Shike – Day 184 of 306

“Good. I want no one near you, then, but myself, while you are in Kamakura. Perhaps the day will come when we will find a way to release you from your vow.”

As she lay alone, her head resting on the worn wooden pillow that had been her companion throughout her life, Taniko could not sleep. Hideyori frightened her. She seemed to feel his desire surrounding her as solidly as the bars of a cage. She had stepped into that cage tonight, not knowing the danger she was in. She wondered whether it would be as easy to escape from it.

Chapter Nine

At the top of the hill called Tonamiyama, Atsue reined in his horse to admire the view. To the east rose row upon row of snow-streaked mountains, glowing gold in the setting sun. To the west was the sea that lay between the Sunrise Land and Korea. Somewhere beyond that sea was the strange country from which Muratomo no Yukio had brought the barbarians who made up most of the army.

Atsue felt a twinge of fear. No one knew what Yukio’s barbarians were like, or even how many there were, but everyone had heard frightening stories about them. They were twice the height of a normal man. They lived on raw meat and smelled like tigers. Their skin was black. The Takashi leaders like Uncle Notaro had ridiculed the notion that ignorant savages could pose any threat to forty thousand superbly trained, well-armed samurai. The stories were nonsense, they said, but they did show that the barbarians were subhuman.

Not far away, Takashi no Notaro, commander of the army, astride a black horse and wearing the red brocade robe of a general under his armour, was conferring with a semi-circle of mounted officers. They were gesturing to a distant ridge where a line of white Muratomo banners rippled in the purpling sky. Between Tonamiyama hill and that distant peak was a pass called Kurikara. The valley and the mountains around it were thickly covered with pine trees. Behind Atsue, spread over the hills to the south, forty thousand samurai were labouring up the slopes. The pines made it hard to see the men. Once in a while Atsue caught a glimpse of a man or a group of men struggling through a clearing.

Isoroku, a young samurai from Hyogo, whom Atsue had befriended because they were the same age, rode up beside him. “Looks like more of them than there were at Ishibashiyama,” Isoroku said, pointing to the banners.

“Well, we can’t go into the pass while they occupy that hill,” said Atsue.

Little information had come to the Takashi from the country through which Yukio’s army had passed. They knew it was a large army and that it threatened the capital. So, after their autumn victory at Ishibashiyama they crossed the narrow neck of Honshu to Heian Kyo, where they spent the winter and collected reinforcements. Apparently Yukio had gone into winter quarters as well. Then, in the Fifth Month of the Year of the Tiger, the huge Takashi army moved away from the capital and started marching northwards to find Yukio and destroy him.

They had paused for a day to admire Lake Biwa, the largest lake in the Sacred Islands. The entire army had waited while Notaro took a boat to a pine-covered island called Chikubushima, where he sang and played the lute at the shrine of the kami of the island. He even composed a poem in her honour. Later a rumour went around the army that the goddess had appeared to him in the shape of a Red Dragon and had promised him victory over the insurgents.

Yesterday they had started climbing the mountains that formed a rampart between the Home Provinces around the capital and the wild country to the north. At midday Atsue had found himself on a peak from which he could look back and see Lake Biwa, a silvery sheet of water, and look ahead to the rolling sea on the long north-western coastline and rank upon jagged rank of mountains. He felt a pang of longing for Heian Kyo. Any day now Kazuko would be giving birth to their child, conceived after his return from the great victory at Ishibashiyama. As they descended the peak and Lake Biwa disappeared, he felt he was leaving home and safety behind and venturing into unknown and dangerous territory.

Atsue hated to admit it to himself, but he did not like war. The actual fighting was never what he expected. There might be hours of waiting or riding about. Then suddenly someone was at your throat, and just as suddenly it was over. Most of war seemed to consist of looting, raping and massacre. Atsue was particularly upset by the memory of the destruction of the temples around Nara. Even the women and children who lived in the temples had been burned to death or cut down with swords. The great Todaiji, five hundred years old, had been burned to the ground on Notaro’s orders. A huge statue of the Buddha had been melted down to a heap of slag.

Atsue tried not to notice when a group of his men were abusing peasants or torturing captured enemy samurai to death. It was hard to ignore such things, though, when they shocked him so. Some incidents he had witnessed would burn in his mind forever. Only his flute playing took his mind off such horrors.

Now the order came to set up camp on the crest of Tonamiyama hill. “Didn’t we get enough rest the other day at Lake Biwa?” said Isoroku impatiently.

“Would you rather cross the valley and charge uphill at that enemy army?” Atsue asked. “Look at all those Muratomo flags. There could be fifty or a hundred thousand of them over there. That’s why we’re stopping.”

Atsue’s servant got his tent up, and Atsue lent the man to Isoroku to set up Isoroku’s tent beside his.

As night fell, Atsue and Isoroku sat in a circle with the armed retainers who followed Atsue into battle. They enjoyed a dinner of coarse rice and broiled lake trout. Atsue’s men were skilled at finding provisions, which was a blessing, since the army’s food supply had run out shortly after they left the capital. They had been living on the land like locusts ever since, stripping bare every farm in their line of march. It was a shame, because the country through which they passed had always been loyal to the Takashi. Atsue wondered why these things couldn’t be better organized. He liked to think that if his father, great Kiyosi, had been leading the army, enough food would have been provided to get at least as far as the unfriendly northern provinces. Now they were in the mountains, and farms were few and far between. The shortage of supplies was becoming a real hardship.

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