Chapter Eight: Honour and Duty

Somewhere in the Tamba Province

"There must be thousands of them," Sutaakaki whispered as softly as possible, making sure that the words did not escape from beneath the bush she and her friends hid beneath. With Komadori to her right and Yajuu-kun and Karasu to her left, they were barely visible beneath the cloud-covered night sky. The four recently-acquainted friends had been traveling westward undisturbed for almost a week before arriving at their current location, which Komadori guessed to be somewhere on the fringes of the Tamba province. It was a trip that could have been shortened significantly had they not lost their steeds when Karasu leveled most of her shrine when trying to defend it. As such, they've had to make their journey on foot and with little in terms of supplies. Had it not been for Yajuu-kun's surprising aptitude in wilderness survival, though, they would have likely succumbed to hunger long ago.

However, it did not mean that they weren't hungry. The fact that Yajuu-kun was, unsurprisingly, an extremely strict vegetarian meant their diet had consisted mostly of wild nuts, fruits, and berries. Aside from Yajuu-kun, who seemed to have no trouble with the diet, it was barely enough to keep them on their feet, let alone deal with any trouble they might encounter.

And encounter it they did. Thankfully, Komadori was able to keep alert despite his hunger and was able to spot the approaching danger in ample time to take cover. What they found, however, was a lot more trouble than they could hope to deal with. Though prepared to handle anything from small bands of scoundrels to scouting parties sent by Keikoku, they had not expected to encounter an entire army of his men. Sprawled across a large field at the edge of the forest were rows upon rows of tents, campfires, stables, and carts, all meant for one thing – war. Though the main banners flown from the tents belonged to those of Keikoku, there were several smaller banners that bore unfamiliar sigils. Most likely, they were the original banners of the army before they became subjugated to Keikoku's ambition.

"Could they be looking for us?" Komadori suggested.

"I doubt we're that popular," Karasu answered. "Plus they shouldn't have any clue that we've come this way."

"Then they must be here for conquest."

"Are there any heavy-weights in Tamba?" Karasu asked, turning to Sutaakaki, who would be the only person to have any inkling of the larger political landscape. Unfortunately, Karasu would have had more fortune were the older, and vastly more experienced, sister present.

"I'm afraid I do not know. My family did not have many dealings with these regions," Sutaakaki explained. "Could this be why the spirits told us to travel?"

"Can't be a coincidence," Karasu agreed, though reluctantly. "However, I don't see the four of us being capable of stopping a whole army."

"We should move on," Yajuu-kun suggested.

"But...look over there," all eyes set upon the target of the miko's attention, which happened to be the remnants of a large animal that had spent most of the evening roasting over a large fire. Though the fire had died and the men were fed, there was still a fair portion of meat left behind. Aware of what the eyes were seeing, three stomachs let out a faint groan of longing at the thought of the potential prize.

"That's…that's mighty tempting," Komadori remarked, aware that his tongue was already skimming along his lips in anticipation.

"And them?" Yajuu-kun, the only one not tempted by the bounty, said as he pointed out the slumbering ashigaru that lay around the fire pit. It was clear that he did not want to take such a risk, which was understandable considering not only were there sleeping soldiers but an entire camp of hostile troops to potentially contend with. Though all was silent, there was bound to be a sentry or two wandering the perimeter.

"I can get it."

"You certain?"

"I'm a ninja. I think I can sneak past a few sleeping soldiers." Confident in his abilities, the young ninja quickly crawled out from under the bush and sprinted silently across the open field to the outer tents. Since this was an army of conquest, chances were they had been marching for most of the day and combined with a heavy meal meant that most of the soldiers nearby were going to be in a deep slumber. Once he had reached the tents, though, the ninja surprised his friends with the least expected tactic to employ – he walked out casually from behind cover and headed straight for the fire pit.

