Munenori's Nine

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Tsuruchi Munenori

Kakita Toshiken sat in his new study, surrounded by scrolls, illuminated by several mismatched lanterns. He had not yet settled in here, in the Empress’ new holding, but his work would not wait for better decoration to arrive. His assistants were helping him review the after-action reports from the great battle outside the capitol. He had thought it only responsible to choose a new general rather than lead the force himself. But now, he had no choice – that army was his, and he needed to learn about the men under his command.

He set aside an empty bowl, drained of the too-strong tea that had sustained him this far into the night, and asked for the next report. His hatamoto proffered it to him and he began to read, musing aloud as he did so.

“Ah, the vanguard archery unit. I recall Moriyasu-san mentioning it in our briefing; a key part of his strategy. Stationed at a slight bend of the great river to provide fire support.” He paused for a moment, frowning. “There are so few names here. Is there another page missing?”

His hatamoto shook his head, his eyes on the floor. “No, my lord. There were only nine.”

Tsuruchi Munenori hurried to the banner that marked the rally point for the unit he had been assigned to, cursing under his breath at having been delayed. It was to be a front-line archery unit, forty bows strong, positioned to support the main force under the command of Hiruma Hanbei. Munenori had seen a great deal of fighting in this last year, but this was his first experience with war. It struck him just how loud it was – the thunder of hoofbeats, the rattling of supply wagons, and the steady sound of armored troops marching, punctuated by the roars and cheers of units preparing for glory and death. He arrived just as an Imperial courier ran off in the opposite direction, seeming confused and upset. Munenori looked around, and his eyes fell on two of his fellow Wasp, Tsuruchi Kin and Tsuruchi Kendai. Kin was the younger of the two, and his eyes were as wide and as bright as Lord Sun. His excitement seemed to triumph over his terror, and was obviously relieved to see Munenori. He gave a crisp, deep bow, which Munenori returned.

Kendai acknowledged his cousin more casually – Munenori had taken Kendai under his wing at court, and the two had become friends for it. Kendai was perched, crouching, on a supply crate. He was a hunter of both beasts and men, and although Kendai’s skill with the bow was a near match of his own, he was clearly feeling out of place here.

“Kendai-san, I’m glad you’re here. Where is Hanbei-sama?” Kendai shook his head in response. Munenori looked around for any Crab heraldry, but saw none.

“I was hoping you had seen him, Tsuruchi-san.” A stocky Shiba bushi bowed to him, and behind him stood his Isawa charge. “I am here to protect Isawa Minobu. I am Shiba Yi. I haven’t seen our commander yet, and I was told this was supposed to be a much larger group.” To no one in particular, he added, “I don’t like this one bit.”

Another Imperial runner arrived, nervously holding a tessen of jade and gold. His eyes searched around, then seemed to lock onto the small and unassuming mon decoration that marked Munenori as an Emerald Yoriki. He approached Munenori, bowed deep, and pressed the fan into Munenori’s hands.

Munenori was too startled to process what was happening. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” Two more men rushed up to Munenori’s side, and began attaching a back banner to his armor.

The courier bowed extremely low, and gestured to the handful of troops around the rally banner. “My lord, the battle is about to be joined. You are hereby instructed to assume command. Ready your unit, and prepare to receive additional orders.”

Munenori turned around to see the wondering, skeptical faces of eight samurai. His two fellow Tsuruchi, the pair of Phoenix, a handsome Crane, a quiet Asahina, an excited-looking Toku, and an Agasha whose eyes seemed to be focused on something far away.

Shiba Yi chuckled softly and broke the awkward silence. “So, what do we do now… sir?”

The honorific seemed calculated to fall just on the far side of the line between respectful and mocking. Munenori looked down at the tessen in his hands, closed his eyes, and centered himself.

