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A Hero Born by Jin Yong


A Hero Born is a beautiful novel written by the famous author Jin Yong. The book is perfect for those who want to read historical, historical fiction books.

The story begins with a court corrupt to the core, willing to sacrifice the Chinese people to the invading Jurchen tribes for the chance of gold and escape.

It begins with two patriots, two farmers self-taught in martial arts, and one Taoist determined to avenge their deaths.



fighting an invasion from the north by the Jurchen tribes of Manchuria. Skilled horsemen and keen archers, the diverse Jurchen tribes were first united under the charismatic chieftain Wanyan Aguda in 1115, after which they set their sights on the riches of their Han Chinese neighbours. Within ten years of unification, the newly established Jin Empire had taken the Liao’s southern capital, the city that would be captured and recaptured under successive dynasties and eventually be known as Peking. A brief alliance between the Song and the Jin Empires against the Liao brought peace to the plains of Manchuria, but after the Jin attacked and captured the Song capital in Kaifeng not two years later, the Song have been fighting the Jin ever since. Successive defeats have pushed the Song further south, past the Yangtze and the River Huai, much to the anxiety of the Chinese who have fled with their Empire to safety.

The River Huai has long marked the psychological boundary between north and south China. The south is lush in comparison with the northern steppes and central plains, its landscape criss-crossed with rivers and spotted with lakes. The climate is hotter and more humid, wheat fields give way to rice paddies, and karst peaks soar up into the clouds. Having always been far from the capital in the north, this is a landscape that has long resisted the taming forces of the Empire, where the Great Canal’s manmade torrents flow into the wild rapids of the southern rivers.

But for all its seeming lawlessness, the soils of the south have proved fertile ground for the fleeing Song Empire. Here they have established one of the world’s largest cities, Lin’an, a bustling commercial centre of towering, overcrowded wooden buildings, grand stone courtyard houses, stalls selling pork buns and steaming bowls of noodles, as well as elegantly decorated tea houses serving the finest imperial delicacies of crispy duck, steamed crab, and badger and goose meat.

Despite its grandeur, however, this is a troubled city. The local Chinese population cannot be sure if their officials are working for them, or for the Jin. In the surrounding villages, food is scarce as the Empire diverts resources from hardworking farmers into the army’s fight against the Jin, lining their pockets as they do so. Taxes are crippling and the officials who are supposed to protect them seem to care little for their plight. Far from being a civilising force, the Empire appears to be little concerned for its citizens, and is rather more interested in making its officials rich.

For while the Empire regards the south as unruly, law and order in this part of China is in reality maintained by a proud community of men and women who have trained for years in the martial arts. They name themselves for the symbolic landscape of rivers and lakes that is their home, the jianghu, or even the “martial forest”, the wulin, both metaphors for their community. Organised into sects, schools, clans and bands of sworn brothers, or even travelling as lone “wanderers of the lakes and rivers”, they live by a moral code they call xia. Rivalries between the sects and martial artists are fierce, moves are jealously guarded, and disputes are settled by hand-to-hand combat. But on one thing they are united: the ineptitudes of Song Empire must not be allowed to destroy their country.

Fuelled by patriotic fervour and anger at the corruption eating away at the Empire, a rebellion is taking hold of the countryside. It is up to these martial arts masters of the south to save their country from complete destruction at the hands of the northern tribes.


Chapter One

Suddenly a Snow Storm


THE QIANTANG RIVER STRETCHES FROM THE WEST, WHERE ITS waters swell day and night, past the new imperial capital of Lin’an and the nearby Ox Village, on to the sea in the east. Ten cypresses stand proudly along its banks, their leaves red like fire. A typical August day. The grasses are turning yellow beneath the trees and the setting sun is breaking through their branches, casting long, bleak shadows. Under the shelter of two giant pine trees, men, women and children have gathered to listen to a travelling storyteller.

The man is around fifty, a pinched figure in robes once black, now faded a blue-grey. He begins by slapping two pieces of pear wood together, and then, using a bamboo stick, he beats a steady rhythm on a small leather drum. He sings:

Untended, the peach blossoms still open,

As fallow fields of tobacco draw the crows.

In times past, by the village well,

Families once gathered to vent their sorrows.

The old man strikes the pieces of wood together a few more times and starts his story.

“This poem tells of villages, where ordinary people once lived, razed by Jurchen tribes and turned to rubble. One such story concerns Old Man Ye, who had a wife, a son and a daughter, but they were separated from one another by the invasion of the Jin. Years passed before they were reunited and could return to their village. After making the perilous journey back to Weizhou, they arrived to discover their home had been burned to the ground by enemy forces, and they had no choice but to make for the old capital at Kaifeng.”

He sings:

The heavens unleash unexpected storms,

People suffer unforeseen misfortune.

“Upon arrival,” he continues, “they encountered a troop of Jin soldiers. Their commanding officer spotted the young Miss Ye, by now a beautiful young maiden, and eager to capture such a glorious prize, he jumped down from his horse and seized her. Laughing, he threw her onto his saddle and cried, ‘Pretty girl, you are coming home with me.’ What could the young Miss Ye do? She struggled with all her might to free herself from the officer’s grip. ‘If you continue to resist I will have your family killed!’ the man shouted. With that, he picked up his wolf-fang club and smashed it down on her brother’s head.

The nether world gains a ghost, just as the mortal world loses one more soul.” He breaks again into song.

“Old Man Ye and his wife threw themselves on top of their son’s body, weeping and sobbing. The commanding officer raised his wolf-fang club and once again brought it down on the mother, and then once more on the father. Rather than cry or plead, the young Miss Ye turned to the soldier and said, ‘Sir, rest your weapon, I will go with you.’ The soldier was delighted to have persuaded her, but just as he let down his guard the young Miss Ye grabbed the sabre from his waist, unsheathed it and held the point of the blade to his chest. Was she about to avenge her family’s death?

“Alas, it was not to be. Being experienced on the battlefield, the soldier knew that if he took a deep breath, tensed his muscles and pushed against the blade, she would tumble to the ground. Then he spat in her face. ‘Whore!’

“But young Miss Ye brought the blade to her neck. That poor, innocent girl.

A beauty made of flower and moon,

And so was taken the sweetest soul that night.

He alternates between singing and speaking, all the while beating his small drum with the bamboo stick. The crowd is entranced by the old man’s words; they snarl with rage at the soldier’s cruelty, and sigh at the young girl’s sacrifice.

“Dear friends, as the saying goes, ‘Keep honest heart and ever gods in mind. For if evil deeds go unpunished, only evil doth one find.’ The Jin have conquered half our territories, killing and burning, there is not an evil deed they have not committed. And yet no punishment is forthcoming. The officials of our great Empire are responsible for this. China has plenty of men, healthy and willing to fight, yet every time our army faces the Jin they turn and run, leaving us peasants behind to suffer. There are stories, a great many stories just like this one, north of the Yangtze. The south is a paradise in comparison, but still you live each day in fear of invasion. ‘Rather be a dog in times of peace, than a man in times of trouble.’ My name is Old Zhang, thank you for listening to the true story of young Miss Ye!”

The storyteller bangs together the two pieces of pear wood and holds out a plate to the crowd. Villagers shuffle forward and drop a few coins onto it. Old Zhang puts the coins into a pocket and starts gathering his belongings.

As the crowd disperses, a young man of about twenty pushes his way up to the storyteller. “Sir, did you just come from the north?” He is short but strong, with two hairy caterpillar eyebrows stretched across his brow. He is from the north; it can be heard in his accent.

“Yes,” the old storyteller answers, surveying him.

“Then may I buy you a drink?”

“I dare not receive such favour from a stranger,” comes the old man’s reply.

“After a few drinks we will no longer be strangers.” The young man smiles. “My name is Skyfury Guo,” he says, before pointing to a handsome, smooth-faced man behind him. “And this is Ironheart Yang. We were listening to your story, and we enjoyed it very much, but we would like to talk with you, ask you some questions. You bring news from home.”

“Not a problem, young man. Fate has brought us together today.”

Skyfury Guo leads the storyteller to the village’s only tavern and there they sit down. Qu San, the owner, hobbles to their table on his crutches and sets down two jugs of warmed rice wine, before returning to fetch snacks of broad beans, salted peanuts, dried tofu and three salted eggs. Afterwards, he sits down on a stool by the door and gazes out as the sun dips lower towards the horizon. Out in the yard his young daughter is chasing chickens.

Skyfury Guo toasts the storyteller and pushes the simple snacks towards him. “Here, please eat. Out in the countryside, we are only able to buy meat on the second and sixteenth days of the month, so I’m afraid we have none tonight. Please forgive us.”

“The wine is enough for me. From your accents it seems that you are both from the north?”

“We are from Shandong province,” Yang replies. “We came here three years ago after the Jin invaded our hometown. We fell in love with the simple life in the south, as well as the people, and stayed. You said before that the south is a paradise, with only fear of invasion to disturb the peace. Do you really think the Jin will cross the Yangtze?”

The old storyteller sighs. “It is as if gold and silver covers the ground, everywhere your eyes are met with beautiful women, such is the richness and enchantment of the south compared to the north. There isn’t a day that passes that the Jin do not think about invading. But the final decision lies not with the Jin but with the Song Imperial Court in Lin’an.”

This surprises Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang. “Why do you say that?”

“We Han Chinese outnumber the Jurchen by more than a hundred to one. If the Imperial Court decided to employ honest and loyal men, our great Empire would prevail. With one hundred of our men against one of their worthless soldiers, how could the Jin army win? The northern half of our country was handed to them by three generations of useless Emperors, Huizong, Qinzong and Gaozong. Grandfather to grandson, they all entrusted our country to corrupt officials who oppressed the common people, and purged all the mighty generals who wished to fight the Jin. Such a beautiful land and they gave it away! If the Imperial Court continues to fill its grand halls with corrupt officials, then they may as well kneel before the Jin and beg them to invade!”

