The Witch Nichang– Chapter 50
In the Forest
I woke up from my sleep with sunlight shining into the room. It felt strange for a moment because it was silent. It was a peace and quiet I never had over the years I was away, whether I lived in a village in the countryside or rested at a postal station along my journey.
It had been a while since I felt so peaceful, as if I was in the middle of the forest, away from people.
I still felt a little groggy when I got up. I stared at the simple and unfamiliar furnishings of the room and the tranquil greenery outside the window before I was fully awake. Then I remembered that although this place wasn’t that far away from town, it was indeed in the middle of the forest.
This was Lian’er’s room.
I knew that because that was what she said at that time.
At that time, there wasn’t much going through my mind–it was as empty as a blank slate. I just wanted to tell her that I’m back and won’t leave anymore. That was what she asked for back then. It was an answer I owed her.
She nodded then and said, “good”.
It was only after that conversation that we were truly reunited.
Then I was interrupted.
I was ashamed to say that I had put everything out of my mind because I was too focused before. When people around us started clamouring, I realised it wasn’t the time and place to pour out my heart.
Those opponents of Lian’er—probably because they got away in one piece despite the turn of events—were still in shock. They were hushed for a moment. When they wrapped their heads around a few moments later, they took up the fight again, especially Geng Shaonan. I guessed he couldn’t stand being played with because of his pride. Even though he knew he was no match for Lian’er, he lifted his sword to fight nonetheless, disregarding his own life. Fortunately, Wang Zhaoxi stopped him. Although his other brothers had better judgement than him, their chests were heaving while they were standing at the side in silence, their eyes bursting with anger towards Lian’er.
Lian’er glanced at them impatiently and then looked at me. She turned her head and called. One of the ladies responded and came forward. Then Lian’er told her, “Bring her to the back, to my room.” The lady was startled when she heard that. She looked at me hesitantly before nodding.
After she nodded, Lian’er looked back at me and said, “There’s a balm in a jade bottle in the hidden compartment at the bedside. Take care of that wound on your hand with it and take some rest.”
She was acting like usual, without the slightest sentiment of reunion. Apart from the moment where her eyes lit up when she said “good,” her attitude was no different from her usual attitude during our days in Mount Hua when she asked me to make food after she was back from hunting.
Although I couldn’t act as nonchalant as her, I knew now wasn’t a good time to talk. Besides, my hand was throbbing with pain, so I took her suggestion. But I didn’t forget what I wanted to do. Before I left, I whispered in her ear, “Although what Geng Shaonan did was detestable, he’s got his lesson. I caught a cold on the road before, and they looked after me during the two days I was with them. Let’s just call it off, shall we?”
I knew giving her a lecture now wouldn’t do any good, so I tried to relate myself to them. It wasn’t entirely a lie though. Lian’er didn’t answer me directly. She just rolled her eyes and harrumphed, “You always like to meddle in other people’s business. Does your hand not hurt?” With that, she reached out and pushed me to the lady behind her. Then she added, “Remember, the jade bottle. Don’t get the wrong one or you’ll be in trouble.”
If others heard her dance around a question like this, they would have thought I failed to convince her and it was a no-go, but how could I not know her. I smiled and took one last look at her before leaving with the lady with a light heart.
After that, when did I fall asleep?
At that point, I raised my hand unconsciously and looked at the dressing on my palm. When the lady asked if I needed help, I obviously declined her offer and took care of it myself, but these layers of dressing were too meticulous and nice. Clearly, it wasn’t how it looked like when I wrapped it myself with one hand.
Although I wasn’t a master, I think I still was quite vigilant, and considering that the matter was something like dressing my wounds, there was only one person who could have done that without waking me up.
Did Lian’er come back last night? Then why did she leave again without saying anything?
It was already late when everything happened yesterday. Shortly after I came to this room and took care of my wound, it got dark outside. When it was time to light the lamp, Lian’er still hadn’t come back. I don’t know if she had set any rules. There was no one around the house, and it wasn’t a good idea to roam around by myself either. Fortunately, although the room interior was simple, everything I needed was there. I poured myself some hot tea and drank two cups of it as I looked around the room. I was tired, after all. It wasn’t long before fatigue kicked in, and I drifted off as soon as I lay on the bed.
So…could it be that I had unknowingly occupied her place, so she had nowhere to rest and had to look for another place?
