“The poet Xin Jiaxuan could have been writing of my own feelings,” he thought. “He was much like me when he wrote it, watching China fall to the barbarian tribes, with no way of knowing when the old days would return. No wonder he sang such a sad song.”
The entourage crossed the summit of a hill. Looking at the darkening sky, the mulemen said that another three miles would bring them to Twin Pagodas, a large town, where they planned to spend the night.
Just then, Lu heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw far in front two magnificent chestnut horses racing towards them through a cloud of dust. The two riders flashed by, one on either side of the line of mules, and were gone. Lu slapped his horseand caught up with Yuanzhi.
“Did you get a good look at those two?” he asked in a low voice.
“Were they bandits?” she replied excitedly. She would have liked nothing better than for them to be outlaws bent on robbery, giving her a chance to display the skills she had worked so hard to attain over the past five years.
“It’s hard to say,” said Lu. “But judging by their ability in the martial arts, they wouldn’t be ordinary highwaymen.”
“Are they kung fu masters?”
“From the way they ride their horses, I’d say it’s unlikely they are novices.”
As the entourage neared the town, two more horsemen galloped past.
“Hmm, this is very strange,” mused Lu. The country was desolate and the evening mist was thickening. He wondered why anyone would set out on a journey at this time of day.
Not long after, the muletrain entered the town. Officer Deng led them to a large inn and Yuanzhi and her mother were shown to one of the best rooms. Lu was given a smaller room, and after he had eaten dinner, a servant lit the lantern. All was quiet, and he was about to go to sleep when a dog barked. From far away he heard the faint sound of galloping horses approaching and he thought again about the four riders they had passed on the road.
The clip-clop of horses’ hooves came closer and stopped right in front of the inn. There was a knock on the front door and Lu heard a servant open it and say: “You’ve been riding hard. There’s food and drink prepared for you.”
“Go and feed the horses quickly,” said a rough voice. “We must start out again as soon as we’ve finished eating.”
Lu considered the situation. Groups of men hurrying northwest, and judging by the way they rode, all of them experts in the martial arts. In all his years in the border areas, he had never seen the like of it. He slipped quietly out of his room, crossed the courtyard and went round to the back of the inn.
“All right, you say the Young Helmsman is very young,” he heard the rough-voiced man say. “Do you think he will be able to control all the brothers?”
Lu followed the voice and stationed himself underneath the window.
“He’ll have to,” he heard the other say. “It was the old master’s wish whether the Young Helmsman likes it or not.”
The man had a deep, sonorous voice, and Lu could tell his Internal Strength was profound. Not daring to make a hole in the window paper to peep through, he continued to listen from where he was, breathing as lightly as he could.
“Of course,” the rough-throated one replied. “But we don’t know if the Young Helmsman will be willing to do it.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” said the other. “He’ll follow the old master’s wishes.”
He said the word ‘follow’ with a peculiar southern Chinese accent, and Lu’s heart jumped. “Where have I heard that voice before?” he thought. He sifted through his mind, and finally remembered that it belonged to his old friend Zhao Banshan, whom he had known 20 years before in the Dragon Slayers’ Society. Zhao was about 10 years younger than he, but the two had often trained together, and had a great respect for each other. Lu had heard no news of him since the Dragon Slayers’ Society had broken up and he was delighted at chancing upon an old friend in such an unlikely place. As he was about to call out to Zhao, the light in the room was suddenly doused and a dart shot out of the window.
But it was not aimed at Lu. A figure shifted in the shadows nearby and caught the dart, then stood up, about to challenge the dart thrower. Lu leapt over and whispered fiercely: “Don’t make a sound! Come with me.” It was Yuanzhi.
No one chased them. Lu pulled Yuanzhi into his room, and under the light saw an expression of such eagerness on her face that he was both angry and amused.
“Yuanzhi, do you know what sort of men they are? What were you doing trying to pick a fight with them?” he asked sternly.
“What were they doing shooting a dart at me?” she replied defiantly.
“If they aren’t outlaws, then they are secret society men,” he said. “One of them I know, and his kung fu would not be weaker than mine. Travelling through the night as they are, they must be on very urgent business. That dart was not meant to injure you, it was just telling you not to be nosy. If he had really wanted to hit you, I doubt if you would have been able to catch it. Now go and sleep.”
They heard a door open and the sound of horses’ hooves as the two men galloped away.
The next morning, the muletrain started out again, and travelled ten miles in just over two hours.
“Look, teacher,” said Yuanzhi. “There’s someone coming.”
Two chestnut horses galloped towards them, and because of theprevious night’s incident, they paid particular attention to the riders. The horses, fine and spirited, were identical. Even stranger, the two riders were also identical. Both were aged about 40, tall and thin with faces as yellow as wax, sunken eyes and long slanting eyebrows: the effect was frightening.
As they passed by, the two men glanced at Yuanzhi with their strange eyes. She reined in her horse and stared back belligerently, but they took no notice and raced on westwards.