For a ninja, darkness and confusion were some of the greatest assets on the field for her could literally hide in the plain sight. At a distance, it would be nigh-impossible to tell who Komadori was or was not and so long as he walked about as though he belonged in the camp then any casual observer would dismiss him as just another soldier returning to sleep about a quick relief in the forest. The object was to get in and out quickly so nobody would get curious. His stride was calm but seemingly sluggish, aided by a stretch of the arms as though he were yawning in a half-awake stupor, and he had left behind his weapons and a few pieces of clothing so that it looked like he had just woken from his sleep. Upon reaching his objective, the ninja deftly tip-toed around the slumbering soldiers and proceeded to slice off the largest slab of meat he could find. With the objective in hand, it was simply a matter of retracing his steps in just as calm, albeit slightly faster, manner.

However, just as Komadori was reaching the outer ring of tents, out stepped a person from around the bend and the ninja was face-to-face with a young man who was clearly well-armed and equally surprised to see him. Wearing so much black, Komadori barely even saw the man before the near-collision. Though the man might have been half-dressed, he still had a pair of swords sheathed at his side in the traditional X-pattern, though instead of the smaller wakizashi he had a second katana. Judging by the craftsmanship of the few pieces of armour he wore, not to mention his confident posture, Komadori was willing to bet his life that he was staring at a samurai.

Since running would immediately give him away, Komadori's only hope was to bluff his way through this. With an army of such size, it was highly unlikely that any one person would be able to recognize every other individual there. Komadori stood out no more than the man he stood across from; most ashigaru were only provided armour, not the clothing they wore underneath it and who wore their armour to sleep? Once again, the ninja just had to act calm and pretend like he belonged.

"S-sorry sir," Komadori pretended to stammer, bowing his head apologetically.

"You're up awfully late kid," the man replied. "What are you doing wandering about?"

It was hard to come up with an excuse when you were carrying a slab of meat in your hands. Not many excuses would explain that, after all. Thankfully, though, a lie that needed some effort to be discovered was more likely to be bought as truth so Komadori said nothing as though he really were guilty of something. The man took a long at the ninja, then to the bounty in his hands, and then to the fire pit some distance past him before 'cleverly' figuring the answer out.

"Ah, the old-timers not willing to part ways with their meal, huh?" the man said smugly, figuring this to be another case of the 'big and tough veterans not sharing with the smaller youngsters.' "Guess it's their fault for not keeping a better eye on their bounty."

"Uh, y-yeah," said the ninja sheepishly.

"Then eat up and get some rest. We've got a fort to overrun tomorrow and you're going to need every bit of strength you've got." Komadori took careful note of that information. If there was going to be an attack tomorrow then there had to be a settlement of some sort nearby. If he could warn the people there in advance of the upcoming attack, not to mention give some details to as to the extent of their forces, it might help out whoever was going to be on the receiving end. It might not change the course of the battle but every little opportunity to be a thorn in side of Keikoku's ambition was worth it. "And you know, since all that food is probably going to go to waste by morning…" the man continued, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "I think I might just have to give some of it a better home. Tell you what, if you didn't see anything tonight, I didn't either."

That was all the reassurance Komadori needed. Nodding and thanking the man as graciously as a 'kid soldier' would, the ninja continued on his way, waiting until the man was too distracted taking a slab of meat before bolting as fast as his legs could carry him. Perhaps it was the hunger or perhaps it was the close brush with danger but victory tasted sweet for the young heroes that night. It was a shame, though, that they could not spend more time savouring their victory but instead had to continue on their way with all haste in hopes of staying alive when the war machine started up in the morning

As Komadori had expected, it was only a few hours' trek to the objective, or at least what he could only presume to be the army's objective. Though none of the four could appreciate the fact at the time, the path they had been traveling along ran alongside a major trade route running through the Tamba province, connecting it to its neighbours both to the east and to the south. Strategically, the route held little value to any army for the region was littered with valleys and large hills that created a number of natural causeways through the terrain. The road, and the trade route, however, held economic importance to anybody who had ambitions of maintaining a firm control over the entire nation. Thus, like many trade routes, there was a sturdy fortification that had been constructed over the decades to ensure that the route remained protected. From that fortification grew a village, which the four travelers now found standing before them.

