The Witch Nichang– Chapter 54
We actually left like that, without any hesitation.
The steward Dong Sun only managed to call “chief” once as she chased after us, but how could she possibly catch up to us? What she got in reply was an answer carried by wind to her: “I was almost done with them. You can finish up the rest. I’ll leave the stronghold to you guys while I’m away. If something urgent happens, just do like we did before.”
Lian’er didn’t even turn her head around when she said that. Rather, I was the one who glanced back as we hurried away and saw from a distance that she was frowning. The displeasure I had before receded, and then I felt a little sorry for her because, after all, she was just being loyal.
Despite that, I had to let her know that it was better to get rid of those unrealistic ideas. Even if Lian Nichang is a phoenix, she is one that glides freely in the sky, never one that willingly stays in the depth of a shrine. Probably no woman in this world is as unrestrained as her. Just because she is willing to stop for someone doesn’t mean that anyone can keep her. Besides, no one knows better than me about what will happen in the future and how this story will go, even though I don’t remember the details.
Lian Nichang is just a legend, not a historical fact. I don’t want her to get swept up by the wave of history. It will be too late to regret it when she gets swallowed up in it.
She just has to live a carefree and peaceful life.
We were on the road for the next few days. It would normally take about ten days to travel from Mount Dingjun to Mount Hua, but Lian’er and I were traveling light. We skipped the main road and took the shortcut through the mountains. Because Lian’er was fast with her qinggong, if she had been traveling alone, it would have taken her less than four days to arrive, but since there was me dragging her down, it took us two more days. The good thing was the journey was fun and relaxed; it had been a while since we experienced life in the wild.
The journey passed like that, and we finally arrived at the border of Mount Hua on the last day of September, a day before Winter Clothes Day.
It was getting dark when we reached Mount Hua’s border. We couldn’t stay at the foot of the mountain for too long, so we continued up the mountain in the dark. The path going up Mount Hua was perilous, but fortunately, we knew the way very well like it was our own backyard, so nothing could go wrong.
Under the starry sky, I could see a cavernous cave from afar. Above it, the three big characters of Yellow Dragon Cave reflected the cold moonlight. Out of the blue, emotions swelled in my chest. I halted and looked ahead. For a moment, I was hesitant to go close.
Lian’er, who was next to me, stopped too. She looked at me first and then went over alone without saying anything, moving away the branches in front of the cave that were used to block the entrance from animals. After it was clear, she dusted off her hands and turned back to me.
“Welcome back,” she said, smiling.
I felt a pang of sadness, but still I lifted my lips, forcing myself to smile, walk over and enter the cave with her.
When I stepped inside the cave, it was so dark that I couldn’t see my fingers, but this wasn’t a problem. To find something in the dark in this familiar space was easy for me, let alone Lian’er. After hearing a rustling sound in the dark, a lit candle appeared in our hand, its light shining on the rock walls around us.
I looked around as I walked inside with the candlelight. The furniture and tools remained in the same places, just the colors looked a little faded. As I brushed my fingers across them while passing by, I was flooded with emotion.
But as the time went by, a shred of doubt arose amidst the emotion.
When I came to the inner cave, the feeling of doubt got stronger. Since it had been empty for two years—even though the entrance had been blocked and it was difficult for animals to get in—I thought there should be some cobwebs or bugs or something like that around, or at least the place would be covered in a thick layer of dust, but it looked clean. I hadn’t gotten much dust on my hand after touching the furniture. I looked at my hand and said questioningly, “Lian’er, has anyone been here while you were away? How come the cave is so clean? Like it had been cleaned up recently?”
At that moment, she was looking down and sticking her candle into the candlestick on the table. She turned around upon hearing that and rolled her eyes at me.
“Who else could it be? I come back and stay here two or three times every year. Unlike someone who hasn’t even come back once.” She said, pouting.
I was startled for a moment and was about to ask her why, but on second thought, the reason she came back every year was probably to visit Master’s grave and pay respects to her. I felt sorry at that moment and didn’t know what to say, so I murmured, “…Thanks.”
“Thanks? Thanks what?” I didn’t expect this would make her laugh. After she was done with the candle, she picked up the vellum on the table and waved it at me before saying, “What’s there to thank for waiting for someone. I was afraid that you wouldn’t know what had happened when you came back. That’s why I came back to have a look from time to time. I didn’t expect that I would end up catching you halfway and that this would just be a waste of time.” With that, she flicked her fingers, sending the thin vellum over.
