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    Chapter 207: The Third Summer

    In the depths of the mountains, the wedding was exceptionally simple, without a bridal chamber or wedding attire, not even candles or incense. However, the blessings they received were the most sincere.

    Due to the absence of their parents and elders, villagers from both sides gathered as witnesses. A group of half-grown boys addressed them as Master and Mistress, each offering unique congratulations, likely having learned from Wei Qinghe, Wang Yunzheng, and Xu Wenqing beforehand.

    Of course, what mattered most was that the person by her side was the one she had earnestly wished to marry.

    Chen Dashan and Xu Wenqing's hunted venison were stewed with the help of Gan Shi and Zhou Ge, along with Shen Lie's contribution of rabbits and pheasants from home. Combined with vegetables from the mountain fields, they prepared two steaming pots of bean rice. As dusk fell, they invited everyone to bring their own utensils for an informal feast, adding a festive touch to the celebration.

    When Shen An and Shen Ning had also offered their congratulations, as darkness fell, they all retreated to the small wooden huts, leaving only the couple in the cave. With the entrance sealed, it was truly just the two of them, alone.

    Their vows to the heavens and earth, their legitimate union, and the sharing of the marriage cup and entwining of hair spoke volumes of their deep affection.

    The warmth of the wine mingled with the sweetness of their love, and the scattered bed of red dates were swept by Shen Lian to the far corner, forming a pile. He had initially thought it would be like those previous nights, where his sole purpose was to please her. However, when emotions ran high, Sang Luo pulled him down, whispering into his ear.

    Shen Lian's breathing grew heavy, and his Adam's apple moved rapidly in his throat. He gazed at her intently, his eyes burning: "Really?"

    Sang Luo opened her mouth, but the end of her words were swallowed by his kiss. How her voice transitioned from a sob to shattering, then struggled, rose, fell, and ultimately lost control, she could not tell. She had no knowledge that such pleasure between a man and a woman existed. Apart from the initial struggle and near-missteps, Shen Lian took complete control of the moment.

    The pent-up youth was truly ruthless. His towering stature and boundless energy were deadly enough, but he was also skilled in learning, applying it in this situation as well. Despite his eyes being bloodshot, he could still meticulously observe her every reaction. Sang Luo was merely a theoretical expert; she couldn't withstand such intensity. Her spirit was swept away, and tears trickled down the corners of her eyes.

    In ordinary times, Shen Lie would never have been able to bear seeing Sang Luo cry. Even the slightest hint of moisture in her eyes would make him anxious. But now, under the flickering candlelight, he could clearly see her expressions. Especially when she called his name between sobs, it stirred an uncontrollable desire within him. Midnight arrived, and the pile of red dates on the bedside had scattered into a mess. This time, both body and soul were thoroughly satisfied, ensuring a peaceful night's sleep.


    The consecutive celebrations brought a glimmer of hope to the people living in these remote mountain villages, dispelling some of the lingering gloom that weighed heavily on their hearts. In this vast wilderness, they banded together, determined to live a normal and fulfilling life.

    As New Year's Eve approached, preparations were made days in advance outside the valley. On the night itself, Shen Lie and Chen Dashan secretly gathered all the elders and children left behind in the valley and led them out. Several dozen people gathered in a hastily constructed shed, with over ten tables of all sizes. Some sat, some stood, celebrating a joyful and united New Year's Eve.

    Upon seeing Sang Luo again, both Old Man Lu and Old Woman Lu appeared much healthier and more vibrant, reminiscent of their first meeting in Shili Village.

    It turned out that since Lu Erlang and Lu Sanlang had returned, they had found a relatively safe haven for the children and assisted in fortifying it. They left behind two wolf carcasses and two bear meats, as well as the hides, which they gifted to Shuanzhu and his siblings. Their new residence was situated near Zhou Lazi's place, allowing them to cultivate land too.

    With Wang Chunniang gone and Lu Dalang mute, the most crucial issue was that the children, having witnessed their parents' experiences, had become more lucid. When they were about to leave, Lu Dalang was still restless, and it was Shuanzhu who insisted on departing. After entering the depths of the mountains, the siblings paid respects to Lu Erlang and Lu Sanlang, requesting them to come back and fetch them when the outside world was peaceful. If it remained unrestful, they decided not to venture out.

