A retelling of Snow White and Rose Red
Qiang gently folded the soft dough around the spicy array of vegetables. She had large pile of dumplings ready for the pot. It had been raining for hours. The bucket under the drip was nearly full now. Chen was supposed to empty it every hour, but she had forgotten, as usual. The two sisters made a strange pair, the one with her gentle, thoughtful manners and pale complexion, the other with her boyish behavior and her rosy sunburnt skin.
Mother was weaving thread into blankets. She was hoping to sell these to the merchants in the city. With father gone, money was tight. Auntie Ai wanted to help , but mother was not taking anything from the organization until Qiang made her choice.
Qiang peered out the window. Chen was dancing in the rain. She had gone out to check on the rose bushes and had been distracted. She loved the rain. Qiang shook her head in disbelief. She preferred to stay dry and clean, herself.
“Mother, don’t you think-” Qiang was interrupted by a piercing scream from the yard. She dropped her dough ball and sprang to her feet. Mother gasped and clutched at her heart. Chen was running towards them, waving her arms and pointing towards the gate.
Qiang rushed to the door, flung it open and sprang onto the porch. Her mother was right behind her. A man in a sodden fur cloak was leaning against the post. Chen reached her mother and sister, and clung to them.
“He- he just appeared at the gate and grabbed my arm.” she sobbed, “He’s all covered in blood.” The older girl caught her breath. Surely the organization hadn’t gotten tired of waiting for her response and come.
Qiang looked at the man. He was swaying. Suddenly, he toppled down into the mud.
“Come girls.” Mrs. Hua said firmly, “If the man is hurt, we can hardly leave him out in the rain.” She was about to step off the porch, when Qiang seized her arm.
“Wait.” she breathed. She snatched her little white umbrella off a bench and put it up, “It is raining.”
“Oh yes.” Chan cried gleefully. She picked up her red rose knife. Their mother smiled and shook her head. Then she selected a large walking stick.
“Never mind the rain.” she said.
“Mother, what will you do with that?” Chen asked, “It’s far to big to swing in a fight.”
“I thought that the poor man could lean upon it, while walking.” her mother said gently, “After all, it is called a walking stick. Remember, not everything leads to violence.” Her daughter blushed. Qiang smiled virtuously. Chen made a face at her.
The man was far too heavily wrapped for such a warm summer day. Mrs. Hua pushed back the fur hood to reveal a man, who was at least ten years older than Qiang. His black hair was plastered to his forehead.
“I believe he was struck across the head.” the woman said, “We shall have to take him inside.”
“But, we can’t lift him.” Chen pointed out. Her mother shook the unfortunate man. He groaned and opened his eyes.
“Help me.” he whispered, “The Phoenix-” his voice trailed off.
“Mother!” Qiang cried, as she tightened her grip on the umbrella, “If he is being hunted by the Phoenix, we are in trouble! We dare not bring him inside! He could be an enemy of Xiyu”
“Phaw!” Chen scoffed, “As a stranger, we owe him him hospitality.”
“But, if he is wanted by the organization-”
“Oh pooh! Qiang, you’re such a worrywart!” Chen said crossly, “It’s hardly treason to aide an injured man.”
“Chen.” Qiang said in distress, “We are right on the Dongyuian boarder, any strangers could be spies. Besides, he is a complete stranger. He- he looks like a bear.”
“I don’t think we are going to have a war!” Chen said, “Father used to talk about it all the time, but there hasn’t been a single attempt since grandmother was young.”
“Girls.” Mrs. Hua said quietly, “We can’t leave him out in the rain. We shall bring him inside.” Chen clapped her hands. “But, Qiang, you must write to the Phoenix, at once. Whatever choice you make in the future, this cannot be avoided.” Qiang bowed her head.
Together, the three women helped the man onto his feet and into the house. They laid him on a bed and bandaged his wound. The stranger was very ill for a long time. In his fever, he kept crying out for someone or something called Huli. Several times he sat up and ordered the women to go and save Huli before it was to late. Qiang was sure that Huli, whoever he was, was a prisoner of the organization.