As I thought to myself, anger started to build in me. I shook my head, trying to stop myself from thinking too much, trying to shake this displeasure that came out of nowhere out of my mind. Then I got up and cleaned up. Maybe they heard the sound from inside. A voice came from outside. “Miss, are you awake? Do you need to wash up?”
I opened the door when I heard that. Two ladies were standing outside, one tall and one short. They were foreign faces dressed like soldiers, with toiletries and a basin of warm water in hand. I quickly let them in. They were setting things up with ease and familiarity. It didn’t take them long to put everything in order. I couldn’t help but wonder, did Lian’er begin to put on airs and ask people to serve her after she came down the mountain?
But this doubt soon dissipated because after the short lady was done, she couldn’t help looking around.
“So this is what it looks like inside the chief’s room. It’s my first time seeing it. I thought it would be different.” She said, smiling.
“Lyu’er!” Apparently, the tall lady was more serious. She glared at her and bowed at me.
“Pardon us. She’s still young and hasn’t learned her manners yet.”
I was washing up when they talked. Hearing them, I picked up the pace and quickly finished up before looking up and smiled.
“It’s okay. I’m not particular about that. Anyway, Lian…your chief, why didn’t she come back yesterday? What’s she up to?” I said.
“Right, we were very busy yesterday. The chief invited a bunch of brutes, making pacts and forming alliances. Beside that, we had to watch out for vermin among them and get rid of them. Of course, we worked until midnight.” The short lady cut in as she smiled. When she noticed her partner was glaring at her, she said to her plainly, “What’re you doing staring at me? The chief said it herself there’s no need to be careful with her, just treat her like our own.”
It was easier to get along with straightforward and lively kids. After hearing what she said, I smiled. I stopped mincing my words and cut to the chase.
“Where’s your chief now? Can you take me to her if that’s alright?” I asked.
She could be nonchalant about our reunion, but I couldn’t. The feeling of wanting to see her kept growing over the night. Besides, after hearing what she was busy with, I could only stop worrying by being by her side. Otherwise, who knew if this little daredevil would stir up any trouble?
“Um…the chief would do her sword training first thing in the morning. Why don’t you have your breakfast first, Miss?” Since she couldn’t stop her partner, the tall lady just continued.
“The chief should be here when you’re done with breakfast.” She said as she cupped her fist.
I knew about that, so I answered, “It’s alright. Just take me to her. I can wait until she finishes with her training and have breakfast together after that.”
“Eh? How did you know our chief hasn’t had breakfast?” The short lady looked at me, blinking, looking curious.
I smiled frankly and said, “The day starts with what you do in the morning. Training at sunrise is what she’s been doing for many years even without the crow of the rooster. I guess it’s become a habit.”
With that, we went out and down. I noticed on my way here yesterday that the back of the stronghold was the living area. Compared to the front of the stronghold, where it was heavily guarded and sentries were everywhere, this place seemed to be much more peaceful. Plus, the people who lived here were all girls, so the place was neat and well-organised. It even had its own style. Only Lian’er’s house was far away from all these at the farthest end, in the midst of a forest, surrounded only by the rusting of the forest trees and chirps of insects and birds.
I was following the two ladies. The further we travelled, the more remote it became. We were heading down and away from the forest, into a bamboo forest. The canes were slender and tall, unlike thick and lush sun-blocking trees. Faint rays of sunlight shone through the sparse bamboo leaves and dappled shadows on the ground.
Shortly after entering the bamboo forest, the two ladies stopped. They bowed and gestured me to go ahead.
I went in alone. When I went a little further into the forest, I heard a familiar sound. That was the hum of a sharp blade slicing through the air. It was sometimes fast, sometimes slow, forming its rhythm. It sounded melodious and soft like music when slow, deafening like thunder when fast. The scenery changed as I continued. Between the bamboos, there was a dancing girl.
This dance was unlike any other dance. It was as graceful and elegant as other dances, but as it moved, it could take lives and claim souls. Luckily, it was all too familiar for me. Instead of feeling frightened, I felt at home. With my interest piqued, I stood at the side and watched this nostalgic scene.
She should have noticed me, but she didn’t stop. Not only did she not stop, she got even closer after a few moves. Suddenly, she flicked her wrist, and her sword came thrusting at me.
Although the strike was a surprise attack, she didn’t go all out on me. I easily dodged it and caught her sword with two fingers like how I did it yesterday. When I looked into her eyes, I understood what she wanted to do. Without saying anything, I jumped into the battleground, and the two of us fought.