    Shuanzhu took charge of the eldest branch of the Lu family, thus eliminating the greatest threat to their stability. Being deep in the wilderness, they no longer needed to guard against people, only wild beasts. As long as they could live peacefully, even by farming and raising chickens, how could they not survive?

    With the burden of worry lifted, the elderly couple's vitality gradually returned.

    Please provide the Chinese text you would like me to translate into English as a professional novel translator, ensuring elegance and contextual appropriateness for each line.

    With the grass sprouting and swallows darting, another spring had come and gone. It was now the third year since Sang Luo had traveled through time. Apart from the secluded Yun Valley hidden in the high mountains, the people living in the surrounding hills also enjoyed a sense of peaceful settlement.

    Starting from the Outskirts Village and extending to the areas that Shen Lie and his companions once hunted and explored, there were roughly half a dozen small settlements. In the vicinity of the Outskirts Village, Zhou Family's hamlet, and the village between them, more than ten thatched cottages and wooden houses had been added. Fields for crops and vegetables had been cultivated, rabbits were being raised, and chickens were tended to. The lives of those who ventured into these mountains last year had taken root and flourished.

    The sheep jointly raised by Sang Luo and the Chens in the valley had also become pregnant. The pair of sheep that were given as a congratulatory gift to Chen Dashan earlier were expecting as well.

    In late February, the pregnant ewe that Shen Lie had kept in the outskirts of the village gave birth to three lambs. By the time they were two months old, the Zhou and Xu families took one lamb each in exchange for grain or meat. Sang Luo kept only one for herself.

    Shen Lie's ability to catch live sheep was of little concern to Sang Luo; she was more delighted with the daily consumption of goat's milk. During Qingming, she picked some spring tea, roasted it herself, and the aroma effectively masked the goat's milk's pungency, making it even more nourishing.

    During this period, over ten groups of people gradually entered the inner circle. The restless ones, observing that every village was martial and armed, quickly changed course and kept their distance. On the other hand, those who were law-abiding but isolated saw hope; they couldn't get too close to the nearby three villages, so they sought refuge in the distant ones.

    As more people from the outskirts took refuge in the mountains, they inevitably brought news from the outside world to the inner circle.

    The Great Qian Dynasty had fallen. Rumor had it that a new kingdom had been established in their region, though no one knew its exact size or who the emperor was. Their main goal seemed to be persuading the people to return and settle down for agricultural life.

    The idea of peaceful farming sounded idyllic, and everyone desired stability, but the current state of the world had left them wary. They feared that their harvests might end up as military provisions, and they themselves could be conscripted into the army once again.

    Some ventured into the tempestuous times to seek their fortune, but the majority were content with securing their lives and protecting their families in their corners. Even those who had previously taken refuge in the outer mountains feared being accidentally captured by the imperial authorities, thus prompting the more courageous among them to move deeper into the inner circle for better concealment.

    In early May, Shopkeeper Xu approached Shen Lie, expressing his desire to make a journey outside the mountain.

    Under Shen Lie's and Chen Dashan's personal tutelage for over half a year, the Xu family had become far from helpless. Not mentioning others, Xu Wenqing could now protect himself when entering or exiting the mountain, and even the scholarly Wei Qinghe had developed some fighting skills, becoming a valuable asset.

    Shopkeeper Xu planned to take Xu Wenqing and Wei Qinghe on this trip. Firstly, to investigate the current situation outside, as Wei Lingzhen and Wei Qinghe's parents were still in Shezhou; secondly, to check if there was an opportunity to inspect the food storage in the underground cave.

    Shen Lie was well aware of the abilities he had taught his disciples. As long as they avoided direct confrontations with large groups, they could manage with some caution. He and Chen Dashan had also emphasized the skills to evade both wild beasts and people in the forest.

    Both Shen Lie and Chen Dashan needed to know the situation outside, but with so many people in the village and valley, it wasn't convenient for them to travel far.

    After some thought, Shen Lie didn't immediately agree. Instead, he asked Shopkeeper Xu to wait two more days, instructing Xu Wenqing to inquire if the Feng family had any intention of exploring the outside world.

