Looking across the grounds outside the mines, I search for Li Wei over in his group. They are being herded toward the mine’s entrance, and I see Li Wei looking for me as well. It must be now , he signs to me, holding his hands high.
I nod in agreement and turn to Zhang Jing. The soldier has almost reached us. Now , I say, making my signs big and high. Now! Everyone cry out!
At first, the only voice I hear is my own. I put all my emotion into it, everything I’ve been carrying around for so long. I include my love for Zhang Jing and Li Wei in it, my grief for my parents, my fear for my village. The sound vibrates not just in my throat but through my whole body, sending waves of emotion radiating through me. I feel it on every level, with all my senses, and then I hear another cry echoing my own. It is Zhang Jing, raising a voice she cannot hear and filling it with the same emotional intensity that is burning within me. Beside her, another woman joins in. Then another. And another.
The soldier comes to a halt, looking around in bewilderment. He loses his interest in me and instead tries to figure out what is happening. The other soldiers on the grounds are equally perplexed. The sound has spread from person to person, in both my group and Li Wei’s. For those of us with hearing, it is both spectacular and heart-wrenching. My people have no idea how much grief they are conveying.
In my chest, I feel that faint fluttering of connection, and my excitement grows. It is working! We are being heard! I lift my hands and signal to those around me: More! More! Make it more intense—more vibrations! Tell others! They spread the message, and it ripples through the crowd. Looking over the heads of those near me, I can make out Li Wei urging on those around him as well. The voices grow louder, and I raise mine, calling out to the pixiu who has chosen me to help us. I feel another hard tug in my chest—but see no other immediate signs that this is working.
The guards, however, are starting to react. They don’t understand what’s happening, but they don’t like it. They begin saying things to us, the same command repeated, and my guess is they are demanding silence. The prisoners defy them—at least at first—and continue the cry. This angers some of the soldiers, and they start to resort to violence. The soldier near me cuffs a woman so hard, she falls to her knees. That startles a few others nearby into silence.
I raise my voice louder to compensate, urging others to do so, and the connection within me burns more brightly. The intensity is so great that it almost seems impossible for me to contain. It grows and grows—and then, abruptly, it seems to vanish. It’s almost like the sensation of a bubble growing bigger and bigger before bursting. I’m unsure what has happened, but I only let my voice falter a moment before continuing on more loudly than before.
Around me, others are losing faith, both because of a lack of any results and also because of the brutality of the soldiers. They are silencing prisoners by any means necessary, striking and felling indiscriminately. Not far from me, an old man cries out as a soldier knocks him to the ground and follows up with a sharp kick. It’s enough to scare a few others into silence, but I ignore it all, refusing to be cowed. I have no fear for what they might do to me.
Zhang Jing stands beside me proudly, voice uplifted, but when a soldier comes and knocks her down, she momentarily falls silent. I drop to the ground beside her and stop my own cry, too concerned about her. Are you okay? I ask.
She shakes her head, shrugging me off and opening her mouth to continue the cry. The same soldier who struck her before now backhands the side of her head to quiet her. I leap to my feet, thrusting myself between the man and my sister, ready to take whatever he is dealing out. But before either of us can act, the woman who recognized me earlier comes hurrying forward, pointing and gesturing frantically at me. This soldier can’t understand her, but another comes striding up, a hard look in his gaze as his eyes fix on me. He’s no one I know, but it’s clear he has realized who I am.
He says something harsh to the soldier who struck Zhang Jing and then grabs me by the arm, dragging me toward the man who seems to be in charge near the mine. The crowds shrink back from us, and as we move, I notice that the cries around us have died down. A few people are still halfheartedly trying to carry on, but most either have been forcibly silenced or are in fear of what might happen to them.
And nothing has happened.
Only a need to appear undaunted in front of the soldiers prevents tears of frustration from springing to my eyes. I wanted to believe Elder Chen’s story about the pixius. I wanted there to be an explanation for all that has been going on. I wanted a magical creature to come save us all.
But as the united cry disintegrates into frightened whimpers, it’s clear there is no one out here in this desolate place but us humans. The realization nearly breaks my heart, and I must summon all my courage when I’m shoved to my knees in front of the lead soldier. He looks down on me with a sneer and speaks, but I shake my head, showing I don’t understand.
He doesn’t seem to care, though. I am the girl who started all this by climbing down the mountain and stirring up the king’s fears about the pixius. And it’s clear this soldier plans on putting an end to my mischief—and to me.
He gives an order, and the soldier who brought me drags me away. My heart is so heavy, my grief so great at our failure that at first I don’t even realize where we’re going. I’m too devastated that this has all been for nothing and that the township is going to win after all. A cry from the crowd—Zhang Jing’s voice—snaps me out of my despair. I must be strong for her , I tell myself. I look up and realize the soldier is taking me to the cliff’s side. He halts there, pushing me to my knees again, so that I’m facing the edge. The world reels as I see that fathomless drop off the mountain in front of me, with only the soldier’s hand on my shoulder standing between a push or a pull. Swallowing my fear, I am just barely able to twist around back to the gaping crowd. There are tears on Zhang Jing’s face, and the soldiers have to restrain Li Wei to keep him from coming to me.