CAST of main Characters in order of appearance:
Lord Spy, Chief Councillor to the Emperor…
The Twenty First Emperor of the Phoenix Dynasty..
Lord See, former Chief Councillor to the Emperor.
General Fang, Commander of the Imperial Army in the East.
Virtuous Gossamer, General Fang’s daughter.
Swimming Dragonfly, a village boy.
Sniffer, Dragonfly’s devoted friend.
Obedient Hummingbird, Aunt of Virtuous Gossamer, and General Fang’s Sister.
Venerable Bullfrog, Adviser to the Emperor and betrothed to Virtuous Gossamer.
Samark, Young Leader among the People of the Book.
Old Tea Leaf, a wise man.
Granite, a Junior Commander in the Imperial Army.
Master of the Cleansing Fire, a great teacher..
Isfara Dar Fara, Leader of the People of the Book.
The City of Golden Roofs is the beating heart of the Phoenix Empire and its huge, mud-brick ramparts glow red as the sun’s early rays strike inland from the coast. Clustered outside the great walls are the hovels of the poor. Inside are the single-storey homes of merchants, shop keepers and junior officials. At the centre, on a low hill, rises a Palace guarded by elite soldiers of the Imperial Guard and on its golden roofs are the burnished symbols of power: bronze statues of the Phoenix, the Eagle, the Ox and the Bear.
The Imperial Palace has various courtyards, each with a sacred purpose. On this particular morning the Courtyard of Eternal Despatch has been prepared and six wooden blocks stand on its carefully raked sand.
Dawn quiet is suddenly disturbed by brass gongs beating from within deep recesses around the courtyard. Six doors open and from each emerges a procession with a bound prisoner at its centre, feet bare, head shaven, eyes cast down, dressed in black rags. The prisoners are flanked by members of the Imperial Guard, resplendent in multi-coloured tunics, bearing highly-polished weapons of execution.
The prisoners are made to kneel, their shaven heads placed upon the wooden blocks, their necks pulled long. The beating of the gongs reaches a crescendo, the swords are raised high, and a single, deeper-noted gong signals the final cut. Six heads roll upon the sand and the reverberations decline to silence.
A thin, elderly man dressed in black silks is observing discreetly from an upper balcony. He is Lord Spy, newly appointed Chief Counsellor, Master of the Imperial Seals, Administrator of the One Hundred Departments. He enjoys watching death, the more so when the victims are traitors to the Empire, and particularly when they are personal enemies.
He leaves the balcony and hurries towards the Imperial Presence, guards falling back at his approach. The Emperor’s Secretary sees him coming and alerts his master.
“Lord Spy approaches,” he whispers reverently.
The Twenty First Emperor of the Phoenix Dynasty, Ruler of the Four Kingdoms, Interlocutor with the Council of the Ancestors, Possessor of Men’s Necks, is also called The Eternal Warrior but is known to lesser men in the outer palace, who see him occasionally, as the Small Pigeon because of his short legs and rounded chest. The general population call him the Avenging Sword because he is highly sensitive to any suggestion of disloyalty.
At this early hour the Emperor is alone except for the Tongueless Scribbler at his feet and the Imperial Secretary standing uneasily beside him, peering through thick eye glasses.
The Emperor sits high on a throne of yellow brocade. He is clothed in silk robes of the Imperial colours, yellow, red and turquoise. His white hair is hidden by a cap of rare furs, studded with jewels. Despite sixty years as Emperor, the Twenty First member of the Phoenix Dynasty looks alert and as ready for revenge as ever.
Lord Spy kneels before him to deliver his message.
“The six collaborators have been executed according to your wishes your Imperial Highness. They were not tortured and their deaths were sudden.” After a brief pause he risks adding: “You have been generous to them and to the exiled Lord See.”
“I am never generous,” contradicts the Emperor sharply. “Nor am I mean. Balance, Lord Spy. Balance is everything, never too much, never too little.”
Lord Spy presses his forehead onto the stone floor briefly to indicate gratitude for this gift of Imperial Wisdom and to show that he has accepted the advice and will hold to it closely.
“It is true that I have shown mercy to Lord See,” continues the Emperor. “He tried to serve me well and he is very popular. He loved the Empire as a romantic young man loves a virtuous woman. He gave his heart completely to its service. To have removed his head, as you so earnestly advised, would have created too many enemies. So his life has been spared and now he languishes among my loyal supporters in the Kingdom of the North.”
The smallest movement of the Imperial hand bids Lord Spy rise from his kneeling position. He stands to listen, head bowed.
“But his so-called Judicious Harmony has failed,” says the Emperor, becoming angry and striking his fist on the throne. “Tolerating the intolerable! The People of the Book are no longer content to stay among the Mountains of the Stars. They threaten the Imperial Dams. Already we have had to keep water in reserve, starving the Great Canals of life-giving irrigation. And at the other side of the Empire the Khan senses weakness and his horsemen press upon the Walls of Fierce Resistance.”
None of this is new to Lord Spy who has undermined his predecessor Lord See with the subtlety of a ghost and knows how serious is the situation.
“And the Jasmine Kingdom of the South. What do you know of King Long Beard’s intentions?” The Emperor speaks softly, deliberately, his eyes half-closed, his elbows hovering just above the padded arm-rests, his hands held in front of him meeting at the finger tips. He looks, as no doubt he intends to look, like a master strategist planning a critical move.
“Our sources in the south tell me that the kindling is dangerously dry but it lacks a match,” says Lord Spy. “King White Beard is as frightened as a new-born rabbit. He makes no decisions without the agreement of his wife. Since they can never agree on anything there are no decisions. The southerners groan and complain about their Imperial responsibilities but they won’t do much till the old King dies.”
“Lord Spy, you are a baker selling me yesterday’s dumplings with stories of how early you rose this morning to bake them.” The Emperor speaks softly, like a snake. “Have you not heard? King Long Beard no longer favours his wife and listens instead to this so-called Master of the Cleansing Fire. He spurns the wisdom and guidance of the Ancestors.
The Emperor rises angrily from his throne, shaking off the Imperial Secretary who scurries forward to assist. He seizes Lord Spy by the elbow, takes him to the viewing window at the end of the room and pushes open the screens. They look south across the golden roofs of the city, over the great ramparts, over bends in the Long River and the rice fields patterning into the distance towards clouds rising in the morning sky.
“A storm is coming. If we do not move quickly a tempest of violence will break upon the Empire that will sweep it into the sea. That is why Lord See is in exile and six weaklings lie dead in the courtyard. We cannot risk this so-called Judicious Harmony. We must strike all our enemies soon and we must strike hard if we are not to be shattered.” He takes a beautiful ceramic vase from a shelf and deliberately lets it drop onto the floor with an explosion of sound and fragments dancing across the tiles.
“Mobilise General Fang to crush the Khan’s horsemen before they dare to breach the wall. Defend the Imperial Dams and drive the People of the Book back into their mountain caves. Declare the Master of the Cleansing Fire to be an Enemy of the Empire to be hunted like a wild baboon. Prepare. You must be my eyes and ears. You must be as a snake in the grass and a vulture on the wing, always watching, always looking for signs of weakness and places that we can strike with minimum loss and maximum effect. That is why you are Lord Spy, my new Chief Counsellor. Fail and I may not treat you as leniently as I have treated Lord See, eating himself stupid in exile.”
The Imperial eyes turn to pierce Lord Spy who straightens his back and hardens his expression, even as his insides dissolve to the consistency of rice porridge.
The sunlight that is burnishing the golden roofs of the Imperial Capital is also bringing morning warmth to Goatwash, a provincial town of the Northern Kingdom close to its border with the Imperial Centre. On top of a hill, just outside the town walls, is a large, mud-brick, fortified villa surrounded by trees. Inside, in the semi-darkness of early day, is a buffulo-sized man with black hair falling to his shoulders, eyebrows like two giant caterpillars, a broad chest and a proud stomach. He has a loud voice, seldom at rest, and a laugh which echoes through his throat as if in a mighty brass pot. He is eating.
His wife is busy upon duties she has faithfully carried out three times a day for over thirty years, supervising the preparation and the serving of yet another substantial meal for her beloved husband, Lord See. She is his opposite, thin where he is fat, quiet where he makes constant noise. But they laugh together.
His enjoyment of her labours is evident, and chopsticks fly back and forwards like a shuttle in a weaving loom. Freshly boiled noodles are being sucked into the voracious mouth, thrashing and flashing in the suction like snakes being swept down a storm drain. So vigorous is the sucking and so long are the succulent noodles that one slaps him in the eye on the way into his lips.
“These noodles are alive,” he cries, wiping his face. “Did you not strike them on the head first Wife?”
“I will strike you on the head.” She gently taps him with her fan while a young servant girl hurries from the kitchen and lays a dish of steamed vegetables garnished with black mushrooms and oyster sauce on the table.
“What a feast! You and my food are the only enjoyments left. I will soon roll down the hill like a huge ball of fat and you will have to roll me back up to my bed,” cries Lord See, helping himself to the mushrooms. “It’s so quiet here I can hear myself chew.”
“You talk so much I am surprised you have time to listen,” says his wife.
“Well I do listen. I love to hear the dawn chorus of bird song. ” He stops talking and rises to throw open the shutters for a better view of the trees immediately below and the birds among the foliage. The morning’s first sunlight sends long, bright fingers across a gentle landscape of small fields, and patches of scrub woodland. Still hidden in gloom is a thin river winding between low hills and through the little town below.
“I think your peace is about to be interrupted.” says his wife.
Along the road towards them is a horse being ridden by someone urging it up the steady incline. Lord See abandons his breakfast and seats himself in the reception room, belching loudly, in time to receive the breathless horseman who enters. Heavy wooden shutters are being opened by two servants shedding enough light that Lord See immediately recognises this new arrival as an Assistant to the Emperor’s first born son, Prince Watchful Eagle – a name seldom used by those outside the Imperial Palace, who refer to him as Prince Rabbit.
The Prince’s Assistant bows low. “Greetings my Lord. I have been asked to tell you that the hunting of birds is particularly successful today on the low hill by the marshes across the bridge.”
“That is within the Imperial Centre. I am banished and risk my life crossing the river. Horses are also forbidden to me,” replies Lord See.
“You may borrow my riding robe, my horse and my bow. If you put on a large hat to shield yourself from the sun, you will pass unrecognised.”
“By Everything that’s Sacred! I am as big as a small house. It’s a very stupid man who cannot recognise me squeezed on to your horse.”
“My Master is owed a particular favour by the Commander of the Royal Troops. The guards will ask no questions of a large man on a small horse.”
“Very well,” says Lord See, rising quickly with a grunt. He strides into the courtyard, gathers a robe about him, pushes a large hat firmly onto his head, mounts the horse and clings tightly to the saddle. The Assistant’s small, tired horse groans beneath its new burden and staggers reluctantly down the hill, skirting the town and across the bridge. The Assistant walks hurriedly behind. Two soldiers in turquoise and brown uniforms of the Royal North stand like stone at the bridge, their eyes fixed before them.
The sun has risen higher by the time the ill-matched horse and rider reach the woods. From a group of pine trees comes the cry of a man pretending to be a bird. Lord See smiles to himself at the signal, dismounts, removes his hat and enters the woodland, coming soon upon a group of eight men, their horses tied to nearby trees, Prince Watchful Eagle at their centre.
“Your Highness,” cries Lord See, as if surprised and bowing to the ground. “I was hunting and somehow have become lost. I have wandered across the river without realising. I must honour your Father’s Imperial Command and return immediately.”
“You must,” says the hesitant voice of the thin young man in rich robes. “I am shocked and displeased to see you here,” he continues without betraying a hint of either emotion. “But since you are, let me ask you quickly before you go…are you well?”
“I am perfectly well Your Highness. I am enjoying the peace of the countryside after so many years of public service in our great capital city. Here in the provinces I have time to read classical literature, to reflect upon the state of things, and to observe the movement of the stars.”
The Prince stamps his foot and twists his hands in anxious displeasure. “We need you Lord See. It is screeching madness to have you here contemplating the stars while the Empire trembles itself into collapse. For twenty years you have been the pillar at the centre. Your care reaches to every corner of the Empire. Without you my Imperial Father’s passions are like an angry bull. First we charge this way, then that. The Kings are becoming very impatient with the Empire.”
“What of the new Chief Counsellor?” asks Lord See. “Surely my successor can advise caution.”
“Of course not. As you know perfectly well!” squeaks the Prince. “Lord Spy has never lifted a sword in his life but he is delighted to encourage the Emperor to make war on the People of the Book and the Khan’s Horsemen. And yet his Treasurer, the Venerable Bullfrog doos not give the Imperial Armies the money they need to prepare. My father urges the generals to mobilise but his Chief Counsellor and Treasurer keep them weak.”
The Prince twists his hands in a frenzy and continues, his voice at an even higher pitch. “General Fang is so concerned that he is marrying off his only daughter to this miserable Venerable Bullfrog in the hope of getting more money from the Treasury.”
“That is a terrible thing to happen to a young girl,” whispers Lord See. Then he raises his head suddenly to ask, “ Prince Watchful Eagle, what does your father think about this Master of the Cleansing Fire?”
”The mention of the Cleansing Fire is like a bee sting and causes him to roar. My father believes rejection of the Ancestors to be a most evil betrayal of the Empire. He issues orders to King White Beard but nothing happens. The Cleansing Fire spreads across the Kingdom of the South. What to do?” asks the Prince.
Lord See bows before saying, “You honour me by seeking my advice. I offer this in humility. The Master of the Cleansing Fire has followers but no army. His people do not threaten the Empire yet, although hey may do in the future. The People of the Book are decent, but fearful of the Empire. Reassurance and reasonable compromise offer a path to peace. The Great Khan is different and should be called the Mad Khan. Attack and defence are the only arguments he understands. We defeated him twenty years ago and he has been soothing his wounds ever since. Now he feels strong again. It is time to enlarge the Imperial Army in the East. General Fang is right. He needs more money from the Imperial Treasury.”
Lord See pauses to make sure that the Prince is listening carefully. “My advice therefore, Prince Watchful Eagle, is to reach accommodation with the People of the Book, to watch closely the Master of the Cleansing Fire and to focus immediate action on the Great Khan and his Horsemen.”
“Yes,” smiles the Prince almost laughing. “That expresses it clearly. So clearly. I must convey this to my father.”
“Remind the Emperor,” continues Lord See, “that confronting the Khan requires a strengthened Imperial Army in the East and that this would send a strong signal to others plotting harm against the Empire – the Master of the Cleansing Fire may become less ambitious and the People of the Book will withdraw further into the mountains, at no further cost to the Empire. Implore your father to talk directly with his Generals.” Then, seeing a look of new purpose dawning on the Prince’s face he senses the interview to be over and bows low once again.
“I am sorry we could not meet,” says the Prince. “We saw you across the marshes and, knowing you had lost your way, waved a warning not to cross the bridge.”
“I was not even sure it was you, but I was grateful for the guidance,” says Lord See, playing along with the Prince’s caution.
“I may return to these parts. The hunting is good; in which case we might pass close by again.”
One of the Prince’s companions passes him a small woven basket, whispering a reminder.
“Oh yes,” he cries with a smile, “I happen to have some roast pork buns freshly prepared by the Palace cooks. Your favourites, I know. Please enjoy them.”
