Once, in the mountainous terrain overlooking the fertile plains of the empire, there lived a lord of bandits. It was said that he commanded ten hundred men, every one of which held no scruples. Every month the bandits would ride forth, visiting one or two chosen villages. They seized the best food, claimed the most beautiful women for themselves, and left nothing but misery in their passing.
In desperation, the villages each sent messengers to the emperor, begging for his assistance against the bandit threat. Each time, they were turned away, for various reasons. Once, it was the ongoing war against the neighboring barbarians. Twice, it was the cost of deploying the army. Three times, the emperor was too ill to receive visitors. Another three times, the ministers and guards claimed that the messengers overstated the threat.
It soon became apparent among the villages that the empire would send no help. Several villages held meetings, but as the villagers were poor and unskilled in the martial ways, no solution was reached. While a few suggested the idea of standing united, these ideas were quickly dismissed by those who held no hope. To them, the best course of action was to endure, and wait for the day when the bandits would falter.
In one such village, there lived a woodsman's daughter, who was said to be quite lovely. However, she refused to entertain suitors, because she would not consider anyone who would not oppose the bandits. While her father frequently chided her for being unwise, she held on to her belief that the bandits could and should be stopped.
After one such meeting, the girl finally came to the conclusion that the only person who could stop the bandits was herself. However, she was just a woodsman's daughter, with no significant combat training. She certainly could not fight the bandits, nor did she think she could trick them. In the end, the best plan she could come up with would be to plea for mercy before their leader.
So she quietly packed, and began a long trip up into the mountains one misty morning. She told no one of her plans, for she knew they would stop her. For five days, she journeyed, supplementing the food she had brought with wild fruit and berries, as her father had taught her.
Finally, on the sixth day, a bandit sentry found her and captured her. She offered no resistance, knowing this would be the only chance she would get to meet with their leader. He led her directly to their camp, which was located in a narrow dry canyon, well hidden from anyone who would try to find it.
As she was led through the camp, the girl noticed that all the bandits watched her with varying expressions. Some looked suspicious, some looked lustful, and a rare few looked sorrowful. Nevertheless, all eyes were upon her, which made her feel nervous. Closing her eyes, she prayed to the spirits to grant her strength.
Finally, she was brought before a large campfire, in front of which the bandit lord himself sat. With his muscular form clad in leather, fur, and bone, as well as his body covered in battle scars, he was a frightening sight to behold. The girl shivered with fear, before calming herself.
"We found her nosing around near the camp," the sentry said, "She's probably from a nearby village, and was lost. You want me to hand her over to the men?"
"I am not lost," the girl interrupted, "I came to find you, to...to...negotiate!"
"What?" the sentry blinked, "What do you mean, negotiate?"
"A young, brave, and noble soul, I see," the bandit lord commented, "Leave her with me."
"Are you sure?" the man asked.
"Do you wish to find out?" the lord of bandits answered, clutching the hilt of his sword.
"Very well," the sentry said, walking off. The bandit lord turned, and silently studied the girl, still bound, for a minute. She calmly met his gaze, despite a growing fear inside her.
"So, what did you wish to discuss?" he finally said.
"I want you to leave my village alone," she spoke, surprised at how strong her voice was, "We are just farmers and merchants, and there is no one there who could harm you. Can you leave us alone?"
The bandit lord smiled, an odd expression on his scarred face. "How very innocent," he answered, "But I cannot, for I learned long ago that this what I must do."
"Why must you?" she insisted, "Surely you would be better suited to something other than banditry."
"Once, I would have agreed," he replied, "But the world sought to show me otherwise. Twelve times it tried to teach me a lesson, and twelve times I failed to understand. The thirteenth time the world showed me the error of my ways, I finally understood the truth."
"What truth?" the girl asked.
"Let me tell you of the attempted lessons," the man said, "Then, you may understand. The first lesson was given to me when I was a young boy, and went fishing on the riverbank. A carp came to me, and spoke. He told me that he sought to swim up the river to reach the great falls, so that he could pass over them and become a dragon."
"Really?" the girl was surprised, "I have never seen a carp talk."
"The carp then asked me to help clear the river of rocks, so that it could continue. It promised me a great reward, so I agreed to help it. I spent the rest of the afternoon clearing up the rocks."
"So what was the reward?"
"After I finished, it swam off, but not before calling out that my reward was the honor of having helped it. But such honor did not bring fish home to the table, and I went hungry that night."
"How...unfortunate," the girl said. She was not sure how this led to the man becoming who he was, but possibly it meant she could convince him.
