The Book and the Sword was Jin Yong’s debut, and it quickly established him as one of the new masters of the wuxia genre.
The Red Flower Society is a secret society aiming to overthrow the Manchu-led Qing Empire and restore Han Chinese rule in China. It is led by 15 heroes, with Chen Jialuo as their chief. At the beginning of the novel, the Qianlong Emperor sends his men to ambush and arrest Wen Tailai, the society’s fourth leader, because he wants to silence Wen Tailai, who knows a secret about him.
The main plot follows the heroes’ repeated attempts to rescue Wen Tailai, and is intertwined with two or more extensive subplots. The heroes encounter some Islamic tribesmen who are pursuing a convoy of mercenaries who have robbed them of their holy artefact, a Quran. Chen Jialuo aids the tribesmen in defeating the mercenaries and recovers the holy book. He earns the respect and admiration of Huoqingtong, the daughter of the tribe’s leader. Throughout the novel, some of the heroes eventually find their future spouses after braving danger together: Xu Tianhong and Yu Yutong marry Zhou Qi and Li Yuanzhi respectively.
The Book and the Sword
“The poet Xin Jiaxuan could have been writing of my own feelings,” he thought. “He was much like me when he wrote it, watching China fall to the barbarian tribes, with no way of knowing when the old days would return. No wonder he sang such a sad song.”
The entourage crossed the summit of a hill. Looking at the darkening sky, the mulemen said that another three miles would bring them to Twin Pagodas, a large town, where they planned to spend the night.
Just then, Lu heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw far in front two magnificent chestnut horses racing towards them through a cloud of dust. The two riders flashed by, one on either side of the line of mules, and were gone. Lu slapped his horseand caught up with Yuanzhi.
“Did you get a good look at those two?” he asked in a low voice.
“Were they bandits?” she replied excitedly. She would have liked nothing better than for them to be outlaws bent on robbery, giving her a chance to display the skills she had worked so hard to attain over the past five years.
“It’s hard to say,” said Lu. “But judging by their ability in the martial arts, they wouldn’t be ordinary highwaymen.”
“Are they kung fu masters?”
“From the way they ride their horses, I’d say it’s unlikely they are novices.”
As the entourage neared the town, two more horsemen galloped past.
“Hmm, this is very strange,” mused Lu. The country was desolate and the evening mist was thickening. He wondered why anyone would set out on a journey at this time of day.
Not long after, the muletrain entered the town. Officer Deng led them to a large inn and Yuanzhi and her mother were shown to one of the best rooms. Lu was given a smaller room, and after he had eaten dinner, a servant lit the lantern. All was quiet, and he was about to go to sleep when a dog barked. From far away he heard the faint sound of galloping horses approaching and he thought again about the four riders they had passed on the road.
The clip-clop of horses’ hooves came closer and stopped right in front of the inn. There was a knock on the front door and Lu heard a servant open it and say: “You’ve been riding hard. There’s food and drink prepared for you.”
“Go and feed the horses quickly,” said a rough voice. “We must start out again as soon as we’ve finished eating.”
Lu considered the situation. Groups of men hurrying northwest, and judging by the way they rode, all of them experts in the martial arts. In all his years in the border areas, he had never seen the like of it. He slipped quietly out of his room, crossed the courtyard and went round to the back of the inn.
“All right, you say the Young Helmsman is very young,” he heard the rough-voiced man say. “Do you think he will be able to control all the brothers?”
Lu followed the voice and stationed himself underneath the window.
“He’ll have to,” he heard the other say. “It was the old master’s wish whether the Young Helmsman likes it or not.”
The man had a deep, sonorous voice, and Lu could tell his Internal Strength was profound. Not daring to make a hole in the window paper to peep through, he continued to listen from where he was, breathing as lightly as he could.
“Of course,” the rough-throated one replied. “But we don’t know if the Young Helmsman will be willing to do it.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” said the other. “He’ll follow the old master’s wishes.”
He said the word ‘follow’ with a peculiar southern Chinese accent, and Lu’s heart jumped. “Where have I heard that voice before?” he thought. He sifted through his mind, and finally remembered that it belonged to his old friend Zhao Banshan, whom he had known 20 years before in the Dragon Slayers’ Society. Zhao was about 10 years younger than he, but the two had often trained together, and had a great respect for each other. Lu had heard no news of him since the Dragon Slayers’ Society had broken up and he was delighted at chancing upon an old friend in such an unlikely place. As he was about to call out to Zhao, the light in the room was suddenly doused and a dart shot out of the window.
But it was not aimed at Lu. A figure shifted in the shadows nearby and caught the dart, then stood up, about to challenge the dart thrower. Lu leapt over and whispered fiercely: “Don’t make a sound! Come with me.” It was Yuanzhi.
No one chased them. Lu pulled Yuanzhi into his room, and under the light saw an expression of such eagerness on her face that he was both angry and amused.
“Yuanzhi, do you know what sort of men they are? What were you doing trying to pick a fight with them?” he asked sternly.
“What were they doing shooting a dart at me?” she replied defiantly.
“If they aren’t outlaws, then they are secret society men,” he said. “One of them I know, and his kung fu would not be weaker than mine. Travelling through the night as they are, they must be on very urgent business. That dart was not meant to injure you, it was just telling you not to be nosy. If he had really wanted to hit you, I doubt if you would have been able to catch it. Now go and sleep.”
They heard a door open and the sound of horses’ hooves as the two men galloped away.
The next morning, the muletrain started out again, and travelled ten miles in just over two hours.
“Look, teacher,” said Yuanzhi. “There’s someone coming.”
Two chestnut horses galloped towards them, and because of theprevious night’s incident, they paid particular attention to the riders. The horses, fine and spirited, were identical. Even stranger, the two riders were also identical. Both were aged about 40, tall and thin with faces as yellow as wax, sunken eyes and long slanting eyebrows: the effect was frightening.
As they passed by, the two men glanced at Yuanzhi with their strange eyes. She reined in her horse and stared back belligerently, but they took no notice and raced on westwards.
“Where did that pair of ghosts come from, I wonder,” she said.
Lu glanced back at the receding figures. “Aha, it must be them,” he cried.
“You recognise them?” she asked excitedly.
“They must be the Twin Knights of Sichuan. Their surname is Chang, but everyone calls them Black Death and White Death.”
Yuanzhi laughed. “They’ve got good nicknames. They look like a couple of skeletons.”
“Little girls shouldn’t make jokes about other people,” said Lu. “They may be ugly but they are skilled fighters. I’ve never met them, but from what I’ve heard, they travel the country fighting evil and doing justice. They are widely known as outlaws, but they steal only from the rich and help the poor. They have made a great name for themselves.”
“But if they are identical, why are they called Black and White?”
“From what I’ve been told, the only difference between them is that one has a black mole in the corner of his eye, and the other doesn’t. There’s probably no one better at Black Sand Palm Kung Fu than those two.”
“What are they doing in the border areas?” Yuanzhi asked.
“I have no idea,” Lu replied. “I’ve never heard of them operating out here before.”
As he spoke, they heard more horses coming towards them. This time, the riders were a Taoist priest and a hunchback dressed in brightly-coloured clothes. The priest had a longsword slung across his back. His face was pale and sickly and he had only one arm: his left sleeve was tucked under his belt.
Seeing the hunchback’s ugly face and his garish attire, Yuanzhi laughed. “Teacher,” she shouted before Lu could stop her, “Look at the hunchback!”
The hunchback glared at her angrily and as he passed, stretched out his hand to grab hold of her. The priest seemed to have guessed what he would do, and stopped the hunchback’s hand with a flick of his horse whip. “Tenth Brother,” he growled, “Don’t make trouble.”
Lu and Yuanzhi looked back and saw the two horses breaking into a gallop. Suddenly, the hunchback did a reverse somersault off the back of his horse, and with three steps covered the distance to Yuanzhi. Yuanzhi’s sword was in her hand, but the hunchback did not attack her. He grabbed the tail of her horse, and the animal, which was galloping along, reared back on its hind legs with a loud scream. The hunchback’s strength was frightening: the horse had not pulled him forward an inch. He chopped at the horse’s tautly-stretched tail with his right hand, and snapped off the end as if with a knife. The horse lunged forward, and Yuanzhi was almost thrown. The hunchback turned and ran off swiftly. In a second, he caught up with his horse, still galloping westwards, leapt onto its back and soon disappeared from view.
“Teacher!” Yuanzhi called out in a plaintive voice. Lu frowned and was about to berate her. But seeing her eyes glistening with tears, he stopped himself.
Later, they heard a shout from behind: “Weiyang … Weiyang.”
Yuanzhi was mystified. “What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s the call of a bodyguard agency shouter,” he said. “The agencies hire out bodyguards or escort goods and people, especially on long journeys. Every bodyguard agency has a different call, and they use it to let both outlaws and friends know who they are. The bodyguard agency business is based seven parts on goodwill and three parts on fighting ability. If the head of an agency is generous and creates a lot of goodwill, he will gain many friends, and his business will prosper. Outlaws will hear the call and let them pass without attacking. ‘Being friends is better than being enemies,’ as the saying goes. Now, if you were to try the bodyguard agency business…ha! With allthe people you have annoyed in less than half a day, you would have trouble travelling an inch, even if you were ten times the fighter you are now.”
“Which bodyguard agency’s call is that?” she asked, ignoring his teasing.
“The Zhen Yuan Agency from Beijing, probably the biggest in north China. The head of the agency is ‘North China Earth Shaker’ Wang Weiyang. He must be seventy by now, but they’re still calling ‘Weiyang’, so he hasn’t retired yet. Ah, perhaps he ought to. The Zhen Yuan Agency has been making big profits for 40 years now. That should be enough for anyone.”
“Have you ever met him?” Yuanzhi asked.
“I’ve met him. He uses an Eight Diagram sword and the Eight Diagram boxing technique. In the old days, there was no one in north China who could beat him.”
Yuanzhi was elated. “They’re travelling very fast. When they catch up to us, you can point the old hero out to me.”
“Now why would he come out himself?” Lu said. “You really are a silly girl!”
Yuanzhi sulked. She was always being told off by her teacher. It wasn’t fair. She spurred her horse forward and caught up with the carriage, planning to talk to her mother for a while to relieve the frustration. Glancing round, she saw the stub of her horse’s tail and shuddered. There was nothing unusual about breaking a spear with one blow, but a horse’s tail was pliable. How had the hunchback managed to snap it? She reined in her horse, meaning to wait for Lu to catch up so she could ask him, but changed her mind and galloped up the line to Officer Deng instead.
“Officer Deng,” she said, pouting. “My horse’s tail looks very ugly.”
“I don’t know what to do with this horse of mine,” Deng replied, guessing her meaning. “He’s in a bad mood today and won’t do anything I say. You are a good horsewoman, mistress. Perhaps you could help me break him in.”
“I probably won’t be able to handle him either,” she said modestly. The two exchanged horses. Deng’s horse was of course very docile.
“Very good, mistress,” he complimented her. “Even horses do your bidding.”
The bodyguard agency’s call came closer and closer, and before long, a muletrain consisting of a score or more heavily laden animals began to pass.
Lu was afraid one of the agency men would recognise him, so he covered the top part of his face with a large fur cap. As the lead escorts trotted past, he heard one of them remark: “According to Brother Han, Brother Jiao Wenqi’s body has been found.”
Lu’s heart missed a beat as he heard the name. Jiao was one of the Six Devils of Guandong and a formidable fighter. Five years before while on an errand to the Muslim regions, Jiao had discovered Lu was hiding in Commander Li’s household and had come at the dead of night with two other fighters with the aim of capturing Lu and taking him back to Beijing to claim the reward on his head. After a hard fight, Lu had killed all three and hidden their corpses on a deserted hillside.
Lu looked round at the escort who had spoken, but had time to see only that he had a full beard and a face as black as thunder. Once he had passed, Lu saw he was carrying on his back a red knapsack and a pair of Five Element Wheels, steel rings covered in knives.
“Could it be that the Guandong Devils have become bodyguard agency escorts?” he wondered. Of the six Devils, Lu had only ever seen Jiao, but he knew that the rest were excellent fighters, and that two of them, the Yan brothers, used Five Element Wheels.
Lu thought about the number of top fighters they had met in the past two days and wondered if it had anything to do with himself. From the look of things, the Zhen Yuan Agency men were actually on an escort assignment, so they posed no threat. As to the fighters travelling westwards in pairs, they did not seem to be looking for him. But where were they going and why?
Having exchanged mounts with Officer Deng, Yuanzhi reined in her horse to wait for Lu to pass.
“Teacher,” she smiled. “How come no more riders have passed us? I want to see a few more of these heroes.”
Her words jogged Lu’s mind and he slapped his thigh. “Ah, you old fool,” he rebuked himself. “Why didn’t you think of the ‘Greeting The Dragon’s Head Ceremony’?”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It is the most solemn of the ceremonies held by the secret societies to honour an important personage. Usually, the six most senior men in the society are chosen to go to greet the guest, but for really important meetings, twelve are chosen and they go in pairs. Five pairs have passed us now, so there must be still be one pair in front of us.”
“Which secret society do they belong to?” Yuanzhi asked.
“That I don’t know. But if the Twin Knights of Sichuan and that hunchback are members, the society’s power and influence must be tremendous. Whatever you do, don’t provoke anyone else, do you hear?”
Yuanzhi nodded, and waited expectantly to see who else would pass them by.
Midday came and went, but there was no sign of anyone on the road in front. Lu was surprised and wondered if he could have guessed wrongly. Finally, instead of riders approaching from in front, they gradually became aware of the sound of camel bells from behind, and saw a dust cloud rising as a large desert caravan hurried towards them.
The caravan consisted of dozens of camels with 20 or 30 horses squeezed in between them, all ridden by Muslims with high noses and sunken eyes. They had thick beards on their faces and white cloths tied around their heads. Scimitars hung from their waists. Muslim traders were a common sight on the road to the central areas and Lu did not consider it unusual. Amidst the group, he noticed a graceful young girl, dazzlingly beautiful, dressed in yellow robes and riding a black horse.
Lu was impressed, but did no more than glance at her. Yuanzhi, however, stared in open-mouthed wonder. Growing up in the northwest border areas, she had seen few well-groomed girls, let alone girls as beautiful as this one. She was about the same age as Yuanzhi, 18 or 19, with a dagger at her waist and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wore a full-length yellow gown, leather boots and a small hat embroidered with gold silk, on the side of which was fastened a turquoise feather. She was an enchanting sight.
As the girl trotted by, Yuanzhi spurred on her horse and followed, gazing fixedly at her. The girl was annoyed at being stared at disrespectfully by a Chinese boy, and she whirled her whip above her head and wrapped it round the mane of Yuanzhi’s horse. Giving it a sharp tug, she pulled out a large clump of hair, and the horse reared in pain, almost throwing Yuanzhi to the ground. The Muslim girl cracked the whip in the air and horse hair flew in all directions.
In a fit of pique, Yuanzhi pulled out a steel dart and threw it at the girl’s back. But, not wishing to harm her, she also called out: “Watch out for the dart!” The girl leant to one side, and the dart shot past her right shoulder. She waited until it was about ten feet beyond her, then flicked her whip, caught the dart by its tip and smoothly sent it flying back towards Yuanzhi, calling out: “Hey, little boy! Here’s your dart!” Yuanzhi caught it neatly.
The Muslims in the caravan applauded loudly at the superb skill with which the yellow-robed girl handled her whip. A tall, thick-set man with a heavy black beard went over and said a few words to her, to which she replied: “Oh, father!” But she took no further notice of Yuanzhi. The dozens of camels and horses moved on and gradually disappeared.
“That girl was impressive, wasn’t she?” said Lu.
“These Muslims ride day and night. They ought to be good with their whips. But it doesn’t mean she knows any real kung fu,” Yuanzhi replied.
Lu laughed. “Really?” he asked.
Towards evening they arrived in the town of Bulongji. There was only one large inn in the town, outside of which was planted the flag of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. With two large groups to look after, the inn’s servants were very busy.
Lu had a wash, and then strolled into the courtyard of the inn with a cup of tea in his hand. In the dining hall, he saw two tables full of agency men drinking and talking loudly. The lead escort with the Five Element Wheels had put the weapons down but kept the red knapsack on his back.
Taking a sip of tea, Lu gazed up at the sky.
One of the lead escorts laughed. “Brother Yan, once you’ve delivered this toy to Beijing, General Zhao will reward you with at least a thousand, won’t he? You can go and have a good time with that girlfriend of yours, Xibao.”
So it really is one of the Yan brothers, Lu thought, and paid even closer attention to what was said.
“A reward?” said Yan. “Ha! Well, everyone will get something.”
