Now that emo mopey smurf is out of the picture (for the time being), Da Mo Yao returns to the action-packed scale of the earlier chapters in volume 1. Yu Er finally is back in Xi Yu, and headed into Xiong Nu territory soon. She’s too busy learning to ride a horse and training her new disciple that she hardly has time to pity herself and wallow in sadness. Her relationship with Huo Qu Bing retains its usual bickering attentiveness, but suddenly there is much more potent chemistry between them in the wilds of the army base compared to in the structured confines of Chang An. As much as Yu Er wanted to run away from her problems, now she finds herself voluntarily staying put despite refusing to consider where this all leads. Will it lead her into Huo Qu Bing’s arms, or confirm further that her heart belongs to Jiu Ye forever?
Chapter 18: Emotional Threads
Li Cheng was moping, muttering under his breath “How could they say leave and leave so quickly? When I woke up the entire army base was empty.”
I can see he’s in no mood to teach me to ride so I practiced by myself. I stopped being so impatient and slowly got acquainted with the horse by trotting. I ended not falling off once, but after the morning was gone, Li Cheng was still sitting on the ground looking depressed.
I jumped off and walked over to talk with him, but he was so down that he answered once for my every ten questions. “Must you seek revenge?” He nodded, if he didn’t kill the Xiong Nu to avenge his family, then his life is meaningless. I stare at him, yet another person seeking revenge for the death of a loved one. “Little teacher, if you spar with me, and in one hundred strokes you don’t lose, then I promise to beg the General to take you along on the next battle.”
He raised his head “A real man makes good on his promises, right?”
I solemnly nod my head and he immediately gets up. He pulls out his sword and faces me. I make a stance “Will the Xiong Nu wait for you to attack?” and he immediately rushes me with his sword raised. My martial arts, if I was sparring with another person, I’ll likely lose. But if it was a life and death situation, the opponent will likely die. The wolf pack has the ability only to kill its prey, so everything I learned is used to kill. My attacks are extremely vicious, aimed at using the least amount of time to kill the opponent. Because of that, I have never really tested my martial arts skills, this being the first time.
In the beginning he was somewhat hesitant, but after I almost wrenched his elbow off, he stopped holding back and every attack became deadly vicious as well. After the fifty-first stroke, I aim for his eyes and then sweep him off his feet, his sword flying out. I clap my hands and crouch down “If I used a little bit more strength, your arm would be useless. The Xiong Nu would never hold back their strength.”
He didn’t say another word, just picking up his sword and attacking me again. I smile, this boy can be taught. There is no politeness on the battlefield. After six days, all I do is learn riding and spar with Li Cheng. He is very persistent. One time I punched him on the nose and he ignored his bloody nose and tears, continuing to hack at me. His last sword thrust actually sliced my sleeve. But he still only lasted eighty-seven strokes before I punched him out cold.
In six days time, Huo Qu Bing’s army left Long Xi, and using the fastest imaginable speed and distance, quickly surrounded the enemy’s flank and rear. The battle is swift and fierce. In a short six days, Huo Qu Bing’s army is like the most devastating wind storm in the desert, swallowing up five Xiong Nu tribes, capturing and killing multiple officials and royal family members. In total, he killed or captured over eighty thousand Xiong Nu, allowing the Xiong Nu’s most beautiful mountain region the Yen Zhi Mountains to fall into the hands of the Han Empire. The Han expansion continues westward.
The Xiong Nu’s most revered speed army forces are no match for Huo Qu Bing’s army, and in his first foray as a General, he’s struck a major blow for the Xiong Nu. But the cost of this victory is steep indeed, with ten thousand men setting out and only three thousand returning. But this is the first time the Han army has used a swift attack formation against the Xiong Nu’s typical swift attack, and it was a complete victory for the Hans. It was the first time an agricultural culture has battled a nomadic culture on horseback and emerged victorious. It may not remain the only time, but this was indeed the first such time in history.
I sit in the tent and hear the roaring cheers in the base. With this victory, the Emperor is sure to heavily reward everyone in the army, but right now those who returned alive are just happy to be here. The door opened and Huo Qu Bing was standing before me. He was covered in dirt and dust, his face completely exhausted. But his eyes were twinkling with joy. I smile and stand up “I thought you would go to the celebratory feast first!”
He didn’t say a word but continued to smile warmly towards me. I avoid his eyes and try to be casual “I’m sure in seven days you haven’t gotten off the horse. Go bathe first!”
