Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



Another two-fisted tale from the brilliant brainpan of John Outram! (And check out John's other tales, A Trick of the Night and Seen Through Mist.)  In Feudal Japan, a lesson is passed on from Sensei to a young samurai...a bitter lesson with a bitter price...

 

A Lesson in Warfare
 

By John Outram
About the author


THE FIRST MANOEUVRES OF THE BATTLE BEGAN. Lines of samurai, armoured and mounted, surged forward from the camp of the Son of Light. The sun glittered on their naked blades and on the gilt of their harnesses. Forth they poured in their thousands, streaming out to do battle against the mighty army of the Supreme Heir.

As the young samurai watched, the sensei spread his tatami on the ground and lay down as if to go to sleep, heedless of the galloping horsemen around him and the war-cries and commands ringing in the air. Utterly confounded by this sight, the young man nonetheless screwed up his courage and approached cautiously. The sensei, Sensumo Kage, had his eyes closed, but the hilt of his katana was no more than a hand-span from his grasp. Standing at a respectful distance, the young man bowed.

"Sensei," he said quietly.

Sensumo Kage rolled effortlessly to a sitting position, the fingers of his left hand resting gently on the hilt of the katana. He opened his eyes and took in the young man who bowed before him.

"Sensei, I am Wakibake Toka," said the young samurai. "His Highness the Son of Light has seen fit to accept my services, unworthy as I am. I heard that you were among our army and I came by to pay my respects."

The sensei grunted: "Toka-san, you should not bow so deeply to me. The great name of Wakibake is most revered, whereas I am just an old war dog who serves his masters as he can."

"Forgive me, sensei, but you are more than this," replied Toka, bowing again. "You are a most revered teacher, a master of strategy, one of the senior advisers to His Highness. A man's name is only the legacy of his parentage; but skill and wisdom such as you possess is surely the Gift of Heaven." He hesitated and added: "Indeed, Sensei, I am surprised that you are not in the company of his Highness and the General Staff even now. How is it that you are preparing to rest, even when the battle is beginning."

Sensei Kage let out a long, deep gurgling sound that Toka hoped was a laugh.

"Do you wish to learn strategy, Toka-san?" he grinned. "Here is a lesson for you. A warrior must rest at all times when he is able to do so. He does not know when the chance will come again. This is never more true than when he is part of a defeated army, and must fight his way to freedom or use up his life in the defence of his Lord."

"Thank you, Sensei," said Toka respectfully. Again he hesitated before asking: "Sensei, do you mean that we are a defeated army?"

The old man regarded the young Lord through narrowed eyes, taking in the strongly-braced posture, the first-quality armour, the famous Wakibake daisho suspended from their belt straps at a carefully measured angle.

"Draw your swords!" he barked in a commanding voice. Toka did so at once, the katana swiftly drawn in his right hand, the wakizashi more carefully drawn in the left with the blade pointing down from his clenched fist.

"Fire and stones," commented the sensei. Toka acknowledged the point with a slight bow. The sensei seized his scabbarded sword and lunged recklessly at the young man, rising instantly from his mat and thrusting forward on the balls of his feet. Toka parried reflexively with the katana and stepped aside. To his amazement, the master tumbled at his feet, and instinctively he pressed the point of his wakizashi down, forcing the sensei to submit.

Sensei Kage gurgled again, his face crinkled in amusement.

"You have learned a lesson in warfare, Toka-san!" he chuckled merrily. "Throw yourself at your opponent, and you place yourself at his mercy! Even a wily old dog like me can do nothing lying on his face with a sword at his back. Toka-san, perhaps you would be good enough to let me up?"

The sensei rolled easily into a sitting position.

"The Son of Light is served by men who have not learned this lesson. They have lunged against the Supreme Heir with their strongest forces, and even now his Generals parry the stroke and prepare a counterstroke of their own, even as you parried my sword and thrust down at me while I was defenceless. You understand the lesson, Toka-san?"

Toka nodded: "I was not so vain as to think I had defeated you with ease, Sensei."

Sensei Kage grinned. "The Son of Light is in danger, great danger. As his stroke goes awry, his throat is exposed to the blades of his enemies. Thus, as the army marches out to its doom, I do not rail against His Highness in vain, or waste my energy in any way. I rest, so that I may defend him with what little strength remains in my aged body. Toka-san, I lay at your feet with my throat exposed. What do you think would have happened if you had thrust at me with your wakizashi?"

Toka thought carefully. The obvious answer was that the old man would have died. Toka kept his weapons razor-sharp, and his hand was steady. He had no qualms about killing, his upbringing and his training had made sure of that, and once resolved to kill mercy would not stay his hand. The heirloom swords he carried were steeped in killing.

"I believe you had a plan, Sensei," replied Toka.

"Hunglo!"

