Shike – Day 127 of 306

The Great Khan and his tarkhan strode out of the bedchamber, deep in excited conversation. It’s a game to them, Taniko thought. They relish it.

Chapter Eighteen

Jebu stood with his back to a willow tree as four Chinese pikemen closed in on him warily. The cries and clash of battle were loud and near by, but the mist was too heavy for him to see anything. They had been fighting almost blind for hours. He was exhausted and panting heavily.

The burble of a river sounded at his right, through the mist. He feinted with his sword, driving the four Chinese back. He raised both arms over his head, crouched and sprang. He almost didn’t make it.

The rough bark of the willow tree scratched the palm of his left hand. For a moment his left arm was pulling all his weight. Then he managed to hook the right arm, which held the sword, over the tree limb. A willow can’t fail me, he thought.

He hauled himself up, climbing like a monkey. The four pikes thrust through the space he had occupied. He swung into the lower branches of the tree and ran out along a limb towards the river. When the branch would no longer hold his weight he dropped off and landed feet first in the water. The current carried him away from the shouting pikemen.

Even near the shore the river was deep. Encumbered by his armour, Jebu swam with difficulty. This was one of the many channels that irrigated the Red Basin. Jebu heard voices speaking his own language and swam to the riverbank. Clambering over the big boulders that held the river in its man-made bed, he called out to two near-by samurai.

“We’ve won, shiké,” said one of them. “They’re running away.”

“He can’t tell,” said another. “For all we can see in this fog, we may be running away.”

“Where’s Lord Yukio?” Jebu asked.

“Somewhere,” said the second samurai. “I don’t even know where I am.”

Jebu walked along the riverbank calling for Yukio. At last he found him sitting on a boulder, his dragon-crowned helmet in his hands. Jebu looked around. There was a thick white wall of mist in every direction. Near Yukio’s feet three bodies lay.

“Did we drive them off?” Jebu asked. He sheathed his sword and sat next to Yukio.

“Do you think I’d be sitting here with my helmet off if we hadn’t? In a little while I’ll get up and order a roll call, and find out how many we lost this time. I’m sick of this. I still say we should go south to Nan Chao.”

“We’ll find what we’re looking for if we keep going north,” said Jebu.

“For eight months we have wandered in this land of mists and rivers and rice paddies, looking for what? Only you seem to know. I’m tired of you playing the mysterious shiké with supernatural knowledge who keeps insisting we should head north but won’t tell us why.”

Jebu sighed and shook his head. “I’ve told you everything I know. Governor Liu advised me strongly that our best prospects lay in this direction. That’s all. He didn’t tell me any more. I have no mysterious knowledge. If you consider my advice faulty, give the order. We’ll march south and offer our services to the King of Nan Chao against Annam. Or is to the King of Annam against Nan Chao?”

“I have the burden of deciding the future of all of us, and you mock me.”

“You make a burden of it.”

“We’re nothing but bandits. The Chinese have put a price on our heads. Every so often they send an army after us and we kill a few of them and they kill a few of us. Our silk and silver have run out and we have to steal food and fodder from the peasants. Everybody hates us.”

Jebu snorted. “And you can’t stand to be among people who don’t worship you as the people of Kweilin did.”

Yukio stood up. “Are you laughing at me?”

Jebu remained seated. “Yes.”

Yukio’s fingers tapped the hilt of his sword. “I am Muratomo no Yukio, son of Muratomo no Domei, chieftain of the Muratomo, the most illustrious warriors in the Sacred Islands.”

“That means nothing here.”

“You are goading me. I’m a better swordsman than you are.”

“Possibly.” He’s right, Jebu thought. I’m goading him. These last six months have been as trackless as this white mist we’re in. It bothers me as much as it does him. It puts me at the mercy of my feelings. I have no direction, no purpose. I’m lost. There’s nothing to hold to.

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