** 1 **
Many hours later, they heard shouting in the distance. The sound of galloping hooves and clashing swords increased in volume until they heard a man near the pit shout: "Daughter! Master Chen! Where are you?"
"Father! Father! We're here!" Princess Fragrance called.
The heroes leapt out of the pit and saw Muzhuolun, sabre in hand, galloping towards them with a ragged bunch of Muslim soldiers behind, fighting bravely. Princess Fragrance ran to him crying "Father! Father!"
Muzhuolun took her in his arms. "Don't be afraid," he said soothingly. "I have come to save you."
Xu jumped onto the back of a horse to get a better view of the situation. He saw a great cloud of dust rising to the east and knew the Manchu armoured cavalry were coming.
"Master Muzhuolun!" he called. "Let's retreat to that high ground to the west!" Muzhuolun immediately ordered his troops to comply. They started out from the pit with the Manchus close behind, and as they reached the hill, saw another force of Manchu troops moving in from the west.
"Huo Qingtong was right," Muzhuolun thought glumly. "I should not have accused her like that. She must be feeling very bad."
They threw up temporary defences on the hilltop and settled down to wait for an opportunity to escape. With the Muslims firmly established on high ground, the Manchus did not dare, for the moment, to attack.
She then turned to the commander of the White Flag's first unit. "I want you to lure the Manchu forces westwards. If your troops clash with the enemy, they are not allowed to win the engagement, but must continue to flee into the desert, the further the better. Take our four thousand head of cattle and goats with you and leave them along the road for them to seize."
"Why should we give them our livestock? I won't do it!"
Huo Qingtong's lips tightened. "Do you refuse to follow my orders?" she asked quietly.
The commander brandished his sabre. "If you tell me to win a battle. I will follow your orders. If you tell me to lose a battle, I would rather die then comply!"
"Seize him!" Huo Qingtong commanded. Four guards ran forward and grabbed the commander's arms. "The Manchu forces are oppressing us and to beat them, we must work together with one heart. Will you or will you not follow my orders?"
"No! What are you going to do about it?"
"Execute him!" she commanded, and the officer's face turned pale. The guards pushed him out of the tent and sliced off his head with one sword stroke as the other commanders quivered with fear.
Huo Qingtong promoted the assistant commander to take the dead officer's place and told him to retreat westwards before the Manchu forces until he saw smoke rising from the east, then to return as quickly as possible, avoiding battle with the Manchus. She ordered the other units to gather beside the Great Quagmire to the east.
Her work complete, she mounted her horse and drew her sword. "The first and second units of the Black Flag, follow me," she shouted.
Sometime after noon, there was a movement in the Manchu lines, and a column of mounted Muslim soldiers charged through towards them. Amidst the flying snow flakes, they spotted Huo Qingtong at its head.
"Charge!" shouted Muzhuolun, and led his men down the hill to meet her. Princess Fragrance galloped over to her sister and embraced her.
Huo Qingtong took her hand and shouted: "Commander of the Black Flag Third Unit: lead your men west until you meet up with the first unit of the White Flag and follow the orders of its commander."
The officer and his troops galloped off, and a column of Manchu cavalry broke from the main force and chased after them.
"Excellent!" exclaimed Huo Qingtong. "Commander of the Black Flag First Unit: retreat with your men towards Yarkand and follow the orders of my brother. Commander of the Second Unit, you retreat towards the Black River." The two units broke out of the encirclement, and disappeared into the distance pursued by two more columns of Manchu cavalry.
"Everyone else head eastwards!" Huo Qingtong ordered, and the remaining Muslim soldiers along with the Red Flower Society fighters galloped through the circle of Manchu troops and away.
The Manchu cavalry, under the command of Zhao Wei closed in on the fleeing Muslims and cut off several hundred of them. All were slaughtered. Zhao Wei was delighted. He pointed to the huge Crescent Moon banner near Huo Qingtong and shouted: "Whoever seizes that banner gets a reward!" The cavalrymen surged forward, galloping madly across the desert.
The Muslims were riding good horses and the Manchu cavalry had difficulty keeping up with them. But after ten or fifteen miles, some of the Muslim fighters began to fall behind and were killed by the Manchu troops. Zhao Wei saw they were all either old men or boys, and exclaimed: "Their leader has no crack troops with him. After them!" They galloped on for another two or three miles and saw the Muslim force dispersing, apparently in confusion. Fluttering on the top of a large sand dune ahead was the crescent banner.
Zhao Wei flourished his sword and led the charge towards the dune with his bodyguards behind. But as he reached the top and looked out beyond, he was almost frightened out of his wits. To the north and south, were rank after orderly rank of Muslim warriors, waiting silently. The Manchu force had originally been several times larger than the Muslim force, but so many units had been sent out in pursuit of the breakaway Muslim columns that only ten thousand armoured cavalry now faced the concentrated might of the Muslim army. Two more Muslim columns appeared behind them, and with enemy troops to the north, south and west, Zhao Wei shouted: "Everyone forward! Eastwards!" The Manchu forces surged forward as the Muslim fighters gradually closed in on them.
Suddenly, there was a chorus of cries from the cavalry unit in the lead. A soldier rode up to Zhao Wei and said: "General! We're finished! There's quicksand ahead!" He could see a thousand cavalrymen and their horses already flailing about as they sank into the soft mud.
Chen and the others stood on a sand dune and watched as the Manchu troops fell into the quagmire. The soldiers behind tried to escape, but the Muslims pressed relentlessly in, forcing them into the mud. The air was filled with the screams of the hapless Manchu soldiers, but the mud crept up their legs, and when it reached their mouths, the noise ceased. The dwindling numbers of Manchu troops fought desperately, but in less than an hour, the whole army had been forced into the quagmire. Only Zhao Wei and a hundred or so guards managed to escape after carving a path of blood through the Muslim ranks.
"Everyone head westwards and gather on the south bank of the Black River," Huo Qingtong ordered. The entire force of more than ten thousand troops galloped off.
As they rode, Chen and Muzhuolun discussed what had happened since they parted. Muzhuolun's heart was uneasy. He loved his two daughters more than anything in the world, and they had both fallen in love with the same Chinese man. According to Islamic law, a man could marry four wives, but Chen was not a believer, and he had heard that Chinese had only one wife while the second and subsequent women were not considered real wives. He wondered how the matter could be resolved. "Wait until the Manchus have been beaten," he thought. "One daughter is wise and the other kind. A way will be found."
The great Muslim column arrived at the south bank of the Black River towards evening. A soldier galloped up and breathlessly reported: "The Manchus are attacking hard. The commander of the Green Flag Second Unit is dead, and the commander of the Black Flag Second Unit is badly wounded. Losses are heavy."
"Tell the deputy commander of the Green Flag second unit to take over. He is not to retreat one step," Huo Qingtong ordered. The soldier galloped off again.
"Let's go and reinforce them!" Muzhuolun suggested.
"No!" she replied and turned to her personal guards. "The whole army will rest here. No one is allowed to light a fire or make a sound. Everyone will eat dry rations." The order was transmitted, and the soldiers settled down silently in the darkness. Far off, they could hear the waters of the Black River and the cries and shouts of Manchu and Muslim fighters.
Another soldier galloped frantically up. "The Green Flag Second Unit's deputy commander has also been killed," he reported. "We can't hold them back much longer!"
Huo Qingtong turned to the commmander of the Green Flag Third Unit. "Go and reinforce them," she said. "You will be in command." He raised his sabre in salute and led his unit away. Soon after, the sound of battle rose to a roar.
"The Green Flag units will lie in ambush behind the sand dunes to the east. The White Flag and Mongol units will lie in ambush to the west," Huo Qingtong ordered. "The rest, come with me."
She rode off towards the Black River, and as they approached it, the metallic ring of weapons clashing became deafening. In the torchlight, they saw the Muslim fighters bravely defending the wooden bridge across the river in the face of ferocious assaults by the best Manchu cavalry.
"Give way!" Huo Qingtong shouted, and the fighters on the bridge retreated, leaving a gap through which several thousand Manchu mounted troops swarmed like bees. When about half of the Manchu troops had crossed, she shouted: "Pull away the bridge!"
The Muslims had earlier loosened the beams of the bridge and used long ropes to tie them to horses on the river bank below. The horses strained forward, a series of loud cracks rent the air, and the bridge collapsed, throwing hundreds of Manchu soldiers into the river. The Manchu army was thus cut in two by the river, with neither side able to assist the other.
At the order from Huo Qingtong, the mass of the Muslim army, hiding behind the sand dunes, emerged and overwhelmed the Manchu troops on the near bank. In a short time, they were all dead, and the Manchu force on the other side of the river were so frightened by the sight of the slaughter that they turned and fled towards Yarkand city.
"Across the river and after them!" shouted Huo Qingtong. A make-shift bridge was swiftly constructed with the remains of the former structure and the Muslim army charged off towards Yarkand.
The citizens of Yarkand had long since evacuated their city. Huo Qingtong's brother, on her instructions, had resisted perfunctorily when the Manchus attacked, then led his troops in retreat from the city. Soon after, the Manchu forces fleeing from the banks of the Black River arrived along with General Zhao Wei and his hundred-odd battered bodyguards. The walled city was now full of Manchu soldiers.
Just as Zhao Wei was about to go to bed, he received a report that several hundred troops who had drank water from wells in the city had died of poisoning. He sent a unit to collect some uncontaminated water from outside. Then the sky turned red. All over the city, fires were lit by a small number of Muslim soldiers left behind, and the city turned into a huge oven.
Under the protection of his bodyguard, Zhao Wei fought his way through the flames and smoke towards the west gate as the rest of the Manchu soldiers trampled each other in their haste to escape. The bodyguards slashed at them with their swords, forcing them to make way for their general. But when they got to the west gate, they found it had been blocked by the Muslims. The fires were burning even more ferociously, and the streets were filled with frenzied mobs of soldiers and horses. Through the confusion, a small group of riders appeared shouting: "Where is the General?"
"Here!" Zhao Wei's bodyguards shouted back.
"There are fewer enemy troops at the east gate," replied one of the riders. "We can force our way out there."
Even in such danger, Zhao Wei remained calm and led his troops in the attack on the east gate. The Muslims fired wave after wave of arrows at them, and several attempts to break out failed with heavy losses. But at the critical moment, Zhang Zhaozhong led a troop of Manchu soldiers in an attack from outside the city and managed to snatch Zhao Wei away to safety.
Many thousands of Manchu soldiers had already been burned to death, and the stench was sickening. The whole city was filled with cries and screams. Huo Qingtong and the others watched from a piece of high ground.
"It's terrible! Terrible!" cried Muzhuolun. Huo Qingtong sent more troops down to help blockade the east gate of the city. With Zhao Wei gone, the Manchu soldiers left inside were leaderless. They raced frantically about, but with the four gates blocked by the Muslims, they all died in the monster furnace.
"Light the signal fires!" Huo Qingtong ordered, and piles of wolf droppings that had been prepared were put to the torch, sending a huge column of black smoke up to the heavens. (The smoke from burning wolf's dropping is the thickest and blackest of all.) A short while later, a similar column of smoke arose five or so miles to the west.
The Muslims had won three victories and wiped out more than thirty thousand of the best Manchu troops. The warriors embraced each other and sang and danced around the Yarkand city wall.
Huo Qingtong called her officers together. "We will camp out here tonight," she said. "Each man must start ten fires and must spread them out as much as possible."
"Mistress Huo Qingtong has won!" The Muslim commander shouted. "Turn back east!" The warriors' spirits soared and they reined their horses round. Seeing them turning, the Manchu troops were perplexed and charged forward to attack, but the Muslims swung round them at a distance, the Manchus following.
The Muslim units galloped through the night, the Manchus always in sight. The Manchu commander wanted to gain great merit for himself, and many of his cavalry horses died of exhaustion. Towards midnight, they came across General Zhao Wei riding in front of about three thousand wounded. Zhao Wei's hope rose slightly as he saw the Manchu column approach.
