Shike – Day 104 of 306

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?

Five more horsemen rode into the open centre of the field, one from each tuman. They formed a semi-circle behind the battle standard.

“The tuman-bashis,” Yukio said.

The army before the city and the spectators on the walls seemed to hold their breath. A horn blared. Down from the hills beyond Kweilin rode a single horseman on a steppe pony.

He could have his pick of any horse in the conquered territories, Jebu thought. He could ride a huge black stallion or a white charger.

He could have a horse worth a kingdom. But he chooses, when he shows himself to his army and to his enemy, the same sort of pony he has ridden all his life, the sort his ancestors have ridden for thousands of years before him.

The only sound was the clatter of one horse’s hooves. The rider’s red cloak streamed out behind him, showing his red lacquered armour.

It’s strange, thought Jebu. I’m seeing the man who murdered my father, and yet he makes me think of my father. My father must have been a man very like him, and so he restores my father to me.

Arghun Baghadur rode out before the battle standard of his army. The five generals facing him got down from their horses, ceremoniously unbuckled their belts and draped them over their shoulders, took off their helmets and put them on the ground.

Arghun spoke to them and acknowledged their submission with an inclination of his head. The tuman-bashis stood up and remounted. Arghun turned to face his troops. Again there was a moment as if the world held its breath. Then a roar went up from fifty thousand throats.

Arghun stood in his stirrups and addressed his tumans. His voice boomed across the parade ground, but he was too far away for those on the walls of the city to hear him.

“We’ll find out later what he is saying,” a voice said beside Jebu. “My scouts will tell us.”

Yukio bowed to the governor. “Your Excellency need not expose yourself to danger in order to see what is happening among the barbarians.”

Liu smiled. A party of Chinese guardsmen and silk-robed city officials stood behind him. Jebu saw that he had been carried to the top of the wall in a sedan chair.

“When those who govern refuse to go out and see for themselves, the country is lost,” said Liu.

Across the two lakes Arghun raised his arm in a signal. A hill in the distant camp seemed to move. It lumbered down towards Arghun, followed by another gigantic grey shape, then another. For a moment Jebu could not understand what he was seeing. Finally he recognized that four enormous animals, the largest creatures he had ever seen, were moving towards Arghun. They were covered with brightly coloured cloths under which armour gleamed. High on the back of each animal was a rider who occupied a little castle. The beasts were fantastic under their armour—a, high, domed head; a nose as long as a tree limb, with a serpentine life of its own; two white spears, each the length of a man and the thickness of a leg, jutting out from either side of the mouth.

Jebu had seen such a beast before. After a moment he remembered where. It had been one of the strange animals he had seen in his vision of the Tree of Life, when Taitaro first gave him the shintai. He reached into his robe and rubbed the Jewel with his fingertips.

“Is it some kind of dragon?” Yukio whispered.

“It is a creature that is as terrible for the fear it inspires as for the damage it can do,” said Liu. “They are much used in warfare by the nations of the south of us. I had heard that the Mongols acquired some war elephants when they invaded Nan Chao and Annam some years ago.”

The elephants formed a line before Arghun, and the Mongols cheered the beasts with a roar. The elephants answered with a sound as of trumpets blown by giants.

Jebu felt an impulse from deep within, perhaps from the Self. “We have been tame spectators of Arghun’s parade long enough.” Drawing a willow-leaf arrow from his quiver, Jebu nocked it and took aim at the centre of Arghun’s back.

“That little bow will never carry that far,” said Liu.

“That little bow may surprise you, Your Excellency,” said Yukio.

Jebu fired. A gust of wind sweeping down the river valley deflected the arrow. It arced over the counterwall and landed at the feet of Arghun’s horse.

Immediately the Mongol dismounted and picked up the arrow. He examined it for a moment, then turned and looked up at the wall. A great distance separated them, but Jebu could see clearly the upturned face, the deep-set eyes, the rock-like cheekbones, the thick red moustache. He could not see Arghun’s eyes, but he knew the tarkhan must be looking right at him.

He realized now that he had wanted Arghun to know that he was here. That was why he had shot at him. He had no wish to kill Arghun from this distance. Some day Arghun must die by his hand and must know that it was he, Jebu, son of Jamuga, who had done it.

Across the gulf that separated the walls of the Chinese city from the Mongol camp, the two men stared at each other.

Yukio took his longbow from the wall where it had been leaning and sent an arrow winging at Arghun. Other samurai followed his example. A hail of arrows fell around the Mongol leader.

With their bodies, the tuman-bashis shielded Arghun from the flights of arrows. They led him under the wooden wall of their encampment. A line of Mongol heavy cavalry, mounted archers with powerful crossbows, trotted out into the parade ground and returned the fire from the city. A hua pao mounted on a wooden Mongol tower boomed; then another. An iron ball crashed into the parapet, sending splinters of rock flying in all directions, and a man fell with a head wound.

Jebu positioned himself in front of the governor. “This is too dangerous a place for you, Your Excellency.”

Liu waved away Jebu’s words with a slender hand. “I am the least important person on these walls.” But he allowed Jebu to hurry him to his sedan chair.

The duel of arrows had turned into a general battle of archery and artillery. Across the lake the Mongol formations were moving aside as the auxiliary troops and siege machines, shielded by civilian prisoners, began to advance: The battle for Kweilin had begun in earnest. It would not end, Jebu thought, until the city had fallen.

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