“Tell us another tale, grandfather!” Shao Wa pleaded.
Xiu Pang pulled at his moustache, long and grey and thin, and listened to the bamboo creak in the garden.
“It’s time you were on your sleeping-mats,” he said.
“Just one more story!” Shao Hue begged.
“Make it a really scary one,” added Shao Kyu with all the solemnity of his seven years. Xiu Pang rocked thoughtfully where he sat.
“Very well,” he said. “But don’t tell your father that you stayed up so late, or he’ll stop me from looking after you when he’s away. And then you’ll have no more stories to listen to.”
“We won’t tell! We’ll be good!” they insisted.
“Very well. Shall I tell you about the Brave Little Fisherman, and the Demon With A Thousand Teeth?”
“I know that one,” Shao Kyu said.
“Ah. How about the Masked Warrior and the Seven Assassins?”
“That’s not scary,” Shao Wa said, scornfully.
Xiu Pang sighed.
“Very well. I’ll tell you about the Old Willow Garden, and the Man Who Was Never Afraid.”
And they hadn’t heard that one; so he began.
There was once a Man Who Was Never Afraid, who travelled from town to town. He was not a big man, but he had a sword, and the way he walked showed he was not afraid of anything.
One day he came to a town, and went to a wine-shop, to wash the dust from his throat. They gave him rice wine, and it was very good. In fact, it was so good that he asked for another, and another he got; and then a third.
“I’m a Man Who Is Never Afraid,” he said loudly. But no-one took much notice.
“I’ve never met anything, man or Demon or God, that can scare me,” he said, even more loudly. But everyone just kept at their business and paid him no heed.
“There’s certainly nothing in this town that can scare me!” boasted the Man Who Was Never Afraid.
Well, when he said that, an old man spoke up.
“You are a brave fellow,” he said. “But I bet you wouldn’t spend a night in the Old Willow Garden.”
“And why not?” asked the Man Who Was Never Afraid, sticking out his chest and peering at the old man.
“There’s a Demon who lives there, and he eats people,” the old man explained, pulling on his moustache, which was long and grey and thin.
“I’m not afraid of any demon! And I’ll prove it with a bet!”
“A bet? I am not very rich,” the old man said. “But I have fifty teng. If you stay in the Old Willow Garden for the whole night, then I shall give it to you. And if you don’t, you give me fifty teng, just the same.”
“I’ll take that bet, old man,” said the Man Who Was Never Afraid, even though he did not have fifty teng. And with that he tossed back the last of his rice wine, and off he went to the Old Willow Garden, near the edge of the town. There was a pond there, and it often got very misty; at night the wind rustled amongst the trees, and the lanterns glowed like imps in the mist, and all in all, it was a very scary place. But the Man Who Was Never Afraid had drunk three cups of rice wine and had a bet that would win him fifty teng. So he sat down and waited, as the night closed in. He sat there when everyone else was blowing out their lanterns. He sat there as the stars wheeled round, and the temple bell rang at midnight.
Just before dawn, he was still sitting there, and he saw something come towards him in the morning mists. He stood up, and put his hand on his sword; but it was only the old man.
“I’ve been here all night,” said the Man Who Was Never Afraid.
“I know,” the old man said.
“I’ve won the bet.”
“I know,” the old man said again.
“I am a Man Who Is Never Afraid.”
“I know, I know,” the old man nodded, still smiling.
And then, with a puff of smoke–patoof! The old man was gone, and there in his place was a great Demon standing there, with green eyes and huge claws and a mouth full of pointed teeth, as long as your head.
“I only eat Men Who Are Never Afraid,” the Demon explained; and he reached out, and picked up the Man Who Was Never Afraid and bit off his head–ker-snick!–and swallowed it down–chu-blup!–and then sat down by the stream in the early morning mists to eat the rest.
Xiu Pang rocked back and forwards and looked at the wide-eyed faces in front of him. Ah, the dear young ones.
“It was only a story, wasn’t it, grandfather?” asked Shao Wa.
“Yes, my dear,” said Xiu Pang.
“I wasn’t frightened,” said Shao Kyu.
“Weren’t you?” asked Xiu Pang.
“Why didn’t the Man Who Was Never Afraid chop the demon up instead of being eaten?” Shao Hue piped up.
“I am sure he tried,” Xiu Pang said. “But demons are not easy to chop up. Now, come along, you three. Time you went to sleep.”
“The Demon won’t get me, will it?” Shao Wa asked. Shao Kyu looked at her with scorn.
“The Demon only eats people who aren’t scared,” he said. “So it won’t eat you.”
“And anyway,” Xiu Pang said, “it’s only a story.”
After they were all asleep he sat there and pulled at his moustache. Then he picked his teeth, which were very long and pointed, and then he went out to see if the taverns were full of Men Who Were Never Afraid. He very much hoped so.
It had, after all, been a long time since he’d eaten. And young Shao Kyu would be barely more than a mouthful.
Brian Dolton‘s fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Flashing Swords, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, among others. He has been writing for many years, and will continue until they pry the keyboard from his cold, dead hands. PS–If any of you know who the “they” in question are, he’d love to hear from you, so he can make suitable preparations.