Chen held the dagger in his hands and stood watching dumbly as Huo Qingtong caught up with the Muslim column and gradually faded towards the horizon. He was about to go and ask Lu Feiqing about his pupil when he noticed a horse galloping towards him fast. As it came closer, he was disappointed to find it was only Xin Yan returning on the white horse.
“Master!” he shouted excitedly. “Master Zhang Jin has a prisoner.”
“Who is it?” Chen asked.
“I went to the old temple and found Master Zhang Jin arguing with a man who wanted to pass. The man saw the horse I was ridingand began cursing me as a horse thief and struck out at me with his sword. Master Zhang Jin and I fought with him. His kung fu was really good. He fought the two of us single-handed until finally I picked up some stones and started throwing them at him, and Master Zhang Jin clubbed him on the thigh. It was only then that we managed to capture him.”
Chen smiled. “What is his name? What was he doing?”
“We asked him but he wouldn’t say. But Master Zhang Jin says he must be a member of the Han School of Luoyang because he was using Iron Pipa Hand Kung Fu.”
Zhang Jin galloped up, dismounted and bowed before Chen, then pulled a man off the horse’s saddle. He was tied hand and foot, but he stood haughtily, exuding an air of insolence.
“I understand you are a member of the Han School of Luoyang,” Chen said. “What is your honourable name?”
The man said nothing.
“Xin Yan, undo this gentleman’s bonds,” Chen said.
Xin Yan drew his knife and cut the rope that bound the man’s hands and legs then stood behind him, his knife at the ready.
“My friends have wronged you, but please do not be offended,” Chen said. “Come into my tent and take a seat.”
Chen and the man sat on the ground while the other heroes came in and stood behind Chen’s back.
When he saw Luo Bing enter, the man’s anger flared and he jumped up. “You stole my horse,” he shouted, pointing at her.
“So it’s Master Han,” Luo Bing replied with a smile. “We exchanged horses and I compensated you with a gold ingot. You did very well out of the deal. What are you angry about?”
Chen asked what had happened, and Luo Bing recounted how she had taken the white horse. The others laughed as they listened.
“In that case, we will return the horse to you, Master Han,” Chen said. “There is also no need to return the gold ingot. Consider it a token of our respect and as payment for the rental of your horse.”
Han was about to reply when Luo Bing said: “Great Helmsman, this won’t do. Do you know who he is? He’s a Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency man.” She pulled out Wang Weiyang’s letter and handed it to him.
Chen’s eyes flashed down the lines. “The great name of Wang Weiyang has been known to me for a long time, but regrettably I ave never met him,” he said. “You are a member of the Han School of Luoyang. What relation are you to Fifth Madame Han?”
“And what is your honourable surname and esteemed name, sir?” Han replied.
Chen smiled. “My surname is Chen, my given name, Jialuo.”
Han stood up. “You…you are the son of Chief Minister Chen?” he asked in a quavering voice.
“This is the Great Helmsman of our Red Flower Society,” one of the Twin Knights said.
Han slowly sat down again and began weighing up this young Great Helmsman.
“Someone in the underworld started the rumour that our society was connected with the death of one of your school’s members,” Chen said. “In fact, we know nothing of it. I dispatched one of our brothers to Luoyang to explain the matter, but something came up and he was forced to postpone the trip. So your arrival could not have been better timed, Master Han. I don’t know how this rumour started. Can you tell me?”
“You…you’re really the son of Chief Minister Chen of Haining?” Han asked.
“Since you know my identity, there is no point in trying to deceive you,” Chen replied.
“Your family announced a large reward for finding you after you left home,” Han said. “It was said that you had joined the Red Flower Society and had gone to the Muslim border regions. My late comrade Jiao Wenqi was engaged by your family to look for you, but he mysteriously disappeared on the way. That was five years ago. Recently, someone found the Iron Plate and Pipa darts that Brother Jiao used in Shanxi province, and we now know for certain that he was murdered. No-one knows the exact circumstances of his death, but consider, sir: if it wasn’t the Red Flower Society, then who did it?”
“I killed Jiao Wenqi,” Lu Feiqing interrupted. “I am not amember of the Red Flower Society, so this matter has nothing to do with them.”
The others were startled. Lu stood up and told the story of how Jiao had found him one night, how he fought one against three, and had been injured, but had still managed to kill them on the deserted hillside. The heroes listened and then cursed Jiao, saying he was shameless and deserved to die. Han’s face darkened but he said nothing.
“If Master Han wishes to avenge his martial brother’s death, there is no reason why he should not do so now,” Lu said. Heturned to Luo Bing. “Mistress Wen, return Master Han’s weapon to him please.”
Luo Bing pulled out the Iron Pipa and handed it to Lu.
“Since Jiao was commissioned by the Chen family to find their son, he should have stuck to his mission,” Lu said. As he spoke, he absent-mindedly excercised his Inner Strength kung fu on the body of the hollow Iron Pipa, slowly flattening it. “What was he doing using their money to come and give me trouble? Even if we of the fighting community are not able to sacrifice ourselves to save our country from the Manchu barbarians, we should still fight for justice and against those who oppress the people.”
His Inner Strength kung fu was extraordinary. His hands rolled the flattened iron plate round so that it was transformed into a tube, and then with a few sqeezes, into an iron club.
“What I detest most are the Manchu court’s Eagles’ Claws and the bodyguard agency running dogs who use a small knowledge of the martial arts to assist the wicked with their evil deeds.”
His voice suddenly hardened and he twisted the iron club into an iron ring.
As Lu talked, Han watched him twist and squeeze his school’s famous weapon as if he were making noodles, and was both startled and afraid. He knew that Jiao’s kung fu had been about the same standard as his own, and realised that fighting with this old manmeant certain death.
Han’s courage had already evaporated and he did not dare to challenge Lu. But although shocked and humbled, he did not wish to appear too cowardly.
“This affair of Jiao Wenqi in fact arose because of me,” Chen said. “I will write a letter to my elder brother telling him that Master Jiao found me, but that I was not willing to return home; also, that on his way back, Master Jiao met with an accident and passed away. I will then ask my brother to pay the reward and compensation money to Master Jiao’s family.”
Han continued to hesitate, and Chen’s eyebrows rose. “But if your heart is set upon revenge, then I will fight you myself.”
Han shuddered. “I will do exactly as you say, sir,” he replied.
“That’s a good fellow,” Chen said. “One has to be flexible.”
He told Xin Yan to hand him his writing brush, instone, ink and writing paper, and using a vigorous calligraphic style, wrote out a letter which Han accepted.
