4 Old Orchard Street, Room 14.
Niaro the City, Northern Niaro Province
32nd of the 7th, 410.
My beloved younger brother Lian,
In recent months, I have been working as a bodyguard for my friend Huang Ba, as he conducts his business in the countryside to the north of Niaro the City. It might seem odd for a former captain of the infantry to work as a hired bravo, but Ba pays as well as the army ever did, and allows me a freedom that my orders never did.
During the autumn, Ba’s business took us to Deep Spring village. Deep Spring’s prosperity depends on its orchards of walnut and butternut, and for its ailanthus silk, which the locals here use extensively. It is not so fine as true silk, but it is stronger, and longer-wearing. The women of Deep Spring weave the silk into coats and blankets, which they fill with goose feathers and corn husks, and richly embroider.
We arrived at Deep Spring near dusk, when the reds and golds of the leaves were as bright and clear as the reds and golds of the sunset. There was a chill in the air that night, so there was a great stamping of feet and shedding of coats as we came into the home of the Widow Li, a prosperous old lady who was in some distant way related to the Huang family. Ba’s coat had a collar of tiger fur, and it was that collar which attracted the widow’s attention. She didn’t say anything about it, but I could see it drawing her eye, and her fingers reaching out toward it, as the servant girl took it to the closet.
“She’s lost pigs to a tiger,” I murmured to Ba, as we went up into the main house, for our dinner. “See if I’m wrong.”
Ba shrugged, and soon our minds were so occupied with real pork, marinated in wine, that we forgot all about any hypothetical pigs that Widow Li might have lost.
The next morning, as we sat down to breakfast, I was proven to have been, if not exactly correct, not entirely wrong, either. “Huang Ba,” said the widow. “I was wondering if you, or any of the men with you, have a fondness for the hunt?”
“Some fondness,” said Ba, laying down his chopsticks. “When the press of my business is not too heavy.”
“Ah,” said the widow. “Perhaps with the harvest, you do not have time for this sort of thing.”
“I imagine,” I hazarded, “that there is much fine hunting in the hills.” Our morning meal was of wild pigeon fried with pepper and onions, so I did not risk much in that assertion.
Ba shot me a foul look, remembering what I had said the previous night.
“Fine hunting indeed,” she said. “Deer and bear, and the black wild dogs, along with less noble game.” She hesitated. “There are tigers, as well.”
I am a man of many faults, younger brother, one of which is that I enjoy being right more than is dignified. “Are there?” I asked. “I had not heard.”
“There was a child killed by a tiger, two months back, and one of my servants . . . perhaps he ran off, or perhaps he was drowned, but I do not think it was any of these.”
I had been smiling, anticipating a tale of lost pigs. That smile disappeared; this was a more serious business.
“Well,” said Ba. “Perhaps when . . .” he trailed off. There were three other men with us: Two other guards, and Huang Showen, one of Ba’s younger cousins, who was along to learn the trade. “Perhaps I will take the day to see if we can rid the county of this menace. That is, if you think that you are capable of inspecting the harvest yourself, Showen?”
The boy colored, his back straightened, and he looked from side to side. Such a mixture of excitement and pride and fear is seldom seen in adults. I think we have all seen too much, our joy and fear blunted by too frequent use. Seeing those emotions on Showen’s face reminded me of my own youth, before the wars. “I believe that I can, elder cousin,” he replied.
“Good,” said Ba. “I will leave Dansien and Big Yang with you; they have seen the work done many times. Be guided by their judgment.”
I could not help but chuckle. Well, I had pressed for details about the tiger; now it was going to be my task to hunt it down.
Widow Li hesitated again. “Perhaps I am a superstitious woman,” she said. “But if you will wait for a few moments there is a thing I will get for you. Also, I shall borrow for you my cousin Yidong’s hounds. They are very good hounds and have hunted tiger before.”
“Thank you,” said Ba, and turned his attention to his plate of pigeon and peppers.
I did the same. Hunting has never been a consuming passion of mine, but it is a pleasant way to spend one’s time. Besides, the weather was clear and crisp, and I could think of few finer ways to spend the morning than in tramping up and down in the hill forests.
