March of the Elephants

By: Thùy-Anh Thái (Allison)

 

                 flash of wet red—blood in her eyes.

 

            Mai dabbed it away with her sleeve. In the heat of combat, when even a split second counted, she could have been killed. No need to worry; she was safe now. Mai smeared off the blood to get a good, long look at the miracle before her. The backs of the enemy. The Chinese retreating. This had to be a dream.

 

            La, her elephant, lifted his trunk and trumpeted—almost shouted, as his name implied—to prove otherwise. Soldiers joined in the cry of triumph, and Mai could not help laughing. Another elephant lumbered into view, carrying on his back her elder sister, the commander.

 

            Mai waved at her. “We did it, Hiển. We chased them off.”

 

            The older woman, still and serenely poised on her steed, did not smile. “They’ll be back,” Hiển replied.

 

            Mai was no fool; she already knew that. Her side may have won the battle, but not the war. They should expect more men, better tactics. After all, their enemy was an empire spanning nearly half the world, a great, greedy dragon that tightened its coils over anything within reach. Mai looked down at the men she had led into battle, at how tired they were. The very spears some had waved aloft to celebrate now kept the soldiers upright, as they panted and bled and sweltered in their armor. Just how much longer and harder could they fight for freedom, the right to call their land Vietnam? Mai could not say for certain, but she will keep fighting all the same.

 

            Hiển eyed her sibling with disapproval. “You broke formation. That nearly cost you your life.”

 

            Mai’s wide grin faltered. “I saved them, didn’t I?”

 

            Hiển’s lips pressed into a hard line. “I’m worried because you could have been hurt, that’s all.” Then she swayed on her perch and sighed, as if fatigue from battle finally sank in, as if too tired to fight her sister. “We’ve done well this time,” she admitted. “though we should change formation. No wing should be singled out and overwhelmed by the enemy. That oversight is my fault.”

 

            “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Hiển. Everyone is fine,” Mai assured her. “Our men deserve good food and rest tonight.”

 

            No one in his or her right mind opposed that motion. By sunset, steam and spices filled the air as bowls of phở were served all around for supper. Mai wasted no time squeezing lime and heaping basil into her bowl, though she passed the chili sauce. Enough blood had been shed today; she’d skip on its lookalike tonight. Once the noodle soup sated her hunger, she looked up only to find Hiển missing. She rose to look for her older sister.

 

            Away from company, at the foot of her tent, Hiển stood before a man Mai did not recognize. She did recognize the robe he wore, how its trim differed from hers, and knew that bow he made—right fist in left palm—to show that he bore no arms.

 

            A Chinese envoy?

 

            Hiển acknowledged him the Vietnamese way, with hands folded over her chest and a tip of the waist—an angle not as sharp as his, to indicate her position over him. He had only come to deliver a message, and did not stay to watch her read it. Mai could not see her sister’s reaction, only that she ducked out of sight into the tent.

 

            Hugging the shadows, Mai stole after her. She found Hiển where the elephants were kept.

 

            Sư-Tử, a sight to fear in battle, now stood as a silent sentinel. Hiển stroked his trunk with one hand, while she gripped the scroll with the other.

 

            Mai came in slowly, as if stumbling upon her sister by accident. “There you are. I didn’t think you’d finish eating that fast. Certainly not before me.” Her greeting rang hollow. Hiển did not respond.

 

            “What does it say?” Mai prompted.

            Hiển only shook her head.

            “No secrets,” Mai said softly. “We’re sisters.”

            More silence. Finally, Hiển gave up the scroll. Mai opened up to impeccable penmanship, its beauty belied by the terrible message it bore. White-hot anger engulfed her first. “Still calling us Jiao Province? What nerve.” Cold horror washed over next. “And Cường…It can’t be. They killed him?”

 

            “I had known all along,” Hiển murmured.

