** 1 **
After two days and nights of being starved, frightened and angered, Qian Long's resistance was virtually worn away. On the morning of the third day, a boy appeared and said: "Master Dongfang, our master invites you to come and talk with him."
Qian Long recognized the boy as Chen's attendant, and he followed him down to the floor below.
As he entered, Chen, smiling broadly, advanced to greet him, and bowed. Qian Long returned the bow, and the two sat down. Xin Yan served some tea.
"Bring some titbits to eat," Chen ordered. A moment later, Xin Yan carried in a tray on which was placed plates of spring rolls, prawns, chicken and ham. He set out two sets of bowls and chopsticks and poured wine for them both.
"Please forgive me for not being able to see you sooner. I had to go to visit a friend who was wounded," said Chen.
"It is nothing."
"There is something I wish to talk to you about, but please eat first," Chen added. He chose a morsel from each plate, then put down his chopsticks and watched Qian Long wolf down the food.
When he had finished, Qian Long sat back, unspeakably contented, and raised his tea cup. He looked closely at the tiny Dragon's Well tea leaves and took a leisurely sip, savouring the feeling of the liquid seeping into his stomach.
Chen walked over to the door and pushed it open. "All the others are downstairs standing guard. There could not be a more convenient place for us to talk. No one will hear us," he said.
Qian Long's expression hardened. "Why did you have me brought here?" he asked. "What is it you want?"
Chen stepped forward and stared into his face.
"Do you still not recognize me, brother?" Chen asked after a moment's silence. The words were soft, the tone intimate, but they hit Qian Long's ears with the force of a clap of thunder, and he jumped. An expression of deep sincerity on his face, Chen slowly extended his hand and took Qian Long's.
"We are blood brothers," he said. "There is no need to continue the deception, my brother, I know everything."
Chen pulled on a chord beside a painting hanging on the wall and the painting rolled up to reveal a mirror. "Take a look at yourself," he said.
Qian Long stood up and gazed at himself in the mirror, wearing Chinese clothes: his face contained not the slightest likeness to a Manchu. He looked at Chen standing beside him, and had to admit that despite their difference in age, their faces were similar. He sighed and sat down.
"Brother, we were not aware of the situation before," said Chen. "We even took up arms against each other. The spirits of father and mother up in heaven must have been heartbroken. Luckily neither of us was hurt and nothing happened which cannot be rectified."
Qian Long felt a rasping dryness in his throat and his heart beating rapidly. A moment passed. "I asked you to go to Beijing with me to work, but you refused," he said finally. Chen turned and gazed out at the great river without answering.
"With your scholastic abilities," Qian Long continued, "what reason would there be for not promoting you? Such a situation would be of great benefit to our family and to the nation, to both you and I. Why be so disloyal and unfilial as to continue with this criminal course of action?"
Chen spun round. "I have never accused you of being disloyal or unfilial, or of acting criminally, and yet you accuse me of these things."
"Hah!" replied Qian Long. "It is true that ministers must be completely loyal to their emperor. But since I am already emperor, how could I be disloyal?"
"You are obviously a Chinese and yet you submit to the Manchus. Is that loyalty? When our father and mother were alive, you never attended to them properly. Is that filial behaviour?"
Beads of sweat dripped off Qian Long's forehead. "At the time, I did not know," he said quietly. "I first heard about it when the former leader of your Red Flower Society, Master Yu, visited me last spring. Even now, I'm not sure whether I believe it."
"Look at yourself," Chen said. "What resemblance is there to a Manchu? How can you have any further doubt?"
Qian Long brooded in silence.
"You are Chinese. The homeland of the Chinese people has fallen into the hands of the Manchus, and you yourself lead them in the oppression of our people. Is that not disloyal, unfilial and criminal behaviour?"
For a moment, Qian Long was at a loss for a reply. "And now I have fallen into your hands," he finally said, haughtily. "If you are going to kill me, then kill me. There is no point wasting words."
"But we made a pact on the embankment at Haining that we would never do anything to hurt one other," Chen replied softly. "How can I go back on my word? And anyway, now that we know we are blood brothers, we have even less reason to do each other harm." A tear trickled unbidden down his cheek.
"Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want to force me to abdicate?"
"No," said Chen, wiping his eyes. "You can continue to be emperor. But as the wise, enlightened founder of a new dynasty."
"Founder of a new dynasty?" Qian Long echoed in surprise.
"Yes. You will be a Chinese emperor, not an emperor of the Manchus."
Qian Long suddenly understood. "So you want me to drive out the Manchus?" he said.
"Yes, you will be emperor just the same, but instead of being regarded as a criminal and cursed by future generations, why not establish an outstanding and rejuvenating dynasty that will last?"
Chen saw from Qian Long's expression that his words were having the desired effect.
"Being the emperor you are at present, you are simply basking in the glory of the former Manchu rulers," he continued. "What is so special about that? Look at that man."
Qian Long went over to the window and looked down in the direction Chen was pointing, and saw a peasant in the distance hoeing the ground.
"If that man had been born in the Imperial Palace and you had been born in his farm house, he would be emperor, and you would have no choice but to hoe the field."
Qian Long started at the novelty of the idea.
"A man is born into the world and his life is gone in a flash," said Chen. "If you achieve nothing worthwhile, you decay and rot like grass and trees without leaving a trace behind. The emperors of the past who established their own noble dynasties were truly great men. Even a Tartar such as Genghis Khan could also be considered to be outstanding."
Every word stabbed deep into Qian Long's heart. If, he thought, if I really do as he says and throw the Manchus out and restore the Chinese homelands, I would truly be the founder of a dynasty and a man of greater achievements than any emperor before me.
Just as he was considering an answer, he heard the sound of dogs barking in the distance. Seeing Chen frown slightly, he looked out and spied four massive hounds galloping towards the pagoda with two figures following.
In the wink of an eye, they reached the base of the pagoda and there was a sharp challenge from below. Qian Long and Chen, in the second-highest storey of the thirteen-storey pavilion could not hear distinctly what was said, but they saw the two new-comers and their dogs charge into the pavilion. A moment later, there was a loud whistle indicating danger.
Seeing help had arrived, Qian Long was overjoyed. Chen looked around carefully, but could see no other signs of movement: the two intruders were alone.
He heard the shouts of youngsters mingling with the barks and growls of the dogs, indicating Zhou Qi and Xin Yan on the second floor were doing battle with the animals. All of a sudden, there were two screams, and two swords were hurled out of the window. Just then, 'Crocodile' Jiang wielding his mighty iron oar chased the four dogs out of the pagoda and began beating them mercilessly. Someone on the sixth floor and gave an ear-splitting whistle. The four dogs turned and raced away.
Noting the intruders had reached the sixth floor, Chen realised it meant Twelfth Brother, Ninth Brother and Eighth Brother had been unable to stop them. He groaned inwardly.
Suddenly, he saw 'Mastermind' Xu leap out of the seventh floor window onto the narrow roof pursued by a tiny old woman with a head of white hair and a sword slung over her back.
"Watch the dart!" Xu yelled with a wave of his hand, and his opponent hastily withdrew. But it had been merely a feint, and Xu took advantage of the trick to escape round the corner.
The old woman chased after him.
"Watch out!" Xu yelled.
"You bastard monkey," the old woman cursed. "You can't fool your grandma again."
She made a grab for him, but this time, it was no feint: a piece of tile Xu had picked up from the roof hurtled towards her. Unable to avoid it, the old woman blocked the tile with her hand and it shattered. The Twin Knights, standing guard on the eighth floor, appeared to be fully occupied dealing with the old woman's partner, for they gave Xu no help. Xu's kung fu was no match for the old woman's, and after a few moves, he was forced to dodge out of the way again.
Qian Long watched with pleasure as the two new-comers fought their way up, but Chen also seemed strangely unconcerned. He pulled a chair to the window so that he could sit and observe the battle. There were only two of them, he thought. In the end, they could not overcome all the Red Flower Society's fighters.
Then he heard the sound of more dogs barking in the distance intermingled with shouting and galloping horses.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Xin Yan raced in.
"The guards outside report that more than two thousand Manchu troops are approaching, heading straight for us," he told Chen, using the Red Flower Society's secret language.
Chen nodded and Xin Yan raced back downstairs. Qian Long did not understand what Xin Yan had said, but seeing Chen's anxious expression, he knew it was unwelcome news. He looked into the distance and spotted amongst the maple trees a white flag on which was written one large word: "Li". Overjoyed, he realized Commander Li had come to save him.
Chen leaned out of the window and shouted: "Brother Ma, retreat into the pagoda and prepare the bows and arrows!"
Suddenly the old woman rushed into the room with the heroes close behind. Lord Zhou attacked her with his great sword while Chen pulled Qian Long into a corner.
Xu motioned some of the others to guard the windows, and Chen shouted: "Throw down your sword and we'll spare you!"
The old woman could see she was surrounded, but she continued to fight, completely unafraid.
"I've seen her sword style somewhere before, I'm sure," Zhou Qi said to Xu.
"Yes, I thought it was familiar too," he replied.
The old woman forced Lord Zhou back a pace, then shouted at Qian Long: "Are you the emperor?"
"Yes, I'm the emperor," he replied hastily. "Are all the rescue forces here?" The woman leapt onto the table, then with her sword pointing straight out, flew at him like a great bird, thrusting the blade at his heart. The heroes had assumed she was one of Qian Long's underlings come to rescue him, and were caught completely unaware by this fast move. But Chen, who was standing by Qian Long's side, thrust his fingers at a Yuedao point on the old woman's arm. Her blade slowed, giving Chen time to draw his dagger and place it in the way of the sword. The two blades clashed, then both retreated two paces. Chen pulled Qian Long back and placed himself in front of him, then saluted.
"What is your honourable name, Madame," he asked.
"Where did that dagger of yours come from?" she replied.
Chen was surprised by the question. "A friend gave it to me," he said.
"What friend?" the woman demanded. "You are a servant of the Emperor. Why would she give it to you? What is your relationship with Master Yuan, the Strange Knight of the Heavenly Pool?"
"He is my teacher," said Chen, answering the last question first.
"So that's it," the woman said. "Your teacher may be peculiar, but he's an upright gentleman. How could you have dishonoured him by becoming a running dog of the Manchus?"
"This is our Great Helmsman, Master Chen," 'Iron Pagoda' Yang shouted. "Don't talk such nonsense."
The old woman's face took on a puzzled expression. "Are you the Red Flower Society?" she asked.
"Correct," said Yang.
She turned on Chen. "Have you surrendered to the Manchus?" she screeched in rage.
"The Red Flower Society is just and upright. How could we bend our knees before the Manchu court?" he replied. "Please sit down, madame. Let us discuss this calmly."
Her expression softened slightly. "Where did your dagger come from?" she asked again.
Having seen her kung fu style, and hearing her questions, Chen had already almost solved the puzzle.
"It was given to me by a Muslim friend," he said. The exchange of presents between boys and girls was not an ordinary thing, and Chen was unhappy about discussing the matter in front of everyone.
"Do you know Huo Qingtong?" the old woman demanded. Chen nodded.
"It was Sister Huo Qingtong who gave it to him," Zhou Qi interjected. "Do you know her? If you do, we're all on the same side!"
"She is my pupil," the old woman said. "Since you say we are all on the same side, what are you doing helping the Emperor, and stopping me from killing him?"
"We caught the Emperor," said one of the Twin Knights. "If he is to be killed, it will not be you who does it."
"Huh!" the woman exclaimed. "You mean you caught the emperor and brought him here?"
"This is a misunderstanding, Madame," said Chen. "We invited the Emperor to come here. We assumed you were palace bodyguards coming to rescue him, that is why we tried to obstruct you."
The old woman went over to the window and stuck her head out. "Come down, husband!" she shouted at the top of her voice. An arrow shot in through the window from below and the old woman grabbed it by its tail, then turned in one movement and threw the arrow so that it implanted itself in the table top.
"You untrustworthy rascal," she screeched at Chen as the arrow quivered. "What is the meaning of this?"
"Please don't be angry Madame," replied Chen hastily. "Our brothers at the base of the pagoda are not yet aware of the situation." He walked to the window planning to tell the heroes to stop firing and saw that the pagoda was already surrounded by Manchu troops.
"Third Brother," he said to 'Buddha' Zhao. "Tell the others to guard the doorway, but not to go outside." Zhao nodded and went downstairs.
"You must be Madame Guan," said Lord Zhou to the old woman. "I have long respected you."
Madame Guan nodded slightly.
"This is Lord Zhou Zhongying," said Chen to her.
"Ah, I have heard about you too," she said, then suddenly screeched out: "Husband, come down! What are you doing?"
The others all jumped at this unexpected outburst.
"Your husband is fighting with Priest Wu Chen," said Lord Zhou. "Let's go and explain the situation to them quickly."
Chen motioned to the Twin Knights to guard Qian Long, and the rest raced up the stairs to the thirteenth floor.
"Husband!" Madame Guan shouted. "They're the Red Flower Society!"
Her husband Bald Vulture, locked in fierce combat with the Taoist priest, started in surprise, and hesitated in his attack. "Really?" he said.
There was a laugh from above their heads and Master Lu Feiqing dropped to the floor.
