Shike – Day 189 of 306

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.

“Forward! Hurry, hurry!” they screamed at those blocking the pass ahead of them.

But now there were cries from the front ranks.

“The valley is too narrow. Stop! We’ll be crushed.”

Atsue had been expecting to see a wedge of starlit sky at the end of the pass. Instead there was solid blackness. The arrows poured down. Atsue felt himself struck many times, but the arrows glanced off his helmet and armour or embedded themselves harmlessly in its plates and padded under robe. He glanced over at Isoroku, racing his horse beside him. Isoroku lay along his horse’s back and neck to present less of a target.

We left our whole camp behind, Atsue thought. They’ve got everything, our tents, our baggage, our armour, most of our weapons. How will we be able to fight tomorrow? That doesn’t matter. How will we live through tonight? By now the packed mass of men and horses wasn’t moving at all.

A man ahead of Atsue said, “They say the valley is open at the other end, but it’s only wide enough for one man at a time to go through. It will take all night for us to get out of here.”

From somewhere on the slopes above them came the pounding of drums. There were wild, high-pitched cries, like the screaming of gulls. Hoofbeats reverberated against the hills.

Something struck the western flank of the Takashi army with such force that a shock wave surged through the mass, crushing men and horses against one another.

Atsue suddenly found there was room for him to urge his horse forward. Terror had crowded those ahead even deeper into the narrow end of the valley. The screams from behind were deafening. Steel clanged. Something was biting into the Takashi army, like a shark devouring a frantic swimmer. His hands ice-cold with fear, Atsue pulled Kogarasu from the scabbard.

He caught a glimpse of big men with fur-trimmed helmets waving curved swords, lances, and axes. Their triumphant shrieks drowned out the cries of the dying. One of them struck at Atsue. Kogarasu fended off the blow.

A lance plunged into Isoroku’s back, was jerked out again. He fell from his horse, his eyes fixed on Atsue, his mouth open, not making a sound.

The barbarian who had killed Isoroku glanced over his shoulder for a moment, and Atsue saw his face clearly in the light of a near-by torch. Dark brown skin, huge white teeth, mad ferocious eyes. It was a face from hell.

Screaming at himself to run, Atsue made himself jump down from his horse. “Isoroku,” he called. He tried to find his friend in the darkness. There was no answer. Isoroku is dead, he told himself. Get back on your horse and ride out of here.

Ride where? There was nowhere to go. The torches were going out now. There were struggling men and animals all around him, but he could see nothing. He was stepping on flesh, whether animal or human he couldn’t tell. There was nothing he could do for Isoroku. He couldn’t even find him.

A horse bumped into him. “Out of my way” snarled a voice edged with fear.

“Help me, please,” Atsue called. “I’ve lost my horse.”


“Yes, Takashi.” If he’s Muratomo, I’m dead.

“Come on, climb up here.” The voice had a ring of experience and authority. Atsue took the man’s hand and clambered up behind him on the horse.

“I’m a fool to do this. Two riders will slow this horse down too much. What’s your name?”

“Takashi no Atsue. Why are you going this way?”

“Oho. The chancellor’s grandson. I guess you are worth saving, after all. I’m Hino Juro of Ise. We’re going south, back the way we came from.”

“But that’s where the enemy is.” Atsue knew of Hino Juro, a veteran fighter who had distinguished himself in the battle at Uji bridge. Even though he protested, he felt safer.

“The enemy is in the pass, slaughtering our men. There’s no escape that way. Our only hope is to head south.”

Sodden with despair and defeat, the Takashi samurai gathered the following morning by a bend in a stream far to the south of Kurikara pass. Notaro was among those still alive. His red brocaded robe stained with blood and dirt, he wandered dull-eyed among his surviving troops. He ignored Atsue’s greeting.

“Lord Notaro, I’ve brought you your nephew safe and sound,” said Juro heartily. “That ought to cheer you up a bit.”

Notaro shook his head. “Yesterday I had forty thousand men. Today, eight thousand.”

“What happened last night, my lord?” said Juro. “Does anybody understand it?”

Notaro grimaced, baring his blackened teeth. “They tricked us, made us think they were going to fight like honest samurai. The bodies of our men are piled ten deep in Kurikara pass. Yukio and his barbarian monsters!”

“Where is Yukio’s army now, honoured Uncle?” Atsue asked. Notaro looked at him with dread. “No one knows.” He shuffled off without another word.

The remnants of the Takashi, still numb with shock, began the ride back to Lake Biwa later that morning. They would have to cover the distance to the capital quickly. Even though there were fewer of them, they had already stripped bare the land through which they were passing, and they would get nothing to eat until they reached Heian Kyo.

As he rode along on a horse Juro had found running riderless, Atsue kept glancing over his shoulder. He expected to see Yukio’s army thundering down upon them at any moment. He had been at three big battles and had not won a single combat. I’m not much of a son for my father, he thought. Kiyosi must have killed hundreds by the time he was fifteen.

But then, none of the Takashi were worthy of those who had gone before them. They had let themselves be tricked and terrorized. With so few men left, how could they defend the capital and the Emperor?

What would his grandfather say? He hoped he wouldn’t have to face Sogamori. As for Uncle Notaro, he would have to kill himself. How could he account for the loss of more than thirty thousand men?

Isoroku, forgive me, Atsue prayed. I failed you. Father, forgive me. I failed you, too.

They had all been so sure of themselves, so triumphant. This battle with Yukio was to be the last, the one that would secure the realm for the Takashi forever. It was now no longer a question of finishing off the last of the Muratomo. Now the question was: could anything be done to save the Takashi?

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