Clutching tightly at the reins, Qing-Qing sat hunched over her mount, peering left and right through the dim, shadowy forest. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears, her mouth dry as she looked and listened for signs of danger. Every step was a test of courage, her mind whispering of hidden threats lurking around every turn and waiting predators concealed within every shadow. Alert and cautious, she lamented her fate, knowing her efforts would make little difference should peril strike. A poor, defenceless girl out on a ride with all her worldly possessions, including two horses and forty gold, a juicy target for bandit and beast alike.
She blamed her fellow villagers for forcing her out into the wilderness against her will. Cursing them beneath her breath, she knew the way back was lost to her, the only reason she didn’t turn to flee back to the safety of her home. They’d never accept her, not after losing Gen and Kash, as if it were her fault. Cowards and fools every last one of them, they deserved to be punished for their wicked ways, black-hearted scoundrels who turned on her without cause. Even if Gen and Kash had not been killed, her fate would have been only marginally less unpleasant in the village, harassed by all the younger men while the women chastised and tried to shame her into marriage. It was for the better, a journey to parts unknown, the beginning of her new life.
If only it weren’t all so terrifying.
The melancholy over the loss of her home and friends had quickly been overshadowed by intense fear for her life, Baledagh abandoning her to the wilds and running off to hunt as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Stupid Baledagh, he said he’d protect her and bring her along with him in search of his people. How could he be so irresponsible? Would she even survive if he continued in this manner? Or was that his plan? Leave her for nature to dispose of?
Flinching at every sound and movement, she longed for the days of honest hard work, with little to fear so long as she kept close to home. Exhausted by her constant vigilance, she wiped her brow and took a sip of water, her parched throat absorbing the tepid liquid instantly. Managing a slow and steady pace, she hoped to keep the horses fresh should she need to flee, with only herself to rely on in these dangerous wilds. She could manage this much, Baledagh wouldn’t abandon her here, not with all the supplies and money. He was a good man, and if he wanted her dead, he’d take everything and leave her with nothing, no need for any pretense.
Unless he was waiting until they were far enough from the village before acting, relishing the thrill of hunting her, like he hunted defenceless prey, out there in the forest, watching her…
Shrieking at the sudden greeting, she fumbled for her knife. Arms shaking violently, she failed to draw the weapon once, twice, and again, before finally pulling it free, only to have it to slip from her sweaty palms. Helplessly watching as it tumbled into the dirt, she took deep breaths to calm herself, red-faced and unable to meet Baledagh’s golden-brown eyes, twinkling with amusement as he picked up her knife. “I didn’t mean to scare you, but there’s no need to be so jumpy. This stretch of forest is fairly safe from what I gather, no terror birds, no wild cats, no Binturongs. Bears and wolves are the major predators, and they tend to keep to their own territories.”
“Mother’s Milk, what are you doing sneaking about like a thief in the night.” Fanning herself with both hands, she accepted her knife after a moments rest, overjoyed to see him again. “Being out here all alone is no good for my mental health, I’ve been cursing and imagining all manner of horrors for half the day now. Yesterday, I’d never set foot outside of the village proper and now here I am, a half-day’s ride away. It’s all too much.”
“Actually, less than an hour’s ride. You’ve been moving so slowly, I almost thought something happened when I couldn’t find you.” Motioning for her to dismount, he reached over and lifted her down easily as carrying a child. Her cheeks heated even more as she felt his hands firmly around her waist, so steady and strong, the intimate gesture followed by a sympathetic smile on his handsome face. His presence reassured her, a guardian and protector, a world of difference from their roles back in the village. More relaxed than she’d ever seen, Baledagh exuded power and vigour, his time in the woods reigniting a vital spark inside him. Only now did she realize how frustrated he must have been from being injured and cooped up for weeks. He belonged out here in the wilderness, thrived in it, freedom and danger side by side.
