I was born into a world staring over the precipice. I was told that, only years earlier, one could find happiness and hope; that the virtues of family and honestly once grew abundant. I couldn't believe that was ever true. A world once ruled by dignity was now held at sword point, thrust forward towards the edge, blown precariously in the wind. Everyone held their breath, for the slightest sigh, the most jovial of whims, could have sent the empire hurtling into the darkness – almost everyone. Heroes and villains from the whole world over unified in one terrifying roar that made the ground shake and crumble. The empire was heavy. It was old. It had fallen. Tumbling forever down, the tranquility of honor was replaced with the cries of women and children and fire. This was the world I was born into. Had I not known any better, I would have cursed my creator, wished to have never been born, but I didn't. This was inevitable, natural. You see, darkness is the cleansing bath of nations. The empire, for years united, could not continue forward. The virtues we held dear gilded over the mold that infested our great land. The chaos would purify it by destroying it and that which was once united would crumble and from its ashes would rise a new empire – ruled by he who survived the trials of chaos.
Trials of Chaos
Chapter 1: The Oath in the Peach Garden
The Imperial rider was flocked by men, women, and children the moment he rode into the village of Pingyuan.
"Back! Back!" He ordered, as they crowded his horse.
"What news do you bring?"
"Has another war begun?"
"Is the Emperor coming this way?"
The rider's horse teetered nervously and kicked its legs.
"Stand back!" The rider yelled. He urged his horse forward, breaking through the crowd. The people hungrily chased after the horse as it rode atop the dusty roads and to the village square. Farmers and butchers stared up from their work as the regal officer rode by. Whispers were immediately followed by smiles of excitement. They dropped what they were doing and joined the mad swell of villagers that were already hounding after the rider.
A top his horse, the rider towered above most of the remedial houses and shops. He was dressed in new armor that caught the sun's rays and glistened as such. His horse was healthy, in stark comparison to almost everything in the old village. Women washed their children, outside their homes, in wood buckets and the men wore cheap sandals and ragged robes. The arrival of an Imperial rider would only mean good news, for how could their lives become any more desolate.
As the rider urged forward, he sighed at the pathetic state of the village and surmised that he was wasting his time. However, he was on decree by the Son of Heaven himself and had to proceed regardless of his own beliefs. As the rider approached the village square, a surprisingly welcome smell crept into his nostrils. His horse's hooves trod against softer ground and soon even grass. What place is this, in such a desert town, thought the rider? A cool breeze caught his horse's flanks and it whinnied happily. The sun was brushed from the rider's back and for the first time in weeks, he felt at peace. He looked up into pink canopy of peach trees and his horse came to a halt.
"Beautiful…" he whispered. By this point, the eager throng had caught up to him. He turned his horse and faced the peasants of this village. If they were responsible for this garden, there must have been some good in them, some worth. Before they could badger him with questions, he reached into his riding sack and withdrew a scroll of parchment. His audience was silenced when they saw the Imperial Insignia. A wave off hisses rolled to the back of the crowd and, almost immediately, only the wind whispered in the Peach Garden.
"I, soldier of the Han Dynasty, am here today by decree of the Son of Heaven, Emperor Ling. The Yellow Turban Insurrection is escalating and the rebels are gaining in number. Supreme Commanders of the Empire, Generals He Jin and Lu Zhi, request Pingyuan's assistance. This village has prospered under the rule of the Han and it is now time to repay your debts. Bring your families honor by serving the Emperor in his time of need."
So saying, the Imperial rider bolted the edict to a peach tree and rode out through the assembly. As the clouds of dust his horse kicked up vanished in the distance, a general sense of disappointment permeated through the masses. They had been hoping for news, but the Yellow Turbans were hardly new. Those in the back sloshed back to their lives and those in the front ceremoniously examined the edict, already knowing that they would never hold a spear in the front lines. And so, without gaining a single volunteer, the edict watched as the villagers of Pingyuan dispersed. Everything seemed so quite, but if one would have strained his ears, he would have heard the faint clapping of a tired horse's hooves in the distance. The echoes grew closer and louder as this aged animal approached the edict.
