** 1 **
Chen held the dagger in his hands and stood watching dumbly as Huo Qingtong caught up with the Muslim column and gradually faded towards the horizon. He was about to go and ask Lu Feiqing about his pupil when he noticed a horse galloping towards him fast. As it came closer, he was disappointed to find it was only Xin Yan returning on the white horse.
"Master!" he shouted excitedly. "Master Zhang Jin has a prisoner."
"Who is it?" Chen asked.
"I went to the old temple and found Master Zhang Jin arguing with a man who wanted to pass. The man saw the horse I was ridingand began cursing me as a horse thief and struck out at me with his sword. Master Zhang Jin and I fought with him. His kung fu was really good. He fought the two of us single-handed until finally I picked up some stones and started throwing them at him, and Master Zhang Jin clubbed him on the thigh. It was only then that we managed to capture him."
Chen smiled. "What is his name? What was he doing?"
"We asked him but he wouldn't say. But Master Zhang Jin says he must be a member of the Han School of Luoyang because he was using Iron Pipa Hand Kung Fu."
Zhang Jin galloped up, dismounted and bowed before Chen, then pulled a man off the horse's saddle. He was tied hand and foot, but he stood haughtily, exuding an air of insolence.
"I understand you are a member of the Han School of Luoyang," Chen said. "What is your honourable name?"
The man said nothing.
"Xin Yan, undo this gentleman's bonds," Chen said.
Xin Yan drew his knife and cut the rope that bound the man's hands and legs then stood behind him, his knife at the ready.
"My friends have wronged you, but please do not be offended," Chen said. "Come into my tent and take a seat."
Chen and the man sat on the ground while the other heroes came in and stood behind Chen's back.
When he saw Luo Bing enter, the man's anger flared and he jumped up. "You stole my horse," he shouted, pointing at her.
"So it's Master Han," Luo Bing replied with a smile. "We exchanged horses and I compensated you with a gold ingot. You did very well out of the deal. What are you angry about?"
Chen asked what had happened, and Luo Bing recounted how she had taken the white horse. The others laughed as they listened.
"In that case, we will return the horse to you, Master Han," Chen said. "There is also no need to return the gold ingot. Consider it a token of our respect and as payment for the rental of your horse."
Han was about to reply when Luo Bing said: "Great Helmsman, this won't do. Do you know who he is? He's a Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency man." She pulled out Wang Weiyang's letter and handed it to him.
Chen's eyes flashed down the lines. "The great name of Wang Weiyang has been known to me for a long time, but regrettably I ave never met him," he said. "You are a member of the Han School of Luoyang. What relation are you to Fifth Madame Han?"
"And what is your honourable surname and esteemed name, sir?" Han replied.
Chen smiled. "My surname is Chen, my given name, Jialuo."
Han stood up. "You...you are the son of Chief Minister Chen?" he asked in a quavering voice.
"This is the Great Helmsman of our Red Flower Society," one of the Twin Knights said.
Han slowly sat down again and began weighing up this young Great Helmsman.
"Someone in the underworld started the rumour that our society was connected with the death of one of your school's members," Chen said. "In fact, we know nothing of it. I dispatched one of our brothers to Luoyang to explain the matter, but something came up and he was forced to postpone the trip. So your arrival could not have been better timed, Master Han. I don't know how this rumour started. Can you tell me?"
"You...you're really the son of Chief Minister Chen of Haining?" Han asked.
"Since you know my identity, there is no point in trying to deceive you," Chen replied.
"Your family announced a large reward for finding you after you left home," Han said. "It was said that you had joined the Red Flower Society and had gone to the Muslim border regions. My late comrade Jiao Wenqi was engaged by your family to look for you, but he mysteriously disappeared on the way. That was five years ago. Recently, someone found the Iron Plate and Pipa darts that Brother Jiao used in Shanxi province, and we now know for certain that he was murdered. No-one knows the exact circumstances of his death, but consider, sir: if it wasn't the Red Flower Society, then who did it?"
"I killed Jiao Wenqi," Lu Feiqing interrupted. "I am not amember of the Red Flower Society, so this matter has nothing to do with them."
The others were startled. Lu stood up and told the story of how Jiao had found him one night, how he fought one against three, and had been injured, but had still managed to kill them on the deserted hillside. The heroes listened and then cursed Jiao, saying he was shameless and deserved to die. Han's face darkened but he said nothing.
"If Master Han wishes to avenge his martial brother's death, there is no reason why he should not do so now," Lu said. Heturned to Luo Bing. "Mistress Wen, return Master Han's weapon to him please."
Luo Bing pulled out the Iron Pipa and handed it to Lu.
"Since Jiao was commissioned by the Chen family to find their son, he should have stuck to his mission," Lu said. As he spoke, he absent-mindedly excercised his Inner Strength kung fu on the body of the hollow Iron Pipa, slowly flattening it. "What was he doing using their money to come and give me trouble? Even if we of the fighting community are not able to sacrifice ourselves to save our country from the Manchu barbarians, we should still fight for justice and against those who oppress the people."
His Inner Strength kung fu was extraordinary. His hands rolled the flattened iron plate round so that it was transformed into a tube, and then with a few sqeezes, into an iron club.
"What I detest most are the Manchu court's Eagles' Claws and the bodyguard agency running dogs who use a small knowledge of the martial arts to assist the wicked with their evil deeds."
His voice suddenly hardened and he twisted the iron club into an iron ring.
As Lu talked, Han watched him twist and squeeze his school's famous weapon as if he were making noodles, and was both startled and afraid. He knew that Jiao's kung fu had been about the same standard as his own, and realised that fighting with this old manmeant certain death.
Han's courage had already evaporated and he did not dare to challenge Lu. But although shocked and humbled, he did not wish to appear too cowardly.
"This affair of Jiao Wenqi in fact arose because of me," Chen said. "I will write a letter to my elder brother telling him that Master Jiao found me, but that I was not willing to return home; also, that on his way back, Master Jiao met with an accident and passed away. I will then ask my brother to pay the reward and compensation money to Master Jiao's family."
Han continued to hesitate, and Chen's eyebrows rose. "But if your heart is set upon revenge, then I will fight you myself."
Han shuddered. "I will do exactly as you say, sir," he replied.
"That's a good fellow," Chen said. "One has to be flexible."
He told Xin Yan to hand him his writing brush, instone, ink and writing paper, and using a vigorous calligraphic style, wrote out a letter which Han accepted.
"Master Wang asked me to help escort a cargo back to Beijing and then to escort some treasures the Emperor has presented to your honourable family down to the south. But faced with the extraordinary talents of you all, I would only make a fool of myself if I made further use of my own minor abilities in the martial arts. I will take my leave of you, sir."
"Did you say items belonging to my family, Master Han?"
"The bodyguard agency caller who brought me the letter said the Emperor is extremely generous towards your family. Every few months, he bestows an amount of precious stones and treasures, and there is now a large accumulation of these that must be sent south to your home. Your family asked us to escort them, but I would not dare to continue earning my daily rice in such a business. After I have made suitable arrangements for Brother Jiao's dependants, I will return home."
"It is good that you are willing to follow Master Lu's invaluable words of advice," Chen said. "In that case, I might as well make friends with you. Xin Yan, please bring in the other gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency."
Xin Yan went out and led in Lead Escort Qian and the others. Han and the escorts stared dumbly at each other.
"Master Han, please take these friends with you," said Chen. "But if we ever catch them again doing anything but good deeds, do not blame us if our hands are not stayed by mercy."
Chen did not again mention the return of the white horse, and Han did not dare to bring it up.
"We will leave first," Chen said. "I will ask all of you to rest here for a day before making a start."
The Red Flower Society heroes mounted their horses an started off, leaving the Agency men and the Yamen officers standing silently behind.
"Master Chen," Lu Feiqing said after they had travelled for a while. "My pupil will meet up with those bodyguard agency fellows before long. They have been humiliated and have no way to get their revenge, so they may cause trouble. I would like to stay behind and watch them for a while before following after you."
"Please do as you wish, Master Lu," Chen replied.
Lu saluted, then galloped off the way they had come. Chen realised as Lu disappeared that he had not asked him about his pupil.
They chose a table near the window which happened to be just next to Yu's and sat down. Yu sat with his head on the table, pretending to be drunk.
The two men chatted for a while, then one said:
"Brother Rui, it's remarkable How you captured that fellow. I wonder what sort of reward the Emperor will give you?"
"I'm not concerned about the reward," Rui replied. "If we can get him to Hangzhou nice and safely, I'll be happy. When we left Beijing, there were eight of us bodyguards, and now I'm the only one left. It was that fight in Suzhou. I'm not selling myself short, but I still get the shivers just thinking about it."
"You're with Master Zhang now," the other said. "I'm sure nothing more will be wrong."
"That's true," Rui replied. "But it means that the Imperial Guardsmen get all the credit. What do we Imperial Bodyguards get out of it? But tell me, old Zhu. What are they doing sending him to Hangzhou instead of to Beijing?"
"My younger sister is from the family of Great Scholar Shi, as you know," Zhu replied, lowering his voice. "She told me quietly that the Emperor plans to go down south. Perhaps he wants to question him himself."
Rui grunted and drank a mouthful of wine. "So the six of you rushed out from Beijing to see that the Imperial command was complied with?"
"And to give the rest of you some help. The Red Flower Society is very powerful in the south. We have to be especially careful."
As he listened, Yu groaned inwardly at the sheer luck of it all. If he had not happened to be there and hear them, the Red Flower Society heroes would have been racing to Beijing to save Wen when he was really being taken to Hangzhou.
"Brother Rui," Zhu said. "Exactly what crime has this fellow committed that the Emperor wants to question him personally?"
"How would we know?" Rui replied. "We were just told that if we didn't catch him, we would all be removed from our posts. I just hope I can keep my head on my shoulders."
The two laughed and drank, and their conversation turned to the subject of women. Finally, they paid the bill and stood up to leave. Rui looked over at Yu prostrate on the table.
"Scholars," he said and laughed harshly. "Three cups of wine and they can't even walk."
Yu waited until they had gone, then hastily threw five silver coins onto the table and dashed out of the tavern. He spotted the men entering the city Yamen. He waited for a long time but didn't see them re-appear, and decided they must be lodging there.
He returned to his room and as soon as it was dark, he changed into a set of dark clothes, stuck his golden flute into his belt then ran over to the Yamen. Making his way round to the back, he clambered over the wall.
All was pitch black in the courtyard except for a shaft of light coming from a window in the eastern hall, and as he crept closer, he heard voices coming from inside. He wet the tip of his finger with a drop of saliva, then lightly moistened the window paper and made a small hole. Looking through, he started in fright.
The hall was full of people. Zhang Zhaozhong was seated in the middle with the bodyguards and Yamen officers on either side of him. A man standing with his back to Yu cursed angrily, and he knew from his voice that it was Wen Tailai.
"You can curse to your heart's content," a voice off to the side said darkly. "I may not be as proficient in the martial arts as you, but you will still get a taste of my hand."
Yu was distressed. "They are going to humiliate Fourth Brother," he thought. "He is the person Fourth Sister respects and loves most. How can I allow him to be insulted by these villains?"
He saw a tall, thin middleaged man wearing a blue gown advancing on Wen with his hand raised. Just as the man was about to strike Wen, Yu inserted his flute through the hole in the window paper, and with a puff, shot a small arrow into the man's left eye.
The man fell to the ground in agony and there was a moment of confusion in the hall. Yu shot another arrow into the right cheek of one of the bodyguards, then kicked open the main door of the hall and ran straight in.
"Don't move!" he shouted. "The Red Flower Society has come to the rescue!"
He raised his flute and struck the Yamen officers beside Wen, then pulled a dagger from his legwrappings and cut the ropes binding Wen's hands and feet.
Zhang Zhaozhong thought a largescale attack was in progress and immediately drew his sword and went to the hall door to prevent Wen and Yu from escaping and those outside from getting in.
As soon as Wen's hands were free of the bonds, his spirits surged. An Imperial Bodyguard lunged towards him and Wen struck him hard with his fist, sending him reeling away. The others were so afraid of Wen's power that for a while they did not dare to get too close to him.
"Fourth Brother, let's get out!" Yu said.
"Are the others here?"
"No," Yu replied quietly. "There's only me."
Wen nodded once. The wounds on his right arm and thigh had not yet healed, but he ran for the door with his right arm resting on Yu's shoulder.
Zhang strode foward a step. "Stop!" he shouted, and jabbed at Wen's stomach with his long sword. Wen was slow on his feet, so using attack as his defence, he struck out at his opponent's eyes with the index and middle fingers of his left hand, and Zhang was forced to retract his sword.
"Good!" he exclaimed. The two men were incredibly fast, but Wen only had the use of his left arm and after a few more moves, Zhang hit his right shoulder. Unable to keep his balance, Wen sat down heavily on the floor.
"I shouldn't have done this," Yu thought as he fought off the Imperial Bodyguards. "I will save Fourth Brother and then let the Eagle's Claws kill me so that Fourth Sister will know that I, Yu Yutong, am not an unchivalrous oaf."
He saw Wen fall to the ground and flipped round to strike out desperately at Zhang.
