After the Dragon-breaking Stone was opened, Hei Feng Gang began an extensive robbing exercise. On the first day, two teams were sent down the mountains and came back with only minimal gains because it was not the season for harvesting. On the second day, seven teams of men and horses went to a farther village to plunder provisions and properties. However, when night fell, only four of the seven teams made it back. Not only that, they returned empty-handed, battered and exhausted, and reportedly exchanged blows with the army and the people from Xin Yi. There was still no news of the other three teams.
The management of the stockade held an emergency meeting. Even second-in-charge, who was still recuperating, attended.
Auntie Jiang came to help wash some clothes, wearing a grave expression.
"Auntie Wu's man is gone. She cried so mournfully. If it had not been us pulling her back, she would have banged her head against the wall and died." Auntie Jiang sighed. Although she was not on good terms with Auntie Wu, her grudges were swept aside in seeing a fellow auntie wracked with so much grief.
"Isn't Auntie Wu's man part of the missing teams? How do you know for certain that he is gone?" Ye Jiayao knew that many died, but the detailed list of deceased had yet to be announced.
"The brothers from the Pan Long Mountain Ridges just sent 20 corpses back, saying that the people from Xin Yi threw them there and left. Auntie Wu's man's body was almost split into half -" Auntie Jiang retched, thinking of the horrible scene.
Ye Jiayao shuddered. Ever since she came up the mountains, though there were sullen times, life was pretty good. There was no hurry to escape and she felt that there was a lot of time to plan and look for opportunities. However, this sudden change caused her to feel a strong sense of distress.
She could not be certain that the army would listen to her explanation after attacking the mountains. Even if she explained herself, she was afraid no one would believe her. Xia Chunyu was right. If news of her being kidnapped by Hei Feng Gang got out, the reputation of the Ye and Wei family would be damaged. Therefore, both families would definitely try to conceal the news as a way to salvage the situation. Hence, if she were to say that she was the daughter of the Ye family, and the daughter-in-law of the Wei family, no one would believe her. Her only identity would be the wife of the third-in-charge of Hei Feng Gang.
"From what I see, our stockade is going down this time." Auntie Jiang shook her head.
"Auntie Jiang, if the stockade is attacked, do you think we would be able to survive?" Ye Jiayao asked worriedly.
Auntie Jiang smiled bitterly. "If the army attacks, us women, might be able to survive. If it is the people of Xin Yi that attacked, it would be hard to say. Their people are far more cruel than us! However, towards a young and beautiful woman like you, third madam, they might let you go. A ruined old woman like me would be sure to be chopped up like melon without batting an eyelid."
Ye Jiayao could not even bother to give a bitter laugh. Even if she managed to survive, she would probably be reduced to yet another woman of a bandit! She would have been better off sticking with Chunyu! At least, he was pleasing to the eyes! Besides, Chunyu was gentle and thoughtful at times. Like these past two nights, he religiously rubbed her stomach for the whole night, no matter how she changed her sleeping position.
She admits, that if she was placed in his situation, she would not be able to do that.
"Forget it, let's not talk about these things. I believe first-in-charge would have a plan, and if that is of no use, there is still third-in-charge. He will protect us," Ye Jiayao said without much confidence.
Meanwhile, Chunyu and the rest of the brothers returned.
"Third-in-charge, I will make some preparations before setting off," Peng Wu said respectfully, cupping his fist in his hand.
Xia Chunyu wore a grave expression as he nodded. "Take care of yourself."
Ye Jiayao followed Chunyu into the house.
"Where is Peng Wu going?"
"Down the mountains," Xia Chunyu replied concisely, going straight to the study room, opening up the map to study it.
"He is going down the mountains so late at night? Isn't there an ambush down the mountains?" Ye Jiayao asked with concern.
Xia Chunyu glared at her with annoyance. "Can you stop disturbing me?"
Ye Jiayao snorted resentfully, leaving the room to look for Song Qi.
Song Qi was sending Peng Wu out, handing his dagger to him. "This dagger is handed down in my family. It is extremely sharp, sees blood and seals the throat. Bring this with you, and return it to me when you come back."
Peng Wu placed the dagger on his waist belt, patting Song Qi on the shoulder. "Thank you, brother."
Ye Jiayao also sidled up to the two. "Peng Wu, be careful. If you cannot fight them, run."
Peng Wu smiled. "Sister-in-law, it's nothing. I'm just bringing some brothers down the mountains to scope the situation better. I'll try not to exchange blows with anyone."
After sending Peng Wu off, Ye Jiayao asked Song Qi, "Is the situation really that terrible?"
Song Qi scratched his head. "There is a little trouble. The army and the people of Xin Yi seemed to have stationed themselves below the mountains. The villagers nearby also alert them immediately when they see us. If we cannot rob any provisions, we would be trapped up here to our deaths."
Ye Jiayao's heart sank. That was indeed troubling.
That night, Chunyu and Song Qi went out to patrol and reinforce the defenses until the wee hours of the morning.
As crisis approached, Ye Jiayao felt all the discomfort in her body disappear. The next day, she woke up early, going to the kitchen to collect ingredients.
Today's ration was much lesser than yesterday's. There was only two catty of rice, one catty of flour, one section of lotus roots, two loofahs, and three eggs. Ye Jiayao knew that the supplies were scarce right now, but she didn't know that it was to the extent of having porridge! Did Old Head Yu make a mistake? She had quite a few people in her house!
Old Yu said, "Two eggs are only for second-in-charge. First-in-charge has instructed that other than second-in-charge, who's recuperating, everyone would have their rations cut by half. Everyone has to tighten their belts to pass the days."
