email: dreamsmoke [at] gmail.com
After two long weeks of walking through the Xue Long mountains, crossing over from its northern face and down its southern pass, any sign of civilisation, however small, was a more than welcome sight.
Some, however, were less welcome than others.
As the first glimmers of the sun began to dispel the morning mist, a young woman came to a stop at the edge of the forest, seated herself on a convenient rock, and considered the scene below.
The village sat in a dip not quite deep or narrow enough to be called a valley, a narrow river twisting its way south and east past it. It was as small as the travelling herbalist had described, a low wall surrounding the grass thatched houses and animal pens, with small green fields stretched beyond it.
What the herbalist hadn't mentioned, however, were the black, still-smouldering ruins of burnt houses, the apparent absence of the villagers, or the unnatural stillness that lay over the empty fields.
She watched as a man came out of a house and made his way to one of the stables. This far, it was hard to make out any real details, but one point - the sabre strapped to his back - was clear enough. Not a farmer. And an armed man in a burnt and seemingly empty village would not be alone.
Roufeng's stomach growled, and she heaved a deep sigh. She'd woken up early in high hopes of finally having something other than soggy buns for breakfast, and what did she find?
Nothing but trouble.
Then she stood, dusted herself off and stretched.
"At least it'll be more interesting than walking," she said.
The bandits came in the night, descending on the sleeping village in a hail of arrows and fire, shouts and clashing steel. Xin jerked out of sleep at the first strangled scream, and rolled out of the bed she shared with her two sisters.
"Wake up!" she hissed, grabbing Mei by the shoulder.
"Stop kicking," Min had mumbled, before Xin yanked the blankets off and dislodged her. She was still complaining blearily when the door to their house slammed open and firelight glinted off the steel blade of the man standing in the doorway.
Father was already on his feet. He yelled at all of them, "Run!" and lunged at the man.
Mei screamed, shrill and awful, but Xin and Min had already swept her up and sprinted for the window in the back. They all but threw her outside, Xin scrambling after her. She caught Chun as he tumbled out, and then her mother's pale face appeared in the window.
In the house, Zhao had disobeyed Father's order and followed him, only for the armed man to send him crashing into the table. Father roared, swinging his hunting spear, and the man's sabre knocked it aside, swept back to dig deep into his arm. He howled and crumpled to his knees--
"Father!" Xin screamed as the attacker pressed his blade to the older man's throat.
He looked at the terrified women at the window, the boy trying to drag himself back to his feet. Setting his foot on Father's injured shoulder, he said, "Don't want to see him die? Get back in here."
"Damn you," Father snarled. "Ke Xin, don't listen to him, take the children and--" The man kicked his wound and he doubled over with a choked howl.
"No! Don't touch him!"
Mother gripped Xin's hand, gave her a long look, and turned away from the window.
"You brute! How could you attack an unarmed boy? What do do you want from us?" Min started shouting as she ran to help Zhao up, and Mother hurried towards Father, her own voice rising in worry.
Under cover of the noise, Xin hissed, "Chun, Mei! Be quiet and run into the forest as fast as you can. Chun, take care of Mei, understand?"
In the chaos and darkness, the man might not have noticed how many of them there were. If the two youngest could escape, at least that would be better than none at all.
Mei trembled, and Chun reached to take her hand. "Good boy," Xin whispered and then climbed back in before the man could wonder what was taking her so long. For a moment, she stood by the window - would he ask where the other children were? Did he know? But his eyes flickered over her with no visible interest.
Mother wrapped Father's still bleeding shoulder hastily with bandages and then they were forced to leave. Outside, Xin tasted smoke in the air, and the Hu family's house was burning. In the light of the fire, she saw more armed men moving among the houses, jostling and driving the villagers into what passed for the centre.
A burly, bearded man dressed in red had seated himself on old Wang's cart, watching the tangle as the bandits divided the men from the women and children. When one of the men approached him with a murmured report, he nodded and finally stood. Xin's eyes widened as he hefted a huge, long-handled axe to his shoulder, the movement as easy as if he barely felt the weight.
"Let me introduce myself," he said. He spoke their Yuezhou dialect with a heavy accent, but the words were clear enough. "My name is Se Zhang. Don't worry, we're not demanding men," he said. "We've come a long way, and my men are tired. A little hospitality, a little rest, and it'll be like we were never here at all."
His smile was a nasty baring of teeth, and Xin felt a shiver run down her spine.
"W-we're under Guan Tong's protection," Shen, the closest thing the village had to a headman, called out from the crowd. "He won't let you get away with this!"
