Shike – Day 198 of 306

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.

The water near the shore was filled with men wading, riding or swimming their horses to deeper water. Overloaded longboats wallowed in the waves. Jebu saw three great galleys, impossibly burdened with hundreds of armoured samurai, slowly tip to one side, then roll completely over, their keels in the air and their passengers drowning. He watched the high-ranking Takashi beat away the common soldiers trying to board the ships in the offing. They slashed with swords and naginatas at the men clinging to the rails, hacking off their arms and hands so that they fell back into the water and sank, their blood staining the sea.

The Takashi who were left behind on the beach fought with the fury of despair, their backs to the waves and their retreating comrades. Believing with Sun Tzu that to deprive an enemy of all hope is to strengthen him dangerously, Yukio had been preaching against the practice of slaughtering all captured enemies, but he had made no headway with his hardened eastern-province warriors. So these Takashi knew the Muratomo would take no prisoners.

Atsue, his dappled grey horse up to his knees in the water, saw the fall of his uncle Tadanori, younger brother of Kiyosi and Notaro. Tadanori was a fine artist and poet, and his death saddened Atsue. Atsue knew by reputation the one who had killed Tadanori. It was the legendary Shiké Jebu, the giant, red-haired Zinja who had been Yukio’s companion, so it was said, since he was a boy, the monk who had once collected a hundred swords just to show his contempt for the samurai. Atsue seethed. Again the Takashi were disgraced. The Emperor had been safely bundled aboard one of the ships, but this day was a worse defeat than Tonamiyama, worse even than the loss of the capital. Everywhere Atsue looked he saw shame. The citadel taken by surprise from the rear, the cowardice of the immediate flight, his noble relatives abandoning their own troops just as they had abandoned the dying Sogamori. I was about to flee, too, Atsue thought. Why? I’ve resolved to die rather than bear any more of my family’s shame. Today is as good a day as any.

The Shiké Jebu was staring across the water at Atsue. Their eyes met. Atsue spurred his charger and drew Kogarasu from the scabbard hanging at his belt. He did not bother to call out a challenge. Warrior monks were a rabble without heritage. The Zinja sword was barely a quarter of the length of Kogarasu. Atsue could easily get in a blow while staying clear of his opponent’s range. The Zinja wore no helmet, only a headcloth, so Atsue slashed at his face. The shiké flattened himself against the back of his horse, which danced in a tight circle, keeping its head towards Atsue as he rode past. Atsue pulled his horse up short and whirled, and they fenced on horseback, swords clanging together. Atsue knew that he was fighting better than he had ever fought in his life. It was as if his opponent, a consummate master of the sword, was pulling Atsue’s skill up to his own level. Still, Atsue knew he was losing. Kogarasu seemed slow and unwieldy. In fighting at close quarters, Atsue was unable to swing the great sword fully. The short, two-edged Zinja blade darted in and out of Atsue’s guard with ease, seeming to come at him from all directions. The enemy’s face came closer and closer. The strange grey eyes were calm as incense smoke. Deep lines were etched in the sharp-boned, sun-browned face, but they were lines of experience, long journeys, hard work, not lines of rage. The dark red, drooping moustache seemed ferocious, but the thin-lipped mouth beneath it was merely concentrated, intent. It was the face of an engrossed craftsman, not a killer. What I wouldn’t give to have whatever you have, Atsue thought. He cut with all his strength at the unprotected neck. Instead of parrying, the monk leaned back, caught Atsue’s sword arm with his free hand, and twisted him out of the saddle. As Atsue crashed to the ground his helmet with its golden horns was knocked from his head. Instantly, the monk was crouched over him, the point of his sword at his throat. Atsue closed his eyes.

“Who are you?” came a harsh, hoarse voice from above him.

“Oh, you’ve done well for yourself,” said Atsue. He opened his eyes. The Zinja was searching his face, frowning in puzzlement. “Show my head to any of your prisoners, and they’ll tell you. If you let any of your prisoners live.”

“Your face is familiar,” said the shiké. “I don’t like to kill men as young as you. Please tell me your name.”

I don’t want to live, Atsue thought. On top of everything else, must I bear the shame of captivity? Torture and mutilation? No.

In a despairing voice he said, “I am Takashi no Atsue, son of Takashi no Kiyosi, grandson of Takashi no Sogamori.”

The Zinja looked astonished. “Atsue, the son of Kiyosi? Is your mother Lady Shima Taniko?”

“Yes. If you wish to show me a final kindness, you might try to send her word of my death. I do not know where you can find her, though. You could also send my farewell to my wife, the Imperial Princess Kazuko. She stayed behind in the capital with our son when the Muratomo captured it.” Now, he thought, Kazuko will have to find another father for Sametono.

Slowly the Zinja straighted up, the sword point pulling away from Atsue’s throat. “Please give me your sword and stand up.”

Atsue got shakily to his feet as the monk said, “A double edge, the sharp curve that starts at the hilt, the gold and silver mountings—this must be the famous Kogarasu. Long ago I wanted to capture this sword from your father.”

“I wish you had tried,” said Atsue. “He’d have killed you.”

“Perhaps,” said the monk with a sad smile. “I never got very close to him.”