 

            “How? We just got the news—“

 

            “It’s a lie,” Hiển snapped. “The Chinese keep no prisoners. My husband had been dead long before that scroll ever reached this camp.”

 

            “But why send this now?”

 

            “To shake my resolve. To put the blame on me. To make it as if Cường was punished and killed for my choice to fight.” Hiển’s gaze hardened, devoid of guilt and doubt. “My husband had fought and died to free Vietnam. I love him still. I will not dishonor his name by giving up.”

 

            “I won’t give up, either,” Mai said. “Our father, our brothers, and Cường…they’re all gone now. We only have each other. We started this war together, and that is how we will finish it too.”

 

            Hiển looked up to give her a rare, grateful smile, which faded as her gaze flitted down to the scroll. She beckoned for it—a small, gentle gesture, returned in kind by Mai as she handed it back. Hiển crushed it in her fist—a sharp, sudden snap that made Mai flinch. “This changes nothing. We keep fighting.”

 

            True to her word, they pressed on. Not only did the rebels stand up to more waves of the enemy, but pushed them back, reclaiming more and more of their territory.

 

            Sư-Tử lived up to his name. He may be Hiển’s elephant, but he roared like an untamed lion, sending tremors of fear even through Mai. Sư-Tử was a living, roaring battering ram. Not even a wall of men and horses could stop him. Only Hiển could rein in a beast like that. Together they paved the way to a string of victories.

 

            Hiển, however, was careful not to get drunk on winning. “Our elephants have gotten us this far, but we can’t rely on them too much,” she said soberly one day. “In time, the enemy will see through our strategy. They are probing for weaknesses as we speak, I reckon. They will outarm and outwit us—that is, if we let them.”

 

            Words of caution failed to dampen Mai’s high spirits. “Sip your tea and enjoy the view, Hiển. You worry too much.”

 

            Mai strayed back to the garrison balcony. She peered down, where men still toiled to make camp, then looked up, where mountains cloaked in green and purple haze reached for the sky. Born and raised in the south, Mai could not get enough of the cool, crisp air here. Centuries of subjugation made most people on both sides forget that the Chinese-Vietnamese border had ever existed. Here it stood before Mai now, no longer an old story, but just a good stone’s throw over the Cao Bằng range. Take Cao Bằng, and Vietnam wins.

 

            “We’ve pushed them back this far,” Mai murmured. “Even better, the hill tribes here have sworn to support us. We are so close, Hiển. What could stop us now?”

 

            Weeks later, when all seemed well, the answer to her question came in a letter. Color drained from Hiển’s face as she read it. “General Yong is coming,” she breathed.

 

            Mai’s gut tightened with dread. She had heard all the stories, of how that man subdued the Mongol tribes to the north, the Tanguts to the west, and recently the Korean peninsula to the east. Now he was heading south for Vietnam, to flatten it under his foot and reclaim it for China.

 

            Enemy forces had pulled back, so that Hiển and Mai could do nothing else but await General Yong’s arrival. He came to them under a truce, sauntering with great, unhurried strides. As expected, he towered over the two women, with hands said to have crushed a tiger in a test to prove his strength.

 

            Hiển kept her back straight, hands folded, and eyes forward. Mai struggled to do the same. She envied her sister’s ease with upholding that quiet strength.

 

            Yong’s voice boomed, even with no intent to shout. “The Mandate of Heaven (may he live ten thousand years) graciously implores you to surrender. Should you comply, he gives you his word that you and your forces will be spared.”

 

            Hiển’s smile was tight, mirthless. “We would rather die with honor in battle than live in disgrace as slaves.”

 

            Yong reacted differently from most men. Instead of bristling at her impudence, his eyes lit up with glee. “The war will go on, then.”

 

            “Before you leave, I’d like you to hear my terms.” Without flinching, Hiển met his eyes. “I challenge you to a duel. A fight to the death. The first to fall will have his or her forces submit in complete surrender.”

