Shike – Day 133 of 306

Jebu remembered a battle long ago at the Imperial Palace in Heian Kyo when Kiyosi’s Red Dragon helmet led the feigned retreat.

“The Great Khan has promised that all the treasures piled up in Karakorum will be divided among his horde,” Uriangkatai said. “That’s more than fifty years’ accumulated loot. If we win this, each man will be a khan in his own right.”

“Generals always make everything sound easy,” Yukio said as they rode back to their own ranks on their Mongol ponies. Most of the big Chinese horses on which they had left Kweilin had long since been lost, but Kublai Khan had issued them new horses from a seemingly endless supply. The steppe ponies could cover more ground, faster, than any horses in the world.

The sun was well above the horizon now. The samurai were in the vanguard of the left wing. Uriangkatai always put them in the vanguard. It was where they wanted to be. Yukio had tuman-bashi status even though he commanded far fewer than ten thousand men.

Of the original thousand samurai who had come with Yukio to China only about half were left. But there were over two thousand men fighting under Yukio, the balance made up of Chinese as well as Turks, Tartars, Tibetans, Koreans and Arabs who had joined them in the last four years.

Jebu felt the hollow sensation in his stomach that always preceded a battle. He took his position out in front of the first rank of riders. Yukio rode up and down the line, saying cheerful things, making everything sound easy. To Jebu’s right rode a standard-bearer holding up a square of gold silk on which was painted a White Dragon.

The horns brayed, the saddle drums rumbled, and the samurai began to move forward. Jebu tested his mount’s responsiveness to knee pressure as they trotted over the tall grass, letting the reins dangle and making the pony veer to the right, then the left as he drew his bow from his saddle case and checked its tension, pulling lightly on the string.

He mounted a rise and drew in his breath sharply. A vast carpet of white flowers with red centres filled the shallow valley before him. In the morning sun the flowers were dazzling. He had often wondered why a day of battle would sometimes be so beautiful that it was hard to think of killing or of facing your own death. Why was the world of men not more often reflected in the world around them? Today would then be a gloomy, foreboding day. Or contrariwise, why were men rarely as beautiful as the world of sun and flowers?

His horse glided through the white field and up the other side of the valley. There was the enemy. At first they were only a dust cloud on the horizon, then a long black line of horsemen brandishing lances. Rank after rank of mounted men poured towards them over the rolling meadow. Jebu felt his body bracing itself for the shock. These were heavy cavalry, and they were not retreating.

The arrows began to fly. Jebu heard screams from behind him. Some arrows whistled overhead from his side, but they fell far short of the oncoming riders.

Somewhere in those mounted ranks coming towards him was Arghun. Maybe they would meet today and settle what was between them.

“Forward at the gallop,” called Yukio, riding on Jebu’s right. The horns transmitted the order, and Jebu’s pony and all the others along the line picked up the pace. It was the only way to get within range quickly.

But, inevitably, the attackers wheeled and began riding off in the opposite direction. In his frustration, Jebu wanted to try a shot, but he remembered the Zinja maxim, make every arrow count.

Now Arik Buka’s heavy cavalrymen turned to their saddles and shot at the samurai over the rears of their horses. Men and ponies fell, screaming, all over the rolling grasslands. The devastating volley tore huge gaps in the samurai ranks.

An arrow thudded into his horse’s chest. The animal fell to its knees, and Jebu flew over its head. He pulled himself into a ball in mid air. He hit the ground on his shoulders, his armour rattling, and lay on his back for a moment, stunned. Then he rolled over on his stomach and raised his head cautiously, peering through the grass.

The enemy had turned again and were coming back. Six horsemen were coming directly at him. He could feel the beat of their hooves through the soft earth under him. There was no place to hide. He decided to play dead, rolling on his side so he would be able to see.

He was surrounded by a rampart of tall grey-green grass. One of the white flowers hung directly over his head. It had no smell. They were upon him. Through half-closed eyes he saw one rider coming at him, lance lowered. To make sure he was dead.

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