** 1 **
It was a hot summer's day in June, l754, the eighteenth year of the reign of Emperor Qian Long. In the inner courtyard of the military commander's Yamen in Fufeng in Shaanxi province, a fourteen-year-old girl skipped towards her teacher's study, eager for a history lesson. All was peaceful: not even a thread of cool wind stirred. The girl hesitated, afraid that her teacher had not yet woken from his afternoon nap. Quietly, she circled round to the window, pierced a hole in its paper covering with one of her golden hair clips, and peeped inside.
She saw her teacher sitting cross-legged on a chair, smiling. His right hand waved slightly in the air, and there was a faint clicking sound. Glancing over to where the sound came from, she noticed several dozen flies on a wooden partition opposite, all as still as could be. Puzzled, she looked more closely and noticed a golden needle as slender as a hair protruding from the back of each fly. The needles were so small that she was only able to see them because they reflected the rays of the late afternoon sun slanting in through the windows.
Flies were still buzzing to and fro around the room. The teacher waved his hand again, there was a small noise, and another fly was pinned to the partition. Absolutely fascinated, she ran to the door and burst in, shouting: "Teacher! Show me how to do that."
The girl was Li Yuanzhi, the only child of the local military commander, Li Keshou. Her fresh, beautiful face was flushed with excitement.
"Hmm," said her teacher, a scholar in his mid-fifties named Lu. "Why aren't you playing with your friends? You want to hear some more stories, do you?"
Moving a chair over to the partition, she jumped up to look, then pulled the needles out of the flies one by one, wiped them clean on a piece of paper and handed them back to him. "That was a brilliant piece of kung fu, teacher," she said. "You have to show me how to do it."
Lu smiled. "If you want to learn kung fu, there's no-one better at it within a hundred miles of here than your own father," he said.
"My father knows how to shoot an eagle with an arrow, but he can't kill a fly with a needle. If you don't believe me, I'll go and ask him."
Lu thought for a moment, and then nodded. "All right, come tomorrow morning and I'll teach you. Now go off and play. And you're not allowed to tell anyone about me killing the flies. If anyone finds out, I won't teach you."
Yuanzhi was overjoyed. She knelt before him and kowtowed eight times. Lu accepted the gesture with a smile. "You pick things up very quickly. It is fitting that I should teach you this kind of kung fu. However ..." He stopped, deep in thought.
"Teacher," said Yuanzhi hurriedly. "I will do anything you say."
"To be honest, I don't agree with much of what your father does," he said. "When you're older, I hope you will be able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil. If you accept me as your teacher, you must also accept the strict rules of the Wudang Martial Arts Order to which I belong. Do you think you can?"
"I would not dare defy your orders," she said.
"If you ever use the skills I teach you to do evil, I will take your life as easily as turning my hand over."
His face and voice became stern and hard, and for a moment Yuanzhi was frightened. But then she smiled. "I'll be good," she said. "Anyway, how could you bear to kill me?"
The Wudang kung fu sect to which Lu belonged, one of the most famous, stressed the use of Internal Force Kung Fu. In his prime, Lu had roamed China fighting for justice, and had become a famous member of the Dragon Slayer's Society, a secret anti-Manchu organisation whose power and influence had been widespread during the reign of Yong Zheng, the former Emperor. But the society had been rigorously suppressed, and by the seventh or eighth year of Emperor Qian Long's reign, it had disintegrated. Lu fled to the border areas of China. The Manchu court dispatched men to look for him, but he was quick-witted and a good fighter and managed to avoid capture. Working on the principle that 'small crooks hide in the wilderness, middling crooks in the city and big crooks in officialdom', Lu eventually made his way to Commander Li's household and set himself up as a teacher.
From that day, Lu began teaching Yuanzhi the basic techniques of the Wudang school's kung fu style, known as Limitless Occult Kung Fu. He taught her control of her emotions and thoughts, the ten Tapestries and the thirty-two Long-arm Blows. He trained her to use her eyes and ears, and showed her the use of hand darts and other hidden projectiles.
More than two years passed. Yuanzhi, hard-working and clever, made fast progress. Her father, Commander Li, was transferred toGansu province as military commander at Anxi, one of the major towns in the northwest border regions, bordering on the great desert of central Asia. His family, including Lu, went with him.
Another two years passed as Lu taught Yuanzhi the Soft Cloud sword technique and the secret of the Golden Needles. She did as her teacher had ordered, and did not tell a soul that she was learning kung fu. Every day she practised by herself in the rear flower garden. When the young mistress was practising her kung fu, the maids did not understand what they saw, and the menservants did not dare to watch too closely.
Commander Li was a capable man, and he advanced steadily through the ranks of officialdom. In 1759, the twenty-third year of the Emperor Qian Long's reign, he distinguished himself in the battle of Ili, in which the largest of the tribes in the Muslim areas was defeated, and received an Imperial decree promoting him to the post of Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province in the southeast.
Yuanzhi had been born and raised in the border areas of the northwest, and the prospect of travelling to new and beautiful lands filled her with excitement. She pressed her teacher to come as well, and Lu, who had been away from the central areas for a long time, agreed with pleasure.
Li Keshou went ahead with a small escort to take up his post and left his chief-of-staff and 20 soldiers in charge of his family who were to follow him. The officer's name was Deng, a vigorous and energetic man in his forties who sported a small moustache.
The entourage consisted of more than a dozen mules and a few horses. Madame Li sat in a mule-drawn carriage, but Yuanzhi couldn't bear to be cooped up and insisted on riding. Since itwould have been improper for the daughter of a high official to be seen riding in public, she changed into boy's clothes which made her look so extraordinarily handsome that she refused to change back into her normal attire no matter what anyone said. All Madame Li could do was sigh and let her daughter do as she pleased.
It was a deep autumn day. Lu rode far behind the group looking at the passing scenery as the colours of late afternoon merged into evening. But there was little to see around the ancient road except yellow sand, withered grasses and the occasional crow flying homewards. A breeze sprang up from the west and Lu began to recite:
"His body and name scarred by a hundred battles
"The poet Xin Jiaxuan could have been writing of my own feelings," he thought. "He was much like me when he wrote it, watching China fall to the barbarian tribes, with no way of knowing when the old days would return. No wonder he sang such a sad song."
The entourage crossed the summit of a hill. Looking at the darkening sky, the mulemen said that another three miles would bring them to Twin Pagodas, a large town, where they planned to spend the night.
Just then, Lu heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw far in front two magnificent chestnut horses racing towards them through a cloud of dust. The two riders flashed by, one on either side of the line of mules, and were gone. Lu slapped his horseand caught up with Yuanzhi.
"Did you get a good look at those two?" he asked in a low voice.
"Were they bandits?" she replied excitedly. She would have liked nothing better than for them to be outlaws bent on robbery, giving her a chance to display the skills she had worked so hard to attain over the past five years.
"It's hard to say," said Lu. "But judging by their ability in the martial arts, they wouldn't be ordinary highwaymen."
"Are they kung fu masters?"
"From the way they ride their horses, I'd say it's unlikely they are novices."
As the entourage neared the town, two more horsemen galloped past.
"Mm, this is very strange," mused Lu. The country was desolate and the evening mist was thickening. He wondered why anyone would set out on a journey at this time of day.
Not long after, the muletrain entered the town. Officer Deng led them to a large inn and Yuanzhi and her mother were shown to one of the best rooms. Lu was given a smaller room, and after he had eaten dinner, a servant lit the lantern. All was quiet, and he was about to go to sleep when a dog barked. From far away he heard the faint sound of galloping horses approaching and he thought again about the four riders they had passed on the road.
The clip-clop of horses' hooves came closer and stopped right in front of the inn. There was a knock on the front door and Lu heard a servant open it and say: "You've been riding hard. There's food and drink prepared for you."
"Go and feed the horses quickly," said a rough voice. "We must start out again as soon as we've finished eating."
Lu considered the situation. Groups of men hurrying northwest, and judging by the way they rode, all of them experts in the martial arts. In all his years in the border areas, he had never seen the like of it. He slipped quietly out of his room, crossed the courtyard and went round to the back of the inn.
"All right, you say the Young Helmsman is very young," he heard the rough-voiced man say. "Do you think he will be able to control all the brothers?"
Lu followed the voice and stationed himself underneath the window.
"He'll have to," he heard the other say. "It was the old master's wish whether the Young Helmsman likes it or not."
The man had a deep, sonorous voice, and Lu could tell his Internal Strength was profound. Not daring to make a hole in the window paper to peep through, he continued to listen from where he was, breathing as lightly as he could.
"Of course," the rough-throated one replied. "But we don't know if the Young Helmsman will be willing to do it."
"You don't have to worry about that," said the other. "He'll follow the old master's wishes."
He said the word 'follow' with a peculiar southern Chinese accent, and Lu's heart jumped. "Where have I heard that voice before?" he thought. He sifted through his mind, and finally remembered that it belonged to his old friend Zhao Banshan, whom he had known 20 years before in the Dragon Slayers' Society. Zhao was about 10 years younger than he, but the two had often trained together, and had a great respect for each other. Lu had heard no news of him since the Dragon Slayers' Society had broken up and he was delighted at chancing upon an old friend in such an unlikely place. As he was about to call out to Zhao, the light in the room was suddenly doused and a dart shot out of the window.
But it was not aimed at Lu. A figure shifted in the shadows nearby and caught the dart, then stood up, about to challenge the dart thrower. Lu leapt over and whispered fiercely: "Don't make a sound! Come with me." It was Yuanzhi.
No one chased them. Lu pulled Yuanzhi into his room, and under the light saw an expression of such eagerness on her face that he was both angry and amused.
"Yuanzhi, do you know what sort of men they are? What were you doing trying to pick a fight with them?" he asked sternly.
"What were they doing shooting a dart at me?" she replied defiantly.
"If they aren't outlaws, then they are secret society men," he said. "One of them I know, and his kung fu would not be weaker than mine. Travelling through the night as they are, they must be on very urgent business. That dart was not meant to injure you, it was just telling you not to be nosy. If he had really wanted to hit you, I doubt if you would have been able to catch it. Now go and sleep."
They heard a door open and the sound of horses' hooves as the two men galloped away.
The next morning, the muletrain started out again, and travelled ten miles in just over two hours.
"Look, teacher," said Yuanzhi. "There's someone coming."
Two chestnut horses galloped towards them, and because of theprevious night's incident, they paid particular attention to the riders. The horses, fine and spirited, were identical. Even stranger, the two riders were also identical. Both were aged about 40, tall and thin with faces as yellow as wax, sunken eyes and long slanting eyebrows: the effect was frightening.
As they passed by, the two men glanced at Yuanzhi with their strange eyes. She reined in her horse and stared back belligerently, but they took no notice and raced on westwards.
"Where did that pair of ghosts come from, I wonder," she said.
Lu glanced back at the receding figures. "Aha, it must be them," he cried.
"You recognise them?" she asked excitedly.
"They must be the Twin Knights of Sichuan. Their surname is Chang, but everyone calls them Black Death and White Death."
Yuanzhi laughed. "They've got good nicknames. They look like a couple of skeletons."
"Little girls shouldn't make jokes about other people," said Lu. "They may be ugly but they are skilled fighters. I've never met them, but from what I've heard, they travel the country fighting evil and doing justice. They are widely known as outlaws, but they steal only from the rich and help the poor. They have made a great name for themselves."
"But if they are identical, why are they called Black and White?"
"From what I've been told, the only difference between them is that one has a black mole in the corner of his eye, and the other doesn't. There's probably no one better at Black Sand Palm Kung Fu than those two."
"What are they doing in the border areas?" Yuanzhi asked.
"I have no idea," Lu replied. "I've never heard of them operating out here before."
