Dahan crouched uneasily. A big bear of a man, he did not like crouching. He watched the newest member of their hunting party with a mixture of skepticism and awe. So far he had seen damned little that warranted the purple sash the fellow wore. Still, he had to admit their luck had increased dramatically ever since Hon Tau invited the young Adept to join them. The man may not possess much in the way of magic, but he was deadly accurate with the bow. They would have to go to Chaun Cha soon just to relieve the pack animals of the weight of the salted meat and pelts.
Min Lee rose from his blind and waved off his companions. The doe sensed his movement and burst from the brush, directly towards Dahan. “Oy! Hold! Hold!” Min Lee shouted. Dahan let loose his bowstring and the arrow flew straight and true. The doe stumbled, buckled once, regained her feet, then stumbled a second time, not to rise again.
“You nearly ruined my shot,” Dahan complained as the four men gathered round the fallen doe.
“I didn’t want you to shoot. She is carrying fawns.”
Dahan shuffled his feet, somewhat abashed. “I didn’t know.” Now, looking at the animal laying dead on the ground, it seemed obvious she was swollen with young.
“We can do nothing now,” Min Lee said. He drew his hunting knife and began field dressing the deer. As he expected she carried two, now still, fawns.
Much to Min Lee’s relief the Emperor’s banner did not fly over Chaun Cha. Still, he was wary and on guard the entire time they were within the city walls. Since his expulsion from Xueshi Shang, and his terrible betrayal of Lia Yong some weeks later, he tried to avoid cities – too much chance he might be recognized by someone and turned in. The petty thievery was of little importance, warranting a public lashing at most. The theft of the purple sash of an Adept on the other hand – he hated to think what trouble that would bring down upon his head. As far as he knew it was a crime wholly unique to himself. They had certainly never been lectured about any such incident while he was at the school.
They left Chaun Cha with heavy purses, and none too soon as far as Min Lee was concerned. After buying new supplies, including salt to last a month, there was still enough money for a tidy four-way split. Min Lee’s purse had not been so full since leaving Xueshi Shang. At last he had nearly enough to buy a horse. One more month of hunting… For now he was content to lead the pack mules. Of the four, only Hon Tou and Shòu Lan had horses, poor specimens though they were. Dahan claimed there was no horse alive that would tolerate his size, and was probably right. The hunting party never moved faster than Dahan’s slow yet steady pace.
Twice during the day’s march Min Lee noticed Shòu Lan looking at him askance. Both times when he caught his eye the man looked quickly away. He saw the glance again over the campfire as they ate. Shòu Lan, usually Dahan’s foil, seldom responded to the big man’s jibes. A sense of unease settled on Min Lee.
He heard whispers. Min Lee forced his breathing to remain steady, feigning sleep. He concentrated on the hushed voices, blocking out all other sounds, drawing them out of the darkness around them.
“… rogue mage on the loose.” Shòu Lan – barely whispering.
“I don’t know…” Dahan seemed skeptical of his friend’s words.
“Keep your voice down,” Shòu Lan hissed. “If the stories are true… kill us with…”
“He’d never do that.”
Min Lee heard enough. His bow lay at his side, as always. His kit neatly bundled by his head. He cast his thoughts outward, to the picket line – the horses, the mules. Tiger. He envisioned a tiger creeping through the woods. Tiger. Hungry. One of the horses whinnied nervously. He envisioned a tiger crouched, ready to pounce. Hunger! The horses began to rear, the mules to buck in fright.
“The horses!” Hon Tou cried, throwing his blanket off. “To the horses, quick!”
They found nothing wrong, of course, but it took some effort to calm the spooked beasts.
When they came back to the campfire the young Adept was gone.
© 2010 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.
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