The Book and The Sword
Louis Cha, GBM, OBE (traditional Chinese: 查良鏞; simplified Chinese: 查良镛; pinyin: Zhā Liángyōng; known with his pen name Jin Yong (Chinese: 金庸; pinyin: Jīn Yōng; Cantonese Yale: Gām Yùhng)
The Book and the Sword (traditional Chinese: 書劍恩仇錄; simplified Chinese: 书剑恩仇录; pinyin: shū jiàn ēn chóu lù; literally, "The Book and the Sword: Gratitude and Vengeance")
Written by Louis Cha, translated by Graham Earnshaw
It was a hot summer's day in June, l754, the eighteenth year of the reign of Emperor Qian Long. In the inner courtyard of the military commander's Yamen in Fufeng in Shaanxi province, a fourteen-year-old girl skipped towards her teacher's study, eager for a history lesson. All was peaceful: not even a thread of cool wind stirred. The girl hesitated, afraid that her teacher had not yet woken from his afternoon nap. Quietly, she circled round to the window, pierced a hole in its paper covering with one of her golden hair clips, and peeped inside.
She saw her teacher sitting cross-legged on a chair, smiling. His right hand waved slightly in the air, and there was a faint clicking sound. Glancing over to where the sound came from, she noticed several dozen flies on a wooden partition opposite, all as still as could be. Puzzled, she looked more closely and noticed a golden needle as slender as a hair protruding from the back of each fly. The needles were so small that she was only able to see them because they reflected the rays of the late afternoon sun slanting in through the windows.
Flies were still buzzing to and fro around the room. The teacher waved his hand again, there was a small noise, and another fly was pinned to the partition. Absolutely fascinated, she ran to the door and burst in, shouting: "Teacher! Show me how to do that."
The girl was Li Yuanzhi, the only child of the local military commander, Li Keshou. Her fresh, beautiful face was flushed with excitement.
"Hmm," said her teacher, a scholar in his mid-fifties named Lu. "Why aren't you playing with your friends? You want to hear some more stories, do you?"
Moving a chair over to the partition, she jumped up to look, then pulled the needles out of the flies one by one, wiped them clean on a piece of paper and handed them back to him. "That was a brilliant piece of kung fu, teacher," she said. "You have to show me how to do it."
Lu smiled. "If you want to learn kung fu, there's no-one better at it within a hundred miles of here than your own father," he said.
"My father knows how to shoot an eagle with an arrow, but he can't kill a fly with a needle. If you don't believe me, I'll go and ask him."
Lu thought for a moment, and then nodded. "All right, come tomorrow morning and I'll teach you. Now go off and play. And you're not allowed to tell anyone about me killing the flies. If anyone finds out, I won't teach you."
Yuanzhi was overjoyed. She knelt before him and kowtowed eight times. Lu accepted the gesture with a smile. "You pick things up very quickly. It is fitting that I should teach you this kind of kung fu. However…" He stopped, deep in thought.
"Teacher," said Yuanzhi hurriedly. "I will do anything you say."
"To be honest, I don't agree with much of what your father does," he said. "When you're older, I hope you will be able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil. If you accept me as your teacher, you must also accept the strict rules of the Wudang Martial Arts Order to which I belong. Do you think you can?"
"I would not dare defy your orders," she said.
"If you ever use the skills I teach you to do evil, I will take your life as easily as turning my hand over."
His face and voice became stern and hard, and for a moment Yuanzhi was frightened. But then she smiled. "I'll be good," she said. "Anyway, how could you bear to kill me?"
The Wudang kung fu sect to which Lu belonged, one of the most famous, stressed the use of Internal Force Kung Fu. In his prime, Lu had roamed China fighting for justice, and had become a famous member of the Dragon Slayer's Society, a secret anti-Manchu organisation whose power and influence had been widespread during the reign of Yong Zheng, the former Emperor. But the society had been rigorously suppressed, and by the seventh or eighth year of Emperor Qian Long's reign, it had disintegrated. Lu fled to the border areas of China. The Manchu court dispatched men to look for him, but he was quick-witted and a good fighter and managed to avoid capture. Working on the principle that 'small crooks hide in the wilderness, middling crooks in the city and big crooks in officialdom', Lu eventually made his way to Commander Li's household and set himself up as a teacher.
From that day, Lu began teaching Yuanzhi the basic techniques of the Wudang school's kung fu style, known as Limitless Occult Kung Fu. He taught her control of her emotions and thoughts, the ten Tapestries and the thirty-two Long-arm Blows. He trained her to use her eyes and ears, and showed her the use of hand darts and other hidden projectiles.
More than two years passed. Yuanzhi, hard-working and clever, made fast progress. Her father, Commander Li, was transferred toGansu province as military commander at Anxi, one of the major towns in the northwest border regions, bordering on the great desert of central Asia. His family, including Lu, went with him.
Another two years passed as Lu taught Yuanzhi the Soft Cloud sword technique and the secret of the Golden Needles. She did as her teacher had ordered, and did not tell a soul that she was learning kung fu. Every day she practised by herself in the rear flower garden. When the young mistress was practising her kung fu, the maids did not understand what they saw, and the menservants did not dare to watch too closely.
Commander Li was a capable man, and he advanced steadily through the ranks of officialdom. In 1759, the twenty-third year of the Emperor Qian Long's reign, he distinguished himself in the battle of Ili, in which the largest of the tribes in the Muslim areas was defeated, and received an Imperial decree promoting him to the post of Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province in the southeast.
Yuanzhi had been born and raised in the border areas of the northwest, and the prospect of travelling to new and beautiful lands filled her with excitement. She pressed her teacher to come as well, and Lu, who had been away from the central areas for a long time, agreed with pleasure.
Li Keshou went ahead with a small escort to take up his post and left his chief-of-staff and 20 soldiers in charge of his family who were to follow him. The officer's name was Deng, a vigorous and energetic man in his forties who sported a small moustache.
The entourage consisted of more than a dozen mules and a few horses. Madame Li sat in a mule-drawn carriage, but Yuanzhi couldn't bear to be cooped up and insisted on riding. Since itwould have been improper for the daughter of a high official to be seen riding in public, she changed into boy's clothes which made her look so extraordinarily handsome that she refused to change back into her normal attire no matter what anyone said. All Madame Li could do was sigh and let her daughter do as she pleased.
It was a deep autumn day. Lu rode far behind the group looking at the passing scenery as the colours of late afternoon merged into evening. But there was little to see around the ancient road except yellow sand, withered grasses and the occasional crow flying homewards. A breeze sprang up from the west and Lu began to recite:
"His body and name scarred by a hundred battles
The general approaches a bridge across a river
And turns to look back 10,000 miles
At the dead men left behind.
Cold are the waters of the River Yi
And the whistling west wind,
Full of cloaks and crowns like snow.
The hero's song of lament has not yet ended…"
"The poet Xin Jiaxuan could have been writing of my own feelings," he thought. "He was much like me when he wrote it, watching China fall to the barbarian tribes, with no way of knowing when the old days would return. No wonder he sang such a sad song."
The entourage crossed the summit of a hill. Looking at the darkening sky, the mulemen said that another three miles would bring them to Twin Pagodas, a large town, where they planned to spend the night.
Just then, Lu heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw far in front two magnificent chestnut horses racing towards them through a cloud of dust. The two riders flashed by, one on either side of the line of mules, and were gone. Lu slapped his horseand caught up with Yuanzhi.
"Did you get a good look at those two?" he asked in a low voice.
"Were they bandits?" she replied excitedly. She would have liked nothing better than for them to be outlaws bent on robbery, giving her a chance to display the skills she had worked so hard to attain over the past five years.
"It's hard to say," said Lu. "But judging by their ability in the martial arts, they wouldn't be ordinary highwaymen."
"Are they kung fu masters?"
"From the way they ride their horses, I'd say it's unlikely they are novices."
As the entourage neared the town, two more horsemen galloped past.
"Mm, this is very strange," mused Lu. The country was desolate and the evening mist was thickening. He wondered why anyone would set out on a journey at this time of day.
Not long after, the muletrain entered the town. Officer Deng led them to a large inn and Yuanzhi and her mother were shown to one of the best rooms. Lu was given a smaller room, and after he had eaten dinner, a servant lit the lantern. All was quiet, and he was about to go to sleep when a dog barked. From far away he heard the faint sound of galloping horses approaching and he thought again about the four riders they had passed on the road.
The clip-clop of horses' hooves came closer and stopped right in front of the inn. There was a knock on the front door and Lu heard a servant open it and say: "You've been riding hard. There's food and drink prepared for you."
"Go and feed the horses quickly," said a rough voice. "We must start out again as soon as we've finished eating."
Lu considered the situation. Groups of men hurrying northwest, and judging by the way they rode, all of them experts in the martial arts. In all his years in the border areas, he had never seen the like of it. He slipped quietly out of his room, crossed the courtyard and went round to the back of the inn.
"All right, you say the Young Helmsman is very young," he heard the rough-voiced man say. "Do you think he will be able to control all the brothers?"
Lu followed the voice and stationed himself underneath the window.
"He'll have to," he heard the other say. "It was the old master's wish whether the Young Helmsman likes it or not."
The man had a deep, sonorous voice, and Lu could tell his Internal Strength was profound. Not daring to make a hole in the window paper to peep through, he continued to listen from where he was, breathing as lightly as he could.
"Of course," the rough-throated one replied. "But we don't know if the Young Helmsman will be willing to do it."
"You don't have to worry about that," said the other. "He'll follow the old master's wishes."
He said the word 'follow' with a peculiar southern Chinese accent, and Lu's heart jumped. "Where have I heard that voice before?" he thought. He sifted through his mind, and finally remembered that it belonged to his old friend Zhao Banshan, whom he had known 20 years before in the Dragon Slayers' Society. Zhao was about 10 years younger than he, but the two had often trained together, and had a great respect for each other. Lu had heard no news of him since the Dragon Slayers' Society had broken up and he was delighted at chancing upon an old friend in such an unlikely place. As he was about to call out to Zhao, the light in the room was suddenly doused and a dart shot out of the window.
But it was not aimed at Lu. A figure shifted in the shadows nearby and caught the dart, then stood up, about to challenge the dart thrower. Lu leapt over and whispered fiercely: "Don't make a sound! Come with me." It was Yuanzhi.
No one chased them. Lu pulled Yuanzhi into his room, and under the light saw an expression of such eagerness on her face that he was both angry and amused.
"Yuanzhi, do you know what sort of men they are? What were you doing trying to pick a fight with them?" he asked sternly.
"What were they doing shooting a dart at me?" she replied defiantly.
"If they aren't outlaws, then they are secret society men," he said. "One of them I know, and his kung fu would not be weaker than mine. Travelling through the night as they are, they must be on very urgent business. That dart was not meant to injure you, it was just telling you not to be nosy. If he had really wanted to hit you, I doubt if you would have been able to catch it. Now go and sleep."
They heard a door open and the sound of horses' hooves as the two men galloped away.
The next morning, the muletrain started out again, and travelled ten miles in just over two hours.
"Look, teacher," said Yuanzhi. "There's someone coming."
Two chestnut horses galloped towards them, and because of theprevious night's incident, they paid particular attention to the riders. The horses, fine and spirited, were identical. Even stranger, the two riders were also identical. Both were aged about 40, tall and thin with faces as yellow as wax, sunken eyes and long slanting eyebrows: the effect was frightening.
As they passed by, the two men glanced at Yuanzhi with their strange eyes. She reined in her horse and stared back belligerently, but they took no notice and raced on westwards.
"Where did that pair of ghosts come from, I wonder," she said.
Lu glanced back at the receding figures. "Aha, it must be them," he cried.
"You recognise them?" she asked excitedly.
"They must be the Twin Knights of Sichuan. Their surname is Chang, but everyone calls them Black Death and White Death."
Yuanzhi laughed. "They've got good nicknames. They look like a couple of skeletons."
"Little girls shouldn't make jokes about other people," said Lu. "They may be ugly but they are skilled fighters. I've never met them, but from what I've heard, they travel the country fighting evil and doing justice. They are widely known as outlaws, but they steal only from the rich and help the poor. They have made a great name for themselves."
"But if they are identical, why are they called Black and White?"
"From what I've been told, the only difference between them is that one has a black mole in the corner of his eye, and the other doesn't. There's probably no one better at Black Sand Palm Kung Fu than those two."
"What are they doing in the border areas?" Yuanzhi asked.
"I have no idea," Lu replied. "I've never heard of them operating out here before."
As he spoke, they heard more horses coming towards them. This time, the riders were a Taoist priest and a hunchback dressed in brightly-coloured clothes. The priest had a longsword slung across his back. His face was pale and sickly and he had only one arm: his left sleeve was tucked under his belt.
Seeing the hunchback's ugly face and his garish attire, Yuanzhi laughed. "Teacher," she shouted before Lu could stop her, "Look at the hunchback!"
The hunchback glared at her angrily and as he passed, stretched out his hand to grab hold of her. The priest seemed to have guessed what he would do, and stopped the hunchback's hand with a flick of his horse whip. "Tenth Brother," he growled, "Don't make trouble."
Lu and Yuanzhi looked back and saw the two horses breaking into a gallop. Suddenly, the hunchback did a reverse somersault off the back of his horse, and with three steps covered the distance to Yuanzhi. Yuanzhi's sword was in her hand, but the hunchback did not attack her. He grabbed the tail of her horse, and the animal, which was galloping along, reared back on its hind legs with a loud scream. The hunchback's strength was frightening: the horse had not pulled him forward an inch. He chopped at the horse's tautly-stretched tail with his right hand, and snapped off the end as if with a knife. The horse lunged forward, and Yuanzhi was almost thrown. The hunchback turned and ran off swiftly. In a second, he caught up with his horse, still galloping westwards, leapt onto its back and soon disappeared from view.
"Teacher!" Yuanzhi called out in a plaintive voice. Lu frowned and was about to berate her. But seeing her eyes glistening with tears, he stopped himself.
Later, they heard a shout from behind: "Weiyang…Weiyang."
Yuanzhi was mystified. "What's that?" she asked.
"It's the call of a bodyguard agency shouter," he said. "The agencies hire out bodyguards or escort goods and people, especially on long journeys. Every bodyguard agency has a different call, and they use it to let both outlaws and friends know who they are. The bodyguard agency business is based seven parts on goodwill and three parts on fighting ability. If the head of an agency is generous and creates a lot of goodwill, he will gain many friends, and his business will prosper. Outlaws will hear the call and let them pass without attacking. 'Being friends is better than being enemies,' as the saying goes. Now, if you were to try the bodyguard agency business…ha! With allthe people you have annoyed in less than half a day, you would have trouble travelling an inch, even if you were ten times the fighter you are now."
"Which bodyguard agency's call is that?" she asked, ignoring his teasing.
"The Zhen Yuan Agency from Beijing, probably the biggest in north China. The head of the agency is 'North China Earth Shaker' Wang Weiyang. He must be seventy by now, but they're still calling 'Weiyang', so he hasn't retired yet. Ah, perhaps he ought to. The Zhen Yuan Agency has been making big profits for 40 years now. That should be enough for anyone."
"Have you ever met him?" Yuanzhi asked.
"I've met him. He uses an Eight Diagram sword and the Eight Diagram boxing technique. In the old days, there was no one in north China who could beat him."
Yuanzhi was elated. "They're travelling very fast. When they catch up to us, you can point the old hero out to me."
"Now why would he come out himself?" Lu said. "You really are a silly girl!"
Yuanzhi sulked. She was always being told off by her teacher. It wasn't fair. She spurred her horse forward and caught up with the carriage, planning to talk to her mother for a while to relieve the frustration. Glancing round, she saw the stub of her horse's tail and shuddered. There was nothing unusual about breaking a spear with one blow, but a horse's tail was pliable. How had the hunchback managed to snap it? She reined in her horse, meaning to wait for Lu to catch up so she could ask him, but changed her mind and galloped up the line to Officer Deng instead.
"Officer Deng," she said, pouting. "My horse's tail looks very ugly."
"I don't know what to do with this horse of mine," Deng replied, guessing her meaning. "He's in a bad mood today and won't do anything I say. You are a good horsewoman, mistress. Perhaps you could help me break him in."
"I probably won't be able to handle him either," she said modestly. The two exchanged horses. Deng's horse was of course very docile.
"Very good, mistress," he complimented her. "Even horses do your bidding."
The bodyguard agency's call came closer and closer, and before long, a muletrain consisting of a score or more heavily laden animals began to pass.
Lu was afraid one of the agency men would recognise him, so he covered the top part of his face with a large fur cap. As the lead escorts trotted past, he heard one of them remark: "According to Brother Han, Brother Jiao Wenqi's body has been found."
Lu's heart missed a beat as he heard the name. Jiao was one of the Six Devils of Guandong and a formidable fighter. Five years before while on an errand to the Muslim regions, Jiao had discovered Lu was hiding in Commander Li's household and had come at the dead of night with two other fighters with the aim of capturing Lu and taking him back to Beijing to claim the reward on his head. After a hard fight, Lu had killed all three and hidden their corpses on a deserted hillside.
Lu looked round at the escort who had spoken, but had time to see only that he had a full beard and a face as black as thunder. Once he had passed, Lu saw he was carrying on his back a red knapsack and a pair of Five Element Wheels, steel rings covered in knives.
"Could it be that the Guandong Devils have become bodyguard agency escorts?" he wondered. Of the six Devils, Lu had only ever seen Jiao, but he knew that the rest were excellent fighters, and that two of them, the Yan brothers, used Five Element Wheels.
Lu thought about the number of top fighters they had met in the past two days and wondered if it had anything to do with himself. From the look of things, the Zhen Yuan Agency men were actually on an escort assignment, so they posed no threat. As to the fighters travelling westwards in pairs, they did not seem to be looking for him. But where were they going and why?
Having exchanged mounts with Officer Deng, Yuanzhi reined in her horse to wait for Lu to pass.
"Teacher," she smiled. "How come no more riders have passed us? I want to see a few more of these heroes."
Her words jogged Lu's mind and he slapped his thigh. "Ah, you old fool," he rebuked himself. "Why didn't you think of the 'Greeting The Dragon's Head Ceremony'?"
"What's that?" she asked.
"It is the most solemn of the ceremonies held by the secret societies to honour an important personage. Usually, the six most senior men in the society are chosen to go to greet the guest, but for really important meetings, 12 are chosen and they go in pairs. Five pairs have passed us now, so there must be still be one pair in front of us."
"Which secret society do they belong to?" Yuanzhi asked.
"That I don't know. But if the Twin Knights of Sichuan and that hunchback are members, the society's power and influence must be tremendous. Whatever you do, don't provoke anyone else, do you hear?"
Yuanzhi nodded, and waited expectantly to see who else would pass them by.
Midday came and went, but there was no sign of anyone on the road in front. Lu was surprised and wondered if he could have guessed wrongly. Finally, instead of riders approaching from in front, they gradually became aware of the sound of camel bells from behind, and saw a dust cloud rising as a large desert caravan hurried towards them.
The caravan consisted of dozens of camels with 20 or 30 horses squeezed in between them, all ridden by Muslims with high noses and sunken eyes. They had thick beards on their faces and white cloths tied around their heads. Scimitars hung from their waists. Muslim traders were a common sight on the road to the central areas and Lu did not consider it unusual. Amidst the group, he noticed a graceful young girl, dazzlingly beautiful, dressed in yellow robes and riding a black horse.
Lu was impressed, but did no more than glance at her. Yuanzhi, however, stared in open-mouthed wonder. Growing up in the northwest border areas, she had seen few well-groomed girls, let alone girls as beautiful as this one. She was about the same age as Yuanzhi, 18 or 19, with a dagger at her waist and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wore a full-length yellow gown, leather boots and a small hat embroidered with gold silk, on the side of which was fastened a turquoise feather. She was an enchanting sight.
As the girl trotted by, Yuanzhi spurred on her horse and followed, gazing fixedly at her. The girl was annoyed at being stared at disrespectfully by a Chinese boy, and she whirled her whip above her head and wrapped it round the mane of Yuanzhi's horse. Giving it a sharp tug, she pulled out a large clump of hair, and the horse reared in pain, almost throwing Yuanzhi to the ground. The Muslim girl cracked the whip in the air and horse hair flew in all directions.
In a fit of pique, Yuanzhi pulled out a steel dart and threw it at the girl's back. But, not wishing to harm her, she also called out: "Watch out for the dart!" The girl leant to one side, and the dart shot past her right shoulder. She waited until it was about ten feet beyond her, then flicked her whip, caught the dart by its tip and smoothly sent it flying back towards Yuanzhi, calling out: "Hey, little boy! Here's your dart!" Yuanzhi caught it neatly.
The Muslims in the caravan applauded loudly at the superb skill with which the yellow-robed girl handled her whip. A tall, thick-set man with a heavy black beard went over and said a few words to her, to which she replied: "Oh, father!" But she took no further notice of Yuanzhi. The dozens of camels and horses moved on and gradually disappeared.
"That girl was impressive, wasn't she?" said Lu.
"These Muslims ride day and night. They ought to be good with their whips. But it doesn't mean she knows any real kung fu," Yuanzhi replied.
Lu laughed. "Really?" he asked.
Towards evening they arrived in the town of Bulongji. There was only one large inn in the town, outside of which was planted the flag of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. With two large groups to look after, the inn's servants were very busy.
Lu had a wash, and then strolled into the courtyard of the inn with a cup of tea in his hand. In the dining hall, he saw two tables full of agency men drinking and talking loudly. The lead escort with the Five Element Wheels had put the weapons down but kept the red knapsack on his back.
Taking a sip of tea, Lu gazed up at the sky.
One of the lead escorts laughed. "Brother Yan, once you've delivered this toy to Beijing, General Zhao will reward you with at least a thousand, won't he? You can go and have a good time with that girlfriend of yours, Xibao."
So it really is one of the Yan brothers, Lu thought, and paid even closer attention to what was said.
"A reward?" said Yan. "Ha! Well, everyone will get something."
"Your Xibao has probably gone off with some other man willing to make an honest woman of her," added an effeminate voice. Lu looked over out of the corner of his eye, and saw a man with a sly face and a slight figure, also dressed as a lead escort.
Yan grunted, obviously not pleased.
"You bastard, Tong," added the first lead escort. "You never have anything good to say."
Tong laughed. "All right," he said. "But Brother Yan, fun is fun and serious is serious. Don't think about Xibao too much or you might find someone has stolen that red knapsack off your back. It's not important if lose your head or not, but the agency's reputation has to be maintained."
"Don't worry," Yan replied angrily. "If those Muslims try stealing it back, I'll soon put an end to their nonsense. I am one of the Six Guandong Devils and I got where I am with real kung fu, not like some of the weaklings in the bodyguard agencies these days who can do nothing but eat and fart!"
Lu looked at the red knapsack on Yan's back: it wasn't big, and from the look of it, whatever was inside was very light.
"It's true that the Six Devils of Guandong are famous," Tong said. "It's a pity that Brother Jiao was done in. We don't even know who the murderer was."
Yan banged the table. "Who says we don't know? It has to be the Red Flower Society!"
That's strange, Lu thought, I killed Jiao. What is this Red Flower Society? He walked slowly around the courtyard inspecting the flowers, moving closer to the group of lead escorts.
Tong would not let the matter drop. "It's a pity," he said. "If I wasn't such a weakling, I would have settled things with the Red Flower Society long ago."
Yan shook with anger. One of the other lead escorts broke in to mediate: "Anyway, the Red Flower Society's leader died last month," he said. "They've lost their man in command, so who is there to settle with? And another thing, where is the proof that Jiao was murdered by the Red Flower Society? When you find them and they deny the charge, what are you going to do?"
"Yes," said Tong changing his tack. "We daren't provoke them, but surely we've got enough guts to bully a few Muslims. This little toy we've snatched is as precious to them as life itself. In the future, if General Zhao ever wants money from them, or cattle and sheep, do you think they'd dare to refuse? I tell you Yan, stop thinking about that little Xibao of yours. When we get back to Beijing, you should ask General Zhao to give you a little Muslim girl to be your mistress. Then you can really…"
Before he could finish, a piece of mud brick flew out of nowhere and lodged itself in his mouth. Two of the other lead escorts snatched up their weapons and rushed outside while Yan picked up his Five Element Wheels and looked warily around. His younger brother came running in, and both stood together, not daring to move for fear of falling into some trap. Tong spat out the piece of mud and began swearing.
The two other lead escorts, Tai and Qian, rushed in through the door. "The little bastard's gone," one of them said. "There's no sign of him."
Lu had observed the whole incident and laughed inwardly at the helpless expression on Tong's face. Then he saw a shadow darting across the rafters in a corner of the dining hall, and went slowly outside. It was already growing dark, but he spotted a figure leap off the corner of the roof, land noiselessly, and speed off eastwards.
Lu wanted to know who had treated Tong to a mouthful of mud and, making use of Lightness Kung Fu * (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible.), he followed, the teacup still in his hand. The pace was fast, but the person he was following was not aware of his presence.
Lu's quarry had a slim figure and moved daintily, almost like a girl. They crossed a hill and an ink-black forest loomed ahead. The person ahead slipped into the trees with Lu close behind. Underneath, the ground was covered with dead leaves and twigs which crackled as he stepped on them. Afraid of giving himself away, he slowed down. Just then, the moon broke through the clouds and a shaft of clear light shone down through the branches, covering the earth with jumbled ghostly shadows. In the distance he saw the flash of a yellow gown, and his quarry moved out of the forest.
He followed to the edge of the trees. Beyond was a large expanse of grass on which were pitched eight or nine tents. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to go and have a look. He waited until two guards had turned away, then jumped across with a 'Swallow Gliding Over Water' leap and landed among the tents. Crouching low, he ran to the back of the largest tent, pitched in the centre. Inside, he could hear people talking agitatedly in the Muslim language. He had lived in the border areas for many years, and understood some of what was said. Carefully, he lifted up the corner of the canvas and looked inside.
The tent was lit by two oil lamps under which a large number of people were seated on carpets. He recognised them as the Muslim caravan that had passed them that day. The yellow-robed girl stood up and drew a dagger from her waist. She cut the index finger of her left hand with the tip of the blade and let several drops of blood fall into a cup of horse's milk wine. Then one-by-one, every Muslim in the tent did likewise. The tall Muslim that the girl had called father raised the wine cup and made a short speech of which Lu could only understand something about 'The Koran' and 'Our Homeland'. The yellow-robed girl spoke after him, her voice crisp and clear, and concluded by saying:
"If the sacred Koran is not recovered, I swear never to return to our homeland." The Muslims lustily repeated the oath. In the dim light, Lu could see determination and anger on every face.
The group belonged to one of the richest and most powerful of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the Tianshan Mountains, numbering nearly 200,000 people. The tall man was Muzhuolun, the leader of the tribe; a strong fighter, fair and just, he was greatly loved by his people. The yellow-robed girl was his daughter, Huo Qingtong.
The tribe lived by nomadic herding and contentedly travelled the great desert. But as the power of the Manchu court extended into the Muslim areas, its demands for taxes increased. At first, Muzhuolun went out of his way to comply, and worked hard to meet the demands. But the Manchu officials were insatiable and made life impossible for the tribe. On several occasions, Muzhuolun sent missions to the Manchu court to appeal for a reduction of taxes. But far from achieving a reduction, the missions only served to arouse the Court's suspicions. General Zhao Wei was given an Imperial order to supervise military affairs in the Muslim areas and he discovered that the tribe owned an ancient hand-written Koran, originally brought from the sacred city of Mecca, which they had treasured for generations. The General decided to get the Koran to use to blackmail the Muslims into submission and he dispatched a number of top fighters who stole it while Muzhuolun was out on a long journey. The Muslims had organised a group to recover the Sacred Book.
Lu decided that the Muslims' plotting had nothing to do with him, and he carefully stood up to return to the inn. At that instant, Huo Qingtong noticed him.
"There's someone outside," she whispered to her father and shot out of the tent in time to see a shadow running fast for the trees. With a wave of her hand, she sent a steel dart speeding after him.
Lu heard the projectile coming and leant slightly to one side. As it passed, he stretched out the index finger of his right hand and, carefully calculating the speed and direction of the dart, tapped it gently as it passed so that it fell into the teacup he was holding. Then without looking back, he made use of his Lightness Kung Fu and almost flew back to the inn, where he went straight to his room. He took the dart out of the cup and saw it was made of pure steel with a feather attached to it. He threw it into his bag.
The bodyguard agency group started out first early the next day, the shouter shouting the agency's call. Lu noticed that most of the lead escorts were stationed around Yan. It seemed the red knapsack on his back was the real treasure being escorted.
Once the agency men had left, Officer Deng led his own column out onto the road. At noon, they rested briefly at a place called Yellow Crag after which the road sloped steadily upward into the mountains. They planned to cross three ranges that day before stopping in Sandaogou.
The mountain road became increasingly precarious and Yuanzhi and Officer Deng kept close by Madame Li's mule-drawn carriage, afraid that if an animal lost its footing, it could send the carriage crashing into the gorge below. Around mid-afternoon, they arrived at the mouth of Black Gold Gorge and saw the agency men seated on the ground resting. Officer Deng directed his men to follow suit. Black Gold Gorge was flanked by high peaks with an extremely steep mountain track leading up between them. Stopping on the track was difficult, so the top of the gorge had to be reached at one stretch. Lu hung back at the rear and turned his back, not wishing to exchange glances with the agency men.
Once rested, they entered the gorge, the bodyguard agency men and the soldiers under Officer Deng's command forming a long snaking column. Men and animals alike panted up the mountain. The shouts of the mulemen melded into a continuous drone. Suddenly, Lu saw a figure darting across the crest of a peak, and heard the jangling of camel bells from in front as a group of Muslims mounted on camels and horses charged down towards them from the top of the gorge. Their hooves sounded like thunder, and the agency men began shouting, calling on them to slow down.
In an instant, the Muslim group was upon them and four camels quickly encircled Lead Escort Yan who was carrying the red knapsack. Each of the four Muslim riders raised a large iron hammer with both hands and smashed it down viciously on his head. The mountain road was narrow, leaving little room for manoeuvring, and the camel-men had the advantage of height. Even if he had been a better fighter, Yan would have been unable to avoid the four hammers, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Both he and his horse were beaten to a bloody pulp.
The yellow-robed Muslim girl, Huo Qingtong, jumped down from her horse and with a flash of her sword cut one of the straps holding the red knapsack to the corpse that had been Yan. But before she had time for a second stroke, she felt a gust of wind at her back as a blade sliced towards her. She dodged to one side and cut the other strap. Her assailant aimed a cutting stroke at her waist to stop her from picking up the knapsack. Unable to avoid the stroke, she raised her sword to block it, and the two blades clashed in a shower of sparks. Looking up, she saw it was the handsome young boy who had stared at her so disrespectfully the day before. In a sudden fit of anger, she lashed out with three attacking sword strokes, and the two began a fierce duel.
Her assailant was Yuanzhi, still dressed in boy's clothes. Without stopping to consider the rights and wrongs of the situation, she had decided to get her own back for the damage done to her horse's mane.
Huo Qingtong could see her chance of recovering the Koran slipping away and wanted to finish the fight quickly. She changed to the 'Three Part' sword style, and in a few strokes had forced Yuanzhi into retreat. The 'Three Part' sword style was the highest achievement of the Tianshan school of kung fu. It was called 'Three Part' because only a third of each stroke was completed. As the opponent moved to counter each one, the stoke changed. Intricate and vicious, the style included no defensive strokes: attacking and killing was all.
The two went through a dozen or more moves without their blades ever touching, Huo Qingtong completing only a third of each stroke, and then changing it without waiting for her opponent to defend. She cut and thrust at the air around Yuanzhi's body, and the Chinese girl, knowing she could not match her opponent's speed, leapt away. Huo Qingtong did not pursue her but turned back to the knapsack, and found it was already in the hands of a small, thin man standing beside Yan's body. She lunged at him with her sword.
"Oh dear," the man cried. "Uncle Tong had better get back in place!" Lead Escort Tong jumped clear with three quick steps and Huo Qingtong followed hard on his heels. She raised her sword to cut him down, but the stroke was blocked by a Five Element Wheel thrust forward by the surviving Yan brother.
Huo Qingtong fought briefly with Yan, and recognised him as a strong and capable adversary. Then she heard a loud whistle coming from the hilltops, the signal for retreat, and knew that help for the agency men was on the way. She saw Tong scampering away with the knapsack and quickly changed to the Three Part sword style, forcing Yan to retreat, and then raced after him. The whistles became louder.
"Daughter! Retreat quickly!" Muzhuolun shouted. She abandoned the chase and directed her comrades as they lifted the Muslim dead and wounded onto camels and horses. Then the Muslim column charged on down the mountain path. But a little way further on, they found several dozen Manchu soldiers blocking their path.
Officer Deng rode forward, his spear held crosswise. "You insolent Muslims!" he shouted. "What is this insurrection?" Two of Huo Qingtong's steel darts hit his hands and the spear clattered to the ground. Muzhuolun raised his sabre high and charged forward with some other Muslim warriors, and the Manchu troops scattered. Boulders crashed down from the mountain tops, pulverising more than a dozen Manchu troops, and in the midst of the melee, the Muslims made good their escape.
Throughout the battle, Lu had remained on the sidelines, his hands folded inside his sleeves. Yuanzhi had been of great assistance to the agency men even though she had been beaten by Huo Qingtong, and the Muslims had been unable to get what they wanted. As the agency men tended the wounded and carried off the dead, Lu gave her a severe lecture, criticising her for interfering in the affairs of others, and needlessly making even more enemies.
"There are very few good men amongst the bodyguard agencies, and many bad ones. Why bother helping people to do evil?" he scolded her. She hung her head, not daring to look up.
They crossed through the pass and arrived in Sandaogou, a medium-sized market town, as dusk was falling. The mulemen said there was only one inn, called the Antong, and both the agency men and Officer Deng's column headed for it. The inn was crude and simple in the extreme with earthern walls and mud floors. Seeing no servants coming out to greet them, Tong shouted: "Is everyone dead in there? I damn eighteen generations of your ancestors!" Yuanzhi frowned. No-one had ever dared to use such language within her hearing before.
Just then, they heard the sound of clashing swords from inside. Yuanzhi was delighted. "Here's some more fun to watch!" she cried and ran into the inn ahead of the others.
The entrance hall was empty and silent, but passing through to the courtyard, she saw a young woman fighting fiercely with four men. In her left hand was a sword, and in her right, a knife. She was obviously battling for her life. It seemed to Yuanzhi that the four man were trying to force their way into the room outside which the woman was standing. The four were all strong fighters: one wielded a whip, one a staff, one a sword and one a Devil's Head Knife.
Lu also entered the courtyard. "How is it that we are continually running into these secret society people?" he thought.
The woman dodged and parried, holding all four men at bay until suddenly the one wielding the Devil's Head Knife swung his weapon towards her as another of the attackers thrust his sword at her heart. She fended off the sword with the knife in her right hand, but she could not dodge the Devil's Head Knife and it struck her on the left shoulder. But she did not give up, and as she continued to fight, drops of blood flew in all directions.
"Don't kill her! We need her alive," shouted the man with the whip.
Lu's chivalrous heart was moved at the sight of four man attacking one woman, and despite his own sensitive situation he could see he might have to take a hand himself. He watched as the swordsman attacked with a slicing blow from the left. The woman parried it obliquely, but she was already wounded and out of breath. The two blades clashed, and the knife was jolted from her hand and clattered to the ground. The swordsman then thrust his blade at her again, and she frantically dodged to the right, opening a way through which the man with the Devil's Head Knife charged towards the door.
Ignoring all dangers, the woman plunged her left hand into her gown and drew out two throwing knives which she slung at her enemy's back. One of the knives embedded itself in the door post but the other plunged into his back. Luckily for him, the woman's hand lacked strength due to the wound in her left shoulder and the knife did not kill him. He staggered back, screaming with pain, and pulled the knife out. Meanwhile, the woman was struck on her thigh by the staff. She swayed unsteadily, but defiantly resumed her position blocking the doorway.
"Go and help her," Lu said quietly to Yuanzhi. "If you can't beat them, I'll come over as well."
Yuanzhi was bursting to test herself. She leapt forward, her sword at the ready, shouting: "Four men fighting one woman! You should be ashamed of yourselves!" Seeing someone coming to the aid of the woman, and one of their number already wounded, the four men turned and ran from the inn.
The woman's face was deathly pale and she leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Yuanzhi went over to her.
"Why were they bullying you like that?" she asked, but the woman was temporarily incapable of speech.
Officer Deng walked over to Yuanzhi. "Madame Li would like to see you mistress," he said, and added in a whisper: "She's heard that you were involved in a fight on the road and is very upset. You'd better go quickly."
The woman's expression changed as soon as she saw Officer Deng's military uniform; she pulled her throwing knife out of the doorpost, went back into her room and banged the door shut without answering Yuanzhi.
Rather unhappy at having been snubbed, Yuanzhi walked over to Lu. "Teacher, what were they fighting about?" she asked.
"It was probably a revenge attack," he said. "But it isn't over yet. Those four will be back."
Yuanzhi was about to ask another question when she heard someone inside the inn shouting and swearing.
"Damn your ancestors, what do you mean there are no good rooms? Are you afraid we don't have the money to pay?" It was the voice of Lead Escort Tong.
"Please don't be angry sir," an employee of the inn answered. "We in the inn-keeping business would not dare to offend such eminent persons as yourselves. But it is a fact that all of our few good rooms are occupied."
"Who have you got in them? I think I'll go and have a look," Tong said walking out into the courtyard.
Just then a door opened, and the young woman leaned out. "Please bring some hot water," she said to a servant.
Tong saw the woman's smooth white skin and the beauty of her face and eyes, and noticed on her left wrist, a bracelet of pearls, all perfectly formed. His mouth watered. The woman spoke with a southern Chinese accent and the exotic touch to her voice excited him greatly.
"I, Lead Escort Tong have passed along this road on business dozens of times, and I have never stayed in anything but the best rooms," he shouted. "If there are no good rooms vacant, why don't you make one vacant for me?" The door to the woman's room was still open and he walked straight inside.
"Ai-ya!" the woman exclaimed. She moved to obstruct him, but felt a stab of pain in her thigh and sat down.
As Tong entered the room, he saw there was a man lying on the kang. The room was dimly-lit but he could see that the man's head was wrapped in bandages, his right arm was in a sling and that one of his legs was also bandaged.
"Who is it?" the man asked in a deep, resonant voice.
"My name is Tong and I'm a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," he replied. "We are passing through Sandaogou on business, but there are no rooms available here. I was wondering if you could move. Who is this woman? Is she your wife, or your girlfriend?"
"Get out," the man ordered. His wounds were clearly serious; he was unable to talk loudly.
"One's a girl and the other's too badly wounded to even move," thought Tong, who had not seen the woman fight. "When am I going to get such a chance again?"
"If you don't want to give up your room, that's all right too," he said with a grin on his face. "All three of us can snuggle up together on this kang. Don't worry, I won't push over onto your side."
The man on the kang shook with anger.
"Don't get involved with these ruffians," the woman urged him quietly. "We can't afford to make any more enemies at the moment." And then to Tong: "You stop your nonsense and get out."
Tong laughed. "Can't I stay here and keep you company?"
"Come over here," the man on the kang said hoarsely.
Tong took a step towards him. "Why? Do you want to see how handsome I am?"
"I can't see clearly," the man replied.
Tong laughed out loud and took another step towards him. "Take a closer look. This is like a big brother choosing a husband for his sister…"
Before he could finish, the man on the kang sat up, and as fast as a lightning flash, touched a yuedao point* (*Yuedao points are nerve centres on the body which, when struck, can cause paralysis or even death. The same points are used for a different purpose in acupuncture) on Tong's ribs and followed with a blow to his back. Tong flew straight out of the door, and landed heavily in the courtyard. The agency shouter, Xun, rushed over to help him up.
"Brother Tong," he whispered. "Don't provoke them. It looks like they're members of the Red Flower Society."
"Ahh, ahhh, I can't move my leg," Tong cried. "The Red Flower Society?" he added suddenly. "How do you know?" He broke into a cold sweat of fear.
"One of the porters told me four Yamen officers were here a while ago to arrest those two, and there was quite a fight before they left," Xun said.
Lead Escort Yan came over. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Brother Yan," Tong shouted. "One of those bastards from the Red Flower Society used Yuedao kung fu on me!"
Yan frowned and pulled Tong up by his arm. "We'll go back to the room and talk about it," he said. His first thought was for the agency's reputation. It created a bad impression when an agency's lead escort was floored and couldn't even get up. Lead Escort Qian came over. "Are you sure it was the Red Flower Society?" he asked Xun.
"When those four officers left, they told the porter that the couple in there were fugitives," he whispered. "They told the porter to inform them if they left. I overhead them talking."
Qian glanced at Yan and pulled Tong up.
"Who are they?" Yan asked quietly.
"Red Flower Society. I think we ought to let it pass," Qian said. "When Tong is better we can reconsider. Did you see what happened when those men tried to arrest them just now?" he asked Xun.
"It was some fight," said Xun, gesticulating wildly. "There was a woman with a sword in her left hand and a dagger in her right hand. Four men couldn't beat her."
"She must be one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people," replied Qian, surprised. "She used throwing knives, I suppose?"
"Yes, yes, she's really accurate. It was incredible!" Xun exclaimed.
Qian turned to Yan. "Master Wen of the Red Flower Society is here," he said. They carried Tong back to their room in silence.
Lu had observed the whole incident, but the lead escorts had talked in such low tones, that he only managed to catch Qian's last two utterances. Yuanzhi walked over and asked: "Teacher, when are you going to teach me Yuedao kung fu? Did you see how fantastic that move was?"
Lu took no notice of her, but said to himself: "If it is one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people, I can't just stand by and do nothing."
"Who is 'Divine Knife' Luo?" Yuanzhi asked.
"He was a good friend of mine. I hear he's passed away now. All the moves used by the woman we saw fighting a minute ago were of his school."
Just then, the two lead escorts Qian and Tai helped Tong over to the woman's room. Xun coughed loudly outside the door and announced in a low voice:
"Lead Escorts Qian, Tai and Tong of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency have come to pay their respects to Master Wen of the Red Flower Society."
The door creaked open and the woman stood in the doorway staring at them. "What do you want?" she asked.
"We did not know that you and Master Wen were here," Qian said. "We have insulted you and we have come to apologise. Please be forgiving and don't be offended by what happened." He bowed low and Tai and Xun followed suit.
"Mistress," Qian continued. "We have never met before, but I have heard a great deal about you and your husband. Master Wang, the head of our agency, was always on very good terms with the leader of your honourable society, Master Yu, and also with your father 'Divine Knife' Luo. Our brother here is very bad-tempered, and is always talking nonsense…"
The woman cut him off. "Our master has been wounded, and he just went to sleep. When he wakes, I will pass on your message. We are ignorant of etiquette, but his wounds are not light, and he hasn't slept well for two days." There was an expression of apprehension on her face.
"What sort of wounds does Master Wen have?" Qian asked. "We have some Golden Wound ointment with us." He wanted to put them in their debt so that they would be obliged to help cure Tong.
"Thank you, but we have medicine," the woman replied, understanding his meaning. "Your colleague was not touched on a major Yuedao point. When our master wakes, I will send one of the inn's servants round."
Seeing that she had agreed to cure Tong, Qian and the others started to retire.
"By the way," said the woman. "How did you know our names?"
"With your swords and throwing knives, who wouldn't be able to guess?" Qian replied. "What's more, who apart from Master Wen uses Yuedao kung fu like that? It had to be 'Rolling Thunder Hand' Wen Tailai and his wife Luo Bing."
The woman smiled, flattered at having been recognised.
Yuanzhi sat for a long time with her hands on her cheeks, annoyed that Lu would not teach her Yuedao kung fu. After dinner, she went to see her mother, who nagged her for causing trouble on the road, and told her she was not to wear boy's clothing any more.
"Mother, you're always talking about how you have no son," she replied with a smile. "Aren't you happy now that you have one?"
Madame Li gave up and went to bed. Yuanzhi also got ready for sleep, and was just about to take off her clothes when she heard a light tapping on the window sill and someone saying: "Come out, little boy! I want to ask you something."
Yuanzhi picked up her sword and ran out to the courtyard where she spotted a figure standing in the shadows.
"Follow me if you dare!" the figure said and jumped over the courtyard wall. Like a young calf unafraid of a tiger, Yuanzhi followed without a thought for what might be waiting for her on the other side. As her feet touched the ground, she found a sword thrusting towards her.
Yuanzhi raised her own sword and parried the stroke, shouting: "Who is it?" The yellow-robed figure retreated two steps, and said: "I am the Muslim girl Huo Qingtong. What were you doing helping the agency men to mess up our plans? Why don't you mind your own business?"
"I'll do whatever I want to," Yuanzhi replied. "I happen to like meddling in other people's business. Let me give you another lesson in swordsmanship…" Her sword flashed out, and Huo Qingtong raised her own sword to parry it.
Yuanzhi knew that she couldn't beat the girl on equal terms, so she retreated steadily as she fought, heading towards Lu's room.
"Teacher, teacher!" she called out suddenly. "Someone is trying to kill me!"
A sneering laugh exploded from Huo Qingtong. "Ha! You useless object! You're not even worth killing!"
She began to walk away, but Yuanzhi attacked, forcing her to face her once more. Yuanzhi heard someone behind her and knew that her teacher had emerged; seeing Huo Qingtong's sword bearing down on her, she jumped behind Lu's back.
Lu fended off her strokes with his sword and Huo Qingtong soon realised that his sword technique, while the same as Yuanzhi's, was far superior. She became anxious and attacked fiercely, waiting for an opportunity to retreat. But his strokes followed each other without pause, sticking to her closely.
Yuanzhi put her sword in its scabbard and joined the fray using Boundless Occult Hand kung fu. Huo Qingtong couldn't even beat Lu alone, so how could she manage against both of them? Yuanzhi displayed great cunning: a touch on one side, a hook with her leg on the other. She was not aiming to hurt the Muslim girl, but was intentionally having fun at her expense to pay her back for the tuft of her horse's mane ripped out the day before.
Lu, for his part, had been impressed earlier that day by the Muslim girl's swordsmanship and simply wanted to test her. His sword thrust at her and she raised her own blade to ward it off. Meanwhile, Yuanzhi moved in towards her back, shouting: "Watch out for my fist!" and struck out at her left shoulder with a 'Ferocious Rooster Snatching Grain' blow. Huo Qingting's left hand twisted round and diverted the blow by grasping for Yuanzhi's arm. With both the Muslim girl's arms now occupied, Yuanzhi seized the opportunity, and the flat of her hand struck at Huo Qingtong's chest. If the blow had been in earnest, it would have caused serious injury, but there was no strength behind it. She ran her hand heavily over the girl's chest and then jumped back laughing. Huo Qingtong was consumed with fury, and ignoring Lu's sword, swung round and attacked Yuanzhi using the Tianshan School 's 'Mirage' style. Lu could not stand by. He raised his sword and accepted the brunt of the attack, while Yuanzhi stepped back.
"All right," she laughed. "Don't be angry. You marry me and we'll forget about it."
Huo Qingtong had been deeply insulted, but she knew she could not overcome Lu, so with no other way for her to avenge herself, she threw her sword at Yuanzhi with all her strength aiming to take the girl to the grave with her.
Lu started in fright and threw his own sword at Huo Qingting's. The two swords collided in mid-air with a clang and fell to earth together. He then pushed Huo Qingtong back five or six steps with a light touch on her left shoulder. "Please don't take offence, miss," he said. "There's something I want to say."
"Well?" she replied angrily. "What are you waiting for?"
Lu looked over at Yuanzhi. "Don't you think you ought to apologise to the lady?"
Yuanzhi walked over and bowed low, a wide grin on her face. Huo Qingtong replied with a fist.
"Oh, no! Don't hit me!" Yuanzhi laughed. She dodged away, and pulled off her cap, revealing her head of beautiful hair.
"Now look," she smiled. "Am I a boy or a girl?"
Seeing Yuanzhi's real face under the moonlight, Huo Qingtong was struck dumb. Her anger and shame evaporated, leaving only irritation.
"This is my pupil," said Lu. "She is always disobedient and I am unable to control her. I am sorry for what happened just now. Please don't be offended."
He brought his hands together in salute and bowed. Huo Qingtong turned slightly away, refusing to accept the apology.
"What is your relationship with the Twin Eagles of Tianshan?" he asked her. Huo Qingtong's eyebrows shot up and her lips quivered, but she maintained her silence. "I have always been on good terms with the Twin Eagles, Bald Vulture and his wife Madame Guan," Lu continued, "so we should not be enemies."
"Madame Guan is my teacher," Huo Qingtong said. "I will go and tell her that you bullied me and told your pupil to attack me, and even joined in yourself."
She gave them both a look of intense hatred, then turned to go.
Lu waited until she had gone a few steps, and then said: "And when you go and tell your teacher, who are you going to say bullied you?"
Huo Qingtong stopped and turned. "Well, who are you?" she demanded.
Lu stroked his beard and laughed. "You've both got the tempers of children," he said. "All right, all right. This is my pupil, Li Yuanzhi, and you can tell your teacher and her husband that I am 'Hidden Needle' Lu. Please convey my congratulations to them on having such a good pupil."
"A good pupil you say! I have lost face for both my teacher and her husband by allowing myself to be bullied in such a fashion."
"Miss, don't think that you have lost face by being beaten by me," Lu replied seriously. "There are few in the fighting community who could last for several dozen moves with me as you did. I suspected you knew the Twin Eagles when I saw you fighting earlier today, but your use of the 'Mirage' sword style just now decided it. Do they still argue all the time?" He laughed.
Huo Qingtong saw that Lu knew all about her teacher, but she was still reluctant to relent.
"If you are my teacher's friend, why did you tell your pupil to interfere, stopping us from taking back our Sacred Book? I don't believe you are a good man."
"Being beaten in a sword duel is not worth worrying about," Lu said. "But failing to recover your Sacred Book is a different matter. If your people are bullied and insulted, you must be prepared to risk even your own life to get satisfaction."
Huo Qingtong knew he was telling the truth, and bowed before him. "Please tell me how the Sacred Book can be recovered," she said. "If you are willing to help, I and the rest of my tribe will be eternally grateful."
"It was stupid of me to interfere," said Yuanzhi. "My teacher has already given me a long lecture. Please don't worry, I will help you get your Sacred Book back. It's in that red knapsack, isn't it?" Huo Qingtong nodded. "Well, let's go," Yuanzhi added.
"We will discuss the situation first," said Lu. The three talked in low tones for a while then, with Lu keeping a look-out, the two girls crossed over the wall into the inn.
They ran crouching over to the room occupied by the lead escorts, and squatted under the window in the shadow of the wall. Inside, they heard Lead Escort Tong crying and groaning for a while and then stop.
"You are talented, Master Zhang," one of the lead escorts said, "being able to cure Brother Tong so quickly."
"If we had known you were coming, we wouldn't have had to apologise to that Red Flower Society bastard," said another.
"I want you all to watch that pair," a powerful voice replied. "Tomorrow, when Wu and the others arrive we'll make our move."
"Once we've got him, I'm going to kick that bastard in the head a few times, very hard," said Tong.
Yuanzhi slowly extended herself and found a tear in the window paper through which to look. She saw five or six people seated around the room. In the middle was an awe-inspiring man whom she decided must be the one they called Master Zhang. His eyes flashed like lightning and his temples were high and protruding, indicating profound Internal Strength.
"Tong, give me the knapsack," Lead Escort Yan said. "Those Muslims won't give up so easily. I'm afraid we will have more trouble on the road."
Tong began to untie the knapsack hesitantly, as if unwilling to hand it over.
"Now don't worry," Yan said. "Once we've got this knapsack to Beijing safe and sound, we'll all reap the benefits."
Yuanzhi thought swiftly. Yan was a powerful fighter, and once he had possession of the knapsack it would be difficult to recover. She whispered a few words into Huo Qingtong's ear, took off her hat and pulled her long hair over her face. Then she picked two bricks up lying nearby and hurled them through the window. As they crashed into the room, the lamp was suddenly doused. The door opened and several men rushed out.
"Who is it?" one yelled.
Huo Qingtong whistled at them, then leapt over the wall, and the lead escorts and Zhang chased after her. As soon as they had gone, Yuanzhi burst into the room.
Tong was lying on the kang when he saw the Thing come through the door, an unghostly ghost, and inhuman human, with its hair dishevelled and wild. The Thing hopped towards him squealing loudly, and his body went limp with fright. It seized the red knapsack from his hands and ran from the room.
