A Thunder of Hooves

Hooves pounded the rain-spattered earth as Mikoto rode quickly through the mountain pass. She pulled sharply on the reins and dismounted. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she cut a swift gait toward a pavilion erected at the end of a soldier encampment.

“Lord Yoshinaka,” she said, catching her breath as she shuddered from the cold. “Your tactics seem to be working. We displayed thirty banners on Kurosaka Hill to trick the Taira into thinking our forces outnumber theirs.”

Lord Yoshinaka, flanked by his generals and dressed in his finest battle regalia, emerged from the shelter of his makeshift pavilion.

“And they stopped their advance?”

Mikoto nodded. “They’re holding their position near the head of Kurikara Pass. Come nightfall, they’ll likely turn back to the plains and break for camp.”

Yoshinaka turned gleefully to General Imai.

“What did I tell you? Even Lord Sadato knows better than to leave his troops out in the open. He might be a difficult man to kill, but he won’t sacrifice his army.”

“We shouldn’t waste this opportunity,” Imai replied hastily. “Tonight will be our best chance for victory. We can split our main force into four units, each one attacking the camp in succession.”

“Can I make a suggestion, my lord?” Mikoto interrupted, piquing Yoshinaka’s interest.

“Very well. Go ahead, general.”

“The Taira outnumber us, but we can work the terrain to our advantage. Perhaps we could trap them in the gorge. With a little bit of strategy, we could drive them into Hell Valley.”

Yoshinaka’s amused smirk melted away to a wide-eyed stare. He cocked his head at General Imai, as if to ask why he didn’t suggest this tactic earlier. In truth, it was an idea that wouldn’t have occurred to his closest advisers. Anyone who suggested chasing the Taira into Hell Valley would have been rightfully laughed out of his war council. It was more of a smoking crater than a valley, a cauldron of mud ponds and volcanic vents spewing steam into the sky. Additionally, it wasn’t far from the plain where the Taira would form their camp.

“Into Hell Valley? What exactly do you have in mind?”

“You could divide your army into three forces, but if we all work as one, we can maneuver the Taira into a trap. An ambush party could circle around to the North and follow the Taira up the mountain pass. They would attack from the rear as the second group flanks them from the West. They would strike fast and drive them into the dead end of the valley, where the third group would be waiting.”

“That’s impossible,” snorted Yoshinaka, shaking his head. “There’s no way we could conceal that movement from the Taira. And it would take nearly all of tonight—”

“And tomorrow,” Mikoto said firmly. Yoshinaka regarded her with a stunned look. Finally, he grinned with raucous laughter and slapped his leg.

“You’re either very confident or very mad, Mikoto. I admire that in you. Still, what’s to stop the Taira from noticing my soldiers as they circle around?”

“The decoy troops and banners you displayed should delay them through the night. But come morning, your main force will need to draw their attention.”

“It’s not out of the question,” a female archer said nearby. “We could engage them and hold our position as we lure them into the trap.” Mikoto flashed a thankful smile in her direction. It took all but a few seconds for her gratitude to turn into a sharp pang of longing. She was awestruck by the woman’s alluring face.

Mikoto found herself looking into the stranger’s eyes, perhaps a little too excitedly.She tried to concentrate on their battle plans, and it still wasn’t enough. She focused instead on the soft contour of the woman’s cheeks, the rosy hue of her mouth, and her icy, entrancing eyes. There was an elegance to the mysterious archer that intrigued Mikoto even more than the sensual curves hidden beneath her armor.

The other woman’s lips tugged in a quick smile and she glanced away.

“Ambushes and trickery,” Yoshinaka said, interrupting Mikoto’s lustful fantasies. “This isn’t how we learned to wage war, Tomoe. What happened to honor and the rules of engagement? Isn’t that what separates us from our enemies?”

The woman named Tomoe stared down Yoshinaka with steely eyes. “I don’t believe her plan has been properly considered. Don’t you think so, general?”

Mikoto eagerly nodded. “My lord, let them believe you’ll honor the classic tradition of battle.”

“How?”

“Send out groups of ten or twenty archers to engage the Taira. Take a hundred of your best samurai and let them challenge Sadato’s strongest. They wouldn’t say no to being the first in battle.”

Yoshinaka fell silent as he weighed the possibility. He also seemed to be balancing his desire to live against his stifling notions of honor.

“This isn’t treachery, my lord. This is survival. If we pull this off, you’ll be remembered as a master of strategy.”

Yoshinaka’s jaw stiffened and his eyes darted between Imai and Tomoe. He didn’t seem entirely convinced. He settled on Mikoto with a solemn expression, revealing the doubt in his face. She braced herself for the worst as he let out a sigh.

“General Imai, gather six thousand of your finest warriors. Surround Hell Valley with archers and lie in wait. Tomoe will take an additional seven thousand men to bolster you. Nakahara, you will lead the ambush party. Take four thousand men and circle around until you follow the Taira up the pass. You will lead a two-pronged attack from the South and the West.”

Mikoto could hardly believe her ears. He was clearly intrigued by her plan and willing to bet the odds on her.

“Lord Yoshinaka, if you let me, I can gather my soldiers and join Tomoe in Hell Valley.”

“I have a better idea. You will stay with me and the main force.” He fondly patted her on the arm as he walked past her. “After all, I don’t know what I would do without my cleverest general.”

It was the closest that Mikoto would ever receive to acknowledgement as the engineer of their battle plan. She took it in stride because she was quite accustomed to Yoshinaka’s ego by now.

As the generals departed to command their respective units, Mikoto lingered. She watched as the female archer removed her helmet and shook free a cascade of black, silken hair. Mikoto was quickly joined by Yoshinaka, who followed her hungry gaze.

“Ah yes, Lady Tomoe Gozen. There’s no else quite like her… I suppose that’s why I married her. Tell me, what do you think of her?”

Mikoto inclined her head with a sly grin.

“I think I just found a woman who’s demon enough for me.”

Yoshinaka furrowed his brow as if he hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about.

“Yes, well… enough about her. Anyway, there is one more thing on my mind.”

“I assure you, our plan will thwart Sadato from advancing.”

“This has nothing to do with our strategy. Please, don’t burden yourself with ill tidings of war. Walk with me for a moment, Mikoto. I wanted to talk to you about the Obsidian Wraith.”

Mikoto felt the color draining from her face. Fortunately, the chill from the rain made her pallor less obvious.

“I know you were close to him,” Yoshinaka said, speaking softly. “I can only imagine how difficult it was for you when I tried to bring him to justice.”

“So you still believe he’s the traitor?”

“How else am I supposed to explain his mark on that letter? He threatened the social and political order of Japan. Remember, he’s not one of us. We are flesh and blood, but he is only darkness. Maybe that’s why he disappeared for so long. He’s a vengeful spirit that refuses to die.”

“He’s not,” Mikoto snapped.

Yoshinaka stopped dead in his tracks and scowled at her. If anyone else interrupted him, they would have been tied to a post in the middle of the camp and flogged.

“If I’ve offended you, I’m sorry,” he said instead, surprising her. “I’m well aware of the situation I put you in. When I confronted Shindara, I saw how much you wanted to help him. I saw the loyalty in your eyes. It was the kind of devotion that only comes from two warriors who fought side by side in battle. But you didn’t go after him. You chose me.

Mikoto wasn’t sure whether to laugh or recoil. She made a calculated choice to let Shindara flee. If she fought on his behalf, he would have stayed to protect her. In other words, it would have been a massacre that no one could survive.

As she looked upon Yoshinaka, she knew he could never understand the sacrifice she made.