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Nagashino

by Christopher Mole

All was quiet on the field of Shitaragahara.  Murky rain dripped from the boughs of trees around the plain, splashing onto the saturated ground.  A stifling heat haze hung in the air; the countryside seemed to be holding its breath as the first rays of daylight crept over the horizon.  Suddenly the silence was broken by the thunder of hooves.

    Dust coiled up into the air as the army galloped across the plain and under the sparse trees, coming finally to a halt.  Turning his horse to face the soldiers behind him the warlord raised an ornately carved fan, waving it in a series of gestures over his head. Instantly the army divided into separate battalions, splitting apart to set up camp beneath the maples.  Pushing himself off his horse, Takeda Katsuyori surveyed the field before him with an impatient scowl as his commanders strode over to join him.  As he stroked his elegantly tailored moustache, the warlord let out a grim smile.

 ‘The plains should work to our advantage- there’s plenty of room for cavalry out there.’

There was a subdued murmur from the warriors around him.  As Katsuyori turned away and continued to look over the field, several of the commanders glanced at each other.  The early morning sunlight glinting off his impressive scarlet armour, Yamagata Masakage scowled grimly at Katsuyori’s back.  He and several others had confronted Katsuyori the previous night, voicing their opposition to the plan of attack.  The result had been disastrous.

Torches flickered in the darkness of the military compound, casting unwholesome shadows over Katsuyori’s face as he stared at his generals.  Ignoring the warning signs radiating from his commander, Masakage paced back and forth as he spoke.   

‘My lord, how can you go ahead with this?  We have received information telling us that the Oda-Tokugawa alliance plans to use a large number of firearms in this battle- you intend to go ahead with a cavalry charge despite this?’

There was a loud ‘clack’ as Katsuyori snapped the heavy war fan shut, pushing himself to his feet.  The warlords face was a mask of anger, a tic of rage twitched by his mouth.  The assembled samurai moved back slowly as Katsuyoris rage exploded about them.

 ‘You dare to defy my wishes?! I am the son of the Tiger of Kai, Takeda Shingen!  From the day of my birth I was trained in the ways of strategy and the arts of war! The Takeda cavalry is an invincible force- we will send two forces around the sides of the battlefield and the main cavalry units across the plain, directly into the enemy lines.  The Oda-Tokugawa dogs will be scattered by the power of our charge and we will take victory!’

Tension seemed to crackle in the air; a stifling heat filled the compound. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Masakage bowed slowly.

 ‘As you wish, my lord.’

Turning to face his generals, Katsuyori grinned in anticipation.

 ‘And so the hour of battle draws near.  Prepare yourselves!’

Pressing mailed fists against their chests, the commanders bowed and strode away to see to their respective battalions.  With a glance back over his shoulder, Katsuyori gazed over the wide plains once again.

 ‘Prepare yourselves. . .’

Head bowed, Masakage strode back to his battalion, deep in thought.  He had fought under Takeda Shingen during the meteoric rise of the Takeda clan- he had battled alongside his Lord at Mikata ga Hara and protected him from several assassination attempts.  Now he was being asked to ride into an obvious trap masterminded by the Demon King.  If he could not convince his Lord that they would not survive this confrontation, then he would be a failure as a samurai. 

A wry chuckle burst from Masakage’s throat.  There was no escape.  To question the orders of his Lord was to fail as a samurai- the only path was to obey without question.  Clutching the shaft of his spear tightly, the aged samurai felt a wave of strength sweep through him.  He would die this day, but he would die as samurai.

Straightening up, Masakage strode towards his troops with an authoritative shout rising in his throat.

 ‘Hurry up and get those bows strung!  We move out by the sixth hour!’

Several hundred metres away, two mighty warlords also gazed out over the fields of Shitaragahara.  From the foothills of Mount Gambo, among the wilting trees, Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu analysed the field carefully, their elevated position giving them a superb view of the surrounding countryside. Shading his eyes with a hand, Nobunaga let a grim smile play about his face.  As Ieyasu watched curiously, he reached forward and gestured widely at the plains ahead.

 ‘Excellent.  This terrain is perfect- the Takeda dogs will charge headlong across the plains, into the invincible fist of our firearms.’

Slowly, Nobunaga clenched his fist, a cruel laugh escaping from his throat.  Glancing towards his companion, Ieyasu shook his head slowly.

 ‘It is not for nothing that they call you ‘Demon King’.’  As he rubbed his chin, the middle-aged general let his mind roam over the idea.

‘A good plan... but how to protect the ashigaru?  If the Takeda catch them as they reload, our defences are shattered.’

Frowning, Nobunaga stared at the field again.  Then he raised a hand again; pointing at a nearby river which straggled wildly across the plains, a slash of brown, brackish water cutting through the dry grass.

 ‘There.  Halfway between the Rengogawa and the edge of these woods- we’ll erect a line of palisades to provide some cover for the foot soldiers.’

With a deep bow, Ieyasu conceded defeat.

