Dealing with the living had been difficult enough for Li Jie, but sorting the dead was proving even more arduous.
Three of the villagers from Brilliant River Valley had been injured in the fighting, along with three of Puotong’s soldiers, but it was one man from his village of Lily Valley that had fared the worst. He’d been crushed by a horse after he’d stuck the animal with a spear. Everything below his thighs were crushed, yet somehow he’d avoided bleeding. The pain had knocked him unconscious and it wasn’t until he’d awoken screaming that anyone found him.
One of Puotong’s archers was also a skilled medic, and she carefully checked which bones had broken and which were still intact, setting the ones she could feel were reparable, then determining that he would have to have his legs amputated below the knees to keep the rest of him alive. The sentry they’d captured the day before informed them there was willow tree bark already liquified in one of the storerooms. They gave the screaming man as much as they could, followed by a few large gulps of wine, before they went to work.
It was a gruelling operation that took over an hour, and the man screamed without end. But the archer had done similar amputations before, and the soldiers and peasants alike came together to hold the man down, to sooth and wash him, and to help wrap the stubs as he lay crying in a pool of his own blood. Li Jie had never seen as much kindness and cruelty mixed together.
The bandits had avoided major injuries: they’d either died or surrendered. A few had taken temporarily incapacitating blows – a knock to the head, a cut to a limb, an arrow to the knee – but they were patched up and tied together with the other surrendering men and women in short order. Combined with the five they’d captured the day before, a total of seventeen bandits were tied against a pole in the ground, their hands and ankles shackled and their heads all held low. There was a brief moment of satisfaction then, as their victory finally started to ring true, but that was followed too quickly by the remembrance of the dead.
One soldier had died, stabbed then trampled by the bandits. Puotong and his soldiers saw to the man’s cleaning and wasted no time in burying the man where he’d died: an old army tradition that ensured his spirit could travel straight towards his family before he began to forget who and where that was.
One villager had also perished, perched too close to the ledge of the gash, she’d taken a thrown spear in the chest and died at once. She was an older woman, in her forties. She had four children and two grandchildren. Li Jie had attended the weddings of each of her children, had given gifts at the birth of the grandchildren. Her name was Taiping and she was dead and it was Li Jie’s responsibility to care for her body. He had no idea what to do. There was nothing to save, and she was no soldier. She should have died next to her grandchildren, where she could be mourned and cared for properly, their tears washing her sores and their prayers masking the hollow echo that emanated from her open mouth.
“We have to take her back home,” he decided, standing with several others over her corpse. “Just…close her eyes. Her family will do the rest.”
Most difficult were the dead bandits. Almost twenty. The soldiers looted them, as was their usual right. Stripped to underwear and strewn about the tunnel, their sight and stench would only grow more troublesome, but Li Jie had no idea what to do with them. He’d asked Lian every question he could think of the night before and that morning, before she and Quan had left. But he’d never considered what to do with the dead. Disgraced and criminal, he didn’t know what they deserved or didn’t. All he knew was he hated looking at them, festering and sweltering as the sun continued its climb. Birds were already circling, waiting for a meal. And Li Jie didn’t know whether to feed them.
He was about to order them covered under blankets and tarps until Lian returned, when Fen, limping on a bad ankle, started to drag them into the middle of the clearing. The peasants joined in, pulling the dead horses to the sides near the caves, and the bodies into the middle. Fen arranged them into a line, limbs akimbo but otherwise orderly, faces up, eyes still open. The peasants gathered around and stared with Fen: into the open eyes.
“Did anybody know them?” She asked, quiet wrapped tight in her voice.
A few small nods.
“This one was my second cousin.”
“This was Bo, my aunt.”
“This one…” a woman from Brilliant River Valley pointed to a younger man with blood spread all over his chest, “was my brother.”
Fen started to tremble and burst into tears, throwing herself at the woman’s feet and begging. “Please forgive me,” she said through sobs, “I killed him. Please, please forgive me.”
The woman was close to Li Jie’s age, perhaps a few years older. She too, soon had tears in her eyes, but tempered them with a sad, knowing smile. “It’s ok,” she picked Fen up off the ground, then knelt in front of her and brought their two heads against one another. “He chose his path. You did what you had to.”
It was the dead Li Jie would remember for years afterward. Not just for Fen, but for himself. He knew which one he’d killed. Shot with an arrow right through the neck. He’d remember his first murder too.
Lian and Quan arrived on horseback a short time later, the horse cantering along at a slow trot. The sight of them elicited cheers in all the soldiers – professional and amateur. They’d seen the smoke from the trap during the operation on the crushed villager, but mostly they’d tried to ignore what would happen if the Zhaos failed. Any defence to a counterattack would be short and ineffective.
The mother and son walked back to clapping and shouts of joy. Lian allowed a hint of a smile to enter her face, but Quan was subdued and quiet. He grinned weakly when Puotong and Li Jie congratulated him on a job well done, but he refused to go into detail on just how they’d managed to bait the contingent of bandits into the circle of oiled grasses which they’d set up and then ignited. Li Jie couldn’t blame him for his shyness – the body count they’d built in the camp would keep Li Jie up for nights – he couldn’t imagine what the young man had seen. Lian likewise kept the secrets close to her chest.
