South Shinano, Early Summer 1546.
He looked up at the clear night sky with a blood red moon and sighed. From the balcony of his room in Ilda castle, the place was absolutely quiet. He could see the patrols on the castle walls and in the courtyard, yet he couldn’t hear their voices and footsteps down below. They were so small in that dark painting, just a bit bigger than the stars fading above them. They were so small, yet so many.
The hourly gong of the castle patrol echoed from the distant, pulled his gaze away from the moon and redirected it to the faraway tall shadow where the guard tower was. According to the duration of the gong sound, it should be midnight by then. In this historical period, hourly gong from the garrison was the only means of telling time, and because of that, every hour had a unique duration and style.
He didn’t hear her footstep until she stood by his side and place the fox fur coat on his shoulder. “Something’s bothering you, m’lord?”
“You don’t think this is too boring of a life?” He held onto the coat she just brought him and tied up the laces. “Going to the barrack every morning, practicing strategies with the troops, dealing with paper works and noisy courtiers, trying to talk and rearrange army’s divisions for the new retainers from Kiso so they wouldn’t rebel in any case, sitting duck and waiting for news from the front line… all those things…”
“It’s a safer choice…”
“Yes it was.”
“If you don’t like this lifestyle that much, why didn’t you refuse him, m’lord?”
“Whether I like this lifestyle or not is irrelevant in my decision. Don’t you think that’s better?”
“It is, m’lord. That’s for us. But is it always the same for you?”
He smiled at her, but didn’t reply. Just like that, they let silence slip between the conversation, and their look linger at each other, not a moment too short nor too long.
“So what’s your plan, now that we will be sure to get North Shinano?”
“I sent the orders out for general Takayama a few days ago so he should be on his way to Kai and sneak that castle. From Kai and Suruga, we could form a strong flank defense against any potential threat from Hojo when we engage the Takeda up front. The question is, where is Takeda Shingen. He took Etchu months ago, so he should be on the move. Per chance is that he’s on his way to Echigo, but when we march to North Shinano, he will change his plan.”
“We can send Ataki to Echigo to search for Takeda Shingen, right? He should be at Musashi right now, so it won’t take long for him to travel there. If Takeda’s not there then we can be sure he’s back fighting us.”
“Ataki is more useful at Hojo’s. That’s the Tokugawa’s front. I don’t believe his loyalty lie with the Oda. Our alliance with Tokugawa is strong, but the guy won’t dedicate all he got for us.”
“How do you know?”
“Information compartment. I can tell in the stories he told me every week.”
“If so, what do you want to do?”
“I will have to think more about this. I hate it when we don’t have enough information on these kind of things. But I know for sure first we will have to take North Shinano. Once we have the choke point, we can deal with any kind of situation.”
“I can go and get the information you want.”
He looked into her eyes with so much things he wanted to say, but before the words could get out of his mouth, the guard knocked on the door with the haste he could not ignore.
“Emergency news, m’lord,” James watched the soldier still in his tattered armor and blood stained clothes knelt before him inside the room. His breathe was short and fast. His eyes fixed on the daimyo, yet couldn’t avoid some moments of dazing off to some faraway place. He was almost consumed by the fatigue, yet somehow something in him kept the man going.
“Haruki, give him some water,” James turned and nodded at Midori before returning to the injured man. He was still kneeling on the floor, trying to catch his breath. “You’re Kiso’s soldier? What’s the matter?”
“I was a soldier in the Kiso’s division headed for North Shinano. I came here to find lord Kiso but the guards showed me here.”
“Lord Kiso has joined my entourage and become my retainer.” James gestured for the man to stand up. “I am your lord now. What’s the news?”
“M’lord, our division heading for North Shinano was wiped out by the Takeda last night. They ambushed us when we were close to Fukashi Castle. Their cavalry slaughtered us before we could form a defensive formation. The captains sent a few of us back but only me and another guy got out. He fainted right as we reached Ilda castle.”
“Alright. Go out and tell my guards to show you some food and drink. Take a few days off then if you still want to serve clan Oda, come find me.” James gestured the man to dismiss. He bowed and swiftly left the room without forgetting a lengthy thank to James.
