Rain Poppies: A Folk Tale

As I mentioned before, I used to be quite an avid player of World of Warcraft. And while I play far less these days than I used to, I still love the game and the story behind it. One of the biggest gifts WoW has given me (other than some amazing friends) is a shot in the arms as far as creativity goes. I’ve always liked writing, you see, but after college it seemed all of my inspiration dried up. I didn’t write any fiction at all, and even my beloved livejournal fell by the wayside. I think I was just too caught up in my hectic New York City lifestyle to even think about writing anymore.

When I started playing WoW, I was immediately drawn to the story of the game. I didn’t even know that things like raiding existed, nor did I care. I was more concerned with making up a story for the elf druid that I was playing. It made her more interesting to think about why she was doing what she was doing and where she’d come from, even if I didn’t know the lore very well. This is something that I really love about WoW, and MMOs in general. Your character is who you decide. You’re not playing through someone else’s storyline. Unless you’re in Uldum, in which case you’re just a plucky sidekick to Harrison Jones.

I’ve always said that I wish I could get a job at Blizzard making up incidental lore that has absolutely no effect on the game’s storyline. Things like the life story of the stable master in Agmar’s Hammer. Or writing a story about an elixir that trolls take to let them share dreams with each other. Or, my favorite, coming up with uses and details behind the various herbs in the game. I still have dreams of writing an entire herbal guide to WoW one day that has no details on how to quickly level up herbalism, but plenty on the history of sungrass and how it got its name.

Inspired by Pandaria when the latest expansion was released, I decided to write a folk tale about how another herb,  the Rain Poppy, got its name, and I thought I would share it here. It’s meant to be a fairy tale, not a historical account, so some of the details won’t make perfect sense (the same way that the Grimm tales don’t make perfect sense in the real world). I hope you enjoy it!

Rain Poppies

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Once upon a time, there was a man name Xiaotong. Xiaotong was a soldier in the emperor’s army. He spent his years marching through the land, using his spear to fight in the wars that his emperor commanded him. He was happy with his life. He was a soldier through and through. One day while scouting he a song rising up from valley below him. He followed the sound of the song until he came over a rise and saw a woman kneeling by a river, washing a basket of clothes. She was beautiful, with a voice like the breeze on a perfect summer day. He watched her for a long time, listening to her song and watching her work. Before she had even finished, he decided he would speak with her once her song was done. When the last word was sung, he moved forward to approach her. She heard the sound behind her and glanced over her shoulder. With one look at him, she jumped up from her washing and took off at a run.

Xiaotong chased after her, only wanting to learn her name. He was a soldier and he could run, even with his armor. But she was fast too, much faster than he would have expected her to be. He watch mystified as she ran sure footedly along the river, dancing across the rocks in it to get to the other side. But Xiaotong didn’t give up, still running after her, his heart pounding through his chest. He called for her to wait, but that just made her run faster.

They reached the end of the valley and Xiaotong thought for sure he would have her since the climb up was difficult, even for a soldier. But once the climb began, Xiaotong had another surprise. The girl jumped onto the wind and ran along it, the leaves that had been swirling through the air dancing around her feet. Xiaotong’s eyes widened. Never in his years of traveling with the army had he seen such a thing.

She was just a normal woman, he thought, and so he thought he must be able to follow her. He ran up onto a boulder as she had done, then jumped out into the air, thinking he could run along the wind. But instead of it catching him as it had the girl, he went crashing to the ground, landing on his belly and breaking his spear. The wind rushed out of his lungs and for a moment he couldn’t breath. As he coughed and sputtered, the girl had disappeared. Xiaotong cursed, knowing he had just lost sight of a girl who he could have loved.

For twenty days Xiaotong walked around the valley, listening for a voice like the breeze. For twenty days when he finally heard it and found her, she would turn and run away, escaping with the help of the wind. On the twenty first day, as Xiaotong lay on the ground a bend on the river, his breath flown away from him and the girl who now haunted his dreams gone. From beside him, he heard a chuckle that sounded like water running over gravel. He opened his eye a crack, and beside him, he saw a huge salamander, nearly as long as a child was tall. He sat up quickly, staring at the creature, his brows furrowing together.

“Not going to catch her if you keep lying on the ground,” the creature said in its gravelly voice. Xiaotong  could only stare. He heard rumors of these strange lands being home to many mysteries, but never had he imagined one like this.

“I’ve tried to chase after her,” the spearman explained, though he could hardly believe he was answering a salamander. “But she keeps escaping on the wind.”

“She doesn’t want to be caught,” replied the creature, as if that was an explanation. “But I could help you catch her.”

“You can?” asked Xiaotong, perking up, his wonderment at the talking creature forgotten. “How?”

“She escapes on the wind,” the creature, whose name was Cong, explained. “But you can catch her with the rain.”

“How?” asked Xiaotong again, not bothering to think that these words made no sense. How could one use the rain to catch the wind?

