The Rock at Shinsu Bridge
A vast wooden bridge connected the main land to the island of the Dawning Sun in three smooth arcs, like the curves of a skipped stone. Massive pillars held the wooden structure up over hungry waters, and the bridge was broad enough for thirty men to stand shoulder to shoulder. Over many years, this structure -- Shinsu Bridge -- had seen great generals march over it and return. It had welcomed lone wanderers and visiting princes with its serene grandeur.
Now, row upon row of spearman filled the bridge’s expanse. They stood in shadow. Clouds hid the sunset, casting the warriors of the Kingdom of the Dawning Sun into darkness before their time.
This small army didn’t know that the Curse would fall on their land before the next morning, that the Kingdom of the Dawning Sun must become the Kingdom of the Waning Moon and a land of Cursed undead.
All they knew was that they must hold Shinsu Bridge against the devilish underworld elves and their monsters, who had run unchecked through the lands beyond their island. The spearmen were not here for glory. They were the last defense.
Their noble army, ten-thousand strong, had vanished without trace or word of their fate returning to the Dawning Sun -- and so what remained to the Kingdom were warriors past their prime, those so young that this was their first battle, noblemen and women with their personal guards, teachers and those who struggled with old wounds. To the credit of the Dawning Sun, only one of their own would see that this was not a regular army. To a foreign eye, they would seem disciplined and regimented.
Regardless of station, they all stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to follow the commands of their leader, the venerable Lord Taigawa.
Near the center of their even lines stood Taro, taking up space for two soldiers. He’d been told he was too big for regular military service -- and he did indeed stand head and shoulders above the rest, his armor necessarily made custom for him.
The giant man let out a great sigh, his lips flapping like sails in the grim silence.
His nearest companions shifted, glancing at him or rolling their eyes. No one spoke.
Moments later, Taro drew in a bellowing breath and let out an even louder, more obvious sigh.
A thin woman chuckled, then swiftly stifled the sound.
After yet another moment of stillness, Taro snorted audibly and then coughed in the back of his throat as though about to spit.
“Taro!” hissed one of his companions: Ko, a farmer turned standard bearer. Around them a few others couldn’t hold back short nervous giggles.
“What?” asked Taro, innocence personified.
“Can’t you be still for a minute? Where’s your dignity?” asked Ko.
Taro grinned and stuck a big finger in one ear, deliberately picking out wax, “Ah, I’ve been standing still for at least a minute, Ko. Maybe two, actually.”
“That’s not what- don’t you care at all about your honor?”
Taro made a fierce face and glared down at the standard bearer, who clutched the bamboo staff of his banner, “How dare you?” Taro growled, using his deepest and most serious voice. “My honor is all I have!” Around him, people tried to hold in their laughter as Ko, eyes gone wide with alarm, shrank from the giant.
“At least,” continued Taro, still using an intimidating rumble, “It is all I have since I finished those excellent pork buns.”
He straightened up, grinning jovially as Ko spluttered. The fighters broke into laughter. With mock solemnity, Taro sighed again, lamenting, “Those were good pork buns. Honor doesn’t taste as nice.”
“Quiet in the ranks!” called one of Lord Taigawa’s captains, nearer the front line of spears.
Lord Taigawa himself never glanced their way -- perhaps, away at the head of the spearmen, he could not hear them. His eyes remained steady on the dark road beyond the bridge. Silhouetted against the purple sky at the height of the bridge’s furthest arch -- the lines of his armor, his sword, and the curving horns of his helmet all elegant -- he made the perfect portrait of a hero of the Dawning Sun.
When the captain had spoken, many turned slightly, attention on their general. A wave of peace and determination swept through them. Lord Taigawa was a good man to serve with, a good man to die for. If today was the last for the Dawning Sun, even disparate as they were, the spearmen would make a glorious end.
Out of the night, silently streaking across that purple sky, came an arrow.
Lord Taigawa made no sound as the arrow took him through the throat. He jerked in the saddle, swaying, the perfect lines of his silhouette marred by the prickly fletching bobbing in his throat, by the sudden limpness of his neck. He made no sound as he toppled from his horse either.
One more moment of stillness filled the night, of unholy silence, and then the world was one of arrows and screams.
Immediately, panic threatened to overwhelm the spearmen. The darkness, the sudden death of Taigawa, and the rumors they’d all heard sent the front lines pressing backwards, some fleeing from the arrows and howls that filled the dark -- this unnatural dark -- beyond the bridge.
An arrow hissed past Ko and he flinched.
“What do we do?” he cried. “Who’s in command?”