So very different from the injured ‘bandit’ she’d brought home, moaning wordlessly in agony as he slowly healed, barely strong enough to sip spoonfuls of soup. Baledagh was so incredible, unlike anyone she’d ever known, in more ways than one. Realizing she was about to stroke his face, she panicked and pinched his cheek before retracting her hand, scolding herself for a half-wit. “I was taking my time because you left me alone!” Foolish girl, first you pinch his face, then you berate him? He is a warrior, his dignity cannot be trampled so. Giggling neurotically, she shook her head and resumed fanning herself. “I’m so sorry, I’m being overly familiar. All this stress, I’m on my last nerve, please forgive me. I mean no offence.”
“Oh no, it’s fine, you are my saviour after all. Besides, I prefer when you’re ‘overly familiar’, I find comfort in your lovely smile.”
His casual declaration almost set her cheeks aflame, likely bright enough to see by in pitch darkness. “Oh stop, you’re terrible.” Stop dreaming girl, he’s far beyond your station. Quickly changing the subject before embarrassing herself any further, she pointed at the brace of fowl tied to his belt. “Are we stopping for lunch? I can roast them if you’d like.” The catch was less than impressive, half-expecting him to return with a massive stag or another trophy of a beast, but the idea was laughable once she thought about it. This was his first day of travel, no matter how strong he was, he’d been weakened by injury and weeks of rest. Two birds were impressive enough, not every hunt would result in an impressive bounty, and the improvement to his almost surly mood made the hunting trip well worth it.
“Ah, that’s a good idea, but not here. I wanted you to meet two friends of mine and was worried the horse would spook and carry you away. Wait here.” As he darted away, Qing-Qing froze in fear, her smile vanishing. Friends? Oh, Mother have mercy, was she mistaken? Was Baledagh a bandit only pretending to be Falling Rain? Now he’d found his old friends and were going to… Perhaps she should end her own life, it would be a quick, clean death. No, enough foolishness. Taking a calming breath, she closed her eyes and composed herself, removing her hand from the knife. Trust in him.
Upon Baledagh’s return, she beamed at the sight of two adorable bear cubs resting in his arms, their tiny little eyes full of curiosity. “Are the tales true? Can the Bekhai control animals? Oh how wonderful, is it safe to pet them?” Feeding them a single apple won over both cubs, and after a few minutes of careful enticement, she held one of the little beasts in her arms, heavy despite its small frame. Giggling as its wet nose pressed against her cheek, she exclaimed, “I’ve only ever seen one bear, just a corpse and it still terrified me, I never would have expected baby bears to be so cute! Look at this one’s big, fearsome paws…”
It took great efforts to convince the horses to allow the cubs near, but soon they rode off to a nearby hilltop clearing where they stopped for the day. Nestled among the trees, she watched the dark billowing mass of smoke rising to the north, a stark contrast against the lake to their east, fear gnawing at her heart once more. Nuzzling a squirming cub close, she prayed for the safety of the villagers in the path of the flames, knowing full well how dangerous a blaze could be, especially in the dry summer months. “What will we do? If we keep going north, we might get caught in the inferno…”
“That’s my line of thinking too. Nothing to do but wait it out.”
The decision made, she set to work preparing lunch, unable to remain gloomy as she watched the bear cubs wrestling and play-fighting with one another. Her smile widened as she saw Baledagh hovering close by with a foolish grin, playing nanny like a concerned housewife. This was the ‘Undying Savage’, and were she to share this tale, no one would believe her. It was the right decision to trust him, richly rewarded with this incredible experience. How all the terrible rumours of him began, she would never know. “They play so rough, it’s incredible how gentle they are with us, as if they know their teeth and claws might harm us.”
“Oh, wild animals are smart. Most people think they’re mindless killers, but few living creatures truly lack empathy. You should see my brother’s cats, massive, beautiful creatures bigger than I am, but gentle as can be. He spoils them terribly, they’d starve to death without him around. We can’t make the same mistake with these bears, they must learn how to fend for themselves. Can’t be too hard, they’re bears.”