The horse's rider wore faded robes and dirty sandals. His face was round and young and home to the truest of eyes. His eyebrows were thin and his beard trimmed. When he approached the edict, his eyes wandered curiously over the words and finally settled on the Imperial Insignia at the bottom. His heart sunk into his stomach and he dismounted his horse as his insides lurched. The rider was an Imperial relative, distant cousin to the current Emperor. He was a Liu, his given name Bei.
Liu Bei had once been presented with a province to preside over, but had politely refused three times. He was a man of little merit and did not think himself worthy of the gift. To avoid any further complications, Liu Bei gave up his Imperial status and name and settled into a more humble life: in Pingyuan, he had become a carpenter. No one knew his real name and he kept it that way. He wasn't worthy of the Liu name, not after what he had done. The children, and even some of the older villagers, called him Uncle Xuande.
Standing beneath the peach trees and staring at the edict, Xuande felt sick. He had renounced everything he could have used to help his family. He was a man of little merit, but even that would've been enough to aid his cousin, the Emperor, and the rest of the Han Dynasty. But as a carpenter, what could he do? The sudden clamor of horse hooves seemed to answer Xuande's doubts. A group of fifty some odd soldiers approached the Imperial edict and their leader dismounted. He had a gruff beard and eyes as wide as a tiger's and even more ferocious. His arms were full and his hair tied back. He had an odd swagger to his walk, Xuande thought. The tiger-eyed man stood in front of the edict, leaning against his spear.
"His royal majesty the Son of Heaven… blah, blah, etc, etc… here we go, boys! Rewards of silver in exchange for Yellow Turban heads!"
"Sounds like a win-win situation to me, my lord!" Cried out one of his soldiers. The tiger-eyed man gave a hearty chuckle and turned to Xuande. His fierce gaze seemed strangely ineffective on this citizen and it was by this fact alone that tiger-eyes knew he was in the presence of greatness. He stared at Xuande curiously and when Xuande didn't so much as blink, tiger-eyes smiled widely.
"How about it? Will you be joining the fight?"
"It pains me to say that I cannot. I have no sword. I have no men. I am a man of little merit, with no means to aid the Son of Heaven," Xuande replied. To this, tiger-eyes unsheathed his sword like lightning.
"Nonsense!" He cried, shoving the weapon into Xuande's hands. "This is now your sword and these are now your men."
"I couldn't –"
"You must!" Tiger-eyes deplored. He stepped up to Xuande and pressed his neck against the blade he had just handed him. "I would consider it a great dishonor if I led these troops while knowing that a greater man than I could have instead."
Xuande removed the blade from tiger-eye's neck and stared at him, bewildered.
"Fine… If it means so much to you then I will lead these men," Xuande agreed.
"Excellent, call me Zhang Fei, my lord."
"And I am Xuande," Liu Bei replied, extending his hand.
An Imperial messenger stood quaking in the shadow of a mountainous man. He had been ordered to seek help in Chenliu and all answering fingers pointed towards this house.
"Please, sir, I must speak with your master," the Messenger begged.
"Are you a Cao?"
"Are you a Xiahou?"
"Then you may not pass," the goliath grumbled, meaty arms crossed across his chest.
"But, sir, I come here on decree–"
"You may NOT pass!" The mountain bellowed so ferociously that the messenger fell to his feet. Surely even this one man could match any army, thought the messenger.
"Xu Zhu, is that any way to treat a guest?" A sharp voice reprimanded. The ground trembled as the monstrous Xu Zhu fell to one knee before his lord. The messenger, still on the ground, turned to the man that was approaching the house. He had a thin jaw and a pointed beard. His eyes were like arrow tips and his hair slicked back. He had a deep complexion and walked with pride in each of his steps.
"Rise, messenger," he ordered as he walked by. Xu Zhu, still on one knee, moved to the side as his master approached.
"Are you Cao Cao?" The messenger called, leaping to his feet and following the man until the doorway.
"Yes, what service do you need from me?" Cao Cao asked, pouring himself a cup of hot wine. "Do you need a drink?"
"No, I'm fine–"
"This wine has been tenderly grown by my father for years; surely you wouldn't disrespect such a great man."
