Kaja Gu, Wangchung Kingdom, Nu Man Continent.
All was still in the stifling air of a typical midsummer afternoon haze. The heat seemed to sigh as it settled down around a murky slow-moving creek. Under the sticky. thick whirr of silence, one could still hear the erratic purr of a dragonfly competing with the cacophonous chirps of various cicadas and crickets. The discordant hum sounded for all the world like an orchestra warming up. As if on cue, a lonely lilting tune cut through the thick thrum. It seems a soloist has stepped up onto the sweltering stage.
However, a moment later the meandering melody was rudely interrupted, by a series of sharp martial thwacks that could only come from the clash of wooden practice swords.
Lying back in the buckled bough of a weeping willow, a small girl frowned. Instantly cute wrinkles formed amidst her arched eyebrows. Her zither solo stuttered then sputtered to a stop, before doggedly beginning from the beginning... all over again.
From below loud clangs and clacks of lusty blows rang out again, and again.
The girl paused her plucking and put down her instrument, a faint smile appeared on her cherubic face. It wouldn't be long now.
"Creases formed on the corners of her lively eyes as she sat up, swivelling to be side-saddle on the branch.
"Jian ge-ge is such a glutton for punishment," she thought sliding off the low hanging bough to the ground with a thud.
"While Li ge-ge is just a glutton."
Her smile widened mischievously, wishing she'd uttered her musings out aloud for the boys in question to overhear. Never mind, it was about to be her turn.
"...Enough..." A large boy plead, between huffing pants, his pudgy hands clamped over quivering knees. Sweat was pouring off his forehead and darkening the dusty ground below..
Across the dirt circle, a stocky boy scowled in reply. "Pick up your sword, you're pathetic! "
"Pathetic eh?" The bowed over boy managed to heave his hefty frame upright. "I'm improving then. Last week you said I was 'hopeless'."
"You're lucky it's not a staff!"
"You're lucky it's not a beauty contest!"
"You're both ugly!"
A giggling Fen Ling forced her way between the bickering boys, fending them apart with her palms, pushing off against their chests.
"Li Feng is just the appetiser anyway," she grinned, picking up the forsaken sword from the dusty ground.
"I'm the main course!"
"Why did you have to mention food?" the larger boy groaned. "I'm starving."
"No, you're not!" the other two chimed in unison.
Stifling a smirk, the shorter boy shook his head. "I don't know why I bother, you two are both hopeless."
"I'm not hopeless,” the large boy called back over his shoulder as he stumbled towards the stream. "I'm pathetic!"
His muffled voice even holding a trace of pride. “I'll check our fishing lines."
"Whatever, just don't eat the bait!"
Grinning little Fen Ling sniggered to herself, these days were by far her favourite time of the week. Halcyon summer days spent fishing, fighting and fussing with her two bestest friends. Sadly, like a stone skipping across a stream they always flew by too fast.
Seventh day was the only time she got to let loose and be herself. Her real self not the uptight little lady her mother wanted her to be.
The only reason she got let off the leash to go to the stream was because it "inspired her creativity".
And it truly did. Just with a wooden stick rather than her lute or flute. These boisterous play sessions with her brothers, boys being boys - and tomboys respectively - were her release. Freedom from her mother's suffocating dreams of Fen Ling's finicky future.
The rest of the week she spent buttoned up at her mother's beck and call, becoming a proper little lady. But not today!
She shivered and shook herself free like a wet dog getting dry.
Across the dirt circle the sulky boy's exasperation seemed to evaporate at the sight of her energetic stretching. His surly stern demeanour crumbling in the face of her enthusiasm. As it always did.
Fen Ling bounced back and forth on the balls of her bare feet, waving her sword wildly in the air.
"Your unholy reign of terror ends here Black Bear!" she taunted.
"Wait... What? Who is this Black Bear?”
“You are, you hideous beast! Prepare to pay the blood price!”
The boy backed away, blinking at the insult. Fen Ling sniggered behind her hand. Then smirked some more at how highly ladylike she was being. Her mother would approve - sort of... However, she was slightly surprised at how her random jibe had hit home.
