Lead Escort Tong eagerly led Zhang and the others to Iron Gall Manor. This time, having some support with him, he walked brazenly up to the manor gate.
“Tell your Lord to come out and receive Imperial officials,” he shouted to an attendant.
The attendant turned to go inside, but Zhang decided they could not afford to offend such a respected man as Lord Zhou. “Say that we have come from Beijing and that there is some official business we would like to consult Lord Zhou about,” he called.
He glanced meaningfully at Officer Wu, who nodded and went round to the rear of the Manor with one of the officers to prevent anyone escaping.
As soon as he heard the attendant’s report, Meng knew the officers had come for Wen Tailai. He told Song to go out and keep them occupied, and then went immediately to Wen’s room.
“Master Wen, there are some Eagle’s Claws outside,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do. We’ll just have to hide the three of you for a while.”
He helped Wen up, and led him to a pavilion in the garden behind the Manor house. Meng and ‘Scholar’ Yu pushed aside a stone table in the pavilion, exposing an iron plate. They worked free an iron ring on top of the plate and pulled it up. Underneath was a cellar.
Just then, they heard people outside the back gate, and at the same time shouting from in front as Zhang forced his way through towards the garden. Wen saw that they were surrounded and hurried down the steps into the cellar. Meng replaced the iron plate, and pushed the stone table back over it with the help of two attendants. Zhou’s young son kept getting in the way as he tried to help. Meng looked round quickly to make sure nothing was out of place, then ordered the attendants to open the rear gate.
Zhang and the others entered the garden. Seeing Tong amongst the group, Meng said coldly: “So you are an official. I should not have been so impolite to you earlier.”
“I am a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency,” Tong replied. “Haven’t you made a mistake, brother?” He looked round at Zhang. “I saw the three fugitives enter the manor. You should order a search, Master Zhang.”
“We are peaceful citizens,” said Song. “His Lordship, Master Zhou, is one of the most respected gentlemen west of the Yellow River. How could he dare to harbour either bandits or rebellious intentions?”
Meng asked Zhang to explain the purpose of his visit. Zhang did so, and Meng laughed out loud. “But the Red Flower Society is a secret society in south China,” he protested. “Why would they come to the northwest border areas? This lead escort has a wild imagination.”
Zhang and the rest were professionals, and they knew Wen was in the manor. If they conducted a thorough search and found him, there would be no problem. But if the search failed to find him, the matter would certainly not rest there. Causing offence to a man such as Lord Zhou was no game and they hesitated.
Worried that he would be laughed at if Wen wasn’t caught that day, Tong decided to trick Zhou’s son into talking. He smiled and took him by the hand, but the boy snatched his hand away.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Little brother,” Tong said. “Tell me where the three visitors who came to your house today are hiding and I’ll give you this to buy sweets with.” He took out a silver ingot and presented it to the boy.
The boy made a face at him. “Who do you think I am? Do you think any member of the Zhou family of Iron Gall manor would want your stinking money?”
Zhang studied the child’s face and guessed he knew where Wen was hidden. “Just you wait until we find them,” he warned. “We will behead not only your father, but you and your mother as well.”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “I’m not afraid of you, so why would my father be afraid of you?” he replied.
Suddenly, Tong noticed the boy was wearing a pearl bracelet on his left wrist and recognised it immediately as Luo Bing’s.
“Those pearls on your wrist. They belong to one of the visitors,” he said. “You must have stolen them from her.”
Why should I steal?” the boy replied angrily. “She gave them to me.”
Tong laughed. “All right. She gave them to you. Well, where is she?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Stop chattering with the child,” Zhang interrupted. “They wouldn’t let a child in on the great affairs of the Manor. He would certainly have been shooed away before they hid the three guests in their secret place.”
As he hoped, the child rose to the bait. “How would you know?” he shouted.
Meng was becoming anxious. “Let’s go inside, little brother,” he said.
Zhang seized the opportunity. “Yes, go away little boy. You don’t know anything.”
The boy could stand it no longer. “I know!” he shouted. “They’re in the garden, in the pavilion!”
Meng was greatly alarmed. “Little brother, what nonsense are you talking? Go inside quickly!”
As soon as the words were out, the boy knew he had made a mess of everything. He flew indoors, panic-stricken and on the verge of tears.
Zhang could see that the pavilion, wide and empty with red-painted railings around its sides, provided no hiding place. He leapt onto one of the railings and looked up into the roof, but saw no sign of a hiding-place. He jumped down again and stood silently, deep in thought. Then he had an idea.
“Master Meng,” he smiled. “My kung fu is unsophisticated, but I have some clumsy strength. Let us have a competition.”
“I wouldn’t dare to be so presumptuous,” Meng replied. “With weapons or without, I leave the choice to you.”
Zhang laughed loudly. “There’s no need for fighting, it would injure this amiable atmosphere. No, I suggest we take turns at trying to lift this stone table. I hope you won’t laugh at me if I can’t.”
Meng started in fright. “No, it’s…it’s not a good…” he stuttered.
The others were surprised at Zhang’s desire to engage Meng in a test of strength, and they watched intently as he pushed up his sleeves and grasped one of the round legs of the stone table with his right hand. He shouted the word “Lift!”, and raised the 400-odd pound table off the ground using just the one hand.
They applauded him for his strength, but the shouts of applause quickly changed to calls of surprise as they noticed the iron plate that had been exposed.