 ‘Certainly, sire.  I’ll have the men erect them now.’

As Ieyasu strode away, the Demon King rubbed his chin thoughtfully, mind still working over the possible outcomes of the day.  Then he grinned viciously.

 ‘Takeda Shingen was perhaps a formidable opponent.  You are no match for your father, Katsuyori.  This day will see the final defeat of the Takeda clan!’

Startled birds took flight as Nobunagas laughter echoed around the thick forest.

Steadily the sun rose into the sky, heating the moist, muddy ground.  Several hours slid by as the opposing armies prepared for the impending battle.  Regiments of foot soldiers toiled away on the plains near the treeline, erecting crude wooden barricades to halt the Takeda advance.  On the other side of the plains, an army of horses stamped impatiently as their riders placed saddles and bridles upon their backs.  The only noise came from the frustrated animals and the repetitive bite of shovels digging into the ground- the very countryside seemed to be holding its breath, apprehensive of the slaughter to come.

Turning his horse away from the open plains, Katsuyori surveyed the regiments of cavalry arranged behind him. A slight smile touched the general’s lips, his mind dwelling on an honourable victory- the enemy fleeing, broken, before an invincible charge.

     Unsheathing his sword with a ringing slash, Katsuyori raised the gleaming blade above his head with a furious shout.

 ‘Once again the Takeda cavalry will be feared throughout this land! Follow me to glory!!’

As Katsuyori raised his voice in a war cry, echoed by his commanders, a nearby samurai placed his lips to the mouth of a huge conch and blew steadily.  A loud, booming note sounded across the battlefield- the call to arms. With a roar, the Takeda cavalry charged from the treeline, hooves thundering as they stampeded across the plains.  Mud splashed up, flicking across the quivering flanks of the horses as they strained forwards, eyes fixed on the far horizon. 

     From the Oda-Tokugawa lines, nervous ashigaru licked dry lips, muskets against their shoulders. From behind the barricades, Ieyasu drew his own sword, his golden armour shining in the sun.  His authoritative voice cracked across the infantry’s shoulders like a whip. 

 ‘Stand fast and do not falter!  The Takeda may charge, but their might is nothing compared to that of the weapons you hold!’

Nodding slowly, the ashigaru leant their muskets on the crude barricades- each man staring carefully down the sight of his weapon at the field ahead.

     The very earth seemed to shake as the Takeda line advanced, stampeding towards the river that lay across the battlefield.  At the head of the column galloped Katsuyori, his teeth clenched, sword above his head in defiance.  Reaching the Rengogawa, the Takeda spurred their horses onwards. Clods of mud rained down into the river as Katsuyoris horse carried him over it, landing heavily on the other side. Stumbling slightly as it landed, the horse soon straightened up and continued its mad gallop towards the enemy barricades.  Behind Katsuyori the rest of the Takeda cavalry made its way over the river, breaking towards the Oda-Tokugawa line. 

    As they approached all was silent save the thunder of hooves. Raising his sword above his head, Ieyasu drew in a breath.  Then he barked out the fatal order.

 ‘FIRE!!’

The crack of muskets echoed down the line, accompanied by puffs of acrid smoke.  Horses bucked and screamed, falling heavily to the ground. Blood fountained into the air as the front line fell heavily, horses collapsing beneath them.  Gritting his teeth, Katsuyori spurred his horse forwards as the warriors about him fell.  Another scream ripped from his throat as he brandished his sword at the line of barricades.  Suddenly the shout was cut off as a bullet smashed into the general’s throat, shattering his armour and tearing into his flesh.  Thrown from his horse, Katsuyori crashed heavily to the ground, blood gushing from the deadly wound.  Tears running from his eyes, Katsuyori desperately tried to speak as his lifeblood seeped into the ground.  Slowly his eyes misted over, and the son of Takeda Shingen perished in the dirt.

     A cry of rage broke from Masakage’s throat as he watched his Lord fall. Spurring his horse forward, the samurai hefted his spear and dived at the barricades furiously.  The frail wood splintered beneath the weight of his charge and Masakage pressed through, flailing about him angrily.  Foot soldiers fled in terror before the rampaging samurai- until one stood his ground, moving behind Masakage’s horse and aiming his rifle at the samurai’s spine.  There was another vicious ‘crack’ and Masakage slumped forward, blood spurting from his stomach as the bullet tore through his armour. Slipping from his horse, Masakage coughed painfully, staring at the sky above.  His final words slipped from between bloodstained lips.

 ‘All. . . is f-folly. . .’

With another cough, the aged samurai surrendered to the embrace of death.

Clouds of ravens populated a battlefield filled with corpses in the light of dusk.  Spears and swords lay scattered about like toys- a memento to the carnage that had visited Shitaragahara.  Staring down at the battlefield, Ieyasu shook his head slowly.

 ‘The battle is won. . .  but at what cost?’

Turning, the general walked slowly away from the bleeding plains.