Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Horse Soldiers

This is Duke, not Noritsugu, but the same outfit.
Here I go again, picking on something outside the western genre for Wicked Wednesday. Transport yourself back in time, back more than a thousand years, to a place called Land of the Rising Sun, where Amaterasu, the almighty of the universe, battles with Yami-no-ou, the dark lord of the underworld. Transport yourself to a land ruled by the Toh, a people who maintained their power with the use of sorcery and black arts; a people who bargained with Yami, and lost their souls.

Above, you see Duke, my Japanese friend whose family harkens back to the Minamoto, who ruled Japan in the 13th century.

The protagonist of The Horse Soldiers is Noritsugu, captain of the guard to Michizane, a Toh overlord. Long had the horse soldiers, a people called the Yotsu, sold their soldierly prowess to the Toh to work as guardsmen and elite troops. Still, protecting evil rubbed against the grain of Captain Noritsugu.

The peasants revolt, and Michizane decides to call the denizens called Warahagi.

The Yotsu captain returned to his vantage point, where he could watch the priests.
The incantations continued into the night. Twice priests arose to gather wood for their fire. The moon set.
The Yotsu camp stood dark and still, the horse soldiers sleeping and their mounts standing hipshot, noses against the canvas of the rear wall. Noritsugu had stepped outside the wall, positioning himself near a towering cedar where the blacks and reds of his armor blended with the bulk of the giant tree.
Across the compound, the priests kept up their frantic incantations. The stallion snorted and stomped, tossing his head against the lead rope. Whatever bothered the big horse was still out there. Noritsugu was a statue. From ten shaku away, even his breathing would have attracted no notice.
A flicker of movement caught the corner of the Yotsu captain’s eye. He made no move, but gradually adjusted his line of sight to take in the place where the flicker had occurred.
Nothing. Only two tall stumps topped by clumps of moss.
Then one of the stumps moved.
Namahagi in Japan, which I named Warahagi
Noritsugu snaked his long sword out. Its steel rasped on the rawhide scabbard.
The Warahagi spoke, its voice rumbling from deep in its chest through a mouth like a slash in the bark of a tree. Firelight flashed on the pointed fangs and incisors of a predator. The priests stopped their incantations.
The two Warahagi approached the fire. Noritsugu slipped over to the dark palanquin, his naked blade held casually by his side. He’d been hired to protect the overlord and by the gods, he’d do it, for all he didn’t care for Michizane’s machinations.
The Warahagi ignored him.
The palanquin curtains swept aside. Michizane clambered down the steps clad in full regalia. He nearly tripped over his flapping trousers.
“Sire,” Noritsugu said, extending a hand to steady the overlord. But Michizane had eyes only for the Warahagi. He ignored the Yotsu captain, mincing along the purple felt walkway with a ceramic jug of shochu spirits in one hand.
“Well come, Warahagi,” he said, almost shouting.
The larger of the two creatures said something that sounded like rocks rubbing and clacking together.
“The Warahagi ask why they were summoned,” the high priest interpreted.
“Come.” Michizane held up the jug of liquor. “A drink first. Then talk.”
The Warahagi’s eyelids ratcheted open, revealing large orbs with pale blue irises and vertical pupils. The voice grumbled once. 
“Gladly,” the high priest said.
Michizane uncorked the jug and offered it to the Warahagi. The creature took the jug in a hand with fingers like thick twigs and tipped it up over a cavernous mouth. Again, Noritsugu saw fangs flash as the clear liquor gurgled down the Warahagi’s throat. It belched and passed the jug to the smaller Warahagi. In seconds, the jug was drained. The Warahagi shook the jug, making it relinquish two more drops of potent liquor.
The Warahagi leader spoke in its gravelly language.
“Your purpose, sire,” the high priest said.
Michizane chuckled. “Revenge,” he said, venom dripping from the word as it left his mouth. He faced the two creatures full on. “Hear me, Warahagi. With the rising of the sun, the spells protecting Kotomura shall cease. The village is yours to plunder. I ask only one thing. Leave no man alive.”
Noritsugu doubted what he heard, then believed. He’d guarded the overlord long enough to know that he had no compunctions over taking human lives. The Yotsu captain remembered well the carnage at Nokogiriyama castle – the warriors, their wives and concubines, the children . . . dead in their own blood in the castle courtyard. And he didn’t like the memory.
The high priest interpreted Michizane’s words.
The Warahagi leader looked at Michizane for a long moment. Then nodded. It spoke.
“Tomorrow, we feast. It has been long since we had plenty to eat,” the high priest said, interpreting.
“Good. Good. I shall observe,” Michizane said, but the Warahagi had already turned away and slipped into the forest. Noritsugu watched the creatures closely, but soon lost their movement among the trees.