“Exactly!” Skyfury Guo slams his hand down on the table, rattling the bowls, plates and chopsticks.

Ironheart Yang notices their jug of wine is empty and orders another. The three men continue cursing and drinking as Qu San goes to fetch them yet more broad beans and tofu.

“Huh!” Qu San snorts, placing the dishes on the table.

“What is it, Qu San? You disagree?”

“Good cursing! Great cursing! Nothing wrong with that. But do you suppose it would have made any difference if the officials had not been corrupt? With such useless Emperors, generations of them no less, it would have made no difference if the officials had been as honest and good-hearted as the Buddha himself.” He turns and shuffles to his stool in the corner, from where he goes back to gazing at a sky now filled with stars. Qu San has a young face for his forty years, but his back is hunched and wisps of white are threaded through his black hair. From behind he looks like an old man, much aged since losing his wife. He moved to Ox Village only a year or so ago with his daughter, fleeing painful memories.

The three men look at each other in silence, until presently the storyteller speaks. “Yes, you are right. That is quite true.”

Bang! Skyfury Guo slams his hand down on the table once again, this time knocking over a bowl of wine. “Shameful! Disgraceful! How did these sorry excuses for men ever become Emperor?”

“Xiaozong succeeded Gaozong,” the storyteller replies with renewed energy, “and Guangzong succeeded him, and all the while the Jin have controlled half of China. Now Emperor Ningzong has succeeded Guangzong. And all he does is take orders from Chancellor Han. What is our future? It’s hard to say.”

“What do you mean?” cries Skyfury Guo. “We are in the countryside, not Lin’an. No-one is going to cut your head off here. There is not a person in the whole of China who does not call Chancellor Han a crook!”

Now that the topic has moved on to current politics, the old storyteller is beginning to feel nervous and dares not speak straight from the heart as before. He downs another bowl of rice wine and says, “Thank you, gentlemen, for the wine. But before I go, may I offer a modest word of advice? I know you are both passionate men, but still, it is best to be cautious in both word and deed. This is the only way to avoid calamity. With things as they are, the best we normal folk can hope to do is muddle along. Ah, it is just like the old song:

Surrounded by mountains, dancing in halls,

The shores of West Lake echo in song.

Southern fragrances entice and intoxicate

As drunkenly our noblemen mistake Lin’an for Kaifeng!

“What’s the story behind that song?” Yang asks.

“There is no story,” the old man says, pushing himself to his feet with great effort. “The officials care only for parties and pleasures, and as long as that is the case, they won’t be trying to recover the north any time soon.”

And so the drunken storyteller takes his leave.


IT WAS DURING THE THIRD WATCH LATER THAT NIGHT. SKYFURY Guo and Ironheart Yang had been waiting for more than two hours to spear a boar or a muntjac in the woods seven li west of the village, but it was looking increasingly unlikely they would catch anything and they were losing patience.

At that moment a loud smack of wood against metal echoed around the woodland from beyond the tree line. Skyfury and Ironheart looked at each other.

Then came the sound of men shouting:

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Stop, now!”

A shadow had entered the woods and was running in their direction. The moonlight caught a man’s robes and Guo and Yang were able to make him out. It was Qu San. He was jabbing his wooden crutches into the undergrowth. Knowing that he would struggle to outrun the men following him, Qu San flew straight up into the air and back down behind a nearby tree. Guo and Yang looked at each other in astonishment.

“Qu San practises martial arts?”

By now Qu San’s pursuers had reached the edge of the woods. There were three of them, and they stopped, whispered something to each other, and began to walk towards Guo and Yang. They were dressed in military clothing and each carried a sabre, their blades flashing a cold green in the moonlight.

“Damned cripple! We can see you. Come out and surrender!”

Qu San stood utterly still behind his tree. The men were waving their weapons like machetes, swinging and chopping through the straggly bushes, slowly edging closer.

Just then: Thump! Qu San thrust his right crutch out from behind the tree, hitting one of the men squarely in the chest and sending him lurching backwards with a yelp. Startled, the other two men waved their blades in the direction of the tree.

Using his right crutch for leverage, Qu San flew up to the left, dodging the flailing blades and thrusting his other crutch in one man’s face. The man tried to block the crutch with his sabre, but Qu San pulled back and swung his right crutch at the other man’s stomach. Though he needed the crutches to support himself, he wielded them with speed and elegance.

A sabre cut into Qu San’s bundle, ripping the cloth and spilling its contents all over the forest floor. Taking advantage of the distraction, Qu San smashed his crutch down onto one man’s head, knocking him to the ground. Terrified, the last soldier turned to run. Qu San reached between the folds in his robe, and with a sharp flick of his wrist hurled something at him as he fled. It glinted an inky black as it sailed through the air, drawing a curve and landing on the back of the soldier’s head with a dull thud. The man howled and dropped his sabre, his arms waving wildly. He fell forward as if in slow motion, and landed in a crumpled heap on the ground. His body spasmed twice, and then he was still.

Guo and Yang watched, their hearts thumping, hardly able to catch their breath. “He just killed government officials. That’s punishable by death.” Guo gasped. “If he sees us he’ll kill us too, to keep us quiet.”

But they had not hidden themselves as well as they had thought. Qu San turned towards them and called out: “Master Guo, Master Yang, you can come out now!” Reluctantly they rose to their feet, grasping their pitchforks so tightly their knuckles turned white. Yang looked at his friend and then took two steps forward.

“Master Yang,” Qu San said with a smile. “Your family’s spear technique is famous throughout our land, but in the absence of a spear, a pitchfork will have to do. Your best friend Guo, however, prefers to fight with a double halberd. The pitchfork doesn’t fit his skills. Such friendship is rare!”

Yang felt exposed; Qu San had all but read his mind.

“Master Guo,” Qu San continued. “Let’s imagine you had your double halberd with you. Do you think together you could beat me?”

Guo shook his head. “No, we couldn’t. We must have been blind not to have noticed you were a fellow practitioner of the martial arts. A master, even.”

“I don’t have full use of my legs. How can I be considered a master?” Qu San shook his head and sighed. “Before my injury, I would have defeated those guards effortlessly.”

Guo and Yang glanced at each other, not sure how to respond.

“Would you help me bury them?” Qu San continued.

They looked at each other again, and nodded.

The two men did their best to dig a large hole using their pitchforks. As they were burying the last body, Yang noticed the black, round object sticking out of the back of the dead man’s head. Yang tugged at it and succeeded in pulling it out. He had seen one of these before. A steel Taoist Eight Trigram disk. He wiped the blood onto the dead man’s uniform and handed it back to Qu San.

“My sincerest gratitude.” Qu San took the Eight Trigram disk and put it back inside his robe. He then spread his outer robe on the ground and started to gather his belongings. Guo and Yang finished shovelling soil into the makeshift grave, and then turned to look at Qu San’s collection, which included three scrolls, as well as several shiny metal trinkets. Qu San put a gold jug and bowl to one side. After tying up his bundle he handed the jug and bowl to the two men. “I stole these from the Royal Palace at Lin’an. The Emperor has done enough harm to the peasants, it’s not really a crime to take something back. Consider these a gift from me.”

Neither man moved.

“Are you afraid to accept them, or is it that you don’t want them?”

“We did nothing to deserve such gifts,” Guo replied. “That’s why we can’t accept them. As for tonight, you don’t have to worry about a thing, Brother Qu. Your secret is safe with us.”

“Ha!” Qu San scoffed. “Why should I be worried? I know all about you – why else would I let you walk away alive? Master Guo, you are the descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang. You are skilled in the use of the halberd, as taught to you in accordance with your family’s customs, only your halberd is short rather than long, and has two blades instead of one. Master Yang, your ancestor is Triumph Yang, one of the commanders who served under the beloved General Yue. You are both descended from two of this country’s most loved and respected patriots. When the Jin army conquered the north, you began wandering the lakes and rivers of the south, practising your martial arts. It was then that you became brothers-in-arms. Together you moved here to Ox Village. Am I right so far?”

The two men nodded, astounded by the detail of Qu San’s knowledge.

“Your ancestors Prosperity Guo and Triumph Yang were both rebels before they swapped sides to fight for the Song Empire,” Qu San continued. “Both stole from the government, which was in turn stealing from its own people. So tell me: are you going to accept my gifts or not?”

“We are most grateful. Thank you,” Yang said as he reached out to receive them.

“Back home!” Qu San said, slinging his bundle over his shoulder.

“I got some excellent things tonight,” he continued as the three men picked their way between the trees and out of the woods. “Two paintings by Emperor Huizong and a scroll of his calligraphy. He may have been a useless Emperor, but his skills with the brush were quite superb.”

Once home, Guo and Yang buried their gold and made no mention of the night’s antics to their wives.


AUTUMN SLOWLY gave way to winter. The days were getting colder and the first flakes of snow were beginning to fall. Soon the earth was covered in a veneer of white that shone like polished jade. Ironheart Yang called to his wife, “I’m going to get some food and rice wine before Skyfury and his wife arrive.” Slinging two large gourds over his shoulder, he left for Qu San’s tavern.

The snow was falling more heavily. As he trudged up towards the tavern, he noticed the door was shut tight and even the sign had been removed. Yang banged on the door a couple of times, shouting: “Qu San, I’m here for some wine.”


He called out again, but still no response. He walked over to a window and peered inside. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. What’s happened? Yang thought. I hope it’s nothing serious. He spotted Qu San’s daughter playing nearby, but she was too young to give him any answers. As Qu’s inn was the only place to buy wine in Ox Village, Yang had no choice but to brave the blizzard and walk the two miles to Red Plum Village. At least there he would also be able to purchase a chicken for their meal.

