Fantasy

 

Alun Nikis awoke to the screams of a young woman outside his hovel. He sat up, disoriented for a moment unsure if it had been but a dream. A very real cry of anguish brought him to his feet.

Firelight flickered through the gaps in his door and angry voices carried on the air. He distinguished one above all others, the harsh unforgiving voice of Toltan Miklos. Alarmed, Alun groped for his cape, for the night was chill, and for his stave, for the mood was nasty.

He was enraged at the scene that met him once outside. Toltan, and two of his cronies, were dragging Alyiona Roka across the ground by her hair and wrists, she kicking and screaming the whole way, toward a tree where three other men were stacking fagots round the bole while a lad held a lighted torch nearby. The smell of smoke and oil was heavy in the air. The entire scene was awash in the glow of Alyiona’s home ablaze, just yards away from his own.

“What is this? What is this?” Alun shouted, bringing his stave down sharply across the forearm of Hald Cureil. Hald barked out in pain, releasing his grip on Alyiona’s wrist. With that she twisted round and landed a sharp kick in the meaty part of Petof Kozma’s thigh. Petof retaliated with a swift kick to her side, which took most of the fight out of her.

Alun quickly jabbed the heavy end of his stave into the front of Petof’s knee. There was a sickening snap and Petof fell to the ground, roiling in pain.

The three men near the tree dropped their bundles and started toward Alun, but the way he flourished his stave gave them pause.

Toltan, still gripping Alyiona’s hair,  stood forward to assert his authority. He demanded Alun stand down. By now much of the village had come outdoors, gathered in cowed clutches, whispering behind their hands.

“This woman is a witch,” Toltan asserted, lifting his voice so all could hear. “We cannot abide having a witch among us.”

Alun moved to put the wall of his home behind him, keeping his staff at ready, keenly aware of where all of Toltan’s men stood, or lie.

“Why do you claim this, Toltan? What harm has Alyiona ever done you? Or anyone?” He too raised his voice so that all could hear. “She is a gentle and kind soul.”

“She has cursed my chickens,” Toltan countered. “Nine have died just this week.”

“You’re chickens have the flux,” Alun shouted back. “I told you to burn your coops last month. Did you? No. Now it is spread across the valley.”

“He’s one of them!” Toltan said, turning toward the crowd while pointing an accusing finger toward Alun. “He’s a witch too. A fornicator!”

“As are you,” Alun said, then casting a mischievous grin toward the villagers, “assuming you are the rightful sire of Rita’s spawn?”

This perhaps was too much, for as the crowd laughed, Toltan released Alyiona’s hair and lept toward Alun. Alun was too quick, burying the head of his stave in Toltan’s gut, then with a firm follow thru sending him reeling onto his back.

“Go home, Toltan, and take your jackals with you.” He cast an accusing eye at the henchmen. “This woman is no witch. Her father has died, and you just want to take her holdings. The only real evil in this village is you.”

Merd Guri stepped from the crowd to stand beside Alun, bearing no weapon save his sheer size. Then two women rushed forward and gathered Alyiona up, ushering her away.

Toltan labored to his feet, then sensing the mood of the crowd had turned against him, staggered away. Two of the wood gathers helped Petof up from the ground, his left leg almost useless, and followed in Toltan’s angry wake. As Toltan passed Imre, stil holding the torch, he yanked the brand from the lad and dashed it into the oil soaked wood.

“It’s a shame,” Alun said to Merd as they watched the seven men go, “to lose such a fine tree.”

~
© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Mo Shuh stepped carefully over the assorted bundles scattered about his fellow passenger’s feet. He made for the open deck of the narrowboat seeking relief. The sun beating upon the canvas roof, combined with the sweating passengers and their assorted menagerie of small animals made the covered seating area almost unbearable. He needed fresh air.

The tillerman, on seeing the Master rise, made as if to speak, but held his tongue. Instead he cast an exasperated look toward the pullerman leading the horse along the towpath. The pullerman did not even notice.

The town of Chenuan drifted past on both sides of the canal, busy shops to the right bustling with midday commerce. Street mongers hawked sundry wares. Pullcarts clattered over cobbles, pulled by weary, stoop-shouldered men. Women clustered, laughing or gossiping as was their wont. Men squatted around a cock fight.