“Master Wang asked me to help escort a cargo back to Beijing and then to escort some treasures the Emperor has presented to your honourable family down to the south. But faced with the extraordinary talents of you all, I would only make a fool of myself if I made further use of my own minor abilities in the martial arts. I will take my leave of you, sir.”
“Did you say items belonging to my family, Master Han?”
“The bodyguard agency caller who brought me the letter said the Emperor is extremely generous towards your family. Every few months, he bestows an amount of precious stones and treasures, and there is now a large accumulation of these that must be sent south to your home. Your family asked us to escort them, but I would not dare to continue earning my daily rice in such a business. After I have made suitable arrangements for Brother Jiao’s dependants, I will return home.”
“It is good that you are willing to follow Master Lu’s invaluable words of advice,” Chen said. “In that case, I might as well make friends with you. Xin Yan, please bring in the other gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency.”
Xin Yan went out and led in Lead Escort Qian and the others. Han and the escorts stared dumbly at each other.
“Master Han, please take these friends with you,” said Chen. “But if we ever catch them again doing anything but good deeds, do not blame us if our hands are not stayed by mercy.”
Chen did not again mention the return of the white horse, and Han did not dare to bring it up.
“We will leave first,” Chen said. “I will ask all of you to rest here for a day before making a start.”
The Red Flower Society heroes mounted their horses an started off, leaving the Agency men and the Yamen officers standing silently behind.
“Master Chen,” Lu Feiqing said after they had travelled for a while. “My pupil will meet up with those bodyguard agency fellows before long. They have been humiliated and have no way to get their revenge, so they may cause trouble. I would like to stay behind and watch them for a while before following after you.”
“Please do as you wish, Master Lu,” Chen replied.
Lu saluted, then galloped off the way they had come. Chen realised as Lu disappeared that he had not asked him about his pupil.
‘Scholar’ Yu, under orders to investigate the whereabouts of Wen Tailai, made discreet enquiries along the road as he went. But he discovered no clues, and in less than a day arrived at Liangzhou, a prosperous busy city and one of the largest in Gansu province. He found a room in an inn, then went to a tavern and drank alone, bemoaning his fate. He thought of Luo Bing’s voice and smile, and a tide of longing rose within him. He knew it was hopeless, and the more he drank, the more melancholy he became. He was just about to leave when two men came in. Yu knew he had seen one of them before and quickly turned his head away. He thought frantically and placed him as one of the Yamen officers he had fought at Iron Gall Manor. Luckily, the man and his companion paid no attention to him.
They chose a table near the window which happened to be just next to Yu’s and sat down. Yu sat with his head on the table, pretending to be drunk.
The two men chatted for a while, then one said:
“Brother Rui, it’s remarkable How you captured that fellow. I wonder what sort of reward the Emperor will give you?”
“I’m not concerned about the reward,” Rui replied. “If we can get him to Hangzhou nice and safely, I’ll be happy. When we left Beijing, there were eight of us bodyguards, and now I’m the only one left. It was that fight in Suzhou. I’m not selling myself short, but I still get the shivers just thinking about it.”
“You’re with Master Zhang now,” the other said. “I’m sure nothing more will be wrong.”
“That’s true,” Rui replied. “But it means that the Imperial Guardsmen get all the credit. What do we Imperial Bodyguards get out of it? But tell me, old Zhu. What are they doing sending him to Hangzhou instead of to Beijing?”
“My younger sister is from the family of Great Scholar Shi, as you know,” Zhu replied, lowering his voice. “She told me quietly that the Emperor plans to go down south. Perhaps he wants to question him himself.”
Rui grunted and drank a mouthful of wine. “So the six of you rushed out from Beijing to see that the Imperial command was complied with?”
“And to give the rest of you some help. The Red Flower Society is very powerful in the south. We have to be especially careful.”
As he listened, Yu groaned inwardly at the sheer luck of it all. If he had not happened to be there and hear them, the Red Flower Society heroes would have been racing to Beijing to save Wen when he was really being taken to Hangzhou.
“Brother Rui,” Zhu said. “Exactly what crime has this fellow committed that the Emperor wants to question him personally?”
“How would we know?” Rui replied. “We were just told that if we didn’t catch him, we would all be removed from our posts. I just hope I can keep my head on my shoulders.”
The two laughed and drank, and their conversation turned to the subject of women. Finally, they paid the bill and stood up to leave. Rui looked over at Yu prostrate on the table.
“Scholars,” he said and laughed harshly. “Three cups of wine and they can’t even walk.”
Yu waited until they had gone, then hastily threw five silver coins onto the table and dashed out of the tavern. He spotted the men entering the city Yamen. He waited for a long time but didn’t see them re-appear, and decided they must be lodging there.
He returned to his room and as soon as it was dark, he changed into a set of dark clothes, stuck his golden flute into his belt then ran over to the Yamen. Making his way round to the back, he clambered over the wall.
All was pitch black in the courtyard except for a shaft of light coming from a window in the eastern hall, and as he crept closer, he heard voices coming from inside. He wet the tip of his finger with a drop of saliva, then lightly moistened the window paper and made a small hole. Looking through, he started in fright.
The hall was full of people. Zhang Zhaozhong was seated in the middle with the bodyguards and Yamen officers on either side of him. A man standing with his back to Yu cursed angrily, and he knew from his voice that it was Wen Tailai.
“You can curse to your heart’s content,” a voice off to the side said darkly. “I may not be as proficient in the martial arts as you, but you will still get a taste of my hand.”
Yu was distressed. “They are going to humiliate Fourth Brother,” he thought. “He is the person Fourth Sister respects and loves most. How can I allow him to be insulted by these villains?”
He saw a tall, thin middleaged man wearing a blue gown advancing on Wen with his hand raised. Just as the man was about to strike Wen, Yu inserted his flute through the hole in the window paper, and with a puff, shot a small arrow into the man’s left eye.
The man fell to the ground in agony and there was a moment of confusion in the hall. Yu shot another arrow into the right cheek of one of the bodyguards, then kicked open the main door of the hall and ran straight in.
“Don’t move!” he shouted. “The Red Flower Society has come to the rescue!”
He raised his flute and struck the Yamen officers beside Wen, then pulled a dagger from his legwrappings and cut the ropes binding Wen’s hands and feet.
Zhang Zhaozhong thought a largescale attack was in progress and immediately drew his sword and went to the hall door to prevent Wen and Yu from escaping and those outside from getting in.
