Book: The Book and The Sword

The Book and The Sword
The Book and The Sword

Jin Yong

The Book and The Sword

Louis Cha, GBM, OBE (traditional Chinese: 查良鏞; simplified Chinese: 查良镛; pinyin: Zhā Liángyōng; known with his pen name Jin Yong (Chinese: 金庸; pinyin: Jīn Yōng; Cantonese Yale: Gām Yùhng)

The Book and the Sword (traditional Chinese: 書劍恩仇錄; simplified Chinese: 书剑恩仇录; pinyin: shū jiàn ēn chóu lù; literally, "The Book and the Sword: Gratitude and Vengeance")

Written by Louis Cha, translated by Graham Earnshaw



It was a hot summer's day in June, l754, the eighteenth year of the reign of Emperor Qian Long. In the inner courtyard of the military commander's Yamen in Fufeng in Shaanxi province, a fourteen-year-old girl skipped towards her teacher's study, eager for a history lesson. All was peaceful: not even a thread of cool wind stirred. The girl hesitated, afraid that her teacher had not yet woken from his afternoon nap. Quietly, she circled round to the window, pierced a hole in its paper covering with one of her golden hair clips, and peeped inside.

She saw her teacher sitting cross-legged on a chair, smiling. His right hand waved slightly in the air, and there was a faint clicking sound. Glancing over to where the sound came from, she noticed several dozen flies on a wooden partition opposite, all as still as could be. Puzzled, she looked more closely and noticed a golden needle as slender as a hair protruding from the back of each fly. The needles were so small that she was only able to see them because they reflected the rays of the late afternoon sun slanting in through the windows.

Flies were still buzzing to and fro around the room. The teacher waved his hand again, there was a small noise, and another fly was pinned to the partition. Absolutely fascinated, she ran to the door and burst in, shouting: "Teacher! Show me how to do that."

The girl was Li Yuanzhi, the only child of the local military commander, Li Keshou. Her fresh, beautiful face was flushed with excitement.

"Hmm," said her teacher, a scholar in his mid-fifties named Lu. "Why aren't you playing with your friends? You want to hear some more stories, do you?"

Moving a chair over to the partition, she jumped up to look, then pulled the needles out of the flies one by one, wiped them clean on a piece of paper and handed them back to him. "That was a brilliant piece of kung fu, teacher," she said. "You have to show me how to do it."

Lu smiled. "If you want to learn kung fu, there's no-one better at it within a hundred miles of here than your own father," he said.

"My father knows how to shoot an eagle with an arrow, but he can't kill a fly with a needle. If you don't believe me, I'll go and ask him."

Lu thought for a moment, and then nodded. "All right, come tomorrow morning and I'll teach you. Now go off and play. And you're not allowed to tell anyone about me killing the flies. If anyone finds out, I won't teach you."

Yuanzhi was overjoyed. She knelt before him and kowtowed eight times. Lu accepted the gesture with a smile. "You pick things up very quickly. It is fitting that I should teach you this kind of kung fu. However…" He stopped, deep in thought.

"Teacher," said Yuanzhi hurriedly. "I will do anything you say."

"To be honest, I don't agree with much of what your father does," he said. "When you're older, I hope you will be able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil. If you accept me as your teacher, you must also accept the strict rules of the Wudang Martial Arts Order to which I belong. Do you think you can?"

"I would not dare defy your orders," she said.

"If you ever use the skills I teach you to do evil, I will take your life as easily as turning my hand over."

His face and voice became stern and hard, and for a moment Yuanzhi was frightened. But then she smiled. "I'll be good," she said. "Anyway, how could you bear to kill me?"


The Wudang kung fu sect to which Lu belonged, one of the most famous, stressed the use of Internal Force Kung Fu. In his prime, Lu had roamed China fighting for justice, and had become a famous member of the Dragon Slayer's Society, a secret anti-Manchu organisation whose power and influence had been widespread during the reign of Yong Zheng, the former Emperor. But the society had been rigorously suppressed, and by the seventh or eighth year of Emperor Qian Long's reign, it had disintegrated. Lu fled to the border areas of China. The Manchu court dispatched men to look for him, but he was quick-witted and a good fighter and managed to avoid capture. Working on the principle that 'small crooks hide in the wilderness, middling crooks in the city and big crooks in officialdom', Lu eventually made his way to Commander Li's household and set himself up as a teacher.

From that day, Lu began teaching Yuanzhi the basic techniques of the Wudang school's kung fu style, known as Limitless Occult Kung Fu. He taught her control of her emotions and thoughts, the ten Tapestries and the thirty-two Long-arm Blows. He trained her to use her eyes and ears, and showed her the use of hand darts and other hidden projectiles.

More than two years passed. Yuanzhi, hard-working and clever, made fast progress. Her father, Commander Li, was transferred toGansu province as military commander at Anxi, one of the major towns in the northwest border regions, bordering on the great desert of central Asia. His family, including Lu, went with him.

Another two years passed as Lu taught Yuanzhi the Soft Cloud sword technique and the secret of the Golden Needles. She did as her teacher had ordered, and did not tell a soul that she was learning kung fu. Every day she practised by herself in the rear flower garden. When the young mistress was practising her kung fu, the maids did not understand what they saw, and the menservants did not dare to watch too closely.

Commander Li was a capable man, and he advanced steadily through the ranks of officialdom. In 1759, the twenty-third year of the Emperor Qian Long's reign, he distinguished himself in the battle of Ili, in which the largest of the tribes in the Muslim areas was defeated, and received an Imperial decree promoting him to the post of Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province in the southeast.

Yuanzhi had been born and raised in the border areas of the northwest, and the prospect of travelling to new and beautiful lands filled her with excitement. She pressed her teacher to come as well, and Lu, who had been away from the central areas for a long time, agreed with pleasure.

Li Keshou went ahead with a small escort to take up his post and left his chief-of-staff and 20 soldiers in charge of his family who were to follow him. The officer's name was Deng, a vigorous and energetic man in his forties who sported a small moustache.

The entourage consisted of more than a dozen mules and a few horses. Madame Li sat in a mule-drawn carriage, but Yuanzhi couldn't bear to be cooped up and insisted on riding. Since itwould have been improper for the daughter of a high official to be seen riding in public, she changed into boy's clothes which made her look so extraordinarily handsome that she refused to change back into her normal attire no matter what anyone said. All Madame Li could do was sigh and let her daughter do as she pleased.

It was a deep autumn day. Lu rode far behind the group looking at the passing scenery as the colours of late afternoon merged into evening. But there was little to see around the ancient road except yellow sand, withered grasses and the occasional crow flying homewards. A breeze sprang up from the west and Lu began to recite:

"His body and name scarred by a hundred battles

The general approaches a bridge across a river

And turns to look back 10,000 miles

At the dead men left behind.

Cold are the waters of the River Yi

And the whistling west wind,

Full of cloaks and crowns like snow.

The hero's song of lament has not yet ended…"

"The poet Xin Jiaxuan could have been writing of my own feelings," he thought. "He was much like me when he wrote it, watching China fall to the barbarian tribes, with no way of knowing when the old days would return. No wonder he sang such a sad song."

The entourage crossed the summit of a hill. Looking at the darkening sky, the mulemen said that another three miles would bring them to Twin Pagodas, a large town, where they planned to spend the night.

Just then, Lu heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw far in front two magnificent chestnut horses racing towards them through a cloud of dust. The two riders flashed by, one on either side of the line of mules, and were gone. Lu slapped his horseand caught up with Yuanzhi.

"Did you get a good look at those two?" he asked in a low voice.

"Were they bandits?" she replied excitedly. She would have liked nothing better than for them to be outlaws bent on robbery, giving her a chance to display the skills she had worked so hard to attain over the past five years.

"It's hard to say," said Lu. "But judging by their ability in the martial arts, they wouldn't be ordinary highwaymen."

"Are they kung fu masters?"

"From the way they ride their horses, I'd say it's unlikely they are novices."

As the entourage neared the town, two more horsemen galloped past.

"Mm, this is very strange," mused Lu. The country was desolate and the evening mist was thickening. He wondered why anyone would set out on a journey at this time of day.

Not long after, the muletrain entered the town. Officer Deng led them to a large inn and Yuanzhi and her mother were shown to one of the best rooms. Lu was given a smaller room, and after he had eaten dinner, a servant lit the lantern. All was quiet, and he was about to go to sleep when a dog barked. From far away he heard the faint sound of galloping horses approaching and he thought again about the four riders they had passed on the road.

The clip-clop of horses' hooves came closer and stopped right in front of the inn. There was a knock on the front door and Lu heard a servant open it and say: "You've been riding hard. There's food and drink prepared for you."

"Go and feed the horses quickly," said a rough voice. "We must start out again as soon as we've finished eating."

Lu considered the situation. Groups of men hurrying northwest, and judging by the way they rode, all of them experts in the martial arts. In all his years in the border areas, he had never seen the like of it. He slipped quietly out of his room, crossed the courtyard and went round to the back of the inn.

"All right, you say the Young Helmsman is very young," he heard the rough-voiced man say. "Do you think he will be able to control all the brothers?"

Lu followed the voice and stationed himself underneath the window.

"He'll have to," he heard the other say. "It was the old master's wish whether the Young Helmsman likes it or not."

The man had a deep, sonorous voice, and Lu could tell his Internal Strength was profound. Not daring to make a hole in the window paper to peep through, he continued to listen from where he was, breathing as lightly as he could.

"Of course," the rough-throated one replied. "But we don't know if the Young Helmsman will be willing to do it."

"You don't have to worry about that," said the other. "He'll follow the old master's wishes."

He said the word 'follow' with a peculiar southern Chinese accent, and Lu's heart jumped. "Where have I heard that voice before?" he thought. He sifted through his mind, and finally remembered that it belonged to his old friend Zhao Banshan, whom he had known 20 years before in the Dragon Slayers' Society. Zhao was about 10 years younger than he, but the two had often trained together, and had a great respect for each other. Lu had heard no news of him since the Dragon Slayers' Society had broken up and he was delighted at chancing upon an old friend in such an unlikely place. As he was about to call out to Zhao, the light in the room was suddenly doused and a dart shot out of the window.

But it was not aimed at Lu. A figure shifted in the shadows nearby and caught the dart, then stood up, about to challenge the dart thrower. Lu leapt over and whispered fiercely: "Don't make a sound! Come with me." It was Yuanzhi.

No one chased them. Lu pulled Yuanzhi into his room, and under the light saw an expression of such eagerness on her face that he was both angry and amused.

"Yuanzhi, do you know what sort of men they are? What were you doing trying to pick a fight with them?" he asked sternly.

"What were they doing shooting a dart at me?" she replied defiantly.

"If they aren't outlaws, then they are secret society men," he said. "One of them I know, and his kung fu would not be weaker than mine. Travelling through the night as they are, they must be on very urgent business. That dart was not meant to injure you, it was just telling you not to be nosy. If he had really wanted to hit you, I doubt if you would have been able to catch it. Now go and sleep."

They heard a door open and the sound of horses' hooves as the two men galloped away.

The next morning, the muletrain started out again, and travelled ten miles in just over two hours.

"Look, teacher," said Yuanzhi. "There's someone coming."

Two chestnut horses galloped towards them, and because of theprevious night's incident, they paid particular attention to the riders. The horses, fine and spirited, were identical. Even stranger, the two riders were also identical. Both were aged about 40, tall and thin with faces as yellow as wax, sunken eyes and long slanting eyebrows: the effect was frightening.

As they passed by, the two men glanced at Yuanzhi with their strange eyes. She reined in her horse and stared back belligerently, but they took no notice and raced on westwards.

"Where did that pair of ghosts come from, I wonder," she said.

Lu glanced back at the receding figures. "Aha, it must be them," he cried.

"You recognise them?" she asked excitedly.

"They must be the Twin Knights of Sichuan. Their surname is Chang, but everyone calls them Black Death and White Death."

Yuanzhi laughed. "They've got good nicknames. They look like a couple of skeletons."

"Little girls shouldn't make jokes about other people," said Lu. "They may be ugly but they are skilled fighters. I've never met them, but from what I've heard, they travel the country fighting evil and doing justice. They are widely known as outlaws, but they steal only from the rich and help the poor. They have made a great name for themselves."

"But if they are identical, why are they called Black and White?"

"From what I've been told, the only difference between them is that one has a black mole in the corner of his eye, and the other doesn't. There's probably no one better at Black Sand Palm Kung Fu than those two."

"What are they doing in the border areas?" Yuanzhi asked.

"I have no idea," Lu replied. "I've never heard of them operating out here before."

As he spoke, they heard more horses coming towards them. This time, the riders were a Taoist priest and a hunchback dressed in brightly-coloured clothes. The priest had a longsword slung across his back. His face was pale and sickly and he had only one arm: his left sleeve was tucked under his belt.

Seeing the hunchback's ugly face and his garish attire, Yuanzhi laughed. "Teacher," she shouted before Lu could stop her, "Look at the hunchback!"

The hunchback glared at her angrily and as he passed, stretched out his hand to grab hold of her. The priest seemed to have guessed what he would do, and stopped the hunchback's hand with a flick of his horse whip. "Tenth Brother," he growled, "Don't make trouble."

Lu and Yuanzhi looked back and saw the two horses breaking into a gallop. Suddenly, the hunchback did a reverse somersault off the back of his horse, and with three steps covered the distance to Yuanzhi. Yuanzhi's sword was in her hand, but the hunchback did not attack her. He grabbed the tail of her horse, and the animal, which was galloping along, reared back on its hind legs with a loud scream. The hunchback's strength was frightening: the horse had not pulled him forward an inch. He chopped at the horse's tautly-stretched tail with his right hand, and snapped off the end as if with a knife. The horse lunged forward, and Yuanzhi was almost thrown. The hunchback turned and ran off swiftly. In a second, he caught up with his horse, still galloping westwards, leapt onto its back and soon disappeared from view.

"Teacher!" Yuanzhi called out in a plaintive voice. Lu frowned and was about to berate her. But seeing her eyes glistening with tears, he stopped himself.

Later, they heard a shout from behind: "Weiyang…Weiyang."

Yuanzhi was mystified. "What's that?" she asked.

"It's the call of a bodyguard agency shouter," he said. "The agencies hire out bodyguards or escort goods and people, especially on long journeys. Every bodyguard agency has a different call, and they use it to let both outlaws and friends know who they are. The bodyguard agency business is based seven parts on goodwill and three parts on fighting ability. If the head of an agency is generous and creates a lot of goodwill, he will gain many friends, and his business will prosper. Outlaws will hear the call and let them pass without attacking. 'Being friends is better than being enemies,' as the saying goes. Now, if you were to try the bodyguard agency business…ha! With allthe people you have annoyed in less than half a day, you would have trouble travelling an inch, even if you were ten times the fighter you are now."

"Which bodyguard agency's call is that?" she asked, ignoring his teasing.

"The Zhen Yuan Agency from Beijing, probably the biggest in north China. The head of the agency is 'North China Earth Shaker' Wang Weiyang. He must be seventy by now, but they're still calling 'Weiyang', so he hasn't retired yet. Ah, perhaps he ought to. The Zhen Yuan Agency has been making big profits for 40 years now. That should be enough for anyone."

"Have you ever met him?" Yuanzhi asked.

"I've met him. He uses an Eight Diagram sword and the Eight Diagram boxing technique. In the old days, there was no one in north China who could beat him."

Yuanzhi was elated. "They're travelling very fast. When they catch up to us, you can point the old hero out to me."

"Now why would he come out himself?" Lu said. "You really are a silly girl!"

Yuanzhi sulked. She was always being told off by her teacher. It wasn't fair. She spurred her horse forward and caught up with the carriage, planning to talk to her mother for a while to relieve the frustration. Glancing round, she saw the stub of her horse's tail and shuddered. There was nothing unusual about breaking a spear with one blow, but a horse's tail was pliable. How had the hunchback managed to snap it? She reined in her horse, meaning to wait for Lu to catch up so she could ask him, but changed her mind and galloped up the line to Officer Deng instead.

"Officer Deng," she said, pouting. "My horse's tail looks very ugly."

"I don't know what to do with this horse of mine," Deng replied, guessing her meaning. "He's in a bad mood today and won't do anything I say. You are a good horsewoman, mistress. Perhaps you could help me break him in."

"I probably won't be able to handle him either," she said modestly. The two exchanged horses. Deng's horse was of course very docile.

"Very good, mistress," he complimented her. "Even horses do your bidding."

The bodyguard agency's call came closer and closer, and before long, a muletrain consisting of a score or more heavily laden animals began to pass.

Lu was afraid one of the agency men would recognise him, so he covered the top part of his face with a large fur cap. As the lead escorts trotted past, he heard one of them remark: "According to Brother Han, Brother Jiao Wenqi's body has been found."

Lu's heart missed a beat as he heard the name. Jiao was one of the Six Devils of Guandong and a formidable fighter. Five years before while on an errand to the Muslim regions, Jiao had discovered Lu was hiding in Commander Li's household and had come at the dead of night with two other fighters with the aim of capturing Lu and taking him back to Beijing to claim the reward on his head. After a hard fight, Lu had killed all three and hidden their corpses on a deserted hillside.

Lu looked round at the escort who had spoken, but had time to see only that he had a full beard and a face as black as thunder. Once he had passed, Lu saw he was carrying on his back a red knapsack and a pair of Five Element Wheels, steel rings covered in knives.

"Could it be that the Guandong Devils have become bodyguard agency escorts?" he wondered. Of the six Devils, Lu had only ever seen Jiao, but he knew that the rest were excellent fighters, and that two of them, the Yan brothers, used Five Element Wheels.

Lu thought about the number of top fighters they had met in the past two days and wondered if it had anything to do with himself. From the look of things, the Zhen Yuan Agency men were actually on an escort assignment, so they posed no threat. As to the fighters travelling westwards in pairs, they did not seem to be looking for him. But where were they going and why?

Having exchanged mounts with Officer Deng, Yuanzhi reined in her horse to wait for Lu to pass.

"Teacher," she smiled. "How come no more riders have passed us? I want to see a few more of these heroes."

Her words jogged Lu's mind and he slapped his thigh. "Ah, you old fool," he rebuked himself. "Why didn't you think of the 'Greeting The Dragon's Head Ceremony'?"

"What's that?" she asked.

"It is the most solemn of the ceremonies held by the secret societies to honour an important personage. Usually, the six most senior men in the society are chosen to go to greet the guest, but for really important meetings, 12 are chosen and they go in pairs. Five pairs have passed us now, so there must be still be one pair in front of us."

"Which secret society do they belong to?" Yuanzhi asked.

"That I don't know. But if the Twin Knights of Sichuan and that hunchback are members, the society's power and influence must be tremendous. Whatever you do, don't provoke anyone else, do you hear?"

Yuanzhi nodded, and waited expectantly to see who else would pass them by.


Midday came and went, but there was no sign of anyone on the road in front. Lu was surprised and wondered if he could have guessed wrongly. Finally, instead of riders approaching from in front, they gradually became aware of the sound of camel bells from behind, and saw a dust cloud rising as a large desert caravan hurried towards them.

The caravan consisted of dozens of camels with 20 or 30 horses squeezed in between them, all ridden by Muslims with high noses and sunken eyes. They had thick beards on their faces and white cloths tied around their heads. Scimitars hung from their waists. Muslim traders were a common sight on the road to the central areas and Lu did not consider it unusual. Amidst the group, he noticed a graceful young girl, dazzlingly beautiful, dressed in yellow robes and riding a black horse.

Lu was impressed, but did no more than glance at her. Yuanzhi, however, stared in open-mouthed wonder. Growing up in the northwest border areas, she had seen few well-groomed girls, let alone girls as beautiful as this one. She was about the same age as Yuanzhi, 18 or 19, with a dagger at her waist and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wore a full-length yellow gown, leather boots and a small hat embroidered with gold silk, on the side of which was fastened a turquoise feather. She was an enchanting sight.

As the girl trotted by, Yuanzhi spurred on her horse and followed, gazing fixedly at her. The girl was annoyed at being stared at disrespectfully by a Chinese boy, and she whirled her whip above her head and wrapped it round the mane of Yuanzhi's horse. Giving it a sharp tug, she pulled out a large clump of hair, and the horse reared in pain, almost throwing Yuanzhi to the ground. The Muslim girl cracked the whip in the air and horse hair flew in all directions.

In a fit of pique, Yuanzhi pulled out a steel dart and threw it at the girl's back. But, not wishing to harm her, she also called out: "Watch out for the dart!" The girl leant to one side, and the dart shot past her right shoulder. She waited until it was about ten feet beyond her, then flicked her whip, caught the dart by its tip and smoothly sent it flying back towards Yuanzhi, calling out: "Hey, little boy! Here's your dart!" Yuanzhi caught it neatly.

The Muslims in the caravan applauded loudly at the superb skill with which the yellow-robed girl handled her whip. A tall, thick-set man with a heavy black beard went over and said a few words to her, to which she replied: "Oh, father!" But she took no further notice of Yuanzhi. The dozens of camels and horses moved on and gradually disappeared.

"That girl was impressive, wasn't she?" said Lu.

"These Muslims ride day and night. They ought to be good with their whips. But it doesn't mean she knows any real kung fu," Yuanzhi replied.

Lu laughed. "Really?" he asked.

Towards evening they arrived in the town of Bulongji. There was only one large inn in the town, outside of which was planted the flag of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. With two large groups to look after, the inn's servants were very busy.

Lu had a wash, and then strolled into the courtyard of the inn with a cup of tea in his hand. In the dining hall, he saw two tables full of agency men drinking and talking loudly. The lead escort with the Five Element Wheels had put the weapons down but kept the red knapsack on his back.

Taking a sip of tea, Lu gazed up at the sky.

One of the lead escorts laughed. "Brother Yan, once you've delivered this toy to Beijing, General Zhao will reward you with at least a thousand, won't he? You can go and have a good time with that girlfriend of yours, Xibao."

So it really is one of the Yan brothers, Lu thought, and paid even closer attention to what was said.

"A reward?" said Yan. "Ha! Well, everyone will get something."

"Your Xibao has probably gone off with some other man willing to make an honest woman of her," added an effeminate voice. Lu looked over out of the corner of his eye, and saw a man with a sly face and a slight figure, also dressed as a lead escort.

Yan grunted, obviously not pleased.

"You bastard, Tong," added the first lead escort. "You never have anything good to say."

Tong laughed. "All right," he said. "But Brother Yan, fun is fun and serious is serious. Don't think about Xibao too much or you might find someone has stolen that red knapsack off your back. It's not important if lose your head or not, but the agency's reputation has to be maintained."

"Don't worry," Yan replied angrily. "If those Muslims try stealing it back, I'll soon put an end to their nonsense. I am one of the Six Guandong Devils and I got where I am with real kung fu, not like some of the weaklings in the bodyguard agencies these days who can do nothing but eat and fart!"

Lu looked at the red knapsack on Yan's back: it wasn't big, and from the look of it, whatever was inside was very light.

"It's true that the Six Devils of Guandong are famous," Tong said. "It's a pity that Brother Jiao was done in. We don't even know who the murderer was."

Yan banged the table. "Who says we don't know? It has to be the Red Flower Society!"

That's strange, Lu thought, I killed Jiao. What is this Red Flower Society? He walked slowly around the courtyard inspecting the flowers, moving closer to the group of lead escorts.

Tong would not let the matter drop. "It's a pity," he said. "If I wasn't such a weakling, I would have settled things with the Red Flower Society long ago."

Yan shook with anger. One of the other lead escorts broke in to mediate: "Anyway, the Red Flower Society's leader died last month," he said. "They've lost their man in command, so who is there to settle with? And another thing, where is the proof that Jiao was murdered by the Red Flower Society? When you find them and they deny the charge, what are you going to do?"

"Yes," said Tong changing his tack. "We daren't provoke them, but surely we've got enough guts to bully a few Muslims. This little toy we've snatched is as precious to them as life itself. In the future, if General Zhao ever wants money from them, or cattle and sheep, do you think they'd dare to refuse? I tell you Yan, stop thinking about that little Xibao of yours. When we get back to Beijing, you should ask General Zhao to give you a little Muslim girl to be your mistress. Then you can really…"

Before he could finish, a piece of mud brick flew out of nowhere and lodged itself in his mouth. Two of the other lead escorts snatched up their weapons and rushed outside while Yan picked up his Five Element Wheels and looked warily around. His younger brother came running in, and both stood together, not daring to move for fear of falling into some trap. Tong spat out the piece of mud and began swearing.

The two other lead escorts, Tai and Qian, rushed in through the door. "The little bastard's gone," one of them said. "There's no sign of him."

Lu had observed the whole incident and laughed inwardly at the helpless expression on Tong's face. Then he saw a shadow darting across the rafters in a corner of the dining hall, and went slowly outside. It was already growing dark, but he spotted a figure leap off the corner of the roof, land noiselessly, and speed off eastwards.

Lu wanted to know who had treated Tong to a mouthful of mud and, making use of Lightness Kung Fu * (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible.), he followed, the teacup still in his hand. The pace was fast, but the person he was following was not aware of his presence.

Lu's quarry had a slim figure and moved daintily, almost like a girl. They crossed a hill and an ink-black forest loomed ahead. The person ahead slipped into the trees with Lu close behind. Underneath, the ground was covered with dead leaves and twigs which crackled as he stepped on them. Afraid of giving himself away, he slowed down. Just then, the moon broke through the clouds and a shaft of clear light shone down through the branches, covering the earth with jumbled ghostly shadows. In the distance he saw the flash of a yellow gown, and his quarry moved out of the forest.

He followed to the edge of the trees. Beyond was a large expanse of grass on which were pitched eight or nine tents. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to go and have a look. He waited until two guards had turned away, then jumped across with a 'Swallow Gliding Over Water' leap and landed among the tents. Crouching low, he ran to the back of the largest tent, pitched in the centre. Inside, he could hear people talking agitatedly in the Muslim language. He had lived in the border areas for many years, and understood some of what was said. Carefully, he lifted up the corner of the canvas and looked inside.

The tent was lit by two oil lamps under which a large number of people were seated on carpets. He recognised them as the Muslim caravan that had passed them that day. The yellow-robed girl stood up and drew a dagger from her waist. She cut the index finger of her left hand with the tip of the blade and let several drops of blood fall into a cup of horse's milk wine. Then one-by-one, every Muslim in the tent did likewise. The tall Muslim that the girl had called father raised the wine cup and made a short speech of which Lu could only understand something about 'The Koran' and 'Our Homeland'. The yellow-robed girl spoke after him, her voice crisp and clear, and concluded by saying:

"If the sacred Koran is not recovered, I swear never to return to our homeland." The Muslims lustily repeated the oath. In the dim light, Lu could see determination and anger on every face.

The group belonged to one of the richest and most powerful of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the Tianshan Mountains, numbering nearly 200,000 people. The tall man was Muzhuolun, the leader of the tribe; a strong fighter, fair and just, he was greatly loved by his people. The yellow-robed girl was his daughter, Huo Qingtong.

The tribe lived by nomadic herding and contentedly travelled the great desert. But as the power of the Manchu court extended into the Muslim areas, its demands for taxes increased. At first, Muzhuolun went out of his way to comply, and worked hard to meet the demands. But the Manchu officials were insatiable and made life impossible for the tribe. On several occasions, Muzhuolun sent missions to the Manchu court to appeal for a reduction of taxes. But far from achieving a reduction, the missions only served to arouse the Court's suspicions. General Zhao Wei was given an Imperial order to supervise military affairs in the Muslim areas and he discovered that the tribe owned an ancient hand-written Koran, originally brought from the sacred city of Mecca, which they had treasured for generations. The General decided to get the Koran to use to blackmail the Muslims into submission and he dispatched a number of top fighters who stole it while Muzhuolun was out on a long journey. The Muslims had organised a group to recover the Sacred Book.

Lu decided that the Muslims' plotting had nothing to do with him, and he carefully stood up to return to the inn. At that instant, Huo Qingtong noticed him.

"There's someone outside," she whispered to her father and shot out of the tent in time to see a shadow running fast for the trees. With a wave of her hand, she sent a steel dart speeding after him.

Lu heard the projectile coming and leant slightly to one side. As it passed, he stretched out the index finger of his right hand and, carefully calculating the speed and direction of the dart, tapped it gently as it passed so that it fell into the teacup he was holding. Then without looking back, he made use of his Lightness Kung Fu and almost flew back to the inn, where he went straight to his room. He took the dart out of the cup and saw it was made of pure steel with a feather attached to it. He threw it into his bag.


The bodyguard agency group started out first early the next day, the shouter shouting the agency's call. Lu noticed that most of the lead escorts were stationed around Yan. It seemed the red knapsack on his back was the real treasure being escorted.

Once the agency men had left, Officer Deng led his own column out onto the road. At noon, they rested briefly at a place called Yellow Crag after which the road sloped steadily upward into the mountains. They planned to cross three ranges that day before stopping in Sandaogou.

The mountain road became increasingly precarious and Yuanzhi and Officer Deng kept close by Madame Li's mule-drawn carriage, afraid that if an animal lost its footing, it could send the carriage crashing into the gorge below. Around mid-afternoon, they arrived at the mouth of Black Gold Gorge and saw the agency men seated on the ground resting. Officer Deng directed his men to follow suit. Black Gold Gorge was flanked by high peaks with an extremely steep mountain track leading up between them. Stopping on the track was difficult, so the top of the gorge had to be reached at one stretch. Lu hung back at the rear and turned his back, not wishing to exchange glances with the agency men.

Once rested, they entered the gorge, the bodyguard agency men and the soldiers under Officer Deng's command forming a long snaking column. Men and animals alike panted up the mountain. The shouts of the mulemen melded into a continuous drone. Suddenly, Lu saw a figure darting across the crest of a peak, and heard the jangling of camel bells from in front as a group of Muslims mounted on camels and horses charged down towards them from the top of the gorge. Their hooves sounded like thunder, and the agency men began shouting, calling on them to slow down.

In an instant, the Muslim group was upon them and four camels quickly encircled Lead Escort Yan who was carrying the red knapsack. Each of the four Muslim riders raised a large iron hammer with both hands and smashed it down viciously on his head. The mountain road was narrow, leaving little room for manoeuvring, and the camel-men had the advantage of height. Even if he had been a better fighter, Yan would have been unable to avoid the four hammers, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Both he and his horse were beaten to a bloody pulp.

The yellow-robed Muslim girl, Huo Qingtong, jumped down from her horse and with a flash of her sword cut one of the straps holding the red knapsack to the corpse that had been Yan. But before she had time for a second stroke, she felt a gust of wind at her back as a blade sliced towards her. She dodged to one side and cut the other strap. Her assailant aimed a cutting stroke at her waist to stop her from picking up the knapsack. Unable to avoid the stroke, she raised her sword to block it, and the two blades clashed in a shower of sparks. Looking up, she saw it was the handsome young boy who had stared at her so disrespectfully the day before. In a sudden fit of anger, she lashed out with three attacking sword strokes, and the two began a fierce duel.

Her assailant was Yuanzhi, still dressed in boy's clothes. Without stopping to consider the rights and wrongs of the situation, she had decided to get her own back for the damage done to her horse's mane.

Huo Qingtong could see her chance of recovering the Koran slipping away and wanted to finish the fight quickly. She changed to the 'Three Part' sword style, and in a few strokes had forced Yuanzhi into retreat. The 'Three Part' sword style was the highest achievement of the Tianshan school of kung fu. It was called 'Three Part' because only a third of each stroke was completed. As the opponent moved to counter each one, the stoke changed. Intricate and vicious, the style included no defensive strokes: attacking and killing was all.

The two went through a dozen or more moves without their blades ever touching, Huo Qingtong completing only a third of each stroke, and then changing it without waiting for her opponent to defend. She cut and thrust at the air around Yuanzhi's body, and the Chinese girl, knowing she could not match her opponent's speed, leapt away. Huo Qingtong did not pursue her but turned back to the knapsack, and found it was already in the hands of a small, thin man standing beside Yan's body. She lunged at him with her sword.

"Oh dear," the man cried. "Uncle Tong had better get back in place!" Lead Escort Tong jumped clear with three quick steps and Huo Qingtong followed hard on his heels. She raised her sword to cut him down, but the stroke was blocked by a Five Element Wheel thrust forward by the surviving Yan brother.

Huo Qingtong fought briefly with Yan, and recognised him as a strong and capable adversary. Then she heard a loud whistle coming from the hilltops, the signal for retreat, and knew that help for the agency men was on the way. She saw Tong scampering away with the knapsack and quickly changed to the Three Part sword style, forcing Yan to retreat, and then raced after him. The whistles became louder.

"Daughter! Retreat quickly!" Muzhuolun shouted. She abandoned the chase and directed her comrades as they lifted the Muslim dead and wounded onto camels and horses. Then the Muslim column charged on down the mountain path. But a little way further on, they found several dozen Manchu soldiers blocking their path.

Officer Deng rode forward, his spear held crosswise. "You insolent Muslims!" he shouted. "What is this insurrection?" Two of Huo Qingtong's steel darts hit his hands and the spear clattered to the ground. Muzhuolun raised his sabre high and charged forward with some other Muslim warriors, and the Manchu troops scattered. Boulders crashed down from the mountain tops, pulverising more than a dozen Manchu troops, and in the midst of the melee, the Muslims made good their escape.

Throughout the battle, Lu had remained on the sidelines, his hands folded inside his sleeves. Yuanzhi had been of great assistance to the agency men even though she had been beaten by Huo Qingtong, and the Muslims had been unable to get what they wanted. As the agency men tended the wounded and carried off the dead, Lu gave her a severe lecture, criticising her for interfering in the affairs of others, and needlessly making even more enemies.

"There are very few good men amongst the bodyguard agencies, and many bad ones. Why bother helping people to do evil?" he scolded her. She hung her head, not daring to look up.

They crossed through the pass and arrived in Sandaogou, a medium-sized market town, as dusk was falling. The mulemen said there was only one inn, called the Antong, and both the agency men and Officer Deng's column headed for it. The inn was crude and simple in the extreme with earthern walls and mud floors. Seeing no servants coming out to greet them, Tong shouted: "Is everyone dead in there? I damn eighteen generations of your ancestors!" Yuanzhi frowned. No-one had ever dared to use such language within her hearing before.

Just then, they heard the sound of clashing swords from inside. Yuanzhi was delighted. "Here's some more fun to watch!" she cried and ran into the inn ahead of the others.

The entrance hall was empty and silent, but passing through to the courtyard, she saw a young woman fighting fiercely with four men. In her left hand was a sword, and in her right, a knife. She was obviously battling for her life. It seemed to Yuanzhi that the four man were trying to force their way into the room outside which the woman was standing. The four were all strong fighters: one wielded a whip, one a staff, one a sword and one a Devil's Head Knife.

Lu also entered the courtyard. "How is it that we are continually running into these secret society people?" he thought.

The woman dodged and parried, holding all four men at bay until suddenly the one wielding the Devil's Head Knife swung his weapon towards her as another of the attackers thrust his sword at her heart. She fended off the sword with the knife in her right hand, but she could not dodge the Devil's Head Knife and it struck her on the left shoulder. But she did not give up, and as she continued to fight, drops of blood flew in all directions.

"Don't kill her! We need her alive," shouted the man with the whip.

Lu's chivalrous heart was moved at the sight of four man attacking one woman, and despite his own sensitive situation he could see he might have to take a hand himself. He watched as the swordsman attacked with a slicing blow from the left. The woman parried it obliquely, but she was already wounded and out of breath. The two blades clashed, and the knife was jolted from her hand and clattered to the ground. The swordsman then thrust his blade at her again, and she frantically dodged to the right, opening a way through which the man with the Devil's Head Knife charged towards the door.

Ignoring all dangers, the woman plunged her left hand into her gown and drew out two throwing knives which she slung at her enemy's back. One of the knives embedded itself in the door post but the other plunged into his back. Luckily for him, the woman's hand lacked strength due to the wound in her left shoulder and the knife did not kill him. He staggered back, screaming with pain, and pulled the knife out. Meanwhile, the woman was struck on her thigh by the staff. She swayed unsteadily, but defiantly resumed her position blocking the doorway.

"Go and help her," Lu said quietly to Yuanzhi. "If you can't beat them, I'll come over as well."

Yuanzhi was bursting to test herself. She leapt forward, her sword at the ready, shouting: "Four men fighting one woman! You should be ashamed of yourselves!" Seeing someone coming to the aid of the woman, and one of their number already wounded, the four men turned and ran from the inn.

The woman's face was deathly pale and she leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Yuanzhi went over to her.

"Why were they bullying you like that?" she asked, but the woman was temporarily incapable of speech.

Officer Deng walked over to Yuanzhi. "Madame Li would like to see you mistress," he said, and added in a whisper: "She's heard that you were involved in a fight on the road and is very upset. You'd better go quickly."

The woman's expression changed as soon as she saw Officer Deng's military uniform; she pulled her throwing knife out of the doorpost, went back into her room and banged the door shut without answering Yuanzhi.

Rather unhappy at having been snubbed, Yuanzhi walked over to Lu. "Teacher, what were they fighting about?" she asked.

"It was probably a revenge attack," he said. "But it isn't over yet. Those four will be back."

Yuanzhi was about to ask another question when she heard someone inside the inn shouting and swearing.

"Damn your ancestors, what do you mean there are no good rooms? Are you afraid we don't have the money to pay?" It was the voice of Lead Escort Tong.

"Please don't be angry sir," an employee of the inn answered. "We in the inn-keeping business would not dare to offend such eminent persons as yourselves. But it is a fact that all of our few good rooms are occupied."

"Who have you got in them? I think I'll go and have a look," Tong said walking out into the courtyard.

Just then a door opened, and the young woman leaned out. "Please bring some hot water," she said to a servant.

Tong saw the woman's smooth white skin and the beauty of her face and eyes, and noticed on her left wrist, a bracelet of pearls, all perfectly formed. His mouth watered. The woman spoke with a southern Chinese accent and the exotic touch to her voice excited him greatly.

"I, Lead Escort Tong have passed along this road on business dozens of times, and I have never stayed in anything but the best rooms," he shouted. "If there are no good rooms vacant, why don't you make one vacant for me?" The door to the woman's room was still open and he walked straight inside.

"Ai-ya!" the woman exclaimed. She moved to obstruct him, but felt a stab of pain in her thigh and sat down.

As Tong entered the room, he saw there was a man lying on the kang. The room was dimly-lit but he could see that the man's head was wrapped in bandages, his right arm was in a sling and that one of his legs was also bandaged.

"Who is it?" the man asked in a deep, resonant voice.

"My name is Tong and I'm a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," he replied. "We are passing through Sandaogou on business, but there are no rooms available here. I was wondering if you could move. Who is this woman? Is she your wife, or your girlfriend?"

"Get out," the man ordered. His wounds were clearly serious; he was unable to talk loudly.

"One's a girl and the other's too badly wounded to even move," thought Tong, who had not seen the woman fight. "When am I going to get such a chance again?"

"If you don't want to give up your room, that's all right too," he said with a grin on his face. "All three of us can snuggle up together on this kang. Don't worry, I won't push over onto your side."

The man on the kang shook with anger.

"Don't get involved with these ruffians," the woman urged him quietly. "We can't afford to make any more enemies at the moment." And then to Tong: "You stop your nonsense and get out."

Tong laughed. "Can't I stay here and keep you company?"

"Come over here," the man on the kang said hoarsely.

Tong took a step towards him. "Why? Do you want to see how handsome I am?"

"I can't see clearly," the man replied.

Tong laughed out loud and took another step towards him. "Take a closer look. This is like a big brother choosing a husband for his sister…"

Before he could finish, the man on the kang sat up, and as fast as a lightning flash, touched a yuedao point* (*Yuedao points are nerve centres on the body which, when struck, can cause paralysis or even death. The same points are used for a different purpose in acupuncture) on Tong's ribs and followed with a blow to his back. Tong flew straight out of the door, and landed heavily in the courtyard. The agency shouter, Xun, rushed over to help him up.

"Brother Tong," he whispered. "Don't provoke them. It looks like they're members of the Red Flower Society."

"Ahh, ahhh, I can't move my leg," Tong cried. "The Red Flower Society?" he added suddenly. "How do you know?" He broke into a cold sweat of fear.

"One of the porters told me four Yamen officers were here a while ago to arrest those two, and there was quite a fight before they left," Xun said.

Lead Escort Yan came over. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Brother Yan," Tong shouted. "One of those bastards from the Red Flower Society used Yuedao kung fu on me!"

Yan frowned and pulled Tong up by his arm. "We'll go back to the room and talk about it," he said. His first thought was for the agency's reputation. It created a bad impression when an agency's lead escort was floored and couldn't even get up. Lead Escort Qian came over. "Are you sure it was the Red Flower Society?" he asked Xun.

"When those four officers left, they told the porter that the couple in there were fugitives," he whispered. "They told the porter to inform them if they left. I overhead them talking."

Qian glanced at Yan and pulled Tong up.

"Who are they?" Yan asked quietly.

"Red Flower Society. I think we ought to let it pass," Qian said. "When Tong is better we can reconsider. Did you see what happened when those men tried to arrest them just now?" he asked Xun.

"It was some fight," said Xun, gesticulating wildly. "There was a woman with a sword in her left hand and a dagger in her right hand. Four men couldn't beat her."

"She must be one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people," replied Qian, surprised. "She used throwing knives, I suppose?"

"Yes, yes, she's really accurate. It was incredible!" Xun exclaimed.

Qian turned to Yan. "Master Wen of the Red Flower Society is here," he said. They carried Tong back to their room in silence.

Lu had observed the whole incident, but the lead escorts had talked in such low tones, that he only managed to catch Qian's last two utterances. Yuanzhi walked over and asked: "Teacher, when are you going to teach me Yuedao kung fu? Did you see how fantastic that move was?"

Lu took no notice of her, but said to himself: "If it is one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people, I can't just stand by and do nothing."

"Who is 'Divine Knife' Luo?" Yuanzhi asked.

"He was a good friend of mine. I hear he's passed away now. All the moves used by the woman we saw fighting a minute ago were of his school."

Just then, the two lead escorts Qian and Tai helped Tong over to the woman's room. Xun coughed loudly outside the door and announced in a low voice:

"Lead Escorts Qian, Tai and Tong of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency have come to pay their respects to Master Wen of the Red Flower Society."

The door creaked open and the woman stood in the doorway staring at them. "What do you want?" she asked.

"We did not know that you and Master Wen were here," Qian said. "We have insulted you and we have come to apologise. Please be forgiving and don't be offended by what happened." He bowed low and Tai and Xun followed suit.

"Mistress," Qian continued. "We have never met before, but I have heard a great deal about you and your husband. Master Wang, the head of our agency, was always on very good terms with the leader of your honourable society, Master Yu, and also with your father 'Divine Knife' Luo. Our brother here is very bad-tempered, and is always talking nonsense…"

The woman cut him off. "Our master has been wounded, and he just went to sleep. When he wakes, I will pass on your message. We are ignorant of etiquette, but his wounds are not light, and he hasn't slept well for two days." There was an expression of apprehension on her face.

"What sort of wounds does Master Wen have?" Qian asked. "We have some Golden Wound ointment with us." He wanted to put them in their debt so that they would be obliged to help cure Tong.

"Thank you, but we have medicine," the woman replied, understanding his meaning. "Your colleague was not touched on a major Yuedao point. When our master wakes, I will send one of the inn's servants round."

Seeing that she had agreed to cure Tong, Qian and the others started to retire.

"By the way," said the woman. "How did you know our names?"

"With your swords and throwing knives, who wouldn't be able to guess?" Qian replied. "What's more, who apart from Master Wen uses Yuedao kung fu like that? It had to be 'Rolling Thunder Hand' Wen Tailai and his wife Luo Bing."

The woman smiled, flattered at having been recognised.


Yuanzhi sat for a long time with her hands on her cheeks, annoyed that Lu would not teach her Yuedao kung fu. After dinner, she went to see her mother, who nagged her for causing trouble on the road, and told her she was not to wear boy's clothing any more.

"Mother, you're always talking about how you have no son," she replied with a smile. "Aren't you happy now that you have one?"

Madame Li gave up and went to bed. Yuanzhi also got ready for sleep, and was just about to take off her clothes when she heard a light tapping on the window sill and someone saying: "Come out, little boy! I want to ask you something."

Yuanzhi picked up her sword and ran out to the courtyard where she spotted a figure standing in the shadows.

"Follow me if you dare!" the figure said and jumped over the courtyard wall. Like a young calf unafraid of a tiger, Yuanzhi followed without a thought for what might be waiting for her on the other side. As her feet touched the ground, she found a sword thrusting towards her.

Yuanzhi raised her own sword and parried the stroke, shouting: "Who is it?" The yellow-robed figure retreated two steps, and said: "I am the Muslim girl Huo Qingtong. What were you doing helping the agency men to mess up our plans? Why don't you mind your own business?"

"I'll do whatever I want to," Yuanzhi replied. "I happen to like meddling in other people's business. Let me give you another lesson in swordsmanship…" Her sword flashed out, and Huo Qingtong raised her own sword to parry it.

Yuanzhi knew that she couldn't beat the girl on equal terms, so she retreated steadily as she fought, heading towards Lu's room.

"Teacher, teacher!" she called out suddenly. "Someone is trying to kill me!"

A sneering laugh exploded from Huo Qingtong. "Ha! You useless object! You're not even worth killing!"

She began to walk away, but Yuanzhi attacked, forcing her to face her once more. Yuanzhi heard someone behind her and knew that her teacher had emerged; seeing Huo Qingtong's sword bearing down on her, she jumped behind Lu's back.

Lu fended off her strokes with his sword and Huo Qingtong soon realised that his sword technique, while the same as Yuanzhi's, was far superior. She became anxious and attacked fiercely, waiting for an opportunity to retreat. But his strokes followed each other without pause, sticking to her closely.

Yuanzhi put her sword in its scabbard and joined the fray using Boundless Occult Hand kung fu. Huo Qingtong couldn't even beat Lu alone, so how could she manage against both of them? Yuanzhi displayed great cunning: a touch on one side, a hook with her leg on the other. She was not aiming to hurt the Muslim girl, but was intentionally having fun at her expense to pay her back for the tuft of her horse's mane ripped out the day before.

Lu, for his part, had been impressed earlier that day by the Muslim girl's swordsmanship and simply wanted to test her. His sword thrust at her and she raised her own blade to ward it off. Meanwhile, Yuanzhi moved in towards her back, shouting: "Watch out for my fist!" and struck out at her left shoulder with a 'Ferocious Rooster Snatching Grain' blow. Huo Qingting's left hand twisted round and diverted the blow by grasping for Yuanzhi's arm. With both the Muslim girl's arms now occupied, Yuanzhi seized the opportunity, and the flat of her hand struck at Huo Qingtong's chest. If the blow had been in earnest, it would have caused serious injury, but there was no strength behind it. She ran her hand heavily over the girl's chest and then jumped back laughing. Huo Qingtong was consumed with fury, and ignoring Lu's sword, swung round and attacked Yuanzhi using the Tianshan School 's 'Mirage' style. Lu could not stand by. He raised his sword and accepted the brunt of the attack, while Yuanzhi stepped back.

"All right," she laughed. "Don't be angry. You marry me and we'll forget about it."

Huo Qingtong had been deeply insulted, but she knew she could not overcome Lu, so with no other way for her to avenge herself, she threw her sword at Yuanzhi with all her strength aiming to take the girl to the grave with her.

Lu started in fright and threw his own sword at Huo Qingting's. The two swords collided in mid-air with a clang and fell to earth together. He then pushed Huo Qingtong back five or six steps with a light touch on her left shoulder. "Please don't take offence, miss," he said. "There's something I want to say."

"Well?" she replied angrily. "What are you waiting for?"

Lu looked over at Yuanzhi. "Don't you think you ought to apologise to the lady?"

Yuanzhi walked over and bowed low, a wide grin on her face. Huo Qingtong replied with a fist.

"Oh, no! Don't hit me!" Yuanzhi laughed. She dodged away, and pulled off her cap, revealing her head of beautiful hair.

"Now look," she smiled. "Am I a boy or a girl?"

Seeing Yuanzhi's real face under the moonlight, Huo Qingtong was struck dumb. Her anger and shame evaporated, leaving only irritation.

"This is my pupil," said Lu. "She is always disobedient and I am unable to control her. I am sorry for what happened just now. Please don't be offended."

He brought his hands together in salute and bowed. Huo Qingtong turned slightly away, refusing to accept the apology.

"What is your relationship with the Twin Eagles of Tianshan?" he asked her. Huo Qingtong's eyebrows shot up and her lips quivered, but she maintained her silence. "I have always been on good terms with the Twin Eagles, Bald Vulture and his wife Madame Guan," Lu continued, "so we should not be enemies."

"Madame Guan is my teacher," Huo Qingtong said. "I will go and tell her that you bullied me and told your pupil to attack me, and even joined in yourself."

She gave them both a look of intense hatred, then turned to go.

Lu waited until she had gone a few steps, and then said: "And when you go and tell your teacher, who are you going to say bullied you?"

Huo Qingtong stopped and turned. "Well, who are you?" she demanded.

Lu stroked his beard and laughed. "You've both got the tempers of children," he said. "All right, all right. This is my pupil, Li Yuanzhi, and you can tell your teacher and her husband that I am 'Hidden Needle' Lu. Please convey my congratulations to them on having such a good pupil."

"A good pupil you say! I have lost face for both my teacher and her husband by allowing myself to be bullied in such a fashion."

"Miss, don't think that you have lost face by being beaten by me," Lu replied seriously. "There are few in the fighting community who could last for several dozen moves with me as you did. I suspected you knew the Twin Eagles when I saw you fighting earlier today, but your use of the 'Mirage' sword style just now decided it. Do they still argue all the time?" He laughed.

Huo Qingtong saw that Lu knew all about her teacher, but she was still reluctant to relent.

"If you are my teacher's friend, why did you tell your pupil to interfere, stopping us from taking back our Sacred Book? I don't believe you are a good man."

"Being beaten in a sword duel is not worth worrying about," Lu said. "But failing to recover your Sacred Book is a different matter. If your people are bullied and insulted, you must be prepared to risk even your own life to get satisfaction."

Huo Qingtong knew he was telling the truth, and bowed before him. "Please tell me how the Sacred Book can be recovered," she said. "If you are willing to help, I and the rest of my tribe will be eternally grateful."

"It was stupid of me to interfere," said Yuanzhi. "My teacher has already given me a long lecture. Please don't worry, I will help you get your Sacred Book back. It's in that red knapsack, isn't it?" Huo Qingtong nodded. "Well, let's go," Yuanzhi added.

"We will discuss the situation first," said Lu. The three talked in low tones for a while then, with Lu keeping a look-out, the two girls crossed over the wall into the inn.

They ran crouching over to the room occupied by the lead escorts, and squatted under the window in the shadow of the wall. Inside, they heard Lead Escort Tong crying and groaning for a while and then stop.

"You are talented, Master Zhang," one of the lead escorts said, "being able to cure Brother Tong so quickly."

"If we had known you were coming, we wouldn't have had to apologise to that Red Flower Society bastard," said another.

"I want you all to watch that pair," a powerful voice replied. "Tomorrow, when Wu and the others arrive we'll make our move."

"Once we've got him, I'm going to kick that bastard in the head a few times, very hard," said Tong.

Yuanzhi slowly extended herself and found a tear in the window paper through which to look. She saw five or six people seated around the room. In the middle was an awe-inspiring man whom she decided must be the one they called Master Zhang. His eyes flashed like lightning and his temples were high and protruding, indicating profound Internal Strength.

"Tong, give me the knapsack," Lead Escort Yan said. "Those Muslims won't give up so easily. I'm afraid we will have more trouble on the road."

Tong began to untie the knapsack hesitantly, as if unwilling to hand it over.

"Now don't worry," Yan said. "Once we've got this knapsack to Beijing safe and sound, we'll all reap the benefits."

Yuanzhi thought swiftly. Yan was a powerful fighter, and once he had possession of the knapsack it would be difficult to recover. She whispered a few words into Huo Qingtong's ear, took off her hat and pulled her long hair over her face. Then she picked two bricks up lying nearby and hurled them through the window. As they crashed into the room, the lamp was suddenly doused. The door opened and several men rushed out.

"Who is it?" one yelled.

Huo Qingtong whistled at them, then leapt over the wall, and the lead escorts and Zhang chased after her. As soon as they had gone, Yuanzhi burst into the room.

Tong was lying on the kang when he saw the Thing come through the door, an unghostly ghost, and inhuman human, with its hair dishevelled and wild. The Thing hopped towards him squealing loudly, and his body went limp with fright. It seized the red knapsack from his hands and ran from the room.

The lead escorts chased after Huo Qingtong for a while, but Zhang suddenly stopped in his tracks. "Damn," he said. "This is just a diversion to lure us away. Get back quickly!"

They returned to the inn to find Tong lying on the kang in a state of shock. It was a while before he managed to tell them how the ghost had stolen the knapsack.

"What ghost?" Zhang said angrily. "We've been tricked."

Yuanzhi hid beside the wall, holding the knapsack tightly, and waited until all the lead escorts had re-entered the room before jumping back out of the courtyard. She whistled softly and Lu and Huo Qingtong appeared from the shadow of the trees.

Yuanzhi was feeling particularly smug. "I've got the knapsack," she laughed, "so you can't…"

Before she could finish, Lu shouted: "Watch out behind!"

As she turned, someone slapped her on the shoulder. She quickly tried to grab the hand but failed and her heart jumped in fright as she realised how formidable her assailant was: he had followed her without her being at all aware of it. She quickly looked around and in the moonlight saw a tall, powerful man standing beside her. She stepped backwards in fright, and threw the knapsack at Huo Qingtong.

"Catch!" she yelled, and brought her hands together to face the enemy.

He was extraordinarily fast. As the knapsack left her hand, he leapt after it and caught it in mid-air just as Huo Qingtong attacked him. With his left hand holding the knapsack, the man swung his arms out using the Long-Arm style. There was great power behind the blow, and both girls were forced back several paces. Yuanzhi now recognised him as Master Zhang. The Long-Arm style was one of the basic techniques of the Wudang School 's kung fu, and Yuanzhi gasped involuntarily at the sight of Zhang using it. She glanced around, but Lu was nowhere to be seen.

Yuanzhi advanced a step and attacked using the same Long-Arm technique and as their fists clashed, she felt a prickly numbness run through her arm followed by an unbearable ache. She stumbled, then jumped off to the left.

"Tell me, child!" Zhang said. "Is your teacher surnamed Ma or Lu?"

"He's surnamed Ma," she said to deceive him. "How did you know?"

"Well that makes me your martial uncle. Don't you think you ought to kowtow before me?" He laughed.

As soon as Huo Qingtong heard mention of a connection between them, she abandoned Yuanzhi. She could see that the Koran could not be recovered, and ran quickly away.

Yuanzhi chased after her a short way, but suddenly, a cloud bank covered the moon plunging her into pitch darkness. She started in fright as several thunder claps rolled across the sky and turned back to find that Zhang had disappeared too. By the time she leapt back over the wall into the inn, large droplets of rain were falling, and as she entered her room the downpour came.


The heavy rain lasted all night. Next morning, having washed and combed her hair, Yuanzhi looked out of the window and saw it was still pouring. Her mother's maidservant came in.

"Officer Deng says the rain is too heavy and we can't leave today," she announced.

Icy gusts blew in through a tear in Yuanzhi's window. She felt bored, particularly as the inn was in such a desolate area. She walked over to the room occupied by Master Wen of the Red Flower Society hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but the door was firmly shut and no sound came from within. The Zhen Yuan Agency had not left that morning either, and several of the lead escorts were lounging about in the dining hall, chatting. Master Zhang was not among them. A gust of wind blew from the west and Yuanzhi began to feel rather cold. She was about to return to her room when she heard the sound of bells outside the front gate and a horse galloped in from the rain.

A young scholar dismounted and ran inside. As one servant led his horse off to be fed, another asked the scholar if he would be staying at the inn.

"I'll have to get back on the road again soon," he replied, taking off his raincape. The servant invited him to take a seat and poured him a cup of tea.

The scholar was tall and slender with a handsome face. In the border areas, such elegance was a rare sight, and Yuanzhi could not help but stare at him. The scholar saw her too and smiled; she flushed and quickly looked away.

There was the sound of horses outside the inn and four more men came in. Yuanzhi recognised them as the ones who had attacked the young woman the day before and she quickly retired to Lu's room to ask what they should do.

"Let us go and have a look first," Lu said and the two peeped into the dining hall through a hole in the window.

One of the four, a swordsman, summoned a servant, quietly questioned him for a moment, then said to his companions: "Those Red Flower Society bastards haven't left yet. We'll deal with them when we've eaten."

The scholar's expression changed slightly and he began to observe the four men out of the corner of his eye.

"Shall I help the woman again?" Yuanzhi asked.

"Don't do anything until I tell you," Lu said. He paid no further attention to the four officers, but focussed his gaze on the scholar.

Once he had finished eating, the scholar moved his bench into the corridor leading to the courtyard. He pulled a flute from the bundle on his back and began to play a pleasant, lilting melody. Strange to say, the flute looked as if it was cast from pure gold. The road they were on was unsafe, and a golden flute openly displayed by a lone scholar was bound to attract thieves.

When the four men had finished eating, the swordsman jumped onto the table and announced in a loud voice:

"We are Yamen officers and we have come to arrest fugitives of the Red Flower Society. Peaceful citizens need not be afraid."

He jumped down from and led the others towards the courtyard. The scholar, still blocking the corridor and playing the flute, ignored them. The swordsman approached him. "Don't stand in the way of Yamen officers," he growled.

The scholar leisurely put down his flute. "The fugitives you gentlemen wish to arrest: what law have they broken?" he asked. "Confucius said, 'Do not do unto others what you would not wish on yourself'. Do you really have to arrest them?"

The officer with the staff stepped forward. "You stop your chatter," he shouted. "Get out of the way!"

"Please calm yourself, honourable sir," the scholar replied. "There's no need to get agitated. Let me be host. We'll all have a drink and become friends, what do you say?"

The officer stretched out his hand to push him away, and the scholar swayed to one side. "Ai-ya," he exclaimed. "A gentleman uses words, not force."

He fell forward as if over-balancing and put out the golden flute to steady himself, finding support on a Yuedao spot on the left thigh of the officer, who involuntarily knelt down as his leg went limp.

"Ai-ya!" the scholar exclaimed again. "There's no need for such courtesy." He bowed before the officer.

Those watching could tell the scholar was highly skilled in the martial arts and Yuanzhi, who had originally been anxious on his behalf, was overjoyed to see him using Yuedao kung fu.

"This bastard might be with the Red Flower Society as well!" cried one of the officers fearfully. The officer with the paralysed leg collapsed on the floor and the others pulled him to one side.

"Are you a member of the Red Flower Society?" the swordsman asked, a slight touch of fear in his voice.

The scholar laughed. "I do indeed. My name is Yu Yutong. I play but a small role in the society, ranking only 14th in seniority." He waved the flute at them. "Don't you recognise me?"

"Ah, you're 'Scholar' Yu!"

"You are too kind," said the scholar. "That is indeed who I am. You sir, with the flashing sword, face of cunning and rat-like eyes. You must be the famous officer from Beijing, Wu Guodong. I'd heard you had retired. Why are you doing getting involved in this kind of game?"

Swordsman Wu's blade flicked out, steely yet smooth and Yu countered with his golden flute, fighting the three officers simultaneously, working through a complex series of moves which soon had them completely flustered. After a moment, Yuanzhi turned to Lu in surprise.

"That's the Soft Cloud sword style," she said.

Lu nodded. The Soft Cloud sword technique is a secret style known only to our school, he thought. If this scholar is a member of the Red Flower Society, then he must be a pupil of Elder Brother Ma.

The school to which Lu belonged consisted of three pupils, among whom Lu was placed second. The most senior was Ma Zhen and the youngest Zhang Zhaozhong, the Master Zhang with whom Yuanzhi had tangled the night before. Zhang was highly talented and very diligent, but he had thrown in his lot with the Manchu court, and, rising swiftly in seniority, had already attained the rank of Major in the Imperial Bodyguard. Lu had long ago severed relations with him.

His guess that Yu was a pupil of Elder Brother Ma Zhen was correct. Yu came from a respected family in southern China, and had already passed the first Imperial Civil Service examination when his father became involved in a dispute over a burial plot with a wealthy family. The ensuing law suit forced him into bankruptcy, and he was imprisoned on a trumped-up charge and died in jail. Yu left home in anger and met Ma Zhen, whom he accepted as his teacher, abandoning his studies in favour of the martial arts. He returned and killed the rich landlord and then became an outlaw, and later a member of the Red Flower Society. He was alert and intelligent, and could speak many different dialects. On this occasion, he was travelling on society business to the city of Luoyang and had been unaware that his fellow society members, Wen Tailai and his wife, were holed up in the inn.

Hearing the fight, the agency men all came in and stood to one side watching. Lead Escort Tong noticed a catapult on the back of one of the officers, and shouted: "If it was me, I'd leave two to take care of the bastard while the third used the slingshot on him."

The officer with the catapult realised Tong was right and jumped onto a table, readied his weapon and sent a shower of stones flying towards Yu.

Yu dodged them one by one while parrying the other two officers. But his opponents gained the upper hand, and after a few more moves, one of the missiles struck Yu's cheek and the pain began to slow his movements.

"You might as well give up," Tong called to Yu. "Pull down your trousers and we'll give you a taste of the cane."

But Yu did not panic. With a sudden flourish, he drove his left hand at a Yuedao point on Swordsman Wu's chest. Wu quickly retreated two steps and Yu thrust the flute into the stomach of the other officer who grunted loudly and buckled in agony. Yu moved to strike him again, but Wu intercepted him.

Fighting back the pain in his stomach, the third officer moved stealthily up behind Yu as he fought Wu and raised his Devil's Head knife to smash it down on Yu's skull. But before he could do so, a throwing knife plunged into his chest, killing him instantly, and the Devil's Head Knife clattered to the floor.

Yu turned and saw a woman standing nearby, supporting herself on the table with her left hand, thje slender fingers of her right hand clasping another throwing knife as if it was the stem of a fresh flower. She was indescribably lovely, and as soon as he saw her, Yu's spirits rose.

"Kill the Eagle's Claw with the catapult first!", he shouted. Eagles Claw was their slang for thugs employed by the Imperial Court.

The officer with the catapult turned round frantically, just in time to see the flash of the blade as it flew towards him. In desperation, he held up the catapult to try to stop it, but the knife still cut into the back of his hand.

"Uncle Wu!" he screamed, "It's too dangerous. Let's get out of here!"

He jumped off the table and fled. Wu forced Yu back with two more strokes from his sword, slung the officer with the paralysed leg over his shoulder, and rushed for the door to the hall. Instead of chasing them, Yu raised the flute to his mouth end-on instead of crosswise, and puffed. A small arrow shot out of the end which buried itself in the shoulder of the paralysed officer, who screamed with pain.

Yu turned to the woman. "Where's Brother Wen?" he asked.

"Come with me," she said. She was wounded in the thigh, and supported herself with a long door bar.

Meanwhile, as the officers rushed out of the inn, they collided head-on with a man coming in, and Wu reeled back several paces. When he saw it was Master Zhang, his initial anger turned to delight.

"Master Zhang," he cried. "I am useless. One of our brothers has been killed by the bastards and this one has been paralysed."

Zhang grunted and lifted the officer up with his left hand, then squeezed his waist and slapped his thigh, freeing the blood flow. "Have they escaped?" he asked.

"They're still in the inn."

Zhang grunted again. "They've got guts," he said, walking into the inn courtyard. "Resisting arrest, killing an official, then brazenly staying on here."

They led Zhang towards Wen's room, but just as they reached the door, Yuanzhi slid out of a room nearby and waved a red knapsack at Zhang.

"Hey, I've stolen it again," she laughed and ran towards the inn's main gate.

Zhang was startled. "These agency men are truly useless," he thought. "As soon as I get it back for them, they lose it again."

He shot after her, determined to teach her a good lesson. It was still raining, and before long, they were both soaking wet. Yuanzhi saw him closing in and ran off along the side of a stream, Zhang following silently. He increased his pace, closing the distance between them, then stretched out his hand and caught hold of her jacket. Greatly frightened, Yuanzhi pulled away with all her strength, and a piece of cloth tore out of the back. Her heart pounding, she hurled the red knapsack into the stream.

"It's yours," she shouted.

Zhang knew how vital General Zhao Wei considered the Koran to be and immediately leapt into the stream while Yuanzhi laughed and ran off. As he fished the knapsack out of the water, he saw it was already soaked. Frantically, he opened it to see if the Koran was wet, and then let fly with a stream of coarse language. There was no Koran in the knapsack, only two registers from the main desk at the inn. He opened one and read of money collected from rooms for meals, and of servants' wages. He groaned at how he had allowed himself to be cheated and threw the registers and the knapsack back into the stream. If he took them back and someone asked about them, he would certainly lose face.

He returned quickly to the inn and quickly found Lead Escort Yan with the red knapsack still safely fastened to his back.

"Where did Wu and the officers go?" he asked.

"They were here a moment ago," Yan replied.

"What damned use is there in the Emperor employing people like that?" he demanded.

He walked up to Wen's door. "You Red Flower Society fugitives! Come out immediately!" he shouted. No sound came from the room. He kicked at the door and found it slightly ajar.

"They've escaped!" he yelled, and burst into the room only to find it empty. He noticed a lump under the bed covers, and flung them off, revealing two of Wu's officers lying face to face. He prodded his sword lightly at the back of one of them but there was no movement. He turned them over and saw they were both dead. Both their skulls had been smashed in. It was obviously the work of a master of Internal Strength kung fu, and his respect for Wen Tailai increased appreciably. But where was Wu? And in which direction had Wen and his wife escaped? He called for one of the servants and interrogated him without obtaining even half a clue.

But Zhang had guessed wrong: the officers were not killed by Wen Tailai.


Lu and Yuanzhi watched the whole fight through the window, and saw Zhang enter as the officers were leaving.

"That's the man who took the knapsack from me last night," Yuanzhi said.

"Go quickly and draw him away, the further the better," Lu whispered. "If I'm not here when you return, start out tomorrow without me and I will catch you up."

He watched Zhang chase Yuanzhi out of the inn gates then picked up a writing brush and hurriedly wrote a letter which he placed inside his gown. He ran to Wen's room and knocked lightly on the door.

"Who is it?" a woman's voice called.

"I am a good friend of 'Divine Knife' Luo," said Lu. "I have important news for you."

There was no answer from inside. Wu and the other two officers appeared and stood at a distance keeping watch, obviously suspicious of Lu. The door suddenly opened and 'Scholar' Yu looked out.

"May I ask who you are, sir?" he asked.

"I am your martial uncle 'Hidden Needle' Lu."

A look of hesitation appeared on Yu's face. He had heard of Lu but had never met him.

"I'll prove it to you," Lu whispered. "Stand aside."

Yu's suspicions deepened, and he planted his foot firmly on the opposite door post, blocking the way with his leg. Lu's left hand shot out, aiming to hit Yu's shoulder. Yu dodged, and Lu slipped his right hand underneath Yu's armpit and pushed him to one side using the first move in the Wudang school's Long Arm Fist style. "It really is 'Hidden Needle' Lu!" Yu thought, both surprised and delighted. As Yu back, Luo Bing raised her sword and dagger ready to attack, but Yu stopped her. Lu waved his hands at them, indicating they should stand clear, then ran back outside into the courtyard.

"Hey, they've gone!" he shouted to Officer Wu. "Come and see!"

Wu rushed into the room with the other two officers and Lu closed the door behind them.

Wu saw Yu and the others in the room and shouted frantically: "It's a trap!" But before the officers could turn, Lu's two fists smashed into their heads, shattering their skulls and killing them instantly.

More quick-witted, Wu leapt onto the kang, and with both hands raised to protect his head, threw himself at the window. Wen Tailai, who was lying on the kang, sat up and struck out with his left fist, breaking Wu's right shoulder with a sharp crack. Wu wavered, but steadied himself against the wall with his left foot, then broke through the window and escaped. Luo Bing launched a throwing knife after him which lodged itself in his back. But he ignored the pain, and fled for his life.

Yu and Luo Bing no longer harboured any suspicions about Lu, and they both bowed before him.

"Uncle Lu, please forgive me for not being able to pay my respects to you properly," Wen said from the kang.

"There's no need," said Lu. He looked at Luo Bing. "What is your relationship with 'Divine Knife' Luo?" he asked.

"He was my father."

"He was a very good friend of mine," Lu said. He looked at Yu and added: "You are a pupil of Ma Zhen's, I presume. How has Elder Brother been recently?"

"He is well," said Yu. "He has often expressed concern about you. He said he hadn't seen or heard anything of you for more than ten years."

"I miss him too," Lu said regretfully. "Did you know that another of your martial uncles has been here looking for you?"

Yu looked up in fright. "Zhang Zhaozhong?"

Lu nodded. Wen Tailai shuddered slightly at the sound of Zhang's name, and then gasped in pain. Luo Bing quickly went over and supported him with her hand, her face full of love and pity.

Yu looked on, absorbed. "To have a wife like that would be better than being a god, even if I was badly wounded," he murmured.

"Zhang has brought shame upon our school, but his kung fu is excellent," Lu said. "And I would guess that reinforcements will not be far behind him. With Brother Wen so badly wounded, I think all we can do at the moment is to avoid them."

"We will do whatever you suggest," Luo Bing said. She looked down at her husband, who nodded.

Lu pulled a letter from his gown and handed it to Luo Bing. On the envelope was written the words: "Respectfully adressed to Lord Zhou Zhongying, Iron Gall Manor."

"Do you know him?" asked Luo Bing, delighted.

Before Lu could answer, Wen said: "Who?"

"Lord Zhou Zhongying," replied Luo Bing.

"Is he here?"

"I have never met him, but we have been friends from afar for a long time," Lu said. "I think Brother Wen should hide there while one of us goes to your respected society to report what has happened." He saw a hestitant look on Wen's face. "What do you think, Brother Wen?"

"Your arrangements would be perfect, but I cannot deceive you. I am involved in a bloody feud with the Emperor Qian Long who won't be able to eat or sleep in peace until he sees me die with his own eyes. I know Lord Zhou would take us in, but I am afraid he would bring great trouble upon himself by doing so."

"To members of the fighting community, there is nothing more important than helping a friend in need," said Lu.

"But in my situation, the greater the friend, the less I am able to involve him."

"Refusing to involve others in your problems is an upright and manly thing to do. But I do think it's rather a pity."

"What is?" Wen asked quickly.

"If you refuse to go, we will have to stay here and fight. I don't want to exaggerate the enemy's strength or denigrate our own, but who do we have to match Zhang? I am nearly sixty years old, my life is of little value. But my martial nephew here has a promising future and your wife is full of youth. Just because you want to play the hero… aah… it means we will all die here."

Wen began to sweat profusely.

"Husband!" Luo Bing exclaimed. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow, then held his hand.

Wen's affection for his wife outweighed his sense of duty and he relented. "You are right," he said. "I will do whatever you say." But then he sighed. "Once we reach Iron Gall Manor, the Red Flower Society will be beholden to yet another person."

The Red Flower Society always took care to repay its benefactors and to exact revenge on its enemies – hence the fearful reaction of the Zhen Yuan agency men.

"What relationship is Zhao Banshan to you?" asked Lu.

"Brother Zhao? He is third master of our society."

"So that's it! Just what your Red Flower Society is involved in, I don't know. But Zhao and I would willingly die for each other. In the old days when we were both in the Dragon Slayers' Society, we were closer than natural brothers. If he is a member of your society, then your affairs are certain to be just. What does it matter what great crimes you have committed? The biggest crimes are supposed to be the assassination of officials and rebellion. Ha! Well, I just killed two running dogs of officialdom!" He gave one of the corpses a kick.

"There's too much to explain," Wen said. "After this is over, if I live, I will tell you everything. But briefly, the Emperor sent eight Imperial Bodyguards to arrest my wife and myself. I was wounded in a fight at Jinquan but we escaped and came here. They'll get me sooner or later, but the Emperor has a secret I must expose before I die."

Lu asked where the Red Flower Society leaders were.

"The Red Flower Society has 12 masters of the Incense," said Yu. "Apart from Brother Wen and Luo Bing, they are already gathered in Anxi. We have asked the Young Helmsman to assume the leadership of the society, but he is unwilling to do so. He says he is too young and inexperienced and insists that Second Brother, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, should be leader. At present, the matter is deadlocked. The meeting to choose a new Helmsman will not start until Brother Wen and Luo Bing arrive."

Yu turned to Wen, his superior in the society's heirarchy. "Should I first return to Anxi to report?" he asked.

Wen hesitated, uncertain of what to say.

"Let us do it this way," suggested Lu. "You three start out immediately for Iron Gall Manor. Once you are settled there, Brother Yu can continue on his business. Meanwhile, I will go to Anxi to report."

Wen pulled a red silk flower from his gown and handed it to Lu. "When you arrive in Anxi, fasten this flower to your lapel and you will be met by someone from our society," he said.

Luo Bing helped her husband up while Yu lifted the two corpses from the floor onto the kang and covered them with the bedclothes. Then Lu opened the door and strode calmly out, mounted a horse and galloped off westwards.

After a short while, the others also emerged from the room, Yu leading the way. Luo Bing supported herself with the door bar in one hand and held up Wen with the other. The inn's staff shrank away as the three approached, and Yu threw three taels of silver onto the front desk.

"There's money for the room and the food," he said. "We have left two very valuable items in our room. If there is anything missing when we get back, we will deal with you."

The manager nodded rapidly, almost too scared to breathe. Servants led out their horses. Wen could not get either of his feet into the stirrups, so he placed his left hand on the saddle and with one push flew lightly onto the horse's back.

"Excellent kung fu, Master Wen," Yu praised him. Luo Bing gave a dazzling smile and mounted her own horse, and they rode off.

In the town, Yu enquired about the way to Iron Gall Manor, and they raced off southeast. Luo Bing was happy: she knew that once they got to the manor, her husband would be safe. Lord Zhou commanded great respect throughout the border regions.

The road was covered with loose stones and long grass which gave it a rather desolate air. Suddenly, they heard the sound of galloping hooves ahead and three horses raced towards them. The riders were all large, strong men, but one was particularly tall and impressive with silver-white whiskers and a smooth rosy face. In his left hand, he jiggled two iron balls together. As they passed, the riders looked at Wen in surprise, but they were galloping fast, and flashed past in an instant.

"I'm afraid that was Lord Zhou," Yu said.

"I was thinking that too," replied Luo Bing.

"We'll find out when we get to the Manor," said Wen.

A few miles further on, as evening drew near, Iron Gall Manor appeared before them. The wind was strong and the clouds low, but the rays of the setting sun shone brightly through the twilight. They looked at the lovely manor, set amidst an endless expanse of withered grasses and yellow sand. Seeking sanctuary as they were, the mood of the three was despondent, and the desolation of the area affected them all. They spurred their horses forward and found the manor was surrounded by a moat, the banks of which were covered with willow trees. The bare branches whirled and danced in the strong west wind. Around the manor were fortifications and a watchtower: it was an imposing sight.

One of the manor's attendants invited them in, seated them in the great hall and brought them tea. Then a middle-aged man with the air of a housekeeper came out to receive them. He said his name was Song, and asked Wen and the others for their names.

"I have heard much about you," he said, startled to hear that they were members of the Red Flower Society. "But I had thought that your honourable society was based in southern China. I wonder if you could tell me why you have come to visit our Lord? I am afraid he went out a short while ago." Song carefully weighed up the visitors and wondered what their intentions were.

Wen, meanwhile, was becoming angry at Song's coolness. "Since Lord Zhou is not at home, we will excuse ourselves," he said. "We came at an inopportune time." He stood up using a chair for support.

"There's no rush," Song replied. "Please stay and have a meal before leaving." He turned and whispered a few words to an attendant.

Wen insisted they would go.

"Well, please wait a while first, otherwise our Lord may blame me for neglecting honoured guests." As he spoke, the attendant re-appeared carrying a tray on which were two large silver ingots. Song took the tray.

"Master Wen," he said. "You have come a long way to visit our humble manor and we have not had a chance to look after you properly. Please accept this as a favour to me for your travelling expenses."

Wen, filled with rage, picked up both of the ingots with his left hand. "We did not come to your honourable manor to extort money," he said. "You underestimate us, friend Song."

Song quickly protested that he would not dare to suggest such a thing.

Wen laughed coldly and placed the ingots back on the tray. "Goodbye," he said.

Song looked down and started in fright. With just one hand, Wen had crushed the two ingots together into a flat cake of silver. He led the three toeards the gate, offering profuse apologies as he went. Wen ignored him. Three attendants led their horses up, and they mounted immediately.

Luo Bing took out a gold ingot many times more valuable than the silver offered by Song and gave it to the attendant holding her horse. "Thank you for your trouble," she said. "Here's a little something for the three of you to have a drink." For a moment, the attendants did not seem to believe their luck, then they began thanking her over and over again. Luo Bing smiled in reply.

Just as they were about to ride off, a rider galloped up, leapt off his horse and saluted Wen with his fists. "Please come into our humble manor and make yourselves comfortable," he said.

"We do not wish to trouble you," Wen replied. "We will visit again another time."

"We passed you on the road a while ago and our Lord guessed you were coming to the manor," the man continued. "He would have liked to turn back, but he has important business to attend to. So he ordered me to come to receive you. He is eager to make your acquaintance. He said he would definitely return tonight, and insisted that you stay at our humble manor."

Wen's anger melted as he heard the sincerity in the newcomer's voice, and they went back into the manor. The man introduced himself as Meng, Zhou's senior pupil, as Song stood to one side looking very uncomfortable. Guests and host sat down and fresh tea was served. An attendant whispered something to Meng who stood up and bowed before Luo Bing.

"Our lady invites you to go into the inner hall to rest," he said.

A maidservant led Luo Bing through a passageway and a woman in her forties strode out and grasped Luo Bing's hand familiarly.

"They told me just now that some members of the Red Flower Society had arrived and then left again. But you've come back and saved face for me. Our Lord will be so happy! Now, don't rush away. You can stay for a few days. Look, all of you," she said, turning to her maidservants. "Look how beautiful this girl is! She puts our girls to shame."

Luo Bing thought the woman was rather indiscreet. "What is your name, Madame?" she asked. "My husband is surnamed Wen."

"See how muddle-headed I am!" the woman said. "I'm so happy at seeing such a pretty girl that I've gone silly!"

"This is our lady," one of the maidservants explained.

The woman was Lord Zhou's second wife. His first had borne two sons, but both had died in fights. This second wife had given birth to a daughter, Zhou Qi, a wild girl of eighteen always getting into trouble, and it had seemed as if Zhou was destined to have no more sons. But in his fifty-fourth year, another was unexpectedly born. The couple were overjoyed to gain a son so late in life.

"Call the young master in quickly," Madame Zhou said after seating herself comfortably. "Let Madame Wen see him."

A lively, good-looking child emerged from the inner rooms and Luo Bing judged from his bearing that he had already received several years of training in the martial arts. He kowtowed towards Luo Bing, who took hold of his hand and asked him his name and age.

"My name is Zhou Yingjie and I'm ten this year," the child replied.

Luo Bing unfastened the pearl bracelet from her wrist and gave it to him.

"We have come from far away, and I don't have anything nice to give you, but you can put these pearls round the edge of your cap," she said. Madame Zhou protested, but to no avail.

While they were talking, one of the maidservants rushed in crying: "Mistress Wen! Master Wen has fainted!"

Madame Zhou quickly gave orders to fetch a doctor while Luo Bing ran back to her husband. Wen's injuries were already serious, and he had used up a great deal of his remaining strength to squeeze the silver ingots together. Wen was unconscious, his face drained of colour. Luo Bing ran to him, calling his name over and over again. Slowly, he regained consciousness.

Meng dispatched an attendant to report to Lord Zhou that the guests were settled in. As he turned back inside after seeing the attendant gallop off, he noticed a figure dart behind a willow tree. He made no sign that he had seen anything unusual, but slowly walked back into the manor and ran up to the watchtower. After a while, he saw a a short man creep furtively out from behind one willow tree and run behind another.

Meng called for Lord Zhou's young son and whispered some instructions to him. Then he ran out of the manor gate, laughing and shouting: "Little brother, I'll pretend to be afraid of you, all right?"

The boy followed close behind, shouting: "Where do you think you're running off to? You won't admit defeat, will you? Come here and kowtow before me!"

Meng bowed and mockingly begged for mercy. The boy made a grab for him and Meng ran straight for the willow behind which the intruder was hiding. He charged straight into the man, knocking him flat.

It was the Zhen Yuan Agency's Lead Escort Tong. He had seen Wen and the others leave the inn and had followed them, determined to prove wrong those who said he was good for nothing but eating and talking. Tong had few abilities, but he was quick-witted and knew immediately that Meng had planned the collision to test his kung fu, so he let his whole body go loose,pretending that he knew none at all. Since his kung fu was mediocre, pretending to know none at all was not difficult.

"Excuse me," said Tong. "Is this the road to Sandaogou?" He tried to get up, but cried out in pain: "Ai-ya! My arm!"

"I'm very sorry," Meng said. "You're not hurt, are you? Please come into the manor and I'll have a look at you. We have some excellent medicinal ointments."

Tong was powerless to refuse. Meng helped him up and led him into an ante-room.

"Please undo your clothes and let me examine your wounds," Meng said. He felt around Tong's body, testing him. When an enemy's fingers touch fatal spots, a kung fu initiate would be forced to flinch.

"Heroic Uncle Tong is not afraid to die," Tong thought. "Act the lamb until the end!" Meng pressed the 'Solar Yuedao' points on his temples and toughed other Yuedao points on his chest and armpits, making Tong giggle.

"Ai-ya! Stop that! I'm very ticklish," he said.

They were all fatal points but Tong seemed unconcerned. Meng decided he really didn't know any kung fu. "From his accent, he isn't a local," he thought, still suspicious. "Could he be a petty thief, I wonder?"

Meng could not detain Tong without authority, so he walked him back towards the gate. Tong peered about him as they walked through the manor, trying to discover to where Wen and the others were. Meng decided he must be a scout for a gang of thieves.

"Be careful, my friend," he said. "Remember where you are."

Tong looked around in mock awe. "Such a big place! It looks like a great temple. Except there's no Buddha."

He asked Tong what his business was in the area.

Meng escorted him over the drawbridge and laughed coldly. "Goodbye friend," he said, clapping Tong heavily on the shoulder. "Come and visit us again sometime."

The pain from the blow went straight to Tong's marrow. Swearing profusely, he found his horse and galloped back to the Antong Inn in Sandaogou. As he entered the room, he saw Master Zhang, Officer Wu and the agency men together with seven or eight men he didn't know. They were in the midst of a discussion on where Wen Tailai might have escaped to. No one could think of an answer, and their faces were gloomy.

Tong smugly related how he had followed Wen, naturally omitting the part about his encounter with Meng.

Zhang was delighted. "Let's go," he said, adding with uncustomary warmth: "Brother Tong, you lead the way."

The whole group immediately set out for Iron Gall Manor, rubbing their hands in anticipation as they went. Tong boasted extravagantly of how he had used Lightness kung fu, and of the risks he had taken in tracking Wen. "This is an assignment from the Emperor himself, so Uncle Tong went all out against the renegades," he said.

Officer Wu, who had already employed a bone-setter to help mend his fractured shoulder, hurriedly introduced Tong to the newcomers. Tong started in fright as he heard their names: they were all top fighters employed by the court, famous martial arts specialists, both Manchu and Chinese, who had come specifically to arrest Wen Tailai.


Lu Feiqing galloped westwards, braving strong winds which whipped his face. Passing through Black Gold Gorge, he noticed the blood spilled during the previous day's battle had already been washed away by the rain. He covered about twenty miles in one stretch and arrived at a small market fair. Although the sky was growing dark, he was impatient to continue on his way but his horse was exhausted. As he considered what to do, he saw a Muslim at the edge of the fair leading two large, well-fed horses and looking around as if waiting for someone.

Lu went over and asked if he could buy one of them. The Muslim shook his head. Lu reached into his cloth bundle and took out a large silver ingot, but the Muslim shook his head again. Anxious and impatient, Lu turned the bundle upside down and six or seven more silver ingots fell out: he offered them all. The Muslim waved his hand to indicate the horse was definitely not for sale, and Lu dejectedly began to put the ingots back into his bundle. As he did so, the Muslim glimpsed a dart amongst the ingots, which he picked up and examined closely. It was the dart Huo Qingtong had thrown at Lu after he followed her to the Muslim camp site. He asked where the dart came from. In a flash of inspiration, Lu said Huo Qingtong was his friend and that she had given the dart to him. The Muslim nodded, placed the dart back in Lu's hand and passed over the reins of one of the horses. Delighted, Lu pulled out an ingot of silver again, but the Muslim waved his hand in refusal and walked away.

"I would never have guessed that such a flower of a girl would have such great influence among the Muslims," Lu thought.

He rode off, and in the next town, came across more Muslims. He pulled out the dart and was immediately able to trade his mount for another strong horse.

Lu continued to change horses the whole way and, eating dry provisions as he rode, he covered two hundred miles in a day and a night. Towards evening on the second day, he arrived at Anxi. Lu was a man of great strength, but he was getting on in years, and galloping for so long without rest had exhausted him. As soon as he entered the city, he took out the red flower Wen had given him and stuck it in his lapel. Only a few steps later, two men in short jackets appeared in front of him, saluted and invited him to accompany them to a restaurant. Once there, one of the men sat with him while the other excused himself and left. Lu's companion was extremely courteous, and ordered food and wine without asking any questions.

After three cups of wine, another man hurried in, came over to them and saluted with his fists. Lu quickly stood up and returned the salute. The man, aged about thirty, wore an ordinary gown. He asked Lu for his name and Lu told him.

"So you are Master Lu of the Wudang School," the man said. "We have often heard our Third Brother Zhao speak of you. I have great admiration for you. Our meeting today is very auspicious."

"What is your honourable name?" Lu asked.

"My name is Wei."

"Please take a seat, sir," Lu's first companion said. He saluted both Lu and Wei, and then left.

"Our Society's Young Helmsman and many of our brothers are here in Anxi," said Wei. "If we had known you were coming, they would certainly have all been here to greet you. In a moment, if you don't mind, we will go and everyone can pay their respects to you."

They left the restaurant and rode out of the city.

"You have met our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai and his wife," Wei said.

"Yes. How did you know?"

"The flower you are wearing is Brother Wen's. It has four green leaves."

Lu was surprised at how openly Wei talked about their society's secret signs, treating him not in the slightest like an outsider.

After a while, they arrived at an imposing Taoist monastery surrounded by tall, ancient trees. Over the main gate was a wooden tablet inscribed with four large characters: "Jade Nothingness Taoist Monastery". Two Taoist priests standing in front of the monastery bowed respectfully. Wei invited Lu inside, and a young apprentice priest brought tea. Wei whispered in his ear, and the apprentice nodded and went inside. Lu was just about to raise his cup when he heard someone in the inner hall shout: "Brother Lu! I've been worried to death about you…" It was Lu's old comrade, Zhao Banshan.

Zhao's questions came thick and fast. "Where have you been all these years? What brings you here?"

Lu brushed the questions aside. "There is an urgent matter to be discussed first. Your honourable society's Brother Wen is in serious trouble."

He outlined the predicament of Wen and his wife. Even before he had finished, Wei ran inside to report. While he was still talking, Lu heard Wei arguing loudly with someone in the courtyard.

"Why are you holding me back?" the other shouted. "I must go to help Brother Wen now!"

"You're too impatient," Wei replied. "It must be discussed by everyone first, and then it is up to the Young Helmsman to decide who goes." The other continued to protest.

Taking Lu by the hand, Zhao walked into the courtyard, and Lu saw the hunchback who had severed the tail of Yuanzhi's horse.

Wei gave the hunchback a push. "Go and pay your respects to Master Lu," he said. The hunchback walked over and stared dumbly at him for a moment. Lu knew the hunchback remembered his face and, uneasy at the thought of how Yuanzhi had laughed at him that day, he was about to apologise when the hunchback said:

"You have ridden more than two hundred miles in a night and a day to report on behalf of Brother Wen. I, Hunchback Zhang Jin, thank you!" He knelt down, and kowtowed to Lu four times, his head banging on the flagstones.

Lu wanted to stop him but it was already too late, so all he could do was to kneel down and return the gesture.

The hunchback stood up. "I am leaving now," he announced. As he passed through the circular doorway, a very short man coming in the other way caught hold of the hunchback. "Where are you going?" he asked.

"I am going to find Brother Wen and Mistress Luo Bing. Come with me." Without waiting for an answer, the hunchback pulled him along by the wrist.

The hunchback Zhang Jin had been born with a deformed body, but his strength was frightening. When talking to others, he often referred to himself as 'Hunchback Zhang', but anyone else calling him a 'hunchback' was courting disaster. He ranked 10th in seniority in the Red Flower Society; his travelling companion was Xu Tianhong who ranked seventh. Xu was very short and slight in build, almost the size of a dwarf, but his wisdom and resource made him the Red Flower Society's chief tactician, and the fighting community had dubbed him 'The Kung Fu Mastermind'.

One by one, the other members of the Red Flower Society came out and were introduced to Lu. They were all famous heroes and Lu recognised most of them after having passed them on the road several days before. The formal greetings were kept to a minimum, and after a moment the one-armed Taoist priest, who ranked second within the society, said: "Let us go and see the Young Helmsman."

They went through to the rear courtyard and entered a large room. On one of the wooden walls a huge 'encirclement chess' board had been carved.* (* the game, Wei Qi, is best known by its Japanese name – Go.) Two men were sitting on a couch about thirty feet away, fingering chess pieces and throwing them at the vertical board, each piece lodging itself in the lines which formed the squares. In all his wide experience, Lu had never seen chess played in such a manner. Playing white was a young man with a refined face wearing a white gown who looked like the son of a nobleman. His opponent, playing black, was an old man dressed in farmer's clothes.

"I wonder who this old hero is," Lu thought. "Never have I seen anyone with his strength and accuracy." He could see black was in a dangerous position, and that with just one more move by white, all the black pieces would be lost. The young man threw a piece, but his aim was slightly off: the piece failed to embed itself in the intersection of the lines and fell to the floor. The old man laughed.

"You missed," he said. "Admit defeat!" He pushed the chess pieces aside and stood up.

His opponent smiled. "We'll have another game in a while, teacher," he said. The old man saw the group entering, and strode out of the room without so much as a greeting.

"Young Helmsman," Zhao said. "This is Brother Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School." And to Lu: "This is our Young Helmsman. I hope you will get to know one another well."

The young man brought his two fists together in salute. "My name is Chen Jialuo. I would greatly appreciate your honoured counsel."

Lu was surprised to find that this Young Helmsman gave every appearance of being a dissolute young man from a wealthy family, the complete opposite of the rest of the bandit-like bunch.

Zhao informed the Young Helmsman of how Wen had taken refuge in Iron Gall Manor, and asked him for a plan of action. The Young Helmsman turned to the Taoist priest. "Priest Wu Chen," he said. "Please give us your advice."

A large, fat man, whom Zhao had introduced a moment before as 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, stood up and shouted: "Fourth Brother is badly wounded, someone we have never met before has ridden hard for a day and a night to report to us, and we are still deferring to each other. We will kill Fourth Brother with all this deference! Can we stop this nonsense? Who dares to disregard the wishes of the old Master? Young Helmsman, if you do not respect the dying wish of your foster father, you are unfilial. If you despise us brothers so much that you are unwilling to become our leader, then the Red Flower Society's seventy or eighty thousand members may as well go their separate ways."

Everyone began talking at once: "We cannot remain leaderless like this! If the Young Helmsman continues to defer, our devotion will be finished! Fourth Brother is in trouble! We must follow the Young Helmsman's orders and go to save him!"

The young man, Chen, looked greatly distressed. His eyebrows drew together in a deep frown as he silently pondered the problem.

"Brothers!" shouted one of the Twin Knights of Sichuan. "Since the Young Helmsman obviously despises us, we two intend to return to Sichuan as soon as Fourth Brother has been rescued."

Chen saw he had no alternative and saluted the heroes with his fists. "Brother Wen is in trouble and we can wait no longer. All of you insist that I become Helmsman, and because of the respect I have for you, I will do as you say."