To his left, toward the lowering sun, shanties stood but a few feet back from the towpath. The pullerman held fast the reins of his dapple gray horse with one hand, while brandished a stout pole before him with the other. Pity the fool who blocked his way.

People began to emerge from the makeshift huts and narrow alleyways at the boat’s approach. Some, upon seeing the purple sash Mo Shuh wore, averted their eyes and retreated. Others nodded their heads in sign of respect, but approached no further. Some, the most desperate among them, waited for the threat of the pullerman to pass, then scurried forward to the very edge of the brick-lined canal to plead their cases.

Please, Master, some spare food.

Master, I have a sick child.

My neighbor has cursed me, please help.

He considered tossing some coppers ashore, but knew pandemonium would ensue. Yet to help none because one could not help all was no excuse for inaction. As he scanned the misery assembling along the way a small child broke from an alley, skittering and dodging between the legs of the men and women now lining the way, and ran along the lip of the canal.

Her eyes fixed on him. She extended her hands, beseeching, pleading. “An apple, kind sir? An apple? Rice?”

Her clothes were soiled and ragged, limbs almost skeletal. Her eyes were sunken, yet still held the intense flicker of life.

“Stop, please.” Mo Shuh called up to the pullerman.

The pullerman, his back to the boat, and used to such calls from the passengers, ignored him.

“Siqi, stop!” the tillerman called out sharply.

Siqi turned his head toward the boat. Upon seeing Mo Shuh standing there with his foot on the gunnel he immediately reined in the horse, then deftly hooked the small nob at the bow with his pole and leaned into it. The momentum of the boat pushed him backwards, but in short order he fought the vessel to a standstill.

“What is it, Master?” he called down to Mo Shuh.

Mo Shuh did not bother to answer. Instead he leapt the short distance from the boat to the towpath, landing adroitly a few feet from the startled girl. Suddenly the hope on her face turned to fear. The crowd of spectators hung back, many murmuring among themselves.

Mo Shuh squatted, to bring himself closer to the child’s eye level.

“Do not be afraid,” he said.

Her eyes darted back and forth, as if looking for an avenue of escape.

“Mo Shuh, what are you doing?” His traveling companion, Master Sheng stood just beyond the shade of the canopy, looking quite annoyed.

“I won’t be long,” Mo Shuh assured his friend. Then, looking back to the girl he held out a hand, palm up and open in a sign of peace. “What is your name child?”

She stood there, wide-eyed and mute.

He looked up at the crowd. “Who is this child? Where are her parents?”

The crowd remained silent.

Mo Shuh rooted through his kit and produced a piece of dried pork about as long as his hand. The girl’s eyes widened.

“When did you last eat, child?”

He straightened and addressed the crowd more sternly. “Who is this child? Is her family here?”

A woman cleared her throat and took a tentative step forward. “She has no family, Master.”

“She is an orphan?”

The woman shook her head as her eyes lingered on the dried pork. “No, Master. She was abandoned, three years on now.”

Mo Shuh squatted again, and held the pork out to the little girl. “Has she a name?”

“She is called Quan Li,” the woman said.

The girl slowly reached out, hardly daring to believe her luck. She licked her lips, as did the woman.

“How have you survived, little one?” he said almost to himself. Then, a bit louder, “Go ahead, eat it. You certainly need it.”

As her hand wrapped around the pork she made the briefest of contact with his own. He felt the shén xin immediately.

Having snatched the meat the girl turned and attempted to dash away. Mo Shuh reached out and grabbed here gently, yet firmly, by the shoulder. The child lacked the strength to pull away. He straightened to address the crowd.

“I would take her to Shan Shiaw,” he said loud enough for all to hear, “to study the Way, if no one here has an objection.”

He heard Master Sheng groan behind him.

The crowd shuffled, eyes darted back and forth, but no one spoke up.

He looked down at the girl. “Who here has shown you kindness?” He let go of her shoulder. The girl darted over to the woman who had spoken, and pointed to an old man leaning on a stave of ash.

He called them forth and they approached with trepidation.

“Thank you,” he said, as he pressed a copper talent into each of their palms. “Blessing be upon you, for your kindness to one in need.”

Then to the dismay of all the passengers he helped Quan Li aboard the boat.

