Dragon Sword

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


22. crows



Zu is now almost completely surrounded by dusty wine-reeking bandits, all tense and silent, two gripping half-drawn bows, the bandit leader advancing in small shuffle steps toward her holding out his two short swords, another man hiding behind a horse as he primes his gun.




It's unusual that a bandit group should have a gun, such weapons are extremely rare, these polished, ivory-inlaid Spanish and Portuguese firearms are hardly ever seen in China.  But sometimes a plodding camel-caravan from the West carries such exotic items to trade with the Han imperial court. These bandits must have taken the gun in an ambush.






Do they know she is Blind Swordswoman Assassin Zu, and that her head carries a bounty of fifty gold pieces? Probably not. They would have to have seen a wanted poster for that, and these men live in the bleakest deserts of China, they ride into Dragon Gate only to trade what they've robbed and to ply the wine houses and brothels.






A man in desert robes and a black turban sitting astride a camel, a black cloth wrapped over his nose and mouth, squints into the blowing dust as he observes this confrontation between a blind swordswoman and a group of fierce bandits.


His name is Edward Savage, though he is known as The Blue Eyed Devil. He is an Englishman, his skin is fair, his eyelashes and eyebrows and his hair are bleached almost white.




He arrived in Dragon Gate yesterday morning and he has just gone out for a camel ride into the desert, which he prefers above all places.




In the desert he sat on a shelf of rock and looked across the white rolling sands to the West.




He has now returned to Dragon Gate to finish his obscure business here with Kut Habba, the vile and grotesque leader of the Red Turban Clan.




The Blue Eyed Devil does not touch the fine Spanish sword in its dark leather scabbard; he looks on, blinking, as these raggedy-assed bandits spread out to approach the blind woman, who stands still and straight as death holding the sword cane at her chest.




He notes the bow-legged bandit with the firearm, lighting its fuse and then crouching to sight under the horse.






They, all the bandits, are dressed in motley scraps and remnants of clothing stolen from their victims, in ragged straw hats and leather breeches and torn shirts and bits of armor, bandannas of bright-colored cloth tied about their necks. They carry clubs, axes, swords, bows and quivers of cane arrows. Edward Savage has seen, and has killed, many of their kind. They are former starving peasants and slaves, the wretched of China and beyond turned predatory killers.






As the bandits edge closer, the boy swings up onto the biggest horse of the group, sitting astride a bear-pelt just ahead of the jangling steel traps, and kicks hard. Screaming, he urges the horse forward, and the blind woman steps aside -- it's either that or be trampled -- as he rides through the bandits, plowing through their body in a cloud of dust and fury, the horse trampling two men who are unable to get out of the way of those slashing, battering hooves.




Just then, Zu rips out her sword from the bamboo casing.




The bandit leader runs at the blind woman and they clash, his short swords whirling and throwing sparks. Spinning her body, Zu strikes away the bandit's vicious blows, using both the sword and her red lacquered bamboo cane as foils.




She hears the doubled twanging thunk of bowstrings and drops to the ground, rolling sideways in a cloud of dust; two bandits have shot arrows at the same instant, and the steel-tipped lengths of cane notched with pigeon feathers shriek over Zu’s head.




The bandit slashes at Zu as she rolls from side to side like a dervish, and then -- just like that -- he falls, his legs cut away just below the knees, and wriggles screaming in the lurid blood spray.






More bandits are running forward slashing at the blind woman with swords and hatchets. They close in on her and she disappears under their bodies. Then --




Edward Savage sees the blind woman rise to her feet, spinning again like a dervish, the brief dazzle of her sword, and five bandits stagger off wildly like drunks in five different directions, each man spurting a fountain of bright arterial blood.




He sees her slap a whistling arrow out of the air with her bamboo cane and then turn sideways to evade another that grazes her cheek, leaving a threadlike red line.




Screaming, the boy has turned the horse and now he rides down the two archers, knocking one aside and trampling the other.




Edward Savage watches as the boy lifts a steel bear-trap overhead and hurls it down on a bandit trying to slash the horse's throat with a small scythe; the trap snaps shut on the man's filthy turban and he falls, writhing and howling curses, and the boy wrenches on the horse's mane and rides over him.






Zu now hurls her bamboo cane at the horse behind which the bandit-gunner crouches taking careful aim. It strikes hard, its iron tip whacking against the big shoulder muscle, and the startled horse jumps and dances sideways, knocking the bandit backwards, the gun going off in a whipcrack and a mist of black powder.




The horse gallops, reaches the end of its rope and goes down neighing and twisting, regains its footing and staggers up again.