"After their success, the enemy will be in a state of unpreparedness," he thought. "So if we attack now, we will be able to turn defeat into victory." He ordered the troops to advance towards the Black River, and after ten miles or so, scouts reported that the Muslim army was camped ahead. Zhao Wei led his commanders onto a rise to view the scene and a chill shook each of them to the bottom of their hearts.
The entire plain was covered in camp fires, stretching seemingly endlessly before them. They heard from far off the shouts of men and the neighing of horses, and they wondered how many warriors the Muslims had mustered. Zhao Wei was silent.
"With such a huge army against us, no wonder...no wonder we have encountered some set-backs," one of the senior military officials, Commander Herda, said.
Zhao Wei turned to the others. "All units are to mount up and retreat south," he ordered. "No-one is to make a sound."
The order was received badly by the troops who had hoped to stop at least long enough for a meal.
"According to the guides, the road south passes the foot of Yingqipan Mountain and is very dangerous after heavy snows," Herda pointed out.
"The enemy's forces are so powerful, we have no choice but to head southeast and try to meet up with General Fu De," Zhao Wei replied.
The remnants of the great army headed south, and found the road becoming more and more treacherous as they went. To the left was the Black River, to the right, the Yingqipan Mountain. The night sky was cloudy and ink-black, and the only light was a faint glow reflecting off the snow further up the mountain slope.
Zhao Wei issued a further order: "Whoever makes a sound will be immediately executed." Most of the soldiers came from Northeast China and knew that any noise could shake loose the heavy snow above them and cause an avalanche that would kill them all. They all dismounted and led their horses along with extreme care, many walking on tip-toe. Three or four miles further on, the road became very steep, but as luck would have it, the sky was by now growing light. The Manchu troops had been fighting and running for a whole day and a night, and there was a deathly expression on the face of each one.
Suddenly, there was a shout from a scout and several hundred Muslim warriors appeared on the road ahead standing behind a number of primitive cannons. Scared out of their wits, the Manchu troops were thrown into confusion and many turned and fled just as the cannons went off with a roar, spraying iron shards and nails into them, instantly killing more than two hundred.
As the boom of the cannon faded, Zhao Wei heard a faint rustling noise, and felt a coldness on his neck as a small amount of snow fell inside his collar. He looked up the mountain side and saw the snow fields above them slowly beginning to move.
"General!" Herda shouted. "We must escape!"
Zhao Wei reined his horse round and started galloping back the way they had come. His bodyguards slashed and hacked at the soldiers in their path, frantically pushing them off the road into the river below as the rumble of the approaching snow avalanche grew louder and louder. Suddenly, tons of snow intermingled with rocks and mud surged down onto the road with a deafening roar that shook the heavens.
Zhao Wei, with Herda on one side and Zhang Zhaozhong on the other, escaped the catastrophe. They galloped on for more than a mile before daring to stop. When they did look back, they saw the several thousand troops had been buried by snow drifts more than a hundred feet thick. The road ahead was also covered in deep snow. Surrounded by such danger and having lost an entire army of forty thousand men in one day, Zhao Wei burst into tears.
"General, let us go up the mountain slope," said Zhang. He picked up Zhao Wei and raced off up the slope with Herda following along behind.
Huo Qingtong, watching from a distant crest, shouted: "Someone's trying to escape! Catch them quickly!" Several dozen Muslims ran off to intercept them. When they saw the three were wearing the uniforms of officials, they rubbed their hands in delight, determined to catch them alive. Zhang silently increased his pace. Despite the weight of Zhao Wei, he seemed to fly across the treacherously slippery slope. Herda could not keep up with him and was cut off by the Muslims and captured after a spirited fight. Apart from Zhao Wei and Zhang, only a few dozen of the Manchu troops survived the avalanche.
Huo Qingtong led the Muslim warriors back to their camp, along with the prisoners. By now, the Muslims had taken the main Manchu camp, thereby acquiring huge supplies of food and weapons. The Four Tigers were among those taken prisoner after being found bound and gagged inside a tent. Chen asked them why they had been put there, and the eldest of the four giants replied: "Because we helped you. General Zhao said he would have us killed after the battle." Chen pleaded before Huo Qingtong to allow the four to go free, and she agreed.
"Because we believe in Islam," the soldier replied. "If the body is buried upright, then the spirit will ascend to the heavenly kingdom. They face west because that is the direction of sacred Mecca."
When the burials were finished, Muzhuolun led the entire army in prayer to thank Allah for helping them achieve such a great victory. Then a great cheer went up from the ranks and the commanders of all the units went before Huo Qingtong and presented their sabres to her in respect.
"Inflicting such a crushing defeat on the Manchus also does us a great service," 'Leopard' Wei remarked to Xu, but Xu was deep in thought.
"The Emperor made a pact with us, yet he didn't withdraw his forces," he said. "Could it be that he intentionally sent his troops into the desert to be destroyed?"
"I have no faith in this Emperor," said Wen. "How could he know Mistress Huo Qingtong would win so decisively? What's more, I doubt if he sent Zhang Zhaozhong out here for any good purpose."
As the heroes talked, they noticed Chen gazing at Huo Qingtong in concern. She was seated to one side, her face as white as a sheet, with a wild look in her eyes. Luo Bing went over to talk to her and as Huo Qingtong stood up to greet her, she swayed unsteadily. Luo Bing caught hold of her.
"Sister, what's wrong?" she asked. Huo Qingtong said nothing, but fought to control her breathing. Princess Fragrance, Muzhuolun, Chen and the others ran over. Princess Fragrance led her into a tent and laid her down on a carpet.
Muzhuolun knew his daughter was exhausted after the battle which she had both directed and taken part in alongside the other warriors. She had also had to bear the suspicions of her own commanders. But he was afraid that the thing affecting her most was the relationship between Chen and her sister. Unable to think of anything to say to comfort her, he sighed and left the tent. He went for a walk round the camp, and from all sides heard nothing but praise for Huo Qingtong's brilliant strategy.
That night, he slept badly, worrying about his daughter. Early the next day before the sky was light, he went over to her tent to see how she was, but found her tent was empty. He hurriedly asked the guard outside what had happened to her.
"Mistress Huo Qingtong left about two hours ago," the guard replied.
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know, Lord. She told me to give you this letter." Muzhuolun grabbed it and tore it open. Inside, in Huo Qingtong's delicate hand, was written:
"Father, the war is now over. All that is necessary is to tighten the encirclement and the remaining Manchu soldiers will be annhilated in a few days, (signed) your daughter."
"Which direction did she go?" he asked. The guard pointed east.
Muzhuolun found a horse and galloped off immediately in pursuit. He rode for an hour into the depths of the flat desert where it was possible to see several miles in all directions, but found no sign of any living being. Afraid that she may have changed direction, he decided the only thing to do was to return to the camp. Half way back, he met Princess Fragrance, Chen and the other heroes who were all anxious about her safety. Once back in camp, Muzhuolun sent units out to the north, south, east and west to search. By evening, three units had returned without finding anything, while the fourth brought back a young Chinese youth dressed in black clothes.
'Scholar' Yu stared at the youth in shock: it was Li Yuanzhi dressed as usual in boy's clothes.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, hurrying up to meet her.
"I came to find you, and happened to run into them," she replied, very happy to see him again.
Princess Fragrance was frantic with worry about her lost sister. "What can have happened to her?" she asked Chen. "What can we do?"
"I will go and find her," he replied. "Come what may, I`ll convince her to come back."
"I'll go with you," she said at once.
Chen nodded. "All right. Go and ask your father."
"You all do just as you like anyway," Muzhuolun replied angrily, stamping his foot. Princess Fragrance looked up at her father and saw how bloodshot his eyes were. She took his hand and squeezed it.
Yuanzhi ignored the others, and bombarded Yu with questions about what had happened to him since they had parted.
"That's the boy your sister likes," Chen said to Princess Fragrance, pointing at Yuanzhi. "He will certainly be able to convince her to come back."
"Really? Why has she never told me? She's too horrible!" the Princess replied. She walked over towards Yuanzhi to get a closer look. Muzhuolun, who was equally curious, did the same.
Yuanzhi had met Muzhuolun previously and she bowed before him in greeting. Then she saw Princess Fragrance and was immediately struck speechless by her extraordinary beauty. Princess Fragrance smiled at Chen and said: "Tell this gentleman that we are very pleased to see him, and ask him to come with us to help find my sister."
Only now did Chen greet Yuanzhi. "Why are you here, Brother?" he asked. "How have you been since we last met?"
Yuanzhi blushed and laughed. She glanced at Yu, wanting him to explain.
"Great Helmsman, this is Master Lu's pupil," Yu said.
"I know, we've met several times."
Yu smiled. "She is therefore my martial sister."
"What?" Chen exclaimed in surprise.
"She likes wearing boy's clothes when she travels."
Chen looked closely at Yuanzhi and noticed for the first time how delicate her eyebrows were, and how small her mouth, not at all like a man's. Because of the relationship with Huo Qingtong, Chen had never looked closely at her before, but now he stared in shock.
"I was completely wrong about Mistress Huo Qingtong," he thought. "She told me to go and ask Master Lu about his pupil and I never did. Could she have left the camp because of me? And then there's her sister who loves me deeply."
Luo Bing could see how Yuanzhi felt towards Yu and she hoped that with such a beautiful girl in love with him, he could release himself from the self-torture of his adoration of herself. But he looked as desolate and unhappy as ever.
"Where is Sister Huo Qingtong?" Yuanzhi asked. "I have something important to tell her."
"She's gone. We're looking for her now," Luo Bing replied.
"She went out by herself?"
Luo Bing nodded.
"Where did she go?" Yuanzhi asked urgently.
"She left the camp heading east, but whether or not she changed direction, we don't know."
"Oh, no!" Yuanzhi exclaimed, stamping her foot. They asked her what was wrong. "The Three Guandong Devils are looking for Sister Huo Qingtong to get their revenge on her. You know that already. But I met them on the road. They're behind me. If she is heading east, she might run into them."
"We don't have a moment to lose," said Chen. "I will go and find her."
"Don't underestimate the Three Devils," Xu warned. "It would be better if several of us went. Great Helmsman Chen should go first with Princess Fragrance. Mistress Li, you also know her, but it would be too dangerous for you to go alone. Perhaps Brother Yu could go with you. My wife and I can go and search too, while the others remain here at the camp to watch for Zhang Zhaozhong."
"Fine!" said Chen. He borrowed Luo Bing's white horse and he and Princess Frangrance galloped off with the others not far behind.
At about noon that day, Wen and the other heroes were chatting with Muzhuolun in his tent when a guard rushed in to report that the Manchu general Herda had escaped and the four soldiers guarding him had been killed. They hurried over, and found a dagger stuck in the chest of one of the dead soldiers with a note attached to it which read: "To the heroes of the Red Flower Society from Zhang Zhaozhong".
Wen angrily screwed the piece of paper up into a ball. "Master Muzhuolun," he said. "You maintain the encirclement of the Manchus, and we'll go and find this traitor Zhang Zhaozhong." Muzhuolun nodded, and Wen led the other heroes off into the desert, following the tracks of the Manchu horses.
She set up her tent and slept for several hours. In the middle of the night she was awakened by the sound of three horses approaching from the east. As they neared the sand dune, they slowed and headed for the same patch of dry grass that had attracted her mount. The horses were unwilling to continue, so the three riders dismounted to rest. They did not see Huo Qingtong's tent, which was on the other side of the dune. She heard them talking Chinese, but she was still sleepy and did not bother to listen closely. Suddenly, however, she heard one of the men say: "That damned bitch! If I don't skin her alive and rip out all her tendons, then my name isn't Gu."
"Brother Yan's kungfu was excellent," said another. "I don't believe that a girl could kill him without using some sort of trickery."
"Well, of course," added a third. "As I said, we have to be very careful. There are a lot of Muslims around."
Huo Qingtong realised in astonishment that they were the Guandong Devils and that they were talking about her.
