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Old Mother

Anya grew up in Singapore and moved to Melbourne to study law. After a few years of legal practice in Australia, she went back to school to study graphic design. She's now a designer in an ad agency in Melbourne, working in branding, illustration, copywriting, and digital projects. Off hours, Anya freelances and writes, and her first book, The Firebird's Tale, will be coming out sometime this year or next. She can be found on twitter at @anyasy.

"Old Mother," said the teashop's owner, "Why do you still hunt? Your bank is bent under your blade, and you grow thinner by the season. Have you no children to ease your days, no grandchildren?"
The teashop owner was not a young man himself. Life on the edge of the Kunlun meant that his shop relied heavily on the kingsroad, the benches cramped close to the paved stone, the small thatched-roof shop forever heavy with the animal scent of tethered horses. Ryurin smiled broadly with her few remaining teeth, amused as the teashop owner averted his eyes when he sat beside her on the bench. Thirty years ago, Ryurin would have believed it to be flirting. Time had made her wiser to the growing indifference of the world. The shop was empty, and the teashop owner had little else to do but wait out the days till the warmth of summer.
"Young man," Ryurin began, amused, "Why do you labor at pouring tea on the edge of the Kunlun? Life is difficult with bandits abroad. Where is your wife, to brew the tea, your children, to brush down the horses?"
"A wife was not in my stars," said the owner ruefully, "And I brush the horses down myself just fine." By the water trough, Hare snorted and swished its silver tail, as though in disagreement. Hung from its black saddle with silver chain was the slow-rotting head of a qilin, its golden horns curling outwards towards the pommel, its scaly, horselike face gaping open in a deathless gasp of teeth and tusks. On the grass beneath it, its quicksilver blood shimmered and lay heavy.
"It is a good year for hunting," Ryurin took a sip of her tea. Two tiny leaves were enough to color her cup a rich sapphire blue, and it was sweet with the taste of winter. She wrapped her dusty wool cloak over her mail and greaves as a breeze picked at the thinning strands of her gray hair, and Sister pressed heavily in its scabbard against the small of her back as the baldric shifted.
"Is it difficult, hunting the qilin?"
"Hunting in Kunlun is always difficult. It is easy to get lost, the ground is mottled with ravines, and the qingshi are hungry after the winter."
"Life would be easier, Old Mother, in Nanchen. The river brings trade from the West, and they are rich with bottled dreams. It is said that you can breathe in their craftsmen's dreams and see the future."
"And what good would that do? Fate is fixed. But surely Nanchen needs teashops as much as Kunlun."
"Nanchen has too many tea shops," replied the owner, pouring her more tea, "While Kunlun has one. Where will you be selling the qilin's head?"
"I was contracted to bring a patron its horns. Near Nanchen."
"Ah," the owner nodded. "I heard that if you grind up the horns and drink them in a soup made of ginseng and arrowroot, you can heal from any illness."
"It's nonsense," Ryurin smiled, always amused by superstition. "Their horns are the same as a goat's, just golden. But the money is good and the patron is a regular. I may not have children to ease my days, but taels make fine substitutes."
The owner began to reply, but the saucer and the little teapot on the table began to rattle and jump. They looked to the west, down the uncurling coil of the kingsroad, where a faint puff of dust seemed to be toiling uphill. Closer and closer. Six horsemen on white horses, with rust-dark robes and silver armor, handsome in the sun. Ryurin tucked her feet under the bench and drained her cup as the owner retreated under the hut to put the kettle back on the iron stove, just in case, but the horsemen thundered past, their riders whooping as they kicked up dust and grit in their wake.
Ryurin set her teacup down, dusting down her knees. Further down the kingsroad, one of the riders was wheeling his horse about, gesturing, and the others also slowed and turned, trotting back to the tea shop, their horses barely winded, snorting and tossing their manes, shooting poor docile Hare disdainful glances. One of the riders dismounted, grinning broadly, his dark hair drawn up into a topknot over his skull, secured by a golden band, his robes embroidered at the seams with amber brocade.
"A qilin's head!" exclaimed the topknot rider. He swept the teashop with narrowed eyes, dismissing the owner instantly, studying Ryurin next, her worn mail, her tattered, stained cloak. "Old woman, were you the one who found it?"
"Found it? She's a hunter," the owner said quickly. "Young master, would you and your friends like some tea?"
The rider waved dismissively at the owner, his eyes intent on Ryurin. "We came to Kunlun to hunt the qilin. Old woman, no doubt you found it already dead. Some other mischief-maker must have been the one who robbed us of our kill."
The topknot rider was armed with a longsword that looked ceremonial, its weight sitting at an awkward slant by his hip, ill-balanced. There was a heavy hunting bow slung in his empty saddle, with a full quiver of eagle feather arrows. His companions were all young and fresh-faced, just as richly dressed, grinning and nudging at each other. Ryurin imagined her hand closing on Sister's hilt, a whisper of leather and steel, the first heavy, two-handed swing. By evening there could be six mothers mourning the children who were meant to ease their days. She relaxed her palms on her knees.
"As you say, young master."
"Hold on," the owner said genially. "Young master, it was a long winter, and even Old Mothers must eat and rest."
"Of course! Of course." The rider pulled a purse from his hip, fishing out a handful of copper coins, tossing them on the dirt. "There. I have paid for your tea, old woman."
"The head is yours." Ryurin even smiled faintly as the rider unhitched the head from Hare's saddle, dragging it over to his horse. His friends laughed and joked as the qilin's head was hung on the golden saddle, their horses stamping, impatient to be back on the road. Ryurin poured herself another cup of tea from the little pot as they thundered away, back down the kingsroad, the benches again rattling gently in their wake. The teashop owner watched them go, pale and blank, then he went down on his knees, slowly picking up the coins.
"I'm sorry about that," he said softly. "Those bastards. I see them now and then on the kingsroad, playing at going hunting in the Kunlun. I should have told you somehow. They're all show. I don't think that boy even knows how to hold a sword."
"And what would that have done?"
"You could have stopped them from stealing the qilin's head."
"By killing them? Over the head of an animal?"
"Not killing them. But they need discipline," said the teashop owner, now uncertain.
"And they would have come back, when they were recovered, with their fathers' men, and set fire to your shop, and where next would I have tea?" Ryurin tipped the lid of the teapot up on the handle, indicating that it was empty. "There will be other qilin."
The owner wavered, then let out a sigh and went for the kettle. He filled up the little pot, then set the kettle aside, and counted out the dusty coins onto the table. One for the tea, that Ryurin nudged back; two for luck, three for patience, four for the mothers she hadn't made grieve. Ryurin drained her teacup, and got creakily to her feet, rubbing her fists against her lower back. It was going to be a warm evening.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 16th, 2016

Author Comments

After a year of working in design, I wanted to try my hand at the pro writing markets. Finding a publisher for my novel was tricky, but it turned out to be nowhere as difficult as getting a short story sold somewhere. I'm generally more used to writing longform fiction, and flash fiction is a particular challenge for me: coming up with compelling characters with something to resolve in such a short space.

I've always loved Grizzled Warrior stories (David Gemmell's Druss, Terry Pratchett's Cohen and more), but I've always wished that there were more Grizzled Older Female Warrior stories out there. I hope you enjoyed this one.

- Anya Ow
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