Shike – Day 282 of 306

“At least trying to protect Sametono gives me an excuse to stay near you,” Taniko whispered. “Promise me you will not let Sametono go into combat. And promise me you will come back to me.”

“I promise,” Jebu whispered. He squeezed her hand and left.

Chapter Seventeen

Red and yellow lights, numerous as the stars, bobbed gently in the darkness ahead. A strong tenor voice floated over the water, singing in Mongolian about a young man who had ridden ninety-nine days and ninety-nine nights to be with his beloved, only to find wild flowers growing over her grave. It was a song Jebu had heard many times around campfires at the edge of the Gobi Desert. It sounded strange to hear it now on Hakata Bay as their thirty-man galley, Flying Feather, glided silent as a crane towards the Mongol fleet. There was no wind tonight, so they rowed without a sail. Jebu stood amidships, one hand resting on the mast, the other holding his naginata.

It was near the end of the month, and the thin, waning moon was just rising, well after midnight. As they drew closer, the junks, each with a yellow lantern at the prow and a red lantern at the stern, loomed over their little galley like castles. They had reached the barrier now, a line of fishing nets strung from ship to ship and hung with bells both to block any attacking vessels and to warn of their approach. Hayama Sakagura, Moko’s son, stood in the bow of Flying Feather, both hands gripping the pole of a naginata fitted with a very long, exquisitely sharpened sword blade of the highest quality steel. Sakagura swung the naginata three times as the oarsmen, all armed samurai themselves, held the little galley steady. A great square of the net silently fell away, and Flying Feather slid through. Munetoki, standing just behind Jebu, expelled a long breath of relief.

There was a distant shout. Blazing arrows shot through the air, a long way off. A kobaya along the net to the north burst into flame. They must have set off the bells trying to get through, Jebu thought. Figures of men, silhouetted by the blaze, toppled from the galley into the water. The distraction would make it easier for all the other raiders to get through.

It was a hot, damp night, and even on the water the air hung thick. Once Flying Feather was in among the Mongol ships the smell was nauseating, a mixture of horses, unwashed bodies, garbage, decaying meat and human sewage. The huge fleet was rapidly poisoning the bay. “Milk drinkers,” Munetoki groaned. Their kobaya pulled alongside a two-masted junk. They drifted till they were just at the midpoint of the vessel, where the sides were lowest. Jebu could hear conversations on the deck of the ship in an unfamiliar language that, he guessed, was Korean. He heard horses stamping on the other side of the hull, and one of them whickered. They would have to act quickly now. The horses were likely to smell them and set up a commotion. Jebu made room for two samurai who went to work with practical speed at the base of Flying Feather’s mast. They unwrapped a rope and pulled out an arrangement of pegs and splints. With ropes attached to the top of the mast other crewmen guided its fall. It crashed against the junk’s railing, and a cry of alarm pierced the humid night.

It was the third night after the Great Khan’s fleet arrived at Hakata Bay. Each night the kobaya had been going out. They filtered in among the big enemy ships and used their collapsible masts, an invention of Moko’s, to board the junks. After slaughtering as many of the warriors and crew as they could reach, the raiders set fire to the ships and escaped—or tried to. Each night nearly half the ships that went out did not come back.

“We’ll have more ships coming back after the warriors who aren’t good at this have got themselves killed off,” Moko’s son Sakagura said carelessly when Jebu was arranging for himself and Munetoki to go raiding on Flying Feather. Jebu though the remark crude but said nothing. Sakagura was reputed to be the best of the kobaya captains and therefore was the most likely to get Munetoki back safely. That was all that mattered.

Jebu had not seen Moko until earlier that day. It turned out that when the Mongol fleet arrived, war junks had pursued Moko’s scout ship, driving it on to the rocks a day’s journey north of Hakata Bay. Jebu himself had been occupied, until this morning, in the furious battle that ended in driving the Mongols off Shiga Island. Moko saw Flying Feather off from Hakozaki that night, his eyes shining with pride in his son.

Sakagura had promised Jebu and Munetoki the right to be first on the enemy ship. Jebu took a firmer grip on his naginata and set his bare foot on the slanting mast when an unexpected elbow in the ribs knocked him to one side, and Munetoki was clambering up the mast ahead of him. Like the lowliest, youngest samurai, the Regent of the Sunrise Land could not resist the urge to be the first to attack the enemy. Stifling his anger, Jebu scrambled up the mast. It was his responsibility to protect the Regent on this raid.

He glimpsed Munetoki bringing his sword down on the back of a screaming Korean crewman. Swinging his naginata in a huge arc, Jebu dashed for a small lantern beside the door of the stern cabin. He grabbed the lantern, and splashed burning oil on the deck. Mongol soldiers were tumbling up through the hatches now, waving swords, spears and bows and arrows, but the samurai had control of the deck and were cutting them down almost as fast as they appeared. Another fire had started in the bow of the ship. If they’re carrying any of the black powder we’ll all go up together, Jebu thought.

The Korean crewmen, realizing that their ship was past saving, were diving overboard. The Mongol soldiers were more stubborn—or desperate, since most of them couldn’t swim. They had no choice but to stand and fight. About twenty of them managed to form a line across the deck and were steadily shooting arrows into the attackers with well-drilled precision. Jebu jumped to the railing of the ship, took hold of a free line and wrapped it around his left arm. He swung feet first into the bowmen, sending the nearest of them sprawling, killing or scattering the others with his naginata. The samurai rushed the Mongols, their long swords flashing like torches in the firelight. Munetoki was in the lead, and a huge Mongol stood up with his spear pointed at the Regent’s chest. Jebu ran at the Mongol, whirling the naginata over his head and bringing it down on the big man’s neck. The severed head went sailing off the ship into the blackness. Munetoki took a moment to bow his thanks before decapitating another Mongol with a two-handed swing of his sword.

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