17-2 The provincial castle compound had four gates. Of the four, the main or southern gate was also called the Phoenix Gate. The sentries at the Phoenix Gate suddenly found themselves confronted by several hundred citizens of Takuhou. Horrified, they watched as this mass of humanity flooded across the drawbridge toward them, brandishing weapons. The sentries frantically began to close the castle gates, which had been left open that night to allow ministers and soldiers free passage in and out of the castle grounds.
The mounted knight leading the mob reached the gate before it closed and swiftly dispatched the sentries. The gates were opened wide, and the armed civilians rushed the lookouts above the gate.
Archers posted at the merlons found themselves hamstrung by the sheer height and excessive ornamentation of the parapet walls, all built as a sop to Shoukou's vanity. The main gates were at least thirty meters high. Already, because of the height of gates and the failing light, it was impossible to discriminate friend from foe in the shadows. Moreover, turrets that should have afforded a clear lookout constituted little more than architectural embellishments, and faced the outside of the gate with severely compromised fields of view.
At any rate, blindly firing their crossbows, they had no idea whether they were hitting anything or not. As it took time to rearm the crossbows, they were overrun before they could get off three arrows each. Seconds later, they had no choice but surrender. Not surprisingly, the warning fires were extinguished without an acknowledged reply, as if the posted sentry had stepped out to take care of business and didn't bother returning.
A contingent of castle guards ran along the wall walks, stampeding into the castle. Praetorians scattered here and there tried to raise the alarm. Most of them were cut down by the arrows and fell futilely in the dust.
The temporarily opened gates swallowed up the citizens of Takuhou and then closed.
"Lower the portcullis!"
Accompanying the cry, a block and tackle at the base of the watchtower began to move. The thick, single panel inside the gates noisily descended toward the tracks in the roadway under the gate. Suzu watched from the dark tunnel closed off by the gate to make sure the portcullis fell squarely into place in the channels, and then caught up with the crowd already running to middle gate that closed off the inner court.
They had only crossed a short distance when the middle gate was closed and the sound of the descending portcullis rang out. The castle guards inside shut the gate with their own self-defense in mind. Normally, inner court gates were simply constructed. The walls surrounding the inner court were as well only a taller, thicker variety of the walls that surrounded a typical domicile. Connected in a single span to the main castle walls, the appearance of the inner gate, which lacked the typical main and auxiliary entrances, again put Shoukou's aesthetic tastes on full display.
Suzu looked back at the sound of Koshou's voice. She reached and Koshou grasped her hand. As soon as he vaulted onto the back of the sansui, Suzu barked out a command to the bucking sansui and it launched itself into the air.
The sansui easily scaled the walls. Koshou jumped off before its feet touched the wall walk. Suzu swung the sansui around and set it down outside the gate. She made five trips carrying men over the wall. On the sixth, a cry of exultation arose from the gate turrets.
"Good job!" shouted Koshou, and turned to the sixth man alighting from the sansui. "Open the inner gate! Suzu, direct everybody to the inner court!"
The gate was opening inwards by the time the sansui returned to the threshold of the gate. She saw the portcullis in front of the gates raising up, and further beyond a clutch of constables on the run.
"Sekki! Climb on!" Suzu urged him from astride the sansui.
Sekki bent his bow and let an arrow fly in the direction of the middle gate. Then he nodded and ran over to her. Suzu reached out her hand. He wrapped his hand around hers and she pulled him onto the sansui's back. The sansui neighed with obvious irritation. Suzu patted his neck to calm it down. "That's a good boy, that's a good boy. Don't be so disagreeable. Sekki, are you all right?"
"I'm okay," came his voice behind her. "Suzu, when I give you the signal, lean forward in the saddle. I don't want to hit you when I fire the bow."
"Got it." Suzu spurred on the sansui. When they passed through the gate, Koshou raised himself to his full height and thrust his broadsword into the air. "If all our number are here, then close the gates! Onto Shoukou's quarters!"
The answering cries shook the ground.
People ran along the wall walks, weapons raised, breaking down the doors of the turrets and guardrooms along the way.
Confident that their comrades occupying the ramparts had their backs, they overwhelmed the onrushing praetorians. The men accompanying Suzu charged into the depths of the prefectural offices. In the innermost heart of the castle they found themselves facing Shoukou's official castle residence.
Every time Sekki said to jump, Suzu nimbly launched the sansui into the air. From the elevated vantage point, they could take in the full extent of the panic gripping the compound. People rushing in and people running for their lives, all crashing about in extreme disarray. The overwhelming majority comprised those fleeing the scene, but Sekki pointed out that they likely anticipated the arrival of the provincial guardsmen and praetorians currently racing toward the city.
"Will they really come?"
"For sure. But with our allies manning the ramparts and guarding the gates, it will take them some time. If we can capture Shoukou before then, they may well lose the will to carry on the fight." Sekki yelled at the top of his lungs, "Suzu!"
Suzu glanced ahead of the sansui's landing area and caught her breath. Two sentries wielding battle axes awaited them. The sansui couldn't launch itself again without touching ground, and there wasn't time to turn aside.
The blades flashed at the sansui.
She instinctively shut her eyes, barely managing to swallow the scream that came to her lips. The sansui bellowed. The next sound was the heavy thud of the collision. They hit the ground. The sansui's descent came to a halt.
At the sound of Sekki's voice, Suzu opened her eyes. The two sentries lay sprawled before them.
"You saved us!"
"I only took out one of them," said Youshi. "Your sansui kicked the other one into next week. That's one smart animal."
"And the estate?" There was not the slightest hint of relief in Sekki's voice.
"They're hanging in there. They were doing such a good job holding the fort, I left things in their hands for the time being."
"Holding the fort--"
In contrast to Sekki's tone of voice, Youshi's was rather cheerful. "I'd estimate that we've reduced the troop strength of those heading our way by at least half."
The two battalions (1000 soldiers) and five hundred praetorians surrounding Shoukou's country estate were in complete disarray. Despite all the watch fires lit, places remained in darkness. And in that darkness, something moved.
The enemy barricaded inside the main hall of the estate in front of them was not the problem.
Screams burst forth from the darkness, and when they ran to see they found their fallen comrades wailing pitifully, deep wounds in their limbs, wounds that had been inflicted by no moral weapon, but resembled the teeth and claw marks left by beasts. Yet they caught no sight of whatever creature had caused them.
All they knew was that something was out there, and there were many of them. Fear seized them until they quailed at the sound of their own footsteps.
They began to retreat in ones and twos. When the arrows ceased to fly, they realized that they were now too far from the main hall for a bow to reach. The order had not come to withdraw, but no soldier had any desire to hold that ground. They whimpered and cried like children. Accustomed to preying on the weak, they had no experience going against an enemy whose fear of them was so much less than their own fear of the darkness.
"The prefectural castle is under attack!"
At the height of the tension, the word raced through the rank and file. Profound feelings of relief gripped all the soldiers equally. The battalion commanders were no exception.
"What is going on!"
"Hundreds of armed civilians have stormed the castle!"
Thin smiles showed on the faces of the battalion commanders as they conversed together: "We're walking into a trap here. We'd better go back." They shouted in voices that might have sounded a tad too enthusiastic, "Return to the castle!!"
Like a dam breaking, the soldiers stamped toward the Hare Gate. The number of troops abandoning their positions and pouring like a tidal wave through the gate were at least half of their original strength.
Left behind where they had fallen in the darkened countryside, the cries of the wounded still called out for rescue.