It was a fairly small village and it could have easily been mistaken as simply an expansion of the fortification's garrison. The fortress, if one could really call it that, was nothing remarkable and were it not for the limited experience of the group it would have appeared just like any other simple fort built by traders and local militia for protection as no major army was stationed close enough to offer any real support. It had relatively small walls made of stone with no towers and only a simply parapet, a sizeable wooden gate that could withstand only the simplest of siege weapons, and a noticeable absence of any large-scale defensive structures. It had the hallmarks of a fortification built by peasants who only had thieves and bandits to deal with. With a small river running along its northern border and the valley wall along the south, the only means to continue through the trade route was to be granted admittance by the occupiers of the fort. For Keikoku, ensuring the route's potential future use meant removing the occupiers or the fortifications as a whole.

Given the fort's size, and the size of the army he bore witness earlier, Komadori could not initially fathom how anybody could consider this to be a serious obstacle. Even a modestly experienced field officer would give the fort about as much consideration as one would give a flimsy wooden door. The front door looked barely capable enough to withstand a sizeable battering ram, let alone a twelve-pound iron shot. Only after a second glance at the some of the banners being flown exposed who had currently taken residence. One of the larger banners depicted a black, three-legged bird, which may well signify absolutely nothing or it could be what they were looking for this entire journey.

"Just follow my lead," Komadori instructed, motioning to the others to fall in behind him as he headed out onto the path.

"You sure it's a good idea to just walk up to a heavily armed fortress?" Karasu asked, referring to the sentries standing atop the walls. While the path was kept well lit by several torches, only a few small lanterns provided any sort of illumination for the people on the walls. Still, the silhouettes of several soldiers could be seen, all carrying arquebuses. Her friend seemed confidant, though, or perhaps just head-strong. When Yajuu-kun followed after the ninja, she was finally convinced and took up the rear.

Komadori knew that it wouldn't take very long for the sentries to notice their arrival, especially on such a well-lit path. He made sure his pace was calm and obvious so the sentries wouldn't think he was part of the army that there were defending against. The disadvantage of a matchlock at night, though, came from the obvious problem of using a weapon that required a lit match to operate. Once the sentries took notice, prepped their weapons, and readied their weapons against them, Komadori could easily see every sentry that was capable of firing upon them. He may have been confident but he wasn't brazen enough to approach a fort without contingency plans.

"Halt! Who goes there?" shouted one of the guards.

"My name is Komadori, son of Daisuke Wayanabe, of the Ikko-ikki of Nagashima. You are of the Saiga Ikki, correct?"

"And what is it to you?"

"I wish to speak with Saiga Magoichi."

"Wait, you mean the Saiga Magoichi is here?" Sutaakaki interjected in a whisper.

"More like a Saiga Magochi is here," Komadori corrected. "Or at least I hope."

"And why would he wish to grant you an audience?" the guard spoke up once more.

"Well, we did just pass by a few thousand armed soldiers who made camp a few hours down the road. I doubt they're just here for the scenic view but we can go if you guys don't want to talk. In fact, I probably wouldn't want to stick around here when morning comes."

A willingness to walk away was often an easy way to make a proposal more enticing. Sure enough, after a brief pause the main gates swung open with a loud, rusty groan. Again, the four were greeted with more soldiers armed with more arqubuses armed and ready in the event that this was all just a clever ruse to get the door open (not that a cannonball wouldn't have been faster and easier). At the center of the soldiers, though, was a man who stood out markedly from the others. With a towering build and a dark complexion, his posture alone signified that he held authority over those who stood around him. He had the look of an experienced ronin – his armour was a brilliant silver and blue, though it was clear that the armour had seen far more battles than even the current wearer had. The plates were scratched, dented, and had long since lost their silvered finish. Even the face mask bore major scars with half of its entirety, having been broken apart, leaving only a jagged piece covering the left half of the man's face.

"So you're Wayanabe's student, huh?" the man said after taking a long, scrutinizing look at Komadori.

"And you must Saiga Magoichi," he replied.