It was nearing the eighth day, and Qiang was sewing by the bed, when the stranger’s fever left and he awoke.
“Where am I” he muttered. Qiang dropped her sewing and sprang to her feet.
“Oh, you- you’re awake. I will fetch my mother.” she turned to flee. The man seized her arm. His grip was very weak.
“Where is my brother?” he asked.
“I haven’t seen him.” Qiang sobbed, “He wasn’t with you.” The man released the girl’s arm and closed his eyes.
Mrs. Hua and Chen came running into the room.
“He’s awake.” Qiang said, as she gestured at the bed. Her sister bounced to the man’s side. The stranger opened his eyes and winced.
“I remember you.” he said, “Huli said-” he frowned touched his head, “Where is Huli? He said you looked kind.”
“Never mind.” mother said soothingly, “Tell us about yourself.”
“Call me- er- Xiong.” the man said hesitantly. Qiang scowled. The name was obviously false.
“Is that why you were wearing fur?” Chen asked, “Because you are a bear?” The man stared at her in surprise.
“My daughters are educated in many languages.” Mrs. Hua said, “My husband was a scholar. He believed that all people should be educated.”
“Was?” Xiong repeated.
“He- he gave his life defending the Imperial libraries from the Dongyuian raiders.” Mrs. Hua said quietly, “We have been allotted a year to mourn.” She glanced at her older daughter. Xiong flushed and stared down at his blanket. Then he tossed them aside and tried to get up.
“Oh no!” Mrs. Hua cried, “You must not get up, you are not well yet.” Only Qiang seemed to notice that Xiong had failed to tell them anything about himself.
During the following week, Xiong recovered from his injury. As time went by, he spent more and more time out in the yard. Qiang watched him, as she did her chores and studied. Chen had no qualms about running out and chatting with the injured man. But he was very closemouthed.
One day the two sisters went down to the river to set up a water trap. Suddenly, the girls realized that they were not alone. An old man, in a silk robe, was creeping through the rushes.
“Lets go back to the house.” Qiang whispered.
“Sir!” Chen cried, ignoring her sister, “Are you lost?” the man let out a yelp, stumbled and fell sprawling. Instantly, he let out a series of enraged howls. The girls ran to his side and discovered that his beard was wedged in a cracked log.
“Don’t stand there gawking, get me out!” the man bawled. The girls tugged, first at the beard, then at the man’s shoulders, but to no avail. Through the whole episode, the enraged victim screamed and derided the girls.
“Wait, I have and idea.” Chen cried. She slipped her knife out of her pocket.
“No!” the man shouted. Slash! Chen cut the beard free.
“You’ll be sorry!” the man snarled, “Spoiling my beautiful beard!” He stomped away muttering.
The man had not gone far before he stooped and dragged someone to his feet. A person with a sack tied over their head. The two vanished into the rushes.
“Did you see that?” Chen asked. Qiang said nothing. She was planning on writing another letter to the Phoenix. A well dressed old man sneaking through the swamps on the boarder, with a prisoner, was very suspicious. Perhaps it merited an investigation.
Xiong was healed except for the scar on his forehead. But even that seemed to be fading. He had taken to leaving the yard for long walks. Mrs. Hua told her daughters that he would soon be gone for good. Chen immediately begged the man not to go.
“I have duties which must not be neglected.” he told her sadly.
“You come from so far away.” Chen sighed, “Will we ever see you again?” Xiong made no answer. Qiang looked up from her letter. What sort of duties did he mean?
The following morning Xiong was gone. Mrs. Hua soothed her Chen’s concern.
“I’m sure he will be back soon. He wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.” But Xiong was still not back by evening. Even Chen was downcast when they went to check the water trap before bed. Qiang brought her umbrella to keep the hot sun off of her face.
The girls were approaching the pond when Chen let out a squeal.
