Friday, December 7, 2012

"Chang Yan's Blazing Sword" by Bert N. Dean

The ragged sailor stopped, breathing hard, and croaked through cracked lips: "Have you seen him today?"

"Not today," replied the dealer in a pearl shell, kicking at a green beetle that scurried through the dust outside the small, evil-smelling shop. "Perhaps the son of Sindbad can be found in the house of the Caliph. Have you looked for him there?"

Fear leaped into the sailor's bloodshot eyes. "No, for I look no better than the most miserable beggar. I could not get my toe inside the Caliph's gate while I am wrapped in these rags."

"What have you to lose — beside your unlucky life," the dealer in pearl shell asked, "by beating at the Caliph's gate and demanding to be led before the son of Sindbad? If you have much to gain by finding him, surely you would not flinch at risking your life!"

The sailor was a study in despair as he looked over the rooftops to the great white palace on the hill overlooking the sea. His limbs were little more than skin and bones, and his beard failed to hide gaunt, hollow cheeks below red-rimmed feverish eyes. "I will go," he muttered, "for I have lost everything but my life, and unless I can reclaim my fortune, my life is as worthless as the mud that clings to my feet."

But luck followed the sailor's weary footsteps up the hill to the Caliph's palace, for as he approached the pike-studded gate a guard sprang forth with a hand outstretched in welcome. The sailor halted suddenly, but his bewilderment vanished when the guard spoke.

"Captain! Captain Jinnahh!" the guard cried in joy. "Fate has been cruel to you since out voyage to the Indies."

The sailor's cracked lips parted in a weak smile as his bloodshot eyes studied the guard's face. "Yussef! You were but a skinny boy when you sailed into the sunrise with me. Ah, but now you are tall and strong, and in service of a great nobleman. Pray, Yussef, can the son of Sindbad be found within your master's gates?"

"Aye, my captain!" replied the guard as he turned quickly about. "I shall summon him to the gate that you may speak with him."

Young Sindbad was armed with a broadsword and carried a large leather pouch such as those used by navigators of his time to carry charts and instruments. He preceded Yussef through the gate, and stopped to stare at the ragged seafarer who was leaning against the wall. In a moment young Sindbad's frown disappeared, and disbelief shadowed his face. "Jinnahh?" he asked. "Captain of the Red Sea Fleet?"

"Aye," replied the ragged sailor, reaching for young Sindbad's hand. "But I am in a sorry state, and bring nothing but bad tidings."

Young Sindbad held the seafarer's hand as he turned to walk with him away from the gate. "Many times my father was worse off than you, Jinnahh, but he never gave up hope. Tell me your troubles."

"I was commissioned to lead a trading convoy across the sea to Africa," Jinnahh began. "One dark night as our ships were seeking the channel between the islands beyond the shores of Madagascar we saw what we believed to be shepherds' fires burning along the coast. But alas, whhen we changed our course and drew near the fires, we were fallen upon by a most coldblooded band of pirates who swarmed from small boats onto our rails and immediately set about to kill the crew of each vessel. Being unarmed, I fled into the sea and swam to the nearby shore."

"None but you survived?" the son of Sindbad asked.

"Yes," Jinnah replied sadly, "Chang Yan's band let none escape their brutal swords and daggers. By day I hid in the tangled forest, and by night I would walk by the sea and observe the comings and goings of Chang Yan and his cutthroats. They dwell in caves by the sea, and one dark night I dared to slip into Chang's private cave. There I found vast stores of treasure. Silk, gold, ivory and spices. Rare jades, carvings in teak and many works of art."

Young Sindbad's eyes were narrowed in deep thought. Muscles twitched along his tightly-clamped jaw, and his sinewy right hand dropped to the hilt of his sword.

"Two fine ships are at my disposal," the son of Sindbad said. "Let us man them with stout crews, take on arms and provisions and sail to the lair of this pirate!"

Jinnahh's bloodshot eyes glowed with excitement. "I knew you would leap at the chance!" he shouted. "Let us make haste to depart before treacherous tongues carry word of our attack to Chang Yan!"