“Your Xibao has probably gone off with some other man willing to make an honest woman of her,” added an effeminate voice. Lu looked over out of the corner of his eye, and saw a man with a sly face and a slight figure, also dressed as a lead escort.
Yan grunted, obviously not pleased.
“You bastard, Tong,” added the first lead escort. “You never have anything good to say.”
Tong laughed. “All right,” he said. “But Brother Yan, fun is fun and serious is serious. Don’t think about Xibao too much or you might find someone has stolen that red knapsack off your back. It’s not important if lose your head or not, but the agency’s reputation has to be maintained.”
“Don’t worry,” Yan replied angrily. “If those Muslims try stealing it back, I’ll soon put an end to their nonsense. I am one of the Six Guandong Devils and I got where I am with real kung fu, not like some of the weaklings in the bodyguard agencies these days who can do nothing but eat and fart!”
Lu looked at the red knapsack on Yan’s back: it wasn’t big, and from the look of it, whatever was inside was very light.
“It’s true that the Six Devils of Guandong are famous,” Tong said. “It’s a pity that Brother Jiao was done in. We don’t even know who the murderer was.”
Yan banged the table. “Who says we don’t know? It has to be the Red Flower Society!”
That’s strange, Lu thought, I killed Jiao. What is this Red Flower Society? He walked slowly around the courtyard inspecting the flowers, moving closer to the group of lead escorts.
Tong would not let the matter drop. “It’s a pity,” he said. “If I wasn’t such a weakling, I would have settled things with the Red Flower Society long ago.”
Yan shook with anger. One of the other lead escorts broke in to mediate: “Anyway, the Red Flower Society’s leader died last month,” he said. “They’ve lost their man in command, so who is there to settle with? And another thing, where is the proof that Jiao was murdered by the Red Flower Society? When you find them and they deny the charge, what are you going to do?”
“Yes,” said Tong changing his tack. “We daren’t provoke them, but surely we’ve got enough guts to bully a few Muslims. This little toy we’ve snatched is as precious to them as life itself. In the future, if General Zhao ever wants money from them, or cattle and sheep, do you think they’d dare to refuse? I tell you Yan, stop thinking about that little Xibao of yours. When we get back to Beijing, you should ask General Zhao to give you a little Muslim girl to be your mistress. Then you can really…”
Before he could finish, a piece of mud brick flew out of nowhere and lodged itself in his mouth. Two of the other lead escorts snatched up their weapons and rushed outside while Yan picked up his Five Element Wheels and looked warily around. His younger brother came running in, and both stood together, not daring to move for fear of falling into some trap. Tong spat out the piece of mud and began swearing.
The two other lead escorts, Tai and Qian, rushed in through the door. “The little bastard’s gone,” one of them said. “There’s no sign of him.”
Lu had observed the whole incident and laughed inwardly at the helpless expression on Tong’s face. Then he saw a shadow darting across the rafters in a corner of the dining hall, and went slowly outside. It was already growing dark, but he spotted a figure leap off the corner of the roof, land noiselessly, and speed off eastwards.
Lu wanted to know who had treated Tong to a mouthful of mud and, making use of Lightness Kung Fu * (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible.), he followed, the teacup still in his hand. The pace was fast, but the person he was following was not aware of his presence.
Lu’s quarry had a slim figure and moved daintily, almost like a girl. They crossed a hill and an ink-black forest loomed ahead. The person ahead slipped into the trees with Lu close behind. Underneath, the ground was covered with dead leaves and twigs which crackled as he stepped on them. Afraid of giving himself away, he slowed down. Just then, the moon broke through the clouds and a shaft of clear light shone down through the branches, covering the earth with jumbled ghostly shadows. In the distance he saw the flash of a yellow gown, and his quarry moved out of the forest.
He followed to the edge of the trees. Beyond was a large expanse of grass on which were pitched eight or nine tents. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to go and have a look. He waited until two guards had turned away, then jumped across with a ‘Swallow Gliding Over Water’ leap and landed among the tents. Crouching low, he ran to the back of the largest tent, pitched in the centre. Inside, he could hear people talking agitatedly in the Muslim language. He had lived in the border areas for many years, and understood some of what was said. Carefully, he lifted up the corner of the canvas and looked inside.
The tent was lit by two oil lamps under which a large number of people were seated on carpets. He recognised them as the Muslim caravan that had passed them that day. The yellow-robed girl stood up and drew a dagger from her waist. She cut the index finger of her left hand with the tip of the blade and let several drops of blood fall into a cup of horse’s milk wine. Then one-by-one, every Muslim in the tent did likewise. The tall Muslim that the girl had called father raised the wine cup and made a short speech of which Lu could only understand something about ‘The Koran’ and ‘Our Homeland’. The yellow-robed girl spoke after him, her voice crisp and clear, and concluded by saying:
“If the sacred Koran is not recovered, I swear never to return to our homeland.” The Muslims lustily repeated the oath. In the dim light, Lu could see determination and anger on every face.
The group belonged to one of the richest and most powerful of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the Tianshan Mountains, numbering nearly 200,000 people. The tall man was Muzhuolun, the leader of the tribe; a strong fighter, fair and just, he was greatly loved by his people. The yellow-robed girl was his daughter, Huo Qingtong.
The tribe lived by nomadic herding and contentedly travelled the great desert. But as the power of the Manchu court extended into the Muslim areas, its demands for taxes increased. At first, Muzhuolun went out of his way to comply, and worked hard to meet the demands. But the Manchu officials were insatiable and made life impossible for the tribe. On several occasions, Muzhuolun sent missions to the Manchu court to appeal for a reduction of taxes. But far from achieving a reduction, the missions only served to arouse the Court’s suspicions. General Zhao Wei was given an Imperial order to supervise military affairs in the Muslim areas and he discovered that the tribe owned an ancient hand-written Koran, originally brought from the sacred city of Mecca, which they had treasured for generations. The General decided to get the Koran to use to blackmail the Muslims into submission and he dispatched a number of top fighters who stole it while Muzhuolun was out on a long journey. The Muslims had organised a group to recover the Sacred Book.
Lu decided that the Muslims’ plotting had nothing to do with him, and he carefully stood up to return to the inn. At that instant, Huo Qingtong noticed him.
“There’s someone outside,” she whispered to her father and shot out of the tent in time to see a shadow running fast for the trees. With a wave of her hand, she sent a steel dart speeding after him.
Lu heard the projectile coming and leant slightly to one side. As it passed, he stretched out the index finger of his right hand and, carefully calculating the speed and direction of the dart, tapped it gently as it passed so that it fell into the teacup he was holding. Then without looking back, he made use of his Lightness Kung Fu and almost flew back to the inn, where he went straight to his room. He took the dart out of the cup and saw it was made of pure steel with a feather attached to it. He threw it into his bag.
The bodyguard agency group started out first early the next day, the shouter shouting the agency’s call. Lu noticed that most of the lead escorts were stationed around Yan. It seemed the red knapsack on his back was the real treasure being escorted.
Once the agency men had left, Officer Deng led his own column out onto the road. At noon, they rested briefly at a place called Yellow Crag after which the road sloped steadily upward into the mountains. They planned to cross three ranges that day before stopping in Sandaogou.
The mountain road became increasingly precarious and Yuanzhi and Officer Deng kept close by Madame Li’s mule-drawn carriage, afraid that if an animal lost its footing, it could send the carriage crashing into the gorge below. Around mid-afternoon, they arrived at the mouth of Black Gold Gorge and saw the agency men seated on the ground resting. Officer Deng directed his men to follow suit. Black Gold Gorge was flanked by high peaks with an extremely steep mountain track leading up between them. Stopping on the track was difficult, so the top of the gorge had to be reached at one stretch. Lu hung back at the rear and turned his back, not wishing to exchange glances with the agency men.
Once rested, they entered the gorge, the bodyguard agency men and the soldiers under Officer Deng’s command forming a long snaking column. Men and animals alike panted up the mountain. The shouts of the mulemen melded into a continuous drone. Suddenly, Lu saw a figure darting across the crest of a peak, and heard the jangling of camel bells from in front as a group of Muslims mounted on camels and horses charged down towards them from the top of the gorge. Their hooves sounded like thunder, and the agency men began shouting, calling on them to slow down.
In an instant, the Muslim group was upon them and four camels quickly encircled Lead Escort Yan who was carrying the red knapsack. Each of the four Muslim riders raised a large iron hammer with both hands and smashed it down viciously on his head. The mountain road was narrow, leaving little room for manoeuvring, and the camel-men had the advantage of height. Even if he had been a better fighter, Yan would have been unable to avoid the four hammers, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Both he and his horse were beaten to a bloody pulp.
The yellow-robed Muslim girl, Huo Qingtong, jumped down from her horse and with a flash of her sword cut one of the straps holding the red knapsack to the corpse that had been Yan. But before she had time for a second stroke, she felt a gust of wind at her back as a blade sliced towards her. She dodged to one side and cut the other strap. Her assailant aimed a cutting stroke at her waist to stop her from picking up the knapsack. Unable to avoid the stroke, she raised her sword to block it, and the two blades clashed in a shower of sparks. Looking up, she saw it was the handsome young boy who had stared at her so disrespectfully the day before. In a sudden fit of anger, she lashed out with three attacking sword strokes, and the two began a fierce duel.
Her assailant was Yuanzhi, still dressed in boy’s clothes. Without stopping to consider the rights and wrongs of the situation, she had decided to get her own back for the damage done to her horse’s mane.
Huo Qingtong could see her chance of recovering the Koran slipping away and wanted to finish the fight quickly. She changed to the ‘Three Part’ sword style, and in a few strokes had forced Yuanzhi into retreat. The ‘Three Part’ sword style was the highest achievement of the Tianshan school of kung fu. It was called ‘Three Part’ because only a third of each stroke was completed. As the opponent moved to counter each one, the stoke changed. Intricate and vicious, the style included no defensive strokes: attacking and killing was all.
The two went through a dozen or more moves without their blades ever touching, Huo Qingtong completing only a third of each stroke, and then changing it without waiting for her opponent to defend. She cut and thrust at the air around Yuanzhi’s body, and the Chinese girl, knowing she could not match her opponent’s speed, leapt away. Huo Qingtong did not pursue her but turned back to the knapsack, and found it was already in the hands of a small, thin man standing beside Yan’s body. She lunged at him with her sword.
“Oh dear,” the man cried. “Uncle Tong had better get back in place!” Lead Escort Tong jumped clear with three quick steps and Huo Qingtong followed hard on his heels. She raised her sword to cut him down, but the stroke was blocked by a Five Element Wheel thrust forward by the surviving Yan brother.
Huo Qingtong fought briefly with Yan, and recognised him as a strong and capable adversary. Then she heard a loud whistle coming from the hilltops, the signal for retreat, and knew that help for the agency men was on the way. She saw Tong scampering away with the knapsack and quickly changed to the Three Part sword style, forcing Yan to retreat, and then raced after him. The whistles became louder.
“Daughter! Retreat quickly!” Muzhuolun shouted. She abandoned the chase and directed her comrades as they lifted the Muslim dead and wounded onto camels and horses. Then the Muslim column charged on down the mountain path. But a little way further on, they found several dozen Manchu soldiers blocking their path.
Officer Deng rode forward, his spear held crosswise. “You insolent Muslims!” he shouted. “What is this insurrection?” Two of Huo Qingtong’s steel darts hit his hands and the spear clattered to the ground. Muzhuolun raised his sabre high and charged forward with some other Muslim warriors, and the Manchu troops scattered. Boulders crashed down from the mountain tops, pulverising more than a dozen Manchu troops, and in the midst of the melee, the Muslims made good their escape.
Throughout the battle, Lu had remained on the sidelines, his hands folded inside his sleeves. Yuanzhi had been of great assistance to the agency men even though she had been beaten by Huo Qingtong, and the Muslims had been unable to get what they wanted. As the agency men tended the wounded and carried off the dead, Lu gave her a severe lecture, criticising her for interfering in the affairs of others, and needlessly making even more enemies.
“There are very few good men amongst the bodyguard agencies, and many bad ones. Why bother helping people to do evil?” he scolded her. She hung her head, not daring to look up.
They crossed through the pass and arrived in Sandaogou, a medium-sized market town, as dusk was falling. The mulemen said there was only one inn, called the Antong, and both the agency men and Officer Deng’s column headed for it. The inn was crude and simple in the extreme with earthern walls and mud floors. Seeing no servants coming out to greet them, Tong shouted: “Is everyone dead in there? I damn eighteen generations of your ancestors!” Yuanzhi frowned. No-one had ever dared to use such language within her hearing before.
Just then, they heard the sound of clashing swords from inside. Yuanzhi was delighted. “Here’s some more fun to watch!” she cried and ran into the inn ahead of the others.
The entrance hall was empty and silent, but passing through to the courtyard, she saw a young woman fighting fiercely with four men. In her left hand was a sword, and in her right, a knife. She was obviously battling for her life. It seemed to Yuanzhi that the four man were trying to force their way into the room outside which the woman was standing. The four were all strong fighters: one wielded a whip, one a staff, one a sword and one a Devil’s Head Knife.
Lu also entered the courtyard. “How is it that we are continually running into these secret society people?” he thought.
The woman dodged and parried, holding all four men at bay until suddenly the one wielding the Devil’s Head Knife swung his weapon towards her as another of the attackers thrust his sword at her heart. She fended off the sword with the knife in her right hand, but she could not dodge the Devil’s Head Knife and it struck her on the left shoulder. But she did not give up, and as she continued to fight, drops of blood flew in all directions.
“Don’t kill her! We need her alive,” shouted the man with the whip.
Lu’s chivalrous heart was moved at the sight of four man attacking one woman, and despite his own sensitive situation he could see he might have to take a hand himself. He watched as the swordsman attacked with a slicing blow from the left. The woman parried it obliquely, but she was already wounded and out of breath. The two blades clashed, and the knife was jolted from her hand and clattered to the ground. The swordsman then thrust his blade at her again, and she frantically dodged to the right, opening a way through which the man with the Devil’s Head Knife charged towards the door.
Ignoring all dangers, the woman plunged her left hand into her gown and drew out two throwing knives which she slung at her enemy’s back. One of the knives embedded itself in the door post but the other plunged into his back. Luckily for him, the woman’s hand lacked strength due to the wound in her left shoulder and the knife did not kill him. He staggered back, screaming with pain, and pulled the knife out. Meanwhile, the woman was struck on her thigh by the staff. She swayed unsteadily, but defiantly resumed her position blocking the doorway.
“Go and help her,” Lu said quietly to Yuanzhi. “If you can’t beat them, I’ll come over as well.”
Yuanzhi was bursting to test herself. She leapt forward, her sword at the ready, shouting: “Four men fighting one woman! You should be ashamed of yourselves!” Seeing someone coming to the aid of the woman, and one of their number already wounded, the four men turned and ran from the inn.
The woman’s face was deathly pale and she leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Yuanzhi went over to her.
“Why were they bullying you like that?” she asked, but the woman was temporarily incapable of speech.
Officer Deng walked over to Yuanzhi. “Madame Li would like to see you mistress,” he said, and added in a whisper: “She’s heard that you were involved in a fight on the road and is very upset. You’d better go quickly.”
The woman’s expression changed as soon as she saw Officer Deng’s military uniform; she pulled her throwing knife out of the doorpost, went back into her room and banged the door shut without answering Yuanzhi.
Rather unhappy at having been snubbed, Yuanzhi walked over to Lu. “Teacher, what were they fighting about?” she asked.
“It was probably a revenge attack,” he said. “But it isn’t over yet. Those four will be back.”
Yuanzhi was about to ask another question when she heard someone inside the inn shouting and swearing.
“Damn your ancestors, what do you mean there are no good rooms? Are you afraid we don’t have the money to pay?” It was the voice of Lead Escort Tong.
“Please don’t be angry sir,” an employee of the inn answered. “We in the inn-keeping business would not dare to offend such eminent persons as yourselves. But it is a fact that all of our few good rooms are occupied.”
“Who have you got in them? I think I’ll go and have a look,” Tong said walking out into the courtyard.
Just then a door opened, and the young woman leaned out. “Please bring some hot water,” she said to a servant.
Tong saw the woman’s smooth white skin and the beauty of her face and eyes, and noticed on her left wrist, a bracelet of pearls, all perfectly formed. His mouth watered. The woman spoke with a southern Chinese accent and the exotic touch to her voice excited him greatly.
“I, Lead Escort Tong have passed along this road on business dozens of times, and I have never stayed in anything but the best rooms,” he shouted. “If there are no good rooms vacant, why don’t you make one vacant for me?” The door to the woman’s room was still open and he walked straight inside.