“Where did that pair of ghosts come from, I wonder,” she said.
Lu glanced back at the receding figures. “Aha, it must be them,” he cried.
“You recognise them?” she asked excitedly.
“They must be the Twin Knights of Sichuan. Their surname is Chang, but everyone calls them Black Death and White Death.”
Yuanzhi laughed. “They’ve got good nicknames. They look like a couple of skeletons.”
“Little girls shouldn’t make jokes about other people,” said Lu. “They may be ugly but they are skilled fighters. I’ve never met them, but from what I’ve heard, they travel the country fighting evil and doing justice. They are widely known as outlaws, but they steal only from the rich and help the poor. They have made a great name for themselves.”
“But if they are identical, why are they called Black and White?”
“From what I’ve been told, the only difference between them is that one has a black mole in the corner of his eye, and the other doesn’t. There’s probably no one better at Black Sand Palm Kung Fu than those two.”
“What are they doing in the border areas?” Yuanzhi asked.
“I have no idea,” Lu replied. “I’ve never heard of them operating out here before.”
As he spoke, they heard more horses coming towards them. This time, the riders were a Taoist priest and a hunchback dressed in brightly-coloured clothes. The priest had a longsword slung across his back. His face was pale and sickly and he had only one arm: his left sleeve was tucked under his belt.
Seeing the hunchback’s ugly face and his garish attire, Yuanzhi laughed. “Teacher,” she shouted before Lu could stop her, “Look at the hunchback!”
The hunchback glared at her angrily and as he passed, stretched out his hand to grab hold of her. The priest seemed to have guessed what he would do, and stopped the hunchback’s hand with a flick of his horse whip. “Tenth Brother,” he growled, “Don’t make trouble.”
Lu and Yuanzhi looked back and saw the two horses breaking into a gallop. Suddenly, the hunchback did a reverse somersault off the back of his horse, and with three steps covered the distance to Yuanzhi. Yuanzhi’s sword was in her hand, but the hunchback did not attack her. He grabbed the tail of her horse, and the animal, which was galloping along, reared back on its hind legs with a loud scream. The hunchback’s strength was frightening: the horse had not pulled him forward an inch. He chopped at the horse’s tautly-stretched tail with his right hand, and snapped off the end as if with a knife. The horse lunged forward, and Yuanzhi was almost thrown. The hunchback turned and ran off swiftly. In a second, he caught up with his horse, still galloping westwards, leapt onto its back and soon disappeared from view.
“Teacher!” Yuanzhi called out in a plaintive voice. Lu frowned and was about to berate her. But seeing her eyes glistening with tears, he stopped himself.
Later, they heard a shout from behind: “Weiyang … Weiyang.”
Yuanzhi was mystified. “What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s the call of a bodyguard agency shouter,” he said. “The agencies hire out bodyguards or escort goods and people, especially on long journeys. Every bodyguard agency has a different call, and they use it to let both outlaws and friends know who they are. The bodyguard agency business is based seven parts on goodwill and three parts on fighting ability. If the head of an agency is generous and creates a lot of goodwill, he will gain many friends, and his business will prosper. Outlaws will hear the call and let them pass without attacking. ‘Being friends is better than being enemies,’ as the saying goes. Now, if you were to try the bodyguard agency business…ha! With allthe people you have annoyed in less than half a day, you would have trouble travelling an inch, even if you were ten times the fighter you are now.”
“Which bodyguard agency’s call is that?” she asked, ignoring his teasing.
“The Zhen Yuan Agency from Beijing, probably the biggest in north China. The head of the agency is ‘North China Earth Shaker’ Wang Weiyang. He must be seventy by now, but they’re still calling ‘Weiyang’, so he hasn’t retired yet. Ah, perhaps he ought to. The Zhen Yuan Agency has been making big profits for 40 years now. That should be enough for anyone.”
“Have you ever met him?” Yuanzhi asked.
“I’ve met him. He uses an Eight Diagram sword and the Eight Diagram boxing technique. In the old days, there was no one in north China who could beat him.”
Yuanzhi was elated. “They’re travelling very fast. When they catch up to us, you can point the old hero out to me.”
“Now why would he come out himself?” Lu said. “You really are a silly girl!”
Yuanzhi sulked. She was always being told off by her teacher. It wasn’t fair. She spurred her horse forward and caught up with the carriage, planning to talk to her mother for a while to relieve the frustration. Glancing round, she saw the stub of her horse’s tail and shuddered. There was nothing unusual about breaking a spear with one blow, but a horse’s tail was pliable. How had the hunchback managed to snap it? She reined in her horse, meaning to wait for Lu to catch up so she could ask him, but changed her mind and galloped up the line to Officer Deng instead.
“Officer Deng,” she said, pouting. “My horse’s tail looks very ugly.”