From the shadowed interior of the sensei's tent stepped a tall, dark man armed with a bow. The man was powerfully built and had a foreign cast to him. He smiled and bowed deeply to them both.

"Hunglo was watching all the while. He is a master of the bow, believe me Toka-san. Your stroke would not have fallen."

"The confidence of the sensei is a compliment to my unworthy self," replied Hunglo in his strange accent.

"Forgive me if I sound impertinent, Sensei," said Toka. "You planned that if I defeated you, Hunglo would shoot me before I could cut your throat. But how could you know that I would defeat you, that we would fight, or even that I would visit you today?"

"Some teachers would claim that by following the way, a man can know his future," smiled Kage. "I make no such claim. Hunglo watches me while I rest; I trust him. His watchfulness and his aim are beyond doubt."

Hunglo bowed again.

"Hunglo is from a barbarian land, and his mastery of Kyudo exceeds anything a humble teacher like myself can speak of. My eyes are old, Toka-san, I would be pressed to hit a screen door with samisen. But Hunglo's bow and arrow are formidable guardians."

"And as Hunglo watches over you, you watch over the Son of Light," said Toka.

The sensei's grin widened so that Toka feared his head might fall into two pieces.

"You learn quickly, Toka-san. We have failed to teach a lesson in warfare to those who advise the Son of Light, so we must teach one to the Supreme Heir!"

And with that, the sensei thrust the scabbarded sword through his waist-sash and ran off on bare feet to bark orders to the men at his command. A band of thirty or so shabbily dressed ronin gathered around him. Wakibake Toka had disregarded these men when he had seen them join the Son of Light's battle order, dismissing them as the unruly mob of masterless men that always followed in the wake of a successful army in search of spoil and plunder. Now he recognised the disciplined urgency with which they responded to Sensumo Kage's commands, belying their unkempt appearance. He noted, too, that though they wore ragged clothes and patches of rusty armour, their swords and bows were in pristine condition.

Toka ran over to the group and knelt before Sensumo Kage, thrusting his head to the ground. Before Kage could protest he said: "Sensei, I beg you to complete the lesson. You tell me that the generals have made a fatal error. Let me help you to protect the Son of Light. Let me join your band."

"Fire and stones," said the sensei, looking at the swords depending from Toka's belt. "Toka-san, perhaps you can tell a poor old war-dog why it is useful to have two swords drawn instead of one?"

Toka thought back to his schooling with Sensei Makata. The "fire and stones" method was unorthodox and difficult to learn, but once mastered was lethally effective. Nonetheless, Toka knew most sword-masters despised the method.

"Attacked by more than one opponent, one can defend against attacks from many directions using the two blades," he replied.

"Using two blades! And your two heads as well, no doubt?" shouted the sensei, and the ronin all laughed.

Toka smiled sheepishly, but inside he felt ashamed that the sensei and the ronin were laughing at him.

"Toka-san, consider the way of strategy," urged the sensei. "Attacked by many enemies, you must marshal them to a position where your attacks can be directed against them. This can be done with one sword more easily than with two. To allow your enemies to come at you from two sides, even when you have two swords, is to allow them to enforce their strategy over your own. Think on this, Toka-san."

"Thank you, Sensei."

The old man suddenly rounded on the smiling ronin and barked: " Which of you is brave enough to dare his single blade against the two blades of Wakibake Toka?"

Toka was on his guard in an instant--but the ronin all looked away, pale-faced, unable to meet either his or the master's gaze. Even Hunglo seemed stung by the chastisement implicit in the sensei's challenge.

"Yes, you laugh at the Lord Toka," sneered the sensei, "but not one of you is his equal, with one or two swords. He was learning the way of the warrior while you were whoring and drinking sake!"

He turned back to Toka and bowed: "Forgive my disparaging words, Toka-san. Let us continue the lesson."

The sensei opened his mouth to speak again, but as he did so a band of mounted samurai clattered past, screaming excitedly. It seemed that the attacking forces had been ambushed, and many hundreds had been killed. Now the line was breaking, and the enemy was rushing through. These mounted men had fled at once, to rush back to the camp and secure their own baggage before the enemy could reach the Son of Light's camp.

These men would spread panic through the camp like wildfire. Even as the first line of the army was breaking before the ambush, so the second line would be broken by the fear and doubt spread by fleeing men, and the enemy would rush through the gaps that opened. An army in disarray was not an army, it was a milling crowd, a herd of beasts among which the wolf pack would ravage. Even a proud warrior like Toka felt the lure of that mass hysteria, the desire to flee with the rest of the herd.

The sensei's voice cut through the sounds of panic, ordering the ronin band forward through the gathering throng. With men running in all directions, it was hard to keep them in order as they pressed forward, but the sensei watched like a hawk and barked short orders that brought back into rank any man who strayed. A few of the fleeing soldiers, seeing them running against the tide, rallied and started back to their lines, but most just ran before the enemy.

