Shoutouts to my latest anonymous Patron and my latest anonymous Donor! Thank you both so much for the support!
The torrential downpour arrived with little warning, aside from a thunderous boom which sent the little bears scrambling in fear. Gathering their possessions, Qing-Qing led the horses and cubs down the hill to take refuge from the rainfall beneath a dirt overhang. Pointed out to her by Baledagh on their ascent, he’d even left a small cache of firewood inside in case of emergency. She’d paid little attention to his actions but seeing how quickly the weather changed and imagining herself caught unprepared in the storm, she appreciated his forethought. There was much for her to learn about travelling, her first day already fraught with peril and pitfalls.
Hoping Baledagh found shelter, she wrapped both bear cubs in a blanket and started a fire, singing a nonsense song to soothe their fears. Nervous little creatures, she ran her fingers through the thick fur as they cuddled together for safety, whimpering softly at her touch. She hoped they would stay tiny forever, sweet babies for her to care for. Would they still seek her out when they grew into massive, terrifying beasts, or would she be abandoned the moment they became self-sufficient?
…Would Baledagh do the same? Leave her to fend for herself once he found his people? Toss a few coins at her and tell her to go? The gloomy weather affected her mood as she sulked and watched the storm play out, a brief, powerful deluge which soon tapered off into a gentle drizzle. Falling Rain, young hero of the Bekhai, she had trouble associating the stories of him with Baledagh, even though they were the same person. Shy, blushing Baledagh, a peerless young warrior, standing at the forefront of his generation. Why would a man like him ever take a simple village girl as his wife? She had nothing to offer him, no skills of her own, no allies to bring, unable to even scrape together a dowry aside from the gold he gave her, the spare coins kept in his boot.
This was silly, why was she playing the part of a foolish teenage girl? They were two ships passing in the night, aiding each other through the fog. After navigating through this difficult part of their lives, they would go their separate ways, never to meet again. She wasn’t in love with him, only fear and sorrow driving her to cling to the only relationship remaining to her. Patting her cheeks, she peeled and cut a few apples to feed the bears, taking solace in their darling expressions as they gently took each slice.
There was nothing wrong with her original plan, moving to PingYao to start her new life. Forty gold was a fortune and so long as she spent carefully, it was enough to last her a lifetime. She’d survived this long without family to care for her, she wasn’t some empty-headed damsel in distress who needed a man to solve all her problems. This was the beginning of her new life and it was time she acted like it. Excitement and adventure awaited her, and she lost herself in daydreams of becoming a trader or shopkeeper, finding a husband to share her nights and raise children with, tending to her little bears who stayed small and adorable for their entire lives.
Starting at the voice, she fumbled briefly for her knife before coming to her senses, taking a deep breath and turning with an embarrassed smile. “Really Baledagh, I should stitch bells onto your next shirt, you keep sneaking up on -” At first sight, she clapped a hand over her mouth and gasped.
Two blackened eyes squinting in the light and a bloody, gap-toothed smile in greeting, his face was a mess of cuts and bruises, his cheeks sunken and misshapen. Chuckling to himself, he gingerly bent over to pat the bears, the little darlings making sounds to catch his attention from within their blanketed fortress. “I can’t look that bad, can I? Tell me, do I still have my youthful good looks?”
Shivering cold and injured, yet still he made light of the situation. “Oh you silly man, go sit by the fire and warm up, I’ve something for those cuts.” Tossing a blanket around him, she ran to her saddlebag and grabbed a jar of ointment and clean cloth, returning to wipe away the dried blood and dirt covering his wounds. Serene and composed, he tolerated her ministrations without saying a word, his bright, golden-brown eyes watching her work with an easy smile. “Hmph, youthful good looks, keep abusing yourself like this and no woman will have you. Now tell me what happened.”
Her eyes watered at the ointment’s pungent aroma, but Baledagh didn’t even wince as she applied it, knowing well the stinging sensation of the herbal remedy. The clothes she’d made for him a few days ago were torn and ruined, stained with blood and dirt, his spear and bow missing. Sighing, he pursed his lips and gathered his thoughts, reciting the events in a dull monotone. “After I left you to go hunting, I found tracks of a large group headed towards your village. Thinking I’d find a fight, I followed the trail and heard screams when I arrived. The bandits were torturing and killing, so I moved in to save as many villagers as I could. From what I gathered, the bandits were Defiled and brought there by Gen, although I never saw him. I killed a few, then fought their leader, some bastard named Laughing Dragon. Sent him running after I beat him soundly. The villagers were safely away,maybe thirty in total, heading to some village to the northwest, and I came back here. I’m starving, I need to eat and rest so I can heal.”
Overwhelmed by his rendition of events, she opened and closed her mouth several times, unable to process his words. Finding her voice, she clutched at Baledagh’s arm as he ambled off in search of a meal. “I don’t understand, Gen is alive and he brought Defiled to the village? Why would he do that? And Laughing Dragon? Defiled? He’s a hero around these parts, or close to it as we can find. He never attacks villagers, only stealing from the Council and other merchant groups… It makes no sense.”
