Shike – Day 58 of 306

A faraway look came into Taitaro’s shadowed eyes. He turned away from the altar and looked through the temple entrance into the darkness outside. He hurried around the temple, blowing out candles until they were almost in darkness. One small candle remained in his hand.

“A group of mounted men just passed through the gateway. Hide yourself. I will meet them.”

Chapter Eighteen

Taitaro pressed down on a small block of stone in the floor, tipping it upwards to expose an iron ring. Pulling on the ring, he raised a slab covering a chamber under the floor.

“Down there you’ll be able to hear everything. There is an entrance to a tunnel leading from that chamber to what used to be the monks’ quarters. Slip down the mountain and go to the Teak Blossom Temple at Hakata, where your mother and your old friends are.”

“I don’t want to hide. I will not abandon you.”

Taitaro laughed. “Jebu, I have been a Zinja abbot for twenty-three years. Do you really think I’d have any trouble escaping from a party of samurai? No one can hurt me unless I permit it. Now, get down there.”

It was so dark that Jebu could not see the floor of the chamber below. He jumped into the blackness and fell further than he had expected to, his feet striking stone with an impact that stunned him. Taitaro closed the slab over him, and Jebu was in darkness. It was so like. the night of his initiation that it brought back all the memories of that ordeal. He felt his way to a corner of the room, sat down and waited in total darkness.

Carrying his candle, Taitaro slowly crossed the temple to the entrance. He questioned himself, wondering why he had bothered to hide Jebu. The two of them could easily defeat or escape from a group of samurai.

It was because he was tired of bloodshed. He wanted to see if he could deal with these samurai quietly and send them away in peace. If Jebu were with him, there would inevitably be fighting.

The mounted warriors galloped up to the temple steps and stopped. Taitaro held up his candle to get a better look at the horsemen. They had Red Dragons embroidered on the breasts of their surcoats.

A deep voice addressed Taitaro. “Old monk, I remember you. You are the Abbot Taitaro.” The voice spoke in Chinese.

With the aid of the candle Taitaro peered at the man who had spoken. Taitaro recognized him instantly, with a shiver of mingled anticipation and dread.

The huge man wore a fur-trimmed iron helmet topped by a single spike that came to a needle-sharp point. The collar of his red cloak was edged with silver-grey fur. His silk surcoat was a bright scarlet. His eyes were ice blue. His reddish-brown moustache hung in long strands on either side of his mouth. His cheekbones were broad and prominent, his face deeply lined and scarred, his skin tanned to brown leather by sun and wind and sand. He was wide through every part of his body—shoulders, chest, arms, legs.

“I know you, as well,” said Taitaro, answering in Chinese. “But I do not know your name.”

“I am Arghun Baghadur.” The big man jumped from his horse, handing the rein to a samurai beside him, and climbed the steps of the temple with the rolling gait of one who has spent a lifetime in the saddle.

Taitaro said, “As you see, this temple is undefended. You and your men are welcome to enter and rest yourselves.”

Following Taitaro into the temple, Arghun said, “We need not waste time, Abbot Taitaro. I seek the monk called Jebu. I have followed his trail all over Honshu and Kyushu. I know he came here.” Arghun spoke Chinese heavily, gutturally.

Taitaro was delighted. This was a splendid stroke of good fortune for Jebu. With a little skilful prodding it might be possible to get this barbarian to tell the full story of Jebu’s father, for Jebu’s benefit.

Taitaro pointed to the Red Dragon on Arghun’s surcoat. “Do you seek him on behalf of the Takashi, or for some other reason?”

“While in this Land of the Dwarfs it suits my convenience to ally myself with the Takashi clan. But I pursue my own ends. I have come here, as you must know, to slay the monk Jebu. Where is he?”

Taitaro sighed and seated himself, gesturing that Arghun should do the same. He positioned himself at one side of the slab under which Jebu was hiding.

“I felt chilled and sent Jebu out into the forest to cut firewood for me.”

Arghun strode to the temple entrance. He wore felt riding boots and his tread was soft, despite his size.

He called out to his men. “Search the woods around here for a tall, red-haired monk. Bring him to me unharmed.”

Taitaro said, “Let the will of heaven be done. I can do no more to protect Jebu. But I do not understand. This young man was a baby when you came here last. He had done nothing to you then. He has done no harm to you now. Why do you want to kill him?”

“It is a sacred obligation I have undertaken, and I may not rest until I fulfil it. Surely, as a warrior monk you can understand that. Genghis Khan is dead now, but his command binds me: Let Jamuga and all his seed be slain, let his blood vanish from the earth.”

“Ah, yes,” said Taitaro. “Jamuga told me of his people. Herdsmen living in the cold, dry plains north of China.”

Arghun laughed. “We Mongols are no longer tent-dwelling cattle herders, old man. We are conquerors, and we live in palaces.”

“It is a cruel thing to put a man to death for his father’s offence.”

“At the will of Genghis Khan whole cities have been wiped out. Every man, woman and child has been killed, every building levelled. Now riders can pass over the spot and herdsmen graze their cattle without ever knowing there was a city there. It was a small matter for Genghis Khan to decree the destruction of one family. When the Great Khan is offended, expiation must be made throughout heaven and earth.”

Standing below in the darkness, Jebu felt himself trembling. It had taken him a few minutes to recall the spoken Chinese he had learned in the temple years ago. But he understood enough. This was the slayer of his father. Now this warrior had come across the sea again, hunting him. It was dream-like, in a way. It was hard to believe they were actually talking about him.

There were still unanswered questions. Who, exactly, was Jamuga? Who was Genghis Khan? What had Jamuga done to call down upon himself such relentless vindictiveness? But Jebu felt he had heard enough. It was time to act, while Arghun was still talking to Taitaro, before the Mongol became restless.

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