Shike – Day 188 of 306

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.”


“Please, my lord,” said the retainer, seeing the black anger on Atsue’s face. “I’m only delivering the message.”

“You’d better go,” said Isoroku. “Your uncle is commander of the army, after all.”

Notaro’s fat face was almost as red as his general’s robe. “I told you to stay out of it.”

“Excuse me, honoured Uncle, but you told me to stay out of the single combats. This was a general melee.”

Notaro’s eyes narrowed angrily. “I saw what happened down there. If I have to report to my father that a Muratomo warrior took your head because I happened to be looking the other way at the wrong time, he might very well disinherit me. Now get out of my sight and don’t go near the fighting unless there’s an all-out battle. If you get yourself killed then, it won’t be my fault.” He turned, unused to armour and clumsy, and stumped away.

Atsue spent the rest of the afternoon on the hillside watching the fighting in the valley, sunk in shame and not speaking to anyone. If only Uncle Notaro had allowed him to remain on the field, he might have redeemed himself by killing a Muratomo samurai or else have died and thereby ended his pain.

The battle in the valley remained curiously unchanged. Though the Muratomo lost fewer men than the Takashi, they sent no new warriors down from their camp to replace those who fell. By nightfall a hundred Takashi were fighting with less than fifty Muratomo. If the Muratomo were trying to prove what formidable fighters they were, Atsue thought, they were succeeding.

It grew too dark to fight. Calling compliments to one another, the samurai withdrew up their respective hills. Servants crept out to recover the bodies of the fallen. One of those corpses could have been mine, Atsue thought. Now that it was dark he let the tears run down his cheeks. A servant came and asked him if he would have something to eat. Atsue ignored the man until he went away.

He had his flute at his belt, but he had no desire to play. He tried invoking the Buddha, but he doubted that the gentle Buddha would be interested in consoling a young man who was crushed because he had taken no enemy heads. He sat cross-legged with his hands dangling over his knees. He tried to tell himself that tomorrow he would do better. He realized that he had forgotten to take off his armour. Perhaps he would leave it on all night to punish himself for his total inadequacy in combat.

A moon the shape of a thumbnail crept above the hill where the Muratomo were camped. Atsue tried to see their white banners, but he couldn’t. The forest around him was silent. Somewhere in the distance an ox bellowed.

Then there were shouts. They were coming from above and behind him. Hoofbeats crashed through the forest. Atsue sprang to his feet. There were torches flickering in the trees on the west side of the hill.

There were cries of, “The Muratomo! Get your horses! Get your weapons!” Atsue ran up the hill to his campfire. He couldn’t count the torches he saw blazing in the forest. Yukio might have as many as a hundred thousand horsemen, he remembered. They had let themselves be lulled by the gentlemanly battle the Muratomo had drawn them into. All the while the enemy was planning this.

“Run, run!” a servant cried, scurrying past Atsue. There were men on horseback, apparently Takashi, trotting around him now. He was going to be trampled if he didn’t get to his own horse.

He saw Isoroku’s face in the light of the campfire. A frightened servant was holding both their horses.

“Another chance to fight,” said Isoroku, as they threw themselves into their saddles.

“Where’s your armour?” shouted Atsue.

“I took it off at sunset. No time to put it back on. I’ve got my sword.” He waved it. “Come on, everybody’s going down the hill.”

An officer galloped by, his face scarlet in the torchlight. “Into the pass. Try to outrun them. We’ll make a stand in the open country beyond the pass. Keep together.” He raced past them.

They dashed down the hill together, Atsue glancing from time to time at Isoroku to see if he was keeping up. The torchlit enemy arm seemed to be right behind them, thundering down the slope. Again he heard oxen bellowing.

He and Isoroku were in the pass now. The hills on either side of them blotted out the moon. Behind them, the pursuers had overtaken the rear of the Takashi army. They heard screams, the crash of armoured men falling, the neighing of horses. The enemy torches blazed, lighting up the trees, the struggling samurai, the tossing horns of Cattle.

“It’s not samurai,” Isoroku called. “It’s a cattle stampede.” Now some of the Takashi were slowing down. Atsue could plainly see, at the base of Tonamiyama hill, the humped backs, the rolling eyes, the gleaming horns of the oxen.

“Let them through,” voices called. “Just get out of the way and let them through.”

“They tied torches to their horns to madden them,” said Isoroku. “A dishonourable trick,” Atsue replied.

Atsue and Isoroku pulled their horses to one side as a huge grey ox, groaning angrily, charged past. Sparks from the torches tied to each of its horns stung its humped back. Atsue patted the grey’s neck as the frightened horse danced and threatened to rear.

There was some laughter, shaky with relief, as the samurai realized that their attackers were only a herd of cattle. The oxen continued to crowd the warriors, though, pushing them deeper into the Kurikara pass. The hundreds of torches still sizzling on the horns of the huge animals lit up the Takashi army so well that Atsue could recognize the faces of comrades half-way across the valley.

Something hissed past him through the air. A night bird? There was another whisper, and another. Thudding sounds. Someone screamed. Again there was the clang of a falling, armour-clad body.

“Arrows! They’re shooting at us,” Isoroku cried.

Now, looking up, Atsue saw lanterns on the hills above and behind them. Winking balls of light, red, yellow, green, blue, white, almost like the fireflies in the distant trees, signalled to one another across the valley.

Someone near him cried out and fell. In a flash Atsue saw it all. The stampeding oxen had driven them from their secure hilltop position into the valley. The torches on the horns of the cattle made the warriors into perfect targets.

The whole valley now echoed with the shouts and screams of men and animals. There were no orders, just wild, confused cries. In a mass, with no more thought than the stampeding animals among them, the samurai urged their horses into the pass, desperately trying to escape the arrows that hummed down on them like a murderous swarm of bees.

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