The officers lifted up the plate and saw Wen in the hole beneath them, but none dared to go down and arrest him. They couldn’t use darts either as they had been ordered to capture him alive, so all they could do was stand at the entrance to the cellar, weapons in hand, shouting at him.
“We’ve been betrayed by Iron Gall Manor,” Wen said quietly to Luo Bing. “We are husband and wife, and I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Whatever I tell you to do in a moment, you must do.”
Luo Bing nodded, her eyes full of tears.
“Wen Tailai is here,” Wen shouted. “What’s all the noise about?”
A sudden silence descended on the group above.
“My leg is wounded,” Wen added. “Send a rope down and lift me up.”
Zhang turned round to ask Meng to get some rope, but he had disappeared, so he ordered an attendant to go instead. A length of rope was brought, and an Imperial Bodyguard named Cheng Huang grabbed one end and threw the other down into the cellar and lifted Wen out.
As soon as his feet touched the ground, Wen jerked the rope out of Cheng Huang’s hands, and with a roar, whirled it round and round his head. Caught off guard, Zhang and the others ducked in panic as the rope swept towards them. Tong, who had already suffered at Wen’s hand, had hidden behind the others, and didn’t see the rope until it was too late. With the piercing force of an iron rod, the rope smashed solidly into his back, knocking him to the ground.
Two other Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan, raced towards Wen from either side while ‘Scholar’ Yu, wielding the Golden Flute, leapt up the stone steps and attacked Cheng Huang.
Cheng was wielding a brass staff, but despite its advantage of length over the flute, Yu quickly forced him onto the defensive. Luo Bing limped up the steps, supporting herself with her sword, but found her way blocked by a tall, muscular man standing at the mouth of the cellar, with his hands on his hips. She pulled out a throwing knife and threw it at him. The man, Zhang, made no move until the knife was only an inch from his nose, then stretched out his hand and grabbed it by the hilt. Luo Bing saw his leisurely reaction, and drew a ragged breath.
Zhang forced her sword to one side, then gave her a push which threw her off balance. She fell back down into the cellar.
Wen, meanwhile, was battling simultaneously with the two Imperial Bodyguards, Rui and Yan. His mind was numb with the excruciating pain from his wounds, and he fought like a madman, striking out wildly. Yu, however, had gained the upper hand in his fight with Cheng Huang. Zhang noticed his technique contained many elements peculiar to the Wudang School. Greatly surprised, he was about to go over and question him, when Yu suddenly jumped back into the cellar to help Luo Bing.
“Are you all right?” he asked her.
“It’s nothing. Go and help Fourth Brother.”
“I’ll support you up,” Yu said.
Wen looked around and saw that his wife had not yet managed to get out of the cellar, and he realised he could continue no longer. He threw himself at Cheng Huang, paralysed him with a blow to the kidneys, then grabbed him round the waist and fell into the cellar with him.
They landed on the cellar floor with Wen on top of Cheng Huang, neither of them able to move. Luo Bing quickly helped Wen up. His face was completely drained of colour and covered in sweat, but he forced a smile, and with a “Wa” sound, a mouthful of blood sprayed out onto the front of her tunic. Yu understood what Wen was planning, and shouted. “Make way! Make way!”
With Cheng Huang in the hands of the enemy, Zhang decided against any precipitous action. He heard Yu’s shout and waved his arm at the others, indicating they should clear a path for them.
The first one out of the cellar was Cheng Huang with Luo Bing grasping his collar and holding the point of a dagger to the small of his back. Next came Yu supporting Wen. The four shuffled slowly out, pushing and pulling each other as they came.
“If anyone moves, this man dies,” Luo Bing shouted.
The four passed through the forest of swords and spears and made their way slowly towards the rear gate. Luo Bing spotted three horses tied to the willow trees just outside, and she silently thanked Heaven and Earth.
Zhang could see the fugitives were about to escape and decided that capturing Wen Tailai and taking him back to Beijing was more important than saving Cheng Huang’s life. He picked up the rope Wen had thrown on the ground, fashioned it into a lassoo and flung it at Wen using all his Inner Strength. The rope flew whistling through the air and encircled Wen, and with a tug, Zhang pulled him out of Yu’s grasp. Wen cried out and Luo Bing turned to help him, ignoring Cheng Huang. But her thigh was wounded, and she fell to the ground before she had taken two steps.
“Go! Go quickly!” Wen shouted.
“I’ll die with you,” said Luo Bing.
“You agreed that you would do what I told you…” he replied angrily, but before he could finish, the officers swarmed over him. Yu raced over and picked Luo Bing up, then charged straight out of the gate. One officer moved to stop him, but one of Yu’s legs flew up and kicked him so hard that he fell to the ground five or six paces away.
Yu ran with her over to the horses and placed her on the back of one just as three officers raced through the gates after them.
“Use your throwing knives, quick!” he shouted.
A string of knives flashed out from her hand and there was a blood-curdling shriek as one of them planted itself in the shoulder of one of the officers. Yu freed the reins of the three horses, mounted one and pulled the head of the third round so that it faced the gate. He rapped it sharply on the rump with his flute and the horse charged straight to the officers, trapping them in the gateway. In the confusion, Yu and Luo Bing galloped off.
Luo Bing lay on the horse in a semi-delirious state. She tried on several occasions to pull the horse round and return to Iron Gall Manor, but each time Yu stopped her. He slowed the pace only when he was sure there was no-one chasing them.