"Fourth Brother, get out quick!" Yu shouted. Wen rested a moment and then with difficulty clambered to his feet. The golden flute flew and danced, completely neglecting to defend or parry. Yu was completely unconcerned about his own safety. Even with his superb swordsmanship, Zhang was forced to move back several paces in the face of his suicidal attack. Wen saw an opening and shot out of the door, with the mob of the bodyguards and officers howling after him.
Yu blocked them at the door, ignoring his own safety.
"Don't you want to live?" Zhang shouted. "Who taught you that kung fu style?" Yu was using the traditional style of the Wudang School, the school to which Zhang belonged, and Zhang had so far spared him because of it.
"It would be best if you killed me," Yu said, smiling sadly. After a few more moves, Zhang's sword struck him once more, this time on the right shoulder, so Yu shifted the golden flute to his left hand and continued the fight without retreating a step.
The mass of the bodyguards charged forward again and Yu's flute danced, hooting strangely as the wind whipped through it. A bodyguard chopped at him with his sword, and gashed Yu's shoulder. His body was now covered in blood, but he continued the fierce battle, and there was a sudden crack as the jawbone of another bodyguard was shattered. The bodyguards pressed forward, knives, swords, whips and clubs all thrusting towards Yu simultaneously. Yu's thigh was hit by a club and he fell to the ground. His golden flute kept up its dance for a few moments, then he fainted away.
There was a sudden shout from the door: "Stop!"
The bodyguards turned and saw Wen walking slowly back into the hall. He ignored them and went straight over to Yu. Seeing his bloodied body, he couldn't stop his tears. He bent down and was relieved to find Yu was till breathing.
"Treat his wounds quickly," he ordered.
The bodyguards were so fearful of his power, that they did as he said. Wen watched them bind Yu's wounds and carry him through to the inner hall, then placed both of his hands behind his back.
"Tie me up," he said. One of the bodyguards looked over at Zhang, then walked slowly over.
"What are you afraid of?" Wen asked. "If I was going to hurt you, I would have done so long ago."
The bodyguard bound his hands and took him back to the dungeons. Two bodyguards were left to guard him.
Early the next morning, Zhang went to see Yu and found him in a deep sleep. He was told by a guard that the doctor had visited Yu and prescribed some medicine. Zhang visited him again in the afternoon and Yu appeared to be more alert.
"Is your teacher surnamed Lu or Ma?" Zhang asked him.
"My teacher is surnamed Ma, his given name is Zhen."
"So that's it. I am your martial uncle, Zhang Zhaozhong."
Yu nodded slightly.
"Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?"
Yu nodded again.
"Such a nice young man," Zhang sighed. "What a pity that you have fallen to such a state. What relation is Wen Tailai to you? What were you doing risking your life to save him?"
Yu closed his eyes and was silent. A moment passed.
"In the end I did save him, so I can die in peace," he finally said.
"Huh! Do you really think you could snatch him away from me?"
Yu was startled. "Didn't he escape?" he asked.
"How could he? Stop day-dreaming!"
Zhang tried to interrogate him, but Yu took no notice, and after a while he began to sneeze.
Zhang smiled slightly. "You stubborn boy," he said, and left.
He ordered the Imperial Bodyguards to organise an ambush with Wen as bait. After dinner, Wen was brought out of the dungeon and interrogated once more, in the same manner as the night before when Yu had unexpectedly burst in and disrupted the proceedings. This time, however, heavily-armed troops were hidden all around the Yamen, waiting to catch any Red Flower Society rescuers. But they waited in vain.
The next morning, Zhang received a report that the waters of the Yellow River were rising rapidly, and that the current at the point where they intended to cross was very strong and ordered an immediate departure. He had Wen and Yu placed in separate carriages and was just about to start out when Officer Wu and the Zhen Yuan Agency Lead Escorts raced into the Yamen. Zhang hastily questioned them, and Officer Wu breathlessly told him how they had been attacked and captured by the Muslims and the Red Flower Society, and how Lead Escort Yan had been killed by a young Muslim girl.
"Brother Yan was a very tough fighter," Zhang said. "Extraordinary." He raised his hand. "We will meet again in Beijing."
Zhang immediately went and told the Liangzhou Military commander that he wanted four hundred crack troops transferred to his command to help escort criminals wanted by the Emperor. The commander did not dare refuse and also dispatched Colonel Cao Neng and Chief-of-Staff Ping Wangxian to lead the escorting soldiers until they reached Lanzhou, the provincial capital, where provincial troops would take over.
Zhang's column surged out of the town, stealing and pilfering from the common people in the usual way as they went.
They travelled without incident for two days. Then, about ten miles from a village named Twin Wells, they came upon two bare-breasted men sitting beneath a tree by the side of the road with a pair of fine horses standing nearby. Two of the soldiers went over.
"Hey!" one shouted. "These two horses look like official horses. Where did you steal them from?"
"We are peaceful citizens," said one of the men. "We wouldn't dare to steal horses."
"We are tired of walking. Lend them to us," the second soldier replied.
The two men stood up, walked over to their horses and untied the reins.
The soldiers walked haughtily over and were just about to take hold of the reins when the two men kicked their behinds, leapt onto the horses and galloped over to one of the carriages.
"Is Fourth Brother in there?" one shouted.
"Ah, Twelfth Brother!" Wen answered.
"Fourth Brother, we're leaving," the man replied. "But don't worry, we'll be back to rescue you soon."
The two men galloped away before the carriage's guards could attack.
The column lodged that night at a town called Clear Water Shop. Early the following morning, while most of the soldiers were still asleep, a scream was heard, and there was a moment of confusion. The two troop commanders, Cao and Ping went to investigate and found the bodies of more than a dozen soldiers lying where they had slept, each with a gaping gash in the chest. There was no indication of who had killed them.
The next evening, they rested at Hengshi. This was a large town, and the column filled three inns and many private houses besides. During the night, one of the inns caught fire. Zhang ordered the bodyguards to guard Wen and to heed nothing else in order to avoid being tricked. The flames rose higher and higher.
"Bandits!" Cao Neng cried as he ran into Zhang's room. "They're attacking!"
"Please go and direct operations yourself, General Cao," Zhang replied. "I am unable to leave this place."
Cao nodded and left.
From outside the inn came the sound of screams and shrieks, galloping horses, the crackle of the flames and the smash of roof tiles as they hit the ground. Zhang ordered two bodyguards onto the roof to keep watch, but told them not to get involved unless the enemy attacked the inn. The fire did not get out of control, and before long it was extinguished. The agitated clamour continued for a while, then gradually died down to the point where the sound of hooves could be heard as horses galloped off eastwards.
Cao, his face covered in soot, grease and blood, ran in to see Zhang again.
"The bandits have retreated," he reported.
"How many of our men have been killed and wounded?" Zhang asked.
"I don't know yet. Several...several dozen."
"How many bandits were captured?"
Cao's mouth fell open. After a moment, he said: "None."
"Their faces were covered with cloth, and their kung fu was horrendous," Cao added. "But it's very strange, they didn't steal anything. All they did was kill our brothers. Just before they left, they threw down two hundred taels of silver for the innkeeper saying it was compensation for starting the fire."
"So you think they were bandits, do you?" Zhang said. "Tell everyone to get some rest, General Cao. We will start out early tomorrow."
Cao retired and went to see the innkeeper, whom he accused of being in collusion with the bandits and responsible for the murder of the soldiers. The innkeeper kowtowed and begged for mercy and finally gave Cao the two hundred taels of silver.
The next day, the soldiers were busy until noon before finally making a start. They passed through beautiful country of blue hills and green water, surrounded by dense vegetation on all sides. After travelling for about four hours, the road began to grow gradually steeper and high peaks rose on either side.
A horse came galloping down the road towards them and halted about ten paces in front of the column.
"Listen to me, all of you," the rider called out. "You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die."
The soldiers shuddered as they looked at the man. He was wearing clothes made of rough hemp bound at the waist with grass rope. His face was pale yellow and his eyebrows slanted upwards, just like the images of life-stealing spirits in the temples. The man spurred his horse forward and galloped down the mountain, passing beside of the column, and was gone. Suddenly, one of the soldiers in the rear-guard gave a cry, and fell to the ground, dead. The rest started in fright and gathered round to look, but there was no wound visible on his body. Terrified, they all began talking at once.
Cao Neng assigned two soldiers to stay behind and bury the dead man and the column continued up the mountain. Before they had gone very far, another horse approached them from in front, its rider the same man they had seen earlier.
"Listen to me, all of you," he called out. "You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die."
The soldiers wondered fearfully how the man could have made his way round in front of them again. They had clearly seen him go down the mountain and one glance confirmed that there were no short cuts back up the slope. The man spurred his horse forward and the soldiers shrunk from him as if he was a real demon.
One of the Imperial bodyguards, named Zhu, stuck out his sword to obstruct the man. "Slow down, friend," he said.
The man struck Zhu's shoulder with his right hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Then he sped off down the mountain. As he passed the end of the column, the last soldier gave a shriek and fell to the ground, dead. The other soldiers stood staring foolishly, scared out of their wits.
Zhang went down to the end of the column to investigate.
"What is this fellow, a man or a ghost?" Zhu said. He pressed his wounded right shoulder, his face deathly pale. Zhang told him to undo his clothes and examined the large black swelling on his right shoulder. He ordered the troops to strip the dead soldier bare and examine him for wounds. When they turned him over, they found a similar black swelling on his back from which the shape of a hand could be vaguely discerned. The soldiers broke into an uproar as a shout of "The Demon's Mark!" The Demon's Mark!" went up. Zhang ordered that two soldiers be left behind to bury the dead man. Two were chosen from the ranks, but even when threatened with death, they refused to carry out the order. Zhang had no alternative but to order a halt and wait until the body was buried before continuing.
"Master Zhang, this fellow is very strange," said Bodyguard Rui. "How could he pass us by and then make his way back in front of us again?"
Zhang stood deep in thought for a while. "Brother Zhu and the two soldiers were obviously victims of Black Sand Palm Kung Fu," he said. "There are very few masters of Black Sand Palm kung fu in the underworld."
"If it's Black Palm kung fu, then the best is naturally the Taoist Priest Hui Lu, but he's been dead for many years," Rui said. "Could it be that his spirit has re-appeared?"
Zhang slapped his thigh. "That's it! That's it!" he cried. "They're Hui Lu's pupils. The Twin Knights that people call Black Death and White Death. I was trying to think of one person, so I couldn't work it out. All right, so we're up against them as well."
He had no way of knowing that the Chang brothers were also members of the Red Flower Society.
That night, the column stayed at Black Pine Village. Cao posted guards all around the village to keep careful watch, but next morning, not one of the soldiers on guard duty returned to report, and a detail sent to investigate found them all dead with a string of paper money tied round each of their necks. The rest of the soldiers were terrified, and more than a dozen immediately deserted, slipping stealthily away.
They had to cross Black Scabbard Mountain, one of the most precipitous spots on the Liangzhou road. The air became colder and colder as the road grew steeper, and despite the fact that it was only September, snow flakes floated down around them. The road deteriorated to the point where there was a steep mountain face on one side and a sheer cliff on the other falling into a deep ravine. The soldiers moved slowly hand-in-hand, terrified of slipping on the snow. Several of the bodyguards dismounted and helped to support Wen's carriage.
Just as they were gingerly making their way forward, they heard a chirping sound coming from in front. A moment later, the sound turned into an unearthly howl, tragic and harsh, which echoed through the ravine causing everyone's hair to stand on end. The soldiers all stopped in their tracks.
Then came a shout: "Those who continue will meet the King of Hell -- Those who turn back will survive."
How could the soldiers dare to continue?
A man appeared around a curve in the road ahead. "Those who continue will meet the King of Hell, those who turn back will survive," he intoned in a deep voice.
The soldiers recognised him as the demon that had appeared twice the day before and had killed with just a wave of his hand, and they turned and fled with squeals of fear. Cao Neng shouted to them to halt, but he had to raise his sword and slay one of the soldiers before some of them steadied. But sixty or seventy had disappeared.
"Guard the carriage," Zhang said to Rui. "I'll go and talk to these two." He leapt passed the soldiers. "Could that be the Twin Knights up ahead?" he asked in a loud, clear voice. "I, Zhang Zhaozhong, greet you. There is no enmity between us. Why are you playing this game?"
The man in front laughed coldly. "Ha! So, the Twin Demons meet the Fire Hand Judge," he said. He strode over and struck out at Zhang with such power that his hand made a whistling sound as it cut through the air.
The road at that point was extremely narrow and Zhang was unable to dodge to either left or right, so he countered the blow with his left hand, putting all of his Inner Strength behind it, while also attacking with his right palm. His opponent parried with his left hand. Their four hands met, and they stood almost motionless for a while as they tested each other. Suddenly, Zhang swept his left leg cross-wise in the 'Level Clouds Slicing The Peak' style. With insufficient time to evade the blow, the man brought his hands together and drove them viciously at Zhang's temples. Zhang leant to one side and hastily withdrew his leg, then moved forward, and with the precipice at their side, the two passed each other by. They had exchanged positions.
Zhang suddenly became aware of someone attacking him from behind. He dodged out of the way and saw his assailant was another pale, skeleton-like figure, his face exactly the same as the first.
