“White Horse Neighs in the Western Wind“, also translated as “Swordswoman Riding West on White Horse”, is a wuxia novella by Jin Yong.
Li Wenxiu, a young Han Chinese girl, loses her parents in the Gobi Desert while escaping from a group of bandits who are after a map of Gaochang. Placed on a white steed, she flees to Kazakh territory and is taken into the care of Old Man Ji, an elderly Han Chinese man. While growing up, she meets Supu, a Kazakh boy, and starts a romance with him. However, Supu’s father disapproves of the relationship between his son and a Han Chinese girl, so they are forced to separate.
White Horse Neighs in the Western Wind
Tock tock tock, tock tock tock ……. In the rolling yellow sands of the great desert in the Muslim Region, the wind whipped the dust and stones high into the air. Two horses were galloping past, one in front of the other. The white horse in front had strong legs and a long body. On it rode a young married woman, who held a little girl, aged about seven or eight, tightly in her arms. The second horse was coloured a date red. On it crouched a man who was tall and thin.
An arrow protruded from the left side of his back. Blood flowed from his back onto the horse’s back, and then onto the ground. He did not dare to pull out the arrow, for he was afraid that he would succumb to the pain and die immediately. But who does not die? But then, who would take care of his lovely wife and young daughter riding before him? Their ruthless enemies were close behind them.
His date-red horse had galloped for many miles, and was completely fatigued. Under its master’s unrelenting whipping and spurring, it was already breathless, and was foaming at the mouth. Suddenly, its legs gave way, and crashed to the ground. The man pulled at the reins with all his strength, but the horse only gave a sorrowful neigh, then trembled violently before dying of exhaustion. The young woman heard the commotion and turned back to look. She was shocked to see the date-red horse die suddenly, and cried, “Da ge (Chinese for elder brother, although the man is the woman’s husband, not brother), what…… what happened?” The man merely frowned and shook his head, only to realise that their enemies were now in sight.
The young woman turned her horse around, and guided it towards her husband’s side. When she saw the arrow sticking out his back, and the pool of blood that has formed, she immediately turned pale and nearly fainted. The little girl cried, “Father, father! There’s a arrow in your back!” The man managed a bitter smile, and said, “It’s all right!” Then he leapt up, and landed gently on the saddle, right behind his wife. Although he was seriously injured, his movements remained light and quick. The young woman turned to look at him, both sadness and concern written on her face. She whispered, “Da ge, you……” The man used his legs to spur the horse on, and grabbed the reins. The white horse sped on.
The white horse was strong and fine, but it had galloped for a long distance without rest, and was tired. Furthermore, it carried three people on its back. Without being whipped, the white horse ran as fast as it could, not caring for its own life. It was as if it knew that this was a matter of life and death.
But after galloping a long distance, it began to slow down……
The enemies were close behind. There were only sixty-three of them, but they had more than a hundred and ninety horses. As soon as their horses got tired, they would switch steeds. At this rate, they would catch up with their quarries in no time.
The man turned around, and saw the silhouettes of the enemies, amidst the storms of yellow sand. After a while, he could see their faces clearly. Gritting his teeth, he said, “Hongmei (‘hong’ is Chinese for rainbow, ‘mei’ is Chinese for younger sister), I have something to request of you. Would you oblige my request?” The young woman smiled at him, saying, “Have I ever disobeyed you in my entire life?” The man replied, “Good. Escape with Xiu’er, prevent our flesh and blood from coming to harm; and also prevent this map of the Gao Chang Labyrinth from coming to harm.” His tone was resolute, as though he was giving an order.
The woman’s voice trembled as she spoke. “Da ge, give the map to them and we’ll concede defeat. Your…… your life is more important.” The man bent down and kissed her left cheek. In a gentle tone, he said, “We have braved innumerous storms together and survived, we may be able to survive this one. Not only do the ‘Three Heroes of Lu Liang’ want this map, they…… they’re doing it for you.” The woman said, “They…… they might spare us, seeing that we learnt under the same master…… I can beg them……” But the man answered sternly, “How can we grovel at others for mercy? This horse cannot take all three of us. Now go!” With a loud cry, he fell off the horse.
The woman reined in her horse, and wanted to help her husband back up, only to see his angry face and hear him say furiously, “Go quickly!” She always obeyed her husband, so she pulled at the reins, urging the horse forwards. But her heart had turned into frozen ice; it was not only her heart, but all the blood in her body seemed to have frozen into ice.
When the pursuing enemies saw the man fall from his horse, they all cheered, “White Horse Li San has fallen!” Some ten people guided their horses towards him, while the rest continued to chase the woman.
The man lay on the ground in a fetal position, not moving at all, as if he were dead. Someone lifted a spear, and pierced his right shoulder. When the spear was removed, blood spurted from the wound, but White Horse Li San did not move one bit.
The leader, a bearded man, said, “He’s completely dead, what’s there to be afraid of? Quick, search his body.” Two men leapt off their horses to search his body. There was a sudden flash of white light. White Horse Li San twirled his long blade, and with two strokes he had killed both men.
Nobody had expected Li San to have feigned death, managing to bear the pain of being stabbed a spear, then suddenly attacking them. Half a dozen men backed their horses away. The bearded leader waved the blade in his hands and shouted, “Li San, you are a man of iron!” Suddenly, he swung the blade towards Li San’s head. Li San used his blade to ward of the blow. But both his shoulders were injured, and his arms contained no more strength. He retreated three steps, and then spat out a mouthful of blood. A dozen men brought their horses forwards, lifted their blades and spears, and brought their weapons down ……
White Horse Li San had been a hero all his life. To his death, he refused to yield. Before he finally collapsed, he managed to kill two more enemies.
Far away, the young woman could hear her husband’s angry howls, and was totally heartbroken. She thought, “Since he is dead, how can I live?” From inside her clothes, she removed a handkerchief woven from sheep’s wool and stuffed it into her daughter’s clothes. She said, “Xiu’er, you must take good care of yourself!” She then whipped the white horse’s buttocks before leaping from the saddle. The horse’s burden was immediately lessened, and it bore the little girl away swiftly. The woman was comforted when she thought, “This horse’s power is matchless, while Xiu’er is light; they will never be able to catch up with her.” In front, the little girl’s cries of “Mama, mama” faded into the distance, while the sound of hoof beats behind her became louder. In her heart, she prayed, “Oh Heaven, please ensure that Xiu’er will be like me, and marry a good man; even though we led a tumultuous life, we were happy together!” she straightened her clothes and smoothed her hair. In a short while, around ten horses rode up to her, led by Shi Zhongjun, one of the Three Heroes of Lu Liang.
The Three Heroes of Lu Liang were sworn brothers. The eldest, Huo Yuanlong, nicknamed ‘Divine Blade Shocks Guanxi’, was the bearded man who had killed White Horse Li San. The second, Shi Zhongjun, nicknamed ‘Plum Blossom Spear’, was a tall and skinny man. The youngest, Chen Dahai, nicknamed ‘Green Python Sword’, was small in size but strong and capable. He was originally a horse thief from Liaodong, and later settled in Shanxi. He hit it off with Huo and Shi, and they eventually opened Jinwei Protection Agency in Taigu Province, Shanxi County.
Shi Zhongjun and Shangguan Hong, Li San’s wife, were fellow disciples learning from the same master. They had been learning martial arts together since childhood.
Shi Zhongjun had always loved his petite and gentle younger martial sister. Their master had intended to play matchmakers, and their fellow martial siblings had treated them as an engaged couple. But Shangguan Hong had a chance meeting with White Horse Li San, and they fell in love at first sight. But her family would not allow them to get married, so Shangguan Hong eloped with him. Shi Zhongjun was extremely upset, and fell seriously ill. From then on, his temperament changed. Yet his love for his younger martial sister did not cease, and he never did get married.
After parting for ten years, the Three Heroes of Lu Liang met Li San and his wife again, in the process of fighting for a map. Sixty enemies pursued Li San and his wife from Ganliang all the way to the Muslim Region. Shi Zhongjun, filled with jealousy and hate, was extremely ruthless when he attacked. He was the one who had shot the arrow protruding from Li San’s back.
After Li San had perished in the great desert, Shi Zhongjun arrived to see Shangguan Hong standing, alone, on a great expanse of land. He felt a tinge of regret, “Since we’ve killed her husband, we must treat her very well from now on.” The westerly wind breezed through her clothes. It was exactly like a decade ago, when he saw her standing on their master’s practicing arena. Shangguan Hong used two daggers as weapons. One had a gold hilt; the other, a silver one. This earned her the nickname of ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’ (‘Sanniangzi’ means something like wife of San). She was smiling, and did not hold any weapons.
Hope filled his heart, and his chest felt hot. His pale white cheeks became tinged with a blush.
He placed his spear on the saddle and leapt off the horse, calling, “Shimei (‘shimei’ is Chinese for younger martial sister)!” Shangguan Hong replied, “Li San is dead!” Shi Zhongjun nodded, and said, “Shimei, although we have been separated for a decade, I …… I still think of you every day.” Shuangguan Hong smiled, saying, “Really? You are lying to me again.” Shi Zhongjun’s heart was beating wildly. This smiling face, this tender voice, had remained unchanged for ten whole years. Gently, he said, “Shimei, from now onwards, I will take care of you and ensure that you will never suffer again.” A sudden strange light flashed in her eyes, and she said, “Shige (‘shige’ is Chinese for elder martial brother), you treat me so well!” She fell into his arms.
Shi Zhongjun was overcome with happiness, and hugged her tightly. Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai grinned at each other, thinking, “Second brother suffered from lovesickness for ten years, now he has finally gotten his just rewards.” Shi Zhongjun smelt a faint fragrance, and was dazed. But he felt Shangguan Hong hugging him, and could not believe that this was really happening. Suddenly, he felt a pain assail him in the stomach, as if someone had stabbed him with a sharp object. He gave a yell, and moved his hands, trying to push Shangguan Hong away, but she clung on to him for dear life. Finally, both of them collapsed to the ground.
Both Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai were shocked by the sudden change of events. They immediately leapt off their horses to attempt to save Shi Zhongjun. When they lifted up Shangguan Hong’s body, they saw a small golden-hilted dagger sticking out from her chest, where a pool of blood had formed. The silver-hilted dagger was protruding out of Shi Zhongjun’s belly. Shangguan Hong was determined to die with her husband. She had hidden the daggers in her clothes; one was pointing inwards and the other, outwards. As Shi Zhongjun embraced her, both of them were stabbed simultaneously.
Shangguan Hong died immediately, while Shi Zhongjun was barely alive. The thought that his terrible fate was caused by his younger martial sister pained him even more than his bodily wounds did. He called out, “Third brother, kill me quickly, so as to end my suffering.” Chen Dahai realised that Shi Zhongjun could not be saved, and glanced at Huo Yuanlong. Huo Yuanlong nodded. Chen Dahai gritted his teeth, and plunged his sword into Shi Zhongjun’s heart.
Huo Yuanlong sighed, “Who would have thought that ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’ would be so strong-willed?” Then one of his subordinates said, “We’ve searched White Horse Li San’s body, but there is no sign of the map.” Huo Yuanlong pointed to Shangguan Hong’s body, and said, “Then it must be with her.” After a detailed search, Shangguan Hong’s body yielded nothing but some pieces of silver and several spare sets of clothes. Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai glanced at each other, feeling both disappointed and puzzled. They had chased Li San and his wife from Ganliang to the Muslim Regions, and had keept a close watch on them all the time. If the map had changed hands, they would have noticed it immediately. Also, since Li San and his wife were willing to sacrifice their lives for the map, they would not have given it to others so easily. Chen Dahai examined the objects in Shangguan Hong’s little bundles closely, and found a set of clothes belonging to a little girl. Realisation hit him, and he cried, “Eldest brother, we must go after that little girl immediately!” Huo Yuanlong replied, “Don’t worry, in this great desert, where can a little girl go?” Waving his left arm, he ordered, “Two of you stay behind to bury Second Master Shi, while the rest of you follow me!” He pulled at the reins and rode away. With much hubbub, the remaining hundred horses continued the chase.
That little girl had rode for quite a long time, and was now more than twenty li away. But on the great, flat expanse of desert, one could see up to ten li away. Even though the girl was a long way ahead, they would eventually catch up with her.
The chase lasted till evening. Suddenly Chen Dahai cried, “In front!” Far away, they could see a black speck moving at the horizon. That white horse was strong, but it had not stopped galloping since morning, and was exhausted. Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai kept switching steeds, and rode closer to the girl.
The little girl, Li Wenxiu, lay on the horse’s back. Exhausted, she had already fallen asleep. She had not eaten for a day, and the burning sun had parched her lips. The white horse seemed to have humanly intelligence, and knew that the pursuing men would harm its little mistress. Summoning up all its energy, it ran, towards the blood-red setting sun. Suddenly, it reared up, and neighed. It had detected a strange smell, and its neigh could not mask its fright.
Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai had excellent martial arts skills, and the long journey had done them no harm. Suddenly they felt a tightness in their chests, and found it hard to breathe. Huo Yuanlong said, “Third brother, this does not seem right!” Chen Dahai looked around, taking in the surroundings. In the northwest, close to the setting sun, rose misty yellow clouds. Purple light flashed in the yellow clouds continually. The view was strange yet beautiful. None of them had ever witnessed such a sight.
The yellow clouds kept enlarging. In a short while, it had covered nearly half the sky. At this time, most of the men were dripping with perspiration, and were breathing heavily. Chen Dahai said, “Eldest brother, there seems to be an approaching sandstorm.” Huo Yuanlong replied, “yes, but we must catch that little girl before finding a place to shelter in……” He had not even finished his sentence, when a gust of strong wind blew, bringing with it a large amount of yellow sand. His mouth and nose were filled with sand, and he was unable to continue speaking.
Desert sandstorms come without warning. There was a sudden gale, and seven or eight men were blown off their horses. Huo Yuanlong called, “Everyone get off their horses and crowd together!” They tried their best to weather the sandstorm. But in the boundless desert, being attacked by a colossal sandstorm, is like a tiny boat in the middle of a huge sea. There was nothing they could do but submit to the will of Heaven.
The sandstorm was increasingly violent, and an increasing amount of sand covered the horses and men……
Although Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai were brave men, they trembled in the face of such a great sandstorm. Both thought, “We originally intended to find that Gao Chang Labyrinth, and journeyed from Shanxi all the way to this great desert. Yet it seems that we will perish here.” The roar of the wind sounded like a thousand demons calling out together.
The sandstorm raged for a night, and eventually died down the next morning.
Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai climbed out from beneath the sand, and counted the remaining men and horses. They had not suffered great losses: two men and five horses had died. However, everyone was extremely tired, and there was no sign of the little girl riding on the white horse. She had probably been buried by the sandstorm. If strong men versed in martial arts were unable to withstand the storm, what chance did a delicate little girl have?
The men built fires and started cooking, and rested for a while. Then Huo Yuanlong announced, “Whoever spots the girl and her white horse will receive fifty taels of gold!” The men who had followed him to the Muslim Region were actually wandering pugilists from around Ganliang. They would do anything for money, and fifty taels of gold was not a small sum. The men cheered, and fanned out in search for their quarries. All of them thought of only three things: the white horse, the little girl and the fifty taels of gold.
Some of them went towards the west; others, towards the northwest; and the rest towards the southwest. They arranged to meet at a place which was located sixty li due west, at nightfall.