“I don’t know what to do with this horse of mine,” Deng replied, guessing her meaning. “He’s in a bad mood today and won’t do anything I say. You are a good horsewoman, mistress. Perhaps you could help me break him in.”
“I probably won’t be able to handle him either,” she said modestly. The two exchanged horses. Deng’s horse was of course very docile.
“Very good, mistress,” he complimented her. “Even horses do your bidding.”
The bodyguard agency’s call came closer and closer, and before long, a muletrain consisting of a score or more heavily laden animals began to pass.
Lu was afraid one of the agency men would recognise him, so he covered the top part of his face with a large fur cap. As the lead escorts trotted past, he heard one of them remark: “According to Brother Han, Brother Jiao Wenqi’s body has been found.”
Lu’s heart missed a beat as he heard the name. Jiao was one of the Six Devils of Guandong and a formidable fighter. Five years before while on an errand to the Muslim regions, Jiao had discovered Lu was hiding in Commander Li’s household and had come at the dead of night with two other fighters with the aim of capturing Lu and taking him back to Beijing to claim the reward on his head. After a hard fight, Lu had killed all three and hidden their corpses on a deserted hillside.
Lu looked round at the escort who had spoken, but had time to see only that he had a full beard and a face as black as thunder. Once he had passed, Lu saw he was carrying on his back a red knapsack and a pair of Five Element Wheels, steel rings covered in knives.
“Could it be that the Guandong Devils have become bodyguard agency escorts?” he wondered. Of the six Devils, Lu had only ever seen Jiao, but he knew that the rest were excellent fighters, and that two of them, the Yan brothers, used Five Element Wheels.
Lu thought about the number of top fighters they had met in the past two days and wondered if it had anything to do with himself. From the look of things, the Zhen Yuan Agency men were actually on an escort assignment, so they posed no threat. As to the fighters travelling westwards in pairs, they did not seem to be looking for him. But where were they going and why?
Having exchanged mounts with Officer Deng, Yuanzhi reined in her horse to wait for Lu to pass.
“Teacher,” she smiled. “How come no more riders have passed us? I want to see a few more of these heroes.”
Her words jogged Lu’s mind and he slapped his thigh. “Ah, you old fool,” he rebuked himself. “Why didn’t you think of the ‘Greeting The Dragon’s Head Ceremony’?”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It is the most solemn of the ceremonies held by the secret societies to honour an important personage. Usually, the six most senior men in the society are chosen to go to greet the guest, but for really important meetings, twelve are chosen and they go in pairs. Five pairs have passed us now, so there must be still be one pair in front of us.”
“Which secret society do they belong to?” Yuanzhi asked.
“That I don’t know. But if the Twin Knights of Sichuan and that hunchback are members, the society’s power and influence must be tremendous. Whatever you do, don’t provoke anyone else, do you hear?”
Yuanzhi nodded, and waited expectantly to see who else would pass them by.
Midday came and went, but there was no sign of anyone on the road in front. Lu was surprised and wondered if he could have guessed wrongly. Finally, instead of riders approaching from in front, they gradually became aware of the sound of camel bells from behind, and saw a dust cloud rising as a large desert caravan hurried towards them.
The caravan consisted of dozens of camels with 20 or 30 horses squeezed in between them, all ridden by Muslims with high noses and sunken eyes. They had thick beards on their faces and white cloths tied around their heads. Scimitars hung from their waists. Muslim traders were a common sight on the road to the central areas and Lu did not consider it unusual. Amidst the group, he noticed a graceful young girl, dazzlingly beautiful, dressed in yellow robes and riding a black horse.
Lu was impressed, but did no more than glance at her. Yuanzhi, however, stared in open-mouthed wonder. Growing up in the northwest border areas, she had seen few well-groomed girls, let alone girls as beautiful as this one. She was about the same age as Yuanzhi, 18 or 19, with a dagger at her waist and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wore a full-length yellow gown, leather boots and a small hat embroidered with gold silk, on the side of which was fastened a turquoise feather. She was an enchanting sight.
As the girl trotted by, Yuanzhi spurred on her horse and followed, gazing fixedly at her. The girl was annoyed at being stared at disrespectfully by a Chinese boy, and she whirled her whip above her head and wrapped it round the mane of Yuanzhi’s horse. Giving it a sharp tug, she pulled out a large clump of hair, and the horse reared in pain, almost throwing Yuanzhi to the ground. The Muslim girl cracked the whip in the air and horse hair flew in all directions.
In a fit of pique, Yuanzhi pulled out a steel dart and threw it at the girl’s back. But, not wishing to harm her, she also called out: “Watch out for the dart!” The girl leant to one side, and the dart shot past her right shoulder. She waited until it was about ten feet beyond her, then flicked her whip, caught the dart by its tip and smoothly sent it flying back towards Yuanzhi, calling out: “Hey, little boy! Here’s your dart!” Yuanzhi caught it neatly.
