Fanfic: A Cypress in Winter – Chapter 3 (Ice Fantasy - 幻城)
Chapter 3Written By: UnicornSlippers
Edits By: Charistia and SakiVI
"This must be the gate between realms, then?" asked Xun Ru a bit too brightly, reaching down for his water jug and taking a swig. He eyed the old woman motioning to them with interest.
“Why is he so annoying?” thought Song Bai. She had to admit she hadn't been the most pleasant charge, but Xun Ru hadn't been great company either. Everything he wanted to talk about had irritated her. She didn't need to hear one more story about hacking a grisly trophy from a Fire Tribe enemy. They had lost the battle. Her people were utterly conquered and no amount of boasting from Xun Ru was going to change that. To make matters, worse, his clumsy flirting was completely inappropriate and she knew that his water jug didn't contain water.
"Obviously, Xun Ru," Song Bai replied with ill-disguised rancor. “We need to be careful. These people could be more dangerous than the Fire Tribe. Don’t say anything stupid, like you usually do.”
Xun Ru’s loud spewing laughter made her spin in her saddle to regard him in surprise. A wide grin spread across his handsome face as he said, "Blood and earth, woman, why do you hate me? I've offered pleasant enough conversation, and haven't laid a hand on you though you've sorely tempted me, and …”
"Tempted you?!" she grated as she jerked her horse to a halt. "You forget your place, Xun Ru!”
His grin dropped only momentarily before he reined in next to her, his leg pressing hers as he leaned across his saddle and tried to brush his eager mouth against hers.
Song Bai felt her face flush, her insides tightening with both fear and excitement. But her fury was greater, and her slap struck his face before she could account for her hand's whereabouts. His grin vanished into an open gape.
“I will remind you that my father has commanded you to protect me, not… not… treat me as if I were some common whore! And how are you expecting to protect me, Xun Ru? You're drunk!” Song Bai narrowed her green eyes and waited for Xun Ru’s response.
After a long moment, Xun Ru’s mouth clapped shut and he averted his eyes, scratching at his stubbled cheek nervously. Song Bai was determined that she would not to let this challenge pass without a fight.
It was almost dark, they had enemies at their back and a strange new world in front of them. As much as she might secretly desire him, she feared him too, especially in his current state of inebriation. He could easily get them killed.
Her eyes continued boring into him as he fidgeted with corking the jug and working his jaw in some feeble attempt at speech. At last he muttered, "Sorry. Sorry. Forgive my rough ways, eh? I'm not used to women like you..." She stiffened as she watched him gather his resolve, straightening his shoulders and at last looking into her eyes. "I thought ... I've seen the way you've looked at me, Song Bai."
“We are moments away from either being attacked by Fire Tribe soldiers or going through that gateway into a realm we know nothing about, and you are concerning yourself with the way I’ve been looking at you?!?” Song Bai shook her head, feeling herself flush again as she kicked her horse forward.
"Xun Ru, get me across this gate in one piece and I'll forget you said that. Not that you'll remember it." she tossed over her shoulder.
Song Bai sighed and mentally kicked herself, realizing she'd just lost the showdown.
She took the lead, picking her way down the steep embankment through the swirling mists that drifted across the gate, occasionally obscuring the snowy scene and the gesturing aged female beyond. Despite being the third daughter of the Earth Tribe King, she had always been the most bold and fearless of the three, and her more timorous sisters often looked to her for guidance. Xun Ru followed close behind, his former playful mood now abruptly solemn, no trace of his former inebriated state evident in his stern bearing.
They halted at the threshold and Song Bai turned to meet Xun Ru’s gaze. He nodded curtly, maneuvering his horse around her, and stepped through to the other side. It was jarring, seeing Xun Ru’s sturdy form, swathed in a russet leather jerkin and a deep olive cloak, suddenly silhouetted against a backdrop of blinding white slopes and glittering ice. He dismounted and approached the crone, bending his head to talk with her briefly. A few moments passed and he lifted his head, motioning for them to join him.
Song Bai sucked her breath in sharply, surprised by the sudden change in temperature as she passed between realms. She had expected it to be cold, but the air here was bone dry and biting. She reigned in next to Xun Ru’s horse and dismounted, her soft deerskin boots crunching in the tightly packed snow. The rest of the royal guard fanned out behind her as she approached Xun Ru and the elderly woman, pulling her cloak more tightly around her to keep out the chill. Her sisters remained on their horses just inside the gate, trepidation and fear etched on their delicate faces.
The old woman smiled broadly. “You have finally come…” she said, her impossibly gnarled hand waving an even more impossibly gnarled wooden staff in the air with a wild gesture. Song Bai furrowed her brow in momentary confusion, but let it pass. Unsure of this woman’s rank, and trained to show respect for her elders, she bowed deeply.
Xun Ru had not bothered with such formalities, Song Bai thought darkly. She would discuss that with him later. She just hoped that this woman and her people were not allies with the Fire Tribe.
She opened her mouth to explain their situation, but was quickly interrupted.
“I know why you are here. Mao Jiang, leader of the Fire Tribe, has found a way to open a gate between our world and yours, and he has invaded your lands and has overthrown your people. You are fleeing his soldiers and are asking for shelter from the Ice Tribe.” The woman regarded Song Bai gravely and scratched at the tousled nest of her hair.
“Ice Tribe?” Song Bai asked. “Is that the name of your Tribe? We are from the Earth Tribe. Honored Aunt, we have come…” Song Bai was again interrupted by the old woman.
“Granny. I am called Granny,” she beamed, stained and cracked teeth flashing. “And yes, Fire Tribe are also enemies to my people.”
Song Bai’s eyes grew wide. It was as if this woman had read her mind!
“Thank you, Granny. You seem to know…” Once again, her speech was interrupted, but this time by a thunderous crash and a blinding silver blaze of light that appeared in the frost-laden forest behind Granny.
Song Bai gasped in astonishment. A young man had materialized of out the wintry air, his clothing, skin and hair so white he appeared to be carved out of bleached marble. Another young man was next to him, on his knees and retching in the snow, his coloring sable and dusky in contrast to the other. The pale man was looking down, laughing softly as he patted the other man on the shoulder.
“You deserved that,” she heard him say in a smooth tenor voice, a smile still playing on his full lips as he turned towards them. The smile immediately vanished as he saw Song Bai and her party, his deep azure eyes narrowing with wariness. He left his friend, still doubled over in the snow, and stalked towards them.
Granny turned, seeing the young man striding stiffly in their direction, and chortled. She leaned close to Song Bai and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “He comes! You are his savior, his savior and the savior of the one true King. And he is your savior as well, little lotus. The cycle will be broken.”
Song Bai shook her head in bewilderment, having no idea what this woman was talking about or who the strange young man was that was approaching them through the snow. She only knew that unease was growing in the pit of her stomach with each step that drew him closer.