As soon as Wen’s hands were free of the bonds, his spirits surged. An Imperial Bodyguard lunged towards him and Wen struck him hard with his fist, sending him reeling away. The others were so afraid of Wen’s power that for a while they did not dare to get too close to him.
“Fourth Brother, let’s get out!” Yu said.
“Are the others here?”
“No,” Yu replied quietly. “There’s only me.”
Wen nodded once. The wounds on his right arm and thigh had not yet healed, but he ran for the door with his right arm resting on Yu’s shoulder.
Zhang strode foward a step. “Stop!” he shouted, and jabbed at Wen’s stomach with his long sword. Wen was slow on his feet, so using attack as his defence, he struck out at his opponent’s eyes with the index and middle fingers of his left hand, and Zhang was forced to retract his sword.
“Good!” he exclaimed. The two men were incredibly fast, but Wen only had the use of his left arm and after a few more moves, Zhang hit his right shoulder. Unable to keep his balance, Wen sat down heavily on the floor.
“I shouldn’t have done this,” Yu thought as he fought off the Imperial Bodyguards. “I will save Fourth Brother and then let the Eagle’s Claws kill me so that Fourth Sister will know that I, Yu Yutong, am not an unchivalrous oaf.”
He saw Wen fall to the ground and flipped round to strike out desperately at Zhang.
“Fourth Brother, get out quick!” Yu shouted. Wen rested a moment and then with difficulty clambered to his feet. The golden flute flew and danced, completely neglecting to defend or parry. Yu was completely unconcerned about his own safety. Even with his superb swordsmanship, Zhang was forced to move back several paces in the face of his suicidal attack. Wen saw an opening and shot out of the door, with the mob of the bodyguards and officers howling after him.
Yu blocked them at the door, ignoring his own safety.
“Don’t you want to live?” Zhang shouted. “Who taught you that kung fu style?” Yu was using the traditional style of the Wudang School, the school to which Zhang belonged, and Zhang had so far spared him because of it.
“It would be best if you killed me,” Yu said, smiling sadly. After a few more moves, Zhang’s sword struck him once more, this time on the right shoulder, so Yu shifted the golden flute to his left hand and continued the fight without retreating a step.
The mass of the bodyguards charged forward again and Yu’s flute danced, hooting strangely as the wind whipped through it. A bodyguard chopped at him with his sword, and gashed Yu’s shoulder. His body was now covered in blood, but he continued the fierce battle, and there was a sudden crack as the jawbone of another bodyguard was shattered. The bodyguards pressed forward, knives, swords, whips and clubs all thrusting towards Yu simultaneously. Yu’s thigh was hit by a club and he fell to the ground. His golden flute kept up its dance for a few moments, then he fainted away.
There was a sudden shout from the door: “Stop!”
The bodyguards turned and saw Wen walking slowly back into the hall. He ignored them and went straight over to Yu. Seeing his bloodied body, he couldn’t stop his tears. He bent down and was relieved to find Yu was till breathing.
“Treat his wounds quickly,” he ordered.
The bodyguards were so fearful of his power, that they did as he said. Wen watched them bind Yu’s wounds and carry him through to the inner hall, then placed both of his hands behind his back.
“Tie me up,” he said. One of the bodyguards looked over at Zhang, then walked slowly over.
“What are you afraid of?” Wen asked. “If I was going to hurt you, I would have done so long ago.”
The bodyguard bound his hands and took him back to the dungeons. Two bodyguards were left to guard him.
Early the next morning, Zhang went to see Yu and found him in a deep sleep. He was told by a guard that the doctor had visited Yu and prescribed some medicine. Zhang visited him again in the afternoon and Yu appeared to be more alert.
“Is your teacher surnamed Lu or Ma?” Zhang asked him.
“My teacher is surnamed Ma, his given name is Zhen.”
“So that’s it. I am your martial uncle, Zhang Zhaozhong.”
Yu nodded slightly.
“Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?”
Yu nodded again.
“Such a nice young man,” Zhang sighed. “What a pity that you have fallen to such a state. What relation is Wen Tailai to you? What were you doing risking your life to save him?”
Yu closed his eyes and was silent. A moment passed.
“In the end I did save him, so I can die in peace,” he finally said.
“Huh! Do you really think you could snatch him away from me?”
Yu was startled. “Didn’t he escape?” he asked.
“How could he? Stop day-dreaming!”
Zhang tried to interrogate him, but Yu took no notice, and after a while he began to sneeze.
Zhang smiled slightly. “You stubborn boy,” he said, and left.
He ordered the Imperial Bodyguards to organise an ambush with Wen as bait. After dinner, Wen was brought out of the dungeon and interrogated once more, in the same manner as the night before when Yu had unexpectedly burst in and disrupted the proceedings. This time, however, heavily-armed troops were hidden all around the Yamen, waiting to catch any Red Flower Society rescuers. But they waited in vain.
The next morning, Zhang received a report that the waters of the Yellow River were rising rapidly, and that the current at the point where they intended to cross was very strong and ordered an immediate departure. He had Wen and Yu placed in separate carriages and was just about to start out when Officer Wu and the Zhen Yuan Agency Lead Escorts raced into the Yamen. Zhang hastily questioned them, and Officer Wu breathlessly told him how they had been attacked and captured by the Muslims and the Red Flower Society, and how Lead Escort Yan had been killed by a young Muslim girl.
“Brother Yan was a very tough fighter,” Zhang said. “Extraordinary.” He raised his hand. “We will meet again in Beijing.”
Zhang immediately went and told the Liangzhou Military commander that he wanted four hundred crack troops transferred to his command to help escort criminals wanted by the Emperor. The commander did not dare refuse and also dispatched Colonel Cao Neng and Chief-of-Staff Ping Wangxian to lead the escorting soldiers until they reached Lanzhou, the provincial capital, where provincial troops would take over.
Zhang’s column surged out of the town, stealing and pilfering from the common people in the usual way as they went.
They travelled without incident for two days. Then, about ten miles from a village named Twin Wells, they came upon two bare-breasted men sitting beneath a tree by the side of the road with a pair of fine horses standing nearby. Two of the soldiers went over.
“Hey!” one shouted. “These two horses look like official horses. Where did you steal them from?”
“We are peaceful citizens,” said one of the men. “We wouldn’t dare to steal horses.”
“We are tired of walking. Lend them to us,” the second soldier replied.
The two men stood up, walked over to their horses and untied the reins.
The soldiers walked haughtily over and were just about to take hold of the reins when the two men kicked their behinds, leapt onto the horses and galloped over to one of the carriages.
“Is Fourth Brother in there?” one shouted.
