Shike – Day 134 of 306

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.

Jebu grabbed the lance and jammed its point into the earth, hard and fast. The rider, still holding tight to the lance, was vaulted out of his saddle. He hit the ground with a crash of his steel breastplate, while his riderless horse ran on, following the others.

The man was lying on the ground, groaning. Jebu crawled over to him and smashed his windpipe with the edge of his hand. He muttered the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy while looking around wildly to see where the other horsemen were. They were wheeling around now to see what had happened. Crouching, Jebu ran to his dead horse and pulled his bow out of his saddle case. He fired an armour-piercing arrow at one rider, who took it through the breastplate and pitched out of the saddle. Another arrow caught a man in the right shoulder, making him drop his lance and ride off. Now the three remaining warriors had their heavy crossbows out and were shooting at him. He lay behind the body of his horse, using it as a shield.

A pair of riders galloped to either side of Jebu’s dead horse. Mongols never jumped their horses. Two lance points stabbed at him. He rolled away from one, but the other caught him on the unprotected inner side of his arm and tore through his left bicep. Jebu grabbed the lance as he had before, but this rider brought his horse to an instant stop. He pushed the lance point deeper into Jebu’s arm, tearing through muscle, trying to pin him to the dirt.

Jebu reached into his armour-robe. Luckily the blow gun was on the left side. One dart was already in place. Jebu flicked the plugs at either end away with his right thumb, put the tube to his lips, and sent a poisoned dart into his enemy’s throat. The man clawed at the dart, letting go of his lance. He had barely pulled the dart out and thrown it to the ground when the poison began to take effect. He toppled out of his saddle and went into convulsions.

The dying man’s pony danced nervously but did not run away. Jebu was in the saddle in two jumps and had the Mongol’s bow out of its case, while his eyes searched the field for the two other cavalrymen. They came at him together, charging him with wild, warbling cries, sabres waving. His left arm was too badly hurt for him to draw the bow. He decided to try to outrun them.

He had no choice but to head in the least promising direction, north, towards the Gobi. A cold wind bit into his face, a strangely cold wind for midsummer. Round yellow and purple clouds towered above the horizon. Dust stung his eyes. He pulled his headcloth around to cover most of his face. The two horsemen pursuing him were gaining on him. The dust blowing in the air got thicker as he galloped northwards. Soon it was all around him in a seething yellow cloud. He could no longer see. But his pursuers couldn’t see him, either.

He turned his horse to the right, heading for where he thought the centre of Kublai’s army should be. He didn’t want to come out of the storm in the middle of Arghun’s wing. Riding with the wind blowing on his left side, he gritted his teeth against the searing pain in his arm. It hurt all the way from his fingertips to his shoulder. Blood was dripping from his hand. He slowed the pony down to a walk, ignoring the dust, and used his short sword to cut a strip from his grey cloak. He bound his arm with the strip of cloth. There would be a lot of sand in the wound, but he could wash it out later.

He turned to the right again, so that his back was to the wind. He wondered if the dust storm had brought the battle to an end. His eyes were sore, his teeth full of grit, his throat so dry it ached.

At last the wind died down, and he found himself on a stretch of steppe that looked just like the place he had been when the dust storm arose. A Mongol would know the difference, no doubt. Riderless horses grazed over the plain or ran about in frightened confusion. Half-hidden in the tall grass, bodies lay everywhere.

A flourish of trumpets, drums and gongs reached him. A tower, gold and white, was moving northwards over the grassland. A dark host of mounted men topped a row of hills near Jebu. Mongol cavalry were advancing at a walk. He spotted Chinese war chariots, each drawn by four horses and carrying three men, and Arabs with scimitars on nervous, prancing stallions.

The moving tower came up over a ridge, revealing that it rested on a wooden platform which, in turn, was carried on the broad backs of four elephants. Jebu had seen the structure before, so it was no surprise to him. War elephants usually carried towers from which soldiers fought or commanders observed the course of battle. This one, like many things the Mongols did, was not really different, only bigger.

From a gilded chamber at the top of the tower Kublai Khan watched the progress of the battle. Jebu wondered how a man could stand atop a thing like that and not imagine he was a god. Perhaps Kublai did think he was a god. He seemed larger than human in his glittering helmet and armour, standing in the midst of his officers and a guard of archers.

Kublai passed on to the north. Jebu stopped an officer and asked the whereabouts of the left wing. The officer waved to the west. It was still on the left, where it would never be by this stage in most Mongol battles.

Jebu’s arm no longer pained him. He had sent his mind to the wound and quenched the fire that burned there. But he needed treatment at once. He rode to find the samurai.

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