As he spoke, they heard more horses coming towards them. This time, the riders were a Taoist priest and a hunchback dressed in brightly-coloured clothes. The priest had a longsword slung across his back. His face was pale and sickly and he had only one arm: his left sleeve was tucked under his belt.
Seeing the hunchback's ugly face and his garish attire, Yuanzhi laughed. "Teacher," she shouted before Lu could stop her, "Look at the hunchback!"
The hunchback glared at her angrily and as he passed, stretched out his hand to grab hold of her. The priest seemed to have guessed what he would do, and stopped the hunchback's hand with a flick of his horse whip. "Tenth Brother," he growled, "Don't make trouble."
Lu and Yuanzhi looked back and saw the two horses breaking into a gallop. Suddenly, the hunchback did a reverse somersault off the back of his horse, and with three steps covered the distance to Yuanzhi. Yuanzhi's sword was in her hand, but the hunchback did not attack her. He grabbed the tail of her horse, and the animal, which was galloping along, reared back on its hind legs with a loud scream. The hunchback's strength was frightening: the horse had not pulled him forward an inch. He chopped at the horse's tautly-stretched tail with his right hand, and snapped off the end as if with a knife. The horse lunged forward, and Yuanzhi was almost thrown. The hunchback turned and ran off swiftly. In a second, he caught up with his horse, still galloping westwards, leapt onto its back and soon disappeared from view.
"Teacher!" Yuanzhi called out in a plaintive voice. Lu frowned and was about to berate her. But seeing her eyes glistening with tears, he stopped himself.
Later, they heard a shout from behind: "Weiyang...Weiyang."
Yuanzhi was mystified. "What's that?" she asked.
"It's the call of a bodyguard agency shouter," he said. "The agencies hire out bodyguards or escort goods and people, especially on long journeys. Every bodyguard agency has a different call, and they use it to let both outlaws and friends know who they are. The bodyguard agency business is based seven parts on goodwill and three parts on fighting ability. If the head of an agency is generous and creates a lot of goodwill, he will gain many friends, and his business will prosper. Outlaws will hear the call and let them pass without attacking. 'Being friends is better than being enemies,' as the saying goes. Now, if you were to try the bodyguard agency business...ha! With allthe people you have annoyed in less than half a day, you would have trouble travelling an inch, even if you were ten times the fighter you are now."
"Which bodyguard agency's call is that?" she asked, ignoring his teasing.
"The Zhen Yuan Agency from Beijing, probably the biggest in north China. The head of the agency is 'North China Earth Shaker' Wang Weiyang. He must be seventy by now, but they're still calling 'Weiyang', so he hasn't retired yet. Ah, perhaps he ought to. The Zhen Yuan Agency has been making big profits for 40 years now. That should be enough for anyone."
"Have you ever met him?" Yuanzhi asked.
"I've met him. He uses an Eight Diagram sword and the Eight Diagram boxing technique. In the old days, there was no one in north China who could beat him."
Yuanzhi was elated. "They're travelling very fast. When they catch up to us, you can point the old hero out to me."
"Now why would he come out himself?" Lu said. "You really are a silly girl!"
Yuanzhi sulked. She was always being told off by her teacher. It wasn't fair. She spurred her horse forward and caught up with the carriage, planning to talk to her mother for a while to relieve the frustration. Glancing round, she saw the stub of her horse's tail and shuddered. There was nothing unusual about breaking a spear with one blow, but a horse's tail was pliable. How had the hunchback managed to snap it? She reined in her horse, meaning to wait for Lu to catch up so she could ask him, but changed her mind and galloped up the line to Officer Deng instead.
"Officer Deng," she said, pouting. "My horse's tail looks very ugly."
"I don't know what to do with this horse of mine," Deng replied, guessing her meaning. "He's in a bad mood today and won't do anything I say. You are a good horsewoman, mistress. Perhaps you could help me break him in."
"I probably won't be able to handle him either," she said modestly. The two exchanged horses. Deng's horse was of course very docile.
"Very good, mistress," he complimented her. "Even horses do your bidding."
The bodyguard agency's call came closer and closer, and before long, a muletrain consisting of a score or more heavily laden animals began to pass.
Lu was afraid one of the agency men would recognise him, so he covered the top part of his face with a large fur cap. As the lead escorts trotted past, he heard one of them remark: "According to Brother Han, Brother Jiao Wenqi's body has been found."
Lu's heart missed a beat as he heard the name. Jiao was one of the Six Devils of Guandong and a formidable fighter. Five years before while on an errand to the Muslim regions, Jiao had discovered Lu was hiding in Commander Li's household and had come at the dead of night with two other fighters with the aim of capturing Lu and taking him back to Beijing to claim the reward on his head. After a hard fight, Lu had killed all three and hidden their corpses on a deserted hillside.
Lu looked round at the escort who had spoken, but had time to see only that he had a full beard and a face as black as thunder. Once he had passed, Lu saw he was carrying on his back a red knapsack and a pair of Five Element Wheels, steel rings covered in knives.
"Could it be that the Guandong Devils have become bodyguard agency escorts?" he wondered. Of the six Devils, Lu had only ever seen Jiao, but he knew that the rest were excellent fighters, and that two of them, the Yan brothers, used Five Element Wheels.
Lu thought about the number of top fighters they had met in the past two days and wondered if it had anything to do with himself. From the look of things, the Zhen Yuan Agency men were actually on an escort assignment, so they posed no threat. As to the fighters travelling westwards in pairs, they did not seem to be looking for him. But where were they going and why?
Having exchanged mounts with Officer Deng, Yuanzhi reined in her horse to wait for Lu to pass.
"Teacher," she smiled. "How come no more riders have passed us? I want to see a few more of these heroes."
Her words jogged Lu's mind and he slapped his thigh. "Ah, you old fool," he rebuked himself. "Why didn't you think of the 'Greeting The Dragon's Head Ceremony'?"
"What's that?" she asked.
"It is the most solemn of the ceremonies held by the secret societies to honour an important personage. Usually, the six most senior men in the society are chosen to go to greet the guest, but for really important meetings, 12 are chosen and they go in pairs. Five pairs have passed us now, so there must be still be one pair in front of us."
"Which secret society do they belong to?" Yuanzhi asked.
"That I don't know. But if the Twin Knights of Sichuan and that hunchback are members, the society's power and influence must be tremendous. Whatever you do, don't provoke anyone else, do you hear?"
Yuanzhi nodded, and waited expectantly to see who else would pass them by.
** 3 **
Midday came and went, but there was no sign of anyone on the road in front. Lu was surprised and wondered if he could have guessed wrongly. Finally, instead of riders approaching from in front, they gradually became aware of the sound of camel bells from behind, and saw a dust cloud rising as a large desert caravan hurried towards them.
The caravan consisted of dozens of camels with 20 or 30 horses squeezed in between them, all ridden by Muslims with high noses and sunken eyes. They had thick beards on their faces and white cloths tied around their heads. Scimitars hung from their waists. Muslim traders were a common sight on the road to the central areas and Lu did not consider it unusual. Amidst the group, he noticed a graceful young girl, dazzlingly beautiful, dressed in yellow robes and riding a black horse.
Lu was impressed, but did no more than glance at her. Yuanzhi, however, stared in open-mouthed wonder. Growing up in the northwest border areas, she had seen few well-groomed girls, let alone girls as beautiful as this one. She was about the same age as Yuanzhi, 18 or 19, with a dagger at her waist and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wore a full-length yellow gown, leather boots and a small hat embroidered with gold silk, on the side of which was fastened a turquoise feather. She was an enchanting sight.
As the girl trotted by, Yuanzhi spurred on her horse and followed, gazing fixedly at her. The girl was annoyed at being stared at disrespectfully by a Chinese boy, and she whirled her whip above her head and wrapped it round the mane of Yuanzhi's horse. Giving it a sharp tug, she pulled out a large clump of hair, and the horse reared in pain, almost throwing Yuanzhi to the ground. The Muslim girl cracked the whip in the air and horse hair flew in all directions.
In a fit of pique, Yuanzhi pulled out a steel dart and threw it at the girl's back. But, not wishing to harm her, she also called out: "Watch out for the dart!" The girl leant to one side, and the dart shot past her right shoulder. She waited until it was about ten feet beyond her, then flicked her whip, caught the dart by its tip and smoothly sent it flying back towards Yuanzhi, calling out: "Hey, little boy! Here's your dart!" Yuanzhi caught it neatly.
The Muslims in the caravan applauded loudly at the superb skill with which the yellow-robed girl handled her whip. A tall, thick-set man with a heavy black beard went over and said a few words to her, to which she replied: "Oh, father!" But she took no further notice of Yuanzhi. The dozens of camels and horses moved on and gradually disappeared.
"That girl was impressive, wasn't she?" said Lu.
"These Muslims ride day and night. They ought to be good with their whips. But it doesn't mean she knows any real kung fu," Yuanzhi replied.
Lu laughed. "Really?" he asked.
Towards evening they arrived in the town of Bulongji. There was only one large inn in the town, outside of which was planted the flag of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. With two large groups to look after, the inn's servants were very busy.
Lu had a wash, and then strolled into the courtyard of the inn with a cup of tea in his hand. In the dining hall, he saw two tables full of agency men drinking and talking loudly. The lead escort with the Five Element Wheels had put the weapons down but kept the red knapsack on his back.
Taking a sip of tea, Lu gazed up at the sky.
One of the lead escorts laughed. "Brother Yan, once you've delivered this toy to Beijing, General Zhao will reward you with at least a thousand, won't he? You can go and have a good time with that girlfriend of yours, Xibao."
So it really is one of the Yan brothers, Lu thought, and paid even closer attention to what was said.
"A reward?" said Yan. "Ha! Well, everyone will get something."
"Your Xibao has probably gone off with some other man willing to make an honest woman of her," added an effeminate voice. Lu looked over out of the corner of his eye, and saw a man with a sly face and a slight figure, also dressed as a lead escort.
Yan grunted, obviously not pleased.
"You bastard, Tong," added the first lead escort. "You never have anything good to say."
Tong laughed. "All right," he said. "But Brother Yan, fun is fun and serious is serious. Don't think about Xibao too much or you might find someone has stolen that red knapsack off your back. It's not important if lose your head or not, but the agency's reputation has to be maintained."
"Don't worry," Yan replied angrily. "If those Muslims try stealing it back, I'll soon put an end to their nonsense. I am one of the Six Guandong Devils and I got where I am with real kung fu, not like some of the weaklings in the bodyguard agencies these days who can do nothing but eat and fart!"
Lu looked at the red knapsack on Yan's back: it wasn't big, and from the look of it, whatever was inside was very light.
"It's true that the Six Devils of Guandong are famous," Tong said. "It's a pity that Brother Jiao was done in. We don't even know who the murderer was."
Yan banged the table. "Who says we don't know? It has to be the Red Flower Society!"
That's strange, Lu thought, I killed Jiao. What is this Red Flower Society? He walked slowly around the courtyard inspecting the flowers, moving closer to the group of lead escorts.
Tong would not let the matter drop. "It's a pity," he said. "If I wasn't such a weakling, I would have settled things with the Red Flower Society long ago."
Yan shook with anger. One of the other lead escorts broke in to mediate: "Anyway, the Red Flower Society's leader died last month," he said. "They've lost their man in command, so who is there to settle with? And another thing, where is the proof that Jiao was murdered by the Red Flower Society? When you find them and they deny the charge, what are you going to do?"
"Yes," said Tong changing his tack. "We daren't provoke them, but surely we've got enough guts to bully a few Muslims. This little toy we've snatched is as precious to them as life itself. In the future, if General Zhao ever wants money from them, or cattle and sheep, do you think they'd dare to refuse? I tell you Yan, stop thinking about that little Xibao of yours. When we get back to Beijing, you should ask General Zhao to give you a little Muslim girl to be your mistress. Then you can really..."