~

A chronological list of the Dragon Gates stories

Towpath – this story, introduces Mo Shuh and Quan Li
The Apprentice – not published, Quan Li
Serpent – introduces Min Lee
Tangled Webs – introduces Lia Yong
Commencement – introduces Shan Tzu
Departing Gift – Shan Tzu
Unproven – Min Lee
Tiger – Min Lee
Ud Watan – Lia Yong

© 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

Photo by Christine Johnstone via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, attrubution and share alike.

 

 

The three horsemen ambled round the bend heading east, laughing at their own bawdy tales. Upon seeing a cottage the lead man, Ladif, pulled up. The other two reined in and fell silent, their horses nickering beneath them.

“Well now, looks like we’ve found a place where we can take a load off,” Ladif said.

They spurred their horses forward, turned from the road, and ambled through the gate. The men bore no livery, their tack was old and worn, their clothing all but rags. Three desperate men, in very desperate times.

They came to a halt once in the yard and Ladif, the tallest of the three, called out for anyone in the house. The horse beneath him shied nervously. Ladif responded with a harsh yank on the reins.

“You keep treating your horse like that, Ladif, and she’ll be done with you some day, mark my words,” Ceb scolded as he dismounted his own dapple gray. He patted her flanks and took a moment to inspect her right hoof. She seemed to be favoring it of late.

Ladif responded with a series of curses aimed both at his horse and Ceb.

“Wallup, see if anyone’s home,” Ladif told the third man.

Wallup rode right to the door and pounded on it with the sole of his well worn boot. “Oy! Anyone there? Come on, now, show some hospitality to three wandering knights.” Getting no response he leaned down and tried the latch. It did not move. “Locked,” he snarled and backed the horse away. He dismounted, approached the door again, and began to heave his shoulder to it.

“Leave it be,” Ceb called from over by the well. “I’ve found this…” He held up a piece of parchment. “’Twas in the bucket.” His horse was now slaking her thirst.

“What?” Wallup scoffed.

“Says, ‘Leave in peace and peace shall follow you.’ It’s got hex marks on it,” Ceb warned.

“Pfhat! Witchcraft. Load of crap I tell you.” The man returned to abusing the door. After three good tries it heaved to. He fell in as it gave way.

Ladif laughed when Wallup went sprawling, dismounted, and followed him in.

“Naught worth having,” Ladif complained when he reappeared a few minutes later. Despite his words he held a loosely tied bundle in his left hand.

“Too bad, too,” said Wallup following right behind, twirling a woman’s blousey tunic, squeezing the empty bosoms with a grin. “Could of had some fun, eh?”

Once the horses were watered they remounted and continued on to the east.

Ceb returned two days later, leading two riderless horses. He reined in at the gate, dismounted his dapple gray, and tied the other two steeds to the fence. He laid a bundle, loosely tied within a tunic, just inside the gate. Then he backed to his horse, made a warding sign, remounted, and galloped away.
~

© 2012 by J.M. Strother

Image a painting by Paul Cézanne circa 1865-1867 via WikiMedia Commons

 

The workmen paused at the approach of two travelers, straightening to lean momentarily on their hoes and rakes. It was prudent to be cautious of all strangers on the road, particularly these days. The approaching man was huge – too big for any horse. But it was the rider that caught their eye. She was small and wore the purple sash of an Adept.

One of the workers called over his shoulder to his boy. “Kan Lim, run like the wind. Tell everyone an Adept approaches.”

Normally the arrival of an Adept would be cause for celebration. People would come in from far and wide to seek help, be it for finding lost items, lifting a curse, or tending to the sick – either animal or human. Now, with a rogue Adept on the loose, a more cautious attitude was warranted.

As the boy ran off the Adept turned her attention their way and said something to the giant at her side. The big man looked over toward them and shrugged.

~

“See,” Lia Yong said to Dahan, “they are frightened here too.”

Dahan looked over to the men in the field and shrugged. A boy, no more than ten years old, was running for all he was worth toward the village of Ud Watan. As long as they were not advancing wielding their tools as weapons he was not too concerned. He’d rather not have to hurt anyone.

“He must have been through here,” she said.

A month ago her old herb master dropped in unexpectedly at her apothecary. They chatted amicably about old teachers and friends, he always probing, she always dancing around the subject of Min Lee. She was still furious with Min for stealing her sash, the badge that marked her a proper Adept, and for breaking her heart. She could not explain to herself why she suddenly had a deep urge to protect him. After what he did he deserved nothing from her.

