Shike – Day 218 of 306

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.

“Only with my death will this unnecessary killing stop,” said Yukio, looking at the six heads on the distant poles.

Shenzo Totomi’s eyes gleamed like a young tiger’s. “Any man who dies because of you, my lord, dies well.”

Jebu said, “Do you really believe, Yukio, that your death, or any man’s death, will put an end to this kind of killing? You, like thousands of others, are deceived by Hideyori’s protestations that just one more death is needed for peace. If you were dead, Hideyori would find other necessary murders. In time other warriors will arise to challenge him. When he dies, new contenders will struggle for the power he has built. Stop imagining that you could sacrifice your life to bring peace. Your duty is to try and save yourself.”

For the first time in months a merry light appeared in Yukio’s eye. “Disguise you as a Buddhist monk and at once you begin to prate like one. What must we do, then, O holy one?”

“Since you insist on it, we will go through the fort rather than around it,” said Jebu. “Perhaps the very innocence of that unfortunate group of monks who preceded us aroused suspicion, and we will be more convincing because we are more careful.” He turned and addressed the group. “If any of you have weapons, rid yourselves of them now. They would give us away if we are searched, and they would be useless to us in that fort. We will be greatly outnumbered.” Reluctantly, some of the men drew daggers from under their saffron robes and tossed them into the cedars that grew thickly down the hillside. Jebu turned back to Yukio. “Yukio-san, I want you to trade places and clothes with Shenzo Totomi.”

“No,” Totomi said instantly. “It would be a disgrace for us to make our lord do the work of a porter, even to save our lives.”

“Exactly what Hideyori’s men will think,” said Jebu. “If we dress Lord Yukio as a porter and load this altar on his back, he is far less likely to be recognized, because no samurai would adopt such a degrading disguise. As it is, he is wearing the heaviest cloak of all of us and the finest robes. He looks like our leader. If they have a good description of him, they’re sure to recognize him. Indeed, there may be some who have seen him before.”

“This is intolerable,” cried Totomi.

“Do as you are told, Totomi,” said Yukio quietly. “A samurai never does things by halves. If we are to deceive our enemies let us deceive them as perfectly as we can.”

In a few moments Yukio was dressed in Totomi’s ragged robe and coat of straw. Totomi wore Yukio’s sturdy new wooden sandals, while Yukio went barefoot. The men, except for Jebu, had blistered and bleeding feet because they had been mounted warriors, unused to long marches on foot.

“There is a scroll of melancholy poems in the sleeve of that robe, Totomi,” said Yukio. “Take care of them but don’t read them. It would embarrass me.”

With great reverence and gentleness, Yukio’s men loaded the heavy altar on their lord’s back. Bent under the weight of the altar-chest and dressed in clothing too big for him, Yukio seemed a small, sad figure. He managed a smile, a ghost of his old gaiety, and several of the samurai turned away from him with tears in their eyes. Taking up the lead, a long staff in his hand, Jebu cautioned the men to ignore their ravaged feet and try to look like true yamabushi, who had been roving the mountains barefoot on spiritual journeys all their lives. Yukio brought up the rear. He limped forward, stumbled and almost fell, then pulled himself up and trudged on with a determined expression. Totomi caught Jebu’s eye and glared at him. These samurai, Jebu thought; Totomi would rather see his lord beheaded than forced to endure a few hours of pain and indignity pretending to be a porter.

The kami of the mountains chose to make their progress more difficult by sending ice-cold rain mixed with snow and hail to drum on their rice-straw hats and freeze their hands and feet. Their destination, the fort by the pass, disappeared in a gray swirl, and they could see only a few paces ahead.

Just as they reached the outpost, soaked and exhausted, the storm rolled away, chased by a howling wind that blew through their wet robes and, froze the rough cloth against their skin. A silk banner emblazoned with the White Dragon of Muratomo crackled above the gatehouse. The sky was blue now, and the sun, sinking into the snow-dusted teeth of a black crag to the west, glinted on the silver helmet ornaments of six guards who slowly, sullenly formed a line in front of the barrier pole across the road. Soldiers in peacetime quickly become attached to comfort, Jebu thought. These were obviously annoyed at having to leave shelter and a warm brazier.

“More monks,” said one of the guards. “Let’s take their heads now, as we did with those others, and get in out of this wind.” He spoke with the rough accent of the eastern provinces, Hideyori’s base.

“It’s bad karma to kill monks,” another man protested.

“Not if they aren’t really monks,” said the eastern soldier.

During this exchange Jebu stood serenely, hands clasped before him, as if he did not hear the guards discussing his possible fate. The men behind him stood patiently. It was all in the hands of the kami now, thought Jebu. After a little more talk the guards singled out Jebu and Shenzo Totomi and ordered them to go into the fort, which stood a short distance up the mountainside from the road.

“If our captain doesn’t believe your leader’s story, the ravens are still hungry,” the eastern warrior said to the rest of Jebu’s party. With a laugh he pointed to the six almost-bare skulls on the poles above the fort’s log wall. Jebu was relieved that Yukio would not be exposed to the eyes of the entire garrison. Now it all stood or fell on Jebu’s ability to convince the post commander that they were authentic monks. As he climbed the steep path to the fort, Jebu felt the silent tension in the men he was leaving behind. He himself felt exhilarated, happy to be shouldering responsibility for the lives of Yukio and the others. Now, if only this young hothead beside him didn’t make a mess of things.

The fort was actually a large old manor, a scattering of low wooden buildings perhaps fifty years old, in more peaceful times the mountain retreat of some nobleman. The only fortifications were the newly built log palisade and a few square wooden guard towers. The tumbling-down, one-storey halls were crowded with samurai and foot soldiers taking their ease, laughing and talking, gambling, quarrelling. From a distant house Jebu heard the tinkle of musical instruments and women’s voices. Discipline appeared lax; some of the men were drunk. Heads turned as Jebu and Totomi were led into the central courtyard.

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