Even with all the bloodshed, the Battle of Yamen is little-known today, perhaps because of society’s focus on the subsequent glories of the Mongol Empire, as well as our undeniably Eurocentric lens.
Still, I thought it a compelling subject, and rather than a tumultuous end to the glorious, if militarily weak, Southern Song. But from the ashes, what if a new civilization arose?
The idea was irresistable, and since then, I have been writing about it like a man possessed. Like Guy Gavriel Kay and Lian Hearn, two of my favorite authors, I realized that I would not want to write pure historical fiction, subject as I would be to the limitations and constraints of real history. Instead, like them, I would set the story in a place at once foreign and familiar, where the cultures, peoples, and weapons were vaguely recognizable, but different enough to captivate readers.
I present to you the first chapter of Across the Lotus Sea, based on the undocumented tumult following the collapse of the Southern Song Dynasty, and the terrifying, unstoppable rise of the Mongols.
Yamen Commandery, Celestial Empire
Aboard the war junk Battlecry
The sea was awash with blood, and the screams of dying men.
Exploding shot, flung by nearby catapults, crashed down amongst the Imperial Fleet, leaving fire and destruction in its wake. Burning men screamed, throwing themselves into the warm, tropical water, seeking salvation from the agony consuming their bodies.
They found only death.
Then the Huiran came, lashing their ships to the Imperial vessels with grappling chains and rope. They swarmed the beleaguered vessels, howling, swinging from ropes and leaping from sails and masts, savage, fierce, and unstoppable.
The archers aboard the Battlecry peppered the attackers with arrows, coated with poisons from all the nasty manner of creatures, as well as common shit from the outhouses. Either was likely to kill, and kill slowly at that.
Still the enemy came, thick as the storm clouds of the Lotus Sea. Scrambling over rope, rigging, and deck, they swarmed the Battlecry like monkeys, slashing and hacking their way across the stout little ship. One sailor rushed at a burly, tattooed barbarian with a blue and red dragon emblazoned on his broad chest, only to be cut down without mercy. Another Huiran, who could not have been older than sixteen, thrust a saber through the gut of one of the Battlecry’s sailors. Minutes later, however, a Marine swung his spear at him, knocking him clean off the ship and into the water below. Yet scarcely had a minute passed before that same Marine had his head split in half with an axe and hammered into a red, ruinous pulp.
For the hard-pressed Imperials, their commanding officer had thought that it would be all well and good to chain the vessels together, forgetting that such a tactic rendered the fleet vulnerable to boarding parties.
Hence the Battlecry’s dilemma; it was tethered to several other Imperial ships (all of which were burning), as well as the enemy frigate, a large, three-story contraption that boasted two large trebuchets, which, thankfully, could not fire at this range. Yet it had plenty of archers, fire arrows, as well as a seemingly inexhaustible supply of raiders–against which the Battlecry could not hold out forever.
We’re losing the fucking battle, Lieutenant Yan Dawei realized. If Battlecry was to break free, they had to cut the damn chains, and quickly at that.
But first, they had to fend off the boarding parties, and kill those sons of bitches who were flooding over the ship like rats on a carcass. If he was to turn the tide, Dawei knew, he would have to act now.
Without a second thought, Dawei ran through the hail of fire arrows, his rattan shield held tight to his chest. He sidestepped a charging barbarian and leaped down from the stern of the ship, crashing into two Huiran who had their backs to him.
The force of his jump knocked the two men off-balance, giving Dawei all the time he needed. As he rolled to his feet, Dawei drew his saber and slashed one man’s hamstring, sending him sprawling to the deck in agony, where other sailors and Marines finished him off. Dawei turned to deal with the other man, bringing up his shield in time to block the other Huiran’s wicked, curved scimitar, equal parts elegance and murder.
Dawei pressed his attack, driving his opponent through the chaos and fighting that raged along the gun deck. Fast and strong, his enemy was well-trained, but he was not Dawei–and he had not been raised on ships. When the Battlecry rocked to the side, Dawei took advantage of the opening, knocking the Huiran’s scimitar to the side and kicking the man square in the chest, sending him over the railing and into the water below.