“Ai-ya!” the woman exclaimed. She moved to obstruct him, but felt a stab of pain in her thigh and sat down.
As Tong entered the room, he saw there was a man lying on the kang. The room was dimly-lit but he could see that the man’s head was wrapped in bandages, his right arm was in a sling and that one of his legs was also bandaged.
“Who is it?” the man asked in a deep, resonant voice.
“My name is Tong and I’m a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency,” he replied. “We are passing through Sandaogou on business, but there are no rooms available here. I was wondering if you could move. Who is this woman? Is she your wife, or your girlfriend?”
“Get out,” the man ordered. His wounds were clearly serious; he was unable to talk loudly.
“One’s a girl and the other’s too badly wounded to even move,” thought Tong, who had not seen the woman fight. “When am I going to get such a chance again?”
“If you don’t want to give up your room, that’s all right too,” he said with a grin on his face. “All three of us can snuggle up together on this kang. Don’t worry, I won’t push over onto your side.”
The man on the kang shook with anger.
“Don’t get involved with these ruffians,” the woman urged him quietly. “We can’t afford to make any more enemies at the moment.” And then to Tong: “You stop your nonsense and get out.”
Tong laughed. “Can’t I stay here and keep you company?”
“Come over here,” the man on the kang said hoarsely.
Tong took a step towards him. “Why? Do you want to see how handsome I am?”
“I can’t see clearly,” the man replied.
Tong laughed out loud and took another step towards him. “Take a closer look. This is like a big brother choosing a husband for his sister….”
Before he could finish, the man on the kang sat up, and as fast as a lightning flash, touched a yuedao point* (*Yuedao points are nerve centres on the body which, when struck, can cause paralysis or even death. The same points are used for a different purpose in acupuncture) on Tong’s ribs and followed with a blow to his back. Tong flew straight out of the door, and landed heavily in the courtyard. The agency shouter, Xun, rushed over to help him up.
“Brother Tong,” he whispered. “Don’t provoke them. It looks like they’re members of the Red Flower Society.”
“Ahh, ahhh, I can’t move my leg,” Tong cried. “The Red Flower Society?” he added suddenly. “How do you know?” He broke into a cold sweat of fear.
“One of the porters told me four Yamen officers were here a while ago to arrest those two, and there was quite a fight before they left,” Xun said.
Lead Escort Yan came over. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Brother Yan,” Tong shouted. “One of those bastards from the Red Flower Society used Yuedao kung fu on me!”
Yan frowned and pulled Tong up by his arm. “We’ll go back to the room and talk about it,” he said. His first thought was for the agency’s reputation. It created a bad impression when an agency’s lead escort was floored and couldn’t even get up. Lead Escort Qian came over. “Are you sure it was the Red Flower Society?” he asked Xun.
“When those four officers left, they told the porter that the couple in there were fugitives,” he whispered. “They told the porter to inform them if they left. I overhead them talking.”
Qian glanced at Yan and pulled Tong up.
“Who are they?” Yan asked quietly.
“Red Flower Society. I think we ought to let it pass,” Qian said. “When Tong is better we can reconsider. Did you see what happened when those men tried to arrest them just now?” he asked Xun.
“It was some fight,” said Xun, gesticulating wildly. “There was a woman with a sword in her left hand and a dagger in her right hand. Four men couldn’t beat her.”
“She must be one of ‘Divine Knife’ Luo’s people,” replied Qian, surprised. “She used throwing knives, I suppose?”
“Yes, yes, she’s really accurate. It was incredible!” Xun exclaimed.
Qian turned to Yan. “Master Wen of the Red Flower Society is here,” he said. They carried Tong back to their room in silence.
Lu had observed the whole incident, but the lead escorts had talked in such low tones, that he only managed to catch Qian’s last two utterances. Yuanzhi walked over and asked: “Teacher, when are you going to teach me Yuedao kung fu? Did you see how fantastic that move was?”
Lu took no notice of her, but said to himself: “If it is one of ‘Divine Knife’ Luo’s people, I can’t just stand by and do nothing.”
“Who is ‘Divine Knife’ Luo?” Yuanzhi asked.
“He was a good friend of mine. I hear he’s passed away now. All the moves used by the woman we saw fighting a minute ago were of his school.”
Just then, the two lead escorts Qian and Tai helped Tong over to the woman’s room. Xun coughed loudly outside the door and announced in a low voice:
“Lead Escorts Qian, Tai and Tong of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency have come to pay their respects to Master Wen of the Red Flower Society.”
The door creaked open and the woman stood in the doorway staring at them. “What do you want?” she asked.
“We did not know that you and Master Wen were here,” Qian said. “We have insulted you and we have come to apologise. Please be forgiving and don’t be offended by what happened.” He bowed low and Tai and Xun followed suit.
“Mistress,” Qian continued. “We have never met before, but I have heard a great deal about you and your husband. Master Wang, the head of our agency, was always on very good terms with the leader of your honourable society, Master Yu, and also with your father ‘Divine Knife’ Luo. Our brother here is very bad-tempered, and is always talking nonsense…”
The woman cut him off. “Our master has been wounded, and he just went to sleep. When he wakes, I will pass on your message. We are ignorant of etiquette, but his wounds are not light, and he hasn’t slept well for two days.” There was an expression of apprehension on her face.
“What sort of wounds does Master Wen have?” Qian asked. “We have some Golden Wound ointment with us.” He wanted to put them in their debt so that they would be obliged to help cure Tong.
“Thank you, but we have medicine,” the woman replied, understanding his meaning. “Your colleague was not touched on a major Yuedao point. When our master wakes, I will send one of the inn’s servants round.”
Seeing that she had agreed to cure Tong, Qian and the others started to retire.
“By the way,” said the woman. “How did you know our names?”
“With your swords and throwing knives, who wouldn’t be able to guess?” Qian replied. “What’s more, who apart from Master Wen uses Yuedao kung fu like that? It had to be ‘Rolling Thunder Hand’ Wen Tailai and his wife Luo Bing.”
The woman smiled, flattered at having been recognised.
Lead Escort Tong eagerly led Zhang and the others to Iron Gall Manor. This time, having some support with him, he walked brazenly up to the manor gate.
“Tell your Lord to come out and receive Imperial officials,” he shouted to an attendant.
The attendant turned to go inside, but Zhang decided they could not afford to offend such a respected man as Lord Zhou. “Say that we have come from Beijing and that there is some official business we would like to consult Lord Zhou about,” he called.
He glanced meaningfully at Officer Wu, who nodded and went round to the rear of the Manor with one of the officers to prevent anyone escaping.
As soon as he heard the attendant’s report, Meng knew the officers had come for Wen Tailai. He told Song to go out and keep them occupied, and then went immediately to Wen’s room.
“Master Wen, there are some Eagle’s Claws outside,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. We’ll just have to hide the three of you for a while.”
He helped Wen up, and led him to a pavilion in the garden behind the Manor house. Meng and ‘Scholar’ Yu pushed aside a stone table in the pavilion, exposing an iron plate. They worked free an iron ring on top of the plate and pulled it up. Underneath was a cellar.
Just then, they heard people outside the back gate, and at the same time shouting from in front as Zhang forced his way through towards the garden. Wen saw that they were surrounded and hurried down the steps into the cellar. Meng replaced the iron plate, and pushed the stone table back over it with the help of two attendants. Zhou’s young son kept getting in the way as he tried to help. Meng looked round quickly to make sure nothing was out of place, then ordered the attendants to open the rear gate.
Zhang and the others entered the garden. Seeing Tong amongst the group, Meng said coldly: “So you are an official. I should not have been so impolite to you earlier.”
“I am a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency,” Tong replied. “Haven’t you made a mistake, brother?” He looked round at Zhang. “I saw the three fugitives enter the manor. You should order a search, Master Zhang.”
“We are peaceful citizens,” said Song. “His Lordship, Master Zhou, is one of the most respected gentlemen west of the Yellow River. How could he dare to harbour either bandits or rebellious intentions?”
Meng asked Zhang to explain the purpose of his visit. Zhang did so, and Meng laughed out loud. “But the Red Flower Society is a secret society in south China,” he protested. “Why would they come to the northwest border areas? This lead escort has a wild imagination.”
Zhang and the rest were professionals, and they knew Wen was in the manor. If they conducted a thorough search and found him, there would be no problem. But if the search failed to find him, the matter would certainly not rest there. Causing offence to a man such as Lord Zhou was no game and they hesitated.
Worried that he would be laughed at if Wen wasn’t caught that day, Tong decided to trick Zhou’s son into talking. He smiled and took him by the hand, but the boy snatched his hand away.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Little brother,” Tong said. “Tell me where the three visitors who came to your house today are hiding and I’ll give you this to buy sweets with.” He took out a silver ingot and presented it to the boy.
The boy made a face at him. “Who do you think I am? Do you think any member of the Zhou family of Iron Gall manor would want your stinking money?”
Zhang studied the child’s face and guessed he knew where Wen was hidden. “Just you wait until we find them,” he warned. “We will behead not only your father, but you and your mother as well.”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “I’m not afraid of you, so why would my father be afraid of you?” he replied.
Suddenly, Tong noticed the boy was wearing a pearl bracelet on his left wrist and recognised it immediately as Luo Bing’s.
“Those pearls on your wrist. They belong to one of the visitors,” he said. “You must have stolen them from her.”
Why should I steal?” the boy replied angrily. “She gave them to me.”
Tong laughed. “All right. She gave them to you. Well, where is she?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Stop chattering with the child,” Zhang interrupted. “They wouldn’t let a child in on the great affairs of the Manor. He would certainly have been shooed away before they hid the three guests in their secret place.”
As he hoped, the child rose to the bait. “How would you know?” he shouted.
Meng was becoming anxious. “Let’s go inside, little brother,” he said.
Zhang seized the opportunity. “Yes, go away little boy. You don’t know anything.”
The boy could stand it no longer. “I know!” he shouted. “They’re in the garden, in the pavilion!”
Meng was greatly alarmed. “Little brother, what nonsense are you talking? Go inside quickly!”
As soon as the words were out, the boy knew he had made a mess of everything. He flew indoors, panic-stricken and on the verge of tears.
Zhang could see that the pavilion, wide and empty with red-painted railings around its sides, provided no hiding place. He leapt onto one of the railings and looked up into the roof, but saw no sign of a hiding-place. He jumped down again and stood silently, deep in thought. Then he had an idea.
“Master Meng,” he smiled. “My kung fu is unsophisticated, but I have some clumsy strength. Let us have a competition.”
“I wouldn’t dare to be so presumptuous,” Meng replied. “With weapons or without, I leave the choice to you.”
Zhang laughed loudly. “There’s no need for fighting, it would injure this amiable atmosphere. No, I suggest we take turns at trying to lift this stone table. I hope you won’t laugh at me if I can’t.”
Meng started in fright. “No, it’s…it’s not a good…” he stuttered.
The others were surprised at Zhang’s desire to engage Meng in a test of strength, and they watched intently as he pushed up his sleeves and grasped one of the round legs of the stone table with his right hand. He shouted the word “Lift!”, and raised the 400-odd pound table off the ground using just the one hand.
They applauded him for his strength, but the shouts of applause quickly changed to calls of surprise as they noticed the iron plate that had been exposed.
The officers lifted up the plate and saw Wen in the hole beneath them, but none dared to go down and arrest him. They couldn’t use darts either as they had been ordered to capture him alive, so all they could do was stand at the entrance to the cellar, weapons in hand, shouting at him.
“We’ve been betrayed by Iron Gall Manor,” Wen said quietly to Luo Bing. “We are husband and wife, and I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Whatever I tell you to do in a moment, you must do.”
Luo Bing nodded, her eyes full of tears.
“Wen Tailai is here,” Wen shouted. “What’s all the noise about?”
A sudden silence descended on the group above.
“My leg is wounded,” Wen added. “Send a rope down and lift me up.”
Zhang turned round to ask Meng to get some rope, but he had disappeared, so he ordered an attendant to go instead. A length of rope was brought, and an Imperial Bodyguard named Cheng Huang grabbed one end and threw the other down into the cellar and lifted Wen out.
As soon as his feet touched the ground, Wen jerked the rope out of Cheng Huang’s hands, and with a roar, whirled it round and round his head. Caught off guard, Zhang and the others ducked in panic as the rope swept towards them. Tong, who had already suffered at Wen’s hand, had hidden behind the others, and didn’t see the rope until it was too late. With the piercing force of an iron rod, the rope smashed solidly into his back, knocking him to the ground.
Two other Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan, raced towards Wen from either side while ‘Scholar’ Yu, wielding the Golden Flute, leapt up the stone steps and attacked Cheng Huang.
Cheng was wielding a brass staff, but despite its advantage of length over the flute, Yu quickly forced him onto the defensive. Luo Bing limped up the steps, supporting herself with her sword, but found her way blocked by a tall, muscular man standing at the mouth of the cellar, with his hands on his hips. She pulled out a throwing knife and threw it at him. The man, Zhang, made no move until the knife was only an inch from his nose, then stretched out his hand and grabbed it by the hilt. Luo Bing saw his leisurely reaction, and drew a ragged breath.
Zhang forced her sword to one side, then gave her a push which threw her off balance. She fell back down into the cellar.
Wen, meanwhile, was battling simultaneously with the two Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan. His mind was numb with the excruciating pain from his wounds, and he fought like a madman, striking out wildly. Yu, however, had gained the upper hand in his fight with Cheng Huang. Zhang noticed his technique contained many elements peculiar to the Wudang School. Greatly surprised, he was about to go over and question him, when Yu suddenly jumped back into the cellar to help Luo Bing.
“Are you all right?” he asked her.
“It’s nothing. Go and help Fourth Brother.”
“I’ll support you up,” Yu said.
Wen looked around and saw that his wife had not yet managed to get out of the cellar, and he realised he could continue no longer. He threw himself at Cheng Huang, paralysed him with a blow to the kidneys, then grabbed him round the waist and fell into the cellar with him.
They landed on the cellar floor with Wen on top of Cheng Huang, neither of them able to move. Luo Bing quickly helped Wen up. His face was completely drained of colour and covered in sweat, but he forced a smile, and with a “Wa” sound, a mouthful of blood sprayed out onto the front of her tunic. Yu understood what Wen was planning, and shouted. “Make way! Make way!”
With Cheng Huang in the hands of the enemy, Zhang decided against any precipitous action. He heard Yu’s shout and waved his arm at the others, indicating they should clear a path for them.
The first one out of the cellar was Cheng Huang with Luo Bing grasping his collar and holding the point of a dagger to the small of his back. Next came Yu supporting Wen. The four shuffled slowly out, pushing and pulling each other as they came.
“If anyone moves, this man dies,” Luo Bing shouted.
The four passed through the forest of swords and spears and made their way slowly towards the rear gate. Luo Bing spotted three horses tied to the willow trees just outside, and she silently thanked Heaven and Earth.
Zhang could see the fugitives were about to escape and decided that capturing Wen Tailai and taking him back to Beijing was more important than saving Cheng Huang’s life. He picked up the rope Wen had thrown on the ground, fashioned it into a lassoo and flung it at Wen using all his Inner Strength. The rope flew whistling through the air and encircled Wen, and with a tug, Zhang pulled him out of Yu’s grasp. Wen cried out and Luo Bing turned to help him, ignoring Cheng Huang. But her thigh was wounded, and she fell to the ground before she had taken two steps.
“Go! Go quickly!” Wen shouted.
“I’ll die with you,” said Luo Bing.
“You agreed that you would do what I told you…” he replied angrily, but before he could finish, the officers swarmed over him. Yu raced over and picked Luo Bing up, then charged straight out of the gate. One officer moved to stop him, but one of Yu’s legs flew up and kicked him so hard that he fell to the ground five or six paces away.
Yu ran with her over to the horses and placed her on the back of one just as three officers raced through the gates after them.
“Use your throwing knives, quick!” he shouted.
A string of knives flashed out from her hand and there was a blood-curdling shriek as one of them planted itself in the shoulder of one of the officers. Yu freed the reins of the three horses, mounted one and pulled the head of the third round so that it faced the gate. He rapped it sharply on the rump with his flute and the horse charged straight to the officers, trapping them in the gateway. In the confusion, Yu and Luo Bing galloped off.
Luo Bing lay on the horse in a semi-delirious state. She tried on several occasions to pull the horse round and return to Iron Gall Manor, but each time Yu stopped her. He slowed the pace only when he was sure there was no-one chasing them.
Another mile further on, Yu saw four riders approaching led by a man with a flowing white beard: it was the Lord of Iron Gall Manor, Zhou Zhongying. Seeing Yu and Luo Bing, he reined in his horse and called out:
“Honoured guests, please stop! I have called for a doctor.”