“Ah, Twelfth Brother!” Wen answered.
“Fourth Brother, we’re leaving,” the man replied. “But don’t worry, we’ll be back to rescue you soon.”
The two men galloped away before the carriage’s guards could attack.
The column lodged that night at a town called Clear Water Shop. Early the following morning, while most of the soldiers were still asleep, a scream was heard, and there was a moment of confusion. The two troop commanders, Cao and Ping went to investigate and found the bodies of more than a dozen soldiers lying where they had slept, each with a gaping gash in the chest. There was no indication of who had killed them.
The next evening, they rested at Hengshi. This was a large town, and the column filled three inns and many private houses besides. During the night, one of the inns caught fire. Zhang ordered the bodyguards to guard Wen and to heed nothing else in order to avoid being tricked. The flames rose higher and higher.
“Bandits!” Cao Neng cried as he ran into Zhang’s room. “They’re attacking!”
“Please go and direct operations yourself, General Cao,” Zhang replied. “I am unable to leave this place.”
Cao nodded and left.
From outside the inn came the sound of screams and shrieks, galloping horses, the crackle of the flames and the smash of roof tiles as they hit the ground. Zhang ordered two bodyguards onto the roof to keep watch, but told them not to get involved unless the enemy attacked the inn. The fire did not get out of control, and before long it was extinguished. The agitated clamour continued for a while, then gradually died down to the point where the sound of hooves could be heard as horses galloped off eastwards.
Cao, his face covered in soot, grease and blood, ran in to see Zhang again.
“The bandits have retreated,” he reported.
“How many of our men have been killed and wounded?” Zhang asked.
“I don’t know yet. Several…several dozen.”
“How many bandits were captured?”
Cao’s mouth fell open. After a moment, he said: “None.”
“Their faces were covered with cloth, and their kung fu was horrendous,” Cao added. “But it’s very strange, they didn’t steal anything. All they did was kill our brothers. Just before they left, they threw down two hundred taels of silver for the innkeeper saying it was compensation for starting the fire.”
“So you think they were bandits, do you?” Zhang said. “Tell everyone to get some rest, General Cao. We will start out early tomorrow.”
Cao retired and went to see the innkeeper, whom he accused of being in collusion with the bandits and responsible for the murder of the soldiers. The innkeeper kowtowed and begged for mercy and finally gave Cao the two hundred taels of silver.
The next day, the soldiers were busy until noon before finally making a start. They passed through beautiful country of blue hills and green water, surrounded by dense vegetation on all sides. After travelling for about four hours, the road began to grow gradually steeper and high peaks rose on either side.
A horse came galloping down the road towards them and halted about ten paces in front of the column.
“Listen to me, all of you,” the rider called out. “You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die.”
The soldiers shuddered as they looked at the man. He was wearing clothes made of rough hemp bound at the waist with grass rope. His face was pale yellow and his eyebrows slanted upwards, just like the images of life-stealing spirits in the temples. The man spurred his horse forward and galloped down the mountain, passing beside of the column, and was gone. Suddenly, one of the soldiers in the rear-guard gave a cry, and fell to the ground, dead. The rest started in fright and gathered round to look, but there was no wound visible on his body. Terrified, they all began talking at once.
Cao Neng assigned two soldiers to stay behind and bury the dead man and the column continued up the mountain. Before they had gone very far, another horse approached them from in front, its rider the same man they had seen earlier.
“Listen to me, all of you,” he called out. “You have offended the demons. Turn back quickly and you will be spared. If you continue eastwards, each one of you Turtles will surely die.”
The soldiers wondered fearfully how the man could have made his way round in front of them again. They had clearly seen him go down the mountain and one glance confirmed that there were no short cuts back up the slope. The man spurred his horse forward and the soldiers shrunk from him as if he was a real demon.
One of the Imperial bodyguards, named Zhu, stuck out his sword to obstruct the man. “Slow down, friend,” he said.
The man struck Zhu’s shoulder with his right hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Then he sped off down the mountain. As he passed the end of the column, the last soldier gave a shriek and fell to the ground, dead. The other soldiers stood staring foolishly, scared out of their wits.
Zhang went down to the end of the column to investigate.
“What is this fellow, a man or a ghost?” Zhu said. He pressed his wounded right shoulder, his face deathly pale. Zhang told him to undo his clothes and examined the large black swelling on his right shoulder. He ordered the troops to strip the dead soldier bare and examine him for wounds. When they turned him over, they found a similar black swelling on his back from which the shape of a hand could be vaguely discerned. The soldiers broke into an uproar as a shout of “The Demon’s Mark!” The Demon’s Mark!” went up. Zhang ordered that two soldiers be left behind to bury the dead man. Two were chosen from the ranks, but even when threatened with death, they refused to carry out the order. Zhang had no alternative but to order a halt and wait until the body was buried before continuing.
“Master Zhang, this fellow is very strange,” said Bodyguard Rui. “How could he pass us by and then make his way back in front of us again?”
Zhang stood deep in thought for a while. “Brother Zhu and the two soldiers were obviously victims of Black Sand Palm Kung Fu,” he said. “There are very few masters of Black Sand Palm kung fu in the underworld.”
“If it’s Black Palm kung fu, then the best is naturally the Taoist Priest Hui Lu, but he’s been dead for many years,” Rui said. “Could it be that his spirit has re-appeared?”
Zhang slapped his thigh. “That’s it! That’s it!” he cried. “They’re Hui Lu’s pupils. The Twin Knights that people call Black Death and White Death. I was trying to think of one person, so I couldn’t work it out. All right, so we’re up against them as well.”
He had no way of knowing that the Chang brothers were also members of the Red Flower Society.
That night, the column stayed at Black Pine Village. Cao posted guards all around the village to keep careful watch, but next morning, not one of the soldiers on guard duty returned to report, and a detail sent to investigate found them all dead with a string of paper money tied round each of their necks. The rest of the soldiers were terrified, and more than a dozen immediately deserted, slipping stealthily away.
They had to cross Black Scabbard Mountain, one of the most precipitous spots on the Liangzhou road. The air became colder and colder as the road grew steeper, and despite the fact that it was only September, snow flakes floated down around them. The road deteriorated to the point where there was a steep mountain face on one side and a sheer cliff on the other falling into a deep ravine. The soldiers moved slowly hand-in-hand, terrified of slipping on the snow. Several of the bodyguards dismounted and helped to support Wen’s carriage.
Just as they were gingerly making their way forward, they heard a chirping sound coming from in front. A moment later, the sound turned into an unearthly howl, tragic and harsh, which echoed through the ravine causing everyone’s hair to stand on end. The soldiers all stopped in their tracks.
