Part 35: The Clash of Warlords – Chapter 2: When she looked into his eyes.

North of Matsumoto castle, North Shinano Province, Summer 1546

Between the two great mountains Kiso and Akaishi, the men of Oda greeted the summer sun under a small haze of fog and a strong smell of blood swelling in the air. They stood amidst the valley, already prepared while the early sun wasn’t even past the tip of the mountain to the East. The early breeze gently stirred the soft cloud laying on the ground, messed around with the light gold sunlight as if they were dancing on the stony edges.

Beneath that exquisite morning scene, James stood at the back of his army, atop a wagon, accompanied by his bodyguards, flag bearers, and drummers. He cast his gaze through the fog of war ahead, at the horrendous creature growling behind that veil of smoke. On this side of the smoke, his army greeted it with only silence. He looked at them, like a musician tending to his instrument before a show. Nobody made a sound, even when James signaled his wagon to turn around and departed for the hill to join the archers. He didn’t know since when he gripped the hilt of his katana as if it was a thumb on his hand.

The archers stood on top of an edge pointing out from the Akaishi mountain looking down at the horde of yari ashigarus in the valley, tightly formed columns. Even from the distance, he thought as if he could see their muscles contracted and extended as they held on their spears, trying to stand straight up in line. When he gazed at the forest laying to the right of his army, he could only see bits and pieces of the treetops. It was still, not even a bickering from the wind. The animals must have been still asleep under this fog. Smiling at the scene, James released his grasp for a moment, took a sip of tea and quietly remind himself of his own position in this battle. He must keep his posture, always, especially in times like this. The weak would succumb beneath the pressure while the strong rise from blood and ash.

When the sun rose beyond the eastern peaks, its light pierced through the fog and evaporated the thin blanket on the valley. The fog dispersed, at last revealing the vast Takeda’s army standing at the other side of the battlefield. From James’ vantage point, he could tell the majority of the army was cavalry standing behind a small number of archers and yari ashigarus. The famed Takeda horseman, James thought. A little dot detached from the bulk of red slowly approached James and his men. It was a rider bearing a white flag.

“My lord demands an audience of lord Oda.”

The rider spoke as soon as he stopped in front of the Oda’s line. He was cautious enough to stay not too close to the spear tips. From afar, lord Aizu Tsubasa, who was in charge of the army’s main body, gave James a quick look before glaring at the messenger, emitting such bloodlust it scared the cavalryman. Then, lord Aizu gave a mighty shout echoing along the valley. Like limbs of the same body, the Oda army followed in unison with a deafening shout, their spear tips pointing towards Takeda’s army.

“Your lord is in no position to make demands. Run back and tell him that, before I stick this blade through your throat.”

He unsheathed the katana and pointed at the horseman. Before things turned sour, he spurred the horse and ran back to his lines. Just as he unhorsed, an arrow pierced through the horse’s neck, made the creature scream in pain once before falling to the ground. The beast shivered once again before death, just like Takeda’s army did before falling back to total silence. Without having an up close, James could tell the Takeda’s general was very angry behind that war mask.

That decided the beginning. The Takeda’s general signaled his yari ashigaru’s line charging forward. His cavalry dispersed from the main body, going around the foot soldiers and trying to create two flanks at the same time. James made one last glance at the battlefield before jumping off his wagon and walked on the signal platform where his men prepared the drums. He grabbed the drumsticks from his men and stood still, staring blankly at the drum’s surface. He drew a long breath and closed his eyes. The surroundings seemed to slow down into a creep in his mind. He could hear the distant marching steps of the Takeda’s ashigarus echoing along the mountains, and the horses trampling the morning grass.

He smiled then opened his eyes and struck the drumsticks fast and hard on the leathered surface. His eyes fixed on the drum and his mind on the imagined battlefield between the drumbeats. He shouted the Oda’s war cry, leading his men in echoing their war song, exciting the Oda war machine. Other drums and war flags started moving, synchronizing with the beats James initiated.

Midori stood by his side, her eyes fixed on the moving armies down below them. The Oda army began spreading out, splitting into three parts with the center remained still. The two on the sides gradually formed diagonal wings, attached to the body that was central columns. Unlike the hasten Takeda, charging across the green field, the Oda remained slow, steady, and silent under the cover of the drums at the back. Midori watched her lord’s new strategy taking form, a weapon against the famed Takeda cavalry.