The bandit's leader stepped off the cart and strolled across the village center to where the men had been gathered. Without a whisper of warning, he spun his axe over his head so quickly it blurred in the firelight and slammed it into the earth with a noise like thunder, a hair's breath away from Shen's foot. Shen staggered back, gaping.
"This Guan Tong..." he said thoughtfully. "Tall fellow? Not much hair? Waves a sword he thinks he knows how to use? Screams like a pig when you cut his fingers off?"
A low, shocked murmur rippled through the villagers. No one had liked Guan Tong and his men, but he had been a necessary evil they trusted to leave them alone so long as they paid him what they could.
The man cocked his head to the side. "Sound familiar? We didn't bother stopping to ask for names."
When no one dared to answer, he picked up his axe and said, "Nothing to say to that, huh. Since we're in agreement, I'm sure there'll be no trouble."
The village men were shoved, kicked, and prodded towards the houses on the west side of the village. Se Zhang watched them leave, then swung his axe over his shoulder, sliding it with an easy move until it was strapped to his back. He leaned back against the cart and looked at the remaining women and children, gathered into a tight huddle of fear.
"If you're getting funny ideas, remember where your husbands and fathers and sons are right now. Think of it this way - the happier my men are, the less they'll try to take it out on any of you. So try to behave yourselves, eh?"
The children and older women were taken and shut away in a separate house from the men, even as the rest were ordered to tidy and lay down bedding in houses for the rest of the bandits, bring food and tea and wine, provide feed for their few horses. Running to and fro, fetching and carrying, exhaustion clouded Xin's mind until she could almost forget what she was doing, or why she was doing it.
When morning crept over them, Xin was crossing the village, an armed man trailing after her, in search for more fuel for the kitchen fire. She finally found a stash of charcoal at the back of Lu's house, and slung a load of it on her back.
Making their way back, Xin was passing the back of Tong's house when a movement out of the corner of her eye made her turn to the window--
And meet the bright, surprised eyes of a girl she'd never seen before, midway in the act of investigating the contents of a pot by the firepit.
In her shock, Xin dropped her load with a crash. The man behind her jumped back at the noise, saw the girl and swore, even as, faster than Xin would have thought possible, the girl dropped the lid back on the pot, pivoted on her heel and sprinted for the door.
Still swearing, the man ran and Xin followed him. She rounded the corner of the house just in time to see the girl sidestep the man before he could grab hold of her, and make for the narrow space between the houses - straight for her. Xin stiffened, braced for collision, but the girl leapt sideways, her feet striking the wall as easily as if it was level ground, carrying her over Xin's head--
Xin spun, mouth open in wonder, and watched her land, leaf-light. The girl glanced back and seemed to flash her a grin over her shoulder - and ran. The man shoved Xin aside, but at that speed, even she could see he would be too late to catch the intruder.
And then a flock of chickens ran into the girl's path, squawking and flapping.
The girl yelped and tried to skid to a stop, throwing her arms back. She ended up vaulting over the birds to sprawl gracelessly on the ground. Unfortunately, her pursuer had no such qualms. He kicked a screeching chicken out of his way to swing the point of his spear down to jab her between her shoulderblades.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" he demanded. Behind her, Xin could hear footsteps and voices, as more men came in search of the outcry.
The girl elbowed herself up from the ground and regarded the chickens with a glum air.
"Just a passing traveller?" she said.
Mei's hand gripped tightly in his own, Chun ran from the village, making for the river and following it up into the forests above. Fire lit the night sky, but here on the eastern side of the village, it was dark enough that no one saw them go.
Screams and shouts followed them out of the chaos, and Chun couldn't stop looking back with every other step, desperately hoping to see someone - anyone - following them. Mei tugged on his hand even as she struggled to keep up.
"Mother! Father! Xiao Ge, where--"
"They'll come later!" he whispered, and tried not to wonder whether this was true.
He couldn't stop, he couldn't cry - he had to take care of Mei.
In the darkness, far from the paths and tracks they knew by daylight, they tripped and stumbled over the uneven ground, running ever higher up the mountain. The river was their only guide.
How long did they run? Chun didn't know, only that at some point, he tripped over yet another loose stone and fell, and beside him, Mei began to cry, and he was so tired it felt like he would never be able to get up again.
They huddled in the scant shelter of a gathering of small trees and bushes.
"Be good, be good," he murmured, trying to soothe her tears. In the end, she fell asleep, and he listened to the sounds of the forest around them - the wind in the trees, the splash of the river, the distant calls of birds and animals he couldn't name.
