Shike – Day 197 of 306

Yukio stood alone among the broken stones, asking himself what kind of man his brother was. A man who feared treachery, yet deceived others without a flicker of shame. Yukio felt hot anger rise within him at the thought of the archers concealed in the forest while he talked with his brother. That was why Hideyori had asked him to light the candle, to make him an easy target for the archers. What if he had refused to let Hideyori have the Mongols? He’d be lying dead on the ground right now, riddled with arrows. Yukio shivered as a death-like chill travelled up his spine. Calling to his horse, he stepped angrily on the guttering candle and ground it out.

Chapter Fourteen

As if to show that they could be far more destructive than men, the gods chose to halt the War of the Dragons for a time with a series of natural calamities. The Year of the Hare began with blizzards, which turned in the spring into heavy rains and sudden floods. In the summer there was a drought. Many landowners and samurai deserted both the Muratomo and Takashi forces to try to save their farms. By autumn there was famine in the land. The contending clans sent most of their warriors home because they could not feed them. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. The dead lay unburied in the streets of Heian Kyo. A group of monks went around the city painting the character “A” on the foreheads of corpses in the hope that they might be reborn in Amida’s Western Paradise. They reported that they had found over forty-two thousand dead within the city limits alone.

The Year of the Dragon was even worse. The droughts continued, and for the second year in a row there was starvation throughout the sixty-six provinces. The weakened populace succumbed to disease, and plague swept the Sacred Islands. Then there was a great earthquake at Heian Kyo. Many were crushed by falling buildings, while those who fled into open spaces were swallowed by huge cracks in the ground. Not a structure in the capital was left undamaged, and the aftershocks continued for three months. The Red Dragon and the White withdrew into permanent camps, waiting for the time when they could begin fighting again.

At last, in the first months of the Year of the Serpent, the forces of nature showed themselves more kindly disposed, thus allowing men to resume their enmity.

The nucleus of the Takashi forces, still led by Sogamori’s eldest living son, Notaro, were encamped at a fortress called Ichinotani on the shore of the Inland Sea. The child-Emperor and his household, guarded by thousands of samurai, took shelter in a cluster of wooden buildings on the beach behind a huge log wall. Rising above the rear of the stockade were steep cliffs, a giant replica in stone of the manmade palisade. In front of the Takashi fortress was the sea, on which a fleet of three hundred Chinese-built junks and large war galleys rode at anchor out beyond the shallows and breakers, a rampart against attack from the water and a refuge in case of attack by land.

One evening in the Second Month of the Year of the Serpent, almost four years after their return to the Sunrise Land, Yukio and Jebu looked over a cliff edge, studying the defences of Ichinotani from above. Yukio had divided his force of eastern-province warriors, leaving seven thousand poised for a frontal assault along the beach from the east, while he led another three thousand along the cliffs, looking for a place to attack the Takashi from the rear. Jebu found a hunter who showed Yukio a narrow pass leading down to the beach. The path through this pass was steeper than the slope of a roof, more suitable for mountain deer than horses and men, but Yukio tested it by sending five riderless horses scrambling to the bottom. Only two of the horses fell and broke their legs in the descent. Yukio was pleased, saying that if they had had riders to guide them, the horses would have made it down unhurt. That night Yukio’s three thousand camped on the cliff, the Takashi still unaware of their presence. Though it was early spring and the evening was cold, the Muratomo lit no campfires.

Word had come that day that an army of Mongols and samurai commanded by Hideyori had crushed the Takashi at Kojima, further to the west. “Now perhaps he won’t be as envious of you,” said Jebu as he walked with Yukio back from the edge of the cliff.

“If I win victories with these eastern warriors, he can always say it was because they were his men, whom he lent me,” Yukio laughed.

As they seated themselves in the camp Yukio’s eyes shone with delight. “I’ve had other news, Jebu-san. These infernal disasters the land has been suffering gave me time to visit Hiraizumi last year, and the visit has borne fruit. I’ve just had a message that my lovely Mirusu, who helped me learn the art of war, has given birth to our son. How I wish I could be there to see the new baby instead of on this cold clifftop. I wonder why Hideyori hasn’t bothered to remarry and sire some children. The Muratomo could soon be as numerous as they were in my father’s time.”

Jebu was silent. A Zinja who had come down to join Yukio from the Pearl Temple near Mount Fuji had told him that Lady Shima Taniko had moved from her family home into Hideyori’s castle, where she acted as a kind of hostess for the widowed Muratomo chieftain. Everyone in Kamakura assumed that Taniko was Hideyori’s mistress, even though she was the estranged wife of Hideyori’s ally, Prince Horigawa. In spite of the gossip about her, Taniko was known as a woman of intelligence and character and respected by all the eastern samurai. Jebu did not believe she and Hideyori were lovers, but it made little difference to him. If he lost Taniko, it would not be to another man’s body, but because of her hunger for the company of the powerful and her yearning to be at the centre of events. That and the ghost of Kiyosi.

