Shike – Day 80 of 306

Jebu looked out past Shiga Island, a sandspit at the tip of the northern arm of the bay, as if trying to see the fabled land that lay to the west. As he looked, a long, dark shape slid past the island. It was followed by another.

A silence fell over the quays. Then a murmur rose as ship after ship appeared in the entrance of the bay. The murmur grew as, oars sweeping rhythmically through the waves, the vessels sailed closer. The bright banners that bedecked the ships became visible. The banners were blood-red.

“We’re trapped,” said a man near Jebu.

“Might have known the Takashi wouldn’t let us leave,” said another.

The crowd parted and Yukio strode down to the edge of the water. For the occasion he wore his finest suit of armour, silver-chased with white laces. A silver dragon roared defiance from his helmet. The men watched him closely.

He smiled when he saw the Takashi ships. “They honour our departure with an escort.” Some of the men laughed hesitantly.

Yukio stepped to the edge of the pier and raised his arms. Silence fell over the assembled samurai.

“O Hachiman-Yawata, my great-grandfather was known as Hachiman Taro, your firstborn son. Now, in my family’s hour of greatest need, I call upon you to give us your aid. Bless our journey across the great water. May we find the good fortune we seek in China. May we return one day, victorious, to this land of the gods.”

“May we escape from Hakata Bay to begin with,” said Jebu in a low voice, eyeing the Takashi sails.

Hastily, bidding last farewells to those who had come to see them off, the samurai trooped up the gangplanks of their assigned ships. In every man’s mind, Jebu thought, there must be the same question: am I really embarking for China, or am I going to die today? Jebu held Nyosan’s hand for a moment, and their eyes locked; then he turned abruptly and went to Yukio’s ship. On the quay Moko bade a tearful farewell to a woman holding an infant in her arms. At last he tore himself away. Carrying his precious box of carpenter’s tools, his Instruments of the Way, he followed Jebu up the gangplank.

Yukio stood on the deck atop the after cabin of his galley. Beside him was his pilot, a grey-haired man in a black tunic who had made the voyage to China and back many times. Around him gathered his armoured captains, each of whom would be responsible for one shipload of samurai. Of them all, Yukio was the smallest figure. Jebu joined the group.

“I’ve prepared myself in case of an attack by sea,” Yukio said. “I have consulted with the local fishermen on the winds and tides in Hakata Bay. I am certain that we can evade the Takashi and escape them.”

A growl of dissent came from the other samurai. “Evade them?” said Shenzo Saburo, the samurai who had long ago been in charge of the expedition to rescue Yukio from the Rokuhara. “We don’t want to evade them. We want to fight them. Why don’t we attack immediately?”

Yukio laughed, a laugh of scorn that reddened Saburo’s face. “Oh, well, if you want to fight and die, why go to the trouble of boarding these ships? There are ten thousand more Takashi warriors marching overland against us. If we wait here we can die fighting on our feet instead of floundering in the water.”

The commanders shifted uneasily and fingered their sword hilts. Finally Saburo said, “Why not attack the Takashi ships at once and try to break through?”

Smiling, Yukio shook his head. “Our aim is to take this army overseas and win our fortunes in China. I am not going to allow the expedition to be destroyed before we are even out of sight of the Sacred Islands.”

The meeting broke up, and the commanders went to their respective ships. Yukio grinned at Jebu and clapped him on the arm. Still smiling, he turned to his pilot and gave the order to sail.

There was a moment of expectant silence. Then the cries went up from the pilots, and the mooring ropes were cast loose. On each ship a drummer raised his wooden sticks and brought them down thunderously on the monkey-leather head of his big taiko. The long white oars flashed through the green water at dockside.

Yukio stood on the afterdeck between the pilot and the two steersmen. Crouched near the rail was a signalman with a bundle of flags. Orders were relayed from Yukio to the pilot to the steersmen. Waving his multi-coloured flags, the signalman passed Yukio’s orders to the other ships.

A brisk, salt-smelling breeze blew in from the sea, and a rising tide lapped against the quays. The advantage was with the ships sailing towards shore. The sails of the Muratomo ships were furled and only the arms of the rowers propelled the ships forward.

His bow slung across his back, Jebu leaned against the rail and stared across the wide expanse of water at the dark hulls and yellow sails of the Takashi. How far away they were! How large this bay was! It could hold thousands of ships. It would be a long time before the Muratomo came anywhere near the Takashi. In warfare on land, your enemy was sometimes upon you before you even saw him. At sea he might be visible for hours before the two of you drew close enough to fight.

The taiko on the ten ships rumbled, and Yukio watched the fish-shaped wind vane on the masthead. It pointed inexorably towards Hakata. Huge, puffy clouds sailed eastward across the sky like a fleet of heavy-laden trading vessels. Moko crouched at Jebu’s feet, his back to the rail, and closed his eyes, his dogu box in his lap. The samurai drowsed at the rails. Only the men at the oars worked, rows of bare, brown shoulders rhythmically rising and falling. Gradually the Muratomo fleet drew into the centre of the bay. The Takashi ships, their red banners fluttering, were much plainer now, but they had not left their position at the mouth of the bay. Jebu counted thirty of them.

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