We used to do this a lot back when we were in Mount Hua, either to play or to spar. Every time we fought, every time our eyes met, they were mostly happy memories, except…the last fight.
At that time, I was trapped in my own world, afraid to look at her.
The panic and uncertainty back then had been worn away with time. Although my feelings for her were still there, at least I learned that it was useless to run away. Besides, now was the time when Lian Nichang needed me by her side.
The future was uncertain. Let’s put the rest aside for now. I made up my mind and felt calm. The flow of my moves, both attack and defence, were smooth like the flowing river. Lian’er was holding back. Every time, she stopped short before her sword got me. I could even see her smile when her hair lifted as the wind blew past.
I thought to myself I might also be smiling right now. True feelings always showed on your face without you knowing.
After ten more moves, Lian’er swung and jumped away without warning, returning her sword to its sheath. Of course, I wouldn’t go after her. I immediately drew back my sword, let out a long breath and wiped my forehead. Maybe I hadn’t had such a spar for a long time, I was sweating a little.
“You’re rusty.” She came over holding her sword. When she saw what I did, she smiled smugly and said, “If I get serious, you won’t survive a hundred moves from me, let alone win.”
“I never wanted to win either.” I replied frankly. When I saw her approaching, I pulled her over out of reflex and smoothed out her slightly dishevelled clothes. Even after all these years, I couldn’t break this habit that I had taken on over time. I did it so naturally, but she was also happy to let me do it, splaying out her arms to make it easier for me to fix it.
“Right, Lian’er…” As I was doing my thing, I spoke, wanting to say something.
But her eyes, which were half-closed with delight, opened. “Shh—” She looked down and said to me seriously, “My men are coming. Don’t call me Lian’er in front of others. It sounds childish, not at all respectable.”
“Pfft, then what should I call you?” This made me laugh. I raised my eyebrows and teased her.
“Should I call you ‘Miss Lian’ like others? Chief Lian? Jade Rakshasa? Or like how your men call you, Lady? Which one do you prefer, mm?” I said.
My teasing made her frown. Her face darkened and said, “Neither one is good. Others can call me those, but you can’t. It all sounds cringy. We haven’t talked about the fact that you hid in the crowd and fooled me. If you tease me again, I won’t let you off so easily!”
“Alright, alright. If it’s cringy, I won’t call you that, that’s it.” I paused knowing that this sensitive girl was still fussing about what happened before, but I couldn’t resist my curiosity and asked, “I felt like I’d done a pretty good job in hiding. There were so many people, when did you notice me?” This kid was good at everything, except she wasn’t particularly observant. I was a little surprised that she didn’t seem surprised when we met this time.
Such a question was met with the expected glare. “You’d done well hiding. I can’t believe you avoided me. If it wasn’t for the fact that Wang Zhaoxi said there’s someone in the group whose martial art style was similar to mine and asked if you’re a spy that I sent after returning to the stronghold, I was almost fooled by you. You avoided me, and yet now you’re asking for mercy for those losers from Wudang. Hmph!” She said, disgruntled.
She was getting angrier the more she spoke, close to calling me a bad guy. In the end, she snorted and turned her head away, ignoring me. But what she said made my heart soften. After all these years, we could still talk as if we had never been separated. Not to say she was just grumbling, even if she was raging at me, I would be happy to listen to her.
But I still had to cheer her up. “I didn’t do that on purpose. At that time, all I could think about was going back to Mount Hua to see you. Who knew you would show up halfway at the inn under that unexpected name. How could I not be surprised and stumped?” I put my hand on her shoulder and tugged at her lightly. When I saw she was still ignoring me, her lips still pursed, I continued to explain, saying softly, “About those losers from Wudang, since they insulted Master, of course, they should have been taught a lesson, but they’re not wicked people, after all, and I also know them. Let’s just let it pass after giving them a lesson. Give them a second chance…”
As I spoke, a question suddenly came to my mind. This question had been at the back of my mind since I saw her last night. It was just that I didn’t have the chance to bring it up.
Since I remembered it now, I asked her while I was at it to clear my doubt. “By the way, why did you end up here alone? I heard you went down the mountain two years ago. What happened? Where’s Master?”
As soon as I said that, I felt the shoulder under my hand stiffen.
At that moment, a voice came from afar outside of the bamboo forest.
“Chief, the old man’s here.”