”Do you have a spare bow I could use?” Halatir said, looking thoughtfully down the pass.
”Do you have a spare bow I could use?” Halatir said, looking thoughtfully down the pass.
Before Gong-Du could reply, troops marched down the road from around the curve, they wore lime green uniforms, the same as Halatir’s old militia outfit, and they held a familiar banner. It was Sima. The monks recognised the banner to be of the warlord who was tasked to protect Shu-Yiang, so they made way.
Halatir moved closer to view the arriving soldiers with a professional eye, and made sure to find himself a bow later.
The warriors marched by in neat square formations, there were hundreds of them. As it seemed, they were grouped up in to units of warriors with the same equipment, there was the shielded spearmen unit at the front, holding a long spear in one hand, and carrying an enforced wooden shield in the other that reached from their ankles up to their chins, behind them were swordsmen with curved swords and round iron enforced shields, followed by soldiers wielding only their long and crooked Ji, which excelled when facing cavalry. Then entered the warlord himself, Sima Ai, saddled on top of his majestic heavy armoured steed, with several units of both heavy and light horsemen behind him, his green cape motioning with his horse’s every move, his face scared and emotionless. This was an elf who knew war.
The warlord looked relatively young, older than prince Shu-Yiang still. He had spend these past couple of months fighting to keep his own while the prince sought sanctuary in the Guayong temple, free and without worry under the protection of the noble monks here. No message of any attack reached Sima, as every attempt made was intercepted, so it took him a while to be able to afford to shift his focus to Guayong to retrieve the prince what with his lands under constant threat of invasion.
The procession continued down the road until it reached the main square. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the snow had nearly melted from every shadowy pocket of the valley, and the sun’s rays reflected off of Sima’s shining armour as he dismounted.
Halatir was impressed. This was more soldiers than he had ever seen gathered together before, having come from a relatively small village. He approved of the disciplined ranks and most particularly of the heavy armor and shields that the Niirai bore. The alternating units of swordsman, pikemen, and spearmen also earned a nod.
Halatir made no motion towards the general. Although his unit was disbanded, Halatir counted himself as merely a attached warrior to Ren’s retinue, and not of any rank fitting of giving advice or approaching a high chieftain such as Sima.
It was at that moment that Shu-Yiang, or ‘‘Ren’’ as halatir knew him, emerged from the temple, flanked by Liang on his left, Ayro on his right, and Wei-Yong behind him. The warlord approached the prince, and kneeled a fair distance away from him.
‘‘Sima, old friend! I have thought you’ve forgotten about me!’’ Shu expressed appreciatively, still wearing the orange robes of the monks here, barely a hair on his face at his age. ‘‘Arise!’’ Shu told him, and Sima stood upright.
’‘Excuse my late arrival, my prince. I could not afford to divert attention to retrieving you when there were lands and people to defend.’’ he explained, still not a hint of emotion on his face.
’‘My lands and my people, you mean.’’ the prince corrected him, ‘‘Thanks for that, but i won’t have much use of either if i don’t have my life.’’ he continued, at which the warlord frowned.
’‘Of course.’’ he replied humbly.
’‘Finally, some action!’’ the prince exclaimed, '‘Now i will be able to make my mark on history! They will always remember how Shu-Yiang stood his ground against barbarism, and heroically lead his troops to victory time and again!’'
The warlord grew more displeased with every lie the prince outed, and Shu noticed.
’‘Where are my royal garments?’’ he asked him bluntly, in a sudden change of tone.
The warlord stood aside, and a pair of peasants came by carrying a wooden box.
’‘Right here.’’ Sima told him.
Shu nodded, ‘‘I will return swiftly.’’ he declared, and went back to the temple to change his attire.
Sima sighed, and stood there waiting.
Halatir had overheard the conversation with more and more distrust and horror. Not only was Ren speaking with intense bravado of deeds he would not be accomplishing, but he was also going to order other men to do them, to die doing them while he reaped the glory and the reward.
Suddenly, a thought popped into his head. Or what he thought was a thought, but he could not be sure. He felt drawn away from Xia, and he suddenly remembered why he had joined the Niirai military. And if Ren continued acting in this manner, Halatir had no intention of remaining a part of it. He had a task to accomplish, and a journey to make.