Her normally stoic elder brother even seemed a bit hurt. Jian Cheng was usually all business with no time for an inefficient trait like vanity. Besides, he wasn't ugly... as such... Not to her. Although even she had to admit, he was a far cry from being handsome and certainly no prince charming. In fact, he was the complete opposite of the typical highborn, silkpants dandy that all the village girls swooned after.
Thick lips corralled a wide mouth beneath a flat nose, giving him slightly brutish features. All framed by thick eyebrows and thickset shoulders.
He was far from lily-white either with sun bronzed skin and a country strong muscular build. He was particularly thick in the forearms and wrists - from constant swordplay and working at his father's forge, no doubt.
Li ge-ge was no oil painting either. Big was the best word to describe him. Chubby sure, but tall with it. Big everywhere, big bones and his big appetite was the first thing you saw. His big mouth was surely the second thing anyone noticed. Then once you got to know him better, his big heart came to the fore.
Generous to a fault, yet somehow lacking in confidence. To some it came across as cowardice. It was complicated but her biggest brother wasn't a coward. Deep in her heart Fen Ling was sure of it.
Cowards die a thousand deaths but so do worrywarts - and at the moment Fatty was more a worrier than a warrior. But his story was far from writ...
Brother Li Feng wasn’t 'hopeless' or "pathetic" either - he just lacked the stamina and rabid confidence of Jian Cheng. Fatty was actually very handy with the sword. Doubly so because he could use either one. The big boy was almost ambidextrous, although naturally a southpaw. However, whenever his left arm tired from lugging the weighted wooden waster he would simply switch it to his right-hand to let his left recover.
Then switch back again. And again. And again... Until he couldn't carry it or carry on any longer. Then he'd let the blunted blade drop before lashing out with his sharp tongue as he did today...
Fen Ling loved it. Such fun and invariably her cue to step in as she did today. Fatty would usually slouch off in search of another lunch and she'd face off with the slightly flagging Jian Cheng.
And run rings around him... Well, she would this afternoon! Or at least give him a run for his money... She was rather proud of how she'd adapted her own style out of the many sword forms brother Cheng made them train. "Slash and dash" brother Cheng called it, but she could tell he was impressed because it worked for her!
Despite her shorter legs, she was the fleetest of foot. The sheer fastest of the three of them... Over short distances at least. She knew because they always had to run home to arrive in time for dinner after dawdling all day. Even Fatty, or his grandfather would eat his food. Fatty said it was an ancient family tradition. However, with no parents to confirm it, Fen Ling suspected his equally gluttonous grandfather simply got bored and couldn't keep his hands off.
Frustratingly, Jian Cheng would always catch her and pass her around the time her home hoved into view.
Every night he'd lope on by with the finish line in plain sight. Sigh... Li Feng would barely be in the picture, plodding along in their wake, before veering off course, taking the fat man's track directly to his own house. Oh well, she shrugged it off.
She'd definitely beat him today.
"Old Black Bear you're courting death!" She cried before fearlessly charging forward and a fierce battle began..
Half an hour later, approximately three quarters of the way through their bout a cold voice rang out.
"Oh-ho-ho, what do we have here?"
A tall figure swaggered into the clearing with the glaring sun at his back. Though they could only see a dark shape they knew that voice and tone only too well: Liu Tong!
The mayor's son and his four cronies strutted into the clearing like it was the council hall and they were elected officials rather than their. Always acting as though they were the rulers of a big city not a bunch of hairless hillbilly brats - it got Fen Ling's goat.
These five dandies were dressed somewhat better than the three friends. but clearly still only of the younger generation from the nearby village - although two of them appeared to be 11 or 12 already. The infamous five fanned out forming a human wall, just happening to block off the pathway home. This wasn't the five bullies first run in with the three nine year-olds and they knew the drill.
