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The Way of the Hunter - Building on Shaky Foundations (Chapter Twenty)

Alya Elvawiel
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Alya looks at her rippling image in the river as she ties the sash of her new robe around her waist. Not a bad fit, even if she tends to prefer her clothes to be more loose-fitting. This one is a little snug around the chest. She vaguely wonders if that was intentional on Bishop’s part.

Well, she thinks as she turns to the side to admire the cut. He does have good taste…the craftsmanship is quite impressive, not nearly as impressive as her old robe, but still pretty good.

She pulls the strip of satin out of a pocket. She had tried to clean as much of the blood and herbal goo off it. Although it is still stained in places with old blood, the fabric now shows glimmers of what it once was. The bright green shimmers in the sunlight, and the golden runes glow as if they have a life of their own. As she rubs the material between her fingers, feeling its luxuriant softness, her mind wanders…

* * *

She was only twelve when Daeghun took her on a long journey out of the Mere, all the way to the High Forest in the east. There, he had led her up the Star Mounts, where he introduced her to a strange-looking old hermit living in a cave. White-haired, white-bearded, stooped like an old gnarled tree, and wearing a peculiar silk robe, the wizened old man had a very foreign look about him, but his sloping brown eyes glittered with wisdom, intelligence and kindness, and Alya took to him easily. Daeghun had introduced the hermit as Q’ian Zang, a warrior monk all the way from the kingdom of Shou Long in Kara-Tur. She was to stay with him a while as his student. Then, with barely a farewell hug, her foster father had left her there.

Her understandable distress at being deserted so far from home was very quickly allayed by the old man’s generosity. He had asked nothing of her in her first few days with him, giving her time to adjust to her new surroundings. It hadn’t taken Alya long to grow fond of the hermit; he was much warmer to her than Daeghun had ever been. He used to tell her about the far east, describing in detail the cities and lands of his origin. His name, Q’ian Zang, means “A Thousand Palms”, a testament to the speed of his strikes, but Alya has always called him sifu, or master, as a term of respect.

Soon she was ready to learn from him, and Alya remembers with fondness her first ever lesson.

Her sifu had laid aside his knotted old walking stick, and had handed her a broadsword.

“Attack me,” he had said, his shoulders stooped, wrinkled arms hanging casually by his side. Alya naturally hesitated, but seeing that he was not going to let her back out, she swung the blade at him half-heartedly, stopping it mere inches from the old man’s neck. He had not moved.

“You stopped,” he stated simply, as if he had known she would. He insisted that she held nothing back.

“But master,” she had protested. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t,” he had replied simply.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because if I doubt my own abilities, I will have already lost.” With a small gesture, he waited for her to strike. This time, she tried it with more conviction, and had ended up being thrown to the ground, her sword taken from her. He gave it back, and asked her to attack again. Each time, she had put in more and more effort, until in the end, out of sheer frustration, she was really going for him, but every time she would be disarmed and floored. She was amazed at how nimble and quick the old man was, and became immensely eager to learn his empty-handed fighting method.

Her sifu had trained her hard – very hard. She would normally practice from sunrise until the sun goes down, pausing only for meals or to patch up an injury.

“You cannot build a house on shaky foundations,” her sifu had said, “A gem cannot be polished without friction.”

And yet, despite her long hours of physical training in the day, her master had continued to teach her after dark. He taught her the principles of what he called “The Way”, a philosophy whereby one seeks to constantly improve oneself, and to strive for self-enlightenment.

“Anyone who learns the drills can be a martial artist,” he had once said. “But only through understanding can one become a true master.”

And so, she was given access to his roomful of books on all sorts of topics. Many of them were in a strange language, but the vivid pictures in them so fascinated her, she had begged Q’ian Zang to teach her the foreign tongue, and was soon going through these scriptures voraciously every night. Many of the scrolls dictated the teachings of the Way, which she soon began to identify with, and she would eventually embrace it as her religion. Some of the books, however, described faraway places of incredible beauty and splendour, of magnificent cities, a rich culture, and strange creatures. She longed to be able to travel to these exotic locations.

She does not remember ever going hungry throughout her time in isolation with her mentor, as he had shown her that nature provides well. She learned to identify edible plants, berries and mushrooms, and to set traps for meat. Daeghun would visit briefly once a year, bringing her news of West Harbour, and she would get homesick for a few days after his departure. Finally, nearly ten years into her apprenticeship, he had conceded that he had taught her all he could, and that she could now only grow with more practice and experience:

“I have merely sown the seeds; it is up to you to cultivate the harvest.”