At length Master Yi asked her outright if she had seen Min Lee. Her impulse was to lie, to deny seeing him since leaving school, but she found she could not lie – not to Master Yi. She loved him like a father.

They now approached yet another village that was wary of unknown Adepts. The stories were rampant, though largely exaggerated. Yet someone wearing the sash of an Adept was wreaking havoc on the western roads. Wells went bad. Livestock died without explanation. Two months ago, just a week before Master Yi arrived, a hunting party was found dead in the hills near Simke. They had torn each other limb from limb as if possessed. Each time an unidentified Adept had been reported in the area. She glanced around at the surrounding tree clad hills and prayed it was not Min Lee.

~

She balked when Master Yi asked her to find Min Lee, to bring him back to Xueshi Shang.

“You think he’s done these terrible things?” Tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

Master Yi laid his hand on hers, held her with his rheumy blind eyes. “I do not. Search your heart, Lia. Do you?”

She shook her head, no.

“Then we must clear his name.”

“I can’t leave my apothecary, the village needs me…”

“I shall tend it.”

“But the roads are full of bandits…”

“I have a companion. He knows Min Lee. They hunted together.”

~

The men in the hostel gave way when Dahan entered allowing Lia to follow in his wake. The hosteler meekly agreed to let them two adjoining rooms and board the horse, though he shot wary glances Lia’s way. No one in the room was willing to speak with them. They drifted away in ones and twos until the commons were left all but deserted. Finding information in this town would be next to impossible.

A woman rushed in, followed by her husband who admonished her mightily. When the man laid eyes on Lia he fell silent. The woman approached Lia with a look of desperation in her eyes.

“My girl… she’s only three. She has the fevered cramps…”

“I am a healer.”

The woman’s face flickered with hope.

~

The child slept peacefully, the fever broken.

“Yes,” the father said as they sat round the tiny fire at the center of the mud hut. “A man like that was here not three weeks ago. But he was a huntsman, not an Adept.”

“He carried a bow?” Dahan asked.

“A great bow.” The man nodded. “We were too frightened to turn him away. We gave him water and a crust of bread. He spent the night.” He jerked his chin toward the back of the hut. “The next morning he left, then came back with a brace of quail.” The man smiled at the memory.

“We ate good for a week,” the woman said.

Lia Yong exchanged a look with Dahan. At last, they had a lead on Min Lee.

 

Tana had lost track of time. Brin had fished her from the river more than half drowned, how many days ago now, and nursed her back to health. She had seen the moon wax and wane twice since regaining enough strength to leave Brin’s dwell. Each day the old woman taught here some new skill: the uses of the herbs in her garden, including the ones she used to break Tana’s fever; how to collect honey without too many stings; identifying different types of scat on the trails in the woods. All these things, Brin told Tana, would be needed once Tana left the safety of Brin’s wood. It saddened Tana to realized the unstated command in these statements – the day would come when Tana would have to go.

A breath of air blew across her face, for the windows of Brin’s dwell were unglazed in any manner. On the breeze she heard a haunting music. She rose and gazed out the window, trying to find the source. “Brin?” she called in a low voice. No one answered, but the music went on.

She stepped outside and cocked her head, listening. The music was coming form the grove. She walked towards it, feeling an edge of excitement in her blood. As she went the music became more clear. The tune was carried on soft hollow tones, as from a wind instrument. And while the notes were haunting the melody was happy and full of life. It seemed to be coming from near the citrus trees. She quietly approached, not wanting to disturb Brin from her playing. For it could be no other, she was sure.

Dim forms were becoming apparent ahead. There was Brin, seated with her back towards Tana, hunched over the instrument she played. But there were others there as well, some large, some small. She drew close enough to see.

A bear was seated next to Brin. Somehow this did not strike Tana as odd at all. The bear seemed to become aware of her and turned it’s head towards her. It’s massive tongue came out to clean it’s muzzle. It raised a giant paw to scratch an ear. It shook it’s head and let out a low rumble. The music stopped.

Brin half turned and beckoned towards her. “Come on, my child. Come and meet my friends.”

