This story was originally published in Guardbridge Books’ Myriad Lands: An Anthology of Non-Western Fiction. It’s an excellent collection. If you are intrigued by literary fantasy writing set in non-Western realms, check it out.
All the killing, all the heads taken and tallied like coins, had he not done it all for love? Had he not joined the Three Springs Campaign in order to lift himself and his wife, Daxia, from the bleak ranks of peasantry? There was no other way out. Not in the world into which they were born. Kill for the king or else live brief lives of deprivation and desperation. Did that not justify all his murders? At least, did that not make them forgivable?
Shang Qin asked himself these questions as he roamed among corpses piled on the battlefield. He looked for the bodies of enemies that had his yellow-quilled arrows sticking out of their flesh, for that was how he knew they’d fallen by his hand. Not all the combatants were dead. Some still writhed and cried in pain. Shang ignored them. There was no time to waste. Many of the other archers showed no honor in claiming their kills, and it was all too easy for them to replace Shang’s arrows with one of their own. Each trophy was too valuable to allow someone else to take it.
He walked for a long time and still had only two heads rolling around in his burlap sack. It had been a difficult battle. He’d almost died when a flanking element took his platoon by surprise, so he hadn’t slain nearly as many enemies as he normally would have if the fight had been kept at long range.
He wandered from the main throng of archers at the heart of the battlefield. He was almost positive that he had hit an axeman near the periphery of the fields during the battle. As he looked through the bodies lying among the white stones jutting from the soil, Shang detected movement in his periphery. He looked up to see a young man — a boy, really — picking his way among the rocks and trying to escape the scene. Shang drew an arrow and knocked it into his bow.
“Boy,” he said.
The escapee’s head snapped up at the sound of the voice. His eyes bulged with terror. “I’m not a soldier.” He held up his hands to show they were empty.
It might have been true. In the desperation, the enemy Xu had taken to forcing local farmers into service. But none of that mattered. Not six months into a war campaign. Six months away from wife and family. Besides, wasn’t Shang also a farmer, when it really came to it? No, it didn’t matter. Soldier or not, the boy’s head would bring Shang and Daxia one step closer to freedom.
“I’m not a soldier,” the boy pleaded.
“Neither am I,” Shang said, and loosed his arrow.
He achieved his goal and, for the first few months on his apple orchard, the hundred heads it’d cost him seemed very, very far away. Even when he shot awake in bed at night covered in sweat and gasping for breath because of his nightmares, one look into Daxia’s eyes would silence his fear and regret. They had their own home. Their own land. He now paid others to work for him. Any price was worth what he had gained. At least, that’s what he thought before the visitor came.
Shang woke to the sensation of being watched. Daxia’s sleeping form pressed warm against his back as he stared into the darkness of their bedroom at the window, waiting for his eyes to adjust and identify the presence that he felt. The stench of rotting flesh hit him first. Only after that did the sight of a human figure become visible against the wall.
Shang stayed still, trying to determine if the thing before him was real. His worst fear was waking Daxia over some imagined monster and revealing to her once and for all that the man she married had returned from the war as a raving lunatic.
The figure stepped into the starlight coming through the window and Shang felt his breath stop. It was a decapitated man in tattered sackcloth clothes, cradling what was presumably his own head in his arms. It stopped at the edge of the bed and held its grim parcel over Shang. “Welcome home, soldier,” the creature whispered.
Shang recognized in the twisted visage the face of the young man he’d killed after the final battle off the Three Springs Campaign. The creature seemed to detect Shang’s recognition and a sagging, twitching smirk spread across one side of its face. “Does your beautiful wife know about all the things you’ve done?”
Shang waited for it to continue, but didn’t. He realized that it was actually asking the question and not merely taunting. “No,” he said. It took all his will to keep himself from screaming the word.
“Interesting,” the creature said. “I will have to remedy that.” The creature turned and walked towards the bedroom door, dragging one foot as it went. “In the coming days, I will have to remedy many things.”
Shang listened to the thing walk down the stairs. After it opened and closed the front door, Shang slid out of bed and went to the window. He saw the visitor down below disappear into the darkness of the apple orchard. Shang remained at the spot, staring at the trees, trying to determine if he’d seen what he thought he’d seen, or if he was going mad.
“How long have you been standing there?” Daxia asked sleepily from bed as dawn’s light cracked the horizon.
Her eyes were puffy with sleep, the way that Shang liked them best. Early in their marriage, he had called her his “little mole” because of the way she looked in the morning. He stopped calling her that after she told him that moles were ugly, but he still thought of her that way. She was his little mole, and he loved her.
“I got up early to watch the sunrise,” Shang said. He looked to the open bedroom door, simultaneously fearing and hoping that he’d hallucinated the night’s horrific visitor, and tried to sound casual. “Did you close the door before coming to bed last night?”
“Yes.” Daxia glanced at the door and looked confused. “That’s strange. I swear I closed it. I always do.”
Shang sat down beside her. “No, no. I opened it. I was just curious who was last to bed last night, because I couldn’t remember.” He stroked her long, black hair back behind her ear and admired her glowing complexion. His Daxia was no vacuous lady of the court. She was a woman of the fields, a woman of will. The highborn women who had pursued Shang after he won his military honors and his land could never compete with her.
“Let’s cook breakfast ourselves today,” Shang said. “We’ll make an enormous meal and eat every bit of it.”
Daxia pinched his stomach. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
“All the more reason to eat well.”
Daxia sighed and rested her head on Shang’s chest. As the couple rubbed each other’s backs, Shang watched the open bedroom door, wondering how one goes about killing a dead man.
Shang walked along the apple trees, stopping now and then to inspect the quality of the fruits. The workers were done for the day and he was supposed to be alone. When something moved in the shadows between some trees, the startled orchard keeper jumped into a fighting crouch.
It was the young man again, watching him with its decapitated head. Daylight revealed the greenness of the creature’s flesh and the maggots crawling in puncture wounds in its stomach and chest.
Whatever guilt or fear that Shang might have felt was eclipsed by his instinct to protect his wife. He drew his knife from its sheath. “What are you?”
The creature let out a mirthless laugh. “My name is Deshi. Surely you remember me. You cut off my head at Tai Hang.”
“Yes, I remember. But you are not what you were then. Why are you here?”
Deshi shifted his head from right arm to left. “To see you suffer.”
“Then cut me down here and now. I will not fight you.” Shang realized as he said the words that he meant them. A man must pay for his wrongs, and if the day had come to make that payment, then so be it. “But you will not harm Daxia in any way. If I have to cut you into a thousand undying thousand pieces, then I will.”
“I wouldn’t harm one who couldn’t harm me,” Deshi said. “I’m not a butcher like you.”
Shang winced, for the title of butcher was true.
“No, my revenge will be much more subtle. Every day, you will wonder when I will appear. Every night when you return home, you will wonder if it’s going to be the one when Daxia has found out what a murderer you are.” Deshi wheezed and laughed. “The orchard you fought so hard to win, the one that was supposed to set you free, will be your prison.”
Deshi turned and staggered deeper into the trees.
Shang hesitated, more frightened than he cared to admit, and ran after the creature. It was gone by the time he reached the trees. Or maybe it had never been there at all. Shang shook his head. “Have you gone and cracked your pot, man?” he whispered to himself. “Are you cursed, or just mad?”
He looked up to see a bloody blue sash tied around a branch. Such accoutrements were the markers of the enemy during the Three Springs Campaign. He reached up and grabbed hold of the sash. His face went slack. The coarse, crusty fabric in his hands was no hallucination.
Part is here.