"Excellent swordsmanship, excellent," he chuckled, nodding appreciatively at both Bald Vulture and at Priest Wu Chen.
"Do you recognize me?" he asked Bald Vulture.
Bald Vulture looked at him closely for a moment, then gave a shout.
"Ah! You're 'Hidden Needle' Lu," he exclaimed.
"That's right," Lu smiled.
"What are you doing here?" Bald Vulture asked.
Lu turned without answering and bowed before the old woman. "Madame, it has been many years since I last saw you, but your kung fu is better than ever!"
"Ah," exclaimed Bald Vulture again, staring at Lu's blade. "That's a very precious sword you have there!"
Lu smiled. "It belongs to someone else," he said. "I'm just using it temporarily." But let me introduce you. He introduced all the heroes, to 'Bald Vulture' Lin and his wife Madame Guan, the Tianshan Twin Eagles.
"I thought you two were living happily in the Tianshan mountains," Lu said. "And here you are, trying to kill the Emperor."
"You have all met my young pupil, Huo Qingtong," replied Madame Guan. "This affair started with her. The Emperor sent an army to attack the Muslims, but they couldn't match the Manchu troops' strength and lost some battles. Later, the Manchu grain supplies were ransacked..."
"That was the Red Flower Society," interrupted Lu. "They did it to help Muzhuolun."
"Mm, I heard about that," said Madame Guan. She glanced at Chen. "No wonder she gave you that dagger."
"That was before. We met when they came to recover their sacred Koran."
"You also helped to get that back. The way the Muslims talk of you, you're all great heroes!" Her tone suggested she disagreed. "After the Manchu troops lost their grain, they also lost a battle and Muzhuolun suggested peace talks. But just as the truce talks were getting started, the Manchu general got hold of some rations and attacked again."
"Manchu officers have no sense of honour," said Lu, shaking his head sagely.
"The ordinary people of the Muslim areas have been brutally treated by the Manchu troops," Madame Guan continued. "Master Muzhuolun asked us to help. We originally didn't want to have anything to do with it...."
"It was you!" Bald Vulture butted in accusingly. "Now you're trying to feign innocence."
"What do you mean, me? Look at the way the Manchus are burning and pillaging across the Muslim lands, oppressing the people. Don't you care?"
Bald Vulture grunted in indignation and was about to argue further when Lu raised his hand.
"You two are just the same as ever," he said with a smile. "As soon as you open your mouths, you're arguing. Don't take any notice, Madame, please continue."
She eyed her husband distastefully, then said: "We first thought of assassinating the Manchu general, Zhao Wei, but there wasn't much point in killing one general, because the Emperor would just send another and it would go on for ever. So we decided to kill the Emperor instead. We went to Beijing, but heard on the road that he had come down south. We followed him out of Hangzhou with our dogs using the tunnel you used to bring him here. At the time, we were very puzzled as to why the Emperor would suddenly want to travel around in tunnels."
"What? So you captured the Emperor?" said Bald Vulture. Chen nodded. "You did pretty well," Bald Vulture commented.
Suddenly, there was a roar from the Manchu troops around the base of the pagoda.
"I'll go and tell the Emperor to shut them up," said Xu, and ran downstairs. A moment later they saw Qian Long stick his head out of the window on the seventh floor and shout: "I'm here!"
"There's His Highness!" called Bai Zhen down below and the troops all prostrated themselves on the ground.
"I am all right up here!" Qian Long added. "There is no need for such noise." There was a pause, then he added: "All of you retire thirty paces!" They complied immediately.
"Seventh Brother directs the Emperor and the Emperor directs the troops," said Chen with a smile. "That's much better than charging out and killing and slaughtering. The Emperor is the most precious object under heaven. It is better to use him than to kill him." The others laughed.
'Leopard' Wei, who was watching the Manchu soldiers withdraw, saw several men in their midst with hunting dogs on leashes.
"Ah, I was wondering how they found their way here," he said. He took a bow from one of the attendants, and shot off two arrows, and there were two long screams and two of the dogs fell to the ground, dead. A roar went up from the Manchu troops, who speeded up their retreat.
"Master Lu, Lord Zhou," said Chen. "Please entertain the Twin Eagles while I go downstairs and have another talk with the Emperor."
As Chen reached the seventh floor, the Twin Knights and Xu bowed to him and retired. Qian Long was sitting despondently in a chair.
"Have you made a decision yet?" asked Chen.
"Since you have caught me, you might as well kill me if you are going to. What is the point of talking?"
Chen sighed. "It is such a pity," he said.
"What's a pity?"
"I have always thought of you as an extremely talented man and have pride in the fact my parents gave birth to such a good son, my brother. But..."
Chen was silent for a moment. "But although outwardly you appear to be a man of courage, you are virtually hollow inside. Not being afraid of death is the easiest thing in the world. But the formation of a grand designs, the making of great decisions, that is something that can only be done by a man with true courage. That is precisely what you are incapable of doing."
Qian Long was silent, but he appeared to be moved by Chen's words.
"All you have to do is to decide to restore the Chinese nation and we unruly fighters will immediately follow your every instruction," Chen added. "I can strike my chest and guarantee that they will not dare to do anything disrespectful towards you."
Qian Long nodded several times, but there was still an area of doubt in his mind which made it impossible for him to speak out. Chen guessed his thoughts.
"All I want is to see you throw the barbarian Manchus out of China," he said. "Then I will be content," he said. "Then I will ask you to allow me to retire to the seclusion of the Western Lake and live out the rest of my life in peace."
"What sort of talk is that?" said Qian Long. "If this Grand Design was achieved, your assistance would be required in planning affairs of state."
"We are getting ahead of ourselves," replied Chen. "But once the Grand Design has been completed, you must allow me to retire."
Qian Long slapped his hand down on the table. "All right," he said. "We'll do as you say."
Chen was overjoyed. "You have no further doubts?" he asked.
"None. But there is one thing I would like you to do for me. Your former Great Helmsman, Yu Wanting, had several items stored in the Muslim areas and said they were proof of my birth. Go and get them so that I can see them. Only then will my last doubts disappear. Then we will discuss detailed plans."
Chen felt this was reasonable. "All right," he replied. "I will start out tomorrow and get them myself."
"When you get back, I will assign you to the Imperial Bodyguard, then promote you to be commander of the Beijing garrison," said Qian Long. "I will gradually transfer the military power in every province into the hands of Chinese we can trust. I'll make you Secretary of the Armed Forces with orders to disperse the key Manchu Banner units, and then we can act."
Chen knelt down and performed the ritual act of obeiscence of a vassal before his Lord, but Qian Long hurriedly helped him up.
"An oath must be sworn in front of the others over this," Chen said. "There must be no reneging."
Qian Long nodded.
Chen clapped his hands once and ordered Xin Yan to help Qian Long change back into his original clothes.
"Please ask everyone to come to pay their respects to the Emperor," he said.
The heroes crowded in. Chen told them Qian Long had agreed to chase out the Manchus and restore the Chinese throne, then swore in a clear voice: "In future, we will assist Your Highness, and together plan the Grand Design. If anyone should reveal this secret, he will be damned by heaven and earth."
He drank a draught of a specially prepared brew of Covenant Wine to seal the pact, and Qian Long did likewise.
"Bald Vulture, Madame Guan," said Lu. "Come and drink a cup of the Covenant Wine as well."
"I have never believed the word of any official, so why should I trust their leader?" said Bald Vulture.
His right hand suddenly struck the wall, smashing a section of it to rubble and pulled out a brick. "Whoever breaks the covenant, betrays his friends, and destroys the Grand Design will be crushed like this!" he shouted harshly, and with one movement of his hand, the brick broke into a thousand pieces which tumbled to the floor. Qian Long looked at the hole in the wall and down at the smashed brick in fright.
"Even though you decline to join the vow, we are all friends," said Chen. "But I trust Your Highness will not vacillate and forget the covenant established today."
"Please rest easy over that," replied Qian Long.
"All right. Let us escort His Highness out," said Chen. Wei raced out of the pagoda and shouted: "Come and meet His Highness!"
Half-suspicious, Commander Li and Bai Zhen ordered the troops to move slowly forward, afraid that this was yet another Red Flower Society trick. Suddenly, they saw Qian Long emerge from the pagoda and prostrated themselves on the ground. Bai Zhen led a horse over and Qian Long mounted.
"I have been drinking and composing poetry with them here," he said to Bai Zhen. "I wanted a few days' peace and quiet and you had to make a mountain out a molehill and rob me of my pleasure."
The heroes returned to the pagoda.
"We are extemely happy to have met you all today," said Bald Vulture. "Especially Lord Zhou, whom we have respected for so long, and Master Lu, whom we have not seen for many years. But now my wife and I have some other minor affairs to deal with, and will take our leave."
Madame Guan pulled Chen over to one side. "Are you married?" she asked.
Chen blushed deep red. "No," he replied.
"Are you engaged?"
"Not engaged either," he said. Madame Guan smiled to herself. Then she suddenly screeched: "If you are ever so ungrateful as to turn your back on the one who gave you that dagger, I will never forgive you." Chen was so shocked by the outburst he was completely lost for a reply.
"You scorpion!" her husband shouted from the other side of the side of the room. "What are you lecturing that young man about? Let's be going!"
Madame Guan turned round, emitted an ear-splitting whistle and four dogs raced out of the trees. The couple bowed before the heroes and took their leave.
"Let us go back upstairs to talk," Chen said. They followed him back up to the top floor of the pagoda.
"I promised the Emperor that I would go to see my teacher and collect two important items from him," said Chen. "But let us first go to Heaven's Eye Mountain to see how Brother Wen and Brother Yu are doing and then make further arrangements."
They left the pagoda and Master Ma and his son returned to Hangzhou by themselves while the rest of the heroes galloped off westwards.
The trees on the hillsides were dense and dark. It was already deep autumn and Heaven's Eye Mountain was covered in fiery-red leaves and yellowing grass. Lookouts sent word of the approach of Chen and his comrades and Zhang Jin and the other heroes came down to greet them.
Luo Bing was not among them, and Chen's heart missed a beat, afraid that something had happened to her.
"Where's Fourth Sister?" he asked. "And how are Brother Wen and Brother Yu?"
"They're fine," Zhang Jin replied. "Fourth Sister said she was going to get a present for Fourth Brother. She's been away two days already. You didn't meet her on the road?"
Chen shook his head. "What present?"
Zhang Jin smiled. "I don't know. Fourth Brother's wounds have healed well, but he spends all his time in bed moping. Then Fourth Sister came up with this idea of going to get him a present. I wonder who will lose out as a result?" The others laughed.
They made their way up the mountain and entered the courtyard of a large mansion. Wen Tailai was lying dejectedly on a rattan couch. They told him briefly about what had transpired and then went to the room next door to see 'Scholar' Yu.
As they stepped inside, they heard the sound of sobbing. Chen walked over and pulled aside the bed curtain to reveal Yu lying face-down on the bed, his back shaking uncontrollably. Even girls like Luo Bing and Zhou Qi rarely cried, and they were shocked and embarrassed by his behaviour.
"Fourteenth Brother," Chen said quietly. "We've come to see you. How do you feel? Are your wounds very painful?"
Yu stopped crying, but did not turn over. "Great Helmsman, Brothers, thank you all for coming to see me. Forgive me for not getting up to greet you properly. My health has improved a lot over the past few days, but my face has been burnt so badly, it's so ugly that I cannot face anyone."
Zhou Qi smiled. "What does it matter if a man has burn marks on his face?" she said. "Don't tell my you're afraid you won't be able to find a girl willing to marry you?" Some of the heroes laughed at her lack of restraint.
"Brother Yu," said Lu Feiqing. "Your face was burnt while saving myself and Wen Tailai. When people hear of this act, do you think there is anyone who would not proclaim you to be a hero? What need is there for such distress?"
"You are right, uncle," said Yu, and burst into tears again.
The heroes returned to the main hall. Chen and Xu talked together in low tones, then clapped their hands and the heroes stood up.
"Brothers," said Chen. "So far, things have gone very well for us. But in the future, we will face even tougher problems. I will now give you your assignments. Ninth Brother, Twelfth Brother, you two go to Beijing and see what you can find out about the Emperor's plans and if he intends to break our pact. This will be extremely difficult to execute. You must both exercise great caution." Wei and Shi nodded.
"Now, the Twin Knights," Chen continued. "Please go to the Southwest and make contact with the fighters in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Eighth Brother, you go to Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, Priest Wu Chen to Hubei and Hunan. Thirteenth Brother and Brother Ma in Hangzhou will contact people in Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi, while I would like to ask Master Lu to deal with Shandong and Henan. I would like Lord Zhou, Master Meng, Brother Xu and Mistress Zhou Qi to handle the northwest provinces. Fourth Brother and Fourteenth Brother will remain here convalescing with Fourth Sister and Tenth Brother to look after them. Xin Yan will accompany me to the Muslim areas.
"I am not asking you to begin preparations for an uprising, but simply to improve relations with members of the fighting community in all areas and to provide a basis on which we can act later," he added. "Absolute secrecy is essential, so do not reveal anything to anyone no matter how close or respected they are."
"We understand," they replied in unison.