Beside him, the giant Taro chuckled. “We fight, friend Ko! We stand!” he said. “We know how to hold a spear, don’t we? What else do we need?”
In the dark, Taro and Ko couldn’t see when the monsters of the underworld elves reached their front line -- but they heard it: the roars of those who fought and the shrieks of those who fell.
Arrows rained down among the middle ranks, as the enemy archers shifted their aim to avoid hitting their own demon beasts on the first curve of the bridge. Three arrows glanced off of Taro, and one found the gap below his elbow and stuck there.
The giant looked down, and he laughed again, “What’s this little sting? These arrows don’t even hurt, my friends!”
An arrow tore through the banner itself. Ko yelped when he felt the pull of the fabric, fumbling the bamboo staff and letting it go. He was two steps in retreat before the banner swayed forward.
Down the line, a young girl dropped her torch -- the brand clattering to the bridge. She fled. Others joined her, breaking and routing. Howling fear and arrows swirled around Taro, fire flickered and died, trampling feet sounded doom for the spearmen at Shinsu Bridge.
Taro caught Ko’s falling banner, as around him his fellows ran. Ko was nowhere to be seen.
“I make a big target, no?,” Taro called, as more arrows struck him -- finding his knee, his shoulder. “Come, give me a chance to return these gifts.”
He got his wish.
Out of the dark came one of the underworld monsters. It ran on four legs, the size of a big dog, with blind eyes and the viciously fast zigzag gait of a lizard. It tasted the air with a forked tongue flashing between needle-like teeth.
“Here!” cried Taro. “Come here, you gecko!”
The blind head snapped towards Taro’s voice and it charged, maw opening wide for him.
With a roar, Taro sidestepped the creature and brought the iron-shod butt of the standard down on the top of its skull. Gore splattered the bridge, and the monster fell dead. Hissing filled the night. Taro had the monsters’ attention. More slithered out of the dark -- rushing the giant -- while arrows continued to rain down around him.
Taro laughed as he swung the banner and his spear together. He clubbed another of the monsters aside with the banner, caught a third in its flank with his spearpoint, and swatted a fourth into the air with his spear haft -- the point yet buried in the third twitching monster.
Taro freed his spear and snapped it to attention at his side. Around him, a few of his fellow spearmen finished off their own monsters and peered warily into the dark. “Did he just kill four?” whispered someone in the gloom. “He didn’t step back at all -- stood like a stone.”
The arrows ceased.
Taro chuckled. “Didn’t bring enough arrows?” he called to the elves. The spearmen around him laughed with him, relieved to be alive.
Taro began to walk forward. Those around him followed, climbing up the curve of the bridge with steady resolve. More torches had fallen as spearmen fled, and fires were springing up around the survivors. Taro passed through the chaos to put himself at the highest point of the bridge, at the central arch. He held the banner in one hand and his spear in the other. Others clustered around him, bracing themselves for what must come next.
The elves -- white hair gleaming in the newly risen moon, weapons demon sharp and their footsteps as silent as a nightmare -- charged onto the bridge.
The humans yelled their defiance, fire dancing at their feet and Taro at their midst.
“You’ll have to do better than that,” chuckled Taro, as an elf ran into his spear. He brought the banner’s staff down on head after shoulder after arm -- the enemy’s armor caving in under the force of Taro’s blows.
“I haven’t eaten my last pork bun!” cried Taro. “Come not between a spearman and his stomach, little elves!” Around him, his companions took up his tone -- shouting challenges and jokes to one another and the elves.
“Come on! I can kill twice as many!”
“Let’s hurry this up! My husband’s making spicy noodles tonight!”
“Ha! You’ll not move the Rock off the bridge!”
That caught on amidst the slaughter. The bristling company laughed and jeered as they slew their enemies and held the bridge.
Perhaps, perhaps… there would be glory after all.
The elves broke off -- falling back along the bridge. The spearmen of the Dawning Sun cheered.
Above the din, someone cried, “For the Dawning Sun!”
“For the spearman at Shinsu Bridge!” answered someone else.
“For the Rock!” shouted another. “For the Rock at Shinsu Bridge!”
The cheering faded as the spearmen waited, knowing that this could not be all the underworld elves had in store for them.
Breathing hard, they all had time to assess their wounds, to feel the exhaustion and pain -- but as each did so, they all looked up to Taro, clearly visible in the light from the burning bridge. The big man was stuck with a dozen arrows, and still he smiled, still he held the banner and the spear and did not lean on either. They straightened. If Taro could stand, then so could they.
“Think they’ve had enough?” said Taro, to a chorus of assent and chuckles.
“Not nearly,” called a voice from the darkness.
