** 1 **
Lead Escort Tong eagerly led Zhang and the others to Iron Gall Manor. This time, having some support with him, he walked brazenly up to the manor gate.
"Tell your Lord to come out and receive Imperial officials," he shouted to an attendant.
The attendant turned to go inside, but Zhang decided they could not afford to offend such a respected man as Lord Zhou. "Say that we have come from Beijing and that there is some official business we would like to consult Lord Zhou about," he called.
He glanced meaningfully at Officer Wu, who nodded and went round to the rear of the Manor with one of the officers to prevent anyone escaping.
As soon as he heard the attendant's report, Meng knew the officers had come for Wen Tailai. He told Song to go out and keep them occupied, and then went immediately to Wen's room.
"Master Wen, there are some Eagle's Claws outside," he said. "There's nothing we can do. We'll just have to hide the three of you for a while."
He helped Wen up, and led him to a pavilion in the garden behind the Manor house. Meng and 'Scholar' Yu pushed aside a stone table in the pavilion, exposing an iron plate. They worked free an iron ring on top of the plate and pulled it up. Underneath was a cellar.
Just then, they heard people outside the back gate, and at the same time shouting from in front as Zhang forced his way through towards the garden. Wen saw that they were surrounded and hurried down the steps into the cellar. Meng replaced the iron plate, and pushed the stone table back over it with the help of two attendants. Zhou's young son kept getting in the way as he tried to help. Meng looked round quickly to make sure nothing was out of place, then ordered the attendants to open the rear gate.
Zhang and the others entered the garden. Seeing Tong amongst the group, Meng said coldly: "So you are an official. I should not have been so impolite to you earlier."
"I am a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," Tong replied. "Haven't you made a mistake, brother?" He looked round at Zhang. "I saw the three fugitives enter the manor. You should order a search, Master Zhang."
"We are peaceful citizens," said Song. "His Lordship, Master Zhou, is one of the most respected gentlemen west of the Yellow River. How could he dare to harbour either bandits or rebellious intentions?"
Meng asked Zhang to explain the purpose of his visit. Zhang did so, and Meng laughed out loud. "But the Red Flower Society is a secret society in south China," he protested. "Why would they come to the northwest border areas? This lead escort has a wild imagination."
Zhang and the rest were professionals, and they knew Wen was in the manor. If they conducted a thorough search and found him, there would be no problem. But if the search failed to find him, the matter would certainly not rest there. Causing offence to a man such as Lord Zhou was no game and they hesitated.
Worried that he would be laughed at if Wen wasn't caught that day, Tong decided to trick Zhou's son into talking. He smiled and took him by the hand, but the boy snatched his hand away.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Little brother," Tong said. "Tell me where the three visitors who came to your house today are hiding and I'll give you this to buy sweets with." He took out a silver ingot and presented it to the boy.
The boy made a face at him. "Who do you think I am? Do you think any member of the Zhou family of Iron Gall manor would want your stinking money?"
Zhang studied the child's face and guessed he knew where Wen was hidden. "Just you wait until we find them," he warned. "We will behead not only your father, but you and your mother as well."
The boy raised his eyebrows. "I'm not afraid of you, so why would my father be afraid of you?" he replied.
Suddenly, Tong noticed the boy was wearing a pearl bracelet on his left wrist and recognised it immediately as Luo Bing's.
"Those pearls on your wrist. They belong to one of the visitors," he said. "You must have stolen them from her."
Why should I steal?" the boy replied angrily. "She gave them to me."
Tong laughed. "All right. She gave them to you. Well, where is she?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"Stop chattering with the child," Zhang interrupted. "They wouldn't let a child in on the great affairs of the Manor. He would certainly have been shooed away before they hid the three guests in their secret place."
As he hoped, the child rose to the bait. "How would you know?" he shouted.
Meng was becoming anxious. "Let's go inside, little brother," he said.
Zhang seized the opportunity. "Yes, go away little boy. You don't know anything."
The boy could stand it no longer. "I know!" he shouted. "They're in the garden, in the pavilion!"
Meng was greatly alarmed. "Little brother, what nonsense are you talking? Go inside quickly!"
As soon as the words were out, the boy knew he had made a mess of everything. He flew indoors, panic-stricken and on the verge of tears.
Zhang could see that the pavilion, wide and empty with red-painted railings around its sides, provided no hiding place. He leapt onto one of the railings and looked up into the roof, but saw no sign of a hiding-place. He jumped down again and stood silently, deep in thought. Then he had an idea.
"Master Meng," he smiled. "My kung fu is unsophisticated, but I have some clumsy strength. Let us have a competition."
"I wouldn't dare to be so presumptuous," Meng replied. "With weapons or without, I leave the choice to you."
Zhang laughed loudly. "There's no need for fighting, it would injure this amiable atmosphere. No, I suggest we take turns at trying to lift this stone table. I hope you won't laugh at me if I can't."
Meng started in fright. "No, it's...it's not a good..." he stuttered.
The others were surprised at Zhang's desire to engage Meng in a test of strength, and they watched intently as he pushed up his sleeves and grasped one of the round legs of the stone table with his right hand. He shouted the word "Lift!", and raised the 400-odd pound table off the ground using just the one hand.
They applauded him for his strength, but the shouts of applause quickly changed to calls of surprise as they noticed the iron plate that had been exposed.
The officers lifted up the plate and saw Wen in the hole beneath them, but none dared to go down and arrest him. They couldn't use darts either as they had been ordered to capture him alive, so all they could do was stand at the entrance to the cellar, weapons in hand, shouting at him.
"We've been betrayed by Iron Gall Manor," Wen said quietly to Luo Bing. "We are husband and wife, and I want you to promise me one thing."
"Whatever I tell you to do in a moment, you must do."
Luo Bing nodded, her eyes full of tears.
"Wen Tailai is here," Wen shouted. "What's all the noise about?"
A sudden silence descended on the group above.
"My leg is wounded," Wen added. "Send a rope down and lift me up."
Zhang turned round to ask Meng to get some rope, but he had disappeared, so he ordered an attendant to go instead. A length of rope was brought, and an Imperial Bodyguard named Cheng Huang grabbed one end and threw the other down into the cellar and lifted Wen out.
As soon as his feet touched the ground, Wen jerked the rope out of Cheng Huang's hands, and with a roar, whirled it round and round his head. Caught off guard, Zhang and the others ducked in panic as the rope swept towards them. Tong, who had already suffered at Wen's hand, had hidden behind the others, and didn't see the rope until it was too late. With the piercing force of an iron rod, the rope smashed solidly into his back, knocking him to the ground.
Two other Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan, raced towards Wen from either side while 'Scholar' Yu, wielding the Golden Flute, leapt up the stone steps and attacked Cheng Huang.
Cheng was wielding a brass staff, but despite its advantage of length over the flute, Yu quickly forced him onto the defensive. Luo Bing limped up the steps, supporting herself with her sword, but found her way blocked by a tall, muscular man standing at the mouth of the cellar, with his hands on his hips. She pulled out a throwing knife and threw it at him. The man, Zhang, made no move until the knife was only an inch from his nose, then stretched out his hand and grabbed it by the hilt. Luo Bing saw his leisurely reaction, and drew a ragged breath.
Zhang forced her sword to one side, then gave her a push which threw her off balance. She fell back down into the cellar.
Wen, meanwhile, was battling simultaneously with the two Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan. His mind was numb with the excruciating pain from his wounds, and he fought like a madman, striking out wildly. Yu, however, had gained the upper hand in his fight with Cheng Huang. Zhang noticed his technique contained many elements peculiar to the Wudang School. Greatly surprised, he was about to go over and question him, when Yu suddenly jumped back into the cellar to help Luo Bing.
"Are you all right?" he asked her.
"It's nothing. Go and help Fourth Brother."
"I'll support you up," Yu said.
Wen looked around and saw that his wife had not yet managed to get out of the cellar, and he realised he could continue no longer. He threw himself at Cheng Huang, paralysed him with a blow to the kidneys, then grabbed him round the waist and fell into the cellar with him.
They landed on the cellar floor with Wen on top of Cheng Huang, neither of them able to move. Luo Bing quickly helped Wen up. His face was completely drained of colour and covered in sweat, but he forced a smile, and with a "Wa" sound, a mouthful of blood sprayed out onto the front of her tunic. Yu understood what Wen was planning, and shouted. "Make way! Make way!"
With Cheng Huang in the hands of the enemy, Zhang decided against any precipitous action. He heard Yu's shout and waved his arm at the others, indicating they should clear a path for them.
The first one out of the cellar was Cheng Huang with Luo Bing grasping his collar and holding the point of a dagger to the small of his back. Next came Yu supporting Wen. The four shuffled slowly out, pushing and pulling each other as they came.
"If anyone moves, this man dies," Luo Bing shouted.
The four passed through the forest of swords and spears and made their way slowly towards the rear gate. Luo Bing spotted three horses tied to the willow trees just outside, and she silently thanked Heaven and Earth.
Zhang could see the fugitives were about to escape and decided that capturing Wen Tailai and taking him back to Beijing was more important than saving Cheng Huang's life. He picked up the rope Wen had thrown on the ground, fashioned it into a lassoo and flung it at Wen using all his Inner Strength. The rope flew whistling through the air and encircled Wen, and with a tug, Zhang pulled him out of Yu's grasp. Wen cried out and Luo Bing turned to help him, ignoring Cheng Huang. But her thigh was wounded, and she fell to the ground before she had taken two steps.
"Go! Go quickly!" Wen shouted.
"I'll die with you," said Luo Bing.
"You agreed that you would do what I told you..." he replied angrily, but before he could finish, the officers swarmed over him. Yu raced over and picked Luo Bing up, then charged straight out of the gate. One officer moved to stop him, but one of Yu's legs flew up and kicked him so hard that he fell to the ground five or six paces away.
Yu ran with her over to the horses and placed her on the back of one just as three officers raced through the gates after them.
"Use your throwing knives, quick!" he shouted.
A string of knives flashed out from her hand and there was a blood-curdling shriek as one of them planted itself in the shoulder of one of the officers. Yu freed the reins of the three horses, mounted one and pulled the head of the third round so that it faced the gate. He rapped it sharply on the rump with his flute and the horse charged straight to the officers, trapping them in the gateway. In the confusion, Yu and Luo Bing galloped off.
Luo Bing lay on the horse in a semi-delirious state. She tried on several occasions to pull the horse round and return to Iron Gall Manor, but each time Yu stopped her. He slowed the pace only when he was sure there was no-one chasing them.
Another mile further on, Yu saw four riders approaching led by a man with a flowing white beard: it was the Lord of Iron Gall Manor, Zhou Zhongying. Seeing Yu and Luo Bing, he reined in his horse and called out:
"Honoured guests, please stop! I have called for a doctor."
Full of hatred, Luo Bing flung a throwing knife at him. Zhou started in fright, and threw himself down flat on his horse, and the knife flew over his back. Behind him, one of his followers deflected the knife with a stroke from his sword, and it plunged into the trunk of a large willow tree beside the road. The rays of the blood-red setting sun reflected off the blade, the light flashing and dancing all around them. Just as Zhou was about to question them, Luo Bing began cursing him.
"You old thief! You betrayed my husband! I will have my revenge on you!" she shouted, tears coursing down her face. She urged her horse forward, brandishing her pair of swords.
"Let us discuss this first," Zhou called out, greatly puzzled.
"We must save Fourth Brother first," Yu said to Luo Bing, restraining her. "We can raze Iron Gall Manor to the ground once we've rescued him."
Luo Bing saw the logic in what he said, and pulled the head of her horse round. She spat on the ground in hate, slapped her horse and galloped off.
Lord Zhou wondered what was behind this young girl's anger and questioned the attendant who had been sent to the town to fetch a doctor. But he said only that when he left, Lady Zhou and Master Meng had been looking after the guests, and that there had been no disgreements.
Zhou galloped all the way back to the manor, and strode quickly inside shouting: "Call Meng!"
"Master Meng is with her Ladyship," one of the attendants told him. Then the rest all began talking at once, giving him accounts of what had happened, how the officers had arrested Wen Tailai and taken him away, and had left the manor only a short while before.
"Who tolf the officers the three guests were hiding in the cellar?" Zhou asked.
The attendants looked at each other, not daring to speak. The sound of Zhou's two iron balls clacking together in his hand was even louder than usual. "What are you all standing there for?" he shouted. "Go and get Meng quickly!"
As he spoke, Meng ran in.
"Who let the secret out?" Zhou shouted hoarsely. "Tell me! You..."
Meng hesitated, and said: "The Eagle's Claws found it out for themselves."
"Nonsense!" Zhou roared. "How would that bunch of dog thieves ever find a place as well-hidden as my cellar?"
Meng did not answer, not daring to meet his master's gaze. Lady Zhou came in hugging her son, but Zhou ignored her.
His gaze swung round to Song's face. "As soon as you saw the officers, you took fright and talked, didn't you?" he shouted. Meng was trustworthy but Song was a coward and knew no kung fu.
"No...it wasn't me who talked," he replied, scared out of his wits. "It was...it was the young...the young master."
Zhou's heart missed a beat. "Come over here," he said to his son.
The boy walked, cringing, over to his father.
"Was it you who told the officers that the three guests were in the garden cellar?" he asked.
The boy had never dared to lie to his father, but he could not bring himself to confess. Zhou brandished his whip.
"Will you speak?" he shouted.
The boy looked at his mother, so scared he wanted to cry. Lady Zhou walked over and stood close beside him.
Meng saw that the deception would not work. "Master," he said. "The officers were very cunning. They made out that if the young master did not talk, he would be a coward."