Ding Tong, one of the men, mounted a horse and rode towards the northwest. He had worked in the Jinwei Protection Agency for seventeen years. Although his martial arts skills were not spectacular, he was capable and experienced, and was an invaluable help to the ‘Three Heroes of Lu Liang’. After riding for twenty miles in a single breath, he saw not a trace of his companions. Alone in the great desert, he suddenly felt lonely and afraid. Riding up a sand dune, he looked around, and saw a patch of green situated in the northwest, where seven or eight tall willows grew. He was pleasantly surprised to find a lush oasis in the middle of the barren desert. He thought, “There must be a source of water in this oasis, and even if it is uninhabited, our men and horses may rest here.” His horse also saw the oasis. Instantly, its strength was multiplied by a hundred times. Without even needing Ding Tong to spur it on, it immediately galloped towards the oasis.
After riding about ten li, he reached the oasis, and saw that it was boundless. Cattle and goats were everywhere. Six to seven hundred tents were pitched, close together, at the western end.
Ding Tong was amazed by such a sight. Since he had stepped into the Muslim Regions, all the tribes he had seen had around thirty to forty tents grouped together. This was the first time he had seen such a huge tribe.
By looking at the design of the tents, one could deduce that they were Kazaks.
The Kazaks were the bravest people among all the different tribes living in the Muslim Region. Both men and women grew up on horseback since childhood. All the men carried blades, and their riding, shooting and swordfighting skills were excellent. There was a proverb which said, “A Kazak could defeat a hundred cowards; a hundred Kazaks could rule the Muslim Region.” Ding Tong had heard of this proverb, and thought, “Since I’m now among the Kazaks, I must be extremely careful.” At the foot of a small mountain in the northeast was a lone thatched hut. The hut had walls made from mud, and a roof made from grass. Its design resembled the brick huts built by the ethnic Han people. The only difference was that the thatched hut was cruder. Ding Tong thought, “I’ll take a look at this hut first.” So he rode towards the thatched hut. His horse had not eaten for a day and a night, so it moved slowly, eating two mouthfuls of grass every time it took a step.
Ding Tong kicked the horse’s belly, and the horse immediately galloped towards the hut. Squinting, he could see a tall white horse, with strong legs and a long mane, tethered behind the hut. It was White Horse Li San’s steed. He could not control himself from yelling out, “The white horse, the white horse! Here it is!” He leapt off his horse, and removed a short, sharp knife from his boot, and hid it in his left sleeve. Quietly, he moved to the back of the hut. As he was about to peer into the house through the window, the white horse began to neigh, as if it had spotted him.
Ding Tong thought angrily, “That beast!” Calming his nerves, he peered through the window once again. At that same moment, a face peered back at him. Dong Tong’s nose touched the other man’s nose. The other man had a wrinkled face, but his eyes were bright. Shocked, Ding Tong toppled backwards, and shouted, “Who are you?” The man replied coldly, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” The man spoke in Chinese.
Ding Tong regained his composure. Smiling, he said, “My surname is Ding, and my given name, Tong. I stumbled onto this place accidentally, and must have given Old Master a shock. May I know Old Master’s name?” The old man said, “My surname is Ji.” Ding Tong kept smiling and said, “To meet Old Master Ji in the desert is like reuniting with relatives. May I be so bold as to ask for a cup of tea?” The old man Ji said, “How many men do you have with you?” Ding Tong replied, “I am alone.” The old man humphed in disbelief, and his cold gaze scanned Ding Tong’s face. Ding Tong felt uneasy, but could only force himself to smile.
A cold stare, and an embarrassed smile lasted only a moment. The old man Ji said, “If you want a drink of tea, use the front door. There’s no need to climb in by the windows!” Ding Tong laughed and said, “Yes, yes!” He walked to the front door and entered the hut. The hut was sparsely furnished, but the furniture was neat and tidy, and the floor had been swept clean. Ding Tong sat down and looked around. A little girl, holding a bowl of tea, walked out from a back room. Her eyes met Ding Tong’s. Shocked, the girl dropped the bowl. Crash! The bowl shattered.
Ding Tong was overjoyed. Huo Yuanlong had promised a reward for the capture of this little girl. After he had spotted the white horse, he had expected that the girl would be in the hut. But seeing this little girl for himself made him extremely happy.
During the sandstorm last night, Li Wenxiu had fainted on the horse’s back. The white horse had detected the smell of water and grass. Braving the sandstorm, it had galloped to this oasis. When the old man Ji saw that she was dressed in ethnic Han clothes, he quickly saved her. In the middle of the night, Li Wenxiu awoke. Not seeing her parents, she began to cry. Seeing that she was very adorable, he felt great pity for her. He asked her how she had come to this desert, and who her parents were. Li Wenxiu replied that her father was called “White Horse Li San”, and her mother was “Mama”, and that she had overheard their pursuers addressing her mother as “Sanniangzi”. As for why she had come in the Muslim Region, she had no answer. The old man Ji muttered, “White Horse Li San, White Horse Li San, isn’t he a chivalrous robber (meaning something like Robin Hood, I had no idea how to translate the original Chinese phrase) from Jiangnan? What is he doing in the Muslim Region?” He let Li Wenxiu drink a large bowl of junket, then put her into bed. The old man recalled events which occurred a decade ago, his trend of thought rising and falling, causing his sleeplessness.
Li Wenxiu slept till daybreak. After she woke up, she pleaded with Grandfather Ji to take her to find her parents. At the same time, Ding Tong was wandering around suspiciously, and peering into the window. Grandfather Ji had noticed everything.
After Li Wenxiu dropped the bowl she was holding, the old man Ji walked up to her. Li Wenxiu rushed into his bosom, crying, “Grandfather, he……. he’s the bad man who was chasing me.” The old man smoothed her hair, and said gently, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid. He is not a bad man.” Li Wenxiu replied, “Yes, yes. He and his men chased us, and hit my father and mother.” The old man thought, “White Horse Li San and I are neither kith nor kin. Therefore, even if he has made some enemies, it is best that I do not get mixed up in his affairs.” Ding Tong gave a sidelong glance at the old man, and saw that he had a full head of white hair, and not a strand was black; he was also tall and big, but was hunchbacked, and was obviously aged. So he thought, “This old man must be at least ninety years of age, if not a hundred. If there is no one else in the hut, then I can easily knock him unconscious, and take the girl and the white horse away before new problems start cropping up.” He suddenly cupped his right ear, as if listening intently, and said, “Someone’s here.” Then he strode towards the window.
The old man did not hear anything, but after hearing Ding Tong speak so vividly, he walked to the window. The only thing he saw were the cattle and goats bending their heads and munching on the grass. It was quiet everywhere, and there was no sign of any stranger. He asked, “There’s nobody outside!” Suddenly, Ding Tong gave a hideous laugh and struck out at the old man’s head.
Even though the man was aged, his movements remained agile. When Ding Tong’s palm was inches away from his head, he slid to the side. With a backhand movement, he managed to grasp Ding Tong’s right wrist. Ding Tong’s movements were just as quick. Although he was unable to free his right hand, he used his left hand to grab a dagger hidden in his clothes. There was a flash of white light, and the dagger’s sharp blade penetrated the old man’s left back.
Li Wenxiu yelled, “Oh no!” She had spent two years learning martial arts from her parents. When she saw the old man get stabbed, she leapt forward, and punched the small of Dong Tong’s back with her little fists. At this moment, the old man used this left hand to strike his belly with great force. Ding Tong gave a grunt, and crumpled to the ground. He spat out some blood, then died.
Li Wenxiu said in a trembling voice, “Grandfather, the knife is still in your…… your back.” The old man Ji saw tears glistening in her eyes, and thought, “This girl certainly has a kind heart.” Li Wenxiu continued, “Grandfather, your wound…… shall I pull the knife out for you?” She stretched her hand out to grasp the hilt. The old man’s face blackened, and said furiously, “Don’t bother about me.” His body swayed, and he held onto the table for support. He tottered towards his room, and shut the door with a slam. After seeing his sudden change in temper, Li Wenxiu became terrified. When she saw Ding Tong lying on the ground in a heap, she was afraid that he would revive and attack her, and wanted to run out of the hut. But she remembered that the old man was seriously injured, and since there was no one to care for him, she could not leave in him in the lurch.
She thought for a while, then went to his door, and knocked softly on it. When she heard no reply, she called, “Grandfather, Grandfather, are you in pain?” The old man replied roughly, “Get lost, get lost! Don’t disturb me!” The tone of his voice was so different from his usual amiable one. Li Wenxiu was too frightened to speak, and sat on the floor, petrified. Cradling her head in her hands, she began to cry. Suddenly, the door swung open. A hand stroked her hair gently, and said, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, Grandfather’s wound is nothing serious.” Li Wenxiu lifted her head, and saw that he was smiling, and was gladdened. Her tears became a smile. The old man laughed and said, “You were crying and now laughing, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” She hid her head in his bosom. She found parental love from this old man.
The old man knitted his brows, and scrutinised Ding Tong’s body, and thought, “There is no enmity between us, why did he try to harm me?” Li Wenxiu said, “Grandfather, how is the wound on your back?” The old man Ji had put on a long robe, and it was impossible to see how his wound was.
When he heard Li Wenxiu mention this incident, his face showed rage, as if his being stabbed had been a great insult. Roughly, he said, “Why are you so longwinded?” The white horse outside the hut gave a long neigh, and then a short moan. The old man took a bucket of yellow dye from the firewood shed. The yellow dye was used by shepherds to mark their animals, so that their animals would not be mixed up with others’. The dye was resistant to the elements and could not be removed easily. Using a brush, he painted the horse’s entire body with the yellow dye. Then he went to the Kazak tents to beg for an old set of clothes belonging to a Kazak boy, and told Li Wenxiu to change into them. Li Wenxiu was intelligent, and said, “Grandfather, you want to prevent the bad men from recognizing me, right?” The old man Ji nodded, and sighed, “Grandfather is old. Ai, I was stabbed by him just now.” This time, he brought up the incident by himself, but Li Wenxiu did not dare to reply.
The old man Ji buried Ding Tong’s body, and slaughtered his horse, destroying all the incriminating evidence. Then he sat at the front door, sharpening a long blade on a whetstone.
His efforts were not in vain. That night, Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai’s men charged into this oasis, pillaging and plundering without restraint. Normally, there were no bandits in this area. Thus, even though the Kazaks were brave, they were caught unprepared. The strong men had all gone to the north to hunt down the wolves which harmed their cattle and goats, leaving only the old, the weak, the women and the children to look after their tents. Seven Kazak men were killed, while five women were kidnapped. The men also barged into the old man’s hut, but they were not suspicious of the old man and the little Kazak boy. Li Wenxiu’s face was smeared with dirt and mud, and she cowered in a corner. Nobody noticed that her eyes shone with hatred. But she saw clearly that her father’s sword was hanging at Huo Yuanlong’s waist, while her mother’s daggers were stuck in Chen Dahai’s waistband.
Her parents always carried these weapons about their persons. She was young, but could guess that her parents had met with a terrible fate.
On the fourth day, the Kazak men returned from the north, carrying with them a pile of dead wolves. They immediately organised themselves into several contingents and went after Huo Yuanlong’s men for revenge. But the Kazaks lost trace of them in the huge desert. They only found the five women who had been kidnapped. They were reduced to five corpses, all stripped bare, and all of them had died miserably. They also found the bodies of White Horse Li San and Shangguan Hong, and brought all the corpses back.
Li Wenxiu threw herself onto her parents’ bodies, and sobbed uncontrollably. A Kazak lifted his boot and gave her a hard kick, and scolded roughly, “These Han bandits who have been punished by Allah!” The old man carried Li Wenxiu home, refusing to dispute with the Kazak. In her little heart, Li Wenxiu thought, “Why are there so many bad men around? Why are they all bullying me?”In the middle of the night, Li Wenxiu awoke from her sleep crying. When she opened her eyes, she saw someone sitting at the side of her bed. She cried out in alarm, and sat up. But it was only the old man Ji, gazing at her with eyes filled with affection. He stretched out his hand to stroke her hair, saying, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, it’s only Grandfather.” Li Wenxiu’s tears rolled down her face like a broken thread of pearls. She lay in his arms, and her tears wet his clothes. The old man said, “Little girl, since your parents are dead, you may acknowledge me as your real grandfather, and live with me. Grandfather will take good care of you.” Sobbing, Li Wenxiu nodded. Then she remembered the bad men who had killed her parents, and the ferocious Kazak who had kicked her.
The force of this kick had been great, causing a large swelling at her waist. She asked, “Why is everybody bullying me when I did not do anything bad?” The old man Ji sighed, and said, “In this world, the people who always get bullied are the ones who never commit evil deeds.” He poured her a bowl of warm junket from a clay flask, and watched her finish drinking it. Then he covered her snugly with a quilt, and said, “Xiu’er, that man who kicked you is named Su Lu’ke. He is a good, honest man.” Li Wenxiu’s eyes widened, bewildered. She said, “Is he…… he a good man?” The old man nodded, saying, “Yes, he is a good man. Like you, two of his nearest, dearest ones died in a single day. One of them is his wife; the other is his eldest son. They were killed by those evil men, so now he believes that the Hans are all bad people. He scolded you in Kazak, saying that you were ‘these Han bandits punished by Allah’. But you mustn’t hate him, for like you, he is grieved in his heart. No, he is much older, and the grief he feels is much greater and deeper than yours. Li Wenxiu listened, stunned. She did not hate this bearded Kazak man, and was only frightened by his fierce looks. Suddenly she recalled that his eyes had filled with tears, but they had not fallen. She did not understand why adults’ grief would be greater and deeper than children’s, but could not refrain from sympathising with this Kazak man.
From outside the window, came an intriguing birdsong. The sound came from far away, but could be heard clearly. It was sweet, yet sad, like a young girl singing a soft, melodious song.
Li Wenxiu cocked her ears and listened. The birdsong gradually faded away in the distance. Her grieving heart was momentarily comforted. Lost in thought, she said, “Grandfather, this bird sang really well.” The old man Ji replied, “Yes, it sang really well! That was a Tianling bird (‘tian’ is Chinese for sky, ‘ling’ is Chinese for bell), and its birdsong is like silver bells from heaven. These birds only sing at night, and rest in the day. Some say these birds were once stars which fell from the heavens. Some Kazaks say that the most beautiful, most melodious-voiced girl from the pastures died, and her body turned into these birds. Her beloved stopped loving her, and she died from broken-heartedness.” Perplexed, Li Wenxiu asked, “She was the most beautiful and had the best voice, why did he stop loving her?” The old man Ji thought for a while, and sighed, “There are many things in this world which children cannot understand.” Then, the Tianling bird far away in the pastures began to sing again.
The birdsong evoked both sweetness and sadness in people’s hearts.
Henceafter, Li Wenxiu lived in the old man’s hut, helping him cook and herd goats. They were like grandfather and granddaughter.
At night, when Li Wenxiu awoke from her dreams, she listened to the Tianling birds sing. Their birdsong lulled her back to dreamland. She dreamed of the willows and peach blossoms in Jiangnan, her father’s embrace and her mother’s smiling face…… Autumn passed, winter passed, and Li Wenxiu lived her days peacefully. She learnt how to speak Kazak, and learnt about the matters of the pastures.
The old man Ji knew how to brew strong and fragrant liquor which the Kazak men loved to drink.
He knew how to cure domestic animals’ diseases. The animals which the Kazaks could not cure were always healed by him.