    When it came to the largest group of able-bodied individuals, the Feng clan was unmatched.

    The Fengs readily agreed. With their entire clan living in the mountains, it was impossible for them not to keep tabs on the situation beyond for a year or two. Feng DaLang and one of his cousins would accompany the Xu family to venture beyond the mountains.

    Shopkeeper Xu's party left the village in early May and didn't return to the outskirts until later that month, on a particular night. Lately, there were always people waiting outside the village daily, mostly Xu Wenhong and his siblings at night.

    With their father and elder siblings gone for over twenty days, the increasingly anxious Xu siblings were immensely relieved to see them return safely, along with their uncle. Their eyes lit up with joy as they witnessed the load of grain they had brought back.

    Despite the darkness, households in the village remained awake, and those from neighboring villages could vaguely sense the commotion and came out to greet them. The Feng brothers, eager to get back to their village, bid farewell to Shen Lie and company before departing. Only Shopkeeper Xu remained, sharing news with the gathered villagers about the situation beyond the mountains.

    Having traveled tirelessly for over twenty days, it mattered little to Chen Youtian and his companions to take a momentary break. They helped unload the grain, then settled down in the shed. Sang Luo offered them tea to soothe their hoarse voices before Shopkeeper Xu began recounting their findings.

    "Qiyang County no longer exists."

    His words left everyone stunned.

    Shen Lie quickly grasped the situation. "No one has rebuilt since last year's fire, right?"

    It was more practical to conquer a new city than to restore a burned-out, empty one.

    Shopkeeper Xu nodded. "Indeed, that's why we took so long to return. Qiyang County is now a ruin. Along the mountain roads, there are officials beating drums to recruit mountain folk – either from nearby counties or from Shezhou. My connections lie in Qiyang County and Shezhou, so we took to the mountain trails and made our way to Shezhou, which prolonged our journey."

    Chen Youtian asked the question on everyone's minds. "How is it outside? Are the battles still ongoing?"

    Shopkeeper Xu sighed. "Of course they are, but they're not as chaotic as before. It's been nearly three years since the first rebellion in the north. Some semblance of order has emerged amidst the fighting. Numerous warlords have either been absorbed by larger factions or eradicated. Now, only six remain, and territories they've conquered are guarded. A level of stability has returned, at least in regions with garrisons."

    They exchanged glances, and Shen Lie asked, "Which six families are we talking about?"

    Shopkeeper Xu said, "Xizhou is currently under guard. I was afraid that it would be easy to enter but difficult to leave, so I didn't dare go in. Instead, I spent some money to ask for help and managed to get in touch with an old acquaintance from the Wang family who had left the city. It was through them that I learned this news. Last year, when Great Qian’s emperor passed away, two dukes with substantial military power in their hands—one in the capital, the other in the north—each declared themselves kings. Of course, by now, that young emperor has abdicated in favor of someone else. Rumor has it that he has already fallen ill and passed away."

    Whether it was stepping down gracefully or genuinely dying of illness, no one here bothered to differentiate.

    Xu, the shopkeeper, continued, "At present, the capital has become a separate entity, with the name Chen. The northern region is called Qi. The other four are rebel kings from the lower classes, one is known as the King of Qin, another as the King of Wu, and another as the King of Yan. Our Huainan region is now under the rule of a rebel king with the surname Li, and the nation is called Chu."

    Upon hearing that it involved six kingdoms, Lu Erliang furrowed his brow. "So there's still going to be fighting, then?"

    But Shopkeeper Xu shook his head. "Not necessarily. I've heard that Prince Qi is renowned for his bravery in his youth. Since he declared himself a king, he has never suffered a defeat. His momentum is fierce. Now that his troops have reached the borders of Qin, it seems that King Qin is considering surrendering."

    Upon hearing this, those who had experienced battles, like Shen Lie, Chen Dashan, Shi Dalang, and Lu Erlang, immediately understood the implication. As for the well-read Wang Yunzheng and Sang Luo, they also grasped the meaning, their faces breaking into smiles.

    In the struggle for supremacy, the worst scenario was a stalemate among multiple factions. If one side proved exceptionally strong, the chaos of the world would be brought to an end more swiftly.