Patting her hand, Baledagh shrugged. “Don’t know why. Just repeating what I heard from a guy… Deng? He said Gen was Defiled, brought all the other Defiled there to boot. Anyway, there were too many for me to hunt down alone, so I let them be. The surviving villagers will send word out and the army will investigate, I’m sure of it. You’ve nothing to worry about, I won’t let anyone harm a hair on my benefactor’s head.”
Realization hit her like a hammer as she watched him smile cheerfully, unperturbed by the news he brought, leaving her to rummage through the bags for food and settling down to a meal of hard-tack and dried meat. She’d ignored the signs before because she had no choice, but she now truly saw him for what he was. Not a hero in her time of need, but a ruthless, callous killer, plain and simple. Baledagh’s outlook on life was so foreign and abstract, she couldn’t comprehend how he could just sit there without a care in the world after proclaiming the people she grew up with had been slaughtered by the Defiled. To him, they were no more worth caring about than the animals he slaughtered for food, their deaths as normal as the seasons changing, not worth mourning.
She didn’t hate him for his thinking, but knowing how he perceived them shone a new light on their interactions. If she hadn’t saved him, fed him and cared for him, would he treat her the same way? Or would she be another inconsequential village woman whose death wasn’t worth a single tear? His insistence on repaying her was probably a matter of honour, something to ease his pride. Earlier, she’d realized they would eventually part ways, only now it would be sooner than expected.
Hiding her thoughts, she stoked the fire and prepared lunch in silence, Baledagh content to leave her be. He wasn’t a terrible man, he was what the Mother made him, a warrior unconcerned with trivialities like civilian deaths. She was grateful for his aid, but she needed to end her foolish dreaming. After his meal, Baledagh curled up with the bears and fell asleep with a contented smile. After silently packing her things, she left on foot, taking one last glance at him before stepping out into the gloomy forest. As nice as it was to imagine a better life at his side, they were from different worlds and she could no longer pretend differently. Following him would only lead to disappointment, and if he knew of her plans, he would escort her wherever she wished, but he needed to rest and find his people. He’d done enough for her, things were better this way.
It’s not that she mistrusted him, but Baledagh’s story was so inconceivable and lacked so many details, she needed to see things for herself to believe it. It made little sense, the Defiled were a distant problem, a fairy tale almost, something soldiers fought in distant lands, not here in the heart of the province. Gen becoming one of those horrific monsters was so absurd it was almost laughable, though she couldn’t bring herself to even chuckle.
A quick trip home and if things were as he said, then she’d head to the next village over and find her people. She’d use the gold to help everyone rebuild and resettle, a fresh start for everyone. Shivering in fright, she hurried through the forest, knife drawn and knees quaking at every shadow and sound, praying for everyone’s safety. Uncle Wei and Aunty Ting, the Chief and his wife, even Drunkard Mu, she hoped to see them alive and well, Baledagh’s tale an exaggeration. Less than fifteen minutes out, she heard a familiar voice call out her name and she froze in fright. Turning to greet him, she let out a timid, “Hello.”
Arms wide in greeting, Deng gave her a small hug and peered about, breathless and frantic. “Oh Sweet Holy Mother, Qing-Qing it is good to see you. Is the Great Warrior Baledagh with you? I waited for him as long as I could, but we had to leave. He saved our lives and it shames me to ask, but we need his help still, at least until we reach safety. Please, help us convince him, I beg of you.”
Following Deng into a clearing, she found herself face-to-face with her fellow villagers, many of them greeting her with hysterical joy, their eyes searching for their saviour. Removing her medicine box, she set to work treating injuries, her knowledge limited to the few things remembered from her papa’s teachings and the recipes from his journal. “What happened? Tell me from the beginning.”
“That crazed bastard Gen snapped is what happened, it was terrifying.” Deng shuddered audibly at the recollection. “Beat his pa to death with his bare fists, smiling the entire time. A fucking madman, his grin will haunt me for the rest of my days. Thought I was done for, dragged into a house by two Defiled, they cut me up real bad, eating strips of flesh ripped from my chest…” Swallowing hard, he cleared his throat and continued. “Next thing I know, both Defiled were headless and Baledagh’s handing me a bow and spear and telling me to wait in the forest.”
“He saved us all, thank the Mother, showed that brute Laughing Dragon what for.”
“Bless his bandit heart, he knows the Defiled are a blight upon us all and stepped in to help.”
“The Mother’s work you did child, fishing him out and nursing him back to health.”
