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4

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 talkI'll talk," he whispered. "They're taking him to Beijing."

"Hehe 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 himthen 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.


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