He practiced with the dawn. The stone blade cut through the air as its thick hilt danced with his fingers; slim they were, his digits were far from brittle. He had, after all, carried heavy stones and metals since the day he could work. In those early days, his nights passed soaking healing moss in warm water and washing his aching joints with them. Earlier than that, his mother taught him the barest arts of healing; she mixed herbs and potions and dabbed his numerous wounds. But that was before he was old enough to leave her side, old enough to step onto the warrior's path.
At eight, he truly saw his father for the first time. In their little home in the compound, men were scarcely present, absorbed in obsessive training, journeys and their bound duty to the King. He'd dreamt of the day for years, when he too would be old enough to follow in his honoured father's footsteps. On his eighth birthday, that dream took its first step in becoming a reality. The stern gruff man, once a simple shadow, took form and sustenance as they crossed the land together and climbed towards the top of the world. The three weeks it took to arrive in sight of Heng Shan upon the North Silk Road brought the angel he could never touch within his grasp, and during the journey he vowed to one day pick up his father's sword.
Another six years to the day, and he aimed to perfect his art with a substitute. The final day; the sun had risen into a sky dreary and grey. Clouds hung low in the sky, promising rain. Rain to wash away the blood that would soon cover the land. Rain to wash away the war, the flaws of mankind as another province fell to the King. One day, the entire land would be his…and then there would be peace. And the sky, like the stories the old women told, would be blue once more.
His heart thumped in excitement as he switched to practicing his slashes with the air. The bronze blade sliced through nothing with ease; his wrists slid about in a fluid dance. Years of practice had strengthened the joints; an hour later, they were sore but satisfactorily taut. And at that point, he put down the practice sword in contentment, and turned to meet the sun in the sky.
The yellow orb hid behind grey, and he frowned slightly. Would the Gods not wish them well? Would the sun not show his face?
He turned at his sister's voice, sharp mouth cracking a grin.
'Bai!' he greeted with equal enthusiasm, cheeks pink in contrast to the other's white.
'Get down from there,' the young girl scolded, coarse dress clinging to her angles as she clamoured up to the slope to her brother. 'Honoured brother,' she added humbly, quickly lowering her gaze.
Chao touched her cheek. 'Humbled sister,' he said to her gently, and she peaked at him tentatively. A mere five-year old, she was already starting to learn the way of the women under the King's rule. In some years time, she would be expected to marry a man on the path of the King, and serve him faithfully. Already, her freedom was restricted, but their mother had allowed a final meeting before his first great departure.
'I will not fall,' he said tenderly to her as he stepped upon more balanced ground. 'Nor will I scold my beloved sister when she worries for my wellbeing.'
Bai brightened, brown eyes shining as she reached for his hand. Chao allowed it; he was involved very little with his sister's upbringing and was content with letting her follow her own strings of fate.
The little fingers felt rather bony within his own coarse grip. And they were cool, easing the rough burning that came with repetition.
Bai noticed too, for she withdrew her hand with a quiet yelp. 'Your skin is hot,' she exclaimed, before reaching up and tugging his tunic. The coarse fabric coaxed him down to meet the five year old at eye level, and she placed a delicate hand on his forehead. 'You are sweating.'
Chao gently coaxed the hand away. 'I have been training,' he replied. 'The heat and sweating are a mark of my effort.' And his pride, but it was difficult to explain that to any female, much less one so young.
'Father works you too hard,' the girl complained, pulling at her brother's tunic to make him walk.
Chao followed obediently, his free hand petting his sister's black hair. It was not elegantly bound like the King's royal concubines or his royal family; indeed, it was short and, at the current moment, unruly like his own. Her fingers too were nothing like the fragile reeds of the Princess – of whom he'd met only once and briefly at that – but slightly rough to the touch from healed blisters. A family of four they were, but all of them had to work for their life in the King's backyard.
It was an honour though, to live in the compound and serve His Majesty, and a voice of complaint was never heard throughout the wide land. It felt wider still as Bai merrily skipped down the slope and the view shrunk to what was closer to their feet.
'Come on,' she trilled, tugging him in the direction of their hut. 'Father awaits you.'
'Easy,' her elder brother chided, but he followed without complaint. It was a joy to know he was expected; it meant his time of waiting was finally over.
Master Chen was a stern man by both manner and appearance; his black moustache and short-cropped hair firmly blocked his face. His back stood straight, his arms taut and crossed before him and face impassive in his wait.
His wife was a little jittery by contrast; she fumbled the clay pot as she carried water in. Little droplets darkened the earth as they fell as she hurried to prepare a hasty breakfast. Seldom was her husband at home, but when he was, the best must be provided for him.
Their two children – one five, the other fourteen and ready to leave the house – arrived soonafter. The boy's face was dry as the gentle breeze had evaporated the sticky plague that congratulated his hard work. The girl's was a little pale from the cool air, but that was all.