By the time we finished our meal and the servants had cleared away the dishes, Widow Li returned. I could hear the dogs barking outside; they seemed spirited, but perhaps not as well trained as I might have hoped. “Please,” she said, approaching us with an oaken box, set with garnets. “Perhaps it is a superstition, but it would be best if you were to use these.”
She put the box on the table before Ba; he opened it, revealing a collection of ammunition, all of which gleamed silver, rather than the usual copper or lead. Some of the bullets were of the appropriate diameter for rifles, including the one that I carried, others were larger, others smaller.
“I am not certain I understand,” said Ba.
“There are stories,” said the widow. “I should not credit them, but I have heard them all my life. Of tigers and wild dogs who can take the shape of men. They say that silver is particularly potent against them.”
Showen and the others had already left to see to the inspection of the walnut crop; Widow Li looked from one of us to the other, tension on her face. Perhaps there are some who might have laughed at her, but it was not a statement that struck either Ba or myself as humorous. We had both seen too much to laugh at stories of that sort, and beside, the Widow Li reminded me of our own mother, who I left behind, when I could no longer bear to live in the Home Provinces.
“I see,” Ba said, and took the box with him into the hall, where we made busy putting on coats and boots, and preparing our weapons for the hunt. Then it was out to make acquaintance of Yidong’s dogs, a pair of powerfully built, droop-faced scent hounds, who were overjoyed to meet us. The Widow Li had also acquired somewhere a musty old tiger skin, whose scent we showed to the dogs. They went over every inch of the skin, tails wagging so hard that their hindquarters shook back and forth in their enthusiasm.
There is something sincere and infectious about the joy of a dog, so despite the gravity of the task we had taken on, we left the village in good cheer, the dogs dragging me behind them. It was not long before we were beneath the spreading boughs of the forest, and little longer after that before we left the sounds of the village behind.
I had little hope that we would succeed in bringing down a tiger, despite the enthusiasm of the dogs, and the precious metal that we had been given. Tigers are shy creatures, and clever enough to avoid most hunters. So, I was prepared for a less serious sort of hunt, and soon brought down a pair of green-head ducks, a goblin cat, and a snake as long as I am tall, whose rattle scared me nearly half to death.
The highlands north of Niaro the City are rolling hills, cut by streams and narrow gorges. The trees were still in fine color, though it was late in the fall, and the fallen leaves made a cheerful din as we walked along. Mostly, we kept to the old roads; the surfacing is long gone, but the grading remains, making them an easy way to climb hills or cross gorges. In addition, they lead to old places. Those are little more than low hummocks, or depressions in the ground, but they make for good places to flush game.
We were just leaving one of these places when the dogs started barking at a patch of underbrush, up on a slope. Ba had kept his rifle charged with silver ammunition, and he raised his weapon at the same time as I raised mine, prepared to fire if the tiger should show itself. There was a flash of movement, and I put my hand on Ba’s shoulder. “No,” I said, and he cocked his head at me, with a questioning expression.
I am a grown man, and a veteran, but I have not yet eradicated the streak of mischief that ran through me so wide when we were children. I raised my own rifle, and fired at a pin oak tree that stood a few feet above those bushes.
My aim was true, and the oak shuddered with the impact, shedding leaves and acorns. From the bushes, a man burst forth, his mouth a wide circle of surprise. He wore the flat-brimmed hat and satchel of a mushroom hunter, and he held a collecting knife in one hand, and a broad orange bracket mushroom in the other. Those mushrooms are deservedly sought after here, and a single large, fresh “chicken” could be sold for more than a laborer might make in a day. Fortunately, I had prevented the mushroom he held from earning him a hastily fired bullet!
For the next few hours, Ba and I mocked each other, promising a mushroom hunter’s pelt for a blanket, or perhaps a steak of mushroom hunter, to give us bravery, or, if his knife was his “claw”, perhaps we could have ground it into a medicine for the eyes. It was, perhaps, the lesson of the mushroom hunter that held our fire, when the dogs led us to the canyon of bones.
