Shin-Jen heard a bird calling somewhere, a lonely, desolate sound. Apart from that, there was no other noise - the silence was as perfect and complete as he had ever heard in his life. If he closed his eyes, he could almost forget the hundred (probably more than a hundred, he thought) men surrounding him, with their bows at the ready and their arrows aimed at him.
The day had the markings of being an ordinary day. Shin-Jen arose early, performed his morning rituals, and set out before anybody else was awake. The villagers, while polite, hadn't exactly welcomed him with open arms, and Shin-Jen wanted to leave before his stay became awkward. Some things in this life never changed.
Packing his few belongings into his sack and hoisting his staff, Shin-Jen walked. He had done a lot of walking these past few months, and was able to cover a lot of ground in the cool autumn weather. His travel was, for the most part, uninterrupted. Occasionally he would pass a farmer, sometimes a monk, and once a child, walking all by herself. She couldn't have been more than eleven, maybe twelve years old. Her face was downcast, and she shuffled along on dilapidated sandals. Shin-Jen made no attempt to talk to her as they passed each other.
But for all his travels, Shin-Jen was grateful that he had never encountered any soldiers. Until now, of course.
He couldn't help wonder how they found him. He had been walking in a valley some miles from the village, making no attempt to draw attention to himself, when they all rose from the hilltops overlooking him, as one. Hundreds of them. If someone had told him there were thousands of them, Shin-Jen would have no difficulty believing it. After rising, they stood stiller than statues, their arrows pointed at him. Being solders, their faces were masked, so each individual looked identical, from one to the other. Only the eyes, staring balefully over a simple black mask, were visible. Eyes staring at Shin-Jen, arrows aiming at Shin-Jen. Frozen in his tracks, Shin-Jen heard a bird calling somewhere. It was a lonely, desolate sound.
Only one of the soldiers was not pointing an arrow at him. This was a man on a horse, and his was the only face not masked. He was young, Shin-Jen thought, much younger than himself. The horse, lack of mask, sword at his side and crest on his breastplate indicated superior rank. And as was befitting a man of superior rank, he was the only one of the solders to talk.
"I am Yuan-Tei," he said. "Commander of the Emperor's Fifth Archery Regiment."
Shin-Jen said nothing.
"And you are Shin-Jen."
Shin-Jen said nothing.
Yuan-Ten smiled. "Come now, Shin-Jen. I know who you are. There is no reason to play games."
The man had a point. Raising his head (the movement required some courage, he thought glumly), he spoke, addressing not just Yuan-Tei but also the Emperor's Fifth Archery Regiment:
"I am Shin-Jen."
Smiling, Yuan-Tei inclined his head slightly. "A pleasure."
"For a wanderer, you are a hard man to find," Yuan-Tei said. "But fortunately for us, you have made many enemies on your wanderings."
Betrayed. Or, more likely, ratted out, since Shin-Jen had no allies to betray him. He took a breath to speak, but caught himself. The last thing he wanted to do was say anything to implicate himself, and the safest thing to do would be to hold his tongue unless asked something directly.
Still smiling, Yuan-Tei waited a beat before continuing. "We had heard you were a man of few words, Shin-Jen. But even this surprises us."
Silence again. The soldiers remained impassive. Even Yuan-Tei's horse was still.
"Have you nothing to say in your defense, criminal?" Yuan-Tei asked, his smile fading a little.
At last, something direct. "My actions were to protect myself," Shin-Jen said. "One does not become a criminal by defending himself against a criminal."
"Oh ho, a philosopher!" said Yuan-Tei, the smile back in full force. Shin-Jen wondered again how young this man was. Twenty-two? Twenty-three? God, so young. What was he, Shin-Jen, doing at twenty-three? How long ago was that?
But Yuan-Tei was speaking: "You will forgive me if I leave the intellectual…discourse to the scholars in the emperor's palace." He bowed his head and raised his hands slightly. "I am but a soldier, sent to apprehend a murderer."
"I have stated my case."
"You claim innocence, yet you fled and have been fleeing ever since. Hardly philosophical, I think."
Slowly now, Shin-Jen told himself. Don't say anything rash.
"I fled because I was scared. I've been - "
"If you were acting in protection of yourself, you should have had no reason to be scared," said Yuan-Tei, sounding like a father disciplining his son.
