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1

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'sit'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.

"Noit wasn't me who talked," he replied, scared out of his wits. "It wasit was the youngthe 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. "II won't do it againDon'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.

"Whywhy 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.


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