“Bring me some of the white poppies that grow along the river not far from here,” Cong said. “They are her favorite flower. She will stop here when she sees them, and you will know where to go to wait for her. And when she runs, I can call for the rain.”

“I can do that,” Xiatong said eagerly.

“But I require payment of my own,” Cong said. “There is an ibus named Shu Fang that I would see gone from these parts. You will recognize her by her strange jade colors. Bring me her feather and I will do this thing for you.”

Xiaotong nodded again and set off, intent to find this ibus. It took only a short hunt and he found her searching for beetles near the river. It was easy to sneak up behind the magnificent creature and break her long neck in a simple twist. His heart hurt to harm her, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that his fellow soldiers would eat well that night and the next day he would finally catch the girl with the voice like the breeze. He took a feather and the poppies back to Cong as proof of his bloody deed, and the salamander was pleased. He promised Xiaotong that the next day he would make the rains come.

The next day, Xiaotong left for his patrol early, making his way down to the valley and the river where he had seen this girl so many times before. He couldn’t hear her voice anywhere, so he eventually went to the place where he met Cong the day before. To his surprise, he saw a whole bed of the white poppies, beautiful against grass and reflecting into the river. From a nearby rock, he saw Cong grinning at him, and then watched as the salamander turned and fled, his tail swishing as he slid off the rock. It was then that Xiaotong heard that voice again, growing louder at each moment. His heart pounded and he hurried to hide in a bush, just in time for when the girl that he dreamed of came into view.

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She paused just for a moment in her song, a sweet smile curling her lips when she saw the bed of poppies, and she carried her basket of washing to that spot, settling down beside the flowers before setting herself to her chore. Xiaotong watched her and listened to her for a long time before he finally worked up the courage to creep out of the bush and walk silently behind her. He hadn’t worn his armor that day, and so there was no metal clanking against his skin as he approached her. He was almost close enough to touch her when she turned swiftly, her eyes widening in alarm to see him so close to her.

She jumped up to run, and as he followed her, the skies above clouded over, though the sun had been shining only a moment before. As Xiaotong chased her, he could see she didn’t run a quickly as she had before, and he hopefully thought that the rain would indeed help him catch the girl. As the approached the edge of the valley, he held his breath as she leapt onto the first boulder, the one she always used to jump onto the wind. Xiaotong’s heart pounded as he watched her jump into the air…

…And then go falling to the ground! He couldn’t believe it! The rain had caught her indeed, and he rushed up beside her, kneeling next to her and smiling broadly at her.

“Caught you at last,” he said.

“Please let me go!” she exclaimed, looking terrified. Xiaotong frowned. She was afraid of him? But why?

“You have nothing to fear from me,” he explained to her. “You sing with the voice of the heavens and you are beautiful and strong. You haunt my dreams each night. I would never harm you.”

“But you are of the Emperor’s army,” she said, her voice frantic. “He seeks to destroy my people!”

And suddenly Xiaotong understood why she had run from him. It seemed stupid that he hadn’t realized it before. She was a native to this strange land, a land his army sought to conquer. No wonder she was afraid of him.

He reached out and touched her hand gently and met her eyes with his and he knew the truth had to be pouring from them. “I will not hurt you,” he said. “Not now or ever. You are right, I am a soldier of the Emperor’s army. But I would leave that, for you.”

She simply stared at him, and she must have seen in his expression that he told the truth, for she stopped shaking. She glanced over to the bend in the river where the bed of poppies was and glanced back to him. “Did you plant those…for me?” she asked, suddenly looking shy.

“Yes,” he said, though he really hadn’t. He had brought the poppies there. Wasn’t that enough?

“How did you know they are my favorite?” she asked.

“Because you are the woman of my heart,” he answered. He pulled her back to her feet and led her back to the bend in the river with the poppies, and they sat for the rest of the day, talking and getting to know each other. He was so distracted by how intelligent and interesting and beautiful she was that it never even occured to him to ask how she ran on the wind.

One did not simply leave the Emperor’s army, and Xiaotong had to plan on how he could do so without being hunted down. He began to put together a plan, but it would take time to enact. But still, each day he would meet Liqin (for that was her name) by the bed of poppies.

A fortnight passed and Xiaotong realized that he had fallen in love with Liqin. On one splendid day, when the sky was as blue clear a tear from Yu’lon’s eye, he decided he would tell her this. His heart pounded the entire day they spent together, talking of this and that. How could he work up the courage to tell her? He suggested they take a walk along the river, and he promised himself that by the time they returned to the bed of poppies that he would tell her the truth of his heart.

The sun hung low in the sky by they turned around, and yet still Xiaotong had not told her. Finally, the words were just about to make themselves known when he heard a sound behind them. He turned, his hand tightening around hers. From the forest alongside the river, four soldiers emerged. For a moment Xiaotong was afraid, but then he recognized their uniforms as the ones of his own army. They were allies.

But as the soldiers moved, Xiaotong saw them pulling out their spears and swords. He was not in uniform and they had no way of knowing he wasn’t their enemy. And Liqin…She was their enemy, even though Xiaotong could not understand why that was true anymore.