Another mile further on, Yu saw four riders approaching led by a man with a flowing white beard: it was the Lord of Iron Gall Manor, Zhou Zhongying. Seeing Yu and Luo Bing, he reined in his horse and called out:
“Honoured guests, please stop! I have called for a doctor.”
Full of hatred, Luo Bing flung a throwing knife at him. Zhou started in fright, and threw himself down flat on his horse, and the knife flew over his back. Behind him, one of his followers deflected the knife with a stroke from his sword, and it plunged into the trunk of a large willow tree beside the road. The rays of the blood-red setting sun reflected off the blade, the light flashing and dancing all around them. Just as Zhou was about to question them, Luo Bing began cursing him.
“You old thief! You betrayed my husband! I will have my revenge on you!” she shouted, tears coursing down her face. She urged her horse forward, brandishing her pair of swords.
“Let us discuss this first,” Zhou called out, greatly puzzled.
“We must save Fourth Brother first,” Yu said to Luo Bing, restraining her. “We can raze Iron Gall Manor to the ground once we’ve rescued him.”
Luo Bing saw the logic in what he said, and pulled the head of her horse round. She spat on the ground in hate, slapped her horse and galloped off.
Lord Zhou wondered what was behind this young girl’s anger and questioned the attendant who had been sent to the town to fetch a doctor. But he said only that when he left, Lady Zhou and Master Meng had been looking after the guests, and that there had been no disgreements.
Zhou galloped all the way back to the manor, and strode quickly inside shouting: “Call Meng!”
“Master Meng is with her Ladyship,” one of the attendants told him. Then the rest all began talking at once, giving him accounts of what had happened, how the officers had arrested Wen Tailai and taken him away, and had left the manor only a short while before.
“Who tolf the officers the three guests were hiding in the cellar?” Zhou asked.
The attendants looked at each other, not daring to speak. The sound of Zhou’s two iron balls clacking together in his hand was even louder than usual. “What are you all standing there for?” he shouted. “Go and get Meng quickly!”
As he spoke, Meng ran in.
“Who let the secret out?” Zhou shouted hoarsely. “Tell me! You…”
Meng hesitated, and said: “The Eagle’s Claws found it out for themselves.”
“Nonsense!” Zhou roared. “How would that bunch of dog thieves ever find a place as well-hidden as my cellar?”
Meng did not answer, not daring to meet his master’s gaze. Lady Zhou came in hugging her son, but Zhou ignored her.
His gaze swung round to Song’s face. “As soon as you saw the officers, you took fright and talked, didn’t you?” he shouted. Meng was trustworthy but Song was a coward and knew no kung fu.
“No…it wasn’t me who talked,” he replied, scared out of his wits. “It was…it was the young…the young master.”
Zhou’s heart missed a beat. “Come over here,” he said to his son.
The boy walked, cringing, over to his father.
“Was it you who told the officers that the three guests were in the garden cellar?” he asked.
The boy had never dared to lie to his father, but he could not bring himself to confess. Zhou brandished his whip.
“Will you speak?” he shouted.
The boy looked at his mother, so scared he wanted to cry. Lady Zhou walked over and stood close beside him.
Meng saw that the deception would not work. “Master,” he said. “The officers were very cunning. They made out that if the young master did not talk, he would be a coward.”
“You wanted to be a hero, so you told them, is that correct?” Zhou shouted.
The boy’s face was drained of colour. “Yes, father,” he replied quietly.
Zhou could not control his anger. “Is that any way for a brave hero to act?” he shouted. He threw the two iron balls in his right hand at the opposite wall in frustration, but at that very moment, his son threw himself into his arms to beg for mercy, and one of the balls hit the boy square on the head. Zhou had put all of his rage into the throw and its power was extraordinary. Blood sprayed in all directions.
Greatly shocked, Zhou quickly took hold of his son and embraced him.
“Father,” the boy said. “I…I won’t do it again…Don’t hit me…” He was dead before he finished speaking. Everyone in the room was stunned into silence.
Lady Zhou grabbed her son, shouting: “Child, child!” When she saw he had stopped breathing, she stared dumbly at him for a moment then, like a crazed tiger, struck out at Zhou.
“Why…why did you kill the child?” she sobbed.
Zhou shook his head and retreated two paces. “I… I didn’t…”
Lady Zhou put down her son’s corpse, and grabbed a sword from the scabbard of one of the attendants. She leapt forward and struck out at her husband, but he made no move to avoid the blow.
“It will be better if we all die,” he said, closing his eyes.
Seeing him in such a state, her hand loosened. She dropped the sword to the ground and ran out of the hall, sobbing.
Luo Bing and Yu Yutong kept to the back roads for fear of meeting Yamen officers and rode on until the sky was completely black. The countryside was desolate: there were no inns and they couldn’t even find a farmhouse. They stopped to rest beside a large rock.
Yu releaed the horses to graze, then cut some grass with Luo Bing’s sword and spread it out on the ground.
“Now we have a bed, but no food or water,” he said. “All we can do is wait until tomorrow and try to think of something then.”
Luo Bing cared about nothing but her husband. She cried continuously. Yu comforted her, saying the Red Flower Society would certainly come in force to help them rescue Fourth Brother. Luo Bing was exhausted, and hearing his words, she relaxed and soon fell into a deep sleep.
In her dream, she seemed to meet her husband, who held her gently in his arms, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. She felt deliciously happy and lazily let her husband embrace her.
“I’ve been so miserable thinking about you,” she said. “Are all your wounds healed?”