These animals were the Kazaks’ life. Although they did not like the Hans, they could not do without him. Thus, they exchanged their cattle and goats for his wine, and invited him to cure their sick animals.
The Kazaks would move their camp around the pastures from time to time. Sometimes, the old man would follow them; sometimes he would stay in his hut, waiting for their return.
One night, Li Wenxiu heard a Tianling bird singing again. Its song became softer as it flew further away. Finally, she could not hear anything. Li Wenxiu got up quietly, and got dressed. She went outside to rein her horse. Afraid that she would wake the old man up, she led the white horse for a long distance before mounting it. She rode in the direction of the birdsong.
The night sky above the pastures was very high and very blue, and the stars shone brightly. The green grass and little flowers emitted a floral fragrance.
The birdsong was clearer now. It was both sweet and charming. As she listened, Li Wenxiu’s heart sang with joy. Gently, she got off the horse, and allowed it to graze on the grass freely. She lay on the grass, facing the sky, enjoying the song.
The Tianling bird sang a short while, and then flew a few zhang away. Li Wenxiu followed it by crawling on the ground. She heard the bird beat its wings, and saw this small, pale yellow bird pecking for food on the ground. It pecked a few mouthfuls, and flew a short distance off, and found some more food.
The Tianling bird was pecking away merrily. There was a sudden ‘clap’. A black object flew up from the middle of the tall grass, and covered the Tianling bird.
Li Wenxiu’s gasps of horror were mixed with a boy’s shouts of delight. A Kazak boy jumped out from the tall grass, crying out proudly, “Caught it, caught it!” He used his coat to contain the bird. Its frightened chirps could be faintly heard coming from inside the coat.
Li Wenxiu was both stunned and furious. She called out, “What are you doing?” The boy answered, “I’m catching Tianling birds. Are you catching them too?” Li Wenxiu said, “Why must you catch them? Isn’t it better to let them sing freely and happily?” The boy said, grinning, “I catch and play with them.” He stretched his right hand into his coat. When he removed the hand, he had grabbed that pale yellow bird. The Tianling bird fluttered its wings continuously, but it was unable to free itself from the boy’s grasp. Li Wenxiu said, “Let it go, can’t you see how pitiful it is?” The boy said, “I scattered wheat grains on the path as I went along, and attracted this bird over here. Whoever asked it to eat my wheat grains? Haha!” Li Wenxiu was dumbfounded. This was the first time she understood the meaning of ‘trap’. He knew the little bird wanted to eat wheat grains, so he scattered them, leading it to its doom. She was too young to understand that, for thousands of years, people had always quoted this proverb, ‘people die for wealth; birds die for food’. She felt an indistinct fear for plots, and realised the attraction of ‘lure’. Of course, she had a blurry idea of what these ideas meant, and could not fully comprehend them.
They boy played with the Tianling bird, making it twitter in pain. Li Wenxiu said, “Would you please give the bird to me?” The boy replied, “Then what will you give me?” Li Wenxiu felt in her clothes, but had nothing with her. She thought, then said, “I will sew you a pretty pouch to hang on your body.” The boy laughed, “I won’t fall for your trap. You might go back on your words tomorrow.” Li Wenxiu turned red, and said, “I will certainly give you what I promised. Why should I go back on my words?” Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t believe you.”
Under the moonlight, he saw that she was wearing a jade bangle on her left wrist which sparkled gently. He said carelessly, “Unless you give this to me.” The bangle was from her mother, and other than this bangle, she had no other memento to remember her mother by. She was reluctant to part with it, but when she saw how pitiful the bird looked, she removed it from her wrist, saying, “For you!” The boy did not expect her to agree to his request. As he took the jade bangle, he said, “You won’t want it back, will you?” Li Wenxiu answered, “Of course not!” The little boy replied, “Good!” Then he handed the Tianling bird to her.
Li Wenxiu held the bird with both palms, and felt its soft body, and its rapid but faint heartbeat. Using three fingers from her right hand, she stroked the feathers on its back gently. Opening her palms, she said, “You can go! But next time you must be more careful, and not get caught again.” The bird spread open its wings and flew back into the grass. Puzzled, the boy asked, “Why did you release the bird? Didn’t you exchange the jade bangle for it?” He held onto the bangle tightly, as if afraid that Li Wenxiu would want him to return it. Li Wenxiu said, “Now the bird can fly and can sing freely, and it is happy.” The boy cocked his head and looked at her and queried, “Who are you?” She responded, “My name is Li Wenxiu, what’s yours?” The boy said, “My name is Su Pu.” After speaking, he jumped up and yelled at the top of his lungs.
Su Pu was two years older than Li Wenxiu. He was very tall, and looked rather mighty as he stood in the pastures. Li Wenxiu said, “You’re very strong, aren’t you?” Su Pu was very pleased, for this little girl’s casual comment described what he was most proud of. He pulled a short knife from his waistband, and said, “Last month, I used this knife to attack a wolf and nearly killed it. Unfortunately, it escaped.” Li Wenxiu was startled, “You’re that powerful?” Su Pu felt even prouder of himself, and said, “One night, two wolves came to prey on my family’s sheep. My father wasn’t home, so I grabbed a knife to chase the wolves away. When the larger wolf same my flaming torch, it escaped. But with one blow, I injured the other wolf.” Li Wenxiu asked, “You injured the smaller one?” Su Pu felt embarrassed, but nodded. He quickly added, “But if the larger wolf hadn’t escaped, I would’ve killed it with one blow.” Although he said this, he wasn’t really certain that he could do it. But Li Wenxiu believed him wholeheartedly, and said, “The bad wolves want to bite the little sheep, they deserve to be killed. Next time you kill a wolf, could you please inform me so that I can take a look?” Su Pu said cheerfully, “All right! When I kill a wolf, I’ll skin it and give its pelt to you.” Li Wenxiu said, “Thank you! I’ll make Grandfather a wolfskin mat, for he has given his own mat to me.” Su Pu replied, “No! You use the one I give you, and return your grandfather’s mat to him.” Li Wenxiu nodded, “That is as well.” In both their little hearts, unfulfilled hopes of the future were no different from incidents of the past. They both dreamed of killing a wolf, but acted as if the wolf was already dead.
In this way, the two children became friends. Su Pu, with his ruggedness and boldness characteristic of Kazak men, and Li Wenxiu, with her gentleness and kindness characteristic of Han women, got along very well.
After a few days, Li Wenxiu sewed a little pouch and filled it with malt candy, and took it to Su Pu.
The gift had given this little boy a surprise. After exchanging the little bird for a jade bangle, he already felt that he had gotten an advantage. Kazaks are born honest, and so was Su Pu. He felt that he should provide some form of compensation for Li Wenxiu. Thus, he spent one night on pastures, and caught two Tianling birds. The next day, he gave the birds to Li Wenxiu. However, his generous gesture was misintentioned. Li Wenxiu spent a long time talking to Su Pu before he realised that she liked Tianling birds to be free, and not suffering in captivity. Su Pu finally understood. However, at the bottom of his heart, he felt that her kindness was rather silly, eccentric and laughable.
As the days passed, Li Wenxiu’s parents did not appear as frequently in her dreams as before, and the traces of tears on her pillow gradually lessened. More smiles appeared on her face, more songs came out from her mouth. Whenever she and Su Pu herded sheep together, they could hear young couples’ ‘question-and-answer’ love songs from far away in the pastures. Li Wenxiu found these sentimental songs pleasant to her ears. After listening to them frequently, she could hum them without difficulty.
Of course, she did not understand what the songs meant. Why would a man fall head over heels for a woman? Why did a woman admire a man so? Why did hearing your sweetheart’s footsteps make your heart beat violently? Why did graceful figures cause people to suffer sleepless nights? But she could sing these songs well with her clear, melodious voice. Those who heard her all said, “This little girl can sing very well, just like a Tianling bird from the pastures.” During the freezing winter, the Tianling birds had all migrated south in search of warmer quarters. But Li Wenxiu’s songs still reverberated throughout the pastures, “Oh, my beloved herder, may I know how old you are? When you wander in the desert alone at night, would you mind if I accompany you?” At this point, there would be a short pause in the singing. All those who heard the singing thought in their hearts, “After hearing this beautiful voice, who wouldn’t want to be your companion?” Then the singing would continue, “Ah, my dear, please don’t be angry, it is hard to know who’s good and who’s bad at once. For the Gobi Desert to become a garden, it only thing needed is a well-matched couple.” Flowers bloomed in the hearts of those who listened, and even the coldest, cruellest hearts were warmed, “If a well-matched couple gets together, the Gobi Desert would naturally become a garden, and nobody would be angry with you.” The older people became younger by two decades, while the hearts of the youths filled with joy. But Li Wenxiu did not understand the meanings of the love songs she sang.
The one who listened to her songs the most was Su Pu. He did not understand the hidden meanings of these love songs from the pastures, until one day, they met a wolf in the snow.
The appearance of this wolf was extremely sudden. Su Pu and Li Wenxiu were sitting, shoulder to shoulder, on a small hill, watching the sheep scattered all over the pastures.
As usual, Li Wenxiu was telling him stories. Some of these stories were told to her by her mother, others were told to her by old man Ji, and the rest she made up. Su Pu liked the old man’s thrilling stories the best, and disliked the childish tales which Li Wenxiu made up the most. But a suspenseful story retold a few times would lose its suspense, thus he was forced to listen patiently to how the little white rabbit could not find its mother, and how the little spotted dog helped it look for its mother. Suddenly, Li Wenxiu toppled backwards with a loud cry. A huge grey wolf was baring its sharp teeth at her throat.
The wolf had crept quietly towards them from the back, so both children had not noticed it. Li Wenxiu had learnt some martial arts from her mother, so she instinctively tilted her head backwards, avoiding the wolf’s bites aimed at her throat.
When Su Pu saw how huge the wolf was, he was so frightened that his legs softened. But he immediately thought, “I must save her!” Grabbing a short knife from his waistband, he threw himself forward, and stabbed the wolf in the back.
The grey wolf’s bones were very hard, and the short knife slid down its back, cutting only a little skin and flesh. But the grey wolf was realised that it was in danger. Letting go of Li Wenxiu, it opened its large mouth wide and leapt upwards. Its forelegs landed on Su Pu’s shoulders, and it attempted to bite his face.
Su Pu was stunned and fell backwards. The wolf’s movements were as quick as lightning. Putting some force on its forelegs, its sharp white teeth was already touching Su Pu’s cheeks. Li Wenxiu was terrified, but she mustered up her courage. With much strength, she tugged the grey wolf’s tail backwards. The grey wolf moved back a step, but it was extremely hungry and planted its feet firmly on the ground. Li Wenxiu thus was unable to pull it away. It attempted to bite Su Pu again.
Su Pu yelled loudly as the wolf bit his left shoulder. Li Wenxiu was on the verge of tears, but she managed to summon all her strength and pulled the wolf backwards. The wolf gave a howl of pain, and released its grip on Su Pu’s shoulder. Dazed, Su Pu thrust his knife forwards, and by chance stabbed the wolf’s soft belly. The entire knife sank into the wolf, and its hilt could not even be seen. He was about to pull out the knife and stab the wolf again when it bounded up violently, rolled in the snow several times, and died facing upwards.
As the grey wolf rolled about, Li Wenxiu also took a few tumbles. But she still clung onto the wolf’s tail, never letting go. Su Pu struggled to get up. Seeing the huge grey wolf lying dead in the snow, he was momentarily astounded. Then he cried jubilantly, “I’ve killed a big wolf, I’ve killed a big wolf!” Stretching his hand to help Li Wenxiu up, he said proudly, “A’xiu, look, I’ve killed a big wolf!” He was so proud of himself that although his shoulder was bleeding profusely, he did not feel any pain. Li Wenxiu realised that his woolen jacket and soaking with blood and quickly pulled it open. She took a handkerchief from inside her clothes, and pressed down on his bleeding wound, asking, “Is it painful?” If Su Pu had been alone, he would be wailing loudly in pain. But at this moment his heart was filled with lofty heroism, and shook his head, saying, “I’m not afraid of pain!” Suddenly, someone from behind said, “A’pu, what are you doing?” Both of them turned their heads, and saw a large bearded man riding on a horse. Su Pu cried, “Father, look, I’ve killed a wolf.” The large man was pleased, and got off his horse. He saw that his son’s face was spattered with blood, and then ran a glance over Li Wenxiu’s face. He asked Su Pu, “You were bitten by the wolf?” Su Pu replied, “I was listening to A’xiu tell stories, and suddenly this wolf wanted to bite her……” Instantly, the large man’s face darkened. Gazing at Li Wenxiu, he said icily, “Are you the daughter of those Hans punished by Allah?” Li Wenxiu recognized him as Su Lu’ke, the man who had kicked her. She recalled old man Ji’s words, “His wife and eldest son were both killed by Han bandits overnight, and thus he now hates Hans terribly.” She nodded, and was about to say, “My father and mother were also harmed by those bandits.” Before she could say a word, there was a loud ‘swish’. A long reddish gash appeared on Su Pu’s face. His father had used a horsewhip to lash his face.
Su Lu’ke yelled, “I told you to hate the Han people for all eternity! But you forgot what I said, and actually went off to play with a Han girl, and even risking your life for her!” With another ‘swish’, he lashed his son a second time.
Su Pu did not dodge, but gazed dumbfounded at Li Wenxiu, and asked, “Is she really one of the Hans punished by Allah?” Su Lu’ke roared, “Isn’t she?” With another ‘swish’, he whipped Li Wenxiu’s face. Li Wenxiu moved two steps backwards, pressing her face with her hands. Su Pu had already been seriously injured by the wolf, and after being whipped twice, he was unable to support himself, and crumpled onto the ground.
Su Lu’ke was shocked when he saw that his son had shut his eyes and fainted. He carried his son, and leapt onto the horse’s back. He threw out a circle of rope, and lassoed the dead wolf’s neck. With a kick, the horse galloped off. The dead wolf was pulled along, leaving a long trail of blood in between two rows of hoofprints in the now. After riding about ten zhang, Su Lu’ke turned his head, and gave Li Wenxiu a poisonous glare, as if saying, “If I see you again, I’ll give you a good hiding.” Li Wenxiu was unafraid of his glare. But she felt an emptiness in her heart, for she knew that from this day onwards, Su Pu would not longer befriend her, and he would no longer listen to her sing and tell stories. She felt that the wind was so cold that it was unbearable, and the gash on her face hurt intensely as her pulse raced.
Sadly, she drove her sheep home. The old man Ji noticed a lot of blood on her clothes, and that there was a reddish mark of a whip on her face. Shocked, he questioned her on what had happened. Li Wenxiu simply said, “I was careless, and fell down.” Of course the old man did not believe her. But even after repeated questionings, Li Wenxiu continued to say the same thing. When he questioned her anxiously, she burst into tears and refused to speak anymore.
That night, Li Wenxiu ran a high fever, and her little face was flushed bright red. She raved continuously, “Big grey wolf! Su Pu, Su Pu, save me quickly! ……Hans punished by Allah……” The old man Ji was able to guess what had happened, and was extremely anxious. Fortunately, at dawn, Li Wenxiu’s fever subsided, and she fell into a deep slumber.
Her illness lasted for more than a month. When she finally got out of bed, the harsh winter had ended. The snow on the mountains had begun to melt. The melted snow formed little streams, flowing down into the pastures. Tender blades of grass had started to appear in the pastures.
