Shike – Day 187 of 306

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

Chapter Ten

Atsue forgot his disappointment as he watched master swordsmen on both sides display their skills in duel after duel. It was no pleasure to see men killed outright or lose their heads after being badly wounded. He didn’t care to notice the way blood spattered everywhere, gradually staining red the grass of the meadow. Still, he had seen enough blood in the past month to take it calmly. He could ignore the ugly parts of fighting and focus on the mastery of horsemanship and weapons.

It seemed as though more Takashi heads than Muratomo were falling. These Muratomo, Atsue recalled, had been fighting constantly in China for the last eight years. Perhaps one of the Muratomo samurai fighting now in the meadow before him was his father’s killer. Whoever had actually fired the arrow, it was Muratomo no Yukio whom Atsue blamed for his father’s death. One day, he had promised himself, he would ride out before a Muratomo army and call Yukio out for combat. He would take Yukio’s head and bring it to his grandfather, and Sogamori would bless him for it.

The Muratomo seemed to be withdrawing, disengaging themselves from battle. Those who survived their single fights accepted no further challenges, but cantered over to the sidelines. Atsue wondered, what now? Are they about to attack us? He looked up at the white banners on the hilltop. No movement, and still no Muratomo to be seen.

A Muratomo samurai called out, “If there are a hundred of you who are brave enough, a hundred of us will fight you in a general melee.”

Now I must join in, Atsue thought. He started up Tonamiyama again, followed by Isoroku. He hoped Notaro would not stop him this time.

Notaro was nowhere to be seen. Atsue put on his helmet and mounted his horse. Isoroku, on a piebald horse, was beside him. Atsue flicked his reins and the two young samurai rode down the hill together.

A Takashi officer who knew Atsue bowed him to a place in the line. The Muratomo were lined up on the other side of the meadow, too far away for their faces to be clearly visible.

There was a long silence. Atsue heard a bush warbler call in the pines. Then, from the far side of the meadow came a high-pitched scream.


A samurai holding a white banner in his left hand and waving his sword in his right charged at them. Immediately behind him the whole line of Muratomo samurai pounded forward.

“Takashi!” cried the officer who had taken command on their side. Atsue drew Kogarasu from its gold-mounted scabbard and whipped Plum Tree into a gallop. He glanced to his right. Isoroku was beside him.

Atsue’s heart leaped into his mouth. A dark-faced warrior with a thick moustache was charging at him. Without thinking, he held up Kogarasu to fend off the other man’s blow and rode safely by him. Now he was facing the other end of the meadow, which was empty except for a few spectators on foot.

He turned his horse and saw a warrior wearing a white robe, his back to Atsue, duelling on horseback with a Takashi samurai. Should he attack the man from behind, or should he warn him before striking? He decided that it was a samurai’s responsibility to guard himself against attack from the rear. He spurred the grey, aiming the point of Kogarasu at the back of the samurai’s neck, underneath his helmet brim. The sword struck something hard and slid off. Atsue had thought there would be no armour there. The Muratomo whirled in the saddle, striking at Atsue with his sword. Atsue jerked back on the reins so hard that the horse stood on his hind legs.

“Back off, he’s mine,” the Takashi samurai roared. Embarrassed, frightened and confused, Atsue rode a little distance away from the fighting and tried to survey the field. A samurai with a white silk cloth tied around his helmet rode at him. Atsue brought his sword up to a defensive position and stood his ground.

“I am Tezuka Shiro of the province of Toyama,” the samurai shouted. “Who are you, sir? Declare your name and titles.”

“I am Takashi no Atsue, son of Takashi no Kiyosi, grandson of Takashi no Sogamori,” Atsue answered proudly.

“A noble opponent,” said Shiro. “I won’t disgrace your arms, either. Come on, then.”

Whispering a prayer to his father’s spirit, Atsue rode forward and aimed a blow at Shiro’s head. Shiro parried the slash and reached out with his free hand to pull Atsue to him. Flailing wildly, Atsue felt himself dragged from the back of his horse and pinned against the front of the Muratomo samurai’s saddle. A steel and leather gauntlet smashed against his face. He felt his head being twisted around. He knew the sword blow was coming.

Then Shiro uttered a sound half-way between a grunt and a moan. He made the noise again and relaxed his grip on Atsue. Atsue fell from Shiro’s horse, looking around wildly, and saw the grey standing nearby. He ran for his horse and jumped into the saddle. Only then did he look back to see what had happened to Shiro.

Isoroku had just finished cutting Shiro’s head off. He pulled it free from its helmet, held it up with a grin, then tied it to his saddle and remounted.

Sick with terror, Atsue rode over to him. “I owe you my life.”

Isoroku shrugged. “While he was busy with you I came up on his left side, pulled up his armour skirt and stabbed him twice. You and I make a good pair. Let’s get ourselves another. This time I’ll grapple with him while you slip up on him and stab him.”

I nearly died back there, but I didn’t, and the man who was going to kill me is dead now, Atsue thought. The only way to get through this is to refuse to think. Just fight. Atsue gritted his teeth and clapped Isoroku on the shoulder. “Let’s go, then.”

One of Atsue’s retainers rode up. “Lord Takashi no Atsue, you are ordered to leave the field at once. Lord Takashi no Notaro requires your presence in our camp.”

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