Zhang had more than two hundred soldiers and bodyguards with him, but they were powerless to assist because of the narrowness of the mountain path beside the ravine.
The three fought more and more fiercely. In the midst of the battle, one of the Twin Knights hit the rock-face by mistake and a small avalanche of gravel rattled down off the precipice followed by a slab of rock which plunged into the ravine. A long time passed before they finally heard the distant crash as it hit the ground.
The battle continued for a long time. Suddenly, one of the twins struck out with his fist, forcing Zhang to move to one side to avoid it. The other twin then leapt over and occupied Zhang's former position beside the stone-face and both attacked him at the same moment, attempting to force him into the ravine.
Zhang saw one of his attacker's legs sweeping forward and stepped back a pace, so that half of his foot was over the edge of the precipice. A cry of fright went up from the troops. Then, Zhang felt a gust of wind as the other twin's fist swung towards his face. Zhang was unable to retreat, and knowing that there would be great strength behind the blow, was also unable to counter it. If he did, his opponent would simply be thrown back against the stone-face by the force of the collision while he himself would certainly fall to his death. So, with wisdom born of fear, he seized hold of his attacker's wrist, and with a great shout threw him into the ravine.
His body in mid-air, 'Black Death' stayed calm. He drew in his legs and performed a somersault in order to slow down the force of his fall. Half way through the circle, he pulled a Flying Claw grapple from his belt and threw it straight up. His brother 'White Death' had also taken out his Flying Claw and the two grapples locked tightly, almost as if they were shaking hands. 'White Death' jerked at the rope before the full force of his brother's fall returned, and swung him up and over bringing him back to earth more than a hundred feet along the mountain path.
'White Death' saluted Zhang with his fists. "Your kung fu is very powerful. We are impressed," he said. Then, without even bending down to concentrate his strength, he sprang into the air, and landed several dozen feet further away. He grabbed hold of his brother's hand and the two disappeared round the bend.
The soldiers clustered round, some praising Zhang's kung fu, others lamenting that 'Black Death' had not fallen to his death. Zhang said not a word, but leaned against the rock face and slowly sat down. He looked at his wrist and saw the jet-black impression of five fingers on his flesh as if he had been branded, and was struck by a wave of terror.
"These fellows are not going to give up even though this is the main road to Lanzhou, the provincial capital," he said. "There's going to be a lot more trouble ahead, so we had better make our way round by the backroads, and cross the river at Crimson Bend."
Cao Neng had been looking forward to getting to Lanzhou so that he could transfer his burden to other shoulders, and was very unhappy with Zhang's plan. But he did not dare to disagree.
"We have lost many soldiers on the road," Zhang said. "When you get back, Master Cao, you can report that they were killed during an attack on bandits, and died courageously for their country. I will write out a note to that effect in a moment."
Cao Neng's spirits rose again. According to the military regulations, if a soldier was killed in action, it was possible to obtain a pension, and the money naturally fell into the pocket of the officer in command.
They heard the roar of the Yellow River long before it came into view, and travelled more than half a day further before arriving at the Crimson Bend crossing. At this bend on the Yellow River, the rocks along the banks are blood-red, hence its name. Dusk was already approaching, but through the evening mists, they could see the fury with which the Yellow River surged eastwards, its muddy waters bubbling and boiling against the banks.
"We will cross the river tonight," Zhang said. "The water is dangerous but if we delay, there may be trouble."
With the river running so fast, the crossing could only be made by sheepskin rafts. Soldiers were sent out to search for rafts, but they could not found any. Darkness fell. Zhang was just becoming anxious when he spotted two sheepskin rafts shooting down the river towards them. The soldiers shouted, and the two rafts edged towards the bank.
"Hey, boatman!" Cao shouted. "Ferry us across and we'll pay you well."
The big man on the raft stood up and waved his hand.
"You're a mute," said Cao.
"Damn your ancestors," replied the man in Cantonese. "If you're coming then come, if you're not, then don't. You bunch of bastards. It's a waste of time dealing with you." Cao and the others understood not a word of it. Cao ignored him and invited Zhang and the bodyguards escorting Wen to get onto the rafts first.
Zhang weighed up the boatman. His wide-brimmed hat hid half his face and it was impossible to distinguish his features clearly. But the muscles on his arms were bunched and bulging, revealing great strength, while the oar in his hands was of a very dark colour and appeared to be made of something other than wood. He felt something was wrong, and not being able to swim, he could not afford to fall victim to some trick.
"Master Cao," he said. "You go first with some of the soldiers."
Cao ordered some of the soldiers onto the two rafts. The current was rapid, but the two boatmen were highly skilled and safely delivered the government troops to the opposite bank, and then returned to take on another batch.
Cao boarded a raft with another group of soldiers, but just as they left the bank, a long whistle sounded behind them which was answered by a host of other whistles.
Zhang hastily ordered the troops to surround the carriage and guard it closely. A crescent moon hung low in the sky. Under its light, he saw about a dozen horses coming towards them. He galloped forward. "What's going on?" he shouted.
The riders formed a single rank as they approached, then one in the middle spurred his horse on and rode ahead of the others. In his hand he held a white folding fan with which he fanned himself. "Is that the 'Fire Hand Judge' Zhang Zhaozhong?" he asked.
"It is," Zhang replied. "And who are you, sir?"
The other laughed. "We thank you for escorting our Brother Wen this far, but we would not want to trouble you further."
"Are you Red Flower Society people?"
"Everyone praises the 'Fire Hand Judge' for his superlative mastery of the martial arts, but he obviously has divine foresight as well," the man replied, smiling. "You are correct. We are Red Flower Society people." He gave a long whistle.
Zhang started slightly as he heard the two boatmen on the rafts give answering whistles.
Cao, seated on one of the rafts, saw the enemy approaching on the shore, and his face turned the colour of mud. The boatman stopped the raft in midstream with a stroke of his oar.
"Thirteenth Brother!" Cao heard a crisp voice call from the other raft. "Ready when you are."
"Right!" the boatman replied. Cao raised his spear and thrust it at him, but the boatman deflected it deftly with his oar and then knocked Cao and all the other soldiers on board into the river. Both boatmen then rowed back close to the shore.
Zhang was thankful for his caution. "You have been killing government troops the whole way," he shouted. "You have committed many unpardonable acts. What is your position in the Red Flower Society, sir?"
"There is no need for you to ask my name," Great Helmsman Chen said. "Xin Yan, give me my weapons."
Xin Yan opened his bag and placed two weapons in Chen's hands. Normally, the other heroes should have fought first, but Chen was unable to resist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Zhang jumped off his horse and strode forward. But just as he was preparing himself for the fight, Imperial Bodyguard Zhu ran up behind him and said: "Master Zhang, let me deal with him."
Zhang decided to let him test out the enemy first. "Be careful, Brother Zhu," he said.
Zhu lunged forward, sword raised. He chopped out at Chen's thigh. Chen jumped lightly off his horse and lifted the shield in his left hand to parry the blow. In the moonlight, Zhu saw that nine glistening, sharp hooks protruded from the face of the shield, and knew that if his sword collided with them, it would be caught in their grasp. He started in fright and hastily withdrew his sword. Chen then flourished the weapon in his right hand: five cords, each one tipped with a steel ball especially designed for hitting the Yuedao points on the human body. Terrified by the ferocious nature of this weapon, Zhu leapt backwards, but the cords circled round behind him, and he felt a sudden numbness on his back. Then the cords entwined his legs and with a tug, Chen pulled Zhu off his feet, swung him round and round, and sent him flying straight towards a rocky outcrop nearby.
If he had hit it, he would have been smashed to pieces. But Zhang, seeing that Zhu was completely out-classed, raced over, grabbed his queue and pulled him down just in front of the rock face.
"Rest for a while, Brother Zhu," he said. Frozen with fear, Zhu was unable to answer.
Zhang raised his precious 'Frozen Emerald' Sword and leapt in front of Chen.
Zhang thrust his sword at Chen's right shoulder. Chen flipped the chords towards the blade, while the shield in his left hand struck out at Zhang.
As they battled, the two boatmen, 'Crocodile' Jiang and Luo Bing, jumped ashore and ran towards the carriages, guarded by the soldiers. Jiang charged straight into the ranks, immediately killing two of the closest soldiers. The others frantically gave way. Luo Bing charged over to one of the carriages, and lifted up the carriage curtain.
"Fourth Brother, are you in there?" she called. But it was 'Scholar' Yu, still seriously wounded. Suddenly hearing Luo Bing's voice through his stupor, he could only think that it was a dream, or that he had died and was meeting her in the other world.
"You've come!" he cried happily.
Luo Bing knew that the voice was not her husband's and ran to the next carriage. But before she could pull aside the curtain, a saw-toothed sword chopped at her from the right. She parried with her sword, and looking up at her attacker in the watery moonlight, recognised him as one of the eight bodyguards who had attacked Wen and herself in Suzhou. With a surge of hatred, she redoubled her attack. Rui was aware of her ability with throwing knives and speeded up his strokes to avoid giving her an opportunity to use them. Then two other bodyguards joined the battle while the soldiers closed in from all sides.
Four more of the heroes led by 'Leopard' Wei galloped towards her through a hail of arrows. One arrow planted itself in the neck of Wei's horse, and the pain made it gallop even more furiously. The animal's hooves hit the chest of one of the soldiers, Wei flew off the horse with his hooks raised, and amid a chorus of screams, gouged them into the breasts of two other soldiers. Wei then aimed the hooks at Bodyguard Rui who was forced to abandon his attack on Luo Bing. 'Hunchback' Zhang Jin and the others also raced up and the soldiers scattered.
Free once more, Luo Bing threw herself into the carriage and hugged Wen's neck, then burst into tears.
After a while, Zhang Jin stuck his head in through the carriage curtain. "Fourth Brother," he grinned. "We've come to take you back."
He climbed onto the driver's seat and the carriage moved off northwards away from the river, and stopped by the side of a mound, from which they could get a good view of the battle.
Suddenly, Zhang broke away from his duel with Chen and ran for Wen's carriage.
Luo Bing saw him coming and brandished her sword at him. But Zhang's sword was extraordinarily tough, and as they clashed with a 'clang', it snapped her blade in two. With the rest of his strength, Zhang leapt up into the carriage and pulled Luo Bing in with him. Greatly frightened, the other heroes raced up to save her, and Zhang lifted her up and threw her at them. The Twin Knights raced over and caught her.
Meanwhile, Zhang turned and grabbed Wen, and pulled him to the carriage door. "Wen Tailai is here," he shouted. "If anyone dares to come any closer, I'll kill him!"
The cold gleam of Zhang's 'Frozen Emerald' sword was poised at Wen's neck.
"Fourth Brother," Luo Bing wailed, and tried to throw herself at the carriage, but Lu Feiqing held her back and took a step forward himself.
"Zhang!" he called out. "Can you see who I am?" Zhang and he had not seen each other for a long time and it was difficult to see clearly in the moonlight, so Lu drew his White Dragon sword, took hold of the tip of the blade, and bent the handle back so that it formed a circle. Then he let the tip go and the blade bounced back upright and swayed slightly.
Zhang grunted. "Ah, so it's Brother Lu," he said. "Why have you come looking for me?"
"You are wounded," Lu replied. "All the heroes of the Red Flower Society are here as well as 'Iron Gall' Zhou Zhongying. It is going to be hard for you to escape today with your life. But in memory of our benevolent teacher, I will give you a way out."
Zhang grunted again, but said nothing.
Suddenly they heard shouts and cries drifting over from the east, as if a thousand armies were racing towards them. The heroes were filled with apprehension, but Zhang was even more worried.
"This Red Flower Society is truly resourceful," he thought. "Even here in the northwest, they can still call up huge reinforcements."
"Release Master Wen," Lu Feiqing continued, "and I will ask the heroes, out of respect for me, to release you. But there is one thing you must swear to."
Zhang eyed the strong enemies surrounding him. "What?" he said.
"You must swear that you will immediately retire from public life and no longer be a running dog of the Manchus."
Zhang had pursued glory and wealth with fervour and he had risen in rank as fast as though swept upwards up by a whirlwind. Wanting him to give up his position was just the same as wanting his life. He released Wen from his grip, pulled at the mule's reins, and the carriage charged forward.
The heroes held back afraid of risking Wen's life, but Luo Bing could not stand it. "Release him and we'll let you go without having to swear to anything," she called desperately.
Zhang took no notice and drove the carriage on towards the ranks of Manchu troops, who had by now regrouped.
Bodyguard Rui saw Zhang approaching and ordered the soldiers to fix arrows in their bows in readiness. The roar of the approaching column was getting louder and both Red Flower Society and the soldiers were afraid that they were reinforcements for the other side.
"Brother Wei, take three others and scatter the Eagle's Claws," Chen shouted.
Wei and the others raised their weapons and charged into the Manchu ranks, slaughtering as they went.
A youngster darted out from behind Lu Feiqing saying: "I'm going too!" Chen frowned: it was Li Yuanzhi, once more dressed in boy's clothes.
When Lu met up with her again after the battle, Yuanzhi had insisted that he take her with him to help rescue Wen. Lu finally agreed, but made her promise that she would do as she was told. Yuanzhi then wrote a letter to her mother in which she said she had decided to go on ahead alone to see her father in Hangzhou.
