Duel in the Night
“Sometimes, MacLeod, the sharpest blade isn't enough.”
--Juan Sánchez Villalobos Ramírez, 'Highlander'
Chapter Sixty Six – Duel in the Night
“Good! Come down and we’ll have a one-on-one duel!” the voice challenged.
Huang Ming looked at his father and saw that he was fired up upon hearing the challenge from the horse rider below. The aged general had a faint smile on his lips.
“You’re not thinking of going out there, are you?” Huang Ming asked. “But we won’t be able to see anything in this night! What if something were to happen, like a trap to lure you away?” he protested.
“A challenge has been issued, and I must uphold our army’s honour,” Huang Zheng said simply.
“You’re not the commander any more, Lord Fang La is,” Huang Ming reminded him and pointed at the nobleman.
Lord Fang La’s face turned ugly. “I have only just arrived, it is not my place,” he said as an excuse. In reality, he did not expect such an urgent situation, the border had been peaceful for many years. When Prime Minister Tong Xuan and Marshal Gao Fang gave him the military token of authority, it was expected to be an important but cushy job.
Lord Fang La was an uneasy compromise between the two strongmen: someone that the prime minister trusted and yet he was someone the marshal knew would be hard-pressed to order the legions around due to his inexperience. In short, a figurehead with real authority and yet not expected to actually wield the power. Lord Fang La fit the bill perfectly: a nobleman with some measure of intelligence but not the military background.
“Lord Fang La, if you are to take command of the legions from my father, you will need to demonstrate your ability in front of the men,” Huang Ming said dryly, turning on the screws.
Despite the night wind, sweat began to line the nobleman’s brows. “I do not have my weapon or armour with me,” Lord Fang La replied lamely.
“Oh, I wasn’t suggesting that you ride out there to fight a life and death duel,” Huang Ming said blandly. “You have powerful bodyguards with you, surely any one of them is capable of going out there and fight a night duel,” he continued, knowing perfectly well it was beyond their job scope. Indeed, the bodyguards shifted uneasily at his suggestion. They were guards and assassins and they fought with daggers and swords, not the long-handled weapons of the military; let alone on horseback.
Lord Fang La blinked and turned to his men, their hesitation was obvious. Yet they did not dare to voice their opinions as it would affect their employment. Finally, one of them stepped forward and saluted.
“My lord, I am willing to try!” he said.
“Good!” Lord Fang La exclaimed.
“Come on, how long do you want me to wait?” the voice from beyond the city shouted. The moon was now out and it provided some measure of illumination, they can vaguely see that the rider was a barrel-chested man. He was dressed in armour lined with furs in the Wei style, and he wielded an enormous spiked mace.
Huang Zheng took a deep breath when he saw the enemy, he looked very formidable indeed.
“Are you that afraid? Come on out, I’ll tell my men to fall back so that you will feel safe! Ra ha ha!” the stout man laughed derisively. As if on cue, his men withdrew into the shadows, leaving the rider alone.
Huang Ming went to the battlements before anyone else could stop him. “You are not worthy of fighting our Great General! One of our lieutenants will be enough!” he yelled back.
Huang Zheng’s face twisted, he was annoyed at his son’s intervention.
“Bring it on! I’ll kill all of you!” the rider said furiously.
Lord Fang La’s bodyguard was quickly given a suit of ordinary armour, a spear and a horse. The city gates were opened and the bodyguard rode out.
“For Lord Fang La!” the bodyguard yelled as he charged towards the lone rider who sat on his horse motionlessly awaiting his arrival.
The rider was not flustered. Just as it seemed that the bodyguard would run him through with his spear, the rider drew up his spiked mace and in a single swing, effortlessly smashed the bodyguard off his horse. The bodyguard gave a blood-curdling shriek and died with the single blow; his corpse a mangled, twisted mess on the ground. His horse rode off aimlessly into the night, it’s empty saddle a stark reminder of the bodyguard’s fate.
Those who saw one-sided fight became ashen, most of all Lord Fang La and his remaining bodyguards. They had not dreamed of such an outcome. They had came from the capital and expected a simple task of oppressing an old general, how was it that they ended up at the forefront on the brink of war?
“Ra ha ha! Lord Fang La? What Lord Fang La? Have him come out then!” the victorious rider demanded, causing Lord Fang La to shiver. It was painfully obvious that he was out of depth in this critical situation.
“You menial, I’ll teach you a lesson!” Huang Zheng roared.
“Don’t get riled up,” Huang Ming cautioned. He had read too much history: often those who were inveigled out in a moment of rashness wound up dead later.
He was about to remonstrate further when Huang Zheng winked conspiratorially at him.