“There goes the Takeda’s second division. And there goes our first offensive strike!” James exclaimed and threw himself on his bed, just to realize there was no mattress here.
“You alright m’lord?” Midori giggled as she sat down by his side.
“Is it funny?” James grumpily replied on his back.
“You don’t get angry this often. It’s out of the ordinary. And you do look funny.”
“Damn you Midori. People normally say my face looks as if I’m about to kill somebody.” He sighed and stared at the ceiling.
“And that too,” she smiled and lay on her back beside him, looking at the wooden bars above them. “How do you think it happened?”
“Either we have a mole in Iida, or their scouts were better at the job than ours. I really hope it’s the later. Life will be much easier.”
“Who’s on the list?”
“All Seraph’s, oh I mean Kiso Haterune’s retainers. Or at least the higher ups echelon.”
“I will look into those people right away.” Midori sat back up and picked up her sword. James followed her move, but held her arm as she intended to stand back up.
“Ishimaru,” James called out as he walked by the window. Just a moment later, Ishimaru bolted through the doors and bowed.
“M’lord,” he gestured the outside guards away and closed the door.
“We have bad news. Our first strike team up north is dead, and we may have a mole. I want you and Hatake look into those who are close with Kiso Haterune. See if there’s anything suspicious. Don’t make a sound.”
“Understood, m’lord. Is the former daimyo in the list?”
“Not in your list anyway. He’s mine.” James drew his tanto out and looked at the shiny blade.
“Is there anything else?”
“No it’s all good.” And just as he gestured Ishimaru out, something came up and bugged his mind. “Actually hold on.” He turned to Midori who had left the bed to sit by the table in the middle of the room pouring out some tea. “When did the Kiso’s division get swiped?”
“Last night, as the man said, m’lord.” She replied and gave the men a cup of tea each. Ishimaru slightly nodded and drank up, his look still fixed on the daimyo.
“Hmm… If he ran with all his heart out to the nearest outpost to North Shinano, who are still bearing Kiso’s banner, and inform the news, we should know this thing by noon, not now. And the one who we should hear this from is a bird, or at least whoever takes charge of the birds here in Iida. He should never have come here.” He stared at the tanto as if there was something mesmerizing or wise in the blade.
“You saw the injured soldier who came into my room earlier, Ishimaru?”
“Yes m’lord. Is there a problem with him?”
“Get a hold of him as soon as you leave this room. Make sure he have some food and sleep. Bring him to me first light tomorrow.” James took a sip at the tea Midori handed him earlier. It was light and sweet, the unique taste in Midori’s tea.
“Yes, m’lord. Is there anything else?”
“That should be all for now.” With James gestured, Ishimaru bowed and left the room. Just a moment later, through the paper wall, he saw two figures returned standing by the door. Hah the post guards are back. He smiled and put down the tea cup and the tanto he held in his hands. Midori stood behind him and gently helped him into his sleeping rope. Without saying a thing, the night sunk into a silent entity hovering the giant castle with a black roof. The lights in the room of the top floor went out in a sudden, like the eyes of the giant went dark. The monolithic creature seemed to have a sigh of relief, and slip into the serenity of the night. For now it slept.
Three days later, at the first light of day…
James fixed his posture on the horse, gave a quick look back, and spurred it forward, leading the Oda’s army to North Shinano. The sky was still dark grey as the sun hadn’t fully showed its face yet. The fine morning with summer breeze made him wonder which felt better, getting back on the horse to the front line again, or waking up every morning with her warmth beside him. Either way, it felt good. It felt alive.
With fifteen thousand men strong army, with a few thousand attendants and supply cargoes, it would take a month for them to reach Matsumoto castle of North Shinano. Even though James knew means to make the march much faster and make it in a few days or so, he didn’t even bother to consider those. It would take up a lot of the soldiers’ stamina, especially under this summer heat. With the enemy’s composition of majority cavalry, an exhausted army of ashigarus would be wiped out within the hour. At least that was his observation from the result of their last engagement.