Full of hatred, Luo Bing flung a throwing knife at him. Zhou started in fright, and threw himself down flat on his horse, and the knife flew over his back. Behind him, one of his followers deflected the knife with a stroke from his sword, and it plunged into the trunk of a large willow tree beside the road. The rays of the blood-red setting sun reflected off the blade, the light flashing and dancing all around them. Just as Zhou was about to question them, Luo Bing began cursing him.
“You old thief! You betrayed my husband! I will have my revenge on you!” she shouted, tears coursing down her face. She urged her horse forward, brandishing her pair of swords.
“Let us discuss this first,” Zhou called out, greatly puzzled.
“We must save Fourth Brother first,” Yu said to Luo Bing, restraining her. “We can raze Iron Gall Manor to the ground once we’ve rescued him.”
Luo Bing saw the logic in what he said, and pulled the head of her horse round. She spat on the ground in hate, slapped her horse and galloped off.
Lord Zhou wondered what was behind this young girl’s anger and questioned the attendant who had been sent to the town to fetch a doctor. But he said only that when he left, Lady Zhou and Master Meng had been looking after the guests, and that there had been no disgreements.
Zhou galloped all the way back to the manor, and strode quickly inside shouting: “Call Meng!”
“Master Meng is with her Ladyship,” one of the attendants told him. Then the rest all began talking at once, giving him accounts of what had happened, how the officers had arrested Wen Tailai and taken him away, and had left the manor only a short while before.
“Who tolf the officers the three guests were hiding in the cellar?” Zhou asked.
The attendants looked at each other, not daring to speak. The sound of Zhou’s two iron balls clacking together in his hand was even louder than usual. “What are you all standing there for?” he shouted. “Go and get Meng quickly!”
As he spoke, Meng ran in.
“Who let the secret out?” Zhou shouted hoarsely. “Tell me! You…”
Meng hesitated, and said: “The Eagle’s Claws found it out for themselves.”
“Nonsense!” Zhou roared. “How would that bunch of dog thieves ever find a place as well-hidden as my cellar?”
Meng did not answer, not daring to meet his master’s gaze. Lady Zhou came in hugging her son, but Zhou ignored her.
His gaze swung round to Song’s face. “As soon as you saw the officers, you took fright and talked, didn’t you?” he shouted. Meng was trustworthy but Song was a coward and knew no kung fu.
“No…it wasn’t me who talked,” he replied, scared out of his wits. “It was…it was the young…the young master.”
Zhou’s heart missed a beat. “Come over here,” he said to his son.
The boy walked, cringing, over to his father.
“Was it you who told the officers that the three guests were in the garden cellar?” he asked.
The boy had never dared to lie to his father, but he could not bring himself to confess. Zhou brandished his whip.
“Will you speak?” he shouted.
The boy looked at his mother, so scared he wanted to cry. Lady Zhou walked over and stood close beside him.
Meng saw that the deception would not work. “Master,” he said. “The officers were very cunning. They made out that if the young master did not talk, he would be a coward.”
“You wanted to be a hero, so you told them, is that correct?” Zhou shouted.
The boy’s face was drained of colour. “Yes, father,” he replied quietly.
Zhou could not control his anger. “Is that any way for a brave hero to act?” he shouted. He threw the two iron balls in his right hand at the opposite wall in frustration, but at that very moment, his son threw himself into his arms to beg for mercy, and one of the balls hit the boy square on the head. Zhou had put all of his rage into the throw and its power was extraordinary. Blood sprayed in all directions.
Greatly shocked, Zhou quickly took hold of his son and embraced him.
“Father,” the boy said. “I…I won’t do it again…Don’t hit me…” He was dead before he finished speaking. Everyone in the room was stunned into silence.
Lady Zhou grabbed her son, shouting: “Child, child!” When she saw he had stopped breathing, she stared dumbly at him for a moment then, like a crazed tiger, struck out at Zhou.
“Why…why did you kill the child?” she sobbed.
Zhou shook his head and retreated two paces. “I… I didn’t…”
Lady Zhou put down her son’s corpse, and grabbed a sword from the scabbard of one of the attendants. She leapt forward and struck out at her husband, but he made no move to avoid the blow.
“It will be better if we all die,” he said, closing his eyes.
Seeing him in such a state, her hand loosened. She dropped the sword to the ground and ran out of the hall, sobbing.
Luo Bing and Yu Yutong kept to the back roads for fear of meeting Yamen officers and rode on until the sky was completely black. The countryside was desolate: there were no inns and they couldn’t even find a farmhouse. They stopped to rest beside a large rock.
Yu releaed the horses to graze, then cut some grass with Luo Bing’s sword and spread it out on the ground.
“Now we have a bed, but no food or water,” he said. “All we can do is wait until tomorrow and try to think of something then.”
Luo Bing cared about nothing but her husband. She cried continuously. Yu comforted her, saying the Red Flower Society would certainly come in force to help them rescue Fourth Brother. Luo Bing was exhausted, and hearing his words, she relaxed and soon fell into a deep sleep.
In her dream, she seemed to meet her husband, who held her gently in his arms, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. She felt deliciously happy and lazily let her husband embrace her.
“I’ve been so miserable thinking about you,” she said. “Are all your wounds healed?”
Wen mumbled a few words and held her even tighter, kissed her even more passionately. Just as she was beginning to feel aroused, she suddenly started in fright and awoke. Under the starlight, she could see that the person embracing her was not her husband, but Yu.
“I’ve been miserable thinking about you too!” he whispered.
Ashamed and angry, Luo Bing slapped him heavily on the face, fought her way free and stumbled away a few steps. She fumbled for her knives, and shouted harshly: “What are you doing?”
Yu was stunned. “Listen to me…”
“You listen to me!” she replied angrily. “Which four classes of people does the Red Flower Society kill?”
“Tartars and Manchus; corrupt officials; landlords and tyrants; and villains and scoundrels,” Yu recited quietly, his head hung low.
The space between Luo Bing’s eyebrows closed. “Which four crimes by Red Flower Society members are punishable by death?”
“Death to those who surrender to the Manchu Court. Death to those who betray the Society…death to those who betray their friends, and death to those who violate others’…wives and daughters.”
“If you have the guts, you will quickly punish yourself with the ‘Three Thrusts and Six Holes’!” Luo Bing shouted.
According to the Society’s code, a member who had committed an offence in a moment of confusion and sincerely regretted it could pierce his own thigh three times with a knife so that it penetrated right through, an act known as the ‘Three Thrusts and Six Holes.’ The member could then plead to the Great Helmsman for forgiveness, and could hope that his case would be dealt with leniently.
“I beg you to kill me,” Yu cried. “If I die at your hand, I will still die happy.”
Luo Bing’s anger blazed even more intensely. She raised the knife in her hand, her wrist steeled, ready to throw.
“You don’t know anything,” Yu said in a shaky voice. “How much I have suffered for you over the last five or six years. From the moment I first saw you, my heart…was…no longer my own.”
“I was already Fourth Brother’s then,” Luo Bing said angrily. “Do you mean you didn’t know?”
“I…knew I couldn’t control myself, so I never dared to see too much of you. Whenever the Society had any business to be done, I always begged the Great Helmsman to send me to do it. The others thought I was just hardworking, no-one knows I was really avoiding you. When I was away working, there was never a day or an hour when I did not think of you.”
He took a step towards her and pulled up his left sleeve, exposing his arm. “I hate myself,” he said. “I curse my heart for the animal it is. Every time the hatred overcomes me, I cut myself with a knife here. Look!”
Under the dim starlight, Luo Bing saw his arm was covered in motley scars, and her heart involuntarily softened.
“I always think, why couldn’t Heaven have allowed me to meet you before you married,” he continued. “We are about the same age, but the difference in age between you and Fourth Brother is huge.”
Luo Bing’s anger surged up once more. “What does the difference in our ages matter? Fourth Brother is loving and just, a great man. How could he be compared with someone like you, you…”
She gave a snort of contempt, then turned and walked over to her horse. As she struggled to mount it, Yu went over to help her up, but she shouted “Keep away!” and got up of her own accord.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“It’s none of your business. With Fourth Brother in the hands of the Eagle’s Claws, I might as well be dead anyway. Give me my swords.”
Yu lowered his head and handed the pair of swords to her.
Seeing him standing there, so lost and bewildered, Luo Bing suddenly said: “As long as you seriously work for the good of the Society, and are never impolite to me ever again, I won’t tell anyone about what happened tonight. And I’ll also help you find a nice girl who has both talent and beauty.”
She smiled briefly, slapped her horse and rode off.
Luo Bing rode on for a mile or so, then stopped, searching the sky for the North Star to get her bearings. If she went west, she would meet up with the fighters of the Red Flower Society; to go east would be to follow after her captured husband. She knew that, wounded as she was, it would be impossible for her to save him single-handed, but with her husband heading eastwards, how could she possibly turn away from him? Broken-hearted, she let her horse wander unrestrained for a few miles. Then, seeing she had already travelled a long way from Yu, she dismounted and settled down to sleep in a spinney of small trees. Angry and bitter, she cried for a while and then fell into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, she woke suddenly with a burning fever and called out in a blurred voice: “Water! I must drink water!” But there was no-one to hear her.
Next day, her condition was even worse. She managed with a struggle to sit up, but her head hurt so badly she was forced to lie down again. She slept, and awoke feeling the sun beating down on her head. She watched as it sank towards the west. She was thirsty and hungry, but remounting the horse was impossible.
“It is not important that I die here,” she thought. “But I will never see Fourth Brother again.” Her eyes glazed over and she fainted away.
Suddenly, she heard someone say: “Good. She’s coming round!”
She slowly opened her eyes and saw a young, doe-eyed girl standing beside her. The girl was eighteen or nineteen years old with a tanned face and thick eyebrows. She looked very happy to see Luo Bing awaken.
“Go quickly and get some millet gruel for the Lady to drink,” she told a maid.
Luo Bing realized she was lying on a kang in between the folds of a quilt. The room she was in was clean and tastefully furnished, obviously in the house of a very wealthy family.
“What is your honourable surname, miss?” she asked the girl.
“My surname is Zhou. You sleep for a while. We can talk again later.”
The girl watched as Luo Bing ate a bowl of gruel and then quietly left. Luo Bing closed her eyes and slept once more.
When she woke, the lamps had already been lit. Outside the door, she heard a girl’s voice saying loudly:
“Father shouldn’t have allowed them to bully people and run riot here in Iron Gall Manor! If it had been me, I would have taught them a good lesson!”
Luo Bing started in fright when she heard the words ‘Iron Gall Manor’. The girl and her maid walked into the room and looked through the canopy over the kang, but Luo Bing closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. The girl went over to the wall and took down a sword. Luo Bing noticed her own swords on a table close by and prepared herself. If the girl struck out at her, she would throw the quilt over her head, grab the swords and fight her way out. But all she heard was the maid saying:
“Mistress, you mustn’t make any more trouble. His Lordship is very distressed. Don’t make him angry again.”
“Huh! I don’t care,” the girl replied. She raced out of the room, sword in hand, with the maid at her heels.
Luo Bing guessed correctly that the girl was Lord Zhou’s daughter, Zhou Qi. She was a bold, straight-forward person, very much like her father, and had a love of minding other people’s business. On the day Wen was seized, she had wounded someone in a fight, and had spent the night away from home, planning to wait for her father’s anger to subside before returning. On her way back, she came across Luo Bing unconscious by the road and brought her to the manor, where she discovered to her horror that her father had killed her brother, and her mother had run off.
“If they can betray Fourth Brother to the authorities, why did they save me?” she thought darkly. “There must be some other evil scheme afoot.”
The wound on her thigh had not yet healed, and she couldn’t afford the slightest mistake. Having been in the Manor once before, she had a vague idea of its layout, and planned to stealthily make her way round to the garden, and then leave by the back gate. But as she passed by the great hall, she saw the lamps were burning brightly inside and heard someone talking very loudly. There was something familiar about the voice, and she put her eye close to a crack in the door and saw Lord Zhou in conversation with two other men, one of whom she recognised as Lead Escort Tong. Seeing him, she thought again of her husband’s cruel fate and immediately ceased to care about whether she lived or died. She pushed open the door and slung a throwing knife at Tong.
With his wife missing and his son dead, Zhou had spent two unhappy days fretting endlessly.
After nightfall on the second day, an attendant reported that two visitors had arrived, and Zhou ordered Meng to receive them. One was Tong, the other an Imperial Bodyguard surnamed Pan, one of the fighters who had helped to seize Wen. Meng guessed that no good would come of the visit.
“His Lordship is not feeling well,” he told them. “If you have any message, I will convey it for you.”
Tong laughed. “We are here on a goodwill visit,” he said. “Whether Lord Zhou sees us or not is up to him. Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis that may destroy every member of the Zhou family. What is the point of putting on such airs?”
Meng had no option but to allow them through. The iron balls in Zhou’s hand clacked sharply together as he listened to what the visitors had to say.
“What do you mean by saying Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis?” he demanded.
Bodyguard Pan pulled a letter from his gown and spread it out on the table, holding it down with both hands as if afraid that Zhou would snatch it away. Zhou peered down and saw it was a letter written to him by ‘Hidden Needle’ Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School asking him to help some friends of the Red Flower Society who were in difficulties.
Wen had had no opportunity to present the letter to Zhou, and it was found when he was searched after being captured. Lu was a well-known fugitive, and the letter clearly indicated he was collaborating with Iron Gall Manor. The bodyguards had discussed the matter, and decided that reporting the existence of the letter to their superiors would not necessarily result in Lu’s capture and could even increase their own workload. It would be more beneficial to use the letter to extort a sum of money from Zhou and divide it up amongst themselves.
Zhou was shocked at the sight of the letter. “What do you gentlemen want?” he asked.
“We have long admired the famous Lord Zhou,” said Pan. “We know of your enthusiasm for charity and making new friends. Friends are much more important than money, and I’m sure you spend thousands of silver ingots to establish friendship without even creasing half an eyebrow. You of course realise, Lord Zhou, that if the authorities ever see this letter, the consequences would be disastrous. When we brothers found it, we resolved to destroy it in the spirit of friendship, even though it meant risking our own heads. Everyone agreed never to say a word about Iron Gall Manor harbouring the fugitive Wen Tailai. We decided to shoulder this monstrous responsibility and not to report to our superiors.”
“That was very good of you,” Zhou replied dryly.
“But,” Pan continued, “The thing is that we brothers have had a lot of expenses on this trip out of the capital. We are carrying heavy debts. If perhaps Lord Zhou could spare a thought for us, we would feel eternally grateful.”
Zhou was extremely angry. He had let down his friends, his beloved son had died as a result, and the officers were to blame. Now these same officers had come back to try to blackmail him.
“We are villains, that is true,” Tong said. “We villains accomplish little and bungle much. If we had to build a Manor as big as this one, we’d have to admit defeat. But if we were asked to destroy it…”
Before he could finish, Zhou’s daughter, Zhou Qi charged into the hall, and shouted harshly: “Let me see you try!”
Zhou motioned to his daughter and the two walked out of the hall. “Go and tell Meng that whatever happens, these two Eagle’s Claws must not be allowed to leave the Manor!” he whispered.
“Good!” replied Zhou Qi, very pleased. “I was getting angrier and angrier listening outside.”
Zhou returned to the hall.
“Since you refuse to do us this favour Lord Zhou, we will take our leave of you,” Bodyguard Pan said. He picked up Lu’s letter and ripped it to shreds as Zhou stood by dumbfounded, completely taken aback.
“This is a duplicate of the letter,” Pan explained. “The original letter is with the ‘Fire Hand Judge’ Zhang Zhaozhong.”
It was at that moment that Luo Bing’s throwing knife flew towards Tong. Zhou detested Tong, but he couldn’t allow him to die in the Manor.
Everyone held their breaths and stayed completely silent, not daring to make any sound that would give away their position.
In the midst of the silence, footsteps sounded outside the hall. The door was thrown open and a shaft of light struck their eyes as a man carrying a burning torch strode in. He was dressed as a scholar, and in his left hand, he held a golden flute. As soon as he had passed through the door, he stood to one side and raised the torch up high, lighting the way as three other men entered. One was a one-armed Taoist priest with a sword slung across his back. The second man, wearing a light gown loosely tied around the waist, looked like the son of a nobleman. He was followed by a young boy in his teens who held a bundle in his hands. They were in fact ‘Scholar’ Yu, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, and the newly-appointed Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. The young boy was Chen’s attendant, Xin Yan.
