Shike – Day 95 of 306

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

Chapter Five

Across the two lakes the Mongols set up their camp and their fortifications. In their numbers, energy and discipline they reminded Jebu of the fierce red ants that built their nests in the forest around the Waterfowl Temple and viciously attacked any trespassing creature, from insect to man. Once, as a child, he had unknowingly stepped on a red-ant hill. Instantly, his legs had been covered with a swarm of tiny, biting insects. He had run screaming to an elder monk who laughed and rescued him by throwing him into a horse trough.

Yukio summoned his men and called the roll. Their losses were as he had predicted, over two hundred. Yukio announced that he was keeping a written record of every battle. The slain would be listed carefully, and all meritorious deeds would be recorded. Feats of sublime valour like that of Sakamoto Michihiko would be memorialized in full. Yukio promised that whatever befell them, even if they all died defending Kweilin, he would get the record of their deeds through to the Emperor’s Court at Linan, and from there it would be sent to the Sacred Islands. Thus, their families would remember their heroism for ever. Had he promised his men riches and long life, he could not have done more to win their loyalty. To die was nothing to a samurai, but to die unnoticed would be a calamity.

Their cheers for Yukio echoed against the high limestone walls. If they had any doubts about his leadership, those doubts were resolved for the time being. The Chinese spectators, unable to understand the language of Ge-pen, as they called the Sunrise Land, wondered how the strange warriors could be so happy after such terrible losses.

Kweilin lay along the west bank of the Kwei Kiang River, a wide, deep, swift-running stream bordered by blue hills riddled with caves and sinkholes and eroded into fantastic shapes. The river was not only a natural moat but also provided the city with an easy supply route and escape route. Any relief troops that might be needed could sail up the Kwei Kiang from Canton.

The besiegers pitched their camp on the west and south sides of the city. Every hill, all the way to the horizon, was covered by round grey felt tents arranged in regular rows. At night the campfires twinkled, as innumerable as the stars.

After several days of watching, Yukio estimated that there were seventy thousand fighting men in the army camped around Kweilin. Thirty thousand were Mongols, organized into three tumans, divisions of ten thousand. The rest were auxiliary troops drawn from the various peoples the Mongols had conquered, mostly Kin Tartars, northern Chinese, Turks and Nan Chaoans. Accompanying these warriors was a host of camp followers, women, servants and slaves.

The Mongols were far from being the ragtag horde of savages Jebu and Yukio had imagined. They were better organized and more carefully equipped than many armies of civilized nations. They wore leather helmets, sometimes topped with spikes or other ornaments, and trimmed with felt and fur. Their armour was of fire-dried, black-lacquered rawhide, which, Jebu knew, was as strong as steel. Each rider carried two bows and two quivers of arrows in saddle cases, a curved sabre in a scabbard slung across his back, a lance, an iron mace, and a round leather shield. Each warrior had at least six remounts—compact steppe ponies about the size of samurai horses, much smaller than those of the Chinese. The Mongol ponies had powerful necks, thick legs and dense coats. Their manes and tails hung almost to the ground. They foraged for themselves in huge herds in the hills near Kweilin.

Life in the city of felt domes seemed quiet and orderly, amazingly so, considering that these were supposedly barbarians whose only interests in life were conquest, killing, looting and rape. Jebu remembered what the Zen monk Eisen had said about the strict laws of the Mongols.

The head of Sakamato Michihiko remained on a pole at the spot where he had fallen, a trophy to be pecked at by birds, gradually changing from the head of a comrade to an anonymous skull. And close to the two lakes was an even more wretched sight. A huge corral had been built. Thousands of tattered, woebegone Chinese were penned within it, mostly men but with many women and even some children among them. They sat or lay on the ground without shelter from the hot sun and the frequent summer rains; the more energetic paced like caged animals. They were fed once a day. Every day parties of these prisoners, each herded by a single mounted warrior, would trudge out to the hills and return pulling cartloads of brush which they laid in a huge pile beside their stockade.

Jebu, Yukio and Moko spent hours every day watching the Mongols. In his few moments of leisure Jebu contemplated the play of light in the flashing depths of the Jewel of Life and Death. Even though he and his comrades had gone, seemingly, from certain death in their homeland to certain death in a foreign country, he felt calm and cheerful.

Across the moat from the city walls the besiegers built a wooden counterwall, with towers higher than those of the city. Behind it they deployed mobile towers, large and small catapults, giant crossbows, rams and the long-barrelled iron firethrowers the Chinese called huapao.

Moko studied the many different kinds of siege machines, explained their uses to Yukio and suggested how they might be countered. “They will send miners to dig under the moat and try to blast our walls with the black powder,” he said. “They have contingents of engineers among their auxiliary troops. We must have men constantly posted along the base of the walls listening for sounds of digging.”

Kweilin had hua pao of its own, which Yukio ordered positioned on the city’s towers, to be manned night and day by shifts of Chinese. Pots of oil were set up along the walls, to be ignited and dropped on the wooden Mongol machines. Within the city people gathered barrels of water on every street, buckets of water in every house. Fire was the worst enemy of a city under siege.

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