Shike – Day 241 of 306

The next morning before he left her, Hideyori made her promise that she would tell her relatives he had kept her awake all night. His morning-after letter arrived at the hour of the serpent. It was simple, but seemed sincere. There was no poem with it. Even so, Ryuichi and Chogao were delighted. Two more night visits and a holy man’s blessing, and the Shima, the Takashi and the Muratomo would be united in the persons of Taniko, Sametono and Hideyori.

Chapter Four

thumps. Seven boys, aged eight to fourteen, and an instructor, all dressed in loose-fitting white jackets and calf-length trousers, threw themselves at one another ferociously, somersaulted in mid air, and twisted each other’s arms and legs in vicious locks that, with a bit more pressure, would have broken them. Shima Munetoki sat at one end of the long, bare room, sternly watching everything and saying nothing. Invited by Munetoki, Taniko observed the class from a screened gallery. It was Munetoki’s first visit to the dojo in over six months, and the young students, all sons of leading eastern-province families, were prepared to kill each other and themselves to show their sensei that they had made progress while he had been off fighting the Mongols on Kyushu.

Munetoki strode into the midst of the students, his thick moustache bristling as the corners of his mouth turned down. “Attack me,” he commanded. The seven boys and their instructor formed a half circle around him. Sametono, as the Shogun’s foster son, had the honour of being first. He flew at Munetoki with a wild scream. Hardly seeming to move, the big Shima samurai sent the eight-year-old boy spinning through the air. Taniko’s heart leaped into her mouth. Sametono hit the woven grass mat with his shoulders, rolled and bounced to his feet with a grin. At least he falls well, Taniko thought. Singly, then together, the boys went for Munetoki, who tossed them in all directions. The young instructor was the last to charge. He threw a punch at Munetoki’s head, twisting his fist as his arm shot out. Munetoki threw him almost the length of the room. Then, at Munetoki’s order, the class knelt in two rows facing each other while he stood at the end, hands on hips, and surveyed them. Having learned from Eisen that neither praise nor criticism truly helps students, he simply glowered at them. At last he pointed at Sametono. “What are you thinking about?”

Sametono looked his burly cousin fearlessly in the eye. “Sensei, I was wondering if you’d honour us by telling us what happened in Kyushu. Please excuse my impertinence.”

“Indeed, you are impertinent, young Sametono,” said Munetoki gruffly.

“Please, sensei, it would inspire us to do better,” said Sametono. Emboldened by Sametono’s outspokenness, the other students added a chorus of eager pleas to his.

“Sit in silence and listen respectfully, then,” said Munetoki. “I will tell you of the bravery of the warriors of the Sunrise Land as they faced the barbarian invaders.” He seated himself cross-legged on the floor. Taniko was delighted. Hideyori had kept her informed of the progress of the war with the Mongols, but she wanted to hear about it from someone who had actually taken part.

“We knew that Arghun’s army of some three thousand horsemen was lurking somewhere in the mountains north of the capital,” Munetoki began. “In the Fourth Month, therefore, Lord Hideyori sent a army of five thousand from Kamakura. I, unworthy as I am, had command. From the Fifth Month on, we camped north of the capital. At the same time the Shogun sent twenty thousand men into Oshu to punish Fujiwara no Yerubutsu for the murder of Lieutenant Yukio.

“Fearing that the Mongols might take us by surprise unless we caught them first, we at last began to move cautiously into the mountain country. All we found were smouldering villages where the Mongols had come and gone. Not a soul alive. Thus they left a twisting and unpredictable trail of death drawing us deeper into the mountains. After two months of this, fortune turned in our favour. Down from the far north came our army from Oshu, victorious. Oshu had fallen with surprising ease. When old Hidehira died, something went out of that country. The warriors did not want to fight for Yerubutsu. One of his own men assassinated him and brought his head to our army. Of course, Lord Hideyori ordered that the traitor in his turn be beheaded. One should never violate his oath to his lord.

“Now that we had ten times as many men as the Mongols, we pressed them harder, chasing them through a maze of mountain passes. Then, at the beginning of autumn, they stopped circling around in the mountains and began to move southwards. We knew where they were headed. Word had reached us that the Great Khan’s invasion fleet had left Korea and was sailing towards Kyushu. And now Arghun’s army began a long march through our western provinces towards the Inland Sea. When they reached the ports at the western end of the Inland Sea, they fell upon them like a forest fire, destroying everything and killing everyone except the crews of the boats they needed to cross to Kyushu. By the time we landed on Kyushu, Arghun and his men had already fought their way through to the Great Khan’s invasion army at Hakata Bay.”

Taniko recalled the shock she had first felt on learning that the beachhead of Kublai Khan’s invasion had turned out to be at Hakata Bay, where Kiyosi had died and Yukio and Jebu had embarked for China so long ago. Perhaps Kiyosi’s spirit still lived there, protecting the Sunrise Land.