Chen quickly issued his instructions, and 'Buddha' Zhao raced after the carriage and sent two sleeve arrows flying into the eyes of the mule pulling it along. The mule gave a long scream and reared up on its hind legs. The Twin Knights charged to either side of the carriage and flung their Flying Claws at Zhang, who fended them off with his sword. Simultaneously, Priest Wu Chen and Xu attacked Zhang's back.
"Now!" Chen shouted to Xin Yan. The two soared through the air and landed on top of the carriage.
Zhang heard Chen and Xin Yan land above and behind him and threw a handful of Golden Needles at them.
Chen saw the movement, and pushed Xin Yan off the carriage and placed the shield in front of his own body. There was a patter of metallic noises as the needles hit it, but despite the extraordinary speed of his reflexes, he heard Xin Yan cry out. Knowing the boy had been hit, Chen hastily leapt down to help him. Zhang threw another handful of the needles at Priest Wu Chen and Xu. The Priest flew out of the back of the carriage like an arrow, moving faster and further than the needles. Xu, however, only had time to lift a cotton coverlet in the carriage to block the needles. But his left shoulder was left exposed and with a sudden feeling of numbness, he fell out of the carriage.
Zhang Jin raced over to help him. "Brother Xu, are you all right?" he shouted, bending over. Suddenly he felt a great pain in his back as he was hit by an arrow, and stumbled.
"Brothers! Everyone regroup!" Chen shouted. Arrows were flying towards them like thick clouds of locusts. Zhang Jin put his left hand on Priest Wu Chen's shoulder and hit out at the arrows with his wolf's tooth club.
"Tenth Brother, don't move!" the Priest said. "Control yourself." He stopped the flow of blood from Zhang Jin's wound with a touch to the artery and carefully pulled the arrow out. Then he ripped a corner off his robes and bound up the wound.
Then they saw a pitch-black mass of Manchu soldiers surging towards them from the east.
Zhang was ecstatic at the sight of reinforcements arriving, but his breathing was becoming difficult and he knew that his injuries were serious. Chen and the others attacked the carriage once more, and he lifted up Wen's body, and swung it round and round as a detachment of cavalry charged towards the Red Flower Society fighters with sabres raised. Chen could see that Wen would certainly be killed if they attempted to recapture him by force, so he gave a loud whistle and raced behind a nearby mound with the others following.
Chen conducted a head-count, and found that Xu, Zhou Qi, Yuanzhi, Lord Zhou and Meng were missing.
"Has anyone seen Brother Xu and Lord Zhou?" Chen asked.
Zhang Jin, who was lying on the ground, raised his head and said: "Seventh Brother was injured. Isn't he here? I'll go and find him."
He stood up, but the arrow wound on his back was too serious, and he swayed unsteadily.
"Don't you move, Tenth Brother," said 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "I'll go."
"I'll go too," added 'Crocodile' Jiang, but Chen held him back. "You and Fourth Sister make your way to the river bank and prepare the rafts," he said. Jiang and Luo Bing, her hopes dashed again, left.
Shi leapt onto a horse and galloped off around the mound with sword in hand. By this time, the Manchu troops were everywhere. Shi rode up onto higher ground and looked around, but could see no sign of Xu and the others, so he rode into the enemy's ranks to search for them.
Not long after, Lord Zhou and Meng appeared.
"Have you seen your daughter?" Chen asked. Zhou shook his head, full of anxiety.
"My young pupil has disappeared too," Lu Feiqing said. "I'll go and look for them."
As he rode out, the ranks of the Manchu troops suddenly parted and several horses charged towards him. In the lead was Priest Wu Chen dragging Wei along with his hand. Lu started in surprise when he saw Wei, his whole body covered in blood and dirt, and immediately moved forward to obstruct any pursuers. But the Manchu troops did not dare to obsttruct these ferocious-looking men and let them retreat behind the mound.
Chen quickly went to see Wei, who was delirious, shouting: "Kill the bastards!"
"Ninth Brother has worn himself out with all this killing," Priest Wu Chen said. "His mind is a little confused. Nothing serious."
"Have you seen Brother Xu and Brother Shi?" Chen asked.
"I'll go and look for them" the Priest said.
"There's also Mistress Zhou and the Master Lu's pupil," Chen said.
Priest Wu Chen mounted up, sword at the ready, and charged back into the Manchu ranks. A Manchu officer spurred his horse forward and charged at him with spear raised, but the priest dodged the spear thrust and drove his sword into the officer's heart. The officer slumped off his horse and the soldiers under his command howled and scattered in all directions. Priest Wu Chen continued his onslaught and soldiers fell wherever his sword went. As he galloped along a stretch of the road, he saw a crowd of soldiers with 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi in the middle fighting fiercely with three officers.
"Get away, I'll cover you!" Priest Wu Chen shouted.
The two raced back to the mound, but there was still no indication of what had happened to Xu and the others. A Manchu company commander led his soldiers in an attack on the mound occupied by the Red Flower Society, but the heroes immediately killed more than a dozen of them, and the rest retreated.
Chen led his horse up onto the mound. "Brother Meng," he said, handing him the reins. "Hold it steady and made sure it doesn't get hit by a stray arrow." He leapt up onto the horse's back and stood on the saddle. Looking around, he saw the huge Manchu column surging towards them from the east. A bugle sounded and the column turned into a fiery dragon as each soldier raised a torch. Amidst the glow, he saw a large banner flowing in the wind on which he could just made out the words "Border Pacification General Zhao" written in large characters. Each soldier in the column was riding a tall, sturdy horse, and there was a clanking noise as they marched, indicating they were probably wearing armour.
Chen jumped down from the horse. "Armoured troops on the way," he shouted. "Everyone head for the river."
Lord Zhou was very worried about his daughter, but finding her among such a huge body of troops was impossible. The heroes helped up Wei, Zhang Jin and the other wounded, and galloped towards the banks of the Yellow River with the Manchu cavalry in hot pursuit. Luo Bing and Jiang punted the sheepskin rafts up to the shore and took the wounded on board first.
"Everyone get on the rafts quickly!" Chen yelled. "Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother, Lord Zhou, we four will hold..."
Before he could finish, a wave of crossbow arrows flew towards them.
"Charge!" roared Priest Wu Chen, and the four threw themselves at the first ranks of cavalry. Lord Zhou's huge sword rose and fell, cutting Manchu soldiers down from their horses, while 'Buddha' Zhao slung copper coins at the eye-slits in their armour. Although it was impossible to see clearly in the dark, he still managed to blind five or six men. By this time, everyone except Chen and the other three had boarded the rafts.
Chen spotted a mounted officer directing the troops, and sprang over to him. He pulled the fficer from his horse and ran for the river bank with him under his arm. The Manchu troops rushed forward to try to save their commanding officer, but they didn't dare to fire any arrows. Chen leapt onto one of the rafts and Jiang and Luo Bing began to move them out towards the centre of the river.
The Yellow River was in full flood and with the current powerful and turbulant, the two large sheepskin rafts flew off downstream. The hubbub of the great armed column slowly faded as the river roared around them.
The heroes set about tending to the wounded. 'Leopard' Wei's mind gradually cleared and his body was found to be free from wounds. 'Buddha' Zhao was an expert at medical treatment as well as with darts and he bound up 'Iron Pagoda' Yang's and Zhang Jin's wounds. Zhang Jin was more seriously injured, but was in no danger. Xin Yan had been hit by several Golden Needles, and was in such pain that he cried out continually. The needles had penetrated right through the flesh into the bones, and Zhao took a magnet from his medicine bag and drew them out one by one. Luo Bing rowed on silently. Not only had they failed to rescue Wen, but 'Mastermind' Xu, Zhou Qi, Lu Feiqing and his pupil had been lost as well, and no-one knew where 'Scholar' Yu had got to.
Chen roused the captured Manchu officer. "What the hell was your column doing travelling through the night like that?" he asked.
The officer said nothing. Yang slapped him on the face. "Are you going to talk?" he shouted.
"I'll talk...I'll talk," the officer said quickly, holding his cheek. "What do you want me to say?"
"What was your column doing travelling at night?"
"General Zhao Wei received an Imperial command ordering us to attack the Muslim areas and take them over before a certain date. He was afraid we wouldn't make it in the time limit, and also that the Muslims would hear of our approach and make preparations. So we've been marching day and night."
"The Muslims are very well-behaved," said Chen. "Why are you going to attack them?"
"That...that, I don't know." the officer said.
"If you are heading for the Muslim areas, why did you come to interfere in our business?"
"General Zhao heard of some bandits making trouble in this area and ordered me to lead a detail to deal with them, but the main army didn't stop..."
Before he could finish, Yang gave him another slap. "Damn your mother!" he shouted. "It's you who are the bandits!"
"Yes, yes! I made a mistake!" the officer cried.
Chen was silent for a while, then questioned the officer closely regarding the army's troop strength, route and rations. Some of it the officer didn't know, but he did not dare to hide what he did know.
"Head...For...The...Shore" Chen shouted at the top of his voice. Luo Bing and Jiang steered the rafts towards the bank and everyone stepped ashore.
Chen called the Twin Knights over.
"Travel back as fast as you can and find out what happened to the others," he said. "If they have fallen into the hands of the Manchus, they will certainly be taken back to Beijing along the Great Road. We can intercept them further east and work out some way of rescuing them."
The Twin Knights nodded and started out.
"Twelfth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "I want you to do something for me."
"Whatever you say, Great Helmsman."
Chen wrote out a letter under the light of the moon.
"Please take this letter to Master Muzhuolun in the Muslim regions," he said. "We have only met him and his people once, but they showed the greatest friendship towards us, so we cannot stand idly by. Fourth Sister, please lend your white horse to Twelfth Brother for the trip." Luo Bing had kept the animal aboard the raft throughout the battle.
Shi mounted up and disappeared in a cloud of dust. With the horse's phenomenal speed, he estimated he could overtake the army in a day and be in time to warn Muzhuolun.
Chen then directed Jiang to tie the officer's hands behind his back. They placed him on one of the rafts and pushed it out into the stream and left it for Fate to decide whether he should live or die.
She had been unconscious for she did not know how long when there was a sudden bright flash before her eyes and a great roar followed by a wave of coolness on her face. She opened her eyes and saw the sky was full of black clouds and torrential rain sweeping down.
She jumped up. Someone beside her sat up as well, and she started in fright and frantically grabbed for her sword. Then she gasped in surprise: it was 'Mastermind' Xu.
"Mistress Zhou, what are you doing here?" he called out above the roar of the rain.
Zhou Qi had never liked Xu and had gone out of her way to quarrel with him. But he was at least one of her own people, and she burst into tears.
"What about my father?" she asked, biting her lip.
Xu motioned her to lie down. "Soldiers," he whispered.
Zhou Qi threw herself to the ground, and they slowly crawled behind a small mound of earth.
The sky was already light, and through the rain, they saw several dozen Manchu soldiers hastily burying corpses, cursing as they worked. "You two, have a look round for any more bodies," an officer shouted, and two soldiers went onto higher ground. Looking around, they spotted Zhou Qi and Xu and called out: "There's two more over there."
"Wait for them to come over," Xu whispered.
The soldiers walked over carrying shovels, and as they bent over them, Zhou Qi and Xu simultaneously thrust their swords into the bellies of the two. They died without a sound.
The officer waited for a while, but with no sign of the soldiers returning and the rain getting heavier, he rode over to investigate.
"Don't make a sound. I'll steal his horse," Xu whispered. As the officer rode closer, he saw the bodies of the two soldiers, but before he could call out, Xu leapt up and slashed at him with his sword. The officer raised his horse whip to stop the blow, but both his whip and head were sliced off.
"Mount up quickly!" Xu called, holding the horse's reins. Zhou Qi leapt onto the horse and galloped off with Xu running along behind.
The Manchu troops began to give chase. After only a few dozen paces, the pain in Xu's shoulder where he had been hit by the Golden Needles became unbearable and he fell to the ground with a cry. Zhou Qi reined the horse round and galloped back. Leaning over, she pulled him across the saddle, then slapped the horse's haunches and raced off again. The soldiers soon dropped far behind.
When they had gone some distance, Zhou Qi stopped and had a look at Xu. His eyes were tightly closed, his face white and his breathing shallow. Greatly frightened, she sat him properly on the horse, then with her left arm around his waist to keep him from falling, galloped on, keeping to lonely, deserted tracks. After a while, she saw an inky-black section of forest ahead and rode in amongst the trees. The rain had stopped, and she dismounted and continued on foot leading the horse with Xu on it behind her until she came to a clearing in the forest. Xu was still unconscious, and Zhou Qi lifted him off the horse and laid him on the grass. Then she sat down, letting the horse wander off to graze. Here she was, a young girl not yet twenty, alone in a strange forest. She began to sob, her tears falling onto Xu's face.
Xu slowly recovered consciousness and thought it was raining again. He opened his eye a little way and saw a beautiful face before him with two big eyes red from crying. His left shoulder began hurting again and he cried out in pain.
Zhou Qi was overjoyed to see he was still alive. "How are you?" she asked.
