For these three days, I’ll be posting three chapters as an excerpt from my newly released novel Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess, available now wherever eBooks are sold!
Chapter 18- The Happy Ox Inn
It was late afternoon when it happened.
Baking under the mid-day sun, most of the crew had retreated under the shade offered by the sail and superstructure as the ship cut through the green waters of the canal. Meiyu had let herself doze in the heat, but the Lin clan members were still up and awake around her, watching for trouble. They were an extremely careful lot. With only a few exceptions she had noticed that they ate only their own dried rations to make sure no-one could poison them, and there were always two of them awake at any given time.
At the moment, Madam Lin was the one sleeping, while Dancing Blade watched Meiyu and Dancing Cloud ate. The dried meat and pickled vegetables had a strong, pungent odor to them that made most of the people around her move far away.
Then, without warning, one of the four horses tied in the center suddenly let out a cry and started thrashing around. Everyone who had been asleep was instantly awake, and the crew erupted into worried shouts as the animal began to kick and try to pull itself free. This also upset the other horses, who began to react by pulling away and trying to escape from their panicked brother.
Four large, upset animals anywhere is a problem, but on a boat only five arm-spans wide it could be a disaster. So, the Lin clan members leapt into immediate action, with Dancing Blade rushing for the horse which had started the problem, while Dancing Cloud and Madam Lin rushed into try and separate the other three horses from their disturbed brother.
As this happened, Meiyu was watching in fascination, but then felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking up, she saw one of the boatmen, who laid a finger in front of his lips.
“You have a beautiful voice songbird, but moreso, you have a clever way with verses. Child of the great Crocodile of White Fox Town, is it? We have great respect for him, and would do anything to help his child stuck in a time of need.” He produced a small knife that he used to cut her bonds. “Fly, little songbird. While you have the chance.”
In an instant, she was free, and she did the first thing that came to mind- she jumped up, ran to the edge of the boat and jumped off.
Hitting the cool water, she took a moment to kick off her shoes, and then swam up to the surface. The boat had already sailed past her, but there was no sign any of the Lins had noticed she was gone- yet. Seizing the moment, she began to swim as fast as she could for a clump of bushes near the shore. Once there, she used the plants as cover while she crept out of the murky canal and headed into the forest beyond.
Being Northerners from the dry plains, she considered it likely that her former captors couldn’t swim, which meant they would have to get the boat to shore to follow her. That would buy her time, but even more importantly, they wouldn’t know which side of the canal she was on. With just three of them, it would be hard for them to pursue her on both sides, and that gave her odds she could work with.
They would have horses, but they were also strangers to the central plains, which meant that the locals wouldn’t be as inclined to help them as they would her. If she could just find a large enough town, she could get help from some of her family’s allies.
For now, Meiyu just focused on running as fast as her bare feet could carry her.
Last Brother Shou had seen everything.
Sitting atop a horse on a nearby hilltop that looked down on the canal, he and his two companions had watched as the girl jumped from the boat and fled into the forest beyond.
They had tracked the Lin clan members to the place where they’d gotten passage on the riverboat, and spent most of the day following the boat’s slow passage along the canal. It wasn’t hard for their horses to overtake the boat, and they’d been content with pacing it and waiting for it to make landfall so they could make their move.
Now that was in the past, and their quarry was again escaping them on the other side of the canal.
Shou frowned. “Is there a crossing near here?”
He looked at Xiao, and Xiao looked at Mah.
Mah said nothing.
“Then we find one.” Shou said, bringing his horse around and gesturing ahead of them along the road. “She’ll head for the nearest town, we’ll catch her there.”
“This’ll do. Thank you.”
Meiyu hopped from the cart and bowed a more formal thank you to the old farmer who’d been kind enough to give her a ride into town. Then she turned and looked about. It wasn’t a large town, perhaps fifty or sixty families, but Willow Garden was on the caravan routes, so there was a chance she might find some of her family’s allies here.
The market square was mostly empty, with the majority of the businesses having closed for the day. All that remained open were a few lantern-lit outdoor wine gardens and a couple street food sellers. A scattering of people wandered about- people strolling to enjoy the cooling early evening breeze as the sun set in the west.
Picking an older couple, Meiyu approached them cautiously and politely, brushing her hair back and arranging herself to try to make up for her disheveled, barefoot appearance. While the husband recoiled at her approach, the wife seemed more sympathetic, and after a brief conversation Meiyu learned what she needed to know. There were three large inns in the town, each of them just off the market square a short distance. The roughest was a place called the Happy Ox Inn, and it was also the largest of the three, which made it her best choice.