Lord See accepts the gift courteously with two out-stretched hands and lowered head. “Prince Watchful Eagle is most generous. I will savour each one.”
Lord See rides homeward in thought, the Prince’s Assistant walking behind to retrieve his horse. The villa is shut and silent as they approach; the servants remain within its red walls, as instructed. Only four guard dogs bark a welcome in the courtyard. After the Assistant has left Lord See feeds each dog a roast pork bun. He mounts the stairs to the upper floor where his anxious wife awaits, fanning herself in readiness for the rising heat of the day. Lord See chuckles to reassure her.
“I have just had a meeting that didn’t exist with Prince Rabbit, who is as nervous as ever. He was surrounded by his entourage. No doubt he thinks the meeting will be kept a dark secret. But his Imperial Father will soon learn of it.” He walks to the window overlooking the courtyard and adds, “So too will Lord Spy. At least one member of that group wishes me dead. Look!”
Madam See hurries to the window. On the polished stones of the yard below lie the four dogs, guarding no longer, their spirits departed.
To the east lies the Great Sea where a grey fog swirls along the coast. Emerging through the gloom, high on cliffs, is the outline of a Military Citadel. Above its walls Imperial banners hang limp like damp ghosts. On the flat roof is a large brass gong and, beside it, a Gongsman, his bare chest and thick arms twitching in readiness for a signal to wake the soldiers asleep in the stone rooms below. The smell of boiled rice for breakfast hangs in the courtyard.
Outside the Citadel’s Great Gates is a red tent containing the garrison’s ever-vigilant commander. A loud fart from within, some rustling noises and a high-pitched belch alert the ageing military Secretary waiting dreamily outside that the day has begun for the General of the Eastern Imperial Army. The Secretary signals to the Guards and they withdraw to a greater distance.
General Fang emerges suddenly. He is a small man, naked except for a white cloth around his loins and a pair of large leather sandals. He takes a fierce breath and stretches upwards like a stick insect reaching for its prey. His Secretary says nothing, averts his gaze and then follows as his master strides towards a stone water trough nearby. Washing vigorously, the General issues instructions which the Secretary strains to hear above the splashing.
“The guests will arrive soon. Ensure that the feast arrangements are in such order that we could entertain the Ancestors were they to return to this world. The announcement of my daughter’s betrothal must be a great and memorable occasion. I want that ugly old bullfrog to understand that he’s about to marry the most beautiful girl in the Empire. And I want him to hear her sing.”
The General finishes washing and moves to the next stage of the morning ritual, vigorous drying with rough cotton cloths. “He thinks because the Emperor listens to him he can threaten to call the engagement off”. He bursts into a fit of coughing, clears his throat with a gurgling retch and spits onto the grass. “When he hears her sing his heart will melt into the mould of love.” Then he adds after a moment’s reflection and some more muscular rubbing, “Virtuous Gossamer, a beautiful name for a most beautiful girl, you must agree?”
It is hardly a question, but the Secretary takes the precaution of breaking his silence for the first time that morning to say, “Most certainly.”
The General is now dry and he strides back to his tent, pink and refreshed. The Secretary follows obediently. “Most certainly,” he repeats lest his profound disagreement be detected. How could a girl be called Virtuous when she so obviously enjoys making every man in the Citadel fall in love with her? And as for Gossamer, the Secretary grunts to himself, the fine filament of an early morning spider’s web sparkling with dew is not her kind of beauty. The General has raised his only daughter to handle a sword like a feather, shoot arrows at full gallop, swim cold lakes, run up mountains and recite ancient poems from the summit. As quick as a monkey, as tough as a tigress, as mysterious as the moon and as beautiful as sunny dawn on a high mountain: what name could capture the glory of such a girl wonders the Secretary. Certainly not Virtuous Gossamer.
The General is back in his tent, dressing himself and shouting to the Secretary through the felt, “And tell her Aunt that she must ensure my daughter is thoroughly prepared and perfectly dressed. She thinks my daughter is too young to marry. Donkey dung! There comes a time when a girl must obey the wishes of her Ancestors. Marriage to a top civil servant is a great honour. And we need her to convince this so-called Venerable Bullfrog that the Eastern Imperial Army needs more money if it is to defeat the Great Khan.”
After a great deal of heavy breathing, grunting and a final cough the General emerges like a proud peacock, resplendent in the red silks and golden sashes of a top commander in the Imperial Army. The Secretary begins to tie to his master’s side a silver sword while the General continues, “Duty to the Ancestors! The careful observation of ancient traditions! These are the stones with which our Great Empire has been built. I love my daughter as I love my right arm; but she must do what is required.”
He places a tough, scrawny hand on the sword now secured at his side and adds quietly, “I have no choice. The security of the Eastern Kingdom depends on it, perhaps the Empire itself. The Emperor wants me to challenge the insolence of the Great Khan immediately. But we are not ready. A snake doesn’t strike until it has coiled itself and steadied its head. That old bullfrog must convince the Emperor to give us more time. Now go. Prepare!”
The Secretary bows submission and departs, sad for the father whose sense of duty commands great sacrifice and regretting with every beat of his heart that he must now finalise preparations to place a most beautiful young songbird in a cruelly small cage. Once tomorrow’s Betrothal Feast is over, she will be carried in triumph to the City of Golden Roofs, far from her beloved sea and married to a man twice her age with a huge mouth and greasy hair.
The cliffs beside General Fang’s Citadel look a bit like a sleeping lion. The Citadel itself is the head, steep crags create a shaggy mane. Smooth sandstone shapes a muscular back and haunches that slope towards a beach. The lion’s tail is formed by a harbour wall that curls into the sea, a wall whose stones have been added to by a hundred generations of fishermen to shelter their boats.
The village of Humble Haven lies just inland among dunes and low hills, homes of stone and wood with roofs of grass and tiles. There is a larger building with red tiles for Village Administration and another still larger called the Grand Hall of the Magistracy where judgements are delivered against those who break the law. On a slight hill in their midst stands the grandest building of them all, the Village Temple with a golden-tiled roof and ornate decorations, glinting in the morning sun.
In a small cottage with a blue bamboo door, two boys wake to a very important day for one of them. The other is crouched over a fire stirring rice in a pot and grilling two small fish. He is thin with limp black hair, his simple tunic carefully patched. He sniffs and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Once called Sniffer, always called Sniffer”.
“The name suits you,” grins the other boy standing in the gloom, naked but for the white cloth he is carefully tying about his waist. “At least you don’t have to have a Naming Day, doing stupid challenges just to be named Frog’s Bottom or Goat’s Breath. Doesn’t seem something to want.”
“It’ll win you respect I’ll never have,” says Sniffer who arrived in the village as a small, hungry, homeless orphan with a runny nose and has made himself useful ever since. “Your Grandma has worked hard to convince the Elders to give you a big, important name. She says you must eat well because the tests will be harder than you imagine.” He turns over the fish grilling above the embers. “She’s on the beach already chatting to the Elders. We must eat quickly”. He spoons rice into two bowls and puts a small, grilled fish on top of each.
They eat hungrily and are soon outside juggling stones in the early morning sun to keep their minds focused and their bodies from feeling worried. “Please don’t do anything crazy,” says Sniffer. “Just do what they ask you”.
“She’ll be watching,” laughs his friend.
“Who?’ says Sniffer. “The General’s daughter? She’s never spoken to you. She watches your antics from a distance like you watch the dolphins jumping waves. It means nothing. Just concentrate.”
At last the Village Messenger they have been waiting for walks purposefully up the sandy path from the beach. He is a tall, serious man called Elegant Willow, a fisherman and a good musician but today dressed as an Imperial Village Elder in a black, silk, full-length tunic fringed with red. He seems not to know the boys and addresses no-one in particular when he says in a loud voice, “The sun has risen on your Naming Day. The Elders await.”
He turns and strides back towards the beach. The boys follow, mimicking his big strides. Sniffer drops behind as they make their way through a group of chattering villagers and approach the Meeting Tree. It stands like a mountain of dark green leaves between the sand dunes and the beach. Around it are bright, colourful banners fluttering in the breeze.
“I’m here, Grandma,” cries the boy, bursting out of the sand dunes onto the beach and running towards an old lady, her back bent like the prow of an upturned fishing boat, as she leans heavily on a gnarled stick. He is as brown as a polished nut and as thin and supple as a young tree. The new white cloth around his middle leaves his arms and legs bare.
“You’re late,” she says, hitting him gently on the leg with her stick.
“I’m not frightened of you, Grandma,” he laughs. “Not now that I’m taller than you.”
“You were never frightened of anything. Your mother and I had to do all the worrying for you,” she grumbles. “Ever since you were born you’ve been like a firework. Today you must concentrate. Prove yourself special and they may name you Soaring Seabird like your Grandfather. Now go.”
She follows her grandson into the deep shade of the Meeting Tree. Beneath the wide-stretched branches stand Village Elders dressed in silk robes of power and self-importance. The Chief Elder is the grandest of all with his high black hat, his aquamarine gown, white sashes and long fingernails. Grandma bows lower than her grandson has ever seen. The Chief Elder coughs, making the small yellow decorations hanging on his black hat shake. He clears his throat noisily and speaks in a grand voice.
“You know the tests we have set in manliness and village history. You will be timed on the first by the sand clock. Now go.”
As the boy begins to run down the beach a glass timer is upturned. He can feel the villagers watching him as he charges into the water. They are expecting him to wade all the way, breast high, fighting the foam towards the Sentry Rocks out to sea where the waves start to break.
Diving forward as he has practised in secret so often, he lunges into the waves, passing from the world of splash and sparkle to one of blue-green and muffled sounds. Few villagers can swim, none of them underwater, and they will think he is drowning. This is a mysterious world reserved for fish, sharks and monsters but he has made it his world. Chest and knees almost scraping the sandy bottom, he pushes strongly through the water. The currents are less down here and he surges forward but at last he has to burst up for air. His grandmother will be pleased he is still alive. The rocks are much closer now. Back under water small fish dart away. He has measured this journey in the dark and in secret. Four more breaths and he will be there.
When he reaches the rocks he clambers out looking for the hiding place. The long, thin raft is where he put it last night and he quickly carries it above his head to the sea as he has practiced so often with Sniffer on remote beaches.
He knows the type of wave to look for, bigger than the others, already breaking as it moves around the rocks and heads towards the beach. Seeing the perfect horse mane of foam and with a thrust that tips the point of the raft forward he jumps aboard, forcing the tip slightly down into the leading edge of the wave, catching its thrust; lies along its length, foam creaming around the sides; kneels, arms out-stretched to balance, and then stands, legs apart, racing towards the shore.
In a single glance he can see the villagers crowding around the tree, the flags fluttering, the huts huddled among the sand dunes. On the cliffs beyond the harbour, a white horse and the girl. She is tiny in the distance but he knows she is standing on the horse’s back.
The raft scrunches onto the beach and he leaps and runs, laughing at the surprise he knows he must have created. He has been faster than any could imagine. Dripping and gasping for breath he bows before the Chief Elder.
“I present myself for the Village History Examination”.
General Fang’s arrangements for the Betrothal Feast of his daughter, are in place. The guests have been arriving at the Citadel all morning, on foot, on horse, and a few in curtained palanquins carried by bearers in bright uniforms. The Great Hall is filled with a hundred circular tables each occupied by twenty eager faces, most talking at once. There are Army Officers and Village Elders, Magistrates and Merchants. High above the roof beams reverberate with the noise of their chatter and the sharp light of a spring afternoon cuts in through open windows, sparkling on ladies’ ornaments, shimmering on silks, and shining on silver platters. In recesses along the walls are brightly coloured lanterns shaped like yellow butterflies, golden carp, peony flowers, dragonflies, and multi-coloured peacocks.
The guests are supposed to be elegant but they eat like locusts. Dishes heaped with steaming food, bowls sloshing with soup, and skewers of roast meat are hurried to the tables while empty plates are clattered out of sight. Exotic foods appear and disappear: steamed fresh-water crab, minced meat of young deer, lotus seed dumplings, sweet lavender rice. Men gnaw on roast pigs’ trotters and drink warm rice wine. Ladies eat fragrant vegetables and sip green tea made from delicate leaves grown at high altitude.
On a raised platform is the Head Table at which General Fang presides. He looks small, thin and fierce. He has surrounded himself with men of substance. Beside him sits his future son-in-law, Venerable Bullfrog whose black hair is greased tightly onto his big round head. His lips are thin and his mouth is wide.
General Fang is silent and glowers until a junior official approaches, bows and talks softly in his ear. His daughter has returned it seems and is preparing to sing, obedient to her father’s wishes. The General grunts and nods approval.
In an anti-chamber divided from the Great Hall by thick curtains, Virtuous Gossamer is undressing quickly out of her riding clothes. Her Aunt, Dutiful Hummingbird is behaving more like a flustered chicken.
“I thought you’d never return. I was about to jump into the sea from a high cliff. Seriously. Don’t smile. Your father holds me responsible. Quick rub yourself with this cloth. You’re so damp.”
“I saw him Aunt. He rode the waves like a dolphin. It was beyond everything wonderful.” Her face shines and smiles. She is breathless.
“Forget about village boys. You are about to be a married lady of distinction. Now quickly, turn around so I can fasten your dress.” Aunt lifts a shimmering garment of deep red velvet, helps Virtuous Gossamer pull on the sleeves and girdles it about her slim body.
“It’s like a battle suit.”
“Marriage can be a bit of a battle,” sighs Aunt pulling the ties at the back of the dress as tight as possible. “You have to be ready”.
There is a sudden roar from the Great Hall and the two ladies hurry to peep through the curtains. Virtuous Gossamer sees her future husband for only the second time in her life and gasps.
“No wonder they call him the Not-so-Venerable Bullfrog when he’s not listening,” she whispers fiercely. “How could my father do this to me?” she continues above her Aunt’s attempts to soothe her. “How could he give me a boy’s education, allow me to read the classics, study the art of war, learn swordplay and archery, then marry me off for power? And I am expected to sing a song of love and faithfulness in front of all these hypocrites. I’m eighteen summers. I’m not ready for marriage.”
“It’s an honour to be married,” says her Aunt, nervously stroking the long dark hair, trying to calm a temper she has learnt to fear. “I was married off to your uncle when I was seventeen summers. It wasn’t so bad once I got used to his huge stomach and prickly chin.”
“But Aunt, at least you were brought up to it. They didn’t try to educate you.”
“I may be uneducated but I have feelings.”
“I know you do Aunt. You are a very clever, caring, darling Aunt. I’m sorry to sound ungrateful. But my heart is going to burst,” she moves towards a window with distant views. “My spirit wants to fly high into the hills. It wants to ride a boat down rushing torrents of the Long River, out into the Great Sea. Do you understand Aunt? I want to study at the feet of the Master and learn about his Cleansing Fire. I want to sleep in the Mountains of the Stars and learn from the People of the Book. I want to see the world, meet strange people and fall in love with a god.”
“A senior Imperial Civil Servant is almost a god.”
“Don’t joke about it Aunt,” explodes Virtuous Gossamer. “Why should I obey my father? Why should I have to worry about duty to the Ancestors so much? What have the Ancestors ever done for me? My mother dies before I can remember her.”