Atsue noticed that there were arrow shafts protruding here and there from the monk’s armour. He’d been hit, but the metal strips and lacings of his armour had caught the arrows and held them harmlessly. Just as with samurai armour, though, the monk’s right side was vulnerable. The front, left and rear sides of the box-like yoroi armour were a unit, but the right side was laced on separately. Evidently the Zinja had decided not to kill him. He stood holding Kogarasu and staring out to sea. The thought crossed Atsue’s mind, what glory the killer of the notorious Shiké Jebu would win. Atsue had killed a few of the enemy in small battles that preceded the withdrawal of the Takashi to Ichinotani, but he had never defeated an opponent whose death brought much honour to his arms. The Demon Monk’s profaning hands held Kogarasu, but he had neglected to take Atsue’s kodachi, his short sword. The monk’s guard was down. Would it be honourable to attack him when he wasn’t expecting it? Of course. It was the responsibility of a warrior always to be ready to meet attack, and this was no ordinary warrior, but one who had vanquished thousands of samurai. Atsue slipped his kodachi out of its sheath and took a deep breath. With a shout he leaped on the Zinja. He drove the short sword with all his strength into the crevice in the monk’s armoured right side, high on the ribs, striking for the heart. His mind soared aloft on golden wings of glory.

Atsue never saw the flashing arc of Yukio’s sword that swept his head from his shoulders.

“No!” Jebu screamed.

Too late. The pale young head, severed, lay in the sand, the beautiful face, in which Jebu could now clearly see Taniko’s features, serene in death. The rich blood, partly hers, was staining the yellow sand. Jebu felt a hideous pain in his side, where the boy’s kodachi had gone in. It was nothing to the pain in his heart. I wish he had killed me, he thought. I want to die.

“Come,” said Yukio gently.”You’re lucky I was close by and saw the Takashi spring at you.” He put his arm around Jebu’s waist. “Sit down slowly and carefully.” When Jebu was sitting, Yukio cut through the lacing of his armour with his short sword and tore away the grey robe underneath it. “The wound is deep, I can’t tell how deep. The blood is pouring out of you like a waterfall.”

“I don’t want to live, Yukio.”

“Jebu. What is it?” Yukio stared into his face. Still sitting up, Jebu swayed, already dizzy from the loss of blood. His breath bubbled in his chest. It was agony to speak.

“Please excuse me—for telling you this, Yukio,” he panted. “That boy. He was Takashi no Atsue. Taniko’s son.”

“Oh, no.” Yukio’s head and shoulders sagged as though he had taken an arrow in the chest. “Forgive me, Jebu.” He pressed his armoured sleeve to his tear-filled eyes. He knelt beside Jebu and began unlacing his armour. “You killed the father to save my life. Now I’ve killed the son to save your life. Our friendship has cost Lady Taniko dear.”

“Go back to the battle, Yukio-san.”

“Not until we have cared for you.” Yukio cut a strip of white silk from the edge of his armour robe. From a pouch at his belt he took a packet of powdered herbs Jebu had given him long ago. The herbs were a Zinja secret, used to protect wounds from infection and speed their healing. Yukio sprinkled the powder into Jebu’s wound, then unlaced the rest of his armour and began to bind his chest tightly.

Yukio’s retainers gathered around them, some helping him to treat Jebu, others stripping Atsue’s body of its armour and valuables. One of them came over with a brocade bag. Yukio opened it, then shut his eyes in pain. Slowly he drew out an ivory flute.

“This boy could have been the same one who played so beautifully last night.” Again he wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

“The sword I took from him is called Kogarasu,” Jebu said. “It belonged to Kiyosi and is a sacred Takashi heirloom. Please send it to Taniko, along with this flute.”

“I will, Jebu-san.”

“He mentioned an Imperial Princess Kazuko to whom he was married. They had a child. He said she was at the capital.”

“I’ll see that she gets word.”

Jebu thought, if Taniko had been unable to love him after learning that he had killed Kiyosi, how would she feel when she was told that he and Yukio, between them, had done Atsue to death? She would never want to see either of them again. Yukio’s sword had not only cut short the life of a beautiful young man, it had forever parted Jebu and Taniko. Again and again, he thought, I learn how profoundly true it is that life is suffering. I will send a letter along with the sword and the flute, but what can I say to her? That I did not know it was Atsue. That he attacked me, not I him. I meant to spare his life. It was Yukio who killed him, not I. I am not to blame for her son’s death, any more than I was to blame for Kiyosi’s death. I would much rather I had been killed instead of Atsue. She will read my letter and she will understand. She will even find a place in her heart, in the midst of her grief, to feel some pity for me, but it can make no difference. She cannot force herself to love me. If only I had spoken sooner, had told the boy that his mother was dear to me. If I could have made him understand, he would not have tried to kill me. If only I had taken his kodachi from him, as any careful warrior would have done. Truly, the Zinja are devils, even as Taitaro told me long ago, if we cause such agony for those we love. I want no more of this war. I want no more of being a warrior monk. I am ready to do what Taitaro did, to withdraw to a forest hut. I want to cause no more suffering. I want no longer to be a devil.

Jebu looked into Yukio’s eyes and saw tiny squares of white, reflections of the sails of the fleeing Takashi ships. He tried to recite the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy, but the words slipped like little fishes through the net of his mind. Slowly a darkening sea rose around Jebu, and the pain of his wound and the anguish of his spirit dwindled with the fading of the light.

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