Before he could finish, a piece of mud brick flew out of nowhere and lodged itself in his mouth. Two of the other lead escorts snatched up their weapons and rushed outside while Yan picked up his Five Element Wheels and looked warily around. His younger brother came running in, and both stood together, not daring to move for fear of falling into some trap. Tong spat out the piece of mud and began swearing.
The two other lead escorts, Tai and Qian, rushed in through the door. "The little bastard's gone," one of them said. "There's no sign of him."
Lu had observed the whole incident and laughed inwardly at the helpless expression on Tong's face. Then he saw a shadow darting across the rafters in a corner of the dining hall, and went slowly outside. It was already growing dark, but he spotted a figure leap off the corner of the roof, land noiselessly, and speed off eastwards.
Lu wanted to know who had treated Tong to a mouthful of mud and, making use of Lightness Kung Fu * (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible.), he followed, the teacup still in his hand. The pace was fast, but the person he was following was not aware of his presence.
Lu's quarry had a slim figure and moved daintily, almost like a girl. They crossed a hill and an ink-black forest loomed ahead. The person ahead slipped into the trees with Lu close behind. Underneath, the ground was covered with dead leaves and twigs which crackled as he stepped on them. Afraid of giving himself away, he slowed down. Just then, the moon broke through the clouds and a shaft of clear light shone down through the branches, covering the earth with jumbled ghostly shadows. In the distance he saw the flash of a yellow gown, and his quarry moved out of the forest.
He followed to the edge of the trees. Beyond was a large expanse of grass on which were pitched eight or nine tents. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to go and have a look. He waited until two guards had turned away, then jumped across with a 'Swallow Gliding Over Water' leap and landed among the tents. Crouching low, he ran to the back of the largest tent, pitched in the centre. Inside, he could hear people talking agitatedly in the Muslim language. He had lived in the border areas for many years, and understood some of what was said. Carefully, he lifted up the corner of the canvas and looked inside.
The tent was lit by two oil lamps under which a large number of people were seated on carpets. He recognised them as the Muslim caravan that had passed them that day. The yellow-robed girl stood up and drew a dagger from her waist. She cut the index finger of her left hand with the tip of the blade and let several drops of blood fall into a cup of horse's milk wine. Then one-by-one, every Muslim in the tent did likewise. The tall Muslim that the girl had called father raised the wine cup and made a short speech of which Lu could only understand something about 'The Koran' and 'Our Homeland'. The yellow-robed girl spoke after him, her voice crisp and clear, and concluded by saying:
"If the sacred Koran is not recovered, I swear never to return to our homeland." The Muslims lustily repeated the oath. In the dim light, Lu could see determination and anger on every face.
The group belonged to one of the richest and most powerful of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the Tianshan Mountains, numbering nearly 200,000 people. The tall man was Muzhuolun, the leader of the tribe; a strong fighter, fair and just, he was greatly loved by his people. The yellow-robed girl was his daughter, Huo Qingtong.
The tribe lived by nomadic herding and contentedly travelled the great desert. But as the power of the Manchu court extended into the Muslim areas, its demands for taxes increased. At first, Muzhuolun went out of his way to comply, and worked hard to meet the demands. But the Manchu officials were insatiable and made life impossible for the tribe. On several occasions, Muzhuolun sent missions to the Manchu court to appeal for a reduction of taxes. But far from achieving a reduction, the missions only served to arouse the Court's suspicions. General Zhao Wei was given an Imperial order to supervise military affairs in the Muslim areas and he discovered that the tribe owned an ancient hand-written Koran, originally brought from the sacred city of Mecca, which they had treasured for generations. The General decided to get the Koran to use to blackmail the Muslims into submission and he dispatched a number of top fighters who stole it while Muzhuolun was out on a long journey. The Muslims had organised a group to recover the Sacred Book.
Lu decided that the Muslims' plotting had nothing to do with him, and he carefully stood up to return to the inn. At that instant, Huo Qingtong noticed him.
"There's someone outside," she whispered to her father and shot out of the tent in time to see a shadow running fast for the trees. With a wave of her hand, she sent a steel dart speeding after him.
Lu heard the projectile coming and leant slightly to one side. As it passed, he stretched out the index finger of his right hand and, carefully calculating the speed and direction of the dart, tapped it gently as it passed so that it fell into the teacup he was holding. Then without looking back, he made use of his Lightness Kung Fu and almost flew back to the inn, where he went straight to his room. He took the dart out of the cup and saw it was made of pure steel with a feather attached to it. He threw it into his bag.
** 4 **
The bodyguard agency group started out first early the next day, the shouter shouting the agency's call. Lu noticed that most of the lead escorts were stationed around Yan. It seemed the red knapsack on his back was the real treasure being escorted.
Once the agency men had left, Officer Deng led his own column out onto the road. At noon, they rested briefly at a place called Yellow Crag after which the road sloped steadily upward into the mountains. They planned to cross three ranges that day before stopping in Sandaogou.
The mountain road became increasingly precarious and Yuanzhi and Officer Deng kept close by Madame Li's mule-drawn carriage, afraid that if an animal lost its footing, it could send the carriage crashing into the gorge below. Around mid-afternoon, they arrived at the mouth of Black Gold Gorge and saw the agency men seated on the ground resting. Officer Deng directed his men to follow suit. Black Gold Gorge was flanked by high peaks with an extremely steep mountain track leading up between them. Stopping on the track was difficult, so the top of the gorge had to be reached at one stretch. Lu hung back at the rear and turned his back, not wishing to exchange glances with the agency men.
Once rested, they entered the gorge, the bodyguard agency men and the soldiers under Officer Deng's command forming a long snaking column. Men and animals alike panted up the mountain. The shouts of the mulemen melded into a continuous drone. Suddenly, Lu saw a figure darting across the crest of a peak, and heard the jangling of camel bells from in front as a group of Muslims mounted on camels and horses charged down towards them from the top of the gorge. Their hooves sounded like thunder, and the agency men began shouting, calling on them to slow down.
In an instant, the Muslim group was upon them and four camels quickly encircled Lead Escort Yan who was carrying the red knapsack. Each of the four Muslim riders raised a large iron hammer with both hands and smashed it down viciously on his head. The mountain road was narrow, leaving little room for manoeuvring, and the camel-men had the advantage of height. Even if he had been a better fighter, Yan would have been unable to avoid the four hammers, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Both he and his horse were beaten to a bloody pulp.
The yellow-robed Muslim girl, Huo Qingtong, jumped down from her horse and with a flash of her sword cut one of the straps holding the red knapsack to the corpse that had been Yan. But before she had time for a second stroke, she felt a gust of wind at her back as a blade sliced towards her. She dodged to one side and cut the other strap. Her assailant aimed a cutting stroke at her waist to stop her from picking up the knapsack. Unable to avoid the stroke, she raised her sword to block it, and the two blades clashed in a shower of sparks. Looking up, she saw it was the handsome young boy who had stared at her so disrespectfully the day before. In a sudden fit of anger, she lashed out with three attacking sword strokes, and the two began a fierce duel.
Her assailant was Yuanzhi, still dressed in boy's clothes. Without stopping to consider the rights and wrongs of the situation, she had decided to get her own back for the damage done to her horse's mane.
Huo Qingtong could see her chance of recovering the Koran slipping away and wanted to finish the fight quickly. She changed to the 'Three Part' sword style, and in a few strokes had forced Yuanzhi into retreat. The 'Three Part' sword style was the highest achievement of the Tianshan school of kung fu. It was called 'Three Part' because only a third of each stroke was completed. As the opponent moved to counter each one, the stoke changed. Intricate and vicious, the style included no defensive strokes: attacking and killing was all.
The two went through a dozen or more moves without their blades ever touching, Huo Qingtong completing only a third of each stroke, and then changing it without waiting for her opponent to defend. She cut and thrust at the air around Yuanzhi's body, and the Chinese girl, knowing she could not match her opponent's speed, leapt away. Huo Qingtong did not pursue her but turned back to the knapsack, and found it was already in the hands of a small, thin man standing beside Yan's body. She lunged at him with her sword.
"Oh dear," the man cried. "Uncle Tong had better get back in place!" Lead Escort Tong jumped clear with three quick steps and Huo Qingtong followed hard on his heels. She raised her sword to cut him down, but the stroke was blocked by a Five Element Wheel thrust forward by the surviving Yan brother.
Huo Qingtong fought briefly with Yan, and recognised him as a strong and capable adversary. Then she heard a loud whistle coming from the hilltops, the signal for retreat, and knew that help for the agency men was on the way. She saw Tong scampering away with the knapsack and quickly changed to the Three Part sword style, forcing Yan to retreat, and then raced after him. The whistles became louder.
"Daughter! Retreat quickly!" Muzhuolun shouted. She abandoned the chase and directed her comrades as they lifted the Muslim dead and wounded onto camels and horses. Then the Muslim column charged on down the mountain path. But a little way further on, they found several dozen Manchu soldiers blocking their path.
Officer Deng rode forward, his spear held crosswise. "You insolent Muslims!" he shouted. "What is this insurrection?" Two of Huo Qingtong's steel darts hit his hands and the spear clattered to the ground. Muzhuolun raised his sabre high and charged forward with some other Muslim warriors, and the Manchu troops scattered. Boulders crashed down from the mountain tops, pulverising more than a dozen Manchu troops, and in the midst of the melee, the Muslims made good their escape.
Throughout the battle, Lu had remained on the sidelines, his hands folded inside his sleeves. Yuanzhi had been of great assistance to the agency men even though she had been beaten by Huo Qingtong, and the Muslims had been unable to get what they wanted. As the agency men tended the wounded and carried off the dead, Lu gave her a severe lecture, criticising her for interfering in the affairs of others, and needlessly making even more enemies.
"There are very few good men amongst the bodyguard agencies, and many bad ones. Why bother helping people to do evil?" he scolded her. She hung her head, not daring to look up.
They crossed through the pass and arrived in Sandaogou, a medium-sized market town, as dusk was falling. The mulemen said there was only one inn, called the Antong, and both the agency men and Officer Deng's column headed for it. The inn was crude and simple in the extreme with earthern walls and mud floors. Seeing no servants coming out to greet them, Tong shouted: "Is everyone dead in there? I damn eighteen generations of your ancestors!" Yuanzhi frowned. No-one had ever dared to use such language within her hearing before.
Just then, they heard the sound of clashing swords from inside. Yuanzhi was delighted. "Here's some more fun to watch!" she cried and ran into the inn ahead of the others.
The entrance hall was empty and silent, but passing through to the courtyard, she saw a young woman fighting fiercely with four men. In her left hand was a sword, and in her right, a knife. She was obviously battling for her life. It seemed to Yuanzhi that the four man were trying to force their way into the room outside which the woman was standing. The four were all strong fighters: one wielded a whip, one a staff, one a sword and one a Devil's Head Knife.
Lu also entered the courtyard. "How is it that we are continually running into these secret society people?" he thought.
The woman dodged and parried, holding all four men at bay until suddenly the one wielding the Devil's Head Knife swung his weapon towards her as another of the attackers thrust his sword at her heart. She fended off the sword with the knife in her right hand, but she could not dodge the Devil's Head Knife and it struck her on the left shoulder. But she did not give up, and as she continued to fight, drops of blood flew in all directions.
"Don't kill her! We need her alive," shouted the man with the whip.
Lu's chivalrous heart was moved at the sight of four man attacking one woman, and despite his own sensitive situation he could see he might have to take a hand himself. He watched as the swordsman attacked with a slicing blow from the left. The woman parried it obliquely, but she was already wounded and out of breath. The two blades clashed, and the knife was jolted from her hand and clattered to the ground. The swordsman then thrust his blade at her again, and she frantically dodged to the right, opening a way through which the man with the Devil's Head Knife charged towards the door.
