The wood crackled in the fireplace, filling the room with a tart scent, the smoke burning in Zhan Cheng’s throat. He cleared it, trying to get rid of the discomfort but he didn’t quite manage. He raised his brows at the witch on the other side of the counter, hoping that he would get his drift and do something about it.
Unfortunately for him, the other man didn’t even seem to notice his gaze. He just went on to quietly write something down in the little book in front of him.
Zhan Cheng cleared his throat again to get his attention. This time, he succeeded.
The witch looked up, his dark eyes unperturbed. “My, that doesn’t sound good either. Do you want another prescription for that?”
Zhan Cheng’s brows twitched. “Isn’t that because of your firewood? What did you throw in there? It burns like hell.”
The witch just continued to look at him silently before he glanced at the fireplace. “I’d believe that is commonly what one would want their firewood to do.” Then, he lowered his head again, continuing to write.
Zhan Cheng stared at him, a vein popping out on his forehead but he didn’t dare to say more. In any case, he had come here looking for help. Pissing off the witch certainly wouldn’t get him that.
Another minute went by while the witch switched to a small parchment of paper to write and then finally put away the brush before he looked up again. “Alright. This is everything that will be needed to treat your problem. I will need a couple of days to gather what can still be found outside. As for the rest … well, we will have to use the dried ones that are being sold. You should have come earlier. The fresh herbs are usually better suited as their efficacy will be higher.”
Zhan Cheng pressed his lips together, not quite happy with hearing that. He had thought about it. Not just once, to be honest. But he wasn’t too sure if he could trust a witch so he had tried with a couple of different physicians first. Unfortunately, neither of them had been able to solve his problem so, in the end, he had still needed to come here. He probably shouldn’t have been as hesitant.
Gongliang Ye could imagine what his newest customer was thinking. He had seen this very same thing play out much too often. In the worst case, they even came in the winter when he couldn’t find any fresh herbs at all and were then dissatisfied if the result wasn’t as good as expected. In this case though, he felt like it wasn’t as bad. At the very least, he hadn’t needed to suffer an endless tirade at the beginning.
He silently pushed over the second list he had written. “I will entrust this to you. Go to any of the herb shops in the city and get these herbs in the specified quantity.”
“Why me?” Even though he asked, Zhan Cheng still folded up the paper and tugged it into his clothes. He was merely curious.
“I will be busy gathering the other ones. I could make that trip myself as well but I doubt you would care to wait another day.”
Zhan Cheng gave a dry cough and averted his face. “A day more or less won’t make a difference.”
Gongliang Ye gazed at his face before turning away. “I suppose so. Well, I should have everything else gathered in a week.” He picked up a small pouch that was lying on the shelf and turned back around. “You take this. On the seventh day, come back here with somebody you trust.”
Zhan Cheng took the pouch, not sure what to do with it, and just held it awkwardly. “Is that required?”
Gongliang Ye looked up, his gaze as if he thought Zhan Cheng was an idiot. “If you dare to come alone to a witch’s house to receive treatment …” He didn’t bother to go into further detail. In any case, most people wouldn’t even come here to ask for help. The number of those who came back afterward to really receive their treatment was even lower. His hopes for this one weren’t too high either but usually, if they were allowed to bring somebody else, it helped. Furthermore … “You will feel weakened after the treatment so it can’t hurt to have some help to get back home.”
“I … I’ll see about it.” He didn’t sound like it was likely though.
Gongliang Ye nodded and then motioned to the door. “I won’t see you out then. Until next week.”
“Mn.” Zhan Cheng inclined his head and walked briskly to the door. He stopped with a hand on the wood though and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he turned back around. “Thank you.”
Gongliang Ye glanced up, his brows raising a little. “There is no need for that. In any case, it is what I do.” Even if he did not get any thanks, even if he was shunned and cast out, he would still do the same.
Zhan Cheng nodded and turned back around, opening the door and stepping out into the cold. Somehow, the warmth from the fire seemed a lot more inviting now despite the heavy smoke. He sighed and closed the door, his gaze drawn to the witch inside until the moment the last gap had been closed.
He stood in front of the house for a moment, not sure what to do. Taking out the list that Gongliang Ye had written, he showed a pensive expression. It would probably be best to go and get these things now. If they couldn’t be bought in his city, he might have to travel further.
With that thought, he slowly made his way back despite the howling winds. His steps made crisp sounds whenever he stepped on one of the dried leaves on the ground and he squinted against the overcast sky.
He’d be weak after the treatment, huh? Maybe it was good that he had done this before winter arrived. Even though the temperatures had already dropped by a lot, it was still bearable. Well, no matter what, this was worth it.
It was three hours later when he finally reached the gates of the city. He nodded at the guards that had huddled together in the guardhouse. He got a careless wave back and that was it.
Zhan Cheng sighed and stepped into the city, making his way over to the physician’s store. Walking inside, there was the scent of herbs but it was far less strong than in the witch’s house, making it seem negligible when the door was opened as if he had only imagined it.
Zhan Cheng went over to the counter and put down the list. “I would like these herbs.”
The man behind the counter picked it up to look but then, his brows furrowed. “Is this from that witch Gongliang?”
Zhan Cheng tried to keep his expression even. “Does it matter where it came from? I would just like those herbs.” In any case, he had gone to all the physicians in this town and the surrounding ones but they had either been unable to find what was wrong or even thrown him out, cursing him for wasting their time by pretending to be sick when he was a healthy young man. Other than going to a witch, what else could he do?