“Hush. Don’t upset yourself. You must be ready to perform”.
“I can’t sing in front of that bullfrog. He looks at me like an insect he’s about to eat.”
“You must. You must be strong,” whispers Aunt urgently. “You must be true to your destiny”
Dragonfly stands dripping wet, his chest heaving for breath but he is smiling as he stands dutifully before the solemn Village Elders.
“I present myself for the Village History Examination”.
The Chief Elder strokes his beard. Perhaps he is trying to look wise but one of his long fingernails gets caught for a moment in the grey curly hairs.
“Who was your father’s mother’s father?” says the old man.
“Sand Owl. He became Sand Owl the Wise, a Village Elder but never the Chief,” says the boy quickly, still gasping for breath.
“And who was your father’s mother’s mother?”
“Elegant Crane, but known in old age as the Croaking Snail. She lived through ninety cold seasons.” Still panting but his mind is working fast.
“And your father’s mother’s mother’s father?”
“We do not speak of him because of his crimes. He was sent into exile and was lucky not to have his tongue removed.”
“Not just his tongue,” adds one of the Elders softly.
“Tell me about your father’s father?”
He had hoped this question would not be asked and from the snort just behind him he can sense Grandma getting angry.
“He was called Soaring Seabird. Cleverest in the village he passed all the Imperial exams and served many years in the City of Golden Roofs. He became Trusted Clerk to Lord See. Some say he should have used his position of influence to benefit our village. He put loyalty to the Empire first”.
The Chief Elder grunts. Perhaps he has eaten his early meal too greedily.
“Which is the oldest building in our village?”
“Some say it is the Village Temple. But in fact the deep well outside the Temple was built before the altar and the walls.”
“Enough,” says the Chief Elder suddenly and loudly. “You have too many of your own ideas. Everyone knows that the Village Temple is our oldest building. It is the sacred foundation of our village. Our water well!” he coughs angrily. “A well is not a building”
“But the well is beautifully lined with bricks and carefully carved rocks.”
“Silence! You try to be too clever. Where other young men run through the waves, you think it will impress us to swim like a fish and hover above the waves like a dragonfly on a pond. Very well.” The Chief Elder pulls himself even straighter, obviously readying for a grand pronouncement. The chattering villagers fall silent. Only the cry of a single bird and the waves breaking on the beach shoreline disturb a moment of silence.
“You are to be called…………….. Swimming Dragonfly.”
Everything happens at once. The Village Elders clap gently, trying to look wise in their agreement at such a sensible name, Grandma screams and throws herself on the sand, and some of the villagers burst into laughter.
“Not a dragonfly,” pleads Grandma from the ground. “It’s so small. A dragon, yes! But not a dragonfly”.
“Not such a bad name” thinks Dragonfly. “I have a proper name at last”. He has always loved the rich, magical colours of dragonflies flitting with magical speed and hovering above the water. But Grandma seems so angry, so humiliated and some of the villagers are laughing, calling his name so disrespectfully. He wonders what his father, Old Turtle would think of such a name.
“Not bad my son, not bad. Make the best of it.” And then he would return to mending his nets. He was always mending his nets. Even on the deck of his fishing boat as he sailed away for the last time he had a net over his knee and was threading twine.
The Chief Elder is talking again. “And now you will make peace with the Ancestors. A day and a night alone in the Village Temple will accomplish this. Come”
The Village Messenger, Elegant Willow raises a banner high and leads the way up the beach through the village and towards the Temple. The crowd parts to let the procession through. Beautiful silk robes of the Elders contrast with the dark simple jackets and baggy black pants of the fishermen and the wide black hats of the women who will soon go to work in the vegetable patches and rice fields behind the village.
Dragonfly tries to look relaxed as he walks behind the Chief Elder through the crowd of familiar faces. Some murmur support, some are laughing, perhaps happy to see his family humiliated, others just stare. Sniffer is running among them, appearing at various vantage points to give encouragement.
“Dragonfly is great,” calls Sniffer jumping up among the crowding villagers to be seen by his friend. “Long live Swimming Dragonfly.” He waves a small cloth.
At the rear of the procession comes the Harmonious Music Band making a terrifying noise with gongs, horns and pipes, a challenge to any evil spirit lurking nearby.
The Village Temple stands aloof, normally guarded by the old Temple Keeper and his dogs. There is no sign of them and the building looks grander than ever, its huge roof of golden tiles carried by ornately carved pillars along the sides and at each corner by a bronze dragon. Before the two great, red, wooden doors is a large brass pot of freshly lit incense sticks filling the air with pungent smells and dense smoke.
The villagers drop back as the Elders file each side of the Chief to stand in a row on the Temple’s lowest step. Dragonfly is required to stand a step higher and they all face upwards towards the entrance. The band stops playing and in the sudden silence the Chief Elder addresses the Village Temple and the Ancestral Spirits within.
“We bring you Swimming Dragonfly, newest of our number. He has come to meet our Ancestors and pay his respects.” The Chief speaks quietly now, even kindly. “Swimming Dragonfly. Your time for manhood has come. Go into the Temple. Kneel before the Village Gods. Tell them all that is in your heart. Seek their help throughout your life. You will see statues of your ancestors along the walls. Do not disturb them. You will eat nothing and drink nothing. In the darkness you will hear many things. Keep a steady spirit and remain silent. When the sun rises we will be here to greet you back.”
Slowly, solemnly Swimming Dragonfly ascends they stairs towards the dark mouth of the Temple, the incense smoke swirling about him. He can feel the Elders watching silently behind him. And then a small anxious voice cries, “Good luck my Dragon.”
“Dragonfly, not dragon,” says another voice. Some villagers laugh. “Silence!” growls the Chief.
Dragonfly can imagine his grandmother’s feelings of anger and shame but he keeps looking forward, hovering outside the great dark entrance. He can feel a flush of anger on his cheeks, hear the pounding of his heart and sense the sting of tears in his eyes. He steps over the giant wooden entrance.
Oil lamps flicker. Incense sticks smoulder red and smokey. As he gets used to the gloom he sees the looming shapes of statues, each one a god. He has never been allowed here before but Grandma has told him every detail. By the door hangs the great Temple Gong. Towering in the nearest corner is the fierce, black grimace, bulging eyes and raised weapons of the God of War and Justice, over there are the softer lines of the Goddess of Love and Motherhood, and that squat, ugly-looking statue must be the God of Village Administration. There are others: the Guard of the Temple, the God of Royal Obedience, the Spirit Guardian of the After Life.
He moves cautiously through the smoke, surprised by the height of the blackened pillars pointing up towards hints of daylight among distant roof tiles. The Temple seems at least twice as big inside as it looks from the outside. Here is the wall of the recently deceased, little alcoves each bearing a name and a small statue. He looks for his Grandfather, Soaring Seabird. Grandmother told him exactly where to look. The name is clear, but there is no statue in the alcove. All the other alcoves have statues in them. Why do they dislike the memory of his grandfather so much and why do they keep trying to humiliate Grandma ?
“I will not be silent,” growls Dragonfly. He walks purposefully to the mighty Gong by the door, climbs on to the ringing platform, draws back the suspended wooden Log of Calling and drives it forward with all his strength into the centre of the huge brass disc.
The Gong roars like a dragon. The Log of Calling swings back striking Dragonfly in the face. He falls backward on to the stone floor. Waves of dazzling darkness close about him.
Gongs suddenly crash in the crowded Great Hall. The roar of laughter and conversation dies. Virtuous Gossamer and her Aunt peep through the curtains from their hiding place. Every eye looks upon the stiff, slight General who steps to the front of the Main Platform, chest puffed out, features hard, eyes fixed ahead.
“Praise to the Ancestors of the Great Empire,” he barks. “Praise to the Twenty Third Emperor of the Phoenix Dynasty. Praise to Lion Heart, King of the East.” He keeps other preliminary remarks brief and moves to his goal. “This occasion marks a very significant betrothal between two special people. Venerable Bullfrog, of Imperial lineage, is appointed by the Emperor to be his Treasurer. And he has chosen as his Wife the most beautiful young lady in the Eastern Kingdom, Virtuous Gossamer, only surviving child of this humble Imperial General.” He bows to make sure that they all understand he is referring to himself.
The guests murmur approval. Virtuous Gossamer resists the screaming temptation to flee. But Aunt is right. She must be true to her destiny.
“Let her sing,” they cry, perhaps thinking this is the best way to stop the General from preaching about duty and destiny as he has done so often in the past. He consents with a grand gesture towards the curtains at the back of the hall.
Virtuous Gossamer makes herself as tall and straight as possible facing into where the curtain will part. Her mouth feels as dry as a lizard’s back. Aunt adjusts the headdress of pearls before pulling back the curtains. The guests gasp and then applaud softly as the young girl walks slowly past the tables in her tight fitting red silk dress towards the Main Platform. She can hear comments of approval and jealousy.
A small orchestra of piped and stringed instruments has assembled below the platform. She stands beside the players watching her father. He nods, she walks up steps onto the platform, bows to the High Table and faces the room. The guests’ upturned faces are like stones on a beach, waiting for the waves.
The orchestra begins a tune she has practiced with them a hundred times. She feels their music clustering about her, familiar, reassuring and then she begins:
“Come to me on tuneful sounds,
Carry me on dreams of song,
Take me from fear and sorrow,
Bring me to mountains soaring.
Air is pure and eagles live.”
She senses the audience, wrapt, attentive, enchanted. Her words take them on a journey through forests of black pine, across lakes like polished marble, over mountains whose peaks are among the stars. She raises her arms high in a gesture of supplication as the song draws to a close:
“Love release us.
Unlock the doors.
Let freedom sing”.
At the word “unlock”, among the many faces, she finds herself looking by chance directly at the Keeper of the Lock, the man whose job it is to keep the Citadel Gates firmly shut and bolted at night. She sees a look of fear on his face as if he senses that he is being asked to do something that will betray a sacred trust and may cost him his life.
She had not dared to ask such a favour. But a surge of new possibility rushes through her. She turns her face up, stretches towards star-shaped lanterns above and sends her voice to the rafters.
“Our love is freedom.
Together we fly.”
Cries of approval burst like a storm cloud. Virtuous Gossamer bows in gratitude to the orchestra and courteously to the guests. She can feel her face flushed, her body suffused with energy. She bows low once more to the Head Table. Her father is busy drinking a toast with Venerable Bullfrog. Let them drink she thinks triumphantly to herself.
The sky outside is turning pink in the late afternoon light. The guests will soon be drowsy from feasting. When sour heads in the morning are asking difficult questions she will surely be in the mountain passes, running. Running like a hunted animal perhaps, but feeling wild and free.
Swimming Dragonfly wakes with his head in flames and someone putting a cool cloth on his forehead. He opens his eyes slowly to see the familiar wooden beams of the hut’s roof and his family crouched around, younger brother Oyster Catcher, sister Little Orchid and Grandma. And Sniffer, of course.
Grandma explains that he has been accused of desecrating the Village Temple and that a travelling Magistrate will hear the case this very morning. She speaks softly at first but Dragonfly can sense her concern and displeasure.
“What mad spirit made you swing the Log of Calling at the Gong? How often have I told you how sacred that is? Why must you always do exactly what you are told not to do?” She asks more questions but Dragonfly knows she does not expect an answer to any of them.
At last Grandma’s temper cools and she says, “You must recover your strength quickly. You will soon be called to appear before him.”
“But my head is going to burst,” replies Dragonfly, carefully touching the damp cloth on his forehead.
“You’re lucky you still have a head,“ Sniffer murmurs. “That swinging log could have knocked it over the Citadel“.
Dragonfly rises slowly, groaning and giddy. Grandma slips a white tunic over his head and gives him a bowl of chicken broth which he slurps like a hungry puppy.
“What’s the punishment for desecrating a Village Temple?” he asks and for a while the only response comes from twigs crackling nervously beneath the rice pot. Oyster and Little Orchid avoid his glance, staring at the fire as if searching for an answer among the flames. Finally, Grandma says, “We don’t know. It’s a matter for the Ancestors.”
“So bad you can’t tell me. Come on Sniffer help me to the Grand Hall of the Magistracy and let me look down the Dark Throat of Justice,” smiles Dragonfly, trying to sound brave but annoyed that his voice betrays fear.
Outside a cool wind is blowing and the sky is the colour of a donkey. Grandma leads the way to he second largest building in the Village. Dragonfly leans on Sniffer. Oyster Catcher and Little Orchid follow. Ahead villagers chatter around the Magistracy doors. Uncle is there and smiles a worried welcome. He is a small, round man with short black hair and a red face that is usually creased with smiles. Dragonfly treats him like a father and bows in respect. But Uncle hugs him as if he were a small boy once more.
“The Village Council have been in there for so long I’ve had to piss twice while waiting,” he says, sounding determined to be his usual self. “They’re bound to call for you soon. I’ll try to come in as well. Don’t even glance at the Magistrate. Go in, kneel down, put your head on the floor and get as comfortable as you can. You may be there a while.”
They wait, peered at suspiciously by the two County Militia who stand guard at the doors. Dragonfly has never been so close to soldiers before, even local ones like this whose job it is to tour the County with the Magistrate. They wear dark metal helmets and leather shoulder protection. Their arms are clad in highly polished bronze and they each hold a long spear. But the way they lean on the door and look about them, and the half open mouth of the larger one makes Dragonfly wonder if they are real soldiers.
At last the sound of a metal bar being pulled back prepares them. At a command from one of the County Militia, Dragonfly enters the great, gloomy Hall, eyes down, almost ready in his heart for the death sentence to be pronounced and determined to show no emotion. He can hear his heart it is beating so fast. He risks a quick glance towards the Elders of the Village Council who stand like disobedient children before an angry parent, lit by weak light from high windows and two large fire brands. They are grouped slightly to the left of a raised platform on which sits a giant man.
The County Magistrate is like the brightly coloured statue of an angry god. His face flickers red in the light of the fire brands. His extravagant black whiskers curve downwards in stern disapproval. He is wearing the full plumage of a senior Judge. On his head is a high black hat with side flaps that reach to his padded shoulders. His tunic is made of red brocade and black silks, ornately embroidered with the symbols of justice and discipline. The wide sleeves are so long they fall over his knees. His legs are clad in loose black trousers tucked into the largest boots Dragonfly has ever seen. County officials with scrolls and writing implements sit at a table to his right, and the two County Militia now stand erect behind him.
Dragonfly feels Uncle with him, a gentle hand helping him to the ground. Kneeling, he lowers his head to the cold stone, and puts his hands near his cheeks. He is looking at his right hand beside him and finds it resting on the simple pattern of a flying sea bird carved into the stone. He forces his attention on to the pattern, trying to drive out all other thoughts, watching the bird in his mind flying white above high cliffs on a sunny day, balancing on a sea breeze, hardly moving its wings, an effortless freedom.
“Listen to the judgement,” says the Magistrate in a voice like large waves booming in a rocky cave. “I speak with the authority of the Great Court in the Royal Capital of the West. The details of the case have been heard; the laws have been consulted; the demands of justice have been measured against the cries for compassion.”
There is a moment’s silence and then the two County Militia come noisily off the platform, seize Dragonfly by the clothing on his back, drag him to the floor directly before the Magistrate and throw him to the ground, giving no more respect than they would to a sack of rice. One of them places a heavy foot on the boy’s shoulders, pinning him down lest he try to escape.