He didn’t know if he should be happy or not, now that the Kiso’s army was annihilated by the Takeda. They would have to fall back to their initial plan, which was forming a coordinated attack from both the Tokugawa and Oda, only sooner than they had planned. In the middle of summer, when James reached Matsumoto and Hidenaga – Takayama legion reached Kofu castle in Kai province, they would strike both Takeda’s settlements at the same time. Chance was James would face the second bulk of Takeda’s army, which demolished the Kiso earlier, while Hidenaga and Takayama was having an easier time with an empty castle in Kai. After the capture of Kofu castle, Takayama would march to North Shinano with his twenty thousand strong to reinforce James before they either split up for Echizen and Hida, or force their way up to meet Takeda Shingen. They would do more work as James initially had in mind, but more work meant more adrenalin rushing through his brain, and he loved nothing more than that.
The road heading north was long and dusty. It wasn’t too big, just enough to fit ten men marching side by side with a bit of extra spaces by the side walk. Unlike the roads in Owari and most of Mino where the roads were paved neatly, the roads in South Shinano were mere dirt road. On a sunny day like this, it went all dusty and reduced their vision, not significantly but enough to bother the hell out of James. But it wasn’t even close to the worst. James hadn’t seen but he could guess that with this condition, the road would get all muddy and dirty that transporting a huge army would become an impossible job. He prayed that somehow it wouldn’t rain for the whole month they spend marching, without an inch of faith in the words murmuring inside his head. He knew it was summer, and they were walking between two tall and formidable mountain ranges.
It didn’t take them long, around half a day march to encounter the first town of South Shinano. The main road they march, as the local called Taikunnomichi, pathed across half of the town’s rice paddies, located a little bit south of the actual town center. James noticed just as in other places he came across, these towns never stayed on the road, but always located a few miles away from Taikunnomichi. He never asked anyone to verify the accuracy of his observation, but he believed he had a decent grasp on the reason of this occurrence. During this era, and even hundred years before, the power in this land was not centralized and consolidated with the king, or the shogun, but spread amongst the local lords, or daimyos they called. Because of this decentralization, occasionally, the daimyos wrestled each other for power, and the Taikunnomichi became the main ways of transporting troops or even the point of combats. He guess this was why local people tried to locate their towns a bit off the main roads in hope that they could avoid being the battlefield for two bloodthirsty armies. From the bird eye perspective, the Taikunnomichi became a big tree, with small branches of towns crawling around and occasional castle towns bulking like giant cicadas.
Whenever he stopped by the road and paid the towns a visit, he always had different impressions on the local designs. Not the people, but the towns themselves. People were the same everywhere. The houses were the same everywhere. But the streets, the patterns were different. They were not significantly unique that left James awed and speechless, but enough for him to tell such differences. They were like the branches on a giant tree, so many and so similar yet so strangely unique.
In every towns like the one they just marched by, there was always a watch post manned by the daimyo’s army to serve as communication across the province. They were like information checkpoints, where the local news got in and sent to the daimyo’s home castle every day, or even more often, depended on the situation. It was from these outposts, especially along the border with North Shinano that James expected the annihilation of Kiso’s army news came from, not from an Olympian-style runner he received three days earlier. Thinking about that man, James hoped two weeks were enough for him to recover from such experience before he could go into battle again. The man was young, but he had an amazing talent that James liked a lot. If he performed well this time, he had a potential position within James’ upper echelon. There were still a lot more to see, eventually.
Weeks passed by as they marched on the trail to battle, and the more time they spent marching, James could feel the heat of battle coming closer. Even Midori could tell in the look that he gave her every night they spent together. It etched on his skins as he held her in his arms. It soaked in his breathe every time their lips touched and tongues entwined. It never escaped the shadow of the tall man she saw every day riding that beautiful black horse, but just as the lights came out, it bled into the surroundings like wildfire. For brief moments, she saw in him a sleeping ember, twisting and turning in its long night waiting for the light to come. For those brief moments she touched him as if he was her own, for he sunk his long claws inside her body and felt her heart, just like she felt his beneath her soft lips. Those brief moments never lingered too long on the tips of their tongues, but engraved into their looks for each other.
And for a brief moment, they smelled blood the day their southern perimeter scouts didn’t come back for lunch.
Author: Dat Le