"You wanted to be a hero, so you told them, is that correct?" Zhou shouted.
The boy's face was drained of colour. "Yes, father," he replied quietly.
Zhou could not control his anger. "Is that any way for a brave hero to act?" he shouted. He threw the two iron balls in his right hand at the opposite wall in frustration, but at that very moment, his son threw himself into his arms to beg for mercy, and one of the balls hit the boy square on the head. Zhou had put all of his rage into the throw and its power was extraordinary. Blood sprayed in all directions.
Greatly shocked, Zhou quickly took hold of his son and embraced him.
"Father," the boy said. "I...I won't do it again...Don't hit me..." He was dead before he finished speaking. Everyone in the room was stunned into silence.
Lady Zhou grabbed her son, shouting: "Child, child!" When she saw he had stopped breathing, she stared dumbly at him for a moment then, like a crazed tiger, struck out at Zhou.
"Why...why did you kill the child?" she sobbed.
Zhou shook his head and retreated two paces. "I... I didn't..."
Lady Zhou put down her son's corpse, and grabbed a sword from the scabbard of one of the attendants. She leapt forward and struck out at her husband, but he made no move to avoid the blow.
"It will be better if we all die," he said, closing his eyes.
Seeing him in such a state, her hand loosened. She dropped the sword to the ground and ran out of the hall, sobbing.
Luo Bing and Yu Yutong kept to the back roads for fear of meeting Yamen officers and rode on until the sky was completely black. The countryside was desolate: there were no inns and they couldn't even find a farmhouse. They stopped to rest beside a large rock.
Yu releaed the horses to graze, then cut some grass with Luo Bing's sword and spread it out on the ground.
"Now we have a bed, but no food or water," he said. "All we can do is wait until tomorrow and try to think of something then."
Luo Bing cared about nothing but her husband. She cried continuously. Yu comforted her, saying the Red Flower Society would certainly come in force to help them rescue Fourth Brother. Luo Bing was exhausted, and hearing his words, she relaxed and soon fell into a deep sleep.
In her dream, she seemed to meet her husband, who held her gently in his arms, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. She felt deliciously happy and lazily let her husband embrace her.
"I've been so miserable thinking about you," she said. "Are all your wounds healed?"
Wen mumbled a few words and held her even tighter, kissed her even more passionately. Just as she was beginning to feel aroused, she suddenly started in fright and awoke. Under the starlight, she could see that the person embracing her was not her husband, but Yu.
"I've been miserable thinking about you too!" he whispered.
Ashamed and angry, Luo Bing slapped him heavily on the face, fought her way free and stumbled away a few steps. She fumbled for her knives, and shouted harshly: "What are you doing?"
Yu was stunned. "Listen to me..."
"You listen to me!" she replied angrily. "Which four classes of people does the Red Flower Society kill?"
"Tartars and Manchus; corrupt officials; landlords and tyrants; and villains and scoundrels," Yu recited quietly, his head hung low.
The space between Luo Bing's eyebrows closed. "Which four crimes by Red Flower Society members are punishable by death?"
"Death to those who surrender to the Manchu Court. Death to those who betray the Society...death to those who betray their friends, and death to those who violate others'...wives and daughters."
"If you have the guts, you will quickly punish yourself with the 'Three Thrusts and Six Holes'!" Luo Bing shouted.
According to the Society's code, a member who had committed an offence in a moment of confusion and sincerely regretted it could pierce his own thigh three times with a knife so that it penetrated right through, an act known as the 'Three Thrusts and Six Holes.' The member could then plead to the Great Helmsman for forgiveness, and could hope that his case would be dealt with leniently.
"I beg you to kill me," Yu cried. "If I die at your hand, I will still die happy."
Luo Bing's anger blazed even more intensely. She raised the knife in her hand, her wrist steeled, ready to throw.
"You don't know anything," Yu said in a shaky voice. "How much I have suffered for you over the last five or six years. From the moment I first saw you, my heart...was...no longer my own."
"I was already Fourth Brother's then," Luo Bing said angrily. "Do you mean you didn't know?"
"I...knew I couldn't control myself, so I never dared to see too much of you. Whenever the Society had any business to be done, I always begged the Great Helmsman to send me to do it. The others thought I was just hardworking, no-one knows I was really avoiding you. When I was away working, there was never a day or an hour when I did not think of you."
He took a step towards her and pulled up his left sleeve, exposing his arm. "I hate myself," he said. "I curse my heart for the animal it is. Every time the hatred overcomes me, I cut myself with a knife here. Look!"
Under the dim starlight, Luo Bing saw his arm was covered in motley scars, and her heart involuntarily softened.
"I always think, why couldn't Heaven have allowed me to meet you before you married," he continued. "We are about the same age, but the difference in age between you and Fourth Brother is huge."
Luo Bing's anger surged up once more. "What does the difference in our ages matter? Fourth Brother is loving and just, a great man. How could he be compared with someone like you, you..."
She gave a snort of contempt, then turned and walked over to her horse. As she struggled to mount it, Yu went over to help her up, but she shouted "Keep away!" and got up of her own accord.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"It's none of your business. With Fourth Brother in the hands of the Eagle's Claws, I might as well be dead anyway. Give me my swords."
Yu lowered his head and handed the pair of swords to her.
Seeing him standing there, so lost and bewildered, Luo Bing suddenly said: "As long as you seriously work for the good of the Society, and are never impolite to me ever again, I won't tell anyone about what happened tonight. And I'll also help you find a nice girl who has both talent and beauty."
She smiled briefly, slapped her horse and rode off.
Luo Bing rode on for a mile or so, then stopped, searching the sky for the North Star to get her bearings. If she went west, she would meet up with the fighters of the Red Flower Society; to go east would be to follow after her captured husband. She knew that, wounded as she was, it would be impossible for her to save him single-handed, but with her husband heading eastwards, how could she possibly turn away from him? Broken-hearted, she let her horse wander unrestrained for a few miles. Then, seeing she had already travelled a long way from Yu, she dismounted and settled down to sleep in a spinney of small trees. Angry and bitter, she cried for a while and then fell into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, she woke suddenly with a burning fever and called out in a blurred voice: "Water! I must drink water!" But there was no-one to hear her.
Next day, her condition was even worse. She managed with a struggle to sit up, but her head hurt so badly she was forced to lie down again. She slept, and awoke feeling the sun beating down on her head. She watched as it sank towards the west. She was thirsty and hungry, but remounting the horse was impossible.
"It is not important that I die here," she thought. "But I will never see Fourth Brother again." Her eyes glazed over and she fainted away.
Suddenly, she heard someone say: "Good. She's coming round!"
She slowly opened her eyes and saw a young, doe-eyed girl standing beside her. The girl was eighteen or nineteen years old with a tanned face and thick eyebrows. She looked very happy to see Luo Bing awaken.
"Go quickly and get some millet gruel for the Lady to drink," she told a maid.
Luo Bing realized she was lying on a kang in between the folds of a quilt. The room she was in was clean and tastefully furnished, obviously in the house of a very wealthy family.
"What is your honourable surname, miss?" she asked the girl.
"My surname is Zhou. You sleep for a while. We can talk again later."
The girl watched as Luo Bing ate a bowl of gruel and then quietly left. Luo Bing closed her eyes and slept once more.
When she woke, the lamps had already been lit. Outside the door, she heard a girl's voice saying loudly:
"Father shouldn't have allowed them to bully people and run riot here in Iron Gall Manor! If it had been me, I would have taught them a good lesson!"
Luo Bing started in fright when she heard the words 'Iron Gall Manor'. The girl and her maid walked into the room and looked through the canopy over the kang, but Luo Bing closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. The girl went over to the wall and took down a sword. Luo Bing noticed her own swords on a table close by and prepared herself. If the girl struck out at her, she would throw the quilt over her head, grab the swords and fight her way out. But all she heard was the maid saying:
"Mistress, you mustn't make any more trouble. His Lordship is very distressed. Don't make him angry again."
"Huh! I don't care," the girl replied. She raced out of the room, sword in hand, with the maid at her heels.
Luo Bing guessed correctly that the girl was Lord Zhou's daughter, Zhou Qi. She was a bold, straight-forward person, very much like her father, and had a love of minding other people's business. On the day Wen was seized, she had wounded someone in a fight, and had spent the night away from home, planning to wait for her father's anger to subside before returning. On her way back, she came across Luo Bing unconscious by the road and brought her to the manor, where she discovered to her horror that her father had killed her brother, and her mother had run off.
"If they can betray Fourth Brother to the authorities, why did they save me?" she thought darkly. "There must be some other evil scheme afoot."
The wound on her thigh had not yet healed, and she couldn't afford the slightest mistake. Having been in the Manor once before, she had a vague idea of its layout, and planned to stealthily make her way round to the garden, and then leave by the back gate. But as she passed by the great hall, she saw the lamps were burning brightly inside and heard someone talking very loudly. There was something familiar about the voice, and she put her eye close to a crack in the door and saw Lord Zhou in conversation with two other men, one of whom she recognised as Lead Escort Tong. Seeing him, she thought again of her husband's cruel fate and immediately ceased to care about whether she lived or died. She pushed open the door and slung a throwing knife at Tong.
After nightfall on the second day, an attendant reported that two visitors had arrived, and Zhou ordered Meng to receive them. One was Tong, the other an Imperial Bodyguard surnamed Pan, one of the fighters who had helped to seize Wen. Meng guessed that no good would come of the visit.
"His Lordship is not feeling well," he told them. "If you have any message, I will convey it for you."
Tong laughed. "We are here on a goodwill visit," he said. "Whether Lord Zhou sees us or not is up to him. Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis that may destroy every member of the Zhou family. What is the point of putting on such airs?"
Meng had no option but to allow them through. The iron balls in Zhou's hand clacked sharply together as he listened to what the visitors had to say.
"What do you mean by saying Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis?" he demanded.
Bodyguard Pan pulled a letter from his gown and spread it out on the table, holding it down with both hands as if afraid that Zhou would snatch it away. Zhou peered down and saw it was a letter written to him by 'Hidden Needle' Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School asking him to help some friends of the Red Flower Society who were in difficulties.
Wen had had no opportunity to present the letter to Zhou, and it was found when he was searched after being captured. Lu was a well-known fugitive, and the letter clearly indicated he was collaborating with Iron Gall Manor. The bodyguards had discussed the matter, and decided that reporting the existence of the letter to their superiors would not necessarily result in Lu's capture and could even increase their own workload. It would be more beneficial to use the letter to extort a sum of money from Zhou and divide it up amongst themselves.
Zhou was shocked at the sight of the letter. "What do you gentlemen want?" he asked.
"We have long admired the famous Lord Zhou," said Pan. "We know of your enthusiasm for charity and making new friends. Friends are much more important than money, and I'm sure you spend thousands of silver ingots to establish friendship without even creasing half an eyebrow. You of course realise, Lord Zhou, that if the authorities ever see this letter, the consequences would be disastrous. When we brothers found it, we resolved to destroy it in the spirit of friendship, even though it meant risking our own heads. Everyone agreed never to say a word about Iron Gall Manor harbouring the fugitive Wen Tailai. We decided to shoulder this monstrous responsibility and not to report to our superiors."
"That was very good of you," Zhou replied dryly.
"But," Pan continued, "The thing is that we brothers have had a lot of expenses on this trip out of the capital. We are carrying heavy debts. If perhaps Lord Zhou could spare a thought for us, we would feel eternally grateful."
Zhou was extremely angry. He had let down his friends, his beloved son had died as a result, and the officers were to blame. Now these same officers had come back to try to blackmail him.
"We are villains, that is true," Tong said. "We villains accomplish little and bungle much. If we had to build a Manor as big as this one, we'd have to admit defeat. But if we were asked to destroy it..."
Before he could finish, Zhou's daughter, Zhou Qi charged into the hall, and shouted harshly: "Let me see you try!"
Zhou motioned to his daughter and the two walked out of the hall. "Go and tell Meng that whatever happens, these two Eagle's Claws must not be allowed to leave the Manor!" he whispered.
"Good!" replied Zhou Qi, very pleased. "I was getting angrier and angrier listening outside."
Zhou returned to the hall.
"Since you refuse to do us this favour Lord Zhou, we will take our leave of you," Bodyguard Pan said. He picked up Lu's letter and ripped it to shreds as Zhou stood by dumbfounded, completely taken aback.
"This is a duplicate of the letter," Pan explained. "The original letter is with the 'Fire Hand Judge' Zhang Zhaozhong."
It was at that moment that Luo Bing's throwing knife flew towards Tong. Zhou detested Tong, but he couldn't allow him to die in the Manor. With no time to consider the matter carefully, he quickly threw one of the iron balls in his hand at the knife. It hit the knife with a "Clang" and both knife and ball fell to the ground.
"Ah-ha!" Luo Bing shouted. "So you're all in this together. You old thief! You've already betrayed my husband, why don't you kill me as well?" She raced into the hall, her swords held high, and struck out at Zhou.
With no weapon in his hand, Zhou hurriedly picked up a chair to deflect the blow. "Not so fast!" he protested. "Explain yourself first."
But Luo Bing was in no mood to listen. Zhou retreated steadily as she attacked, heading for the wall. Suddenly, Luo Bing heard the sound of a blade swishing towards her back, and ducked as the blade cleaved over her head. She turned to find Zhou Qi standing behind her, seething with anger.
"You ungrateful woman!" Zhou Qi shouted, pointing her finger accusingly. "I saved you out of the goodness of my heart. What are you doing attacking my father?"
