19: Two Ways to Die

Joaolong’s body slowly turned numb. A wave of dizziness made him sway. What were they doing here again? The answer seemed unclear, blocked by a mental fog. The last time he felt like this was during the prince's eighteenth birthday when...

The realisation hit hard. “I’ve been poisoned.”

Disung looked at him in disbelief. “Are you certain?”

“A man who is often poisoned notices the symptoms. Soon, I will lose control of my limbs and vomit,” Joaolong stated. “Section twelve of my journal. I have ingested this poison before.”

 “I think you’re just drunk!” Disung yelled in a jolly voice. He shoved Joaolong towards the horse, encouraging him to mount it. During this, he tapped his left knuckle three times; this signalled danger. “I’ve seen ladies drink more than you!"

Ying stormed over to them, somehow managing not to trip with bruises and blood smearing his vision. “Don’t dare leave! Let us negotiate the—”

Disung grabbed Ying by his shirt and his joints cracked in a threatening manner. Joaolong rarely saw his friend without a smile. The situation must’ve been bad.

 “You shut your mouth. It cannot be coincidental that men have run into us at the same time Wang Joaolong is ill.”

“W-W-Wang? The Master Wang Joaolong?! We did not know anything! We swear! We are just hunting! Then you must be Ànshù…”

“That is not important!”

“I cannot see any men,” Ying said as he looked around them.

Disung grimaced. “Because you aren’t a tracker. Believe me when I say there are men coming from higher ground on horses. Probably seven. I cannot defeat them alone when Joaolong is vulnerable. Help me fight them to prove your innocence. If you get injured or die in battle, I’ll provide great compensation. Agreed?” Disung whispered. Ying nodded, too fearful to understand what he agreed to.

Several men came into view in that moment, their horses trudging on the rocky landscape. Their grubby appearance and sneers made them look like bandits. Judging by the expensive, well-crafted weapons in their hands, either they killed a few men before or someone with power hired them. Either way, the battle would be a bloody mess.

“Tell your men you all fight with me,” Disung whispered through bared teeth to Ying. The boy slowly returned to his brothers.

 

The leader of the newcomers – whose long, greasy hair flowed freely down his back – smiled and showed his rotting, yellow teeth. As Joaolong gagged, he pointed at him with a dirty finger. “We want that one.”

“Who sent you?” Disung asked casually, slipping back into his easy-going manner. He started to drink from a small flask at his waist. “Would you like some wine?”

“Give us the pendant!” A gawky man demanded. He pointed his bow at Joaolong. An arrow fired. Joaolong’s body refused to move. He held his breath.

Rip. The skin flask tore open and entangled the arrow. Liquid trickled down Disung’s arm from where he held the material.  

 

“My wine!” Disung whimpered. “Actually I lie. It is only water. But I will be mighty thirsty later.”

"Kill him!" The bandit leader ordered. "He will be no match for dozens of arrows!"

 

 “You talk arrogantly for someone who had their lackey miss the shot. Go ahead. Shoot. Let us see who dies first,” Disung taunted and licked any dripping liquid from his hand. During this, he whispered instructions to Joaolong without arising suspicion. “Stay low and hide. Keep your bow ready. I’ll come when I’m finished here. You are their prey so do as prey do: run.”

The shooter fired another arrow while the horses trotted closer. Joaolong’s black stallion bolted. The arrow narrowly missed.

 “Is that the best you can do?” Disung yelled, urging the men to attack him. “A coward attacks from a distance! A man fights face to face!”

 

“For the renowned Ànshù and Wang Joaolong!” Ying shouted, holding up his sword. Unfortunately, his brothers weren’t as enthusiastic about risking their lives.

 “For that damn deer!” Disung added.

The fight began when Joaolong rode away from the group. Knowing Disung, he would continue the nonsense babble and teasing to aggravate his enemies. No one else used this tactic. The more irritating he acted, the more distracted his opponents became. At least, that’s what Disung claimed. Joaolong suspected that this strategy turned into an unstoppable habit; he loved to rile up his opponents and did it unconsciously. Hopefully, it would help him in battle while Joaolong escaped.

The horse struggled to gallop on the rocky path. It became difficult to hold the reins steady. Joaolong felt a numbness spread throughout his hands but he tried to maintain a clenched fist. If he fell, it would be the end. However, the haze in his mind fought against his survival instincts. He felt ill. It took all his energy and the sound of arrows to stop from curling up in pity.

An enemy followed him. Arrows soared through the air. One landed in a tree nearby. Another hit the ground near the horse’s hooves. Then, an arrow sunk into his shoulder.

“Argh!” Joaolong screamed and buckled over. Unable to help himself, he fell off the stallion.

A steep slope roughly navigated Joaolong downwards until he slammed into a tree. It hurt but not as bad as his wound. The force of the fall caused the arrow in his shoulder to tear more skin and badly splinter into the muscle. Joaolong felt lost in intense pain. He attempted to stop the heavy bleeding and picked at the broken arrow with numb fingers. This proved useless. If anything, the sight of blood made him more squeamish and gag again. His stomach felt on fire. Surviving would be a miracle.

Joaolong heaved himself up to sit using the tree. Carefully he removed the bow draped around his body. It was ruined, just like him. He couldn’t fight anyone off with it. So, he settled for a small dagger hidden on his waistband. It looked pathetic but he had no other choice.

A wild boar grunted and squealed to the left. Its body, made of pure muscle, turned towards Joaolong and his gut dropped at the tusks crusted with blood. The beast’s eyes scared him the most; they were red, dilated and savage. The recent hours of bloodshed had prepared it to kill anyone.

Is this it? Joaolong thought to himself, delusional from nausea and pain. No. I must fight. I cannot fail the empress. He raised his small blade, unable to keep a strong grip in his numb hand. The movement triggered the boar. It ran at him. Joaolong forgot to breathe. This was it.

In the final moments, Joaolong only recalled the amount of blood dampening his clothes and covering his vision. The animal tore him to shreds. He failed everyone.