Edward Savage watches as the blind woman walks over to the fallen bandit, picking up her empty sword-cane on the way, thrusts her sword into the man's chest, turning the blade as he gasps and burbles blood, then withdraws the steel, flicks it sideways to rid it of streaming blood, and resheathes the shining blade. Calmly.






There are just three bandits left standing. They stare open-mouthed and aghast at the blind woman. When she turns toward them, they drop their weapons and flee. The boy kicks his horse's flanks to chase them down, but Zu shouts him to a halt, and he turns the horse easily and jogs it back to her. He is bare-chested, half his shirt torn away, panting like an animal, drenched with dust and sweat.




That's enough, she tells him.




He nods. Lowers his head. He's weeping bitterly.








The bandit leader is still screaming, crying out for his severed legs; then his cries grow weaker, he says he can't see, he's shivering, it's so cold, so cold and dark, and finally his head falls to the side and he lies unmoving in the dust, in the river of dark blood he's made.




A big crow flaps down from a nearby rooftop where until now it has stood watching the melee, motionless. It struts up to the dead man and picks out his right eye and flaps off holding this delicacy in its curved beak.




Slowly, the roiling white dust thins and settles on the dead men.




More crows gather. They strut back and forth between the bodies, tearing off morsels of flesh.






The blind woman and the boy now lead away the boy's horses covered with sour-smelling bearskins and the plodding flyspecked mule.




The Blue Eyed Devil merely sits on his camel, utterly still, looking after them like one absorbed in deep contemplation.







I write it as I see it, I see the dust and the ruined pillars, I see the man astride the camel, the camel chewing meditatively and spitting into the dust, I see his black turban and the black face cloth covering everything but his blue eyes -- they're a washed out blue like rain in the desert, a brief wild desert rain, it sinks into the sand utterly consumed by dryness, it's gone like nothing.




Edward Savage, English rogue, pirate and adventurer. Once sold as a slave on the public auction block of the marketplace in Khartoum, after being captured drunk in a brothel, tortured, and branded with the crossed-dagger insignia of the Red Turban Clan.




I see blind assassin Zu walk slowly from the marketplace, the crowd parting for her, leading the horse with the boy on it, his little body moving with the horse's steps, he's sitting very stiff and straight covered with dust and sweat, the horse steps over the dead bandits sprawled on the street, besmirched with dust and blood, crows are already strutting here and there amid the corpses delicately tearing off bits of flesh then flapping up to the rooftops to devour their prizes, and the man sitting on his camel watches the blind woman and boy go with the pelt-laded horses, the tired mule plodding behind in the dust and the jangle and rattle of steel traps and iron fittings, and then he orders his camel to kneel and slides from the Arab leather saddle and walks over to the last-killed bandit, the bandit's dead eyes staring at the sky and dead hands clutching the dark flower of blood to his heart, and the man bends and picks up the rare European made firearm and studies it closely, it's still smoking and reeking of powder, ivory-inlaid, carved out of polished dark wood carefully engraved in a flower and leaf pattern. Why not. He unsheathes a curved Kashmiri dagger from beneath his robes and, crouching down, cuts the ammunition and powder pouches from the gaping dead bandit's belt. Then he walks back to his camel and slides the gun and powder and shot into a blanket tied behind his saddle.




And now the crowd closes in on the dead bandits, rushing in the dust and sultry heat of the marketplace to strip these corpses naked of all clothing, weapons, ornaments, even of gold teeth.




The beggars join this affray. They've come stumbling and crawling all the way from Beggar's Wall and they toss their bowls aside to grasp at a strip of cloth or rip away an ear-ring.




The crows, indignant, rawk and rawk at the scavengers and fly back up to the rooftops to go on rawking, calling more of their own kind to the marketplace, so that by dusk the roofs will be black with rawk rawking crows.




But the bodies, soon laid out in a long neat row outside the wine-shop, are guarded by a pair of Red Turban clansman holding staffs to threaten and, if needed, beat all crows and beggars hence.






As soon as the sun sinks away ten more Red Turban clansman will arrive with a creaking ox-cart. They'll pile the limp dead bandits onto this cart and roll it through the stone arch and out into the desert, where grunting and sweating, they'll lift the corpses from the wagon and toss them like offal into a rock chasm for wild dogs to ransack.




They sold the bear-hides to a dealer in animal pelts. The wizened little Chinese store-keeper looked at Zu standing nearby with her sword cane and barely haggled.



Senseless to argue with this sweaty, blood-spattered boy who merely held out his fingers to signify the selling price and shook his head hard at every counter-offer.




The boy put the coins, in a cloth bag, into his shirt against the sweating skin.




They stabled the mule and all but two horses, the boy tenderly giving them water and hay and brushing the froth of sweat and the flies and dust from them.




Then Zu and the boy rode their two horses back out onto the road to the mountains and Han China. 

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