"In exactly one year's time we will all gather in Beijing. By that time, Fourth Brother and Fourteenth Brother will be fully recovered and we can begin the great task!"
Cheers arose from the heroes. They followed Chen out of the hall, elated by the prospect of the future.
Only Zhang Jin, assigned by the Great Helmsman to stay at Heaven's Eye Mountain, was unhappy. Wen guessed his thoughts, and went over to speak to Chen.
"Great Helmsman, my wounds are almost healed, and although Fourteenth Brother's burns are serious, he is recovering quickly," he said. "It is a bit much to ask us to stay cooped up here for a year. The four of us would like to accompany you to the Muslim regions. The trip would also help to take Fourteenth Brother's mind off other things."
"All right, we'll do it that way," Chen agreed. Zhang Jin ran joyfully in to tell Yu the news.
Lord Zhou took Chen aside. "Great Helmsman," he said. "The fact that we have discovered through Master Wen that you and the Emperor are blood relations is a matter worthy of great rejoicing. I would like to add to it one more happy event. What do you think?"
"You wish to hold a wedding for Seventh Brother and Mistress Zhou, is that right?"
"Exactly," Zhou replied, smiling.
Chen walked over to Zhou Qi, his face wreathed in smiles, and bowed before her. "Mistress, congratulations," he said.
She blushed deeply. "What do you mean?"
"I should call you Seventh Sister. Seventh Sister, congratulations!" He clapped his hands loudly and the heroes immediately fell silent.
"Just now, Lord Zhou told me he wants Mistress Zhou Qi and Seventh Brother to be married this evening. So we have something else to celebrate!"
The heroes cheered loudly and congratulated Lord Zhou and Xu. Zhou Qi hastily made for her bedroom in embarrassment.
"Tenth Brother!" Wei called to Zhang Jin. "Stop her. Don't let the bride escape!" Zhang made as to grab her and Zhou Qi chopped out with her left hand to fend him off.
"Help!" he cried in mock surprise, dodging to one side. "The bride's attacking me!"
A laugh escaped from her as she charged out of the hall.
Just then, there was the sound of bells outside and Luo Bing ran in carrying a large box.
"Oh good, everyone's here!" she cried. "What's happened to make you all so happy?" She looked enquiringly at Chen.
"Ask Seventh Brother," said Wei.
"What's happened, Brother Xu?" Luo Bing asked, but Xu was speechless for a moment. "Mm? That's strange. Has the Kung Fu Mastermind gone silly?"
'Crocodile' Jiang dodged behind Xu and held up his thumbs and made them bow to each other. "The Mastermind is getting married today," he said with glee.
"Oh, how awful, how awful!" Luo Bing exclaimed, absolutely delighted.
The others laughed. "What do you mean, awful?" asked 'Pagoda' Yang.
"If I'd known, I could have brought a sheep and some nice things back with me. As it is, I have almost nothing to give them as presents. Isn't that awful?"
"Will you let us all see what you've brought for Fourth Brother?" Yang asked.
Luo Bing smiled and opened up the box. Glinting inside were the two jade vases which the Muslims had sent to the Emperor along with their request for a truce.
"Where did you get them?" the heroes asked in astonishment.
"I was chatting with Fourth Brother and mentioned how beautiful the girl on the vases was, but he didn't believe me..."
"I'll bet Fourth Brother said: 'I don't believe she is more beautiful than you.' Am I right?" interrupted Xu.
Luo Bing smiled but did not answer. "Did you go to Hangzhou and steal them from the Emperor?" Xu asked.
Luo Bing nodded, very pleased with herself. "I got them so Fourth Brother could have a look. The Great Helmsman will decide what should be done with them after that, whether we should keep them or return them to Sister Huo Qingtong." Wen examined the vases and tutted in admiration.
"I was right, wasn't I?" asked Luo Bing. Wen smiled and shook his head. Luo Bing started, then realised her husband meant that the girl on the vase could not be more beautiful than she was. Her cheeks flushed.
"The Emperor has many top fighters around him and such precious items as these vases must have been very well guarded," said Priest Wu Chen. "How did you manage to steal them?"
Luo Bing told them how she had slipped into the Yamen, grabbed a eunuch and forced him to tell her where the vases were, slipped poison into the food of some of the guards, and made cat noises to distract the rest, then grabbed the vases. The heroes praised her artistry, all except Lu Feiqing.
"Fourth Sister," he said. "You are very brave, but was it wise to take such a risk alone just for the sake of a remark you made to Master Wen? As it happened, the Imperial bodyguards were fully occupied that particular night searching for the Emperor. If they had been there, things could have turned out differently."
"Yes," Luo Bing replied, then turned and stuck out her tongue at Wen.
The wedding ceremony took place amidst great merriment, and the next morning the heroes made their way down the mountain, wished each other well, and went their separate ways.
Chen and Lord Zhou were both heading for the northwest and Chen suggested they travel together. But Zhou said he wished to take advantage of their presence in the south to visit the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province whose style of kung fu was related to his own. So taking his wife and his assistant Meng with him, he headed south.
Chen, Wen, Luo Bing, Xu, Zhou Qi, Zhang Jin, 'Scholar' Yu and Xin Yan travelled north through Nanking. By the time they had crossed the Yangtse, Wen had completely recovered and Yu was progressing well. As they continued north, the weather became cooler, the grass and trees turned yellow as early winter set in. After passing through Kaifeng, Yu was well enough to ride a horse, and the eight of them galloped together along the highway. The north wind blew angrily, throwing dust and sand into their faces.
Wen, riding the white horse, galloped ahead of the others and stopped at an inn in a small village and told the servants to kill a chicken and prepare a meal, Then he sat down near the door to await the arrival of his friends. He ordered a pot of tea and wiped his face with the hot flannel brought out to him. Suddenly, a figure darted out from a room on the eastern side of the inn but immediately withdrew on catching sight of Wen.
About an hour later, Chen and the others rode up and Wen quietly informed them of what had happened. Xu looked round towards the room and saw a section of the window paper was wet with a black eyeball in the centre which immediately disappeared. He smiled.
"It's a novice," he said. "As soon as he starts, he reveals himself."
"Go over and see him," Chen said to Xin Yan. "If he has financial problems, lend him some money."
Xin Yan went over to the room and said in a loud voice: "All streams under heaven have the same source, Red Flowers and green leaves are all one family."
This was the Red Flower Society members' catch-phrase for identifying themselves to other members of the fighting community. Even if the other party was not an associate of the Red Flower Society, as long as he knew the phrase and asked for help, he would receive it. But all was quiet in the room. Xin Yan repeated his call, and the door creaked open and a figure dressed in black with a large hat pulled down low came out and gave him a letter.
"Give this to your Master Yu."
Xin Yan took the letter and the figure rsn out of the inn, jumped onto a horse and galloped away. He gave the letter to Yu who opened it and found the following written inside:
"What do ugliness and beauty have to do with true love? I will follow you even over a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers. And tell your Great Helmsman that the Three Devils of Guandong are on their way to the Muslim regions to get their revenge on Huo Qingtong for killing their martial brother." Recognising the calligraphy as being that of Li Yuanzhi, he frowned and handed the sheet to Chen.
Chen studiously ignored the first sentence, which obviously dealt with private romantic affairs. But he immediately informed the others of the news about the Three Devils of Guandong.
"They are tough fighters," said Wen. "I wonder if she can handle them?"
"We once watched Mistress Huo fighting with that Guangdong Devil, Yan Shizhang, and she proved herself to be a little better than him," Xu replied. "But if the Great Helmsman hadn't stepped in to save her, I'm afraid she would have fallen victim to his evil tricks."
"The eldest of the Devils, Tang Yilei, is very strong, a formidable man," said Wen.
"Since the Three Devils are already on their way, it would be best if someone went on ahead on Sister Luo Bing's horse," Xu suggested. "From the look of things, the military situation in the Muslim regions is tense, and Master Muzhuolun and his people must be busy making defensive preparations. We shouldn't let Mistress Huo be caught unawares by the Three Devils." Chen knew he was right, and he frowned silently.
"Great Helmsman, I think it would be best if you went on ahead," said Xu. "You speak the Muslim language, your kung fu is good, and the Three Devils have never seen you before. If General Zhao Wei has not withdrawn by the time you get there, you can also help the Muslims."
"All right!" said Chen after a moment's hesitation.
The white horse was extraordinarily fast, and in less than two days he arrived at Jiayu Fortress, the western end of the Great Wall. He climbed up onto the battlements and looked out at the Wall snaking away into the distance, holding at bay the great wilderness. He felt a sense of excitement at the thought of once more entering the border regions, and followed custom by throwing a stone at the wall. The sandstorms outside the Wall were perilous, the way would be hard, and according to tradition, if a traveller threw a stone at the wall as he passed through the Jiayu Gate, he would be able to return alive.
He travelled by day, rested by night. After he had passed the Jade Gate and Anxi, the desert changed colour gradually from pale to dark yellow, and then slowly turned to grey as he skirted the Gobi. The region was uninhabited, containing nothing but endless expanses of broad desert.
He passed through the Stellar Gorge, the main link between Gansu Province and the Muslim regions. It was already winter and the first accumulations of snow coud be seen along the gorge, providing a thrilling contrast of black and white.
"What a perfect place for an ambush," Chen thought.
That night, he lodged in a small hut and the next day found himself at the edge of the Gobi desert. The Gobi was as flat as a mirror, completely different from a sandy desert with its rolling dunes. Gazing into the distance, it seemed to him as if the sky and earth touched one another. All was silent, and it seemed as if he and his horse were the only beings in the universe.
The As he rode, day after day, he considered the problem of how to find Huo Qingtong. As a Chinese, the Muslims could suspect him of being a spy, so to gain their confidence he would have to resort to deception. He decided to disguise himself as a Muslim, and at the next settlement, bought a small embroidered cap, a pair of leather boots and a striped gown. Riding on, he found a deserted place and changed into his new clothes, burying the old ones in the sand. He looked at his reflection in a nearby stream and was so pleased with his appearance as a young Muslim boy that he let out a laugh.
But he met no Muslims on the road. The Muslim villages and dwellings he came upon were all burnt to the ground, obviously the good work of General Zhao Wei's army. He decided he was unlikely to meet any Muslims on the main highway, so he cut off south, and headed into the mountains. In such desolate wilderness, there was little chance of finding any settlement, and after three days, his dry rations were finished. But luckily, he managed to catch and kill a goat.
Two days further on, he met a number of Kazakh herdsmen. They knew that the Muslim army had retreated westwards in the face of the Manchu force, but had no idea where it had gone.
There was nothing for it but to continue west. Chen gave the horse its head and made no attempt to divert it. For four days he covered more than a hundred miles a day with nothing but sand and sky before his eyes.
On the fourth day, the weather turned hot. The burning sun scorched down on both man and horse. He wanted to find somewhere shady where they could rest, but wherever he looked there was nothing but sand dunes. He opened his water flask, drank three mouthfuls, and let the white horse drink the same amount. Despite a terrible thirst, he did not dare to drink more.
They rested for two hours, then started out once more. Suddenly, the white horse raised its head and sniffed at the wind, whinnied loudly, then turned and galloped off south. Chen gave it its head. Soon, sparse grasses began to appear on the sand dunes around them, then green grass. Chen knew there must be an oasis ahead, and his heart leapt. The white horse too was in high spirits and its hooves flew.
After a while, they heard the sound of running water and a small steam appeared before them. Chen dismounted and scooped up a mouthful of water. As he drank, he felt a coolness penetrate to his lungs and noticed a slight fragrance to the water. The stream was full of little pieces of ice which jostled each other, emitting a crisp jingling noise, like the music of fairies. After drinking a few mouthfuls, the white horse gave a whinny and gambolled about happily for a moment.
Having drunk his fill, Chen felt relaxed and content. He filled his two leather water flasks. In the midst of the sparkling ice fragments, he spotted flower petals floating past, and realized it must be flower beds further upstream which made the waters so fragrant.
"If I follow the stream up," he thought, "I may come across someone who can tell me where Huo Qingtong might be." He remounted and started along the bank.
The stream gradually widened. In the desert, most rivers and streams are larger close to their source as the water is soaked up by the desert sands and eventually disappears. Having lived many years in the Muslim areas, Chen did not consider it strange. The trees along the banks of the stream also increased in number and he spurred his horse into a gallop. As they turned a bend in the stream round a hill, a silver waterfall came into view.
Chen felt invigorated by the discovery of such a gorgeous place in the midst of the barren desert, and was curious to know what vistas would present themselves above the waterfall. He led the horse round and up, and as they emerged from a line of tall fir trees, he stopped in amazement.
Before him was a wide lake fed by another large waterfall at its southern end. The spray from the cascade spread out in all directions, combining with the sunlight to create a glorious rainbow, while a profusion of trees and flowers of many colours surrounded the lake and reflected in its turquoise-green waters. Beyond was a huge expanse of verdant grass stretching off to the horizon on which he could see several hundred white sheep. A high mountain rose into the clouds from the western bank of the lake, the lower slopes covered in green foliage and the upper slopes in brilliant white snow.