"My shoulder is extremely painful. Please look at it for me, Mistress Zhou," he replied. He forced himself to sit up and used his right hand to cut a hole in the shoulder of his jacket with his knife.
"I was hit by three Golden Needles here," he said, examining the shoulder out of the corner of his eye." The needles were small, but they had penetrated deep into the flesh.
"What shall we do?" Zhou Qi asked. "Shall we go to a town and find a doctor?"
"We can't do that," replied Xu. "After last night's battle, going to see a doctor would be like walking straight into a trap. What we really need is a magnet to draw the needles out, but we don't have one. I wonder if I could ask you to cut away the flesh and pull them out?"
During the night battle, Zhou Qi had killed quite a number of the Manchu troops without losing her composure once. But now, faced with the prospect of cutting away the flesh on Xu's
shoulder, she hesitated.
"I can't stand the pain," he pleaded. "Do it now...no, wait. Do you have a tinder box with you?"
Zhou Qi felt around in her bag. "Yes. What do you want it for?"
"Collect some dried grass and leaves and burn up some ash. When you've pulled the needles out, you can cover the wound with the ash and then bandage it."
She did as he said and burnt up a large pile of ash.
"That's fine," said Xu with a laugh. "There's enough there to stop a hundred wounds bleeding."
"I'm just a stupid girl," Zhou Qi replied crossly. "Come and do it yourself."
She pressed on his shoulder beside the needle holes. As her fingers came into contact with male flesh, she involuntarily pulled back and her whole face turned bright red down to the roots of her hair.
Xu noticed her blush, but misinterpreted her reaction in spite of his nickname.
"Are you afraid?" he asked.
"What have I got to be afraid of?" she replied, suddenly angry. "It's you that's afraid! Turn your head away and don't look."
Xu did as he was told. Zhou Qi pressed the skin around the needle holes tightly, then slipped the tip of the knife into the flesh and slowly began to turn it. Blood flowed out of the wound. Xu silently gritted his teeth, his whole face covered in beads of sweat the size of soyabeans. She cut away the flesh until the end of a needle appeared, then grasping it tightly between the thumb and forefinger, pulled it out.
Xu forced himself to maintain his jocular front.
"It's a pity that needle doesn't have an eye to thread through, otherwise I'd give it to you to use in embroidery," he said.
"I can't do embroidery," Zhou Qi replied. "Last year, my mother told me to learn, but I kept snapping the needle or breaking the thread. She scolded me, and I said: "Mother, I can't do it, you teach me." But she said 'I've no time.' Afterwards I discovered that she can't do embroidery either."
Xu laughed. As they had been talking, another needle had been removed.
"I didn't really want to learn," Zhou Qi continued with a smile. "But when I found out that mother didn't know how, I pushed her to teach me. But I couldn't catch her out. She said: 'If you don't know how to sew, I don't know how you'll....'"
She stopped in mid-sentence. Her mother had said: "I don't know you'll ever find a husband."
"Don't you know how you'll what?" asked Xu.
"I don't feel like telling you."
As they talked, her hands never stopped, and the third needle was finally out as well. She covered the wound with ash, then bandaged it with strips of cloth. She couldn't help but admire him for the way he continued to smile and chat to her despite the pain.
"He may be short, but he's a brave man," she thought. By this time, her hands were covered in blood.
"You lie here and don't move," she said. "I'll go and find some water to drink."
She looked at the lie of the land, then ran out of the trees. Several hundred paces away, she found a small stream which was flowing swiftly after the heavy rain. As she bent down to wash her hands, she caught sight of her reflection in the water, the dishevelled hair, her wet and crumpled clothes, and her face, covered in blood and dirt.
"Damn!" she thought. "How could I let him see me looking so awful?"
She washed her face clean, combed her hair with her fingers. Then, scooping water from the stream, she drank deeply. She knew Xu would certainly be thirsty too, but had nothing in which to carry water. After a moment's thought, she took a piece of clothing from the knapsack on her back, dipped it in the stream so that it was soaking wet than ran back.
Zhou Qi could see from his face that he was in great pain, although he was trying to appear unconcerned, and feelings of tenderness stirred within her. She told him to open his mouth and squeezed water into it from the cloth.
"Is it very painful?" she asked softly.
Xu's whole life has been spent amidst mountains of knives and forests of spears, or else in the shady world of plots and traps; no-one had ever spoken to him with the warmth and softness he detected now in Zhou Qi's voice. Deeply moved, he steadied himself. "I am a little better now. Thank you."
"We can't stay here," Xu said after he had drunk some water. "Nor can we go to any town. All we can do is to find a secluded farmhouse and say that we are brother and sister..."
"You want me to call you brother?" asked Zhou Qi, astounded.
"If you feel that I'm too old, you could call me uncle," he suggested.
"Pah! Do you think you look like my uncle? I'll call you my brother, but only when there are other people around. When we're on our own, I won't."
"All right, you don't have to," he replied with a smile. "We'll say that we met the army on the road and were attacked by the soldiers who stole all our possessions."
Having agreed on their story, Zhou Qi helped him to mount the horse. The two made their way out of the trees, and chose a small track heading straight towards the sun.
The northwest is a desolate place. Hungry and tired, they had to travel for more than two hours before finally spotting a mud hut.
Xu dismounted and knocked at the door. After a moment, an old woman came out. Seeing the strange clothes they were wearing, she looked at them suspiciously. Xu gave her some of the story they had concocted, and she sighed.
"These government troops, always making trouble," she said. "What is your name sir?"
"My name is Zhou," said Xu.
Zhou Qi glanced at him but said nothing. The old woman invited them inside and brought out some wheat cakes. They were black and rough, but hungry as they were, tasted delicious.
"Old woman," said Xu, "I am wounded and am not able to travel. We would like to spend the night here."
"There's no problem about your staying here, but poor people's homes have little to eat in them, so don't blame me on that account, sir."
"We are eternally thankful that you are willing to put us up," Xu replied. "My sister's clothes are all wet. If you have any old clothes, I would appreciate it if you would allow her to change into them."
"My daughter-in-law left some clothes behind. If you don't mind, mistress, you could try them on. They'll probably fit."
Zhou Qi went to change. When she came out, she saw Xu was already asleep in the old woman's room.
Towards evening, Xu began babbling incoherently, Zhou Qi felt his forehead and found it feverish. She decided his wounds must be festering. She knew such a condition was extremely dangerous, and turned to the old woman. "Is there a doctor near here?" she asked.
"Yes, there is, in Wenguang town about twenty li east of here," the old woman replied. "The most capable one is Doctor Cao, but he never comes out to country places like this to see patients."
"I'll go and fetch him," Zhou Qi said. "I'll leave my...my brother here. Please keep an eye on him."
"Don't you worry about that, miss," the old woman replied. "But the doctor won't come."
Zhou Qi stowed her sword beside the horse's saddle and galloped off. Night had already fallen when she entered Wenguang town.
She asked a passer-by where Doctor Cao lived, then galloped straight on to his residence. She knocked on the door for a long time before a man finally opened it.
"It's already dark. What are you banging on the door like that for?" the man demanded.
Zhou Qi was furious at his manner, but remembered that she was appealing for help. "I've come to ask Doctor Cao to visit a patient," she said, controlling herself.
"He's not in," said the man. Without another word, he turned and began to close the door.
Panic-striken, Zhou Qi pulled him out of the doorway and drew her sword. "Where's he gone to? Quickly!"
"He's gone to Little Rose's," the man replied in a quavering voice.
Zhou Qi brushed the blade over his face. "What is Little Rose's?"
The man was frantic with fright. "Your Excellency...Miss, Little Rose is a prostitute," he said.
"Prostitutes are bad people. What's he gone to her place for?" Zhou Qi asked.
The man wanted to laugh at the sight of this girl who was so ferocious and yet so ignorant of worldly matters, but he did not dare. "She is a good friend of our master," he said.
"Lead me there quickly."
With the sword resting on his neck, he dared not disobey and led her off down the street.
"This is it," he said, pointing to a small house.
"Knock on the door. Tell the doctor to come out."
The man did as she said, and the door was opened by the Madame of the house.
"This lady wants my master to go to visit a patient," the man said. "I told her the master was busy, but she wouldn't believe me and forced me to come here."
The Madame gave him a look of contempt and slammed the door.
Zhou Qi rushed forward to stop her, but was too late. She beat thunderously on the door for a while, but not a sound came from inside. Absolutely furious, she kicked the man to the ground.
"Get lost!" she shouted.
The man picked himself up and ran off.
Zhou Qi waited until he had disappeared then leapt over the wall into the courtyard of the house. She saw light coming from a room nearby, and stealthily made her way over towards it. Crouching down, she heard two men talking. She licked the tip of her finger, then wet a small part of the window paper and made a hole in it. Putting her eye to the hole, she saw two men lying on a couch, talking. One was stout, and the other thin and tall. A tartishly seductive girl was pummelling the thin man's thighs. The stout man give a wave of his hand and the girl stood up.
"I can see you two want to discuss more ways of creating mischief," she said with a smile. "You ought to accumulate some good deeds, otherwise you may give birth to sons without arseholes."
"Damned nonsense," the stout man shouted back with a laugh. The girl smiled and walked out, locked the door, then turned and went into an inner hall.
"That must be Little Rose," Zhou Qi thought. "She's really shameless, but there's some truth in what she said."
She watched as the stout man pulled out four silver ingots and placed them on the table.
"Brother Cao," he said. "There's two hundred taels of silver. We are old business partners, and that's the old price."
"Master Tang," the thin man replied: "Take these two packets of medicine, and have a good time. The red packet you give to the girl, and in less time than it takes to eat a meal, she will be unconscious to the world and you can do whatever you like with her. You don't need me to teach you anything about that, do you?"
The two men laughed together.
"This black packet you give to the man," Cao continued. "Tell him it will speed his recovery. Soon after he takes it, his wounds will begin discharging blood and he will die. It will appear that his wounds have simply re-opened and no-one will suspect you. What do you think of such a ruse?"
"Excellent, excellent," Tang replied.
"So, Master Tang, you have gained both the girl and the money. Doesn't two hundred taels seem like rather a small reward for such a service?"
"We are brothers, and I wouldn't try to deceive you," the other said. "The girl certainly has a pretty face. I could hardly restrain myself even when I thought she was a boy because of the way she was dressed. But there is nothing much special about the man, except that he's with the girl, so I cannot allow him to live."
"Didn't you say he had a flute made out of gold?" Cao asked. "That flute must weigh several catties alone."
"All right, all right, I'll add another fifty taels," Tang said, and pulled out another ingot.
Zhou Qi became angrier and angrier as she listened, and ran to the door, kicked it open and charged straight inside. Tang gave a shout and aimed a flying kick at Zhou Qi's sword wrist. Zhou Qi flipped the sword over and smoothly cut off his right foot then thrust the blade into his heart.
The thin man stood to one side, struck dumb with fright. His whole body shook and his teeth chattered. Zhou Qi pulled her sword out of Tang's corpse and wiped the blood off the blade onto his clothes, then grabbed the thin man.
"Are you Doctor Cao?" she shouted. The man's legs folded and he fell to his knees.
"Please...miss...spare my life..."
"Who wants your life? Get up."
Cao shakily stood up, but his knees were still rubbery, and he had to kneel down again. Zhou Qi put the five silver ingots and two packets of medicine on the table into her pocket.
"Out," she ordered.
She told him to fetch his horse, and the two mounted up and galloped out of the town. In less than two hours, they arrived at the old woman's hut. Zhou Qi ran to Xu and found him still unconscious. In the candlelight, she could see his whole face was bright red and knew he had a terrible fever. She dragged Cao over.
"My, er, brother here has been wounded. Cure him quickly," she ordered.
Hearing that he was expected to give medical treatment, Cao's fears eased slightly. He looked at Xu's complexion and took his pulse, then undid the bandage round his shoulder and looked at the wound. He shook his head.
"The master is deficient in both blood and breath," he said. "His body heat is rising..."
"Who wants to hear all that?" Zhou Qi interrupted him. "You just cure him quickly. If you don't, you can forget about ever leaving here."
"I'll go to the town to get some medicine," Cao said. "Without medicine I cannot do anything."
Xu awoke and he lay listening to the two talking.
"Huh, do you think I'm a three-year-old child?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You make out the prescription and I'll go and buy the medicine."
Cao had no alternative. "Well, please bring me a pen and paper, Miss," he said.
But where was pen and paper to be found in such a poor hut in such a desolate place? Zhou Qi frowned, at a loss for what to do.
"The master's condition will not allow delay," said Cao with an air of complacency. "It would be best if you let me return to the town to get the medicine."
"Sister," Xu said, "Take a small piece of firewood and burn it to charcoal, then let him write on a piece of rough paper. If that can't be done, you could write on a piece of wood."
"What a good idea!" Zhou Qi exclaimed happily, and burnt up a piece of firewood as he had said. The old woman searched out a piece of yellow paper originally meant to be burnt in worship of Buddha, and Cao made out the prescription. When he had finished, Zhou Qi found a length of grass rope and tied his hands behind his back, bound his legs together and put him on the floor next to Xu.
"I'm going to the town to buy medicine," she told the old woman as she placed Xu's sword beside his pillow. If this dog doctor tries to escape, wake up my brother and he can kill him."