“Run!” Xiaotong screamed, turning and pulling Liquin after him. She was fast as well, and the two of them made good ground away from the soldiers, who screamed in fury as they chased after them. For a shining moment, Xiaotong thought that he and Liqin would be safe, but then he felt a terrible pain in his leg and looked down to see an arrow sticking from it.

“Go!” he said, pushing Liqin ahead of him. “I’ll hold them off. You go…run on the wind! I’ll find you later!”

Liqin didn’t want to leave him, but she saw the truth of the situation and heard the desperation in his voice and so she nodded. “No matter what happens, you must find me when this is done,” she said to him. “I will be waiting for you.”

He nodded and leaned down to kiss her. “Liqin,” he said. “I lo-“

“Sh,” she said, cutting him off. “Tell me later, when we are together again. Promise me.”

“I promise,” he said.

She smiled and turned to run from him, following the familiar path along the river. The soldiers approached Xiaotong and he fell into a fighting stance, ready to defend himself and Liqin so he could keep his promise to her. But to his surprise, the soldiers simply ran past him, their true goal obviously being Liqin. But Xiaotong wasn’t worried. He knew his lady was brilliant and amazing, and didn’t she have the wind on her side? He chased after the soldiers, seeing Liqin in front of them, leaping gracefully onto the boulder that she always did, and then leaping into the air…

But something was terribly wrong. Instead of landing on the wind, Liqin fell to the ground. Xiaotong’s heart filled with panic again. What was wrong? Why wasn’t she running on the wind. It was a clear day. There was no rain at all. Why didn’t it work?

“Shu Fang!” she exclaimed, finally looking terrified at the approaching soldiers. “Shu Fang, help me!”

Xiaotong’s heart filled with dread. He knew the name Shu Fang. That was the name of the ibis he slayed for the salamander. Why was Liqin saying that name now?

He didn’t have time to dwell on that. The soldiers caught Liqin and were dragging her away from the boulder and set their spears on her. Xiaotong screamed with the fury of one thousand suns as he watched his lady fall, her blood spilling over the bed of poppies and staining them red. Only then did the soldiers turn back to him.

“I am one of your own,” he said, his voice ragged and defeated. “Why would you do this thing?”

“She is our enemy. And your enemy too,” one of the soldiers said. “And since you have forgotten that, you are our enemy too.”

“He felt a sharp pain in his side and then the soldiers were gone and he was left to die alone. He crawled over to the bed of poppies, looking in disbelief at his pretty Liqin, the light gone from her eyes.

“SALAMANDER!” he screamed. “SALAMANDER! LOOK AT WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!”

From near him, he heard a chuckle like water over gravel and his heart filled with loathing. The salamander appeared again, shaking his head at Xiaotong.

“You tricked me!” the soldier exclaimed.

“No,” Cong replied. “I only did what your emperor has for many years. He asks you to kill without question. I did the same. You followed both of us.”

Xiaotong felt as though he would explode in fury. “You didn’t help me catch her at all!” he accused. “And now she is dead!”

“You caught her,” Cong replied in a mild voice. “What does it matter if the reason for that was because of the rain or because you took away the spirit that gave her the power to run on the wind?”

Xiaotong stared in disbelief. He had been tricked and duped, and now all he had to show for it was a wound in his belly and blood on his hands.

“Shu Fang has been my enemy for a long time. Convenient that killing her gave both of us what we wanted.” Cong chucked again.

“This is not what I want!” Xiaotong screamed. But Cong was gone again, his tail disappearing into the forest before Xiaotong could muster the strength to fight him. He did not know how long he lay there, but then before him he saw an image of Liqin.

“You can make this up to me,” she told him, her voice sounding like the wind around him.

Xiaotong blinked and stared at her face. “I will do anything to make this right,” he told her.

“Blind hatred killed me twice,” she said. “Once because your emperor hates anyone who is not his kind. Then again because of a centuries long feud between the salamander and the ibis. But you must make make people open their eyes. Show them that we are not so different.”

“How?” asked Xiaotong, feeling hopeless. “How can I make people see that in a world filled with war?”

“You found a way once before,” she said, smiling a sweet smile. “I know you can find your way again.”

She disappeared before he could tell her the truth of his heart.

Xiaotong forced himself to stand again and then for the rest his days traveled the land, trying to teach people to open their eyes. He set aside his spear and picked up a scroll case and traveling pack. Eventually he was known as a great scholar of peace. But the only place he could find peace of his own was by the bed of poppies where he caught and lost his love. It was the only place he could sleep, forever hoping to find his lady again in the margins between being awake and dreams, hoping to tell her at last that he loved her.

When he finally passed away years later, Xiaotong was found lying in the bed of poppies, now as red as the sky at sunset with a gentle rain falling over him and a breeze that sounded like a song on the air. His students, for he had many, called the flowers rain poppies and they built a shrine there in remembrance of their teacher and the woman named Liqin, who had guided his steps for all his life.

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