He stood staring at the scene for a moment. The sound of small birds singing in the trees and ice slabs in the lake jostling against each other combined with the roar of the waterfall into a work of music. Looking at the surface of the lake, he suddenly noticed a circle of small ripples, and a jade-white hand emerged from the water followed by a dripping-wet head. It turned and saw him, and with a shriek disappeared back into the water.
In that moment, Chen had been able to see that the head belonged to an extremely beautiful young girl.
"Could there really be such things as water spirits and monsters?" he wondered. He pulled out three chess pieces and lodged them in his palm just in case.
A string of ripples stretched across the surface of the lake northwards, then with a splash, the girl's head re-emerged amidst an outgrowth of flowers and bushes. Through a gap in the leaves, he could see her snow-white skin, her raven hair splayed out over the surface of the water and her eyes, as bright as stars, gazing across at him.
"Who are you?" a clear voice asked. "Why have you come here?"
She spoke in the Muslim language, and although Chen understood, he was unable to answer. He felt dazed, as if drunk or in a dream.
"Go away and let me put my clothes on," the girl said. Chen's face flushed and he quickly went back into the trees.
He was extremely embarrassed and wanted to escape, but he thought he should at least ask the girl for news of Huo Qingtong. For a while he was undecided. Then the sound of singing, soft but clear, floated over from the opposite side of the lake:
"Brother, brother, passing by,
He walked slowly back to the lake and, looking across, saw a young girl dressed in a brilliantly white gown sitting bare-foot on a bed of red flowers by the water's edge. She was slowly combing her long hair, still covered in beads of water, as flower petals drifted slowly down onto her head. He marvelled that such a beautiful girl could exist.
The girl smiled radiantly and motioned with her hand for him to come over.
"I was passing this way and felt thirsty," Chen said in the Muslim language. "I chanced upon a stream and followed it here. I did not expect to run into you, miss. It was an unintentional error. Please forgive me." He bowed as he spoke.
"What is your name?" she asked.
"I am called Ahmed."
This was the most common name among Muslim men, and the girl smiled again.
"All right," she said. "Then my name Ayesha." This was the most common name among Muslim women. "Who are you looking for?"
"I have to find Master Muzhuolun."
The girl looked startled. "Do you know him?"
"Yes, I do," said Chen. "I also know his son, Huo Ayi, and his daughter, Huo Qingtong."
"Where did you meet them?"
"They travelled to the central plains to recover the sacred Koran and I happened to come across them there."
"Why are you looking for Master Muzhuolun?"
Chen recognised the note of respect in her voice. "Is he of the same tribe as you, miss?" The girl nodded.
"They killed a number of bodyguard agency escorts while recovering the sacred Koran, and friends of the escorts are now seeking revenge. I want to warn them."
The girl had had a smile constantly playing around her lips, but now it disappeared. "Are the men that are coming to take revenge very terrible?" she asked. "Are there many of them?"
"No, not many. They are good fighters, but as long as we are prepared, there is nothing to fear."
The girl relaxed and smiled again. "I will take you to see Master Muzhuolun," she said. "We will have to travel for several days." She began to plait her hair. "The great Manchu army came and attacked us for no reason and all the men have gone away to fight. My sisters and I have remained here to watch over the livestock."
As she talked, Chen gazed at her in wonder. He could never have imagined such jade-like beauty, even in his wildest dreams. Such a scene, such a situation was simply not of this world.
The girl finished combing her hair, picked up an ox horn and blew several notes on it. A short while later, a number of Muslim girls on horse-back galloped towards them across the pastures. She went over and talked with them while the other girls weighed Chen up, very curious as to who he was. She then walked over to a tent pitched between the trees and came back leading a chestnut horse carrying food and other essentials.
"Let's go." She mounted in one effortless bound, and rode off ahead of him heading south along the course of the stream.
"How did the Chinese people treat you when you were in the Chinese areas?" she asked as they rode along.
"Some well, some not, but mostly well." Chen replied. He wanted to tell her he was himself Chinese, but her complete lack of suspicion somehow made it difficult for him to do so. She asked about what the Chinese regions were like. Chen chose a few interesting stories to tell her, and she listened enthralled.
As the sky grew dark, they camped for the night underneath a huge rock by a river. The girl lit a fire, roasted some dried mutton she had brought and shared it with Chen. She was silent throughout, and Chen did not dare to speak, as if words would desecrate the sacred purity of the scene.
The girl began telling him about her youth, how she had grown up as a shepherdess on the grasslands, and how she loved flowers more than anything in the world.
"There are so many, many beautiful flowers on the grasslands. As you look out, you can see flowers stretching to the horizon. I much prefer to eat flowers than mutton."
"Can you eat flowers?" Chen asked in surprise.
"Of course. I've been eating them since I was small. My father and my elder brother tried to stop me at first, but when I went out by myself to look after the sheep, there was nothing they could do. Later, when they saw that it did me no harm, they didn't bother about it any more."
Chen wanted to say that it was no wonder she was as beautiful as a flower, but he restrained himself. Sitting beside her, he became aware that her body exuded a slight fragrance, more intoxicating than that of any flower. Light-headed, he wondered what lotion she used that was so fragrant. Then he remembered the rules of etiquette and discreetly moved to sit a little further away from her. The girl saw that he had noticed the fragrance and laughed.
"Ever since I was young, my body has given off a fragrance," she said. "It's probably because I eat flowers. Do you like it?"
Chen blushed at the question and marvelled at her simplicity and frankness. But gradually, his reticence towards her faded.
The girl talked of shepherding, of picking flowers and looking at stars and of the games that young girls play. Since leaving home, Chen had spent all his time amongst the fighting community and had long ago forgotten about these child-like matters. After a while, the girl stopped talking and looked up at the Milky Way sparkling its way across the heavens.
Chen pointed up. "That constellation is the Weaving Girl star," he said, "and that one on the other side is the Cowherd Star."
She was fascinated by the names. "Tell me the story about them," she said, and Chen told her how the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl fell in love but found themselves separated by a silvery river, the Milky Way, and how a stork built a bridge across to unite them once a year.
The girl looked sombrely up at the stars. "I have never liked storks before, but seeing as they built a bridge to bring the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl together, I have changed my mind. From now on when I see them, I will give them something to eat."
"They may only be able to meet once a year, but they have done so for hundreds of millions of years. They are much better off than we ordinary people, doomed to die after a few decades," Chen replied. The girl nodded.
The desert had grown very cold with the coming of night and Chen went to look for some dead wood and grass to build up the fire. Then they wrapped themselves in blankets and went to sleep. Despite the distance between them as they slept, it still seemed to Chen that he could smell the girl's fragrance in his dreams.
Early next morning they started out again heading west, and after several days arrived at the banks of the Tarin River. That afternoon, they chanced upon two mounted Muslim warriers. The girl went over and spoke with them and after a moment the Muslims bowed and left.
"The Manchu army has already taken Aksu and Kashgar, and Master Muzhuolun and the others have retreated to Yarkand," she reported to Chen. "That's more than ten days's ride from here."
Chen was very concerned at the news that the Manchu forces had scored a victory.
"They also said that the Manchu troops are so numerous that our army's only option is to retreat and stretch their lines of communication. When their rations are exhausted, they will not have enough strength left to fight."
Chen decided the Muslim force would probably be safe for a while using this strategy. Once Qian Long's order to halt the war arrived, General Zhao Wei would retire with his troops. Huo Qingtong was now far away from central China and had the protection of a large army, so there was no longer any reason to fear the vengeful Devils of Guandong, Tang Yilei and his two friends. With that thought, he relaxed.
They travelled by day and slept by night, talking and laughing as they went. As the days passed, they became closer and closer, and Chen found himself secretly hoping that the journey would never end, that they could continue as they were forever.
One day, just as the sun was about to disappear beneath the grasslands, they heard a bugle note, and a small deer jumped out of a spinney of trees nearby. The girl clapped her hands and laughed in delight.
"A baby deer!" she cried. The deer had been born only a short time before and was very small and very unsteady on its feet. It gave two plaintive cries and then leapt back into the trees.
The girl watched it go, then suddenly reined in her horse. "There's someone over there," she whispered.
Chen looked over and saw four Manchu soldiers and an officer carving up a large deer while the fawn circled around them making pitiful cries. The dead deer was obviously its mother.
"Goddamn it, we'll eat you too!" cursed one of the soldiers, standing up. He fixed an arrow on his bow and prepared to shoot the fawn which, ignorant of the danger, moved closer and closer to him.
The girl gave a cry of alarm. She jumped off her horse, ran into the trees and placed herself in front of the fawn. "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" she cried. The soldier started in surprise and took a step backwards, dazzled by her beauty. She picked up the fawn and stroked its soft coat. "You poor thing," she crooned. She glanced hatefully at the soldier, then turned and walked out of the trees with the fawn.
The five soldiers whispered amongst themselves for a moment, then ran after her, shouting and brandishing their swords. The girl started running too and quickly reached Chen and the horses. The officer barked out an order and the five fanned out around them.
Chen squeezed the girl's hand. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I'll kill these villains to avenge the death of the fawn's mother." She stood beside him, the fawn cradled in her arms. Chen stretched out his hand and stroked the animal.
"What you doing?" the officer asked haltingly in the Muslim tongue. "Come here!"
The girl looked up at Chen, who smiled at her. She smiled back, confident that they would not be harmed.
"No weapons!" the officer shouted, and the other soldiers threw their swords to the ground and advanced. Strangely, despite the usual preference of soldiers for young maidens, they seemed cowed by her glowing beauty and made for Chen instead. The girl cried out in alarm, but before the cry was fully out, there was a whooshing sound and the four soldiers flew through the air, landing heavily on the ground some distance away. They grunted and groaned, unable to get up, for they had all been touched on Yuedao points. The officer, seeing the situation was unfavourable, turned and fled.
"Come back!" Chen ordered. He sent his Pearl Strings flying out and wrapped them around the officer's neck, then sharply pulled him back.
The girl clapped her hands and laughed in delight. She looked over at Chen, her eyes full of admiration.
"What are you doing here?" he asked the officer in the Muslim language. The officer clambered to his feet, still dazed. He looked around and saw his four comrades lying morionless on the ground and knew he was in trouble.
"We, General Zhao Wei, soldiers, orders, here, we here," he replied.
Well said, thought Chen. "Where are the five of you going? You'd better tell me the truth."
"Not cheat," the officer said, shaking with fear. "Orders, go, Stellar Canyon, meet people."
His stuttering Muslim speech was unclear and Chen switched to Chinese. "Who are you going to meet," he asked.
"A deputy commander of the Imperial Guard."
"What is his name? Give me the documents you are carrying."
The officer hesitated then pulled an official document from his pocket. Chen glanced at it and noted with surprise that it was addressed to "Deputy Commander Zhang Zhaozhong".
Master Ma Zhen took Zhang away to discipline him, he thought. How could he be on his way here?
He ripped the letter open and read: "I am delighted to hear you have received Imperial orders to come to the Muslim regions, and have sent this detachment to meet you." It was signed by General Zhao Wei.
If Zhang is coming at the Emperor's command, he must have been entrusted with passing on the order to retreat, Chen thought. I shouldn't interfere. He gave the letter back to the officer, released the paralysis of the four soldiers, then rode off with the girl without saying another word.
"You are very capable," the girl said. "Such a man as yourself would certainly be very well known in our tribe. How is it I have never heard of you before?"
Chen smiled. "The little fawn must be hungry," he said. "Why don't you give it something to eat?"
"Yes, yes!" she cried. She pured some horse's milk from the leather gourd into her palm and let the fawn lap it up. After a few mouthfuls, the fawn bleated mournfully. "She's calling for her mother," the girl said.
"Is that a storm brewing?" Chen asked.
The girl studied the horizon. "They're not rain clouds," she said. "It's dust from the ground."
"How could there be so much?"
"I don't know. Let's go and look!" They spurred their horses forward, and as the swirling dust cloud rose before them, they began to hear the sound of metal clashing with metal drifting over towards them. Chen reined in his horse.
"It's an army," he said. "We must get out of the way quickly." They turned and rode off east, but after a while, another dust cloud arose in front of them and a column of mounted troops appeared. Amidst the dust, Chen saw a huge flag inscribed with the name of General Zhao. Having already clashed once with Zhao's armoured troops at the Yellow River crossing, he knew them to be formidable fighters, and he motioned to the girl with his hand and galloped off southwards. Luckily, both their horses were swift, and after a moment's hard riding, the armoured column had dropped far behind.
The girl looked anxious. "I hope our army will be able to hold their own," she said. Chen was just about to say something comforting when horns sounded in front, and rank upon rank of soldiers appeared over a rise. To the left, there was a thundrous ground-shaking roar and a vast carpet of cavalry moved across the hills towards them. With one sweep of his left arm, Chen swung the girl onto his horse and took out his shield to protect her.
"Don't be afraid," he said. The girl, still hugging the little deer, looked round at him and nodded. "If you say there's no need to be afraid, then I won't be," she said. As she spoke, her soft, orchid-like fragrance, enveloped him, and feelings of tenderness rose within him despite the danger of their situation.