"You of Iron Gall Manor with your fake charity and fake generosity!" Luo Bing replied bitterly. "But you keep away and I won't harm you."
She turned and resumed her attack on Zhou, who dodged left and right, shouting "Stop! Stop!" Absolutely furious, Zhou Qi jumped in front of her father and began fiercely fighting with Luo Bing.
In terms of martial skills and experience, Luo Bing was far superior to Zhou Qi, but because of the wounds on her shoulder and thigh coupled with her resentment and anger, the greatest taboos of the martial arts fighter, she gradually lost the initiative.
"Stop!" Zhou shouted repeatedly, but both girls ignored him. Pan and Tong stood to one side watching the battle.
Suddenly, they all heard a weird cry and saw a black figure lunged at Zhou's daughter. It was a short hunchback wielding a short-handled Wolf's Tooth club, the sharp teeth on the end of which sparkled and flashed as it swung steeply towards Zhou Qi. The girl jumped in fright and countered by chopping at his shoulder. The hunchback blocked her sword rigidly. Under the intense shock of the impact, Zhou Qi's arm went numb and her sword nearly fell out of her hand. She leapt back. The hunchback didn't press his attack, but instead turned to Luo Bing.
"Tenth Brother!" she cried. Tears coursed down her face.
"Where's Brother Wen?" the hunchback, Zhang Jin, asked.
Luo Bing pointed at Zhou, Pan and Tong. "They betrayed him! Tenth Brother, avenge him for me!"
Without waiting for details, Zhang Jin threw himself onto the ground and rolled towards Zhou. Zhou leapt up onto a table and shouted "Stop!" again, but Zhang Jin was not interested in explanations, and aimed the wolf's tooth club at his thigh. Zhou jumped into the air, landing on the ground just as the club slammed into the sandalwood table. The fangs sank deep into the wood, and for a moment the hunchback was unable to pull the club free.
Just then, Meng rushed into the hall and handed Zhou his gold-backed sword. He had no idea of the hunchback's motives, but anyone attacking his master was an enemy. Zhou and Meng attacked the hunchback together, but Zhang Jin held them off with his club and shouted: "Seventh Brother, if you don't get in here quickly and protect Sister Luo Bing, I will curse your ancestors!"
Zhang Jin and 'Kung Fu Mastermind' Xu had raced day and night without stopping towards Iron Gall Manor. Hearing Zhang Jin's call, Xu ran into the hall and made straight for Luo Bing. Her heart leapt for joy as she spotted him, and she pointed at Tong and Pan.
"They betrayed Brother Wen," she called.
Xu leapt at Tong. Xu was like a dwarf in stature, but his kung fu was superb, and in a second, he had his opponent on the retreat. Tong dodged to the left as Xu stabbed towards him with his knife, then hit the floor with a thud as Xu kicked him off his feet.
Xu felt a current of air hit his back as Bodyguard Pan attacked him holding a pair of tempered iron hoops, and with no time to turn round, he stepped on Tong's chest with his left foot and flipped over to face his attacker. Tong yelled out in pain.
On the other side of the hall, Zhang Jin was battling furiously with Meng, Zhou and Zhou Qi simultaneously.
"Go quickly and guard the manor gate," Meng shouted to an attendant. "Don't let anyone else in."
"Everyone stop!" Zhou called out. "Listen to what I have to say!"
Meng and Zhou Qi immediately stepped back several paces. Xu also retreated a step, and shouted to the hunchback: "Hold it, Tenth Brother. Let's listen to him."
But as he did so, Bodyguard Pan drove his hoops at Xu's back. Caught off his guard, Xu flinched away, but his shoulder was struck. He stumbled, and angrily called out: "Right! You Iron Gall Manor people are full of tricks." He did not know that Pan was not of the Manor. He raised his knife and fought furiously with Pan.
Tong stood at a distance, staring at Luo Bing. She had only one throwing knife left and was unwilling to use it rashly, so she raised her sword and chased after him. Tong nimbly raced about the great hall, dodging around the tables and chairs.
"Don't be violent," he told her. "Your husband is already dead. Why not be a good girl and marry your Uncle Tong?"
On hearing him say that Wen was dead, everything went black before her eyes, and she fainted away. Tong raced over to her as she collapsed.
Zhou's anger surged up as he saw what was happening, and he also ran towards Luo Bing, his gold-backed sword held high. He planned to stop Tong from molesting Luo Bing, but with misunderstanding piled on misunderstanding, he heard someone at the door to the hall shout loudly:
"If you dare to hurt her, I will fight you to the death!"
The newcomer charged at Zhou with a pair of hooks in his hands, aimed at Zhou's throat and groin respectively. Zhou noticed the man's handsome features and strong, vigorous movements. He raised his sword and lightly deflected the hooks, then retreated a step.
"Who are you, honourable sir?" he asked.
The man ignored him, and bent down to look at Luo Bing. Her face was white and her breathing very shallow and he helped her up and put her in a chair.
The fighting in the hall was getting more furious all the time. Suddenly, there was a shout outside followed by the sound of weapons clashing. A moment later, an attendent raced into the hall closely followed by a tall, fat man holding a steel whip.
"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother!" Xu shouted. "We must kill all of these Iron Gall Manor today, or our work isn't over."
The fat man was 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, ranking eighth in the Red Flower Society's hierarchy, while the one with the handsome face and the hooks was 'Nine Life Leopard' Wei who ranked ninth. Wei was a fearless fighter but had never been wounded and was consequently said to have nine lives.
Zhou looked around at the battle, awed by the fighting skills of the intruders. "Heroes of the Red Flower Society!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "Listen to me!"
By this time, 'Leopard' Wei had taken over from Xu and was fighting Bodyguard Pan. He slackened off slightly as he heard Zhou's shout, but Xu called out: "Careful! Don't be tricked."
Even as he spoke, Pan raised his hoops and struck out at Wei. He was afraid of Iron Gall Manor and the Red Flower Society getting together, and couldn't allow them any opportunity to talk peace.
Xu observed the desperate battle in progress in the hall. The hunchback Zhang Jin was fighting three people at once and was under pressure, although not yet ready to admit defeat. 'Leopard' Wei, meanwhile, was also having difficulty maintaining his defence. Victory, Xu could see, was impossible.
"Set fire to the place, quick!" he shouted to disconcert the Manor people. "Twelfth Brother, go and seal the rear gate. Don't let anyone escape!"
On hearing the shout, Zhou Qi ran for the door of the hall planning to look for the arsonists.
"So you want to escape, do you?" a deep voice outside said as she reached the doorway.
She started backwards in fright. In the flickering candlelight, she saw two men blocking the doorway. The face of the one who had spoken looked as though it was covered with a layer of frost. Gleaming shafts emerged from his two eyes, sapping the life from those they fixed upon. Zhou Qi wanted to look at the other man, but she found her eyes caught by the first man's stare.
"Holy Ghost," she cursed softly.
"That's right," he replied. "I'm 'Melancholy Ghost'." It was the Red Flower Society's Superintendant of Punishments, 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. There was no warmth in his words. Zhou Qi had never been afraid of anything before but she shuddered at the sight of this sinister man.
"Do you think I'm afraid of you?" she shouted to bolster her own courage, and struck out at him with her sword.
The man countered with his own sword, his eyes still fixed on her, and in only a few moves, he had completely mastered her.
On the other side of the hall, Meng was battling Zhang Jin, but it had already become obvious that he was no match for him. Tong, meanwhile, had not been sighted for some time. Only Zhou, fighting against Xu and Wei, had managed to gain the upper hand, but just as he was on the point of winning, someone else leapt forward shouting: "I'll fight you, old man!"
He was using an iron oar as a weapon. It swung up from behind the man's back, over his right shoulder and smashed down towards Zhou with astonishing ferocity. The man was 'Crocodile' Jiang, thirteenth in the Red Flower Society's heirarchy.
Zhou noticed Jiang's great strength and dodged to the left, then began to retreat as he fought, keeping constantly on the move. He spotted Bodyguard Pan being chased by 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, and as Pan ran close by him, Zhou struck out at him with his great sword.
Zhou knew that the Red Flower Society's misunderstanding of the situation was deep, and could not be explained away with just a few words. Furthermore, his several attempts to halt the battle had been sabotaged by Pan. With the Red Flower Society's fighters became increasingly numerous, and fighting more and more fiercely, it was only a matter of time before someone was wounded, if not killed, and when that happened, the misunderstanding would become a matter of true vengeance and the situation would be irretrievable.
Seeing Zhou's sword slicing towards him, Pan started in terror and frantically dodged out of the way. He fully realised Zhou's intention.
"We joined forces to capture Wen Tailai but it was you who killed him," he shouted at Zhou. "What are you planning now? You want to murder me and keep the whole Manchu reward for yourself, is that it?"
Zhang Jin howled and smashed his wolf's tooth club at Zhou's thigh. But Xu, who was more attentive, finally realised what was happening. Fighting with Zhou earlier, he had noticed how the old man had several time stayed his hand, and he knew there had to be a reason for it. "Tenth Brother!" he shouted. "Not so fast!"
Zhang Jin's blood lust was up, however, and he paid no attention. 'Copper-head' Jiang's iron oar swung forward, aimed at Zhou's midriff. Zhou leant to one side to avoid it, but unexpectedly, Yang swung his steel whip down towards his shoulder from behind. He heard the gust of wind behind his ear and blocked the blow with his sword, causing both Yang's and his own arm to go numb for a second. The physical strength of the three society fighters was frightening, and battling all three single-handed, it was obvious that Zhou was gradually being worn down. Then Jiang's iron oar struck upwards at Zhou's great sword: Zhou lost his grasp, and the sword flew up out of his hand and stuck straight into a beam in the roof of the hall.
The Red Flower Society fighters pressed in closer around Zhou, now weaponless, and Zhang Jin and Jiang's weapons smashed down towards him. Zhou quickly picked up a table and heaved it at the two of them. As he did so, the candleholder on the table fell to the floor and the flame went out.
In a flash of inspiration, Meng pulled out a catapult and "pa, pa, pa!" shot out a string of pellets at the other candles, extinguishing them all.
An inky blackness descended on the hall.
In the midst of the silence, footsteps sounded outside the hall. The door was thrown open and a shaft of light struck their eyes as a man carrying a burning torch strode in. He was dressed as a scholar, and in his left hand, he held a golden flute. As soon as he had passed through the door, he stood to one side and raised the torch up high, lighting the way as three other men entered. One was a one-armed Taoist priest with a sword slung across his back. The second man, wearing a light gown loosely tied around the waist, looked like the son of a nobleman. He was followed by a young boy in his teens who held a bundle in his hands. They were in fact 'Scholar' Yu, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, and the newly-appointed Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. The young boy was Chen's attendant, Xin Yan.
Yu presented Zhou with a letter of introduction, bowed, and then announced in a loud voice: "The Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society has come to pay his respects to Lord Zhou of IronGall Manor."
Zhou put his hands together in salute. "Honoured guests," he said. "Welcome to my humble Manor. Please be seated."
The tables and chairs in the great hall had all been overturned and thrown about during the fight and everything was in great disorder.
"Attendants," Zhou roared. The tables and chairs were quickly rearranged, the candles relit and the guests and hosts seated. Great Helmsman Chen took the first of the guest's seats on the eastern side of the hall and was followed, in order of seniority, by the other Red Flower Society heroes. Zhou took the first seat on the western side, followed in order by Meng, Zhou Qi and his attendants.
Yu stole a glance at Luo Bing's beautiful, joyless face. He had no idea if she had told anyone of his misdemeanor. After she had left him that night, he had not known where to go, but after two days of roaming around aimlessly, he ran into Great Helmsman Chen and Priest Wu Chen, who were on their way to Iron Gall Manor.
With the two sides being so polite to each other, Bodyguard Pan could see the game was up and began to sidle towards the door in the hope of slipping out unnoticed. But Xu leapt over and blocked his path.
"Please stay here," he said. "Let us all explain our positions clearly first."
Pan did not dare to object.
"Master Wen Tailai, our humble society's Fourth Brother, was attacked by the Eagle's Claws and suffered a serious injury," Chen said coldly. "He came to you for refuge, and we are much indebted to you for the assistance extended to him. All the brothers of our society are grateful, and I take this opportunity to offer our thanks."
He stood and bowed deeply.
Zhou hurriedly returned the bow, extremely embarrassed.
"Great Helmsman, you don't understand!" Zhang Jin shouted, jumping up. "He betrayed Fourth Brother!"
'Leopard' Wei, who was sitting next to Zhang Jin, gave him a push and told him to shut up.
"Our brothers have travelled through the night to call on you," Chen continued, ignoring the interruption. "We have all been extremely anxious about Brother Wen. We are unaware of the state of his injuries, but I imagine you would have invited a doctor to treat him. If it is convenient, Lord Zhou, we would like you to take us to him."
He stood up, and the heroes of the Red Flower Society followed suit.
Zhou stammered, momentarily unable to answer.
"Fourth Brother was killed by them," Luo Bing shouted, her voice choked with sobs. "Great Helmsman, we must kill this old peasant in payment for Fourth Brother's life!"
Chen turned pale. Zhang Jin, Yang and a number of the others drew their weapons and moved forward threateningly.
"Master Wen did come to our humble Manor..." Meng began.
"Well then, please take us to see him," Xu broke in.