"I received the second lesson from a traveling sage, shortly after I built my own farm," the bandit lord said, "He gave me a small bronze bowl as a gift, and told me to put a grain of rice in it. He said that it would multiply endlessly. I did so."
"Did it work?"
"It did, and soon I had plenty of rice," the man told her, "However, my neighbor came along and accused me of stealing his rice. The bowl had mysteriously vanished, and the local judge agreed that I was the thief. I was forced to give him all the rice the bowl had given me. Since I had eaten some, I had to pay for more."
"That surely did not help," the girl admitted, wondering how many strange and marvelous things this man had encountered.
"Of course not," the bandit lord admonished her, "The next lesson, the third one, came when I found a piece of rough jade. I brought it to the local magistrate. He claimed it was not real, and he accused me of trying to deceive him. He told me that if I did so again, he would cut off my feet. So I had to sell the jade for a pittance in the market, and it barely paid for the cost of traveling to see him."
"Are you sure it was real jade?" the girl could not help but ask.
"Indeed, it was," he answered, "I may be a bandit, but I have never been dishonest."
"I see," the girl said, beginning to wonder about this lesson.
"The fourth lesson came when I was tilling the fields. I came upon a stump, and just then a rabbit ran straight into it, breaking its neck. Delighted, I waited all day for another one to come along."
"None came?" the girl asked.
"Not one," the bandit told her, "So I came back the next day, and then every day after that for a month. But there were no more rabbits, and I failed to plant my crop on time."
The girl said nothing, but was surprised inside at how foolish the man seemed. He was just too gullible, easily tricked by his own misunderstanding. She could see how it might lead him to become less trusting, but other than that, she could not think of another reason that would lead him to banditry.
"The fifth lesson came when I bought a goat at the market," the bandit lord continued, "I paid quite handsomely for it, from a strange man. The goat spoke to me too, and said that the man had tricked him, making him a goat."
"So what did you do?"
"I asked what reward the goat could give me, and he told me he could show me something no one had ever seen, if only I freed him by speaking the words 'I hereby set you free'. I did so, and he turned into a ghost. He then told me that no one had ever seen a goat turn into a ghost before, and left me with no goat and having spent my money for nothing."
"I have heard that one should never deal with ghosts," the girl noted, recalling the tales she had heard in her home village.
"The sixth one happened shortly after I married my wife," he continued.
"You were married?"
"Until the day she was taken from me," the bandit lord answered.
"I am sorry." The girl closed her eyes. No one deserved to have their family die.
"The sixth lesson came when the butcher came to visit. He needed to borrow my knife for a day, so he could cut his meats. I lent him my knife, asking him to take care of it."
"What happened to the knife?" the girl was surprised.
"When he brought the knife back, it was worn thin and brittle. I asked him why, and he said it was too thick for his cutting technique, so he had taken it to the blacksmith to have it reforged before using it. I did not know how he cut his meat, but I did care to find out. All that mattered was that my knife was ruined, and I had to pay to have a new one made."
"Now that was unkind," she admitted.
"Perhaps," the bandit lord said, "The seventh lesson came from a traveling minstrel, who asked me for food in exchange for some farming advice. I bid my wife to fetch some bread, and then asked his advice. He told me to pull up my sprouts a little, so they would grow taller. I went the next day, and did so."
"That does not sound like it would work," the girl replied. Being a miller's daughter, she had spoken or heard quite a few farmers discuss their work.
"It did not. I came back the next day with my wife, and the trees had all withered. We were both angry, and with good reason. I had given away some bread and lost my entire orchard."
"You have had really bad luck," she said. It was not true, of course, but perhaps she was making progress.
"The eighth lesson came as I was heading out to tend my farm, and I saw a turtle approach, crawling through my fields. I walked up to the turtle, thinking to catch it and make turtle soup. The turtle then asked me to let her go to the river, and if I met her there, she'd tell me of a great treasure."
"So you let her go?" the girl asked.
"I did, and went about my work. When I finished for the day, I went to the river, but the turtle was not there. I thought I had been tricked, so I returned home, only to find that my wife had caught the turtle and made soup from it."
"Perhaps you should have mentioned it to her," she commented.
"Possibly. The ninth lesson came from another traveler, who claimed to be a sage that knew magic. He promised to place magical tags around my property to repel thieves, if I let him stay the night. I talked to my wife, and she agreed. So I let him stay."
"Did he do something?" the girl asked, suspecting she knew the answer.
"He stole my wife's family heirloom," the bandit lord explained, "While he did put up the tags, they did nothing to stop him from robbing us."
"Are you sure they were real?"
"We left them up, and no one robbed or broke into our house again," he claimed.
"I see," the girl said, noting the mistake he had made, but choosing not to mention it.
