Thumping his head against the hut wall, Baledagh closed his eyes and focused, shutting out all distractions. Still yet to unravel the riddle of his mysterious skills, he began to truly appreciate brother’s unyielding pursuit of truth. All those small exercises and tests seemed so stupid, but through investigation and repetition, brother took steps towards discovering his own skills and talents. Whether he found success was irrelevant, brother saw a problem and devised his own method of finding a solution, using nothing but his own knowledge and experience. In comparison, Baledagh stood idle, without a clue how to proceed, literally banging his head against the wall for inspiration.
Although he’d determined he had created a barrier or repelling effect which protected him from harm, he was unable to replicate what happened. The concept was simple, a little like soft blocking, unseen energy catching the spear and twisting it aside, using the opponent’s momentum and power against him, but he’d sensed nothing when it occurred, no energy flowing through his body like brother described. Chi was a foreign concept to him, never bothering to study it because why bother? Power came easily to him, strength of body and skill of arms a natural, tangible thing, and while the tricks brother showed were interesting, they were insubstantial, or so he’d thought. Now, he paid the price for his ignorance. How was he to test something he didn’t understand? Might as well ask a rabbit to do arithmetic. If only he’d paid attention to brother’s explanations of Heavenly Energy, a failed attempt to help Baledagh better understand his own strength. Unfortunately, there was no cure for regret and nothing to do but move forward.
Taking a deep breath of fresh air, he made his decision and threw away all thoughts of solving this particular riddle. Such things belonged firmly in brother’s domain, and he’d make little headway without pondering the matter for months or asking experts for aid. Better to focus on more pressing matters, like how to convince Mila to allow him to marry Qing-Qing, or how to convince Qing-Qing to marry him first. Women were so bothersome, how brother managed so many was another mystery Baledagh would like to see unravelled.
Relieved of his burden, he wandered back into the hut and removed his hat, awkwardly pretending not to notice Qing-Qing’s hurried efforts to hide her tears. Red-nosed and misty eyed, she sat in the same spot where he’d left her hours ago, miserable since learning of Gen and Kash’s death three days past. Holding back a sigh, he put on a smile and greeted her gently. “Good afternoon. How are you?”
Shaking her head dismissively, she glanced outside at the darkening skies. “Sorry, I lost track of time, I’ll start cooking dinner, it won’t be long. We have meat and vegetables, but we’re out of rice.” Avoiding his eyes, she scurried away with the cooking pot, leaving Baledagh standing alone in the hut. Now was the time to sigh, and he took full advantage, rubbing his temples in frustration. Why was she treating him like this? It’s not as if he killed Gen, the idiot shouldn’t have been out hunting anyways, not after the beating he’d received.
Tossing aside his anger, he mentally defended her actions. A kind, warmhearted soul, she cared for a stranger like him so it was only natural for the loss of her fellow villagers to sadden her. He should give her space and allow her to grieve naturally, this mood will soon pass. Perhaps he should busy himself woodworking. It wasn’t as easy as Charok made it seem and Baledagh found it calming, a relaxing diversion which required just enough concentration to keep his mind off worrying how his relationship with Qing-Qing wasn’t progressing as much as he’d like. Grabbing a piece of wood and his knife, he whittled away, searching for calm and peace.
Before he could relax, his ears picked up the sound of walking hooves, so he donned his hat and stepped out to greet the chief. The hunter’s face had aged since they last met, likely having just returned to learn of his son’s demise. A shame, but he was still hale and healthy, more than capable of having more children. His mistake was only having a single son. A man like him in a village like this should have taken more than one wife, raising a handful of future hunters, the path towards prosperity.
Unsure how to tactfully word his thoughts, Baledagh silently pretended to inspect the horses, no idea of what to look for. One was patchy white and brown while the second was grey, their heads turning to look him over. Massive animals, their shoulders were almost level with his eyes, making him feel small and exposed standing next to them, wary around any creature which might casually trample him under hoof. Cautiously reaching out, he patted the grey one gently on the nose, the creature licking his hand in greeting. Well, at least they were friendly. What does one feed a horse besides grass? Hopefully Qing-Qing would know.
Taking the reins, Baledagh nodded in thanks and glanced around, searching for a sign of what to do next. Was he supposed to just leave the horses to wander about like quins, or did he tie them up like he’d seen inside the army encampments? The reins and mouth bar didn’t look very comfortable, but he’d seen soldiers using them to guide the animals, so they were necessary. Then again, he’d seen Fung guide his horse without the reins, which seemed more comfortable for the animals.
