Chapter 8: Snowball Fight
Seven years. Over two thousand five hundred days and nights passed quietly, slipped away without a trace. Tiger Head Ridge still towered in the middle of the river, the landscape unchanged, but Cai Wenchang was now fifteen. He had become a young man with dashing eyebrows, fierce eyes, and a sombre face. Built like an ox yet handsome as a fair-faced gentleman. If he didn't look so glum he would be the most handsome young man in Cai Family Village and would be doted on by all the clan elders.
But he had grown up under hardship and had manacled his heart, not accepting any kindness. He didn't want anyone's concern or sympathy. He used silence as protest against his eldest uncle, and he cast the other village elders hostile looks.
Every day that his heavy labor went uncompleted or was the least bit unsatisfactory would leave him with another ruthless purple-black welt.
His food, still only leftovers. His clothes, still light summerwear even in winter.
He had not smiled once in the past seven years. A smile to him was like the distant mountains or far-off clouds, too remote and unfamiliar.
His elder cousin Wenhua did not pass the exams in Shangzhou and had to work in the village tending crops. He had grown tall and strong and they were still sworn enemies, clashing often. Wenhua had not only studied in Shadow Rock Village, he had also learned martial arts from a Shaolin master at the martial arts training centre, but he was never a match for Wenchang. He would lose nine and a half out of ten fights.
These seven years he had continuously practiced his Ultimate Breathing technique, which had made him not only more and more stalwart, but even the whip no longer bothered him.
The whip Village Head Cai used to punish him became thicker and thicker, from a one-tailed whip to a three-tailed whip that expanded from the width of a pinky to a span of two fingers thick. But curiously, it only marked the skin, never broke it. In one or two days when a new welt was added the old welt had miraculously disappeared.
Wenchang knew no punches or kicks, only his breathing exercises. But he could run like the wind.
The fifteenth day of the first month passed and the new year festivities gradually died down. The wheat in the fields was buried under a thick layer of ice and snow, so there was no work to be done there. The cold winter was the time for hunting as soon as the prolonged snowfall finally ceased.
Wenchang never got to go hunting with the villagers. He was always placed on guard duty at home. Because the hunt was a chance for the boys to show off their prowess, if the strong boys were skilled they could capture a big bear and be hailed as a hero. In fact, bears were easy to catch during winter. Just find a den where one was hibernating and it would be easy to grab. The trouble was finding its den. You had to walk far, very far, and you might run into tigers, dholes, or a pack of ravenous wolves that might very well be the end of you. Naturally! Of course, hunting a tiger or panther would make you a hero among heroes, but such a hero was a rare breed.
The hunting party had been gone two days, leaving Wenchang and some elderly women and small children behind in the village. He was extremely bored. It would be nearly half a month before the hunting party returned, so at least he wouldn't be whipped during that time.
He wore unpadded clothes, but the cold no longer threatened him as he strolled aimless out of the village toward Shadow Rock Village.
The Shadow Rock villagers were friendly to him, at least more so than his own villagers, who hated him as if he he were a walking epidemic.
Snow covered the ground, pure white as far as the eye could see. Icicles hung from the tree branches all the way to the ground and the northern wind cut like a knife. With every step one sank in the snow to the knee.
He walked briskly through the snow, cutting through the snow-covered forest and over the hillside, to the side of which lay Shadow Rock Village, twice the size of Cai Family Village. Standing on the hilltop he could see Tri-Surname Ancestral Temple in the center of the village, and to the left of that the martial arts centre, which sat cold and empty. The centre was actually Great Deliverance Temple, whose doors were tightly shut.
Shadow Rock Village was laid out in a square with high village walls, four main gates, and eight watchtowers altogether. From a distance it was a magnificent sight.
Wenchang had always longed to study as well as learn martial arts in Shadow Rock, but he never had the chance. He had stolen several of his cousin Wenhua's books and had secretly eavesdropped on Wenhua reading aloud in order to grope his way through the general meaning of the texts. He was extremely gifted, but he still had learned next to nothing, though he could recognize some common characters. At least he was not completely ignorant.