There was a cherry tree, whose branches brushed the window of his childhood home. The scent of those blossoms was always a comfort after spring storms. There was a hawk that had nested in the trees where he hid during his first hunt. Munenori was so perfectly still that the hawk did not fly from the nearby branch. He would never forget the piercing yellow of that predator’s eyes. There was a lesson in Meiji-sama’s magisterial dojo, and the first moment he truly began to understand the tenet of Duty. Munenori opened his eyes with a slight smile, and looked into the faces of each of the waiting samurai in turn.

“Now, we string our bows.”

Toshiken shook his head, trying to keep his sadness and anger off his face as his hatamoto continued to explain. “Hiruma Hanbei was to lead the unit – archers from the 2nd Crab Army were to make up the majority of it. Up until the hours before the battle, he was responding in the affirmative to our requests. But Hanbei-san was personally sworn to Hida Tsuneo…”

Toshiken’s face broke for just a second, and he slammed his palm on to his low desk, rattling his tea bowl. “Damn. Moriyasu-san was counting on those archers. I imagine the losses to our flanks and reserves were severe.”

Toshiken’s hatamoto shook his head. “No, my lord. The archer unit succeeded at the mission that Moriyasu-sama gave them.”

“With nine men?” Toshiken sounded incredulous.

“Read on, my lord.”

Battle was a terrifying blur. Munenori had sent four of the nine off behind a small palisade, which provided them some amount of cover, so that they could focus on logistical support. His frontline five had been hit hard within moments of joining the fray. An elite team of archers, led by a ronin of terrifying skill, had recognized as Seppun Moriyasu had that clearing the samurai troops from the river bend would allow the larger army unfettered access to the samurai flank. Munenori looked over to Daidoji Unaju - the shugenja was walking calmly, arms outstretched, muttering a soft prayer. The air seemed to thicken, but the sensation was not unpleasant. It was if the priest had created a small island of peace in this vast sea of violence. The incoming arrows seemed to lose much of their force before impact, and although Munenori’s men were all injured, they were still up and firing.

Munenori nocked, drew and fired in a single fluid motion - a motion he had performed thousands upon thousands of times. Instantly, he knew where that arrow would strike - far away, on the other side of the river, the ronin commander blinked for the last time. The arrow pierced his throat and spine, and he dropped to the earth without a word.

Toshiken frowned as he looked over the report. “Munenori-san’s report seems to be very critical of his own actions in battle, but the reports of his men tell a different story. I doubt it is merely an abundance of humility at work here.”

His hatamoto nodded and replied. “I had a chance to speak to him myself just a few days ago. He was troubled by many of the decisions he had to make in the field. He told me that he had merely done his best - you could tell that those choices had stayed with him.”

Toshiken lowered his eyes. “What man has not looked back on his choices and wondered if there was another way? The heavens know that I have committed such a sin in these dark days.”

A cry went up from the reserve unit, and a frantic signal fan followed. Munenori’s unit was heavily engaged with another wave of enemies, but he could see what had happened. His cousin, Tsuruchi Kin, was laying on the ground, clutching at an arrow lodged deep in his stomach. Even at this distance, he could see the look of confusion on his young face - shock had set in, and Agasha Hikari stood over him helplessly, her ability to call upon the water kami already exhausted.

Daidoji Unaju retreated to Munenori’s side, and bowed his head. “Send me back to the reserves. I can heal him.”

The frontline unit was engaged in a shooting duel with an advancing enemy force, and the priest’s winds were slowing their advance, buying time for the samurai archers to rain arrows back down on their foes.

Munenori shook his head. “No, I need you here. Keep calling to the winds, Unaju-san.”

Unaju looked shocked. “But he’s dying! I can tell from here! Your cousin...”

Munenori shouted his reply, louder than he meant to. “My cousin knows his duty! Now do yours!”

The priest flinched, bowed, and continued his prayers. As the battle raged on, Munenori could swear that he heard the beating of his cousin’s heart, slower and slower as the seconds and minutes passed. When it was clear that he and his men had the situation under control, he dispatched Unaju to the reserves. He came back several minutes later, his head bowed, and his robes stained.