"When Master Wen, Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu here arrived, our Lord was not at home," Meng replied. "It was I who dispatched someone to fetch a doctor. Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu saw that with their own eyes. Later, the court officers arrived. We are extremely ashamed to say that we were unable to protect our guests and Master Wen was captured. Master Chen, you blame us for not looking after him properly and for failing to fulfil our responsibility to protect friends. We admit it. If you wish to kill us, I for one will not bat an eyelid. But to point your finger at our Lord and accuse him of betraying a friend, what sort of talk is that?"
Luo Bing jumped forward a step and pointed at Meng accusingly. "You!" she shouted. "I ask you! Such a well-concealed hiding-place as that cellar: if you weren't in the pay of the Eagles's Claws, how would they have known where we were?"
Meng was speechless.
"Lord Zhou, at the time of the incident, you may not actually have been at home," Priest Wu added. "But just as a dragon has a head, men have masters. As this concerns Iron Gall Manor, we must ask you to explain."
Bodyguard Pan, cowering to one side, suddenly spoke up. "It was his son that talked," he shouted. "Is he willing to admit it?"
"Lord Zhou, is this true?" Great Helmsman Chen asked.
Zhou nodded slowly. The heroes of the Red Flower Society roared in anger and moved in even closer, some glaring at Zhou, some looking at Chen, waiting for his signal.
Chen gave Pan a sidelong glance. "And who are you, sir?" he asked.
"He's an Eagle's Claw," Luo Bing said. "He was one of those that seized Fourth Brother."
Chen slowly walked over to Pan, then suddenly snatched the iron hoop out of his grasp, whipped both his hands behind his back and held them together. Pan gave a shout and struggled unsuccessfully to break free.
"Where have you taken Brother Wen?" Chen shouted. Pan kept his mouth shut, and an expression of proud insolence appeared on his face. Chen's fingers touched the 'Central Mansion Yuedao' below Pan's ribs. "Will you talk?" he asked.
Pan yelled out in pain. Chen touched his 'Tendon Centraction' Yuedao point. This time, Pan could endure it no longer.
"I'll talk...I'll talk," he whispered. "They're taking him to Beijing."
"He...he isn't dead then?" Luo Bing asked quickly.
"Of course he isn't dead," Pan replied. "He's an important criminal, who would dare to kill him?"
The heroes all breathed a sigh of relief, and Luo Bing's heart overflowed with happiness, and she fainted away, falling backwards to the floor. Yu stretched out his hand to catch her, but then suddenly pulled it back again. Her head hit the ground, and Zhang Jin hurriedly knelt down beside her.
"Fourth Sister!" he called, giving Yu a sidelong glance full of disdain. "Are you all right?"
Chen relaxed his grip on Pan's hands. "Tie him up," he said to his boy attendant, Xin Yan, who tied Pan's hands firmly behind his back.
"Brothers!" Chen said loudly. "It is vitally important that we save Fourth Brother. We can settle our accounts here another time."
The heroes of the Red Flower Society voiced their assent in unison. Luo Bing was sitting on a chair crying with joy. Hearing Chen's words, she stood up with Zhang Jin's support.
The heroes walked to the door of the hall, escorted by Meng. Chen turned and said to Zhou: "Our apologies for the inconvenience we have caused you. We will meet again."
Zhou knew from his tone that the Red Flower Society would return to seek vengeance.
"Once we've saved Brother Wen, I, the hunchback Zhang, will be the first to return to do battle with you, you old peasant!" Zhang Jin shouted.
Zhou Qi leapt forward a step. "What sort of creature are you that you would dare to curse my father?"
"Huh!" he replied. "Go and call your big brother out and tell him I wish to meet him."
"My big brother?" she asked, puzzled.
"If he has the guts to betray a friend, he should have the guts to meet another friend," Zhang Jin added. "Your big brother betrayed our Fourth Brother. Where is he hiding?"
"This hunchback's talking nonsense," Zhou Qi said. "I don't have an elder brother."
"All right," Zhou said angrily. "I will hand over my son to you. Follow me!"
Suddenly, there were shots from outside of "Fire! Fire!", and flames began to cast a glow into the great hall.
Zhou paid no attention. He strode out and Great Helmsman Chen and the others followed him through two courtyards. The fire was already burning fiercely and the heat from the flame was oppressive. In the dark of the night, the red glow reached skywards through the billows of smoke.
"Let's work together to put out the fire out first," Xu called.
"You tell someone to commit arson and then pretend to be a good man!" Zhou Qi said indignantly. She remembered his shout earlier about setting fire to the Manor, and was convinced that the Red Flower Society was responsible. Full of grief and resentment, she struck out at him with her sword, but Xu nimbly dodged out of the way.
Zhou appeared not to noticed any of this, and continued to walk towards the rear hall of the Manor. As they entered the hall, they could see that it was arranged for a funeral. A pair of lighted candles were placed on the altar before the 'Spirit Tablet' bearing the name of the deceased, along with white streamers and piles of 'death money' for the deceased to spend in the other world. Zhou parted a set of white curtains, revealing a small black coffin with its lid still open.
"My son revealed Master Wei's hiding place, it is true," he said. "If you want him...then take him!" His voice suddenly broke. In the sombre candlelight, the heroes looking into the coffin and saw the corpse of a small child.
"My brother was only ten years old," Zhou Qi shouted. "He didn't understand what was going on. He was tricked into letting out the secret. When father returned, he was so angry, he killed my brother by mistake, and as a result, my mother has left home. Are you satisfied yet? If not, why don't you kill my father and myself as well?"
The heroes realised they had unjustly accused Zhou, and that the whole incident should never have happened. Zhang Jin, who was the most direct of them all, leapt forward and kowtowed before Zhou, his head hitting the floor with a resounding thump.
"Master," he cried. "I have wronged you. The hunchback Zhang begs your forgiveness."
Chen and the other heroes all came forward one by one to apologise. Zhou hurriedly returned the bow.
"Never will we forget the assistance that Lord Zhou has extended to the Red Flower Society," Chen called out. "Brothers, the important thing now is to put out the fire. Everyone lend a hand quickly."
The heroes raced out of the hall. But the flames were already lighting up the sky, and the sound of roof tiles smashing to the ground, and of rafters and pillars collapsing intermingled in confusion with the shouts and cries of the Manor attendants. The Anxi region is famous throughout China as a 'wind storehouse', and the wind now stoked the flames. It was soon clear that it the fire could not be extinguished, and that the great Iron Gall Manor would soon be completely razed.
The heat in the rear hall was intense, and the cloth streamers and paper money on the altar were already smouldering. But Zhou remained beside the coffin.
"Father, father!" Zhou Qi shouted as the flames started to curl into the hall. "We must leave!"
Zhou took no notice, and continued to gaze at his son in the coffin, unwilling to leave him there to be cremated.
Zhang Jin bent over and shouted: "Eighth Brother, put the coffin on my back."
Yang grasped hold of the two sides of the coffin, and with a surge of strength, lifted it up and placed it on Zhang Jin's hunched back. Maintaining his crouching position, Zhang Jin then charged out of the hall. Zhou Qi supported her father, and with the others gathered around to protect them, they ran outside the Manor. Not long after, the roof of the rear hall collapsed, and they all shuddered at the thought of how close it had been.
"Ai-ya!" Zhou Qi suddenly shouted. "That Eagles's Claw Tong may still be inside!"
"For people as evil as him, being burnt alive is not an unjust end," 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi replied.
"Who?" Chen asked.
Meng told them about how Tong had come to Iron Gall Manor, first to spy, next as a guide for the officers when they came to seize Wen, and finally to engage in blackmail.
"Yes!" Xu shouted. "It must have been him who started the fire." He glanced furtively over at Zhou Qi and saw that she was also looking at him out of the corner of her eye. As soon as their eyes met, they both turned their heads away.
"We must catch this man Tong and bring him back," Chen said. "Brothers Xu, Yang, Wei and Zhang: the four of you go and search along the roads to the north, south, east and west. Come back to report within two hours whether you find him or not."
The four left, and Chen went over to apologise to Zhou once again.
"Lord Zhou," he said. "The Red Flower Society is responsible for your being brought to this state of affairs. Our debt to you will be difficult to repay. But we will find Lady Zhou and invite her to return to you. Iron Gall Manor has been destroyed, and we undertake to have it completely rebuilt. All your people will receive full compensation from the Society for whatever they have lost."
"What kind of talk is that, Master Chen?" Zhou replied. "Wealth and riches are not a part of the flesh. If you continue with that sort of talk, you will not be treating us as friends."
He had been greatly upset at the sight of Iron Gall Manor burn down, but he valued friendship above all, and now that the misunderstanding had been cleared up, he was happy to have established relations with so many heroes in such a short time. But a moment later, he caught sight of the tiny coffin and another wave of sorrow flooded his heart.
The four heroes sent out to look for Tong returned with nothing to report, and they guessed that he must have taken advantage of the fire and confusion to escape.
"Luckily we know that the fellow is with the Zhen Yuan Escort Agency," Chen said. "We will catch him one day no matter where he runs to. Lord Zhou, where should the attendants of your honourable manor and their families go for temporary refuge?"
"I think they should all go to Chijinwei, the town to the east of here, after it gets light," Zhou replied.
"I have a small suggestion, Your Lordship," Xu said.
"Brother Xu is nicknamed 'The Kung Fu Mastermind,'" Chen explained to Zhou. "He is the wisest and most resourceful of us all."
Zhou Qi gave Xu a look of contempt and harrumphed.
"Please speak, Brother Xu," Zhou said hurriedly, embarrassed by his daughter's behaviour.
"When Tong gets back, he is certain to embellish his story with a lot of nonsense, accusing Your Lordship of many more crimes," Xu replied. "I think it would be best for your people to go westwards and lie low for a while until we have evaluated the situation. It may not be safe for them to go to Chijinwei now."
Zhou agreed immediately. "Yes, you're right," he said. "I will send them to Anxi first thing tomorrow. I have friends there they can stay with." He turned to his attendant, Song. "You take them all to Anxi," he said. "When you get there, you can stay temporarily at the residence of Great Official Wu. All expenses are to be paid by us. I will contact you when I have completed my business."
"Father, aren't we going to Anxi too?" Zhou Qi asked.
"Of course not. Master Wen was seized in our Manor. How can we stand by and do nothing when he has still to be rescued?"
Zhou Qi and Meng were delighted at the news.
"We are greatly moved by your goodwill, Lord Zhou." Chen said. "But saving Brother Wen is an act of rebellion. You are peaceful citizens. It would be best to leave it up to us."
"You needn't worry about implicating us," Zhou replied, stroking his beard. "And if you do not allow me to risk my life for a friend, then you are not treating me as a friend."
Chen thought for a second then agreed.
"Time is pressing," Zhou added. "Please issue your orders, Master Chen."
The embers of Iron Gall Manor had not yet been extinguished and the smell of burning wood hung heavily in the air. As they listened solemnly to Chen's orders, the flames crackled to life again, fanned by the wind.
The Twin Knights had been sent on ahead to discover Wen's whereabouts, and 'Scholar' Yu was told to link up with them, while the rest of the heroes split up into groups of two and three.
"Fourteenth Brother, please start out immediately," Chen said to Yu. "The others should rest or sleep here on the ground. We will meet up again inside the Great Wall. The Eagles's Claws on the Jiayu Gate will most probably be examining everyone rigorously, so we must be careful."
Yu saluted the heroes with his fists, and mounted his horse. As he rode off, he glanced furtively round at Luo Bing, but she was deep in thought with her head bowed. He sighed, whipped his horse and galloped wildly off.
"Seventh Brother," Chen said quietly to 'Mastermind' Xu. "You go with Luo Bing and Lord Zhou. Take extra care that no officials recognise him. Fourth Sister is wounded and she is greatly feeling the absence of Brother Wen, so you must be careful not to let her do anything rash. There is no need for you to travel fast. Just avoid getting involved in any fighting."
They settled down to sleep, but less than four hours later, dawn broke. 'Thousand Arm Buddha' Zhao with Zhang Jin and 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi were the first to leave. Luo Bing, who had not closed her eyes the whole night, called Zhang Jin over.
"Tenth Brother, you are not allowed to cause any trouble on the road," she said.
"Don't worry," he replied. "Rescuing Fourth Brother is the important thing, I know."
Meng and a number of attendants covered the body of Zhou's son with shrouds and buried it beside the Manor while Zhou Qi wept bitterly, and Zhou stood tearfully by. The heroes paid their respects before the grave.
"I've only been nice to her to give her father face," he thought. "Does she think I'd really be afraid of her?" He reined in his horse and dropped behind.
On the third day, they passed through the Jiayu Gate, which marks the western end of the Great Wall.
Seeing his daughter being so disobedient, Zhou several times called her over and tried to reason with her. Each time she would agree, but as soon as she saw Xu, she would start arguing with him again. Zhou thought his wife may have been able to discipline their daughter, but she had gone he knew not where.
They arrived in Suzhou, and found rooms in an inn near the east gate of the city. Xu went out for a while, and when he returned he said:
"Fourteenth Brother hasn't met up with the Twin Knights yet."
"How would know?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You're just guessing."
Xu glanced at her in contempt.
"This place was called Wine Spring Prefecture in ancient times," said Zhou, fearing that his daughter would say something else equally impolite. "The wine here is very good. Brother Xu, let's you and I go to the Apricot Blossom Tavern on Great East Street and drink a cup."
"Good idea," said Xu.
"Father, I want to go too," Zhou Qi said. Xu stifled a laugh. "What are you laughing at? Why shouldn't I be able to go?" Zhou Qi asked angrily. Xu turned away and pretended he hadn't heard.
"We'll go together," Luo Bing said with a smile.
Being a chivalrous man, Zhou did not object.