Wen mumbled a few words and held her even tighter, kissed her even more passionately. Just as she was beginning to feel aroused, she suddenly started in fright and awoke. Under the starlight, she could see that the person embracing her was not her husband, but Yu.
“I’ve been miserable thinking about you too!” he whispered.
Ashamed and angry, Luo Bing slapped him heavily on the face, fought her way free and stumbled away a few steps. She fumbled for her knives, and shouted harshly: “What are you doing?”
Yu was stunned. “Listen to me…”
“You listen to me!” she replied angrily. “Which four classes of people does the Red Flower Society kill?”
“Tartars and Manchus; corrupt officials; landlords and tyrants; and villains and scoundrels,” Yu recited quietly, his head hung low.
The space between Luo Bing’s eyebrows closed. “Which four crimes by Red Flower Society members are punishable by death?”
“Death to those who surrender to the Manchu Court. Death to those who betray the Society…death to those who betray their friends, and death to those who violate others’…wives and daughters.”
“If you have the guts, you will quickly punish yourself with the ‘Three Thrusts and Six Holes’!” Luo Bing shouted.
According to the Society’s code, a member who had committed an offence in a moment of confusion and sincerely regretted it could pierce his own thigh three times with a knife so that it penetrated right through, an act known as the ‘Three Thrusts and Six Holes.’ The member could then plead to the Great Helmsman for forgiveness, and could hope that his case would be dealt with leniently.
“I beg you to kill me,” Yu cried. “If I die at your hand, I will still die happy.”
Luo Bing’s anger blazed even more intensely. She raised the knife in her hand, her wrist steeled, ready to throw.
“You don’t know anything,” Yu said in a shaky voice. “How much I have suffered for you over the last five or six years. From the moment I first saw you, my heart…was…no longer my own.”
“I was already Fourth Brother’s then,” Luo Bing said angrily. “Do you mean you didn’t know?”
“I…knew I couldn’t control myself, so I never dared to see too much of you. Whenever the Society had any business to be done, I always begged the Great Helmsman to send me to do it. The others thought I was just hardworking, no-one knows I was really avoiding you. When I was away working, there was never a day or an hour when I did not think of you.”
He took a step towards her and pulled up his left sleeve, exposing his arm. “I hate myself,” he said. “I curse my heart for the animal it is. Every time the hatred overcomes me, I cut myself with a knife here. Look!”
Under the dim starlight, Luo Bing saw his arm was covered in motley scars, and her heart involuntarily softened.
“I always think, why couldn’t Heaven have allowed me to meet you before you married,” he continued. “We are about the same age, but the difference in age between you and Fourth Brother is huge.”
Luo Bing’s anger surged up once more. “What does the difference in our ages matter? Fourth Brother is loving and just, a great man. How could he be compared with someone like you, you…”
She gave a snort of contempt, then turned and walked over to her horse. As she struggled to mount it, Yu went over to help her up, but she shouted “Keep away!” and got up of her own accord.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“It’s none of your business. With Fourth Brother in the hands of the Eagle’s Claws, I might as well be dead anyway. Give me my swords.”
Yu lowered his head and handed the pair of swords to her.
Seeing him standing there, so lost and bewildered, Luo Bing suddenly said: “As long as you seriously work for the good of the Society, and are never impolite to me ever again, I won’t tell anyone about what happened tonight. And I’ll also help you find a nice girl who has both talent and beauty.”
She smiled briefly, slapped her horse and rode off.
Luo Bing rode on for a mile or so, then stopped, searching the sky for the North Star to get her bearings. If she went west, she would meet up with the fighters of the Red Flower Society; to go east would be to follow after her captured husband. She knew that, wounded as she was, it would be impossible for her to save him single-handed, but with her husband heading eastwards, how could she possibly turn away from him? Broken-hearted, she let her horse wander unrestrained for a few miles. Then, seeing she had already travelled a long way from Yu, she dismounted and settled down to sleep in a spinney of small trees. Angry and bitter, she cried for a while and then fell into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, she woke suddenly with a burning fever and called out in a blurred voice: “Water! I must drink water!” But there was no-one to hear her.
Next day, her condition was even worse. She managed with a struggle to sit up, but her head hurt so badly she was forced to lie down again. She slept, and awoke feeling the sun beating down on her head. She watched as it sank towards the west. She was thirsty and hungry, but remounting the horse was impossible.
“It is not important that I die here,” she thought. “But I will never see Fourth Brother again.” Her eyes glazed over and she fainted away.
Suddenly, she heard someone say: “Good. She’s coming round!”
She slowly opened her eyes and saw a young, doe-eyed girl standing beside her. The girl was eighteen or nineteen years old with a tanned face and thick eyebrows. She looked very happy to see Luo Bing awaken.
“Go quickly and get some millet gruel for the Lady to drink,” she told a maid.
Luo Bing realized she was lying on a kang in between the folds of a quilt. The room she was in was clean and tastefully furnished, obviously in the house of a very wealthy family.
“What is your honourable surname, miss?” she asked the girl.
“My surname is Zhou. You sleep for a while. We can talk again later.”
The girl watched as Luo Bing ate a bowl of gruel and then quietly left. Luo Bing closed her eyes and slept once more.
When she woke, the lamps had already been lit. Outside the door, she heard a girl’s voice saying loudly:
“Father shouldn’t have allowed them to bully people and run riot here in Iron Gall Manor! If it had been me, I would have taught them a good lesson!”
