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А Б В Г Д Е Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Э Ю Я


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6

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.

"Mm?"

"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.


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