She gave it to me because she wanted me to read it. I caught it and spread it out in the candlelight. There were only three characters scribbled on the yellowish brown vellum—Mount Dingjun. After giving it a little thought, I knew that this was a clue Lian’er left. Realizing I was wrong before, I couldn’t help but feel warm in my heart.
After that, I spent some time tidying up. Since it was late, we both tacitly didn’t bring up anything else, just cleaning up the space between the beds. After taking out the blankets and sheets from the camphor wood chest and making the beds, we took off our cloaks and robes and were ready to rest for the night.
Lying on the nostalgic stone bed, fatigue sank in. When I was about to blow out the candle, I saw Lian’er. In her gown, she was standing barefoot with her blanket in her arms, staring at me without saying anything. She seemed a little angry but also aggrieved.
“What’s wrong?” Before I considered what was making this little daredevil unhappy, I quickly got up and sat her down to get her feet off of the cold ground.
“Tell me if there’s anything. The weather is so cold, why are you standing like that? Aren’t you afraid of catching a cold!”
She was sulking, so she ignored me. After listening to what I had to say, she scooched in and threw her blanket on the bed.
“I want to sleep here,” she said grumpily. Then she went ahead and settled down comfortably.
I was confused. It threw me off when I saw her lying so close. We had been sleeping on our own beds for all the years we had lived together. Even back in the stronghold, she asked someone to set up another bed. How come she acted so strangely now that we were back to Yellow Dragon Cave?
I hesitated for a moment but still decided to reach out and nudge her. I could feel her warmth even through the gown. It was warm and soft. I retracted my hand right after giving her a nudge and said, clearing my throat, “Lian’er, what’s going on? Why do you want to…sleep with me all of a sudden?”
She was facing the wall with her back to me. “Who wants to sleep with you. No one was sleeping on this bed after you left, so I’ve been sleeping in this bed since a few years ago. Don’t you dare make me settle for that tiny little bench now,” she said with a snort.
When I heard what she said, something occurred to me. I looked at the person next to me, and then at the long stone bench. Finally, I realized what the problem was. There were only two beds when Master and I first fixed this cave up. That long bench wasn’t meant for that purpose. It was after we had Lian’er that we made it into a bed for her to sleep in at night. She was young at that time, and the stone bench was long and wide, so there wasn’t any problem using it as a bed after putting on some bedding, but now…
But now she has grown up into a tall lady. That long bench was no longer suitable to be her resting place.
That’s careless of me, I thought to myself. At that moment, I couldn’t care about being shy and got up on my knees on the bed. I first nudged her up a little and moved the pillow below her head. Then I spread out the blanket that she just draped over herself and tucked her in nicely. After I was finished, I reached out to snuff out the candle on the table. I bent over and patted her, saying softly in her ear, “Then have a good rest. We had a long trip today.”
She must have been still angry about me neglecting her earlier, so she just let me do everything without saying anything. It was only now that she replied with a barely audible “Mm.” Maybe she was tired. Her breathing turned soft and even soon after that.
But I, lying beside her in the dark, started to become uncomfortable. Although my eyes felt heavy, I couldn’t sleep, but I didn’t dare to turn either because I remembered Lian’er was extremely alert even when resting. In desperation, I forced myself to focus on the rhythmic breathing beside me. It took a long time before I drifted into slumber.
In the middle of the night, something pressed up against me. It was soft and warm. I was startled awake. I couldn’t push her away, so I could only listen to her muttering in her sleep with a wry smile as I stayed stiff in place, wondering what she was saying.
After a night of torment, I felt dizzy and nauseous the next day when I got up.
In contrast, Lian’er woke up refreshed. She was up early in the morning, and when she came into the cave and saw me sitting on the edge of the bed looking pale, she laughed at me. I smiled too, having no desire to argue with her. I went and washed up by the creek outside the cave. After taking some time to sort myself out, I felt I looked much better. Shaking off the chilly water on my hands, I turned around and saw Lian’er was on a big tree not far away. She was sitting on the tree branch boredly, swinging her legs, and looking at me. When she saw me turn around, she smiled and asked, “What’s our plan for today?”
It had been two years since anyone lived here. There was actually a lot to do, like getting groceries from town, doing laundry, fetching water, and hunting, all sorts of chores, but obviously, these weren’t the first priority.
“Let’s go see Master first. Where is she buried?” I wiped my hands dry and straightened my clothes, saying seriously, “Today’s the first of October. Even though we’re not well prepared now, we should go visit her grave and greet her first. It’s never too late to buy the other stuff later.”
However, the young lady continued to sit on her tree in the sun-dappled shade, smiling. She responded with an “oh” and then shook her head.
“But I didn’t bury Master, so there’s no such thing like a grave,” she said innocently.