“Look!” she cried and clapped her hands.
“Where?” Qiang asked, glancing around, expecting to see Xiong. Instead, she found the old bearded man bending over their trap.
“Mind your beard, sir!” Chen cried. The man jerked backwards in surprise and tumbled headfirst into the trap. Chen giggled, while Qiang gasped. The man thrashed wildly, but he was stuck.
“He’ll drown!” Qiang cried.
The two sisters rushed to the trap and hauled it awkwardly out of the pond. The old man was howling in rage. Two large fish were thrashing and slapping his face. The girl’s unhooked the netting, releasing the furious man and the fish.
“You imbeciles!” the man roared, “Are you so incompetent that you delight in torturing old men!”
“We’re sorry, dear father.” Qiang said kindly.
“I’m not your father!” the man snarled. He turned abruptly and whistled. The same figure with the covered face, rose out of the rushes.
“Come you, little fox!” the old man snarled. He paused to shake his fists at the girls, then strode off.
“Did you hear that.” Chen cried, “That must be Xiong’s brother. Remember huli is another word for fox.”
“What did you say?” the man cried, as he whirled. His face was twisted in an ugly snarl. Qiang took a step back and whistled. Chen cocked her fists.
Suddenly, a large black crow flew down and circled the girls. Qiang pointed at the old man. The bird cawed than seized the man’s beard in its talons. He howled in pain and rage, as he beat at the crow. It squawked and pecked at his face. Qiang noticed the band on one of its legs. The mark of the Phoenix. This bird must be bringing an answer to her letter.
“Get it off of me!” the man cried, as he tried to protect his eyes from the sharp beak.
“How about saying please.” Chen suggested, “Last time we saved-” Qiang pushed Chen towards Huli.
“You take care of him. I’ll get the crow.” The girls parted.
Qiang seized the crow and pulled it away from its victim. It turned on her with a harsh croak.
“Gently now, Phoenix.” she whispered soothingly, “It is I, Hua Qiang!” The bird cocked its head as if it could understand her. She untied the band and took the letter.
“You brat!” the man roared, “You deliberately set your bird on me. I’ll teach you to mind yourself!”
“Oh no, it’s not my bird.” Qiang said quickly.
“Take that!” the old man snarled and knocked her over. The crow flew at his face again.
Meanwhile, Chen had taken out her knife and cut the bag off of Huli. She was surprised to see that he wasn’t much older than her. He didn’t look anything like Xiong.
“Thanks.” he croaked and took a deep breath of fresh air.
Suddenly they heard Qiang’s startled cry. Chen whirled with a shriek, just in time to see her sister hit the ground.
“That man pushed my sister!” she yelled. She rushed to Qiang’s side and helped her up.
“I’m alright.” the older girl whispered. She thrust something into her pocket.
Qiang picked up her umbrella and closed it.
“As for you-” Chen cried, as she turned on the old man. She drew her knife. He let out a hiss, caught Qiang’s umbrella and yanked her in front of himself. Chen screamed and made a leap for her sister.
“No!” Huli cried as he caught Chen’s arm, “Are you trying to get her killed?”
“That’s better.” the old man said, “Now we can all have a little talk.”
“You mean vicious old beast!” Chen cried, “We helped you!”
“Did you think you would be rewarded for being nice?” the old man demanded, “How little you know of the world. People aren’t grateful! They bite the hand that feeds them, according to the saying.”
Suddenly there was a roar and a fur clad figure leaped out of the rushes. The old man whirled, but it was to late. A heavy hand knocked him cold. Instantly, Huli sprang onto the man and bound him with pieces of the sack.
Chen rushed to her sister’s side and clasped her in her arms.
“I thought he was going to hurt you.” she sobbed. Qiang looked over at Xiong as he flung back his hood.
“I think we found your brother.” she said.
“Are you hurt, Hua Qiang?” Xiong asked. The girl shook her head quickly.
“That will teach you!” Huli cried, as he sprang to his feet. The old man remained unconscious.