The lead escorts chased after Huo Qingtong for a while, but Zhang suddenly stopped in his tracks. "Damn," he said. "This is just a diversion to lure us away. Get back quickly!"
They returned to the inn to find Tong lying on the kang in a state of shock. It was a while before he managed to tell them how the ghost had stolen the knapsack.
"What ghost?" Zhang said angrily. "We've been tricked."
Yuanzhi hid beside the wall, holding the knapsack tightly, and waited until all the lead escorts had re-entered the room before jumping back out of the courtyard. She whistled softly and Lu and Huo Qingtong appeared from the shadow of the trees.
Yuanzhi was feeling particularly smug. "I've got the knapsack," she laughed, "so you can't…"
Before she could finish, Lu shouted: "Watch out behind!"
As she turned, someone slapped her on the shoulder. She quickly tried to grab the hand but failed and her heart jumped in fright as she realised how formidable her assailant was: he had followed her without her being at all aware of it. She quickly looked around and in the moonlight saw a tall, powerful man standing beside her. She stepped backwards in fright, and threw the knapsack at Huo Qingtong.
"Catch!" she yelled, and brought her hands together to face the enemy.
He was extraordinarily fast. As the knapsack left her hand, he leapt after it and caught it in mid-air just as Huo Qingtong attacked him. With his left hand holding the knapsack, the man swung his arms out using the Long-Arm style. There was great power behind the blow, and both girls were forced back several paces. Yuanzhi now recognised him as Master Zhang. The Long-Arm style was one of the basic techniques of the Wudang School 's kung fu, and Yuanzhi gasped involuntarily at the sight of Zhang using it. She glanced around, but Lu was nowhere to be seen.
Yuanzhi advanced a step and attacked using the same Long-Arm technique and as their fists clashed, she felt a prickly numbness run through her arm followed by an unbearable ache. She stumbled, then jumped off to the left.
"Tell me, child!" Zhang said. "Is your teacher surnamed Ma or Lu?"
"He's surnamed Ma," she said to deceive him. "How did you know?"
"Well that makes me your martial uncle. Don't you think you ought to kowtow before me?" He laughed.
As soon as Huo Qingtong heard mention of a connection between them, she abandoned Yuanzhi. She could see that the Koran could not be recovered, and ran quickly away.
Yuanzhi chased after her a short way, but suddenly, a cloud bank covered the moon plunging her into pitch darkness. She started in fright as several thunder claps rolled across the sky and turned back to find that Zhang had disappeared too. By the time she leapt back over the wall into the inn, large droplets of rain were falling, and as she entered her room the downpour came.
The heavy rain lasted all night. Next morning, having washed and combed her hair, Yuanzhi looked out of the window and saw it was still pouring. Her mother's maidservant came in.
"Officer Deng says the rain is too heavy and we can't leave today," she announced.
Icy gusts blew in through a tear in Yuanzhi's window. She felt bored, particularly as the inn was in such a desolate area. She walked over to the room occupied by Master Wen of the Red Flower Society hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but the door was firmly shut and no sound came from within. The Zhen Yuan Agency had not left that morning either, and several of the lead escorts were lounging about in the dining hall, chatting. Master Zhang was not among them. A gust of wind blew from the west and Yuanzhi began to feel rather cold. She was about to return to her room when she heard the sound of bells outside the front gate and a horse galloped in from the rain.
A young scholar dismounted and ran inside. As one servant led his horse off to be fed, another asked the scholar if he would be staying at the inn.
"I'll have to get back on the road again soon," he replied, taking off his raincape. The servant invited him to take a seat and poured him a cup of tea.
The scholar was tall and slender with a handsome face. In the border areas, such elegance was a rare sight, and Yuanzhi could not help but stare at him. The scholar saw her too and smiled; she flushed and quickly looked away.
There was the sound of horses outside the inn and four more men came in. Yuanzhi recognised them as the ones who had attacked the young woman the day before and she quickly retired to Lu's room to ask what they should do.
"Let us go and have a look first," Lu said and the two peeped into the dining hall through a hole in the window.
One of the four, a swordsman, summoned a servant, quietly questioned him for a moment, then said to his companions: "Those Red Flower Society bastards haven't left yet. We'll deal with them when we've eaten."
The scholar's expression changed slightly and he began to observe the four men out of the corner of his eye.
"Shall I help the woman again?" Yuanzhi asked.
"Don't do anything until I tell you," Lu said. He paid no further attention to the four officers, but focussed his gaze on the scholar.
Once he had finished eating, the scholar moved his bench into the corridor leading to the courtyard. He pulled a flute from the bundle on his back and began to play a pleasant, lilting melody. Strange to say, the flute looked as if it was cast from pure gold. The road they were on was unsafe, and a golden flute openly displayed by a lone scholar was bound to attract thieves.
When the four men had finished eating, the swordsman jumped onto the table and announced in a loud voice:
"We are Yamen officers and we have come to arrest fugitives of the Red Flower Society. Peaceful citizens need not be afraid."
He jumped down from and led the others towards the courtyard. The scholar, still blocking the corridor and playing the flute, ignored them. The swordsman approached him. "Don't stand in the way of Yamen officers," he growled.
The scholar leisurely put down his flute. "The fugitives you gentlemen wish to arrest: what law have they broken?" he asked. "Confucius said, 'Do not do unto others what you would not wish on yourself'. Do you really have to arrest them?"
The officer with the staff stepped forward. "You stop your chatter," he shouted. "Get out of the way!"
"Please calm yourself, honourable sir," the scholar replied. "There's no need to get agitated. Let me be host. We'll all have a drink and become friends, what do you say?"
The officer stretched out his hand to push him away, and the scholar swayed to one side. "Ai-ya," he exclaimed. "A gentleman uses words, not force."
He fell forward as if over-balancing and put out the golden flute to steady himself, finding support on a Yuedao spot on the left thigh of the officer, who involuntarily knelt down as his leg went limp.
"Ai-ya!" the scholar exclaimed again. "There's no need for such courtesy." He bowed before the officer.
Those watching could tell the scholar was highly skilled in the martial arts and Yuanzhi, who had originally been anxious on his behalf, was overjoyed to see him using Yuedao kung fu.
"This bastard might be with the Red Flower Society as well!" cried one of the officers fearfully. The officer with the paralysed leg collapsed on the floor and the others pulled him to one side.
"Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?" the swordsman asked, a slight touch of fear in his voice.
The scholar laughed. "I do indeed. My name is Yu Yutong. I play but a small role in the society, ranking only 14th in seniority." He waved the flute at them. "Don't you recognise me?"
"Ah, you're 'Scholar' Yu!"
"You are too kind," said the scholar. "That is indeed who I am. You sir, with the flashing sword, face of cunning and rat-like eyes. You must be the famous officer from Beijing, Wu Guodong. I'd heard you had retired. Why are you doing getting involved in this kind of game?"
Swordsman Wu's blade flicked out, steely yet smooth and Yu countered with his golden flute, fighting the three officers simultaneously, working through a complex series of moves which soon had them completely flustered. After a moment, Yuanzhi turned to Lu in surprise.
"That's the Soft Cloud sword style," she said.
Lu nodded. The Soft Cloud sword technique is a secret style known only to our school, he thought. If this scholar is a member of the Red Flower Society, then he must be a pupil of Elder Brother Ma.
The school to which Lu belonged consisted of three pupils, among whom Lu was placed second. The most senior was Ma Zhen and the youngest Zhang Zhaozhong, the Master Zhang with whom Yuanzhi had tangled the night before. Zhang was highly talented and very diligent, but he had thrown in his lot with the Manchu court, and, rising swiftly in seniority, had already attained the rank of Major in the Imperial Bodyguard. Lu had long ago severed relations with him.
His guess that Yu was a pupil of Elder Brother Ma Zhen was correct. Yu came from a respected family in southern China, and had already passed the first Imperial Civil Service examination when his father became involved in a dispute over a burial plot with a wealthy family. The ensuing law suit forced him into bankruptcy, and he was imprisoned on a trumped-up charge and died in jail. Yu left home in anger and met Ma Zhen, whom he accepted as his teacher, abandoning his studies in favour of the martial arts. He returned and killed the rich landlord and then became an outlaw, and later a member of the Red Flower Society. He was alert and intelligent, and could speak many different dialects. On this occasion, he was travelling on society business to the city of Luoyang and had been unaware that his fellow society members, Wen Tailai and his wife, were holed up in the inn.
Hearing the fight, the agency men all came in and stood to one side watching. Lead Escort Tong noticed a catapult on the back of one of the officers, and shouted: "If it was me, I'd leave two to take care of the bastard while the third used the slingshot on him."
The officer with the catapult realised Tong was right and jumped onto a table, readied his weapon and sent a shower of stones flying towards Yu.
Yu dodged them one by one while parrying the other two officers. But his opponents gained the upper hand, and after a few more moves, one of the missiles struck Yu's cheek and the pain began to slow his movements.
"You might as well give up," Tong called to Yu. "Pull down your trousers and we'll give you a taste of the cane."
But Yu did not panic. With a sudden flourish, he drove his left hand at a Yuedao point on Swordsman Wu's chest. Wu quickly retreated two steps and Yu thrust the flute into the stomach of the other officer who grunted loudly and buckled in agony. Yu moved to strike him again, but Wu intercepted him.
Fighting back the pain in his stomach, the third officer moved stealthily up behind Yu as he fought Wu and raised his Devil's Head knife to smash it down on Yu's skull. But before he could do so, a throwing knife plunged into his chest, killing him instantly, and the Devil's Head Knife clattered to the floor.
Yu turned and saw a woman standing nearby, supporting herself on the table with her left hand, thje slender fingers of her right hand clasping another throwing knife as if it was the stem of a fresh flower. She was indescribably lovely, and as soon as he saw her, Yu's spirits rose.
"Kill the Eagle's Claw with the catapult first!", he shouted. Eagles Claw was their slang for thugs employed by the Imperial Court.
The officer with the catapult turned round frantically, just in time to see the flash of the blade as it flew towards him. In desperation, he held up the catapult to try to stop it, but the knife still cut into the back of his hand.
"Uncle Wu!" he screamed, "It's too dangerous. Let's get out of here!"
He jumped off the table and fled. Wu forced Yu back with two more strokes from his sword, slung the officer with the paralysed leg over his shoulder, and rushed for the door to the hall. Instead of chasing them, Yu raised the flute to his mouth end-on instead of crosswise, and puffed. A small arrow shot out of the end which buried itself in the shoulder of the paralysed officer, who screamed with pain.
Yu turned to the woman. "Where's Brother Wen?" he asked.
"Come with me," she said. She was wounded in the thigh, and supported herself with a long door bar.
Meanwhile, as the officers rushed out of the inn, they collided head-on with a man coming in, and Wu reeled back several paces. When he saw it was Master Zhang, his initial anger turned to delight.
"Master Zhang," he cried. "I am useless. One of our brothers has been killed by the bastards and this one has been paralysed."
Zhang grunted and lifted the officer up with his left hand, then squeezed his waist and slapped his thigh, freeing the blood flow. "Have they escaped?" he asked.
"They're still in the inn."
Zhang grunted again. "They've got guts," he said, walking into the inn courtyard. "Resisting arrest, killing an official, then brazenly staying on here."
They led Zhang towards Wen's room, but just as they reached the door, Yuanzhi slid out of a room nearby and waved a red knapsack at Zhang.
"Hey, I've stolen it again," she laughed and ran towards the inn's main gate.
Zhang was startled. "These agency men are truly useless," he thought. "As soon as I get it back for them, they lose it again."
He shot after her, determined to teach her a good lesson. It was still raining, and before long, they were both soaking wet. Yuanzhi saw him closing in and ran off along the side of a stream, Zhang following silently. He increased his pace, closing the distance between them, then stretched out his hand and caught hold of her jacket. Greatly frightened, Yuanzhi pulled away with all her strength, and a piece of cloth tore out of the back. Her heart pounding, she hurled the red knapsack into the stream.
"It's yours," she shouted.
Zhang knew how vital General Zhao Wei considered the Koran to be and immediately leapt into the stream while Yuanzhi laughed and ran off. As he fished the knapsack out of the water, he saw it was already soaked. Frantically, he opened it to see if the Koran was wet, and then let fly with a stream of coarse language. There was no Koran in the knapsack, only two registers from the main desk at the inn. He opened one and read of money collected from rooms for meals, and of servants' wages. He groaned at how he had allowed himself to be cheated and threw the registers and the knapsack back into the stream. If he took them back and someone asked about them, he would certainly lose face.
He returned quickly to the inn and quickly found Lead Escort Yan with the red knapsack still safely fastened to his back.
"Where did Wu and the officers go?" he asked.
"They were here a moment ago," Yan replied.
"What damned use is there in the Emperor employing people like that?" he demanded.
He walked up to Wen's door. "You Red Flower Society fugitives! Come out immediately!" he shouted. No sound came from the room. He kicked at the door and found it slightly ajar.
"They've escaped!" he yelled, and burst into the room only to find it empty. He noticed a lump under the bed covers, and flung them off, revealing two of Wu's officers lying face to face. He prodded his sword lightly at the back of one of them but there was no movement. He turned them over and saw they were both dead. Both their skulls had been smashed in. It was obviously the work of a master of Internal Strength kung fu, and his respect for Wen Tailai increased appreciably. But where was Wu? And in which direction had Wen and his wife escaped? He called for one of the servants and interrogated him without obtaining even half a clue.
But Zhang had guessed wrong: the officers were not killed by Wen Tailai.
Lu and Yuanzhi watched the whole fight through the window, and saw Zhang enter as the officers were leaving.
"That's the man who took the knapsack from me last night," Yuanzhi said.
"Go quickly and draw him away, the further the better," Lu whispered. "If I'm not here when you return, start out tomorrow without me and I will catch you up."
He watched Zhang chase Yuanzhi out of the inn gates then picked up a writing brush and hurriedly wrote a letter which he placed inside his gown. He ran to Wen's room and knocked lightly on the door.
"Who is it?" a woman's voice called.
"I am a good friend of 'Divine Knife' Luo," said Lu. "I have important news for you."
There was no answer from inside. Wu and the other two officers appeared and stood at a distance keeping watch, obviously suspicious of Lu. The door suddenly opened and 'Scholar' Yu looked out.
"May I ask who you are, sir?" he asked.
"I am your martial uncle 'Hidden Needle' Lu."
A look of hesitation appeared on Yu's face. He had heard of Lu but had never met him.
"I'll prove it to you," Lu whispered. "Stand aside."
Yu's suspicions deepened, and he planted his foot firmly on the opposite door post, blocking the way with his leg. Lu's left hand shot out, aiming to hit Yu's shoulder. Yu dodged, and Lu slipped his right hand underneath Yu's armpit and pushed him to one side using the first move in the Wudang school's Long Arm Fist style. "It really is 'Hidden Needle' Lu!" Yu thought, both surprised and delighted. As Yu back, Luo Bing raised her sword and dagger ready to attack, but Yu stopped her. Lu waved his hands at them, indicating they should stand clear, then ran back outside into the courtyard.
"Hey, they've gone!" he shouted to Officer Wu. "Come and see!"
Wu rushed into the room with the other two officers and Lu closed the door behind them.
Wu saw Yu and the others in the room and shouted frantically: "It's a trap!" But before the officers could turn, Lu's two fists smashed into their heads, shattering their skulls and killing them instantly.
More quick-witted, Wu leapt onto the kang, and with both hands raised to protect his head, threw himself at the window. Wen Tailai, who was lying on the kang, sat up and struck out with his left fist, breaking Wu's right shoulder with a sharp crack. Wu wavered, but steadied himself against the wall with his left foot, then broke through the window and escaped. Luo Bing launched a throwing knife after him which lodged itself in his back. But he ignored the pain, and fled for his life.
Yu and Luo Bing no longer harboured any suspicions about Lu, and they both bowed before him.
"Uncle Lu, please forgive me for not being able to pay my respects to you properly," Wen said from the kang.
"There's no need," said Lu. He looked at Luo Bing. "What is your relationship with 'Divine Knife' Luo?" he asked.
"He was my father."
"He was a very good friend of mine," Lu said. He looked at Yu and added: "You are a pupil of Ma Zhen's, I presume. How has Elder Brother been recently?"
"He is well," said Yu. "He has often expressed concern about you. He said he hadn't seen or heard anything of you for more than ten years."
"I miss him too," Lu said regretfully. "Did you know that another of your martial uncles has been here looking for you?"
Yu looked up in fright. "Zhang Zhaozhong?"
Lu nodded. Wen Tailai shuddered slightly at the sound of Zhang's name, and then gasped in pain. Luo Bing quickly went over and supported him with her hand, her face full of love and pity.
Yu looked on, absorbed. "To have a wife like that would be better than being a god, even if I was badly wounded," he murmured.
"Zhang has brought shame upon our school, but his kung fu is excellent," Lu said. "And I would guess that reinforcements will not be far behind him. With Brother Wen so badly wounded, I think all we can do at the moment is to avoid them."
"We will do whatever you suggest," Luo Bing said. She looked down at her husband, who nodded.
Lu pulled a letter from his gown and handed it to Luo Bing. On the envelope was written the words: "Respectfully adressed to Lord Zhou Zhongying, Iron Gall Manor."
"Do you know him?" asked Luo Bing, delighted.
Before Lu could answer, Wen said: "Who?"
"Lord Zhou Zhongying," replied Luo Bing.
"Is he here?"
"I have never met him, but we have been friends from afar for a long time," Lu said. "I think Brother Wen should hide there while one of us goes to your respected society to report what has happened." He saw a hestitant look on Wen's face. "What do you think, Brother Wen?"
"Your arrangements would be perfect, but I cannot deceive you. I am involved in a bloody feud with the Emperor Qian Long who won't be able to eat or sleep in peace until he sees me die with his own eyes. I know Lord Zhou would take us in, but I am afraid he would bring great trouble upon himself by doing so."
"To members of the fighting community, there is nothing more important than helping a friend in need," said Lu.
"But in my situation, the greater the friend, the less I am able to involve him."
"Refusing to involve others in your problems is an upright and manly thing to do. But I do think it's rather a pity."
"What is?" Wen asked quickly.
"If you refuse to go, we will have to stay here and fight. I don't want to exaggerate the enemy's strength or denigrate our own, but who do we have to match Zhang? I am nearly sixty years old, my life is of little value. But my martial nephew here has a promising future and your wife is full of youth. Just because you want to play the hero… aah… it means we will all die here."
Wen began to sweat profusely.
"Husband!" Luo Bing exclaimed. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow, then held his hand.
Wen's affection for his wife outweighed his sense of duty and he relented. "You are right," he said. "I will do whatever you say." But then he sighed. "Once we reach Iron Gall Manor, the Red Flower Society will be beholden to yet another person."
The Red Flower Society always took care to repay its benefactors and to exact revenge on its enemies – hence the fearful reaction of the Zhen Yuan agency men.
"What relationship is Zhao Banshan to you?" asked Lu.
"Brother Zhao? He is third master of our society."
"So that's it! Just what your Red Flower Society is involved in, I don't know. But Zhao and I would willingly die for each other. In the old days when we were both in the Dragon Slayers' Society, we were closer than natural brothers. If he is a member of your society, then your affairs are certain to be just. What does it matter what great crimes you have committed? The biggest crimes are supposed to be the assassination of officials and rebellion. Ha! Well, I just killed two running dogs of officialdom!" He gave one of the corpses a kick.
"There's too much to explain," Wen said. "After this is over, if I live, I will tell you everything. But briefly, the Emperor sent eight Imperial Bodyguards to arrest my wife and myself. I was wounded in a fight at Jinquan but we escaped and came here. They'll get me sooner or later, but the Emperor has a secret I must expose before I die."
Lu asked where the Red Flower Society leaders were.
"The Red Flower Society has 12 masters of the Incense," said Yu. "Apart from Brother Wen and Luo Bing, they are already gathered in Anxi. We have asked the Young Helmsman to assume the leadership of the society, but he is unwilling to do so. He says he is too young and inexperienced and insists that Second Brother, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, should be leader. At present, the matter is deadlocked. The meeting to choose a new Helmsman will not start until Brother Wen and Luo Bing arrive."
Yu turned to Wen, his superior in the society's heirarchy. "Should I first return to Anxi to report?" he asked.
Wen hesitated, uncertain of what to say.
"Let us do it this way," suggested Lu. "You three start out immediately for Iron Gall Manor. Once you are settled there, Brother Yu can continue on his business. Meanwhile, I will go to Anxi to report."
Wen pulled a red silk flower from his gown and handed it to Lu. "When you arrive in Anxi, fasten this flower to your lapel and you will be met by someone from our society," he said.
Luo Bing helped her husband up while Yu lifted the two corpses from the floor onto the kang and covered them with the bedclothes. Then Lu opened the door and strode calmly out, mounted a horse and galloped off westwards.
After a short while, the others also emerged from the room, Yu leading the way. Luo Bing supported herself with the door bar in one hand and held up Wen with the other. The inn's staff shrank away as the three approached, and Yu threw three taels of silver onto the front desk.
"There's money for the room and the food," he said. "We have left two very valuable items in our room. If there is anything missing when we get back, we will deal with you."
The manager nodded rapidly, almost too scared to breathe. Servants led out their horses. Wen could not get either of his feet into the stirrups, so he placed his left hand on the saddle and with one push flew lightly onto the horse's back.
"Excellent kung fu, Master Wen," Yu praised him. Luo Bing gave a dazzling smile and mounted her own horse, and they rode off.
In the town, Yu enquired about the way to Iron Gall Manor, and they raced off southeast. Luo Bing was happy: she knew that once they got to the manor, her husband would be safe. Lord Zhou commanded great respect throughout the border regions.
The road was covered with loose stones and long grass which gave it a rather desolate air. Suddenly, they heard the sound of galloping hooves ahead and three horses raced towards them. The riders were all large, strong men, but one was particularly tall and impressive with silver-white whiskers and a smooth rosy face. In his left hand, he jiggled two iron balls together. As they passed, the riders looked at Wen in surprise, but they were galloping fast, and flashed past in an instant.
"I'm afraid that was Lord Zhou," Yu said.
"I was thinking that too," replied Luo Bing.
"We'll find out when we get to the Manor," said Wen.
A few miles further on, as evening drew near, Iron Gall Manor appeared before them. The wind was strong and the clouds low, but the rays of the setting sun shone brightly through the twilight. They looked at the lovely manor, set amidst an endless expanse of withered grasses and yellow sand. Seeking sanctuary as they were, the mood of the three was despondent, and the desolation of the area affected them all. They spurred their horses forward and found the manor was surrounded by a moat, the banks of which were covered with willow trees. The bare branches whirled and danced in the strong west wind. Around the manor were fortifications and a watchtower: it was an imposing sight.
One of the manor's attendants invited them in, seated them in the great hall and brought them tea. Then a middle-aged man with the air of a housekeeper came out to receive them. He said his name was Song, and asked Wen and the others for their names.
"I have heard much about you," he said, startled to hear that they were members of the Red Flower Society. "But I had thought that your honourable society was based in southern China. I wonder if you could tell me why you have come to visit our Lord? I am afraid he went out a short while ago." Song carefully weighed up the visitors and wondered what their intentions were.
Wen, meanwhile, was becoming angry at Song's coolness. "Since Lord Zhou is not at home, we will excuse ourselves," he said. "We came at an inopportune time." He stood up using a chair for support.
"There's no rush," Song replied. "Please stay and have a meal before leaving." He turned and whispered a few words to an attendant.
Wen insisted they would go.
"Well, please wait a while first, otherwise our Lord may blame me for neglecting honoured guests." As he spoke, the attendant re-appeared carrying a tray on which were two large silver ingots. Song took the tray.
"Master Wen," he said. "You have come a long way to visit our humble manor and we have not had a chance to look after you properly. Please accept this as a favour to me for your travelling expenses."
Wen, filled with rage, picked up both of the ingots with his left hand. "We did not come to your honourable manor to extort money," he said. "You underestimate us, friend Song."
Song quickly protested that he would not dare to suggest such a thing.
Wen laughed coldly and placed the ingots back on the tray. "Goodbye," he said.
Song looked down and started in fright. With just one hand, Wen had crushed the two ingots together into a flat cake of silver. He led the three toeards the gate, offering profuse apologies as he went. Wen ignored him. Three attendants led their horses up, and they mounted immediately.
Luo Bing took out a gold ingot many times more valuable than the silver offered by Song and gave it to the attendant holding her horse. "Thank you for your trouble," she said. "Here's a little something for the three of you to have a drink." For a moment, the attendants did not seem to believe their luck, then they began thanking her over and over again. Luo Bing smiled in reply.
Just as they were about to ride off, a rider galloped up, leapt off his horse and saluted Wen with his fists. "Please come into our humble manor and make yourselves comfortable," he said.
"We do not wish to trouble you," Wen replied. "We will visit again another time."
"We passed you on the road a while ago and our Lord guessed you were coming to the manor," the man continued. "He would have liked to turn back, but he has important business to attend to. So he ordered me to come to receive you. He is eager to make your acquaintance. He said he would definitely return tonight, and insisted that you stay at our humble manor."
Wen's anger melted as he heard the sincerity in the newcomer's voice, and they went back into the manor. The man introduced himself as Meng, Zhou's senior pupil, as Song stood to one side looking very uncomfortable. Guests and host sat down and fresh tea was served. An attendant whispered something to Meng who stood up and bowed before Luo Bing.
"Our lady invites you to go into the inner hall to rest," he said.
A maidservant led Luo Bing through a passageway and a woman in her forties strode out and grasped Luo Bing's hand familiarly.
"They told me just now that some members of the Red Flower Society had arrived and then left again. But you've come back and saved face for me. Our Lord will be so happy! Now, don't rush away. You can stay for a few days. Look, all of you," she said, turning to her maidservants. "Look how beautiful this girl is! She puts our girls to shame."
Luo Bing thought the woman was rather indiscreet. "What is your name, Madame?" she asked. "My husband is surnamed Wen."
"See how muddle-headed I am!" the woman said. "I'm so happy at seeing such a pretty girl that I've gone silly!"
"This is our lady," one of the maidservants explained.
The woman was Lord Zhou's second wife. His first had borne two sons, but both had died in fights. This second wife had given birth to a daughter, Zhou Qi, a wild girl of eighteen always getting into trouble, and it had seemed as if Zhou was destined to have no more sons. But in his fifty-fourth year, another was unexpectedly born. The couple were overjoyed to gain a son so late in life.
"Call the young master in quickly," Madame Zhou said after seating herself comfortably. "Let Madame Wen see him."
A lively, good-looking child emerged from the inner rooms and Luo Bing judged from his bearing that he had already received several years of training in the martial arts. He kowtowed towards Luo Bing, who took hold of his hand and asked him his name and age.
"My name is Zhou Yingjie and I'm ten this year," the child replied.
Luo Bing unfastened the pearl bracelet from her wrist and gave it to him.
"We have come from far away, and I don't have anything nice to give you, but you can put these pearls round the edge of your cap," she said. Madame Zhou protested, but to no avail.
While they were talking, one of the maidservants rushed in crying: "Mistress Wen! Master Wen has fainted!"
Madame Zhou quickly gave orders to fetch a doctor while Luo Bing ran back to her husband. Wen's injuries were already serious, and he had used up a great deal of his remaining strength to squeeze the silver ingots together. Wen was unconscious, his face drained of colour. Luo Bing ran to him, calling his name over and over again. Slowly, he regained consciousness.
Meng dispatched an attendant to report to Lord Zhou that the guests were settled in. As he turned back inside after seeing the attendant gallop off, he noticed a figure dart behind a willow tree. He made no sign that he had seen anything unusual, but slowly walked back into the manor and ran up to the watchtower. After a while, he saw a a short man creep furtively out from behind one willow tree and run behind another.
Meng called for Lord Zhou's young son and whispered some instructions to him. Then he ran out of the manor gate, laughing and shouting: "Little brother, I'll pretend to be afraid of you, all right?"
The boy followed close behind, shouting: "Where do you think you're running off to? You won't admit defeat, will you? Come here and kowtow before me!"
Meng bowed and mockingly begged for mercy. The boy made a grab for him and Meng ran straight for the willow behind which the intruder was hiding. He charged straight into the man, knocking him flat.
It was the Zhen Yuan Agency's Lead Escort Tong. He had seen Wen and the others leave the inn and had followed them, determined to prove wrong those who said he was good for nothing but eating and talking. Tong had few abilities, but he was quick-witted and knew immediately that Meng had planned the collision to test his kung fu, so he let his whole body go loose,pretending that he knew none at all. Since his kung fu was mediocre, pretending to know none at all was not difficult.
"Excuse me," said Tong. "Is this the road to Sandaogou?" He tried to get up, but cried out in pain: "Ai-ya! My arm!"
"I'm very sorry," Meng said. "You're not hurt, are you? Please come into the manor and I'll have a look at you. We have some excellent medicinal ointments."
Tong was powerless to refuse. Meng helped him up and led him into an ante-room.
"Please undo your clothes and let me examine your wounds," Meng said. He felt around Tong's body, testing him. When an enemy's fingers touch fatal spots, a kung fu initiate would be forced to flinch.
"Heroic Uncle Tong is not afraid to die," Tong thought. "Act the lamb until the end!" Meng pressed the 'Solar Yuedao' points on his temples and toughed other Yuedao points on his chest and armpits, making Tong giggle.
"Ai-ya! Stop that! I'm very ticklish," he said.
They were all fatal points but Tong seemed unconcerned. Meng decided he really didn't know any kung fu. "From his accent, he isn't a local," he thought, still suspicious. "Could he be a petty thief, I wonder?"
Meng could not detain Tong without authority, so he walked him back towards the gate. Tong peered about him as they walked through the manor, trying to discover to where Wen and the others were. Meng decided he must be a scout for a gang of thieves.
"Be careful, my friend," he said. "Remember where you are."
Tong looked around in mock awe. "Such a big place! It looks like a great temple. Except there's no Buddha."
He asked Tong what his business was in the area.
Meng escorted him over the drawbridge and laughed coldly. "Goodbye friend," he said, clapping Tong heavily on the shoulder. "Come and visit us again sometime."
The pain from the blow went straight to Tong's marrow. Swearing profusely, he found his horse and galloped back to the Antong Inn in Sandaogou. As he entered the room, he saw Master Zhang, Officer Wu and the agency men together with seven or eight men he didn't know. They were in the midst of a discussion on where Wen Tailai might have escaped to. No one could think of an answer, and their faces were gloomy.
Tong smugly related how he had followed Wen, naturally omitting the part about his encounter with Meng.
Zhang was delighted. "Let's go," he said, adding with uncustomary warmth: "Brother Tong, you lead the way."
The whole group immediately set out for Iron Gall Manor, rubbing their hands in anticipation as they went. Tong boasted extravagantly of how he had used Lightness kung fu, and of the risks he had taken in tracking Wen. "This is an assignment from the Emperor himself, so Uncle Tong went all out against the renegades," he said.
Officer Wu, who had already employed a bone-setter to help mend his fractured shoulder, hurriedly introduced Tong to the newcomers. Tong started in fright as he heard their names: they were all top fighters employed by the court, famous martial arts specialists, both Manchu and Chinese, who had come specifically to arrest Wen Tailai.
Lu Feiqing galloped westwards, braving strong winds which whipped his face. Passing through Black Gold Gorge, he noticed the blood spilled during the previous day's battle had already been washed away by the rain. He covered about twenty miles in one stretch and arrived at a small market fair. Although the sky was growing dark, he was impatient to continue on his way but his horse was exhausted. As he considered what to do, he saw a Muslim at the edge of the fair leading two large, well-fed horses and looking around as if waiting for someone.
Lu went over and asked if he could buy one of them. The Muslim shook his head. Lu reached into his cloth bundle and took out a large silver ingot, but the Muslim shook his head again. Anxious and impatient, Lu turned the bundle upside down and six or seven more silver ingots fell out: he offered them all. The Muslim waved his hand to indicate the horse was definitely not for sale, and Lu dejectedly began to put the ingots back into his bundle. As he did so, the Muslim glimpsed a dart amongst the ingots, which he picked up and examined closely. It was the dart Huo Qingtong had thrown at Lu after he followed her to the Muslim camp site. He asked where the dart came from. In a flash of inspiration, Lu said Huo Qingtong was his friend and that she had given the dart to him. The Muslim nodded, placed the dart back in Lu's hand and passed over the reins of one of the horses. Delighted, Lu pulled out an ingot of silver again, but the Muslim waved his hand in refusal and walked away.
"I would never have guessed that such a flower of a girl would have such great influence among the Muslims," Lu thought.
He rode off, and in the next town, came across more Muslims. He pulled out the dart and was immediately able to trade his mount for another strong horse.
Lu continued to change horses the whole way and, eating dry provisions as he rode, he covered two hundred miles in a day and a night. Towards evening on the second day, he arrived at Anxi. Lu was a man of great strength, but he was getting on in years, and galloping for so long without rest had exhausted him. As soon as he entered the city, he took out the red flower Wen had given him and stuck it in his lapel. Only a few steps later, two men in short jackets appeared in front of him, saluted and invited him to accompany them to a restaurant. Once there, one of the men sat with him while the other excused himself and left. Lu's companion was extremely courteous, and ordered food and wine without asking any questions.
After three cups of wine, another man hurried in, came over to them and saluted with his fists. Lu quickly stood up and returned the salute. The man, aged about thirty, wore an ordinary gown. He asked Lu for his name and Lu told him.
"So you are Master Lu of the Wudang School," the man said. "We have often heard our Third Brother Zhao speak of you. I have great admiration for you. Our meeting today is very auspicious."
"What is your honourable name?" Lu asked.
"My name is Wei."
"Please take a seat, sir," Lu's first companion said. He saluted both Lu and Wei, and then left.
"Our Society's Young Helmsman and many of our brothers are here in Anxi," said Wei. "If we had known you were coming, they would certainly have all been here to greet you. In a moment, if you don't mind, we will go and everyone can pay their respects to you."
They left the restaurant and rode out of the city.
"You have met our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai and his wife," Wei said.
"Yes. How did you know?"
"The flower you are wearing is Brother Wen's. It has four green leaves."
Lu was surprised at how openly Wei talked about their society's secret signs, treating him not in the slightest like an outsider.
After a while, they arrived at an imposing Taoist monastery surrounded by tall, ancient trees. Over the main gate was a wooden tablet inscribed with four large characters: "Jade Nothingness Taoist Monastery". Two Taoist priests standing in front of the monastery bowed respectfully. Wei invited Lu inside, and a young apprentice priest brought tea. Wei whispered in his ear, and the apprentice nodded and went inside. Lu was just about to raise his cup when he heard someone in the inner hall shout: "Brother Lu! I've been worried to death about you…" It was Lu's old comrade, Zhao Banshan.
Zhao's questions came thick and fast. "Where have you been all these years? What brings you here?"
Lu brushed the questions aside. "There is an urgent matter to be discussed first. Your honourable society's Brother Wen is in serious trouble."
He outlined the predicament of Wen and his wife. Even before he had finished, Wei ran inside to report. While he was still talking, Lu heard Wei arguing loudly with someone in the courtyard.
"Why are you holding me back?" the other shouted. "I must go to help Brother Wen now!"
"You're too impatient," Wei replied. "It must be discussed by everyone first, and then it is up to the Young Helmsman to decide who goes." The other continued to protest.
Taking Lu by the hand, Zhao walked into the courtyard, and Lu saw the hunchback who had severed the tail of Yuanzhi's horse.
Wei gave the hunchback a push. "Go and pay your respects to Master Lu," he said. The hunchback walked over and stared dumbly at him for a moment. Lu knew the hunchback remembered his face and, uneasy at the thought of how Yuanzhi had laughed at him that day, he was about to apologise when the hunchback said:
"You have ridden more than two hundred miles in a night and a day to report on behalf of Brother Wen. I, Hunchback Zhang Jin, thank you!" He knelt down, and kowtowed to Lu four times, his head banging on the flagstones.
Lu wanted to stop him but it was already too late, so all he could do was to kneel down and return the gesture.
The hunchback stood up. "I am leaving now," he announced. As he passed through the circular doorway, a very short man coming in the other way caught hold of the hunchback. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"I am going to find Brother Wen and Mistress Luo Bing. Come with me." Without waiting for an answer, the hunchback pulled him along by the wrist.
The hunchback Zhang Jin had been born with a deformed body, but his strength was frightening. When talking to others, he often referred to himself as 'Hunchback Zhang', but anyone else calling him a 'hunchback' was courting disaster. He ranked 10th in seniority in the Red Flower Society; his travelling companion was Xu Tianhong who ranked seventh. Xu was very short and slight in build, almost the size of a dwarf, but his wisdom and resource made him the Red Flower Society's chief tactician, and the fighting community had dubbed him 'The Kung Fu Mastermind'.
One by one, the other members of the Red Flower Society came out and were introduced to Lu. They were all famous heroes and Lu recognised most of them after having passed them on the road several days before. The formal greetings were kept to a minimum, and after a moment the one-armed Taoist priest, who ranked second within the society, said: "Let us go and see the Young Helmsman."
They went through to the rear courtyard and entered a large room. On one of the wooden walls a huge 'encirclement chess' board had been carved.* (* the game, Wei Qi, is best known by its Japanese name – Go.) Two men were sitting on a couch about thirty feet away, fingering chess pieces and throwing them at the vertical board, each piece lodging itself in the lines which formed the squares. In all his wide experience, Lu had never seen chess played in such a manner. Playing white was a young man with a refined face wearing a white gown who looked like the son of a nobleman. His opponent, playing black, was an old man dressed in farmer's clothes.
"I wonder who this old hero is," Lu thought. "Never have I seen anyone with his strength and accuracy." He could see black was in a dangerous position, and that with just one more move by white, all the black pieces would be lost. The young man threw a piece, but his aim was slightly off: the piece failed to embed itself in the intersection of the lines and fell to the floor. The old man laughed.
"You missed," he said. "Admit defeat!" He pushed the chess pieces aside and stood up.
His opponent smiled. "We'll have another game in a while, teacher," he said. The old man saw the group entering, and strode out of the room without so much as a greeting.
"Young Helmsman," Zhao said. "This is Brother Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School." And to Lu: "This is our Young Helmsman. I hope you will get to know one another well."
The young man brought his two fists together in salute. "My name is Chen Jialuo. I would greatly appreciate your honoured counsel."
Lu was surprised to find that this Young Helmsman gave every appearance of being a dissolute young man from a wealthy family, the complete opposite of the rest of the bandit-like bunch.
Zhao informed the Young Helmsman of how Wen had taken refuge in Iron Gall Manor, and asked him for a plan of action. The Young Helmsman turned to the Taoist priest. "Priest Wu Chen," he said. "Please give us your advice."
A large, fat man, whom Zhao had introduced a moment before as 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, stood up and shouted: "Fourth Brother is badly wounded, someone we have never met before has ridden hard for a day and a night to report to us, and we are still deferring to each other. We will kill Fourth Brother with all this deference! Can we stop this nonsense? Who dares to disregard the wishes of the old Master? Young Helmsman, if you do not respect the dying wish of your foster father, you are unfilial. If you despise us brothers so much that you are unwilling to become our leader, then the Red Flower Society's seventy or eighty thousand members may as well go their separate ways."
Everyone began talking at once: "We cannot remain leaderless like this! If the Young Helmsman continues to defer, our devotion will be finished! Fourth Brother is in trouble! We must follow the Young Helmsman's orders and go to save him!"
The young man, Chen, looked greatly distressed. His eyebrows drew together in a deep frown as he silently pondered the problem.
"Brothers!" shouted one of the Twin Knights of Sichuan. "Since the Young Helmsman obviously despises us, we two intend to return to Sichuan as soon as Fourth Brother has been rescued."
Chen saw he had no alternative and saluted the heroes with his fists. "Brother Wen is in trouble and we can wait no longer. All of you insist that I become Helmsman, and because of the respect I have for you, I will do as you say."
The heroes of the Red Flower Society shouted and applauded with delight and relief.
"Well then," said the Taoist priest. "The Great Helmsman should now pay his respects to his predecessor and accept the Flower of Authority."
Lu knew that each society had its own special rites and ceremonies of which the initiation of a new leader was by far the most important. As an outsider, Lu felt uncomfortable about being present during such a ceremony, so he congratulated Chen and immediately excused himself. He was extremely weary after his journey, and Zhao led him to a room where he washed and slept. When he awoke, it was already night.
"The Great Helmsman has left with the others for Iron Gall Manor," Zhao said. "But he left me here to keep you company. We can follow on tomorrow."
And then, after two decades apart, the two men talked. They talked of the doings of the fighting community over the years, the good and the bad, the living and the dead, until the east grew light.
"Your Great Helmsman is so young," said Lu. "He looks like nothing more than just another rich man's son. Why are you all willing to follow him?"
"It would take a long time to explain," Zhao replied. "You rest for a while longer and we can talk again later when we're riding."
Lead Escort Tong eagerly led Zhang and the others to Iron Gall Manor. This time, having some support with him, he walked brazenly up to the manor gate.
"Tell your Lord to come out and receive Imperial officials," he shouted to an attendant.
The attendant turned to go inside, but Zhang decided they could not afford to offend such a respected man as Lord Zhou. "Say that we have come from Beijing and that there is some official business we would like to consult Lord Zhou about," he called.
He glanced meaningfully at Officer Wu, who nodded and went round to the rear of the Manor with one of the officers to prevent anyone escaping.
As soon as he heard the attendant's report, Meng knew the officers had come for Wen Tailai. He told Song to go out and keep them occupied, and then went immediately to Wen's room.
"Master Wen, there are some Eagle's Claws outside," he said. "There's nothing we can do. We'll just have to hide the three of you for a while."
He helped Wen up, and led him to a pavilion in the garden behind the Manor house. Meng and 'Scholar' Yu pushed aside a stone table in the pavilion, exposing an iron plate. They worked free an iron ring on top of the plate and pulled it up. Underneath was a cellar.
Just then, they heard people outside the back gate, and at the same time shouting from in front as Zhang forced his way through towards the garden. Wen saw that they were surrounded and hurried down the steps into the cellar. Meng replaced the iron plate, and pushed the stone table back over it with the help of two attendants. Zhou's young son kept getting in the way as he tried to help. Meng looked round quickly to make sure nothing was out of place, then ordered the attendants to open the rear gate.
Zhang and the others entered the garden. Seeing Tong amongst the group, Meng said coldly: "So you are an official. I should not have been so impolite to you earlier."
"I am a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," Tong replied. "Haven't you made a mistake, brother?" He looked round at Zhang. "I saw the three fugitives enter the manor. You should order a search, Master Zhang."
"We are peaceful citizens," said Song. "His Lordship, Master Zhou, is one of the most respected gentlemen west of the Yellow River. How could he dare to harbour either bandits or rebellious intentions?"
Meng asked Zhang to explain the purpose of his visit. Zhang did so, and Meng laughed out loud. "But the Red Flower Society is a secret society in south China," he protested. "Why would they come to the northwest border areas? This lead escort has a wild imagination."
Zhang and the rest were professionals, and they knew Wen was in the manor. If they conducted a thorough search and found him, there would be no problem. But if the search failed to find him, the matter would certainly not rest there. Causing offence to a man such as Lord Zhou was no game and they hesitated.
Worried that he would be laughed at if Wen wasn't caught that day, Tong decided to trick Zhou's son into talking. He smiled and took him by the hand, but the boy snatched his hand away.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Little brother," Tong said. "Tell me where the three visitors who came to your house today are hiding and I'll give you this to buy sweets with." He took out a silver ingot and presented it to the boy.
The boy made a face at him. "Who do you think I am? Do you think any member of the Zhou family of Iron Gall manor would want your stinking money?"
Zhang studied the child's face and guessed he knew where Wen was hidden. "Just you wait until we find them," he warned. "We will behead not only your father, but you and your mother as well."
The boy raised his eyebrows. "I'm not afraid of you, so why would my father be afraid of you?" he replied.
Suddenly, Tong noticed the boy was wearing a pearl bracelet on his left wrist and recognised it immediately as Luo Bing's.
"Those pearls on your wrist. They belong to one of the visitors," he said. "You must have stolen them from her."
Why should I steal?" the boy replied angrily. "She gave them to me."
Tong laughed. "All right. She gave them to you. Well, where is she?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"Stop chattering with the child," Zhang interrupted. "They wouldn't let a child in on the great affairs of the Manor. He would certainly have been shooed away before they hid the three guests in their secret place."
As he hoped, the child rose to the bait. "How would you know?" he shouted.
Meng was becoming anxious. "Let's go inside, little brother," he said.
Zhang seized the opportunity. "Yes, go away little boy. You don't know anything."
The boy could stand it no longer. "I know!" he shouted. "They're in the garden, in the pavilion!"
Meng was greatly alarmed. "Little brother, what nonsense are you talking? Go inside quickly!"
As soon as the words were out, the boy knew he had made a mess of everything. He flew indoors, panic-stricken and on the verge of tears.
Zhang could see that the pavilion, wide and empty with red-painted railings around its sides, provided no hiding place. He leapt onto one of the railings and looked up into the roof, but saw no sign of a hiding-place. He jumped down again and stood silently, deep in thought. Then he had an idea.
"Master Meng," he smiled. "My kung fu is unsophisticated, but I have some clumsy strength. Let us have a competition."
"I wouldn't dare to be so presumptuous," Meng replied. "With weapons or without, I leave the choice to you."
Zhang laughed loudly. "There's no need for fighting, it would injure this amiable atmosphere. No, I suggest we take turns at trying to lift this stone table. I hope you won't laugh at me if I can't."
Meng started in fright. "No, it's…it's not a good…" he stuttered.
The others were surprised at Zhang's desire to engage Meng in a test of strength, and they watched intently as he pushed up his sleeves and grasped one of the round legs of the stone table with his right hand. He shouted the word "Lift!", and raised the 400-odd pound table off the ground using just the one hand.
They applauded him for his strength, but the shouts of applause quickly changed to calls of surprise as they noticed the iron plate that had been exposed.
The officers lifted up the plate and saw Wen in the hole beneath them, but none dared to go down and arrest him. They couldn't use darts either as they had been ordered to capture him alive, so all they could do was stand at the entrance to the cellar, weapons in hand, shouting at him.
"We've been betrayed by Iron Gall Manor," Wen said quietly to Luo Bing. "We are husband and wife, and I want you to promise me one thing."
"Whatever I tell you to do in a moment, you must do."
Luo Bing nodded, her eyes full of tears.
"Wen Tailai is here," Wen shouted. "What's all the noise about?"
A sudden silence descended on the group above.
"My leg is wounded," Wen added. "Send a rope down and lift me up."
Zhang turned round to ask Meng to get some rope, but he had disappeared, so he ordered an attendant to go instead. A length of rope was brought, and an Imperial Bodyguard named Cheng Huang grabbed one end and threw the other down into the cellar and lifted Wen out.
As soon as his feet touched the ground, Wen jerked the rope out of Cheng Huang's hands, and with a roar, whirled it round and round his head. Caught off guard, Zhang and the others ducked in panic as the rope swept towards them. Tong, who had already suffered at Wen's hand, had hidden behind the others, and didn't see the rope until it was too late. With the piercing force of an iron rod, the rope smashed solidly into his back, knocking him to the ground.
Two other Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan, raced towards Wen from either side while 'Scholar' Yu, wielding the Golden Flute, leapt up the stone steps and attacked Cheng Huang.
Cheng was wielding a brass staff, but despite its advantage of length over the flute, Yu quickly forced him onto the defensive. Luo Bing limped up the steps, supporting herself with her sword, but found her way blocked by a tall, muscular man standing at the mouth of the cellar, with his hands on his hips. She pulled out a throwing knife and threw it at him. The man, Zhang, made no move until the knife was only an inch from his nose, then stretched out his hand and grabbed it by the hilt. Luo Bing saw his leisurely reaction, and drew a ragged breath.
Zhang forced her sword to one side, then gave her a push which threw her off balance. She fell back down into the cellar.
Wen, meanwhile, was battling simultaneously with the two Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan. His mind was numb with the excruciating pain from his wounds, and he fought like a madman, striking out wildly. Yu, however, had gained the upper hand in his fight with Cheng Huang. Zhang noticed his technique contained many elements peculiar to the Wudang School. Greatly surprised, he was about to go over and question him, when Yu suddenly jumped back into the cellar to help Luo Bing.
"Are you all right?" he asked her.
"It's nothing. Go and help Fourth Brother."
"I'll support you up," Yu said.
Wen looked around and saw that his wife had not yet managed to get out of the cellar, and he realised he could continue no longer. He threw himself at Cheng Huang, paralysed him with a blow to the kidneys, then grabbed him round the waist and fell into the cellar with him.
They landed on the cellar floor with Wen on top of Cheng Huang, neither of them able to move. Luo Bing quickly helped Wen up. His face was completely drained of colour and covered in sweat, but he forced a smile, and with a "Wa" sound, a mouthful of blood sprayed out onto the front of her tunic. Yu understood what Wen was planning, and shouted. "Make way! Make way!"
With Cheng Huang in the hands of the enemy, Zhang decided against any precipitous action. He heard Yu's shout and waved his arm at the others, indicating they should clear a path for them.
The first one out of the cellar was Cheng Huang with Luo Bing grasping his collar and holding the point of a dagger to the small of his back. Next came Yu supporting Wen. The four shuffled slowly out, pushing and pulling each other as they came.
"If anyone moves, this man dies," Luo Bing shouted.
The four passed through the forest of swords and spears and made their way slowly towards the rear gate. Luo Bing spotted three horses tied to the willow trees just outside, and she silently thanked Heaven and Earth.
Zhang could see the fugitives were about to escape and decided that capturing Wen Tailai and taking him back to Beijing was more important than saving Cheng Huang's life. He picked up the rope Wen had thrown on the ground, fashioned it into a lassoo and flung it at Wen using all his Inner Strength. The rope flew whistling through the air and encircled Wen, and with a tug, Zhang pulled him out of Yu's grasp. Wen cried out and Luo Bing turned to help him, ignoring Cheng Huang. But her thigh was wounded, and she fell to the ground before she had taken two steps.
"Go! Go quickly!" Wen shouted.
"I'll die with you," said Luo Bing.
"You agreed that you would do what I told you…" he replied angrily, but before he could finish, the officers swarmed over him. Yu raced over and picked Luo Bing up, then charged straight out of the gate. One officer moved to stop him, but one of Yu's legs flew up and kicked him so hard that he fell to the ground five or six paces away.
Yu ran with her over to the horses and placed her on the back of one just as three officers raced through the gates after them.
"Use your throwing knives, quick!" he shouted.
A string of knives flashed out from her hand and there was a blood-curdling shriek as one of them planted itself in the shoulder of one of the officers. Yu freed the reins of the three horses, mounted one and pulled the head of the third round so that it faced the gate. He rapped it sharply on the rump with his flute and the horse charged straight to the officers, trapping them in the gateway. In the confusion, Yu and Luo Bing galloped off.
Luo Bing lay on the horse in a semi-delirious state. She tried on several occasions to pull the horse round and return to Iron Gall Manor, but each time Yu stopped her. He slowed the pace only when he was sure there was no-one chasing them.
Another mile further on, Yu saw four riders approaching led by a man with a flowing white beard: it was the Lord of Iron Gall Manor, Zhou Zhongying. Seeing Yu and Luo Bing, he reined in his horse and called out:
"Honoured guests, please stop! I have called for a doctor."
Full of hatred, Luo Bing flung a throwing knife at him. Zhou started in fright, and threw himself down flat on his horse, and the knife flew over his back. Behind him, one of his followers deflected the knife with a stroke from his sword, and it plunged into the trunk of a large willow tree beside the road. The rays of the blood-red setting sun reflected off the blade, the light flashing and dancing all around them. Just as Zhou was about to question them, Luo Bing began cursing him.
"You old thief! You betrayed my husband! I will have my revenge on you!" she shouted, tears coursing down her face. She urged her horse forward, brandishing her pair of swords.
"Let us discuss this first," Zhou called out, greatly puzzled.
"We must save Fourth Brother first," Yu said to Luo Bing, restraining her. "We can raze Iron Gall Manor to the ground once we've rescued him."
Luo Bing saw the logic in what he said, and pulled the head of her horse round. She spat on the ground in hate, slapped her horse and galloped off.
Lord Zhou wondered what was behind this young girl's anger and questioned the attendant who had been sent to the town to fetch a doctor. But he said only that when he left, Lady Zhou and Master Meng had been looking after the guests, and that there had been no disgreements.
Zhou galloped all the way back to the manor, and strode quickly inside shouting: "Call Meng!"
"Master Meng is with her Ladyship," one of the attendants told him. Then the rest all began talking at once, giving him accounts of what had happened, how the officers had arrested Wen Tailai and taken him away, and had left the manor only a short while before.
