Shike – Day 100 of 306

“Take her to the carriage and lock her in,” said Horigawa, panting as he picked himself up off the floor with the help of one of the maids. He bared his black-dyed teeth at Taniko. “I might say I will make things worse for you, to repay you for this. But your fate cannot be made any worse.”

Chapter Seven

They set out that morning escorted by a clanking company of soldiers carrying long spears and shields painted with fire-breathing dragons’ heads. The prince rode in solitary splendour in a vermilion and gold official state carriage of the Sung Emperor’s Court, drawn by a pure white ox. His entourage followed in less ornate vehicles, their belongings packed on the roofs of the carriages. Five big carts, each pulled by three oxen, carried bales of silk, boxes of silver bars and other valuables.

Taniko rode with three Chinese maids, the two she had knocked down and another, grim-looking woman taller and broader than either of the others. All were strangers to her. When she tried to speak to them, they silently looked away.

The caravan rode north on the Imperial Way, passing canals and bridges and vast marketplaces. Around the market squares stood tall buildings, some as high as five storeys, a necessity in this overcrowded city. They passed through a fortified gateway and crossed a wide moat, and Taniko looked back at walls so thick, chariots could be driven along their tops.

As they travelled slowly westwards, they passed flooded rice paddies, whose green shoots were just beginning to break through the water’s surface, alternating with woodlands full of leafy trees. At night they stayed at inns, places that intrigued Taniko. People paid in silk, silver coins or the paper money issued by the Emperor, and were given food and sleeping quarters for the night. How much easier it would make travelling in her own country if such establishments existed there.

She decided that whatever was to happen to her, she must meet it looking her best. Each morning she selected a set of her finest robes and dressed in them, layer on layer, folded back one on the other at throat, sleeves and skirt to show their variegated edges. She combed and arranged her hair and adorned it with jewelled combs and pins. She powdered her face and painted her lips, carefully making her mouth, her worst feature in her opinion, look smaller than it actually was. Horigawa had taken none of the maids from their homeland on this journey, but she was able to teach the Chinese women to help her dress in the style of a great lady of Heian Kyo.

They began to pass long lines of refugees, bundles on their heads, trudging east along either side of the road. Horigawa was heading directly for the war zone. Taniko refused to give in to fear, knowing that was just what Horigawa wanted. She remembered Jebu’s telling her that once she made direct contact with the Self, she would no longer feel fear. “There will be no necessity for it,” was the way he put it. She tried to reach the Self by invoking Amida Buddha. Perhaps Amida was the Self.

They encountered a Chinese army, its yellow and black silk tents dotting the spring-green hills, its general a tall figure in gilded armour mounted on a splendid black charger. Horigawa showed the general a scroll which he took from a carved ivory case.

They went on, but now the Chinese guards who had accompanied them from Linan were no longer with them. They had no protection whatever. This was madness, Taniko thought. Yet she knew Horigawa would never risk his person unnecessarily.

Drowsing as their carriage bumped westwards, Taniko was awakened by the screams of the Chinese women. “Mongols!”

She looked up. Pale with fear, the maids were staring out the carriage window. Taniko pushed in among them.

They were on a road running through green young wheat fields. Nearby were the burnt ruins of a cluster of houses. In the distance she could see the walls and pagoda towers of a city above which hung a cloud of grey smoke. And across the empty fields, riders were galloping towards them. Horigawa stepped down from his carriage and stood waiting for them.

They skidded to a stop with shrill cries. Their faces were very broad and a dark brown. For the first time Taniko was seeing Jebu’s people. They looked nothing like him. Then she noticed that two of them had moustaches the exact shade of red of Jebu’s hair. That was a shock to her, making real something she had only half believed, as if a kami should suddenly appear to her in the living flesh.

Horigawa addressed the riders in Chinese and showed them something. He was too far away for Taniko to hear what he was saying. She hoped they would ride him down and impale him with their lances. She would be content to die, if she could first see that.

Several of the warriors dismounted and began to walk down the line of carriages, looking in the windows. Would they really smell as bad as the Chinese claimed?

A round face with a long black moustache, surrounded by a felt headpiece, thrust itself in at the window. The Mongol’s eyes widened, and he exclaimed in his harsh tongue. Pulling the rear door of the carriage open, he seized the maid nearest him by the arm and yanked her out of the carriage. It was the biggest of the women. The Mongol was tall, but she was a bit taller.

The bowlegged warrior pulled the stout, pleading woman away from the road and into the knee-high green wheat. He threw her down on her back as his comrades, laughing and calling to each other, rode over and climbed down from their ponies. Taniko could hear Horigawa call out a protest, but the Mongols ignored him. Chattering gleefully, they tore the screaming woman’s robes from her body. Two of them pulled her legs apart. The one who had taken her from the carriage threw himself upon her.

Her stomach churning, Taniko watched while the Mongols proceeded to take turns raping the woman. Her cries and groans brought tears to Taniko’s eyes. The other two maids crouched on the carriage floor and covered their ears with their hands. Horigawa, his back turned, was talking to the leader of the Mongols, some distance away.

The last of them was through with the woman. He stood, drawing up his leather trousers, while she lay on her back sobbing. With a snarl the Mongol reached down and pulled her to her feet by the hair. He drew the sabre slung over his back, stretched her neck by pulling downwards on her hair, and in one swift motion struck off her head.

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