He headed down the hillside. Far away, halfway down the slope on the right side were two figures walking with their hands behind their back within a plum grove. The delicate scent of wintersweet wafted in the wind, intoxicatingly fragrant.
He recognized them. It was Shang Lan, the private school teacher in Shadow Rock Village for the past eight years, and Village Head Zhang Liangzuo's head steward, Zhang Hong.
Shang Lan did not look old, but his hair had greyed over the eight years he had been there. His tall, effeminate body was not yet hunched over, though his face was quite wrinkled, and his eyes were probably worse from age.
Zhang Hong was a burly fellow, around forty, with a big head and sharp, piercing eyes and a muscular build. Even the Zhang family elders weren't clear on his background. No one knew if Zhang was even his real surname, only that he was the right-hand man of Village Head Zhang, who had brought him in from somewhere years ago. He not only looked after the village head's land and crops, he also oversaw the three families' shops in Fine Horse Village. He was quite capable. He was a big man and imposing with a powerful voice, his movements agile, and he had a magnanimous, forthright air about him. He treated Village Head Zhang very respectfully, and he was polite to the elders of the three families, though the elders' descendents all feared him. He moved with astonishing, imperceptible strength.
They walked side by side with their hands clasped behind their back. They each wore a lambskin winter hat with flaps over the ears, a sheepskin jacket, and turquoise cotton-padded pants with ox-hide thigh boots. They walked with refined gaits as they ran into Wenchang.
"Eh?" Steward Zhang said. "Wenchang, aren't you cold with just a lined jacket?"
Wenchang wasn't unfeeling. He knew when people were being nice to him. He only felt a little chilly, but he forced himself to bear it. The abuse he had suffered since he was a kid had formed layer upon layer of armor over his heart so that he didn't feel anything from the outer world and never revealed his inner feelings. He rejected all kindness and malice. Only a few twitches of his handsome face counted as a faint smile.
He cupped his hand over his fist in customary greeting, and bowed slightly. "Hello, Head Steward, hello Teacher. I'm not cold."
Zhang Hong hmphed and slipped out of his sheepskin jacket and tossed it over. "Wear this…"
"No! Thank you, Head Steward." He tossed it back with equal discourtesy.
Zhang Hong tossed it to him again. "I know your uncle's a good-for-nothing," he said loudly. "Relax. Put it on. You're growing up, you mustn't torture yourself. You ought to take better care of yourself. If your uncle has a problem with it you tell him it was ole Zhang here who gave it to you. Tell him to come find me."
Shang Lan just shook his head with a wry smile. "Head Steward, you're making trouble for him."
Zhang Hong laughed. "What's the big deal? Worst comes to worst he can leave Cai Family Village and I can help him find a job. Better than suffering in that village. Hmph! These days it's survival of the fittest. You won't make it if you're weak." He turned back to Wenchang. "Come on, kid, let's go to my place for a bit. Later on, come find me if you run into trouble. If I'm not in Shadow Rock then you can find me at the Zhang family mill in Fine Horse Village. Anywhere is home for a real man. Don't be a fool."
Fate is a curious thing. Any word or phrase or action might be the one to decide a person's life, for good or bad. This chance encounter would cause a nearly unstoppable tempest to sweep through the jianghu.
He stayed at Shadow Rock that whole day with Head Steward Zhang Hong and Teacher Shang Lan, who gave him some insight into the world outside the villages. It was like a huge stone dropped into the placid lake of his heart, causing ripples over the once deathly still water.
On his way out, the head steward escorted him to the village entrance. "Remember, kid, the sky's the limit. You can go anywhere. It's you who control your destiny. Don't let your destiny control you. It's the honest man who is bullied, the docile horse that is ridden. Those who submit to fate and accept their lot will always be trampled underfoot. Look after yourself, and don't forget to come find me if you're in trouble."
A wave of emotion came over Wenchang. He bowed deep with his hands clasped before him. "Thank you for your help, Head Steward. I will remember what you said." Then he took his leave, setting out with large strides.
Ten days later the hunting party returned. They hadn't caught much and the village children were in low spirits. A heavy snowstorm had arrived two days before, making it difficult for them.