However, this belt was tightened too much all of a sudden. Ye Jiayao had no choice but to bring the rations back to the courtyard and begin to stew porridge. With such little rice, they could only drink porridge. Adding the newly distributed flour to some old flour, she made steamed buns as they could not afford to have buns with stuffed fillings.
Luckily, Uncle Jiang sent over the fermented beancurd that Auntie Jiang made. Song Qi and Chunyu could each have a bowl of porridge and two steamed buns.
At first, she thought Chunyu would complain about the quality and quantity of the food, but he had no reaction at all. Seeing Ye Jiayao only drinking porridge and not eating the steamed buns, Xia Chunyu asked, "How many buns did you make in total? Why are you not eating?"
Ye Jiayao smiled. "I don't feel like eating it yet. You guys go ahead, there are still some left in the pot. I will have them later."
Only then, did Xia Chunyu start eating his second steamed bun.
"Song Qi, let's go." Xia Chunyu carried his sword out after having his fill. Song Qi finished his porridge hurriedly and said goodbye to Ye Jiayao, catching up to Xia Chunyu.
Ye Jiayao finished her breakfast slowly and counted the steamed buns in the pot. There were eight left. She made a total of twelve, and if she doesn't eat them, Song Qi and Chunyu could have six each. If Peng Wu returned in time, each person could only have four. They were men and they need to use their strength. Even if they could not eat well, they have to be full as much as possible.
After clearing the cutleries, Ye Jiayao picked a stalk of Sarmentosum and placed it in her pocket, carrying a basket to look for Auntie Jiang. She wanted to make herself useful, not become a burden to others. She could not do other things, but looking for food should be manageable.
"Auntie Jiang, I want to go up the mountains to dig for some wild vegetables." She dared not go up alone and wanted to drag Auntie Jiang along.
Auntie Jiang replied, "Just in time! Auntie Zhao and the rest also wanted to go dig for some wild vegetables. Let's just all go together!"
That was how Ye Jiayao found herself and Auntie Jiang joining the other aunties up the mountains.
"There are many traps in this mountain, you guys better be careful." With more experience, Auntie Zhao was everyone's guide. She was bringing the group around to avoid the traps like metal clamps.
"Actually, they are all marked, you just have to take note," Auntie Zhao said, pointing to a piece of land covered with dry grass and then again to the twig beside it.
"Also, the traps are marked with who made it. This way, there will not be a case of people fighting over the captured prey," Auntie Jiang whispered to Ye Jiayao.
Ye Jiayao had a lingering fear from almost stepping into a trap just now. Initially, she thought that the most frightful thing she would meet up the mountains would be snakes. She had no idea that she would have to watch out for traps as well. Luckily, she joined Auntie Jiang, otherwise, she would have ended up dead in the mountains with no one knowing.
Pertaining to wild vegetables, Ye Jiayao could only recognize wild scallions, shepherd's purse, dandelions, purslane, and fiddlehead. Under the guidance of Auntie Jiang, she managed to recognize flixweed, a soft shoot that tastes delicious when used to fry egg, and Acorus calamus, which can be used to stew soup. She also learned to spot gutweed, which has cooling and detoxifying properties, and beef plant that tasted exceptionally fresh and delicious when used in a salad.
"Don't dig all of them out in one go. Leave some roots so that they will grow out again after a few days," Auntie Jiang explained to her.
"Mmhm!" Ye Jiayao dug excitedly. This mountain was filled with wild vegetables and small animals. Hei Feng Gang was practically a huge treasure trove! Ye Jiayao was still worried about running out of ammunition and starving to death, but now, she was feeling a bit better seeing all the provisions available.
Not long after, everyone returned happily from a rewarding journey.
Ye Jiayao specially picked flixweed, Acorus calamus, and beef plant. She would use one for frying egg, the other to make a salad, and the Acorus calamus to stew soup with the addition of air-dried meat. With those vegetables, there would be three additional dishes for her household. Ye Jiayao was elated and decided to pick wild vegetables every day in the future.
After preparing lunch, Ye Jiayao waited for quite a while before Chunyu and Song Qi finally came back.
"Why are you so late today? The dishes are already cold. Do you want me to heat them up?" Ye Jiayao asked.
Xia Chunyu waved his hand. "No need, we'll just eat it now. We'll have to leave again later."
The two sat down while Ye Jiayao went to serve porridge and steamed buns.
Seeing the dishes on the table, Xia Chunyu couldn't help but frown. Weren't those wild vegetables? Yesterday, first-in-charge had ordered to conserve the rations to pass the days, and today there were wild vegetables?
"Who sent these wild vegetables over?" Xia Chunyu asked.
Ye Jiayao replied quite proudly, "I went up to the mountains to pluck them."
Xia Chunyu's face suddenly darkened in anger. "Who let you go up the mountains? Do you know how dangerous the mountains are?" he howled.
Wow! So much concern for little old me! This was the first time Ye Jiayao felt his concern from all his yelling. She laughed giddily and replied, "I went with Auntie Jiang and Auntie Zhao, there wasn't any danger."
Xia Chunyu's angry stance relaxed a bit. "How is going with just a group of women not dangerous? What if you meet a wild boar or a wild wolf? You can't run or fight! You are not allowed to go on excursions like that again."
Song Qi agreed, "That's right! Next time, I will set aside a time every day to go up the mountains to get something to eat. You don't have to go again."
"What's wrong? We are not going far, just the mountain nearby. What kind of danger can there be? You men just worry about your matters, don't meddle in women's issues." Ye Jiayao pouted resentfully. She did not want to be a useless sitting duck.