Shike – Day 137 of 306

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.

Still no arrows, except a few random, accidental ones that hit no one. The dark body of Arghun’s riders had turned and were leading the samurai and the rest of the left wing—Jebu could see Uriangkatai’s Banners stretched out over the plain to his left—to the north. Supposedly Arik Buka’s centre lay that way.

The grass thinned out and the dust grew thicker. The rolling plains turned into waves of dunes stretching towards the northern horizon. The horses’ hooves slid in the sand. They were in the Gobi itself now.

There were more bodies than ever on the ground. This must have been where the fighting was heaviest this morning. Jebu had to whip his pony to keep it trotting straight ahead. It kept trying to change direction to avoid stepping on bodies. Step on them, Jebu thought. They won’t feel it.

“This must be an ambush,” he called, forcing his mount into a neck-and-neck gallop with Yukio’s.

“Look at that,” said Yukio. Jebu saw it a moment later, gleaming white and gold in the afternoon sun, looming above the undulating horizon. Kublai’s elephant-borne tower. Before the tower came line after line of horsemen, sweeping over the desert, their ranks slightly curved like the sabre blades.

“It’s Arghun who’s in a trap,” Yukio cried. “Kublai’s centre is going to fall upon him.”

But Kublai’s horsemen did not attack Arghun’s cavalry. Both groups formed into two wings and thundered together over the horizon.

Uriangkatai galloped up, followed by a wedge of guards. “I’m delivering this order personally to make sure you understand,” the heavyset orkhon said. His face was flushed with excitement. “You are not to attack any of Arghun’s units. Do you understand? No fighting with Arghun.”

“What’s happening?” asked Yukio.

“The Great Khan has won Arghun over to our side. They’re attacking Arik Buka right now. We’ve won. Arik Buka is finished.” He jerked his reins and started to ride off in the direction he had come from.

“What are we to do?” Yukio called after him. But Uriangkatai was too far away to hear or reply.

Jebu said, “We should join the rest of the Great Khan’s forces and attack Arik Buka.”

“But that means joining Arghun and his men,” said Yukio. “We can’t go near them.”

Jebu shrugged. “It would be a shame if Arghun were in at the kill, and we, who have followed Kublai since he proclaimed himself Great Khan, were not.”

Yukio nodded and gave the order to follow Arghun’s Banners over the sand dunes. The standard-bearer drew abreast of Yukio and Jebu, and the samurai followed the White Dragon banner. Yukio summoned his hundred-commanders, and as they rode together he explained Arghun’s defection from Arik Buka’s army. He gave orders that none of Arghun’s men, where they could be recognized, were to be attacked.

They crested a dune and Jebu was surprised at the sight spread below. He had expected to find butchery in progress in the valley beyond. Arghun’s heavy cavalry and Kublai’s centre troops engaged with Arik Buka’s centre and left. Instead, there were only heaps of dead and wounded men and horses, with bands of foot soldiers going among them and sending some into the next world while aiding others. The battle had passed this way and moved on. Mongol warfare never stayed long in one place. Kublai’s elephants and tower were already on the next hill, and as Jebu watched they sank below the horizon. The sun, too, was sinking.

A troop of riders came over the north side of the valley, their horses at a walk, returning from the direction of the battle. The riders were silent. More and more of them topped the ridge. It was at least a whole tuman. From the look of the steel armour of men and horses, it was one of Arghun’s Banners.

“Why aren’t they going after Arik Buka?” said Yukio.

A leader rode out before the heavy tuman flanked by a small group of officers. A standard-bearer held up a pole adorned with yak horns and horsetails. The leader came on at a trot, as if to parley. Yukio held up his hand to halt his own men.

The leader opposite them leaned forward in his saddle. The men behind them had their bows out. A chill spread across Jebu’s back. He recognized the broad face with the long grey moustache.

“It’s Torluk,” Jebu said to Yukio in a low voice. Even as he spoke, Torluk raised his arm and brought it down in a chopping motion. The archers behind him raised their bows and fired.

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