Then came a shout: “Those who continue will meet the King of Hell — Those who turn back will survive.”
How could the soldiers dare to continue?
A man appeared around a curve in the road ahead. “Those who continue will meet the King of Hell, those who turn back will survive,” he intoned in a deep voice.
The soldiers recognised him as the demon that had appeared twice the day before and had killed with just a wave of his hand, and they turned and fled with squeals of fear. Cao Neng shouted to them to halt, but he had to raise his sword and slay one of the soldiers before some of them steadied. But sixty or seventy had disappeared.
“Guard the carriage,” Zhang said to Rui. “I’ll go and talk to these two.” He leapt passed the soldiers. “Could that be the Twin Knights up ahead?” he asked in a loud, clear voice. “I, Zhang Zhaozhong, greet you. There is no enmity between us. Why are you playing this game?”
The man in front laughed coldly. “Ha! So, the Twin Demons meet the Fire Hand Judge,” he said. He strode over and struck out at Zhang with such power that his hand made a whistling sound as it cut through the air.
The road at that point was extremely narrow and Zhang was unable to dodge to either left or right, so he countered the blow with his left hand, putting all of his Inner Strength behind it, while also attacking with his right palm. His opponent parried with his left hand. Their four hands met, and they stood almost motionless for a while as they tested each other. Suddenly, Zhang swept his left leg cross-wise in the ‘Level Clouds Slicing The Peak’ style. With insufficient time to evade the blow, the man brought his hands together and drove them viciously at Zhang’s temples. Zhang leant to one side and hastily withdrew his leg, then moved forward, and with the precipice at their side, the two passed each other by. They had exchanged positions.
Zhang suddenly became aware of someone attacking him from behind. He dodged out of the way and saw his assailant was another pale, skeleton-like figure, his face exactly the same as the first.
Zhang had more than two hundred soldiers and bodyguards with him, but they were powerless to assist because of the narrowness of the mountain path beside the ravine.
The three fought more and more fiercely. In the midst of the battle, one of the Twin Knights hit the rock-face by mistake and a small avalanche of gravel rattled down off the precipice followed by a slab of rock which plunged into the ravine. A long time passed before they finally heard the distant crash as it hit the ground.
The battle continued for a long time. Suddenly, one of the twins struck out with his fist, forcing Zhang to move to one side to avoid it. The other twin then leapt over and occupied Zhang’s former position beside the stone-face and both attacked him at the same moment, attempting to force him into the ravine.
Zhang saw one of his attacker’s legs sweeping forward and stepped back a pace, so that half of his foot was over the edge of the precipice. A cry of fright went up from the troops. Then, Zhang felt a gust of wind as the other twin’s fist swung towards his face. Zhang was unable to retreat, and knowing that there would be great strength behind the blow, was also unable to counter it. If he did, his opponent would simply be thrown back against the stone-face by the force of the collision while he himself would certainly fall to his death. So, with wisdom born of fear, he seized hold of his attacker’s wrist, and with a great shout threw him into the ravine.
His body in mid-air, ‘Black Death’ stayed calm. He drew in his legs and performed a somersault in order to slow down the force of his fall. Half way through the circle, he pulled a Flying Claw grapple from his belt and threw it straight up. His brother ‘White Death’ had also taken out his Flying Claw and the two grapples locked tightly, almost as if they were shaking hands. ‘White Death’ jerked at the rope before the full force of his brother’s fall returned, and swung him up and over bringing him back to earth more than a hundred feet along the mountain path.
‘White Death’ saluted Zhang with his fists. “Your kung fu is very powerful. We are impressed,” he said. Then, without even bending down to concentrate his strength, he sprang into the air, and landed several dozen feet further away. He grabbed hold of his brother’s hand and the two disappeared round the bend.
The soldiers clustered round, some praising Zhang’s kung fu, others lamenting that ‘Black Death’ had not fallen to his death. Zhang said not a word, but leaned against the rock face and slowly sat down. He looked at his wrist and saw the jet-black impression of five fingers on his flesh as if he had been branded, and was struck by a wave of terror.
The column crossed Black Scabbard mountain, and that night another thirty or forty soldiers deserted. Zhang discussed the situation with Rui and the other bodyguards.
“These fellows are not going to give up even though this is the main road to Lanzhou, the provincial capital,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot more trouble ahead, so we had better make our way round by the backroads, and cross the river at Crimson Bend.”
Cao Neng had been looking forward to getting to Lanzhou so that he could transfer his burden to other shoulders, and was very unhappy with Zhang’s plan. But he did not dare to disagree.
“We have lost many soldiers on the road,” Zhang said. “When you get back, Master Cao, you can report that they were killed during an attack on bandits, and died courageously for their country. I will write out a note to that effect in a moment.”
Cao Neng’s spirits rose again. According to the military regulations, if a soldier was killed in action, it was possible to obtain a pension, and the money naturally fell into the pocket of the officer in command.
They heard the roar of the Yellow River long before it came into view, and travelled more than half a day further before arriving at the Crimson Bend crossing. At this bend on the Yellow River, the rocks along the banks are blood-red, hence its name. Dusk was already approaching, but through the evening mists, they could see the fury with which the Yellow River surged eastwards, its muddy waters bubbling and boiling against the banks.
“We will cross the river tonight,” Zhang said. “The water is dangerous but if we delay, there may be trouble.”
With the river running so fast, the crossing could only be made by sheepskin rafts. Soldiers were sent out to search for rafts, but they could not found any. Darkness fell. Zhang was just becoming anxious when he spotted two sheepskin rafts shooting down the river towards them. The soldiers shouted, and the two rafts edged towards the bank.
“Hey, boatman!” Cao shouted. “Ferry us across and we’ll pay you well.”
The big man on the raft stood up and waved his hand.
“You’re a mute,” said Cao.
“Damn your ancestors,” replied the man in Cantonese. “If you’re coming then come, if you’re not, then don’t. You bunch of bastards. It’s a waste of time dealing with you.” Cao and the others understood not a word of it. Cao ignored him and invited Zhang and the bodyguards escorting Wen to get onto the rafts first.
Zhang weighed up the boatman. His wide-brimmed hat hid half his face and it was impossible to distinguish his features clearly. But the muscles on his arms were bunched and bulging, revealing great strength, while the oar in his hands was of a very dark colour and appeared to be made of something other than wood. He felt something was wrong, and not being able to swim, he could not afford to fall victim to some trick.
“Master Cao,” he said. “You go first with some of the soldiers.”