It was a narrow-sided canyon, little longer than a ball pitch, and perhaps twice as far across as I could leap, where the rapid course of one of a mountain stream had cut through the rock. It was piled up with bones; mostly deer and goblin cat, but also some that looked human to my eye. Some were fresh, and some were crumbling with age and the action of the stream. Amidst those bones, there was something alive.
At first, I took it for a tiger, and I had my pistol ready, rather than my rifle, because that was the weapon I had charged with silver ammunition. Ba had his rifle lined up as well. But we held our fire, and soon saw that what we had taken for a tiger was a woman lying beneath a tiger skin. Ba made as if to descend into the canyon, but again, I put my hand on his shoulder. This time, rather than making my point with my rifle, I gestured him back from the edge of the canyon.
There was no way we could pass unnoticed. The smell of the canyon was indescribable; decaying meat, the sour tallow scent of the bones, and over it all, the heavy reek of tiger. The dogs were kicking such a fuss that they could probably be heard back in Deep Spring. Still, it was a conversation that I wanted to have out of sight of that canyon, so I backed away, pulling the dogs along behind mr.
“What do you think of this?” asked Ba. “It is like nothing I have ever seen.” He looked at me, and then he glanced away; I had seen more bodies in one place, more human bodies, during the war. The canyon had put me in mind of those scenes, and perhaps that could be seen on my face.
“I think,” I started. The problem was that I had many thoughts, but I had no organization for them. “This is not a killing field. The bones were of different ages, or so they seemed. It is also not a tiger’s lair. Tigers have no more love of decay than men.”
“Perhaps a demon tiger,” said Ba, “loves things that natural beasts do not.”
“Perhaps,” I allowed. “If the woman below is capable of turning into a tiger, why did she not charge?”
Ba shrugged. “Perhaps she is injured,” he said.
“So many perhapses make my head spin,” I said. “If she is injured so that she cannot fight, why is she not better hidden?”
“True,” said Ba. “Animals hide well, when they are hurt. Who then, do you think she is, and what was she doing in such a place?”
“I think that we were meant to kill her,” I said.
That alarmed him; I could see it in the widening of his eyes. It did not so much alarm me, as enrage me, but I fought back my emotion; if I wanted to convince Ba of anything, it would not do to lose control. “Who would . . .” said Ba, “well, I suppose the Huang are a threat to some of the other trading concerns–”
“That may be it,” I said. “But it may also be that anyone who set out from Deep Spring in search of a tiger was meant to find this woman, and kill her.”
“Hunh!” replied Ba. “I do not understand this at all.”
“I don’t pretend to understand it completely,” I said. “We know that someone, someone rational, has killed a child, and a servant, and others, and brought their bones to that canyon, and laid them amidst animal remains. I think it likely that they wish for the woman to take a bullet and the blame for those crimes. That looks like no tiger lair I know of, despite the smell of it.”
“They thought we would kill a woman, and think it a tiger?”
“They thought we would kill a woman beneath a tiger skin, and because we would wish to have killed a demon rather than a woman, that we would convince ourselves that she had been a tiger when we had shot her.”
Ba shook his head. “This is a confused plot,” he said.
“It is a confused situation,” I replied. “I do not understand why the woman would remain beneath a tiger skin, waiting for someone to come and kill her.” I had seen things that Ba had not, so I understood why the woman remained, but I had a different answer which I hoped that he would provide.
“It is possible,” he said, “to convince someone to act against their own benefits. Perhaps she does not know what he intends, or perhaps he holds some threat against her parents, or a lover. The simplest way to answer these questions would be to go down, talk to this woman, and take her away from this place.” That was the answer I had hoped to hear.
Still, I did not wish to go down and talk to her. “Perhaps it would be wiser to return to the village,” I said, “and make no mention of this. We have business here for a few more days, and if this woman is to give testimony, I would not want to keep her in the village where the murderer doubtless lurks, and whose identity we cannot guess at.”
“At least we should talk to her,” said Ba.
“We could.” I hesitated. “But the woman must have heard us, must have seen us, and yet did not choose to cry out. Perhaps she is being watched.”