The entire time his mind wandered, the chief stood listlessly in front of him, making for an awkward atmosphere as the older man stared at Baledagh the entire time. Noting his twitching fingers with his thumb hooked into his belt close to his dagger, Baledagh studied the older man carefully. Those eyes weren’t defeated, but lost, and he realized the chief was searching for an excuse to attack. Pursing his lips in annoyance, Baledagh shook his head slowly. “Don’t be stupid. I didn’t kill your son, if I wanted him dead, I’d have done it without a second thought. No sense hiding his death, too much work.”
There was a long pause as the chief struggled with the truth, before finally speaking, his voice hoarse and defeated. “I know, you didn’t kill him. From what Deng told me and the other hunters found, things don’t add up. My boy wouldn’t have attacked a bear that size, not in his right mind. What’s more, they found one mangled corpse and a butchered bear, but no signs of the survivor. Couldn’t tell if the corpse was Kale or my boy, but if one of them survived, where did he go with three hundred kilos of bear meat?”
The chief continued to ramble and Baledagh suppressed the urge to groan in vexation, merely shrugged and silently listening. Sure, it was odd, why would a bear mangle a corpse? Most likely it was the work of bandits, but the chief should know all this. He should bring his hunters out and search for the offending party, raining arrows down upon his enemies before charging in to seek vengeance, a simple matter. If he thought to ask Baledagh to join them, then he was a fool.
Swallowing hard, the chief steeled himself, the grief pushed away by anger. “My boy shouldn’t have gone out, not after you…” Exhaling slowly, he reined in his anger and calmed himself. “You’ve healed, yes? I’d like you to leave. We’ve fed you plenty, you have your horses, and I’ll have someone bring travel food in the morning. If you wish to repay your benefactor Ai Qing, then I ask you take her with you. I’ll not tolerate her presence here any longer. A cursed child she is, she’s brought nothing but misery and misfortune upon us.”
The old Baledagh would have smiled and taunted the old hunter, goading him into attacking as simple amusement. The new, calmer, more mature Baledagh stood still and only briefly entertained the thought of killing the chief, before nodding in agreement. “Very well. I’ll leave with Qing-Qing in the morning.” Why not? There was little point in remaining, and while he feared no poisons, he felt it rude to slaughter the people who’d fed and sheltered him for so long, albeit for a hefty price.
The chief left as Baledagh familiarized himself with the horses, walking the placid beasts around the hut. Powerful creatures, while they weren’t as adorable as quins, there was a beauty to them which was difficult to describe, a sleek form and majestic gait, indifferent to anything but the run. Come morning, he would be off into the woods with Qing-Qing, journeying together where he could prove his worth. No more idling about and being cared for, no, he would care for her, provide for her, and soon, she would fall in love with him, a capable provider and defender.
If luck was with them, they might even run into a few bandits, giving him a reason to show off his martial skills and protect her from harm. Then at night, scared by the unknown, she’d seek shelter beside him, and soon cuddle in his warm embrace. A splendid plan, by the time he arrived at the fishing village, they would be madly in love, the two of them inseparable for the rest of their lives.
Unless of course Mila separated them by force.
A chill ran down his back and he silently pleaded for his brother to wake soon. His skills would be needed to survive, that much he was certain.
Finished with her packing, Qing-Qing glanced around at the hut where she’d spent the last five years. This was her home, her hearth, her sanctuary, and as much as she complained and dreamed about exploring the world, she found it difficult to leave everything behind. The roof no longer leaked, the door fit properly for the first time, the floors swept clean and hearth free of ashes. Did she really want to run away with Baledagh and risk everything she held dear? While things weren’t the best here, she didn’t need fear for her life at every moment. Out there? They might come across bandits or beasts, or she might discover Baledagh was worse, who knew what lay down that path?
Wasting time, she rummaged through the open chest, only half filled with clothes, the absent items bringing up painful memories. Anything she’d owned of value had long ago been traded away to fill her belly. Her mother’s comb and hairpins, her father’s books and tools, even her little brother’s childhood toys, all of them were scattered around the various village households. There was nothing left for her here. The villagers hated her, Gen was dead or missing, Bei didn’t even want to see her much less speak with her. Nothing but broken friendships and empty promises, but even still… it was hers.
