Black Rose: Part Three
Kesi heard the dreaded words and jumped up from her cot. Her sudden movement woke Danuja, who slept beside her. Kesi snatched up her swords then headed for the deck. Danuja grabbed her shirt.
“What is happening?” the girl asked. “What is Wokou?”
“Trouble,” Kesi replied. “Stay here.”
When Kesi reached the deck, the others stood at the stern with their weapons. Baba paced, mumbling to himself.
“Baba,” Kesi said.
Baba snapped his head toward Kesi, a scowl on his face.
“This is your fault!” he said. “For years we have sailed these waters and never encountered Wokou. Now we take on the girl and look what has happened!”
“It’s not the girl’s fault or mine,” Kesi answered. “Our luck ran out.”
Kesi wished she believed her own words. It was very possible that the Wokou were after them because of Danuja. The incident in Hangzhou proved how much the Shoguns wanted to capture the girl and stamp out Tanaka’s line. It was not beyond them to put a bounty on the girl that the Wokou were anxious to collect.
Kesi looked about the deck. “Where is Roopa?”
The tall, black-skinned bare-chested man sauntered to the others, his bow in his hand, his quiver and machete hanging from his waist belt. He squinted his eyes, gazing at the approaching ship.
“There are many of them,” he said. “Twenty, maybe twenty-five. Many more than us.”
“What can you do?” Kesi said.
Roopa looked at her and shared his warm smile. “There will be fewer by the time they reach us.”
Kesi turned her attention back to baba.
“Will they reach us?”
Baba nodded his head. “Yes. They have more sails.”
Kesi scanned the deck, meeting the eyes of everyone aboard.
“Get your weapons,” she said.
“We should just give them the girl!” Baba replied.
“As I said before, I made a promise,” Kesi said.
“A promise that is as solid as the wind,” baba retorted. “Tanaka is dead. The rest of his family may be dead as well. The girl means nothing. Maybe the shoguns don’t mean her harm. Maybe they plan to marry her off to one of their sons. It would be a better life for her here than in Pemba. She doesn’t know our language or our ways.”
“She’ll learn,” Kesi said. “And I’m not leaving her, especially not to Wokou. I can imagine what would happen to her before they returned her to Nihon. If she returned to Nihon.”
“Kesi, you’re not being rational,” Baba said.
“What if it was me, baba?” Kesi asked. “What if someone killed you, mama, my kakas and dadas and I was next? If you left someone to protect me, what would you want them to do?”
Baba didn’t answer. He walked away and took the wheel. Kesi turned her attention back to the Wokou junk closing the distance between them. She closed her eyes, marshalling the fear that threatened to overwhelm her and pushing it back. When she opened her eyes, her resolve ruled her.
Roopa, Amri and Tukufu joined her at the bow.
“We can’t let them board us,” Kesi said.
“We’ll station the other baharia along the bulwark with machetes,” Amri said. “They’ll cut their grappling ropes as soon as they throw them.”
“They’ll have archers,” Roopa commented.
Kesi looked at the Nuba. “You’ll have to be faster to protect the rope cutters.”
“I will be,” he answered.
“Me, Amri and the others will handle anyone that manages to get onboard,” Kesi said.
“What about oil?” Amri asked.
“Only if necessary,” Kesi said.
The others nodded then took their positions. Kesi was walking the deck when Danuja emerged from below.
“Go back below,” Kesi said. “This is not your place.”
“What is happening?” she asked.
“The Wokou are coming for you,” Kesi said. “But I will not let them have you.”
“Maybe you should,” Danuja said. “I have caused enough trouble. No one else should die for me.”
“If anyone dies, it won’t be for or because of you,” Kesi said. “This is the danger of what we do. It is not the first time we have had to deal with pirates, nor will it be the last. Now go back below.”
“What if you fail?” Danuja asked.
Kesi shook with Danuja’s words. No matter what they planned, the possibility of failure was real. She took a dagger from her belt then handed it to Danuja.
“You expect me to fight them?” Danuja asked.