"There's not much water left in the satchel and we don't know how many more days we have to go before we find water again," one of them said. "From tomorrow, we'll have to drink even less." Soon afterwards, they went to sleep.
Huo Qingtong was uncertain of what to do. The desert was flat and empty for miles in every direction, so there was no way she could escape if they found her, especially as she was still sick. After some thought, she decided the safest course would be to reveal herself, and find some way to lead the three to her teacher's home.
Early next morning, the Guandong Devils woke to find Huo Qingtong standing in front of them. She examined them carefully. One was a tall man who looked like a member of the gentry. The second had a thick black beard, while the third was wearing Mongol clothes.
"Mistress, do you have any water to spare?" the first man, Tang, asked her, pulling out a silver ingot as he spoke. Huo Qingtong shook her head to indicate she did not understand Chinese. The Mongol, who was named Hahetai, repeated the request in Mongolian and she replied in the same tongue: "I cannot give you any of my water. The Yellow-Robed Lady, Mistress Huo Qingtong, sent me on an important errand and I am now returning to report." She quickly dismantled her tent and mounted her horse. Hahetai ran forward and grabbed hold of her horse's reins.
"Where is she?" he asked.
"Why do you want to know?"
"We are her friends. There is urgent news we have to pass on to her."
Huo Qingtong pouted. "That's an outright lie! She is at Precious Mountain, but you are heading west. Don't try to cheat me!"
Hahetai turned to the other two and said: "She's on her way to see the damned bitch now."
With her unhealthy appearance and the way she wheezed as she spoke, she did not look at all like someone who knew kung fu. So not suspecting her in the slightest, the Devils took advantage of what they took to be her ignorance of Chinese and loudly discussed how they would kill her when they reached Precious Mountain, and then go to find Huo Qingtong. The bearded man, Gu, could see that she was very beautiful despite her haggard look, and his lust began to stir.
Huo Qingtong noticed him constantly staring at her covetously, and knew that even though they had not recognised her, travelling alone for four or five days with these three Devils was too dangerous. She ripped a strip of material off her jacket and tied it round the leg of one of her two eagles then threw the bird up into the air. It spread its wings and flew off towards the horizon.
"What are you doing?" Tang demanded suspiciously. Huo Qingtong shook her head, and Hahetai translated what he had said into Mongolian.
"There are no more water springs for another seven or eight days. You've got so little water, how could it be enough? I'm letting the eagles go so they can go and find water themselves." As she spoke, she released the second eagle.
"Two eagles wouldn't drink very much water," Tang replied.
"When you're dying of thirst, even a drop may be enough to save your life." Afraid they would try to harm her, she had exaggerated the distance to the next water.
Hahetai mumbled oaths. "Even in the deserts of Mongolia, you would never have to travel for seven or eight days without water. This is a cursed region!"
They camped that night in the middle of the desert. Huo Qingtong could see Gu's gaze constantly sweeping over her and became very worried. She went into her tent, drew her sword, and sat down beside the tent entrance, not daring to sleep. Towards midnight, she heard someone tiptoeing over. Suddenly, the tent flap opened and Gu crept inside. He began feeling about in the darkness for her, and an instant later, felt an icy coldness on his neck as a sharp blade gently touched it.
"If you so much as twitch, I will run it through you," Huo Qingtong whispered. "Lie on the ground!" He immediately complied. She placed the tip of the sword on his back, then sat down and wondered what she should do.
"If I kill him, the other two won't let me get away with it," she thought. "It's probably best to wait for my teacher to get here."
A couple of hours later, Tang woke and noticed Gu was missing. He jumped up and began shouting "Brother Gu! Brother Gu!"
"Answer him quickly," Huo Qingtong whispered fiercely. "Tell him you're here."
"It's all right, Brother, I'm here!" he shouted back, well aware that he had no choice.
Tang laughed. "You horny old thief! You'll never change."
The next morning, Huo Qingtong waited until the other two were up before letting Gu out.
"Brother Gu," Hahetai berated him as he emerged. "We have come to seek revenge not to make trouble." Gu's teeth were almost chattering with hate but he didn't tell them what had happened. If he did, the shame of it would follow him for the rest of his life. But he decided that he would have the girl the following night and then kill her.
At about midnight, Gu advanced on Huo Qingtong's tent again, a spear in one hand and a torch in the other. As he entered, he saw her crouching in the far corner and lunged at her triumphantly. But suddenly he felt something cut into his legs as a rope noose hidden on the ground caught him. Huo Qingting gave it a tug and he overbalanced and fell heavily.
"Don't move!" she hissed, and placed the tip of her sword against his stomach. She didn't think she could not stand another night like the previous one, but killing Gu was not enough. She had to finish off all three.
"Tell your elder brother to come over here," she whispered. Gu guessed what she was planning and remained silent. She increased the pressure so that the sword cut through his clothes and the top layer of skin. Gu knew a sword in the stomach was the most painful way to die. "He won't come," he whispered back.
"All right, then I'll kill you first," she replied, and the sword moved again.
"Elder Brother! Come here! Come quickly!" Gu called frantically.
"Laugh," Huo Qingtong ordered. Gu frowned and uttered several dry laughs.
"Laugh more happily!"
He silently cursed her, but with the sword already inside his flesh, he forced out a loud hysterical laugh. Tang and Hahetai had already been awakened by the racket.
"Stop playing around, Brother, and conserve some of your strength," Tang yelled.
Huo Qingtong could see he wouldn't come. "Call the other one," she hissed, and Gu shouted out again. Although he was a bandit, Hahetai did not take advantage of women, and he was very unhappy with Gu's behaviour. But he was his sworn brother, so he just pretended not to hear.
"If I don't kill these three, it is going to be difficult to free myself of today's shame," she thought. Holding the sword in her right hand, she wound the rope round and round Gu until he could not move. Only then did she relax. She leant against the side of the tent, but did not dare to fall asleep.
The next morning, as it grew light, she saw that Gu was fast asleep and angrily whipped him awake with her horse's whip. She placed the tip of her sword on his heart and said: "If you so much as grunt, I will skewer you!" She wondered again whether she should kill him, but decided that it would immediately bring disaster down on her head. She estimated her teacher should reach them by that afternoon anyway, so after untying the rope, she pushed Gu out of the tent.
Tang looked at the bloody welts on his face suspiciously. "Who is this girl?" he asked in a low voice. "What's she up to?"
Gu glanced meaningfully at him. "Let's grab her," he said. The two men started to walk slowly towards her, but she saw them coming and ran over to the horses. She pulled out her sword and punctured Gu's and Hahetai's water bags, then grabbed the largest of Tang's water bags and jumped onto her own horse. The Three Devils stood watching dumbly for a second as the precious water drained out of the two water bags and was instantly swallowed by the sand, then charged at her angrily.
She lay along the horse's back breathing heavily. "If you come a step closer, I'll slash this bag too," she wheezed. The Three Devils stopped.
"I agreed to take you to see Mistress Huo Qingtong and in return you bully me," she added when she had recovered slightly. "From here to the next water is six days travelling. If you don't leave me alone, I'll slash this bag too and we will all die of thirst."
"We won't harm you," protested Tang.
"Let's go," she ordered. "You three first." So they rode on across the desert, the three men in front, the girl behind.
By noon, the burning sun was riding high in the sky, and their lips and tongues were parched dry. Huo Qingtong began to see stars before her eyes and moments of faintness swept over her. She wondered if she was going to die.
"Hey! Give us some water!" she heard Hahetai shout. She shook herself awake.
"Take out a bowl and put it on the ground," she replied. Hahetai did as she said. "Now retreat one hundred paces." Gu hesitated suspiciously. "If you don't, you won't get any water," she added. They cursed her, but retreated. Huo Qingtong rode forward, undid the cap of the water bag and filled the bowl, then rode away again. The three men ran over to the bowl and took turns at gulping down the liquid.
They continued on their way, and about four hours later green grass began to appear beside the road. Tang's eyes lit up. "There must be water ahead!" he shouted. Huo Qingtong was worried. She tried to think of some course of action, but her head was splitting with pain. Suddenly, there was a long eagle's cry from above and she looked up to see a black shape swooping downwards. Overjoyed, she raised her arm and the eagle landed on her shoulder. She saw a piece of black material fastened to one of its legs and knew her teacher would arrive soon.
Tang could see something funny was going on, and with a wave of his hand sent a sleeve dart flying towards Huo Qingtong's right wrist, hoping to knock the sword from her grasp. But she blocked the dart with her sword and with a wave of the reins, galloped around them and into the lead. The Three Devils began shouting and chased after her. After two or three miles, her legs and arms were numb, and she could hold on no longer. The horse gave a jolt and she toppled to the ground.
The Three Devils spurred their horses on. Huo Qingtong struggled to get back onto the horse, but she was too weak. Then in a flash of inspiration, she slung the water bag's leather strap over the eagle's neck and threw the bird up into the air. Tang and the others forgot Huo Qingtong at the sight of their water bag being carried away and chased frantically after the eagle. The water bag was almost full of water and not light, so the eagle was not able to fly high or fast, and the three were able to keep up with it.
A few miles further on, the eagle glided downwards just as two riders appeared in a cloud of dust ahead of them. The eagle circled twice and landed on the shoulder of one of the riders. The Three Devils spurred their horses on and saw that one of the strangers was a bald, red-faced old man, and the other a white-haired old lady.
"Where's Huo Qingtong?" the old man barked, and the three stared at him in surprise. The old man removed the water bag from the eagle's neck and hurled the bird back into the air. He gave a harsh whistle and the bird answered with a squeak and headed back the way it had come. The old couple took no further notice of the Three Devils and galloped past them, chasing after the eagle. Tang saw the old man still had the water bag, and with a wave of his hand to the others, followed along behind.
The two old people were the Tianshan Twin Eagles, Bald Vulture and Madame Guan. After three or four miles, they saw the eagle glide downwards to where Huo Qingtong was lying on the ground. Madame Guan leapt off her horse and grabbed the girl up into her arms and began sobbing.
"Who has been treating you so badly?" she demanded, looking down at the girl's deathly appearance. Just then, the Three Devils rode up. Huo Qingtong pointed at them, then fainted away.
"Well, are you just going to sit there?" Madame Guan demanded angrily of her husband. Bald Vulture wheeled his horse round and charged at the three, and began fighting furiously with them.
Madame Guan slowly poured water into Huo Qingtong's mouth and the girl gradually regained consciousness. Only then did she look round to see how her husband was doing. He was struggling to keep the three at bay, and so she drew her sword and jumped into the melee. She struck out at Tang, who swung round to counter the stroke, but immediately found her style had changed. Amazed that this thin old woman could be such a formidable swordswoman, he concentrated completely on defence.
Huo Qingtong sat up and observed the Twin Eagles gradually gaining the upper hand. As she watched, she faintly heard a strange sound floating towards them on the wind from far off, a sound full of violence and dread, hunger and evil, as if hundreds of wild beasts were howling in unison.
"Teacher, listen!" she cried. The Twin Eagles disengaged themselves from the fight and cocked an ear to listen carefully. The Devils had been hard pressed to hold their own, and did not dare to attack the old couple.
The sound increased slightly in volume, and the Twin Eagles turned pale. Bald Vulture ran over to his horse and stood on its back.
"Come and look!" he shouted. "See if there's anywhere we can take cover."
Madame Guan picked Huo Qingtong up and placed her on her own horse, then vaulted up onto her husband's horse and stood on his shoulders.
The Three Devils looked at each other, absolutely baffled. Their attackers had broken off the fight when they had already won, and were now building human pyramids on a horse's back.
"What devilry are they up to?" Gu growled darkly. Tang had no idea what was happening and could only concentrate on being prepared for anything.
Madame Guan gazed about in all directions, and then shouted: "I think there are two big trees to the north!"
"Whether there are or not, let's go!" her husband replied. Madame Guan jumped over to Hua Qingtong's horse, and they galloped off north without taking any further notice of the Three Devils.
