Golden tea tips glowed in the sunshine as Ling Nu Fei snipped them with a pair of shears, catching them expertly in a wicker basket as they fluttered down. She swatted a mosquito away from the tea leaves in annoyance. Then, she wiped sweat from her brow and straightened, her spine cracking like a broken bough as she bent with her fists in the small of her back.
“Ah!” she sighed contentedly, gazing up past the tea terraces to Shuei village, her home atop the hill, and beyond that to the sun, half-shadowed by the moon.
Jays and finches streamed overhead in a garish river in the cloud-patched blue sky, babbling like a brook. A hodgepodge of huts, Shuei village was home to the few cultivators who worked on Moshu Cha Hill, including Ling and her father. Though small, the village was famed for its tea throughout Quing Tzu.
“Was that the crack of a birch whip, master?” said her father, Ru Nu Fei, with a mischievous smile that bunched his hamster-cheeks and broadened his already broad face until it resembled a bronze plate garnished with a square-cut fringe of grey hair.
Ling turned a teasing scowl on him, smoothing her long grey tunic cinched with rope with a haughty air. “If that means, should you get back to work? Then, yes, you should! If you’re calling me a birch whip, I’ll have you know it is considered beautiful in the cities to be lissom.” She tossed her long sooty hair over her shoulder.
“Around here, a man needs a good sturdy gal,” her father said, cheeks bunching, his voice like the grind of a mortar and pestle. “Don’t want no wand of a woman! How do you hope to attract a man without an arse the size of a troll?”
“Haha!” Ling’s high peals of laughter swam up the terraces, infecting all who heard them with a smile. “I think I’ll do just peachy with my bottom as it is, thank you very much! Can you believe him, Po?”
The tea troll, Po, blinked at her sheepishly, some of the tea leaves adorning his elephantine body fluttering down like sycamore seeds as he turned his mammoth head to behold her. “No,” he rumbled, baring fangs, his voice so deep that Ling felt it vibrate in her chest.
Crowned with brown antlers, the bulky ten-foot-tall beast might have frightened some twenty-one-year-old women, but not Ling. The tea troll was built like a gorilla, with shovel-hands and feet ending in black claws. Its whole body plastered in tea leaves, it resembled a sentient compost mound with vivid green eyes peering out from its depths.
“The cheek!” Ling muttered with a smile, shaking her head. She glanced up at the sun again, then turned back to her father, seeing sunspots dance across her veil of vision. “It’ll be exciting to see the eclipse today. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, only heard tell of them in your old stories.”
Ru nodded, absently wiping dirty hands on his once-white tunic and olive breeches. “My father used to tell me stories of the eclipse.” He frowned and scratched his head. “Come to think of it, I feel like he said something important about the eclipse … I’ve the strangest feeling I’ve forgotten something …”
“Ah, Ancestors help me, my bush is getting away!” Ling cried out.
Ru chuckled as he watched Ling chase after the shifting tea plant, trying to snip it as it went and shouting, “Wait! Wait! Hold still, would you? I’m not finished up here yet!”
Then, Ru realised his own bush was on the move and had to pursue to prune. Around mid-morning, father and daughter coalesced to eat a few biscuits together. Po was by Ling’s side as always, chewing eagerly on the doled out hardtack. Tea trolls could survive on worms and fungi and rotting leaves, but were sentient enough to be choosy and thus had been more than amenable to taming by the humans in return for treats. They were docile, simple creatures with no more wish in life than to burrow in their beloved dirt like giant moles. Except Po.
Malformed at birth, Po had grown antlers but never developed a full tea plant on his back like the rest of his species, who roamed all over the terraces of Moshu Cha Hill. Small twigs protruded from his spine, where other trolls his age had full-grown bushes poking up from the soil through which they tunnelled. They did not mind the cultivators trimming their topmost leaves for boiling and drinking and selling to others to do the same; indeed, they welcomed it, for their bushes needed regular tending, like toenails, and felt as little pain.
With no plant on his back, Po had been ridiculed and shunned by his fellows underground growing up and had abandoned his subterranean life as a young troll in order to live with the humans. The people of Shuei village had been sceptical about the idea at first, but a young girl named Ling had taken his hand, sat him down and given him a cup of tea to drink. He had sipped some and then yakked all over the fire, dousing it with a great hiss and a plume of smoke. That had been the day Ling had learned that trolls could not abide eating or drinking the very tea leaves that grew from their own bodies. From that day on, Ling and Po had been inseparable.
Now, as she fed him biscuits, Ling crooned to him as she would a puppy, scratching under his chin and stroking his big belly, while he panted happily and kicked a leg in the dirt. “Who’s a good boy, eh? Who’s a good boy? Yes, you are! You want a biscuit? You want a biscuit? Who wants a biscuit? Give me a paw. Aw, there’s a good boy! Such a good boy! Yes, you are!”
She shook his paw and gave him a biscuit, and Ru roared with laughter as Po devoured it in one bite, gulping barely half a second later.
“That hardly seemed to touch the sides!” Ru wheezed, face red as an apple.
