19-3 Suzu and Shoukei and their squad galloped through the city, directing civilians dazed and confused by the fire to the south. "Extinguish the fires! If you intend to run for it, then head for the Rooster Gate!"
Here and there, guardsmen were still lying in wait. They evaded them as best they could, but pretty soon their strength began to flag. They were ambushed over and over. A mercenary next to Shoukei was struck and felled. They just managed to escape as more soldiers rushed them, firing arrows and thrusting pikes. Another horse was struck in the legs and collapsed.
Not far off, Suzu screamed. "Sekki!"
The rider of the fallen horse was Sekki. He hit the ground and was sent sprawling. Light infantrymen charged him. Shoukei swung her mount around, but there was no way she would reach him in time. She spotted a soldier swinging a scimitar and screamed as well. Sekki wore no armor that could protect him from such a weapon.
The heavy clang rang out from a violent impact. The soldier waving the scimitar dropped his weapon, threw his arms over his head, and squatted down on the ground. Suzu stared in amazement.
"Enough already!" The white-haired old man swung the hunk of wood a second time at the soldier. "Who do you think you are?"
A rider approached on Shoukei's blind side and delivered the coup de grace to the soldier.
Sekki sat up and looked at the old man holding the wooden door bolt. "Thank you."
"Think nothing of it."
A sinewy hand reached down to him. Sekki grasped the hand and was pulled to his feet. Sekki wasn't injured so badly that he couldn't walk. He went to let go, but the old man held on. Sekki turned to him.
The old man asked, "Is Shoukou dead?"
"We've captured him. He's being held in the prefectural offices."
"Ah," he said, at last letting go of Sekki's hand. "Is there anything more I can do?"
Sekki smiled. "You can help put out the fires."
The man nodded and turned around. Suzu smiled down at Sekki. "See? There are people here who get it."
Sekki grasped her hand and she pulled him onto the back of the horse.
"Let's go. We still haven't made it all the way around the city."
They fought their way to the Rooster Gate and dispatched the platoon of soldiers there who had held their ground. The area around the gate was quiet. No incoming arrows. The guard towers atop the gate were silent.
Youko permitted herself a small smile. Koshou gazed at the scene disbelievingly and turned to her. "What have you been up to?"
Youko returned the look and casually shrugged. "What could I have possibly been up to? Say, do you think we should open the gate?"
Koshou scowled and approached the gate. The gate had a portcullis, but it hadn't been lowered. He pushed aside the assault wagon barricading the three doors of the gate and released the bolts.
It was likely that the arrows would come flying as soon as he opened the large center door. Knowing that, he hesitated. Youko's hand did not as she opened the smaller auxiliary gate. She often pressed forward in this reckless manner. When she did, Koshou had learned, it usually meant the danger was gone.
Kantai opened the second auxiliary gate to Koshou's left. "Will you look at that," he said, in a deeply curious voice. He turned to Youko, who was securing the ring in the door to a hook on the wall. "Youshi, did you know there were no enemy outside?"
In fact, there was no sign of the enemy outside the gates. Aside from some wounded, and the scattered corpses and weapons, the countryside was almost bucolic.
"Ah--" said Youko, and shook her head.
"You didn't seem very uncertain about opening that door?"
"I, uh, forgot that there might be enemy out there."
"You--" Kantai started to say.
Youko interrupted him. "Enemy are approaching from the other direction. Don't you think we'd better hurry up and get ready for them?"
Koshou and Kantai exchanged glances. A man ran up to the door that Koshou was holding, pushed it open and latched it.
Koshou thought he was from Meikaku. Kantai thought he was from Takuhou. Having secured the door, the man pointed at the assault wagon. "Wouldn't it be best to move that and set up a defensive position?"
"Sure," said Koshou and Kantai, and then noticed that the man was shaking so bad his teeth were chattering. At this late stage, neither Koshou nor Kantai had seen anybody in their squads trembling this badly.
Koshou grinned and gave the man a whack on the shoulders. "Right you are. Thanks for the advice!"
As soon as they'd set up a defensive line outside the gate, they heard the sound of approaching horses.
Koshou readied himself. In a peevish voice he exclaimed, "Dammit! We didn't have time to let the civilians escape!"
The red light from the city shone on his face. Youko peered up at the guard towers. Is this light a blessing? Or does the smoke cause more harm than good? It'd be hard to shoot at the enemy without any light to see by. But with the thick smoke filling the streets, it was getting hard to see anything even with the light.
"What do you say, Koshou? Should we shut the gates and return to the city center?"
"No other choice but to."
"There's an assault wagon," she heard Kantai say.
The hand gripping the hilt of her sword shook slightly, as did the ground beneath her feet. On unbroken ground, an assault wagon was the equal of ten mounted knights. The heavy rolling sound of the armored wagon echoed through the smoke.
The few civilians who had girded up their loins to join them retreated back down and sought the refuge at the castle. Only the battle-tested massed at the Rooster Gate. Even so, Youko and her fellow defenders were at an overwhelming disadvantage. The provincial guard would not only strike at the Rooster Gate. They'd have no choice but to divide their strength among the other gates at well.