Hahetai noticed that in their hurry to get away, they had left the water bag behind, and bent down to pick it up. By now, the terrifying howling sound was becoming even louder. Gu's face turned grey. "It's a wolf pack!" he cried. The three leapt onto their horses and galloped after the Twin Eagles. Looking back, they saw large wild cats, camels, goats and horses racing for their lives before a grey tide of thousands of hungry wolves.
A few dozen yards ahead of the multitude was a rider, galloping along as if leading the way. In a flash, his powerful horse raced up and passed the Three Devils, who saw he was an old man. The rider turned to look back at them, and shouted: "Do you want to die? Faster!"
Tang's horse was scared out of its wits by the mass of animals bearing down upon them, and it stumbled and threw him. Tang leapt to his feet as a dozen wild cats rushed past him.
"I'm finished," he thought, and began screaming at the top of his voice. Gu and Hahetai heard his screams and turned and headed back to rescue him, the wolves bearing down upon them. A huge wolf, its snow-white teeth bared, charged at Tang, who drew his sword to defend himself even though he knew it was useless. Suddenly, there was the sound of horse's hooves behind, and the old man galloped up, grabbed Tang by his collar and threw his fat body towards Hahetai. Tang somersaulted through the air and landed in a sitting position on Hahetai's horse. The three riders pulled their horses round, and flew for their lives.
The Twin Eagles had lived in the desert many years and were well aware that even the most ferocious animal could not survive an encounter with the wolf pack. They galloped on, and as the two tall trees rose before them, thanked the Heavens that they had once again avoided ending up in a wolf's stomach. Once at the trees, Bald Vulture leapt up in to the branches of one, and Madame Guan handed Huo Qingtong up to him. The wolf pack was approaching fast. Madame Guan whipped the backs of their two horses and shouted: "Run for your lives! We cannot help you!" The two horses dashed away.
Just as the three of them had found somewhere to sit in the branches, they noticed the grey-gowned rider galloping along ahead of the wolf pack. As the rider passed by below, Bald Vulture embraced him with his free hand and lifted him up.
The old man was taken by surprise. His horse shot onwards, while he himself was left dangling in space, a host of animals passing under his feet. He performed a somersault, and landed on his feet on a branch further up the tree.
"What's wrong?" said Bald Vulture. "Don't tell you're afraid of wolves too, Master Yuan?"
"Who asked you to interfere?" the old man replied angrily.
"There's no need to be like that," Madame Guan interrupted him. "My husband just saved your life."
The old man laughed coldly. "Saved me? You've messed up everything!"
He was Great Helmsman Chen's teacher, Master Yuan. He and Madame Guan had grown up together in central China and had fallen in love. But they had argued constantly, and eventually Yuan left and spent more than ten years travelling in the Northern Deserts. There was no news of him, and Madame Guan presumed he would never come back. Eventually, she married Bald Vulture, but shortly after the wedding, Yuan unexpectedly returned home. Both Yuan and Madame Guan were heart-broken although they never spoke of the matter again. Bald Vulture was also very unhappy, and on several occasions went after Yuan to get revenge, but his kung fu was not good enough, and only Yuan's regard for Madame Guan's feelings kept her husband from being seriously hurt. So Bald Vulture took his wife and travelled far away into the Muslim regions. Yuan, however, could not forget her, and also moved to the Tianshan Mountains. He never visited them, but just living close to the woman he loved made him feel a little happier. Madame Guan did all she could to keep from seeing her former lover, but Bald Vulture would not let the matter drop, and the couple had fought and argued for decades since. All three were now old and white-haired, but a day did not pass when they did not think of the entanglement.
Bald Vulture was very pleased with himself for having saved Yuan. You have always had the upper hand, he thought, but perhaps you'll show gratitude towards me after this. Madame Guan, however, was puzzled by Yuan's anger.
"What do you mean, 'messed everything up'?" she asked. "Messed what up?"
"This wolf pack is growing bigger and bigger, and has become a real plague on the desert," Yuan replied. "Several Muslim villages have been completely wiped out already. The wolves eat people, animals, everything. So I prepared a trap and was just leading them to their deaths when you interfered."
Bald Vulture knew Yuan was telling the truth, and felt acutely embarrassed.
Yuan saw the apologetic expression on Madame Guan's face and brought his anger under control. "But you were doing what you thought was best," he added. "I thank you, anyway."
"What sort of trap is it?" asked Bald Vulture.
"Save them!" Yuan suddenly shouted, and jumped down from the tree into the midst of the wolves.
The Three Devils had already been overtaken by the wolves, and their horses had been ripped to shreds. The three of them were standing back-to-back fighting furiously, and although they had killed more than a dozen wolves, others continued to lunge at them. All three were already wounded in several places, and it looked as if they could not hold out for long. Yuan raced over, his hands flew out and smashed the skulls of two wolves. He picked Hahetai up and threw him up into the tree, shouting "Catch!", and Bald Vulture caught him. In the same way, Yuan threw Tang and Gu up, then killed another two wolves, grabbed one of the corpses by the neck and swung it round and round, opening up a path to the tree, then leapt up into the branches. The Three Devils, having been literally snatched from the jaws of death, showered him with thanks. They were astonished by the speed and strength he had displayed, and the way he made killing wolves seem as easy as catching rabbits.
Several hundred wolves circled the base of the tree, scratching at the trunk, raising their heads and howling. A short distance away, several dozen of the fleeing animals had been cut off and encircled by the wolves, who filled the air with their cries and howls. The animals leapt frantically about as the wolves tore and gnashed at them. It was a horrible sight. In only a moment, the animals had all been ripped apart and eaten. Those sitting up in the tree were all brave fighters, but it was the first time any of them had witnessed such a terrifying scene, and they were very frightened.
Bald Vulture eyed the Three Devils suspiciously.
"They are not good men," Huo Qingtong told him.
"All right, then," he replied. "They can go and feed the wolves." Just as he was about to push them off the tree, he looked down once more at the tragic scene below and hesitated just long enough for Tang to shout: "Let's go!" He leapt over to the other tree and Gu and Hahetai followed him.
Madame Guan looked at Huo Qingtong. "My dear, what do you say?" She wanted to know if the girl wanted them to chase after the three and kill them.
Huo Qingtong's heart softened. "Forget about it," she said.
"I am Huo Qingtong," she shouted to the Three Devils. "If you want to get your revenge on me, why don't you come over?" Tang and the others were astonished and infuriated by her words, but they did not dare to return to the other tree.
The wolf pack came fast, and left fast too. They swirled around the trees for a while, howling and barking, then chased off after the remaining wild animals.
Madame Guan told Huo Qingtong to pay her respects to Master Yuan. Seeing her sickly appearance, Yuan took two red pills from his bag and gave them to her, saying: "Take them. They're Snow Ginseng Pills." Snow Ginseng pills were made from the rarest medicinal herbs, and were well known for their ability to even restore life to the dying.
Just as Huo Qingtong was about to bow before him, Yuan jumped down from the tree and ran off. In a moment, he had become just a black dot amidst the swirling desert dust.
Madame Guan helped Huo Qingtong down from the tree, and told her to swallow one of the Snow Ginseng pills. She did so, and soon after, a wave of heat rose from the pit of her stomach, and she felt much better.
"You are very lucky," Madame Guan said. "With these wonderful pills you will recover much quicker."
"She wouldn't die even if she didn't take them," Bald Vulture commented coldly.
"So you'd prefer her to suffer a bit longer, would you?" his wife snapped back.
"If it was me, I'd die rather than take one of his pills. But you, you'd take one even if there was nothing wrong with you."
Madame Guan put the girl on her back, and started walking off north with Bald Vulture following behind, nattering ceaselessly.
They went to the old couple's home on Precious Mountain. Huo Qingtong took another pill, then slept peacefully, and felt much refreshed when she woke. Madame Guan sat on the edge of the bed and asked her what she had been doing travelling alone and sick through the desert. Huo Qingtong told her about how the Manchu army had been destroyed and how she had met the Three Devils on the road, but did not say why she had left the camp. Madame Guan, however, was an impatient person and pressed her. Huo Qingtong respected her teacher more than anyone, and found it impossible to deceive her.
"He...he has become friendly with my sister," she sobbed. "And when I gave the orders to the troops before the battle, my father and everyone thought I was acting out of my own selfish interests."
Madame Guan jumped up. "Is it that Great Helmsman Chen that you gave the dagger to?" Huo Qingtong nodded. "Then he's fickle-hearted and your sister has no sisterly feelings for you. They should both be killed!"
"No, no..." Huo Qingtong replied hastily.
"I'll go and settle this for you," Madame Guan declared fiercely and rushed out of the room, almost bumping into her husband who had come to find out what the shouting was about.
"Come with me!" Madame Guan cried. "There's two heartless ingrates that need to be killed!"
"Right!" he replied, and ran out after her.
Huo Qingtong jumped off the bed, wanting to explain, but she collapsed on the ground, and by the time she had recovered, they were already far away. She knew that together they could easily beat Chen, and was worried they actually would kill him and her sister. So disregarding her weakness, she climbed onto her horse and galloped off after them.
As they rode along, Madame Guan talked at length about how all the heartless men under heaven should be killed.
"That dagger that she gave him is a priceless treasure," she said angrily. "She gave it in good faith, but what notice has he taken of it? None. He ignores her and then decides he likes her sister instead. He should be carved into a thousand pieces!"
"And how could her sister be so shameless as to steal him away like that?" her husband added.
On the third day, the Twin Eagles spotted a dust cloud in the distance and saw two riders galloping from the south towards them.
"Ah!" Madame Guan exclaimed.
"What is it?" her husband asked, and then spotted Chen. He moved to draw his sword.
"Not so fast," Madame Guan said. "Let's pretend we know nothing and take them by surprise."
Chen had also seen them and galloped over. He dismounted and bowed before them.
"It is fortunate that we have met you," he said. "Have you seen Mistress Huo Qingtong?"
"No," Madame Guan replied, secretly furious at his brazen behaviour. "What's the matter?" Suddenly, her eyes opened wide as the other rider approached and she saw it was an extremely beautiful girl.
"This is your sister's teacher," Chen said to Princess Fragrance. "Pay your respects to her." She dismounted and bowed before Madame Guan.
"My sister has often spoken of you both," she said, smiling. "Have you seen her?"
Bald Vulture was stunned by her beauty and thought: no wonder he changed his mind. She's much more beautiful than Huo Qingtong.
Madame Guan was incensed at their craftiness, but her voice betrayed none of her feelings she asked again what was wrong. Chen told her.
"Let's go and look for her together," Madame Guan said.
The four started out together heading north. That evening, they set up camp in the lee of a sand dune, and after dinner, sat around and talked. Princess Fragrance pulled a candle from her bag and lit it. The Twin Eagles looked at Chen and the girl in the candlelight, so young and good-looking, like figures from a mural, and wondered how they could be so evil.
"Are you sure my sister is not in any danger?" Princess Fragrance asked Chen.
He was also very concerned but he comforted her, saying: "Your sister's kung fu is good and she is intelligent. I'm sure she's all right."
Princess Fragrance had complete faith in him and relaxed. "But she's ill," she added after a moment. "When we've found her, we must convince her to come home with us and rest." Chen nodded.
Madame Guan's face turned white with anger as she listened to them engage in what she thought was play-acting.
"Let us play a game," Princess Fragrance suddenly said to Bald Vulture. He looked at his wife. Madame Guan nodded slowly.
"All right!" he said. "What game?"
She smiled at Madame Guan and at Chen "You two will play as well, won't you?" she asked. They nodded.
She brought a horse saddle over and placed it in the middle of the circle, then scooped a pile of sand onto it, patted it down firmly and planted a small candle on top.
"We each take turns at cutting away a slice of the pile," she said. "The one who causes the candle to fall has to sing a song or tell a story. You start first, sir." She handed the knife to Bald Vulture.