Luo Bing started in fright when she heard the words ‘Iron Gall Manor’. The girl and her maid walked into the room and looked through the canopy over the kang, but Luo Bing closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. The girl went over to the wall and took down a sword. Luo Bing noticed her own swords on a table close by and prepared herself. If the girl struck out at her, she would throw the quilt over her head, grab the swords and fight her way out. But all she heard was the maid saying:
“Mistress, you mustn’t make any more trouble. His Lordship is very distressed. Don’t make him angry again.”
“Huh! I don’t care,” the girl replied. She raced out of the room, sword in hand, with the maid at her heels.
Luo Bing guessed correctly that the girl was Lord Zhou’s daughter, Zhou Qi. She was a bold, straight-forward person, very much like her father, and had a love of minding other people’s business. On the day Wen was seized, she had wounded someone in a fight, and had spent the night away from home, planning to wait for her father’s anger to subside before returning. On her way back, she came across Luo Bing unconscious by the road and brought her to the manor, where she discovered to her horror that her father had killed her brother, and her mother had run off.
“If they can betray Fourth Brother to the authorities, why did they save me?” she thought darkly. “There must be some other evil scheme afoot.”
The wound on her thigh had not yet healed, and she couldn’t afford the slightest mistake. Having been in the Manor once before, she had a vague idea of its layout, and planned to stealthily make her way round to the garden, and then leave by the back gate. But as she passed by the great hall, she saw the lamps were burning brightly inside and heard someone talking very loudly. There was something familiar about the voice, and she put her eye close to a crack in the door and saw Lord Zhou in conversation with two other men, one of whom she recognised as Lead Escort Tong. Seeing him, she thought again of her husband’s cruel fate and immediately ceased to care about whether she lived or died. She pushed open the door and slung a throwing knife at Tong.
With his wife missing and his son dead, Zhou had spent two unhappy days fretting endlessly.
After nightfall on the second day, an attendant reported that two visitors had arrived, and Zhou ordered Meng to receive them. One was Tong, the other an Imperial Bodyguard surnamed Pan, one of the fighters who had helped to seize Wen. Meng guessed that no good would come of the visit.
“His Lordship is not feeling well,” he told them. “If you have any message, I will convey it for you.”
Tong laughed. “We are here on a goodwill visit,” he said. “Whether Lord Zhou sees us or not is up to him. Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis that may destroy every member of the Zhou family. What is the point of putting on such airs?”
Meng had no option but to allow them through. The iron balls in Zhou’s hand clacked sharply together as he listened to what the visitors had to say.
“What do you mean by saying Iron Gall Manor is faced with a crisis?” he demanded.
Bodyguard Pan pulled a letter from his gown and spread it out on the table, holding it down with both hands as if afraid that Zhou would snatch it away. Zhou peered down and saw it was a letter written to him by ‘Hidden Needle’ Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School asking him to help some friends of the Red Flower Society who were in difficulties.
Wen had had no opportunity to present the letter to Zhou, and it was found when he was searched after being captured. Lu was a well-known fugitive, and the letter clearly indicated he was collaborating with Iron Gall Manor. The bodyguards had discussed the matter, and decided that reporting the existence of the letter to their superiors would not necessarily result in Lu’s capture and could even increase their own workload. It would be more beneficial to use the letter to extort a sum of money from Zhou and divide it up amongst themselves.
Zhou was shocked at the sight of the letter. “What do you gentlemen want?” he asked.
“We have long admired the famous Lord Zhou,” said Pan. “We know of your enthusiasm for charity and making new friends. Friends are much more important than money, and I’m sure you spend thousands of silver ingots to establish friendship without even creasing half an eyebrow. You of course realise, Lord Zhou, that if the authorities ever see this letter, the consequences would be disastrous. When we brothers found it, we resolved to destroy it in the spirit of friendship, even though it meant risking our own heads. Everyone agreed never to say a word about Iron Gall Manor harbouring the fugitive Wen Tailai. We decided to shoulder this monstrous responsibility and not to report to our superiors.”
“That was very good of you,” Zhou replied dryly.
“But,” Pan continued, “The thing is that we brothers have had a lot of expenses on this trip out of the capital. We are carrying heavy debts. If perhaps Lord Zhou could spare a thought for us, we would feel eternally grateful.”
Zhou was extremely angry. He had let down his friends, his beloved son had died as a result, and the officers were to blame. Now these same officers had come back to try to blackmail him.
“We are villains, that is true,” Tong said. “We villains accomplish little and bungle much. If we had to build a Manor as big as this one, we’d have to admit defeat. But if we were asked to destroy it…”
Before he could finish, Zhou’s daughter, Zhou Qi charged into the hall, and shouted harshly: “Let me see you try!”
Zhou motioned to his daughter and the two walked out of the hall. “Go and tell Meng that whatever happens, these two Eagle’s Claws must not be allowed to leave the Manor!” he whispered.
“Good!” replied Zhou Qi, very pleased. “I was getting angrier and angrier listening outside.”
Zhou returned to the hall.
“Since you refuse to do us this favour Lord Zhou, we will take our leave of you,” Bodyguard Pan said. He picked up Lu’s letter and ripped it to shreds as Zhou stood by dumbfounded, completely taken aback.
“This is a duplicate of the letter,” Pan explained. “The original letter is with the ‘Fire Hand Judge’ Zhang Zhaozhong.”
It was at that moment that Luo Bing’s throwing knife flew towards Tong. Zhou detested Tong, but he couldn’t allow him to die in the Manor.