With mouth agape, Tana continued on. There, gathered in a small circle sat Brin, a bear, a wolf, an owl and a deer. They all looked at her, with curiosity in their eyes and nodded as if in greeting. Not knowing what else to do, Tana bowed deeply.

‘She has good manners.’ the owl observed.

Tana stared, unable to believe what she thought she had heard.

‘She is beautiful.’ said the deer.

‘Come on,’ the bear rumbled, licking it’s muzzle again. ‘We were expecting you tonight.’

~

Tana sat, legs akimbo, and listened to the music. It was the music of bear and wolf, owl and deer. Brin played upon a terra cotta ocarina delighting the assembled company. It was a strange and magical night. Tana felt as if her spirit were bound as one to those of her companions. The moon rose slowly over the eastern horizon and time passes out of all reckoning.

“My friends have agreed to teach you their ways.” Brin told her at the end of one song. “For the time is drawing neigh when you must leave.”

“I do not want to leave you.”

“Ah, but you know that you must. I cannot shelter you here forever, nor would you want me to in the end. Still, the world beyond my garden is a harsh, and filled with many perils. I have taught you much, but you are ill equipped to walk that world alone. If you consent, my friends will teach you the nature of their being, so that you can travel unmolested.”

“What do you mean?”

The bear fixed his eyes on hers. ‘We mean to teach you to become one of us, as the need serves you.’

“The choice is yours.” Brin murmured, putting the ocarina to her lips. “Let your mind empty to the music, open it to those around you. Let the moment take you.” Then she began to play once more.

Tana closed her eyes, soaking up the music. The music seemed to settle into her very core, to drive out all conscious thought. Her senses began to change – sounds, scents, the very feel of the air on her skin. She felt her nose expanding, her arms growing heavy. Then she arose with a growl, stretching her forepaws to the sky.
~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Shan Tzu sat in the shade of the building watching the coachman struggle to get the lead horse under control, the faintest smile played across his lips. Baggage sat half loaded – two trunks on top yet to be tied down, three on the ground yet to be hoisted aloft. One large case, made of fine teak, lay broken on the ground, expensive clothing spilled out into the grime of the street. The owner of the case, a portly man dressed in well cut linens, berated the footman who scrabbled in the dirt trying to gather up the contents as quickly as possible. The poor lad had dropped the heavy case when the lead horse unexpectedly spooked, jerking the coach wildly in its panic.

Ti Hoc came out of the station and stood next to his friend. “What? I thought we would be ready to go.”

Shan Tzu glanced up at Ti, an act which broke his concentration. The horse immediately calmed. The coachman patted the poor beast, still befuddled as to what could have gotten into the animal, and yelled at his boy to hop to it and finish with the baggage. Ti Hoc glanced down at Shan Tzu, suspicious, but said nothing.

Sufficiently amused Shan stood, stretched, and gave the poor footman a disdainful look. “Be careful with my case,” he admonished. “It’s the small black one, you clumsy oaf.” He looked at Ti, shrugged, and climbed into the cab. He was very glad to finally be leaving Xueshi Shang, where he had been forced to study his youth away. He would not miss it and looked forward to his return to Shulin Dong and his long anticipated reunion with his cousin Cao.

Shan Tzu settled into his seat contemplating that reunion. He should bring his cousin a gift to celebrate his return, something on the order of the parting gift he had given that twit, Quan Li. He glanced over at Ti Hoc, who settled just across from him. When the footman slammed the door behind the last passenger to board Shan Tzu sat back and laughed out loud.

~

Master Mo Shuh cocked his head, a worry line creasing his brow. Someone was running down the great hall, behavior strictly forbidden. He set down his pen just as the shouts started. A girl’s voice filled with panic – was that Li Na?

“Master Mo Shuh, Master Mo Shuh! Come quick!” He was in the act of standing when she burst into his office unbidden. “It’s Quan Li! Please, come quick!”

They ran to the girl’s dormitory together, Mo Shuh only able to get fragments of confusing explanation on the way. Something about a snake, and Quan Li bitten. Was there no end to the poor child’s misfortunes?

The room was crowded, anxious students gathered near the door, two groundsmen milled about, and three Rhetors attended Master Yi, who was bent over the prostrate and ashen form of Quan Li. Great dread overtook Mo Shuh as he approached the bed.