Before I finished talking, he has collapsed on the pallet. I was so frightened that I went to assist him. He grabbed my hand and drowsily murmured “I’m spent. Even if the sky falls down I’ve got to sleep first.” and with that, he was passed out.
I tried to withdraw my hand but before I can retract it, he gripped it even tighter. I softly sighed and sat down next to him. Under his black robe are traces of blood, and there are a lot of tears and slashes on his sleeve. There is a strange odor, and I sniff him to smell horse sweat mixed with the scent of blood. I immediately pull my nose back.
I pull a blanket to cover him, looking at him with a heart full of worry. From when the sun was in the middle of the sky until it was pitch black out, he slept like a dead pig, not moving a muscle. I tried to jerk my hand out of his, but in his sleep he actually slapped my other hand away. I now believe what he said about sleeping while riding a horse. He can probably sleep and kill the enemy at the same time.
Finally I can’t stand it anymore, and lay down on the carpeted ground next to the pallet. I pull a corner of the blanket over me, but the horrible odor bothers me so I grab a scented handkerchief and put it over my face. That calms me down and I fall asleep.
The moment Huo Qu Bing takes the handkerchief from my face, I’ve already woken up. The tent is filled with brilliant sunlight, and I’m faced with an even more brilliant smiling face. I was a little startled and I kept staring at him.
“Haven’t seen me in awhile, did you miss me?” His one hand was still holding my hand, and his other one was holding the handkerchief and he was using the handkerchief to tickle my face. I slap the handkerchief away “The moment you return I have to sleep on the ground. I must be sick in the head to miss you!”
“This is a huge pallet, why didn’t you just sleep on here?” and he was pulling me up there. I push him away “Keep dreaming!”
As we were pushing and pulling, my head landed on his shoulder and I smelled him again. I covered my nose “I beg of you, Master Huo, stop goofing around. You are stinking to high heaven. Hurry up and take a bath. I had to suffer your stink all last night.”
He lifted his arm and sniffed “I stink? How come I don’t smell it? You smell more carefully again, I think you made a mistake.” and he shoved his arm under my nose. I tried to hide while yelling at him “You’re doing this on purpose.”
In the pushing and pulling, he fell off the pallet with a hearty laugh. I wasn’t able to avoid him so he landed right on top of me. Suddenly the atmosphere between us changed immediately. The both of us turned silent. He stared at me, and his breathing became heavier. I want to avert my eyes but all I can do is stare right back at him. My heartbeat quickens. His face slowly descends and my body tightens. Right when his lips are about to touch mine…. “Brother Jin, aren’t you going to practice riding today? AHHH!……” Li Cheng let out a horrified scream and immediately jumped right out of the tent and ran away. As he was closing the door, his voice shook “I didn’t see anything, I really didn’t see anything……”
The second the door closed, I was released from the thrall and I immediately turned my face away. My cheek appeared to just brush past Huo Qu Bing’s lips. Huo Qu Bing angrily punched the ground and then said with a smile “Yu Er, you can’t keep ignoring it.” [He means this attraction between them, not necessarily the almost-kiss.]
I can’t figure out what I’m feeling so I just shove him without saying a word. He got up while I continued to lay on the ground and stare at the ceiling.
Huo Qu Bing laughed “I’m off to take a bath. When I come back, I’ll assess how your riding lessons have come along. It shouldn’t disappoint me.”
After he had been gone for some time, it was like I finally got my soul back, getting up and washing. After I splashed cold water on my face, I felt more alert. But I buried my face in the towel, my emotions a jumbled mess.
“Brother Jin” Li Cheng cautiously called out to me. I turned around and he was quite down “After breakfast, let’s go riding.” As he ate breakfast, he warily looked at me “Brother Jin, if you are feeling down, we don’t have to go riding today.”
I raised my head to look at him, and suddenly realized what he was probably thinking in his head. I almost spit out my steamed bun, causing me to cough a few times. I slapped him on the head “What is a kid like you thinking about! You need to focus on learning martial arts instead of thinking random thoughts.”
He rubbed his head, pitying himself, with his eyes wide-open, his nose all bent out of shape and his mouth re-arranged, face all swollen, giving me a sympathetic look.
I was afraid of choking so I stopped eating, making an effort to smile extra wide, wondering how to get rid of this kid’s shadowy thoughts. “That was all a misunderstanding earlier. The General’s martial arts is nowhere as bad as yours. We were well-matched in sparring. During the fight, we accidentally fell on the ground, and that is when you walked in on us and misunderstood.”