“Swimming Dragonfly, you were raised by caring parents in a responsible village which has long revered its Ancestors. You were trained in the arts of reading, writing and astronomy,” rumbles the Magistrate. “You have attended the County Academy to learn the disciplines of War and the Duties of a Citizen. You passed the exams. And yet you dare to desecrate the Village Temple, Dwelling Place of the Ancestors. The law provides a clear remedy for those who desecrate a temple. The criminal is to be tied by each limb to four horses driven in opposite directions, tearing the limbs from the torso. The bowels are to be removed and the head severed from the shoulders. The different parts are to be carried to the corners of the county, ensuring that the offending spirit is condemned to roam forever in search of its bodily remains.”
The Magistrate pauses before pronouncing his sentence. Dragonfly is faint with terror, his limbs shaking, his tongue so dry it feels like a small dead animal in his mouth. He has never thought seriously about his Ancestors before, never really meant his prayers. Now he pleads with them in his heart, desperate for their forgiveness and help. He offers to serve them faithfully if only they can give him life. He imagines himself begging earnestly in the Ancestral Temple.
“On the other side,” says the huge voice, “I have heard how Swimming Dragonfly gave courage to the crew of a village fishing boat on a journey home through a rising storm and helped save the lives of ten fishermen by his boat-handling skills.”
“It is therefore the Judgement that you, Swimming Dragonfly be exiled from this Village of Humble Haven, and from this County for the rest of your life, except by a pardon of the King of the East, or the Emperor himself. Should you return to this County without such a pardon, you will be executed in the manner proscribed in law for those who desecrate a temple. You must depart before the sun reaches its highest point tomorrow.”
The Magistrate pauses. Dragonfly feels relief flood his body. His heart is still racing but at least he is not to die. Then the Magistrate shouts in a voice so loud it seems to shake the building, “Go!”
The two County Militia seize the clothing on Dragonfly’s back lifting him so high his feet hardly touch the ground, take him through the great doors and throw him onto the dusty ground outside.
Virtuous Gossamer lies beside Aunt, snuggling closer for warmth, wrapped in a blanket beneath dark, dripping, low-hanging pine trees. Aunt is asleep and snuffling. The rain has stopped and Gossamer senses the grey light of dawn but down here the shadows are thick and the forest is creaking. Then a bird starts to sing, and she lies still in the warmth imagining it perched on a tall branch looking across tree tops towards the grassy slopes of high hills sparkling in the dawn sunlight. She tries to look for the source of this beautiful whistling without waking Aunt, twisting her neck, squinting through half closed eyes, seeking the bird, happy to be free, happy to be alive, wanting to get going.
In the darkness they had slipped through the Citadel Gate, were helped onto her horse by two strong young men and the Keeper of the Lock who clapped his hands noisily to hurry the horse on its way. Aunt hung on tightly behind as Gossamer guided the horse along paths into the hills where she knew of a small village and a warm welcome. The villagers were so surprised to see them and delighted to give her a tough little mountain horse and some provisions in return for the beautiful white stallion she had arrived on. They offered a bed and a chance to rest but Gossamer insisted they get going, this time on foot, leading their new horse, scrambling up steep hillside in the light of a half moon, gasping for breath, Aunt hanging onto the horse’s side-straps for help up the steeper slopes.
The trees grew thicker about them, the gentle moonlight disappeared, and the darkness became as black as the inside of a dragon’s stomach. Aunt began to whimper like a lost child, pleading for rest. At last the slope lessened.
“We are near the top Aunt. Let’s sleep until dawn and then we can find the ridge path”. Together on soft pine needles wrapped in a blanket they slept, barely aware of passing rain until dawn finds them in the forest gloom.
Gossamer coughs to see if she can gently wake her Aunt who responds by pulling the blanket more tightly about and murmuring “Are you sure you know where we’re going?”
“We are going to find our destiny,“ says Gossamer trying to sound encouraging and surprised when she thinks she can hear Aunt sobbing. “Please don’t cry Aunt. I have been trained for adventure. I can look after you. Great things will happen. But first we must find grass for the horse to eat while we have our breakfast“.
They reluctantly leave the warmth, rise, stretch, fold the blanket and strap it with all their clothes and food to the horse’s saddle. Then they pick their way through the shadows towards sunlight ahead. Soon they emerge into a clearing of brightly sparkling, dew-soaked grass
Gossamer stops to feel the sun’s rays on her face. Her heart sings in the fresh morning air, but she is alert to danger and senses a presence.
She turns quickly to see three men emerging from the trees, almost exactly where she and Aunt had just been. How had she missed them? The horse moves away in alarm. Aunt screams. Gossamer crouches, arms raised ready to fight.
She has seldom seen men with such prominent, sharp noses, such piercing eyes and such high cheekbones. They are young and tall and strangely dressed in colourful rags, almost like street entertainers. But they are not smiling and move towards her.
“ Get back,” she shouts. The tallest of them continues to advance towards her saying something with such a strong accent she cannot understand. She drops low onto all fours, her hands on the ground as a central pivot and with all the power of a mill-wheel driven by a torrent of water, she swings her legs in a full circle. The outflying right heel crunches into his stomach and he crumples to the ground as air rushes from his lungs. The second man pauses but she has already started to swing the other way, her hands on the ground her legs gathering speed until the left heel catches him between the legs. His howl joins Aunt’s screams. One more to go she thinks and he is backing towards the woods. She runs, then jumps to seize a branch just above him. Using momentum she kicks his head but as he falls there is a crack as of thunder. The branch breaks and she falls onto him. She rolls quickly onto her front but the other two must be hardened warriors and have recovered already, jumping onto her arms and back, stopping her from moving further.
For a moment Gossamers’s racing thoughts turn to her father’s collection of butterflies, each pinned to a board, wings outstretched, captured in beauty for ever. Her heart sinks and her struggling ceases, but her mind is racing faster than ever.
Silence for a moment as Dragonfly picks himself up from the dust, and then an explosion of questions and a single loud answer from Uncle “Banished!”.
Grandma howls as she rushes to hug her Grandson. Villagers gasp and murmur, repeating the word to others who hurry over to hear the news.
“For how long ? Where to? “ weeps Grandma.
“Until he gets a pardon. And out of the County. Not too bad,” consoles Uncle.
“At least no death penalty,” says Dragonfly, and then he can hold back the tears no longer. Thoughts and feelings tumble about inside causing his shoulders to heave and sobs of pain so loud he can hardly believe they are his.
“Come, “ says Uncle putting a hand on Dragonfly’s shoulder. “Let’s go home and we can decide what needs to be done.“
The family makes its way down the path and through the familiar bamboo doors. Everything seems very precious to Dragonfly, seeing things for perhaps the last time. His sister, Little Orchid throws kindling on the almost dead embers. Sniffer brings an armful of dried buffalo dung and takes charge of breathing life into the fire. His brother, Oyster Catcher opens the shutters on the sheltered side of the house to let in light. A much-loved neighbour brings freshly cooked pork buns on a large woven tray.
“Your favourite,” she says, smiling to Dragonfly who settles cross-legged by the fire and takes two.
“Leave us some, you pig,” laughs Little Orchid cuddling beside him while grabbing a bun.
“I don’t know whether to sing or sob,” says Grandma.
“Don’t do either,” says Uncle, sounding harsher than no doubt he means to. “We have much to plan in a short time. Dragonfly must leave soon after sun up tomorrow. Where should he go? And what can we give him for the journey?”
Dragonfly has been so relieved at escaping death that only now does he think about leaving his family for exile. “Am I really to be punished for the rest of my life? How can I leave home forever? The Ancestors must surely hate me.”
“No,” says Uncle firmly. “No. This can have nothing to do with the Ancestors if they truly care for this village. They know that your father gave his life at sea trying to find food for his family and the village. They must surely know that you are already one of the finest fishermen this village has. In a few more years you could have become a legend along this coast for the way you handle a boat. What have we done to so displease them?”
Uncle sits heavily on the Father’s Chair, giving him an air of authority. The family grows quiet. Even Sniffer stops sniffing.
“You all know I have long had my doubts about the power of the Ancestors. I try not to say too much because I don’t want to offend them. But I spend hours at sea on the Steering Oar. I listen to the whispering of countless stars in the great dome of a clear night sky, to the howl of the lonely moon. I look at the Great Sea that stretches to the rising sun: on a summer day the water can be as still as a blue mirror of polished azure; and yet, when the spring wind is strong, each wave is more savage than a thousand beasts. And it seems to me that the Spirits of the Ancestors are no more powerful than rose petals in the vast passion of this world, and they share our fate. There must be far greater forces at work. Dragonfly will hear more about them if he travels across the Empire. Perhaps he can learn to ride them as he does the waves.”
“Yes Uncle,” says Dragonfly, eyes shining in the firelight. “I have always dreamed of travelling. Now I must. I want to visit new places, to study from the wise and listen to the humble. I want to learn in great cities. I want to meditate with monks and talk to teachers of ancient knowledge.”
“So!” cries Uncle “This is the thin boy who made us laugh with his antics and who cried when his father beat him for losing a pig. He is now a young man with stars in his eyes”.
“Uncle,” says Oyster Catcher. ” My dear brother will need a companion. Can I go with him, at least at first?”
“No!” cries Grandma. “I can’t lose both grandsons. Oyster, you are my eldest. If your Uncle is taken from us to be with the Ancestors you must be here to lead the family. We need your strength. You are very precious.” She hugs him tenderly. “Inside this Oyster is a pearl of rare strength and beauty.”
“But you are right,” says Uncle. “This Swimming Dragonfly needs a companion. A lonesome traveller is a sad one.” He glances sideways for a heartbeat. “Sniffer will accompany you, Dragonfly.”
“If I must,” says Sniffer, smiling so broadly his head is in danger of splitting. The two boys hold hands very briefly, looking firmly into the eyes of the other.
“Do not go to the Royal Capital of the East,” says Uncle, “at least not at first. The so-called Garden City is known to be the arsehole of the Empire. Go to Blue Lake City. It is no further and my cousin will look after you for a while. He is a miserable man but quite wealthy and has a kind heart for relatives. He will help you find work. And since you are hungry for wisdom you can visit a famous wise man that lives by the shore of the lake called Old Tea Leaf. He will advise you about life, and about the waves of destiny you must ride if ever you are to return to this village. He has journeyed to the Kingdom of the South where I believe he studied under the Master of the Cleansing Fire”.
“That is eight hard days’ walk Uncle. We will surely need some food to help us get there.”
“Come! Let’s what I have in the store room,” says Grandma taking Dragonfly by one hand and Sniffer by the other. Dragonfly glances at Sniffer. He has never seen him look so happy. The family clusters into the store room all talking at once, Little Orchid the loudest.
Outside the cool winds of spring blow from the far north east. They have passed the fire mountains of Ye Da So, they have crossed the Great Sea, and now they beat upon Humble Haven, urging travellers to go inland and south.
The three men release their hold and Gossamer stands up, angrily brushing grass off her clothing.
“Who are you?”she asks.
“It is we who ask the questions,” says the tallest of the three. She thinks he looks ridiculous in his patched and colourful clothing and wonders how she could have been overcome by three men dressed as village entertainers. “Please tell us who you are and why two ladies are wandering the hills with a small horse? And why you want to attack us so violently?”
“ I will tell you nothing,” says Gossamer still panting for air.
“Then perhaps the old lady will.”
“She is not old. She is my Aunt, my beloved Aunt and you must respect her,” says Gossamer sharply as if addressing a snotty-nosed child.
“ Of course I will respect her. I respect all living creatures. Now, beloved Aunt, please tell me your name.”
“ Obedient Hummingbird,” says Aunt very quietly.
“For a hummingbird you have a very piercing scream. But it’s a respectful, beautiful name,” says the young man bowing slightly. And then he adds, “And this young lady’s name?”
“Virtuous Gossamer” says Aunt. Gossamer looks angry while Aunt stares at her feet.
The young man bows again and says, “Gossamer. A soft, delicate name. Not very appropriate for someone who can kick so hard.”
“I am Virtuous Gossamer. It is a very appropriate name. I am proud of it,” she replies trying to look as confident and as proud as possible.
“Well! May I invite Virtuous Gossamer and Obedient Hummingbird back to our humble camp? With your little horse.”
“Do we have a choice?“ asks Gossamer. “If we are to follow you at least let us know your names and who you are.“
“My name is Samark. I will tell you more about myself and my friends when we have offered you tea and something to eat. Now come.”
The ladies follow him across the meadow, back among trees and along a tiny path which wriggles through the undergrowth. Samark is leading silently, tall, decisive, his long limbs moving quickly. Gossamer is next. She looks quickly round at Aunt and makes a face which she hopes conveys the message: “Don’t trust these people.”
The other two men follow with the horse, talking quietly in a language which Gossamer decides sounds like a deer with a cough.
The trees get taller and closer together, the undergrowth thinner. It is gloomy but easier to walk. A small outcrop of rock appears and suddenly Samark ducks into a cave mouth calling behind a simple instruction, “Come!”
The entrance is dark and slightly smokey but a red glow ahead reveals the cave growing as it deepens. Gossamer finds that she can stand upright and look around. This is so different from anything she has ever seen and as perfect as anything she could ever imagine. She tries to look angry but can feel wonder in her face. Samark is bringing life to a lamp and candles that throw gentle light on warm, richly patterned carpets, cushions and an animal skin rug. The orange red embers of the fire make brass kettles and pots gathered around them look magically rich. In one corner a brighter, white-flamed candle illuminates a large book held open on a wooden stand.
Most fascinating of all to Gossamer are three musical instruments she can just see among the shadows, hardly visible; also a large knife by the fire. This cave must fill with magical sounds if these young men are musicians. But they might also be thieves.
Samark is pouring boiling water onto leaves in a bowl. “This and our fruit dumplings will help you recover from your cold night under the stars. Sit on those cushions”. He passes them each a dish of tea and dumplings in a bamboo basket. “ You want to know who we are. Well, listen.”
Each man picks up a musical instrument. Samark cradles a small, stringed lute, one man has a larger version of the same and the third a reed pipe. In the light of the candles and the lamp they start to play, softly and slowly at first. Gossamer senses they are praying to their god. They sing in deep voices, an echoing sound among the notes of their instruments. Gradually they speed up until they are playing tunes which Gossamer half recognises. She cannot resist singing gently with them. They do not look up but adapt their songs to bring her in. She starts to feels completely at home, warm and fed, drenched in red light, deep in the Earth, absorbed within gentle music of the type she learnt from her mother. And then suddenly they stop.
Samark raises his eyes. “That is who we are. Travelling musicians. Entertainers. We had hoped to play before the guests at a big betrothal feast in the Citadel of the East but they didn’t want us. Do you know who did entertain there?”
Gossamer feels her face turn the colour of the brass pots around the fire. She looks down to avoid Samark’s eyes. “What betrothal feast?” she asks.
“Surely you know. We saw the guests travelling there yesterday morning. You are clearly ladies of distinction. You must know whose betrothal feast that was.“
“You are spies,“ snarls Gossamer jumping to her feet and spitting like a cat cornered by fierce dogs.