The man continued to scowl but maybe business had been bad recently. In any case, he still went to collect the herbs. Opening and closing the drawers, he finally put down a bundle in front of Zhan Cheng. “These are all that we have. For everything else, you’ll have to try somewhere else.”
Zhan Cheng took a look and realized that three of the ingredients were missing. He didn’t know how important what was and whether the witch would be able to use something else so he could only try to get them somewhere else. Thus, he nodded and handed over the money, wincing a little in his heart.
With the bundle pressed up against his chest, he left the store and made a round through the streets, trying to see if there was another store that might sell the ingredients but, unfortunately, there weren’t many stores selling herbs in the first place, and among those, one already threw him out as soon as they realized that this list had been written by Gongliang Ye. That witch really wasn’t welcomed here.
Finally, Zhan Cheng had to give up. He brought the ingredients home and put them on the shelf, sitting down at the table with a tired expression. “Just one more week.” He rubbed his forehead and then went to prepare some food. In any case, he had lived like this for half a year now. What were seven more days? He could surely take that.
After eating, Zhan Cheng went to lie down. His breathing was a little unstable but he still closed his eyes and pulled the blanket up, trying to somehow find his calm so he could have at least a few hours of sleep.
Unfortunately, things were not going to turn out the way he hoped.
The window started to rattle and then there was the creaking of the floorboards, seeming as if a person was walking from side to side of the room.
Zhan Cheng furrowed his brows and turned to the side, trying to lie there as quietly as he could. The sounds did not stop though. The creaking continued, he even felt as if he could hear faint voices.
‘How could you do this to me?’ It was the voice of a man who asked this question. ‘I trusted you!’ There was anger mixed in his voice and he was getting louder. ‘What have I not given you all these years? And how do you repay me?’
Zhan Cheng clenched his hands into fists but the anger that man felt still seemed to grip his heart. Even through his closed eyes, he felt as if he could see the room. It was similar to the house he was living in, with the same floorboards even if they looked a little newer, the same window even though the color was fresher, even the table, the chairs, and the bed at the side seemed to be the same. It was just that everything seemed new. In fact, the people living there seemed to be quite wealthy.
It really made one wonder just what exactly was going on. Who was this man? He didn’t know. He only knew that each night, he would hear these very same things. And sometimes, even in the day, the feeling of anger would assault his nerves, making him clench his hands and grit his teeth, wanting to yell at whoever was in front of him and maybe throw something at their head.
He didn’t know who he was scolding. Was he a father who was dissatisfied with his child? Was he a husband whose partner had betrayed him? Or was he somebody who had been betrayed by a friend?
Zhan Cheng had no idea. He could not hear the other side, only ever this shouting and raging. He had enough. He really had enough. But no matter what he did, no matter who he asked for help, it just wouldn’t stop.
Zhan Cheng took a deep breath, trying to calm his madly beating heart. It only seemed to get worse just like the yelling close by seemed to get worse.
There was the sound of something falling, the sound of something heavy hitting the floor, then more yelling, more of that stomping that seemed to become worse by the minute.
Finally, everything went quiet.
Zhan Cheng took a shaky breath. He reached up and rubbed his face that was already slick with sweat but he knew that it wasn’t over. In any case, it would just start again in a while, torturing him once again.
He hastily took a few deep breaths, once again trying to calm down, and then tried to fall asleep. Before he could, things already started anew. The window, the floorboards, … It started in the same way, the process was the same, and the ending was as well.
At the end of the second round, Zhan Cheng was already shaking like a leaf. He cradled his head, feeling as if he was going crazy. He pushed the blanket off his body and got up, going to pour himself a cup of water. He downed the content in one gulp and slammed it back down on the table, then held his forehead.
He just couldn’t do this anymore. Another week didn’t seem so long in comparison but after half a year, he already didn’t know anymore how he was supposed to even stand this one night.
He exhaled and already wanted to turn around when he saw the small satchel the witch had given him. He had just put it to the side before and not thought much about it but now, he picked it up. He didn’t really know what it was. But since the witch had given it to him, maybe it would somehow help? He didn’t have much hope but in this situation, it wasn’t like he could be choosy.
He laughed at himself and then went back to the bed, pulling the blanket up that had also become wet with sweat. He held the satchel in his hand, closed his eyes again, praying that things would stay silent.
He took a few deep breaths and then waited.
A few heartbeats passed and he already expected it to start again but there was nothing. He slightly furrowed his brows and continued to wait. Maybe he had misjudged the time. Maybe it actually hadn’t taken him that long to get up and drink a glass of water. There was always a slight pause after all. He shouldn’t think that he was suddenly getting lucky.
But after a while, still, nothing happened. He was tense, lying in his bed without being able to relax, both his muscles and his nerves stretched taut. Nothing happened though. Everything stayed silent as if this was truly just a normal night.
Zhan Cheng opened his eyes and stared into the darkness. Then, he raised the hand that was clasping the satchel of the witch, tears gathering in his eyes and slowly running down his cheeks.
He hadn’t had a quiet night in half a year. He had hardly slept and felt like he was going crazy more than once. Sometimes, he had even been afraid of himself, and he hadn’t known if it would ever stop.
But now, there was the faintest of hope. Maybe this satchel wasn’t without reason after all. Maybe this actually meant that that witch would be able to finally make it stop. At the very least, this had gotten him further than anything before. At the very least, he could sleep again for once.