Silly girl, she’d been wanting to leave for years, but now that she couldn’t stay, she didn’t want to go. So contrary. Even without Gen around to harass her, the other villagers wouldn’t tolerate her presence any longer. Her efforts to offer her condolences were met with anger, Bei and Gen’s Ma blaming her for his drastic change in attitude lately, claiming she drove him to his death. Why else would an experienced hunter attack a ferocious beast unless he wanted to die? Kale’s family was much the same, and if she didn’t leave with Baledagh, she would be driven away from the village within hours.
The mere memory of hate-filled stares from people she’d known all her life was enough to bring her to tears, and she cried over the loss of every relationship in her life. She was an outcast now, unwanted and despised by everyone she knew. Gen used to be so kind and sweet, perhaps it really was her fault he ended up like this, almost a stranger when yelling at her a few days past, his rage-fuelled tirade unlike anything she’d ever seen from him. He’d been insistent, but never outright abusive, never using his strength or standing to pressure her. He was a good man at heart, but too possessive for her tastes and too prideful to accept rejection with grace. Perhaps Bei was right and she’d encouraged Gen’s affection in subtle ways, keeping him strung along should she ever change her mind. Maybe everyone was right and she really brought bad luck to those close to her.
Wiping her tears, she patted her cheeks to raise her spirits. Lifting the chest, she carried it out into the morning light, determined to move forward with her life. Since she lacked any other choices, she should put all her efforts into getting through theses difficult times. Find Baledagh’s people, and then hire someone to bring her to PingYao, a good first step. Studying her travel companion and protector, the silly smile on his face relieved some of her worries. It was surprising how he loved animals so much, considering how much he enjoyed eating meat. Grooming and petting them like favoured pets, he cooed as the creatures stood idle, placid and uninterested, unused to the attention. A world of difference from the man who beat Gen into a bloody mess, slowly tormenting his opponent with the same childish look of glee upon his face. Although Gen was taller and more robust, before Baledagh, he’d seemed like a child to be toyed with. If not for her pleas, Baledagh would have crushed his skull and gone to sleep without a care in the world, even displeased by her cries for mercy.
This was the man she intended to travel with, alone in the dark, dangerous woods for close to a week, an unpredictable man whose mood changed at the drop of a hat. Could she truly trust him to keep her safe? What did she really know of him? There was Falling Rain, the Undying Savage, the scourge of the Society who killed without blinking, and then there was Baledagh, shy, the blushing young man who smiled so sweetly at her when she presented the hat she’d made. Which one was the real person, and which one the mask?
“Is that everything?” The mysterious stranger peered at her, an easy smile on his face, and she nodded, trying not to show her apprehension. “All right then, we’re ready to go.” Taking the chest from her, he set it on the grey stallion’s back and began lashing it in place. “The decision was sudden, but there’s no point continuing to sit around. I’m healthy as I’ll get and I’ve already been missing for over a month. It’ll be good, a nice ride through the forest, an easy camping trip, nothing to be worried over.”
Nodding wordlessly, she turned to stare longingly at her home, silently bidding it farewell. It wasn’t the happiest or most luxurious place in the world, but it’d been hers. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and gathered her resolve. Stop moping silly girl, this will be a new chapter in your life. Why would Baledagh bother trying to trick her? He’s a soldier, not a bandit, he gave his word to reward her once they found his people. So he’s bloodthirsty, he’s a warrior, it is who he is, how he was trained. You cannot blame a guard dog for biting a stranger, it was his nature and upbringing.
“Erm, Qing-Qing, a little help? I can’t seem to tie this down, the damned animal keeps shifting about.”
Turning around, she found Baledagh hopelessly struggling with the chest and twine as the stallion danced skittishly beneath the unfamiliar bulk. Smiling to herself, she felt better about her decision already. There was no way this was an act, no one could pretend to be so awkward. Besides he tried his best to cheer her up these past few days, offering uncertain pats and plenty of space. “Are you not a warrior? How can you not handle a mere horse? Come, let me help.”
With everything secured, they mounted up and trotted north through the village towards the lake, planning to retrieve Baledagh’s weapon and keep the lake in sight for their entire journey. Even after losing two young hunters, the village seemed no different from any other day, everyone hard at work to survive. Such was life here, no breaks, no pauses, always struggling so they might fill their bellies each day. Doing her best to ignore the angry stares, she busied herself with braiding her horse’s mane, her mind filled with endless fancies of what she’d do once free of it all. Today was but the first step in the rest of her life.
Who knew what the future held in store? Fortune could lay over the horizon, and she intended to seize it, wherever it might be.
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