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Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain Chapter 3.4 Myrmidons

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Chapter 3.4 Myrmidons 

Orchid started to tell her story, fixing her gaze on the brazier: "One

evening, at the age of seven, I saw father sharpening and burnishing his backsword. I was scared by the sight of the sharp-edged weapon and I implored father not to wield it, but to put it away. Father told me he had to take one more life with this blade before he could lock it up for ever. I

clasped my arms around his neck, entreating him not to kill anybody. There and then he poured forth the details of an incident.

"My father took me a long way back to the time when the serfs were living in a state of destitution, in want of food and clothing. They were

crying out for food as they subsisted only upon bark and roots that animals eat. After this provender had all been devoured, they subsisted on mud and soil. Many died of hunger. Mothers, deprived of food, failed to give milk, starving many young at their breast. Nonetheless, the government officials were hard about extorting tithes and fines from the tenants and the

landowners pressed the deprived for their dues and rents which were owed. Many serfs who failed their obligations were either sentenced to death by the official administrators or thrown into jail by the rich landlords. My father taught me a poem, written by a young gentleman, who was reputed a literary man and an accomplished martial artist. Would you like to listen to his verse?"

"We are all attentive," the Company replied. When she reached the part "reputed a literary man and an accomplished martial artist", Tree knew immediately she was referring to Li Yan, an army general of the Dashing King. Orchid then proceeded to pour forth the lines,

For years locusts and demons of drought devastated the land,

Scourging rice seedlings and young ears on the stalks, blighting all crops. Rates for barter-staple soared, jumping in folds by score and score.

The great mass of people over the country strove and starved,

Obliged to replenish themselves with grassy roots, herbs and leaves.

And children cried and whined, pouring themselves out on mother and father.

Cauldron, earthernware and cooking stove had long since lain unused. Day in, day out, from morning till dawn, begging a meal was hard. Officials were more ferocious than tigers in extorting tithes.

The wealthy and high-ranking, like jackals and wolves, were out hounding debts.

The masses were living on the edge and drawing their last breath. Departed spirits went forth to the kingdom of Death,

Leaving heaps of scattered bones strewn high on derelict mounds. Though they strove hard as they might not to stare death in the face,

None could refrain from shedding tears through those miserable years. And fear dripped from eyes, transforming them with a rusty dye.

Although the country was now enjoying peace and prosperity half way through the reign of Emperor Qianlong, floods and droughts infested the country annually, imposing considerable hardship on the common people. They had to strive hard to secure a living. The group assembled listened intently to every syllable and line delivered by Orchid. She enunciated the words in a perfect tone and her voice was compellingly melancholic,

affecting all present. It had awakened a chord of memory, about the trouble they had been through among the Martial Brotherhood, the thoughts of

which made them shudder.

Orchid then continued her story: "My father's story goes that in the end the common people broke down under these hardships. They could not bear the yoke any more. A great hero emerged at long last, marshalling the masses to besiege the capital. By a stroke of bad luck, after the hero had

ascended the throne, he proved a poor administrator of his country,

committing blunders and ill-treating his people. The army officers under his command turned to killing and looting, forcing the masses to turn their backs now on the hero. However, the hero believed that the masses had found a new leader in the gentleman-fighter to whose poem you have just listened. Gripped by fear, he ordered to have this very son of the gentry

slaughtered. This incident brought on towering waves, for his followers reacted violently, fermenting agitation. It was not long after that the hero had his own life ended at the hands of a traitor." Orchid heaved a sigh at this.

After pausing for a while, Orchid then continued, "His three myrmidons then set out in quest of the missing myrmidon, hoping he would take the matter into his own hands and wreak vengeance for the great hero."

"The Mandate by then had come under the sway of a nomadic tribe from Manchuria. A Manchu ascended the throne, proclaiming himself Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The Emperor issued an edict, ordering the

apprehension of the confederates of the deposed sovereign. The three myrmidons, no longer able to go into hiding, fled in disguise. One dressed up as a feldsher, a quack practioner hawking herbal drugs and medicinal

concoctions. One went in the disguise of a pauper, begging alms. The remaining myrmidon, being the strongest of the three, disguised himself as a sham porter. The four myrmidons, pledging themselves in a sworn

Brotherhood, had remained with each other through thick and thin for

several decades, tending to each other with great devotion. Their attachment was fused closer than natural brothers. The three remaining myrmidons

constantly had their lost sworn Brother on their minds; they missed him dreadfully. Thus they travelled far and wide over the country in search of him. But their efforts proved futile. When their quest was nearing the end of the eighth year, they began to harbour the thought that the missing myrmidon might have been slain in defending the great hero. The three myrmidons were grief-stricken."