One day, Li Wenxiu awoke. She opened the door, intending to bring the sheep to the pastures. Then she saw a wolfskin mat outside the door. Li Wenxiu was stunned. The colour of the fur was exactly the same as the colour of the fur of the wolf which had tried to bite her in the snow that day. She bent down and saw that there was a hole made by a knife stab in the wolfskin’s belly area. Her heart thumped quickly, for she knew that Su Pu had not forgotten her, and he had not forgotten what he had said, secretly placing the wolfskin in front of her door in the middle of the night. She hid the wolfskin in her room, and did not mention it to the old man Ji. She herded the sheep to the pastures, and then went to their usual meeting place to wait for Su Pu.
She waited until sunset, but Su Pu did not turn up. She saw the flock of sheep belonging to Su Pu’s family, but the shepherd was a youth aged about seventeen or eighteen. Li Wenxiu thought, “Could it be that Su Pu has not yet recovered from his injuries? But then, how did he place the wolfskin outside my door?” She badly wanted to go to his tent to take a peek at him, but then she recalled Su Lu’ke’s whip.
In the middle of the night, she mustered up her courage, and walked to the back of Su Pu’s tent. She did not know the purpose of her visit. Was it to say, “Thank you for your wolfskin?” Was it to see if his wounds had healed? She herself did not know the answer. She hid behind the tent. Su Pu’s sheepdog recognized her, sniffed her body several times before trotting off, and did not make a sound. The tent was lighted by a candle made from beef fat, and Su Lu’ke was roaring loudly.
“Which girl did you give your wolfskin to? Good boy, you are young but know that you should give the first animal you killed to your sweetheart.” Every time he roared out a sentence, Li Wenxiu’s heart would throb violently. When she listened to Su Pu tell stories, he had told her about the Kazaks’ customs. Every youth would give his beloved sweetheart the precious first animal he had killed, as an indication of affection. When she heard Su Lu’ke’s yelling, her face flushed, and her heart burst with pride. They were too young to understand true love. But indistinctly, they felt the sweetness and bitterness of first love.
“You must’ve given it to that Han girl who was punished by Allah; that wretch called Li something, right? If you don’t tell the truth, let’s see whether you are stronger, or your father’s whip stronger?” She heard a series of swishes, and the sounds of a whip hitting flesh. Many Kazaks, like Su Lu’ke, strongly believed that whipping could produce strong, valiant men. One could not use gentle methods to discipline one’s son. His grandfather whipped his father in this way, his father whipped him in this way, and he would also whip his son in this way. But the love between father and son did not weaken because of this. When men dealt with other men, with friends and relatives they used fists and whips, with enemies they used short blades and long swords. But for Li Wenxiu, her parents never spoke a harsh word to her face since young. If their faces lost their smiles and tender looks, it was already a painful punishment to her. She could feel the pain of each whipping, thinking, “Su Pu’s father must hate me to the core. He is beating his own son so badly; would he beat him to death?” “So, you refuse to answer? Will you answer or not? You must’ve given it to that Han girl!” The whip continued its relentless whipping. At first, he gritted his teeth, trying to bear with the pain. Later, he cried, “Father, stop whipping, stop whipping, I’m in pain, I’m in pain!” Si Lu’ke said, “Then you’d better tell the truth, did you give the wolfskin to that Han girl? Do you know that your mother died in the hands of those Han bandits, and your elder brother was also killed by them? Do you know that they call me the bravest Kazak warrior, but my wife and son were still killed by Han bandits? Why wasn’t I home that fateful day? Why couldn’t I find these bandits and take revenge for your mother and elder brother?” At this time, Su Lu’ke’s whip was no longer disciplining his son, but venting the wild fury in his heart. Every time he whipped, it was as if he was whipping his enemies. “Why can’t those cursed bandits have a showdown with me using swords and spears? Why don’t you answer? How can I, Su Lu’ke, the bravest Kazak warrior, be unable to beat several Han crooks……” The child whom Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai’s men killed was his most beloved eldest son. The wife, who had been insulted and killed by the men, had been his sweetheart since young, and they had grown up together. And he was considered the bravest Kazak warrior for more than two decades. Whether it was comparing strength, fist fighting, or horse racing, he had never lost to anyone.
Li Wenxiu pitied Su Pu for being beaten by his father, and felt that his crying and yelling was also very pitiful. “He is whipping so hard; he must not love Su Pu any longer. He doesn’t have a son anymore, and Su Pu doesn’t have a father anymore. It’s all my fault; me, this Han girl who was punished by Allah!” Suddenly, she began to pity herself.
She could not bear to hear Su Pu’s cries any longer. So she returned to the old man’s hut, and removed the wolfskin from underneath her bedding, and looked at it for a long time. She was separated from Su Pu’s tent by more than two li of land, but it was as if she could hear Su Pu’s cries, and the swishing of Su Lu’ke’s whip. She liked this piece of wolfskin very much, but she could not keep it.
“If I keep this wolfskin, Su Pu will be beaten to death by his father. Only Kazak girls, girls from the Islamic faith can keep this big piece of wolfskin. Among all the many Kazak girls, who is the most beautiful? I like this piece of wolfksin a lot, it was from the wolf Su Pu killed, the wolf which he risked his life to save me from. Su Pu gave it to me, but…… but his father will beat him to death……” The next morning, a bloodshot-eyed Su Lu’ke came out from his tent. He heard Che Erku hum mountain folk songs loudly. He cocked his head and gazed at Su Lu’ke, a curious expression on his face. He was smiling, and there was goodwill in his eyes. Che Erku was a famous Kazak warrior, and people from a thousand miles away knew his talent in taming wild horses. He was extremely swift when he ran. Some said that no steed could outrun him within a distance of one li. Even if he lost to the horse after running more than one li, he would lose only by the length of a nose. When the nomads in the pastures sat around fires chatting, many said that Che Erku would’ve won if his nose wasn’t that flat.
Su Lu’ke never had a good relationship with Che Erku. Su Lu’ke was very famous, for his swordfighting and fist fighting skills were invincible. For this, Che Erku was secretly jealous of him. He was younger than Su Lu’ke by six years. Once, they competed in swordfighting. Che Erku lost, and suffered a long gash in his shoulder. He said, “Today I have lost, but after five years, or even ten years, we’ll compete again. Su Lu’ke replied, “In another two decades, we’ll compete again. But then, my strokes will not be so light!”
But today, there was no hostility in his smile. Su Lu’ke’s fury had not subsided, so he glared angrily at him. Che Erku laughed, “Old Su, your son certainly has good taste!” Su Lu’ke said, “Are you talking about Su Pu?” He grasped the hilt of his knife, shooting Che Erku a poisonous look, thinking, “You’re ridiculing me because my son gave his wolfskin to a Han girl.” Che Erku was about to say, “If I’m not talking about Su Pu, do you mean you still have another son?” Instead, he smiled and said, “Of course I’m talking about Su Pu! The boy is quite good-looking, and he’s quite capable too. I like him.” Whenever a father hears other people praising his son, he would obviously feel pleased. But he was used to bickering with Che Erku, so he retorted, “Are you envious of me? Too bad you are unable to bear a son.” But Che Erku did not get angry. Smiling, he said, “My daughter A’man is not that bad either, otherwise why would your son take a fancy to her?” Su Lu’ke spat, “Stop showing off, who says my son has taken a fancy to A’man?” Che Erku grabbed his upper arm, saying, “Follow me, I’ll show you something.” Su Lu’ke was puzzled, so he walked shoulder to shoulder with him. Che Erku said, “Your son killed a big grey wolf some time ago. For a young boy, that is extraordinary. When he grows up, won’t he be exactly like his father? The father is a hero; the son is a good man.” Su Lu’ke did not answer. He suspected that Che Erku was laying a trap for him to fall into, thinking, “I must be extremely careful from now on.” They walked for more than three li before reaching Che Erku’s tent. He went closer. Wasn’t that the big grey wolf which Su Pu had killed? He clearly recognized that it was the first wild animal which his son had killed. After a moment’s confusion, he was pleased yet perplexed, “I blamed A’pu wrongly, and gave him such a heavy beating last night. So he had given the wolfskin to A’man, not to that Han girl. Stupid boy, why didn’t he tell the truth? Children are easily embarrassed and don’t dare to tell the truth. If his mother was still around, she would’ve restrained me. Ai, children would always pour out their problems to their mothers…..”
Che Erku slapped Su Lu’ke back using his thick, large hands, and said, “Let’s have a bowl of wine.” Che Erku’s tent was neat and tidy. Woolen rugs with red flowers and green grass woven onto them were hung all around the tent. A slim girl carried wine out. Che Erku smiled and said, “A’man, this is Su Pu’s father. Are you afraid of him? This huge bearded man is very ferocious!” A’man’s blushing face was even more beautiful. Her eyes seemed to smile, as if saying, “I’m not afraid.” Su Lu’ke laughed heartily, “Old Che, I heard others saying that you have a daughter who is like a flower walking on the pastures. Yes, a walking flower, this description is extremely apt.” The two men, who had contended with each other for a decade, suddenly became close friends. You toast me, and I toast you. Su Lu’ke drank until he was drunk. With sleepy eyes he lay on the back of a horse, and returned home.
After a few days, Che Erku brought two fine woolen rugs. He said, “These were woven by A’man; one for the father, one for the son.” On one woolen rug was woven a large man holding a long blade. The man had killed a leopard, and a second leopard was running away with its tail between its hind legs. On the other rug was woven a boy who had stabbed a large grey wolf to death. Both of them looked majestic and heroic. Su Lu’ke was delighted, and praised, “Excellent skills, excellent skills!” There were few leopards in the Muslim Region, but one year two leopards appeared and harmed the livestock. Su Lu’ke pursued them into the snow-covered mountains, and killed a large leopard, while the other leopard escaped with injuries. A’man had woven the heroic achievement he was proudest of on the rug, and he was extremely pleased by this.
This time, the one who lay, drunk, on a horse’s back was Che Erku. Su Lu’ke asked his son to send him home. Inside Che Erku’s tent, Su Pu saw his wolfskin. While he was puzzling over the matter, a blushing A’man thanked him. Su Pu muttered something, but did not know what he was talking about. He did not dare ask how the wolfskin landed up with A’man. Early the next day, he went to the small hill where he had killed the wolf, hoping to meet Li Wenxiu so that he could ask her about it. But she did not turn up.
He waited for two days but to no avail. On the third day, he mustered up his courage and went to the old man Ji’s hut. Li Wenxiu answered the door. When she saw him, she said, “I never want to see you again. “ Then she shut the door with a loud slam. Su Pu was stunned for a long time, and went home feeling bewildered. Listlessly, he mused, “Ai, a Han girl, who knows what she is thinking of?”
Of course, he did not know that Li Wenxiu hid behind the door, hiding her face in her hands and crying. She cried for a long time. She would have liked to play with Su Pu again, and tell him stories. But she knew if his father found out, Su Pu would have to suffer another round of whipping. He might even be whipped to death.
The days passed, one by one. The three children were blown taller by the winds from the pastures, and grew bigger by the freezing snow at the foot of the mountains. The walking flower became more beautiful, the wolf-killing child became a handsome youth, while the Tianling bird in the pastures sang even more melodiously. But she hardly ever sang. Late at night when there was no one around, she would go to the small hill where Su Pu had killed the wolf and sing. She did not forget this childhood playmate for even a day, and often spotted him riding together with A’man. She also heard them singing those ‘question-and-answer’ love songs to each other.
When Li Wenxiu was young, she did not know what these songs meant, but now she understood them all too well. If she had continued to be ignorant of their meanings, would it not have spared her so much unhappiness? Spared her so many sleepless nights? But once she understood the things that she did not understand previously, she was unable to return to the childish puzzlement she had felt when young.
Late one spring night, Li Wenxiu rode the white horse to the little hill where the wolf had been killed. The white horse had shed the hair which had been dyed yellow a long time ago. And now its body was as white as the snow in the mountains.
She stood on the small hill. Far away, she could see a large bonfire burning in the middle of the Kazaks’ tents.
Li Wenxiu thought, “He and she must be feeling exceptionally happy today, for it is so lively, so joyous.” The ‘he’ in her heart, was of course none other than Su Pu; and the ‘she’ was of course A’man, the walking flower. She could hear the rising and falling sounds of music and merrymaking. This day was one of the Kazaks’ festivals. The young men and women gathered around the bonfire, dancing and singing, enjoying themselves thoroughly.
But this time Li Wenxiu did not guess correctly. Su Pu and A’man did not feel exceptionally happy, but felt exceptionally nervous. Near the bonfire, Su Pu was wrestling with a tall and thin youth. This was the most important component of the festival. The winner of the wrestling competition won three prizes: a fine steed, a fat cow and a beautiful rug.
Su Pu had already defeated four strong youths in a row. The tall and thin youth was called Sang Si’er and was a good friend of Su Pu’s. Still, a victor had to be declared. Furthermore, he also loved that walking flower. Who wouldn’t love so pretty a face, so graceful a figure, so skilful two hands? Sang Si’er knew that Su Pu had been on good terms with A’man since childhood, but he was a stubborn and proud youth. On the pastures, whoever’s horse was fastest, whoever’s strength was greatest had an advantage over everyone else. He always thought, “If I defeat Su Pu in a publicized match, A’man will like me.” He diligently trained in wrestling and swordfighting for three years. His master was A’man’s father Che Erku.
Su Pu’s martial arts skills were passed to him by his father.
The two youths were tangled up. Suddenly Sang Si’er suffered a hard punch in his shoulder. He staggered and toppled backwards. But as he fell, his right leg caught Su Pu who then fell too. Both of them leapt up simultaneously, and gazed at each other. They moved in a circular direction, each searching for the other’s weak spot. Neither dared to take the first strike.
Su Lu’ke sat in a corner watching, his palms full of sweat, calling out, “Too bad, too bad!” But Che Erku’s feelings were harder to describe. He knew how his daughter felt, and even if Sang Si’er won, she would still like Su Pu, perhaps even more intensely than before. But Sang Si’er was his disciple. This wrestling match was exactly like a competition between himself and Su Lu’ke, the bravest Kazak warrior. Wouldn’t it be glorious if Che Erku’s disciple defeated Su Lu’ke’s son? This matter would spread throughout a thousand li of pastures. Of course, A’man would be unhappy for days, but this did not bother him. Thus, he still hoped that Sang Si’er would win, even though Su Pu was a good boy and he liked him.
The people gathered around the bonfire cheered the two youths on. This was a competition between two evenly-matched youths. Su Pu was more powerful, but Sang Si’er was more agile. Nobody could tell who would be the eventual winner.
Sang Si’er dodged right and left, managing to avoid Su Pu’s grasps. The cheering of the spectators became louder. “Faster, Su Pu, faster!” “Sang Si’er, attack! Don’t just dodge here and there!” “Aiyo, Su Pu has slipped!” “Never mind, use your strength to pull him down!” The sounds travelled far away, and Li Wenxiu could hear their faint cries of “Su Pu, Su Pu”. She was puzzled, “Why is everyone calling for Su Pu?” So she rode the white horse towards the cries. From behind a large tree, she saw Su Pu wrestling with Sang Si’er, and the spectators calling out excitedly. Suddenly, she saw A’man near the bonfire. Concern and excitement flickered about her face, tears shone in her eyes. One moment she was worried, the next moment, joyful. Li Wenxiu had never observed A’man so clearly before, and thought, “So she really likes Su Pu a lot.” Suddenly, all the spectators shouted in unison as Su Pu and Sang Si’er both fell to the ground. Li Wenxiu was unable to see them wrestle through the wall of people. But by listening to the crying and calling, one could imagine that Su Pu was on top, then forced to the ground by Sang Si’er. Li Wenxiu’s palms began to sweat. As she was unable to see what was going on, she was more anxious than anyone there. Suddenly, the cries of the crowd stopped completely. Li Wenxiu clearly heard the sounds of heavy breathing coming from the two wrestling youths. Then one of them stood up, trembling. The crowd cheered, “Su Pu, Su Pu!” A’man ran into the circle of people, and grasped Su Pu’s hand.
