Dragon Sword

A blind swordswoman in China seeks revenge on the cunning and deadly Manchu general who killed her parents.


23. cairn



The boy led the way, Zu's horse drawn behind his by a length of rope.




They'd left the steel traps behind and there was no sound but steadily clip-clopping hoofbeats and the horses snorting.




Zu concentrating all her senses on staying astride the jolting, stiff-haired back. Holding the sword cane lightly across her thighs. Inhaling the heat and the dust.






It was late in the day when they arrived at the crossroads where the bandits had ambushed the pack-train.




The boy dismounted and tied the horses to a dead tree standing bare and white like driftwood in stark and burning sunlight.




They both glugged water from the blind woman's gourd, which she had filled at a well in town. Two other sloshing gourds were tied to the boy's makeshift saddle -- the worn and flattened pelt of a mountain lion.




The boy poured water into a beaver skin and held it for the horses to drink.




Then he went alone down into a small ravine nearby, carrying the spade they had bought in Dragon Gate.






Zu heard him screaming. As if to the sky and the desert and China.




She didn't move. Not even a finger twitched.




Then she heard him gasping and weeping, much more softly, this time only to himself.




Then the clank of metal and small stones. Grating sand.




She sat down crosslegged under the twisted dead tree holding the sword cane. Whenever sweat from her hands made the bamboo slippery she wiped them on her trousers.




Ringing heat. The stark branches gave a little shade. She didn't move except to wave off flies.






The mute boy buried his father, heaping sand and then a cairn of sun-hot stones over the crude grave. There were several dozen deep sword cuts in the body that held fresh maggots and the corpse had already started swelling and birds had plucked out the eyes. Glancing into his father's black eye sockets was what had made him scream.




He then knelt clumsily on the shattered rocks and put his palms and fingers together. The stump of tongue had swollen up again in his mouth, tasting of blood. He had to breathe through his nostrils only, and the air whistled in them.




Mentally, the boy recited a few opening verses from a buddhist sutra. Then he couldn't remember any more.




After a few more moments he picked up his spade and climbed the ravine to where the blind woman was sitting utterly still in her dark clothing and tattered straw hat, cross-legged, under the dead tree.




When she heard him getting near she took the bamboo flute out of her bag. He stood by the horses, his skin shivering, in a fine sweat, as Zu played sharp, piercing notes on her flute. The horses shifted, snorting.




She lowered the flute and slid it into her bag. Then she stood and walked over to the mute boy, sweeping the broken ground with the tip of her sword cane.




He loosed the rope and turned one of the horses for her. Taking hold of Zu's free hand, he placed it on the broad, muscled, sweat-slick shoulder.




Zu grasped the streaming mane and swung up onto the horse's back as it shied and stamped in the dust and the boy stroked the white star on its forehead to keep it still.




He looked up at her, dark against the blazing sky, and though still weeping bitterly -- he laughed.




This happened long ago in China, near the town of Dragon Gate, on the edge of the Western deserts.

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