Fen Ling's eyes, which were normally full of life, were now angrily staring at the figures in front of her. Her tiny dirt covered fist tightly grabbed the wooden sword. She glanced behind her at the bedraggled Jian Cheng, who was standing calmly, clutching his own sword and inhaling deeply to recover as much energy as possible.
It seems they would definitely fight, but first she would stall for time. She didn't fear a beating. As Jian ge-ge said "pain was fleeting, only glory and honour were forever."
Brother Cheng actually had a lot of sayings, the majority of which seemed to be about pain and glory...
“Liu Tong, don’t be too overbearing!”
Fen Ling glared at the one particular figure at the head of the group, traces of anger in her normally lively voice.
“Heh heh, we had already discovered this secret fishing spot a long time ago, it’s just that we waited till today to come use it. Yet you’ve taken what was ours, how can you still say I’m the overbearing one?”
At this point, Liu Tong was grinning with his arms crossed while gazing at the angry Fen Ling.
"Hey let's not get ahead of ourselves... " Fatty stepped forward, palms facing down, to play peacemaker. "We all come from Rusty Creek Village let's--"
“That’s nonsense!” Fen Ling was having none of it.
Hearing Liu Tong trying to twist the facts, Fen Ling’s round face had reddened so much in anger it now resembled a ripe tomato. The three friends had been coming here for several years, how could that scoundrel have found it first? And if he really did find it first like he said, how could he have possibly ignore the place so continuously? Could it be that he was deliberately waiting someone else to pick it? Fen Ling became so incensed she almost forgot she was stalling for time...
“I’m not speaking nonsense...”
Liu Tong gazed at Fen Ling who looked adorable even when angry. Nevertheless he was all smiles as he said: “Fen Ling, give me five fish and I will let you go.”
“Don’t even think of it!”
Fatty ground his teeth. They had touched his reverse scale you never take the food from out of his mouth or from his family and friends. He would fight.
"Our fish are ours."
“Since it’s like that, looks like you can only spend the night out here.” Liu Tong chuckled. "Because we aren't leaving until I have five fish."
"Great," Jian Cheng spoke for the first time. "Because we aren't leaving until you have five teeth."
Fen Ling snorted. Good line big brother. Fatty's heavy sigh covered both his appreciation of the insult and his reluctance to get hurt.
"Good, I’m still not satisfied from that last beating I gave you last time.”
Liu Tong's comment was not only average it was clutching at straws. While they had definitely lost the four other fights between their two groups, it had always been three against five and it had always been closely contested.
Fatty was even larger than the two eleven year-olds and Jian ge-ge was just ruthlessly efficient. Fen Ling's self-appointed role was to run around the outside and kick people when they weren't watching. She had to protect her face after all. She wasn't afraid of fighting or even getting injured just that her mother would find out. And kill her... That would really be taking a loss from a childish scuffle...
Today they'd win for sure. For today they had two wooden swords. Fen Ling wasn't giving hers up and she knew you'd have to cut brother Cheng's blade out of his cold, dead hands...
Speaking of Jian Cheng, at that moment he arrived at her side, his eyes sparkling full of the sword sequences he was scheming. This was going to be such fun...
"Little Tong, you're courting death !" Fen Ling cried getting set to charge, her blade raised in basic Tiger Claw first position.
Liu Tong had only now noticed the wooden swords and was looking for a way out of this suddenly even battle. While the blades themselves were blunt the wielders seemed very keen...
"Oi what are you stinking brats up to over there!"
Ahh, an adult. With a flick of his eyes Liu Tong's gang scarpered, evaporating like only guilty children can.
Fen Ling was slightly disappointed while Jian Chen was truly frustrated and fuming. His eyes were turned inward thinking dark thoughts. There was no talking to him when he got like this.
"Whew," Fatty looked relieved. It was his grandfather out collecting herbs and he wouldn't have to fight. He and Fen Ling went over and greeted his grandfather, they even handed over two fish to take back for dinner. When they got back to the small clearing, Jian Cheng had returned as well.
"Again," he simply said, holding out his sword. Fen Ling smiled. Such fun.