“Your reaction confirms what I suspected,” Samark speaks softly. “I am not a spy but I do listen to villagers. I have heard them talk about the General’s legendary daughter, how beautifully she sings , how opposed she is to being married to her father’s choice”. Then, rising slowly to his feet, he asks with what Gossamer suspects is a smile, “How much would the General pay to have his daughter returned?”
Gossamer leaps forward to pick up the knife by the fire and kneels to fall on its point. “I will die before you ransom me like a slave in the market,” she hisses.
Three hot days the two boys have walked along dusty paths, through simple villages, around fields of grain, and have been guided by wrinkled peasants in the direction of Blue Lake City. Two nights they have slept in the open beneath clear skies spangled with more stars than they could ever hope to count. Restless on the hard ground Dragonfly has dreamt of Humble Haven, the sea, his family and familiar food. Walking all day he feels like a dry leaf blown by unceasing wind with nowhere to stop.
On this third evening rainclouds have drawn a dark cloak from horizon to horizon and the friends have decided to spend a little money renting shelter for the night. An elderly farmer agrees to put them in his smallest barn and his wife gives them bowls of steaming noodles in a sauce so spicey it makes tears burst from their eyes. They sit outside in the growing darkness slurping and coughing.
“I think my throat is on fire,“ says Dragonfly. “My lips are swollen. My eyes are like a village water pump. I can hardly see you but I think your face is glowing red.“
“I’m fine,” sniffs Sniffer, sniffing more than ever. “I was often given food like this.”
“Do you think you come from around here?”
“No idea. All I remember as a little boy is wandering from village to village. I lived off the kindness of strangers. A bowl of spicey chicken rice here, some dumplings over there. I learnt very young that people are generous to the needy, but not for long. The secret is to keep moving on.”
“I can’t get used to moving on,” chokes Dragonfly glad that the spicey food can be an excuse for his tears. “At least we have a roof over our heads tonight.”
“The hut smells like the dirty end of a water buffalo,” says Sniffer. “In fact I think they moved out a pig to make room for us. But if it means you can rest better it’s worth it. I’ll take these empty bowls back to the lady. You get your head down on that little bit of clean straw.”
Sleep falls upon them as swift as an executioner’s sword. But in the darkness of deep sleep Dragonfly is disturbed by dreams of rats rustling and wild birds screaming in the night, of thunder growling like a bear in a deep cave, of the clatter of horses hooves and the shouts of men.
He pulls upwards through layers of sleep, forcing himself to believe that these are real sounds and not a nightmare. Voices cry in strange accents calling for food and fresh horses. He hears the farmer and his wife, shrill with alarm, explaining that they only have two horses and little food. The men curse and insist. Lamps hurry about casting giant shadows. Horses snort angrily and harnesses rattle.
Peering out cautiously Dragonfly sees in the light of the farmer’s lamp two strangely dressed men who remind him of fisherman returned from stormy nights at sea, staggering with exhaustion, except that these men seem to be wearing light military armour. They are arguing with the farmer and taking fresh horses out of the larger barn opposite. The farmer’s wife comes with a flagon of something to drink and bundles of food. They take them with barely a word of thanks, talk in strange accents of generous payment later, mount two horses and hurry away with flapping cloaks and angry shouts like dragons on the warpath. The farmer’s wife bursts into tears.
“What in the name of everything holy was that about?” asks Sniffer who has finally emerged, scratching and sniffing.
“Those were the King’s messengers,” says the farmer. “They were in a great panic. They said that some of the Khan’s horsemen have broken through the Wall of Fierce Resistance and are pillaging southward.”
The farmer’s wife returns to the darkness of their home, moaning and bent.
“The Khan’s horsemen may come this way,“ says the old man, the lantern in his hand shaking in the light breeze. He continues as if talking quietly to himself, “My sons are in Blue Lake City. I must stay here. We can burn the thatch before the horseman arrive. We have somewhere to hide, even the pigs. But not my horse.“
“How can we help?”
The farmer looks at the boys, long and steady; so long that Dragonfly wonders if he has heard the question, or if his head has been emptied by panic.
“You can take the horse to my eldest son. He is known as the Butcher King. He sells meat in the market by the lake. Everyone knows him.”
“But we don’t know how to ride a horse,” mumbles Sniffer.
“Yes, we do.“ Dragonfly is breathless at the idea of not having to walk for another three days under the hot sun. Sniffer coughs and sniffs. Dragonfly adds, “Not well, but well enough.”
“ Really?” says the farmer, but before getting an answer adds, “I have no choice but to trust you. It’s a very fine horse. My son will look after it well.”
“Upon the good name of my Ancestors,” says Dragonfly, “we will deliver your horse safely, provided the Khan doesn’t find us first.”
“Don’t say that,” says the farmer. “The horsemen are wild. They kill for pleasure. You must go quickly. Sleep until first light and then speed away. We will give you food enough.”
The boys return to the dark, rustling hut. “They kill for pleasure,” repeats Dragonfly, as he lowers himself onto the straw, hoping Sniffer has words of comfort. But with a single, long sigh his friend settles to sleep and Dragonfly is left to fight with alarming thoughts and half dreams until grey light fills the doorway.
Gossamer holds up a hand as if signalling to Samark that if he moves she will fall onto the knife’s sharp point. The three young men are all as still as the cave walls. She can hear her blood thumping and breath roaring in her nostrils. She looks down at the knife and draws it closer to her stomach. Aunt whimpers.
Then Samark says, “We know your secret and you know ours. Yes, we are spies, although we prefer to think of ourselves as scouts and lookouts”
“For the People of the Book?“ asks Gossamer. Samark nods a yes.
“I have read your Book. It speaks of love but your warriors kill women and children.”
“Never” barks Samark like an angry dog. “Never. We protect our homes in the Mountains of the Stars. We fight honourably. We do not kill defenceless people.”
Gossamer grips the knife harder. She had thought Samark handsome but now she sees his fierce eyes and pointed nose like a threatening eagle, hovering above its prey.
“You don’t trust us,” says Samark. “And we don’t trust you. There are three choices. We kill you.”
“Please not,” Aunt whimpers.
“Or you kill yourself,” continues Samark. “Or we stay together.”
“In this cave?“ says Gossamer. “Like animals?”
“Our work here is done. We know the Great Khan will attack, and sooner than General Fang knows.”
“He knows everything,” cries Gossamer, angry that a young wanderer could claim to know more than her father.
“We must travel south as fast as travelling entertainers can,” continues Samark ignoring her interruption. “Our new task is to learn about the Master of the Cleansing Fire. What are his plans? How many followers?“
Gossamer scowls and looks more closely at the knife she is now pressing hard into her stomach, kneeling into its point.
“You will be our singer,” continues Samark. “Then our disguise will be as complete as the spots on the leopards that creep in the Jungles of Green Darkness.“
“So! I am to be a spy.” groans Gossamer, her face now close to the cave floor. “ And Aunt?”
“She will be our mother, looking after us, making sure we are all safe, a hen clucking encouragement and warning.”
Gossamer shakes her head as if in disgust, but deep inside her heart is singing. To study at the feet of the Master is her greatest wish. To bring the Cleansing Fire into her soul and clear away worries about what her Father and the Ancestors think. To be in control of her own destiny.
She must hide these thoughts from Samark. But let him take her on the journey south, away from the Great Khan, around the Blue Lake, across the Canals and Rice fields to the fabled Jasmine Kingdom, there to find the Master of the Cleansing Fire. “Yes!” she thinks.
The waters of the Blue Lake are true to the name beneath a cloudless sky and stroked by a warm breeze. On the southern shore cluster the mud brick houses of Blue Lake City with their terracotta roofs arranged in no particular way and divided by little alleyways, patches of vegetables, bamboo groves and market stalls. The air is thick with the smell of wood smoke and grilling fish. Dogs bark and small children run screaming with delight towards a man in a red hat about to juggle clubs.
Dragonfly and Sniffer wander among the market stalls by the lake shore. They have delivered the horse safely to the Butcher King after three days bouncing about on its uncomfortable back. It has taken them a day to recover. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to walk properly again,” says Sniffer exaggerating a limp.
The boys giggle nervously about how different this town is from their village and marvel at how hot it is away from sea breezes. They seek shade among the awnings stretched across the colourful stalls of fruit, vegetable and bright fabrics. They eat greedily on lotus seed buns and sweet rice cakes which they buy with money Uncle’s cousin has given them.
At last they come upon the giant mango tree where Old Tea Leaf is said to live and they see him sitting on a low stool in front of his hut, toothless and wrinkled, cackling like a hen.
“That’s the great wise man we have travelled so far to see?” asks Sniffer softly.
Dragonfly had imagined a long white beard, not a few wisps of straggly grey hair; and a temple by a peaceful lake, not a hut beneath a tree in the market.
They arrange gifts of oranges and tea leaves on the tray given to them by Uncle’s cousin and approach with heads bowed in respect. Old Tea Leaf stops exchanging shouts with nearby stall holders. “Welcome young masters. Anyone with gifts is welcome indeed,” and he cackles again.
“Your name is revered among the coastal villages where we come from. May we seek your guidance?” says Dragonfly as he lays the tray at the man’s wrinkled feet. Old Tea Leaf rises swiftly for one so bent, picks up the tray and beckons the boys to follow him into the gloom of his hut. They enter the shadows and sit on matting while he pours water from a boiling pan into a delicately small, earthenware teapot.
“I don’t know what you have heard about me but I am not a fortune teller,” says the old man sitting down beside them on a low stool. “I have travelled widely in the Empire and now that I am old I sit here and listen to its heart beating. I can warn you of dangers that may come and roads you may take, but I do not pretend to know what the future holds.”
Old Tea Leaf asks many questions and listens carefully. The boys tell him about their village, about the hard life of fishermen, about surfing the waves, about working in rice fields under the hot sun, about being banished from Humble Haven for disrespecting the Temple, about dreams of adventure and swordsmanship, about love and despair. Sniffer talks about his fears of warfare. And Dragonfly talks about his search for truth and asks about the distant Islands of Ye Da So, the islands of fasting and self-discipline. Old Tea Leaf says he dreams about the islands but has never visited them.
“There is much wisdom in Ye Da So,” he murmurs thoughtfully. “The monks there have developed great powers. There are some who sit perfectly still for a year, fed soup by fellow monks and working no muscle except their bowels once a week. Imagine what inner stillness they achieve in the darkness of the night. Their minds swim so deep that their souls begin to merge with that of others. What wisdom such meditation and self-control must bring!” The old man sighs and then cackles “I enjoy tea and conversation too much. That and watching pretty young girls laughing by Blue Lake.”
Dragonfly glances at Sniffer. They had hoped this teacher would be like a monk, and less worldly.
“Now that you have told me about yourselves, let me tell you what I think.” Old Tea Leaf pours them each another cup of the clear green tea.
“You are fortunate to be strong young men. The Empire is about to be thrown into chaos which will be hard for the weak and the old. You have shown bravery by travelling so far from your village in search of answers. If you continue to be wise, you may live long enough to return home bringing honour to your family.”
Old Tea Leaf pauses. In the afternoon heat the market has become quiet and they can hear the lapping of the waves of Blue Lake against its stony shore.
“People are questioning the old ways,” continues Old Tea Leaf. “They have started to doubt the authority of the Emperor and the wisdom of the Ancestors. The People of the Book in the Mountains of the Stars fight for a single god. The Northern Horsemen offer Paradise to warriors killed in battle. And in the south young people are hurrying to learn about the Cleansing Fire. But the Ancestors will fight fiercely. If the Empire drowns it will be in a sea of blood. So, before you begin the search for truth for which you yearn, learn to protect yourselves. You say you have studied speed and balance, swimming among the waves of the Great Ocean. well, speed and balance are the attributes of swordsmen. Join the Royal Guard if you can. They need good fighters. The Great Khan’s horsemen are coming south. They are fierce and merciless. We must be ready to protect ourselves and we need brave young men like you.”
These are frightening words from such a cheerful old man on a sunny afternoon.
“I left home seeking peace Master. Peace and wisdom, not bloodshed and war,” says Dragonfly. “We are young and defenceless in a strange town. Is there not somewhere we can go to find shelter and time to study the classics? I want to learn to play on a musical instrument, not a sword.”
Old Tea Leaf nods. “The safest place in the times ahead will be in an army. There you will find regular food, training and discipline. One day you may be able to transfer the skills and grace of swordsmanship to playing on stringed instruments.”
He stops smiling and his wrinkled face becomes deep and serious.
“This is my advice to you. You have a Guardian Spirit. Listen to her. Trust her.
Learn to protect yourselves and to judge yourselves and to judge risk. You are more use alive than dead.
Practice self-discipline. Your appetites will push in many directions. Teach them to obey you. Only then can you shape the future.
Love your friends but remember, if you come between them and the object of their desire, they will betray you.
Strive for peace and prosperity. But remember they are won through struggle and hardship. They are easily lost and hard to regain.
Know your strengths and develop them. Use them for good and good will come to you.”
The old man turns directly to Dragonfly and holds his gaze. “You are a born leader of men: but to be effective you must learn to listen. Listen to others. Listen to your inner voice.
And remember that truth and humility are your strongest allies.”
Old Tea Leaf stops suddenly and smiles. He slurps a large mouthful of tea and rattles a laughing cough. “Above all, enjoy yourselves. Enjoy being young, enjoy learning to become swordsmen, enjoy gathering wisdom and,” he gives a large wink, “enjoy being men.”
He rises, massages his knees and picks up a long stick. “Now it is time for my daily exercise. I walk high into the hills to a small cave which no one visits. It has a fine view of the setting sun. When you are old, pleasures become few and you must enjoy each one. For me there are few greater than having a good shit while looking at a beautiful view.” He leaves the hut, waves his stick in a cheerful farewell and walks stiffly up a path, leaving the boys to wonder whether he is wise or mad.
Virtuous Gossamer has never seen so much flat land. From horizon to horizon stretches a pattern of little fields crisscrossed by irrigation ditches. She dreams of mountains. Samark insists that they walk from sun up to sun down no matter how strong the heat at midday.
They have three horses. Aunt rides on Big White. Small White and Little One stagger beneath the weight of bags and musical instruments. Gossamer walks beside Big White whenever the path is wide enough, talking to Aunt and trying to keep her from getting anxious. Rumours that the Khan’s horsemen are coming grow louder at each village they stop at.
Samark’s musical companions have such strange names that Gossamer and Aunt have given them new ones. Eagle is the serious one with piercing eyes, Stork the thin friendly one.
It has not rained for days but clouds have built themselves upwards like dark citadels bristling with fierce weapons.
Samark has led them to a wide, almost dry river bed as daylight fades and insists they cross before dark. Rain has started to fall, softly for a moment and then a torrent. “The rain will swell the river very soon and we would have to walk miles upstream to find a bridge,” he says. “This is our best chance.”
They start walking across the dried riverbed, picking their feet between rough stones and over cracked mud. Small White and Little One are led by Samark and Eagle who are soon ahead. Big White is nervous about the rocky footing. “ I must get off this horse” cries Aunt. “It’s like sitting on the top of a ship’s mast in a rough sea.” Virtuous Gossamer helps her down and strokes the horse’s neck. “And now we are going to get soaked by the rain. I think we left our brains in the mountains.”