Chuckling and barbing one another affectionately while Po looked on in silence, father and daughter stared up into the sky as a pall crept over the hill, waiting for the eclipse. They were startled from their camaraderie by a series of piercing shrieks coming from the top of the hill. All heads on the hill swivelled to look up towards Shuei village to witness a horror none had expected.
The eclipse was complete. A blot dipped in crimson flames, the moon glared down at Quing Tzu like an evil eye. Shadow engulfed Moshu Cha Hill, and in the darkness, people were dying. Ling could not explain how she knew she was hearing people’s death screams, save to say that they were so full of primal terror that imminent death was the only explanation. Some screams were cut off mid-howl. Squinting, father and daughter could only make out shifting, lumbering shapes atop the hill, some too bulky to be human, with branches growing from their backs. Guttural grunts peppered the symphony of screeches now, and father and daughter’s faces drained of blood.
“What is happening?” Ling whispered.
Before her father could answer, the entire hill seemed to come alive. Tea trolls began bursting out of the ground in eruptions of dirt on the terraces above them, all around the other workers, until the hill was swarming with the trolls that normally roamed underground, hundreds of them. The workers’ keening crescendoed to a peak as the trolls began to clobber them to the ground with their clawed paws. Baskets tumbled to the ground, spilling out the precious tea leaves the workers had gathered, now stained with their blood.
Ling screamed at the sight and then redoubled her warbling when trolls started tearing their way out of the ground on the bottom terrace where she and her father had been working. Spotting the screaking girl and her father, the trolls growled and plodded ponderously towards them, walking on feet and knuckles. Their eyes, Ling noted as her heart fluttered with fear like a warbler’s wings, glinted like black opals in the darkness, quite unlike their usual tea-green hue. Behind her, Po growled deep in the back of his throat, and all her hairs stood on end. Feeling ice flow through her veins, her heart hammering, she spun to behold him – and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw his jade eyes focussed on his approaching brethren.
“The Trolls!” Ru gasped at last. “They’ve gone mad! That’s what my father told me about the eclipse – he told me it makes the trolls lose their minds! He told me the sickness would not pass even with the passing of the eclipse. He told me there is only one way to cure them. That’s why I had that feeling – that’s what I had forgotten! The amber, the amber my father left me. It’s the only cure! And I left it all in the hut, Ancestors curse me! We have no way of reaching it now. There’s no way we’ll get past so many maddened trolls to the top of the hill.”
“We must do something, father,” Ling urged as the trolls closed in and one raised a club of a fist above them.
Once he was sure the other trolls meant his human friends harm, though, Po sprang into action. Barging into the nearest two trolls and tackling one to the ground, he then reared back up and grabbed a hold of the tea plant growing out of the back of the second as it tried to pass him. Yanking it away from the father and daughter, he spun it around and slung it down to the ground beside the first. The trolls rose immediately, though, and Po bared his fangs threateningly at them as they came on again. Though malformed and unable to grow a tea plant of his own, Po was only slightly smaller than the rest of the trolls, and Ling had always thought him smarter than most.
“There is only one thing we can do,” Ru said hurriedly. “We need to evacuate Moshu Cha Hill, and we need more amber. Ling, I need you and Po to help me. It is very important, and it must be you, for you are perhaps the only one who can escape this mess from here.”
Ling looked around in desperation, hoping somebody else could take the responsibility, but he was right. They were the only ones on the bottom terrace, the two most likely to escape the trolls, who were concentrated on the hillside rather than the plains and copses below.
“I must stay to organise an evacuation as best I can,” her father continued, gaze fixed on the trolls as Po whacked them back again and again, taking a few whacks in return. “You two must fetch me some liquid amber. The amber we need can only be found in the Wailing Wood, oozing from the trunks of weeping cedars. You must go to the Wailing Wood and bring back as much amber as you can find, please, my child! It is only a day’s walk away. If you hurry, you should be able to return by sunrise!”
“The Wailing Wood?” Ling repeated dumbly. “But you always told me never to go there! You told me –”
“I know what I told you, honey,” her father interrupted her as gently as he could, “but now I am telling you we need that amber or we may lose our tea trolls. Please, just take Po and go!”
“Shouldn’t we inform the Shenzhan, or the Burgomaster of Chazhen or … someone?” Ling argued, mind racing in all directions and pulling itself taut as a drum-skin in panic.
“No time!” her father bit off the words, patience in short supply. “Go! Now! I’ll hold off the trolls while you make a run for it.”
“And just how will you do that?” Ling demanded, afraid for her father.
Ru held up his shears. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll cut them down to size. I’ll lead the villagers to Szeching Monastery. Meet us there.”
Ling shook her head, but did as he asked, haring off down the hill and shouting over her shoulder, “I will find the amber, father! Look after yourself and the villagers! I love you! Po, heel!”
Smacking down two trolls in quick succession, Po turned and, with his large purple tongue lolling out of his mouth, bounded after her on feet and knuckles. Ling flew across the grassy plains at the base of the hill and dashed through the small stands of gingko and larch, taking the crow’s path towards the Wailing Wood as much as she could.
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