When her husband returned, Yang’s wife, Charity Bao, put the freshly slaughtered chicken into a big pot along with some cabbage, tofu and thin bean noodles. As it boiled, she cut and arranged a plate of cured meat and fish, and then went next door to call on Skyfury Guo and his wife Lily Li, who had been suffering of late from morning sickness. Lily did not feel able to eat, so Charity stayed to chat and drink tea, sending Guo ahead.

The two women returned to discover the men sitting by the fire, eating and drinking warm wine. Charity added more wood, then sat down beside her husband. The two men looked agitated.

“What’s the matter?” Lily asked. “Has something happened?”

“We were just discussing the latest troubles at the Imperial Court in Lin’an,” her husband replied. “I was at the Pavilion of Joyful Rain, the tea house by Tranquillity Bridge, yesterday,” Guo added, “when I heard some people talking about that criminal Chancellor Han. One man said all reports at court must now be presented to him, as well as the Emperor, or else they won’t be read. Such arrogance is scarcely to be credited.”

Yang sighed. “Only bad Emperors keep bad Chancellors. Old Huang, who lives outside Lin’an’s Golden Gate, told me a story. One day, when he was out collecting firewood on the mountain, he caught sight of a group of soldiers guarding some officials. It turns out the Chancellor had come on a sightseeing trip with his men. Old Huang was minding his own business, cutting wood, when he heard the Chancellor say, ‘What a delightful country scene, such charming bamboo fences and thatched cottages. Shame there are no chickens clucking or dogs barking.’ Then, at that moment, they heard barking from behind one of the bushes.”

Charity smiled. “That little dog certainly knew how to please the Chancellor.”

“I’ll say! After a couple of barks it jumped out of the bushes. And what kind of dog do you think it was? Turns out it was our honourable friend, the Magistrate of Lin’an, His Excellency Mr Zhao!”

Charity burst into laughter.

“And that’s how he’ll earn his promotion,” Guo concluded.

They continued drinking as the snow fell outside, the wine warming their bellies. After a while, Guo and Yang decided to step outside to cool down. Suddenly the stillness was broken by the sound of feet swishing across the snow. There, up ahead, was a Taoist monk wearing a conical bamboo hat tied under his chin with a ribbon, and a cape speckled with large flakes of snow. He carried a sword on his back, the yellow tassel swinging from side to side as it dangled from the handle. He was the only person braving the weather, a lonely silhouette making rapid progress across the grey-white fields.

“Look at how he skims across the snow,” breathed Guo in admiration. “A master of kung fu.”

“Indeed,” Yang replied in equal amazement. “Let’s invite him in for a drink.”

They hurried to the edge of the field in front of Yang’s house. In the short time it had taken them to run the hundred-odd metres, the monk had already passed by, and was some distance down the raised path that ran between the fields.

“Your Reverence, please stop!” Yang called out.

The Taoist monk turned and gave them a cursory nod.

“Such terrible weather,” Yang continued shouting through the snow. “Why don’t you come inside and drink a couple of bowls of wine to warm up?”

Within seconds the Taoist was standing before them. “Why do you want me to stop?” His reply was as cold as the winter air. “Speak!”

Yang was shocked and angered by the Taoist’s tone, so he looked down at his feet and gave no reply. Guo clasped his fist as a sign of respect and said, “We were drinking by the fire when we saw you pass by alone in the snow. So we thought you might like to join us. Please forgive us if we have offended you.”

The Taoist rolled his eyes. “Alright. If you want to drink, let’s drink,” he said, walking past them and in through Yang’s door.

This made Yang even angrier. Without thinking, he grabbed the Taoist’s left wrist and tugged. “We don’t know how to address you, Your Reverence.” But the Taoist’s hand slipped through Yang’s fingers like a fish. Yang knew he was in trouble and stepped back, but before he could pull away he felt a sharp, hot pain as the Taoist tightened his grip around his wrist. No matter how hard he struggled he could not free himself, and he felt all his strength draining away as his arm went limp.

Guo could see from his friend’s crimson cheeks that he was in a lot of pain. “Your Reverence,” he said. “Please sit.”

The Taoist laughed coldly. He let go of Yang, walked deliberately into the centre of the room and sat down in one smooth movement. “You two young men are obviously from the north but pretending to be farmers here in the south. Your accents give you away. And what’s more, why would two farmers know kung fu?” He, too, spoke with a Shandong accent.

Yang felt embarrassed and angry, and retreated to the back room. There he found a small dagger in a drawer, which he tucked into his shirt before returning to the front room. He poured out three bowls of wine, raised his as a toast, and downed its contents without a word.

The Taoist looked past the two men, and out towards the snow falling outside. He neither drank nor spoke. Guo guessed that the monk was suspicious of the wine, so he took the bowl intended for their guest and drank it down in one gulp. “The wine gets cold quickly. Let me pour you another bowl, Your Reverence. A warm one.” He filled a clean bowl and handed it to the Taoist, who in turn drank it down in one.

“It wouldn’t have mattered if you had drugged the wine,” the Taoist replied. “It wouldn’t have affected me.”

Yang had had about as much as he could take. “We invited you into our home to drink with us, not to try and hurt you. If this is how you are going to behave, please leave now! It’s not as if we gave you sour wine or rotten food.”

The Taoist ignored him, and grabbed the wine gourd. He poured and drank three more bowls of wine in quick succession, and then untied his bamboo hat and threw it on the floor, along with his cape. For the first time, Guo and Yang could properly examine his face. He was around thirty years of age, with slanted eyebrows and a square jaw, his cheeks flushed red. His eyes had a penetrating quality. Next, he untied the leather bundle from his back and threw it down on the table.

Together, Guo and Yang jumped up in disgust as from out of the bundle rolled a bloody human head.

A scream came from the corner where Charity had been standing, and she ran into the back room, followed by Lily Li. Yang’s hand moved to his chest to make sure the dagger was in place. The Taoist gave the leather bundle a shake, and two more bloody lumps of flesh fell out. A heart and a liver.

“You good-for-nothing Taoist!” Yang shouted as he pulled the dagger from his chest and lunged at the monk.

The Taoist was amused. “You want to fight?” He tapped Yang’s wrist with his left hand. A numbing pain shot down through Yang’s hands to his fingers. Before he realised what was happening, the dagger was gone.

Guo was astounded. His friend’s kung fu was much better than his own, but even Yang was powerless against the monk. Guo knew the move was the legendary Bare Hand Seizes Blade, but he had never actually seen anyone perform it. Guo reached for the wooden bench he had been sitting on, just in case he had to block the dagger.

But still the Taoist ignored them. Instead, he turned his attention to the heart and liver, which he began hacking to pieces with Yang’s dagger. Then, without warning, he roared. The tiles on the roof rattled, and he chopped down so hard, the objects on the table jumped and the table split in two. The head rolled onto the floor.

Yang was furious. He reached for an iron spear in the corner and marched outside into the snow. “Come. I’ll give you a lesson in the art of the Yang Family Spear!”

“A government lackey like you knows the Yang Family Spear?” The Taoist smiled as he followed Yang outside.

Guo ran back to his house to fetch his double halberds. By the time he got back, the Taoist was standing ready, his sleeves flapping in the wind.

“Unsheathe your sword!” Yang cried.

“I’ll fight you traitors with my bare hands,” was the Taoist’s only reply.

Without warning, Yang launched straight into Deadly Dragon Flies the Cave, his spear a smear of red as the tassel spun and the tip swirled towards the Taoist’s chest.

“Impressive!” the monk called as his upper body arched backwards until it was almost horizontal. He then spun to the left and swung back up again. Once on his feet, his palm flipped upwards and knocked the spear away from Yang’s hands.

Ironheart Yang had spent years practising with his spear, ever since his father taught him his first moves as a young boy, a variant of the southern tradition. The northern tradition had been lost many years ago. His ancestor Triumph Yang led an army of three hundred Song soldiers against forty thousand invading Jin at the Battle of Little Merchant Bridge, with his spear his only weapon. They killed over two thousand Jin men that day, including their highest-ranking commander. The Jin’s arrows had fallen like rain, but Triumph Yang merely snapped the shafts from the arrowheads lodged in his flesh and carried on fighting. He gave his life for his country on that battlefield. When the Jin army burned his body, over two jin of molten metal flowed into the mud beneath him. After this battle the Yang Family Spear became famous all across China’s great plains.

Ironheart Yang may not have been a true master of the technique like his forefathers, but those years of training had not been in vain. He thrust, swung, flicked, blocked, the point of his spear glinting silver in the sunlight, the tassel a blur of red.

Yang’s moves may have been quick, but the Taoist dodged them with ease. The Yang Family Spear consisted of seventy-two separate moves, and after having used seventy-one without success, Yang was exhausted and desperate. He lowered his spear, turned and walked away. But just as he had anticipated, the Taoist came after him, and drawing together all the strength he had left, Yang pulled his weapon up into both hands, twisted at the waist and thrust it back at the Taoist’s face. Known as the Returning Horse, this move was traditionally used to break enemy formations. Triumph Yang had in fact used it to kill General Yue’s brother before he left the rebels and joined the Song army.

The Taoist clapped his hands together, clamping hold of the spear’s point just before it plunged into his left cheek. “Excellent!” Yang put all his weight behind the spear and pushed, but it did not move. Alarmed, he tried pulling it back instead, but still he could not free his spear from the Taoist’s grip. The Taoist chuckled. Suddenly he moved his right hand, and quick as light he struck the handle of the spear with his palm. Yang felt the base of his thumb and index finger go numb, and instantly the weapon fell to the snow at his feet.

“You appear to know some Yang Family Spear after all.” The Taoist smiled. “Sorry if I offended you. Will you do me the honour of telling me your name?”

