Shike – Day 228 of 306

At the gate, six men were crowded together. Two more, in the watchtower, stood with their tall samurai bows ready.

“Each time they rush for the fort, one of us goes out to hold them off,” said Kanefusa, a big northern warrior who was a cousin of Yukio’s wife. “Their archers have killed three of our men, but we’ve killed many of theirs.”

“Open the gate and stand aside,” said Jebu, swinging the naginata down from his shoulder. As soon as the gate was open wide enough, Jebu rushed out. There were no Mongols outside. They had taken cover from the samurai arrows behind an outcropping of rock at a bend in the road. Jebu ran down the path and around the rock. A warrior in brown stood before him, mouth fallen open in astonishment. The path was not wide enough to allow Jebu to swing the naginata in a full circle. Instead, he thrust its point into the man’s throat. Shouting, the next Mongol came at Jebu with a sabre. Jebu brought the cutting edge of the naginata down on the man’s shoulder, sending him tumbling over the cliff after his comrade. The attackers set up an outcry as, one after another, Jebu killed them where they stood, or knocked them into the ravine. A mounted warrior charged him. Jebu sliced into the horse’s belly, and animal and rider toppled from the path together. Now the Mongols were crowding one another to get away from the flashing blade at the end of the long pole, away from the figure in black armour bearing down on them. Then Arghun, on horseback, was facing him, standing in the saddle, his bow drawn, an arrow aimed at Jebu’s head. Jebu stood, staring into the empty blue eyes.

“Climb down here, Arghun, and draw your sword,” he called. “Let’s finish it now.”

“For you, it is finished,” said Arghun, and he released the arrow. A quick chop of the naginata deflected it, but a line of bowmen fired a cloud of arrows at Jebu. Several arrowheads embedded themselves in the sharkskin and steel strips of his armour, while most rebounded from it. Not one missed altogether; the archers were expert marksmen. Grinding his teeth and chopping down arrows in flight with his naginata, Jebu retreated step by step. By the time he reached the gate his armour was bristling with arrows, and one had pierced his left shoulder. Behind the gate, panting, he let Kanefusa unlace his armoured left sleeve to pull out the arrow and bandage the wound with a strip of paper.

“I do not want you here today, monk Jebu,” Shenzo Totomi said with a grin; “Only your feats will be remembered when the chroniclers write of this battle, and the rest of us will be ignored.”

“You must outdo me,” Jebu answered, shrugging his arms back into the sleeve. “Then we all will be remembered.”

For a time, they lost no more men. The Mongol archers could shoot at the defenders only by exposing themselves to fire from the watchtower. Thus protected, the samurai took turns single-handedly meeting the Mongol charges, striking down the attackers one man at a time. Repeatedly, Jebu charged through the gate when the Mongols attacked and rushed headlong down the path, flailing enemy warriors into the ravine with his naginata. Each of his assaults ended with his being driven back by volleys of arrows, but he was determined to break through to Arghun.

They were fighting in shadow now. The sun had crossed the narrow blue gap between the mountains above them. Jebu looked up to see bright rays stretching from the peaks to splash dazzling light on the snowy mountain opposite. He heard a rumble from above. He had barely time to shout a warning. Huge rocks—grey boulders the size of horses—were tumbling down the steep slope towards them. A picture of Yukio’s charge down the hillside at Ichinotani leaped up in Jebu’s mind. But these were not horses and men thundering down on them. These were insensate masses of stone capable of crushing them all and sweeping the entire fort from the ledge. There was nothing they could do but throw themselves flat. With a roar like the firing of a hundred hua pao, the avalanche was upon them. The crashing and shaking of the earth stunned Jebu, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he waited to be smashed like an ant under a sandal. At last there was a silence, almost as terrifying as the noise that preceded it. They lay still on the ground, and Jebu realized that somehow they were still alive. He rolled to his feet. He saw the worst damage at once. The watchtower was kindling wood, the two samurai archers who had been standing in it gone. Where it had been lay a giant, jagged stone, cracked in several places from the force of its fall. Amazingly, the house that sheltered Yukio and his family was still standing. There were seven defenders left now, and no place from which an archer could provide protective fire for them. The wall itself was down in many places. Yukio had nothing between himself and his enemies but seven human bodies. One of the seven had his arm broken by a huge rock. Looking up, Jebu saw tiny figures peering down at them from a ledge far above. It was Arghun who had unleashed the avalanche.

Jebu sent Shenzo Totomi to make sure Yukio was unhurt and to report to him. Even as Totomi crossed the rock-strewn courtyard, Jebu heard the war shouts of attackers. The injured samurai ran out through the gate with his sword in his left hand and a poem on his lips. He managed to account for three of the enemy before he fell under a volley of arrows. Another samurai leaped to the top of a fallen stone and nocked an arrow with a double-bladed frog-crotch head. He let fly, and a Mongol archer screamed. The arrow had severed his hand from his wrist. The Mongols withdrew momentarily. But soon another file of them, waving sabres and spears, was running, shouting, up the path. Jebu wondered, how does Arghun get them to charge into certain death? It must be because most warriors think they will be lucky enough to survive when all around them are killed. What is called courage is often self-deception. These samurai defending Yukio, on the other hand, knew they were going to be killed. One by one they sallied forth, calmly and cheerfully, intending to keep on fighting till they were cut down. With the battle almost over, the Mongol attacks were coming faster now.

When there were only three of them left, Kanefusa said to Jebu, “You want to be the last, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“It is your right. You were with him from the beginning,” said Kanefusa with a nod in the direction of Yukio’s house. “See to it that my cousin Mirusu is not dishonoured.” And he went out through the gate in the wall that no longer stood, to meet the next Mongol attack.

Shenzo Totomi returned from the little house, his face pale, his eyes staring as they had the night his father committed seppuki in Heian Kyo. He held a blood-dripping dagger in his hand. He seized Jebu’s arm in a grip so powerful it hurt Jebu even through his armoured sleeve.

“He needs you.”

Jebu stared into Totomi’s wild eyes. “What is it? What has happened?”

“What do you think? What is the only thing that could happen? Go to him, in Buddha’s name. There is no more time. Go to him, and let me die.” With a mad shriek Totomi drew his sword and charged through the gate.

Jebu turned away. The robe under his armour was soaked with sweat despite the chill of the mountain air. They had been fighting for hours, and the very bones in his body seemed ready to crack with weariness. From head to foot he bled and burned with the pain of innumerable wounds. Yet the pain was welcome, telling him that his body was still able to feel. The Buddhists were right when they said that life is suffering, but they did not acknowledge that it is suffering that lets people know they are alive.

Yukio is right, he thought. Our bodies are getting old. But an hour from now at the most this body, my body, will be destroyed; I will cease to exist. It is impossible for me to think of it. I don’t want to die, do I? After all these years of being trained to kill, of facing death and dealing out death to others, I still want to live. I am not a good Zinja.

He climbed the steps to the front door of Yukio’s house. There was silence and darkness within. The chapel was on the second floor. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw four rolled-up sleeping mats, with wooden pillows beside them, and a few wooden boxes containing what little clothing and possessions Yukio’s family had managed to bring here. On top of one of the boxes an Empress doll sat regally, her flowing, brocaded robe glittering.

Jebu climbed the ladder to the chapel, calling hoarsely, “Yukio. Yukio-san.” As his head rose above the chapel floor he saw, first, a tiny oil lamp flickering in front of a many-coloured porcelain statue of Kwannon, seated. Then he noticed that the goddess was smiling gently down on what appeared to be four dark bundles of clothing. Jebu felt his stomach clench as he recognized the figure lying on the polished wooden floor.

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