Like any good story, this one does not begin where it began. It does, however, begin where it ends—at a funeral.
The village was not particularly big. Rather, it was frightfully small, and just as frightfully remote. That said, it was little surprise that every denizen turned out for something so important as the funeral of a good man.
—and it truly was each and every one: every man, woman, and child; every son, brother, and father; every maiden, mother, and crone. It was said even the dogs followed at the heels of their masters, even the songbirds gathered in the trees, and the livestock unable to free themselves from their pens bowed their heads in respect. But the story that is still told to this day was how the most notable guest at the funeral of Bai Huan was his finest (and only) stallion.
* * * * *
A long way from the village (but not nearly far enough) a nobleman fabled for his aim with a longbow caught a strange white horse. The beast was fine and faster than the wind, it was said, and it fed the voracious pride of a very small-hearted man. Not an hour after he had captured the creature already he had ridden it twice about his lands, just to prove his prowess with a horse and how fast the beast truly was.
No one had been spared the nobleman's bragging. Word spread far and just as fast as the white horse itself. It would have taken a small miracle for any vassal under his service to have missed the tale, grown more wild and adventurous each time it was told, of how he had claimed the animal and made it his own.
But this has nothing to do with our story. And neither does the fact a proud man with a small heart would rather see the wind brought to ruin than admit he held it once only to lose it, fast and free across a field.
* * * * *
When the young boys of the village misbehaved, their mothers would invariably swat them and sigh—why can't you be more like Bai Huan?
By then, Bai Huan was a strong young man, quiet and humble, having grown (as a plum from its blossom) from an equally quiet and humble boy. Although a man easily overlooked—both gentle and plain—he was hardworking and strong, with a generous heart. Once noticed, he was never forgotten.
Left a dry and unforgiving plot of land by a father too poor to provide any better, he had naught but two strong hands, a small house, and dead earth to his name. Even so, he made no complaint and merely worked until his fingers were raw and his back was sore.
But fortune always smiles on those humble and hardworking. After a particularly vicious winter, the next spring, the land of Bai Huan was plentiful.
* * * * *
The snow was thick and hardened by a heavy layer of ice as far as the eye could see. All mortal things had hidden away from the biting cold, so deep into the bitter winter's night.
Nothing moved in the colorless glow of a pale, low-swimming moon. Only the snow glittered, unbroken, unmoved, endless. That night, there was nothing else.
—save for a mar of red across that frigid wasteland of white.
No footprints led up to the smear of color. It sat alone, as if dropped from the heavens, for nearly the whole night.
By morning, dark boot prints cracked the veil of snow and ice about it, leading up and away. Only one path was cut across the white—no more, no less—and led to the barn of Bai Huan. One set, made by one pair of mortal feet.
No one but two ever knew that disturbed that bitter winter's rest. It is impolite, after all, to question after what happens in the dark of the night between two.
* * * * *
Good fortune could have befallen no better a man. For five years, his land gave under his plow as if he had an ox to pull one of iron when he could afford naught but his own two hands. From hard, dead earth—life.
The mothers would tutt at their sons when they saw him pass—see? If you work hard enough, you can draw blood from a stone. Look at the land of Bai Huan.
Five years he worked alone, distant from the village. He was too good a man to have made a deal with some dark spirit, so not a one questioned how he had managed to make the land flourish under his palm, even if not a one ever saw it with their own eyes. The fruits of his labor were proof enough.
Although his good fortune was grand, it had been won of hard work, and so Bai Huan had grown no less humble for it. Even so, even though he was not a man who spoke of himself, even though he would do any favor of which he was asked, it was no surprise that, when the young beauty of the town grew to a marrying age, he was one of her suitors.
Truly, it was no surprise at all. Unlike the many young men from the village and even those around it who flocked to the girl now that she was a flower come to bloom, Bai Huan had been a quiet companion for her all throughout her youth. Long before the awkward, doe-eyed face of a child had matured into the subtle, porcelain curves of womanhood, he had loved her. A good man, he had loved her for her sweetness and kindness, and a good child to grow into a good woman, she had loved him for his strong hands and heart.
But she was the eldest of three daughters, and her father was desperate. Upon seeing what a fine beauty she had become, although years ago he had happily promised her to Bai Huan, he had but little choice to offer her hand in marriage to the man who could best bring fortune to his family.
As much good fortune as Bai Huan had, he was in no way the wealthiest suitor for the finest beauty. It was a grand sorrow, but little could be done. Although hard work had drawn blood from a stone, it was no silver spoon to pay for that beautiful of a bride.
Next to the fine, young men of fine, privileged breeding, a strong but humble man of the earth stood not a chance. Yet, even so, he quietly announced his intention to bid for her hand in marriage. It would have been dishonorable to do anything less, even if he hadn't a hope.
So, when the day came that the father of the young girl had promised to choose who would take her as his bride, every suitor showed with their finest to offer. Clothes of silk, oxen, land—the most likely owned an orchard of plums far distant from the tiny village. Arms laden with all they had to show, only Bai Huan came with naught but his own two hands, an iron bridle slung over one shoulder, and the girl's favorite flower between his fingers.