“We got them all,” was all Quan confirmed a few times, but he refused to say anything more. Eventually his dour attitude infected the others and the mood turned back into sombre reflection.
“What do we do with the dead bandits?” Li Jie asked Lian.
“That’s up to you,” she informed him matter-of-factly.
“Well what do you usually do?”
“Me? I usually look for something I can take with me to see if there’s a reward.”
“Well... what do you think we should do?”
It was only once he outright asked for help that Lian finally realized he was asking for help. She walked over to the row of bodies and looked over each of them.
“I’d take them back with you. I’d put the bodies on the horses and make the prisoners walk alongside. And I’d try to find their families.”
So they did.
Before they left, Puotong took all the riches the villagers couldn’t directly claim as their own – a process that devolved into name calling and shouts of “prove it” on both sides, which Lian had to mediate – and sent half his troops with the peasants to ensure the captives didn’t make a break for it. There were enough horses left alive for each of them to take one. The villagers wondered at their newfound wealth, and some of them joked a life in the army might just be for them, which prompted laughter from Puotong’s more knowledgeable soldiers. They left the bandit camp empty except for the food they couldn’t carry, and the firewood they didn’t need. The prisoners walked next to their slain comrades, some of them crying, some defiant, some stunned and bewildered at the turn of events. All of them asked about Kalsang, and soon word spread that the Shuli Go had killed him – with ease apparently. Even the most ardent believers among them were ashamed that they had followed someone who had spoken so bravely, yet fallen so quickly.
Puotong led the other half of his men back to the west with a train of riches. Before they parted, he and Lian had a brief conversation. The jovial nature of it surprised Li Jie.
“He seems to be in a better mood,” Li Jie noted as he rode alongside Lian, out of the camp.
“Victory does that. So does money. He’s got both.”
“…then why don’t you seem very happy?”
Lian said nothing, but he caught her quick glance towards Quan. The boy was at the front of the train, twenty yards away from anyone else. Even at that distance, Li Jie could sense the contemplation coming off the young man in waves, although his body betrayed nothing. He rode calmly, head straight ahead, shoulders bobbing with the path. Li Jie’s eyes moved to his niece. She was riding alongside the woman whose brother she killed, off to the side of the convoy, the two of them talking in quiet tones. Li Jie sighed. Neither of them had really been prepared for what had happened. It answered the question he’d posed to Lian. And it also explained it to himself: he wasn’t happy in the least. Comfortable, in a strange way, but not happy.
They stopped for the night in a small valley in the foothills, the wine and food again coming out, their group feasting and singing into the night, just as the bandits had done the night before. This juxtaposition finally struck the surviving bandits and they fell into a depressed stupor. Li Jie stayed up for the first watch to make sure none of them tried to escape. When Lian woke up to replace him, Fen woke up too. They both approached him by firelight, a united front.
“Go to sleep, uncle Li.”
“Yes, we want to talk.”
Li Jie yawned and put up no defense. “Ok,” he said, bundling off to slip into Fen’s already warm sleeping roll. He heard the two woman speaking, but as sleep cornered him they sounded very far away, their words turned into echoes and whispers.
The next day they made it back to Lily Valley. They were hailed as heroes, and Li Jie in particular had his name sung louder than the rest. Whether it was the good night’s sleep or the admiration of peasants he usually had to press for taxes and other services, happiness finally came to him. There was sorrow, of course, for the man whose legs had been crushed, and greater sadness still for Taiping. But her family announced with pride that they would sing the funeral song of the warrior for her. It was an honor usually reserved for war heroes, but no one would object to calling her that in a place as isolated as Lily Valley. Her eldest daughter even offered Li Jie a small purse of copper coins as thank you for returning her body. He rejected it of course, but the offer stayed with him. Alongside the dead, the offer stuck with him. The generosity of it.
He said goodbye to Lian, Quan, and Fen then. He wanted to return to Brilliant River Valley with them, but there was too much to do in Lily Valley. Most of the prisoners would stay with him, put to work in the fields until harvest time, when the magistrate would decide their fate. In the meantime there was food to distribute, stolen goods to allocate among the people, and funerals to arrange.
Fen and Li Jie shared a quick meal in his house. His wife and two children, both younger than Fen, had been overjoyed at his return, and had set about preparing a feast for the evening, but for the afternoon a few quick dumplings sufficed to tide them over. Fen remained quiet throughout their meal, but played with her cousins for a short time, the familiar smile she saved for family gatherings returning, in an altered form. Li Jie said little to her, letting her own her quiet, but after she finished eating he took her to a tucked away corner and hugged her tight. She went limp in his arms for a moment, before returning the embrace. They both squeezed tight, and then she was gone.
After the feast, which the villager-soldiers and Puotong’s army both attended, Li Jie’s wife Ruyi took him to the same corner and pressed herself into his chest, crying.
“I was so scared for you. I don’t know what I would do if you died.”
“Sounds like you were scared for yourself,” he joked.
She playfully struck him on the chest before falling back into it and crying more. “Don’t do that again, ok?”
He hugged her tight and answered truthfully. “I hope I never have to.”