Shike – Day 81 of 306

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.

Suddenly Yukio snapped out an order. At the sound of his voice heads turned all over the lead ship. The pilot spoke to the steersman, the signalman and the rowers’ overseer. The right bank of oars held steady, while the left bank worked at double the rhythm. A green flag flapped over the signalman’s head. The steersmen braced their feet against the rail and pushed at the tiller. Within a few moments the Muratomo fleet had changed course and was steering for the little fishing village of Hakozaki, northernmost of the three towns around the bay.

One by one the Takashi ships changed direction and formed a pursuing column. Everything seems to be happening so slowly, Jebu thought. First we change course, then they react and some of them change course. And we’re still hours apart. But every advantage gained at this distance could mean life or death for thousands of men.

He might die today. He sat down on the deck with his back to the rail, took the shintai out of his robe and stared into its fiery core. Slowly he felt strength and calm flow into his veins. The power of the shintai worked as ever. Sitting nearby, Moko watched him.

Jebu stood up to look over the rail at the Takashi ships. A long way off, fifteen of them, a tight little group, came after the Muratomo fleet. Their sails were up, as were the Muratomo sails now, but they were drawing little wind and the oarsmen were still pushing the ships. The Takashi were far behind. The Muratomo oarsmen were fresh, while those rowing for the Takashi had been working for days.

Breakers thundered ahead on the rocks between Hakozaki and Shiga Island. Here and there black boulders jutted up like fangs in the white water. Yukio ordered another change of direction. The Muratomo were sailing parallel to the shore, past Hakozaki and back towards the town of Hakata. The sails of the Muratomo ships boomed, swelling with wind. Now the onshore wind was pushing them. Yukio ordered the oarsmen to rest.

After a time, Yukio gave a whoop and pointed. One of the Takashi ships was slowly toppling over on its side, its sail folding, its mast crashing down, the red banner drooping into the water; soon the crew and fighting men were black dots in the green and white waves. Another of the pursuing ships had come to a dead halt, simply sitting in the waves as its companion ships left it behind, stuck on a sandbar.

“Our pilots know these waters,” Yukio laughed. “Their’s don’t.”

Now he snapped another command to his signalman, who leaped to his feet and began waving a red flag and a yellow flag at the other ships. The two steersmen leaned into the tiller. The town of Hakata was still a long distance down the shore when Yukio’s fleet changed course again and headed out towards the centre of the bay.

Jebu watched once again the delayed reaction of the enemy craft as one by one they altered their course to continue the pursuit. Then cries from the other side of the ship drew him across the deck.

Through the green, terraced hills behind Hakata, streams of horsemen and foot soldiers were pouring into the town. Red pennons were fluttering on the town’s ancient wall. Masses of men were gathering along the quays. The high sun of noon glittered on helmets, armour and naginata blades. Smaller contingents of Takashi appeared on the docks of Hakozaki on the north and Imazu on the southern side of the harbour.

“Now they’re going to take fishing boats and come out after us,” Yukio said. “I expected this, too.”

Even as they watched, Takashi samurai were crowding into every boat along the shore. Doubtless they would force the fishermen to row the boats out. Many of the fishing boats were overcrowded and low in the water.

The thousands of Takashi samurai left behind on shore waved their red banners and shot angry futile arrows into the water in the direction of the Muratomo ships. The waste disgusted Jebu. Samurai had no sense of the value of things.

Now there was no way the Muratomo could land again. They were cut off, committed to fight, to live or die on the water. Fifteen Takashi warships still blocked the harbour’s mouth. Thirteen more pursued the Muratomo ships around the bay. And dozens of small craft from Hakata, Hakozaki and Imazu, their gunwhales bristling with Takashi samurai like teeth in the mouth of a shark, formed a long sprawling line cutting across the Muratomo course.

The pilot spoke to Yukio and pointed upwards. The wind vane on his ship had changed direction. Now the fish’s head was pointing straight at the mouth of the harbour and beyond that to the open sea.

Yukio turned to the pilot. “Is the tide running out?” The grey-haired pilot grinned and nodded.

“Then Hachiman is with us,” Yukio exulted. “It is time to say goodbye to our Takashi friends. We’ve shown them the beauties of Hakata Bay long enough. Now we leave for China. Up all sails. Rowers, row your hearts out. Head for the open sea!”

The signalman’s flags blossomed on the afterdeck. In a moment the Muratomo fleet had made another course change. Now they were charging at top speed directly at the Takashi blockade.

The Takashi vessels, so distant for so long, now loomed larger. Faint cries came from the men on their decks. A few impetuous arrows arched towards the Muratomo ships and fell short, into the waves.

Yukio shouted to the captain in the nearest Muratomo ship, “Aim for the steersmen and rowers only! Don’t bother with samurai! Pass the word!” He gripped Jebu’s arm and pulled him to the rail.

“Come on. Our men think it’s unworthy to shoot anyone lower in rank than a samurai. Let’s set an example.”

The column of Muratomo ships aimed for the head of the Takashi line. Takashi vessels were pulling out of formation and rushing to crowd in upon the Muratomo as Yukio’s ship raced across the bow of the leading enemy galley. Yukio drew back on his samurai bow, as tall as himself, and a fourteen-hand arrow with a humming-bulb head screamed through the air to strike the throat of a steersman on the lead Takashi ship. Yukio had used the noise-making arrowhead to call the attention of his men to the target he had chosen.

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