The Muslims in the caravan applauded loudly at the superb skill with which the yellow-robed girl handled her whip. A tall, thick-set man with a heavy black beard went over and said a few words to her, to which she replied: “Oh, father!” But she took no further notice of Yuanzhi. The dozens of camels and horses moved on and gradually disappeared.
“That girl was impressive, wasn’t she?” said Lu.
“These Muslims ride day and night. They ought to be good with their whips. But it doesn’t mean she knows any real kung fu,” Yuanzhi replied.
Lu laughed. “Really?” he asked.
Towards evening they arrived in the town of Bulongji. There was only one large inn in the town, outside of which was planted the flag of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. With two large groups to look after, the inn’s servants were very busy.
Lu had a wash, and then strolled into the courtyard of the inn with a cup of tea in his hand. In the dining hall, he saw two tables full of agency men drinking and talking loudly. The lead escort with the Five Element Wheels had put the weapons down but kept the red knapsack on his back.
Taking a sip of tea, Lu gazed up at the sky.
One of the lead escorts laughed. “Brother Yan, once you’ve delivered this toy to Beijing, General Zhao will reward you with at least a thousand, won’t he? You can go and have a good time with that girlfriend of yours, Xibao.”
So it really is one of the Yan brothers, Lu thought, and paid even closer attention to what was said.
“A reward?” said Yan. “Ha! Well, everyone will get something.”
“Your Xibao has probably gone off with some other man willing to make an honest woman of her,” added an effeminate voice. Lu looked over out of the corner of his eye, and saw a man with a sly face and a slight figure, also dressed as a lead escort.
Yan grunted, obviously not pleased.
“You bastard, Tong,” added the first lead escort. “You never have anything good to say.”
Tong laughed. “All right,” he said. “But Brother Yan, fun is fun and serious is serious. Don’t think about Xibao too much or you might find someone has stolen that red knapsack off your back. It’s not important if lose your head or not, but the agency’s reputation has to be maintained.”
“Don’t worry,” Yan replied angrily. “If those Muslims try stealing it back, I’ll soon put an end to their nonsense. I am one of the Six Guandong Devils and I got where I am with real kung fu, not like some of the weaklings in the bodyguard agencies these days who can do nothing but eat and fart!”
Lu looked at the red knapsack on Yan’s back: it wasn’t big, and from the look of it, whatever was inside was very light.
“It’s true that the Six Devils of Guandong are famous,” Tong said. “It’s a pity that Brother Jiao was done in. We don’t even know who the murderer was.”
Yan banged the table. “Who says we don’t know? It has to be the Red Flower Society!”
That’s strange, Lu thought, I killed Jiao. What is this Red Flower Society? He walked slowly around the courtyard inspecting the flowers, moving closer to the group of lead escorts.
Tong would not let the matter drop. “It’s a pity,” he said. “If I wasn’t such a weakling, I would have settled things with the Red Flower Society long ago.”
Yan shook with anger. One of the other lead escorts broke in to mediate: “Anyway, the Red Flower Society’s leader died last month,” he said. “They’ve lost their man in command, so who is there to settle with? And another thing, where is the proof that Jiao was murdered by the Red Flower Society? When you find them and they deny the charge, what are you going to do?”
“Yes,” said Tong changing his tack. “We daren’t provoke them, but surely we’ve got enough guts to bully a few Muslims. This little toy we’ve snatched is as precious to them as life itself. In the future, if General Zhao ever wants money from them, or cattle and sheep, do you think they’d dare to refuse? I tell you Yan, stop thinking about that little Xibao of yours. When we get back to Beijing, you should ask General Zhao to give you a little Muslim girl to be your mistress. Then you can really…”
Before he could finish, a piece of mud brick flew out of nowhere and lodged itself in his mouth. Two of the other lead escorts snatched up their weapons and rushed outside while Yan picked up his Five Element Wheels and looked warily around. His younger brother came running in, and both stood together, not daring to move for fear of falling into some trap. Tong spat out the piece of mud and began swearing.
The two other lead escorts, Tai and Qian, rushed in through the door. “The little bastard’s gone,” one of them said. “There’s no sign of him.”
Lu had observed the whole incident and laughed inwardly at the helpless expression on Tong’s face. Then he saw a shadow darting across the rafters in a corner of the dining hall, and went slowly outside. It was already growing dark, but he spotted a figure leap off the corner of the roof, land noiselessly, and speed off eastwards.
Lu wanted to know who had treated Tong to a mouthful of mud and, making use of Lightness Kung Fu * (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible.), he followed, the teacup still in his hand. The pace was fast, but the person he was following was not aware of his presence.
Lu’s quarry had a slim figure and moved daintily, almost like a girl. They crossed a hill and an ink-black forest loomed ahead. The person ahead slipped into the trees with Lu close behind. Underneath, the ground was covered with dead leaves and twigs which crackled as he stepped on them. Afraid of giving himself away, he slowed down. Just then, the moon broke through the clouds and a shaft of clear light shone down through the branches, covering the earth with jumbled ghostly shadows. In the distance he saw the flash of a yellow gown, and his quarry moved out of the forest.
