Li Xueyue knew this was a losing fight. At most, there were only twenty well-trained soldiers who accompanied them.
No one had expected that they would be attacked on this route since they stayed off the main paths where robberies were more common.
She glanced around with uncertainty. Everywhere she looked, there were bandits upon bandits.
"Get on your horse, my lady," one of the soldiers stated as the soldiers began to take slow steps backward. They entered a protective stance and surrounded the middle carriage.
The soldiers were mindful of keeping her title hidden. If the bandits were to discover she was a Princess, then all hell would break loose in the form of kidnapping.
"What a beautiful woman you have there," one of the burlier men commented. "Oh ho, look at that frigid glare. Women like that scream the loudest in bed."
Crude laughter erupted amongst the bandits. The mocking sound echoed throughout the forest.
Li Xueyue's stomach churned with discomfort. Her lips curled into a disgusted snarl. She touched her waist, grateful for the dagger that rested upon her hip. She wished it was a sword, much like the ones that the soldiers carried. She had left it in the carriage.
"If you come with us obediently, we will spare some of your men, so that they can run back with their tails tucked in between their legs," one of the bandits sneered.
Li Xueyue narrowed her eyes. She reached for the small knife resting on her hip, which earned another round of sickly laughter.
"We have our answer," another bandit spoke up.
"Get 'em," the first thief demanded.
And just like that, a bloody fight broke out.
Li Xueyue had severely underestimated how many men were inside of the forest. She was confident enough that these well-trained palace soldiers would take out at least two or three men on their own. Who would've thought, this entire place was swarming with people?
She didn't know who did it, but someone had grabbed her waist and forcibly lifted her onto the horse. "What are you—"
"Apologies, my lady," the soldier murmured. He raised his head and pleaded with his eyes. "Please be safe."
Li Xueyue blinked in confusion. "What are you talking about, I want to fight—!" she gasped when the soldier roughly slapped Heiyue's hind legs. Agitated, the horse raised his front legs.
"Heiyue, no!" she cried out as Heiyue lurched forward. There were men blocking her path. Soldiers clashed with the bandits as a rough brawl ensued.
Li Xueyue had to do something, or else Heiyue would run directly into the fight. He would get himself injured in the process. With no other option, she loosened the reins of her horse and lifted her lower body, signaling for Heiyue to jump.
The bandits near them were surprised when a shadow loomed over them. They glanced up and to their pure shock, an enormous horse had leaped right above their heads.
"Get her!" a voice demanded. "She will sell for a high price!"
Heiyue didn't give them a chance. The minute his hooves connected with the ground, he broke into a mad dash. It was as if he was able to understand the severity of this situation.
The terrain slowed him down, but when his keen ears heard approaching steps, he picked up his pace.
"I'm so sorry…" Li Xueyue whispered under her breath as she squeezed her eyes shut, unable to bear the sight of her soldiers being slaughtered in cold blood. And for the first time throughout this journey, she shed a tear.
Li Xueyue wept for the lives lost in order to ensure her safety. It was the only thing she could do for them.
- - - - -
"This must be the town that the servant spoke about," Li Xueyue softly said when Heiyue had raced out of the forest. In the near distance, she noticed a small town. She passed by the small sign that indicated the town's name: Prosperity Village.
Li Xueyue was optimistic about this place. With such an adorable little name, what could possibly go wrong? Turns out—everything could go wrong.
Her heart spiked with fear upon riding through the village.
There wasn't a single man in sight. Dark, hollowed eyes followed her everywhere she went. It lingered on her and the horse.
Li Xueyue had an uncomfortable feeling about this town. It seemed far from safe, but nightfall was quickly approaching, and she needed a place to sleep. Everywhere she looked, this town was ravaged by poverty.
"Oh dear," she whispered.
Not even children had the energy to run around. They sat outside of their creaky doors with hungry stares. When she made eye contact with one of the kids, her heart leaped. In his hand was a small stick sharpened at the tip to become a makeshift weapon.
While she observed the surrounding, more and more women were exiting out of their houses. They watched her with hungry eyes, almost as if she was a piece of meat.
It was then Li Xueyue realized exactly why there were no men here. The men were deep in the forest. They were hard at work as bandits.
Li Xueyue wasted no time in leaning forward.
"Let's go," she stated.
Heiyue started out in a small trot, but within a few seconds, had built up enough speed. Cries of protest emerged from the starving townspeople with hollowed cheeks and skeleton bodies.
"Quickly!" Li Xueyue instructed as Heiyue's hooves thundered upon the grounds. Its force was enough to shake the thin rooftops.
She gasped upon seeing small children throwing themselves in front of her path, in an attempt to stop her from running away.
"Jump!" Li Xueyue exclaimed to Heiyue and sure enough, the horse was able to leap over the children.
Despite their seething glares, she glanced back to make sure none of them were injured in the process. To her relief, none of them seemed fazed.
Even though Heiyue's speed was like that of lightning, people still ran after her.
"How frightening…" she whispered.
Li Xueyue had never felt these types of emotions. It was fear mixed with pity and anger.
Their men had already killed off her soldiers and were most likely in the process of raiding her carriage. Wasn't that enough? Were things that bad here that they needed to chase her to steal any remaining profit?
Li Xueyue ground her teeth and urged Heiyue forward. She never glanced back again, not even once. She didn't want to be reminded of the children's thinning hair, sunken cheeks, and mothers with screaming babies, but no milk to feed them.
Finally, when she entered another forest, did she slow Heiyue down.
"Was that town truly a part of Hanjian's territory?" she asked herself whilst guiding her horse forward.
Li Xueyue swallowed. She had heard snippets of the soldiers' conversion before the entire incident had occurred. She had gathered enough to know they were near the beginning of Hanjian's territory that bordered the end of Wuyi's barriers.
"There must be more towns like that," Li Xueyue whispered. "Was the barren village the result of the frequent wars…?"
Li Xueyue shuddered at the thought. Her assumptions must be true. Why else would the wealthy Hanjian have impoverished villages like that?
Li Xueyue had always heard of the aftermath of wars. The loss of lives, mothers never getting to see their sons anymore, husbands separated from wives, children without parents, pillaged towns, deserted homes, and the list went on.
On paper, the consequences were intense, but to experience it firsthand… she had no words to describe it.
Li Xueyue swore she would do everything in her power to stop any wars that threatened to break out. Glancing back in the direction of the village, she had decided the first impact she would make in Hanjian.
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