At last a band of samurai wearing the banners of the Supreme Heir chanced upon them. Their leader, a tall hatamoto samurai bearing a huge no-dachi, shouted a challenge and charged at Sensumo Kage. The sensei stepped aside and, with a movement almost too quick for the eye to follow, struck off the hatamoto's head with a single stroke. The gleaming katana cut through the lacquered neck guard and through flesh and bone as smoothly and easily as a reaper's scythe cutting rice-stalks. The helmeted head bounced a few times and rolled against Toka's feet.

The ronin rushed forward with drawn swords, but the Supreme Heir's followers, disheartened by their initial setback, turned tail and fled, leaving a handful of men to be dismembered by the blood-hungry ronin. Toka had drawn his swords but not had the chance to use them.

"The poets liken the samurai to the cherry blossom, so beautiful that they break the heart, and yet they last but a short time before they are gone," said the sensei sadly. He added more harshly: "So it is with courage, at least. It is one thing to be brave before a flying foe, another before a foe who is ready to cut off your head."

He kicked the fallen no-dachi with disdain.

"This is more foolish than your two-swords, Toka-san!" he exclaimed. "If he wanted to deal out a heavy stroke, he wanted heavier arms, not a heavier sword."

Toka said nothing but he hoped that he would have the chance to show the sensei what he could do with two swords.

They pressed on at a rapid pace. Now they reached the main battlefield, where pockets of brave soldiers from their own side still held out against the enemy. The ronin weighed in lustily against the Supreme Heir's men. Toka rushed forward with them and cut down several spearmen who, turning too late, could not bring their long weapons to bear as his two swords slashed and thrust among them.

"Sensei!" called a samurai who recognised the figure of Sensumo Kage. "You should go back and defend the camp. The line is broken, all is lost here."

"No, you have it wrong!" replied Sensumo Kage boldly. "The battle is turning. The Supreme Heir is slain, and we are going to raid his camp. Spread the word!"

Toka opened his mouth in protest, and saw the sensei wink at him most subtly. Was this the strategy? To try to rally the fleeing army and make a stand? But across the battlefield, all seemed to be chaos, with the enemy getting the better of matters. Toka turned his attention to two enemy soldiers, a low-rank samurai and an ashigaru, who were charging towards the sensei. He parried the samurai's attack, then spitted him on the wakizashi as he swung the longer katana at the ashigaru. The peasant-soldier was more skilled than his samurai companion, but not more skilled than Toka, and killing him was the work of seconds.

Now the cry was taken up across the battlefield: The Supreme Heir is slain! The Supreme Heir is slain! For the men who fought in his cause, this must have been a grievous cry. But for the common soldier, the cry meant something else. With the ranks of the Son of Light broken, his camp had seemed easier to plunder, and friend and foe had streamed towards it. Now bands of ronin and peasant-soldiers, even bands of samurai, were milling back to see if the camp of the Supreme Heir was likewise vulnerable. And with the main force of his army hurled against the forces of the Son of Light, the camp was indeed vulnerable. The Supreme Heir might need to deploy his personal guard to defend his baggage train from his own men as the rumour spread.

This is the way of strategy, thought Toka as he wielded his two swords against the milling hordes. The enemy was to be manipulated at all times, with one sword or two. He considered how he had stood over the sensei, apparently victorious but with an arrow aimed at his defenceless back. In the moment of triumph the Supreme Heir would be plunged into doubt. But how would he react. Far off, Toka heard a voice cry that the Supreme Heir was dead, and he lent his own lungs lustily to the lie.

The ronin band had withered in the last few encounters. Poorly armoured, they were vulnerable to the arrows and thrown spears of their enemies, but this made them all the more eager to close and fight hand to hand. They had slain ten times their own number, but at the cost of one third their strength. Toka had seen swordsmanship displayed on a scale he had never imagined as the ronin, led by the sensei's example, hurled themselves at better equipped samurai and their retainers. Truly the man was worth more than the sword, and Toka, in his first-class armour and bearing his heirloom swords, knew that only the hard work and discipline of his training school kept him alive that day. Twice a razor-edged blade had come within inches of slicing open his throat, and twice he had coolly deflected the attempt at the last moment and slain his foe with a deft counter-thrust. He did not feel inferior to any of the swordsmen following the sensei, only to the sensei himself, whose skill and composure with the katana was peerless.

The fury of their onslaught must have given strength to the rumour. It was not enough to rally the army of the Son of Light--the first few minutes of the ambuscade has been enough to utterly break any semblance of order or discipline--but in the milling chaos of their flight some of their comrades had begun to stand and fight with added vigour, while the enemy, suddenly beset with doubt, pressed the attack less strongly. And the sensei led the ronin band deeper and deeper into the enemy lines.