“I believe your cousin will live. Munenori-sama, please understand that I am a man of peace. I must apologize...”

Munenori cut him off with a wave. “Your instinct was right, Unaju-san. The only apology due here is mine. He could have died. But if our line breaks here, untold others will die. I don’t know if I was right. But I think I did what Kin-san would have wanted.”

Their conversation was cut short by the clear voice of Doji Daiki, retreating breathless from his scouting position. “We’ve got company, sir. And it’s not good.”

Toshiken had laid out several scrolls on to his desk, cross-referencing reports. “Curious. Very few reports reference these troop transport barges mentioned here.”

“No, my lord. The barges had been carefully concealed, and launched into the river only once the Oni had appeared in the center of the field. This drew our flank units to the center, so the barges had a nearly uncontested approach. Once on the other side of the river, there would have been nothing between those troops and the capitol.”

Toshiken nodded gravely. “But they never reached the shore.” A smile reached his lips at last.

The war barges were huge, capable of moving hundreds of troops each. If there was any lingering doubt that this army was merely a peasant uprising, seeing these enormous constructions would have put it to rest. Munenori raised his tessen, and gave two signals. Troops were called up from the reserves - they would have to hold the flank with just three men. Fire arrows were lit, and distributed to the remaining troops. Toku Kana spoke in awed whispers. “Such big boats... what are a few arrows going to do?”

“The Yoritomo say that fire is the great enemy of the sailor. Enough arrows, well placed, and we can do this.”

Yi swore loudly. “Ok, we’ve got a group of five monks headed this way fast, and I don’t think they’re here to lead a prayer group. What are our orders?”

Munenori paused for a moment. “As soon as those barges are in range, fire. We’ll use two volleys to slow down the incoming monks; take down the unarmored targets first. Then, Minobu-san, Yi-san, Unaju-san, I want you to engage what’s left of the monks. The rest of us are going to be firing at the rafts until we’re all dead or those boats are all ablaze. Do you understand me?”

“Hai!” A chorus of voices rang out, and the battle was joined.

Munenori’s plan played out almost precisely as envisioned - the archers’ first volleys decimated the approaching monks, but their leader, clad in heavy armor and seemingly invulnerable to arrow fire, charged into their ranks, landing furious blows on the shugenja. Once the barges were in range, Munenori commanded those with yumi to switch targets to the ships. Yi, Minobu, and Unaju were on their own.

A withering firefight ensued. The archers rained fire down on the barges, but they were well-made and slow to burn. It was a race against time, and the samurai were losing.

Agasha Hikari had appeared at Munenori’s side from the reserves, seemingly out of nowhere. She spoke with a quiet confidence. “At our current rate of fire, assuming no immediate casualties, at least one of the barges will reach our side of the river.”

As if on cue, the remainder of the samurai troops came rushing forth from the reserves, fire arrows nocked, screaming in defiance.

“Therefore, I have taken the liberty of changing the math. With the reserve troops, you will have just enough time. But... I advise you not to miss.” Hikari smiled shyly, and Munenori’s laugh rang out above the fray.

Munenori raised his tessen one last time, and pointed out to the last remaining rafts. “You heard her, then! Make every arrow count! For the Empress! FIRE!

Toshiken rolled up the scroll and spoke, a voice that was used to being obeyed. “Find this Tsuruchi Munenori, and offer him a squad of archers in the Imperial legions.”

Toshiken’s hatamoto shook his head. “I took the initiative and attempted to do so, my lord. But he managed to evade the offer without refusal. He told me that he was not a military man, and that he could best serve the Empire as one of your magistrates. He is already yoriki to Doji Oharu, and Oharu-san’s reports do mark him as a shrewd and successful investigator.”

Toshiken leaned back, thinking deeply for a moment. “I do remember now. Oharu considers him one of those worthy of consideration when he retires. In the meantime, perhaps we can find a way to recognize his recent achievements. The recommendation is noted. Please, hand me the next report.”