She’d heard of the Bekhai’s ferocious roosequin mounts, but nothing of giant cats. They’d spent so much time together these last few weeks, yet there was so much she didn’t know about him. “I’ve heard you mention your brother often. What’s he like?”
“He’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”
“High praise coming from ‘Officer Falling Rain’, the youngest Warrant Officer in a thousand years.”
Waving his hand, he shook his head glumly. “Call me Baledagh. I don’t deserve the praise, any fame I’ve earned is thanks to brother, he’s the incredible one. While not what you might call talented, but he works harder than anyone I know, tough and persistent to the point of idiocy. All I’ve done is follow his directions and success comes without fail. As you’ve seen, I am nothing without his guidance.”
The topic seemed to touch a nerve, a melancholic smile and faraway look in his eyes. He was usually so casually arrogant, like not realizing how terrified she would be left alone in the forest, it was strange to see him humbled. Realizing her mistake, she gasped before asking, “Did he… pass away?”
“Ah, no no, he’s… err… sleeping, I suppose, and won’t wake. Nothing to worry about, it will all sort itself out soon. Hopefully, else…” He muttered the last part beneath his breath accompanied by a gloomy expression, but his mood soon recovered as one bear tumbled head over heels, flopping down before him. “Any other questions? Ask and I shall answer.”
Seizing the opportunity, she peppered him with questions, asking about the rest of his family, his home, his exploits, and anything else which came to mind. They passed the time conversing and playing with the cubs, the dark clouds hanging overhead doing little to affect their mood. Learning of his family warmed her heart though his married adoptive ‘siblings’ was cause for concern. Hearing about his daily life fascinated her, how he trained and hunted day in and day out. While he didn’t go into any specifics, it surprised her how hard he worked each day, his time scheduled down to the half-hour. It didn’t fit her image of him, a happy idler who floated by on talent alone.
They spent the entire day learning about each other as they frolicked about with the little bears, a lovely beginning to their trip. Night fell, the moon and stars obscured by the smoke, but it was a beautiful sight. Laying on the grass next to the bear cubs, she glanced over at the sleeping Baledagh, confused and conflicted. Was she falling in love with him, or was it merely her dire circumstances, wanting to cling onto this powerful, successful man. It wasn’t how she wanted to live her life, and even if she did, there was no chance he would accept her as his wife. A man like him probably had two or three wives waiting for him already, she’d never measure up.
With a wistful sigh, she snuggled in beside the little bears, hoping for their journey to last even a day longer. Though it was a foolish dream, sometimes, dreams were all that kept you going.
“You lazy maggots!” Letting loose with spit and rancour, Ravil stomped over to the exhausted bandits and mercilessly kicked them to their feet. “Who gave you permission to rest?” Wielding his baton like a hammer, he spurred the bandits on, chasing them around the makeshift course. “Run maggots, fast as your stubby little legs will carry you. Up the ramp, cross those lines, under and over, side to side. You stop when I say you can stop or when the Mother Herself decides you’ve had enough and comes down to personally grant you mercy.”
Sometimes to reach Balance, one needed to vent their frustrations, and screaming at worthless layabouts his favourite method of releasing stress. Well, one of them, but there were few women to be found around these parts. Hands on hips, he glanced around at the bustling camp, noting everyone’s progress. Bulat was off with Jorani and Jester Wang, on their way back with yet another pilfered shipment from the Council, while Kabi and Light-fingered Yu delivered the supplies north of Shen Yun. Almost two-thousand strong, it was becoming difficult to keep all these men fed without dipping into Imperial supplies, but they made it work. Plenty of villagers willingly sold food to them, given a fair price with the coin from the Council’s lavish gifts, easily fenced in Shen Yun.
It was all so satisfying.
Stealing from the Council, then buying more supplies using coin from stolen goods and driving prices up, all while smacking them with penalties for late deliveries, without a delay in shipments to the Bridge. So fucking beautiful and neat, Ravil almost shed a tear watching it in action. A born criminal mastermind, the Boss far beyond those other Warrant Officers, a bunch of arrogant, stuck-up children in comparison. Strength of will, strength of mind, strength of body, the Boss had it all.
