Chapter 16: Ning Que, the Wood-chopper of Shubi Lake
Translator: Transn Editor: Transn
For Ning Que, who had been used to surviving in forests, on grasslands, and among herds of beasts since childhood, it was those mysterious cultivators that disturbed him, but not the secret killers. Thus, after cutting off the assassins' heads with his podao, he immediately retreated to the mild slope, where there still existed slash fire. Then he picked up his boxwood bow at once, and aimed at the Great Sword Master again.
This time, his vigilance seemed a little needless. The middle-aged scholar (the Great Sword Master) in an indigo robe, without any movement, just silently leaned against a big tree. He looked at the lad in the firelight, with his black eyes on his bloody face, and muttered a few words. Then he died, with a helpless laugh and hands spread apart.
Ning Que had been aiming intently at the Great Sword Master's corpse for a long while, and he didn't lay down his bow until his arms began trembling. Immediately, tiredness and ache started invading his blood and every vessel.
He asked without turning around, "Are you all right?"
The flames, caused by kerosene grenades, lit fallen leaves, but the moist sapropel at the entrance to the Northern Mountain Road gradually extinguished the fire. Sangsang, half squatting and looking up at Ning Que's back, re-closed the big, black umbrella, which made a sound, and shook her head. It seemed that her young master could know what she had done without her words.
The maidservant knew Ning Que was not concerned about her. She quickly stood up, raising her skirt's hemline, and sprinted to the carriage team, which was almost ruined. She wildly moved the heavy wooden box debris away. Then she eagerly embraced the dignified and strong boy, lovingly and gently flicking off the dust that was left on his face.
About six grassland barbarians and Tang bodyguards were still alive. After struggling to stand on their feet, they trudged to the ruined carriage. The seriously injured bodyguard captain, leading others to kneel on one knee, mournfully said with his head touching the ground, "We subordinates deserve countless deaths as Her Princess is disturbed by the assassins due to our ineffective battle."
It was not a sad picture that several men, covered in blood, kowtowed to the maidservant, who was hugging the boy while arrays of stars and remnant firelight were blazing. Instead, it was a picture full of bravery, or in other words, solemnity and valiance.
Sangsang walked close to Ning Que, and both of them just quietly looked at this scene. There was no need for them to pretend to show astonished or shocked expressions, as they had already figured out the real identity of the maidservant before.
After a short rest, the guards and barbarians began, with difficulty, binding up wounds and applying medicines to each other. When their breath steadied, they commenced on cleaning up the battlefield, carrying back several severely wounded companions, and slaying all dying enemies. After that, these agile and brave men unconsciously looked behind them.
Looking at the lad in a slight-scorched, cotton-padded jacket, the bodyguards showed some very complicated expressions—shock, confusion, and even fear. The sight of Ning Que's capability convinced them that the lad had a good mastery of fighting and archery, but not a mysterious strongman beyond the imagination.
In this battle, it was the bodyguards and Lyu Qingchen who directly fought with the two mighty cultivators and depleted the majority of the Great Sword Master's life, making it possible for Ning Que to end the enemy's life with three arrows at last.
However, it furthered their feeling that the lad was a very formidable figure.
When he began attacking, he could choose the perfect timing, with a precise angle and an effective approach. Additionally, a calm and tough heart was hidden beneath his gentle and young appearance. Undoubtedly, it was such an amazing performance to slay those three assassins in black with his three podaos. How did he manage to do it at such a young age? How many people did he kill in the border town of the grassland? And how many heads did he cut off?
The bodyguard captain, leaning on a stick, trudged towards Ning Que and Sangsang and then deeply bowed with his hands pressed together. Though without any thankful words, his innermost appreciation could easily and fully be told by that gesture.
Leading Sangsang by her hand to the side, Ning Que refused to accept the bodyguard captain's bow. These Tang bodyguards, who followed Her Princess to the grassland, as the dead Great Sword Master previously said, deserved the respect of every enemy or friend due to their intrepid performance and strict military discipline. That was why Ning Que refused to accept his bow.
The leader said, "I can tell that there aren't any patterns in your martial arts. Perhaps I can beat you if we battle bare-handed. But I have to admit that if I were you, I would have been killed when the three assassins raided, let alone been able to slay them efficiently."
Looking at Ning Que's immature face, the bodyguard captain, suppressing his shock, asked in a husky voice, "Lad, I'm very curious, where did you learn the ability to kill others?"
Scratching his head and keeping silent for a while, Ning Que replied with a smile, "The ability to kill others, certainly, is learned from killing."
Of course, he couldn't tell the leader that he had already known the name of Xia Hou since he was four. And that, all the time, he had been making some preparations to kill, or be killed by, Xia Hou.
Xia Hou, a powerful Tang general, had no idea that there was a lad, in a distant town of the frontier fortress, assiduously practicing fighting skills, analyzing the battling styles of all the mighty subordinates of Xia Hou, and summarizing countless countermeasures every day.
Therefore, for Ning Que, the death of the three assassins in black was just an inevitable result of his painstaking practice that he did for over a decade. If the enemies were not Xia Hou's subordinates, for example, the bodyguard captain in front of him, he couldn't have achieved such a satisfactory victory.
In today's battle at the entry to the Northern Mountain Road, Ning Que, after all these years, finally met with the subordinates of General Xia Hou for the first time. Maybe it was just an accident or an arrangement of fate. Anyway, Ning Que's podao and archery, full of vengeance, had begun to show cold-bloodedness.
The bodyguard captain, pressing his wounded chest, looked with confusion at the fearless lad and mumbled, "You're only about sixteen years old, is it possible that you have killed more people than I have?"
"If you count animals, then I really have killed a lot," Ning Que replied, smiling.
"I'm referring to human beings," the bodyguard captain asked with emphasis, and then he explained at once, "I'm not interrogating you, and it's just out of curiosity."
Ning Que, rubbing his face and looking at the leader, after a short silence said, "The major income source in the border towns is from killing the Horse Gang—usually we called this activity 'chopping wood'. During the past few years, it was I who led others to kill the Horse Gang in the City of Wei. Thus, regarding killing people, I did slay a lot."
A grassland barbarian, who was standing behind the bodyguard captain and also wanted to know about Ning Que and to express his thanks, turned around and left without a word after hearing Ning Que's answer. His steps were a little hurried with his shoulders trembling.
A grassland companion asked with confusion, "Dumu, what's the matter with you?"
Dumu slumped down beside the bonfire, lifted up his wounded arm with difficulty and, slapping his numb cheek out of fear, said, "That lad... should be the well-known wood-chopper from Shubi Lake."
This statement caused four grassland barbarians around the bonfire to acutely change their expressions. Nobody talked anymore. Someone sneaked a look at Ning Que and then quickly lowered his head, as he was afraid to be discovered by the lad.
Before being subdued by Her Princess, the barbarians were Horse Gang members in the grassland, famous for their violence and toughness. However, for them, the Tang's mighty military border forces were the real Horse Gang. In every change of season, when the logistics supply was short, the Tang cavalries in towns of the frontier fortress would conduct an extra wealth-gaining looting operation on the grassland Horse Gang.
The border forces of Tang Empire called it wood-collecting. The Horse Gang described the bloody battle as wood-chopping, and they referred to the most ferocious cavalry leaders as wood-choppers. In particular, the wood-chopper of Shubi Lake... was the number one of all the wood-choppers. That was the reason why the color of Shubi Lake turned red. He was the nightmare of the grassland Horse Gang and he was the horror story told beside the bonfire.
But before tonight, however, they had never thought that the wood-chopper of the Shubi Lake was so young.