It’s so easy to hookwink a kid and Li Cheng immediately brightened up. He continued eating and was hollering about how he was going to spar with me today. When Huo Qu Bing arrived, we had just taken the horses out. He saw how lively I was, and how beaten up Li Cheng was, and couldn’t help himself and asked “When I ordered him to teach you to ride, even if you weren’t happy about it, there was no need to beat the crap out of him?”
I smirked and didn’t answer, but Li Cheng quickly replied “Brother Jin is teaching me martial arts, he wasn’t beating me up.”
Huo Qu Bing shot me a shocked look “Teaching martial arts? If all the teachers taught this way, then no one would dare learn martial arts.”
I slapped the horse and got on “This is the only method I know how to teach, letting him learn when he is facing life or death. There are no strokes, just learning how to kill the opponent with one shot.” Huo Qu Bing laughed and got on a horse, telling Li Cheng “You don’t need to teach today, go get some rest!”
Li Cheng said yes, and I told him to go find the older brothers who have just returned from battle and ask to fight them. They are all surely still itching to fight and will make great sparring partners. He happily ran off.
Huo Qu Bing and I rode side by side “Are your raising a baby wolf? Be careful he doesn’t get his legs broken by my wolves.” I giggled “I already warned him! Great sparring partners means he ought to have the understanding he might get the tar beaten out of him. He might turn from a baby swollen pig head into a big swollen pig head.”
Huo Qu Bing laughed “I was just thinking what good luck he had, that you were willing to teach him. Now I think it was his bad luck to run into you.” I glared at him “Both his parents died by the hands of the Xiong Nu, did you know that?”
He answered “No, I didn’t. There are so many soldiers here I can’t possibly know their life stories. I am only concerned whether they are capable. I found this kid to teach you to ride at the recommendation of Zhao Puo Nu.” I explain that I promised Li Cheng that if he could withstand one hundred strokes from me, I will endeavor to get him on the battlefield. Huo Qu Bing replied “The way you are teaching him, he ought to get on the battlefield. But first, let’s look at your riding skills these past few days” and then he kicked his horse and was off.
I was eager to show off my improvement to him, so I hurried to catch up to him. But he wasn’t trying to race me on speed, instead turning left and right, and then making a U-turn. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with him, with each turn pissing off my horse so that I almost got thrown a few times.
When fighting Li Cheng I’m totally in control, but a few runs with him and I’m covered in sweat. While he was perfectly composed, only smiling at me. Not being able to show off to him left me depressed and I dejectedly jumped off the horse and sat on the ground. He sat next to me “You’re riding very well. The improvement in the last few days far exceeded my expectations.” I gave him a disbelieving look and he laughed “I’m not trying to make you feel better, I’m being serious.”
I couldn’t help but smile a tad. “Yu Er, tomorrow I have to take some troops back to Chang An.” My smile immediately disappeared and I rested my head on my knee, moping and staring at the ground. “Don’t worry, I won’t force me you return to Chang An with me. But you can’t secretly run back to the desert either. Aren’t you teaching Li Cheng martial arts? Keep practicing your riding and I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
I didn’t say anything and he sat there quietly. Suddenly the horse whined and broke our silence. Huo Qu Bing laughed “You ought understand now the joy of riding. Forcing you to learn is not just hoping that one day you can ride and roam the world with me. But it’s believing that you surely will love riding like the wind. I don’t want your life to miss out on this pleasure.” He pulled me up “Come, let me teach you my secret horse riding skills.”
It was the middle of the night and I was sleeping soundly, when suddenly I felt a body slip under the blanket with me. I was about to rage and use my elbow to poke his stomach when Huo Qu Bing quickly pulled me into his embrace. He enveloped my struggling body and lowly whispered “Yu Er, I’m not intending anything. I’m leaving tomorrow, and I just want to lay here and rest for a little bit. Don’t kick me, I’ll just lay on the pallet and I won’t touch you.”
I thought for a moment and then quieted down. He let me go and moved away. I scooted inside and opened up more room on the pallet for him. He whispered “Thank you” and then slid a bamboo stick into my hand. “What is this? Why does it feel like a fortune telling stick?”
“It is a fortune telling stick. It’s the very one you asked for.”
My heart lurched, remembering that day when I threw the stick away. And I immediately remember him standing under the acacia tree, not moving. He actually went back and found the stick. My heart filled with this soreness and hurt, and in the pain there was this odd warmth and comfort. The pain quickly subsided, so that I couldn’t immediately understand what I was feeling, and where these feelings came from.
“The words on the fortune telling stick are: the vast silver desert, chasing love wishing for twin stars; the unending yellow sand, burying the shadow of sadness.”
