Shike – Day 294 of 306

Red Tiger could hardly last much longer. The mast to which Sametono was tied might break off at any time. With each roll of the ship the boy’s body swung out over the waves. If the rope holding him broke, he would be thrown into the sea. With his arms bound he would have no chance at all. The rope was tied to the mast. Jebu realized he had nothing to cut it with. He had not picked up a weapon for himself and there was none near him. He had only a fan, one the Former Zinja had brought aboard Shimmering Light. Still he hurried to the base of the foremast. Doubtless he could untie the rope. Then he froze in horror. Arghun was standing there with a Mongol battle-axe in his hand, poised to cut the rope. One blow and Sametono would fly off into the sea. Jebu started walking towards Arghun.

“Come no closer,” the Mongol commander shouted above the storm. “I was a fool. I let you trick me. You are the only people in the world who make weapons out of parasols and fans.”

“What do you want?” Jebu called.

“Still bargaining? I want nothing. I’ve lost my fleet. All I can do is kill your Shogun. That’s the only way I can hurt you.”

Jebu tried to appeal to the Mongol’s sentiment. “What use to kill a brave boy?” Arghun’s only reply was a wild, derisive laugh.

“We’ll let you live,” Jebu shouted. “We’ll send you back to Kublai Khan. I swear it on the honour of my Order.”

“I would rather die than face Kublai Khan. I had your country in my grasp, and I lost it, because of you.” A malevolent light dawned in his face. “There is one bargain I will make.”

“Anything,” Jebu cried, frantic.

“You, more than anyone, stopped me from conquering this land. I will end my life victorious in this one thing. I will kill the last of Jamuga’s seed, even as Genghis Khan commanded me.” The blue eyes glowed with rage. “Stretch out your neck to my axe, and I will let the boy live.”

Jebu did not hesitate. “I will.” He strode towards Arghun.

“No!” screamed Moko. Jebu had not noticed the little man come up beside him. Moko rushed past Jebu, his fingers clawing for the Mongol giant’s axe.

And now it was Jebu who screamed “No!” as the axe blade bit into Moko between neck and shoulder.

Surprised by Moko’s unexpected attack, Arghun’s instant reaction had been to defend himself, rather than cut the rope holding Sametono. Moko’s sacrifice must not be wasted. Empty-handed except for his fan, Jebu threw himself at Arghun. The axe came down again, and Jebu side-stepped it, jabbing the end of the folded fan hard into Arghun’s wrist. The Mongol grimaced in pain but did not let go of the axe. Jebu whirled and ran for the bow of the ship, exposing his back to Arghun to draw him away from the mast. The ship tilted and Jebu slid across the wet deck towards the rail. The axe smashed into the planking just behind him. Jebu looked back at the foremast. Sakagura and other samurai were cutting the rope that held Sametono. Sakagura was tying the end of the rope around his own waist. Kagyo was kneeling beside Moko, holding him, keeping him from being washed overboard. Blood had soaked the front of Kagyo’s grey tunic.

The ship rolled to starboard, and Arghun backed into the shed at the bow, waiting for Jebu to slide within reach, battle-axe in one hand, in the other a long dagger he had drawn from his belt. He had braced himself against the base of the huge bronze hua pao, whose bolts were creaking in the deck. Jebu grabbed the portside railing and clung to it, keeping himself away from Arghun.

Sametono was dangling over the water. Sakagura, with the rope holding Sametono attached to his waist, was climbing the raked foremast. If he slips, thought Jebu, they’ll both go into the sea. The higher Sakagura climbed, the more the rope holding Sametono lengthened. At last Sakagura stopped climbing, wrapped his arms and legs around the mast and waited. The ship started its next roll, tilting back to port. Just at that moment one of the men at the foremast turned and saw Arghun advancing on Jebu. Aiming carefully, he launched a spear at Arghun. But the wind defeated his aim. The spear planted itself in the deck just in front of Arghun. The ship reached the midpoint of its roll, and Arghun seized the haft of the spear for support, stepping away from the hua pao.

Sametono came over the deck as the ship rolled. The rope holding him was now so long that he swung right into the arms of four samurai waiting to catch him. They cut him loose with a sword stroke. Jebu saw with relief that Sakagura was shinning down the mast. Then Arghun was upon him.

Now the big Mongol was coming at him with spear and battle-axe. “Slay Jamugu and all his seed!” he screamed.

Both of them were tumbling towards the roaring black water. Each time the ship rolled, it seemed it would roll on until the railing went under the water, until the whole huge vessel turned over completely, just as Shimmering Light had. Even a ship this big could not survive in a storm like this unless it was manoeuvred. Anchored, with no captain or crew to move it to evade the force of wind and wave, it was doomed. It was only a matter of time before the tai-phun sank Red Tiger and all aboard her. Indeed, if Red Tiger was doomed, then so was the rest of the Mongol fleet. Even though it was mid-afternoon, the sky was dark as night, and Jebu could not see beyond the confines of this ship. Most of the batten-reinforced sails on Red Tiger’s many masts had been blown loose and were flapping wildly. The masts were bending like trees in the wind. The two mizzen masts at the rear had been broken off and had fallen to the deck. Some of the samurai were back there cutting the masts away. The timbers of the ship screamed under the pressure of the storm, louder than the wind and thunder and booming of the waves and hammering of the rain. In a sudden flash of lightning Jebu was able to see the wreckage of a few junks tossing on the black waves. Pieces of spar hurtled through the air overhead.

Arghun advanced on him, clinging to the rail with one arm as the starboard side of the ship tilted towards the water and this side rose into the air. The battle-axe swung at Jebu, and without thinking, Jebu leaped, barefoot, to the railing of the ship. The axe crashed into the oak at his feet. He looked down into Arghun’s enraged, frustrated face below him and laughed. Arghun thrust at him with the spear, and Jebu parried the spearhead with his folded fan.

In the lightning flash he saw Yukio. He was holding a fan just like Jebu’s, and he was standing beside Jebu, balanced on the railing of the Red Tiger on the balls of his feet, just as he had stood so many years ago on the railing of the Gojo Bridge. He was laughing. He was only fifteen years old, as he had been the night Jebu first met him.

“I knew you were fighting beside me,” Jebu said. He looked to see if Arghun had seen Yukio, but the Mongol’s blazing blue eyes seemed only to see Jebu. Arghun threw the spear, and Jebu jumped into the air over the tilting railing, just as Yukio might have in his boyhood. The spear passed under him. He dared not watch it. He had gauged his leap so that he landed gripping the moving, slippery railing with the soles of his feet.

“Eternal Heaven fights on my side,” Arghun roared. He swung the battle-axe and Jebu jumped again. This time he teetered and barely caught his balance before falling overboard. The ship had come to the top of its roll and the railing was dropping beneath his feet. He hooked his toes over the inner edge, bracing himself to jump again as Arghun lifted the battle-axe with both hands for another blow.

There was a monstrous crack. The huge bronze tube of the hua pao broke loose from the deck, smashed through the side of the shed and was sliding towards them. Jebu danced backwards along the railing. Like a falling elephant the enormous mass of metal struck Arghun and crashed with him through the railing. There was not even a cry. Jebu saw arms and legs flail briefly, then Arghun was gone. With both arms wrapped around the broken railing, his legs dangling into the rolling sea, Jebu watched the shadowy bulk of the fire-spitting weapon disappear into the depths. He whispered the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy.

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