Yu presented Zhou with a letter of introduction, bowed, and then announced in a loud voice: “The Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society has come to pay his respects to Lord Zhou of IronGall Manor.”
Zhou put his hands together in salute. “Honoured guests,” he said. “Welcome to my humble Manor. Please be seated.”
The tables and chairs in the great hall had all been overturned and thrown about during the fight and everything was in great disorder.
“Attendants,” Zhou roared. The tables and chairs were quickly rearranged, the candles relit and the guests and hosts seated. Great Helmsman Chen took the first of the guest’s seats on the eastern side of the hall and was followed, in order of seniority, by the other Red Flower Society heroes. Zhou took the first seat on the western side, followed in order by Meng, Zhou Qi and his attendants.
Yu stole a glance at Luo Bing’s beautiful, joyless face. He had no idea if she had told anyone of his misdemeanor. After she had left him that night, he had not known where to go, but after two days of roaming around aimlessly, he ran into Great Helmsman Chen and Priest Wu Chen, who were on their way to Iron Gall Manor.
With the two sides being so polite to each other, Bodyguard Pan could see the game was up and began to sidle towards the door in the hope of slipping out unnoticed. But Xu leapt over and blocked his path.
“Please stay here,” he said. “Let us all explain our positions clearly first.”
Pan did not dare to object.
“Master Wen Tailai, our humble society’s Fourth Brother, was attacked by the Eagle’s Claws and suffered a serious injury,” Chen said coldly. “He came to you for refuge, and we are much indebted to you for the assistance extended to him. All the brothers of our society are grateful, and I take this opportunity to offer our thanks.”
He stood and bowed deeply.
Zhou hurriedly returned the bow, extremely embarrassed.
“Great Helmsman, you don’t understand!” Zhang Jin shouted, jumping up. “He betrayed Fourth Brother!”
‘Leopard’ Wei, who was sitting next to Zhang Jin, gave him a push and told him to shut up.
“Our brothers have travelled through the night to call on you,” Chen continued, ignoring the interruption. “We have all been extremely anxious about Brother Wen. We are unaware of the state of his injuries, but I imagine you would have invited a doctor to treat him. If it is convenient, Lord Zhou, we would like you to take us to him.”
He stood up, and the heroes of the Red Flower Society followed suit.
Zhou stammered, momentarily unable to answer.
“Fourth Brother was killed by them,” Luo Bing shouted, her voice choked with sobs. “Great Helmsman, we must kill this old peasant in payment for Fourth Brother’s life!”
Chen turned pale. Zhang Jin, Yang and a number of the others drew their weapons and moved forward threateningly.
“Master Wen did come to our humble Manor…” Meng began.
“Well then, please take us to see him,” Xu broke in.
“When Master Wen, Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu here arrived, our Lord was not at home,” Meng replied. “It was I who dispatched someone to fetch a doctor. Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu saw that with their own eyes. Later, the court officers arrived. We are extremely ashamed to say that we were unable to protect our guests and Master Wen was captured. Master Chen, you blame us for not looking after him properly and for failing to fulfil our responsibility to protect friends. We admit it. If you wish to kill us, I for one will not bat an eyelid. But to point your finger at our Lord and accuse him of betraying a friend, what sort of talk is that?”
Luo Bing jumped forward a step and pointed at Meng accusingly. “You!” she shouted. “I ask you! Such a well-concealed hiding-place as that cellar: if you weren’t in the pay of the Eagles’s Claws, how would they have known where we were?”
Meng was speechless.
“Lord Zhou, at the time of the incident, you may not actually have been at home,” Priest Wu added. “But just as a dragon has a head, men have masters. As this concerns Iron Gall Manor, we must ask you to explain.”
Bodyguard Pan, cowering to one side, suddenly spoke up. “It was his son that talked,” he shouted. “Is he willing to admit it?”
“Lord Zhou, is this true?” Great Helmsman Chen asked.
Zhou nodded slowly. The heroes of the Red Flower Society roared in anger and moved in even closer, some glaring at Zhou, some looking at Chen, waiting for his signal.
Chen gave Pan a sidelong glance. “And who are you, sir?” he asked.
“He’s an Eagle’s Claw,” Luo Bing said. “He was one of those that seized Fourth Brother.”
Chen slowly walked over to Pan, then suddenly snatched the iron hoop out of his grasp, whipped both his hands behind his back and held them together. Pan gave a shout and struggled unsuccessfully to break free.
“Where have you taken Brother Wen?” Chen shouted. Pan kept his mouth shut, and an expression of proud insolence appeared on his face. Chen’s fingers touched the ‘Central Mansion Yuedao’ below Pan’s ribs. “Will you talk?” he asked.
Pan yelled out in pain. Chen touched his ‘Tendon Centraction’ Yuedao point. This time, Pan could endure it no longer.
“I’ll talk…I’ll talk,” he whispered. “They’re taking him to Beijing.”
“He…he isn’t dead then?” Luo Bing asked quickly.
“Of course he isn’t dead,” Pan replied. “He’s an important criminal, who would dare to kill him?”
The heroes all breathed a sigh of relief, and Luo Bing’s heart overflowed with happiness, and she fainted away, falling backwards to the floor. Yu stretched out his hand to catch her, but then suddenly pulled it back again. Her head hit the ground, and Zhang Jin hurriedly knelt down beside her.
“Fourth Sister!” he called, giving Yu a sidelong glance full of disdain. “Are you all right?”
Chen relaxed his grip on Pan’s hands. “Tie him up,” he said to his boy attendant, Xin Yan, who tied Pan’s hands firmly behind his back.
“Brothers!” Chen said loudly. “It is vitally important that we save Fourth Brother. We can settle our accounts here another time.”
The heroes of the Red Flower Society voiced their assent in unison. Luo Bing was sitting on a chair crying with joy. Hearing Chen’s words, she stood up with Zhang Jin’s support.
The heroes walked to the door of the hall, escorted by Meng. Chen turned and said to Zhou: “Our apologies for the inconvenience we have caused you. We will meet again.”
Zhou knew from his tone that the Red Flower Society would return to seek vengeance.
“Once we’ve saved Brother Wen, I, the hunchback Zhang, will be the first to return to do battle with you, you old peasant!” Zhang Jin shouted.
Zhou Qi leapt forward a step. “What sort of creature are you that you would dare to curse my father?”
“Huh!” he replied. “Go and call your big brother out and tell him I wish to meet him.”
“My big brother?” she asked, puzzled.
“If he has the guts to betray a friend, he should have the guts to meet another friend,” Zhang Jin added. “Your big brother betrayed our Fourth Brother. Where is he hiding?”
“This hunchback’s talking nonsense,” Zhou Qi said. “I don’t have an elder brother.”
“All right,” Zhou said angrily. “I will hand over my son to you. Follow me!”
Suddenly, there were shots from outside of “Fire! Fire!”, and flames began to cast a glow into the great hall.
Zhou paid no attention. He strode out and Great Helmsman Chen and the others followed him through two courtyards. The fire was already burning fiercely and the heat from the flame was oppressive. In the dark of the night, the red glow reached skywards through the billows of smoke.
“Let’s work together to put out the fire out first,” Xu called.
“You tell someone to commit arson and then pretend to be a good man!” Zhou Qi said indignantly. She remembered his shout earlier about setting fire to the Manor, and was convinced that the Red Flower Society was responsible. Full of grief and resentment, she struck out at him with her sword, but Xu nimbly dodged out of the way.
Zhou appeared not to noticed any of this, and continued to walk towards the rear hall of the Manor. As they entered the hall, they could see that it was arranged for a funeral. A pair of lighted candles were placed on the altar before the ‘Spirit Tablet’ bearing the name of the deceased, along with white streamers and piles of ‘death money’ for the deceased to spend in the other world. Zhou parted a set of white curtains, revealing a small black coffin with its lid still open.
“My son revealed Master Wei’s hiding place, it is true,” he said. “If you want him…then take him!” His voice suddenly broke. In the sombre candlelight, the heroes looking into the coffin and saw the corpse of a small child.
“My brother was only ten years old,” Zhou Qi shouted. “He didn’t understand what was going on. He was tricked into letting out the secret. When father returned, he was so angry, he killed my brother by mistake, and as a result, my mother has left home. Are you satisfied yet? If not, why don’t you kill my father and myself as well?”
The heroes realised they had unjustly accused Zhou, and that the whole incident should never have happened. Zhang Jin, who was the most direct of them all, leapt forward and kowtowed before Zhou, his head hitting the floor with a resounding thump.
“Master,” he cried. “I have wronged you. The hunchback Zhang begs your forgiveness.”
Chen and the other heroes all came forward one by one to apologise. Zhou hurriedly returned the bow.
“Never will we forget the assistance that Lord Zhou has extended to the Red Flower Society,” Chen called out. “Brothers, the important thing now is to put out the fire. Everyone lend a hand quickly.”
The heroes raced out of the hall. But the flames were already lighting up the sky, and the sound of roof tiles smashing to the ground, and of rafters and pillars collapsing intermingled in confusion with the shouts and cries of the Manor attendants. The Anxi region is famous throughout China as a ‘wind storehouse’, and the wind now stoked the flames. It was soon clear that it the fire could not be extinguished, and that the great Iron Gall Manor would soon be completely razed.
The heat in the rear hall was intense, and the cloth streamers and paper money on the altar were already smouldering. But Zhou remained beside the coffin.
“Father, father!” Zhou Qi shouted as the flames started to curl into the hall. “We must leave!”
Zhou took no notice, and continued to gaze at his son in the coffin, unwilling to leave him there to be cremated.
Zhang Jin bent over and shouted: “Eighth Brother, put the coffin on my back.”
Yang grasped hold of the two sides of the coffin, and with a surge of strength, lifted it up and placed it on Zhang Jin’s hunched back. Maintaining his crouching position, Zhang Jin then charged out of the hall. Zhou Qi supported her father, and with the others gathered around to protect them, they ran outside the Manor. Not long after, the roof of the rear hall collapsed, and they all shuddered at the thought of how close it had been.
“Ai-ya!” Zhou Qi suddenly shouted. “That Eagles’s Claw Tong may still be inside!”
“For people as evil as him, being burnt alive is not an unjust end,” ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi replied.
“Who?” Chen asked.
Meng told them about how Tong had come to Iron Gall Manor, first to spy, next as a guide for the officers when they came to seize Wen, and finally to engage in blackmail.
“Yes!” Xu shouted. “It must have been him who started the fire.” He glanced furtively over at Zhou Qi and saw that she was also looking at him out of the corner of her eye. As soon as their eyes met, they both turned their heads away.
“We must catch this man Tong and bring him back,” Chen said. “Brothers Xu, Yang, Wei and Zhang: the four of you go and search along the roads to the north, south, east and west. Come back to report within two hours whether you find him or not.”
The four left, and Chen went over to apologise to Zhou once again.
“Lord Zhou,” he said. “The Red Flower Society is responsible for your being brought to this state of affairs. Our debt to you will be difficult to repay. But we will find Lady Zhou and invite her to return to you. Iron Gall Manor has been destroyed, and we undertake to have it completely rebuilt. All your people will receive full compensation from the Society for whatever they have lost.”
“What kind of talk is that, Master Chen?” Zhou replied. “Wealth and riches are not a part of the flesh. If you continue with that sort of talk, you will not be treating us as friends.”
He had been greatly upset at the sight of Iron Gall Manor burn down, but he valued friendship above all, and now that the misunderstanding had been cleared up, he was happy to have established relations with so many heroes in such a short time. But a moment later, he caught sight of the tiny coffin and another wave of sorrow flooded his heart.
The four heroes sent out to look for Tong returned with nothing to report, and they guessed that he must have taken advantage of the fire and confusion to escape.
“Luckily we know that the fellow is with the Zhen Yuan Escort Agency,” Chen said. “We will catch him one day no matter where he runs to. Lord Zhou, where should the attendants of your honourable manor and their families go for temporary refuge?”
“I think they should all go to Chijinwei, the town to the east of here, after it gets light,” Zhou replied.
“I have a small suggestion, Your Lordship,” Xu said.
“Brother Xu is nicknamed ‘The Kung Fu Mastermind,’” Chen explained to Zhou. “He is the wisest and most resourceful of us all.”
Zhou Qi gave Xu a look of contempt and harrumphed.
“Please speak, Brother Xu,” Zhou said hurriedly, embarrassed by his daughter’s behaviour.
“When Tong gets back, he is certain to embellish his story with a lot of nonsense, accusing Your Lordship of many more crimes,” Xu replied. “I think it would be best for your people to go westwards and lie low for a while until we have evaluated the situation. It may not be safe for them to go to Chijinwei now.”
Zhou agreed immediately. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “I will send them to Anxi first thing tomorrow. I have friends there they can stay with.” He turned to his attendant, Song. “You take them all to Anxi,” he said. “When you get there, you can stay temporarily at the residence of Great Official Wu. All expenses are to be paid by us. I will contact you when I have completed my business.”
“Father, aren’t we going to Anxi too?” Zhou Qi asked.
“Of course not. Master Wen was seized in our Manor. How can we stand by and do nothing when he has still to be rescued?”
Zhou Qi and Meng were delighted at the news.
“We are greatly moved by your goodwill, Lord Zhou.” Chen said. “But saving Brother Wen is an act of rebellion. You are peaceful citizens. It would be best to leave it up to us.”
“You needn’t worry about implicating us,” Zhou replied, stroking his beard. “And if you do not allow me to risk my life for a friend, then you are not treating me as a friend.”
Chen thought for a second then agreed.
“Time is pressing,” Zhou added. “Please issue your orders, Master Chen.”
The embers of Iron Gall Manor had not yet been extinguished and the smell of burning wood hung heavily in the air. As they listened solemnly to Chen’s orders, the flames crackled to life again, fanned by the wind.
The Twin Knights had been sent on ahead to discover Wen’s whereabouts, and ‘Scholar’ Yu was told to link up with them, while the rest of the heroes split up into groups of two and three.
“Fourteenth Brother, please start out immediately,” Chen said to Yu. “The others should rest or sleep here on the ground. We will meet up again inside the Great Wall. The Eagles’s Claws on the Jiayu Gate will most probably be examining everyone rigorously, so we must be careful.”
Yu saluted the heroes with his fists, and mounted his horse. As he rode off, he glanced furtively round at Luo Bing, but she was deep in thought with her head bowed. He sighed, whipped his horse and galloped wildly off.
“Seventh Brother,” Chen said quietly to ‘Mastermind’ Xu. “You go with Luo Bing and Lord Zhou. Take extra care that no officials recognise him. Fourth Sister is wounded and she is greatly feeling the absence of Brother Wen, so you must be careful not to let her do anything rash. There is no need for you to travel fast. Just avoid getting involved in any fighting.”
They settled down to sleep, but less than four hours later, dawn broke. ‘Thousand Arm Buddha’ Zhao with Zhang Jin and ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi were the first to leave. Luo Bing, who had not closed her eyes the whole night, called Zhang Jin over.
“Tenth Brother, you are not allowed to cause any trouble on the road,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “Rescuing Fourth Brother is the important thing, I know.”
Meng and a number of attendants covered the body of Zhou’s son with shrouds and buried it beside the Manor while Zhou Qi wept bitterly, and Zhou stood tearfully by. The heroes paid their respects before the grave.
The Book and the Sword
Chen held the dagger in his hands and stood watching dumbly as Huo Qingtong caught up with the Muslim column and gradually faded towards the horizon. He was about to go and ask Lu Feiqing about his pupil when he noticed a horse galloping towards him fast. As it came closer, he was disappointed to find it was only Xin Yan returning on the white horse.
“Master!” he shouted excitedly. “Master Zhang Jin has a prisoner.”
“Who is it?” Chen asked.
“I went to the old temple and found Master Zhang Jin arguing with a man who wanted to pass. The man saw the horse I was ridingand began cursing me as a horse thief and struck out at me with his sword. Master Zhang Jin and I fought with him. His kung fu was really good. He fought the two of us single-handed until finally I picked up some stones and started throwing them at him, and Master Zhang Jin clubbed him on the thigh. It was only then that we managed to capture him.”
Chen smiled. “What is his name? What was he doing?”
“We asked him but he wouldn’t say. But Master Zhang Jin says he must be a member of the Han School of Luoyang because he was using Iron Pipa Hand Kung Fu.”
Zhang Jin galloped up, dismounted and bowed before Chen, then pulled a man off the horse’s saddle. He was tied hand and foot, but he stood haughtily, exuding an air of insolence.
“I understand you are a member of the Han School of Luoyang,” Chen said. “What is your honourable name?”
The man said nothing.
“Xin Yan, undo this gentleman’s bonds,” Chen said.
