Shike – Day 185 of 306

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.

After they had eaten, Atsue took his flute out of his belt, where he now carried it all the time, and played the melody called “Peach Blossoms.” Those nearby remained respectfully silent for a long time after he had finished.

“You play so well, I think you will bring us good fortune,” said Isoroku. “The kami will notice us, and they will give us victory.”

“Then victory goes to the best musicians?” Atsue said with a smile. “Are not the Takashi more cultured than the Muratomo?” Isoroku asked earnestly. “And have we not always defeated them?”

“We’ve always outnumbered them,” said Atsue. “In my father’s day, we often outsmarted them as well. We do not know what is waiting for us beyond the ridge now.” He gestured to the hill where the Muratomo banners had flown, now invisible in the darkness.

“Would you like to die in battle, Atsue?” Isoroku asked.

Atsue shook his head. “I would like to live. Of course, it would be better to die in battle than be taken prisoner and treated shamefully. But why else would anyone want to die?”

“I sometimes feel that I would rather die when I am young and handsome and strong, doing something brave, then grow old and ugly,” said Isoroku. “One cuts a flower when it is most beautiful, not when it has withered. Your father died a hero’s death, and all remember him that way. If he had lived he would be greatly respected, I’m sure, but he would not be worshipped almost as a kami by the Takashi.”

“I’m old enough to know that I’m very young, Isoroku-san. I know very little of life. I want to know and do much more before I die. I don’t care whether people think of me as a hero or not. As for my father, I would much prefer him to be alive and respected than dead and worshipped. I miss him terribly.”

The humming-bulb arrows, screaming like falcons, began to fall on the Takashi camp just after sunrise. They killed no one. Crouching, a bit nervous, Atsue looked across Kurikara pass to the hill bedecked with white banners. A row of about a hundred archers was standing there, bows aimed high so their whistling arrows would carry across the valley.

“How civilized of them to wake us up,” said Isoroku, laughing. “They might have started with arrows that gave us no warning. This is a gesture worthy of the Takashi.”

“Not really like the Muratomo, is it?” Atsue said uneasily. The enemy was controlling the situation, he thought. First, by displaying their banners on the opposite hill, they had determined the place where the Takashi would stop for the night. Now they had chosen the time and manner of opening the battle. Where were those mysterious barbarian troops everyone talked about? The archers across the valley looked like ordinary samurai.

The Takashi were lining up, pulling their man-high bows, releasing their own whistling arrows. After a few moments they drew first blood. A Muratomo archer fell, to much cheering from Tonamiyama hill. Atsue and Isoroku joined the crowd gathered a short distance behind the bowmen. No one wanted to be too close to the archers—even a humming-bulb arrowhead could kill a man if it hit him in a vulnerable spot—but to stand very far away could look like cowardice.

Two Takashi archers were hit. There was a rumble of anger. Someone suggested switching over to willow-leaf arrows. Someone else said it was too soon for that. Two more men took the place of the fallen, who were only wounded and were dragged out of the line to be cared for by their friends. Atsue saw Notaro and several other officers standing a small distance away, watching. Notaro called out praise when another Muratomo archer fell.

I wonder what plans he has for the battle, Atsue thought. It was odd that they couldn’t see any more of the Muratomo than those few archers. Maybe there weren’t as many of them as the Takashi had thought. He squinted at the line of white banners. Clever of them to start a fight with arrows when the sun was in the east, blinding the Takashi.

Just when the incessant screaming of the humming-bulb arrows was becoming more tiresome than intimidating, the Muratomo switched to willow-leaf and armour-piercing arrows. The Takashi archers did the same, and more samurai joined in the contest.

Some of the bolder warriors mounted horses and charged partway down the eastern slope of Tonamiyama. Immediately the Muratomo made a dash down their hill to match them. Atsue glanced to the top of the Muratomo hill. Would they attack now? The white banners remained in place. Only about two hundred Muratomo archers faced twice that number of Takashi. Soon the two groups of archers had halved the distance between them, and men on both sides were falling in threes and sixes, instead of ones and twos. Now some of the Takashi fell back, and some Muratomo did likewise.

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