-third of the men
Matsui clenches his hands, then unclenches them with an effort. "How
did we not have warning of this, Ketsura-san? Did your scouts somehow
miss that this army was more than twice the size we expected?"
Ketsura shakes his head. "They had Tsuru's Legion screening their
flanks. We never got close enough to inspect them by sight until
today. I offer my deep apologies, Matsui-sama. If you wish my seppuku
I gladly offer it."
Matsui shakes his head. "That would be pointless, Ketsura-san. We
shall need your skills for the battle. Afterward we can discuss
The word "battle" seems to awaken the shirieken, and their anxious
speculation suddenly fills the air.
"They could have sent this many south as well!"
"Perhaps even a third army, behind these?"
"Unlikely, they have only one Tsuru's Legion, how would they conceal it?"
Matsui cuts the chatter short with a raised hand. "The size and
strength of the beast does not matter. It will still die when you cut
off its head." Calm returns, as his words remind them of the way the
Crane have won in the past, against far worse odds than these. "Prepare
our troops to receive the Crab attack. They will surely charge in
disorder once their commander is dead." The officers turn to their
tasks, and he spurs his horse, then pauses. "Ketsura-san."
The scout commander pauses and turns. "My lord?"
"Our victory is certain... but it would be as well, I think, if Doji
Akane-sama learned of what the Crab are doing."
"I shall dispatch couriers at once, my lord."
"Good." Matsui rides forward, into the middle of the valley.
At this closer range the Crab army looks like some great sprawling
beast, growling and muttering as it shifts its feet. Matsui rises in
the saddle and draws a deep breath, then unleashes a parade-ground
shout. "I am Doji Matsui, favored student of the great Kakita
Saburashi! Eighteen men have fallen to my blade! When the last Crab
was eliminated from the Emerald Tournament, it was I who defeated him!
If your commander is brave enough to face me, let him come forth! Or
remain behind your ranks and show himself a coward before the Empire!"
Not bad, Matsui thinks, as the Crab army shifts and growls, like a bear
prodded in its lair. All those lessons in rhetoric were not wasted
after all, though I doubt my sensei would approve. He smiles to himself
as the noise from the Crab ranks rises and falls. The Crab general will
have to answer the challenge, or be shamed before his men, leaving them
Sure enough, after a few minutes a single figure in full armor walks out
of the Crab ranks, pacing slowly and purposefully toward Matsui. The
Crane dismounts and walks forward to meet his foe.
A soldier of the Wall indeed, he thinks, noting the scratches on the
much-repaired armor, the heavy scars that seam one side of the man's
face, the eyepatch with the Yasuki mon resting in the left eye-socket...
A shock runs through him. "Yasuki Koruma-san?"
The Crab smiles, a terrible sight on his scarred face. "It has been a
few years, Matsui-san, but I seem to recall that our match at the
Emerald Tournament was not quite as one-sided as you made out."
"Indeed," Matsui answers. For a moment the famed Crane glibness
abandons him, and he gropes for words. Finally he says, "They sent you
to the Wall?"
"I was a Crab skilled enough to make the finals of the Emerald
Tournament. What better place for me?"
"Enough, my friend," Matsui says, stricken. "Concede now, and take your
army home. We both know you cannot defeat me, and without your
leadership this army will be helpless."
Yasuki Koruma smiles, a sad smile. "That is why I already ordered them
to advance, Matsui-san."
Matsui stares past the Crab general, and feels his heart stutter as he
sees the Crab legions already hunching forward, advancing with a slow
and measured pace. "This... it will be a massacre, Koruma-san. You
might win, but the loss of life--"
"Enough words, my friend. Let us finish this." The Crab goes into
stance. Even now, Matsui can see an echo of his old grace, the style
and skill that brought him through the Emerald Tournament.
Matsui takes up his own stance, sliding his hand down to the hilt of his
katana. A beat, two, and the sword flashes free, a silver blur in the
Yasuki Koruma was once close to Matsui's skill level, but he has spent
the last three years on the Wall, while Matsui has trained under the
Kakita Dueling Masters. The Crane's blow cuts him from hip to shoulder,
and his own sword never leaves its saya. Matsui flicks the blood from
his sword with a quick flourish and slaps it back into its sheath. He
is already thinking ahead, wondering how he can turn back the charge
Koruma has unleashed... when he realizes the Crab has not fallen.
Yasuki Koruma steps forward, one pace, then two, entrails tangling his
feet. Blood and words squeeze past clenched teeth.
"The mountain... does not... FALL."
Too late, Matsui reaches for his blade again. The Crab's hands close
around his throat, and there is no room to draw. He claws at Koruma's
fingers, trying to pry them loose. His vision turns gray and blotchy,
and he pours the last of his strength into his hands, trying to break
the Crab's iron grip.
The last thing Doji Matsui and Yasuki Koruma hear is the remorseless
thunder of twenty thousand marching Crab.