He followed to the edge of the trees. Beyond was a large expanse of grass on which were pitched eight or nine tents. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to go and have a look. He waited until two guards had turned away, then jumped across with a ‘Swallow Gliding Over Water’ leap and landed among the tents. Crouching low, he ran to the back of the largest tent, pitched in the centre. Inside, he could hear people talking agitatedly in the Muslim language. He had lived in the border areas for many years, and understood some of what was said. Carefully, he lifted up the corner of the canvas and looked inside.
The tent was lit by two oil lamps under which a large number of people were seated on carpets. He recognised them as the Muslim caravan that had passed them that day. The yellow-robed girl stood up and drew a dagger from her waist. She cut the index finger of her left hand with the tip of the blade and let several drops of blood fall into a cup of horse’s milk wine. Then one-by-one, every Muslim in the tent did likewise. The tall Muslim that the girl had called father raised the wine cup and made a short speech of which Lu could only understand something about ‘The Koran’ and ‘Our Homeland’. The yellow-robed girl spoke after him, her voice crisp and clear, and concluded by saying:
“If the sacred Koran is not recovered, I swear never to return to our homeland.” The Muslims lustily repeated the oath. In the dim light, Lu could see determination and anger on every face.
The group belonged to one of the richest and most powerful of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the Tianshan Mountains, numbering nearly 200,000 people. The tall man was Muzhuolun, the leader of the tribe; a strong fighter, fair and just, he was greatly loved by his people. The yellow-robed girl was his daughter, Huo Qingtong.
The tribe lived by nomadic herding and contentedly travelled the great desert. But as the power of the Manchu court extended into the Muslim areas, its demands for taxes increased. At first, Muzhuolun went out of his way to comply, and worked hard to meet the demands. But the Manchu officials were insatiable and made life impossible for the tribe. On several occasions, Muzhuolun sent missions to the Manchu court to appeal for a reduction of taxes. But far from achieving a reduction, the missions only served to arouse the Court’s suspicions. General Zhao Wei was given an Imperial order to supervise military affairs in the Muslim areas and he discovered that the tribe owned an ancient hand-written Koran, originally brought from the sacred city of Mecca, which they had treasured for generations. The General decided to get the Koran to use to blackmail the Muslims into submission and he dispatched a number of top fighters who stole it while Muzhuolun was out on a long journey. The Muslims had organised a group to recover the Sacred Book.
Lu decided that the Muslims’ plotting had nothing to do with him, and he carefully stood up to return to the inn. At that instant, Huo Qingtong noticed him.
“There’s someone outside,” she whispered to her father and shot out of the tent in time to see a shadow running fast for the trees. With a wave of her hand, she sent a steel dart speeding after him.
Lu heard the projectile coming and leant slightly to one side. As it passed, he stretched out the index finger of his right hand and, carefully calculating the speed and direction of the dart, tapped it gently as it passed so that it fell into the teacup he was holding. Then without looking back, he made use of his Lightness Kung Fu and almost flew back to the inn, where he went straight to his room. He took the dart out of the cup and saw it was made of pure steel with a feather attached to it. He threw it into his bag.
The bodyguard agency group started out first early the next day, the shouter shouting the agency’s call. Lu noticed that most of the lead escorts were stationed around Yan. It seemed the red knapsack on his back was the real treasure being escorted.
Once the agency men had left, Officer Deng led his own column out onto the road. At noon, they rested briefly at a place called Yellow Crag after which the road sloped steadily upward into the mountains. They planned to cross three ranges that day before stopping in Sandaogou.
The mountain road became increasingly precarious and Yuanzhi and Officer Deng kept close by Madame Li’s mule-drawn carriage, afraid that if an animal lost its footing, it could send the carriage crashing into the gorge below. Around mid-afternoon, they arrived at the mouth of Black Gold Gorge and saw the agency men seated on the ground resting. Officer Deng directed his men to follow suit. Black Gold Gorge was flanked by high peaks with an extremely steep mountain track leading up between them. Stopping on the track was difficult, so the top of the gorge had to be reached at one stretch. Lu hung back at the rear and turned his back, not wishing to exchange glances with the agency men.
Once rested, they entered the gorge, the bodyguard agency men and the soldiers under Officer Deng’s command forming a long snaking column. Men and animals alike panted up the mountain. The shouts of the mulemen melded into a continuous drone. Suddenly, Lu saw a figure darting across the crest of a peak, and heard the jangling of camel bells from in front as a group of Muslims mounted on camels and horses charged down towards them from the top of the gorge. Their hooves sounded like thunder, and the agency men began shouting, calling on them to slow down.