"No, no… of course not," the messenger stuttered, stepping into Cao Cao's rich home. He slipped out of his sandals and his feet stepped on a rug softer than anything the messenger had ever felt. The dark wood walls were hung with scrolls of ancient parchment, scribed upon with the words of the ancient strategist Sun Tzu. Even the cup he was handed was made of fine silver. Cao Cao seated himself in a lavish chair and motioned towards one of the couches. The messenger sat himself and took a sip of his wine before addressing Cao Cao.
"My gracious lord, I have been sent here by the–"
"One moment," Cao Cao interrupted, raising his hand and turning to the door. "Xu Zhu! Come in and have wine."
Xu Zhu immediately ducked in through the door frame and knelt before his master's couch, still a whole head above him, while Cao Cao poured him a glass of wine. The messenger was drawn aback that this great man allowed his servants to drink with him. Without moving, Xu Zhu drank the cup empty and prostrated himself even lower.
"My lord, tell the venerable Cao Song that the wine is fit for the gods," Xu Zhu requested.
"I will, my friend. You may go," Cao Cao instructed. Xu Zhu bowed and the messenger watched him take his leave. Cao Cao then turned to him, a disgusted look upon his face. "You come to my home, refuse my father's wine, and when you taste it you offer no compliments."
"My lord, you have my deepest–"
"Quit your patronizing," Cao Cao snapped, hardly raising his voice. "Tell me now what service you require and then forever leave my sight."
"My… my lord," the messenger trembled. "His Majesty, the Son of Heaven, has requested aid against the Yellow Turbans. Every soul within this town of Chenliu has said that only you can help the Han and I see it now with my own eyes too. Please, sir–"
"Enough. Tell Lu Zhi and He Jin that they shall have my support. Now, be gone…"
A cloud of red dust kicked up in the horizon as nearly one hundred soldiers rode hard to the north. They had been riding light for days now and were finally on the verge of Lu Zhi's camp. They only stayed during the night and were welcomed into every village they stopped at with open arms. They wore elegant, stream-like armor, much more beautiful than the clunky pieces of the north. Aside from their armor, even their attire seemed more vibrant and alive. Bright dyes were used in their clothing and their brave were wrapped in tiger skin. They had open hearts and spoke to one another equally. At first, governors and village elders knew not who to address because even their leader was referred to by name instead of title. He had broad shoulders, a set jaw, and deep brown eyes. He was clean shaven and merry and talked to his soldiers like brothers. His voice was rich and powerful like the Great River that kept his home safe and upon hearing it everyone knew that he was in charge. His name was Sun Jian and the very moment the Imperial rider reached his home, he gathered his men like family and headed north.
He now rode at the head of one hundred men, his closest comrade, Cheng Pu, by his side.
"Do you think he'll be happy to see us, Jian?" Cheng Pu asked, driving his powerful legs into his horse's side and darting out ahead of Sun Jian.
"Lu Zhi has always been a man with countless frowns. I'm sure this visit will be no different; he'll wear one of them to greet us," Sun Jian replied, chasing after his retainer.
Suddenly, shouts and whoops started from the back of their ranks. Sun Jian and Cheng Pu craned their heads back and listened as the cheering trickled forward. Sun Jian's deep eyes settled on the dainty figure that had roused his men's attention: a Goddess. She had hair that burned the sky like fire and emerald eyes that could topple nations. Her name was Sun Mai and her family was said to be descendant from the goddess Nu Wa. Her horse rode passionately and galloped passed the idling men, not letting up until she was beside her husband. As the ground passed rapidly beneath their horses, they leaned towards one another and kissed, Sun Mai grinning when whistles erupted from behind them.
"Can't you wait until we reach the camp?" Cheng Pu laughed.
"No. I can't," Sun Mai grinned. She wrapped her arms around her husband's broad shoulders and leapt onto the back of his horse. She caressed his neck as he dug his feet into his horse's sides and urged forward.
"Come on, men! We're almost there!" Cheng Pu called; grabbing a hold of Sun Mai's abandoned horse's reigns.
Xuande and Zhang Fei sat in a small tavern and drank wine together. The place was poorly lit and Xuande had to lean close to Zhang Fei to see him.
"Fifty men should be enough," Xuande remarked.
"More than enough, we'll show those robe loving bastards a thing or two about fighting," Zhang Fei chuckled, drinking from a gourd. He seemed blissfully unaware of reality. Xuande was more conscientious: these were farmers and merchants, not soldiers. He himself had not the experience to lead them; what impact could they make? He turned from one table to the next and memorized they're bubbling faces. They were so happy. Would he be leading them to an unwarranted death? He turned to Zhang Fei, but his companion was in no state to ease his mind.
