THE BORROWED SWORD
by Constance Brewer
“Deceive the sky to cross the ocean” – Ancient Proverb
“Rider coming in.”
Colonel Ushi set his ink stone and brush aside, blew on the rice paper sheet to speed the drying of his report. He handed everything to his aide as a soldier approached, dismounted, and strode up leading a lathered horse. The man wore the armor of a Xiao Chen scout, overly large on his squat frame. He bowed, and the helmet tipped over dark eyes. The soldier swept the helm from his head and handed the reins of his horse to Ushi’s aide. “Walk him. We’ve come a long way.”
Colonel Ushi raised an eyebrow at the presumptuous attitude but gave a nod to his aide to take the exhausted horse. “Report!”
“I am Sergeant Wu,” the scout said. “I bring news from the general. Enemy soldiers are on the march. They mean to reinforce the troops guarding the gorge.”
“I’ve cut off their supplies. Another few days and the enemy will be eating their leather armor.”
“With respect, Colonel, a brigade of cavalry is a week behind me. They expect to move through the gorge to the grasslands when they get here.”
Ushi frowned. Though it ruined his careful plan to starve out the enemy, he did not wish to explain to a superior why this siege was not over when they arrived. Heads had been separated from shoulders for less. Ushi glanced up at the regimental banner flapping in the afternoon breeze: a tiger poised to strike an unsuspecting foe. “Why does our enemy defend this worthless passage so fiercely?” Ushi commented with a shake of his head.
Sergeant Wu leaned close. Ushi could smell the stink of sweat, onion, dirt and lathered horse on the man. “I hear rumor the ravine contains a dragon, and the enemy fears upsetting it would unleash a flood the likes of which even our father’s fathers have not seen.”
“Rumors are the territory of women,” Colonel Ushi replied. “If a shen-lung lives there our passage should not bother it.”
“Not a few men… but thousands would disturb its peace. Things could go badly.”
Colonel Ushi turned to look at the opening of the gorge. The valley funneled into a narrow passage, strips of land two horse lengths wide on either side of the river. The river itself was young and turbulent, surrounded by steep rock walls and sheer cliffs. To fight their way down the gorge would be difficult. So confident was Xiao Chen of his superior army that he sent only this regiment to attack the troops defending the entry. Ushi could not lose face by failing to accomplish his mission.
“We must take the gorge quickly then. We attack tomorrow.”
“Hide a knife behind a smile” – Ancient Proverb
In the pre-dawn darkness the soldiers heard a strange sound, that of flags snapping in the wind. It was if a regiment of enemy warriors snuck in during the night and settled on the opposite side of the narrow valley, pennons flying.
Speculations rumbled up and down the gathered ranks of men – the forces of General Zhou arrived early to strengthen enemy numbers. Sorcerers created soldiers from the dirt of the Huang He. The enemy prepared to turn loose monsters to eat them. A river dragon was angry.
The wait for first light was unbearable. As morning dawned pink and gold, terrible shapes hovered in the brightening sky. Sergeant Wu was the first to identify them. “Dragons!” he shouted, “They have dragons!”
A collective moan of fear rose from the ranks. That the enemy controlled dragons sealed their fate, the enemy sorcerer must be far more powerful than the sorcerer of Xiao Chen. Their regiment was too lowly to have a sorcerer of their own. Faced with the possibility of dragons, handfuls of soldiers abandoned their positions and ran away.
The shapes rose and fell in the morning wind. The snapping noise increased. “Stand fast,” Colonel Ushi called. He drew his sword and held it in front of him. “We are soldiers of Xiao Chen. We will die an honorable death.”
Sunlight crested the far hills. The rays illuminated the horns, painted its way down bright tiger eyes, bull ears, and long flowing whiskers. Segmented bodies undulated in the wind, while the flapping tails rose vertically. Red, yellow, green, gold, and black. The dragons climbed, straining heavenward, neither advancing nor receding.