He tried to stay awake, on guard for sounds of pursuit or help, but the forest's peace was a soothing promise, and it had been a long, hard night--
Chun woke to sunlight in his eyes and hard ground under him.
"Mei!" he said and sat up, only to push her off by mistake.
"Xiaoge?" She rubbed her eyes and looked around them. They were alone. "Mother? Father? Where's everyone?"
"I... I think the bandits caught them," he said.
He thought she'd cry again, but all she said was, "What... what do we do now?"
"I don't know," he said, miserable. They couldn't save everyone from the bandits by themselves. If they could get help - but the next village was two days' walk away, and Chun didn't know how to get there.
Maybe if they waited, the bandits would go away again. Their village was so small, the bandits might look for a bigger one soon.
"Come on, let's get a drink first," he said. They splashed their faces and drank from the river, and Chun looked around the forest. If only they had some food...
"Xiao Ge!" Mei said suddenly. "Look!"
He turned to where she was pointing and froze in horror. A tall, dark figure was moving through the trees towards them. As it drew closer, Chun saw that it was a man dressed in plain, deep blue robes, long hair tied loosely back - and that he carried two weapons strapped to his back, and one on his waist.
"Mei!" he said, and reached to grab her. "He's a bandit! Run!"
"I really am very sorry," the strange girl said, and rubbed at the ugly bruise on her cheek
Having ascertained that their unwelcome visitor was no threat, Se Zhang had laughed long and hard, then set five more men to watch the village borders against more "unexpected guests". The girl was now shut up with all the women and children, with three men to watch over them. The rest had disappeared, to rest or do whatever it was bandits did during the day.
Xin watched her with wary bemusement - for a penniless wanderer who'd just had the very bad luck to be captured by bandits, she seemed strangely unconcerned about her predicament.
Wu San, who was seated on a stool near them, huffed. "Serves you right for trying to steal," she said. "What's your name, girl?"
"Roufeng," the girl said.
"Your Yuezhou hua is even worse than those barbarians," the old woman observed. "Where are you from?"
"Ahaha, is it that bad? I thought I was getting better! I'm from Dongan province in the north east."
Roufeng's eyes wandered over the cramped house, and she asked, "They attacked last night, didn't they?"
Startled, Min asked, "How did you know?"
"One of the houses looked like it was still burning when I saw the village."
"And you came anyway?" Xin said.
Roufeng looked embarrassed. "Ah. I didn't think I'd get captured..."
Wu San gave her a look of intense disbelief, then barked with laughter. "Not bad enough we've been overrun by barbarians, now a madwoman has to come join us," she said.
The girl laughed, and Xin wondered about her age. She had to be a few years older than her, but she had the easy humour of someone much younger - or older.
"How many men do they have?" Roufeng asked.
"More than twenty," said one of the girls. "I heard them talking. They said if they take some of the boys, they'll have more than thirty and could attack the towns in the valley."
"Five guards," someone else added.
Watching closely, Xin thought she saw, rather than heard, her murmur, "Thirty..." She looked contemplative, then made a face. "Better not."
Xin looked at the strange girl, in her robes that looked the worse for wear, her hair messily bound back. She thought of the way she'd run, that flash of lightning grace. Had it only been her imagination? But a village full of bandits seemed no more fearsome to her than the unlucky flock of chickens that had led to her capture.
"Who are you?" she asked again.
The girl cocked her head. "Didn't I say already? I'm just a passing wanderer."
"You're lying," Xin said, very quiet.
For a moment, she was shocked at her own rudeness - but the girl didn't get angry, only gave her a secret smile.
"I really have been wandering all over Zhong," she said. "Do you want me to tell you about the provinces I've seen? I'm no one in particular - though there are some who might not agree."
There was a hint in the words, if Xin could only understand them. She swallowed. "Can you help us?" she finally said.
It was an impossible thing to ask for, but after all, what else did they have to lose? The village was too small, too remote, to hope the officials in the nearest town would send guards to drive the bandits out, even if they could get the news. Any neighbouring villages were just as small and helpless as their own - if they had not been attacked already.
Right now, it seemed, a mad, fearless wanderer was all they had.
"Heh," the girl said. "It's a bit more difficult than I planned on. But it's not like I can leave you all here like this."
Leaning over, she tapped a finger on the dirt floor. "Can anyone draw me a map of the village?" she asked.