Still in shock, Yang answered without thinking, “My family name is Yang, my given name Ironheart.”

“Are you a descendant of General Triumph Yang?”

“Yes, he was my great grandfather.”

The Taoist cupped his fist and nodded his head in respect. “I mistook you for scoundrels, but it turns out that you are descended from patriots. Please forgive me. May I be so bold as to ask this gentleman’s name?”

“My name is Skyfury Guo.”

“He is my brother-in-arms,” Yang said, “the descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang.”

The Taoist bowed again. “Your humble servant was rude, and quick to make assumptions. Please forgive me.”

Guo and Yang bowed in return. “Not at all. Would the Reverend please come in for more rice wine?” Yang said, picking up his spear.

“Of course! I’d be delighted to join you.”

Charity and Lily Li had been observing the fight anxiously from the doorway, and at this they scuttled back inside to warm the wine.

They sat at the table and the men asked the Taoist his name. “My name is Qiu Chuji.”

Yang jumped up in surprise, and Guo was similarly aghast. “Master Eternal Spring?”

“That is the name my Taoist friends gave me.” Qiu Chuji smiled. “I dare not claim such a name myself.”

“Master Eternal Spring of the Quanzhen Sect,” Guo said, “I am honoured to make your acquaintance.” The two men cast themselves onto the packed earth floor of the cottage and kowtowed.

Qiu Chuji leapt up from his bench and helped them to their feet. “I killed a traitor today,” he began to explain. “The government’s men were chasing me, and then you gentlemen suddenly invited me in for a drink. We are close to the capital here and it is clear that you are not ordinary farmers, so I became suspicious.”

“My friend here has always had a temper,” Guo said with a smile. “And then he tried to fight the Master. You were right to be suspicious.”

“Indeed, farmers aren’t usually that strong. I thought you were undercover government dogs.”

Yang smiled. “You weren’t to know.”

The men continued to drink and chat until Qiu Chuji pointed at the battered head lying on the floor: “That’s Wang Daoqian. He was a traitor. Last year he was sent by our Emperor to convey his respects to the Jin Emperor on the occasion of his birthday, but once there, he agreed to help them invade the south. I pursued him for ten days before at last catching him.”

“We are so lucky to have met the Master,” Yang said. “Won’t you stay a couple of days?”

But just as Qiu Chuji was about to answer, his expression froze and hardened.

“What’s wrong?” Guo asked.

“Someone has come for me. Whatever happens, you two must stay inside. Do not come out under any circumstances. Do you understand?” The two men nodded. Qiu Chuji picked up the human head and went outside, where he jumped up into the branches of a tree and hid among its dense crest of leaves.

Guo and Yang had no idea what had just happened. They could hear nothing save for the howling of the wind. They waited, until a few minutes later they could discern from the west the faint sound of hooves beating against frozen ground.

“How did he hear that?” Yang asked in a whisper. The rhythmic thudding of the hooves was growing louder and on the horizon a cloud of snow was making its way towards the village. Before long, ten riders dressed in black appeared and reined in a hundred metres from their door.

“The footprints stop over there. It looks like there’s just been a fight.” Several of the men jumped down from their horses and inspected the footprints in the snow. “Search the house!” the man who appeared to be their officer barked. Two more men jumped from their horses and hammered on the door.

Suddenly something came flying through the air from a nearby tree, thwacking one of the men on the head, with such force that it cracked open his skull. The other men started to yell as they surrounded the tree. One man picked up the object and cried out in shock: “His Excellency Wang’s head!”

Their commanding officer pulled out a sabre and the remaining men rushed to form a ring around the tree trunk. The leader shouted another order, and five men raised their bows and shot into the dense clump of leaves above them.

Yang reached for his spear, but Guo grabbed at his arm and hissed, “Master Eternal Spring told us not to go outside. Let’s wait a while at least. If he gets into trouble we can help him then.” Just then an arrow came hurtling from the branches above and hit one of the men, still on his horse. He cried out, dropped from the horse’s back and landed in the snow with a dull thud.

Qiu Chuji removed his sword, jumped down from the tree, and sliced through two of the men before the soldiers could react.

“It’s the Taoist!”

Qiu Chuji bowed quickly and then sha, sha, sha! slashed his sword through the whipping wind, knocking another two men from their horses. Yang watched in awe, trying to follow the movement of the Master’s sword. Qiu Chuji had obviously held back during their duel; if he had not, Yang would be dead by now.

Qiu Chuji moved as if he were being carried by the wind as he bounced and hopped between the horses, branches and the ground. His next opponent was the commanding officer, who continued to bark orders at his men. He had a certain gift for fighting, but Guo and Yang could tell Qiu Chuji was deliberately prolonging the duel so as to use breaks in their fight to outmanoeuvre the other men. If he killed the leader before he managed to kill his men, they might run.

By now there were only six men left. The officer knew they could never defeat the Taoist, so he turned his horse and tried to escape. Qiu Chuji reached out with his left hand and grabbed the horse’s tail. Pulling on it lightly, Qiu Chuji lifted himself from the ground. Before he had landed on the horse’s back, he had already sliced his sword straight through the officer’s back to the base of his spine. Qiu Chuji threw the body from the horse, grabbed hold of the reins, and started to chase the others, his blade dancing silver against the grey-white of the storm. Screams were swallowed by the wind as one body after another fell to the ground and plumes of blood decorated the snow.

Qiu Chuji stopped and looked around him. The only sound came from the three riderless horses galloping into the distance, their hooves pounding at the softly packed snow. He rode back to where Guo and Yang stood by the door, waved, and called, “How did you like that?”

Guo and Yang opened the front door and stepped slowly out. “Your Reverence, who were they?” Guo asked, still in shock.

“We’ll know when we search them.”

Guo walked over to the commanding officer’s body and leaned down to take a look. His torso was sliced in two, and lay in a pond of blood. Guo reached for a leather pouch still fastened around the man’s waist, and removed an official-looking document. It was from Magistrate Zhao, and stated that an order had come from the Jin ambassador that Song government troops were to assist them in capturing Wang Daoqian’s murderer. Guo’s hands shook with rage as he rose to his feet. He was just about to show the document to the other two men when Yang called out. He had found some tags written in the Jurchen language on some of the bodies. There were Jin soldiers among these men.

“Our government has now given free rein to enemy soldiers to capture and kill patriots within our own borders?” Guo exclaimed. “Song officials now take orders from the Jin?”

“Even our Emperor must refer to himself as an official of the Jin.” Yang sighed. “Our officials and generals are now no more than their slaves.”

“We monks are supposed to be merciful and good in heart and action, we are not supposed to harm any living being,” Qiu Chuji added bitterly. “But I could no longer withhold my anger, not when faced with traitors and enemies who do nothing but torture our people.”

“You were right to kill them!” Yang said.

“They deserved to die!” Guo added.

Ox Village was small, and in a snowstorm like this everyone kept to their homes. If there had been any witnesses it was doubtful they would come out and ask questions. Yang went to fetch two shovels and a hoe, and the three men buried the bodies. Lily Li and Charity fetched brooms and began sweeping the bloodstained snow until the stench began to make Charity retch. A white mist descended in front of her eyes and with a gasp she fell to her knees.

Yang dropped his shovel and ran over to her. “What’s the matter?”

But Charity closed her eyes and did not answer. Her face and hands were now as white as the snow that fell upon them.

Qiu Chuji hurried over, took hold of Charity’s wrist and felt her pulse. A smile burst across his face. “Congratulations!” Yang looked aghast as Qiu Chuji grabbed his hand.

“What is it? What’s happened?”

Charity came to with a faint grunt. The three men were standing above her. Feeling shy, she scrambled to her feet, and with Lily’s help went inside, where her friend poured her a cup of tea.

“Your wife is pregnant.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am master of nothing and can claim to know a little of only three things. Of these little kung fu tricks I am a mere novice, and as for poetry I am able to write a few couplets, but no more. But I can safely say that if I can lay claim to any expertise, it is in the field of medicine.”

“Your Reverence, if yours are only ‘little kung fu tricks’, then we are merely children playing.”

Having finished burying the bodies, the men collected their tools and went inside to celebrate.

Yang could not stop smiling. If Qiu Chuji wrote poetry, he reasoned, he would be the perfect person to name his child, as well as Guo’s. “My brother Skyfury’s wife is pregnant as well. Could we trouble Your Reverence to think of two names for our children?”

Qiu Chuji sipped from his bowl of rice wine and thought for a while. “For Master Guo’s child I suggest Guo Jing, meaning ‘Serenity’, and for Master Yang’s child, Yang Kang, meaning ‘Vitality’. This will remind them of the humiliation of the year Jingkang, when Kaifeng was sacked and the Emperor captured by the Jin. These names can be used for girls just as well as boys.”

He reached into his shirt, removed two daggers, and put them on the table. They were identical in every way, each with a green leather sheath, a gold cross guard and an ebony handle. He picked up one of the daggers and on the handle swiftly carved the characters for “Serenity Guo” as if writing with brush and ink. Then he carved “Vitality Yang” on the handle of the other. He turned to the two fathers-to-be and said, “I don’t have anything else suitable with me, only this pair of daggers. For the children.”

The two men received them and thanked him. Yang unsheathed his. The blade was cold in his palm, and sharp.

“I came to possess these daggers quite by accident. They are extremely sharp, but they are too small for me to use. They would be perfect for the children. In ten years’ time, if I am still lucky enough to be of this world, I will return to Ox Village and teach them some kung fu.”

The two men were delighted and thanked the Reverend repeatedly.

“The Jin are occupying the north and torturing the people there,” Qiu Chuji went on as he took his last gulps of rice wine. “The situation cannot continue for long. Gentlemen, please take care of yourselves.” Then he stood up and made for the door. Guo and Yang jumped to their feet and tried to make him stay, but he had already slipped out into the storm.

