Shike – Day 217 of 306

But it was not just Eisen’s influence. She remembered that long ago she had intervened to help a woman threatened by a tyrant. The woman had been the Lady Akimi, Yukio’s mother. Now Shizumi was carrying Yukio’s child. Strange are the meshings of karma, she thought.

Tonight I, a helpless woman, stood before the most powerful man in the land and defied his wrath to protect this girl beside me. Helpless? I am not so helpless, after all. As the two women walked together into the silence outside Hideyori’s hall, Taniko’s flesh tingled with excitement and the blood pulsed in her head, a pounding rhythm, like the beating of a taiko drum.

Chapter Twenty-One

Six severed heads impaled on tall poles stood out dark against the cloudy sky. At first, climbing a hill, Jebu and the men with him saw only the heads, small black ovals far away. Then, when they reached the top of the hill, they saw the fort with its brown palisade, on a ridge still half a day’s walking and climbing from where they were. They could see birds swooping and darting around the heads and hear their distant cries as they picked away the remaining morsels of flesh.

Yesterday, in the foothills of these mountains on the north-west coast of Honshu, Jebu and Yukio and their men had met a party of traders coming down from Oshu, Yukio’s destination. The traders told them that the soldiers in the fort at Ataka had executed six monks travelling north on suspicion that they were followers of Muratomo no Yukio attempting to escape from the Shogun’s wrath.

“The Shogun is turning the country upside down to find his fugitive brother,” said the leader of the trading party. “I advise you, holy ones, to postpone your journey and turn back here, rather than try to get past the barrier forts just now. The soldiers would rather lop off a few innocent heads than let any of the Shogun’s enemies through by accident. Of course, you may have business in the north that is worth the risk of your lives.” The trader’s narrowed eyes roved shrewdly over Yukio and Jebu and the eleven men with them. What he saw, Jebu hoped, was a party of yamabushi, Buddhist mountain monks. All of them had shaved heads and wore saffron robes and torn quilted coats to keep out the cold of the Tenth Month, whose teeth grew sharper than a wolf’s as they worked their way north.

“Buddha will watch over us,” Jebu replied piously to the trader. With his moustache and hair shaved off, only his height and his grey eyes might give him away. “If our time comes, we are not afraid to die as long as we are fulfilling our duty.”

“Buddha did not watch over the six monks who died this morning, and they were afraid to die,” said the trader. “All their prayers availed them not. They begged for their lives. You seem braver. More like a samurai than a monk.” Again he cast that thoughtful look at Jebu and his men.

Jebu laughed. “I am no samurai, honoured sir, I assure you.”

The trader shrugged. “Who you are is no business of mine. I wish Lord Yukio no harm. On the other hand, it will be safer to travel when the Shogun’s will prevails everywhere. Lord Hideyori is bringing us peace.”

Now Yukio and Jebu studied the fort that blocked their road to Oshu. It stood at the high point of a pass between two purple-black crags dusted with snow that towered like pagodas built by giants.

“Not far from here is Tonamiyama, where we first led the Mongols into battle against the Takashi,” Yukio said.

“We could try to avoid this fort,” said Jebu, his mind fully in the present as he followed the winding of the thread-like path through pines and boulders up to the entrance of the fort. “We could climb over the peaks or work our way around them to the east or the west.”

“It would take too long,” said Yukio. “We do not have enough provisions, and there is no food in the mountains. Besides, there are other forts to the east and the west.”

The Yukio who had led the attack at Ichinotani would leap over these mountains like a deer, Jebu thought. “Better to go hungry for a few days than lose our heads,” he suggested.

“Remember what the trader told us yesterday,” Yukio said. “If I die it will bring peace to the realm. Even if it does not, my sufferings will be over.”

The despair that had come over Yukio in Heian Kyo when he first realized that his brother had turned against him had grown deeper with each downward turn of his fortunes. Increasingly, Jebu was making plans and decisions for him. It was Jebu who found a Zinja monastery for them to hide in after the shipwreck in Shimonoseki Strait. The Zinja were willing to help Yukio. Though they had supported the Muratomo in the War of the Dragons, Hideyori had begun to harass and threaten them of late. While at the monastery Yukio had learned, to his great anguish, that the samurai to whom he had entrusted Shizumi had betrayed him at the first opportunity and had delivered her to Hideyori’s men. The thought had driven Yukio into a fit of wild weeping.

With only a few followers remaining, Yukio had no alternative but to go into hiding. Though few would risk open resistance to Hideyori, there was widespread “sympathy for the lieutenant,” as people phrased it, remembering the title Hideyori had begrudged Yukio. For two years Yukio and his men had managed to move in disguise from one refuge to another, finding shelter in temples, the castles of friendly samurai, and the homes of commoners. Hideyori launched the greatest manhunt in the history of the Sacred Islands, sending the armies of the Bakufu into every accessible corner of the realm, conducting a house-to-house search of the capital, and even threatening old Go-Shirakawa and young Kameyama with “certain untoward eventualities” if they did not co-operate wholeheartedly. Hideyori used the supposed threat of rebellion as a pretext for stamping out all potential resistance to the new government he was establishing. Yukio’s well-wishers were becoming increasingly reluctant to help him. The only place left for him was the far northern land of Oshu, so remote and powerful as to be almost a kingdom in its own right.

Now Jebu and Yukio stood on a mountain-top in Kaga province facing a barrier fort which blocked the pass through the mountains north of them. Their men, unarmed and shaven-headed, sat down along the narrow path, part of the Hokurikudo Road, to rest. Young Shenzo Totomi, who was dressed as their porter, knelt and untied the gilt chest, a portable Buddhist altar, which he had been carrying on his back. Despite Yukio’s declining of his offer of help, General Shenzo’s son had not hesitated to join those rallying around Yukio when he broke openly with Hideyori. Now he set the altar on its four legs beside Yukio.

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