Making her way down the side street, she located the Happy Ox fairly easily by following the sounds of laughter and singing. It had an extensive wine garden patio, and as Meiyu passed she could see it was filled with tough looking drunken travelers and overly painted women enjoying themselves under newly lit lanterns.
To most, that sight alone would have been enough to turn them around and send them in another direction, lest the revelers took notice of them. But Mao Meiyu was a resident of White Fox Town, and the daughter of an armed escort agency headman. To her, this wasn’t dangerous, it was a small touch of home.
Meiyu wandered into the inn’s central hall and looked around. It was a typically laid-out country Inn, with a two level central hall and little in the way of decoration. A bit stuffy from the lanterns and back ovens, it was not as full as outside, and the smells of food that filled the place pulled hard at her empty stomach.
As the Lins had taken her money purse, there was little she could do about that. So, she steeled herself and hoped for the best as she headed straight for the bar along the wall to her right.
A soot and cobweb encrusted placard reading “The Happy Ox” hung above the bar along with a small mounted box containing the customary shrine to the Seven Lucky Gods. She tossed a silent prayer to them herself as she eased up to the bar and caught the innkeeper’s attention.
He gave a yellow-toothed smile, looking her up and down, and letting his gaze linger on her chest for just a bit too long.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“I’m trying to find someone from the Mao Family Armed Escort Agency, or someone who knows them. Is there anyone like that around here?”
The innkeeper’s smile faded to almost a frown, then he indicated the stairs at the back with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Go the second floor, blue trimmed door on your right.” He said, and then wandered off to tend to another customer.
Meiyu blinked. She hadn’t hoped, but now she was so close! Her heart leapt as she turned around to head for the stairs.
And, that’s when she saw Dancing Cloud.
The unhappy looking Lin clan fighter was coming around the tables to her right, between her and the stairs. And a quick look showed Dancing Blade was there as well, coming at her from the main entrance to her left.
She was surrounded!
What could she do? She was so close! She just had to find a way to get across the room to the staircase and up to her father’s people on the second floor. If she got there, they could help her fend off these her pursuers- but how?
Then it occurred to her- the people upstairs weren’t her only source of help.
Her eyes darted around the room, and she spotted the person she was looking for. Across the hall was the biggest, toughest looking man in the room- a hairy mountain of muscle clad in animal furs and surrounded by other rough looking fighters. They looked like a bunch of bandits in to spend their ill-gotten gains.
Snatching a half-empty wine flask from the top of the bar, Meiyu wound up and threw it with all her might at the lead bandit’s bald head.
Out of the corner of her eye, Meiyu caught a flash of panic on Dancing Cloud’s face, and the Lin girl started to move to intercept the bottle, but it was much too late. There was a resounding “crack!” as the bottle hit, and then the crash of ceramic shattering as it hit the floor.
In an instant, the whole inn was filled with the sound of chairs flying as a whole table of bandits leapt to their feet, weapons at the ready. They scanned the room, looking about for whoever had just signed their grave marker, and their eyes all fell on Mao Meiyu.
At first, they seemed a bit confused, but then at a barked order from their still cursing, wine-soaked leader they rapidly began to advance at her, throwing tables and people out of the way as they charged across the room like an advancing horde.
Meiyu looked at Dancing Cloud.
Dancing Cloud looked at Meiyu.
“I hate you.” Said the Lin girl’s eyes.
Then she and her brother both leapt to put themselves between Meiyu and the bandits, their jian swords drawn as both took up a side-by-side battle stance.
The appearance of the green and black clad Twin Dancers of the Nine Trees Armed Escort Agency may have caused a hesitation in the bandits, but it was nothing significant. No-one here knew who they were, and all they saw was a pair of finely dressed young adults with swords. Nothing to be concerned about.
As a result, the charge continued, and in seconds the first of the bandits reached the Lin fighters, axe held high and wailing from the top of his lungs. At least, until Dancing Blade’s swordtip carved out most of his throat. He hit the ground in a gurgling mess.
But, even though he was down, the rest of them already had momentum, and so where he fell, five more took his place to surround the pair.
Meiyu watched as the twin combatants, clearly experienced at dealing with situations such as these, fell into a series of practiced moves. At first, one would defend while the other attacked, and then at an unknown signal, they would switch positions without losing a beat. This created an almost unbreachable wall of death that the bandits threw themselves against, and as a result, the second wave went down mere moments after the first bandit had hit the floor.
Meiyu had known the pair were good, but she hadn’t realized how good, and she now knew that this distraction wasn’t going to last much longer. So, leaving them to fight off the remaining bandits, Meiyu dashed around the fight and made an arc right for the back stairs- almost reaching them when something in the back of her head told her to duck.