The old man had not played such a game for decades, and an expression of embarrassment appeared on his face. Madame Guan gave him a push, "Go on!" she said. He laughed and sliced away a section of sand, then handed the knife to his wife who did the same. They went round three times and the pile became a pillar only slightly thicker than the candle on top. Chen carefully made a slight indent in the pillar. Princess Fragrance laughed and made a little hole on the opposite side and the pillar began to sway slightly. Bald Vulture's hand shook slightly as he accepted the knife.
"Don't breathe!" Madame Guan hissed at him.
"Even one grain of sand counts," Princess Fragrance said. He touched the pillar with the knife and it collapsed, taking the candle with it. He gave a cry of annoyance. Princess Fragrance clapped her hands in delight as Madame Guan and Chen looked on smiling.
"Well sir," said Princess Fragrance. "Are you going to sing a song or tell a story?"
He could see it was impossible to refuse, so he said: "All right. I'll sing a song."
In a high-pitched voice he began singing: "For you and I, life when we were young was like a play, and we cried...." He glanced over at his wife.
As she listened, Madame Guan remembered how good life had been just after their marriage. If Master Yuan had not returned, they would have been happy for the rest of their days. She leaned over and lightly squeezed his hand. Bald Vulture felt dizzy at this sudden show of affection from his wife, and tears welled into his eyes. Chen and Princess Fragrance looked at each other knowingly, both aware of the love these two old people had for each other. They played the sand game again and Chen lost. He told a story. Then Bald Vulture lost again.
As the night deepened, Princess Fragrance began to feel cold and edged closer to Madame Guan, who embraced her and carefully rearranged her wind-blown hair. The Twin Eagles had no children and often felt very much alone in the great desert. Madame Guan sighed and wished she could have had such a daughter. She looked down and saw the girl was already asleep. The candle had been blown out by the wind, but under the starlight, she could see a vague smile on her face.
"Let's get some rest," Bald Vulture said.
"Don't wake her," his wife whispered. She carefully carried Princess Fragrance into the tent and covered her with a blanket.
"Mother," the girl called faintly, and Madame Guan froze for a second in shock.
"It's all right, go to sleep now," she replied softly. She crept out of the tent and saw Chen setting up his tent a long way from the girl's. She nodded slightly.
"Are we going to wait till he's asleep or go over and give him a chance to explain first?" Bald Vulture asked.
"What do you think?"
His heart was full of tender thoughts and he had no stomach for killing at that moment. "Let's sit a while and wait for him to sleep so that he can die painlessly." He took his wife's hand and the two sat silently together on the sand. Soon after, Chen entered his tent and went to sleep.
The Twin Eagles could normally kill people without batting an eyelid, but they found it difficult to deal with these two slumbering youngsters. The constellations slowly turned, the wind grew colder and the old couple hugged each other for warmth. Madame Guan buried her face in her husband's chest and Bald Vulture lightly stroked her back. Before long, both were asleep.
"Look, what's that?" Princess Fragrance asked suddenly. Chen turned and saw several huge characters drawn on the sand: "Your evil deeds cannot be forgiven. You will have to die." The characters were five foot square and looked as if they had been drawn with the tip of a sword. Chen frowned, wondering what the message meant. Princess Fragrance could not read Chinese and asked what is said.
"They had some other business and went on ahead," Chen replied, not wishing to worry her.
"Sister's teacher and her husband are really nice..." Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence and jumped up. "Listen!"
Chen had also heard the distant, blood-curdling howl, and having lived in the northwest many years, instantly recognised it.
"There's a wolf pack coming," he said urgently. "We must go quickly!" They hurriedly packed up their tents and provisions and galloped away just as the wolf pack closed in on them. Luckily, they were both riding extremely fast horses and the pack was soon left far behind. But the wolves had been hungry for a long time and having glimpsed them, continued to track them, following the hoof prints in the sand.
After half a day of hard riding, they dismounted to rest, but just as they had prepared a fire to cook some food, the wolf howls neared once more, and they hurriedly re-mounted, and rode off again. Only when darkness had fallen and they estimated the wolf pack to be at least thirty miles behind them did they stop and rest. Around midnight, the white horse began to neigh and kick about, waking Chen. The wolf pack was closing in once more. With no time to pack their tents, they grabbed up their rations and water bags and jumped onto the horses. They travelled a great arc through the desert, never managing to shake off the wolves. The chestnut horse could finally take no more and dropped dead of exhaustion, and they had to continue with both of them on the white horse. The extra weight slowed the horse down, and by the third day, it was no longer able to outrun the wolf pack. They spotted a clump of bushes and small trees and went over.
"We'll stop here and let the horse rest," said Chen, dismounting. With Princess Fragrance's help, he built a low circular wall of sand and placed some dead branches on the top. When lit, the branches became a protective ring of fire for themselves and the horse inside.
Not long after, the wolf pack raced up. Afraid of the flames, the wolves milled around outside the circle howling, not daring to get too close.
"We'll wait for the horse to recover its strength and then break out," said Chen.
"Do you think we'll be able to?"
"Of course," he replied. But he had no idea how.
Princess Fragrance saw how thin and emaciated the hungry wolves were. "The poor things," she said. "I wonder how long it's been since they last ate?"
Chen laughed shortly. The long, sharp fangs of the wolves gleamed through the flames, the saliva dripping, drop by drop from their mouths onto the sand. They howled angrily, waiting from a slight opening in the flames through which they could leap.
Princess Fragrance knew the chance of them getting out alive was very slight. She moved closer to Chem and took his hands.
"When I'm with you, I'm not afraid of anything," she said. "After we die, we will live happily together in heaven forever."
Chen pulled her towards him and embraced her. She sighed, and was just about to close her eyes, when she noticed the flames were dying down in one section of the circle. She screamed and jumped over to add more branches, but three wolves had already slipped inside. Chen pulled her behind him. The white horse kicked its hind legs up and sent one wolf flying back out of the fiery circle. Chen grabbed another wolf by the scruff of its neck and slung it bodily at the third, a huge grey beast which dodged out of the way, then opened its mouth and reared up on its hind legs to go for Chen's throat. Chen picked up a burning branch and rammed it down the wolf's throat, and the animal leapt back out of the circle and rolled about on the ground in great pain.
Chen added more branches to the gap.
After a while, their reserves were getting low, and Chen decided he would have to risk going to get more from some bushes about one hundred feet away.
"I'm going to get some more wood," he told Princess Fragrance, taking out his shield and Pearl Strings. "Build up the fire a bit more until I get back."
She nodded. "Be careful," she said, but did not add any more wood to the fire. She knew that the branches kept the two of them alive, and that when the flames were extinguished, they would be too.
Chen leapt out of the burning circle and raced off using Lightness Kung Fu, fending off the wolves as he went. The wolves surged at him, but in three leaps he was already beside the bushes. He quickly collected firewood with one hand while protecting himself with the shield in the other. Several dozen wolves surrounded him, snarling fiercely, but the flashing hooks on his shield kept them at bay. He collected a large pile of wood and was leaning over to tie the branches up when a large wolf lunged forward. He swirled the shield, and the animal died instantly. But its carcass was caught on the hooks, and the other wolves barked even more frantically as it swung lifelessly before them. He dislodged the body and flung it to one side, and the wolves charged forward to rip it apart. He took advantage of this diversion to pick up the firewood and return into the ring of fire.
Princess Fragrance ran forward and threw herself into his arms. Chen smiled and embraced her, then threw the firewood on the ground. As he looked up, he started involuntarily: there was a third person in the circle, a large man whose clothes had been ripped to shreds by the wolves. In his hand was a sword. His whole body was covered in blood, but his face was calm. It was his enemy, Zhang Zhaozhong.
The two gazed at each other silently.
"He must have seen the fire and run over this way," said Princess Fragrance. "See how exhausted he looks." She poured a bowl of water from the water bag and handed it to Zhang, who grabbed it and slurped it down in one draught. He wiped the blood and sweat from his face with his sleeve, and Princess Fragrance gasped as she suddenly recognised him as the Manchu official Chen had fought with.
Chen rapped his shield with the Pearl Strings. "Come on!" he shouted.
Zhang's eyes glazed over and he fell forward onto his face.
He had been tracking Chen and Princess Fragrance with Prince Herda when he had met the wolf pack. Herda had been devoured, but with his superb kung fu, Zhang had managed to escape after killing several dozen of the ferocious creatures. He had fled across the desert for a day and a night, but finally his horse had dropped dead under him. He had no alternative but to continue on foot and kept going for another day without food or water. Finally, he had spotted the flames in the far distance and had fought his way over.
Princess Fragrance moved to help Zhang up, but Chen stopped her.
"This man is extremely dangerous. Don't fall for his tricks," he warned. He waited for a while to make sure Zhang really was unconscious before going closer.
Princess Fragrance wiped some cold water onto Zhang's forehead, then poured lamb's milk into his mouth. Zhang slowly revived, drank half a bowl of the milk, then fell back onto the ground, sound asleep.
Chen wondered what sort of devil's emissary had delivered this traitor into his hands. Killing Zhang now would be as easy as blowing away a speck of ash, but taking advantage of another's hardship was not a manly thing to do. What was more, Princess Fragrance would certainly be unhappy to see him kill a defenceless man. He decided to spare Zhang once more. In any case, he thought, Zhang would be a great help in killing wolves. Perhaps the two of them together could save Princess Fragrance. He knew he would never be able to do it alone. He drank a few mouthfuls of lamb's milk, then closed his eyes to rest.
After a while, Zhang woke again. Princess Fragrance passed a piece of dried mutton to him, and helped him to bandage several wolf bite wounds on his legs.
"Brother Zhang, all three of us are in great danger," Chen said. "Let us temporarily put aside our differences and cooperate."
Zhang nodded. "Yes, if we fight now, we will all end up inside a wolf's stomach." Having rested for more than two hours, his strength had partially returned, and he began to consider how he could kill Chen and escape with the girl.
Chen wracked his brain for a way out of their present predicament. He saw the many piles of wolf droppings outside the circle of fire, and remembered how Huo Qingtong had used them to fuel signal fires. Using his Pearl Strings, he dragged some of the piles over, formed them into one heap and lit it. A thick pall of smoke rose straight up into the heavens.
Zhang shook his head. "Even if someone saw it, they wouldn't dare to come to help us," he said. "It would take an army to chase away so many wolves."
Chen also knew it would probably do no good, but it was better than doing nothing.
The daylight faded, and the three gradually added more branches to the ring of fire and took turns to sleep.
"He is a very bad man," Chen whispered to Princess Fragrance. "When I'm asleep, you must watch him with especial care." She nodded.
Towards midnight, the moon rose and the wolves began to howl mournfully, a sound which made their skin crawl. Early next morning, they saw the wolves were still pacing around outside the ring with obviously no intention of leaving.
"The only thing that would draw these devils away would be a herd of wild camels passing nearby," said Chen. Suddenly they heard more wolf howls from the distance.
"It looks like more of the devils are coming," Zhang said.
A cloud of dust arose, and three riders galloped towards them with several hundred wolves on their heels. The wolves on that side of the ring of fire spotted them too, and surged forward, encircling the three riders, who fought them off frantically.
"Help them!" Princess Fragrance shouted.
"Let's go," Chen said to Zhang. They charged out of the ring, carving a path of blood through the wolf pack and led the three back into the circle. They noticed one of the horses was carrying a second person, apparently a Muslim girl, lying limply across the saddle with her hands were tied behind her back. The three riders jumped off their horses, and one of them pulled the girl down after him.
"Sister!" Princess Fragrance screamed, and threw herself onto the girl.
It was Huo Qingtong. She had run into the Three Devils again while searching for Chen and her sister and had had no strength to resist. Hahetai had wanted to kill her immediately to avenge the death of their brother, but Gu overruled him saying they should take her back and kill her in front of their dead brother's grave. They started heading back east, but after a day or so, they found themselves being chased by a wolf pack. As they fled, they happened to spot the column of black smoke started by Chen and rode towards it.
Huo Qingtong began to regain consciousness. Princess Fragrance looked at Chen beseechingly. "Tell them to let my sister go," she implored.