"Stand and fight, you bloody fools!" shouted a mounted samurai to the men who fled before them.

"But the Supreme Heir has fallen!" they cried back.

"That is a filthy lie!" screamed the samurai, a high-ranking warrior, as he cut down the nearest man with his sword. The soldiers cowered back, caught between the weapons of their own leaders and the onrushing ronin.

Toka threw himself into the fray, his swords reaping a bloody harvest until he fought his way to the samurai's side. The horse moved skittishly, and in the press Toka was nearly caught under its hooves.

"Are you the men who are saying the Supreme Heir is dead?" asked the samurai.

"I saw him die with my own eyes," replied Toka.

"You will die with that lie on your lips!"

The samurai slashed at Toka's head. Toka made the "fire and stones" cut and the sword shattered between his two blades. Then he thrust with the wakizashi under the skirts of the samurai's armour, cutting open his thigh until the sharp steel lodged in bone. Blood sprayed into Toka's face, and then the stranger samurai toppled from his horse and lay face down, bleeding to death in the mud. It was a sorry end for a brave and honourable warrior.

"See who comes now!" called the ronin Matsu Maka, and Toka and the sensei turned to look.  A group of perhaps thirty finely dressed samurai were riding into the battle zone, rallying the enemy's troops around them. In the centre of the group was a young man in first-class armour decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl. He had removed his helmet, and Toka could see that he was very young, no more than seventeen years old. He was blessed with a serene expression and a pale, handsome face. Even without the identifying banners worn by his escorts, Toka would have known that this must be the Supreme Heir himself, coming into the heart of the battle to convince his quailing troops that he was still alive.

"Now, Hunglo!" cried the sensei, and the barbarian bent his bow.

"No!" cried Toka in alarm, at last seeing the sensei's strategy in its entirety. He flung up his arm as if he could catch the arrow speeding towards the young man on his milk-white horse, pluck it back from its inevitable course. But it was too late to take back the blow. The young man's hands flew to his throat, clutching at the black shaft and feathers as his life-blood gushed out.

The samurai gathered around their lord with cries of outrage and consternation, some turning to shout insults and wave their fists at the ragged band of ronin. The ronin jeered back, but also began to edge away. These well-armed samurai outnumbered them two to one, and had bows and horses. In a moment grief and horror would explode into rage and fury.

"Toka-san," said the sensei quietly, plucking at Toka's sleeve.

Toka stood aghast, his arms hanging limply by his side. It was as if the death of the young prince had robbed him of the will to go on.

"Toka-san," repeated Sensumo Kage. "It is time to go. We have done our duty here."

"But through lies and deception, sensei," sighed Toka.

"Combat is deception and illusion, Toka-san," said the sensei firmly. "Honour is illusion, duty is illusion. The truth is only ki, spirit and do, direction. And our direction must be away from here, before those samurai are the death of us."

They turned and followed the retreating ronin as the first arrows flew after them. Cries rang out across the battlefield announcing the fall of the Supreme Heir. Chaos reigned. Pockets of samurai battled it out while bands of lesser soldiers sought plunder among the dead. But all would be restored by the Son of Light. Order would be restored now that ten years of war had been ended by the arrow of Hunglo and the strategy of the sensei.

"Toka-san, a moment please!" called the sensei. Toka realised he had begun to outstrip the older man. As he turned back, he saw the sensei half-crouching, seemingly studying the ground. It was a moment or two before he noticed the arrow protruding from the old man's shoulder, where it had found the gap in his light armour.

"Sensei!" he exclaimed, trying to help him up, but Sensumo Kage waved him away.

"Toka-san, it has been my fate to observe many battlefield injuries. I can tell at once that this one is mortal."

"No, Sensei!" protested Toka, but he could see for himself that this was true. The arrowhead had gone deep into the sensei's chest cavity. Bright blood was leaking from the wound. If the sensei moved, he would certainly die. Tears began to flow down Toka's cheeks.

"To die while performing one's duty is the perfect ending to the life of a samurai," smiled Sensumo Kage. "We know from teaching that earthly things cannot be achieved, Toka-san. Duty is more meaningful than the achievement of goals; the struggle against an opponent is more important than gaining victory; life is for living, not holding on to. I have lived my life, fought battles, given service. Do not grieve for me, Toka-san, unless it eases your heart to do so."

Toka swallowed hard and regained control of his voice: "I thank you for my lesson today, Sensei. May the pupil be worthy of the teacher."

"It has been a pleasure to teach such a fine student as Wakibake Toka," replied the sensei. Then, with a sly smile he added--"Goodbye, Toka-san!"--and slumped forward.

Toka wiped tears from eyes and whispered a short prayer. Then he stood up, drew his two swords, and returned to the struggle.

The End.



 
 

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A Lesson in Warfare is copyright by John Outram. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)