Shike – Day 92 of 306

The Chinese are much taller than we are, and lighter of skin, except for the sailors, who have been tanned a dark brown by the sun.

Sick and unhappy and frightened as I am, the adventure of crossing this vast ocean and the prospect of seeing the Central Kingdom fill me with excitement.

-Sixth Month, fifteenth day


Chapter Four

Two flags emblazoned with white dragons flew from the battlements of Kweilin. The larger was the ancient flag of the city, the smaller, the Muratomo family crest. When Yukio and his men arrived at Kweilin, dispatched there by the Sung Emperor’s chief councillor, both they and the people of the city had been amazed by the coincidence of symbols. All considered it to be an auspicious omen.

Jebu, Yukio and Moko stood at the parapet on the south side of the city’s wall, watching the coming of the Mongols. Like a storm moving in from the sea, the Mongol advance was heralded by a blurring of the horizon. The line between the distant blue hills and the blue sky vanished into a ribbon of grey. Gradually the grey blanketed the nearer hills. Dust clouds reared into the sky like giants.

There had been plenty of advance warning. Refugees had been streaming up from the south for days, by land and on the rivers near the city. For the past day and a half, on orders of the city’s governor, the landowners, artisans and peasants living in the surrounding countryside had moved within the walls. They brought with them every scrap of food, including live animals—oxen, goats, pigs, sheep, chickens and horses. Nothing was left behind for the Mongols. It had amazed Yukio and Jebu that Kweilin could feed its huge population in normal times. Though not one of the larger cities in southern China, it was still many times more populous than Heian Kyo.

Now there would be no more refugees. The Mongols themselves had arrived.

Out of the billowing dust clouds came roars and rumblings, the booming of drums, the blare of horns and shouts of command. The Mongols’ standards rose above the dust—poles decorated with horns, spearheads, the wings of large birds or the fluttering tails of animals. The first riders appeared, dark figures advancing at a jog trot in silence.

“Do they frighten you?” Yukio asked Jebu with a smile. “There must be tens of thousands of them. The wings of their army spread from west to east.”

“I am not frightened,” said Jebu, “but I am amazed.”

“I’m frightened,” said Moko. “Even one warrior frightens me. Here there are as many warriors as there are raindrops in a tai-phun.”

“We will try to blow this tai-phun back where it came from,” said Yukio. He was his usual cheerful self, but Jebu suspected he spoke with more confidence than he felt.

On and on the Mongols came. The thunder of their horses’ hooves filled land and sky. Their advance guard was now a short ride from the two lakes, Rong hu and Shan hu, that formed the southern side of the moat around Kweilin’s walls. They were heading straight for the Green Belt Bridge, the one bridge that Yukio had left standing. The wooden bridge divided the two lakes and led to the fortified south gate of the city. All the other bridges had been destroyed and the other gates, except for the river gate, walled up.

As he watched the Mongols, Jebu remembered a day years ago when he had stood with Yukio’s father, Domei, on the wall of the Imperial Palace in Heian Kyo, watching the glittering advance of the Takashi. Would this day end as disastrously as that one had? He hoped not, and reminded himself that a Zinja does not hope.

Jebu felt a special excitement that he could not share with his comrades. These were his father’s people. Until now the only Mongol he had seen was Arghun Baghadur. He strained his eyes to capture every detail of the dress, appearance and manner of the warriors swarming over the hills south of Kweilin. His first impression was one of fur and leather, slitted eyes and brown faces that preserved, as they rode, an implacable silence.

Jebu said, “I would advise that, for the spirits of our men and the spirits of the people of this city, we ride out and attack the Mongols before they get into position.”

Yukio nodded. “Let’s give them a taste of what they can expect from us.”

Yukio called his samurai together at the base of the city wall. Four times the height of a man, the wall was built of yellow rock quarried from the limestone hills around Kweilin. The gates consisted of an inner and outer set of doors made of huge logs reinforced with iron bands. Square stone towers guarded either side of the gateway.

Besides the thousand men he had brought with him, Yukio had been placed in charge of two thousand Chinese troops. Twice that many civilians could be armed from the city’s arsenal and pressed into service if need be. Yukio called only the samurai for this first sally, directing the other troops to man the walls. All mounted, all in full armour, the samurai crowded into the paved staging area behind the south gate.

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