Cao ordered some of the soldiers onto the two rafts. The current was rapid, but the two boatmen were highly skilled and safely delivered the government troops to the opposite bank, and then returned to take on another batch.
Cao boarded a raft with another group of soldiers, but just as they left the bank, a long whistle sounded behind them which was answered by a host of other whistles.
Zhang hastily ordered the troops to surround the carriage and guard it closely. A crescent moon hung low in the sky. Under its light, he saw about a dozen horses coming towards them. He galloped forward. “What’s going on?” he shouted.
The riders formed a single rank as they approached, then one in the middle spurred his horse on and rode ahead of the others. In his hand he held a white folding fan with which he fanned himself. “Is that the ‘Fire Hand Judge’ Zhang Zhaozhong?” he asked.
“It is,” Zhang replied. “And who are you, sir?”
The other laughed. “We thank you for escorting our Brother Wen this far, but we would not want to trouble you further.”
“Are you Red Flower Society people?”
“Everyone praises the ‘Fire Hand Judge’ for his superlative mastery of the martial arts, but he obviously has divine foresight as well,” the man replied, smiling. “You are correct. We are Red Flower Society people.” He gave a long whistle.
Zhang started slightly as he heard the two boatmen on the rafts give answering whistles.
Cao, seated on one of the rafts, saw the enemy approaching on the shore, and his face turned the colour of mud. The boatman stopped the raft in midstream with a stroke of his oar.
“Thirteenth Brother!” Cao heard a crisp voice call from the other raft. “Ready when you are.”
“Right!” the boatman replied. Cao raised his spear and thrust it at him, but the boatman deflected it deftly with his oar and then knocked Cao and all the other soldiers on board into the river. Both boatmen then rowed back close to the shore.
Zhang was thankful for his caution. “You have been killing government troops the whole way,” he shouted. “You have committed many unpardonable acts. What is your position in the Red Flower Society, sir?”
“There is no need for you to ask my name,” Great Helmsman Chen said. “Xin Yan, give me my weapons.”
Xin Yan opened his bag and placed two weapons in Chen’s hands. Normally, the other heroes should have fought first, but Chen was unable to resist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Zhang jumped off his horse and strode forward. But just as he was preparing himself for the fight, Imperial Bodyguard Zhu ran up behind him and said: “Master Zhang, let me deal with him.”
Zhang decided to let him test out the enemy first. “Be careful, Brother Zhu,” he said.
Zhu lunged forward, sword raised. He chopped out at Chen’s thigh. Chen jumped lightly off his horse and lifted the shield in his left hand to parry the blow. In the moonlight, Zhu saw that nine glistening, sharp hooks protruded from the face of the shield, and knew that if his sword collided with them, it would be caught in their grasp. He started in fright and hastily withdrew his sword. Chen then flourished the weapon in his right hand: five cords, each one tipped with a steel ball especially designed for hitting the Yuedao points on the human body. Terrified by the ferocious nature of this weapon, Zhu leapt backwards, but the cords circled round behind him, and he felt a sudden numbness on his back. Then the cords entwined his legs and with a tug, Chen pulled Zhu off his feet, swung him round and round, and sent him flying straight towards a rocky outcrop nearby.
If he had hit it, he would have been smashed to pieces. But Zhang, seeing that Zhu was completely out-classed, raced over, grabbed his queue and pulled him down just in front of the rock face.
“Rest for a while, Brother Zhu,” he said. Frozen with fear, Zhu was unable to answer.
Zhang raised his precious ‘Frozen Emerald’ Sword and leapt in front of Chen.
Zhang thrust his sword at Chen’s right shoulder. Chen flipped the chords towards the blade, while the shield in his left hand struck out at Zhang.
As they battled, the two boatmen, ‘Crocodile’ Jiang and Luo Bing, jumped ashore and ran towards the carriages, guarded by the soldiers. Jiang charged straight into the ranks, immediately killing two of the closest soldiers. The others frantically gave way. Luo Bing charged over to one of the carriages, and lifted up the carriage curtain.
“Fourth Brother, are you in there?” she called. But it was ‘Scholar’ Yu, still seriously wounded. Suddenly hearing Luo Bing’s voice through his stupor, he could only think that it was a dream, or that he had died and was meeting her in the other world.
“You’ve come!” he cried happily.
Luo Bing knew that the voice was not her husband’s and ran to the next carriage. But before she could pull aside the curtain, a saw-toothed sword chopped at her from the right. She parried with her sword, and looking up at her attacker in the watery moonlight, recognised him as one of the eight bodyguards who had attacked Wen and herself in Suzhou. With a surge of hatred, she redoubled her attack. Rui was aware of her ability with throwing knives and speeded up his strokes to avoid giving her an opportunity to use them. Then two other bodyguards joined the battle while the soldiers closed in from all sides.
Four more of the heroes led by ‘Leopard’ Wei galloped towards her through a hail of arrows. One arrow planted itself in the neck of Wei’s horse, and the pain made it gallop even more furiously. The animal’s hooves hit the chest of one of the soldiers, Wei flew off the horse with his hooks raised, and amid a chorus of screams, gouged them into the breasts of two other soldiers. Wei then aimed the hooks at Bodyguard Rui who was forced to abandon his attack on Luo Bing. ‘Hunchback’ Zhang Jin and the others also raced up and the soldiers scattered.
Free once more, Luo Bing threw herself into the carriage and hugged Wen’s neck, then burst into tears.
After a while, Zhang Jin stuck his head in through the carriage curtain. “Fourth Brother,” he grinned. “We’ve come to take you back.”
He climbed onto the driver’s seat and the carriage moved off northwards away from the river, and stopped by the side of a mound, from which they could get a good view of the battle.
Suddenly, Zhang broke away from his duel with Chen and ran for Wen’s carriage.
Luo Bing saw him coming and brandished her sword at him. But Zhang’s sword was extraordinarily tough, and as they clashed with a ‘clang’, it snapped her blade in two. With the rest of his strength, Zhang leapt up into the carriage and pulled Luo Bing in with him. Greatly frightened, the other heroes raced up to save her, and Zhang lifted her up and threw her at them. The Twin Knights raced over and caught her.
Meanwhile, Zhang turned and grabbed Wen, and pulled him to the carriage door. “Wen Tailai is here,” he shouted. “If anyone dares to come any closer, I’ll kill him!”
The cold gleam of Zhang’s ‘Frozen Emerald’ sword was poised at Wen’s neck.
“Fourth Brother,” Luo Bing wailed, and tried to throw herself at the carriage, but Lu Feiqing held her back and took a step forward himself.