Li Wenxiu felt gladdened yet desolate. She turned her horse around and walked away slowly. The spectators crowded around Su Pu, and no one noticed her.
She did not control the reins, but allowed the horse to canter leisurely in the desert. She had travelled for quite some time before realising that the white horse had reached the edge of the pastures. If she went any further, she would reach the Gobi Desert. Softly, she chided, “What did you bring me here for?” At this point, two horses appeared, and then another two appeared. Under the moonlight, she could roughly make out that the riders on the horses were all dressed in Han clothes and were gripping long blades.
She was shocked, “Are they Han bandits?” Within a moment’s hesitation, she heard one of them call out, “The white horse, the white horse!” All the riders galloped over, shouting, “Stay still! Stay still!” Li Wenxiu cried, “Quick, gallop!”
But to the west was the boundless Great Gobi.
When she was younger, Su Pu had told her that there were ghosts in the Great Gobi. Anyone who ventured into the desert never walked out alive again. No, even if they turned into ghosts, they were unable to escape. Once someone ventured into the desert, he would walk in large circles. As he wandered around the desert, he would suddenly find a trail of footprints. He would be jubilant, thinking he had found the way out. But as he followed the footprints, he would finally realise that the footprints were actually made by him, and that he had been walking around in circles. He who perished in this manner was incapable of resting in peace, even when he had become a ghost. For he was unable to enter the heavenly paradise, and was doomed to walk in large circles continuously for all eternity.
Li Wenxiu had once queried the old man Ji, if the Great Gobi was really that frightening, and if people who ventured into it really never walked out again. When the old man heard her questions, the muscles in his face suddenly convulsed, revealing a terrified expression. He stole a look outside the window, as if he had seen many ghosts and demons. Li Wenxiu had never seen him so terrified, and did not dare to persist in her queries. She thought that this matter must be true, and perhaps Grandfather Ji had even seen those ghosts.
The white horse galloped madly. Seeing the thick yellow sands of the vast desert, and thinking about the ghosts doomed to walk in circles forever, made her extremely afraid. But the bandits were in hot pursuit of her. She remembered her parents, and remembered Su Pu’s mother and elder brother. She knew that if the bandits caught up with her she would be killed or perhaps suffer a fate worse than death. But if she went into the Great Gobi, she would not be able to rest in peace even after she turned into a ghost. She wanted to stop the horse and not escape anymore. As she looked back, she was no longer able to see the Kazaks’ tents and the verdant pastures. Five bandits were still chasing her, shouting and calling, while the remaining two had fallen behind. She heard those rough voices filled with excitement, “There can’t be any mistake, it is that horse! Catch her, catch her!” Hatred hidden in her heart for years burst out suddenly, and she thought, “Father and Mama were killed by them. I’ll lure them into the Great Gobi and we’ll perish together, exchanging my life for the lives of five bandits. After all…… after all…… there is no pleasure in living.” Her eyes filled with tears. Without any hesitation, she urged the white horse to gallop towards the west.
These men were subordinates of Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai’s protection agency, and had pursued White Horse Li San and his wife to the Muslim Region. Even though they had killed Li San and his wife, they had lost all trace of the little girl. They knew that Li San possessed the map to the Gao Chang Labyrinth. But since it was not found on Li San and his wife’s bodies, it had to be with that little girl. The Gao Chang Labyrinth hid countless treasures, thus the men from Jinwei Protection Agency refused to give up, and wandered about in this region, searching for that little girl. They had wandered for ten years. They did not work, and bullied the nomads on the pastures into giving them livestock by flaunting their martial arts skills. They only needed to pull out knives, and went around killing, burning, pillaging, raping……
In these ten years, they did not stop their search for that little girl. But the pastures were so vast, wherever could they start looking? The little girl could have died and her bones turned into ashes. As bandits in the pastures, they enjoyed much freedom. They felt much freer than operating a protection agency back in the Central Plains. So why would there be a need to return to the Central Plains?
Sometimes, they would discuss the treasures in the Gao Chang Labyrinth, and White Horse Li San’s daughter. Even if the girl had not died, she would have matured and would be unrecognizable. Only that white horse would remain unchanged. Tall, pure white horses like it were rare, and one could spot it from afar. But what if the white horse had also died? The lifespan of a horse was much shorter than the lifespan of a human. As the days passed one by one, they began to lose hope.
Whoever knew that they were actually able to spot the white horse? Yes, there was no mistake, it was that white horse!
The white horse was already aged. The strength of its legs was much lesser as compared to when it had been younger, but it was still able to run much faster than an ordinary horse. At dawn, it had already outrun the five bandits by a great distance, and she was unable to hear their pursuing hoofbeats. But she knew that she would leave a trail of horse prints and footprints. Even if the five bandits were unable to catch up with her now, they could still find her by following the prints. Thus, she did not dare to dally about.
She rode for more than ten li. The sun had already risen for quite some time. Riding over several sand dunes, she saw a hilly ridge in the northwestern direction. On the ridge grew lush verdant vegetation. Seeing this greenery in the desert was like seeing a heavenly paradise. Several sand dunes rising from the desert, hiding the ridge from view, thus one could not see it from far away. Li Wenxiu quaked, “Could this be a ghost hill? How come I’ve never heard anyone mention the existence of this hill?” Then she thought, “It’s best that this is a ghost hill; perfect for luring these five bandits inside.”
The horse moved quickly, and reached the front of the ridge in no time, and entered a valley. Between two hills flowed a little stream. The white horse gave a joyful neigh and dashed straight towards the stream. Li Wenxiu leapt off the horse. Using her hands, she scooped up some clear water to wash the sand and dust off her face. She then drank a few mouthfuls, and felt that the water tasted slightly sweet, and could be even considered as cool and refreshing.
Suddenly, she felt a hard object pressing against the back of her head. A hoarse voice said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Li Wenxiu was stunned, and was about to turn around when the voice said, “My staff is aimed directly at the back of your head. The slightest movement and you will die from serious injuries.” She felt the hard object move forwards slightly, and immediately felt dizzy. She did not dare to move, thinking, “Since this person is able to talk, I suppose he is not a ghost. He also asked me what I was doing here, which means that he must live here and therefore must not be a bandit.”
The voice continued, “I’m asking you something, why are you not answering me?” She responded, “Some bad people were chasing me, and I fled to this place.” The person queried, “What kind of bad people?” Li Wenxiu replied, “Many bandits.” That person said, “What kind of bandits? What are they called?” Li Wenxiu answered, “I don’t know. They used to be protection agents, but after they came to the Muslim Region, they became bandits.” That person asked, “What is your name? Who is your father? Who is your master?” Li Wenxiu said, “My name is Li Wenxiu; my father’s, White Horse Li San; my mother’s, ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’. I have no master.” That person grunted in reply, and said, “Oh, so ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’ married White Horse Li San. Where are your parents?” Li Wenxiu said, “They were killed by those bandits who also want to kill me.”
That person grunted in reply, and ordered, “Stand up!” Li Wenxiu stood up. That person then instructed, “Turn around.” Li Wenxiu turned around slowly. The sharp metal tip of that person’s wooden staff left the back of her head. He withdrew, and then extended the staff, so that it was pointing at her throat. But he did not exert all his strength, using only a little force to point the staff at her throat. Li Wenxiu glanced at him, and was surprised by what she saw. When she heard that hoarse, cold voice, she assumed that that person probably looked fierce and fearsome. But she saw a withered old man, who was thin and frail, and had a worried expression. He was wearing Han clothes which were extremely tattered and torn. But his hair was curly, and he did not look like a Han.
Li Wenxiu asked, “Old Uncle, what is your name? What is this place?” That old man was astounded to see that Li Wenxiu was rather beautiful. After being momentarily stunned, he answered coldly, “I don’t have a name, nor do I know what place this is.” Then they heard the indistinct sounds of hoof beats come from far away. Shocked, Li Wenxiu cried, “The bandits are here! Old Uncle, hide quickly.” That man said, “Why must I hide?” Li Wenxiu replied, “Those bandits are extremely evil, and they will kill you.” That man answered coldly, “We are strangers to each other, why do you care about my life or death?” At this time, the sound of the hoof beats came closer. Without caring that the tip of his staff was pointing at her throat, she stretched out her hand and grabbed his arm, saying, “Old Uncle, let’s escape together on the horse, or else it will be too late.”
That man shook his hand, trying to escape from Li Wenxiu’s grasp. But his shake lacked strength, and he was unable to free himself. Li Wenxiu asked, “Are you ill? I’ll help you up the horse.” She supported his waist with both her hands, and pushed him up onto the saddle. He was thin, and even though he was a man, his weight was lesser than that the weight of a well-proportioned Li Wenxiu. He sat in the saddle, swaying from side to side, as if he would fall off the saddle any time. Li Wenxiu also mounted the horse behind him, and urged the horse towards the interior of the hills.
Within their delay, the five bandits had already ridden into the valley, and their cries could even be heard indistinctly. That man turned his head back suddenly, and cried, “You are in cahoots with them, aren’t you? You set a trap for me to fall into.” Li Wenxiu saw the sickly expression on his face turn to a hideous one, and a fierce light shone in his eyes. Frightened, she said, “No, no, I’ve never ever met you before, what trap would I set for you?” Sternly, he said, “You want to trick me into taking you to the Gao Chang Labyrinth……” Before he could finish his sentence, he suddenly shut his mouth.
When Li Wenxiu had fled to the Muslim Region with her parents, she had heard her parents mention the three words ‘Gao Chang Labyrinth’ in their conversations. At that time, she did not understand what the term meant, and so she did not take much notice of it. Ten years later, this old man suddenly brought it up. She could not remember at once when she had heard someone mention it, and asking ignorantly, “The Gao Chang Labyrinth? What is that?” The old man saw that her expression was honest, and did not look as if she was lying. His voice relaxing, he said, “You really don’t know about the Gao Chang Labyrinth?”
Li Wenxiu shook her head, saying, “I don’t know, ah, it must be……” The old man asked severely, “Must be what?” Li Wenxiu replied, “When I was young, I fled to the Muslim Region with my parents, and heard them mention the Gao Chang Labyrinth before. Is that a very fun place to be?” Harshly, the old man questioned, “What else did your parents say? You’d better not lie to me.” Sorrowfully, Li Wenxiu answered, “If only I could remember more of the things my parents said. Even if it were just one more word, it would still be fine. Unfortunately, I can never hear their voices again. Old Uncle, I’ve always foolishly hoped that my parents would return from the dead so that I can have another look at them. Ai! If only they were alive; even if they were to hit and scold me continuously every day, I would still be very happy. Of course, they would never ever hit me.” Suddenly, she seemed to hear the sounds of Su Lu’ke whipping Su Pu cruelly, and his furious scoldings.
The old man’s expression softened, and he grunted a reply. Suddenly, he asked loudly, “Have you married yet?” Li Wenxiu blushed and shook her head. The old man asked, “Who have you been staying with all these years?” She answered, “With Grandfather Ji.” He continued, “Grandfather Ji? How old is he? What does he look like?” To the white horse, Li Wenxiu urged, “Good horse, the bandits are catching up, run quickly, run quickly.” She thought, “In such a critical situation, why do you keep asking about such unrelated matters?” But when she saw suspicion cloud his face, she finally said, “Grandfather Ji is more than eighty years old. He has a head of white hair, and a face completely wrinkled, and he treats me very well.” The old man asked, “Do you know any Hans in the Muslim Region? Who else lives in Grandfather Ji’s house?” Li Wenxiu replied, “There is no one else. I don’t even know any Kazaks, much less any Hans.” The last sentence was said indignantly. She recalled Su Pu and A’man, and felt that even though she knew them, it was equal to not knowing.
Since there were two people riding on the horse, it could not gallop very swiftly. The five bandits were coming closer. Swoosh! Swoosh! Swoosh! Three arrows whizzed past them. The bandits wanted to capture her alive. Their intention was not to shoot her to death but to intimidate her so that she would stop the horse.
Li Wenxiu thought, “In any case, I have already decided to perish with these five bandits. So let this uncle flee alone!” She leapt off the horse, and slapped the horse’s buttocks, calling, “White horse, white horse! Escape with uncle quickly!” The old man was stunned. He did not expect her to be so kind-hearted as to tell him to escape alone. He hesitated, and in a low voice said, “Catch hold of the needles in my hands. Be careful that you don’t get pricked by their tips.” Bending her head, she saw him hold a thin needle between two fingers from his right hand. She stretched her hand out and took the needle, but did not understand its purpose. The old man said, “There is an intense poison applied to the tip of this needle. If those bandits capture you, prick them lightly and they will die.” Li Wenxiu was shocked. She had seen him holding the needle earlier, but did not take much notice of it. Apparently, if he had found her answers to his questions unsatisfactory, he would’ve pricked her with the poisoned needle. The old man then urged the horse on.
The five bandits approached, and surrounded Li Wenxiu. When they saw that she was such a beautiful young girl, none of them thought of pursuing the old man.
The five bandits leapt off their horses, and grinned hideously. Li Wenxiu’s heart beat furiously. Although that Old Uncle had said that the poisoned needle could send someone to his doom, but it was such a small needle, how could she use it to hold off these five fierce-looking men in front of her? Even if she could prick one of them to death, four more men remained. Or should she prick herself to death to prevent herself from being humiliated by them. One of them shouted, “What a pretty little girl!” Then two of them pounced on her.
With a hard punch, the man coming from the left felled the other man, shouting angrily, “Are you vying with me?” Then he grabbed hold of Li Wenxiu’s waist. Flustered, she pricked his right arm, crying, “Evil bandit, let go of me.” The burly man gazed blankly at her with wide eyes. He had suddenly become immobile. The man, who had fallen, stretched out both hands and grabbed hold of her leg. With a strong pull, he caused her to fall to the ground. Propping herself with her left hand, and stretching out her right hand, she pricked the man in the chest. That man was laughing uproariously, and suddenly his laughter stopped. He became immobile: his mouth hung open and his body was frozen.
Li Wenxiu scrambled up, and quickly jumped onto the back of one of the horses, riding towards the hills. When the remaining three bandits saw the two men freeze suddenly as if under an evil spell, they thought that she had sealed their acupoints. As they thought that this young girl had powerful martial arts skills, they did not dare to pursue her. Since all three of them did not know how to seal and unseal acupoints, their only option was to bring their two companions to see their leaders. But both bodies felt cold to the touch. They tried to detect a hint of breath, but the two men had already stopped breathing and were dead.