“When we arrived at Hakata Bay we found the Great Khan’s fleet anchored offshore. The ships were Korean, pressed into service by the Mongols. There were over a thousand vessels of every description, from small coastal galleys to seven-masted ocean junks carrying as many as a hundred men and their horses. The enemy army was camped on the shore. It was evening when we arrived and the first day’s fighting was already over. From their campfires we estimated that there must be thirty thousand invaders. The Kyushu men had nearly been overwhelmed.

“The following day I met the Mongols in battle for the first time. It was hot, dirty fighting. The enemy were armed with machines that threw big stones at the earthworks. They had giant crossbows that fired arrows the size of spears. And they had a terrible weapon called hua pao, that casts iron balls that burst among our warriors with a noise like thunder, shooting fire and deadly iron fragments in all directions. Their hua pao rained down thousands of the fire balls on our men. Our troops were maimed and killed and our horses stampeded, and the things gave off a black smoke that stank like the Eight Hot Hells. Knowing nothing about Mongol methods of fighting, many of our noblest warriors rode out to challenge the Mongols to single combat. The Mongols slaughtered them from a distance with arrows. They also used poisoned arrows that killed our men by the hundreds.

“Again and again the Mongols massed and charged at this place or that, trying to break through our lines. With stones and hua pao, they battered holes in our earthen walls. We filled the gaps with our bodies, rushing madly from place to place to hold the invaders back.

“At the end of the second day’s fighting we were exhausted and in despair. Our only course, as far as we could see, was to keep on fighting until we were annihilated, in the hopes that by then reinforcements could be raised. We prayed that night. The priests passed to and fro among us all night long, carrying their portable shrines, chanting and dispelling the odour of the hua pao with the sweet smell of their incense.

“There was another smell in the air that night, the smell of rain. The air grew cold and damp, and we wrapped our quilts around ourselves and shivered behind our dirt walls. Lightning flickered in the clouds and thunder rumbled like Mongol fire balls. The rain began near morning at the hour of the tiger. It quickly became a drenching downpour, but the Kyushu men welcomed it with shouts of joy. We eastern warriors did not yet understand why. The wind began to rise, shrieking like a hundred thousand humming-bulb arrows.

“There was no dawn that day. The dark of night extended far into the morning and not until the hour of the dragon was there enough light to see by. Even then we could not see much beyond our own walls. The wind blew harder and harder until it was tearing trees to bits and knocking men in full armour flat on their backs. Timbers from houses along the shore flew over our heads. I saw the tile roof of a temple in Hakata ripped loose and sailing through the air like a kite until it fell to pieces. The sea came roaring up the beach to our fortifications, throwing spray into the air higher than the treetops. At times the wind and rain died down enough for us to see the shore and the bay. The waves reared up as high as Fuji-san and tumbled in all directions. The invaders and their horses were huddled in small groups here and there along the beach. Their tents and their great machines had vanished. We were more frightened of the storm than of the enemy, and we crouched against our crumbling walls and prayed that we would not be drowned.

“The storm was gone by next morning. So were the Mongols and their fleet. The waters of Hakata Bay were full of broken timbers and planking. All along the curving beach we could see broken hulls of junks that had been thrown up on shore. With a shout of joy we ran down to the water’s edge. We found a remnant of the invaders hiding in the ruins of Hakata and the other towns around the bay. Before we put them to the sword we questioned them. The Korean shipmasters had warned the Mongol commanders that this was one of those great storms the Chinese call tai-phun, and that they would be safer in the open sea than in the harbour. We learned later that most of the fleet had been sunk at sea and thirteen thousand Mongols drowned.”

Munetoki stopped speaking and sat there, hands folded in his lap, lost in recollection of the awesome sights he had seen. The boys remained silent, eyes on the floor. On the smooth cheeks Taniko could see the glistening tracks of tears.

Sametono was the first to speak. “Sensei, do you think the Mongols will return?”

“They will certainly return,” said Munetoki gravely. “It may be next year, or it may be some years from now, but I believe they will be back in greater numbers than before. We must be ready for them. Thank the gods for our great and wise leader, the Lord Shogun Muratomo no Hideyori, who will mobilize the nation to defend itself.”

“I hope that when the Mongols come back I will be old enough to fight them,” said Sametono eagerly. Taniko’s heart sank, even though she knew that as a samurai mother she should be proud.

Munetoki stood up, towering over the little group of students. He turned suddenly to the instructor.

“They aren’t bad, these boys, all things considered. Keep them at it.” The instructor’s face glowed like a temple mirror. Bowing to Taniko, Munetoki turned and strode out of the dojo.

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