“Should we take him the village?” Qiang asked nervously. The two men exchanged looks. Finally Xiong took Qiang and Chen’s hands in his.
“My name is Zhou Shun. He said, “I am very grateful to you and your mother. I can never thank you enough.” he bowed his head, “But I must go now. Yan Lou must come with us.” he nodded at Huli,
“But why do you have to go?” Chen burst out, “Can’t you stay?” Xiong shook his head.
“I must return to my home, at once.” He looked down at the old man, “Yan Lou is a Dongyuian traitor. Because of his actions war between the two empires is inevitable.” he looked hard at the two girls, “Promise me that you will take your mother back to a city, as soon as possible. You are all in danger.”
“But why?” Chen asked. Qiang’s heart sank.
“The Dongyuians will attack through these swamps.” Xiong said grimly, “Your soldiers are all on the frontier.”
“You are from Dongyu, aren’t you?” Qiang said quietly. Chen’s jaw dropped.
“We can’t tell you who we are.” Xiong said, “But one day, you will know.” He dropped the girls’ hands, pulled up his hood and stooped over the old man. He heaved him up onto his shoulders and stumbled off without a backwards glance.
“Wait!” Qiang cried and darted after him. He paused and waited for her to catch up with him, “Why did you tell us about the war? Won’t that defeat the element of surprise for your people?” Xiong looked at her sadly.
“If you know who I am, why are you letting me go?” he asked.
“Why are you warning us?” Qiang asked.
“You and your family saved my life. I will not repay it with death.” Xiong said. He continued on his way. Qiang returned to her sister’s side.
Huli scooped up Qiang’s umbrella and Chen’s knife.
“Your effects, ladies.” he said. He tossed Qiang the umbrella and dropped the knife into Chen’s hands. Then he gave a mock salute and bounded off after his brother. Chen sighed.
“I wish they could have stayed.”
“Chen, Huli had a strange accent.” Qiang said carefully. She wasn’t sure how much her sister knew.
“Oh posh!” Chen said, “You are just like father, always imaging everything to be more sinister than it really is. I can’t believe that you called him a Dongyuian to his face. That’s pretty rude.”
“Xiong said war is coming, I must write another letter to the Phoenix.” Qiang said as she turned away.
“So it was you who sent for that crow.” Chen cried, “You were contacting them all along!” Qiang whirled and scooped up the bird and wrapped it in her coat.
“Never mind, Chen.” she said softly.
“Can’t I see?” her sister begged. Qiang unfolded the little piece of paper.
Scroll, Whip discovered that prince Zhou Shun of Dongyu was kidnapped. Return to city at once. Do not bring Xiong. Must be prince. Is hunted by Zhu Yazhu, his stepbrother. Dongyuian ambassador Yan Lou arranged it.
“Xiong and Huli are princes?” Chen cried, and turned pale, “Why didn’t they tell us?”
“Chen, we cannot stop the war from happening.” Qiang whispered, “The Dongyuians wanted war all along.”
Six months later Xiyu was plunged into war with the neighboring empire of Dongyu. The Dongyuians seized all the land they could and burned the farm houses. The Hua family was safe in the capital when they heard the news. They had fled the farm, just in time.
“It’s not fair!” Chen wailed, “We didn’t kidnap him! Didn’t Xiong explain about Yan Lou? How did you even know?”
“I told you Huli had a funny accent.” Qiang explained.
“But what about Xiong?” Chen asked, “I thought you were just being paranoid.” Qiang looked amused.
“Why, didn’t you recognize the name? The Zhou family have been Dongyu’s translators for centuries. He probably speaks several languages fluently.”
“But it’s not fair!” Chen wailed, “Just because he lives on the other side of a canyon we can’t ever see him again. Why he could be fighting our cousins, right now!”
“Life isn’t fair, Chen.” Qiang said, “We can only do our best to do what’s right! Xiong repaid our kindness by warning us. Yan Lou was wrong about gratitude.”