Zhou Qi rode back to the town and found a medicine shop. She shouted for the shop-keeper to open up and got him to fill the prescription, which was for more that ten different types of medicine.
The sky was growing light. She saw village militiamen patrolling the streets and guessed that the murder at Little Rose's had been discovered. She shrank into a corner and waited until they had passed before galloping off.
As soon as she had returned to the old woman's hut, she hastily brewed up the medicine then poured it into a rough bowl and took it over to Xu. She shook him awake and told him to drink the medicine.
Xu was extremely moved at the sight of her face covered with sweat and ash and her hair filled with twigs and grass. He knew she was the daughter of a rich family and would never before have had to do this sort of work. He sat up and took the bowl from her and passed it over to Cao.
"You drink two mouthfuls," he said. Cao hesitated slightly and Zhou Qi realised Xu's meaning.
"Yes, yes," she said. "He must drink some first. You don't know how evil this man is," she added to Xu.
Cao opened his mouth and drank two mouthfuls.
"Rest for a while, sister," said Xu. "I'll wait a while before drinking the medicine."
"Yes," said Zhou Qi. "Let's see if he dies first. If he dies, you mustn't drink the medicine."
She moved the oil lamp next to Cao's face and watched him with her big, black, unblinking eyes to see whether he would die or not.
"We doctors have the best interest of our patients at heart. Why would I want to harm him?" Cao said, smiling bitterly.
"That secret discussion you had with that man Tang about harming some girl and getting hold of someone else's golden flute, I heard it all," Zhou Qi said angrily. "Do you deny it?"
Xu's ears pricked up at the mention of a golden flute and he quickly asked her about it. Zhou Qi related the conversation she had heard, and how she had killed a man at Little Rose's.
Xu asked Cao: "Who is the person with the Golden flute? And who is the girl who was dressed as a boy?"
Zhou Qi drew her sword and stood by him threateningly. "If you don't tell us everything you know, I'll run you through with my sword immediately," she told him.
"I...I'll tell you," said Cao, absolutely terrified. "Yesterday Master Tang came to see me and said that two people had asked to take lodgings at his home. He said one was very badly wounded and the other was a pretty youngster. At first he was unwilling to take them in, but seeing how extraordinarily beautiful the youngster was, he let them stay for one night. He noticed the youngster's voice and manner were just like a girl's. Also, the youngster wasn't willing to share a room with the other, so he concluded it must be a girl dressed in boy's clothes."
"So you sold him some poison," Zhou Qi said.
"I deserve to die," replied Cao.
"What was the man like?" Xu asked.
"Master Tang asked me to examine him. He was about twenty-three or four, dressed as a scholar, and had sword and club wounds in seven or eight places."
"Were the wounds serious?" asked Xu.
"Very serious. But they were all external wounds. He wasn't wounded on any fatal points."
Xu saw he would not gain much by continuing the questioning and gingerly raised the bowl of medicine. But his hands shook and some of the medicine slopped out. Zhou Qi took the bowl from him and raised it to his mouth. He drank the brew down as she held the bowl, then thanked her.
"These two bandits are not brother and sister," Cao thought as he watched. "Whoever heard of a brother saying thank you to his sister?"
After drinking the medicine, Xu slept for a while, his whole body sweating profusely, and towards evening, the sickness began to recede. The next day, Xu was more than half recovered and he was able to get up.
After another day, he decided he could just about manage to ride a horse.
"That man with the golden flute is Fourteenth Brother," he said to Zhou Qi. "I wonder why he should seek lodgings with such a man? But seeing as you've already killed Tang, they shouldn't have had too much trouble. But I'm still a little worried. Let's go tonight and see what the situation is."
"Fourteenth Brother?" Zhou Qi asked.
"'Scholar' Yu. He was also at Iron Gall Manor. You've seen him before."
"Oh, if I had known it was him I would have brought him along with me, then the two of you could have convalesced together."
Xu smiled. "But who could this girl dressed in boy's clothing be?" he wondered, mystified.
That evening, Zhou Qi gave the old woman two of the silver ingots and she accepted them with effusive blessings and thanks. Zhou Qi then pulled Cao up, and with a swish of her blade, cut off his right ear.
"I'm only sparing your worthless life because you cured my brother," she shouted. "If I ever catch you doing evil again,I'll stick my sword straight into your heart."
"We'll visit you again in three months time, to check up," Xu warned.
"You ride his horse and we'll leave," Zhou Qi said to Xu. The two mounted up and galloped off towards Wenguang town.
"Why did you say we would be coming back in three months' time?" Zhou Qi asked.
"I was just deceiving the doctor so that he wouldn't give the old woman any trouble," Xu replied.
Zhou Qi nodded and they continued on for a while.
"Why are you always so crafty with people?" she suddenly asked. "I don't like it."
"You don't realise how many evil people there are in the world," he said after a long silence. "When dealing with friends, love and justice should always come first, of course. But when dealing with bad people, you must be very careful otherwise you will be tricked and will suffer."
"My father say it's better to suffer yourself than to cheat other people," Zhou Qi said.
"That is what makes your father the great man that he is," replied Xu.
"Well, why don't you imitate my father?"
"Lord Zhou is benevolent and generous by nature. I am afraid that such a perverse person as myself would never be able to emulate him."
"That's what I dislike most about you: your perverse temper. My father says that if you treat others well, they will also naturally treat you well in return."
Xu didn't reply.
The two waited until it was dark before entering the town. They found Tang's residence and climbed over the wall toinvestigate. Xu caught a watchman and, threatening him with a knife, asked him about 'Scholar' Yu's whereabouts. The watchman said the two lodgers had left during the confusion after Doctor Cao had killed Master Tang at Little Rose's.
"We'll chase after them," Zhou Qi said.
"Why didn't you talk about these things before, instead of always quarrelling with me?" she asked.
That day they arrived at Tongguan, a gateway town between central China and the northwest, and searched for lodgings. They heard that the old Yuelai Inn was the best, but when they got there, they were told there was only one room left.
Zhou Qi was impressed with how refined and polite Xu had been towards her, a real gentleman. But now, suddenly faced with the prospect of having to share a room with him, she was both embarrassed and suspicious.
As soon as they were in the room, Xu barred the door. Zhou Qi's face went bright red and she was just about to speak when Xu hurriedly silenced her with a wave of his hand.
"Did you see that Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency scoundrel just now?" he whispered.
"What?" said Zhou Qi, startled. "You mean the one who led the others round to capture Master Wen and caused the death of my brother?"
"I only caught a glimpse of him so I can't be absolutely sure. I was afraid he would see us, which is why I rushed us into the room. We'll go and investigate in a while."
The servant came in with some hot tea and asked if they wanted anything to eat. Xu ordered a few dishes, then said:
"Several eminent gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency are also staying here, I think?"
"Yes," replied the servant. "Whenever they pass through Tongguan, they always give us their custom."
Xu waited for the servant to leave. "That Lead Escort Tong is the ringleader and chief troublemaker," he said. "We'll finish him off tonight and properly avenge your brother and Master Wen."
Zhou Qi thought once again of her brother's tragic death and the burning of Iron Gall Manor, and her anger surged.
"Lie down for a while and rest," said Xu, seeing her impatience. "We can wait until nightfall before making our move and still have plenty of time."
He sat down at the table and settled himself for sleep without so much as glancing further in Zhou Qi's direction. Zhou Qi had no option but to suppress her anger. She sat down on the kang and tried to rest. The time dragged by until the second bell struck, one hour to midnight, and she decided she could control herself no longer.
"Let's go," she said, drawing her sword.
"There are many of them, and some may be good fighters," Xu whispered. "Let us investigate first. We'll think of some way to lure Tong out, then deal with him alone."
Zhou Qi nodded.
They went into the courtyard and saw a lamp shining in a room on the eastern side. They walked stealthily over. Zhou Qi found a rip in the window paper and looked through while Xu stood behind her keeping a look out. Suddenly, she stood up and kicked out at the window. Xu started in fright, and shot in front of her, blocking her way. Zhou Qi hurriedly retracted her leg as it was about to strike Xu's chest, and overbalanced. He knelt down close to her.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"Do something, quick," she hissed. "My mother's in there. They've got her tied up."
Xu was startled. "Back to the room quickly and we'll discuss it there," he said.
They returned to the room.
"What is there to discuss?" demanded Zhou Qi desperately. "They've captured my mother."
"Control yourself. I will rescue her for you," Xu replied. "How many people were there in the room?"
"About six or seven."
Xu hung his head, deep in thought.
"What are you afraid of?" Zhou Qi asked. "If you won't do it, I'll go by myself."
"I'm not afraid. I'm thinking of a way to save your mother and kill that fellow at the same time. It would be best if we did the two things together."
Just then, footsteps passed by the door, and they heard a man muttering: "Midnight and these lead escorts are still at it. What are they doing drinking at this time? Damn their mothers! May the blessed Buddha make sure they meet up with robbers on the road."
Suddenly, Xu had an idea. "That Doctor Cao gave you two packets of medicine, didn't he?" he said to Zhou Qi. "Give me the one he said would make you unconscious, quickly."
Zhou Qi gave him the packet. "What are you going to do?" she asked. Xu didn't answer, but opened the window and jumped out with Zhou Qi close behind.
They ran along the corridor. Suddenly Xu whispered: "Get down, don't move."
Zhou Qi wondered what trick he was up to. A moment passed, then suddenly they saw a flicker of light as the servant came back towards them carrying a candlestick and a tray. Xu picked a pebble off the ground and threw it, extinguishing the candle.
The servant started in surprise. "This is damn ridiculous," he cursed. "There's no wind at all, and yet the candle goes out."
He put down the tray and turned to relight the candle. While his back was turned, Xu darted out, and in a flash, he had tipped the medicine into the two pots of wine on the tray and slipped away without the servant noticing.
"Let's go and wait outside their room," he said to Zhou Qi.
They made their way round to the exterior of the lead escort's room and settled down to wait. Xu looked in through the hole in the window covering and saw a middle-aged woman seated on the floor with her hands tied behind her back. There were several men sitting around her, including Master Han, the white horse's former owner, and Lead Escorts Qian and Tong. They were engaged in a lively discussion.
"When people talked of Iron Gall Manor, they always said it was impregnable as if it had walls of iron," Tong was saying. "But with just my one torch, it was razed to the ground. Ha ha!"
Outside the window, Xu shook his hand at Zhou Qi, afraid that she would have a fit of rage.
"Old Tong, stop bragging," Han replied. "I've met Zhou and I doubt if all of us together could beat him. If he ever comes looking for you, you'll be in a pretty situation!"
"But look!" replied Taong. "We must have a lucky star, otherwise how could Zhou's old woman manage to find us? With her in our hands, how would he dare to do anything to us?"
Just then, the servant entered with the wine and food, and the bodyguards immediately began eating and drinking heartily. Han was quiet and dispirited and Tong continually urged him to drink the wine, saying "Brother Han, even heroes are helpless when they're outnumbered. Next time, we'll take the Red Flower Society one to one and see who's the better."
"And who are you going to take on, old Tong?" asked another of the bodyguards.
"I'm going to find that daughter of Zhou's..." Before he could finish, he slumped to the floor. The others all started in fright, but as they jumped up to help him, and one by one, they dropped to the ground unconscious.
Xu prised the window open with sword, then leapt into the room. Zhou Qi hurriedly cut the ropes which bound her mother's hands. Lady Zhou was speechless at the sight of her beloved daughter: she felt as if she was in a dream.
Xu lifted Tong up. "Mistress Zhou," he said, "Avenge your brother."
With a sweep of her sword, Zhou Qi killed Tong instantly. She raised her sword again to kill the other lead escorts, but Xu stopped her.
"The crimes of the others do not deserve death. Spare them," he said.
She nodded and withdrew her sword. Lady Zhou knew her daughter's temper, and was surprised at how she obeyed Xu.
Xu searched the bodies of the lead escorts and found several letters which he placed in his gown, planning to examine them later.
The three returned to their room. Xu picked up their knapsacks and left a small silver ingot on the table in payment for the room and the food. Then they went to the stables, led out three horses and galloped off eastwards.
When she realized her daughter was not only travelling with a man but had shared a room with him, Lady Zhou's suspicions rose even further. Her temper was as explosive as her daughter's.
"Who is this gentleman?" she asked accusingly. "How come you are with him? You lost your temper with you father and left, didn't you?"
"It was you that lost your temper and left," Zhou Qi replied. "Mother, I'll talk to you about this later."
It looked as if an argument was about to start, and Xu quickly tried to mediate.
"It's all your fault," Zhou Qi told him angrily. "Do you want to make it worse?"
Xu smiled and walked away. Mother and daughter pouted silently, each thinking her own thoughts.
That night, they took lodgings in a farm house, and once they were in bed, mother and daughter together, Zhou Qi finally told her everything that had happened. Lady Zhou kept up a constant bombardment of questions and the two were crying one minute and laughing the next. It was past midnight before they had each given a rough sketch of the events since they parted.