The booming laughter of Sergeant Wu rolled over the front ranks of quaking soldiers. “Ha, ha! Kites, they are nothing but kites. Silk and paper, paint and string. Do you fear paper?” he called to the men. The soldiers put away half drawn swords and pointed towards the sky, eyes round with wonder. After a moment, Wu strode over to Colonel Ushi. With a bow and respectfully averted gaze, Wu said, “The soldiers of Zhou think to frighten us with children’s playthings.”
“Could they be more than you suggest, Sergeant?” Colonel Ushi asked. “Zhou has sorcerers. I would not dismiss his ‘toys’ so lightly.” Ushi couldn’t keep his eyes from the graceful sway of kites in the dawn sky.
“True. There are rumors,” Sergeant Wu replied, “but I do not wish to pass such women’s gossip to my superior.”
“I will listen to another rumor this one time,” Colonel Ushi said. He folded his tall length down onto a camp stool and laid the blade of his broad dao across his lap. The metal gleamed, and the officer ran a finger around the blade collar, searching for dirt. His gaze rose one more time to check where the flapping kites yearned toward the heavens before he tore it away and gestured for Wu to speak.
Wu pitched his voice to remain between them. “I have heard tell of sorcerers who can imprison a dragon in an object. Could it be possible the sorcerers of General Zhou have done such a thing? Trapped dragons in the kites?”
“Doubtful, but…” Ushi chewed his lower lip a moment then looked up. “With sorcerers, anything is possible. If it is true, how will we protect ourselves? Flaming arrows to burn the kites? Would the arrows strike before the dragons transformed?” He studied Sergeant Wu. “How do you know of sorcerer matters?”
“I have an uncle with minor talent. Perhaps you have heard of him? Yi Min?”
Ushi shrugged. “I am not familiar with that sorcerer.”
“As I said, his talent is minor. I remember the stories he told of dragons and sorcerers.”
“What might Yi Min suggest we do about paper dragons?”
Wu smiled. “There are surely several kite makers in our own ranks. We have hemp line, paper, and bamboo. We could make our own small, fast kites. They would be more maneuverable. We could cut the strings of the dragon kites.”
“What good would that do?” Ushi asked. “We would set loose the dragons and destroy ourselves.”
“The dragons need a sorcerer to transform them,” Wu replied, leaning his squat body forward, so he appeared to be a turtle emerging from its shell. “The strings must tether to a sorcerer so a signal can be sent up the line. If we cut the strings, the sorcerer cannot change the dragon spirits from silk and paper to real.”
“There must be a hundred kites up there,” Ushi said with a frown as he glanced toward the sky. “They do not have a hundred dragons, or a hundred sorcerers.”
“Even a single sorcerer can create an illusion of plenty.”
“Or one sorcerer could hold several strings.” Colonel Ushi nodded to himself. “The enemy will not attack us directly; their numbers are too small. They must plan to use the dragons for cover while they flee.”
Wu inclined his head in agreement. “A wise thought, Colonel. But how are we to know which kites are dragons and which merely kites? Even if they have but one dragon we still have to find which kite contains it. They think to trick us with so many in the air.”
“We must cut all the strings then. It is the only way. Build some kites, quickly!”
Wu bowed. “As you order, Colonel.” He hurried away, short stature lost to view among the tall Xiao Chen soldiers.
Colonel Ushi looked up at the brightly painted kites and frowned as he tried to contemplate just how a dragon might come to be imprisoned in a jail of paper and string.
“Catch a fish while the water is disturbed” – Ancient Proverb
Sergeant Wu rushed up to Ushi, bowed, and announced, “We have assembled twelve kites. I found men trained in the art of kite fighting who will attempt to cut the enemy’s strings.”
“Twelve?” Ushi’s eyes rose to where the mass of kites fluttered in the morning breeze, dominated by several of the gigantic, multi-colored dragons. “It is not enough.”
“It will have to be. We have no more string. We should attack the largest first, they are bound to contain a dragon spirit,” Wu told him.
“What if the dragon breaks free before we sever the lines?”
“The dragons should be angry at those that imprisoned them. I would be. They will turn on their captors and attack. Then we will advance, strike the enemy, and be victorious.”