“Don’t worry, there isn’t a man who can defeat me!” Huang Zheng said proudly. Then, he leaned closer to Huang Ming and whispered a few words, causing Huang Ming to be shocked into silence.
“Do you understand?” Huang Zheng asked, and Huang Ming nodded even though his mouth was still hanging open.
Huang Zheng then rode out to meet the interloper in combat.
Seeing Huang Ming’s stunned expression, Lord Fang La approached him to ask, “What did he say to have made you so frightened?”
“It was his last will and testament,” Huang Ming said slowly as he watched his father ride into the night.
Outside of the city, the enemy rider laughed when he saw Huang Zheng arriving.
“Finally! What took you so long, did you take a toilet break?” the rider mocked.
“Cut the crap, let’s fight!” Huang Zheng replied and raised his great sword. With his white beard and majestic bearing, he looked every inch the veritable god of war.
“Come forth, old fool!” the rider beckoned with his spiked mace.
Whereupon the two men rode at each other, their long-handled weapons clashing and causing sparks.
On Earth, Huang Ming had seen many Chinese shows and dramas where mounted personal combat were acted out. He had never thought that such dramatizations of the historical epics were accurate nor feasible. But tonight Huang Ming saw enough to think that those fictional depictions were indeed plausible.
The two warriors exchanged blows, occasionally breaking off to charge at each again and locking their weapons in a death struggle. A giant sweep of the blade, a monstrous blow of the mace. The sight and sounds of two large weapons swinging at each other was enough to raise the hairs of those witnessing the duel. Lord Fang La, his bodyguards and all the soldiers atop the battlements were entranced, their knuckles white from gripping the stone wall as they leaned forward.
“Lord Fang La, perhaps it is best to signal for my father to return,” Huang Ming said when he saw that the duel was creeping closer to the city wall. The spectators were too engrossed to notice.
The nobleman stared at him in disbelief. “But the fight is not over!”
“Then offer to have the duel continue tomorrow, a protracted fight in the dark only benefits the enemy. We should be able to get a clearer picture during the day,” Huang Ming advised.
“I see your point,” Lord Fang La conceded. He ordered that the gong to be beaten as a signal and the two combatants drew off.
“Who dares interrupt this duel?” the enemy rider bellowed, affronted that the duel was interfered with.
“You have fought well, but the hour is getting late, this fight can continue tomorrow!” Lord Fang La responded from atop the city wall.
“You think this is a game?” the rider barked angrily. In a quick motion, he unslung a bow and arrow from his back and pulled mightily before releasing a shot. The arrow whistled through the air and struck a wooden post on the battlement, it was very near where Lord Fang La had stood. However, the nobleman had seen what was coming and had ducked down in fear. When he saw the stuck arrow, Lord Fang La was extremely shocked.
“Mark my words! I’ll be back!” the rider said menacingly. Then, he went back to his side and the entire force of horsemen rode away into the night, the pounding hooves becoming like distant thunder.
Huang Zheng returned into the city to rapturous cheers from his soldiers, they were delighted to have witnessed their aged general driving off the enemy single-handedly. The great general’s dignified return was a stark contrast to the pale-faced Lord Fang La. Soon there would be stories and whispers about how the nobleman had cowered in fear despite being in the relative safety atop the city walls while the general had risked life and limb in a duel.
An enemy came seeking revenge,
The old tiger came out to defend.
A glorious duel, a victory so sweet,
The enemy driven into retreat.
The old tiger still has his teeth,
Shaming the young lord with his deed.
With this, everyone knew that Lord Fang La’s attempt to take over military command from Huang Zheng became impossible. Lord Fang La’s public display of ineptness meant nobody would take him seriously if he tried to use his very legitimate military token of authority. Besides, it was obvious that the nobleman was not keen on taking the job now that there was a very real threat lurking. The enemy had pulled back, yet its leader had promised a return.
Lord Fang La wanted to slink away, but found himself cornered by Huang Zheng who came over to report.
“My lord, the enemy has retreated, but I think the danger has yet to pass. Do you want to lead the men in a patrol?” Huang Zheng asked gravely, his face a stony mask and showed no signs of contempt for the nobleman.
“No, you do it!” Lord Fang La snapped. “It seems that our border requires your personal attention still, general. I have to return to the capital at once and report on this… this Wei outrage! How dare they flaunt themselves so, coming and going as they please?”
“As you say, my lord. I’ll take some men to scout the immediate area,” Huang Zheng said.
“Good, do so. I’ll… write a report on what has happened, while the memory is still fresh,” Lord Fang La said. With a flick of his sleeves, the disgruntled nobleman turned around and left with his bodyguards.
Once they were away, Huang Zheng and Huang Ming shared a laugh.
“That was some good acting, father,” Huang Ming said.
What did he mean?
It was time to come clean.