A worn woman
“ I knew I could count on you.”
--Ava Lord, ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’
Chapter 167 – A worn woman
The wind picked up, whipping the sea of grass all around them. The soldiers shivered and pulled their cloaks closer. When Huang Ming strolled closer to the grave mounds, the soldiers paused and wondered if they should stop him. It seemed almost sacrilegious as the young man silently circled around each grave and examined this or that detail.
They did not understand his interest in such a morbid subject. Though the graves were the final resting place of the revered Yin Clan, they were unremarkable in any way.
“Why are they buried out here?” a younger soldier asked.
“This was the spot where their ancestor fell, many decades ago,” the oldest of the soldiers replied solemnly. “Ever since then, their family made it a point to bury their dead here, a sign of defiance against the Jins.”
The soldier looked back towards the direction of Beihai, its walls barely visible in the distance.
“They say this is also the furthest extent of Wu’s reach, the line in the sand, so to speak,” the grizzled veteran continued. “In a way, even in death, the Yins will be the first to see the Jins coming to Beihai.”
The rest of the soldiers nodded in admiration.
Huang Ming admitted it was a stirring story. But he noted the obvious signs of decay and neglect that he observed as he climbed the little hill.
The headstones which were small to begin with had worn down to mere nubs, leaving incomplete labels and words; their true names lost to history. Overgrown grass and weed covered the mounds, and only their shapes gave an inkling as to their identity as graves.
“No one is taking care of them?” Huang Ming asked softly as he reached the pinnacle of the little hill.
“There is no one left,” the veteran reminded him. “General Yin is the last of the line, and… he’s not here,” he said, struggling to keep the neutrality in his voice. Like so many other who had fought and bled for the general in the defence of Beihai, he was still in disbelief over Yin Yanzhao’s decision to transfer to the capital and abandon all that his clan had stood for.
“Then, who is living in that?” Huang Ming asked as he pointed down to a wooden shack on the other side of hill, facing away from Beihai.
They made their way down to the shack. There were evidence that it was still in use, with its small garden of vegetables beside it and the rags hung out to be dried.
Just as they began to surround the shack, the door swung open. A young woman dressed in peasant clothing appeared, carrying a woven basket.
Upon seeing the heavily armed soldiers, the woman dropped her basket in shock. But instead of screaming in fear, she turned and quickly ran back into the shack, only to re-emerge with a crude spear and brandishing it angrily at them. The soldiers immediately unsheathed their weapons in response, but Huang Ming stopped them from rushing at her.
There were still hints of the woman’s former beauty underneath her current haggard appearance. But now she was the very picture of poverty: thin to the point of being bony, her complexion was pale and sallow, her skin rough and her hair frayed, her clothing tattered and patched.
“Who are you?” Huang Ming asked.
“Who are you?” the woman snarled back, pointing her wooden spear at him.
“Stop waving that around, before someone gets hurt,” Huang Ming said mildly.
“I am not afraid!” the woman hissed.
“But I am,” Huang Ming chuckled. “Let’s all calm down,” he said and gestured at his men. They reluctantly lowered their weapons, and the woman warily followed suit.
She stared at them cautiously. “You are from Beihai?” she asked.
“Yes, we are,” Huang Ming told her.
The woman almost collapsed with relief, propping up the spear almost as a crutch to stop herself from falling.
“Is… is General Yin well?” she asked with tears welling up in her eyes.
The rough and burly men looked at each other, unsure of what to tell the emotional woman.
Finally someone said, “General Yin has been promoted and transferred. This young lord before you is the new administrator of Beihai.”
“Transferred… The new administrator…?” the woman muttered, eyeing at Huang Ming in shock.
“Yes, I am,” he said simply, although it was inaccurate.
He was in Beihai just as a ‘supervisor’, while General Li Jing was the officially appointed man in charge. But there was no sense in disputing in the semantics: the men have rightfully attributed Beihai’s resurgence to him. General Li Jing himself was more than happy to defer the major decisions to him so that he had more time to chew srih leaves and conduct actual military operations like training and patrolling.
“Who are you, and what are you doing out here?” Huang Ming asked again.
The young woman wiped away her tears and curtsied in obeisance.
She narrated: “I am the maid of General Yin Yanzhao’s wife. When the lady… when the lady passed away… the general drowned his grief in the drink… In his drunken rage, he banished me out of the house…”
“I have heard of that,” Huang Ming said. “But later, he pulled himself back together, didn’t he? Why didn’t you go back? Did he not forgive you?”
“He did… he did!” the woman lamented. Then she hung her head.
“Because I was in the wrong... I was young and foolish… I was cleaning the lady’s belongings and the general caught me trying on her jewellery. The general was right to banish me,” she sobbed, eliciting sighs of sympathy from the soldiers around her.
“And so you remained out here on your own? Out of guilt?” Huang Ming frowned.
“The general did ask me to return. Many times… But I am too ashamed to do so,” the young woman heaved.
“Well, things have changed. General Yin is now based in the capital. There is no reason for you to stay here any longer,” Huang Ming told her.
The woman wavered. “But… but…”
“Don’t you have friends or family in Beihai waiting for you?” Huang Ming asked.
The woman’s shoulders slumped. “There is no one left. I have nowhere to go…”
“Then you can work for me. You have suffered enough,” Huang Ming said soothingly. He stretched out a hand invitingly.
Once more the woman was reduced to tears. She dropped her wooden spear and grasped Huang Ming’s offered hand and cried.
Huang Ming gently stroked her hands as the tears flowed freely.
Some of the veterans and hard-hearted soldiers shed tears of their own at the sight.
But if they had paid attention to Huang Ming’s face, they would have found that his own eyes were cold and hard.
She was a damsel in distress,
But he was clear headed to assess.