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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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4

The bodyguard agency group started out first early the next day, the shouter shouting the agency's call. Lu noticed that most of the lead escorts were stationed around Yan. It seemed the red knapsack on his back was the real treasure being escorted.

Once the agency men had left, Officer Deng led his own column out onto the road. At noon, they rested briefly at a place called Yellow Crag after which the road sloped steadily upward into the mountains. They planned to cross three ranges that day before stopping in Sandaogou.

The mountain road became increasingly precarious and Yuanzhi and Officer Deng kept close by Madame Li's mule-drawn carriage, afraid that if an animal lost its footing, it could send the carriage crashing into the gorge below. Around mid-afternoon, they arrived at the mouth of Black Gold Gorge and saw the agency men seated on the ground resting. Officer Deng directed his men to follow suit. Black Gold Gorge was flanked by high peaks with an extremely steep mountain track leading up between them. Stopping on the track was difficult, so the top of the gorge had to be reached at one stretch. Lu hung back at the rear and turned his back, not wishing to exchange glances with the agency men.

Once rested, they entered the gorge, the bodyguard agency men and the soldiers under Officer Deng's command forming a long snaking column. Men and animals alike panted up the mountain. The shouts of the mulemen melded into a continuous drone. Suddenly, Lu saw a figure darting across the crest of a peak, and heard the jangling of camel bells from in front as a group of Muslims mounted on camels and horses charged down towards them from the top of the gorge. Their hooves sounded like thunder, and the agency men began shouting, calling on them to slow down.

In an instant, the Muslim group was upon them and four camels quickly encircled Lead Escort Yan who was carrying the red knapsack. Each of the four Muslim riders raised a large iron hammer with both hands and smashed it down viciously on his head. The mountain road was narrow, leaving little room for manoeuvring, and the camel-men had the advantage of height. Even if he had been a better fighter, Yan would have been unable to avoid the four hammers, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Both he and his horse were beaten to a bloody pulp.

The yellow-robed Muslim girl, Huo Qingtong, jumped down from her horse and with a flash of her sword cut one of the straps holding the red knapsack to the corpse that had been Yan. But before she had time for a second stroke, she felt a gust of wind at her back as a blade sliced towards her. She dodged to one side and cut the other strap. Her assailant aimed a cutting stroke at her waist to stop her from picking up the knapsack. Unable to avoid the stroke, she raised her sword to block it, and the two blades clashed in a shower of sparks. Looking up, she saw it was the handsome young boy who had stared at her so disrespectfully the day before. In a sudden fit of anger, she lashed out with three attacking sword strokes, and the two began a fierce duel.

Her assailant was Yuanzhi, still dressed in boy's clothes. Without stopping to consider the rights and wrongs of the situation, she had decided to get her own back for the damage done to her horse's mane.

Huo Qingtong could see her chance of recovering the Koran slipping away and wanted to finish the fight quickly. She changed to the 'Three Part' sword style, and in a few strokes had forced Yuanzhi into retreat. The 'Three Part' sword style was the highest achievement of the Tianshan school of kung fu. It was called 'Three Part' because only a third of each stroke was completed. As the opponent moved to counter each one, the stoke changed. Intricate and vicious, the style included no defensive strokes: attacking and killing was all.

The two went through a dozen or more moves without their blades ever touching, Huo Qingtong completing only a third of each stroke, and then changing it without waiting for her opponent to defend. She cut and thrust at the air around Yuanzhi's body, and the Chinese girl, knowing she could not match her opponent's speed, leapt away. Huo Qingtong did not pursue her but turned back to the knapsack, and found it was already in the hands of a small, thin man standing beside Yan's body. She lunged at him with her sword.

"Oh dear," the man cried. "Uncle Tong had better get back in place!" Lead Escort Tong jumped clear with three quick steps and Huo Qingtong followed hard on his heels. She raised her sword to cut him down, but the stroke was blocked by a Five Element Wheel thrust forward by the surviving Yan brother.