"Who tolf the officers the three guests were hiding in the cellar?" Zhou asked.
The attendants looked at each other, not daring to speak. The sound of Zhou's two iron balls clacking together in his hand was even louder than usual. "What are you all standing there for?" he shouted. "Go and get Meng quickly!"
As he spoke, Meng ran in.
"Who let the secret out?" Zhou shouted hoarsely. "Tell me! You…"
Meng hesitated, and said: "The Eagle's Claws found it out for themselves."
"Nonsense!" Zhou roared. "How would that bunch of dog thieves ever find a place as well-hidden as my cellar?"
Meng did not answer, not daring to meet his master's gaze. Lady Zhou came in hugging her son, but Zhou ignored her.
His gaze swung round to Song's face. "As soon as you saw the officers, you took fright and talked, didn't you?" he shouted. Meng was trustworthy but Song was a coward and knew no kung fu.
"No…it wasn't me who talked," he replied, scared out of his wits. "It was…it was the young…the young master."
Zhou's heart missed a beat. "Come over here," he said to his son.
The boy walked, cringing, over to his father.
"Was it you who told the officers that the three guests were in the garden cellar?" he asked.
The boy had never dared to lie to his father, but he could not bring himself to confess. Zhou brandished his whip.
"Will you speak?" he shouted.
The boy looked at his mother, so scared he wanted to cry. Lady Zhou walked over and stood close beside him.
Meng saw that the deception would not work. "Master," he said. "The officers were very cunning. They made out that if the young master did not talk, he would be a coward."
"You wanted to be a hero, so you told them, is that correct?" Zhou shouted.
The boy's face was drained of colour. "Yes, father," he replied quietly.
Zhou could not control his anger. "Is that any way for a brave hero to act?" he shouted. He threw the two iron balls in his right hand at the opposite wall in frustration, but at that very moment, his son threw himself into his arms to beg for mercy, and one of the balls hit the boy square on the head. Zhou had put all of his rage into the throw and its power was extraordinary. Blood sprayed in all directions.
Greatly shocked, Zhou quickly took hold of his son and embraced him.
"Father," the boy said. "I…I won't do it again…Don't hit me…" He was dead before he finished speaking. Everyone in the room was stunned into silence.
Lady Zhou grabbed her son, shouting: "Child, child!" When she saw he had stopped breathing, she stared dumbly at him for a moment then, like a crazed tiger, struck out at Zhou.
"Why…why did you kill the child?" she sobbed.
Zhou shook his head and retreated two paces. "I… I didn't…"
Lady Zhou put down her son's corpse, and grabbed a sword from the scabbard of one of the attendants. She leapt forward and struck out at her husband, but he made no move to avoid the blow.
"It will be better if we all die," he said, closing his eyes.
Seeing him in such a state, her hand loosened. She dropped the sword to the ground and ran out of the hall, sobbing.
Luo Bing and Yu Yutong kept to the back roads for fear of meeting Yamen officers and rode on until the sky was completely black. The countryside was desolate: there were no inns and they couldn't even find a farmhouse. They stopped to rest beside a large rock.
Yu releaed the horses to graze, then cut some grass with Luo Bing's sword and spread it out on the ground.
"Now we have a bed, but no food or water," he said. "All we can do is wait until tomorrow and try to think of something then."
Luo Bing cared about nothing but her husband. She cried continuously. Yu comforted her, saying the Red Flower Society would certainly come in force to help them rescue Fourth Brother. Luo Bing was exhausted, and hearing his words, she relaxed and soon fell into a deep sleep.
In her dream, she seemed to meet her husband, who held her gently in his arms, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. She felt deliciously happy and lazily let her husband embrace her.
"I've been so miserable thinking about you," she said. "Are all your wounds healed?"
Wen mumbled a few words and held her even tighter, kissed her even more passionately. Just as she was beginning to feel aroused, she suddenly started in fright and awoke. Under the starlight, she could see that the person embracing her was not her husband, but Yu.
"I've been miserable thinking about you too!" he whispered.
Ashamed and angry, Luo Bing slapped him heavily on the face, fought her way free and stumbled away a few steps. She fumbled for her knives, and shouted harshly: "What are you doing?"
Yu was stunned. "Listen to me…"
"You listen to me!" she replied angrily. "Which four classes of people does the Red Flower Society kill?"
"Tartars and Manchus; corrupt officials; landlords and tyrants; and villains and scoundrels," Yu recited quietly, his head hung low.
The space between Luo Bing's eyebrows closed. "Which four crimes by Red Flower Society members are punishable by death?"
"Death to those who surrender to the Manchu Court. Death to those who betray the Society…death to those who betray their friends, and death to those who violate others'…wives and daughters."
"If you have the guts, you will quickly punish yourself with the 'Three Thrusts and Six Holes'!" Luo Bing shouted.
According to the Society's code, a member who had committed an offence in a moment of confusion and sincerely regretted it could pierce his own thigh three times with a knife so that it penetrated right through, an act known as the 'Three Thrusts and Six Holes.' The member could then plead to the Great Helmsman for forgiveness, and could hope that his case would be dealt with leniently.
"I beg you to kill me," Yu cried. "If I die at your hand, I will still die happy."
Luo Bing's anger blazed even more intensely. She raised the knife in her hand, her wrist steeled, ready to throw.
"You don't know anything," Yu said in a shaky voice. "How much I have suffered for you over the last five or six years. From the moment I first saw you, my heart…was…no longer my own."
"I was already Fourth Brother's then," Luo Bing said angrily. "Do you mean you didn't know?"
"I…knew I couldn't control myself, so I never dared to see too much of you. Whenever the Society had any business to be done, I always begged the Great Helmsman to send me to do it. The others thought I was just hardworking, no-one knows I was really avoiding you. When I was away working, there was never a day or an hour when I did not think of you."
He took a step towards her and pulled up his left sleeve, exposing his arm. "I hate myself," he said. "I curse my heart for the animal it is. Every time the hatred overcomes me, I cut myself with a knife here. Look!"
Under the dim starlight, Luo Bing saw his arm was covered in motley scars, and her heart involuntarily softened.
"I always think, why couldn't Heaven have allowed me to meet you before you married," he continued. "We are about the same age, but the difference in age between you and Fourth Brother is huge."
Luo Bing's anger surged up once more. "What does the difference in our ages matter? Fourth Brother is loving and just, a great man. How could he be compared with someone like you, you…"
She gave a snort of contempt, then turned and walked over to her horse. As she struggled to mount it, Yu went over to help her up, but she shouted "Keep away!" and got up of her own accord.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"It's none of your business. With Fourth Brother in the hands of the Eagle's Claws, I might as well be dead anyway. Give me my swords."
Yu lowered his head and handed the pair of swords to her.
Seeing him standing there, so lost and bewildered, Luo Bing suddenly said: "As long as you seriously work for the good of the Society, and are never impolite to me ever again, I won't tell anyone about what happened tonight. And I'll also help you find a nice girl who has both talent and beauty."
She smiled briefly, slapped her horse and rode off.
Luo Bing rode on for a mile or so, then stopped, searching the sky for the North Star to get her bearings. If she went west, she would meet up with the fighters of the Red Flower Society; to go east would be to follow after her captured husband. She knew that, wounded as she was, it would be impossible for her to save him single-handed, but with her husband heading eastwards, how could she possibly turn away from him? Broken-hearted, she let her horse wander unrestrained for a few miles. Then, seeing she had already travelled a long way from Yu, she dismounted and settled down to sleep in a spinney of small trees. Angry and bitter, she cried for a while and then fell into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, she woke suddenly with a burning fever and called out in a blurred voice: "Water! I must drink water!" But there was no-one to hear her.
Next day, her condition was even worse. She managed with a struggle to sit up, but her head hurt so badly she was forced to lie down again. She slept, and awoke feeling the sun beating down on her head. She watched as it sank towards the west. She was thirsty and hungry, but remounting the horse was impossible.
"It is not important that I die here," she thought. "But I will never see Fourth Brother again." Her eyes glazed over and she fainted away.
Suddenly, she heard someone say: "Good. She's coming round!"
She slowly opened her eyes and saw a young, doe-eyed girl standing beside her. The girl was eighteen or nineteen years old with a tanned face and thick eyebrows. She looked very happy to see Luo Bing awaken.
"Go quickly and get some millet gruel for the Lady to drink," she told a maid.
Luo Bing realized she was lying on a kang in between the folds of a quilt. The room she was in was clean and tastefully furnished, obviously in the house of a very wealthy family.
"What is your honourable surname, miss?" she asked the girl.
"My surname is Zhou. You sleep for a while. We can talk again later."
The girl watched as Luo Bing ate a bowl of gruel and then quietly left. Luo Bing closed her eyes and slept once more.
When she woke, the lamps had already been lit. Outside the door, she heard a girl's voice saying loudly:
"Father shouldn't have allowed them to bully people and run riot here in Iron Gall Manor! If it had been me, I would have taught them a good lesson!"
Luo Bing started in fright when she heard the words 'Iron Gall Manor'. The girl and her maid walked into the room and looked through the canopy over the kang, but Luo Bing closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. The girl went over to the wall and took down a sword. Luo Bing noticed her own swords on a table close by and prepared herself. If the girl struck out at her, she would throw the quilt over her head, grab the swords and fight her way out. But all she heard was the maid saying:
"Mistress, you mustn't make any more trouble. His Lordship is very distressed. Don't make him angry again."
"Huh! I don't care," the girl replied. She raced out of the room, sword in hand, with the maid at her heels.
Luo Bing guessed correctly that the girl was Lord Zhou's daughter, Zhou Qi. She was a bold, straight-forward person, very much like her father, and had a love of minding other people's business. On the day Wen was seized, she had wounded someone in a fight, and had spent the night away from home, planning to wait for her father's anger to subside before returning. On her way back, she came across Luo Bing unconscious by the road and brought her to the manor, where she discovered to her horror that her father had killed her brother, and her mother had run off.
"If they can betray Fourth Brother to the authorities, why did they save me?" she thought darkly. "There must be some other evil scheme afoot."
The wound on her thigh had not yet healed, and she couldn't afford the slightest mistake. Having been in the Manor once before, she had a vague idea of its layout, and planned to stealthily make her way round to the garden, and then leave by the back gate. But as she passed by the great hall, she saw the lamps were burning brightly inside and heard someone talking very loudly. There was something familiar about the voice, and she put her eye close to a crack in the door and saw Lord Zhou in conversation with two other men, one of whom she recognised as Lead Escort Tong. Seeing him, she thought again of her husband's cruel fate and immediately ceased to care about whether she lived or died. She pushed open the door and slung a throwing knife at Tong.
With his wife missing and his son dead, Zhou had spent two unhappy days fretting endlessly.
After nightfall on the second day, an attendant reported that two visitors had arrived, and Zhou ordered Meng to receive them. One was Tong, the other an Imperial Bodyguard surnamed Pan, one of the fighters who had helped to seize Wen. Meng guessed that no good would come of the visit.
"His Lordship is not feeling well," he told them. "If you have any message, I will convey it for you."
Tong laughed. "We are here on a goodwill visit," he said. "Whether Lord Zhou sees us or not is up to him. Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis that may destroy every member of the Zhou family. What is the point of putting on such airs?"
Meng had no option but to allow them through. The iron balls in Zhou's hand clacked sharply together as he listened to what the visitors had to say.
"What do you mean by saying Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis?" he demanded.
Bodyguard Pan pulled a letter from his gown and spread it out on the table, holding it down with both hands as if afraid that Zhou would snatch it away. Zhou peered down and saw it was a letter written to him by 'Hidden Needle' Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School asking him to help some friends of the Red Flower Society who were in difficulties.
Wen had had no opportunity to present the letter to Zhou, and it was found when he was searched after being captured. Lu was a well-known fugitive, and the letter clearly indicated he was collaborating with Iron Gall Manor. The bodyguards had discussed the matter, and decided that reporting the existence of the letter to their superiors would not necessarily result in Lu's capture and could even increase their own workload. It would be more beneficial to use the letter to extort a sum of money from Zhou and divide it up amongst themselves.
Zhou was shocked at the sight of the letter. "What do you gentlemen want?" he asked.
"We have long admired the famous Lord Zhou," said Pan. "We know of your enthusiasm for charity and making new friends. Friends are much more important than money, and I'm sure you spend thousands of silver ingots to establish friendship without even creasing half an eyebrow. You of course realise, Lord Zhou, that if the authorities ever see this letter, the consequences would be disastrous. When we brothers found it, we resolved to destroy it in the spirit of friendship, even though it meant risking our own heads. Everyone agreed never to say a word about Iron Gall Manor harbouring the fugitive Wen Tailai. We decided to shoulder this monstrous responsibility and not to report to our superiors."
"That was very good of you," Zhou replied dryly.
"But," Pan continued, "The thing is that we brothers have had a lot of expenses on this trip out of the capital. We are carrying heavy debts. If perhaps Lord Zhou could spare a thought for us, we would feel eternally grateful."
Zhou was extremely angry. He had let down his friends, his beloved son had died as a result, and the officers were to blame. Now these same officers had come back to try to blackmail him.
"We are villains, that is true," Tong said. "We villains accomplish little and bungle much. If we had to build a Manor as big as this one, we'd have to admit defeat. But if we were asked to destroy it…"
Before he could finish, Zhou's daughter, Zhou Qi charged into the hall, and shouted harshly: "Let me see you try!"
Zhou motioned to his daughter and the two walked out of the hall. "Go and tell Meng that whatever happens, these two Eagle's Claws must not be allowed to leave the Manor!" he whispered.
"Good!" replied Zhou Qi, very pleased. "I was getting angrier and angrier listening outside."
Zhou returned to the hall.
"Since you refuse to do us this favour Lord Zhou, we will take our leave of you," Bodyguard Pan said. He picked up Lu's letter and ripped it to shreds as Zhou stood by dumbfounded, completely taken aback.
"This is a duplicate of the letter," Pan explained. "The original letter is with the 'Fire Hand Judge' Zhang Zhaozhong."
It was at that moment that Luo Bing's throwing knife flew towards Tong. Zhou detested Tong, but he couldn't allow him to die in the Manor. With no time to consider the matter carefully, he quickly threw one of the iron balls in his hand at the knife. It hit the knife with a "Clang" and both knife and ball fell to the ground.
"Ah-ha!" Luo Bing shouted. "So you're all in this together. You old thief! You've already betrayed my husband, why don't you kill me as well?" She raced into the hall, her swords held high, and struck out at Zhou.
With no weapon in his hand, Zhou hurriedly picked up a chair to deflect the blow. "Not so fast!" he protested. "Explain yourself first."
But Luo Bing was in no mood to listen. Zhou retreated steadily as she attacked, heading for the wall. Suddenly, Luo Bing heard the sound of a blade swishing towards her back, and ducked as the blade cleaved over her head. She turned to find Zhou Qi standing behind her, seething with anger.
"You ungrateful woman!" Zhou Qi shouted, pointing her finger accusingly. "I saved you out of the goodness of my heart. What are you doing attacking my father?"
"You of Iron Gall Manor with your fake charity and fake generosity!" Luo Bing replied bitterly. "But you keep away and I won't harm you."
She turned and resumed her attack on Zhou, who dodged left and right, shouting "Stop! Stop!" Absolutely furious, Zhou Qi jumped in front of her father and began fiercely fighting with Luo Bing.
In terms of martial skills and experience, Luo Bing was far superior to Zhou Qi, but because of the wounds on her shoulder and thigh coupled with her resentment and anger, the greatest taboos of the martial arts fighter, she gradually lost the initiative.
"Stop!" Zhou shouted repeatedly, but both girls ignored him. Pan and Tong stood to one side watching the battle.
Suddenly, they all heard a weird cry and saw a black figure lunged at Zhou's daughter. It was a short hunchback wielding a short-handled Wolf's Tooth club, the sharp teeth on the end of which sparkled and flashed as it swung steeply towards Zhou Qi. The girl jumped in fright and countered by chopping at his shoulder. The hunchback blocked her sword rigidly. Under the intense shock of the impact, Zhou Qi's arm went numb and her sword nearly fell out of her hand. She leapt back. The hunchback didn't press his attack, but instead turned to Luo Bing.
"Tenth Brother!" she cried. Tears coursed down her face.
"Where's Brother Wen?" the hunchback, Zhang Jin, asked.
Luo Bing pointed at Zhou, Pan and Tong. "They betrayed him! Tenth Brother, avenge him for me!"
Without waiting for details, Zhang Jin threw himself onto the ground and rolled towards Zhou. Zhou leapt up onto a table and shouted "Stop!" again, but Zhang Jin was not interested in explanations, and aimed the wolf's tooth club at his thigh. Zhou jumped into the air, landing on the ground just as the club slammed into the sandalwood table. The fangs sank deep into the wood, and for a moment the hunchback was unable to pull the club free.
Just then, Meng rushed into the hall and handed Zhou his gold-backed sword. He had no idea of the hunchback's motives, but anyone attacking his master was an enemy. Zhou and Meng attacked the hunchback together, but Zhang Jin held them off with his club and shouted: "Seventh Brother, if you don't get in here quickly and protect Sister Luo Bing, I will curse your ancestors!"
Zhang Jin and 'Kung Fu Mastermind' Xu had raced day and night without stopping towards Iron Gall Manor. Hearing Zhang Jin's call, Xu ran into the hall and made straight for Luo Bing. Her heart leapt for joy as she spotted him, and she pointed at Tong and Pan.
"They betrayed Brother Wen," she called.
Xu leapt at Tong. Xu was like a dwarf in stature, but his kung fu was superb, and in a second, he had his opponent on the retreat. Tong dodged to the left as Xu stabbed towards him with his knife, then hit the floor with a thud as Xu kicked him off his feet.
Xu felt a current of air hit his back as Bodyguard Pan attacked him holding a pair of tempered iron hoops, and with no time to turn round, he stepped on Tong's chest with his left foot and flipped over to face his attacker. Tong yelled out in pain.
On the other side of the hall, Zhang Jin was battling furiously with Meng, Zhou and Zhou Qi simultaneously.
"Go quickly and guard the manor gate," Meng shouted to an attendant. "Don't let anyone else in."
"Everyone stop!" Zhou called out. "Listen to what I have to say!"
Meng and Zhou Qi immediately stepped back several paces. Xu also retreated a step, and shouted to the hunchback: "Hold it, Tenth Brother. Let's listen to him."
But as he did so, Bodyguard Pan drove his hoops at Xu's back. Caught off his guard, Xu flinched away, but his shoulder was struck. He stumbled, and angrily called out: "Right! You Iron Gall Manor people are full of tricks." He did not know that Pan was not of the Manor. He raised his knife and fought furiously with Pan.
Tong stood at a distance, staring at Luo Bing. She had only one throwing knife left and was unwilling to use it rashly, so she raised her sword and chased after him. Tong nimbly raced about the great hall, dodging around the tables and chairs.
"Don't be violent," he told her. "Your husband is already dead. Why not be a good girl and marry your Uncle Tong?"
On hearing him say that Wen was dead, everything went black before her eyes, and she fainted away. Tong raced over to her as she collapsed.
Zhou's anger surged up as he saw what was happening, and he also ran towards Luo Bing, his gold-backed sword held high. He planned to stop Tong from molesting Luo Bing, but with misunderstanding piled on misunderstanding, he heard someone at the door to the hall shout loudly:
"If you dare to hurt her, I will fight you to the death!"
The newcomer charged at Zhou with a pair of hooks in his hands, aimed at Zhou's throat and groin respectively. Zhou noticed the man's handsome features and strong, vigorous movements. He raised his sword and lightly deflected the hooks, then retreated a step.
"Who are you, honourable sir?" he asked.
The man ignored him, and bent down to look at Luo Bing. Her face was white and her breathing very shallow and he helped her up and put her in a chair.
The fighting in the hall was getting more furious all the time. Suddenly, there was a shout outside followed by the sound of weapons clashing. A moment later, an attendent raced into the hall closely followed by a tall, fat man holding a steel whip.
"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother!" Xu shouted. "We must kill all of these Iron Gall Manor today, or our work isn't over."
The fat man was 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, ranking eighth in the Red Flower Society's hierarchy, while the one with the handsome face and the hooks was 'Nine Life Leopard' Wei who ranked ninth. Wei was a fearless fighter but had never been wounded and was consequently said to have nine lives.
Zhou looked around at the battle, awed by the fighting skills of the intruders. "Heroes of the Red Flower Society!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "Listen to me!"
By this time, 'Leopard' Wei had taken over from Xu and was fighting Bodyguard Pan. He slackened off slightly as he heard Zhou's shout, but Xu called out: "Careful! Don't be tricked."
Even as he spoke, Pan raised his hoops and struck out at Wei. He was afraid of Iron Gall Manor and the Red Flower Society getting together, and couldn't allow them any opportunity to talk peace.
Xu observed the desperate battle in progress in the hall. The hunchback Zhang Jin was fighting three people at once and was under pressure, although not yet ready to admit defeat. 'Leopard' Wei, meanwhile, was also having difficulty maintaining his defence. Victory, Xu could see, was impossible.
"Set fire to the place, quick!" he shouted to disconcert the Manor people. "Twelfth Brother, go and seal the rear gate. Don't let anyone escape!"
On hearing the shout, Zhou Qi ran for the door of the hall planning to look for the arsonists.
"So you want to escape, do you?" a deep voice outside said as she reached the doorway.
She started backwards in fright. In the flickering candlelight, she saw two men blocking the doorway. The face of the one who had spoken looked as though it was covered with a layer of frost. Gleaming shafts emerged from his two eyes, sapping the life from those they fixed upon. Zhou Qi wanted to look at the other man, but she found her eyes caught by the first man's stare.
"Holy Ghost," she cursed softly.
"That's right," he replied. "I'm 'Melancholy Ghost'." It was the Red Flower Society's Superintendant of Punishments, 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. There was no warmth in his words. Zhou Qi had never been afraid of anything before but she shuddered at the sight of this sinister man.
"Do you think I'm afraid of you?" she shouted to bolster her own courage, and struck out at him with her sword.
The man countered with his own sword, his eyes still fixed on her, and in only a few moves, he had completely mastered her.
On the other side of the hall, Meng was battling Zhang Jin, but it had already become obvious that he was no match for him. Tong, meanwhile, had not been sighted for some time. Only Zhou, fighting against Xu and Wei, had managed to gain the upper hand, but just as he was on the point of winning, someone else leapt forward shouting: "I'll fight you, old man!"
He was using an iron oar as a weapon. It swung up from behind the man's back, over his right shoulder and smashed down towards Zhou with astonishing ferocity. The man was 'Crocodile' Jiang, thirteenth in the Red Flower Society's heirarchy.
Zhou noticed Jiang's great strength and dodged to the left, then began to retreat as he fought, keeping constantly on the move. He spotted Bodyguard Pan being chased by 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, and as Pan ran close by him, Zhou struck out at him with his great sword.
Zhou knew that the Red Flower Society's misunderstanding of the situation was deep, and could not be explained away with just a few words. Furthermore, his several attempts to halt the battle had been sabotaged by Pan. With the Red Flower Society's fighters became increasingly numerous, and fighting more and more fiercely, it was only a matter of time before someone was wounded, if not killed, and when that happened, the misunderstanding would become a matter of true vengeance and the situation would be irretrievable.
Seeing Zhou's sword slicing towards him, Pan started in terror and frantically dodged out of the way. He fully realised Zhou's intention.
"We joined forces to capture Wen Tailai but it was you who killed him," he shouted at Zhou. "What are you planning now? You want to murder me and keep the whole Manchu reward for yourself, is that it?"
Zhang Jin howled and smashed his wolf's tooth club at Zhou's thigh. But Xu, who was more attentive, finally realised what was happening. Fighting with Zhou earlier, he had noticed how the old man had several time stayed his hand, and he knew there had to be a reason for it. "Tenth Brother!" he shouted. "Not so fast!"
Zhang Jin's blood lust was up, however, and he paid no attention. 'Copper-head' Jiang's iron oar swung forward, aimed at Zhou's midriff. Zhou leant to one side to avoid it, but unexpectedly, Yang swung his steel whip down towards his shoulder from behind. He heard the gust of wind behind his ear and blocked the blow with his sword, causing both Yang's and his own arm to go numb for a second. The physical strength of the three society fighters was frightening, and battling all three single-handed, it was obvious that Zhou was gradually being worn down. Then Jiang's iron oar struck upwards at Zhou's great sword: Zhou lost his grasp, and the sword flew up out of his hand and stuck straight into a beam in the roof of the hall.
The Red Flower Society fighters pressed in closer around Zhou, now weaponless, and Zhang Jin and Jiang's weapons smashed down towards him. Zhou quickly picked up a table and heaved it at the two of them. As he did so, the candleholder on the table fell to the floor and the flame went out.
In a flash of inspiration, Meng pulled out a catapult and "pa, pa, pa!" shot out a string of pellets at the other candles, extinguishing them all.
An inky blackness descended on the hall.
Everyone held their breaths and stayed completely silent, not daring to make any sound that would give away their position.
In the midst of the silence, footsteps sounded outside the hall. The door was thrown open and a shaft of light struck their eyes as a man carrying a burning torch strode in. He was dressed as a scholar, and in his left hand, he held a golden flute. As soon as he had passed through the door, he stood to one side and raised the torch up high, lighting the way as three other men entered. One was a one-armed Taoist priest with a sword slung across his back. The second man, wearing a light gown loosely tied around the waist, looked like the son of a nobleman. He was followed by a young boy in his teens who held a bundle in his hands. They were in fact 'Scholar' Yu, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, and the newly-appointed Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. The young boy was Chen's attendant, Xin Yan.
Yu presented Zhou with a letter of introduction, bowed, and then announced in a loud voice: "The Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society has come to pay his respects to Lord Zhou of IronGall Manor."
Zhou put his hands together in salute. "Honoured guests," he said. "Welcome to my humble Manor. Please be seated."
The tables and chairs in the great hall had all been overturned and thrown about during the fight and everything was in great disorder.
"Attendants," Zhou roared. The tables and chairs were quickly rearranged, the candles relit and the guests and hosts seated. Great Helmsman Chen took the first of the guest's seats on the eastern side of the hall and was followed, in order of seniority, by the other Red Flower Society heroes. Zhou took the first seat on the western side, followed in order by Meng, Zhou Qi and his attendants.
Yu stole a glance at Luo Bing's beautiful, joyless face. He had no idea if she had told anyone of his misdemeanor. After she had left him that night, he had not known where to go, but after two days of roaming around aimlessly, he ran into Great Helmsman Chen and Priest Wu Chen, who were on their way to Iron Gall Manor.
With the two sides being so polite to each other, Bodyguard Pan could see the game was up and began to sidle towards the door in the hope of slipping out unnoticed. But Xu leapt over and blocked his path.
"Please stay here," he said. "Let us all explain our positions clearly first."
Pan did not dare to object.
"Master Wen Tailai, our humble society's Fourth Brother, was attacked by the Eagle's Claws and suffered a serious injury," Chen said coldly. "He came to you for refuge, and we are much indebted to you for the assistance extended to him. All the brothers of our society are grateful, and I take this opportunity to offer our thanks."
He stood and bowed deeply.
Zhou hurriedly returned the bow, extremely embarrassed.
"Great Helmsman, you don't understand!" Zhang Jin shouted, jumping up. "He betrayed Fourth Brother!"
'Leopard' Wei, who was sitting next to Zhang Jin, gave him a push and told him to shut up.
"Our brothers have travelled through the night to call on you," Chen continued, ignoring the interruption. "We have all been extremely anxious about Brother Wen. We are unaware of the state of his injuries, but I imagine you would have invited a doctor to treat him. If it is convenient, Lord Zhou, we would like you to take us to him."
He stood up, and the heroes of the Red Flower Society followed suit.
Zhou stammered, momentarily unable to answer.
"Fourth Brother was killed by them," Luo Bing shouted, her voice choked with sobs. "Great Helmsman, we must kill this old peasant in payment for Fourth Brother's life!"
Chen turned pale. Zhang Jin, Yang and a number of the others drew their weapons and moved forward threateningly.
"Master Wen did come to our humble Manor…" Meng began.
"Well then, please take us to see him," Xu broke in.
"When Master Wen, Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu here arrived, our Lord was not at home," Meng replied. "It was I who dispatched someone to fetch a doctor. Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu saw that with their own eyes. Later, the court officers arrived. We are extremely ashamed to say that we were unable to protect our guests and Master Wen was captured. Master Chen, you blame us for not looking after him properly and for failing to fulfil our responsibility to protect friends. We admit it. If you wish to kill us, I for one will not bat an eyelid. But to point your finger at our Lord and accuse him of betraying a friend, what sort of talk is that?"
Luo Bing jumped forward a step and pointed at Meng accusingly. "You!" she shouted. "I ask you! Such a well-concealed hiding-place as that cellar: if you weren't in the pay of the Eagles's Claws, how would they have known where we were?"
Meng was speechless.
"Lord Zhou, at the time of the incident, you may not actually have been at home," Priest Wu added. "But just as a dragon has a head, men have masters. As this concerns Iron Gall Manor, we must ask you to explain."
Bodyguard Pan, cowering to one side, suddenly spoke up. "It was his son that talked," he shouted. "Is he willing to admit it?"
"Lord Zhou, is this true?" Great Helmsman Chen asked.
Zhou nodded slowly. The heroes of the Red Flower Society roared in anger and moved in even closer, some glaring at Zhou, some looking at Chen, waiting for his signal.
Chen gave Pan a sidelong glance. "And who are you, sir?" he asked.
"He's an Eagle's Claw," Luo Bing said. "He was one of those that seized Fourth Brother."
Chen slowly walked over to Pan, then suddenly snatched the iron hoop out of his grasp, whipped both his hands behind his back and held them together. Pan gave a shout and struggled unsuccessfully to break free.
"Where have you taken Brother Wen?" Chen shouted. Pan kept his mouth shut, and an expression of proud insolence appeared on his face. Chen's fingers touched the 'Central Mansion Yuedao' below Pan's ribs. "Will you talk?" he asked.
Pan yelled out in pain. Chen touched his 'Tendon Centraction' Yuedao point. This time, Pan could endure it no longer.
"I'll talk…I'll talk," he whispered. "They're taking him to Beijing."
"He…he isn't dead then?" Luo Bing asked quickly.
"Of course he isn't dead," Pan replied. "He's an important criminal, who would dare to kill him?"
The heroes all breathed a sigh of relief, and Luo Bing's heart overflowed with happiness, and she fainted away, falling backwards to the floor. Yu stretched out his hand to catch her, but then suddenly pulled it back again. Her head hit the ground, and Zhang Jin hurriedly knelt down beside her.
"Fourth Sister!" he called, giving Yu a sidelong glance full of disdain. "Are you all right?"
Chen relaxed his grip on Pan's hands. "Tie him up," he said to his boy attendant, Xin Yan, who tied Pan's hands firmly behind his back.
"Brothers!" Chen said loudly. "It is vitally important that we save Fourth Brother. We can settle our accounts here another time."
The heroes of the Red Flower Society voiced their assent in unison. Luo Bing was sitting on a chair crying with joy. Hearing Chen's words, she stood up with Zhang Jin's support.
The heroes walked to the door of the hall, escorted by Meng. Chen turned and said to Zhou: "Our apologies for the inconvenience we have caused you. We will meet again."
Zhou knew from his tone that the Red Flower Society would return to seek vengeance.
"Once we've saved Brother Wen, I, the hunchback Zhang, will be the first to return to do battle with you, you old peasant!" Zhang Jin shouted.
Zhou Qi leapt forward a step. "What sort of creature are you that you would dare to curse my father?"
"Huh!" he replied. "Go and call your big brother out and tell him I wish to meet him."
"My big brother?" she asked, puzzled.
"If he has the guts to betray a friend, he should have the guts to meet another friend," Zhang Jin added. "Your big brother betrayed our Fourth Brother. Where is he hiding?"
"This hunchback's talking nonsense," Zhou Qi said. "I don't have an elder brother."
"All right," Zhou said angrily. "I will hand over my son to you. Follow me!"
Suddenly, there were shots from outside of "Fire! Fire!", and flames began to cast a glow into the great hall.
Zhou paid no attention. He strode out and Great Helmsman Chen and the others followed him through two courtyards. The fire was already burning fiercely and the heat from the flame was oppressive. In the dark of the night, the red glow reached skywards through the billows of smoke.
"Let's work together to put out the fire out first," Xu called.
"You tell someone to commit arson and then pretend to be a good man!" Zhou Qi said indignantly. She remembered his shout earlier about setting fire to the Manor, and was convinced that the Red Flower Society was responsible. Full of grief and resentment, she struck out at him with her sword, but Xu nimbly dodged out of the way.
Zhou appeared not to noticed any of this, and continued to walk towards the rear hall of the Manor. As they entered the hall, they could see that it was arranged for a funeral. A pair of lighted candles were placed on the altar before the 'Spirit Tablet' bearing the name of the deceased, along with white streamers and piles of 'death money' for the deceased to spend in the other world. Zhou parted a set of white curtains, revealing a small black coffin with its lid still open.
"My son revealed Master Wei's hiding place, it is true," he said. "If you want him…then take him!" His voice suddenly broke. In the sombre candlelight, the heroes looking into the coffin and saw the corpse of a small child.
"My brother was only ten years old," Zhou Qi shouted. "He didn't understand what was going on. He was tricked into letting out the secret. When father returned, he was so angry, he killed my brother by mistake, and as a result, my mother has left home. Are you satisfied yet? If not, why don't you kill my father and myself as well?"
The heroes realised they had unjustly accused Zhou, and that the whole incident should never have happened. Zhang Jin, who was the most direct of them all, leapt forward and kowtowed before Zhou, his head hitting the floor with a resounding thump.
"Master," he cried. "I have wronged you. The hunchback Zhang begs your forgiveness."
Chen and the other heroes all came forward one by one to apologise. Zhou hurriedly returned the bow.
"Never will we forget the assistance that Lord Zhou has extended to the Red Flower Society," Chen called out. "Brothers, the important thing now is to put out the fire. Everyone lend a hand quickly."
The heroes raced out of the hall. But the flames were already lighting up the sky, and the sound of roof tiles smashing to the ground, and of rafters and pillars collapsing intermingled in confusion with the shouts and cries of the Manor attendants. The Anxi region is famous throughout China as a 'wind storehouse', and the wind now stoked the flames. It was soon clear that it the fire could not be extinguished, and that the great Iron Gall Manor would soon be completely razed.
The heat in the rear hall was intense, and the cloth streamers and paper money on the altar were already smouldering. But Zhou remained beside the coffin.
"Father, father!" Zhou Qi shouted as the flames started to curl into the hall. "We must leave!"
Zhou took no notice, and continued to gaze at his son in the coffin, unwilling to leave him there to be cremated.
Zhang Jin bent over and shouted: "Eighth Brother, put the coffin on my back."
Yang grasped hold of the two sides of the coffin, and with a surge of strength, lifted it up and placed it on Zhang Jin's hunched back. Maintaining his crouching position, Zhang Jin then charged out of the hall. Zhou Qi supported her father, and with the others gathered around to protect them, they ran outside the Manor. Not long after, the roof of the rear hall collapsed, and they all shuddered at the thought of how close it had been.
"Ai-ya!" Zhou Qi suddenly shouted. "That Eagles's Claw Tong may still be inside!"
"For people as evil as him, being burnt alive is not an unjust end," 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi replied.
"Who?" Chen asked.
Meng told them about how Tong had come to Iron Gall Manor, first to spy, next as a guide for the officers when they came to seize Wen, and finally to engage in blackmail.
"Yes!" Xu shouted. "It must have been him who started the fire." He glanced furtively over at Zhou Qi and saw that she was also looking at him out of the corner of her eye. As soon as their eyes met, they both turned their heads away.
"We must catch this man Tong and bring him back," Chen said. "Brothers Xu, Yang, Wei and Zhang: the four of you go and search along the roads to the north, south, east and west. Come back to report within two hours whether you find him or not."
The four left, and Chen went over to apologise to Zhou once again.
"Lord Zhou," he said. "The Red Flower Society is responsible for your being brought to this state of affairs. Our debt to you will be difficult to repay. But we will find Lady Zhou and invite her to return to you. Iron Gall Manor has been destroyed, and we undertake to have it completely rebuilt. All your people will receive full compensation from the Society for whatever they have lost."
"What kind of talk is that, Master Chen?" Zhou replied. "Wealth and riches are not a part of the flesh. If you continue with that sort of talk, you will not be treating us as friends."
He had been greatly upset at the sight of Iron Gall Manor burn down, but he valued friendship above all, and now that the misunderstanding had been cleared up, he was happy to have established relations with so many heroes in such a short time. But a moment later, he caught sight of the tiny coffin and another wave of sorrow flooded his heart.
The four heroes sent out to look for Tong returned with nothing to report, and they guessed that he must have taken advantage of the fire and confusion to escape.
"Luckily we know that the fellow is with the Zhen Yuan Escort Agency," Chen said. "We will catch him one day no matter where he runs to. Lord Zhou, where should the attendants of your honourable manor and their families go for temporary refuge?"
"I think they should all go to Chijinwei, the town to the east of here, after it gets light," Zhou replied.
"I have a small suggestion, Your Lordship," Xu said.
"Brother Xu is nicknamed 'The Kung Fu Mastermind,'" Chen explained to Zhou. "He is the wisest and most resourceful of us all."
Zhou Qi gave Xu a look of contempt and harrumphed.
"Please speak, Brother Xu," Zhou said hurriedly, embarrassed by his daughter's behaviour.
"When Tong gets back, he is certain to embellish his story with a lot of nonsense, accusing Your Lordship of many more crimes," Xu replied. "I think it would be best for your people to go westwards and lie low for a while until we have evaluated the situation. It may not be safe for them to go to Chijinwei now."
Zhou agreed immediately. "Yes, you're right," he said. "I will send them to Anxi first thing tomorrow. I have friends there they can stay with." He turned to his attendant, Song. "You take them all to Anxi," he said. "When you get there, you can stay temporarily at the residence of Great Official Wu. All expenses are to be paid by us. I will contact you when I have completed my business."
"Father, aren't we going to Anxi too?" Zhou Qi asked.
"Of course not. Master Wen was seized in our Manor. How can we stand by and do nothing when he has still to be rescued?"
Zhou Qi and Meng were delighted at the news.
"We are greatly moved by your goodwill, Lord Zhou." Chen said. "But saving Brother Wen is an act of rebellion. You are peaceful citizens. It would be best to leave it up to us."
"You needn't worry about implicating us," Zhou replied, stroking his beard. "And if you do not allow me to risk my life for a friend, then you are not treating me as a friend."
Chen thought for a second then agreed.
"Time is pressing," Zhou added. "Please issue your orders, Master Chen."
The embers of Iron Gall Manor had not yet been extinguished and the smell of burning wood hung heavily in the air. As they listened solemnly to Chen's orders, the flames crackled to life again, fanned by the wind.
The Twin Knights had been sent on ahead to discover Wen's whereabouts, and 'Scholar' Yu was told to link up with them, while the rest of the heroes split up into groups of two and three.
"Fourteenth Brother, please start out immediately," Chen said to Yu. "The others should rest or sleep here on the ground. We will meet up again inside the Great Wall. The Eagles's Claws on the Jiayu Gate will most probably be examining everyone rigorously, so we must be careful."
Yu saluted the heroes with his fists, and mounted his horse. As he rode off, he glanced furtively round at Luo Bing, but she was deep in thought with her head bowed. He sighed, whipped his horse and galloped wildly off.
"Seventh Brother," Chen said quietly to 'Mastermind' Xu. "You go with Luo Bing and Lord Zhou. Take extra care that no officials recognise him. Fourth Sister is wounded and she is greatly feeling the absence of Brother Wen, so you must be careful not to let her do anything rash. There is no need for you to travel fast. Just avoid getting involved in any fighting."
They settled down to sleep, but less than four hours later, dawn broke. 'Thousand Arm Buddha' Zhao with Zhang Jin and 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi were the first to leave. Luo Bing, who had not closed her eyes the whole night, called Zhang Jin over.
"Tenth Brother, you are not allowed to cause any trouble on the road," she said.
"Don't worry," he replied. "Rescuing Fourth Brother is the important thing, I know."
Meng and a number of attendants covered the body of Zhou's son with shrouds and buried it beside the Manor while Zhou Qi wept bitterly, and Zhou stood tearfully by. The heroes paid their respects before the grave.
Zhou Qi continued to be antagonistic towards Xu as they travelled along. No matter how often Zhou sternly reproved her, or Luo Bing tried to mediate with smiles, or how calmly tolerant Xu was, Zhou Qi jeered at him, not giving him the slightest bit of face. In the end, Xu became angry as well.
"I've only been nice to her to give her father face," he thought. "Does she think I'd really be afraid of her?" He reined in his horse and dropped behind.
On the third day, they passed through the Jiayu Gate, which marks the western end of the Great Wall.
Seeing his daughter being so disobedient, Zhou several times called her over and tried to reason with her. Each time she would agree, but as soon as she saw Xu, she would start arguing with him again. Zhou thought his wife may have been able to discipline their daughter, but she had gone he knew not where.
They arrived in Suzhou, and found rooms in an inn near the east gate of the city. Xu went out for a while, and when he returned he said:
"Fourteenth Brother hasn't met up with the Twin Knights yet."
"How would know?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You're just guessing."
Xu glanced at her in contempt.
"This place was called Wine Spring Prefecture in ancient times," said Zhou, fearing that his daughter would say something else equally impolite. "The wine here is very good. Brother Xu, let's you and I go to the Apricot Blossom Tavern on Great East Street and drink a cup."
"Good idea," said Xu.
"Father, I want to go too," Zhou Qi said. Xu stifled a laugh. "What are you laughing at? Why shouldn't I be able to go?" Zhou Qi asked angrily. Xu turned away and pretended he hadn't heard.
"We'll go together," Luo Bing said with a smile.
Being a chivalrous man, Zhou did not object.
The four arrived at the Apricot Blossom Tavern and ordered wine and food. The spring water of Suzhou was clear and cold, and the wine that was made from it was fragrant and rich, and was considered to be the best in all the northwestern provinces. The waiter brought a plate of Suzhou 's famous roasted cakes, as fragile as spring cotton and as white as autumn silk. Zhou Qi couldn't stop eating them. The tavern was crowded and it was inconvenient to discuss Wen's coming rescue, so instead, the four talked about the scenery they had passed and other things.
"Your honourable society's Master Chen is very young," said Zhou. "What style of kung fu does he use?"
"A style invented by his teacher," Xu replied. "When he was fifteen years old, Master Chen was sent by our former Great Helmsman Master Yu to the Muslim regions to become the pupil of 'The Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool', Master Yuan, and he never returned to southern China. Only Priest Wu Chen and some of the other senior members of the society saw him when he was young."
"Master Chen is certainly a remarkable man," said Zhou. "Truly: 'A man's worth cannot be measured by his looks'."
Xu and Luo Bing were very pleased to hear Zhou praising their leader in such glowing terms.
"In these last few years, the fighting community has produced many new heroes," Zhou continued, addressing Xu. "The rear waves of the Yangtse push forward the front waves', as the saying goes. It is rare to find someone who combines the qualities of intelligence and bravery as you do. It is important that such skills are not wasted, but are used to achieve something worthwhile."
"Yes," said Xu, agreeing with Zhou's view that his skills should be used to good purpose, but Zhou Qi grunted and thought: "My father praises you and you agree! Such modesty!"
Zhou drank a mouthful of wine. "I once heard that old Master Yu of your honourable society was a member of the Shaolin School of kung fu, very similar to my style," he remarked. "I had long wanted to meet him and learn from him, but with him in southern China and myself in the northwest, my wish was never fulfilled and he has now passed away. I enquired about the origins of his martial arts skills, but everyone had a different story, and from beginning to end I never heard a reliable report."
"Master Yu never talked about who he studied under, and it was only just before he died that he said he had once learned kung fu in the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province," Xu said.
"What illness did Master Yu die of?" Zhou asked. "He would have been a few years older than me, I think?"
"Master Yu was sixty-five when he passed away," Xu replied. "The cause of his illness is a long story. There's a very mixed bunch of people here and we might as well travel on another few miles this evening. We'll find a deserted place and talk at length there."
"Excellent!" Zhou said. He asked the cashier to make up the bill.
"I'll just go downstairs for a second," Xu said.
"I am the host," Zhou warned. "Don't you snatch the bill away."
"All right," he replied, and went down to the ground floor.
"He's always so furtive!" Zhou Qi said with a pout.
"Girls must not talk such ill-mannered nonsense," Zhou scolded her.
"Brother Xu is always full of strange tricks," Luo Bing told her with a smile. "If you make him angry, you will have to be careful he doesn't play some of them on you."
"Huh!" she said. "He is no taller than I am. Why should I be afraid of him?"
Zhou was about to berate her again, but hearing footsteps on the stairs, he said nothing.
"Let's go," Xu said, walking up.
The four covered ten miles at one go. They noticed a spinney of a dozen or so large tree to the left of the road screening rocks and boulders behind.
"What about here?" Zhou asked.
"All right," said Xu. They tied their horses to the trees and sat down, leaning on the trunks. The moon was bright and the stars sparse, and the night air was as cool as water. The wind blew through the grass with a low whistling sound.
Xu was about to speak when he heard the muffled sound of horses galloping from far off. He lay down with his ear to the ground and listened for a while, then stood up.
"Three horses coming this way," he said.
Zhou waved his hand and they untied their horses and led them behind the boulders. The sound of hooves came gradually closer, and three horses passed heading east. In the moonlight, they could see only that the riders all wore white turbans and long striped gowns, the clothing of Muslims, while sabres hung from their saddles. They waited until the riders were a long way off, then sat down again. Zhou asked why the Manchu court had arrested Wen.
"The authorities have always considered the Red Flower Society to be a thorn in the eye," Luo Bing replied. "But there is another reason for them dispatching so many martial arts masters to catch our Fourth Brother. Last month, Master Yu went to Beijing, and Fourth Brother and I went with him. Master Yu told us that he intended to break into the Imperial Palace and see the Emperor Qian Long. We were very surprised, and asked what he wanted to see the Emperor about, but he wouldn't say. Fourth Brother warned him that the Emperor was very dangerous and cunning and advised him to enlist our best fighters and to get Brother Xu here to devise an absolutely fool-proof plan."
Zhou Qi studied Xu. "Is this dwarf so talented that others come to him for help?" she thought. "I don't believe it!"
"Master Yu said that he had to see the Emperor on a matter of great importance, and that only a small number of people could go with him or there could be problems. So Fourth Brother agreed. That night, the two of them crossed the wall into the palace while I kept watch outside. I was really frightened. More than two hours passed before they came back over the wall. Very early next day, the three of us left Beijing and returned to the south. I asked Fourth Brother if they had seen the Emperor and what it was all about. He said they had seen him, and that it concerned driving out the Manchus and restoring the throne of China to the chinese people. He said he couldn't tell me more, not because he didn't trust me, but because the more people who knew, the greater the danger of the secret getting out."
"After we returned to the south, Master Yu parted from us," Luo Bing continued. "We returned to the Society's headquarters at Tai Lake, while he went on to Haining. When he returned, his whole appearance had changed. It was as if he had suddenly aged more than ten years. He never smiled, and a few days later he contracted the illness from which he never recovered.
"Just before he passed away, he called together the Lords of Incense and said that it was his last wish that Master Chen should succeed him as Great Helmsman. He said this was the key to the restoration of the throne to the Han people. He said it was not possible to explain the reasons then, but said we would all find out one day."
"What was Master Chen's relationship with Master Yu?" Zhou asked.
"He was the old Master's foster son," Luo Bing said. "Master Chen is the son of the Emperor's former Chief Minister Chen from Haining. When he was fifteen, he passed the provincial civil service examination, and soon after that, the old Master took him to the Muslim regions to learn the martial arts from the Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool, Master Yuan. As to why the son of a Chief Minister would honour a member of the fighting community as his foster father, we don't know."
"I imagine one of the reasons Master Wen was seized is that he knows something about all this," Zhou said.
"Perhaps," Luo Bing replied. "At the time of old Master's death, there was one important piece of unfinished business on his mind and he wanted very badly to see Master Chen once more. When he first got back from Beijing, he sent a messenger to the Muslim border areas with instructions for Master Chen to go to Anxi and wait there for orders. The Old Master knew he wouldn't last long enough to see his foster son again, so he urged us all to hasten to Anxi to work out a plan of action together with Master Chen. He entrusted all the secret information to Fourth Brother to pass on personally to the Young Helmsman when they met. Who would have guessed that he…" Her voice choked with sobs. "If anything should happen to Fourth Brother…no-one will ever know what the old Master hoped to achieve."
"You mustn't worry," Zhou Qi consoled her. "We'll soon rescue him."
Luo Bing squeezed her hand and smiled sadly.
"How was Master Wen wounded?" Zhou asked.
"We travelled in pairs to Anxi, and Fourth Brother and I were the last pair. When we were in Suzhou, eight Imperial Bodyguards came to our inn and said they had orders from the Emperor to accompany us back to Beijing. Fourth Brother said that he had to see the Young Helmsman before he could comply, and a fight broke out. It was a hard battle, two against eight. Fourth Brother killed two of them with his sword and three more with his bare hands, while I hit two with my throwing knives. The last one sneaked away. But Fourth Brother was badly wounded.
"We knew we couldn't stay in Suzhou, so with difficulty we made our way through the Jiayu Gate. But Fourth Brother's wounds were serious and it was really impossible for us to go much further, so we stopped at an inn to give him a chance to recover quickly. Little did we guess that the Eagles's Claws would find us again. What happened afterwards, you already know."
"The more the Emperor fears and hates Fourth Brother, the less his life is in danger in the immediate future," Xu said. "The officials and the Eagles's Claws know he's important so they won't dare to harm him."
"That's very shrewd, Brother," Zhou said.
"It would have been better if you'd gone to meet a bit earlier," Zhou Qi suddenly said to Xu. "Then Master Wen wouldn't be in any trouble, and you wouldn't have had to go venting your anger on Iron Gall Manor…"
"You stupid girl!" Zhou shouted. "What are you talking about?"
"Brother Wen's and Sister Luo Bing's kung fu is excellent, so who would have guessed that anyone would dare to attack them?" Xu replied.
"You're the 'Kung Fu Mastermind'," Zhou Qi said. "How could you have failed to guess it?"
"If Seventh Brother had guessed it, we wouldn't have become acquainted with these good friends from the Red Flower Society." Zhou told her. He turned to Luo Bing. " By the way, who is Master Chen's wife? Is she the daughter of some great family perhaps, or a famous martial arts fighter?"
"Master Chen hasn't married yet," Luo Bing replied. "But Lord Zhou, when are we going to be invited to your daughter's wedding reception?"
"This girl is crazy, who would want her?" Zhou answered with a smile. "She might as well stay with me for the rest of her life."
"Wait until we've rescued Fourth Brother, then I'll become her match-maker," Luo Bing said. "You're sure to be very satisfied with my choice."
"If you're going to keep on talking about me, I'm leaving," Zhou Qi said quickly, deeply embarrassed. The other three smiled.
A moment passed, then Xu suddenly stifled a laugh.
"What are you laughing at now?" Zhou Qi asked him angrily.
"Something personal. What business is it of yours?" he countered.
"Huh," she replied. "Do you think I don't know what you're laughing at? You want to marry me to that Master Chen. But he's the son of a chief minister; how could we possibly be matched? You all treat him like some precious treasure, but I don't see anything special about him."
Both angry and amused, Zhou shouting at her to be quiet. "This stupid girl talks without thinking," he said. "All right, everyone sleep now. As soon as it gets light, we'll be starting out again."
They took their blankets off the horses' backs, and lay down beneath the trees.
"Father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Did you bring anything to eat? I'm starving."
No, I didn't," Zhou replied. "But we'll make a move a little earlier tomorrow and stop when we get to Twin Wells."
Not long after, he began snoring lightly. Zhou Qi tossed and turned, unable to sleep due to her hunger. Suddenly, she noticed Xu stealthily get up and walk over to the horses. She saw him take something out of his bag, then return and sit down. He wrapped the blanket around himself, and started eating noisily and with relish. She turned over away from him and shut her eyes, but finally, she could bear it no longer, and glanced over out of the corner of her eye. It would have been better if she hadn't. She saw a pile next to him of what were obviously the famous Suzhou roasted cakes. But having spent the whole time arguing with him, how could she now beg him for food?
"Go to sleep and stop thinking about eating," she told herself. But the more she tried to sleep, the less she was able to. Then the fragrant smell of wine hit her nostrils as Xu took a swig from a drinking gourd and she could suppress her anger no longer.