The four arrived at the Apricot Blossom Tavern and ordered wine and food. The spring water of Suzhou was clear and cold, and the wine that was made from it was fragrant and rich, and was considered to be the best in all the northwestern provinces. The waiter brought a plate of Suzhou's famous roasted cakes, as fragile as spring cotton and as white as autumn silk. Zhou Qi couldn't stop eating them. The tavern was crowded and it was inconvenient to discuss Wen's coming rescue, so instead, the four talked about the scenery they had passed and other things.
"Your honourable society's Master Chen is very young," said Zhou. "What style of kung fu does he use?"
"A style invented by his teacher," Xu replied. "When he was fifteen years old, Master Chen was sent by our former Great Helmsman Master Yu to the Muslim regions to become the pupil of 'The Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool', Master Yuan, and he never returned to southern China. Only Priest Wu Chen and some of the other senior members of the society saw him when he was young."
"Master Chen is certainly a remarkable man," said Zhou. "Truly: 'A man's worth cannot be measured by his looks'."
Xu and Luo Bing were very pleased to hear Zhou praising their leader in such glowing terms.
"In these last few years, the fighting community has produced many new heroes," Zhou continued, addressing Xu. "The rear waves of the Yangtse push forward the front waves', as the saying goes. It is rare to find someone who combines the qualities of intelligence and bravery as you do. It is important that such skills are not wasted, but are used to achieve something worthwhile."
"Yes," said Xu, agreeing with Zhou's view that his skills should be used to good purpose, but Zhou Qi grunted and thought: "My father praises you and you agree! Such modesty!"
Zhou drank a mouthful of wine. "I once heard that old Master Yu of your honourable society was a member of the Shaolin School of kung fu, very similar to my style," he remarked. "I had long wanted to meet him and learn from him, but with him in southern China and myself in the northwest, my wish was never fulfilled and he has now passed away. I enquired about the origins of his martial arts skills, but everyone had a different story, and from beginning to end I never heard a reliable report."
"Master Yu never talked about who he studied under, and it was only just before he died that he said he had once learned kung fu in the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province," Xu said.
"What illness did Master Yu die of?" Zhou asked. "He would have been a few years older than me, I think?"
"Master Yu was sixty-five when he passed away," Xu replied. "The cause of his illness is a long story. There's a very mixed bunch of people here and we might as well travel on another few miles this evening. We'll find a deserted place and talk at length there."
"Excellent!" Zhou said. He asked the cashier to make up the bill.
"I'll just go downstairs for a second," Xu said.
"I am the host," Zhou warned. "Don't you snatch the bill away."
"All right," he replied, and went down to the ground floor.
"He's always so furtive!" Zhou Qi said with a pout.
"Girls must not talk such ill-mannered nonsense," Zhou scolded her.
"Brother Xu is always full of strange tricks," Luo Bing told her with a smile. "If you make him angry, you will have to be careful he doesn't play some of them on you."
"Huh!" she said. "He is no taller than I am. Why should I be afraid of him?"
Zhou was about to berate her again, but hearing footsteps on the stairs, he said nothing.
"Let's go," Xu said, walking up.
The four covered ten miles at one go. They noticed a spinney of a dozen or so large
tree to the left of the road screening rocks and boulders behind.
"What about here?" Zhou asked.
"All right," said Xu. They tied their horses to the trees and sat down, leaning on the trunks. The moon was bright and the stars sparse, and the night air was as cool as water. The wind blew through the grass with a low whistling sound.
Xu was about to speak when he heard the muffled sound of horses galloping from far off. He lay down with his ear to the ground and listened for a while, then stood up.
"Three horses coming this way," he said.
Zhou waved his hand and they untied their horses and led them behind the boulders. The sound of hooves came gradually closer, and three horses passed heading east. In the moonlight, they could see only that the riders all wore white turbans and long striped gowns, the clothing of Muslims, while sabres hung from their saddles. They waited until the riders were a long way off, then sat down again. Zhou asked why the Manchu court had arrested Wen.
"The authorities have always considered the Red Flower Society to be a thorn in the eye," Luo Bing replied. "But there is another reason for them dispatching so many martial arts masters to catch our Fourth Brother. Last month, Master Yu went to Beijing, and Fourth Brother and I went with him. Master Yu told us that he intended to break into the Imperial Palace and see the Emperor Qian Long. We were very surprised, and asked what he wanted to see the Emperor about, but he wouldn't say. Fourth Brother warned him that the Emperor was very dangerous and cunning and advised him to enlist our best fighters and to get Brother Xu here to devise an absolutely fool-proof plan."
Zhou Qi studied Xu. "Is this dwarf so talented that others come to him for help?" she thought. "I don't believe it!"
"Master Yu said that he had to see the Emperor on a matter of great importance, and that only a small number of people could go with him or there could be problems. So Fourth Brother agreed. That night, the two of them crossed the wall into the palace while I kept watch outside. I was really frightened. More than two hours passed before they came back over the wall. Very early next day, the three of us left Beijing and returned to the south. I asked Fourth Brother if they had seen the Emperor and what it was all about. He said they had seen him, and that it concerned driving out the Manchus and restoring the throne of China to the chinese people. He said he couldn't tell me more, not because he didn't trust me, but because the more people who knew, the greater the danger of the secret getting out."
"After we returned to the south, Master Yu parted from us," Luo Bing continued. "We returned to the Society's headquarters at Tai Lake, while he went on to Haining. When he returned, his whole appearance had changed. It was as if he had suddenly aged more than ten years. He never smiled, and a few days later he contracted the illness from which he never recovered.
"Just before he passed away, he called together the Lords of Incense and said that it was his last wish that Master Chen should succeed him as Great Helmsman. He said this was the key to the restoration of the throne to the Han people. He said it was not possible to explain the reasons then, but said we would all find out one day."
"What was Master Chen's relationship with Master Yu?" Zhou asked.
"He was the old Master's foster son," Luo Bing said. "Master Chen is the son of the Emperor's former Chief Minister Chen from Haining. When he was fifteen, he passed the provincial civil service examination, and soon after that, the old Master took him to the Muslim regions to learn the martial arts from the Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool, Master Yuan. As to why the son of a Chief Minister would honour a member of the fighting community as his foster father, we don't know."
"I imagine one of the reasons Master Wen was seized is that he knows something about all this," Zhou said.
"Perhaps," Luo Bing replied. "At the time of old Master's death, there was one important piece of unfinished business on his mind and he wanted very badly to see Master Chen once more. When he first got back from Beijing, he sent a messenger to the Muslim border areas with instructions for Master Chen to go to Anxi and wait there for orders. The Old Master knew he wouldn't last long enough to see his foster son again, so he urged us all to hasten to Anxi to work out a plan of action together with Master Chen. He entrusted all the secret information to Fourth Brother to pass on personally to the Young Helmsman when they met. Who would have guessed that he..." Her voice choked with sobs. "If anything should happen to Fourth Brother...no-one will ever know what the old Master hoped to achieve."
"You mustn't worry," Zhou Qi consoled her. "We'll soon rescue him."
Luo Bing squeezed her hand and smiled sadly.
"How was Master Wen wounded?" Zhou asked.
"We travelled in pairs to Anxi, and Fourth Brother and I were the last pair. When we were in Suzhou, eight Imperial Bodyguards came to our inn and said they had orders from the Emperor to accompany us back to Beijing. Fourth Brother said that he had to see the Young Helmsman before he could comply, and a fight broke out. It was a hard battle, two against eight. Fourth Brother killed two of them with his sword and three more with his bare hands, while I hit two with my throwing knives. The last one sneaked away. But Fourth Brother was badly wounded.
"We knew we couldn't stay in Suzhou, so with difficulty we made our way through the Jiayu Gate. But Fourth Brother's wounds were serious and it was really impossible for us to go much further, so we stopped at an inn to give him a chance to recover quickly. Little did we guess that the Eagles's Claws would find us again. What happened afterwards, you already know."
"The more the Emperor fears and hates Fourth Brother, the less his life is in danger in the immediate future," Xu said. "The officials and the Eagles's Claws know he's important so they won't dare to harm him."
"That's very shrewd, Brother," Zhou said.
"It would have been better if you'd gone to meet a bit earlier," Zhou Qi suddenly said to Xu. "Then Master Wen wouldn't be in any trouble, and you wouldn't have had to go venting your anger on Iron Gall Manor..."
"You stupid girl!" Zhou shouted. "What are you talking about?"
"Brother Wen's and Sister Luo Bing's kung fu is excellent, so who would have guessed that anyone would dare to attack them?" Xu replied.
"You're the 'Kung Fu Mastermind'," Zhou Qi said. "How could you have failed to guess it?"
"If Seventh Brother had guessed it, we wouldn't have become acquainted with these good friends from the Red Flower Society." Zhou told her. He turned to Luo Bing. " By the way, who is Master Chen's wife? Is she the daughter of some great family perhaps, or a famous martial arts fighter?"
"Master Chen hasn't married yet," Luo Bing replied. "But Lord Zhou, when are we going to be invited to your daughter's wedding reception?"
"This girl is crazy, who would want her?" Zhou answered with a smile. "She might as well stay with me for the rest of her life."
"Wait until we've rescued Fourth Brother, then I'll become her match-maker," Luo Bing said. "You're sure to be very satisfied with my choice."
"If you're going to keep on talking about me, I'm leaving," Zhou Qi said quickly, deeply embarrassed. The other three smiled.
A moment passed, then Xu suddenly stifled a laugh.
"What are you laughing at now?" Zhou Qi asked him angrily.
"Something personal. What business is it of yours?" he countered.
"Huh," she replied. "Do you think I don't know what you're laughing at? You want to marry me to that Master Chen. But he's the son of a chief minister; how could we possibly be matched? You all treat him like some precious treasure, but I don't see anything special about him."
Both angry and amused, Zhou shouting at her to be quiet. "This stupid girl talks without thinking," he said. "All right, everyone sleep now. As soon as it gets light, we'll be starting out again."
They took their blankets off the horses' backs, and lay down beneath the trees.
"Father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Did you bring anything to eat? I'm starving."
No, I didn't," Zhou replied. "But we'll make a move a little earlier tomorrow and stop when we get to Twin Wells."
Not long after, he began snoring lightly. Zhou Qi tossed and turned, unable to sleep due to her hunger. Suddenly, she noticed Xu stealthily get up and walk over to the horses. She saw him take something out of his bag, then return and sit down. He wrapped the blanket around himself, and started eating noisily and with relish. She turned over away from him and shut her eyes, but finally, she could bear it no longer, and glanced over out of the corner of her eye. It would have been better if she hadn't. She saw a pile next to him of what were obviously the famous Suzhou roasted cakes. But having spent the whole time arguing with him, how could she now beg him for food?
"Go to sleep and stop thinking about eating," she told herself. But the more she tried to sleep, the less she was able to. Then the fragrant smell of wine hit her nostrils as Xu took a swig from a drinking gourd and she could suppress her anger no longer.
"What are you doing drinking wine at two o'clock in the morning?" she demanded. "If you have to drink, don't do it here!"
"All right," said Xu. He put down the gourd without re-corking it and settled down to sleep, letting the fragrance of the wine drift over towards her.
She angrily buried her face in the blanket, but after a while, it became too stuffy. She turned over again, and in the moonlight, she saw her father's two Iron Gallstones glistening beside his pillow. She quietly stretched her hand over, picked one of them up and threw it at the wine gourd. It shattered and the wine spilled out over Xu's blanket.
He appeared to be asleep, and paid no heed to what had happened. Zhou Qi saw her father and Luo Bing were sleeping peacefully and crept over to retrieve the Iron Gallstone. But just as she was about to pick it up, Xu suddenly turned over, trapping it beneath his body, and then proceed to snore noisily.
She jumped in fright and pulled back her hand, not daring to try again. Despite her bold character, she was still a young lady, and could not possibly put her hand beneath a man's body. There was nothing she could do, so she went back and settled down to sleep. Just then, she heard a laugh escape from Luo Bing. Completely flustered, she didn't sleep well all night.
"What's this?" he said.
Zhou Qi pulled the blanket over her head.
"Ah, Lord Zhou!" she heard him say. "Your Iron Gallstone has rolled all the way over here! Oh, no! The wine gourd has been smashed! That's it, a monkey in the hills must have smelt the wine and come down to have a drink. Then it saw your Iron Gallstone and took it to play with. One careless slip and the gourd was smashed to pieces. What a naughty monkey!"
Zhou laughed heartily. "You love to jest, Brother," he said. "There are no monkeys in this area."
"Well then, maybe it was a fairy from heaven," Luo Bing suggested with a smile.
With Xu having called her a monkey, Zhou Qi was even more furious than before. Xu pulled out the roasted cakes for everyone to eat, but out of spite, she refused to eat even one.
They got to the town of Twin Wells, and had a quick meal of noodles. Then, as they were leaving, Xu and Luo Bing suddenly stopped and began closely examining some confused charcoal markings at the foot of a wall that looked to Zhou Qi like the scribblings of an urchin.
"The Twin Knights have found out where Fourth Brother is and are following him," Luo Bing announced joyfully.
"How do you know? What are these signs?" Zhou Qi asked.
"They are a code used by our Society," she said, rubbing the marks off the wall with her foot. "Let's go!"
Knowing that Wen had been found, Luo Bing's face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. Their spirits rose and they covered nearly fifteen miles at one go. At noon the next day in the town of Qidaogou, they came across markings left by 'Scholar' Yu saying he had caught up with the Twin Knights. The wound on Luo Bing's thigh was now just about healed, and she no longer had to use a walking stick. Thinking about her husband, she found it increasingly hard to control her impatience.