“What happened?” Mo Shuh asked of no one in particular.

A groundsman prodded the floor near the head of the bed with the tip of his spade, drawing Master Mo Shuh’s eye. A spotted pit viper lie there, dead – it’s head nearly severed. Mo Shuh knelt, but it was hopeless, not a glimmer of xin remained. There was no way to know who did this, for once the spirit was completely gone so too were all ties to the bindings that brought this serpent into the dormitory –for it surely had not entered unbidden.

Mo Shuh turned to his healing master.

“She lives,” Master Yi informed him without pausing in his ministrations. “It was a close thing.”

Li Na stood off from the bed, trembling, tears running down her cheeks. Quan Li was her roommate and best friend. Master Mo Shuh rose and wrapped Li Na in a comforting and grateful embrace. Her quick thinking, running for Master Yi while still sending groundsmen to deal with the snake, had probably saved Quan Li’s life. He turned toward the door and gestured dismissal to the gathering crowd. “You have readings to study. Go. Quan Li will be fine.” He only hoped it was so.

~

When Quan Li opened her eyes she found blind Master Yi sitting at her bedside. He sensed her state, and smiled.

“You gave us a scare,” he said, reaching out to stroke her forehead. “Good, the fever is gone.”

She glanced about, frightened and confused. Oh yes, this was the infirmary. She looked down to where her right hand lay wrapped and cradled on her stomach. Memories flooded back.

“I am afraid your two smallest fingers are ruined,” Master Yi told her. “I did all I could.”

She tried to lift her hand but could not.

“You are still very weak. Please do not exert yourself. If you are hungry I can send for some soup.”

Quan Li shook her head, then for the Master’s benefit whispered, “No.”

“Do you remember what happened?” He was asking her if she knew who had done this to her.

She closed her eyes and once again saw the brown speckled snake strike out at her hand as she turned down the sheet. There was a flash of the bindings guiding it – the sneering face of Shan Tzu. She would never see another snake without seeing him.

She simply turned her head away and eventually drifted back into troubled sleep.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Shan Tzu stood like the rest in the long silent row, side by side his fellow students, head bowed in the sign of respect. Not ten paces before them Master Mo Shuh droned on about the gravity of accepting the purple sash they were about to don. With their knowledge came great power – with great power, terrible responsibility. They must use that power with care.

Shan Tzu just wanted the old fool to finish this farce of a ceremony so he could at long last walk through the Dragon Gates wearing the sash of an Adept. For seven long years he had been away from home, sequestered in this forsaken valley on the whim of his uncle, Lord Kan Ho Tzu. Lord Tzu’s son, Cao, had taken a dislike to him so here he was sweltering in the midsummer heat, listening to the same fool he had out smarted oh these many years.

He let his mind drift, let the voice fade, and listened to the world about instead. Behind, in the gardens, he heard a different droning – that of the bees in their daily labor, collecting pollen. He smiled. Yes, why not?

He centered his self, his being, on the sound of one bee. He sensed it drifting from hyssop to chamomile, its pollen sacks nearly full, almost ready to return to the hive. Shan Tzu had other plans. He blocked out all other sound, heard only that one bee.

He felt it drift away from the chamomile suddenly without purpose. It hovered aimlessly for a moment, then turned toward the parade ground. Shan Tzu and the bee became one. He then envisioned Master Mo Shuh, his long yellow robes, his bare ankles just under the hem. The bee took flight.

Then the bee was gone. Shan Tzu faltered, nearly stumbled, groping to find it. He yelped when it stung him on his ass.

His classmates snickered when he jumped. He looked up briefly to see Mo Shuh droning on as if nothing had happened. Beside him blind Master Yi held the purple sashes. It seemed to Shan the blind man was looking right at him with a slight smile playing on his mottled lips.

Mo Shuh at last fell silent, then stepped forward to present each student, one by one, with a purple sash.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

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Unproven
Min Lee pulled the bowstring back to full draw, concentrating on his target, a blackened X scrawled on a dead oak tree some fifty yards from the door of his hovel. He had worked on the bow for months, learning patience in his first two failed attempts. Lacking the tools of Master Ong’s workshop, with only his knife to work with, this bow was long in coming. Read more…

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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.”

“…the reward…”

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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Serpent
Tangled Webs
Unproven

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