"What are you doing drinking wine at two o'clock in the morning?" she demanded. "If you have to drink, don't do it here!"
"All right," said Xu. He put down the gourd without re-corking it and settled down to sleep, letting the fragrance of the wine drift over towards her.
She angrily buried her face in the blanket, but after a while, it became too stuffy. She turned over again, and in the moonlight, she saw her father's two Iron Gallstones glistening beside his pillow. She quietly stretched her hand over, picked one of them up and threw it at the wine gourd. It shattered and the wine spilled out over Xu's blanket.
He appeared to be asleep, and paid no heed to what had happened. Zhou Qi saw her father and Luo Bing were sleeping peacefully and crept over to retrieve the Iron Gallstone. But just as she was about to pick it up, Xu suddenly turned over, trapping it beneath his body, and then proceed to snore noisily.
She jumped in fright and pulled back her hand, not daring to try again. Despite her bold character, she was still a young lady, and could not possibly put her hand beneath a man's body. There was nothing she could do, so she went back and settled down to sleep. Just then, she heard a laugh escape from Luo Bing. Completely flustered, she didn't sleep well all night.
Next day, she woke early, and curled up into a ball hoping that the dawn would never come. But before long, Zhou and Luo Bing got up. A moment later, Xu awoke, and she heard him exclaim in surprise.
"What's this?" he said.
Zhou Qi pulled the blanket over her head.
"Ah, Lord Zhou!" she heard him say. "Your Iron Gallstone has rolled all the way over here! Oh, no! The wine gourd has been smashed! That's it, a monkey in the hills must have smelt the wine and come down to have a drink. Then it saw your Iron Gallstone and took it to play with. One careless slip and the gourd was smashed to pieces. What a naughty monkey!"
Zhou laughed heartily. "You love to jest, Brother," he said. "There are no monkeys in this area."
"Well then, maybe it was a fairy from heaven," Luo Bing suggested with a smile.
With Xu having called her a monkey, Zhou Qi was even more furious than before. Xu pulled out the roasted cakes for everyone to eat, but out of spite, she refused to eat even one.
They got to the town of Twin Wells, and had a quick meal of noodles. Then, as they were leaving, Xu and Luo Bing suddenly stopped and began closely examining some confused charcoal markings at the foot of a wall that looked to Zhou Qi like the scribblings of an urchin.
"The Twin Knights have found out where Fourth Brother is and are following him," Luo Bing announced joyfully.
"How do you know? What are these signs?" Zhou Qi asked.
"They are a code used by our Society," she said, rubbing the marks off the wall with her foot. "Let's go!"
Knowing that Wen had been found, Luo Bing's face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. Their spirits rose and they covered nearly fifteen miles at one go. At noon the next day in the town of Qidaogou, they came across markings left by 'Scholar' Yu saying he had caught up with the Twin Knights. The wound on Luo Bing's thigh was now just about healed, and she no longer had to use a walking stick. Thinking about her husband, she found it increasingly hard to control her impatience.
Towards evening, they arrived at the town of Willow Springs. Luo Bing wanted to keep going, but Xu remembered Chen's orders. "Even if we weren't tired, the horses just can't do it!" he pointed out.
Luo Bing reluctantly agreed, and they found rooms in an inn for the night, but she tossed and turned unable to sleep. In the middle of the night, she heard a pitter-patter sound outside the windows as it started to rain and suddenly remembered how she and Wen had received an order from the old Master soon after their marriage to go to Jiaxing to save a widow who was being persecuted by a local ruffian. They completed the assignment, and spent the evening at the Misty Rain Tavern on the South Lake, drinking wine and enjoying the rain. Wen held his new wife's hand and sung songs at the top of his voice as he tapped out the rhythm with his sword on the severed head of the ruffian. Her memories of the scene flooded back as she listened to the rain on the window.
"Brother Xu does not want to travel fast because of Lord Zhou and his daughter," she thought. "Perhaps I should go on ahead first?"
Once the idea had occurred to her, it was impossible to ignore and she immediately got up, picked up her swords and left a message to Xu in charcoal on the table. Zhou Qi was sleeping in the same room and, afraid that opening the door would awaken her, she quietly opened the window and jumped out. She went to the stables and found her horse, then threw on an oil-skin raincoat and galloped off eastwards. She hardly noticed the raindrops as they struck her hot cheeks.
At dawn, she stopped briefly in a town. Her mount was exhausted, and she had no alternative but to rest for an hour. Then she raced on another ten or fifteen miles. Suddenly the horse stumbled on one of its front hooves. She frantically pulled in the reins, and luckily the animal did not fall. But she knew that if she kept up such a pace, it would die from exhaustion, and so she was forced to proceed much more slowly.
She hadn't gone far when she heard the sound of a horse behind her. She turned and saw a white horse which caught up with her almost as soon as she heard it, and flew past. It was so swift, she had no opportunity to even see what it's rider looked like.
Soon after, she arrived in a small village and saw the snow-white horse standing under the eaves of a house as a man brushed its coat, its hoar-frost coloured mane stirring in the wind. It was tall, with long legs and an extraordinary spirit and as Luo Bing approached, it neighed loudly, causing her mount to retreat a few steps in fright.
"If I rode this fine horse," she thought, "I would catch up with Fourth Brother in no time at all. Its master will certainly be unwilling to sell it, so I'll just have to take it."
She slapped her mount and charged forward. A throwing knife flew out of her hand, and severed the white horse's reins, then holding her bag with her left hand, she leapt from her own horse onto the back of the white horse. The magnificent animal started in fright and neighed loudly again, then, like an arrow loosed from a bow, galloped off down the road.
The horse's owner was taken completely by surprise, but after a second's hesitation, he raced after her. Luo Bing had already gone some distance, but seeing him giving chase, she reined in the horse, took a gold ingot out of her bag and threw it at him.
"We've exchanged horses," she shouted. "But yours is better than mine, so I'll compensate you with this gold!" She gave a captivating smile, and with a slight press from her thighs, the white horse shot forward. The wind whistled by her ears and the trees on either side fell behind her row by row. She rode for over an hour, and the horse still showed no signs of fatigue, his hooves prancing high as he galloped along. Soon, fertile fields began to appear along the side of the road, and she arrived in a large town. She dismounted and went to a restaurant to rest for a while, and in reply to her question, she was told the town was called Sandy Wells, and was more than twenty miles from the place where she had stolen the horse.
The more she looked at the animal, the more she liked it. She fed him hay herself and stroked its coat affectionately. As she did so, she saw a cloth bag hanging from the saddle. Opening it up, she found an Iron Pipa inside.
"So the horse belongs to someone from the Iron Pipa School of Luoyang," she thought. "This could cause some trouble."
She put her hand into the bag again and pulled out twenty or thirty taels of silver coins and a letter inscribed with the words: "To be opened only by Master Han Wenchong. Sealed by Master Wang." The envelope was open, and as she unfolded the letter, she saw it was signed: "Yours sincerely, Weiyang".
She started slightly in surprise. "So the fellow is connected with Wang Weiyang of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," she thought. "We still have to get even with them, so stealing this horse could be considered part payment. If I had known earlier, I wouldn't have given him a gold ingot."
She looked again at the letter and saw it urged Han to meet up as soon as possible with the Zhen Yuan agency's Yan brothers and assist them in protecting an important item being brought back to Beijing. Then Han was to help escort something to south China. It added that Han should suspend his investigation into whether or not 'Guandong Devil' Jiao Wenqi had been killed by the Red Flower Society, and resume it at some future time.
"Jiao Wenqi was also a member of the Iron Pipa School in Luoyang," Luo Bing thought. "It's rumoured that he was killed by the Red Flower Society, but in fact it was not so. I wonder what the important item is that the Zhen Yuan Agency is escorting? After Fourth Brother is rescued, we can go and collect it together."
Very happy at this thought, she finished her noodles, mounted up and sped off again. The rain continued to fall, sometimes light, sometimes heavy. The horse galloped like the wind, and she lost count of how many horses and carts they overtook.
"This horse is going so fast, if the others ahead are resting for a while, I might miss them altogether by just blinking," she thought.
Just then, someone slipped out from the side of the road and waved. The horse stopped instantly in mid-gallop and backed up several paces. The man bowed before her.
"Mistresss Wen," he said. "The Young Master is here." It was Great Helmsman Chen's attendant, Xin Yan.
Xin Yan walked over and took the horse's reins. "Where did you buy such a good horse?" he asked in admiration. "I nearly missed you."
Luo Bing smiled. "Is there any news about Fourth Brother?" she asked.
"The Twin Knights say they have seen him. Everyone's in there." He pointed to a small, decrepit temple by the side of the road.
"Look after the horse for me," she said. Inside, seated in the temple's main hall were Chen, the Twin Knights and the other heroes. Seeing her entering, they all stood and warmly welcomed her. Luo Bing bowed before Chen and explained that she had been too impatient to wait for the others, and hoped that he would forgive her.
"Your concern for Fourth Brother is understandable," Chen said. "As to your failure to follow orders, we will discuss a penalty when we have rescued him. Twelfth Brother, please make a note of it." 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi nodded.
Luo Bing smiled like a flower and turned to the Twin Knights. "Have you seen Fourth Brother? How is he? Is he suffering?"
"We caught up with him and his escort last night at Twin Wells," one of them replied. "But the Turtles were many and we didn't take any action for fear of alerting them. I went to a window to have a look and saw Fourth Brother lying on a kang resting. He didn't see me."
"The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency Turtles and the Eagle's Claws are all in it together," said the other. "By my count, they have ten first-class martial arts masters among them."
The Twin Knights were from Sichuan, and often used the slang of their home province when they cursed people, calling them 'Turtles'.
As they were speaking, 'Scholar' Yu came into the temple. He flinched on seeing Luo Bing, then made a report to Chen.
"The Muslims have set up tents beside the stream ahead of us," he said. "The guards are carrying swords and spears and look very formidable. I couldn't get close during daylight, but we could go and investigate again when it gets dark."
Suddenly, they heard the sound of a column of men and animals pass by outside the temple. Xin Yan dashed in and reported: "A large train of mules, horses and carts has just passed escorted by twenty government soldiers with a military official in command." As soon as he had finished, he left to resume his guard.
Chen discussed the situation with the others. "There are very few people in the area to the east of here, which is perfect for our operation. But we don't know what the Muslims and this column of government troops are doing. When we make our move to rescue Fourth Brother, they may try to interfere."
"We have all heard much about the famous 'Fire Hand Judge', Zhang Zhaozhong," said Priest Wu Chen. "He was in command of this operation to capture Fourth Brother, so let me fight him."
" All right," Chen said. "We cannot let him escape."
"It's lucky that Master Lu isn't here yet," said 'Buddha' Zhao. "It would perhaps be difficult for us to kill Zhang before his very eyes. After all, he is his martial brother."
"Well then, we should act quickly," one of the Twin Knights added. "I estimate we should catch up with them by early tomorrow morning."
"Right," said Chen. "Please tell us in detail what you know so that we will know what to expect tomorrow."
"At night, Fourth Brother sleeps in the same house as the Eagle's Claws, and during the day, rides in a carriage with his hands and feet manacled," one replied. "The carriage curtains are kept tightly closed, and two Turtles ride on either side."
"What does this man Zhang look like?" Priest Wu Chen asked.
"He's about forty years old, tall and robust with a thick short beard. Damn his ancestors, he looks very good."
They were all eager for the fight, but there was nothing they could do but wait. They ate some dry rations and then asked the Great Helmsman to give his orders.
"That group of Muslims is unlikely to be in collusion with the Eagle's Claws," he said. "Once we have rescued Fourth Brother there is no need for us to take any more notice of them. Brother Yu, you and Thirteenth Brother will be in charge of obstructing that military official and his twenty troops. Bloodshed isn't necessary, just don't allow them to interfere." Yu and 'Crocodile' Jiang nodded.
"Ninth Brother, Twelth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Leopard' Wei and 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "You two overtake the Eagle's Claws, and set up guard at the mouth of the gorge as early as possible tomorrow. The Eagle's Claws must not be allowed to escape." Wei and Shi left the temple and rode off.
"Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights: the three of you deal with the Imperial Bodyguards; Third Brother, Eighth Brother, you two deal with the Bodyguard Agency fellows. Fourth Sister and Xin Yan will make straight for the carriage. I will coordinate and give assistance to whichever group encounters problems. Brother Zhang Jin, you stay here and keep guard. If any government troops come by heading east, you must think of some way to stop them."
The forces having been divided up, the heroes left the temple, mounted up and waved farewell to Zhang Jin.
When they saw Luo Bing's white horse, they all tutted in approval. "I should have presented it to the Great Helmsman," she thought." But Fourth Brother has suffered so much, I'll give it to him after he's been rescued."
"Where are the Muslims camped?" Chen asked Yu. "We can circle round and have a look."
Yu led the way, but as they approached the wide space where the Muslims had been, they could see that the tents and people were gone, leaving only piles of mule and horse droppings.
"Let's go!" Chen said. They spurred their horses forward and galloped off along the road. Luo Bing's horse was so fast that she had to stop occasionally to let the others catch up with her. As dawn broke, they came to the banks of a small stream.
"Brothers," Chen said. "We will stop here and let the horses drink some water and recover their strength. We should be able to catch up with Fourth Brother in another two hours."
Luo Bing's blood surged and her cheeks reddened. Yu saw her expression and he walked slowly over to her.
"Sister Luo Bing," he said quietly.
"I am willing to give up my life to rescue Fourth Brother for you," he said.
She smiled slightly. "That's being a good brother," she sighed.
Yu quickly turned away.
"Fourth Sister," said Chen, "Lend your horse to Xin Yan and let him go on ahead to investigate."
Xin Yan mounted the white horse and flew off.
The others waited until their horses had drunk their fill, then mounted up and raced away. Not long after, with the sky already light, they saw Xin Yan riding back towards them.
"The Eagle's Claws are just ahead," he shouted.
Their spirits rose a hundred-fold and they charged forward with renewed vigour. Xin Yan and Luo Bing exchanged horses.
"Did you see Fourth Brother's carriage?" she asked.
Xin Yan nodded excitedly. "Yes! I rode close to the side of the carriage hoping to get a look inside but the Eagle's Claws raised their swords to scare me off."
The group galloped on, the horses' hooves sounding like thunder. A large line of men and horses came into sight ahead, and they saw it was the column escorted by government soldiers.
"Fourth Brother's carriage is another two miles further on," Xin Yan said to Chen. They spurred on their horses and overtook the column. Once passed, 'Crocodile' Jiang and Yu turned their mounts around to block the road.
Yu saluted the government troops as they caught up. "Good sirs, you are working too hard," he said politely. "The scenery here is excellent, and the weather is exceptionally clear. Why don't we all sit down and have a chat?"
"Out of the way!" shouted one of the Manchu soldiers at the front. "This is the family of Commander-in-chief Li."
"His family? Well, that's even more reason for having a rest. There's a pair called Black Death and White Death in front of us, and we wouldn't want to frighten the ladies."
Another of the soldiers flourished his horse whip and cracked it in Yu's direction. "You destitute scholar! Stop your nonsense," he shouted.
Yu laughed and dodged out of the way. The commanding officer of the escort rode forward and loudly asked what was going on.
Yu brought his hands together in salute. "What is your respected surname?" he enquired.
The officer could see that Yu and Jiang were not reputable men and hesitated to answer.
Yu took out his golden flute. "I have a rudimentary knowledge of music," he said. "I often lament how rarely I come across people with discerning musical tastes. You, sir, have a dignified appearance. Please dismount and rest while I play you a tune to alleviate the loneliness of the journey, what do you say?"
The officer was Deng Tunan, escorting Commander Li Keshou's family to Hangzhou. He started in surprise when he saw the golden flute, and remembered what he had heard of the fight in the inn that day between the Yamen officers and a scholar with a golden flute. "Let each go his own road," he shouted. "Please make way!"
"I know ten songs," said Yu. "Some are impassioned and rousing, some are sweet and captivating, but all are melodic. I haven't played them for a long time, but this chance meeting with such an esteemed gentleman as yourself has made me eager to show off my talents."
He lifted the golden flute to his mouth and a series of beautiful notes rose clear and sharp into the sky.
Officer Deng could see that the affair could not be concluded amicably. He raised his spear and threw it straight at Yu who continued to play until the tip was almost upon him. Then his left hand shot out and grabbed the spear then struck it with the golden flute, snapping it in two.
Deng was startled. Reining in his horse, he backed up several paces, snatched a sword from one of the soldiers and charged forward again. He fought Yu through seven or eight moves, then Yu found an opening: the golden flute struck Deng's right arm, and the sword flew out of his hand.
"You really ought to listen to these ten songs of mine," Yu said. He put the flute to his lips, and started to play once more.
Deng waved his hand at his soldiers. "Seize this fellow!" He roared. The soldiers swept forward, shouting and yelling as they came.
'Crocodile' Jiang leapt off his horse brandishing his iron oar, and with a 'Stirring The Grass To Find The Snake' move, tapped the first soldier lightly on the legs, toppling him onto the oar, then swung the oar upwards, and deposited him into the crowd of his comrades. He scooped and dumped one Manchu soldier after another as if shovelling earth, and the soldiers behind yelled out in fear and retreated.
Just then, the curtain on a large carriage the soldiers were escorting suddenly parted, and a girl dressed in red and holding a glistening sword lunged at him. Jiang's oar struck powerfully at the blade, and the girl, seeing the strength behind it, leapt back. Jiang was a Cantonese with a thick accent, and he had found that few people outside his native province understood what he said. As a result, he had never been a great talker. He flourished his oar and began to fight with her without saying a word. He was surprised to discover that her swordsmanship was excellent.
Yu looked on from the side. He had forgotten all about playing the flute and was engrossed in watching the young girl who was using the traditional Soft Cloud Sword style of his own school.
He leapt forward and stuck his golden flute in between their weapons, separating them. "Stop!" he shouted.
The girl and Jiang both retreated a step. By this time, Officer Deng had found another spear and was spurring his horse forward, but the girl ordered him to stay back.
"What is your esteemed name, mistress, and who is your honourable teacher?" Yu asked.
"I don't feel like telling you," the girl replied with a smile. "But I do know that you are 'Scholar' Yu, and that you are a member of the Red Flower Society."
Yu and Jiang looked at each other in surprise. Officer Deng was even more astonished at the sight of his commander-in-chief's daughter joking with these notorious bandits.
The three startled men were looking at the laughing girl not knowing what to say, when they heard horses approaching. The Manchu soldiers parted and six horses raced up from the west. The front rider was Lu Feiqing. Yu and the girl, who was of course Li Yuanzhi, both greeted him, one calling him Uncle and the other Teacher.
Behind Lu came Zhou, the two groups having met on the road.
"Yuanzhi, what are you doing here with Brother Yu and Brother Jiang?" Lu asked.
"Brother Yu insisted on us listening to him play the flute," she replied with a smile. "We didn't feel like listening but he wouldn't let us leave."
"There is a dangerous situation ahead," Lu said to Yuanzhi. "It would be best if you all stay here so as not to frighten Madame. When this business is finished, I will come and find you."
Yuanzhi pouted angrily at being forbidden from going to watch the fun, but Lu took no further notice of her, saluted the others and rode on eastwards.
The heroes galloped on after Wen. After a while, they noticed in the distance a column of men and horses strung out over the flat plain. Priest Wu Chen drew his sword and roared: "Chase them!" The figures in front gradually grew larger. Luo Bing's white horse raced round to the front, and in the wink of an eye, she had caught up with the column. With her twin swords in hand, she prepared to overtake it, then block its path. But suddenly, shouts rose from in front, and several dozen Muslims riding camels and horses raced towards them from the east.
This was completely unexpected, and Luo Bing reined in her horse and stopped to see what the Muslims were doing. By now, the Imperial officers and the Bodyguard Agency men had also halted, and gazed in consternation at the Muslims as they bore down on them, sabres glinting in the sun.
Chen ordered the heroes to halt to watch the fight. Suddenly, they saw a rider skirt round the battle and race straight towards them. As he approached, they recognised him as 'Leopard' Wei. He rode up to Chen.
"Great Helmsman," he said breathlessly. "We set up guard at the mouth of the gorge, but this group of Muslims broke past us. There was no way of stopping them, but now they're attacking the Eagle's Claws. It's very strange."
"Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother Zhao, and the Twin Knights," Chen said. "The four of you go and get Fourth Brother's carriage away. The rest of us will wait and see how things develop."
The four heroes galloped off.
"Who are you?" the Imperial officers shouted as they approached. Zhao didn't bother to answer. Two steel darts left his hands, and two of the officers fell dead from their horses. Zhao was nicknamed the 'Thousand Arm Buddha' because he had a kindly face and a soft heart, and was also a master of all types of darts, which he kept secreted around his body.
As the four heroes approached the carriage, a white turbaned Muslim struck out at them with his spear, but they dodged past him, and attacked the bodyguard agency lead escorts who were guarding the carriage. One of the escorts swung his sword at Priest Wu Chen, who blocked the stroke with his own sword, which slid down the other's blade as fast as lightning and sliced off all his fingers then plunged into his heart. He heard the sound of another blade cleaving towards his back, and without turning, drove his sword up and back so that the blade sliced his attacker in half from left armpit to right shoulder.
Seeing Priest Wu Chen's frightening swordsmanship and two of their own men killed before completing even one move, the other lead escorts' courage broke and they scattered.
Zhao raced up to the carriage and pulled up the carriage curtain to look inside. In the darkness, he could dimly make out a figure wrapped in a coverlet.
"Fourth Brother!" he shouted happily.
"You take Fourth Brother back and I'll go and look for Zhang Zhaozhong to settle acounts with him" Priest Wu Chen said, riding up. He spurred his horse forward and charged into the crowd of fleeing lead escorts and Imperial officers.
"'Firehand Judge' Zhang! Come out and face me!" he called over and over, but no-one answered him.
The Red Flower Society fighters were overjoyed to see Zhao accompanying the carriage back, and all raced up to meet him. Luo Bing galloped into the lead and up to the carriage, jumped off her horse and pulled aside the carriage curtain.
"Fourth Brother!" she called out shakily, but the figure inside made no sound. Startled, Luo Bing leapt in and pulled off the coverlet. By this time, the heroes had all dismounted and were standing closely about, watching.
Meanwhile, a fierce battle was raging between the Muslims on one side and the Imperial officers and lead escorts on the other. Priest Wu Chen continued to move backwards and forwards through the crowd, searching for Zhang. All of a sudden, a horse charged out in front of him, its rider a huge Muslim with a thick beard covering his face.
"Where does this wild reckless priest come from?" he shouted.
The priest replied with a stroke from his sword, and the Muslim raised his sabre to parry the blow. Priest Wu Chen countered with two strokes to the left and right, incomparably fast, and in panic, the Muslim lunged backwards, hooked his right foot into the stirrup and rolled beneath the horse's belly, then urged his horse forward and escaped while still hiding beneath the animal.
"Managing to avoid three strokes from my sword is not bad," Priest Wu Chen smiled. "I'll spare your life." He charged back into the battle.
Meanwhile, Luo Bing pulled the man out of the carriage and threw him on the ground. "Master Wen!" she shouted. "Where is he?" Even before she had finished speaking, tears were coursing down her face.
They saw the man was old and wizened, dressed as a Yamen officer with his right hand in a sling. Luo Bing recognised him as the Officer Wu from Beijing whose right arm had been broken by Wen at the inn. She gave him a kick, and wanted to question him again, but her voice failed her.
'Leopard' Wei put one of his steel hooks close to Wu's right eye, and shouted: "Where is Master Wen? If you don't talk I'll put out this eye for a start!"
"Zhang Zhaozhong took him off a long time ago," Wu replied sullenly. "He told me to ride in the carriage. I thought he was being nice and giving me a chance to rest my arm, but he was using me, setting me up while he himself goes to Beijing and collects all the honours. Damn him!"
By this time, all the heroes were standing round the carriage.
"Gather all the Eagle's Claws and lead escorts together and don't let any of them get away!" Chen called out.
The heroes encircled the Yamen officers and the Bodyguard Agency men, who were still fighting furiously with the Muslims. 'Buddha' Zhao waved both his hands and three darts shot out, simultaneously felling two officers and one lead escort.
The Muslims realised the Red Flower Society heroes were friends, and they gave a great cheer. The large Muslim with the thick whiskers galloped forward and shouted: "I don't know who you are, but you who have drawn your weapons to assist us, and I thank you." He raised his sword in salute.
Chen returned the salute. "Brothers, let's all take part!" he shouted, and the heroes rushed at the enemy, all except for Luo Bing, who was too confused to care.
By this time, most of the good fighters amongst the Yamen officers and lead escorts were either dead or seriously wounded, and many of their number were kneeling on the ground begging for mercy as the battle continued.
Suddenly, Priest Wu Chen galloped out of the melee, and shouted to the heroes: "Come and look! This young girl's swordmanship isn't bad!"
They all knew that the Priest's skill with a sword was unrivalled throughout the land, so hearing him praise another's swordsmanship, and a girl's at that, they all pressed in to watch. The thickly-whiskered Muslim shouted a few phrases in the Muslim language, and the other Muslims gave way and made a place in the circle for the Red Flower Society fighters.
Chen looked into the centre of the circle and saw a girl in yellow robes fighting closely with a short, stocky man wielding a pair of Five Elements Wheels. On his back was a red knapsack.
"The girl is named Huo Qingtong," Lu said to Chen. "She's a pupil of the Tianshan Twin Eagles. The man using the Five Elements Wheels is surnamed Yan. He's one of the Six Guandong Devils."
Chen started in surprise. He knew that the Tianshan Twin Eagles were leading members of the fighting community in the Muslim border regions, and also that relations between them and his own teacher, Master Yuan, were strained. Focussing his attention on the duel, he saw the yellow-robed girl attack ferociously with her sword, but Yan withstood the onslaught with the help of his Five Element Wheels. The Muslims shouted their support and some edged in closer, obviously eager to intervene to help the girl.
Yan parried and attacked, then suddenly retreated a step. "Hold it," he shouted. "There's something I want to say."
The Muslims moved up even closer, and it looked as though he would be carved up before he chance to say anything. Yan shifted both wheels to his left hand and grabbed the red knapsack off his back. He held the wheels up high.
"If you are going to rely on numbers to beat me, I'll cut up the knapsack now," he shouted.
The razor-sharp teeth of the Five Element Wheels twinkled, and the Muslims, greatly afraid, retreated.
"There are many of you," he shouted. "Taking my life would be as easy as turning your hand over. But I will never surrender unless it is a one-to-one fight. If anyone of you can defeat me singlehandedly, I will freely hand over the knapsack. Otherwise I would prefer to take it with me."
Zhou Qi leapt into the circle. "Right," she yelled. "Let's match ourselves against each other." She brandished her sword, ready to charge forward, but Huo Qingtong shook her head.
"Thank you, sister, but I will fight first," she said. "If I cannot beat him, I will invite you to lend me a hand."
"The knapsack contains something that is very precious to this Muslim tribe," Lu Feiqing interrupted. "She must recover it with her own hands."
Yan slung the knapsack onto his back. "Who's going to come against me, then?"
"No matter what the outcome, you will give up the Sacred Book," Huo Qingtong said to him. "If you win, you will be allowed to leave. If you lose, you will give up your life as well."
Her sword cut in from the side, thrusting at his left shoulder, and Yan countered using the sixty-four moves of the combined Five Elements and Eight Diagrams styles, which are designed to wrest away an opponent's weapon while maintaining a very tight defence.
Chen motioned 'Scholar' Yu over. "Fourteenth Brother, go immediately and find out what happened to Brother Wen. We will follow after you," he said.
Yu nodded and retreated from the circle. He glanced over at Luo Bing and saw her looking dazed. He wanted to go over and comfort her, but changed his mind and galloped off.
Huo Qingtong attacked again using a slightly faster sword style. Yan, who had been trying to seal off her sword with his wheels, now found this impossible.
After another twenty or so moves, Huo Qingtong's cheeks began to flush slightly and small beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. But she was full of spirit and her footwork never faltered. Her sword style suddenly changed to the Tianshan School 's Mirage technique, combining feint with force. The heroes held their breaths, completely absorbed. Suddenly, Huo Qingtong's blade slashed forward and struck Yan's right wrist. He cried out in fright and dropped the wheel in his right hand as the crowd roared in unison.
Yan leapt back wards. "I accept defeat! The Sacred Book is yours!" he cried and began to undo the red knapsack on his back. An expression of joy filled Huo Qingtong's face and she replaced her sword in its scabbard and moved forward to accept the Koran which her tribe held so sacred. But as she approached, Yan waved his right hand and three darts flew towards her chest. She had no time to dodge out of the way, so with an ' Iron-Plated Bridge ' move, she bent straight over backwards and the darts flew just over her face. Having started, Yan could not stop half way, so he quickly followed with three more darts. At that moment, Huo Qingtong was facing the sky, and was unaware of the disaster that was about to strike. The onlookers gasped in fear and anger.
As she straightened up again, she heard three noises, "Ding, Ding, Ding," as the three darts were hit by three projectiles and fell to the ground by her feet. She broke into a cold sweat and quickly re-drew her sword. Yan lunged forward with all the power of a crazed tiger and his Five Elements Wheel smashed straight down at her. With no time to escape, all the girl could do was to raise her sword and solidly block the stroke. For a while, they were deadlocked. But Yan was very strong, and the Five Elements Wheel slowly pressed down towards her head until the sharp blades on the wheel were touching the turquoise feather on her cap. The heroes were about to move forward to assist her when there was a flash of blue as Huo Qingtong drew a dagger from her waist with her free hand and rammed it into Yan's belly. He cried out once, then toppled over backwards, dead. The crowd cheered as one in approval.
Huo Qingtong untied the knapsack from Yan's back. The black-whiskered Muslim walked over to her, praising her and calling her "Good Child". She held the knapsack in both her hands and presented it to him with a modest smile. "Papa," she said. He took the knapsack and the cheering crowd of Muslims pressed forward.
Huo Qingting saw a boy jump off his horse, pick up three round white objects from the ground and present them on his palm to a young man in the crowd, who picked them up and put them in his bag.
"It must have been him who deflected that villain's darts and saved my life," she thought. She took a closer look at the young man and saw that he was graceful and charming. He wore a light gown tied loosely around the waist and fanned himself with a folding fan. Their eyes met, and he smiled at her. Blushing, she lowered her head. She ran over to her father and whispered into his ear. Her father, who was named Muzhuolun, nodded, walked over to the young man and bowed before him. The young man hurriedly dismounted and returned the bow.
"Thank you sir, for saving my daughter's life," Muzhuolun said. "I am extremely grateful to you. May I ask your honourable name?"
"My name is Chen Jialuo," he said. "We have a sworn brother whom we thought was being held captive by this band of Eagle's Claws and came here to save him, but he is not here. However, the fact that you have recovered your honourable tribe's Sacred Book is very pleasing."
Muzhuolun called his son, Huo Yayi, and his daughter over, and the three bowed before Chen in thanks.
The son had a square face, large ears and a thick beard. His sister, on the other hand was very graceful: as delicate as a spring flower. Earlier, Chen had concentrated on watching her sword style, but now with her standing close to him, he found his heart beating fast at the wonder that such a perfect girl could exist.
"If you had not saved me, I would have fallen victim to his cunning designs," Huo Qingtong said quietly. "Such great kindness, I would never forget."
"Please, there is no need for thanks," Chen replied. "I am already fortunate that you are not offended by my interference. I have long heard that the Three Part Sword Style of the Twin Eagles of Tianshan was the most advanced of their time. The style truly lives up to its reputation."
Huo Qingtong held a low-voiced discussion with her father, who nodded rapidly. "Yes, yes," he said. "That is what we should do." He walked over to Chen.
"Thanks to your assistance, our business has now been completed," he said. "I heard you mention that you have to rescue one of your number, and I would like to order my son and daughter together with several companions to act under you to help save him. Their kung fu is poor and they will probably of little use, but they may be helpful running errands and the like. Will you give your permission, sir?"
"That is very good of you," Chen replied, and immediately introduced the other members of the Red Flower Society to him.
"Your swordsmanship is extraordinarily fast," Muzhuolun said to Priest Wu Chen. "I have never in my life seen anything like it. It is lucky your hand was stayed by mercy, otherwise… hah…"
"I must beg your pardon," the priest replied with a smile. "I hope you won't take offence."
While they were talking, a horse galloped up from the west. A youngster dismounted and address Lu Feiqing as "teacher". It was Li Yuanzhi who by this time had changed into her boy's clothes. She caught sight of Huo Qingtong, and ran over and grasped her hand.
"Where did you go that night?" Yuanzhi asked. "I was worried to death about you! Did you get the Sacred Book back?"
"We just recovered it," Huo Qingtong said happily. "Look." She pointed at the red knapsack now on her brother's back.
"Have you opened it to have a look? Is the Sacred Book inside?"
Huo Qingtong nodded and hurriedly undid the knapsack. Inside, was a pile of waste paper.
Muzhuolun grabbed a bodyguard agency caller who was squatting on the ground and boxed his ears. "Where has the Sacred Book gone?" he roared.
"I don't know anything…about what the lead escorts do," he mumbled, and pointed at Lead Escort Qian who was sitting with his head in his hands. Qian had received several light wounds in the confused battle, and had surrendered after most of the others were killed. Muzhuolun dragged him over.
"Friend," he said. "Do you want to die or live?"
Qian said nothing. Muzhuolun angrily raised his hand to strike him.
"The other lead escorts took the book with them," Qian said.
Muzhuolun was skeptical and ordered his subordinates to search the mule train thoroughly, but they found no trace of it. He now realised why Yan had been unwilling to hand over the knapsack.
Meanwhile, Yuanzhi was questioning Lu on what had happened since they had parted. "I`ll tell you about it later," he replied. "Go back now, your mother will be worried about you. Don't say anything about what you've seen here."
"Of course," she said. "But who are these people? Introduce me to them."
Lu considered Yuanzhi's position as the daughter of a provincial commander-in-chief and decided it would be better not to. "I don't think it's necessary," he said.
Yuanzhi pouted. "I know you don't like me," she said. "You prefer that martial nephew of yours, 'Golden Flute Scholar', or whatever he's called. Anyway, I'm leaving."
She mounted her horse, galloped over to Huo Qingtong, bent down and embraced her shoulder, then whispered a few words into her ear. Huo Qingtong laughed, and Yuanzhi spurred her horse forward and raced off back the way she had come.
Chen had watched the whole incident, and was astonished to see Huo Qingtong being so familiar with this handsome youngster. Conflicting feelings swept through his heart and he stood staring dumbly, a vacant expression on his face.
"Great Helmsman," Xu said, walking over. "Let's discuss how we are going to save Fourth Brother."
Chen started, and then collected his thoughts. "That's right," he said. "Xin Yan, you ride Sister Luo Bing's horse and go and get Brother Zhang Jin." Xin Yan nodded and left.
"Ninth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Leopard' Wei. "Patrol around and look for indications of where the Eagle's Claws are. Come back this evening to report." Wei likewise assented and left.
"We will camp here tonight," Chen said to the rest. "We can resume the chase early tomorrow morning."
After all the hard riding and fighting they had done that day, they were all hungry and tired. Muzhuolun directed his Muslims to erect tents by the side of the road, set aside several for the use of the Red Flower Society heroes and also sent over cooked beef and mutton for them to eat.
When they had finished, Chen ordered Officer Wu to be brought in, and questioned him closely. Wu cursed Zhang Zhaozhong bitterly. He said that at first, Wen had been seated in the carriage, but that once Zhang realised they were being followed, he, Wu, had been told to sit in the carriage instead as a decoy. Chen also interrogated the other lead escorts, but failed to learn anything new.
Xu waited until the prisoners had been led out of the tent and then said to Chen: "Great Helmsman, Lead Escort Qian has a cunning gleam in his eye. Let's test him out."
"All right," Chen replied.
Night fell, but still Wei and Shi did not return to report, and the others became worried about them.
"They probably discovered which way Fourth Brother is going and are following after him," Xu said. It's not such bad news." The others nodded, and soon went off to sleep in the tents. The lead escorts and the Yamen officers were all bound hand and foot and placed outside with 'Crocodile' Jiang guarding them.
The moon rose, and Xu emerged from his tent and told Jiang to go in and sleep. He walked round in a great circle then went over to where Lead Escort Qian was sleeping. He sat down and wrapped himself in a blanket, treading heavily on Qian's thigh as he did so. Qian woke with a start. Not long after, Xu began snoring lightly, and Qian's heart leapt for joy. The rope had not been knotted tightly, and after a short struggle, he managed to wrench himself free. He held his breath, not daring to move. Xu's snoring grew heavier, so he quietly undid the rope binding his legs, stood up and tip-toed away. He went behind the tents, untied the reins of a horse from a wooden post and walked slowly to the road. He stood listening very carefully, but there was not a sound to be heard. He started walking again, gradually quickening his pace, until he arrived beside the carriage in which Officer Wu had sat.
Zhou Qi woke with a start as she heard a noise outside the tent. She lifted the foot of the canvas and saw a figure walking stealthily towards the road. She picked up her sword and raced out of the tent, and was just about to call out when someone grabbed her from behind and covered her mouth.
Very frightened, she struck backwards with her sword, but her assailant was very agile, grabbed her wrist and forced the sword away, whispering: "Don't make a sound, Mistress Zhou. It's me, Xu."
Zhou Qi no longer tried to make use of the sword, but she struck him solidly on the chest with her fist. Half in pain and half in pretence, Xu grunted and toppled over backwards.
"What did you do that for?" she hissed. "Someone's trying to escape, did you see?"
"Don't make any noise," he whispered back. "Let's watch him."
They crawled slowly forward and watched as Qian lifted up the cushions in the carriage. There were two sharp cracks as if he was prying planks apart, then he emerged with a box which he stuffed into his gown. He was about to mount his horse when Xu slapped Zhou Qi's back and shouted: "Stop him!" Zhou Qi leapt up and charged forward.
Qian already had one foot in the stirrup when he heard the shout but did not have enough time to mount properly. He gave the horse a savage kick on the rump, and the animal, startled by the pain, galloped off. Qian started to laugh triumphantly, but then suddenly tumbled off the horse onto the ground.
Zhou Qi ran up to him, placed a foot on his back and pointed the tip of her sword at his neck.
"See what that box in his gown is," said Xu as he ran up. Zhou Qi pulled out the box, opened it up and saw inside a thick pile of sheep skins bound in the form of a book. She flipped through it under the moonlight, but it was composed completely of strange characters that she did not recognize.
"It's more of your Red Flower Society's scribblings. I wouldn't understand it," she said, and threw it casually at Xu.
Xu caught it and looked at it. "Mistress Zhou," he exclaimed. "This is a great achievement on your part. I think it's the Muslims' Sacred Book. Let's go and find the Great Helmsman quickly."
"Really?" she asked. She saw Chen coming up to meet them. "Brother Chen, you've come out as well. What do you think this thing is?"
Xu passed the wooden box over, and Chen looked inside. "It is almost certainly their Sacred Book," he said. "It's fortunate that you managed to stop that fellow, Mistress Zhou."
Zhou Qi was very pleased to hear them praising her. After a moment, she asked Xu: "Did I hurt you when I hit you just now?"
"You are very strong," he replied with a smile.
"It was your own fault," she said, and turned to Lead Escort Qian. "Get up, we're going back," she added.
She took her foot off Qian's back, but he did not move. "What are you playing dead for? I didn't hurt you," she scolded him. She kicked him lightly once, but Qian still didn't budge.
Chen pinched him beneath his armpit and shouted: "Stand up!", and Qian slowly clambered upright. Zhou Qi stood thinking for a second, and then realised what had happened. She searched around on the ground and found a white chess piece.
"Your Encirclement Chess piece!" she said, handing it back to Chen. "You cheated me. Huh! I knew you weren't good men."
"How did we cheat you?" asked Chen with a smile. "It was you that heard this fellow and chased after him."
Zhou Qi saw the perfect logic of this and was delighted. "Well, all three of us share the merit." she said.
The three, escorting Qian and carrying the Sacred Book, walked over to Muzhuolun's tent. As soon as the four night-guards passed on their message, Muzhuolun came out, hastily throwing on his gown, and invited them inside.
Chen told him what had happened and handed over the Sacred Book, Muzhuolun was overjoyed, and in a moment, all the Muslims crowded into the tent and bowed respectfully before Xu, Chen and Zhou Qi.
"Master Chen," Muzhuolun said. "You have recovered my tribe's Sacred Book. To express our thanks is not enough. If there is ever anything you want us to do, simply let us know, and even if it means crossing a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers, will still hurry to your assistance. There is no task we would refuse.
"Tomorrow I will go home with the Sacred Book and will leave my son and daughter here under your direction, Master Chen. Please allow them to return after Master Wen has been rescued."
Chen hesitated for a second before replying. "It would be best if your son and daughter went home with you. We are very moved by your goodwill, your Lordship, but we really have no right to bother them in such a way."
Muzhuolun was surprised by Chen's refusal, and tried several times to convince him to change his mind, but Chen was adament.
"Father!" Huo Qingting called, and shook her head slightly.
The rest of the Red Flower Society heroes entered the tent and congratulated Muzhuolun. The tent was now full to bursting, and the mass of the Muslims retired outside.
Xu saw Lord Zhou enter. "In the recovery of the Muslims' Sacred Book, it was your daughter who earned the greatest merit," he said.
Zhou looked at his daughter approvingly. Suddenly Xu pressed his hand to his chest and cried out in pain. Everyone turned to look at him.
"What's the matter?" Lord Zhou asked, and Zhou Qi looked on, panic-striken. Xu hesitated, then smiled and said: "It's nothing."
"Right," Zhou Qi thought. "I'll find a way to get back at you sooner or later."
Early next morning, the Muslims and the heroes bade farewell to each other. Zhou Qi took Huo Qingtong's hand. "This young lady is both a nice person and a powerful kung fu fighter," she said to Chen. "Why won't you let her help us save Master Wen?" Chen was speechless for a second.
"Master Chen doesn't want us to risk our lives, and we appreciate his good intentions," Huo Qingtong said. "I have been away from home a long time and miss my mother and sister very much. I would like to get back soon. Goodbye Sister Zhou, we will see each other again."
She waved, pulled round her horse's head and galloped off.
"Look at her," Zhou Qi said to Chen. "She's even crying because you won't let her come with us. You're despicable."
Chen silently watched Huo Qingting as she galloped away. Suddenly, she reined in her horse and turned round. She saw Chen still standing there and bit her lip, then beckoned to him. Chen felt a moment of confusion but immediately went over to her. She jumped off her horse and they stood facing each other for a second, unable to speak.
Huo Qingtong steadied herself. "You saved my life, and we are indebted to you for recovering our tribe's Sacred Book. No matter how you treat me, I will never blame you," she said.
She undid the dagger tied to her waist. "This dagger was given to me by my father. It is said that a great secret is hidden in it, but it has been passed down from hand to hand over the centuries, and no-one has ever been able to discover what it is. I would like you to keep it. Perhaps you will be able to unravel the mystery."
She presented the dagger with both hands, and Chen stretched out both hands to receive it.
"I would not normally dare to accept such a precious object." he said. "But since it is a present from you, it would be disrespectful of me to refuse."
Huo Qingtong saw the desolate look on his face, and found it unbearable. "I understand in my heart why you do not want me to go with you to rescue Master Wen. You saw yesterday how that youngster acted towards me and despise me as a result. The youngster is Master Lu Feiqing's pupil. Go and ask Master Lu, then you can judge whether or not I am a girl with any self-respect."
She leapt onto her horse and galloped away in a cloud of dust.
Chen held the dagger in his hands and stood watching dumbly as Huo Qingtong caught up with the Muslim column and gradually faded towards the horizon. He was about to go and ask Lu Feiqing about his pupil when he noticed a horse galloping towards him fast. As it came closer, he was disappointed to find it was only Xin Yan returning on the white horse.
"Master!" he shouted excitedly. "Master Zhang Jin has a prisoner."
"Who is it?" Chen asked.
"I went to the old temple and found Master Zhang Jin arguing with a man who wanted to pass. The man saw the horse I was ridingand began cursing me as a horse thief and struck out at me with his sword. Master Zhang Jin and I fought with him. His kung fu was really good. He fought the two of us single-handed until finally I picked up some stones and started throwing them at him, and Master Zhang Jin clubbed him on the thigh. It was only then that we managed to capture him."
Chen smiled. "What is his name? What was he doing?"
"We asked him but he wouldn't say. But Master Zhang Jin says he must be a member of the Han School of Luoyang because he was using Iron Pipa Hand Kung Fu."
Zhang Jin galloped up, dismounted and bowed before Chen, then pulled a man off the horse's saddle. He was tied hand and foot, but he stood haughtily, exuding an air of insolence.
"I understand you are a member of the Han School of Luoyang," Chen said. "What is your honourable name?"
The man said nothing.
"Xin Yan, undo this gentleman's bonds," Chen said.
Xin Yan drew his knife and cut the rope that bound the man's hands and legs then stood behind him, his knife at the ready.
"My friends have wronged you, but please do not be offended," Chen said. "Come into my tent and take a seat."
Chen and the man sat on the ground while the other heroes came in and stood behind Chen's back.
When he saw Luo Bing enter, the man's anger flared and he jumped up. "You stole my horse," he shouted, pointing at her.
"So it's Master Han," Luo Bing replied with a smile. "We exchanged horses and I compensated you with a gold ingot. You did very well out of the deal. What are you angry about?"
Chen asked what had happened, and Luo Bing recounted how she had taken the white horse. The others laughed as they listened.
"In that case, we will return the horse to you, Master Han," Chen said. "There is also no need to return the gold ingot. Consider it a token of our respect and as payment for the rental of your horse."
Han was about to reply when Luo Bing said: "Great Helmsman, this won't do. Do you know who he is? He's a Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency man." She pulled out Wang Weiyang's letter and handed it to him.
Chen's eyes flashed down the lines. "The great name of Wang Weiyang has been known to me for a long time, but regrettably I ave never met him," he said. "You are a member of the Han School of Luoyang. What relation are you to Fifth Madame Han?"
"And what is your honourable surname and esteemed name, sir?" Han replied.
Chen smiled. "My surname is Chen, my given name, Jialuo."
Han stood up. "You…you are the son of Chief Minister Chen?" he asked in a quavering voice.
"This is the Great Helmsman of our Red Flower Society," one of the Twin Knights said.
Han slowly sat down again and began weighing up this young Great Helmsman.
"Someone in the underworld started the rumour that our society was connected with the death of one of your school's members," Chen said. "In fact, we know nothing of it. I dispatched one of our brothers to Luoyang to explain the matter, but something came up and he was forced to postpone the trip. So your arrival could not have been better timed, Master Han. I don't know how this rumour started. Can you tell me?"
"You…you're really the son of Chief Minister Chen of Haining?" Han asked.
"Since you know my identity, there is no point in trying to deceive you," Chen replied.
"Your family announced a large reward for finding you after you left home," Han said. "It was said that you had joined the Red Flower Society and had gone to the Muslim border regions. My late comrade Jiao Wenqi was engaged by your family to look for you, but he mysteriously disappeared on the way. That was five years ago. Recently, someone found the Iron Plate and Pipa darts that Brother Jiao used in Shanxi province, and we now know for certain that he was murdered. No-one knows the exact circumstances of his death, but consider, sir: if it wasn't the Red Flower Society, then who did it?"
"I killed Jiao Wenqi," Lu Feiqing interrupted. "I am not amember of the Red Flower Society, so this matter has nothing to do with them."
The others were startled. Lu stood up and told the story of how Jiao had found him one night, how he fought one against three, and had been injured, but had still managed to kill them on the deserted hillside. The heroes listened and then cursed Jiao, saying he was shameless and deserved to die. Han's face darkened but he said nothing.
"If Master Han wishes to avenge his martial brother's death, there is no reason why he should not do so now," Lu said. Heturned to Luo Bing. "Mistress Wen, return Master Han's weapon to him please."
Luo Bing pulled out the Iron Pipa and handed it to Lu.
"Since Jiao was commissioned by the Chen family to find their son, he should have stuck to his mission," Lu said. As he spoke, he absent-mindedly excercised his Inner Strength kung fu on the body of the hollow Iron Pipa, slowly flattening it. "What was he doing using their money to come and give me trouble? Even if we of the fighting community are not able to sacrifice ourselves to save our country from the Manchu barbarians, we should still fight for justice and against those who oppress the people."
His Inner Strength kung fu was extraordinary. His hands rolled the flattened iron plate round so that it was transformed into a tube, and then with a few sqeezes, into an iron club.
"What I detest most are the Manchu court's Eagles' Claws and the bodyguard agency running dogs who use a small knowledge of the martial arts to assist the wicked with their evil deeds."
His voice suddenly hardened and he twisted the iron club into an iron ring.
As Lu talked, Han watched him twist and squeeze his school's famous weapon as if he were making noodles, and was both startled and afraid. He knew that Jiao's kung fu had been about the same standard as his own, and realised that fighting with this old manmeant certain death.
Han's courage had already evaporated and he did not dare to challenge Lu. But although shocked and humbled, he did not wish to appear too cowardly.
"This affair of Jiao Wenqi in fact arose because of me," Chen said. "I will write a letter to my elder brother telling him that Master Jiao found me, but that I was not willing to return home; also, that on his way back, Master Jiao met with an accident and passed away. I will then ask my brother to pay the reward and compensation money to Master Jiao's family."
Han continued to hesitate, and Chen's eyebrows rose. "But if your heart is set upon revenge, then I will fight you myself."
Han shuddered. "I will do exactly as you say, sir," he replied.
"That's a good fellow," Chen said. "One has to be flexible."
He told Xin Yan to hand him his writing brush, instone, ink and writing paper, and using a vigorous calligraphic style, wrote out a letter which Han accepted.
"Master Wang asked me to help escort a cargo back to Beijing and then to escort some treasures the Emperor has presented to your honourable family down to the south. But faced with the extraordinary talents of you all, I would only make a fool of myself if I made further use of my own minor abilities in the martial arts. I will take my leave of you, sir."
"Did you say items belonging to my family, Master Han?"
"The bodyguard agency caller who brought me the letter said the Emperor is extremely generous towards your family. Every few months, he bestows an amount of precious stones and treasures, and there is now a large accumulation of these that must be sent south to your home. Your family asked us to escort them, but I would not dare to continue earning my daily rice in such a business. After I have made suitable arrangements for Brother Jiao's dependants, I will return home."
"It is good that you are willing to follow Master Lu's invaluable words of advice," Chen said. "In that case, I might as well make friends with you. Xin Yan, please bring in the other gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency."
Xin Yan went out and led in Lead Escort Qian and the others. Han and the escorts stared dumbly at each other.
"Master Han, please take these friends with you," said Chen. "But if we ever catch them again doing anything but good deeds, do not blame us if our hands are not stayed by mercy."
Chen did not again mention the return of the white horse, and Han did not dare to bring it up.
"We will leave first," Chen said. "I will ask all of you to rest here for a day before making a start."
The Red Flower Society heroes mounted their horses an started off, leaving the Agency men and the Yamen officers standing silently behind.
"Master Chen," Lu Feiqing said after they had travelled for a while. "My pupil will meet up with those bodyguard agency fellows before long. They have been humiliated and have no way to get their revenge, so they may cause trouble. I would like to stay behind and watch them for a while before following after you."
"Please do as you wish, Master Lu," Chen replied.
Lu saluted, then galloped off the way they had come. Chen realised as Lu disappeared that he had not asked him about his pupil.
'Scholar' Yu, under orders to investigate the whereabouts of Wen Tailai, made discreet enquiries along the road as he went. But he discovered no clues, and in less than a day arrived at Liangzhou, a prosperous busy city and one of the largest in Gansu province. He found a room in an inn, then went to a tavern and drank alone, bemoaning his fate. He thought of Luo Bing's voice and smile, and a tide of longing rose within him. He knew it was hopeless, and the more he drank, the more melancholy he became. He was just about to leave when two men came in. Yu knew he had seen one of them before and quickly turned his head away. He thought frantically and placed him as one of the Yamen officers he had fought at Iron Gall Manor. Luckily, the man and his companion paid no attention to him.
They chose a table near the window which happened to be just next to Yu's and sat down. Yu sat with his head on the table, pretending to be drunk.
The two men chatted for a while, then one said:
"Brother Rui, it's remarkable How you captured that fellow. I wonder what sort of reward the Emperor will give you?"
"I'm not concerned about the reward," Rui replied. "If we can get him to Hangzhou nice and safely, I'll be happy. When we left Beijing, there were eight of us bodyguards, and now I'm the only one left. It was that fight in Suzhou. I'm not selling myself short, but I still get the shivers just thinking about it."