Ignoring all dangers, the woman plunged her left hand into her gown and drew out two throwing knives which she slung at her enemy's back. One of the knives embedded itself in the door post but the other plunged into his back. Luckily for him, the woman's hand lacked strength due to the wound in her left shoulder and the knife did not kill him. He staggered back, screaming with pain, and pulled the knife out. Meanwhile, the woman was struck on her thigh by the staff. She swayed unsteadily, but defiantly resumed her position blocking the doorway.
"Go and help her," Lu said quietly to Yuanzhi. "If you can't beat them, I'll come over as well."
Yuanzhi was bursting to test herself. She leapt forward, her sword at the ready, shouting: "Four men fighting one woman! You should be ashamed of yourselves!" Seeing someone coming to the aid of the woman, and one of their number already wounded, the four men turned and ran from the inn.
The woman's face was deathly pale and she leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Yuanzhi went over to her.
"Why were they bullying you like that?" she asked, but the woman was temporarily incapable of speech.
Officer Deng walked over to Yuanzhi. "Madame Li would like to see you mistress," he said, and added in a whisper: "She's heard that you were involved in a fight on the road and is very upset. You'd better go quickly."
The woman's expression changed as soon as she saw Officer Deng's military uniform; she pulled her throwing knife out of the doorpost, went back into her room and banged the door shut without answering Yuanzhi.
Rather unhappy at having been snubbed, Yuanzhi walked over to Lu. "Teacher, what were they fighting about?" she asked.
"It was probably a revenge attack," he said. "But it isn't over yet. Those four will be back."
Yuanzhi was about to ask another question when she heard someone inside the inn shouting and swearing.
"Damn your ancestors, what do you mean there are no good rooms? Are you afraid we don't have the money to pay?" It was the voice of Lead Escort Tong.
"Please don't be angry sir," an employee of the inn answered. "We in the inn-keeping business would not dare to offend such eminent persons as yourselves. But it is a fact that all of our few good rooms are occupied."
"Who have you got in them? I think I'll go and have a look," Tong said walking out into the courtyard.
Just then a door opened, and the young woman leaned out. "Please bring some hot water," she said to a servant.
Tong saw the woman's smooth white skin and the beauty of her face and eyes, and noticed on her left wrist, a bracelet of pearls, all perfectly formed. His mouth watered. The woman spoke with a southern Chinese accent and the exotic touch to her voice excited him greatly.
"I, Lead Escort Tong have passed along this road on business dozens of times, and I have never stayed in anything but the best rooms," he shouted. "If there are no good rooms vacant, why don't you make one vacant for me?" The door to the woman's room was still open and he walked straight inside.
"Ai-ya!" the woman exclaimed. She moved to obstruct him, but felt a stab of pain in her thigh and sat down.
As Tong entered the room, he saw there was a man lying on the kang. The room was dimly-lit but he could see that the man's head was wrapped in bandages, his right arm was in a sling and that one of his legs was also bandaged.
"Who is it?" the man asked in a deep, resonant voice.
"My name is Tong and I'm a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," he replied. "We are passing through Sandaogou on business, but there are no rooms available here. I was wondering if you could move. Who is this woman? Is she your wife, or your girlfriend?"
"Get out," the man ordered. His wounds were clearly serious; he was unable to talk loudly.
"One's a girl and the other's too badly wounded to even move," thought Tong, who had not seen the woman fight. "When am I going to get such a chance again?"
"If you don't want to give up your room, that's all right too," he said with a grin on his face. "All three of us can snuggle up together on this kang. Don't worry, I won't push over onto your side."
The man on the kang shook with anger.
"Don't get involved with these ruffians," the woman urged him quietly. "We can't afford to make any more enemies at the moment." And then to Tong: "You stop your nonsense and get out."
Tong laughed. "Can't I stay here and keep you company?"
"Come over here," the man on the kang said hoarsely.
Tong took a step towards him. "Why? Do you want to see how handsome I am?"
"I can't see clearly," the man replied.
Tong laughed out loud and took another step towards him. "Take a closer look. This is like a big brother choosing a husband for his sister...."
Before he could finish, the man on the kang sat up, and as fast as a lightning flash, touched a yuedao point* (*Yuedao points are nerve centres on the body which, when struck, can cause paralysis or even death. The same points are used for a different purpose in acupuncture) on Tong's ribs and followed with a blow to his back. Tong flew straight out of the door, and landed heavily in the courtyard. The agency shouter, Xun, rushed over to help him up.
"Brother Tong," he whispered. "Don't provoke them. It looks like they're members of the Red Flower Society."
"Ahh, ahhh, I can't move my leg," Tong cried. "The Red Flower Society?" he added suddenly. "How do you know?" He broke into a cold sweat of fear.
"One of the porters told me four Yamen officers were here a while ago to arrest those two, and there was quite a fight before they left," Xun said.
Lead Escort Yan came over. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Brother Yan," Tong shouted. "One of those bastards from the Red Flower Society used Yuedao kung fu on me!"
Yan frowned and pulled Tong up by his arm. "We'll go back to the room and talk about it," he said. His first thought was for the agency's reputation. It created a bad impression when an agency's lead escort was floored and couldn't even get up. Lead Escort Qian came over. "Are you sure it was the Red Flower Society?" he asked Xun.
"When those four officers left, they told the porter that the couple in there were fugitives," he whispered. "They told the porter to inform them if they left. I overhead them talking."
Qian glanced at Yan and pulled Tong up.
"Who are they?" Yan asked quietly.
"Red Flower Society. I think we ought to let it pass," Qian said. "When Tong is better we can reconsider. Did you see what happened when those men tried to arrest them just now?" he asked Xun.
"It was some fight," said Xun, gesticulating wildly. "There was a woman with a sword in her left hand and a dagger in her right hand. Four men couldn't beat her."
"She must be one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people," replied Qian, surprised. "She used throwing knives, I suppose?"
"Yes, yes, she's really accurate. It was incredible!" Xun exclaimed.
Qian turned to Yan. "Master Wen of the Red Flower Society is here," he said. They carried Tong back to their room in silence.
Lu had observed the whole incident, but the lead escorts had talked in such low tones, that he only managed to catch Qian's last two utterances. Yuanzhi walked over and asked: "Teacher, when are you going to teach me Yuedao kung fu? Did you see how fantastic that move was?"
Lu took no notice of her, but said to himself: "If it is one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people, I can't just stand by and do nothing."
"Who is 'Divine Knife' Luo?" Yuanzhi asked.
"He was a good friend of mine. I hear he's passed away now. All the moves used by the woman we saw fighting a minute ago were of his school."
Just then, the two lead escorts Qian and Tai helped Tong over to the woman's room. Xun coughed loudly outside the door and announced in a low voice:
"Lead Escorts Qian, Tai and Tong of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency have come to pay their respects to Master Wen of the Red Flower Society."
The door creaked open and the woman stood in the doorway staring at them. "What do you want?" she asked.
"We did not know that you and Master Wen were here," Qian said. "We have insulted you and we have come to apologise. Please be forgiving and don't be offended by what happened." He bowed low and Tai and Xun followed suit.
"Mistress," Qian continued. "We have never met before, but I have heard a great deal about you and your husband. Master Wang, the head of our agency, was always on very good terms with the leader of your honourable society, Master Yu, and also with your father 'Divine Knife' Luo. Our brother here is very bad-tempered, and is always talking nonsense..."
The woman cut him off. "Our master has been wounded, and he just went to sleep. When he wakes, I will pass on your message. We are ignorant of etiquette, but his wounds are not light, and he hasn't slept well for two days." There was an expression of apprehension on her face.
"What sort of wounds does Master Wen have?" Qian asked. "We have some Golden Wound ointment with us." He wanted to put them in their debt so that they would be obliged to help cure Tong.
"Thank you, but we have medicine," the woman replied, understanding his meaning. "Your colleague was not touched on a major Yuedao point. When our master wakes, I will send one of the inn's servants round."
Seeing that she had agreed to cure Tong, Qian and the others started to retire.
"By the way," said the woman. "How did you know our names?"
"With your swords and throwing knives, who wouldn't be able to guess?" Qian replied. "What's more, who apart from Master Wen uses Yuedao kung fu like that? It had to be 'Rolling Thunder Hand' Wen Tailai and his wife Luo Bing."
The woman smiled, flattered at having been recognised.
Yuanzhi sat for a long time with her hands on her cheeks, annoyed that Lu would not teach her Yuedao kung fu. After dinner, she went to see her mother, who nagged her for causing trouble on the road, and told her she was not to wear boy's clothing any more.
"Mother, you're always talking about how you have no son," she replied with a smile. "Aren't you happy now that you have one?"
Madame Li gave up and went to bed. Yuanzhi also got ready for sleep, and was just about to take off her clothes when she heard a light tapping on the window sill and someone saying: "Come out, little boy! I want to ask you something."
Yuanzhi picked up her sword and ran out to the courtyard where she spotted a figure standing in the shadows.
"Follow me if you dare!" the figure said and jumped over the courtyard wall. Like a young calf unafraid of a tiger, Yuanzhi followed without a thought for what might be waiting for her on the other side. As her feet touched the ground, she found a sword thrusting towards her.
Yuanzhi raised her own sword and parried the stroke, shouting: "Who is it?" The yellow-robed figure retreated two steps, and said: "I am the Muslim girl Huo Qingtong. What were you doing helping the agency men to mess up our plans? Why don't you mind your own business?"
"I'll do whatever I want to," Yuanzhi replied. "I happen to like meddling in other people's business. Let me give you another lesson in swordsmanship..." Her sword flashed out, and Huo Qingtong raised her own sword to parry it.
Yuanzhi knew that she couldn't beat the girl on equal terms, so she retreated steadily as she fought, heading towards Lu's room.
"Teacher, teacher!" she called out suddenly. "Someone is trying to kill me!"
A sneering laugh exploded from Huo Qingtong. "Ha! You useless object! You're not even worth killing!"
She began to walk away, but Yuanzhi attacked, forcing her to face her once more. Yuanzhi heard someone behind her and knew that her teacher had emerged; seeing Huo Qingtong's sword bearing down on her, she jumped behind Lu's back.
Lu fended off her strokes with his sword and Huo Qingtong soon realised that his sword technique, while the same as Yuanzhi's, was far superior. She became anxious and attacked fiercely, waiting for an opportunity to retreat. But his strokes followed each other without pause, sticking to her closely.
Yuanzhi put her sword in its scabbard and joined the fray using Boundless Occult Hand kung fu. Huo Qingtong couldn't even beat Lu alone, so how could she manage against both of them? Yuanzhi displayed great cunning: a touch on one side, a hook with her leg on the other. She was not aiming to hurt the Muslim girl, but was intentionally having fun at her expense to pay her back for the tuft of her horse's mane ripped out the day before.
Lu, for his part, had been impressed earlier that day by the Muslim girl's swordsmanship and simply wanted to test her. His sword thrust at her and she raised her own blade to ward it off. Meanwhile, Yuanzhi moved in towards her back, shouting: "Watch out for my fist!" and struck out at her left shoulder with a 'Ferocious Rooster Snatching Grain' blow. Huo Qingting's left hand twisted round and diverted the blow by grasping for Yuanzhi's arm. With both the Muslim girl's arms now occupied, Yuanzhi seized the opportunity, and the flat of her hand struck at Huo Qingtong's chest. If the blow had been in earnest, it would have caused serious injury, but there was no strength behind it. She ran her hand heavily over the girl's chest and then jumped back laughing. Huo Qingtong was consumed with fury, and ignoring Lu's sword, swung round and attacked Yuanzhi using the Tianshan School's 'Mirage' style. Lu could not stand by. He raised his sword and accepted the brunt of the attack, while Yuanzhi stepped back.
"All right," she laughed. "Don't be angry. You marry me and we'll forget about it."