As the warlord waited, one of his lieutenants noticed Halatir standing aside, his armour was that of a militia man, if beat and broken, yet he wore temple ground robes. The lieutenant approached this stranger with white hair. ‘‘You there!’’ he called Halatir out, ‘‘Where did you get that gear?’’
Saluting, Halatir responded. ”It was issued me sir, before the dissolution of my unit.”
‘‘What unit?’’ the lieutenant wondered.
”4th Guayong Militia sir. Myself and one other are the only survivors.”
The lieutenant’s brow arched, ‘‘Oh really?’’ he said in a muted voice. He then turned towards the warlord, ‘‘Lord Sima!’’ he called out to him, and began heading his way, gesturing Halatir to follow. Coming up to him, Sima merely turned his head to look at the lieutenant as he reported. ‘‘We have yet more survivors from the outpost.’’ he told him. Sima-Ai looked at Halatir, his frown now gone.
Saluting again, his back rigid and fist to chest, Halatir spoke tersely.
”4th Guayong sir. Myself and one other, apart form the prince and his bodyguards survived.”
‘‘Only two?’’ the warlord nodded, having been impressed, ‘‘We’ve liberated your former outpost. Or what was left of it. Your fellow militiamen got butchered rather badly. My condolences. The prince and his party were given top priority in case of an attack, and the rest ordered to hold off any enemy, so you having survived demonstrates skill. Or luck.’’ he tilted his head as he looked around suspiciously, ‘‘Where is the other survivor?’’ Sima asked.
‘‘Over here!’’ exclaimed a voice from the crowd of soldiers. Looking past Halatir, Xi-Wan was seen clumsily pushing past line after line of soldiers before he reached the clear space in the middle, where the warlord and Halatir were standing. ‘‘I survived too!’’ he exclaimed rather cheerfully as Sima eyed him with disgust.
Halatir stares daggers at the elf. The enmity between them not faded over the months, and Halatir felt the loss of Huangfu more keenly than he had expected, short though their relationship had been. And Xi-Wan was to an extent responsible for the hole that allowed the regiment to be caught off guard.
”This is indeed him, sir.” said Halatir in a clipped, sharp tone.
‘‘Well then…’’ Sima sighed, ‘‘Congratulations to you, one… Halatir, was it? You look like an able fighter, and a resourceful one too.’’ he told him as he inspected his makeshift armour and garb, ‘‘For your efforts with defending the prince Shu-Yiang in his time of need, you are hereby to serve in my ranks as a true soldier of Xia. As will… the other one.’’ Sima explained.
’‘Its Xi-Wan, sir.’’ Xi-Wan intervened.
’‘Right.’’ the warlord continued, ‘‘Furthermore, i will have you serve me as Zhongwei. I need more elves that have initiative raised above the rest. People will be inspired by your tale of fighting beside the prince.’’ he told him.
’‘Oh! And me?’’ Xi-Wan asked excitedly.
Sime looked down on him, frowning, ‘‘And you will serve under him.’’ he said, and turned to Halatir, ‘‘Congratulations on your new command. Your direct superior is Zhengshi Jun-Li. The one that dragged you before me.’’
Jun-Li still standing right beside them bowed his head to Halatir in greeting.
”Thank you sir.” Halatir said, surprised. He saluted again, to both the lieutenant and the general. ”Orders, Zhengshi?”
‘‘Fall in line, the prince is coming…’’ he told him, and proceeded to leave to his previous position where he stood at attention.
Promptly assuming a position a few ranks behind and to the left of the lieutenant, Xi-Wan close at hand, Halatir stared straight ahead, head high. A storm of thoughts was rushing through his brain, fueled by the ramifications of his promotion.
The prince walked out with his escort once more. He was now wearing iron plated armour, over which he had a decorative leopard skin with which to demonstrate his excellency.
Shu-Yiang confidently walked up to Sima-Ai. ‘‘Let us be on our way then.’’ he declared pompously.
Sima nodded, barked ‘‘Form at ready!’’ and the entire procession turned around, waited for the warlord and prince to be mounted, followed by ‘‘Forward march!’’ at which the army rhythmically began marching back up the same road they arrived on in unison.
Ayro stood there parallel to the leaving army without motion, his eyes searching for known faces.