"I had never killed anyone before."
A pause. "Is that an excuse, or a justification for your flight?"
Shin-Jen desperately wanted to lick his lips, but he knew that could well seal his fate. "A justification. I panicked."
The wind picked up, blowing Yuan-Tei's long hair behind his back. The soldiers still had not moved since they had risen.
"And you didn't turn yourself in for fear that you would be arrested for running. Am I correct?"
Shin-Jen nodded. "You are correct."
Yuan-Tei looked at the soldiers, the hills, the sky, the valley, before finally returning his eyes to Shin-Jen. "The decision by the emperor's magistrates is that you be apprehended for your crimes."
"But I did not kill the old man intentionally!" Shin-Jen said, and immediately regretted it.
Yuan-Tei cocked an eyebrow. "You are not resisting arrest, are you?"
Shin-Jen dared to look away from Yuan-Tei, and scanned the soldiers. Arrows still pointing at him. They must have very strong bows, he thought distractedly.
Yuan-Tei followed his gaze. "Ah, of course. How can you resist arrest when such a move would warrant certain death?"
The two men stared at each other again. Finally, Yuan-Tei spoke.
"As I said before, the emperor's magistrates have decreed your arrest, and if necessary, death - either at my command, or the command of a royal executioner."
Shin-Jen could feel his stomach sinking. His ears picked up a drumming sound, a rhythmic pounding coming from somewhere.
"The emperor himself, of course, has other things to worry about. And his magistrates are in the royal courts."
Still that infernal drumming from somewhere.
Yuan-Tei leaned forward in his saddle. "Here, I am the emperor."
Shin-Jen realized the drumming was his own heart, threatening to tear out of his chest.
Settling back in his saddle, Yuan-Tei continued, sounding lazy. "You are a small fish, Shin-Jen, and I did not particularly relish this assignment. As far as I'm concerned, you're guilty and deserve execution." He smiled; Shin-Jen had a vision of a piranha. "But I am a fair man, and if you can earn your freedom…"
It was a trick, a trap, it had to be. But the bait was too good for Shin-Jen to resist.
"What do you mean?"
Twirling a lock of his hair between his figured, Yuan-Tei regarded his prey for a while before answering. "If you can survive volleys from the archers" - he indicated them with a nod of his head - "you can go. I will tell my superiors that I did not find you."
Shin-Jen did not reply. For one brief, bizarre moment, he thought Yuan-Tei said he was going to order the archers to fire at him - unarmed and defenseless as a baby.
"But - but…" Shin-Jen said. Where to begin? How to begin? "You're going to tell them to fire? At me?"
"Yes," replied Yuan-Tei conversationally. "They will fire at you. If you survive, you go. If you don't, you would have paid the price for your crimes." The piranha smiled again. "It's a case of being executed now, or being executed later."
"But all I've got is this!" Shin-Jen protested, holding his staff up.
In the recesses of his frenzied mind, something stirred. A memory.
"Was that what you had when you killed the old man?"
A memory. Night. A campfire. A long stick. His grandmother.
"He had a knife! He was crazy! He said he was - "
Lessons. Practice. Blisters on his palms. His grandmother telling him not to give up.
"This is not the royal court, Shin-Jen. But I have decided. I, as emperor, have decided."
"But how am I supposed to survive?"
Oh, but he knew now, how he was supposed to survive. It was a million to one shot, he had never done it before, and if he made one mistake - one single, slight, tiny mistake - today would be his last day.
"That, Shin-Jen, is your problem and not mine. And now I grow impatient."
Shin-Jen tried to protest, but his mouth refused to work.
Quickly flicking his head from side to side to survey the soldiers, Yuan-Tei called out, "Ha!" The echo bounced back and forth across the valley.
No movement from anyone. Shin-Jen's heart was hammering so hard, it was almost painful. He could feel sweat trickling into his eyes, down his sides. Carefully, so very carefully, he lowered his sack to the ground. Now it was just him and his staff.
Placing his hand on the handle of his sword, Yuan-Tei called out, "Hei!"
Gradually, using both hands, Shin-Jen started to rotate the staff in front of him, like the blades of a windmill.
Hei! Hei! Hei!, the valley responded.