So, we see, evil and wickedness can come from without the human race. Especially when the contract between the Toh and Lord Yami is invoked. The captain of the guard is disgusted, and the next day he must watch as the Warahagi non-humans devour an entire village. No wonder he is vexed as they ride into the village of Kawazoe. The contingent rested at the Yami sanctuary. 

As at Kotomura, a sanctuary stood apart from the village, this one whole and ornate, as no one had put it to the torch. A gaggle of priests and acolytes met Michizane’s entourage at the entrance to the sanctuary grounds. The leader of the priestly crowd wore black robes, cinched about his ample girth with silken cords laced with threads of gold. A chimney-tall lacquered hat perched atop his bald pate, and his jowls flapped as he bowed to the powdered Michizane.
Ho. Grand Warlock. How goes it?” Michizane asked, his smile showing the blackened teeth Toh nobles affected.
“As well as can be expected, my Lord, or perhaps a bit less.” The portly warlock bowed his obeisance to the Toh overlord.
“Aye, they grumble that the powders and potions we give them to grow their crops addict the land and make it useless without them. Nowadays, they gather in groups in the dark of night and speak treason against the Toh and the Mighty One.”
“So?” Michizane leered. “Let them grumble. Without our benevolence, no crops can grow. This they must learn, and learn well. Let me see. What shall we do? Ah, yes. I do believe it is time to perform a sacrifice to the Mighty One.” Michizane cackled the laugh that grated so painfully on Noritsugu’s eardrums.
Inca virgin supposedly sacrificed.
Not an unusual thing in many societies.
“Yes. Yes. A virgin. A nubile female for all to enjoy before she is drawn and quartered and posted as food for His messengers, the ravens.” Michizane’s face took on a ghoulish look of anticipation. He ran a red, red tongue over his blackened teeth. “Hmmmm. Yes, A delicious virgin.”
“On the morrow, my Lord, the search for the proper virgin shall commence.” The warlock bowed, with a hand on his tall hat to keep it from toppling.
“Make her young,” said Michizane. “The Mighty One does not countenance hairy women.”
“As you wish, my Lord,” the Grand Warlock promised.
With his guts still roiling from watching the Warahagi feast, Noritsugu felt a smoldering ball of loathing build in the center of his bowels. 

The wicked priests capture a nubile young woman, not yet of an age to bear children. Noritsugu watches as the priests set up for their ritual deflowering of the girl and then her sacrifice to Lord Yami. It sickens him. 

The girl stood with her eyes closed, her face serene. She wore only a loincloth now.
“Remove the cloth,” Michizane called from the sanctuary, his voice cracking with anticipation.
Sankyu’s knife went under the loincloth’s waistband and cut it away. The girl’s breasts were just beginning to bud, and the juncture of her thighs was hairless.
Michizane heaved a sigh. The Grand Warlock drooled.
“Perfect,” Michizane breathed. “You may bind her, Sankyu,” he said, eyes glittering.
The cross stood planted in the center of the star of fires. The two poles crossed at waist height to the girl. The tattooed priest backed the virgin until she pressed against the cross. Her eyes sought Noritsugu, who stood impassive in the half light of the fires. “Bearer, help,” the eyes seemed to say. The captain’s heart pounded. Sankyu lashed the girl’s wrists to the upper arms of the cross, forcing her to her tiptoes.
The girl made no sound. Nor did she remove her eyes from Noritsugu’s face. Sankyu lashed one ankle to a lower leg of the cross, then the other. The girl hung spread-eagled in the midst of the star of fires.
Yoi,” Michizane said. “Stand back. We would view the offering to the Mighty One.”
Black-robed priests took positions beside the fires that outlined the star. Michizane descended from the sanctuary hall, followed by the Grand Warlock. The overlord circled the girl with slow, mincing steps, clicking his tongue and poking a finger at her flesh. The Grand Warlock tittered, his hot gaze on the hairless juncture of the girl’s legs.
The virgin stared at Noritsugu.
“Sankyu,” Michizane said. “Prepare the virgin. We perform the rituals tonight, and make the sacrifice tomorrow.” His eyes glistened.
Sankyu disappeared. He returned with a pottery jug. Dipping his hand into the jug, he began to smear the contents on the girl. The scent told Noritsugu it was camellia oil. The girl’s body soon glistened like Michizane’s eyes.
“Yotsu,” Noritsugu called. He gave a command in the ancient tongue. Bashu tightened girths and the guard took positions around the outside of the star of fires.
Michizane, the Grand Warlock, the priests, and the acolytes saw only the virgin, spread-eagled and oiled, awaiting their “ritual” attentions. All were sure that each would have his turn at the flesh of the girl before she was sacrificed. The lust in their hearts blinded their eyes to the actions of the Yotsu guard.
Sankyu’s final move was to cup a handful of oil between the virgin’s legs, readying her for Michizane’s penetration. The overlord and the Grand Warlock began shedding garments.
Leaping to the virgin’s side, Noritsugu barked an order as his knife sliced the bonds from the girl’s ankles and wrists. Michizane froze in the act of pulling a skinny leg from his hakama trousers. Yotsu swords lay at the throats of every priest in the star of fires, and the bashu had the Yotsu mounts ready to ride.
“Wha- wha-“ Michizane stammered as he hopped about on a single leg.
Noritsugu pulled a sack of coins from under his mail shirt, and dropped it at Michizane’s feet.
“Gold cannot buy fealty to evil,” Nortsugu said. “I return your contract money, taking only what is due. Yotsu serve you no more.”
“Yotsu. Kakare!”
At Noritsugu’s command, each horse soldier smashed the back of his sword into the throat of the nearest priest. The priests dropped, coughing and hacking, clutching at their necks. Only Michizane and the Grand Warlock remained.
“Get your kimono, girl. And wipe the oil off with this.” Noritsugu pulled his hand towel from beneath his mail shirt and tossed it to her.
“Dark Overlord,” Noritsugu said, raising Michizane’s chin with his sword. “I served you for a long time. Long enough to know you have no power of your own. Always you use the priests.”
Michizane’s eyes narrowed. Sweat beaded his brow and carved canyons through the rice powder on his face. He searched Noritsugu’s face, and made a decision. He dropped to his knees. “My life,” he begged. “Spare my life.”