In an instant, the Muslim group was upon them and four camels quickly encircled Lead Escort Yan who was carrying the red knapsack. Each of the four Muslim riders raised a large iron hammer with both hands and smashed it down viciously on his head. The mountain road was narrow, leaving little room for manoeuvring, and the camel-men had the advantage of height. Even if he had been a better fighter, Yan would have been unable to avoid the four hammers, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Both he and his horse were beaten to a bloody pulp.
The yellow-robed Muslim girl, Huo Qingtong, jumped down from her horse and with a flash of her sword cut one of the straps holding the red knapsack to the corpse that had been Yan. But before she had time for a second stroke, she felt a gust of wind at her back as a blade sliced towards her. She dodged to one side and cut the other strap. Her assailant aimed a cutting stroke at her waist to stop her from picking up the knapsack. Unable to avoid the stroke, she raised her sword to block it, and the two blades clashed in a shower of sparks. Looking up, she saw it was the handsome young boy who had stared at her so disrespectfully the day before. In a sudden fit of anger, she lashed out with three attacking sword strokes, and the two began a fierce duel.
Her assailant was Yuanzhi, still dressed in boy’s clothes. Without stopping to consider the rights and wrongs of the situation, she had decided to get her own back for the damage done to her horse’s mane.
Huo Qingtong could see her chance of recovering the Koran slipping away and wanted to finish the fight quickly. She changed to the ‘Three Part’ sword style, and in a few strokes had forced Yuanzhi into retreat. The ‘Three Part’ sword style was the highest achievement of the Tianshan school of kung fu. It was called ‘Three Part’ because only a third of each stroke was completed. As the opponent moved to counter each one, the stoke changed. Intricate and vicious, the style included no defensive strokes: attacking and killing was all.
The two went through a dozen or more moves without their blades ever touching, Huo Qingtong completing only a third of each stroke, and then changing it without waiting for her opponent to defend. She cut and thrust at the air around Yuanzhi’s body, and the Chinese girl, knowing she could not match her opponent’s speed, leapt away. Huo Qingtong did not pursue her but turned back to the knapsack, and found it was already in the hands of a small, thin man standing beside Yan’s body. She lunged at him with her sword.
“Oh dear,” the man cried. “Uncle Tong had better get back in place!” Lead Escort Tong jumped clear with three quick steps and Huo Qingtong followed hard on his heels. She raised her sword to cut him down, but the stroke was blocked by a Five Element Wheel thrust forward by the surviving Yan brother.
Huo Qingtong fought briefly with Yan, and recognised him as a strong and capable adversary. Then she heard a loud whistle coming from the hilltops, the signal for retreat, and knew that help for the agency men was on the way. She saw Tong scampering away with the knapsack and quickly changed to the Three Part sword style, forcing Yan to retreat, and then raced after him. The whistles became louder.
“Daughter! Retreat quickly!” Muzhuolun shouted. She abandoned the chase and directed her comrades as they lifted the Muslim dead and wounded onto camels and horses. Then the Muslim column charged on down the mountain path. But a little way further on, they found several dozen Manchu soldiers blocking their path.
Officer Deng rode forward, his spear held crosswise. “You insolent Muslims!” he shouted. “What is this insurrection?” Two of Huo Qingtong’s steel darts hit his hands and the spear clattered to the ground. Muzhuolun raised his sabre high and charged forward with some other Muslim warriors, and the Manchu troops scattered. Boulders crashed down from the mountain tops, pulverising more than a dozen Manchu troops, and in the midst of the melee, the Muslims made good their escape.
Throughout the battle, Lu had remained on the sidelines, his hands folded inside his sleeves. Yuanzhi had been of great assistance to the agency men even though she had been beaten by Huo Qingtong, and the Muslims had been unable to get what they wanted. As the agency men tended the wounded and carried off the dead, Lu gave her a severe lecture, criticising her for interfering in the affairs of others, and needlessly making even more enemies.
“There are very few good men amongst the bodyguard agencies, and many bad ones. Why bother helping people to do evil?” he scolded her. She hung her head, not daring to look up.
They crossed through the pass and arrived in Sandaogou, a medium-sized market town, as dusk was falling. The mulemen said there was only one inn, called the Antong, and both the agency men and Officer Deng’s column headed for it. The inn was crude and simple in the extreme with earthern walls and mud floors. Seeing no servants coming out to greet them, Tong shouted: “Is everyone dead in there? I damn eighteen generations of your ancestors!” Yuanzhi frowned. No-one had ever dared to use such language within her hearing before.
Just then, they heard the sound of clashing swords from inside. Yuanzhi was delighted. “Here’s some more fun to watch!” she cried and ran into the inn ahead of the others.
The entrance hall was empty and silent, but passing through to the courtyard, she saw a young woman fighting fiercely with four men. In her left hand was a sword, and in her right, a knife. She was obviously battling for her life. It seemed to Yuanzhi that the four man were trying to force their way into the room outside which the woman was standing. The four were all strong fighters: one wielded a whip, one a staff, one a sword and one a Devil’s Head Knife.