“Cut the fucking chains!” Dawei screamed at the other sailors and Marines.
“Which ones?” a sailor shouted back, no doubt confused about whether to separate the Battlecry from the Imperial fleet, or the enemy ship
“All of them!” Dawei screamed back. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a blur, and turned to meet the threat–just as another Huiran crashed into him, sending the two men flying across the bloody, sandy deck. Dawei’s saber slipped from his hand, so he pulled his hatchet from his waistband, cursing. Blood ran down his nose and from a cut in his eyes, blinding him.
Hairy, heavily muscled, and with a chest the size of a cannon, his foe met him with a smile on his lips and murder in his eyes; the Huiran was twice Dawei’s size, and swung a large, heavy scimitar that weighed as much as Dawei did.
Dawei sidestepped the first strike, spun and blocked the second with his shield, and bulled into the man’s sword arm, driving his shortaxe deep into the man’s shoulder armor, breaking through the chainmail and finding flesh.
Instead of collapsing, the Huiran dug in his feet and pushed Dawei savagely, throwing him across the deck. Dawei broke his fall and quickly rolled out of the way as the Huiran nearly took the smaller man’s head off with a vicious downward stroke, embedding the scimitar in the hard teak of the deck. The Huiran frowned, bushy eyebrows and thick beard creased in frustration, and pulled at the weapon.
The scimitar was stuck.
Dawei seized the opportunity, lashing out with a vicious kick to the man’s knee, breaking the joint. When the Huiran’s leg buckled and he reached for a short sword on his waist, Dawei jabbed him in the face with the hard edge of his rattan shield, drawing blood and sending the man staggering. He followed that strike with a wide, looping fist, which crashed against the man’s temple. Despite his injuries, the Huiran cursed, and managed to pull out his short sword–before a throwing axe crashed into his throat, blunting his advance and sending him toppling to the deck.
Dawei quickly finished him off with a thrust from a borrowed saber, and left the corpse for the others to dispose of. He wiped the blood from his face with the back of his sword hand and stopped to take in the scene.
The assault was abating, for now: the other men had finished cutting the lines and dislodging the grappling hooks that moored Battlecry to her adversary. As the Battlecry lurched away, barely missing a thick volley of arrows that splashed harmlessly into the water astern, its guns fired off a broadside, raking the enemy ship and shattering one of the two trebuchets.
Dawei breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to survey the ship’s deck: it was littered with clumps of blood and sand mixed together, with several bodies strewn across the deck. Frustrated, he turned to address the seasoned, weathered second officer, surnamed Pan.
“Leaving me to kill the damn Huiran horde by myself?” Dawei asked, spitting out blood and a broken molar onto the deck. He slung the rattan shield onto his back, and winced at the tenderness he felt there.
Better bruised than dead, he thought.
“I’d rather watch you for free than pay an acrobat a copper,” Pan retorted. He returned Dawei’s saber to him, hilt first, and the younger man slipped it back into his scabbard.
“Kind of you to say so,” Dawei sighed. He took a long drag from a waterskin on his belt, and shook the sweat from his face.
“Besides, we had to sail the ship,” Pan added. “I think we did well, considering that we did break free from the enemy.”
Short and stocky, sun-weathered and rain-beaten, Pan had spent all his thirty-nine years aboard ships of the Empire, and had a face and tongue to match. A better officer than half the captains in the Imperial Fleet, he had been passed over for command countless times by the Imperial bureaucracy–the very same one which was losing them the war.
“The captain?” Dawei demanded, though he already knew the answer.
“Dead,” Pan replied with a grimace. He nodded towards the ocean as the rest of the men cleared the dead and dying off the deck. They took their own casualties belowdecks, but threw the enemy dead and wounded into the sea.