Xin Yan drew his knife and cut the rope that bound the man’s hands and legs then stood behind him, his knife at the ready.
“My friends have wronged you, but please do not be offended,” Chen said. “Come into my tent and take a seat.”
Chen and the man sat on the ground while the other heroes came in and stood behind Chen’s back.
When he saw Luo Bing enter, the man’s anger flared and he jumped up. “You stole my horse,” he shouted, pointing at her.
“So it’s Master Han,” Luo Bing replied with a smile. “We exchanged horses and I compensated you with a gold ingot. You did very well out of the deal. What are you angry about?”
Chen asked what had happened, and Luo Bing recounted how she had taken the white horse. The others laughed as they listened.
“In that case, we will return the horse to you, Master Han,” Chen said. “There is also no need to return the gold ingot. Consider it a token of our respect and as payment for the rental of your horse.”
Han was about to reply when Luo Bing said: “Great Helmsman, this won’t do. Do you know who he is? He’s a Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency man.” She pulled out Wang Weiyang’s letter and handed it to him.
Chen’s eyes flashed down the lines. “The great name of Wang Weiyang has been known to me for a long time, but regrettably I ave never met him,” he said. “You are a member of the Han School of Luoyang. What relation are you to Fifth Madame Han?”
“And what is your honourable surname and esteemed name, sir?” Han replied.
Chen smiled. “My surname is Chen, my given name, Jialuo.”
Han stood up. “You…you are the son of Chief Minister Chen?” he asked in a quavering voice.
“This is the Great Helmsman of our Red Flower Society,” one of the Twin Knights said.
Han slowly sat down again and began weighing up this young Great Helmsman.
“Someone in the underworld started the rumour that our society was connected with the death of one of your school’s members,” Chen said. “In fact, we know nothing of it. I dispatched one of our brothers to Luoyang to explain the matter, but something came up and he was forced to postpone the trip. So your arrival could not have been better timed, Master Han. I don’t know how this rumour started. Can you tell me?”
“You…you’re really the son of Chief Minister Chen of Haining?” Han asked.
“Since you know my identity, there is no point in trying to deceive you,” Chen replied.
“Your family announced a large reward for finding you after you left home,” Han said. “It was said that you had joined the Red Flower Society and had gone to the Muslim border regions. My late comrade Jiao Wenqi was engaged by your family to look for you, but he mysteriously disappeared on the way. That was five years ago. Recently, someone found the Iron Plate and Pipa darts that Brother Jiao used in Shanxi province, and we now know for certain that he was murdered. No-one knows the exact circumstances of his death, but consider, sir: if it wasn’t the Red Flower Society, then who did it?”
“I killed Jiao Wenqi,” Lu Feiqing interrupted. “I am not amember of the Red Flower Society, so this matter has nothing to do with them.”
The others were startled. Lu stood up and told the story of how Jiao had found him one night, how he fought one against three, and had been injured, but had still managed to kill them on the deserted hillside. The heroes listened and then cursed Jiao, saying he was shameless and deserved to die. Han’s face darkened but he said nothing.
“If Master Han wishes to avenge his martial brother’s death, there is no reason why he should not do so now,” Lu said. Heturned to Luo Bing. “Mistress Wen, return Master Han’s weapon to him please.”
Luo Bing pulled out the Iron Pipa and handed it to Lu.
“Since Jiao was commissioned by the Chen family to find their son, he should have stuck to his mission,” Lu said. As he spoke, he absent-mindedly excercised his Inner Strength kung fu on the body of the hollow Iron Pipa, slowly flattening it. “What was he doing using their money to come and give me trouble? Even if we of the fighting community are not able to sacrifice ourselves to save our country from the Manchu barbarians, we should still fight for justice and against those who oppress the people.”
His Inner Strength kung fu was extraordinary. His hands rolled the flattened iron plate round so that it was transformed into a tube, and then with a few sqeezes, into an iron club.
“What I detest most are the Manchu court’s Eagles’ Claws and the bodyguard agency running dogs who use a small knowledge of the martial arts to assist the wicked with their evil deeds.”
His voice suddenly hardened and he twisted the iron club into an iron ring.
As Lu talked, Han watched him twist and squeeze his school’s famous weapon as if he were making noodles, and was both startled and afraid. He knew that Jiao’s kung fu had been about the same standard as his own, and realised that fighting with this old manmeant certain death.
Han’s courage had already evaporated and he did not dare to challenge Lu. But although shocked and humbled, he did not wish to appear too cowardly.
“This affair of Jiao Wenqi in fact arose because of me,” Chen said. “I will write a letter to my elder brother telling him that Master Jiao found me, but that I was not willing to return home; also, that on his way back, Master Jiao met with an accident and passed away. I will then ask my brother to pay the reward and compensation money to Master Jiao’s family.”
Han continued to hesitate, and Chen’s eyebrows rose. “But if your heart is set upon revenge, then I will fight you myself.”
Han shuddered. “I will do exactly as you say, sir,” he replied.
“That’s a good fellow,” Chen said. “One has to be flexible.”
He told Xin Yan to hand him his writing brush, instone, ink and writing paper, and using a vigorous calligraphic style, wrote out a letter which Han accepted.
“Master Wang asked me to help escort a cargo back to Beijing and then to escort some treasures the Emperor has presented to your honourable family down to the south. But faced with the extraordinary talents of you all, I would only make a fool of myself if I made further use of my own minor abilities in the martial arts. I will take my leave of you, sir.”
“Did you say items belonging to my family, Master Han?”
“The bodyguard agency caller who brought me the letter said the Emperor is extremely generous towards your family. Every few months, he bestows an amount of precious stones and treasures, and there is now a large accumulation of these that must be sent south to your home. Your family asked us to escort them, but I would not dare to continue earning my daily rice in such a business. After I have made suitable arrangements for Brother Jiao’s dependants, I will return home.”
“It is good that you are willing to follow Master Lu’s invaluable words of advice,” Chen said. “In that case, I might as well make friends with you. Xin Yan, please bring in the other gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency.”
Xin Yan went out and led in Lead Escort Qian and the others. Han and the escorts stared dumbly at each other.
“Master Han, please take these friends with you,” said Chen. “But if we ever catch them again doing anything but good deeds, do not blame us if our hands are not stayed by mercy.”
Chen did not again mention the return of the white horse, and Han did not dare to bring it up.
“We will leave first,” Chen said. “I will ask all of you to rest here for a day before making a start.”
The Red Flower Society heroes mounted their horses an started off, leaving the Agency men and the Yamen officers standing silently behind.
“Master Chen,” Lu Feiqing said after they had travelled for a while. “My pupil will meet up with those bodyguard agency fellows before long. They have been humiliated and have no way to get their revenge, so they may cause trouble. I would like to stay behind and watch them for a while before following after you.”
“Please do as you wish, Master Lu,” Chen replied.
Lu saluted, then galloped off the way they had come. Chen realised as Lu disappeared that he had not asked him about his pupil.
‘Scholar’ Yu, under orders to investigate the whereabouts of Wen Tailai, made discreet enquiries along the road as he went. But he discovered no clues, and in less than a day arrived at Liangzhou, a prosperous busy city and one of the largest in Gansu province. He found a room in an inn, then went to a tavern and drank alone, bemoaning his fate. He thought of Luo Bing’s voice and smile, and a tide of longing rose within him. He knew it was hopeless, and the more he drank, the more melancholy he became. He was just about to leave when two men came in. Yu knew he had seen one of them before and quickly turned his head away. He thought frantically and placed him as one of the Yamen officers he had fought at Iron Gall Manor. Luckily, the man and his companion paid no attention to him.
They chose a table near the window which happened to be just next to Yu’s and sat down. Yu sat with his head on the table, pretending to be drunk.
The two men chatted for a while, then one said:
“Brother Rui, it’s remarkable How you captured that fellow. I wonder what sort of reward the Emperor will give you?”
“I’m not concerned about the reward,” Rui replied. “If we can get him to Hangzhou nice and safely, I’ll be happy. When we left Beijing, there were eight of us bodyguards, and now I’m the only one left. It was that fight in Suzhou. I’m not selling myself short, but I still get the shivers just thinking about it.”
“You’re with Master Zhang now,” the other said. “I’m sure nothing more will be wrong.”
“That’s true,” Rui replied. “But it means that the Imperial Guardsmen get all the credit. What do we Imperial Bodyguards get out of it? But tell me, old Zhu. What are they doing sending him to Hangzhou instead of to Beijing?”
“My younger sister is from the family of Great Scholar Shi, as you know,” Zhu replied, lowering his voice. “She told me quietly that the Emperor plans to go down south. Perhaps he wants to question him himself.”
Rui grunted and drank a mouthful of wine. “So the six of you rushed out from Beijing to see that the Imperial command was complied with?”
“And to give the rest of you some help. The Red Flower Society is very powerful in the south. We have to be especially careful.”
As he listened, Yu groaned inwardly at the sheer luck of it all. If he had not happened to be there and hear them, the Red Flower Society heroes would have been racing to Beijing to save Wen when he was really being taken to Hangzhou.
“Brother Rui,” Zhu said. “Exactly what crime has this fellow committed that the Emperor wants to question him personally?”
“How would we know?” Rui replied. “We were just told that if we didn’t catch him, we would all be removed from our posts. I just hope I can keep my head on my shoulders.”
The two laughed and drank, and their conversation turned to the subject of women. Finally, they paid the bill and stood up to leave. Rui looked over at Yu prostrate on the table.
“Scholars,” he said and laughed harshly. “Three cups of wine and they can’t even walk.”
Yu waited until they had gone, then hastily threw five silver coins onto the table and dashed out of the tavern. He spotted the men entering the city Yamen. He waited for a long time but didn’t see them re-appear, and decided they must be lodging there.
He returned to his room and as soon as it was dark, he changed into a set of dark clothes, stuck his golden flute into his belt then ran over to the Yamen. Making his way round to the back, he clambered over the wall.
All was pitch black in the courtyard except for a shaft of light coming from a window in the eastern hall, and as he crept closer, he heard voices coming from inside. He wet the tip of his finger with a drop of saliva, then lightly moistened the window paper and made a small hole. Looking through, he started in fright.
The hall was full of people. Zhang Zhaozhong was seated in the middle with the bodyguards and Yamen officers on either side of him. A man standing with his back to Yu cursed angrily, and he knew from his voice that it was Wen Tailai.
“You can curse to your heart’s content,” a voice off to the side said darkly. “I may not be as proficient in the martial arts as you, but you will still get a taste of my hand.”
Yu was distressed. “They are going to humiliate Fourth Brother,” he thought. “He is the person Fourth Sister respects and loves most. How can I allow him to be insulted by these villains?”
He saw a tall, thin middleaged man wearing a blue gown advancing on Wen with his hand raised. Just as the man was about to strike Wen, Yu inserted his flute through the hole in the window paper, and with a puff, shot a small arrow into the man’s left eye.
The man fell to the ground in agony and there was a moment of confusion in the hall. Yu shot another arrow into the right cheek of one of the bodyguards, then kicked open the main door of the hall and ran straight in.
“Don’t move!” he shouted. “The Red Flower Society has come to the rescue!”
He raised his flute and struck the Yamen officers beside Wen, then pulled a dagger from his legwrappings and cut the ropes binding Wen’s hands and feet.
Zhang Zhaozhong thought a largescale attack was in progress and immediately drew his sword and went to the hall door to prevent Wen and Yu from escaping and those outside from getting in.
As soon as Wen’s hands were free of the bonds, his spirits surged. An Imperial Bodyguard lunged towards him and Wen struck him hard with his fist, sending him reeling away. The others were so afraid of Wen’s power that for a while they did not dare to get too close to him.
“Fourth Brother, let’s get out!” Yu said.
“Are the others here?”
“No,” Yu replied quietly. “There’s only me.”
Wen nodded once. The wounds on his right arm and thigh had not yet healed, but he ran for the door with his right arm resting on Yu’s shoulder.
Zhang strode foward a step. “Stop!” he shouted, and jabbed at Wen’s stomach with his long sword. Wen was slow on his feet, so using attack as his defence, he struck out at his opponent’s eyes with the index and middle fingers of his left hand, and Zhang was forced to retract his sword.
“Good!” he exclaimed. The two men were incredibly fast, but Wen only had the use of his left arm and after a few more moves, Zhang hit his right shoulder. Unable to keep his balance, Wen sat down heavily on the floor.
“I shouldn’t have done this,” Yu thought as he fought off the Imperial Bodyguards. “I will save Fourth Brother and then let the Eagle’s Claws kill me so that Fourth Sister will know that I, Yu Yutong, am not an unchivalrous oaf.”
He saw Wen fall to the ground and flipped round to strike out desperately at Zhang.
“Fourth Brother, get out quick!” Yu shouted. Wen rested a moment and then with difficulty clambered to his feet. The golden flute flew and danced, completely neglecting to defend or parry. Yu was completely unconcerned about his own safety. Even with his superb swordsmanship, Zhang was forced to move back several paces in the face of his suicidal attack. Wen saw an opening and shot out of the door, with the mob of the bodyguards and officers howling after him.
Yu blocked them at the door, ignoring his own safety.
“Don’t you want to live?” Zhang shouted. “Who taught you that kung fu style?” Yu was using the traditional style of the Wudang School, the school to which Zhang belonged, and Zhang had so far spared him because of it.
“It would be best if you killed me,” Yu said, smiling sadly. After a few more moves, Zhang’s sword struck him once more, this time on the right shoulder, so Yu shifted the golden flute to his left hand and continued the fight without retreating a step.
The mass of the bodyguards charged forward again and Yu’s flute danced, hooting strangely as the wind whipped through it. A bodyguard chopped at him with his sword, and gashed Yu’s shoulder. His body was now covered in blood, but he continued the fierce battle, and there was a sudden crack as the jawbone of another bodyguard was shattered. The bodyguards pressed forward, knives, swords, whips and clubs all thrusting towards Yu simultaneously. Yu’s thigh was hit by a club and he fell to the ground. His golden flute kept up its dance for a few moments, then he fainted away.
There was a sudden shout from the door: “Stop!”
The bodyguards turned and saw Wen walking slowly back into the hall. He ignored them and went straight over to Yu. Seeing his bloodied body, he couldn’t stop his tears. He bent down and was relieved to find Yu was till breathing.
“Treat his wounds quickly,” he ordered.
The bodyguards were so fearful of his power, that they did as he said. Wen watched them bind Yu’s wounds and carry him through to the inner hall, then placed both of his hands behind his back.
“Tie me up,” he said. One of the bodyguards looked over at Zhang, then walked slowly over.
“What are you afraid of?” Wen asked. “If I was going to hurt you, I would have done so long ago.”
The bodyguard bound his hands and took him back to the dungeons. Two bodyguards were left to guard him.
Early the next morning, Zhang went to see Yu and found him in a deep sleep. He was told by a guard that the doctor had visited Yu and prescribed some medicine. Zhang visited him again in the afternoon and Yu appeared to be more alert.
“Is your teacher surnamed Lu or Ma?” Zhang asked him.
“My teacher is surnamed Ma, his given name is Zhen.”
“So that’s it. I am your martial uncle, Zhang Zhaozhong.”
Yu nodded slightly.
“Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?”
Yu nodded again.
“Such a nice young man,” Zhang sighed. “What a pity that you have fallen to such a state. What relation is Wen Tailai to you? What were you doing risking your life to save him?”
Yu closed his eyes and was silent. A moment passed.
“In the end I did save him, so I can die in peace,” he finally said.
“Huh! Do you really think you could snatch him away from me?”
Yu was startled. “Didn’t he escape?” he asked.
“How could he? Stop day-dreaming!”
Zhang tried to interrogate him, but Yu took no notice, and after a while he began to sneeze.
Zhang smiled slightly. “You stubborn boy,” he said, and left.
He ordered the Imperial Bodyguards to organise an ambush with Wen as bait. After dinner, Wen was brought out of the dungeon and interrogated once more, in the same manner as the night before when Yu had unexpectedly burst in and disrupted the proceedings. This time, however, heavily-armed troops were hidden all around the Yamen, waiting to catch any Red Flower Society rescuers. But they waited in vain.
The next morning, Zhang received a report that the waters of the Yellow River were rising rapidly, and that the current at the point where they intended to cross was very strong and ordered an immediate departure. He had Wen and Yu placed in separate carriages and was just about to start out when Officer Wu and the Zhen Yuan Agency Lead Escorts raced into the Yamen. Zhang hastily questioned them, and Officer Wu breathlessly told him how they had been attacked and captured by the Muslims and the Red Flower Society, and how Lead Escort Yan had been killed by a young Muslim girl.