Everyone held their breaths and stayed completely silent, not daring to make any sound that would give away their position.
In the midst of the silence, footsteps sounded outside the hall. The door was thrown open and a shaft of light struck their eyes as a man carrying a burning torch strode in. He was dressed as a scholar, and in his left hand, he held a golden flute. As soon as he had passed through the door, he stood to one side and raised the torch up high, lighting the way as three other men entered. One was a one-armed Taoist priest with a sword slung across his back. The second man, wearing a light gown loosely tied around the waist, looked like the son of a nobleman. He was followed by a young boy in his teens who held a bundle in his hands. They were in fact ‘Scholar’ Yu, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, and the newly-appointed Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. The young boy was Chen’s attendant, Xin Yan.
Yu presented Zhou with a letter of introduction, bowed, and then announced in a loud voice: “The Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society has come to pay his respects to Lord Zhou of IronGall Manor.”
Zhou put his hands together in salute. “Honoured guests,” he said. “Welcome to my humble Manor. Please be seated.”
The tables and chairs in the great hall had all been overturned and thrown about during the fight and everything was in great disorder.
“Attendants,” Zhou roared. The tables and chairs were quickly rearranged, the candles relit and the guests and hosts seated. Great Helmsman Chen took the first of the guest’s seats on the eastern side of the hall and was followed, in order of seniority, by the other Red Flower Society heroes. Zhou took the first seat on the western side, followed in order by Meng, Zhou Qi and his attendants.
Yu stole a glance at Luo Bing’s beautiful, joyless face. He had no idea if she had told anyone of his misdemeanor. After she had left him that night, he had not known where to go, but after two days of roaming around aimlessly, he ran into Great Helmsman Chen and Priest Wu Chen, who were on their way to Iron Gall Manor.
With the two sides being so polite to each other, Bodyguard Pan could see the game was up and began to sidle towards the door in the hope of slipping out unnoticed. But Xu leapt over and blocked his path.
“Please stay here,” he said. “Let us all explain our positions clearly first.”
Pan did not dare to object.
“Master Wen Tailai, our humble society’s Fourth Brother, was attacked by the Eagle’s Claws and suffered a serious injury,” Chen said coldly. “He came to you for refuge, and we are much indebted to you for the assistance extended to him. All the brothers of our society are grateful, and I take this opportunity to offer our thanks.”
He stood and bowed deeply.
Zhou hurriedly returned the bow, extremely embarrassed.
“Great Helmsman, you don’t understand!” Zhang Jin shouted, jumping up. “He betrayed Fourth Brother!”
‘Leopard’ Wei, who was sitting next to Zhang Jin, gave him a push and told him to shut up.
“Our brothers have travelled through the night to call on you,” Chen continued, ignoring the interruption. “We have all been extremely anxious about Brother Wen. We are unaware of the state of his injuries, but I imagine you would have invited a doctor to treat him. If it is convenient, Lord Zhou, we would like you to take us to him.”
He stood up, and the heroes of the Red Flower Society followed suit.
Zhou stammered, momentarily unable to answer.
“Fourth Brother was killed by them,” Luo Bing shouted, her voice choked with sobs. “Great Helmsman, we must kill this old peasant in payment for Fourth Brother’s life!”
Chen turned pale. Zhang Jin, Yang and a number of the others drew their weapons and moved forward threateningly.
“Master Wen did come to our humble Manor…” Meng began.
“Well then, please take us to see him,” Xu broke in.
“When Master Wen, Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu here arrived, our Lord was not at home,” Meng replied. “It was I who dispatched someone to fetch a doctor. Mistress Luo Bing and Master Yu saw that with their own eyes. Later, the court officers arrived. We are extremely ashamed to say that we were unable to protect our guests and Master Wen was captured. Master Chen, you blame us for not looking after him properly and for failing to fulfil our responsibility to protect friends. We admit it. If you wish to kill us, I for one will not bat an eyelid. But to point your finger at our Lord and accuse him of betraying a friend, what sort of talk is that?”
Luo Bing jumped forward a step and pointed at Meng accusingly. “You!” she shouted. “I ask you! Such a well-concealed hiding-place as that cellar: if you weren’t in the pay of the Eagles’s Claws, how would they have known where we were?”
Meng was speechless.
“Lord Zhou, at the time of the incident, you may not actually have been at home,” Priest Wu added. “But just as a dragon has a head, men have masters. As this concerns Iron Gall Manor, we must ask you to explain.”
Bodyguard Pan, cowering to one side, suddenly spoke up. “It was his son that talked,” he shouted. “Is he willing to admit it?”
“Lord Zhou, is this true?” Great Helmsman Chen asked.
Zhou nodded slowly. The heroes of the Red Flower Society roared in anger and moved in even closer, some glaring at Zhou, some looking at Chen, waiting for his signal.
Chen gave Pan a sidelong glance. “And who are you, sir?” he asked.
“He’s an Eagle’s Claw,” Luo Bing said. “He was one of those that seized Fourth Brother.”
Chen slowly walked over to Pan, then suddenly snatched the iron hoop out of his grasp, whipped both his hands behind his back and held them together. Pan gave a shout and struggled unsuccessfully to break free.
“Where have you taken Brother Wen?” Chen shouted. Pan kept his mouth shut, and an expression of proud insolence appeared on his face. Chen’s fingers touched the ‘Central Mansion Yuedao’ below Pan’s ribs. “Will you talk?” he asked.