Her foster father came to bring her home, and as a parting gift, her mentor had given her the most beautiful robe she had ever seen. Brought all the way from Kara-Tur and made of the softest satin, it was a brilliant emerald green with gold embroidery depicting phoenixes and birds of paradise in flight, and it was imbued with strong protective magic. She had accepted it with a tear in her eye and an uncharacteristic hug. His words when he gave it to her remain ingrained in her memory:

“May its uses be manifold.”

* * *

A low whistle snaps her out of her reverie. Bishop is leaning casually against a tree.

“Not bad,” he smirks, unabashedly eyeing her up and down.

“Thank you,” she replies, forcing her most polite smile. “I must say you have pretty good taste.”

“It’s a shame you have to take it off again.”


Her shock must have registered on her face. Bishop gazes at her intently before snickering.

“Don’t get any ideas, Captain. Just need to check on your wound.”


“You don’t have to.” She pulls her collar down just enough for him to see her makeshift leaf bandages. “I re-dressed it while you were away.”

“You wha-?” He seems to finally notice the strip of cloth she holds in her hand. For a split second, she thinks she sees surprise, embarrassment, and a flash of hesitation on Bishop’s face. Then, just as quickly, the mask falls back into place. “Completely self-sufficient now, are you?” he says. “Able to handle yourself sleeping alone, dress your own wounds…good. Sounds like you don’t need me around anymore. Just as well, I’m getting restless here. I’ll probably be leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Wait –“ As he moves to walk away, Alya grabs him near the elbow. Her hand lingers on his arm for the briefest of moments. He stares at her hand as if it had offended him, and she quickly draws it away.

“Something you need?” he growls.

“Um…” Why did she suddenly panic when he said he was leaving? It’s not like she doesn’t know this part of the woods, and she’s travelled through the Mere alone plenty of times as a child…plus, she’s not even supposed to like this guy…

So why is she bothered that he’s leaving?

“I…just want to thank you…for…everything…” she starts uncertainly. “I do appreciate all that you’ve done.”

And I’d appreciate your company for a while longer.

No, stop, don’t say that…

He shrugs noncommittally. “You owe me big time, just remember that.”

They look at each other in silence. Alya opens her mouth, then shuts it again. Those amber eyes continue to stare at her, as if probing the very depths of her soul…

Say something, anything!

But she merely looks away, breaking eye contact.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me…” he says smoothly, as he moves past her and starts unlacing his shirt. “I’m going to try that bath thing you seem to enjoy so much. So unless you’d like to stay and watch…”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” she says hurriedly.

That is her cue to leave.

She makes her way towards the path that leads her back to camp, grateful to get away from the potentially awkward situation.

What was I thinking? She scolds herself. He’s a cold-blooded, back-stabbing killer! And you want him to escort you??

She glances back over her shoulder discreetly. Bishop has his back to her. As he pulls his shirt over his head, she could see the muscles around his shoulder blades rippling…

And the angry red gashes running down his back.

“Bishop!” she exclaims, running back to the river. “Your back…”

At first, he looks at her oddly, as if not understanding her. Craning his neck to look behind himself, realisation flashes across his face.

Without thinking, she reaches out a hand to inspect the gouges. “How did you –“

Bishop jerks away violently as if her touch had burnt him. “It’s – it’s nothing,” he insists, then he appears to compose himself. With a wry smile, he says, “The wench I took while I was at the village got a little…overexcited.”

“But, it doesn’t look like –“

“What can I say?” he asks, smiling suggestively. “I like it rough.”


He disgusts me,
she thinks, as she admires his sculpted shoulders and his bare chest, her eyes following the faint lines of scars trailing across his flat stomach, to where they disappear under his trou–

Stop staring!

As if reading her mind, Bishop cocks an eyebrow. “Like what you see?” he asks seductively, as he undoes his breeches. “Care to hang around for more?”

“You…insufferable…” she sputters, mortified, even as she turns her head quickly so he wouldn’t see her face turning red. At a loss for words, she manages a frustrated “Argh!” before storming up the path, his scornful laughter ringing out behind her.

The Way of the Hunter Chapter 20 - Building on Shaky Foundations © Alya Elvawiel

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