Shike – Day 93 of 306

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.

Observers on the walls reported that the Mongols had reached the two lakes and were lining up facing the south wall. Yukio ordered the gates opened. With Yukio and Jebu leading the way, followed by a bannerman bearing the White Dragon, the samurai rode five abreast, at a trot, on to the bridge. Their taiko drummers beat out a rising, angry rhythm.

As he looked at the line of warriors facing him, Jebu could not see the Mongols—his people—clearly. They were mostly heavy framed, bigger than the samurai. Their faces were dark, burnt by sun and wind. They all wore moustaches with drooping wings, and their hair, where it protruded from under their helmets, was braided. Most of them had black hair, but here and there Jebu saw a red beard and moustache. Their eyes were narrow, the eyes of men who had spent their lives squinting into the sun.

Yukio drew his long, gleaming sword and spurred his horse to a gallop. Jebu did the same, and the wooden bridge quivered as the samurai behind them picked up the pace. The samurai shouted their battle cry, “Muratomo!,” at the motionless Mongols. Jebu looked over his shoulder and saw a thicket of steel blades behind him. But about half of Yukio’s men were still inside the city gate.

Jebu heard three notes of a horn, a Mongol signal. Now, he thought, they would attack. But those facing him wheeled in unison and rode away from the edge of the lakes, leaving a broad open space on the far end of the bridge to invite Yukio’s warriors.

Over the clamour of the samurai charge, Yukio called, “Try to set fire to their siege engines.”

Jebu was remembering that other battle, long ago, when he watched the retreating Kiyosi lead the Takashi out of the grounds of the Imperial Palace, pursued by the Muratomo.

“Yukio,” he called. “It’s a trap.”

“I can’t stop them now.”

Jebu whipped his horse to a burst of speed that carried him to the end of the bridge well ahead of Yukio. He pulled the big brown Chinese stallion to a sliding stop and swung him athwart the path of the charging samurai. He stood in his stirrups so Yukio’s men could see him, and held up his arms in a halting gesture. A Mongol arrow shot past his neck.

Crying out to his men to stop their charge, Yukio pulled his horse up short. The riders immediately following him responded to his command, and the word was relayed in shouts back along the bridge. But the milling mass of leading horses and men crashed into Jebu’s stallion, and Jebu fell to the wooden planking.

There came two long blasts on the Mongol horn. Almost at once arrows were raining down. The Mongols, still riding away from the moat, had turned in their saddles and were shooting back at the samurai. Jebu’s horse screamed and reared as a dozen steel-tipped arrows thudded into its side.

Jebu grabbed Yukio’s arm and pulled him out of his saddle. Using the dying horses as cover, they watched the slaughter of their men. Three Mongol arrows had embedded themselves in Jebu’s armor. He broke off their shafts. The Mongols had stopped and turned to face the city. Again and again they fired volleys at the men on the bridge from their short, powerful, double-curved bows.

The man carrying the White Dragon banner had fallen. Even though it made him a special target, Yukio picked up the banner and ran with it back over the bridge to the gate. Seeing the banner, the samurai began to fall back. Jebu and Yukio stumbled over dying horses and men. The two lakes were stained crimson and filled with bodies. The arrows fell upon them in clouds. Now all the surviving samurai were rushing pell-mell for the south gate.

One mounted man galloped past Yukio and Jebu in the opposite direction, his eyes wild, his face a furious red. Yukio tried to stop him, but the warrior didn’t even notice his leader as he charged by.

The Mongol horn sounded a single note, and the arrows stopped.

Standing up in his stirrups, the lone samurai shouted into the sudden silence, “Ho! I am Sakamoto Michihiko of Owara, descended in the tenth generation from Abe Yoritoki, the renowned warrior.”

Yukio had paused to watch Michihiko. Pushing him fiercely, Jebu got him moving again.

The next Mongol signal was a braying fanfare. In spite of his Zinja training Jebu felt a shudder of fear at what happened next. Like an avalanche the Mongol cavalry rode at full gallop towards the Green Belt Bridge. Silent before, now they screamed like madmen, their faces distorted into masks of fury. Waving their sabres, they bore down on the lone samurai.

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