Runner

by Kugelblitz

His strides were long, steady ones. The breath came easier lately. The screaming, bass roars sounded like they were right behind him. He took the little crooked turn at the second kink in the chest high wall. Jumped over that bottom step. A small narrow courtyard, paved with wide, pale flagstones. Flat stones in the moonlight. He stayed carefully to the left, counted archways. A small slash of red and white paint directed him under a low archway and out into the flat. Between the support walls and the row of small, well lit blockhouses. He picked up the pace, tried to exhale completely each time before drawing in another hot breath. It was so hot here. His yari ticked off a stone doorway and he hissed at himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. There would be more glares when his squad saw the mark.

At least he could run.

At first, when the other ashigaru had looked at him, Hikozaeemon had thought those looks were because he was a Dragon heimin, he had been a lowly porter working for the Westgate Porter’s Lodge before. Before he had become a spearman. That day felt like a year, no ten years ago now and the Emperor alone knew how many ri away North Wall City was, or used to be, he thought grimly. Or maybe because he was an outsider. Or new. He didn’t know why, and he wasn’t going to ask. He spat to one side.

Everything, everything had rules here on the Wall. You had to put your yari in the same place, your helmet sat just so by your mat. You went over your gear in a certain way, every time you came off of watch and everything you wore, carried or ate with had a place. Oh and put something down wrong and suddenly four Crabs were gathered around you blandly explaining in excruciating detail just why what you had done was so very wrong, so sorry but the squad had to be correct and carelessness… carelessness could cause someone to get hurt.

The rules were infuriating. Did Hida sama have to do the same thing? Of course he did but he was probably used to it, or something. He tried to imagine something like this bothering him. No. No.

A low wall now, with planters of dense green bristly plants. He turned right and ran along the wall, the adrenaline had really helped. Had it been what, a week?

Nearly a week on the Wall with the unit, a week of uninterrupted quiet, and then.. that. All the drills and the endless grinding repetitious little routines. Busywork for thick headed Crabs, well, the unit all through the day and night. Four hours of watch with four other ashigaru boiling in the hot southern air and and straining to glimpse something, anything on the ground south of their post. Eight hours to sleep and eat and drill. Another four in reserve, then four hours on watch again. Over and over. for a week of nothing. Nothing but the drills and the carefully veiled glances as he tried to remember all of the things that would keep him, them alive. And the Nikutai, Hiruma Aki who could have been a puppet for all of the expression he had when he was maddeningly, calmly explaining to him for the hundredth time just where he was supposed to stand in the ridiculous closing the door drill. Hida sama just watching the horizon, like a statue. Did he even hear the nikutai?

Ahead a small gap in the plants. Don’t touch the plants, don’t touch the plants. He stepped carefully through the gap onto a path that crossed a small pond. He walked now, chest heaving. The roars overhead were continuous and the sound, GODS THE SOUNDS. It sounded like a kamikaze itself was trying to shake the wall down up there. Walk here, right.

He looked down as he crossed the narrow path. Pah, narrow paths did not bother the mountain born. He could have sprinted across this little track. Well, and then been feathered with a dozen shafts when he violated one of the arcane rules the Crabs had for anything to do with garrison duty on the Wall. Something crashed to the ground behind him, shrieking. Walk, walk WALK. Thirty paces and two steps up.

He tripped on the top step and cursed to himself. Forgot about the crooked step. There were two squat blockhouses ahead, one looked vacant and empty, the other well lit. He trotted the hundred or so paces over to the well lit one, staying away from the “fishponds” and held up a small wooden rod. The archer up there looked at him searchingly, taking in the Cadre Servant patch and the colored rings denoting their unit’s location on the wall. Apparently all was satisfactory because she grunted and went back to scanning the array of death traps and mazes between her and the base of Tower 1138, Hida Ginoru Memorial section.

Trying to contain his breath, Hikozaemon ducked under the low doorway and kneewalked through the short tunnel into the outer room. The Officer on watch would be there, with his runners. All the blockhouses looked the same here. Same size, same weapon storage areas, same doorways and the same red tiled floors. Everything was the same.

Ah, the chamber. The room was slightly crowded. Four runners in light armor, with runner sashes for tonight’s color, orange. One officer. Hiko carefully straightened up and then took a knee, inclining his head. He looked at the large Hida mon carefully carved into the back wall over everyone’s head and tried to freeze into a semblance of the postures he had seen the other runners use back at the Garrison.

The officer looked up from his small table, the lamplight reflecting off of his polished heavy armor. The same gray blue and red you saw everywhere, here. No green.

“T-1138? Osamu’s unit?” his eyes were alert and interested. Huh? Was he enjoying this?

“Hai! Taisa Osamu reports one type-5 oni, 3 type-2 oni and one flying oni of a new type, possible type-4, large, accompanied by several acres of goblins and at least two shamen types. He estimates-”

The headquarters taisa interrupted, “Fifty minutes?” He grinned at the surprise on Hiko’s face.

“Hai, sama.” said Hiko, his voice trailing off as he wondered why this horrible event could cause so much amusement. How did he know the rest of the message? Had he SEEN the size of that flying thing? Its whole head looked like a, a bundle of worms tipped with little eel mouths. How did he know that without help, Osamu estimated he would take 50% losses in just under an hour? Flying Oni. Gods. He shuddered.

The taisa sobered a little, “Catch your breath for a few minutes and return to your unit, tell Osamu he’s getting one company in twenty minutes and another twenty after that, right?” He picked up a little spring wound timer and clicked it once, setting it down on what looked like a map. Meanwhile two of his runners ducked out of the little archway in the back.

Hiko hai’d, trying to appear calm. He nodded and stepped back. He bowed once towards the taisa, “Taisa sama I am not winded, I will return at once in case I am needed.”

Of course Osamau Taisa would probably get a pigeon sooner than Hiko could return but everything here on the Wall was built around redundancy.

The taisa plucked a wicked looking jade studded tetsubo from the rack behind. He did it without looking. A quick yank on those pretty silk cords hanging down the front of his armor and his mempo jumped into place. A fiercely snarling hawk, beak agape with a frozen scream looked at Hiko now.

“We’ll make a Crab out of you yet, Dragon.” A slight nod. Was that respect?

He ran the route back even faster.

Runner

L5R : Jade Winds kugelblitz