"You're with Master Zhang now," the other said. "I'm sure nothing more will be wrong."
"That's true," Rui replied. "But it means that the Imperial Guardsmen get all the credit. What do we Imperial Bodyguards get out of it? But tell me, old Zhu. What are they doing sending him to Hangzhou instead of to Beijing?"
"My younger sister is from the family of Great Scholar Shi, as you know," Zhu replied, lowering his voice. "She told me quietly that the Emperor plans to go down south. Perhaps he wants to question him himself."
Rui grunted and drank a mouthful of wine. "So the six of you rushed out from Beijing to see that the Imperial command was complied with?"
"And to give the rest of you some help. The Red Flower Society is very powerful in the south. We have to be especially careful."
As he listened, Yu groaned inwardly at the sheer luck of it all. If he had not happened to be there and hear them, the Red Flower Society heroes would have been racing to Beijing to save Wen when he was really being taken to Hangzhou.
"Brother Rui," Zhu said. "Exactly what crime has this fellow committed that the Emperor wants to question him personally?"
"How would we know?" Rui replied. "We were just told that if we didn't catch him, we would all be removed from our posts. I just hope I can keep my head on my shoulders."
The two laughed and drank, and their conversation turned to the subject of women. Finally, they paid the bill and stood up to leave. Rui looked over at Yu prostrate on the table.
"Scholars," he said and laughed harshly. "Three cups of wine and they can't even walk."
Yu waited until they had gone, then hastily threw five silver coins onto the table and dashed out of the tavern. He spotted the men entering the city Yamen. He waited for a long time but didn't see them re-appear, and decided they must be lodging there.
He returned to his room and as soon as it was dark, he changed into a set of dark clothes, stuck his golden flute into his belt then ran over to the Yamen. Making his way round to the back, he clambered over the wall.
All was pitch black in the courtyard except for a shaft of light coming from a window in the eastern hall, and as he crept closer, he heard voices coming from inside. He wet the tip of his finger with a drop of saliva, then lightly moistened the window paper and made a small hole. Looking through, he started in fright.
The hall was full of people. Zhang Zhaozhong was seated in the middle with the bodyguards and Yamen officers on either side of him. A man standing with his back to Yu cursed angrily, and he knew from his voice that it was Wen Tailai.
"You can curse to your heart's content," a voice off to the side said darkly. "I may not be as proficient in the martial arts as you, but you will still get a taste of my hand."
Yu was distressed. "They are going to humiliate Fourth Brother," he thought. "He is the person Fourth Sister respects and loves most. How can I allow him to be insulted by these villains?"
He saw a tall, thin middleaged man wearing a blue gown advancing on Wen with his hand raised. Just as the man was about to strike Wen, Yu inserted his flute through the hole in the window paper, and with a puff, shot a small arrow into the man's left eye.
The man fell to the ground in agony and there was a moment of confusion in the hall. Yu shot another arrow into the right cheek of one of the bodyguards, then kicked open the main door of the hall and ran straight in.
"Don't move!" he shouted. "The Red Flower Society has come to the rescue!"
He raised his flute and struck the Yamen officers beside Wen, then pulled a dagger from his legwrappings and cut the ropes binding Wen's hands and feet.
Zhang Zhaozhong thought a largescale attack was in progress and immediately drew his sword and went to the hall door to prevent Wen and Yu from escaping and those outside from getting in.
As soon as Wen's hands were free of the bonds, his spirits surged. An Imperial Bodyguard lunged towards him and Wen struck him hard with his fist, sending him reeling away. The others were so afraid of Wen's power that for a while they did not dare to get too close to him.
"Fourth Brother, let's get out!" Yu said.
"Are the others here?"
"No," Yu replied quietly. "There's only me."
Wen nodded once. The wounds on his right arm and thigh had not yet healed, but he ran for the door with his right arm resting on Yu's shoulder.
Zhang strode foward a step. "Stop!" he shouted, and jabbed at Wen's stomach with his long sword. Wen was slow on his feet, so using attack as his defence, he struck out at his opponent's eyes with the index and middle fingers of his left hand, and Zhang was forced to retract his sword.
"Good!" he exclaimed. The two men were incredibly fast, but Wen only had the use of his left arm and after a few more moves, Zhang hit his right shoulder. Unable to keep his balance, Wen sat down heavily on the floor.
"I shouldn't have done this," Yu thought as he fought off the Imperial Bodyguards. "I will save Fourth Brother and then let the Eagle's Claws kill me so that Fourth Sister will know that I, Yu Yutong, am not an unchivalrous oaf."
He saw Wen fall to the ground and flipped round to strike out desperately at Zhang.
"Fourth Brother, get out quick!" Yu shouted. Wen rested a moment and then with difficulty clambered to his feet. The golden flute flew and danced, completely neglecting to defend or parry. Yu was completely unconcerned about his own safety. Even with his superb swordsmanship, Zhang was forced to move back several paces in the face of his suicidal attack. Wen saw an opening and shot out of the door, with the mob of the bodyguards and officers howling after him.
Yu blocked them at the door, ignoring his own safety.
"Don't you want to live?" Zhang shouted. "Who taught you that kung fu style?" Yu was using the traditional style of the Wudang School, the school to which Zhang belonged, and Zhang had so far spared him because of it.
"It would be best if you killed me," Yu said, smiling sadly. After a few more moves, Zhang's sword struck him once more, this time on the right shoulder, so Yu shifted the golden flute to his left hand and continued the fight without retreating a step.
The mass of the bodyguards charged forward again and Yu's flute danced, hooting strangely as the wind whipped through it. A bodyguard chopped at him with his sword, and gashed Yu's shoulder. His body was now covered in blood, but he continued the fierce battle, and there was a sudden crack as the jawbone of another bodyguard was shattered. The bodyguards pressed forward, knives, swords, whips and clubs all thrusting towards Yu simultaneously. Yu's thigh was hit by a club and he fell to the ground. His golden flute kept up its dance for a few moments, then he fainted away.
There was a sudden shout from the door: "Stop!"
The bodyguards turned and saw Wen walking slowly back into the hall. He ignored them and went straight over to Yu. Seeing his bloodied body, he couldn't stop his tears. He bent down and was relieved to find Yu was till breathing.
"Treat his wounds quickly," he ordered.
The bodyguards were so fearful of his power, that they did as he said. Wen watched them bind Yu's wounds and carry him through to the inner hall, then placed both of his hands behind his back.
"Tie me up," he said. One of the bodyguards looked over at Zhang, then walked slowly over.
"What are you afraid of?" Wen asked. "If I was going to hurt you, I would have done so long ago."
The bodyguard bound his hands and took him back to the dungeons. Two bodyguards were left to guard him.
Early the next morning, Zhang went to see Yu and found him in a deep sleep. He was told by a guard that the doctor had visited Yu and prescribed some medicine. Zhang visited him again in the afternoon and Yu appeared to be more alert.
"Is your teacher surnamed Lu or Ma?" Zhang asked him.
"My teacher is surnamed Ma, his given name is Zhen."
"So that's it. I am your martial uncle, Zhang Zhaozhong."
Yu nodded slightly.
"Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?"
Yu nodded again.
"Such a nice young man," Zhang sighed. "What a pity that you have fallen to such a state. What relation is Wen Tailai to you? What were you doing risking your life to save him?"
Yu closed his eyes and was silent. A moment passed.
"In the end I did save him, so I can die in peace," he finally said.
"Huh! Do you really think you could snatch him away from me?"
Yu was startled. "Didn't he escape?" he asked.
"How could he? Stop day-dreaming!"
Zhang tried to interrogate him, but Yu took no notice, and after a while he began to sneeze.
Zhang smiled slightly. "You stubborn boy," he said, and left.
He ordered the Imperial Bodyguards to organise an ambush with Wen as bait. After dinner, Wen was brought out of the dungeon and interrogated once more, in the same manner as the night before when Yu had unexpectedly burst in and disrupted the proceedings. This time, however, heavily-armed troops were hidden all around the Yamen, waiting to catch any Red Flower Society rescuers. But they waited in vain.
The next morning, Zhang received a report that the waters of the Yellow River were rising rapidly, and that the current at the point where they intended to cross was very strong and ordered an immediate departure. He had Wen and Yu placed in separate carriages and was just about to start out when Officer Wu and the Zhen Yuan Agency Lead Escorts raced into the Yamen. Zhang hastily questioned them, and Officer Wu breathlessly told him how they had been attacked and captured by the Muslims and the Red Flower Society, and how Lead Escort Yan had been killed by a young Muslim girl.
"Brother Yan was a very tough fighter," Zhang said. "Extraordinary." He raised his hand. "We will meet again in Beijing."
Zhang immediately went and told the Liangzhou Military commander that he wanted four hundred crack troops transferred to his command to help escort criminals wanted by the Emperor. The commander did not dare refuse and also dispatched Colonel Cao Neng and Chief-of-Staff Ping Wangxian to lead the escorting soldiers until they reached Lanzhou, the provincial capital, where provincial troops would take over.
Zhang's column surged out of the town, stealing and pilfering from the common people in the usual way as they went.
They travelled without incident for two days. Then, about ten miles from a village named Twin Wells, they came upon two bare-breasted men sitting beneath a tree by the side of the road with a pair of fine horses standing nearby. Two of the soldiers went over.
"Hey!" one shouted. "These two horses look like official horses. Where did you steal them from?"
"We are peaceful citizens," said one of the men. "We wouldn't dare to steal horses."
"We are tired of walking. Lend them to us," the second soldier replied.
The two men stood up, walked over to their horses and untied the reins.
The soldiers walked haughtily over and were just about to take hold of the reins when the two men kicked their behinds, leapt onto the horses and galloped over to one of the carriages.
"Is Fourth Brother in there?" one shouted.
"Ah, Twelfth Brother!" Wen answered.
"Fourth Brother, we're leaving," the man replied. "But don't worry, we'll be back to rescue you soon."
The two men galloped away before the carriage's guards could attack.
The column lodged that night at a town called Clear Water Shop. Early the following morning, while most of the soldiers were still asleep, a scream was heard, and there was a moment of confusion. The two troop commanders, Cao and Ping went to investigate and found the bodies of more than a dozen soldiers lying where they had slept, each with a gaping gash in the chest. There was no indication of who had killed them.
The next evening, they rested at Hengshi. This was a large town, and the column filled three inns and many private houses besides. During the night, one of the inns caught fire. Zhang ordered the bodyguards to guard Wen and to heed nothing else in order to avoid being tricked. The flames rose higher and higher.
"Bandits!" Cao Neng cried as he ran into Zhang's room. "They're attacking!"
"Please go and direct operations yourself, General Cao," Zhang replied. "I am unable to leave this place."
Cao nodded and left.
From outside the inn came the sound of screams and shrieks, galloping horses, the crackle of the flames and the smash of roof tiles as they hit the ground. Zhang ordered two bodyguards onto the roof to keep watch, but told them not to get involved unless the enemy attacked the inn. The fire did not get out of control, and before long it was extinguished. The agitated clamour continued for a while, then gradually died down to the point where the sound of hooves could be heard as horses galloped off eastwards.
Cao, his face covered in soot, grease and blood, ran in to see Zhang again.
"The bandits have retreated," he reported.
"How many of our men have been killed and wounded?" Zhang asked.
"I don't know yet. Several…several dozen."
"How many bandits were captured?"
Cao's mouth fell open. After a moment, he said: "None."
"Their faces were covered with cloth, and their kung fu was horrendous," Cao added. "But it's very strange, they didn't steal anything. All they did was kill our brothers. Just before they left, they threw down two hundred taels of silver for the innkeeper saying it was compensation for starting the fire."
"So you think they were bandits, do you?" Zhang said. "Tell everyone to get some rest, General Cao. We will start out early tomorrow."
Cao retired and went to see the innkeeper, whom he accused of being in collusion with the bandits and responsible for the murder of the soldiers. The innkeeper kowtowed and begged for mercy and finally gave Cao the two hundred taels of silver.
The next day, the soldiers were busy until noon before finally making a start. They passed through beautiful country of blue hills and green water, surrounded by dense vegetation on all sides. After travelling for about four hours, the road began to grow gradually steeper and high peaks rose on either side.
A horse came galloping down the road towards them and halted about ten paces in front of the column.
"Listen to me, all of you," the rider called out. "You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die."
The soldiers shuddered as they looked at the man. He was wearing clothes made of rough hemp bound at the waist with grass rope. His face was pale yellow and his eyebrows slanted upwards, just like the images of life-stealing spirits in the temples. The man spurred his horse forward and galloped down the mountain, passing beside of the column, and was gone. Suddenly, one of the soldiers in the rear-guard gave a cry, and fell to the ground, dead. The rest started in fright and gathered round to look, but there was no wound visible on his body. Terrified, they all began talking at once.
Cao Neng assigned two soldiers to stay behind and bury the dead man and the column continued up the mountain. Before they had gone very far, another horse approached them from in front, its rider the same man they had seen earlier.
"Listen to me, all of you," he called out. "You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die."
The soldiers wondered fearfully how the man could have made his way round in front of them again. They had clearly seen him go down the mountain and one glance confirmed that there were no short cuts back up the slope. The man spurred his horse forward and the soldiers shrunk from him as if he was a real demon.
One of the Imperial bodyguards, named Zhu, stuck out his sword to obstruct the man. "Slow down, friend," he said.
The man struck Zhu's shoulder with his right hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Then he sped off down the mountain. As he passed the end of the column, the last soldier gave a shriek and fell to the ground, dead. The other soldiers stood staring foolishly, scared out of their wits.
Zhang went down to the end of the column to investigate.
"What is this fellow, a man or a ghost?" Zhu said. He pressed his wounded right shoulder, his face deathly pale. Zhang told him to undo his clothes and examined the large black swelling on his right shoulder. He ordered the troops to strip the dead soldier bare and examine him for wounds. When they turned him over, they found a similar black swelling on his back from which the shape of a hand could be vaguely discerned. The soldiers broke into an uproar as a shout of "The Demon's Mark!" The Demon's Mark!" went up. Zhang ordered that two soldiers be left behind to bury the dead man. Two were chosen from the ranks, but even when threatened with death, they refused to carry out the order. Zhang had no alternative but to order a halt and wait until the body was buried before continuing.
"Master Zhang, this fellow is very strange," said Bodyguard Rui. "How could he pass us by and then make his way back in front of us again?"
Zhang stood deep in thought for a while. "Brother Zhu and the two soldiers were obviously victims of Black Sand Palm Kung Fu," he said. "There are very few masters of Black Sand Palm kung fu in the underworld."
"If it's Black Palm kung fu, then the best is naturally the Taoist Priest Hui Lu, but he's been dead for many years," Rui said. "Could it be that his spirit has re-appeared?"
Zhang slapped his thigh. "That's it! That's it!" he cried. "They're Hui Lu's pupils. The Twin Knights that people call Black Death and White Death. I was trying to think of one person, so I couldn't work it out. All right, so we're up against them as well."
He had no way of knowing that the Chang brothers were also members of the Red Flower Society.
That night, the column stayed at Black Pine Village. Cao posted guards all around the village to keep careful watch, but next morning, not one of the soldiers on guard duty returned to report, and a detail sent to investigate found them all dead with a string of paper money tied round each of their necks. The rest of the soldiers were terrified, and more than a dozen immediately deserted, slipping stealthily away.
They had to cross Black Scabbard Mountain, one of the most precipitous spots on the Liangzhou road. The air became colder and colder as the road grew steeper, and despite the fact that it was only September, snow flakes floated down around them. The road deteriorated to the point where there was a steep mountain face on one side and a sheer cliff on the other falling into a deep ravine. The soldiers moved slowly hand-in-hand, terrified of slipping on the snow. Several of the bodyguards dismounted and helped to support Wen's carriage.
Just as they were gingerly making their way forward, they heard a chirping sound coming from in front. A moment later, the sound turned into an unearthly howl, tragic and harsh, which echoed through the ravine causing everyone's hair to stand on end. The soldiers all stopped in their tracks.
Then came a shout: "Those who continue will meet the King of Hell – Those who turn back will survive."
How could the soldiers dare to continue?
A man appeared around a curve in the road ahead. "Those who continue will meet the King of Hell, those who turn back will survive," he intoned in a deep voice.
The soldiers recognised him as the demon that had appeared twice the day before and had killed with just a wave of his hand, and they turned and fled with squeals of fear. Cao Neng shouted to them to halt, but he had to raise his sword and slay one of the soldiers before some of them steadied. But sixty or seventy had disappeared.
"Guard the carriage," Zhang said to Rui. "I'll go and talk to these two." He leapt passed the soldiers. "Could that be the Twin Knights up ahead?" he asked in a loud, clear voice. "I, Zhang Zhaozhong, greet you. There is no enmity between us. Why are you playing this game?"
The man in front laughed coldly. "Ha! So, the Twin Demons meet the Fire Hand Judge," he said. He strode over and struck out at Zhang with such power that his hand made a whistling sound as it cut through the air.
The road at that point was extremely narrow and Zhang was unable to dodge to either left or right, so he countered the blow with his left hand, putting all of his Inner Strength behind it, while also attacking with his right palm. His opponent parried with his left hand. Their four hands met, and they stood almost motionless for a while as they tested each other. Suddenly, Zhang swept his left leg cross-wise in the 'Level Clouds Slicing The Peak' style. With insufficient time to evade the blow, the man brought his hands together and drove them viciously at Zhang's temples. Zhang leant to one side and hastily withdrew his leg, then moved forward, and with the precipice at their side, the two passed each other by. They had exchanged positions.
Zhang suddenly became aware of someone attacking him from behind. He dodged out of the way and saw his assailant was another pale, skeleton-like figure, his face exactly the same as the first.
Zhang had more than two hundred soldiers and bodyguards with him, but they were powerless to assist because of the narrowness of the mountain path beside the ravine.
The three fought more and more fiercely. In the midst of the battle, one of the Twin Knights hit the rock-face by mistake and a small avalanche of gravel rattled down off the precipice followed by a slab of rock which plunged into the ravine. A long time passed before they finally heard the distant crash as it hit the ground.
The battle continued for a long time. Suddenly, one of the twins struck out with his fist, forcing Zhang to move to one side to avoid it. The other twin then leapt over and occupied Zhang's former position beside the stone-face and both attacked him at the same moment, attempting to force him into the ravine.
Zhang saw one of his attacker's legs sweeping forward and stepped back a pace, so that half of his foot was over the edge of the precipice. A cry of fright went up from the troops. Then, Zhang felt a gust of wind as the other twin's fist swung towards his face. Zhang was unable to retreat, and knowing that there would be great strength behind the blow, was also unable to counter it. If he did, his opponent would simply be thrown back against the stone-face by the force of the collision while he himself would certainly fall to his death. So, with wisdom born of fear, he seized hold of his attacker's wrist, and with a great shout threw him into the ravine.
His body in mid-air, 'Black Death' stayed calm. He drew in his legs and performed a somersault in order to slow down the force of his fall. Half way through the circle, he pulled a Flying Claw grapple from his belt and threw it straight up. His brother 'White Death' had also taken out his Flying Claw and the two grapples locked tightly, almost as if they were shaking hands. 'White Death' jerked at the rope before the full force of his brother's fall returned, and swung him up and over bringing him back to earth more than a hundred feet along the mountain path.
'White Death' saluted Zhang with his fists. "Your kung fu is very powerful. We are impressed," he said. Then, without even bending down to concentrate his strength, he sprang into the air, and landed several dozen feet further away. He grabbed hold of his brother's hand and the two disappeared round the bend.
The soldiers clustered round, some praising Zhang's kung fu, others lamenting that 'Black Death' had not fallen to his death. Zhang said not a word, but leaned against the rock face and slowly sat down. He looked at his wrist and saw the jet-black impression of five fingers on his flesh as if he had been branded, and was struck by a wave of terror.
The column crossed Black Scabbard mountain, and that night another thirty or forty soldiers deserted. Zhang discussed the situation with Rui and the other bodyguards.
"These fellows are not going to give up even though this is the main road to Lanzhou, the provincial capital," he said. "There's going to be a lot more trouble ahead, so we had better make our way round by the backroads, and cross the river at Crimson Bend."
Cao Neng had been looking forward to getting to Lanzhou so that he could transfer his burden to other shoulders, and was very unhappy with Zhang's plan. But he did not dare to disagree.
"We have lost many soldiers on the road," Zhang said. "When you get back, Master Cao, you can report that they were killed during an attack on bandits, and died courageously for their country. I will write out a note to that effect in a moment."
Cao Neng's spirits rose again. According to the military regulations, if a soldier was killed in action, it was possible to obtain a pension, and the money naturally fell into the pocket of the officer in command.
They heard the roar of the Yellow River long before it came into view, and travelled more than half a day further before arriving at the Crimson Bend crossing. At this bend on the Yellow River, the rocks along the banks are blood-red, hence its name. Dusk was already approaching, but through the evening mists, they could see the fury with which the Yellow River surged eastwards, its muddy waters bubbling and boiling against the banks.
"We will cross the river tonight," Zhang said. "The water is dangerous but if we delay, there may be trouble."
With the river running so fast, the crossing could only be made by sheepskin rafts. Soldiers were sent out to search for rafts, but they could not found any. Darkness fell. Zhang was just becoming anxious when he spotted two sheepskin rafts shooting down the river towards them. The soldiers shouted, and the two rafts edged towards the bank.
"Hey, boatman!" Cao shouted. "Ferry us across and we'll pay you well."
The big man on the raft stood up and waved his hand.
"You're a mute," said Cao.
"Damn your ancestors," replied the man in Cantonese. "If you're coming then come, if you're not, then don't. You bunch of bastards. It's a waste of time dealing with you." Cao and the others understood not a word of it. Cao ignored him and invited Zhang and the bodyguards escorting Wen to get onto the rafts first.
Zhang weighed up the boatman. His wide-brimmed hat hid half his face and it was impossible to distinguish his features clearly. But the muscles on his arms were bunched and bulging, revealing great strength, while the oar in his hands was of a very dark colour and appeared to be made of something other than wood. He felt something was wrong, and not being able to swim, he could not afford to fall victim to some trick.
"Master Cao," he said. "You go first with some of the soldiers."
Cao ordered some of the soldiers onto the two rafts. The current was rapid, but the two boatmen were highly skilled and safely delivered the government troops to the opposite bank, and then returned to take on another batch.
Cao boarded a raft with another group of soldiers, but just as they left the bank, a long whistle sounded behind them which was answered by a host of other whistles.
Zhang hastily ordered the troops to surround the carriage and guard it closely. A crescent moon hung low in the sky. Under its light, he saw about a dozen horses coming towards them. He galloped forward. "What's going on?" he shouted.
The riders formed a single rank as they approached, then one in the middle spurred his horse on and rode ahead of the others. In his hand he held a white folding fan with which he fanned himself. "Is that the 'Fire Hand Judge' Zhang Zhaozhong?" he asked.
"It is," Zhang replied. "And who are you, sir?"
The other laughed. "We thank you for escorting our Brother Wen this far, but we would not want to trouble you further."
"Are you Red Flower Society people?"
"Everyone praises the 'Fire Hand Judge' for his superlative mastery of the martial arts, but he obviously has divine foresight as well," the man replied, smiling. "You are correct. We are Red Flower Society people." He gave a long whistle.
Zhang started slightly as he heard the two boatmen on the rafts give answering whistles.
Cao, seated on one of the rafts, saw the enemy approaching on the shore, and his face turned the colour of mud. The boatman stopped the raft in midstream with a stroke of his oar.
"Thirteenth Brother!" Cao heard a crisp voice call from the other raft. "Ready when you are."
"Right!" the boatman replied. Cao raised his spear and thrust it at him, but the boatman deflected it deftly with his oar and then knocked Cao and all the other soldiers on board into the river. Both boatmen then rowed back close to the shore.
Zhang was thankful for his caution. "You have been killing government troops the whole way," he shouted. "You have committed many unpardonable acts. What is your position in the Red Flower Society, sir?"
"There is no need for you to ask my name," Great Helmsman Chen said. "Xin Yan, give me my weapons."
Xin Yan opened his bag and placed two weapons in Chen's hands. Normally, the other heroes should have fought first, but Chen was unable to resist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Zhang jumped off his horse and strode forward. But just as he was preparing himself for the fight, Imperial Bodyguard Zhu ran up behind him and said: "Master Zhang, let me deal with him."
Zhang decided to let him test out the enemy first. "Be careful, Brother Zhu," he said.
Zhu lunged forward, sword raised. He chopped out at Chen's thigh. Chen jumped lightly off his horse and lifted the shield in his left hand to parry the blow. In the moonlight, Zhu saw that nine glistening, sharp hooks protruded from the face of the shield, and knew that if his sword collided with them, it would be caught in their grasp. He started in fright and hastily withdrew his sword. Chen then flourished the weapon in his right hand: five cords, each one tipped with a steel ball especially designed for hitting the Yuedao points on the human body. Terrified by the ferocious nature of this weapon, Zhu leapt backwards, but the cords circled round behind him, and he felt a sudden numbness on his back. Then the cords entwined his legs and with a tug, Chen pulled Zhu off his feet, swung him round and round, and sent him flying straight towards a rocky outcrop nearby.
If he had hit it, he would have been smashed to pieces. But Zhang, seeing that Zhu was completely out-classed, raced over, grabbed his queue and pulled him down just in front of the rock face.
"Rest for a while, Brother Zhu," he said. Frozen with fear, Zhu was unable to answer.
Zhang raised his precious 'Frozen Emerald' Sword and leapt in front of Chen.
Zhang thrust his sword at Chen's right shoulder. Chen flipped the chords towards the blade, while the shield in his left hand struck out at Zhang.
As they battled, the two boatmen, 'Crocodile' Jiang and Luo Bing, jumped ashore and ran towards the carriages, guarded by the soldiers. Jiang charged straight into the ranks, immediately killing two of the closest soldiers. The others frantically gave way. Luo Bing charged over to one of the carriages, and lifted up the carriage curtain.
"Fourth Brother, are you in there?" she called. But it was 'Scholar' Yu, still seriously wounded. Suddenly hearing Luo Bing's voice through his stupor, he could only think that it was a dream, or that he had died and was meeting her in the other world.
"You've come!" he cried happily.
Luo Bing knew that the voice was not her husband's and ran to the next carriage. But before she could pull aside the curtain, a saw-toothed sword chopped at her from the right. She parried with her sword, and looking up at her attacker in the watery moonlight, recognised him as one of the eight bodyguards who had attacked Wen and herself in Suzhou. With a surge of hatred, she redoubled her attack. Rui was aware of her ability with throwing knives and speeded up his strokes to avoid giving her an opportunity to use them. Then two other bodyguards joined the battle while the soldiers closed in from all sides.
Four more of the heroes led by 'Leopard' Wei galloped towards her through a hail of arrows. One arrow planted itself in the neck of Wei's horse, and the pain made it gallop even more furiously. The animal's hooves hit the chest of one of the soldiers, Wei flew off the horse with his hooks raised, and amid a chorus of screams, gouged them into the breasts of two other soldiers. Wei then aimed the hooks at Bodyguard Rui who was forced to abandon his attack on Luo Bing. 'Hunchback' Zhang Jin and the others also raced up and the soldiers scattered.
Free once more, Luo Bing threw herself into the carriage and hugged Wen's neck, then burst into tears.
After a while, Zhang Jin stuck his head in through the carriage curtain. "Fourth Brother," he grinned. "We've come to take you back."
He climbed onto the driver's seat and the carriage moved off northwards away from the river, and stopped by the side of a mound, from which they could get a good view of the battle.
Suddenly, Zhang broke away from his duel with Chen and ran for Wen's carriage.
Luo Bing saw him coming and brandished her sword at him. But Zhang's sword was extraordinarily tough, and as they clashed with a 'clang', it snapped her blade in two. With the rest of his strength, Zhang leapt up into the carriage and pulled Luo Bing in with him. Greatly frightened, the other heroes raced up to save her, and Zhang lifted her up and threw her at them. The Twin Knights raced over and caught her.
Meanwhile, Zhang turned and grabbed Wen, and pulled him to the carriage door. "Wen Tailai is here," he shouted. "If anyone dares to come any closer, I'll kill him!"
The cold gleam of Zhang's 'Frozen Emerald' sword was poised at Wen's neck.
"Fourth Brother," Luo Bing wailed, and tried to throw herself at the carriage, but Lu Feiqing held her back and took a step forward himself.
"Zhang!" he called out. "Can you see who I am?" Zhang and he had not seen each other for a long time and it was difficult to see clearly in the moonlight, so Lu drew his White Dragon sword, took hold of the tip of the blade, and bent the handle back so that it formed a circle. Then he let the tip go and the blade bounced back upright and swayed slightly.
Zhang grunted. "Ah, so it's Brother Lu," he said. "Why have you come looking for me?"
"You are wounded," Lu replied. "All the heroes of the Red Flower Society are here as well as 'Iron Gall' Zhou Zhongying. It is going to be hard for you to escape today with your life. But in memory of our benevolent teacher, I will give you a way out."
Zhang grunted again, but said nothing.
Suddenly they heard shouts and cries drifting over from the east, as if a thousand armies were racing towards them. The heroes were filled with apprehension, but Zhang was even more worried.
"This Red Flower Society is truly resourceful," he thought. "Even here in the northwest, they can still call up huge reinforcements."
"Release Master Wen," Lu Feiqing continued, "and I will ask the heroes, out of respect for me, to release you. But there is one thing you must swear to."
Zhang eyed the strong enemies surrounding him. "What?" he said.
"You must swear that you will immediately retire from public life and no longer be a running dog of the Manchus."
Zhang had pursued glory and wealth with fervour and he had risen in rank as fast as though swept upwards up by a whirlwind. Wanting him to give up his position was just the same as wanting his life. He released Wen from his grip, pulled at the mule's reins, and the carriage charged forward.
The heroes held back afraid of risking Wen's life, but Luo Bing could not stand it. "Release him and we'll let you go without having to swear to anything," she called desperately.
Zhang took no notice and drove the carriage on towards the ranks of Manchu troops, who had by now regrouped.
Bodyguard Rui saw Zhang approaching and ordered the soldiers to fix arrows in their bows in readiness. The roar of the approaching column was getting louder and both Red Flower Society and the soldiers were afraid that they were reinforcements for the other side.
"Brother Wei, take three others and scatter the Eagle's Claws," Chen shouted.
Wei and the others raised their weapons and charged into the Manchu ranks, slaughtering as they went.
A youngster darted out from behind Lu Feiqing saying: "I'm going too!" Chen frowned: it was Li Yuanzhi, once more dressed in boy's clothes.
When Lu met up with her again after the battle, Yuanzhi had insisted that he take her with him to help rescue Wen. Lu finally agreed, but made her promise that she would do as she was told. Yuanzhi then wrote a letter to her mother in which she said she had decided to go on ahead alone to see her father in Hangzhou.
Chen quickly issued his instructions, and 'Buddha' Zhao raced after the carriage and sent two sleeve arrows flying into the eyes of the mule pulling it along. The mule gave a long scream and reared up on its hind legs. The Twin Knights charged to either side of the carriage and flung their Flying Claws at Zhang, who fended them off with his sword. Simultaneously, Priest Wu Chen and Xu attacked Zhang's back.
"Now!" Chen shouted to Xin Yan. The two soared through the air and landed on top of the carriage.
Zhang heard Chen and Xin Yan land above and behind him and threw a handful of Golden Needles at them.
Chen saw the movement, and pushed Xin Yan off the carriage and placed the shield in front of his own body. There was a patter of metallic noises as the needles hit it, but despite the extraordinary speed of his reflexes, he heard Xin Yan cry out. Knowing the boy had been hit, Chen hastily leapt down to help him. Zhang threw another handful of the needles at Priest Wu Chen and Xu. The Priest flew out of the back of the carriage like an arrow, moving faster and further than the needles. Xu, however, only had time to lift a cotton coverlet in the carriage to block the needles. But his left shoulder was left exposed and with a sudden feeling of numbness, he fell out of the carriage.
Zhang Jin raced over to help him. "Brother Xu, are you all right?" he shouted, bending over. Suddenly he felt a great pain in his back as he was hit by an arrow, and stumbled.
"Brothers! Everyone regroup!" Chen shouted. Arrows were flying towards them like thick clouds of locusts. Zhang Jin put his left hand on Priest Wu Chen's shoulder and hit out at the arrows with his wolf's tooth club.
"Tenth Brother, don't move!" the Priest said. "Control yourself." He stopped the flow of blood from Zhang Jin's wound with a touch to the artery and carefully pulled the arrow out. Then he ripped a corner off his robes and bound up the wound.
Then they saw a pitch-black mass of Manchu soldiers surging towards them from the east.
Zhang was ecstatic at the sight of reinforcements arriving, but his breathing was becoming difficult and he knew that his injuries were serious. Chen and the others attacked the carriage once more, and he lifted up Wen's body, and swung it round and round as a detachment of cavalry charged towards the Red Flower Society fighters with sabres raised. Chen could see that Wen would certainly be killed if they attempted to recapture him by force, so he gave a loud whistle and raced behind a nearby mound with the others following.
Chen conducted a head-count, and found that Xu, Zhou Qi, Yuanzhi, Lord Zhou and Meng were missing.
"Has anyone seen Brother Xu and Lord Zhou?" Chen asked.
Zhang Jin, who was lying on the ground, raised his head and said: "Seventh Brother was injured. Isn't he here? I'll go and find him."
He stood up, but the arrow wound on his back was too serious, and he swayed unsteadily.
"Don't you move, Tenth Brother," said 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "I'll go."
"I'll go too," added 'Crocodile' Jiang, but Chen held him back. "You and Fourth Sister make your way to the river bank and prepare the rafts," he said. Jiang and Luo Bing, her hopes dashed again, left.
Shi leapt onto a horse and galloped off around the mound with sword in hand. By this time, the Manchu troops were everywhere. Shi rode up onto higher ground and looked around, but could see no sign of Xu and the others, so he rode into the enemy's ranks to search for them.
Not long after, Lord Zhou and Meng appeared.
"Have you seen your daughter?" Chen asked. Zhou shook his head, full of anxiety.
"My young pupil has disappeared too," Lu Feiqing said. "I'll go and look for them."
As he rode out, the ranks of the Manchu troops suddenly parted and several horses charged towards him. In the lead was Priest Wu Chen dragging Wei along with his hand. Lu started in surprise when he saw Wei, his whole body covered in blood and dirt, and immediately moved forward to obstruct any pursuers. But the Manchu troops did not dare to obsttruct these ferocious-looking men and let them retreat behind the mound.
Chen quickly went to see Wei, who was delirious, shouting: "Kill the bastards!"
"Ninth Brother has worn himself out with all this killing," Priest Wu Chen said. "His mind is a little confused. Nothing serious."
"Have you seen Brother Xu and Brother Shi?" Chen asked.
"I'll go and look for them" the Priest said.
"There's also Mistress Zhou and the Master Lu's pupil," Chen said.
Priest Wu Chen mounted up, sword at the ready, and charged back into the Manchu ranks. A Manchu officer spurred his horse forward and charged at him with spear raised, but the priest dodged the spear thrust and drove his sword into the officer's heart. The officer slumped off his horse and the soldiers under his command howled and scattered in all directions. Priest Wu Chen continued his onslaught and soldiers fell wherever his sword went. As he galloped along a stretch of the road, he saw a crowd of soldiers with 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi in the middle fighting fiercely with three officers.
"Get away, I'll cover you!" Priest Wu Chen shouted.
The two raced back to the mound, but there was still no indication of what had happened to Xu and the others. A Manchu company commander led his soldiers in an attack on the mound occupied by the Red Flower Society, but the heroes immediately killed more than a dozen of them, and the rest retreated.
Chen led his horse up onto the mound. "Brother Meng," he said, handing him the reins. "Hold it steady and made sure it doesn't get hit by a stray arrow." He leapt up onto the horse's back and stood on the saddle. Looking around, he saw the huge Manchu column surging towards them from the east. A bugle sounded and the column turned into a fiery dragon as each soldier raised a torch. Amidst the glow, he saw a large banner flowing in the wind on which he could just made out the words "Border Pacification General Zhao" written in large characters. Each soldier in the column was riding a tall, sturdy horse, and there was a clanking noise as they marched, indicating they were probably wearing armour.
Chen jumped down from the horse. "Armoured troops on the way," he shouted. "Everyone head for the river."
Lord Zhou was very worried about his daughter, but finding her among such a huge body of troops was impossible. The heroes helped up Wei, Zhang Jin and the other wounded, and galloped towards the banks of the Yellow River with the Manchu cavalry in hot pursuit. Luo Bing and Jiang punted the sheepskin rafts up to the shore and took the wounded on board first.
"Everyone get on the rafts quickly!" Chen yelled. "Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother, Lord Zhou, we four will hold…"
Before he could finish, a wave of crossbow arrows flew towards them.
"Charge!" roared Priest Wu Chen, and the four threw themselves at the first ranks of cavalry. Lord Zhou's huge sword rose and fell, cutting Manchu soldiers down from their horses, while 'Buddha' Zhao slung copper coins at the eye-slits in their armour. Although it was impossible to see clearly in the dark, he still managed to blind five or six men. By this time, everyone except Chen and the other three had boarded the rafts.
Chen spotted a mounted officer directing the troops, and sprang over to him. He pulled the fficer from his horse and ran for the river bank with him under his arm. The Manchu troops rushed forward to try to save their commanding officer, but they didn't dare to fire any arrows. Chen leapt onto one of the rafts and Jiang and Luo Bing began to move them out towards the centre of the river.
The Yellow River was in full flood and with the current powerful and turbulant, the two large sheepskin rafts flew off downstream. The hubbub of the great armed column slowly faded as the river roared around them.
The heroes set about tending to the wounded. 'Leopard' Wei's mind gradually cleared and his body was found to be free from wounds. 'Buddha' Zhao was an expert at medical treatment as well as with darts and he bound up 'Iron Pagoda' Yang's and Zhang Jin's wounds. Zhang Jin was more seriously injured, but was in no danger. Xin Yan had been hit by several Golden Needles, and was in such pain that he cried out continually. The needles had penetrated right through the flesh into the bones, and Zhao took a magnet from his medicine bag and drew them out one by one. Luo Bing rowed on silently. Not only had they failed to rescue Wen, but 'Mastermind' Xu, Zhou Qi, Lu Feiqing and his pupil had been lost as well, and no-one knew where 'Scholar' Yu had got to.
Chen roused the captured Manchu officer. "What the hell was your column doing travelling through the night like that?" he asked.
The officer said nothing. Yang slapped him on the face. "Are you going to talk?" he shouted.
"I'll talk…I'll talk," the officer said quickly, holding his cheek. "What do you want me to say?"
"What was your column doing travelling at night?"
"General Zhao Wei received an Imperial command ordering us to attack the Muslim areas and take them over before a certain date. He was afraid we wouldn't make it in the time limit, and also that the Muslims would hear of our approach and make preparations. So we've been marching day and night."
"The Muslims are very well-behaved," said Chen. "Why are you going to attack them?"
"That…that, I don't know." the officer said.
"If you are heading for the Muslim areas, why did you come to interfere in our business?"
"General Zhao heard of some bandits making trouble in this area and ordered me to lead a detail to deal with them, but the main army didn't stop…"
Before he could finish, Yang gave him another slap. "Damn your mother!" he shouted. "It's you who are the bandits!"
"Yes, yes! I made a mistake!" the officer cried.
Chen was silent for a while, then questioned the officer closely regarding the army's troop strength, route and rations. Some of it the officer didn't know, but he did not dare to hide what he did know.
"Head…For…The…Shore" Chen shouted at the top of his voice. Luo Bing and Jiang steered the rafts towards the bank and everyone stepped ashore.
Chen called the Twin Knights over.
"Travel back as fast as you can and find out what happened to the others," he said. "If they have fallen into the hands of the Manchus, they will certainly be taken back to Beijing along the Great Road. We can intercept them further east and work out some way of rescuing them."
The Twin Knights nodded and started out.
"Twelfth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "I want you to do something for me."
"Whatever you say, Great Helmsman."
Chen wrote out a letter under the light of the moon.
"Please take this letter to Master Muzhuolun in the Muslim regions," he said. "We have only met him and his people once, but they showed the greatest friendship towards us, so we cannot stand idly by. Fourth Sister, please lend your white horse to Twelfth Brother for the trip." Luo Bing had kept the animal aboard the raft throughout the battle.
Shi mounted up and disappeared in a cloud of dust. With the horse's phenomenal speed, he estimated he could overtake the army in a day and be in time to warn Muzhuolun.
Chen then directed Jiang to tie the officer's hands behind his back. They placed him on one of the rafts and pushed it out into the stream and left it for Fate to decide whether he should live or die.
Zhou Qi was separated from the others in the midst of the battle. The Manchu troops surged around her, and she galloped blindly off trying to escape them. In the darkness, her horse suddenly tripped, and she tumbled to the ground, her head crashing heavily against the hard earth. She passed out, but luckily it was still dark, and the soldiers did not find her.
She had been unconscious for she did not know how long when there was a sudden bright flash before her eyes and a great roar followed by a wave of coolness on her face. She opened her eyes and saw the sky was full of black clouds and torrential rain sweeping down.
She jumped up. Someone beside her sat up as well, and she started in fright and frantically grabbed for her sword. Then she gasped in surprise: it was 'Mastermind' Xu.
"Mistress Zhou, what are you doing here?" he called out above the roar of the rain.
Zhou Qi had never liked Xu and had gone out of her way to quarrel with him. But he was at least one of her own people, and she burst into tears.
"What about my father?" she asked, biting her lip.
Xu motioned her to lie down. "Soldiers," he whispered.
Zhou Qi threw herself to the ground, and they slowly crawled behind a small mound of earth.
The sky was already light, and through the rain, they saw several dozen Manchu soldiers hastily burying corpses, cursing as they worked. "You two, have a look round for any more bodies," an officer shouted, and two soldiers went onto higher ground. Looking around, they spotted Zhou Qi and Xu and called out: "There's two more over there."
"Wait for them to come over," Xu whispered.
The soldiers walked over carrying shovels, and as they bent over them, Zhou Qi and Xu simultaneously thrust their swords into the bellies of the two. They died without a sound.
The officer waited for a while, but with no sign of the soldiers returning and the rain getting heavier, he rode over to investigate.
"Don't make a sound. I'll steal his horse," Xu whispered. As the officer rode closer, he saw the bodies of the two soldiers, but before he could call out, Xu leapt up and slashed at him with his sword. The officer raised his horse whip to stop the blow, but both his whip and head were sliced off.
"Mount up quickly!" Xu called, holding the horse's reins. Zhou Qi leapt onto the horse and galloped off with Xu running along behind.
The Manchu troops began to give chase. After only a few dozen paces, the pain in Xu's shoulder where he had been hit by the Golden Needles became unbearable and he fell to the ground with a cry. Zhou Qi reined the horse round and galloped back. Leaning over, she pulled him across the saddle, then slapped the horse's haunches and raced off again. The soldiers soon dropped far behind.
When they had gone some distance, Zhou Qi stopped and had a look at Xu. His eyes were tightly closed, his face white and his breathing shallow. Greatly frightened, she sat him properly on the horse, then with her left arm around his waist to keep him from falling, galloped on, keeping to lonely, deserted tracks. After a while, she saw an inky-black section of forest ahead and rode in amongst the trees. The rain had stopped, and she dismounted and continued on foot leading the horse with Xu on it behind her until she came to a clearing in the forest. Xu was still unconscious, and Zhou Qi lifted him off the horse and laid him on the grass. Then she sat down, letting the horse wander off to graze. Here she was, a young girl not yet twenty, alone in a strange forest. She began to sob, her tears falling onto Xu's face.
Xu slowly recovered consciousness and thought it was raining again. He opened his eye a little way and saw a beautiful face before him with two big eyes red from crying. His left shoulder began hurting again and he cried out in pain.
Zhou Qi was overjoyed to see he was still alive. "How are you?" she asked.
"My shoulder is extremely painful. Please look at it for me, Mistress Zhou," he replied. He forced himself to sit up and used his right hand to cut a hole in the shoulder of his jacket with his knife.
"I was hit by three Golden Needles here," he said, examining the shoulder out of the corner of his eye." The needles were small, but they had penetrated deep into the flesh.
"What shall we do?" Zhou Qi asked. "Shall we go to a town and find a doctor?"
"We can't do that," replied Xu. "After last night's battle, going to see a doctor would be like walking straight into a trap. What we really need is a magnet to draw the needles out, but we don't have one. I wonder if I could ask you to cut away the flesh and pull them out?"
During the night battle, Zhou Qi had killed quite a number of the Manchu troops without losing her composure once. But now, faced with the prospect of cutting away the flesh on Xu's shoulder, she hesitated.
"I can't stand the pain," he pleaded. "Do it now…no, wait. Do you have a tinder box with you?"
Zhou Qi felt around in her bag. "Yes. What do you want it for?"
"Collect some dried grass and leaves and burn up some ash. When you've pulled the needles out, you can cover the wound with the ash and then bandage it."
She did as he said and burnt up a large pile of ash.
"That's fine," said Xu with a laugh. "There's enough there to stop a hundred wounds bleeding."
"I'm just a stupid girl," Zhou Qi replied crossly. "Come and do it yourself."
She pressed on his shoulder beside the needle holes. As her fingers came into contact with male flesh, she involuntarily pulled back and her whole face turned bright red down to the roots of her hair.
Xu noticed her blush, but misinterpreted her reaction in spite of his nickname.
"Are you afraid?" he asked.
"What have I got to be afraid of?" she replied, suddenly angry. "It's you that's afraid! Turn your head away and don't look."
Xu did as he was told. Zhou Qi pressed the skin around the needle holes tightly, then slipped the tip of the knife into the flesh and slowly began to turn it. Blood flowed out of the wound. Xu silently gritted his teeth, his whole face covered in beads of sweat the size of soyabeans. She cut away the flesh until the end of a needle appeared, then grasping it tightly between the thumb and forefinger, pulled it out.
Xu forced himself to maintain his jocular front.
"It's a pity that needle doesn't have an eye to thread through, otherwise I'd give it to you to use in embroidery," he said.
"I can't do embroidery," Zhou Qi replied. "Last year, my mother told me to learn, but I kept snapping the needle or breaking the thread. She scolded me, and I said: "Mother, I can't do it, you teach me." But she said 'I've no time.' Afterwards I discovered that she can't do embroidery either."
Xu laughed. As they had been talking, another needle had been removed.
"I didn't really want to learn," Zhou Qi continued with a smile. "But when I found out that mother didn't know how, I pushed her to teach me. But I couldn't catch her out. She said: 'If you don't know how to sew, I don't know how you'll…'"
She stopped in mid-sentence. Her mother had said: "I don't know you'll ever find a husband."
"Don't you know how you'll what?" asked Xu.
"I don't feel like telling you."
As they talked, her hands never stopped, and the third needle was finally out as well. She covered the wound with ash, then bandaged it with strips of cloth. She couldn't help but admire him for the way he continued to smile and chat to her despite the pain.
"He may be short, but he's a brave man," she thought. By this time, her hands were covered in blood.
"You lie here and don't move," she said. "I'll go and find some water to drink."
She looked at the lie of the land, then ran out of the trees. Several hundred paces away, she found a small stream which was flowing swiftly after the heavy rain. As she bent down to wash her hands, she caught sight of her reflection in the water, the dishevelled hair, her wet and crumpled clothes, and her face, covered in blood and dirt.
"Damn!" she thought. "How could I let him see me looking so awful?"
She washed her face clean, combed her hair with her fingers. Then, scooping water from the stream, she drank deeply. She knew Xu would certainly be thirsty too, but had nothing in which to carry water. After a moment's thought, she took a piece of clothing from the knapsack on her back, dipped it in the stream so that it was soaking wet than ran back.
Zhou Qi could see from his face that he was in great pain, although he was trying to appear unconcerned, and feelings of tenderness stirred within her. She told him to open his mouth and squeezed water into it from the cloth.
"Is it very painful?" she asked softly.
Xu's whole life has been spent amidst mountains of knives and forests of spears, or else in the shady world of plots and traps; no-one had ever spoken to him with the warmth and softness he detected now in Zhou Qi's voice. Deeply moved, he steadied himself. "I am a little better now. Thank you."
"We can't stay here," Xu said after he had drunk some water. "Nor can we go to any town. All we can do is to find a secluded farmhouse and say that we are brother and sister…"
"You want me to call you brother?" asked Zhou Qi, astounded.
"If you feel that I'm too old, you could call me uncle," he suggested.
"Pah! Do you think you look like my uncle? I'll call you my brother, but only when there are other people around. When we're on our own, I won't."
"All right, you don't have to," he replied with a smile. "We'll say that we met the army on the road and were attacked by the soldiers who stole all our possessions."
Having agreed on their story, Zhou Qi helped him to mount the horse. The two made their way out of the trees, and chose a small track heading straight towards the sun.
The northwest is a desolate place. Hungry and tired, they had to travel for more than two hours before finally spotting a mud hut.
Xu dismounted and knocked at the door. After a moment, an old woman came out. Seeing the strange clothes they were wearing, she looked at them suspiciously. Xu gave her some of the story they had concocted, and she sighed.
"These government troops, always making trouble," she said. "What is your name sir?"
"My name is Zhou," said Xu.
Zhou Qi glanced at him but said nothing. The old woman invited them inside and brought out some wheat cakes. They were black and rough, but hungry as they were, tasted delicious.
"Old woman," said Xu, "I am wounded and am not able to travel. We would like to spend the night here."
"There's no problem about your staying here, but poor people's homes have little to eat in them, so don't blame me on that account, sir."
"We are eternally thankful that you are willing to put us up," Xu replied. "My sister's clothes are all wet. If you have any old clothes, I would appreciate it if you would allow her to change into them."
"My daughter-in-law left some clothes behind. If you don't mind, mistress, you could try them on. They'll probably fit."
Zhou Qi went to change. When she came out, she saw Xu was already asleep in the old woman's room.
Towards evening, Xu began babbling incoherently, Zhou Qi felt his forehead and found it feverish. She decided his wounds must be festering. She knew such a condition was extremely dangerous, and turned to the old woman. "Is there a doctor near here?" she asked.
"Yes, there is, in Wenguang town about twenty li east of here," the old woman replied. "The most capable one is Doctor Cao, but he never comes out to country places like this to see patients."
"I'll go and fetch him," Zhou Qi said. "I'll leave my…my brother here. Please keep an eye on him."
"Don't you worry about that, miss," the old woman replied. "But the doctor won't come."
Zhou Qi stowed her sword beside the horse's saddle and galloped off. Night had already fallen when she entered Wenguang town.
She asked a passer-by where Doctor Cao lived, then galloped straight on to his residence. She knocked on the door for a long time before a man finally opened it.
"It's already dark. What are you banging on the door like that for?" the man demanded.
Zhou Qi was furious at his manner, but remembered that she was appealing for help. "I've come to ask Doctor Cao to visit a patient," she said, controlling herself.
"He's not in," said the man. Without another word, he turned and began to close the door.
Panic-striken, Zhou Qi pulled him out of the doorway and drew her sword. "Where's he gone to? Quickly!"
"He's gone to Little Rose's," the man replied in a quavering voice.
Zhou Qi brushed the blade over his face. "What is Little Rose's?"
The man was frantic with fright. "Your Excellency…Miss, Little Rose is a prostitute," he said.
"Prostitutes are bad people. What's he gone to her place for?" Zhou Qi asked.
The man wanted to laugh at the sight of this girl who was so ferocious and yet so ignorant of worldly matters, but he did not dare. "She is a good friend of our master," he said.
"Lead me there quickly."
With the sword resting on his neck, he dared not disobey and led her off down the street.
"This is it," he said, pointing to a small house.
"Knock on the door. Tell the doctor to come out."
The man did as she said, and the door was opened by the Madame of the house.
"This lady wants my master to go to visit a patient," the man said. "I told her the master was busy, but she wouldn't believe me and forced me to come here."
The Madame gave him a look of contempt and slammed the door.
Zhou Qi rushed forward to stop her, but was too late. She beat thunderously on the door for a while, but not a sound came from inside. Absolutely furious, she kicked the man to the ground.
"Get lost!" she shouted.
The man picked himself up and ran off.
Zhou Qi waited until he had disappeared then leapt over the wall into the courtyard of the house. She saw light coming from a room nearby, and stealthily made her way over towards it. Crouching down, she heard two men talking. She licked the tip of her finger, then wet a small part of the window paper and made a hole in it. Putting her eye to the hole, she saw two men lying on a couch, talking. One was stout, and the other thin and tall. A tartishly seductive girl was pummelling the thin man's thighs. The stout man give a wave of his hand and the girl stood up.