The heroes of the Red Flower Society shouted and applauded with delight and relief.

"Well then," said the Taoist priest. "The Great Helmsman should now pay his respects to his predecessor and accept the Flower of Authority."

Lu knew that each society had its own special rites and ceremonies of which the initiation of a new leader was by far the most important. As an outsider, Lu felt uncomfortable about being present during such a ceremony, so he congratulated Chen and immediately excused himself. He was extremely weary after his journey, and Zhao led him to a room where he washed and slept. When he awoke, it was already night.

"The Great Helmsman has left with the others for Iron Gall Manor," Zhao said. "But he left me here to keep you company. We can follow on tomorrow."

And then, after two decades apart, the two men talked. They talked of the doings of the fighting community over the years, the good and the bad, the living and the dead, until the east grew light.

"Your Great Helmsman is so young," said Lu. "He looks like nothing more than just another rich man's son. Why are you all willing to follow him?"

"It would take a long time to explain," Zhao replied. "You rest for a while longer and we can talk again later when we're riding."



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."

"What's that?"

"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. With no time to consider the matter carefully, he quickly threw one of the iron balls in his hand at the knife. It hit the knife with a "Clang" and both knife and ball fell to the ground.

"Ah-ha!" Luo Bing shouted. "So you're all in this together. You old thief! You've already betrayed my husband, why don't you kill me as well?" She raced into the hall, her swords held high, and struck out at Zhou.

With no weapon in his hand, Zhou hurriedly picked up a chair to deflect the blow. "Not so fast!" he protested. "Explain yourself first."

But Luo Bing was in no mood to listen. Zhou retreated steadily as she attacked, heading for the wall. Suddenly, Luo Bing heard the sound of a blade swishing towards her back, and ducked as the blade cleaved over her head. She turned to find Zhou Qi standing behind her, seething with anger.

"You ungrateful woman!" Zhou Qi shouted, pointing her finger accusingly. "I saved you out of the goodness of my heart. What are you doing attacking my father?"

"You of Iron Gall Manor with your fake charity and fake generosity!" Luo Bing replied bitterly. "But you keep away and I won't harm you."

She turned and resumed her attack on Zhou, who dodged left and right, shouting "Stop! Stop!" Absolutely furious, Zhou Qi jumped in front of her father and began fiercely fighting with Luo Bing.

In terms of martial skills and experience, Luo Bing was far superior to Zhou Qi, but because of the wounds on her shoulder and thigh coupled with her resentment and anger, the greatest taboos of the martial arts fighter, she gradually lost the initiative.

"Stop!" Zhou shouted repeatedly, but both girls ignored him. Pan and Tong stood to one side watching the battle.

Suddenly, they all heard a weird cry and saw a black figure lunged at Zhou's daughter. It was a short hunchback wielding a short-handled Wolf's Tooth club, the sharp teeth on the end of which sparkled and flashed as it swung steeply towards Zhou Qi. The girl jumped in fright and countered by chopping at his shoulder. The hunchback blocked her sword rigidly. Under the intense shock of the impact, Zhou Qi's arm went numb and her sword nearly fell out of her hand. She leapt back. The hunchback didn't press his attack, but instead turned to Luo Bing.

"Tenth Brother!" she cried. Tears coursed down her face.

"Where's Brother Wen?" the hunchback, Zhang Jin, asked.

Luo Bing pointed at Zhou, Pan and Tong. "They betrayed him! Tenth Brother, avenge him for me!"

Without waiting for details, Zhang Jin threw himself onto the ground and rolled towards Zhou. Zhou leapt up onto a table and shouted "Stop!" again, but Zhang Jin was not interested in explanations, and aimed the wolf's tooth club at his thigh. Zhou jumped into the air, landing on the ground just as the club slammed into the sandalwood table. The fangs sank deep into the wood, and for a moment the hunchback was unable to pull the club free.

Just then, Meng rushed into the hall and handed Zhou his gold-backed sword. He had no idea of the hunchback's motives, but anyone attacking his master was an enemy. Zhou and Meng attacked the hunchback together, but Zhang Jin held them off with his club and shouted: "Seventh Brother, if you don't get in here quickly and protect Sister Luo Bing, I will curse your ancestors!"

Zhang Jin and 'Kung Fu Mastermind' Xu had raced day and night without stopping towards Iron Gall Manor. Hearing Zhang Jin's call, Xu ran into the hall and made straight for Luo Bing. Her heart leapt for joy as she spotted him, and she pointed at Tong and Pan.

"They betrayed Brother Wen," she called.

Xu leapt at Tong. Xu was like a dwarf in stature, but his kung fu was superb, and in a second, he had his opponent on the retreat. Tong dodged to the left as Xu stabbed towards him with his knife, then hit the floor with a thud as Xu kicked him off his feet.

Xu felt a current of air hit his back as Bodyguard Pan attacked him holding a pair of tempered iron hoops, and with no time to turn round, he stepped on Tong's chest with his left foot and flipped over to face his attacker. Tong yelled out in pain.

On the other side of the hall, Zhang Jin was battling furiously with Meng, Zhou and Zhou Qi simultaneously.

"Go quickly and guard the manor gate," Meng shouted to an attendant. "Don't let anyone else in."

"Everyone stop!" Zhou called out. "Listen to what I have to say!"

Meng and Zhou Qi immediately stepped back several paces. Xu also retreated a step, and shouted to the hunchback: "Hold it, Tenth Brother. Let's listen to him."

But as he did so, Bodyguard Pan drove his hoops at Xu's back. Caught off his guard, Xu flinched away, but his shoulder was struck. He stumbled, and angrily called out: "Right! You Iron Gall Manor people are full of tricks." He did not know that Pan was not of the Manor. He raised his knife and fought furiously with Pan.

Tong stood at a distance, staring at Luo Bing. She had only one throwing knife left and was unwilling to use it rashly, so she raised her sword and chased after him. Tong nimbly raced about the great hall, dodging around the tables and chairs.

"Don't be violent," he told her. "Your husband is already dead. Why not be a good girl and marry your Uncle Tong?"

On hearing him say that Wen was dead, everything went black before her eyes, and she fainted away. Tong raced over to her as she collapsed.

Zhou's anger surged up as he saw what was happening, and he also ran towards Luo Bing, his gold-backed sword held high. He planned to stop Tong from molesting Luo Bing, but with misunderstanding piled on misunderstanding, he heard someone at the door to the hall shout loudly:

"If you dare to hurt her, I will fight you to the death!"

The newcomer charged at Zhou with a pair of hooks in his hands, aimed at Zhou's throat and groin respectively. Zhou noticed the man's handsome features and strong, vigorous movements. He raised his sword and lightly deflected the hooks, then retreated a step.

"Who are you, honourable sir?" he asked.

The man ignored him, and bent down to look at Luo Bing. Her face was white and her breathing very shallow and he helped her up and put her in a chair.

The fighting in the hall was getting more furious all the time. Suddenly, there was a shout outside followed by the sound of weapons clashing. A moment later, an attendent raced into the hall closely followed by a tall, fat man holding a steel whip.

"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother!" Xu shouted. "We must kill all of these Iron Gall Manor today, or our work isn't over."

The fat man was 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, ranking eighth in the Red Flower Society's hierarchy, while the one with the handsome face and the hooks was 'Nine Life Leopard' Wei who ranked ninth. Wei was a fearless fighter but had never been wounded and was consequently said to have nine lives.

Zhou looked around at the battle, awed by the fighting skills of the intruders. "Heroes of the Red Flower Society!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "Listen to me!"

By this time, 'Leopard' Wei had taken over from Xu and was fighting Bodyguard Pan. He slackened off slightly as he heard Zhou's shout, but Xu called out: "Careful! Don't be tricked."

Even as he spoke, Pan raised his hoops and struck out at Wei. He was afraid of Iron Gall Manor and the Red Flower Society getting together, and couldn't allow them any opportunity to talk peace.

Xu observed the desperate battle in progress in the hall. The hunchback Zhang Jin was fighting three people at once and was under pressure, although not yet ready to admit defeat. 'Leopard' Wei, meanwhile, was also having difficulty maintaining his defence. Victory, Xu could see, was impossible.

"Set fire to the place, quick!" he shouted to disconcert the Manor people. "Twelfth Brother, go and seal the rear gate. Don't let anyone escape!"

On hearing the shout, Zhou Qi ran for the door of the hall planning to look for the arsonists.

"So you want to escape, do you?" a deep voice outside said as she reached the doorway.

She started backwards in fright. In the flickering candlelight, she saw two men blocking the doorway. The face of the one who had spoken looked as though it was covered with a layer of frost. Gleaming shafts emerged from his two eyes, sapping the life from those they fixed upon. Zhou Qi wanted to look at the other man, but she found her eyes caught by the first man's stare.

"Holy Ghost," she cursed softly.

"That's right," he replied. "I'm 'Melancholy Ghost'." It was the Red Flower Society's Superintendant of Punishments, 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. There was no warmth in his words. Zhou Qi had never been afraid of anything before but she shuddered at the sight of this sinister man.

"Do you think I'm afraid of you?" she shouted to bolster her own courage, and struck out at him with her sword.

The man countered with his own sword, his eyes still fixed on her, and in only a few moves, he had completely mastered her.

On the other side of the hall, Meng was battling Zhang Jin, but it had already become obvious that he was no match for him. Tong, meanwhile, had not been sighted for some time. Only Zhou, fighting against Xu and Wei, had managed to gain the upper hand, but just as he was on the point of winning, someone else leapt forward shouting: "I'll fight you, old man!"

He was using an iron oar as a weapon. It swung up from behind the man's back, over his right shoulder and smashed down towards Zhou with astonishing ferocity. The man was 'Crocodile' Jiang, thirteenth in the Red Flower Society's heirarchy.

Zhou noticed Jiang's great strength and dodged to the left, then began to retreat as he fought, keeping constantly on the move. He spotted Bodyguard Pan being chased by 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, and as Pan ran close by him, Zhou struck out at him with his great sword.

Zhou knew that the Red Flower Society's misunderstanding of the situation was deep, and could not be explained away with just a few words. Furthermore, his several attempts to halt the battle had been sabotaged by Pan. With the Red Flower Society's fighters became increasingly numerous, and fighting more and more fiercely, it was only a matter of time before someone was wounded, if not killed, and when that happened, the misunderstanding would become a matter of true vengeance and the situation would be irretrievable.

Seeing Zhou's sword slicing towards him, Pan started in terror and frantically dodged out of the way. He fully realised Zhou's intention.

"We joined forces to capture Wen Tailai but it was you who killed him," he shouted at Zhou. "What are you planning now? You want to murder me and keep the whole Manchu reward for yourself, is that it?"

Zhang Jin howled and smashed his wolf's tooth club at Zhou's thigh. But Xu, who was more attentive, finally realised what was happening. Fighting with Zhou earlier, he had noticed how the old man had several time stayed his hand, and he knew there had to be a reason for it. "Tenth Brother!" he shouted. "Not so fast!"

Zhang Jin's blood lust was up, however, and he paid no attention. 'Copper-head' Jiang's iron oar swung forward, aimed at Zhou's midriff. Zhou leant to one side to avoid it, but unexpectedly, Yang swung his steel whip down towards his shoulder from behind. He heard the gust of wind behind his ear and blocked the blow with his sword, causing both Yang's and his own arm to go numb for a second. The physical strength of the three society fighters was frightening, and battling all three single-handed, it was obvious that Zhou was gradually being worn down. Then Jiang's iron oar struck upwards at Zhou's great sword: Zhou lost his grasp, and the sword flew up out of his hand and stuck straight into a beam in the roof of the hall.

The Red Flower Society fighters pressed in closer around Zhou, now weaponless, and Zhang Jin and Jiang's weapons smashed down towards him. Zhou quickly picked up a table and heaved it at the two of them. As he did so, the candleholder on the table fell to the floor and the flame went out.

In a flash of inspiration, Meng pulled out a catapult and "pa, pa, pa!" shot out a string of pellets at the other candles, extinguishing them all.

An inky blackness descended on the hall.


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."

Xu nodded.

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.


Zhou Qi continued to be antagonistic towards Xu as they travelled along. No matter how often Zhou sternly reproved her, or Luo Bing tried to mediate with smiles, or how calmly tolerant Xu was, Zhou Qi jeered at him, not giving him the slightest bit of face. In the end, Xu became angry as well.

"I've only been nice to her to give her father face," he thought. "Does she think I'd really be afraid of her?" He reined in his horse and dropped behind.

On the third day, they passed through the Jiayu Gate, which marks the western end of the Great Wall.

Seeing his daughter being so disobedient, Zhou several times called her over and tried to reason with her. Each time she would agree, but as soon as she saw Xu, she would start arguing with him again. Zhou thought his wife may have been able to discipline their daughter, but she had gone he knew not where.

They arrived in Suzhou, and found rooms in an inn near the east gate of the city. Xu went out for a while, and when he returned he said:

"Fourteenth Brother hasn't met up with the Twin Knights yet."

"How would know?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You're just guessing."

Xu glanced at her in contempt.

"This place was called Wine Spring Prefecture in ancient times," said Zhou, fearing that his daughter would say something else equally impolite. "The wine here is very good. Brother Xu, let's you and I go to the Apricot Blossom Tavern on Great East Street and drink a cup."

"Good idea," said Xu.

"Father, I want to go too," Zhou Qi said. Xu stifled a laugh. "What are you laughing at? Why shouldn't I be able to go?" Zhou Qi asked angrily. Xu turned away and pretended he hadn't heard.

"We'll go together," Luo Bing said with a smile.

Being a chivalrous man, Zhou did not object.

The four arrived at the Apricot Blossom Tavern and ordered wine and food. The spring water of Suzhou was clear and cold, and the wine that was made from it was fragrant and rich, and was considered to be the best in all the northwestern provinces. The waiter brought a plate of Suzhou 's famous roasted cakes, as fragile as spring cotton and as white as autumn silk. Zhou Qi couldn't stop eating them. The tavern was crowded and it was inconvenient to discuss Wen's coming rescue, so instead, the four talked about the scenery they had passed and other things.

"Your honourable society's Master Chen is very young," said Zhou. "What style of kung fu does he use?"

"A style invented by his teacher," Xu replied. "When he was fifteen years old, Master Chen was sent by our former Great Helmsman Master Yu to the Muslim regions to become the pupil of 'The Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool', Master Yuan, and he never returned to southern China. Only Priest Wu Chen and some of the other senior members of the society saw him when he was young."

"Master Chen is certainly a remarkable man," said Zhou. "Truly: 'A man's worth cannot be measured by his looks'."

Xu and Luo Bing were very pleased to hear Zhou praising their leader in such glowing terms.

"In these last few years, the fighting community has produced many new heroes," Zhou continued, addressing Xu. "The rear waves of the Yangtse push forward the front waves', as the saying goes. It is rare to find someone who combines the qualities of intelligence and bravery as you do. It is important that such skills are not wasted, but are used to achieve something worthwhile."

"Yes," said Xu, agreeing with Zhou's view that his skills should be used to good purpose, but Zhou Qi grunted and thought: "My father praises you and you agree! Such modesty!"

Zhou drank a mouthful of wine. "I once heard that old Master Yu of your honourable society was a member of the Shaolin School of kung fu, very similar to my style," he remarked. "I had long wanted to meet him and learn from him, but with him in southern China and myself in the northwest, my wish was never fulfilled and he has now passed away. I enquired about the origins of his martial arts skills, but everyone had a different story, and from beginning to end I never heard a reliable report."

"Master Yu never talked about who he studied under, and it was only just before he died that he said he had once learned kung fu in the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province," Xu said.

"What illness did Master Yu die of?" Zhou asked. "He would have been a few years older than me, I think?"

"Master Yu was sixty-five when he passed away," Xu replied. "The cause of his illness is a long story. There's a very mixed bunch of people here and we might as well travel on another few miles this evening. We'll find a deserted place and talk at length there."

"Excellent!" Zhou said. He asked the cashier to make up the bill.

"I'll just go downstairs for a second," Xu said.

"I am the host," Zhou warned. "Don't you snatch the bill away."

"All right," he replied, and went down to the ground floor.

"He's always so furtive!" Zhou Qi said with a pout.

"Girls must not talk such ill-mannered nonsense," Zhou scolded her.

"Brother Xu is always full of strange tricks," Luo Bing told her with a smile. "If you make him angry, you will have to be careful he doesn't play some of them on you."

"Huh!" she said. "He is no taller than I am. Why should I be afraid of him?"

Zhou was about to berate her again, but hearing footsteps on the stairs, he said nothing.

"Let's go," Xu said, walking up.

The four covered ten miles at one go. They noticed a spinney of a dozen or so large tree to the left of the road screening rocks and boulders behind.

"What about here?" Zhou asked.

"All right," said Xu. They tied their horses to the trees and sat down, leaning on the trunks. The moon was bright and the stars sparse, and the night air was as cool as water. The wind blew through the grass with a low whistling sound.

Xu was about to speak when he heard the muffled sound of horses galloping from far off. He lay down with his ear to the ground and listened for a while, then stood up.

"Three horses coming this way," he said.

Zhou waved his hand and they untied their horses and led them behind the boulders. The sound of hooves came gradually closer, and three horses passed heading east. In the moonlight, they could see only that the riders all wore white turbans and long striped gowns, the clothing of Muslims, while sabres hung from their saddles. They waited until the riders were a long way off, then sat down again. Zhou asked why the Manchu court had arrested Wen.

"The authorities have always considered the Red Flower Society to be a thorn in the eye," Luo Bing replied. "But there is another reason for them dispatching so many martial arts masters to catch our Fourth Brother. Last month, Master Yu went to Beijing, and Fourth Brother and I went with him. Master Yu told us that he intended to break into the Imperial Palace and see the Emperor Qian Long. We were very surprised, and asked what he wanted to see the Emperor about, but he wouldn't say. Fourth Brother warned him that the Emperor was very dangerous and cunning and advised him to enlist our best fighters and to get Brother Xu here to devise an absolutely fool-proof plan."

Zhou Qi studied Xu. "Is this dwarf so talented that others come to him for help?" she thought. "I don't believe it!"

"Master Yu said that he had to see the Emperor on a matter of great importance, and that only a small number of people could go with him or there could be problems. So Fourth Brother agreed. That night, the two of them crossed the wall into the palace while I kept watch outside. I was really frightened. More than two hours passed before they came back over the wall. Very early next day, the three of us left Beijing and returned to the south. I asked Fourth Brother if they had seen the Emperor and what it was all about. He said they had seen him, and that it concerned driving out the Manchus and restoring the throne of China to the chinese people. He said he couldn't tell me more, not because he didn't trust me, but because the more people who knew, the greater the danger of the secret getting out."

"After we returned to the south, Master Yu parted from us," Luo Bing continued. "We returned to the Society's headquarters at Tai Lake, while he went on to Haining. When he returned, his whole appearance had changed. It was as if he had suddenly aged more than ten years. He never smiled, and a few days later he contracted the illness from which he never recovered.

"Just before he passed away, he called together the Lords of Incense and said that it was his last wish that Master Chen should succeed him as Great Helmsman. He said this was the key to the restoration of the throne to the Han people. He said it was not possible to explain the reasons then, but said we would all find out one day."

"What was Master Chen's relationship with Master Yu?" Zhou asked.

"He was the old Master's foster son," Luo Bing said. "Master Chen is the son of the Emperor's former Chief Minister Chen from Haining. When he was fifteen, he passed the provincial civil service examination, and soon after that, the old Master took him to the Muslim regions to learn the martial arts from the Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool, Master Yuan. As to why the son of a Chief Minister would honour a member of the fighting community as his foster father, we don't know."

"I imagine one of the reasons Master Wen was seized is that he knows something about all this," Zhou said.

"Perhaps," Luo Bing replied. "At the time of old Master's death, there was one important piece of unfinished business on his mind and he wanted very badly to see Master Chen once more. When he first got back from Beijing, he sent a messenger to the Muslim border areas with instructions for Master Chen to go to Anxi and wait there for orders. The Old Master knew he wouldn't last long enough to see his foster son again, so he urged us all to hasten to Anxi to work out a plan of action together with Master Chen. He entrusted all the secret information to Fourth Brother to pass on personally to the Young Helmsman when they met. Who would have guessed that he…" Her voice choked with sobs. "If anything should happen to Fourth Brother…no-one will ever know what the old Master hoped to achieve."

"You mustn't worry," Zhou Qi consoled her. "We'll soon rescue him."

Luo Bing squeezed her hand and smiled sadly.

"How was Master Wen wounded?" Zhou asked.

"We travelled in pairs to Anxi, and Fourth Brother and I were the last pair. When we were in Suzhou, eight Imperial Bodyguards came to our inn and said they had orders from the Emperor to accompany us back to Beijing. Fourth Brother said that he had to see the Young Helmsman before he could comply, and a fight broke out. It was a hard battle, two against eight. Fourth Brother killed two of them with his sword and three more with his bare hands, while I hit two with my throwing knives. The last one sneaked away. But Fourth Brother was badly wounded.

"We knew we couldn't stay in Suzhou, so with difficulty we made our way through the Jiayu Gate. But Fourth Brother's wounds were serious and it was really impossible for us to go much further, so we stopped at an inn to give him a chance to recover quickly. Little did we guess that the Eagles's Claws would find us again. What happened afterwards, you already know."

"The more the Emperor fears and hates Fourth Brother, the less his life is in danger in the immediate future," Xu said. "The officials and the Eagles's Claws know he's important so they won't dare to harm him."

"That's very shrewd, Brother," Zhou said.

"It would have been better if you'd gone to meet a bit earlier," Zhou Qi suddenly said to Xu. "Then Master Wen wouldn't be in any trouble, and you wouldn't have had to go venting your anger on Iron Gall Manor…"

"You stupid girl!" Zhou shouted. "What are you talking about?"

"Brother Wen's and Sister Luo Bing's kung fu is excellent, so who would have guessed that anyone would dare to attack them?" Xu replied.

"You're the 'Kung Fu Mastermind'," Zhou Qi said. "How could you have failed to guess it?"

"If Seventh Brother had guessed it, we wouldn't have become acquainted with these good friends from the Red Flower Society." Zhou told her. He turned to Luo Bing. " By the way, who is Master Chen's wife? Is she the daughter of some great family perhaps, or a famous martial arts fighter?"

"Master Chen hasn't married yet," Luo Bing replied. "But Lord Zhou, when are we going to be invited to your daughter's wedding reception?"

"This girl is crazy, who would want her?" Zhou answered with a smile. "She might as well stay with me for the rest of her life."

"Wait until we've rescued Fourth Brother, then I'll become her match-maker," Luo Bing said. "You're sure to be very satisfied with my choice."

"If you're going to keep on talking about me, I'm leaving," Zhou Qi said quickly, deeply embarrassed. The other three smiled.

A moment passed, then Xu suddenly stifled a laugh.

"What are you laughing at now?" Zhou Qi asked him angrily.

"Something personal. What business is it of yours?" he countered.

"Huh," she replied. "Do you think I don't know what you're laughing at? You want to marry me to that Master Chen. But he's the son of a chief minister; how could we possibly be matched? You all treat him like some precious treasure, but I don't see anything special about him."

Both angry and amused, Zhou shouting at her to be quiet. "This stupid girl talks without thinking," he said. "All right, everyone sleep now. As soon as it gets light, we'll be starting out again."

They took their blankets off the horses' backs, and lay down beneath the trees.

"Father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Did you bring anything to eat? I'm starving."

No, I didn't," Zhou replied. "But we'll make a move a little earlier tomorrow and stop when we get to Twin Wells."

Not long after, he began snoring lightly. Zhou Qi tossed and turned, unable to sleep due to her hunger. Suddenly, she noticed Xu stealthily get up and walk over to the horses. She saw him take something out of his bag, then return and sit down. He wrapped the blanket around himself, and started eating noisily and with relish. She turned over away from him and shut her eyes, but finally, she could bear it no longer, and glanced over out of the corner of her eye. It would have been better if she hadn't. She saw a pile next to him of what were obviously the famous Suzhou roasted cakes. But having spent the whole time arguing with him, how could she now beg him for food?

"Go to sleep and stop thinking about eating," she told herself. But the more she tried to sleep, the less she was able to. Then the fragrant smell of wine hit her nostrils as Xu took a swig from a drinking gourd and she could suppress her anger no longer.

"What are you doing drinking wine at two o'clock in the morning?" she demanded. "If you have to drink, don't do it here!"

"All right," said Xu. He put down the gourd without re-corking it and settled down to sleep, letting the fragrance of the wine drift over towards her.

She angrily buried her face in the blanket, but after a while, it became too stuffy. She turned over again, and in the moonlight, she saw her father's two Iron Gallstones glistening beside his pillow. She quietly stretched her hand over, picked one of them up and threw it at the wine gourd. It shattered and the wine spilled out over Xu's blanket.

He appeared to be asleep, and paid no heed to what had happened. Zhou Qi saw her father and Luo Bing were sleeping peacefully and crept over to retrieve the Iron Gallstone. But just as she was about to pick it up, Xu suddenly turned over, trapping it beneath his body, and then proceed to snore noisily.

She jumped in fright and pulled back her hand, not daring to try again. Despite her bold character, she was still a young lady, and could not possibly put her hand beneath a man's body. There was nothing she could do, so she went back and settled down to sleep. Just then, she heard a laugh escape from Luo Bing. Completely flustered, she didn't sleep well all night.


Next day, she woke early, and curled up into a ball hoping that the dawn would never come. But before long, Zhou and Luo Bing got up. A moment later, Xu awoke, and she heard him exclaim in surprise.

"What's this?" he said.

Zhou Qi pulled the blanket over her head.

"Ah, Lord Zhou!" she heard him say. "Your Iron Gallstone has rolled all the way over here! Oh, no! The wine gourd has been smashed! That's it, a monkey in the hills must have smelt the wine and come down to have a drink. Then it saw your Iron Gallstone and took it to play with. One careless slip and the gourd was smashed to pieces. What a naughty monkey!"

Zhou laughed heartily. "You love to jest, Brother," he said. "There are no monkeys in this area."

"Well then, maybe it was a fairy from heaven," Luo Bing suggested with a smile.

With Xu having called her a monkey, Zhou Qi was even more furious than before. Xu pulled out the roasted cakes for everyone to eat, but out of spite, she refused to eat even one.

They got to the town of Twin Wells, and had a quick meal of noodles. Then, as they were leaving, Xu and Luo Bing suddenly stopped and began closely examining some confused charcoal markings at the foot of a wall that looked to Zhou Qi like the scribblings of an urchin.

"The Twin Knights have found out where Fourth Brother is and are following him," Luo Bing announced joyfully.

"How do you know? What are these signs?" Zhou Qi asked.

"They are a code used by our Society," she said, rubbing the marks off the wall with her foot. "Let's go!"

Knowing that Wen had been found, Luo Bing's face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. Their spirits rose and they covered nearly fifteen miles at one go. At noon the next day in the town of Qidaogou, they came across markings left by 'Scholar' Yu saying he had caught up with the Twin Knights. The wound on Luo Bing's thigh was now just about healed, and she no longer had to use a walking stick. Thinking about her husband, she found it increasingly hard to control her impatience.

Towards evening, they arrived at the town of Willow Springs. Luo Bing wanted to keep going, but Xu remembered Chen's orders. "Even if we weren't tired, the horses just can't do it!" he pointed out.

Luo Bing reluctantly agreed, and they found rooms in an inn for the night, but she tossed and turned unable to sleep. In the middle of the night, she heard a pitter-patter sound outside the windows as it started to rain and suddenly remembered how she and Wen had received an order from the old Master soon after their marriage to go to Jiaxing to save a widow who was being persecuted by a local ruffian. They completed the assignment, and spent the evening at the Misty Rain Tavern on the South Lake, drinking wine and enjoying the rain. Wen held his new wife's hand and sung songs at the top of his voice as he tapped out the rhythm with his sword on the severed head of the ruffian. Her memories of the scene flooded back as she listened to the rain on the window.

"Brother Xu does not want to travel fast because of Lord Zhou and his daughter," she thought. "Perhaps I should go on ahead first?"

Once the idea had occurred to her, it was impossible to ignore and she immediately got up, picked up her swords and left a message to Xu in charcoal on the table. Zhou Qi was sleeping in the same room and, afraid that opening the door would awaken her, she quietly opened the window and jumped out. She went to the stables and found her horse, then threw on an oil-skin raincoat and galloped off eastwards. She hardly noticed the raindrops as they struck her hot cheeks.

At dawn, she stopped briefly in a town. Her mount was exhausted, and she had no alternative but to rest for an hour. Then she raced on another ten or fifteen miles. Suddenly the horse stumbled on one of its front hooves. She frantically pulled in the reins, and luckily the animal did not fall. But she knew that if she kept up such a pace, it would die from exhaustion, and so she was forced to proceed much more slowly.

She hadn't gone far when she heard the sound of a horse behind her. She turned and saw a white horse which caught up with her almost as soon as she heard it, and flew past. It was so swift, she had no opportunity to even see what it's rider looked like.

Soon after, she arrived in a small village and saw the snow-white horse standing under the eaves of a house as a man brushed its coat, its hoar-frost coloured mane stirring in the wind. It was tall, with long legs and an extraordinary spirit and as Luo Bing approached, it neighed loudly, causing her mount to retreat a few steps in fright.

"If I rode this fine horse," she thought, "I would catch up with Fourth Brother in no time at all. Its master will certainly be unwilling to sell it, so I'll just have to take it."

She slapped her mount and charged forward. A throwing knife flew out of her hand, and severed the white horse's reins, then holding her bag with her left hand, she leapt from her own horse onto the back of the white horse. The magnificent animal started in fright and neighed loudly again, then, like an arrow loosed from a bow, galloped off down the road.

The horse's owner was taken completely by surprise, but after a second's hesitation, he raced after her. Luo Bing had already gone some distance, but seeing him giving chase, she reined in the horse, took a gold ingot out of her bag and threw it at him.

"We've exchanged horses," she shouted. "But yours is better than mine, so I'll compensate you with this gold!" She gave a captivating smile, and with a slight press from her thighs, the white horse shot forward. The wind whistled by her ears and the trees on either side fell behind her row by row. She rode for over an hour, and the horse still showed no signs of fatigue, his hooves prancing high as he galloped along. Soon, fertile fields began to appear along the side of the road, and she arrived in a large town. She dismounted and went to a restaurant to rest for a while, and in reply to her question, she was told the town was called Sandy Wells, and was more than twenty miles from the place where she had stolen the horse.

The more she looked at the animal, the more she liked it. She fed him hay herself and stroked its coat affectionately. As she did so, she saw a cloth bag hanging from the saddle. Opening it up, she found an Iron Pipa inside.

"So the horse belongs to someone from the Iron Pipa School of Luoyang," she thought. "This could cause some trouble."

She put her hand into the bag again and pulled out twenty or thirty taels of silver coins and a letter inscribed with the words: "To be opened only by Master Han Wenchong. Sealed by Master Wang." The envelope was open, and as she unfolded the letter, she saw it was signed: "Yours sincerely, Weiyang".

She started slightly in surprise. "So the fellow is connected with Wang Weiyang of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," she thought. "We still have to get even with them, so stealing this horse could be considered part payment. If I had known earlier, I wouldn't have given him a gold ingot."

She looked again at the letter and saw it urged Han to meet up as soon as possible with the Zhen Yuan agency's Yan brothers and assist them in protecting an important item being brought back to Beijing. Then Han was to help escort something to south China. It added that Han should suspend his investigation into whether or not 'Guandong Devil' Jiao Wenqi had been killed by the Red Flower Society, and resume it at some future time.

"Jiao Wenqi was also a member of the Iron Pipa School in Luoyang," Luo Bing thought. "It's rumoured that he was killed by the Red Flower Society, but in fact it was not so. I wonder what the important item is that the Zhen Yuan Agency is escorting? After Fourth Brother is rescued, we can go and collect it together."

Very happy at this thought, she finished her noodles, mounted up and sped off again. The rain continued to fall, sometimes light, sometimes heavy. The horse galloped like the wind, and she lost count of how many horses and carts they overtook.

"This horse is going so fast, if the others ahead are resting for a while, I might miss them altogether by just blinking," she thought.

Just then, someone slipped out from the side of the road and waved. The horse stopped instantly in mid-gallop and backed up several paces. The man bowed before her.

"Mistresss Wen," he said. "The Young Master is here." It was Great Helmsman Chen's attendant, Xin Yan.

Xin Yan walked over and took the horse's reins. "Where did you buy such a good horse?" he asked in admiration. "I nearly missed you."

Luo Bing smiled. "Is there any news about Fourth Brother?" she asked.

"The Twin Knights say they have seen him. Everyone's in there." He pointed to a small, decrepit temple by the side of the road.

"Look after the horse for me," she said. Inside, seated in the temple's main hall were Chen, the Twin Knights and the other heroes. Seeing her entering, they all stood and warmly welcomed her. Luo Bing bowed before Chen and explained that she had been too impatient to wait for the others, and hoped that he would forgive her.

"Your concern for Fourth Brother is understandable," Chen said. "As to your failure to follow orders, we will discuss a penalty when we have rescued him. Twelfth Brother, please make a note of it." 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi nodded.

Luo Bing smiled like a flower and turned to the Twin Knights. "Have you seen Fourth Brother? How is he? Is he suffering?"

"We caught up with him and his escort last night at Twin Wells," one of them replied. "But the Turtles were many and we didn't take any action for fear of alerting them. I went to a window to have a look and saw Fourth Brother lying on a kang resting. He didn't see me."

"The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency Turtles and the Eagle's Claws are all in it together," said the other. "By my count, they have ten first-class martial arts masters among them."

The Twin Knights were from Sichuan, and often used the slang of their home province when they cursed people, calling them 'Turtles'.

As they were speaking, 'Scholar' Yu came into the temple. He flinched on seeing Luo Bing, then made a report to Chen.

"The Muslims have set up tents beside the stream ahead of us," he said. "The guards are carrying swords and spears and look very formidable. I couldn't get close during daylight, but we could go and investigate again when it gets dark."

Suddenly, they heard the sound of a column of men and animals pass by outside the temple. Xin Yan dashed in and reported: "A large train of mules, horses and carts has just passed escorted by twenty government soldiers with a military official in command." As soon as he had finished, he left to resume his guard.

Chen discussed the situation with the others. "There are very few people in the area to the east of here, which is perfect for our operation. But we don't know what the Muslims and this column of government troops are doing. When we make our move to rescue Fourth Brother, they may try to interfere."

"We have all heard much about the famous 'Fire Hand Judge', Zhang Zhaozhong," said Priest Wu Chen. "He was in command of this operation to capture Fourth Brother, so let me fight him."

" All right," Chen said. "We cannot let him escape."

"It's lucky that Master Lu isn't here yet," said 'Buddha' Zhao. "It would perhaps be difficult for us to kill Zhang before his very eyes. After all, he is his martial brother."

"Well then, we should act quickly," one of the Twin Knights added. "I estimate we should catch up with them by early tomorrow morning."

"Right," said Chen. "Please tell us in detail what you know so that we will know what to expect tomorrow."

"At night, Fourth Brother sleeps in the same house as the Eagle's Claws, and during the day, rides in a carriage with his hands and feet manacled," one replied. "The carriage curtains are kept tightly closed, and two Turtles ride on either side."

"What does this man Zhang look like?" Priest Wu Chen asked.

"He's about forty years old, tall and robust with a thick short beard. Damn his ancestors, he looks very good."

They were all eager for the fight, but there was nothing they could do but wait. They ate some dry rations and then asked the Great Helmsman to give his orders.

"That group of Muslims is unlikely to be in collusion with the Eagle's Claws," he said. "Once we have rescued Fourth Brother there is no need for us to take any more notice of them. Brother Yu, you and Thirteenth Brother will be in charge of obstructing that military official and his twenty troops. Bloodshed isn't necessary, just don't allow them to interfere." Yu and 'Crocodile' Jiang nodded.

"Ninth Brother, Twelth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Leopard' Wei and 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. "You two overtake the Eagle's Claws, and set up guard at the mouth of the gorge as early as possible tomorrow. The Eagle's Claws must not be allowed to escape." Wei and Shi left the temple and rode off.

"Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights: the three of you deal with the Imperial Bodyguards; Third Brother, Eighth Brother, you two deal with the Bodyguard Agency fellows. Fourth Sister and Xin Yan will make straight for the carriage. I will coordinate and give assistance to whichever group encounters problems. Brother Zhang Jin, you stay here and keep guard. If any government troops come by heading east, you must think of some way to stop them."

The forces having been divided up, the heroes left the temple, mounted up and waved farewell to Zhang Jin.

When they saw Luo Bing's white horse, they all tutted in approval. "I should have presented it to the Great Helmsman," she thought." But Fourth Brother has suffered so much, I'll give it to him after he's been rescued."

"Where are the Muslims camped?" Chen asked Yu. "We can circle round and have a look."

Yu led the way, but as they approached the wide space where the Muslims had been, they could see that the tents and people were gone, leaving only piles of mule and horse droppings.

"Let's go!" Chen said. They spurred their horses forward and galloped off along the road. Luo Bing's horse was so fast that she had to stop occasionally to let the others catch up with her. As dawn broke, they came to the banks of a small stream.

"Brothers," Chen said. "We will stop here and let the horses drink some water and recover their strength. We should be able to catch up with Fourth Brother in another two hours."

Luo Bing's blood surged and her cheeks reddened. Yu saw her expression and he walked slowly over to her.

"Sister Luo Bing," he said quietly.


"I am willing to give up my life to rescue Fourth Brother for you," he said.

She smiled slightly. "That's being a good brother," she sighed.

Yu quickly turned away.

"Fourth Sister," said Chen, "Lend your horse to Xin Yan and let him go on ahead to investigate."

Xin Yan mounted the white horse and flew off.

The others waited until their horses had drunk their fill, then mounted up and raced away. Not long after, with the sky already light, they saw Xin Yan riding back towards them.

"The Eagle's Claws are just ahead," he shouted.

Their spirits rose a hundred-fold and they charged forward with renewed vigour. Xin Yan and Luo Bing exchanged horses.

"Did you see Fourth Brother's carriage?" she asked.

Xin Yan nodded excitedly. "Yes! I rode close to the side of the carriage hoping to get a look inside but the Eagle's Claws raised their swords to scare me off."

The group galloped on, the horses' hooves sounding like thunder. A large line of men and horses came into sight ahead, and they saw it was the column escorted by government soldiers.

"Fourth Brother's carriage is another two miles further on," Xin Yan said to Chen. They spurred on their horses and overtook the column. Once passed, 'Crocodile' Jiang and Yu turned their mounts around to block the road.

Yu saluted the government troops as they caught up. "Good sirs, you are working too hard," he said politely. "The scenery here is excellent, and the weather is exceptionally clear. Why don't we all sit down and have a chat?"

"Out of the way!" shouted one of the Manchu soldiers at the front. "This is the family of Commander-in-chief Li."

"His family? Well, that's even more reason for having a rest. There's a pair called Black Death and White Death in front of us, and we wouldn't want to frighten the ladies."

Another of the soldiers flourished his horse whip and cracked it in Yu's direction. "You destitute scholar! Stop your nonsense," he shouted.

Yu laughed and dodged out of the way. The commanding officer of the escort rode forward and loudly asked what was going on.

Yu brought his hands together in salute. "What is your respected surname?" he enquired.

The officer could see that Yu and Jiang were not reputable men and hesitated to answer.

Yu took out his golden flute. "I have a rudimentary knowledge of music," he said. "I often lament how rarely I come across people with discerning musical tastes. You, sir, have a dignified appearance. Please dismount and rest while I play you a tune to alleviate the loneliness of the journey, what do you say?"

The officer was Deng Tunan, escorting Commander Li Keshou's family to Hangzhou. He started in surprise when he saw the golden flute, and remembered what he had heard of the fight in the inn that day between the Yamen officers and a scholar with a golden flute. "Let each go his own road," he shouted. "Please make way!"

"I know ten songs," said Yu. "Some are impassioned and rousing, some are sweet and captivating, but all are melodic. I haven't played them for a long time, but this chance meeting with such an esteemed gentleman as yourself has made me eager to show off my talents."

He lifted the golden flute to his mouth and a series of beautiful notes rose clear and sharp into the sky.

Officer Deng could see that the affair could not be concluded amicably. He raised his spear and threw it straight at Yu who continued to play until the tip was almost upon him. Then his left hand shot out and grabbed the spear then struck it with the golden flute, snapping it in two.

Deng was startled. Reining in his horse, he backed up several paces, snatched a sword from one of the soldiers and charged forward again. He fought Yu through seven or eight moves, then Yu found an opening: the golden flute struck Deng's right arm, and the sword flew out of his hand.

"You really ought to listen to these ten songs of mine," Yu said. He put the flute to his lips, and started to play once more.

Deng waved his hand at his soldiers. "Seize this fellow!" He roared. The soldiers swept forward, shouting and yelling as they came.

'Crocodile' Jiang leapt off his horse brandishing his iron oar, and with a 'Stirring The Grass To Find The Snake' move, tapped the first soldier lightly on the legs, toppling him onto the oar, then swung the oar upwards, and deposited him into the crowd of his comrades. He scooped and dumped one Manchu soldier after another as if shovelling earth, and the soldiers behind yelled out in fear and retreated.

Just then, the curtain on a large carriage the soldiers were escorting suddenly parted, and a girl dressed in red and holding a glistening sword lunged at him. Jiang's oar struck powerfully at the blade, and the girl, seeing the strength behind it, leapt back. Jiang was a Cantonese with a thick accent, and he had found that few people outside his native province understood what he said. As a result, he had never been a great talker. He flourished his oar and began to fight with her without saying a word. He was surprised to discover that her swordsmanship was excellent.

Yu looked on from the side. He had forgotten all about playing the flute and was engrossed in watching the young girl who was using the traditional Soft Cloud Sword style of his own school.

He leapt forward and stuck his golden flute in between their weapons, separating them. "Stop!" he shouted.

The girl and Jiang both retreated a step. By this time, Officer Deng had found another spear and was spurring his horse forward, but the girl ordered him to stay back.

"What is your esteemed name, mistress, and who is your honourable teacher?" Yu asked.

"I don't feel like telling you," the girl replied with a smile. "But I do know that you are 'Scholar' Yu, and that you are a member of the Red Flower Society."

Yu and Jiang looked at each other in surprise. Officer Deng was even more astonished at the sight of his commander-in-chief's daughter joking with these notorious bandits.

The three startled men were looking at the laughing girl not knowing what to say, when they heard horses approaching. The Manchu soldiers parted and six horses raced up from the west. The front rider was Lu Feiqing. Yu and the girl, who was of course Li Yuanzhi, both greeted him, one calling him Uncle and the other Teacher.

Behind Lu came Zhou, the two groups having met on the road.

"Yuanzhi, what are you doing here with Brother Yu and Brother Jiang?" Lu asked.

"Brother Yu insisted on us listening to him play the flute," she replied with a smile. "We didn't feel like listening but he wouldn't let us leave."

"There is a dangerous situation ahead," Lu said to Yuanzhi. "It would be best if you all stay here so as not to frighten Madame. When this business is finished, I will come and find you."

Yuanzhi pouted angrily at being forbidden from going to watch the fun, but Lu took no further notice of her, saluted the others and rode on eastwards.


The heroes galloped on after Wen. After a while, they noticed in the distance a column of men and horses strung out over the flat plain. Priest Wu Chen drew his sword and roared: "Chase them!" The figures in front gradually grew larger. Luo Bing's white horse raced round to the front, and in the wink of an eye, she had caught up with the column. With her twin swords in hand, she prepared to overtake it, then block its path. But suddenly, shouts rose from in front, and several dozen Muslims riding camels and horses raced towards them from the east.

This was completely unexpected, and Luo Bing reined in her horse and stopped to see what the Muslims were doing. By now, the Imperial officers and the Bodyguard Agency men had also halted, and gazed in consternation at the Muslims as they bore down on them, sabres glinting in the sun.

Chen ordered the heroes to halt to watch the fight. Suddenly, they saw a rider skirt round the battle and race straight towards them. As he approached, they recognised him as 'Leopard' Wei. He rode up to Chen.

"Great Helmsman," he said breathlessly. "We set up guard at the mouth of the gorge, but this group of Muslims broke past us. There was no way of stopping them, but now they're attacking the Eagle's Claws. It's very strange."

"Priest Wu Chen, Third Brother Zhao, and the Twin Knights," Chen said. "The four of you go and get Fourth Brother's carriage away. The rest of us will wait and see how things develop."

The four heroes galloped off.

"Who are you?" the Imperial officers shouted as they approached. Zhao didn't bother to answer. Two steel darts left his hands, and two of the officers fell dead from their horses. Zhao was nicknamed the 'Thousand Arm Buddha' because he had a kindly face and a soft heart, and was also a master of all types of darts, which he kept secreted around his body.

As the four heroes approached the carriage, a white turbaned Muslim struck out at them with his spear, but they dodged past him, and attacked the bodyguard agency lead escorts who were guarding the carriage. One of the escorts swung his sword at Priest Wu Chen, who blocked the stroke with his own sword, which slid down the other's blade as fast as lightning and sliced off all his fingers then plunged into his heart. He heard the sound of another blade cleaving towards his back, and without turning, drove his sword up and back so that the blade sliced his attacker in half from left armpit to right shoulder.

Seeing Priest Wu Chen's frightening swordsmanship and two of their own men killed before completing even one move, the other lead escorts' courage broke and they scattered.

Zhao raced up to the carriage and pulled up the carriage curtain to look inside. In the darkness, he could dimly make out a figure wrapped in a coverlet.

"Fourth Brother!" he shouted happily.

"You take Fourth Brother back and I'll go and look for Zhang Zhaozhong to settle acounts with him" Priest Wu Chen said, riding up. He spurred his horse forward and charged into the crowd of fleeing lead escorts and Imperial officers.

"'Firehand Judge' Zhang! Come out and face me!" he called over and over, but no-one answered him.

The Red Flower Society fighters were overjoyed to see Zhao accompanying the carriage back, and all raced up to meet him. Luo Bing galloped into the lead and up to the carriage, jumped off her horse and pulled aside the carriage curtain.

"Fourth Brother!" she called out shakily, but the figure inside made no sound. Startled, Luo Bing leapt in and pulled off the coverlet. By this time, the heroes had all dismounted and were standing closely about, watching.

Meanwhile, a fierce battle was raging between the Muslims on one side and the Imperial officers and lead escorts on the other. Priest Wu Chen continued to move backwards and forwards through the crowd, searching for Zhang. All of a sudden, a horse charged out in front of him, its rider a huge Muslim with a thick beard covering his face.

"Where does this wild reckless priest come from?" he shouted.

The priest replied with a stroke from his sword, and the Muslim raised his sabre to parry the blow. Priest Wu Chen countered with two strokes to the left and right, incomparably fast, and in panic, the Muslim lunged backwards, hooked his right foot into the stirrup and rolled beneath the horse's belly, then urged his horse forward and escaped while still hiding beneath the animal.

"Managing to avoid three strokes from my sword is not bad," Priest Wu Chen smiled. "I'll spare your life." He charged back into the battle.

Meanwhile, Luo Bing pulled the man out of the carriage and threw him on the ground. "Master Wen!" she shouted. "Where is he?" Even before she had finished speaking, tears were coursing down her face.

They saw the man was old and wizened, dressed as a Yamen officer with his right hand in a sling. Luo Bing recognised him as the Officer Wu from Beijing whose right arm had been broken by Wen at the inn. She gave him a kick, and wanted to question him again, but her voice failed her.

'Leopard' Wei put one of his steel hooks close to Wu's right eye, and shouted: "Where is Master Wen? If you don't talk I'll put out this eye for a start!"

"Zhang Zhaozhong took him off a long time ago," Wu replied sullenly. "He told me to ride in the carriage. I thought he was being nice and giving me a chance to rest my arm, but he was using me, setting me up while he himself goes to Beijing and collects all the honours. Damn him!"

By this time, all the heroes were standing round the carriage.

"Gather all the Eagle's Claws and lead escorts together and don't let any of them get away!" Chen called out.

The heroes encircled the Yamen officers and the Bodyguard Agency men, who were still fighting furiously with the Muslims. 'Buddha' Zhao waved both his hands and three darts shot out, simultaneously felling two officers and one lead escort.

The Muslims realised the Red Flower Society heroes were friends, and they gave a great cheer. The large Muslim with the thick whiskers galloped forward and shouted: "I don't know who you are, but you who have drawn your weapons to assist us, and I thank you." He raised his sword in salute.

Chen returned the salute. "Brothers, let's all take part!" he shouted, and the heroes rushed at the enemy, all except for Luo Bing, who was too confused to care.

By this time, most of the good fighters amongst the Yamen officers and lead escorts were either dead or seriously wounded, and many of their number were kneeling on the ground begging for mercy as the battle continued.

Suddenly, Priest Wu Chen galloped out of the melee, and shouted to the heroes: "Come and look! This young girl's swordmanship isn't bad!"

They all knew that the Priest's skill with a sword was unrivalled throughout the land, so hearing him praise another's swordsmanship, and a girl's at that, they all pressed in to watch. The thickly-whiskered Muslim shouted a few phrases in the Muslim language, and the other Muslims gave way and made a place in the circle for the Red Flower Society fighters.

Chen looked into the centre of the circle and saw a girl in yellow robes fighting closely with a short, stocky man wielding a pair of Five Elements Wheels. On his back was a red knapsack.

"The girl is named Huo Qingtong," Lu said to Chen. "She's a pupil of the Tianshan Twin Eagles. The man using the Five Elements Wheels is surnamed Yan. He's one of the Six Guandong Devils."

Chen started in surprise. He knew that the Tianshan Twin Eagles were leading members of the fighting community in the Muslim border regions, and also that relations between them and his own teacher, Master Yuan, were strained. Focussing his attention on the duel, he saw the yellow-robed girl attack ferociously with her sword, but Yan withstood the onslaught with the help of his Five Element Wheels. The Muslims shouted their support and some edged in closer, obviously eager to intervene to help the girl.

Yan parried and attacked, then suddenly retreated a step. "Hold it," he shouted. "There's something I want to say."

The Muslims moved up even closer, and it looked as though he would be carved up before he chance to say anything. Yan shifted both wheels to his left hand and grabbed the red knapsack off his back. He held the wheels up high.

"If you are going to rely on numbers to beat me, I'll cut up the knapsack now," he shouted.

The razor-sharp teeth of the Five Element Wheels twinkled, and the Muslims, greatly afraid, retreated.

"There are many of you," he shouted. "Taking my life would be as easy as turning your hand over. But I will never surrender unless it is a one-to-one fight. If anyone of you can defeat me singlehandedly, I will freely hand over the knapsack. Otherwise I would prefer to take it with me."

Zhou Qi leapt into the circle. "Right," she yelled. "Let's match ourselves against each other." She brandished her sword, ready to charge forward, but Huo Qingtong shook her head.

"Thank you, sister, but I will fight first," she said. "If I cannot beat him, I will invite you to lend me a hand."

"The knapsack contains something that is very precious to this Muslim tribe," Lu Feiqing interrupted. "She must recover it with her own hands."

Yan slung the knapsack onto his back. "Who's going to come against me, then?"

"No matter what the outcome, you will give up the Sacred Book," Huo Qingtong said to him. "If you win, you will be allowed to leave. If you lose, you will give up your life as well."

Her sword cut in from the side, thrusting at his left shoulder, and Yan countered using the sixty-four moves of the combined Five Elements and Eight Diagrams styles, which are designed to wrest away an opponent's weapon while maintaining a very tight defence.

Chen motioned 'Scholar' Yu over. "Fourteenth Brother, go immediately and find out what happened to Brother Wen. We will follow after you," he said.

Yu nodded and retreated from the circle. He glanced over at Luo Bing and saw her looking dazed. He wanted to go over and comfort her, but changed his mind and galloped off.

Huo Qingtong attacked again using a slightly faster sword style. Yan, who had been trying to seal off her sword with his wheels, now found this impossible.

After another twenty or so moves, Huo Qingtong's cheeks began to flush slightly and small beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. But she was full of spirit and her footwork never faltered. Her sword style suddenly changed to the Tianshan School 's Mirage technique, combining feint with force. The heroes held their breaths, completely absorbed. Suddenly, Huo Qingtong's blade slashed forward and struck Yan's right wrist. He cried out in fright and dropped the wheel in his right hand as the crowd roared in unison.

Yan leapt back wards. "I accept defeat! The Sacred Book is yours!" he cried and began to undo the red knapsack on his back. An expression of joy filled Huo Qingtong's face and she replaced her sword in its scabbard and moved forward to accept the Koran which her tribe held so sacred. But as she approached, Yan waved his right hand and three darts flew towards her chest. She had no time to dodge out of the way, so with an ' Iron-Plated Bridge ' move, she bent straight over backwards and the darts flew just over her face. Having started, Yan could not stop half way, so he quickly followed with three more darts. At that moment, Huo Qingtong was facing the sky, and was unaware of the disaster that was about to strike. The onlookers gasped in fear and anger.

As she straightened up again, she heard three noises, "Ding, Ding, Ding," as the three darts were hit by three projectiles and fell to the ground by her feet. She broke into a cold sweat and quickly re-drew her sword. Yan lunged forward with all the power of a crazed tiger and his Five Elements Wheel smashed straight down at her. With no time to escape, all the girl could do was to raise her sword and solidly block the stroke. For a while, they were deadlocked. But Yan was very strong, and the Five Elements Wheel slowly pressed down towards her head until the sharp blades on the wheel were touching the turquoise feather on her cap. The heroes were about to move forward to assist her when there was a flash of blue as Huo Qingtong drew a dagger from her waist with her free hand and rammed it into Yan's belly. He cried out once, then toppled over backwards, dead. The crowd cheered as one in approval.

Huo Qingtong untied the knapsack from Yan's back. The black-whiskered Muslim walked over to her, praising her and calling her "Good Child". She held the knapsack in both her hands and presented it to him with a modest smile. "Papa," she said. He took the knapsack and the cheering crowd of Muslims pressed forward.

Huo Qingting saw a boy jump off his horse, pick up three round white objects from the ground and present them on his palm to a young man in the crowd, who picked them up and put them in his bag.

"It must have been him who deflected that villain's darts and saved my life," she thought. She took a closer look at the young man and saw that he was graceful and charming. He wore a light gown tied loosely around the waist and fanned himself with a folding fan. Their eyes met, and he smiled at her. Blushing, she lowered her head. She ran over to her father and whispered into his ear. Her father, who was named Muzhuolun, nodded, walked over to the young man and bowed before him. The young man hurriedly dismounted and returned the bow.

"Thank you sir, for saving my daughter's life," Muzhuolun said. "I am extremely grateful to you. May I ask your honourable name?"

"My name is Chen Jialuo," he said. "We have a sworn brother whom we thought was being held captive by this band of Eagle's Claws and came here to save him, but he is not here. However, the fact that you have recovered your honourable tribe's Sacred Book is very pleasing."

Muzhuolun called his son, Huo Yayi, and his daughter over, and the three bowed before Chen in thanks.

The son had a square face, large ears and a thick beard. His sister, on the other hand was very graceful: as delicate as a spring flower. Earlier, Chen had concentrated on watching her sword style, but now with her standing close to him, he found his heart beating fast at the wonder that such a perfect girl could exist.

"If you had not saved me, I would have fallen victim to his cunning designs," Huo Qingtong said quietly. "Such great kindness, I would never forget."

"Please, there is no need for thanks," Chen replied. "I am already fortunate that you are not offended by my interference. I have long heard that the Three Part Sword Style of the Twin Eagles of Tianshan was the most advanced of their time. The style truly lives up to its reputation."

Huo Qingtong held a low-voiced discussion with her father, who nodded rapidly. "Yes, yes," he said. "That is what we should do." He walked over to Chen.

"Thanks to your assistance, our business has now been completed," he said. "I heard you mention that you have to rescue one of your number, and I would like to order my son and daughter together with several companions to act under you to help save him. Their kung fu is poor and they will probably of little use, but they may be helpful running errands and the like. Will you give your permission, sir?"

"That is very good of you," Chen replied, and immediately introduced the other members of the Red Flower Society to him.

"Your swordsmanship is extraordinarily fast," Muzhuolun said to Priest Wu Chen. "I have never in my life seen anything like it. It is lucky your hand was stayed by mercy, otherwise… hah…"

"I must beg your pardon," the priest replied with a smile. "I hope you won't take offence."

While they were talking, a horse galloped up from the west. A youngster dismounted and address Lu Feiqing as "teacher". It was Li Yuanzhi who by this time had changed into her boy's clothes. She caught sight of Huo Qingtong, and ran over and grasped her hand.

"Where did you go that night?" Yuanzhi asked. "I was worried to death about you! Did you get the Sacred Book back?"

"We just recovered it," Huo Qingtong said happily. "Look." She pointed at the red knapsack now on her brother's back.

"Have you opened it to have a look? Is the Sacred Book inside?"

Huo Qingtong nodded and hurriedly undid the knapsack. Inside, was a pile of waste paper.

Muzhuolun grabbed a bodyguard agency caller who was squatting on the ground and boxed his ears. "Where has the Sacred Book gone?" he roared.

"I don't know anything…about what the lead escorts do," he mumbled, and pointed at Lead Escort Qian who was sitting with his head in his hands. Qian had received several light wounds in the confused battle, and had surrendered after most of the others were killed. Muzhuolun dragged him over.

"Friend," he said. "Do you want to die or live?"

Qian said nothing. Muzhuolun angrily raised his hand to strike him.

"The other lead escorts took the book with them," Qian said.

Muzhuolun was skeptical and ordered his subordinates to search the mule train thoroughly, but they found no trace of it. He now realised why Yan had been unwilling to hand over the knapsack.

Meanwhile, Yuanzhi was questioning Lu on what had happened since they had parted. "I`ll tell you about it later," he replied. "Go back now, your mother will be worried about you. Don't say anything about what you've seen here."

"Of course," she said. "But who are these people? Introduce me to them."

Lu considered Yuanzhi's position as the daughter of a provincial commander-in-chief and decided it would be better not to. "I don't think it's necessary," he said.

Yuanzhi pouted. "I know you don't like me," she said. "You prefer that martial nephew of yours, 'Golden Flute Scholar', or whatever he's called. Anyway, I'm leaving."

She mounted her horse, galloped over to Huo Qingtong, bent down and embraced her shoulder, then whispered a few words into her ear. Huo Qingtong laughed, and Yuanzhi spurred her horse forward and raced off back the way she had come.

Chen had watched the whole incident, and was astonished to see Huo Qingtong being so familiar with this handsome youngster. Conflicting feelings swept through his heart and he stood staring dumbly, a vacant expression on his face.

"Great Helmsman," Xu said, walking over. "Let's discuss how we are going to save Fourth Brother."

Chen started, and then collected his thoughts. "That's right," he said. "Xin Yan, you ride Sister Luo Bing's horse and go and get Brother Zhang Jin." Xin Yan nodded and left.

"Ninth Brother," Chen continued, turning to 'Leopard' Wei. "Patrol around and look for indications of where the Eagle's Claws are. Come back this evening to report." Wei likewise assented and left.

"We will camp here tonight," Chen said to the rest. "We can resume the chase early tomorrow morning."


After all the hard riding and fighting they had done that day, they were all hungry and tired. Muzhuolun directed his Muslims to erect tents by the side of the road, set aside several for the use of the Red Flower Society heroes and also sent over cooked beef and mutton for them to eat.

When they had finished, Chen ordered Officer Wu to be brought in, and questioned him closely. Wu cursed Zhang Zhaozhong bitterly. He said that at first, Wen had been seated in the carriage, but that once Zhang realised they were being followed, he, Wu, had been told to sit in the carriage instead as a decoy. Chen also interrogated the other lead escorts, but failed to learn anything new.

Xu waited until the prisoners had been led out of the tent and then said to Chen: "Great Helmsman, Lead Escort Qian has a cunning gleam in his eye. Let's test him out."

"All right," Chen replied.

Night fell, but still Wei and Shi did not return to report, and the others became worried about them.

"They probably discovered which way Fourth Brother is going and are following after him," Xu said. It's not such bad news." The others nodded, and soon went off to sleep in the tents. The lead escorts and the Yamen officers were all bound hand and foot and placed outside with 'Crocodile' Jiang guarding them.

The moon rose, and Xu emerged from his tent and told Jiang to go in and sleep. He walked round in a great circle then went over to where Lead Escort Qian was sleeping. He sat down and wrapped himself in a blanket, treading heavily on Qian's thigh as he did so. Qian woke with a start. Not long after, Xu began snoring lightly, and Qian's heart leapt for joy. The rope had not been knotted tightly, and after a short struggle, he managed to wrench himself free. He held his breath, not daring to move. Xu's snoring grew heavier, so he quietly undid the rope binding his legs, stood up and tip-toed away. He went behind the tents, untied the reins of a horse from a wooden post and walked slowly to the road. He stood listening very carefully, but there was not a sound to be heard. He started walking again, gradually quickening his pace, until he arrived beside the carriage in which Officer Wu had sat.

Zhou Qi woke with a start as she heard a noise outside the tent. She lifted the foot of the canvas and saw a figure walking stealthily towards the road. She picked up her sword and raced out of the tent, and was just about to call out when someone grabbed her from behind and covered her mouth.

Very frightened, she struck backwards with her sword, but her assailant was very agile, grabbed her wrist and forced the sword away, whispering: "Don't make a sound, Mistress Zhou. It's me, Xu."

Zhou Qi no longer tried to make use of the sword, but she struck him solidly on the chest with her fist. Half in pain and half in pretence, Xu grunted and toppled over backwards.

"What did you do that for?" she hissed. "Someone's trying to escape, did you see?"

"Don't make any noise," he whispered back. "Let's watch him."

They crawled slowly forward and watched as Qian lifted up the cushions in the carriage. There were two sharp cracks as if he was prying planks apart, then he emerged with a box which he stuffed into his gown. He was about to mount his horse when Xu slapped Zhou Qi's back and shouted: "Stop him!" Zhou Qi leapt up and charged forward.

Qian already had one foot in the stirrup when he heard the shout but did not have enough time to mount properly. He gave the horse a savage kick on the rump, and the animal, startled by the pain, galloped off. Qian started to laugh triumphantly, but then suddenly tumbled off the horse onto the ground.

Zhou Qi ran up to him, placed a foot on his back and pointed the tip of her sword at his neck.

"See what that box in his gown is," said Xu as he ran up. Zhou Qi pulled out the box, opened it up and saw inside a thick pile of sheep skins bound in the form of a book. She flipped through it under the moonlight, but it was composed completely of strange characters that she did not recognize.

"It's more of your Red Flower Society's scribblings. I wouldn't understand it," she said, and threw it casually at Xu.

Xu caught it and looked at it. "Mistress Zhou," he exclaimed. "This is a great achievement on your part. I think it's the Muslims' Sacred Book. Let's go and find the Great Helmsman quickly."

"Really?" she asked. She saw Chen coming up to meet them. "Brother Chen, you've come out as well. What do you think this thing is?"

Xu passed the wooden box over, and Chen looked inside. "It is almost certainly their Sacred Book," he said. "It's fortunate that you managed to stop that fellow, Mistress Zhou."

Zhou Qi was very pleased to hear them praising her. After a moment, she asked Xu: "Did I hurt you when I hit you just now?"

"You are very strong," he replied with a smile.

"It was your own fault," she said, and turned to Lead Escort Qian. "Get up, we're going back," she added.

She took her foot off Qian's back, but he did not move. "What are you playing dead for? I didn't hurt you," she scolded him. She kicked him lightly once, but Qian still didn't budge.

Chen pinched him beneath his armpit and shouted: "Stand up!", and Qian slowly clambered upright. Zhou Qi stood thinking for a second, and then realised what had happened. She searched around on the ground and found a white chess piece.

"Your Encirclement Chess piece!" she said, handing it back to Chen. "You cheated me. Huh! I knew you weren't good men."

"How did we cheat you?" asked Chen with a smile. "It was you that heard this fellow and chased after him."

Zhou Qi saw the perfect logic of this and was delighted. "Well, all three of us share the merit." she said.

The three, escorting Qian and carrying the Sacred Book, walked over to Muzhuolun's tent. As soon as the four night-guards passed on their message, Muzhuolun came out, hastily throwing on his gown, and invited them inside.

Chen told him what had happened and handed over the Sacred Book, Muzhuolun was overjoyed, and in a moment, all the Muslims crowded into the tent and bowed respectfully before Xu, Chen and Zhou Qi.

"Master Chen," Muzhuolun said. "You have recovered my tribe's Sacred Book. To express our thanks is not enough. If there is ever anything you want us to do, simply let us know, and even if it means crossing a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers, will still hurry to your assistance. There is no task we would refuse.

"Tomorrow I will go home with the Sacred Book and will leave my son and daughter here under your direction, Master Chen. Please allow them to return after Master Wen has been rescued."

Chen hesitated for a second before replying. "It would be best if your son and daughter went home with you. We are very moved by your goodwill, your Lordship, but we really have no right to bother them in such a way."

Muzhuolun was surprised by Chen's refusal, and tried several times to convince him to change his mind, but Chen was adament.

"Father!" Huo Qingting called, and shook her head slightly.

The rest of the Red Flower Society heroes entered the tent and congratulated Muzhuolun. The tent was now full to bursting, and the mass of the Muslims retired outside.

Xu saw Lord Zhou enter. "In the recovery of the Muslims' Sacred Book, it was your daughter who earned the greatest merit," he said.

Zhou looked at his daughter approvingly. Suddenly Xu pressed his hand to his chest and cried out in pain. Everyone turned to look at him.

"What's the matter?" Lord Zhou asked, and Zhou Qi looked on, panic-striken. Xu hesitated, then smiled and said: "It's nothing."

"Right," Zhou Qi thought. "I'll find a way to get back at you sooner or later."

Early next morning, the Muslims and the heroes bade farewell to each other. Zhou Qi took Huo Qingtong's hand. "This young lady is both a nice person and a powerful kung fu fighter," she said to Chen. "Why won't you let her help us save Master Wen?" Chen was speechless for a second.

"Master Chen doesn't want us to risk our lives, and we appreciate his good intentions," Huo Qingtong said. "I have been away from home a long time and miss my mother and sister very much. I would like to get back soon. Goodbye Sister Zhou, we will see each other again."

She waved, pulled round her horse's head and galloped off.

"Look at her," Zhou Qi said to Chen. "She's even crying because you won't let her come with us. You're despicable."

Chen silently watched Huo Qingting as she galloped away. Suddenly, she reined in her horse and turned round. She saw Chen still standing there and bit her lip, then beckoned to him. Chen felt a moment of confusion but immediately went over to her. She jumped off her horse and they stood facing each other for a second, unable to speak.

Huo Qingtong steadied herself. "You saved my life, and we are indebted to you for recovering our tribe's Sacred Book. No matter how you treat me, I will never blame you," she said.

She undid the dagger tied to her waist. "This dagger was given to me by my father. It is said that a great secret is hidden in it, but it has been passed down from hand to hand over the centuries, and no-one has ever been able to discover what it is. I would like you to keep it. Perhaps you will be able to unravel the mystery."

She presented the dagger with both hands, and Chen stretched out both hands to receive it.

"I would not normally dare to accept such a precious object." he said. "But since it is a present from you, it would be disrespectful of me to refuse."

Huo Qingtong saw the desolate look on his face, and found it unbearable. "I understand in my heart why you do not want me to go with you to rescue Master Wen. You saw yesterday how that youngster acted towards me and despise me as a result. The youngster is Master Lu Feiqing's pupil. Go and ask Master Lu, then you can judge whether or not I am a girl with any self-respect."

She leapt onto her horse and galloped away in a cloud of dust.



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."

Zhang grunted.

"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.


Zhou Qi was separated from the others in the midst of the battle. The Manchu troops surged around her, and she galloped blindly off trying to escape them. In the darkness, her horse suddenly tripped, and she tumbled to the ground, her head crashing heavily against the hard earth. She passed out, but luckily it was still dark, and the soldiers did not find her.

She had been unconscious for she did not know how long when there was a sudden bright flash before her eyes and a great roar followed by a wave of coolness on her face. She opened her eyes and saw the sky was full of black clouds and torrential rain sweeping down.

She jumped up. Someone beside her sat up as well, and she started in fright and frantically grabbed for her sword. Then she gasped in surprise: it was 'Mastermind' Xu.

"Mistress Zhou, what are you doing here?" he called out above the roar of the rain.

Zhou Qi had never liked Xu and had gone out of her way to quarrel with him. But he was at least one of her own people, and she burst into tears.

"What about my father?" she asked, biting her lip.

Xu motioned her to lie down. "Soldiers," he whispered.

Zhou Qi threw herself to the ground, and they slowly crawled behind a small mound of earth.

The sky was already light, and through the rain, they saw several dozen Manchu soldiers hastily burying corpses, cursing as they worked. "You two, have a look round for any more bodies," an officer shouted, and two soldiers went onto higher ground. Looking around, they spotted Zhou Qi and Xu and called out: "There's two more over there."

"Wait for them to come over," Xu whispered.

The soldiers walked over carrying shovels, and as they bent over them, Zhou Qi and Xu simultaneously thrust their swords into the bellies of the two. They died without a sound.

The officer waited for a while, but with no sign of the soldiers returning and the rain getting heavier, he rode over to investigate.

"Don't make a sound. I'll steal his horse," Xu whispered. As the officer rode closer, he saw the bodies of the two soldiers, but before he could call out, Xu leapt up and slashed at him with his sword. The officer raised his horse whip to stop the blow, but both his whip and head were sliced off.

"Mount up quickly!" Xu called, holding the horse's reins. Zhou Qi leapt onto the horse and galloped off with Xu running along behind.

The Manchu troops began to give chase. After only a few dozen paces, the pain in Xu's shoulder where he had been hit by the Golden Needles became unbearable and he fell to the ground with a cry. Zhou Qi reined the horse round and galloped back. Leaning over, she pulled him across the saddle, then slapped the horse's haunches and raced off again. The soldiers soon dropped far behind.

When they had gone some distance, Zhou Qi stopped and had a look at Xu. His eyes were tightly closed, his face white and his breathing shallow. Greatly frightened, she sat him properly on the horse, then with her left arm around his waist to keep him from falling, galloped on, keeping to lonely, deserted tracks. After a while, she saw an inky-black section of forest ahead and rode in amongst the trees. The rain had stopped, and she dismounted and continued on foot leading the horse with Xu on it behind her until she came to a clearing in the forest. Xu was still unconscious, and Zhou Qi lifted him off the horse and laid him on the grass. Then she sat down, letting the horse wander off to graze. Here she was, a young girl not yet twenty, alone in a strange forest. She began to sob, her tears falling onto Xu's face.

Xu slowly recovered consciousness and thought it was raining again. He opened his eye a little way and saw a beautiful face before him with two big eyes red from crying. His left shoulder began hurting again and he cried out in pain.

Zhou Qi was overjoyed to see he was still alive. "How are you?" she asked.

"My shoulder is extremely painful. Please look at it for me, Mistress Zhou," he replied. He forced himself to sit up and used his right hand to cut a hole in the shoulder of his jacket with his knife.

"I was hit by three Golden Needles here," he said, examining the shoulder out of the corner of his eye." The needles were small, but they had penetrated deep into the flesh.

"What shall we do?" Zhou Qi asked. "Shall we go to a town and find a doctor?"

"We can't do that," replied Xu. "After last night's battle, going to see a doctor would be like walking straight into a trap. What we really need is a magnet to draw the needles out, but we don't have one. I wonder if I could ask you to cut away the flesh and pull them out?"

During the night battle, Zhou Qi had killed quite a number of the Manchu troops without losing her composure once. But now, faced with the prospect of cutting away the flesh on Xu's shoulder, she hesitated.

"I can't stand the pain," he pleaded. "Do it now…no, wait. Do you have a tinder box with you?"

Zhou Qi felt around in her bag. "Yes. What do you want it for?"

"Collect some dried grass and leaves and burn up some ash. When you've pulled the needles out, you can cover the wound with the ash and then bandage it."

She did as he said and burnt up a large pile of ash.

"That's fine," said Xu with a laugh. "There's enough there to stop a hundred wounds bleeding."

"I'm just a stupid girl," Zhou Qi replied crossly. "Come and do it yourself."

She pressed on his shoulder beside the needle holes. As her fingers came into contact with male flesh, she involuntarily pulled back and her whole face turned bright red down to the roots of her hair.

Xu noticed her blush, but misinterpreted her reaction in spite of his nickname.

"Are you afraid?" he asked.

"What have I got to be afraid of?" she replied, suddenly angry. "It's you that's afraid! Turn your head away and don't look."

Xu did as he was told. Zhou Qi pressed the skin around the needle holes tightly, then slipped the tip of the knife into the flesh and slowly began to turn it. Blood flowed out of the wound. Xu silently gritted his teeth, his whole face covered in beads of sweat the size of soyabeans. She cut away the flesh until the end of a needle appeared, then grasping it tightly between the thumb and forefinger, pulled it out.

Xu forced himself to maintain his jocular front.

"It's a pity that needle doesn't have an eye to thread through, otherwise I'd give it to you to use in embroidery," he said.

"I can't do embroidery," Zhou Qi replied. "Last year, my mother told me to learn, but I kept snapping the needle or breaking the thread. She scolded me, and I said: "Mother, I can't do it, you teach me." But she said 'I've no time.' Afterwards I discovered that she can't do embroidery either."

Xu laughed. As they had been talking, another needle had been removed.

"I didn't really want to learn," Zhou Qi continued with a smile. "But when I found out that mother didn't know how, I pushed her to teach me. But I couldn't catch her out. She said: 'If you don't know how to sew, I don't know how you'll…'"

She stopped in mid-sentence. Her mother had said: "I don't know you'll ever find a husband."

"Don't you know how you'll what?" asked Xu.

"I don't feel like telling you."

As they talked, her hands never stopped, and the third needle was finally out as well. She covered the wound with ash, then bandaged it with strips of cloth. She couldn't help but admire him for the way he continued to smile and chat to her despite the pain.

"He may be short, but he's a brave man," she thought. By this time, her hands were covered in blood.

"You lie here and don't move," she said. "I'll go and find some water to drink."

She looked at the lie of the land, then ran out of the trees. Several hundred paces away, she found a small stream which was flowing swiftly after the heavy rain. As she bent down to wash her hands, she caught sight of her reflection in the water, the dishevelled hair, her wet and crumpled clothes, and her face, covered in blood and dirt.

"Damn!" she thought. "How could I let him see me looking so awful?"

She washed her face clean, combed her hair with her fingers. Then, scooping water from the stream, she drank deeply. She knew Xu would certainly be thirsty too, but had nothing in which to carry water. After a moment's thought, she took a piece of clothing from the knapsack on her back, dipped it in the stream so that it was soaking wet than ran back.

Zhou Qi could see from his face that he was in great pain, although he was trying to appear unconcerned, and feelings of tenderness stirred within her. She told him to open his mouth and squeezed water into it from the cloth.

"Is it very painful?" she asked softly.

Xu's whole life has been spent amidst mountains of knives and forests of spears, or else in the shady world of plots and traps; no-one had ever spoken to him with the warmth and softness he detected now in Zhou Qi's voice. Deeply moved, he steadied himself. "I am a little better now. Thank you."

"We can't stay here," Xu said after he had drunk some water. "Nor can we go to any town. All we can do is to find a secluded farmhouse and say that we are brother and sister…"

"You want me to call you brother?" asked Zhou Qi, astounded.

"If you feel that I'm too old, you could call me uncle," he suggested.

"Pah! Do you think you look like my uncle? I'll call you my brother, but only when there are other people around. When we're on our own, I won't."

"All right, you don't have to," he replied with a smile. "We'll say that we met the army on the road and were attacked by the soldiers who stole all our possessions."

Having agreed on their story, Zhou Qi helped him to mount the horse. The two made their way out of the trees, and chose a small track heading straight towards the sun.

The northwest is a desolate place. Hungry and tired, they had to travel for more than two hours before finally spotting a mud hut.

Xu dismounted and knocked at the door. After a moment, an old woman came out. Seeing the strange clothes they were wearing, she looked at them suspiciously. Xu gave her some of the story they had concocted, and she sighed.

"These government troops, always making trouble," she said. "What is your name sir?"

"My name is Zhou," said Xu.

Zhou Qi glanced at him but said nothing. The old woman invited them inside and brought out some wheat cakes. They were black and rough, but hungry as they were, tasted delicious.

"Old woman," said Xu, "I am wounded and am not able to travel. We would like to spend the night here."

"There's no problem about your staying here, but poor people's homes have little to eat in them, so don't blame me on that account, sir."

"We are eternally thankful that you are willing to put us up," Xu replied. "My sister's clothes are all wet. If you have any old clothes, I would appreciate it if you would allow her to change into them."

"My daughter-in-law left some clothes behind. If you don't mind, mistress, you could try them on. They'll probably fit."

Zhou Qi went to change. When she came out, she saw Xu was already asleep in the old woman's room.

Towards evening, Xu began babbling incoherently, Zhou Qi felt his forehead and found it feverish. She decided his wounds must be festering. She knew such a condition was extremely dangerous, and turned to the old woman. "Is there a doctor near here?" she asked.

"Yes, there is, in Wenguang town about twenty li east of here," the old woman replied. "The most capable one is Doctor Cao, but he never comes out to country places like this to see patients."

"I'll go and fetch him," Zhou Qi said. "I'll leave my…my brother here. Please keep an eye on him."

"Don't you worry about that, miss," the old woman replied. "But the doctor won't come."

Zhou Qi stowed her sword beside the horse's saddle and galloped off. Night had already fallen when she entered Wenguang town.

She asked a passer-by where Doctor Cao lived, then galloped straight on to his residence. She knocked on the door for a long time before a man finally opened it.

"It's already dark. What are you banging on the door like that for?" the man demanded.

Zhou Qi was furious at his manner, but remembered that she was appealing for help. "I've come to ask Doctor Cao to visit a patient," she said, controlling herself.

"He's not in," said the man. Without another word, he turned and began to close the door.

Panic-striken, Zhou Qi pulled him out of the doorway and drew her sword. "Where's he gone to? Quickly!"

"He's gone to Little Rose's," the man replied in a quavering voice.

Zhou Qi brushed the blade over his face. "What is Little Rose's?"

The man was frantic with fright. "Your Excellency…Miss, Little Rose is a prostitute," he said.

"Prostitutes are bad people. What's he gone to her place for?" Zhou Qi asked.

The man wanted to laugh at the sight of this girl who was so ferocious and yet so ignorant of worldly matters, but he did not dare. "She is a good friend of our master," he said.

"Lead me there quickly."

With the sword resting on his neck, he dared not disobey and led her off down the street.

"This is it," he said, pointing to a small house.

"Knock on the door. Tell the doctor to come out."

The man did as she said, and the door was opened by the Madame of the house.

"This lady wants my master to go to visit a patient," the man said. "I told her the master was busy, but she wouldn't believe me and forced me to come here."

The Madame gave him a look of contempt and slammed the door.

Zhou Qi rushed forward to stop her, but was too late. She beat thunderously on the door for a while, but not a sound came from inside. Absolutely furious, she kicked the man to the ground.

"Get lost!" she shouted.

The man picked himself up and ran off.

Zhou Qi waited until he had disappeared then leapt over the wall into the courtyard of the house. She saw light coming from a room nearby, and stealthily made her way over towards it. Crouching down, she heard two men talking. She licked the tip of her finger, then wet a small part of the window paper and made a hole in it. Putting her eye to the hole, she saw two men lying on a couch, talking. One was stout, and the other thin and tall. A tartishly seductive girl was pummelling the thin man's thighs. The stout man give a wave of his hand and the girl stood up.

"I can see you two want to discuss more ways of creating mischief," she said with a smile. "You ought to accumulate some good deeds, otherwise you may give birth to sons without arseholes."

"Damned nonsense," the stout man shouted back with a laugh. The girl smiled and walked out, locked the door, then turned and went into an inner hall.

"That must be Little Rose," Zhou Qi thought. "She's really shameless, but there's some truth in what she said."

She watched as the stout man pulled out four silver ingots and placed them on the table.

"Brother Cao," he said. "There's two hundred taels of silver. We are old business partners, and that's the old price."

"Master Tang," the thin man replied: "Take these two packets of medicine, and have a good time. The red packet you give to the girl, and in less time than it takes to eat a meal, she will be unconscious to the world and you can do whatever you like with her. You don't need me to teach you anything about that, do you?"

The two men laughed together.

"This black packet you give to the man," Cao continued. "Tell him it will speed his recovery. Soon after he takes it, his wounds will begin discharging blood and he will die. It will appear that his wounds have simply re-opened and no-one will suspect you. What do you think of such a ruse?"

"Excellent, excellent," Tang replied.

"So, Master Tang, you have gained both the girl and the money. Doesn't two hundred taels seem like rather a small reward for such a service?"

"We are brothers, and I wouldn't try to deceive you," the other said. "The girl certainly has a pretty face. I could hardly restrain myself even when I thought she was a boy because of the way she was dressed. But there is nothing much special about the man, except that he's with the girl, so I cannot allow him to live."

"Didn't you say he had a flute made out of gold?" Cao asked. "That flute must weigh several catties alone."

"All right, all right, I'll add another fifty taels," Tang said, and pulled out another ingot.

Zhou Qi became angrier and angrier as she listened, and ran to the door, kicked it open and charged straight inside. Tang gave a shout and aimed a flying kick at Zhou Qi's sword wrist. Zhou Qi flipped the sword over and smoothly cut off his right foot then thrust the blade into his heart.

The thin man stood to one side, struck dumb with fright. His whole body shook and his teeth chattered. Zhou Qi pulled her sword out of Tang's corpse and wiped the blood off the blade onto his clothes, then grabbed the thin man.

"Are you Doctor Cao?" she shouted. The man's legs folded and he fell to his knees.

"Please…miss…spare my life…"

"Who wants your life? Get up."

Cao shakily stood up, but his knees were still rubbery, and he had to kneel down again. Zhou Qi put the five silver ingots and two packets of medicine on the table into her pocket.

"Out," she ordered.

She told him to fetch his horse, and the two mounted up and galloped out of the town. In less than two hours, they arrived at the old woman's hut. Zhou Qi ran to Xu and found him still unconscious. In the candlelight, she could see his whole face was bright red and knew he had a terrible fever. She dragged Cao over.

"My, er, brother here has been wounded. Cure him quickly," she ordered.

Hearing that he was expected to give medical treatment, Cao's fears eased slightly. He looked at Xu's complexion and took his pulse, then undid the bandage round his shoulder and looked at the wound. He shook his head.

"The master is deficient in both blood and breath," he said. "His body heat is rising…"

"Who wants to hear all that?" Zhou Qi interrupted him. "You just cure him quickly. If you don't, you can forget about ever leaving here."

"I'll go to the town to get some medicine," Cao said. "Without medicine I cannot do anything."

Xu awoke and he lay listening to the two talking.

"Huh, do you think I'm a three-year-old child?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You make out the prescription and I'll go and buy the medicine."

Cao had no alternative. "Well, please bring me a pen and paper, Miss," he said.

But where was pen and paper to be found in such a poor hut in such a desolate place? Zhou Qi frowned, at a loss for what to do.

"The master's condition will not allow delay," said Cao with an air of complacency. "It would be best if you let me return to the town to get the medicine."

"Sister," Xu said, "Take a small piece of firewood and burn it to charcoal, then let him write on a piece of rough paper. If that can't be done, you could write on a piece of wood."

"What a good idea!" Zhou Qi exclaimed happily, and burnt up a piece of firewood as he had said. The old woman searched out a piece of yellow paper originally meant to be burnt in worship of Buddha, and Cao made out the prescription. When he had finished, Zhou Qi found a length of grass rope and tied his hands behind his back, bound his legs together and put him on the floor next to Xu.

"I'm going to the town to buy medicine," she told the old woman as she placed Xu's sword beside his pillow. If this dog doctor tries to escape, wake up my brother and he can kill him."

Zhou Qi rode back to the town and found a medicine shop. She shouted for the shop-keeper to open up and got him to fill the prescription, which was for more that ten different types of medicine.

The sky was growing light. She saw village militiamen patrolling the streets and guessed that the murder at Little Rose's had been discovered. She shrank into a corner and waited until they had passed before galloping off.

As soon as she had returned to the old woman's hut, she hastily brewed up the medicine then poured it into a rough bowl and took it over to Xu. She shook him awake and told him to drink the medicine.

Xu was extremely moved at the sight of her face covered with sweat and ash and her hair filled with twigs and grass. He knew she was the daughter of a rich family and would never before have had to do this sort of work. He sat up and took the bowl from her and passed it over to Cao.

"You drink two mouthfuls," he said. Cao hesitated slightly and Zhou Qi realised Xu's meaning.

"Yes, yes," she said. "He must drink some first. You don't know how evil this man is," she added to Xu.

Cao opened his mouth and drank two mouthfuls.

"Rest for a while, sister," said Xu. "I'll wait a while before drinking the medicine."

"Yes," said Zhou Qi. "Let's see if he dies first. If he dies, you mustn't drink the medicine."

She moved the oil lamp next to Cao's face and watched him with her big, black, unblinking eyes to see whether he would die or not.

"We doctors have the best interest of our patients at heart. Why would I want to harm him?" Cao said, smiling bitterly.

"That secret discussion you had with that man Tang about harming some girl and getting hold of someone else's golden flute, I heard it all," Zhou Qi said angrily. "Do you deny it?"

Xu's ears pricked up at the mention of a golden flute and he quickly asked her about it. Zhou Qi related the conversation she had heard, and how she had killed a man at Little Rose's.

Xu asked Cao: "Who is the person with the Golden flute? And who is the girl who was dressed as a boy?"

Zhou Qi drew her sword and stood by him threateningly. "If you don't tell us everything you know, I'll run you through with my sword immediately," she told him.

"I…I'll tell you," said Cao, absolutely terrified. "Yesterday Master Tang came to see me and said that two people had asked to take lodgings at his home. He said one was very badly wounded and the other was a pretty youngster. At first he was unwilling to take them in, but seeing how extraordinarily beautiful the youngster was, he let them stay for one night. He noticed the youngster's voice and manner were just like a girl's. Also, the youngster wasn't willing to share a room with the other, so he concluded it must be a girl dressed in boy's clothes."

"So you sold him some poison," Zhou Qi said.

"I deserve to die," replied Cao.

"What was the man like?" Xu asked.

"Master Tang asked me to examine him. He was about twenty-three or four, dressed as a scholar, and had sword and club wounds in seven or eight places."

"Were the wounds serious?" asked Xu.

"Very serious. But they were all external wounds. He wasn't wounded on any fatal points."

Xu saw he would not gain much by continuing the questioning and gingerly raised the bowl of medicine. But his hands shook and some of the medicine slopped out. Zhou Qi took the bowl from him and raised it to his mouth. He drank the brew down as she held the bowl, then thanked her.

"These two bandits are not brother and sister," Cao thought as he watched. "Whoever heard of a brother saying thank you to his sister?"

After drinking the medicine, Xu slept for a while, his whole body sweating profusely, and towards evening, the sickness began to recede. The next day, Xu was more than half recovered and he was able to get up.

After another day, he decided he could just about manage to ride a horse.

"That man with the golden flute is Fourteenth Brother," he said to Zhou Qi. "I wonder why he should seek lodgings with such a man? But seeing as you've already killed Tang, they shouldn't have had too much trouble. But I'm still a little worried. Let's go tonight and see what the situation is."

"Fourteenth Brother?" Zhou Qi asked.

"'Scholar' Yu. He was also at Iron Gall Manor. You've seen him before."

"Oh, if I had known it was him I would have brought him along with me, then the two of you could have convalesced together."

Xu smiled. "But who could this girl dressed in boy's clothing be?" he wondered, mystified.

That evening, Zhou Qi gave the old woman two of the silver ingots and she accepted them with effusive blessings and thanks. Zhou Qi then pulled Cao up, and with a swish of her blade, cut off his right ear.

"I'm only sparing your worthless life because you cured my brother," she shouted. "If I ever catch you doing evil again,I'll stick my sword straight into your heart."

"We'll visit you again in three months time, to check up," Xu warned.

"You ride his horse and we'll leave," Zhou Qi said to Xu. The two mounted up and galloped off towards Wenguang town.

"Why did you say we would be coming back in three months' time?" Zhou Qi asked.

"I was just deceiving the doctor so that he wouldn't give the old woman any trouble," Xu replied.

Zhou Qi nodded and they continued on for a while.

"Why are you always so crafty with people?" she suddenly asked. "I don't like it."

"You don't realise how many evil people there are in the world," he said after a long silence. "When dealing with friends, love and justice should always come first, of course. But when dealing with bad people, you must be very careful otherwise you will be tricked and will suffer."

"My father say it's better to suffer yourself than to cheat other people," Zhou Qi said.

"That is what makes your father the great man that he is," replied Xu.

"Well, why don't you imitate my father?"

"Lord Zhou is benevolent and generous by nature. I am afraid that such a perverse person as myself would never be able to emulate him."

"That's what I dislike most about you: your perverse temper. My father says that if you treat others well, they will also naturally treat you well in return."

Xu didn't reply.

The two waited until it was dark before entering the town. They found Tang's residence and climbed over the wall toinvestigate. Xu caught a watchman and, threatening him with a knife, asked him about 'Scholar' Yu's whereabouts. The watchman said the two lodgers had left during the confusion after Doctor Cao had killed Master Tang at Little Rose's.

"We'll chase after them," Zhou Qi said.


In less than a day, they had passed Lanzhou. Two days further on, Xu discovered markings on the road left by Chen saying that everyone should meet in Kaifeng. Zhou Qi was delighted to hear that the main group was all right. She had been very worried about her father, but she now relaxed and drank some wine to celebrate. The wound on Xu's shoulder had by now closed and he was fully recovered. They chatted as they travelled. Xu told her stories of the fighting community and explained all its taboos and rules. She took it all in eagerly.

"Why didn't you talk about these things before, instead of always quarrelling with me?" she asked.

That day they arrived at Tongguan, a gateway town between central China and the northwest, and searched for lodgings. They heard that the old Yuelai Inn was the best, but when they got there, they were told there was only one room left.

Zhou Qi was impressed with how refined and polite Xu had been towards her, a real gentleman. But now, suddenly faced with the prospect of having to share a room with him, she was both embarrassed and suspicious.

As soon as they were in the room, Xu barred the door. Zhou Qi's face went bright red and she was just about to speak when Xu hurriedly silenced her with a wave of his hand.

"Did you see that Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency scoundrel just now?" he whispered.

"What?" said Zhou Qi, startled. "You mean the one who led the others round to capture Master Wen and caused the death of my brother?"

"I only caught a glimpse of him so I can't be absolutely sure. I was afraid he would see us, which is why I rushed us into the room. We'll go and investigate in a while."

The servant came in with some hot tea and asked if they wanted anything to eat. Xu ordered a few dishes, then said:

"Several eminent gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency are also staying here, I think?"

"Yes," replied the servant. "Whenever they pass through Tongguan, they always give us their custom."

Xu waited for the servant to leave. "That Lead Escort Tong is the ringleader and chief troublemaker," he said. "We'll finish him off tonight and properly avenge your brother and Master Wen."

Zhou Qi thought once again of her brother's tragic death and the burning of Iron Gall Manor, and her anger surged.

"Lie down for a while and rest," said Xu, seeing her impatience. "We can wait until nightfall before making our move and still have plenty of time."

He sat down at the table and settled himself for sleep without so much as glancing further in Zhou Qi's direction. Zhou Qi had no option but to suppress her anger. She sat down on the kang and tried to rest. The time dragged by until the second bell struck, one hour to midnight, and she decided she could control herself no longer.

"Let's go," she said, drawing her sword.

"There are many of them, and some may be good fighters," Xu whispered. "Let us investigate first. We'll think of some way to lure Tong out, then deal with him alone."

Zhou Qi nodded.

They went into the courtyard and saw a lamp shining in a room on the eastern side. They walked stealthily over. Zhou Qi found a rip in the window paper and looked through while Xu stood behind her keeping a look out. Suddenly, she stood up and kicked out at the window. Xu started in fright, and shot in front of her, blocking her way. Zhou Qi hurriedly retracted her leg as it was about to strike Xu's chest, and overbalanced. He knelt down close to her.

