“Go away! I’m in shallow seclusion - don't disturb me until dinner time.”
Hearing the waspish tone, Xiao Ma silently scurries off back the way she has come. The little maid knows better than to bother her mistress when she is in one of her moods.
Assuming the lotus position, Fen Ling closes her eyes and seeks out her meridians with her consciousness, then begins to circulate her qi according the Misty Cloud's Profound Fog breathing technique. Her thoughts drift away down the years, back to happier times...
All is still in the stifling air of a midsummer afternoon's haze... The muggy heat seems to sigh as it settles down, wrapping around a murky slow-moving creek... Within the sticky-thick silence, one can still hear the thrumming of a dragonfly's erratic thwapping against the competing cacophonous chirps of several cicadas and a million crickets... The cumulative hum sounding, for all the world, like an orchestra warming up... As if on cue, a lonely lilting tune cuts through the thick thrum. A guqin soloist steps up onto the sweltering stage! A moment later however, her meandering melody is rudely interrupted, by a series of sharp martial thwacks - sounds that can only come from the clash of wooden practice swords!
“Hmmph.” Lying back in the age-buckled bough of an ancient weeping willow, a small girl frowns and tiny wrinkles form amidst her arched eyebrows. Her zither solo stutters, then sputters to a stop... Before doggedly beginning from the beginning... All over again. From below, loud clangs and clacks of lusty blows ring out again, and again...
“And again!” The girl pauses her distracted plucking and puts down her instrument, a faint smile warms the rosy cheeks of her cherubic face. It won’t be long now...
“Again!” Creases form on the corners of her lively eyes as she sit up, swivelling to be side-saddle on the wide branch.
“Jian ge-ge is such a glutton for punishment.” She slides down the low-hanging bough to the ground. “While Li ge-ge is just a glutton!”
Her smile widens mischievously, wishing she’d uttered her musings out aloud.
“...Enough!” A large boy pleads, between huffing pants, his pudgy hands clamped over quivering knees. Sweat is pouring off his forehead and darkening the dusty ground below.. Across the dirt circle, a stocky boy scowls like a pirate. “Pick up the sword, you’re pathetic! ”
“Pathetic eh?” The bowed over boy grunts and heaves his hefty frame upright. “I’m improving then! Last week you said I was ‘hopeless’.”
“Bah! You’re lucky we’re not using a staff!”
“You’re lucky it’s not a beauty contest!”
“You’re both ugly, so leave it be...”
A giggling Fen Ling forces her way between the bickering boys, fending them apart with her small palms.
“Brother Feng is only the appetiser anyway,” she grins, picking up the forsaken sword from the dusty ground. “I’m the main course!”
“Why do you always have to mention food?” the larger boy groans. “I’m starving.”
“No, you’re not!” the other two chime in unison. Stifling a smirk, the shorter boy shakes his head. “I don’t know why I bother, you two are both hopeless.”
“I’m not hopeless,” the large boy calls back over his shoulder, as he stumbles towards the stream. “I’m pathetic!”
His muffled voice manages to hold a trace of pride. “I’ll check our fishing lines.”
“Whatever, just don’t eat the bait!”
Ahh! Seventh day is the holy time, the only time Fen Ling gets to let loose and be herself. Her real self, not the little lady her mother wants her to be. The domineering woman has confused uptight for upright... The rest of the week, she spends buttoned up at her mother’s beck and call, becoming a proper little lady... But not today!
She shivers and shakes herself free like a wet dog getting dry. Across the dirt circle, the sullen boy’s exasperation seems to evaporate in the face of her energetic stretching. As usual, Jian Cheng’s surly, stern demeanour crumbles in the face of her effervescent enthusiasm... A few breaths later, Fen Ling is bouncing back and forth on the balls of her bare feet, waving her wooden sword wildly in the air.
“Your unholy reign of terror ends here Black Bear!” she taunts.
“What? Wait! Who is this Black Bear?”
“You are, you hideous beast!," Fen Ling replies. "Prepare to pay the blood price!”
The boy backs up, blinking at the insult. Fen Ling snickers behind her hand. Her random jibe appears to have hit home... Brother Cheng even seems a bit hurt, which surprises her, he is usually all business with no time for an inefficient trait like vanity. Besides, he isn’t ugly... As such... Not to her anyway... Although, even she has to admit, he is a far cry from being handsome and certainly no prince charming. In fact, he is the complete opposite of a silkpants dandy that all the village girls swoon for. Thick lips corral a stubborn mouth, beneath an oft flattened nose, giving him slightly brutish features overall - offset by thick eyebrows, a thick head of hair and even thicker shoulders... He is far from lily-white either, with sun-bronzed skin and a country-strong muscular build. He is particularly thick in the heavily scarred forearms and wrists - which he’s earned with constant swordplay and by working at his father’s forge...
Li ge-ge is no oil painting either. Big is the best word to describe him. Chubby sure, but tall with it. His huge appetite is the first thing one sees... You probably hear his big mouth next... Then once you get to know him better, his big heart is revealed... Loyal to a fault, yet somehow lacking in confidence. To some, it comes across as cowardice... It is complicated for sure, but her biggest brother is no coward.
Deep in her heart, Fen Ling is certain of it. Cowards die a thousand deaths, but so does your average worrywart - and currently Fatty is more a worrier than a warrior. But his story is far from writ yet...
Brother Feng isn’t ‘hopeless’ or “pathetic” either. He is actually very handy when it comes to swordplay. Doubly handy, because he can use either one...Being almost ambidextrous, although naturally a southpaw. However, whenever his left arm tires from lugging the weighted waster, he would simply switch it to his right hand to let his other arm recover... Then switch back again. And again. And again... Until he can't carry it... Or carry on any longer... Then he'd let his blade drop, and lash out with his sharp tongue, as he did today... Fen Ling loves it.
Such fun and invariably her cue to step in... Fatty would slouch off in search of another lunch and she’d face-off with her slightly flagging instructor Cheng. And run rings around him... Well, she would this afternoon! Or at least give him a run for his money... Fen Ling is rather proud of how she’d adapted her own style out of the many sword forms Brother Cheng made them train. “Slash and dash” he dubbed it. Despite her shorter legs, Fen Ling is the fleetest of foot of the three. The sheer fastest too... Over short distances at least. She knew because, after dawdling all day, they always had to dash home to arrive in time for dinner... Even Fatty, or his grandfather would eat his food. Fatty claimed it is an ancient family tradition. However, he had no parents to confirm it... Fen Ling suspected his equally gluttonous grandfather simply got bored one day and couldn’t keep his hands off... Frustratingly, Jian Cheng would invariably catch and pass her at the precise moment her home hoved into view... Sigh... Li ge-ge would barely be in the picture, plodding along in their wake, eventually veering to take the fat man’s track directly back to his own house nearby.
Oh well, she shrugged it off... She’d definitely beat him today. “Old Black Bear you’re courting death!” Fen Ling cries as a fierce battle begins...