Huo Qingtong had been deeply insulted, but she knew she could not overcome Lu, so with no other way for her to avenge herself, she threw her sword at Yuanzhi with all her strength aiming to take the girl to the grave with her.
Lu started in fright and threw his own sword at Huo Qingting's. The two swords collided in mid-air with a clang and fell to earth together. He then pushed Huo Qingtong back five or six steps with a light touch on her left shoulder. "Please don't take offence, miss," he said. "There's something I want to say."
"Well?" she replied angrily. "What are you waiting for?"
Lu looked over at Yuanzhi. "Don't you think you ought to apologise to the lady?"
Yuanzhi walked over and bowed low, a wide grin on her face. Huo Qingtong replied with a fist.
"Oh, no! Don't hit me!" Yuanzhi laughed. She dodged away, and pulled off her cap, revealing her head of beautiful hair.
"Now look," she smiled. "Am I a boy or a girl?"
Seeing Yuanzhi's real face under the moonlight, Huo Qingtong was struck dumb. Her anger and shame evaporated, leaving only irritation.
"This is my pupil," said Lu. "She is always disobedient and I am unable to control her. I am sorry for what happened just now. Please don't be offended."
He brought his hands together in salute and bowed. Huo Qingtong turned slightly away, refusing to accept the apology.
"What is your relationship with the Twin Eagles of Tianshan?" he asked her. Huo Qingtong's eyebrows shot up and her lips quivered, but she maintained her silence. "I have always been on good terms with the Twin Eagles, Bald Vulture and his wife Madame Guan," Lu continued, "so we should not be enemies."
"Madame Guan is my teacher," Huo Qingtong said. "I will go and tell her that you bullied me and told your pupil to attack me, and even joined in yourself."
She gave them both a look of intense hatred, then turned to go.
Lu waited until she had gone a few steps, and then said: "And when you go and tell your teacher, who are you going to say bullied you?"
Huo Qingtong stopped and turned. "Well, who are you?" she demanded.
Lu stroked his beard and laughed. "You've both got the tempers of children," he said. "All right, all right. This is my pupil, Li Yuanzhi, and you can tell your teacher and her husband that I am 'Hidden Needle' Lu. Please convey my congratulations to them on having such a good pupil."
"A good pupil you say! I have lost face for both my teacher and her husband by allowing myself to be bullied in such a fashion."
"Miss, don't think that you have lost face by being beaten by me," Lu replied seriously. "There are few in the fighting community who could last for several dozen moves with me as you did. I suspected you knew the Twin Eagles when I saw you fighting earlier today, but your use of the 'Mirage' sword style just now decided it. Do they still argue all the time?" He laughed.
Huo Qingtong saw that Lu knew all about her teacher, but she was still reluctant to relent.
"If you are my teacher's friend, why did you tell your pupil to interfere, stopping us from taking back our Sacred Book? I don't believe you are a good man."
"Being beaten in a sword duel is not worth worrying about," Lu said. "But failing to recover your Sacred Book is a different matter. If your people are bullied and insulted, you must be prepared to risk even your own life to get satisfaction."
Huo Qingtong knew he was telling the truth, and bowed before him. "Please tell me how the Sacred Book can be recovered," she said. "If you are willing to help, I and the rest of my tribe will be eternally grateful."
"It was stupid of me to interfere," said Yuanzhi. "My teacher has already given me a long lecture. Please don't worry, I will help you get your Sacred Book back. It's in that red knapsack, isn't it?" Huo Qingtong nodded. "Well, let's go," Yuanzhi added.
"We will discuss the situation first," said Lu. The three talked in low tones for a while then, with Lu keeping a look-out, the two girls crossed over the wall into the inn.
They ran crouching over to the room occupied by the lead escorts, and squatted under the window in the shadow of the wall. Inside, they heard Lead Escort Tong crying and groaning for a while and then stop.
"You are talented, Master Zhang," one of the lead escorts said, "being able to cure Brother Tong so quickly."
"If we had known you were coming, we wouldn't have had to apologise to that Red Flower Society bastard," said another.
"I want you all to watch that pair," a powerful voice replied. "Tomorrow, when Wu and the others arrive we'll make our move."
"Once we've got him, I'm going to kick that bastard in the head a few times, very hard," said Tong.
Yuanzhi slowly extended herself and found a tear in the window paper through which to look. She saw five or six people seated around the room. In the middle was an awe-inspiring man whom she decided must be the one they called Master Zhang. His eyes flashed like lightning and his temples were high and protruding, indicating profound Internal Strength.
"Tong, give me the knapsack," Lead Escort Yan said. "Those Muslims won't give up so easily. I'm afraid we will have more trouble on the road."
Tong began to untie the knapsack hesitantly, as if unwilling to hand it over.
"Now don't worry," Yan said. "Once we've got this knapsack to Beijing safe and sound, we'll all reap the benefits."
Yuanzhi thought swiftly. Yan was a powerful fighter, and once he had possession of the knapsack it would be difficult to recover. She whispered a few words into Huo Qingtong's ear, took off her hat and pulled her long hair over her face. Then she picked two bricks up lying nearby and hurled them through the window. As they crashed into the room, the lamp was suddenly doused. The door opened and several men rushed out.
"Who is it?" one yelled.
Huo Qingtong whistled at them, then leapt over the wall, and the lead escorts and Zhang chased after her. As soon as they had gone, Yuanzhi burst into the room.
Tong was lying on the kang when he saw the Thing come through the door, an unghostly ghost, and inhuman human, with its hair dishevelled and wild. The Thing hopped towards him squealing loudly, and his body went limp with fright. It seized the red knapsack from his hands and ran from the room.
The lead escorts chased after Huo Qingtong for a while, but Zhang suddenly stopped in his tracks. "Damn," he said. "This is just a diversion to lure us away. Get back quickly!"
They returned to the inn to find Tong lying on the kang in a state of shock. It was a while before he managed to tell them how the ghost had stolen the knapsack.
"What ghost?" Zhang said angrily. "We've been tricked."
Yuanzhi hid beside the wall, holding the knapsack tightly, and waited until all the lead escorts had re-entered the room before jumping back out of the courtyard. She whistled softly and Lu and Huo Qingtong appeared from the shadow of the trees.
Yuanzhi was feeling particularly smug. "I've got the knapsack," she laughed, "so you can't..."
Before she could finish, Lu shouted: "Watch out behind!"
As she turned, someone slapped her on the shoulder. She quickly tried to grab the hand but failed and her heart jumped in fright as she realised how formidable her assailant was: he had followed her without her being at all aware of it. She quickly looked around and in the moonlight saw a tall, powerful man standing beside her. She stepped backwards in fright, and threw the knapsack at Huo Qingtong.
"Catch!" she yelled, and brought her hands together to face the enemy.
He was extraordinarily fast. As the knapsack left her hand, he leapt after it and caught it in mid-air just as Huo Qingtong attacked him. With his left hand holding the knapsack, the man swung his arms out using the Long-Arm style. There was great power behind the blow, and both girls were forced back several paces. Yuanzhi now recognised him as Master Zhang. The Long-Arm style was one of the basic techniques of the Wudang School's kung fu, and Yuanzhi gasped involuntarily at the sight of Zhang using it. She glanced around, but Lu was nowhere to be seen.
Yuanzhi advanced a step and attacked using the same Long-Arm technique and as their fists clashed, she felt a prickly numbness run through her arm followed by an unbearable ache. She stumbled, then jumped off to the left.
"Tell me, child!" Zhang said. "Is your teacher surnamed Ma or Lu?"
"He's surnamed Ma," she said to deceive him. "How did you know?"
"Well that makes me your martial uncle. Don't you think you ought to kowtow before me?" He laughed.
As soon as Huo Qingtong heard mention of a connection between them, she abandoned Yuanzhi. She could see that the Koran could not be recovered, and ran quickly away.
Yuanzhi chased after her a short way, but suddenly, a cloud bank covered the moon plunging her into pitch darkness. She started in fright as several thunder claps rolled across the sky and turned back to find that Zhang had disappeared too. By the time she leapt back over the wall into the inn, large droplets of rain were falling, and as she entered her room the downpour came.
The heavy rain lasted all night. Next morning, having washed and combed her hair, Yuanzhi looked out of the window and saw it was still pouring. Her mother's maidservant came in.
"Officer Deng says the rain is too heavy and we can't leave today," she announced.
Icy gusts blew in through a tear in Yuanzhi's window. She felt bored, particularly as the inn was in such a desolate area. She walked over to the room occupied by Master Wen of the Red Flower Society hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but the door was firmly shut and no sound came from within. The Zhen Yuan Agency had not left that morning either, and several of the lead escorts were lounging about in the dining hall, chatting. Master Zhang was not among them. A gust of wind blew from the west and Yuanzhi began to feel rather cold. She was about to return to her room when she heard the sound of bells outside the front gate and a horse galloped in from the rain.
A young scholar dismounted and ran inside. As one servant led his horse off to be fed, another asked the scholar if he would be staying at the inn.
"I'll have to get back on the road again soon," he replied, taking off his raincape. The servant invited him to take a seat and poured him a cup of tea.
The scholar was tall and slender with a handsome face. In the border areas, such elegance was a rare sight, and Yuanzhi could not help but stare at him. The scholar saw her too and smiled; she flushed and quickly looked away.
There was the sound of horses outside the inn and four more men came in. Yuanzhi recognised them as the ones who had attacked the young woman the day before and she quickly retired to Lu's room to ask what they should do.
"Let us go and have a look first," Lu said and the two peeped into the dining hall through a hole in the window.
One of the four, a swordsman, summoned a servant, quietly questioned him for a moment, then said to his companions: "Those Red Flower Society bastards haven't left yet. We'll deal with them when we've eaten."
The scholar's expression changed slightly and he began to observe the four men out of the corner of his eye.
"Shall I help the woman again?" Yuanzhi asked.
"Don't do anything until I tell you," Lu said. He paid no further attention to the four officers, but focussed his gaze on the scholar.
Once he had finished eating, the scholar moved his bench into the corridor leading to the courtyard. He pulled a flute from the bundle on his back and began to play a pleasant, lilting melody. Strange to say, the flute looked as if it was cast from pure gold. The road they were on was unsafe, and a golden flute openly displayed by a lone scholar was bound to attract thieves.
When the four men had finished eating, the swordsman jumped onto the table and announced in a loud voice:
"We are Yamen officers and we have come to arrest fugitives of the Red Flower Society. Peaceful citizens need not be afraid."
He jumped down from and led the others towards the courtyard. The scholar, still blocking the corridor and playing the flute, ignored them. The swordsman approached him. "Don't stand in the way of Yamen officers," he growled.
The scholar leisurely put down his flute. "The fugitives you gentlemen wish to arrest: what law have they broken?" he asked. "Confucius said, 'Do not do unto others what you would not wish on yourself'. Do you really have to arrest them?"
The officer with the staff stepped forward. "You stop your chatter," he shouted. "Get out of the way!"
"Please calm yourself, honourable sir," the scholar replied. "There's no need to get agitated. Let me be host. We'll all have a drink and become friends, what do you say?"
The officer stretched out his hand to push him away, and the scholar swayed to one side. "Ai-ya," he exclaimed. "A gentleman uses words, not force."
He fell forward as if over-balancing and put out the golden flute to steady himself, finding support on a Yuedao spot on the left thigh of the officer, who involuntarily knelt down as his leg went limp.
"Ai-ya!" the scholar exclaimed again. "There's no need for such courtesy." He bowed before the officer.
Those watching could tell the scholar was highly skilled in the martial arts and Yuanzhi, who had originally been anxious on his behalf, was overjoyed to see him using Yuedao kung fu.
"This bastard might be with the Red Flower Society as well!" cried one of the officers fearfully. The officer with the paralysed leg collapsed on the floor and the others pulled him to one side.
"Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?" the swordsman asked, a slight touch of fear in his voice.
The scholar laughed. "I do indeed. My name is Yu Yutong. I play but a small role in the society, ranking only 14th in seniority." He waved the flute at them. "Don't you recognise me?"
"Ah, you're 'Scholar' Yu!"
"You are too kind," said the scholar. "That is indeed who I am. You sir, with the flashing sword, face of cunning and rat-like eyes. You must be the famous officer from Beijing, Wu Guodong. I'd heard you had retired. Why are you doing getting involved in this kind of game?"
Swordsman Wu's blade flicked out, steely yet smooth and Yu countered with his golden flute, fighting the three officers simultaneously, working through a complex series of moves which soon had them completely flustered. After a moment, Yuanzhi turned to Lu in surprise.
"That's the Soft Cloud sword style," she said.
Lu nodded. The Soft Cloud sword technique is a secret style known only to our school, he thought. If this scholar is a member of the Red Flower Society, then he must be a pupil of Elder Brother Ma.
The school to which Lu belonged consisted of three pupils, among whom Lu was placed second. The most senior was Ma Zhen and the youngest Zhang Zhaozhong, the Master Zhang with whom Yuanzhi had tangled the night before. Zhang was highly talented and very diligent, but he had thrown in his lot with the Manchu court, and, rising swiftly in seniority, had already attained the rank of Major in the Imperial Bodyguard. Lu had long ago severed relations with him.
His guess that Yu was a pupil of Elder Brother Ma Zhen was correct. Yu came from a respected family in southern China, and had already passed the first Imperial Civil Service examination when his father became involved in a dispute over a burial plot with a wealthy family. The ensuing law suit forced him into bankruptcy, and he was imprisoned on a trumped-up charge and died in jail. Yu left home in anger and met Ma Zhen, whom he accepted as his teacher, abandoning his studies in favour of the martial arts. He returned and killed the rich landlord and then became an outlaw, and later a member of the Red Flower Society. He was alert and intelligent, and could speak many different dialects. On this occasion, he was travelling on society business to the city of Luoyang and had been unaware that his fellow society members, Wen Tailai and his wife, were holed up in the inn.
Hearing the fight, the agency men all came in and stood to one side watching. Lead Escort Tong noticed a catapult on the back of one of the officers, and shouted: "If it was me, I'd leave two to take care of the bastard while the third used the slingshot on him."
The officer with the catapult realised Tong was right and jumped onto a table, readied his weapon and sent a shower of stones flying towards Yu.
Yu dodged them one by one while parrying the other two officers. But his opponents gained the upper hand, and after a few more moves, one of the missiles struck Yu's cheek and the pain began to slow his movements.
"You might as well give up," Tong called to Yu. "Pull down your trousers and we'll give you a taste of the cane."
But Yu did not panic. With a sudden flourish, he drove his left hand at a Yuedao point on Swordsman Wu's chest. Wu quickly retreated two steps and Yu thrust the flute into the stomach of the other officer who grunted loudly and buckled in agony. Yu moved to strike him again, but Wu intercepted him.
Fighting back the pain in his stomach, the third officer moved stealthily up behind Yu as he fought Wu and raised his Devil's Head knife to smash it down on Yu's skull. But before he could do so, a throwing knife plunged into his chest, killing him instantly, and the Devil's Head Knife clattered to the floor.
Yu turned and saw a woman standing nearby, supporting herself on the table with her left hand, thje slender fingers of her right hand clasping another throwing knife as if it was the stem of a fresh flower. She was indescribably lovely, and as soon as he saw her, Yu's spirits rose.
"Kill the Eagle's Claw with the catapult first!", he shouted. Eagles Claw was their slang for thugs employed by the Imperial Court.
The officer with the catapult turned round frantically, just in time to see the flash of the blade as it flew towards him. In desperation, he held up the catapult to try to stop it, but the knife still cut into the back of his hand.
"Uncle Wu!" he screamed, "It's too dangerous. Let's get out of here!"
He jumped off the table and fled. Wu forced Yu back with two more strokes from his sword, slung the officer with the paralysed leg over his shoulder, and rushed for the door to the hall. Instead of chasing them, Yu raised the flute to his mouth end-on instead of crosswise, and puffed. A small arrow shot out of the end which buried itself in the shoulder of the paralysed officer, who screamed with pain.
Yu turned to the woman. "Where's Brother Wen?" he asked.
"Come with me," she said. She was wounded in the thigh, and supported herself with a long door bar.
Meanwhile, as the officers rushed out of the inn, they collided head-on with a man coming in, and Wu reeled back several paces. When he saw it was Master Zhang, his initial anger turned to delight.
"Master Zhang," he cried. "I am useless. One of our brothers has been killed by the bastards and this one has been paralysed."
Zhang grunted and lifted the officer up with his left hand, then squeezed his waist and slapped his thigh, freeing the blood flow. "Have they escaped?" he asked.
"They're still in the inn."
Zhang grunted again. "They've got guts," he said, walking into the inn courtyard. "Resisting arrest, killing an official, then brazenly staying on here."
They led Zhang towards Wen's room, but just as they reached the door, Yuanzhi slid out of a room nearby and waved a red knapsack at Zhang.
"Hey, I've stolen it again," she laughed and ran towards the inn's main gate.
Zhang was startled. "These agency men are truly useless," he thought. "As soon as I get it back for them, they lose it again."
He shot after her, determined to teach her a good lesson. It was still raining, and before long, they were both soaking wet. Yuanzhi saw him closing in and ran off along the side of a stream, Zhang following silently. He increased his pace, closing the distance between them, then stretched out his hand and caught hold of her jacket. Greatly frightened, Yuanzhi pulled away with all her strength, and a piece of cloth tore out of the back. Her heart pounding, she hurled the red knapsack into the stream.
"It's yours," she shouted.
Zhang knew how vital General Zhao Wei considered the Koran to be and immediately leapt into the stream while Yuanzhi laughed and ran off. As he fished the knapsack out of the water, he saw it was already soaked. Frantically, he opened it to see if the Koran was wet, and then let fly with a stream of coarse language. There was no Koran in the knapsack, only two registers from the main desk at the inn. He opened one and read of money collected from rooms for meals, and of servants' wages. He groaned at how he had allowed himself to be cheated and threw the registers and the knapsack back into the stream. If he took them back and someone asked about them, he would certainly lose face.
He returned quickly to the inn and quickly found Lead Escort Yan with the red knapsack still safely fastened to his back.
"Where did Wu and the officers go?" he asked.
"They were here a moment ago," Yan replied.
"What damned use is there in the Emperor employing people like that?" he demanded.
He walked up to Wen's door. "You Red Flower Society fugitives! Come out immediately!" he shouted. No sound came from the room. He kicked at the door and found it slightly ajar.
"They've escaped!" he yelled, and burst into the room only to find it empty. He noticed a lump under the bed covers, and flung them off, revealing two of Wu's officers lying face to face. He prodded his sword lightly at the back of one of them but there was no movement. He turned them over and saw they were both dead. Both their skulls had been smashed in. It was obviously the work of a master of Internal Strength kung fu, and his respect for Wen Tailai increased appreciably. But where was Wu? And in which direction had Wen and his wife escaped? He called for one of the servants and interrogated him without obtaining even half a clue.
But Zhang had guessed wrong: the officers were not killed by Wen Tailai.
Lu and Yuanzhi watched the whole fight through the window, and saw Zhang enter as the officers were leaving.
"That's the man who took the knapsack from me last night," Yuanzhi said.
"Go quickly and draw him away, the further the better," Lu whispered. "If I'm not here when you return, start out tomorrow without me and I will catch you up."
He watched Zhang chase Yuanzhi out of the inn gates then picked up a writing brush and hurriedly wrote a letter which he placed inside his gown. He ran to Wen's room and knocked lightly on the door.
"Who is it?" a woman's voice called.
"I am a good friend of 'Divine Knife' Luo," said Lu. "I have important news for you."
There was no answer from inside. Wu and the other two officers appeared and stood at a distance keeping watch, obviously suspicious of Lu. The door suddenly opened and 'Scholar' Yu looked out.
"May I ask who you are, sir?" he asked.
"I am your martial uncle 'Hidden Needle' Lu."
A look of hesitation appeared on Yu's face. He had heard of Lu but had never met him.
"I'll prove it to you," Lu whispered. "Stand aside."
Yu's suspicions deepened, and he planted his foot firmly on the opposite door post, blocking the way with his leg. Lu's left hand shot out, aiming to hit Yu's shoulder. Yu dodged, and Lu slipped his right hand underneath Yu's armpit and pushed him to one side using the first move in the Wudang school's Long Arm Fist style. "It really is 'Hidden Needle' Lu!" Yu thought, both surprised and delighted. As Yu back, Luo Bing raised her sword and dagger ready to attack, but Yu stopped her. Lu waved his hands at them, indicating they should stand clear, then ran back outside into the courtyard.
"Hey, they've gone!" he shouted to Officer Wu. "Come and see!"
Wu rushed into the room with the other two officers and Lu closed the door behind them.
Wu saw Yu and the others in the room and shouted frantically: "It's a trap!" But before the officers could turn, Lu's two fists smashed into their heads, shattering their skulls and killing them instantly.
More quick-witted, Wu leapt onto the kang, and with both hands raised to protect his head, threw himself at the window. Wen Tailai, who was lying on the kang, sat up and struck out with his left fist, breaking Wu's right shoulder with a sharp crack. Wu wavered, but steadied himself against the wall with his left foot, then broke through the window and escaped. Luo Bing launched a throwing knife after him which lodged itself in his back. But he ignored the pain, and fled for his life.
Yu and Luo Bing no longer harboured any suspicions about Lu, and they both bowed before him.
"Uncle Lu, please forgive me for not being able to pay my respects to you properly," Wen said from the kang.
"There's no need," said Lu. He looked at Luo Bing. "What is your relationship with 'Divine Knife' Luo?" he asked.
"He was my father."
"He was a very good friend of mine," Lu said. He looked at Yu and added: "You are a pupil of Ma Zhen's, I presume. How has Elder Brother been recently?"
"He is well," said Yu. "He has often expressed concern about you. He said he hadn't seen or heard anything of you for more than ten years."
"I miss him too," Lu said regretfully. "Did you know that another of your martial uncles has been here looking for you?"
Yu looked up in fright. "Zhang Zhaozhong?"
Lu nodded. Wen Tailai shuddered slightly at the sound of Zhang's name, and then gasped in pain. Luo Bing quickly went over and supported him with her hand, her face full of love and pity.
Yu looked on, absorbed. "To have a wife like that would be better than being a god, even if I was badly wounded," he murmured.
"Zhang has brought shame upon our school, but his kung fu is excellent," Lu said. "And I would guess that reinforcements will not be far behind him. With Brother Wen so badly wounded, I think all we can do at the moment is to avoid them."
"We will do whatever you suggest," Luo Bing said. She looked down at her husband, who nodded.
Lu pulled a letter from his gown and handed it to Luo Bing. On the envelope was written the words: "Respectfully adressed to Lord Zhou Zhongying, Iron Gall Manor."
"Do you know him?" asked Luo Bing, delighted.
Before Lu could answer, Wen said: "Who?"
"Lord Zhou Zhongying," replied Luo Bing.
"Is he here?"
"I have never met him, but we have been friends from afar for a long time," Lu said. "I think Brother Wen should hide there while one of us goes to your respected society to report what has happened." He saw a hestitant look on Wen's face. "What do you think, Brother Wen?"
"Your arrangements would be perfect, but I cannot deceive you. I am involved in a bloody feud with the Emperor Qian Long who won't be able to eat or sleep in peace until he sees me die with his own eyes. I know Lord Zhou would take us in, but I am afraid he would bring great trouble upon himself by doing so."