Up the bridge, into the firelight, came a monstrous figure -- an elf riding a creature like the lizards they’d already fought, except this beast was the size of a workhorse.
The elf carried an ebony bow with a wicked curve to it, and sat her mount with the ease of long practice.
“What have we here?” she sneered at Taro. “A pincushion? Go run away home, pincushion. The bridge is mine.”
Behind her, the shadow of her army stood at the base of the bridge, ready and waiting.
Taro made a show of looking to the right and to the left at his spearmen.
Taro scratched his head as though confused.
“Ah, I’m afraid you’re mistaken, elf,” he said. “Begging pardon, but Shinsu Bridge is ours!”
The spearmen roared their agreement.
“Here I thought I got the hero out of the way early,” said the elf. She pulled an arrow from the case at her waist, the shaft nearly the width of her slender wrist. She set it to her bowstring, and looked down it at Taro.
Taro leaped forward and to the side. The arrow thudded into the wooden bridge where he’d been. He closed the distance with easy strides, thrust for the elf’s mount, and whipped the banner across the back of the beast, trying to knock the elf off her perch.
Taro’s spear stuck in the beast’s leg and it reared up, coincidentally saving its rider from a fall by catching Taro’s banner in the side of its own head.
The elf shrieked in indignation and snatched another arrow to hand, guiding her mount away from Taro with her knees.
The lizard darted away and then turned to face the spearman again, hissing, its rider unharmed. This time her arrow flew true. The bolt buried itself in Taro’s knee. He wouldn’t be leaping anymore.
With the bridge shuddering beneath her, the elf charged. She meant for the raking claws of her beast to finish Taro. But Taro dropped the banner. He took up his spear with both hands and braced for the impact of the monster.
Taro caught the thing in its shoulder and wrenched it sideways, throwing the beast to the side with a howl of determination. The bridge beneath Taro creaked and flexed under the impact, weakened by the spreading fires. The monster rolled, the elven rider clinging to her mount.
The lizard skidded to a halt, turning once more to face Taro -- his furious rider shook off her surprise and fitted another arrow to her bow. Taro limped towards the center of the bridge, careful of the wood beneath his feet. More elves were creeping up the bridge, but they were watching the fight between Taro and the elf. Unwilling to commit their forces fully while the duel went on.
The elf fired a third arrow as she closed the distance again. Taro grunted as the arrow slammed through his armor and into his shoulder. He dropped to his knee, leaning on his spear now. Just a little. Her could feel the uneasy tremor of the bridge. The night was bright and hot with the fires on on this arch. It was going to come down soon.
Like the elves, the spearman hung back -- watching Taro.
“I guess they were my last pork buns,” Taro said to himself. “Should have asked for seconds.”
The lizard came pounding across the weakened bridge, running towards Taro. Taro saw the beast hesitate, sensing the danger.
With a final effort, Taro threw aside his spear and, with arms open wide, propelled himself up into the lizard, a wide grin on his face. He wrapped his huge arms around the monster, and let all his weight carry them down to the bending bridge.
With a tremendous crack, the central arch of the bridge broke into ashy debris and flaming wreckage. It sent all three of them plummeting towards the water below. The creature howled, the rider screamed, and Taro, the Rock at Shinsu Bridge, laughed.
They crashed into the water and disappeared.
Silence followed, but for the hungry fire above and the hungry waves below.
The spearmen and the elves looked at each other, across the broken bridge. A single clear note sounded from the elves’ side. Like ghosts, they turned and retreated down the bridge.
A short ragged cheer arose from the spearman -- but missing Taro’s great booming voice, it soon turned to quiet talk as they carried their fallen back along the bridge.
The spearman, the desperate army of the Dawning Sun, had won respite at Shinsu Bridge.
Alas, they could not know how short their respite would be.
Who knows what deliberations went on that night in the elven camp? Who knows why they chose to return to their underworld kingdom, leaving behind the Curse and a patch of eternal night? The magic unleashed that night had consequences that stretched far beyond what was intended -- for the underworld elves and the Dawning Sun alike.
Not least of which was that as Taro lay bleeding and bruised and barely alive -- washed up far away on the far shore -- he lost the ability to die.
When he woke, Taro smiled at the cloudy sky, surprised to see another dawn and shaking off the nightmares of the night before with seeming ease. Carefully, he picked himself up and began to walk -- finding a swamp village, sitting peacefully on the foggy shore.
The frightened villagers didn’t know what to do when the big man, full of arrows, came striding towards their huts.
He stopped a safe distance away and waved, calling, “Good morning, friends. Have you any pork buns?”