Towards evening, they arrived at the town of Willow Springs. Luo Bing wanted to keep going, but Xu remembered Chen's orders. "Even if we weren't tired, the horses just can't do it!" he pointed out.
Luo Bing reluctantly agreed, and they found rooms in an inn for the night, but she tossed and turned unable to sleep. In the middle of the night, she heard a pitter-patter sound outside the windows as it started to rain and suddenly remembered how she and Wen had received an order from the old Master soon after their marriage to go to Jiaxing to save a widow who was being persecuted by a local ruffian. They completed the assignment, and spent the evening at the Misty Rain Tavern on the South Lake, drinking wine and enjoying the rain. Wen held his new wife's hand and sung songs at the top of his voice as he tapped out the rhythm with his sword on the severed head of the ruffian. Her memories of the scene flooded back as she listened to the rain on the window.
"Brother Xu does not want to travel fast because of Lord Zhou and his daughter," she thought. "Perhaps I should go on ahead first?"
Once the idea had occurred to her, it was impossible to ignore and she immediately got up, picked up her swords and left a message to Xu in charcoal on the table. Zhou Qi was sleeping in the same room and, afraid that opening the door would awaken her, she quietly opened the window and jumped out. She went to the stables and found her horse, then threw on an oil-skin raincoat and galloped off eastwards. She hardly noticed the raindrops as they struck her hot cheeks.
At dawn, she stopped briefly in a town. Her mount was exhausted, and she had no alternative but to rest for an hour. Then she raced on another ten or fifteen miles. Suddenly the horse stumbled on one of its front hooves. She frantically pulled in the reins, and luckily the animal did not fall. But she knew that if she kept up such a pace, it would die from exhaustion, and so she was forced to proceed much more slowly.
She hadn't gone far when she heard the sound of a horse behind her. She turned and saw a white horse which caught up with her almost as soon as she heard it, and flew past. It was so swift, she had no opportunity to even see what it's rider looked like.
Soon after, she arrived in a small village and saw the snow-white horse standing under the eaves of a house as a man brushed its coat, its hoar-frost coloured mane stirring in the wind. It was tall, with long legs and an extraordinary spirit and as Luo Bing approached, it neighed loudly, causing her mount to retreat a few steps in fright.
"If I rode this fine horse," she thought, "I would catch up with Fourth Brother in no time at all. Its master will certainly be unwilling to sell it, so I'll just have to take it."
She slapped her mount and charged forward. A throwing knife flew out of her hand, and severed the white horse's reins, then holding her bag with her left hand, she leapt from her own horse onto the back of the white horse. The magnificent animal started in fright and neighed loudly again, then, like an arrow loosed from a bow, galloped off down the road.
The horse's owner was taken completely by surprise, but after a second's hesitation, he raced after her. Luo Bing had already gone some distance, but seeing him giving chase, she reined in the horse, took a gold ingot out of her bag and threw it at him.
"We've exchanged horses," she shouted. "But yours is better than mine, so I'll compensate you with this gold!" She gave a captivating smile, and with a slight press from her thighs, the white horse shot forward. The wind whistled by her ears and the trees on either side fell behind her row by row. She rode for over an hour, and the horse still showed no signs of fatigue, his hooves prancing high as he galloped along. Soon, fertile fields began to appear along the side of the road, and she arrived in a large town. She dismounted and went to a restaurant to rest for a while, and in reply to her question, she was told the town was called Sandy Wells, and was more than twenty miles from the place where she had stolen the horse.
The more she looked at the animal, the more she liked it. She fed him hay herself and stroked its coat affectionately. As she did so, she saw a cloth bag hanging from the saddle. Opening it up, she found an Iron Pipa inside.
"So the horse belongs to someone from the Iron Pipa School of Luoyang," she thought. "This could cause some trouble."
She put her hand into the bag again and pulled out twenty or thirty taels of silver coins and a letter inscribed with the words: "To be opened only by Master Han Wenchong. Sealed by Master Wang." The envelope was open, and as she unfolded the letter, she saw it was signed: "Yours sincerely, Weiyang".
She started slightly in surprise. "So the fellow is connected with Wang Weiyang of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," she thought. "We still have to get even with them, so stealing this horse could be considered part payment. If I had known earlier, I wouldn't have given him a gold ingot."
She looked again at the letter and saw it urged Han to meet up as soon as possible with the Zhen Yuan agency's Yan brothers and assist them in protecting an important item being brought back to Beijing. Then Han was to help escort something to south China. It added that Han should suspend his investigation into whether or not 'Guandong Devil' Jiao Wenqi had been killed by the Red Flower Society, and resume it at some future time.
"Jiao Wenqi was also a member of the Iron Pipa School in Luoyang," Luo Bing thought. "It's rumoured that he was killed by the Red Flower Society, but in fact it was not so. I wonder what the important item is that the Zhen Yuan Agency is escorting? After Fourth Brother is rescued, we can go and collect it together."
Very happy at this thought, she finished her noodles, mounted up and sped off again. The rain continued to fall, sometimes light, sometimes heavy. The horse galloped like the wind, and she lost count of how many horses and carts they overtook.
"This horse is going so fast, if the others ahead are resting for a while, I might miss them altogether by just blinking," she thought.
Just then, someone slipped out from the side of the road and waved. The horse stopped instantly in mid-gallop and backed up several paces. The man bowed before her.
"Mistresss Wen," he said. "The Young Master is here." It was Great Helmsman Chen's attendant, Xin Yan.
Xin Yan walked over and took the horse's reins. "Where did you buy such a good horse?" he asked in admiration. "I nearly missed you."
Luo Bing smiled. "Is there any news about Fourth Brother?" she asked.
"The Twin Knights say they have seen him. Everyone's in there." He pointed to a small, decrepit temple by the side of the road.
"Look after the horse for me," she said. Inside, seated in the temple's main hall were Chen, the Twin Knights and the other heroes. Seeing her entering, they all stood and warmly welcomed her. Luo Bing bowed before Chen and explained that she had been too impatient to wait for the others, and hoped that he would forgive her.
"Your concern for Fourth Brother is understandable," Chen said. "As to your failure to follow orders, we will discuss a penalty when we have rescued him. Twelfth Brother, please make a note of it." 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi nodded.
Luo Bing smiled like a flower and turned to the Twin Knights. "Have you seen Fourth Brother? How is he? Is he suffering?"
"We caught up with him and his escort last night at Twin Wells," one of them replied. "But the Turtles were many and we didn't take any action for fear of alerting them. I went to a window to have a look and saw Fourth Brother lying on a kang resting. He didn't see me."
"The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency Turtles and the Eagle's Claws are all in it together," said the other. "By my count, they have ten first-class martial arts masters among them."
The Twin Knights were from Sichuan, and often used the slang of their home province when they cursed people, calling them 'Turtles'.
As they were speaking, 'Scholar' Yu came into the temple. He flinched on seeing Luo Bing, then made a report to Chen.
"The Muslims have set up tents beside the stream ahead of us," he said. "The guards are carrying swords and spears and look very formidable. I couldn't get close during daylight, but we could go and investigate again when it gets dark."
Suddenly, they heard the sound of a column of men and animals pass by outside the temple. Xin Yan dashed in and reported: "A large train of mules, horses and carts has just passed escorted by twenty government soldiers with a military official in command." As soon as he had finished, he left to resume his guard.
Chen discussed the situation with the others. "There are very few people in the area to the east of here, which is perfect for our operation. But we don't know what the Muslims and this column of government troops are doing. When we make our move to rescue Fourth Brother, they may try to interfere."
"We have all heard much about the famous 'Fire Hand Judge', Zhang Zhaozhong," said Priest Wu Chen. "He was in command of this operation to capture Fourth Brother, so let me fight him."
" All right," Chen said. "We cannot let him escape."
"It's lucky that Master Lu isn't here yet," said 'Buddha' Zhao. "It would perhaps be difficult for us to kill Zhang before his very eyes. After all, he is his martial brother."
"Well then, we should act quickly," one of the Twin Knights added. "I estimate we should catch up with them by early tomorrow morning."
"Right," said Chen. "Please tell us in detail what you know so that we will know what to expect tomorrow."
"At night, Fourth Brother sleeps in the same house as the Eagle's Claws, and during the day, rides in a carriage with his hands and feet manacled," one replied. "The carriage curtains are kept tightly closed, and two Turtles ride on either side."
"What does this man Zhang look like?" Priest Wu Chen asked.
"He's about forty years old, tall and robust with a thick short beard. Damn his ancestors, he looks very good."
They were all eager for the fight, but there was nothing they could do but wait. They ate some dry rations and then asked the Great Helmsman to give his orders.
"That group of Muslims is unlikely to be in collusion with the Eagle's Claws," he said. "Once we have rescued Fourth Brother there is no need for us to take any more notice of them. Brother Yu, you and Thirteenth Brother will be in charge of obstructing that military official and his twenty troops. Bloodshed isn't necessary, just don't allow them to interfere." Yu and 'Crocodile' Jiang nodded.
"Ninth Brother, Twelth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Leopard' Wei and 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "You two overtake the Eagle's Claws, and set up guard at the mouth of the gorge as early as possible tomorrow. The Eagle's Claws must not be allowed to escape." Wei and Shi left the temple and rode off.
"Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights: the three of you deal with the Imperial Bodyguards; Third Brother, Eighth Brother, you two deal with the Bodyguard Agency fellows. Fourth Sister and Xin Yan will make straight for the carriage. I will coordinate and give assistance to whichever group encounters problems. Brother Zhang Jin, you stay here and keep guard. If any government troops come by heading east, you must think of some way to stop them."
The forces having been divided up, the heroes left the temple, mounted up and waved farewell to Zhang Jin.
When they saw Luo Bing's white horse, they all tutted in approval. "I should have presented it to the Great Helmsman," she thought." But Fourth Brother has suffered so much, I'll give it to him after he's been rescued."
"Where are the Muslims camped?" Chen asked Yu. "We can circle round and have a look."
Yu led the way, but as they approached the wide space where the Muslims had been, they could see that the tents and people were gone, leaving only piles of mule and horse droppings.
"Let's go!" Chen said. They spurred their horses forward and galloped off along the road. Luo Bing's horse was so fast that she had to stop occasionally to let the others catch up with her. As dawn broke, they came to the banks of a small stream.
"Brothers," Chen said. "We will stop here and let the horses drink some water and recover their strength. We should be able to catch up with Fourth Brother in another two hours."
Luo Bing's blood surged and her cheeks reddened. Yu saw her expression and he walked slowly over to her.
"Sister Luo Bing," he said quietly.
"I am willing to give up my life to rescue Fourth Brother for you," he said.
She smiled slightly. "That's being a good brother," she sighed.
Yu quickly turned away.
"Fourth Sister," said Chen, "Lend your horse to Xin Yan and let him go on ahead to investigate."
Xin Yan mounted the white horse and flew off.
The others waited until their horses had drunk their fill, then mounted up and raced away. Not long after, with the sky already light, they saw Xin Yan riding back towards them.
"The Eagle's Claws are just ahead," he shouted.
Their spirits rose a hundred-fold and they charged forward with renewed vigour. Xin Yan and Luo Bing exchanged horses.
"Did you see Fourth Brother's carriage?" she asked.
Xin Yan nodded excitedly. "Yes! I rode close to the side of the carriage hoping to get a look inside but the Eagle's Claws raised their swords to scare me off."
The group galloped on, the horses' hooves sounding like thunder. A large line of men and horses came into sight ahead, and they saw it was the column escorted by government soldiers.
"Fourth Brother's carriage is another two miles further on," Xin Yan said to Chen. They spurred on their horses and overtook the column. Once passed, 'Crocodile' Jiang and Yu turned their mounts around to block the road.
Yu saluted the government troops as they caught up. "Good sirs, you are working too hard," he said politely. "The scenery here is excellent, and the weather is exceptionally clear. Why don't we all sit down and have a chat?"
"Out of the way!" shouted one of the Manchu soldiers at the front. "This is the family of Commander-in-chief Li."
"His family? Well, that's even more reason for having a rest. There's a pair called Black Death and White Death in front of us, and we wouldn't want to frighten the ladies."
Another of the soldiers flourished his horse whip and cracked it in Yu's direction. "You destitute scholar! Stop your nonsense," he shouted.
Yu laughed and dodged out of the way. The commanding officer of the escort rode forward and loudly asked what was going on.
Yu brought his hands together in salute. "What is your respected surname?" he enquired.
The officer could see that Yu and Jiang were not reputable men and hesitated to answer.
Yu took out his golden flute. "I have a rudimentary knowledge of music," he said. "I often lament how rarely I come across people with discerning musical tastes. You, sir, have a dignified appearance. Please dismount and rest while I play you a tune to alleviate the loneliness of the journey, what do you say?"
The officer was Deng Tunan, escorting Commander Li Keshou's family to Hangzhou. He started in surprise when he saw the golden flute, and remembered what he had heard of the fight in the inn that day between the Yamen officers and a scholar with a golden flute. "Let each go his own road," he shouted. "Please make way!"
"I know ten songs," said Yu. "Some are impassioned and rousing, some are sweet and captivating, but all are melodic. I haven't played them for a long time, but this chance meeting with such an esteemed gentleman as yourself has made me eager to show off my talents."
He lifted the golden flute to his mouth and a series of beautiful notes rose clear and sharp into the sky.
Officer Deng could see that the affair could not be concluded amicably. He raised his spear and threw it straight at Yu who continued to play until the tip was almost upon him. Then his left hand shot out and grabbed the spear then struck it with the golden flute, snapping it in two.