Ba scowled at that, and looked up and down the slope of the hill. There were large stones, and trees, and patches of underbrush where trees had been taken by loggers. “Perhaps,” he said. “Or perhaps it is merely that you do not wish to return to that canyon, for fear that your bones will join the others there.”
“It is an eerie place,” I replied, “I fear it, and I fear the woman beneath the tiger skin. But it is not merely that. There is a killer in the village–are you agreed that there is a killer in the village?”
“I can see no other explanation for those bones, and for the presence of that woman.”
“He is the one I truly fear,” I said. “I do not wish to know his name. When I lay down to sleep, when I bow my head to eat, I do not want to know who it is that wishes to see me dead.”
“You would rather fear everybody than have one man to fear?” asked Ba, incredulous.
“I would,” I said. “Because if I had one man to fear, he would smell the fear on me.” Ba didn’t seem to understand. “This man. He will know that we went out to the forest to hunt tiger. He will know, when he checks, that the woman is not dead. So, he will watch us. He cannot kill everyone who leaves the village and returns. But if we show any sign that we know his secret, we will have to die, if he is to live.”
There was a long pause. My reasoning was, if not entirely sound, at least sufficiently sound that I hoped it would convince. In the end, it did. “I suppose you are right,” he said. “If she has survived this long, she will survive a bit longer.”
We returned to Deep Spring Village soon after; the joy had gone out from the hunt.
The remainder of that day, and the whole of the next, Huang Ba was engaged in the buying and selling of chestnuts and blankets. Some of the wheat and sweet corn that we had purchased earlier in the season had been turned to flour, and would be shipped to some of the families of Deep Spring. Other of the sales were conducted in specie, others in goods that would be delivered at other times. As a general rule, he would linger over business longer than he did on that occasion, but Ba did not rush things to excess. He couldn’t. There is a manner in which business is done, and if he attempted to rush these people, they would have suspected him of sharp dealing, regardless of how good a price he gave them.
We spent another night in the Widow Li’s home. Ba returned the majority of the silver ammunition which she had provided to us, but we both kept a supply for our pistols. If she noticed, she did not say anything.
The mattresses we slept on were filled with sweet corn husks and horse hair, the blankets were finer than any the village ever exported, and I have often found the night air of the country to be more conducive to sleep than the finest mattress or blanket. All the same, I slept poorly. Someone had set that woman out there, and someone had slaughtered the people on whose bones she rested.
If it had been a simple tiger or a snake who had killed the missing servants and children, I would have been dreaming in moments; these are the dangers of living in the countryside, the price of the fine night air. Even if I were to grant that it was a demon tiger that was haunting Deep Spring, it was not a question of the potency of the killer. If it was an ordinary man, I would feel the same way: when a man kills, there is a malice to it which tigers and snakes lack, and it was that malice which kept me awake.
Not that I had much cause to worry, inside the Widow Li’s house. Thus far, the killer had limited himself to people who were not much missed–servants and so on. As the honored guests of a wealthy widow, we did not qualify. The only reason why the killer would strike at us would be if he thought we had penetrated his secret, and I did not think he did. He might suspect hunters who went out and came back with nothing more than animal game, as having seen his trap. But that could not be enough to make him kill us in the Widow Li’s house.
When we were on the road, perhaps, but then we would be five armed men, and alert. That was a thought that led to another thought, and as the hours of the night passed, I came up with a plan of action. It was probably a foolhardy plan, and it was certainly a dangerous plan, but it suited my inclinations.
The reason we chose that week for our visit to Deep Spring was because of a long-scheduled wedding. Li Hua, a girl of the village, was to marry Chen Jiang, the son of Chen Chao, the Inspector of Roads of Northern Niaro. It was a marriage that was considered most advantageous for Deep Spring, and its celebration was to be a grand affair.
The festivities were held in the schoolhouse, a square old building, built in the ancient style. The bride was arranged on the dais just at noon, wrapped in the customary outfit of red and yellow silk; the colors of the costume were brighter even than the leaves on the hills, and she wore a fine jade brooch in her hair, and another at her neck. When Chen Jiang finally arrived, I could see him stagger at her beauty, swallowing, with his eyes wide.