“Masters like him come and go like the wind.” Guo sighed. “We were lucky to meet him today. I was hoping to talk to him some more, but alas it was not to be.”

Yang smiled. “Brother, at least we witnessed Master Eternal Spring killing Jin soldiers.” He held up the dagger and unsheathed it again. Gently stroking the blade, he suddenly looked up at his friend. “Brother, I’ve just had a foolish idea. Tell me what you think of it.”

“What is it?”

“If our children are boys, they will be sworn brothers. If they are girls, they will be sworn sisters—”

“And if we have one boy and one girl, they shall be married,” Guo cut in. The men laughed and embraced.

At that moment, Lily Li and Charity emerged from the back room. “Why are you so happy?” Yang repeated their agreement and they blushed, happy their families would forever be united.

“Let’s swap the daggers now as our pledge,” Yang suggested. “If they turn out to be sworn brothers or sisters, we can switch back. If they are to be married—”

“Then apologies, but both daggers will belong to my family,” Guo interrupted.

Charity laughed. “You never know. Maybe we will be the ones to have a boy.”

The men swapped daggers and gave them to their wives for safekeeping.


YANG WAS SLUMPED AT THE TABLE, PLAYING WITH THE DAGGER, more drunk than he had realised. Charity helped her husband into bed and collected the dishes. The navy blue sky was dotted with stars, but there was still enough light for her to go outside and collect the chicken cages. Just as she was pulling the back door shut, however, she caught sight of some blood on the snow only a few metres from the house. I must clean it up right away, or else there could be trouble. She hurried to collect her broom and stepped out again into the icy night.

But the blood did not stop there. She followed it with her broom all the way to the pine trees behind the house. The snow had also been disturbed; someone had clearly dragged themselves through it towards the woods. There, by an old grave tucked in between the trees, she spotted a large black mound on the snow.

Charity approached to get a better look. A body! One of the men Qiu Chuji had been fighting earlier. She was about to go and wake her husband to ask him to bury it when it struck her that someone could come past at any moment and see the body. No, it would be better to pull it into a nearby bush and then go and tell her husband. She edged towards it and, summoning all her strength, she took hold of its black clothes and pulled.

Suddenly the body twitched and groaned.

Was it a ghost? Fear paralysed her. She watched it for a minute or so, but it did not move. Reaching for her broom, she gently poked it. The body groaned again, only this time the sound was much quieter. He was still alive. She approached and peered over the body. There, embedded in the back of his shoulder, was a large wolf-fang arrow. The snow was still falling, albeit much lighter now, and a thin layer of snowflakes had settled on the young man’s face. He would soon freeze to death out here.

Charity had always been exceptionally kind-hearted, ever since she was a young girl. She was forever bringing home injured sparrows, frogs and even insects, which she would nurse back to health, and those she could not save she would bury, the tears flowing down her cheeks. Her father, a country scholar from Red Plum Village, had named her for this unusual sensitivity, and her mother was never allowed to slaughter any of their roosters or hens. Any chicken served at the Bao family table for dinner had to be brought home from the market. Indeed, Charity had not changed much as she grew older, and this was one of the things Ironheart Yang loved about her. Their backyard was still a sanctuary for chickens, ducks and every other sort of small creature that chose to make its home there.

There was no way she could let this man die in the snow. She knew he must be bad, but she could not leave him here. She scrambled to her feet and ran back to the house to discuss it with her husband. But Yang had fallen into a deep sleep, and no matter how she shook him, he would not wake up.

Deciding that she should save the man first and worry about the consequences later, she ran to the herbal medicine cabinet and fetched her husband’s blood-clotting powder, and then found a small knife and some pieces of cloth. She grabbed the jug of warm wine that was still on the stove, and ran back outside. He had not moved. Charity helped him sit up and she trickled the leftover wine into his mouth. She knew a bit of basic medicine. The arrow sat deep in his flesh, and pulling it out might cause him to lose a lot of blood. But if she did not remove it, there would be no way of caring for the wound. So she took a breath, cut around the arrowhead, and tugged as hard as she could. The man screamed and instantly passed out. Blood spurted from the wound, covering her shirt in bright red splashes. Her heart was thumping in her chest but, steadying her shaking hands, she sprinkled the blood-clotting powder over the sore and bandaged it as tight as she could with the scraps of cloth. After a short time he began to regain consciousness.

Charity was so frightened her arms could barely muster the strength to hold the man up, let alone move him. But she had an idea. She went to the small barn by the side of the house and found a loose wooden plank. She pushed the plank under the man and shunted him onto it, and then dragged the plank through the snow back to the barn, as if pulling a sled.

Knowing he was safely sheltered, she crept back inside the house to change out of her bloodied shirt and wash her face and hands. She then ladled a bowl of leftover chicken soup, lit a candle and went back to the barn. His breathing was now steady, if weak. Charity approached the man and urged him to sit up again so that she could feed him the soup.

She held the bowl to the man’s lips with her right hand, and in her left she moved the candle so that the warm glow highlighted his sculpted features and elegant nose. This was the first time she had been able to take a good look at his face and she almost gasped. He was so handsome. The blood rose in her cheeks and her hand began to tremble, splashing a drop of candle wax onto his smooth forehead.

He winced, and for the first time looked up at her. There, before him, was a face as delicate as a flower, two cheeks flushed pink like rose petals, and a pair of kind eyes sparkling like stars reflected in a river.

“Are you feeling any better?” Charity whispered. “Here, drink the rest of the soup.” The man tried to take the bowl in his hands, but he was too weak and nearly spilled the hot broth on himself. Charity quickly took the bowl back and continued to feed him, one spoonful at a time.

By the time he finished the bowl, some colour had returned to his cheeks. He looked up at the heavenly creature nursing him with such care, but Charity squirmed under his gaze. Hastily she clambered to her feet, and fetched an armful of straw to keep him warm. Taking the candle with her, she slipped out of the barn and back inside the house.

She did not sleep well that night. Her husband was plunging his spear through the man’s chest. The man lunged at her husband with his sabre. The man chased her between the pine trees. Every few hours she woke from a new nightmare, damp with sweat. As the sun warmed her eyelids, she began to stir, and she turned to discover that the other side of the bed was empty. She sat up. Had her husband found the man? She climbed down, folded the quilt, put on her outer robe and hurried into the front room. He was sitting at the table, sharpening the head of his spear. She nodded, before slipping outside towards the barn and pushing open the door. But she saw no-one there, just a messy pile of straw. The man had gone.

There, beyond the barn, a fresh trail in the snow led out towards the pine trees behind the house. For a minute or so she was lost in her thoughts as she stared out in the direction in which the man had left. A gust of icy wind rushed at her cheeks, and as if wakening her to her body, she felt a sharp pain in her stomach and her legs buckled. She stumbled back inside, where her husband greeted her with a proud grin: “I made you and the baby some rice porridge.”

She smiled weakly, and sat. He would only get angry and jealous if he knew about the events of the previous night, so, she reasoned, she would have to keep them to herself.


WINTER GASPED its last breath and spring returned. Charity’s belly had ballooned, and preparations for the baby’s arrival had pushed almost all thoughts of the man in black from her mind.

The Yang family had just finished dinner, and Charity was huddled by the small pool of light cast by their lamp, sewing new clothes for her husband. Yang was hanging up the two pairs of straw sandals he had just finished weaving, ready for the spring.

“I’m going to see Carpenter Zhang tomorrow to see if he can fix the plough I broke this morning.” Yang looked over at his wife. “Please don’t make me any more clothes. Rest, my dear. Think of the baby.”

Charity looked up at her husband and smiled, her fingers still moving the needle swiftly through the cloth. Yang walked over to where she was sitting, and took the sewing from her. Charity stretched, blew out the lamp, and together they went to bed.

At midnight, Charity was suddenly snapped out of her dreams by her husband sitting up in bed. In the distance, to the west, came a faint sound of hooves drumming against the dirt. Before long it could be heard from all directions.

“Why are there so many horses?”

Yang jumped down from the bed and started dressing. The drumming was growing louder; a neighbour’s dog started barking. “We’re being surrounded.”

“What’s happening?” Charity’s voice was trembling.

“I have no idea,” her husband replied, handing her the dagger Qiu Chuji had given them. “Take this, to protect yourself!” He unhooked his spear from the wall.

By now the sound of hooves had subsided into an intermittent clatter, largely drowned out by the horses neighing and their masters shouting. Yang opened one of the shutters at the front of the house and looked outside. A company of soldiers had surrounded the entire village, the light from their torches illuminating his neighbours’ cottages. Some of the riders were struggling to still their excited horses as they rode among the houses.

“Find the traitors,” the man in charge shouted to his men. “They must not get away!”

Were they here for Qu San? Yang had not seen the tavern keeper since before winter had come and gone. Even he would struggle to fight off so many men.

Suddenly one of the soldiers shouted something that made Yang’s heart freeze in his chest. “Skyfury Guo! Ironheart Yang! Come out now and face the consequences of your treacherous actions!”

Charity had joined her husband by the window. These words made the blood drain from her cheeks.

“They come chasing innocent citizens when the traitors are among their own ranks!” Ironheart said. “Skyfury and I can’t possibly fight so many men at once. Our only option is to run. Don’t worry, I will protect you with my spear.” He fetched a bow, slung it across his back and wedged some arrows in his belt. He then reached for his wife’s hand and squeezed it tightly.

“I’ll pack,” she replied.

“Pack? We’re leaving everything.”

“But . . . our home?” A tear had crept from the corner of her eye and was making its way down her cheek.

“We’ve got to focus on getting away first. We can start another home elsewhere.”