Virtuous Gossamer leads the horse gently towards the others who have arrived at the remains of the river. Samark is already wading across, leading Little One. The water is slow moving and muddy and about thirty paces across. The heavy rain drops and gathering gloom makes it more difficult to see below its surface.
“We can’t cross that,” exclaims Aunt as she and Gossamer draw closer to the dark waters. The sky answers with a crackle of warning thunder among the walls of black cloud. The rain sharpens and the noise of it hitting the ground becomes a steady roar.
“Quickly,” yells Samark from the far side. “It’s been raining upstream. The water is rising fast. No time to turn back.”
Stork takes Aunt’s hand and without a word gently leads her into the water. Big White shakes his head and steps back, his hooves clattering defiance on the stones. Gossamer grasps his halter and strokes him but he will not be soothed. The sound of rain is terrifying and the river waters are starting to foam and spread.
Samark has started to wade back across the river passing Stork and Aunt who are now halfway to the other side. The waters, made mad by the rain and the strengthening current, wriggle and squirm about them.
Samark reaches Gossamer and Big White, his wet hair flattened onto his forehead, clothes clinging to his limbs. He takes the halter and tries to lead the horse into the swelling stream, pulling harder. Very grudgingly Big White moves forward. Gossamer follows, patting the horse’s rain-soaked behind.
With every pace the water gets deeper, the current runs faster and the noise grows more fearsome. Another crack of lightning and rattle of thunder causes Big White to rear up, his front hooves kicking at the rain, thrashing in panic.
Gossamer prepares to jump, bending her knees until the water reaches her chest, then pushes upwards, grasping a strap on Big White, pulling herself on to his back as front hooves crash back through the water. She senses he is about to rear up again so lies forward holding on to his soaking mane, reaching for the halter at his mouth, shouting encouragement above the sound of river and rain. He starts to move forward, stumbling on stones now deep beneath the surface.
Gossamer moves her weight towards his rear, still keeping a tight grip on the halter. She senses he is about to rear up again so she places her feet on his rump and cautiously stands up, halter in her right hand and left arm held out for balance. She glances down at Samark who holds tightly to a strap on Big White’s flank. Ahead through the rain are Aunt, Eagle and Stork stretching arms towards them, ready to help but not venturing more than a pace or two into the angry water.
Gossamer can feel alarm in the others and a growing calm in herself. She has to concentrate hard on balancing but feels no sense of uncertainty. She is in control. She shouts with joy and encouragement, almost laughing at the sharp shafts of rain striking around her.
Big White makes his way through increasingly shallow water and arrives safely among the others who cluster around. Gossamer slips easily off the horse’s back into the arms of her weeping Aunt. Stork takes Big White by the halter and leads the three horses out of the river bed on to the grass beyond. Already the rain is softer.
Samark stands solemnly beside Gossamer until Aunt releases her. Then he bows low. “Thank you,” he says in the direction of Gossamer’s feet. The river is still so noisy she wonders if she has heard correctly.
He stands straight again, rain pouring down his face, looks into her eyes. “I cannot swim,” he explains. “I feared that I might be swept downstream. Thank you.”
Gossamer bows in reply, accepting his thanks, trying to look serious, but inside shouting for joy. She turns quickly so that Samark does not see the grin on her rain-soaked face and follows the others onto higher ground.
News of the Khan’s Horsemen becomes more alarming and urgent in the streets and homes of Blue Lake City. They are said to be as numerous as the stars on a dark, cloudless night, and some even say that their horses blow flames from their nostrils. Panic is spreading. The market stalls have been dismantled, the old city walls strengthened, and bags of rice are being carried into the Citadel. Young men are being recruited and trained in the art of war. Older men are remembering half forgotten skills. Some are leaving with the women and children to hide among the fields and distant villages. They are called the Hiders. Those who remain are called the Fighters.
Dragonfly is determined to be a Fighter. Sniffer thought that being a Hider sounded a better idea but could not imagine leaving his friend. And so together they have taken tests to join the Royal Guard, running, climbing, fasting and going without sleep. They are now in a company of fifty recruits being trained by one of the fiercest officers.
He is their Captain, a member of the Royal Guard, clad smartly in leather and shining brass, with huge shoulders, a face like stone and a powerful voice that makes men jump. He stands beneath an old tree looking out on the flat, hot, bare training ground.
He wants the recruits to move as fast as lightning, to stand steadfast as a rock face, to turn retreat into attack. He has made them rise at dawn and run long distances before the first bowl of rice. They are now among the fittest soldiers in the Royal Guard. But some have been more successful than others.
This is the seventh day of training and Sniffer tells Dragonfly that he thinks he will probably die. “ I am so tired, so very tired. He just stands there yelling at us. I’d like to see him rin”, he gasps after completing yet another long race. “My legs feel like boiled noodles”.
Sniffer kneels slowly, groaning. The Captain strides towards him at speed, raising his thick cane, bringing it down mightily. Dragonfly moves quickly to protect his friend and takes the full blow of the cane across his back. He feels the air being knocked out of his lungs, staggers forward, grunting with pain but determined not cry. Sniffer stands up, blood running from his nose as it usually does when he suffers a shock.
Dragonfly braces himself for another blow but the Captain is standing still, staring at him. Time seems to have stopped. The other recruits are motionless.
Then the Captain growls, “ Go and clean yourselves up. All of you. And eat. Return when the sun is at its highest. You will learn swordsmanship in the heat. You will sweat until there is no sweat left in your bodies. When the Khan’s Horsemen arrive they will face the toughest fighters in the Empire”. And then he brings his cane down with a loud smack into the unflinching palm of his other hand. He shows no sign of pain. He seems to be made of the hardest stone. He is Captain Granite.
Aunt is trying to squeeze Gossamer into her only good outfit, a long, tight-fitting dress made of bright scarlet satin. She offers advice as she does so. “Please sing your best. I lose face when you mumble like a young girl caught eating an apple.”
They have performed in six villages so far and done well enough, earning food and a place to pitch their tents for the night. This is the largest town they have been in.
“Samark knows you can sing better, but he’s soft on you so he doesn’t insist.”
“Aunt!” whispers Gossamer severely. “Don’t say such things. Just because he thinks I saved his life in the river doesn’t mean he likes me. And I don’t trust him. His loyalty is to the People of the Book.”
“Do it for my sake. Sing from your heart to these villagers. Make them remember you for as long as the moon sails across the sky,” Aunt’s voice quavers.
Gossamer slaps her Aunt playfully on the wrist. “You know just how to get me to do what you want. You pretend to be weak but inside you’re as strong as a buffalo. So! I will do it for you.” Then she adds in a fierce whisper, “But not for him.”
The two ladies stoop through the tent door and emerge into the soft, late afternoon sunlight. Samark, Eagle and Stork are waiting with their musical instruments. Small children in simple clothes gather excitedly to escort them to the market place. They gasp and stare when they see Gossamer emerging from her tent.
Samark whispers quickly, “Now remember, we are a family. If anyone asks, tell them we live in the mountains raising goats. Hard times have forced us to make extra money as touring entertainers. We are travelling south to Rice Mountain because more people are going there and we hope to find bigger audiences in the capital of the south.”
Gossamer nods impatiently. She has heard all this before and she wants to hurry. Her stomach is full of nervous butterflies and only singing will stop them fluttering.
The children cheer with excitement when Samark picks up his lute and signals the others to follow. They squeeze through alleyways and gaps between brick huts. The roar of a busy market place draws closer and suddenly they are among crowds and stalls piled high with things for sale and delicious-smelling food.
The chatter and yell of passers-by, the cries of salesmen and the crackle of cooking fires make Gossamer think for a moment about peace in the mountains and the freshness of hilltop walks overlooking the sea. But she can see and hear other entertainers around the market place: singers and musicians, jugglers and even a monkey tied to a post clashing cymbals. She wants to do better than that. She wants the townsfolk to hear Samark’s beautiful lute playing. Surely they will never have heard anything so haunting, so lyrical. To make them listen she will sing with all her skill and strength.
They arrive at a carpeted corner of the main square which Samark has paid the owner of a nearby market stall to reserve for them. Eagle and Stork sit on low stools and get ready their instruments. Samark stands and raises his lute almost to chest height. They have formed a semicircle into which Gossamer steps, facing the clatter and chatter of the market.
The late afternoon light is fading. The sky is a bowl of dark blue. She can see lamps being lit and fires in the kitchen stalls burning more brightly. A moment of change has arrived.
The first few notes of Samark’s lute are lost but, when the other lute and the reed pipe join in, those closest stop and look. And then Gossamer sings.
She begins with a song they have practiced well and which suits the setting. It tells of a poor girl who falls in love with a young man selling sweet dumplings in the market. They exchange glances but she is too shy to approach until one day he calls her over and they start to talk. She asks him if he is married but he refuses to answer. She has only enough money for one dumpling and asks what flavours they contain. He says some contain Love, and the others Truth. She chooses Truth. The next day the dumpling seller has gone, never to return.
Gossamer’s voice grows stronger and soon soars above the hubbub of the market square, weaving a magic tapestry of musical images in the air. Passers-by pause, the kitchen staff stop cooking and the other entertainers move away. Even the monkey stops clashing its cymbals. Young boys call their friends to watch the beautiful girl singing.
When she stops, there is a murmur of approval. She starts again, this time with a cheerful song about children at play. Then another about an eagle soaring over mountain valleys in search of a lost river.
With each song the audience grows. The kitchen staff quietly resume cooking, conversations begin again but nothing disturbs Gossamer now. She can feel the audience responding to her, each gesture, each inflection of her voice becomes confident, calculated for maximum effect. She feels adored.
When she finally stops they beg for more. “This evening,” she says. “I will return this evening.” Her three companions are collecting donations of food and coins among the crowd.
“What is your name?” calls one young man.
“That’s no good for such a voice,” cries a wizened old lady. “You need something far grander than that.”
The on-lookers start to shout among themselves, making all sorts of suggestions for a more suitable name, some colourful, some cheeky.
“What about Songbird?” cries the old lady.
“That’s it!” shouts the lead chef in the nearby food stall. “Scarlet Songbird.”
Others take up the cry, laughing and clapping at a name that seems so right for such a beautiful girl, dressed in red with such a voice.
“Scarlet Songbird,” they chant.
Samark steps beside her and raises his arms for silence. “The Scarlet Songbird needs rest. She has agreed to return this evening.” The crowd cheers and the musicians prepare to depart, exhausted but elated.
A girl in rags but with confidence steps forward, bows and says, “I will lead you to your tent.” Then she raises her hand high and calls out, “Make way for the Scarlet Songbird”. She marches through the crowd which quickly parts to let her and the musicians through. Aunt hurries along behind.
“You must call me Songbird” she calls back to Aunt, grinning. Villagers are smiling and calling her new name as she makes her way out of the noisy market place towards their tents.
“I have a proper name at last,” she thinks. “A name that I have created. I am Scarlet Songbird. I think I must be flying”.
The storm has come to Blue Lake and turned everything grey. Low clouds, light rain driven by strong winds and the wet walls of the Citadel are all drained of colour. The market stalls are empty and the narrow streets moan in the wind.
All is ready. A messenger has brought news that a small cavalry of the Khan’s Horsemen has avoided engagement with a large force of Imperial soldiers and will arrive at Blue Lake City soon. It is left to the thousand Royal Guardsmen to defend the City until reinforcements arrive. They are drawn up in disciplined rows between the hills and the lakeside, the City and Citadel behind them.
Captain Granite’s trainees are mixed with some of the most experienced men in the field andare positioned near the lake shore where the main force of attack is expected.
Dragonfly and Sniffer stand shoulder to shoulder, their new leather helmets dripping water down their backs. They each have a leather shield, a sword, a lance as tall as themselves, and a leather studded tunic that seems to have doubled in weight since the rain began. They stand in the second rank. In front of them are the broad shoulders of more experienced guardsmen armed with larger shields and long pikes. In their midst is Captain Granite. Behind are ranks of archers ready to release a hail of sharpened arrows over their heads and into the advancing Horsemen.
But there is no sign of them. Rain passes across in curtains of miserable grey, obscuring any view. The lake to their right is flecked with white waves, the ground rises to their left towards hills shrouded in cloud.
“I’m starving,” sniffs a thin voice beside Dragonfly.
“How can you think of your stomach at a time like this?” he replies.
“I think I’m going to eat one of these carrots.” They are standing in a small field of vegetables that are now trampled into a muddy mess.
As Sniffer bends to pull up a carrot, they sense a rumble and hear over the noise of wind and rain what is possibly the jingle of horses’ harnesses.
Dragonfly feels his throat dry and his heart beat against his leather tunic. His hands clench the sword so tightly it hurts.
“This is it!” he shouts, to no-one in particular.
“I’m not deaf,” murmurs Sniffer. “But I’m very, very, very frightened.”
Through the grey mist and rain emerges a long line of horsemen, at first just anoutline silhouette looking larger than real. The horses’ heads are covered with leather protection except for eye holes which make them look like beasts of terrifying fable. As they move closer, steadily trotting, Dragonfly can see that the Horsemen have huge hats of wild animal fur decorated with feathers. Their light armour shines in the wet rain. Their spears look unbelievably long, feathers and fur fluttering down their length.
There must be a hundred of them strung out in an advancing line. A few of themhave bows which they now draw quickly. It’s impossible to see arrows flying through the rain but one suddenly arrives with a thump into the shield of a soldier near them who falls backwards with the force of the strike.Sniffer shouts with shock.
“He’s going to be OK,” soothes Dragonfly, trying to sound confident. “Just hold your shield well up to protect your face.” Sniffer cowers down.
The archers behind them let off a volley of arrows. The Horsemen turn sideways and gallop uphill away from the lake. A shout of triumph swells among the Royal Guardsmen who jeer and wave their swords at the horsemen now moving left across the archers’ line of fire. One or two of them have been hit but their comrades prop them up on their horses.
No sooner is this first line of horsemen moving to the side than another longerline of them appears. And for a moment the mist swirls up to reveal a third line advancing, a mighty crowd of spears and armoured horses.
This is what had been feared and there is a plan. If the small band of Horsemen turns out to be an army, the town is to be abandoned and they must retreat in disciplined order to the Citadel. Horns sounds from behind.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” murmurs Sniffer.
The archers release volley after volley of arrows while others break ranks and hurry through the deserted town to the Citadel gates. The front rank of horsemen halts its advance, just beyond the arrows’ most dangerous reach. The next rank joins them, and then another, waiting, a phalanx of restless dispensers of destruction.
Dragonfly and Sniffer look towards Granite for a sign that they too are released and may hurry back to the protection of the Citadel. Surely the moment they retreat the horsemen will attack? The archers behind them are now moving away.
At last an order is given. Dragonfly and Sniffer turn and run into a narrow alleyway where no horse could ride, jostling with other guardsmen in a dash for the safety of the Citadel. Sniffer, his head down, is moving so quickly that Dragonfly finds it hard to keep up. A deep sense of loyalty to his commander slows him.
The discipline has gone. Men are pushing each other, swearing and yelling. Some slip on the wet stone cobbles and have to scramble without help. A stray arrow fired a long distance strikes Sniffer like a lightening bolt, knocking him down, his head hitting the stones. A soldier jumps over the still body in the rush to climb the approach to the Citadel’s huge entry gate. Dragonfly shouts to others to run around him while he quickly takes Sniffer into his arms, gathers his friend’s spear and sword. He staggers beneath the weight but is pushed up the slope by others hurrying to safety.