The too-long day was finally fading into evening by the time Chun caught the first glimpse of the village through the trees. The setting sun painted the fields and houses in warm gold, and looking down at the quiet scene below, Chun could almost believe that the bandits were gone.
The tall, dark man, who had accompanied the two children back, paused and said, "There are guards."
A bandit stood leaning against the village gate, so still Chun hadn't noticed he was there. Closer by, another was pacing at almost the edge of the forest itself, swinging his spear in wide, sweeping arcs around him as he walked.
Chun looked at the man, uncertain. When they fled from him, he had put down his weapons and followed. He was a wanderer, he said, and when they'd told him about the bandits in the village, he'd promised to help. But what could one man do? Perhaps if they waited until it was dark, they could sneak in and free everyone?
He seemed to have other plans, though.
"The two of you need to hide," he said to Mei and Chun. "It's too dangerous for you to come with me."
For a moment, Chun wanted to protest - they wanted to see if everyone was okay! But he knew the man was right.
"Come on, Mei," he said.
Instead of turning back into the woods, he knelt. Mei set her foot in his cupped hands and he threw her up into the branches of the tree above like they'd done a hundred times before, where she clung with the dexterity of a small monkey. Less easily than his sister, he too scrambled up into the shelter of the trees.
The man watched them as they climbed higher into the branches. Mei leaned over, her branch swaying under her weight and called, "Da Ge, be careful!"
Chun thought the man smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "I won't be alone."
Turning, he moved off through the trees, and they saw him pause at the edge of the forest. Then the man drew something from his robes and raised it to his lips - and the high, fluid notes of a flute filled the mountain air, piercing and clear. He paused, then played the same notes again.
As if the flute song had been a signal, Chun saw movement ripple through the village. The bandits had heard the song, and if they did not know what it meant, they knew that they were not alone.
The bored bandit with the spear who'd been prowling the forest's edge was the first to reach the man. High in the trees, his view blocked by leafy green branches, Chun couldn't see much, but he saw enough to know that when the two men met, it was the bandit who fell with a shing of steel against steel and a grunt of pain.
The man turned again - was he looking at them? And then he stepped out of the shelter of the forest and down the path to the village, even as another man ran to stop him.
The second man fell, almost as easily as the first, and Chun felt the small spark of hope within him unfurl into something bigger, fanned by the changing wind.
In answer, from the village below, came the raucous cry of a bird.
The evening sun slanted long and heavy through the small window.
Sitting back to the door, Roufeng was listening - to the murmurs and whispers of the women as they shifted amongst themselves and tried to get comfortable; the muffed protests of the children as they were hushed and silenced and told to be good; to the footsteps of the guard standing outside as he paced and grumbled.
There was another guard standing by the window at the back, who barely bothered to glance in at the women as he passed. And then maybe a third man, positioned somewhere in between them.
The footsteps beyond the door were growing quicker, more erratic, the young man outside almost dancing with impatience as boredom ate at him. The corner of her mouth curled as she listened. Impatience was easy to sympathise with, but at least he had the room to pace and turn somersaults, if he wanted. And she doubted he was as hungry.
Yawning, she thought about taking a nap. It wasn't dark yet--
Which was when the faint, high whisper of a flute made her jolt upright.
The others shifted too, looking up, curious.
"Did you hear that?"
"Maybe one of the bandits...?"
Roufeng stood and stretched her very stiff arms and legs, and they turned to look at her, surprised. She bowed to the old woman perched by the door.
"Madam Wu," she said with what she hoped was her most polite and charming smile. "I apologise for the trouble, but if you could lend me your stool for a moment? And kindly step away from the door."
The old woman frowned at her, all disapproval, but acquiesced. At her annoyed shooing, the girls and children closer to the door shifted back, while murmurs rose around the small house.
Roufeng hefted the stool in one hand thoughtfully, then thumped the door hard.
"What is it?" the man outside demanded.
"One of the women is ill!" she shouted. "She needs help! Please!" The two men beyond shifted, but she'd already turned away, her free hand snapping out - and through the window on the other side of the house, the guard froze, his eyes wide and uncomprehending, his voice trapped with the knife in his throat.
Heads turned to follow her movement and someone gasped, but the door was opening and there was no time for explanations.
She kicked the door wide open. The guard swore, startled, but too late - the stool swung up and his head snapped back with an audible crack even as she hooked a foot under his ankle and kicked his feet out from under him.
The second guard was reaching for his weapon - just as the stool hit him hard in the face.
