Shike – Day 139 of 306

“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.

“Did you betray Arik Buka just to get at me?” Jebu asked him.

Arghun shook his head. “I left Arik Buka’s service for the same reason I am going to kill you. Because I serve the spirit of Genghis Khan. Roll him over.”

Two men grasped Jebu’s right side and lifted him. He groaned in spite of himself.

“Don’t cause him unnecessary pain,” Arghun said. “He is a brave man.” They pushed him over and let him fall on his stomach. “That’s why I had you awakened, Jebu,” Arghun continued. “It is a bad death, to die unconscious and not know the manner or reason of your dying. I want you to know that it is I who am killing you, in obedience to the will of Genghis Khan. I told you once before that I would avoid shedding your blood.” He turned to one of his men. “Give me your bow.”

“Let me get up to fight you, if you want me to die well,” Jebu said. Arghun laughed as he crouched over Jebu. “I’m many years older than you are.”

“I’m wounded. My left arm is useless. My ribs are broken. It would be a fair fight.” Why am I talking to him like this? Why don’t I just let him kill me and have done with it? Something, the Self perhaps, wanted him to prolong his life as much as possible. But a Zinja does not care whether he lives or dies.

Arghun pressed one knee into Jebu’s back and slipped the double-curved, compound bow over his head. He pulled the rawhide cord against Jebu’s throat and turned the bow. The string cut into Jebu’s neck like the edge of a sword. The tension of the bow pulled the string tight around his neck with a strength equal to that of two men pulling on each end of it. His lungs screamed for air. His windpipe was closed. Arghun gave the bow another turn. Jebu’s head felt as if it were going to burst.

Through the dizziness and the ringing in his ears he heard voices. The bowstring tightened again, viciously. Consciousness faded—and returned in moments. The merciless rawhide cord was gone from his neck. Arghun’s weight was off his back. Breath, never so sweet, whistled through his tortured throat.

Someone was kneeling beside him, cutting the ropes that held him. Yukio.

“We got to you. By the favour of Hachiman, we got to you in time.”

A shout made Jebu turn his head. He gasped at the sudden pain in his throat and neck. The shout was Arghun’s. He was standing face-to-face with Uriangkatai. Both big men had their fists clenched and their shoulders hunched.

“You will die, I swear by Eternal Heaven, you will die for striking me,” Arghun roared.

“You are twice a traitor, Arghun,” Uriangkatai replied in an even tone. “Once to your lord Arik Buka, and now to your lord Kublai Khan. You ordered a tuman of your division to attack our men from Ge-pen. By Eternal Heaven, it is you who will pay for the needless deaths of hundreds of my warriors.”

“They were foreigners,” said Arghun contemptuously.

“They were soldiers of the Great Khan. They were under my command. You will answer to him and to me for the loss of their lives.”

“Then I will answer for one more life as well,” said Arghun, drawing his sabre and turning towards Jebu. Yukio leaped to his feet and stood before Jebu’s body, his samurai sword gripped in both hands, poised to strike.

Uriangkatai raised his hand. “Stop, Arghun. If I let my hand fall, the men with me will fill you with arrows.” The desert ridge was lined with crossbowmen, their weapons pointed at Arghun.

The turkhan exhaled slowly, relaxed, and put away his sword. It must be enough to drive him mad, Jebu thought, to come so close to killing me after all these years, and then to be stopped short.

Arghun turned back to Uriangkatai. Pointing to Jebu he said, “Understand, Uriangkatai, it is the will of Genghis Khan that this monk die. He is the son of Jamuga, the worst enemy of the Conqueror’s youth. Do you think your father Subotai would have interfered with one carrying out the yarligh of Genghis Khan?”

“It is the will of Genghis Khan that fighting among the men of the ordu be punished by death. How much more are we obligated to kill a commander who starts a war among men on his own side. That is written in the Yassa of Genghis Khan.”

“Uriangkatai, tens of thousands of men have fallen today. It is foolish for an orkhon and a tarkhan to quarrel over this one.”

“If this one life is so insignificant, why did you order your men to attack my men, killing hundreds? Let the Great Khan judge the rights and wrongs of this.” Uriangkatai pointed to two of the warriors with him. “Make a litter for the monk Jebu and take him to a wagon.”

“Kill the monk,” Arghun shouted, turning to Torluk and the men behind him. “Shoot him. Kill him now.”

Uriangkatai turned to his own men and called, “Shoot any man who touches his bow.”

Torluk and the men of his tuman remained motionless.

“Torluk, do you disobey me?” said Arghun wonderingly.

There were tears in Torluk’s eyes. “I have followed you since we both were boys in the army of the Conqueror. But if we fire now and Uriangkatai’s men fire back it will be war. We deserted Arik Buka and went over to Kublai Khan because this war must end, or everything Genghis Khan built will lie in ruins. Now you ask me to begin the war again.” Torluk knelt. “Forgive me, tarkhan, for not obeying you. But the orkhon Uriangkatai is right. Take this question to Kublai Khan.”

Arghun’s eyes were those of a tiger at bay. “You give me no choice. We will go to Kublai Khan for judgment.”

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