Instinctively, she dropped and rolled, hearing the whoosh of the hand axe pass over her head and the deep “thunk!” of it burying itself into the wooden pillar beside her.
Spinning around, she saw the bandit leader coming at her, a second larger axe in his grip. Screaming obscenities, he brought the axe down at her head, forcing her to roll out of the way and dive beneath a nearby table in an effort to stay away from him.
On and on he came, flipping the tables as she scrambled this way and that, trying to avoid the axe that just kept coming. In the back of her head, it occurred to her that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, and she cursed herself for underestimating the potential downside of her strategy.
Spotting a saber lying on the floor nearby, she seriously considered fighting back, but that idea died a quick death when she realized that it wouldn’t be much use against the power of the axe that she was facing. She was out-classed, out-powered, and- as she dove to avoid another attack- quickly running out of places to hide.
Then she saw her opening.
The axe had become stuck in the floor after that last strike, and the bandit leader was having trouble freeing it. In that fraction of a second, she dove past the bandit in a roll and came up on the other side running. With all her effort, she bolted to the stairs and bounded up them three steps at a time.
Behind her, Meiyu could hear the thunderous steps as the bandit leader followed, and as she hit the corner on the stairs she saw him charging up the steps right after her. There was blood on his face and murder in his eyes.
But she was faster, and she continued up the stairs and out into the hall balcony. It was filled with inn girls and their clients leaning over the railing to watch the fight. Seeing the bandit come up behind her, they began to scream and scatter, which suited her fine since she needed the way clear.
Sprinting forward, she searched frantically for the blue trimmed door- finally seeing it just ahead at the end of the corridor. With her chest heaving, she prayed that there would be some of her father’s fighters inside, or at least someone who could help her escape from the giant looming up at her rear.
However, just as she was about to reach the door there was a whistling sound and pain screamed from her back as something hard and heavy struck her. She was thrown forward, slamming into the floor and everything went black for a brief moment as the world became a spinning mess.
As soon as she could even try to think, she was moving again, forcing herself to try and get up. Twisting around, she saw the bandit leader’s oversized hand lift up the heavy axe from where it had struck her and stride forward. He had thrown the blunt end to bring her down, but now the gleaming blade was hanging above her as she scrambled backwards as fast as she could- her body screaming when she slammed against the door.
“You little witch.” He growled. “I’m going to skin you alive.”
“W-wait,” she said, raising hand in feeble defense and yelling as loudly as she could. “If you harm me, you’ll regret it, my father is Crocodile Mao!”
But the giant shook his bloody head, “Don’t know him, but if he wants your skin he can pay me for it.”
The axe went up, preparing for a killing blow.
But, just as it did, Meiyu felt the door behind her open, and she fell onto her back, looking up at the ceiling.
From the room with the blue trimmed door, a man Meiyu had never seen before ducked and stepped into the corridor. A handsome face with sad eyes looked down at her, framed by a flowing mass of long black hair that ran down over the shoulders of red armor. Almost as big as the bandit leader, he was clad in the dress of a military man and carried a halberd.
“Crocodile Mao’s daughter?” He said, looking down at her.
“Y-yes!” She gasped. “Help me!”
He nodded once, and shifted his gaze to the bandit leader. The barbarian had been so shocked by this soldier’s appearance that he’d not only stopped his attack, but stared at the new arrival in wonder.
“Leave her,” said the armored man.
Not quite willing to give up, the bandit leader brought his axe to the ready. “This one owes me. Are you going to pay her debt?”
But, just as he finished those words, his eyes went wide with shock, and he looked down to see the blade of the soldier’s halberd embedded deep in his chest. It had happened so fast he hadn’t even seen the man move, it was like it had just appeared there on its own.
Just as quickly, the halberd was gone, and the bandit leader collapsed to the floor- his huge body a twitching lifeless mass.
Meiyu stared at the dead bandit, shocked by the sudden violence. Even she, who had been right there, hadn’t seen the attack until it was finished.
Who was this soldier?
She had never seen anyone like him before, and certainly would have known if her father employed such an incredibly skilled fighter.
The soldier leaned down, offering his hand to help her up.
Hesitating, Meiyu began to reach out to take it, but then another voice called out.
Both Meiyu and the soldier turned to see the battered pair of Dancing Blade and Dancing Cloud rushing along the corridor at them. It was Dancing Blade who had shouted, and both had their bloodied weapons at the ready.
“She’s ours!” The Lin brother called out as the pair drew close. “Leave her be if you value your life!”
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