“Brother Yan was a very tough fighter,” Zhang said. “Extraordinary.” He raised his hand. “We will meet again in Beijing.”
Zhang immediately went and told the Liangzhou Military commander that he wanted four hundred crack troops transferred to his command to help escort criminals wanted by the Emperor. The commander did not dare refuse and also dispatched Colonel Cao Neng and Chief-of-Staff Ping Wangxian to lead the escorting soldiers until they reached Lanzhou, the provincial capital, where provincial troops would take over.
Zhang’s column surged out of the town, stealing and pilfering from the common people in the usual way as they went.
They travelled without incident for two days. Then, about ten miles from a village named Twin Wells, they came upon two bare-breasted men sitting beneath a tree by the side of the road with a pair of fine horses standing nearby. Two of the soldiers went over.
“Hey!” one shouted. “These two horses look like official horses. Where did you steal them from?”
“We are peaceful citizens,” said one of the men. “We wouldn’t dare to steal horses.”
“We are tired of walking. Lend them to us,” the second soldier replied.
The two men stood up, walked over to their horses and untied the reins.
The soldiers walked haughtily over and were just about to take hold of the reins when the two men kicked their behinds, leapt onto the horses and galloped over to one of the carriages.
“Is Fourth Brother in there?” one shouted.
“Ah, Twelfth Brother!” Wen answered.
“Fourth Brother, we’re leaving,” the man replied. “But don’t worry, we’ll be back to rescue you soon.”
The two men galloped away before the carriage’s guards could attack.
The column lodged that night at a town called Clear Water Shop. Early the following morning, while most of the soldiers were still asleep, a scream was heard, and there was a moment of confusion. The two troop commanders, Cao and Ping went to investigate and found the bodies of more than a dozen soldiers lying where they had slept, each with a gaping gash in the chest. There was no indication of who had killed them.
The next evening, they rested at Hengshi. This was a large town, and the column filled three inns and many private houses besides. During the night, one of the inns caught fire. Zhang ordered the bodyguards to guard Wen and to heed nothing else in order to avoid being tricked. The flames rose higher and higher.
“Bandits!” Cao Neng cried as he ran into Zhang’s room. “They’re attacking!”
“Please go and direct operations yourself, General Cao,” Zhang replied. “I am unable to leave this place.”
Cao nodded and left.
From outside the inn came the sound of screams and shrieks, galloping horses, the crackle of the flames and the smash of roof tiles as they hit the ground. Zhang ordered two bodyguards onto the roof to keep watch, but told them not to get involved unless the enemy attacked the inn. The fire did not get out of control, and before long it was extinguished. The agitated clamour continued for a while, then gradually died down to the point where the sound of hooves could be heard as horses galloped off eastwards.
Cao, his face covered in soot, grease and blood, ran in to see Zhang again.
“The bandits have retreated,” he reported.
“How many of our men have been killed and wounded?” Zhang asked.
“I don’t know yet. Several…several dozen.”
“How many bandits were captured?”
Cao’s mouth fell open. After a moment, he said: “None.”
“Their faces were covered with cloth, and their kung fu was horrendous,” Cao added. “But it’s very strange, they didn’t steal anything. All they did was kill our brothers. Just before they left, they threw down two hundred taels of silver for the innkeeper saying it was compensation for starting the fire.”
“So you think they were bandits, do you?” Zhang said. “Tell everyone to get some rest, General Cao. We will start out early tomorrow.”
Cao retired and went to see the innkeeper, whom he accused of being in collusion with the bandits and responsible for the murder of the soldiers. The innkeeper kowtowed and begged for mercy and finally gave Cao the two hundred taels of silver.
The next day, the soldiers were busy until noon before finally making a start. They passed through beautiful country of blue hills and green water, surrounded by dense vegetation on all sides. After travelling for about four hours, the road began to grow gradually steeper and high peaks rose on either side.
A horse came galloping down the road towards them and halted about ten paces in front of the column.
“Listen to me, all of you,” the rider called out. “You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die.”
The soldiers shuddered as they looked at the man. He was wearing clothes made of rough hemp bound at the waist with grass rope. His face was pale yellow and his eyebrows slanted upwards, just like the images of life-stealing spirits in the temples. The man spurred his horse forward and galloped down the mountain, passing beside of the column, and was gone. Suddenly, one of the soldiers in the rear-guard gave a cry, and fell to the ground, dead. The rest started in fright and gathered round to look, but there was no wound visible on his body. Terrified, they all began talking at once.
Cao Neng assigned two soldiers to stay behind and bury the dead man and the column continued up the mountain. Before they had gone very far, another horse approached them from in front, its rider the same man they had seen earlier.
“Listen to me, all of you,” he called out. “You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die.”
The soldiers wondered fearfully how the man could have made his way round in front of them again. They had clearly seen him go down the mountain and one glance confirmed that there were no short cuts back up the slope. The man spurred his horse forward and the soldiers shrunk from him as if he was a real demon.
One of the Imperial bodyguards, named Zhu, stuck out his sword to obstruct the man. “Slow down, friend,” he said.
The man struck Zhu’s shoulder with his right hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Then he sped off down the mountain. As he passed the end of the column, the last soldier gave a shriek and fell to the ground, dead. The other soldiers stood staring foolishly, scared out of their wits.
Zhang went down to the end of the column to investigate.
“What is this fellow, a man or a ghost?” Zhu said. He pressed his wounded right shoulder, his face deathly pale. Zhang told him to undo his clothes and examined the large black swelling on his right shoulder. He ordered the troops to strip the dead soldier bare and examine him for wounds. When they turned him over, they found a similar black swelling on his back from which the shape of a hand could be vaguely discerned. The soldiers broke into an uproar as a shout of “The Demon’s Mark!” The Demon’s Mark!” went up. Zhang ordered that two soldiers be left behind to bury the dead man. Two were chosen from the ranks, but even when threatened with death, they refused to carry out the order. Zhang had no alternative but to order a halt and wait until the body was buried before continuing.
“Master Zhang, this fellow is very strange,” said Bodyguard Rui. “How could he pass us by and then make his way back in front of us again?”
Zhang stood deep in thought for a while. “Brother Zhu and the two soldiers were obviously victims of Black Sand Palm Kung Fu,” he said. “There are very few masters of Black Sand Palm kung fu in the underworld.”
“If it’s Black Palm kung fu, then the best is naturally the Taoist Priest Hui Lu, but he’s been dead for many years,” Rui said. “Could it be that his spirit has re-appeared?”
Zhang slapped his thigh. “That’s it! That’s it!” he cried. “They’re Hui Lu’s pupils. The Twin Knights that people call Black Death and White Death. I was trying to think of one person, so I couldn’t work it out. All right, so we’re up against them as well.”
He had no way of knowing that the Chang brothers were also members of the Red Flower Society.
That night, the column stayed at Black Pine Village. Cao posted guards all around the village to keep careful watch, but next morning, not one of the soldiers on guard duty returned to report, and a detail sent to investigate found them all dead with a string of paper money tied round each of their necks. The rest of the soldiers were terrified, and more than a dozen immediately deserted, slipping stealthily away.
They had to cross Black Scabbard Mountain, one of the most precipitous spots on the Liangzhou road. The air became colder and colder as the road grew steeper, and despite the fact that it was only September, snow flakes floated down around them. The road deteriorated to the point where there was a steep mountain face on one side and a sheer cliff on the other falling into a deep ravine. The soldiers moved slowly hand-in-hand, terrified of slipping on the snow. Several of the bodyguards dismounted and helped to support Wen’s carriage.
Just as they were gingerly making their way forward, they heard a chirping sound coming from in front. A moment later, the sound turned into an unearthly howl, tragic and harsh, which echoed through the ravine causing everyone’s hair to stand on end. The soldiers all stopped in their tracks.
Then came a shout: “Those who continue will meet the King of Hell — Those who turn back will survive.”
How could the soldiers dare to continue?
A man appeared around a curve in the road ahead. “Those who continue will meet the King of Hell, those who turn back will survive,” he intoned in a deep voice.
The soldiers recognised him as the demon that had appeared twice the day before and had killed with just a wave of his hand, and they turned and fled with squeals of fear. Cao Neng shouted to them to halt, but he had to raise his sword and slay one of the soldiers before some of them steadied. But sixty or seventy had disappeared.
“Guard the carriage,” Zhang said to Rui. “I’ll go and talk to these two.” He leapt passed the soldiers. “Could that be the Twin Knights up ahead?” he asked in a loud, clear voice. “I, Zhang Zhaozhong, greet you. There is no enmity between us. Why are you playing this game?”
The man in front laughed coldly. “Ha! So, the Twin Demons meet the Fire Hand Judge,” he said. He strode over and struck out at Zhang with such power that his hand made a whistling sound as it cut through the air.
The road at that point was extremely narrow and Zhang was unable to dodge to either left or right, so he countered the blow with his left hand, putting all of his Inner Strength behind it, while also attacking with his right palm. His opponent parried with his left hand. Their four hands met, and they stood almost motionless for a while as they tested each other. Suddenly, Zhang swept his left leg cross-wise in the ‘Level Clouds Slicing The Peak’ style. With insufficient time to evade the blow, the man brought his hands together and drove them viciously at Zhang’s temples. Zhang leant to one side and hastily withdrew his leg, then moved forward, and with the precipice at their side, the two passed each other by. They had exchanged positions.
Zhang suddenly became aware of someone attacking him from behind. He dodged out of the way and saw his assailant was another pale, skeleton-like figure, his face exactly the same as the first.
Zhang had more than two hundred soldiers and bodyguards with him, but they were powerless to assist because of the narrowness of the mountain path beside the ravine.
The three fought more and more fiercely. In the midst of the battle, one of the Twin Knights hit the rock-face by mistake and a small avalanche of gravel rattled down off the precipice followed by a slab of rock which plunged into the ravine. A long time passed before they finally heard the distant crash as it hit the ground.
The battle continued for a long time. Suddenly, one of the twins struck out with his fist, forcing Zhang to move to one side to avoid it. The other twin then leapt over and occupied Zhang’s former position beside the stone-face and both attacked him at the same moment, attempting to force him into the ravine.
Zhang saw one of his attacker’s legs sweeping forward and stepped back a pace, so that half of his foot was over the edge of the precipice. A cry of fright went up from the troops. Then, Zhang felt a gust of wind as the other twin’s fist swung towards his face. Zhang was unable to retreat, and knowing that there would be great strength behind the blow, was also unable to counter it. If he did, his opponent would simply be thrown back against the stone-face by the force of the collision while he himself would certainly fall to his death. So, with wisdom born of fear, he seized hold of his attacker’s wrist, and with a great shout threw him into the ravine.
His body in mid-air, ‘Black Death’ stayed calm. He drew in his legs and performed a somersault in order to slow down the force of his fall. Half way through the circle, he pulled a Flying Claw grapple from his belt and threw it straight up. His brother ‘White Death’ had also taken out his Flying Claw and the two grapples locked tightly, almost as if they were shaking hands. ‘White Death’ jerked at the rope before the full force of his brother’s fall returned, and swung him up and over bringing him back to earth more than a hundred feet along the mountain path.
‘White Death’ saluted Zhang with his fists. “Your kung fu is very powerful. We are impressed,” he said. Then, without even bending down to concentrate his strength, he sprang into the air, and landed several dozen feet further away. He grabbed hold of his brother’s hand and the two disappeared round the bend.
The soldiers clustered round, some praising Zhang’s kung fu, others lamenting that ‘Black Death’ had not fallen to his death. Zhang said not a word, but leaned against the rock face and slowly sat down. He looked at his wrist and saw the jet-black impression of five fingers on his flesh as if he had been branded, and was struck by a wave of terror.
The column crossed Black Scabbard mountain, and that night another thirty or forty soldiers deserted. Zhang discussed the situation with Rui and the other bodyguards.
“These fellows are not going to give up even though this is the main road to Lanzhou, the provincial capital,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot more trouble ahead, so we had better make our way round by the backroads, and cross the river at Crimson Bend.”
Cao Neng had been looking forward to getting to Lanzhou so that he could transfer his burden to other shoulders, and was very unhappy with Zhang’s plan. But he did not dare to disagree.
“We have lost many soldiers on the road,” Zhang said. “When you get back, Master Cao, you can report that they were killed during an attack on bandits, and died courageously for their country. I will write out a note to that effect in a moment.”
Cao Neng’s spirits rose again. According to the military regulations, if a soldier was killed in action, it was possible to obtain a pension, and the money naturally fell into the pocket of the officer in command.
They heard the roar of the Yellow River long before it came into view, and travelled more than half a day further before arriving at the Crimson Bend crossing. At this bend on the Yellow River, the rocks along the banks are blood-red, hence its name. Dusk was already approaching, but through the evening mists, they could see the fury with which the Yellow River surged eastwards, its muddy waters bubbling and boiling against the banks.
“We will cross the river tonight,” Zhang said. “The water is dangerous but if we delay, there may be trouble.”
With the river running so fast, the crossing could only be made by sheepskin rafts. Soldiers were sent out to search for rafts, but they could not found any. Darkness fell. Zhang was just becoming anxious when he spotted two sheepskin rafts shooting down the river towards them. The soldiers shouted, and the two rafts edged towards the bank.
“Hey, boatman!” Cao shouted. “Ferry us across and we’ll pay you well.”
The big man on the raft stood up and waved his hand.
“You’re a mute,” said Cao.
“Damn your ancestors,” replied the man in Cantonese. “If you’re coming then come, if you’re not, then don’t. You bunch of bastards. It’s a waste of time dealing with you.” Cao and the others understood not a word of it. Cao ignored him and invited Zhang and the bodyguards escorting Wen to get onto the rafts first.
Zhang weighed up the boatman. His wide-brimmed hat hid half his face and it was impossible to distinguish his features clearly. But the muscles on his arms were bunched and bulging, revealing great strength, while the oar in his hands was of a very dark colour and appeared to be made of something other than wood. He felt something was wrong, and not being able to swim, he could not afford to fall victim to some trick.
“Master Cao,” he said. “You go first with some of the soldiers.”
Cao ordered some of the soldiers onto the two rafts. The current was rapid, but the two boatmen were highly skilled and safely delivered the government troops to the opposite bank, and then returned to take on another batch.
Cao boarded a raft with another group of soldiers, but just as they left the bank, a long whistle sounded behind them which was answered by a host of other whistles.
Zhang hastily ordered the troops to surround the carriage and guard it closely. A crescent moon hung low in the sky. Under its light, he saw about a dozen horses coming towards them. He galloped forward. “What’s going on?” he shouted.
The riders formed a single rank as they approached, then one in the middle spurred his horse on and rode ahead of the others. In his hand he held a white folding fan with which he fanned himself. “Is that the ‘Fire Hand Judge’ Zhang Zhaozhong?” he asked.
“It is,” Zhang replied. “And who are you, sir?”
The other laughed. “We thank you for escorting our Brother Wen this far, but we would not want to trouble you further.”
“Are you Red Flower Society people?”
“Everyone praises the ‘Fire Hand Judge’ for his superlative mastery of the martial arts, but he obviously has divine foresight as well,” the man replied, smiling. “You are correct. We are Red Flower Society people.” He gave a long whistle.
Zhang started slightly as he heard the two boatmen on the rafts give answering whistles.
Cao, seated on one of the rafts, saw the enemy approaching on the shore, and his face turned the colour of mud. The boatman stopped the raft in midstream with a stroke of his oar.
“Thirteenth Brother!” Cao heard a crisp voice call from the other raft. “Ready when you are.”
“Right!” the boatman replied. Cao raised his spear and thrust it at him, but the boatman deflected it deftly with his oar and then knocked Cao and all the other soldiers on board into the river. Both boatmen then rowed back close to the shore.
Zhang was thankful for his caution. “You have been killing government troops the whole way,” he shouted. “You have committed many unpardonable acts. What is your position in the Red Flower Society, sir?”
“There is no need for you to ask my name,” Great Helmsman Chen said. “Xin Yan, give me my weapons.”
Xin Yan opened his bag and placed two weapons in Chen’s hands. Normally, the other heroes should have fought first, but Chen was unable to resist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Zhang jumped off his horse and strode forward. But just as he was preparing himself for the fight, Imperial Bodyguard Zhu ran up behind him and said: “Master Zhang, let me deal with him.”
Zhang decided to let him test out the enemy first. “Be careful, Brother Zhu,” he said.