"Everybody just calls me Saibo-gu. I'm told you have some information on some potential guests you're willing to share."

"If by 'guests' you mean guys with guns and spears."

"Let's talk inside."

Though Karasu still had her reservations, she quietly followed her comrades into the fort, glancing only briefly over her shoulder as the gates closed behind her. The thought of hanging around in a fort when an army was about to march all over the next day was not an appealing thought to her, regardless of how much she would have liked to a nuisance to Keikoku. Komarodi may have had his reasons to choosing this course but she didn't quite agree. It may have been a coincidence that she had directed them straight to this fort but it didn't necessarily mean that they had to be involved in this fight. She didn't get a very good feeling from Saibo-gu either but she had a distrust of most soldiers.

Saibo-gu led the group to one of the largest buildings in the fort, which Komadori could only assume served as the main garrison. There were a number of soldiers resting and an equal number patrolling and working outside. Obviously Saibo-gu knew that an attack was imminent and had been doing all he could to prepare for it. However, it did beg the question – why stay? This was the least ideal place to make a stand against an army. The landscape may create a natural chokepoint but that would matter for little once the cannonballs started flying.

Walls were a great asset for any fortification in the old days. Centuries of warfare revolved around fortified walls protecting cities and key locations. Enemy troops would charge the castle, try to climb the walls or break down the gates and defenders would rain hell down upon them. Big, talls walls could keep even the largest of armies at bay and turn an assault into a drawn-out siege. However, with the advent of gunpowder and the new artillery it brought, the traditional box-shaped fortress became nothing more than an oversized coffin. Big stone walls shattered when hit by a cannonball.

"You wanted to talk about guys with guns and spears…well, start talking," Saibo-gu said as they arrived in a large room that served as a sort of command center for the fort. A large table in the center had a map of the surrounding landscape and it was where the five sat down for their discussion.

"On our way here, we passed by one of Keikoku's armies camped out here near the forest," Komadori explained, taking a nearby piece of black stone and set it down on the approximate coordinates on the map. "Judging by the number of tents, I'd ballpark the size at about twenty-five hundred to three thousand troops. I didn't see many stables so it's probably infantry only. I did, however, also see about a dozen pieces of field artillery."

As it turned out, the ninja's food run into the enemy camp had yielded a lot more than just a slab of meat.

"Get a good look at these cannons?"

"Short-range, small caliber cannons, likely drawn by two horses. It's not much but it'll put holes in the wall pretty quickly."

"Hmm…" Saibo-gu stroked his chin lightly as he processed the information. "Small is good. I think we can handle small."

"I didn't see any big cannons on the wall coming in," Karasu remarked, sounding, understandably, pessimistic.

"Don't have any. We do have those however." A simple point of the figure directed the four's attention over an array of small items scattered across the floor.

Sutaakaki was the first to realize what they were and gasped, "Those are…"

"Really small."

"It's not the size that counts – it's how you use them."

Karasu's comment was no understatement of the size as the four stared at almost two dozen very small pieces of artillery. Though they could have easily have been mistaken for strange urns, the small iron objects were, in fact, mortars – small, hand-portable mortars. They barely went half-way up a person's shins and lobbed shots not much larger than a person's fist but what Saibo-gu's arsenal lacked in power, it made up for in volume.

The fundamental difference between a cannon and a mortar was the angle it fired at - a cannon fired at very low angles while a mortar lobbed shots at steep ones. Barring a strong headwind, the best angle to take any shot in order to maximize distance was at forty-five degrees. However, there are always trade-offs. Shooting at low angles may have less range but the shot got to the target quickly and one could aim by simply looking down the barrel. At a high angle, though, one could lob shells further distances, even behind cover, but the shots took forever to hit the ground and aiming was difficult even for an experienced gunner. This made a mortar great for knocking out targets that didn't move such as an enemy's cannon and with the greater range one could target opposing cannons before it could be deployed. A cannon's carriage was typically its weakest point next to the gun crew itself. Dropping a few shots through the carriage would render it completely useless. Hitting the cannon, of course, would be the tricky part and that's where the volume of fire came in. Much like a volley of arqubues, Saibo-gu planned to take on the enemy artillery by lobbing dozens of shells and hoping one or two hit. The small caliber of the mortars reduced how much gunpowder and iron he needed to use so he could keep the shots going. It was a risky plan and one that counted on every bit of Saibo's expertise with artillery and even with the best of results it still left him with three thousand soldiers to contend with and no cannons to thin their ranks.