"What is it?" he whispered.

"Do something, quick," she hissed. "My mother's in there. They've got her tied up."

Xu was startled. "Back to the room quickly and we'll discuss it there," he said.

They returned to the room.

"What is there to discuss?" demanded Zhou Qi desperately. "They've captured my mother."

"Control yourself. I will rescue her for you," Xu replied. "How many people were there in the room?"

"About six or seven."

Xu hung his head, deep in thought.

"What are you afraid of?" Zhou Qi asked. "If you won't do it, I'll go by myself."

"I'm not afraid. I'm thinking of a way to save your mother and kill that fellow at the same time. It would be best if we did the two things together."

Just then, footsteps passed by the door, and they heard a man muttering: "Midnight and these lead escorts are still at it. What are they doing drinking at this time? Damn their mothers! May the blessed Buddha make sure they meet up with robbers on the road."

Suddenly, Xu had an idea. "That Doctor Cao gave you two packets of medicine, didn't he?" he said to Zhou Qi. "Give me the one he said would make you unconscious, quickly."

Zhou Qi gave him the packet. "What are you going to do?" she asked. Xu didn't answer, but opened the window and jumped out with Zhou Qi close behind.

They ran along the corridor. Suddenly Xu whispered: "Get down, don't move."

Zhou Qi wondered what trick he was up to. A moment passed, then suddenly they saw a flicker of light as the servant came back towards them carrying a candlestick and a tray. Xu picked a pebble off the ground and threw it, extinguishing the candle.

The servant started in surprise. "This is damn ridiculous," he cursed. "There's no wind at all, and yet the candle goes out."

He put down the tray and turned to relight the candle. While his back was turned, Xu darted out, and in a flash, he had tipped the medicine into the two pots of wine on the tray and slipped away without the servant noticing.

"Let's go and wait outside their room," he said to Zhou Qi.

They made their way round to the exterior of the lead escort's room and settled down to wait. Xu looked in through the hole in the window covering and saw a middle-aged woman seated on the floor with her hands tied behind her back. There were several men sitting around her, including Master Han, the white horse's former owner, and Lead Escorts Qian and Tong. They were engaged in a lively discussion.

"When people talked of Iron Gall Manor, they always said it was impregnable as if it had walls of iron," Tong was saying. "But with just my one torch, it was razed to the ground. Ha ha!"

Outside the window, Xu shook his hand at Zhou Qi, afraid that she would have a fit of rage.

"Old Tong, stop bragging," Han replied. "I've met Zhou and I doubt if all of us together could beat him. If he ever comes looking for you, you'll be in a pretty situation!"

"But look!" replied Taong. "We must have a lucky star, otherwise how could Zhou's old woman manage to find us? With her in our hands, how would he dare to do anything to us?"

Just then, the servant entered with the wine and food, and the bodyguards immediately began eating and drinking heartily. Han was quiet and dispirited and Tong continually urged him to drink the wine, saying "Brother Han, even heroes are helpless when they're outnumbered. Next time, we'll take the Red Flower Society one to one and see who's the better."

"And who are you going to take on, old Tong?" asked another of the bodyguards.

"I'm going to find that daughter of Zhou's…" Before he could finish, he slumped to the floor. The others all started in fright, but as they jumped up to help him, and one by one, they dropped to the ground unconscious.

Xu prised the window open with sword, then leapt into the room. Zhou Qi hurriedly cut the ropes which bound her mother's hands. Lady Zhou was speechless at the sight of her beloved daughter: she felt as if she was in a dream.

Xu lifted Tong up. "Mistress Zhou," he said, "Avenge your brother."

With a sweep of her sword, Zhou Qi killed Tong instantly. She raised her sword again to kill the other lead escorts, but Xu stopped her.

"The crimes of the others do not deserve death. Spare them," he said.

She nodded and withdrew her sword. Lady Zhou knew her daughter's temper, and was surprised at how she obeyed Xu.

Xu searched the bodies of the lead escorts and found several letters which he placed in his gown, planning to examine them later.

The three returned to their room. Xu picked up their knapsacks and left a small silver ingot on the table in payment for the room and the food. Then they went to the stables, led out three horses and galloped off eastwards.

When she realized her daughter was not only travelling with a man but had shared a room with him, Lady Zhou's suspicions rose even further. Her temper was as explosive as her daughter's.

"Who is this gentleman?" she asked accusingly. "How come you are with him? You lost your temper with you father and left, didn't you?"

"It was you that lost your temper and left," Zhou Qi replied. "Mother, I'll talk to you about this later."

It looked as if an argument was about to start, and Xu quickly tried to mediate.

"It's all your fault," Zhou Qi told him angrily. "Do you want to make it worse?"

Xu smiled and walked away. Mother and daughter pouted silently, each thinking her own thoughts.

That night, they took lodgings in a farm house, and once they were in bed, mother and daughter together, Zhou Qi finally told her everything that had happened. Lady Zhou kept up a constant bombardment of questions and the two were crying one minute and laughing the next. It was past midnight before they had each given a rough sketch of the events since they parted.

Heartbroken and angry over the death of her son, Lady Zhou had gone to Lanzhou to stay with relatives, but after a few days, she began to feel restless, and left. On reaching Tongguan, he saw the Zhen Yuan Agency's flag outside the Yuelai Inn. She remembered that the man responsible for her son's death was a Lead Escort Tong and that evening she had gone to the inn to investigate. She listened to the lead escorts talking, and discovered Tong was among them. Unable to control her anger, she attacked him, but the agency men had the superiority of numbers and she was captured.

The next day on the road, Lady Zhou asked Xu about hisfamily background.

"I am from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province," Xu replied. "When I was twelve, all the members of my family were killed by the authorities. I was the only one who managed to escape."

"Why did they do that?" asked Lady Zhou.

"The magistrate of Shaoxing prefecture liked my sister and wanted her as his concubine. But she had already been promised to someone else, so my father naturally refused to agree. The magistrate then accused my father of being in collusion with bandits and put him and my mother and brother in prison. He told my sister that all she had to do was agree, and my father would be released. My sister's husband-to-be went to assassinate the magistrate, but he was caught and beaten to death by the guards. When my sister heard, she drowned herself in the river. After that, what chance did the rest of the family have of being spared?"

"Did you get revenge?" Zhou Qi asked.

"When I had grown up and had learned the martial arts, I went back to look for the magistrate, but he had been promoted and transferred somewhere else. In the last few years, I've been everywhere looking for him, but I've never had any news."

Lady Zhou also asked him if he was married, and said that having travelled about so much, he must surely have seen some girl he liked?

"He's too cunning. No girl would want him," Zhou Qi said with a laugh.

"Enough of your remarks, young lady," Lady Zhou scolded her.

"You want to become his match-maker, don't you?" Zhou Qi said with a smile. "Which girl are you thinking of? One of your relatives in Lanzhou?"

When they lodged at an inn that night, Lady Zhou spoke plainly to her daughter.

"A virgin like yourself, travelling together with a young man and staying in the same room! How do you expect to ever be able to marry anyone else?" she said.

"He was wounded," Zhou Qi replied angrily. "Did I do wrong to save him? He may be full of cunning tricks but he has been very gentlemanly towards me all along."

"You know that, and so does he. I believe you, and your father would believe you too. But how are other people going to believe it? If your husband ever suspected, you would never be able to face him again. That is the difficulty we women have."

"Well then, I shall never marry," shouted Zhou Qi.

"Shh! Master Xu is just in the next room." Lady Zhou said. "It would be very embarrassing if he should hear."

"Why should I be afraid? I haven't done anything wrong. Why do you want to deceive him?"

When they arose next morning, a servant brought a letter to them.

"Master Xu next door told me to give this to your Ladyships," he said. "The master said he had some affairs to attend to and had to go on ahead. He rode out early this morning."

Zhou Qi snatched the letter from him.

"Dear Lady Zhou and Mistress Zhou," it said. "Mistress Zhou Qi saved my life when I was wounded and I am very grateful to her. You are now reunited and can make your way from here to Kaifeng, which is not far. Please do not be offended that I have gone on ahead. I will naturally never forget how Mistress Zhou saved me, but please rest assured that I will never mention a word of it to anyone. Yours, Xu."

Zhou Qi finished reading and stood dumbfounded for a second. Then she threw the letter away and lay back down on the kang. Lady Zhou told her to get up and eat, but she took no notice.

"My daughter, we are not in Iron Gall Manor now," Lady Zhou said. "What are you losing your temper for?" Zhou Qi still took no notice.

"You're angry at him for leaving, aren't you?" Lady Zhou said.

"He did it for my sake. Why should I blame him?" Zhou Qi replied angrily. She turned over and covered her head with the coverlet.

"Then why do you blame me?" asked Lady Zhou.

Zhou Qi suddenly sat up.

"He must have heard what you said last night. He was afraid other people would gossip and make it impossible for me to marry, so he left. But why worry about whether I'll marry or not? I refuse to marry anyone. I refuse to marry anyone!"

Lady Zhou saw she was crying as she spoke, and realized that she had fallen in love with Xu. She had unwittingly revealed her feelings without fully understanding them herself.

"You are the only daughter I have," Lady Zhou comforted her. "Do you think I don't love you? When we get to Kaifeng I'll speak to your father and get him to take charge of this matter so that you can be betrothed to Master Xu. Don't worry yourself. Your mother will see to everything."

"Who said I wanted to marry him?" Zhou Qi replied hurriedly. "The next time I see someone dying in front of me, I won't do anything to save him, not the slightest thing."


Xu followed Chen's secret markings to Kaifeng and met the heroes at the home of the local society leader there. The heroes were very happy to see that he was all right, and a banquet was held to welcome him. By this time, Zhang Jin, 'Leopard' Wei and Xin Yan had all recovered from their wounds. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi had not yet returned from the Muslim border regions and the Twin Knights were still trying to find out what had happened to Wen.

Xu did not mention anything about Lady Zhou or Zhou Qi to Lord Zhou. He was afraid that if questioned closely, it would be difficult to word his answers. And anyway, he thought, they will be here within a day. So he only told the heroes about what he had heard of 'Scholar' Yu: that he was badly wounded and travelling with a girl dressed as a boy. They discussed the matter for a while but could not think who the girl could be. They were all worried about his safety, but Yu was quick-witted and they were confident he would be all right.

Early next morning, Zhou Qi arrived by herself and her father and the others were delighted to see her. After greetings were over, she said quietly to Xu: "Come with me. I have something to say to you."

He walked slowly after her. He thought she wanted to berate him for leavng them behind, but he was wrong.

"My mother won't come to see my father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Think of something."

"Well, ask your father to go to see her," said Xu, surprised.

"She still wouldn't be willing to see him. She goes on and on about the death of my brother, saying my father has no conscience."

Xu thought for a moment. "All right," he said finally. "I have an idea." He quietly gave her instrucitons.

"Will it work?" she asked.

"Definitely. You'd better go immediately."

Xu waited until she had left, then returned to sit with the other heroes. When the appointed hour arrived, he quietly said to Lord Zhou: "I understand the Bamboo Garden restaurant next to the Iron Pagoda Temple is famous for its excellent wine. Let us go and try it."

"Good idea! I will be the host," replied Zhou, who was always interested in wine. "We can all go and drink our fill."

"The eyes and ears of officials are numerous in this city. It would not be a good idea for all of us to go," Xu replied. "Perhaps if just the Great Helmsman and I accompanied you, what do you think?"

"All right," Zhou replied. "Once again, it is you that thinks things out most carefully."

After speaking to Chen, the three went directly to the Iron Pagoda Temple. The Bamboo Garden was as good as its reputation. The three men talked, ate Yellow River carp and drank wine until they were drunk.

Xu raised his cup to Zhou. "I drink to you, Lord Zhou, in honour of your being reunited today with your daughter," he said.

Zhou drank a mouthful and sighed.

"You are not happy," Xu continued. "Is it because Iron Gall Manor was burned to the ground?"

"Wealth is not a part of the flesh. Such a thing as Iron Gall Manor is not worthy of regret," Zhou replied.

"Well then, you must be thinking of your deceased son?"

Zhou said nothing but sighed once again.

"Seventh Brother, let us go," said Chen. "I've had enough wine.

Xu ignored him. "Why did Lady Zhou leave home?" he asked.

"She blamed me for killing the child. Ah, where could she have run to, all alone? She loved him as much as her own life. I have truly failed her. I had no intention of killing him. It was just a slip of the hand in anger. Once we have rescued Master Wen, I will search to the farthest ends of the earth to find her and bring her back."

As he spoke the door curtain parted and Lady Zhou and Zhou Qi walked in.

"I heard what you said," said Lady Zhou. "I'm glad to see you're willing to admit your mistake. I'm here now, so there's no need to go looking for me."

Zhou was so startled and delighted at the sudden appearance of his wife that he was momentarily speechless.

"Brother Chen, this is my mother," Zhou Qi said. "Mother, this is Great Helmsman Chen of the Red Flower Society." The two greeted each other formally.

"Father, what a coincidence this is," the girl added. "I had heard that the wine here was good and decided to try it. Mother didn't want to come and I had to drag her along. Who would have guessed that you would be here too?"

They all laughed and drank, Zhou Qi was exuberantly happy, and without thinking, she began to talk elatedly about how Lead Escort Tong had been killed and the death of her brother and the burning of the manor avenged. Xu surruptitiously tried to stop her, but she took no notice.

"Brother Xu was very clever to think of a way to deal with them," she exclaimed. "After all the Lead Ecorts had passed out, we jumped in through the window and saved mother. Then he lifted Tong up and let me kill that villainous bandit myself."

Zhou and Chen toasted Xu.

"You have saved my wife and taken revenge on my behalf," Zhou said to him. "I am eternally gratefuly to you."

"How did you two meet up on the way?" Chen asked, and Xu faltered along for a few sentences trying to explain.

"Damn! Damn!" Zhou Qi thought to herself in distress. Her face flushed and an unintentional movement of her arm knocked her chopsticks and winecup to the ground. The winecup smashed loudly, increasing her embarrassment.

Chen examined both their faces carefully, and when they had returned to the residence, he called Xu over to one side.

"Brother Xu, what is your opinion of Mistress Zhou?" he asked.

"Great Helmsman," Xu replied hurriedly. "Please don't mention what she said in the restaurant to anyone. She is a good person and has a pure heart, but if other people knew and added a touch of filth, we wouldn't ever be able to face Lord Zhou again."

"I think Mistress Zhou is an extremely nice person too," Chen said. "How would you like me to be your match-maker?"

"That's impossible," said Xu, jumping up. "How could I be good enough for her?"

"You must not be so modest. You are the 'Kungfu Mastermind', renowned throughout the fighting community. Lord Zhou always speaks of you with the greatest respect."

Xu stood dumbfounded for a second.

"What do you think?" Chen repeated.

"Great Helmsman, you don't know. She doesn't like me."

"How do you know?"

"She said so herself. She said she hated my peculiar ways. We have been quarrelling and arguing ever since we met."

Chen laughed. "So you're certain?"

"Great Helmaman, there's no point talking about it. We cannot risk being turned down."

Just then, a servant entered.

"Master Chen," he said. "Lord Zhou is outside and wishes to speak to you."

Chen smiled at Xu and walked out of the room. He saw Zhou pacing up and down the corridor with his hands behind his back and quickly went up to him.

"Lord Zhou, you should have called for me. Was it necessary to come personally?"

"It's not important," Zhou replied, and with a tug on Chen's arm, led him into a reception room and sat down.

"I have something on my mind and want to ask your help," he said. "My daugher is nineteen this year. She has been a good-for-nothing since she was born, but she is basically a good and sincere person. Her faults are the result of my teaching her something of the martial arts. She has wasted much time and still has no husband." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "Everyone respects your honourable Society's Master Xu. I would like to ask you to become a match-maker and arrange for my daughter's betrothal to him. But I am afraid that with her bad temper, she would not be good enough."

Chen was delighted. "Leave this matter completely in my hands," he said. "You are the Taishan Mountain and North Star of the fighting community, Lord Zhou. It is a great honour for the Red Flower Society that you are willing to give up your daughter to one of our brothers. I will go and see to it immediately."

He ran to Xu's room and told him the news. Xu was so delighted, his heart beat wildly.

"Well," Chen said. "Are you willing?"

"Why wouldn't I be willing?"

"I didn't expect that you'd be unwilling," Chen replied with a smile. "But there is something else. All of Lord Zhou's three sons are dead, and the youngest died because of the Red Flower Society. It looks like the Zhou family line is finished. I wonder if you would be willing to make a concession and become not only his son-in-law, but his son as well?"

"You want me to become a member of the Zhou family?"

"Yes. The first of your future sons would be surnamed Zhou, and the second Xu. It would be a small repayment of our debt to Lord Zhou."

Xu agreed. The two went round to Zhou's room and also asked Lady Zhou to come over. Unaware of what was happening, Zhou Qi followed her in. As soon as Zhou saw the expression on the faces of Chen and Xu, he knew the matter was decided.

"Daughter, go outside," he said with a smile.

"You are trying to deceive me about something," she replied accusingly. "I won't have it!" But despite her words, she turned and left.

Chen brought up his idea of Xu becoming a member of the Zhou clan, and Lady Zhou and her husband beamed with delight.

"We are away from home and I don't have anything worthy to present to you," Zhou said to Xu. "But later I will teach you how to use the Iron Gallstones."

Xu was overwhelmed. He had gained both a beautiful wife and a wise teacher, and he knelt down to kowtow in thanks.

As soon as the news leaked out, the other heroes came to offer their congratulations. That night, a great banquet was held to celebrate, but Zhou Qi hid herself and refused to come out.

During the drinking, 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi returned from his journey to the Muslim regions with Muzhuolun's answer to Chen's letter.

Chen took the letter. Just then, 'Crocodile' Jiang raced in shouting: "The Yellow River 's broken it's banks!"

They clustered round and questioned him on the extent of the disaster.

"The river's already broken through at seven or eight points. In many places the roads are completely impassable," he replied.

They were all concerned about how the peasants were faring. Furthermore, the Twin Knights had still not returned to report on Wen's situation.

"Brothers, we have already waited here several days," said Chen. "Conditions on the road ahead have probably changed, and I am afraid the floods will have ruined our plans. What do you all think we should do?"

"We can't wait any longer," Zhang Jin called out. "Let's get on to Beijing quickly. Even if they are holding Fourth Brother in the Heavenly Prison, we'll still get him out."

The others voiced their agreement, and it was decided to start out immediately. They thanked the local society chief and headed off eastwards.

While on the road, Chen opened and read Muzhuolun's letter. In it, he thanked the Red Flower Society for its warning and said he had called his tribe together and was preparing for war, determined to fight the enemy to the end. The mood of the letter was tragically heroic and Chen's anxiety showed on his face.

"Did Master Muzhuolun have anything else to say?" he asked Shi.

"He asked after Fourth Brother. When he heard we had not yet rescued him, he expressed great concern."

"Did you meet Master Muzhuolun's family?" Chen asked.

"I met his wife, son and two daughters. You know the eldest daughter. She asked after your health."

Chen hesitated. "She didn't say anything other than that?" he asked slowly.

Shi thought for a second. "Just before I left, there appeared to be something else she wished to say to me, but she asked only about the details of our attempt to rescue Fourth Brother."

Chen was silent. He put his hand into his gown and felt the dagger that Huo Qingtong had given him. The blade was eight inches long, bright and dazzling, and the handle was entwined with gold thread. Judging by the amount that had been worn away, it was of great antiquity. Huo Qingtong had said that a great secret was supposed to be hidden in the sword. He had examined it closely over the past few days, but had been unable to find anything unusual about it. He turned and looked back westwards. The host of stars were shining brightly, and he wondered whether on the great flat desert, the same stars were now shining on Huo Qingtong.

They travelled all night, and when morning broke, they were already close to the places where the Yellow River had broken through. The great plain had turned into a vast lake. The fields and homes of people in low-lying areas had long since been submerged. Many people were camping out in the open on the hilltops.

The heroes made their way round the flood, keeping to the high ground and heading eastwards. Occasionally, they spotted a cluster of corpses bobbing along beside pieces of driftwood. That night, they lodged out in the open, and the next day had to make a long detour.

Zhou Qi had been riding with Luo Bing the whole way, but suddenly she could restrain herself no longer. She spurred her horse on and caught up with Xu.

"You're the one with all the ideas," she said. "Think of a way to save these people."

During the two days since they had become engaged, the two had been too embarrassed to speak to each other. Now, the first thing Zhou Qi did when she opened her mouth was to present him with a problem of mammoth proportions.

"It's all very well to say that, but how can we possibly help so many refugees?" he replied.

"Why would I come and ask you if I knew of a way?"

"First thing tomorrow I will tell all the others that they are not to call me 'Kung Fu Mastermind' anymore. Then you won't be able to put me on the spot like this."

"When did I ever put you on the spot?" Zhou Qi asked quickly. "All right, I was wrong. I would be better off if I didn't say anything." She pouted silently.

"Sister, we are all one family now. We cannot continue to argue like this," Xu said. Zhou Qi ignored him.

"It is I who is in the wrong," he coaxed. "Forgive me this time and give me a smile." Zhou Qi turned her head away.

"Ah, so you won't even smile. You are so bashful in front of your new fiance."

She burst into laughter. "You talk such nonsense," she said, raising her horse whip.

The road was filled with refugees, dragging their sons and carrying their daughters, crying and wailing as they went. Suddenly a horseman appeared, galloping towards them fast. The road was very narrow and as the rider careered from side to side, he knocked a woman carrying a child into the water. But he took no notice, and continued to gallop on. The heroes was furious, and as the rider passed by, 'Leopard' Wei pulled him off his horse and punched him solidly in the face. The man screamed and spat out a mouthful of blood and three teeth.

He was a military official.

"You bunch of bandit hooligans," he shouted as he scrambled to his feet. "I am on important official business. I'll deal with you when I come back." He mounted his horse but Zhang Jin pulled him off again.

"What important official business?" he roared.

"Search him," Chen ordered. Zhang Jin frisked him quickly and found an official document which he handed over.

Chen saw the document had a singed corner and a chicken's feather stuck to it indicating that it was an urgent report which the courier would be required to travel day and night to deliver. On it's wrapper was written the words: "Extra Urgent Dispatch for Border Pacification General Zhao." He broke the seal and took out the document.

The courier went white with fear. "That's a secret military document," he shouted. "Aren't you afraid of execution?"

"If anyone's going to be executed, it's you," replied Xin Yan with a laugh.

Chen saw the letter was from a certain commander in charge of provisions reporting to General Zhao that rations for the Great Army had reached Lanfeng, but that because of the floods, there might be a delay of several days before they could be delivered.

Chen handed the letter to Xu. "It has nothing to do with us," he said.

But as Xu read the document an expression of delight filled his face. "Great Helmsman," he cried. "This is truly a great treasure delivered to us on a plate. With this, we can both assist Master Muzhuolun and save the refugees."

He jumped off his horse and walked over to the official and tore the document up in front of him.

"What are you going to do now?" he asked. "Isn't losing a military document a capital offence? If you want to live, it would be best to run."

The official was startled and angry, but he saw the truth of Xu's words. He took off his military uniform, threw it in the water, then ran off, melding into the mass of refugees.

"Steal the provisions and hand them out as disaster relief, and we can kill two birds with one stone," Chen said, nodding. "The only problem is that the provisions for the Great Army are bound to be heavily guarded, and we are few in number. What ideas do you have, Brother Xu?"

Xu whispered a few words in his ear, and Chen nodded in agreement.

"Good, we'll do it that way," he said, and ordered the heroes to disguise themselves and disperse.

Their instructions were to spread rumours.

The next morning, tens of thousands of refugees suddenly descended on Lanfeng. When the county magistrate, Wang Dao, saw the extraordinary situation, he ordered his officers to seize several refugees and question them. They all said they had heard there would be a distribution of relief money and provisions in the city that day. Wang immediately ordered the city gates to be barred, but by then, a huge crowd of refugees had already gathered inside with many more outside. Wang sent someone to announce to the crowd that there would be no distribution of relief, but the crowds continued to grow. Beginning to feel nervous, he went personally to see the Provisions Commander Sun, who was stationed in the Stone Buddha Temple in the eastern part of the city. He asked if some of the commander's troops could be assigned to help control the situation in the city.

"I have my orders from General Zhao," Sun replied. "Any slip-up, no matter how small, before these provisions reach the Great Army will be a capital offence. It is not that I am unwilling to help, but my responsibilities are heavy. Please forgive me, Master Wang."

Wang pleaded with him, but Sun was adament. Back on the streets, he saw the refugees creating an uproar everywhere.

Night fell, and fires started simultaneously in several parts of the city. Magistrate Wang hurriedly dispatched men to put them out, and in the confusion, an officer ran in to report.

"Master! There's trouble," he cried. "The west gate has been forced by the refugees and thousands more are streaming into the city."

Wang could only rant in despair, completely at a loss for what to do.

"Prepare a horse!" he shouted frantically, and led his guards towards the western part of the city. But before they had gone half a street, they found the way completely blocked by refugees. He heard someone in the midst of the crowd shout: "The food and money are to be distributed at the Stone Buddha Temple! Everyone to the Stone Buddha Temple!" The refugees surged forward.

Wang could see the way was impassible. He decided there was nothing for it but to go to the Stone Buddha Temple and seek refuge there. When he arrived, the temple gate was already tightly shut, but the guard recognized him and let him in. Outside, the refugees had already surrounded the temple. Someone in the crowd shouted: "All the relief cash and food issued by the court have been swallowed by the dog officials. Hand out the cash and food! Hand out the cash and food!"

The mass of the refugees took up the chant and their roar rattled the roof tiles.

Wang shook uncontrollably. "Rebels!" he bellowed. "Rebels!"

For a military official, Commander Sun was quite brave. He ordered his soldiers to place a ladder next to the wall and climbed up on top.

"Those of you who are peaceful citizens, leave the city quickly and do not put faith in rumours," he shouted. "If you do not leave, we will be forced to fire on you with arrows."

The two officers led a group of archers onto the top of the wall and a roar of defiance went up from the crowd.

"Fire!" shouted Sun. A wave of arrows shot out and a dozen or more refugees fell to the ground. The crowd turned and fled in panic and the cries of women and children could be heard as the refugees trampled each other.

Sun laughed out loud. But before the laugh ended, someone in the crowd threw two stones at him, one of which hit his cheek. He felt a sharp pain and rubbed the spot only to find his hand covered in blood.

"Fire! Fire!" he ordered in a great rage. The archers shot out another wave of arrows and another dozen refugees were hit.

Suddenly, two tall, thin men leapt up onto the wall, grabbed several of the archers and threw them to the ground. Incensed by the way they had been fired on, the refugees surged back and began beating the archers viciously.

The Red Flower Society heroes in the crowd were greatly surprised by the sudden re-appearance of the Twin Knights. More of them jumped up onto the wall and into the temple courtyard, and a moment later, the temple gates opened and 'Crocodile' Jiang ran out.

"Everyone come and get some food," he shouted, beckoning to the refugees. But the soldiers were many and the refugees did not dare to press in too close. Commander Sun's great sword danced as he fought desperately along the top of the wall, retreating steadily. Suddenly, his arms went numb, and his sword clattered to the ground at the foot of the wall. Someone forced his hands behind his back, and he felt an icy coldness on his neck.

"You Turtle!" the man behind him shouted. "Order the troops to throw down their weapons and retreat inside the temple!"

Sun hesitated for a second and he felt a sharp pain on his neck as the man lightly moved his sword, breaking through a layer of skin. Not daring to disobey further, Sun shouted out the order. Seeing their commanding officer had been captured, the soldiers did as they were ordered and retired inside the temple as the refugees roared their approval.

Great Helmsman Chen walked into the main hall of the temple and saw the altar piled high with bags of food and cash. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi pulled County Magistrate Wang in for Chen to dispose of.

"Are you in charge of this county?" Chen asked.

"Y-yes…your Majesty," Wang replied in a quavering voice.

Chen laughed. "Do I look like a king?" he asked.

"I deserved to die. I spoke incorrectly. What is your honourable name, sir?"

Chen smiled slightly and ignored the question. "Since you are an official, you must have some scholarship in you," he said. "I will give you the first line of a couplet for you to match." He lightly waved his fan. "If you are able to match it, your life will be spared. If you cannot, then I will not be so polite."

The refugees gathered round, forming a circle of thousands of eyes all focussed on Wang's face.

"Now listen," said Chen. "The first line is: 'How long must we live for the Yellow River to be clear of mud? Rather ask if officialdom can be cleared of corruption.'"

Wang's face was covered in sweat. He was a competent scholar, but in the midst of his fear, he could think of nothing.

"Sir," he finally said. "Your first line is too difficult. I…I cannot match it."

"That's all right," Chen replied. "Let me ask you plainly. Which would be easier: to clear up the Yellow River or officialdom?"

Wang suddenly had an idea. "I consider that if all officialdom were clear, then the Yellow River would be clear too," he said.

Chen laughed. "Well said. I shall spare your life. Call together your guards and distribute the money and food to the refugees. Oh, and Commander Sun, you can help too."

The refugees cheered thunderously for the Red Flower Society heroes. As they filed past to collect the food and money, they jeered and laughed at Sun and Wang, who pretended not to notice.

"Brothers and sisters, listen!" Chen called out. "If the authorities should send people to investigate, you can say it was the Commander and County Magistrate who personally made the distribution."

The refugees shouted their approval.

The heroes supervised the operation late into the night until all the food and cash had been distributed.

"Brothers!" Xu then shouted to the refugees. "Take the soldiers' weapons and hide them in your homes. If the dog officials know what's good for them, they'll leave you alone, but if they should come after you, you can fight them."

Strong men came forward and collected up the swords and spears that had been discarded by the soldiers.

Chen walked out of the temple with Commander Sun and the other heroes as the refugees roared their thanks. They mounted their horses and rode out of the city. After travelling a few miles, Chen pushed Sun off his horse.

"Commander, thank you for your help," he said. "The next time you escort provisions, be sure to write to me." He laughed and saluted, then galloped off in a cloud of dust with the other heroes.

"Do you have any news of Fourth Brother?" Chen asked the Twin Knights after they had ridden on a little way.

"We found a message left by Brother Yu which said he was being taken to Hangzhou," one of them replied.

Chen was greatly surprised. "Why is he being sent to Hangzhou and not Beijing?" he asked. "I thought the Emperor wanted to question him personally."

"We thought it strange too. But Brother Yu always handles things very carefully. It's certain to be reliable information."

Chen told the others to dismount, and they sat round in a circle and discussed the situation.

"Since Brother Wen is being sent to Hangzhou, we should head south and try to work out some way of saving him," Xu said. " Hangzhou is our territory. The power of the court is not as great there as in Beijing, so it should be easier to rescue him. But we should still send someone to Beijing to see if there is any news, just in case."

The others agreed. Chen looked over at Shi. "I wonder if I can trouble you to go once more, Twelfth Brother," he said.

"All right," Shi replied. He headed off northwards alone towards Beijing while the other heroes rode south.

Chen enquired further of the Twin Knights about Yu's movements, but they said they had no further information. They had returned to report as soon as they had seen the markings. Passing through Lanfeng, they had come across the refugees and met up with the other heroes.

"With the provisions gone, Sister Huo Qingtong and her people should have no trouble beating the Great Army," Zhou Qi said.

"That girl's sword style wasn't bad, and she was a nice person too," added Priest Wu Chen. "She deserves our help. I hope she does beat them. It would be something everyone could rejoice at."



In less than a day, the heroes arrived in Xuzhou. The local Red Flower Society Chief was immediately rushed off his feet making arrangements for them. After a night's rest, they continued on south. Every place they passed through now, big and small, had a Red Flower Society branch, but the heroes maintained their anonymity and sped onwards. They reached Hangzhou several days later and took up residence in the home of the Hangzhou Helmsman, Ma Shanjun. Ma's residence lay at the foot of Lonely Mountain beside the West Lake.

Ma was a merchant who owned two large silk factories. About fifty years old and portly, Ma, in his flowered silk robe and black woollen jacket, was the picture of a wealthy man used to luxury. But the appearance was deceptive: he was also a brave fighter. That night at a welcoming banquet in the rear hall, the heroes told him of their plan to rescue Wen Tailai.

"I will immediately dispatch men to find out which prison Master Wen is in, and then we can decide on a plan of action." He ordered his son Ma Dating to send someone to investigate.

The next morning, the son reported that his men had discreetly asked about Wen at all the prisons and military headquarters in the area, but had failed to find any trace of him.

Chen called a meeting of the heroes to discuss the situation.

"We have brothers in all the Yamens and in the military headquarters," said Ma. "If Master Wen was in an official prison, we would know about it. I am afraid the authorities are guarding him secretly."

"Our first step is to find out where Brother Wen is," said Chen. "Please continue to dispatch capable men around all the Yamens, Brother Ma. This evening, I will ask Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights to go to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen to see what they can find out. It is important that we don't alert the Manchus to what we are doing so whatever happens, there must be no fighting."

Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights set out at midnight and returned four hours later to report that the Yamen was tightly guarded with at least a thousand soldiers with torches on guard duty. Several of the officers on patrol were second and third level Mandarins wearing red caps. The three had waited a long time, but the troops did not drop their vigilance in the slightest and they had no option but to return.

"The patrols have been particularly strict around Hangzhou over the past few days," Ma said. "Yamen officers have visited every gambling den and every brothel, and many people have been seized for no reason at all. Could it have something to do with Master Wen?"

"I don't think so," replied Xu. "The local people must be making an extra effort to impress some high officials visiting from Beijing.

"I haven't heard of any high officials coming here," Ma said.

The next day, Zhou Qi asked her parents to take her to see the famous West Lake. Lord Zhou agreed and asked Xu to accompany them. Xu had lost his parents when he was very young and had been alone ever since. To be suddenly treated as a son by Lord Zhou and his wife and to have such a lovely fiancee moved him greatly. He was very happy, and the brothers were happy for him.

Great Helsman Chen also went to the lake for a stroll with Xin Yan. They walked for a while, then sat alone on a bridge and gazed at the depths of the lake and the mountains. The forests of bamboo and wood on the hillsides were dark and dense, a myriad leaves glistening brightly. The air was moist and hazy and the beautiful mountain peaks were wreathed in clouds. Chen had been to the West Lake several times in his youth, but had been unable, then, to appreciate its beauty.

As he gazed out at the scene, he spotted a carriage heading towards the Hidden Spirit Temple on Flying Peak, five hundred feet above them.

"Let's go up there," he said to Xin Yan. There was no road straight up to the peak, but the Lightness Kung Fu of both was excellent and they reached the top quickly. They gazed up at the sky, enjoying the peace and seclusion of the forest.

Suddenly, they saw two large men wearing blue gowns walking towards them. The two weighed up Chen and Xin Yan as they passed, expressions of surprise on their faces.

"Master, they're Kung fu experts," Xin Yan whispered.Two more men appeared walking towards them dressed exactly the same. They were discussing the scenery, and from their accents, it appeared they were Manchus. All the way along the path, they kept passing the blue-gowned fighters, perhaps thirty or forty in all, who all looked surprised when they saw Chen.

Xin Yan was dizzy at the sight of so many obviously top-ranking fighters. Chen was curious.

"Could it be that some secret society or martial arts school is holding a meeting here?" he thought. "But Hangzhou is Red Flower Society territory. If there was something of that sort, we would surely have been informed. I wonder why they all look so surprised when they see me?"

They rounded a bend and the sound of a lute accompanied by a chanting voice and the soft tinkle of a waterfall drifted across towards them. The voice recited:

"All is peace throughout heaven and earth,

Politics unsullied.

Fortunes and good fortune mount over four reigns.

The people wait to greet the Emperor

The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.

As the Imperial attendants appear."

They strolled across in the direction of the music, and saw a man dressed in the manner of a noble seated on a rock playing the lute. He was aged about forty. Two strong fighters and one stooped old man, all wearing blue gowns, stood beside him.

Chen suddenly shivered. He was struck with a vague feeling of recognition as he looked at the lute player. The man had an aristocratic bearing, and the more Chen looked at him, the more he seemed familiar.

The group eyed Chen and Xin Yan warily. The lute-player's fingers performed a final swirl over the strings and the lute was silent.

Chen saluted with his fists. "I could not help overhearing the song you just played, sir," he said. "I have never heard it before. Did you write it yourself?"

The man smiled. "Yes. It is a recent composition of mine. Since you are a music lover, I would be grateful of your opinion."

"Excellent, excellent," said Chen. "I especially liked the phrase 'The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.'"

An expression of delight appeared on the man's face. "So you remember the words. Please come over here and sit down, sir."

Chen refrained from adding that he disapproved of the way the song flattered the Emperor. He walked over, bowed and sat down.

The man studied Chen carefully and with curiosity.

"While coming up to the peak, we met a large number of other strollers all of whom looked surprised when they saw me," said Chen. "You now look at me in the same way. Is there something strange about my face?"

The man laughed. "You wouldn't know," he said. "I have a friend who bears a remarkable resemblance to you. The people you met on the path are also my friends, so they were naturally puzzled."

"So that's it," Chen smiled. "I also find your face very familiar, as if we had met before, but I can't remember when. I wonder if you can?"

The man laughed again. "Well that really is strange," he said. "What is your honourable name, sir?"

"Lu Jiachen. And you, sir?"

The man thought for a moment. "My name is Dongfeng. I am from Hebei Province. From your accent, I would guess you are from around here."

"That is correct," said Chen.

"I had long heard that the scenic beauty of the south was incomparable," continued the man who called himself Master Dongfang. "I can see today that it is true. Not only is the scenery superb, but the area is also obviously blessed with much talent."

Chen could tell from his speech that this was no ordinary man. He watched the reverential way in which the old man and the other two attendants treated him, and wondered just who he was.

"Someone with such outstanding knowledge of music as yourself must certainly be a virtuoso," Dongfang said. "Why not play a song for us?" He pushed the seven-stringed lute in front of Chen.

Chen stretched out his hand and lightly strummed the strings and found the lute's tone to be matchlessly crisp and clear. It looked liked an antique of great age.

"I am not worthy of playing such an instrument," he said. He checked the tuning, then struck up a tune, named 'The Goose Lands on the Flat Sands'.

Dongfang listened, engrossed. "Have you ever been to the border regions?" He asked when the tune finished.

"I have just returned from there," Chen replied. "How did you know?"

"Your playing conjures up the vast emptiness of the great desert. I have heard that tune many times in my life, but never have I heard it played with such feeling." Chen saw he indeed had a great knowledge of music and was very pleased.

"There is something I would like to ask you," Dongfang continued.

"Please feel free to ask."

"I would guess that you are from the family of an official," he said. "What post does your respected father hold? And what is your rank?"

"My father has unfortunately passed away. I myself am a man of mediocre abilities with no official rank," Chen replied.

"But you are obviously greatly talented. Could it be that the examiners failed to appreciate your abilities?"

"No, it is not that."

"The Commander-in-chief of Zhejing province is a friend of mine. If you went to see him tomorrow, you could have an opportunity."

"Thank you for you kind thought, but I have no wish to be an official," Chen replied.

"But do you intend to hide yourself away like this forever?"

"I would prefer to live in seclusion than oppress the common people."

Dongfang's expression suddenly changed and the two blue-gowned attendants both took a step forward. He was silent for a second, then laughed out loud. "You are indeed a man of noble character," he said. "Simple folk such as myself cannot be compared with you."

The two weighed each other up, aware that there was something special about the other.

"You must have heard much news on your long journey from the Moslem regions," Dongfang said.

"When I arrived at the Yellow River, I found great flooding and many homeless people. I had no heart for appreciating the scenery after that."

"I am told that the refugees in Lanfeng looted grain stores meant for the western army. Did you hear anything about that?"

Chen started in surprise and wondered how he could have known. They had hurried south after the Lanfeng incident without resting. "I understand there was such an incident," he said. "The refugees had no clothes and no food and the local officials did nothing to help them. They were forced to break the law in order to survive, an action which under the circumstances is pardonable."

Dongfang was silent for a while. "I understand it was not quite simple as that," he said nonchalantly. "I heard the Red Flower Society incited the refugees."

"What is the Red Flower Society›" asked Chen, feigning ignorance.

"It is rebellious underworld society. Have you never heard of it?"

"I am afraid that between my lute and my chess board, I have little time for the affairs of the world."

"There's no need to be ashamed. These people are in any case no great problem."

"What basis do you have for saying that?"

"The Emperor is on the throne and the administration of the country is enlightened and orderly. Once one or two men with talent are assigned to the job, the Red Flower Society will be destroyed in no time at all."

"I know nothing of administration, so please do not laugh if I should say something stupid. But in my humble opinion, most court officials are drunkards and guzzlers. I doubt if they would be able to accomplish such a mission."

As he spoke, Dongfang and his three attendants turned pale.

"That is simply the view of a scholar," Dongfang replied. "These friends of mine here are of more than mediocre ability. If you were a student of the martial arts, you would know that I was not exaggerating."

"I lack even the stength to tie up a chicken, but I have always had the greatest respect for heroic fighters," Chen said. "Are these your pupils? I wonder if you could ask them to perform a demonstration of their abilities?"

"Show this Master Lu one of your tricks," Dongfang said to the attendants.

"Thank you," said Chen.

One of the attendants stepped forward. "That magpie in the tree is too noisy," he said. "I'll knock it down so we can have some peace."

With a wave of his hand, a sleeve dart shot off towards the magpie, but just as it neared the target, it suddenly veered off to one side and missed.

Donggang looked surprised and the attendant's face went red with embarrassment. He threw another dart. This time everyone was watching closely and saw a piece of earth knock the dart off course.

The old man noticed Xin Yan's hand had moved slightly and realised he was responsible. "This young brother's kung fu is excellent. We must get to know one another," he said and grasped for Xin Yan's hand with fingers of steel.

Chen was surprised to see the old man was using Great Eagle's Claw kung fu. "There are only a handful of men as good as that," he thought. "Why would such a man agree to be Dongfang's servant?"

He flicked open his fan in front of Xin Yan as the old man lunged at the boy, and the old man quickly withdrew. As his master was treating Chen in a friendly manner, it would be extremely disrespectful to damage one of his possessions. He glanced at Chen, wondering if he knew kung fu. Chen began fanning himself lightly, completely relaxed as if the move a second ago had been a pure coincidence.

"This boy's kung fu is very good despite his youth," said Dongfang. "Where did you find him?"

"He doesn't know kung fu," replied Chen. "But he has been throwing things at insects and birds since he was small, and he's become quite good at it."

Dongfang could see this was untrue, but did not pursue the matter. He looked at Chen's fan.

"Whose is the calligraphy on your fan? May I look?" he asked. Chen handed the fan over to him.

"A man who was not of such noble character as yourself would be unworthy of this object. Where did you get it?"

"I bought it in a bookstore for ten gold pieces."

"If you had paid ten times as much, I would still consider it a bargain," Dongfang replied. "Possessions such as this are usually passed down from generation to generation in the great families. It is certainly amazing that you were able to buy it so easily in a bookstore."

Chen knew Dongfang didn't believe him, but he didn't care. He smiled lightly.

"I like this fan very much," Dongfang said. "I wonder if I could ask you to sell it to me?"

"If you like it, I would be pleased to give it to you," Chen replied.

Dongfang accepted the fan and lifted up the ancient lute and presented it to Chen. "Just as an heroic fighter should be presented with a treasured sword, so should this lute belong to you."

Chen knew the lute was extremely valuable, and he wondered why the man wanted to exchange gifts so soon after they had met. But as the son of a high official, he had seen many treasures and was not dazzled by them. He saluted Dongfang with his fists in thanks and told Xin Yan to pick the lute up.

"If there is anything I can ever do for you in the future, please come to Beijing with that lute and just ask for me," Dongfang said. "Why don't we walk back down the hill together?"

"Fine," said Chen, and the two started off, holding hands.

As they reached the Hidden Spirit monastery, several people came towards them, led by a handsome-faced man wearing an embroidered gown. The man bore a striking resemblance to Chen and was even about the same age, but he lack Chen's imposing air. Chen and he started in surprise as they looked at each other.

"Isn't he like you, Brother Lu?" Dongfang said. "Kang, come and meet Master Lu."

Kang bowed towards him, and Chen quickly returned the courtesy.

All of a sudden, they heard a girl call out in surprise. Chen turned and saw Zhou Qi with Xu and her parents emerging from the monastery, and knew she must have struck with surprise at the sight of two Great Helsmen Chen's. He saw Xu hustling her away and turned back.

"Brother Lu," Dongfang said. "We seem to have become good friends on our first meeting. We will meet again. Goodbye." They bowed to each other and Dongfang walked off guarded by several dozen of the blue-gowned men.

Chen turned and nodded slightly in Xu's direction. Xu hurriedly made his apologies to Lord Zhou and to Zhou Qi and followed after Dongfang and his companions.

Towards evening, he returned to make his report. "The fellow spent a long time floating about on the lake and then went to the Provincial Commander-in-chief's Yamen," he said.

Chen told him about his meeting with Dongfang, and the two decided he must be a very senior official, either an Imperial Inspector-General or a member of the Emperor's close family. From his appearance, he did not look like a Manchu, and so they concluded he was probably an Inspector General.

"Could his arrival have anything to do with Fourth Brother, I wonder," Chen mused. "I think I will go over to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen personally this evening to investigate."

"It would be best to take someone with you just in case," Xu replied.

"Ask Brother Zhao," said Chen. "He's from Zhejiang province so he should know something of Hangzhou."


At nine o'clock, Chen and 'Buddha' Zhao started out for the Commander-in-chief's Yamen. Using Lightness Kung Fu, they soon found themselves near the wall of the Yamen. They spotted two figures patrolling on a rooftop close by and crouched down to watch for a while. Zhao waited for them both to turn their backs, then sent a pellet shooting off towards a tree a few dozen yards away. Hearing a noise in the branches, the guards quickly went over to investigate, giving Chen and Zhao an opportunity to slip silently over the wall into the Yamen.

They hid in the shadows and looked out over the Yamen's main courtyard. To their surprise, they found it brightly lit with torches and several hundred troops standing guard. Another strange thing was that so many soldiers could be so quiet. When they moved, they walked lightly on tip-toe, and the only sounds that could be heard were the call of a cicada and an occasional crackle from the burning torches.

Chen could see there was no way of getting in. He gestured towards Zhao and the two retreated, avoiding the rooftop guards. They stopped behind a wall to discuss what to do.

"We don't want to alert them," Chen whispered. "We'll have to go back and think of some other plan."

Just then, a side gate of the Yamen creaked open and an officer emerged followed by four soldiers. The five marched down the street a few hundred yards and then turned back, obviously on patrol.

"Get them," Chen whispered. Zhao slipped out of the shadows and threw three darts, and three of the soldiers immediately dropped to the ground. Chen followed with two of his chess pieces, hitting the officer and the remaining soldier. They quickly dragged the five into the shadows, stripped the uniforms from two of the men and put them on themselves.

They waited once more for the rooftop guards to turn away, then jumped over the Yamen wall and strode nonchalently into the torch-lit courtyard. They passed through into an inner courtyard which was being patrolled exclusively by senior military officials, commanders and generals. Waiting for the right moment, they leapt up under the eaves of one of the buildings, then hung onto the rafters not daring to breathe. Once it was clear they had not been discovered. Chen hooked his legs over a beam and hung down over a window. He moistened the window paper and looked inside, as Zhao kept guard beside him.

Chen found himself looking in at a large hall. Five or six men wearing the gowns of high officials stood in the centre facing another man who was seated with his back to Chen. Another official walked in and kowtowed nine times towards the seated man.

Chen was surprised. "That is the ceremonial form used when entering the presence of the Emperor," he thought. "Could it be Qian Long himself is in Hangzhou?"

"Zhejiang Province Civil Administrator Yin to see your Highness the Emperor," the officer said.

So it was the Emperor, Chen thought. No wonder security was so tight.

"I have sent troops to quell the Muslim regions," the Emperor said. "I hear you object to this idea."

Chen frowned: he found the Emperor's voice strangely familiar.

"I deserve to die, I would not dare," Yin said, continuing to kowtow.

"I asked Zhejiang Province to supply six thousand tons of grain to meet the needs of the army. Why did you disobey my orders?"

"I truly would not dare, your Highness," Yin said. "But the harvest in Zhejiang this year has been very poor. The common people are in great hardship, and it is temporarily impossible to supply such an amount."

"So the common people are in great hardship, are they? The army is in urgent need of food supplies. Shall I tell them to starve out there?"

"I wouldn't dare to say," Yin quavered, continuing to kowtow.

"No, I want you to tell me," replied the Emperor.

"Your Highness's ability to spread enlightenment and civilisation is far-reaching. The Muslim barbarians are in fact not worth such a long trek by Your Highness's armies. As the Ancients said: 'Soldiers are instruments of violence which a man of virtue should use only as a last resort.' Your Highness could cancel the campaign, and the whole world would be thankful for your benevolence."

"The people are discontented because I have decided to wage this campaign, is that correct?" Qian Long replied coldly.

Yin kowtowed even more energetically. His forehead was by now covered in blood.

Qian Long laughed shortly. "You have a hard skull," he said. "If you hadn't, you wouldn't dare to contradict me."

He turned round and Chen started violently: the Emperor was the Master Dongfang he had met earlier that day.

"Get out!" he heard Qian Long shout. "And leave your cap here!" Yin kowtowed a few more times and then retired.

"There must certainly be some irregularities in Yin's affairs," Qian Long said to the remaining officials. "I want the Commander-in-chief to conduct a thorough investigation and inform me of the results. He must not be protected for personal reasons. His crimes must be exposed." The officials assented in chorus.

"Now leave me. And arrange for six thousand tons of grain to be collected and dispatched immediately." The officials kowtowed and retired.

"Tell Kang to come," the Emperor added, and an attendant left and returned a moment later with Chen's look-alike. He stood close to Qian Long with an air of familiarity very different from the cringing manner of the officials.

"Call for Li Keshou," Qian Long ordered, and a military officer quickly appeared, kowtowing his way into the Emperor's presence.

"Li Keshou, commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province, pays his respect to Your Highness," he said.

"How is that Red Flower Society bandit chief, Wen Tailai?" asked Qian Long.

"He was arrested after a savage battle and he is very seriously wounded," Li replied. "I have assigned doctors to treat him. We will have to wait until his mind is clear before we can question him."

"You must be careful," Qian Long said.

"Your servant would not dare to be the slightest bit neglectful," replied Li.

"Go now," said the Emperor, and Li retired.

"Let's follow him," Chen whispered, but as they dropped quietly to the ground, someone inside the hall shouted: "Intruders!"

Chen and Zhao ran into the outer courtyard and mingled with the troops. Bamboo clappers sounded loudly and the old man Chen had seen earlier that day with the Emperor began directing a search.

Chen and Zhao walked slowly towards the gate.

"Who are you?" the old man shouted at them, and grabbed for Zhao. Zhao deflected his hand, and they made a run for it with the old man chasing. As they reached the gate, the old man lunged at Zhao. Chen ripped off the uniform he was wearing and flung it over the old man's head, then they raced out of the Yamen gate. The old man cast the uniform off to one side and chased after them. But the slight delay had made all the difference.

Two or three thousand troops swarmed out behind the old man like bees from a hive.

"All of you get back!" he shouted. "Protecting the Emperor is more important! You five, come with me." He ran off down the street with the five guards, following the two black shapes flying over the rooftops ahead.

The old man gradually closed the distance between himself and the intruders. Suddenly, the two figures leapt down and stood stock-still in the middle of the street. The old man lunged at Chen.

"I am your master's good friend." Chen laughed, not bothering to retreat or defend himself. "You are an audacious old fellow!"

The old man looked at his face under the moonlight and started in surprise.

"So it's you," he said, retracting his hand, "Come along with me."

"Do you dare to follow me?" Chen asked with a smile.

The old man hesitated, and as the five guards ran up from behind, Chen and Zhao raced off westwards towards the West Lake.

"After them!" shouted the old man. The guards reached the lake in time to see Chen and Zhao jump into a boat and push off from the shore. The boatman punted the craft out several yards from the bank.

"My friends," the old man shouted. "Please tell me who you are before you go."

"I am Zhao Banshan from Wenzhou," Zhao roared. "You, I take it, are a member of the Songyang martial arts school?"

"Ah, so you are the one they call the Thousand Arm Buddha?"

"That's just a nickname. I don't really deserve it. And your name, sir?"

"My surname is Bai, my name Zhen."

Zhao and Chen gasped in surprise. Bai Zhen was a famous kung fu master, but he had not been seen or heard of for years. Obviously, he had become the personal bodyguard of the Emperor.

"So it's you, Master Bai. No wonder your kung fu is so superb," said Zhao.

"I hear you are a leading member of the Red Flower Society, Master Zhao. Who is your companion?" Suddenly, he realized the answer without having to be told. "Oh, of course, it must be Master Chen, the Great Helmsman of the society, is that right?"

Chen opened his fan. "The moon is clear and the wind is fresh," he said. "Why not come and drink a cup of wine with us, Master Bai?"

"You have intruded into the Commander-in-chief's Yamen, and disturbed the official household. You must accompany me to see my master. He is well-disposed towards you, and would not do you any harm."

"Go back and ask your master to come and have a chat with me," Chen replied. "We can have a drink together if he wishes. I will wait for him here."

Bai had seen the concern with which the Emperor had treated Chen earlier, and he dared not offend Chen. But after such an intrusion into the quarters of the Emperor, he was also loath to return without them. There were, however, no other boats nearby, and with no way of chasing after them across the lake, he was forced to return to report to Qian Long.

"It would be quite nice to go to the lake and enjoy the moonlight," Qian Long said after a pause. "Go and tell him I will come immediately."

"These are dangerous bandits," replied Bai. "In my humble opinion, you should not risk such danger."

"Go," said Qian Long.

Bai did not dare to press the matter further, and rode swiftly back to the lake. 'Crocodile' Jiang was sitting at the stern of a boat with his arms round his knees, waiting for him.

"Tell your master that my master will be here soon," Bai shouted.

"Heaven knows what the Emperor sees in this fellow," he thought as he hurried back to resume his guard of the Emperor's person.

Qian Long was in high spirits, and talked and laughed as Commander Li Keshou waited on him. He had changed into an ordinary gown, while his bodyguards had also put on civilian clothes. Once at the lakeside, he gave his orders.

"He probably already knows who I am, but I want everyone still to pretend to be common people."

Imperial guard units had been hidden all around the lake with troops hand-picked by Commander Li behind them. Beyond the flickering lantern light, they saw five boats gliding towards them across the water. 'Leopard' Wei stood on the bow of the middle boat.

"I have been sent by Master Lu to invite Master Dongfang onto the lake to enjoy the moon," he announced, and jumped onto the bank and bowed before Qian Long.

Qian Long nodded slightly. "Excellent," he said, and stepped onto the boat. Commander Li, Bai and thirty or forty bodyguards boarded the boats with him. More than a dozen of the bodyguards were expert swimmers, and Bai ordered them to keep their wits about them.

They started out across the lake, which was a fairyland of lights. Pleasure boats were everywhere, bedecked with lanterns that filled the darkness like stars in the night sky and the sound of music floated across towards them. A small sampan darted into view then turned and led the boats to a flotilla of other craft. Despite the huge number of troops they had stationed around the shore, Bai and the other bodyguards were uneasy at the sight of such a powerful force, and all covertly felt for the weapons they had hidden around their persons.

"So you decided to come, Master Dongfang," Chen called from a nearby boat. "Please come aboard!"

The two boats drew alongside each and Qian Long, Commander Li, Bai, and several other bodyguards jumped across. Bai and the others relaxed as they saw that Chen and his attendant, Xin Yan, were the only other people on the boat. The cabin was spacious, with exquisite murals on the walls. The table in the centre was set with wine cups, bowls and chopsticks and was covered with dishes of fruit, wine and all manner of delicacies.

Chen and his guest shook hands and smiled broadly, then sat down facing each other. Commander Li, Bai and the others stood behind Qian Long.

Chen smiled briefly at Bai and noticed a handsome-faced youth standing behind Commander Li whom he recognised as Lu Feiqing's pupil. Surprised, he wondered what the youth was doing accompanying court officials.

Xin Yan poured some wine, and Chen, afraid that Qian Long would be suspicious, drained his own cup first, then began eating. Qian Long picked at a few of the dishes that Chen had already tried, then put down his chopsticks. He heard a flute on a neighbouring boat playing the tune 'Welcome the Honoured Guest.'

"You are truly a man of culture," he said to Chen. "It is amazing that you managed to arrange things so well at such short notice."

Chen dismissed the praise. "One cannot drink wine without music," he said. "I understand Beautiful Jade has the best voice in all Zhejiang Province. Shall I ask her to sing for us?"

Qian Long clapped his hands in approval. "Who is this Beautiful Jade?" he asked, turning to Commander Li.

"She is one of Hangzhou 's most famous courtezans," he replied. "I have heard that she is very haughty by nature and if it does not please her, she won't even show herself let alone sing, no matter how much she is offered."

"Have you ever seen her?" Qian Long asked.

"I…no I haven't," Li replied, extremely embarrassed.

'Leopard' Wei escorted Beautiful Jade out. Qian Long looked admiringly at the perfect whiteness of her skin and her petite figure, but decided her face was not particularly attractive. Her eyes, however, were full of life, and her glance around the cabin contained an intimate greeting for every person there.

Chen stretched out his hand towards Qian Long. "This is Master Dongfang," he said. Beautiful Jade greeted him, then sat down next to Chen and cuddled up to him.

"I hear you sing very well," Chen said. "I wonder if you would allow us the pleasure of enjoying your talent?"

"If you want to hear me sing, Master Lu, I will sing for three days and three nights continuously. But I am afraid you would tire of me." An attendant handed her a pipa, and with a light strum, she began to sing:

"Outside the window all is quiet

You kneel before the bed eager for some kissing

I scold you, call you heartless, and turn away,

But despite my words I am still half willing."

Chen applauded enthusiastically. Qian Long, hearing her smooth, clear voice, felt a warm feeling rising in his chest. Beautiful Jade smiled, then strummed the pipa and turned to Qian Long:

"I want to beat you,

Don't think I'm joking," she sang.

"I clench my teeth

This time I really will

But you won't fear me

If I hit you softly,

And I cannot bear

To hit you hard.

Oh, my lover

I won't hit you after all."

The Emperor was completely carried away by the song. "If you want to hit me, then hit me," he said.

Qian Long, born and raised in the depths of the Imperial Palace had seen many girl singers, but all of them had been dignified and monotonous, nothing like this southern Chinese courtesan. He was entranced by her eyes and her seductiveness, and the song, the perfumed lake, the moon's reflection, all conspired to make the scene dreamlike, so that gradually he forgot that he was with renowned bandits.

Beautiful Jade poured some wine for Chen and Qian Long and the two drank three cups in succession while Beautiful Jade drank one to keep them company. Qian Long took a jade ring off his finger and gave it to her.

"Sing another song," he said. Beautiful Jade looked down and giggled, revealing two little dimples. Qian Long's heart melted.

"All right," she said. She batted her eyelids at him then struck up a tune on the pipa. This time, the rhythm was fast and light with a complex melody, and Qian Long shouted out his approval.

She sang of a poor man with ambitions who gradually climbs his way up, first obtaining clothes, then a house, a wife and concubines, and then power. Finally, he begins to covet the throne of the emperor himself.

Chen laughed heartily, but as the song progressed, Qian Long's expression became increasingly dour. "Could this girl know who I really am and be singing this song to make fun of me?" he wondered.

Beautiful Jade finished the song and slowly put down her pipa.

"The song makes fun of poor men," she said with a smile. "Both of you, Master Dongfang and Master Chen, are wealthy gentlemen with large mansions, lovely wives and beautiful concubines. You would not think of such things."

Qian Long laughed, and his eyes travelled over her, taking in her softness, her fun-loving spirit. He wondered how he should go about telling Commander Li to have her brought to the Yamen, and how to make sure the affair remained secret.

"The Emperor Xuanzong had a great interest in beautiful women," he suddenly heard Chen say. "That in itself is not important, but he should not have put his weakness for women above the interests of the nation."

"The Xuanzong Emperor was at first a wise ruler, but he became muddle-headed in his later years. He was far inferior to his ancestor, Emperor Taizhong," Qian Long replied.

"Taizong was certainly a very capable ruler," said Chen.

The two men Qian Long most venerated in all the world were Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty and Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty. Both had greatly expanded the empire, and their reputations had carried far beyond their borders. Ever since he had ascended the throne, Qian Long had worked single-mindedly to emulate them and had sent armies out on long expeditions to the Muslim border regions with the intention of carrying on their work.

"Emperor Taizong was wise and courageous," he said. "The barbarians cringed in fear at the sound of his name. He was proficient in both letters and war. Such talent would be hard to equal."

"I have read the Emperor Taizong's works," said Chen. "He makes some points which I feel are very true."

"Such as?"

"He said: 'The ruler can be compared to a boat, and the common people to water. The water can support the boat or sink it."

Qian Long was silent.

"Sitting as we are in this boat, the metaphor could not be more apt," Chen continued. "If we row smoothly, we will have a very stable ride. But if we row about frenziedly, or if the water should rush by in a raging torrent, the boat will certainly capsize."

His words contained not only the implication that the people could overthrow the Emperor whenever they wished, but also the threat of throwing Qian Long into the water there and then. Never in his life had Qian Long had such threatening words addressed to him. His anger surged up and unable to control himself, he threw his wine cup at the floor.

The cup flew downwards, but just as it was about to hit the deck, Xin Yan shot out and caught it. He presented it to Qian Long on bended knee. "Master Dongfang, you dropped your cup," he said.

The speed of his move startled Qian Long. Commander Li took the cup from Xin Yan and watched for some sign from the Emperor's eyes. But Qian Long composed himself and laughed.

"Brother Lu, this little helper of yours is very agile," he said, and turned to one of the guardsman. "Play with the little fellow," he said.

The guardsman, who was surnamed Fan, bent down and struck out at Xin Yan with his pair of large swords. Xin Yan somersaulted over backwards and landed on the bow of the boat.

"Let's play hide and seek," he said to Fan with a smile. "If you catch me, we'll say I've lost and then I'll chase you."

Fan was furious at having missed his target and bounded after him, but the boy soared off through the air like a great bird and landed on a small sampan nearby. The two chased each other across more than a dozen boats before Fan finally cornered Xin Yan at the end of a string of three boats. He thrust the sword in his left hand at Xin Yan's chest, and Xin Yan countered by striking out with his fist at Fan's stomach. Fan then leapt up in the air, aiming to fall on Xin Yan from above. But as he jumped, the boatman, 'Crocodile' Jiang, twirled his oar and spun the boat around. Fan shouted in fear as the boat disappeared from under him, and he fell heavily into the lake. Xin Yan clapped in delight.

Two of Qian Long's bodyguards dived into the water to save Fan, who was splashing and clutching at the air in desperation. Meanwhile, Jiang placed his oar in front of Fan, who grabbed it and held on tight. Jiang then swung the oar up, tossing Fan over towards Qian Long's boat, and shouted "Catch!" A bodyguard ran to the bow and caught him. Another bodyguard, surnamed Long, stepped forward.

"I understand this little brother is also very proficient with missiles," he said darkly as Xin Yan moved back to Chen's side. "Let us spar for a while."

"You and I are already firm friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "We should not allow our servants to disturb the pleasant atmosphere with their bickering. As this gentleman is an expert in the use of darts, let us ask him to display his talent on something other than my serving boy. What do you think?"

"Fine, except we don't have a target," Qian Long replied. Xin Yan leapt over onto the boat on which 'Iron Pagoda' Yang was sitting and whispered into his ear.

Yang nodded, waved to Zhang Jin in the next sampan, and pointed to another boat nearby. "Grab the end of that boat," he said, and took hold of the other end himself. "Up!" he shouted and the two lifted the little boat out of the water while their own boats sank lower. The others gasped at this awesome display of strength.

"Master, will this do as a target?" Xin Yan shouted. "Please come and draw a bulls-eye on it."

Chen raised his wine cup and drained it, then flung it at the boat. It sliced into the keel without shattering. The onlookers clapped and cheered. Bai and the other bodyguards frowned at the sight of such phenomenal power: a man whose Inner Strength Kung Fu allowed him to drive a porcelain cup into a boat keel as if it was a steel dart was a formidable opponent.

"Use the cup as the target," Chen suggested, smiling.Bodyguard Long silently pulled five spiked balls from his bag and threw them one after the other. They struck the target with a quick "rat-a-tat" and slivers of porcelain flew in all directions.

Xin Yan slipped out from behind the boat. "Not bad!" he shouted.

Long was suddenly swept with a wave of malice, and he threw another five of the spiked balls at Xin Yan.

A shout of surprise went up from the others, and greatly frightened, Xin Yan lunged to one side, but one of the spiked balls struck his left shoulder. There was no pain, but the shoulder immediately went numb. The heroes edged their little boats forward, all eager to match themselves against Long.

The other Imperial bodyguards were ashamed that Long should use such a low trick against a boy in front of the Emperor. But protecting His Highness was of overriding importance, and they immediately pulled out their weapons. Commander Li gave a sharp whistle, signalling the troops on the shore to mobilise.

"Brothers!" Chen called. "Master Dongfang is my honoured guest. We cannot show any impoliteness towards him. Move back, all of you."

The heroes rowed back several yards. Yang and Zhang Jin had already put the target boat back to the water, and Luo Bing was inspecting Xin Yan's wound. 'Mastermind' Xu also jumped over to see how he was.

"Don't worry, it's not painful," Xin Yan said. "But it's very itchy."

He moved his hand up to scratch the wound and Xu quickly stopped him. He could see the spiked ball had been dipped in a very powerful poison.

"Let go of me," Xin Yan yelled. "It's too itchy to bear!" He struggled powerfully to break free.

"Be patient for a moment," Xu told Xin Yan, trying not to look as worried as he felt. He turned to Luo Bing. "Ask Third Brother to come over."

Another boat moved swiftly up alongside with the Red Flower Society's Hangzhou chief Master Ma standing on the brow. He leapt over next to Xu and whispered: "Master Xu, the whole lake is surrounded by Manchu troops including Imperial Guard units."

"How many altogether?"

"Seven or eight thousand not counting the reserve forces waiting further away."

"Go and call together all the brothers in Hangzhou and surrounding areas. Tell them to gather near the lake and await orders. Also tell them to have a red flower hidden on their persons." Ma nodded.

"How many can you get together immediately?" Xu asked.

"Including the workers from my factories, about two thousand," he replied.

"Two thousand of our brothers should be enough to deal with fifteen thousand of them," said Xu. "And what's more, many of the troops in the Chinese units are society members. Go and make the arrangements." Ma nodded and left.

'Buddha' Zhao's boat glided over. He looked at Xin Yan's wound and frowned deeply. He carefully pulled out the poisonous spiked ball, then took a large medicine pill from his bag and placed it into the open wound. He looked up at Xu.

"There's nothing I can do," he said, desolation in his voice. "The poison is extremely potent. No-one can save him except the man responsible."

"How long can he hold on?" Xu asked, greatly frightened.

"At the most, six hours."

"Third Brother, let's go and get that fellow over here and force him to deliver the antidote."

Zhao leapt in three great bounds over to the boat in which Chen and Qian Long were sitting, with each bound touching down on the deck of a different boat.

"Master Lu," he said. "I would like to ask this gentleman to acquaint me with some of his tricks."

Chen, who was furious at the wonding of Xin Yan, turned to Qian Long.

"This friend of mine is also quite good with projectiles," he said. "It would be interesting to see them matched against each other."

The Emperor was eager to see any spectacle, the more dangerous the better. "Go on," he said to Long. "But don't lose." Long bowed.

"That's the Thousand-Arm Buddha," Bai whispered. "Be careful."

Long knew the name well, and shuddered at the thought of facing him. But he had never yet met his equal in the field of projectiles. "This is just between you and me," he said to Zhao.

"Do you think we would trick you?" Zhao demanded angrily.

"Right. That's what I wanted to hear you say," Long replied, and leapt onto the prow of a boat nearby.

Zhao sent off a flurry of darts and sleeve arrows after him, and Long's heart froze at the sight of such speed. He threw himself down onto the deck and the darts struck the boat with a quick succession of popping noises.

Long jumped up again, and spotting Zhao's figure in the moonlight, flung a dart at him. Zhao dodged to the right to avoid it, and suddenly found three of the poisoned spiked balls winging towards him. He leant over backwards and the spiked balls whizzed passed the tip of his nose. Three more spiked balls followed in quick successsion. Zhao knocked two of them into the water with darts of his own, then caught the third and placed it inside his gown.

Long leapt towards another boat and Zhao threw out a boomerang-shaped blade. Long ducked and watched in surprise as the blade swirled over him and returned to Zhao's hand. Fascinated by the sight of the strange weapon, Long failed to notice two other darts flying towards him which simultaneously struck both his shoulders. His body went limp and he fell to his knees.

The Imperial Guards were astounded at the sight of him falling. Chu Yuan, one of Long's comrades, raced over to defend him, but another swordsman intercepted him. Chu saw in the moonlight that the man was dressed in Taoist robes.

"Who are you?" he barked.

Priest Wu Chen smiled. "Do you mean to say you are a swordsman and you don't know me?" he asked.

Chu attacked with a 'Buddha Ambushing the Tiger' stroke followed by a 'Nine Successions' stroke.

"That's very good," Wu Chen said, still smiling. "Now continue with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke".

As he spoke, Chu did indeed attack with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke. "How did he know?" he wondered, startled. The priest also guessed his next two moves correctly, just as if he was a teacher instructing a pupil. Chu retreated two paces and stared at him, embarrassed.

Meanwhile, Zhao had grabbed Long and was pressuring him to hand over the antidote. Long, however closed his eyes and said nothing. "Just as long as I don't give in, the Emperor will surely reward me when we get back," he thought.

Priest Wu Chen continued his game of forcing Bodyguard Chu to counter with the moves he called out. Qian Long, although a mediocre fighter himself, had a thorough knowledge of kung fu and was amused by the spectacle. But he felt the chill of anxiety too.

" Chu is one of the top Imperial Bodyguards," he thought. "What use are they if these bandits can play with them in such a fashion?" He watched for a few more moves and then decided he had had enough.

"Tell him to come back," he said to Bai.

"Brother Chu," Bai shouted. "The Master asks you to come here."

Chu breathed a sigh of relief. The Emperor's order was like a reprieve from the death sentence, and he prepared to jump away. Priest Wu Chen, however, had other ideas.

"Just a moment," he said. He struck forward with his sword and Chu felt a cool breeze course across his face and body as the sword flashed about him. The courtesan Beautiful Jade suddenly laughed out loud, and Chu looked down and saw that his clothes had been cut to shreds by the priest's sword. Not only that: he felt his head and found his hair and queue had been shaved completely off. As he shook with fear and shame, his trousers suddenly fell down.

"These friends of yours are extraordinarily skilled in the martial arts, Master Lu," Qian Long said to Chen. "Why don't you all offer your services to the court? It is a pity to waste such talent."

Chen smiled. "We would prefer to do just as we please," he said. "But thank you. We are very grateful of the offer."

"Since that is the case, I will take my leave. It is getting late." Qian Long looked meaningfully over at Bodyguard Long in the other boat.

"Brother Zhao," Chen called. "Let Master Dongfang's servant come back."

"Absolutely not!" Luo Bing answered. "Xin Yan has poisoned by him and he refuses to hand over the antidote."

Qian Long whispered some instructions to Commander Li, then turned to Long. "Give him the antidote," he ordered.

"I deserve to die," Long replied. "I didn't bring the antidote with me. I left it in Beijing."

"Brother Zhao, give me two of those spiked balls," said Xu. Zhao pulled them out of his bag and handed them over. Xu ripped Long's gown off his chest and drove the balls into him. Long cried out in panic.

"Master Lu," Xu shouted. "Please send over some wine. We want to drink a toast with our friend here to seal our friendship, and then we will let him go."

"All right," said Chen. Beautiful Jade filled three cups with wine, and Chen threw them one by one over to the other boat. Zhao calmly stetched out his hand and caught them without a drop being spilled.

Xu took one of the cups. "Master Long, let us drink a toast," he said. Long knew that the alcohol would greatly speed up the effects of the poison and clamped his mouth shut.

"Go on, have a drink. There's no need to stand on ceremony," said Xu with a smile. He grabbed Long's nose between his third and little fingers then pressed strongly on his cheeks with the thumb and forefinger, forcing Long to open his mouth, and poured all three cups of wine into him.

Long decided his life was more important than his reputation. "Let me go," he said. "I…I…I'll get the antidote," Zhao laughed and loosened his grip. Long pulled three packets of medicine from his bag.

"The red one should be taken orally, the black one sucks out the poision and the white one closes the wound," he said and fainted away.

Zhao hurriedly poured the red medicine into one of the wine cups, mixed it with some lake water and gave it to Xin Yan to drink, then spread the black medicine onto the wound. A moment later, black blood welled out of the gash. Luo Bing wiped it up as it appeared, and gradually the blood turned red. Xin Yan cried out in pain as Zhao administered the white medicine.

"Please forgive my friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "They are very unrefined."

Qian Long laughed. "It has certainly been an interesting day. I will take my leave now."

"Master Dongfang wishes to go home," Chen called. "Head back to the shore!"

The flotilla glided slowly off, and soon reached the lakeside. Commander Li jumped ashore and helped Qian Long across onto land as the bodyguards formed a protective semi-circle. Li pulled out a pipe and blew three sharp notes on it, and several hundred Imperial troops appeared.

"You insolent wretches!" Li shouted at the Red Flower Society fighters. "You are in the sight of the Emperor and still you don't kowtow?"

Xu gestured with his hand, and Master Ma and his son fired flares up into the air above the lake. A moment later, a huge roar went up from all sides, and men rushed out from the trees, from behind buildings and from under bridges, each one with a red flower on his lapel and a sword in his hand.

"Brothers!" Xu shouted. "The Great Helmsman has arrived!" The society men roared their approval and surged forward.

The Imperial Bodyguards and troops drew their swords, fixed arrows to bows, and the two sides confronted each other, each determined not to yield. Commander Li mounted a horse and waited for Qian Long's order to seize the Red Flower Society fighters.

Chen walked calmly over to an officer of the Imperial Bodyguard and pointed at the horsewhip he was holding. Hypnotised by Chen's gaze, the officer meekly dismounted and handed the whip over. Chen then leapt onto his horse and pulled a red flower from his pocket which he fixed to his gown. The flower was made from the finest silk stitched with gold thread and the green leaves around it were studded with jewels which glittered and sparkled in the torchlight. It was the badge of the Great Helmsman and the Red Flower Socety heroes bowed before him in respect.

Suddenly, a large number of the soldiers broke from the Manchu ranks and swarmed forward despite shouts from their officers. They raced over to Chen, bowed, then ran back to their ranks as another batch ran out to pay their respects. The Red Flower Society's power was so great in the south that many soldiers in the Manchu armies, especially those in units under Chinese command, were members.

Qian Long was flabbergasted at the sight of so many of his own troops breaking ranks to bow before Chen. The Imperial Guard units he had brought with him from Beijing were clearly the only ones he could trust, and considering the danger of his position, he decided a fight had to be avoided at all costs.

He turned to Commander Li.

"So these are your trusted soldiers," he said coldly. "Tell them to retire."

"Yes sir," replied Li, stunned with fear. He ordered the troops back to camp.

"Brothers!" 'Mastermind' Xu shouted when he saw the Manchu troops were retreating. "Thank you all for your trouble. Please go now."

An answering roar went up from the mass of the Society followers: "Great Helmsman, goodbye!" The thunderous cry echoed out over the lake.

Qian Long raised his hands towards Chen. "Thank you for a very pleasant outing on the lake," he said. "We will meet again."


Chen and the heroes returned to the boats and ate and drank to their hearts' content. They had handed out a crushing defeat to the Imperial Bodyguard, and were in good spirits.

"Brother Ma," Xu said to the society's Hangzhou Helmsman. "After such a setback, the Emperor certainly won't let matters rest. Advise all the brothers in Hangzhou to be very careful, especially those in the Manchu ranks."

Ma nodded, finished off his cup of wine and departed with his son.

Chen also drained his wine cup and sighed as he watched the broken reflection of the moon floating on the lake between the lotus lily leaves.

"What date is it today?" he asked Xu, looking up. "We have been so busy lately, I have completely lost track of time."

"It's the seventeenth. It was the mid-Autumn festival the day before yesterday. Don't you remember?"

Chen was silent for a moment, then said: "Brothers, please go and rest now, all of you. I will stay here for a while. Tomorrow, I have some private business to attend to, but the day after that we will begin preparations for rescuing Fourth Brother."

"Would you like anyone to accompany you?" Xu asked.

"No, there's no need. There is no danger. I just want to be by myself and think about things quietly."

The boats moved over to the shore, and the heroes bade farewell to Chen. Some of them were already half drunk, and they joined arms as they walked through the deserted streets of Hangzhou, singing loudly into the darkness.

Chen watched them go, then jumped into a small sampan and skulled the boat out over the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. The shore receded, and he stowed the oar and stared up at the moon. The next day was his mother's birthday. For ten years, he had been away from home, and now that he was back in southern China, his mother was already dead. He thought of her kindly, smiling face and of the common fate that awaits all men, and tears began to trickle down his face.

The first light of day began to spread across the sky. Chen plucked the red flower off his gown and placed it in his bag, then strolled towards the eastern gate to the city. The guard on duty stared at him, then saluted: he was a Red Flower Society man. Chen nodded to him.

"Since you are leaving the city, do you need a horse, Great Helmsman?" the guard asked.

"Yes, thank you," answred Chen. The guard went jubilantly off and came back a short time later with a horse. Following behind were two minor officials who both bowed respectfully before Chen. They felt fortunate to have had an opportunity to render a service to the Great Helmsman.

Chen mounted up and galloped off. The horse was fast and he reached the western gate of Haining city by noon. It had been ten years since he left his home town, but everything was still as it had been. Afraid of meeting someone who would recognise him, he turned his horse northwards and rode two or three miles further on. He stopped at a farmhouse and ate lunch, then lay down to sleep. Having been up the whole previous night, he slept very deeply.

Noting his gentleman's attire and the fact that he spoke the local dialect, the farmer and his wife treated Chen with great courtesy, and killed a chicken for dinner. Chen questioned them about events of the past few years and the farmer said: "The Emperor has ordered that the whole of Haining county be exempt from taxes for three years. It's all because of his respect for Minister Chen."

Chen thought about how many years it had been since his father had passed away, and wondered again why the Emperor had suddenly begun to bestow such handsome favours on his family. When he had finished dinner, he gave three taels of silver to the farmer in thanks and rode towards his family home in the northwest of the city.

As he reached the gate of the house, he stopped in surprise. In the old days, it had been named ' Secluded Garden ', but the old name board had been taken down and replaced with one which read ' Peaceful Pool Garden '. The characters were rounded and flowing, and he recognized the calligraphy as being that of the Emperor Qian Long himself. perplexed, he leapt over the wall into the compound. Next to the old house, new structures had been erected with endless pavilions and platforms, mansions and chambers.

He passed along a covered walkway towards the Jade Bracelet Hall, but again found a new name board over its door inscribed 'Beloved Days Hall', also written in Qian Long's hand. Chen frowned. The words 'Beloved Days' referred to the filial affection of children for their parents. What was the Emperor doing writing such a thing here?

He emerged from the hall and walked across a zig-zag bridge with red railings into a thick bamboo grove towards the 'Fragrant Bamboo Lodge', the former residence of his mother. This name board had also been changed, this time to read 'Spring Sunshine Hall'. Chen sat down on a rock, greatly confused. 'Spring Sunshine' was a poetic allusion used to describe a son's gratitude for his mother's love. It had no other meaning.

"Why has Qian Long placed this name board on my mother's house?" he wondered. "Even if he is more stupid than I think, he would not have been so thoughtless. Could it be he knew I would come back here and wrote out these name boards in an attempt to befriend me?"

He tiptoed up the steps, and looked through a window, into the main room of the lodge. It was arranged exactly as it had been when his mother was alive, with redwood furniture, a large carved bed, a clothes chest inlaid with gold, all as he remembered them from ten years before. A red candle flickered on the table. Suddenly, he heard the sound of footsteps from an adjoining room and an old woman entered. It was his mother's personal maid, Nanny Huan. The woman had reared him, and Chen felt closer to her than to any of the other servants.

He jumped into the room and hugged the old woman.

Greatly frightened, she opened her mouth to scream, but Chen covered it with his hand and whispered: "Don't shout, it's me." She stared at him, too shocked to speak. In fact, his appearance and manner had changed so much in the ten years since he had left that she did not know who he was.

"It's me, Jialuo. Don't you recognize me?" he asked.

"You…you are Jialuo? You've come back?" the woman asked, completely confused.

Chen smiled and nodded. She gradually recovered her senses and vaguely discerned the features of the mischievous child she had known. Suddenly, she threw her arms round him and began to sob loudly. Chen hastily restrained her.

"Stop crying! No-one must know that I've returned," he said.

"It doesn't matter," she replied. "They've all gone to the new section. There's no-one else here."

"What new section?"

"Of the mansion. It was built earlier this year. Heaven knows what it cost, or what it's for."

Chen knew she had little understanding of such matters. "How did my mother die? What illness?" he asked.

The woman pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "Mistress was very unhappy, I don't know why. She hadn't had a good meal for days, and she become ill. It dragged on for more than a week before she passed away." She began to cry quietly again. "She kept calling for you. 'Where is Jialuo? Hasn't he come yet? I want to see Jialuo!' She was shouting like that for two days before she died."

Chen began to weep too. "Where is her grave?"

"Behind the new Sea Goddess temple," she replied.

"Sea Goddess temple?" Chen echoed.

"Yes, they built that in the spring too. It's huge, right on the sea embankment."

"I'm going to have a look. I'll be back in a while," he said.

"No…no, you can't!" She interrupted hastily, but he had already leapt out through the window.

He knew the path down to the embankment well and was there in a moment. Looking west, he saw a huge structure that had not been there before, and decided it must be the Sea Goddess temple. He ran towards the main entrance.

Suddenly, he heard the patter of light footsteps and hid behind a willow tree. Two men dressed in black clothes emerged from either side of the temple wall, saluted each other and continued on in opposite directions around the temple. Chen was mystified. Just then, two more men appeared dressed the same as the first pair and followed the same path round the temple wall. Even more curious, Chen waited for them to disappear around the corners, then jumped silently up onto the wall. Another pair passed him down below. He waited for a while and counted about forty men constantly circling the temple, all of them alert and silent, and obviously kung fu experts. Could this be a religious ceremony, he wondered? Full of curiosity, he jumped quietly down into the courtyard and crept into the main temple building to investigate.

Incense smoke curled up from in front of the central altar as candles flickered and danced. He wondered which god the altar was dedicated to, but when he looked up to see, he gasped out loud involuntarily. The handsome-faced statue was a likeness of his father.

He spotted an open door to the left and crept over. Looking out, he saw a long covered walk-way paved with white flag-stones. He knew that if he went along the white-stoned path he would easily be spotted, so he leapt onto the roof of the walkway and flitted silently down to its end. In front was another altar hall outside which was written in huge characters: 'The Palace of the Empress of Heaven.' The doors to the hall were open and he went inside. As he caught sight of the statue on the central altar, he started again, even more violently. It's face was that of his mother.

It was as if he was in a thick fog of bewilderment. He ran back outside, looking for his mother's grave and saw a long yellow tent behind the hall. He shrunk into a corner as a sturdy black-clothed man passed by on patrol.

The things he had seen that evening beggared the imagination, and despite the strict guard being kept, he resolved to get to the heart of the matter. He crept slowly over to the tent and crawled inside.

He lay absolutely still and listened carefully. There were no sounds outside, and he concluded that he had not been discovered. He looked round and saw the vast tent was completely deserted. The ground had been carefully flattened and the grass cleanly cut. The tent was joined to a string of others so that they formed a long tunnel stretching back from the temple buildings. Two large lanterns burned brightly in every tent, and looking down the tunnel, the two rows of lights stretching away looked like fiery dragons. He stood up and walked forward, as if in a dream.

Suddenly he heard the rustle of clothing in front and quickly hid to one side. After a moment, he continued forward again and spotted a man seated in front of two graves at the end of the tunnel. The graves were those of his mother and father. He was about to run forward and prostrate himself when the man stood up, gazed at the graves for a while, then knelt down and bowed several times. Chen saw the man's back shaking as if he was crying.

Faced with such a scene, all of Chen's suspicions disappeared. This man was either a relative or one of his father's former subordinates. He walked quietly over and tapped the man on his shoulder.

"Please get up," he said.

The man jumped in fright, but did not turn round.

"Who is it?" he shouted harshly.

"I have also come to pay my respects," Chen replied. He knelt before the graves and began to cry uncontrollably.

"Mother, father," he sobbed. "I have come too late. I will never see you again."

The man gasped and Chen turned to find it was none other than the Emperor, Qian Long.

"What…what are you doing here in the middle of the night?" Qian Long asked in surprise.

"Today is the anniversary of my mother's birth," Chen replied. "I have come to pay my respects to her. And you?"

Qian Long ignored the question. "You…you are the son of Chen Shiguan?" he exclaimed incredulously.

"Yes. Didn't you know?"

Qian Long shook his head.

In the past few years, Qian Long had been bestowing extraordinary favours on the Chen family of Haining, and although some of his ministers were aware that the new leader of the Red Flower Society was a son of Minister Chen, none dared to mention it because of the Emperor's unpredictable temper.

Chen wondered why on earth the Emperor would come secretly to kneel and cry before the grave of a former minister. It was completely inexplicable.

Qian Long took Chen's hand. "You must think it strange, seeing me here paying my respects in the middle of the night," he said. "Your father and I had great affection for each other, so I took advantage of this visit to the south to offer my thanks to him."

Chen made a sound, half believing, half not.

"If word of this should get out, it would be extremely inconvenient," Qian Long continued. "Can you give me your word that you will not reveal it to anyone?"

Chen was deeply moved by Qian Long's reverence for his own mother and father. "Don't worry," he replied. "I will not mention this evening to anyone."

Qian Long immediately breathed easier. The two men shook hands, one the Emperor of China, the other the leader of the country's largest secret society. They were silent for a while, each with his own thoughts. Far off, they heard a low roar like thunder.

"The tide is coming in," said Chen. "Let us go to the embankment and watch. It has been ten years since I saw it."

"All right," replied Qian Long, still holding Chen's hand. They walked out of the tent.

The guards outside the tent spotted the two as they emerged and rushed forward to wait on the Emperor, wondering how his companion could have entered the tent without them being aware of it. Then Bodyguard Bai Zhen and the other officers noticed that it was the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, and they shook with fear. One of the guards led the Emperor's horse across to him.

"Take my horse," Qian Long said to Chen. The guards hurriedly lead over another horse and the two rode out of the temple gate.

The roar of the ocean filled their ears and they gazed out at the pale moonlight reflecting off it in silvery shades.

Qian Long stared at the waves for a long time, then said: "Fate seems determined to throw us together. Tomorrow, I will return to Hangzhou, and after three more days there, will continue back to Beijing. Why don't you come with me? It would be best if you were always by my side. Seeing you is like seeing your father."

Chen was surprised by the warmth of his words.

"You excel in both scholarship and the martial arts," Qian Long continued. "It would be easy to promote you to your father's former post, which would be ten thousand times better than hiding yourself away in the underworld."

"I am extremely grateful to you for your goodwill," Chen said. "But if I coveted great wealth, I would not have left home in the first place."

"Why did you leave? Why did you insist on mixing in the underworld instead of doing what a nobleman should? Was it that you couldn't get on with your father and brother?"

"No, it wasn't that. It was the wish of my mother. My father and elder brother knew nothing of it. They have spent a lot of time and effort looking for me."

"Your mother told you to leave home? That is truly strange. Why did she do that?"

Chen hung his head. "It was the result of a tragedy she suffered. I am not too clear about it either."

"The Chen family has been distinguished for many generations. During the last three hundred years alone, more than two hundred members of the family have passed the Imperial examinations, three have served as prime ministers and eleven as other senior officials. The number is extraordinary. Your father was an honest and hard-working man. He often used to plead before my father on behalf of the common people, crying as he did so. My father used to laugh and say: 'Chen Shiguan was sobbing again today. I suppose I'll have to agree to what he says.'"

Hearing of his father's conduct as an official, Chen was at once saddened and pleased. "He cried before the Emperor and I steal military grain," he thought. "Our methods are different but our aim is the same."

They stood and watched the tide thunder in.

"I would like to give you a piece of advice," Qian Long said.

"Please do."

"The actions of the Red Flower Society have come very close to rebellion. Past behaviour I can ignore, but you must not disregard the law in such a way again."

"All we do is for the country and the common people," Chen replied.

Qian Long sighed. "What a pity," he said. After a moment, he added: "As a result of our meeting tonight, I promise that when we destroy the Red Flower Society, you will be spared."

"In that case, if you should fall into the hands of the Red Flower Society, we will not harm you either."

Qian Long laughed. "You refuse to give an inch, even before the Emperor. All right, it's been said now. Let us join fists and swear that from today onwards neither shall harm the other."

The two men stretched out their arms and touched fists three times.

"With such a strong tide, if the sea embankment is not renovated, the homes and graves of the common people will sooner or later be inundated," Qian Long said. "I must see that my officials arrange for it to be reconstructed."

"That is the act of a ruler who loves his subjects," Chen replied. "The common people will be very grateful."

Qian Long nodded. "Your father performed great services for the Empire. I could not bear to see his grave swallowed by the sea."

He took Chen's hand and started to walk along the embankment with him. The guards wanted to follow, but he waved them back.

"I gather from your expression that you are still unhappy," he said as they strolled along. "Apart from thoughts of your parents, what other problem do you have? You may be unwilling to become an official, but if you have any requests, I will do my best to comply with them."

Chen was silent for a moment. "There is one thing…but I doubt if you would agree."

"Any request you make will be granted."


"I never joke."

"Then I ask you to release my sworn brother, Wen Tailai."

Qian Long started in surprise. He had not guessed that this would be the request. For a moment, he was at a loss.

"How has Master Wen offended you?" Chen asked.

"I cannot release him, but since I have promised, I cannot go back on my word. I tell you what: I won't kill him."

"Then we have no choice but to rescue him by force," replied Chen. "I asked you to release him not because we are unable to rescue him, but simply to avoid injuring our friendship."

Qian Long had witnessed the might of the Red Flower Society, and he knew this was no empty boast.

"I appreciate your good intentions," he said. "But I tell you honestly, I cannot allow this man out of my grasp. If you insist on trying to rescue him, then I will kill him three days from now."

Chen's blood boiled. "If you kill Master Wen, you will never eat or sleep easy again," he threatened.

"And if I don't kill him, I will never eat or sleep easy either."

"If that is true, then even being Emperor cannot compare with the carefree life that I lead."

"How old are you?" Qian Long asked.

"Twenty five."

"I am not jealous of your carefree life, but I am jealous of your youth. But it is of no consequence. No matter what one's achievements, everyone still returns to dust when their time is up."

The two strolled on for a time.

"How many wives do you have?" Qian Long asked. Without waiting for an answer, he plucked a piece of jade off his gown and offered it to Chen, saying: "This is a priceless treasure. Give it to your wife."

Chen did not take it. "I have not married yet," he said.

Qian Long laughed. "You always set your sights too high. Give it to the lady of your heart as a wedding present, then."

Chen accepted the stone. The jade shone with a pale glow under the moonlight and he found it slightly warm to the touch. He realized it was a piece of incalculably valuable "warm jade". He placed the jade in his pocket. "Thank you for the present," he said. "We will meet again." He saluted with his fists, mounted his horse and started off.

Qian Long waved goodbye to him. "Look after yourself!" he shouted.


Putting aside thoughts of home, Chen rode back to the society's mansion near Hangzhou where he found everyone gathered around 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi who had just arrived from Beijing. Shi immediately broke free from the group and bowed before Chen.

"I found out in Beijing that the Emperor had come south, and travelled day and night to get here to tell you only to find that the brothers had not only seen him, but had clashed with his men as well," he said.

"You've had a hard trip, Twelfth Brother," replied Chen. "Did you hear any other news while you were there?"

"Once I heard about the Emperor, I disregarded everything else," Shi said.

Chen noticed his haggard look and guessed he was worn out after the hard ride. "Go and get a good sleep. We'll talk again later," he said.