But I am getting ahead of myself. As in the home provinces, the groom does not arrive until sunset. There were trifles of food brought out for those of us who were waiting with the bride; pastries filled with paw-paw and glazed with sugar, pieces of pumpkin and spiced meats served on beds of fried sweetcorn silk, and other such things.
There were musicians and dancers, and a quantity of the clear and potent apple cider that is produced at every occasion in rural Northern Niaro. My plan called for me to be seen drinking to excess, which was not hard to do. The difficulty lay in drinking little enough that I could still be capable of putting my plan into action; the cider of Northern Niaro is a fine thing.
By the time the groom was brought in, with the blowing of trumpets and the clashing of cymbals, not all the lightness in my step was artificial. I stepped out of the building, ostensibly to ease my bowels. The night was cold and dark, and a few flakes of snow were drifting down from the leaden skies. The lights from the wedding were very bright, and made a mournful comparison to the empty landscape beyond, where a few flecks of snow had started to fall.
The grounds beyond the school was cut by a gully, where I had seen children at play, hiding their head when the teachers came out in search of them. There they would catch minnows from the stream, and fry them on little fires, or splash about in the shallows, or engage in all the other mischief of children.
I squatted down, facing that stream, but I kept my pants fastened, and slipped my pistol out from inside my vest. Here I was, a stranger who might know too much, as helpless as a man could be. If I were to fall into the stream, and crack my head open, it would surprise nobody. Not even Ba, I don’t think; he had seen me dancing like a bear, with a bottle of cider clutched in either paw. At a minimum, I was plump enough to make a good meal.
There was a step on the grass behind me; a light step. I turned, stood, all in one motion, my pistol coming up.
I knew that I was not faster than a tiger. But I also knew that tigers like to strike from behind. There was that moment of hesitation on which I had relied, and my gun roared out in the night, five times.
The body that lay on the ground was that of man, not a tiger. It was Bald-Headed Ban Cao, the village head. As members of the wedding party poured out of the school, to seek the cause of the noise, I prepared myself to face a trial for murder.
“Look what he has done!” said one of them. “Ban Cao,” said another. “The village head! He has slain the village head!” cried a third. Then the voices fell silent in shock, and I looked down to watch the corpse shift and melt–first Ban Cao, then a great Niaro tiger, twelve feet long, from whisker to tail-tip. Finally, it settled as Ban Cao, or a man with the features of Ban Cao, who was nine feet tall, twisted up in his death agony.
I had taken a grave chance, but I had not been wrong. Who other than a murderer would interrupt a man while he is defecating?
The wedding quickly became a double party. I hated to take the joy of the new couple and spread it upon myself, but there had been a shadow in the hearts of the people of Deep Spring, which had been lifted by the Widow Li’s ammunition. If Huang Ba did not do well in his dealings on the next day, I would have been very surprised.
I did not remain in the village to observe those transactions. With an aching head, I slipped out of the Widow Li’s house, and returned to the canyon of bones, where the woman waited. She was awake this time, the tiger skin over her legs. She wore nothing else, and was stringy, though I did not think that she was starving.
“Good morning,” I said, crunching down on the bones, as I made my approach.
She said nothing, merely looked at me, with eyes that were a shocking green.
“We were here before, my friend and I, but we left without coming into the canyon. My apologies for that, but there were things I did not wish my friend to see.”
Still, no response.
“The village head, Ban Cao, is dead,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “And now?”
“That,” I said, clearing a rib-cage from a rock, and sitting down upon it, “is a question.”
“You see, the thing I did not wish for my friend to see was the trap biting into your leg,” I said.
“You have good eyes.”
“I do,” I replied. “My father did not have good eyes, but my mother did. Her cousin was a spotter for the army, and a famous marksman, because of the excellence of his vision. Not only did I see the trap, I saw that the teeth were black, rather than the brown of iron, and that there were welts in your leg near those marks, which looked like you had been splashed there with acid.”
“I do not think,” she said, “that there is anyone, even among my people, who could see that clearly.”
“I saw,” I said. “What I was looking to see.”
“What have you come here to do?” she asked.