With enemy troops advancing from the east, north and south, Chen urged the white horse westwards as her chestnut horse followed along behind. After a while, they spotted Manchu troops ahead of them once more. Very worried, Chen spurred the horse up onto high ground to get a better idea of the Manchu positions and to look for a gap through which they could escape. But he could see at a glance that they were completely surrounded by the Manchu army. To the west, beyond the thousands of Manchu foot soldiers in close ranks protected on both flanks by cavalry, was the Muslim army, also an imposing force with a forest of spears and scimitars rising above the striped gowns of the warriors. The two sides had halted, obviously in preparation for battle, and Manchu officers rode back and forth making final prepartions. The huge army gradually became deathly quiet. Chen and the girl had by this time been noticed, and several soldiers approached to question them.
"The gods have conspired to deliver us into the hands of the Manchus," Chen thought. But the idea of dying with the girl beside him gave him a strange pleasure. He grasped the Pearl Strings in his right hand, the reins in his left, and shouted: "Let's go!"
The horse galloped off towards the end of the Manchu lines, and in the blink of an eye, had passed three companies of troops. Rank upon rank of armoured soldiers, bows at the ready, passed before them, and Chen knew that with one word from the Manchu commanders, he and the girl in his arms would immediately become the repositories of a thousand spears and ten thousand arrows. He pulled the reins in tightly and slowly cantered along, not even glancing at the soldiers.
The morning sun had just risen, and as they rode towards it, the troops stared in shock at the girl's glorious beauty, her hair, face, arms and gown splashed with pale sunlight, and each one, whether general or trooper, found his heart thumping furiously. They watched as the two gradually rode off into the distance.
Even General Zhao, who was in personal command, was overcome by a feeling of calm and peace, and he knew he was in no mood for killing. Looking round, he found all his officers and underlings likewise had expressions of serenity on their faces. They had already replaced their swords in their scabbards, and were obviously awaiting the general's order to retire.
"Return to camp," Zhao said in a far-away voice. The order was relayed back, and the tens of thousands of soldiers turned and went back to their camp site more than ten miles away beside the Black Water River.
Chen was covered in a cold sweat and his hands shook with fear, but the girl looked un-worried, apparently unaware of the great danger they had passed through. She smiled at him and leapt over onto the back of the chestnut horse.
"That is our army in front," she said. Chen put away his shield and galloped towards the Muslim lines. A small detail of cavalrymen rode out to meet them, shouting and cheering as they came, then jumped off their horses and bowed before the girl. The officer in charge walked over to Chen and bowed before him too.
"Brother, you have endured great hardship. May Allah the true God protect you," he said.
Chen bowed in return and thanked him. The girl rode straight into the Muslim ranks without waiting for Chen. She obviously commanded a degree of respect, for wherever the chestnut horse went, the soldiers made way for it with cheers.
A brigade commander invited Chen to the barracks to eat and rest, and Chen told him he wanted to see the tribe's leader, Master Muzhuolun.
"The Master has gone to observe the enemy's strength," the commander replied. "When he returns, I will immediately inform him." Following the long journey and the tense encounter with the Manchu army, Chen felt worn out, and after he had been shown to a small tent, he immediately slept.
Some time after noon, the commander returned to say that Muzhuolun was now not expected to return until evening. Chen asked him who the white-gowned girl was.
The commander smiled. "How could anyone be more beautiful than she?" he said. "We are having a love-match meeting tonight. Why don't you come along, brother? You will be able to meet our leader there."
Chen did not press him further. Towards evening, he saw the young warriors donning their finery, each face alive with excitement. The desert evening sky slowly deepened in colour and a thin crescent moon rose above the horizon. Chen heard the sound of music strike up and soon afterwards, the commander came into the tent.
"The new moon has risen," he said, taking Chen's hand. "Let us go, brother!" The two walked towards a huge bonfire where the young Muslim warriors were gathering. All around, people were roasting beef and mutton, and preparing various delicacies while others played musical instruments. A horn blew, and a group of people emerged from a large tent near the bonfire, among whom Chen recognised Muzhuolun and his son, Huo Ayi. Chen decided he would wait until the official ceremony was over before revealing himself, and turned up the collar of his gown to hide his face.
Muzhuolun motioned to the crowd, and they all knelt down and prayed to Allah. When the prayer was ended, he spoke.
"Those brothers who have already taken legal wives, I am afraid I must ask you to go and stand guard," he said. "Let your younger brothers have a pleasant evening."
Three columns of warriors formed up. Huo Ayi, flourishing his sabre, led them off into the darkness.
Having lived many years in the Muslim regions, Chen knew that although marriages were arranged by parents according to various considerations of wealth and property, the procedure was still much more liberal than that of the Chinese. The love-match party was a tradition among the Muslims that had been passed down for many generations at which young, unmarried boys and girls could seal their romances and become engaged. The initiative was taken by the girl, who would place a belt round the neck of her chosen boy and lead him to dance.
After a while, the music became softer in tone. The tent door flaps parted and out came a large group of young Muslim girls who sang and danced their way towards the bonfire. They all wore colourful clothes and small caps laced with gold and silver threads which sparkled brightly in the firelight. Chen noticed two beautiful girls walking over to Muzhuolun, one in yellow, the other in white, and with a start, he recognised them as Huo Qingtong and the girl who had brought him to the Muslim camp. Under the moonlight, they both looked extremely graceful and attractive. The two girls sat down, one on either side of Muzhuolun.
A thought suddenly struck Chen. "The girl in white must be Huo Qingtong's younger sister. No wonder I kept thinking her face was familiar: it's the same face as that on the jade vases, although the drawing does not even come close to reproducing her real beauty."
His heart began to thump wildly. From the day he had first met Huo Qingtong, his love for her had begun to grow, but the familiar closeness between her and Lu Feiqing's pupil had convinced him that she already had a suitor. Also, having spent the past few days with such a matchless beauty, his romantic thoughts had turned completely towards the white-gowned girl.
The music stopped, and Muzhuolun's voice rang out clearly: "The prophet Mohammed teaches us in the Koran in the 190th verse of the second chapter: 'Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you', and in the 39th verse of the 22nd chapter: 'To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they are wronged, and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid.' We are being oppressed and Allah will certainly assist and protect us." A thunderous cheer went up from the crowd. "Brothers and sisters!" he shouted. "Enjoy yourselves fully!"
Singing and laughter rose all about, accompanied by the music of Horse Head fiddles. Cooks distributed roast meat, honeymelons, dried grapes and horse milk wine among the throng. Everyone held in their hands a small bowl made out of salt rock in which they rubbed the roast meat. After a while, the new moon rose up into the sky and the merry-making became even more intense. Some of the young girls jumped up and danced over to the boy of their choice, took the embroidered belt from their waists and placed it round the boy's neck, then led him off to dance near the bonfire.
Chen had grown up in a world of strict conventions and had never before seen an occasion of such open-minded and unrestrained merriment. With the singing ringing in his ears and emotions swirling through his heart, he found his face beginning to flush after only a few cups of horse's milk wine.
The music stopped momentarily, then started again, even faster than before. Everyone looked curiously towards Muzhuolun, and following the direction of their gaze, Chen saw the white-robed girl had stood up and was floating gracefully towards them. The crowd was greatly excited and a hubbub of discussion arose. Chen heard the cavalry commander beside him say: "The Fragrant Princess has chosen a lover. But who could possibly be worthy of her?"
That his beloved younger daughter had found a boy she loved was a great surprise and a great joy to Muzhuolun. He watched her intently with tears glistening in his eyes.
Princess Fragrance glided round and round, passing along the edge of the circle that had formed. In her hands, she held a brilliantly-embroidered belt and she softly sang:
"Please come out,
The words hit Chen's ears like a clap of thunder. A white hand touched his shoulder and the embroidered belt fell around his neck. The Princess tugged gently and Chen, scared out of his wits, followed her. The crowd cheered, and all around him people started singing.
In the hazy moonlight, Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong failed to recognise Chen, and walked forward to congratulate him along with the others thinking he was an ordinary Muslim. Suddenly, they heard three blasts from a distant horn, the signal for danger, and the crowd immediately dispersed. Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong returned to their seats. The Princess took Chen's hand and led him off to sit at the back of the crowd. Chen felt her soft body leaning towards him, and a light fragrance entered his nostrils, intoxicating his senses. He truly could not tell if he was in a dream or in heaven.
All eyes turned in the direction from which the horn blast had come. Two Muslim guards rode up and reported to Muzhuolun: "The Manchu General Zhao Wei has sent an envoy who requests an audience."
"All right," replied Muzhuolun. "Bring him here." The two riders galloped off, and returned with five other riders who dismounted about a hundred feet from the crowd.
The Manchu envoy was robust man and walked towards them with powerful strides. But his four attendents made the Muslims jump in surprise. All four were giants, a good two heads higher than ordinary men, and their bodies were broad and thick.
The envoy strode up to Muzhuolun and nodded at him. "Are you the head of the tribe?" he asked arrogantly. The Muslims were outraged, and several of the younger warriors drew their sabres. The envoy ignored him.
"I am under orders from General Zhao Wei to give you an ultimatum," he announced loudly in the Muslim tongue. "If you know what's good for you, you will surrender immediately, in which case your lives will be spared. Otherwise, our two armies will meet at daybreak the day after tomorrow and you will be completely annihilated. It will be too late then for regrets."
The crowd of Muslims sprang to their feet in rage, but Muzhuolun, with a wave of his hand, ordered them to be seated and turned to the envoy. "You come without reason or justification and kill our people, steal our property. The True God on High will punish you for your dishonourable behaviour. If you want to fight, we will fight. Even if our army is reduced to only one man, that man will still never surrender."
The Muslims raised their sabres and repeated his words in unison: "If you want to fight, we shall fight!" they roared. "Even if our army is reduced to only one man, he will never surrender!" The mood was sombre but determined. The Muslims knew the Manchu force was powerful and that in a battle to the finish, the chances were they would lose. But they were loyal believers in Islam, they loved freedom and would be no man's slave.
The envoy looked about him and sneered. "All right," he said. "The day after tomorrow, each and every one of you will die." He spat savagely onto the ground in a calculated insult, and three young Muslims leapt towards him. "Today, you are an envoy, so you will be allowed to leave safely," one of them shouted. "But when we meet on the battlefield, we will not be so polite."
The envoy's mouth twisted in anger, and his four giant attendants roughly pushed aside the three Muslim boys and took up positions around him.
"Ha!" The envoy cried in contempt. "You useless scum! We'll give you a taste of our Manchu skills!" He clapped his hands and one of the four giants glanced round and strode over to a poplar tree nearby to which several camels were tethered. He grasped its trunk in his arms and after a few rigorous shakes, pulled the tree bodily from the ground. Then he snapped the reins of one of the camels and gave it a kick on its rump, sending it racing away in great pain. When the camel was more than a hundred feet away, another of the giants sprinted after it and in a moment caught up with the animal. He swung the huge camel onto his shoulders, ran back towards the bonfire and set it back on its feet, then stood proudly beside it. "Huh!" exclaimed the third giant in contempt, and drove a fist at the camel's head. The animal swayed unsteadily and crashed to the ground. The fourth giant grabbed hold of its two hind legs and swung it round and round above his head, then with a shout let it go. The camel fell to earth sixty or seventy feet away.
The giants, known as the Four Tigers, were quadruplets, and their mother had died giving birth to them. Their father was a poor hunter in the forests of Manchuria, and with his wife dead, he had no milk to feed the four babies, but soon after, he heard a mournful cry outside in the forest and found a female tiger caught in a trap. He and a companion were tying the animal up when he happened to notice three tiger pups lying close by. In a flash of inspiration, he killed the pups and took the tiger back to his hut where he reared her, feeding her meat every day, and milking her to feed his four sons. From the start, they were uncommonly big and strong, and became more so as they grew. The only problem was that they were a little stupid and impetuous.
The Muslims were startled by this amazing show of strength, but unwilling to appear weak before the enemy, they roared out their defiance.
"What are you doing, killing a good camel? Are you inhuman?" someone shouted. The envoy curled his lips into another sneer. The crowd became even more incensed, and it looked as though he would be mobbed.
"So you're going to bully an envoy, are you?" he shouted.
Muzhuolun restrained the crowd with difficulty. "You are an envoy, but you ordered your men to kill one of our camels, which is a great insult," he said. "If you were not guests here, I would not let you get away with it. Leave immediately."
"Do you think we Manchus are afraid of you scum?" the envoy shouted. "If you have a reply, give it to me to pass on. I'm sure none of you would dare to go and hand it to General Zhao Wei personally." Another roar went up from the Muslims.
Huo Qingtong jumped to her feet. "You say none of us would dare to go to see General Zhao Wei. Huh! Every single person here would dare, men and girls alike." The envoy looked stunned for a second, then threw back his head and roared with laughter. "If any of these girls didn't die of fright on seeing General Zhao Wei, I would be amazed."
"Don't underestimate us," replied Huo Qingtong angrily. "We will send someone back with you immediately. Pick someone yourself. Whoever you choose will go. You will see what spirit we followers of Mohammed have," The Muslims roared their approval and everyone began shouting "Choose me! Choose me!"
"All right," said the envoy coldly. He wanted to find the weakest, most useless girl who would immediately burst into tears so that the Muslims would lose face completely. His eyes roved over the crowd, searching back and forth, and suddenly lit up. He walked over to Princess Fragrance and pointed at her. "Let her go!" he said.