 

            He laughed hard, doubling over and wheezing. Finally, he collected himself and managed to say, “You…you’re a bold one. A fool, too. I accept!”

 

            Back in the Cao Bằng camp hours later, Mai still reeled from the shock. Never surrender—she had expected that much. But a duel?

 

            Hiển did not seem to regret her daring proposal. “I knew he would accept,” she said. “The emperor may have called for a peaceful surrender, but Yong loves nothing more than blood shed.” Hiển cracked a smirk. “Besides, he could never turn down fighting a woman. Imagine the blow to his pride if he refused.”

 

            Mai shook her head. “But the price of defeat is just too high. How could he agree to that?”

            “Because he thinks he can win. He is strong, but arrogant.”

 

            Had Hiển not been her sister, Mai would have thought the same of her. Hiển was confident, not arrogant. Mai fought better on an elephant, but Hiển far surpassed her in skill with a blade. Still, Mai had her doubts. Could Hiển be skilled enough to defeat even Yong? His campaigns on horseback may have dulled his hand at sword fighting. Mai spend the next few days torn between worry and belief in her sister.

 

            The night before the decisive battle, Mai did not find Hiển practicing on the field, but sitting inside drinking tea and gazing into the mountains. Or rather, at the opposing army camped there.

 

            Mai frowned. “It’s a little late for this, don’t you think?” She expected Hiển to be more active, if not nervous. “Are you still sure about this? No regrets?”

 

            Hiển did not reply “yes” or “no,” but with this: “War is the fence between defeat and freedom.” She turned to face Mai. “Do you remember what our father used to tell us about elephants?”

 

            “They can’t jump.”

 

            “That’s right.” Hiển set her jaw. “What other choice do we have but to charge right through?”

 

            The two forces met along the Descending Dragon Bay, as agreed. Soldiers gathered around a makeshift arena. Hiển and the general faced each other, swords drawn and gazes unfaltering. Mai stood with her men, feeling helpless with La back in camp.

 

            The two bowed low, one in the Chinese way, and one adhering to the Vietnamese way. Yong cut formalities short with a war cry and a lunge. Hiển parried the downward slash with an uppercut. The clash of swords rang a violent song throughout the shoreline. Mai watched, fighting back the urge to chew on her nails. Yong had Hiển outmatched in strength, but she had the upper hand in speed. Again and again, she dodged what could have been fatal blows, almost dancing through the rain of blurred silver. Obviously he aimed for her head or neck, bent to kill, while she went for her cracks in his armor. Yong staggered back snarling, bleeding from cuts she had inflicted. Hiển held on well, but she would not last forever. The sun climbed higher through the sky, bathing the duelists in heat.

 

            “That letter told the truth,” Yong grunted between pants. “The one about your husband. He was sent to Korea, where he had to work under me.”

 

            Their blades met again, hilts locked. “He was tall, strong, could have been a good worker. But he wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t do a thing I tell him. Then word came to me that you started a rebellion.” He leered at her. “For that, I cut off his head.”

 

            “You’re lying.” Hiển swung at him, eyes alight. “You’re lying!” She had been so graceful and careful before. Now she started to slip. Yong began to block her blows with more ease. Kicking sand into her face slowed her down even more. Panting and seething, Hien bared her teeth and did not relent. Seeing her sister this angry, this primal, frightened Mai.

 

            And somehow, as her heart wrenched, Mai felt that Yong had told the truth. A strange flash caught her eye. Her imagination, perhaps? No—from the other side, cleverly concealed even under broad daylight, a Chinese archer stretched back his bow, arrow aimed straight for Hiển.

 

            How could no one see him? Mai was not supposed to interfere. No one could. That was the rule, only one of many reserved for duels. Mai had never been good at following such things. She threw herself in the arrow’s path, hearing it fly loose. It punched into her back, lodged between plates of her armor. She crumpled into the sand. Hiển screamed her name. The Vietnamese moved first, breaking the loop with a surge of vengeance. Her world was spinning, fading, then went black.