Roufeng let out a breath and straightened. Three down. Picking up the stool, she returned it to Madam Wu, then leaned out of the door and looked around. It looked like no one had heard the disturbance yet, hopefully because they were occupied elsewhere. She grabbed the two crumpled bodies by their collars.
"Alright, don't just lie there," she said to them.
Movement beside her made her look up - two of the girls had followed her outside, looking nervous but determined. One of them nodded at Roufeng and reached for the second man's arm, and the other girl joined her. Together, they dragged the unconscious men to the back of the house, where the third lay dead.
Retrieving her knife and wiping the blood from it, she removed the bandit's weapons: a spear, a halberd, a sabre, and a motley handful of smaller knives.
Considering the inventory, she picked up the sabre. It was heavier than she would have liked, but she wasn't picky, and the spear and halberd would be easier for the women to use if they had to defend themselves. The two girls - the younger one had said her name was Xin, she remembered - were watching her warily, and she offered them their pick of the knives.
"I'll free the village men and draw the bandits' attention away from here," she said. "But you should hold on to these, in case they come to check on you."
"Is there anything we can do to help?" Xin asked as they lifted the weapons with uncertain care.
Roufeng glanced at her. "It'll be dangerous, you know," she said.
"At least it'll be better than waiting to be killed," the older girl whispered. A nasty cut traced her jaw, but the eyes that met Roufeng's told her she was angry enough to almost forget fear.
This would be easier with help, she knew.
"You should still give these to the others," she said, indicating the weapons. "I'll draw their attention away while you get to where the men are being kept, but try not to let anyone see you."
The two girls nodded, tense, and Roufeng smiled as she braced a foot on the wall.
"Don't worry," she said. "You're not alone."
Swinging up onto the roof of the neighbouring house, she crouched low. The map Xin's sister had drawn on the dirt floor had been crude, but the village was small; all she needed was the general idea.
Making her away across the grass-thatched roof, she jumped and crossed two more houses, moving westwards until she was near the center of the village. Below, she could hear men talking and arguing and running.
Which was when she stood, cupped her hands around her mouth and let out a loud rooster's crow.
Hands on her hips, she scanned the village - there. To the north, between the village and the forest above, a handful of bandits looked like they were busy with a skirmish.
An outraged yell made her look down and she gave the two men gaping at her a wide grin.
"Your friends look like they need some help out there!" she called, turned, and ran off the roof to land on the next.
Three roofs later, she found the houses the village men were imprisoned in. From the roof, she could see three men - maybe the other two were at the back. They were milling around, talking in low voices, and she took stock of their weapons, stepped back and then vaulted off the roof.
They looked up too late. The first went down with a kick to the back of his head and she rolled to her feet just fast enough to dodge as the second tried to pin her to the ground with his spear. She drew the sabre, whirling and ducking as the two men tried to attack front and back. They fought together well - too well, she decided, uncomfortably wedged between a spear she was holding off with her foot on the shaft and a halberd's curved blade she was holding off with the sabre at the back.
Kicking the man with the spear back, she whirled on the man with the halberd, throwing him off guard with a couple of wild swings and then surprising him by hurling the sabre straight at him. She spun just as the man with the spear made a stab at her and caught the shaft, the force of her spin ripping it out of his grip. Turning full circle, she stabbed him in the stomach and he crumpled with a howl. The man with the halberd roared, but their weapons had equal reach now and with her focus narrowed, it was easy for her to dodge, close in and drive the spear through his side.
A warning shout made her turn just as two more men rounded the corner. She threw the spear at the first, hitting him in the arm, and kicked the dead man's halberd into her grip. Knocking a forked spear aside, she slashed the man open from shoulder to hip but before he'd even fallen, a clank of metal made her swing the halberd back.
A sectioned chain whipped and wrapped itself around the curved steel head, nearly jerking it out of her hands. Not an easy weapon most bandits would have chosen, she thought, and released the shaft when the man yanked at the chain. It wasn't enough to throw his balance but his chain was tangled with the halberd and she could--
He gasped and jerked forward. Something had struck him from the back - and Roufeng blinked at the two girls standing over his body. The older girl stared at man slumped on the ground, drew a deep breath and reached a shaking, bloody hand for the dagger in the man's back, but Roufeng had already leaned over and plucked it out, wiping it clean.
"Hua," the younger girl whispered, looking as if she wanted to take her arm, but didn't dare. Hua took the dagger.
"Thank you," Roufeng said. She looked to the houses, where voices were beginning to rise in response to the noise outside, and said, "That should be all the guards. Quick, get the men out before the rest arrive."