Lu also entered the courtyard. “How is it that we are continually running into these secret society people?” he thought.
The woman dodged and parried, holding all four men at bay until suddenly the one wielding the Devil’s Head Knife swung his weapon towards her as another of the attackers thrust his sword at her heart. She fended off the sword with the knife in her right hand, but she could not dodge the Devil’s Head Knife and it struck her on the left shoulder. But she did not give up, and as she continued to fight, drops of blood flew in all directions.
“Don’t kill her! We need her alive,” shouted the man with the whip.
Lu’s chivalrous heart was moved at the sight of four man attacking one woman, and despite his own sensitive situation he could see he might have to take a hand himself. He watched as the swordsman attacked with a slicing blow from the left. The woman parried it obliquely, but she was already wounded and out of breath. The two blades clashed, and the knife was jolted from her hand and clattered to the ground. The swordsman then thrust his blade at her again, and she frantically dodged to the right, opening a way through which the man with the Devil’s Head Knife charged towards the door.
Ignoring all dangers, the woman plunged her left hand into her gown and drew out two throwing knives which she slung at her enemy’s back. One of the knives embedded itself in the door post but the other plunged into his back. Luckily for him, the woman’s hand lacked strength due to the wound in her left shoulder and the knife did not kill him. He staggered back, screaming with pain, and pulled the knife out. Meanwhile, the woman was struck on her thigh by the staff. She swayed unsteadily, but defiantly resumed her position blocking the doorway.
“Go and help her,” Lu said quietly to Yuanzhi. “If you can’t beat them, I’ll come over as well.”
Yuanzhi was bursting to test herself. She leapt forward, her sword at the ready, shouting: “Four men fighting one woman! You should be ashamed of yourselves!” Seeing someone coming to the aid of the woman, and one of their number already wounded, the four men turned and ran from the inn.
The woman’s face was deathly pale and she leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Yuanzhi went over to her.
“Why were they bullying you like that?” she asked, but the woman was temporarily incapable of speech.
Officer Deng walked over to Yuanzhi. “Madame Li would like to see you mistress,” he said, and added in a whisper: “She’s heard that you were involved in a fight on the road and is very upset. You’d better go quickly.”
The woman’s expression changed as soon as she saw Officer Deng’s military uniform; she pulled her throwing knife out of the doorpost, went back into her room and banged the door shut without answering Yuanzhi.
Rather unhappy at having been snubbed, Yuanzhi walked over to Lu. “Teacher, what were they fighting about?” she asked.
“It was probably a revenge attack,” he said. “But it isn’t over yet. Those four will be back.”
Yuanzhi was about to ask another question when she heard someone inside the inn shouting and swearing.
“Damn your ancestors, what do you mean there are no good rooms? Are you afraid we don’t have the money to pay?” It was the voice of Lead Escort Tong.
“Please don’t be angry sir,” an employee of the inn answered. “We in the inn-keeping business would not dare to offend such eminent persons as yourselves. But it is a fact that all of our few good rooms are occupied.”
“Who have you got in them? I think I’ll go and have a look,” Tong said walking out into the courtyard.
Just then a door opened, and the young woman leaned out. “Please bring some hot water,” she said to a servant.
Tong saw the woman’s smooth white skin and the beauty of her face and eyes, and noticed on her left wrist, a bracelet of pearls, all perfectly formed. His mouth watered. The woman spoke with a southern Chinese accent and the exotic touch to her voice excited him greatly.
“I, Lead Escort Tong have passed along this road on business dozens of times, and I have never stayed in anything but the best rooms,” he shouted. “If there are no good rooms vacant, why don’t you make one vacant for me?” The door to the woman’s room was still open and he walked straight inside.
“Ai-ya!” the woman exclaimed. She moved to obstruct him, but felt a stab of pain in her thigh and sat down.
As Tong entered the room, he saw there was a man lying on the kang. The room was dimly-lit but he could see that the man’s head was wrapped in bandages, his right arm was in a sling and that one of his legs was also bandaged.
“Who is it?” the man asked in a deep, resonant voice.
“My name is Tong and I’m a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency,” he replied. “We are passing through Sandaogou on business, but there are no rooms available here. I was wondering if you could move. Who is this woman? Is she your wife, or your girlfriend?”
“Get out,” the man ordered. His wounds were clearly serious; he was unable to talk loudly.
“One’s a girl and the other’s too badly wounded to even move,” thought Tong, who had not seen the woman fight. “When am I going to get such a chance again?”
“If you don’t want to give up your room, that’s all right too,” he said with a grin on his face. “All three of us can snuggle up together on this kang. Don’t worry, I won’t push over onto your side.”
The man on the kang shook with anger.
“Don’t get involved with these ruffians,” the woman urged him quietly. “We can’t afford to make any more enemies at the moment.” And then to Tong: “You stop your nonsense and get out.”