Pan yelled out in pain. Chen touched his ‘Tendon Centraction’ Yuedao point. This time, Pan could endure it no longer.
“I’ll talk…I’ll talk,” he whispered. “They’re taking him to Beijing.”
“He…he isn’t dead then?” Luo Bing asked quickly.
“Of course he isn’t dead,” Pan replied. “He’s an important criminal, who would dare to kill him?”
The heroes all breathed a sigh of relief, and Luo Bing’s heart overflowed with happiness, and she fainted away, falling backwards to the floor. Yu stretched out his hand to catch her, but then suddenly pulled it back again. Her head hit the ground, and Zhang Jin hurriedly knelt down beside her.
“Fourth Sister!” he called, giving Yu a sidelong glance full of disdain. “Are you all right?”
Chen relaxed his grip on Pan’s hands. “Tie him up,” he said to his boy attendant, Xin Yan, who tied Pan’s hands firmly behind his back.
“Brothers!” Chen said loudly. “It is vitally important that we save Fourth Brother. We can settle our accounts here another time.”
The heroes of the Red Flower Society voiced their assent in unison. Luo Bing was sitting on a chair crying with joy. Hearing Chen’s words, she stood up with Zhang Jin’s support.
The heroes walked to the door of the hall, escorted by Meng. Chen turned and said to Zhou: “Our apologies for the inconvenience we have caused you. We will meet again.”
Zhou knew from his tone that the Red Flower Society would return to seek vengeance.
“Once we’ve saved Brother Wen, I, the hunchback Zhang, will be the first to return to do battle with you, you old peasant!” Zhang Jin shouted.
Zhou Qi leapt forward a step. “What sort of creature are you that you would dare to curse my father?”
“Huh!” he replied. “Go and call your big brother out and tell him I wish to meet him.”
“My big brother?” she asked, puzzled.
“If he has the guts to betray a friend, he should have the guts to meet another friend,” Zhang Jin added. “Your big brother betrayed our Fourth Brother. Where is he hiding?”
“This hunchback’s talking nonsense,” Zhou Qi said. “I don’t have an elder brother.”
“All right,” Zhou said angrily. “I will hand over my son to you. Follow me!”
Suddenly, there were shots from outside of “Fire! Fire!”, and flames began to cast a glow into the great hall.
Zhou paid no attention. He strode out and Great Helmsman Chen and the others followed him through two courtyards. The fire was already burning fiercely and the heat from the flame was oppressive. In the dark of the night, the red glow reached skywards through the billows of smoke.
“Let’s work together to put out the fire out first,” Xu called.
“You tell someone to commit arson and then pretend to be a good man!” Zhou Qi said indignantly. She remembered his shout earlier about setting fire to the Manor, and was convinced that the Red Flower Society was responsible. Full of grief and resentment, she struck out at him with her sword, but Xu nimbly dodged out of the way.
Zhou appeared not to noticed any of this, and continued to walk towards the rear hall of the Manor. As they entered the hall, they could see that it was arranged for a funeral. A pair of lighted candles were placed on the altar before the ‘Spirit Tablet’ bearing the name of the deceased, along with white streamers and piles of ‘death money’ for the deceased to spend in the other world. Zhou parted a set of white curtains, revealing a small black coffin with its lid still open.
“My son revealed Master Wei’s hiding place, it is true,” he said. “If you want him…then take him!” His voice suddenly broke. In the sombre candlelight, the heroes looking into the coffin and saw the corpse of a small child.
“My brother was only ten years old,” Zhou Qi shouted. “He didn’t understand what was going on. He was tricked into letting out the secret. When father returned, he was so angry, he killed my brother by mistake, and as a result, my mother has left home. Are you satisfied yet? If not, why don’t you kill my father and myself as well?”
The heroes realised they had unjustly accused Zhou, and that the whole incident should never have happened. Zhang Jin, who was the most direct of them all, leapt forward and kowtowed before Zhou, his head hitting the floor with a resounding thump.
“Master,” he cried. “I have wronged you. The hunchback Zhang begs your forgiveness.”
Chen and the other heroes all came forward one by one to apologise. Zhou hurriedly returned the bow.
“Never will we forget the assistance that Lord Zhou has extended to the Red Flower Society,” Chen called out. “Brothers, the important thing now is to put out the fire. Everyone lend a hand quickly.”
The heroes raced out of the hall. But the flames were already lighting up the sky, and the sound of roof tiles smashing to the ground, and of rafters and pillars collapsing intermingled in confusion with the shouts and cries of the Manor attendants. The Anxi region is famous throughout China as a ‘wind storehouse’, and the wind now stoked the flames. It was soon clear that it the fire could not be extinguished, and that the great Iron Gall Manor would soon be completely razed.
The heat in the rear hall was intense, and the cloth streamers and paper money on the altar were already smouldering. But Zhou remained beside the coffin.
“Father, father!” Zhou Qi shouted as the flames started to curl into the hall. “We must leave!”
Zhou took no notice, and continued to gaze at his son in the coffin, unwilling to leave him there to be cremated.
Zhang Jin bent over and shouted: “Eighth Brother, put the coffin on my back.”
Yang grasped hold of the two sides of the coffin, and with a surge of strength, lifted it up and placed it on Zhang Jin’s hunched back. Maintaining his crouching position, Zhang Jin then charged out of the hall. Zhou Qi supported her father, and with the others gathered around to protect them, they ran outside the Manor. Not long after, the roof of the rear hall collapsed, and they all shuddered at the thought of how close it had been.