Snow fell thick and fast. A blizzard was upon them. In Cai Family Village there brewed a storm of another kind.
At dawn Wenchang practiced Darkheaven Breath Refining for two hours, then went out with the sheepskin jacket Zhang Hong had given him tucked under his arm. He hadn't worn it since returning home. Living for more than a decade under brutal suppression had made him skittish to rebel. It was only normal. No wonder he didn't have the nerve to wear it. Today he was heading for Black Dragon Pond to see if he could get in the water and exercise his muscles.
The water level was shallow at Red River during winter and it was frozen over, but Black Dragon Pond was never dry at any time of the year and it never froze over. Over the years he had become intimately familiar with every blade of grass, every stone, every eddy, every grotto in and around the pond. But he had never dared to cut those other two dragonhorn stalks because he didn't know anything about poisons and didn't know what would happen if he consumed the plants when he wasn't poisoned.
Clouds hung heavy overhead and the wind gusted fierce as snow swirled in the air. It was already late in the double-hour of the dragon,1 but it was still very dark. Not everyone in the village was shut in their homes; the youngsters were out playing, running around and hollering in the midst of a big snowball fight.
Two teams were facing off in the square near the southern gates, snowballs sailing through the air among the shouting.
The team on the right was led by his elder cousin, and Third Uncle's son, Wenchao, led the team on the left. There were about thirty meters separating them, and a two-foot wall of snow was piled up along the lines of sophora trees. The younger ones stayed in the back and made the snowballs, which they handed to the older kids who stood directly behind the walls and hucked the snowballs at the other team before retreating back. It was a lively scene; the ruckus could be heard from five miles out.
Wenchang rarely got to play with the other kids. It was like he didn't belong to Cai Family Village but was an inauspicious, unwelcomed person. The kids might not be prejudiced, but their elders forbade them from playing with him.
Children are pure and innocent. Several of them ignored their parents' admonitions and continued to talk to him or sneak him some pilfered chicken or duck and give it to him at the foot of Tiger Ridge Mountain. But some of the older kids, such as Wenhua and Wenchao, seemed as incompatible with him as fire and water and would often quarrel with him, and when they fought it was a huge commotion. But whether he won or lost the fight, he still lost out in the end. If he won, someone would tell on him to the village head and he would be flogged. If he lost, it was even more savage.
He had to cut through the zooming snowballs, but he was uncertain.
I should go around, he thought.
Before he could make up his mind to go around, someone from Wenchao's side hollered, "Join us, Little Tiger!"
Another kid about thirteen or fourteen ran out shouting from behind Wenhua's fort, hucked two snowballs and ran back. "He's got the nerve? We don't want him!"
Wenhua stood behind the rampart. "Beat it! No one wants you… Ah…"
Just then a snowball thwomped into his chest, sending snow flying into his face and forcing him two steps back. Wenchao popped up from the other side. "Haha! Got you again… Ah…"
A snowball soared in from out of nowhere and tagged him on the chin. He staggered back two steps and wiped the snow off. "You little bastard, you were over the f*cking line! You're gonna get it."
He scooped up two snowballs, leapt over the snow wall, and charged toward the little bastard.
Wenchang had thought to go around them, but their insults had angered him. He strode forward down the center, ready to counter and declare war should any snowball hit him.
It just so happened that as Wenchao charged ahead he came close to Wenchang just as snowballs converged on him from all directions.
Whomp! Whomp whomp! Whomp! Snowballs exploded all over Wenchao in a spray of snow, more than ten of them, sending him into a wailing fury. Recklessly he shouted and threw the snowballs in his hands as hard as he could, though he didn't see who it was in front of him.
The two snowballs slammed into Wenchang. They were only eight feet apart so he couldn't miss.
Wenchang flared up, dropped the jacket, and quickly stooped down and scooped up a ball of snow and threw it just as Wenchao had turned around.
His arm strength was something else. The snowball smashed into Wenchao's back with a violent thwomp, the gigantic force of the throw sending Wenchao facedown in the snow.