She looked up at the sky. Night would be falling and fighting in the dark would do her more favours than it would the bandits, but she didn't really want to drag this out on an empty stomach.
Footsteps were pounding towards them, and she picked up the halberd again. Better head them off while the girls were still releasing the village men and getting them to safety.
Eight down, and how many left? Twenty, at a stretch, though she hoped it wasn't that bad.
Only one way to find out, then.
"Father! Zhao!" Xin threw the door open and scanned the room for their faces. The gathered men and boys turned towards her and looked stunned.
"Xin! What are you doing here? What's happening?" Shu, who was closest to the door, shot to his feet. "How's my mother? Are any of you hurt?"
"What's going on? What happened to the guards? We heard fighting--"
Xin!" Zhao's voice came from the back of the house, and she craned her neck to find him.
"Zhao! How's Father? Is his arm okay?"
"I'm fine!" her father called, but his voice was too weak to be as reassuring as he intended.
She looked at the gathered men, who were beginning to murmur and argue and scramble to their feet.
"Xin, your father's here. Hey, let her through so she can see him. But tell us what's happening! Is everyone alright?"
"We got rid of the guards! The bandits caught this... wanderer in the village, and she... she took care of the guards that were watching us and you! And I think she has friends - We need to get out now, quickly, before the bandits come back--"
"A wanderer? What? Who is it? Just one person got rid of all the guards?!"
The men made way for her to get to the back of the room, and she knelt by her father. Now that she had to try to explain things to everyone, it sounded more like a wild story than something she'd just seen happen.
Her father gave her a smile, but the bandage wrapped around his arm was thick and stiff with blood. She'd never seen him look so pale before.
"It's stopped bleeding," Zhao said. And he was still alive, but that was the most they could be sure of, right now.
"It doesn't hurt," her father said. "Don't worry about me. What about your mother and Min? And Chun and Mei?"
"They're okay, and Chun and Mei got away. Hua's letting out everyone in the Fan's house..."
Around her, the men were standing, moving, spilling outside in search of a purpose. Someone shouted over the bodies outside, and someone else shouted about weapons, about fighting back.
The men too hurt to be easily moved stayed put, a handful of the older men with them. Xin could have stayed too, but instead, she found herself outside again, pushing through the crowd, wondering where Roufeng had gone, how many more bandits she'd fought.
A scream came from the north of the village, and she ran towards it, half the men surging after her. She turned the corner of a house just as a familiar figure was sent flying through the air into a wall.
Six men already littered the ground, unconscious or dead, but three more were still standing.
Roufeng twisted mid-air to land feet-first against the wall and leap straight off it again. The tallest of them slashed at her with a long-handled broadsword and she deflected the blow with a foot on the flat of the blade, the force of it throwing her back. The three men closed in, looking menacing, but she'd already seen Xin and the village men behind her.
"Ah!" She ducked, hopped back and said, "And just when I was getting lonely too!"
The bandits turned at her disconcertingly cheerful expression, and the village men charged with a roar. Armed with a motley collection of the bandits' weapons and their own farm tools, what they lacked in skill, they more than made up for with force of numbers and a healthy sense of vengeance earned.
Xin watched from the sidelines, standing against a wall, as the bandits vanished under the men's onslaught.
"Seventeen," Roufeng observed from where she'd appeared beside her. "There shouldn't be too many of them left." There was a streak of blood on her cheek, and more on her robes, but it didn't look like any of it was hers.
She muttered something in a dialect Xin couldn't understand, then added, "This would be easier if I wasn't so hungry. But then, so's everyone else. Except for those bastards," she said, looking at the unconscious men lying sprawled around them.
Xin's sudden laugh surprised even herself. It seemed to shake right through her, relief and incredulous hope and utter terror rising up all at once, and she doubled over, wheezing for breath, not sure she knew how to stop. The older girl thumped her unhelpfully on the back until she subsided.
"If we're still alive afterwards," Xin said, "I'm sure everyone will be happy to feed you as much as you can eat."
"Deal!" Roufeng said. The village men had taken care of the three remaining bandits and were looking around, discussing plans to be made. A few of them were giving her wary looks, but she didn't seem to have noticed. "Better finish things then."
Xin blinked and found her gone. A rustle above made her look up to see the other girl standing balanced on the roof, silhouetted against the darkening sky. Then she started running and Xin tried to follow, even as she found herself lagging behind until she lost sight of her.
She was gasping for breath when she finally reached the center of the village and stopped.