Just as the father was about to offer the hand of his eldest daughter to the young man come from a far orchard with some guilt and sorrow, a great clatter spread across the land. Like the wind across the plain, an impossibly white stallion with an impossibly copper mane and tail skidded between the father and suitors, rearing up to paw at the air. The creature let out a sharp whinny that pierced the sunlight and made every man shrink back—every man, that is, except for Bai Huan.
Before any could react, the wild beast was off across the field, just far enough away to be impossibly out of reach but near enough to be watched with awe. None had ever seen a creature so magnificent, nor so fast. Each stood mute and wide-eyed.
Each, of course, except for Bai Huan.
With a gentle step, Bai Huan made his way out into the center of the field. Low in his throat he hummed as the white stallion raced so fast across the plowed fields that its hooves never even touched the ground. Carefully, he shrugged the bridle into his hand and whistled once and only once, clear and loud.
As if possessed, the white steed skidded to a halt and, its head respectfully bowed, and trotted over to Bai Huan. The beast nuzzled into his fingers and, as if the man owned it, slipped the bridle over its head.
Just as calmly as he had walked up to the horse, Bai Huan walked back to the father and suitors, stallion following ever obediently at his side. Without any display, he simply stopped before his beloved's father, one hand on the white horse's flank, and spoke:
I am not a rich man—he said—and I have but my good word and my hands to my name, but both are honest. I cannot promise your daughter silks or gold or an orchard, but I can promise her all the good fortune and blessings I can bestow on her with mine own two hands.
Although he didn't speak of the strange white horse once, he had no need: without any trouble, he had been able to catch it with his own two hands. He had been able to make his land, cold and dead, yield under his own two hands. The young girl's father was not a stupid man, and he knew neither was Bai Huan: the both of them knew, all too well, that the horse's hooves hadn't displaced a single blade of grass.
Without a single cross word from the other suitors, Bai Huan won the hand of his bride. Not a one of them were willing to oppose the will of the heavens like that as, even though not a one would say it, they all knew what he held.
None noticed, though, the jagged scar on that white flank that the hand of Bai Huan concealed. If they had, perhaps one would have wondered who could possibly have such aim with a longbow, as surely that mark was from an arrow.
* * * * *
The life of Bai Huan was a good one. His land was fertile and he worked it up until the very day he died, and he only ever had need of one horse: his strange white stallion that never left his side. His marriage to his beautiful bride was long and happy—even if she never bore him a single child.
It was a shame, the mothers whispered. Perhaps it was a curse, to have that white horse win him his wife. But all their husbands knew better: Bai Huan was a lucky man twice over. That stallion might have won him his beloved, but it would have never shared his attention with a child. It barely shared it with her.
His land nurtured him as well as he nurtured it, his wife was good and pure as the snow on a silent winter's night, and there was no finer horse in all of the land. Bai Huan wanted for nothing, and he said as much. But, Bai Huan had never said he wanted for anything, even when his land was dead and he had naught but his own two hands.
* * * * *
No one was surprised when the last one to the funeral of Bai Huan was his very own wife. Dressed for mourning and her head bowed, none said a word to the old woman and simply let her pass. She would mourn until she followed him, they were sure, not long after.
He was buried modestly, but properly, even if a childless man should not have been able to afford it. Although none said a word, they thought it best to make sure that a man gifted with a horse faster than the wind was buried well, lest the village insult whatever had taken such a fondness towards him.
The rites were nearly complete when an unearthly shriek interrupted the prayers. Every head turned down the field to see the streak of white and copper. Somehow, the prized stallion of Bai Huan had escaped, when before it had been nothing but docile.
Again the beast shrieked, loud and high in animal mourning as it reared up and pawed at the air. The instant its hooves struck the ground it bolted across the field, through the very middle of the funeral procession. The horse tossed its head, stamping the earth and tearing up the soil with sharp hooves as it snorted, whinnied, and whined.
None dared approach it, not even the wife of Bai Huan. For the first time since the day it had won him his bride, the white stallion was without its bridle: for the first time in decades, it was free and wild, and sorrowed.
Once more the creature screamed, throwing its head back before it bolted out over the fields.
Only years later would anyone from the village admit that, over the decades, that white stallion never looked a day older, never a day dimmer. From the moment anyone first laid eyes on it, it was the same, and the pride and joy of Bai Huan. Any who had listened knew this much: not only had he hummed and sung to it, not only had he spoken to it, but truly, he had conversed with it. Talked as if understood more than just a beast.
None ever dared to speak of what the horse was, lest they incur some unforeseen wrath of something they did not quite understand. Bai Huan himself had never even named the creature, but instead called the stallion what he was: simply, Longma. The dragon-horse.
Only years later, would they whisper that, as that beast fled across the fields faster than the wind, they swore they saw the sparkle of koi scales along its side and the glint of blackened horns of a roe deer sprout from behind its ears. Perhaps, just perhaps...
After the day that Bai Huan was buried, never again did any mortal thing ever see a stallion so white and with a mane of copper ever again—and, in that area, no other horse was ever called longma ever again.