Storms Rising

The Lion and the Unicorn

“There cannot be two suns in heaven, nor can there be two Emperor’s upon the throne…why then, would you believe that there can exist two clans to serve at Toturi’s right hand?”

                                                                                    - The Oracle of Thunder

The sun beat down upon the walls of Matsu Castle, the heat causing the land beyond to ripple and wave.  On the battlements stood the proud samurai sentinels, the strength of the new sun not enough to turn them away from their duties for an instant.  After all, they were the warriors of the Lion, proud and strong…and defiant, even towards the heavens above.

Or the ancient texts of the Empire, and the forces that served them.

Within the castle and around it, the remaining armies stood ready.  Spears shown in the bright daylight, and the sound of swords being sharpened and drawn filled the heavy air.  The small group of cavalry stirred nervously, as if the horses could sense what was coming, as if both sides had prepared for this battle for almost two hundred years.

Perhaps they were right.

Standing at the front of the armies in her black armor, Ketsui’s face glistened with a sheen of sweat.  She was not an overly attractive woman; her face was too harsh, too embittered to be called lovely by any but the foolish.  Yet to the men and women awaiting her command, she was beautiful and deadly, as the wind filled her short red hair and touched her ready hands.

The old samurai had returned hours ago, telling them that the Unicorn would not leave the lands of the Lion unmolested.  These gaijin, claiming honorable lineage yet still living as barbarians, spoke of old laws in old books, and their righteousness.

Now they would be shown what the strength of purity truly was.

The purple standards of the Shinjo and Otaku could be seen clearly now; across the plains they waited, thinking themselves ready for what was to come.  Their fine cavalry would ride the Lion into the earth, they thought.  Ketsui had to smile, both at the thought of the coming battle and the idea that the Unicorn could still think that their fabled horses could win the day.

No one advantage lasts forever.

The scouts came running, but even before she saw them, Ketsui saw the forces of the Unicorn begin to move.  From her saya flashed her sword, raised up in challenge to the heavens.  She roared defiance, and a thousand worthy warriors echoed the shout.

Then came the flash of war fans, the cries of men and steeds alike, and the fields of rice and grass were turned to blood and flesh…  

*          *            *

“Cowards!” Ketsui shouted as the Unicorn rode past, loosing an arrow into the tight ranks of spearmen and killing another noble Lion.  They refused to fight honorably, choosing instead to rush in and fall away, afraid to meet the Lion’s fury.  Even so, the Matsu and Ikoma had learned of such barbarian trickery, and tore the cavalry apart when they came once more.

An arrow struck her armor, but Ketsui ignored the near miss.  The daimyo of the Matsu raised her katana with a cry, then charged into the oncoming mass of spears and hooves.  A hundred followed her into a dangerous attack…the last thing that the Unicorn had expected.

Spears could not be lowered in time, and the horses turned and fell even as they crushed the Matsu beneath their hooves.  Ketsui sliced high, cutting open the first rider, then the second, sending their empty horses running off into the fields.  The woman roared in anger again, charging her wounded forces forward, cutting and killing as the Shinjo tried desperately to escape from their own attack.

When they did retreat, however, the Otaku came forth, the faces of the battle maidens’ calm and composed.  Ketsui and her soldiers turned with raised spears, knowing better than to try to flee back to the safety of Gunjin’s lines.  The yari sliced through flesh and bone, but the cost was great, as Ketsui’s sword bit into the body of the leader’s horse, throwing her to the ground with a vicious thump.

Leaving the woman with broken neck lying upon the field, Ketsui’s forces withdrew, their numbers reduced by more than half.  The Lion moved north, along the plains, using their knowledge of the land and tactics to keep the speed of the mighty war-horses low.  They fought amongst rice patties and empty farms, cutting and killing as the sun continued through the sky.

When evening fell, the armies gripped one another in a death hold.  The Unicorn forces, led by the magistrate Hanari, sliced deep through the lines of the attacking Matsu, only to be repelled as Ketsui and Gunjin countered attack with attack.  At length, the rider turned his horse, looking over at the lines of dirty, panting Lion samurai with a sneer.

“We have come to serve the Emperor’s Justice, Lion!  Our cause is just and right!  Surrender, and receive our mercy!” His voice was strong and harsh, despite the hours of commanding and shouting.  In his eyes burned a passionate fire, and it was Matsu blood that now stained his blade.

From the forces of the Lion came a laugh, scornful and proud.  Ketsui, her armor broken and hanging, stood well in front of the spearmen, a snarl of rage on her wet face. “If your cause was truly just, Unicorn, how would you know?  For two hundred years you have learned nothing…choosing to trust in gaijin tricks to save your hides!  We are the true servants of the Emperor…damn old laws to Jigoku!”

Hanari’s face was hard from the insult, and for a moment he seemed ready to ride the red-haired woman down himself.  Ketsui did not move from her position as the Unicorn raised his katana; she had nothing to fear from such a man.

The blade came down, and the flanks of the Lion were torn to shreds.

Again the Otaku and the Matsu met, and Ketsui threw them back with flashing blade.  She stood with them surrounding her as the spearmen fought to help the samurai-ko, cutting and dodging away from their vicious spears.  At last, Hanari ordered a retreat, his face covered with a respectful look when he saw that the Lion’s lines had held, and Ketsui still stood upon open ground, crying for more.