The assembly was following Orchid's narration intently. She had adopted a tone of delivery as if she were telling a story to a group of small children. She must have imitated the tone characterized by her father in bygone days.

The Company present remarked to themselves, "It is said that, though the

sobriquet Gilt-faced Buddha contained the adjunct Buddha, the man himself is not kind and benevolent. He was known as a cruel and furious fighter,

abhorring all evil as a deadly foe. Yet it seems he was a surprisingly affectionate and loving father."

Orchid took up her story again at this point: "A few years had elapsed

and the three myrmidons decided not to continue their quest for the missing sworn Brother. As the traitorous villain who had taken the life of the great hero, having been made a Feudatory Prince, was now enjoying his fortune and happiness in the southwestern border province of Yunnan, the three myrmidons, after serious consultation, decided to journey southwest and

stab the traitorous villain to death. Immediately they set out on the journey, embarking on their mission of wreaking vengeance for the great hero and for their sworn Brother." The two Brothers-at-arms, Hawk and Prime, exchanged glances. They knew the traitorous villain to whom she was alluding was Wu Sangui, who had been conferred the title "Prince Who Pacifies the West" and bestowed a principality in a region bordering the southwest of the kingdom.

Orchid again continued from where she had left off: "The three myrmidons soon found themselves in Kunming, capital city of Yunnan province. They were cautiously reconnoitring the vicinity of the traitor's residence. On the night of the fifth day of the third moon, the three myrmidons leapt over the walls of the big house, all armed with swords and secret weapons. The traitor had his mansion closely guarded round the

clock. A sentry caught all three red-handed the moment they touched the ground. A battle ensued. The three myrmidons who fought fast and furious slew or wounded some twenty sentries in a trice, throwing themselves off the sentries barring their way. They dashed headlong into the bed-chamber, counting on capturing the traitor on the spot, for he was now surrounded.

Suddenly a man bounded from the side, shielding the front of the traitor.

The three myrmidons saw that this very sentry was the sworn Brother

whom they had been seeking for years. The sworn Brother excelled them all in martial ability. He was shielding the traitor, not allowing them to touch him. Mixed feelings of shock and wrath filled the three myrmidons. There

and then they engaged him in a battle. In no time, several tens of sentries rushed into the chamber, coming to his aid. Being far outnumbered by their opponents, the three myrmidons had to run for their lives. Unfortunately, the old sham porter was captured on the spot.

"The porter myrmidon was interrogated by the traitor. He shouted and yelled at the interrogator using the most horrid epithets, calling upon all the gods. Then he accused the traitor of betraying the Hans and their kingdom to the Tartars. The traitor had him beaten severely, his legs mutilated, and thrown into a dungeon. The blood Brother, remorse-ridden, stole secretly to the dungeon and set him free. The sham porter, the feldsher and the pauper then met and wept without restraint. They found it hard to believe that this elder sworn Brother of theirs could have denounced their cause and joined

league with their enemies. After quietly probing further into the matter, they unravelled one yet more spiteful and heart-rending happening: their investigation showed that, after the three myrmidons had fought their way out of Jiugong Mountain to call in help, the sworn brother was left in waiting. Several days elapsed and no reinforcements seemed imminent. Sensing the situation, he took the great hero with his own hands and handed himself over to the enemies. He was later granted a ranking statesmanship by the Manchu Emperor, having also been given the post of Military

Governor in the service of the treacherous villain."

The assemblage changed its countenance on learning this. According to one version of the story the Dashing King had had his life taken on Jiugong Mountain by the common masses; by his army officers according to another version. Nothing gave rise to the third version that the killer was his own

confidant, the myrmidon, whom he had trusted greatly.

