About: Part four in the miniseries, you can find part one here.
Although the village seemed quite run down, even bordering on abandoned, Xiao Qing had come to think of it with warmth. Making her way through the carefully constructed facade, a familiar set of thoughts came to her. She often wondered what she might feel if she ever visited another village, one that did not have to hide, one that could be loud and proud of what and who it was. Perhaps a well-polished facade would make her feel anything but welcome. After all, her kin had been a thorn in the imperial flesh for generations. However, as she made it into the core of the village, she broke her mind free of such contemplation.
“Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away,” she whispered and put her mind at the immediate task at hand.
She found her father where she expected him to be, outside Old Lady Gao’s house. Lady Gao was the oldest person in the village, and with the exception of her father there was no martial artist more adept. In terms of wisdom, however, her father was not Lady Gao’s match. Something Xiao Qing would never admit aloud, of course, but if someone could make her father come around it was Lady Gao.
“Surely,” Old Lady Gao was saying as Xiao Qing arrived. “You must see the need to find her a good husband. She is not going to be young forever, and children are more important now than ever.”
“You are right, of course,” her father replied while making eye contact with Xiao Qing. Her father had always had a degree of hardness about him, the way he walked, talked, and even gazed. Many averted their eyes rather than face him, but not Xiao Qing. She had learned to decipher the varying degrees of steel, and right now he was not pleased with her involving Lady Gao in what he considered a private matter.
“First I must apologise,” he then continued, facing Lady Gao. “To cause such trouble for the village in this matter.”
Xiao Qing waited, knowing that even though her news were important she could under no circumstances interrupt them now.
“Secondly, I must apologise to you personally, Lady Gao,” her father went on. “When a young man capable of besting me presents himself, they shall certainly have my blessing. Alas, I am a martial man and my wisdom in these matters are nothing compared to yours. As such, I must trouble you to sort out the arrangements. I know Qing Er has the most profound respect for you and would be very happy to receive such an honor.”
With that her father made a short,but respectful bow, refusing to lift his head. A frown deepened Lady Gao’s already wrinkled lines, clearly upset that she had been unable to aid Xiao Qing in finding a swift solution to her marriage problem. Even so, the old lady insistently helped her father up, saying that she would of course help with the arrangements. Xiao Qing furrowed her brow, but quickly hid it by formally greeting Lady Gao and her Father.
“Qing Er, you have returned,” her father greeted. “Something has happened.”
With her father, questions were often statements. “Yes, Father. I encountered two armed and armoured men two Li south of the village. Their eyes were green like bamboo and blue like water, they spoke words I could not understand. They are dangerous father! They are not practitioners,” she hesitated. The corner of her father’s lip betrayed a subtle twitch.
Before the twitch could develop into a full blown scowl of disapproval she hurried on, “Their death aura was more intense than anything I have felt before. The village could be in danger. They cannot have gotten very far, they should be dealt with swiftly. I could not do it myself. I’m sorry, I have failed you, Father.”
Her father quickly offered Lady Gao a formal bow and excused himself, “You will tell me everything on the way,” he told Xiao Qing and made for the eastern fringe of the village. “Quick, come!”
“I was patrolling the fringes of the forest at the southern chain as you instructed me when I came upon them,” she began as she followed her father. His pace was brisk and since his legs were longer than hers she almost had to trot to keep up. “I trailed them for a while, masking my presence. They knew I was there somehow, the bigger of the two noticed me first.”
She glanced up at her father, who towered at least a head over most people. “Strong and ferocious like a tiger, broad across the shoulders, and taller than you, Father. What’s more is his speed, he even forced me to use Mist Step technique.”
At hearing that her father suddenly stopped mid-stride. His expression was blank, Xiao Qing swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. “I hope you realise the graveness of your error,” he said, voice cold and flat. “There is no way to know with certainty that they are not some new kind of disaster hired by the Emperor to erase all trace of our linage. Go to the southern Gate, I will bring some people I can trust.”
Cursing her lack of foresight, Xiao Qing stomped her way to the southern gate. It was true that the two men she had fought could have been hired by the emperor, and it was also apparent to her now that she thought more closely about it that they had indeed seemed to be searching for something. They had not, however seemed to speak any of the Sunderland dialects. That had provoked her curiosity at first, more than anything else, well that and the fact that they looked so strange. The rush of facing a foe she knew nothing about had perhaps clouded her judgement, but she still felt that she had made the right choice. If she had not, well, it was not yet too late to rectify.
