"Grain for the horses!" Togrul Magh said, coming up with a heavy bag on his shoulder. A long bow protruded from over the squat and stocky nomad's other shoulder. Lin Mei gave him a quick smile. He had been kind to them, getting her brother a job as a guard and her as a groom with this caravan.
"Good if we get some for ourselves too!" another guard said. "These horses eat better than we do!"
"Rice is cooking in the temple building," Togrul said. "We eat as soon as the horses are seen to!" He balanced the sack on his shoulder and slit it open with a slash of his dagger, then poured a golden spout of grain into one of the troughs alongside the wall.
"Now we can eat!" Togrul said. There was some low laughter and he led them all through a door to the main hall of the temple, each of them stopping for a moment at the door to make obeisance to the front of the hall. There was no longer an image or idol of whatever deity the temple had been raised to, but no luck was gained by disrespect to the Gods and spirits that ruled these mountains.
A fire burned in the center of the empty hall where a hearth had been laid. A frame of iron rods supported a trio of kettles over the flames.
"The rice and tea are ready," Shin Hu said. "Everyone, get your bowls out." Rice bowls and teacups came out from their packs. Biao Mei took a spot near the fire with the other guards, and Lin Mei squeezed into a small space next to him.
Togrul heaped a mound of steaming rice into her bowl with a wide grin then poured her some tea. She nodded her thanks and held the bowl close to her, enjoying the warmth for a moment before digging into it and wolfing down mouthfuls of the steaming rice.
She smiled wryly to herself. To such simple pleasures had her life shrunk to. The past was gone, she lived in the present, and the present was good, if sometimes uncomfortable. It was also a step towards the future. Lin Mei was determined, but not impatient. She and Biao Mei would reach their goal, but there was much to be learned before they could return to their distant home and take on their uncle.
"We'll sleep in one of the back rooms," her brother said. He indicated a door by the wall near the back of the hall. He stuck his sword back in his sash, and then gathered up his pack and a glowing torch from the fire. She took up her pack and followed.
The door opened onto a short hallway with two doors at the end. He went to the left one and opened it to reveal a room that had apparently been a storage space at some time. Straw baskets were stacked against the corner and a pair of cracked pots lay in the other corner. He grabbed one and stuck the torch in it, making a crude lamp. They unrolled their sleeping mats, and they lay down, covering themselves with their wool cloaks for warmth.
But as soon as she lay down, Lin Mei noticed an odor she was all too familiar with.
"Biao Mei," she whispered urgently. "I smell something dead!"
His hand reached out to his sword, pulling the long blade to his side as he sat up on his bedroll. "Pine needles, mold, damp grass," he catalogued, sniffing the air. "Horses, people, but nothing dead."
"I smell it!" she insisted. He looked at her. "Maybe it's on this side," she said.
Sighing he got up and came over to her side of the room, sitting down beside her and inhaling the air.
"You're right!" he said. "It's here!" He stood, his sword scabbard clenched in his left hand, right hand on the hilt ready to draw.
"It's not too big," she said. "I suspect it may be some small animal. But it's recently dead. It's under us," she said, standing up and pulling her dagger from her sash. Grumbling Biao Mei took the torch out of the cracked bowl and swung it around, causing the embers to blaze again. Lin Mei was already prying up the floor boards with the point of the dagger.
Biao Mei stepped forward to shine the light of the torch down into the darkness under the floor as she pulled the last of three floorboards loose and up. The stench of death rose up.
Biao Mei leaned over, the flame dangerously close to his face as he peered into the opening. He made a face.
"It's two creatures," he said. "Joined together in death." Lin Mei looked down and gasped.
In truth there were two animals dead under the floorboards. Two dead animals, so tightly wound around each other's bodies were they that an immediate identification was almost impossible, but Mei Lei had seen this exact sight before--in a dream six years earlier.