Shike – Day 39 of 306

These samurai deceived themselves into thinking their blades had magical power. “A sword has only as much power as the man behind it,” Jebu said.

Domei shook his head. “Any time a man believes he has power, he has it. This is one of the secrets of warfare, shiké. Go now, and find Hideyori.”

At that moment Kiyosi broke into a gallop, pointing Kogarasu at the little band of Muratomo standing atop the wall. With a roar, the Takashi warriors ran behind their mounted leader, their heavy sandals drumming on the pavement of Redbird Avenue like a stampede of wild horses. Thousands of long swords stabbed the air. The sea of poppies had become a wave of steel.

Scaling ladders sprang up from among the flashing swords, and the Takashi wave crashed against the walls of the Imperial Palace. Over the din Domei shouted orders to his men on the grounds below, and archers sprang to the walls to loose their arrows into the mass of Takashi warriors.

Forcing down his urge to join in the fight at the wall, Jebu hurried down the steps leading to the palace grounds. He ran across the white gravel to the inner wall surrounding the main buildings of the palace. A long line of defenders had formed between the two ancient trees, the Cherry Tree of the Left and the Orange Tree of the Right, which stood before the Ceremonial Hall. Jebu found Hideyori among them. The young man’s fingertips nervously tapped his sword hilt.

“Have you ever drawn blood with that?”

Hideyori shrugged. “I tried it out on a slave. But you heard what my father said. I just had my topknot ceremony. I’ve never been in real combat. Why do we have to stay here? I’d rather be on the outer wall.”

Jebu looked through the gateway leading out of the compound. He saw a Takashi banner wave briefly on the outer wall, then fall. “From the look of it, the Takashi will be coming to us,” he said. In his mind he was repeating the Zinja sentences to compose his mind for battle. Arrows flew through the air, but none of them fell near the Muratomo line within the palace compound.

There came a rush of Muratomo defenders from the outer wall to join the line between the two trees. Right behind them the Takashi burst through and streamed into the palace compound like a long ribbon of red silk unwinding. Jebu unslung his bow and took aim at Kiyosi, but the scion of the house of Takashi changed direction suddenly, and the arrow flew past him and disappeared. Make every arrow count, Jebu reminded himself with chagrin. He wanted Kogarasu, which he could see slashing like a great silver scythe, too badly. He was infected with the lust for success. He resolved just to act and to forget about Kiyosi’s sword. The Self doesn’t collect swords, he thought.

“Stay close to me,” Jebu said to Hideyori. The young Muratomo had his sword out. Jebu stood to his left and slightly in front of him, acting as a shield. Other Muratomo samurai, seeing their leader’s son in their midst, crowded around him protectively.

Jebu wished Domei were more of a planner. The Takashi, at least, seemed to have some sense of direction, and it was working for them. The Muratomo fought as samurai usually did, every man for himself, and they were being driven back.

A big Takashi samurai drove his naginata straight at Hideyori’s chest. Jebu brought his Zinja sword down in a chopping swing and broke the naginata pole. But the broken end of the pole struck Hideyori and threw him, stunned, to the ground.

“We have Domei’s son,” the Takashi samurai shouted, drawing his sword against Jebu. Jebu swung his sword at the Takashi’s legs. The Takashi brought his sword down to block the swing. Jebu drew his sword back and struck again, but this time as the attacker’s sword came down to block him, Jebu turned his blade and struck upwards. The force of the Takashi’s blocking motion brought his right forearm down on the Zinja blade. Only by quickly letting go of his sword was he able to save his arm from being severed. As it was, Jebu’s blade had cut through muscle and sinew right to the bone. The big samurai, bellowing in pain and anger, fell back among his comrades.

Jebu stood over Hideyori, his short sword cutting and thrusting this way and that. An empty circle formed around him. Slowly Hideyori got to his feet and the Muratomo samurai closed around them.

Domei, recognizable, in spite of his face plate, by the white horsehair plume on his helmet, came riding towards Jebu and the other men near the Cherry Tree of the Left. Domei leaned down and patted Jebu on his shoulder.

“I saw that. My son would not be alive now if it weren’t for you. You’re a marvellous swordsman. In battle, the Zinja are devils. You must train my sons.”

The Zinja are devils. But Jebu did not have time to think about that now. Domei wheeled his horse and began rallying his men. In a moment the Muratomo had steadied their line between the two trees.

Domei gave the command, and the Muratomo counter-attacked, those at the far right end of the line running at full tilt, spearheaded by horsemen, slashing wildly with their swords, thrusting with their naginata. Nearer the Cherry Tree the Muratomo line advanced more slowly. Jebu and Hideyori stayed at the left side of the line to hold the samurai there to a slow, inexorable walk controlling the pivot. Many white banners were waving in the air now, and the Muratomo taiko drummers pounded wildly to spur on the attack.

It now appeared that the Muratomo had the Takashi on the run. The southern half of the inner palace compound was swept clear of Takashi, and the pivoting advance of the Muratomo became a rush as the Takashi began a headlong retreat.

A flash of gleaming red caught Jebu’s eye. It was the dragon on Kiyosi’s helmet. Waving his sword, the Takashi leader was calling his men to fall back before the onrushing Muratomo. He was leading the retreat.

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