Deng was startled. Reining in his horse, he backed up several paces, snatched a sword from one of the soldiers and charged forward again. He fought Yu through seven or eight moves, then Yu found an opening: the golden flute struck Deng's right arm, and the sword flew out of his hand.
"You really ought to listen to these ten songs of mine," Yu said. He put the flute to his lips, and started to play once more.
Deng waved his hand at his soldiers. "Seize this fellow!" He roared. The soldiers swept forward, shouting and yelling as they came.
'Crocodile' Jiang leapt off his horse brandishing his iron oar, and with a 'Stirring The Grass To Find The Snake' move, tapped the first soldier lightly on the legs, toppling him onto the oar, then swung the oar upwards, and deposited him into the crowd of his comrades. He scooped and dumped one Manchu soldier after another as if shovelling earth, and the soldiers behind yelled out in fear and retreated.
Just then, the curtain on a large carriage the soldiers were escorting suddenly parted, and a girl dressed in red and holding a glistening sword lunged at him. Jiang's oar struck powerfully at the blade, and the girl, seeing the strength behind it, leapt back. Jiang was a Cantonese with a thick accent, and he had found that few people outside his native province understood what he said. As a result, he had never been a great talker. He flourished his oar and began to fight with her without saying a word. He was surprised to discover that her swordsmanship was excellent.
Yu looked on from the side. He had forgotten all about playing the flute and was engrossed in watching the young girl who was using the traditional Soft Cloud Sword style of his own school.
He leapt forward and stuck his golden flute in between their weapons, separating them. "Stop!" he shouted.
The girl and Jiang both retreated a step. By this time, Officer Deng had found another spear and was spurring his horse forward, but the girl ordered him to stay back.
"What is your esteemed name, mistress, and who is your honourable teacher?" Yu asked.
"I don't feel like telling you," the girl replied with a smile. "But I do know that you are 'Scholar' Yu, and that you are a member of the Red Flower Society."
Yu and Jiang looked at each other in surprise. Officer Deng was even more astonished at the sight of his commander-in-chief's daughter joking with these notorious bandits.
The three startled men were looking at the laughing girl not knowing what to say, when they heard horses approaching. The Manchu soldiers parted and six horses raced up from the west. The front rider was Lu Feiqing. Yu and the girl, who was of course Li Yuanzhi, both greeted him, one calling him Uncle and the other Teacher.
Behind Lu came Zhou, the two groups having met on the road.
"Yuanzhi, what are you doing here with Brother Yu and Brother Jiang?" Lu asked.
"Brother Yu insisted on us listening to him play the flute," she replied with a smile. "We didn't feel like listening but he wouldn't let us leave."
"There is a dangerous situation ahead," Lu said to Yuanzhi. "It would be best if you all stay here so as not to frighten Madame. When this business is finished, I will come and find you."
Yuanzhi pouted angrily at being forbidden from going to watch the fun, but Lu took no further notice of her, saluted the others and rode on eastwards.
This was completely unexpected, and Luo Bing reined in her horse and stopped to see what the Muslims were doing. By now, the Imperial officers and the Bodyguard Agency men had also halted, and gazed in consternation at the Muslims as they bore down on them, sabres glinting in the sun.
Chen ordered the heroes to halt to watch the fight. Suddenly, they saw a rider skirt round the battle and race straight towards them. As he approached, they recognised him as 'Leopard' Wei. He rode up to Chen.
"Great Helmsman," he said breathlessly. "We set up guard at the mouth of the gorge, but this group of Muslims broke past us. There was no way of stopping them, but now they're attacking the Eagle's Claws. It's very strange."
"Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother Zhao, and the Twin Knights," Chen said. "The four of you go and get Fourth Brother's carriage away. The rest of us will wait and see how things develop."
The four heroes galloped off.
"Who are you?" the Imperial officers shouted as they approached. Zhao didn't bother to answer. Two steel darts left his hands, and two of the officers fell dead from their horses. Zhao was nicknamed the 'Thousand Arm Buddha' because he had a kindly face and a soft heart, and was also a master of all types of darts, which he kept secreted around his body.
As the four heroes approached the carriage, a white turbaned Muslim struck out at them with his spear, but they dodged past him, and attacked the bodyguard agency lead escorts who were guarding the carriage. One of the escorts swung his sword at Priest Wu Chen, who blocked the stroke with his own sword, which slid down the other's blade as fast as lightning and sliced off all his fingers then plunged into his heart. He heard the sound of another blade cleaving towards his back, and without turning, drove his sword up and back so that the blade sliced his attacker in half from left armpit to right shoulder.
Seeing Priest Wu Chen's frightening swordsmanship and two of their own men killed before completing even one move, the other lead escorts' courage broke and they scattered.
Zhao raced up to the carriage and pulled up the carriage curtain to look inside. In the darkness, he could dimly make out a figure wrapped in a coverlet.
"Fourth Brother!" he shouted happily.
"You take Fourth Brother back and I'll go and look for Zhang Zhaozhong to settle acounts with him" Priest Wu Chen said, riding up. He spurred his horse forward and charged into the crowd of fleeing lead escorts and Imperial officers.
"'Firehand Judge' Zhang! Come out and face me!" he called over and over, but no-one answered him.
The Red Flower Society fighters were overjoyed to see Zhao accompanying the carriage back, and all raced up to meet him. Luo Bing galloped into the lead and up to the carriage, jumped off her horse and pulled aside the carriage curtain.
"Fourth Brother!" she called out shakily, but the figure inside made no sound. Startled, Luo Bing leapt in and pulled off the coverlet. By this time, the heroes had all dismounted and were standing closely about, watching.
Meanwhile, a fierce battle was raging between the Muslims on one side and the Imperial officers and lead escorts on the other. Priest Wu Chen continued to move backwards and forwards through the crowd, searching for Zhang. All of a sudden, a horse charged out in front of him, its rider a huge Muslim with a thick beard covering his face.
"Where does this wild reckless priest come from?" he shouted.
The priest replied with a stroke from his sword, and the Muslim raised his sabre to parry the blow. Priest Wu Chen countered with two strokes to the left and right, incomparably fast, and in panic, the Muslim lunged backwards, hooked his right foot into the stirrup and rolled beneath the horse's belly, then urged his horse forward and escaped while still hiding beneath the animal.
"Managing to avoid three strokes from my sword is not bad," Priest Wu Chen smiled. "I'll spare your life." He charged back into the battle.
Meanwhile, Luo Bing pulled the man out of the carriage and threw him on the ground. "Master Wen!" she shouted. "Where is he?" Even before she had finished speaking, tears were coursing down her face.
They saw the man was old and wizened, dressed as a Yamen officer with his right hand in a sling. Luo Bing recognised him as the Officer Wu from Beijing whose right arm had been broken by Wen at the inn. She gave him a kick, and wanted to question him again, but her voice failed her.
'Leopard' Wei put one of his steel hooks close to Wu's right eye, and shouted: "Where is Master Wen? If you don't talk I'll put out this eye for a start!"
"Zhang Zhaozhong took him off a long time ago," Wu replied sullenly. "He told me to ride in the carriage. I thought he was being nice and giving me a chance to rest my arm, but he was using me, setting me up while he himself goes to Beijing and collects all the honours. Damn him!"
By this time, all the heroes were standing round the carriage.
"Gather all the Eagle's Claws and lead escorts together and don't let any of them get away!" Chen called out.
The heroes encircled the Yamen officers and the Bodyguard Agency men, who were still fighting furiously with the Muslims. 'Buddha' Zhao waved both his hands and three darts shot out, simultaneously felling two officers and one lead escort.
The Muslims realised the Red Flower Society heroes were friends, and they gave a great cheer. The large Muslim with the thick whiskers galloped forward and shouted: "I don't know who you are, but you who have drawn your weapons to assist us, and I thank you." He raised his sword in salute.
Chen returned the salute. "Brothers, let's all take part!" he shouted, and the heroes rushed at the enemy, all except for Luo Bing, who was too confused to care.
By this time, most of the good fighters amongst the Yamen officers and lead escorts were either dead or seriously wounded, and many of their number were kneeling on the ground begging for mercy as the battle continued.
Suddenly, Priest Wu Chen galloped out of the melee, and shouted to the heroes: "Come and look! This young girl's swordmanship isn't bad!"
They all knew that the Priest's skill with a sword was unrivalled throughout the land, so hearing him praise another's swordsmanship, and a girl's at that, they all pressed in to watch. The thickly-whiskered Muslim shouted a few phrases in the Muslim language, and the other Muslims gave way and made a place in the circle for the Red Flower Society fighters.
Chen looked into the centre of the circle and saw a girl in yellow robes fighting closely with a short, stocky man wielding a pair of Five Elements Wheels. On his back was a red knapsack.
"The girl is named Huo Qingtong," Lu said to Chen. "She's a pupil of the Tianshan Twin Eagles. The man using the Five Elements Wheels is surnamed Yan. He's one of the Six Guandong Devils."
Chen started in surprise. He knew that the Tianshan Twin Eagles were leading members of the fighting community in the Muslim border regions, and also that relations between them and his own teacher, Master Yuan, were strained. Focussing his attention on the duel, he saw the yellow-robed girl attack ferociously with her sword, but Yan withstood the onslaught with the help of his Five Element Wheels. The Muslims shouted their support and some edged in closer, obviously eager to intervene to help the girl.
Yan parried and attacked, then suddenly retreated a step. "Hold it," he shouted. "There's something I want to say."
The Muslims moved up even closer, and it looked as though he would be carved up before he chance to say anything. Yan shifted both wheels to his left hand and grabbed the red knapsack off his back. He held the wheels up high.
"If you are going to rely on numbers to beat me, I'll cut up the knapsack now," he shouted.
The razor-sharp teeth of the Five Element Wheels twinkled, and the Muslims, greatly afraid, retreated.
"There are many of you," he shouted. "Taking my life would be as easy as turning your hand over. But I will never surrender unless it is a one-to-one fight. If anyone of you can defeat me singlehandedly, I will freely hand over the knapsack. Otherwise I would prefer to take it with me."
Zhou Qi leapt into the circle. "Right," she yelled. "Let's match ourselves against each other." She brandished her sword, ready to charge forward, but Huo Qingtong shook her head.
"Thank you, sister, but I will fight first," she said. "If I cannot beat him, I will invite you to lend me a hand."
"The knapsack contains something that is very precious to this Muslim tribe," Lu Feiqing interrupted. "She must recover it with her own hands."
Yan slung the knapsack onto his back. "Who's going to come against me, then?"
"No matter what the outcome, you will give up the Sacred Book," Huo Qingtong said to him. "If you win, you will be allowed to leave. If you lose, you will give up your life as well."
Her sword cut in from the side, thrusting at his left shoulder, and Yan countered using the sixty-four moves of the combined Five Elements and Eight Diagrams styles, which are designed to wrest away an opponent's weapon while maintaining a very tight defence.
Chen motioned 'Scholar' Yu over. "Fourteenth Brother, go immediately and find out what happened to Brother Wen. We will follow after you," he said.
Yu nodded and retreated from the circle. He glanced over at Luo Bing and saw her looking dazed. He wanted to go over and comfort her, but changed his mind and galloped off.
Huo Qingtong attacked again using a slightly faster sword style. Yan, who had been trying to seal off her sword with his wheels, now found this impossible.
After another twenty or so moves, Huo Qingtong's cheeks began to flush slightly and small beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. But she was full of spirit and her footwork never faltered. Her sword style suddenly changed to the Tianshan School's Mirage technique, combining feint with force. The heroes held their breaths, completely absorbed. Suddenly, Huo Qingtong's blade slashed forward and struck Yan's right wrist. He cried out in fright and dropped the wheel in his right hand as the crowd roared in unison.
Yan leapt back wards. "I accept defeat! The Sacred Book is yours!" he cried and began to undo the red knapsack on his back. An expression of joy filled Huo Qingtong's face and she replaced her sword in its scabbard and moved forward to accept the Koran which her tribe held so sacred. But as she approached, Yan waved his right hand and three darts flew towards her chest. She had no time to dodge out of the way, so with an 'Iron-Plated Bridge' move, she bent straight over backwards and the darts flew just over her face. Having started, Yan could not stop half way, so he quickly followed with three more darts. At that moment, Huo Qingtong was facing the sky, and was unaware of the disaster that was about to strike. The onlookers gasped in fear and anger.
As she straightened up again, she heard three noises, "Ding, Ding, Ding," as the three darts were hit by three projectiles and fell to the ground by her feet. She broke into a cold sweat and quickly re-drew her sword. Yan lunged forward with all the power of a crazed tiger and his Five Elements Wheel smashed straight down at her. With no time to escape, all the girl could do was to raise her sword and solidly block the stroke. For a while, they were deadlocked. But Yan was very strong, and the Five Elements Wheel slowly pressed down towards her head until the sharp blades on the wheel were touching the turquoise feather on her cap. The heroes were about to move forward to assist her when there was a flash of blue as Huo Qingtong drew a dagger from her waist with her free hand and rammed it into Yan's belly. He cried out once, then toppled over backwards, dead. The crowd cheered as one in approval.
Huo Qingtong untied the knapsack from Yan's back. The black-whiskered Muslim walked over to her, praising her and calling her "Good Child". She held the knapsack in both her hands and presented it to him with a modest smile. "Papa," she said. He took the knapsack and the cheering crowd of Muslims pressed forward.
Huo Qingting saw a boy jump off his horse, pick up three round white objects from the ground and present them on his palm to a young man in the crowd, who picked them up and put them in his bag.