Inside the Great Courtyard is full of cheerful chaos. Friends who had ignored each other in panic reunite with cries of relief. Company Commanders try to restore discipline with shouts and empty threats.
Dragonfly carries his friend through the damp, enthusiastic crowd of soldiery towards the shelter of the Great Dining Hall where he lowers him flat on to a bench.
The big lady in charge of the kitchens waddles over with a damp cloth used for wiping the tables.
“Brought him here to die?” she asks in a big cheerful voice. “He’ll be all right. They usually are.” Before Dragonfly can protect his friend, she squeezes water from the cloth on to Sniffer’s face and the large red bruise on his forehead.
“What?! What happened?” splutters Sniffer shaking his head and blinking. He lies still for a moment looking up at his smiling friend.
“How many fingers?” asks the big lady, holding a single stubby finger in front of Sniffer. He looks carefully and says, “Three.”
“And you’ve got three eyes,” she laughs. Sniffer starts to laugh but winces in pain.
“You’re going to be fine,” smiles Dragonfly in relief. “But you must rest a bit. Can you look after him for a moment?” he asks, turning to the lady. “I must see what’s happening from the high wall. I’ll be back in two shakes of horse’s head.”
“I know how to look after a handsome young man,” she laughs.
Dragonfly runs through the crowd of shouting excited soldiers in the courtyard. The wooden gates are closing as a last few squeeze in, gasping with exhaustion and relief. Dragonfly runs up a long flight of stone stairs to the fortified walls, two steps at a time at first, then slowing beneath the weight of his wet tunic, glad that he has left his helmet with Sniffer and the lady.
The rain has stopped. He reaches the top and the view spreads out below, washed clean, every detail sharp. Blue is returning to the lake and the fields are bright green. The town below is a riot of colour and confusion. Horsemen are hurrying through the lanes, removing anything of value. Houses are burning, flames bursting through the tiles, wooden timbers collapsing. A few last Royal Guardsmen are being chased towards the Citadel.
In the small square in front of the ramp up to the Citadel Gates stands Captain Granite, a long burning beam of wood grasped in his hands. He is swinging it round and round, keeping three attacking horsemen at bay, and giving the last few of his comrades a chance to escape up the ramp.
More horsemen arrive, some with bows drawn ready to fire. Granite will surely die. Dragonfly leans over the wall and shouts down the long distance with little hope of being heard above the chaos of the town. “Retreat back up the ramp!”
It is too late. A bowman has shot Granite in the leg. He falls to the ground and, with howls of delight, the Horsemen close about him, binding him up like a chicken to be taken to market, and with great speed carry him through the streets towards their horses in the fields beyond.
“We will come,” yells Dragonfly, his voice breaking with grief. He grips the stone wall in determination to save his Commander or die in the attempt.
Scarlet Songbird has slept happily in her tent like a small bird in a nest lined with soft feathers. She wakes slowly to the sound of Aunt busy about outside and cuddles in the gentle warmth enjoying her new name and the memory of being applauded by so many villagers the evening before.
“Gossamer, it’s time you were moving,” cries Aunt.
“I won’t leave this tent until you call me by my proper name,” she replies. She hears murmured conversation between Aunt and Samark but cannot hear the words. And then Samark speaks.
“Esteemed Scarlet Songbird, we humbly ask you to leave your tent and prepare yourself for the day’s journey.”
Songbird can tell he is smiling but likes hearing him use the name.
“Good,” she cries, and bursts from the tent. Samark and Aunt clap. A few villagers leaving for work in the fields join in the applause. Songbird suddenly feels a bit silly because she knows she must look very different in her night clothes and her hair ruffled by sleep. Her clothing is so simple she is dressed for a journey in moments.
One of the Village Elders emerges from a narrow Lane between the houses and approaches their camp before bowing and saying in a low voice to Samark and Songbird, “We have just learnt that the Khan’s Horsemen are approaching Blue Lake City. That’s almost a day’s march eastwards and I doubt they will come this way but I suggest you resume your journey. Just keep going south as fast as you can.”
Aunt overhears this and starts hurrying about like a chicken that has seen a fox.
“We must eat first,” soothes Songbird. “Tall Stork has prepared rice porridge with eggs, your favourite.”
They all eat greedily, knowing they will not stop for several hours.Soon the horses are packed up. Aunt is encouraged to ride on Big White and they set off, Samark leading the way, then Songbird leading Puzzle, and then the two musicians with the smallest horse loaded with the musical instruments. A group of villagers waves them farewell and little boys run beside them for the first few hundred paces.
The sun peeps above the horizon, sending long flashes of golden light towards them. A mist over the rice fields thins to nothing, revealing the day’s journey ahead. They must walk across flat lands broken occasionally by clumps of trees towards a distant line of reeds that must surely fringe one of the canals that brings water across this fertile plain.
By the time they reach the canal and the long wooden bridge across it the sun has reached its highest point and the rice fields crackle with heat. A single ancient tree bends over the path and they decide to stop and eat. Aunt climbs down from Big White and crumples to the ground in the deepest shade.
“Water! I must have water,” she mumbles. The water bottles are nearly empty so Samark hurries towards the canal edge, pushing through the tall, rustling reeds that crowd along its bank.
“It’s so muddy,” cries Samark as he returns. “There’s hardly any water in the canal. No wonder the villagers were complaining. They say the Emperor himself has ordered the dams be shut to save water.” He passes full bottles to the others who drink eagerly.
“We are like camels who have crossed the desert!” he laughs.
“I’m not a camel!” says Songbird, feeling too hot and exhausted to join the joke.
“I know,” replies Samark. “You’re a Songbird. You’ve mentioned that before.”
“Let us not quarrel,” says Tall Stork. “We will need all our strength. Look!”
He points along the canal. On the horizon smoke is rising and faint shapes seem to be moving along distant reed beds in their direction.
“Horsemen!” murmurs Samark, his throat sounding dry.
Aunt gets to her feet with surprising new strength.
“They mustn’t take my Songbird!” she cries.
“You’re right,” says Samark. “Quick. Songbird and Aunt, you must take the horses. A horse each and the third will carry your food and water. We will hide among the reeds.”
Songbird feels her stomach writhing like eels taken from the water in a fisherman’s net. “We cannot leave you! We must stay together.”
“No,” replies Samark sharply. “We have more chance if we three hide and you and Aunt disappear southward at speed with the horses.”
Songbird chooses not to argue. Quickly they unstrap the loads from the horses: the musical instruments, the tents, the weapons, the clothes.
“Let me take my scarlet dress!” pleads Songbird, wondering to herself why she is making such a strange request.
They divide up the food hurriedly and pack basic provisions on to Little Legs. Aunt rides Puzzle, and Songbird mounts Big White.
“Follow the midday sun and you will reach Rice Mountain and the Master of the Cleansing Fire in about five days. We will find you there. May your Ancestors keep you safe,” says Samark.
Songbird bends down from her horse, holding out a hand which Samark takes briefly. “May your god bring you safely to where we can meet again,” she murmurs.
Without another word she urges Big White across the creaking bridge. Aunt follows, sitting uneasily on Puzzle and leading Little Legs on a halter. Already the sun beats upon their backs and necks. Songbird allows a moment of deep regret to wash over her, like a dark wave; and then forces herself to think ahead.
She wants to travel as fast as possible but knows that the only way to do so is to keep a steady pace, allowing the horses to stop at regular intervals. She senses that Aunt keeps looking backwards no doubt expecting to see horsemen. She keeps her own eyes firmly to the front.
There are no longer any fields, only thin grass on dry, cracked earth stretching almost as far as the eye can see. In the distance a grey patch of trees offers a clear target for their journey. They set off and Songbird imagines herself and Aunt to be two tiny snails making their way slowly across an endless stone floor, fierce sun pouring in from high windows.
At last their shadows grow long as the sun slips down and distant objects become clearer. Faint movement on the horizon to their left gradually forms the silhouette of horsemen, far away but unmistakable.
Songbird doesn’t say anything to Aunt and focuses on calculating carefully how quickly they can reach the trees. Certainly they will be there long before the horsemen. As she slightly increases their pace Aunt detects the change and looks about anxiously.
“Look! Horsemen! Who are they?” she cries.
“I’ve no idea. But we must get to the trees and hide,” replies Songbird over her shoulder.
They hurry towards the woodland which turns out to be smaller than she had hoped but there are large patches of thick undergrowth. They tether the horses among the largest bushes and move elsewhere to hide, crouching down, breathing hard, murmuring prayers to the Ancestors. Songbird forces herself to look through the tangle of leaves and sees in the fading sunlight at least ten horsemen in strange clothing, quite close now and moving steadily towards them.
She turns to cold stone, unable to think. Aunt squeaks like a mouse. They can hear the jingle of the horses harnesses grow closer and then the grunt of men dismounting. They call to each other in growling, strange voices. They seem to be surrounding the woodland and are now moving towards their hiding place.
Songbird feels a burst of energy as if a hidden force has taken over her body. “Quick! Help me put on my scarlet dress,” she whispers urgently, taking it out of its bag. “I am a Princess!”
Shaking and murmuring Aunt tries to help. The men are crashing about, calling and laughing, drawing closer.
Songbird smoothes down her dress and adjusts her hair. There is a little clearing nearby where the sunlight is breaking through the upper leaves pouring light onto a patch of grass. Emptying her mind of all other thoughts she starts to rehearse to herself the words of a song from the northern grasslands. She doesn’t know it well and can only remember the first two verses. The men are nearly upon them. With a heart beating a powerful rhythm of alarm she moves forward into the pool of sunlight to stand still and straight.
The man closest shouts to the others who run towards the clearing and the solitary girl. She can smell them now, sweat and leather, hear their heavy breathing and grunts of amazement. She cannot see them clearly because she is in the sunlight and they are in the shade but she has a sense of their bare, broad chests darkened by the sun, leather tunics and short swords. They pause as if wondering what to do next.
Standing perfectly still she sounds a single clear note and then raises her arms to sing of northern grasslands with images of galloping horses, lakes of clear water, hunting birds and white tents. She is singing for them, these wild men of the north, and she is singing to save her life.
Deep night has fallen on the small, burnt city. Houses smoulder in the darkness and crackling embers glow angrily. The Horsemen have withdrawn to the hills taking prisoners and all they can steal.
The Citadel stands dark against the faint grey of the night sky. The top of its walls bristle like the hackles of a dog with the spears and arrows of Guardsmen peering anxiously into the night for signs of another attack. In the courtyard below villagers, off-duty soldiers, pigs and little children try to find somewhere comfortable to sleep amongst the store houses, huge sacks of rice, piles of hay and water barrels. Voices are soft and worried. Babies whimper.
Dragonfly, Sniffer and ten companions chosen for their archery skills are determined to save Captain Granite and have crept from the Citadel armed only with bows, arrows and sharp knives. They climb through inky shadows into the hills, guided by Surefoot, a small, rat-like man who knows the paths like the back of his eyelids. He climbs quickly and they work hard to follow, their legs soundlessly screaming, their lungs heaving for air. They scratch and scramble through bushes and over rocks to a high place where they collapse among the stones to wait while Surefoot disappears ahead to scout for Horsemen.
Dragonfly can hear his friend snuffling about nearby. “Why bring all these arrows?” mutters Sniffer. “Can’t see to fit them into the bow, let alone aim at anything.”
“Surefoot says there will be a few breaks in the clouds,“ replies Dragonfly. “There’s a half moon rising, so it could suddenly be quite bright.”
“And then?” Sniffer asks, his voice thick with doubt.
“ And then we can see to rescue Granite,“ replies Dragonfly, trying to make it sound as straightforward as grilling a fish. He cautiously checks the small, brass fire-holder he carries.
Suddenly Surefoot is back. “Quickly and look,“ he whispers, his voice quivering. And then murmuring to guide them in the dark he leads, clambering and stumbling over boulders and tough grass until suddenly in the dark below pinpricks of distant firelight appear. “Campfires. I count twenty of them.”
No sooner has Surefoot spoken than a patch of cloud thinner than the rest passes across the moon letting a faint hint of light into the great valley bowl. They can make out tents in a wide circle around campfires with men and horses moving about.
“They should have guards up here but I sense none. Can’t smell them either. I think the Horsemen are too confident, “ whispers Surefoot. “Let’s get closer.”
Without another word he leads them into a well-worn, downward path between two massive boulders. It is a steep descent and their legs are soon aching again as they slip and slide and curse, urging each other to be as quiet as cats.
Dragonfly guesses they are about half way down when suddenly the moon breaks through the clouds completely and the valley is flooded with silver light. They get a sharp, clear vision of tents, horses in tethered groups, men standing around fires cooking, others preparing weapons and talking.
“It’s like a hornets nest,“ cries Sniffer in alarm.
“Be calm,“ begs Dragonfly urgently.
“Bees preparing to swarm, death on the wing,“ continues Sniffer. “It’s… it’s… terrible..”
“Not another word,” growls Dragonfly.
Sniffer squeaks like a mouse being stepped on by an elephant.
The sudden appearance of full moonlight seems to act like a command to the Horsemen as if this is what they have been waiting for and they start to shout and run towards their horses, some hurrying into tents, emerging with more weapons. The horses are freed from their tethers and blankets are thrown about, saddles are hurriedly buckled. The fastest are soon mounted and with flaming spears lead towards a gap in the hills, others follow howling like wolves. In the silver light the valley empties in the direction of the Citadel.
Dragonfly studies the camp below from a wide ledge beside the path. The horses are gone, a few guards remain, and a circle of men sitting cross-legged in the shadows of a large tree must surely be the prisoners. “Now we remember the words of Old Tealeaf. Fire to attract, fire to distract,” he murmurs carefully opening up his fire holder. “Archers, light your arrows. Aim at the furthest tent. And let us be ready to descend like eagles.”
“What in the name of the Ancestors are you talking about? “ cries Sniffer. “We can’t just run down there. We haven’t got the weapons. The Horsemen will tie us up and roast us on their fires.”
“We have the best archers in the Royal Guard and we have the advantage of surprise. Anyway, most of the Horsemen are gone,” replies Dragonfly. The others have their arrows ready and bows in their hands. One by one they light an arrow from Dragonfly’s fire-holder, and one by one they release a sparking missile high into the night. The famous firework craftsmen of Blue Lake City have done their job well and as the arrows descend towards the furthest tent they flare into streaking flame. Ten expertly aimed arrows and then ten more follow and yet more like fiery rain until the furthest tent and the one next to it are fiercely alight. The few remaining Horsemen rush like moths towards a flame.
“Now is our chance,“ cries Dragonfly. “There are the prisoners in a circle. Surely one is Granite. Hurry, we must release them all and run for the hills,” he speaks over his shoulder already scrambling down the rough path towards the valley floor. They stop briefly to fire a few more arrows at other tents in the distance, causing further shouts from the panicking Horsemen.
Finally they emerge from shrubs onto the valley floor not far from the cross-legged prisoners and run towards them crouching. The moonlight is strong and they are now easily seen if a Horseman looks this way. But none do.
“Captain Granite,“ calls Dragonfly urgently as he scurries like an anxious crab towards the seated shapes.