"I can see you two want to discuss more ways of creating mischief," she said with a smile. "You ought to accumulate some good deeds, otherwise you may give birth to sons without arseholes."
"Damned nonsense," the stout man shouted back with a laugh. The girl smiled and walked out, locked the door, then turned and went into an inner hall.
"That must be Little Rose," Zhou Qi thought. "She's really shameless, but there's some truth in what she said."
She watched as the stout man pulled out four silver ingots and placed them on the table.
"Brother Cao," he said. "There's two hundred taels of silver. We are old business partners, and that's the old price."
"Master Tang," the thin man replied: "Take these two packets of medicine, and have a good time. The red packet you give to the girl, and in less time than it takes to eat a meal, she will be unconscious to the world and you can do whatever you like with her. You don't need me to teach you anything about that, do you?"
The two men laughed together.
"This black packet you give to the man," Cao continued. "Tell him it will speed his recovery. Soon after he takes it, his wounds will begin discharging blood and he will die. It will appear that his wounds have simply re-opened and no-one will suspect you. What do you think of such a ruse?"
"Excellent, excellent," Tang replied.
"So, Master Tang, you have gained both the girl and the money. Doesn't two hundred taels seem like rather a small reward for such a service?"
"We are brothers, and I wouldn't try to deceive you," the other said. "The girl certainly has a pretty face. I could hardly restrain myself even when I thought she was a boy because of the way she was dressed. But there is nothing much special about the man, except that he's with the girl, so I cannot allow him to live."
"Didn't you say he had a flute made out of gold?" Cao asked. "That flute must weigh several catties alone."
"All right, all right, I'll add another fifty taels," Tang said, and pulled out another ingot.
Zhou Qi became angrier and angrier as she listened, and ran to the door, kicked it open and charged straight inside. Tang gave a shout and aimed a flying kick at Zhou Qi's sword wrist. Zhou Qi flipped the sword over and smoothly cut off his right foot then thrust the blade into his heart.
The thin man stood to one side, struck dumb with fright. His whole body shook and his teeth chattered. Zhou Qi pulled her sword out of Tang's corpse and wiped the blood off the blade onto his clothes, then grabbed the thin man.
"Are you Doctor Cao?" she shouted. The man's legs folded and he fell to his knees.
"Please…miss…spare my life…"
"Who wants your life? Get up."
Cao shakily stood up, but his knees were still rubbery, and he had to kneel down again. Zhou Qi put the five silver ingots and two packets of medicine on the table into her pocket.
"Out," she ordered.
She told him to fetch his horse, and the two mounted up and galloped out of the town. In less than two hours, they arrived at the old woman's hut. Zhou Qi ran to Xu and found him still unconscious. In the candlelight, she could see his whole face was bright red and knew he had a terrible fever. She dragged Cao over.
"My, er, brother here has been wounded. Cure him quickly," she ordered.
Hearing that he was expected to give medical treatment, Cao's fears eased slightly. He looked at Xu's complexion and took his pulse, then undid the bandage round his shoulder and looked at the wound. He shook his head.
"The master is deficient in both blood and breath," he said. "His body heat is rising…"
"Who wants to hear all that?" Zhou Qi interrupted him. "You just cure him quickly. If you don't, you can forget about ever leaving here."
"I'll go to the town to get some medicine," Cao said. "Without medicine I cannot do anything."
Xu awoke and he lay listening to the two talking.
"Huh, do you think I'm a three-year-old child?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You make out the prescription and I'll go and buy the medicine."
Cao had no alternative. "Well, please bring me a pen and paper, Miss," he said.
But where was pen and paper to be found in such a poor hut in such a desolate place? Zhou Qi frowned, at a loss for what to do.
"The master's condition will not allow delay," said Cao with an air of complacency. "It would be best if you let me return to the town to get the medicine."
"Sister," Xu said, "Take a small piece of firewood and burn it to charcoal, then let him write on a piece of rough paper. If that can't be done, you could write on a piece of wood."
"What a good idea!" Zhou Qi exclaimed happily, and burnt up a piece of firewood as he had said. The old woman searched out a piece of yellow paper originally meant to be burnt in worship of Buddha, and Cao made out the prescription. When he had finished, Zhou Qi found a length of grass rope and tied his hands behind his back, bound his legs together and put him on the floor next to Xu.
"I'm going to the town to buy medicine," she told the old woman as she placed Xu's sword beside his pillow. If this dog doctor tries to escape, wake up my brother and he can kill him."
Zhou Qi rode back to the town and found a medicine shop. She shouted for the shop-keeper to open up and got him to fill the prescription, which was for more that ten different types of medicine.
The sky was growing light. She saw village militiamen patrolling the streets and guessed that the murder at Little Rose's had been discovered. She shrank into a corner and waited until they had passed before galloping off.
As soon as she had returned to the old woman's hut, she hastily brewed up the medicine then poured it into a rough bowl and took it over to Xu. She shook him awake and told him to drink the medicine.
Xu was extremely moved at the sight of her face covered with sweat and ash and her hair filled with twigs and grass. He knew she was the daughter of a rich family and would never before have had to do this sort of work. He sat up and took the bowl from her and passed it over to Cao.
"You drink two mouthfuls," he said. Cao hesitated slightly and Zhou Qi realised Xu's meaning.
"Yes, yes," she said. "He must drink some first. You don't know how evil this man is," she added to Xu.
Cao opened his mouth and drank two mouthfuls.
"Rest for a while, sister," said Xu. "I'll wait a while before drinking the medicine."
"Yes," said Zhou Qi. "Let's see if he dies first. If he dies, you mustn't drink the medicine."
She moved the oil lamp next to Cao's face and watched him with her big, black, unblinking eyes to see whether he would die or not.
"We doctors have the best interest of our patients at heart. Why would I want to harm him?" Cao said, smiling bitterly.
"That secret discussion you had with that man Tang about harming some girl and getting hold of someone else's golden flute, I heard it all," Zhou Qi said angrily. "Do you deny it?"
Xu's ears pricked up at the mention of a golden flute and he quickly asked her about it. Zhou Qi related the conversation she had heard, and how she had killed a man at Little Rose's.
Xu asked Cao: "Who is the person with the Golden flute? And who is the girl who was dressed as a boy?"
Zhou Qi drew her sword and stood by him threateningly. "If you don't tell us everything you know, I'll run you through with my sword immediately," she told him.
"I…I'll tell you," said Cao, absolutely terrified. "Yesterday Master Tang came to see me and said that two people had asked to take lodgings at his home. He said one was very badly wounded and the other was a pretty youngster. At first he was unwilling to take them in, but seeing how extraordinarily beautiful the youngster was, he let them stay for one night. He noticed the youngster's voice and manner were just like a girl's. Also, the youngster wasn't willing to share a room with the other, so he concluded it must be a girl dressed in boy's clothes."
"So you sold him some poison," Zhou Qi said.
"I deserve to die," replied Cao.
"What was the man like?" Xu asked.
"Master Tang asked me to examine him. He was about twenty-three or four, dressed as a scholar, and had sword and club wounds in seven or eight places."
"Were the wounds serious?" asked Xu.
"Very serious. But they were all external wounds. He wasn't wounded on any fatal points."
Xu saw he would not gain much by continuing the questioning and gingerly raised the bowl of medicine. But his hands shook and some of the medicine slopped out. Zhou Qi took the bowl from him and raised it to his mouth. He drank the brew down as she held the bowl, then thanked her.
"These two bandits are not brother and sister," Cao thought as he watched. "Whoever heard of a brother saying thank you to his sister?"
After drinking the medicine, Xu slept for a while, his whole body sweating profusely, and towards evening, the sickness began to recede. The next day, Xu was more than half recovered and he was able to get up.
After another day, he decided he could just about manage to ride a horse.
"That man with the golden flute is Fourteenth Brother," he said to Zhou Qi. "I wonder why he should seek lodgings with such a man? But seeing as you've already killed Tang, they shouldn't have had too much trouble. But I'm still a little worried. Let's go tonight and see what the situation is."
"Fourteenth Brother?" Zhou Qi asked.
"'Scholar' Yu. He was also at Iron Gall Manor. You've seen him before."
"Oh, if I had known it was him I would have brought him along with me, then the two of you could have convalesced together."
Xu smiled. "But who could this girl dressed in boy's clothing be?" he wondered, mystified.
That evening, Zhou Qi gave the old woman two of the silver ingots and she accepted them with effusive blessings and thanks. Zhou Qi then pulled Cao up, and with a swish of her blade, cut off his right ear.
"I'm only sparing your worthless life because you cured my brother," she shouted. "If I ever catch you doing evil again,I'll stick my sword straight into your heart."
"We'll visit you again in three months time, to check up," Xu warned.
"You ride his horse and we'll leave," Zhou Qi said to Xu. The two mounted up and galloped off towards Wenguang town.
"Why did you say we would be coming back in three months' time?" Zhou Qi asked.
"I was just deceiving the doctor so that he wouldn't give the old woman any trouble," Xu replied.
Zhou Qi nodded and they continued on for a while.
"Why are you always so crafty with people?" she suddenly asked. "I don't like it."
"You don't realise how many evil people there are in the world," he said after a long silence. "When dealing with friends, love and justice should always come first, of course. But when dealing with bad people, you must be very careful otherwise you will be tricked and will suffer."
"My father say it's better to suffer yourself than to cheat other people," Zhou Qi said.
"That is what makes your father the great man that he is," replied Xu.
"Well, why don't you imitate my father?"
"Lord Zhou is benevolent and generous by nature. I am afraid that such a perverse person as myself would never be able to emulate him."
"That's what I dislike most about you: your perverse temper. My father says that if you treat others well, they will also naturally treat you well in return."
Xu didn't reply.
The two waited until it was dark before entering the town. They found Tang's residence and climbed over the wall toinvestigate. Xu caught a watchman and, threatening him with a knife, asked him about 'Scholar' Yu's whereabouts. The watchman said the two lodgers had left during the confusion after Doctor Cao had killed Master Tang at Little Rose's.
"We'll chase after them," Zhou Qi said.
In less than a day, they had passed Lanzhou. Two days further on, Xu discovered markings on the road left by Chen saying that everyone should meet in Kaifeng. Zhou Qi was delighted to hear that the main group was all right. She had been very worried about her father, but she now relaxed and drank some wine to celebrate. The wound on Xu's shoulder had by now closed and he was fully recovered. They chatted as they travelled. Xu told her stories of the fighting community and explained all its taboos and rules. She took it all in eagerly.
"Why didn't you talk about these things before, instead of always quarrelling with me?" she asked.
That day they arrived at Tongguan, a gateway town between central China and the northwest, and searched for lodgings. They heard that the old Yuelai Inn was the best, but when they got there, they were told there was only one room left.
Zhou Qi was impressed with how refined and polite Xu had been towards her, a real gentleman. But now, suddenly faced with the prospect of having to share a room with him, she was both embarrassed and suspicious.
As soon as they were in the room, Xu barred the door. Zhou Qi's face went bright red and she was just about to speak when Xu hurriedly silenced her with a wave of his hand.
"Did you see that Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency scoundrel just now?" he whispered.
"What?" said Zhou Qi, startled. "You mean the one who led the others round to capture Master Wen and caused the death of my brother?"
"I only caught a glimpse of him so I can't be absolutely sure. I was afraid he would see us, which is why I rushed us into the room. We'll go and investigate in a while."
The servant came in with some hot tea and asked if they wanted anything to eat. Xu ordered a few dishes, then said:
"Several eminent gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency are also staying here, I think?"
"Yes," replied the servant. "Whenever they pass through Tongguan, they always give us their custom."
Xu waited for the servant to leave. "That Lead Escort Tong is the ringleader and chief troublemaker," he said. "We'll finish him off tonight and properly avenge your brother and Master Wen."
Zhou Qi thought once again of her brother's tragic death and the burning of Iron Gall Manor, and her anger surged.
"Lie down for a while and rest," said Xu, seeing her impatience. "We can wait until nightfall before making our move and still have plenty of time."
He sat down at the table and settled himself for sleep without so much as glancing further in Zhou Qi's direction. Zhou Qi had no option but to suppress her anger. She sat down on the kang and tried to rest. The time dragged by until the second bell struck, one hour to midnight, and she decided she could control herself no longer.
"Let's go," she said, drawing her sword.
"There are many of them, and some may be good fighters," Xu whispered. "Let us investigate first. We'll think of some way to lure Tong out, then deal with him alone."
Zhou Qi nodded.
They went into the courtyard and saw a lamp shining in a room on the eastern side. They walked stealthily over. Zhou Qi found a rip in the window paper and looked through while Xu stood behind her keeping a look out. Suddenly, she stood up and kicked out at the window. Xu started in fright, and shot in front of her, blocking her way. Zhou Qi hurriedly retracted her leg as it was about to strike Xu's chest, and overbalanced. He knelt down close to her.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"Do something, quick," she hissed. "My mother's in there. They've got her tied up."
Xu was startled. "Back to the room quickly and we'll discuss it there," he said.
They returned to the room.
"What is there to discuss?" demanded Zhou Qi desperately. "They've captured my mother."
"Control yourself. I will rescue her for you," Xu replied. "How many people were there in the room?"
"About six or seven."
Xu hung his head, deep in thought.
"What are you afraid of?" Zhou Qi asked. "If you won't do it, I'll go by myself."
"I'm not afraid. I'm thinking of a way to save your mother and kill that fellow at the same time. It would be best if we did the two things together."
Just then, footsteps passed by the door, and they heard a man muttering: "Midnight and these lead escorts are still at it. What are they doing drinking at this time? Damn their mothers! May the blessed Buddha make sure they meet up with robbers on the road."
Suddenly, Xu had an idea. "That Doctor Cao gave you two packets of medicine, didn't he?" he said to Zhou Qi. "Give me the one he said would make you unconscious, quickly."
Zhou Qi gave him the packet. "What are you going to do?" she asked. Xu didn't answer, but opened the window and jumped out with Zhou Qi close behind.
They ran along the corridor. Suddenly Xu whispered: "Get down, don't move."
Zhou Qi wondered what trick he was up to. A moment passed, then suddenly they saw a flicker of light as the servant came back towards them carrying a candlestick and a tray. Xu picked a pebble off the ground and threw it, extinguishing the candle.
The servant started in surprise. "This is damn ridiculous," he cursed. "There's no wind at all, and yet the candle goes out."
He put down the tray and turned to relight the candle. While his back was turned, Xu darted out, and in a flash, he had tipped the medicine into the two pots of wine on the tray and slipped away without the servant noticing.
"Let's go and wait outside their room," he said to Zhou Qi.
They made their way round to the exterior of the lead escort's room and settled down to wait. Xu looked in through the hole in the window covering and saw a middle-aged woman seated on the floor with her hands tied behind her back. There were several men sitting around her, including Master Han, the white horse's former owner, and Lead Escorts Qian and Tong. They were engaged in a lively discussion.
"When people talked of Iron Gall Manor, they always said it was impregnable as if it had walls of iron," Tong was saying. "But with just my one torch, it was razed to the ground. Ha ha!"
Outside the window, Xu shook his hand at Zhou Qi, afraid that she would have a fit of rage.
"Old Tong, stop bragging," Han replied. "I've met Zhou and I doubt if all of us together could beat him. If he ever comes looking for you, you'll be in a pretty situation!"
"But look!" replied Taong. "We must have a lucky star, otherwise how could Zhou's old woman manage to find us? With her in our hands, how would he dare to do anything to us?"
Just then, the servant entered with the wine and food, and the bodyguards immediately began eating and drinking heartily. Han was quiet and dispirited and Tong continually urged him to drink the wine, saying "Brother Han, even heroes are helpless when they're outnumbered. Next time, we'll take the Red Flower Society one to one and see who's the better."
"And who are you going to take on, old Tong?" asked another of the bodyguards.
"I'm going to find that daughter of Zhou's…" Before he could finish, he slumped to the floor. The others all started in fright, but as they jumped up to help him, and one by one, they dropped to the ground unconscious.
Xu prised the window open with sword, then leapt into the room. Zhou Qi hurriedly cut the ropes which bound her mother's hands. Lady Zhou was speechless at the sight of her beloved daughter: she felt as if she was in a dream.
Xu lifted Tong up. "Mistress Zhou," he said, "Avenge your brother."
With a sweep of her sword, Zhou Qi killed Tong instantly. She raised her sword again to kill the other lead escorts, but Xu stopped her.
"The crimes of the others do not deserve death. Spare them," he said.
She nodded and withdrew her sword. Lady Zhou knew her daughter's temper, and was surprised at how she obeyed Xu.
Xu searched the bodies of the lead escorts and found several letters which he placed in his gown, planning to examine them later.
The three returned to their room. Xu picked up their knapsacks and left a small silver ingot on the table in payment for the room and the food. Then they went to the stables, led out three horses and galloped off eastwards.
When she realized her daughter was not only travelling with a man but had shared a room with him, Lady Zhou's suspicions rose even further. Her temper was as explosive as her daughter's.
"Who is this gentleman?" she asked accusingly. "How come you are with him? You lost your temper with you father and left, didn't you?"
"It was you that lost your temper and left," Zhou Qi replied. "Mother, I'll talk to you about this later."
It looked as if an argument was about to start, and Xu quickly tried to mediate.
"It's all your fault," Zhou Qi told him angrily. "Do you want to make it worse?"
Xu smiled and walked away. Mother and daughter pouted silently, each thinking her own thoughts.
That night, they took lodgings in a farm house, and once they were in bed, mother and daughter together, Zhou Qi finally told her everything that had happened. Lady Zhou kept up a constant bombardment of questions and the two were crying one minute and laughing the next. It was past midnight before they had each given a rough sketch of the events since they parted.
Heartbroken and angry over the death of her son, Lady Zhou had gone to Lanzhou to stay with relatives, but after a few days, she began to feel restless, and left. On reaching Tongguan, he saw the Zhen Yuan Agency's flag outside the Yuelai Inn. She remembered that the man responsible for her son's death was a Lead Escort Tong and that evening she had gone to the inn to investigate. She listened to the lead escorts talking, and discovered Tong was among them. Unable to control her anger, she attacked him, but the agency men had the superiority of numbers and she was captured.
The next day on the road, Lady Zhou asked Xu about hisfamily background.
"I am from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province," Xu replied. "When I was twelve, all the members of my family were killed by the authorities. I was the only one who managed to escape."
"Why did they do that?" asked Lady Zhou.
"The magistrate of Shaoxing prefecture liked my sister and wanted her as his concubine. But she had already been promised to someone else, so my father naturally refused to agree. The magistrate then accused my father of being in collusion with bandits and put him and my mother and brother in prison. He told my sister that all she had to do was agree, and my father would be released. My sister's husband-to-be went to assassinate the magistrate, but he was caught and beaten to death by the guards. When my sister heard, she drowned herself in the river. After that, what chance did the rest of the family have of being spared?"
"Did you get revenge?" Zhou Qi asked.
"When I had grown up and had learned the martial arts, I went back to look for the magistrate, but he had been promoted and transferred somewhere else. In the last few years, I've been everywhere looking for him, but I've never had any news."
Lady Zhou also asked him if he was married, and said that having travelled about so much, he must surely have seen some girl he liked?
"He's too cunning. No girl would want him," Zhou Qi said with a laugh.
"Enough of your remarks, young lady," Lady Zhou scolded her.
"You want to become his match-maker, don't you?" Zhou Qi said with a smile. "Which girl are you thinking of? One of your relatives in Lanzhou?"
When they lodged at an inn that night, Lady Zhou spoke plainly to her daughter.
"A virgin like yourself, travelling together with a young man and staying in the same room! How do you expect to ever be able to marry anyone else?" she said.
"He was wounded," Zhou Qi replied angrily. "Did I do wrong to save him? He may be full of cunning tricks but he has been very gentlemanly towards me all along."
"You know that, and so does he. I believe you, and your father would believe you too. But how are other people going to believe it? If your husband ever suspected, you would never be able to face him again. That is the difficulty we women have."
"Well then, I shall never marry," shouted Zhou Qi.
"Shh! Master Xu is just in the next room." Lady Zhou said. "It would be very embarrassing if he should hear."
"Why should I be afraid? I haven't done anything wrong. Why do you want to deceive him?"
When they arose next morning, a servant brought a letter to them.
"Master Xu next door told me to give this to your Ladyships," he said. "The master said he had some affairs to attend to and had to go on ahead. He rode out early this morning."
Zhou Qi snatched the letter from him.
"Dear Lady Zhou and Mistress Zhou," it said. "Mistress Zhou Qi saved my life when I was wounded and I am very grateful to her. You are now reunited and can make your way from here to Kaifeng, which is not far. Please do not be offended that I have gone on ahead. I will naturally never forget how Mistress Zhou saved me, but please rest assured that I will never mention a word of it to anyone. Yours, Xu."
Zhou Qi finished reading and stood dumbfounded for a second. Then she threw the letter away and lay back down on the kang. Lady Zhou told her to get up and eat, but she took no notice.
"My daughter, we are not in Iron Gall Manor now," Lady Zhou said. "What are you losing your temper for?" Zhou Qi still took no notice.
"You're angry at him for leaving, aren't you?" Lady Zhou said.
"He did it for my sake. Why should I blame him?" Zhou Qi replied angrily. She turned over and covered her head with the coverlet.
"Then why do you blame me?" asked Lady Zhou.
Zhou Qi suddenly sat up.
"He must have heard what you said last night. He was afraid other people would gossip and make it impossible for me to marry, so he left. But why worry about whether I'll marry or not? I refuse to marry anyone. I refuse to marry anyone!"
Lady Zhou saw she was crying as she spoke, and realized that she had fallen in love with Xu. She had unwittingly revealed her feelings without fully understanding them herself.
"You are the only daughter I have," Lady Zhou comforted her. "Do you think I don't love you? When we get to Kaifeng I'll speak to your father and get him to take charge of this matter so that you can be betrothed to Master Xu. Don't worry yourself. Your mother will see to everything."
"Who said I wanted to marry him?" Zhou Qi replied hurriedly. "The next time I see someone dying in front of me, I won't do anything to save him, not the slightest thing."
Xu followed Chen's secret markings to Kaifeng and met the heroes at the home of the local society leader there. The heroes were very happy to see that he was all right, and a banquet was held to welcome him. By this time, Zhang Jin, 'Leopard' Wei and Xin Yan had all recovered from their wounds. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi had not yet returned from the Muslim border regions and the Twin Knights were still trying to find out what had happened to Wen.
Xu did not mention anything about Lady Zhou or Zhou Qi to Lord Zhou. He was afraid that if questioned closely, it would be difficult to word his answers. And anyway, he thought, they will be here within a day. So he only told the heroes about what he had heard of 'Scholar' Yu: that he was badly wounded and travelling with a girl dressed as a boy. They discussed the matter for a while but could not think who the girl could be. They were all worried about his safety, but Yu was quick-witted and they were confident he would be all right.
Early next morning, Zhou Qi arrived by herself and her father and the others were delighted to see her. After greetings were over, she said quietly to Xu: "Come with me. I have something to say to you."
He walked slowly after her. He thought she wanted to berate him for leavng them behind, but he was wrong.
"My mother won't come to see my father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Think of something."
"Well, ask your father to go to see her," said Xu, surprised.
"She still wouldn't be willing to see him. She goes on and on about the death of my brother, saying my father has no conscience."
Xu thought for a moment. "All right," he said finally. "I have an idea." He quietly gave her instrucitons.
"Will it work?" she asked.
"Definitely. You'd better go immediately."
Xu waited until she had left, then returned to sit with the other heroes. When the appointed hour arrived, he quietly said to Lord Zhou: "I understand the Bamboo Garden restaurant next to the Iron Pagoda Temple is famous for its excellent wine. Let us go and try it."
"Good idea! I will be the host," replied Zhou, who was always interested in wine. "We can all go and drink our fill."
"The eyes and ears of officials are numerous in this city. It would not be a good idea for all of us to go," Xu replied. "Perhaps if just the Great Helmsman and I accompanied you, what do you think?"
"All right," Zhou replied. "Once again, it is you that thinks things out most carefully."
After speaking to Chen, the three went directly to the Iron Pagoda Temple. The Bamboo Garden was as good as its reputation. The three men talked, ate Yellow River carp and drank wine until they were drunk.
Xu raised his cup to Zhou. "I drink to you, Lord Zhou, in honour of your being reunited today with your daughter," he said.
Zhou drank a mouthful and sighed.
"You are not happy," Xu continued. "Is it because Iron Gall Manor was burned to the ground?"
"Wealth is not a part of the flesh. Such a thing as Iron Gall Manor is not worthy of regret," Zhou replied.
"Well then, you must be thinking of your deceased son?"
Zhou said nothing but sighed once again.
"Seventh Brother, let us go," said Chen. "I've had enough wine.
Xu ignored him. "Why did Lady Zhou leave home?" he asked.
"She blamed me for killing the child. Ah, where could she have run to, all alone? She loved him as much as her own life. I have truly failed her. I had no intention of killing him. It was just a slip of the hand in anger. Once we have rescued Master Wen, I will search to the farthest ends of the earth to find her and bring her back."
As he spoke the door curtain parted and Lady Zhou and Zhou Qi walked in.
"I heard what you said," said Lady Zhou. "I'm glad to see you're willing to admit your mistake. I'm here now, so there's no need to go looking for me."
Zhou was so startled and delighted at the sudden appearance of his wife that he was momentarily speechless.
"Brother Chen, this is my mother," Zhou Qi said. "Mother, this is Great Helmsman Chen of the Red Flower Society." The two greeted each other formally.
"Father, what a coincidence this is," the girl added. "I had heard that the wine here was good and decided to try it. Mother didn't want to come and I had to drag her along. Who would have guessed that you would be here too?"
They all laughed and drank, Zhou Qi was exuberantly happy, and without thinking, she began to talk elatedly about how Lead Escort Tong had been killed and the death of her brother and the burning of the manor avenged. Xu surruptitiously tried to stop her, but she took no notice.
"Brother Xu was very clever to think of a way to deal with them," she exclaimed. "After all the Lead Ecorts had passed out, we jumped in through the window and saved mother. Then he lifted Tong up and let me kill that villainous bandit myself."
Zhou and Chen toasted Xu.
"You have saved my wife and taken revenge on my behalf," Zhou said to him. "I am eternally gratefuly to you."
"How did you two meet up on the way?" Chen asked, and Xu faltered along for a few sentences trying to explain.
"Damn! Damn!" Zhou Qi thought to herself in distress. Her face flushed and an unintentional movement of her arm knocked her chopsticks and winecup to the ground. The winecup smashed loudly, increasing her embarrassment.
Chen examined both their faces carefully, and when they had returned to the residence, he called Xu over to one side.
"Brother Xu, what is your opinion of Mistress Zhou?" he asked.
"Great Helmsman," Xu replied hurriedly. "Please don't mention what she said in the restaurant to anyone. She is a good person and has a pure heart, but if other people knew and added a touch of filth, we wouldn't ever be able to face Lord Zhou again."
"I think Mistress Zhou is an extremely nice person too," Chen said. "How would you like me to be your match-maker?"
"That's impossible," said Xu, jumping up. "How could I be good enough for her?"
"You must not be so modest. You are the 'Kungfu Mastermind', renowned throughout the fighting community. Lord Zhou always speaks of you with the greatest respect."
Xu stood dumbfounded for a second.
"What do you think?" Chen repeated.
"Great Helmsman, you don't know. She doesn't like me."
"How do you know?"
"She said so herself. She said she hated my peculiar ways. We have been quarrelling and arguing ever since we met."
Chen laughed. "So you're certain?"
"Great Helmaman, there's no point talking about it. We cannot risk being turned down."
Just then, a servant entered.
"Master Chen," he said. "Lord Zhou is outside and wishes to speak to you."
Chen smiled at Xu and walked out of the room. He saw Zhou pacing up and down the corridor with his hands behind his back and quickly went up to him.
"Lord Zhou, you should have called for me. Was it necessary to come personally?"
"It's not important," Zhou replied, and with a tug on Chen's arm, led him into a reception room and sat down.
"I have something on my mind and want to ask your help," he said. "My daugher is nineteen this year. She has been a good-for-nothing since she was born, but she is basically a good and sincere person. Her faults are the result of my teaching her something of the martial arts. She has wasted much time and still has no husband." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "Everyone respects your honourable Society's Master Xu. I would like to ask you to become a match-maker and arrange for my daughter's betrothal to him. But I am afraid that with her bad temper, she would not be good enough."
Chen was delighted. "Leave this matter completely in my hands," he said. "You are the Taishan Mountain and North Star of the fighting community, Lord Zhou. It is a great honour for the Red Flower Society that you are willing to give up your daughter to one of our brothers. I will go and see to it immediately."
He ran to Xu's room and told him the news. Xu was so delighted, his heart beat wildly.
"Well," Chen said. "Are you willing?"
"Why wouldn't I be willing?"
"I didn't expect that you'd be unwilling," Chen replied with a smile. "But there is something else. All of Lord Zhou's three sons are dead, and the youngest died because of the Red Flower Society. It looks like the Zhou family line is finished. I wonder if you would be willing to make a concession and become not only his son-in-law, but his son as well?"
"You want me to become a member of the Zhou family?"
"Yes. The first of your future sons would be surnamed Zhou, and the second Xu. It would be a small repayment of our debt to Lord Zhou."
Xu agreed. The two went round to Zhou's room and also asked Lady Zhou to come over. Unaware of what was happening, Zhou Qi followed her in. As soon as Zhou saw the expression on the faces of Chen and Xu, he knew the matter was decided.
"Daughter, go outside," he said with a smile.
"You are trying to deceive me about something," she replied accusingly. "I won't have it!" But despite her words, she turned and left.
Chen brought up his idea of Xu becoming a member of the Zhou clan, and Lady Zhou and her husband beamed with delight.
"We are away from home and I don't have anything worthy to present to you," Zhou said to Xu. "But later I will teach you how to use the Iron Gallstones."
Xu was overwhelmed. He had gained both a beautiful wife and a wise teacher, and he knelt down to kowtow in thanks.
As soon as the news leaked out, the other heroes came to offer their congratulations. That night, a great banquet was held to celebrate, but Zhou Qi hid herself and refused to come out.
During the drinking, 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi returned from his journey to the Muslim regions with Muzhuolun's answer to Chen's letter.
Chen took the letter. Just then, 'Crocodile' Jiang raced in shouting: "The Yellow River 's broken it's banks!"
They clustered round and questioned him on the extent of the disaster.
"The river's already broken through at seven or eight points. In many places the roads are completely impassable," he replied.
They were all concerned about how the peasants were faring. Furthermore, the Twin Knights had still not returned to report on Wen's situation.
"Brothers, we have already waited here several days," said Chen. "Conditions on the road ahead have probably changed, and I am afraid the floods will have ruined our plans. What do you all think we should do?"
"We can't wait any longer," Zhang Jin called out. "Let's get on to Beijing quickly. Even if they are holding Fourth Brother in the Heavenly Prison, we'll still get him out."
The others voiced their agreement, and it was decided to start out immediately. They thanked the local society chief and headed off eastwards.
While on the road, Chen opened and read Muzhuolun's letter. In it, he thanked the Red Flower Society for its warning and said he had called his tribe together and was preparing for war, determined to fight the enemy to the end. The mood of the letter was tragically heroic and Chen's anxiety showed on his face.
"Did Master Muzhuolun have anything else to say?" he asked Shi.
"He asked after Fourth Brother. When he heard we had not yet rescued him, he expressed great concern."
"Did you meet Master Muzhuolun's family?" Chen asked.
"I met his wife, son and two daughters. You know the eldest daughter. She asked after your health."
Chen hesitated. "She didn't say anything other than that?" he asked slowly.
Shi thought for a second. "Just before I left, there appeared to be something else she wished to say to me, but she asked only about the details of our attempt to rescue Fourth Brother."
Chen was silent. He put his hand into his gown and felt the dagger that Huo Qingtong had given him. The blade was eight inches long, bright and dazzling, and the handle was entwined with gold thread. Judging by the amount that had been worn away, it was of great antiquity. Huo Qingtong had said that a great secret was supposed to be hidden in the sword. He had examined it closely over the past few days, but had been unable to find anything unusual about it. He turned and looked back westwards. The host of stars were shining brightly, and he wondered whether on the great flat desert, the same stars were now shining on Huo Qingtong.
They travelled all night, and when morning broke, they were already close to the places where the Yellow River had broken through. The great plain had turned into a vast lake. The fields and homes of people in low-lying areas had long since been submerged. Many people were camping out in the open on the hilltops.
The heroes made their way round the flood, keeping to the high ground and heading eastwards. Occasionally, they spotted a cluster of corpses bobbing along beside pieces of driftwood. That night, they lodged out in the open, and the next day had to make a long detour.
Zhou Qi had been riding with Luo Bing the whole way, but suddenly she could restrain herself no longer. She spurred her horse on and caught up with Xu.
"You're the one with all the ideas," she said. "Think of a way to save these people."
During the two days since they had become engaged, the two had been too embarrassed to speak to each other. Now, the first thing Zhou Qi did when she opened her mouth was to present him with a problem of mammoth proportions.
"It's all very well to say that, but how can we possibly help so many refugees?" he replied.
"Why would I come and ask you if I knew of a way?"
"First thing tomorrow I will tell all the others that they are not to call me 'Kung Fu Mastermind' anymore. Then you won't be able to put me on the spot like this."
"When did I ever put you on the spot?" Zhou Qi asked quickly. "All right, I was wrong. I would be better off if I didn't say anything." She pouted silently.
"Sister, we are all one family now. We cannot continue to argue like this," Xu said. Zhou Qi ignored him.
"It is I who is in the wrong," he coaxed. "Forgive me this time and give me a smile." Zhou Qi turned her head away.
"Ah, so you won't even smile. You are so bashful in front of your new fiance."
She burst into laughter. "You talk such nonsense," she said, raising her horse whip.
The road was filled with refugees, dragging their sons and carrying their daughters, crying and wailing as they went. Suddenly a horseman appeared, galloping towards them fast. The road was very narrow and as the rider careered from side to side, he knocked a woman carrying a child into the water. But he took no notice, and continued to gallop on. The heroes was furious, and as the rider passed by, 'Leopard' Wei pulled him off his horse and punched him solidly in the face. The man screamed and spat out a mouthful of blood and three teeth.
He was a military official.
"You bunch of bandit hooligans," he shouted as he scrambled to his feet. "I am on important official business. I'll deal with you when I come back." He mounted his horse but Zhang Jin pulled him off again.
"What important official business?" he roared.
"Search him," Chen ordered. Zhang Jin frisked him quickly and found an official document which he handed over.
Chen saw the document had a singed corner and a chicken's feather stuck to it indicating that it was an urgent report which the courier would be required to travel day and night to deliver. On it's wrapper was written the words: "Extra Urgent Dispatch for Border Pacification General Zhao." He broke the seal and took out the document.
The courier went white with fear. "That's a secret military document," he shouted. "Aren't you afraid of execution?"
"If anyone's going to be executed, it's you," replied Xin Yan with a laugh.
Chen saw the letter was from a certain commander in charge of provisions reporting to General Zhao that rations for the Great Army had reached Lanfeng, but that because of the floods, there might be a delay of several days before they could be delivered.
Chen handed the letter to Xu. "It has nothing to do with us," he said.
But as Xu read the document an expression of delight filled his face. "Great Helmsman," he cried. "This is truly a great treasure delivered to us on a plate. With this, we can both assist Master Muzhuolun and save the refugees."
He jumped off his horse and walked over to the official and tore the document up in front of him.
"What are you going to do now?" he asked. "Isn't losing a military document a capital offence? If you want to live, it would be best to run."
The official was startled and angry, but he saw the truth of Xu's words. He took off his military uniform, threw it in the water, then ran off, melding into the mass of refugees.
"Steal the provisions and hand them out as disaster relief, and we can kill two birds with one stone," Chen said, nodding. "The only problem is that the provisions for the Great Army are bound to be heavily guarded, and we are few in number. What ideas do you have, Brother Xu?"
Xu whispered a few words in his ear, and Chen nodded in agreement.
"Good, we'll do it that way," he said, and ordered the heroes to disguise themselves and disperse.
Their instructions were to spread rumours.
The next morning, tens of thousands of refugees suddenly descended on Lanfeng. When the county magistrate, Wang Dao, saw the extraordinary situation, he ordered his officers to seize several refugees and question them. They all said they had heard there would be a distribution of relief money and provisions in the city that day. Wang immediately ordered the city gates to be barred, but by then, a huge crowd of refugees had already gathered inside with many more outside. Wang sent someone to announce to the crowd that there would be no distribution of relief, but the crowds continued to grow. Beginning to feel nervous, he went personally to see the Provisions Commander Sun, who was stationed in the Stone Buddha Temple in the eastern part of the city. He asked if some of the commander's troops could be assigned to help control the situation in the city.
"I have my orders from General Zhao," Sun replied. "Any slip-up, no matter how small, before these provisions reach the Great Army will be a capital offence. It is not that I am unwilling to help, but my responsibilities are heavy. Please forgive me, Master Wang."
Wang pleaded with him, but Sun was adament. Back on the streets, he saw the refugees creating an uproar everywhere.
Night fell, and fires started simultaneously in several parts of the city. Magistrate Wang hurriedly dispatched men to put them out, and in the confusion, an officer ran in to report.
"Master! There's trouble," he cried. "The west gate has been forced by the refugees and thousands more are streaming into the city."
Wang could only rant in despair, completely at a loss for what to do.
"Prepare a horse!" he shouted frantically, and led his guards towards the western part of the city. But before they had gone half a street, they found the way completely blocked by refugees. He heard someone in the midst of the crowd shout: "The food and money are to be distributed at the Stone Buddha Temple! Everyone to the Stone Buddha Temple!" The refugees surged forward.
Wang could see the way was impassible. He decided there was nothing for it but to go to the Stone Buddha Temple and seek refuge there. When he arrived, the temple gate was already tightly shut, but the guard recognized him and let him in. Outside, the refugees had already surrounded the temple. Someone in the crowd shouted: "All the relief cash and food issued by the court have been swallowed by the dog officials. Hand out the cash and food! Hand out the cash and food!"
The mass of the refugees took up the chant and their roar rattled the roof tiles.
Wang shook uncontrollably. "Rebels!" he bellowed. "Rebels!"
For a military official, Commander Sun was quite brave. He ordered his soldiers to place a ladder next to the wall and climbed up on top.
"Those of you who are peaceful citizens, leave the city quickly and do not put faith in rumours," he shouted. "If you do not leave, we will be forced to fire on you with arrows."
The two officers led a group of archers onto the top of the wall and a roar of defiance went up from the crowd.
"Fire!" shouted Sun. A wave of arrows shot out and a dozen or more refugees fell to the ground. The crowd turned and fled in panic and the cries of women and children could be heard as the refugees trampled each other.
Sun laughed out loud. But before the laugh ended, someone in the crowd threw two stones at him, one of which hit his cheek. He felt a sharp pain and rubbed the spot only to find his hand covered in blood.
"Fire! Fire!" he ordered in a great rage. The archers shot out another wave of arrows and another dozen refugees were hit.
Suddenly, two tall, thin men leapt up onto the wall, grabbed several of the archers and threw them to the ground. Incensed by the way they had been fired on, the refugees surged back and began beating the archers viciously.
The Red Flower Society heroes in the crowd were greatly surprised by the sudden re-appearance of the Twin Knights. More of them jumped up onto the wall and into the temple courtyard, and a moment later, the temple gates opened and 'Crocodile' Jiang ran out.
"Everyone come and get some food," he shouted, beckoning to the refugees. But the soldiers were many and the refugees did not dare to press in too close. Commander Sun's great sword danced as he fought desperately along the top of the wall, retreating steadily. Suddenly, his arms went numb, and his sword clattered to the ground at the foot of the wall. Someone forced his hands behind his back, and he felt an icy coldness on his neck.
"You Turtle!" the man behind him shouted. "Order the troops to throw down their weapons and retreat inside the temple!"
Sun hesitated for a second and he felt a sharp pain on his neck as the man lightly moved his sword, breaking through a layer of skin. Not daring to disobey further, Sun shouted out the order. Seeing their commanding officer had been captured, the soldiers did as they were ordered and retired inside the temple as the refugees roared their approval.
Great Helmsman Chen walked into the main hall of the temple and saw the altar piled high with bags of food and cash. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi pulled County Magistrate Wang in for Chen to dispose of.
"Are you in charge of this county?" Chen asked.
"Y-yes…your Majesty," Wang replied in a quavering voice.
Chen laughed. "Do I look like a king?" he asked.
"I deserved to die. I spoke incorrectly. What is your honourable name, sir?"
Chen smiled slightly and ignored the question. "Since you are an official, you must have some scholarship in you," he said. "I will give you the first line of a couplet for you to match." He lightly waved his fan. "If you are able to match it, your life will be spared. If you cannot, then I will not be so polite."
The refugees gathered round, forming a circle of thousands of eyes all focussed on Wang's face.
"Now listen," said Chen. "The first line is: 'How long must we live for the Yellow River to be clear of mud? Rather ask if officialdom can be cleared of corruption.'"
Wang's face was covered in sweat. He was a competent scholar, but in the midst of his fear, he could think of nothing.
"Sir," he finally said. "Your first line is too difficult. I…I cannot match it."
"That's all right," Chen replied. "Let me ask you plainly. Which would be easier: to clear up the Yellow River or officialdom?"
Wang suddenly had an idea. "I consider that if all officialdom were clear, then the Yellow River would be clear too," he said.
Chen laughed. "Well said. I shall spare your life. Call together your guards and distribute the money and food to the refugees. Oh, and Commander Sun, you can help too."
The refugees cheered thunderously for the Red Flower Society heroes. As they filed past to collect the food and money, they jeered and laughed at Sun and Wang, who pretended not to notice.
"Brothers and sisters, listen!" Chen called out. "If the authorities should send people to investigate, you can say it was the Commander and County Magistrate who personally made the distribution."
The refugees shouted their approval.
The heroes supervised the operation late into the night until all the food and cash had been distributed.
"Brothers!" Xu then shouted to the refugees. "Take the soldiers' weapons and hide them in your homes. If the dog officials know what's good for them, they'll leave you alone, but if they should come after you, you can fight them."
Strong men came forward and collected up the swords and spears that had been discarded by the soldiers.
Chen walked out of the temple with Commander Sun and the other heroes as the refugees roared their thanks. They mounted their horses and rode out of the city. After travelling a few miles, Chen pushed Sun off his horse.
"Commander, thank you for your help," he said. "The next time you escort provisions, be sure to write to me." He laughed and saluted, then galloped off in a cloud of dust with the other heroes.
"Do you have any news of Fourth Brother?" Chen asked the Twin Knights after they had ridden on a little way.
"We found a message left by Brother Yu which said he was being taken to Hangzhou," one of them replied.
Chen was greatly surprised. "Why is he being sent to Hangzhou and not Beijing?" he asked. "I thought the Emperor wanted to question him personally."
"We thought it strange too. But Brother Yu always handles things very carefully. It's certain to be reliable information."
Chen told the others to dismount, and they sat round in a circle and discussed the situation.
"Since Brother Wen is being sent to Hangzhou, we should head south and try to work out some way of saving him," Xu said. " Hangzhou is our territory. The power of the court is not as great there as in Beijing, so it should be easier to rescue him. But we should still send someone to Beijing to see if there is any news, just in case."
The others agreed. Chen looked over at Shi. "I wonder if I can trouble you to go once more, Twelfth Brother," he said.
"All right," Shi replied. He headed off northwards alone towards Beijing while the other heroes rode south.
Chen enquired further of the Twin Knights about Yu's movements, but they said they had no further information. They had returned to report as soon as they had seen the markings. Passing through Lanfeng, they had come across the refugees and met up with the other heroes.
"With the provisions gone, Sister Huo Qingtong and her people should have no trouble beating the Great Army," Zhou Qi said.
"That girl's sword style wasn't bad, and she was a nice person too," added Priest Wu Chen. "She deserves our help. I hope she does beat them. It would be something everyone could rejoice at."
In less than a day, the heroes arrived in Xuzhou. The local Red Flower Society Chief was immediately rushed off his feet making arrangements for them. After a night's rest, they continued on south. Every place they passed through now, big and small, had a Red Flower Society branch, but the heroes maintained their anonymity and sped onwards. They reached Hangzhou several days later and took up residence in the home of the Hangzhou Helmsman, Ma Shanjun. Ma's residence lay at the foot of Lonely Mountain beside the West Lake.
Ma was a merchant who owned two large silk factories. About fifty years old and portly, Ma, in his flowered silk robe and black woollen jacket, was the picture of a wealthy man used to luxury. But the appearance was deceptive: he was also a brave fighter. That night at a welcoming banquet in the rear hall, the heroes told him of their plan to rescue Wen Tailai.
"I will immediately dispatch men to find out which prison Master Wen is in, and then we can decide on a plan of action." He ordered his son Ma Dating to send someone to investigate.
The next morning, the son reported that his men had discreetly asked about Wen at all the prisons and military headquarters in the area, but had failed to find any trace of him.
Chen called a meeting of the heroes to discuss the situation.
"We have brothers in all the Yamens and in the military headquarters," said Ma. "If Master Wen was in an official prison, we would know about it. I am afraid the authorities are guarding him secretly."
"Our first step is to find out where Brother Wen is," said Chen. "Please continue to dispatch capable men around all the Yamens, Brother Ma. This evening, I will ask Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights to go to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen to see what they can find out. It is important that we don't alert the Manchus to what we are doing so whatever happens, there must be no fighting."
Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights set out at midnight and returned four hours later to report that the Yamen was tightly guarded with at least a thousand soldiers with torches on guard duty. Several of the officers on patrol were second and third level Mandarins wearing red caps. The three had waited a long time, but the troops did not drop their vigilance in the slightest and they had no option but to return.
"The patrols have been particularly strict around Hangzhou over the past few days," Ma said. "Yamen officers have visited every gambling den and every brothel, and many people have been seized for no reason at all. Could it have something to do with Master Wen?"
"I don't think so," replied Xu. "The local people must be making an extra effort to impress some high officials visiting from Beijing.
"I haven't heard of any high officials coming here," Ma said.
The next day, Zhou Qi asked her parents to take her to see the famous West Lake. Lord Zhou agreed and asked Xu to accompany them. Xu had lost his parents when he was very young and had been alone ever since. To be suddenly treated as a son by Lord Zhou and his wife and to have such a lovely fiancee moved him greatly. He was very happy, and the brothers were happy for him.
Great Helsman Chen also went to the lake for a stroll with Xin Yan. They walked for a while, then sat alone on a bridge and gazed at the depths of the lake and the mountains. The forests of bamboo and wood on the hillsides were dark and dense, a myriad leaves glistening brightly. The air was moist and hazy and the beautiful mountain peaks were wreathed in clouds. Chen had been to the West Lake several times in his youth, but had been unable, then, to appreciate its beauty.
As he gazed out at the scene, he spotted a carriage heading towards the Hidden Spirit Temple on Flying Peak, five hundred feet above them.
"Let's go up there," he said to Xin Yan. There was no road straight up to the peak, but the Lightness Kung Fu of both was excellent and they reached the top quickly. They gazed up at the sky, enjoying the peace and seclusion of the forest.
Suddenly, they saw two large men wearing blue gowns walking towards them. The two weighed up Chen and Xin Yan as they passed, expressions of surprise on their faces.
"Master, they're Kung fu experts," Xin Yan whispered.Two more men appeared walking towards them dressed exactly the same. They were discussing the scenery, and from their accents, it appeared they were Manchus. All the way along the path, they kept passing the blue-gowned fighters, perhaps thirty or forty in all, who all looked surprised when they saw Chen.
Xin Yan was dizzy at the sight of so many obviously top-ranking fighters. Chen was curious.
"Could it be that some secret society or martial arts school is holding a meeting here?" he thought. "But Hangzhou is Red Flower Society territory. If there was something of that sort, we would surely have been informed. I wonder why they all look so surprised when they see me?"
They rounded a bend and the sound of a lute accompanied by a chanting voice and the soft tinkle of a waterfall drifted across towards them. The voice recited:
"All is peace throughout heaven and earth,
Fortunes and good fortune mount over four reigns.
The people wait to greet the Emperor
The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.
As the Imperial attendants appear."
They strolled across in the direction of the music, and saw a man dressed in the manner of a noble seated on a rock playing the lute. He was aged about forty. Two strong fighters and one stooped old man, all wearing blue gowns, stood beside him.
Chen suddenly shivered. He was struck with a vague feeling of recognition as he looked at the lute player. The man had an aristocratic bearing, and the more Chen looked at him, the more he seemed familiar.
The group eyed Chen and Xin Yan warily. The lute-player's fingers performed a final swirl over the strings and the lute was silent.
Chen saluted with his fists. "I could not help overhearing the song you just played, sir," he said. "I have never heard it before. Did you write it yourself?"
The man smiled. "Yes. It is a recent composition of mine. Since you are a music lover, I would be grateful of your opinion."
"Excellent, excellent," said Chen. "I especially liked the phrase 'The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.'"
An expression of delight appeared on the man's face. "So you remember the words. Please come over here and sit down, sir."
Chen refrained from adding that he disapproved of the way the song flattered the Emperor. He walked over, bowed and sat down.
The man studied Chen carefully and with curiosity.
"While coming up to the peak, we met a large number of other strollers all of whom looked surprised when they saw me," said Chen. "You now look at me in the same way. Is there something strange about my face?"
The man laughed. "You wouldn't know," he said. "I have a friend who bears a remarkable resemblance to you. The people you met on the path are also my friends, so they were naturally puzzled."
"So that's it," Chen smiled. "I also find your face very familiar, as if we had met before, but I can't remember when. I wonder if you can?"
The man laughed again. "Well that really is strange," he said. "What is your honourable name, sir?"
"Lu Jiachen. And you, sir?"
The man thought for a moment. "My name is Dongfeng. I am from Hebei Province. From your accent, I would guess you are from around here."
"That is correct," said Chen.
"I had long heard that the scenic beauty of the south was incomparable," continued the man who called himself Master Dongfang. "I can see today that it is true. Not only is the scenery superb, but the area is also obviously blessed with much talent."
Chen could tell from his speech that this was no ordinary man. He watched the reverential way in which the old man and the other two attendants treated him, and wondered just who he was.
"Someone with such outstanding knowledge of music as yourself must certainly be a virtuoso," Dongfang said. "Why not play a song for us?" He pushed the seven-stringed lute in front of Chen.
Chen stretched out his hand and lightly strummed the strings and found the lute's tone to be matchlessly crisp and clear. It looked liked an antique of great age.
"I am not worthy of playing such an instrument," he said. He checked the tuning, then struck up a tune, named 'The Goose Lands on the Flat Sands'.
Dongfang listened, engrossed. "Have you ever been to the border regions?" He asked when the tune finished.
"I have just returned from there," Chen replied. "How did you know?"
"Your playing conjures up the vast emptiness of the great desert. I have heard that tune many times in my life, but never have I heard it played with such feeling." Chen saw he indeed had a great knowledge of music and was very pleased.
"There is something I would like to ask you," Dongfang continued.
"Please feel free to ask."
"I would guess that you are from the family of an official," he said. "What post does your respected father hold? And what is your rank?"
"My father has unfortunately passed away. I myself am a man of mediocre abilities with no official rank," Chen replied.
"But you are obviously greatly talented. Could it be that the examiners failed to appreciate your abilities?"
"No, it is not that."
"The Commander-in-chief of Zhejing province is a friend of mine. If you went to see him tomorrow, you could have an opportunity."
"Thank you for you kind thought, but I have no wish to be an official," Chen replied.
"But do you intend to hide yourself away like this forever?"
"I would prefer to live in seclusion than oppress the common people."
Dongfang's expression suddenly changed and the two blue-gowned attendants both took a step forward. He was silent for a second, then laughed out loud. "You are indeed a man of noble character," he said. "Simple folk such as myself cannot be compared with you."
The two weighed each other up, aware that there was something special about the other.
"You must have heard much news on your long journey from the Moslem regions," Dongfang said.
"When I arrived at the Yellow River, I found great flooding and many homeless people. I had no heart for appreciating the scenery after that."
"I am told that the refugees in Lanfeng looted grain stores meant for the western army. Did you hear anything about that?"
Chen started in surprise and wondered how he could have known. They had hurried south after the Lanfeng incident without resting. "I understand there was such an incident," he said. "The refugees had no clothes and no food and the local officials did nothing to help them. They were forced to break the law in order to survive, an action which under the circumstances is pardonable."