The Princess glanced at him and slowly stood up. "For my tribe, for my brothers and sisters, I would go anywhere without fear. Allah the true God will surely protect me," she said.
Her apparent weakness had given way to calm dignity. Faced with her stunning beauty, the envoy involuntarily lowered his eyes, and he felt a tinge of regret at his choice. Muzhuolun, Huo Qingtong and the other Muslims, although proud that she had not displayed weakness, were nonetheless anxious. Huo Qingtong was particularly worried. Her sister knew no kung fu, and could not be allowed to enter the Tiger's Lair unprotected. "She is my sister," she said. "I will go in her place."
The envoy laughed. "I always knew the word of a girl could not be relied upon. If you don't have the nerve, why bother sending anyone? War or surrender, I can take the message for you."
"If we meet on the battlefield and if you don't run away, I'll let you see whether us girls are useless or not," said Huo Qingtong, livid with anger.
"I would naturally be merciful with a beauty such as you," he replied, smiling. The Muslims gnashed their teeth at his insolence.
"Sister, I will go," the Princess said to Huo Qingtong. "Don't be afraid." She pulled Chen up by the hand. "He will go with me."
In the light of the flames from the bonfire, Huo Qingtong suddenly recognised Chen and stared at him in shock. Chen surreptitiously motioned with his hand indicating that she should not reveal his identity yet, then turned to the envoy.
"We mean what we say," he said. "I will go alone with her to see General Zhao Wei. Unlike you, we do not require four giants to protect us. What use are these giants anyway?"
"A camel can carry a load of thousand catties, but a man can only carry one tenth as much," added the Princess. "Should the man ride the camel or the camel the man?" A great laugh went up from the crowd at this taunt.
"What are they laughing at?" one of the four giants asked the envoy.
"They say that you are useless even though you are large and strong."
Incensed, the giant beat his chest with his hands. "Who dares to match himself against me?" he roared.
"What use are you?" the envoy said to Chen. "You've just a little stripling. Even if you were ten times stouter, you would still not be as strong as he."
Chen decided this envoy needed to be cut down to size to save the face of the Muslims. He took three steps forward.
"I may be the most useless member of our tribe but I am still better than you Manchus," he said. "Tell those four hulks to come over here."
By this time, Muzhuolun had also recognized Chen. "Daughter, look who it is!" he cried to Huo Qingtong in surprise and joy. The girl did not answer. Muzhuolun looked over and saw her eyes brimming with tears, and realised both his daughters were in love with the same man. He wondered how Chen had met his younger daughter.
Next to the giants, Chen looked like a small child. He had come forward, the Muslims decided, for the honour of the Princess and the tribe, but was obviously no match for the giants. Chen raised his hands to the crowd.
"Brothers," he said. "These Manchurians are useless. Let me deal with them by myself."
The envoy translated his words to the four giants, who angrily sprang forward to grab Chen. Chen stood solid, smiling faintly, and the envoy hurriedly restrained the four.
"Since this gentleman wants a contest, there will be no blame if anyone gets hurt," the envoy said to Muzhuolun. "It must be one against one, no-one else is allowed to interfere."
Muzhuolun grunted once.
"What fun is there in one to one?" said Chen. "Tell the four of them to come at once."
"How many will there be on your side?" the envoy asked.
"How many? Why, just myself of course." A murmur ran through the crowd: he had gone too far this time.
The envoy laughed coldly. "Are you Muslims really so formidable? First Tiger," he said to the largest of the four giants. "You first." First Tiger strode forward. "You will take it in turns to punch each other. Neither is allowed to block or retreat. The first one to fall loses."
"One is not enough," Chen said. "If we are going to fight, let them all fight together."
The envoy began to suspect Chen had some plan worked out. "Don't worry," he said. "If you beat this one, the others will come after you of their own accord."
Chen smiled. "All right. It's all the same to me." The giant ripped off his upper clothing, exposing ranks of huge, rippling muscles. Huo Qingtong glanced furtively at her sister and saw her gazing intently at Chen, her eyes full of adoration and love. Huo Qingtong sighed and looked over at Chen, and as their eyes met, he smiled warmly. She blushed and looked away.
"We will draw lots to decide who strikes first," said the envoy.
"You are the guests. You may go first," replied Chen. He took two steps towards the giant and thrust out his chest, "Hit me!" he said.
"Please come over here," the envoy said to Huo Qingtong. "We two will act as judges. Whoever moves his feet, uses his arms to deflect a blow, bends or dodges away will be considered the loser."
Huo Qingtong walked over and stood with the envoy as Chen and the giant faced each other, less than an arm's length apart. The huge crowd stood silently about them, watching intently.
"The Manchurian gentleman strikes the first blow," the envoy called out. "The Muslim gentleman will strike the second blow. If both are still all right, then the Manchurian gentleman will strike again followed by the Muslim gentleman. Right! The Manchurian shall strike!"
The silence was broken by the sound of First Tiger breathing deeply. Joints all over his body cracked loudly as he concentrated his strength. Suddenly, the right side of his chest bulged outwards and his right arm swelled to almost twice its normal size. Chen leaned slightly forward. "Punch me," he said.
Several Muslim men moved behind Chen to catch him. Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong silently prayed to Allah, but Princess Fragrance was unworried. If Chen said he was unafraid, there was certainly nothing to be afraid of.
The giant crouched slightly, then with a mighty roar slammed his right fist at Chen's chest. But at its maximum extension, the fist only lightly grazed the lapel of Chen's gown. Dumbfounded, the giant stared at Chen, neglecting even to withdraw his fist.
"Is that it?" Chen asked. The giant blushed deep red and hastily retracted his arm.
To the crowd, it looked as if the blow had struck home, and they were puzzled that Chen seemed unaffected. Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong, however, knew that he had made use of Inner Strength Kung Fu to draw in his chest. Huo Qingtong smiled brilliantly and breathed a sigh of relief. The envoy, also a kung fu expert, scowled in annoyance.
Chen smiled. "Now it's my turn," he said.
"Go ahead!" First Tiger roared. He thrust out his hairy chest and Chen's fist shot out and punched it lightly. The giant felt no pain, but was aware of a great force pushing him backwards and put all his weight into countering it by leaning forward. Suddenly, Chen withdrew his fist, and with no time to stabilise himself, the giant toppled forward and crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. All this took place in the blink of an eye. There was a stunned silence for a second, then the crowd erupted in applause and laughter. The envoy rushed over to help First Tiger who was wailing as blood poured from his mouth: two of his front teeth had snapped off.
Seeing their brother injured, the other three giants charged at Chen with a single howl of rage. Chen skipped around behind Third Tiger and shoved him at Second Tiger. Fourth Tiger lunged at Chen with his arms out-stretched, but Chen ducked down and ticked his armpit as he passed. Fourth Tiger was very ticklish, and he immediately rolled into a ball, laughing hysterically.
Chen danced amongst the four, making them look foolish without even hitting them. The envoy could see that Chen was a martial arts master and tried vainly to stop the fight. But once roused, the four Tigers were impossible to stop. They closed in on Chen again, First Tiger from in front while the other three closed off his line of retreat behind. Chen waited until First Tiger was within arm's length then toppled him over backwards with a push, grabbed his leg and hurled him away so that he landed head-first in the hole where the tree he had up-rooted had stood.
Fourth Tiger roared and kicked out with his right leg, but Chen grabbed his trousers and shirt, lifted him up and with a solid kick sent him flying through the air. The giant landed with a thump on the corpse of the camel he had himself killed.
While Fourth Tiger was still in the air, Second and Third Tiger charged at Chen from opposite directions. Chen waited until they were almost upon him before leaping out of the way, and the two giants smashed into each other and toppled like a great pagoda to the ground. Before they could clamber to their feet, Chen tied their two queues together, then with a laugh, he walked back to Princess Fragrance's side. The Princess clapped her hands in delight as the other Muslims cheered and shouted.
The Four Tigers picked themselves up and the envoy rushed over and struggled to undo the knot in Second and Third Tigers' hair. The four giants looked across at Chen, not in hate but in respect. First Tiger raised a thumb in Chen's direction.
"You're good," he said. "I concede defeat." He bowed, and the other three giants followed suit. Chen hurriedly returned the compliment. Seeing their simple nature, he began to rather regret the way he had played with them.
Fourth Tiger suddenly ran over and brought back the camel's corpse while Third Tiger led their horses over to Muzhuolun.
"It was wrong of us to kill your camel," he said. "We give these four horses to you in compensation." Muzhuolun declined the offer with thanks.
The envoy was extremely embarrassed by this turn of events. "Let's go!" he shouted to the Four Tigers and leapt onto his horse. He turned to Princess Fragrance.
"Do you really dare to go?" he asked.
"What is there to be scared of?" she replied. She walked over to Muzhuolun. "Father, write out a reply and I will deliver it for you." Muzhuolun hesitated. If she didn't go, the whole tribe would lose face, but if he let her go, he would worry endlessly. He motioned Chen over, and led him by the hand into the tent with Huo Qingtong and her sister following behind. Once inside, Muzhuolun immediately hugged him.
"Great Helmsman," he said. "What fortuitous wind is it that has blown you here?"
"I was on my way to the Tianshan Mountains on personal business and heard some important news which I wanted to pass on to you. By coincidence, I met your daughter, who brought me here." Princess Fragrance was dumb-struck at hearing her father call Chen 'Great Helmsman', and seeing the shocked expression on her face, Chen said: "There is something I must apologise for. I did not tell you that I am Chinese."
"Great Helmsman Chen is a good friend of our tribe," Muzhuolun added. "He recovered our sacred Koran for us. He has saved your sister's life and recently intercepted the Manchu army's rations which slowed their advance and gave us time to collect our forces. The favours he has rendered us are truly uncountable." Chen modestly declined the compliments.
"I don't blame you at all," the Princess said with a smile. "I'm sure you didn't tell me who you were because you did not want to bring up all the things you have done for us."
"That Manchu envoy was unforgivably arrogant," said Muzhuolun. "It was fortunate that you intervened, Great Helmsman. You certainly deflated his pride. He chose my daughter to be our envoy. What do you think we should do?"
Chen was reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the tribe. "I come from the interior of China and know nothing of the situation here, sir," he said. "If you decide that she should go, then I will do my utmost to protect her. If you feel it would be better for her not to go, then we will think of some other way to deal with him."
"Father, you and my sister worry everyday about the affairs of the tribe," Princess Fragrance interrupted. "Making one trip as an envoy is no big affair. And if I don't go, the Manchus will laugh at us."
"I am just afraid that they will want to harm you, sister," said Huo Qingtong.
"Every time you go out on the battle field you risk your life, so it is only right that I should risk my life this once," the Princess replied. She looked at Chen. "He is so capable, if he goes with me I won't be the slightest bit afraid, not at all."
Huo Qingtong could see how deep her sister's feelings were for Chen, and an inexpressible emotion swept through her heart.
"Father," she said. "Let her go."
"All right then, Master Chen, I entrust my young daughter to you." Chen blushed and Princess Fragrance's eyes, as bright as autumn rain, gazed up at him. Huo Qingtong looked away.
Muzhuolun wrote out a reply which said simply: "We will fight. Allah will protect us." Chen nodded his head in approval. Muzhuolun handed the note to Princess Fragrance, then kissed her cheeks.
"Allah will protect you, sister," said Huo Qingtong. "I hope you come back soon." The Princess hugged and thanked her. A feast was organised to entertain the Manchu envoy, after which there was music and dancing to see off the guests, then the envoy raised his hand and galloped off with Princess Fragrance and the others following behind. Huo Qingtong watched the seven figures disappear into the darkness and felt a great emptiness in her chest as if her heart had disappeared with them into the infinite desert.
"Your sister is very brave," Muzhuolun said. She nodded, then suddenly covered her face and ran inside the tent.
They galloped for most of the night, and arrived at the Manchu camp at dawn. The envoy ushered Princess Fragrance and Chen into a tent to rest then went off alone to see General Zhao Wei. As he bowed before the general, he noticed a military official seated beside him wearing the uniform of a Deputy Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard.
"My report, General," he said. "I delivered the ultimatum and their reply was perverse. They refuse to surrender and have sent someone to present you with their answer."
Zhao Wei grunted. "These people are truly ignorant unto death," he said, and turned to one of his attendants. "Prepare for an audience," he ordered. Horns blew and drums rolled and all the senior officers of the army gathered in the great tent. Then three hundred armoured troops formed two lines outside and the Muslim envoy was summoned.
Princess Fragrance walked fearlessly in ahead of Chen. The officers recognized them instantly as the two they had seen the day before crossing their lines, and all felt surprised. Zhao Wei had planned to overawe the envoy with a show of military might, and was taken aback for a moment when a beautiful girl appeared. Princess Fragrance bowed before the general, then took out her father's note and offered it to him with both hands.
One of Zhao Wei's bodyguards moved forward to accept the letter. As he neared her, he was overwhelmed by her sweet fragrance and lowered his head, not daring to look at her directly. His eyes lighted on her flawless white hands, and he stood stock still, completely flustered.
"Bring the letter here!" Zhao Wei shouted.