"That's not going to stop them in the least," Karasu said once Saibo-gu had gone over his mortar strategy. "Even if you disable their artillery you still have the ashigaru."

"We'll hold them at the walls as best we can. My men are well-trained with their guns and are more than used to fighting against bad odds."

"And how many do you even have?"

"A hundred and twenty, not including the ones that will be operating the mortars."

"That's it?" Karasu scoffed, though not sounding very surprised at the small number. "We're about to be outnumbered almost thirty to one and you call this 'bad odds?' These are horrible odds."

"I've been fighting against Keikoku for almost five years now, how much military experience do you have?" Saibo shouted angrily.

"Don't need military experience to know what a one-sided fight is. This isn't going to be a fight, it will be a slaughter!"

"Okay, I think that's enough Karasu," Komadori quickly interjected. "We came here to help not to smash any hope."

"You came here to tell them what you knew. You've done that. We should leave before we're killed along with the rest of these idiots." Karasu did have a valid point but Komadori wasn't about to just walk out when these people needed help. The Saiga Ikki was a part of the same Ikko-ikki resistance that Nagashima stood for.

"You never mentioned why you were here," Komadori said calmly, turning his attention to Saibo and ignoring the miko for a brief moment.

Saibo's expression seemed to soften for a momentary at the mention of his purpose. He let out a quiet sigh as though recalling a memory he wasn't on friendly terms with. "That army you passed just recently razed a village belonging to daimyo that's opposing Keikoku's expansion. A lot of people were killed…but a lot of people also managed to make it out of there alive."

"And now they're here," Komadori said, piecing the puzzle together.

Saibo nodded grimly. "They arrived a few days ago – hungry, tired, and a lot of injured people. My people received a message for help so I took what people I could round up on short notice and got here as fast as I could. This is the only safe haven for them. There's a larger castle nearby but it's a few days march from here. If we pull out now, that army will catch up to those people and they won't stand a chance. I'm not going to let these people down."

"How many people?"

"A couple hundred…mostly women and children. We're already in the process of getting them ready to continue down the road and we're going to buy them as much time as we can. It may not be enough but…it's the only thing we can do."

Karasu had operated under the presumption that this had been merely a fool-hearted stand against Keikoku under a misguided notion of honour or defiance. Knowingly standing in the way of a nigh-unstoppable war machine was nothing short of complete idiocy. Standing in front of that plow to stop it from running through hundreds of innocent people was still idiocy but at least it was noble idiocy. As a miko, her job had always been to help people, not to fight wars and die needlessly; the samurai could have that glory all to themselves. Komadori seemed intent on staying, as did Sutaakaki but they were both warriors and this was right at home for them. Yajuu-kun, she knew full well, would go wherever she went. Everything told her that staying was a bad choice but the spirits of Inari made it clear that her destiny was with Komadori and she trusted the spirits more than her own selfish sense of self-preservation.

Not to mention letting innocent people die was not something that sat well with her conscience.

"A few mortars and a handful of guns aren't going to hold off an army," Karasu reminded them. "I have an idea though. Do you have any flour?"

History Behind the Story

Cyborg (Saibo-gu) was referred to by the name of Saiga Magoichi. This was actually a title held by the leader of the Saiga Ikki, most notably of whom was Suzuki Shingehide. He was well-known for equipping his armies with arquebuses and his personal banner included a yatagarasu, the three-legged bird of myth. His forces fought against Oda during the siege of the Ikko-ikki's main fortress of Ishiyama Hongan-ji. After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he is said to have lived the rest of his days as a ronin.