“Ai-ya!” Zhou Qi suddenly shouted. “That Eagles’s Claw Tong may still be inside!”
“For people as evil as him, being burnt alive is not an unjust end,” ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi replied.
“Who?” Chen asked.
Meng told them about how Tong had come to Iron Gall Manor, first to spy, next as a guide for the officers when they came to seize Wen, and finally to engage in blackmail.
“Yes!” Xu shouted. “It must have been him who started the fire.” He glanced furtively over at Zhou Qi and saw that she was also looking at him out of the corner of her eye. As soon as their eyes met, they both turned their heads away.
“We must catch this man Tong and bring him back,” Chen said. “Brothers Xu, Yang, Wei and Zhang: the four of you go and search along the roads to the north, south, east and west. Come back to report within two hours whether you find him or not.”
The four left, and Chen went over to apologise to Zhou once again.
“Lord Zhou,” he said. “The Red Flower Society is responsible for your being brought to this state of affairs. Our debt to you will be difficult to repay. But we will find Lady Zhou and invite her to return to you. Iron Gall Manor has been destroyed, and we undertake to have it completely rebuilt. All your people will receive full compensation from the Society for whatever they have lost.”
“What kind of talk is that, Master Chen?” Zhou replied. “Wealth and riches are not a part of the flesh. If you continue with that sort of talk, you will not be treating us as friends.”
He had been greatly upset at the sight of Iron Gall Manor burn down, but he valued friendship above all, and now that the misunderstanding had been cleared up, he was happy to have established relations with so many heroes in such a short time. But a moment later, he caught sight of the tiny coffin and another wave of sorrow flooded his heart.
The four heroes sent out to look for Tong returned with nothing to report, and they guessed that he must have taken advantage of the fire and confusion to escape.
“Luckily we know that the fellow is with the Zhen Yuan Escort Agency,” Chen said. “We will catch him one day no matter where he runs to. Lord Zhou, where should the attendants of your honourable manor and their families go for temporary refuge?”
“I think they should all go to Chijinwei, the town to the east of here, after it gets light,” Zhou replied.
“I have a small suggestion, Your Lordship,” Xu said.
“Brother Xu is nicknamed ‘The Kung Fu Mastermind,'” Chen explained to Zhou. “He is the wisest and most resourceful of us all.”
Zhou Qi gave Xu a look of contempt and harrumphed.
“Please speak, Brother Xu,” Zhou said hurriedly, embarrassed by his daughter’s behaviour.
“When Tong gets back, he is certain to embellish his story with a lot of nonsense, accusing Your Lordship of many more crimes,” Xu replied. “I think it would be best for your people to go westwards and lie low for a while until we have evaluated the situation. It may not be safe for them to go to Chijinwei now.”
Zhou agreed immediately. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “I will send them to Anxi first thing tomorrow. I have friends there they can stay with.” He turned to his attendant, Song. “You take them all to Anxi,” he said. “When you get there, you can stay temporarily at the residence of Great Official Wu. All expenses are to be paid by us. I will contact you when I have completed my business.”
“Father, aren’t we going to Anxi too?” Zhou Qi asked.
“Of course not. Master Wen was seized in our Manor. How can we stand by and do nothing when he has still to be rescued?”
Zhou Qi and Meng were delighted at the news.
“We are greatly moved by your goodwill, Lord Zhou.” Chen said. “But saving Brother Wen is an act of rebellion. You are peaceful citizens. It would be best to leave it up to us.”
“You needn’t worry about implicating us,” Zhou replied, stroking his beard. “And if you do not allow me to risk my life for a friend, then you are not treating me as a friend.”
Chen thought for a second then agreed.
“Time is pressing,” Zhou added. “Please issue your orders, Master Chen.”
The embers of Iron Gall Manor had not yet been extinguished and the smell of burning wood hung heavily in the air. As they listened solemnly to Chen’s orders, the flames crackled to life again, fanned by the wind.
The Twin Knights had been sent on ahead to discover Wen’s whereabouts, and ‘Scholar’ Yu was told to link up with them, while the rest of the heroes split up into groups of two and three.
“Fourteenth Brother, please start out immediately,” Chen said to Yu. “The others should rest or sleep here on the ground. We will meet up again inside the Great Wall. The Eagles’s Claws on the Jiayu Gate will most probably be examining everyone rigorously, so we must be careful.”
Yu saluted the heroes with his fists, and mounted his horse. As he rode off, he glanced furtively round at Luo Bing, but she was deep in thought with her head bowed. He sighed, whipped his horse and galloped wildly off.
“Seventh Brother,” Chen said quietly to ‘Mastermind’ Xu. “You go with Luo Bing and Lord Zhou. Take extra care that no officials recognise him. Fourth Sister is wounded and she is greatly feeling the absence of Brother Wen, so you must be careful not to let her do anything rash. There is no need for you to travel fast. Just avoid getting involved in any fighting.”
They settled down to sleep, but less than four hours later, dawn broke. ‘Thousand Arm Buddha’ Zhao with Zhang Jin and ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi were the first to leave. Luo Bing, who had not closed her eyes the whole night, called Zhang Jin over.
“Tenth Brother, you are not allowed to cause any trouble on the road,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “Rescuing Fourth Brother is the important thing, I know.”
Meng and a number of attendants covered the body of Zhou’s son with shrouds and buried it beside the Manor while Zhou Qi wept bitterly, and Zhou stood tearfully by. The heroes paid their respects before the grave.