"It must have been him who deflected that villain's darts and saved my life," she thought. She took a closer look at the young man and saw that he was graceful and charming. He wore a light gown tied loosely around the waist and fanned himself with a folding fan. Their eyes met, and he smiled at her. Blushing, she lowered her head. She ran over to her father and whispered into his ear. Her father, who was named Muzhuolun, nodded, walked over to the young man and bowed before him. The young man hurriedly dismounted and returned the bow.
"Thank you sir, for saving my daughter's life," Muzhuolun said. "I am extremely grateful to you. May I ask your honourable name?"
"My name is Chen Jialuo," he said. "We have a sworn brother whom we thought was being held captive by this band of Eagle's Claws and came here to save him, but he is not here. However, the fact that you have recovered your honourable tribe's Sacred Book is very pleasing."
Muzhuolun called his son, Huo Yayi, and his daughter over, and the three bowed before Chen in thanks.
The son had a square face, large ears and a thick beard. His sister, on the other hand was very graceful: as delicate as a spring flower. Earlier, Chen had concentrated on watching her sword style, but now with her standing close to him, he found his heart beating fast at the wonder that such a perfect girl could exist.
"If you had not saved me, I would have fallen victim to his cunning designs," Huo Qingtong said quietly. "Such great kindness, I would never forget."
"Please, there is no need for thanks," Chen replied. "I am already fortunate that you are not offended by my interference. I have long heard that the Three Part Sword Style of the Twin Eagles of Tianshan was the most advanced of their time. The style truly lives up to its reputation."
Huo Qingtong held a low-voiced discussion with her father, who nodded rapidly. "Yes, yes," he said. "That is what we should do." He walked over to Chen.
"Thanks to your assistance, our business has now been completed," he said. "I heard you mention that you have to rescue one of your number, and I would like to order my son and daughter together with several companions to act under you to help save him. Their kung fu is poor and they will probably of little use, but they may be helpful running errands and the like. Will you give your permission, sir?"
"That is very good of you," Chen replied, and immediately introduced the other members of the Red Flower Society to him.
"Your swordsmanship is extraordinarily fast," Muzhuolun said to Priest Wu Chen. "I have never in my life seen anything like it. It is lucky your hand was stayed by mercy, otherwise... hah..."
"I must beg your pardon," the priest replied with a smile. "I hope you won't take offence."
While they were talking, a horse galloped up from the west. A youngster dismounted and address Lu Feiqing as "teacher". It was Li Yuanzhi who by this time had changed into her boy's clothes. She caught sight of Huo Qingtong, and ran over and grasped her hand.
"Where did you go that night?" Yuanzhi asked. "I was worried to death about you! Did you get the Sacred Book back?"
"We just recovered it," Huo Qingtong said happily. "Look." She pointed at the red knapsack now on her brother's back.
"Have you opened it to have a look? Is the Sacred Book inside?"
Huo Qingtong nodded and hurriedly undid the knapsack. Inside, was a pile of waste paper.
Muzhuolun grabbed a bodyguard agency caller who was squatting on the ground and boxed his ears. "Where has the Sacred Book gone?" he roared.
"I don't know anything...about what the lead escorts do," he mumbled, and pointed at Lead Escort Qian who was sitting with his head in his hands. Qian had received several light wounds in the confused battle, and had surrendered after most of the others were killed. Muzhuolun dragged him over.
"Friend," he said. "Do you want to die or live?"
Qian said nothing. Muzhuolun angrily raised his hand to strike him.
"The other lead escorts took the book with them," Qian said.
Muzhuolun was skeptical and ordered his subordinates to search the mule train thoroughly, but they found no trace of it. He now realised why Yan had been unwilling to hand over the knapsack.
Meanwhile, Yuanzhi was questioning Lu on what had happened since they had parted. "I`ll tell you about it later," he replied. "Go back now, your mother will be worried about you. Don't say anything about what you've seen here."
"Of course," she said. "But who are these people? Introduce me to them."
Lu considered Yuanzhi's position as the daughter of a provincial commander-in-chief and decided it would be better not to. "I don't think it's necessary," he said.
Yuanzhi pouted. "I know you don't like me," she said. "You prefer that martial nephew of yours, 'Golden Flute Scholar', or whatever he's called. Anyway, I'm leaving."
She mounted her horse, galloped over to Huo Qingtong, bent down and embraced her shoulder, then whispered a few words into her ear. Huo Qingtong laughed, and Yuanzhi spurred her horse forward and raced off back the way she had come.
Chen had watched the whole incident, and was astonished to see Huo Qingtong being so familiar with this handsome youngster. Conflicting feelings swept through his heart and he stood staring dumbly, a vacant expression on his face.
"Great Helmsman," Xu said, walking over. "Let's discuss how we are going to save Fourth Brother."
Chen started, and then collected his thoughts. "That's right," he said. "Xin Yan, you ride Sister Luo Bing's horse and go and get Brother Zhang Jin." Xin Yan nodded and left.
"Ninth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Leopard' Wei. "Patrol around and look for indications of where the Eagle's Claws are. Come back this evening to report." Wei likewise assented and left.
"We will camp here tonight," Chen said to the rest. "We can resume the chase early tomorrow morning."
When they had finished, Chen ordered Officer Wu to be brought in, and questioned him closely. Wu cursed Zhang Zhaozhong bitterly. He said that at first, Wen had been seated in the carriage, but that once Zhang realised they were being followed, he, Wu, had been told to sit in the carriage instead as a decoy. Chen also interrogated the other lead escorts, but failed to learn anything new.
Xu waited until the prisoners had been led out of the tent and then said to Chen: "Great Helmsman, Lead Escort Qian has a cunning gleam in his eye. Let's test him out."
"All right," Chen replied.
Night fell, but still Wei and Shi did not return to report, and the others became worried about them.
"They probably discovered which way Fourth Brother is going and are following after him," Xu said. It's not such bad news." The others nodded, and soon went off to sleep in the tents. The lead escorts and the Yamen officers were all bound hand and foot and placed outside with 'Crocodile' Jiang guarding them.
The moon rose, and Xu emerged from his tent and told Jiang to go in and sleep. He walked round in a great circle then went over to where Lead Escort Qian was sleeping. He sat down and wrapped himself in a blanket, treading heavily on Qian's thigh as he did so. Qian woke with a start. Not long after, Xu began snoring lightly, and Qian's heart leapt for joy. The rope had not been knotted tightly, and after a short struggle, he managed to wrench himself free. He held his breath, not daring to move. Xu's snoring grew heavier, so he quietly undid the rope binding his legs, stood up and tip-toed away. He went behind the tents, untied the reins of a horse from a wooden post and walked slowly to the road. He stood listening very carefully, but there was not a sound to be heard. He started walking again, gradually quickening his pace, until he arrived beside the carriage in which Officer Wu had sat.
Zhou Qi woke with a start as she heard a noise outside the tent. She lifted the foot of the canvas and saw a figure walking stealthily towards the road. She picked up her sword and raced out of the tent, and was just about to call out when someone grabbed her from behind and covered her mouth.
Very frightened, she struck backwards with her sword, but her assailant was very agile, grabbed her wrist and forced the sword away, whispering: "Don't make a sound, Mistress Zhou. It's me, Xu."
Zhou Qi no longer tried to make use of the sword, but she struck him solidly on the chest with her fist. Half in pain and half in pretence, Xu grunted and toppled over backwards.
"What did you do that for?" she hissed. "Someone's trying to escape, did you see?"
"Don't make any noise," he whispered back. "Let's watch him."
They crawled slowly forward and watched as Qian lifted up the cushions in the carriage. There were two sharp cracks as if he was prying planks apart, then he emerged with a box which he stuffed into his gown. He was about to mount his horse when Xu slapped Zhou Qi's back and shouted: "Stop him!" Zhou Qi leapt up and charged forward.
Qian already had one foot in the stirrup when he heard the shout but did not have enough time to mount properly. He gave the horse a savage kick on the rump, and the animal, startled by the pain, galloped off. Qian started to laugh triumphantly, but then suddenly tumbled off the horse onto the ground.
Zhou Qi ran up to him, placed a foot on his back and pointed the tip of her sword at his neck.
"See what that box in his gown is," said Xu as he ran up. Zhou Qi pulled out the box, opened it up and saw inside a thick pile of sheep skins bound in the form of a book. She flipped through it under the moonlight, but it was composed completely of strange characters that she did not recognize.
"It's more of your Red Flower Society's scribblings. I wouldn't understand it," she said, and threw it casually at Xu.
Xu caught it and looked at it. "Mistress Zhou," he exclaimed. "This is a great achievement on your part. I think it's the Muslims' Sacred Book. Let's go and find the Great Helmsman quickly."
"Really?" she asked. She saw Chen coming up to meet them. "Brother Chen, you've come out as well. What do you think this thing is?"
Xu passed the wooden box over, and Chen looked inside. "It is almost certainly their Sacred Book," he said. "It's fortunate that you managed to stop that fellow, Mistress Zhou."
Zhou Qi was very pleased to hear them praising her. After a moment, she asked Xu: "Did I hurt you when I hit you just now?"
"You are very strong," he replied with a smile.
"It was your own fault," she said, and turned to Lead Escort Qian. "Get up, we're going back," she added.
She took her foot off Qian's back, but he did not move. "What are you playing dead for? I didn't hurt you," she scolded him. She kicked him lightly once, but Qian still didn't budge.
Chen pinched him beneath his armpit and shouted: "Stand up!", and Qian slowly clambered upright. Zhou Qi stood thinking for a second, and then realised what had happened. She searched around on the ground and found a white chess piece.
"Your Encirclement Chess piece!" she said, handing it back to Chen. "You cheated me. Huh! I knew you weren't good men."
"How did we cheat you?" asked Chen with a smile. "It was you that heard this fellow and chased after him."
Zhou Qi saw the perfect logic of this and was delighted. "Well, all three of us share the merit." she said.
The three, escorting Qian and carrying the Sacred Book, walked over to Muzhuolun's tent. As soon as the four night-guards passed on their message, Muzhuolun came out, hastily throwing on his gown, and invited them inside.
Chen told him what had happened and handed over the Sacred Book, Muzhuolun was overjoyed, and in a moment, all the Muslims crowded into the tent and bowed respectfully before Xu, Chen and Zhou Qi.
"Master Chen," Muzhuolun said. "You have recovered my tribe's Sacred Book. To express our thanks is not enough. If there is ever anything you want us to do, simply let us know, and even if it means crossing a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers, will still hurry to your assistance. There is no task we would refuse.
"Tomorrow I will go home with the Sacred Book and will leave my son and daughter here under your direction, Master Chen. Please allow them to return after Master Wen has been rescued."
Chen hesitated for a second before replying. "It would be best if your son and daughter went home with you. We are very moved by your goodwill, your Lordship, but we really have no right to bother them in such a way."
Muzhuolun was surprised by Chen's refusal, and tried several times to convince him to change his mind, but Chen was adament.
"Father!" Huo Qingting called, and shook her head slightly.
The rest of the Red Flower Society heroes entered the tent and congratulated Muzhuolun. The tent was now full to bursting, and the mass of the Muslims retired outside.
Xu saw Lord Zhou enter. "In the recovery of the Muslims' Sacred Book, it was your daughter who earned the greatest merit," he said.
Zhou looked at his daughter approvingly. Suddenly Xu pressed his hand to his chest and cried out in pain. Everyone turned to look at him.
"What's the matter?" Lord Zhou asked, and Zhou Qi looked on, panic-striken. Xu hesitated, then smiled and said: "It's nothing."
"Right," Zhou Qi thought. "I'll find a way to get back at you sooner or later."
Early next morning, the Muslims and the heroes bade farewell to each other. Zhou Qi took Huo Qingtong's hand. "This young lady is both a nice person and a powerful kung fu fighter," she said to Chen. "Why won't you let her help us save Master Wen?" Chen was speechless for a second.
"Master Chen doesn't want us to risk our lives, and we appreciate his good intentions," Huo Qingtong said. "I have been away from home a long time and miss my mother and sister very much. I would like to get back soon. Goodbye Sister Zhou, we will see each other again."
She waved, pulled round her horse's head and galloped off.
"Look at her," Zhou Qi said to Chen. "She's even crying because you won't let her come with us. You're despicable."
Chen silently watched Huo Qingting as she galloped away. Suddenly, she reined in her horse and turned round. She saw Chen still standing there and bit her lip, then beckoned to him. Chen felt a moment of confusion but immediately went over to her. She jumped off her horse and they stood facing each other for a second, unable to speak.
Huo Qingtong steadied herself. "You saved my life, and we are indebted to you for recovering our tribe's Sacred Book. No matter how you treat me, I will never blame you," she said.
She undid the dagger tied to her waist. "This dagger was given to me by my father. It is said that a great secret is hidden in it, but it has been passed down from hand to hand over the centuries, and no-one has ever been able to discover what it is. I would like you to keep it. Perhaps you will be able to unravel the mystery."
She presented the dagger with both hands, and Chen stretched out both hands to receive it.
"I would not normally dare to accept such a precious object." he said. "But since it is a present from you, it would be disrespectful of me to refuse."
Huo Qingtong saw the desolate look on his face, and found it unbearable. "I understand in my heart why you do not want me to go with you to rescue Master Wen. You saw yesterday how that youngster acted towards me and despise me as a result. The youngster is Master Lu Feiqing's pupil. Go and ask Master Lu, then you can judge whether or not I am a girl with any self-respect."
She leapt onto her horse and galloped away in a cloud of dust.