    Chen Dashan chuckled. "That's excellent news."

    Although life in the mountains could sustain them, who wouldn't yearn for a peaceful and prosperous era?

    Sang Luo inquired of Shopkeeper Xu, "How's the situation in the outer parts of the mountain?"

    Shopkeeper Xu replied, "There are still people, but not many. It could also be that we just didn't encounter them."

    Shen Lie said, "Those who could hide have likely already done so. We know there are seven settlements within our area, and there might be more further out, but it's unlikely. Most who didn't enter the mountains beforehand were either forced into the county, killed, or captured. How many families like Butcher Zheng and Dong Ge's were lucky enough to escape? If any captives are still alive, they must have been taken by the rebels to other cities or counties."

    He paused and looked at everyone before continuing, "The situation outside seems relatively stable now. It shouldn't descend into chaos like last year. The mountain is also quite peaceful. Even if we don't know when the larger situation will stabilize completely, we can live peacefully in this mountain for the time being. There aren't any fierce beasts nearby, and our own martial strength is sufficient for self-defense. While Shopkeeper Xu and the others are away, perhaps those in the valley who wish to move out can do so? If there comes a time we can no longer cope, we can always retreat back inside."

    The valley was indeed beautiful, but it was too small, and the sunlight exposure was limited. Prolonged stays wouldn't be beneficial for health. Farming could still be done by entering the valley at night, and during peak farming season, they could reside inside for a while.

    Upon hearing this, everyone was somewhat tempted.

    Liu Er Lang smiled first, saying, "That's a good idea. Every time I return, Ah Wei keeps asking to study with Shen An and the others."

    Shi Er Lang also chuckled. "My Qiao'er is the same. Let's bring them out tonight then. We'll squeeze together for now, and later on, we can build a few more wooden huts. If the neighbors notice our increased numbers, they'll assume it's due to Shopkeeper Xu and the others. They won't suspect anything. As for necessary items, we can retrieve them gradually once we've built more huts."

    With the discussion reaching this point, Xu Wenying, who had been waiting patiently, finally seized her chance to ask, "Father, did you find the steward from the Wang family? If the Wang family is fine, have you asked about my grandparents? Are they well?"

    Her eyes shimmered with anticipation, but Shopkeeper Xu lowered his gaze.

    Wang Yunzheng, who had refrained from asking about the Wang family, furrowed his brow. A sense of unease began to spread within him. "Uncle?"

    Only now did Sang Luo notice that neither Xu Shangguan and his son nor Wei Qinghe appeared particularly joyful since their return. She had initially attributed it to their exhaustion from traveling. But seeing the unusual expressions on the Xu family's faces and Wei Qinghe's, she started to comprehend the situation.

    Others seemed to have sensed something was amiss as well. Their initial joy vanished, replaced by concern. Xu Wenying anxiously urged, "Father, say something."

    Xu Shangguan's eyes reddened slightly, and his voice turned hoarse. "Your maternal grandparents... They... passed away during the chaos in the Wang family."

    Tears immediately rolled down Xu Wenying's cheeks. Xu Wenhong and Xu Wenbo's eyes also turned red. Wang Yunzheng clenched his fists tightly. The once reserved youth, who had become more outgoing over the past year, trembled slightly as he stared at Xu Shangguan. "Did Uncle inquire about the safety of my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts, siblings?"

    The question was about peace, but the expression on his face was sharp and wary, like an injured lone wolf, anticipating the sword hanging above him to strike down.

    Shopkeeper Xu fell silent, not uttering a word.

    Wang Yunzheng looked at his uncle again, seeing that Wei Qinghe had also lowered his gaze. Suddenly, the young man broke into a smile, his eyes reddening as he laughed.

    They were all alive, coinciding with his stepmother's rule over the household, and his maternal grandparents had perished amidst the chaos. As he laughed, he slightly tilted his head back, yet even with it raised, he couldn't hold back the tears.

    Those who had spared no effort to protect him as he grew up in that cold mansion, those who had served the old master and mistress their entire lives – because of his mother and his existence that hindered others, they had lost their lives in that very same cold residence.

    He was an eyesore, but did his mother have a choice back then? Had he ever been given the chance to choose?

    No one had offered them the luxury of choice.


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