The three men were so shocked that they were speechless for a long time. One of them, surnamed Song, was more knowledgeable than the rest. He undid both men’s clothes to take a look. One of them had a large, round black patch on his arm. In the middle of the black patch was a very tiny hole made by a needle. The other had a black patch on his chest. He suddenly understood: “The girl used a needle to prick them, and there was strong poison applied on the needle.” The man surnamed Quan said, “Then there’s nothing to be afraid of! We’ll aim projectiles at her from far away, and not let that little broad come near us.” The last bandit, surnamed Yun, said, “Since we know about her deceitful scheme, we have no fear of falling into her trap!” Although they spoke bravely like this, they were in no hurry to go after her. They discussed their plan of action as they rode into the valley both anxiously and warily.
Li Wenxiu had been pleasantly surprised by both her successful pricks. But she also realised that the remaining three men would soon find out. Once they were on their guard, it would not be easy for her to use her poisoned needle again. As she was riding, she suddenly heard someone from the left call out, “Come over here!” It was that old man’s voice.
Li Wenxiu dismounted hurriedly. She heard his voice coming from inside a cave, and immediately darted into it. The old man was standing at the mouth of the cave. He asked, “How was it?” Li Wenxiu said, “I…… I pricked two of…… two of the bandits, and quickly escaped.” The old man replied, “Excellent, let’s go inside.” After entering the cave, she realised that it was very deep. She followed the old man inside. The deeper they went, the narrower the cave became.
After walking a distance of about ten zhang, they saw that the cave widened into a cavern which could hold one to two hundred people. The old man said, “We’ll stand guard at the narrow mouth of this cavern, and those three bandits won’t dare to enter. This is known as ‘when one man guards the entrance, a thousand men are unable to breach it’.” Worried, Li Wenxiu said, “But we won’t be able to leave either. Are there other passageways in this cave leading outside?” the old man replied, “There are other passageways, but they do not lead outside.”
Li Wenxiu recalled what had happened earlier, and there was a lingering fear in her heart. She queried, “Uncle, those two bandits became immobile after being pricked by me. Were they really dead?” The old man answered proudly, “How can anyone survive after being pricked by my poisoned needles?” Li Wenxiu put out her hand and returned the poisoned needle to him. The old man was about to take it with his outstretched when he suddenly withdrew it, instructing, “Put it on the ground.” Li Wenxiu obeyed his orders. Then he said, “Move back three steps.” Li Wenxiu felt rather strange, but moved back by three steps. Only then did the old man bend down and pick the poisoned needle up, and placed it in a tube holding needles. Li Wenxiu realised that he was full of suspicion, and wanted to prevent her from attacking him suddenlywith the poisoned needle.
The old man said, “We’re strangers to each other, so why did you give up your horse to me and tell me to escape alone?” Li Wenxiu answered, “I don’t know either. I saw that you are ill and was afraid that the bandits would harm you.” His body quivered, and he said fiercely, “How did you know that I am…… I am……” At this point, his facial muscles convulsed, and his expression was one of pain. Beads of perspiration as large as soya beans were formed on his forehead. Suddenly, he gave a loud cry, and rolled about on the ground, moaning loudly.
Li Wenxiu was too shocked to react. Seeing his body twist into the shape of a bow, and his limbs in spasms, she said gently, “Is your back aching very badly?” Using her hands, she beat his back lightly, then massaged and rubbed his arm and leg joints. The pain which he felt was significantly lessened, and expressed his thanks by nodding his head. After a while, all the pain he felt had vanished. He stood up, and inquired, “Do you know who I am?” Li Wenxiu answered, “I don’t know.” The old man said, “I am a Han; my surname is Hua and given name, Hui. I am from Jiangnan, and people from the pugilistic world call me ‘One Finger Shakes Jiangnan’.” Li Wenxiu replied, “Oh, you are Old Uncle Hua.” Hua Hui asked, “You’ve never heard of my name?” He was slightly disappointed. In his heyday, he, ‘One Finger Shakes Jiangnan’, caused much sensation on both the northern and southern banks of the great river. There was not one pugilist who did not know his name. When he looked at Li Wenxiu, he saw that she did not have an expression of great surprise on her face.
Li Wenxiu declared, “My father and mother must’ve known your name. I was only eight years old when I came to the Muslim Region, and was ignorant about everything.” Hua Hui’s expression turned cheerful, and said, “That’s for sure. You……” He hadn’t finished his sentence when they heard someone in the cave passageway say, “She must be hiding here! Be careful of her poisoned needles!” Then footsteps rang out. The three bandits walked inwards, halting after taking each step.
Hurriedly, Hua Hui took out a poisoned needle, and stuck its end into the head of his staff. He handed it to her. Pointing to the entrance, he said in a low voice, “When one of them enters, prick his back. You must not be impatient and prick his chest.” Li Wenxiu mused, “This entrance is so narrow. Wouldn’t it be easier to prick his chest while he is entering?” When Hua Hui saw her hesitant expression, he said, “This is a matter of life and death, there cannot be any delay. Do you dare to disobey my instructions?” Although he spoke in a soft voice, his tone was harsh. At that moment, a gleaming blade was extended into the cave via the entrance. It was brandished swiftly, protecting the owner’s face and chest, preventing the enemies from launching a sneak attack. Then a black figure crawled in slowly. It was the bandit surnamed Yun.
Li Wenxiu remembered what Hua Hui had instructed. Hidden in a corner, she did not dare to move one inch. Coldly, Hua Hui said, “Look at what I have in my hand!” Then he swept his arm as a false move. The bandit surnamed Yun darted to one side, his blade protecting the front of his body. He gazed intently at him, to guard against him from hurling projectiles. Hua Hui yelled, “Prick him!” Li Wenxiu lifted her hand up and brought the staff down. Its head made contact with his back, and the poisoned needle entered his skin. The bandit felt a slight pain in his back, as if he had just been stung by a bee. He gave a shout, then died. The bandit surnamed Quan, who was following swiftly behind him, saw that he had been killed by the poisoned needles. He thought that Hua Hui was firing needles, and frightened out of his wits. Without even turning around, he retreated by crawling out on all four limbs.
Hua Hui sighed, “If I hadn’t lost my martial arts skills, these five trifling bandits would be nothing to me!” Li Wenxiu recalled that his nickname was ‘One Finger Shakes Jiangnan’, and his martial arts skills were obviously superior. But why did he seem so helpless when facing five insignificant bandits? She asked, “Uncle Hua, are you unable to use your martial arts skills because of your illness?” Hua Hui replied, “No, no. I…… I once vowed that I would not use my martial arts skills easily unless it was a matter of life and death.” Li Wenxiu felt that he spoke insincerely. He just said that he had ‘lost his martial arts skills’, but was now making evasive statements. Since he did not wish to talk about it, she did not pursue the matter.
Hua Hui had also realised that there had been inconsistencies in his speech. Changing the topic, he said, “Do you understand why I asked you to prick his back? When he enters the cave, he would be preoccupied with guarding against enemies in front of him. Since you don’t know any martial arts skills, you will not be able to attack him successfully from the front. I then attract his attention, so he is wary of me. Then you prick his back, and we have a successful attack.” Li Wenxiu nodded and said, “Uncle, your plan is excellent.” Hua Hui had had a rich experience of the pugilistic world, and manipulating such a little crook was as easy as flipping his palm.
Hua Hui took out a large piece of dried honey melon and handed it to Li Wenxiu, saying, “Eat some first. Those two crooks won’t dare to enter anymore, but we won’t be able to escape either. Let me think of a plan first, so we can kill two birds with one stone. If we only kill one of them, the surviving one is sure to escape and report to his masters. It would be extremely troublesome to have a whole contingent of men and horses after us.” Li Wenxiu saw that he, with his resourcefulness, was contemplating the situation carefully. She thought that since she would not possibly be able to think of a plan more brilliant than his, she decided not to rack her brain for ideas. Instead, she ate her fill of dried melon, then leant on the stone wall and rested.
Around one hour later, she suddenly sensed an acrid smell, and began to cough. Hua Hui cried, “Oh no! The crooks are trying to smoke us out! Quick, seal the entrance!” Li Wenxiu swiftly gathered up sand and rocks from the ground to seal the entrance. Luckily, the entrance was extremely small. Upon its sealing, the amount of smoke entering the cave was significantly lessened. And since the cave was large, smoke blown into it would diffuse out from the hole in the back.
This stalemate went on for quite a good while. The sunlight shining through the hole in the back became brighter and brighter, as if it was already high noon. Suddenly, Hua Hui gave a loud cry, then crashed to the ground, and his entire body went into spasms. But this time he seemed to be in more pain than previously. He was actually unable to control his limbs which were flailing madly. Li Wenxiu was alarmed, and went over to massage him. The pain he suffered was reduced slightly, and he panted, “Mi…… Miss, I’m afraid it isn’t good this time.”
Li Wenxiu comforted him: “Don’t think that way. You’ve met several formidable opponents today, and it was unavoidable that your energy was sapped. You’ll be fine after a short rest.” Hua Hui shook his head, and said, “No, no! Since I am going to die anyway, I’ll tell you the truth. A acupoint of my back was hit…… hit by a poisoned needle.” Li Wenxiu said, “Ah, you were hit by a poisoned needle? When were you hit? Today?” Hua Hui answered, “No, I’ve been hit for twelve years!” Li Wenxiu was stunned: “Is it such a formidable poisoned needle?” Hua Hui answered, “It is not much different from the rest. But I slowed down its spread by channeling my energy to resist it. Later I ingested the antidote, and managed to survive for twelve years. But today, I don’t think I can live any longer. Ai, for these twelve years that the needle has been lodged in my body, I have had to suffer two or three bouts of great pain daily. If only I had not ingested the antidote that day. It has not done me any good; I have suffered for these twelve years.” Her heart gave a shudder, for his words evoked her memories. If she had died with her parents ten years ago, perhaps she would have had suffered less misery.
But had she always suffered misery for all these ten years? No, there had been happy times. Although this young girl, aged about seventeen or eighteen, was sad and lonely, she had enjoyed much laughter and sweetness in her current youth.
When she saw Hua Hui gritting his teeth, trying to bear with the pain, she said, “Uncle, try removing the needle, you might feel better then.” Hua Hui retorted, “Rubbish! Isn’t that obvious? I’ve been alone in these desolate hills, who would help me remove the needle? None of those who enter the hills had kind intentions, hmm, hmm……” Li Wenxiu was puzzled, “Why didn’t he go elsewhere to look for someone who could cure him? For what reason did he live in these desolate hills for twelve years?” It was apparent that he still harboured deep suspicions against her. But she observed that he was truly in pain, deserving to be pitied, so she said, “Uncle, let me try. Don’t worry, I won’t try to harm you.”
Hua Hui stared at her, his brows tightly furrowed. He pondered over her proposal countless times, and was unable to come to a decision. She pulled the poisoned needle off the head of his staff, and handed it to him, saying, “Let me see the scar on your back. If you see that I have evil intentions, then you can use the poisoned needle to prick me!” Hua Hui replied, “Good!” He undressed and revealed his back. When she looked at it, she could not help be give a low gasp. On his back were spots and blotches. Who knew how many hundreds or thousands of scars were there? Hua Hui said, “I’ve tried countless means and ways to dig the poisoned needle out, but to no avail.” Some of these scars seemed to be have been made by hitting against sharp rocks. Others seemed to be made by sharp fingernails. As Li Wenxiu looked at these scars, she realised the amount of pain he must have suffered these twelve years. Her heart was filled with sorrow, and she asked, “Where is the poisoned needle located?” Hua Hui said, “There are three in total. One is at the Po Hu Acupoint, one is at the Zhi Shi Acupoint, and one is at the Zhi Yang Acupoint.” As he spoke, he twisted his hand backwards to point out the location of each poisoned needle. Since a long time had passed, coupled with the numerous scars on his back, it was impossible to see the holes made by the needles.
Li Wenxiu gasped, “There are three needles in all? Didn’t you say you were hit by only one?” Angrily, he said, “Previously, you did not say that you were going to remove the needles for me, so why would I tell you the truth?” Li Wenxiu knew that his heart was heavy with suspicion. The truth was that he had lost all his martial arts skills after being hit by the three poisoned needles. Afraid that she would try to harm him, he lied that he had vowed that he would not use his martial arts skills easily. As for the number of poisoned needles which had hit him, he had declared two less than the true number. He could thus protect himself if she had the intention to harm him. She did not like his lies and suspicions, but since she had decided to help him, she would help him to the end. This old man was certainly pitiful. Thus, she put down all her misgivings, and pondered on how she was going to remove the poisoned needles which had sunk deep into his flesh.
Hua Hui queried, “Can you see clearly?” Li Wenxiu replied, “I cannot see the ends of the needles, so how do you think I should go about removing them?” Hua Hui said, “You must use a sharp object to cut open the flesh, and only then can you see them. They have sunk deep inside, and are hard to find.” As he spoke, his voice began to tremble. Li Wenxiu answered, “It’s a pity that I did not bring my small knife.” Hua Hui said, “I don’t have a knife either.” Suddenly, he pointed to the long sabre which had fallen to the ground, saying, “Use this sabre!” That long sabre gleamed with a green light, and was very sharp. It lay next to the body of the bandit surnamed Yun. At this point, the owner was dead, but the sabre remained. It struck terror in those who saw it.
Li Wenxiu was extremely hesitant to use such a long sabre to cut open his back. Hua Hui guessed what she was feeling. His tone becoming gentle, he said, “Miss Li, if you help me remove the poisoned needles, I will give you lots of gold and jewels. I’m not lying to you; I will really give you lots of gold and jewels.” Li Wenxiu answered, “I don’t need those treasures, neither do I want your thanks. As long as you don’t suffer from any more pain, that is good enough for me.” Hua Hui said, “All right, please do it quickly then.” Li Wenxiu went over and picked up the long sabre. She then cut off about ten strips of cloth from the bandit’s clothes to be used for stopping the bleeding and bandaging the wound. She said, “Uncle, I will do all that I can. Please bear with the pain.” She gritted her teeth, and aimed the tip of the sabre near the Po Hu Acupoint which he had previously pointed out to her. Then she cut his flesh gently.
The sabre entered his flesh, and blood spurted out. Astonishingly, Hua Hui did not even make a sound. He asked, “Can you see it?” Since he had managed to bear with the pain for twelve years, being cut by a sharp blade did not really affect him. Li Wenxiu pulled a hairpin off her hair, and used it to probe the wound. She found a thin needle nailed tightly to the bone.
She stretched two fingers into the wound, and grasped the end of the needle. She gave a strong pull, but her fingers slipped, and she was unable to pull the poisoned needle out. She managed the pull the needle out only in her fourth try. Hua Hui gave a loud shriek. The pain he felt was so immense that he fainted. Li Wenxiu thought, “At least he will not feel the pain, seeing that he has lost consciousness.” She cut open his flesh to remove the other needles. After she had removed the remaining two needles, she used the strips of cloth to bandage the wounds.
After quite a while, Hua Hui slowly regained consciousness. He opened his eyes and saw the three pitch-black poisoned needles placed in front of him. Hatefully, he said, “Damnable needles, wicked needles! You’ve stayed in my flesh for twelve years, and today, you have finally come out.” To Li Wenxiu, he said, “Miss Li, you saved my life but I have nothing to give you in return. I’ll give you these three poisoned needles as a gift. Although they were lodged in my flesh for twelve years, their toxicity still remains.” Li Wenxiu shook her head, saying, “I don’t want them.” Hua Hui was amazed: “You have witnessed the formidability of these poisoned needles with your own eyes. With these needles, everyone will fear you.” In a low voice, she said, “I don’t want other people to fear me.” In her heart she thought, “I only want other people to like me. These poisoned needles would be useless then.”