“Yes!“ comes a strong, growling reply amidst murmurs of new hope from others. It is easy to pick out his big square shape and as a thick cloud suddenly covers the moon Dragonfly crouches beside Granite in the darkness feeling for the leather ropes that bind his wrists together and which tie him to the men sitting on either side. Dragonfly and his friends work their sharp knives quickly on all the Guardsmen. There must be at least twenty of them.
“No one move until we can all move,“ commands Captain Granite.
“ Done!“ says Dragonfly as the leather straps fall from Granite and the men on either side of him.
“Done… done…done…” come reports from the others as one by one the captured Guardsmen are set free.
“Not yet done… this knife is as blunt as a water buffalo’s backside,” grunts Sniffer. Dragonfly stumbles urgently towards his friend but just as he grabs a familiar scrawny arm Sniffer shouts “Success!” much too loudly.
“Help us too,“ comes the whispered cry of a lady from a nearby tent. Sniffer and three of the company run across.
“Be quick!“ calls Dragonfly. “We’ll start climbing up. Follow as soon as you can.“ He grabs Granite’s arm and steers him towards a dark patch among the shrubs where he knows the path begins. Even with so much going on in the back of his mind he marvels at the thick solid arm he is holding which seems more like a log of wood. Granite limps and grunts but moves fast. The other Guardsmen seem able to follow, but murmuring about how stiff they feel after so long sitting bound together. Surefoot leads the way.
Clouds continue to cover the moon and the way is black. Across the valley tents still burn and Horsemen shout. Dragonfly worries about Sniffer but must concentrate on finding his own footing and helping Granite. “Focus on the task in hand,“ he remembers Old Tealeaf saying.
Granite’s left leg is clearly damaged but he struggles upward, pushing and heaving, using his hands as well as his good leg. Dragonfly helps when he can.
They don’t stop until they reach the halfway point from which they fired arrows at the start. Granite lowers himself to the ground breathing heavily and saying nothing. Other Guardsmen follow his example. Dragonfly looks anxiously for Sniffer but the clouds are thick and clouds begin to spit rain.
Granite rises slowly to his feet. The others follow without a word and Surefoot leads the way upwards once more. It seems a dark, scrambling age before they stop again. At last Dragonfly can see the two massive boulders at the head of the path and they reach the top, exhausted, hot and dropping to the stony ground.
“There is a path from here to the right,“ explains Surefoot. “It will lead us to a point where we can see if the Horseman are attacking the Citadel“.
But there is a sudden cry from down the slope. “The Horsemen have found our trail. We must move faster,” whispers Surefoot.
“Wait! Listen!” urges Dragonfly. They stay as still as the rocks, and hear grunting, the noise of climbing feet and rustling grass. The archers prepare the few arrows they have left. “It’s Sniffer and the others,” cries Dragonfly with great relief. “ We’re here,” he calls down softly.
“Good,” comes the brief reply. More grunting follows until Sniffer and the other three pass between the two boulders and join them in their dark hollow, gasping for air. “What a climb!” exclaims Sniffer between gulps. “We managed to release the ladies. Two of them. Found them a horse each. Rode away. So grateful.”
”Well done my kind friend. But we must keep moving, ” whispers Dragonfly urgently. Surefoot sets off along a new path urging them to follow.
As they amber round the side of the hill the moon breaks through the clouds once more and suddenly they can see Blue Lake glittering silver. On its shore lies the dark smudge of the burnt town and the mighty walls of the Citadel. They hurry towards a high viewing point but stop suddenly. Silhouetted against the sky is the figure of a bent man leaning on a stick.
“Old Tealeaf! Master Tealeaf!“ cries Dragonfly moving forward with conviction. The others follow and they join the old man on his high vantage point.
“Yes. It’s me. Old Tealeaf. So old that I have lived to see the destruction of this great city.” He speaks softly without taking his eyes from the scene below. The ground in front of the Citadel is crawling with horses and horseman like angry ants.
”They have broken through the Great Gates and a setting fire to buildings in the courtyard,” continues the old man.
Dragonfly forces his gaze from the frightening scene below to look at the old man. The moonlight has turned his worn grey tunic and his straggly white hair to silver. He is small but his stillness and the moonlight make him seem beyond measurement.
“What will happen Master?” he dares to ask.
“The citizens and the remaining Guardsmen will be in the strong tower and safe for a while,“ says Old Tealeaf quietly. “The Horseman are burning everything they can and will soon reach the fireworks and gunpowder stores. Look! It’s happening already.”
A series of very bright lights and flashes appear above the Citadel walls. Dragonfly gasps in wonder and then the sound hits hits him in the chest. More light bursts from the Citadel, some of it brightly coloured. More crashing sound. Amidst the amazement, horror and shock Dragonfly recalls in a flash stories he has heard of volcanoes on the islands of Ye Da So. So this is what they must be like. So powerful. More destructive than a wild storm at sea.
Horseman are pouring out of Citadel gates. Dragonfly looks again at Old Tealeaf and sees tears rolling through deep wrinkles.
“It is time for you to go,” says the old man. “Go south. Go to find the Master of the Cleansing Fire. Tell him what fire can do, for good or ill. You are one of very few to witness this. You have a story to tell that he may wish to hear”.
SCROLL TWENTY TWO
Songbird tries to give prayers of sincere gratitude to her Ancestors. But it is hard to concentrate when she feels exhausted and her horse smells so bad that it makes her lips curl. She and Aunt are urging their horses down a moonlit road that she hopes will lead to safety in Rice Mountain, capital of the Kingdom of the South.
“This is terrible,“ cries Aunt from behind. “My horse is shaking me to pieces.“
“ We must fly like the wind in case the Horsemen pursue,“ replies Songbird over her shoulder.
“This horse certainly can’t fly. It has no wings and only three legs,“ replies Aunt, her voice shaken by the jarring horseback.
Songbird is pleased that Aunt can joke after all they have been through since yesterday. When the ten Horsemen surrounded them in the wood she thought they would be killed. Acting like a magical, singing Princess had worked, at first. They were treated with respect, put on horses and taken to the Horsemen’s camp in the hills.
Songbird had never seen such a sight as that camp. Her father commanded many soldiers but they were always disciplined. This seemed different, wild. So many horses, some tethered, others roaming freely, so many big white tents pitched around a wide area of grassland, fires being lit, cooking pots hung over flames, Horsemen returning as if from battle, exhausted but excited, a group of bedraggled prisoners with their hands tied, being made to sit in a big circle, their heads hung down.
The Horsemen who had brought Songbird and Aunt protected them from the others that shouted with excitement when they saw the two ladies on horseback. Aunt whimpered. Songbird looked straight ahead, solemn, sitting upright on her fine white horse, doing her best to look like an important princess.
They were told to dismount in gruff language they couldn’t understand but the meaning was obvious. Then they were lead into a large, circular white tent with nothing in it except a rough carpet around the central pole and made to sit. Songbird was glad she still wore pantaloons under her red dress which she had to hitch up around her waist in order to sit cross-legged. Their left wrists were secured to the tent post by a Horseman who grunted as he tied the straps.
Songbird could not resist looking at him as he knelt beside her. The skin on his face was like leather dried in freezing winds and burnt by a fierce sun. His eyes were deep-set between a strong forehead and high cheekbones. The animal furs of his jacket were stained and smelt damp. His boots seemed far too big and reached his knees. His black hair was streaked with grey and hung over one side of his face as he bound their wrists. She was surprised at how gently he worked. And then he was gone, the tent flap closing behind him leaving the two ladies in a white world of strange sounds and fading light.
Aunt hung her head allowing tears to drop onto her lap. Songbird started to shiver violently. Sitting scrunched on the floor, hands tied to the tent pole, they did their best to hug and comfort one another
“What will they do to us? Will they bring us food? I’m so thirsty,“ Aunt kept muttering in fear and longing. Songbird tried to relax her Aunt and control her own shivers by repeating, “We must be calm. We must be calm.“
Gradually the white walls of the tent turned grey as the day faded and the rough waves of fear subsided.
They listened to the mixture of sounds outside, trying to make sense of what was happening. The guttural cries and shouted conversations of the Horsemen meant very little. But through this they began to hear snatches of quiet conversation spoken in the common tongue.
“Those must be the prisoners taken in battle,” whispered Songbird eagerly.
“That’s no help to us,” replied Aunt almost sobbing. “They’ve been tied up like chickens in the market place.“
Suddenly a Horseman pushed through the tent door carrying a small candle, a single earthenware dish and a cup. He grunted as he put them down beside Songbird and left as abruptly as he had come.
“I guess this is for both of us,” said Songbird putting the fingers of her free hand into the bowl. “Rice and dumplings. Quite hot,” she declared. “It could be worse.“
“Taste them carefully,” urged Aunt. “It’s hard to see in this light. It could be anything. Fried cow dung perhaps.“
Songbird bit into a dumpling. “If this is fried cow dung it’s been excellently cooked,“ she said chewing greedily, lips dripping with fat. Aunt followed her lead.
Then they heard cries of alarm, orders being shouted, urgent footsteps, panic spreading among the Horsemen who seemed to be running to a distant corner of the field, as if under attack. The ladies finished the rice and dumplings, eating hurriedly with their free right hands, sharing the food as equally as possible, all the time listening. They were so hungry it was almost as if they inhaled their food, sucking it up in a few moments. And then they sat still, not saying a word, listening.
By now daylight had faded completely. The tent walls were dark but one side began to glow faint orange. “Is that crackling fire?” asked Songbird as much to herself as to Aunt. It was hard to be sure amidst the distant shouts and whinnying of horses. And then footsteps close at hand, running towards them. Two Horsemen burst through the tent entrance so violently that part of the tent wall fell away. They ran to Songbird, seized her roughly and then, growling quietly between themselves, started to cut the leather thongs around her wrist. She screamed as loudly as she could. Another Horseman ran in and shouted at the men pointing angrily in the direction of the commotion. All three ran away leaving them dry-mouthed and panting with fear, the leather straps still holding firmly.
With part of the wall now removed they could see something of what was happening. Tents in the distance were on fire. Men, like stick figures silhouetted black against flickering orange, were rushing about trying to put out the flames. In the darkness near them prisoners sat in a circle, dark and muttering.
For what seemed a long while they watched, hearts racing, eyes wide, mouths open. And then Songbird caught a movement out of the side of her eye. “Look!” she cried, trying to suppress excitement. “Are they coming to free the prisoners?“ Crouching figures ran from dark bushes on the nearby hillside towards the captives and started passing among them, whispering.
Songbird could feel her heart pounding, hear blood rushing in her ears. The clouds flicked across the moon making it very hard to see what was happening. But then some of the men started to stand up.
“Over here! Please set us free. We are prisoners as well,” Songbird called softly. She repeated the call twice and then two men hurried towards their tent.
“How many of you?“ whispered the outline of a young man crouching at the tent entrance. “I can’t see you properly.“
“Just two of us ladies. Our hands are bound by leather to the tent pole. Can you cut us free?”
The two men stumbled forward feeling their way to Songbird and Aunt. Within moments the bonds were gone. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” repeated Songbird struggling to her feet and then bowing in gratitude.
“Who are you?” asked the taller of the two young men with a sniff.
“We are travelling singers, entertainers captured by the Horsemen yesterday. We want to go south as quickly as possible. But our horses have been taken from us,“ explained Songbird.
“Lots of small horses harnessed outside. Quickly, we can free two of them,” said one of the young men already peering nervously out of the tent to see if any Horsemen were about. He hurried them beneath a large tree nearby where tethered horses were stamping and snorting in the darkness. Songbird looked for her white horse but he was not there. No time to be fussy. Together they picked out two horses that looked less sweaty than the others and found blankets over a wooden post which they spread on the horses’ backs. Then the young men helped Songbird and Aunt mount up.
“I think if you go that way you will join the road that leads south,“ said the young man pointing. “Go as fast as you can. May your Ancestors be with you!“
“May we meet again in happier times,“ replied Songbird. The two men hurried into the darkness. The ladies turned their horses in the opposite direction and, applying gentle pressure with their heels and guiding with simple reins, encouraged them to move.
Crouched low over the horses’ backs they descended a gentle slope into a dark gully heading southward. Gradually the noise of the camp grew faint. The horses were tired and seemed to find the ladies’ instructions difficult to understand, but they knew how to walk through tough grass and stones in the darkness without stumbling.
And as they came up a long slope the clouds slid off the moon and there lay a clear, well-trodden road.
“ I’m sure that this is the road that goes south across the Land of Canals. This is the way to the Master of the Cleansing Fire,” cries Songbird softly. They urge their horses with pleading, urging, gentle digging with their heels. Songbird feels that at any moment their escape will be discovered and Horsemen will start to pursue.
But it is not long before Aunt starts a low moan. “We need shelter, food, somewhere to sleep,“ she repeats weakly. “I see a little light ahead. A village perhaps.”
Songbird feels giddy with exhaustion. The world is revolving, the stars wobbling. To avoid falling off she has to lean forward onto her horse’s back, trying to ignore the smell of its muddy, damp hair.
“We must keep going”, she says as loudly as she can. And then a sudden loud thump from behind. The horses stop. The ladies look round in time to see the hills in the distance silhouetted by flickering red light which quickly fades. Another thump and the light brightens briefly, the hills fiercely dark against the red sky.
“Something’s happening at Blue Lake City,” murmurs Songbird her mouth croaking dry. “They must be letting off their famous fireworks. Perhaps defending the city.”
“Whatever it is it’ll keep the Horsemen busy,“ says Aunt. “We don’t need to keep going all night. let’s go to the light ahead. Perhaps it’s a village with somewhere to sleep.”
“Alright, alright,“ replies Songbird. “I surrender. We will go to that light, whatever it is, and go to sleep.“
It doesn’t take long for the horses to take them along the road and down a track towards the light which turns out to be the embers of a small fire at the centre of a group of three village hovels and some collapsed barns. Songbird calls out softly. They dismount and call again. A little voice croaks from a dark doorway, “Who are you?” It sounds like an old lady.
“We are two travelling singers fleeing from the Khan’s Horsemen,“ explains Songbird. We just seek shelter for the night”.
“Most of these huts are deserted,” said the little voice. They still cannot see the person talking. “People have fled. Take that hut beside you. You’ll find straw to sleep on. I have no food to offer, except perhaps a little boiled rice in the morning.”
Songbird thanks the voice, and then takes a small flaming stick from the dying embers of the fire to light their way. With Aunt’s help she ties the two horses to a post outside the hut and then enters the door, holding the weak flame in front and peering into the gloom. A bare floor and some straw in the corner is all they can see, but they hear rustling noises.
“ I think we will have to share the straw with mice. But we have no choice. Let’s just lie down and sleep as quickly as we can, forgetting our hunger,“ sighs Songbird taking her horse blanket and adjusting herself onto the straw. Aunt does the same without a word of complaint.
Dreams crowd upon Songbird, dreams of horses galloping through tall grass, men shouting like wild animals, a city in flames, and then a dive deep into the darkness of sleep. Later, through a fog of unknowing, slow consciousness returns and she hears voices speaking in a strange language that sounds like the coughing of a deer. At first she lets the voices lull her and then she startles awake, heart racing, ears straining for sound. There can be no doubt : the sound of men’s voices is close and certainly not a dream.