Heartbroken and angry over the death of her son, Lady Zhou had gone to Lanzhou to stay with relatives, but after a few days, she began to feel restless, and left. On reaching Tongguan, he saw the Zhen Yuan Agency's flag outside the Yuelai Inn. She remembered that the man responsible for her son's death was a Lead Escort Tong and that evening she had gone to the inn to investigate. She listened to the lead escorts talking, and discovered Tong was among them. Unable to control her anger, she attacked him, but the agency men had the superiority of numbers and she was captured.
The next day on the road, Lady Zhou asked Xu about hisfamily background.
"I am from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province," Xu replied. "When I was twelve, all the members of my family were killed by the authorities. I was the only one who managed to escape."
"Why did they do that?" asked Lady Zhou.
"The magistrate of Shaoxing prefecture liked my sister and wanted her as his concubine. But she had already been promised to someone else, so my father naturally refused to agree. The magistrate then accused my father of being in collusion with bandits and put him and my mother and brother in prison. He told my sister that all she had to do was agree, and my father would be released. My sister's husband-to-be went to assassinate the magistrate, but he was caught and beaten to death by the guards. When my sister heard, she drowned herself in the river. After that, what chance did the rest of the family have of being spared?"
"Did you get revenge?" Zhou Qi asked.
"When I had grown up and had learned the martial arts, I went back to look for the magistrate, but he had been promoted and transferred somewhere else. In the last few years, I've been everywhere looking for him, but I've never had any news."
Lady Zhou also asked him if he was married, and said that having travelled about so much, he must surely have seen some girl he liked?
"He's too cunning. No girl would want him," Zhou Qi said with a laugh.
"Enough of your remarks, young lady," Lady Zhou scolded her.
"You want to become his match-maker, don't you?" Zhou Qi said with a smile. "Which girl are you thinking of? One of your relatives in Lanzhou?"
When they lodged at an inn that night, Lady Zhou spoke plainly to her daughter.
"A virgin like yourself, travelling together with a young man and staying in the same room! How do you expect to ever be able to marry anyone else?" she said.
"He was wounded," Zhou Qi replied angrily. "Did I do wrong to save him? He may be full of cunning tricks but he has been very gentlemanly towards me all along."
"You know that, and so does he. I believe you, and your father would believe you too. But how are other people going to believe it? If your husband ever suspected, you would never be able to face him again. That is the difficulty we women have."
"Well then, I shall never marry," shouted Zhou Qi.
"Shh! Master Xu is just in the next room." Lady Zhou said. "It would be very embarrassing if he should hear."
"Why should I be afraid? I haven't done anything wrong. Why do you want to deceive him?"
When they arose next morning, a servant brought a letter to them.
"Master Xu next door told me to give this to your Ladyships," he said. "The master said he had some affairs to attend to and had to go on ahead. He rode out early this morning."
Zhou Qi snatched the letter from him.
"Dear Lady Zhou and Mistress Zhou," it said. "Mistress Zhou Qi saved my life when I was wounded and I am very grateful to her. You are now reunited and can make your way from here to Kaifeng, which is not far. Please do not be offended that I have gone on ahead. I will naturally never forget how Mistress Zhou saved me, but please rest assured that I will never mention a word of it to anyone. Yours, Xu."
Zhou Qi finished reading and stood dumbfounded for a second. Then she threw the letter away and lay back down on the kang. Lady Zhou told her to get up and eat, but she took no notice.
"My daughter, we are not in Iron Gall Manor now," Lady Zhou said. "What are you losing your temper for?" Zhou Qi still took no notice.
"You're angry at him for leaving, aren't you?" Lady Zhou said.
"He did it for my sake. Why should I blame him?" Zhou Qi replied angrily. She turned over and covered her head with the coverlet.
"Then why do you blame me?" asked Lady Zhou.
Zhou Qi suddenly sat up.
"He must have heard what you said last night. He was afraid other people would gossip and make it impossible for me to marry, so he left. But why worry about whether I'll marry or not? I refuse to marry anyone. I refuse to marry anyone!"
Lady Zhou saw she was crying as she spoke, and realized that she had fallen in love with Xu. She had unwittingly revealed her feelings without fully understanding them herself.
"You are the only daughter I have," Lady Zhou comforted her. "Do you think I don't love you? When we get to Kaifeng I'll speak to your father and get him to take charge of this matter so that you can be betrothed to Master Xu. Don't worry yourself. Your mother will see to everything."
"Who said I wanted to marry him?" Zhou Qi replied hurriedly. "The next time I see someone dying in front of me, I won't do anything to save him, not the slightest thing."
Xu did not mention anything about Lady Zhou or Zhou Qi to Lord Zhou. He was afraid that if questioned closely, it would be difficult to word his answers. And anyway, he thought, they will be here within a day. So he only told the heroes about what he had heard of 'Scholar' Yu: that he was badly wounded and travelling with a girl dressed as a boy. They discussed the matter for a while but could not think who the girl could be. They were all worried about his safety, but Yu was quick-witted and they were confident he would be all right.
Early next morning, Zhou Qi arrived by herself and her father and the others were delighted to see her. After greetings were over, she said quietly to Xu: "Come with me. I have something to say to you."
He walked slowly after her. He thought she wanted to berate him for leavng them behind, but he was wrong.
"My mother won't come to see my father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Think of something."
"Well, ask your father to go to see her," said Xu, surprised.
"She still wouldn't be willing to see him. She goes on and on about the death of my brother, saying my father has no conscience."
Xu thought for a moment. "All right," he said finally. "I have an idea." He quietly gave her instrucitons.
"Will it work?" she asked.
"Definitely. You'd better go immediately."
Xu waited until she had left, then returned to sit with the other heroes. When the appointed hour arrived, he quietly said to Lord Zhou: "I understand the Bamboo Garden restaurant next to the Iron Pagoda Temple is famous for its excellent wine. Let us go and try it."
"Good idea! I will be the host," replied Zhou, who was always interested in wine. "We can all go and drink our fill."
"The eyes and ears of officials are numerous in this city. It would not be a good idea for all of us to go," Xu replied. "Perhaps if just the Great Helmsman and I accompanied you, what do you think?"
"All right," Zhou replied. "Once again, it is you that thinks things out most carefully."
After speaking to Chen, the three went directly to the Iron Pagoda Temple. The Bamboo Garden was as good as its reputation. The three men talked, ate Yellow River carp and drank wine until they were drunk.
Xu raised his cup to Zhou. "I drink to you, Lord Zhou, in honour of your being reunited today with your daughter," he said.
Zhou drank a mouthful and sighed.
"You are not happy," Xu continued. "Is it because Iron Gall Manor was burned to the ground?"
"Wealth is not a part of the flesh. Such a thing as Iron Gall Manor is not worthy of regret," Zhou replied.
"Well then, you must be thinking of your deceased son?"
Zhou said nothing but sighed once again.
"Seventh Brother, let us go," said Chen. "I've had enough wine.
Xu ignored him. "Why did Lady Zhou leave home?" he asked.
"She blamed me for killing the child. Ah, where could she have run to, all alone? She loved him as much as her own life. I have truly failed her. I had no intention of killing him. It was just a slip of the hand in anger. Once we have rescued Master Wen, I will search to the farthest ends of the earth to find her and bring her back."
As he spoke the door curtain parted and Lady Zhou and Zhou Qi walked in.
"I heard what you said," said Lady Zhou. "I'm glad to see you're willing to admit your mistake. I'm here now, so there's no need to go looking for me."
Zhou was so startled and delighted at the sudden appearance of his wife that he was momentarily speechless.
"Brother Chen, this is my mother," Zhou Qi said. "Mother, this is Great Helmsman Chen of the Red Flower Society." The two greeted each other formally.
"Father, what a coincidence this is," the girl added. "I had heard that the wine here was good and decided to try it. Mother didn't want to come and I had to drag her along. Who would have guessed that you would be here too?"
They all laughed and drank, Zhou Qi was exuberantly happy, and without thinking, she began to talk elatedly about how Lead Escort Tong had been killed and the death of her brother and the burning of the manor avenged. Xu surruptitiously tried to stop her, but she took no notice.
"Brother Xu was very clever to think of a way to deal with them," she exclaimed. "After all the Lead Ecorts had passed out, we jumped in through the window and saved mother. Then he lifted Tong up and let me kill that villainous bandit myself."
Zhou and Chen toasted Xu.
"You have saved my wife and taken revenge on my behalf," Zhou said to him. "I am eternally gratefuly to you."
"How did you two meet up on the way?" Chen asked, and Xu faltered along for a few sentences trying to explain.
"Damn! Damn!" Zhou Qi thought to herself in distress. Her face flushed and an unintentional movement of her arm knocked her chopsticks and winecup to the ground. The winecup smashed loudly, increasing her embarrassment.
Chen examined both their faces carefully, and when they had returned to the residence, he called Xu over to one side.
"Brother Xu, what is your opinion of Mistress Zhou?" he asked.
"Great Helmsman," Xu replied hurriedly. "Please don't mention what she said in the restaurant to anyone. She is a good person and has a pure heart, but if other people knew and added a touch of filth, we wouldn't ever be able to face Lord Zhou again."
"I think Mistress Zhou is an extremely nice person too," Chen said. "How would you like me to be your match-maker?"
"That's impossible," said Xu, jumping up. "How could I be good enough for her?"
"You must not be so modest. You are the 'Kungfu Mastermind', renowned throughout the fighting community. Lord Zhou always speaks of you with the greatest respect."
Xu stood dumbfounded for a second.
"What do you think?" Chen repeated.
"Great Helmsman, you don't know. She doesn't like me."
"How do you know?"
"She said so herself. She said she hated my peculiar ways. We have been quarrelling and arguing ever since we met."
Chen laughed. "So you're certain?"
"Great Helmaman, there's no point talking about it. We cannot risk being turned down."
Just then, a servant entered.
"Master Chen," he said. "Lord Zhou is outside and wishes to speak to you."
Chen smiled at Xu and walked out of the room. He saw Zhou pacing up and down the corridor with his hands behind his back and quickly went up to him.
"Lord Zhou, you should have called for me. Was it necessary to come personally?"
"It's not important," Zhou replied, and with a tug on Chen's arm, led him into a reception room and sat down.
"I have something on my mind and want to ask your help," he said. "My daugher is nineteen this year. She has been a good-for-nothing since she was born, but she is basically a good and sincere person. Her faults are the result of my teaching her something of the martial arts. She has wasted much time and still has no husband." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "Everyone respects your honourable Society's Master Xu. I would like to ask you to become a match-maker and arrange for my daughter's betrothal to him. But I am afraid that with her bad temper, she would not be good enough."
Chen was delighted. "Leave this matter completely in my hands," he said. "You are the Taishan Mountain and North Star of the fighting community, Lord Zhou. It is a great honour for the Red Flower Society that you are willing to give up your daughter to one of our brothers. I will go and see to it immediately."
He ran to Xu's room and told him the news. Xu was so delighted, his heart beat wildly.
"Well," Chen said. "Are you willing?"
"Why wouldn't I be willing?"
"I didn't expect that you'd be unwilling," Chen replied with a smile. "But there is something else. All of Lord Zhou's three sons are dead, and the youngest died because of the Red Flower Society. It looks like the Zhou family line is finished. I wonder if you would be willing to make a concession and become not only his son-in-law, but his son as well?"
"You want me to become a member of the Zhou family?"
"Yes. The first of your future sons would be surnamed Zhou, and the second Xu. It would be a small repayment of our debt to Lord Zhou."
Xu agreed. The two went round to Zhou's room and also asked Lady Zhou to come over. Unaware of what was happening, Zhou Qi followed her in. As soon as Zhou saw the expression on the faces of Chen and Xu, he knew the matter was decided.
"Daughter, go outside," he said with a smile.
"You are trying to deceive me about something," she replied accusingly. "I won't have it!" But despite her words, she turned and left.
Chen brought up his idea of Xu becoming a member of the Zhou clan, and Lady Zhou and her husband beamed with delight.
"We are away from home and I don't have anything worthy to present to you," Zhou said to Xu. "But later I will teach you how to use the Iron Gallstones."
Xu was overwhelmed. He had gained both a beautiful wife and a wise teacher, and he knelt down to kowtow in thanks.
As soon as the news leaked out, the other heroes came to offer their congratulations. That night, a great banquet was held to celebrate, but Zhou Qi hid herself and refused to come out.
During the drinking, 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi returned from his journey to the Muslim regions with Muzhuolun's answer to Chen's letter.
Chen took the letter. Just then, 'Crocodile' Jiang raced in shouting: "The Yellow River's broken it's banks!"
They clustered round and questioned him on the extent of the disaster.
"The river's already broken through at seven or eight points. In many places the roads are completely impassable," he replied.
They were all concerned about how the peasants were faring. Furthermore, the Twin Knights had still not returned to report on Wen's situation.
"Brothers, we have already waited here several days," said Chen. "Conditions on the road ahead have probably changed, and I am afraid the floods will have ruined our plans. What do you all think we should do?"
"We can't wait any longer," Zhang Jin called out. "Let's get on to Beijing quickly. Even if they are holding Fourth Brother in the Heavenly Prison, we'll still get him out."
The others voiced their agreement, and it was decided to start out immediately. They thanked the local society chief and headed off eastwards.