Chen turned to Gu. "Who are you and why have you seized my friend?" he asked. Tang strode in front of Gu and coldly sized up Chen and Zhang.
"We thank you two gentlemen for saving us," he said. "What are your names?"
Before Chen could answer, Zhang said, "He is the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo." The Three Devils started in shock.
"And you, sir?" Tang asked.
"I am Zhang Zhaozhong."
Tang gasped. "It's the Fire Hand Judge. No wonder you're both so capable." He told them his name and those of his two colleagues.
Chen's anxiety immediately increased, and he wondered again how they were going to escape. With four tough opponents to deal with now, it would be even harder than before.
"Let us forget our differences for the moment," he said. "Do any of you have any idea of how we might escape?"
The Three Devils looked at each other. "We would welcome your suggestions, Master Chen," said Hahetai.
"If we face the wolves together, there is a chance we will survive. If we fight amongst ourselves, they will eat us all." Tang and Hahetai nodded slightly, but Gu just glared at him angrily. "Therefore, I ask Brother Gu to immediately release my friend, following which we can together work out a plan to beat the wolves."
"And what if I won't let her go?" Gu shouted back.
"Master Gu, if we start fighting, it doesn't matter who wins or loses, we will all die. Please reconsider."
"You'd better let her go," Tang whispered to him." Gu had gone to considerable trouble to capture Huo Qingtong and he was extremely loath to give her up again. "Brother, if you don't let her go, I won't be able to help you," Tang added.
Hahetai walked over and cut the bonds binding Huo Qingtong. As Chen walked over to her, Huo Qingtong suddenly shouted: "Watch out behind!" and he ducked down just as a wolf swept over him. It charged at Princess Fragrance, but Chen grabbed its tail and using all his strength pulled it to a halt. The wolf whipped its head round, snapping and snarling, and with a single blow, Chen broke its neck. Another wolf leapt towards him, and he quickly drew his dagger and thrust it at the beast, a huge, cunning animal which dodged the blade with ease.
Three more wolves jumped into the ring. Hahetai grabbed one by the neck and slung it back out, Zhang cut the second in two with his sword, while Tang fought fiercely with the third. Hahetai stoked up the fire to stop other wolves from entering.
On the other side, Chen feinted with the dagger to the left to throw his attacker off guard, then plunged the blade down towards its head. Unable to avoid the stroke, the wolf opened its huge mouth and bit hard onto the dagger. Chen pushed the blade in with all strength, but despite the pain, it hung on desperately. Chen tried to pull the dagger back out but the beast refused to yield. Increasingly anxious, Chen mustered his strength once more and punched the wolf right between its eyes, smashing its skull. The wolf fell back dead and the dagger came free, the blade glinting coldly as it reflected the flames.
But the dagger's blade was also still firmly lodged between its teeth. They were all perplexed at this: the dagger was obviously in Chen's hand and had not snapped. Where had the blade in the wolf's mouth come from?
Chen bent over and tried to pull the blade out of the beast's mouth, but although the wolf was dead, its teeth was still clamped tightly shut. He used the dagger to slit open the wolf's jowls, and the muscles and tendons on its face collapsed, freeing the blade. Chen examined it closely and saw that it was hollow, like a scabbard. He stuck the dagger blade inside, and found it fitted perfectly. Huo Qingtong had said when she presented the dagger to him that it was said to contain a great secret. If it had not been for this wolf and its strong teeth, who would have guessed that there was a blade within the blade?
Princess Fragrance took the dagger from Chen and examined it, marvelling at the design of the second scabbard and the precision of the workmanship. She turned the hollow outer blade upside down and a small white pellet rolled out. Chen and Huo Qingtong bent down to get a closer look and saw it was a small ball of wax.
"Let's open it," Chen said. Huo Qingtong nodded. He picked the ball up and lightly squeezed it, cracking the wax open, revealing a small piece of paper inside, which he spread out. On the paper was a map drawn as densely as a spider's web.
Zhang had seen them discover the piece of paper, and glanced at it stealthily. But he was disappointed to find it was covered in Muslim writing, which he could not understand.
Chen knew something of the Muslim written language, but he could not grasp the meaning of the classical characters on the piece of paper and handed it over to Huo Qingtong. She examined it closely for a long time, then folded it up and placed it in her pocket.
"What does it say?" Chen asked. Huo Qingtong did not answer, her head hung low.
Princess Fragrance knew her sister well and smiled. "She is trying to work out a difficult problem. Don't disturb her," she said.
Huo Qingtong sat down on the ground and began to draw lines in the sand with her finger. She drew a diagram then rubbed it out and drew another. After a while, she wrapped her arms around her knees, deep in thought.
"You are still weak. Don't overtax yourself," Chen said to her. "You can work it out later. The important thing now is to think of a plan for getting out of here."
"I'm working on a way to escape these hungry wolves and these human wolves as well," Huo Qingtong replied, pouting angrily at Zhang as she spoke. She continued her meditations for a moment, then said to Chen: "Please stand on a horse and look westwards. Tell me if you can see a mountain with a white peak."
Chen led the white horse over and did as she said. In the distance, he spied a cluster of mountains, but could see none with a white peak. He searched carefully for a minute longer then looked down at Huo Qingtong and shook his head.
"According to the map, the Secret City should not be far from here, and we should be able to see the White Jade Peak."
Chen jumped off the horse's back. "What secret city?" he asked.
"When I was young, I heard people talk about an ancient city that was buried in this desert," she replied. "The city was once extremely prosperous, but one day a great sand storm arose, and dunes as large as mountains buried it. None of the city's residents escaped." She turned to Princess Fragrance. "Sister, you know the story better than I do. You tell it."
"There are many stories about the place, but no one has ever seen the city with their own eyes. No," she corrected herself. "Many people have been there, but few have returned alive. It is said that there are huge amounts of gold, silver and jewels there. Some people who have lost their way in the desert have found their way into the city by chance and have been overwhelmed by the sight of such wealth. They naturally began to load the gold and jewels onto their camels to take away with them. But no matter which way they went, they found it impossible to get out of the city.
"Why?" Chen asked.
"It's said that all the people of the city turned into ghosts when they were buried by the sand, and that they bewitch visitors who try to take valuables away with them. But if you put down the valuables, every single piece, then it's easy to find your way out."
"I doubt if many people would be willing to do that," said Chen.
"Yes. Seeing such riches, who wouldn't want to take some? It is said that if you don't take anything, but even leave a few extra taels of silver in one of the houses, then the wells will spurt clear, fresh water for you to drink. The more silver you leave, the more fresh water there is."
Chen laughed. "The ghosts of this secret city sound very greedy."
"Some members of our tribe who were badly in debt have gone to look for the city, but only those who didn't find it have ever come back," Princess Fragrance continued. "Once, a caravan crossing the desert came across a man who was half dead. He said he had entered the city, but had found himself going in circles when he tried to get out again. Finally, his strength gave out and he collapsed, and the next thing he knew was the arrival of the caravan. The caravan leader asked him to lead them to the city, but he refused. He said he wouldn't take one step into that haunted place again even if he received all the riches of the city as a reward."
"It doesn't necessarily have to be that these people were bewitched by ghosts," said Chen. "If someone suddenly came upon a huge amount of gold and jewels, it could affect their minds and make it difficult for them to think clearly. But if they decided they did not want the riches, it could clear their heads, and make it easier to find the way out."
"The map hidden in the scabbard shows the way to the Secret City," Huo Qingtong said quietly.
"Ah," exclaimed Chen, suddenly understanding.
"The map indicates that the city was built around a high snow-capped mountain." she continued. "From the look of it, the mountain should not be too far from here. We should be able to see it. I cannot understand why we can't."
"Sister, you're wasting your time," said Princess Fragrance. "Even if we could find the mountain, what use would it be?"
"We could escape into the city. There are houses and fortresses in the city and our chance of escaping the wolves would be much greater than here."
"That's right!" Chen said. He stood on the horse's back once more looking west. But all he could see was a hazy white sky stretching to the horizon.
Zhang and the Three Devils could not understand a word of what they said, but they watched suspiciously as Chen stood on the back of his horse twice, and wondered what devilment he was up to.
Princess Fragrance took out some dry rations and divided them up amongst all of them. As she sat eating, she gazed out beyond the flames at the horizon. Suddenly, she jumped up.
"Sister! Look!" Huo Qingtong followed the direction of her hand and saw a black spot stationary in the sky.
"What is it?" she asked.
"It's an eagle," Princess Fragrance replied. "I saw it fly over from here. But how could it suddenly stop in mid-air?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I clearly saw it fly across."
"If the black spot isn't an eagle, what could it be?" asked Chen. "If it is an eagle, how could it remain motionless in mid-air? It's very strange." The three watched the spot for a while, then saw it move and become larger. A black eagle swept over their heads.
Princess Fragrance raised her hand to tidy her hair, which had been blown about by the wind. Chen looked at her snow-white skin and the white material of her dress next to it and realised the answer.
"Look at her hand!" he said excitedly to Huo Qingtong.
"Yes, her hands are very pretty," she replied absent-mindedly.
"Of course her hands are beautiful. But don't you see? Because her skin is so white, it's difficult at a glance to tell where the hand begins and the dress ends."
"So?" asked Huo Qingtong, puzzled.
"The eagle was sitting on top of a white mountain!"
"Yes! You're right," Huo Qingtong exclaimed. "The sky over there is white, the same colour as the peak, so from a distance, it can't be seen."
"Exactly," said Chen.
Princess Fragrance realised they were talking about the Secret City. "How do we get there?" she asked.
"That is what we have to carefully work out," Huo Qingtong replied. She pulled out the map again and studied it carefully again for a while. "When the sun starts to sink towards the west, we'll be able to tell if there's a mountain there or not by its shadow."
"We mustn't give ourselves away," said Chen. "We don't want the others to work out what we're doing."
"Yes. Let's pretend we're talking about this wolf," she suggested.
Chen pulled the wolf across and the three sat around it, now pulling out one of its hairs and examine it closely, now opening its mouth to look at its teeth. The sun gradually sank towards the west and the mountain's shadow did indeed appear, stretching out longer and longer across the desert like some giant lying down. Huo Qingtong drew a map on the ground, estimating the distances.
"From here to the mountain must be about twenty or thirty miles," she said, turning the wolf over.
Chen picked up one of its legs and played with its sharp claws. "If we had another horse apart from the white horse, the three of us could make that in one go."
"So we have to think of some way to get them to allow us to go," Huo Qingtong replied.
"Yes." He picked up his dagger and slit open the wolf's stomach.
"What's so interesting about that dead wolf?" Zhang shouted, annoyed at not being able to understand what they were saying. "Are you discussing how to bury him, Master Chen?"
"We are discussing how to get out," Chen said. "Look, the wolf's stomach is completely empty."
"Do you have a plan?" Zhang asked.
"When the firewood has all been burned and there is no more to collect, then we are all going to die, is that not so?" Zhang and the Three Devils nodded. "But if one of us were willing to sacrifice himself and ride out of the circle, the wolves would swarm after him like bees from a hive. Once they were drawn off, the others could escape.
"But what about the one who goes?" asked Zhang.
"If he comes across either the Manchu or Muslim armies then he will be all right. Otherwise he will die. But it is better than us all dying here together."
"It's not a bad idea," said Tang. "But who's going to lead the wolves away? It's certain death."
"What do you suggest, Brother Tang?"
Tang was silent. "Let's draw lots," Hahetai suggested. "Whoever loses, goes."
"Yes, let's draw lots," Zhang said eagerly. Chen had wanted to offer himself and then break out with the sisters. But he could not suggest it without arousing their suspicions, so he said: "Just the five of us will draw. Let us exempt the two girls."
"We're all people," Gu protested. "Why should they be exempted?"
"How could we live down the shame of being saved by a girl?" said Hahetai. "I would prefer to die here."
"I think that if we're going to draw lots, we should all draw," said Tang, wanting to lessen the chance of himself being chosen.