They had about five hundred fighters gathered at the Rooster Gate. The provincial guard typically maintained reserves of 7500 cavalry in three regiments of 2500 soldiers each. Two regiments had been dispatched from Meikaku to Takuhou. With one regiment pushing on ahead, that meant another 2500 would be bringing up the rear. They could deploy at least four hundred to each of the twelve gates.
The rebels had broken the siege at the Rooster Gate, but simple math said that a good 4500 cavalry still surrounded Takuhou.
"Shut the gate!" ordered Koshou, and turned on his heels.
The sound of the assault wagon pressed nearer. Faint shapes and shadows could be seen through the smoke. Youko's eyes widened. It wasn't an assault wagon. It was more like a wedge out of the Great Wall itself moving slowly toward them.
"A siege tower," Kantai said in a low voice. "They came with siege towers."
"Siege towers?" queried Koshou.
"The forward portions are lined with armor, and behind them sandbags, giving cover to the soldiers. The big ones are called cloud bridges. That one's a thunder bridge. It's drawn by a bunch of siege wagons, each pulled by teams of horses. Ordinary mounts won't do, though. They'd tire too quickly."
"You're not so normal yourself."
"No less normal than Youshi. That thing there's for attacking the castle. If we don't stop it now, even if we shut the gates, it'll just break through the walls."
"What's the best way to attack it, then?" Youko asked.
Kantai raised his head in response to her question. "Koshou--" he said.
"What?" Koshou asked, looking back at him.
Kantai gestured with his lance. "Prepare fire arrows. As best you can, man the wall walks and fire down on the teams pushing the siege tower forward. You can use this. You hold it at the base and brandish it about. If it's too much for one person, make it a two-man operation. At any rate, if you can stop the siege tower coming in from the north and check the progress of the cavalry, head back to the city."
Koshou took the lance and grimaced. "We'll see what we can do. What are we going to do about the one coming from the south?"
"Leave it to me."
Youko peered up at Kantai. "With your bare hands?"
Kantai laughed. "My bare hands will do. You can cover me."
Youko furrowed her brow. The siege tower moved ever closer. They didn't have time to debate the subject.
"You going or not? Hey, you up there!" Koshou barked out. "Cover them!" The fighters before the gate suddenly stormed northward. Kantai launched himself southward.
He's fast. Youko followed after him, matching his unusually rapid gait. She drew her sword. Only because she had ordered the shirei to eliminate the archers could she proceed without fear of arrows.
At the same time her eyes grew wider with amazement. Kantai's body sank lower and lower to the ground. For a moment she feared he had been struck by an arrow, but he sank even lower. More than sinking, she got the impression that his body was somehow contracting. This wasn't because of an arrow. His forward progress made that clear.
What in the world--!
The shape and form of his body seemed to be dissolving. A moment later, he began to grow larger. His mutating form was both growing and taking on completely new dimensions. Or so it seemed to her.
From the wall walks as well, from every direction, a great stir went up. Kantai was some different kind of human. His hands emerged--no doubt about it--as forepaws. He shot across the ground up to the siege tower as fast as an arrow. He coiled up his body--now resembling a small mountain--and raked the side of the siege tower with a huge forepaw.
That single blow shook the thunder bridge. The siege wagons connected to it rocked back and forth and crashed to the earth, halting its forward progress.
He's a hanjuu.
Lances jabbed at the enormous bear, as it reared up on his hind legs. Youko ran forward to sever the spear tips from the shafts.
"Hey, my apologies," came a deep voice suffused with laughter. With a swipe of its paw, the huge bear took off the whole front of the assault wagon and sent it tumbling through the air.
As she swung her sword, Youko had to smile as well. "Just as I thought, the strength of no ordinary man."
The sun rose over the hills to the east of Takuhou. The city still smoldered, the smoke blurring the morning rays. But at least no tongues of fire could be seen.
Between the White Dragon Gate at the castle and the Rooster Gate, a collection of wagons blocked off the side streets, securing direct access to the Rooster Gate. Many silhouettes could be seen occupying the guard towers over the twelve city gates. The countless figures of men and women alike were perched atop the walls stretching out from the main gate.
Meeting fierce resistance, the Wa Provincial cavalry ringing the city had retreated for the time being. After a great deal of effort, they'd managed to join up with infantry advancing along the highway south of Takuhou and were setting up battle lines on the plains outside the Horse Gate.
The provincial guard rushed here had no grasp of the number of enemy forces they were facing. To what extent the citizens of Takuhou had joined up with the rebels, or whether they were only holed up in the citadel and protecting that.
This civilian rebellion was nothing to make light of, the foot messengers said. Already the civilians had taken over the ramparts and were keeping a valuable prize within the prefectural offices themselves. They were going to have to attack the formidable fortress at the heart of the city. Amidst this gloomy realization, even more startling news arrived:
This morning before dawn, Meikaku fell into chaos.