 

###

 

Mai woke up to her body weighed down by bedsheets, and the semblance of a woman framed by the sun behind her. Hiển stood over Mai, her face was etched with worry. Then that worry gave way to relief, and Mai blinked in surprise as Hiển pulled her into a tight hug.

 

“I…I’m alive?”

 

“Yes, thank goodness,” Hiển said.

 

“What happened?”

 

Hiển sat back, drawing in a deep breath, as she always did when she had something important to explain. “Well, first and foremost, the Chinese have retreated.”

“And General Yong?”

 

“I spared him. I couldn’t give him the honor and glory of dying in battle. He left in disgrace.”

Mai’s eyes widened. “So…so that means…”

 

“Yes. We won.”

 

Mai’s heart soared, then her shoulders fell. “Oh, I missed it all.”

 

“Don’t be so disappointed. Be glad that you’re alive.” Hiển’s voice grew hushed. “I thought I had lost you. I never would be able to repay you for saving us.”

 

“Us?”

 

Suddenly a peculiar expression took over Hiển’s face—something between gratitude and nervousness. “Yes, our lives. Mine, and …” Her hand flitted down to her belly.

 

Silent, Mai sat dumbstruck. Then it hit her. “Hiển—you…you’re pregnant?” Mai gawked at her sister, her mouth opening up then snapping shut, working like that of a carp sold still alive at the river market. “I…I’m happy, so happy for you, but I…oh, I’m just so mad.” It took much effort to fight down her sputtering. “What did I say about keeping secrets, Hiển? No secrets, remember? How long now?”

 

Hiển looked meek—very unusual for her. “Four months.”

 

“Four months, and you didn’t tell me. And you fought General Yong like that?”

 

“I had no choice. We both know that I am the better swordswoman. If you had known I was pregnant, you never would have let me challenge him.”

 

“Well, of course,” Mai retorted. “Because putting your child’s life in danger was so stupid and reckless.”

 

Hiển flinched. “You jumped out to take that arrow. Now you can never walk again.”

 

Mai’s heart skipped a beat. For the first time, she stared down at her legs and tried to move them. Nothing. She clamped both hands over her knees, fisting the bedsheets. Still nothing She could not feel a thing. Mai slumped back, head spinning.

 

“I’m so sorry, Mai,” Hiển murmured. “The doctors did everything they could, and your wound will heal, but…”

 

“I-It’s fine.” Mai mustered a smile. “Even if I had known that would happen, and if it meant saving you and your baby, I’d do it again.” She looked up, surprised to her sister on the verge of tears.

 

 

“You’re right,” Hiển said. “I have been stupid and reckless.”

 

“Me too,” Mai replied. “You said so yourself.”

 

“We are so foolish, you and I,” Hiển said with a sigh. “We could have been killed.”

 

“But we’re alive, aren’t we? And Vietnam is free.”

 

“You’re right about that, too.”

 

Together they had broken the chain of a centuries-long reign. The magnitude of it subdued the sisters into a long silence.

 

“There will be a parade,” Hiển finally said.

 

“I’m not surprised.”

 

“All the way from the north to the south, through every city, before throngs of celebrants, we will march with our army.”

 

“March,” Mai said with a snort. “Impossible. Look at us, the heroes who freed Vietnam: a pregnant woman and a cripple.”

 

Hiển smiled. “Well, that’s why we have our elephants.”BW

 

A

A Catholic Vietnamese-American hailing from Houston, Texas, Allison got her first taste of stories from true accounts of how her parents fled from communism as war refugees. 

 

Her imagination then grew like a weed from the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Jack London, and Brian Jacques. When not reading and writing, she's studying for medical school and delighting in all things science. According to her Vietnamese name, she is a "queen of the flowers," though a green thumb is nonexistent and she has never had success nor desire to care for a flower in her life.

 

She can be followed on Twitter @thuyanhthai.

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