Shike – Day 103 of 306

“You will go to Canton, my son. You will sail tonight from the river gate.”

Five of the nomads, men too badly wounded to fight to the death, had been taken prisoner, and Jebu managed to convince the samurai that these men would be more useful to them alive than dead. Each day he spent some time visiting the prisoners in the stone building near the governor’s palace, doctoring their wounds and conversing with them.

At first they talked in Chinese, which most Mongols knew because northern China had been part of their territory for almost a generation. It was hard for Jebu to understand their dialect, almost a different language from the southern Chinese he was used to. Among themselves the nomad warriors spoke Mongolian, and Jebu learned some of the words and used them when he talked to them. In time their conversation was more and more in Mongolian.

The Mongols distrusted Jebu. Aside from the suspicion of prisoners of war towards any captor, they recognized, as Torluk had, his Mongol features. They assumed he was a traitor, captured in an earlier battle, who had agreed to serve the Chinese in order to save his life. They guessed he had been sent to persuade them to do the same, and they offered to kill him if he would only come close enough.

To the distress of the Chinese guards, Jebu selected the biggest Mongol and fought him barehanded in the courtyard of the prison building. His opponent was the only one of the prisoners who had not been seriously wounded; he had been found unconscious on Kweilin’s wall, where a rock, apparently catapulted from his own side, had struck him. It was traditional, bone-cracking, Mongol-style wrestling against Zinja unarmed combat techniques. Jebu threw the big Mongol five times.

Once he had earned their respect and convinced them he wanted no military information, the Mongols grew friendlier. They came to realize that Jebu really did not know Mongolian and therefore could not be a turncoat from their own side.

For his part, Jebu soon felt a certain affection for his near countrymen. These five, four of them wounded and sitting in a prison cell, bored and apprehensive, seemed far from being the brutal warriors of legend. Jebu found them simple, illiterate, young, quick to laugh, courageous and kind to one another.

He also discovered that they were fond of drink. He ordered a few jars of rice wine sent into their cell. Within an hour it was gone and they were calling for more. Their appetite for wine was bottomless, and Jebu had to limit their ration to prevent them from being drunk all the time. In their cups they tended to be merry, not belligerent. The language lessons went better with the help of a little wine.

He was starting to understand the Mongol way of life. These young Mongols had grown up enjoying the ease and wealth of the empire Genghis Khan had created, but their parents and grandparents had told them of the older times when not a season went by without at least one death in every family. The world of ice and desert and steppe never relaxes, never gives a second chance. The laws and customs of the Mongols were modelled after the laws of nature, or as the Mongols themselves called it, Eternal Heaven.

Days of inactivity passed behind the wooden wall of the besiegers and the stone walls of Kweilin. Jebu acquired a smattering of Mongolian. Yukio and Governor Liu directed repairs to the city and its fortifications. Everyone watched the river for signs of transport junks bringing a relief expedition.

Twelve days after the unsuccessful assault on Kweilin, word came from Governor Liu’s scouts that Arghun Baghadur had returned from his visit to Mangu Khan in Szechwan province.

“Do we launch another attack on them to demonstrate how much we are to be feared?” Yukio asked Jebu as they stood on the wall watching the two additional tumans Arghun had brought with him set up camp.

“Suppose I toss you off the wall into their midst. That should frighten them.”

Moko, who was on the walls with them, watching the arrival of the Mongol reinforcements, said, “I have been trying to design a catapult that would toss me out of this city and safely across the Kwei Kiang to the opposite bank.”

After setting up their yurts, as they called their round felt tents, the new arrivals remounted their horses. They formed up in squares of a hundred mounted men, a whole tuman containing a hundred such squares, ten across and ten deep. The five tumans that made up the army besieging Kweilin formed in a semi-circle wider than the city itself on the southern shore of the two lakes. Fifty thousand cavalrymen faced the city. Beyond them, drawn up in parade formation, were new siege machines and masses of auxiliary troops from the nations the Mongols had conquered.

Jebu felt a chill go through his body. Even for a Zinja—a Zinja hardened by fifteen years of almost continuous combat—the Mongol army was a terrifying sight. He had never seen an army this large. He doubted whether all the samurai in the Sunrise Land, gathered together, would present a spectacle like this. No wonder men were so terrified of the Mongols that some of them surrendered at the first news of their approach.

Yukio, beside him, let out a deep breath. “How foolish I was to think my little band could stand against something like this.” He shook his head sadly.

A bannerman rode out before the massed Mongol troops, carrying the three-horsetail battle standard of the army. Now Jebu noticed that each tuman had a standard of its own planted in the ground before the massed squares of cavalry. The banner carrier drove the pointed base of his standard pole into the ground in the centre of the field, just by the joining of the two lakes. How many battles, Jebu wondered, had these six standards seen? Over how many nations had they triumphed?

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