Dongfang was silent for a while. "I understand it was not quite simple as that," he said nonchalantly. "I heard the Red Flower Society incited the refugees."
"What is the Red Flower Society›" asked Chen, feigning ignorance.
"It is rebellious underworld society. Have you never heard of it?"
"I am afraid that between my lute and my chess board, I have little time for the affairs of the world."
"There's no need to be ashamed. These people are in any case no great problem."
"What basis do you have for saying that?"
"The Emperor is on the throne and the administration of the country is enlightened and orderly. Once one or two men with talent are assigned to the job, the Red Flower Society will be destroyed in no time at all."
"I know nothing of administration, so please do not laugh if I should say something stupid. But in my humble opinion, most court officials are drunkards and guzzlers. I doubt if they would be able to accomplish such a mission."
As he spoke, Dongfang and his three attendants turned pale.
"That is simply the view of a scholar," Dongfang replied. "These friends of mine here are of more than mediocre ability. If you were a student of the martial arts, you would know that I was not exaggerating."
"I lack even the stength to tie up a chicken, but I have always had the greatest respect for heroic fighters," Chen said. "Are these your pupils? I wonder if you could ask them to perform a demonstration of their abilities?"
"Show this Master Lu one of your tricks," Dongfang said to the attendants.
"Thank you," said Chen.
One of the attendants stepped forward. "That magpie in the tree is too noisy," he said. "I'll knock it down so we can have some peace."
With a wave of his hand, a sleeve dart shot off towards the magpie, but just as it neared the target, it suddenly veered off to one side and missed.
Donggang looked surprised and the attendant's face went red with embarrassment. He threw another dart. This time everyone was watching closely and saw a piece of earth knock the dart off course.
The old man noticed Xin Yan's hand had moved slightly and realised he was responsible. "This young brother's kung fu is excellent. We must get to know one another," he said and grasped for Xin Yan's hand with fingers of steel.
Chen was surprised to see the old man was using Great Eagle's Claw kung fu. "There are only a handful of men as good as that," he thought. "Why would such a man agree to be Dongfang's servant?"
He flicked open his fan in front of Xin Yan as the old man lunged at the boy, and the old man quickly withdrew. As his master was treating Chen in a friendly manner, it would be extremely disrespectful to damage one of his possessions. He glanced at Chen, wondering if he knew kung fu. Chen began fanning himself lightly, completely relaxed as if the move a second ago had been a pure coincidence.
"This boy's kung fu is very good despite his youth," said Dongfang. "Where did you find him?"
"He doesn't know kung fu," replied Chen. "But he has been throwing things at insects and birds since he was small, and he's become quite good at it."
Dongfang could see this was untrue, but did not pursue the matter. He looked at Chen's fan.
"Whose is the calligraphy on your fan? May I look?" he asked. Chen handed the fan over to him.
"A man who was not of such noble character as yourself would be unworthy of this object. Where did you get it?"
"I bought it in a bookstore for ten gold pieces."
"If you had paid ten times as much, I would still consider it a bargain," Dongfang replied. "Possessions such as this are usually passed down from generation to generation in the great families. It is certainly amazing that you were able to buy it so easily in a bookstore."
Chen knew Dongfang didn't believe him, but he didn't care. He smiled lightly.
"I like this fan very much," Dongfang said. "I wonder if I could ask you to sell it to me?"
"If you like it, I would be pleased to give it to you," Chen replied.
Dongfang accepted the fan and lifted up the ancient lute and presented it to Chen. "Just as an heroic fighter should be presented with a treasured sword, so should this lute belong to you."
Chen knew the lute was extremely valuable, and he wondered why the man wanted to exchange gifts so soon after they had met. But as the son of a high official, he had seen many treasures and was not dazzled by them. He saluted Dongfang with his fists in thanks and told Xin Yan to pick the lute up.
"If there is anything I can ever do for you in the future, please come to Beijing with that lute and just ask for me," Dongfang said. "Why don't we walk back down the hill together?"
"Fine," said Chen, and the two started off, holding hands.
As they reached the Hidden Spirit monastery, several people came towards them, led by a handsome-faced man wearing an embroidered gown. The man bore a striking resemblance to Chen and was even about the same age, but he lack Chen's imposing air. Chen and he started in surprise as they looked at each other.
"Isn't he like you, Brother Lu?" Dongfang said. "Kang, come and meet Master Lu."
Kang bowed towards him, and Chen quickly returned the courtesy.
All of a sudden, they heard a girl call out in surprise. Chen turned and saw Zhou Qi with Xu and her parents emerging from the monastery, and knew she must have struck with surprise at the sight of two Great Helsmen Chen's. He saw Xu hustling her away and turned back.
"Brother Lu," Dongfang said. "We seem to have become good friends on our first meeting. We will meet again. Goodbye." They bowed to each other and Dongfang walked off guarded by several dozen of the blue-gowned men.
Chen turned and nodded slightly in Xu's direction. Xu hurriedly made his apologies to Lord Zhou and to Zhou Qi and followed after Dongfang and his companions.
Towards evening, he returned to make his report. "The fellow spent a long time floating about on the lake and then went to the Provincial Commander-in-chief's Yamen," he said.
Chen told him about his meeting with Dongfang, and the two decided he must be a very senior official, either an Imperial Inspector-General or a member of the Emperor's close family. From his appearance, he did not look like a Manchu, and so they concluded he was probably an Inspector General.
"Could his arrival have anything to do with Fourth Brother, I wonder," Chen mused. "I think I will go over to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen personally this evening to investigate."
"It would be best to take someone with you just in case," Xu replied.
"Ask Brother Zhao," said Chen. "He's from Zhejiang province so he should know something of Hangzhou."
At nine o'clock, Chen and 'Buddha' Zhao started out for the Commander-in-chief's Yamen. Using Lightness Kung Fu, they soon found themselves near the wall of the Yamen. They spotted two figures patrolling on a rooftop close by and crouched down to watch for a while. Zhao waited for them both to turn their backs, then sent a pellet shooting off towards a tree a few dozen yards away. Hearing a noise in the branches, the guards quickly went over to investigate, giving Chen and Zhao an opportunity to slip silently over the wall into the Yamen.
They hid in the shadows and looked out over the Yamen's main courtyard. To their surprise, they found it brightly lit with torches and several hundred troops standing guard. Another strange thing was that so many soldiers could be so quiet. When they moved, they walked lightly on tip-toe, and the only sounds that could be heard were the call of a cicada and an occasional crackle from the burning torches.
Chen could see there was no way of getting in. He gestured towards Zhao and the two retreated, avoiding the rooftop guards. They stopped behind a wall to discuss what to do.
"We don't want to alert them," Chen whispered. "We'll have to go back and think of some other plan."
Just then, a side gate of the Yamen creaked open and an officer emerged followed by four soldiers. The five marched down the street a few hundred yards and then turned back, obviously on patrol.
"Get them," Chen whispered. Zhao slipped out of the shadows and threw three darts, and three of the soldiers immediately dropped to the ground. Chen followed with two of his chess pieces, hitting the officer and the remaining soldier. They quickly dragged the five into the shadows, stripped the uniforms from two of the men and put them on themselves.
They waited once more for the rooftop guards to turn away, then jumped over the Yamen wall and strode nonchalently into the torch-lit courtyard. They passed through into an inner courtyard which was being patrolled exclusively by senior military officials, commanders and generals. Waiting for the right moment, they leapt up under the eaves of one of the buildings, then hung onto the rafters not daring to breathe. Once it was clear they had not been discovered. Chen hooked his legs over a beam and hung down over a window. He moistened the window paper and looked inside, as Zhao kept guard beside him.
Chen found himself looking in at a large hall. Five or six men wearing the gowns of high officials stood in the centre facing another man who was seated with his back to Chen. Another official walked in and kowtowed nine times towards the seated man.
Chen was surprised. "That is the ceremonial form used when entering the presence of the Emperor," he thought. "Could it be Qian Long himself is in Hangzhou?"
"Zhejiang Province Civil Administrator Yin to see your Highness the Emperor," the officer said.
So it was the Emperor, Chen thought. No wonder security was so tight.
"I have sent troops to quell the Muslim regions," the Emperor said. "I hear you object to this idea."
Chen frowned: he found the Emperor's voice strangely familiar.
"I deserve to die, I would not dare," Yin said, continuing to kowtow.
"I asked Zhejiang Province to supply six thousand tons of grain to meet the needs of the army. Why did you disobey my orders?"
"I truly would not dare, your Highness," Yin said. "But the harvest in Zhejiang this year has been very poor. The common people are in great hardship, and it is temporarily impossible to supply such an amount."
"So the common people are in great hardship, are they? The army is in urgent need of food supplies. Shall I tell them to starve out there?"
"I wouldn't dare to say," Yin quavered, continuing to kowtow.
"No, I want you to tell me," replied the Emperor.
"Your Highness's ability to spread enlightenment and civilisation is far-reaching. The Muslim barbarians are in fact not worth such a long trek by Your Highness's armies. As the Ancients said: 'Soldiers are instruments of violence which a man of virtue should use only as a last resort.' Your Highness could cancel the campaign, and the whole world would be thankful for your benevolence."
"The people are discontented because I have decided to wage this campaign, is that correct?" Qian Long replied coldly.
Yin kowtowed even more energetically. His forehead was by now covered in blood.
Qian Long laughed shortly. "You have a hard skull," he said. "If you hadn't, you wouldn't dare to contradict me."
He turned round and Chen started violently: the Emperor was the Master Dongfang he had met earlier that day.
"Get out!" he heard Qian Long shout. "And leave your cap here!" Yin kowtowed a few more times and then retired.
"There must certainly be some irregularities in Yin's affairs," Qian Long said to the remaining officials. "I want the Commander-in-chief to conduct a thorough investigation and inform me of the results. He must not be protected for personal reasons. His crimes must be exposed." The officials assented in chorus.
"Now leave me. And arrange for six thousand tons of grain to be collected and dispatched immediately." The officials kowtowed and retired.
"Tell Kang to come," the Emperor added, and an attendant left and returned a moment later with Chen's look-alike. He stood close to Qian Long with an air of familiarity very different from the cringing manner of the officials.
"Call for Li Keshou," Qian Long ordered, and a military officer quickly appeared, kowtowing his way into the Emperor's presence.
"Li Keshou, commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province, pays his respect to Your Highness," he said.
"How is that Red Flower Society bandit chief, Wen Tailai?" asked Qian Long.
"He was arrested after a savage battle and he is very seriously wounded," Li replied. "I have assigned doctors to treat him. We will have to wait until his mind is clear before we can question him."
"You must be careful," Qian Long said.
"Your servant would not dare to be the slightest bit neglectful," replied Li.
"Go now," said the Emperor, and Li retired.
"Let's follow him," Chen whispered, but as they dropped quietly to the ground, someone inside the hall shouted: "Intruders!"
Chen and Zhao ran into the outer courtyard and mingled with the troops. Bamboo clappers sounded loudly and the old man Chen had seen earlier that day with the Emperor began directing a search.
Chen and Zhao walked slowly towards the gate.
"Who are you?" the old man shouted at them, and grabbed for Zhao. Zhao deflected his hand, and they made a run for it with the old man chasing. As they reached the gate, the old man lunged at Zhao. Chen ripped off the uniform he was wearing and flung it over the old man's head, then they raced out of the Yamen gate. The old man cast the uniform off to one side and chased after them. But the slight delay had made all the difference.
Two or three thousand troops swarmed out behind the old man like bees from a hive.
"All of you get back!" he shouted. "Protecting the Emperor is more important! You five, come with me." He ran off down the street with the five guards, following the two black shapes flying over the rooftops ahead.
The old man gradually closed the distance between himself and the intruders. Suddenly, the two figures leapt down and stood stock-still in the middle of the street. The old man lunged at Chen.
"I am your master's good friend." Chen laughed, not bothering to retreat or defend himself. "You are an audacious old fellow!"
The old man looked at his face under the moonlight and started in surprise.
"So it's you," he said, retracting his hand, "Come along with me."
"Do you dare to follow me?" Chen asked with a smile.
The old man hesitated, and as the five guards ran up from behind, Chen and Zhao raced off westwards towards the West Lake.
"After them!" shouted the old man. The guards reached the lake in time to see Chen and Zhao jump into a boat and push off from the shore. The boatman punted the craft out several yards from the bank.
"My friends," the old man shouted. "Please tell me who you are before you go."
"I am Zhao Banshan from Wenzhou," Zhao roared. "You, I take it, are a member of the Songyang martial arts school?"
"Ah, so you are the one they call the Thousand Arm Buddha?"
"That's just a nickname. I don't really deserve it. And your name, sir?"
"My surname is Bai, my name Zhen."
Zhao and Chen gasped in surprise. Bai Zhen was a famous kung fu master, but he had not been seen or heard of for years. Obviously, he had become the personal bodyguard of the Emperor.
"So it's you, Master Bai. No wonder your kung fu is so superb," said Zhao.
"I hear you are a leading member of the Red Flower Society, Master Zhao. Who is your companion?" Suddenly, he realized the answer without having to be told. "Oh, of course, it must be Master Chen, the Great Helmsman of the society, is that right?"
Chen opened his fan. "The moon is clear and the wind is fresh," he said. "Why not come and drink a cup of wine with us, Master Bai?"
"You have intruded into the Commander-in-chief's Yamen, and disturbed the official household. You must accompany me to see my master. He is well-disposed towards you, and would not do you any harm."
"Go back and ask your master to come and have a chat with me," Chen replied. "We can have a drink together if he wishes. I will wait for him here."
Bai had seen the concern with which the Emperor had treated Chen earlier, and he dared not offend Chen. But after such an intrusion into the quarters of the Emperor, he was also loath to return without them. There were, however, no other boats nearby, and with no way of chasing after them across the lake, he was forced to return to report to Qian Long.
"It would be quite nice to go to the lake and enjoy the moonlight," Qian Long said after a pause. "Go and tell him I will come immediately."
"These are dangerous bandits," replied Bai. "In my humble opinion, you should not risk such danger."
"Go," said Qian Long.
Bai did not dare to press the matter further, and rode swiftly back to the lake. 'Crocodile' Jiang was sitting at the stern of a boat with his arms round his knees, waiting for him.
"Tell your master that my master will be here soon," Bai shouted.
"Heaven knows what the Emperor sees in this fellow," he thought as he hurried back to resume his guard of the Emperor's person.
Qian Long was in high spirits, and talked and laughed as Commander Li Keshou waited on him. He had changed into an ordinary gown, while his bodyguards had also put on civilian clothes. Once at the lakeside, he gave his orders.
"He probably already knows who I am, but I want everyone still to pretend to be common people."
Imperial guard units had been hidden all around the lake with troops hand-picked by Commander Li behind them. Beyond the flickering lantern light, they saw five boats gliding towards them across the water. 'Leopard' Wei stood on the bow of the middle boat.
"I have been sent by Master Lu to invite Master Dongfang onto the lake to enjoy the moon," he announced, and jumped onto the bank and bowed before Qian Long.
Qian Long nodded slightly. "Excellent," he said, and stepped onto the boat. Commander Li, Bai and thirty or forty bodyguards boarded the boats with him. More than a dozen of the bodyguards were expert swimmers, and Bai ordered them to keep their wits about them.
They started out across the lake, which was a fairyland of lights. Pleasure boats were everywhere, bedecked with lanterns that filled the darkness like stars in the night sky and the sound of music floated across towards them. A small sampan darted into view then turned and led the boats to a flotilla of other craft. Despite the huge number of troops they had stationed around the shore, Bai and the other bodyguards were uneasy at the sight of such a powerful force, and all covertly felt for the weapons they had hidden around their persons.
"So you decided to come, Master Dongfang," Chen called from a nearby boat. "Please come aboard!"
The two boats drew alongside each and Qian Long, Commander Li, Bai, and several other bodyguards jumped across. Bai and the others relaxed as they saw that Chen and his attendant, Xin Yan, were the only other people on the boat. The cabin was spacious, with exquisite murals on the walls. The table in the centre was set with wine cups, bowls and chopsticks and was covered with dishes of fruit, wine and all manner of delicacies.
Chen and his guest shook hands and smiled broadly, then sat down facing each other. Commander Li, Bai and the others stood behind Qian Long.
Chen smiled briefly at Bai and noticed a handsome-faced youth standing behind Commander Li whom he recognised as Lu Feiqing's pupil. Surprised, he wondered what the youth was doing accompanying court officials.
Xin Yan poured some wine, and Chen, afraid that Qian Long would be suspicious, drained his own cup first, then began eating. Qian Long picked at a few of the dishes that Chen had already tried, then put down his chopsticks. He heard a flute on a neighbouring boat playing the tune 'Welcome the Honoured Guest.'
"You are truly a man of culture," he said to Chen. "It is amazing that you managed to arrange things so well at such short notice."
Chen dismissed the praise. "One cannot drink wine without music," he said. "I understand Beautiful Jade has the best voice in all Zhejiang Province. Shall I ask her to sing for us?"
Qian Long clapped his hands in approval. "Who is this Beautiful Jade?" he asked, turning to Commander Li.
"She is one of Hangzhou 's most famous courtezans," he replied. "I have heard that she is very haughty by nature and if it does not please her, she won't even show herself let alone sing, no matter how much she is offered."
"Have you ever seen her?" Qian Long asked.
"I…no I haven't," Li replied, extremely embarrassed.
'Leopard' Wei escorted Beautiful Jade out. Qian Long looked admiringly at the perfect whiteness of her skin and her petite figure, but decided her face was not particularly attractive. Her eyes, however, were full of life, and her glance around the cabin contained an intimate greeting for every person there.
Chen stretched out his hand towards Qian Long. "This is Master Dongfang," he said. Beautiful Jade greeted him, then sat down next to Chen and cuddled up to him.
"I hear you sing very well," Chen said. "I wonder if you would allow us the pleasure of enjoying your talent?"
"If you want to hear me sing, Master Lu, I will sing for three days and three nights continuously. But I am afraid you would tire of me." An attendant handed her a pipa, and with a light strum, she began to sing:
"Outside the window all is quiet
You kneel before the bed eager for some kissing
I scold you, call you heartless, and turn away,
But despite my words I am still half willing."
Chen applauded enthusiastically. Qian Long, hearing her smooth, clear voice, felt a warm feeling rising in his chest. Beautiful Jade smiled, then strummed the pipa and turned to Qian Long:
"I want to beat you,
Don't think I'm joking," she sang.
"I clench my teeth
This time I really will
But you won't fear me
If I hit you softly,
And I cannot bear
To hit you hard.
Oh, my lover
I won't hit you after all."
The Emperor was completely carried away by the song. "If you want to hit me, then hit me," he said.
Qian Long, born and raised in the depths of the Imperial Palace had seen many girl singers, but all of them had been dignified and monotonous, nothing like this southern Chinese courtesan. He was entranced by her eyes and her seductiveness, and the song, the perfumed lake, the moon's reflection, all conspired to make the scene dreamlike, so that gradually he forgot that he was with renowned bandits.
Beautiful Jade poured some wine for Chen and Qian Long and the two drank three cups in succession while Beautiful Jade drank one to keep them company. Qian Long took a jade ring off his finger and gave it to her.
"Sing another song," he said. Beautiful Jade looked down and giggled, revealing two little dimples. Qian Long's heart melted.
"All right," she said. She batted her eyelids at him then struck up a tune on the pipa. This time, the rhythm was fast and light with a complex melody, and Qian Long shouted out his approval.
She sang of a poor man with ambitions who gradually climbs his way up, first obtaining clothes, then a house, a wife and concubines, and then power. Finally, he begins to covet the throne of the emperor himself.
Chen laughed heartily, but as the song progressed, Qian Long's expression became increasingly dour. "Could this girl know who I really am and be singing this song to make fun of me?" he wondered.
Beautiful Jade finished the song and slowly put down her pipa.
"The song makes fun of poor men," she said with a smile. "Both of you, Master Dongfang and Master Chen, are wealthy gentlemen with large mansions, lovely wives and beautiful concubines. You would not think of such things."
Qian Long laughed, and his eyes travelled over her, taking in her softness, her fun-loving spirit. He wondered how he should go about telling Commander Li to have her brought to the Yamen, and how to make sure the affair remained secret.
"The Emperor Xuanzong had a great interest in beautiful women," he suddenly heard Chen say. "That in itself is not important, but he should not have put his weakness for women above the interests of the nation."
"The Xuanzong Emperor was at first a wise ruler, but he became muddle-headed in his later years. He was far inferior to his ancestor, Emperor Taizhong," Qian Long replied.
"Taizong was certainly a very capable ruler," said Chen.
The two men Qian Long most venerated in all the world were Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty and Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty. Both had greatly expanded the empire, and their reputations had carried far beyond their borders. Ever since he had ascended the throne, Qian Long had worked single-mindedly to emulate them and had sent armies out on long expeditions to the Muslim border regions with the intention of carrying on their work.
"Emperor Taizong was wise and courageous," he said. "The barbarians cringed in fear at the sound of his name. He was proficient in both letters and war. Such talent would be hard to equal."
"I have read the Emperor Taizong's works," said Chen. "He makes some points which I feel are very true."
"He said: 'The ruler can be compared to a boat, and the common people to water. The water can support the boat or sink it."
Qian Long was silent.
"Sitting as we are in this boat, the metaphor could not be more apt," Chen continued. "If we row smoothly, we will have a very stable ride. But if we row about frenziedly, or if the water should rush by in a raging torrent, the boat will certainly capsize."
His words contained not only the implication that the people could overthrow the Emperor whenever they wished, but also the threat of throwing Qian Long into the water there and then. Never in his life had Qian Long had such threatening words addressed to him. His anger surged up and unable to control himself, he threw his wine cup at the floor.
The cup flew downwards, but just as it was about to hit the deck, Xin Yan shot out and caught it. He presented it to Qian Long on bended knee. "Master Dongfang, you dropped your cup," he said.
The speed of his move startled Qian Long. Commander Li took the cup from Xin Yan and watched for some sign from the Emperor's eyes. But Qian Long composed himself and laughed.
"Brother Lu, this little helper of yours is very agile," he said, and turned to one of the guardsman. "Play with the little fellow," he said.
The guardsman, who was surnamed Fan, bent down and struck out at Xin Yan with his pair of large swords. Xin Yan somersaulted over backwards and landed on the bow of the boat.
"Let's play hide and seek," he said to Fan with a smile. "If you catch me, we'll say I've lost and then I'll chase you."
Fan was furious at having missed his target and bounded after him, but the boy soared off through the air like a great bird and landed on a small sampan nearby. The two chased each other across more than a dozen boats before Fan finally cornered Xin Yan at the end of a string of three boats. He thrust the sword in his left hand at Xin Yan's chest, and Xin Yan countered by striking out with his fist at Fan's stomach. Fan then leapt up in the air, aiming to fall on Xin Yan from above. But as he jumped, the boatman, 'Crocodile' Jiang, twirled his oar and spun the boat around. Fan shouted in fear as the boat disappeared from under him, and he fell heavily into the lake. Xin Yan clapped in delight.
Two of Qian Long's bodyguards dived into the water to save Fan, who was splashing and clutching at the air in desperation. Meanwhile, Jiang placed his oar in front of Fan, who grabbed it and held on tight. Jiang then swung the oar up, tossing Fan over towards Qian Long's boat, and shouted "Catch!" A bodyguard ran to the bow and caught him. Another bodyguard, surnamed Long, stepped forward.
"I understand this little brother is also very proficient with missiles," he said darkly as Xin Yan moved back to Chen's side. "Let us spar for a while."
"You and I are already firm friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "We should not allow our servants to disturb the pleasant atmosphere with their bickering. As this gentleman is an expert in the use of darts, let us ask him to display his talent on something other than my serving boy. What do you think?"
"Fine, except we don't have a target," Qian Long replied. Xin Yan leapt over onto the boat on which 'Iron Pagoda' Yang was sitting and whispered into his ear.
Yang nodded, waved to Zhang Jin in the next sampan, and pointed to another boat nearby. "Grab the end of that boat," he said, and took hold of the other end himself. "Up!" he shouted and the two lifted the little boat out of the water while their own boats sank lower. The others gasped at this awesome display of strength.
"Master, will this do as a target?" Xin Yan shouted. "Please come and draw a bulls-eye on it."
Chen raised his wine cup and drained it, then flung it at the boat. It sliced into the keel without shattering. The onlookers clapped and cheered. Bai and the other bodyguards frowned at the sight of such phenomenal power: a man whose Inner Strength Kung Fu allowed him to drive a porcelain cup into a boat keel as if it was a steel dart was a formidable opponent.
"Use the cup as the target," Chen suggested, smiling.Bodyguard Long silently pulled five spiked balls from his bag and threw them one after the other. They struck the target with a quick "rat-a-tat" and slivers of porcelain flew in all directions.
Xin Yan slipped out from behind the boat. "Not bad!" he shouted.
Long was suddenly swept with a wave of malice, and he threw another five of the spiked balls at Xin Yan.
A shout of surprise went up from the others, and greatly frightened, Xin Yan lunged to one side, but one of the spiked balls struck his left shoulder. There was no pain, but the shoulder immediately went numb. The heroes edged their little boats forward, all eager to match themselves against Long.
The other Imperial bodyguards were ashamed that Long should use such a low trick against a boy in front of the Emperor. But protecting His Highness was of overriding importance, and they immediately pulled out their weapons. Commander Li gave a sharp whistle, signalling the troops on the shore to mobilise.
"Brothers!" Chen called. "Master Dongfang is my honoured guest. We cannot show any impoliteness towards him. Move back, all of you."
The heroes rowed back several yards. Yang and Zhang Jin had already put the target boat back to the water, and Luo Bing was inspecting Xin Yan's wound. 'Mastermind' Xu also jumped over to see how he was.
"Don't worry, it's not painful," Xin Yan said. "But it's very itchy."
He moved his hand up to scratch the wound and Xu quickly stopped him. He could see the spiked ball had been dipped in a very powerful poison.
"Let go of me," Xin Yan yelled. "It's too itchy to bear!" He struggled powerfully to break free.
"Be patient for a moment," Xu told Xin Yan, trying not to look as worried as he felt. He turned to Luo Bing. "Ask Third Brother to come over."
Another boat moved swiftly up alongside with the Red Flower Society's Hangzhou chief Master Ma standing on the brow. He leapt over next to Xu and whispered: "Master Xu, the whole lake is surrounded by Manchu troops including Imperial Guard units."
"How many altogether?"
"Seven or eight thousand not counting the reserve forces waiting further away."
"Go and call together all the brothers in Hangzhou and surrounding areas. Tell them to gather near the lake and await orders. Also tell them to have a red flower hidden on their persons." Ma nodded.
"How many can you get together immediately?" Xu asked.
"Including the workers from my factories, about two thousand," he replied.
"Two thousand of our brothers should be enough to deal with fifteen thousand of them," said Xu. "And what's more, many of the troops in the Chinese units are society members. Go and make the arrangements." Ma nodded and left.
'Buddha' Zhao's boat glided over. He looked at Xin Yan's wound and frowned deeply. He carefully pulled out the poisonous spiked ball, then took a large medicine pill from his bag and placed it into the open wound. He looked up at Xu.
"There's nothing I can do," he said, desolation in his voice. "The poison is extremely potent. No-one can save him except the man responsible."
"How long can he hold on?" Xu asked, greatly frightened.
"At the most, six hours."
"Third Brother, let's go and get that fellow over here and force him to deliver the antidote."
Zhao leapt in three great bounds over to the boat in which Chen and Qian Long were sitting, with each bound touching down on the deck of a different boat.
"Master Lu," he said. "I would like to ask this gentleman to acquaint me with some of his tricks."
Chen, who was furious at the wonding of Xin Yan, turned to Qian Long.
"This friend of mine is also quite good with projectiles," he said. "It would be interesting to see them matched against each other."
The Emperor was eager to see any spectacle, the more dangerous the better. "Go on," he said to Long. "But don't lose." Long bowed.
"That's the Thousand-Arm Buddha," Bai whispered. "Be careful."
Long knew the name well, and shuddered at the thought of facing him. But he had never yet met his equal in the field of projectiles. "This is just between you and me," he said to Zhao.
"Do you think we would trick you?" Zhao demanded angrily.
"Right. That's what I wanted to hear you say," Long replied, and leapt onto the prow of a boat nearby.
Zhao sent off a flurry of darts and sleeve arrows after him, and Long's heart froze at the sight of such speed. He threw himself down onto the deck and the darts struck the boat with a quick succession of popping noises.
Long jumped up again, and spotting Zhao's figure in the moonlight, flung a dart at him. Zhao dodged to the right to avoid it, and suddenly found three of the poisoned spiked balls winging towards him. He leant over backwards and the spiked balls whizzed passed the tip of his nose. Three more spiked balls followed in quick successsion. Zhao knocked two of them into the water with darts of his own, then caught the third and placed it inside his gown.
Long leapt towards another boat and Zhao threw out a boomerang-shaped blade. Long ducked and watched in surprise as the blade swirled over him and returned to Zhao's hand. Fascinated by the sight of the strange weapon, Long failed to notice two other darts flying towards him which simultaneously struck both his shoulders. His body went limp and he fell to his knees.
The Imperial Guards were astounded at the sight of him falling. Chu Yuan, one of Long's comrades, raced over to defend him, but another swordsman intercepted him. Chu saw in the moonlight that the man was dressed in Taoist robes.
"Who are you?" he barked.
Priest Wu Chen smiled. "Do you mean to say you are a swordsman and you don't know me?" he asked.
Chu attacked with a 'Buddha Ambushing the Tiger' stroke followed by a 'Nine Successions' stroke.
"That's very good," Wu Chen said, still smiling. "Now continue with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke".
As he spoke, Chu did indeed attack with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke. "How did he know?" he wondered, startled. The priest also guessed his next two moves correctly, just as if he was a teacher instructing a pupil. Chu retreated two paces and stared at him, embarrassed.
Meanwhile, Zhao had grabbed Long and was pressuring him to hand over the antidote. Long, however closed his eyes and said nothing. "Just as long as I don't give in, the Emperor will surely reward me when we get back," he thought.
Priest Wu Chen continued his game of forcing Bodyguard Chu to counter with the moves he called out. Qian Long, although a mediocre fighter himself, had a thorough knowledge of kung fu and was amused by the spectacle. But he felt the chill of anxiety too.
" Chu is one of the top Imperial Bodyguards," he thought. "What use are they if these bandits can play with them in such a fashion?" He watched for a few more moves and then decided he had had enough.
"Tell him to come back," he said to Bai.
"Brother Chu," Bai shouted. "The Master asks you to come here."
Chu breathed a sigh of relief. The Emperor's order was like a reprieve from the death sentence, and he prepared to jump away. Priest Wu Chen, however, had other ideas.
"Just a moment," he said. He struck forward with his sword and Chu felt a cool breeze course across his face and body as the sword flashed about him. The courtesan Beautiful Jade suddenly laughed out loud, and Chu looked down and saw that his clothes had been cut to shreds by the priest's sword. Not only that: he felt his head and found his hair and queue had been shaved completely off. As he shook with fear and shame, his trousers suddenly fell down.
"These friends of yours are extraordinarily skilled in the martial arts, Master Lu," Qian Long said to Chen. "Why don't you all offer your services to the court? It is a pity to waste such talent."
Chen smiled. "We would prefer to do just as we please," he said. "But thank you. We are very grateful of the offer."
"Since that is the case, I will take my leave. It is getting late." Qian Long looked meaningfully over at Bodyguard Long in the other boat.
"Brother Zhao," Chen called. "Let Master Dongfang's servant come back."
"Absolutely not!" Luo Bing answered. "Xin Yan has poisoned by him and he refuses to hand over the antidote."
Qian Long whispered some instructions to Commander Li, then turned to Long. "Give him the antidote," he ordered.
"I deserve to die," Long replied. "I didn't bring the antidote with me. I left it in Beijing."
"Brother Zhao, give me two of those spiked balls," said Xu. Zhao pulled them out of his bag and handed them over. Xu ripped Long's gown off his chest and drove the balls into him. Long cried out in panic.
"Master Lu," Xu shouted. "Please send over some wine. We want to drink a toast with our friend here to seal our friendship, and then we will let him go."
"All right," said Chen. Beautiful Jade filled three cups with wine, and Chen threw them one by one over to the other boat. Zhao calmly stetched out his hand and caught them without a drop being spilled.
Xu took one of the cups. "Master Long, let us drink a toast," he said. Long knew that the alcohol would greatly speed up the effects of the poison and clamped his mouth shut.
"Go on, have a drink. There's no need to stand on ceremony," said Xu with a smile. He grabbed Long's nose between his third and little fingers then pressed strongly on his cheeks with the thumb and forefinger, forcing Long to open his mouth, and poured all three cups of wine into him.
Long decided his life was more important than his reputation. "Let me go," he said. "I…I…I'll get the antidote," Zhao laughed and loosened his grip. Long pulled three packets of medicine from his bag.
"The red one should be taken orally, the black one sucks out the poision and the white one closes the wound," he said and fainted away.
Zhao hurriedly poured the red medicine into one of the wine cups, mixed it with some lake water and gave it to Xin Yan to drink, then spread the black medicine onto the wound. A moment later, black blood welled out of the gash. Luo Bing wiped it up as it appeared, and gradually the blood turned red. Xin Yan cried out in pain as Zhao administered the white medicine.
"Please forgive my friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "They are very unrefined."
Qian Long laughed. "It has certainly been an interesting day. I will take my leave now."
"Master Dongfang wishes to go home," Chen called. "Head back to the shore!"
The flotilla glided slowly off, and soon reached the lakeside. Commander Li jumped ashore and helped Qian Long across onto land as the bodyguards formed a protective semi-circle. Li pulled out a pipe and blew three sharp notes on it, and several hundred Imperial troops appeared.
"You insolent wretches!" Li shouted at the Red Flower Society fighters. "You are in the sight of the Emperor and still you don't kowtow?"
Xu gestured with his hand, and Master Ma and his son fired flares up into the air above the lake. A moment later, a huge roar went up from all sides, and men rushed out from the trees, from behind buildings and from under bridges, each one with a red flower on his lapel and a sword in his hand.
"Brothers!" Xu shouted. "The Great Helmsman has arrived!" The society men roared their approval and surged forward.
The Imperial Bodyguards and troops drew their swords, fixed arrows to bows, and the two sides confronted each other, each determined not to yield. Commander Li mounted a horse and waited for Qian Long's order to seize the Red Flower Society fighters.
Chen walked calmly over to an officer of the Imperial Bodyguard and pointed at the horsewhip he was holding. Hypnotised by Chen's gaze, the officer meekly dismounted and handed the whip over. Chen then leapt onto his horse and pulled a red flower from his pocket which he fixed to his gown. The flower was made from the finest silk stitched with gold thread and the green leaves around it were studded with jewels which glittered and sparkled in the torchlight. It was the badge of the Great Helmsman and the Red Flower Socety heroes bowed before him in respect.
Suddenly, a large number of the soldiers broke from the Manchu ranks and swarmed forward despite shouts from their officers. They raced over to Chen, bowed, then ran back to their ranks as another batch ran out to pay their respects. The Red Flower Society's power was so great in the south that many soldiers in the Manchu armies, especially those in units under Chinese command, were members.
Qian Long was flabbergasted at the sight of so many of his own troops breaking ranks to bow before Chen. The Imperial Guard units he had brought with him from Beijing were clearly the only ones he could trust, and considering the danger of his position, he decided a fight had to be avoided at all costs.
He turned to Commander Li.
"So these are your trusted soldiers," he said coldly. "Tell them to retire."
"Yes sir," replied Li, stunned with fear. He ordered the troops back to camp.
"Brothers!" 'Mastermind' Xu shouted when he saw the Manchu troops were retreating. "Thank you all for your trouble. Please go now."
An answering roar went up from the mass of the Society followers: "Great Helmsman, goodbye!" The thunderous cry echoed out over the lake.
Qian Long raised his hands towards Chen. "Thank you for a very pleasant outing on the lake," he said. "We will meet again."
Chen and the heroes returned to the boats and ate and drank to their hearts' content. They had handed out a crushing defeat to the Imperial Bodyguard, and were in good spirits.
"Brother Ma," Xu said to the society's Hangzhou Helmsman. "After such a setback, the Emperor certainly won't let matters rest. Advise all the brothers in Hangzhou to be very careful, especially those in the Manchu ranks."
Ma nodded, finished off his cup of wine and departed with his son.
Chen also drained his wine cup and sighed as he watched the broken reflection of the moon floating on the lake between the lotus lily leaves.
"What date is it today?" he asked Xu, looking up. "We have been so busy lately, I have completely lost track of time."
"It's the seventeenth. It was the mid-Autumn festival the day before yesterday. Don't you remember?"
Chen was silent for a moment, then said: "Brothers, please go and rest now, all of you. I will stay here for a while. Tomorrow, I have some private business to attend to, but the day after that we will begin preparations for rescuing Fourth Brother."
"Would you like anyone to accompany you?" Xu asked.
"No, there's no need. There is no danger. I just want to be by myself and think about things quietly."
The boats moved over to the shore, and the heroes bade farewell to Chen. Some of them were already half drunk, and they joined arms as they walked through the deserted streets of Hangzhou, singing loudly into the darkness.
Chen watched them go, then jumped into a small sampan and skulled the boat out over the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. The shore receded, and he stowed the oar and stared up at the moon. The next day was his mother's birthday. For ten years, he had been away from home, and now that he was back in southern China, his mother was already dead. He thought of her kindly, smiling face and of the common fate that awaits all men, and tears began to trickle down his face.
The first light of day began to spread across the sky. Chen plucked the red flower off his gown and placed it in his bag, then strolled towards the eastern gate to the city. The guard on duty stared at him, then saluted: he was a Red Flower Society man. Chen nodded to him.
"Since you are leaving the city, do you need a horse, Great Helmsman?" the guard asked.
"Yes, thank you," answred Chen. The guard went jubilantly off and came back a short time later with a horse. Following behind were two minor officials who both bowed respectfully before Chen. They felt fortunate to have had an opportunity to render a service to the Great Helmsman.
Chen mounted up and galloped off. The horse was fast and he reached the western gate of Haining city by noon. It had been ten years since he left his home town, but everything was still as it had been. Afraid of meeting someone who would recognise him, he turned his horse northwards and rode two or three miles further on. He stopped at a farmhouse and ate lunch, then lay down to sleep. Having been up the whole previous night, he slept very deeply.
Noting his gentleman's attire and the fact that he spoke the local dialect, the farmer and his wife treated Chen with great courtesy, and killed a chicken for dinner. Chen questioned them about events of the past few years and the farmer said: "The Emperor has ordered that the whole of Haining county be exempt from taxes for three years. It's all because of his respect for Minister Chen."
Chen thought about how many years it had been since his father had passed away, and wondered again why the Emperor had suddenly begun to bestow such handsome favours on his family. When he had finished dinner, he gave three taels of silver to the farmer in thanks and rode towards his family home in the northwest of the city.
As he reached the gate of the house, he stopped in surprise. In the old days, it had been named ' Secluded Garden ', but the old name board had been taken down and replaced with one which read ' Peaceful Pool Garden '. The characters were rounded and flowing, and he recognized the calligraphy as being that of the Emperor Qian Long himself. perplexed, he leapt over the wall into the compound. Next to the old house, new structures had been erected with endless pavilions and platforms, mansions and chambers.
He passed along a covered walkway towards the Jade Bracelet Hall, but again found a new name board over its door inscribed 'Beloved Days Hall', also written in Qian Long's hand. Chen frowned. The words 'Beloved Days' referred to the filial affection of children for their parents. What was the Emperor doing writing such a thing here?
He emerged from the hall and walked across a zig-zag bridge with red railings into a thick bamboo grove towards the 'Fragrant Bamboo Lodge', the former residence of his mother. This name board had also been changed, this time to read 'Spring Sunshine Hall'. Chen sat down on a rock, greatly confused. 'Spring Sunshine' was a poetic allusion used to describe a son's gratitude for his mother's love. It had no other meaning.
"Why has Qian Long placed this name board on my mother's house?" he wondered. "Even if he is more stupid than I think, he would not have been so thoughtless. Could it be he knew I would come back here and wrote out these name boards in an attempt to befriend me?"
He tiptoed up the steps, and looked through a window, into the main room of the lodge. It was arranged exactly as it had been when his mother was alive, with redwood furniture, a large carved bed, a clothes chest inlaid with gold, all as he remembered them from ten years before. A red candle flickered on the table. Suddenly, he heard the sound of footsteps from an adjoining room and an old woman entered. It was his mother's personal maid, Nanny Huan. The woman had reared him, and Chen felt closer to her than to any of the other servants.
He jumped into the room and hugged the old woman.
Greatly frightened, she opened her mouth to scream, but Chen covered it with his hand and whispered: "Don't shout, it's me." She stared at him, too shocked to speak. In fact, his appearance and manner had changed so much in the ten years since he had left that she did not know who he was.
"It's me, Jialuo. Don't you recognize me?" he asked.
"You…you are Jialuo? You've come back?" the woman asked, completely confused.
Chen smiled and nodded. She gradually recovered her senses and vaguely discerned the features of the mischievous child she had known. Suddenly, she threw her arms round him and began to sob loudly. Chen hastily restrained her.
"Stop crying! No-one must know that I've returned," he said.
"It doesn't matter," she replied. "They've all gone to the new section. There's no-one else here."
"What new section?"
"Of the mansion. It was built earlier this year. Heaven knows what it cost, or what it's for."
Chen knew she had little understanding of such matters. "How did my mother die? What illness?" he asked.
The woman pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "Mistress was very unhappy, I don't know why. She hadn't had a good meal for days, and she become ill. It dragged on for more than a week before she passed away." She began to cry quietly again. "She kept calling for you. 'Where is Jialuo? Hasn't he come yet? I want to see Jialuo!' She was shouting like that for two days before she died."
Chen began to weep too. "Where is her grave?"
"Behind the new Sea Goddess temple," she replied.
"Sea Goddess temple?" Chen echoed.
"Yes, they built that in the spring too. It's huge, right on the sea embankment."
"I'm going to have a look. I'll be back in a while," he said.
"No…no, you can't!" She interrupted hastily, but he had already leapt out through the window.
He knew the path down to the embankment well and was there in a moment. Looking west, he saw a huge structure that had not been there before, and decided it must be the Sea Goddess temple. He ran towards the main entrance.
Suddenly, he heard the patter of light footsteps and hid behind a willow tree. Two men dressed in black clothes emerged from either side of the temple wall, saluted each other and continued on in opposite directions around the temple. Chen was mystified. Just then, two more men appeared dressed the same as the first pair and followed the same path round the temple wall. Even more curious, Chen waited for them to disappear around the corners, then jumped silently up onto the wall. Another pair passed him down below. He waited for a while and counted about forty men constantly circling the temple, all of them alert and silent, and obviously kung fu experts. Could this be a religious ceremony, he wondered? Full of curiosity, he jumped quietly down into the courtyard and crept into the main temple building to investigate.
Incense smoke curled up from in front of the central altar as candles flickered and danced. He wondered which god the altar was dedicated to, but when he looked up to see, he gasped out loud involuntarily. The handsome-faced statue was a likeness of his father.
He spotted an open door to the left and crept over. Looking out, he saw a long covered walk-way paved with white flag-stones. He knew that if he went along the white-stoned path he would easily be spotted, so he leapt onto the roof of the walkway and flitted silently down to its end. In front was another altar hall outside which was written in huge characters: 'The Palace of the Empress of Heaven.' The doors to the hall were open and he went inside. As he caught sight of the statue on the central altar, he started again, even more violently. It's face was that of his mother.
It was as if he was in a thick fog of bewilderment. He ran back outside, looking for his mother's grave and saw a long yellow tent behind the hall. He shrunk into a corner as a sturdy black-clothed man passed by on patrol.
The things he had seen that evening beggared the imagination, and despite the strict guard being kept, he resolved to get to the heart of the matter. He crept slowly over to the tent and crawled inside.
He lay absolutely still and listened carefully. There were no sounds outside, and he concluded that he had not been discovered. He looked round and saw the vast tent was completely deserted. The ground had been carefully flattened and the grass cleanly cut. The tent was joined to a string of others so that they formed a long tunnel stretching back from the temple buildings. Two large lanterns burned brightly in every tent, and looking down the tunnel, the two rows of lights stretching away looked like fiery dragons. He stood up and walked forward, as if in a dream.
Suddenly he heard the rustle of clothing in front and quickly hid to one side. After a moment, he continued forward again and spotted a man seated in front of two graves at the end of the tunnel. The graves were those of his mother and father. He was about to run forward and prostrate himself when the man stood up, gazed at the graves for a while, then knelt down and bowed several times. Chen saw the man's back shaking as if he was crying.
Faced with such a scene, all of Chen's suspicions disappeared. This man was either a relative or one of his father's former subordinates. He walked quietly over and tapped the man on his shoulder.
"Please get up," he said.
The man jumped in fright, but did not turn round.
"Who is it?" he shouted harshly.
"I have also come to pay my respects," Chen replied. He knelt before the graves and began to cry uncontrollably.
"Mother, father," he sobbed. "I have come too late. I will never see you again."
The man gasped and Chen turned to find it was none other than the Emperor, Qian Long.
"What…what are you doing here in the middle of the night?" Qian Long asked in surprise.
"Today is the anniversary of my mother's birth," Chen replied. "I have come to pay my respects to her. And you?"
Qian Long ignored the question. "You…you are the son of Chen Shiguan?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Yes. Didn't you know?"
Qian Long shook his head.
In the past few years, Qian Long had been bestowing extraordinary favours on the Chen family of Haining, and although some of his ministers were aware that the new leader of the Red Flower Society was a son of Minister Chen, none dared to mention it because of the Emperor's unpredictable temper.
Chen wondered why on earth the Emperor would come secretly to kneel and cry before the grave of a former minister. It was completely inexplicable.
Qian Long took Chen's hand. "You must think it strange, seeing me here paying my respects in the middle of the night," he said. "Your father and I had great affection for each other, so I took advantage of this visit to the south to offer my thanks to him."
Chen made a sound, half believing, half not.
"If word of this should get out, it would be extremely inconvenient," Qian Long continued. "Can you give me your word that you will not reveal it to anyone?"
Chen was deeply moved by Qian Long's reverence for his own mother and father. "Don't worry," he replied. "I will not mention this evening to anyone."
Qian Long immediately breathed easier. The two men shook hands, one the Emperor of China, the other the leader of the country's largest secret society. They were silent for a while, each with his own thoughts. Far off, they heard a low roar like thunder.
"The tide is coming in," said Chen. "Let us go to the embankment and watch. It has been ten years since I saw it."
"All right," replied Qian Long, still holding Chen's hand. They walked out of the tent.
The guards outside the tent spotted the two as they emerged and rushed forward to wait on the Emperor, wondering how his companion could have entered the tent without them being aware of it. Then Bodyguard Bai Zhen and the other officers noticed that it was the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, and they shook with fear. One of the guards led the Emperor's horse across to him.
"Take my horse," Qian Long said to Chen. The guards hurriedly lead over another horse and the two rode out of the temple gate.
The roar of the ocean filled their ears and they gazed out at the pale moonlight reflecting off it in silvery shades.
Qian Long stared at the waves for a long time, then said: "Fate seems determined to throw us together. Tomorrow, I will return to Hangzhou, and after three more days there, will continue back to Beijing. Why don't you come with me? It would be best if you were always by my side. Seeing you is like seeing your father."
Chen was surprised by the warmth of his words.
"You excel in both scholarship and the martial arts," Qian Long continued. "It would be easy to promote you to your father's former post, which would be ten thousand times better than hiding yourself away in the underworld."
"I am extremely grateful to you for your goodwill," Chen said. "But if I coveted great wealth, I would not have left home in the first place."
"Why did you leave? Why did you insist on mixing in the underworld instead of doing what a nobleman should? Was it that you couldn't get on with your father and brother?"
"No, it wasn't that. It was the wish of my mother. My father and elder brother knew nothing of it. They have spent a lot of time and effort looking for me."
"Your mother told you to leave home? That is truly strange. Why did she do that?"
Chen hung his head. "It was the result of a tragedy she suffered. I am not too clear about it either."
"The Chen family has been distinguished for many generations. During the last three hundred years alone, more than two hundred members of the family have passed the Imperial examinations, three have served as prime ministers and eleven as other senior officials. The number is extraordinary. Your father was an honest and hard-working man. He often used to plead before my father on behalf of the common people, crying as he did so. My father used to laugh and say: 'Chen Shiguan was sobbing again today. I suppose I'll have to agree to what he says.'"
Hearing of his father's conduct as an official, Chen was at once saddened and pleased. "He cried before the Emperor and I steal military grain," he thought. "Our methods are different but our aim is the same."
They stood and watched the tide thunder in.
"I would like to give you a piece of advice," Qian Long said.
"The actions of the Red Flower Society have come very close to rebellion. Past behaviour I can ignore, but you must not disregard the law in such a way again."
"All we do is for the country and the common people," Chen replied.
Qian Long sighed. "What a pity," he said. After a moment, he added: "As a result of our meeting tonight, I promise that when we destroy the Red Flower Society, you will be spared."
"In that case, if you should fall into the hands of the Red Flower Society, we will not harm you either."
Qian Long laughed. "You refuse to give an inch, even before the Emperor. All right, it's been said now. Let us join fists and swear that from today onwards neither shall harm the other."
The two men stretched out their arms and touched fists three times.
"With such a strong tide, if the sea embankment is not renovated, the homes and graves of the common people will sooner or later be inundated," Qian Long said. "I must see that my officials arrange for it to be reconstructed."
"That is the act of a ruler who loves his subjects," Chen replied. "The common people will be very grateful."
Qian Long nodded. "Your father performed great services for the Empire. I could not bear to see his grave swallowed by the sea."
He took Chen's hand and started to walk along the embankment with him. The guards wanted to follow, but he waved them back.
"I gather from your expression that you are still unhappy," he said as they strolled along. "Apart from thoughts of your parents, what other problem do you have? You may be unwilling to become an official, but if you have any requests, I will do my best to comply with them."
Chen was silent for a moment. "There is one thing…but I doubt if you would agree."
"Any request you make will be granted."
"I never joke."
"Then I ask you to release my sworn brother, Wen Tailai."
Qian Long started in surprise. He had not guessed that this would be the request. For a moment, he was at a loss.
"How has Master Wen offended you?" Chen asked.
"I cannot release him, but since I have promised, I cannot go back on my word. I tell you what: I won't kill him."
"Then we have no choice but to rescue him by force," replied Chen. "I asked you to release him not because we are unable to rescue him, but simply to avoid injuring our friendship."
Qian Long had witnessed the might of the Red Flower Society, and he knew this was no empty boast.
"I appreciate your good intentions," he said. "But I tell you honestly, I cannot allow this man out of my grasp. If you insist on trying to rescue him, then I will kill him three days from now."
Chen's blood boiled. "If you kill Master Wen, you will never eat or sleep easy again," he threatened.
"And if I don't kill him, I will never eat or sleep easy either."
"If that is true, then even being Emperor cannot compare with the carefree life that I lead."
"How old are you?" Qian Long asked.
"I am not jealous of your carefree life, but I am jealous of your youth. But it is of no consequence. No matter what one's achievements, everyone still returns to dust when their time is up."
The two strolled on for a time.
"How many wives do you have?" Qian Long asked. Without waiting for an answer, he plucked a piece of jade off his gown and offered it to Chen, saying: "This is a priceless treasure. Give it to your wife."
Chen did not take it. "I have not married yet," he said.
Qian Long laughed. "You always set your sights too high. Give it to the lady of your heart as a wedding present, then."
Chen accepted the stone. The jade shone with a pale glow under the moonlight and he found it slightly warm to the touch. He realized it was a piece of incalculably valuable "warm jade". He placed the jade in his pocket. "Thank you for the present," he said. "We will meet again." He saluted with his fists, mounted his horse and started off.
Qian Long waved goodbye to him. "Look after yourself!" he shouted.
Putting aside thoughts of home, Chen rode back to the society's mansion near Hangzhou where he found everyone gathered around 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi who had just arrived from Beijing. Shi immediately broke free from the group and bowed before Chen.
"I found out in Beijing that the Emperor had come south, and travelled day and night to get here to tell you only to find that the brothers had not only seen him, but had clashed with his men as well," he said.
"You've had a hard trip, Twelfth Brother," replied Chen. "Did you hear any other news while you were there?"
"Once I heard about the Emperor, I disregarded everything else," Shi said.
Chen noticed his haggard look and guessed he was worn out after the hard ride. "Go and get a good sleep. We'll talk again later," he said.