"The next lesson, the tenth, was given to me shortly after a heavy rainfall. The rain was so heavy, it caused the north wall of a merchant's house to collapse."
The girl said nothing, waiting for the story to continue.
"I went over to help, and the man was arguing with his son over whether to fix the wall. I sided with the son, saying that thieves could have their way with the man. After all, I had been stolen from recently myself. The man disagreed, giving me an odd look."
"What happened next?" the girl asked.
"The man came over a few days later, and accused me of stealing his prized possessions. I had no choice but to allow him and a few guards to search my house. All because I tried to help someone, I was labeled a thief."
"I am sorry that happened to you," the girl said, "But what of the other lessons?"
"The eleventh lesson was given by a fox," the bandit continued, "I left snares out to catch animals for meat or fur, and I found one day a fox caught in one."
"What did the fox say?" the girl asked, being clever enough to know that this would be another talking animal.
"He told me that I could have his fur, but he preferred to take it off himself. So he asked if I would kindly let him down, so he could do so. I did, and then he ran off."
"You should not have trusted a fox," the girl said, then closed her mouth. She had not meant to say that out loud.
"Just because one is born in a certain role does not mean one is bound to that path," the bandit lord asked, "The twelfth lesson happened when I was tending the fields. A dog ran up, with a man chasing it, shouting and beating it with a branch. I told him to stop, as being cruel to animals was something I felt was wrong."
"What did the man say?"
"He told me the dog was stupid, and deserved the beating. When I disagreed, he told me that if cared for a stupid dog so much, I could have it...but only if I took the beating for the dog. Since I did not want the dog to be hurt any further, I agreed."
"That was a noble act," the girl said. She was finally beginning to understand that the man had once been a good man, if not very intelligent. Perhaps she could bring that good out again.
"The beating hurt terribly, but I endured it. When I finally was done, I rose to see that the dog had fled. The other man laughed, saying I should not have expected anything else from such a stupid animal, and left me to make my way home."
"Did you ever find the dog again?" she could not help but ask. It was a real pity, having a dog run off like that.
"No. The final lesson, the one that actually taught me the truth, came about with yet another traveler. He claimed to be a survivor of a nearby town's guard, one that had been slaughtered by the barbarians and burned to the ground. He wanted a place to stay and food to eat."
"So you let him in?"
"Actually, I started to turn him away, but my wife came outside and chastised me for my selfishness. So I agreed to let him stay. Later that night, I awoke to a commotion. I found my wife dead, and the bandit standing above her body. I slew the man, and grieved. Then, as I mourned, the truth occurred to me. So, having heard my tales, do you know what the truth is?"
"I would have thought it would be learning to be more wary of those you have never met," the girl answered, "But that does not explain why you became a bandit lord. So I do not understand."
"It is simple," he replied, "The world exists in a balance, with fortune against misfortune, kindness against malice. I made too much effort to bring good fortune to the world, and the world punished me for it with misfortune. So I have sought to live a balanced life."
"Balanced?" The girl was stunned. "You burn villages and ruin lives. How is that balance?"
"Look at my men," the bandit lord answered, "They are rejects, outcasts, shunned by family and friends alike, all for no fault of their own. If it was not for me, they would suffer great misfortune, each alone. And so, as they benefit from this, so must others suffer. The balance must be maintained."
"But surely there is a better way?" the girl protested, "You could help them become farmers, start your own village, and then no one need suffer."
"You still do not understand," he said, "Such a noble and brave soul, you are, seeking to spread kindness and good fortune. So as the world taught me of my mistakes, so I must teach you. Men!" The final word was shouted, and it was not long before a pair of bandits appeared.
"What do you want?"
"Take her to my tent," the bandit lord ordered, "I shall show her misfortune and malice...and grant myself good fortune in return." The eyes of the girl widened as she realized what the bandit lord intended. She began to struggle against her bonds, but it was no use. Kicking and wriggling, the two men hauled her away.
Seven days later, the girl returned to her home village, battered, bruised, and tired. The villagers were grateful to see her, but she was too exhausted to return their gratitude. Later, when asked what had happened, she simply said, "I learned a lesson."
For several days, several men, including her own father, kept asking for more details. She refused to say another word on the matter, simply gazing into the distance. After a while, they ceased to question her. After all, they said in private, the lesson was hers alone, and who could say if any of them could understand it?
Author's Note: Another day, another rejected anthology entry, ho hum...
Most of the stories the bandit lord tells are based off of actual Chinese fables, with varying degrees of tweaking to fit in this story. For a fun challenge, see if you can correctly identify which ones are actual fables and which ones aren't. Hint: the thirteenth and last one definitely is not an actual fable.