While on the road, Chen opened and read Muzhuolun's letter. In it, he thanked the Red Flower Society for its warning and said he had called his tribe together and was preparing for war, determined to fight the enemy to the end. The mood of the letter was tragically heroic and Chen's anxiety showed on his face.
"Did Master Muzhuolun have anything else to say?" he asked Shi.
"He asked after Fourth Brother. When he heard we had not yet rescued him, he expressed great concern."
"Did you meet Master Muzhuolun's family?" Chen asked.
"I met his wife, son and two daughters. You know the eldest daughter. She asked after your health."
Chen hesitated. "She didn't say anything other than that?" he asked slowly.
Shi thought for a second. "Just before I left, there appeared to be something else she wished to say to me, but she asked only about the details of our attempt to rescue Fourth Brother."
Chen was silent. He put his hand into his gown and felt the dagger that Huo Qingtong had given him. The blade was eight inches long, bright and dazzling, and the handle was entwined with gold thread. Judging by the amount that had been worn away, it was of great antiquity. Huo Qingtong had said that a great secret was supposed to be hidden in the sword. He had examined it closely over the past few days, but had been unable to find anything unusual about it. He turned and looked back westwards. The host of stars were shining brightly, and he wondered whether on the great flat desert, the same stars were now shining on Huo Qingtong.
They travelled all night, and when morning broke, they were already close to the places where the Yellow River had broken through. The great plain had turned into a vast lake. The fields and homes of people in low-lying areas had long since been submerged. Many people were camping out in the open on the hilltops.
The heroes made their way round the flood, keeping to the high ground and heading eastwards. Occasionally, they spotted a cluster of corpses bobbing along beside pieces of driftwood. That night, they lodged out in the open, and the next day had to make a long detour.
Zhou Qi had been riding with Luo Bing the whole way, but suddenly she could restrain herself no longer. She spurred her horse on and caught up with Xu.
"You're the one with all the ideas," she said. "Think of a way to save these people."
During the two days since they had become engaged, the two had been too embarrassed to speak to each other. Now, the first thing Zhou Qi did when she opened her mouth was to present him with a problem of mammoth proportions.
"It's all very well to say that, but how can we possibly help so many refugees?" he replied.
"Why would I come and ask you if I knew of a way?"
"First thing tomorrow I will tell all the others that they are not to call me 'Kung Fu Mastermind' anymore. Then you won't be able to put me on the spot like this."
"When did I ever put you on the spot?" Zhou Qi asked quickly. "All right, I was wrong. I would be better off if I didn't say anything." She pouted silently.
"Sister, we are all one family now. We cannot continue to argue like this," Xu said. Zhou Qi ignored him.
"It is I who is in the wrong," he coaxed. "Forgive me this time and give me a smile." Zhou Qi turned her head away.
"Ah, so you won't even smile. You are so bashful in front of your new fiance."
She burst into laughter. "You talk such nonsense," she said, raising her horse whip.
The road was filled with refugees, dragging their sons and carrying their daughters, crying and wailing as they went. Suddenly a horseman appeared, galloping towards them fast. The road was very narrow and as the rider careered from side to side, he knocked a woman carrying a child into the water. But he took no notice, and continued to gallop on. The heroes was furious, and as the rider passed by, 'Leopard' Wei pulled him off his horse and punched him solidly in the face. The man screamed and spat out a mouthful of blood and three teeth.
He was a military official.
"You bunch of bandit hooligans," he shouted as he scrambled to his feet. "I am on important official business. I'll deal with you when I come back." He mounted his horse but Zhang Jin pulled him off again.
"What important official business?" he roared.
"Search him," Chen ordered. Zhang Jin frisked him quickly and found an official document which he handed over.
Chen saw the document had a singed corner and a chicken's feather stuck to it indicating that it was an urgent report which the courier would be required to travel day and night to deliver. On it's wrapper was written the words: "Extra Urgent Dispatch for Border Pacification General Zhao." He broke the seal and took out the document.
The courier went white with fear. "That's a secret military document," he shouted. "Aren't you afraid of execution?"
"If anyone's going to be executed, it's you," replied Xin Yan with a laugh.
Chen saw the letter was from a certain commander in charge of provisions reporting to General Zhao that rations for the Great Army had reached Lanfeng, but that because of the floods, there might be a delay of several days before they could be delivered.
Chen handed the letter to Xu. "It has nothing to do with us," he said.
But as Xu read the document an expression of delight filled his face. "Great Helmsman," he cried. "This is truly a great treasure delivered to us on a plate. With this, we can both assist Master Muzhuolun and save the refugees."
He jumped off his horse and walked over to the official and tore the document up in front of him.
"What are you going to do now?" he asked. "Isn't losing a military document a capital offence? If you want to live, it would be best to run."
The official was startled and angry, but he saw the truth of Xu's words. He took off his military uniform, threw it in the water, then ran off, melding into the mass of refugees.
"Steal the provisions and hand them out as disaster relief, and we can kill two birds with one stone," Chen said, nodding. "The only problem is that the provisions for the Great Army are bound to be heavily guarded, and we are few in number. What ideas do you have, Brother Xu?"
Xu whispered a few words in his ear, and Chen nodded in agreement.
"Good, we'll do it that way," he said, and ordered the heroes to disguise themselves and disperse.
Their instructions were to spread rumours.
The next morning, tens of thousands of refugees suddenly descended on Lanfeng. When the county magistrate, Wang Dao, saw the extraordinary situation, he ordered his officers to seize several refugees and question them. They all said they had heard there would be a distribution of relief money and provisions in the city that day. Wang immediately ordered the city gates to be barred, but by then, a huge crowd of refugees had already gathered inside with many more outside. Wang sent someone to announce to the crowd that there would be no distribution of relief, but the crowds continued to grow. Beginning to feel nervous, he went personally to see the Provisions Commander Sun, who was stationed in the Stone Buddha Temple in the eastern part of the city. He asked if some of the commander's troops could be assigned to help control the situation in the city.
"I have my orders from General Zhao," Sun replied. "Any slip-up, no matter how small, before these provisions reach the Great Army will be a capital offence. It is not that I am unwilling to help, but my responsibilities are heavy. Please forgive me, Master Wang."
Wang pleaded with him, but Sun was adament. Back on the streets, he saw the refugees creating an uproar everywhere.
Night fell, and fires started simultaneously in several parts of the city. Magistrate Wang hurriedly dispatched men to put them out, and in the confusion, an officer ran in to report.
"Master! There's trouble," he cried. "The west gate has been forced by the refugees and thousands more are streaming into the city."
Wang could only rant in despair, completely at a loss for what to do.
"Prepare a horse!" he shouted frantically, and led his guards towards the western part of the city. But before they had gone half a street, they found the way completely blocked by refugees. He heard someone in the midst of the crowd shout: "The food and money are to be distributed at the Stone Buddha Temple! Everyone to the Stone Buddha Temple!" The refugees surged forward.
Wang could see the way was impassible. He decided there was nothing for it but to go to the Stone Buddha Temple and seek refuge there. When he arrived, the temple gate was already tightly shut, but the guard recognized him and let him in. Outside, the refugees had already surrounded the temple. Someone in the crowd shouted: "All the relief cash and food issued by the court have been swallowed by the dog officials. Hand out the cash and food! Hand out the cash and food!"
The mass of the refugees took up the chant and their roar rattled the roof tiles.
Wang shook uncontrollably. "Rebels!" he bellowed. "Rebels!"
For a military official, Commander Sun was quite brave. He ordered his soldiers to place a ladder next to the wall and climbed up on top.
"Those of you who are peaceful citizens, leave the city quickly and do not put faith in rumours," he shouted. "If you do not leave, we will be forced to fire on you with arrows."
The two officers led a group of archers onto the top of the wall and a roar of defiance went up from the crowd.
"Fire!" shouted Sun. A wave of arrows shot out and a dozen or more refugees fell to the ground. The crowd turned and fled in panic and the cries of women and children could be heard as the refugees trampled each other.
Sun laughed out loud. But before the laugh ended, someone in the crowd threw two stones at him, one of which hit his cheek. He felt a sharp pain and rubbed the spot only to find his hand covered in blood.
"Fire! Fire!" he ordered in a great rage. The archers shot out another wave of arrows and another dozen refugees were hit.
Suddenly, two tall, thin men leapt up onto the wall, grabbed several of the archers and threw them to the ground. Incensed by the way they had been fired on, the refugees surged back and began beating the archers viciously.
The Red Flower Society heroes in the crowd were greatly surprised by the sudden re-appearance of the Twin Knights. More of them jumped up onto the wall and into the temple courtyard, and a moment later, the temple gates opened and 'Crocodile' Jiang ran out.
"Everyone come and get some food," he shouted, beckoning to the refugees. But the soldiers were many and the refugees did not dare to press in too close. Commander Sun's great sword danced as he fought desperately along the top of the wall, retreating steadily. Suddenly, his arms went numb, and his sword clattered to the ground at the foot of the wall. Someone forced his hands behind his back, and he felt an icy coldness on his neck.
"You Turtle!" the man behind him shouted. "Order the troops to throw down their weapons and retreat inside the temple!"
Sun hesitated for a second and he felt a sharp pain on his neck as the man lightly moved his sword, breaking through a layer of skin. Not daring to disobey further, Sun shouted out the order. Seeing their commanding officer had been captured, the soldiers did as they were ordered and retired inside the temple as the refugees roared their approval.
Great Helmsman Chen walked into the main hall of the temple and saw the altar piled high with bags of food and cash. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi pulled County Magistrate Wang in for Chen to dispose of.
"Are you in charge of this county?" Chen asked.
"Y-yes...your Majesty," Wang replied in a quavering voice.
Chen laughed. "Do I look like a king?" he asked.
"I deserved to die. I spoke incorrectly. What is your honourable name, sir?"
Chen smiled slightly and ignored the question. "Since you are an official, you must have some scholarship in you," he said. "I will give you the first line of a couplet for you to match." He lightly waved his fan. "If you are able to match it, your life will be spared. If you cannot, then I will not be so polite."
The refugees gathered round, forming a circle of thousands of eyes all focussed on Wang's face.
"Now listen," said Chen. "The first line is: 'How long must we live for the Yellow River to be clear of mud? Rather ask if officialdom can be cleared of corruption.'"
Wang's face was covered in sweat. He was a competent scholar, but in the midst of his fear, he could think of nothing.
"Sir," he finally said. "Your first line is too difficult. I...I cannot match it."
"That's all right," Chen replied. "Let me ask you plainly. Which would be easier: to clear up the Yellow River or officialdom?"
Wang suddenly had an idea. "I consider that if all officialdom were clear, then the Yellow River would be clear too," he said.
Chen laughed. "Well said. I shall spare your life. Call together your guards and distribute the money and food to the refugees. Oh, and Commander Sun, you can help too."
The refugees cheered thunderously for the Red Flower Society heroes. As they filed past to collect the food and money, they jeered and laughed at Sun and Wang, who pretended not to notice.
"Brothers and sisters, listen!" Chen called out. "If the authorities should send people to investigate, you can say it was the Commander and County Magistrate who personally made the distribution."
The refugees shouted their approval.
The heroes supervised the operation late into the night until all the food and cash had been distributed.
"Brothers!" Xu then shouted to the refugees. "Take the soldiers' weapons and hide them in your homes. If the dog officials know what's good for them, they'll leave you alone, but if they should come after you, you can fight them."
Strong men came forward and collected up the swords and spears that had been discarded by the soldiers.
Chen walked out of the temple with Commander Sun and the other heroes as the refugees roared their thanks. They mounted their horses and rode out of the city. After travelling a few miles, Chen pushed Sun off his horse.
"Commander, thank you for your help," he said. "The next time you escort provisions, be sure to write to me." He laughed and saluted, then galloped off in a cloud of dust with the other heroes.
"Do you have any news of Fourth Brother?" Chen asked the Twin Knights after they had ridden on a little way.
"We found a message left by Brother Yu which said he was being taken to Hangzhou," one of them replied.
Chen was greatly surprised. "Why is he being sent to Hangzhou and not Beijing?" he asked. "I thought the Emperor wanted to question him personally."
"We thought it strange too. But Brother Yu always handles things very carefully. It's certain to be reliable information."
Chen told the others to dismount, and they sat round in a circle and discussed the situation.
"Since Brother Wen is being sent to Hangzhou, we should head south and try to work out some way of saving him," Xu said. "Hangzhou is our territory. The power of the court is not as great there as in Beijing, so it should be easier to rescue him. But we should still send someone to Beijing to see if there is any news, just in case."
The others agreed. Chen looked over at Shi. "I wonder if I can trouble you to go once more, Twelfth Brother," he said.
"All right," Shi replied. He headed off northwards alone towards Beijing while the other heroes rode south.
Chen enquired further of the Twin Knights about Yu's movements, but they said they had no further information. They had returned to report as soon as they had seen the markings. Passing through Lanfeng, they had come across the refugees and met up with the other heroes.
"With the provisions gone, Sister Huo Qingtong and her people should have no trouble beating the Great Army," Zhou Qi said.
"That girl's sword style wasn't bad, and she was a nice person too," added Priest Wu Chen. "She deserves our help. I hope she does beat them. It would be something everyone could rejoice at."