Shike – Day 136 of 306

One day an angry Nestorian challenged him. “You’re not a priest, you’re not a prophet, you’re not a theologian. What the devil—and I use that word deliberately—are you?”

Taitaro spread his hands and said blandly, “I am a religious jester.” Kublai Khan, present in the audience, laughed uproariously.

On occasion Taitaro met with other figures more mysterious and, to Jebu, more interesting than religious missionaries. But the old man had nothing to say about his meetings with Christian knights in black cloaks adorned with white crosses, Moslem sages who spoke in whispers and did no preaching, and red-robed Tibetan lamas.

“It is the business of the Order,” he said.

“Who are they?”

“Knights Templar, Ismaelites, Tantric lamas. And others.”

“Those names don’t mean anything to me.”

Taitaro laughed. “There is no reason why they should, Jebu-san.”

When Jebu arrived at Taitaro’s cart-mounted yurt at noon on the day of battle, there were wounded men crowded around it. The fame of the Zinja medicine and treatments, which Taitaro would dispense to any wounded man who came to him, had spread. Even Mongols, who would normally go to their own shamans with serious injuries, were among those clamouring for attention whenever Taitaro showed his face in the doorway. Jebu moved into the back of the crowd and waited his turn.

The men around him were talking about the battle. It was going badly. Arik Buka’s left had attacked Kublai’s centre and scattered it. Thousands of men and six war elephants had been killed. The Great Khan himself had nearly been captured. Arik Buka’s right wing, under Arghun Baghadur, had done even more damage to Kublai’s left.

“It’s foolishness to attack an enemy who’s as strong and cunning as we are,” an old Mongol said. “At best we’ll come out of this with a third of our men gone, as we did three years ago. And how many men can we afford to lose before the Chinese revolt against us?”

A younger man said, “Genghis Khan subjugated the Chinese with a far smaller army than we have now.”

“The Mongols of Genghis Khan’s day were worth ten of today’s breed.” The old Mongol sniffed contemptuously.

When Taitaro finally went to work on Jebu he asked, “What happened to the man who gave you this?”

“I got him in the throat with a poisoned dart.” Jebu looked around the tent. There were Tibetan and Arab doctors helping Taitaro and watching him work. The old Zinja commanded Jebu to cut off his wounded arm mentally from his body, a technique for controlling pain. Then he poured hot water from an iron kettle into the hole the lance point had driven into Jebu’s bicep. He sprinkled a mixture of finely ground herbs into the wound, then bound it tightly with a linen bandage.

“Are you going out to fight again? You shouldn’t. One wound like this is enough in a day.”

“Excuse me, sensei, but it’s insignificant. I have heard the battle is going badly.”

Taitaro shrugged. “If you live, I must change the bandage tomorrow.”

It was mid-afternoon by the time Jebu found the samurai position at the end of Uriangkatai’s left wing. Jebu took a horse from his string of remounts and rode out to find Yukio. His left arm throbbed and dangled uselessly at his side, though the medications Taitaro had put into the wound eased the pain.

The samurai were formed in squares, the men standing or sitting by their horses. Yukio and his officers were gathered in a circle in front of the formation, in the shade of a cart. The dust floating in the air made Jebu’s throat dry and his teeth gritty.

“I thought we’d seen the last of you,” said Yukio sourly. “Why don’t you stay back with your father and treat the wounded? You’re no good to us if you can’t pull a bow.”

“After I got this wound I killed the man who gave it to me, without bow and arrow,” said Jebu. “I may yet be of some use to you.”

“The way this battle is going, we’ll need every man we can get,” said Yukio in a lower voice.

A messenger rode up. “Uriangkatai wants the samurai tuman ready for an immediate attack.”

Another message came from Uriangkatai a moment later. “You are to move forward now towards the enemy’s right wing. The direction of the battle has shifted. Arghun Baghadur is directly west of here, and the enemy centre is to the north-west. Advance regardless of what happens and make no feigned retreats.”

“Arghun was north of us,” said Yukio. “Now he’s west of us. They’re trying to circle around us and sweep down on us. It’s his turn to try a tulughma.”

The samurai surged forward in a tight line, horses shoulder-to-shoulder, at Yukio’s command. Looking back and gauging the distance from one end of the line to the other, Jebu could see that the line was not as long as it would have been this morning. They must have lost at least a third of their men.

The grassland over which they rode was littered with the bodies of men and horses, motionless and dust covered, as if they had been dead a long time. As they lay, dark lumps in the tall grass, it was impossible to tell whose side they had fought on.

They saw the enemy ahead, a black mass on the horizon, lances waving in the air like blades of grass. Jebu squinted. It hurt his eyes to look at the opposing line. They were riding into the sun now. That gave them an advantage. He readied himself for the killing rain of arrows that would come from the long-range, heavy bows of Arghun’s cavalry. Yukio called an order to his own men to load and prepare to fire. The order was transmitted by horn signal down the samurai line.

How different is the way we fight now, Jebu thought. No more individual samurai riding out to find somebody of good family on the other side to challenge to single combat. We manoeuvre in masses with all the precision of the Mongols themselves. We’ve learned from them—those of us who are still alive.

He kicked his horse into a fast trot. The distance between Arghun’s line and their own had halved since they first saw the enemy. The arrows would start flying at any moment now. They were almost within bow shot.

The enemy horsemen wheeled and began riding away. Now would come the deadly flight of arrows fired while retreating. How many battles had these mounted archers won while seeming to run away? Unable to use a bow, Jebu drew his Zinja sword and waved it in the air above his head, yelling wordlessly, just to do something. The dust was so thick, his shout ended in a cough.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)