Ushi shot Wu a cold look. “You forget yourself, Sergeant. I am commander here. I decide when we attack.”
Wu bowed, hands pressed together and head low. “Forgive me, Colonel.”
“Bring the kite fighters forward. Tell them to get in the air quickly and attack the largest kites first. Position the rest of the troops for battle. Watch for sorcerers among Zhou’s soldiers, Sergeant Wu. Inform me should you spot one.”
“Yes, Colonel,” Wu replied.
Ushi stopped one of the soldiers carrying a kite. He examined the five crossed bamboo sticks supporting the rectangular frame, the covering of mulberry paper and the hemp bridle. A sharp-edged dust of broken pottery lined several feet of string near the kite. It was hasty and crude, but looked like it could do the job.
A shout sounded from the troops. Ushi looked to the sky in time to see one of the smaller kites across the battlefield writhing in flame. It burned out in seconds; charred silk and limp string spiraled their way to the ground. “Hurry!” Ushi ordered, “Get our kites in the air. They must be attempting to release the dragons.”
The foot soldiers pressed forward, closing the distance to the mouth of the gorge. Soldiers with the kites ran awkwardly to the front lines and on a shouted command, released. The little, paper fighters strained upward on the wind, eager to get airborne. Ushi could hear the whine of the string as it unreeled at a dizzying pace. The soldiers fell silent, all eyes turned heavenward as they watched the small, lithe kites rise and dart toward their lumbering cousins.
The first, fastest kite reached one of the hulking dragons. The man controlling it caused the mulberry paper kite to dip down, and then shoot up. Moving fast, the line of the mulberry kite caught the string of the dragon kite. Two more times the kite lines contacted, until with a snap the string of the dragon kite broke, and the segmented, silk cloth flopped sideways and dove for the earth.
A cheer went up from the men behind Colonel Ushi. He restrained the urge to shout himself; instead he called to the kite handlers. “Go after the biggest. Cut it or tip it, just get it on the ground!” The handlers set to work, alternately reeling in and loosing their kites as they attempted to do the most damage to the massive red, black and yellow kite. Another dragon kite erupted in flames and plummeted to the ground. All eyes were fixed on the battle in the sky. Men cheered or groaned as the little mulberry kites dispensed damage, or were taken down by the dragon kites. The wind fell, kites wheeled less aggressively. The line on a yellow dragon kite glowed. Light climbed the string like a carp swimming upstream.
“Archers up,” Ushi commanded. “Sergeant Wu, have them target that kite and set it on fire.” When no answer came to his order, Ushi gave it again. “Sergeant Wu?” Instead of an answer he heard shouts, screams, and the ring of swords. Colonel Ushi turned around and saw soldiers of General Zhou. Unheard amidst the noise of men cheering the sky battle, the enemy fought their way across the ranks of Ushi’s troops.
Leading them was Sergeant Wu, now wearing fitted black lacquer armor decorated with Zhou’s red dragon. In his hand he held not a sword, but the string to a mulberry kite.
With a quick glance Ushi saw his only option was to gather his remaining troops and make a stand. “Regroup! Go west. To the gorge!” Ushi’s remaining companies ran forward, units covering each other as they fought a retreat the short distance to the ravine. Ushi battled by their sides as Zhou’s men closed in from behind.
As the blood-slicked Dao blade spun from his hand, Colonel Ushi looked up to see Wu give the hemp kite line a yank. Flame ran from Wu’s fingers, up the string to the little kite, which shot higher into the sky to burst with a bang of exploded fireworks. A waterfall of light streamed down. For a moment there was silence over the battlefield. Ushi heard a deep ring of swords on metal, of a hard struck gong, the sound that comes from the throat of an angry dragon. Ushi turned toward the river. With sinuous grace the snake-like form of a blue shen-lung twisted from the gorge. Its gusting breath shot out a black storm cloud that enveloped the running Xiao Chen soldiers.
Before his head flew away from his body, Ushi watched the strings tethering the remaining kites release, and the brightly painted silk creations float upwards, towards the heavens.