Master Chen looked disapprovingly at the intertwined hands and the skipping girl. Bai immediately stopped and let go, her face flushing.
'Go inside to your mother,' was all he said.
'Yes, Honoured Father,' she replied and scurried, somewhat ungracefully, into their home.
Chao remained still: silent and respectful, eyes slightly downcast as was proper. In the hierarchy of their land, the soldiers were second only to the King's court in the eyes of the Divine Ruler himself. Although few had been in audience with the King himself, they were all familiar with the face and name of Duke Wen who, after their glorious victory over the Mi tribe, frequented the Shang capital and worked with its army.
'We are called to Zhou,' Master Chen said.
Chao looked up. 'Zhou?'
The soldier nodded. 'The army is called upon in Cheng. The diviner is divining the most auspicious time for our departure.'
For the first time, he was being pre-informed. The norm was for him to awaken one morning and find his father's place at the table glaringly empty. He hadn't even known the King's own diviner cast for the army.
'Am I…to come as well, Father?'
Master Chen nodded: a small, sharp nod. Chao's elation rose within; his exterior was however perfectly controlled. Or so he hoped.
It evidently was not as the Master of the House wore a slightly scolding expression as he shooed his son towards the basin for the morning purifications.
'Be prepared to leave when the messenger arrives.'
Chao was the last to arrive at the low table, and as he took his seat and folded his knees below him as proper, he realised he had carried his sword with him in his excitement. The blunt stone now dug at his hip as he clasped his hands in a silent prayer.
Soundlessly, his mother passed him a bowl, earthware and containing a colourless soup. Her expression was carefully blank, the creases looking little different by the day. Her demeanour too gave nothing away, except the subtle glances she stole towards her only son.
Master Chen's eye was more noticeable: grey, stern and somewhat disapproving. 'Your sword?'
Chao quickly buried himself into his meal to drown the embarrassment. The liquid was slightly spiced; he could taste herbs and something sweet under his tongue. Unusual; it was a treat for their departure, and he savoured it. His mother often explained to him as a child the taste of travel. Dry bread and weed when they could be found. At times sparse water. No luxury to be found.
A hard road lay ahead, and the young boy savoured every bite of home comfort, envisioning its end. The battle in Cheng; rebels no doubt. There was no other reason for Zhao's excellent army, rivalling even the King's own, to request reinforcements. But Zhao was an ally to the Shang; a valuable ally at that.
Helping secure their capital would strengthen that alliance. And as his first service to the King…
He shifted a little as he reached for a lump of bread, and the sword jabbed his hip as a painful reminder.
Bai giggled; Master Chen shifted his disapproval to her and she stifled her laughter. 'Brother is excited,' she said.
'Indeed.' The father's face broke into a proud smile. 'He has a right to be; it is a great honour.' The expression became stern again. 'A soldier's position is more than just honour.'
'Yes Father.' Chao's attention was little on his father's words, however, and it seemed apparent as Master Chen simply shook his head and polished off his bowl.
Chao's still had a few morsels, but a knock on the door prevented him from enjoying them.
The messenger had come. Sooner than expected.
His heart started a merry rhythm, and he pushed the rest of his bowl away. The time had finally come; he was departing with the army for service to the King. For battle – or perhaps war.
Master Chen was more controlled; he exchanged a few rapid words and sent the messenger off.
'Go,' he said, looking at his son. 'Prepare yourself; we leave for the courtyard in half an hour.'
Bai knocked her bowl over and clutched her brother around the waist. No-one reprimanded her; it was, after all, the first time Chao would be leaving home for an extended period of time.
'Your instalment will be then as well.' Grey eyes dropped to the boy's waist. 'Go sharpen your sword; you will kill no enemy with a bone-blunt weapon.'
Bai – given name, meaning "white, pure"
Chao – given name, meaning "surpassing"
Chen – surname, meaning "the morning"
Cheng – the capital of Zhou in the 33rd year of Zi Shou's regime to the 35th year.
Duke Wen: Duke of the Zhou state located in Wei River Valley. Arguably the first King of the Zhou Dynasty, although he died before its founding. Before this, Zhou was commissioned to fight for Shang.
Heng Shan: located in the Shanxi province and one of the Five Great Mountains of China. It's peak has an altitude of 2017 m, making it one of the five tallest peaks of China Proper. Very difficult to reach because of its location.
King Zi Shou: posthumously known as King Zhou (not the Zhou from the Zhou dynasty) or King Di Xin. Last King of the Shang Dynasty, ruled 1075 – 1046 BC.
Mi tribe: Invaded Ruan in the 31st year of Zi Shou's regime. Zhou fought them and the King rewarded them.
North Silk Road: prehistoric route in Northern China, starting from Xi'an and crossing through Taklamakan desert.
Note: the next chapter will be a continuation of this one.