“But what about the chickens? And the cats?”

“Silly girl, thinking about them at a time like this?” He paused and then continued. “What would they do with your chickens and cats?”

“They eat chickens.”

Just then a red-orange light came flickering through the window, throwing shadows across their simple furniture. The soldiers had just set fire to two thatched cottages nearby. Two foot soldiers were walking towards them along the main road through the village. “Skyfury Guo! Ironheart Yang! If you don’t come out now we’ll set fire to the whole village!”

A red rage rose in Yang, and before Charity could stop him, he had opened the door and stepped out. “I am Ironheart Yang. What do you want?”

Two soldiers dropped their torches in fright and backed away.

One of the other men rode his horse up to the front of the Yang family house and stopped. “So you are Ironheart Yang? Come with us to see the magistrate.” Turning to the foot soldiers, the man barked, “Take him!”

Four men ran towards him. Yang twirled his spear in a Rainbow Crosses the Sky, and swept three of the soldiers to the ground. He followed this with a Deafening Spring Thunder, picking up one of the soldiers with the shaft of his spear and throwing him into two other men. “First you must tell me what crimes I am being charged with.”

“Traitor!” the man on the horse bellowed. “How dare you resist arrest?” He may have sounded brave, but he was noticeably reluctant to come any closer.

Another man on horseback drew level with the first man. “Come without a fight and there will be no new charges to add to your existing crimes. We have the official documents for your arrest here.”

“Let me see them!”

“What about the other traitor, Skyfury Guo?”

Skyfury thrust his upper body out of the window of his house, along with a bow and arrow, and called, “Here I am!” He aimed the arrow at the first man on horseback.

“Put down your bow. Only then will I read the document to you.”

“Read it now!” Guo pulled the arrow all the way back.

Glancing at the other man on horseback, he rolled out the document and began reading. “Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang of Ox Village, Lin’an Prefecture, are charged with collusion with the intent of wrongdoing. A warrant for their arrest has been issued in accordance with the laws of the Great Song Empire, in the name of the Ningzong Emperor.

“Which official issued the order?” Guo asked.

“Chancellor Han himself.”

Guo and Yang were taken aback. What have we done that could merit the ire of Chancellor Han? Yang thought to himself. Did they find out about Qiu Chuji’s visit?

“Who is the accuser?” Guo added. “Based on what evidence?”

“We only have orders to capture you and bring you to the court at Lin’an. If you want to plead your case, you can do so with the judge.”

“The court at Lin’an only knows how to harass innocent citizens. Everyone knows that!” Guo called back. “We’re not falling for that lie!” He shifted his arrow so it was now pointing at this soldier.

“So you are resisting arrest?” the first man on horseback called back. “Another crime to add to the list.”

Yang turned to his wife and whispered, “Quickly, put on some more clothes. I’ll get his horse for you. Once I shoot their commanding officer, the rest of the men will panic.”

He drew his bow from his bag and shot an arrow, hitting the officer in charge in the chest. “Aiya!” The force knocked him from his horse and he fell with a thud into the dirt. The soldiers started shouting in surprise: “Seize them!” The foot soldiers ran forward. Yang and Guo began firing arrows as fast as they could, and within seconds they had killed seven more men between them. But there were still too many soldiers.

Howling, Ironheart Yang swung his spear up above his head and charged forward. The soldiers shrank back in surprise and fear. He made straight for an official sitting astride a white horse, and lunged his spear at him. The man tried to block it with his own lance, but Yang was too quick, plunging his spear deep into the official’s thigh. He lifted the man like a piece of meat on the end of a skewer, and flicked him from his horse.

Yang then dug the other end of his spear into the ground and flipped himself onto the back of the horse. Squeezing his calves, he jolted the horse forward. It reared, before leaping straight towards the house. Yang speared another soldier by the door, leaned down and scooped Charity up with one arm. “Brother, follow me!”

Guo was spinning his double halberd at the crowd of men, holding his wife behind him with his other hand. The remaining soldiers were frightened and began shooting arrows in panic.

Yang galloped over to Guo and Lily, and dropped down from the horse’s back. “Sister, get on.” Against her protests, he threw her up onto the horse. Charity took hold of the reins and started to move the horse forward. The two men followed on foot, spearing and slicing any soldiers brave enough to approach.

Suddenly, a thundering of hooves sounded in the west. Yang and Guo glanced at each other and started looking for an escape route. Just then Charity screamed; the horse had been hit by an arrow. It lurched forward and landed on its front knees, before falling to its side and throwing the two women to the ground.

“Brother, you look after them,” Yang said. “I’ll get another horse.” Clutching his spear, Yang ran straight into the crowd of soldiers ahead. A dozen or so formed a line, raising their bows at Yang.

There were just too many soldiers, Guo reasoned, and their chances of escaping with their wives was not looking good. Perhaps they should give themselves up and argue their case in court? None of the men had survived the fight against Qiu Chuji that winter’s afternoon, so there could be no witness to say they had been part of it, let alone killed any of the soldiers themselves. “Ironheart, stop!” Guo called. “Let’s go with them!”

Yang halted in surprise and ran back, dragging his spear in the dirt.

The officer in command of this second group of soldiers ordered the men not to shoot and instead surround the traitors. “Throw down your weapons, and you will be spared!”

“Brother, don’t fall for their lies,” Yang hissed. Guo shook his head, looked his friend straight in the eye and, holding his gaze, threw his double halberd to the dirt. Yang looked across at his wife. Fear seemed to reach out of her eyes and cling to him. He sighed and threw his spear to the ground. Ten spearheads appeared inches from their faces, and eight foot soldiers stepped forward to bind their hands.

Yang held his head high, a sneer spread across his face. The officer in charge walked his horse forward and lashed Yang across the cheek with his whip. “Damned traitor! Are you really not afraid to die?”

“And what’s your name?” came Yang’s reply, a snarl rather than a question.

This drove the man on the horse even wilder with rage. “Justice Duan – His Excellency Duan to you! And don’t forget it. You can tell them about me when you reach the gates of hell!”

Yang stared back at the man without blinking, his eyes fixed on Duan’s.

“I’ve got a scar on my forehead and a birthmark on my right cheek,” Duan continued. “Know who I am now?” At this he whipped Yang across the other cheek.

“He’s a good man, he’s done nothing wrong,” Charity called out. “Why are you beating him?”

Yang spat at Duan and a globule of phlegm landed on his birthmark. Furious, Duan pulled out his sabre. “I’m going to kill you right now, you disgusting traitor!” He lifted his sabre high above his head and brought it down in a clumsy slash. It was not hard for Yang to step out of the way. Two foot soldiers moved their spears to Yang’s sides and pushed the metal tips against his taut muscles, pincering him. Duan raised his sabre again and swung it down somewhat more elegantly than before. Unable to move sideways, Yang could only pull back. Despite appearances Duan had in fact practised some martial arts, and immediately he thrust his sabre forward. The blade had a sawtoothed edge, and this time he managed to swipe it through Yang’s left shoulder. He pulled back again for another chop.

At that moment Guo jumped up and thrust his feet at Duan’s face. Duan tried to block Guo’s feet with his sabre, but despite having his hands tied behind his back, Guo managed to twirl his left leg away and round Duan’s sword, while jabbing his right foot into Duan’s stomach.

“Spear them!” Duan coughed. “Our orders were to kill them should they resist arrest.”

But Guo had kicked two men to the ground. Duan came from behind him and swung his sabre down hard, severing Guo’s right arm at the shoulder. Yang had been trying to struggle free from the ropes around his wrists, but seeing his oldest friend so badly wounded gave him a new surge of strength. He snapped his bonds, punched the closest soldier, and grabbed his spear. By now he had nothing to lose: he could fight or they would all die. He speared two more in quick succession.

Duan shrank back in fear. He could see renewed and ferocious determination in Yang’s eyes, the fear of killing government troops now gone. The remaining soldiers ran.

Rather than give chase, Yang turned to his friend. He crouched down beside Guo. Blood was pumping from the wound in crimson spurts and his cream robe was already drenched down one side. Tears ran like rivulets down his cheeks.

Guo forced a smile. “Ironheart, don’t worry about me. Go. Go!”

“I’m going to fetch a horse,” Yang said. “Whatever happens, I’m going to save you.”

“No, don’t worry.” Guo passed out.

Ironheart Yang removed his shirt so he could bandage up the wound. But Duan’s sword had sliced through Guo’s shoulder and into his chest. It would be impossible to stem the bleeding. Guo came round again and called, “Brother, save our wives. I’m not going to make it.” Then he gasped and died.

Ever since they were little, the two friends had always thought of each other as flesh and blood. Rage surged in Yang’s chest, and he recalled they had once sworn to each other, “Together we will die, same day, same month, same year.” Yang looked around him. He had no idea what had happened to their wives amid the chaos.

“Brother, I will avenge your death!” he cried out, grabbing hold of his spear and charging towards the nearest group of soldiers.

By now the soldiers had resumed their formation. Justice Duan issued an order, and a swarm of arrows came flying straight at Yang. But he marched ahead through the storm, knocking the arrows aside. One military officer swung his sabre hard at Ironheart’s head, but Ironheart ducked and tucked himself underneath the belly of his horse. The sabre was left to swipe blindly through the air. The officer was trying to turn his horse when a spear pierced through his back and into his heart. Yang lifted the corpse and flicked it off the end of his spear, before mounting. He waved his spear at the remaining soldiers. None dared fight him, choosing instead to flee.

Yang continued to chase them for a while until he caught sight of one of the officers riding away, with a woman slung over his horse. Ironheart jumped down from his horse and skewered one of the foot soldiers with his spear. Taking the soldier’s bow and arrow, he aimed as best he could, with the light from the burning houses as his only guide, pulled back and fired. The arrow speared the horse’s behind, sending the animal to its knees and the two riders tumbling to the ground. Ironheart fired another arrow, killing the officer. He then ran over to the woman, who was struggling to sit up.