Kesi looked Danuja in the eyes.
“You don’t want to be captured by the Wokou,” Kesi said.
It took Danuja a few moments for her to understand Kesi’s words. Her eyes glistened as she pressed the dagger against her chest, turned then ran below.
The minutes passed like hours as the Wokou junk sailed closer. The taunting and insults drifted between the vessels, making some of the baharia nervous. Kesi glanced at Roopa who stood beside her, an arrow notched in his bow.
“Send them a reply,” she said.
“Gladly,” Roopa replied.
Roopa loosed five arrows in rapid succession, each finding its mark. By the time he notched the sixth arrow the wokou had cleared their deck.
“That should keep them quiet,” Roopa said.
Kesi watched the wokou junk come closer, the others watching her raised hand. The junk made its move, steering to the dhow’s starboard side. Kesi motioned her hand in the same direction and Amri, Tukufu and the baharia took position. Kesi ran with the pace of the wokou junk, arriving with the vessel. The wokou began their yelling again as the grabbling hooks sailed between the gap, landing on the dhow’s deck. The baharia cut the ropes before the hooks could bite into the wood. Wokou archers lifted their heads over the sides, attempting to hit exposed baharia but Roopa was ready. While their arrows flew errant, Roopa did not miss. The Nuba archer was not only skilled, but he also descended from a line whose talents reached back to the times of Kemet and Kush.
A few Wokou could not wait for purchase; they leaped from their junk attempting to land on the dhow’s deck. Most fell into the water, a few more bounced off the sides, but a few made the jump, wreaking havoc where they landed. They were cut down by the baharia but not before wounding some. One grappling hook bit into the dhow’s wood, then another. The wokou began pulling in unison, dragging the dhow closer.
Kesi ran below deck to the hold. She heard footfalls behind her and spun around, her sword drawn. Danuja jumped back, the sword barely missing her throat.
“What are you doing?” Kesi shouted.
“I want to help,” Danuja said.
“Follow me then,” Kesi ordered.
Kesi went to the hold. She searched for few moments before emerging with gourds of palm oil.
“Go inside and grab as many as you can carry.”
Danuja grabbed two gourds.
Kesi ran to the deck. It was chaos. More wokou had managed to board the dhow and a desperate fight took place. Roopa kept his distance, loosing arrows into the pirates and dueling with the enemy archers.
“Roopa!” Kesi shouted. She threw a gourd of oil to the Nuba. He caught it, placed it by his side then continued to loose arrows.
Kesi ran toward the stern. Baba manned the wheel, trying hist to steer the dhow away from the junk. Kesi opened the gourd then thew them onto the junk’s stern. Once again, she looked to Roopa.
The Nuba nodded then ripped a strip of cloth from his tunic. He wrapped the fabric around an arrow, then paused as he dodged an arrow. He dipped the arrow tip into the palm oil, took out a spark stone then used his dagger to create a spark. The arrow flamed; Roopa loosed the flaming shaft. Kesi watched it arc between the vessel then land in pool of palm oil. Wokou yelled in shock as the oil ignited. Roopa loosed two more flaming arrows into the junk’s sails, adding to the confusion. The junk slowed; baba steered the dhow away from the burning junk. By the time Kesi reached the deck, any wokou that had managed to board had been killed and thrown over the side. Kesi’s heart dropped; three baharia lay dead, and two others were wounded.
“We should have used the oil earlier,” Baba said.
“Dangerous, and expensive,” Kesi replied.
Baba looked at Danuja. “Look what you’ve caused.”
Danuja looked away, tears in her eyes.
“Leave her alone,” Kesi said.
She draped her arm around her shoulder.
“Let’s get you back below,” she said.
“Are you coming, too?” Danuja asked.
“No,” Kesi replied. “There’s work to be done.”
“Then I will stay, if you let me,” Danuja said.
Kesi smiled. “Come then, let’s help the others.”
Kesi and Danuja hurried to the baharia as the wokou junk burned in the distance.