Shike – Day 82 of 306

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.

Jebu’s bow twanged and the steersman’s companion collapsed over the tiller. A shame to kill unarmed seamen, but it would mean less bloodshed in the long run.

Yukio loosed two more arrows among the Takashi rowers. Out of control, the ship began to roll and flounder. Arrows fired by the Takashi samurai whistled over Jebu’s head.

One armoured man on the other ship was leaping over the oarsmen, scrambling for the foredeck, holding his long bow high over his head. Standing in the bow of the ship, he braced himself, legs apart, and aimed an arrow at Yukio. The man was bare-headed. In the instant that it took Jebu to jerk a blunt-headed armour-piercing arrow from his quiver, he saw a darkly handsome face with a small moustache. The arrow struck the Takashi samurai square in the chest. He dropped his bow, toppled slowly over the railing of the ship and fell into the sea. When the splash subsided, he was gone.

“I told you not to bother with samurai,” Yukio shouted. Jebu started to explain that the warrior had been about to shoot Yukio, when a wail from beside them interrupted him. It was Moko, clinging to the railing, staring at the place where the Takashi samurai had gone down. He turned tearful eyes to Jebu.

“Accursed am I, that I should have seen this. Years ago that man saved my life. I will never forget his face. He was the only man in the world besides you, shiké, to whom I could truly say I owed my life. And now you have killed him.”

“He was aiming at Lord Yukio.”

“I do not reproach you, shiké. I only say that war is the evillest thing I know, and I hate it.”

They were past the Takashi line now. The ocean, blue-grey and limitless, lay ahead. Behind them, two more Muratomo ships were pushing through the blockade. More Takashi ships closed in. Flights of arrows whistled in both directions. Again the Takashi ships wallowed, disabled, and the Muratomo ships shot by them.

Moko told Yukio and Jebu of the day Domei was executed, and how Kiyosi had seen him hiding in the tree above the Emperor’s head and had not denounced him.

“Of course,” said Yukio. “I would have recognized him if I’d been looking in his direction. I saw him often, especially during the years I lived at the Rokuhara. How strange karma is. On the very day that Kiyosi spared your life, he beheaded my father.”

“I saw him do it,” said Moko. “But also, Lord Yukio, I saw him weep after he did it.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. He was always kind to me. He never said he was sorry that he killed my father; it would, not have been proper for us to speak of that. But somehow I knew he did it because it was his duty, and I never held it against him. Just as it was his duty to aim an arrow at me just now. I hold others to blame for my father’s death. Sogamori, Horigawa.”

“So that was Kiyosi,” said Jebu. “Years ago I shot at him, but it wasn’t his karma to die that day. I have heard nothing but good of him. I am sorry that he died by my hand.” Gripping the rail and bowing his head, Jebu mentally recited the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy with greater fervour than he had felt in years.

A Takashi vessel slammed up against the side of a Muratomo ship trying to break through the blockade. Takashi samurai leaped over the rails. Swords clashed. The decks of both ships were a jumble of fighting men. But two more Muratomo ships cut through to the open ocean.

Yukio gave orders to his signalman. In a few moments the Muratomo craft that had broken the blockade were sailing parallel to the line of Takashi warships, arrows devastating the enemy crews. More Muratomo ships came through. Clouds of arrows fell on the Takashi ships while their samurai, shouting challenges and insults, stood at the rails, futilely waving their swords.

Jebu looked past the crumbling blockade. The other Takashi ships and the commandeered fishing boats from Hakata had joined forces and were sailing towards the harbour entrance in hot pursuit of the Muratomo.

A bright flash caught Jebu’s eye. Flames leaped up on a fishing vessel. The men on it were jumping overboard. Ribbons of fire sprang up all over the fishing boats. The flames spread to the Takashi warships.

“What’s that? More of your planning ahead?”

Yukio nodded. “It was easy to foresee that the Takashi would commandeer boats to come after us. So, aboard the boats today were, not the local fishermen, but Muratomo samurai dressed as fishermen. When the fishing boats were mixed in with the Takashi fleet, my men set fire to them and jumped overboard.”

A few of the Takashi ships seemed to have escaped, but the mouth of the harbour was now blocked by a great ball of fire, as if a piece of the sun had fallen into it. Takashi samurai splashed briefly in the water before their armour pulled them under. One of the fishing boats, manned by Muratomo men, darted here and there, pulling the unarmoured Muratomo survivors out of the water. When they had all been pulled in, the boat followed after the Muratomo fleet. Yukio’s ship fell behind to meet it.

Yukio ran amidships and helped pull wet, naked men from the fishing boat. “Marvellous!” he shouted. “Splendid! Let sake be brought for these men at once. They’re cold from their swim.”

Looking aft, all Jebu could see was rolling clouds of black smoke and a jumble of burning ships. Then his eyes narrowed. Two ships were coming after them. One, judging by its lines, was a Muratomo transport, while the other appeared to be a Takashi warship. He caught Yukio’s arm.

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