After the poisoned needles had been removed, Hua Hui was extremely weak due to an excessive loss of blood. But he was in high spirits and full of vitality. He shut his eyes and slept for more than two hours. In his dreams, he heard someone cursing loudly. Startled, he woke up. He heard the bandit surnamed Song, standing outside the cave, cursing with filthy expletives. Every word he said was extremely vicious. He obviously did not dare to enter, but wanted to taunt his enemies into coming out. As he listened, he became more furious. He stood up and said, “Since the poisoned needles in my body are gone, how can ‘One Finger Shakes Jiangnan’ be afraid of two insignificant crooks?” He tried to channel his energy up, but was unable to do so. He sighed, “The poisoned needles were lodged in my body for too long a time, it seems that I will not be able to regain my martial arts skills until after three or four months.” Hearing the bandit scold “A thousand crooks, ten thousand crooks” viciously, he said angrily, “Must I wait many months before killing you, while you curse me in the meantime?” Then he thought, “If they don’t enter the cave, and this deadlock continues, they’ll probably go back and return with a large contingent of men. That would be dreadful. So what shall we do?”
Realisation hit him, and he said, “Miss Li, let me teach you a martial arts sequence, and you can settle those two crooks outside.” Li Wenxiu asked, “How long will I take to master it? It won’t be that soon, will it?” Hua Hui said, “If I teach you how to seal acupoints, swordfighting and fistfighting, you’ll need at least half a year to master them. You have to master something quickly, an unorthodox weapon which you can see immediate results after some practicing, and can use to defeat your opponent in one or two moves. But where can we find an unorthodox weapon in this cave?” He lifted his head, and joyfully cried, “Got it! Pick two of the bottle gourds over there. They must be linked by vines. We’ll practice the meteor hammer.” In the area where sunlight shone into the cave, Li Wenxiu saw about ten bottle gourds hanging there. They had withered a long time ago, and she could not tell when they had first grown there. Using the sabre, she cut down two gourds with the vines still attached. Hua Hui said, “Excellent! Use your sabre to dig a small cavity on the gourds, and pour sand into them. Then stuff the cavities with the vines. Li Wenxiu obeyed his instructions. Both gourds were completely filled with sand, and each weighed about seven to eight jin. It looked exactly like a meteorite hammer. Hua Hui received it, and said, “I’ll teach you the stroke ‘Stars and Moon Vying for Splendour.’” He lifted the meteor hammer up, and demonstrated the movement. In this stroke, the left hammer would hit the enemy’s Shang Qu Acupoint located between the chest and the belly. Meanwhile, the right hammer would swing out, then back again, curving around to hit the enemy’s Ling Tai Acupoint located on his back. Although it was only one stroke, it included various skills like arm strength, good judgment, being able to use the hammer to hit the correct acupoints. At the same time, the user had to be on guard against the enemy’s dodging, and borrowing power to strike back. Thus, Li Wenxiu practiced for more than two hours, before she could wield the hammer with accuracy.
She wiped the perspiration off her forehead, and said apologetically, “I’m really stupid, taking such a long time to master it!” Hua Hui answered, “You’re not stupid at all, and can be considered extremely intelligent. Don’t look down on this stroke, for it can change beyond imagination and extremely powerful. Ordinary people take eight to ten days to master it, and then they might not achieve as much as you have. To deal with top pugilists, one stroke will be of no use. But to defeat two crooks, it is more than enough! Rest a while before you go out to kill them.” Li Wenxiu was stunned: “Is a mere one stroke enough?”
How could Li Wenxiu know how good were the skills of the Two Greats of Min Bei? When she saw that he was angered, she had no option but to brace herself up. She moved away the rocks which had sealed the entrance. In her right hand she held the meteor hammer, and she used her left to pick a poisoned needle from the ground. She yelled, “Damnable crooks, the poisoned needles are here!” When the two bandits, who had been guarding the entrance of the cave, heard “the poisoned needles are here”, they were frightened out of their wits, and swiftly retreated. The one surnamed Song realised that if she had wanted to fire poisoned needles at them, she would obviously not give them a prior warning. Since she had yelled in such a manner, it probably meant that she would not fire poisoned needles at them. But he had witnessed three of his companions perish in succession after being hit by the needles, and so did not dare to take too large a risk. Li Wenxiu chased after them unhurriedly. The fear she felt was no less than that felt by both bandits. All three of them were extremely frightened. They finally passed through the narrow passageway which was about ten zhang long.
When the bandit surnamed Quan looked back, Li Wenxiu raised her left hand. Flustered, he stumbled and fell. The one surnamed Song thought that he had been hit by a poisoned needle. Quickening his pace, he fled out of the cave. Then the one surnamed Quan also dashed out. Both men protected their bodies with their sabres. One of them said, “Let’s deal with that girl out here!” The other said, “That’s right, we’ll able to see clearly when she fires poisoned needles at us.” At this time, the sun was setting in the hills. The bright golden light shone on their faces. They tilted their heads slightly, so that the sunlight would not shine directly into their eyes. Suddenly, they heard a feminine voice cry out from inside the cave: “The poisoned needles are here!” They hurriedly dodged to the side, only to see two bottle gourds fly out of the cave. Then Li Wenxiu leapt out. At first, they were taken aback. But when they saw that she was holding two withered bottle gourds, they laughed in spite of themselves. But in their laughter was also wariness.
Li Wenxiu’s heart beat furiously. She had only learnt a bit of martial arts, and did not know whether this stroke was really usable. When she was young, she had learnt some martial arts from her parents. But after her parents died, she did not practice martial arts anymore, and forgot completely about them. As she faced these two fierce-looking bandits, she was well and truly terrified. The best thing she could do without dueling would be scaring them off, by making an empty show of strength. Loudly, she cried, “If you still do not flee, my master ‘One Finger Shakes Jiangnan’ will come out! His killing of people using poisoned needles is as easy as taking something out of a bag. You are really audacious to dare to set yourself against him!” These two bandits were common characters, and had vaguely heard of ‘One Finger Shakes Jiangnan’ many years ago. But since they had no connections with him, they did not put his name to heart. They glanced meaningfully at each other, and thought, “If we catch this girl as soon as possible so that she can be taken to First Master Huo and Second Master Chen, we will have done a huge service to them. Who cares if he shakes Jiangnan or Jiangbei?” Calling out in chorus, they leapt towards her from both the left and right sides.
Li Wenxiu was stunned: “How shall I use this ‘Stars and Moon Vying for Splendour’ stroke, since they are both attacking me simultaneously?” Hua Hui had wholeheartedly taught her how to deliver strokes to hit the enemy’s acupoints, but had forgotten to teach her how to deal with them if both of them attacked her together. After all, when exchanging strokes with opponents, there would be a myriad changes in delivering the strokes. How much could one teach another in two to four hours? Li Wenxiu was in a frantic tangle, and leapt three chi (about 1.5 metres) to the right. The bandit surnamed Quan was standing on her right, and was the first to dash towards her. Without a single care, she swung both bottle gourds outwards. In her anxious state, she delivered the stroke ‘Stars and Moon Vying for Splendour’ only half-correctly. The left hammer did hit his Shang Qu Acupoint located on his chest, but the right hammer hit the blade of his long sabre. With a swish, the gourd was sliced open by the blade. Yellow sand flew everywhere.
The one surnamed Song ran up, and had almost reached her. He did not expect that a large amount of yellow sand would fly out of the gourd. Some ten grians of sand went into his eyes, and raising his hands, he quickly rubbed his eyes. Li Wenxiu swung her hammer outwards again, but since the the right hammer had split, its power was lessened. It did hit his back, but not his Ling Tai Acupoint. But when this flying hammer weighing seven or eight jin made contact with his back, he stumbled. Without opening his eyes, he threw himself forwards and grabbed hold of Li Wenxiu’s shoulders. Li Wenxiu cried, “Aiyo!” Using her left hand, she hurriedly pushed him away. But in her flurry, she had forgotten that she still a poisoned needle in her hand. The push made the poisoned needle prick his belly. His arms stiffened, and he died.
Although he had died, his arms still grasped her very tightly. Li Wenxiu struggled vigorously but was unable to shake him off. Hua Hui (I don’t know how come he suddenly appears here, maybe the text I got off the internet is inaccurate) sighed, “Stupid girl, when you were learning, you were excellent, but when you put it into practical use, you make a mess!” Lifting his leg, Hua Hui kicked him in the tailbone. The corpse loosened its grip, and fell backwards.
Li Wenxiu had not recovered from her fright. She turned to look at the bandit surnamed Quan, and saw that he was lying straight on the ground. His eyes were open wide, and he was motionless. He had been killed after her sand-filled bottle gourd had hit one of his vital acupoints. Li Wenxiu had killed five people in succession in a single day. Although she had avenged her parents’ deaths and resisted evil, she still felt uneasy. Gazing at the two corpses sadly, she could not help but burst into tears.
Hua Hui smiled, “Why are you crying? Isn’t the stroke ‘Stars and Moon Vying for Splendour’, which I taught you, excellent?” Li Wenxiu sobbed, “I…… I killed people again.” Hua Hui said, “What is killing a few little crooks worth? When I regain my martial arts skills, I will impart all of them to you. When you have mastered all of them, we’ll return to the Central Plains. Then, both master and disciple will control the pugilistic world, unrivalled by no one. Come, come to my house to take a rest and have a cup of hot tea or two.” As he spoke, he led her towards the back of the forest on the left side. After walking for about a li, they passed a row of white birches and arrived in front of a thatched cottage.
Li Wenxiu followed him into the cottage. She saw that although it was sparsely furnished, it was clean and elegant. In the centre of the hall hung a pair of wooden couplets, and on each plank was carved seven characters. The first couplet read, “Bai shou xiang zhi you an jian.” The second couplet read, “Zhu men zao da xiao tan guan.” Ever since she came to the Muslim Region, she had never seen any couplets. Neither did anyone teach her how to read. But these fourteen characters were not difficult to recognise, and her mother had taught her these characters before.
However, she did not understand their literary meaning, and muttered, “Bai shou xiang zhi you an jian……” Hua Hui asked, “Have you ever read this poem before?” Li Wenxiu answered, “I’ve never read it before. What are these fourteen characters describing?” Hua Hui was well versed in both the artistic and martial arts, and said, “These are two lines of a poem by Wang Wei. The first couplet says, if you have a bosom friend, and you’ve befriended him for you whole life and even when your hair has turned white, you must still never trust him, for he may try to harm you secretly. When he walks in front of you, you had better hold on to the hilt of your sword. The line before these two is “Ren qing fan fu shi bo lan” (the ups and downs of human relationships are like great waves). As for the line “Zhu men zao da xiao tan guan”, it means that your friend is proud of his successes and rising swiftly to fame. However, if you hope that he will promote or help you, you will only provoke him to ridicule you.”
After Li Wenxiu met him, she saw that he was extremely suspicious and cautious of her. He had believed that she no intention of harming him only after she had removed the poisoned needles from his body. As she looked at this pair of couplets again, she thought that he must have been greatly harmed by someone sometime in his life, and this person was probably a bosom friend of his. That was why he reacted so furiously and suspiciously to everyone. But at this moment, it was inappropriate for her to prod further, so she went off to boil water for brewing tea.
After drinking two cups of hot tea each, their spirits rose. Li Wenxiu said, “Master, I must return.” Hua Hui felt surprised, and an extremely disappointed expression appeared on his face. He said, “You’re leaving? You’re not going to learn martial arts from me?” Li Wenxiu answered, “No! I didn’t return home for the entire of last night, and Grandfather Ji must miss me terribly. After I tell him what happened, I’ll come back and learn martial arts from you.” Hua Hui flew into a sudden fury. His face swelled and turned red, and loudly he said, “If you do tell him, then don’t ever come back to see me.” Li Wenxiu was taken aback, and in a low voice she said, “Can’t I tell Grandfather Ji what happened? He…… he dotes extremely on me.” Hua Hui said, “You cannot tell anyone. Quick, take an oath, vowing that you will not tell anyone what happened today. Or else, I will not let you leave this hill……” Due to his burst of fury, the wounds on his back ached terribly. With a cry, he fainted.
Li Wenxiu hurriedly helped him up, and sprinkled some clean water on his forehead. After a while, he gradually awoke. Amazed, he asked, “You haven’t left?” But Li Wenxiu asked, “Is your back very painful?” Hua Hui answered, “I feel better now. You said you wanted to return home, how come you haven’t left?” Li Wenxiu thought, “At most, Grandfather Ji will miss me in his heart. But Master has suffered serious injuries, and if I don’t take care of him carefully, he might die.” So she said, “Master is unwell, let me stay on for a few days to attend to you.” Hua Hui was overjoyed.
That night, both of them slept in the thatched cottage. Li Wenxiu found some dried grass, and made a bed in the hall. As she slept, she woke up several times from her dreams with a start. Not only did she dream that she had been caught by bandits, she also dreamed that evil spirits, dripping with blood, demanded her to return their lives.
When she got up the next morning, she saw that Hua Hui was in excellent spirits after resting a night. After breakfast, Hua Hui taught her martial arts, starting from the basic internal skills. He said, “You are already quite old, and it is a little late for you to start learning superior martial arts now. But the disciple is naturally intelligent, and the master is no ordinary person. A famous teacher accepting a brilliant pupil, what is there to be afraid of? In five years’ time, you’ll be invincible in the pugilistic world.” After practicing for seven or eight days, her skills improved quickly. The wounds on Hua Hui’s back also gradually healed. Only then did she bid farewell to her master, and rode the white horse home. But Hua Hui did not force her to take an oath this time. After she returned home, she did not tell Grandfather Ji what had happened. Instead, she said that she had lost her way in the great desert, and the more she walked, the farther she went. Fortunately, she met a group of camel riders, and thus did not die of thirst in the desert.
From then onwards, after ten days or half a month, Li Wenxiu would go and stay with Hua Hui. She was extremely afraid that she would meet bandits again, so whenever she left home, she wore the clothes of a Kazak man. During these stays, Hua Hui devoted all his attention to teaching her martial arts. Li Wenxiu had nowhere to place her hopes in, so she invested all her heart and soul into learning martial arts. Indeed, it was a case of a famous teacher accepting a brilliant pupil, and she made extremely rapid progress.
Two years passed. Hua Hui often praised, “With your present capability, you can now be considered one of the top pugilists in the pugilistic world. If you return to the Central Plains and display your skills, you’ll become famous instantly.” But Li Wenxiu did not want to return to the Central Plains at all; neither did she want to become a famous pugilist. But she wanted to avenge her parents’ deaths, and to prevent herself from being harmed by bandits when she met them again, she had to perfect her martial arts skills. Deep down in her heart, another thought urged her on: “If I master the skills, I can win Su Pu back.” But she did not dare to think too much of this thought. Every time she thought of it, she would blush. Even though she did not dare to think too much of it, this thought was still hidden deep in her heart. Thus, she spent less time in old man Ji’s house, and more time at her master’s. Old man Ji did ask her a couple of times about it, but she refused to tell him. He knew that she was stubborn since she was young, and would never turn back once she had made a decision, so he did not press her.
One day, Li Wenxiu rode her white horse towards home, from her teacher’s house. Halfway into the journey, she realised that the sky was suddenly overcast with red clouds. The weather in the desert was unpredictable, and the northerly wind blew increasingly strongly. It seemed as if a huge blizzard was about to occur. She urged the horse to gallop more swiftly, and saw the shepherds herding their flocks home hurriedly, and there was not a single bird in the skies.