Shi bowed and walked off. As he passed Luo Bing, he said: "That white horse of yours is very fast. But don't worry, I took good care of him…Oh," He stopped again. "I also saw the horse's former owner, Han Wenchong, on the road."

"What? Did he want his horse back?"

"He didn't see me. I came across him in an inn in Yangzhou with several lead escorts from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. I heard them cursing our Red Flower Society, so I went across and eaves-dropped. They called us low and vulgar, and said we had killed that fellow Tong Zhaohe."

'Mastermind' Xu and Zhou Qi smiled at each other. "What is the Zhen Yuan Agency up to this time?" Xu asked.

"I gathered that they were escorting a consignment of treasures presented by the Emperor to the Chen family of Haining." He turned to Chen. "It was for your family, Great Helmsman, so I told the local society leader to quietly make sure it was delivered safely."

"Thank you," Chen replied, smiling. "For once we can work together with the Zhen Yuan Agency."

"The head of the agency is with them, which is an indication of the importance they attach to the consignment."

Chen and the others gasped at the news that the North China Earth-Shaker Wang Weiyang was escorting the consignment personally.

"Wang hasn't escorted a consignment for more than ten years," said Lord Zhou. "Great Helmsman, your family obviously has great prestige."

"I thought it strange too," added Shi. "But later I heard that apart from the valuables for the Great Helmsman's family, they were also carrying a pair of jade vases."

"Jade vases?" Chen asked.

"Yes, treasures from the Muslim regions. The Muslims scored a victory over General Zhao Wei's army, but with the Manchu forces so powerful, they can't hold out for much longer. So they have sent the vases as a peace offering."

The heroes excitedly asked Shi for details of the Muslims' victory.

"I heard that General Zhao Wei's troops starved for several days as a result of us stealing their rations, and finally had to retreat. The Muslims organised an ambush on the road and killed two or three thousand of them." The heroes clapped and laughed.

"The Manchu army finally received more supplies," Shi continued. "It began to advance again, but I didn't hear any further news. When the Muslim envoys arrived in Beijing, the court officials didn't dare to make a decision, and sent him and the vases down south for the Emperor to dispose of."

"The vases won't make any difference," Chen said. "No matter what valuable treasures they send, he will never agree to peace."

"I heard the agency men say that if peace was agreed to, the vases would be kept. If not, they will have to be returned, so it is vital that they not be damaged in any way."

Chen glanced at Xu, and the two walked away from the main group into a side chamber.

"Brother Xu, last night I saw the Emperor. He said that he would be returning to Beijing in three days' time, and that before he left he intended to kill Fourth Brother."

"Then we'd better start making arrangements to save him immediately," Xu replied.

"The Emperor is probably not back in Hangzhou yet, and most of their top fighters are with him, so it should be relatively easy to rescue him if we move fast."

"The Emperor isn't in Hangzhou?"

Chen told him about their meeting in Haining. Xu fiddled meditatively with the pens and paper on the tabletop in front of them.

"The only plan I can see at the moment is to steal the jade vases," Xu said finally. "Since the Emperor has already sent a huge army out west, he is certain to be unwilling to talk peace, which means he will have to return the vases. If he is unable to, his word will lose all credibility, and the Emperor, as we know, is obsessed with his own prestige."

"Once we have the jade vases, we can go to him and say that if he touches one hair on Fourth Brother's head, we will smash them," Chen added.

"Exactly! Even if we can't exchange the vases for Fourth Brother, we can at least postpone things for a few days which will also be of benefit to Master Muzhuolun and his Muslims."

"All right," said Chen. "Then we attack this North China Earth-Shaker, Wang Weiyang."

Wang Weiyang was sixty-nine years old. The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, which he had built up with his own hands, had prospered in north China for more than thirty years in spite of strong and sometimes violent opposition, and there was a saying in the fighting community: 'It is better to bump into the Devil than into old Wang.' He planned to retire the following year in the expectation of living to a venerable old age, but when the agency was entrusted with the task of escorting the jade vases to the Emperor, he decided to accompany the consignment personally. In light of the diplomatic sensitivity of the mission, he did not dare to be neglectful. From each of his agency branches, he detailed six top fighters, while the court also supplied four Imperial Bodyguards and twenty Imperial Guardsmen to accompany the Muslim envoy on his journey south. Precautions along the way were most strict, and there had been no incidents of any kind.

Noon was approaching as they arrived at a town less than three miles from Hangzhou. The agency men went into the largest restaurant and ordered food, and were jubilantly discussing how they planned to celebrate once they got to Hangzhou when a horse neighed outside.

Lead Escort Han pricked up his ears and ran out to find his own beloved white steed walking slowly past with a heavy load of firewood on its back. He tried to grab the reins, but the peasant with the horse gave the animal a rap on the rump and it cantered off down the street. Unwilling to give up, Han ran after them. Once outside the town, the horse turned off the road and galloped into the trees with Han following as best as he could.

"Brother Han's gone crazy thinking about that white horse of his," said another of the lead escorts with a smile. "Every time he sees a horse on the road with even a couple of white hairs, he has to chase after it to see if it's his. When he gets home tomorrow and sees his old lady's snow-white skin, I expect he'll probably think she's his horse and immediately jump…"

The others exploded into laughter.

Just then, one of the waiters suddenly called out: "Master Liang, please sit over here."

A man with the appearance of a rich merchant entered with four servants behind him, one of them carrying a water pipe. He seated himself at a table and a waiter hurried round pouring him a cup of tea and chattering: "Try this Dragon's Well tea, Master Liang. It's made with fresh spring water brought in only yesterday."

Liang grunted and said in a voice thick with the accent of Hanzhou: "Bring me a few slices of meat, a bowl of eel soup and three catties of the best rice wine."

The waiter bowed and a moment later, the fragrance of hot wine assailed their noses as he returned with a large flask.

"What is Brother Han doing away so long?" Master Wang Weiyang asked.

Suddenly the main door of the restaurant was kicked open, and a dwarf shuffled in followed by a girl and a strong young man, all three dressed in rough clothes.

The dwarf bowed in all four directions and announced: "I am a humble travelling player who can do a few tricks to make you laugh. If you are impressed, please make a contribution. If you are not, please accept my apologies."

He picked up a teacup from a table and covered it with his tattered cap. "Change!" he shouted, and whisked the cap away: the cup had disappeared. He waved the cap around to show that the cup was not inside.

Intrigued, Master Liang stood up and walked over to get a closer look.

"May I borrow your snuff box, sir?" the dwarf asked him. Liang laughed and handed the snuff box over. The dwarf placed it in his cap and made it disappear in the same way.

"That snuff box is very precious," one of Liang's servants warned. "Don't damage it now."

The dwarf smiled. "Please look in your pocket, sir," he replied. The servant felt around in his coat pocket and pulled out the snuff box.

Liang and his servants were amazed, and so were the Lead Escorts and Imperial Guardsmen. All crowded round to watch the dwarf's conjuring. Liang pulled a jade ring off his left hand and handed it to him saying: "Make this disappear too."

The dwarf put the ring on the table, covered it with his cap and blew on it.

"Alter east and transpose west, Topsy-turvy like the rest!" he shouted and whipped away the cap. The ring had disappeared. The onlookers gasped.

"Please feel in your pocket, master," the dwarf said, and Liang pulled the ring out and stared at it in surprise.

"Excellent, excellent!" he cried.

Several dozen people had entered the restaurant by this time, to see what was going on, including a number of army officers.

"What's so special about a trick like that?" one of the officers said. "Let's see if you dare to make this disappear." He slapped an official document down on the table and the onlookers saw it was marked "Urgent dispatch for Master Wang, Beijing Military Bureau", underneath which was written "Zhejiang Provincial Commander-in-chief Li".

"Please don't be offended, sir," the dwarf replied. "I may earn my living in a rather casual way, but I would never dare to touch an urgent official dispatch."

"What does it matter?" Liang said to the dwarf. "It's just a game. Go on, make it disappear." He turned to his servants. "Give me five taels of silver," he said. One of the servants pulled an ingot of silver from a bag and handed it to Liang who placed it on the table. "If you make the dispatch disappear, this silver ingot is yours," he said to the dwarf.

The dwarf looked at the ingot, then turned and held a whispered conversation with the girl.

"I have found some more courage," he finally said. He covered the document with his cap and shouted "Change! Change!" His hand pointed to left and right, up and down, and settled on the leather case that contained the jade vases. "In! In! Go into the case!" he roared. He picked up the cap, and the document had indeed disappeared.

"He's got quite a talent, this Turtle," the officer commented. The dwarf bowed before Master Liang.

"Thank you for your contribution," he said, then picked up the ingot and handed it to the girl standing behind him. The crowd clapped in approval.

"All right, now give me the dispatch back," said the officer.

The dwarf smiled. "It's in the leather case. Please open it and look," he replied. All the agency men jumped in shock as he spoke. The case was sealed with the Imperial seal, and none dared to break it open. The officer went over and felt the case with his hand.

"Excuse me, my man," said Wang Weiyang. "That is a treasure belonging to the Imperial court. It cannot be touched."

"You must be joking," the officer replied and continued to feel the case.

"Who's joking with you? Back off a bit!" one of the Imperial Guardsmen warned.

"Yes sir," the officer said. "But please return the dispatch to me, sir."

"Enough of your tricks!" the guardsman shouted at the dwarf. "Give him back the dispatch, quickly!"

"It's in the leather case. If you don't believe me, open it and see," said the dwarf.

The officer flew into a rage and punched him on the shoulder. "Hand it over!" he roared.

The dwarf put on a sorrowful expression. "I dare not deceive you," he said. "The dispatch is inside the leather case, but I cannot spirit it out again!"

Master Liang walked over to the Imperial Guardsman. "What is your honourable surname, sir?" he asked politely.

"My surname is Lin."

"Master Lin, these marketplace scoundrels have no sense of propriety. Please take a hand in this matter and return the dispatch to him."

"This case is the property of the Emperor," Lin replied. "Who would dare to open it without the Emperor's permission?"

Master Liang frowned, as if in a quandary.

"If you don't return that dispatch to me, you will be guilty of delaying important government business which is a capital offence," said the officer. "What do you say brothers?"

Seated around the room were another dozen or so army officers and men who began to edge towards Lin.

Wang Weiyang, with his decades of experience, felt there was something strange about the scene. He guessed that the dwarf was the key to the affair and stretched out his hand to grab his arm. The dwarf shrank away, crying: "Master, master, have mercy on me!"

Wang noted the dwarf's agility and became even more suspicious. He was just about to chase after him when the military men began brawling with the lead escorts and Imperial Guardsmen. He clutched the leather case to his chest and a lead escort stood guard on either side of him. The Guardsman Lin pulled out his dagger and slammed into the table.

"Enough of this!" he roared. "Back off, all of you!"

The army officer drew his sword. "If you don't return the document, I'll finish you off even if I die doing it!" he shouted. "Brothers! All together!"

He lunged forward and clashed with Lin. The other armymen drew their weapons and charged into the fray and a great battle ensued. Guardsman Lin was one of the best fighters in the Imperial Guard, but after a few strokes he found this lowly army officer gaining the upper hand.

Wang Weiyang shouted repeatedly for them all to stop but no-one listened. In the midst of the confusion, another group suddenly surged in through the door and someone commanded: "Seize the trouble-makers!"

The army men all stopped where they were. Guardsman Lin took a deep breath and saw that a young official had entered surrounded by several dozen soldiers. He and immediately recognized the man as the Emperor's favorite, Fu Kangan, who held the posts of military governor of Manchuria, commander-in-chief of the Nine Gates of Beijing as well as commander of the Imperial Guard. Lin hastily pushed his way forward and greeted Fu as the other Imperial Guardsmen bowed before him.

"What's going here?" the official asked.

"They started making trouble, Commander," Lin replied, and gave an account of what had occurred.

"And where is the magician?" the official asked. The dwarf, who had hidden himself in a far corner, now came forward.

"This is a very strange business," the official said. "You will all come with me to Hangzhou. I wish to conduct a thorough investigation."

"Yes, sir. A wise decision, sir," said Lin.

"Let us go," the official said, then walked outside and remounted his horse. The soldiers under his command gathered together the agency men, the army officer that had started the trouble and even the Muslim envoy and herded them out after him.

"Master Fu," said Lin to the official. "This is the head of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, Wang Weiyang."

Wang went over and bowed in greeting, but the official merely glanced at him once from head to foot and grunted. "Let's go," he said.

The column of men entered Hangzhou city and made its way to a huge private residence by the West Lake.

"This must be where the commander is staying," Wang thought to himself. "Being the Emperor's favorite, it's not surprising he has such a strong force of men with him."

They entered the rear hall of the residence. "Please be seated," the official said to Guardsman Lin, and continued on into an inner chamber by himself.

A short while later, an Imperial Guard officer came out and escorted the army officer who had started the trouble, the conjuring dwarf, Master Liang and his servants inside.

"I was getting a bit worried during that brawl," said one of the lead escorts. "There was something funny about those army men. I thought they might try to damage the jade vases."

"Yes, their kung fu was surprisingly good for army officers," Guardsman Lin replied. "It's lucky Commander Fu turned up or we may have had some trouble."

"Commander Fu's Inner Strength Kung Fu is superb," said Wang Weiyang. "It's very unusual for such a senior nobleman to be so accomplished in the martial arts."

"What?" said Lin. "Commander Fu's kung fu is good? How do you know?"

"You can see it in his eyes."

As they were talking, an officer came out. "Wang Weiyang of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, come with me," he said. Wang stood up and followed him out.

They passed through two courtyards and into another hall in which sat Commander Fu Kangan on a dais. He had changed into an official gown with a huge plume in his cap, and the imposing atmosphere was enhanced by the long official desk in front of him and the many Imperial Guardsmen standing on either side.

As he walked in, two officers shouted in unison: "Kneel!" Wang did as he was told.

"So you're Wang Weiyang, are you?" Fu said shortly.

"I am sir," said Wang.

"I hear you have the nickname 'North China Earth Shaker'."

"That is just what some of my friends call me."

"Both the Emperor and I live in Beijing," Fu said coldly. "Are you suggesting you can shake us off our feet too?"

Wang felt a sudden wave of fear. He hastily kowtowed and said: "This humble person would not dare. I will immediately do away with the nickname."

"Such insolence!" Fu roared. "Take him away!"

Two soldiers marched up and led him off, and Wang, in spite of his kung fu skills, did not dare to resist.

The Imperial Guardsmen and lead escorts were brought in one after the other, and one after another they were taken away and thrown manacled into the dungeons. Finally, an army officer marched up to Fu's table carrying the leather box in both hands, knelt down on one knee and raised it above his head in presentation, saying: "Commander Fu, here are the jade vases."

Fu laughed out loud, and stepped down off the dais. The dwarf and the others kneeling on the ground also stood up and began laughing.

"Seventh Brother," Fu said to the dwarf. "You truly deserve the nickname Kung Fu Mastermind!"

The conjuring dwarf was in fact 'Mastermind' Xu, while the Hangzhou Helmsman, Master Ma, had played the part of Master Liang. Chen had taken the role of his double, the Emperor's favorite, Fu Kangan, and the Twin Knights and some of the other heroes had played the trouble-making army officers. Xu had remembered that Han Wenchong would be able to recognize the heroes and so had arranged for him to be lured away using the white horse as bait into the forest where he had been seized.

Chen broke the seal on the leather box and lifted the lid. Inside were a pair of jade vases about one foot in height. On each was drawn the picture of a beautiful girl dressed in Muslim clothes, her hair plaited in a long queue. The girl was stunningly attractive with bewitching eyes and cherry-red lips that almost seemed to move. She looked as if she was about to walk out of the picture.

Everyone gathered round and voiced their admiration for the vases.

"When I saw Huo Qingtong, I thought she was certainly the most beautiful girl under heaven," added Luo Bing. "But this girl is even more lovely."

"It's just a picture," Zhou Qi protested. "You don't think there's really anyone that beautiful, do you?"

"I don't think the artist could have invented such a face," Luo Bing replied.

"Let's bring the Muslim envoy in and ask him," Xu suggested.

As he entered, the envoy bowed respectfully before Chen, in the belief that he was a senior court official.

"You have had a long hard journey, sir," said Chen. "What is your name?"

"My name is Kaibiexing. May I ask your name?"

Chen smiled but did not reply.

"This is General Li, Commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province," said Xu.

The others stared at him in surprise, wondering what he had in mind.

"I trust Master Muzhuolun is well?" Chen said to the envoy.

"Thank you for asking, Commander. Our leader is very well."

"I wonder if you could tell me, sir, who is this beautiful girl on the vases? Is it a real person, or did the artist draw it from his own imagination?"

"The vases originally belonged to Master Muzhuolun's daughter. The girl in the picture is her."

"Is she Huo Qingtong's elder or younger sister?" Zhou Qi asked.

The envoy was surprised. "Do you know her, miss?"

"I have met her," she replied.

Chen wanted to ask about how Huo Qingtong was, but stopped himself. "Please go and rest now," he said to the envoy. "We will talk again later."

The envoy bowed. "Thank you, Commander. Where shall the vases be kept?"

"We have other arrangements," said Chen.

The envoy was led away.



`Mastermind' Xu went later to see the Muslim envoy.

"I will take you to see the Emperor," he said, and they left, accompanied by Meng carrying the leather box containing the vases. Unknown to the envoy, one of the vases had been removed.

When they arrived at the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen, Meng handed the leather box to the envoy and pointed to the main gate.

"Go in on your own," he said.

That afternoon, an attendant handed a visiting card to Great Helmsman Chen. It was signed 'Your servant Deng Tunan', the trusted lieutenant of Commander Li Keshou.

"Your plan has probably worked, Brother Xu," Chen said. "Brother Wei, please go and receive him."

'Leopard' Wei went to the reception room and saw a robust military official seated in a chair. "What is it you wish to see our master about, Master Deng?" he asked.

"I have come with instructions from Commander-in-Chief Li to see the Great Helmsman of your society to discuss a certain matter with him," Deng replied.

"Our master is not free at present. It is the same if you talk to me."

"It concerns a Muslim vase," he said.

Wei frowned enquiringly.

"The Muslims dispatched an envoy with a pair of vases to plead for peace. But when the Emperor opened the box, only one of the vases was inside. He was very angry and questioned the envoy, who said that he had already had an audience with the Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province. The Emperor called in Commander Li, who was naturally mystified. Luckily, the Emperor knew Commander Li would not do such a thing, that there must be some good explanation."

"That is good," said Wei, nodding.

"But the Emperor said that Commander Li would be held responsible for the affair and gave him three days to find and return the other vase. This presents a great difficulty."

"He's afraid that if he doesn't find the vase, he will be removed from office, is that it? It's probably easier not being an official. If one's whole family could to be executed and all one's possessions seized, it must be rather distressing."

Deng ignored his sarcasm. "Let us not deceive each other. I have come to ask your society to return the vase."

"We have not heard of any such vase," replied Wei. "But as Commander Li has encountered this difficulty, there is no reason why we shouldn't help him find it. We may possibly come across some clue to its whereabouts in a year or two."

"Commander Li said he had great respect for Master Chen. He sent me today to ask your assistance, but would not feel at ease if he was unable to do anything in return. Please do not hesitate to inform us of Master Chen's wishes."

"You are very frank, General Deng. That is excellent," Wei replied. "Our Master Chen has two wishes. Firstly, the Red Flower Society has offended Commander Li, and he would like to ask him to let bygones be bygones."

"That goes without saying. I can guarantee that the Commander will never make difficulties for your society over this matter. And the second thing?"

"Our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai is imprisoned in the Commander's Yamen."

Deng grunted.

"He is an Imperial criminal," Wei continued. "No matter how courageous Commander Li is, he would never dare to release him. We understand that. But Master Chen misses him greatly and would like to see him alone tonight."

Deng thought for a second. "This is an extremely serious matter. I will have to ask the Commander and return with the reply."

Deng returned two hours later.

"The Commander says that Master Wen's crimes are serious in the extreme, and that normally no-one would be allowed to visit him," he said.

"Normally!" Wei exclaimed.

"But as Master Chen has agreed to return the vase, the Commander will risk his neck and allow Master Chen to see him. However, there are two small conditions he must agree to. First, the Commander has recklessly agreed to this purely in order to cement his friendship with Master Chen. If anyone else found out about it, it would be disastrous."

"Commander Li wants Master Chen to agree not to reveal a word about the affair to anyone, is that it?"


"I can agree to that on our Master's behalf," Wei said.

"The second point is that only Master Chen will be allowed to make the visit."

Wei smiled. "Commander Li is naturally afraid that we will take advantage of the opportunity to try to rescue Master Wen. All right, we agree. Master Chen will go by himself. But we have not agreed not to attempt a rescue."

"You are a good man, Brother Wei, and I value your word. Please ask Master Chen to come to the Yamen this evening."

"If Zhang Zhaozhong is around when Master Chen and Master Wen meet, it will naturally be impossible to preserve the secrecy of the agreement, which could be extremely inconvenient for Commander Li."

"That is true," Deng replied. "The Commander will think of some excuse for getting him away."

When Deng had left, the heroes gathered in the Great Hall to await their orders for Wen's rescue.

"Brother Xu, I will leave the arrangements to you," Chen said.

Xu was silent for a moment. "Now that we know Zhang Zhaozhong will be elsewhere and that the Great Helmsman can get inside, it will of course be much easier to rescue Brother Wen," he said. "But Li is also certain to prepare for that eventuality. We must first work out what he plans to do and then do something unexpected."

"He will gather a large contingent of troops and surround the entrance to the dungeon and may even enlist the support of some Imperial Bodyguards," Yang pointed out. "They will allow only the Great Helmsman in, and only the Great Helmsman out."

"We had better be waiting outside the Yamen just in case the Turtles try anything against the Great Helmsman," said one of the Twin Knights.

"We will of course be waiting outside," answered Xu. "But I don't think Li will dare to harm the Great Helmsman with the vase in our hands."

"I've got it," Chen said suddenly. "When I go to see Fourth Brother, I will wear a wide cape and a large hat with a face cover…"

Xu knew what he meant. "But that way, we would gain one man only to lose another. It's not a good idea."

"Finish what you were saying, Great Helmsman," said Priest Wu Chen.

"Once I am in the dungeon, I will exchange clothes with Fourth Brother and then let him leave. The guards will think it is me. You can be waiting outside to receive him."

"But what about you?"

"The Emperor and I have a special relationship. Once they discover the switch, they will let me go."

The heroes were unhappy that their leader was placing himself in such danger, but they were forced to agree it was probably the best plan.

All the arrangements were completed. Chen threw on a large cape with the collar turned up, pulled a hat well down over his face, and set off for the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen accompanied by 'Leopard' Wei. By the time they arrived, it was already close to dusk and the first stars had began to appear at the edge of the sky. A man came out to meet them.

"Is that Master Chen?" he whispered. Wei nodded. "Please come with me. This other gentleman, please stay here."

Wei stood and watched as Chen followed the man into the Yamen. A flight of ravens flew overhead through the evening mist on their way home, cawing as they went, and Wei's heart beat wildly as he wondered what would happened to the Great Helmsman. After a while, the rest of the heroes arrived and spread out around the Yamen.

As he entered the gate, Chen saw the Yamen was filled with thousands of soldiers on guard. The man led him through three courtyards and into a room.

"Please take a seat," he said, and left. A moment later, Commander Li entered and saluted Chen. "It is an honour to meet you," he said.

Chen opened his cape and revealed his face. "We met the day before yesterday on the lake," he answered with a smile.

"You may now see the prisoner," said Li. "Please follow me."

As they reached the door, an attendant rushed breathlessly towards them.

"Commander, the Emperor has arrived," he reported. "Master Deng has gone out to meet him."

Li started in surprise and turned to Chen. "You had better wait here for a while," he said.

Li ran through to the front courtyard and saw Qian Long with a large contingent of Imperial Guardsmen. He hurriedly knelt down before him and kowtowed.

"Arrange a well-guarded room," said Qian Long. "I want to personally interrogate Wen Tailai."

Li invited the Emperor into his own study, and the Imperial Bodyguards established themselves on all sides of the study and even on the roof.

"I have important matters of a confidential nature to discuss with this prisoner. No-one else must hear," Qian Long told Bodyguard Bai Zhen.

"Yes, Your Highness," Bai replied and retired.

A moment later, four bodyguards entered carrying a stretcher on which Wen, handcuffed and chained, lay asleep. The bodyguards retired and there was silence for a time.

"How are your injuries?" Qian Long asked. Wen's eyes opened and he sat up. His wounds had not yet healed, but his mind was clear. He had seen Qian Long once before when he had entered the Imperial Palace with Master Yu, but was surprised at suddenly meeting him again in Hangzhou.

"I'm not dead yet," he said coldly.

"I asked my men to invite you to come to see me because there is something I wish to discuss with you."

Wen grunted.

"When you visited me with that leader of yours, Master Yu, I discussed an important matter with him. Unfortunately, I hear he became ill and died very soon afterwards. It was a great pity."

"If Master Yu had not died, I expect he would be imprisoned here with me," replied Wen.

Qian Long laughed. "You underworld fighters, you're very frank. You say whatever you are thinking. Now, Master Wen, I have only one question for you. Answer me honestly, and I will immediately release you."

"Release me? Ha! Do you think I am a three-year-old child? I know that you cannot eat or sleep easy knowing that I'm still alive. You have stayed your hand until today only because you wish to question me."

"You're much too suspicious," said Qian Long with a smile. He walked forward two paces.

"Did Master Yu tell you what it was he talked to me about?" he asked.

"What did you talk about?"

Qian Long stared at him, and Wen returned the gaze unflinchingly. After a while, Qian Long turned his head away.

"About my origins," he said quietly.

"He didn't say. You are the Emperor, the son of the late Emperor and Empress. Everyone knows about your origins. What more is there to say?"

Qian Long breathed a sigh of relief. "That night you visited me, you must have known what the reason was?"

"Master Yu said that he had helped you once over some important matter. The Red Flower Society was short of funds and he went to ask you for three million taels of silver. But you refused the request, and have even had me seized. If I ever get out of this, I will reveal how ungrateful you are."

Qian Long laughed out loud. He glanced at Wen: his anger did not appear to be a pretence. "If that is the case, I had better have you killed," he said, half-believing him. "Otherwise, if I let you go, it could damage my reputation."

"Why didn't you kill me earlier? If you had, you wouldn't have had to harbour such evil schemes against your mother."

"What about my mother?" Qian Long asked, turning pale.

"You understand."

"So you know everything?"

"No, not everything. Master Yu said the Empress Dowager knew he had helped you and had asked you to repay him, but that you were still unwilling to part with the silver. You have mountains of money. Three million taels should be nothing to you. But you insist on being petty."

Qian Long laughed nervously. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away the beads of sweat on his brow. He paced the room to steady himself, then smiled. "You show no fear at all before the Emperor. You are indeed a man of steel," he said.

"What have I to be afraid of? I doubt if you would dare to kill me," said Wen.

"Wouldn't dare?"

"You want to kill me because you're afraid your secret will be revealed but as soon as you kill me, your secret will be impossible to keep."

"Can dead men talk?"

"As soon as I die, someone will open a certain letter and reveal the evidence to the world. Then you will be in a real predicament."

"What letter?" Qian Long asked.

"Before we went to the palace to see you, Master Yu wrote down every detail of the affair and sealed the document in an envelope together with two important pieces of evidence and left it with a friend."

"Was he afraid that something untoward might happen?"

"Of course. How could he trust you? Master Yu told his friend that if we were both to die suddenly, he should open the letter and do what it said, but if one of us was still alive, not to open it under any circumstances. Master Yu has already passed away, so I don't think you'll dare to kill me."

Qian Long wrung his hands, anxiety written all over his face.

"Wouldn't it be worth spending three million taels of silver to buy that letter and the two pieces of evidence?" Wen asked.

"The silver? I had always planned to hand it over and then release you. Write a letter to your friend telling him to bring the letter to me and I will immediately pay up the money."

"Ha, ha. Once I tell you his name, you can send your bodyguards to kill or capture him. Actually, I'm very comfortable here. I would be happy to stay the rest of my life. You and I have the same fate. If I die first, you won't live much longer."

Qian Long bit his lip. "If you won't write the letter, it is of no importance," he said after a pause. "I will give you two days. If you persist in being stubborn, I will have no alternative but to kill you. No-one else will know about it and your friend will think you're still alive. And even if I don't kill you, I can still have your eyes gouged out, your tongue removed, your arms cut off…Think about it over the next two days."

He pushed open the door and walked out. His bodyguards re-assembled around him, and Commander Li saw him out of the Yamen.

Wen was carried back to the dungeon by the Commander's personal guards with Zhang Zhaozhong providing an escort. Once in the cell, one of the guards handed Zhang a letter.

"Commander Li asked me to give you this," he said. Zhang opened and read the letter, then left.

Wen lay on the bed thinking about his wife and friends. He hoped none of them would be harmed if they should attempt a rescue.

Just then, the iron door to his cell opened with a clang and a man walked in. Wen thought it was Zhang returning and did not open his eyes.

The man walked over to the bed. "Fourth Brother," he said quietly.

Wen was stunned. He looked up and saw it was Chen. "Great Helmsman!" he exclaimed, sitting up.

Chen smiled and nodded. He pulled two steel files from his pocket, and began filing at Wen's manacles. After a few strong strokes, a series of light scratches appeared on the surface, but the file was ruined. The manacles were made of a specially-cast steel brought from the West, and an ordinary file was useless against it.

"Great Helmsman, only the finest of swords could break through these chains and manacles," said Wen.

Chen remembered the battle with Zhang Zhaozhong at the Yellow River crossing and how sharp Zhang's 'Frozen Emerald' sword had been.

"Does Zhang guard you night and day?" he asked quickly.

"He's never more than a step from me. He only left a short while ago."

"Good. We'll wait for him to return and steal his sword." Chen threw the files under the bed.

"It's possible I won't be able to get out of here," Wen said. "The Emperor wants to silence me because he's afraid I will reveal his secret. I had better tell you what it is, Great Helmsman, so that no matter if I live or die, there will be no delay."

Chen nodded.

"The night I went to the Imperial Palace with Master Yu, Qian Long was very surprised to see us. Master Yu said: 'A lady from the Chen family in Haining asked me to come,' and handed him a letter. The Emperor's face went pale as he read it, and he told me to wait outside. The two of them then talked for about two hours before Master Yu finally came out. On the way back, he told me the Emperor was not a Manchu at all, but a Chinese and also your elder brother."

Chen started in shock. "That's impossible," he said firmly. "My brother is in Haining."

"Master Yu said that on the day the Emperor Yong Zheng's wife gave birth to a girl, your mother by coincidence also gave birth to a boy. Yong Zheng ordered the Chen family's child to be brought for him to look at, and when it was returned, it had become a girl. The boy is now the Emperor Qian Long…"

Before he could finish, they heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor and a guard came in.

"What is it?" asked Chen.

"Master Zhang is returning. Commander Li is unable to detain him further and asks you to leave quickly."

"Thank you," Chen replied. His left hand shot out and touched a Yuedao point on the guard's body. The guard toppled to the floor without a sound, and Chen pushed him under the bed.

"With Zhang on his way, I don't have time to give you all the details," Wen continued. "Master Yu knew the Emperor was Chinese and went to urge him to overthrow the Manchus and restore China to the Chinese while remaining as Emperor himself. Qian Long appeared moved by the appeal, and asked Master Yu to bring evidence before making a decision. But as soon as Master Yu returned home, he fell ill and never recovered. His last wish was that you should be the Great Helmsman, and he said to me that this was a good opportunity for us to restore the honour of the Chinese people. The Emperor is your elder brother. If he is unwilling to overthrow the Manchus, then everyone will support you to take his place."

His words left Chen too stunned to speak. He thought back to when he had first seen Qian Long by the lake and afterwards crying before the tomb of his parents. Could it really be that the Emperor was born of his own mother and father?

"I understand your mother wrote down the full details of how the Emperor Yong Zheng swapped the girl for your brother in a letter which Master Yu gave along with several other pieces of evidence to your teacher, Master Yuan, to look after."

"Ah, so when the Twin Knights went to see my teacher this summer, they were carrying these things to him on Master Yu's orders?"

"That's right. It was so secret that not even you could be told. All that Master Yuan knows is that they are extremely important, but he does not know what they are. Just before Master Yu passed away, he said that after you became Great Helmsman, you should open the letter and make your plans accordingly. But I stupidly allowed myself to be captured and risked the whole enterprise. Great Helmsman, if you can't get me out today, you must go to the Muslim regions as quickly as possible to see your teacher. You must not endanger the great cause of restoration just for my sake."

Wen was clearly relieved to have completed what he had to say.

He was about to add something when footsteps sounded in the corridor again. He signalled quickly with his hand, and Chen hid under the bed. Wen then draped himself over the side of bed with his head resting on the floor.

Zhang entered the cell, and under the faint light of the room's single candle, saw Wen lying half on the floor as if dead. Shocked, he leapt forward and touched Wen's back, but there was no reaction. He started to lift Wen's body back onto the bed, but as he did so, Wen leapt up and attacked him. Zhang fell back in surprise, felt a sudden numbness in his lower abdomen, and knew he had been hit by someone waiting in ambush under the bed. He roared angrily, sidestepped two paces and suppressed his breathing to control the numbness. Chen, who was startled to see Zhang still standing, leapt out from beneath the bed and struck his face with his fists seven or eight times.

If he responded, Zhang knew his control would be lost and the paralysis in his abdomen would spread. He retreated as Chen's foot flew up and struck another yuedao point. This time, he could not sustain his control. His whole body went limp and he fell to the ground.

Chen searched him and was extremely disappointed to find he did not have the Frozen Emerald sword with him. He pulled a piece of paper out of Zhang's pocket and saw under the candlelight that it was a note from Commander Li asking Zhang to show his sword to an important official who was waiting to see it:this must have been the excuse Li had used to draw Zhang away. He guessed that Zhang had been anxious to get back to the dungeon to resume his guard duties and had left early without the sword.

Chen continued his search of Zhang's body, and suddenly leapt up jubilantly.

"What is it?" Wen asked. Chen held his hand up and displayed a set of keys. He tried one on the manacles and they opened immediately.

Finally freed, Wen exercised his arms and legs as Chen took off his cape and hat.

"Put these on and get out quickly," he said.

"What about you?"

"I'll wait here for a while. You get out."

Wen understood his meaning. "Great Helmsman, I am very grateful for your good intentions, but we cannot do it that way."

"Fourth Brother, you don't understand. I am in no danger if I stay here." He told Wen about how the Emperor and he had sworn an oath to each other.

"It is still impossible,," Wen said.

Chen frowned. "I am the Great Helmsman. All members of the Red Flower Society must follow my orders, is that not correct?"

"Of course."

"Fine. Then this my order. Put these on quickly and get out. The brothers are outside waiting for you."

"This time I am forced to disobey your order," Wen said. "I would prefer to accept whatever penalty you decide upon."

They were deadlocked. Chen pursed his lips and then had an idea.

"Well, we'll have to risk going out together then. Put on his clothes," he said pointing at Zhang.

"Excellent! Why didn't you say so earlier?" Wen exclaimed.

The two stripped Zhang of his clothes and exchanged them for Wen's, then locked the chains and manacles onto him. Zhang shook with rage, his eyes blood-red with hate, but he was unable to utter a sound.

The two walked quietly through the door and along the corridor. As they ascended a flight of stone steps, a bright light assailed their eyes and they saw the whole courtyard was filled with torches. Several dozen soldiers stood with shining spear tips pointed at the dungeon entrance. Behind them were several hundred archers with bows drawn. Commander Li stood with his right hand held high. Once it dropped, the spears and arrows would be loosed, and Chen and Wen would be dead.

Chen stepped back a pace. "How are your wounds?" he whispered to Wen. "Can you charge through?"

"No, my leg is not up to it," Wen replied with a rueful smile. "You go by yourself, Great Helmsman, don't worry about me."

"All right, pretend you're Zhang and we'll see how we do," Chen replied.

Wen pulled his cap down to his eyebrows and strode out. Commander Li's heart sank at the sight of Zhang and Chen together and he assumed that Zhang had arrested him. He turned to his daughter Yuanzhi.

"Give Zhang's sword back to him and distract him so that Chen can get away," he said.

Yuanzhi walked over with the 'Frozen Emerald' sword in her hand and held it out to Wen, positioning herself between the two men.

"Uncle Zhang, here is your sword," she said, giving Chen a slight nudge with her elbow. Wen grunted and moved to accept the sword, and suddenly under the torch light she recognized him.

"Wen Tailai! So you're trying to escape," she cried and thrust the sword at his chest.

Wen feinted to one side and caught the blade with his fingers while his right hand struck out at the Solar Yuedao points on her forehead. Frightened, Yuanzhi tried to retreat a step, but found that with his fingers still holding the sword, she was unable to move an inch. She let go of the sword and tried to slip away, but Wen struck her left shoulder and a bone-splitting pain surged through her. She cried out and squatted down. Looking back, Chen saw Wen was surrounded but he continued to fight fiercely.

"Stop or the archers will shoot," Commander Li roared.

The old wounds on Wen's thigh burst open with the sudden effort and blood poured out. He knew he did not have the strength to break out of the circle of soldiers.

"Great Helmsman, catch the sword and get out!" he shouted. He tried to throw the Frozen Emerald Sword, but with a sudden pain in his shoulder, his hand went limp and the sword fell to the ground only a few feet from him. He had been hit by an arrow.

Chen turned to Commander Li. "Stop shooting!" he shouted. Li waved his hand and the archers stopped.

"Get a doctor quickly to deal with Master Wen's wounds. I'm going," Chen said, and raced out of the Yamen. Following Li's orders, the guards pretended to give chase, without really obstructing him.

Once out of the Yamen, 'Leopard' Wei and Luo Bing came up to meet him. Chen smiled bitterly and shook his head. The eastern sky was already pale as with heavy hearts the heroes returned home.


They gathered later in the Great Hall to discuss the situation.

Chen said to Wei: "Ninth Brother, send the vase to Commander Li. We cannot betray our word." Wei bowed and left.

Master Ma's son entered the hall and walked over to Chen. "Great Helmsman, Zhang Zhaozhong has sent a letter to you," He said.

"Zhang? That is strange. I wonder what he has to say?"

He opened the letter and found it angrily accused him of deception and plotting, of behaviour unbefitting an honourable man, and challenged him to a duel at a time and place of his choice. "He wants to get revenge for last night," Chen told the others. "Huh, a duel! Does he think I'm scared?"

"We have to rescue Fourth Brother in the next two days," said Xu. "Why don't you ask Zhang to postpone the meeting for a few days? We should not allow this matter to interfere with our real purpose."

"That is true," said Chen. "Today is the twentieth, so I will set the meeting for noon on the twenty-third."

He immediately wrote a letter inviting Zhang to meet him alone on that day and ordered an attendant to take it to the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen.

An attendant entered and said to Master Ma: "Master, the old man Wang Weiyang still refuses to eat and does nothing but curse."

"Who does he curse?" Ma asked.

"The Imperial Bodyguard for their lack of sense. He says he doesn't understand why they have imprisoned him."

"The North China Earth-Shaker," Priest Wu Chen chuckled. "As soon as he comes down to the south, he has to put up with some hardship."

Xu's face suddenly brightened. "I have a plan that should make it easier for you to deal with Zhang, Great Helmsman," he said. He told them the plan and they all clapped and laughed in delight.

"Excellent, very cunning," said Priest Wu Chen. Zhou Qi smiled and shook her head.

"Mistress Zhou once again thinks that Seventh Brother is not being straightforward enough," Chen said with a smile. "But when dealing with dishonourable men, one does not have to be completely honourable. Brother Meng, go and have a talk with the North China Earth-Shaker."

In forty years, Wang Weiyang had never suffered a setback. Now, on his first trip to the south, he was in dire straights. He yelled and shouted, insisting that he should be allowed to see the Imperial Guard Commander to settle the matter. As he ranted, the door to his cell opened and Meng walked in wearing the uniform of an Imperial Guard officer.

"So you are the North China Earth-Shaker?" he said unceremoniously.

Wang raged inwardly. "Yes," he said. "It is a nickname given to me by my friends. If Commander Fu finds it unpleasing, I will change it immediately."

"Commander Fu is a confidante of the Emperor," said Meng coldly. "He has no interest in such things."

"I am escorting a quantity of precious articles to Hangzhou for the court. Why are you detaining me here?"

"Do you really want to know?"

"Of course!"

"I am just afraid that at you age, you may not be able to stand the shock."

Wang hated references to his age more than anything. In a rage, he struck the corner of the table with his fist and splinters flew.

"I may be old, but my heart is still strong," he shouted. "What shock have I to be afraid of?"

Meng laughed. "Your're truly remarkable, Master Wang. There is a saying in the fighting community. 'Meeting the Devil is preferable to meeting old Wang, bumping into a spear is preferable to bumping into Zhang Zhaozhong', isn't that right?"

"That's the reputation I have amongst bandits."

"Why does 'old Wang' come before 'Zhang'? Could it be that old Wang's kung fu is better than Zhang's?"

Wang stood up. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "So the Fire Hand Judge wants to test me. I'm getting too slow in my old age. I never thought of that."

"Master Zhang is my superior, did you know that?"

"I knew that Master Zhang was in the Imperial Guard."

"Would you recognize him?" asked Meng.

"We both live in Beijing, But he is an official and I am an ordinary citizen. I have heard much about him, but have never had the good fortune to meet him."

"Master Zhang has also heard much about you," said Meng. "He says there are three matters he wants to raise with you. If you agree to them, you will be allowed to leave immediately."


"Firstly, he wants you to abandon the nickname 'North China Earth-Shaker."

"Huh! What's the second thing?"

"Please close down the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency."

"My Bodyguard Agency has been operating for more than thirty years," Wang protested angrily. "Never have I suffered a loss at the hands of our friends in the fighting community, yet Master Zhang wants me to retire! And the third thing?"

"The third thing is to ask you to issue a proclamation asking members of the fighting community to reverse the order of the saying about you and Master Zhang. Master Zhang also says that as you are now getting on in age, your Eight Diagrams sword is probably no longer of much use to you, and suggests that you donate it to the Imperial Guard."

Wang's anger surged. "Zhang Zhaozhong and I have nothing against one another. He's carrying this too far!" he shouted.

"You have enjoyed a great name for forty years. Perhaps you ought to retire. As the saying goes, one mountain cannot contain two tigers. Surely you understand the sense of that?"

"So he wishes to humiliate me to promote his own name. Huh! And what if I don't agree. Will he continue to hold me here?"

"Master Zhang is an honourable man. He would not do such a thing," said Meng. "He invites you to duel with him at noon today on Lion Peak. If you win, the three conditions will not be mentioned again. If you lose, then he asks you to agree to all three. He says it would be rather inconvenient if the Emperor found out about this, and asks you to go alone. That is, if you dare."

Wang spluttered with rage. "Even if I was to die there, I would still go alone."

"Then please write out a letter and I will take it back to Master Zhang," said Meng. He pulled out some paper and a writing brush.

Wang, his hand shaking in anger, wrote out a short note:

"To His Excellency Master Zhang Zhaozhong. Your words and behaviour have gone too far. I will meet you today at noon on Lion Peak. If I lose, I will be at your disposal. Wang Weiyang."

Meng smiled, picked up the letter and walked out, closing the door of the cell behind him.

That morning, Master Han, the original owner of the white horse, was moved from one cell to another. Having fallen into the hands of Red Flower Society once again, he was afraid he would not be able to escape so easily again. As he morosely considered his dilemma, he heard someone shouting in the cell next to his, and recognized the voice of Wang Weiyang. He could hear he was cursing Zhang Zhaozhong. Greatly curious, he was just about to call out to Wang when the door opened and two men walked in.

"Please come with us to the Great Hall for a chat, Master Han," one of them said.

As they entered the hall, Han saw three men sitting on the left. In the middle was the Red Flower Society's Great Helmsman Chen, while on either side of him sat a dwarf and a man with a flowing white beard. Han bowed silently and sat down.

"Brother Han, I never thought that we would meet again here," said Chen. "Our fates seem to be tied."

Han hesitated for a moment. "I know I agreed to give up my sword and return home," he said finally. "But Master Wang insisted that I do this job. Out of feelings of friendship and because I knew the valuables belonged to your family, I…"

"Brother Han," Xu interrupted harshly. "We of the fighting community are very particular about two things: trust and honour. By your own word, you have proved to be untrustworthy. How do you think you should be dealt with?"

Han steeled himself. "What is there to say? If you're going to kill me then kill me."

"There's no need to talk like that," Chen said. "Master Wang has been grossly insulted by Zhang Zhaozhong, and says that no matter what, he must fight it out with him. We of the fighting community are very annoyed over this affair. What is your relationship with Zhang Zhaozhong?"

"I've met him a few times in Beijing, but we are from two different worlds. You couldn't say we had any relationship."

"As I thought. Have a look at this letter," said Chen, and handed him the note Wang had written.

Han knew that Wang always showed the greatest respect for officialdom. But if Zhang really had been that insulting, he would have been unable to swallow it. Having himself heard Wang cursing and now seeing the letter, there was no room for doubt.

"I would like to see Master Wang and discuss the situation with him," he said.

"There is not enough time," Chen replied. "I would like you to take this letter to Zhang now and you can see Master Wang when you return. Twelfth Brother, please come here," he called. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi emerged from an inner chamber and Chen introduced him to Han. "Brother Shi will accompany you to see Zhang Zhaozhong. You are unaware of how Zhang has caused Master Wang to lose face, but there is no time to give you the details now. When you see Zhang, you can say that Brother Shi here is a lead escort with the bodyguard agency. Do exactly as he says."

Han's suspicions rose again and he hesitated once more.

"Do you have any doubts, Brother Han?"

"No, no," he answered hastily.

Xu knew that Han suspected. "Please wait a moment," he said. He left the hall for a moment, returning with a flask of wine and a wine cup into which he poured some wine.

"I was too abrupt in what I said just now," he said, offering the cup to Han. "Please accept this as a token of my apology. Let there be no hard feelings."

"Well said!" Han replied. He drained the cup, picked up the letter and walked towards the door.

"Oh no!" Xu suddenly exclaimed. "Brother Han, I've made a mistake. That cup of wine had poison in it!"

Han went pale, and he turned back towards them.

"I am truly sorry," said Xu. "That flask was poisoned for use whenever needed and one of the servants gave it to me by mistake. I didn't realize it until I smelt it. You've already drunk a cupful. Brother Han, oh dear, oh dear. Get the antidote quickly," he added to an attendant.

"The antidote is in the east city residence," the attendant replied.

"You fool. Ride over there and get it!" Xu shouted at him. The attendant bowed and left.

"I have been neglectful," Xu said apologetically to Han. "Please deliver the letter first. If you do exactly as Brother Shi says, you can take the antidote when you get back, and everything will be fine."

Han knew he either did as the Red Flower Society ordered or he was a dead man. He gave Xu a look of hatred, then turned and walked out without a word. Shi followed him.

Lord Zhou frowned as the two left. "Han doesn't appear to me to be all that evil," he said. "Poisoning him like that was not a very honourable thing to do."

"But there was no poison in the wine," Xu replied.

"No poison?"

"None." Xu poured himself a cup and drank it down.

"I was afraid he might mess up our plan in front of Zhang, so I scared him a little. When he comes back, he can drink another cup and it will all be over."

The others laughed.

Zhang was sitting beside Wen Tailai keeping watch when the cell door opened and a guard came in with a visiting card inscribed with the words: ' North China Earth-Shaker Wang Weiyang.'

"Go and tell him that I cannot see visitors," he said.

The guard left, but returned a moment later to say: "The visitors won't leave. They have a letter for you."

Zhang read the letter, and was both angered and perplexed by it. He had never had any disputes with Wang and wondered why the old man should challenge him to a kung fu duel.

"Tell Commander Li that I have to see a visitor and ask him to send someone to stand watch in my place," he said to the guard.

Four bodyguards arrived to replace him, and Zhang went to the reception hall. He recognized Lead Escort Han and saluted him with his fists.

"Isn't Master Wang here?" he asked.

"This is Lead Escort Shi of our bodyguard agency," Han replied, pointing to his companion. "There are a number of things Master Wang wants him to say to you."

Zhang threw Wang's letter onto the table. "I have respected Wang from afar for a long time, but I have never had any dealings with him whatsoever," he said. "How can he say that my words and behaviour have gone too far? There appears to be some misunderstanding here."

"Master Wang is a leading member of the fighting community," said Shi coldly. "When the community produces scum, he considers it to be his business regardless of whether there is a direct connection."

Zhang stood up, absolutely furious. "So Wang Weiyang says I am scum, does he?"

Shi said nothing in silent confirmation.

"Please enlighten me as to just how I have dishonoured the fighting community," demanded Zhang.

"Members of the fighting community abhor disrespect for superiors above all else," Shi replied. "You, Master Zhang, are a senior member of the Wudang School. It is said that you have not only turned hostile towards your own martial brothers, but have also attempted to arrest one of them for the Manchu court. Is this true?"

"The affairs of my martial brothers and I are of no concern to anyone else," Zhang said angrily.

"Secondly, there is no personal emnity between yourself and the Red Flower Society and yet purely for the purpose of your own career and enrichment, you seized Master Wen Tailai, and caused the death of the young son of Lord Zhou of Iron Gall Manor. Is your mind at ease over such things?"

"I am employed by the Emperor and I am loyal to him. What has that got to do with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency?"

"Did you not work to implicate the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency in your schemes, as a result of which many of our men were killed and wounded?" said Shi.

"You really did do wrong there, Master Zhang," Han added. "You can't blame Master Wang for being angry."

"We will ignore other examples for the moment," Shi continued coldly. "How do you think these three questions should be handled?" He rolled up his eyes and struck an expression of dignified authority.

Zhang was incensed at being treated like a criminal in the dock. "All right, you," he shouted, striding forward. "You're obviously looking for trouble!"

Shi retreated a pace. "What's this?" he asked. "You want to take me on because you don't dare to accept the North China Earth-Shaker's challenge, is that it?"

"Who says I don't dare?" Zhang roared. "I will be there on Lion Peak at noon today."

"If you decide not to go, then never again consider yourself to be a member of the fighting community," Shi said. "Master Wang says that if you have any guts at all, you will go alone. There will be no one else from the Bodyguard Agency there."

"Why should I need help? Do you think I am afraid of this egotistical, stupid old man?"

"Master Wang is not a great orator," Shi continued, ignoring Zhang's comment. "When you meet him, the issue will be decided by kung fu alone. If you want to curse and swear, please feel free to do so now."

Zhang was speechless with rage.

Shi laughed coldly, then turned on his heel and left with Han following.

While the two had argued, Han's mind had been on the poison he had taken, and wished that Shi would hurry up and finish so that he could get back and take the antidote.

"We agreed to meet at noon," Shi reported on their return to the mansion at Solitary Peak.

Han collapsed on a chair with what appeared to be stomach cramps. Xu poured out a cup of wine and handed it to him.

"This is the antidote. Drink it up, Brother Han."

Han quickly stretched out his hand to take it, but Lord Zhou snatched the cup away first and drank it down at one draught. Han stared at him an amazement.

"We have joked with you enough, Master Han," Zhou said with a smile. "You didn't take any poison at all. He was just playing with you. Master Xu, come and apologise."

Xu walked over, grinning and bowed. "Please forgive me, Brother Han," he said.

Meng went in once more to see Wang Weiyang. "Master Zhang has agreed," he said. "You can go now. And by the way, he does not like naggers, so if you have anything to say, say it now. When you get to Lion Peak, the matter will be decided with fists and blades. If you try talking to him even to beg for mercy, I doubt if he will listen to you. If you are afraid, there is still time to pull out."

"I am prepared to die today if need be," Wang shouted, huffily stroking his beard. He stood up and strode out. Meng motioned with his hands to an attendant who handed Wang his sword and a bag of projectiles.

Han was standing by the door. "Please be careful Master Wang," he said.

"You know about this too?"

Han nodded. "I have seen Zhang."

"What did he call me?"

"It was demeaning. You would not wish to hear it."

"Speak," ordered Wang.

"He called you… an egotistical, stupid old man."

Wang grunted. "We shall see whether or not I am egotistical. Brother Han, if anything should happen to me, please look after the agency and the affairs of my family for me." He hesitated. "And tell my two sons not to rush into taking revenge. Their kung fu is still not good enough, and they would lose their lives to no good purpose."

He then started out for Lion Peak and the duel.


The slopes of Lion Peak produce abundant quantities of tea, one of the most exquisite varieties of the leaf under heaven. The mountain itself is high and precipitous, and few people go to the very top.

Wang Weiyang, his great sword slung across his back, clambered up the steep slope and emerged through the tea bushes onto an expanse of open ground on the summit. He noticed walking towards him a tall, robust man wearing a short jacket. The man stared at him for a moment.

"Are you Wang Weiyang?" he asked.

"Yes. And you are the Fire Hand Judge, Zhang Zhaozhong?"

"I am. Do you wish to fight bare-handed or with weapons?" Zhang was a very thorough man. He had searched about carefully during his climb up the peak, but had found no sign of anyone lying in ambush.

Wang was startled to see Zhang's mouth and nose were swollen and with his right eye ringed in black, injuries caused by Chen the night before. "We have no great grudges against each other," thought Wang. "Why risk killing him with a sword-stroke? The consequences of killing an official of his rank are unthinkable. It will be enough to humiliate him with my Eight Diagram Kung Fu. I'll show him I'm not egotistical."

"I would be honoured to pit myself against your famous Limitless Occult Kung Fu, Master Zhang," he said out loud.

"Fine," Zhang replied. He brought his fists together in salute and waited for the other to attack.

"If I may…" Wang said, and as he spoke, his left fist shot out and his right hand sliced across towards Zhang's right shoulder. Then in a flash, his left fist flipped over and aimed for the right shoulder while the right hand went for the chest. Zhang retreated three paces and fended off the blows. The two circled around, surprised at the extent of the other's ability.

"His moves are fast and powerful," Zhang thought. "He's a strong adversary."

"He avoided those blows of mine with ease," Wang thought. "Fire Hand Judge is no misnomer."

Suddenly, Zhang stepped forward and swept his left leg across at Wang, who jumped clear off the ground to avoid it and countered with a fist aimed at Zhang's face.

They were evenly matched and fought close and fast. The sun was riding high and their two shadows danced on the ground, merging and separating in a flash. Wang knew that at his age, a long battle would finish him. So he quickly changed his style, and with one hand protecting his body and the other facing outwards, he raced round Zhang, his feet following the pattern of the Eight Diagrams.

The style dictated that he keep moving, circling round Zhang to the left and right, waiting for an opportunity to strike. It would make even a kung fu master dizzy after a few circuits.

Zhang knew how ferocious this style was, and lunged at his opponent. But Wang had already circled round the other way. Suddenly he struck at Zhang with both fists, one of which slammed into his shoulder. Zhang caught hold of Wang's wrist and struck out at his elbow in retaliation. With his free hand, Wang swung at Zhang's other shoulder and the two leapt apart.

Zhang had had the worst of the encounter. "Your kung fu is excellent," he shouted. "Let us duel with swords."

He drew his Frozen Emerald sword, Wang also drew his sword and the two stood facing each other.

Zhang's mind was bent on recovering face, and he struck out with a series of attacking sword strokes, fast and vicious. Wang could tell from the way the light glinted on the Frozen Emerald sword that it was a superb weapon, and knew that if the two swords clashed, his own blade would come off the worst. So he did not dare to directly parry the strokes.

They fought round and round. Wang began to sweat and he secretly worked a number of darts into his palm and then swapped his sword over to his left hand. He slashed out with a left-handed stoke, and simultaneously flung the darts at Zhang. Zhang managed to dodge both dangers, but he was becoming flustered by the onslaught. He swept his sword across at Wang's waist, and as the two swords clashed, Wang's blade snapped cleanly in two.

Wang roared and hurled the remaining half at Zhang, and followed it with his remaining three darts. With a cry, Zhang fell over backwards and the Frozen Emerald Sword dropped to the ground.

"Master Zhang, forgive me!" Wang cried out anxiously. "I have some Golden Scar Ointment here."

Zhang was silent. Wang feared he was dead, and killing a court official was no laughing matter so he rushed across and bent down to examine Zhang.

As he did so, he saw flashes of gold before his eyes. Cursing himself, he leant over backwards as fast as he could, but too late. He felt stabs of pain in his left chest and shoulder as the needles plunged home. He gave another angry roar and jumped up ready to fight Zhang to the death. But as he swung his sword, the pain in his chest and shoulder was so extreme that he fell back to the ground with a groan. Zhang laughed out loud. He pulled one of Wang's darts from his wrist, ripped a strip of cloth off his jacket, bound the wound then stood up.

"How could you attack me when I was coming to see if you were injured?" Wang demanded angrily. "What sort of man are you to do such a despicable thing? We'll see if you have the effrontery to face the rest of the fighting community after today."

"There's only the two of us here. Who else knows about it?" asked Zhang with a smile. "Having lived to such a ripe old age, it's about time you went to meet your forefathers."

He picked up half of Wang's snapped sword and dug a hole in the ground, then heaved Wang to the edge of it.

"So you're the North China Earth-Shaker," he said. "I'll give you some earth to shake." He kicked Wang into the hole and began to bury him alive.

As he worked, he heard a long, cold laugh from somewhere behind. He whirled round in fright and found Lead Escort Han standing there with an Iron Pipa in his hand.

"So that's it!" Zhang shouted angrily. "The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency arranges a one-to-one duel and secretly sets up an ambush. Do you have no shame?"

"It is you that is shameless," Han replied pointing to Wang.

"All right, you can demonstrate your Iron Pipa kung fu for me," Zhang said. He flew at Han using Lightness Kung Fu and thrust his sword at him. Han retreated two steps and a sword struck out at Zhang from amongst the bushes. Zhang parried the stroke, and saw the swordsman was the other lead escort who had accompanied Han to see him earlier.

"Come on, fight me together. It is of no consequence to the Fire Hand Judge," he shouted.

Just as he was about to strike, he heard a noise behind and turned to see eight or nine men walking towards him led by the Red Flower Society's Great Helmsman, Chen Jialuo. A shiver of panic passed through him, and he glanced about, looking for some avenue of escape.

"Brother Han, go and look after Master Wang," said Chen. Han ran over to the hole and helped Wang out.

"Master Wang said he wished to have a private duel with no observers or seconds," Zhang shouted.

"My brothers and I came to admire the scenery and happened to come across the two of you," Chen replied. "It was a very artistic display, but you did not win very honourably, Master Zhang."

"We were matching our strength and our wits. What is wrong with such a victory?"

"You are wise indeed, Master Zhang." Chen walked slowly forward. "We want to rescue Master Wen."


"His manacles are made of the finest steel which no file could get through. I therefore have no alternative but to ask you to lend us your excellent sword. As a member of the fighting community, I am sure you will be happy to oblige."

Zhang looked at the number of his adversaries and knew it would be difficult to get away.

"If you wish to borrow my sword, you will have to take it by force," he said. He turned and sprinted towards the southern path down the mountain slope. Suddenly, he saw in front of him the one-armed Taoist priest, and slung two Golden Needles at him. He knew there was no chance of hitting the priest, but he hoped that the needles would occupy him long enough to get past. Priest Wu Chen, however, deftly dodged out of the way then crouched down and thrust his sword at Zhang's right leg. Zhang brought his own blade down to parry the stroke and the two fought fiercely. Zhang found his strength beginning to wane. The priest gave a shout and the Frozen Emerald sword was jolted out of Zhang's hand. For a split second, Zhang stared at it in surprise, and the priest aimed a flying kick at his groin, knocking him to the ground. Zhang Jin and two of the other fighters then jumped on him while Luo Bing pulled out some rope and bound his hands. Remembering Zhang had led the capture of her husband at Iron Gall Manor, she punched him smartly on the nose.

Chen walked over.

"You have only won because of numerical superiority," Zhang shouted angrily. "If you bandits are going to kill me then get it over with."

"He ought to be buried in the hole that he dug," suggested 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. The others shouted their agreement, and Zhang broke into a cold sweat.

"What do you say?" asked Chen. "If you admit defeat and swear never again to go against the Red Flower Society, we will spare you for the sake of your martial brother, Master Lu."

"Stop wasting words!" Zhang shouted stubbornly. "After all your crafty tricks, how can you expect anyone to concede defeat to you?"

"All right," said Chen. "I will kill you to relieve you of the horror of being buried alive." He pulled out his dagger and walked over to Zhang. "Are you not afraid of death?" he asked.

"Do your worst," Zhang replied, and laughed bitterly. He closed his eyes and waited for death.

Suddenly they heard shouts from the mountainside below, and turned to see two men running towards them, moving as fast as the wind with superb Lightness Kung Ku.

As they approached, the heroes saw that one was Lu Feiqing, and the other a kindly-looking old Taoist priest.

Just as Lu was about to introduce the old man, Zhang went up to him and bowed.

"Brother, we have not seen each other for many years," he said. "How are you?"

The heroes realized that it must be Ma Zhen, 'Scholar' Yu's teacher. They all bowed before him.

"We came as fast as we could when we heard about the duel," Lu said. He looked round and saw with relief that no-one had been injured.

Ma Zhen had long heard of Zhang's unsavoury record, but seeing his blood-stained clothes and swollen face, he now found himself feeling almost sorry for him. "Brother Zhang, how did you get into such a mess?" he asked.

"With one against so many, how could I look any different?" Zhang replied indignantly.

The heroes were furious at his insinuation. "So you're blameless are you?" shouted Zhou Qi. She brandished her sword and made as to charge at Zhang, but her father held her back.

"His two martial brothers are here now," Lord Zhou said. "Let us see what they have to say." His words put the onus of dealing with Zhang squarely on Ma Zhen.

Ma Zhen looked at Lu, and then at Zhang. Suddenly, his knees folded and he knelt down before the heroes. Greatly surprised, Chen helped him up again.

"My brothers," he said, his voice choked with sobs. "This useless martial brother of mine has committed truly heinous crimes. To the shame of our school, we have failed to discipline him and have lost face before all our brothers in the fighting community…I…I…" He was overcome with emotion. "Brother Lu," he added. "Tell them what I mean."

"Brother Ma is very angry about Zhang's behaviour. But in memory of our late teacher, he wishes to ask you to spare him."

The heroes looked at Chen and Lord Zhou, waiting for their decision.

"Master Zhou will be the arbiter," said Chen. "We will do whatever he says."

"Considering he had Iron Gall Manor burnt to the ground, I should not rest until revenge has been gained," Zhou said, then paused. "But having heard your words, Master Ma, I will hand him over to you with all past scores forgotten."

"Father!" Zhou Qi cried, horrified.

Zhou stroked her hair. "Forget about it, child," he said softly.

"Out of respect for your wishes, Master Ma, the Red Flower Society will also let bygones be bygones," added Chen.

Ma and Lu bowed to the heroes. "We will be eternally grateful," said Ma.

"Brother Ma, what do you intend to do if he does evil again?" Priest Wu Chen asked sternly.

"I will insist that he turn over a new leaf," Ma replied. "But if he does revert to his old ways, then I will be the first to strike, unless he kills me first! I will now take him back to Wudang Mountain so that he can reflect on his misdeeds in solitude. Brother Lu, once Master Wen is out of danger, please write and inform me so that my mind can rest easy. By the way, where is my pupil, Yu Yutong?"

"He was separated from us at the Yellow River," Chen replied. "We later heard that he had been rescued by a girl, but we have no further information. As soon as we have rescued Brother Wen, we will go and investigate. Please don't worry, sir."

"That pupil of mine is very clever but he is not steady enough. Please give him whatever direction is necessary, Master Chen."

"We treat our brothers as blood relations," Chen replied. "Brother Yu is a capable man. We place great faith in him."

"I am very grateful for what you have done today," said Ma. "My brothers! Next time any of you are in Hubei Province, please come to stay at Wudang Mountain." The heroes all thanked him.

"All right, let's go!" Ma told Zhang curtly. Zhang noticed that Luo Bing had slung his Frozen Emerald Sword across her back, and he knew that to try to retrieve it would only result in more punishment. So he bit his lip and followed after Ma Zhen, his head bowed.

When they had gone, the others asked Lu what had happened to him since they had parted. He told them that for a time he had searched unsuccessfully for Yuanzhi. Then, realising that Zhang was the key to the affair, he went south and asked Ma Zhen to help him. They hurried to Beijing only to discover that Zhang had gone to Hangzhou, so they travelled south once more.

The heroes walked slowly down from the peak, talking as they went. Chen turned to Wang and Han.

"You are both free to go," he said.

"Master Chen, I will never forget how you saved my life," Wang replied.

Chen laughed. "I must ask your forgiveness, Master Wang," he said and related how they had stolen the jade vases and provoked the duel between himself and Zhang. Having just escaped from the jaws of death, Wang did not seem to blame him for the deception.

"You are certainly a born leader," he said to Chen, and laughed. "So young and already a hero. I may be old, but I still have a thing or two to learn."

"When our affairs have been successfully concluded, we will drink a few cups of wine together," Chen replied.

They arrived at the lake and returned to Lonely Mountain by boat. Lu Feiqing extracted the Golden Needles from Wang's wounds with the use of a magnet, and then treated them with Golden Scar ointment.

By this time, evening was approaching.

"Most of the work on the tunnel has been completed," Master Ma, the Hangzhou Helmsman, reported. "We should be finished in another six hours."

Chen nodded. "Good, thank you Brother Ma. Thirteenth Brother, please go and supervise the work." 'Crocodile' Jiang bowed and left.

Chen turned once more to Wang and Han.

"We have been looking after a few members of your honourable bodyguard agency," he said. "Why don't you take them to the lake for some recreation?"

Wang watched the Red Flower Society fighters hurrying to and fro and guessed they were preparing to rescue Wen Tailai. He decided that if he were to go out by himself now and the plan should go wrong, they could easily suspect that he had informed the authorities.

"I am getting old, and what with these Golden Needle wounds, I am not feeling at all well," he replied. "I would like to rest here for a day."

"As you wish," said Chen.


The heroes ate a full meal and then returned to their rooms to rest. At six o'clock that evening, an attendant reported that the tunnel diggers were already under the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen, but that a large rock was blocking their path which they were trying to dig around. Chen and Xu assigned their forces: some were to attack from the left, some from the right, and some would be held in reserve. At about eight o'clock, the attendant returned to report that the diggers had come up against an iron plate and had decided to stop work for a while for fear of alerting those inside.

"We will wait another two hours and then make our move," Chen said.

During those two hours, the heroes could hardly control their impatience. Zhang Jin paced up and down the hall mumbling curses. Master Ma kept taking out a large gold watch and checking the time while Chen read a book.

"The time has arrived," Ma finally announced.

The heroes all charged for the door. They donned various disguises and made their way separately through the darkened streets of Hangzhou to a house just outside the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen.

'Crocodile' Jiang was waiting for them. "This area is being tightly patrolled by Manchu troops," he said. "Be as quiet as possible."

He stood at the entrance of the tunnel with his iron oar at the ready, as the heroes filed through one by one. The tunnel had been dug deep, and with Hangzhou being such a low-lying area, it was ankle-deep in water. By the time they reached the big rock, the muddy water was up to their chests, while several dozen yards further on, it rose to their heads.

Seven or eight attendants were waiting near the iron plate with torches and spades in hand.

"Start work!" Chen ordered.

With the Great Helmsman there watching them, the attendants worked like demons, and soon shifted the rock to the side of the iron plate. Another moment of furious digging and the iron plate was dislodged, and 'Leopard' Wei, his pair of hooks at the ready, went through first with the rest of the heroes behind.

The attendants held the torches high to illuminate the way as Wei ran along a corridor towards Wen's cell, but found the way blocked by a locked iron gate.

"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother," said Xu suddenly. "Go and guard the exit to the dungeon just in case the Manchus have some secret scheme."

Yang and Wei assented and left. Several of the attendants worked to loosen the stones to the side of the gate, and then with the help of several of the heroes, lifted the gate out of position. Luo Bing ran through, and into Wen's cell only to find it empty.

After so many disappointments, Luo Bing crumpled onto the floor and began to sob. Zhou Qi wanted to comfort her, but her father held her back.

"Let her be," he said. "A cry will do her good."

"Commander Li was afraid we would come to organise a jail break and has moved Fourth Brother somewhere else," Xu said.

"But now we are in the Yamen, we will find him no matter what," Chen replied.

They went to the door of the dungeon and saw Yang fighting fiercely with a group of Manchu soldiers. Priest Wu Chen gave a shout and charged out of the dungeon and finished off two Manchu soldiers on the spot. Further on, they found Wei battling six or seven officers.

"Considering my relationship with Commander Li, I had better not reveal myself," Lu Feiqing thought. He ripped a strip off his gown and covered his face so that only the eyes were showing. Just then, the Manchu soldiers broke and retreated up to the Yamen courtyard in confusion with Wei and the others in hot pursuit.

Xu leapt up onto a nearby wall and saw soldiers standing guard throughout the whole Yamen. A drum sounded, and Xu guessed the commanders were still positioning their soldiers. Then he spotted a lonely two-storey building in the southern part of the main courtyard surrounded by several hundred troops. There was nothing special about the building except for the tight defences, and he decided that was probably where Wen was being held. He jumped down from the wall and whirled his sword around his head.

"Brothers, follow me!" he shouted, and charged towards the building.

The further they went, the more soldiers appeared. But despite their numerical superiority, the Manchu troops were unable to contain the Red Flower Society fighters, each of them a master of the martial arts. In only a short while, the heroes had fought to within a few yards of the building.

"Third Brother, let's go and have a look inside," Priest Wu Chen said to 'Buddha' Zhao.

"Right," said Zhao, and they sprang over to the doorway with two long strides. A sword sliced towards them, but with one thrust from the priest's blade, the swordsman screamed and his weapon clattered to the ground. They raced into the building with Luo Bing and the others close behind.

As the fighting continued, the heroes found the numbers of Manchu soldiers diminishing. Suddenly they heard Priest Wu Chen yell from upstairs: "Fourth Brother is here! We've got him!" The heroes shouted in joy.

Zhou Qi raced up the stairs and saw everyone gathered round an iron cage. Chen was sawing at the bars with the Frozen Emerald Sword. Zhou Qi went close and noticed that inside the iron cage was another smaller cage in which Wen sat with his legs and arms manacled like a captured wild animal. Chen sawed through two bars, and Zhang Jin used brute strength to twist them back. Luo Bing, thanks to her slim figure, managed to wriggle into the outer cage, then took the sword from Chen and began to saw away at the lock on the small cage. The heroes were all smiling jubilantly. Suddenly they heard a bugle sound, and the remaining Manchu troops retreated out about one hundred feet and formed themselves into ranks around the building.

"Master Chen!" someone shouted from amongst the Manchu ranks. "I wish to speak with Master Chen!"

Chen went to the window and spotted Commander Li outside. "I am here. What is it, Commander?"

"Come out quickly or you will all die."

"We will not come out alone, even faced with death," Chen replied. "I am sorry, but today we intend to leave with Master Wen."

"Don't be so stubborn," Li shouted. "Start the fire!"

The troops pushed out huge piles of firewood and grass and surrounded the building with them. The firewood was soaked in oil and a second after a torch was thrown into it, a fiery ring sprang up with the heroes trapped inside.

Chen could see how dangerous the situation was, but he remained calm. "Everyone together," he said quietly. "Cut through the bars as quickly as you can."

A man walked out from behind Li and pointed angrily at Chen. "Death is staring you in the face and still you don't go down on your knees and beg for mercy?" he boomed. "Do you realize what we have in that building?"

As Chen stood thinking, he heard Xu exclaim in their secret code: "Oh no, they've packed the place with gunpowder."

Chen noticed a row of wooden barrels around the room they were in. With a quick movement, he smashed one of them open and black dust flew out in all directions, the smell of saltpetre filling their noses. His heart froze. "Is the whole Red Flower Society going to be blown to pieces today?" he wondered. He turned and saw the inner cage had been opened and Luo Bing helping Wen out.

"Sister Luo Bing, Brother Zhao!" he shouted. "You two look after Fourth Brother. Everyone else follow me." He charged down the stairs. Zhang Jin bent over and heaved Wen onto his back while Luo Bing and Zhao escorted them down to the ground floor. As they reached the door, they saw swarms of arrows like locusts flying at them. Wei and the Twin Knights tried several times to break out of the building, but each time they were forced back inside.

"You are standing in a gunpowder keg and I have the fuse here," Commander Li shouted. He raised a fiery torch and waved it.

"As soon as I light the fuse, you will all be burnt to ashes. Put Wen down immediately."

Chen knew that what he said was true, but he also guessed that because of Wen's importance to the Emperor, Li would not dare to light the fuse.

"Put Fourth Brother down!" he shouted. "Let's get out of here!" He brandished his long sword and charged out with Wei and the Twin Knights at his side.

Zhang Jin, running flat out with his head down, didn't hear what Chen had said.

"Put Fourth Brother down," Zhao told him. "It's too dangerous. We've got to get out or he'll get killed."

Zhang Jin placed Wen on the ground near the door. Luo Bing hesitated, but Zhang Jin grabbed her arm and charged on after the others. Li saw in the firelight that they had abandoned Wen, and with a wave of his hand ordered the archers to stop firing to prevent him being hit by mistake.

Having made it out of the building, the heroes regrouped by the wall.

"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother, Tenth Brother and the Twin Knights, you five lead an attack on the Manchu troops and disperse them," ordered Chen. "Brother Xu, you think of a way to cut the gunpowder fuse. The rest of you, as soon as that's done, we will go back and rescue Fourth Brother."

Commander Li was just about to order someone over to keep watch on Wen when he spotted the Twin Knights approaching. He hastily shouted to a detachment of Imperial Bodyguards who raced over to intercept the Red Flower Society fighters.

Lu Feiqing was the first to spot a way out of the dilemma. He ran like an arrow straight for Commander Li. Li's bodyguards moved to stop him, but Lu dodged to left and right and slipped past them all. In a moment, he was at Li's side. Yuanzhi, wearing boy's clothes, was standing by her father's side. Seeing this strange masked man charging forward, she cried out shrilly: "How dare you!" and thrust her sword straight at his chest. Lu ducked under the stroke, then slipped round behind Commander Li and gave him a powerful shove which sent him reeling forward. Full of fear for her father, Yuanzhi struck out again with her sword, but Lu dodged out of the way once more, picked Li up in his arms and ran inside the circle of fire. The Manchu troops shouted in alarm, but the heat from the flames was so intense that none dared to follow him.

The Red Flower Society heroes saw Lu carrying Commander Li into the danger zone, and Zhang Jin and 'Crocodile' Jiang went in after them.

"That's enough," ordered Chen. "No-one else need go in."

The Manchu troops completely ignored the Red Flower Society fighters, and stared anxiously at the men in the centre of the ring of fire. Suddenly, someone with a torch leapt over to the gunpowder fuse and lit it. Deng Tunan recognized him as Imperial Bodyguard Fan who had shamed himself in front of the Emperor the day before. He bore such a deep grudge over the incident, that he wanted only to snatch victory away from the Red Flower Society with no concern for whether Commander Li lived or died.

The thread of sparks whirled off at an incredible speed. Once it reached the circle of fire, disaster would be inevitable. The Manchu troops scattered in panic and in the midst of the confusion, a figure, his face covered with a blue silk mask, raced forward and threw himself down on to the gunpowder. His clothes burst into flames, but the fuse was stopped.

The immediate danger past, Zhang Jin and 'Crocodile' Jiang charged out through the circle of fire with Wen Tailai in their arms. The flames were now even more fierce, and all three caught fire. The Twin Knights, racing forward to meet them, shouting: "Roll! Roll!" Zhang Jin and Jiang first put Wen down and rolled him about until all the flames on him had been extinguished, then put out their own fires. Luo Bing ran up to attend to Wen.

The Twin Knights meanwhile ran over to rescue the masked man, who had collapsed on the ground. By the time the flames had been extinguished, his body was a mass of burns.

Once Wen was out of danger, Lu slung Commander Li over his shoulder, took a deep breath and leapt back out of the circle like a great bird.

"We've done it!" Chen shouted. "Retreat, retreat!"

Priest Wu Chen led the way, his sword flying, and the others followed, the Twin Knights carrying the masked man, Zhang Jin carrying Wen and Lu with Commander Li over his shoulder.

The Manchu troops chased after them, shouting and yelling, but none dared get too close. The Imperial Bodyguards, however, were frantic at the sight of Wen escaping: his loss could cost them their heads. Among them was Fan, the one who had lit the fuse. Chen handed the Frozen Emerald sword to 'Buddha' Zhao.

"Cover the others as they retreat, Third Brother," he said. "I'm going to deal with this fellow." He pulled out his 'Pearl Strings', the ropes with steel balls fastened to the ends, and with a flick of his hand, sent them flying towards Fan.

Fan tried to leap out of the way, but he was not quick enough, and the strings wrapped themselves round his legs. Chen yanked them back fiercely, and threw Fan into the heart of the roaring flames.

By this time, almost all of the heroes had escaped over the Yamen walls. Chen raised his hand and shouted to the rest: "Retreat!"

'Leopard' Wei raced over to the gunpowder fuse and relit it, and the Manchu troops cried out in fear as the remaining Red Flower Society fighters retired.

Suddenly, there was a blinding flash, and a roar as the gunpowder stacked in the building ignited. Explosion followed explosion, black smoke swirled up and bricks flew in all directions. The soldiers and guardsmen threw themselves on the ground, but despite their great distance from the building, several dozen of them had their heads smashed to pieces by stray bricks and pieces of wood. By the time the rest crawled back onto their feet, the Red Flower Society heroes were gone.

Only when they were certain they were not being chased did the heroes relax. They rode out of Hangzhou and arrived at a river with more than a dozen boats lined up along the bank. The heroes joyfully boarded the craft.

"Master Chen," Lu Feiqing whispered. "I have had connections with Commander Li in the past. Now that Brother Wen is safe, why don't we let him go?"

"Whatever you say," Chen replied, and on his orders, an attendant untied Li's bonds and released him.

"Anchors aweigh!" Chen called. "Head for Jiaxing!"

The rivers and canals of Zhejiang Province are an endless maze with countless twists and turns, and in a moment the boats had disappeared.

"We'll head west and take Fourth Brother to Heavenly Eye Mountain to convalesce," said Chen. "Let Commander Li race off to Jiaxing after us!"

The heroes all burst out laughing and the accumulated low spirits of several months were swept away.

Dawn was just breaking as Luo Bing wiped Wen's body clean. His manacles had been sawn off with the Frozen Emerald sword, and he was in a deep sleep.

"Great Helmsman," said Xu. "That masked man who saved Fourth Brother is very badly wounded. Shall we have a look at him?"

"Since he keeps his face covered, he obviously does not wish to be recognized. I don't think we should," said Lord Zhou.

Xin Yan gently applied white soya sauce to the masked man's burns, but his whole body had been blistered by the flames, and he cried out incessantly in pain. His hands were clawing about aimlessly as he screamed in pain, and suddenly ripped the mask off. The heroes all cried out in unison: "Fourteenth Brother!"

It was 'Scholar' Yu. They looked at his face, red-black and swollen with countless blisters, and were horrified. Luo Bing brought over a wet cloth and lightly wiped the dirt and gunpowder from his face then applied more white soya sauce. Whenever she thought about his disgraceful behaviour that night near Iron Gall Manor she still felt angry, but having seen what he was willing to go through to save her own husband, she knew that his infatuation was more than just lust. She looked down at him and wondered how she could ever repay him.

The boats docked and Master Ma sent someone hurrying off to find a doctor. When he came, the doctor examined Wen and said: "This gentleman's wounds are only superficial. He is strong and healthy, and with several months of recuperation there should be no problem." Pointing at Yu, he added: "This gentleman, however, has extremely serious burns. There is a danger that the fire poison will attack his heart. I will make out a prescription to counter it and have another look later." From his tone, he appeard to consider it hopeless.

The doctor went ashore. A while later, Wen opened his eyes and looked at everyone standing around him.

"What are you all doing here?" he asked wearily.

Luo Bing burst into tears. "Brother!" she cried happily. "You've come back. You've come back!"

Wen nodded slightly and closed his eyes again.

During the night battle at the Yellow River crossing, Yuanzhi had been cut off from the Red Flower Society fighters. She spotted a carriage and jumped into it, urged the mules and raced blindly away. It was only next morning when she had put a great distance between herself and the Manchu army that she stopped to rest. Opening the carriage curtain, she found 'Scholar' Yu lying inside unconscious and badly wounded. After carefully considering the situation, she climbed back onto the carriage and drove on to Wenguang town.

As the daughter of an official, she was used to doing things in an impressive manner. She chose the largest residence in the town and knocked on it's door to ask for lodgings. The residence belonged to the evil landowner, Tang, who took them in. When Tang was found murdered, Yu realized immediately that they could be implicated, and they escaped in the confusion. Yuanzhi was planning to go to Hangzhou to be with her parents and Yu, knowing that Hangzhou was also where Wen was being held, decided they may as well go together. He was still seriously wounded, and Yuanzhi looked after him carefully as they travelled.

When they reached Hangzhou, Yuanzhi told her parents that Yu had been wounded while saving her from bandits, and her father, Commander Li, allowed him to stay in the Yamen as an expression of his gratitude. A doctor was called to treat his injuries. When Li saw what a refined person Yu was, skilled in both scholarly and martial pursuits, he decided that once his wounds had healed he would invite Yu to become his son-in-law. Little did he know that Yu was also a key member of the Red Flower Society.


When Qian Long was told that the Red Flower Society had rescued Wen, he was both surprised and angry. But he decided there was nothing to be gained in punishing the Imperial Bodyguards. He could see from their wounds that they had fought bravely.

A while later, Commander Li also arrived, and was informed by the Emperor that a decision on whether or not he would lose his post would be deferred until later. Li was overjoyed at this unexpected luck.

After Li had left, Qian Long thought about Wen's escape and wondered if his secret would get out. From what Wen had said, it did not appear that he knew, but there was something about his manner which suggested there was still much he could tell. Wen had said there were two important pieces of evidence hidden somewhere and he wondered what the evidence could be. He was already almost certain he was a Chinese and not a Manchu, but what good could come of such knowledge leaking out?

He paced about the room, extremely angry that he, the Son of Heaven, should be out-witted by a band of brigands. If they discovered his secret, would he be forced to submit to them for the rest of his life on pain of having the secret revealed? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and he picked up a large porcelain flower vase and threw it violently to the floor.

The guards and eunuchs waiting outside heard the crash clearly and trembled in their boots, not daring to enter.

Qian Long passed most of the day in a state of mental confusion. Towards evening, he heard the sound of gentle music drifting in from outside. The music moved closer and closer, passed by the gates of the Yamen then gradually receded. A moment later, another musical troupe passed by. He had always been very fond of music, and hearing it now, his mood suddenly changed.

"Servants!" he shouted.

A senior bodyguard named He Jia, who had recently come to favour, hurried in. Hearing the Emperor's call, the others had pushed him forward.

"What is that music outside?" Qian Long asked. "Go and find out."

After a while, He Jia came back to report: "Your slave made enquiries and learned that all of the famous courtesans of Hangzhou will gather on the West Lake this evening to choose what they call the 'Top Candidate of the Boudoir', as well as second, third and fourth ranking candidates."

"How dare they make fun of the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in such a way!" Qian Long said, amused. "Ridiculous!"

Seeing the smile on the Emperor's face, he advanced a step and added in a low voice: "I heard that the Four Beauties of Qiantang River will be there."

"And who are the Four Beauties of Qiantang River?"

"Your slave was talking to a local just now who said that they are the four most famous prostitutes of Hangzhou. Everyone out in the streets is trying to guess which one will be the Top Candidate of the Boudoir this year."

"The Top Candidate in the Imperial Examination is chosen by me. Who chooses this Top Candidate of the Boudoir? Don't tell me there is an Emperor of the Boudoir as well?"

"I hear that each prostitute sits in a flower boat on which are displayed the gold and jewels presented by her customers. Then the winner is chosen by some of Hangzhou 's most eminent gentlemen."

"When do they play this game?" Qian Long asked, fascinated.

"It starts soon," He Jia replied. "As soon as it gets a bit darker, the judging will begin. If Your Highness is interested, you could go and watch."

Qian Long smiled. "I'm afraid people may laugh at me," he said. "If the Empress should hear that I chose the Top Candidate manner which suggested there was still much he could tell. Wen had said there were two important pieces of evidence hidden somewhere and he wondered what the evidence could be. He was already almost certain he was a Chinese and not a Manchu, but what good could come of such knowledge leaking out?

He paced about the room, extremely angry that he, the Son of Heaven, should be out-witted by a band of brigands. If they discovered his secret, would he be forced to submit to them for the rest of his life on pain of having the secret revealed? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and he picked up a large porcelain flower vase and threw it violently to the floor.

The guards and eunuchs waiting outside heard the crash clearly and trembled in their boots, not daring to enter.

Qian Long passed most of the day in a state of mental confusion. Towards evening, he heard the sound of gentle music drifting in from outside. The music moved closer and closer, passed by the gates of the Yamen then gradually receded. A moment later, another musical troupe passed by. He had always been very fond of music, and hearing it now, his mood suddenly changed.

"Servants!" he shouted.

A senior bodyguard named He Jia, who had recently come to favour, hurried in. Hearing the Emperor's call, the others had pushed him forward.

"What is that music outside?" Qian Long asked. "Go and find out."

After a while, He Jia came back to report: "Your slave made enquiries and learned that all of the famous courtesans of Hangzhou will gather on the West Lake this evening to choose what they call the 'Top Candidate of the Boudoir', as well as second, third and fourth ranking candidates."

"How dare they make fun of the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in such a way!" Qian Long said, amused. "Ridiculous!"

Seeing the smile on the Emperor's face, he advanced a step and added in a low voice: "I heard that the Four Beauties of Qiantang River will be there."

"And who are the Four Beauties of Qiantang River?"

"Your slave was talking to a local just now who said that they are the four most famous prostitutes of Hangzhou. Everyone out in the streets is trying to guess which one will be the Top Candidate of the Boudoir this year."

"The Top Candidate in the Imperial Examination is chosen by me. Who chooses this Top Candidate of the Boudoir? Don't tell me there is an Emperor of the Boudoir as well?"

"I hear that each prostitute sits in a flower boat on which are displayed the gold and jewels presented by her customers. Then the winner is chosen by some of Hangzhou 's most eminent gentlemen."

"When do they play this game?" Qian Long asked, fascinated.

"It starts soon,"He Jia replied. "As soon as it gets a bit darker, the judging will begin. If Your Highness is interested, you could go and watch."

Qian Long smiled. "I'm afraid people may laugh at me,"he said. "If the Empress should hear that I chose the Top Candidate of the Boudoir, she may have something to say about it. Ha, ha!"

"If Your Highness dressed up as a member of the common people, no one would know," He Jia suggested.

"All right, we'll go and have a quiet look and then come back. But tell everyone not to attract attention,"said Qian Long.

He Jia quickly helped Qian Long change into a long silk gown and a closely-embroidered jacket, the attire of a member of the gentry. Then they left for the West Lake together with Bai Zhen and several dozen bodyguards.

Once at the lakeside, a bodyguard steered a boat up to meet them. Music and singing could be heard coming from different parts of the lake, while the multitude of lanterns provided a sumptuous sight. They watched as more than twenty flower boats glided lazily back and forth over the water, each boat draped with silk curtains and lanterns. Qian Long ordered the oarsman to steer close to the flower boats. Some of them were decorated with flowers and animals cleverly constructed out of silk and lit with lanterns. Qian Long sighed in praise for the richness of life in the south of China with which the north could not hope to compete. As many as a hundred other small boats moved to and fro carrying well-to-do pleasure seekers.

A gong sounded and the music from the boats ceased. One rocket after another soared up into the air and burst in a dazzling array of colours before falling into the lake with a hiss. As the firework display ended, the curtains on each flower boat were drawn apart simultaneously to reveal a gorgeously-attired woman seated inside. Thunderous cheers and applause arose from every part of the lake.

Servants produced wine and food for the Emperor to partake of while enjoying the scene. The boat slid slowly over the lake past the flower boats. Qian Long, who kept three thousand concubines in his palace, had seen countless beauties in his time. But now, with the lanterns reflecting on the water, the splash of the oars and the slight waft of perfume, he was completely captivated. They neared the boats of the Four Beauties of the Qiantang River, and saw they were different from the other flower boats. One was decorated entirely with paper water lilies while the second was topped by two pagodas. The third was decked out as the Lunar Palace and lit with lanterns shaped as toads and hares, the animals which are supposed to inhabit the moon.

Qian Long gasped in delight. As they glided towards the fourth, he saw it was decorated entirely with real bushes and flowers, the branches criss-crossing each other and covered with a thick foliage, as simple as nature, and as beautiful as a painting. The courtezan, dressed all in white, was seated with her back to them, but she had an air of other-worldliness about her, as of a goddess.

Overwhelmed, Qian Long could not help but sing out a line from the opera, 'The Western Chamber': "Oh, will you not turn your face to me?"

The prostitute, hearing the snatch of song, did indeed turn and smiled. Qian Long's heart leapt: it was the girl he had met on the West Lake several days before, Beautiful Jade.

He heard the tinkle of a feminine voice as the courtesan on the water lily boat began to sing. At the end of the song, the crowd applauded and a pile of ingots, big and small mounted on the table in front of her. Then the courtesan in the Twin-Pagoda boat picked up a pipa and lightly strummed a tune, following which the third played the flute. Qian Long ordered He Jia to give her ten taels of gold.

The pleasure launches then crowded round Beautiful Jade's boat. She opened her ruby lips, revealing her sparkling white teeth, and began to sing accompanied by a flute.

It was the middle of the eighth month and it was already cool on the lake, but Beautiful Jade's voice suggested warm breezes and fragrant flowers.

"Such talent," Qian Long sighed.

To his great delight, Beautiful Jade's dew-drop eyes constantly looked over in his direction as she sang. Qian Long loved demonstrating his talents in art, calligraphy and poetry and his ministers, not surprisingly, praised everything he did. But for a beautiful woman to favour him not because of reverence for his position as Emperor, but because of his real worth meant she had recognized his ardour, good looks and talent. Famous courtesans are truly discerning, he thought. He immediately ordered He Jia to present Beautiful Jade with fifty taels of gold.

The boats of all the courtesans were piled up with gifts, especially those of the Four Beauties. Midnight approached and the judge began the job of inspecting the gifts. As with the imperial examinations, not only the courtesans, but also the spectators on the lake, were anxious about the outcome.

Qian Long said a few quiet words to He Jia, who nodded and hurried back to the Yamen. He returned a while later with a package.

The inspection over, the boats all clustered round the launch on which the judge sat to hear him announce the winners.

"The gifts presented to Miss Twin Pagodas are the most numerous," he announced. There was a roar from the other boats as some applauded and some groaned.

"Not so fast," someone shouted. "I will present one hundred taels of gold to Miss Water Lily."

"And I present Miss Lunar Palace with a jade bracelet and ten pearls," another wealthy gentleman called out. The crowd saw the green bracelet and the large round pearls sparkling under the lantern light and knew that they must be worth well over a hundred taels of gold. All concluded that Miss Lunar Palace was certain to be chosen at the Top Candidate for the years.

Suddenly He Jia called out: "Our master has a number of items he would like to present to Miss Beautiful Jade!"

A servant carried the package over to the judge, a man of about forty with a lean, handsome face and a wisp of moustache. He opened it to find it contained three scrolls. He turned to the old man on his left and said: "Master Fan, this is indeed a refined gentleman. I wonder what treasures he has presented?" He ordered the servants to unrill the scrolls.

As the first scroll was unrolled, the judge and the others started in surprise: it was a poem written in the hand of the famous cillgrapher, Zu Yunning.

"This is extremely valuable," exclaimed the man called Master Fan. They hurriedly opened the second scroll and saw it was a painting of flowers on the top of which was the Imperial vermilion seal of Qian Long. Yuan Mei was puzzled and turned to ask his colleagues if they knew who the benefactor was. They looked at the scrolls and pondered silently.

"Why don't we go over and meet him?" one finally suggested.

"If we do that, people will accuse us of being unfair," replied another. "With such treasures as these two scrolls, the Top Candidate is obviously Beautiful Jade."