I sighed. “I don’t know,” I replied. “The wise thing to do would be to call in hunters, and dogs, and kill you from outside of this canyon. Tigers are dangerous, to people and to pigs.”
“I have done no harm,” she said.
“So you say. Ban Cao did a great deal of harm. What is your relationship with him?”
“He left the scent marks at his border,” she said. “I came looking for a mate; and found . . . I found that we were not mates.”
“I see,” I said. “And why did you remain silent, the last time I visited this place?”
She was silent for a time. “I was afraid,” she said, finally. “Of the guns, and also . . .”
“Also the dogs,” I said.
She nodded, ashamed. It is a difficult thing, to admit to fear of something weaker than oneself.
I leapt off my rock, and stepped forward. “If you’ll allow me to look at the leg?”
She made no objection, said nothing, just sat, stone still, as I moved the tiger skin out of position. Some of the links were flattened slightly, as though pounded by a stone, but the iron of the chain was too heavy to break in that fashion. I had brought with me a screw-driver, and it was the work of moments to dismantle the mechanism.
She jerked her leg back, as the teeth released it; those marks were deep and ugly; I doubted if they would ever completely heal.
“Why?” she asked.
I returned to the rock I had cleared, and sat back down. “Perhaps you were telling the truth, that you have done no harm. Or perhaps Cao had been covering for your crimes as best he could. And if I had you killed, I would certainly have been applauded for it.”
“And yet?” she asked, rubbing at her leg, and wincing in pain.
“And yet, I have no evidence to say that you have done any harm. Perhaps the Widow Li was a confederate of Cao’s, who had fallen out with him. Perhaps Huang Ba brought me here to kill Cao. I will not kill you on a supposition.”
She turned, looked up the side of the canyon. “If I may be permitted a word of advice?” I said.
“Stay away from villages. I, myself, would never give up roasted pigeon and stuffed dumplings for raw meat and cold streams. But if you–”
“Thank you,” she said. “I had reached the same conclusion myself.”
She leapt up and out of the canyon, shifting into a tigress as she moved. I had kept my pistol loose in my pocket, with the last of Widow Li’s bullets loaded in the chamber, but I had been deluding myself. There was no way that I could have reacted in time. If Ban Cao had not been so confident in his kill, if he had been a tiger when he came at me, I would have died outside of that school.
For a long moment, she stood there, up on the rock above the canyon. Then she left, trotting off into the forest with a hitch in her back leg. The snow started falling again, flecks lodging among her fur, like silver dropping on a living flame, and standing unconsumed.
If any of the locals had known that I had freed a tiger woman, all the credit I had earned by killing Ban Cao would be lost, and worse. A villager cannot but see a tiger in his hills, be it a natural one or a supernatural one, as anything other than a menace. I brought the skin she had been covered with back to Deep Spring, and told Ba that the canyon had been empty when I arrived.
It is true, what I said to her, but I am not certain if it was wise. Perhaps there will be dead villagers in the hills, whose shades will haunt my dreams, for letting their killer live.
It is true, what I said to her, but I am not certain if that is the entire truth. My time in the army cost me many precious things. I cannot be the son that our mother needs, nor the older brother that you deserve. I have left my station, and the future which waited for me, and left you to have them, because of what the war has taken from me. I learned some things as well, as a captain of the infantry. I learned which loads I could bear, and which I could not, and shooting a woman bound up for the slaughter is a load which I can not bear, be she tiger or no.
I did what I did, Lian, and I do not regret it. I write this letter sitting before the fire in my rooms, wrapped up in the fine Deep Spring blanket that was given to me. Here, the fire leaps, caged in the fireplace. In the distant hills, the fire coughs and roars, free and fierce.
Your loving elder brother,
Alter S. Reiss is a scientific editor and field archaeologist. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel, and enjoys good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows. Alter’s work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He says:
This is a story that I’ve been making intermittent progress on for almost a decade, so I have to admit, I’m no longer sure where it started. I can say that post-war stories are something that I’ve always been interested in, as well as cultures which are in flux, rather than stable. I can also say that I’m not yet finished with Shen Xa-Xhu or Northern Niaro, though I have no idea what I’ll do with them next.