Orchid sighed and continued her narration: "The three myrmidons, now having confirmed all their findings, concluded that he would have to pay. They admitted that even they three acting together were no match for him fighting single-handed. Now that the sham porter was seriously wounded, they were worth even less. While pondering on what steps to take, they

suddenly received a letter dispatched by their sworn Brother, extending to each an invitation to a wine party on the night of the fifteenth day of the third moon, in the Immense Pool.

"The three myrmidons anticipated that the sender of the letter would be involved in some trickery. As he had already gathered detailed information about their movements and whereabouts, he certainly had control of the

situation. Considering also that they were strangers to the locale, they found themselves in no position to decline the invitation. As matters now stood, they were obliged to go to the wine party, even if it meant committing and jeopardizing their lives. This particular trip which they had to take involved great risk.

"On the day appointed, the three myrmidons travelled to the edge of Immense Pool to attend the wine party, all secretly armed with edged

weapons. The sworn Brother was there before the appointed time, waiting by himself, having brought no bodyguard with him. He was clad in a simple coarse garment of the commoners, similar to the one worn by the four myrmidons in the old days. The four of them procured some boiled meat, roast chicken, buns and several catties of good wine from a small tavern.

Then they boarded a boat which took them to the centre of the lake. There they enjoyed the moonlight, along with the food and drink. "While they were drinking, they recounted their audacious and boisterous days in the army. As the sworn Brother made no mention of the great hero, the other three had to check themselves. The sworn Brother gulped down bowl after bowl of wine. When the time approached mid-night, he lifted his head up towards the sky, crying out, 'Brothers, it has been a long time since we parted. I feel extremely happy today.'"

The last sentence was delivered boldly and uninhibitedly, somewhat incongruous with the style of the gentle and noble young lady who was

speaking. However, this incongruity went unheeded as the group assembled were all listening intently, fascinated by the suspense and mystery of the

story.

A short while later, the young lady in gamboge carried on her story: "In the end, the myrmidon disguised as a feldsher could hold himself back no longer and he sneered, 'You are now a ranking statesman and are enjoying fame, fortune and prosperity; of course you have every right to feel happy. I wonder how the Generalissimo would have felt?' The four myrmidons still referred to the great hero as the Generalissimo, long after he had proclaimed himself Emperor.

"The sworn Brother said with a sigh, 'The Generalissimo must be extremely lonely. I shall show you the way to pay respects to the

Generalissimo once the present matter of business has been settled.' "At this, the three myrmidons all boiled with anger, thinking to

themselves, 'You are planning to take our lives and send us on our way to meet the Generalissimo in the underworld.' Thereupon, the sham porter reached his hand into his garment for his knife. The feldsher myrmidon

signalled to him with his eye. Then he took up the wine-kettle and poured out a cupful for his sworn Brother, remarking, 'What really happened to the Generalissimo after we parted company on Jiugong Mountain?' The sworn Brother lifted his eyebrows and said, 'My reason for asking you three

Brothers to come here today is expressly to discuss this matter with you.' The beggar myrmidon reached his hand out quickly, pointing at his back, crying, 'Do you see who is coming here?'

"The long missing sworn Brother immediately turned round and found the beggar and feldsher myrmidons both flashing blades, one slashing off his right arm with a blow, and the other lunging at his back, the weapon biting several inches into the skin. The sworn Brother let out a cry and wheeled round in a trice. Stretching forth his left hand, he wrested the blades from his two assailants and flung them into the lake. Now thrusting his hand in the air, he piqued the feldsher myrmidon on the paralytic point on his chest, draining him of his colour. Then he cried out, 'We four have pledged ourselves in sworn Brotherhood to owe allegiance to each other, to realize the same common ambition and to commit ourselves to the same

common cause. Yet ... yet ... why have you attacked me like cowards?' The pique had paralysed the quack practitioner and he could not move.

Brandishing his sword, the sham porter shouted, 'You have slain the

Generalissimo, sold him out to gain wealth and distinction, and yet you still assume airs, bragging about integrity, principles, valiance, altruism,

chivalry, loyalty, righteousness, and all the rest!'