The bodyguard started in fright, then stumbled and almost fell. The Princess placed the letter in his hands and smiled at him. The bodyguard gazed at her, oblivious of all else. Only after Princess pointed at Zhao Wei and gave him a slight push, did he go and place the letter on the table in front of the general.
Zhao Wei was furious at the sight of his bodyguard so spell-bound. "Take him out and behead him!" he roared. Several soldiers ran forward and dragged the bodyguard outside the tent, and a moment later, a bloody head was brought in on a plate and presented to the general.
"Put it on public display!" Zhao Wei ordered, and the soldiers began to retire. But the Princess was heart-broken at the sight of such cruelty and at the thought that the bodyguard had died because of her. She took the plate from the soldiers and gazed at the head, tears falling one after another down her cheeks onto the floor.
The officers in the tent were by now completely carried away by the sight of her, and any one of them would have willingly died for her. "If she cried before my head, would not death be welcome?" they thought. Suddenly, the soldier who had performed the execution, greatly distressed at the sight of her crying, shouted: "I did wrong to kill him. Don't cry!" He slashed his sword across his own neck and fell to the ground, dead.
Princess Fragrance became even more upset. Chen was uneasy about the situation: an envoy should not cry in such a fashion, and he leaned forward to comfort her.
Zhao Wei was a man of great cruelty and brutality, but even his heart softened at the sight of her tears. "Bury these two properly," he said to his attendants. He opened the letter and read it with a grunt.
"Right," he said. "We fight tomorrow. You may leave."
"General," the officer sitting next to him suddenly interrupted. "I think this girl may be the one the Emperor wants."
Chen's attention had been directed entirely at Princess Fragrance, but hearing the officer speak, he looked up and saw it was Zhang Zhaozhong. At the same instant Zhang also recognised Chen, despite his Muslim disguise.
They stared at each other, amazed at finding the other in such a place.
"Well, Great Helmsman," Zhang said, and laughed coldly. "Fancy meeting you here."
Chen grabbed Princess Fragrance's hand and turned to leave, but as he did so, Zhang bounded over and struck out at him with all his might. Chen picked the Princess up in his left hand, deflected Zhang's blow with his right and charged out of the tent with Zhang close on his heels. None of the other officers or soldiers intervened to stop Chen. All were dazzled by the Princess, and considered this Imperial Guardsman was interfering in matters that should not concern him.
Chen ran for their horses, and as Zhang closed in, he threw six chess pieces at him. "I'll keep him busy," he shouted to Princess Fragrance. "You escape on the horse!"
"No, I'll wait for you to beat him."
Chen had no time to explain, and dumped her on the saddle of the chestnut horse as Zhang dodged the projectiles and attacked again. Not daring to face him head on, Chen crouched down underneath the white horse and punched it in the belly. The horse kicked out with its back legs in fright, straight at Zhang, who just managed to jump clear.
"Go!" shouted Chen as Zhang grabbed for Princess Fragrance, and her horse leapt forward just in time. Chen knew he was no match for Zhang on equal terms, so he drew his dagger and thrust out with it. Zhang caught his wrist and the two fell to the ground, rolling together, neither daring to let go of the other.
The officers crowded out of the tent to watch, and the Four Tigers, who had great respect for Chen and were annoyed at the way he was being treated, ran over to help him.
Chen's strength was fading as he grappled with Zhang, and when he saw the four giants running over he thought: "Oh no, this is it." But instead of attacking him, the four grabbed Zhang and pinned him to the ground, shouting: "Get away!" All Zhang's skill was not enough to counter the immense strength of the Four Tigers, and Chen leapt to his feet, mounted the white horse and galloped off after Princess Fragrance. Zhang stared after them helplessly as they disappeared into the distance.
The two horses raced like the wind and were soon beyond the army's furthest guard posts. Chen's fight with Zhang had been short but extremely intense, and after riding on for a while, he gradually felt his control slipping. Princess Fragrance saw he was in difficulty, and noticed his wrist was covered in black and purple stripes.
"They won't be able to catch us now," she said. "Let's dismount and rest for a while." Chen fell off his horse, and lay on the ground, shuddering and gasping. The Princess pulled a container of sheep's milk from her leather satchel and rubbed some onto his wrist. Chen gradually recovered, but just as they were getting ready to start out again, they heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw several dozen soldiers riding after them. They leapt onto their horses without bothering to pick up their belongings and sprang forward. A moment later, Chen noticed a dust cloud rising in front, and cursing their bad luck, galloped on ahead of the Princess. As they rode closer, he saw that there were only seven or eight riders in the group ahead, and his anxiety eased. He reined in his horse and took out his Pearl Strings to prepare for the riders as they closed in.
Suddenly, one of the riders shouted: "Great Helmsman, how are you?" Chen looked through the dust and saw it was a hunchback.
"Tenth Brother!" he yelled, overjoyed. "Come here, quick!" As he spoke, the first arrow from the pursuing Manchu troops flew towards them.
"Enemy soldiers are chasing us," Chen shouted. "Hold them off for a while!"
"Excellent!" Zhang Jin exclaimed. 'Leopard' Wei galloped up as well and the two charged at the Manchu horsemen. As Chen watched in surprise, Wen, Luo Bing, Xu, Zhou Qi, and Yu Yutong galloped passed him with cries of greeting on their way to engage the Manchu troops. Xin Yan raced up behind, leapt off his horse and kowtowed before Chen.
"I have arrived, master," he announced, standing up.
Wen and the others quickly killed or dispersed the Manchu troops, but in the distance they could see a much larger force heading towards them. They rode back to Chen.
"Which way shall we go?" Wen asked.
Chen looked at the size of the pursuing enemy force and decided it would be best to try and lead them away from the main Muslim army to the west.
"South," he said, pointing with his hand. The others complied automatically. They were all riding good horses, and slowly drew away from their pursuers as they galloped across the featureless desert stretching out about them. Chen wondered why General Zhao Wei would send such a huge force after the two of them, and suddenly recalled Zhang Zhaozhong's remark: "I think this girl is the one the Emperor wants." As he considered the significance of this, he noticed another column of soldiers riding round to head them off from the south. The heroes reined in their horses, uncertain of what to do.
"We must make some sort of cover quickly, and wait until dark to escape," said Xu.
"Yes," Chen agreed. "Travelling across the desert in daylight is impossible." They dismounted and used their weapons and bare hands to dig a large hole in the sand.
"You go in first, sister," Luo Bing said to Princess Fragrance. But not understanding Chinese, she simply smiled back and made no move.
The Manchu troops gradually closed in upon them, and Luo Bing grabbed Princess Fragrance and jumped into the hole with the rest close behind. Wen and the other heroes had brought bows and arrows with them and they quickly fired off a volley of arrows, downing a dozen or so soldiers. As one column of Manchu troops galloped up to the mouth of the hole, Wen shot an arrow at the commander which hit him in the chest, passed right through him and flew on for several dozen yards further before falling to the ground. The other soldiers were so frightened by this demonstration of power that they turned and fled.
The first attack had been beaten back, but looking round them, the heroes saw they were completely surrounded.
"This hole is deep enough, but we should start making it bigger," Xu said. Seven or eight feet below the loose sand was firm earth, and Chen and the others dug away at the sides, piling the sand up on top as a defensive wall.
Zhang Jin pointed to the dead Manchu soldiers lying just beyond the hole. "Let's go and collect their weapons," he suggested to Xin Yan. The two leapt out of the hole and collected seven or eight bows and a large batch of arrows from around the corpses.
Only now did Chen have a chance to introduce Princess Fragrance to the heroes. When they heard that she was Huo Qingtong's sister, they all welcomed her, but the language barrier made it impossible for them to talk to her. Chen rested for a while, and gradually his strength returned. He ordered the other heroes to keep a close watch on the Manchu forces and told them they would try to break out after nightfall.
Wei jumped down from the edge of the hole to report to the Great Helmsman.
"Twelfth Brother and I went Beijing as ordered, but for a long time we discovered nothing," he began. "Then one day, we happened to see that traitor Zhang Zhaozhong and Master Ma Zhen in the street."
Chen nodded. "So they went to Beijing," he said. "I was wondering how Zhang managed to escape. Master Ma told us he would take him back to Wudang mountain."
"Have you seen Zhang recently?" asked Xu, who was listening.
"Just a short while ago. He is very dangerous." Chen told them what had happened at the Manchu camp.
"Master Ma and Zhang were walking alone talking animatedly, and they didn't see us," Wei continued. "We suspected they may have joined forces against us, and carefully followed them to a house in an alleyway. We waited until after dark, but they didn't come out again, so we decided to go in to have a look. We two are no match even for Zhang by himself, let alone he and his martial brother together, so once over the wall into the courtyard, we lay dead still, not daring to even breath. After a long time, we heard talking in a room nearby and went across to investigate. Through a crack in the window, we saw Master Ma lying on a kang while that traitor Zhang paced back and forth. The two were arguing. We didn't dare to look for too long and squatted down to listen. It seems Zhang had insisted he had to go to Beijing to sort out a few private financial matters before he could go to Wudang Mountain, and Master Ma had agreed. A few days after they got there, the Emperor returned to Beijing as well. Zhang said that the Emperor had ordered him to go to the Muslim regions on important business."
"What important business?" Chen asked quickly.
"He didn't say exactly, but he apparently had to go and look for someone." Chen frowned. "Master Ma spoke to him very sternly and told him he should immediately resign from his official post, but Zhang said he could not refuse an Imperial edict. If he did, he said, he was afraid the whole of Wudang Mountain would be stamped flat by the Emperor's troops. Master Ma told him that the whole country was under the heel of the Manchus, and that by comparison the destruction of Wudang Mountain would be nothing to grieve about. The more they argued, the more adamant they both became. Eventually, Master Ma jumped off the kang, absolutely furious, and shouted: 'I promised our friends of the Red Flower Society!' to which Zhang replied: 'Those rebellious bandits. Why take them seriously?' Then there was a metallic sound as if Master Ma had drawn his sword. I had a look through the window crack and saw Master Ma with sword in hand, his face black with rage, as he roared: 'Don't you remember our teacher's last wishes? You ungrateful pupil! You are truly shameless, becoming a running dog of the Manchu court. I will fight you to the death.' Zhang appeared to soften. He sighed and said: 'If that's the way you feel, we'll leave for Wudang Mountain tomorrow.' Master Ma then resheathed his sword and went to sleep on the kang while Zhang sat on the chair nearby. He appeared undecided about something. His body shook slightly. Twelfth Brother and I were worried he would discover us, and wanted to wait for him to sleep before leaving. Almost an hour passed, but still he didn't sleep. He got up several times and then sat down again. Finally, he bit his teeth together and said softly: 'Brother Ma.' Master Ma was by this time sleeping very soundly and snoring slightly. Zhang quietly walked over to the kang..."
Princess Fragrance suddenly let out a scream. She didn't understand what Wei was saying, but she could feel the dark, sinister tone of his voice, and was terrified by it. She took hold of Chen's hand and snuggled up to him. Zhou Qi glanced at her in hatred.
Wei continued. "Zhang went to the kang, then lunged forward and sprang back again. Master Ma gave a wail of agony and jumped up, blood pouring from both his eye sockets. Both his eyes had been gouged out by the dog-hearted traitor."
Absolutely enraged, Chen leapt up and slammed his fist into the side of the pit sending sand flying in all directions.
"I swear I will kill that traitor," he said through clenched teeth. Princess Fragrance had never seen him so angry, and she tugged on his sleeve in fear.
Wei's voice shook as he went on: "Master Ma went silent. His face looked horrible. He walked slowly towards Zhang, then suddenly kicked out with his leg. Zhang leapt out of the way, and Master Ma's foot slammed into the kang. Zhang looked a little shaken, and tried to get out, but Master Ma made it to the door first and stood straining his ears to hear Zhang's movements. Zhang suddenly laughed, and Master Ma kicked out with his left leg in the direction of the sound. But Zhang stuck his sword out in front of him and Ma's leg hit the blade and was cut clean off." Zhou Qi ground her teeth and stabbed the walls of the pit with her sword.
"By this time, Twelth Brother and I could stand it no longer. We burst through the window into the room and fought with Zhang for only a second before he escaped, probably scared that we were not alone. We chased after him, but Twelfth Brother was hit by his golden needles, and I had to help him back into the house. I tried to stop Master Ma's bleeding, but he died after saying only a few words.
"What did he say?" asked Chen. A cold wind suddenly blew down on them and they all shivered.
"He said 'Tell Brother Lu and Yu Yutong to avenge my death!' Just then, some people outside who had heard the fighting started shouting, so I helped Twelfth Brother out and we returned to our lodgings. The next day, I went back to have a look and saw Master Ma's body had already been taken away. Twelfth Brother had been hit by five golden needles, but I extracted them for him and he's now convalescing in Twin Willows Lane in Beijing.
"Zhang said the Emperor wanted him to come to the Northwest to look for someone, and I thought perhaps it could be your teacher, Great Helmsman. I remember you said once that there were two important items relating to the Emperor being kept by your teacher, Master Yuan. So I came out with the others to warn him."
"How is Twelfth Brother?" Chen asked.
"His wounds are serious, but luckily not fatal," Wei replied.