Manned with the finest fighting men of the port, and with great white sails billowing in an off shore wind, two of the fastest ships of the Caliph's fleet set forth two days later with young Sindbad in full command. Jinnahh captained the second vessel, and with fair breezes and favorable tides they reached the Madagascar coast on the full moon.

Entering the pirate-infested waters, Jinnahh put off in a small boat and boarded the "Arabian Star," young Sindbad's vessel where the two conferred at length.

"Why is it," young Sindbad inquired, "that the mysterious shepherd fires do not burn tonight?"

"Because the moon is full, and we can clearly see the coast without beacons shining from the shore," Jinnahh reasoned. Then, pointing to a shallow cove along the tropical forest which was separated from the sea by a band of white beach, he drew young Sindbad's attention to a jetty of square-hewn stones. "The hulls of their dhows are hidden behind that wall of stone. But look now! They stream forth from the caves to man their fast boats. Are we ready for them?"

"We are!" cried young Sindbad. "To arms, men! To arms!"

Young Sindbad took the helm as his crew clambered over the decks, swords waving in their eagerness for battle. Then they were crouched behind the rails, ready for Chang Yan's onslaught.

Like a wolf pack the pirate dhows ran from the cove and bore down on the two ships. But when Chang Yan's cutthroats leaped for the rails of the larger vessels, they were met by flashing swords that cut a crimson swath through their screaming ranks. Standing amidships in his dhow, Chang Yan bellowed commands to his badly depleted band; then, as he realized his force could not hope to assault the two ships, he shouted for a swift retreat.

Young Sindbad who had left the helm and taken a goodly toll of Chang's men, drew Jinnahh aside. "The tide is not yet full. Would it be wise to beach our ships and give chase to the infidels before daylight?"

Jinnahh nodded wisely. "Aye, Sindbad. There is no better time than now!"

Beaching his ship, young Sindbad leaped to the wet sand with his courageous crew at his heels. Swords unsheathed, they advanced in battle formation to the edge of the forest before Chang Yan's pirates rushed forth in a counter-attack. Sword met sword in dozens of fierce duels, but with few exceptions young Sindbad's men were the victors and swept onward toward the caves.

Suddenly Sindbad found himself alone, ahead of his hard-fighting crew. And rushing toward him, flanked by a pair of huge Madagascan native warriors, was the dreaded pirate Chang Yan. The pirate chief was armed with the strangest sword young Sindbad had ever seen or heard of, for from its tip flashed a smoking tongue of flame!

Sindbad stood in a crouch, his sword at arm's length before him. With a nimble twist of his wrist he fenced off the first warrior, then struck him a stunning blow the back of his blade. The second warrior charged, holding his sword like a lance. Sindbad pivoted on one foot, then laid the warrior's chest open with a chopping stroke. Chang Yan fell upon Sindbad then, the flame from his blazing sword searing Sindbad's flesh. But Sindbad parried Chang's next blow, more by feel then by sight for the flame from the pirate's sword was blinding.

Chang yelled in unholy glee as his terrible sword arced downward, straight for Sindbad's neck. Instead of backing away, Sindbad plunged forward, sword level from his hip. The two bodies struck with a resounding thud, and as Chang fell back, Sindbad was catapulted over him.

Regaining his feet, Sindbad plucked his sword from the still body of his vanquished foe, and picked up Chang's mysterious sword. By the time Jinnahh and his victorious crew joined him, Sindbad had discovered the secret of Chang's weapon. There was a tiny channel through the blade in which oil, from a reservoir in the hilt, flowed to the burning tip.

"Shall we now go to Chang's cave and claim the treasures he seized from unwary mariners?" Jinnahh asked.

"Yes. Go," Sindbad directed. "I will return to my ship and await the tide, for you see that I have won an amazing reward for my trouble." Sindbad waved the flaming sword for all to see as he strode back to the beach, singing an ancient sea chant that he had learned at the knees of his daring father.

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