Shike – Day 186 of 306

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.

The archery battle continued most of the morning. Once in a while a Muratomo samurai would get off a particularly long, accurate shot and kill or wound a Takashi in the watching crowd. Most of the injuries were confined to the archers themselves.

Both Atsue and Isoroku were devotees of the sword and not particularly proud of their skill with bow and arrow. While many other samurai joined or dropped out of the archery combat as the spirit moved them, the two young men stayed out of it entirely.

Just when the sun was directly overhead, the Muratomo stopped firing. They began to withdraw up their hill. Three horsemen rode down towards the Takashi lines. One of them held aloft a white banner. They stopped in an open meadow at the bottom of the pass. Takashi samurai, some on foot, some on horseback, began to drift down the slope towards the Muratomo riders.

“I am Saito Kiji of Nakatsu,” the samurai carrying the white banner shouted. “I have fought both in China and in the land of the Mongols, and I have won many victories.” Kiji went on to describe the martial careers of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He claimed descent from the Brave of Yamato, legendary son of an ancient Emperor, subduer of malignant kami and of barbarians. He called upon the Takashi to send a warrior of suitable pedigree out to meet him.

“Let’s get closer,” Atsue called to Isoroku. “I want to see this.”

A Takashi officer rode down the hillside and exchanged words with the Muratomo challenger. The two men rode a short distance apart, then charged each other with drawn swords. Atsue and Isoroku were part of the crowd cheering for the Takashi fighter. Atsue felt himself trembling with excitement.

It was difficult to strike a killing blow from horseback. The two samurai circled around each other, swords mostly missing or glancing off their armour. Then Kiji, the Muratomo samurai, stood up in the saddle on his short stirrups. With two hands he brought his sword down on the Takashi warrior’s right shoulder. Stunned, the man fell from his horse with a crash.

He scrambled to his feet just as Kiji rode down upon him. Kiji brought his horse to a sudden stop, grabbed the Takashi’s chin from behind, and pulled him against his saddle. With one quick downward swipe of his sword the Muratomo warrior cut the Takashi’s head off.

The head was still strapped into its helmet. Holding it high by one of the helmet’s decorative horns, Kiji rode in a circle around the meadow. Isoroku, Atsue and the other Takashi samurai groaned, while the Muratomo opposite them cheered.

Another Takashi rode out to challenge Kiji. More Takashi rode down the hillside shouting their own lineage to anyone on the Muratomo side who might be a worthy opponent. The scene in the valley was becoming quite confused, with more and more samurai riding about bellowing their ancestors’ names and looking for someone to fight with. All the Muratomo wore something white, an armband, a streamer on the helmet, a robe. Each Takashi wore something red.

Excitement, fear and eagerness swept through Atsue. He had been too late at Uji bridge and in the rear ranks most of the time at Ishibashiyama. Now was the time for the youngest son of Kiyosi to ride forth and bring back his first Muratomo head. What terror the Muratomo would feel when he announced his father’s name.

“Let’s get our horses,” he called to Isoroku, scrambling up the hill. He looked back over his shoulder. Samurai were fighting all over the meadow.

Back in the camp, he was about to mount his warhorse, a grey with black spots, when he heard his name called. His Uncle Notaro, in full armour but bareheaded, was hurrying towards him.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To issue a challenge, Uncle.” Notaro’s manner gave Atsue a sinking feeling.

“Your grandfather made me swear to bring you through this campaign safely. I forbid you to go into battle now.”

Atsue was so frustrated he felt on the verge of tears. “It will tarnish our family name if I hang back while these brave men fight.” Notaro shook his head. “Only the most experienced and skilled samurai get into these single-combat duels at the beginning of a battle. They’re old veterans, who know all the tricks. Especially these men of Yukio’s, with all the devilish foreign ways they’ve picked up. Of course you may fight, Atsue-san. Eventually. Wait till the battle becomes more general. If I let you go now you wouldn’t have a chance.”

Atsue walked back to Isoroku, his head hanging. “Battles aren’t the way I thought they would be at all.”

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