"Let us have a look at the third scroll," suggested a third.

They unrolled it and saw it was a piece of unsigned calligraphy.

"Not very graceful," remarked one of the experts. "The writing style lacks strength."

"Shh! It's written in the Emperor's hand," another whispered urgently. The others all jumped in fright and dared not discuss the matter further.

"The judging of the gifts has been completed," Yuan Mei announced in a loud voice. "The Top Candidate is Miss Beautiful Jade, second is Miss Lunar Palace, third is Miss Water Lily."

Applause arose from all corners of the lake.

Beutiful Jade began to sing again, and her tender voice penetrated Qian Long's bones, making his heart itch unbearably.

"Go and tell that girl to come over," he said to He Jia. "And don't say who I am."

The boat glided over to Beautiful Jade's and He Jia leapt across. After an interval, he returned with a piece of paper and handed it to Qian Long and said: "She told me to give this to you."

Qian Long peered at the note under the lamplight and saw it read: "Tomorrow."

The calligraphy was very poor, but the paper was heavily scented with a fragrance that made his heart quiver.

"Why wait until tomorrow? I am here now," he said. But when he looked up again, he saw Beautiful Jade's boat was already moving off. As Emperor, the concubines of the palace tried every trick they could think of to be favoured by him. When had a woman ever rejected his advances? But the more she kept him at arms length, the more he desired her. He hurriedly issued an Imperial command: "Chase after that boat!"

Qian Long stood silently on the prow, his heart pursuing the boat ahead. The lights on the lake were going out but the music had not yet been extinguished. He indistinctly heard what he thought was the sound of laughter and soft words from the boat in front.

The distance between the two boats gradually closed. Suddenly the curtain on the flower boat parted for a second and a object was flung in the direction of Qian Long. Bai Zhen lunged forward to intercept it, and as it hit his hand he noticed the object was not a dart as he had expected but a red handkerchief with all four corners knotted together. He quickly presented it to the Emperor.

Qian Long untied it and inside he found a lotus sweet and a lily bulb: both were symbols of a well-matched couple. How could he fail to catch the meaning of such a romantic message?

The flower boat reached the bank, and Beautiful Jade stepped off and into a small horse-drawn carriage. She looked out of the carriage window and smiled seductively at Qian Long, then released the carriage curtain.

"Hey! Wait a moment, don't go!" He Jia yelled, but the driver took no notice and with a clatter of horses' hooves, the carriage moved off south.

"Get another carriage quickly!" He Jia called. The bodyguards soon found a carriage and forced its occupants out. Qian Long stepped inside and it raced off after the other carriage.

Bodyguard Bai Zhen saw they were heading towards the prosperous district of the city, and decided everything was all right: the Emperor had obviously decided to spend the night at the home of the courtesan. But having seen her only a few days before with the Red Flower Society men, he had to take precautions against a trap. He quickly ordered Rui Dalin to bring extra men to help protect the Emperor.

Beautiful Jade's carriage passed along several streets, then turned into an alley and stopped in front of a pair of black-painted gates. An attendant on the carriage jumped down and knocked on them just as Qian Long was descending from his carriage. With a long squeak, the gates were opened, and an old woman came out, pulled aside the carriage curtain and greeted Beautiful Jade. She stepped out of the carriage and, seeing Qian Long standing to one side, hurried over to greet him.

"Aiya, Master Dongfang," she said. "Thank you so much for your gifts just now. Please come in and have some tea." Qian Long smiled and walked through the gates.

One of the bodyguards rushed in ahead of the Emperor, his hand on the hilt of his sword, checking for assassins or perhaps a customer of the prostitute who would wish to protest that he was first.

Beyond the gates was a courtyard. A wave of flowery fragrance assailed their noses and tree shadows danced on the ground around two cinnamon bushes which were in full bloom. Qian Long followed Beautiful Jade into a small, elegantly-decorated chamber lit by two tall, red candles.

A maid brought in wine and food. Qian Long looked at the plates of delicacies, including marinated chicken and Thousand-Year-Old eggs, and marvelled at how exquisite they were compared to the heavy food he was served in the Imperial palace. The maid strained two cups of aged, deeply-fragrant rice wine.

Beautiful Jade took a sip and smiled. "Master Dongfang, how can I ever thank you?" she said.

Qian Long raised his cup and drained it in one draught. "Sing a song first," he said, also smiling. "We will discuss at our leisure how you can thank me."

Beautiful Jade picked up a pipa and began to play softly.

While the Emperor drank and enjoyed himself inside, Commander-in-Chief Li arrived with a detachment of troops and encircled the alley with ring after ring of guards. His officers searched every nearby house thoroughly, leaving only Beautiful Jade's room untouched. Bai Zhen ordered a group of guardsmen to patrol the roof tops with bows and arrows at the ready. Countless men have been to brothels over the centuries, but Qian Long's visit was surely the most imposing and awe-inspiring visit of all.

The guards and soldiers were kept busy the whole night, but dawn finally broke without anything untoward having happened. The sun rose, and He Jia tiptoed over to Beautiful Jade's bed-chamber to peek through a crack in the window. He spied Qian Long's boots lying by the bed and retreated. Eight o'clock passed, nine o'clock and ten o'clock and still there was no sign of the Emperor rising. Becoming anxious, He Jia returned to the window and called quietly: "Master, would you like some breakfast?" He called several times, but there was no response.

He went to the door and gave it a push, but it was barred from inside. "Master!" he called out loudly. Still no answer from the room. He Jia was very concerned, but he didn't dare break the door down. Instead, he went to discuss the situation with Commander Li and Bai Zhen.

"Why don't we tell the old house woman to go and knock on the door with some breakfast. His Highness won't be offended," suggested Li.

"An excellent idea, Commander," Bai Zhen said.

The three went off to look for the old woman, but found the whole establishment was deserted. Greatly alarmed at the situation, they began banging frantically on Beautiful Jade's door.

"Force it open!" ordered Li. Bai Zhen put both of his palms on the door, and with a sight push, snapped the door bar.

He Jia went in first and carefully pulled apart the bed curtains to find the bed clothes in disarray but absolutely no sign of Qian Long or Beautiful Jade. He fainted to the floor in fright.

Bai Zhen hastily called in some guards and searched the establishment, but they failed to find so much as half a clue. How could the Emperor have disappeared when the guard they had mounted was so tight that not even a sparrow could have escaped without being noticed? Bai Zhen toured round the room once more looking for a secret door, but he knocked and banged for a long time without finding anything suspicious. The Imperial Guard Commander Fu Kangan and the provincial governor arrived having received news of Qian Long's disappearance, and they all gathered in the middle of Beautiful Jade's boudoir, pale frightened and completely at a loss for what to do.


After listening to Beautiful Jade sing for a while and drinking a few cups of wine, Qian Long had begun to feel a little sleepy.

Beautiful Jade smiled. "Would you like to lie down?" she asked. He nodded in answer, and she helped him take off his clothes and boots, led him over to the bed and covered him with the bed clothes.

"I'll just go out for a second, then come back to you," she said. Feeling lulled and drowsy from the scented pillow and sheets, Qian Long heard a faint sound in front of the bed.

"You mischievous girl," he said with a smile. "What's the hold up?"

The curtain opened and a head appeared. Under the candlelight Qian Long could see it had a pock-marked face, and thick sideburns, very different from Beautiful Jade's fair features. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and looked again just as the intruder placed a shining dagger by his neck and said quietly in Cantonese: "Damn your ancestors, you bastard Emperor, make one sound and I'll use this."

Qian Long's lust dissipated in a flash as if he had been doused with a bucket of iced water. The man said nothing more, but stuffed a handkerchief into Qian Long's mouth, then rolled him up tightly in the eiderdown and carried him off.

Unable to move or make a sound, Qian Long's eyes stared at the blackness and felt himself being carried down a flight of steps. His nose caught the musty smell of mud and dank humidity, then after a moment, he felt himself being carried upwards again. He realized the man must have emerged from a hidden tunnel in the room.

He felt himself being shaken and heard the sound of wheels starting to move, and knew he was in a carriage. In his terror, he wondered who had kidnapped him and where they were taking him.

The carriage travelled for a long time. After a while the road became uneven, and the carriage shook and bumped about, indicating they had left the city. Finally they stopped, and Qian Long felt himself lifted out of the carriage and carried upwards, one step after another endlessly until he thought they must be ascending a high peak. He was so frightened, his whole body quaked, and surrounded by darkness inside the quilt, he almost began to cry.

Finally, he was put down with a bump. He waited quietly, not daring to speak, but a long while passed without anything happening. He slowly pushed aside the quilt in which he was wrapped and looked out to find everything in total darkness. He fancied he could hear the sound of waves breaking a long way off, and concentating he also heard the wind rippling through fir trees and the clear, steady chime of a brass bell. The wind became stronger and stronger, gusting angrily, and he thought he felt the structure he was in rocking slightly. Even more afraid, he moved as if to stand up.

"If you want to live, don't move," a deep voice close by growled. Qian Long jumped in fright and stayed as still as he could.

Gradually, the wind subsided and it began to grow light until he could see he was in a small room. Having climbed for so long to reach it, he wondered if it was a house on the peak of a mountain. He heard a series of snuffling noises, and listening carefully, realised the guards were eating noodles. From the sound of it there were two of them, chewing great mouthfuls with relish. Having been awake all night, he felt hungry and his appetite sharpened as the smell of the noodles wafted over to him.

The two finished eating. One of the guards walked over and placed a full bowl of prawn and eel noodle soup about five feet from his head.

"Is that for me?" Qian Long wondered to himself. But the guards said nothing, and despite his hunger he did not dare to open his mouth to ask.

"That bowl of noodles is for you," one of the guards finally said. "There's no poison in it."

Qian Long was overjoyed. He sat up to get the bowl, but a wave of cold struck his body and he remembered that he was naked. He hastily lay down again and wrapped himself in the quilt. How could he stand up in front of strangers without a stitch on?

"Damn your ancestors, so you're afraid of poison are you?" one of the guards said. "All right, I'll eat it to show you." He picked up the bowl and guzzled its contents down.

Qian Long looked at his scar-covered face in fright. "I am not wearing anything," he said. "Please get me some clothing."

Even though he said please, his words still smacked of an Imperial order. The man grunted. "I don't have time," he replied. It was 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi.

Qian Long's anger surged up, but remembering his life was in their hands, he swallowed his Imperial pride.

"Are you Red Flower Society men?" he asked. "I want to see your leader, Chen."

"You had our Brother Wen treated so badly, his body is a mass of wounds. The Great Helmsman is busy finding a doctor to help heal him. He has no time to see you," Shi replied. "Maybe when Brother Wen has recovered, we'll think about it."

Qian Long wondered how many months or years it might take for Wen to recover.

"And if Brother Wen doesn't recover," said the other guard, 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, "that's it for you. A life for a life."

Qian Long pretended he hadn't heard.

The two guards began talking at once, cursing the Manchu invaders for seizing the lands of the Chinese people, and the officials and landlords for the way they oppressed the common folk. Qian Long was shocked by the hatred evident in every word. At noon, two other guards arrived to relieve them, and as the new pair ate, they discussed the sadistic ways in which magistrates punished and tortured honest citizens, describing in great detail how slivers of bamboo were forced under finger nails, buttocks branded with red-hot iron bars and bodies stretched on racks.

"When we have seized all these corrupt officials," said one, "we'll give them a taste of their own medicine."

"First we have to deal with their leader," replied the other.

To Qian Long, that day seemed as long as a year. Towards evening, the Twin Knights took over. First, they drank in dour silence. Then, when they were slightly drunk, they began discussing the cruel and unusual methods used by the fighting community to take vengeance on enemies: how Black Tiger Kao had once been arrested, and later went back and gouged out the eyes of the official responsible; how White Horse Tan had avenged his brother's death by burying alive the murderer's family.

Hungry and frightened, Qian Long covered his ears, but every word still found its way in. The twins displayed great staying-power, and talked until morning, cursing the "Turtles" an untold number of times. The candlelight flickering on the Twin Knights' features made them look like living ghosts, and Qian Long was unable to close his eyes once during the night.

The next morning, 'Buddha' Zhao and 'Leopard' Wei came. Qian Long looked at the kindly face of Zhao and the handsome face of Wei, very different from the demon-like guards they replaced and he relaxed slightly. But his hunger was becoming too much to bear.

"I want to see your leader, Chen," he said to Zhao. "Please pass on the message for me."

"The Great Helmsman is busy today," Zhao replied. "Maybe in a few days time."

Qian Long wondered if he would still be alive after a few more days of such treatment. "Well, please get me something to eat first to ease my hunger."

"All right," replied Zhao. "His Imperial Highness wants a banquet," he shouted at the top of his voice. "Make preparations quickly!" Wei bowed and left.

Qian Long was overjoyed. "Get a set of clothing for me," he said.

"His Imperial Highness wants some clothes! Bring a gown for him quickly!" Zhao bawled out again.

"You're a good man," said Qian Long. "What's your name? I will reward you well later." Zhao smiled slightly but did not answer. Qian Long suddenly recogized him. "Ah, now I remember," he said. "You're the one who is so good at Dart Kung Fu."

Meng brought a set of clothing in and placed it on the quilt. Qian Long sat up, then saw it was a suit of chinese clothes in the style of the Ming dynasty which the Manchus had overthrown. He hesitated.

"That's the only set of clothes we have," Zhao said. "Wear them or not, as you like."

Qian Long considered the situation. How could he, as the Emperor of the Manchu dynasty, wear a set of Ming dynasty chinese clothes? But if he didn't put something on, he would not be able to eat, and after one day and two nights of hunger, he dispensed with his misgivings and donned the garments.

The clothes felt unfamiliar, but there was something dashing and elegant about them. He walked the few steps over to the window and looked out, and started involuntarily. Forests and fields were spread out before him like a chess board, and in the far distance was a great river spotted with sails. He realised he was at the top of a tall pagoda, and from its position and design, recognized it as the famous Six Harmonies Pagoda near Hangzhou.

Several more hours passed before someone came to announce: "The banquet is ready. Please come down and eat."

Qian Long followed Zhao and Wei down one floor where a large round table had been set up in the centre of the room. All the seats around the table were already occupied except for three, and as Qian Long descended, the diners stood up and saluted him. Qian Long was secretly ecstatic at this sudden display of respect.

"Our Great Helmsman says Your Highness and he have been close friends ever since you first met," said Priest Wu Chen. "As a result, he has invited you here to stay for a few days to provide an opportunity for the two of you to have a discussion. However, important matters have suddenly come up which require the Great Helmsman's attention and he has asked me to convey his sincere apologies."

Qian Long grunted noncommitally. Priest Wu Chen invited him to take a seat, and Qian Long took the guest of honour's place.

A servant brought up a flask of wine and the priest took it from him.

"We brothers are very uncouth, completely incapable of waiting on Your Highness properly. Please do not be offended," he said, pouring wine into Qian Long's cup. But as it reached the rim, his face darkened.

"His Majesty must have the very best wine," he shouted angrily at the servant. "How dare you bring us this tepid spirit?" He picked up the cup and threw its contents into the servant's face.

"This is only wine we have here, sir," replied the servant apologetically. "I will immediately go to the city and buy some of better quality."

"And be quick about it," shouted Priest Wu Chen. "Wine such as this is all right for coarse people like ourselves, but how can you offer it to His Highness?"

'Mastermind' Xu took the wine flask from him and poured out a cup for everyone else, leaving only Qian Long's cup empty, apologising effusively as he did so.

A moment later, another servant brought in four steaming dishes of food, one of lightly-fried shrimps, another piled with salted pork ribs, a third with steamed fish, and a fourth of fried chicken slices. Qian Long breathed in the fragrant aroma of the food, but Priest Wu Chen frowned.

"Who cooked this food?" he demanded. A man took two steps forward. "I did," he said.

"What sort of object are you? Why didn't you arrange for His Majesty's favourite cook, Zhang Anguan, to come to prepare some dishes? How can you expect His Majesty to eat such rough Hangzhou food?"

"These dishes look delicious," protested Qian Long. "They certainly cannot be called rough." He picked up his chopsticks and stretched over to pick up some food. Lu Feiqing, sitting next to him, stretched out his own chopsticks and caught Qian Long's between them.

"These dishes are too coarse for Your Highness. You would not wish to have an upset stomach," he said, and applying a slight amount of pressure, snapped Qian Long's chopsticks in two.

Qian Long's face flushed deep red and he slammed the chopstick ends down onto the table. The others pretended not to notice and began eating.

"Go and get His Highness's personal cook to prepare some food quickly," Xu shouted. "His Highness is hungry, do you hear?"

The cook hastily retired. Qian Long knew they were playing with him. Hunger burned in his stomach as he watched the others eating and drinking voraciously. He was livid with rage, but he could not risk displaying his feelings. When they had finished, a servant came in with some tea.

"This tea is not too bad," said Xu. "Your Highness may like to drink a cupful."

Qian Long drank the cup dry in two mouthfuls, but it only served to aggravate his hunger. 'Crocodile' Jiang rubbed his belly appreciatively and said: "I'm full!"

"We are making arrangements for a proper banquet for you, Your Highness," 'Buddha' Zhao said.

Priest Wu Chen stamped his foot and exclaimed that the Great Helmsman would be very displeased to find his honoured guest had been kept waiting.

Lord Zhou began clicking his iron gallstones together. "Are you hungry, Your Majesty?" he asked. Qian Long said nothing.

"What do you mean, hungry?" asked 'Crocodile' Jiang. "I'm full!"

"The well-fed never appreciate the anguish of the hungry," added Xu. "There are countless millions of common people who are starving, but when have those in authority ever spared a thought for them? Having been a little bit hungry today, perhaps Your Highness will in future understand more about how the common people suffer when they starve."

"Some people are hungry for months and years on end. Some never eat their fill once in a whole lifetime," said one of the Twin Knights. "What's so special about not eating anything for a day or two?"

Most of the Red Flower Society heroes had been born into poverty. Their anger rose as they thought of the past and they all began talking at once, swapping stories.

Qian Long's face went pale as he listened. He found himself moved by their sincerity. "Could such misery really exist in the world?" he asked himself. The more he heard, the more embarrassed he felt, and finally he rose and went back upstairs. The heroes did not try to stop him.

A few hours later, he smelt the aroma of mutton with onions and green peppers wafting up from below. This was a speciality of the Imperial chef, Zhang Anguan, and just as Qian Long was wondering if it could really be him, Zhang Anguan ran up and kowtowed, saying: "Please come and eat, Your Highness."

"What are you doing here?" Qian Long asked in amazement.

"Your slave was watching an opera performance in a park yesterday when I was kidnapped. Today, I was asked to wait on you, and your slave was delighted to have the opportunity."

Qian Long nodded and went downstairs. The table had been set with a number of dishes including the mutton, all them his personal favorites. As well as the main dishes, there were also a dozen or so plates of small delicacies, and his heart leapt for joy at the sight of the feast. Chef Zhang filled a bowl of rice for him.

"Please eat, Your Highness," said Priest Wu Chen.

Qian Long wondered whether they would allow him to eat this time. He was just about to raise his chopsticks when a young girl came in carrying a cat.

"Daddy," she said to Lord Zhou. "Kitty is hungry."

The cat struggled to free itself and jumped onto the table. The animal ate a couple of mouthfuls from the dishes spread before Qian Long, then it suddenly went rigid, dropped onto the table top, dead.

Qian Long's face went white, and Chef Zhang, shaking from fright, knelt down and said: "Your Highness…Your Highness…the food…they've poisoned the food…don't eat it!"

Qian Long laughed out loud. "You have committed rebellion and other heinous crimes. Now you wish to assassinate me," he said. "If you are going to kill me, do it cleanly. Why go to the trouble of poisoning the food?" He pushed his chair back and stood up.

"Your Highness, are you sure this meal is inedible?" asked Priest Wu Chen.

"You traitorous thieves!" Qian Long shouted, his anger breaking through. "We'll see what sort of an end you all come to!"

Priest Wu Chen slammed his hand down on the table. "For a real man, life and death are decided by Heaven!" he shouted. "If you won't eat, then I will! Who has the guts to join me?"

He picked up his chopsticks, took some food from one of the dishes the cat had tried, and began chewing noisily. The other heroes sat down again too, all saying: "If we die, we die. What does it matter?" Qian Long was stunned at the sight of these criminals eating poisoned food.

The heroes, who had fed the cat poison in advance, ate all the dishes clean in a trice, and suffered no ill effects. Qian Long, having failed to eat even one mouthful, had lost yet another round.


While Qian Long went hungry, the official administration in Hangzhou was turned upside down. News of the Emperor's disappearance had not yet leaked out but the whole city had been searched. All exits from Hangzhou by both land and water were heavily guarded, and several thousand "suspected bandits" had been arrested until every prison was full. The local officials were very worried, but they also took advantage of the situation to seize rich businessmen and merchants and extort large sums of money from them.

Fu Kangan, Commander Li and Bai Zhen jumped about like ants on a hot plate, completely at a loss for what to do.

Early on the morning of the third day, Fu Kangan called a meeting in the provincial governor's residence. Glum-faced and powerless, they argued about whether or not the Empress should be informed. But none of them dared consider the consequences once such a report had been sent.

As they sat gripped by indecision, one of the Imperial Bodyguards, named Rui, ran in, his face deathly pale, and whispered into Bai Zhen's ear.

Bai Zhen went white and stood up. "How could this happen?" he demanded. Fu Kangan hurriedly asked what was wrong.

"The six bodyguards standing guard outside the Emperor's bed chamber have been killed," Rui said. Far from being alarmed, Fu was pleased by this news.

"Let us go and see," he said. "This event must be connected with His Majesty's disappearance. We may even find some clues."

They hurried to the bed chamber that had been set aside in the Governor's residence for Qian Long. Six corpses lay at all angles around the room. Some had had their eyes gouged out, some had gaping holes in their chests: All had died horribly.

"These six brothers were good fighters," said Bai Zhen. "How could they have been finished off without being able to even utter a sound?"

They stared in open-mouthed horror, incapabale of deciphering the scene. Bai Zhen examined the corpse. The assassins had moved so fast, some of the six had not even had time to draw their swords.

He frowned. "This room is not big enough for a large number of people to fight in, so at the very most there cannot have been more than two or three of them," he said. "Their kung fu must be extraordinary."

"Since they already have the Emperor, why should they come and kill these bodyguards?" asked Commander Li. "From the look of it, last night's assassins and the people who kidnapped the Emperor are not the same bunch."

"That's right!" exclaimed Fu Kangan. "The assassins came, planning to kill the Emperor, but found he wasn't there."

"I would guess that you are correct," said Bai Zhen. "If the men who killed the bodyguards were from the Red Flower Society, then the Emperor has fallen into someone else's hands. But apart from the Red Flower Society, who else is there whose kung fu is so good?" The Red Flower Society's fighters were already difficult enough to handle: the sudden appearance of yet another group of powerful enemies froze his heart.

Bending over to look at the corpses again, Bai Zhen noticed that some of the wounds appeared to have been made by the claws and teeth of a dog, and he hurriedly asked Commander Li to send someone to find some hunting hounds.

About two hours later, a soldier appeared with three hunters and six hounds. Bai Zhen ordered the hunters to let their charges sniff around the corpses, and after a second the dogs charged out of the chamber on the trail of a scent. They ran straight to the lake and barked madly across the water. After a moment, they raced off again along the lake shore to where Qian Long had stepped ashore following the courtesan contest, then turned towards the city. The streets were crowded and the scent confused, and the dogs were forced to slow down, but they continued to head towards Beautiful Jade's establishment.

There should have been troops on guard outside the entrance, but none were to be seen, and as they entered the courtyard they found a dozen corpses lying on the ground. The ruthless assassins had not left one bodyguard alive. Some had had their throats ripped out by dogs, which Bai Zhen thought appeared from the wounds to be very large animals, possibly a cross between dogs and wolves such as were bred in the northwest. Could the assassins have come from there?

The dogs sniffed their way around Beautiful Jade's chamber several times, then began scratching and pawing at a certain point on the floor. Bai Zhen ordered the soldiers to prise up the floor boards with their swords and underneath they found a stone slab.

"Lift it up!" Bai Zhen ordered urgently. The soldiers heaved the slab up, revealing a deep hole into which the dogs immediately leapt. Commander Li and Bai Zhen looked down at the tunnel glumly. The kidnappers had avoided the heavy guard by coming and going via the tunnel. Full of shame, they led their troops down into the darkness.



After two days and nights of being starved, frightened and angered, Qian Long's resistance was virtually worn away. On the morning of the third day, a boy appeared and said: "Master Dongfang, our master invites you to come and talk with him."

Qian Long recognized the boy as Chen's attendant, and he followed him down to the floor below.

As he entered, Chen, smiling broadly, advanced to greet him, and bowed. Qian Long returned the bow, and the two sat down. Xin Yan served some tea.

"Bring some titbits to eat," Chen ordered. A moment later, Xin Yan carried in a tray on which was placed plates of spring rolls, prawns, chicken and ham. He set out two sets of bowls and chopsticks and poured wine for them both.

"Please forgive me for not being able to see you sooner. I had to go to visit a friend who was wounded," said Chen.

"It is nothing."

"There is something I wish to talk to you about, but please eat first," Chen added. He chose a morsel from each plate, then put down his chopsticks and watched Qian Long wolf down the food.

When he had finished, Qian Long sat back, unspeakably contented, and raised his tea cup. He looked closely at the tiny Dragon's Well tea leaves and took a leisurely sip, savouring the feeling of the liquid seeping into his stomach.

Chen walked over to the door and pushed it open. "All the others are downstairs standing guard. There could not be a more convenient place for us to talk. No one will hear us," he said.

Qian Long's expression hardened. "Why did you have me brought here?" he asked. "What is it you want?"

Chen stepped forward and stared into his face.

"Do you still not recognize me, brother?" Chen asked after a moment's silence. The words were soft, the tone intimate, but they hit Qian Long's ears with the force of a clap of thunder, and he jumped. An expression of deep sincerity on his face, Chen slowly extended his hand and took Qian Long's.

"We are blood brothers," he said. "There is no need to continue the deception, my brother, I know everything."

Chen pulled on a chord beside a painting hanging on the wall and the painting rolled up to reveal a mirror. "Take a look at yourself," he said.

Qian Long stood up and gazed at himself in the mirror, wearing Chinese clothes: his face contained not the slightest likeness to a Manchu. He looked at Chen standing beside him, and had to admit that despite their difference in age, their faces were similar. He sighed and sat down.

"Brother, we were not aware of the situation before," said Chen. "We even took up arms against each other. The spirits of father and mother up in heaven must have been heartbroken. Luckily neither of us was hurt and nothing happened which cannot be rectified."

Qian Long felt a rasping dryness in his throat and his heart beating rapidly. A moment passed. "I asked you to go to Beijing with me to work, but you refused," he said finally. Chen turned and gazed out at the great river without answering.

"With your scholastic abilities," Qian Long continued, "what reason would there be for not promoting you? Such a situation would be of great benefit to our family and to the nation, to both you and I. Why be so disloyal and unfilial as to continue with this criminal course of action?"

Chen spun round. "I have never accused you of being disloyal or unfilial, or of acting criminally, and yet you accuse me of these things."

"Hah!" replied Qian Long. "It is true that ministers must be completely loyal to their emperor. But since I am already emperor, how could I be disloyal?"

"You are obviously a Chinese and yet you submit to the Manchus. Is that loyalty? When our father and mother were alive, you never attended to them properly. Is that filial behaviour?"

Beads of sweat dripped off Qian Long's forehead. "At the time, I did not know," he said quietly. "I first heard about it when the former leader of your Red Flower Society, Master Yu, visited me last spring. Even now, I'm not sure whether I believe it."

"Look at yourself," Chen said. "What resemblance is there to a Manchu? How can you have any further doubt?"

Qian Long brooded in silence.

"You are Chinese. The homeland of the Chinese people has fallen into the hands of the Manchus, and you yourself lead them in the oppression of our people. Is that not disloyal, unfilial and criminal behaviour?"

For a moment, Qian Long was at a loss for a reply. "And now I have fallen into your hands," he finally said, haughtily. "If you are going to kill me, then kill me. There is no point wasting words."

"But we made a pact on the embankment at Haining that we would never do anything to hurt one other," Chen replied softly. "How can I go back on my word? And anyway, now that we know we are blood brothers, we have even less reason to do each other harm." A tear trickled unbidden down his cheek.

"Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want to force me to abdicate?"

"No," said Chen, wiping his eyes. "You can continue to be emperor. But as the wise, enlightened founder of a new dynasty."

"Founder of a new dynasty?" Qian Long echoed in surprise.

"Yes. You will be a Chinese emperor, not an emperor of the Manchus."

Qian Long suddenly understood. "So you want me to drive out the Manchus?" he said.

"Yes, you will be emperor just the same, but instead of being regarded as a criminal and cursed by future generations, why not establish an outstanding and rejuvenating dynasty that will last?"

Chen saw from Qian Long's expression that his words were having the desired effect.

"Being the emperor you are at present, you are simply basking in the glory of the former Manchu rulers," he continued. "What is so special about that? Look at that man."

Qian Long went over to the window and looked down in the direction Chen was pointing, and saw a peasant in the distance hoeing the ground.

"If that man had been born in the Imperial Palace and you had been born in his farm house, he would be emperor, and you would have no choice but to hoe the field."

Qian Long started at the novelty of the idea.

"A man is born into the world and his life is gone in a flash," said Chen. "If you achieve nothing worthwhile, you decay and rot like grass and trees without leaving a trace behind. The emperors of the past who established their own noble dynasties were truly great men. Even a Tartar such as Genghis Khan could also be considered to be outstanding."

Every word stabbed deep into Qian Long's heart. If, he thought, if I really do as he says and throw the Manchus out and restore the Chinese homelands, I would truly be the founder of a dynasty and a man of greater achievements than any emperor before me.

Just as he was considering an answer, he heard the sound of dogs barking in the distance. Seeing Chen frown slightly, he looked out and spied four massive hounds galloping towards the pagoda with two figures following.

In the wink of an eye, they reached the base of the pagoda and there was a sharp challenge from below. Qian Long and Chen, in the second-highest storey of the thirteen-storey pavilion could not hear distinctly what was said, but they saw the two new-comers and their dogs charge into the pavilion. A moment later, there was a loud whistle indicating danger.

Seeing help had arrived, Qian Long was overjoyed. Chen looked around carefully, but could see no other signs of movement: the two intruders were alone.

He heard the shouts of youngsters mingling with the barks and growls of the dogs, indicating Zhou Qi and Xin Yan on the second floor were doing battle with the animals. All of a sudden, there were two screams, and two swords were hurled out of the window. Just then, 'Crocodile' Jiang wielding his mighty iron oar chased the four dogs out of the pagoda and began beating them mercilessly. Someone on the sixth floor and gave an ear-splitting whistle. The four dogs turned and raced away.

Noting the intruders had reached the sixth floor, Chen realised it meant Twelfth Brother, Ninth Brother and Eighth Brother had been unable to stop them. He groaned inwardly.

Suddenly, he saw 'Mastermind' Xu leap out of the seventh floor window onto the narrow roof pursued by a tiny old woman with a head of white hair and a sword slung over her back.

"Watch the dart!" Xu yelled with a wave of his hand, and his opponent hastily withdrew. But it had been merely a feint, and Xu took advantage of the trick to escape round the corner.

The old woman chased after him.

"Watch out!" Xu yelled.

"You bastard monkey," the old woman cursed. "You can't fool your grandma again."

She made a grab for him, but this time, it was no feint: a piece of tile Xu had picked up from the roof hurtled towards her. Unable to avoid it, the old woman blocked the tile with her hand and it shattered. The Twin Knights, standing guard on the eighth floor, appeared to be fully occupied dealing with the old woman's partner, for they gave Xu no help. Xu's kung fu was no match for the old woman's, and after a few moves, he was forced to dodge out of the way again.

Qian Long watched with pleasure as the two new-comers fought their way up, but Chen also seemed strangely unconcerned. He pulled a chair to the window so that he could sit and observe the battle. There were only two of them, he thought. In the end, they could not overcome all the Red Flower Society's fighters.

Then he heard the sound of more dogs barking in the distance intermingled with shouting and galloping horses.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Xin Yan raced in.

"The guards outside report that more than two thousand Manchu troops are approaching, heading straight for us," he told Chen, using the Red Flower Society's secret language.

Chen nodded and Xin Yan raced back downstairs. Qian Long did not understand what Xin Yan had said, but seeing Chen's anxious expression, he knew it was unwelcome news. He looked into the distance and spotted amongst the maple trees a white flag on which was written one large word: "Li". Overjoyed, he realized Commander Li had come to save him.

Chen leaned out of the window and shouted: "Brother Ma, retreat into the pagoda and prepare the bows and arrows!"

Suddenly the old woman rushed into the room with the heroes close behind. Lord Zhou attacked her with his great sword while Chen pulled Qian Long into a corner.

Xu motioned some of the others to guard the windows, and Chen shouted: "Throw down your sword and we'll spare you!"

The old woman could see she was surrounded, but she continued to fight, completely unafraid.

"I've seen her sword style somewhere before, I'm sure," Zhou Qi said to Xu.

"Yes, I thought it was familiar too," he replied.

The old woman forced Lord Zhou back a pace, then shouted at Qian Long: "Are you the emperor?"

"Yes, I'm the emperor," he replied hastily. "Are all the rescue forces here?" The woman leapt onto the table, then with her sword pointing straight out, flew at him like a great bird, thrusting the blade at his heart. The heroes had assumed she was one of Qian Long's underlings come to rescue him, and were caught completely unaware by this fast move. But Chen, who was standing by Qian Long's side, thrust his fingers at a Yuedao point on the old woman's arm. Her blade slowed, giving Chen time to draw his dagger and place it in the way of the sword. The two blades clashed, then both retreated two paces. Chen pulled Qian Long back and placed himself in front of him, then saluted.

"What is your honourable name, Madame," he asked.

"Where did that dagger of yours come from?" she replied.

Chen was surprised by the question. "A friend gave it to me," he said.

"What friend?" the woman demanded. "You are a servant of the Emperor. Why would she give it to you? What is your relationship with Master Yuan, the Strange Knight of the Heavenly Pool?"

"He is my teacher," said Chen, answering the last question first.

"So that's it," the woman said. "Your teacher may be peculiar, but he's an upright gentleman. How could you have dishonoured him by becoming a running dog of the Manchus?"

"This is our Great Helmsman, Master Chen," 'Iron Pagoda' Yang shouted. "Don't talk such nonsense."

The old woman's face took on a puzzled expression. "Are you the Red Flower Society?" she asked.

"Correct," said Yang.

She turned on Chen. "Have you surrendered to the Manchus?" she screeched in rage.

"The Red Flower Society is just and upright. How could we bend our knees before the Manchu court?" he replied. "Please sit down, madame. Let us discuss this calmly."

Her expression softened slightly. "Where did your dagger come from?" she asked again.

Having seen her kung fu style, and hearing her questions, Chen had already almost solved the puzzle.

"It was given to me by a Muslim friend," he said. The exchange of presents between boys and girls was not an ordinary thing, and Chen was unhappy about discussing the matter in front of everyone.

"Do you know Huo Qingtong?" the old woman demanded. Chen nodded.

"It was Sister Huo Qingtong who gave it to him," Zhou Qi interjected. "Do you know her? If you do, we're all on the same side!"

"She is my pupil," the old woman said. "Since you say we are all on the same side, what are you doing helping the Emperor, and stopping me from killing him?"

"We caught the Emperor," said one of the Twin Knights. "If he is to be killed, it will not be you who does it."

"Huh!" the woman exclaimed. "You mean you caught the emperor and brought him here?"

"This is a misunderstanding, Madame," said Chen. "We invited the Emperor to come here. We assumed you were palace bodyguards coming to rescue him, that is why we tried to obstruct you."

The old woman went over to the window and stuck her head out. "Come down, husband!" she shouted at the top of her voice. An arrow shot in through the window from below and the old woman grabbed it by its tail, then turned in one movement and threw the arrow so that it implanted itself in the table top.

"You untrustworthy rascal," she screeched at Chen as the arrow quivered. "What is the meaning of this?"

"Please don't be angry Madame," replied Chen hastily. "Our brothers at the base of the pagoda are not yet aware of the situation." He walked to the window planning to tell the heroes to stop firing and saw that the pagoda was already surrounded by Manchu troops.

"Third Brother," he said to 'Buddha' Zhao. "Tell the others to guard the doorway, but not to go outside." Zhao nodded and went downstairs.

"You must be Madame Guan," said Lord Zhou to the old woman. "I have long respected you."

Madame Guan nodded slightly.

"This is Lord Zhou Zhongying," said Chen to her.

"Ah, I have heard about you too," she said, then suddenly screeched out: "Husband, come down! What are you doing?"

The others all jumped at this unexpected outburst.

"Your husband is fighting with Priest Wu Chen," said Lord Zhou. "Let's go and explain the situation to them quickly."

Chen motioned to the Twin Knights to guard Qian Long, and the rest raced up the stairs to the thirteenth floor.

"Husband!" Madame Guan shouted. "They're the Red Flower Society!"

Her husband Bald Vulture, locked in fierce combat with the Taoist priest, started in surprise, and hesitated in his attack. "Really?" he said.

There was a laugh from above their heads and Master Lu Feiqing dropped to the floor.

"Excellent swordsmanship, excellent," he chuckled, nodding appreciatively at both Bald Vulture and at Priest Wu Chen.

"Do you recognize me?" he asked Bald Vulture.

Bald Vulture looked at him closely for a moment, then gave a shout.

"Ah! You're 'Hidden Needle' Lu," he exclaimed.

"That's right," Lu smiled.

"What are you doing here?" Bald Vulture asked.

Lu turned without answering and bowed before the old woman. "Madame, it has been many years since I last saw you, but your kung fu is better than ever!"

"Ah," exclaimed Bald Vulture again, staring at Lu's blade. "That's a very precious sword you have there!"

Lu smiled. "It belongs to someone else," he said. "I'm just using it temporarily." But let me introduce you. He introduced all the heroes, to 'Bald Vulture' Lin and his wife Madame Guan, the Tianshan Twin Eagles.

"I thought you two were living happily in the Tianshan mountains," Lu said. "And here you are, trying to kill the Emperor."

"You have all met my young pupil, Huo Qingtong," replied Madame Guan. "This affair started with her. The Emperor sent an army to attack the Muslims, but they couldn't match the Manchu troops' strength and lost some battles. Later, the Manchu grain supplies were ransacked…"

"That was the Red Flower Society," interrupted Lu. "They did it to help Muzhuolun."

"Mm, I heard about that," said Madame Guan. She glanced at Chen. "No wonder she gave you that dagger."

"That was before. We met when they came to recover their sacred Koran."

"You also helped to get that back. The way the Muslims talk of you, you're all great heroes!" Her tone suggested she disagreed. "After the Manchu troops lost their grain, they also lost a battle and Muzhuolun suggested peace talks. But just as the truce talks were getting started, the Manchu general got hold of some rations and attacked again."

"Manchu officers have no sense of honour," said Lu, shaking his head sagely.

"The ordinary people of the Muslim areas have been brutally treated by the Manchu troops," Madame Guan continued. "Master Muzhuolun asked us to help. We originally didn't want to have anything to do with it…"

"It was you!" Bald Vulture butted in accusingly. "Now you're trying to feign innocence."

"What do you mean, me? Look at the way the Manchus are burning and pillaging across the Muslim lands, oppressing the people. Don't you care?"

Bald Vulture grunted in indignation and was about to argue further when Lu raised his hand.

"You two are just the same as ever," he said with a smile. "As soon as you open your mouths, you're arguing. Don't take any notice, Madame, please continue."

She eyed her husband distastefully, then said: "We first thought of assassinating the Manchu general, Zhao Wei, but there wasn't much point in killing one general, because the Emperor would just send another and it would go on for ever. So we decided to kill the Emperor instead. We went to Beijing, but heard on the road that he had come down south. We followed him out of Hangzhou with our dogs using the tunnel you used to bring him here. At the time, we were very puzzled as to why the Emperor would suddenly want to travel around in tunnels."

"What? So you captured the Emperor?" said Bald Vulture. Chen nodded. "You did pretty well," Bald Vulture commented.

Suddenly, there was a roar from the Manchu troops around the base of the pagoda.

"I'll go and tell the Emperor to shut them up," said Xu, and ran downstairs. A moment later they saw Qian Long stick his head out of the window on the seventh floor and shout: "I'm here!"

"There's His Highness!" called Bai Zhen down below and the troops all prostrated themselves on the ground.

"I am all right up here!" Qian Long added. "There is no need for such noise." There was a pause, then he added: "All of you retire thirty paces!" They complied immediately.

"Seventh Brother directs the Emperor and the Emperor directs the troops," said Chen with a smile. "That's much better than charging out and killing and slaughtering. The Emperor is the most precious object under heaven. It is better to use him than to kill him." The others laughed.

'Leopard' Wei, who was watching the Manchu soldiers withdraw, saw several men in their midst with hunting dogs on leashes.

"Ah, I was wondering how they found their way here," he said. He took a bow from one of the attendants, and shot off two arrows, and there were two long screams and two of the dogs fell to the ground, dead. A roar went up from the Manchu troops, who speeded up their retreat.

"Master Lu, Lord Zhou," said Chen. "Please entertain the Twin Eagles while I go downstairs and have another talk with the Emperor."

As Chen reached the seventh floor, the Twin Knights and Xu bowed to him and retired. Qian Long was sitting despondently in a chair.

"Have you made a decision yet?" asked Chen.

"Since you have caught me, you might as well kill me if you are going to. What is the point of talking?"

Chen sighed. "It is such a pity," he said.

"What's a pity?"

"I have always thought of you as an extremely talented man and have pride in the fact my parents gave birth to such a good son, my brother. But…"

"But what?"

Chen was silent for a moment. "But although outwardly you appear to be a man of courage, you are virtually hollow inside. Not being afraid of death is the easiest thing in the world. But the formation of a grand designs, the making of great decisions, that is something that can only be done by a man with true courage. That is precisely what you are incapable of doing."

Qian Long was silent, but he appeared to be moved by Chen's words.

"All you have to do is to decide to restore the Chinese nation and we unruly fighters will immediately follow your every instruction," Chen added. "I can strike my chest and guarantee that they will not dare to do anything disrespectful towards you."

Qian Long nodded several times, but there was still an area of doubt in his mind which made it impossible for him to speak out. Chen guessed his thoughts.

"All I want is to see you throw the barbarian Manchus out of China," he said. "Then I will be content," he said. "Then I will ask you to allow me to retire to the seclusion of the Western Lake and live out the rest of my life in peace."

"What sort of talk is that?" said Qian Long. "If this Grand Design was achieved, your assistance would be required in planning affairs of state."

"We are getting ahead of ourselves," replied Chen. "But once the Grand Design has been completed, you must allow me to retire."

Qian Long slapped his hand down on the table. "All right," he said. "We'll do as you say."

Chen was overjoyed. "You have no further doubts?" he asked.

"None. But there is one thing I would like you to do for me. Your former Great Helmsman, Yu Wanting, had several items stored in the Muslim areas and said they were proof of my birth. Go and get them so that I can see them. Only then will my last doubts disappear. Then we will discuss detailed plans."

Chen felt this was reasonable. "All right," he replied. "I will start out tomorrow and get them myself."

"When you get back, I will assign you to the Imperial Bodyguard, then promote you to be commander of the Beijing garrison," said Qian Long. "I will gradually transfer the military power in every province into the hands of Chinese we can trust. I'll make you Secretary of the Armed Forces with orders to disperse the key Manchu Banner units, and then we can act."

Chen knelt down and performed the ritual act of obeiscence of a vassal before his Lord, but Qian Long hurriedly helped him up.

"An oath must be sworn in front of the others over this," Chen said. "There must be no reneging."

Qian Long nodded.

Chen clapped his hands once and ordered Xin Yan to help Qian Long change back into his original clothes.

"Please ask everyone to come to pay their respects to the Emperor," he said.

The heroes crowded in. Chen told them Qian Long had agreed to chase out the Manchus and restore the Chinese throne, then swore in a clear voice: "In future, we will assist Your Highness, and together plan the Grand Design. If anyone should reveal this secret, he will be damned by heaven and earth."

He drank a draught of a specially prepared brew of Covenant Wine to seal the pact, and Qian Long did likewise.

"Bald Vulture, Madame Guan," said Lu. "Come and drink a cup of the Covenant Wine as well."

"I have never believed the word of any official, so why should I trust their leader?" said Bald Vulture.

His right hand suddenly struck the wall, smashing a section of it to rubble and pulled out a brick. "Whoever breaks the covenant, betrays his friends, and destroys the Grand Design will be crushed like this!" he shouted harshly, and with one movement of his hand, the brick broke into a thousand pieces which tumbled to the floor. Qian Long looked at the hole in the wall and down at the smashed brick in fright.

"Even though you decline to join the vow, we are all friends," said Chen. "But I trust Your Highness will not vacillate and forget the covenant established today."

"Please rest easy over that," replied Qian Long.

"All right. Let us escort His Highness out," said Chen. Wei raced out of the pagoda and shouted: "Come and meet His Highness!"

Half-suspicious, Commander Li and Bai Zhen ordered the troops to move slowly forward, afraid that this was yet another Red Flower Society trick. Suddenly, they saw Qian Long emerge from the pagoda and prostrated themselves on the ground. Bai Zhen led a horse over and Qian Long mounted.

"I have been drinking and composing poetry with them here," he said to Bai Zhen. "I wanted a few days' peace and quiet and you had to make a mountain out a molehill and rob me of my pleasure."

The heroes returned to the pagoda.

"We are extemely happy to have met you all today," said Bald Vulture. "Especially Lord Zhou, whom we have respected for so long, and Master Lu, whom we have not seen for many years. But now my wife and I have some other minor affairs to deal with, and will take our leave."

Madame Guan pulled Chen over to one side. "Are you married?" she asked.

Chen blushed deep red. "No," he replied.

"Are you engaged?"

"Not engaged either," he said. Madame Guan smiled to herself. Then she suddenly screeched: "If you are ever so ungrateful as to turn your back on the one who gave you that dagger, I will never forgive you." Chen was so shocked by the outburst he was completely lost for a reply.

"You scorpion!" her husband shouted from the other side of the side of the room. "What are you lecturing that young man about? Let's be going!"

Madame Guan turned round, emitted an ear-splitting whistle and four dogs raced out of the trees. The couple bowed before the heroes and took their leave.

"Let us go back upstairs to talk," Chen said. They followed him back up to the top floor of the pagoda.

"I promised the Emperor that I would go to see my teacher and collect two important items from him," said Chen. "But let us first go to Heaven's Eye Mountain to see how Brother Wen and Brother Yu are doing and then make further arrangements."

They left the pagoda and Master Ma and his son returned to Hangzhou by themselves while the rest of the heroes galloped off westwards.


The trees on the hillsides were dense and dark. It was already deep autumn and Heaven's Eye Mountain was covered in fiery-red leaves and yellowing grass. Lookouts sent word of the approach of Chen and his comrades and Zhang Jin and the other heroes came down to greet them.

Luo Bing was not among them, and Chen's heart missed a beat, afraid that something had happened to her.

"Where's Fourth Sister?" he asked. "And how are Brother Wen and Brother Yu?"

"They're fine," Zhang Jin replied. "Fourth Sister said she was going to get a present for Fourth Brother. She's been away two days already. You didn't meet her on the road?"

Chen shook his head. "What present?"

Zhang Jin smiled. "I don't know. Fourth Brother's wounds have healed well, but he spends all his time in bed moping. Then Fourth Sister came up with this idea of going to get him a present. I wonder who will lose out as a result?" The others laughed.

They made their way up the mountain and entered the courtyard of a large mansion. Wen Tailai was lying dejectedly on a rattan couch. They told him briefly about what had transpired and then went to the room next door to see 'Scholar' Yu.

As they stepped inside, they heard the sound of sobbing. Chen walked over and pulled aside the bed curtain to reveal Yu lying face-down on the bed, his back shaking uncontrollably. Even girls like Luo Bing and Zhou Qi rarely cried, and they were shocked and embarrassed by his behaviour.

"Fourteenth Brother," Chen said quietly. "We've come to see you. How do you feel? Are your wounds very painful?"

Yu stopped crying, but did not turn over. "Great Helmsman, Brothers, thank you all for coming to see me. Forgive me for not getting up to greet you properly. My health has improved a lot over the past few days, but my face has been burnt so badly, it's so ugly that I cannot face anyone."

Zhou Qi smiled. "What does it matter if a man has burn marks on his face?" she said. "Don't tell my you're afraid you won't be able to find a girl willing to marry you?" Some of the heroes laughed at her lack of restraint.

"Brother Yu," said Lu Feiqing. "Your face was burnt while saving myself and Wen Tailai. When people hear of this act, do you think there is anyone who would not proclaim you to be a hero? What need is there for such distress?"

"You are right, uncle," said Yu, and burst into tears again.

The heroes returned to the main hall. Chen and Xu talked together in low tones, then clapped their hands and the heroes stood up.

"Brothers," said Chen. "So far, things have gone very well for us. But in the future, we will face even tougher problems. I will now give you your assignments. Ninth Brother, Twelfth Brother, you two go to Beijing and see what you can find out about the Emperor's plans and if he intends to break our pact. This will be extremely difficult to execute. You must both exercise great caution." Wei and Shi nodded.

"Now, the Twin Knights," Chen continued. "Please go to the Southwest and make contact with the fighters in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Eighth Brother, you go to Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, Priest Wu Chen to Hubei and Hunan. Thirteenth Brother and Brother Ma in Hangzhou will contact people in Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi, while I would like to ask Master Lu to deal with Shandong and Henan. I would like Lord Zhou, Master Meng, Brother Xu and Mistress Zhou Qi to handle the northwest provinces. Fourth Brother and Fourteenth Brother will remain here convalescing with Fourth Sister and Tenth Brother to look after them. Xin Yan will accompany me to the Muslim areas.

"I am not asking you to begin preparations for an uprising, but simply to improve relations with members of the fighting community in all areas and to provide a basis on which we can act later," he added. "Absolute secrecy is essential, so do not reveal anything to anyone no matter how close or respected they are."

"We understand," they replied in unison.

"In exactly one year's time we will all gather in Beijing. By that time, Fourth Brother and Fourteenth Brother will be fully recovered and we can begin the great task!"

Cheers arose from the heroes. They followed Chen out of the hall, elated by the prospect of the future.

Only Zhang Jin, assigned by the Great Helmsman to stay at Heaven's Eye Mountain, was unhappy. Wen guessed his thoughts, and went over to speak to Chen.

"Great Helmsman, my wounds are almost healed, and although Fourteenth Brother's burns are serious, he is recovering quickly," he said. "It is a bit much to ask us to stay cooped up here for a year. The four of us would like to accompany you to the Muslim regions. The trip would also help to take Fourteenth Brother's mind off other things."

"All right, we'll do it that way," Chen agreed. Zhang Jin ran joyfully in to tell Yu the news.

Lord Zhou took Chen aside. "Great Helmsman," he said. "The fact that we have discovered through Master Wen that you and the Emperor are blood relations is a matter worthy of great rejoicing. I would like to add to it one more happy event. What do you think?"

"You wish to hold a wedding for Seventh Brother and Mistress Zhou, is that right?"

"Exactly," Zhou replied, smiling.

Chen walked over to Zhou Qi, his face wreathed in smiles, and bowed before her. "Mistress, congratulations," he said.

She blushed deeply. "What do you mean?"

"I should call you Seventh Sister. Seventh Sister, congratulations!" He clapped his hands loudly and the heroes immediately fell silent.

"Just now, Lord Zhou told me he wants Mistress Zhou Qi and Seventh Brother to be married this evening. So we have something else to celebrate!"

The heroes cheered loudly and congratulated Lord Zhou and Xu. Zhou Qi hastily made for her bedroom in embarrassment.

"Tenth Brother!" Wei called to Zhang Jin. "Stop her. Don't let the bride escape!" Zhang made as to grab her and Zhou Qi chopped out with her left hand to fend him off.

"Help!" he cried in mock surprise, dodging to one side. "The bride's attacking me!"

A laugh escaped from her as she charged out of the hall.

Just then, there was the sound of bells outside and Luo Bing ran in carrying a large box.

"Oh good, everyone's here!" she cried. "What's happened to make you all so happy?" She looked enquiringly at Chen.

"Ask Seventh Brother," said Wei.

"What's happened, Brother Xu?" Luo Bing asked, but Xu was speechless for a moment. "Mm? That's strange. Has the Kung Fu Mastermind gone silly?"

'Crocodile' Jiang dodged behind Xu and held up his thumbs and made them bow to each other. "The Mastermind is getting married today," he said with glee.

"Oh, how awful, how awful!" Luo Bing exclaimed, absolutely delighted.

The others laughed. "What do you mean, awful?" asked 'Pagoda' Yang.

"If I'd known, I could have brought a sheep and some nice things back with me. As it is, I have almost nothing to give them as presents. Isn't that awful?"

"Will you let us all see what you've brought for Fourth Brother?" Yang asked.

Luo Bing smiled and opened up the box. Glinting inside were the two jade vases which the Muslims had sent to the Emperor along with their request for a truce.

"Where did you get them?" the heroes asked in astonishment.

"I was chatting with Fourth Brother and mentioned how beautiful the girl on the vases was, but he didn't believe me…"

"I'll bet Fourth Brother said: 'I don't believe she is more beautiful than you.' Am I right?" interrupted Xu.

Luo Bing smiled but did not answer. "Did you go to Hangzhou and steal them from the Emperor?" Xu asked.

Luo Bing nodded, very pleased with herself. "I got them so Fourth Brother could have a look. The Great Helmsman will decide what should be done with them after that, whether we should keep them or return them to Sister Huo Qingtong." Wen examined the vases and tutted in admiration.

"I was right, wasn't I?" asked Luo Bing. Wen smiled and shook his head. Luo Bing started, then realised her husband meant that the girl on the vase could not be more beautiful than she was. Her cheeks flushed.

"The Emperor has many top fighters around him and such precious items as these vases must have been very well guarded," said Priest Wu Chen. "How did you manage to steal them?"

Luo Bing told them how she had slipped into the Yamen, grabbed a eunuch and forced him to tell her where the vases were, slipped poison into the food of some of the guards, and made cat noises to distract the rest, then grabbed the vases. The heroes praised her artistry, all except Lu Feiqing.

"Fourth Sister," he said. "You are very brave, but was it wise to take such a risk alone just for the sake of a remark you made to Master Wen? As it happened, the Imperial bodyguards were fully occupied that particular night searching for the Emperor. If they had been there, things could have turned out differently."

"Yes," Luo Bing replied, then turned and stuck out her tongue at Wen.

The wedding ceremony took place amidst great merriment, and the next morning the heroes made their way down the mountain, wished each other well, and went their separate ways.

Chen and Lord Zhou were both heading for the northwest and Chen suggested they travel together. But Zhou said he wished to take advantage of their presence in the south to visit the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province whose style of kung fu was related to his own. So taking his wife and his assistant Meng with him, he headed south.

Chen, Wen, Luo Bing, Xu, Zhou Qi, Zhang Jin, 'Scholar' Yu and Xin Yan travelled north through Nanking. By the time they had crossed the Yangtse, Wen had completely recovered and Yu was progressing well. As they continued north, the weather became cooler, the grass and trees turned yellow as early winter set in. After passing through Kaifeng, Yu was well enough to ride a horse, and the eight of them galloped together along the highway. The north wind blew angrily, throwing dust and sand into their faces.

Wen, riding the white horse, galloped ahead of the others and stopped at an inn in a small village and told the servants to kill a chicken and prepare a meal, Then he sat down near the door to await the arrival of his friends. He ordered a pot of tea and wiped his face with the hot flannel brought out to him. Suddenly, a figure darted out from a room on the eastern side of the inn but immediately withdrew on catching sight of Wen.

About an hour later, Chen and the others rode up and Wen quietly informed them of what had happened. Xu looked round towards the room and saw a section of the window paper was wet with a black eyeball in the centre which immediately disappeared. He smiled.

"It's a novice," he said. "As soon as he starts, he reveals himself."

"Go over and see him," Chen said to Xin Yan. "If he has financial problems, lend him some money."

Xin Yan went over to the room and said in a loud voice: "All streams under heaven have the same source, Red Flowers and green leaves are all one family."

This was the Red Flower Society members' catch-phrase for identifying themselves to other members of the fighting community. Even if the other party was not an associate of the Red Flower Society, as long as he knew the phrase and asked for help, he would receive it. But all was quiet in the room. Xin Yan repeated his call, and the door creaked open and a figure dressed in black with a large hat pulled down low came out and gave him a letter.

"Give this to your Master Yu."

Xin Yan took the letter and the figure rsn out of the inn, jumped onto a horse and galloped away. He gave the letter to Yu who opened it and found the following written inside:

"What do ugliness and beauty have to do with true love? I will follow you even over a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers. And tell your Great Helmsman that the Three Devils of Guandong are on their way to the Muslim regions to get their revenge on Huo Qingtong for killing their martial brother." Recognising the calligraphy as being that of Li Yuanzhi, he frowned and handed the sheet to Chen.

Chen studiously ignored the first sentence, which obviously dealt with private romantic affairs. But he immediately informed the others of the news about the Three Devils of Guandong.

"They are tough fighters," said Wen. "I wonder if she can handle them?"

"We once watched Mistress Huo fighting with that Guangdong Devil, Yan Shizhang, and she proved herself to be a little better than him," Xu replied. "But if the Great Helmsman hadn't stepped in to save her, I'm afraid she would have fallen victim to his evil tricks."

"The eldest of the Devils, Tang Yilei, is very strong, a formidable man," said Wen.

"Since the Three Devils are already on their way, it would be best if someone went on ahead on Sister Luo Bing's horse," Xu suggested. "From the look of things, the military situation in the Muslim regions is tense, and Master Muzhuolun and his people must be busy making defensive preparations. We shouldn't let Mistress Huo be caught unawares by the Three Devils." Chen knew he was right, and he frowned silently.

"Great Helmsman, I think it would be best if you went on ahead," said Xu. "You speak the Muslim language, your kung fu is good, and the Three Devils have never seen you before. If General Zhao Wei has not withdrawn by the time you get there, you can also help the Muslims."

"All right!" said Chen after a moment's hesitation.


Chen was extremely concerned at the news that the Three Devils of Guandong were out to get Huo Qingtong. The image of her gradually disappearing into the dust of the Great Desert forced its way into his mind once more, but remembering how familiar she had been with Master Lu's pupil, he decided that he was fooling himself about her feelings for him. But he was unable to forget her image.

The white horse was extraordinarily fast, and in less than two days he arrived at Jiayu Fortress, the western end of the Great Wall. He climbed up onto the battlements and looked out at the Wall snaking away into the distance, holding at bay the great wilderness. He felt a sense of excitement at the thought of once more entering the border regions, and followed custom by throwing a stone at the wall. The sandstorms outside the Wall were perilous, the way would be hard, and according to tradition, if a traveller threw a stone at the wall as he passed through the Jiayu Gate, he would be able to return alive.

He travelled by day, rested by night. After he had passed the Jade Gate and Anxi, the desert changed colour gradually from pale to dark yellow, and then slowly turned to grey as he skirted the Gobi. The region was uninhabited, containing nothing but endless expanses of broad desert.

He passed through the Stellar Gorge, the main link between Gansu Province and the Muslim regions. It was already winter and the first accumulations of snow coud be seen along the gorge, providing a thrilling contrast of black and white.

"What a perfect place for an ambush," Chen thought.

That night, he lodged in a small hut and the next day found himself at the edge of the Gobi desert. The Gobi was as flat as a mirror, completely different from a sandy desert with its rolling dunes. Gazing into the distance, it seemed to him as if the sky and earth touched one another. All was silent, and it seemed as if he and his horse were the only beings in the universe.

The As he rode, day after day, he considered the problem of how to find Huo Qingtong. As a Chinese, the Muslims could suspect him of being a spy, so to gain their confidence he would have to resort to deception. He decided to disguise himself as a Muslim, and at the next settlement, bought a small embroidered cap, a pair of leather boots and a striped gown. Riding on, he found a deserted place and changed into his new clothes, burying the old ones in the sand. He looked at his reflection in a nearby stream and was so pleased with his appearance as a young Muslim boy that he let out a laugh.

But he met no Muslims on the road. The Muslim villages and dwellings he came upon were all burnt to the ground, obviously the good work of General Zhao Wei's army. He decided he was unlikely to meet any Muslims on the main highway, so he cut off south, and headed into the mountains. In such desolate wilderness, there was little chance of finding any settlement, and after three days, his dry rations were finished. But luckily, he managed to catch and kill a goat.

Two days further on, he met a number of Kazakh herdsmen. They knew that the Muslim army had retreated westwards in the face of the Manchu force, but had no idea where it had gone.

There was nothing for it but to continue west. Chen gave the horse its head and made no attempt to divert it. For four days he covered more than a hundred miles a day with nothing but sand and sky before his eyes.

On the fourth day, the weather turned hot. The burning sun scorched down on both man and horse. He wanted to find somewhere shady where they could rest, but wherever he looked there was nothing but sand dunes. He opened his water flask, drank three mouthfuls, and let the white horse drink the same amount. Despite a terrible thirst, he did not dare to drink more.

They rested for two hours, then started out once more. Suddenly, the white horse raised its head and sniffed at the wind, whinnied loudly, then turned and galloped off south. Chen gave it its head. Soon, sparse grasses began to appear on the sand dunes around them, then green grass. Chen knew there must be an oasis ahead, and his heart leapt. The white horse too was in high spirits and its hooves flew.

After a while, they heard the sound of running water and a small steam appeared before them. Chen dismounted and scooped up a mouthful of water. As he drank, he felt a coolness penetrate to his lungs and noticed a slight fragrance to the water. The stream was full of little pieces of ice which jostled each other, emitting a crisp jingling noise, like the music of fairies. After drinking a few mouthfuls, the white horse gave a whinny and gambolled about happily for a moment.

Having drunk his fill, Chen felt relaxed and content. He filled his two leather water flasks. In the midst of the sparkling ice fragments, he spotted flower petals floating past, and realized it must be flower beds further upstream which made the waters so fragrant.

"If I follow the stream up," he thought, "I may come across someone who can tell me where Huo Qingtong might be." He remounted and started along the bank.

The stream gradually widened. In the desert, most rivers and streams are larger close to their source as the water is soaked up by the desert sands and eventually disappears. Having lived many years in the Muslim areas, Chen did not consider it strange. The trees along the banks of the stream also increased in number and he spurred his horse into a gallop. As they turned a bend in the stream round a hill, a silver waterfall came into view.

Chen felt invigorated by the discovery of such a gorgeous place in the midst of the barren desert, and was curious to know what vistas would present themselves above the waterfall. He led the horse round and up, and as they emerged from a line of tall fir trees, he stopped in amazement.

Before him was a wide lake fed by another large waterfall at its southern end. The spray from the cascade spread out in all directions, combining with the sunlight to create a glorious rainbow, while a profusion of trees and flowers of many colours surrounded the lake and reflected in its turquoise-green waters. Beyond was a huge expanse of verdant grass stretching off to the horizon on which he could see several hundred white sheep. A high mountain rose into the clouds from the western bank of the lake, the lower slopes covered in green foliage and the upper slopes in brilliant white snow.

He stood staring at the scene for a moment. The sound of small birds singing in the trees and ice slabs in the lake jostling against each other combined with the roar of the waterfall into a work of music. Looking at the surface of the lake, he suddenly noticed a circle of small ripples, and a jade-white hand emerged from the water followed by a dripping-wet head. It turned and saw him, and with a shriek disappeared back into the water.

In that moment, Chen had been able to see that the head belonged to an extremely beautiful young girl.

"Could there really be such things as water spirits and monsters?" he wondered. He pulled out three chess pieces and lodged them in his palm just in case.

A string of ripples stretched across the surface of the lake northwards, then with a splash, the girl's head re-emerged amidst an outgrowth of flowers and bushes. Through a gap in the leaves, he could see her snow-white skin, her raven hair splayed out over the surface of the water and her eyes, as bright as stars, gazing across at him.

"Who are you?" a clear voice asked. "Why have you come here?"

She spoke in the Muslim language, and although Chen understood, he was unable to answer. He felt dazed, as if drunk or in a dream.

"Go away and let me put my clothes on," the girl said. Chen's face flushed and he quickly went back into the trees.

He was extremely embarrassed and wanted to escape, but he thought he should at least ask the girl for news of Huo Qingtong. For a while he was undecided. Then the sound of singing, soft but clear, floated over from the opposite side of the lake:

"Brother, brother, passing by,

Please come back

Why have you run off so fast

Without a word?"

He walked slowly back to the lake and, looking across, saw a young girl dressed in a brilliantly white gown sitting bare-foot on a bed of red flowers by the water's edge. She was slowly combing her long hair, still covered in beads of water, as flower petals drifted slowly down onto her head. He marvelled that such a beautiful girl could exist.

The girl smiled radiantly and motioned with her hand for him to come over.

"I was passing this way and felt thirsty," Chen said in the Muslim language. "I chanced upon a stream and followed it here. I did not expect to run into you, miss. It was an unintentional error. Please forgive me." He bowed as he spoke.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"I am called Ahmed."

This was the most common name among Muslim men, and the girl smiled again.

"All right," she said. "Then my name Ayesha." This was the most common name among Muslim women. "Who are you looking for?"

"I have to find Master Muzhuolun."

The girl looked startled. "Do you know him?"

"Yes, I do," said Chen. "I also know his son, Huo Ayi, and his daughter, Huo Qingtong."

"Where did you meet them?"

"They travelled to the central plains to recover the sacred Koran and I happened to come across them there."

"Why are you looking for Master Muzhuolun?"

Chen recognised the note of respect in her voice. "Is he of the same tribe as you, miss?" The girl nodded.

"They killed a number of bodyguard agency escorts while recovering the sacred Koran, and friends of the escorts are now seeking revenge. I want to warn them."

The girl had had a smile constantly playing around her lips, but now it disappeared. "Are the men that are coming to take revenge very terrible?" she asked. "Are there many of them?"

"No, not many. They are good fighters, but as long as we are prepared, there is nothing to fear."

The girl relaxed and smiled again. "I will take you to see Master Muzhuolun," she said. "We will have to travel for several days." She began to plait her hair. "The great Manchu army came and attacked us for no reason and all the men have gone away to fight. My sisters and I have remained here to watch over the livestock."

As she talked, Chen gazed at her in wonder. He could never have imagined such jade-like beauty, even in his wildest dreams. Such a scene, such a situation was simply not of this world.

The girl finished combing her hair, picked up an ox horn and blew several notes on it. A short while later, a number of Muslim girls on horse-back galloped towards them across the pastures. She went over and talked with them while the other girls weighed Chen up, very curious as to who he was. She then walked over to a tent pitched between the trees and came back leading a chestnut horse carrying food and other essentials.

"Let's go." She mounted in one effortless bound, and rode off ahead of him heading south along the course of the stream.

"How did the Chinese people treat you when you were in the Chinese areas?" she asked as they rode along.

"Some well, some not, but mostly well." Chen replied. He wanted to tell her he was himself Chinese, but her complete lack of suspicion somehow made it difficult for him to do so. She asked about what the Chinese regions were like. Chen chose a few interesting stories to tell her, and she listened enthralled.

As the sky grew dark, they camped for the night underneath a huge rock by a river. The girl lit a fire, roasted some dried mutton she had brought and shared it with Chen. She was silent throughout, and Chen did not dare to speak, as if words would desecrate the sacred purity of the scene.

The girl began telling him about her youth, how she had grown up as a shepherdess on the grasslands, and how she loved flowers more than anything in the world.

"There are so many, many beautiful flowers on the grasslands. As you look out, you can see flowers stretching to the horizon. I much prefer to eat flowers than mutton."

"Can you eat flowers?" Chen asked in surprise.

"Of course. I've been eating them since I was small. My father and my elder brother tried to stop me at first, but when I went out by myself to look after the sheep, there was nothing they could do. Later, when they saw that it did me no harm, they didn't bother about it any more."

Chen wanted to say that it was no wonder she was as beautiful as a flower, but he restrained himself. Sitting beside her, he became aware that her body exuded a slight fragrance, more intoxicating than that of any flower. Light-headed, he wondered what lotion she used that was so fragrant. Then he remembered the rules of etiquette and discreetly moved to sit a little further away from her. The girl saw that he had noticed the fragrance and laughed.

"Ever since I was young, my body has given off a fragrance," she said. "It's probably because I eat flowers. Do you like it?"

Chen blushed at the question and marvelled at her simplicity and frankness. But gradually, his reticence towards her faded.

The girl talked of shepherding, of picking flowers and looking at stars and of the games that young girls play. Since leaving home, Chen had spent all his time amongst the fighting community and had long ago forgotten about these child-like matters. After a while, the girl stopped talking and looked up at the Milky Way sparkling its way across the heavens.

Chen pointed up. "That constellation is the Weaving Girl star," he said, "and that one on the other side is the Cowherd Star."

She was fascinated by the names. "Tell me the story about them," she said, and Chen told her how the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl fell in love but found themselves separated by a silvery river, the Milky Way, and how a stork built a bridge across to unite them once a year.

The girl looked sombrely up at the stars. "I have never liked storks before, but seeing as they built a bridge to bring the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl together, I have changed my mind. From now on when I see them, I will give them something to eat."

"They may only be able to meet once a year, but they have done so for hundreds of millions of years. They are much better off than we ordinary people, doomed to die after a few decades," Chen replied. The girl nodded.

The desert had grown very cold with the coming of night and Chen went to look for some dead wood and grass to build up the fire. Then they wrapped themselves in blankets and went to sleep. Despite the distance between them as they slept, it still seemed to Chen that he could smell the girl's fragrance in his dreams.

Early next morning they started out again heading west, and after several days arrived at the banks of the Tarin River. That afternoon, they chanced upon two mounted Muslim warriers. The girl went over and spoke with them and after a moment the Muslims bowed and left.

"The Manchu army has already taken Aksu and Kashgar, and Master Muzhuolun and the others have retreated to Yarkand," she reported to Chen. "That's more than ten days's ride from here."

Chen was very concerned at the news that the Manchu forces had scored a victory.

"They also said that the Manchu troops are so numerous that our army's only option is to retreat and stretch their lines of communication. When their rations are exhausted, they will not have enough strength left to fight."

Chen decided the Muslim force would probably be safe for a while using this strategy. Once Qian Long's order to halt the war arrived, General Zhao Wei would retire with his troops. Huo Qingtong was now far away from central China and had the protection of a large army, so there was no longer any reason to fear the vengeful Devils of Guandong, Tang Yilei and his two friends. With that thought, he relaxed.

They travelled by day and slept by night, talking and laughing as they went. As the days passed, they became closer and closer, and Chen found himself secretly hoping that the journey would never end, that they could continue as they were forever.

One day, just as the sun was about to disappear beneath the grasslands, they heard a bugle note, and a small deer jumped out of a spinney of trees nearby. The girl clapped her hands and laughed in delight.

"A baby deer!" she cried. The deer had been born only a short time before and was very small and very unsteady on its feet. It gave two plaintive cries and then leapt back into the trees.

The girl watched it go, then suddenly reined in her horse. "There's someone over there," she whispered.

Chen looked over and saw four Manchu soldiers and an officer carving up a large deer while the fawn circled around them making pitiful cries. The dead deer was obviously its mother.

"Goddamn it, we'll eat you too!" cursed one of the soldiers, standing up. He fixed an arrow on his bow and prepared to shoot the fawn which, ignorant of the danger, moved closer and closer to him.

The girl gave a cry of alarm. She jumped off her horse, ran into the trees and placed herself in front of the fawn. "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" she cried. The soldier started in surprise and took a step backwards, dazzled by her beauty. She picked up the fawn and stroked its soft coat. "You poor thing," she crooned. She glanced hatefully at the soldier, then turned and walked out of the trees with the fawn.

The five soldiers whispered amongst themselves for a moment, then ran after her, shouting and brandishing their swords. The girl started running too and quickly reached Chen and the horses. The officer barked out an order and the five fanned out around them.

Chen squeezed the girl's hand. "Don't be afraid," he said. "I'll kill these villains to avenge the death of the fawn's mother." She stood beside him, the fawn cradled in her arms. Chen stretched out his hand and stroked the animal.

"What you doing?" the officer asked haltingly in the Muslim tongue. "Come here!"

The girl looked up at Chen, who smiled at her. She smiled back, confident that they would not be harmed.

"No weapons!" the officer shouted, and the other soldiers threw their swords to the ground and advanced. Strangely, despite the usual preference of soldiers for young maidens, they seemed cowed by her glowing beauty and made for Chen instead. The girl cried out in alarm, but before the cry was fully out, there was a whooshing sound and the four soldiers flew through the air, landing heavily on the ground some distance away. They grunted and groaned, unable to get up, for they had all been touched on Yuedao points. The officer, seeing the situation was unfavourable, turned and fled.

"Come back!" Chen ordered. He sent his Pearl Strings flying out and wrapped them around the officer's neck, then sharply pulled him back.

The girl clapped her hands and laughed in delight. She looked over at Chen, her eyes full of admiration.

"What are you doing here?" he asked the officer in the Muslim language. The officer clambered to his feet, still dazed. He looked around and saw his four comrades lying morionless on the ground and knew he was in trouble.

"We, General Zhao Wei, soldiers, orders, here, we here," he replied.

Well said, thought Chen. "Where are the five of you going? You'd better tell me the truth."

"Not cheat," the officer said, shaking with fear. "Orders, go, Stellar Canyon, meet people."

His stuttering Muslim speech was unclear and Chen switched to Chinese. "Who are you going to meet," he asked.

"A deputy commander of the Imperial Guard."

"What is his name? Give me the documents you are carrying."

The officer hesitated then pulled an official document from his pocket. Chen glanced at it and noted with surprise that it was addressed to "Deputy Commander Zhang Zhaozhong".

Master Ma Zhen took Zhang away to discipline him, he thought. How could he be on his way here?

He ripped the letter open and read: "I am delighted to hear you have received Imperial orders to come to the Muslim regions, and have sent this detachment to meet you." It was signed by General Zhao Wei.

If Zhang is coming at the Emperor's command, he must have been entrusted with passing on the order to retreat, Chen thought. I shouldn't interfere. He gave the letter back to the officer, released the paralysis of the four soldiers, then rode off with the girl without saying another word.

"You are very capable," the girl said. "Such a man as yourself would certainly be very well known in our tribe. How is it I have never heard of you before?"

Chen smiled. "The little fawn must be hungry," he said. "Why don't you give it something to eat?"

"Yes, yes!" she cried. She pured some horse's milk from the leather gourd into her palm and let the fawn lap it up. After a few mouthfuls, the fawn bleated mournfully. "She's calling for her mother," the girl said.


They travelled on for another six days. On the morning of the seventh day, they spotted dark clouds in the distance.

"Is that a storm brewing?" Chen asked.

The girl studied the horizon. "They're not rain clouds," she said. "It's dust from the ground."

"How could there be so much?"

"I don't know. Let's go and look!" They spurred their horses forward, and as the swirling dust cloud rose before them, they began to hear the sound of metal clashing with metal drifting over towards them. Chen reined in his horse.

"It's an army," he said. "We must get out of the way quickly." They turned and rode off east, but after a while, another dust cloud arose in front of them and a column of mounted troops appeared. Amidst the dust, Chen saw a huge flag inscribed with the name of General Zhao. Having already clashed once with Zhao's armoured troops at the Yellow River crossing, he knew them to be formidable fighters, and he motioned to the girl with his hand and galloped off southwards. Luckily, both their horses were swift, and after a moment's hard riding, the armoured column had dropped far behind.

The girl looked anxious. "I hope our army will be able to hold their own," she said. Chen was just about to say something comforting when horns sounded in front, and rank upon rank of soldiers appeared over a rise. To the left, there was a thundrous ground-shaking roar and a vast carpet of cavalry moved across the hills towards them. With one sweep of his left arm, Chen swung the girl onto his horse and took out his shield to protect her.

"Don't be afraid," he said. The girl, still hugging the little deer, looked round at him and nodded. "If you say there's no need to be afraid, then I won't be," she said. As she spoke, her soft, orchid-like fragrance, enveloped him, and feelings of tenderness rose within him despite the danger of their situation.

With enemy troops advancing from the east, north and south, Chen urged the white horse westwards as her chestnut horse followed along behind. After a while, they spotted Manchu troops ahead of them once more. Very worried, Chen spurred the horse up onto high ground to get a better idea of the Manchu positions and to look for a gap through which they could escape. But he could see at a glance that they were completely surrounded by the Manchu army. To the west, beyond the thousands of Manchu foot soldiers in close ranks protected on both flanks by cavalry, was the Muslim army, also an imposing force with a forest of spears and scimitars rising above the striped gowns of the warriors. The two sides had halted, obviously in preparation for battle, and Manchu officers rode back and forth making final prepartions. The huge army gradually became deathly quiet. Chen and the girl had by this time been noticed, and several soldiers approached to question them.

"The gods have conspired to deliver us into the hands of the Manchus," Chen thought. But the idea of dying with the girl beside him gave him a strange pleasure. He grasped the Pearl Strings in his right hand, the reins in his left, and shouted: "Let's go!"

The horse galloped off towards the end of the Manchu lines, and in the blink of an eye, had passed three companies of troops. Rank upon rank of armoured soldiers, bows at the ready, passed before them, and Chen knew that with one word from the Manchu commanders, he and the girl in his arms would immediately become the repositories of a thousand spears and ten thousand arrows. He pulled the reins in tightly and slowly cantered along, not even glancing at the soldiers.

The morning sun had just risen, and as they rode towards it, the troops stared in shock at the girl's glorious beauty, her hair, face, arms and gown splashed with pale sunlight, and each one, whether general or trooper, found his heart thumping furiously. They watched as the two gradually rode off into the distance.

Even General Zhao, who was in personal command, was overcome by a feeling of calm and peace, and he knew he was in no mood for killing. Looking round, he found all his officers and underlings likewise had expressions of serenity on their faces. They had already replaced their swords in their scabbards, and were obviously awaiting the general's order to retire.

"Return to camp," Zhao said in a far-away voice. The order was relayed back, and the tens of thousands of soldiers turned and went back to their camp site more than ten miles away beside the Black Water River.

Chen was covered in a cold sweat and his hands shook with fear, but the girl looked un-worried, apparently unaware of the great danger they had passed through. She smiled at him and leapt over onto the back of the chestnut horse.

"That is our army in front," she said. Chen put away his shield and galloped towards the Muslim lines. A small detail of cavalrymen rode out to meet them, shouting and cheering as they came, then jumped off their horses and bowed before the girl. The officer in charge walked over to Chen and bowed before him too.

"Brother, you have endured great hardship. May Allah the true God protect you," he said.

Chen bowed in return and thanked him. The girl rode straight into the Muslim ranks without waiting for Chen. She obviously commanded a degree of respect, for wherever the chestnut horse went, the soldiers made way for it with cheers.

A brigade commander invited Chen to the barracks to eat and rest, and Chen told him he wanted to see the tribe's leader, Master Muzhuolun.

"The Master has gone to observe the enemy's strength," the commander replied. "When he returns, I will immediately inform him." Following the long journey and the tense encounter with the Manchu army, Chen felt worn out, and after he had been shown to a small tent, he immediately slept.

Some time after noon, the commander returned to say that Muzhuolun was now not expected to return until evening. Chen asked him who the white-gowned girl was.

The commander smiled. "How could anyone be more beautiful than she?" he said. "We are having a love-match meeting tonight. Why don't you come along, brother? You will be able to meet our leader there."

Chen did not press him further. Towards evening, he saw the young warriors donning their finery, each face alive with excitement. The desert evening sky slowly deepened in colour and a thin crescent moon rose above the horizon. Chen heard the sound of music strike up and soon afterwards, the commander came into the tent.

"The new moon has risen," he said, taking Chen's hand. "Let us go, brother!" The two walked towards a huge bonfire where the young Muslim warriors were gathering. All around, people were roasting beef and mutton, and preparing various delicacies while others played musical instruments. A horn blew, and a group of people emerged from a large tent near the bonfire, among whom Chen recognised Muzhuolun and his son, Huo Ayi. Chen decided he would wait until the official ceremony was over before revealing himself, and turned up the collar of his gown to hide his face.

Muzhuolun motioned to the crowd, and they all knelt down and prayed to Allah. When the prayer was ended, he spoke.

"Those brothers who have already taken legal wives, I am afraid I must ask you to go and stand guard," he said. "Let your younger brothers have a pleasant evening."

Three columns of warriors formed up. Huo Ayi, flourishing his sabre, led them off into the darkness.

Having lived many years in the Muslim regions, Chen knew that although marriages were arranged by parents according to various considerations of wealth and property, the procedure was still much more liberal than that of the Chinese. The love-match party was a tradition among the Muslims that had been passed down for many generations at which young, unmarried boys and girls could seal their romances and become engaged. The initiative was taken by the girl, who would place a belt round the neck of her chosen boy and lead him to dance.

After a while, the music became softer in tone. The tent door flaps parted and out came a large group of young Muslim girls who sang and danced their way towards the bonfire. They all wore colourful clothes and small caps laced with gold and silver threads which sparkled brightly in the firelight. Chen noticed two beautiful girls walking over to Muzhuolun, one in yellow, the other in white, and with a start, he recognised them as Huo Qingtong and the girl who had brought him to the Muslim camp. Under the moonlight, they both looked extremely graceful and attractive. The two girls sat down, one on either side of Muzhuolun.

A thought suddenly struck Chen. "The girl in white must be Huo Qingtong's younger sister. No wonder I kept thinking her face was familiar: it's the same face as that on the jade vases, although the drawing does not even come close to reproducing her real beauty."

His heart began to thump wildly. From the day he had first met Huo Qingtong, his love for her had begun to grow, but the familiar closeness between her and Lu Feiqing's pupil had convinced him that she already had a suitor. Also, having spent the past few days with such a matchless beauty, his romantic thoughts had turned completely towards the white-gowned girl.

The music stopped, and Muzhuolun's voice rang out clearly: "The prophet Mohammed teaches us in the Koran in the 190th verse of the second chapter: 'Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you', and in the 39th verse of the 22nd chapter: 'To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight because they are wronged, and verily, Allah is most powerful for their aid.' We are being oppressed and Allah will certainly assist and protect us." A thunderous cheer went up from the crowd. "Brothers and sisters!" he shouted. "Enjoy yourselves fully!"

Singing and laughter rose all about, accompanied by the music of Horse Head fiddles. Cooks distributed roast meat, honeymelons, dried grapes and horse milk wine among the throng. Everyone held in their hands a small bowl made out of salt rock in which they rubbed the roast meat. After a while, the new moon rose up into the sky and the merry-making became even more intense. Some of the young girls jumped up and danced over to the boy of their choice, took the embroidered belt from their waists and placed it round the boy's neck, then led him off to dance near the bonfire.

Chen had grown up in a world of strict conventions and had never before seen an occasion of such open-minded and unrestrained merriment. With the singing ringing in his ears and emotions swirling through his heart, he found his face beginning to flush after only a few cups of horse's milk wine.

The music stopped momentarily, then started again, even faster than before. Everyone looked curiously towards Muzhuolun, and following the direction of their gaze, Chen saw the white-robed girl had stood up and was floating gracefully towards them. The crowd was greatly excited and a hubbub of discussion arose. Chen heard the cavalry commander beside him say: "The Fragrant Princess has chosen a lover. But who could possibly be worthy of her?"

That his beloved younger daughter had found a boy she loved was a great surprise and a great joy to Muzhuolun. He watched her intently with tears glistening in his eyes.

Princess Fragrance glided round and round, passing along the edge of the circle that had formed. In her hands, she held a brilliantly-embroidered belt and she softly sang:

"Please come out,

You who picked the snow lily for me.

I am searching for you,

You who saved my little deer."

The words hit Chen's ears like a clap of thunder. A white hand touched his shoulder and the embroidered belt fell around his neck. The Princess tugged gently and Chen, scared out of his wits, followed her. The crowd cheered, and all around him people started singing.

In the hazy moonlight, Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong failed to recognise Chen, and walked forward to congratulate him along with the others thinking he was an ordinary Muslim. Suddenly, they heard three blasts from a distant horn, the signal for danger, and the crowd immediately dispersed. Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong returned to their seats. The Princess took Chen's hand and led him off to sit at the back of the crowd. Chen felt her soft body leaning towards him, and a light fragrance entered his nostrils, intoxicating his senses. He truly could not tell if he was in a dream or in heaven.


All eyes turned in the direction from which the horn blast had come. Two Muslim guards rode up and reported to Muzhuolun: "The Manchu General Zhao Wei has sent an envoy who requests an audience."

"All right," replied Muzhuolun. "Bring him here." The two riders galloped off, and returned with five other riders who dismounted about a hundred feet from the crowd.

The Manchu envoy was robust man and walked towards them with powerful strides. But his four attendents made the Muslims jump in surprise. All four were giants, a good two heads higher than ordinary men, and their bodies were broad and thick.

The envoy strode up to Muzhuolun and nodded at him. "Are you the head of the tribe?" he asked arrogantly. The Muslims were outraged, and several of the younger warriors drew their sabres. The envoy ignored him.

"I am under orders from General Zhao Wei to give you an ultimatum," he announced loudly in the Muslim tongue. "If you know what's good for you, you will surrender immediately, in which case your lives will be spared. Otherwise, our two armies will meet at daybreak the day after tomorrow and you will be completely annihilated. It will be too late then for regrets."

The crowd of Muslims sprang to their feet in rage, but Muzhuolun, with a wave of his hand, ordered them to be seated and turned to the envoy. "You come without reason or justification and kill our people, steal our property. The True God on High will punish you for your dishonourable behaviour. If you want to fight, we will fight. Even if our army is reduced to only one man, that man will still never surrender."

The Muslims raised their sabres and repeated his words in unison: "If you want to fight, we shall fight!" they roared. "Even if our army is reduced to only one man, he will never surrender!" The mood was sombre but determined. The Muslims knew the Manchu force was powerful and that in a battle to the finish, the chances were they would lose. But they were loyal believers in Islam, they loved freedom and would be no man's slave.

The envoy looked about him and sneered. "All right," he said. "The day after tomorrow, each and every one of you will die." He spat savagely onto the ground in a calculated insult, and three young Muslims leapt towards him. "Today, you are an envoy, so you will be allowed to leave safely," one of them shouted. "But when we meet on the battlefield, we will not be so polite."

The envoy's mouth twisted in anger, and his four giant attendants roughly pushed aside the three Muslim boys and took up positions around him.

"Ha!" The envoy cried in contempt. "You useless scum! We'll give you a taste of our Manchu skills!" He clapped his hands and one of the four giants glanced round and strode over to a poplar tree nearby to which several camels were tethered. He grasped its trunk in his arms and after a few rigorous shakes, pulled the tree bodily from the ground. Then he snapped the reins of one of the camels and gave it a kick on its rump, sending it racing away in great pain. When the camel was more than a hundred feet away, another of the giants sprinted after it and in a moment caught up with the animal. He swung the huge camel onto his shoulders, ran back towards the bonfire and set it back on its feet, then stood proudly beside it. "Huh!" exclaimed the third giant in contempt, and drove a fist at the camel's head. The animal swayed unsteadily and crashed to the ground. The fourth giant grabbed hold of its two hind legs and swung it round and round above his head, then with a shout let it go. The camel fell to earth sixty or seventy feet away.

The giants, known as the Four Tigers, were quadruplets, and their mother had died giving birth to them. Their father was a poor hunter in the forests of Manchuria, and with his wife dead, he had no milk to feed the four babies, but soon after, he heard a mournful cry outside in the forest and found a female tiger caught in a trap. He and a companion were tying the animal up when he happened to notice three tiger pups lying close by. In a flash of inspiration, he killed the pups and took the tiger back to his hut where he reared her, feeding her meat every day, and milking her to feed his four sons. From the start, they were uncommonly big and strong, and became more so as they grew. The only problem was that they were a little stupid and impetuous.

The Muslims were startled by this amazing show of strength, but unwilling to appear weak before the enemy, they roared out their defiance.

"What are you doing, killing a good camel? Are you inhuman?" someone shouted. The envoy curled his lips into another sneer. The crowd became even more incensed, and it looked as though he would be mobbed.

"So you're going to bully an envoy, are you?" he shouted.

Muzhuolun restrained the crowd with difficulty. "You are an envoy, but you ordered your men to kill one of our camels, which is a great insult," he said. "If you were not guests here, I would not let you get away with it. Leave immediately."

"Do you think we Manchus are afraid of you scum?" the envoy shouted. "If you have a reply, give it to me to pass on. I'm sure none of you would dare to go and hand it to General Zhao Wei personally." Another roar went up from the Muslims.

Huo Qingtong jumped to her feet. "You say none of us would dare to go to see General Zhao Wei. Huh! Every single person here would dare, men and girls alike." The envoy looked stunned for a second, then threw back his head and roared with laughter. "If any of these girls didn't die of fright on seeing General Zhao Wei, I would be amazed."

"Don't underestimate us," replied Huo Qingtong angrily. "We will send someone back with you immediately. Pick someone yourself. Whoever you choose will go. You will see what spirit we followers of Mohammed have," The Muslims roared their approval and everyone began shouting "Choose me! Choose me!"

"All right," said the envoy coldly. He wanted to find the weakest, most useless girl who would immediately burst into tears so that the Muslims would lose face completely. His eyes roved over the crowd, searching back and forth, and suddenly lit up. He walked over to Princess Fragrance and pointed at her. "Let her go!" he said.

The Princess glanced at him and slowly stood up. "For my tribe, for my brothers and sisters, I would go anywhere without fear. Allah the true God will surely protect me," she said.

Her apparent weakness had given way to calm dignity. Faced with her stunning beauty, the envoy involuntarily lowered his eyes, and he felt a tinge of regret at his choice. Muzhuolun, Huo Qingtong and the other Muslims, although proud that she had not displayed weakness, were nonetheless anxious. Huo Qingtong was particularly worried. Her sister knew no kung fu, and could not be allowed to enter the Tiger's Lair unprotected. "She is my sister," she said. "I will go in her place."

The envoy laughed. "I always knew the word of a girl could not be relied upon. If you don't have the nerve, why bother sending anyone? War or surrender, I can take the message for you."

"If we meet on the battlefield and if you don't run away, I'll let you see whether us girls are useless or not," said Huo Qingtong, livid with anger.

"I would naturally be merciful with a beauty such as you," he replied, smiling. The Muslims gnashed their teeth at his insolence.

"Sister, I will go," the Princess said to Huo Qingtong. "Don't be afraid." She pulled Chen up by the hand. "He will go with me."

In the light of the flames from the bonfire, Huo Qingtong suddenly recognised Chen and stared at him in shock. Chen surreptitiously motioned with his hand indicating that she should not reveal his identity yet, then turned to the envoy.

"We mean what we say," he said. "I will go alone with her to see General Zhao Wei. Unlike you, we do not require four giants to protect us. What use are these giants anyway?"

"A camel can carry a load of thousand catties, but a man can only carry one tenth as much," added the Princess. "Should the man ride the camel or the camel the man?" A great laugh went up from the crowd at this taunt.

"What are they laughing at?" one of the four giants asked the envoy.

"They say that you are useless even though you are large and strong."

Incensed, the giant beat his chest with his hands. "Who dares to match himself against me?" he roared.

"What use are you?" the envoy said to Chen. "You've just a little stripling. Even if you were ten times stouter, you would still not be as strong as he."

Chen decided this envoy needed to be cut down to size to save the face of the Muslims. He took three steps forward.

"I may be the most useless member of our tribe but I am still better than you Manchus," he said. "Tell those four hulks to come over here."

By this time, Muzhuolun had also recognized Chen. "Daughter, look who it is!" he cried to Huo Qingtong in surprise and joy. The girl did not answer. Muzhuolun looked over and saw her eyes brimming with tears, and realised both his daughters were in love with the same man. He wondered how Chen had met his younger daughter.

Next to the giants, Chen looked like a small child. He had come forward, the Muslims decided, for the honour of the Princess and the tribe, but was obviously no match for the giants. Chen raised his hands to the crowd.

"Brothers," he said. "These Manchurians are useless. Let me deal with them by myself."