Although none of them moved - none of them had moved since they ambushed him - Shin-Jen could almost see the soldiers stiffening. Slowly, Yuan-Tei drew his sword from his scabbard. The sliding noise made the horse take an uneasy step backward.
Yuan-Tei raised the sword. The tip pointed skyward. "Cha!"
The revolutions from the staff started to speed. The draft caught on a lock of Shin-Jen's hair resting on his forehead, making it flutter.
Cha! Cha! Cha!
Faster, faster and faster. Now Shin-Jen could hear the whoosh-whoosh from each spin of the staff. The world had taken on a brown tint through the after-image of each turn. He had to time this just right. Had to time it perfectly. If he -
Yuan-Tei brought the sword down abruptly. "TAH!"
As one, the soldiers fired the first round of their arrows, already reaching back into their quivers for the next assault. The arrows leapt towards Shin-Jen, now almost invisible behind the spinning staff, which he rotated to cover his sides and his back.
Nobody knew whether it was just one arrow that reached him first, or whether it was more. The soldiers were too busy loading, firing and re-loading. Shin-Jen, if he was still alive, was in no position to tell. The only unmoving figure was Yuan-Tei, upon his horse, watching from the hilltop as wave after wave of projectile flew towards the brown blur in the valley. He could hear the arrows hit something - a chak-chak of wood hitting something that sounded like wood. It was impossible to tell if the arrows were actually hitting Shin-Jen - there were too many arrows being shot to tell. And the blur kept spinning. It didn't stop with a cry of pain, didn't attempt to run away or dodge the incoming arrows. It just…kept…spinning.
And still the soldiers fired. Soon the air was filled with the sounds of bows twanging, the chak-chak, and the frantic whooshing of the staff as it spun in an almost perfect circle. There was no human being visible in the valley; just hundreds of arrows, the brown blur, and the cloud of dust that it had stirred up around it.
After more volleys - who knew how many? - Yuan-Tei raised his sword again.
"Kah! Tak kah!"
On cue, the soldiers stopped firing. The last of the arrows disappeared into the spinning blur.
Sword still pointing toward the sun, Yuan-Tei waited.
The spinning started to slow, agitating the dust further. Eventually, they could see the shape of the staff in each revolution.
And they could see Shin-Jen, spinning the staff from hand to hand as he danced where he stood. They could see him buck and weave as he passed the staff from one hand to another, over his head, in front of him, across his left side, around his back, across his right side, in front of him, over his head, across his left side, around his back, across his right side, and again, and again. He slowed his dance, easing the revolutions of the staff so they could see the hundreds - thousands? - of broken arrow heads on the ground, piled up layers as high as three or four. Some were knocked away with such force that they had embedded themselves in the rock walls.
Now Shin-Jen's dance had slowed so much that it looked like a graceful Tai Chi performance. The only sound in the valley was the gentle whooshing of his staff as it completed more revolutions.
Finally, he stopped, facing forwards like how he was when he was ambushed.
He leaned on his staff. He was tired.
After an eternity, he looked up, spying an arrow embedded in the staff as he did so. Tiredly, he reached out, plucked it, and let it fall to the ground. His eyes found Yuan-Tei's.
Yuan-Tei's hand carrying the sword had fallen to his side. The soldiers remained impassive.
The two men stared at each other again. Every joint in Shin-Jen's body ached, but he dared not move.
Yuan-Tei's frowned had not cleared since he realized what was happening when the soldiers were firing at Shin-Jen. The same frown looked at Shin-Jen.
Do something, Shin-Jen thought. Say something. Please.
As though he gleamed Shin-Jen's silent plea, Yuan-Tei finally did something.
He nodded, very slightly.
Abruptly, he sheathed his sword, turned his horse, and trotted out of view. The soldiers, dutifully, turned and followed their commander.
Shin-Jen waited until they had all disappeared from view. Then he waited some more, to make sure that there was no one left. How long that wait was, he had no idea.
When he was convinced, he slowly fell to his knees, holding on to his staff for support. He could feel the hundreds - thousands - of marks in the staff where it had deflected every arrow that was fired at him. Some of the splinters broke away in his palms, making him bleed for the first time that day.
His shoulders heaved. Somewhere far away in his memory, he could hear his grandmother speaking to him. Training him. Teaching him.
Tears leaked out from behind his closed eyes. He remained on his knees, holding his staff, for a very long time.