Jebu’s thoughts were dispelled by the music of a flute. Someone in the Takashi stronghold was playing, unaware that he was entertaining not only his own people but an enemy army poised over their heads like an executioner’s sword. The flautist was playing an air called “Buddha Mind, Quiet as Still Water.” The melody spread like balm over the cool evening air, easing the fears of men who knew that tomorrow they might be maimed or killed.

“He plays exceptionally well, whoever he is,” said Yukio, touching his own flute, which hung in a case at his belt. “I’d like to be able to accompany him. What lovers of beauty those Takashi courtiers are. What a pity all this is.” He lay down, pulling his cloak around him against the damp chill, and closed his eyes for sleep.

At the hour of the tiger, as the eastern sky paled and riders were able to see the ground at their horses’ feet, the Muratomo quietly mounted. They formed their lines far back from the cliff so that the sounds of their preparation would not carry to the Takashi below. Yukio had divided them into hundred-man units, each with its White Dragon banner surmounted by a square pennant of a distinctive colour. Having commanded these countrified eastern samurai for over a year, Yukio had managed to teach them something of the mass cavalry tactics he had learned from the Mongols. Now, on a white horse, wearing his helmet surmounted by a silver dragon, Yukio trotted out in front of his formations.

“That’s where we’re going,” he called, pointing with his sword at the head of the pass that led to the Takashi stronghold. “I’ll show you the way.” He turned and galloped his horse straight towards the cliff edge. They may once have been Hideyori’s men, but Yukio has won their hearts, Jebu thought. Otherwise they’d never follow him over a cliff. With one wild wave of his sword, Yukio disappeared below the rocky cliff edge. Thirty of his closest companions, including Jebu, thundered after him.

Jebu, his headcloth streaming in the wind, made no attempt to control his horse, but sat leaning so far back in the saddle that his head nearly touched the animal’s rump. He trusted in the Self, present in his horse as in all things, to get them down the cliff safely. The first part of the descent was over sand and pebbles, and Jebu and those around him slid until the slope levelled off for a short space. Below were great mossy boulders. It looked impossible, but Jebu saw Yukio’s silver dragon down there and spurred his horse on. All around him hooves clattered on rocks and riders shouted “Ei! Ei!” to keep their courage up. Jebu saw that many of the men near him were riding with their eyes shut. So steep was the slope that the stirrup of a rider above and behind Jebu struck against his head. Then Jebu heard a shriek and a crash and jerked his horse aside just in time to avoid being struck by the tangled bodies of a samurai and his horse rolling over and over, legs flailing in the air. After the first anguished cry the rider was silent. The horse had crushed him. Falling faster and faster he hit other mounted warriors ahead of Jebu, sending two more horses and samurai crashing to destruction in an avalanche of flesh and armour.

Looking straight down past his horse’s head, Jebu could see into the Takashi camp as if he were a seagull flying over it. Within the stockade the Takashi warriors, tiny figures, rushed from building to building and out to the gates to the east, where they mounted their horses. Smoke rose beyond the eastern wall of the stockade. Yukio’s other seven thousand warriors had begun their attack. A rock dislodged by someone above him struck Jebu’s head, dizzying him, and he had to summon all his strength to keep his seat. But the jolting and bouncing finally ended, and the hooves under Jebu pattered on the sand. Now that it was over, Jebu was struck with a sudden awareness that the mad scramble had been a wild delight. He stroked his terrified horse’s neck to soothe it.

The first two hundred Muratomo riders who had landed on the beach let out a roar that sounded more like that of two thousand men as it echoed against the cliffs. A lone Takashi archer appeared on the gallery behind the palisade, his voice and the shriek of his humming-bulb arrow sounding an alarm. A hundred answering arrows transfixed him, and he toppled out of sight. The wooden wall was low on this side and not protected by guard towers. The Takashi had thought the cliffs to be defence enough. Shouting his war cry, “Muratomo—o!” Yukio rode up to the wall, swinging a blazing torch over his head. He hurled it, and it landed on the thatched roof of a house just beyond the wooden wall. The Muratomo gave a cheer as thick black smoke and red pennants of flame fluttered upwards. Tendrils of fire reached out to caress the palisade itself. Soon a section of the barrier would be burnt away. Some Muratomo were not waiting. All along the wall men were scampering up on ropes. Someone had found a small gate further down the palisade, and now it was swinging outwards. A hundred horsemen raced for the opening, knocking one another aside in their haste to be among the first through. Drawing his sword, Jebu kicked his charger in the ribs and galloped after them.

The Takashi might have saved Ichinotani if they had rallied and put up a house-by-house resistance. They outnumbered the Muratomo three to one, but they lacked spirit and leaders. Many of the Takashi samurai were hired or impressed from Kyushu and Shikoku, with no enthusiasm for the cause they served. The nobles who might have led them in defence of the stronghold were at the eastern ramparts, fighting the other part of Yukio’s army. With the Muratomo inside the walls and black smoke and flame spreading everywhere, the defenders threw open all the gates and rushed to the beach in panic, seeking refuge on the ships. Seeing the stockade overwhelmed, the Takashi fighting on the east side also fell back to the sea.

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