The envoy translated his words to the four giants, who angrily sprang forward to grab Chen. Chen stood solid, smiling faintly, and the envoy hurriedly restrained the four.

"Since this gentleman wants a contest, there will be no blame if anyone gets hurt," the envoy said to Muzhuolun. "It must be one against one, no-one else is allowed to interfere."

Muzhuolun grunted once.

"What fun is there in one to one?" said Chen. "Tell the four of them to come at once."

"How many will there be on your side?" the envoy asked.

"How many? Why, just myself of course." A murmur ran through the crowd: he had gone too far this time.

The envoy laughed coldly. "Are you Muslims really so formidable? First Tiger," he said to the largest of the four giants. "You first." First Tiger strode forward. "You will take it in turns to punch each other. Neither is allowed to block or retreat. The first one to fall loses."

"One is not enough," Chen said. "If we are going to fight, let them all fight together."

The envoy began to suspect Chen had some plan worked out. "Don't worry," he said. "If you beat this one, the others will come after you of their own accord."

Chen smiled. "All right. It's all the same to me." The giant ripped off his upper clothing, exposing ranks of huge, rippling muscles. Huo Qingtong glanced furtively at her sister and saw her gazing intently at Chen, her eyes full of adoration and love. Huo Qingtong sighed and looked over at Chen, and as their eyes met, he smiled warmly. She blushed and looked away.

"We will draw lots to decide who strikes first," said the envoy.

"You are the guests. You may go first," replied Chen. He took two steps towards the giant and thrust out his chest, "Hit me!" he said.

"Please come over here," the envoy said to Huo Qingtong. "We two will act as judges. Whoever moves his feet, uses his arms to deflect a blow, bends or dodges away will be considered the loser."

Huo Qingtong walked over and stood with the envoy as Chen and the giant faced each other, less than an arm's length apart. The huge crowd stood silently about them, watching intently.

"The Manchurian gentleman strikes the first blow," the envoy called out. "The Muslim gentleman will strike the second blow. If both are still all right, then the Manchurian gentleman will strike again followed by the Muslim gentleman. Right! The Manchurian shall strike!"

The silence was broken by the sound of First Tiger breathing deeply. Joints all over his body cracked loudly as he concentrated his strength. Suddenly, the right side of his chest bulged outwards and his right arm swelled to almost twice its normal size. Chen leaned slightly forward. "Punch me," he said.

Several Muslim men moved behind Chen to catch him. Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong silently prayed to Allah, but Princess Fragrance was unworried. If Chen said he was unafraid, there was certainly nothing to be afraid of.

The giant crouched slightly, then with a mighty roar slammed his right fist at Chen's chest. But at its maximum extension, the fist only lightly grazed the lapel of Chen's gown. Dumbfounded, the giant stared at Chen, neglecting even to withdraw his fist.

"Is that it?" Chen asked. The giant blushed deep red and hastily retracted his arm.

To the crowd, it looked as if the blow had struck home, and they were puzzled that Chen seemed unaffected. Muzhuolun and Huo Qingtong, however, knew that he had made use of Inner Strength Kung Fu to draw in his chest. Huo Qingtong smiled brilliantly and breathed a sigh of relief. The envoy, also a kung fu expert, scowled in annoyance.

Chen smiled. "Now it's my turn," he said.

"Go ahead!" First Tiger roared. He thrust out his hairy chest and Chen's fist shot out and punched it lightly. The giant felt no pain, but was aware of a great force pushing him backwards and put all his weight into countering it by leaning forward. Suddenly, Chen withdrew his fist, and with no time to stabilise himself, the giant toppled forward and crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. All this took place in the blink of an eye. There was a stunned silence for a second, then the crowd erupted in applause and laughter. The envoy rushed over to help First Tiger who was wailing as blood poured from his mouth: two of his front teeth had snapped off.

Seeing their brother injured, the other three giants charged at Chen with a single howl of rage. Chen skipped around behind Third Tiger and shoved him at Second Tiger. Fourth Tiger lunged at Chen with his arms out-stretched, but Chen ducked down and ticked his armpit as he passed. Fourth Tiger was very ticklish, and he immediately rolled into a ball, laughing hysterically.

Chen danced amongst the four, making them look foolish without even hitting them. The envoy could see that Chen was a martial arts master and tried vainly to stop the fight. But once roused, the four Tigers were impossible to stop. They closed in on Chen again, First Tiger from in front while the other three closed off his line of retreat behind. Chen waited until First Tiger was within arm's length then toppled him over backwards with a push, grabbed his leg and hurled him away so that he landed head-first in the hole where the tree he had up-rooted had stood.

Fourth Tiger roared and kicked out with his right leg, but Chen grabbed his trousers and shirt, lifted him up and with a solid kick sent him flying through the air. The giant landed with a thump on the corpse of the camel he had himself killed.

While Fourth Tiger was still in the air, Second and Third Tiger charged at Chen from opposite directions. Chen waited until they were almost upon him before leaping out of the way, and the two giants smashed into each other and toppled like a great pagoda to the ground. Before they could clamber to their feet, Chen tied their two queues together, then with a laugh, he walked back to Princess Fragrance's side. The Princess clapped her hands in delight as the other Muslims cheered and shouted.

The Four Tigers picked themselves up and the envoy rushed over and struggled to undo the knot in Second and Third Tigers' hair. The four giants looked across at Chen, not in hate but in respect. First Tiger raised a thumb in Chen's direction.

"You're good," he said. "I concede defeat." He bowed, and the other three giants followed suit. Chen hurriedly returned the compliment. Seeing their simple nature, he began to rather regret the way he had played with them.

Fourth Tiger suddenly ran over and brought back the camel's corpse while Third Tiger led their horses over to Muzhuolun.

"It was wrong of us to kill your camel," he said. "We give these four horses to you in compensation." Muzhuolun declined the offer with thanks.

The envoy was extremely embarrassed by this turn of events. "Let's go!" he shouted to the Four Tigers and leapt onto his horse. He turned to Princess Fragrance.

"Do you really dare to go?" he asked.

"What is there to be scared of?" she replied. She walked over to Muzhuolun. "Father, write out a reply and I will deliver it for you." Muzhuolun hesitated. If she didn't go, the whole tribe would lose face, but if he let her go, he would worry endlessly. He motioned Chen over, and led him by the hand into the tent with Huo Qingtong and her sister following behind. Once inside, Muzhuolun immediately hugged him.

"Great Helmsman," he said. "What fortuitous wind is it that has blown you here?"

"I was on my way to the Tianshan Mountains on personal business and heard some important news which I wanted to pass on to you. By coincidence, I met your daughter, who brought me here." Princess Fragrance was dumb-struck at hearing her father call Chen 'Great Helmsman', and seeing the shocked expression on her face, Chen said: "There is something I must apologise for. I did not tell you that I am Chinese."

"Great Helmsman Chen is a good friend of our tribe," Muzhuolun added. "He recovered our sacred Koran for us. He has saved your sister's life and recently intercepted the Manchu army's rations which slowed their advance and gave us time to collect our forces. The favours he has rendered us are truly uncountable." Chen modestly declined the compliments.

"I don't blame you at all," the Princess said with a smile. "I'm sure you didn't tell me who you were because you did not want to bring up all the things you have done for us."

"That Manchu envoy was unforgivably arrogant," said Muzhuolun. "It was fortunate that you intervened, Great Helmsman. You certainly deflated his pride. He chose my daughter to be our envoy. What do you think we should do?"

Chen was reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the tribe. "I come from the interior of China and know nothing of the situation here, sir," he said. "If you decide that she should go, then I will do my utmost to protect her. If you feel it would be better for her not to go, then we will think of some other way to deal with him."

"Father, you and my sister worry everyday about the affairs of the tribe," Princess Fragrance interrupted. "Making one trip as an envoy is no big affair. And if I don't go, the Manchus will laugh at us."

"I am just afraid that they will want to harm you, sister," said Huo Qingtong.

"Every time you go out on the battle field you risk your life, so it is only right that I should risk my life this once," the Princess replied. She looked at Chen. "He is so capable, if he goes with me I won't be the slightest bit afraid, not at all."

Huo Qingtong could see how deep her sister's feelings were for Chen, and an inexpressible emotion swept through her heart.

"Father," she said. "Let her go."

"All right then, Master Chen, I entrust my young daughter to you." Chen blushed and Princess Fragrance's eyes, as bright as autumn rain, gazed up at him. Huo Qingtong looked away.

Muzhuolun wrote out a reply which said simply: "We will fight. Allah will protect us." Chen nodded his head in approval. Muzhuolun handed the note to Princess Fragrance, then kissed her cheeks.

"Allah will protect you, sister," said Huo Qingtong. "I hope you come back soon." The Princess hugged and thanked her. A feast was organised to entertain the Manchu envoy, after which there was music and dancing to see off the guests, then the envoy raised his hand and galloped off with Princess Fragrance and the others following behind. Huo Qingtong watched the seven figures disappear into the darkness and felt a great emptiness in her chest as if her heart had disappeared with them into the infinite desert.

"Your sister is very brave," Muzhuolun said. She nodded, then suddenly covered her face and ran inside the tent.


They galloped for most of the night, and arrived at the Manchu camp at dawn. The envoy ushered Princess Fragrance and Chen into a tent to rest then went off alone to see General Zhao Wei. As he bowed before the general, he noticed a military official seated beside him wearing the uniform of a Deputy Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard.

"My report, General," he said. "I delivered the ultimatum and their reply was perverse. They refuse to surrender and have sent someone to present you with their answer."

Zhao Wei grunted. "These people are truly ignorant unto death," he said, and turned to one of his attendants. "Prepare for an audience," he ordered. Horns blew and drums rolled and all the senior officers of the army gathered in the great tent. Then three hundred armoured troops formed two lines outside and the Muslim envoy was summoned.

Princess Fragrance walked fearlessly in ahead of Chen. The officers recognized them instantly as the two they had seen the day before crossing their lines, and all felt surprised. Zhao Wei had planned to overawe the envoy with a show of military might, and was taken aback for a moment when a beautiful girl appeared. Princess Fragrance bowed before the general, then took out her father's note and offered it to him with both hands.

One of Zhao Wei's bodyguards moved forward to accept the letter. As he neared her, he was overwhelmed by her sweet fragrance and lowered his head, not daring to look at her directly. His eyes lighted on her flawless white hands, and he stood stock still, completely flustered.

"Bring the letter here!" Zhao Wei shouted.

The bodyguard started in fright, then stumbled and almost fell. The Princess placed the letter in his hands and smiled at him. The bodyguard gazed at her, oblivious of all else. Only after Princess pointed at Zhao Wei and gave him a slight push, did he go and place the letter on the table in front of the general.

Zhao Wei was furious at the sight of his bodyguard so spell-bound. "Take him out and behead him!" he roared. Several soldiers ran forward and dragged the bodyguard outside the tent, and a moment later, a bloody head was brought in on a plate and presented to the general.

"Put it on public display!" Zhao Wei ordered, and the soldiers began to retire. But the Princess was heart-broken at the sight of such cruelty and at the thought that the bodyguard had died because of her. She took the plate from the soldiers and gazed at the head, tears falling one after another down her cheeks onto the floor.

The officers in the tent were by now completely carried away by the sight of her, and any one of them would have willingly died for her. "If she cried before my head, would not death be welcome?" they thought. Suddenly, the soldier who had performed the execution, greatly distressed at the sight of her crying, shouted: "I did wrong to kill him. Don't cry!" He slashed his sword across his own neck and fell to the ground, dead.

Princess Fragrance became even more upset. Chen was uneasy about the situation: an envoy should not cry in such a fashion, and he leaned forward to comfort her.

Zhao Wei was a man of great cruelty and brutality, but even his heart softened at the sight of her tears. "Bury these two properly," he said to his attendants. He opened the letter and read it with a grunt.

"Right," he said. "We fight tomorrow. You may leave."

"General," the officer sitting next to him suddenly interrupted. "I think this girl may be the one the Emperor wants."

Chen's attention had been directed entirely at Princess Fragrance, but hearing the officer speak, he looked up and saw it was Zhang Zhaozhong. At the same instant Zhang also recognised Chen, despite his Muslim disguise.

They stared at each other, amazed at finding the other in such a place.

"Well, Great Helmsman," Zhang said, and laughed coldly. "Fancy meeting you here."

Chen grabbed Princess Fragrance's hand and turned to leave, but as he did so, Zhang bounded over and struck out at him with all his might. Chen picked the Princess up in his left hand, deflected Zhang's blow with his right and charged out of the tent with Zhang close on his heels. None of the other officers or soldiers intervened to stop Chen. All were dazzled by the Princess, and considered this Imperial Guardsman was interfering in matters that should not concern him.

Chen ran for their horses, and as Zhang closed in, he threw six chess pieces at him. "I'll keep him busy," he shouted to Princess Fragrance. "You escape on the horse!"

"No, I'll wait for you to beat him."

Chen had no time to explain, and dumped her on the saddle of the chestnut horse as Zhang dodged the projectiles and attacked again. Not daring to face him head on, Chen crouched down underneath the white horse and punched it in the belly. The horse kicked out with its back legs in fright, straight at Zhang, who just managed to jump clear.

"Go!" shouted Chen as Zhang grabbed for Princess Fragrance, and her horse leapt forward just in time. Chen knew he was no match for Zhang on equal terms, so he drew his dagger and thrust out with it. Zhang caught his wrist and the two fell to the ground, rolling together, neither daring to let go of the other.

The officers crowded out of the tent to watch, and the Four Tigers, who had great respect for Chen and were annoyed at the way he was being treated, ran over to help him.

Chen's strength was fading as he grappled with Zhang, and when he saw the four giants running over he thought: "Oh no, this is it." But instead of attacking him, the four grabbed Zhang and pinned him to the ground, shouting: "Get away!" All Zhang's skill was not enough to counter the immense strength of the Four Tigers, and Chen leapt to his feet, mounted the white horse and galloped off after Princess Fragrance. Zhang stared after them helplessly as they disappeared into the distance.

The two horses raced like the wind and were soon beyond the army's furthest guard posts. Chen's fight with Zhang had been short but extremely intense, and after riding on for a while, he gradually felt his control slipping. Princess Fragrance saw he was in difficulty, and noticed his wrist was covered in black and purple stripes.

"They won't be able to catch us now," she said. "Let's dismount and rest for a while." Chen fell off his horse, and lay on the ground, shuddering and gasping. The Princess pulled a container of sheep's milk from her leather satchel and rubbed some onto his wrist. Chen gradually recovered, but just as they were getting ready to start out again, they heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw several dozen soldiers riding after them. They leapt onto their horses without bothering to pick up their belongings and sprang forward. A moment later, Chen noticed a dust cloud rising in front, and cursing their bad luck, galloped on ahead of the Princess. As they rode closer, he saw that there were only seven or eight riders in the group ahead, and his anxiety eased. He reined in his horse and took out his Pearl Strings to prepare for the riders as they closed in.

Suddenly, one of the riders shouted: "Great Helmsman, how are you?" Chen looked through the dust and saw it was a hunchback.

"Tenth Brother!" he yelled, overjoyed. "Come here, quick!" As he spoke, the first arrow from the pursuing Manchu troops flew towards them.


"Enemy soldiers are chasing us," Chen shouted. "Hold them off for a while!"

"Excellent!" Zhang Jin exclaimed. 'Leopard' Wei galloped up as well and the two charged at the Manchu horsemen. As Chen watched in surprise, Wen, Luo Bing, Xu, Zhou Qi, and Yu Yutong galloped passed him with cries of greeting on their way to engage the Manchu troops. Xin Yan raced up behind, leapt off his horse and kowtowed before Chen.

"I have arrived, master," he announced, standing up.

Wen and the others quickly killed or dispersed the Manchu troops, but in the distance they could see a much larger force heading towards them. They rode back to Chen.

"Which way shall we go?" Wen asked.

Chen looked at the size of the pursuing enemy force and decided it would be best to try and lead them away from the main Muslim army to the west.

"South," he said, pointing with his hand. The others complied automatically. They were all riding good horses, and slowly drew away from their pursuers as they galloped across the featureless desert stretching out about them. Chen wondered why General Zhao Wei would send such a huge force after the two of them, and suddenly recalled Zhang Zhaozhong's remark: "I think this girl is the one the Emperor wants." As he considered the significance of this, he noticed another column of soldiers riding round to head them off from the south. The heroes reined in their horses, uncertain of what to do.

"We must make some sort of cover quickly, and wait until dark to escape," said Xu.

"Yes," Chen agreed. "Travelling across the desert in daylight is impossible." They dismounted and used their weapons and bare hands to dig a large hole in the sand.

"You go in first, sister," Luo Bing said to Princess Fragrance. But not understanding Chinese, she simply smiled back and made no move.

The Manchu troops gradually closed in upon them, and Luo Bing grabbed Princess Fragrance and jumped into the hole with the rest close behind. Wen and the other heroes had brought bows and arrows with them and they quickly fired off a volley of arrows, downing a dozen or so soldiers. As one column of Manchu troops galloped up to the mouth of the hole, Wen shot an arrow at the commander which hit him in the chest, passed right through him and flew on for several dozen yards further before falling to the ground. The other soldiers were so frightened by this demonstration of power that they turned and fled.

The first attack had been beaten back, but looking round them, the heroes saw they were completely surrounded.

"This hole is deep enough, but we should start making it bigger," Xu said. Seven or eight feet below the loose sand was firm earth, and Chen and the others dug away at the sides, piling the sand up on top as a defensive wall.

Zhang Jin pointed to the dead Manchu soldiers lying just beyond the hole. "Let's go and collect their weapons," he suggested to Xin Yan. The two leapt out of the hole and collected seven or eight bows and a large batch of arrows from around the corpses.

Only now did Chen have a chance to introduce Princess Fragrance to the heroes. When they heard that she was Huo Qingtong's sister, they all welcomed her, but the language barrier made it impossible for them to talk to her. Chen rested for a while, and gradually his strength returned. He ordered the other heroes to keep a close watch on the Manchu forces and told them they would try to break out after nightfall.


Chen had been surprised to see 'Leopard' Wei, whom he has sent along with 'Pagoda' Yang to Beijing to discover what the Manchu court was up to. "What are you doing here, Ninth Brother?" he asked. "And where is Twelfth Brother?"

Wei jumped down from the edge of the hole to report to the Great Helmsman.

"Twelfth Brother and I went Beijing as ordered, but for a long time we discovered nothing," he began. "Then one day, we happened to see that traitor Zhang Zhaozhong and Master Ma Zhen in the street."

Chen nodded. "So they went to Beijing," he said. "I was wondering how Zhang managed to escape. Master Ma told us he would take him back to Wudang mountain."

"Have you seen Zhang recently?" asked Xu, who was listening.

"Just a short while ago. He is very dangerous." Chen told them what had happened at the Manchu camp.

"Master Ma and Zhang were walking alone talking animatedly, and they didn't see us," Wei continued. "We suspected they may have joined forces against us, and carefully followed them to a house in an alleyway. We waited until after dark, but they didn't come out again, so we decided to go in to have a look. We two are no match even for Zhang by himself, let alone he and his martial brother together, so once over the wall into the courtyard, we lay dead still, not daring to even breath. After a long time, we heard talking in a room nearby and went across to investigate. Through a crack in the window, we saw Master Ma lying on a kang while that traitor Zhang paced back and forth. The two were arguing. We didn't dare to look for too long and squatted down to listen. It seems Zhang had insisted he had to go to Beijing to sort out a few private financial matters before he could go to Wudang Mountain, and Master Ma had agreed. A few days after they got there, the Emperor returned to Beijing as well. Zhang said that the Emperor had ordered him to go to the Muslim regions on important business."

"What important business?" Chen asked quickly.

"He didn't say exactly, but he apparently had to go and look for someone." Chen frowned. "Master Ma spoke to him very sternly and told him he should immediately resign from his official post, but Zhang said he could not refuse an Imperial edict. If he did, he said, he was afraid the whole of Wudang Mountain would be stamped flat by the Emperor's troops. Master Ma told him that the whole country was under the heel of the Manchus, and that by comparison the destruction of Wudang Mountain would be nothing to grieve about. The more they argued, the more adamant they both became. Eventually, Master Ma jumped off the kang, absolutely furious, and shouted: 'I promised our friends of the Red Flower Society!' to which Zhang replied: 'Those rebellious bandits. Why take them seriously?' Then there was a metallic sound as if Master Ma had drawn his sword. I had a look through the window crack and saw Master Ma with sword in hand, his face black with rage, as he roared: 'Don't you remember our teacher's last wishes? You ungrateful pupil! You are truly shameless, becoming a running dog of the Manchu court. I will fight you to the death.' Zhang appeared to soften. He sighed and said: 'If that's the way you feel, we'll leave for Wudang Mountain tomorrow.' Master Ma then resheathed his sword and went to sleep on the kang while Zhang sat on the chair nearby. He appeared undecided about something. His body shook slightly. Twelfth Brother and I were worried he would discover us, and wanted to wait for him to sleep before leaving. Almost an hour passed, but still he didn't sleep. He got up several times and then sat down again. Finally, he bit his teeth together and said softly: 'Brother Ma.' Master Ma was by this time sleeping very soundly and snoring slightly. Zhang quietly walked over to the kang…"

Princess Fragrance suddenly let out a scream. She didn't understand what Wei was saying, but she could feel the dark, sinister tone of his voice, and was terrified by it. She took hold of Chen's hand and snuggled up to him. Zhou Qi glanced at her in hatred.

Wei continued. "Zhang went to the kang, then lunged forward and sprang back again. Master Ma gave a wail of agony and jumped up, blood pouring from both his eye sockets. Both his eyes had been gouged out by the dog-hearted traitor."

Absolutely enraged, Chen leapt up and slammed his fist into the side of the pit sending sand flying in all directions.

"I swear I will kill that traitor," he said through clenched teeth. Princess Fragrance had never seen him so angry, and she tugged on his sleeve in fear.

Wei's voice shook as he went on: "Master Ma went silent. His face looked horrible. He walked slowly towards Zhang, then suddenly kicked out with his leg. Zhang leapt out of the way, and Master Ma's foot slammed into the kang. Zhang looked a little shaken, and tried to get out, but Master Ma made it to the door first and stood straining his ears to hear Zhang's movements. Zhang suddenly laughed, and Master Ma kicked out with his left leg in the direction of the sound. But Zhang stuck his sword out in front of him and Ma's leg hit the blade and was cut clean off." Zhou Qi ground her teeth and stabbed the walls of the pit with her sword.

"By this time, Twelth Brother and I could stand it no longer. We burst through the window into the room and fought with Zhang for only a second before he escaped, probably scared that we were not alone. We chased after him, but Twelfth Brother was hit by his golden needles, and I had to help him back into the house. I tried to stop Master Ma's bleeding, but he died after saying only a few words.

"What did he say?" asked Chen. A cold wind suddenly blew down on them and they all shivered.

"He said 'Tell Brother Lu and Yu Yutong to avenge my death!' Just then, some people outside who had heard the fighting started shouting, so I helped Twelfth Brother out and we returned to our lodgings. The next day, I went back to have a look and saw Master Ma's body had already been taken away. Twelfth Brother had been hit by five golden needles, but I extracted them for him and he's now convalescing in Twin Willows Lane in Beijing.

"Zhang said the Emperor wanted him to come to the Northwest to look for someone, and I thought perhaps it could be your teacher, Great Helmsman. I remember you said once that there were two important items relating to the Emperor being kept by your teacher, Master Yuan. So I came out with the others to warn him."

"How is Twelfth Brother?" Chen asked.

"His wounds are serious, but luckily not fatal," Wei replied.

By now, the cold wind was blowing hard, and thick, leaden clouds were gathering above them.

"It's going to snow soon," Princess Fragrance said, and moved even closer to Chen.

Zhou Qi could control herself no longer. "What did she say?" she demanded.

Chen was surprised by her outraged tone. "She said it's going to snow."

"Huh! How would she know?" She paused for a moment, then suddenly added: "Great Helmsman, just who it is that you love? Sister Huo Qingtong is a nice girl and I won't allow her to be cheated."

"Mistress Huo Qingtong is indeed a nice person and we all have a great deal of respect for her…" Chen began.

"Then why did you cast her aside as soon as you met her beautiful sister?" Zhou Qi interrupted.

Chen blushed, and Luo Bing came to his rescue. "The Great Helmsman, like the rest of us, has only met Sister Huo Qingtong once. She is just an ordinary friend. You can't start talking about whether he loves her or not."

"What are you supporting him for?" Zhou Qi demanded, even more agitated. "She gave him an antique dagger, and the way the Great Helmsman looked at her, it was plainly a case of love at first sight…"

Princess Fragrance listened to them talking excitedly and looked on with her big round eyes, full of curiosity.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong already had a suitor before she met me," Chen said. "Even if I had such an intention, what would be the point of unnecessarily making things difficult for myself?"

Zhou Qi stared at him in surprise. "Is that true?"

"Why would I deceive you?"

"Well, that's all right, then," she said, immediately changing her tone. "You are a good man. I was wrong to accuse you. I'm sorry." The others laughed at her frankness. Zhou Qi took Princess Fragrance's hand and squeezed it. Suddenly, they felt a wave of coldness on their faces and looked up to see snow flakes as big as goose feathers floating down towards them.

"You were right," she said. "It's snowing!"

"If we don't get reinforcements to rescue us, we are going to die here," said Luo Bing.

"Master Muzhuolun will certainly send out scouts to look for his daughter and the Great Helmsman when they fail to return," Xu replied.

"I`m sure they have," Chen said. "But we have come so far south, I'm afraid they may have difficulty finding us."

"Well then, we will have to send someone out to get help."

"I'll go!" volunteered Xin Yan.

Chen thought for a moment and then nodded. He asked Princess Fragrance to write a note to her father, and Xin Yan took a writing brush and some ink from his knapsack and gave them to her.

"Take Sister Luo Bing's white horse," Chen said to Xin Yan. "We will make a diversionary attack to the east, and you can make a break for it to the west." He then gave him directions to the Muslim camp. On the signal, the heroes leapt out of the pit and charged eastwards with shouts and battle cries leaving only Zhou Qi and Princess Fragrance behind. Xin Yan led the white horse out of the hole, jumped onto its back and galloped off westwards. The Manchu troops loosed off a few arrows but none came even close to hitting him. Once the heroes were sure Xin Yan had escaped, they retreated back to the pit.

By this time, the snow was falling heavily and the ground about them had been transformed into a vast white carpet. They settled down for the night, but all slept badly except for Princess Fragrance was still fast asleep when dawn broke. Her hair and shoulders were covered with snow which shuddered slightly as she breathed. Luo Bing laughed gently. "This child is not the least bit concerned," she said.

Time dragged by and Xu frowned deeply. "Why is there still no sign of a rescue attempt?" he asked slowly.

"Could Xin Yan have met some trouble on the road?" said Wen.

"What I'm worried about is something else," replied Xu.

"What is it?" Zhou Qi demanded. "Stop mumbling and get on with it."

"Great Helmsman, who makes the decisions in the Muslim camp?" Xu asked. "Master Muzhuolun or Mistress Huo Qingtong?"

"Both, apparently. Master Muzhuolun discusses everything with his daughter."

"If Huo Qingtong refused to send out soldiers, then… things would be difficult," Xu continued. The others saw what he was getting at.

"How could you say such a thing about Sister Huo Qingtong?" Zhou Qi demanded, jumping up. "Doesn't she already have a suitor? And even if she was jealous of her sister, would she refuse to save the man she loved?"

"When women become jealous, they are capable of anything," answered Xu. Zhou Qi began shouting angrily, and Princess Fragrance woke with a start. The heroes had only met Huo Qingtong once and although she seemed nice, they knew very little about her. Xu's words seemed not unreasonable.


After breaking out of the ring, Xin Yan followed the route Chen had indicated, galloped to the Muslim camp and presented the letter to Muzhuolun. The old man had been frantic with worry, and jumped up joyfully as he read his daughter's note.

"Call the troops together!" he ordered.

"How many Manchu troops were there surrounding you?" Huo Qingtong asked Xin Yan.

"Four or five thousand altogether."

Huo Qingtong bit her lip and paced from one side of the tent to the other, deep in thought. Horns sounded outside as the soldiers began to gather, and Muzhuolun was just about to go out to join them when Huo Qingtong suddenly turned to him.

"Father, we can't go," she said.

Muzhuolun looked at her in astonishment, uncertain if he had heard correctly. "What…what did you say?"

"I said we can't go."

He was about to fly into a rage, but then remembered how clear-thinking and intelligent his daughter usually was. "Why?" he asked.

"Zhao Wei is a very capable general. He would not dispatch four or five thousand troops just to capture our two envoys. It must be a trap."

"Even if it is a trap, how can we stand by and let the Manchus kill your sister and our Red Flower Society friends?"

Huo Qingtong hung her head and said nothing. "I am afraid that if we go, we will not only fail to rescue them, but will sacrifice several thousand more lives as well." she said finally.

Muzhuolun slapped his thigh in exasperation. "But she is your own flesh and blood!" he cried. "And we owe Master Chen and the others a great debt. Even if we died trying to save them, what would it matter? You…you…" He was both angry and hurt by his daughter's ungratefulness.

"Father, listen to me. It may be possible to save them and win a great victory as well."

Muzhuolun's expression changed immediately. "Well, why didn't you say so earlier, child?" he said. "How can we do it? I will do whatever you say."

"Father, are you truly willing to do whatever I say?"

"I was talking nonsense a moment ago. Don't pay any attention. How should we proceed? Tell me quickly!"

"Well, give me the Command Arrow. I will command this battle." Muzhuolun hesitated for a second then handed it to her. Huo Qingtong knelt to receive it, then prostrated herself on the ground, praying to Allah.

"Father," she said when she stood up. "You and Brother must follow my orders."

"If you can save them and beat the Manchus, I will do anything," he replied.

"All right, then it is settled." She walked out of the tent with her father and over to the troops, already waiting in ranks with their commanders.

"Brothers!" Muzhuolun called out to them. "Today, we will fight the Manchus to the death. The battle will be commanded by Mistress Huo Qingtong."

The soldiers raised their sabres and roared: "May the True God protect her and lead us to victory!"

"Right," said Huo Qingtong flourishing her Command Arrow. "Everyone return to their tents to rest." The commanders led their troops away. Muzhuolun was too stunned to speak.

They went back inside the tent and Xin Yan prostrated himself before Huo Qingtong and kowtowed frantically.

"Mistress, if you don't send troops to save them, my master will surely die," he pleaded.

"Get up. I didn't say I wouldn't save them."

"There are only nine of them, of whom your sister does not know kung fu," he cried. "But the enemy is numbered in thousands. If we delay even for a moment, they will be, they will be…"

"Have the Manchu armoured troops charged them yet?" Huo Qingtong interrupted him.

"Not when I had left, but I'm afraid they will have done so by now." Huo Qingtong frowned silently. Xin Yan cried even more mournfully and Muzhuolun paced about the tent, uncertain of what to do.

"Father, have you ever seen a wolf trap? A piece of mutton is fastened to a metal hook, the wolf bites on it and pulls and the trap snaps shut. Zhao Wei sees us as the wolf and my sister as the mutton. No matter how brave the Red Flower Society fighters are, they could not stop four or five thousand determined soldiers. That means that Zhao Wei has purposely decided not to order an attack." Muzhuolun nodded. "The Manchus let this young man out on purpose to get us to send a rescue force. Otherwise how could he have made it alone through so many troops?"

"Well, let us attack Zhao Wei's forces from the side and catch them unawares," he replied.

"They have more than forty thousand troops while we only have fifteen thousand," she pointed out. "In a pitched battle we would certainly lose."

"So from what you say, your sister and the others are bound to die," Muzhuolun exclaimed. "I cannot bear to lose your sister, and I refuse to leave our friends in danger. I will take five hundred men with me. If we can rescue them, it will be because of Allah's help. If we cannot, then we will die with them."

Huo Qingtong said nothing.

Xin Yan began frantically kowtowing before her once more, his forehead striking the ground heavily. "If our master has done anything to offend you mistress, please forgive him," he cried.

Huo Qingtong realised he suspected her motives. "Don't talk such nonsense," she said angrily.

Xin Yan looked startled for a second, then jumped up. "If you are determined to be so cruel, I will go and die with my master," he said. He ran out of the tent, leapt on the white horse and galloped away.

"We must go and help them!" Muzhuolun pleaded.

"Father, the Chinese have a saying that it is better to rely on a good plan than on bravery. We are out-numbered, so we must make use of surprise if we are to gain victory. We must beat Zhao Wei's trap with a trap of our own."

"Really?" said Muzhuolun, only half believing her.

"Father!" she exclaimed, her voice shaking. "Don't say that you suspect me too?"

Muzhuolun saw the tears brimming in her eyes and his heart softened. "All right," he said. "We will do as you say. Now send out the troops immediately."

Huo Qingtong thought for a moment, then said to an attendant: "Strike up the drums." The drums rolled and the commanders of each of the military units entered the tent. By now, the snow was falling thickly outside the tent and was already several inches thick on the ground.

Huo Qingtong flourished the Command Arrow and announced: "The first unit of the Green Flag Brigade will go to the western side of the Great Gobi Quagmire, and the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth units of the Green Flag will gather together the local herdsmen and farmers around the other sides." She gave the commanders their orders and the units departed one by one. Muzhuolun was unhappy that some of their best troops had been sent off to do construction work rather than being sent to the rescue.

"The first, second and third units of the White Flag Brigade will go to Yarkand City and to the Black River, and will make various preparations as I will indicate," Huo Qingtong continued. "The first unit of the Black Flag and the Kazakh unit will go up into the hills along the Black River. The Mongol unit will station itself on Yingqipan Mountain." She gave each commander his individual orders, after which they bowed and left.

"Father, you will command the forces to the east. Brother, you will command the forces to the west, I myself will command the second unit of the Black Flag Brigade and coordinate things from the centre. The general campaign plan is like this…" She was just about to explain in detail when Muzhuolun stopped her.

"Who is going to rescue your sister and the others?" he demanded.

"The third unit of the Black Flag will ride in from the east to save them. The fourth unit of the Black Flag will do the same from the west. When you meet Manchu troops you must do as I indicate in these orders." She quickly wrote out two notes and handed them to the commanders. "Your units must have the best mounts available," she added. The two Black Flag unit commanders bowed and retired.

"You have sent thirteen thousand of our best soldiers off to do unimportant work and two thousand young boys and old men to effect a rescue. What is the meaning of this?" Muzhuolun demanded.

"My plan is to…" Huo Qingtong began, but Muzhuolun angrily cut her off.

"I don't believe you any more! You love Master Chen, but he loves your sister, so you intend to let both of them die. You… you're heartless!"

Huo Qingtong almost fainted from shock. Muzhuolun stared at her for a second, then stormed out of the tent shouting: "I will go and die with your sister!" He leapt onto his horse and galloped away into the desert, brandishing his sabre.

Her brother saw how distressed she was and tried to comfort her. "Father is very confused," he said. "He didn't know what he was saying. Don't worry."


Xin Yan rode back to where Chen and the others were waiting, crying all the way. The beseiging Manchu forces did little to stop him as he passed, loosing off a dozen or so arrows as a matter of form only. He jumped off the white horse, led it onto the pit then sat down and began sobbing loudly.

"Don't cry, what's the matter?" Zhou Qi asked.

Xu sighed. "Is there any need to ask? Huo Qingtong refuses to send troops to rescue us."

"I kowtowed before her…I pleaded…" Xin Yan sobbed. The others were silent.

Princess Fragrance asked Chen why he was crying. Not wishing to hurt her, he said: "He couldn't break through to get help." The Princess took out her handkerchief and gave it to him.

The morning of the third day dawned with the snow still falling heavily and the Manchu forces showing no signs of attacking. Xu was greatly puzzled. He turned to Xin Yan and said: "What questions did Mistress Huo Qingtong ask you?"

"She asked how may Manchu troops were surrounding us and whether the armoured units had attacked yet."

Xu was excited. "We're saved! We're saved!" he exclaimed happily. The others stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"I was stupid to have doubted Mistress Huo Qingtong," he said. "Truly small-minded. She is much, much wiser than I."

"What?" asked Zhou Qi.

"If the Manchu armoured cavalry attacked us, would we stand a chance?"

"Hmm," Zhou Qi replied. "Yes, it's strange."

"And even if they didn't have armoured cavalry, if so many thousands of soldiers charged at once, could the eight of us hold them off? We would be trampled to mincemeat." The others agreed the Manchus had been remarkably restrained.

Chen suddenly understood. "Yes, that's it!" he cried. "They have held back on purpose in the hope of luring the Muslim forces in to try and rescue us. But Mistress Huo Qingtong has guessed it and refused to be tricked."

"Whether she's tricked or not, we're still finished," commented Zhang Jin.

"No, we're not," Chen replied. "She is certain to think of a way out."

Their spirits were suddenly revived, and leaving two of the heroes to keep guard, the others settled down to rest at the bottom of the pit.



Many hours later, they heard shouting in the distance. The sound of galloping hooves and clashing swords increased in volume until they heard a man near the pit shout: "Daughter! Master Chen! Where are you?"

"Father! Father! We're here!" Princess Fragrance called.

The heroes leapt out of the pit and saw Muzhuolun, sabre in hand, galloping towards them with a ragged bunch of Muslim soldiers behind, fighting bravely. Princess Fragrance ran to him crying "Father! Father!"

Muzhuolun took her in his arms. "Don't be afraid," he said soothingly. "I have come to save you."

Xu jumped onto the back of a horse to get a better view of the situation. He saw a great cloud of dust rising to the east and knew the Manchu armoured cavalry were coming.

"Master Muzhuolun!" he called. "Let's retreat to that high ground to the west!" Muzhuolun immediately ordered his troops to comply. They started out from the pit with the Manchus close behind, and as they reached the hill, saw another force of Manchu troops moving in from the west.

"Huo Qingtong was right," Muzhuolun thought glumly. "I should not have accused her like that. She must be feeling very bad."

They threw up temporary defences on the hilltop and settled down to wait for an opportunity to escape. With the Muslims firmly established on high ground, the Manchus did not dare, for the moment, to attack.


Huo Qingtong stationed her unit about four miles away from the enemy forces. At noon, the unit commanders came to report. She told the commander of the Green Flag's second unit: "Go with five hundred troops and take up positions along the southern bank of the Black River. The Manchu troops are not allowed to cross the river. If they attack, do not engage them head on, but rather delay them as long as possible." The commander bowed and retired.

She then turned to the commander of the White Flag's first unit. "I want you to lure the Manchu forces westwards. If your troops clash with the enemy, they are not allowed to win the engagement, but must continue to flee into the desert, the further the better. Take our four thousand head of cattle and goats with you and leave them along the road for them to seize."

"Why should we give them our livestock? I won't do it!"

Huo Qingtong's lips tightened. "Do you refuse to follow my orders?" she asked quietly.

The commander brandished his sabre. "If you tell me to win a battle. I will follow your orders. If you tell me to lose a battle, I would rather die then comply!"

"Seize him!" Huo Qingtong commanded. Four guards ran forward and grabbed the commander's arms. "The Manchu forces are oppressing us and to beat them, we must work together with one heart. Will you or will you not follow my orders?"

"No! What are you going to do about it?"

"Execute him!" she commanded, and the officer's face turned pale. The guards pushed him out of the tent and sliced off his head with one sword stroke as the other commanders quivered with fear.

Huo Qingtong promoted the assistant commander to take the dead officer's place and told him to retreat westwards before the Manchu forces until he saw smoke rising from the east, then to return as quickly as possible, avoiding battle with the Manchus. She ordered the other units to gather beside the Great Quagmire to the east.

Her work complete, she mounted her horse and drew her sword. "The first and second units of the Black Flag, follow me," she shouted.


Muzhuolun, Chen and the others were trapped on the hill. The Manchu troops had attacked twice, but had been beaten back. The hill was surrounded by piles of corpses. Losses on both sides had been heavy.

Sometime after noon, there was a movement in the Manchu lines, and a column of mounted Muslim soldiers charged through towards them. Amidst the flying snow flakes, they spotted Huo Qingtong at its head.

"Charge!" shouted Muzhuolun, and led his men down the hill to meet her. Princess Fragrance galloped over to her sister and embraced her.

Huo Qingtong took her hand and shouted: "Commander of the Black Flag Third Unit: lead your men west until you meet up with the first unit of the White Flag and follow the orders of its commander."

The officer and his troops galloped off, and a column of Manchu cavalry broke from the main force and chased after them.

"Excellent!" exclaimed Huo Qingtong. "Commander of the Black Flag First Unit: retreat with your men towards Yarkand and follow the orders of my brother. Commander of the Second Unit, you retreat towards the Black River." The two units broke out of the encirclement, and disappeared into the distance pursued by two more columns of Manchu cavalry.

"Everyone else head eastwards!" Huo Qingtong ordered, and the remaining Muslim soldiers along with the Red Flower Society fighters galloped through the circle of Manchu troops and away.

The Manchu cavalry, under the command of Zhao Wei closed in on the fleeing Muslims and cut off several hundred of them. All were slaughtered. Zhao Wei was delighted. He pointed to the huge Crescent Moon banner near Huo Qingtong and shouted: "Whoever seizes that banner gets a reward!" The cavalrymen surged forward, galloping madly across the desert.

The Muslims were riding good horses and the Manchu cavalry had difficulty keeping up with them. But after ten or fifteen miles, some of the Muslim fighters began to fall behind and were killed by the Manchu troops. Zhao Wei saw they were all either old men or boys, and exclaimed: "Their leader has no crack troops with him. After them!" They galloped on for another two or three miles and saw the Muslim force dispersing, apparently in confusion. Fluttering on the top of a large sand dune ahead was the crescent banner.

Zhao Wei flourished his sword and led the charge towards the dune with his bodyguards behind. But as he reached the top and looked out beyond, he was almost frightened out of his wits. To the north and south, were rank after orderly rank of Muslim warriors, waiting silently. The Manchu force had originally been several times larger than the Muslim force, but so many units had been sent out in pursuit of the breakaway Muslim columns that only ten thousand armoured cavalry now faced the concentrated might of the Muslim army. Two more Muslim columns appeared behind them, and with enemy troops to the north, south and west, Zhao Wei shouted: "Everyone forward! Eastwards!" The Manchu forces surged forward as the Muslim fighters gradually closed in on them.

Suddenly, there was a chorus of cries from the cavalry unit in the lead. A soldier rode up to Zhao Wei and said: "General! We're finished! There's quicksand ahead!" He could see a thousand cavalrymen and their horses already flailing about as they sank into the soft mud.

Chen and the others stood on a sand dune and watched as the Manchu troops fell into the quagmire. The soldiers behind tried to escape, but the Muslims pressed relentlessly in, forcing them into the mud. The air was filled with the screams of the hapless Manchu soldiers, but the mud crept up their legs, and when it reached their mouths, the noise ceased. The dwindling numbers of Manchu troops fought desperately, but in less than an hour, the whole army had been forced into the quagmire. Only Zhao Wei and a hundred or so guards managed to escape after carving a path of blood through the Muslim ranks.

"Everyone head westwards and gather on the south bank of the Black River," Huo Qingtong ordered. The entire force of more than ten thousand troops galloped off.

As they rode, Chen and Muzhuolun discussed what had happened since they parted. Muzhuolun's heart was uneasy. He loved his two daughters more than anything in the world, and they had both fallen in love with the same Chinese man. According to Islamic law, a man could marry four wives, but Chen was not a believer, and he had heard that Chinese had only one wife while the second and subsequent women were not considered real wives. He wondered how the matter could be resolved. "Wait until the Manchus have been beaten," he thought. "One daughter is wise and the other kind. A way will be found."

The great Muslim column arrived at the south bank of the Black River towards evening. A soldier galloped up and breathlessly reported: "The Manchus are attacking hard. The commander of the Green Flag Second Unit is dead, and the commander of the Black Flag Second Unit is badly wounded. Losses are heavy."

"Tell the deputy commander of the Green Flag second unit to take over. He is not to retreat one step," Huo Qingtong ordered. The soldier galloped off again.

"Let's go and reinforce them!" Muzhuolun suggested.

"No!" she replied and turned to her personal guards. "The whole army will rest here. No one is allowed to light a fire or make a sound. Everyone will eat dry rations." The order was transmitted, and the soldiers settled down silently in the darkness. Far off, they could hear the waters of the Black River and the cries and shouts of Manchu and Muslim fighters.

Another soldier galloped frantically up. "The Green Flag Second Unit's deputy commander has also been killed," he reported. "We can't hold them back much longer!"

Huo Qingtong turned to the commmander of the Green Flag Third Unit. "Go and reinforce them," she said. "You will be in command." He raised his sabre in salute and led his unit away. Soon after, the sound of battle rose to a roar.

"The Green Flag units will lie in ambush behind the sand dunes to the east. The White Flag and Mongol units will lie in ambush to the west," Huo Qingtong ordered. "The rest, come with me."

She rode off towards the Black River, and as they approached it, the metallic ring of weapons clashing became deafening. In the torchlight, they saw the Muslim fighters bravely defending the wooden bridge across the river in the face of ferocious assaults by the best Manchu cavalry.

"Give way!" Huo Qingtong shouted, and the fighters on the bridge retreated, leaving a gap through which several thousand Manchu mounted troops swarmed like bees. When about half of the Manchu troops had crossed, she shouted: "Pull away the bridge!"

The Muslims had earlier loosened the beams of the bridge and used long ropes to tie them to horses on the river bank below. The horses strained forward, a series of loud cracks rent the air, and the bridge collapsed, throwing hundreds of Manchu soldiers into the river. The Manchu army was thus cut in two by the river, with neither side able to assist the other.

At the order from Huo Qingtong, the mass of the Muslim army, hiding behind the sand dunes, emerged and overwhelmed the Manchu troops on the near bank. In a short time, they were all dead, and the Manchu force on the other side of the river were so frightened by the sight of the slaughter that they turned and fled towards Yarkand city.

"Across the river and after them!" shouted Huo Qingtong. A make-shift bridge was swiftly constructed with the remains of the former structure and the Muslim army charged off towards Yarkand.

The citizens of Yarkand had long since evacuated their city. Huo Qingtong's brother, on her instructions, had resisted perfunctorily when the Manchus attacked, then led his troops in retreat from the city. Soon after, the Manchu forces fleeing from the banks of the Black River arrived along with General Zhao Wei and his hundred-odd battered bodyguards. The walled city was now full of Manchu soldiers.

Just as Zhao Wei was about to go to bed, he received a report that several hundred troops who had drank water from wells in the city had died of poisoning. He sent a unit to collect some uncontaminated water from outside. Then the sky turned red. All over the city, fires were lit by a small number of Muslim soldiers left behind, and the city turned into a huge oven.

Under the protection of his bodyguard, Zhao Wei fought his way through the flames and smoke towards the west gate as the rest of the Manchu soldiers trampled each other in their haste to escape. The bodyguards slashed at them with their swords, forcing them to make way for their general. But when they got to the west gate, they found it had been blocked by the Muslims. The fires were burning even more ferociously, and the streets were filled with frenzied mobs of soldiers and horses. Through the confusion, a small group of riders appeared shouting: "Where is the General?"

"Here!" Zhao Wei's bodyguards shouted back.

"There are fewer enemy troops at the east gate," replied one of the riders. "We can force our way out there."

Even in such danger, Zhao Wei remained calm and led his troops in the attack on the east gate. The Muslims fired wave after wave of arrows at them, and several attempts to break out failed with heavy losses. But at the critical moment, Zhang Zhaozhong led a troop of Manchu soldiers in an attack from outside the city and managed to snatch Zhao Wei away to safety.

Many thousands of Manchu soldiers had already been burned to death, and the stench was sickening. The whole city was filled with cries and screams. Huo Qingtong and the others watched from a piece of high ground.

"It's terrible! Terrible!" cried Muzhuolun. Huo Qingtong sent more troops down to help blockade the east gate of the city. With Zhao Wei gone, the Manchu soldiers left inside were leaderless. They raced frantically about, but with the four gates blocked by the Muslims, they all died in the monster furnace.

"Light the signal fires!" Huo Qingtong ordered, and piles of wolf droppings that had been prepared were put to the torch, sending a huge column of black smoke up to the heavens. (The smoke from burning wolf's dropping is the thickest and blackest of all.) A short while later, a similar column of smoke arose five or so miles to the west.

The Muslims had won three victories and wiped out more than thirty thousand of the best Manchu troops. The warriors embraced each other and sang and danced around the Yarkand city wall.

Huo Qingtong called her officers together. "We will camp out here tonight," she said. "Each man must start ten fires and must spread them out as much as possible."


More than ten thousand Manchu cavalry chased westwards after the Third Unit of the Muslim's Black Flag Brigade. The Muslims were riding the best horses, but the commander of the Manchu troops was under orders from General Zhao Wei to catch the Muslim force, and he urged his men on mercilessly. The two armies charged across the desert, the roar of horses's hooves sounding like thunder. After a few dozen miles, a herd of several thousand cattle and sheep suddenly appeared in the path of the Manchu army and the soldiers chased after them shouting for joy, and killed as many as they could for food. Their pace slowed. The Muslims, meanwhile, galloped on, never once being forced to clash with the pursuing Manchu troops. Close to evening, they saw a pall of thick smoke rising from the east.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong has won!" The Muslim commander shouted. "Turn back east!" The warriors' spirits soared and they reined their horses round. Seeing them turning, the Manchu troops were perplexed and charged forward to attack, but the Muslims swung round them at a distance, the Manchus following.

The Muslim units galloped through the night, the Manchus always in sight. The Manchu commander wanted to gain great merit for himself, and many of his cavalry horses died of exhaustion. Towards midnight, they came across General Zhao Wei riding in front of about three thousand wounded. Zhao Wei's hope rose slightly as he saw the Manchu column approach.

"After their success, the enemy will be in a state of unpreparedness," he thought. "So if we attack now, we will be able to turn defeat into victory." He ordered the troops to advance towards the Black River, and after ten miles or so, scouts reported that the Muslim army was camped ahead. Zhao Wei led his commanders onto a rise to view the scene and a chill shook each of them to the bottom of their hearts.

The entire plain was covered in camp fires, stretching seemingly endlessly before them. They heard from far off the shouts of men and the neighing of horses, and they wondered how many warriors the Muslims had mustered. Zhao Wei was silent.

"With such a huge army against us, no wonder…no wonder we have encountered some set-backs," one of the senior military officials, Commander Herda, said.

Zhao Wei turned to the others. "All units are to mount up and retreat south," he ordered. "No-one is to make a sound."

The order was received badly by the troops who had hoped to stop at least long enough for a meal.

"According to the guides, the road south passes the foot of Yingqipan Mountain and is very dangerous after heavy snows," Herda pointed out.

"The enemy's forces are so powerful, we have no choice but to head southeast and try to meet up with General Fu De," Zhao Wei replied.

The remnants of the great army headed south, and found the road becoming more and more treacherous as they went. To the left was the Black River, to the right, the Yingqipan Mountain. The night sky was cloudy and ink-black, and the only light was a faint glow reflecting off the snow further up the mountain slope.

Zhao Wei issued a further order: "Whoever makes a sound will be immediately executed." Most of the soldiers came from Northeast China and knew that any noise could shake loose the heavy snow above them and cause an avalanche that would kill them all. They all dismounted and led their horses along with extreme care, many walking on tip-toe. Three or four miles further on, the road became very steep, but as luck would have it, the sky was by now growing light. The Manchu troops had been fighting and running for a whole day and a night, and there was a deathly expression on the face of each one.

Suddenly, there was a shout from a scout and several hundred Muslim warriors appeared on the road ahead standing behind a number of primitive cannons. Scared out of their wits, the Manchu troops were thrown into confusion and many turned and fled just as the cannons went off with a roar, spraying iron shards and nails into them, instantly killing more than two hundred.

As the boom of the cannon faded, Zhao Wei heard a faint rustling noise, and felt a coldness on his neck as a small amount of snow fell inside his collar. He looked up the mountain side and saw the snow fields above them slowly beginning to move.

"General!" Herda shouted. "We must escape!"

Zhao Wei reined his horse round and started galloping back the way they had come. His bodyguards slashed and hacked at the soldiers in their path, frantically pushing them off the road into the river below as the rumble of the approaching snow avalanche grew louder and louder. Suddenly, tons of snow intermingled with rocks and mud surged down onto the road with a deafening roar that shook the heavens.

Zhao Wei, with Herda on one side and Zhang Zhaozhong on the other, escaped the catastrophe. They galloped on for more than a mile before daring to stop. When they did look back, they saw the several thousand troops had been buried by snow drifts more than a hundred feet thick. The road ahead was also covered in deep snow. Surrounded by such danger and having lost an entire army of forty thousand men in one day, Zhao Wei burst into tears.

"General, let us go up the mountain slope," said Zhang. He picked up Zhao Wei and raced off up the slope with Herda following along behind.

Huo Qingtong, watching from a distant crest, shouted: "Someone's trying to escape! Catch them quickly!" Several dozen Muslims ran off to intercept them. When they saw the three were wearing the uniforms of officials, they rubbed their hands in delight, determined to catch them alive. Zhang silently increased his pace. Despite the weight of Zhao Wei, he seemed to fly across the treacherously slippery slope. Herda could not keep up with him and was cut off by the Muslims and captured after a spirited fight. Apart from Zhao Wei and Zhang, only a few dozen of the Manchu troops survived the avalanche.

Huo Qingtong led the Muslim warriors back to their camp, along with the prisoners. By now, the Muslims had taken the main Manchu camp, thereby acquiring huge supplies of food and weapons. The Four Tigers were among those taken prisoner after being found bound and gagged inside a tent. Chen asked them why they had been put there, and the eldest of the four giants replied: "Because we helped you. General Zhao said he would have us killed after the battle." Chen pleaded before Huo Qingtong to allow the four to go free, and she agreed.


Mournful dirges played as the Muslims dug deep trenches and buried the bodies of the fallen warriors upright and facing west. Puzzled, Chen asked one of the nearby soldiers why the dead were buried in this way.

"Because we believe in Islam," the soldier replied. "If the body is buried upright, then the spirit will ascend to the heavenly kingdom. They face west because that is the direction of sacred Mecca."

When the burials were finished, Muzhuolun led the entire army in prayer to thank Allah for helping them achieve such a great victory. Then a great cheer went up from the ranks and the commanders of all the units went before Huo Qingtong and presented their sabres to her in respect.

"Inflicting such a crushing defeat on the Manchus also does us a great service," 'Leopard' Wei remarked to Xu, but Xu was deep in thought.

"The Emperor made a pact with us, yet he didn't withdraw his forces," he said. "Could it be that he intentionally sent his troops into the desert to be destroyed?"

"I have no faith in this Emperor," said Wen. "How could he know Mistress Huo Qingtong would win so decisively? What's more, I doubt if he sent Zhang Zhaozhong out here for any good purpose."

As the heroes talked, they noticed Chen gazing at Huo Qingtong in concern. She was seated to one side, her face as white as a sheet, with a wild look in her eyes. Luo Bing went over to talk to her and as Huo Qingtong stood up to greet her, she swayed unsteadily. Luo Bing caught hold of her.

"Sister, what's wrong?" she asked. Huo Qingtong said nothing, but fought to control her breathing. Princess Fragrance, Muzhuolun, Chen and the others ran over. Princess Fragrance led her into a tent and laid her down on a carpet.

Muzhuolun knew his daughter was exhausted after the battle which she had both directed and taken part in alongside the other warriors. She had also had to bear the suspicions of her own commanders. But he was afraid that the thing affecting her most was the relationship between Chen and her sister. Unable to think of anything to say to comfort her, he sighed and left the tent. He went for a walk round the camp, and from all sides heard nothing but praise for Huo Qingtong's brilliant strategy.

That night, he slept badly, worrying about his daughter. Early the next day before the sky was light, he went over to her tent to see how she was, but found her tent was empty. He hurriedly asked the guard outside what had happened to her.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong left about two hours ago," the guard replied.

"Where did she go?"

"I don't know, Lord. She told me to give you this letter." Muzhuolun grabbed it and tore it open. Inside, in Huo Qingtong's delicate hand, was written:

"Father, the war is now over. All that is necessary is to tighten the encirclement and the remaining Manchu soldiers will be annhilated in a few days, (signed) your daughter."

"Which direction did she go?" he asked. The guard pointed east.

Muzhuolun found a horse and galloped off immediately in pursuit. He rode for an hour into the depths of the flat desert where it was possible to see several miles in all directions, but found no sign of any living being. Afraid that she may have changed direction, he decided the only thing to do was to return to the camp. Half way back, he met Princess Fragrance, Chen and the other heroes who were all anxious about her safety. Once back in camp, Muzhuolun sent units out to the north, south, east and west to search. By evening, three units had returned without finding anything, while the fourth brought back a young Chinese youth dressed in black clothes.

'Scholar' Yu stared at the youth in shock: it was Li Yuanzhi dressed as usual in boy's clothes.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, hurrying up to meet her.

"I came to find you, and happened to run into them," she replied, very happy to see him again.

Princess Fragrance was frantic with worry about her lost sister. "What can have happened to her?" she asked Chen. "What can we do?"

"I will go and find her," he replied. "Come what may, I`ll convince her to come back."

"I'll go with you," she said at once.

Chen nodded. "All right. Go and ask your father."

"You all do just as you like anyway," Muzhuolun replied angrily, stamping his foot. Princess Fragrance looked up at her father and saw how bloodshot his eyes were. She took his hand and squeezed it.

Yuanzhi ignored the others, and bombarded Yu with questions about what had happened to him since they had parted.

"That's the boy your sister likes," Chen said to Princess Fragrance, pointing at Yuanzhi. "He will certainly be able to convince her to come back."

"Really? Why has she never told me? She's too horrible!" the Princess replied. She walked over towards Yuanzhi to get a closer look. Muzhuolun, who was equally curious, did the same.

Yuanzhi had met Muzhuolun previously and she bowed before him in greeting. Then she saw Princess Fragrance and was immediately struck speechless by her extraordinary beauty. Princess Fragrance smiled at Chen and said: "Tell this gentleman that we are very pleased to see him, and ask him to come with us to help find my sister."

Only now did Chen greet Yuanzhi. "Why are you here, Brother?" he asked. "How have you been since we last met?"

Yuanzhi blushed and laughed. She glanced at Yu, wanting him to explain.

"Great Helmsman, this is Master Lu's pupil," Yu said.

"I know, we've met several times."

Yu smiled. "She is therefore my martial sister."

"What?" Chen exclaimed in surprise.

"She likes wearing boy's clothes when she travels."

Chen looked closely at Yuanzhi and noticed for the first time how delicate her eyebrows were, and how small her mouth, not at all like a man's. Because of the relationship with Huo Qingtong, Chen had never looked closely at her before, but now he stared in shock.

"I was completely wrong about Mistress Huo Qingtong," he thought. "She told me to go and ask Master Lu about his pupil and I never did. Could she have left the camp because of me? And then there's her sister who loves me deeply."

Luo Bing could see how Yuanzhi felt towards Yu and she hoped that with such a beautiful girl in love with him, he could release himself from the self-torture of his adoration of herself. But he looked as desolate and unhappy as ever.

"Where is Sister Huo Qingtong?" Yuanzhi asked. "I have something important to tell her."

"She's gone. We're looking for her now," Luo Bing replied.

"She went out by herself?"

Luo Bing nodded.

"Where did she go?" Yuanzhi asked urgently.

"She left the camp heading east, but whether or not she changed direction, we don't know."

"Oh, no!" Yuanzhi exclaimed, stamping her foot. They asked her what was wrong. "The Three Guandong Devils are looking for Sister Huo Qingtong to get their revenge on her. You know that already. But I met them on the road. They're behind me. If she is heading east, she might run into them."

"We don't have a moment to lose," said Chen. "I will go and find her."

"Don't underestimate the Three Devils," Xu warned. "It would be better if several of us went. Great Helmsman Chen should go first with Princess Fragrance. Mistress Li, you also know her, but it would be too dangerous for you to go alone. Perhaps Brother Yu could go with you. My wife and I can go and search too, while the others remain here at the camp to watch for Zhang Zhaozhong."

"Fine!" said Chen. He borrowed Luo Bing's white horse and he and Princess Frangrance galloped off with the others not far behind.

At about noon that day, Wen and the other heroes were chatting with Muzhuolun in his tent when a guard rushed in to report that the Manchu general Herda had escaped and the four soldiers guarding him had been killed. They hurried over, and found a dagger stuck in the chest of one of the dead soldiers with a note attached to it which read: "To the heroes of the Red Flower Society from Zhang Zhaozhong".

Wen angrily screwed the piece of paper up into a ball. "Master Muzhuolun," he said. "You maintain the encirclement of the Manchus, and we'll go and find this traitor Zhang Zhaozhong." Muzhuolun nodded, and Wen led the other heroes off into the desert, following the tracks of the Manchu horses.


Huo Qingtong left the camp feeling lonely and confused. "I'll go to my teachers' home at Precious Mountain and lose myself in the desert with them," she thought. She was unwell, and even though her kung fu training enabled her to keep going, after ten days travelling across the desert, she was absolutely exhausted and still four or five days from the home of the Tianshan Eagles. Finally, she stopped beside a small sand dune and let her horse graze on the sparse, dry grasses nearby.

She set up her tent and slept for several hours. In the middle of the night she was awakened by the sound of three horses approaching from the east. As they neared the sand dune, they slowed and headed for the same patch of dry grass that had attracted her mount. The horses were unwilling to continue, so the three riders dismounted to rest. They did not see Huo Qingtong's tent, which was on the other side of the dune. She heard them talking Chinese, but she was still sleepy and did not bother to listen closely. Suddenly, however, she heard one of the men say: "That damned bitch! If I don't skin her alive and rip out all her tendons, then my name isn't Gu."

"Brother Yan's kungfu was excellent," said another. "I don't believe that a girl could kill him without using some sort of trickery."

"Well, of course," added a third. "As I said, we have to be very careful. There are a lot of Muslims around."

Huo Qingtong realised in astonishment that they were the Guandong Devils and that they were talking about her.

"There's not much water left in the satchel and we don't know how many more days we have to go before we find water again," one of them said. "From tomorrow, we'll have to drink even less." Soon afterwards, they went to sleep.

Huo Qingtong was uncertain of what to do. The desert was flat and empty for miles in every direction, so there was no way she could escape if they found her, especially as she was still sick. After some thought, she decided the safest course would be to reveal herself, and find some way to lead the three to her teacher's home.

Early next morning, the Guandong Devils woke to find Huo Qingtong standing in front of them. She examined them carefully. One was a tall man who looked like a member of the gentry. The second had a thick black beard, while the third was wearing Mongol clothes.

"Mistress, do you have any water to spare?" the first man, Tang, asked her, pulling out a silver ingot as he spoke. Huo Qingtong shook her head to indicate she did not understand Chinese. The Mongol, who was named Hahetai, repeated the request in Mongolian and she replied in the same tongue: "I cannot give you any of my water. The Yellow-Robed Lady, Mistress Huo Qingtong, sent me on an important errand and I am now returning to report." She quickly dismantled her tent and mounted her horse. Hahetai ran forward and grabbed hold of her horse's reins.

"Where is she?" he asked.

"Why do you want to know?"

"We are her friends. There is urgent news we have to pass on to her."

Huo Qingtong pouted. "That's an outright lie! She is at Precious Mountain, but you are heading west. Don't try to cheat me!"

Hahetai turned to the other two and said: "She's on her way to see the damned bitch now."

With her unhealthy appearance and the way she wheezed as she spoke, she did not look at all like someone who knew kung fu. So not suspecting her in the slightest, the Devils took advantage of what they took to be her ignorance of Chinese and loudly discussed how they would kill her when they reached Precious Mountain, and then go to find Huo Qingtong. The bearded man, Gu, could see that she was very beautiful despite her haggard look, and his lust began to stir.

Huo Qingtong noticed him constantly staring at her covetously, and knew that even though they had not recognised her, travelling alone for four or five days with these three Devils was too dangerous. She ripped a strip of material off her jacket and tied it round the leg of one of her two eagles then threw the bird up into the air. It spread its wings and flew off towards the horizon.

"What are you doing?" Tang demanded suspiciously. Huo Qingtong shook her head, and Hahetai translated what he had said into Mongolian.

"There are no more water springs for another seven or eight days. You've got so little water, how could it be enough? I'm letting the eagles go so they can go and find water themselves." As she spoke, she released the second eagle.

"Two eagles wouldn't drink very much water," Tang replied.

"When you're dying of thirst, even a drop may be enough to save your life." Afraid they would try to harm her, she had exaggerated the distance to the next water.

Hahetai mumbled oaths. "Even in the deserts of Mongolia, you would never have to travel for seven or eight days without water. This is a cursed region!"

They camped that night in the middle of the desert. Huo Qingtong could see Gu's gaze constantly sweeping over her and became very worried. She went into her tent, drew her sword, and sat down beside the tent entrance, not daring to sleep. Towards midnight, she heard someone tiptoeing over. Suddenly, the tent flap opened and Gu crept inside. He began feeling about in the darkness for her, and an instant later, felt an icy coldness on his neck as a sharp blade gently touched it.

"If you so much as twitch, I will run it through you," Huo Qingtong whispered. "Lie on the ground!" He immediately complied. She placed the tip of the sword on his back, then sat down and wondered what she should do.

"If I kill him, the other two won't let me get away with it," she thought. "It's probably best to wait for my teacher to get here."

A couple of hours later, Tang woke and noticed Gu was missing. He jumped up and began shouting "Brother Gu! Brother Gu!"

"Answer him quickly," Huo Qingtong whispered fiercely. "Tell him you're here."

"It's all right, Brother, I'm here!" he shouted back, well aware that he had no choice.

Tang laughed. "You horny old thief! You'll never change."

The next morning, Huo Qingtong waited until the other two were up before letting Gu out.

"Brother Gu," Hahetai berated him as he emerged. "We have come to seek revenge not to make trouble." Gu's teeth were almost chattering with hate but he didn't tell them what had happened. If he did, the shame of it would follow him for the rest of his life. But he decided that he would have the girl the following night and then kill her.

At about midnight, Gu advanced on Huo Qingtong's tent again, a spear in one hand and a torch in the other. As he entered, he saw her crouching in the far corner and lunged at her triumphantly. But suddenly he felt something cut into his legs as a rope noose hidden on the ground caught him. Huo Qingting gave it a tug and he overbalanced and fell heavily.

"Don't move!" she hissed, and placed the tip of her sword against his stomach. She didn't think she could not stand another night like the previous one, but killing Gu was not enough. She had to finish off all three.

"Tell your elder brother to come over here," she whispered. Gu guessed what she was planning and remained silent. She increased the pressure so that the sword cut through his clothes and the top layer of skin. Gu knew a sword in the stomach was the most painful way to die. "He won't come," he whispered back.

"All right, then I'll kill you first," she replied, and the sword moved again.

"Elder Brother! Come here! Come quickly!" Gu called frantically.

"Laugh," Huo Qingtong ordered. Gu frowned and uttered several dry laughs.

"Laugh more happily!"

He silently cursed her, but with the sword already inside his flesh, he forced out a loud hysterical laugh. Tang and Hahetai had already been awakened by the racket.

"Stop playing around, Brother, and conserve some of your strength," Tang yelled.

Huo Qingtong could see he wouldn't come. "Call the other one," she hissed, and Gu shouted out again. Although he was a bandit, Hahetai did not take advantage of women, and he was very unhappy with Gu's behaviour. But he was his sworn brother, so he just pretended not to hear.

"If I don't kill these three, it is going to be difficult to free myself of today's shame," she thought. Holding the sword in her right hand, she wound the rope round and round Gu until he could not move. Only then did she relax. She leant against the side of the tent, but did not dare to fall asleep.

The next morning, as it grew light, she saw that Gu was fast asleep and angrily whipped him awake with her horse's whip. She placed the tip of her sword on his heart and said: "If you so much as grunt, I will skewer you!" She wondered again whether she should kill him, but decided that it would immediately bring disaster down on her head. She estimated her teacher should reach them by that afternoon anyway, so after untying the rope, she pushed Gu out of the tent.

Tang looked at the bloody welts on his face suspiciously. "Who is this girl?" he asked in a low voice. "What's she up to?"

Gu glanced meaningfully at him. "Let's grab her," he said. The two men started to walk slowly towards her, but she saw them coming and ran over to the horses. She pulled out her sword and punctured Gu's and Hahetai's water bags, then grabbed the largest of Tang's water bags and jumped onto her own horse. The Three Devils stood watching dumbly for a second as the precious water drained out of the two water bags and was instantly swallowed by the sand, then charged at her angrily.

She lay along the horse's back breathing heavily. "If you come a step closer, I'll slash this bag too," she wheezed. The Three Devils stopped.

"I agreed to take you to see Mistress Huo Qingtong and in return you bully me," she added when she had recovered slightly. "From here to the next water is six days travelling. If you don't leave me alone, I'll slash this bag too and we will all die of thirst."

"We won't harm you," protested Tang.

"Let's go," she ordered. "You three first." So they rode on across the desert, the three men in front, the girl behind.

By noon, the burning sun was riding high in the sky, and their lips and tongues were parched dry. Huo Qingtong began to see stars before her eyes and moments of faintness swept over her. She wondered if she was going to die.

"Hey! Give us some water!" she heard Hahetai shout. She shook herself awake.

"Take out a bowl and put it on the ground," she replied. Hahetai did as she said. "Now retreat one hundred paces." Gu hesitated suspiciously. "If you don't, you won't get any water," she added. They cursed her, but retreated. Huo Qingtong rode forward, undid the cap of the water bag and filled the bowl, then rode away again. The three men ran over to the bowl and took turns at gulping down the liquid.

They continued on their way, and about four hours later green grass began to appear beside the road. Tang's eyes lit up. "There must be water ahead!" he shouted. Huo Qingtong was worried. She tried to think of some course of action, but her head was splitting with pain. Suddenly, there was a long eagle's cry from above and she looked up to see a black shape swooping downwards. Overjoyed, she raised her arm and the eagle landed on her shoulder. She saw a piece of black material fastened to one of its legs and knew her teacher would arrive soon.

Tang could see something funny was going on, and with a wave of his hand sent a sleeve dart flying towards Huo Qingtong's right wrist, hoping to knock the sword from her grasp. But she blocked the dart with her sword and with a wave of the reins, galloped around them and into the lead. The Three Devils began shouting and chased after her. After two or three miles, her legs and arms were numb, and she could hold on no longer. The horse gave a jolt and she toppled to the ground.

The Three Devils spurred their horses on. Huo Qingtong struggled to get back onto the horse, but she was too weak. Then in a flash of inspiration, she slung the water bag's leather strap over the eagle's neck and threw the bird up into the air. Tang and the others forgot Huo Qingtong at the sight of their water bag being carried away and chased frantically after the eagle. The water bag was almost full of water and not light, so the eagle was not able to fly high or fast, and the three were able to keep up with it.

A few miles further on, the eagle glided downwards just as two riders appeared in a cloud of dust ahead of them. The eagle circled twice and landed on the shoulder of one of the riders. The Three Devils spurred their horses on and saw that one of the strangers was a bald, red-faced old man, and the other a white-haired old lady.

"Where's Huo Qingtong?" the old man barked, and the three stared at him in surprise. The old man removed the water bag from the eagle's neck and hurled the bird back into the air. He gave a harsh whistle and the bird answered with a squeak and headed back the way it had come. The old couple took no further notice of the Three Devils and galloped past them, chasing after the eagle. Tang saw the old man still had the water bag, and with a wave of his hand to the others, followed along behind.

The two old people were the Tianshan Twin Eagles, Bald Vulture and Madame Guan. After three or four miles, they saw the eagle glide downwards to where Huo Qingtong was lying on the ground. Madame Guan leapt off her horse and grabbed the girl up into her arms and began sobbing.

"Who has been treating you so badly?" she demanded, looking down at the girl's deathly appearance. Just then, the Three Devils rode up. Huo Qingtong pointed at them, then fainted away.

"Well, are you just going to sit there?" Madame Guan demanded angrily of her husband. Bald Vulture wheeled his horse round and charged at the three, and began fighting furiously with them.

Madame Guan slowly poured water into Huo Qingtong's mouth and the girl gradually regained consciousness. Only then did she look round to see how her husband was doing. He was struggling to keep the three at bay, and so she drew her sword and jumped into the melee. She struck out at Tang, who swung round to counter the stroke, but immediately found her style had changed. Amazed that this thin old woman could be such a formidable swordswoman, he concentrated completely on defence.

Huo Qingtong sat up and observed the Twin Eagles gradually gaining the upper hand. As she watched, she faintly heard a strange sound floating towards them on the wind from far off, a sound full of violence and dread, hunger and evil, as if hundreds of wild beasts were howling in unison.

"Teacher, listen!" she cried. The Twin Eagles disengaged themselves from the fight and cocked an ear to listen carefully. The Devils had been hard pressed to hold their own, and did not dare to attack the old couple.

The sound increased slightly in volume, and the Twin Eagles turned pale. Bald Vulture ran over to his horse and stood on its back.

"Come and look!" he shouted. "See if there's anywhere we can take cover."

Madame Guan picked Huo Qingtong up and placed her on her own horse, then vaulted up onto her husband's horse and stood on his shoulders.

The Three Devils looked at each other, absolutely baffled. Their attackers had broken off the fight when they had already won, and were now building human pyramids on a horse's back.

"What devilry are they up to?" Gu growled darkly. Tang had no idea what was happening and could only concentrate on being prepared for anything.

Madame Guan gazed about in all directions, and then shouted: "I think there are two big trees to the north!"

"Whether there are or not, let's go!" her husband replied. Madame Guan jumped over to Hua Qingtong's horse, and they galloped off north without taking any further notice of the Three Devils.

Hahetai noticed that in their hurry to get away, they had left the water bag behind, and bent down to pick it up. By now, the terrifying howling sound was becoming even louder. Gu's face turned grey. "It's a wolf pack!" he cried. The three leapt onto their horses and galloped after the Twin Eagles. Looking back, they saw large wild cats, camels, goats and horses racing for their lives before a grey tide of thousands of hungry wolves.

A few dozen yards ahead of the multitude was a rider, galloping along as if leading the way. In a flash, his powerful horse raced up and passed the Three Devils, who saw he was an old man. The rider turned to look back at them, and shouted: "Do you want to die? Faster!"

Tang's horse was scared out of its wits by the mass of animals bearing down upon them, and it stumbled and threw him. Tang leapt to his feet as a dozen wild cats rushed past him.

"I'm finished," he thought, and began screaming at the top of his voice. Gu and Hahetai heard his screams and turned and headed back to rescue him, the wolves bearing down upon them. A huge wolf, its snow-white teeth bared, charged at Tang, who drew his sword to defend himself even though he knew it was useless. Suddenly, there was the sound of horse's hooves behind, and the old man galloped up, grabbed Tang by his collar and threw his fat body towards Hahetai. Tang somersaulted through the air and landed in a sitting position on Hahetai's horse. The three riders pulled their horses round, and flew for their lives.

The Twin Eagles had lived in the desert many years and were well aware that even the most ferocious animal could not survive an encounter with the wolf pack. They galloped on, and as the two tall trees rose before them, thanked the Heavens that they had once again avoided ending up in a wolf's stomach. Once at the trees, Bald Vulture leapt up in to the branches of one, and Madame Guan handed Huo Qingtong up to him. The wolf pack was approaching fast. Madame Guan whipped the backs of their two horses and shouted: "Run for your lives! We cannot help you!" The two horses dashed away.

Just as the three of them had found somewhere to sit in the branches, they noticed the grey-gowned rider galloping along ahead of the wolf pack. As the rider passed by below, Bald Vulture embraced him with his free hand and lifted him up.

The old man was taken by surprise. His horse shot onwards, while he himself was left dangling in space, a host of animals passing under his feet. He performed a somersault, and landed on his feet on a branch further up the tree.

"What's wrong?" said Bald Vulture. "Don't tell you're afraid of wolves too, Master Yuan?"

"Who asked you to interfere?" the old man replied angrily.

"There's no need to be like that," Madame Guan interrupted him. "My husband just saved your life."

The old man laughed coldly. "Saved me? You've messed up everything!"

He was Great Helmsman Chen's teacher, Master Yuan. He and Madame Guan had grown up together in central China and had fallen in love. But they had argued constantly, and eventually Yuan left and spent more than ten years travelling in the Northern Deserts. There was no news of him, and Madame Guan presumed he would never come back. Eventually, she married Bald Vulture, but shortly after the wedding, Yuan unexpectedly returned home. Both Yuan and Madame Guan were heart-broken although they never spoke of the matter again. Bald Vulture was also very unhappy, and on several occasions went after Yuan to get revenge, but his kung fu was not good enough, and only Yuan's regard for Madame Guan's feelings kept her husband from being seriously hurt. So Bald Vulture took his wife and travelled far away into the Muslim regions. Yuan, however, could not forget her, and also moved to the Tianshan Mountains. He never visited them, but just living close to the woman he loved made him feel a little happier. Madame Guan did all she could to keep from seeing her former lover, but Bald Vulture would not let the matter drop, and the couple had fought and argued for decades since. All three were now old and white-haired, but a day did not pass when they did not think of the entanglement.

Bald Vulture was very pleased with himself for having saved Yuan. You have always had the upper hand, he thought, but perhaps you'll show gratitude towards me after this. Madame Guan, however, was puzzled by Yuan's anger.

"What do you mean, 'messed everything up'?" she asked. "Messed what up?"

"This wolf pack is growing bigger and bigger, and has become a real plague on the desert," Yuan replied. "Several Muslim villages have been completely wiped out already. The wolves eat people, animals, everything. So I prepared a trap and was just leading them to their deaths when you interfered."

Bald Vulture knew Yuan was telling the truth, and felt acutely embarrassed.

Yuan saw the apologetic expression on Madame Guan's face and brought his anger under control. "But you were doing what you thought was best," he added. "I thank you, anyway."

"What sort of trap is it?" asked Bald Vulture.

"Save them!" Yuan suddenly shouted, and jumped down from the tree into the midst of the wolves.

The Three Devils had already been overtaken by the wolves, and their horses had been ripped to shreds. The three of them were standing back-to-back fighting furiously, and although they had killed more than a dozen wolves, others continued to lunge at them. All three were already wounded in several places, and it looked as if they could not hold out for long. Yuan raced over, his hands flew out and smashed the skulls of two wolves. He picked Hahetai up and threw him up into the tree, shouting "Catch!", and Bald Vulture caught him. In the same way, Yuan threw Tang and Gu up, then killed another two wolves, grabbed one of the corpses by the neck and swung it round and round, opening up a path to the tree, then leapt up into the branches. The Three Devils, having been literally snatched from the jaws of death, showered him with thanks. They were astonished by the speed and strength he had displayed, and the way he made killing wolves seem as easy as catching rabbits.

Several hundred wolves circled the base of the tree, scratching at the trunk, raising their heads and howling. A short distance away, several dozen of the fleeing animals had been cut off and encircled by the wolves, who filled the air with their cries and howls. The animals leapt frantically about as the wolves tore and gnashed at them. It was a horrible sight. In only a moment, the animals had all been ripped apart and eaten. Those sitting up in the tree were all brave fighters, but it was the first time any of them had witnessed such a terrifying scene, and they were very frightened.

Bald Vulture eyed the Three Devils suspiciously.

"They are not good men," Huo Qingtong told him.

"All right, then," he replied. "They can go and feed the wolves." Just as he was about to push them off the tree, he looked down once more at the tragic scene below and hesitated just long enough for Tang to shout: "Let's go!" He leapt over to the other tree and Gu and Hahetai followed him.

Madame Guan looked at Huo Qingtong. "My dear, what do you say?" She wanted to know if the girl wanted them to chase after the three and kill them.

Huo Qingtong's heart softened. "Forget about it," she said.

"I am Huo Qingtong," she shouted to the Three Devils. "If you want to get your revenge on me, why don't you come over?" Tang and the others were astonished and infuriated by her words, but they did not dare to return to the other tree.

The wolf pack came fast, and left fast too. They swirled around the trees for a while, howling and barking, then chased off after the remaining wild animals.

Madame Guan told Huo Qingtong to pay her respects to Master Yuan. Seeing her sickly appearance, Yuan took two red pills from his bag and gave them to her, saying: "Take them. They're Snow Ginseng Pills." Snow Ginseng pills were made from the rarest medicinal herbs, and were well known for their ability to even restore life to the dying.

Just as Huo Qingtong was about to bow before him, Yuan jumped down from the tree and ran off. In a moment, he had become just a black dot amidst the swirling desert dust.


Madame Guan helped Huo Qingtong down from the tree, and told her to swallow one of the Snow Ginseng pills. She did so, and soon after, a wave of heat rose from the pit of her stomach, and she felt much better.

"You are very lucky," Madame Guan said. "With these wonderful pills you will recover much quicker."

"She wouldn't die even if she didn't take them," Bald Vulture commented coldly.

"So you'd prefer her to suffer a bit longer, would you?" his wife snapped back.

"If it was me, I'd die rather than take one of his pills. But you, you'd take one even if there was nothing wrong with you."

Madame Guan put the girl on her back, and started walking off north with Bald Vulture following behind, nattering ceaselessly.

They went to the old couple's home on Precious Mountain. Huo Qingtong took another pill, then slept peacefully, and felt much refreshed when she woke. Madame Guan sat on the edge of the bed and asked her what she had been doing travelling alone and sick through the desert. Huo Qingtong told her about how the Manchu army had been destroyed and how she had met the Three Devils on the road, but did not say why she had left the camp. Madame Guan, however, was an impatient person and pressed her. Huo Qingtong respected her teacher more than anyone, and found it impossible to deceive her.

"He…he has become friendly with my sister," she sobbed. "And when I gave the orders to the troops before the battle, my father and everyone thought I was acting out of my own selfish interests."

Madame Guan jumped up. "Is it that Great Helmsman Chen that you gave the dagger to?" Huo Qingtong nodded. "Then he's fickle-hearted and your sister has no sisterly feelings for you. They should both be killed!"

"No, no…" Huo Qingtong replied hastily.

"I'll go and settle this for you," Madame Guan declared fiercely and rushed out of the room, almost bumping into her husband who had come to find out what the shouting was about.

"Come with me!" Madame Guan cried. "There's two heartless ingrates that need to be killed!"

"Right!" he replied, and ran out after her.

Huo Qingtong jumped off the bed, wanting to explain, but she collapsed on the ground, and by the time she had recovered, they were already far away. She knew that together they could easily beat Chen, and was worried they actually would kill him and her sister. So disregarding her weakness, she climbed onto her horse and galloped off after them.

As they rode along, Madame Guan talked at length about how all the heartless men under heaven should be killed.

"That dagger that she gave him is a priceless treasure," she said angrily. "She gave it in good faith, but what notice has he taken of it? None. He ignores her and then decides he likes her sister instead. He should be carved into a thousand pieces!"

"And how could her sister be so shameless as to steal him away like that?" her husband added.

On the third day, the Twin Eagles spotted a dust cloud in the distance and saw two riders galloping from the south towards them.

"Ah!" Madame Guan exclaimed.

"What is it?" her husband asked, and then spotted Chen. He moved to draw his sword.

"Not so fast," Madame Guan said. "Let's pretend we know nothing and take them by surprise."

Chen had also seen them and galloped over. He dismounted and bowed before them.

"It is fortunate that we have met you," he said. "Have you seen Mistress Huo Qingtong?"

"No," Madame Guan replied, secretly furious at his brazen behaviour. "What's the matter?" Suddenly, her eyes opened wide as the other rider approached and she saw it was an extremely beautiful girl.

"This is your sister's teacher," Chen said to Princess Fragrance. "Pay your respects to her." She dismounted and bowed before Madame Guan.

"My sister has often spoken of you both," she said, smiling. "Have you seen her?"

Bald Vulture was stunned by her beauty and thought: no wonder he changed his mind. She's much more beautiful than Huo Qingtong.

Madame Guan was incensed at their craftiness, but her voice betrayed none of her feelings she asked again what was wrong. Chen told her.

"Let's go and look for her together," Madame Guan said.

The four started out together heading north. That evening, they set up camp in the lee of a sand dune, and after dinner, sat around and talked. Princess Fragrance pulled a candle from her bag and lit it. The Twin Eagles looked at Chen and the girl in the candlelight, so young and good-looking, like figures from a mural, and wondered how they could be so evil.

"Are you sure my sister is not in any danger?" Princess Fragrance asked Chen.

He was also very concerned but he comforted her, saying: "Your sister's kung fu is good and she is intelligent. I'm sure she's all right."

Princess Fragrance had complete faith in him and relaxed. "But she's ill," she added after a moment. "When we've found her, we must convince her to come home with us and rest." Chen nodded.

Madame Guan's face turned white with anger as she listened to them engage in what she thought was play-acting.

"Let us play a game," Princess Fragrance suddenly said to Bald Vulture. He looked at his wife. Madame Guan nodded slowly.

"All right!" he said. "What game?"

She smiled at Madame Guan and at Chen "You two will play as well, won't you?" she asked. They nodded.

She brought a horse saddle over and placed it in the middle of the circle, then scooped a pile of sand onto it, patted it down firmly and planted a small candle on top.

"We each take turns at cutting away a slice of the pile," she said. "The one who causes the candle to fall has to sing a song or tell a story. You start first, sir." She handed the knife to Bald Vulture.

The old man had not played such a game for decades, and an expression of embarrassment appeared on his face. Madame Guan gave him a push, "Go on!" she said. He laughed and sliced away a section of sand, then handed the knife to his wife who did the same. They went round three times and the pile became a pillar only slightly thicker than the candle on top. Chen carefully made a slight indent in the pillar. Princess Fragrance laughed and made a little hole on the opposite side and the pillar began to sway slightly. Bald Vulture's hand shook slightly as he accepted the knife.

"Don't breathe!" Madame Guan hissed at him.

"Even one grain of sand counts," Princess Fragrance said. He touched the pillar with the knife and it collapsed, taking the candle with it. He gave a cry of annoyance. Princess Fragrance clapped her hands in delight as Madame Guan and Chen looked on smiling.

"Well sir," said Princess Fragrance. "Are you going to sing a song or tell a story?"

He could see it was impossible to refuse, so he said: "All right. I'll sing a song."

In a high-pitched voice he began singing: "For you and I, life when we were young was like a play, and we cried…" He glanced over at his wife.

As she listened, Madame Guan remembered how good life had been just after their marriage. If Master Yuan had not returned, they would have been happy for the rest of their days. She leaned over and lightly squeezed his hand. Bald Vulture felt dizzy at this sudden show of affection from his wife, and tears welled into his eyes. Chen and Princess Fragrance looked at each other knowingly, both aware of the love these two old people had for each other. They played the sand game again and Chen lost. He told a story. Then Bald Vulture lost again.

As the night deepened, Princess Fragrance began to feel cold and edged closer to Madame Guan, who embraced her and carefully rearranged her wind-blown hair. The Twin Eagles had no children and often felt very much alone in the great desert. Madame Guan sighed and wished she could have had such a daughter. She looked down and saw the girl was already asleep. The candle had been blown out by the wind, but under the starlight, she could see a vague smile on her face.

"Let's get some rest," Bald Vulture said.

"Don't wake her," his wife whispered. She carefully carried Princess Fragrance into the tent and covered her with a blanket.

"Mother," the girl called faintly, and Madame Guan froze for a second in shock.

"It's all right, go to sleep now," she replied softly. She crept out of the tent and saw Chen setting up his tent a long way from the girl's. She nodded slightly.

"Are we going to wait till he's asleep or go over and give him a chance to explain first?" Bald Vulture asked.

"What do you think?"

His heart was full of tender thoughts and he had no stomach for killing at that moment. "Let's sit a while and wait for him to sleep so that he can die painlessly." He took his wife's hand and the two sat silently together on the sand. Soon after, Chen entered his tent and went to sleep.

The Twin Eagles could normally kill people without batting an eyelid, but they found it difficult to deal with these two slumbering youngsters. The constellations slowly turned, the wind grew colder and the old couple hugged each other for warmth. Madame Guan buried her face in her husband's chest and Bald Vulture lightly stroked her back. Before long, both were asleep.


Next morning, Chen and Princess Fragrance awoke to find the Twin Eagles gone, and were puzzled.

"Look, what's that?" Princess Fragrance asked suddenly. Chen turned and saw several huge characters drawn on the sand: "Your evil deeds cannot be forgiven. You will have to die." The characters were five foot square and looked as if they had been drawn with the tip of a sword. Chen frowned, wondering what the message meant. Princess Fragrance could not read Chinese and asked what is said.

"They had some other business and went on ahead," Chen replied, not wishing to worry her.

"Sister's teacher and her husband are really nice…" Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence and jumped up. "Listen!"

Chen had also heard the distant, blood-curdling howl, and having lived in the northwest many years, instantly recognised it.

"There's a wolf pack coming," he said urgently. "We must go quickly!" They hurriedly packed up their tents and provisions and galloped away just as the wolf pack closed in on them. Luckily, they were both riding extremely fast horses and the pack was soon left far behind. But the wolves had been hungry for a long time and having glimpsed them, continued to track them, following the hoof prints in the sand.

After half a day of hard riding, they dismounted to rest, but just as they had prepared a fire to cook some food, the wolf howls neared once more, and they hurriedly re-mounted, and rode off again. Only when darkness had fallen and they estimated the wolf pack to be at least thirty miles behind them did they stop and rest. Around midnight, the white horse began to neigh and kick about, waking Chen. The wolf pack was closing in once more. With no time to pack their tents, they grabbed up their rations and water bags and jumped onto the horses. They travelled a great arc through the desert, never managing to shake off the wolves. The chestnut horse could finally take no more and dropped dead of exhaustion, and they had to continue with both of them on the white horse. The extra weight slowed the horse down, and by the third day, it was no longer able to outrun the wolf pack. They spotted a clump of bushes and small trees and went over.

"We'll stop here and let the horse rest," said Chen, dismounting. With Princess Fragrance's help, he built a low circular wall of sand and placed some dead branches on the top. When lit, the branches became a protective ring of fire for themselves and the horse inside.

Not long after, the wolf pack raced up. Afraid of the flames, the wolves milled around outside the circle howling, not daring to get too close.

"We'll wait for the horse to recover its strength and then break out," said Chen.

"Do you think we'll be able to?"

"Of course," he replied. But he had no idea how.

Princess Fragrance saw how thin and emaciated the hungry wolves were. "The poor things," she said. "I wonder how long it's been since they last ate?"

Chen laughed shortly. The long, sharp fangs of the wolves gleamed through the flames, the saliva dripping, drop by drop from their mouths onto the sand. They howled angrily, waiting from a slight opening in the flames through which they could leap.

Princess Fragrance knew the chance of them getting out alive was very slight. She moved closer to Chem and took his hands.

"When I'm with you, I'm not afraid of anything," she said. "After we die, we will live happily together in heaven forever."

Chen pulled her towards him and embraced her. She sighed, and was just about to close her eyes, when she noticed the flames were dying down in one section of the circle. She screamed and jumped over to add more branches, but three wolves had already slipped inside. Chen pulled her behind him. The white horse kicked its hind legs up and sent one wolf flying back out of the fiery circle. Chen grabbed another wolf by the scruff of its neck and slung it bodily at the third, a huge grey beast which dodged out of the way, then opened its mouth and reared up on its hind legs to go for Chen's throat. Chen picked up a burning branch and rammed it down the wolf's throat, and the animal leapt back out of the circle and rolled about on the ground in great pain.

Chen added more branches to the gap.

After a while, their reserves were getting low, and Chen decided he would have to risk going to get more from some bushes about one hundred feet away.

"I'm going to get some more wood," he told Princess Fragrance, taking out his shield and Pearl Strings. "Build up the fire a bit more until I get back."

She nodded. "Be careful," she said, but did not add any more wood to the fire. She knew that the branches kept the two of them alive, and that when the flames were extinguished, they would be too.

Chen leapt out of the burning circle and raced off using Lightness Kung Fu, fending off the wolves as he went. The wolves surged at him, but in three leaps he was already beside the bushes. He quickly collected firewood with one hand while protecting himself with the shield in the other. Several dozen wolves surrounded him, snarling fiercely, but the flashing hooks on his shield kept them at bay. He collected a large pile of wood and was leaning over to tie the branches up when a large wolf lunged forward. He swirled the shield, and the animal died instantly. But its carcass was caught on the hooks, and the other wolves barked even more frantically as it swung lifelessly before them. He dislodged the body and flung it to one side, and the wolves charged forward to rip it apart. He took advantage of this diversion to pick up the firewood and return into the ring of fire.

