Mounting his horse, Chuo looked to the night sky. What was he expecting to see? Tengri smiling down on him? There was nothing there. Just clouds.
Patting the neck of his steed, the Young Tuyuhun wondered if he would even come back alive. He had wondered that earlier, but now that he was actually going to ride out alone into the Rouran Lands, he was starting to have second thoughts. He wanted to prove himself the equal of his siblings, he wanted to serve in the Khans Host, but at the same time he was scared. He was not his father, his mother, his brother, his sisters, he was just him, just Tuyuhun Chuo… The child who had been born sickly and before his time… The one who was lucky to be alive. What chance did he have?
What chance did Captain Nas daughter have? While Ping and Lieutenants Hege and Chili had sympathized with Captain Na, Lieutenant Chili alone wished to go forth and rescue the maiden. Ping had said that they would rescue her in due time, while Lieutenant Hege had written her off as a lost cause, as good as dead she had called the damsel.
No… She was alive and Chuo would bring her back to her father here in at the camp.
Riding out from the camp, Chuo knew not what to expect. What was out there in the Rouran lands besides the wriggling worms themselves? Leopards to be sure, but what other beasts stalked the wilds of the Rouran Khaganate? There was only one way to know.
All night did Chuo ride before he and his mount could go no more. Jumping from his horse, the Young Tuyuhun removed his leather armour and helmet, tossing it aside foolishly and kneeling before a stream paused. Standing on the other side was a wolf… Chuo did not fear the wolf, but he saw that the wolf feared him… Him… Chuo… For what reason? He was a human being, a perverse little creature without dignity… But perhaps, he could be better than other humans.
Sticking his hands into the stream, Chuo scooped up some water and held it out for the wolf. Alas, the wolf trusted him not and ran from the scene.
Sighing, Chuo lied back upon the grass and stared up at the sky and wondered if he could pass as a Rouran. Looking at his clothes with his straight-necked shirt and trousers, he wondered if the Rouran dressed any differently. It was said that the Rouran were descended from the Donghu, just as Chuos own people the Xianbei were. If that were so then surely, he could pass as a Rouran, could he not?
Perhaps… Perhaps not… Surely, his armour and weapons would identify him as a Xianbei from Tuoba Wei… Perhaps he could lie to the Rouran, say he had decided to defect, use an alias like Fa Zhou… No… Too Han and too stupid. Mushu perhaps? No, that was worse. Li Shang? Yao? Ling? Chien Po? Chi Fu? All too Han and all too stupid. He would need an alias, but what?
What was he to do?
Running a hand through his reddish-blond hair, Chuo looked at where the wolf had stood before it had run off… Perhaps he should have just returned to the camp.
Soon the sound of hooves could be heard. Standing up, Chuo saw a group of riders coming from the north. They must have been Rouran, for they did not wear the armour that those of Tuoba Wei did and they did not look any different from Xianbei, just as diverse in appearance as Chuos people were.
Growing frightened, Chuo wondered what to do… Why had he removed his armour? How stupid could he be? They would make short work of him he just knew it!
When the riders stopped, Chuo froze completely. This was it this was where he would die.
To his surprise, the leader of the riders, a dark-haired man of four and fifty, merely smiled at him and said: ”Do not fear, boy. We are not raiders and we have no love for Wuti Khan. We seek a tiger who has been stealing from our herds. You your way, us our way, my son! Have you seen him? ”
”I-I have seen no tiger, sir. ” Answered Chuo.
”A pity… ” commented the Rouran with a frown before asking: ”What brings you so far from home, boy? I have heard that your khan is amassing an army to fight against us, but truly, you cannot all be coming up here one by one. ”
”I seek a Rouran who wears a leopard skin, sir. ” Stated Chuo.
Immediately, all of the Rouran grew pale. With eyes wide, the leader asked: ”Him? You Seek him? Why do you seek him? ”
”He has taken captive the daughter of one of my khans captains. I wish to rescue her and prove myself worthy of serving in my nations host. ”
The Leader of the Hunters stroked his beard as he looked Chuo over. Closing his eyes, he asked: ”How old are you, boy? ”
”Thirteen, sir. ”
Sighing, the Leader of the Hunters uttered: ”Go home, son. Live long, be happy, do no go seeking death, not at the hands of him. ”
”Who is he, sir? ” asked Chuo. ”I know that you know who he is! Who is this Rouran? ”
”He is no Rouran, boy. ” Said one of the other hunters. ”He is a Xianbei from Tuoba Wei such as yourself. ”
”A former general who has turned traitor and joined Wuti Khan. ” Said another.
”Know you, his appellation? ” inquired Chuo.
”General Heba. ” Answered the Leader of the Hunters. ”Know you him? ”
Chuo knew of him. Heba had been a comrade of his father, initially a subordinate before he had been promoted. It was said that Heba had been there the day of Chuos birth. Upon seeing the sickly boy born before his time, Heba was reported to have said: ”Best leave him on the Steppe to die! ” He had never met General Heba, for his father and mother had both banned him from ever setting foot in their camp. He had gained a reputation as the Scourge of the Rouran, known for performing the cruelest of torture upon any Rouran raiders he caught, with it being believed that he tortured Rouran to avoid the punishment of torturing his own people. Whatever his reputation may have been, Wuti Khan truly cared not and may have even welcomed Heba with open arms.
”I know of him, sir. ” Chuo answered. ”Where might I find him? ”
”I can help you, son. ” Answered the Leader of the Hunters. ”My heart bleeds for your captain, but the fact is she might as well be dead if Heba has her. Return to your camp, go home even. ”
”I cannot do that, sir. ” Stated Chuo, as he stood up and began to put on his armour. ”My father is wounded, my mother will no go to war without him anymore than he would without her, my brother is dead and my sisters are off avenging him not knowing his killer is serving in our khans host. Along with my cousin, I alone may represent our clan. ”
Closing his eyes, the Leader of the Hunters said: ”I wish you luck then on your enterprise, my son. ”
”And I you on yours, sir. ” Returned Chuo.
The Rouran rode off in search of the tiger preying upon their herds. Watching as they rode away, Chuo wondered if he was doing the right thing.
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