Shike – Day 298 of 306

One word or sound, over and over again. Jebu could not hear it, but knowing Sametono he was sure it could be only one cry: “Kwatz! Kwatz! Kwatz!”

Chapter Twenty-Four

Though Jebu sensed that it must be mid-morning, it was dark as midnight in Taniko’s bedchamber. She was awake beside him, and he could feel her quietly sobbing. The old mansion house at Dazaifu creaked under the force of the wind, and the steady drumming of rain on the roof was so loud and had kept up so long that he forgot he was hearing it. Here and there in the corners of the room a drop of water from one of the many leaks in the roof would plop into a puddle, a sound strangely audible above the roar of the tai-phun.

“Are you crying for Moko?” he asked her.

“Oh, Jebu, why did he have to die? He didn’t even have to go with you. He wasn’t a warrior.”

“He said he would kill himself if we didn’t take him, and I believe he meant it. Though he wasn’t a warrior, he attacked Arghun with his bare hands. Sametono and I would probably be dead now if he had not.”

“I have lost so many loved ones,” Taniko said. “Why do men kill and kill and kill?” As she spoke, Jebu saw in his mind the ocean of blood.

“My Order exists in part to find the answer,” he said. “If I could do a little bit towards finding it, I would think my life well spent.”

The fury of the tai-phun had blown most of the buildings at Hakozaki flat. Taniko’s retainers had insisted that she return inland to the governor’s palace at Dazaifu, which was better protected. As soon a Jebu had gathered his strength, he brought Sametono to Dazaifu in a carriage. They arrived in the middle of the night, Sametono sound asleep and unwakeable. Taniko put her foster son in the care of priests and took Jebu to her bedchamber, where he collapsed, exhausted, and went to sleep immediately, while Taniko lay awake most of the night, weeping over the news that Moko had been killed.

Now her arms went around him in the darkness and she pressed her wet face against his. “You brought Sametono back out of the very heart of hell. You have given me back my life. I did not think I could love you more than I did already, but I find that love grows deeper, like enlightenment.”

“And I love you more every day and every night,” Jebu said, holding her tightly.

A maidservant knocked at the bedchamber door. “My lady, there is a messenger from Hakata for Shiké Jebu.”

“They do not even pretend not to know you are here any more,” said Taniko. “I’m afraid our love is no longer a secret anywhere.”

The messenger was from Miura Zumiyoshi. Even though the storm was still battering Hakata Bay, the defence command had decided to launch an attack on the Mongol beachhead at Hakata. Yesterday they had seen countless Mongols and Chinese swimming or riding out to their junks, fearing they would be left behind by the fleet retreating from the tai-phun. Overloaded junks had turned belly-up in the water, others had been the scene of battles as those on board tried to prevent any more from crowding on. The men who had decided to stay on shore were shooting arrows and even missiles from siege machines at their retreating comrades. The messenger’s account reminded Jebu of the Takashi rout at Ichinotani. Now the Mongol beachhead was undermanned and would be vulnerable. No one knew what had happened to the Mongol fleet. After the storm passed on, they might be back. The time to destroy their forces on land was now. Perhaps the Mongols at Hakata could be persuaded to surrender, and Jebu was needed as one of the few warriors who could speak Mongolian.

His armour, he thought, was probably lost in the wreckage of the camp at Hakozaki. Taniko helped him find an old corselet and shoulder guards in the Dazaifu government’s armoury, as well as a naginata in good condition. Jebu covered himself with a straw hat and a straw raincoat. He said goodbye to Taniko and rode off westwards with the messenger.

It was early afternoon, the hour of the horse, when the first samurai leaned their scaling ladders against the shiny-wet black stones of the wall around Hakata and started to climb. The invaders put up a feeble defence, dumping rocks and throwing spears down at the climbing warriors. But it was too late for that. Jebu glimpsed some fighting on top of the wall, and soon after a gate swung open and the several thousand samurai Zumiyoshi had gathered for this assault trotted heavily through the mud and into the ruined town.

Within, all was grey-black, the grey of ashes. The town had been levelled by fire. Remains of walls and blackened stone statues rose above the expanse of charred wreckage. The first group of invaders they encountered had thrown down their weapons and were kneeling in the downpour when they approached. The samurai brandished their swords and awaited the order to start taking heads. Jebu questioned a middle-aged man whose rain-soaked robes looked as if they might once have been a splendid officer’s uniform. They were Chinese, he told Jebu. They had been forced to come here under threat of death to themselves and their families. They had no quarrel with the noble warriors of the Sunrise Land. They begged for mercy.

“We always kill prisoners,” Zumiyoshi said, when Jebu pleaded for the Chinese.

“They did not willingly take up arms against us,” Jebu said. “The true samurai is compassionate to the unfortunate, and these are here only through misfortune. These Chinese are highly skilled, hardworking and civilised people. It would be a terrible waste to kill them.”

“In short,” said Zumiyoshi, “they’ll make good slaves. The Bakufu will have little land to give away to reward our victorious warriors. In place of land we can give away free labour. Round them up and march them off to Hakozaki.” That wasn’t what I meant, Jebu thought, but life on those terms might be better for these men than death out of hand.

Bodies were everywhere. Lying in the muddy ashes they were hardly recognizable as human. Few were civilians because most of the people of the harbour towns had been evacuated when the Mongol fleet arrived. Many of the samurai dead were found with their armour stripped off, hands tied behind their backs and Mongol arrow wounds in their bodies, the arrows themselves having been retrieved. That their helpless comrades had been slaughtered angered the samurai, even though they would have done the same to any Mongols they captured.

Several hundred Koreans also surrendered. They were even more vociferous in denouncing their Mongol overlords. The surviving Mongols, they informed the samurai, were planning to make a last stand on the west side of the ruined town, close to the water in case their fleet should come back.

“These Koreans would have loved nothing better than to conquer us,” said Zumiyoshi sourly. “They provided the ships and seamen for two invasion fleets. They’ve always hated us.” Once again, though, Jebu’s arguments prevailed. The prisoners would be more useful alive.

The Mongols, when they came upon them, were crouched in the rain in wet brown rows, spears and swords ready, taking advantage of what little cover was provided by the broken walls of a temple. Ther were over a thousand of them, those who had stayed behind or been left behind when the invasion fleet fled the storm.

“We’ll lose many men finishing them off,” said Jebu.

“Our men want to draw blood today,” Zumiyoshi growled. “They’re angry, they’ve come out here in this storm to fight, and it’s Mongols they want to kill.”

“I came out in this storm because I can speak to the Mongols and might persuade them to surrender,” Jebu said. “General, it’s one of the oldest military principles never to attack a cornered enemy. It’s too costly.”

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