Shike – Day 112 of 306

Then Bourkina took Taniko by the hand and led her through the entrance of the tent. Within, all was cloth of gold, and it seemed as if hundreds of hanging lamps were blazing. Taniko was momentarily blinded as she entered the dome-shaped chamber filled with dazzling light.

Chapter Twelve

The clouds that rolled across the night sky reflected red light. Missiles poured over Kweilin’s walls, while bands of Mongols and their Kin Tartar and Turk auxiliaries pressed forward with siege towers and ladders. Four war elephants smashed a stone-filled battering ram against the south gate, arrows glancing off their armour like raindrops off a sedge hat.

Jebu expected the city’s defences to crumble at any moment, but he stood on the walls, smiling. There was beauty in war, the fire, the colour, the flow and ebb of human waves, the enormous power of the elephants and siege artillery.

“No wonder this people has conquered half the world,” Jebu called to Yukio over the roar of battle.

“You admire them?”

“I simply find it remarkable what human beings can do.”

He did not admire the Mongols for their conquests, but he was impressed by their ability to throw all their energies into action, by their discipline and by the carefree way they faced hardship and death. These qualities reminded him of the Zinja. Now that he saw Arghun among his people, no longer a mysterious assassin from an unknown world, he was able to understand him better.

Kweilin had held out much longer than it had any right to. The Mongols had arrived before the city in the Fourth Month of the Year of the Sheep. It was now the Seventh Month, and the city remained unconquered. Rarely, since Genghis Khan first led them out of the steppes, had the Mongols found a city so troublesome.

Rain had helped Kweilin’s defenders. The timing of the siege was bad for the attackers. The monsoons began just about the time Arghun arrived to direct the siege. The rain slowed down the Mongol assaults, dampened their explosive powder, put out the fires they started, and provided the people of the city with plenty of fresh water.

Disease helped too. The Mongol camp quickly turned into a steaming swamp. Inured for generations to a chill northern climate, they were an easy prey to the fevers of this almost tropical country. By order of the governor, the human waste of the large population of Kweilin, which in peacetime would have fertilized the rice fields around the city, went into the moat and the Kwei Kiang River. Some of it, as Liu intended, poisoned the Mongol drinking water. Thousands of the nomads were felled by dysentery.

But the rain and the sickness had only slowed the Mongols down. It was the samurai who held them off. For the first time since they had emerged from the steppes, the Mongols were encountering warriors as tough, as energetic, as ferocious as themselves. Without help the samurai could not hold out much longer, but they had already wrecked the Mongol schedule for the conquest of the Sung empire.

Daily during those months Jebu looked into the heart of the Jewel of Life and Death. Taitaro, who had given him the Jewel, was somewhere in this land. They would never meet, though, because the city would fall at any moment, and soon after that he would be dead.

He found he could face the prospect with serenity.

But now a strange thing was happening. The noise that had been deafening Jebu for months was slowly dying down. A silence was spreading almost visibly like a blanket of snow. The boulders came hurtling over the walls less often. A single fire pot tore through the air like a shooting star. No more followed it. The hua pao were silent.

At the base of the wall where thousands of prisoners had died filling in the moat with stones and brushwood and human flesh, a detachment of Kin Tartar foot soldiers was rushing forward with a long ladder. A volley of samurai arrows fell among them. The ladder dropped to the ground. In response to a shouted command from across the moat, the surviving Tartars turned and ran back to the Mongol camp.

The sun had started to rise above the Kwei Kiang. In the pale light the elephants’ handlers were unchaining the battering ram. It fell with a crash. Now the elephants turned and lumbered over the stone causeway the Mongols’ prisoners had built across the junction of the two lakes. Flights of arrows followed them, leaving the armoured elephants unharmed but killing several of the men with them.

In the full light of morning the samurai and the Chinese watched, dumbfounded, as the Mongols broke down their camp and made preparations to withdraw.

“They expect us to throw open the gates as soon as they disappear over the horizon,” said Yukio. “Then they’ll come roaring back and catch us off guard.”

“But they would have had the city today or tomorrow anyway,” Jebu said. “And they could hardly take us by surprise if we sent scouts after them.”

Governor Liu picked his way over the broken stone covering the top of the wall. “So, what I heard is true. They do seem to be leaving.”

Jebu watched the Mongols mount some of their larger yurts on carts, while they stripped the felt covering away from the wooden poles of the smaller ones and packed them away on wagons. The Kin engineers were untying the ropes and knocking out the pegs that held the siege machines together. Others were digging out the bases of the hua pao.

Yukio remained convinced that the whole withdrawal was a deception. Liu suggested that there might be a Chinese relief army on the way, or perhaps this army had been called away to meet a Chinese counter-attack in one of the other war zones. Jebu thought that only some requirement of their own law could draw the Mongols away from an almost certain victory.

“It can only be something that affects them in the most profound way,” he said.

The besiegers had stationed a protective screen of heavy cavalry across Lake Rong hu, not far from the pen where the thousands of prisoners who had survived the siege sat on the bare ground. The prisoners, Jebu thought, were probably rejoicing that they were still alive and might return home soon.

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