Se Zhang was standing in the middle of the gathering ground, his back to Xin, axe resting on his shoulder. Before him stood a tall man in dark clothes, who held two sabres as he faced him. Bodies lay sprawled around him - Xin wasn't sure, but there had to be more than five of them.
She wasn't the only villager staring at the two men. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the other village men, and a few women, watching from between the houses, or out of the windows.
The silence between them was like the edge of a knife, sharp and waiting and deadly, and Xin swallowed.
Then the strange man looked up and called, "Are you staying up there all night?"
"You looked so busy, I didn't want to interrupt," Roufeng's voice came from a rooftop. Then she landed behind Se Zhang with a soft thud. "Took your time coming!"
"People who abandon their companions without even leaving a message," the man said, "are in no position to complain if their friends have trouble finding them afterwards."
"What, are you angry? It wasn't on purpose! I was coming back but then there were these chickens--"
At Roufeng's appearance, Se Zhang had half turned, so they stood on either side of him. Now, almost lazily, the burly man raised the axe from his shoulder with one hand, swung it over his head and brought it down on Wang's cart. It split cleanly into two with a loud, ominous crack, and then collapsed into a pile of splintered wood.
"Why don't the two of you finish your conversation later?" he said. "You'll have plenty of time once you're dead."
The stranger reached for something at his hip and tossed it, spinning in a high arc over their heads to Roufeng, who caught it in an outstretched hand.
"And you forgot your sword, you idiot," he said.
"I already said it wasn't on purpose! Hey," she said to Se Zhang, "Two against one is pretty unfair. You can pick one of us. If you win, we'll let you go, how about it?"
Se Zhang stared at her, eyes narrowed. Then he threw his head back with a laugh that was almost a roar, his mirth genuine.
"Cocky brat, aren't you?" he said. "You think because you beat my men so easily, I'm the same as them?"
"I wouldn't say it was that easy," Roufeng said. "You trained them well."
"Obviously not well enough," Se Zhang said, with a contemptuous glare at his former subordinates.
"You don't have to be that hard on them," Roufeng said.
"Yes? You have a point--"
In a blink, the distance between them vanished, Se Zhang's axe cutting the air in a complex web of steel that was almost too fast for Xin's eyes to catch. She cried out - but in the same movement, Roufeng drew her sword and moved. For every strike and attack, she was always a hair's breadth out of reach, her movements weaving into Se Zhang's advance until, to Xin's wide eyes, they fought as a deadly whole.
Se Zhang whipped his weapon back as Roufeng straightened from a low crouch. Her smile was something bright and open and dangerous, like a mirror of the bared blade she had yet to use.
The bandit leader bared his teeth. "I didn't count on having to train my men to take on the Jiang Hu. When did the Liu Sui Men decide to crawl out of their hole?"
Xin's eyes widened. The Jiang Hu? She'd heard the tales, but she'd never believed they were more than stories. But then, she'd never imagined someone could fight and move the way this strange wanderer girl did, either.
"Good guess," the girl said. "How'd you figure it out so fast?"
The stories were real.
Se Zhang snorted. "Unfortunately, you're not the first pest from your sect to cross my path."
Roufeng's interest perked. "Really? Did your previous encounter happen recently? Was he drunk?"
"Would you call two years back recent? He was drunker than a lovesick poet and tried to piss on my shoes. Sound familiar, does he?"
"Sounds exactly like my no-good father," she agreed with a grin. "Thanks for the favour. I suppose it's helpful knowing he wasn't dead yet two years ago."
"He might have remedied that already."
"You'd be surprised. We always are," she said. Then she paused, frowned, and pointed her scabbard in his direction. "Ah! Tie Yi Pai! That's what your men reminded me of!"
Se Zhang's eyes narrowed. "A good guess. I thought the Liu Sui Men were too busy hiding to meet with the other sects."
"Oh, I haven't met them yet, but I've heard some descriptions of their techniques and training. And there've been rumours--"
Se Zhang leapt at her and steel crashed against steel as she deflected his attack and twisted behind him. Her sword flashed, and without turning, he drove the shaft backwards, nearly slamming the butt into her stomach. She darted out of reach and he turned, driving her away with a series of lightning jabs with the long point of his axe.
"They say the Tie Yi Pai is still searching for the former disciple who killed his sworn brother and tried to steal his wife, then fled when his own master stopped him," Roufeng said as she jumped back, an edge to her words that hadn't been there before.
Se Zhang growled, deep in his throat, and she bared her teeth in answer.
"People like you are exactly why the Liu Sui Men keeps such a low profile. The Emperor is already looking to outlaw all of us together, given half a chance."