"The sworn Brother flung out his leg and knocked the knife from the porter's hand, crying out with a laugh, 'Brother, very well said. Indeed you have integrity, high principles and heroic spirits in your veins.' Though he had one of his arms cut off and was sorely wounded, his power and courage were still commanding. The three assailants were awe-struck. As soon as the maimed myrmidon stopped laughing, he broke down, remarking, 'What a shame, what a shame that I will never get down to the major issue.' At this, he relaxed his grip on the feldsher. The latter was being cautious,

afraid he might have in store for him another of his atrocious tricks. He flung out his arm on a sudden, aiming true and fast at his chest, exercising the heavy-handed pugilistic skill, dynamic in both strength and magnitude. The sworn Brother let out a loud cry, his mouth spouting crimson blood.

Suddenly, he raised his left hand, driving his palm hard against the bulwark, causing the sawdust to dance and a plank to fly off. He said, twisting a

smile, 'Though I am seriously wounded, it would not matter if I wished to dispatch you all. But you are my dear Brothers: I would not dream of such a thing.'

"The three assailants retreated to the prow, lining up shoulder to shoulder to guard against any sudden attack. The sworn Brother went on with a sigh, 'Remember to keep what passed between us this very day a sworn secret. If my son were to get news of it, you three would never be his match. I intend to slit my throat so you will not be unjustly accused of taking my life.' Thereupon, he whipped out his dagger, slashed it across his throat and dropped to the ground on bent knees, his head facing down. The porter myrmidon could not restrain himself any longer. He rushed forward and

cradled the dying man in his arms, crying, 'Oh, my elder Brother.' 'My dear Brothers,' quavered their sworn Brother, breathing his last. 'As to how the

Generalissimo's poniard came to be wrapped in a shroud of mystery, he ... at the Crag Canyon the old Master ...' Blood oozed from his throat, and he died on the boat without ever finishing his last sentence.

"The three looked at his body, and were filled with mingled feelings of sorrow and joy. They found two rows of inscriptions engraved on the

weapon with which he had slit his throat. They immediately recognized it as the very military weapon once wielded by their great hero, the Dashing

King."

At this, the Company present turned towards Tree and examined the poniard he was holding in his hand: a short, keen stabbing weapon.

Suddenly Hawk shook his head, claiming, "I do not think this blade belonged to the Dashing King."

"What do you know?" shouted Century.

To this Hawk retorted, "Li had massacred tens of thousands. He had

stained his hands for miles and miles across the country. It is inconceivable that he could sanction this inscription by military decree." The assembly

was dumb-founded and baffled by his words.

Yu, the steward, suddenly broke in, "Who was there to bear witness to the Dashing King's alleged atrocities?"

"But the ancients believed that they had happened," replied Hawk, "and people still think so. We cannot be wrong."

"You ranking officials would certainly claim that he slaughtered for

slaughter's sake," retorted the steward. "You may be encouraged to know that the Dashing King exterminated only the corrupt officials, local ruffians and oppressive gentry. These people were merely riffraff. The Dashing

King pronounced the decree 'Killing any man is like murdering my own father' to his army to warn his soldiers against taking the lives of the innocent. There was truth in what he decreed."

Hawk was considering refuting the steward, but on seeing how boldly the steward conducted himself, Hawk checked himself on a sudden. Prime

wanted to break this impasse, and said, "Miss Miao, what happened afterwards? Please carry on." Orchid continued her narration: "The sham porter then raised a question, 'He said the Generalissimo was at the Crag Canyon: what does that mean?' To this the feldsher replied, 'Did he mean to say that the Generalissimo was buried at the Crag Canyon?' The tramp shook his head, 'He was indeed wild and wicked, going even to the extent of fabricating a legend as he drew his final breath.' The story then states that upon the death of the great hero, the traitor brought his corpse to the capital, and was given a handsome price by the Imperial House. The Emperor had the head severed from the body and hung the bloody trophy over the City Gate to serve as a warning to others.

The three myrmidons, putting their lives at stake, finally made away with the severed head of their dead Master. They buried it in a precipitously

steep and remote place. When they had heard from their sworn Brother that their Master was at the Crag Canyon, they had found it hard to accept it as the truth.

"After slaying their sworn Brother, the three myrmidons then

concentrated their efforts on assassinating the traitor. However, all attempts failed as the traitor had taken every precaution to put himself under the tightest security. Soon word of their atrocious act of slaying their sworn

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