By now, the cold wind was blowing hard, and thick, leaden clouds were gathering above them.
"It's going to snow soon," Princess Fragrance said, and moved even closer to Chen.
Zhou Qi could control herself no longer. "What did she say?" she demanded.
Chen was surprised by her outraged tone. "She said it's going to snow."
"Huh! How would she know?" She paused for a moment, then suddenly added: "Great Helmsman, just who it is that you love? Sister Huo Qingtong is a nice girl and I won't allow her to be cheated."
"Mistress Huo Qingtong is indeed a nice person and we all have a great deal of respect for her...." Chen began.
"Then why did you cast her aside as soon as you met her beautiful sister?" Zhou Qi interrupted.
Chen blushed, and Luo Bing came to his rescue. "The Great Helmsman, like the rest of us, has only met Sister Huo Qingtong once. She is just an ordinary friend. You can't start talking about whether he loves her or not."
"What are you supporting him for?" Zhou Qi demanded, even more agitated. "She gave him an antique dagger, and the way the Great Helmsman looked at her, it was plainly a case of love at first sight....."
Princess Fragrance listened to them talking excitedly and looked on with her big round eyes, full of curiosity.
"Mistress Huo Qingtong already had a suitor before she met me," Chen said. "Even if I had such an intention, what would be the point of unnecessarily making things difficult for myself?"
Zhou Qi stared at him in surprise. "Is that true?"
"Why would I deceive you?"
"Well, that's all right, then," she said, immediately changing her tone. "You are a good man. I was wrong to accuse you. I'm sorry." The others laughed at her frankness. Zhou Qi took Princess Fragrance's hand and squeezed it. Suddenly, they felt a wave of coldness on their faces and looked up to see snow flakes as big as goose feathers floating down towards them.
"You were right," she said. "It's snowing!"
"If we don't get reinforcements to rescue us, we are going to die here," said Luo Bing.
"Master Muzhuolun will certainly send out scouts to look for his daughter and the Great Helmsman when they fail to return," Xu replied.
"I`m sure they have," Chen said. "But we have come so far south, I'm afraid they may have difficulty finding us."
"Well then, we will have to send someone out to get help."
"I'll go!" volunteered Xin Yan.
Chen thought for a moment and then nodded. He asked Princess Fragrance to write a note to her father, and Xin Yan took a writing brush and some ink from his knapsack and gave them to her.
"Take Sister Luo Bing's white horse," Chen said to Xin Yan. "We will make a diversionary attack to the east, and you can make a break for it to the west." He then gave him directions to the Muslim camp. On the signal, the heroes leapt out of the pit and charged eastwards with shouts and battle cries leaving only Zhou Qi and Princess Fragrance behind. Xin Yan led the white horse out of the hole, jumped onto its back and galloped off westwards. The Manchu troops loosed off a few arrows but none came even close to hitting him. Once the heroes were sure Xin Yan had escaped, they retreated back to the pit.
By this time, the snow was falling heavily and the ground about them had been transformed into a vast white carpet. They settled down for the night, but all slept badly except for Princess Fragrance was still fast asleep when dawn broke. Her hair and shoulders were covered with snow which shuddered slightly as she breathed. Luo Bing laughed gently. "This child is not the least bit concerned," she said.
Time dragged by and Xu frowned deeply. "Why is there still no sign of a rescue attempt?" he asked slowly.
"Could Xin Yan have met some trouble on the road?" said Wen.
"What I'm worried about is something else," replied Xu.
"What is it?" Zhou Qi demanded. "Stop mumbling and get on with it."
"Great Helmsman, who makes the decisions in the Muslim camp?" Xu asked. "Master Muzhuolun or Mistress Huo Qingtong?"
"Both, apparently. Master Muzhuolun discusses everything with his daughter."
"If Huo Qingtong refused to send out soldiers, then... things would be difficult," Xu continued. The others saw what he was getting at.
"How could you say such a thing about Sister Huo Qingtong?" Zhou Qi demanded, jumping up. "Doesn't she already have a suitor? And even if she was jealous of her sister, would she refuse to save the man she loved?"
"When women become jealous, they are capable of anything," answered Xu. Zhou Qi began shouting angrily, and Princess Fragrance woke with a start. The heroes had only met Huo Qingtong once and although she seemed nice, they knew very little about her. Xu's words seemed not unreasonable.
"Call the troops together!" he ordered.
"How many Manchu troops were there surrounding you?" Huo Qingtong asked Xin Yan.
"Four or five thousand altogether."
Huo Qingtong bit her lip and paced from one side of the tent to the other, deep in thought. Horns sounded outside as the soldiers began to gather, and Muzhuolun was just about to go out to join them when Huo Qingtong suddenly turned to him.
"Father, we can't go," she said.
Muzhuolun looked at her in astonishment, uncertain if he had heard correctly. "What....what did you say?"
"I said we can't go."
He was about to fly into a rage, but then remembered how clear-thinking and intelligent his daughter usually was. "Why?" he asked.
"Zhao Wei is a very capable general. He would not dispatch four or five thousand troops just to capture our two envoys. It must be a trap."
"Even if it is a trap, how can we stand by and let the Manchus kill your sister and our Red Flower Society friends?"
Huo Qingtong hung her head and said nothing. "I am afraid that if we go, we will not only fail to rescue them, but will sacrifice several thousand more lives as well." she said finally.
Muzhuolun slapped his thigh in exasperation. "But she is your own flesh and blood!" he cried. "And we owe Master Chen and the others a great debt. Even if we died trying to save them, what would it matter? You....you...." He was both angry and hurt by his daughter's ungratefulness.
"Father, listen to me. It may be possible to save them and win a great victory as well."
Muzhuolun's expression changed immediately. "Well, why didn't you say so earlier, child?" he said. "How can we do it? I will do whatever you say."
"Father, are you truly willing to do whatever I say?"
"I was talking nonsense a moment ago. Don't pay any attention. How should we proceed? Tell me quickly!"
"Well, give me the Command Arrow. I will command this battle." Muzhuolun hesitated for a second then handed it to her. Huo Qingtong knelt to receive it, then prostrated herself on the ground, praying to Allah.
"Father," she said when she stood up. "You and Brother must follow my orders."
"If you can save them and beat the Manchus, I will do anything," he replied.
"All right, then it is settled." She walked out of the tent with her father and over to the troops, already waiting in ranks with their commanders.
"Brothers!" Muzhuolun called out to them. "Today, we will fight the Manchus to the death. The battle will be commanded by Mistress Huo Qingtong."
The soldiers raised their sabres and roared: "May the True God protect her and lead us to victory!"
"Right," said Huo Qingtong flourishing her Command Arrow. "Everyone return to their tents to rest." The commanders led their troops away. Muzhuolun was too stunned to speak.
They went back inside the tent and Xin Yan prostrated himself before Huo Qingtong and kowtowed frantically.
"Mistress, if you don't send troops to save them, my master will surely die," he pleaded.
"Get up. I didn't say I wouldn't save them."
"There are only nine of them, of whom your sister does not know kung fu," he cried. "But the enemy is numbered in thousands. If we delay even for a moment, they will be, they will be..."
"Have the Manchu armoured troops charged them yet?" Huo Qingtong interrupted him.
"Not when I had left, but I'm afraid they will have done so by now." Huo Qingtong frowned silently. Xin Yan cried even more mournfully and Muzhuolun paced about the tent, uncertain of what to do.
"Father, have you ever seen a wolf trap? A piece of mutton is fastened to a metal hook, the wolf bites on it and pulls and the trap snaps shut. Zhao Wei sees us as the wolf and my sister as the mutton. No matter how brave the Red Flower Society fighters are, they could not stop four or five thousand determined soldiers. That means that Zhao Wei has purposely decided not to order an attack." Muzhuolun nodded. "The Manchus let this young man out on purpose to get us to send a rescue force. Otherwise how could he have made it alone through so many troops?"
"Well, let us attack Zhao Wei's forces from the side and catch them unawares," he replied.
"They have more than forty thousand troops while we only have fifteen thousand," she pointed out. "In a pitched battle we would certainly lose."
"So from what you say, your sister and the others are bound to die," Muzhuolun exclaimed. "I cannot bear to lose your sister, and I refuse to leave our friends in danger. I will take five hundred men with me. If we can rescue them, it will be because of Allah's help. If we cannot, then we will die with them."
Huo Qingtong said nothing.
Xin Yan began frantically kowtowing before her once more, his forehead striking the ground heavily. "If our master has done anything to offend you mistress, please forgive him," he cried.
Huo Qingtong realised he suspected her motives. "Don't talk such nonsense," she said angrily.
Xin Yan looked startled for a second, then jumped up. "If you are determined to be so cruel, I will go and die with my master," he said. He ran out of the tent, leapt on the white horse and galloped away.
"We must go and help them!" Muzhuolun pleaded.
"Father, the Chinese have a saying that it is better to rely on a good plan than on bravery. We are out-numbered, so we must make use of surprise if we are to gain victory. We must beat Zhao Wei's trap with a trap of our own."
"Really?" said Muzhuolun, only half believing her.
"Father!" she exclaimed, her voice shaking. "Don't say that you suspect me too?"
Muzhuolun saw the tears brimming in her eyes and his heart softened. "All right," he said. "We will do as you say. Now send out the troops immediately."
Huo Qingtong thought for a moment, then said to an attendant: "Strike up the drums." The drums rolled and the commanders of each of the military units entered the tent. By now, the snow was falling thickly outside the tent and was already several inches thick on the ground.
Huo Qingtong flourished the Command Arrow and announced: "The first unit of the Green Flag Brigade will go to the western side of the Great Gobi Quagmire, and the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth units of the Green Flag will gather together the local herdsmen and farmers around the other sides." She gave the commanders their orders and the units departed one by one. Muzhuolun was unhappy that some of their best troops had been sent off to do construction work rather than being sent to the rescue.
"The first, second and third units of the White Flag Brigade will go to Yarkand City and to the Black River, and will make various preparations as I will indicate," Huo Qingtong continued. "The first unit of the Black Flag and the Kazakh unit will go up into the hills along the Black River. The Mongol unit will station itself on Yingqipan Mountain." She gave each commander his individual orders, after which they bowed and left.
"Father, you will command the forces to the east. Brother, you will command the forces to the west, I myself will command the second unit of the Black Flag Brigade and coordinate things from the centre. The general campaign plan is like this..." She was just about to explain in detail when Muzhuolun stopped her.
"Who is going to rescue your sister and the others?" he demanded.
"The third unit of the Black Flag will ride in from the east to save them. The fourth unit of the Black Flag will do the same from the west. When you meet Manchu troops you must do as I indicate in these orders." She quickly wrote out two notes and handed them to the commanders. "Your units must have the best mounts available," she added. The two Black Flag unit commanders bowed and retired.
"You have sent thirteen thousand of our best soldiers off to do unimportant work and two thousand young boys and old men to effect a rescue. What is the meaning of this?" Muzhuolun demanded.
"My plan is to...." Huo Qingtong began, but Muzhuolun angrily cut her off.
"I don't believe you any more! You love Master Chen, but he loves your sister, so you intend to let both of them die. You.... you're heartless!"
Huo Qingtong almost fainted from shock. Muzhuolun stared at her for a second, then stormed out of the tent shouting: "I will go and die with your sister!" He leapt onto his horse and galloped away into the desert, brandishing his sabre.
Her brother saw how distressed she was and tried to comfort her. "Father is very confused," he said. "He didn't know what he was saying. Don't worry."
"Don't cry, what's the matter?" Zhou Qi asked.
Xu sighed. "Is there any need to ask? Huo Qingtong refuses to send troops to rescue us."
"I kowtowed before her...I pleaded..." Xin Yan sobbed. The others were silent.
Princess Fragrance asked Chen why he was crying. Not wishing to hurt her, he said: "He couldn't break through to get help." The Princess took out her handkerchief and gave it to him.
The morning of the third day dawned with the snow still falling heavily and the Manchu forces showing no signs of attacking. Xu was greatly puzzled. He turned to Xin Yan and said: "What questions did Mistress Huo Qingtong ask you?"
"She asked how may Manchu troops were surrounding us and whether the armoured units had attacked yet."
Xu was excited. "We're saved! We're saved!" he exclaimed happily. The others stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"I was stupid to have doubted Mistress Huo Qingtong," he said. "Truly small-minded. She is much, much wiser than I."
"What?" asked Zhou Qi.
"If the Manchu armoured cavalry attacked us, would we stand a chance?"
"Hmm," Zhou Qi replied. "Yes, it's strange."
"And even if they didn't have armoured cavalry, if so many thousands of soldiers charged at once, could the eight of us hold them off? We would be trampled to mincemeat." The others agreed the Manchus had been remarkably restrained.
Chen suddenly understood. "Yes, that's it!" he cried. "They have held back on purpose in the hope of luring the Muslim forces in to try and rescue us. But Mistress Huo Qingtong has guessed it and refused to be tricked."
"Whether she's tricked or not, we're still finished," commented Zhang Jin.
"No, we're not," Chen replied. "She is certain to think of a way out."
Their spirits were suddenly revived, and leaving two of the heroes to keep guard, the others settled down to rest at the bottom of the pit.