Shike – Day 138 of 306

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.

Chapter Twenty-Two

There was no time to see how many samurai, all unprepared, fell under that volley. Torluk drew his sabre from behind his back and with a wild bellow kicked his grey horse into a gallop straight at Jebu. Jebu lowered his lance, bracing it against his right side, steadying it with his nearly useless left arm.

Torluk shifted in the saddle to avoid a straight-on impact with the lance. The point slid off the curve of his steel breastplate. Roaring, the Mongol tuman-bashi swung his sabre at Jebu’s head. Jebu caught the blade on his lance pole. The sabre cut the lance in two but stopped short of hitting Jebu.

Jebu gripped the front half of the lance with his right hand. Like all Mongol lances, it had a hook just behind the point. He swung the hook and caught the armhole of Torluk’s breastplate. Detached, Jebu’s mind observed with wonder how well the Self defended him. Torluk went one way as his horse went the other. The Mongol crashed to the ground on his stomach. Jebu let go of the broken lance and let it fall with Torluk. He drew his sword.

Momentarily unthreatened, Jebu felt one with the pattern of battle that cast a network over the valley. Everywhere he looked, horsemen were locked in single combat. The Mongols had abandoned their usual style of fighting in masses with bow and arrow from a distance, and had closed with the samurai. They’re trying to wipe us out, he thought. Arghun had sent a whole tuman, ten thousand men, not just to kill Jebu, but to destroy all the samurai.

Still, he felt light, free from fear. He felt marvellous. He would act, he would fight. He didn’t care whether he won or lost, lived or died. Even the pain in his arm did not bother him.

A huge warrior thundered down on him, swinging the iron ball of a mace at his head. Jebu had just time to bring up his sword. The handle of the mace cut itself in two against the edge of the Zinja sword. The heavy ball, undeflected, crashed against Jebu’s helmet. He felt no pain.

Jebu felt much pain when he came to. His face was pressed into the sand, covered with dust, and more dust clogged his nostrils. Shafts of agony shot through his back and chest with every breath. He must have been trampled by horses. His Zinja training kept him motionless, barely breathing.

No light penetrated his closed eyelids. It must be night, he thought. He heard the clip-clop of hooves walking slowly, the crunching steps and low voices of men. He heard the sounds he always heard after a battle, mostly the cries and groans of the wounded. Bodies that had been young, strong and healthy a few hours ago, now ruined. The battle was either over or had moved to another part of the field.

He moved his consciousness slowly from one part of his body to another, starting with his toes and working upwards over his legs, his torso, his arms and his head. An ability to diagnose one’s own wounds was a basic Zinja skill. He let himself breathe a little more deeply. He could detect no bubbling sound in his chest. He was fairly certain there were ribs broken, but they had not pierced his lungs, the most dangerous possibility.

Nearby there were screams, shouts of rage, the thunk of a sword chopping through flesh and bone. The killer squads were going through the field executing wounded enemies. A voice crazed with pain babbled in the language of the Sunrise Land. Again the chopping sound and the voice was still.

They must be Torluk’s men, doing the killing. They were coming closer. His hands were empty. He had to find a weapon. Every muscle in his body ached to move. Stop this, he told himself. Stop thinking, stop wanting. Rely on the Self. With armed enemies walking towards him it was difficult, but he made his mind a blank and kept still.

Then they were standing over him. “Recognize that grey robe over the armour? It’s the monk, all right. The one the tuman-bashi wants.”

“He looks dead,” said another voice.

Fingertips felt Jebu’s neck for a pulse. Instantly, still without thinking, he grabbed the hand touching him, heaved up with his back, and threw the man forward over his head. Only then did he realize he had used his wounded left arm. He grabbed for the sword arm, sprang to his feet, and stamped on the man’s arm, breaking it and freeing the sabre.

As he seized the sabre and raised it to protect himself, he let out a cry somewhere between a scream and a groan. His sudden, enormous effort unleashed hideous agony throughout his body. It was as if a dozen red-hot lance points had been driven into him from every direction. He staggered a step, and then a veil of blackness fell over his eyes. He had barely time to see three of Torluk’s men facing him, sabres poised, when he pitched forward into the desert sand.

A Zinja does not faint, he told himself. I’m a dead man now, for certain.

He woke to more pain. He was lying on his back, and a flexing of his tortured muscles told him his arms and legs were bound with ropes. He had been awakened by someone splashing water on his face. He opened his eyes, blinked them against torchlight, and saw Torluk and Arghun looking down at him.

“Is this the one?” Torluk said in Mongolian. His chest was bare except for a thick swathing of cloth strips around his middle. Perhaps he, too, had broken a few ribs when he fell from his horse.

“It is,” Arghun whispered. It was almost five years since Jebu last saw Arghun Baghadur. The red of his moustache was streaked with grey. The lines in his face and especially around his slitted blue eyes were deeper. The eyes were as empty of feeling as ever.

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