Zhang!” he called out. “Can you see who I am?” Zhang and he had not seen each other for a long time and it was difficult to see clearly in the moonlight, so Lu drew his White Dragon sword, took hold of the tip of the blade, and bent the handle back so that it formed a circle. Then he let the tip go and the blade bounced back upright and swayed slightly.
Zhang grunted. “Ah, so it’s Brother Lu,” he said. “Why have you come looking for me?”
“You are wounded,” Lu replied. “All the heroes of the Red Flower Society are here as well as ‘Iron Gall’ Zhou Zhongying. It is going to be hard for you to escape today with your life. But in memory of our benevolent teacher, I will give you a way out.”
Zhang grunted again, but said nothing.
Suddenly they heard shouts and cries drifting over from the east, as if a thousand armies were racing towards them. The heroes were filled with apprehension, but Zhang was even more worried.
“This Red Flower Society is truly resourceful,” he thought. “Even here in the northwest, they can still call up huge reinforcements.”
“Release Master Wen,” Lu Feiqing continued, “and I will ask the heroes, out of respect for me, to release you. But there is one thing you must swear to.”
Zhang eyed the strong enemies surrounding him. “What?” he said.
“You must swear that you will immediately retire from public life and no longer be a running dog of the Manchus.”
Zhang had pursued glory and wealth with fervour and he had risen in rank as fast as though swept upwards up by a whirlwind. Wanting him to give up his position was just the same as wanting his life. He released Wen from his grip, pulled at the mule’s reins, and the carriage charged forward.
The heroes held back afraid of risking Wen’s life, but Luo Bing could not stand it. “Release him and we’ll let you go without having to swear to anything,” she called desperately.
Zhang took no notice and drove the carriage on towards the ranks of Manchu troops, who had by now regrouped.
Bodyguard Rui saw Zhang approaching and ordered the soldiers to fix arrows in their bows in readiness. The roar of the approaching column was getting louder and both Red Flower Society and the soldiers were afraid that they were reinforcements for the other side.
“Brother Wei, take three others and scatter the Eagle’s Claws,” Chen shouted.
Wei and the others raised their weapons and charged into the Manchu ranks, slaughtering as they went.
A youngster darted out from behind Lu Feiqing saying: “I’m going too!” Chen frowned: it was Li Yuanzhi, once more dressed in boy’s clothes.
When Lu met up with her again after the battle, Yuanzhi had insisted that he take her with him to help rescue Wen. Lu finally agreed, but made her promise that she would do as she was told. Yuanzhi then wrote a letter to her mother in which she said she had decided to go on ahead alone to see her father in Hangzhou.
Chen quickly issued his instructions, and ‘Buddha’ Zhao raced after the carriage and sent two sleeve arrows flying into the eyes of the mule pulling it along. The mule gave a long scream and reared up on its hind legs. The Twin Knights charged to either side of the carriage and flung their Flying Claws at Zhang, who fended them off with his sword. Simultaneously, Priest Wu Chen and Xu attacked Zhang’s back.
“Now!” Chen shouted to Xin Yan. The two soared through the air and landed on top of the carriage.
Zhang heard Chen and Xin Yan land above and behind him and threw a handful of Golden Needles at them.
Chen saw the movement, and pushed Xin Yan off the carriage and placed the shield in front of his own body. There was a patter of metallic noises as the needles hit it, but despite the extraordinary speed of his reflexes, he heard Xin Yan cry out. Knowing the boy had been hit, Chen hastily leapt down to help him. Zhang threw another handful of the needles at Priest Wu Chen and Xu. The Priest flew out of the back of the carriage like an arrow, moving faster and further than the needles. Xu, however, only had time to lift a cotton coverlet in the carriage to block the needles. But his left shoulder was left exposed and with a sudden feeling of numbness, he fell out of the carriage.
Zhang Jin raced over to help him. “Brother Xu, are you all right?” he shouted, bending over. Suddenly he felt a great pain in his back as he was hit by an arrow, and stumbled.
“Brothers! Everyone regroup!” Chen shouted. Arrows were flying towards them like thick clouds of locusts. Zhang Jin put his left hand on Priest Wu Chen’s shoulder and hit out at the arrows with his wolf’s tooth club.
“Tenth Brother, don’t move!” the Priest said. “Control yourself.” He stopped the flow of blood from Zhang Jin’s wound with a touch to the artery and carefully pulled the arrow out. Then he ripped a corner off his robes and bound up the wound.
Then they saw a pitch-black mass of Manchu soldiers surging towards them from the east.
Zhang was ecstatic at the sight of reinforcements arriving, but his breathing was becoming difficult and he knew that his injuries were serious. Chen and the others attacked the carriage once more, and he lifted up Wen’s body, and swung it round and round as a detachment of cavalry charged towards the Red Flower Society fighters with sabres raised. Chen could see that Wen would certainly be killed if they attempted to recapture him by force, so he gave a loud whistle and raced behind a nearby mound with the others following.
Chen conducted a head-count, and found that Xu, Zhou Qi, Yuanzhi, Lord Zhou and Meng were missing.
“Has anyone seen Brother Xu and Lord Zhou?” Chen asked.
Zhang Jin, who was lying on the ground, raised his head and said: “Seventh Brother was injured. Isn’t he here? I’ll go and find him.”
He stood up, but the arrow wound on his back was too serious, and he swayed unsteadily.
“Don’t you move, Tenth Brother,” said ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi. “I’ll go.”
“I’ll go too,” added ‘Crocodile’ Jiang, but Chen held him back. “You and Fourth Sister make your way to the river bank and prepare the rafts,” he said. Jiang and Luo Bing, her hopes dashed again, left.
Shi leapt onto a horse and galloped off around the mound with sword in hand. By this time, the Manchu troops were everywhere. Shi rode up onto higher ground and looked around, but could see no sign of Xu and the others, so he rode into the enemy’s ranks to search for them.
Not long after, Lord Zhou and Meng appeared.
“Have you seen your daughter?” Chen asked. Zhou shook his head, full of anxiety.
“My young pupil has disappeared too,” Lu Feiqing said. “I’ll go and look for them.”
As he rode out, the ranks of the Manchu troops suddenly parted and several horses charged towards him. In the lead was Priest Wu Chen dragging Wei along with his hand. Lu started in surprise when he saw Wei, his whole body covered in blood and dirt, and immediately moved forward to obstruct any pursuers. But the Manchu troops did not dare to obsttruct these ferocious-looking men and let them retreat behind the mound.