"My lord, a villager requests an audience," one of Xuande's men informed.
"That's fine, bring him in."
A trembling farmer was ushered up to Xuande's table. He looked at Zhang Fei only briefly before turning his eyes towards the ground.
"Uncle Xuande, my brother, his field has run dry and I had to give him all my leftover crop. I'm so sorry, but I can't pay you today…" A villager apologetically muttered.
"Think nothing of it, my friend. Please, it hurts me to see you so scared. Consider my services a gift," Xuande replied, taking the peasant's hands in his own.
"Oh thank you, Uncle Xuande," the peasant cried, caressing Xuande's fingers. Xuande smiled as one of his men showed the villager out.
"You're such a softie," Zhang Fei chuckled. "More wine, lass!" When he received no answer, he turned around, furious. "I said, more–"
He cut himself short when he saw what had caught the hostess's attention. Taking up the entire doorframe, was a man spanning almost seven feet. He had eyebrows like silk worms and the eyes of a reborn phoenix. He had a rosy complexion and fiercely set cheek bones. None of this, however, summarized his majesty as well as his beard. It flowed long and elegantly, as if made of silk. All commotion stopped upon his entrance and Xuande's men shrunk away from the man as he advanced to the bar.
"Musou, if you would, kind miss," he asked. The hostess quietly nodded and retreated into the back. Zhang Fei's eyes widened even farther than usual as he stared at Xuande. He jerked his head suggestively towards the bar and Xuande, taking his hint, followed him over to the mighty stranger.
"Two more please and don't allow this man to pay the slightest," Xuande instructed the hostess, as he and Zhang Fei sat on either side of the warrior.
"What is your name?" Zhang Fei asked. The tall man sipped his musou quietly, seemingly ignoring the question.
"Please sir, we only ask because we are on our way to fight the Yellow Turbans and could surely use your help," Xuande begged. The man turned, his beard flowing as he moved, and gazed at Xuande. He immediately recognized greatness in his honest eyes; just as Zhang Fei had.
"My name is Guan Yu, my lord, but I hardly think I am worthy of your service nor do I believe that the Han would see me serve. You see, I killed a man, a Xiahou, many years ago and have been on the run ever since."
"Surely your service today would make up for any dishonor that befell you in ancient years," Xuande argued.
"Tell me, my lord, why do you wish for my assistance when one of your caliber is surely more than able to fend for himself?" Guan Yu asked, noting Xuande's shrugged shoulders.
"I too have a besmirched past, Lord Guan. When my family needed me, I turned and ran under the guise of modesty. A warrior such as yourself, would no doubt help ease the guilt," Xuande replied, turning away from Guan Yu and emptying his cup. Guan Yu finished his drink as well and then rose from his chair. He looked down at Xuande and the two stared at one another in silence. Zhang Fei watched the spectacle and held his breath for what felt like hours. Then, Lord Guan took a knee before Xuande and bowed his head.
"You are an honest man, my lord, and that is something this world of ours desperately needs. I shall follow you into hell if you so choose," Guan Yu pledged.
And so, Xuande, Lord Guan, Zhang Fei, and their men gathered in the peach garden, under the canopy of pink leaves. The men all still had drinks in their hands and toasted every beautiful thing that crossed their mind: their wives, their homes, the sun at dusk, and their masters. Xuande, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei each took a hold of an arrow and closed their eyes. Together they swore:
"We three, though born on different days, swear an oath of brotherhood, to die in the same year, in the same month, and on the very same day!" After reciting their oath they broke the arrow. Guan Yu and Zhang Fei honored Xuande as older brother. Guan Yu was named the second brother and Zhang Fei, the youngest. Their men clapped and cheered and so too did the Heavens rejoice. I said that at one time, years ago, there was hope. I suppose that was an unfair statement. In the middle of the chaos, even in the heart of all darkness, there was in fact light. Three men who had never met before: a carpenter, a convict, and a butcher would shine hope into the chaos. Their blades would cry out with the promise of a future. And the story of a nation began there, in a peach garden.