"To members of the fighting community, there is nothing more important than helping a friend in need," said Lu.
"But in my situation, the greater the friend, the less I am able to involve him."
"Refusing to involve others in your problems is an upright and manly thing to do. But I do think it's rather a pity."
"What is?" Wen asked quickly.
"If you refuse to go, we will have to stay here and fight. I don't want to exaggerate the enemy's strength or denigrate our own, but who do we have to match Zhang? I am nearly sixty years old, my life is of little value. But my martial nephew here has a promising future and your wife is full of youth. Just because you want to play the hero ... aah ... it means we will all die here."
Wen began to sweat profusely.
"Husband!" Luo Bing exclaimed. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow, then held his hand.
Wen's affection for his wife outweighed his sense of duty and he relented. "You are right," he said. "I will do whatever you say." But then he sighed. "Once we reach Iron Gall Manor, the Red Flower Society will be beholden to yet another person."
The Red Flower Society always took care to repay its benefactors and to exact revenge on its enemies -- hence the fearful reaction of the Zhen Yuan agency men.
"What relationship is Zhao Banshan to you?" asked Lu.
"Brother Zhao? He is third master of our society."
"So that's it! Just what your Red Flower Society is involved in, I don't know. But Zhao and I would willingly die for each other. In the old days when we were both in the Dragon Slayers' Society, we were closer than natural brothers. If he is a member of your society, then your affairs are certain to be just. What does it matter what great crimes you have committed? The biggest crimes are supposed to be the assassination of officials and rebellion. Ha! Well, I just killed two running dogs of officialdom!" He gave one of the corpses a kick.
"There's too much to explain," Wen said. "After this is over, if I live, I will tell you everything. But briefly, the Emperor sent eight Imperial Bodyguards to arrest my wife and myself. I was wounded in a fight at Jinquan but we escaped and came here. They'll get me sooner or later, but the Emperor has a secret I must expose before I die."
Lu asked where the Red Flower Society leaders were.
"The Red Flower Society has 12 masters of the Incense," said Yu. "Apart from Brother Wen and Luo Bing, they are already gathered in Anxi. We have asked the Young Helmsman to assume the leadership of the society, but he is unwilling to do so. He says he is too young and inexperienced and insists that Second Brother, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, should be leader. At present, the matter is deadlocked. The meeting to choose a new Helmsman will not start until Brother Wen and Luo Bing arrive."
Yu turned to Wen, his superior in the society's heirarchy. "Should I first return to Anxi to report?" he asked.
Wen hesitated, uncertain of what to say.
"Let us do it this way," suggested Lu. "You three start out immediately for Iron Gall Manor. Once you are settled there, Brother Yu can continue on his business. Meanwhile, I will go to Anxi to report."
Wen pulled a red silk flower from his gown and handed it to Lu. "When you arrive in Anxi, fasten this flower to your lapel and you will be met by someone from our society," he said.
Luo Bing helped her husband up while Yu lifted the two corpses from the floor onto the kang and covered them with the bedclothes. Then Lu opened the door and strode calmly out, mounted a horse and galloped off westwards.
After a short while, the others also emerged from the room, Yu leading the way. Luo Bing supported herself with the door bar in one hand and held up Wen with the other. The inn's staff shrank away as the three approached, and Yu threw three taels of silver onto the front desk.
"There's money for the room and the food," he said. "We have left two very valuable items in our room. If there is anything missing when we get back, we will deal with you."
The manager nodded rapidly, almost too scared to breathe. Servants led out their horses. Wen could not get either of his feet into the stirrups, so he placed his left hand on the saddle and with one push flew lightly onto the horse's back.
"Excellent kung fu, Master Wen," Yu praised him. Luo Bing gave a dazzling smile and mounted her own horse, and they rode off.
In the town, Yu enquired about the way to Iron Gall Manor, and they raced off southeast. Luo Bing was happy: she knew that once they got to the manor, her husband would be safe. Lord Zhou commanded great respect throughout the border regions.
The road was covered with loose stones and long grass which gave it a rather desolate air. Suddenly, they heard the sound of galloping hooves ahead and three horses raced towards them. The riders were all large, strong men, but one was particularly tall and impressive with silver-white whiskers and a smooth rosy face. In his left hand, he jiggled two iron balls together. As they passed, the riders looked at Wen in surprise, but they were galloping fast, and flashed past in an instant.
"I'm afraid that was Lord Zhou," Yu said.
"I was thinking that too," replied Luo Bing.
"We'll find out when we get to the Manor," said Wen.
A few miles further on, as evening drew near, Iron Gall Manor appeared before them. The wind was strong and the clouds low, but the rays of the setting sun shone brightly through the twilight. They looked at the lovely manor, set amidst an endless expanse of withered grasses and yellow sand. Seeking sanctuary as they were, the mood of the three was despondent, and the desolation of the area affected them all. They spurred their horses forward and found the manor was surrounded by a moat, the banks of which were covered with willow trees. The bare branches whirled and danced in the strong west wind. Around the manor were fortifications and a watchtower: it was an imposing sight.
One of the manor's attendants invited them in, seated them in the great hall and brought them tea. Then a middle-aged man with the air of a housekeeper came out to receive them. He said his name was Song, and asked Wen and the others for their names.
"I have heard much about you," he said, startled to hear that they were members of the Red Flower Society. "But I had thought that your honourable society was based in southern China. I wonder if you could tell me why you have come to visit our Lord? I am afraid he went out a short while ago." Song carefully weighed up the visitors and wondered what their intentions were.
Wen, meanwhile, was becoming angry at Song's coolness. "Since Lord Zhou is not at home, we will excuse ourselves," he said. "We came at an inopportune time." He stood up using a chair for support.
"There's no rush," Song replied. "Please stay and have a meal before leaving." He turned and whispered a few words to an attendant.
Wen insisted they would go.
"Well, please wait a while first, otherwise our Lord may blame me for neglecting honoured guests." As he spoke, the attendant re-appeared carrying a tray on which were two large silver ingots. Song took the tray.
"Master Wen," he said. "You have come a long way to visit our humble manor and we have not had a chance to look after you properly. Please accept this as a favour to me for your travelling expenses."
Wen, filled with rage, picked up both of the ingots with his left hand. "We did not come to your honourable manor to extort money," he said. "You underestimate us, friend Song."
Song quickly protested that he would not dare to suggest such a thing.
Wen laughed coldly and placed the ingots back on the tray. "Goodbye," he said.
Song looked down and started in fright. With just one hand, Wen had crushed the two ingots together into a flat cake of silver. He led the three toeards the gate, offering profuse apologies as he went. Wen ignored him. Three attendants led their horses up, and they mounted immediately.
Luo Bing took out a gold ingot many times more valuable than the silver offered by Song and gave it to the attendant holding her horse. "Thank you for your trouble," she said. "Here's a little something for the three of you to have a drink." For a moment, the attendants did not seem to believe their luck, then they began thanking her over and over again. Luo Bing smiled in reply.
Just as they were about to ride off, a rider galloped up, leapt off his horse and saluted Wen with his fists. "Please come into our humble manor and make yourselves comfortable," he said.
"We do not wish to trouble you," Wen replied. "We will visit again another time."
"We passed you on the road a while ago and our Lord guessed you were coming to the manor," the man continued. "He would have liked to turn back, but he has important business to attend to. So he ordered me to come to receive you. He is eager to make your acquaintance. He said he would definitely return tonight, and insisted that you stay at our humble manor."
Wen's anger melted as he heard the sincerity in the newcomer's voice, and they went back into the manor. The man introduced himself as Meng, Zhou's senior pupil, as Song stood to one side looking very uncomfortable. Guests and host sat down and fresh tea was served. An attendant whispered something to Meng who stood up and bowed before Luo Bing.
"Our lady invites you to go into the inner hall to rest," he said.
A maidservant led Luo Bing through a passageway and a woman in her forties strode out and grasped Luo Bing's hand familiarly.
"They told me just now that some members of the Red Flower Society had arrived and then left again. But you've come back and saved face for me. Our Lord will be so happy! Now, don't rush away. You can stay for a few days. Look, all of you," she said, turning to her maidservants. "Look how beautiful this girl is! She puts our girls to shame."
Luo Bing thought the woman was rather indiscreet. "What is your name, Madame?" she asked. "My husband is surnamed Wen."
"See how muddle-headed I am!" the woman said. "I'm so happy at seeing such a pretty girl that I've gone silly!"
"This is our lady," one of the maidservants explained.
The woman was Lord Zhou's second wife. His first had borne two sons, but both had died in fights. This second wife had given birth to a daughter, Zhou Qi, a wild girl of eighteen always getting into trouble, and it had seemed as if Zhou was destined to have no more sons. But in his fifty-fourth year, another was unexpectedly born. The couple were overjoyed to gain a son so late in life.
"Call the young master in quickly," Madame Zhou said after seating herself comfortably. "Let Madame Wen see him."
A lively, good-looking child emerged from the inner rooms and Luo Bing judged from his bearing that he had already received several years of training in the martial arts. He kowtowed
towards Luo Bing, who took hold of his hand and asked him his name and age.
"My name is Zhou Yingjie and I'm ten this year," the child replied.
Luo Bing unfastened the pearl bracelet from her wrist and gave it to him.
"We have come from far away, and I don't have anything nice to give you, but you can put these pearls round the edge of your cap," she said. Madame Zhou protested, but to no avail.
While they were talking, one of the maidservants rushed in crying: "Mistress Wen! Master Wen has fainted!"
Madame Zhou quickly gave orders to fetch a doctor while Luo Bing ran back to her husband. Wen's injuries were already serious, and he had used up a great deal of his remaining strength to squeeze the silver ingots together. Wen was unconscious, his face drained of colour. Luo Bing ran to him, calling his name over and over again. Slowly, he regained consciousness.
Meng dispatched an attendant to report to Lord Zhou that the guests were settled in. As he turned back inside after seeing the attendant gallop off, he noticed a figure dart behind a willow tree. He made no sign that he had seen anything unusual, but slowly walked back into the manor and ran up to the watchtower. After a while, he saw a a short man creep furtively out from behind one willow tree and run behind another.
Meng called for Lord Zhou's young son and whispered some instructions to him. Then he ran out of the manor gate, laughing and shouting: "Little brother, I'll pretend to be afraid of you, all right?"
The boy followed close behind, shouting: "Where do you think you're running off to? You won't admit defeat, will you? Come here and kowtow before me!"
Meng bowed and mockingly begged for mercy. The boy made a grab for him and Meng ran straight for the willow behind which the intruder was hiding. He charged straight into the man, knocking him flat.
It was the Zhen Yuan Agency's Lead Escort Tong. He had seen Wen and the others leave the inn and had followed them, determined to prove wrong those who said he was good for nothing but eating and talking. Tong had few abilities, but he was quick-witted and knew immediately that Meng had planned the collision to test his kung fu, so he let his whole body go loose,pretending that he knew none at all. Since his kung fu was mediocre, pretending to know none at all was not difficult.
"Excuse me," said Tong. "Is this the road to Sandaogou?" He tried to get up, but cried out in pain: "Ai-ya! My arm!"
"I'm very sorry," Meng said. "You're not hurt, are you? Please come into the manor and I'll have a look at you. We have some excellent medicinal ointments."
Tong was powerless to refuse. Meng helped him up and led him into an ante-room.
"Please undo your clothes and let me examine your wounds," Meng said. He felt around Tong's body, testing him. When an enemy's fingers touch fatal spots, a kung fu initiate would be forced to flinch.
"Heroic Uncle Tong is not afraid to die," Tong thought. "Act the lamb until the end!" Meng pressed the 'Solar Yuedao' points on his temples and toughed other Yuedao points on his chest and armpits, making Tong giggle.