One of the wicked priest is Sankyu, who thinks he can consort with demons. He harries Noritsugu's tracks as he sets out for Awa Omote with the girl, who is Princes Yumiko, to deliver her to Masacado, her future husband. Without going through all the trials and tribulations the horse soldiers must go through, let me show you how Noritsugu finally downs the black priest Sankyu. 

A fearful scream arose from the crest of the bluff. Noritsugu slowed the stallion. The horse soldiers pounded past, Princess Yuminoko amidst them. Noritsugu eyed the bluff. Without thought, he knocked a raven from the air with the edge of his sword.
Sankyu bounded down the bluff in great strides that no man could possibly make. His face distorted—red and bloated. His brows were huge ridges and fangs seemed to sprout from his lips. He carried the pronged war club of an oni demon. Noritsugu’s eyes narrowed. An oni demon occupied Sankyu’s flesh and his form blurred. It looked like two beings were running in the same body, slightly out of step. Noritsugu withdrew one of his rune-protected arrows from its quiver. He stopped the stallion, turning him to face Sankyu.
One artist's impression
of an oni demon
The black priest howled and roared, closing on Noritsugu with tremendous speed. Noritsugu drew the white feathers to his cheek and let the arrow fly. Sankyu leaped higher than a man, and the arrow passed beneath his straw-sandaled feet. The possessed priest screamed his glee at Noritsugu. He shook fist and club, and plunged onward. Sankyu ran faster even than Noritsugu’s stallion could run.
Escape was not in Noritsugu’s mind. He and the stallion stood firm as the priest charged. He nocked a second rune-protected arrow. His warrior’s eye judged the crazed priest’s headlong approach. He loosed the arrow. Sankyu evaded the second charmed arrow as easily as the first.
Noritsugu plucked the third rune-enhanced arrow from the quiver and held it ready to nock. He heard Sankyu gasping for breath, his human lungs laboring to support his superhuman speed. The stallion bobbed his head nervously, but stood fast.
Sankyu launched himself in a mighty leap aimed at putting him astride the stallion behind Noritsugu in a position to cut his throat.
At the touch of Noritsugu’s heel, the warhorse sidestepped. Sankyu’s eyes bulged as he tried to extend his leap far enough to reach the horse. As Sankyu’s hands stretched toward the warhorse, Noritsugu reversed the arrow and plunged it into the juncture of the priest’s neck.
Sankyu’s scream sounded with two voices. The priest collapsed and fell. He lay face up in the waters of the wetland, limbs twitching. Noritsugu reined the stallion around and plunged after the Yotsu guard.
High in the air, hayabusa hawks gathered. They screamed in defiance and dived on the ravens. And whenever a hawk hit, a raven fell from the sky.

There we see how making a pact with the Devil, so to speak, can be the wicked part of your novel. I've not seen devil worshipers in Westerns, but that does not make it impossible. So when you're thinking wicked, think satanic, too.


  1. I sure like your writing, Charlie.

  2. Thank you, Frank. I like this little series of fantasy novellas, too. Trying to work up a little interest in them somehow. But the use of supernatural bad is often good in fiction.

  3. Brings back memories of my Japanese study classes in college, just with more drama. Nicely done. Doris

  4. Interesting, Charlie. Some 40yrs ago, I sketched out a rough idea of black magic and red Indians... but never got round to it! Good, visceral, visual writing, as ever, thanks.