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7

"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.


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