Se Zhang spat. "I don't give a shit about that."
"I can tell," she said.
Even in the growing dark, Xin could see something wet run down the edge of her sword. Whose blood? She couldn't tell. With each attack from the bandit leader, the girl was being forced towards the houses. Xin swallowed and looked to the tall man who seemed to be her companion. Was he really not helping? She was going to get hurt or killed! But he hadn't moved at all, only stood, almost relaxed, watching.
Then Roufeng's blade shrieked against the iron axe shaft, the tip of the axe buried itself in the wall behind her - and in the split second before Se Zhang could withdraw his weapon, she spun and her sword drove cleanly through Se Zhang's heart.
His mouth fell open, and a line of blood trickled down his jaw. Roufeng drew her blade out of him and he crumpled to his knees.
"So this is the Liu Sui Men's secret prodigy," he hissed through his teeth.
Roufeng said, "He's still telling that story? Not so secret, after all the people he's talked to."
Se Zhang laughed, an ugly, gurgling sound. "The old woman won't thank you," he whispered. "She'll never... have the satisfaction of finishing me herself."
He didn't speak after that.
The girl stood, looking down at his body, then knelt, wiped the blood from her sword on his robes, and sheathed it.
Looking around, she said, "If you take his head to the magistrates, you might be able to get a reward. They've probably been looking for him."
"Are you hurt?" Xin called out, her voice small and yet too loud in the lingering tension. Roufeng blinked and looked at her.
"Nothing serious," she said, and lifted a shoulder. "Don't worry about it."
The man spoke then. "There are two children hiding in the forest," he said. "Now that it's safe, I can go and bring them back."
A gasp came from the other side of the village, and Xin saw her mother in the huddle of women clustered there. "Chun and Mei! They're safe!" She pushed her way into the village center. "Where are they? How did you find them?"
The fear and anger hanging over the village broke, like a stone thrown into a still pool, and suddenly there were voices everywhere, raised in shock and giddy relief. Lanterns were lit, and Xin blinked in their warm, flickering light. She wanted to laugh all over again, she wanted to cry for no reason she could name.
Scrubbing the back of her hand over her eyes, she found herself caught up in the growing chaos. Had it really been less than a day since the bandits had invaded their lives and torn the village apart? Through the crowd of villagers, she caught Roufeng's eye.
"Thank you!" she called over the noise and racket. The older girl laughed in return.
"It's nothing. I'll be holding you to our deal, don't forget!"
Soon enough, they would have to count the dead, send someone to fetch a physician from the neighbouring village, bury the bodies, and tend to the damage left by the fires. The village was in shambles, and there were a thousand things to worry about.
But none of it mattered at this moment. For now, somehow, they were alive.
The morning sun was high in the sky when Roufeng stood by the village gate and watched a small girl cling to Zhou Ming.
"Da Ge! Will you come back and visit?"
"Can you teach me to fight next time?" her brother asked beside her. "Then I can fight if the bandits come again!"
"You can stay if you want. I won't mind!" she agreed, magnaminous, and he gave her a look, before firmly extricating himself from the two children.
"The leader's absence is troublesome enough as it is. We don't need to add you disappearing to the situation," he said.
"Hey! I'm not as bad as the old man--"
He ignored her protest and told them, "I can't make any promises but if we pass by again, we'll try and visit."
Midway down the small road leading away from the village, Roufeng turned and waved at the handful of children and women who stood watching them leave. Behind them, the village was busy with reconstruction, as they worked to rebuild what the bandits had destroyed. She hoped Se Zhang's head would bring the villagers enough reward money to cover some of what they had lost. They'd promised to keep Roufeng and Zhou Ming's names out of official attention, but rumours, she knew, were another matter altogether.
"I suppose we should tell the Tie Yi Pai the news," she said. "They're in south Zhong, aren't they?"
He nodded. "They should be in Jiuchuan province, though we'll need to find out where exactly."
"Don't they say that Jiuchuan has the prettiest girls in Zhong? Who knows, maybe we'll find the old man there too."
Zhou Ming's only answer was a quiet snort. Roufeng laced her fingers behind her head and looked up.
"More walking," she sighed to the trees arced above them. She had no doubt the heat of summer would be in full blast by the time they reached the southern provinces.
"We would make much better time," her companion pointed out, "if someone didn't keep making detours and getting involved in other people's affairs."
"Oh, come on, are you still angry about that? I already said sorry! And it's not like we could have left them to the bandits--"
And so they made their steady way down the mountain.