They all looked at Zhang, waiting to hear his opinion. Zhang had already worked out a plan and knew he could not lose. Moreover, one of the girls was wanted by the Emperor and he fancied the other for himself.
"I will not allow a lady to save my life," he said proudly.
"All right, then," said Gu. "We'll let them off."
"I'll collect some sticks to use," said Tang, but Zhang stopped him.
"No," he said. "It's too easy to cheat with sticks. We'll use copper coins instead." He pulled a dozen or so coins from his pocket and selected five. "Four of these are Emperor Yong Zheng coins and the fifth is from the reign of Emperor Sun Zhi. Please examine them. They are exactly the same size."
"And whoever picks the Emperor Sun Zhi coin leads the wolves away," Tang added, as he carefully examined the coins.
"Exactly," said Zhang. "Why not put them in your bag for the draw, Brother Tang?" Tang did as he said.
"Now, who will go first?" Zhang asked. He looked at Gu and saw his hands were shaking. "Brother Gu is afraid," he said with a smile. "Life and death are governed by fate. I will go first." He stretched his hand onto Tang's bag and pulled an Emperor Yong Zheng coin out.
"Oh, what a pity!" he exclaimed. "I won't be able to be the hero." He opened his first and showed the coin to the other four. The five coins were the same size, but the Emperor Sun Zhi coin was about eighty years older than the others and therefore slightly smoother and thinner, although not enough to be immediately obvious.
Chen's turn was next, and to his disappointment he chose an Emperor Yong Zheng coin.
"Brother Gu, if you please," Zhang said. Gu drew his sword and flourished it threateningly.
"It's a trick!" he shouted. "You already decided that it would be one of us three."
"What do you mean, a trick?" Zhang demanded.
"They're your coins, and you had first choice. How do we know you haven't marked them in some way?"
Zhang's face went white. "Then what do you suggest, Brother Gu?"
"One of those Yong Zheng coins in your pocket is lighter in colour than the others. Put that in with four dark ones, and whoever picks the light one goes."
Zhang hesitated for a second, then smiled. "Just as you say. But I fear it will still be you who goes to feed the wolves." He surreptitiously bent the light-coloured coin slightly before placing it with the others.
"If neither you nor I lose, I will fight you afterwards," Gu said threateningly.
"It will be my pleasure," replied Zhang. He put the five coins in the bag. "You three gentlemen choose first, then myself and lastly Master Chen, is that satisfactory?"
The Three Devils did not object. "Brother Hahetai, you first," said Tang.
Just as Hahetai put his hand in the bag, Huo Qingtong shouted out in Mongolian: "Don't take the bent one!" He started in fright. The first coin he felt was indeed slightly bent. He chose another one and pulled it out: it was dark coloured.
Huo Qingtong had seen Zhang bend the coin, and had warned Hahetai because he was the most decent of the Three Devils.
Next was Gu's turn. Hahetai told him in the thick, unintelligable dialect of northeast China not to take the bent coin. Gu and Tang both glanced angrily at Zhang and pulled out dark coloured coins. Chen looked questioningly at Huo Qingtong.
"Don't take the bent one," Princess Fragrance said.
Chen knew Zhang would certainly take the unbent coin, thereby giving him both the light-coloured coin and the chance to escape with the girls. But as Zhang put his hand into Hahetai's bag, Chen saw Gu looking covertly at Huo Qingtong, and realised they would never let him take the girls with him. Uncertain of what to do and with no time left to think, he suddenly blurted out: "Take the bent one! Leave the flat one for me!"
Zhang started in shock and drew his hand back. "What do you mean, bent?" he demanded.
"One of the two coins in the bag has been bent by you. I want the one that's not bent." He put his hand in the bag and pulled out the dark coin. "You've caused your own funeral," he said to Zhang with a smile.
Zhang's face went dark and he drew his sword. "We had agreed that I would choose first," he said, and swung the blade at Chen's neck. Chen ducked and thrust his dagger at Zhang's stomach. The two fought closely for a moment. Suddenly, Zhang flung his sword at Huo Qingtong. Chen was afraid she would be too weak to dodge it and raced over to intercept the weapon. But it was just a diversion. As Chen ran towards Huo Qingtong, Zhang jumped over to Princess Fragrance and grabbed her.
"Get out!" he shouted to Chen, who stopped in his tracks and stared dumbly back at Zhang. "If you don't get out, I'll throw her to the wolves!" He picked the girl up and swung her about above his head. Chen heart pounded and his brain whirled in confusion.
"Ride out and lead the wolves away!" Zhang shouted again.
Chen knew Zhang would do what he said and so he slowly untied the white horse's reins and mounted up.
"I'll count to three. If you're not out of the circle by then, I'll let her go. One....two....three!" As he said three, the white horse bounded out of the ring.
Chen landed in the midst of the wolves, grabbed the first two that attacked him by the scruffs of their necks, then turned the horse round, soared back into the ring of fire and flung them at Zhang.
With two such ferocious animals flying at him, Zhang was forced to drop Princess Fragrance to protect himself. Chen threw two of his chess pieces at him, scooped Princess Fragrance up, then leapt out of the circle of fire once more with another horse close behind: Huo Qingtong had taken advantage of the fight to cut the reins of a horse and mount up without the Three Devils noticing.
She and Chen waded through the wolf pack, slashing right and left with their weapons as if chopping vegetables, and in a moment, the two horses were out in the open and galloping off westwards with the wolf pack chasing behind. The horses were much faster than the wolves, and before long, they had left the pack far behind. But Chen knew the hard part would be staying ahead of these tireless, hungry beasts.
As the three rode along, the land about them gradually became more rocky and a crooked path appeared. It grew dark, and the White Jade Peak began to tower over them.
"According to the map, the Secret City was built around the base of the mountain," said Huo Qingtong. "It doesn't look as if it would be more than three or four miles from here." The three dismounted and gave their two horses some water.
Chen stroked the white horse's mane lovingly, knowing that without it, he would never have been able to rescue Princess Fragrance. He also knew he would not have left without her.
They rested for a while until the horses had recovered some of their strength and then continued on, the cries of the wolves already vaguely discernible in the distance. Chen rode the chestnut horse alone and the two sisters rode together on the white horse.
The night was cool and the snow on the peak glistened brilliant white under the moon, looking almost close enough to touch. The path became rough and treacherous and suddenly split a dozen or so ways, with no indication of which was the correct one.
"With so many paths, it's not surprising people get lost," said Chen. Huo Qingtong pulled out the map and examined it under the moonlight.
"It says: `left three right two'," she said.
"What does that mean?"
"It doesn't explain." In the distance, they heard the wolves howling in unison.
"It's about midnight," Huo Qingtong said. "They must have stopped to howl at the moon. When they've finished, they will be after us again. We must choose the path and go quickly."
"There are five paths on the left here," said Chen pointing. "The map says left three right two, so let's take the third."
"If it's a dead end, we won't have time to come back again," replied Huo Qingtong.
"In that case, the three of us will die together," said Chen.
As Chen spoke, Huo Qingtong felt a sudden warmth in her breast and tears welled into her eyes. She raised her horse whip and led them into the middle path.
The track narrowed into a stone-walled corridor which had obviously been hacked out of the mountainside by men. After a while, they came to another crossroads from which three paths branched out to the right.
"We're saved! We're saved!" Huo Qingtong shouted with joy, and they spurred their horses up the middle path with renewed energy. But the track had not been traversed for many years, and in some places, it was completely overgrown by grasses taller than a man, while in others, it was blocked by sand drifts. The three had to dismount and lead the horses over the obstacles. Chen also moved rocks onto the top of the drifts to slow the wolves' pursuit.
Less than half a mile further on, they came upon three more paths forking to the left. Suddenly, Princess Fragrance screamed and pointed to a pile of white bones at the mouth of one of the paths. Chen dismounted to investigate and found they were the remains of a man and a camel.
"He must have been unable to decide which path to take and ended up dying here," he sighed.
They entered the third path and found it suddenly steepened sharply. The cold and darkness became oppressive. A short while later another skeleton appeared by the side of the path with jewels glistening amongst the bones.
"He was rich but he couldn't get out," Huo Qingtong said.
"But it means we're on the right path," replied Chen. "There must be even more skeletons on the wrong paths."
"When we leave, none of us must take any jewels, all right?" Princess Fragrance said.
"You're afraid the ghosts won't let us go," said Chen with a smile.
He heard the pleading tone in her voice and hurriedly replied: "I won't take anything, don't worry." All the jewels in the world could not match having you two sisters as companions, he thought, and suddenly felt ashamed. Why did he include them both together?
They continued up the twisted path the whole night, and by morning, they and the two horses were exhausted.
"Let's rest a while," said Huo Qingtong.
"We must concentrate on finding shelter first and then we can all sleep easily," Chen replied firmly.
The area was extremely dry, so dry that there was virtually no vegetation on the ground. The contents of the houses had stayed undisturbed for countless years and most appeared to still be in good condition. They entered the first house they came to and Princess Fragrance noticed a pair of ladies' shoes on the floor. Their colour was still fresh, but as soon as she touched them, they disintegrated into dust, and she jumped in shock.
"This city is in a basin surrounded by high mountains which protect it from rain and wind," Chen said.
As they continued through the streets, they found skeletons everywhere and swords and other weapons thrown about at random.
"It doesn't look as if the city was buried in a sand storm as the story says," Chen commented.
"No," Huo Qingtong agreed. "It looks more like there was a big battle and all the people were killed."
"But there's so many paths outside the city," Princess Fragrance objected. "How would the enemy find their way in?"
"There must have been a traitor," Huo Qingtong replied.
They went into another house, and she spread the map out on a table and leaned over to examine it. But the table was completely rotten despite its apparent sturdiness, and it collapsed under the weight of her arms. She picked up the map and studied it for a moment. "I'm afraid these houses wouldn't withstand an attack by the wolves for very long," she said. She pointed at a place on the map. "This is the centre of the city, right at the foot of the mountain. There are a lot of markings around it, which probably means it is a place of importance. If it's a palace or fortress, it is bound to be very sturdily built, so let's go there."
"Right!" said Chen. The three continued on their way, following the path indicated on the map. The roads in the centre of the city were like a maze, twisting and turning until their head's swam. If they had not had the map, they would surely have lost their way.
After an hour or so, they came to the place marked on the map as the city centre, but were disappointed to find no sign of any palace or fortress. From close up, the White Jade Peak looked even more beautiful than from a distance. It was completely white, pure and shining. A jade carver who found even a small piece of white jade would never go hungry for the rest of his life, but here was a whole mountain of the precious stone. They looked up at the towering peak and felt a sense of spiritual upliftment. Their cares and worries dispersed and they reflected on the wonderful mystery of creation.
Then, amidst the silence, they heard far off the howls of wolves drifting towards them.
"They're coming!" cried Princess Fragrance. "Could it be the wolves have a map as well?"
"Their nose is their map," Chen replied. "We have left our scent wherever we have gone and by following it, they will never make a mistake."
Huo Qingtong pointed at the map. "Look," she said. "There is the mountain, but there are many roads marked inside."
"They must be tunnels," he said.
"Yes. Now how do we find them?" She looked at the explanation on the map and slowly deciphered it. "To enter the palace, climb the tall tree and call out "Ailongabasheng" three times towards the sacred mountain."
"What is Ailongabasheng?" Princess Fragrance asked.
"It must be the password," Huo Qingtong replied. "But where is the tall tree? And could this really be a magic spell?"
"Of course it could," said Princess Fragrance, who had always believed in spirits and fairies.
"In the old days, there would have been people in the mountain who would have pushed a switch when they heard the password, opening a cave entrance," said Chen. But after so many years, everyone in there is certainly dead."
The howls of the wolves sounded closer. "Let's go and hide in one of the houses," Huo Qingtong suggested.
The three turned and ran towards the closest of the buildings. As they ran, Chen tripped on a bulge on the ground and saw it was the stump of a huge tree. "The tree's here!" he called.
Princess Fragrance examined the sheer face of the mountain above and pointed. "That must be the cave mouth there. Look, aren't those footholds?" Chen and Huo Qingtong looked up and saw with delight that there were indeed notches in the rock face.