As she was about to reach home, she suddenly heard hoof beats, and a horse galloped towards her. Li Wenxiu felt slightly puzzled: “How come some people are leaving their homes, when there’s a blizzard coming?” As the horse galloped closer, she saw that the rider had a large red woolen cloak draped over her shoulders. It was a Kazak woman.
At this time, Li Wenxiu’s eyesight had improved greatly from two years ago. From far away, she could see that this woman had a graceful figure and beautiful face. It was A’man. Li Wenxiu did not wish to meet her face-to-face, so she turned her horse around, she moved to the south of a little hill, and reined in her horse behind some trees. But she saw that A’man also rode towards the little hill. When she neared the hillside, she gave a whistle. Then an answering whistle came from the trees on the top of the little hill. A’man leapt off the horse, and a man ran towards her. They embraced each other, laughing heartily. The man said, “There’s a blizzard coming in the twinkling of an eye, why are you still out here?”
A’man laughed, “Little fool, since you knew a blizzard was coming, why did you wait bravely for me here?” Su Pu laughed, “Our meeting here every day is more important than eating. Even if I have to battle enemies, I will still come here to wait for you.” They sat on the hill, shoulder to shoulder, whispering sweet nothings to each other. Several trees away, Li Wenxiu could not help but become lost in reverie. Sometimes their conversations were loud, and could be heard very clearly; other times they became soft, and not a word could be heard. Suddenly, their conversation came to some funny happening, and they chuckled loudly together.
But even if they spoke very loudly, Li Wenxiu heard but paid no attention for she was not eavesdropping on their lovers’ prattle. It was as if she saw a little boy and a little girl before her eyes, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the grass like they were doing now. The little boy was Su Pu, but the little girl was herself. They were telling stories, but as to what stories they were, she had long forgotten, but the scene from ten years ago still appeared clearly before her eyes……
Snowflakes as large as chicken feathers floated down, one by one, falling on all three horses, falling on all three people. Su Pu and A’man were deeply engrossed in their conversation, and did not take notice, while Li Wenxiu did not feel a thing. The snowflakes piled up on their heads, turning their hair white.
Several decades later, when the hair of all three of them really turned white, would Su Pu and A’man be talking and laughing happily together, and Li Wenxiu still be lonely as ever? While she continued to remember someone, did that someone have no trace of her in his heart? Suddenly, the branches resounded with loud noise. Su Pu and A’man jumped up together, crying out, “Hailstones are falling! Let’s go home quickly!”
When Li Wenxiu heard their crying, she was roused from her reverie. Hailstones as big as fingers hit her head, face and hands, causing her to feel much pain. She hurriedly pulled out a woolen rug from beneath the saddle, and placed it on her head before riding home.
As she neared the front door of her house, she saw that two horses were tied to the pillars of the verandah. One of them was the horse A’man had ridden. Li Wenxiu was stunned: “What did they come to my house for?” At this time, the falling hailstones became bigger and bigger, so she led the white horse away, and entered the house from the back door. She heard Su Pu’s bright, clear voice say, “Old Uncle, the hailstorm is really heavy, so we’ll have to stay a little longer.” The old man Ji answered, “Normally, I wouldn’t be able to get you as guests. I’ll go and brew a pot of tea.” Ever since the bandits from Jinwei Protection Agency plundered these pastures, the Kazaks hated Hans extremely. Even though old man Ji had lived there for a long time, and the Kazaks were naturally hospitable, they did not resort to driving him out, but instead distanced themselves from him. If there wasn’t a joyous occasion, they would not buy wine from him; if their sick livestock could not be cured, they would not ask him to treat them. Su Pu and A’man’s tents had by then relocated far away. If not for finding a place to shelter from the hailstorm, ten years could pass without them even coming to his house.
The old man Ji walked to the stove, and saw that Li Wenxiu’s face was very red, and was sitting there, spellbound. He said, “Ah, you’re ba……” She got up and covered his mouth with her hand, and whispered into his ear, “Don’t let them know that I’m here.” The old man Ji was perplexed, but nodded his head.
After a while, the old man Ji took out sheep’s milk wine, junket and black tea to serve to his guests. Li Wenxiu sat by the fire, and could hear the vague sounds of Su Pu and A’man’s conversations coming from the hall. She was unable to control one thought at the bottom of her heart: “I want to see him, and say something to him.” But then she recalled Su Lu’ke’s scoldings and whippings. For ten years, the sound of the whippings had continuously rung in her mind.
Old man Ji returned to the stove, and handed her a bowl of hot tea mixed with cream. His eyes shone with affection for her. Both of them had lived together for ten years, and their relationship like a grandfather and his real granddaughter. They showed care and concern to each other, but neither really knew what the other what thinking at the bottom of his heart.
After all, they were not biologically related, and thus did not have that natural connection between related flesh and blood.
Li Wenxiu suddenly said in a low voice, “I’m not going to change my clothes, and will pretend to be a Kazak man who is seeking shelter from the hailstorm at your house. You mustn’t give away my disguise.” Without waiting for him to answer, she left by the back door. She led her horse through the heavy blizzard, and walked away, quietly. She walked on for about a li, before she mounted the horse. Turning around, she galloped towards the front door. In the midst of strong gales, she felt as if the dark clouds were going to compress her head. She had lived in the Muslim Region for twelve years but had never seen the sky such a strange colour, and felt afraid.
She rode up to the door, and knocked on it. In the Kazak language, she said, “Excuse me, excuse me!” Old man Ji opened the door and came out, and also using the Kazak language, asked, “Brother, what is it?” Li Wenxiu answered, “This heavy blizzard is really terrible. Sir, may I seek shelter in your honourable abode?” Old man Ji replied, “Of course, of course! People away from home do not carry their houses on their persons. There are already two friends here seeking shelter from the hailstorm. Brother, please enter!” As she spoke, he let Li Wenxiu to enter, and asked, “Where is Brother planning to go later?” Li Wenxiu said, “I want to go to the Black Stone Wall, how far is it from here?” But she thought, “Grandfather Ji’s pretense is faultless.” Grandfather Ji pretended to be surprised, and said, “Aiyo, you want to go to the Black Stone Wall? The weather is so bad, you won’t be able to reach it today. Why don’t you stay here for one night, and leave only tomorrow. If you lose your way, that wouldn’t be a trifling matter.” Li Wenxiu said, “I’m sorry to impose on you.” She went into the hall, and shook the snow off her body. She saw Su Pu and A’man sitting together shoulder to shoulder, around a fire. Su Pu smiles, “Brother, we’re also here to shelter from the hailstorm too. Please come over here to warm yourself.” Li Wenxiu said, “Good, many thanks!” She went over and sat next to him. A’man greeted her with a smile. Su Pu had not seen her for eight to nine years. She had grown from a little girl to a young woman, and was also pretending to be a man, so how could Su Pu recognize her? Old man Ji presented her with food and drink. As she ate, she asked the three people their names. She introduced herself as Asituo, and said that she was a Kazak shepherd from more than two hundred li away.
Su Pu looked out of the window to look at the colour of the sky. Actually, just by listening to the sounds of the earth-shaking winds, and without looking at the sky, one could know that it was unwise to leave. A’man said worriedly, “Do you think the house will be blown away by the wind?” Su Pu answered, “I’m more worried that the snowfall will be so heavy that the roof will be unable to stand it. I’ll climb up to the roof and sweep off the snow later.” A’man said, “Don’t let the wind blow you off.” Su Pu laughed, “The layer of snow covering the ground is so thick, even if I fall down, I won’t die.” Li Wenxiu’s hand trembled slightly as she held the bowl of tea. Her thoughts were muddles, and she did not know what to think. Her childhood friend sat next to her. Did he really not recognise her, or had he recognised her, but was pretending not to? Had he forgotten her completely, or did he still remember her but was not willing to let A’man know? Dusk gradually fell, and Li Wenxiu sat further away. Su Pu and A’man held hands, and whispered sweet nothings to each other. Others would find them meaningless, but lovers found them pleasing to the ears. The firelight flickered, lighting both their faces.
Li Wenxiu sat beyond the edge of the firelight.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of hooves treading on snow. A horse was coming towards this house. The layer of snow on the pastures was extremely thick, and the horse used a lot of strength to move its legs, and was unable to run swiftly.
As the horse approached, even old man Ji heard it, and muttered, “Another one who wants to shelter from the hailstorm.” Su Pu and A’man did not seem to have heard, or perhaps they heard but ignored it. Holding each other’s hands, they leant on each other and whispered things.
After quite a while, the horse reached the front door. Then there was a rapping on the door. The rapping was extremely rude, and did not have the courtesy of someone seeking shelter. Old man Ji furrowed his brow, then went to open the door, only to see a tall, well-built man standing there. The man, who was bearded, wore a woollen coat, and a long sword hung at his waist. Loudly he said, “The hailstorm outside is really heavy, and my horse cannot move!” He spoke in broken Kazak. His bright eyes scrutinized everyone on the house. Old man Ji said, “Please come in. First, have a bowl of wine!” As he spoke, he handed a bowl of wine to him. That man finished the wine in one gulp. He sat next to the fire, and when he removed his outer coat, one could see a pair of shiny daggers stuck at his waist. One of the daggers had a golden hilt; the other, a silver one.
When Li Wenxiu saw this pair of daggers, her heart lurched, and she felt as if there was an obstruction in her throat. Giddy, she thought, “Those are Mama’s daggers.” Although Li Wenxiu was very young when ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’ had died, but there was no mistake; she recognised this pair of daggers very clearly. She shot a sideways glance at the man, and recognised him. He was one of the three leaders who had led the men on a pursuit of her parents. After twelve years, her facial features and posture had completely changed, but when a thirty-something man to age twelve years, there would be hardly any physical changes. She was very afraid that he would recognise her, so she did not dare to look too frequently at him, and thought, “If not for this heavy snowstorm, I would not be able to see Su Pu or this bandit.” Old man Ji asked, “Where does Sir come from? You are going to a faraway place, aren’t you?” The man answered, “Yes, yes.” Then he poured another bowl of wine and drank it.
At this time, there were five people sitting around the fire, so Su Pu could not continue whispering sweet nothings to A’man. He gazed at old man Ji for a moment, and suddenly said, “Old Uncle, I would to ask you about someone.” Old man Ji asked, “Who is it?” Su Pu answered, “It was a little Han girl with whom I used to play with frequently when I was young……” As he spoke, Li Wenxiu’s heart gave a sudden leap. She turned away, not daring to look at him. She heard Su Pu continue, “She was called A’xiu. Later, eight or nine years passed and I never saw her again. She lived with an old grandfather of Han descent. So that must’ve been you?” Old man Ji coughed several times, attempting to receive a signal from Li Wenxiu’s expressions. But Li Wenxiu had turned her head away. He did not know how to answer, and muttered “Um, um” non-committally.
Su Pu continued, “She could sing extremely well, and some said she sang better than the Tianling birds. But for the past few years, I have not heard her singing. Does she still live with you?” Old man Ji was very embarrassed, and said, “No, no! She isn’t…… she isn’t here anymore……” Li Wenxiu interrupted, “I also knew the Han girl that you speak of. She has been dead for quite a few years now!” Su Pu was stunned, “Ah, she’s dead, how did she die?” Old man Ji glanced at Li Wenxiu, and said, “It was an illness…… an illness……” Tears glistened in his eyes, and he said, “I used to herd sheep with her when I was young. She sang many songs for me, and told me many stories. I hadn’t seen her for quite a few years, and I did not expect that she…… she had died.” Old man Ji sighed, “Ai, poor child.”
Su Pu gazed into the flames, lost in thought for a moment, then said, “She said that her parents had been killed by evil people, and she came to this place, orphaned and helpless……” A’man asked, “This girl must’ve been very beautiful?” Su Pu answered, “I was very young at that time, and cannot remember now. I only remember that she sang songs very well, and told stories very well too……” The man with the daggers stuck at his waist suddenly said, “Are you talking about a little Han girl? Her parents were harmed, and she came here alone?” Su Pu replied, “Yes, did you know her too?” The man did not answer, but asked, “She rode a white horse, didn’t she?” Su Pu said, “Yes, so you’ve met her before.” The man stood up suddenly. To old man Ji, he demanded fiercely, “She died in this house of yours?” Old man Ji made an ambiguous response. The man asked, “Where are the things she left behind? Have you kept them carefully?” Old man Ji gave him a sideways glance, and asked, amazed, “What has this got to do with you?” The man answered, “That little girl stole an important object from me. I searched for her everywhere but to no avail, but I never expected that she had died……” Su Pu leapt up, and said loudly, “Don’t talk nonsense, why would A’xiu steal your things?” The man said, “What do you know?” Su Pu replied, “A’xiu has been with me since young, and she is a very very good girl, who would never steal someone else’s things.” The man tilted his mouth, making a scornful expression, and said, “But it so happened that she stole something from me.” Su Pu grabbed hold of the hilt of the sabre hanging at his waist, and shouted, “What is your name? I believe you’re not a Kazak, perhaps you are one of those Han bandits!”
That man walked to the door, opened it and peered outside. Once the door was open, a blast of strong wind blew countless snowflakes inside. He saw that the snowstorm filled the entire area, and neither man nor horse would be able to move. He thought, “No one else will be coming here. I can easily defeat the woman, the old man, and the skinny youth in this house. But I will have to spend slightly more effort to defeat this strong youth.” But he was not too concerned about this, and said, “So what if I’m a Han? My surname is Chen, and my name is Dahai, and in the pugilistic world I am nicknamed Green Python Sword. Have you heard?”
Su Pu did not understand these pugilistic customs of the Hans. Shaking his head, he said, “No, I’ve never heard. Are you a Han bandit?” Chen Dahai replied, “I’m a protection agent, and depend on defeating bandits for a living. So how could I be a bandit?” When Su Pu heard that he was not a bandit, the expression on his face immediately relaxed, and said, “You’re not a Han bandit, so everything is fine! I always said that there were good people among the Hans, but my father refused to believe me. You mustn’t say that A’xiu took your things ever again.”
Li Wenxiu heard Su Pu defend her, and her heart stirred, “He did not forget me, did not forget me! He still treats me very well.” But she heard Chen Dahai continuously asking about the belongings that she had left behind, and felt puzzled, “I’ve never taken anything from him, whatever is he looking for?” Then she heard old man Ji ask, “What has Sir lost? That little girl was always honest, and I trusted her completely. She would never take another’s belongings.” Chen Dahai made a slight noise, and said, “It was a painting. Ordinary people would have no use for it, but because it was…… it was painted by my late father, so I must get that painting back. Since that little girl lived here before, did you ever see this painting?” Old man Ji inquired, “What kind of painting was it, depicting scenery or humans?” Chen Dahai said, “I believe it was…… was depicting scenery?” Su Pu smiled coldly and said, “You don’t even know what kind of painting it was, and still dare to accuse her of stealing it.” Chen Dahai flew into a great fury. With a swish, he pulled out the sword hanging from his waist, and yelled, “Little crook, are you tired of living? I can kill a whole lot of people and still not put it to heart.” Su Pu also pulled his sabre from his waist, and coldly said, “I’m afraid it isn’t that easy to kill a Kazak.” A’man cautioned, “Su Pu, don’t be ignorant like him.” After Su Pu heard what A’man said, he slowly placed his sabre back into its scabbard.
To be continued….
Written by Jin Yong
Translation by Junzi
Edited and proofread by audiowuxia.
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