"Ai-ya! Stop that! I'm very ticklish," he said.
They were all fatal points but Tong seemed unconcerned. Meng decided he really didn't know any kung fu. "From his accent, he isn't a local," he thought, still suspicious. "Could he be a petty thief, I wonder?"
Meng could not detain Tong without authority, so he walked him back towards the gate. Tong peered about him as they walked through the manor, trying to discover to where Wen and the others were. Meng decided he must be a scout for a gang of thieves.
"Be careful, my friend," he said. "Remember where you are."
Tong looked around in mock awe. "Such a big place! It looks like a great temple. Except there's no Buddha."
He asked Tong what his business was in the area.
Meng escorted him over the drawbridge and laughed coldly. "Goodbye friend," he said, clapping Tong heavily on the shoulder. "Come and visit us again sometime."
The pain from the blow went straight to Tong's marrow. Swearing profusely, he found his horse and galloped back to the Antong Inn in Sandaogou. As he entered the room, he saw Master Zhang, Officer Wu and the agency men together with seven or eight men he didn't know. They were in the midst of a discussion on where Wen Tailai might have escaped to. No one could think of an answer, and their faces were gloomy.
Tong smugly related how he had followed Wen, naturally omitting the part about his encounter with Meng.
Zhang was delighted. "Let's go," he said, adding with uncustomary warmth: "Brother Tong, you lead the way."
The whole group immediately set out for Iron Gall Manor, rubbing their hands in anticipation as they went. Tong boasted extravagantly of how he had used Lightness kung fu, and of the risks he had taken in tracking Wen. "This is an assignment from the Emperor himself, so Uncle Tong went all out against the renegades," he said.
Officer Wu, who had already employed a bone-setter to help mend his fractured shoulder, hurriedly introduced Tong to the newcomers. Tong started in fright as he heard their names: they were all top fighters employed by the court, famous martial arts specialists, both Manchu and Chinese, who had come specifically to arrest Wen Tailai.
** 8 **
Lu Feiqing galloped westwards, braving strong winds which whipped his face. Passing through Black Gold Gorge, he noticed the blood spilled during the previous day's battle had already been washed away by the rain. He covered about twenty miles in one stretch and arrived at a small market fair. Although the sky was growing dark, he was impatient to continue on his way but his horse was exhausted. As he considered what to do, he saw a Muslim at the edge of the fair leading two large, well-fed horses and looking around as if waiting for someone.
Lu went over and asked if he could buy one of them. The Muslim shook his head. Lu reached into his cloth bundle and took out a large silver ingot, but the Muslim shook his head again. Anxious and impatient, Lu turned the bundle upside down and six or seven more silver ingots fell out: he offered them all. The Muslim waved his hand to indicate the horse was definitely not for sale, and Lu dejectedly began to put the ingots back into his bundle. As he did so, the Muslim glimpsed a dart amongst the ingots, which he picked up and examined closely. It was the dart Huo Qingtong had thrown at Lu after he followed her to the Muslim camp site. He asked where the dart came from. In a flash of inspiration, Lu said Huo Qingtong was his friend and that she had given the dart to him. The Muslim nodded, placed the dart back in Lu's hand and passed over the reins of one of the horses. Delighted, Lu pulled out an ingot of silver again, but the Muslim waved his hand in refusal and walked away.
"I would never have guessed that such a flower of a girl would have such great influence among the Muslims," Lu thought.
He rode off, and in the next town, came across more Muslims. He pulled out the dart and was immediately able to trade his mount for another strong horse.
Lu continued to change horses the whole way and, eating dry provisions as he rode, he covered two hundred miles in a day and a night. Towards evening on the second day, he arrived at Anxi. Lu was a man of great strength, but he was getting on in years, and galloping for so long without rest had exhausted him. As soon as he entered the city, he took out the red flower Wen had given him and stuck it in his lapel. Only a few steps later, two men in short jackets appeared in front of him, saluted and invited him to accompany them to a restaurant. Once there, one of the men sat with him while the other excused himself and left. Lu's companion was extremely courteous, and ordered food and wine without asking any questions.
After three cups of wine, another man hurried in, came over to them and saluted with his fists. Lu quickly stood up and returned the salute. The man, aged about thirty, wore an ordinary gown. He asked Lu for his name and Lu told him.
"So you are Master Lu of the Wudang School," the man said. "We have often heard our Third Brother Zhao speak of you. I have great admiration for you. Our meeting today is very auspicious."
"What is your honourable name?" Lu asked.
"My name is Wei."
"Please take a seat, sir," Lu's first companion said. He saluted both Lu and Wei, and then left.
"Our Society's Young Helmsman and many of our brothers are here in Anxi," said Wei. "If we had known you were coming, they would certainly have all been here to greet you. In a moment, if you don't mind, we will go and everyone can pay their respects to you."
They left the restaurant and rode out of the city.
"You have met our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai and his wife," Wei said.
"Yes. How did you know?"
"The flower you are wearing is Brother Wen's. It has four green leaves."
Lu was surprised at how openly Wei talked about their society's secret signs, treating him not in the slightest like an outsider.
After a while, they arrived at an imposing Taoist monastery surrounded by tall, ancient trees. Over the main gate was a wooden tablet inscribed with four large characters: "Jade Nothingness Taoist Monastery". Two Taoist priests standing in front of the monastery bowed respectfully. Wei invited Lu inside, and a young apprentice priest brought tea. Wei whispered in his ear, and the apprentice nodded and went inside. Lu was just about to raise his cup when he heard someone in the inner hall shout: "Brother Lu! I've been worried to death about you..." It was Lu's old comrade, Zhao Banshan.
Zhao's questions came thick and fast. "Where have you been all these years? What brings you here?"
Lu brushed the questions aside. "There is an urgent matter to be discussed first. Your honourable society's Brother Wen is in serious trouble."
He outlined the predicament of Wen and his wife. Even before he had finished, Wei ran inside to report. While he was still talking, Lu heard Wei arguing loudly with someone in the courtyard.
"Why are you holding me back?" the other shouted. "I must go to help Brother Wen now!"
"You're too impatient," Wei replied. "It must be discussed by everyone first, and then it is up to the Young Helmsman to decide who goes." The other continued to protest.
Taking Lu by the hand, Zhao walked into the courtyard, and Lu saw the hunchback who had severed the tail of Yuanzhi's horse.
Wei gave the hunchback a push. "Go and pay your respects to Master Lu," he said. The hunchback walked over and stared dumbly at him for a moment. Lu knew the hunchback remembered his face and, uneasy at the thought of how Yuanzhi had laughed at him that day, he was about to apologise when the hunchback said:
"You have ridden more than two hundred miles in a night and a day to report on behalf of Brother Wen. I, Hunchback Zhang Jin, thank you!" He knelt down, and kowtowed to Lu four times, his head banging on the flagstones.
Lu wanted to stop him but it was already too late, so all he could do was to kneel down and return the gesture.
The hunchback stood up. "I am leaving now," he announced. As he passed through the circular doorway, a very short man coming in the other way caught hold of the hunchback. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"I am going to find Brother Wen and Mistress Luo Bing. Come with me." Without waiting for an answer, the hunchback pulled him along by the wrist.
The hunchback Zhang Jin had been born with a deformed body, but his strength was frightening. When talking to others, he often referred to himself as 'Hunchback Zhang', but anyone else calling him a 'hunchback' was courting disaster. He ranked 10th in seniority in the Red Flower Society; his travelling companion was Xu Tianhong who ranked seventh. Xu was very short and slight in build, almost the size of a dwarf, but his wisdom and resource made him the Red Flower Society's chief tactician, and the fighting community had dubbed him 'The Kung Fu Mastermind'.
One by one, the other members of the Red Flower Society came out and were introduced to Lu. They were all famous heroes and Lu recognised most of them after having passed them on the road several days before. The formal greetings were kept to a minimum, and after a moment the one-armed Taoist priest, who ranked second within the society, said: "Let us go and see the Young Helmsman."
They went through to the rear courtyard and entered a large room. On one of the wooden walls a huge 'encirclement chess' board had been carved.* (* the game, Wei Qi, is best known by its Japanese name - Go.) Two men were sitting on a couch about thirty feet away, fingering chess pieces and throwing them at the vertical board, each piece lodging itself in the lines which formed the squares. In all his wide experience, Lu had never seen chess played in such a manner. Playing white was a young man with a refined face wearing a white gown who looked like the son of a nobleman. His opponent, playing black, was an old man dressed in farmer's clothes.
"I wonder who this old hero is," Lu thought. "Never have I seen anyone with his strength and accuracy." He could see black was in a dangerous position, and that with just one more move by white, all the black pieces would be lost. The young man threw a piece, but his aim was slightly off: the piece failed to embed itself in the intersection of the lines and fell to the floor. The old man laughed.
"You missed," he said. "Admit defeat!" He pushed the chess pieces aside and stood up.
His opponent smiled. "We'll have another game in a while, teacher," he said. The old man saw the group entering, and strode out of the room without so much as a greeting.
"Young Helmsman," Zhao said. "This is Brother Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School." And to Lu: "This is our Young Helmsman. I hope you will get to know one another well."
The young man brought his two fists together in salute. "My name is Chen Jialuo. I would greatly appreciate your honoured counsel."
Lu was surprised to find that this Young Helmsman gave every appearance of being a dissolute young man from a wealthy family, the complete opposite of the rest of the bandit-like bunch.
Zhao informed the Young Helmsman of how Wen had taken refuge in Iron Gall Manor, and asked him for a plan of action. The Young Helmsman turned to the Taoist priest. "Priest Wu Chen," he said. "Please give us your advice."
A large, fat man, whom Zhao had introduced a moment before as 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, stood up and shouted: "Fourth Brother is badly wounded, someone we have never met before has ridden hard for a day and a night to report to us, and we are still deferring to each other. We will kill Fourth Brother with all this deference! Can we stop this nonsense? Who dares to disregard the wishes of the old Master? Young Helmsman, if you do not respect the dying wish of your foster father, you are unfilial. If you despise us brothers so much that you are unwilling to become our leader, then the Red Flower Society's seventy or eighty thousand members may as well go their separate ways."
Everyone began talking at once: "We cannot remain leaderless like this! If the Young Helmsman continues to defer, our devotion will be finished! Fourth Brother is in trouble! We must follow the Young Helmsman's orders and go to save him!"
The young man, Chen, looked greatly distressed. His eyebrows drew together in a deep frown as he silently pondered the problem.
"Brothers!" shouted one of the Twin Knights of Sichuan. "Since the Young Helmsman obviously despises us, we two intend to return to Sichuan as soon as Fourth Brother has been rescued."
Chen saw he had no alternative and saluted the heroes with his fists. "Brother Wen is in trouble and we can wait no longer. All of you insist that I become Helmsman, and because of the respect I have for you, I will do as you say."
The heroes of the Red Flower Society shouted and applauded with delight and relief.
"Well then," said the Taoist priest. "The Great Helmsman should now pay his respects to his predecessor and accept the Flower of Authority."
Lu knew that each society had its own special rites and ceremonies of which the initiation of a new leader was by far the most important. As an outsider, Lu felt uncomfortable about being present during such a ceremony, so he congratulated Chen and immediately excused himself. He was extremely weary after his journey, and Zhao led him to a room where he washed and slept. When he awoke, it was already night.
"The Great Helmsman has left with the others for Iron Gall Manor," Zhao said. "But he left me here to keep you company. We can follow on tomorrow."
And then, after two decades apart, the two men talked. They talked of the doings of the fighting community over the years, the good and the bad, the living and the dead, until the east grew light.
"Your Great Helmsman is so young," said Lu. "He looks like nothing more than just another rich man's son. Why are you all willing to follow him?"
"It would take a long time to explain," Zhao replied. "You rest for a while longer and we can talk again later when we're riding."