“Two years ago, the court was sitting pretty in Nancheng,” Pan mused, referring to the the splendid, glittering seat of Empire that hosted glories and palaces beyond count. “Now Nancheng is naught but ruined craters and hungry ghosts, and we’re here, at the last outpost of our Empire.”
“The Empire is coming apart at the seams,” Dawei observed as the Battlecry sailed away rapidly from the periphery of the battle, and towards the center of its own lines. “Our fleet is the last remaining force here, and it’s breaking.”
They passed countless burning, gutted hulks, and bodies drifting in the water. Further away, Dawei could hear the sound of battle, but he could not hear the pounding of the war drums, nor could he make out the High Admiral’s command flag, a large, splendid yellow banner embroidered with a snarling, green-skinned demon.
The Emperor was aboard that ship, he knew. With the fall of the capital, the Celestial Empire was an empire in nothing but name; without the Emperor, and more importantly, the civil and military officials stretched out across the fleet, there was no hope of restoring the realm.
“It already has,” Pan said quietly. “The Emperor–”
“The Splendor has been destroyed?” Dawei asked, though he already knew the answer. The Splendor was the flagship of the Imperial Navy, a massive, sixty-gun vessel with two trebuchets, four masts, and enough room for a crew of two hundred. By itself, it likely had enough firepower to destroy half the barbarian flotilla–were it not for the idiotic, inexperienced admiral at the helm.
Yet there was no sign of it–nor the Emperor.
Pan shook his head, his mouth tight.
“Lost,” he whispered, tears welling in his eyes.
“As we will be, unless we leave this accursed place,” Dawei said. He felt strangely calm, and as he examined the faces of the men near him, he too was surprised by the peace that he felt.
In all honesty, Dawei cared little for the Emperor and his officials; he was only the third son of a fisherman by his first wife, unwanted by all who met him and despised even by those who hadn’t. What did he care about some fat, soft boy Emperor and his cockless eunuchs? They were the ones who had ground the Empire into nothing, wasting money on culture, cuisine, and concubines while the Huiran grew in strength and number. By the time they awoke to the threat, it was beyond late: the Huiran had already pounded down the door of the Empire.
Besides, Dawei had been preparing for this defeat for many years. First, it was the loss of the provinces north of the Long River, rich in grasslands to raise horses for the army, and blanketed by endless fields of wheat and sorghum to feed the masses of the Celestial Empire; later, it had been the river provinces, fertile lands of swamp, marsh, and bog–areas that Dawei knew well from his time as an Imperial Marine. The war had been fought to a stalemate, at least until the incident, but Dawei pushed the disgraceful memories from his mind with a grimace.
Let the hungry ghosts roam where they may, he thought, clenching his fist. But I am not one of them yet. Besides, I still have today, and nothing else. Yesterday is lost to me, and tomorrow may never come.
“You’re speaking of treason,” Pan hissed, jarring Dawei out of his thoughts.
“Look around you, old man,” Dawei replied, his tone level and his voice gentle. “There is no Empire, not anymore. The Emperor is dead, and unless you want to roam the seas as a restless spirit, without descendants or shrines in your honor, then you can stay here and join them.”
“Spoken like a traitor,” Pan replied, his voice rich with scorn and disdain. Even if the old seafarer respected Dawei’s fighting skills, he undoubtedly knew of Dawei’s past.
“This traitor has spent more time fighting the Huiran than you have spent fucking your wife,” Dawei retorted.
Without a word, Pan reached for his sword. Dawei, however, was ready, and struck first, grabbing the older man’s arm, and then sweeping Pan’s feet out from under him. The old officer landed hard, on the deck, and Dawei put his knee on his chest, and his dagger at Pan’s throat.
“Our Emperor is dead,” Dawei explained. “There is no need for us to join him.”
Pan glared at him, defiance in his eyes; still, the old officer saw that none of his crew moved to help him. Instead, they looked to Dawei as he lifted his knee off Pan’s chest.
“We’re going south,” he said. “There is nothing for us here, not anymore.”