"I'll go up and have a look," said Chen. With the dagger in his right hand, he bounded up the cliff. He made it up about a dozen feet then used his Inner Strength Kung Fu to lodge the dagger in the rock face for an instant and race up further. Finally, he reached the point where the footholds began. The two girls cheered from below, and Chen waved to them before turning his attention to the cliff above. Over the years, the cave mouth had become blocked by sand. Chen grabbed an outcrop of jade rock with one hand and started to shift some of the sand with the dagger. He pulled broken slabs of rock out one after another, and let them drop to the ground, and in a short while had made a hole large enough to wriggle through. He crawled in and sat down. Then, pulling his Pearl Strings from his pocket, he undid them all, tied them together end to end and dangled the resulting rope down the cliff face to the girls waiting below.
Huo Qingtong tied the rope round her sister's waist and Chen slowly pulled her up. Just as she reached the cave mouth, she screamed, and Chen quickly helped her inside, saying: "Don't worry, you've made it."
Her face was deathly pale. "Wolves!" she cried.
Chen looked down and saw seven or eight wolves had already arrived at the base of the cliff. Huo Qingtong was valiantly fighting them off with her sword. The white horse shook its mane and neighed loudly then galloped off through the streets of the ancient city.
Chen hastily grabbed some large rocks from around the cave mouth and threw them down, forcing some of the wolves to back away, then dropped the rope down again. Huo Qingtong was afraid that in her weak condition, she would be unable to hold on long enough, so she transferred the sword to her left hand, and tied the rope round her waist as she continued to fight off the wolves.
"Right!" she yelled. Chen yanked on the rope and she flew into the air just as two wolves threw themselves at her. One of them bit deeply into her boot and refused to let go. As Princess Fragrance screamed in fright, Huo Qingtong bent over in mid-air and chopped it in half across its belly. The top half of its body accompanied her up to the cave mouth.
Chen helped her inside and tried unsuccessfully to pull the half-wolf off her boot.
"Did it bite into you?" he asked quickly.
"I'm all right," she replied. She took the dagger from his hand and cut open the wolf's mouth, revealing the serried ranks of teeth sunk deep into her boot. A small trickle of blood oozed out of one of the holes in the leather.
"Your foot is wounded," Princess Fragrance said. She helped her sister remove the boot, and ripped a strip of material off her gown to bandage the wound. Chen turned his head away, not daring to look at her bare feet.* (* In traditional China, feet were considered one of the most erotic parts of the female anatomy.)
When she had finished the bandaging, Princess Fragrance looked down at the thousands of wolves amongst the buildings below, and wagged her finger at them angrily. "You evil wolves, biting my sister's foot! I won't feel sorry for you any more," she scolded them as Chen and Huo Qingtong smiled.
They turned to look into the cave, but all they could see was pitch-blackness. Huo Qingtong took out her tinderbox and lit it, and immediately jumped in fright: they were sitting on a thin ledge and next to them was a drop of nearly two hundred feet down to the floor of the cave, which looked even lower than the ground outside the mountain.
"There has been no fresh air in here for a long time," said Chen. "We can't go down yet." After a while, when he thought most of the stale air would have dissipated, he said: "I'll go down first to have a look around."
"Once we're down it won't be easy to get back up again," said Huo Qingtong.
Chen smiled. "If we can't, we can't," he said. Huo Qingtong blushed and looked away.
He tied one end of the rope round a rock outcrop and started to slide down into the abyss, but when he reached the end of the rope, he was still a hundred feet from the bottom. Abandoning the rope, he climbed down the cliff face for a way, and then jumped lightly to the floor.
"Throw down the tinderbox!" he shouted and Huo Qingtong did so. He struck a light, and under its glow, he saw he was in a chamber carved entirely out of white jade furnished with several sets of wooden tables and chairs. Chen looked up and saw the two girls peering down from the ledge, and shouted: "Come down!"
"You go down first, sister," Huo Qingtong said. Princess Fragrance took hold of the rope and slid slowly down to its end. She saw Chen standing beneath her with his hands opened wide, closed her eyes tightly and let go. Almost immediately, she felt his strong arms catch her and place her lightly on the ground. Huo Qingtong jumped down in the same fashion and as Chen embraced her, she flushed deep red with embarrassment.
By now, the howls of the wolves outside the mountain were becoming faint. Chen looked at their shadows dancing on the white jade walls, and then at the two beauties beside him. Under the glow of the reflected light, they looked even more exquisite. Here they were, the three of them, in the bowels of a mountain, not knowing what was in store for them. Of all the strange things that had happened to him in his eventful life, this was the strangest.
Chen snapped off a chair leg and lit it with the flame from the tinder-box. Princess Fragrance exclaimed at the beauty of the chamber they were in, and taking the torch from Chen began walking about. He broke off another seven chair legs and the three began to walk off along a long tunnel which turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Chen wondered how they would get out. Then in a corner of the tunnel, he noticed something sparkling under the torchlight. He walked over and saw it was a gold suit of armour containing a pile of old bones. The suit of armour was exquisitely-made, and the three marvelled at the fine workmanship.
"He must have been a nobleman," said Princess Fragrance. Huo Qingtong noticed that there was a winged camel engraved on the breast plate and added: "He may even have been the king or a prince. I've heard that in ancient times, only kings could use winged camels as their emblem."
"It's the same with the dragon in China," replied Chen. He took the torch from Princess Fragrance and began to examine the end wall of the tunnel for some trace of a door or an opening mechanism. Raising the torch, he saw a huge ring door knocker with a long-handled axe lodged in it.
"There's a door," Huo Qingtong exclaimed joyfully. Chen passed the torch over to her and tried to pull the axe away, but it had rusted onto the iron ring and was immovable. He took out his dagger and scraped away the rust, then with an effort, managed to pull the axe free. He found it very heavy.
"If this was his weapon, then His Highness was a strong man," he said with a smile.
On closer examination, they found there was an iron ring fastened to all four corners of the stone door. Chen took hold of each of the rings and gave them a mighty tug, but the door did not move even a fraction. He tried pushing it instead, and with load squeaks, it slowly began to swing open. They saw the door was at least ten feet thick, and in fact was more like a huge boulder than a door.
The three looked at each other with expressions of jubilation on their faces. Chen raised the torch high and with the dagger in his other hand, led the way through the door. One step inside, something crunched under his foot, and he saw a pile of bones on the floor. Looking ahead, there was a narrow tunnel leading off into the darkness, just big enough for a person to walk along. Skeletons and swords were scattered all about them.
Huo Qingtong pointed to the back of the great stone door. "Look," she said. Under the torchlight they saw deeply scored lines obviously scratched out with swords.
"These people must have been locked in here by the king," said Chen in a startled voice. "They tried the best they could to get out, but the door was too thick and the jade rock too solid."
"Even if they had had ten blades as sharp as your dagger, they would still never have broken through this door," replied Huo Qingtong.
"They must have considered every alternative, and finally one by one died as hope faded...."
"Don't! Don't go on," Princess Fragrance pleaded. The scene was too tragic. She could not bear to hear any more.
"Why did the king stand guard on the other side of the door instead of escaping?" Huo Qingtong asked. "I can't work that out at all." She pulled out the map and looked at it for a moment. Her face brightened. "At the end of this tunnel there should be a great hall and other rooms," she said.
Slowly, they walked forward, treading on human bones as they went. They turned two corners, and emerged into a cavernous hall as Huo Qingtong had predicted. They stood at the entrance and looked about. The floor of the great hall was filled with skeletons and weapons lying about at random, evidence that a furious battle had been fought here.
As they walked into the hall, Chen's dagger suddenly shot out of his hand and fell to the floor with a clatter. At the same instant, the belt supporting Huo Qingtong's sword around her waist snapped, and the scabbard fell heavily to the floor. The three jumped in fright. Huo Qingtong bent down to pick up her sword, but as she did so, the darts in her pocket flew out with a whoosh and dropped to the ground in the same manner.
Chen grabbed the two girls and leapt backwards several paces, steeling himself to defend them against any attackers. But there was not a sound from the hall. He wondered what kung fu could snatch the weapons from their hands and even suck Huo Qingtong's darts from her pocket.
"We have come only to escape wolves and with no other purpose," Chen shouted into the darkness in the Muslim language. "Please forgive us for any indiscretions we may have committed."
There was no answer but the echo of his own words returning from the far side of the hall.
As Huo Qingtong's initial fright receded, she walked forward again and stooped to pick up her sword. But it was stuck to the floor as if nailed in place. She tried again using all her strength and managed to free it, but a second later, it flew out of her hand again and hit the ground with a clang.
Chen realised what was happening.
"There must be a magnet under here," he said.
"What's a magnet?" asked Huo Qingtong.
"Sailors say there is a big mountain in the far north which attracts pieces of iron which hang free, making them point north to south. When they're on the ocean, they rely on something called a magnetic compass to find their direction."
"And you think there's another magnet mountain under here which is attracting our weapons?" asked Huo Qingtong.
"I think so. Let's try it." He prized up his dagger and placed it and a wooden chair leg on his left hand with his right hand on top to hold them in place. When he took his hand away, the dagger flew to the ground but the chair leg remained motionless.
"So as you see, the magnet is powerful," said Chen, picking up the dagger again and gripping it tightly.
Huo Qingtong walked on a few more steps. "Come here!" she called. Chen ran over and saw a skeleton which was still standing. A few tattered pieces of clothing hung on the frame, and its right hand was holding a white-coloured sword which was stuck into the skeleton next to it.
"It's a jade sword!" Huo Qingtong exclaimed. Chen carefully extracted the sword from the skeleton's grasp, and with its support gone, it collapsed to the floor in a heap.
The jade sword's blade was very sharp, but it was still frail enough to shatter if it clashed with a metal blade. Looking round, they saw there were many other jade weapons of all sizes lying about the hall.
"I know!" Huo Qingtong suddenly said. "The master of this mountain certainly planned things very carefully."
"What?" asked Chen.
"He used this magnet to draw the enemy's weapons away and then his guards finished them off with the jade swords."
Princess Fragrance pointed at a skeleton wearing a metal breast plate. "Look! Some of the attackers were wearing armour. i'll bet they couldn't get on their feet."
"But what I don't understand," Huo Qingtong continued, "is if the guards with the jade weapons killed all the attackers, why did they also die here as well?"
Chen had also been considering that problem, but could think of no explanation.
"Let's go further in and explore," said Huo Qingtong.
"No," Princess Fragrance said. "Let's not, sister."
Huo Qingtong saw the anguished expression on her face and squeezed her arm. "Don't be afraid. Perhaps there are no skeletons over there."
They walked to the other side of the hall and looked into a smaller chamber. But the scene there was even more terrible than in the first hall. Dozens of skeletons were piled about the room, most of them still standing as if alive. Some had weapons in their hands, some didn't.
"Don't touch anything!" said Chen. "There must be some strange reason for them dying like this." They continued on, and passed out of the chamber into a tunnel. After a couple of bends, they came upon a small swing door. As they pushed it open, their eyes were assailed by a bright light. Sunlight poured in from a crack in the ceiling hundreds of feet above into an excuisite jade room which had obviously been carved out of the mountain at this spot to take advantage of the natural lighting.
Although it was only a single shaft of sunlight, the three were very excited at the sight of it. The room they found themselves in had a jade bed, a jade table, jade chairs, all beautifully carved. A skeleton reclined on the jade bed, while in one corner of the room, there were two other skeletons, one large and one small.
Chen extinguished the torch. "We'll rest here," he said. They pulled out their dry rations and water and had a small meal.
"I wonder how long the wolves will wait outside the mountain for us?" said Huo Qingtong. "This has became a contest between us and the wolves, so we will have to make the food and water last as long as possible."
For the past several days, Chen and the two sisters had not had a moment in which they could relax. Now, in this silent jade room, an immense exhaustion came over them and before very long, they fell into a deep, deep sleep.