Chen quickly went to see Wei, who was delirious, shouting: “Kill the bastards!”
“Ninth Brother has worn himself out with all this killing,” Priest Wu Chen said. “His mind is a little confused. Nothing serious.”
“Have you seen Brother Xu and Brother Shi?” Chen asked.
“I’ll go and look for them” the Priest said.
“There’s also Mistress Zhou and the Master Lu’s pupil,” Chen said.
Priest Wu Chen mounted up, sword at the ready, and charged back into the Manchu ranks. A Manchu officer spurred his horse forward and charged at him with spear raised, but the priest dodged the spear thrust and drove his sword into the officer’s heart. The officer slumped off his horse and the soldiers under his command howled and scattered in all directions. Priest Wu Chen continued his onslaught and soldiers fell wherever his sword went. As he galloped along a stretch of the road, he saw a crowd of soldiers with ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi in the middle fighting fiercely with three officers.
“Get away, I’ll cover you!” Priest Wu Chen shouted.
The two raced back to the mound, but there was still no indication of what had happened to Xu and the others. A Manchu company commander led his soldiers in an attack on the mound occupied by the Red Flower Society, but the heroes immediately killed more than a dozen of them, and the rest retreated.
Chen led his horse up onto the mound. “Brother Meng,” he said, handing him the reins. “Hold it steady and made sure it doesn’t get hit by a stray arrow.” He leapt up onto the horse’s back and stood on the saddle. Looking around, he saw the huge Manchu column surging towards them from the east. A bugle sounded and the column turned into a fiery dragon as each soldier raised a torch. Amidst the glow, he saw a large banner flowing in the wind on which he could just made out the words “Border Pacification General Zhao” written in large characters. Each soldier in the column was riding a tall, sturdy horse, and there was a clanking noise as they marched, indicating they were probably wearing armour.
Chen jumped down from the horse. “Armoured troops on the way,” he shouted. “Everyone head for the river.”
Lord Zhou was very worried about his daughter, but finding her among such a huge body of troops was impossible. The heroes helped up Wei, Zhang Jin and the other wounded, and galloped towards the banks of the Yellow River with the Manchu cavalry in hot pursuit. Luo Bing and Jiang punted the sheepskin rafts up to the shore and took the wounded on board first.
Everyone get on the rafts quickly!” Chen yelled. “Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother, Lord Zhou, we four will hold…”
Before he could finish, a wave of crossbow arrows flew towards them.
“Charge!” roared Priest Wu Chen, and the four threw themselves at the first ranks of cavalry. Lord Zhou’s huge sword rose and fell, cutting Manchu soldiers down from their horses, while ‘Buddha’ Zhao slung copper coins at the eye-slits in their armour. Although it was impossible to see clearly in the dark, he still managed to blind five or six men. By this time, everyone except Chen and the other three had boarded the rafts.
Chen spotted a mounted officer directing the troops, and sprang over to him. He pulled the fficer from his horse and ran for the river bank with him under his arm. The Manchu troops rushed forward to try to save their commanding officer, but they didn’t dare to fire any arrows. Chen leapt onto one of the rafts and Jiang and Luo Bing began to move them out towards the centre of the river.
The Yellow River was in full flood and with the current powerful and turbulant, the two large sheepskin rafts flew off downstream. The hubbub of the great armed column slowly faded as the river roared around them.
The heroes set about tending to the wounded. ‘Leopard’ Wei’s mind gradually cleared and his body was found to be free from wounds. ‘Buddha’ Zhao was an expert at medical treatment as well as with darts and he bound up ‘Iron Pagoda’ Yang’s and Zhang Jin’s wounds. Zhang Jin was more seriously injured, but was in no danger. Xin Yan had been hit by several Golden Needles, and was in such pain that he cried out continually. The needles had penetrated right through the flesh into the bones, and Zhao took a magnet from his medicine bag and drew them out one by one. Luo Bing rowed on silently. Not only had they failed to rescue Wen, but ‘Mastermind’ Xu, Zhou Qi, Lu Feiqing and his pupil had been lost as well, and no-one knew where ‘Scholar’ Yu had got to.
Chen roused the captured Manchu officer. “What the hell was your column doing travelling through the night like that?” he asked.
The officer said nothing. Yang slapped him on the face. “Are you going to talk?” he shouted.
“I’ll talk…I’ll talk,” the officer said quickly, holding his cheek. “What do you want me to say?”
“What was your column doing travelling at night?”
“General Zhao Wei received an Imperial command ordering us to attack the Muslim areas and take them over before a certain date. He was afraid we wouldn’t make it in the time limit, and also that the Muslims would hear of our approach and make preparations. So we’ve been marching day and night.”
“The Muslims are very well-behaved,” said Chen. “Why are you going to attack them?”
“That…that, I don’t know.” the officer said.
“If you are heading for the Muslim areas, why did you come to interfere in our business?”
“General Zhao heard of some bandits making trouble in this area and ordered me to lead a detail to deal with them, but the main army didn’t stop…”
Before he could finish, Yang gave him another slap. “Damn your mother!” he shouted. “It’s you who are the bandits!”
“Yes, yes! I made a mistake!” the officer cried.
Chen was silent for a while, then questioned the officer closely regarding the army’s troop strength, route and rations. Some of it the officer didn’t know, but he did not dare to hide what he did know.
“Head…For…The…Shore” Chen shouted at the top of his voice. Luo Bing and Jiang steered the rafts towards the bank and everyone stepped ashore.
Chen called the Twin Knights over.
“Travel back as fast as you can and find out what happened to the others,” he said. “If they have fallen into the hands of the Manchus, they will certainly be taken back to Beijing along the Great Road. We can intercept them further east and work out some way of rescuing them.”
The Twin Knights nodded and started out.
“Twelfth Brother,” Chen continued, turning to ‘Melancholy Ghost’ Shi. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Whatever you say, Great Helmsman.”
Chen wrote out a letter under the light of the moon.
“Please take this letter to Master Muzhuolun in the Muslim regions,” he said. “We have only met him and his people once, but they showed the greatest friendship towards us, so we cannot stand idly by. Fourth Sister, please lend your white horse to Twelfth Brother for the trip.” Luo Bing had kept the animal aboard the raft throughout the battle.
Shi mounted up and disappeared in a cloud of dust. With the horse’s phenomenal speed, he estimated he could overtake the army in a day and be in time to warn Muzhuolun.
Chen then directed Jiang to tie the officer’s hands behind his back. They placed him on one of the rafts and pushed it out into the stream and left it for Fate to decide whether he should live or die.