Huo Qingtong fought briefly with Yan, and recognised him as a strong and capable adversary. Then she heard a loud whistle coming from the hilltops, the signal for retreat, and knew that help for the agency men was on the way. She saw Tong scampering away with the knapsack and quickly changed to the Three Part sword style, forcing Yan to retreat, and then raced after him. The whistles became louder.

"Daughter! Retreat quickly!" Muzhuolun shouted. She abandoned the chase and directed her comrades as they lifted the Muslim dead and wounded onto camels and horses. Then the Muslim column charged on down the mountain path. But a little way further on, they found several dozen Manchu soldiers blocking their path.

Officer Deng rode forward, his spear held crosswise. "You insolent Muslims!" he shouted. "What is this insurrection?" Two of Huo Qingtong's steel darts hit his hands and the spear clattered to the ground. Muzhuolun raised his sabre high and charged forward with some other Muslim warriors, and the Manchu troops scattered. Boulders crashed down from the mountain tops, pulverising more than a dozen Manchu troops, and in the midst of the melee, the Muslims made good their escape.

Throughout the battle, Lu had remained on the sidelines, his hands folded inside his sleeves. Yuanzhi had been of great assistance to the agency men even though she had been beaten by Huo Qingtong, and the Muslims had been unable to get what they wanted. As the agency men tended the wounded and carried off the dead, Lu gave her a severe lecture, criticising her for interfering in the affairs of others, and needlessly making even more enemies.

"There are very few good men amongst the bodyguard agencies, and many bad ones. Why bother helping people to do evil?" he scolded her. She hung her head, not daring to look up.

They crossed through the pass and arrived in Sandaogou, a medium-sized market town, as dusk was falling. The mulemen said there was only one inn, called the Antong, and both the agency men and Officer Deng's column headed for it. The inn was crude and simple in the extreme with earthern walls and mud floors. Seeing no servants coming out to greet them, Tong shouted: "Is everyone dead in there? I damn eighteen generations of your ancestors!" Yuanzhi frowned. No-one had ever dared to use such language within her hearing before.

Just then, they heard the sound of clashing swords from inside. Yuanzhi was delighted. "Here's some more fun to watch!" she cried and ran into the inn ahead of the others.

The entrance hall was empty and silent, but passing through to the courtyard, she saw a young woman fighting fiercely with four men. In her left hand was a sword, and in her right, a knife. She was obviously battling for her life. It seemed to Yuanzhi that the four man were trying to force their way into the room outside which the woman was standing. The four were all strong fighters: one wielded a whip, one a staff, one a sword and one a Devil's Head Knife.

Lu also entered the courtyard. "How is it that we are continually running into these secret society people?" he thought.

The woman dodged and parried, holding all four men at bay until suddenly the one wielding the Devil's Head Knife swung his weapon towards her as another of the attackers thrust his sword at her heart. She fended off the sword with the knife in her right hand, but she could not dodge the Devil's Head Knife and it struck her on the left shoulder. But she did not give up, and as she continued to fight, drops of blood flew in all directions.

"Don't kill her! We need her alive," shouted the man with the whip.

Lu's chivalrous heart was moved at the sight of four man attacking one woman, and despite his own sensitive situation he could see he might have to take a hand himself. He watched as the swordsman attacked with a slicing blow from the left. The woman parried it obliquely, but she was already wounded and out of breath. The two blades clashed, and the knife was jolted from her hand and clattered to the ground. The swordsman then thrust his blade at her again, and she frantically dodged to the right, opening a way through which the man with the Devil's Head Knife charged towards the door.

Ignoring all dangers, the woman plunged her left hand into her gown and drew out two throwing knives which she slung at her enemy's back. One of the knives embedded itself in the door post but the other plunged into his back. Luckily for him, the woman's hand lacked strength due to the wound in her left shoulder and the knife did not kill him. He staggered back, screaming with pain, and pulled the knife out. Meanwhile, the woman was struck on her thigh by the staff. She swayed unsteadily, but defiantly resumed her position blocking the doorway.

"Go and help her," Lu said quietly to Yuanzhi. "If you can't beat them, I'll come over as well."