“Where is our sister Lily Li?” Yang asked.

“Up ahead. She was captured by soldiers.”

“Stay here and wait for me. I’m going to find her.”

“But there are more soldiers coming!” Charity replied, aghast.

Ironheart turned to watch a cluster of torches approaching.

“Brother Guo is dead,” Yang said, turning back to Charity. “I have to find Lily Li, to save his family line. The heavens will take pity on us, I will come back for you!”

Charity clung to her husband’s neck and would not let go. “We were never to part,” she said, tears gathering. “You said so yourself. We’re going to die together.”

Ironheart took her in his arms and kissed her. He then peeled her arms from around his neck and picked up his spear. He ran a few dozen metres, then stopped and looked back. There she sat, crouched in the dust, crying. The soldiers were upon her.

Ironheart turned and wiped the mixture of tears, sweat and blood from his cheeks with his sleeve. The Guo family must have descendants.

He carried onwards on foot until he spotted a stray horse, and a man nearby. “Which way did the soldiers go?” he demanded.

“That way.” The man pointed. Ironheart belted the horse with his heel, and spurred onwards.

Then, a scream. A woman’s scream, in the woods by the road. He jerked the horse round and charged straight at the trees. Lily Li had wrestled her hands free from the ropes and was fighting off two foot soldiers. She was a strong, robust country girl; the foot soldiers laughed and cursed, but they could not overcome her. Ironheart was upon them, and with two jabs speared them both. He then pulled Lily up behind him and together they raced back to where he had left his wife.

But there was no-one to be found.

Morning was approaching. Ironheart dismounted his horse and searched for any trace of his wife by the day’s first light. There, a trail; someone had been dragged through the dirt. His wife, captured by soldiers.

Ironheart jumped back up onto the horse and booted it in the stomach. The horse was galloping at full speed when a bugle sounded and a group of ten soldiers dressed in black and on horseback charged onto the path. The first man was wielding a wolf-fang club but Ironheart blocked it, parrying with his spear. The man then planed the club towards Ironheart’s stomach – an unusual move in these parts.

The wolf-fang club was a heavy weapon, and not generally popular in the wulin. The Jin army, however, were known to favour it. The Jurchen had grown up strong in the fight against the freezing climate, east of the Liao River. When the Jin invaded the north, the wolf-fang club had been their weapon of choice.

Ironheart was growing suspicious and recalled his brother’s words. Judging by range and quality of the man’s skills, he must be of high rank in the Jin army. But what was he doing here? Ironheart quickened his spear and struck the man from his horse. The rest fled in shock.

Ironheart turned to check that Lily Li was unhurt. At that moment, an arrow whistled through the air towards him and buried itself in his back.

“Brother!” Lily Li cried.

It felt like ice piercing his heart. So this is it, Ironheart said to himself. But I must defeat these men first, so Lily can escape.

With the last of his strength he lifted his spear, spurred his horse and rushed at the new crowd of soldiers that had appeared. But the pain was too much. A dark curtain drew across his eyes and he fainted, slumped over his horse.


THE MOMENT HER IRONHEART HAD PUSHED HER AWAY, CHARITY felt as if her heart had been sliced in two by her husband’s own blade. The soldiers were upon her within seconds. There was no escape.

One of the officers held a torch to her face.

“It’s her,” he said. “Who’d have guessed those two southerners alone could have caused our men such injury.”

“At least we can say we were the ones to complete the job,” another said. “They’ll have to give us at least ten taels of silver for our efforts.”

“Huh!” the first officer snorted. “I’ll just be happy if the generals leave a few coins for us.” He turned to the bugler. “Time to go back.”

The bugler brought his instrument to his lips and blew.


THEY KEPT riding. Charity tried to swallow her tears. What had happened to her husband? The sun had now risen. People started to appear on the road, but they slipped away again at the sight of the soldiers. Charity was surprised, however, to find the men polite in both word and deed, so after some time she began to relax.

After several more li, they heard shouts coming from up ahead. Another group of men clad in black charged at them from the side of the road.

“Disgusting vermin!” their leader shouted. “Murdering innocent subjects! Get down from your horses!”

The highest-ranking officer was furious. “How dare you bandits show your faces out here on the outskirts of the capital? Get away, now!”

The men in black rushed forward. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for with their superior kung fu.

Charity was quietly excited. Maybe her dear Ironheart’s friends had come to rescue her?

In the chaos, an arrow came flying towards Charity from behind and hit her horse in the rump. It jerked and began racing forward. Charity desperately wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck for fear of falling. Before long, she heard the beating of hooves against the dirt behind her. A black horse drew level with hers and then edged in front. The man riding it was spinning a rope, and with a swish! it flew through the air and looped over the head of Charity’s horse. The man pulled on the rope, drawing them level and then slowing them. He whistled, stopping his animal dead. Charity’s horse was pulled to a halt, neighing and rearing.

Charity was worn out after such a long and eventful night. Terror and grief had weakened her so she could no longer hold the reins. She fainted, flopping from the horse and to the ground.


CHARITY FELT herself waking gradually. She did not know how long she had been asleep. A cosy feeling cloaked her, and she imagined herself to be lying on a soft bed, wrapped in a thick cotton quilt. As she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was a fine green canopy decorated with flowers above her, and as she turned, a lamp lit on a bedside table. Was she imagining it? Or was there a man in black sitting by her bed?

Hearing her stir, the man stood up and parted the bed curtains. “Are you awake?” he whispered.

Charity was still half asleep, but the man seemed familiar.

“You still have a fever,” the man murmured, placing his hand on her forehead. “Don’t worry, the doctor will be here soon.”

Dazed, Charity fell back into the comfort of sleep.

Later, she was dimly aware of a doctor examining her and someone feeding her medicine. She felt almost paralysed by exhaustion.

Then, suddenly: “Ironheart! My dear Ironheart!” She broke from her dream with a start. Someone stroked her shoulder, consoled her.

The sun was high in the sky by the time she next woke. A groan rose from deep within her. Someone came to the bed and pulled aside the curtain. She looked at him, and shock shot through her. The handsome, friendly-looking man standing before her was none other than the injured soldier she had saved in the snow all those months ago.

“Where am I? Where is my husband?”

The young man gestured for her to be quiet. “There are soldiers everywhere out there looking for us. We’re staying with a local farmer. Your humble servant begs your forgiveness, my lady, I had to lie to the farmer and say that I am your husband. Please don’t say anything.”

Charity blushed and nodded. “Where’s my husband?”

“My lady is still weak. I will tell you everything once you feel better.”

A jolt went through Charity; the tone of his voice was enough to tell her it was serious. She gripped the corner of her quilt and asked again, her voice shaking, “He . . . What happened?”

“Worrying will accomplish nothing now. Your health is the most important thing.”

“Is he dead?” she pressed.

“Was Squire Yang tall, with broad shoulders, around twenty? Did he use a spear?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

Knowing he had no choice but to tell her now, he nodded. “Squire Yang was unlucky. Those hateful soldiers killed him.” He shook his head and sighed.

Pain pulsed in her chest and she fainted. When she came to again she instantly began sobbing. The man tried to soothe her.

“How did he die?” she stuttered between sobs.

“I saw him fighting a group of soldiers earlier today. He killed a few of them. But then . . . one of the soldiers crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back with his spear.”

The shock temporarily knocked her out again. For the rest of the day she neither drank nor ate. The man did not force her, and instead attempted to distract her with chatter.

After some time, Charity began to feel guilty for not asking the man any questions. “May I ask sir’s name? How did you know we were in trouble and needed help?”

“My surname is Yan, my given name is Lie. I was passing by with my friends when we saw those soldiers harassing you. We decided to help, and as it turns out, the heavens decreed that I should save my own saviour. We were destined to meet again.”

His words made her blush and she turned away from him. But her mind was working as his story struck her as suspicious. She turned back to face him. “Are you one of them?”

Yan Lie looked surprised.

“Weren’t you one of the soldiers who tried to capture the Taoist that day? That’s how you got hurt?”

“I was unlucky, that’s all. I was coming south and was passing through your village on my way to Lin’an. But then an arrow came out of nowhere and hit me in the back. If it weren’t for my lady’s benevolence, I would have died out there. But why were they trying to catch the monk? Taoists catch ghosts – why would a soldier want to catch a monk? They’ve got it all muddled.” He looked amused.

“So you were just passing through? You weren’t with them? I thought you were also coming after the Taoist. I wasn’t sure I should help you that day.” She then went on to tell him why the soldiers were there and how Qiu Chuji killed them all.

Charity continued talking, until she caught him staring at her, captivated. She fell silent.

“My apologies.” He smiled. “I was just thinking about how we’re going to escape without getting caught by the soldiers.”

Charity started to cry. “My husband’s gone – how can I live on? It is my duty, as his wife. I should do the honourable thing.”

“Madam, your husband was murdered by rebel soldiers and his death is yet to be avenged. How can you think of suicide? Squire Yang was a hero in life. He’ll never find peace beneath the Nine Springs of the Underworld if he hears you talking like that.”

“But I’m just a feeble woman. How can I possibly avenge his death?”

“My lady’s burden,” Yan Lie said in righteous anger, “I will gladly assume. Do you know who the culprit is?”

Charity thought for a while before answering. “Their leader was called Justice Duan. He has a scar on his forehead and a birthmark on his cheek.”

“We have a name and distinguishing features. It doesn’t matter if he runs to the ends of the earth or the corners of the sea, we will bring him to justice!” He went outside and came back with a bowl of rice porridge and some peeled salted eggs. “But you won’t get your revenge if you don’t take care of your health first.”

