Shike – Day 94 of 306

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.

With as much deliberation as if he were at archery practice, Michihiko drew his bow, which was taller than a man, and fired a fourteen-hand arrow at the first Mongol in the wedge. The nomad fell from his horse, pierced through the eye. Michihiko fired one arrow after another at the charging warriors. He was a good shot, and soon fallen men and riderless horses were slowing the Mongol rush.

But now the Mongols were on Michihiko. Throwing down his bow, he had drawn his long sword. The blade rang against the curved swords of the Mongols. Jebu saw a Mongol sword break in two. At least our swordsmiths are better than theirs, he thought.

The Mongols encircling Michihiko drew back. One of them spun a looped rope over his head and with a flick of his wrist snaked it at the samurai. Another rope dropped over his head. He was trussed, his arms pinned. He was trying to cut himself free when the Mongols yanked him from his horse and he fell heavily to the bridge. Their shrill laughter rang out over the two lakes. They closed in, and a dozen lance points stabbed Michihiko’s writhing body.

Yukio kept his eyes fixed on the scene. “An indecent death for a brave warrior. Barbarian butchers.”

Most of the samurai were safely within the city wall. Inside the gate Moko was waiting with a lighted oil lamp. Jebu took it from him and went back to the bridge.

A Mongol raised Michihiko’s head on the end of a spear. They shouted triumphantly, high-pitched war cries, as if killing this one man had been a great victory.

“They probably think he was our mightiest fighter,” said Yukio. “They don’t know he was just one samurai who thought today would be a good day to die.”

Like the Zinja, the samurai had learned to see death as no evil, Jebu thought. But unlike the Zinja, some of them actually saw it as good. They rushed to embrace it.

Now the Mongols were galloping across the bridge, racing to stop the gates from being closed. “Stand back,” Jebu said to Yukio.

Into the oil lamp’s flame he plunged the end of a string that had been rubbed with the explosive black powder of the Chinese. A hissing spark ran down the string and branched out in several directions along the bridge. Jebu and Yukio darted behind the great wood and iron doors.

The instant the gates boomed shut there came a tremendous thunderclap. Too late, Yukio put his hands over his ears. Jebu, his own ears ringing, beckoned, and the two of them ran up the stone stairs leading to the parapet.

“Look what we’ve done,” Jebu said.

A grey cloud of stinking smoke hung over Rong hu and Shan hu. The Green Belt Bridge, except for a few smouldering, blackened stumps of pilings, was entirely gone. The water was full of Mongols and their horses, many of them dead or badly wounded, a few struggling to swim to shore.

“That repays them,” said Jebu.

“No, it doesn’t,” said Yukio. “They can lose all those men and not miss them. For us, to lose two hundred men is to lose one out of every five. And we’ve lost that many, I’m sure, in our very first battle.” He laughed bitterly. “I ought to cut my belly open to make up for it.”

Jebu said, “It was my suggestion to launch an immediate attack.”

Yukio’s large eyes were liquid with sadness. “I gave the order. And if you had not stopped our charge when you did, the Mongols would have annihilated us. You also suggested using the thunder-and-lightning powder to destroy the bridge.”

“Moko learned about the powder from the Chinese engineers.” Jebu found that he had no regrets about the disastrous attack, but he wanted to help his friend. He put his hand on Yukio’s armoured sleeve.

“We Zinja say that to act is within the power of every person. To guarantee the success of an act is not under anyone’s control. So, if you are victorious, do not be elated. If you are defeated do not be downcast. A warrior who cares too much about winning or losing is worthless. I have thought several times today of your father and the last day of his uprising in Heian Kyo, when you were still a child. He was defeated and forced to retreat from the city, but he was not discouraged. He said that the falcon stops and sometimes comes up with empty claws, but flies on to hunt again. He was a joyous samurai.”

Yukio smiled, showing the slightly protruding teeth that gave his face a boyish look. “I will try to be— a joyous samurai.”

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