Yuanzhi was bursting to test herself. She leapt forward, her sword at the ready, shouting: "Four men fighting one woman! You should be ashamed of yourselves!" Seeing someone coming to the aid of the woman, and one of their number already wounded, the four men turned and ran from the inn.

The woman's face was deathly pale and she leaned against the door, breathing heavily. Yuanzhi went over to her.

"Why were they bullying you like that?" she asked, but the woman was temporarily incapable of speech.

Officer Deng walked over to Yuanzhi. "Madame Li would like to see you mistress," he said, and added in a whisper: "She's heard that you were involved in a fight on the road and is very upset. You'd better go quickly."

The woman's expression changed as soon as she saw Officer Deng's military uniform; she pulled her throwing knife out of the doorpost, went back into her room and banged the door shut without answering Yuanzhi.

Rather unhappy at having been snubbed, Yuanzhi walked over to Lu. "Teacher, what were they fighting about?" she asked.

"It was probably a revenge attack," he said. "But it isn't over yet. Those four will be back."

Yuanzhi was about to ask another question when she heard someone inside the inn shouting and swearing.

"Damn your ancestors, what do you mean there are no good rooms? Are you afraid we don't have the money to pay?" It was the voice of Lead Escort Tong.

"Please don't be angry sir," an employee of the inn answered. "We in the inn-keeping business would not dare to offend such eminent persons as yourselves. But it is a fact that all of our few good rooms are occupied."

"Who have you got in them? I think I'll go and have a look," Tong said walking out into the courtyard.

Just then a door opened, and the young woman leaned out. "Please bring some hot water," she said to a servant.

Tong saw the woman's smooth white skin and the beauty of her face and eyes, and noticed on her left wrist, a bracelet of pearls, all perfectly formed. His mouth watered. The woman spoke with a southern Chinese accent and the exotic touch to her voice excited him greatly.

"I, Lead Escort Tong have passed along this road on business dozens of times, and I have never stayed in anything but the best rooms," he shouted. "If there are no good rooms vacant, why don't you make one vacant for me?" The door to the woman's room was still open and he walked straight inside.

"Ai-ya!" the woman exclaimed. She moved to obstruct him, but felt a stab of pain in her thigh and sat down.

As Tong entered the room, he saw there was a man lying on the kang. The room was dimly-lit but he could see that the man's head was wrapped in bandages, his right arm was in a sling and that one of his legs was also bandaged.

"Who is it?" the man asked in a deep, resonant voice.

"My name is Tong and I'm a lead escort with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency," he replied. "We are passing through Sandaogou on business, but there are no rooms available here. I was wondering if you could move. Who is this woman? Is she your wife, or your girlfriend?"

"Get out," the man ordered. His wounds were clearly serious; he was unable to talk loudly.

"One's a girl and the other's too badly wounded to even move," thought Tong, who had not seen the woman fight. "When am I going to get such a chance again?"

"If you don't want to give up your room, that's all right too," he said with a grin on his face. "All three of us can snuggle up together on this kang. Don't worry, I won't push over onto your side."

The man on the kang shook with anger.

"Don't get involved with these ruffians," the woman urged him quietly. "We can't afford to make any more enemies at the moment." And then to Tong: "You stop your nonsense and get out."

Tong laughed. "Can't I stay here and keep you company?"

"Come over here," the man on the kang said hoarsely.

Tong took a step towards him. "Why? Do you want to see how handsome I am?"

"I can't see clearly," the man replied.

Tong laughed out loud and took another step towards him. "Take a closer look. This is like a big brother choosing a husband for his sister…"

Before he could finish, the man on the kang sat up, and as fast as a lightning flash, touched a yuedao point* (*Yuedao points are nerve centres on the body which, when struck, can cause paralysis or even death. The same points are used for a different purpose in acupuncture) on Tong's ribs and followed with a blow to his back. Tong flew straight out of the door, and landed heavily in the courtyard. The agency shouter, Xun, rushed over to help him up.