If she were to paint a picture of this battle, she would paint a crimson crane swooping down on a golden lion. The Takeda crane flew with its wings open and eyes on the sitting lion by the side of a hill. The cavalry were its wings, reaching far and wide to the flanks of the lion, and the ashigaru were its body, trying to keep up with the amazing speed of its wings. The crane was fast but frail. Its strength at the same time was also its weakness. The lion, on the contrary, was calm as water. It knew it was the predator, and since the beginning, it would emerge the victor. Slowly it crawled on the field with its belly close to the ground. It could feel the morning dew beneath its footsteps. The lion closed its eyes, and with every heartbeat, it felt the movement of the prey. Midori could feel the drum beats behind her, the mighty heartbeat of the lion. She could feel the hunger in the rumble deep in its throat. Its teeth baring, claws ready, waiting for the right moment.

The crane found its timing. It plunged itself through the air, descended upon the lion. It poured all of its strength onto the charge, sinking its claws and beaks into the lion’s flesh. A sure win, it must have thought. The impact of the charge shook the lion’s body, so intense the crane felt the tremble reverberated back to itself. But it realized too late that its claws and beak sunk into the flesh like a rock into the water. The lion’s body, the army of ashigaru, expanded and contracted at the right moment to swallow the Takeda’s cavalry. Surprising to the Takeda, the Oda let them charged between their ranks, splitting their formations to pieces. Just when the last horse passed the spear points, the ashigaru closed the circle, trapped the Takeda flanks within the newly created within the Oda’s formation, with men as walls, and men as the killing blades. The yari ashigaru divisions formed a closed circle around and separated Takeda’s cavalry, leaving just the small main column with ashigaru outside the deadly formation.

From the hill looking down, the battlefield now became a great trigram. The Takeda ashigarus coming from the North, while their cavalry was struggling in the Eastern and Western wings of the battlefield. Their initial attempt to cut apart Oda’s formation and strike the backline had failed. They were now trapped and waiting for their final moment unless the other general made a miracle and saved all of his men. It’s already over, Midori thought as she watched with awe.

Despite the expectation she had for her lord, Midori couldn’t help but feel amazed of Lord Oda Nobuhide. She gazed at him unconsciously when his eyes were still closed, and his face staring at the vibrating hide drum surface. Somehow, Midori felt like her daimyo didn’t even give a look at the battlefield for once during the whole skirmish. He even smirked, a slightly concealed one, as if he knew they’d win anyway. To her, he looked best this way, with a bit of arrogance and satisfaction on his face. She looked at him and blew at him a warm smile, even though he might not know. Or did he?

It took the Oda’s main army less than two hours to dismantle the attack of their opponent. Realizing his army was about to collapse, the Takeda’s general turned his horse and signaled their reserves to turn around. He probably didn’t expect there was such a strange tactician on the other side of the battlefield. Finally, it was over, the first battle in their northern campaign, Midori thought. She felt a strange urge to break the news to her lord, wanting to be the first to tell him of his achievement. As she turned toward him, she realized how pointless her desire was. He must have foreseen all of it, as he had already handed the drumstick to his escort and was making his way towards her, donning a slight smile.

“Piece of cake,” he murmured.

“What is it, m’lord?”

“Oh never mind me,” he chuckled. “Nobunaga would soon bring that arrogant fool’s head to us later. We’ll head back to the front and wrap up this battle. Ishimaru,” he signaled his captain. “Gather our bodyguards. We’ll ride in a moment.”

Ishimaru bowed and immediately signaled the rest of them. James saddled up his horse in silent, with his look still lingered on the battlefield. There was something fierce sparkled in his look, but it was just transient like the morning fog earlier. Midori looked at him, then followed his gaze to the field, wanting to see what he saw. Most of the Takeda had fled then. The remnants were some samurais leading a small group of less than five hundred yari ashigaru holding a last stand in the middle of the battlefield. They seemed not to be aware of their situation as they were almost surrounded by the Oda. The shade of red that used to cover a vast area of the valley then was just a small dot on the yellow field, like a drop of blood on a piece of gold.

James quickly fastened his armor, waiting for his men to assemble behind him, then urged his black horse down the hill towards the battlefield. His body leaned forward, his chest pressed close to its neck, eyes fixated on the last pile of red on the field. It was getting thinner and thinner as they were approaching. The moment James and his bodyguards rode around the perimeter of his trigram formation, the Oda let out an earth-shaken war cry, startled the dying Takeda. The atmosphere seemed to shake along with the ground as the war cry echoed in the air.

Less than half an hour, the last of Takeda’s ashigaru fell under the cavalry’s blade. James sat on his horse staring blankly at the routing enemies at the distance, suddenly sighed.