Princess Fragrance ran forward and threw herself into his arms. Chen smiled and embraced her, then threw the firewood on the ground. As he looked up, he started involuntarily: there was a third person in the circle, a large man whose clothes had been ripped to shreds by the wolves. In his hand was a sword. His whole body was covered in blood, but his face was calm. It was his enemy, Zhang Zhaozhong.

The two gazed at each other silently.

"He must have seen the fire and run over this way," said Princess Fragrance. "See how exhausted he looks." She poured a bowl of water from the water bag and handed it to Zhang, who grabbed it and slurped it down in one draught. He wiped the blood and sweat from his face with his sleeve, and Princess Fragrance gasped as she suddenly recognised him as the Manchu official Chen had fought with.

Chen rapped his shield with the Pearl Strings. "Come on!" he shouted.

Zhang's eyes glazed over and he fell forward onto his face.

He had been tracking Chen and Princess Fragrance with Prince Herda when he had met the wolf pack. Herda had been devoured, but with his superb kung fu, Zhang had managed to escape after killing several dozen of the ferocious creatures. He had fled across the desert for a day and a night, but finally his horse had dropped dead under him. He had no alternative but to continue on foot and kept going for another day without food or water. Finally, he had spotted the flames in the far distance and had fought his way over.

Princess Fragrance moved to help Zhang up, but Chen stopped her.

"This man is extremely dangerous. Don't fall for his tricks," he warned. He waited for a while to make sure Zhang really was unconscious before going closer.

Princess Fragrance wiped some cold water onto Zhang's forehead, then poured lamb's milk into his mouth. Zhang slowly revived, drank half a bowl of the milk, then fell back onto the ground, sound asleep.

Chen wondered what sort of devil's emissary had delivered this traitor into his hands. Killing Zhang now would be as easy as blowing away a speck of ash, but taking advantage of another's hardship was not a manly thing to do. What was more, Princess Fragrance would certainly be unhappy to see him kill a defenceless man. He decided to spare Zhang once more. In any case, he thought, Zhang would be a great help in killing wolves. Perhaps the two of them together could save Princess Fragrance. He knew he would never be able to do it alone. He drank a few mouthfuls of lamb's milk, then closed his eyes to rest.

After a while, Zhang woke again. Princess Fragrance passed a piece of dried mutton to him, and helped him to bandage several wolf bite wounds on his legs.

"Brother Zhang, all three of us are in great danger," Chen said. "Let us temporarily put aside our differences and cooperate."

Zhang nodded. "Yes, if we fight now, we will all end up inside a wolf's stomach." Having rested for more than two hours, his strength had partially returned, and he began to consider how he could kill Chen and escape with the girl.

Chen wracked his brain for a way out of their present predicament. He saw the many piles of wolf droppings outside the circle of fire, and remembered how Huo Qingtong had used them to fuel signal fires. Using his Pearl Strings, he dragged some of the piles over, formed them into one heap and lit it. A thick pall of smoke rose straight up into the heavens.

Zhang shook his head. "Even if someone saw it, they wouldn't dare to come to help us," he said. "It would take an army to chase away so many wolves."

Chen also knew it would probably do no good, but it was better than doing nothing.

The daylight faded, and the three gradually added more branches to the ring of fire and took turns to sleep.

"He is a very bad man," Chen whispered to Princess Fragrance. "When I'm asleep, you must watch him with especial care." She nodded.

Towards midnight, the moon rose and the wolves began to howl mournfully, a sound which made their skin crawl. Early next morning, they saw the wolves were still pacing around outside the ring with obviously no intention of leaving.

"The only thing that would draw these devils away would be a herd of wild camels passing nearby," said Chen. Suddenly they heard more wolf howls from the distance.

"It looks like more of the devils are coming," Zhang said.

A cloud of dust arose, and three riders galloped towards them with several hundred wolves on their heels. The wolves on that side of the ring of fire spotted them too, and surged forward, encircling the three riders, who fought them off frantically.

"Help them!" Princess Fragrance shouted.

"Let's go," Chen said to Zhang. They charged out of the ring, carving a path of blood through the wolf pack and led the three back into the circle. They noticed one of the horses was carrying a second person, apparently a Muslim girl, lying limply across the saddle with her hands were tied behind her back. The three riders jumped off their horses, and one of them pulled the girl down after him.

"Sister!" Princess Fragrance screamed, and threw herself onto the girl.

It was Huo Qingtong. She had run into the Three Devils again while searching for Chen and her sister and had had no strength to resist. Hahetai had wanted to kill her immediately to avenge the death of their brother, but Gu overruled him saying they should take her back and kill her in front of their dead brother's grave. They started heading back east, but after a day or so, they found themselves being chased by a wolf pack. As they fled, they happened to spot the column of black smoke started by Chen and rode towards it.

Huo Qingtong began to regain consciousness. Princess Fragrance looked at Chen beseechingly. "Tell them to let my sister go," she implored.

Chen turned to Gu. "Who are you and why have you seized my friend?" he asked. Tang strode in front of Gu and coldly sized up Chen and Zhang.

"We thank you two gentlemen for saving us," he said. "What are your names?"

Before Chen could answer, Zhang said, "He is the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo." The Three Devils started in shock.

"And you, sir?" Tang asked.

"I am Zhang Zhaozhong."

Tang gasped. "It's the Fire Hand Judge. No wonder you're both so capable." He told them his name and those of his two colleagues.

Chen's anxiety immediately increased, and he wondered again how they were going to escape. With four tough opponents to deal with now, it would be even harder than before.

"Let us forget our differences for the moment," he said. "Do any of you have any idea of how we might escape?"

The Three Devils looked at each other. "We would welcome your suggestions, Master Chen," said Hahetai.

"If we face the wolves together, there is a chance we will survive. If we fight amongst ourselves, they will eat us all." Tang and Hahetai nodded slightly, but Gu just glared at him angrily. "Therefore, I ask Brother Gu to immediately release my friend, following which we can together work out a plan to beat the wolves."

"And what if I won't let her go?" Gu shouted back.

"Master Gu, if we start fighting, it doesn't matter who wins or loses, we will all die. Please reconsider."

"You'd better let her go," Tang whispered to him." Gu had gone to considerable trouble to capture Huo Qingtong and he was extremely loath to give her up again. "Brother, if you don't let her go, I won't be able to help you," Tang added.

Hahetai walked over and cut the bonds binding Huo Qingtong. As Chen walked over to her, Huo Qingtong suddenly shouted: "Watch out behind!" and he ducked down just as a wolf swept over him. It charged at Princess Fragrance, but Chen grabbed its tail and using all his strength pulled it to a halt. The wolf whipped its head round, snapping and snarling, and with a single blow, Chen broke its neck. Another wolf leapt towards him, and he quickly drew his dagger and thrust it at the beast, a huge, cunning animal which dodged the blade with ease.

Three more wolves jumped into the ring. Hahetai grabbed one by the neck and slung it back out, Zhang cut the second in two with his sword, while Tang fought fiercely with the third. Hahetai stoked up the fire to stop other wolves from entering.

On the other side, Chen feinted with the dagger to the left to throw his attacker off guard, then plunged the blade down towards its head. Unable to avoid the stroke, the wolf opened its huge mouth and bit hard onto the dagger. Chen pushed the blade in with all strength, but despite the pain, it hung on desperately. Chen tried to pull the dagger back out but the beast refused to yield. Increasingly anxious, Chen mustered his strength once more and punched the wolf right between its eyes, smashing its skull. The wolf fell back dead and the dagger came free, the blade glinting coldly as it reflected the flames.

But the dagger's blade was also still firmly lodged between its teeth. They were all perplexed at this: the dagger was obviously in Chen's hand and had not snapped. Where had the blade in the wolf's mouth come from?

Chen bent over and tried to pull the blade out of the beast's mouth, but although the wolf was dead, its teeth was still clamped tightly shut. He used the dagger to slit open the wolf's jowls, and the muscles and tendons on its face collapsed, freeing the blade. Chen examined it closely and saw that it was hollow, like a scabbard. He stuck the dagger blade inside, and found it fitted perfectly. Huo Qingtong had said when she presented the dagger to him that it was said to contain a great secret. If it had not been for this wolf and its strong teeth, who would have guessed that there was a blade within the blade?

Princess Fragrance took the dagger from Chen and examined it, marvelling at the design of the second scabbard and the precision of the workmanship. She turned the hollow outer blade upside down and a small white pellet rolled out. Chen and Huo Qingtong bent down to get a closer look and saw it was a small ball of wax.

"Let's open it," Chen said. Huo Qingtong nodded. He picked the ball up and lightly squeezed it, cracking the wax open, revealing a small piece of paper inside, which he spread out. On the paper was a map drawn as densely as a spider's web.

Zhang had seen them discover the piece of paper, and glanced at it stealthily. But he was disappointed to find it was covered in Muslim writing, which he could not understand.

Chen knew something of the Muslim written language, but he could not grasp the meaning of the classical characters on the piece of paper and handed it over to Huo Qingtong. She examined it closely for a long time, then folded it up and placed it in her pocket.

"What does it say?" Chen asked. Huo Qingtong did not answer, her head hung low.

Princess Fragrance knew her sister well and smiled. "She is trying to work out a difficult problem. Don't disturb her," she said.

Huo Qingtong sat down on the ground and began to draw lines in the sand with her finger. She drew a diagram then rubbed it out and drew another. After a while, she wrapped her arms around her knees, deep in thought.

"You are still weak. Don't overtax yourself," Chen said to her. "You can work it out later. The important thing now is to think of a plan for getting out of here."

"I'm working on a way to escape these hungry wolves and these human wolves as well," Huo Qingtong replied, pouting angrily at Zhang as she spoke. She continued her meditations for a moment, then said to Chen: "Please stand on a horse and look westwards. Tell me if you can see a mountain with a white peak."

Chen led the white horse over and did as she said. In the distance, he spied a cluster of mountains, but could see none with a white peak. He searched carefully for a minute longer then looked down at Huo Qingtong and shook his head.

"According to the map, the Secret City should not be far from here, and we should be able to see the White Jade Peak."

Chen jumped off the horse's back. "What secret city?" he asked.

"When I was young, I heard people talk about an ancient city that was buried in this desert," she replied. "The city was once extremely prosperous, but one day a great sand storm arose, and dunes as large as mountains buried it. None of the city's residents escaped." She turned to Princess Fragrance. "Sister, you know the story better than I do. You tell it."

"There are many stories about the place, but no one has ever seen the city with their own eyes. No," she corrected herself. "Many people have been there, but few have returned alive. It is said that there are huge amounts of gold, silver and jewels there. Some people who have lost their way in the desert have found their way into the city by chance and have been overwhelmed by the sight of such wealth. They naturally began to load the gold and jewels onto their camels to take away with them. But no matter which way they went, they found it impossible to get out of the city.

"Why?" Chen asked.

"It's said that all the people of the city turned into ghosts when they were buried by the sand, and that they bewitch visitors who try to take valuables away with them. But if you put down the valuables, every single piece, then it's easy to find your way out."

"I doubt if many people would be willing to do that," said Chen.

"Yes. Seeing such riches, who wouldn't want to take some? It is said that if you don't take anything, but even leave a few extra taels of silver in one of the houses, then the wells will spurt clear, fresh water for you to drink. The more silver you leave, the more fresh water there is."

Chen laughed. "The ghosts of this secret city sound very greedy."

"Some members of our tribe who were badly in debt have gone to look for the city, but only those who didn't find it have ever come back," Princess Fragrance continued. "Once, a caravan crossing the desert came across a man who was half dead. He said he had entered the city, but had found himself going in circles when he tried to get out again. Finally, his strength gave out and he collapsed, and the next thing he knew was the arrival of the caravan. The caravan leader asked him to lead them to the city, but he refused. He said he wouldn't take one step into that haunted place again even if he received all the riches of the city as a reward."

"It doesn't necessarily have to be that these people were bewitched by ghosts," said Chen. "If someone suddenly came upon a huge amount of gold and jewels, it could affect their minds and make it difficult for them to think clearly. But if they decided they did not want the riches, it could clear their heads, and make it easier to find the way out."

"The map hidden in the scabbard shows the way to the Secret City," Huo Qingtong said quietly.

"Ah," exclaimed Chen, suddenly understanding.

"The map indicates that the city was built around a high snow-capped mountain." she continued. "From the look of it, the mountain should not be too far from here. We should be able to see it. I cannot understand why we can't."

"Sister, you're wasting your time," said Princess Fragrance. "Even if we could find the mountain, what use would it be?"

"We could escape into the city. There are houses and fortresses in the city and our chance of escaping the wolves would be much greater than here."

"That's right!" Chen said. He stood on the horse's back once more looking west. But all he could see was a hazy white sky stretching to the horizon.

Zhang and the Three Devils could not understand a word of what they said, but they watched suspiciously as Chen stood on the back of his horse twice, and wondered what devilment he was up to.

Princess Fragrance took out some dry rations and divided them up amongst all of them. As she sat eating, she gazed out beyond the flames at the horizon. Suddenly, she jumped up.

"Sister! Look!" Huo Qingtong followed the direction of her hand and saw a black spot stationary in the sky.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's an eagle," Princess Fragrance replied. "I saw it fly over from here. But how could it suddenly stop in mid-air?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I clearly saw it fly across."

"If the black spot isn't an eagle, what could it be?" asked Chen. "If it is an eagle, how could it remain motionless in mid-air? It's very strange." The three watched the spot for a while, then saw it move and become larger. A black eagle swept over their heads.

Princess Fragrance raised her hand to tidy her hair, which had been blown about by the wind. Chen looked at her snow-white skin and the white material of her dress next to it and realised the answer.

"Look at her hand!" he said excitedly to Huo Qingtong.

"Yes, her hands are very pretty," she replied absent-mindedly.

"Of course her hands are beautiful. But don't you see? Because her skin is so white, it's difficult at a glance to tell where the hand begins and the dress ends."

"So?" asked Huo Qingtong, puzzled.

"The eagle was sitting on top of a white mountain!"

"Yes! You're right," Huo Qingtong exclaimed. "The sky over there is white, the same colour as the peak, so from a distance, it can't be seen."

"Exactly," said Chen.

Princess Fragrance realised they were talking about the Secret City. "How do we get there?" she asked.

"That is what we have to carefully work out," Huo Qingtong replied. She pulled out the map again and studied it carefully again for a while. "When the sun starts to sink towards the west, we'll be able to tell if there's a mountain there or not by its shadow."

"We mustn't give ourselves away," said Chen. "We don't want the others to work out what we're doing."

"Yes. Let's pretend we're talking about this wolf," she suggested.

Chen pulled the wolf across and the three sat around it, now pulling out one of its hairs and examine it closely, now opening its mouth to look at its teeth. The sun gradually sank towards the west and the mountain's shadow did indeed appear, stretching out longer and longer across the desert like some giant lying down. Huo Qingtong drew a map on the ground, estimating the distances.

"From here to the mountain must be about twenty or thirty miles," she said, turning the wolf over.

Chen picked up one of its legs and played with its sharp claws. "If we had another horse apart from the white horse, the three of us could make that in one go."

"So we have to think of some way to get them to allow us to go," Huo Qingtong replied.

"Yes." He picked up his dagger and slit open the wolf's stomach.

"What's so interesting about that dead wolf?" Zhang shouted, annoyed at not being able to understand what they were saying. "Are you discussing how to bury him, Master Chen?"

"We are discussing how to get out," Chen said. "Look, the wolf's stomach is completely empty."

"Do you have a plan?" Zhang asked.

"When the firewood has all been burned and there is no more to collect, then we are all going to die, is that not so?" Zhang and the Three Devils nodded. "But if one of us were willing to sacrifice himself and ride out of the circle, the wolves would swarm after him like bees from a hive. Once they were drawn off, the others could escape.

"But what about the one who goes?" asked Zhang.

"If he comes across either the Manchu or Muslim armies then he will be all right. Otherwise he will die. But it is better than us all dying here together."

"It's not a bad idea," said Tang. "But who's going to lead the wolves away? It's certain death."

"What do you suggest, Brother Tang?"

Tang was silent. "Let's draw lots," Hahetai suggested. "Whoever loses, goes."

"Yes, let's draw lots," Zhang said eagerly. Chen had wanted to offer himself and then break out with the sisters. But he could not suggest it without arousing their suspicions, so he said: "Just the five of us will draw. Let us exempt the two girls."

"We're all people," Gu protested. "Why should they be exempted?"

"How could we live down the shame of being saved by a girl?" said Hahetai. "I would prefer to die here."

"I think that if we're going to draw lots, we should all draw," said Tang, wanting to lessen the chance of himself being chosen.

They all looked at Zhang, waiting to hear his opinion. Zhang had already worked out a plan and knew he could not lose. Moreover, one of the girls was wanted by the Emperor and he fancied the other for himself.

"I will not allow a lady to save my life," he said proudly.

"All right, then," said Gu. "We'll let them off."

"I'll collect some sticks to use," said Tang, but Zhang stopped him.

"No," he said. "It's too easy to cheat with sticks. We'll use copper coins instead." He pulled a dozen or so coins from his pocket and selected five. "Four of these are Emperor Yong Zheng coins and the fifth is from the reign of Emperor Sun Zhi. Please examine them. They are exactly the same size."

"And whoever picks the Emperor Sun Zhi coin leads the wolves away," Tang added, as he carefully examined the coins.

"Exactly," said Zhang. "Why not put them in your bag for the draw, Brother Tang?" Tang did as he said.

"Now, who will go first?" Zhang asked. He looked at Gu and saw his hands were shaking. "Brother Gu is afraid," he said with a smile. "Life and death are governed by fate. I will go first." He stretched his hand onto Tang's bag and pulled an Emperor Yong Zheng coin out.

"Oh, what a pity!" he exclaimed. "I won't be able to be the hero." He opened his first and showed the coin to the other four. The five coins were the same size, but the Emperor Sun Zhi coin was about eighty years older than the others and therefore slightly smoother and thinner, although not enough to be immediately obvious.

Chen's turn was next, and to his disappointment he chose an Emperor Yong Zheng coin.

"Brother Gu, if you please," Zhang said. Gu drew his sword and flourished it threateningly.

"It's a trick!" he shouted. "You already decided that it would be one of us three."

"What do you mean, a trick?" Zhang demanded.

"They're your coins, and you had first choice. How do we know you haven't marked them in some way?"

Zhang's face went white. "Then what do you suggest, Brother Gu?"

"One of those Yong Zheng coins in your pocket is lighter in colour than the others. Put that in with four dark ones, and whoever picks the light one goes."

Zhang hesitated for a second, then smiled. "Just as you say. But I fear it will still be you who goes to feed the wolves." He surreptitiously bent the light-coloured coin slightly before placing it with the others.

"If neither you nor I lose, I will fight you afterwards," Gu said threateningly.

"It will be my pleasure," replied Zhang. He put the five coins in the bag. "You three gentlemen choose first, then myself and lastly Master Chen, is that satisfactory?"

The Three Devils did not object. "Brother Hahetai, you first," said Tang.

Just as Hahetai put his hand in the bag, Huo Qingtong shouted out in Mongolian: "Don't take the bent one!" He started in fright. The first coin he felt was indeed slightly bent. He chose another one and pulled it out: it was dark coloured.

Huo Qingtong had seen Zhang bend the coin, and had warned Hahetai because he was the most decent of the Three Devils.

Next was Gu's turn. Hahetai told him in the thick, unintelligable dialect of northeast China not to take the bent coin. Gu and Tang both glanced angrily at Zhang and pulled out dark coloured coins. Chen looked questioningly at Huo Qingtong.

"Don't take the bent one," Princess Fragrance said.

Chen knew Zhang would certainly take the unbent coin, thereby giving him both the light-coloured coin and the chance to escape with the girls. But as Zhang put his hand into Hahetai's bag, Chen saw Gu looking covertly at Huo Qingtong, and realised they would never let him take the girls with him. Uncertain of what to do and with no time left to think, he suddenly blurted out: "Take the bent one! Leave the flat one for me!"

Zhang started in shock and drew his hand back. "What do you mean, bent?" he demanded.

"One of the two coins in the bag has been bent by you. I want the one that's not bent." He put his hand in the bag and pulled out the dark coin. "You've caused your own funeral," he said to Zhang with a smile.

Zhang's face went dark and he drew his sword. "We had agreed that I would choose first," he said, and swung the blade at Chen's neck. Chen ducked and thrust his dagger at Zhang's stomach. The two fought closely for a moment. Suddenly, Zhang flung his sword at Huo Qingtong. Chen was afraid she would be too weak to dodge it and raced over to intercept the weapon. But it was just a diversion. As Chen ran towards Huo Qingtong, Zhang jumped over to Princess Fragrance and grabbed her.

"Get out!" he shouted to Chen, who stopped in his tracks and stared dumbly back at Zhang. "If you don't get out, I'll throw her to the wolves!" He picked the girl up and swung her about above his head. Chen heart pounded and his brain whirled in confusion.

"Ride out and lead the wolves away!" Zhang shouted again.

Chen knew Zhang would do what he said and so he slowly untied the white horse's reins and mounted up.

"I'll count to three. If you're not out of the circle by then, I'll let her go. One…two…three!" As he said three, the white horse bounded out of the ring.

Chen landed in the midst of the wolves, grabbed the first two that attacked him by the scruffs of their necks, then turned the horse round, soared back into the ring of fire and flung them at Zhang.

With two such ferocious animals flying at him, Zhang was forced to drop Princess Fragrance to protect himself. Chen threw two of his chess pieces at him, scooped Princess Fragrance up, then leapt out of the circle of fire once more with another horse close behind: Huo Qingtong had taken advantage of the fight to cut the reins of a horse and mount up without the Three Devils noticing.

She and Chen waded through the wolf pack, slashing right and left with their weapons as if chopping vegetables, and in a moment, the two horses were out in the open and galloping off westwards with the wolf pack chasing behind. The horses were much faster than the wolves, and before long, they had left the pack far behind. But Chen knew the hard part would be staying ahead of these tireless, hungry beasts.


As the three rode along, the land about them gradually became more rocky and a crooked path appeared. It grew dark, and the White Jade Peak began to tower over them.

"According to the map, the Secret City was built around the base of the mountain," said Huo Qingtong. "It doesn't look as if it would be more than three or four miles from here." The three dismounted and gave their two horses some water.

Chen stroked the white horse's mane lovingly, knowing that without it, he would never have been able to rescue Princess Fragrance. He also knew he would not have left without her.

They rested for a while until the horses had recovered some of their strength and then continued on, the cries of the wolves already vaguely discernible in the distance. Chen rode the chestnut horse alone and the two sisters rode together on the white horse.

The night was cool and the snow on the peak glistened brilliant white under the moon, looking almost close enough to touch. The path became rough and treacherous and suddenly split a dozen or so ways, with no indication of which was the correct one.

"With so many paths, it's not surprising people get lost," said Chen. Huo Qingtong pulled out the map and examined it under the moonlight.

"It says: `left three right two'," she said.

"What does that mean?"

"It doesn't explain." In the distance, they heard the wolves howling in unison.

"It's about midnight," Huo Qingtong said. "They must have stopped to howl at the moon. When they've finished, they will be after us again. We must choose the path and go quickly."

"There are five paths on the left here," said Chen pointing. "The map says left three right two, so let's take the third."

"If it's a dead end, we won't have time to come back again," replied Huo Qingtong.

"In that case, the three of us will die together," said Chen.

As Chen spoke, Huo Qingtong felt a sudden warmth in her breast and tears welled into her eyes. She raised her horse whip and led them into the middle path.

The track narrowed into a stone-walled corridor which had obviously been hacked out of the mountainside by men. After a while, they came to another crossroads from which three paths branched out to the right.

"We're saved! We're saved!" Huo Qingtong shouted with joy, and they spurred their horses up the middle path with renewed energy. But the track had not been traversed for many years, and in some places, it was completely overgrown by grasses taller than a man, while in others, it was blocked by sand drifts. The three had to dismount and lead the horses over the obstacles. Chen also moved rocks onto the top of the drifts to slow the wolves' pursuit.

Less than half a mile further on, they came upon three more paths forking to the left. Suddenly, Princess Fragrance screamed and pointed to a pile of white bones at the mouth of one of the paths. Chen dismounted to investigate and found they were the remains of a man and a camel.

"He must have been unable to decide which path to take and ended up dying here," he sighed.

They entered the third path and found it suddenly steepened sharply. The cold and darkness became oppressive. A short while later another skeleton appeared by the side of the path with jewels glistening amongst the bones.

"He was rich but he couldn't get out," Huo Qingtong said.

"But it means we're on the right path," replied Chen. "There must be even more skeletons on the wrong paths."

"When we leave, none of us must take any jewels, all right?" Princess Fragrance said.

"You're afraid the ghosts won't let us go," said Chen with a smile.

"Promise me!"

He heard the pleading tone in her voice and hurriedly replied: "I won't take anything, don't worry." All the jewels in the world could not match having you two sisters as companions, he thought, and suddenly felt ashamed. Why did he include them both together?

They continued up the twisted path the whole night, and by morning, they and the two horses were exhausted.

"Let's rest a while," said Huo Qingtong.

"We must concentrate on finding shelter first and then we can all sleep easily," Chen replied firmly.


A short way further on, the path opened out into a wide, flat valley of extraordinary beauty. The sun was just rising and the white mountain soared up into the sky from the valley floor. Around its base was a city that looked as if it had once been very prosperous. But now, the thousands of houses that they could see, although magnificent in scale and design, were in various stages of ruin and collapse. Not a sound was to be heard, not even the twittering of birds. The three had never seen a place that was at once so beautiful and so terrible. They stood for a moment, over-awed by the crushing silence, hardly daring to even breathe, then Chen urged his horse forward and they entered the city.

The area was extremely dry, so dry that there was virtually no vegetation on the ground. The contents of the houses had stayed undisturbed for countless years and most appeared to still be in good condition. They entered the first house they came to and Princess Fragrance noticed a pair of ladies' shoes on the floor. Their colour was still fresh, but as soon as she touched them, they disintegrated into dust, and she jumped in shock.

"This city is in a basin surrounded by high mountains which protect it from rain and wind," Chen said.

As they continued through the streets, they found skeletons everywhere and swords and other weapons thrown about at random.

"It doesn't look as if the city was buried in a sand storm as the story says," Chen commented.

"No," Huo Qingtong agreed. "It looks more like there was a big battle and all the people were killed."

"But there's so many paths outside the city," Princess Fragrance objected. "How would the enemy find their way in?"

"There must have been a traitor," Huo Qingtong replied.

They went into another house, and she spread the map out on a table and leaned over to examine it. But the table was completely rotten despite its apparent sturdiness, and it collapsed under the weight of her arms. She picked up the map and studied it for a moment. "I'm afraid these houses wouldn't withstand an attack by the wolves for very long," she said. She pointed at a place on the map. "This is the centre of the city, right at the foot of the mountain. There are a lot of markings around it, which probably means it is a place of importance. If it's a palace or fortress, it is bound to be very sturdily built, so let's go there."

"Right!" said Chen. The three continued on their way, following the path indicated on the map. The roads in the centre of the city were like a maze, twisting and turning until their head's swam. If they had not had the map, they would surely have lost their way.

After an hour or so, they came to the place marked on the map as the city centre, but were disappointed to find no sign of any palace or fortress. From close up, the White Jade Peak looked even more beautiful than from a distance. It was completely white, pure and shining. A jade carver who found even a small piece of white jade would never go hungry for the rest of his life, but here was a whole mountain of the precious stone. They looked up at the towering peak and felt a sense of spiritual upliftment. Their cares and worries dispersed and they reflected on the wonderful mystery of creation.

Then, amidst the silence, they heard far off the howls of wolves drifting towards them.

"They're coming!" cried Princess Fragrance. "Could it be the wolves have a map as well?"

"Their nose is their map," Chen replied. "We have left our scent wherever we have gone and by following it, they will never make a mistake."

Huo Qingtong pointed at the map. "Look," she said. "There is the mountain, but there are many roads marked inside."

"They must be tunnels," he said.

"Yes. Now how do we find them?" She looked at the explanation on the map and slowly deciphered it. "To enter the palace, climb the tall tree and call out "Ailongabasheng" three times towards the sacred mountain."

"What is Ailongabasheng?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"It must be the password," Huo Qingtong replied. "But where is the tall tree? And could this really be a magic spell?"

"Of course it could," said Princess Fragrance, who had always believed in spirits and fairies.

"In the old days, there would have been people in the mountain who would have pushed a switch when they heard the password, opening a cave entrance," said Chen. But after so many years, everyone in there is certainly dead."

The howls of the wolves sounded closer. "Let's go and hide in one of the houses," Huo Qingtong suggested.

The three turned and ran towards the closest of the buildings. As they ran, Chen tripped on a bulge on the ground and saw it was the stump of a huge tree. "The tree's here!" he called.

Princess Fragrance examined the sheer face of the mountain above and pointed. "That must be the cave mouth there. Look, aren't those footholds?" Chen and Huo Qingtong looked up and saw with delight that there were indeed notches in the rock face.

"I'll go up and have a look," said Chen. With the dagger in his right hand, he bounded up the cliff. He made it up about a dozen feet then used his Inner Strength Kung Fu to lodge the dagger in the rock face for an instant and race up further. Finally, he reached the point where the footholds began. The two girls cheered from below, and Chen waved to them before turning his attention to the cliff above. Over the years, the cave mouth had become blocked by sand. Chen grabbed an outcrop of jade rock with one hand and started to shift some of the sand with the dagger. He pulled broken slabs of rock out one after another, and let them drop to the ground, and in a short while had made a hole large enough to wriggle through. He crawled in and sat down. Then, pulling his Pearl Strings from his pocket, he undid them all, tied them together end to end and dangled the resulting rope down the cliff face to the girls waiting below.

Huo Qingtong tied the rope round her sister's waist and Chen slowly pulled her up. Just as she reached the cave mouth, she screamed, and Chen quickly helped her inside, saying: "Don't worry, you've made it."

Her face was deathly pale. "Wolves!" she cried.

Chen looked down and saw seven or eight wolves had already arrived at the base of the cliff. Huo Qingtong was valiantly fighting them off with her sword. The white horse shook its mane and neighed loudly then galloped off through the streets of the ancient city.

Chen hastily grabbed some large rocks from around the cave mouth and threw them down, forcing some of the wolves to back away, then dropped the rope down again. Huo Qingtong was afraid that in her weak condition, she would be unable to hold on long enough, so she transferred the sword to her left hand, and tied the rope round her waist as she continued to fight off the wolves.

"Right!" she yelled. Chen yanked on the rope and she flew into the air just as two wolves threw themselves at her. One of them bit deeply into her boot and refused to let go. As Princess Fragrance screamed in fright, Huo Qingtong bent over in mid-air and chopped it in half across its belly. The top half of its body accompanied her up to the cave mouth.

Chen helped her inside and tried unsuccessfully to pull the half-wolf off her boot.

"Did it bite into you?" he asked quickly.

"I'm all right," she replied. She took the dagger from his hand and cut open the wolf's mouth, revealing the serried ranks of teeth sunk deep into her boot. A small trickle of blood oozed out of one of the holes in the leather.

"Your foot is wounded," Princess Fragrance said. She helped her sister remove the boot, and ripped a strip of material off her gown to bandage the wound. Chen turned his head away, not daring to look at her bare feet.* (* In traditional China, feet were considered one of the most erotic parts of the female anatomy.)

When she had finished the bandaging, Princess Fragrance looked down at the thousands of wolves amongst the buildings below, and wagged her finger at them angrily. "You evil wolves, biting my sister's foot! I won't feel sorry for you any more," she scolded them as Chen and Huo Qingtong smiled.

They turned to look into the cave, but all they could see was pitch-blackness. Huo Qingtong took out her tinderbox and lit it, and immediately jumped in fright: they were sitting on a thin ledge and next to them was a drop of nearly two hundred feet down to the floor of the cave, which looked even lower than the ground outside the mountain.

"There has been no fresh air in here for a long time," said Chen. "We can't go down yet." After a while, when he thought most of the stale air would have dissipated, he said: "I'll go down first to have a look around."

"Once we're down it won't be easy to get back up again," said Huo Qingtong.

Chen smiled. "If we can't, we can't," he said. Huo Qingtong blushed and looked away.

He tied one end of the rope round a rock outcrop and started to slide down into the abyss, but when he reached the end of the rope, he was still a hundred feet from the bottom. Abandoning the rope, he climbed down the cliff face for a way, and then jumped lightly to the floor.

"Throw down the tinderbox!" he shouted and Huo Qingtong did so. He struck a light, and under its glow, he saw he was in a chamber carved entirely out of white jade furnished with several sets of wooden tables and chairs. Chen looked up and saw the two girls peering down from the ledge, and shouted: "Come down!"

"You go down first, sister," Huo Qingtong said. Princess Fragrance took hold of the rope and slid slowly down to its end. She saw Chen standing beneath her with his hands opened wide, closed her eyes tightly and let go. Almost immediately, she felt his strong arms catch her and place her lightly on the ground. Huo Qingtong jumped down in the same fashion and as Chen embraced her, she flushed deep red with embarrassment.

By now, the howls of the wolves outside the mountain were becoming faint. Chen looked at their shadows dancing on the white jade walls, and then at the two beauties beside him. Under the glow of the reflected light, they looked even more exquisite. Here they were, the three of them, in the bowels of a mountain, not knowing what was in store for them. Of all the strange things that had happened to him in his eventful life, this was the strangest.

Chen snapped off a chair leg and lit it with the flame from the tinder-box. Princess Fragrance exclaimed at the beauty of the chamber they were in, and taking the torch from Chen began walking about. He broke off another seven chair legs and the three began to walk off along a long tunnel which turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Chen wondered how they would get out. Then in a corner of the tunnel, he noticed something sparkling under the torchlight. He walked over and saw it was a gold suit of armour containing a pile of old bones. The suit of armour was exquisitely-made, and the three marvelled at the fine workmanship.

"He must have been a nobleman," said Princess Fragrance. Huo Qingtong noticed that there was a winged camel engraved on the breast plate and added: "He may even have been the king or a prince. I've heard that in ancient times, only kings could use winged camels as their emblem."

"It's the same with the dragon in China," replied Chen. He took the torch from Princess Fragrance and began to examine the end wall of the tunnel for some trace of a door or an opening mechanism. Raising the torch, he saw a huge ring door knocker with a long-handled axe lodged in it.

"There's a door," Huo Qingtong exclaimed joyfully. Chen passed the torch over to her and tried to pull the axe away, but it had rusted onto the iron ring and was immovable. He took out his dagger and scraped away the rust, then with an effort, managed to pull the axe free. He found it very heavy.

"If this was his weapon, then His Highness was a strong man," he said with a smile.

On closer examination, they found there was an iron ring fastened to all four corners of the stone door. Chen took hold of each of the rings and gave them a mighty tug, but the door did not move even a fraction. He tried pushing it instead, and with load squeaks, it slowly began to swing open. They saw the door was at least ten feet thick, and in fact was more like a huge boulder than a door.

The three looked at each other with expressions of jubilation on their faces. Chen raised the torch high and with the dagger in his other hand, led the way through the door. One step inside, something crunched under his foot, and he saw a pile of bones on the floor. Looking ahead, there was a narrow tunnel leading off into the darkness, just big enough for a person to walk along. Skeletons and swords were scattered all about them.

Huo Qingtong pointed to the back of the great stone door. "Look," she said. Under the torchlight they saw deeply scored lines obviously scratched out with swords.

"These people must have been locked in here by the king," said Chen in a startled voice. "They tried the best they could to get out, but the door was too thick and the jade rock too solid."

"Even if they had had ten blades as sharp as your dagger, they would still never have broken through this door," replied Huo Qingtong.

"They must have considered every alternative, and finally one by one died as hope faded…"

"Don't! Don't go on," Princess Fragrance pleaded. The scene was too tragic. She could not bear to hear any more.

"Why did the king stand guard on the other side of the door instead of escaping?" Huo Qingtong asked. "I can't work that out at all." She pulled out the map and looked at it for a moment. Her face brightened. "At the end of this tunnel there should be a great hall and other rooms," she said.

Slowly, they walked forward, treading on human bones as they went. They turned two corners, and emerged into a cavernous hall as Huo Qingtong had predicted. They stood at the entrance and looked about. The floor of the great hall was filled with skeletons and weapons lying about at random, evidence that a furious battle had been fought here.

As they walked into the hall, Chen's dagger suddenly shot out of his hand and fell to the floor with a clatter. At the same instant, the belt supporting Huo Qingtong's sword around her waist snapped, and the scabbard fell heavily to the floor. The three jumped in fright. Huo Qingtong bent down to pick up her sword, but as she did so, the darts in her pocket flew out with a whoosh and dropped to the ground in the same manner.

Chen grabbed the two girls and leapt backwards several paces, steeling himself to defend them against any attackers. But there was not a sound from the hall. He wondered what kung fu could snatch the weapons from their hands and even suck Huo Qingtong's darts from her pocket.

"We have come only to escape wolves and with no other purpose," Chen shouted into the darkness in the Muslim language. "Please forgive us for any indiscretions we may have committed."

There was no answer but the echo of his own words returning from the far side of the hall.

As Huo Qingtong's initial fright receded, she walked forward again and stooped to pick up her sword. But it was stuck to the floor as if nailed in place. She tried again using all her strength and managed to free it, but a second later, it flew out of her hand again and hit the ground with a clang.

Chen realised what was happening.

"There must be a magnet under here," he said.

"What's a magnet?" asked Huo Qingtong.

"Sailors say there is a big mountain in the far north which attracts pieces of iron which hang free, making them point north to south. When they're on the ocean, they rely on something called a magnetic compass to find their direction."

"And you think there's another magnet mountain under here which is attracting our weapons?" asked Huo Qingtong.

"I think so. Let's try it." He prized up his dagger and placed it and a wooden chair leg on his left hand with his right hand on top to hold them in place. When he took his hand away, the dagger flew to the ground but the chair leg remained motionless.

"So as you see, the magnet is powerful," said Chen, picking up the dagger again and gripping it tightly.

Huo Qingtong walked on a few more steps. "Come here!" she called. Chen ran over and saw a skeleton which was still standing. A few tattered pieces of clothing hung on the frame, and its right hand was holding a white-coloured sword which was stuck into the skeleton next to it.

"It's a jade sword!" Huo Qingtong exclaimed. Chen carefully extracted the sword from the skeleton's grasp, and with its support gone, it collapsed to the floor in a heap.

The jade sword's blade was very sharp, but it was still frail enough to shatter if it clashed with a metal blade. Looking round, they saw there were many other jade weapons of all sizes lying about the hall.

"I know!" Huo Qingtong suddenly said. "The master of this mountain certainly planned things very carefully."

"What?" asked Chen.

"He used this magnet to draw the enemy's weapons away and then his guards finished them off with the jade swords."

Princess Fragrance pointed at a skeleton wearing a metal breast plate. "Look! Some of the attackers were wearing armour. i'll bet they couldn't get on their feet."

"But what I don't understand," Huo Qingtong continued, "is if the guards with the jade weapons killed all the attackers, why did they also die here as well?"

Chen had also been considering that problem, but could think of no explanation.

"Let's go further in and explore," said Huo Qingtong.

"No," Princess Fragrance said. "Let's not, sister."

Huo Qingtong saw the anguished expression on her face and squeezed her arm. "Don't be afraid. Perhaps there are no skeletons over there."

They walked to the other side of the hall and looked into a smaller chamber. But the scene there was even more terrible than in the first hall. Dozens of skeletons were piled about the room, most of them still standing as if alive. Some had weapons in their hands, some didn't.

"Don't touch anything!" said Chen. "There must be some strange reason for them dying like this." They continued on, and passed out of the chamber into a tunnel. After a couple of bends, they came upon a small swing door. As they pushed it open, their eyes were assailed by a bright light. Sunlight poured in from a crack in the ceiling hundreds of feet above into an excuisite jade room which had obviously been carved out of the mountain at this spot to take advantage of the natural lighting.

Although it was only a single shaft of sunlight, the three were very excited at the sight of it. The room they found themselves in had a jade bed, a jade table, jade chairs, all beautifully carved. A skeleton reclined on the jade bed, while in one corner of the room, there were two other skeletons, one large and one small.

Chen extinguished the torch. "We'll rest here," he said. They pulled out their dry rations and water and had a small meal.

"I wonder how long the wolves will wait outside the mountain for us?" said Huo Qingtong. "This has became a contest between us and the wolves, so we will have to make the food and water last as long as possible."

For the past several days, Chen and the two sisters had not had a moment in which they could relax. Now, in this silent jade room, an immense exhaustion came over them and before very long, they fell into a deep, deep sleep.



Zhang and the Three Devils watched the wolves swarm after Chen and the girls with great relief, although they felt a tinge of regret at the thought of two such beautiful girls being ravished by the animals. The four men sat down to rest for a while, then roasted and ate one of the dead wolves left behind. Gu noticed that the supply of tree branches was almost exhausted, and too lazy to go and get more, he threw piles of wolf's dung onto the fire to stoke up the flames. Before long, a column of thick, black smoke was rising towards the heavens.

Just as they had eaten their fill of wolf meat, they noticed a dust cloud approaching from the east. Assuming it to be another wolf pack, they frantically jumped up and ran for the horses. Only two horses were left, both of which had been brought by the Three Devils. Zhang stretched out his hand to take the reins of one of the mounts, but Hahetai lunged in front of him and grabbed them first, shouting: "What do you think you're doing?"

Zhang was about to attack him when he spied Tang and Gu with weapons in their hands closing in. "Why are you getting so excited?" he protested. "They aren't wolves."

The Three Devils turned to look and Zhang vaulted onto the horse's back. Only then did he notice that his lie was in fact the truth: in the midst of the dust cloud was a large herd of camels and goats. He galloped off towards the herd, shouting: "I'll go and have a look!"

After riding only a short way, he saw a rider coming towards him. The rider, an old man dressed in grey, raced up and stopped his mount instantly with a tug on the reins. Zhang marvelled at his horsemanship.

The rider saw Zhang was wearing the tattered uniform of a Manchu military officer and asked in Chinese: "What happened to the wolves?" Zhang pointed west.

By this time, the herd was upon them and in the midst of the dust and noise and confusion, Zhang noticed a bald-headed, red-faced old man and a white-haired old woman riding herd. He was just about to ask who they were when the Three Devils came over and bowed respectfully before the old man in grey.

"We are honoured to meet you again, sir," Tang said obsequiously. "How are you?"

The old man grunted. "Nothing to complain about," he mumbled. It was the Strange Knight of the Heavenly Pool, Master Yuan.

Zhang knew nothing of the old man, but he noted the respect with which the Three Devils treated him.

Master Yuan examined the four of them for a moment, then said: "We are going to catch the wolves. You will all come with me."

They started in fright and wondered if he was insane. But the Three Devils knew his kung fu was formidable and did not dare to refuse.

Zhang, however, emitted a "humph" of astonishment and said: "I want to live a few more years. Sorry, but I will be unable to accompany you." He turned to leave.

Absolutely furious, Bald Vulture grabbed for Zhang's wrist shouting: "So you refuse to heed Master Yuan's orders! Do you wish to die?"

Zhang deflected his hand deftly with a 'Dividing The Clouds and Moon' stroke, and the two fought closely for a while, neither gaining the upper hand. Then they leapt apart, both surprised that they should come upon such a master of the martial arts in the middle of the desert.

"What is your name, friend?" Zhang shouted.

"What makes you think you're good enough to be my friend? Will you or will you not do what Master Yuan says?"

Zhang knew he was as good a fighter as himself, and yet he still respectfully referred to the other old man as "Master Yuan", indicating Yuan's kung fu was probably even better. Who is this Master Yuan? he wondered. "What is your full name, sir?" he asked Yuan. "If you are my superior, I will naturally respect your orders."

"Ha! So you wish to question me, do you?" Master Yuan exclaimed. "It is I that does the questioning. I ask you: just now, you used a 'Dividing the Clouds and Moon' move. But what would you have done if I had replied with a 'Descending the Mountain to Kill the Tiger' stroke on your left while going for your Spiritual Yuedao point on your right?"

Zhang thought for a second. "I would have kicked out with an 'Arrow Shooting the Hawk' move, and grabbed your wrist."

"Then you are obviously a member of the Wudang School," Yuan replied, to Zhang's evident surprise. "Once when I was in Hubei, I sparred with Master Ma Zhen." Zhang went deathly pale. "Now then, if I used a 'Secret Hand' move to counter your attempt to seize my wrist, and then struck at your face with my left hand, what would you do? Master Ma Zhen was unable to avoid this move. Let's see if you can work it out."

Zhang thought deeply for a while. "If you were fast, I would naturally be unable to avoid the blow," he said finally. "I could aim a 'Yuanyang Kick' at your left ribs to force you to retract your hand to defend yourself."

Yuan laughed. "Not bad. Of all the fighters in the Wudang School, you are probably the best."

"I would then aim to touch your 'Xianji' Yuedao point," Zhang continued.

"Good! A master always attacks if he can. But I would then step into the 'Guimei' position and attack your lower body."

"I would then retreat to the 'Song' position and strike out for your 'Heavenly Spring' Yuedao point."

Gu and Hahetai listened in bewilderment to the strange words. Hahetai gave Tang's gown a tug and whispered: "What's this code they're speaking in?"

"It's not code, they're using the names of the Sixty Four Positions and the Yuedao points on the human body," Tang replied.

"I advance to the 'Ming Ye' positon and attack with a Qimen move," Yuan said.

"I retreat to the 'Zhong Fu' position and counter with a Phoenix Eye move," replied Zhang.

"I advance to the 'Jizhai' position and go for your 'Huan Jiao' Yuedao."

The pressure was begining to show on Zhang's face, and there was a pause before he answered: "I retreat to the 'Zhen' position and then to the Fu position."

"How come he keeps retreating?" whispered Hahetai, but Tang waved him to silence. The verbal sparring continued, Yuan smiling and obviously at ease, Zhang beginning to sweat and sometimes taking a long time to come up with a response. The Three Devils knew that in a real fight, he would have had no time for such thinking, and would have been beaten long ago.

After a few more moves, Zhang said: "I attack with a 'Xiao Shu' move and then strike at your wrist."

"That's not good enough," Yuan replied. "You lose."

"Please explain," said Zhang.

"If you don't believe me, I'll show you. Be careful!" Yuan's right leg kicked up at Zhang's knees.

Zhang jumped away shouting: "If you touch me…" but before he could finish, Yuan's right hand had shot out and touched a Yuedao point on his chest. He felt a surge of pain and immediately began to cough uncontrollably.

Yuan smiled at him. "Well?" he asked.

The others were amazed by this nonchalant display of such profound kung fu skills. Zhang, looking deathly pale, did not dare to continue his intransigence. "I will do as you say, Master Yuan," he replied.

"But your kung fu is first class," Bald Vulture added. "What is your name?"

"My surname is Zhang, my given name Zhaozhong. And may I ask your names?"

"Ah, so it's the Fire Hand Judge," Bald Vulture replied. "Brother Yuan, he's a martial brother of Master Ma Zhen."

Yuan grunted. "His brother is not as good as him. Let's go." He galloped off.

There were several horses mixed in amongst the camels and goats, and Zhang and Hahetai chose a mount each and began helping to herd the animals after Master Yuan.

As they galloped along, Zhang said to Bald Vulture: "Excuse me. These wolves are very numerous. How do you intend to catch them?"

"You just do as Master Yuan says," Bald Vulture replied. "What's so terrifying about a few little wolves?" Madame Guan, riding nearby, smiled to hear her husband bluffing Zhang.

They rode on. Suddenly Yuan wheeled his horse round and shouted: "The wolf droppings are very fresh. The pack passed here not long ago. From the look of it, we'll catch up to them in another ten miles or so. We'll ride another five miles and then all pick fresh horses. When we have caught up to them, I will lead the way. The six of you must divide up, three on each side to make sure the animals don't escape, otherwise the wolf pack will split up." Just as Tang was about to ask a question, Yuan turned and galloped off.

The wolf droppings around them became increasingly moist as they went.

"The pack must be just ahead," said Madame Guan. "With our camels and horses making such a noise, it's surprising they haven't turned back already."

"Yes, it is strange," her husband replied. A couple of miles further on, the topography began to change and they saw a cluster of hills ahead with a tall white mountain in their midst. The Twin Eagles had long lived in the desert, and had heard many stories about this beautiful mountain, sparkling in the bright sunshine.

"The wolves must have gone into the maze!" Yuan shouted. "Everyone whip the animals!" They raised their horses whips and began beating the camels and horses, and a great roar went up as the beasts snorted and neighed in pain and anger. Before long, a large grey wolf appeared, running towards them from the hills.

Yuan whirled his long whip about his head and cracked it sharply in the air. Then with a shout, he whirled his horse round and galloped off south, with the Twin Eagles, Zhang and the Three Devils driving the herd after him. After a couple of miles, the howls of the wolf pack arose from behind. Bald Vulture glanced back and saw the grey tide moving towards them across the desert. He spurred his horse on and caught up with the others. Zhang, Gu and Tang appeared to be having difficulty keeping their terror under control, but Hahetai was shouting and whistling crazily, driving the animals on and intercepting strays. He was a herdsman by birth and he made sure not one was lost.

The wolves were ferocious and persistent, but they lacked stamina. After four or five miles, they had already been left far behind, and another five miles further on, Yuan shouted: "Let's rest for a while!" They all dismounted and ate some rations while Hahetai herded the animals together. When the wolves began to close in, they started off again.

They continued south in this way, stopping occasionally to rest. Later in the day, two Muslim riders appeared, galloping towards them.

"Master Yuan," they shouted. "Did it work?"

"They're coming, they're coming!" he shouted back. "Tell everyone to get ready." The riders turned and galloped off ahead.

A short while later, they spied a huge circular wall rising up out of the desert, at least forty feet in height with only one narrow entrance. Yuan rode through the opening with the herd of animals close behind him. The Twin Eagles and the others drove them through the gate and then veered off to either side just as the first of the wolves arrived. The huge wolf pack charged into the enclosure and threw themselves at the animals. When the last wolf was inside, a horn sounded and several hundred Muslims sprang from trenches on either side of the entrance, each man carrying a bag of sand on his shoulders. They raced for the opening and in a moment, the gap was completely blocked.

As they clapped and cheered, Zhang wondered what had happened to Yuan inside the stockade. He saw several dozen Muslims standing on top of the wall, and jumped off his horse and ran up a flight of steps, arriving at the top just in time to see Yuan being pulled up by a rope. He glanced down into the pit and jumped in fright: down below were the hundreds of camels and horses, and thousands upon thousands of hungry wolves tearing and biting at them. The noise was terrifying, and blood flowed freely about the floor of the pit. The stockade was built with sand bricks, more than a thousand feet in circumference and its walls coated with mud to make sure there were no footholds available. Yuan stood with the Twin Eagles on the top of the wall laughing heartily, obviously very pleased with himself.

"This wolf pack has been terrorizing the Tianshan mountains for hundreds of years, but you have now destroyed it, Master Yuan," said Bald Vulture. "You have done the people a great service."

"It needed everyone's cooperation. How could I have done it by myself?" he replied. "Just this stockade alone took three thousand men half a year to complete. You have also been a great help today."

"I'm afraid it will take a long time before all these wolves finally die of hunger," said Madame Guan.

"Of course, especially after they've feasted on all those animals down there."

A cheer arose from the crowd of Muslims below and several of their leaders came up to express their thanks to Yuan and the others. The Muslims brought goat meat and horse milk wine for them to eat and drink.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong defeated the Manchus at Black River and we have defeated the wolves here," said one of the leaders. "Now that the wolves have been caught, we can go and look for her…" He stopped as he spotted Zhang, wearing the uniform of a Manchu officer, standing close by.

"Master Yuan, I have something important to discuss with you," Bald Vulture said later. "Please don't be offended."

"Ha! You've learned some manners in your old age," Yuan replied, surprised by his formality.

"Your pupil's moral character is very bad and he needs to be severely disciplined."

Yuan looked startled. "Who? Chen Jialuo?"

"Yes." Bald Vulture told him about how Chen had first won Huo Qingtong's heart, and then shifted his affections to her sister.

"He is very reliable," Yuan said firmly. "He would never do such a thing."

"We saw it with our own eyes," added Madame Guan, and related how they met Chen and Princess Fragrance in the desert. Yuan stared at them for a moment, then his anger exploded.

"I accepted the job of being his foster father," he exclaimed, "raised him from when he was small. And now this happens. How can I face Great Helmsman Yu in the other world? We must go and find him and question him face-to-face." He leapt off the wall and mounted his horse: "Let's go!" he roared, and galloped off, with the Twin Eagles following behind.

Zhang's spirits rose as he saw his enemies departing. The Emperor had sent him to find Chen and Princess Fragrance, and before he returned to the court, he wanted to make sure they had been eaten by the wolves. If they had, there was nothing more to be said. But if they were still alive, he would have to catch them. Chen's kung fu, he knew, was only marginally inferior to his own, and if Huo Qingtong joined Chen against him he would lose, so he decided to invite the Three Devils along as well. He gave Gu's sleeve a tug and the two walked off a few paces together.

"Brother Gu," he whispered. "Do you miss that beauty?"

Gu thought Zhang was sneering at him. "What's it to you?" he replied angrily.

"I have a score to settle with that fellow Chen, and I want to go and make sure he's dead. If you come with me, the girl is yours, if she's still alive."

Gu hesitated. "They've probably already been eaten by the wolves," he said slowly. "And anyway, I don't know if Brother Tang would be willing to go."

"If they've been eaten, then you're out of luck," Zhang replied. "But you never know. As to your Brother Tang, I'll go and talk to him."

He went over to Tang and said: "I'm going to look for that fellow Chen to settle accounts with him. If you would be willing to help me, his dagger is yours."

What student of the martial arts would not covet such a precious weapon? Even if Chen is already inside a wolf's belly, Tang thought, the dagger will not have been eaten. He agreed immediately. "Brother Hahetai, let's go," he shouted.

Hahetai was standing on the stockade wall animatedly discussing the wolf pack with the Muslims. Hearing Tang's call, he turned and shouted: "Where are we going?"

"To look for Chen and the others. If their bodies haven't been completely devoured, we can bury them properly. We owe them that much!"

Hahetai respected Chen, and he immediately agreed. The four obtained some rations and water from the Muslims, then mounted up and started northwards, back the way they had come.

At about midnight, Tang protested that he wanted to stop for the night. But Zhang and Gu insisted that they continue. The moon was high in the sky, making the scene look like a silvery painting. Suddenly, a figure darted from the side of the road and into a stone grave nearby.

"Who's that?" Zhang shouted, reining in his horse.

A moment passed, and then the laughing head of a Muslim appeared from a hole between the flagstones. "I am the corpse of this grave," he said. He wore a flowered hat and, to the great surprise of Zhang and the others, spoke in Chinese.

"What are you doing out here if you're a corpse?" Gu shouted.

"I just wanted to go for a stroll."

"Do corpses go for strolls?" Gu replied angrily.

The head nodded. "Yes, yes, you're right. I am wrong. So sorry." It disappeared back into the hole.

Hahetai burst out laughing, but Gu was furious. He dismounted and stuck his hand into the grave, wanting to pull the Muslim out, but he felt about inside without finding anything.

"Don't take any notice of him," said Zhang. "Let's go."

As the four turned their horses round, they spotted a small, skinny donkey by the side of the grave, chomping grass.

"I'm sick to death of dry rations," said Gu gleefully. "Some roast donkey meat wouldn't be bad at all." He jumped off his horse again and was about to take hold of the donkey's reins when he noticed the animal had no tail.

"Someone seems to have cut off the donkey's tail and eaten it already," he observed with a smile.

There was a whoosh of sound and the Muslim appeared on the donkey's back. He laughed and pulled a donkey's tail from his pocket and waved it about. "The donkey's tail got covered in mud today, which didn't look very nice, so I cut it off," he said.

Zhang looked at the man's full beard and crazy appearance and wondered who he was. He raised his horse whip and rode by the donkey, striking out at the Muslim's shoulder as he passed. The Muslim dodged to one side, and Zhang suddenly found himself holding the donkey's tail, which was indeed covered in mud. He also noticed a coolness on his head, and found his cap had disappeared.

"So you're a Manchu officer," the Muslim said, swinging the cap about on his finger. "You've come to attack us Muslims, I suppose. This cap is very pretty."

Startled and angry, Zhang threw the donkey's tail at the Muslim who caught it easily. Zhang leapt off his horse and faced him. "Who are you?" he shouted. "Come on! I'll fight you."

The Muslim placed Zhang's cap on the donkey's head and clapped his hands in delight. "The dumb donkey wearing an official's hat!" he excalimed. He twitched his thighs and the donkey trotted off. Zhang began to run after him, but stopped as a projectile flew towards him. He caught the cold, glittering object deftly and with a surge of fury, recognised it as the sapphire off the front of his cap. By now, the donkey was already a long way away, but he picked a stone off the ground and hurled it at the Muslim's back. The Muslim made no effort to avoid it, and Zhang was delighted, certain that this time he had him. There was a loud clang as the stone hit something metallic, and the Muslim cried out in despair.

"Oh no! He's killed my saucepan! It's dead for certain!"

The four men looked at each other dumb-founded as the Muslim and his donkey disappeared into the distance.

"Was that a man or a demon?" Zhang asked finally. The Three Devils silently shook their heads. "Come on, let's go. This place is evil beyond belief."

They galloped off, and early the next morning, they arrived outside the Secret City. The paths were many and confusing, but the trail of wolf droppings was a perfect guide which brought them unerringly to the base of the White Jade Peak. Looking up, they saw the cave-mouth that Chen had excavated.


Chen woke towards midnight, his strength revived. Under the light of a moonbeam shining down from the crack in the roof of the cave, he could see Huo Qingtong and Princess Fragrance leaning against one another on one of the jade seats, fast asleep. In the silence, he heard their breathing and smelt the fragrance, even more beautiful than that of fresh flowers or musk, emanating from the younger sister.

He wondered again what the wolves outside the mountain were doing and whether the three of them would ever be able to escape. And if they did, would his brother the Emperor hold to his word and throw out the Manchus?

"Which one do I really love?" Over the past few days, this thought had been gyrating round his brain continuously. "Well, which one really loves me? If I were to die, Princess Fragrance would not be able to go on living, but Huo Qingtong would. But that doesn't mean Princess Fragrance loves me more."

The moon beam slowly shifted onto Huo Qingtong's face.

"Princess Fragrance and I have declared our love for each other, but although Huo Qingtong has never said a word about it, her feelings towards me are clear too," he thought. "And why did I come so far to give her a message if it was not because I loved her? What is more, restoring the throne to the Chinese people will involve immense trials and tribulations. She is a better strategist even than Brother Xu, and her assistance would be invaluable," He stopped himself, ashamed of his own thoughts.

"Ah, Chen Jialuo," he whispered under his breath. "Are you really so narrow-minded?"

Time passed and the moonbeam moved across onto Princess Fragrance.

"With her, all I would have is happiness, happiness, happiness," he thought.

His eyes opened wide and he stared up at the crack of light in the rock high above them for a long, long time. Slowly, the moonlight faded and a sunbeam began to slant in, filling the room with daylight. With a yawn, Princes Fragrance woke. She looked over at him through half-open eyes and smiled, her face looking like a newly-opened flower.

Suddenly she jerked upright. "Listen!" she whispered.

Footsteps sounded distantly from the tunnel, gradually moving closer. In the silence of the old caverns, each step could be heard clearly, and their skin crawled as they listened. Chen shook Huo Qingtong's arm to wake her and the three ran quickly back down the tunnel.

When they reached the main chamber, Chen picked up three jade swords and gave one each to the two sisters. "Jade wards off evil," he whispered.

By now, the footsteps were just outside the chamber, and the three hid in a corner near the entrance, not daring to move. They saw the flickering light of torches and four men walked in. The two in front, they instantly recognised as Zhang and Gu.

There was a series of clanging sounds as the weapons of the four flew out of their hands to the ground. Chen knew this was an opportunity not to be missed, and as they stood staring at the floor in dumb surprise, he gave a shout and leapt out, and with knocked the torches to the ground, plunging the chamber into complete darkness. Zhang and the Three Devils turned and raced back down the tunnel. They heard a dull thud followed by a sharp curse as one of them bumped into the wall.

The footsteps gradually receded again.

Suddenly, Huo Qingtong gave a scream of panic. "Oh no! Chase them!"

Chen immediately realised what she meant and raced out of the chamber into the tunnel. But before he reached its end, he heard a steady creaking sound followed by a heavy bang, and he knew the stone door was closed.

Huo Qingtong and Princess Fragrance ran up behind him. He felt around for a piece of wood, found one and lit it, then looked again at the scarred surface of the stone door, the relic of the death struggle of the skeletons around them.

"We're finished!" Huo Qingtong said, despairingly.

Princess Fragrance grabbed her hand. "Sister, don't be afraid!"

Chen forced a smile. "It would be strange if we three died here."

For some reason, he felt a sense of relief wash over him as if a great weight had been taken from his shoulders. He picked a skull off the ground and said to it: "Well brother, you have three new companions." Princess Fragrance gasped, and then laughed out loud.

Huo Qingtong looked at them both. "Let's go back to the Jade Room," she said after a while. "Once we've settled down we can start thinking things through."

They walked back the way they had come. Huo Qingtong pulled out the map once more and pored over it, desperately searching for a way out. Chen knew that if they were to escape it was more likely to be because of outside help or because Zhang returned to look for them. But how could rescuers find them? And Zhang, after the fright he had just received, was unlikely to dare to come in again.

"I want to sing a song," Princess Fragrance announced.

"Please do," replied Chen.

She sang for a while then stopped, concerned about Huo Qingtong who was still staring hard at the map, her head resting on her hands.

"Sister, you should rest for while," Princess Fragrance said. She stood up and went over to the jade bed and said to the skeleton lying on it: "Excuse me, I wonder if you could move over a bit? My sister needs to lie down and rest." She carefully pushed the bones into a pile in the corner of the bed. "Oh!" she said, picking something up. "What's this?"

Chen and Huo Qingtong walked over and saw she was holding a goatskin scroll of great antiquity. The scroll had turned black, but under the sunlight, it was possible to see it was covered in writing, all in an ancient Muslim hand. Huo Qingtong glanced through it, and pointed at the skeleton on the bed.

"It was written by this girl with her own blood just before she died. Her name was Mami," she said.

"Mami?" asked Chen.

"It means 'beautiful'. I'm sure she was very beautiful when she was alive." She put down the book and went back to examining the map.

"Does the map indicate some other exit?" Chen asked.

"There appears to be a secret tunnel somewhere, but I can't work out where."

Chen sighed. "Would you read out this Miss Mami's last words to me?" he asked Princess Fragrance. She nodded, and began to quietly recite:

"Everyone in the city, thousands upon thousands of people are all dead. The guards of the Mountain and the warriors of Islam are all dead. My Ali has gone to meet Allah, and his Mami will be going soon too. I will write our story out here, so that the children of Allah will know that, victorious or defeated, our warriors of Islam fight to the end, and never surrender!"

"So this lady was not only beautiful, but courageous too," commented Chen.

Princess Fragrance continued to read:

"Baojunlonga oppressed us for forty years. In those forty years, he forced thousands of commoners to construct this secret city and carve out the chambers and halls within the Sacred Mountain. He killed them all. After he died, his son Sanglaba proved to be even more cruel. Of every ten goats raised by the Muslim people every year, four had to be given to him; of every five camels, he claimed two. We became poorer and poorer each year. Any beautiful daughters among the Muslim families were taken into the city, and once there, none ever came out alive.

"We are the brave children of Islam. Could we stand such oppression from these pagans? Of course not! Over a period of twenty years, our warriors attacked the city five times. But each time, they lost because they could not find their way through the maze. On two occasions, they made it into the Sacred Mountain but Sanglaba used some devilry to steal their weapons, and they were all killed by his guards."

"That's the magnet," said Chen. Princess Fragrance nodded and continued:

"In the year that I turned eighteen, my mother and father were killed by Sanglaba's men and my elder brother became the chief of our tribe. That spring, I met Ali. He was a hero of the tribe. He had killed three tigers, and wolf packs scattered when they saw him. He could beat ten ordinary men, no, a hundred. His eyes were as soft as those of a deer and his body was as beautiful as a fresh flower, but he had the strength of a desert hurricane…"

"The lady is exaggerating, I think," Chen said with a smile.

"Why do you say that?" Princess Fragrance asked solemly. "Are there not such people in the world?"

"One day, Ali came to our tent to talk to my brother about another attack on the City. He had obtained a copy of a book about Chinese kung fu and had studied it for a year. He said he now understood the basics of the martial arts, and was convinced that even without weapons, they could kill Sanglaba's man. He took five hundred fighters and taught them what he knew, and they practised for another year. By then, I was already Ali's. I was his from the moment I first saw him. He told me that when he saw me, he knew that we would win this time. But although they had mastered kung fu, they still did not know the way through the maze of the City, much less the secrets of the Sacred Mountain. Ali and my brother talked for ten days and nights, but could find solution.

"Finally, I said: 'Brother,let me go.' They understood my meaning. Ali was a brave warrior but he began to cry. I took a hundred goats and went to graze them outside the city. On the fourth day, Sanglaba's men seized me and took me to him. I cried for three days and three nights before giving in to him. He liked me very much and gave me everything I wanted.

"At first Sanglaba would not let me take so much as one step outside, but he liked me more and more. I thought about our people every day and of singing while tending goats on the grasslands: that is real happiness. What I thought of most was Ali. Sanglaba saw me becoming more thin and haggard each day and asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to go out and wander round everywhere. He flew into a great rage and slapped me, so for seven days and nights I didn't smile or say a word to him. On the eighth day, he took me out, and after that on every third day. At first, we only travelled about the city, but later we even went to the very entrance of the maze. I memorized clearly every single street and path until I could have found my way through the maze even if I was blind.

"This took almost a year. I knew my brother and Ali would be getting impatient, but I still did not know the secrets of the Sacred Mountain. Soon after, I became pregnant with Sanglaba's bastard child. He was delighted, but I cried every day in loathing. He asked me what I wanted, and I said: 'You have made me pregnant but you don't love me at all.'

"'I don't love you?' he replied. 'Do you think there is anything I would not give you? Do you want red coral from the bottom of the sea, or sapphires from the south? They are yours."

"'I have heard that you have a jade pool which makes beautiful people who wash in it even more beautiful and ugly people even uglier,'" I said.

"His face drained of all colour and in a shaky voice, he asked me where I had heard this. I told him a fairy had whispered it to me in a dream, but in fact I had heard about the pool from the servant girls who said that Sanglaba had never let anyone see it.

"'You can go and wash there, but whoever sees the pool must have their tongue cut out afterwards to prevent the secret being revealed. It is a rule decided by the ancestors,'" he said. He begged me not to go, but I insisted. I said: 'You must think I am very ugly and do not wish me to become even uglier.' Finally, he took me there.

"I took a small knife with me, planning to stab him to death by the pool, which was the only place in the palace where there were no guards, but the knife was snatched away by some magic under the floor of the great hall. After I had bathed in the Jade Pool, I don't know if I really became more beautiful or not, but he loved me even more. However, he still cut out my tongue, because he feared that I would reveal the secret. I knew everything, but had no way of telling my brother and Ali.

"Every day and every night, I prayed to Allah, and Allah finally heard the cries of his poor daughter. He gave me wisdom. Sanglaba had a small dagger which he kept on his person at all times. The dagger had two scabbards, and the inner scabbard was exactly like the blade of a knife. I asked him for it, then I drew a map of the city including all the paths and tunnels in it, sealed it inside a ball of wax and placed it inside the inner scabbard. In the third month after the birth of the child, he took me out hunting. When no-one was looking, I threw the dagger into the Tengbo lake. When we returned to the palace, I released many eagles with ' Tengbo Lake ' written on pieces of paper tied to their legs."

Huo Qingtong put down the map and concentrated on listening to her sister's translation of the ancient scroll.

"Several of the eagles were shot down by Sanglaba's men, but I knew that at least one or two would be caught by people of our tribe and that my brother and Ali would go to Tengbo Lake and make a thorough search. They would then find the knife and know the way through the city.

"Ah! How could I guess that although they found the dagger, they did not discover its secret, and did not work out that there was a scabbard within the scabbard? My brother, and Ali decided that the dagger must be a call for them to attack. So they attacked. Most of the warriors lost their way in the maze. My brother, stronger than two camels, was lost in this way. Ali and some of the others caught one of Sanglaba's men and forced him to lead them in their attack on the Sacred Mountain. In the Great Hall, Sanglaba's men fell on them with their jade weapons. But Ali and his warriors had learned their lessons well and even empty-handed they held their own and most died along with their opponents. Seeing his guards being slaughtered and Ali pressing in closer all the time, Sanglaba ran into the Jade Room and wanted me to escape with him via the Jade Pool…"

Huo Qingtong jumped to her feet. "Aha!" she exclaimed. "He wanted to escape via the Jade Pool!"

"Suddenly Ali ran in, and I flung myself into his arms. We embraced, and he called me many beautiful things. I had no tongue and could not answer him, but he understood the cry of my heart. Then that despicable Sanglaba, ten thousands times more evil than a thousand devils, struck him with an axe from behind…"

Princess Fragrance screamed and threw the scroll back onto the bed, an expression of horror on his face. Huo Qingtong gently patted her shoulder, then picked up the scroll herself and continued to read it out loud:

"…with an axe from behind and split my Ali's head in two. His blood spurted out all over my body. Sanglaba picked the child up off the bed, placed it in my hands and shouted: 'We must leave quickly!' I raised that bastard baby high about my head and threw it to the ground with all my strength, and he died in Ali's blood. Sanglaba was deeply shocked at the sight of me killing his son. He raised his golden axe, and I bowed my head, offering my neck to him, but he sighed and rushed back out into the Great Hall.

"Ali has gone to Allah's side and I will soon follow him. Our warriors are many, and with all his soldiers dead, Sanglaba will certainly not survive. He will never again be able to oppress us followers of Islam. I myself killed his only son, so we will be free of oppression from his descendants, because he has none. In the future, our people will be able to live peacefully in the desert and on the grasslands, young girls will be able to lie in their lovers' arms and sing. My brother, Ali, myself, we are all dead, but we conquered the tyrants. Even if their fortress had been stronger than it is, we would still have broken through eventually. May Allah, the True God, protect our people."

Huo Qingtong slowly rolled up the ancient scroll. The three of them sat for a long time without saying a word, deeply moved by Mami's courage and virtue. Finally Princess Fragrance, her eyes full of tears, sighed.

"To relieve the oppression of her people, she was willing to leave her loved ones, to have her tongue cut out and even to kill her own child," she said.

Chen started in fright, thinking of his own conduct compared to this lady of old. Faced with the task of recovering China for the Chinese people, he selfishly thought only of his own romantic problems.

Princess Fragrance noticed the sudden change in his expression. She pulled out her handkerchief and went over to wipe the beads of sweat from his brow, but Chen pushed her away impatiently. She stepped back, startled at his aggressiveness, and Chen's heart softened. Taking the handkerchief from her, he made up his mind that while the great endeavour of the Restoration remained unfinished he would pay no further attention to his romantic affairs, and would treat both sisters purely as friends, as his own sisters.

Huo Qingtong, meanwhile, was once more poring over the map and pondering phrases in the ancient scroll.

"It says here that Sanglaba came to this Jade Room and wanted her to escape with him to the Jade Pool," she murmured. "But this room is a dead end… Afterwards, he returned the way he had come. He must have been extraordinarily strong. The Islam warriors failed to stop him and he forced his way through to the stone door and locked them all inside, condemning them to death. But the map clearly indicates another tunnel to the pool…"

"Then it must be in this room," Chen replied. He lit another torch and began to examine the walls closely for cracks, while Huo Qingtong looked at the jade bed. Chen remembered how Wen Tailai had been captured at Iron Gall Manor and said: "Could the tunnel be under the table?" He placed his hands beneath the round table top and tried to lift it, but it did not budge.

"There's something strange about this table," he said, pleased. Huo Qingtong brought the torch over to give him more light.

"Oh, look!" Princess Fragrance exclaimed. "There's a design carved onto the surface." They looked closer and saw that it was a herd of winged camels. They had not noticed it before because the carving was extremely shallow. But strangely, the heads and bodies of the camels were not joined, and were more than a foot away from each other. On an impulse, Princess Fragrance grasped the table edge and pulled it from left to right in an attempt to line up the heads and bodies, and it did indeed move an inch or so. Chen and Huo Qingtong joined her and slowly moved the rim round until the camels were whole again. Just as the carving was complete, a grinding sound began and a panel beside the bed slid back to reveal a row of steps leading downwards. The three shouted in triumph.

Chen led the way into the hole, torch in hand. The passage twisted and turned for a while and then ran straight for more than a hundred feet. Then, around a corner, they burst out into daylight. Looking around they saw they were in a small basin surrounded by high mountains. In the centre was a circular pool, the water in which was as green as jade. They were immediately enraptured by the beauty of the scene before them.

"The scroll said that if beautiful people washed in the pool they would become even more beautiful," Huo Qingtong said to her sister with a smile. "You should go and wash."

Princess Fragrance blushed. "You are older than I, you go first," she replied.

"Ai-ya! But I will become more ugly," Huo Qingtong protested. "Are you going to wash or not?" Princess Fragrance shook her head.

Huo Qingtong walked to the edge of the pool and put her hands in the water: it was intensely cold. She cupped her hands and scooped up some water and saw it was very clear: the water appeared green only because of the jade all about. She took a sip and found it extraordinarily cool and tasty. They all drank their fill. The white peak towering above them reflected off the surface of the pool in a picture of loveliness, and Princess Fragrance lazily moved her hand about in the water, unwilling to leave such an enchanting place.

"The thing to do now is to think of a way to avoid those four devils outside," said Huo Qingtong.

"First, let's bring Mami's remains out and bury them beside the pool," Chen suggested.

Princess Fragrance clapped her hands in delight. "It would be best if we buried her and Ali together," she said.

"Yes. I expect the skeleton in the corner is Ali's."

They returned to the Jade Room. As they were collecting Ali's bones, they found amongst them some bamboo slivers used in China in ancient times for writing. Chen picked them up, and saw they were thickly covered with Chinese characters written in red ink on a black background. Glancing through them, he recognized the writings of the Chinese philospher Zhuangzi. He had thought it might be some special book and was rather disappointed to find it was instead something he had read and memorized as a child.

"What is it?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"It's an old Chinese book, but it's not much use except to archaeologists." He threw the slivers back on the ground, and as they scattered, he noticed one which looked slightly different from the rest. Beside every character, were circles and dots and Muslim writing. Chen picked the sliver up and saw it was a section entitled 'The Butcher Dissects the Cow' from the philosopher Zhuangzi's lecture, 'The Secret of Caring for Life.' He pointed to the Muslim characters written alongside.

"What does this say?" he asked Princess Fragrance.

"'The key to smashing the enemy is here'," she replied.

"What can that mean?" he wondered out loud, greatly surprised.

"Mami's last testament said Ali got hold of a Chinese book and had learned kung fu from it. This could be it," Huo Qingtong suggested.

"Zhuangzi taught that one should be oblivious of emotion in adversity and obedient to one's superiors," said Chen. "It has nothing to do with kung fu." He threw the sliver back down again, then picked up the pile of bones and walked out. They buried the remains of Mami and Ali beside the Jade Pool and bowed respectfully before the graves.

"Let's go now," said Chen. "I wonder if the white horse managed to escape the wolves?"

"What is the section of that book about?" Huo Qingtong asked.

"It's about a butcher who is very good at his job. The movements of his hands and legs, the sound of his knife chopping, are all perfectly coordinated. The sound has the rhythm of music, the movements are like dancing."

"It would be useful to have such skill when facing an enemy," Huo Qingtong commented.

Chen stared at her in surprise. Every word of Zhuangzi was familiar to him, but suddenly he felt as if he had never read it before. The words of 'The Butcher Dissects The Cow' ran through his mind: 'When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now, I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.'

"If it really is like that," he thought, "I could kill that traitor Zhang with my eyes closed with just a slight movement of the knife…" The two sisters stared at him, wondering what he was thinking about.

"Wait a moment," he said, and ran back inside. A long time passed and still he did not re-emerge. Feeling worried, the two sisters went in as well and found him prancing about among the skeletons in the Great Hall, his face wreathed in smiles. He danced around a pair of skeletons for a moment and then stood stock-still staring at another pair. Princess Fragrance glanced to her sister in fright, afraid that he had lost his mind.

Huo Qingtong took her sister's hand. "Don't be afraid, he's all right," she said. "Let's go and wait for him outside."

The two returned to the Jade Pool. "What's he doing in there?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"I think he's worked out some new kung fu moves after having read those bamboo slivers and he's now practising them by copying the positions of the skeletons. It would be best if we didn't disturb him."

Princess Fragrance nodded. After a while, she sighed. "Now I understand." she said.


"All those people in the Great Hall must have been very good fighters. Even after their weapons had been snatched from them, they still fought on with Sanglaba's guards."

"Yes, but they weren't necessarily very good at kung fu," Huo Qingtong replied. "I would guess they just learned a few really formidable moves which allowed them to take their enemies with them."

"Ah, they were so brave… But what is he learning them for? Does he want to die with his enemies too?"

"No, a martial arts master would not be killed along with his opponent. He is just studying the finer points of the moves."

Princess Fragrance smiled. "Well I won't worry any more, then." She looked out over the surface of the pool. "Sister," she said. "Let's bathe in the water."

"Don't be ridiculous. What if he should come out?"

"I really want to go and bathe," Princess Fragrance replied. She stared out at the cool water once again. "Wouldn't it be nice if the three of us could live here together forever!" she said softly.

Huo Qingtong's heart jumped. She blushed, and quickly turned her head away towards the White Jade Peak.

A long time passed and still Chen did not emerge. Princess Fragrance took off her leather boots and put her feet in the water. Resting her head on her sister's lap, she gazed up at the white clouds in the sky and slowly fell asleep.


'Scholar' Yu and Yuanzhi understood why Xu had sent them out together to look for Huo Qingtong. Yu was greatly moved by Yuanzhi's obvious love for him, and by the fact that she had saved his life several times. But the more infatuated she became, the more he shrank away from her, for what reasons, he didn't himself understand. As they travelled, she laughed and chattered with him, but he remained cool to her advances.

One day towards noon, they spied a small donkey hobbling towards them across the desert, its rider nodding from side to side as he snoozed. As they got closer, they saw it was a Muslim with a large saucepan slung across his back and a donkey's tail in his right hand. The donkey, they noticed, was tail-less and was wearing an Imperial Guard officer's cap. The rider looked about forty years of age and had a luxuriant beard covering his face. When he saw them, he smiled warmly.

Yu knew Huo Qingtong's name was known across the length and breadth of the desert. "Excuse me," he said. "Have you seen Mistress Huo Qingtong?"

The man laughed. "Why are you looking for her?" he asked.

"There are several bad men after her and we want to warn her. If you see her, could you give her the message?"

"All right. What sort of bad men?"

"Two are big Chinese, and the third is a Mongol," Yuanzhi answered.

The man nodded. "Yes, they are bad. They wanted to eat my donkey, but I stole this hat from them." Yu and Yuanzhi glanced at each other.

"There was someone else with them?" Yu asked.

"The man wearing this cap. But who are you?"

"We are friends of Master Muzhuolun," Yu replied. We must stop the men from finding Mistress Huo Qingtong. Take us to where you met them and we will give you some silver."

"I don't need any silver. But I'll have to ask the donkey if he's willing to go first," the Muslim replied. He leant over close to the donkey's ear and mumbled into it for a while, then placed his own ear near the donkey's mouth, and nodded repeatedly. Yu and Yuanzhi grinned at his clowning.

The man listened intently for a moment and then frowned. "This donkey has had a very high opinion of himself ever since he got the official cap," he said. "He's rather contemptuous of your horses and doesn't want to travel with them for fear of losing face."

Yuanzhi looked at the skinny, lame animal, it's body covered in dirt, and burst out laughing.

"You don't believe me?" the Muslim exclaimed. "Well then, my donkey shall compete with your horse."

Yu and Yuanzhi were riding two of Muzhuolun's best horses, as superior to the donkey as clouds are from mud.

"All right," said Yuanzhi. "When we've won, you must lead us to find the three bad men."

"It's four, not three. But what happens if you lose?"

"Whatever you say."

"If you lose, you have to wash the donkey clean so that he can show off."

"All right," Yuanzhi agreed. "What sort of competition will we have?"

"You can decide."

The Muslim seemed absolutely certain of victory and Yuanzhi began to feel suspicious. "What's that in your hand?" she asked.

"It's the donkey's tail," he replied, waving it about. "After he started wearing the official cap, he thought it didn't go well with his dirty tail, so he decided he didn't want it."

"Let me have a look," she said.

He threw the tail across and she caught it, then pointed with it at a small sand dune some distance away. "We'll race from here to that sand dune," she said. "The winner will be the first to get there, your donkey or my horse." The man nodded. "You go over there and be the judge," she added to Yu. He slapped his horse and galloped off across to the dune.

"Go!" Yuanzhi shouted, and with a lash of her whip, her horse leapt forward. After a few hundred feet, she glanced back and saw the donkey, limping along far behind. She laughed and spurred her horse on even faster. Then all of a sudden a black shape shot past her. She almost fell off her saddle in shock when she saw the man had slung the donkey around his shoulders and was running with long strides, already a good distance ahead of her. She recovered and tried to catch him up again, but he ran like the wind and stayed ahead all the way to the finish. Just before she reached the dune, Yuanzhi threw the donkey's tail back the way they had come and shouted: "The horse is first!"

The Muslim and Yu looked at each other in puzzlement.

"Mistress!" the Muslim protested. "We agreed that whichever got here first, the donkey or the horse, was the winner, isn't that right?"

Yuanzhi tidied her hair with her hand. "Yes," she replied. "But only part of the donkey got here first."

The man pulled on his beard. "I don't understand. What do you mean, only part of the donkey?"

Yuanzhi pointed to the tail she had thrown far behind them. "My horse arrived complete, but only a part of your donkey made it. His tail didn't."

The man laughed heartily. "Yes, you're right!" he exclaimed. "You win. I'll take you to find those four bad men." He went over and picked the tail up and brought it back. "You stupid donkey!" he said to the animal. "Don't think that just because you're wearing an official's cap that you don't need your dirty tail." He leapt onto its back.

Yu had been greatly impressed by the Muslim's immense strength that allowed him to run faster than a horse even with the donkey slung over his shoulders. He knew he must be a martial arts master and bowed before him.

"If you just tell us which direction to go, we will go and find them ourselves," he said respectfully. "We don't wish to trouble you, sir."

"But I lost," the Muslim replied, smiling. "How can I back out now?" He turned the donkey round and shouted: "Follow me!"

They travelled on. Yu asked the man for his name, but he simply smiled and answered with more crazy jokes. The lame donkey walked very slowly, and after half a day they had covered only ten miles. They saw riders approaching from behind, and 'Mastermind' Xu and Zhou Qi galloped up. Yu introduced them saying: "This gentleman is taking us to find the Three Devils." Xu dismounted and bowed.

The Muslim simply smiled in response. "Your wife should be resting more," he said to Xu. "What's she doing, racing about like this?"

Xu stared at him, not understanding. Zhou Qi, however, blushed red, and galloped on ahead.

The Muslim was very familiar with the roads and paths of the desert, and towards evening, he led them to a small village. As they approached, they saw that a Manchu military unit had also just descended on the village. The Muslims were fleeing in all directions dragging their children after them.

"Most of the Manchu forces have already been exterminated, and the remnants have been surrounded, so where did these come from?" Xu wondered aloud.

A group of about twenty Muslims dashed towards them with a dozen soldiers on their heels, shouting and brandishing their swords. When the Muslims caught sight of the man on the donkey, they began to call out his name ecstatically: "Afanti! Afanti! Save us!"

"Everyone flee!" Afanti shouted. He raised his whip and galloped off into the desert with the Muslims and Manchu troops following behind.

After a while, several of the Muslim women fell behind and were captured by the soldiers. Zhou Qi could not bear to leave them, and she drew her sword and whirled her horse round. She charged the Manchu troops and with a swish of her blade, cut off half the head of one of them. The other soldiers surrounded her, and Xu and the others galloped up to rescue her. Suddenly, Zhou Qi felt a wave of nausea and as one of the soldiers leapt forward to grab her, she vomited all over his face. He frantically tried to wipe the mess off, and Zhou Qi killed him with her sword. Her legs and arms became rubbery and she swayed unsteadily. Xu rushed over to support her.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

Yu and Yuanzhi had by now killed or chased away the rest of the soldiers. Xu caught one of the fleeing troops and interrogated him about where the column had come from. The soldier threw himself down on the ground and begged for mercy, gabbling incoherently. Finally they extracted from him the fact that he was attached to a relief force coming from the east. Xu chose two strong young men from amongst the group of Muslims and sent them off immediately to inform Muzhuolun, so he would be prepared. He gave the soldier a kick on the behind and shouted "Go to hell!" The soldier scampered away.

Xu turned back to his wife. "Are you all right?" he asked. "What's the matter?"

Zhou Qi blushed and turned her head away.

"The cow is going to calve," Afanti said.

"How do you know?" Xu asked, surprised.

"It's strange. The bull didn't know the cow was going to calve, but the donkey did."

They all laughed, then countinued on their way. As evening approached, they stopped and set up tents for the night.

"How many months gone are you?" Xu quietly asked his wife. "How is it that I didn't know?"

"How would my stupid bull know?" Zhou Qi replied, smiling. After a moment she added: "If we have a boy, then he will be surnamed Zhou. Father and mother will die of happiness! Just so long as he's not as crafty as you."

"You must be careful from now on," said Xu. "No more sword-fighting." She nodded.

The next morning, Afanti said to Xu: "Your wife can stay at my home while we go and look for those men. It's another ten miles further on. I have a very beautiful wife there…"

"Really?" Yuanzhi interrupted. "I must meet her. Why would she like a bearded fellow like you?"

"Aha, that's a secret," Afanti laughed.

They arrived in a village and Afanti led them to his house. Raising his saucepan, he began to bang it loudly, and a woman in her thirties came out to greet him. Her features were indeed beautiful and her skin white and delicate. They could tell she was overjoyed to see Afanti, but from her mouth issued a stream of curses: "Where the hell have you been, Whiskers? Do you still remember who I am after all this time?"

"Enough of your noise," Afanti replied with a smile. "Haven't I come back? Bring something out for me to eat. Your Whiskers is starving to death."

"Aren't you satisfied just looking at my lovely face?" The wife countered, also smiling.

"That's very true, your beautiful face is a great delicacy, but if I had some bread or something to go with it, it would be even better."

She reached over and gave his ear a sharp twist. "I won't allow you to go out again," she said. She went back inside, and re-appeared soon after with piles of bread, water-melon, honey and lamb. Yuanzhi didn't understand a word Afanti and his wife said to each other, but she could see from their teasing that they loved each other dearly, and felt desolate.

While they ate lunch, two people walked into the house, one a young boy and the other a labourer.

"Master Hu says that you should return the saucepan that you borrowed from him," the boy said.

Afanti glanced at Zhou Qi and smiled. "You tell Master Hu that the saucepan is pregnant and will soon give birth to a baby saucepan, and cannot be moved at the moment."

The boy looked puzzled, but he turned and left.

"What are you here for?" Afanti asked the labourer.

"Last year, I went to an inn in the village and ate a chicken. Before I left I asked the innkeeper for the bill, but he said: 'We'll settle it next time, there's no rush.' I thought at the time that he was being nice so I thanked him and left. Two months later, I went back to pay, and he started counting his fingers and mumbling away as if he was trying to calculate a very complicated account. I said: 'How much was that chicken? All you have to do is tell me!' The innkeeper waved his hand and told me to be quiet."

"A chicken, even if it was the biggest fat chicken, would not be more than a hundred copper pieces," said Afanti's wife.

"That's what I thought too," said the labourer. "But after he had been figuring for a long time, he said twelve taels of silver!"

"Ai-ya!" exclaimed Afanti's wife. "How could a chicken be so expensive? You could buy several hundred chickens with twelve taels of silver."

"Yes, that's what I said. But the innkeeper said: 'There's no mistake. If you had not eaten my chicken, how many eggs would that chicken have laid? And how many of those eggs would have become little chicks? And when those little chicks grew, how many eggs would they have laid…?" The longer he calculated, the higher the price became and finally he said: "Twelve taels of silver is actually very cheap!" Naturally, I refused to give him the money so he dragged me over to see Master Hu for him to settle the dispute. Master Hu listened to the innkeeper and told me to pay up. He said that if I didn't settle the account quickly, the eggs would become even more chickens and I wouldn't have a hope. Afanti, tell me who is right."

Just then, the boy returned.

"Master Hu says how could a saucepan be pregnant? He doesn't believe you and says you must return the saucepan to him immediately."

Afanti went into the kitchen and brought out a small saucepan which he gave to the boy. "This is clearly the son of a saucepan," he said. "You give it to Master Hu."

Uncertain whether to believe him or not, the boy took the small saucepan and left.

Afanti turned to the labourer and said: "You tell Master Hu you want to hold a meeting to settle the matter."

"But if I lose, I'll have to give him twenty-four taels of silver, won't I?"

"Don't worry," said Afanti, "You can't lose."

After an hour or so, the labourer returned and said: "Uncle Afanti, Master Hu had already called the meeting, and the deliberation has begun. Please come."

"I'm busy at the moment," Afanti replied. "Come back in a little while." He sat laughing and chatting with his wife and the others. The labourer was extremely anxious and pleaded with him and finally Afanti got up and accompanied him to the meeting.

Xu and the others went along too to see the fun, and they found seven or eight hundred people gathered in the centre of the village. A fat man wearing an embroidered fur-lined gown sat in the middle, and they decided he must be Master Hu. The crowd had become very restless waiting for Afanti.

"Afanti," called Master Hu. "This labourer says you're going to speak for him. Why are you so late?"

Afanti bowed before him. "I'm sorry, but I had some important business to attend to," he said.

"How could it be more important than settling this dispute?" Master Hu replied.

"It was much more important," said Afanti. "Tomorrow, I am going to plant some wheat, but I had not yet fried the seeds or eaten them. I fried them three times and it took me a long time to finish them up."

"Nonsense!" roared Master Hu. "How can you plant seeds that you have eaten?"

The crowd laughed heartily, but Afanti just stroked his large beard and smiled. After a while, the hubbub died down, and he said: "You say that wheat seeds that have been eaten cannot be planted. Well, how can the chicken that the labourer ate lay any eggs?"

The crowd thought for a second, and then cried out: "Yes, that's right, how can a chicken that's been eaten lay eggs?" Everyone began shouting and laughing and lifted Afanti up onto their shoulders.

Seeing the crowd's reaction, Master Hu had no alternative but to announce: "The labourer should pay one hundred copper pieces to the innkeeper in return for the chicken he ate."

The labourer happily handed over the string of copper coins to the innkeeper. "I wouldn't dare to eat on of your chickens again," he said.

The innkeeper took the money and walked silently away. The crowd of Muslims laughed at him and some small children threw stones at his back.

Master Hu walked up to Afanti. "The saucepan I lent to you gave birth to a son. That's very good. When will it be giving birth again?"

An expression of deep sadness appeared on Afanti's face. "Master Hu," he said. "Your saucepan is dead."

"How can a saucepan die?" Master Hu replied angrily.

"If a saucepan can give birth to a son, of course it can die."

"You charlatan," cried Master Hu. "You just don't want to return my saucepan."

"All right," Afanti shouted back. "We'll let everyone decide."

But Master Hu remembered how he had accepted the small saucepan, and decided he had lost enough face. He waved his hand to indicate he had had enough and walked off through the crowd.

Afanti was extremely pleased with himself for having managed to cheat Master Hu, himself a master at cheating the poor, and he threw back his head and roared with laughter. Suddenly, a voice behind him said: "Well Whiskers, what ridiculousness are you up to now?"

Afanti turned and saw it was the Strange Knight of the Heavenly Pool, Master Yuan. He jumped up happily and grabbed Yuan's arm.