“One more charge, Hanari!  Can you fight on, or will you accept the mercy of the Lion?” The shout was a challenge, as surely as if she had called out his blade.  Behind her stood the tattered lines, broken spears and banners still held by bleeding, tired samurai like a proud unit.

The Unicorn laughed. “One more shall break even you, Matsu!  I will be sure of it!”

Ketsui only smiled, revealing her gleaming white teeth in joyous rage. “Come then, Hanari, and I will teach you a lesson in war.”  

*          *            *

This time, the Unicorn would not fight as the Lion wished.  The maidens and the Shinjo sliced at an angle, harrying the lines with yari and bows despite the suddenly thick fog.  Ketsui turned left, then right, bringing down two riders each pass.  The samurai-ko seemed invincible, standing surrounded by the bodies of Unicorns and broken steeds.

Hanari himself burst from the mists before her, his dai-kyu raised and the horses of the Shinjo behind him.  Ketsui turned, her weary sword raised high, but the arrow flew true, striking the Matsu in the chest and causing her to stumble and fall.

As he passed, Hanari saw the impossible.  The Matsu daimyo leapt up again, gripping the arrow tightly in her right breast.  The katana rose, slicing open the next rider’s neck and face, sending him crashing to the ground with an almost unnatural grace.  Hanari shouted out in pain, watching as his son’s body crashed to the ground and was crushed beneath friendly hooves.

Now came Gunjin’s men, cutting and butchering against the Shinjo even as they fell away.  Rank and order decayed as Hanari’s horse turned back to face Ketsui, leaving the Lion and the Unicorn to rip each other open, turning a dedicated line of samurai into a huge melee of screams and pain.

“Murderer!” Screamed Hanari as he shot Ketsui again.  The Matsu fell again, shot this time through the shoulder, but she rose slowly, standing before the great horse as the Shinjo leapt down with drawn blade.  He charged with a shriek, slicing the air with a vengeance and forcing the Matsu backwards.

“I am a samurai, as was every man that died by my hand today,” Ketsui sneered as she raised her katana. “I kill only when my honor commands it.”

Anger filling him, Hanari struck again, and this time the Matsu was not fast enough to avoid the blow.  He sliced open her shoulder, knocking Ketsui to the ground.  The daimyo grunted as she fell, raising her own blade again as the Unicorn came forward to end their duel.

Blades locked when he attacked, and the Matsu heaved herself back to her feet, her arms bristling as she pushed back the bigger Unicorn warrior.  Hanari stumbled in confusion and surprise, unable to believe that such a person, wounded so badly, could drive him backwards.  Stumbling back with a shout, the Unicorn readied his sword in an instant, but the attack never came.

Ketsui had fallen to her left knee, and breath came slow and labored.  She wounds had been too much for the daimyo of the Matsu, and now she knelt with sword still gripped in hand.  Though her face was matted with red hair and splattered blood, there was still strength and hatred enough in her eyes for a hundred men.

Hanari lowered his katana, casting a look about the field of war.  The forces of the Unicorn lay murdered and broken, their enemies likewise torn to pieces on spears.  The remnants of either force had fallen back, lest everyone die on either side, leaving the two samurai alone in a field of blood.  Only Hanari’s horse remained, waiting unflinchingly through the screams of the dying.

“Lost your nerve now, Unicorn?”

Hanari shook his head, sheathing his bloody sword with a tired gesture. “There is no honor in this battle now, Ketsui-san…I have a son to mourn, and plans to prepare.” With that, the Shinjo mounted his horse, took one final look towards the corpse of his son, lying beside the wounded killer, and then rode back to the west, where the remaining Unicorn awaited his commands.

Ketsui smiled, rising slowly as blood dripped down her shoulder and arm.  Raising her katana in a salute, she slowly moved back towards the defenses of Matsu Palace, knowing that she would meet the forces of Shinjo Hanari again…and soon.  

*          *            *  

As they watched the carnage in the plains to the south, one of the samurai turned to look at his companion.  Both wore the green-and-gold of the Imperial Legions, and one wore also the mon of the Seppun.  A hundred samurai waited on the other side of the hill, concealed from both armies by the cleverness of their commanders and the fickle fog of evening.

“Which side should we give succor, Eiji-sama?  The Unicorn have the law, yet the Lion have their right.”

The Emerald Magistrate shook his head, his pale face turned to the other man. “We will not interfere.  There is no difference to the Emperor in who wins this battle, and we have no Miya to negotiate a truce.” He looked out at the ruined fields, the dead and the dying, and the samurai shook his head.

“It does not matter, Heishu-san…they are the same.  Pride against pride.  Let them tear the earth apart, in the Emperor’s name.  We will survive to serve the Emperor’s true wishes, and rebuild what they have destroyed.”  With that, the two samurai rode down the hill, and the Seventh Legion of the Emperor was gone, returned to Otosan Uchi without a blade being drawn.

On the plains below, the roars of the Lion raised up again, and the horses of the Unicorn thundered to meet them…

“Proud is the Lion,

Fights with courage and honor,

Never seeing truth.”

                                                                                    - Shinjo Hanari