“Cowards!” he smirked and turned around, facing his army. They were still standing in the designated position in the formation, hands firm on the yaris, with all eyes on their daimyo. To them, their daimyo looked like the god of war on his black horse. His sleeves and shirt flaps were all soaked with the enemies’ blood. The cold look on his face, with a long scar cut through his left eye, was scarier than any war mask their armorer could make.

He raised his katana and let out a short but strong war cry. His whole army looked at him, and let out a shattering reply. Their deep voice echoed through the valley as if all the forest and mountains replied to their victorious call. For an infinite moment, Midori felt like that echo was powerful enough to move all the mountains and shake the high summer sky above them.

Somehow, she felt small in this place…

She turned her gaze towards James, just to realize he was already looking at her smiling. Something pop inside her at that moment.

She smiled at him and felt the warmth on her cheeks…

Later that evening, when the Oda were all gathered in their camp, somehow it felt livelier than the other days. The tension before the battle was gone and replaced by the cheerfulness after a victorious battle. They suffered some casualty, but the Takeda was routed so quick that they didn’t have the chance to deal much damage to the Oda’s army. Except for the patrols and camp guards, songs and laughter echoed everywhere. Even from the commander’s tent, the soldiers could hear the music playing, much graceful and romantic.

Inside the commander’s tent, all the candles were blown, leaving just the dim moonlight to accompany James and Midori through the tent canvas. He could see shivering silver rays of light coming from the summer sky through the tent’s fibers. Whenever the wind disturbed the tent, the light shivered as if it was cold from the wind. Between the darkness and those light columns, Midori was playing the koto, with her eyes gazing towards the dark corner of the room, looking for something far away.

“M’lord. We received a letter from general Takayama.” The guard posting outside their tent woke James up from the fantasy with Midori he was wandering in.

“Bring it in,” James put down the flute and gave Midori a quick kiss.

“Who carried this letter?”

“A bird, m’lord.” The man handled James the letter and bowed out.

“Do you think we should split up the army or try to find Takeda with our full force?” James asked Midori after a finishing up the letter. “Lord Tokugawa just took Kai this afternoon, so general Takayama is preparing his march North to meet up with our army. They didn’t suffer many casualties in the battle so that twenty thousand strong division is still intact. With that number and the reinforcement from Nobunaga, we’ll have around forty thousand men.”

“With one of his division destroyed today, Takeda probably has no more than twenty thousand left. That will be easy for us if you want to overwhelm him with mere numbers, though I know it is not your taste.” Midori put the koto away and sat down next to James.

“You know me well sweetheart. I’ll write general Takayama five thousand horses and head north first. I believe Takeda Shingen is somewhere near Echigo. If we march fast and catch them off guard when they aren’t behind the castle wall, this fight will be much easier for us.”

Just as James was planning to write the letter, his son, Oda Nobunaga arrived with a wooden box in his arms.

“I believe that’s the Takeda’s general?” James asked as he looked up.

“Yes, father. The remnants were totally annihilated. Takeda Shingen wouldn’t know that North Shinano and Kai provinces are in our hands.”

“I don’t think we can keep this news a secret from Shingen for long, but the longer we delay the better. You did a good job. I will write a letter to general Takayama later tonight and get five thousand cavalries from him. They should be here within two days, and we’ll head north on the third. In the next battle, you will take charge of the main army. I will command the flanking horsemen.”

“Thank you for trusting me, father, but I know nothing of the strategy you had in mind for the Takeda, so I don’t think I am fit to be the commander in chief of the next battle.” The offer from James caught Nobunaga by surprised. James could guess his son was wondering if his father was actually testing him or not.

“I will teach everything I know about this strategy to you in the next two days while we’re waiting for Takayama’s cavalry. Takeda Shingen is a formidable opponent so I will have to take charge of the flanks myself. That’s the most crucial part of this battle. But because of this, I have to leave the command of the main army in your hands. Besides, it is time for you to get some influences and support from my retainers. You’re the eldest son and my Heir, but it doesn’t mean you can be daimyo for long without proper support. Takeda Shingen’s head should be sufficient for your first achievement.”

“I understood, father. You really think far ahead.”

“You’ll need to do that soon, my son. Now, take your leave and get some rest. We have a lot of work tomorrow.”

“Yes, father. Do you have any other directions?”

“I’m good. You can leave now. Give the head to the guards on your way out and have it on a spike. People should know we’re here to destroy the Takedas and anyone who supports them.”

James waved Midori towards him as Nobunaga bowed out. She smiled at him and gave him a gentle kiss. She knew he’d worked hard, and tonight, only her can lift those burdens temporarily away from him. In his arms, she was happy to find moments of peace in this chaotic world.

 

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Author: Dat Le

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