Zhu lunged forward, sword raised. He chopped out at Chen’s thigh. Chen jumped lightly off his horse and lifted the shield in his left hand to parry the blow. In the moonlight, Zhu saw that nine glistening, sharp hooks protruded from the face of the shield, and knew that if his sword collided with them, it would be caught in their grasp. He started in fright and hastily withdrew his sword. Chen then flourished the weapon in his right hand: five cords, each one tipped with a steel ball especially designed for hitting the Yuedao points on the human body. Terrified by the ferocious nature of this weapon, Zhu leapt backwards, but the cords circled round behind him, and he felt a sudden numbness on his back. Then the cords entwined his legs and with a tug, Chen pulled Zhu off his feet, swung him round and round, and sent him flying straight towards a rocky outcrop nearby.
If he had hit it, he would have been smashed to pieces. But Zhang, seeing that Zhu was completely out-classed, raced over, grabbed his queue and pulled him down just in front of the rock face.
“Rest for a while, Brother Zhu,” he said. Frozen with fear, Zhu was unable to answer.
Zhang raised his precious ‘Frozen Emerald’ Sword and leapt in front of Chen.
Zhang thrust his sword at Chen’s right shoulder. Chen flipped the chords towards the blade, while the shield in his left hand struck out at Zhang.
As they battled, the two boatmen, ‘Crocodile’ Jiang and Luo Bing, jumped ashore and ran towards the carriages, guarded by the soldiers. Jiang charged straight into the ranks, immediately killing two of the closest soldiers. The others frantically gave way. Luo Bing charged over to one of the carriages, and lifted up the carriage curtain.
“Fourth Brother, are you in there?” she called. But it was ‘Scholar’ Yu, still seriously wounded. Suddenly hearing Luo Bing’s voice through his stupor, he could only think that it was a dream, or that he had died and was meeting her in the other world.
“You’ve come!” he cried happily.
Luo Bing knew that the voice was not her husband’s and ran to the next carriage. But before she could pull aside the curtain, a saw-toothed sword chopped at her from the right. She parried with her sword, and looking up at her attacker in the watery moonlight, recognised him as one of the eight bodyguards who had attacked Wen and herself in Suzhou. With a surge of hatred, she redoubled her attack. Rui was aware of her ability with throwing knives and speeded up his strokes to avoid giving her an opportunity to use them. Then two other bodyguards joined the battle while the soldiers closed in from all sides.
Four more of the heroes led by ‘Leopard’ Wei galloped towards her through a hail of arrows. One arrow planted itself in the neck of Wei’s horse, and the pain made it gallop even more furiously. The animal’s hooves hit the chest of one of the soldiers, Wei flew off the horse with his hooks raised, and amid a chorus of screams, gouged them into the breasts of two other soldiers. Wei then aimed the hooks at Bodyguard Rui who was forced to abandon his attack on Luo Bing. ‘Hunchback’ Zhang Jin and the others also raced up and the soldiers scattered.
Free once more, Luo Bing threw herself into the carriage and hugged Wen’s neck, then burst into tears.
After a while, Zhang Jin stuck his head in through the carriage curtain. “Fourth Brother,” he grinned. “We’ve come to take you back.”
He climbed onto the driver’s seat and the carriage moved off northwards away from the river, and stopped by the side of a mound, from which they could get a good view of the battle.
Suddenly, Zhang broke away from his duel with Chen and ran for Wen’s carriage.
Luo Bing saw him coming and brandished her sword at him. But Zhang’s sword was extraordinarily tough, and as they clashed with a ‘clang’, it snapped her blade in two. With the rest of his strength, Zhang leapt up into the carriage and pulled Luo Bing in with him. Greatly frightened, the other heroes raced up to save her, and Zhang lifted her up and threw her at them. The Twin Knights raced over and caught her.
Meanwhile, Zhang turned and grabbed Wen, and pulled him to the carriage door. “Wen Tailai is here,” he shouted. “If anyone dares to come any closer, I’ll kill him!”
The cold gleam of Zhang’s ‘Frozen Emerald’ sword was poised at Wen’s neck.
“Fourth Brother,” Luo Bing wailed, and tried to throw herself at the carriage, but Lu Feiqing held her back and took a step forward himself.
Zhang!” he called out. “Can you see who I am?” Zhang and he had not seen each other for a long time and it was difficult to see clearly in the moonlight, so Lu drew his White Dragon sword, took hold of the tip of the blade, and bent the handle back so that it formed a circle. Then he let the tip go and the blade bounced back upright and swayed slightly.
Zhang grunted. “Ah, so it’s Brother Lu,” he said. “Why have you come looking for me?”
“You are wounded,” Lu replied. “All the heroes of the Red Flower Society are here as well as ‘Iron Gall’ Zhou Zhongying. It is going to be hard for you to escape today with your life. But in memory of our benevolent teacher, I will give you a way out.”
Zhang grunted again, but said nothing.
Suddenly they heard shouts and cries drifting over from the east, as if a thousand armies were racing towards them. The heroes were filled with apprehension, but Zhang was even more worried.
“This Red Flower Society is truly resourceful,” he thought. “Even here in the northwest, they can still call up huge reinforcements.”
“Release Master Wen,” Lu Feiqing continued, “and I will ask the heroes, out of respect for me, to release you. But there is one thing you must swear to.”
Zhang eyed the strong enemies surrounding him. “What?” he said.
“You must swear that you will immediately retire from public life and no longer be a running dog of the Manchus.”
Zhang had pursued glory and wealth with fervour and he had risen in rank as fast as though swept upwards up by a whirlwind. Wanting him to give up his position was just the same as wanting his life. He released Wen from his grip, pulled at the mule’s reins, and the carriage charged forward.
The heroes held back afraid of risking Wen’s life, but Luo Bing could not stand it. “Release him and we’ll let you go without having to swear to anything,” she called desperately.
Zhang took no notice and drove the carriage on towards the ranks of Manchu troops, who had by now regrouped.
Bodyguard Rui saw Zhang approaching and ordered the soldiers to fix arrows in their bows in readiness. The roar of the approaching column was getting louder and both Red Flower Society and the soldiers were afraid that they were reinforcements for the other side.
“Brother Wei, take three others and scatter the Eagle’s Claws,” Chen shouted.
Wei and the others raised their weapons and charged into the Manchu ranks, slaughtering as they went.
A youngster darted out from behind Lu Feiqing saying: “I’m going too!” Chen frowned: it was Li Yuanzhi, once more dressed in boy’s clothes.
When Lu met up with her again after the battle, Yuanzhi had insisted that he take her with him to help rescue Wen. Lu finally agreed, but made her promise that she would do as she was told. Yuanzhi then wrote a letter to her mother in which she said she had decided to go on ahead alone to see her father in Hangzhou.
Chen quickly issued his instructions, and ‘Buddha’ Zhao raced after the carriage and sent two sleeve arrows flying into the eyes of the mule pulling it along. The mule gave a long scream and reared up on its hind legs. The Twin Knights charged to either side of the carriage and flung their Flying Claws at Zhang, who fended them off with his sword. Simultaneously, Priest Wu Chen and Xu attacked Zhang’s back.
“Now!” Chen shouted to Xin Yan. The two soared through the air and landed on top of the carriage.
Zhang heard Chen and Xin Yan land above and behind him and threw a handful of Golden Needles at them.
Chen saw the movement, and pushed Xin Yan off the carriage and placed the shield in front of his own body. There was a patter of metallic noises as the needles hit it, but despite the extraordinary speed of his reflexes, he heard Xin Yan cry out. Knowing the boy had been hit, Chen hastily leapt down to help him. Zhang threw another handful of the needles at Priest Wu Chen and Xu. The Priest flew out of the back of the carriage like an arrow, moving faster and further than the needles. Xu, however, only had time to lift a cotton coverlet in the carriage to block the needles. But his left shoulder was left exposed and with a sudden feeling of numbness, he fell out of the carriage.
Zhang Jin raced over to help him. “Brother Xu, are you all right?” he shouted, bending over. Suddenly he felt a great pain in his back as he was hit by an arrow, and stumbled.
“Brothers! Everyone regroup!” Chen shouted. Arrows were flying towards them like thick clouds of locusts. Zhang Jin put his left hand on Priest Wu Chen’s shoulder and hit out at the arrows with his wolf’s tooth club.
“Tenth Brother, don’t move!” the Priest said. “Control yourself.” He stopped the flow of blood from Zhang Jin’s wound with a touch to the artery and carefully pulled the arrow out. Then he ripped a corner off his robes and bound up the wound.
Then they saw a pitch-black mass of Manchu soldiers surging towards them from the east.
Zhang was ecstatic at the sight of reinforcements arriving, but his breathing was becoming difficult and he knew that his injuries were serious. Chen and the others attacked the carriage once more, and he lifted up Wen’s body, and swung it round and round as a detachment of cavalry charged towards the Red Flower Society fighters with sabres raised. Chen could see that Wen would certainly be killed if they attempted to recapture him by force, so he gave a loud whistle and raced behind a nearby mound with the others following.
Chen conducted a head-count, and found that Xu, Zhou Qi, Yuanzhi, Lord Zhou and Meng were missing.
“Has anyone seen Brother Xu and Lord Zhou?” Chen asked.
Zhang Jin, who was lying on the ground, raised his head and said: “Seventh Brother was injured. Isn’t he here? I’ll go and find him.”
He stood up, but the arrow wound on his back was too serious, and he swayed unsteadily.
“Don’t you move, Tenth Brother,” said ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi. “I’ll go.”
“I’ll go too,” added ‘Crocodile’ Jiang, but Chen held him back. “You and Fourth Sister make your way to the river bank and prepare the rafts,” he said. Jiang and Luo Bing, her hopes dashed again, left.
Shi leapt onto a horse and galloped off around the mound with sword in hand. By this time, the Manchu troops were everywhere. Shi rode up onto higher ground and looked around, but could see no sign of Xu and the others, so he rode into the enemy’s ranks to search for them.
Not long after, Lord Zhou and Meng appeared.
“Have you seen your daughter?” Chen asked. Zhou shook his head, full of anxiety.
“My young pupil has disappeared too,” Lu Feiqing said. “I’ll go and look for them.”
As he rode out, the ranks of the Manchu troops suddenly parted and several horses charged towards him. In the lead was Priest Wu Chen dragging Wei along with his hand. Lu started in surprise when he saw Wei, his whole body covered in blood and dirt, and immediately moved forward to obstruct any pursuers. But the Manchu troops did not dare to obsttruct these ferocious-looking men and let them retreat behind the mound.
Chen quickly went to see Wei, who was delirious, shouting: “Kill the bastards!”
“Ninth Brother has worn himself out with all this killing,” Priest Wu Chen said. “His mind is a little confused. Nothing serious.”
“Have you seen Brother Xu and Brother Shi?” Chen asked.
“I’ll go and look for them” the Priest said.
“There’s also Mistress Zhou and the Master Lu’s pupil,” Chen said.
Priest Wu Chen mounted up, sword at the ready, and charged back into the Manchu ranks. A Manchu officer spurred his horse forward and charged at him with spear raised, but the priest dodged the spear thrust and drove his sword into the officer’s heart. The officer slumped off his horse and the soldiers under his command howled and scattered in all directions. Priest Wu Chen continued his onslaught and soldiers fell wherever his sword went. As he galloped along a stretch of the road, he saw a crowd of soldiers with ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi in the middle fighting fiercely with three officers.
“Get away, I’ll cover you!” Priest Wu Chen shouted.
The two raced back to the mound, but there was still no indication of what had happened to Xu and the others. A Manchu company commander led his soldiers in an attack on the mound occupied by the Red Flower Society, but the heroes immediately killed more than a dozen of them, and the rest retreated.
Chen led his horse up onto the mound. “Brother Meng,” he said, handing him the reins. “Hold it steady and made sure it doesn’t get hit by a stray arrow.” He leapt up onto the horse’s back and stood on the saddle. Looking around, he saw the huge Manchu column surging towards them from the east. A bugle sounded and the column turned into a fiery dragon as each soldier raised a torch. Amidst the glow, he saw a large banner flowing in the wind on which he could just made out the words “Border Pacification General Zhao” written in large characters. Each soldier in the column was riding a tall, sturdy horse, and there was a clanking noise as they marched, indicating they were probably wearing armour.
Chen jumped down from the horse. “Armoured troops on the way,” he shouted. “Everyone head for the river.”
Lord Zhou was very worried about his daughter, but finding her among such a huge body of troops was impossible. The heroes helped up Wei, Zhang Jin and the other wounded, and galloped towards the banks of the Yellow River with the Manchu cavalry in hot pursuit. Luo Bing and Jiang punted the sheepskin rafts up to the shore and took the wounded on board first.
Everyone get on the rafts quickly!” Chen yelled. “Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother, Lord Zhou, we four will hold…”
Before he could finish, a wave of crossbow arrows flew towards them.
“Charge!” roared Priest Wu Chen, and the four threw themselves at the first ranks of cavalry. Lord Zhou’s huge sword rose and fell, cutting Manchu soldiers down from their horses, while ‘Buddha’ Zhao slung copper coins at the eye-slits in their armour. Although it was impossible to see clearly in the dark, he still managed to blind five or six men. By this time, everyone except Chen and the other three had boarded the rafts.
Chen spotted a mounted officer directing the troops, and sprang over to him. He pulled the fficer from his horse and ran for the river bank with him under his arm. The Manchu troops rushed forward to try to save their commanding officer, but they didn’t dare to fire any arrows. Chen leapt onto one of the rafts and Jiang and Luo Bing began to move them out towards the centre of the river.
The Yellow River was in full flood and with the current powerful and turbulant, the two large sheepskin rafts flew off downstream. The hubbub of the great armed column slowly faded as the river roared around them.
The heroes set about tending to the wounded. ‘Leopard’ Wei’s mind gradually cleared and his body was found to be free from wounds. ‘Buddha’ Zhao was an expert at medical treatment as well as with darts and he bound up ‘Iron Pagoda’ Yang’s and Zhang Jin’s wounds. Zhang Jin was more seriously injured, but was in no danger. Xin Yan had been hit by several Golden Needles, and was in such pain that he cried out continually. The needles had penetrated right through the flesh into the bones, and Zhao took a magnet from his medicine bag and drew them out one by one. Luo Bing rowed on silently. Not only had they failed to rescue Wen, but ‘Mastermind’ Xu, Zhou Qi, Lu Feiqing and his pupil had been lost as well, and no-one knew where ‘Scholar’ Yu had got to.
Chen roused the captured Manchu officer. “What the hell was your column doing travelling through the night like that?” he asked.
The officer said nothing. Yang slapped him on the face. “Are you going to talk?” he shouted.
“I’ll talk…I’ll talk,” the officer said quickly, holding his cheek. “What do you want me to say?”
“What was your column doing travelling at night?”
“General Zhao Wei received an Imperial command ordering us to attack the Muslim areas and take them over before a certain date. He was afraid we wouldn’t make it in the time limit, and also that the Muslims would hear of our approach and make preparations. So we’ve been marching day and night.”
“The Muslims are very well-behaved,” said Chen. “Why are you going to attack them?”
“That…that, I don’t know.” the officer said.
“If you are heading for the Muslim areas, why did you come to interfere in our business?”
“General Zhao heard of some bandits making trouble in this area and ordered me to lead a detail to deal with them, but the main army didn’t stop…”
Before he could finish, Yang gave him another slap. “Damn your mother!” he shouted. “It’s you who are the bandits!”
“Yes, yes! I made a mistake!” the officer cried.
Chen was silent for a while, then questioned the officer closely regarding the army’s troop strength, route and rations. Some of it the officer didn’t know, but he did not dare to hide what he did know.
“Head…For…The…Shore” Chen shouted at the top of his voice. Luo Bing and Jiang steered the rafts towards the bank and everyone stepped ashore.
Chen called the Twin Knights over.
“Travel back as fast as you can and find out what happened to the others,” he said. “If they have fallen into the hands of the Manchus, they will certainly be taken back to Beijing along the Great Road. We can intercept them further east and work out some way of rescuing them.”
The Twin Knights nodded and started out.
“Twelfth Brother,” Chen continued, turning to ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Whatever you say, Great Helmsman.”
Chen wrote out a letter under the light of the moon.
“Please take this letter to Master Muzhuolun in the Muslim regions,” he said. “We have only met him and his people once, but they showed the greatest friendship towards us, so we cannot stand idly by. Fourth Sister, please lend your white horse to Twelfth Brother for the trip.” Luo Bing had kept the animal aboard the raft throughout the battle.
Shi mounted up and disappeared in a cloud of dust. With the horse’s phenomenal speed, he estimated he could overtake the army in a day and be in time to warn Muzhuolun.
Chen then directed Jiang to tie the officer’s hands behind his back. They placed him on one of the rafts and pushed it out into the stream and left it for Fate to decide whether he should live or die.
Written by Jin Yong
Translated by Graham Earnshaw
Edited and proofread by audiowuxia.
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