Tong laughed. “Can’t I stay here and keep you company?”
“Come over here,” the man on the kang said hoarsely.
Tong took a step towards him. “Why? Do you want to see how handsome I am?”
“I can’t see clearly,” the man replied.
Tong laughed out loud and took another step towards him. “Take a closer look. This is like a big brother choosing a husband for his sister….”
Before he could finish, the man on the kang sat up, and as fast as a lightning flash, touched a yuedao point* (*Yuedao points are nerve centres on the body which, when struck, can cause paralysis or even death. The same points are used for a different purpose in acupuncture) on Tong’s ribs and followed with a blow to his back. Tong flew straight out of the door, and landed heavily in the courtyard. The agency shouter, Xun, rushed over to help him up.
“Brother Tong,” he whispered. “Don’t provoke them. It looks like they’re members of the Red Flower Society.”
“Ahh, ahhh, I can’t move my leg,” Tong cried. “The Red Flower Society?” he added suddenly. “How do you know?” He broke into a cold sweat of fear.
“One of the porters told me four Yamen officers were here a while ago to arrest those two, and there was quite a fight before they left,” Xun said.
Lead Escort Yan came over. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Brother Yan,” Tong shouted. “One of those bastards from the Red Flower Society used Yuedao kung fu on me!”
Yan frowned and pulled Tong up by his arm. “We’ll go back to the room and talk about it,” he said. His first thought was for the agency’s reputation. It created a bad impression when an agency’s lead escort was floored and couldn’t even get up. Lead Escort Qian came over. “Are you sure it was the Red Flower Society?” he asked Xun.
“When those four officers left, they told the porter that the couple in there were fugitives,” he whispered. “They told the porter to inform them if they left. I overhead them talking.”
Qian glanced at Yan and pulled Tong up.
“Who are they?” Yan asked quietly.
“Red Flower Society. I think we ought to let it pass,” Qian said. “When Tong is better we can reconsider. Did you see what happened when those men tried to arrest them just now?” he asked Xun.
“It was some fight,” said Xun, gesticulating wildly. “There was a woman with a sword in her left hand and a dagger in her right hand. Four men couldn’t beat her.”
“She must be one of ‘Divine Knife’ Luo’s people,” replied Qian, surprised. “She used throwing knives, I suppose?”
“Yes, yes, she’s really accurate. It was incredible!” Xun exclaimed.
Qian turned to Yan. “Master Wen of the Red Flower Society is here,” he said. They carried Tong back to their room in silence.
Lu had observed the whole incident, but the lead escorts had talked in such low tones, that he only managed to catch Qian’s last two utterances. Yuanzhi walked over and asked: “Teacher, when are you going to teach me Yuedao kung fu? Did you see how fantastic that move was?”
Lu took no notice of her, but said to himself: “If it is one of ‘Divine Knife’ Luo’s people, I can’t just stand by and do nothing.”
“Who is ‘Divine Knife’ Luo?” Yuanzhi asked.
“He was a good friend of mine. I hear he’s passed away now. All the moves used by the woman we saw fighting a minute ago were of his school.”
Just then, the two lead escorts Qian and Tai helped Tong over to the woman’s room. Xun coughed loudly outside the door and announced in a low voice:
“Lead Escorts Qian, Tai and Tong of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency have come to pay their respects to Master Wen of the Red Flower Society.”
The door creaked open and the woman stood in the doorway staring at them. “What do you want?” she asked.
“We did not know that you and Master Wen were here,” Qian said. “We have insulted you and we have come to apologise. Please be forgiving and don’t be offended by what happened.” He bowed low and Tai and Xun followed suit.
“Mistress,” Qian continued. “We have never met before, but I have heard a great deal about you and your husband. Master Wang, the head of our agency, was always on very good terms with the leader of your honourable society, Master Yu, and also with your father ‘Divine Knife’ Luo. Our brother here is very bad-tempered, and is always talking nonsense…”
The woman cut him off. “Our master has been wounded, and he just went to sleep. When he wakes, I will pass on your message. We are ignorant of etiquette, but his wounds are not light, and he hasn’t slept well for two days.” There was an expression of apprehension on her face.
“What sort of wounds does Master Wen have?” Qian asked. “We have some Golden Wound ointment with us.” He wanted to put them in their debt so that they would be obliged to help cure Tong.
“Thank you, but we have medicine,” the woman replied, understanding his meaning. “Your colleague was not touched on a major Yuedao point. When our master wakes, I will send one of the inn’s servants round.”
Seeing that she had agreed to cure Tong, Qian and the others started to retire.
“By the way,” said the woman. “How did you know our names?”
“With your swords and throwing knives, who wouldn’t be able to guess?” Qian replied. “What’s more, who apart from Master Wen uses Yuedao kung fu like that? It had to be ‘Rolling Thunder Hand’ Wen Tailai and his wife Luo Bing.”
The woman smiled, flattered at having been recognised.