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3

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.


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