I thought about it but couldn’t understand the meaning. Is it about me hoping for twin stars, and ending up with only a shadow of sadness? I though the first verse applied to Huo Qu Bing, but I couldn’t understand the second verse. I didn’t want to overthink it “The fortune telling sticks are forever filled with these nebulous statements.”
He said “I just had a nightmare, a dream that when I returned from Chang An, I couldn’t find you. I rode a horse without stopping, but I couldn’t find you. Yu Er, can you promise me, now matter what happens, please don’t just leave. Wait for me to return.”
In the darkness, his eyes were missing his usual arrogance and confidence, and in its place was uncertainty. He was quietly looking at me, and didn’t force me and didn’t beg me. His emotions were crystal clear, just revealing his longing. It made my heart hurt, and before I could think it through, the words were already out of my mouth “In the future, I will never leave without a word. Even if I leave, I will say goodbye to you properly.”
He smiled “I will make it so that you will never want to part from me.”
This guy, you give him an inch, he takes a foot. I coldly huffed and turned my back to him “Oh right! When you return to Chang An, don’t tell anyone where I am.” He was silent for some time “Anyone?” I thought of Li Yan, Hong Gu and those folks “Yes.” He agreed. I turned my head to him “It’s almost dawn, you should try to get more sleep.”
He smiled, nodded his head and then closed his eyes. I also closed my eyes, but my mind couldn’t rest. If Li Yan knew I was with Huo Qu Bing, maybe she will destroy Luo Yu House immediately. I thought I could just leave a few letters and then jump out of the pit of fire that was the mess of politics in Chang An. But life really is like the complicated vines Huo Qu Bing mentioned, it’s not something I can just turn my back on and forget everything.
My mind was still churning so I didn’t know when I fell asleep. When I woke up, the pallet beside me was empty. I don’t know if his movements were light as feather, or I slept that soundly, but I didn’t know when he left. I touched the place where he laid and sat there in a daze.
“One hundred!” Li Cheng tossed his sword aside and collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. I wrinkled my brow at him “If you don’t want to die before you reach the battlefield, go patch yourself up now.” He smiled at me before leaving “One hundred strokes, Brother Jin. You make good on your promise.”
I smiled and nodded “I will. Go get yourself fixed up and I’ll take you out to eat on the town tonight.” In town, I ordered a stewed chicken with dates, which made him disappointed. I thought it was already better than what they served in the base, but he said it was too light, like what a woman would eat after she gave birth. I laughed, and told him that he was lacking blood lately so this was perfect.
Two men finished eating and left, and I chanced to see the wolf brand on the bottom of their horse flanks. It looked familiar but I couldn’t place it. I ask the waiter if those two men were locals? He wasn’t sure, they appear to be retainers of a rich family, looking for a girl who was lost.
Life became simple and quiet. Everyday I sparred with Li Cheng or riding, playing with Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian, or wandering around whiling away the time. Right when I’m getting bored, Huo Qu Bing’s letter arrived.
“…..I am with General Gong Xun Aou deploying from the North, and Li Gan has also deployed this time……” I frown “Don’t frown, he’s with his father General Li Guang, and we’re going our own ways. We likely won’t meet until the very end. Once you receive this letter, go with the courier North and we’ll meet at the Northern base.”
The courier reminded me that he was to take me to the Northern base. I sighed, agreeing to go, but requesting that I bring Li Cheng with me. I can tell the courier is nervous and tell him to relax. He tells me that not only the General tasked him with this, his own father told him that he could not fail in this mission. Turned out the courier Chen An Kang was the son of Housekeeper Chen, and of course he knew I was really a girl in disguise.
I handed him the cage and got ready to leave. During the carriage ride, I feigned sleep while Li Cheng was all excited and bugging Chen An Kang for information about the battles. Having gotten used to riding, the carriage feels especially comfortable. Before I knew it, we had arrived at the Northern base.
I had just jumped out of the carriage when I was immediately pulled into Huo Qu Bing’s embrace. He whispered in a low voice “I haven’t seen you in a month, I’ve been worried for a month. I was worried that one day I would wake up and receive a letter saying that you had left. Thank goodness you may not always tell the truth, but at least you keep your promises.”
This guy seriously does whatever he wants without a care for what others might think. I try to push him off me but he holds my shoulders tight and doesn’t budge. Chen An Kang has his head down, currently analyzing the soil of the Northern region with intense concentration. But Li Cheng looks stunned and stares at us with his eyes wide open.
I let out a long sigh. What lie can I concoct this time? What kind of martial arts requires embracing to practice?