He never did things by half, that was for sure, Sending orders to have Ravil train these bandit scumbags into proper soldiers gave him new purpose in life. Now they could continue harassing the Council AND reduce the bandit population in one fell swoop, how he thought so many steps ahead made Ravil’s head spin. Now, the Boss was out in the wilderness pretending to be lost while carrying out his devious schemes, he could hardly wait to hear how it turned out. Perhaps he’d infiltrated the Butcher Bay Bandits, scouting them out to prepare for a massive strike, there was nothing the Boss couldn’t do.
A thunderous laugh echoed out from behind him, and Ravil hid his grimace before turning to greet Lei Gong. Hair poking out in every direction and tangled beard draped over his grease-stained shirt, the nosy old man stood there with gourd in hand, drinking messily as he surveyed the area. “Ravil is it? I say, this old warrior has seen a lot, but he ain’t ever seen bandits work this hard before. Hell, if they’re capable of this much, then the army’d be a nip and a nap in comparison. Ha Ha Ha.”
Crafty old bastard, poking in where he don’t belong. Ravil didn’t believe in coincidences, nor did he believe in altruism. Everyone had an angle, it was only a matter of discovering what this old bastard’s was. Politely nodding, Ravil gave him the well-practised response. “We aren’t mere bandits Great One. We’re the Mother’s Militia, here to right wrongs in her name. The Mother abhors the careless and favours the diligent, so we act accordingly.” All drivel and empty talk, but religious fanaticism had its uses. Many of the bandits even bought into it, praising the Mother almost every other sentence, and Jorani played his part brilliantly.
“Still though, this training is well thought out, this obstacle course of yours. You push them to their physical limits and force them to adapt to using Chi. Do or die, then do it again, a punishing regimen. Jorani is lucky to have ye, yer the best damn bully sergeant I ever laid eyes on. Ever serve?”
More prodding, it never stopped. “I served in Shen Mu, moved south after the city fell. Not much work for me until I fell in with the Hangman.”
“Shen Mu huh? A damn shame what happened there, the Divine Tree was truly a sight to see. Sanshu Grove lacks a certain majesty.”
“I’d rather not speak of it, the loss was… difficult.” He’d passed along word regarding the existence of Lei Gong, but received little interest or support from Rustram, or more likely in charge, Sumila. Neither one as crafty as the Boss, they both preferred head on solutions through superior positioning or brute force, respectively. Therefore, it fell on Ravil to take on this crafty senior, his slovenly appearance a mask for the devious former Lieutenant Colonel.
He didn’t understand why the old man was so inquisitive, but Ravil treated him like fungus, fed shit and kept in the dark. It made little sense why he was here, why bother going to all this trouble for a cause he’d abandoned? If the man wanted to help the army, go fight the Defiled, don’t hang around playing at mysterious bandit. The Ascendants might be eyeing their loot, be a Council cat’s paw, or worst of all, Lei Gong might be a busybody with nothing better to do. A nuisance is what he was, and Ravil’s hands were tied in the matter, the Lord of Thunder not someone they could fight. Deception and deceit were their only weapons, and Ravil was sorely lacking in both areas when compared to the Boss.
Mother help me, how long can I keep this up?
As if in answer to his silent prayer, a thick plume of black smoke rose to the south, the training bandits all stopping to gape. Too shocked by the sight, Ravil’s mind spun with the possibilities. Was this a simple forest fire, or was it more? No, there were no coincidences, and with the Boss’ penchant for burning things, this had his name written all over it. Smiling to himself, Ravil turned away to make preparations, eager to find out what the Boss cooked up this time.
Perhaps by this time tomorrow, the Butcher Bay Bandits will be a footnote in the annals of history, a mere stepping stone on Falling Rain’s path to glory.
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