Charity agreed this made sense, took the bowl and started to eat. She then fell back into a fitful sleep.

The next morning, Charity arranged her clothes and got out of bed. She went to the mirror and brushed her hair, found a piece of white cloth and fixed a white flower in her hair, out of respect for her husband. But the sight of the beautiful woman in the mirror, widowed at such a young age, plunged her back into the depths of her grief and she started weeping bitterly.

Just then Yan Lie walked in. He waited for a pause in her sobs. “The soldiers have retreated. Let’s be on our way,” he said softly.

Charity followed him out. Yan Lie handed the master of the house a piece of silver, and then brought the two horses round. Her horse’s wound had been taken care of.

“Where to now?” Charity asked.

Yan Lie hushed her with a look, and helped her up onto her horse. Together they began riding northwards, side by side.

“Where are you taking me?” Charity asked again, several li thence.

“First we’re going to find somewhere to lie low. Once everything has calmed, I will go back and bury your husband. Then I will kill Justice Duan!”

Charity was mild in character and rarely put forward her own suggestions. Furthermore, the events of the previous night had left her all alone in the world, and she was just grateful that Yan Lie had a plan.

“Master Yan, how am I ever to repay you?”

“My lady, you were the one to save me!” he exclaimed. “I will be your humble servant for the rest of my days, through fire and rain, even in the face of the cruellest torture.”

“I only hope we can kill that horrible man as soon as possible, so that I can join my husband in the knowledge he has been avenged.” Tears tumbled down her cheeks.

They rode for a full day before stopping for the night at an inn in Chang’an. Yan Lie told the innkeeper they were married and got one room. This made Charity extremely nervous, but she remained silent, and instead gripped Qiu Chuji’s dagger under her clothes. If he does anything untoward, I’ll kill myself, she decided.

Yan Lie instructed one of the men to bring them two bundles of rice straw. Once the man left, he locked the door and arranged the bundles on the floor. He then lay down on one of them and drew a rug over himself. “Sleep well, my lady,” he said, and closed his eyes.

Charity’s heart was thumping. Thoughts of her dead husband tore at her insides, and she sat staring into the darkness for over an hour before eventually blowing out the candle with a sigh. Clutching the dagger, she climbed onto her bundle of straw and slept in her clothes.


BY THE time Charity woke the next day, Yan Lie had already readied the horses and was requesting breakfast. Charity was grateful he was proving to be such a gentleman, and began to think perhaps she need not be so worried. Breakfast consisted of fried strips of chicken and tofu, ham, sliced sausage, smoked fish and a small pot of the most deliciously fragrant rice porridge. Charity was from a simple but honest background and had lived off the land since marrying into the Yang family. Breakfast for her usually consisted of pickles and a small piece of tofu. She only got to eat such varied fare at Spring Festival or wedding banquets. She ate, but felt a little uncomfortable.

After they finished, an inn boy came in with a bundle. Yan Lie had already left the room.

“What’s this?” Charity asked.

“As soon as the sun was up, Master went out and bought new clothes for Madam. He says you are to wear them.” He placed the bundle on the floor and left.

Charity opened the bundle and was surprised to find a mourning dress made from white silk, with a complete set of matching accessories, from stockings, shoes, underwear to a padded jacket, silk scarf and sash.

“He’s thought of everything,” she muttered. “What an unusual young man.”

She dressed in her new clothes, but just knowing Yan Lie had selected them made her blush. She had left home in a hurry and her own clothes were now torn and dirty after a night on the road. The new outfit did cheer her a little. When Yan Lie returned, she noticed he too was dressed in expensive new clothes.

And so they set off again, riding in single file, or sometimes side by side. Spring was just turning into summer south of the Yangtze. Willows by the side of the road reached out and brushed against their shoulders as they passed, flowers filled the air with their intoxicating scent, and the fields were covered in a green quilt of new shoots.

Yan Lie spent the entire journey idly chatting in order to distract Charity from her grief. Charity’s father, a minor scholar, was the most educated man of their small village, and her husband and his sworn brother had both been straightforward, simple men. Never had she met a man as refined and cultured as Yan Lie. His every word revealed a depth and sharpness of thought. But they seemed to be heading further and further north, away from Lin’an, and he had not mentioned the subject of avenging her husband’s unjust death all day. She could hold back no longer: “Master Yan, do you know the whereabouts of my husband’s body?”

“Of course I wish to look for Squire Yang’s body and give him a proper burial, it’s just that I killed government men while rescuing my lady. Right now it’s very dangerous for me to go back there; they would kill me as soon as I set foot in Lin’an. In any case, soldiers are out everywhere looking for my lady. Squire Yang committed treason by killing officials of the Song Empire, after all, and that’s a serious crime. When they capture the relatives of a traitor, the men are beheaded and the women forced into prostitution. I’m not so worried about my own safety, but I couldn’t leave my lady without protection. They would do terrible things to you.”

Charity nodded at his sincerity.

“I have given the matter considerable thought,” Yan Lie continued. “The most important thing is to give your husband a proper burial. So we are heading for Jiaxing where I can obtain enough silver to send someone to Lin’an to take care of it. If Madam will only find peace in the knowledge that I have organised it personally, then I will first make sure you are safe in Jiaxing, and then go back myself.”

Charity thought it would be expecting too much to ask him to take such a big risk for her, so she replied, “If Master can find someone trustworthy to handle it, then I suppose that will do.” She paused, and then continued, “My husband also had a friend – they were sworn brothers – by the name of Skyfury Guo. He died alongside my husband. I’m sorry to trouble you by asking this, but if you could ensure that he too is buried properly . . . Well, I would . . .” She was interrupted by her own tears.

“It’s no trouble,” Yan Lie replied. “Just leave it to me. As for avenging their deaths, the traitor Justice Duan is a government official, so it’s going to be difficult to kill him. Besides, we need to be especially careful right now. We’re going to have to be patient and wait for our moment.”

Charity knew Yan Lie was right, but she was desperate to see Justice Duan dead so she could join her husband in the next world. But who knew when such an opportunity would arise? She would have to be patient. The tears flowed even faster.

“I don’t care about getting revenge,” she stuttered between sobs. “Even a hero like my husband was unable to defeat him. I’m just a wretched woman – how can I wait for him to be brought to justice? Just let me join my husband.”

Yan Lie paused to think. “Madam, do you have faith in me?”

Charity nodded.

“Then the only answer,” he said, “is to continue north, away from the soldiers. The Song officials can’t catch us up in the north, we’ll be out of danger as soon as we cross the River Huai. Once things have calmed, we’ll come back south to avenge these heroes. Please be assured, my lady, I will see to it that justice is done.”

I have no family now, Charity thought to herself, hesitating. If I don’t follow him, where is a woman like me to make a life for herself? I saw those soldiers attack my husband and burn our home with my own eyes. Had they captured me, I would have suffered a fate worse than death. Yet this man is neither friend nor relative. Should a widow like me be travelling on her own with a young man like him? But he would no doubt stop me if I tried to commit suicide. All she knew for sure was that the road ahead would be difficult and uncertain, and her guts felt twisted with worry. She had been crying for days now and it felt as if she had no tears left.

“If my lady doesn’t agree with any part of my plan, then please tell me. I will do anything Madam asks.”

He was so accommodating that it made Charity feel guilty. Other than taking her own life, she could see no other way. “Then let’s do as you suggest,” she said, unable to look up.

Yan Lie visibly rejoiced, and exclaimed, “I am forever in Madam’s debt, for you saved my l—”

“Please don’t mention it again,” Charity interrupted.

“Of course.”


THAT NIGHT, they stopped at another inn in the town of Wudun, and once again Yan Lie arranged for them to stay in the same room. He had been noticeably less reserved since Charity had agreed to go with him to the north, and occasionally he would become a little too excited. She was beginning to feel uneasy again, but as he was yet to do anything improper as such, she decided he must just be trying to show his gratitude.

They arrived at Jiaxing around noon the next day. It was one of the biggest cities in western Zhejiang, where the rice and silk trades had thrived for centuries. Known as Drunken Plums in ancient times and Bounteous Grains during the Five Dynasties, it had changed its name to Jiaxing following Emperor Xiaozong’s birth in the city.

“Let’s find a place to rest,” Yan Lie suggested.

Charity, however, was concerned the soldiers might find them. “It’s still early, let’s press on.”

“The markets here are good and Madam’s clothes are worn. We should buy you some new ones first.”

“But you bought these only yesterday,” Charity said. “You call these worn?”

“The roads are dusty; clothes lose their shine after only a couple of days. Besides, Madam is so beautiful, it wouldn’t be right for you to wear anything but the finest.”

Charity enjoyed his compliment, even if she could not admit it, but she looked away. “I’m in mourning—”

“But of course,” he replied at once. “I understand.”

Charity was quiet. She was indeed a beautiful young woman, but her husband had never once told her so. She stole a glance at Yan Lie. He seemed sincere. A flutter went through her, but it was tinged with anxiety.

Yan Lie asked passers-by for a place to stay and was directed to the Elegant Waters Inn, the largest in the city. After freshening up, Yan Lie and Charity ordered some snacks in their room and sat facing each other, eating. Charity had wanted to ask for a separate room, but did not know how to phrase it. Her cheeks alternated between bright crimson and pallid white as they ate, her worries pressing constantly against her chest.

“Please make yourself comfortable, my lady. I’m just going to buy a few things. I’ll be back soon.”

Charity nodded. “Please don’t spend too much.”

Yan Lie smiled. “It’s such a shame Madam is in mourning and cannot wear pearls or gems. Anyhow, I could never spend too much, even if it was my greatest desire.”

End of Chapter 1

Written by Jin Yong
Translated by Anna Holmwood
Edited and proofread by audiowuxia.

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