Incredible. Only two days past they couldn’t be rid of him quickly enough, yet now they were full of praises. Swallowing her acerbic comments, she continued binding wounds in silence until she reached Uncle Wei. The kind, quiet man she knew was gone, only a shell sitting before her, aged years in only a few days as he stared off into the distance at nothing. Tearing up at the sight, she held his hand and checked him for injuries. “Uncle Wei? It’s Qing-Qing. Are you hurt anywhere?” Finding no wounds, she gripped his arm tightly. “Don’t you worry, Baledagh is just north of here, I’ll ask him to bring you all to safety.”
“Baledagh!?” Taking her by the shoulders, Uncle Wei’s eyes were wide with anger, his voice tinged with madness as he shook her back and forth. “That bastard is the reason for all this, you brought doom down on all of us!” The others quickly piled in to drag him away, but his hate-filled stare pierced her soul. “You’re a fucking jinx, that’s the Mother’s truth. It’s because of you my wife and daughter are dead. Because of you!”
Standing protectively in front of her as she wept, Deng moved her away from Uncle Wei. “Pay no mind to his words, he… he killed his wife. The others tell me she was suffering something awful and he gave her mercy, but Baledagh appeared immediately after it was done. He blames himself for not waiting, thinks he might have saved her instead.” Spitting to the side, he growled, “That bastard Gen deserves a thousand deaths for what he’s done. If I ever get my hands on him…”
A cackle interrupted their conversation, high-pitched and deranged. “Oh? Dear friend Deng, why don’t you finish your thought?” Stepping into the clearing, Gen grinned from ear to ear, waiting for a response. When it was clear none was forthcoming, he sighed. “Forever the coward I see. A shame.” Winking at her, Gen stared hungrily at her. “Ah but the heavens work in mysterious ways do they not? To think I’d stumble upon my Qing-Qing out here, without your protector watching over you. How fortuitous.”
Faster than her eyes could follow, Gen drew his sword and slashed out at the closest villager. With a gurgling cry, the man fell to the ground in a spray of blood chaos broke out in the clearing. Scattering like rabbits, everyone scrambled to escape as Gen hacked away at any within reach, laughing drunkenly amidst the screams. Stumbling away, Qing-Qing turned to run with Deng dragging her along, but in the blink of an eye, Gen was upon her grabbing her by the arm as her hand slipped from Deng’s. Without turning to look back, Deng ran off without a word, abandoning her behind him as Gen laughed and pulled her screaming and struggling into his embrace. “I always knew we were destined to be together but you never saw it. It’s all right, I forgive you, you’ll see how right we are for each other in time.”
The clearing was empty but for corpses and Uncle Wei, weeping inconsolably on his knees. She wasn’t sure he even realized what was going on, so consumed by grief. Praying to the Mother, she clutched at Gen’s arm, her fingernails digging deep into his skin, but he continued to ramble on. “Even better, I found Father-in-Law! Come out and greet your father Bei, we must pay our respects. Ah what a sight, my beautiful bride dressed in red.”
Her heart lurched as Bei stepped out of the shadows, her clothes stained in blood with her head lowered and turned away, arms wrapped around herself and shoulders shaking in silent sobs. “Oh Mother, Bei, are you all right? He didn’t hurt you did he? Don’t worry, he won’t get away with this. He’ll pay for it, he-”
Voice freezing in her throat, Qing-Qing fought the urge to retch as Bei lifted her head, Uncle Wei crying in sorrow and joy as he embraced his daughter. Bright red splotches covered the side of her face, from the top of her forehead to her chin. The opened wounds oozing pus and blood, a pattern of blackened edges working its way down her face, jarring next to Bei’s perfect nose and half deformed lips, tears falling freely as she sobbed in her father’s arms, silently pleading for help.
“What a touching reunion, really tugs at the heartstrings.” His chin resting on her shoulder, Gen snuggled against her, sending a cold wave of revulsion through her body while an urge to scrub her skin clean rose. Her fingers dug into his arm “Do you like what I’ve done with Bei’s face? I’ll have you match her Qing-Qing, I won’t play favourites, but first, we must have a wedding feast to celebrate my union with Bei. Wife, prepare me a meal.”
With a strangled cry, Uncle Wei stumbled backwards, hands pressed against his belly. A trickle of blood seeped out from between his fingers as he fell to his knees. Staring at his daughter, he uttered a single word. “Why?”
Sobbing and shaking her head, Bei raised her knife, stained with her father’s blood, plunging it deep into his shoulder. A wordless scream erupted from her throat as she slashed and stabbed in a frenzy, her face twisted in sorrow and hatred. The world brightened into nothingness as Qing-Qing collapsed to the ground, pressing her face to the dirt as terror gripped her chest, her breath short and head light. Gen knelt to stroke her face, his fingers covered in cold, drying blood. “Isn’t Bei incredible? She is truly blessed by the natural energies of the world, capable of standing at my side. I hope you will be too, Qing-Qinq, it would be unsuitable for you to stay so weak.” Humming a familiar song, Gen lifted her head and forced her to watch, but the world mercifully went dark, the image of Bei’s mutilated visage crying over her father’s body burned into her mind.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|