"Aha! So you're here. Come and see my wife," he said.

"What's so special about your wife that you keep showing her off like a monkey would a jewel…" Before Yuan could finish, Xu and Yu came forward and kowtowed before him.

"Enough, enough, there's no need to kowtow. I'm not your teacher," Yuan protested. "Where is your Master Chen?"

"The Great Helmsman came on ahead of us…" Xu began. Suddenly, he noticed the Twin Eagles of Tianshan, Bald Vulture and Madame Guan, behind Yuan and bowed to them. He was surprised to see Madame Guan was riding Chen's white horse.

"Where did you find that horse?" he asked.

"We found him running free in the desert. It took the three of us quite a while to catch him," she said.

Xu was shocked. "Could the Great Helmsman be in danger? We had better go and find him," he said.

They finished lunch quickly and bade farewell to Zhou Qi. Afanti's wife, was furious that he was leaving again after only a few hours at home, and grabbed his beard, wailing and screaming as she did so. Afanti laughed and tried to comfort her.

"I`ve found a young lady to keep you company," he said. "In fact, there's a baby inside her, which means two people to keep you company, much better than me by myself." But his wife wailed even louder.

Yuanzhi rode the white horse and let it lead the way to back to Chen. Afanti again rode his donkey, but the animal was much too slow. By nightfall, they had gone only ten miles, and everyone was getting anxious.

"We will go on ahead," Xu finally said to Afanti. "We are afraid that our Great Helmsman may be in trouble."

"All right, all rightm" Afanti replied. "When we get to the next village, I'll buy a better donkey. This stupid donkey thinks he's something special, but really he's useless." He urged the animal on and caught up with Yuanzhi.

"Mistress, why are you so unhappy all the time?" he asked.

Despite his apparent silliness, Yuanzhi knew that this strange Muslim was very wise, and she decided to ask his advice.

"Uncle Afanti," she replied. "How would you deal with someone who was unreasonable?"

"I would cover his head with my saucepan and skewer him with a sword."

Yuanzhi shook her head. "That won't do. For instance, what if he was someone very… dear to you. The nicer you are towards him, the more stubborn he becomes, like your donkey."

Afanti pulled at his beard, fully understanding her meaning. "I ride this donkey every day and I've learned a few tricks about how to deal with his bad temper," he replied with a smile.

They entered a village. As they approached the square at its centre, the white horse suddenly gave a long neigh and galloped forward. Yuanzhi pulled desperatelyon the reins, but could not control him and the villagers scattered in front of the apparently crazed animal as it raced up to a group of people and stopped. Yuanzhi dismounted in front of Luo Bing, Wen, 'Leopard' Wei, Zhang Jin, Xin Yan and white-bearded Lu Feiqing.

Yu ran over to Lu and knelt down before him. "Uncle," he cried, and began to sob.

Lu helped him up, tears also glistening in his eyes. "I started out as soon as I heard the shocking news about your teacher, Master Ma Zhen," he said. "I met Master Wen and the others on the road. They are also after that traitor, Zhang. Don't worry. We will avenge the death of your teacher."

The heroes found somewhere to rest briefly while Afanti went off to buy a donkey, Yuanzhi quietly following him. He found and purchased a strong animal, twice as tall as his tail-less donkey which he sold to the donkey merchant for a small sum.

"The official's cap was the undoing of this stupid donkey," he said, and laughed. He threw the cap on the ground, and trampled it into the dust. Yuanzhi led the new donkey for him as they walked back.

"I once raised a donkey that was appallingly stubborn," Afanti said. "If I wanted him to move, he would stand still. If I wanted him to stand still, he would walk round in circles. One day, I wanted him to pull a cart to a mill a few hundred feet away, but no matter what I said, he wouldn't budge. The more I pushed him, the more determined he was to stay put. I shouted, I hit him, it made no difference. So you can guess what I did?"

"I'm sure you thought of something."

"The mill was to the east, so I pulled the donkey round to face west and then urged him to moved forward. He retreated one step after another all the way to the mill!"

"You wanted to go east, so it insisted on going west," Yuanzhi said thoughtfully. "So you pushed him westwards."

Afanti stuck up his thumb. "That's right. That's the way." Yuanzhi smiled. "Thank you for your advice," she said.

She decided he was right. The more she was nice to Yu, the more he avoided her, so she decided that she would ignore him instead. Luo Bing and Xu were surprised by her sudden change in attitude, but Afanti just stroked his beard and smiled.

With Afanti riding his new donkey, they made much faster progress. The white horse led them to the White Jade Peak, but it was still fearful of the wolves and stopped outside the maze of paths leading to the Secret City, refusing to go any further.

"The wolf pack went in here," said Master Yuan. "We should be able to find our way easily by following the trail of wolf droppings." Their anxiety about Chen's safety increased.

The path twisted back and forth for a long time. Suddenly, they heard footsteps ahead and four men appeared round a corner, the first of whom was Zhang. His face turned pale at the sight of the heroes, and particularly his martial brother Lu Feiqing. Yu gripped hold of his golden flute and was about to charge forward when Master Yuan lightly touched his shoulder, stopping him dead in his tracks.

Master Yuan pointed at Zhang accusingly. "When we met several days ago, I called you a master of the Wudang School. I did not know then that you were capable of even killing your own martial brother. Why not end it cleanly and quickly yourself?"

Zhang calculated that at least five of his opponents were his equal at kung fu or better and that he would gain nothing from a head-on confrontation.

With one swift, smooth movement, he drew his sword, and flung a large handful of Golden Needles at the heroes. As they ducked, he grabbed Hahetai and squeezed a key Yuedao point on his right wrist. "Run!" he shouted.

Hahetai was no longer master of his own movements. He ran with Zhang back along the path towards the Secret City, with Tang and Gu following along behind. By the time the heroes had picked themselves up, the four had disappeared around the bend. Master Yuan and Afanti were furious, and shot after them at high speed. Master Yuan was particularly fast, and in a moment he had caught up with Tang. He grasped him by the neck and lifted his fat body up off the ground. Unable to see his attacker, Tang kicked out backwards with his foot, but a huge force propelled him through the air, smashing his head into the rock face, killing him instantly.

Master Yuan ran on and, rounding the next corner, found himself confronted by three paths leading off the main track.

Xu looked carefully at the ground. "Someone trod in this pile of wolf droppings," he said, pointing. "They must have followed the trail of droppings back."

"Very good. Let's go," Master Yuan replied. They followed the droppings all the way to the base of the White Jade Peak without seeing any sign of Zhang and the other two. But they noticed the cave mouth above them, and Master Yuan and some of the others jumped up the cliff while the rest were hauled one by one by Lu and Wen.

Master Yuan pushed open the massive stone door, and ran on ahead of the others down the tunnel. When they entered the Great Hall, their weapons were snatched away by the magnetic force, giving them all a bad shock. But they had urgent business, and picked up their swords and others weapons without bothering to work out what had happened and ran on to the Jade Room, where they saw the tunnel mouth beside the bed. The further they went into the bowels of the mountain, the more astounded they became. Suddenly, they emerged once more into bright daylight, and saw six people standing around the Jade Pool, three on one side and three on the other. On the far side were Chen, Huo Qingtong and Princess Fragrance, while on the near side were Zhang, Gu and Hahetai.

"Master, master!" Xin Yan called excitedly. "We're here!"

"Child! Are you all right?" Madame Guan shouted to Huo Qingtong.

"Fine!" she called back. She pointed at Gu and added: "Please kill that villain quickly." Bald Vulture drew his sword and sprung at him, while Madame Guan began to fight with Hahetai. The other heroes quietly surrounded Zhang.

Gu and Hehetai fought for their lives, but could not hope to win against the "Three-Part" sword style of the Twin Eagles. In the midst of the clash of swords, Bald Vulture gave a roar and blood appeared on Gu's chest. He followed with a swift kick, and Gu fell backwards into the pool, sending fountains of water spraying out in all directions. A trail of blood rose to the surface.

A moment later, there was another splash as Gu surfaced, and began swimming slowly towards the bank. Hahetai threw down his sword and helped him out of the water. Gu was badly wounded and had taken in a large quantity of water, and after laying him down on the bank, Hahetai massaged his chest.

Zhang watched helplessly as Gu and Hahetai were overcome. Then 'Scholar' Yu lunged at him. Zhang swept his left hand across, and as Yu dodged to avoid the blow, Zhang grabbed him with his right hand and threw him at a nearby stone wall with a roar. Horrified, Yuanzhi jumped forward to grab Yu, but Zhang's strength was too great and the two slammed into the wall. A sharp 'crack' sounded as Yuanzhi's left arm snapped.

The heroes's anger flared once more. Master Yuan went over to Yuanzhi and placed a medicine pill in her mouth to ease her intense pain while the others surrounded Zhang.

"The 'Fire Hand Judge' will die as a hero!" he shouted defiantly. "Well, are you coming altogether or one at a time?"

"I'll fight you first!" Bald Vulture shouted back.

"This traitor has wronged me too deeply," Wen interrupted him. "Let me go first."

"He killed my teacher," Yu shouted. "I may not be as good a fighter as him, but I want to be first. Brother Wen, you can take over when I can't take any more."

"Let us draw lots," Chen suggested.

"Master Chen," Zhang broke in on them. "We agreed in Hangzhou to meet at a later date for a duel. Does that still hold?"

"Yes," Chen replied. "As I remember, we postponed the meeting because your hand was injured. Now is an excellent time to settle the affair."

"Then you and I will compete first and the others will wait their turns, agreed?" Zhang had fought with Chen on several occasions and knew he could beat him. He reckoned that if he could capture him, he might be able to find some way to escape. And if he could not capture him, he would at least have the satisfaction of killing the Red Flower Society's leader.

"If you think you are going to escape with your life today, you are deluding yourself," said Chen. "We spared your life in that dungeon in Hangzhou, and on Lion Peak. Only a few days ago, I saved you once again from the wolves. But the Red Flower Society has run out of benevolence towards you."

"Well, come on then," Zhang replied impatiently. Chen leapt at him, his two fists aimed straight at Zhang's face. Zhang ducked and then jumped up out of the way, and Chen followed with a sweeping kick, timing it to strike Zhang as he fell back to earth. Surprised, Zhang had to thrust his sword at Chen's chest to extricate himself. Chen moved back and as fast as lightning, Zhang struck out again.

Lu Feiqing was shocked by Zhang's speed, even faster than their teacher in his prime. He drew his sword and watched the battle carefully, ready to help Chen if necessary.

To one side, Yu and Luo Bing were looking after Yuanzhi who had fainted from the shock and pain of her broken arm. Yuanzhi opened her eyes and pointed to the east with a gasp of surprise. Yu looked round but could see nothing but the afternoon sun shimmering on the hills about them.

"What's that?" Yuanzhi asked. "Are we back in Hangzhou?"

"It's just the sun," Yu said softly. "Close your eyes and rest."

"No, that's the Thunder Peak Pagoda in Hangzhou," she replied. "I've been there with my father. Where is my father? I want to see him."

Yu lightly patted the back of her hand. "We'll go there together after this, and I'll see your father with you."

A smile appeared on her face. "Who are you?" she asked. Yu saw her staring at him, her face completely devoid of colour and fear struck him.

"I'm your martial brother Yu. I promise I will look after you from now on."

"But in your heart, you don't like me, I know," she cried, tears beginning to course down her cheeks. "Take me back to see my father. I want to die."

On a sudden impulse, Yu embraced her. "I truly love you," he whispered. "You won't die." She sighed. "Tell me you won't die," he repeated. Another wave of pain from her arm struck her and she fainted away.

Meanwhile, Zhang and Chen continued to fight round and round. At first, Chen was able to contain his enemy with the 'Hundred Flowers' kung fu style. But as Zhang gradually came to grips with it, he became more daring and forced Chen onto the defensive. He swept his sword across at Chen forcing Chen to jump away, and with a quick double movement of his sword, struck out at 'Leopard' Wei and Zhang Jin, wounding them both. Wen roared with anger and was about to leap forward when Chen slipped past him and struck out at Zhang's face with his open hands. There appeared to be no force behind the blow, but they struck Zhang's ears with two sharp claps. Surprised and angry, Zhang retreated.

The heroes were perplexed by the effortless way in which Chen had managed to box Zhang's ears.

"Fourteenth Brother," Chen said to Yu. "Play me a tune on your flute."

"What do you want me to play?" he asked, putting the flute to his lips.

Chen hesitated for a moment. "The tune 'Ambush From All Sides'," he replied.

Yu did not understand what he was getting at, but having received an order from the Great Helmsman, he complied immediately and began to play with all the skill he could muster. The tune was a martial piece written originally for the bamboo flute. Played on the golden flute, it sounded even more stentorian, raising the image of armoured troops on the march.

Chen set himself in a pose facing Zhang. "Come on," he invited, then turned and kicked out into the thin air as if dancing. Seeing his back undefended, Zhang thrust his sword at him, and the heroes gasped in fright. But Chen suddenly turned again, grabbed Zhang's queue with his left hand and pulled it over the edge of the sword, slicing it in two. With his right hand, he gave Zhang's shoulder a sharp blow.

Zhang had now been struck three times, and although he had not yet been badly hurt, he was obviously baffled by Chen's kung fu style and had had to suffer the shame of having his queue cut off. But he was a master of self-control and he carefully retreated several steps, staring fixedly at his enemy.

Chen moved forward slowly, his feet following the rhythm of the tune Yu was playing.

"Look!" Huo Qingtong said to her sister excitedly. "It's the kung fu style he learned in the cave."

The two whirled round each other. Zhang kept his sword strictly on the defensive, striking out only when Chen got too close.

"Master Yuan, I have never had so much respect for you as I do today," Bald Vulture said. "Your pupil is doing you proud."

Master Yuan was greatly perplexed: he was probably the best martial arts fighter in the land and yet he had never seen anything remotely like the kung fu style Chen was using. "I didn't teach him this," he replied. "I wouldn't know how to."

Yu played his flute even more furiously. At first, Chen had felt unfamiliar with the new kung fu style, but by now he was using it smoothly, advancing and retreating with great precision until Zhang's clothes were covered in the sweat of fear. The melody hit a high note, then fell like a shooting star exploding, and Zhang gave a cry as Chen touched the Yuedao point on his right wrist, forcing him to drop the sword. Chen followed quickly with two blows to Zhang's back, then jumped away, laughing. Zhang stumbled forward a few steps, as if drunk, and collapsed on the ground. Jubilant, the heroes rushed forward to tied him up. Zhang, his face deathly white, made no attempt to resist.

"Master Yuan, Master Lu," Chen said. "What should we do with this traitor?"

"Feed him to the wolves," Yu interjected. "First he killed my teacher and now he, now he…" He looked down at Yuanzhi's broken arm.

"Good idea! We'll take him to feed the wolves," said Yuan. "We have to go and see how the pack is doing anyway."

Lu carefully set Yuanzhi's broken arm and bound it tightly with cloth. Master Yuan slipped a Snow Ginseng pill into her mouth and felt her pulse.

"Don't worry," he said to Yu. "She won't die."

"Put your arms round her, and she'll get better much quicker," Luo Bing whispered to him with a smile.

Huo Qingtong, meanwhile, was examining her map again, looking for a path from the Jade Pool out to the Secret City, when she heard shouts and turned to see Gu running crazily towards her screaming: "Kill me! Kill me!" Shocked and angry, she raised her sword and ran it through his chest. As she pulled the blade out again, a stream of blood spattered her yellow robe and Gu collapsed on the ground. Hahetai knelt over him and tried to stop the blood flow, but it was impossible. Gu gasped in pain.

"Do you have any affairs that need settling, Brother?" Hahetai asked him.

"I just want to touch her hand, then I can die happy," Gu whispered, looking up at Huo Qingtong.

"Mistress!" Hahetai pleaded. "He's about to die. Take pity…" Huo Qingtong turned without a word, and walked away, her face deathly pale. Gu gave a long sigh, and his head fell to one side, dead.

Holding back his tears, Hahetai jumped up and pointed his finger accusingly at Huo Qingtong.

"You're merciless!" he shouted. "I don't blame you for killing him, but you could at least have given him your hand to touch, so that he could die peacefully. What difference would it have made to you?"

"Nonsense! Shut your mouth!" Zhang Jin said angrily.

Hahetai made no reply. He picked up Gu's body and strode away. Yu led over a horse for him.

"Brother Hahetai," he said. "I respect you for being an upright man. Please take this horse."

Hahetai nodded and slung Gu's body over the horse's back. Yu filled a bowl with water and drank half of it, then presented it to the Mongol.

"This water can take the place of wine," he said. Hahetai threw back his head and drained the bowl at one draught, then rode away without looking back.


The heroes started out for the wolf stockade in high spirits, singing and laughing as they went. Master Yuan questioned Chen about the origin of the strange kung fu style he had used, and Chen gave him a detailed account of his discovery.

"What an extraordinary coincidence," Yuan said in delight. "One could never make such a find by purposely looking for it."

After several days travel, they arrived at the stockade and climbed up on to the parapet to look inside. The wolf pack had long since eaten the herd of animals and were now fighting over the carcases of their dead comrades, barking and snapping at each other. The scene was cruelly tragic and even the hardened heroes were shocked. Princess Fragrance could not bear the sight, and went back down to talk with the Muslim guards.

Yu pulled Zhang to the edge of the wall, and began to mumble a prayer: "Oh, spirit of my benevolent teacher, we have today avenged your death." He reached over and took the knife Xu was holding, cut the rope binding Zhang's hands and feet and kicked him off the edge.

Zhang had been seriously injured by Chen's last two blows, but his Inner Strength Kung Fu was profound, and he had basically recovered by the time they reached the stockade. As he fell towards the floor of the stockade, he knew he had no chance of survival, but he still had to fight one last time. The wolves threw themselves at him just before he hit the ground. He grabbed two of the beasts by their necks and whirled them round and round, forcing the others to back off and slowly made his way to the stockade wall.

They knew he would die. Despite their hatred for him, Chen, Luo Bing and the others with weaker stomachs could not bear to watch to the end and walked back down from the parapet.


That evening, after they had set up camp, Chen told Master Yuan about his meetings with the Emperor Qian Long. Yuan was amazed by the twists and turns in the story, and when it was finished, he pulled a small, yellow cloth bundle from his bag.

"Last spring," he said, handing the bag to Chen, "your foster father, Great Helmsman Yu, sent the Twin Knights to see me and asked me to look after this, saying there were two important items inside. They didn't say what they were and I haven't opened the bag to see, but I imagine they must be the evidence the Emperor wants."

Chen opened the bag and and found a small parcel tightly wrapped in three layers of water-proof oil paper. Inside was a tiny box made of redwood. He opened the lid, revealing two plain envelopes yellowed with age. Inside the first envelope was a sheet of paper on which was written: "Master Chen, send someone over with your newborn son for me to see. Yong Di."

Master Yuan read it, but could not grasp it's significance. "What does it mean?" he asked. "Why would your foster father have considered this note to be so important?"

"It's written by the Emperor Yong Zheng," Chen replied.

"How do you know?"

"There were many examples of the Emperor's calligraphy around our home when I was young, so I recognise it easily. But this note was obviously written before he became Emperor. Yong Di was the name he used before he ascended the throne. Also, after he became Emperor, he would not have referred to my father as 'Master'." Yuan nodded.

Chen counted off the months and years on his fingers. "I was born after Yong Zheng became Emperor, and so was my brother. My sister was born at about that time, but this letter says: 'Your newborn son'. This is excellent evidence!"

He opened the second envelope and took out a letter. As soon as he saw the writing, tears sprang to his eyes.

"What is it?" Yuan asked.

"This is my mother's writing," he replied. He wiped away his tears and began to read the letter:

"Dear Brother Yu, our fate has run its course. What more is there to say of my ill-fated life? All I am concerned about now is the troubles I have brought upon you. You are a brave and upright man, but because of me, you have been rejected even by your own martial school. Of my three sons, one is in the depths of the Imperial Palace, one has gone off into the desert, and the one who is left to keep me company is both stupid and wicked. It makes me very sad. My youngest son is very intelligent and has been put under the care of an excellent teacher. I love and miss him, but I am not worried about him.

"My eldest son is playing the role of Manchu Emperor and knows nothing of his origins. Brother Yu, can you enlighten him for me? To prove it, tell him he has a bright red birthmark on his left buttock, and he will have to believe you.

"My strength is gradually failing. Day and night, all I think and dream of is the times we had together when we were young. If Heaven has pity on us, we will meet after death and spend the rest of eternity together as man and wife. (signed) Sister Chaosheng."

Chen was deeply shocked as he read the letter.

"Teacher," he said, his voice quavering. "Is the… the 'Brother Yu' in the letter my foster father?"

"Who else?" Master Yuan replied sombrely. "He and your mother fell in love when they were young, but things did not go as they wished, and they were separated. As a result, he never married."

"Why did my mother want me to go and live with him and treat him as my real father? Could it be…?"

"I was Master Yu's closest friend, but I only know that he broke the regulations of the Shaolin School and was expelled. He would never raise such a humiliating matter himself and it was difficult for others to ask him about it. But he was a good man, and I'm certain he would not have done anything to be ashamed of." He slapped his thigh. "When he was expelled, I felt sure he had been falsely accused and I got together some fighters with the idea of going to Shaolin monastery and demanding an explanation. It nearly created a serious split in the fighting community. But your foster father disagreed strenuously, insisting that the expulsion was his own fault and all he deserved. In the end, I did nothing. But I still don't believe he would have done anything shameful. I don't know what it could have been." His lingering anger was still apparent. "After he was expelled from the Shaolin school, he went and lived as a hermit for several years. Later he founded the Red Flower Society."

"But why did my foster father and my mother want me to leave home? Do you know?"

"What face did I have left when he stopped me from forcing the Shaolin School to explain?" Yuan replied angrily. "I refused to have anything to do with him after that. He sent you to me, and I taught you the martial arts, so I don't owe him anything."

Chen knew there was no point in questioning him further. But the key to restoring the throne to the Chinese race lay with his elder brother's origins. Even the slightest error, and all their efforts could be rendered useless. So he decided to first go to the Shaolin Monastery. He told Yuan of his plan.

"Good idea," the old man replied. "But the monks there are a strange lot. I'm afraid they won't tell you anything."

"We'll see," said Chen.

Yuan looked at his pupil thoughtfully. "Both of those Muslim girls are very nice. Which one do you want?" he asked.

"The famous Han dynasty general Huo Qubing said: 'How can I think of marriage until the barbarians are defeated?' I feel the same way," Chen replied.

Yuan nodded. "That's very commendable. I will speak to the Twin Eagles so they won't accuse me again of being a bad teacher."

"Have they said something about me?"

"They accused you of fickleness, of shoving aside one sister for the other."

Chen remembered how he and Princess Fragrance had met the Twin Eagles in the desert, and how they had departed without saying farewell, leaving their message in the sand. With a shock, he realised what they had meant.

The next day, Chen informed the heroes of his decision to go to the Shaolin Monastery in Fujian Province and bade farewell to Master Yuan, the Twin Eagles, Huo Qingtong and her sister.

Princess Fragrance wanted to go with him, and Chen felt very bad about leaving her behind. He had no idea of when they would meet again, but with Heaven's help, the great task of driving the Manchus out of China would one day succeed and they would be re-united. If it did not succeed, he and his brothers would probably die and be buried far from the Muslim areas.

"You stay with your sister," Chen said, hardening his heart.

"You must come back!" Princess Fragrance cried, tears coursing down her face. He nodded. "If it takes ten years for you to come back, I'll wait ten years. If it takes a lifetime, I'll wait a lifetime."

Chen wanted to give her something. He felt around in his bag and his hand touched on something warm: the piece of Warm Jade the Emperor had given him in Haining. He took it out and placed it in her hand.

"When you look at this jade, pretend you are looking at me," he said softly.

"But I must see you," she replied tearfully.

"What's all this crying about?" he said. "When the Great Task is completed, I will take you to see the Great Wall outside Beijing. I promise."

Princess Fragrance stared at him for a moment, then the trace of a smile appeared on her face. "You're not allowed to say anything you don't mean," she said.

"When have I lied to you?"

Only then did she agree to stay behind.

They started out. As they rode away, Chen found himself constantly looking back at the two sisters as they faded and gradually disappeared on the horizon of the desert.

The heroes travelled slowly due to Yuanzhi's injuries. With his master's death avenged, Yu was in high spirits and looked after the girl with loving care and attention.

After several days, they arrived back at Afanti's home. Zhou Qi was delighted to hear Zhang was dead. Chen wanted Xu to stay with her in the Muslim areas until the child was born and she had recovered, but Zhou Qi would have none of it. Apart from the boredom, she did not want to miss a chance to travel to the Shaolin Monastery, where her father was staying. The heroes finally agreed, and Xu rented a carriage for his wife and Yuanzhi to ride in.

By the time they re-entered the Jade Gate to central China, the weather was growing warmer and the beginnings of spring were apparent.



The day they crossed the provincial border into Fujian, the hills were covered in flowers and dancing butterflies. Chen thought of Princess Fragrance and how she would have loved such a scene.

They were met at the Shaolin Monastery by Lord Zhou, who had come south to Fujian with his wife and servants to meet the Monastery's abbot, Heavenly Rainbow. With Zhou's great name in the fighting community, the Shaolin priests were happy to exchange knowledge with him. Heavenly Rainbow insisted that he stay in the temple, and by the time the Red Flower Society heroes arrived, several months had slipped by.

The abbot led his assistants, Great Insanity, Heavenly Mirror, Great Hardship and Great Idiocy into the great hall to meet the visitors. After they had introduced each other, the abbot led them to a quiet antechamber when tea was served. He asked the reason for their visit.

Chen knelt down before the abbot, tears glistening in his eyes. Greatly surprised, Heavenly Rainbow moved quickly to help him up.

"Great Helmsman," he said. "What need is there for such formality? Please say whatever you wish."

"I have an embarrassing request to make that according to the rules of the fighting community should not even be uttered," Chen replied. "But, Venerable Sir, for the sake of millions of souls, I boldly make this appeal to you."

"Please speak freely," the abbot said.

"The former Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Master Yu Wanting was my foster father…" Heavenly Rainbow's expression changed immediately as he heard the name, and he raised his white eyebrows.

Chen told him in detail about his relationship with the Emperor Qian Long and about the plan to restore the Chinese throne and overthrow the Manchus. Then he asked why his foster father had been expelled from the Shaolin school and whether it had anything to do with Qian Long's identity.

"Please, Venerable Sir," he concluded, his voice almost choked with sobs. "Think of the common people…"

Heavenly Rainbow sat in silence, his long eyebrows trailing over his closed eyes. He was in deep meditation and no-one dared disturb him.

After a while, his eyes sprang open, and he said: "For several hundred years, it has been the practice of the Shaolin school not to reveal to outsiders information on members who offend against the school's regulations. Great Helmsman Chen, you have come a great distance to our monastery to enquire into the behaviour of our expelled pupil, Yu Wanting. According to the monastery's rules, this would ordinarily be out of the question…" the faces of the heroes lit up with delight. "…but as this affair involves the fate of the common people, I will make an exception. Great Helmsman Chen, please send someone to the Upholding the Monastic Regulations Hall to collect the file."

Chen bowed to the abbot in thanks, and another monk led the heroes to guest rooms to rest.

Chen was congratulating himself on his success when he saw Lord Zhou looking worried. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"The abbot asked you to send someone to the Hall to collect the file. But to get there, it is necessary to pass through five other halls, each guarded by a kung fu master and each one stronger than the last. It will be difficult to make it through all five," Zhou replied.

"We could try and force our way through together," Wen suggested.

Zhou shook his head. "No, the problem is that one person has to win through all five halls alone. If anyone helped him, the monks would come to the assistance of the guardians of the halls and it would turn into a brawl. That wouldn't do at all."

"This is an affair involving my family," Chen said quietly. "Perhaps Buddha will be merciful and let me through."

He took off his long gown, picked up a bag of his 'chess piece' projectiles, tucked the ancient dagger into his belt, and let Zhou lead him to the first hall.

As they reached the hall entrance, Zhou stopped. "Master Chen," he whispered. "If you can't make it, please come back and we'll think of some other way. Whatever you do, don't try and force your way through or you may get hurt." Chen nodded.

"Everything is arranged!" Zhou shouted, and then stepped to one side.

Chen pushed open the door and walked inside. Under the bright candle-light, he saw a monk seated on a mat, and recognised him as one of the abbot's chief assistants, Great Hardship.

The monk stood up and smiled. "So you have come yourself, Great Helmsman Chen. That is excellent. I would like to ask you to instruct me in a few martial arts moves."

Chen saluted him with his fists. "Please," he replied.

Great Hardship bunched his left hand into a fist and swung it round in a great arc while his right palm swept up. Chen recognised it as the 'Drunken Boxing' style kung fu. He had once studied the style, but decided not to reveal the fact by using it now. He clapped his hands together and countered with the 'Hundred Flowers' kung fu style. Great Hardship was taken off guard and only avoided being struck by dropping to the floor. He rolled away and stood up, and the two continued to fight closely, each a master of his own style.

Great Hardship aimed a blow at Chen's legs. Chen leapt up, and as he landed, hooked his right leg round, tripping the monk up neatly. As fast as lightning, Chen bent over and stopped him from falling. Great Hardship's face flushed red with embarrassment and he pointed behind him.

"Please proceed," he said.

Chen saluted once more and walked through into another hall, seated in the middle of which was the senior monk, Great Insanity. As Chen entered, the monk rose and picked up a thick staff lying beside him. He casually tapped the floor with its tip, and the impact shook the very walls of the hall, bringing a shower of dust down from the rafters. The monk lightly flipped the staff from left hand to right, then attacked using the 'Crazy Demon' staff style of kung fu. Chen knew it would be folly to underestimate the power of this opponent, and he drew his dagger. Great Insanity swept the staff across and Chen ducked down to avoid it then countered with a thrust from his dagger. The two fought round and round inside the hall, their weapons apparently greatly mis-matched.

Rather than attack, Chen concentrated instead on trying to tire the monk out. But Great Insanity's Inner Strength Kung Fu was profound, and as time passed, Chen could discern no hesitation in the monk's actions. On the contrary, the staff seemed to whirl and dance with ever-increasing speed, forcing Chen back into a corner of the hall. Seeing Chen could not escape, Great Insanity grasped the staff in both hands and swung it down at his head with all his strength. Chen stood stock-still until the staff was no more than two inches from him, then grabbed its end and carved a deep line across the middle with his dagger, snapping it in two.

Great Insanity was furious, and charged at Chen again. But with the staff only half its former length, he wielded it with much less dexterity. A moment later, Chen snapped another piece off the end, then dodged passed the monk and ran towards the rear of the hall. With a roar of anger, Great Insanity threw what was left of his staff to the floor and sparks flew in all directions.

As he entered the third hall, Chen's eyes were struck by a bright glare, and he saw both sides of the hall were full of burning candles, several hundred of them at least. In the centre, stood the monk Great Idiocy.

"Master Chen," he said, a welcoming smile on his face. "Let us compete using projectiles."

Chen bowed. "As your Reverence wishes," he replied.

"There are nine candles and eighty-one incense sticks on each side of the hall. Whoever can extinguish all the candles and incense sticks on his opponent's side is the winner." The monk pointed to the altar table in the centre of the hall. "You will find darts and projectiles of all kinds over there. When you have used up all the ones you have, you can go and get more."

Chen pulled a pile of chess pieces from his pocket and wished he had spent more time in the past learning the finer points of dart kung fu from the Red Flower Society's dart expert, 'Buddha' Zhao. "After you," he said.

Great Idiocy smiled again. "Guests first," he replied.

Selecting five chess pieces, Chen threw them simultaneously at the foot of the opposite wall and extinguished five incense sticks.

"Excellent kung fu," Great Idiocy praised him. He took a string of prayer beads from around his neck, snapped the chord and let five of the beads fall into his palm. With one movement, he slung them away, snuffing out five incense sticks on Chen's side.

Chen quickly extinguished another five sticks of incense. Great Idiocy replied by knocking out all nine candles on Chen's side, and in the darkness, the burning tips of the incense sticks became much easier targets for the monk.

"Of course, why didn't I think of that?" Chen thought. He chose nine chess pieces and threw them three at a time at the candles on the monk's side of the hall. But the flames were untouched. He had heard a series of clicks coming from the centre of the hall and he realised that Great Idiocy had knocked each of his nine projectiles down with his prayer beads. As Chen gaped in surprise at such skill, the monk extinguished another four incense sticks. Chen waited for the monk to throw another wave of prayer beads, and then aimed chess pieces to intercept them. But with the candles on the opposite side still burning he found it difficult to spot the small beads clearly and only managed to hit two of the five. The other three struck home.

Great Idiocy, already nine candles and two incense sticks ahead, concentrated on protecting his own candles, while extinguishing more of Chen's incense sticks whenever the opportunity arose. In a short while, he had snuffed out another fourteen, while Chen, putting his all into the task, only managed to extinguish two of the candles. Suddenly, he remembered one of 'Buddha' Zhao's tricks and threw three chess pieces at the side wall with great force. They ricocheted off and two of them struck their targets. Great Idiocy, who had thought the throw was a show of childish petulance on Chen's part, let out a cry of surprise.

Chen continued in this way, bouncing chess pieces off the wall. Great Idiocy had no way of protecting the candles, but he was already several dozen incense sticks ahead, and without taking any further notice of his opponent, he redoubled his efforts to knock out the rest. As the last of the monk's candles went out, the hall was plunged into darkness. Chen counted seven incense sticks left on the monks side while his own was still a mass of red dots, perhaps thirty or forty. Just as he was coming to the conclusion that he had lost, he heard Great Idiocy shout: "Master Chen, I've used up all my projectiles. Let us stop for a moment and get more from the altar table."

Chen felt in his bag and found he only had five or six chess pieces left.

"You go first," the monk added. Chen walked over to the altar table and with a flash of inspiration, stretched out his arm and swept all of the projectiles into his bag. He jumped back to his place and Great Idiocy ran over to find the table top was empty. Chen threw a shower of projectiles at the remaining fiery spots, and in a moment had extinguished them all.

Great Idiocy let out a hearty laugh. "I have to hand it to you, Master Chen," he said. "That was more of a battle of wits than a trial of strength. You win. Please continue."

"I apologise," Chen replied. "I had already lost, and only used such a trick because of the importance of the matter. Please forgive me."

"The masters guarding the next two halls are my martial uncles. Their kung fu is very good. You must be careful."

Chen thanked him and went on to the next hall. This hall was also brightly lit with candles, but it was much smaller than the previous three. Two rattan mats lay on the floor in the centre of the hall, and the senior monk Heavenly Mirror was seated on one of them. As Chen entered, he monk stood up in greeting.

"Please sit down," he said, gesturing to the other other mat. Chen wondered how he wanted to compete, but took his seat in silence.

Heavenly Mirror was an extremely tall man and very formidable to look at. Even seated on the mat, he was not much shorter than an ordinary person. His cheeks were two deep hollows, and there appeared to be no flesh on his body at all.

"You have passed through three halls, which is greatly to your credit," he said. "But you are still junior to me, so I cannot compete with you on equal terms. Let us do it this way: if you can go ten moves with me without losing, I will let you go through."

Chens bowed to him. "Thank you for your kindness, Your Reverence."

Heavenly Mirror grunted. "Now parry this!"

Chen felt a force striking towards his chest and raised his hands to counter it. Their palms met and Chen was forced to make use of his full strength to keep from falling backwards. The shock of the impact caused a dull ache to grow in his left arm.

"Now the second move!" Heavenly Mirror called. Chen did not dare to counter his hand directly again. He leant to one side, then hit out at the monk's elbow. Heavenly Mirror should have responded by withdrawing his arm, but instead he swept it across in attack, and Chen only just managed to parry it. A bell close to the hall began to chime, and as it resounded, Chen had an idea. He switched to the kung fu style he had learned in the White Jade Peak, synchronising his movements to the sound of the bell. Heavenly Mirror gasped in surprise and fought back carefully.

When the bell ceased, Chen withdrew his hands. "I cannot continue," he said.

"All right. We have already exchanged more than forty moves. Your kung fu is very good. Please pass."

Chen stood up, and was about to walk off when he suddenly swayed and stumbled and hurriedly leant against the wall for support. Heavenly Mirror helped him to sit down again.

"Rest here for a moment and catch your breath," he said. "It won't affect matters."

Chen close his eyes and did as the monk said.

"Where did you learn that style of kung fu?" Heavenly Mirror asked. Chen told him.

"I never guessed that the standard of kung fu would be so high in the western border regions. If you had used that style from the start you would not have hurt your arm."

"Seeing as I am hurt, I am sure I will not be able to make it through the last hall," Chen said. "What does Your Reverence suggest I do?"

"If you can't make it through, turn back."

Chen's martial training made it impossible for him to accept defeat so easily. He stood up and bowed to Heavenly Mirror, then strode bravely towards the last hall.

He was surprised to find it was in fact only a tiny room in the centre of which sat the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery, Heavenly Rainbow. Chen wondered how he could possibly overcome the best kung fu fighter in the Shaolin Monastery if his junior, Heavenly Mirror, was already so formidable.

The abbot bowed. "Please be seated," he said. A steady stream of sandlewood-scented smoke rose from a small incense stove on a table between them. On the wall opposite Chen, was a painting of two monks which, although executed with only a few brush-strokes, was full of vitality.

Heavenly Rainbow meditated for a moment, then said: "There was once a man who was very successful at goat-herding. He became very rich, but he was by nature very miserly…"

Hearing the abbot begin to tell a story, Chen was greatly puzzled, but he concentrated on what the old man was saying: "An acquaintance of the goatherd knew he was very stupid, and also that he badly wanted to find a wife. So he cheated the goatherd, saying: 'I know a girl who is very beautiful. I can arrange for her to marry you.' The goatherd was delighted and gave him a large amount of money. A year past, and the man said to him: 'Your wife has given birth to your son.' The goatherd hadn't even seen the woman, but hearing he had a son, he was even more pleased and gave the man another large sum of money. Later, the man came to him again and said: 'Your son has died!' The goatherd cried uncontrollably, heart-broken in the extreme."

Chen had a fairly good general education, and knew he was quoting from the Hundred Parables Sutra of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.

"In fact all worldly matters are like this," the abbot continued. "Power and riches are like the wife and child of the goatherd: just fantasies. What is the point of wasting effort to obtain them when losing them will only cause sorrow?"

"There was once a husband and wife who had three cakes," Chen replied. "They ate one cake each, but could not decide who should eat the third. Finally, they agreed that whoever talked first would lose the chance to eat the cake."

Hearing Chen relate another story from the Hundred Parables Sutra, Heavenly Rainbow nodded.

"The two stared at each other in silence. Soon after, a thief entered and ransacked the house for the couple's valuables, but because of their agreement, the couple continued to stare at each other without saying a word. Seeing them thus, the thief became even more bold and violated the wife in front of the husband. The husband made no complaint at all about what was happening, but in the end, the wife could stand it no longer and cried out. The thief grabbed up the valuables and fled, while the husband clapped his hands and shouted triumphantly: 'You lose! The cake is mine!'"

Heavenly Rainbow could not help but smile, even though he knew the story well.

"He ignored great suffering for the sake of minor personal satisfaction, allowing the thief to steal his possessions and violate his wife in order to satisfy his appetite. According to Buddhist tenets, one should try to help all living things and should not think only of oneself."

Heavenly Rainbow sighed, and quoted from the Buddhist scriptures: "There are no rules to regulate behaviour, there are no rules to which I am subject. Man is at a standstill until acted upon by a force. Those with no desires, will not be troubled by dreams and fantasies."

"Life for most people is full of hardship," Chen replied. "The monk Zhi Daolin once said: 'Emperors are cruel and evil by nature. How can one stand idly by?'"

The abbot could see Chen's determination to carry out his duty and help ease the people's burden, and was full of respect for him.

"Your enthusiasm is commendable, Master Chen," he said. "I will set you one more question, and then you can have your way."

Chen bowed his head in acknowledgement.

"An old woman was once lying under a tree, resting. Suddenly, a huge bear appeared wanting to eat her. She jumped up and ran behind the tree to escape, and the bear stretched its paws round either side of the tree to grab her. Seizing the opportunity, the old woman pressed its paws down onto the tree trunk. As a result, the bear could not move, but the old woman did not dare to let go either. Some time later, a man passed by and the old woman appealed to him for help, saying they could kill the bear together and share the meat. The man believed her and took her place holding down the bear's paws. The old woman then fled, leaving the man in the same dilemma she had been in."

Chen knew the moral of the story: "Never regret helping others, even if you suffer yourself as a result," he replied.

Heavenly Rainbow lifted the the long-haired duster he was holding. "Please go through," he said.

Chen stood up and bowed before him. "Please forgive me for trespassing on this sacred place," he said.

The abbot nodded. As he walked out of the room, Chen heard the old man sigh.


He passed along a covered pathway and into yet another hall lit by two massive, flickering candles and filled with row after row of wooden cabinets, each one marked with a piece of yellowing paper stuck to the side. He picked up one of the candles and began his search. Before long, he located the right cabinet. He opened its doors and found inside three parcels wrapped in yellow cloth. The parcel on the left was inscribed in vermilion ink with his foster father's name: 'Yu Wanting'. Chen's hands shook slightly and several drops of candlewax splattered on the floor. Then, with a silent prayer, he opened the parcel.

Inside was a thick file of yellowing papers, a man's embroidered waistcoat, and a woman's white undergarment which was badly ripped and speckled with black spots that appeared to be blood stains. Chen opened the file and began reading from the beginning: "I, Yu Wanting, a twenty-first generation pupil of the Shaolin Monastery of Putian, Fujian Province, do hereby respectfully confess in full my misdemeanors.

"I was born into a peasant family and spent my youth in great poverty and hardship. I knew the girl Xu Chaosheng, who lived next door, from when we were very young. As we grew, we came to love one another…"

Chen's heart began to thump wildly. "Could it be my foster father's misdemeanor had something to do with my mother?" he wondered. He continued reading:

"We secretly agreed to remain faithful to each other for life, and would marry no-one else. After the death of my father, there were several years of drought, and with nothing in the fields to harvest, I went out into the world to find a life for myself. Due to the compassion of my benevolent master, I was taken in by the monastery. The embroidered waistcoat enclosed was given to me by the girl Xu when I left home.

"Before I had been fully initiated into the higher skills of the Shaolin martial arts school, I left temporarily to return to my home village. Because of the girl Xu's kindness, I was unable to abandon worldly emotions and went back to see her, but was shocked to find that her father had married her into the family of the local landlord, surnamed Chen. In a state of extreme anguish, I entered the Chen mansion one night to visit her. Using martial skills I had learned from the Shaolin School, I trespassed on the property of an ordinary citizen for personal reasons. This was my first breach of discipline.

"The girl Xu moved with her husband to Beijing, and three years later, having failed to renounce my love for her, I went to visit her again. As it happened, that very night, she gave birth to a son. I was outside the window and managed to catch a glimpse of the child. Four days later, I returned once more and found the girl Xu looking very pale. She told me that her son had been taken away by the Princess Rong Zhang and replaced by a baby girl. Before we had a chance to talk further, four assassins entered, obviously sent by the Princess to kill the girl Xu. In the heat of the fight, I received a sword wound on my forehead, but killed all four assassins before passing out. The girl Xu bandaged my wound with the enclosed undergarment. Having heard a secret of the Imperial Palace and having been seen to use Shaolin kung fu, I risked bringing great trouble upon the school. This is my second breach of discipline.

"For the next ten years, although I was in Beijing, I did not dare to go and see the girl Xu again, but submerged myself in learning kung fu. Finally the Emperor Yong Zheng died and Qian Long succeeded him to the throne. I worked out the dates and realised that Qian Long was the son of the girl Xu. Knowing how cold-blooded Yong Zheng was and afraid that he might have left orders to have her killed to silence her, I entered the Chen mansion again. One night, two assassins did indeed come. I killed them both and found Yong Zheng's written order on one of them. I enclose the document."

Chen flipped through the rest of the pile and found at the end a note on which was written: "If, when I die, Chen Shiguan and his wife are still alive, they must be speedily killed." It was unmistakably the calligraphy of the Emperor Yong Zheng. Chen guessed Yong Zheng must have known his parents would not dare to breathe a word while he was alive, but thought they might try to make use of the information after his death. He continued reading.

"Qian Long apparently knew nothing of the matter, for no more assassins were sent. But I could not rest easy, so I dressed as a commoner and obtained employment in the Chen mansion, chopping firewood and carrying water. This I did for five years. Only when I was certain there would be no further repurcussions did I leave. I acted with great recklessness, and if I had been discovered, it would have caused great embarrassment to the Shaolin School, and have damaged the school's honour. This is my third breach of discipline."

Now Chen understood why his mother had wanted him to go with Yu, and why Yu had died of a broken heart after the death of his mother. He thought of Yu working for five years as a lowly servant in his own household to protect his mother, truly an expression of deep love and an overwhelming sense of duty. He wondered which one of the dozens of servants around the house when he was young was Yu.

After a while, he wiped his eyes and read on: "I am guilty of three serious breaches of discipline. Full of fear, I hereby present the full facts to my benevolent master and plead for leniency."

Yu's submission ended at that point and was followed by two lines of vermillion characters which said: "Yu Wanting has committed three misdemeanors. If he is truly willing to reform and follow the teachings of the Buddha, why should we not forgive him since the Buddha was willing to forgive the Ten Sins? But if he hankers after worldly passions and refuses to use his intelligence to break the bonds of emotion, then he should be immediately expelled. It is up to him."

So his foster father was expelled from the Shaolin School because he could not give up my mother, Chen thought.

He looked up and saw the stars on the western horizon were beginning to fade while in the east, day had already arrived. He blew out the candles, wrapped the things up in the yellow cloth and picked up the parcel. He closed the cabinet doors and slowly walked back out to the courtyard where he found a statue of a laughing Buddha gazing down him. He wondered what his foster father must have felt, being confronted with this Buddha as he left the courtyard after being expelled. He walked back through the five halls, all of them deserted.

As he passed through the last doorway, Lord Zhou and the Red Flower Society heroes came forward to greet him. They had waited anxiously for half the night and were delighted to see him returning safely. But as he came closer, they saw his weary look, and his red, swollen eyes. Chen gave them a brief account of what had happened, omitting only the relationship between his foster father and his mother.

"Our business here is finished," he said. The others nodded.

Lord Zhou accompanied Chen back inside to bid farewell to the abbot, then the heroes collected their belonging and started on the way.

Just as they were leaving the monastery, Zhou Qi went pale and almost fainted. Her father quickly helped her back inside to rest, and the monastery's physician announced after examining her that she was in no condition to travel and would have to rest at the monastery to await the birth. Zhou Qi could only smile bitterly and nod in agreement.

The others discussed the situation and decided that Lord Zhou and Xu should stay to look after Zhou Qi, and join them in Beijing after the birth of the child. Zhou rented a number of peasant huts a couple of miles west of the monastery for them to live in, and Chen and the other heroes started off north.


When they arrived in the town of Tai'an in Shandong province, they were met by the local Red Flower Society Helmsman who informed them that 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi had also just arrived from Beijing. The heroes were delighted and went to see him. Xin Yan ran on ahead and shouted "Twelfth Brother! The traitor's dead!" Shi looked at him blankly. "Zhang Zhaozhong!" Xin Yan shouted.

Shi's face lit up. "Zhang is dead?"

"Yes, he was eaten up by wolves."

Shi bowed before Chen and the others.

"Twelfth Brother," said Chen. "Have your wounds fully recovered?"

"Thank you for your concern, Great Helmsman, completely recovered. You and the others have had a long, hard journey."

"Is there any news from the capital?"

Shi's expression turned grim. "None from the capital. But I have hurried here to report that Master Muzhuolun's entire army has been destroyed."

"What?" Chen's face went white and he stood up.

"When we left the Muslim regions, General Zhao Wei and the remains of his army was competely surrounded," Luo Bing said. "How could the Manchus score another victory?"

Shi sighed. "Reinforcements suddenly arrived from the south. From what the Muslims who managed to flee say, Master Muzhuolun and his son fought to the death. Mistress Huo Qingtong was ill at the time of the attack and was unable to direct the defence. No-one knows what happened to her."

Chen slumped down into his chair.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong has an excellent command of kung fu," Lu Feiqing said. "She would not come to harm at the hands of the Manchu troops."

They all knew he was just trying to ease Chen's anxiety. It was difficult to see how a sick girl could protect herself in the confusion of battle.

"Huo Qingtong has a sister," Luo Bing said. "The Muslims call her Princess Fragrance. Did you hear any news of her?"

"Nothing at all," Shi replied. "But she is a well-known person. If anything had happened to her, there would be bound to be reports circulating in the capital. I heard nothing, so I presume she is all right."

Chen was embarrassed by their elaborate concern for his feelings. "I will go inside and rest for a while," he said, and walked to his room.

"Go and look after him," Luo Bing whispered to Xin Yan. The boy ran after his master.

After a short while, Chen thrust aside the curtain to his room and strode out again. "We must eat quickly, and get to Beijing as quickly as possible," he said.

A new note of determination in his voice surprised the heroes. Wen raised his thumb in agreement and dug into his food with increased gusto.

As they travelled on, Chen forced himself to smile and chat with the others, but his features became more haggard as the days went by. Before too long, they arrived in Beijing. Shi had rented a large residence in Twin Willows Lane. Priest Wu Chen, the Twin Knights, 'Buddha' Zhao and 'Pagoda' Yang were there waiting for them.

"Third Brother," Chen said to 'Buddha' Zhao. "Please go with Xin Yan to see the Emperor's chief bodyguard, Bai Zhen. Take the lute that the Emperor presented to me and the jade vase that Luo Bing stole and give them to him to pass on to the Emperor, to let him know that we are here."

Zhao and Xin Yan left and returned several hours later.

"We went to Bai Zhen's home to look for him and he happened to be at home," Xin Yan reported. "We gave Zhao's name card to one of his servants, and he rushed out to greet us. He dragged us inside and insisted on us drinking several cups of wine before letting us go. Extremely friendly."

Chen nodded.

Early the next morning, Bai Zhen paid them a visit. He chatted with 'Buddha' Zhao for a while about the weather, then asked respectfully if he could see Chen.

"The Emperor has ordered me to take you to the Palace," he whispered to Chen when he appeared.

"Good," replied Chen. "Please wait here for a moment."

He went back inside to discuss things with the others. They all thought he should take strict precautions.

Several of the heroes accompanied him into the Forbidden City, while Wen and the rest stationed themselves outside the palace walls to await their return.

With Bai Zhen leading the way, Chen and the others walked through the palace gates, passed guards who respectfully bowed to them. They were overawed by the imposing atmosphere of the palace: its thick, sturdy walls, the heavy defences. They had walked for a good while when two eunuchs ran up to Bai Zhen.

"Master Bai," said one. "The Emperor is in the Precious Moon Pavilion, and orders you to take Master Chen there to see him."

Bai nodded, and turned to Chen. "We are now entering the forbidden area of the palace. Please ask everyone to leave their weapons here." Despite their uneasiness at this, the heroes had no alternative and did as he said, placing their swords on a nearby table.

Bai led them through halls and across courtyards and stopped in front of a large, richly-decorated pavilion.

"Announcing Chen Jialuo!" he called out. Chen straightened his cap and gown and followed the old eunuch into the pavilion while Priest Wu Chen and the others were forced to remain outside.

They climbed up the stairs to the fifth floor, and entered a room in which they found Qian Long, seated and smiling. Chen knelt down and kowtowed before him respectfully.

"You've come," said Qian Long. "Excellent. Please be seated." With a wave of his hand he dismissed the eunuchs. Chen remained standing where he was.

"Sit down and let us talk," Qian Long repeated. Only then did Chen thank him and take a seat.

"What do you think of this pavilion?" the Emperor asked.

"Where else would one find such a building but in the Imperial Palace?"

"I told them to build it quickly. From start to finish, it took less than two months. If there had been more time, it would have been even more elegant. But it will do as it is."

"Yes," replied Chen. He wondered how many workers and craftsmen had died of exhaustion during the construction.

Qian Long stood up. "You have just returned from the Muslim areas. Come and look. Does this look like a desert scene?" Chen followed him to a window, and as he looked out, started in surprise.

To the right, was a classic Imperial Chinese garden, filled with purples and reds and twisting paths, a sumptuous scene. But looking left, towards the west, the view was entirely different. For about a third of a mile, the ground was covered in yellows and, arranged into small sand dunes. Looking closely, Chen saw the signs of pavilions having been knocked down, water pools filled in and trees and bushes uprooted. The scene naturally lacked the majesty of the endless desert, but it was a good likeness.

"Does your highness like desert views?" he asked.

Qian Long smiled. "What do you think of it?"

"A lot of work has been put into it," Chen replied. There were a number of Muslim tents staked on the sand with three camels tied up nearby and with a sudden heartache, he thought of Princess Fragrance and her sister. Looking beyond, he saw several hundred workers demolishing several more buildings: the Emperor had obviously decided he wanted a bigger desert.

Chen wondered why on earth Qian Long would have had a piece of dry, desolate desert constructed in the palace grounds. Incongruously placed in the middle of such a lush Chinese garden, it looked simply ludicrous.

Qian long walked away from the window and pointed to the antique lute he had given Chen, now lying on a small table.

"Why don't you play me a tune?" he said.

Chen could see the Emperor did not wish to discuss the important business at hand, and he could not raise it himself, so he sat down and began to pluck the strings. As he played, something caught his eye, and he looked up to find the jade vases decorated with Princess Fragrance's image smiling at him across the room. With a twang, one of the strings broke.

"What's the matter?" Qian Long asked. He smiled. "Do you find yourself a little afraid, here in the palace?"

Chen stood up and replied respectfully: "Your humble servant has disgraced himself in front of your Celestial Majesty."

Qian Long laughed., greatly pleased by this. Chen lowered his head and noticed Qian Long's left hand was bound with a white cloth as if it was wounded. Qian Long's face flushed red and he hurriedly put the hand behind his back.

"Did you bring the things I wanted?" he asked.

"They are with my friends downstairs," Chen replied.

Qian Long picked up a small hammer and rapped the table with it twice and a young eunuch ran in. "Tell the gentlemen accompanying Master Chen to come up," he ordered, and the eunuch returned a moment later with the six heroes.

Chen stood up and shot them a glance and they had no option but to kneel down and kowtow before Qian Long.

"You stinking emperor!" Priest Wu Chen thought as he did so. "We almost scared you out of your wits that day in the pagoda in Hangzhou, but you're still just as damned arrogant. If it wasn't for the Great Helmsman, I would kill you this instant."

Chen took a small, sealed wooden box from 'Buddha' Zhao and placed it on the table. "They are in here," he said.

"Good. That will be all," Qian Long replied. "When I have looked at them I will send for you." Chen kowtowed again. "And take the lute with you," he added.

Chen picked up the lute and handed it to 'Leopard' Wei. "Since Your Highness has already subdued the Muslim areas, your servant pleads with you to be merciful and to order that there be no indiscriminate killings there," he said.

Qian Long did not answer, but simply waving them away with his hand. Bai Zhen led them to the palace gate where Wen and the others were waiting.


When Chen had gone, Qian Long dismissed the eunuchs and opened the small box. He read the Emperor Yong Zheng's note and the letter written by his natural mother, which said correctly that he had a red birthmark on his left buttock. He sighed. There could no longer be any doubt about his true origins. He ordered a eunuch to bring him a brazier and threw the documents one by one into the fire. As the flames leapt up, he began to feel more at ease, and on an impulse, threw the small wooden box into the flames as well, filling the room with heat and smoke.

He stared for a moment at the jade vases on the table, then said to the eunuch: "Send her up." The eunuch disappeared, and returned on his knees to report: "Your slave deserves to die. The lady refuses to come."

Qian Long laughed shortly and glanced at the jade vases again. Then he stood up and went downstairs. Two eunuchs followed carrying the vase.

One floor down, a maid servant pulled aside a curtain and Qian Long walked through into a room full of fresh flowers. Two other maids servants took the vases from the eunuchs and carefully placed them on a table.

A girl wearing a white gown was sitting facing the wall. With a wave of his hand, Qian Long dismissed the maid servants from the room. He had just opened his mouth to speak when the door curtains parted and two bodyguards came in and stood quietly by the entrance.

"What are you doing here? Get out," he said angrily.

"Your slaves have orders from the Empress Dowager to protect Your Highness," said one of the bodyguards.

"I'm fine. What do I need protection for?"

"The Empress Dowager knows she… that the lady is not… that she is strong-willed, and is afraid that she will inflict injury on Your Highness's precious self."

Qian Long glanced down at his bandaged hand, and shouted: "There's no need. Get out!"

The two bodyguards kowtowed frantically but did not retire. He knew that no matter what, they would not dare to disobey the Empress Dowager's orders, so he took no further notice of them, and turned back to face the girl in the white gown.

"Turn round, I have something to say," he said in the Muslim tongue. The girl took no notice. In her hand was a dagger. She gripped it even tighter.

Qian Long sighed. "Look at what is on the table," he said. The girl ignored him for a moment, but finally her curiosity got the better of her. She glanced round and saw the pair of jade vases, and at the same moment, the Emperor and the bodyguards were dazzled by the sight of her beauty: it was Princess Fragrance.

She had been captured by General Zhao Wei's army and sent to Beijing under special guard to the Emperor. Qian Long thought it would be more interesting to be able to talk to the girl directly, so he called for a teacher to teach him the Muslim tongue. He was an intelligent man and studied diligently, and after a few months he could talk in a halting fashion.

But Princess Fragrance was already tightly bound to Chen. Furthermore, Qian Long had been responsible for the death of her father, making her even more adament in her refusal of his advances. Several times she had been forced almost to the point of suicide, but each time she thought of Chen and restrained herself.

"I will be just like I was when surrounded by the wolves," she thought. "That large wolf wanted to eat me, but my knight finally saved me."

Qian Long watched her becoming more haggard day by day. He was afraid she would die of melancholy, so he called for the capital's best craftsmen and had the Precious Moon Pavilion built for her to live in.

But Princess Fragrance took not the slightest notice. The priceless treasures used to decorate the pavilion were ignored, except for the murals covering the walls. They depicted scenes of the Muslims areas, and she stared at them glassy-eyed, reliving over and over the carefree happiness of the days when she and Chen had been together.

Sometimes Qian Long spied on her secretly and saw her staring into distance, the trace of a smile playing around her lips. One day he could resist it no longer and he stretched out his hand to grasp her arm. There was a flash of a dagger, and only Princess Fragrance's ignorance of kung fu and his own sprightliness saved him. But his left hand had been cut and in a moment was covered in blood. He was so scared by the incident that from that moment on, he did not dare to risk annoying her again. When the Emperess Dowager heard of the matter, she ordered the eunuchs to take the dagger off her, but Princess Fragrance pointed it at her chest whenever anyone came near her and threatened to commit suicide. So Qian Long ordered them to stay away from her and not to interfere.

Princess Fragrance was also afraid they would put something in her food or drink, so apart from fresh fruit she had peeled herself, she would touch nothing. Qian Long had a Muslim-style bath constructed for her, but she refused to use it, and after many days of not bathing, her body's fragrance became even more pronounced. Originally naive and ignorant of worldly affairs, she became increasingly strong and knowledgeable as the weeks went past as a result of her exposure to the evil people who populated the palace.

As soon as she spotted the vases, she started in shock and quickly turned back to face the wall, gripping the hilt of the dagger tightly and wondering what Qian Long was up to.

He sighed. "When I first saw your image on the vases, I was certain that such a person could not exist in this world," he said. "But now I have seen you, I know that the greatest of craftsmen could not capture a ten thousandth of your beauty."

Princess Fragrance ignored him.

"If you continue to worry like this all day, you are going to become ill," he continued. "Do you miss your home? Go and look out of the window." He ordered the bodyguards to open the window shutters.

Seeing the two bodyguards and Qian Long standing near the window, Princess Fragrance harrumphed and turned away. Qian Long understood and walked to the other side of the room and ordered the bodyguards to do the same. Only then did Princess Fragrance slowly walk over to the window and look outside. She saw the expanse of sand and the Muslim tents and her heart twisted in pain. Two tears rolled slowly down her cheeks, and she picked up one of the vases on the table and threw it with all her strength at Qian Long's head.

One of the bodyguards shot forward and intercepted the vase, but it slipped from his grasp and shattered on the floor just as the second vase came flying after the first. The other bodyguard tried to catch it, but it slipped through his hands and smashed beside the first vase.

Afraid that she would try some other way of harming the Emperor, the bodyguards sprang across the room at her. Princess Fragrance immediately turned her dagger round and put it to her throat.

"Stop!" Qian Long shouted frantically, and the bodyguards halted in the tracks. Princess Fragrance retreated several steps, and as she did there was a clinking sound as something fell from her dress to the ground. The bodyguards were afraid it was some kind of weapon and quickly picked it up. Seeing it was a piece of jade, they handed it to the Emperor.

Qian Long took hold of it, and his face drained of colour. He recognised it instantly as the piece of warm jade he had given to Chen on the breakwater at Haining. When he had presented it, he had told Chen to give it to the lady of his heart as an expression of love.

"Do you know him?" he asked, flustered. He paused for a second, then said: "Where did this piece of jade come from?"

Princess Fragrance put out her hand. "Give it back to me," she said.

Qian Long's jealousy flared. "Tell me who gave it to you and I will return it."

"My husband gave it to me."

Qian Long was greatly surprised by this reply.

"Are you married already?"

"I have not married him in body yet, but my heart has long been married to him," she answered proudly. "He is the kindest and bravest person in the world. I know he will rescue me from you. He is not afraid of you and neither am I, even though you are Emperor."

"I know the man you are talking about," he said, his voice full of hatred. "He is the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. He is just a bandit leader. What is so special about him?"

Princess Fragrance's heart leapt for joy at the sound of Chen's name and her face lit up.

"So you know of him too. It would be better if you let me go."

Qian Long looked up and happened to catch a glimpse of his own face in a dressing table mirror. He thought of Chen, his features handsome and cultured, equally versed in scholarship and the martial arts and knew he was no match for him. Full of jealousy and hatred, he threw the jade piece at his image and smashed both it and the mirror, covering the floor in broken glass. Princess Fragrance rushed forward to pick up the jade, which was unharmed, and wiped it lovingly, making Qian Long even more angry. With a stamp of his foot, he stormed out of the room and down the stairs.

He went to the quiet study where he usually read and wrote poetry, and spotted a half-written poem on the desk entitled 'The Precious Moon Pavilion': "The Fairy Princess is in the Pavilion, A vision from the Son of Heaven's dreams of former days."

Now, in a flash of anger, he ripped the poem up, and then sat in silence for a long time.

Slowly, his temper cooled, and he thought: "I am the Son of Heaven, I am all-powerful. So it finally comes out that this barbarian girl's stubbornness is the result of interference by Chen Jialuo. His appeal to me to drive the Manchus out of China is a good idea, but if things do not go as planned, not only will the affair end in failure, but could end my life as well. I've been debating this matter for months now, unable to come to a decision. What should I do?"

And another thought rushed to the fore: "I can do whatever I like already, and if this affair is successful, it could mean I would be controlled by these people. Can I allow myself to become a puppet? Why abandon concrete assets for the sake of improving my reputation? This Muslim girl thinks of nothing but him. All right, we'll settle these two matters together."

He told a eunuch to call for Bai Zhen who appeared shortly afterwards. "Station four top-ranking bodyguards on each floor of the Precious Moon Pavilion and another twenty outside," he ordered. "There must be no slip-ups of any kind." Bai Zhen bowed. "And call for Chen Jialuo again. I have important business to discuss with him. Tell him to come alone."


When Chen received the Imperial Command, he went to discuss the situation with the others. Master Lu and Wen were worried that the order to go alone could indicate a trap.

"The fact that he calls me back so soon after receiving the evidence I gave him must mean he wants to talk about it," said Chen. "This is the big chance for us to recover China for the Chinese. I have to go no matter what dangers are waiting for me. Second Brother," he added turning to Priest Wu Chen. "If I don't return, please take over command of the Red Flower Society and avenge me."

"Don't worry, Great Helmsman," the priest replied, deeply moved.

"There's no need to wait for me outside the palace this time. If he means to harm me, there is no way you could help me and trying would just cause needless casualties."

By the time Chen re-entered the forbidden precincts of the palace with Bai Zhen, it was already dark. Two eunuchs carrying lanterns led them through webs of tree-branch moon shadows to the Precious Moon Pavilion. This time, they ascended to the fourth floor, and as soon as the eunuchs reported Chen's arrival, Qian Long ordered him sent in. He was seated on a couch in a small room, a far-away look in his eyes. Chen knelt and kowtowed and Qian Long told him to be seated. He was silent for a while. Chen looked around him and noticed a poetic couplet on the wall written by Qian Long himself.

"What do you think?" Qian Long asked, seeing him reading the couplet.

"Your Highness has high aspirations and the spirit of an Emperor of great courage and intelligence. When the Great Endeavour is successfully accomplished, and the Manchus have been driven from China, your merit will far exceed even the Han dynasty emperor who expelled the Tartars or the Ming dynasty emperor who threw out the Mongols, and will be remembered for ten thousand generations."

Qian Long was delighted to hear such praise. He smiled and stroked his whiskers. "You and I may be servant and master, but in spirit we are brothers," he said after a moment's contemplation. "In future, you must assist me well."

Chen was overjoyed to hear these words: From his tone, Qian Long did not appear to be planning to go back on his oath. His doubts dispersed, Chen knelt down once again and kowtowed.

"Your Highness's wise decision is truly a great blessing for the people," he said.

Qian Long sighed. "I may be the Son of Heaven, but I am not as fortunate as you," he said. Chen wondered what he meant. "In August last year, when we were in Haining, I gave you a piece of jade," he added. "Do you have it with you?"

Chen was startled. "Your Highness told me to pass it on to someone else, and I have already done so," he replied.

"You standards are very high. Whoever it is must be one of the world's most beautiful women."

Chen's eyes reddened. "Unfortunately, I do not know if she is dead or alive, or where she might be. When our business is concluded, I will search to the ends of the earth to find her."

"Do you love this lady deeply?"

"Yes," said Chen quietly.

"The Empress is a Manchu, you know that?"


"She has served me for a long time and is very virtuous. If we go ahead with this plan, she will certainly fight to the death. What do you think should be done?"

Chen was unable to answer. "Your Highness's opinions are sacred," he finally said. "Your servant would not dare make any reckless suggestions."

"I cannot allow the nation to be split in two. This consideration has made me very hesitant of late. Also, at present I have a personal problem which unfortunately no-one can help me with."

"I will do whatever Your Highness orders."

"Gentlemen should not snatch prized possessions from others, but this is something decided by Fate," replied Qian Long. "Ah, when one's love is concentrated on one person, what can one do? Go over there and take a look."

He pointed to a doorway on the western side of the room, then stood up and walked out.

Chen was greatly confused by this strange speech, but he calmed himself and pulled aside the thick door curtain. He walked slowly through into what he saw was an extremely sumptuous bed chamber. A red candle burned in the corner, and a girl in a white gown sat staring at its flame.

Suddenly seeing Princess Fragrance in the depths of the Imperial Palace, Chen was dumbfounded. He swayed unsteadily and was unable to speak. Upon hearing the footsteps, Princess Fragrance had grasped the dagger hilt tightly. Then she looked round to see the very person she had been dreaming of day and night. Her angry glare immediately melted into an expression of delight. She cried out and threw herself across the room into Chen's arms.

"I knew you would come and save me," she cried. "I waited patiently, and finally you have come."

Chen held her warm body tightly. "Are we dreaming?" he asked. She looked up and shook her head as tears began to course down her cheeks.

Chen's first thought was that the Emperor had found out she was the lady of his heart and had brought her from the Muslim areas to be with him. He put his arms around her waist and then unself-consciously kissed her on the lips. In the midst of the sweetness of the long kiss, they became oblivious to everything around them.

After a long, long time, Chen finally looked at the pink flush on her cheeks. Behind her on a dressing table, he noticed a broken mirror, and the image of them both embracing in each segment.

"Look," he whispered. "There are one thousand me's, and every one is holding you."

Princess Fragrance glanced at the broken mirror, and then pulled the piece of warm jade from her pocket.

"He stole my jade piece and broke the mirror with it," she said. "Luckily it wasn't damaged."

"Who?" Chen asked, startled.

"That evil emperor."

"Why?" Chen asked, even more astonished.

"He bullied me, but I said I wasn't afraid because I knew you would rescue me. He was very angry and tried to grab me, but I have this dagger."

"Dagger?" he repeated distantly.

"Yes. I was with my father when they killed him. He gave me this dagger and told me to kill myself if the enemy violated me. People who commit suicide are sent to Hell, but if they are girls dying to protect their virtue then Allah makes an exception."

Chen looked down and wondered how many times this weak, naive girl had come close to death in the past few months. His heart was filled with love and pain and he embraced her again. After a while, he steadied himself and began to carefully consider the situation.

He now realized that Qian Long had had Princess Fragrance brought to Beijing because he wanted her himself. He had obviously ordered the construction of a desert in the Imperial Gardens to try to please her. But she had sworn never to give in. He had threatened and cajoled her in every way he could think of, all without effect. That must be why Qian Long had said that he was not as fortunate as himself.

He looked down at Princess Fragrance as he held her and saw she had closed her eyes and was fast asleep. Why did he let me see her? he wondered. He had raised the problem of the Empress and said that if the Great Endeavour was to accomplished, she would have to be discounted, and that a choice would have to be made between family and country. Yes, his meaning is…"

He shivered and began to sweat. He felt Princess Fragrance move slightly against him and heard her sigh. A smile appeared on her face like a flower bud opening.

"Should I break with the Emperor for her sake, or ask her to give in to him for the sake of the Great Endeavour?" The thought shot through his brain like a lightning bolt, and he cringed from it.

"She loves me so deeply. She's managed somehow to maintain her virtue for my sake, she believes firmly that I will rescue her. How can I really bring myself to reject her, to betray her? But if I think only of us two, I must break with my brother, and this rare opportunity to recover the throne will be lost. If I did that, would we not be cursed by generations to come?" His brain was in turmoil, and he had no idea what he should do.

Princess Fragrance opened her eyes. "Let's go," she said. "I'm afraid of seeing that evil Emperor again."

"Wait here for a moment. I'll go out for a while then come back." She nodded and took the dagger from his hand, then watched him leave the room with smiling eyes.

He went up the stairs and found Qian Long on the next floor up sitting on a couch, stony-faced and motionless.

"Affairs of state are of more importance than private concerns," Chen announced. "I will urge her to give in to you."

Qian Long jumped up off the couch in delight. "Really?" he exclaimed.

"Yes, but you must swear an oath." Chen stared at him as he spoke.

"What oath?" asked Qian Long, avoiding his gaze.

"If you do not honestly do all in your power to drive the Manchu barbarians out, what then?"

Qian Long thought for a moment. "If that is the case, then no matter how glorious my life may be, may my grave be dug up and my skeleton smashed to pieces."

The grave of an emperor was inviolable. Such an oath was extremely serious.

"All right," said Chen. "I will talk to her. But I will have to do it outside the palace."

"Outside?" Qian Long asked, startled.

Chen nodded. "At the moment, she hates you to her very bones. She won't be able to quietly listen to what I have to say here, so I wish to take her to the Great Wall to explain things."

"Why do you want to go so far?" said Qian Long suspiciously.

"I once promised to take her to the Great Wall. When I have done so, I will not see her ever again."

"You will definitely bring her back?"

"We members of the fighting community consider our word to be worth more than our lives. I will do what I have said."

Qian Long was uncertain of what to do. He wondered how he would ever find this beauty again if Chen escaped with her. But on the other hand, he knew the girl would never give in to him unless Chen could think of a way of convincing her to do so. He was sure Chen was committed to their Great Endeavour and would not give it up just for the sake of a girl.

"All right," he said finally, slapping the table. "Go, both of you."

He waited until Chen had gone, then said to the curtain behind him: "Take forty bodyguards and follow him the whole way. Whatever you do, don't let them get away."

Chen returned to the fourth floor and took hold of Princess Fragrance's hand. "Let's go," The two walked together out of the pavilion and out of the Forbidden City. The guards had already received their orders and made no attempt to stop them. Princess Fragrance's heart was full of joy. She had always believed her knight was capable of doing anything, and was in no way surprised that they could just walk out of the palace gates.

As they reached the outside, the sky was already growing light. Xin Yan was standing close by, the reins of the white horse in his hands, keeping watch, and when he spotted Chen, he rushed over. Seeing Princess Fragrance standing by his master's side, he was even more surprised and delighted.

Chen took the rein from him. "We are going on a trip out of the city for the day," he said. "We won't be back until late evening, so tell the others not to worry."

Xin Yan watched the two mount up and ride off north, and was about to leave when the sound of galloping hooves rose behind him and several dozen palace guards thundered past. He recognised the frail old man leading the troop as Bai Zhen, and returned quickly to Twin Willow Lane to report.

As the white horse left the city, it galloped ever faster. Princess Fragrance, snuggling into Chen's arms, watched the trees on either side of the road zip past, and all the distress and sorrow of the previous few months evaporated. The horse's strong legs carried them quickly past the small villages to the north of Beijing, and as they approached a crossroads, Chen said: "Let's go and see the tombs of the Ming dynasty emperors."

The horse galloped on. Just past the Jade Stone Bridge, they came upon a huge stone monument inscribed with the words: 'The Sacred Tombs of the Great Ming'. On the right-hand face of the monument were several lines of poetry in Qian Long's hand.

"What is it?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"It's a poem written by the Emperor."

"He's vile and horrible. Don't look at it," she urged. She took his hand and they continued on, and soon found themselves walking along an avenue flanked by stone lions, elephants, camels and strange mythical creatures. "I have only this one day left with her so I must make sure she enjoys it," Chen thought. "After today, we will neither of us ever pass another happy day again." So he roused his flagging spirits and smiled.

"You want to ride on the camel, don't you?" he said and lifted her up onto its back and sat behind her. With shouts and calls, they urged the stone camel forward. Princess Fragrance bent over double with laughter, then after a moment she sighed.

"If only this camel could really run and could carry us back to the Tianshan mountains," she said.

"What would you want to do there?"

She looked into the distance. "Oh, I would be very busy. I would have to pick flowers for you to eat, and look after the goats and feed the small deer. And I'd have to visit the graves of my father and mother and brother to keep them company, and think of some way to find my sister…"

"What happened to her?" he asked.

"She was ill the night the Manchus attacked. We were split up during the battle and I have heard no news of her since."

Chen was silent as they remounted the horse and started on their way. The road wound upwards and before long they arrived at Ju Yong Pass and caught sight of the Wall, writhing like a long snake through the clusters of hills.

"Why did they waste so much effort to build this thing?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"It was to stop the northern enemies from invading," Chen replied. "Countless people must have died on either side of this wall."

"Men are truly strange. Why don't they all live happily together and dance and sing instead of fighting? I really can't see the point of it all."

"If you ever get the chance, you must tell the Emperor not to make war on the poor peoples of the border areas. All right?"

"I will never see that evil Emperor again," she replied, puzzled by his sudden solemness.

"But if you were able to make him do your bidding, you must urge him not to do bad things, and to do some good for the people. Promise me!"

"What a funny thing to say. Do you really think I would be unwilling to do anything you asked me to do?"

"Thank you," Chen said, and she smiled.

They walked along a stretch of the wall hand-in-hand.

"I just thought of something," said Princess Fragrance.


"I am very happy today, but is it because of this beautiful scenery? No. I know it's because I am with you. As long as you are by my side, I would think even the most ugly place on earth was beautiful."

The happier she was, the more uncomfortable Chen felt. "Is there anything you would like me to do?" he asked.

"Oh, but you have already done everything. You have always given me everything I wanted, even without asking for it." She pulled the snow lotus from her pocket. The flower was now dry and withered, but it still possessed a strong fragrance.

"There is only one thing you refused to do," she added with a smile. "And that is to sing me a song."

Chen laughed. "It's true," he said. "I have never sung you a song."

Princess Fragrance pulled a face. "Well, I'm not going to sing for you any more either."

"I remember my mother's maid servant singing several rhymes when I was young. I'll sing one for you now, but you're not allowed to laugh."

She clapped her hands in delight. "All right! All right! Sing!"

He thought for a moment, and then began:

"The light rain falls

The wind blows in squalls

Someone outside saucily calls,

I think it's my loved one,

And softly curse him round and right.

But looking once again

I see it's not, and jump in fright."

After he had finished, Chen explained the words of the song in the Muslim tongue, and Princess Fragrance laughed.

"The lady's eyesight was not too good, apparently," she said.

They explored the top of the wall, which consisted of battlements on the northern side, a stone hand rail on the other and a walkway in between. Every three hundred feet or so, there was a watchtower. They came to a beacon tower, and Chen thought of the time Huo Qingtong had burned wolf dung as part of her plan to destroy the Manchu army. He wondered again if she was alive or dead, and his sadness increased.

"I know what you are thinking," said Princess Fragrance.

"Do you?"

"Yes. You are thinking of my sister."

"How did you know?"

"When the three of us were in the Secret City together, I could see how happy you were in spite of the danger. Oh, you mustn't worry so!"

He took her hand, "What do you mean?" he asked.

She sighed. "In the old days, I was just a child. I didn't understand anything. But every day I was in the Imperial Palace, I thought about the times we were together and realised many things that had not occured to me before. My sister loved you all along, and you love her, don't you?"

"Yes. I shouldn't try to deceive you."

"But I know you truly love me too. And without you, I cannot live. So let's go and find my sister quickly and we can all live happily together forever. Don't you think that would be lovely?"

Her eyes and face radiated happiness. Chen squeezed her hand. "You have thought it out perfectly," he said softly. "You and your sister are the nicest, the best people in the world."

Princess Fragrance stood looking out into the distance, and noticed the sun glinting off a body of water to the west. "Let's go and have a look over there," she said.

They made their way across the hills, and came upon a clear spring bubbling merrily out of a crack in the rocks.

"I will wash my feet here, is that all right?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"Of course," Chen replied with a smile. She took off her shoes and socks and stepped into the water, relishing the coolness as the crystal clear water flowed around her milk-white feet. Chen happened to see his own shadow on the water, and realised the sun was already sinking into the west. He reached into his bag and pulled out some food for them. Princess Fragrance leant against him and wiped her feet dry as she ate.

Chen gritted his teeth. "There is something I must say to you," he said. She turned and put both her arms round him, resting her head on his chest.

"I know you love me," she said quietly. "I understand. You don't have to say it."

He cringed and swallowed what he had been about to say. After a while, he started again: "Do you still remember Mami's last testament that we read inside the White Jade Peak?"

"She is living in Heaven now with her Ali. That's the way it should be."

"You Muslims believe that after good people die, they will live forever in paradise, is that right?"

"Of course that's what happens."

"When I return to Beijing, I will go and find an Islamic Imam and get him to teach me so that I can become a good follower of the Muslim faith," said Chen.

Princess Fragrance was overjoyed. She had never guessed he would be willing to voluntarily join the Muslim faith. "Oh my brother," she said looking up at him. "Will you really?"


"You're willing to do even that because of your love for me. I never dared to hope for such a thing."

"Because in this life," Chen continued slowly, "we will not be able to be together. So I want to be sure that after death, I can be with you every day."

The words struck Princess Fragrance like a clap of thunder. After a moment's silence, she said in shaking voice: "You…what are you talking about? We can't be together?"

"No. After today, we will not be able to see each other again."

"Why?" Her body quivered and two large tears fell onto his gown.

Chen embraced her tenderly. "If it were possible for me to be with you, I would be content even without food or clothing, even if I was beaten and humiliated everyday. But do you remember Mami? The good Mami was willing to leave her true love Ali in order that her tribe would no longer be oppressed and bullied by Sanglaba and was even willing to go and allow herself to be violated by him…"

Princess Fragrance's body went limp. "You want me to give in to the Emperor?" she whispered. "You want me to kill him?"

"No, he is my blood brother." He told her everything about his relationship with Qian Long, and the Red Flower Society's plans, about the oath sworn in the Six Harmonies Pagoda, and of Qian Long's demand earlier that day. As he spoke, Princess Fragrance realised that what she had been longing for day and night and thought she had achieved, was slipping from her grasp again. She was overwhelmed by a wave of panic and fainted away.

As she came to, she felt Chen holding her tightly, and was aware of a damp patch on her dress soaked by his tears. She stood up.

"Wait for me here," she said softly, and walked towards a large flat rock in the distance where she prostrated herself in prayer towards the west. She appealed to the True God, Allah for guidance on what she should do. The pale sunlight glanced off her white dress, her back presenting a picture of both great melancholy and warmth. After a while, she walked slowly back.

"Whatever you want me to do, I will do," she announced.

Chen jumped up and ran over to her, and the two embraced each other tightly.

"If I had known we had only today, I would have wanted you to hold me the whole day rather than come here," she whispered. Chen kissed her, unable to answer.

A long time passed. Then suddenly, Princess Fragrance said: "I have not had a bath since I left home. I am going to have one now." She began to take off her outer gown.

Chen stood up. "I'll go over there to wait for you," he said.

"No! No! I want you to watch me. When you saw me for the first time, I was bathing. Today is the last time…After you have seen me, I want you to never forget me."

"Do you really believe that I would ever forget you?"

"Please don't go," she pleaded, and there was nothing for Chen to do but to sit down again.

While Chen watched and the mountain spring gurgled, she removed all her clothing piece by piece, until the golden evening sun illuminated one of the world's most beautiful bodies. Chen felt giddy, and hardly dare to look directly at this vision. But he could not fail to notice her innocent, guileless expression, and suddenly thought of her as simply a naked three or four-year-old child. She was so beautiful and so pure.

"To make a body of such incomparable beauty, there must be an all-knowing, all-powerful God in heaven," he thought. His heart was filled with reverence and gratitude.

Princess Frgrance slowly wiped the pearls of water from her body, and then put her clothes back on.

"This body," she thought self-pityingly. "I will never again be able to show it to the one I love."

She rubbed her hair dry and then returned to sit in Chen's embrace.

"I once told you the story of the cowherd and the spinning girl, do you remember?" Chen asked.

"Yes. I remember. You said that although they met only once a year, they still saw each other countless times more than ordinary people."

"Yes. We cannot be together forever, but the True God will make sure we meet again eventually. In the desert, and here, we have been very happy. The time has been short, but we have perhaps had more happiness than many couples who live together for decades."

She listened to his soothing voice comforting her, as the sun slowly sank towards the hills with her heart following it down. Suddenly she jumped up and wailed: "No! The sun is disappearing!"

Chen's heart shattered. "I have asked so much of you!" he exclaimed, taking her hand.

She continued to stare at the point where the sun had gone down. "If only it was able to rise again, even for just a moment," she said quietly.

"It is right that I should undergo hardship for the sake of my people, but you have never even seen them, let alone loved them."

"I love you, so are they not my people too? Do you not love all our Muslim brothers?"

The sky was growing darker. The sun did not rise again, and a wave of coldness touched her heart.

"Let's go back," she said. "I am very happy. My life is fulfilled."

They climbed onto the back of the white horse and started back the way they had come. They were both silent and neither turned back to look at the place of beauty they had just enjoyed.

Less than an hour's ride later, they heard the sound of many galloping hooves in front and several dozen riders emerged out of the evening mist with Bai Zhen in the lead. His face lit up as soon as he saw Chen and Princess Fragrance, and signalling to the others to stop, he leapt off his horse and stood by the roadside. Chen did not even glance at him, but urged the white horse on even faster. Soon after, horses' hooves sounded in front once again, and the Red Flower Society heroes appeared.

"Great Helmsman!" 'Leopard' Wei shouted. "We're all here!"


The sky gradually became light and Qian Long watched the sun rising from the east as the eunuchs laid out the Imperial breakfast for him. It consisted of many delicacies, but he found it difficult to swallow them. With Chen and Princess Fragrance gone, he felt nervous and unsettled.

That day, he did not grant an audience to his ministers, and spent his time napping fitfully. On several occasions, he sent guards out to search for news, but the sky grew dark and the moon sailed up over the palace walls, and still none of them had returned to report.

He started to become extremely anxious and tried to calm himself by staring fixedly at the desert murals on the walls of the Precious Moon Pavilion.

"Seeing as she likes him, she will certainly like Chinese clothes," he thought. "When they return he will already have convinced her, so why don't I take off these Manchu clothes and put on something Chinese to give her a surprise?"

He ordered his eunuchs to find him some, but where would Chinese clothes be found in the heart of the Manchu court? Finally, one bright young eunuch ran over to the theatre troupe and brought back a theatrical costume, which he helped Qian Long to don.

Qian Long examined himself in front of a mirror, and was delighted by his dashing appearance. Then he noticed a few white hairs amongst his whiskers and urgently ordered the young eunuch to get a pair of tweezers to pull them out.

Just as he was sitting with bowed head to allow the eunuch to remove the offending hairs, he heard the patter of light footsteps behind and another eunuch announced: "Her Highness the Empress Dowager has arrived."

Qian Long started in surprise. He looked up and saw the Dowager's image in the mirror, her face stern and pale and full of anger.

"I trust you are well, Madame?" he said, hurriedly turning to face her. He escorted her to the couch where she took a seat, and then dismissed the eunuchs with a wave of her hand.

There was a moment's silence.

"The slaves say you have not been well today," she began in a deep voice. "They said you did not hold court this morning and haven't eaten, so I have come to see you."

"I am better now," he replied. "It was just that I ate something fatty which made me a little uncomfortable. It was nothing. I would not have dared to have bothered Your Highness about it."

"Huh! Was it Muslim fat or Chinese fat?" she said, to Qian Long's consternation.

"I think some roast lamb I ate last night disagreed with me," he replied.

"That is one of our Manchu dishes. Huh! You seem to be tired of being a Manchu."

Qian Long did not dare to say anything.

"Where is that Muslim girl?" the Empress Dowager asked.

"She was in a bad mood so I sent her out with someone who can talk some sense into her."

"She has a knife, and would clearly prefer to die rather than give in to you. What use is there in getting someone to talk to her? Who did you send?"

Qian Long noticed anxiously how close her questioning was becoming.

"An old guard officer, surnamed Bai," he replied.

The Dowager looked up and let the silence hang for a moment. Then she laughed coldly. "You are the Emperor, the master of all under heaven. You can do whatever you like, and concoct whatever lies you like, too."

Qian Long knew the eyes and ears of the Dowager were many and guessed he probably would not be able to deceive her about this affair. "The other person I sent with the girl," he answered quietly, "was a scholar I met in the south, who is very learned…"

"It's someone from the Chen family of Haining, isn't it?" the Dowager's voice rasped out sharply.

Qian Long hung his head, not daring to utter a sound.

"No wonder you've put on Chinese clothes. Why haven't you killed me yet?" Her voice had become even harsher. Qian Long knelt down in fright and began kowtowing frantically.

"May I be damned by Heaven and Earth if I have been unfilial in any way," he said.

The Dowager flicked up the long sleeves of her gown and walked out. Qian Long rushed after her, then stopped when he realised he was still wearing the Chinese costume. To be seen wearing such clothes would not do at all, so he hurriedly changed back into his usual gown and rushed out after the Dowager. He found her in a side room of the Martial Hero Pavilion.

"Please don't be angry, Madame," he pleaded. "I have committed some errors and would willingly accept your criticism."

"Why have you called that man Chen into the palace several days running?" she asked coldly. "And what happened in Haining?" Qian Long hung his head and was silent.

"Do you really intend to restore the Chinese style of dress?" she shrieked. "Are you going to kill every one of us Manchus?"

"Please don't listen to the nonsense spouted by servants," he replied, his voice shaking. "How could I plan to do such a thing?"

"How do you intend to deal with this man Chen?"

"His society is large and widespread and many of his followers are martial arts masters who would die for him, so I have been polite to him throughout while waiting for an opportunity to deal with them all at once. I want to remove the roots as well as chopping off the grass."

The Dowager's expression softened slightly. "Is this true?"

Qian Long knew the secret had leaked. With no room left to maneouvre, he decided he had no choice but to swear to destroy the Red Flower Society.

"I will see to it that Chen is beheaded within three days," he said.

The shadow of a smile appeared on the Dowager's forbidding face. "Good," she said. "Only then will you be holding to the wishes of our ancestors." She stood up. "Come with me," she added.

She stood up and walked over to the main hall of the Martial Hero Pavilion with Qian Long close behind. As they approached, a eunuch gave a shout and the huge doors were opened. Inside the brightly-lit hall, two files of eunuchs stretched away from the entrance towards eight princes kneeling on the floor to receive the Emperor. The Dowager and Qian Long walked over to two chairs on the dais in the centre of the hall and sat down. Qian Long saw all eight princes were of the immediate Imperial family, including his own brothers. He wondered uneasily what the Dowager was planning.

"When the late Emperor passed away," she began slowly, "he left orders that the command of the Imperial Banner troops should be divided amongst eight members of the Imperial family. But because of the constant dispatch of forces to the Muslim border regions in the past few years, it has never been possible to act on the Emperor's last wish. Now, thanks to the blessed protection of the Ancestors, the Muslim areas have been pacified, and from today, the leadership of the Banners will be divided amongst the eight of you." The princes kowtowed and expressed their great gratitude.

So she has decided to disperse my military strength, Qian Long thought.

"Please make the assignments, Your Highness," the Dowager said to him. He knew he was in a losing position, but he decided that as long as he did not attempt a revolt, a temporary dispersal of military power would be of no great consequence. The Dowager, he could see, had been very thorough, and he guessed that she had also made preparations in case he refused. So he assigned each of the eight princes to be commander of one of the Banners.

Meanwhile, the eight princes, all full of curiosity, were thinking: "Based on the wishes of the founder of our dynasty, three of the Banners should be under the direct leadership of the Emperor, and the other five subordinate to them. The Dowager's action to divide the Banners among us is a serious violation of rules laid down by the Ancestors and is obviously intended to weaken the Emperor's power." None of them dared to directly refuse the Dowager's command, but all decided it would be best to return the command to the Emperor the following day in order to avoid the possibility of execution.

The Dowager signalled with her hand and one of the princes came forward holding a tray on which was placed a small iron box. He knelt before her and she picked the box up and opened it, and took out a small scroll. Qian Long glanced at it out of the corner of his eye and saw the inscription, written in the Emperor Yong Zheng's hand, read "Posthumous Edict." Next to this was a line of smaller characters: "If there should be any political changes, the eight princes who lead the Banners must gather together and open this."

Qian Long's face drained of colour as he realised his father had long ago taken precautions to guard against his secret ever being revealed. If he dared to alter in any way the instructions of his ancestors, let alone attempt to overthrow the Manchus, the eight Banner commanders would be required to dispose of him and set up a new Emperor. He steadied himself.

"The late Emperor was far-sighted indeed," he said. "If I can match even a ten thousandth of his abilities, then you have no need to worry further, Madame."

The Dowager passed the scroll to the most senior of the eight princes and said: "Take this edict of the late Emperor and have it placed in the Lama Temple. Assign one hundred bodyguards to guard it day and night." She hesitated for a moment, then added: "They are not allowed to leave their posts for a second, even if ordered to do so by the present Emperor."

The prince complied with her command and left with the scroll for the Lama Temple. The temple was in the northern part of the city near the Gate of Serenity, and had been used by the Emperor Yong Zheng as his home before ascending the throne. After he died, Qian Long had had the residence expanded and turned into a Tibetan Lamaist temple in memory of his grandfather.

Her arrangements complete, the Dowager yawned lazily. "The achievements of our Ancestors must be safeguarded," she sighed.


Immediately after seeing the Empress Dowager out of the Martial Hero Pavilion, Qian Long called for his bodyguards. Bai Zhen came forward to report.

"Master Chen has escorted the lady back to the palace, and she is now awaiting Your Highness in the Precious Moon Pavilion," he said.

Qian Long was delighted with the news and walked briskly to the door of the Martial Hero Pavilion. Then he stopped and turned. "Was there any trouble on the road?" he asked.

"Your slaves came across a large number of Red Flower Society fighters at one point, but luckily, Master Chen intervened and prevented an incident."

When Qian Long arrived at the Precious Moon Pavilion, he found Princess Fragrance seated as before, facing the wall.

"Did you have fun at the Great Wall?" he asked happily. She ignored him. Qian Long decided to deal with more pressing matters first before questioning her furt