"Brother Tong," he whispered. "Don't provoke them. It looks like they're members of the Red Flower Society."

"Ahh, ahhh, I can't move my leg," Tong cried. "The Red Flower Society?" he added suddenly. "How do you know?" He broke into a cold sweat of fear.

"One of the porters told me four Yamen officers were here a while ago to arrest those two, and there was quite a fight before they left," Xun said.

Lead Escort Yan came over. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Brother Yan," Tong shouted. "One of those bastards from the Red Flower Society used Yuedao kung fu on me!"

Yan frowned and pulled Tong up by his arm. "We'll go back to the room and talk about it," he said. His first thought was for the agency's reputation. It created a bad impression when an agency's lead escort was floored and couldn't even get up. Lead Escort Qian came over. "Are you sure it was the Red Flower Society?" he asked Xun.

"When those four officers left, they told the porter that the couple in there were fugitives," he whispered. "They told the porter to inform them if they left. I overhead them talking."

Qian glanced at Yan and pulled Tong up.

"Who are they?" Yan asked quietly.

"Red Flower Society. I think we ought to let it pass," Qian said. "When Tong is better we can reconsider. Did you see what happened when those men tried to arrest them just now?" he asked Xun.

"It was some fight," said Xun, gesticulating wildly. "There was a woman with a sword in her left hand and a dagger in her right hand. Four men couldn't beat her."

"She must be one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people," replied Qian, surprised. "She used throwing knives, I suppose?"

"Yes, yes, she's really accurate. It was incredible!" Xun exclaimed.

Qian turned to Yan. "Master Wen of the Red Flower Society is here," he said. They carried Tong back to their room in silence.

Lu had observed the whole incident, but the lead escorts had talked in such low tones, that he only managed to catch Qian's last two utterances. Yuanzhi walked over and asked: "Teacher, when are you going to teach me Yuedao kung fu? Did you see how fantastic that move was?"

Lu took no notice of her, but said to himself: "If it is one of 'Divine Knife' Luo's people, I can't just stand by and do nothing."

"Who is 'Divine Knife' Luo?" Yuanzhi asked.

"He was a good friend of mine. I hear he's passed away now. All the moves used by the woman we saw fighting a minute ago were of his school."

Just then, the two lead escorts Qian and Tai helped Tong over to the woman's room. Xun coughed loudly outside the door and announced in a low voice:

"Lead Escorts Qian, Tai and Tong of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency have come to pay their respects to Master Wen of the Red Flower Society."

The door creaked open and the woman stood in the doorway staring at them. "What do you want?" she asked.

"We did not know that you and Master Wen were here," Qian said. "We have insulted you and we have come to apologise. Please be forgiving and don't be offended by what happened." He bowed low and Tai and Xun followed suit.

"Mistress," Qian continued. "We have never met before, but I have heard a great deal about you and your husband. Master Wang, the head of our agency, was always on very good terms with the leader of your honourable society, Master Yu, and also with your father 'Divine Knife' Luo. Our brother here is very bad-tempered, and is always talking nonsense…"

The woman cut him off. "Our master has been wounded, and he just went to sleep. When he wakes, I will pass on your message. We are ignorant of etiquette, but his wounds are not light, and he hasn't slept well for two days." There was an expression of apprehension on her face.

"What sort of wounds does Master Wen have?" Qian asked. "We have some Golden Wound ointment with us." He wanted to put them in their debt so that they would be obliged to help cure Tong.

"Thank you, but we have medicine," the woman replied, understanding his meaning. "Your colleague was not touched on a major Yuedao point. When our master wakes, I will send one of the inn's servants round."

Seeing that she had agreed to cure Tong, Qian and the others started to retire.

"By the way," said the woman. "How did you know our names?"

"With your swords and throwing knives, who wouldn't be able to guess?" Qian replied. "What's more, who apart from Master Wen uses Yuedao kung fu like that? It had to be 'Rolling Thunder Hand' Wen Tailai and his wife Luo Bing."

The woman smiled, flattered at having been recognised.


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