Shi bowed and walked off. As he passed Luo Bing, he said: "That white horse of yours is very fast. But don't worry, I took good care of him…Oh," He stopped again. "I also saw the horse's former owner, Han Wenchong, on the road."
"What? Did he want his horse back?"
"He didn't see me. I came across him in an inn in Yangzhou with several lead escorts from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. I heard them cursing our Red Flower Society, so I went across and eaves-dropped. They called us low and vulgar, and said we had killed that fellow Tong Zhaohe."
'Mastermind' Xu and Zhou Qi smiled at each other. "What is the Zhen Yuan Agency up to this time?" Xu asked.
"I gathered that they were escorting a consignment of treasures presented by the Emperor to the Chen family of Haining." He turned to Chen. "It was for your family, Great Helmsman, so I told the local society leader to quietly make sure it was delivered safely."
"Thank you," Chen replied, smiling. "For once we can work together with the Zhen Yuan Agency."
"The head of the agency is with them, which is an indication of the importance they attach to the consignment."
Chen and the others gasped at the news that the North China Earth-Shaker Wang Weiyang was escorting the consignment personally.
"Wang hasn't escorted a consignment for more than ten years," said Lord Zhou. "Great Helmsman, your family obviously has great prestige."
"I thought it strange too," added Shi. "But later I heard that apart from the valuables for the Great Helmsman's family, they were also carrying a pair of jade vases."
"Jade vases?" Chen asked.
"Yes, treasures from the Muslim regions. The Muslims scored a victory over General Zhao Wei's army, but with the Manchu forces so powerful, they can't hold out for much longer. So they have sent the vases as a peace offering."
The heroes excitedly asked Shi for details of the Muslims' victory.
"I heard that General Zhao Wei's troops starved for several days as a result of us stealing their rations, and finally had to retreat. The Muslims organised an ambush on the road and killed two or three thousand of them." The heroes clapped and laughed.
"The Manchu army finally received more supplies," Shi continued. "It began to advance again, but I didn't hear any further news. When the Muslim envoys arrived in Beijing, the court officials didn't dare to make a decision, and sent him and the vases down south for the Emperor to dispose of."
"The vases won't make any difference," Chen said. "No matter what valuable treasures they send, he will never agree to peace."
"I heard the agency men say that if peace was agreed to, the vases would be kept. If not, they will have to be returned, so it is vital that they not be damaged in any way."
Chen glanced at Xu, and the two walked away from the main group into a side chamber.
"Brother Xu, last night I saw the Emperor. He said that he would be returning to Beijing in three days' time, and that before he left he intended to kill Fourth Brother."
"Then we'd better start making arrangements to save him immediately," Xu replied.
"The Emperor is probably not back in Hangzhou yet, and most of their top fighters are with him, so it should be relatively easy to rescue him if we move fast."
"The Emperor isn't in Hangzhou?"
Chen told him about their meeting in Haining. Xu fiddled meditatively with the pens and paper on the tabletop in front of them.
"The only plan I can see at the moment is to steal the jade vases," Xu said finally. "Since the Emperor has already sent a huge army out west, he is certain to be unwilling to talk peace, which means he will have to return the vases. If he is unable to, his word will lose all credibility, and the Emperor, as we know, is obsessed with his own prestige."
"Once we have the jade vases, we can go to him and say that if he touches one hair on Fourth Brother's head, we will smash them," Chen added.
"Exactly! Even if we can't exchange the vases for Fourth Brother, we can at least postpone things for a few days which will also be of benefit to Master Muzhuolun and his Muslims."
"All right," said Chen. "Then we attack this North China Earth-Shaker, Wang Weiyang."
Wang Weiyang was sixty-nine years old. The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, which he had built up with his own hands, had prospered in north China for more than thirty years in spite of strong and sometimes violent opposition, and there was a saying in the fighting community: 'It is better to bump into the Devil than into old Wang.' He planned to retire the following year in the expectation of living to a venerable old age, but when the agency was entrusted with the task of escorting the jade vases to the Emperor, he decided to accompany the consignment personally. In light of the diplomatic sensitivity of the mission, he did not dare to be neglectful. From each of his agency branches, he detailed six top fighters, while the court also supplied four Imperial Bodyguards and twenty Imperial Guardsmen to accompany the Muslim envoy on his journey south. Precautions along the way were most strict, and there had been no incidents of any kind.
Noon was approaching as they arrived at a town less than three miles from Hangzhou. The agency men went into the largest restaurant and ordered food, and were jubilantly discussing how they planned to celebrate once they got to Hangzhou when a horse neighed outside.
Lead Escort Han pricked up his ears and ran out to find his own beloved white steed walking slowly past with a heavy load of firewood on its back. He tried to grab the reins, but the peasant with the horse gave the animal a rap on the rump and it cantered off down the street. Unwilling to give up, Han ran after them. Once outside the town, the horse turned off the road and galloped into the trees with Han following as best as he could.
"Brother Han's gone crazy thinking about that white horse of his," said another of the lead escorts with a smile. "Every time he sees a horse on the road with even a couple of white hairs, he has to chase after it to see if it's his. When he gets home tomorrow and sees his old lady's snow-white skin, I expect he'll probably think she's his horse and immediately jump…"
The others exploded into laughter.
Just then, one of the waiters suddenly called out: "Master Liang, please sit over here."
A man with the appearance of a rich merchant entered with four servants behind him, one of them carrying a water pipe. He seated himself at a table and a waiter hurried round pouring him a cup of tea and chattering: "Try this Dragon's Well tea, Master Liang. It's made with fresh spring water brought in only yesterday."
Liang grunted and said in a voice thick with the accent of Hanzhou: "Bring me a few slices of meat, a bowl of eel soup and three catties of the best rice wine."
The waiter bowed and a moment later, the fragrance of hot wine assailed their noses as he returned with a large flask.
"What is Brother Han doing away so long?" Master Wang Weiyang asked.
Suddenly the main door of the restaurant was kicked open, and a dwarf shuffled in followed by a girl and a strong young man, all three dressed in rough clothes.
The dwarf bowed in all four directions and announced: "I am a humble travelling player who can do a few tricks to make you laugh. If you are impressed, please make a contribution. If you are not, please accept my apologies."
He picked up a teacup from a table and covered it with his tattered cap. "Change!" he shouted, and whisked the cap away: the cup had disappeared. He waved the cap around to show that the cup was not inside.
Intrigued, Master Liang stood up and walked over to get a closer look.
"May I borrow your snuff box, sir?" the dwarf asked him. Liang laughed and handed the snuff box over. The dwarf placed it in his cap and made it disappear in the same way.
"That snuff box is very precious," one of Liang's servants warned. "Don't damage it now."
The dwarf smiled. "Please look in your pocket, sir," he replied. The servant felt around in his coat pocket and pulled out the snuff box.
Liang and his servants were amazed, and so were the Lead Escorts and Imperial Guardsmen. All crowded round to watch the dwarf's conjuring. Liang pulled a jade ring off his left hand and handed it to him saying: "Make this disappear too."
The dwarf put the ring on the table, covered it with his cap and blew on it.
"Alter east and transpose west, Topsy-turvy like the rest!" he shouted and whipped away the cap. The ring had disappeared. The onlookers gasped.
"Please feel in your pocket, master," the dwarf said, and Liang pulled the ring out and stared at it in surprise.
"Excellent, excellent!" he cried.
Several dozen people had entered the restaurant by this time, to see what was going on, including a number of army officers.
"What's so special about a trick like that?" one of the officers said. "Let's see if you dare to make this disappear." He slapped an official document down on the table and the onlookers saw it was marked "Urgent dispatch for Master Wang, Beijing Military Bureau", underneath which was written "Zhejiang Provincial Commander-in-chief Li".
"Please don't be offended, sir," the dwarf replied. "I may earn my living in a rather casual way, but I would never dare to touch an urgent official dispatch."
"What does it matter?" Liang said to the dwarf. "It's just a game. Go on, make it disappear." He turned to his servants. "Give me five taels of silver," he said. One of the servants pulled an ingot of silver from a bag and handed it to Liang who placed it on the table. "If you make the dispatch disappear, this silver ingot is yours," he said to the dwarf.
The dwarf looked at the ingot, then turned and held a whispered conversation with the girl.
"I have found some more courage," he finally said. He covered the document with his cap and shouted "Change! Change!" His hand pointed to left and right, up and down, and settled on the leather case that contained the jade vases. "In! In! Go into the case!" he roared. He picked up the cap, and the document had indeed disappeared.
"He's got quite a talent, this Turtle," the officer commented. The dwarf bowed before Master Liang.
"Thank you for your contribution," he said, then picked up the ingot and handed it to the girl standing behind him. The crowd clapped in approval.
"All right, now give me the dispatch back," said the officer.
The dwarf smiled. "It's in the leather case. Please open it and look," he replied. All the agency men jumped in shock as he spoke. The case was sealed with the Imperial seal, and none dared to break it open. The officer went over and felt the case with his hand.
"Excuse me, my man," said Wang Weiyang. "That is a treasure belonging to the Imperial court. It cannot be touched."
"You must be joking," the officer replied and continued to feel the case.
"Who's joking with you? Back off a bit!" one of the Imperial Guardsmen warned.
"Yes sir," the officer said. "But please return the dispatch to me, sir."
"Enough of your tricks!" the guardsman shouted at the dwarf. "Give him back the dispatch, quickly!"
"It's in the leather case. If you don't believe me, open it and see," said the dwarf.
The officer flew into a rage and punched him on the shoulder. "Hand it over!" he roared.
The dwarf put on a sorrowful expression. "I dare not deceive you," he said. "The dispatch is inside the leather case, but I cannot spirit it out again!"
Master Liang walked over to the Imperial Guardsman. "What is your honourable surname, sir?" he asked politely.
"My surname is Lin."
"Master Lin, these marketplace scoundrels have no sense of propriety. Please take a hand in this matter and return the dispatch to him."
"This case is the property of the Emperor," Lin replied. "Who would dare to open it without the Emperor's permission?"
Master Liang frowned, as if in a quandary.
"If you don't return that dispatch to me, you will be guilty of delaying important government business which is a capital offence," said the officer. "What do you say brothers?"
Seated around the room were another dozen or so army officers and men who began to edge towards Lin.
Wang Weiyang, with his decades of experience, felt there was something strange about the scene. He guessed that the dwarf was the key to the affair and stretched out his hand to grab his arm. The dwarf shrank away, crying: "Master, master, have mercy on me!"
Wang noted the dwarf's agility and became even more suspicious. He was just about to chase after him when the military men began brawling with the lead escorts and Imperial Guardsmen. He clutched the leather case to his chest and a lead escort stood guard on either side of him. The Guardsman Lin pulled out his dagger and slammed into the table.
"Enough of this!" he roared. "Back off, all of you!"
The army officer drew his sword. "If you don't return the document, I'll finish you off even if I die doing it!" he shouted. "Brothers! All together!"
He lunged forward and clashed with Lin. The other armymen drew their weapons and charged into the fray and a great battle ensued. Guardsman Lin was one of the best fighters in the Imperial Guard, but after a few strokes he found this lowly army officer gaining the upper hand.
Wang Weiyang shouted repeatedly for them all to stop but no-one listened. In the midst of the confusion, another group suddenly surged in through the door and someone commanded: "Seize the trouble-makers!"
The army men all stopped where they were. Guardsman Lin took a deep breath and saw that a young official had entered surrounded by several dozen soldiers. He and immediately recognized the man as the Emperor's favorite, Fu Kangan, who held the posts of military governor of Manchuria, commander-in-chief of the Nine Gates of Beijing as well as commander of the Imperial Guard. Lin hastily pushed his way forward and greeted Fu as the other Imperial Guardsmen bowed before him.
"What's going here?" the official asked.
"They started making trouble, Commander," Lin replied, and gave an account of what had occurred.
"And where is the magician?" the official asked. The dwarf, who had hidden himself in a far corner, now came forward.
"This is a very strange business," the official said. "You will all come with me to Hangzhou. I wish to conduct a thorough investigation."
"Yes, sir. A wise decision, sir," said Lin.
"Let us go," the official said, then walked outside and remounted his horse. The soldiers under his command gathered together the agency men, the army officer that had started the trouble and even the Muslim envoy and herded them out after him.
"Master Fu," said Lin to the official. "This is the head of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, Wang Weiyang."
Wang went over and bowed in greeting, but the official merely glanced at him once from head to foot and grunted. "Let's go," he said.
The column of men entered Hangzhou city and made its way to a huge private residence by the West Lake.
"This must be where the commander is staying," Wang thought to himself. "Being the Emperor's favorite, it's not surprising he has such a strong force of men with him."
They entered the rear hall of the residence. "Please be seated," the official said to Guardsman Lin, and continued on into an inner chamber by himself.
A short while later, an Imperial Guard officer came out and escorted the army officer who had started the trouble, the conjuring dwarf, Master Liang and his servants inside.
"I was getting a bit worried during that brawl," said one of the lead escorts. "There was something funny about those army men. I thought they might try to damage the jade vases."
"Yes, their kung fu was surprisingly good for army officers," Guardsman Lin replied. "It's lucky Commander Fu turned up or we may have had some trouble."
"Commander Fu's Inner Strength Kung Fu is superb," said Wang Weiyang. "It's very unusual for such a senior nobleman to be so accomplished in the martial arts."
"What?" said Lin. "Commander Fu's kung fu is good? How do you know?"
"You can see it in his eyes."
As they were talking, an officer came out. "Wang Weiyang of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, come with me," he said. Wang stood up and followed him out.
They passed through two courtyards and into another hall in which sat Commander Fu Kangan on a dais. He had changed into an official gown with a huge plume in his cap, and the imposing atmosphere was enhanced by the long official desk in front of him and the many Imperial Guardsmen standing on either side.
As he walked in, two officers shouted in unison: "Kneel!" Wang did as he was told.
"So you're Wang Weiyang, are you?" Fu said shortly.
"I am sir," said Wang.
"I hear you have the nickname 'North China Earth Shaker'."
"That is just what some of my friends call me."
"Both the Emperor and I live in Beijing," Fu said coldly. "Are you suggesting you can shake us off our feet too?"
Wang felt a sudden wave of fear. He hastily kowtowed and said: "This humble person would not dare. I will immediately do away with the nickname."
"Such insolence!" Fu roared. "Take him away!"
Two soldiers marched up and led him off, and Wang, in spite of his kung fu skills, did not dare to resist.
The Imperial Guardsmen and lead escorts were brought in one after the other, and one after another they were taken away and thrown manacled into the dungeons. Finally, an army officer marched up to Fu's table carrying the leather box in both hands, knelt down on one knee and raised it above his head in presentation, saying: "Commander Fu, here are the jade vases."
Fu laughed out loud, and stepped down off the dais. The dwarf and the others kneeling on the ground also stood up and began laughing.
"Seventh Brother," Fu said to the dwarf. "You truly deserve the nickname Kung Fu Mastermind!"
The conjuring dwarf was in fact 'Mastermind' Xu, while the Hangzhou Helmsman, Master Ma, had played the part of Master Liang. Chen had taken the role of his double, the Emperor's favorite, Fu Kangan, and the Twin Knights and some of the other heroes had played the trouble-making army officers. Xu had remembered that Han Wenchong would be able to recognize the heroes and so had arranged for him to be lured away using the white horse as bait into the forest where he had been seized.
Chen broke the seal on the leather box and lifted the lid. Inside were a pair of jade vases about one foot in height. On each was drawn the picture of a beautiful girl dressed in Muslim clothes, her hair plaited in a long queue. The girl was stunningly attractive with bewitching eyes and cherry-red lips that almost seemed to move. She looked as if she was about to walk out of the picture.
Everyone gathered round and voiced their admiration for the vases.
"When I saw Huo Qingtong, I thought she was certainly the most beautiful girl under heaven," added Luo Bing. "But this girl is even more lovely."
"It's just a picture," Zhou Qi protested. "You don't think there's really anyone that beautiful, do you?"
"I don't think the artist could have invented such a face," Luo Bing replied.
"Let's bring the Muslim envoy in and ask him," Xu suggested.
As he entered, the envoy bowed respectfully before Chen, in the belief that he was a senior court official.
"You have had a long hard journey, sir," said Chen. "What is your name?"
"My name is Kaibiexing. May I ask your name?"
Chen smiled but did not reply.
"This is General Li, Commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province," said Xu.
The others stared at him in surprise, wondering what he had in mind.
"I trust Master Muzhuolun is well?" Chen said to the envoy.
"Thank you for asking, Commander. Our leader is very well."
"I wonder if you could tell me, sir, who is this beautiful girl on the vases? Is it a real person, or did the artist draw it from his own imagination?"
"The vases originally belonged to Master Muzhuolun's daughter. The girl in the picture is her."
"Is she Huo Qingtong's elder or younger sister?" Zhou Qi asked.
The envoy was surprised. "Do you know her, miss?"
"I have met her," she replied.
Chen wanted to ask about how Huo Qingtong was, but stopped himself. "Please go and rest now," he said to the envoy. "We will talk again later."
The envoy bowed. "Thank you, Commander. Where shall the vases be kept?"
"We have other arrangements," said Chen.
The envoy was led away.
`Mastermind' Xu went later to see the Muslim envoy.
"I will take you to see the Emperor," he said, and they left, accompanied by Meng carrying the leather box containing the vases. Unknown to the envoy, one of the vases had been removed.
When they arrived at the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen, Meng handed the leather box to the envoy and pointed to the main gate.
"Go in on your own," he said.
That afternoon, an attendant handed a visiting card to Great Helmsman Chen. It was signed 'Your servant Deng Tunan', the trusted lieutenant of Commander Li Keshou.
"Your plan has probably worked, Brother Xu," Chen said. "Brother Wei, please go and receive him."
'Leopard' Wei went to the reception room and saw a robust military official seated in a chair. "What is it you wish to see our master about, Master Deng?" he asked.
"I have come with instructions from Commander-in-Chief Li to see the Great Helmsman of your society to discuss a certain matter with him," Deng replied.
"Our master is not free at present. It is the same if you talk to me."
"It concerns a Muslim vase," he said.
Wei frowned enquiringly.
"The Muslims dispatched an envoy with a pair of vases to plead for peace. But when the Emperor opened the box, only one of the vases was inside. He was very angry and questioned the envoy, who said that he had already had an audience with the Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province. The Emperor called in Commander Li, who was naturally mystified. Luckily, the Emperor knew Commander Li would not do such a thing, that there must be some good explanation."
"That is good," said Wei, nodding.
"But the Emperor said that Commander Li would be held responsible for the affair and gave him three days to find and return the other vase. This presents a great difficulty."
"He's afraid that if he doesn't find the vase, he will be removed from office, is that it? It's probably easier not being an official. If one's whole family could to be executed and all one's possessions seized, it must be rather distressing."
Deng ignored his sarcasm. "Let us not deceive each other. I have come to ask your society to return the vase."
"We have not heard of any such vase," replied Wei. "But as Commander Li has encountered this difficulty, there is no reason why we shouldn't help him find it. We may possibly come across some clue to its whereabouts in a year or two."
"Commander Li said he had great respect for Master Chen. He sent me today to ask your assistance, but would not feel at ease if he was unable to do anything in return. Please do not hesitate to inform us of Master Chen's wishes."
"You are very frank, General Deng. That is excellent," Wei replied. "Our Master Chen has two wishes. Firstly, the Red Flower Society has offended Commander Li, and he would like to ask him to let bygones be bygones."
"That goes without saying. I can guarantee that the Commander will never make difficulties for your society over this matter. And the second thing?"
"Our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai is imprisoned in the Commander's Yamen."
"He is an Imperial criminal," Wei continued. "No matter how courageous Commander Li is, he would never dare to release him. We understand that. But Master Chen misses him greatly and would like to see him alone tonight."
Deng thought for a second. "This is an extremely serious matter. I will have to ask the Commander and return with the reply."
Deng returned two hours later.
"The Commander says that Master Wen's crimes are serious in the extreme, and that normally no-one would be allowed to visit him," he said.
"Normally!" Wei exclaimed.
"But as Master Chen has agreed to return the vase, the Commander will risk his neck and allow Master Chen to see him. However, there are two small conditions he must agree to. First, the Commander has recklessly agreed to this purely in order to cement his friendship with Master Chen. If anyone else found out about it, it would be disastrous."
"Commander Li wants Master Chen to agree not to reveal a word about the affair to anyone, is that it?"
"I can agree to that on our Master's behalf," Wei said.
"The second point is that only Master Chen will be allowed to make the visit."
Wei smiled. "Commander Li is naturally afraid that we will take advantage of the opportunity to try to rescue Master Wen. All right, we agree. Master Chen will go by himself. But we have not agreed not to attempt a rescue."
"You are a good man, Brother Wei, and I value your word. Please ask Master Chen to come to the Yamen this evening."
"If Zhang Zhaozhong is around when Master Chen and Master Wen meet, it will naturally be impossible to preserve the secrecy of the agreement, which could be extremely inconvenient for Commander Li."
"That is true," Deng replied. "The Commander will think of some excuse for getting him away."
When Deng had left, the heroes gathered in the Great Hall to await their orders for Wen's rescue.
"Brother Xu, I will leave the arrangements to you," Chen said.
Xu was silent for a moment. "Now that we know Zhang Zhaozhong will be elsewhere and that the Great Helmsman can get inside, it will of course be much easier to rescue Brother Wen," he said. "But Li is also certain to prepare for that eventuality. We must first work out what he plans to do and then do something unexpected."
"He will gather a large contingent of troops and surround the entrance to the dungeon and may even enlist the support of some Imperial Bodyguards," Yang pointed out. "They will allow only the Great Helmsman in, and only the Great Helmsman out."
"We had better be waiting outside the Yamen just in case the Turtles try anything against the Great Helmsman," said one of the Twin Knights.
"We will of course be waiting outside," answered Xu. "But I don't think Li will dare to harm the Great Helmsman with the vase in our hands."
"I've got it," Chen said suddenly. "When I go to see Fourth Brother, I will wear a wide cape and a large hat with a face cover…"
Xu knew what he meant. "But that way, we would gain one man only to lose another. It's not a good idea."
"Finish what you were saying, Great Helmsman," said Priest Wu Chen.
"Once I am in the dungeon, I will exchange clothes with Fourth Brother and then let him leave. The guards will think it is me. You can be waiting outside to receive him."
"But what about you?"
"The Emperor and I have a special relationship. Once they discover the switch, they will let me go."
The heroes were unhappy that their leader was placing himself in such danger, but they were forced to agree it was probably the best plan.
All the arrangements were completed. Chen threw on a large cape with the collar turned up, pulled a hat well down over his face, and set off for the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen accompanied by 'Leopard' Wei. By the time they arrived, it was already close to dusk and the first stars had began to appear at the edge of the sky. A man came out to meet them.
"Is that Master Chen?" he whispered. Wei nodded. "Please come with me. This other gentleman, please stay here."
Wei stood and watched as Chen followed the man into the Yamen. A flight of ravens flew overhead through the evening mist on their way home, cawing as they went, and Wei's heart beat wildly as he wondered what would happened to the Great Helmsman. After a while, the rest of the heroes arrived and spread out around the Yamen.
As he entered the gate, Chen saw the Yamen was filled with thousands of soldiers on guard. The man led him through three courtyards and into a room.
"Please take a seat," he said, and left. A moment later, Commander Li entered and saluted Chen. "It is an honour to meet you," he said.
Chen opened his cape and revealed his face. "We met the day before yesterday on the lake," he answered with a smile.
"You may now see the prisoner," said Li. "Please follow me."
As they reached the door, an attendant rushed breathlessly towards them.
"Commander, the Emperor has arrived," he reported. "Master Deng has gone out to meet him."
Li started in surprise and turned to Chen. "You had better wait here for a while," he said.
Li ran through to the front courtyard and saw Qian Long with a large contingent of Imperial Guardsmen. He hurriedly knelt down before him and kowtowed.
"Arrange a well-guarded room," said Qian Long. "I want to personally interrogate Wen Tailai."
Li invited the Emperor into his own study, and the Imperial Bodyguards established themselves on all sides of the study and even on the roof.
"I have important matters of a confidential nature to discuss with this prisoner. No-one else must hear," Qian Long told Bodyguard Bai Zhen.
"Yes, Your Highness," Bai replied and retired.
A moment later, four bodyguards entered carrying a stretcher on which Wen, handcuffed and chained, lay asleep. The bodyguards retired and there was silence for a time.
"How are your injuries?" Qian Long asked. Wen's eyes opened and he sat up. His wounds had not yet healed, but his mind was clear. He had seen Qian Long once before when he had entered the Imperial Palace with Master Yu, but was surprised at suddenly meeting him again in Hangzhou.
"I'm not dead yet," he said coldly.
"I asked my men to invite you to come to see me because there is something I wish to discuss with you."
"When you visited me with that leader of yours, Master Yu, I discussed an important matter with him. Unfortunately, I hear he became ill and died very soon afterwards. It was a great pity."
"If Master Yu had not died, I expect he would be imprisoned here with me," replied Wen.
Qian Long laughed. "You underworld fighters, you're very frank. You say whatever you are thinking. Now, Master Wen, I have only one question for you. Answer me honestly, and I will immediately release you."
"Release me? Ha! Do you think I am a three-year-old child? I know that you cannot eat or sleep easy knowing that I'm still alive. You have stayed your hand until today only because you wish to question me."
"You're much too suspicious," said Qian Long with a smile. He walked forward two paces.
"Did Master Yu tell you what it was he talked to me about?" he asked.
"What did you talk about?"
Qian Long stared at him, and Wen returned the gaze unflinchingly. After a while, Qian Long turned his head away.
"About my origins," he said quietly.
"He didn't say. You are the Emperor, the son of the late Emperor and Empress. Everyone knows about your origins. What more is there to say?"
Qian Long breathed a sigh of relief. "That night you visited me, you must have known what the reason was?"
"Master Yu said that he had helped you once over some important matter. The Red Flower Society was short of funds and he went to ask you for three million taels of silver. But you refused the request, and have even had me seized. If I ever get out of this, I will reveal how ungrateful you are."
Qian Long laughed out loud. He glanced at Wen: his anger did not appear to be a pretence. "If that is the case, I had better have you killed," he said, half-believing him. "Otherwise, if I let you go, it could damage my reputation."
"Why didn't you kill me earlier? If you had, you wouldn't have had to harbour such evil schemes against your mother."
"What about my mother?" Qian Long asked, turning pale.
"So you know everything?"
"No, not everything. Master Yu said the Empress Dowager knew he had helped you and had asked you to repay him, but that you were still unwilling to part with the silver. You have mountains of money. Three million taels should be nothing to you. But you insist on being petty."
Qian Long laughed nervously. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away the beads of sweat on his brow. He paced the room to steady himself, then smiled. "You show no fear at all before the Emperor. You are indeed a man of steel," he said.
"What have I to be afraid of? I doubt if you would dare to kill me," said Wen.
"You want to kill me because you're afraid your secret will be revealed but as soon as you kill me, your secret will be impossible to keep."
"Can dead men talk?"
"As soon as I die, someone will open a certain letter and reveal the evidence to the world. Then you will be in a real predicament."
"What letter?" Qian Long asked.
"Before we went to the palace to see you, Master Yu wrote down every detail of the affair and sealed the document in an envelope together with two important pieces of evidence and left it with a friend."
"Was he afraid that something untoward might happen?"
"Of course. How could he trust you? Master Yu told his friend that if we were both to die suddenly, he should open the letter and do what it said, but if one of us was still alive, not to open it under any circumstances. Master Yu has already passed away, so I don't think you'll dare to kill me."
Qian Long wrung his hands, anxiety written all over his face.
"Wouldn't it be worth spending three million taels of silver to buy that letter and the two pieces of evidence?" Wen asked.
"The silver? I had always planned to hand it over and then release you. Write a letter to your friend telling him to bring the letter to me and I will immediately pay up the money."
"Ha, ha. Once I tell you his name, you can send your bodyguards to kill or capture him. Actually, I'm very comfortable here. I would be happy to stay the rest of my life. You and I have the same fate. If I die first, you won't live much longer."
Qian Long bit his lip. "If you won't write the letter, it is of no importance," he said after a pause. "I will give you two days. If you persist in being stubborn, I will have no alternative but to kill you. No-one else will know about it and your friend will think you're still alive. And even if I don't kill you, I can still have your eyes gouged out, your tongue removed, your arms cut off…Think about it over the next two days."
He pushed open the door and walked out. His bodyguards re-assembled around him, and Commander Li saw him out of the Yamen.
Wen was carried back to the dungeon by the Commander's personal guards with Zhang Zhaozhong providing an escort. Once in the cell, one of the guards handed Zhang a letter.
"Commander Li asked me to give you this," he said. Zhang opened and read the letter, then left.
Wen lay on the bed thinking about his wife and friends. He hoped none of them would be harmed if they should attempt a rescue.
Just then, the iron door to his cell opened with a clang and a man walked in. Wen thought it was Zhang returning and did not open his eyes.
The man walked over to the bed. "Fourth Brother," he said quietly.
Wen was stunned. He looked up and saw it was Chen. "Great Helmsman!" he exclaimed, sitting up.
Chen smiled and nodded. He pulled two steel files from his pocket, and began filing at Wen's manacles. After a few strong strokes, a series of light scratches appeared on the surface, but the file was ruined. The manacles were made of a specially-cast steel brought from the West, and an ordinary file was useless against it.
"Great Helmsman, only the finest of swords could break through these chains and manacles," said Wen.
Chen remembered the battle with Zhang Zhaozhong at the Yellow River crossing and how sharp Zhang's 'Frozen Emerald' sword had been.
"Does Zhang guard you night and day?" he asked quickly.
"He's never more than a step from me. He only left a short while ago."
"Good. We'll wait for him to return and steal his sword." Chen threw the files under the bed.
"It's possible I won't be able to get out of here," Wen said. "The Emperor wants to silence me because he's afraid I will reveal his secret. I had better tell you what it is, Great Helmsman, so that no matter if I live or die, there will be no delay."
"The night I went to the Imperial Palace with Master Yu, Qian Long was very surprised to see us. Master Yu said: 'A lady from the Chen family in Haining asked me to come,' and handed him a letter. The Emperor's face went pale as he read it, and he told me to wait outside. The two of them then talked for about two hours before Master Yu finally came out. On the way back, he told me the Emperor was not a Manchu at all, but a Chinese and also your elder brother."
Chen started in shock. "That's impossible," he said firmly. "My brother is in Haining."
"Master Yu said that on the day the Emperor Yong Zheng's wife gave birth to a girl, your mother by coincidence also gave birth to a boy. Yong Zheng ordered the Chen family's child to be brought for him to look at, and when it was returned, it had become a girl. The boy is now the Emperor Qian Long…"
Before he could finish, they heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor and a guard came in.
"What is it?" asked Chen.
"Master Zhang is returning. Commander Li is unable to detain him further and asks you to leave quickly."
"Thank you," Chen replied. His left hand shot out and touched a Yuedao point on the guard's body. The guard toppled to the floor without a sound, and Chen pushed him under the bed.
"With Zhang on his way, I don't have time to give you all the details," Wen continued. "Master Yu knew the Emperor was Chinese and went to urge him to overthrow the Manchus and restore China to the Chinese while remaining as Emperor himself. Qian Long appeared moved by the appeal, and asked Master Yu to bring evidence before making a decision. But as soon as Master Yu returned home, he fell ill and never recovered. His last wish was that you should be the Great Helmsman, and he said to me that this was a good opportunity for us to restore the honour of the Chinese people. The Emperor is your elder brother. If he is unwilling to overthrow the Manchus, then everyone will support you to take his place."
His words left Chen too stunned to speak. He thought back to when he had first seen Qian Long by the lake and afterwards crying before the tomb of his parents. Could it really be that the Emperor was born of his own mother and father?
"I understand your mother wrote down the full details of how the Emperor Yong Zheng swapped the girl for your brother in a letter which Master Yu gave along with several other pieces of evidence to your teacher, Master Yuan, to look after."
"Ah, so when the Twin Knights went to see my teacher this summer, they were carrying these things to him on Master Yu's orders?"
"That's right. It was so secret that not even you could be told. All that Master Yuan knows is that they are extremely important, but he does not know what they are. Just before Master Yu passed away, he said that after you became Great Helmsman, you should open the letter and make your plans accordingly. But I stupidly allowed myself to be captured and risked the whole enterprise. Great Helmsman, if you can't get me out today, you must go to the Muslim regions as quickly as possible to see your teacher. You must not endanger the great cause of restoration just for my sake."
Wen was clearly relieved to have completed what he had to say.
He was about to add something when footsteps sounded in the corridor again. He signalled quickly with his hand, and Chen hid under the bed. Wen then draped himself over the side of bed with his head resting on the floor.
Zhang entered the cell, and under the faint light of the room's single candle, saw Wen lying half on the floor as if dead. Shocked, he leapt forward and touched Wen's back, but there was no reaction. He started to lift Wen's body back onto the bed, but as he did so, Wen leapt up and attacked him. Zhang fell back in surprise, felt a sudden numbness in his lower abdomen, and knew he had been hit by someone waiting in ambush under the bed. He roared angrily, sidestepped two paces and suppressed his breathing to control the numbness. Chen, who was startled to see Zhang still standing, leapt out from beneath the bed and struck his face with his fists seven or eight times.
If he responded, Zhang knew his control would be lost and the paralysis in his abdomen would spread. He retreated as Chen's foot flew up and struck another yuedao point. This time, he could not sustain his control. His whole body went limp and he fell to the ground.
Chen searched him and was extremely disappointed to find he did not have the Frozen Emerald sword with him. He pulled a piece of paper out of Zhang's pocket and saw under the candlelight that it was a note from Commander Li asking Zhang to show his sword to an important official who was waiting to see it:this must have been the excuse Li had used to draw Zhang away. He guessed that Zhang had been anxious to get back to the dungeon to resume his guard duties and had left early without the sword.
Chen continued his search of Zhang's body, and suddenly leapt up jubilantly.
"What is it?" Wen asked. Chen held his hand up and displayed a set of keys. He tried one on the manacles and they opened immediately.
Finally freed, Wen exercised his arms and legs as Chen took off his cape and hat.
"Put these on and get out quickly," he said.
"What about you?"
"I'll wait here for a while. You get out."
Wen understood his meaning. "Great Helmsman, I am very grateful for your good intentions, but we cannot do it that way."
"Fourth Brother, you don't understand. I am in no danger if I stay here." He told Wen about how the Emperor and he had sworn an oath to each other.
"It is still impossible,," Wen said.
Chen frowned. "I am the Great Helmsman. All members of the Red Flower Society must follow my orders, is that not correct?"
"Fine. Then this my order. Put these on quickly and get out. The brothers are outside waiting for you."
"This time I am forced to disobey your order," Wen said. "I would prefer to accept whatever penalty you decide upon."
They were deadlocked. Chen pursed his lips and then had an idea.
"Well, we'll have to risk going out together then. Put on his clothes," he said pointing at Zhang.
"Excellent! Why didn't you say so earlier?" Wen exclaimed.
The two stripped Zhang of his clothes and exchanged them for Wen's, then locked the chains and manacles onto him. Zhang shook with rage, his eyes blood-red with hate, but he was unable to utter a sound.
The two walked quietly through the door and along the corridor. As they ascended a flight of stone steps, a bright light assailed their eyes and they saw the whole courtyard was filled with torches. Several dozen soldiers stood with shining spear tips pointed at the dungeon entrance. Behind them were several hundred archers with bows drawn. Commander Li stood with his right hand held high. Once it dropped, the spears and arrows would be loosed, and Chen and Wen would be dead.
Chen stepped back a pace. "How are your wounds?" he whispered to Wen. "Can you charge through?"
"No, my leg is not up to it," Wen replied with a rueful smile. "You go by yourself, Great Helmsman, don't worry about me."
"All right, pretend you're Zhang and we'll see how we do," Chen replied.
Wen pulled his cap down to his eyebrows and strode out. Commander Li's heart sank at the sight of Zhang and Chen together and he assumed that Zhang had arrested him. He turned to his daughter Yuanzhi.
"Give Zhang's sword back to him and distract him so that Chen can get away," he said.
Yuanzhi walked over with the 'Frozen Emerald' sword in her hand and held it out to Wen, positioning herself between the two men.
"Uncle Zhang, here is your sword," she said, giving Chen a slight nudge with her elbow. Wen grunted and moved to accept the sword, and suddenly under the torch light she recognized him.
"Wen Tailai! So you're trying to escape," she cried and thrust the sword at his chest.
Wen feinted to one side and caught the blade with his fingers while his right hand struck out at the Solar Yuedao points on her forehead. Frightened, Yuanzhi tried to retreat a step, but found that with his fingers still holding the sword, she was unable to move an inch. She let go of the sword and tried to slip away, but Wen struck her left shoulder and a bone-splitting pain surged through her. She cried out and squatted down. Looking back, Chen saw Wen was surrounded but he continued to fight fiercely.
"Stop or the archers will shoot," Commander Li roared.
The old wounds on Wen's thigh burst open with the sudden effort and blood poured out. He knew he did not have the strength to break out of the circle of soldiers.
"Great Helmsman, catch the sword and get out!" he shouted. He tried to throw the Frozen Emerald Sword, but with a sudden pain in his shoulder, his hand went limp and the sword fell to the ground only a few feet from him. He had been hit by an arrow.
Chen turned to Commander Li. "Stop shooting!" he shouted. Li waved his hand and the archers stopped.
"Get a doctor quickly to deal with Master Wen's wounds. I'm going," Chen said, and raced out of the Yamen. Following Li's orders, the guards pretended to give chase, without really obstructing him.
Once out of the Yamen, 'Leopard' Wei and Luo Bing came up to meet him. Chen smiled bitterly and shook his head. The eastern sky was already pale as with heavy hearts the heroes returned home.
They gathered later in the Great Hall to discuss the situation.
Chen said to Wei: "Ninth Brother, send the vase to Commander Li. We cannot betray our word." Wei bowed and left.
Master Ma's son entered the hall and walked over to Chen. "Great Helmsman, Zhang Zhaozhong has sent a letter to you," He said.
"Zhang? That is strange. I wonder what he has to say?"
He opened the letter and found it angrily accused him of deception and plotting, of behaviour unbefitting an honourable man, and challenged him to a duel at a time and place of his choice. "He wants to get revenge for last night," Chen told the others. "Huh, a duel! Does he think I'm scared?"
"We have to rescue Fourth Brother in the next two days," said Xu. "Why don't you ask Zhang to postpone the meeting for a few days? We should not allow this matter to interfere with our real purpose."
"That is true," said Chen. "Today is the twentieth, so I will set the meeting for noon on the twenty-third."
He immediately wrote a letter inviting Zhang to meet him alone on that day and ordered an attendant to take it to the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen.
An attendant entered and said to Master Ma: "Master, the old man Wang Weiyang still refuses to eat and does nothing but curse."
"Who does he curse?" Ma asked.
"The Imperial Bodyguard for their lack of sense. He says he doesn't understand why they have imprisoned him."
"The North China Earth-Shaker," Priest Wu Chen chuckled. "As soon as he comes down to the south, he has to put up with some hardship."
Xu's face suddenly brightened. "I have a plan that should make it easier for you to deal with Zhang, Great Helmsman," he said. He told them the plan and they all clapped and laughed in delight.
"Excellent, very cunning," said Priest Wu Chen. Zhou Qi smiled and shook her head.
"Mistress Zhou once again thinks that Seventh Brother is not being straightforward enough," Chen said with a smile. "But when dealing with dishonourable men, one does not have to be completely honourable. Brother Meng, go and have a talk with the North China Earth-Shaker."
In forty years, Wang Weiyang had never suffered a setback. Now, on his first trip to the south, he was in dire straights. He yelled and shouted, insisting that he should be allowed to see the Imperial Guard Commander to settle the matter. As he ranted, the door to his cell opened and Meng walked in wearing the uniform of an Imperial Guard officer.
"So you are the North China Earth-Shaker?" he said unceremoniously.
Wang raged inwardly. "Yes," he said. "It is a nickname given to me by my friends. If Commander Fu finds it unpleasing, I will change it immediately."
"Commander Fu is a confidante of the Emperor," said Meng coldly. "He has no interest in such things."
"I am escorting a quantity of precious articles to Hangzhou for the court. Why are you detaining me here?"
"Do you really want to know?"
"I am just afraid that at you age, you may not be able to stand the shock."
Wang hated references to his age more than anything. In a rage, he struck the corner of the table with his fist and splinters flew.
"I may be old, but my heart is still strong," he shouted. "What shock have I to be afraid of?"
Meng laughed. "Your're truly remarkable, Master Wang. There is a saying in the fighting community. 'Meeting the Devil is preferable to meeting old Wang, bumping into a spear is preferable to bumping into Zhang Zhaozhong', isn't that right?"
"That's the reputation I have amongst bandits."
"Why does 'old Wang' come before 'Zhang'? Could it be that old Wang's kung fu is better than Zhang's?"
Wang stood up. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "So the Fire Hand Judge wants to test me. I'm getting too slow in my old age. I never thought of that."
"Master Zhang is my superior, did you know that?"
"I knew that Master Zhang was in the Imperial Guard."
"Would you recognize him?" asked Meng.
"We both live in Beijing, But he is an official and I am an ordinary citizen. I have heard much about him, but have never had the good fortune to meet him."
"Master Zhang has also heard much about you," said Meng. "He says there are three matters he wants to raise with you. If you agree to them, you will be allowed to leave immediately."
"Firstly, he wants you to abandon the nickname 'North China Earth-Shaker."
"Huh! What's the second thing?"
"Please close down the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency."
"My Bodyguard Agency has been operating for more than thirty years," Wang protested angrily. "Never have I suffered a loss at the hands of our friends in the fighting community, yet Master Zhang wants me to retire! And the third thing?"
"The third thing is to ask you to issue a proclamation asking members of the fighting community to reverse the order of the saying about you and Master Zhang. Master Zhang also says that as you are now getting on in age, your Eight Diagrams sword is probably no longer of much use to you, and suggests that you donate it to the Imperial Guard."
Wang's anger surged. "Zhang Zhaozhong and I have nothing against one another. He's carrying this too far!" he shouted.
"You have enjoyed a great name for forty years. Perhaps you ought to retire. As the saying goes, one mountain cannot contain two tigers. Surely you understand the sense of that?"
"So he wishes to humiliate me to promote his own name. Huh! And what if I don't agree. Will he continue to hold me here?"
"Master Zhang is an honourable man. He would not do such a thing," said Meng. "He invites you to duel with him at noon today on Lion Peak. If you win, the three conditions will not be mentioned again. If you lose, then he asks you to agree to all three. He says it would be rather inconvenient if the Emperor found out about this, and asks you to go alone. That is, if you dare."
Wang spluttered with rage. "Even if I was to die there, I would still go alone."
"Then please write out a letter and I will take it back to Master Zhang," said Meng. He pulled out some paper and a writing brush.
Wang, his hand shaking in anger, wrote out a short note:
"To His Excellency Master Zhang Zhaozhong. Your words and behaviour have gone too far. I will meet you today at noon on Lion Peak. If I lose, I will be at your disposal. Wang Weiyang."
Meng smiled, picked up the letter and walked out, closing the door of the cell behind him.
That morning, Master Han, the original owner of the white horse, was moved from one cell to another. Having fallen into the hands of Red Flower Society once again, he was afraid he would not be able to escape so easily again. As he morosely considered his dilemma, he heard someone shouting in the cell next to his, and recognized the voice of Wang Weiyang. He could hear he was cursing Zhang Zhaozhong. Greatly curious, he was just about to call out to Wang when the door opened and two men walked in.
"Please come with us to the Great Hall for a chat, Master Han," one of them said.
As they entered the hall, Han saw three men sitting on the left. In the middle was the Red Flower Society's Great Helmsman Chen, while on either side of him sat a dwarf and a man with a flowing white beard. Han bowed silently and sat down.
"Brother Han, I never thought that we would meet again here," said Chen. "Our fates seem to be tied."
Han hesitated for a moment. "I know I agreed to give up my sword and return home," he said finally. "But Master Wang insisted that I do this job. Out of feelings of friendship and because I knew the valuables belonged to your family, I…"
"Brother Han," Xu interrupted harshly. "We of the fighting community are very particular about two things: trust and honour. By your own word, you have proved to be untrustworthy. How do you think you should be dealt with?"
Han steeled himself. "What is there to say? If you're going to kill me then kill me."
"There's no need to talk like that," Chen said. "Master Wang has been grossly insulted by Zhang Zhaozhong, and says that no matter what, he must fight it out with him. We of the fighting community are very annoyed over this affair. What is your relationship with Zhang Zhaozhong?"
"I've met him a few times in Beijing, but we are from two different worlds. You couldn't say we had any relationship."
"As I thought. Have a look at this letter," said Chen, and handed him the note Wang had written.
Han knew that Wang always showed the greatest respect for officialdom. But if Zhang really had been that insulting, he would have been unable to swallow it. Having himself heard Wang cursing and now seeing the letter, there was no room for doubt.
"I would like to see Master Wang and discuss the situation with him," he said.
"There is not enough time," Chen replied. "I would like you to take this letter to Zhang now and you can see Master Wang when you return. Twelfth Brother, please come here," he called. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi emerged from an inner chamber and Chen introduced him to Han. "Brother Shi will accompany you to see Zhang Zhaozhong. You are unaware of how Zhang has caused Master Wang to lose face, but there is no time to give you the details now. When you see Zhang, you can say that Brother Shi here is a lead escort with the bodyguard agency. Do exactly as he says."
Han's suspicions rose again and he hesitated once more.
"Do you have any doubts, Brother Han?"
"No, no," he answered hastily.
Xu knew that Han suspected. "Please wait a moment," he said. He left the hall for a moment, returning with a flask of wine and a wine cup into which he poured some wine.
"I was too abrupt in what I said just now," he said, offering the cup to Han. "Please accept this as a token of my apology. Let there be no hard feelings."
"Well said!" Han replied. He drained the cup, picked up the letter and walked towards the door.
"Oh no!" Xu suddenly exclaimed. "Brother Han, I've made a mistake. That cup of wine had poison in it!"
Han went pale, and he turned back towards them.
"I am truly sorry," said Xu. "That flask was poisoned for use whenever needed and one of the servants gave it to me by mistake. I didn't realize it until I smelt it. You've already drunk a cupful. Brother Han, oh dear, oh dear. Get the antidote quickly," he added to an attendant.
"The antidote is in the east city residence," the attendant replied.
"You fool. Ride over there and get it!" Xu shouted at him. The attendant bowed and left.
"I have been neglectful," Xu said apologetically to Han. "Please deliver the letter first. If you do exactly as Brother Shi says, you can take the antidote when you get back, and everything will be fine."
Han knew he either did as the Red Flower Society ordered or he was a dead man. He gave Xu a look of hatred, then turned and walked out without a word. Shi followed him.
Lord Zhou frowned as the two left. "Han doesn't appear to me to be all that evil," he said. "Poisoning him like that was not a very honourable thing to do."
"But there was no poison in the wine," Xu replied.
"None." Xu poured himself a cup and drank it down.
"I was afraid he might mess up our plan in front of Zhang, so I scared him a little. When he comes back, he can drink another cup and it will all be over."
The others laughed.
Zhang was sitting beside Wen Tailai keeping watch when the cell door opened and a guard came in with a visiting card inscribed with the words: ' North China Earth-Shaker Wang Weiyang.'
"Go and tell him that I cannot see visitors," he said.
The guard left, but returned a moment later to say: "The visitors won't leave. They have a letter for you."
Zhang read the letter, and was both angered and perplexed by it. He had never had any disputes with Wang and wondered why the old man should challenge him to a kung fu duel.
"Tell Commander Li that I have to see a visitor and ask him to send someone to stand watch in my place," he said to the guard.
Four bodyguards arrived to replace him, and Zhang went to the reception hall. He recognized Lead Escort Han and saluted him with his fists.
"Isn't Master Wang here?" he asked.
"This is Lead Escort Shi of our bodyguard agency," Han replied, pointing to his companion. "There are a number of things Master Wang wants him to say to you."
Zhang threw Wang's letter onto the table. "I have respected Wang from afar for a long time, but I have never had any dealings with him whatsoever," he said. "How can he say that my words and behaviour have gone too far? There appears to be some misunderstanding here."
"Master Wang is a leading member of the fighting community," said Shi coldly. "When the community produces scum, he considers it to be his business regardless of whether there is a direct connection."
Zhang stood up, absolutely furious. "So Wang Weiyang says I am scum, does he?"
Shi said nothing in silent confirmation.
"Please enlighten me as to just how I have dishonoured the fighting community," demanded Zhang.
"Members of the fighting community abhor disrespect for superiors above all else," Shi replied. "You, Master Zhang, are a senior member of the Wudang School. It is said that you have not only turned hostile towards your own martial brothers, but have also attempted to arrest one of them for the Manchu court. Is this true?"
"The affairs of my martial brothers and I are of no concern to anyone else," Zhang said angrily.
"Secondly, there is no personal emnity between yourself and the Red Flower Society and yet purely for the purpose of your own career and enrichment, you seized Master Wen Tailai, and caused the death of the young son of Lord Zhou of Iron Gall Manor. Is your mind at ease over such things?"
"I am employed by the Emperor and I am loyal to him. What has that got to do with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency?"
"Did you not work to implicate the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency in your schemes, as a result of which many of our men were killed and wounded?" said Shi.
"You really did do wrong there, Master Zhang," Han added. "You can't blame Master Wang for being angry."
"We will ignore other examples for the moment," Shi continued coldly. "How do you think these three questions should be handled?" He rolled up his eyes and struck an expression of dignified authority.
Zhang was incensed at being treated like a criminal in the dock. "All right, you," he shouted, striding forward. "You're obviously looking for trouble!"
Shi retreated a pace. "What's this?" he asked. "You want to take me on because you don't dare to accept the North China Earth-Shaker's challenge, is that it?"
"Who says I don't dare?" Zhang roared. "I will be there on Lion Peak at noon today."
"If you decide not to go, then never again consider yourself to be a member of the fighting community," Shi said. "Master Wang says that if you have any guts at all, you will go alone. There will be no one else from the Bodyguard Agency there."
"Why should I need help? Do you think I am afraid of this egotistical, stupid old man?"
"Master Wang is not a great orator," Shi continued, ignoring Zhang's comment. "When you meet him, the issue will be decided by kung fu alone. If you want to curse and swear, please feel free to do so now."
Zhang was speechless with rage.
Shi laughed coldly, then turned on his heel and left with Han following.
While the two had argued, Han's mind had been on the poison he had taken, and wished that Shi would hurry up and finish so that he could get back and take the antidote.
"We agreed to meet at noon," Shi reported on their return to the mansion at Solitary Peak.
Han collapsed on a chair with what appeared to be stomach cramps. Xu poured out a cup of wine and handed it to him.
"This is the antidote. Drink it up, Brother Han."
Han quickly stretched out his hand to take it, but Lord Zhou snatched the cup away first and drank it down at one draught. Han stared at him an amazement.
"We have joked with you enough, Master Han," Zhou said with a smile. "You didn't take any poison at all. He was just playing with you. Master Xu, come and apologise."
Xu walked over, grinning and bowed. "Please forgive me, Brother Han," he said.
Meng went in once more to see Wang Weiyang. "Master Zhang has agreed," he said. "You can go now. And by the way, he does not like naggers, so if you have anything to say, say it now. When you get to Lion Peak, the matter will be decided with fists and blades. If you try talking to him even to beg for mercy, I doubt if he will listen to you. If you are afraid, there is still time to pull out."
"I am prepared to die today if need be," Wang shouted, huffily stroking his beard. He stood up and strode out. Meng motioned with his hands to an attendant who handed Wang his sword and a bag of projectiles.
Han was standing by the door. "Please be careful Master Wang," he said.
"You know about this too?"
Han nodded. "I have seen Zhang."
"What did he call me?"
"It was demeaning. You would not wish to hear it."
"Speak," ordered Wang.
"He called you… an egotistical, stupid old man."
Wang grunted. "We shall see whether or not I am egotistical. Brother Han, if anything should happen to me, please look after the agency and the affairs of my family for me." He hesitated. "And tell my two sons not to rush into taking revenge. Their kung fu is still not good enough, and they would lose their lives to no good purpose."
He then started out for Lion Peak and the duel.
The slopes of Lion Peak produce abundant quantities of tea, one of the most exquisite varieties of the leaf under heaven. The mountain itself is high and precipitous, and few people go to the very top.
Wang Weiyang, his great sword slung across his back, clambered up the steep slope and emerged through the tea bushes onto an expanse of open ground on the summit. He noticed walking towards him a tall, robust man wearing a short jacket. The man stared at him fo