Once she arrived at the gate she had to wait a short while before her father reappeared with two other men and three women. Xiao Qing found herself fidgeting, they were not the people who usually worked under her father. Why he would bring the heads of the council instead worried as well as reassured her.
“Tell me how they fight,” her father commanded without breaking a stride as he approached.
Xiao Qing greeted the others quickly and fell in line in beside her father. “One of them carries a sword and a shield, I have not seen him fight yet as I struck his pressure points before he could move. The other one carries an axe as long as I am tall, and he is deceivingly fast.”
The five elders of the council exchanged glances, but it was Hu Guang Ling who spoke first. Being the oldest person on the council, in fact only Old Lady Gao was older among the villagers, Elder Hu commanded a great deal of respect. Although her hair had since long lost its glossy black sheen and greyed, age had not significantly diminished her beauty. Even as a widow, she had suitors.
“Girl, you are certain of what you saw?” Elder Hu demanded. To which Xiao Qing nodded in response.
The youngest amongst the elders of the council was Zhe Shu Li. Unlike Elder Hu, Elder Zhe was still in her prime and a proud mother of four capable sons. She radiated motherhood and was never want of sage advice. It was she who spoke next.
“Could it be an apprentice perhaps?”
“I would have known,” Elder Qin Ting Peng replied. “If Fu Tou had an apprentice. He is my good friend, after all!”
Elder Qin was the kind of man who upon reaching the mid-point of his life had become a voracious reader, and even dabbled in art outside of cultivating his martial arts. A long white mustache reached from his upper lip to the centre of his chest, and it swayed whenever he spoke with enthusiasm. Xiao Qing had often thought he looked scholarly, only lacking a hand fan to complete the look.
It was raven-haired Elder Jiang Qing, garbed in the deepest of blues, who spoke next. “If it is not an apprentice, it must be Fu Tou. Who else would brandish such weapons?”
“Impossible!” insisted Elder Qin, mustache trembling. “If he had come out of seclusion already he would have informed me. By my estimate he should be at least another five years.”
Out of the five, Elder Meng Rui was the most quiet and contemplative. His quiet manner stood in stark contrast to his sharp and quick mind. Out of all of the Elders, he was perhaps the person who most reminded Xiao Qing of her father. Both men had similar builds and posture, and Elder Meng was certainly a capable swordsman. Grey streaks shone through Elder Meng’s otherwise dark hair, and if one only gave Elder Meng and Xiao Qing’s father a sweeping glance they could have passed for brothers.
“Xiao Qing,” Elder Meng enquired. “Can you describe the appearance of the man with the axe? Do not leave out any details, no matter how strange or seemingly insignificant.”
“Yes, Elder Meng,” Xiao Qing answered. “Although visibility was limited in the downpour, I could see clearly a few things. Both men were of pale complexion yet carried themselves like soldiers. The man with the axe was taller than Father, very broad across the shoulders. They wore strange armour, which looked like tunics made from countless metal rings. Oh,” she added almost as an afterthought. “The man with the axe had markings on his arms. What they were of I could not see.”
“It is entirely possible, judging from Xiao Qing’s words,” Elder Meng theorised. “That it is in fact Fu Tou and that something has gone wrong during his seclusion. We were all there at the Gathering of Heroes when Fu Tou acquired the [name of manual],” Elder Meng went on as he made a snatching gesture with one hand. “Even if Fu Tou is capable of understanding the manual it will take a few decades or more for him to master it.”
“If it is our old friend, Fu Tou” Xiao Qing’s father said. “And his seclusion has been interrupted, then he is walking fire entering demon, all the more reason to make haste. However, I suspect that there is in fact something else at play. The Emperor is always coming up with new methods to kill us. Regardless, we need to deal with the situation expediently.”
“Cai Shu speaks true,” Elder Hu agreed. “If Fu Tou has indeed lost all ability to reason, we should restrain him before he hurts someone else. Let us make haste. Xiao Qing, lead us to where you last saw them!”
“Yes,” Xiao Qing replied, then offered a quick bow and then took off using her qigong. The Elders and her father quickly followed suit.
part 5 – Helgrind or Valhall