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7

Madame Guan helped Huo Qingtong down from the tree, and told her to swallow one of the Snow Ginseng pills. She did so, and soon after, a wave of heat rose from the pit of her stomach, and she felt much better.

"You are very lucky," Madame Guan said. "With these wonderful pills you will recover much quicker."

"She wouldn't die even if she didn't take them," Bald Vulture commented coldly.

"So you'd prefer her to suffer a bit longer, would you?" his wife snapped back.

"If it was me, I'd die rather than take one of his pills. But you, you'd take one even if there was nothing wrong with you."

Madame Guan put the girl on her back, and started walking off north with Bald Vulture following behind, nattering ceaselessly.

They went to the old couple's home on Precious Mountain. Huo Qingtong took another pill, then slept peacefully, and felt much refreshed when she woke. Madame Guan sat on the edge of the bed and asked her what she had been doing travelling alone and sick through the desert. Huo Qingtong told her about how the Manchu army had been destroyed and how she had met the Three Devils on the road, but did not say why she had left the camp. Madame Guan, however, was an impatient person and pressed her. Huo Qingtong respected her teacher more than anyone, and found it impossible to deceive her.

"He…he has become friendly with my sister," she sobbed. "And when I gave the orders to the troops before the battle, my father and everyone thought I was acting out of my own selfish interests."

Madame Guan jumped up. "Is it that Great Helmsman Chen that you gave the dagger to?" Huo Qingtong nodded. "Then he's fickle-hearted and your sister has no sisterly feelings for you. They should both be killed!"

"No, no…" Huo Qingtong replied hastily.

"I'll go and settle this for you," Madame Guan declared fiercely and rushed out of the room, almost bumping into her husband who had come to find out what the shouting was about.

"Come with me!" Madame Guan cried. "There's two heartless ingrates that need to be killed!"

"Right!" he replied, and ran out after her.

Huo Qingtong jumped off the bed, wanting to explain, but she collapsed on the ground, and by the time she had recovered, they were already far away. She knew that together they could easily beat Chen, and was worried they actually would kill him and her sister. So disregarding her weakness, she climbed onto her horse and galloped off after them.

As they rode along, Madame Guan talked at length about how all the heartless men under heaven should be killed.

"That dagger that she gave him is a priceless treasure," she said angrily. "She gave it in good faith, but what notice has he taken of it? None. He ignores her and then decides he likes her sister instead. He should be carved into a thousand pieces!"

"And how could her sister be so shameless as to steal him away like that?" her husband added.

On the third day, the Twin Eagles spotted a dust cloud in the distance and saw two riders galloping from the south towards them.

"Ah!" Madame Guan exclaimed.

"What is it?" her husband asked, and then spotted Chen. He moved to draw his sword.

"Not so fast," Madame Guan said. "Let's pretend we know nothing and take them by surprise."

Chen had also seen them and galloped over. He dismounted and bowed before them.

"It is fortunate that we have met you," he said. "Have you seen Mistress Huo Qingtong?"

"No," Madame Guan replied, secretly furious at his brazen behaviour. "What's the matter?" Suddenly, her eyes opened wide as the other rider approached and she saw it was an extremely beautiful girl.

"This is your sister's teacher," Chen said to Princess Fragrance. "Pay your respects to her." She dismounted and bowed before Madame Guan.

"My sister has often spoken of you both," she said, smiling. "Have you seen her?"

Bald Vulture was stunned by her beauty and thought: no wonder he changed his mind. She's much more beautiful than Huo Qingtong.

Madame Guan was incensed at their craftiness, but her voice betrayed none of her feelings she asked again what was wrong. Chen told her.

"Let's go and look for her together," Madame Guan said.

The four started out together heading north. That evening, they set up camp in the lee of a sand dune, and after dinner, sat around and talked. Princess Fragrance pulled a candle from her bag and lit it. The Twin Eagles looked at Chen and the girl in the candlelight, so young and good-looking, like figures from a mural, and wondered how they could be so evil.

"Are you sure my sister is not in any danger?" Princess Fragrance asked Chen.

He was also very concerned but he comforted her, saying: "Your sister's kung fu is good and she is intelligent. I'm sure she's all right."

Princess Fragrance had complete faith in him and relaxed. "But she's ill," she added after a moment. "When we've found her, we must convince her to come home with us and rest." Chen nodded.

Madame Guan's face turned white with anger as she listened to them engage in what she thought was play-acting.

"Let us play a game," Princess Fragrance suddenly said to Bald Vulture. He looked at his wife. Madame Guan nodded slowly.

"All right!" he said. "What game?"

She smiled at Madame Guan and at Chen "You two will play as well, won't you?" she asked. They nodded.

She brought a horse saddle over and placed it in the middle of the circle, then scooped a pile of sand onto it, patted it down firmly and planted a small candle on top.

"We each take turns at cutting away a slice of the pile," she said. "The one who causes the candle to fall has to sing a song or tell a story. You start first, sir." She handed the knife to Bald Vulture.

The old man had not played such a game for decades, and an expression of embarrassment appeared on his face. Madame Guan gave him a push, "Go on!" she said. He laughed and sliced away a section of sand, then handed the knife to his wife who did the same. They went round three times and the pile became a pillar only slightly thicker than the candle on top. Chen carefully made a slight indent in the pillar. Princess Fragrance laughed and made a little hole on the opposite side and the pillar began to sway slightly. Bald Vulture's hand shook slightly as he accepted the knife.

"Don't breathe!" Madame Guan hissed at him.

"Even one grain of sand counts," Princess Fragrance said. He touched the pillar with the knife and it collapsed, taking the candle with it. He gave a cry of annoyance. Princess Fragrance clapped her hands in delight as Madame Guan and Chen looked on smiling.

"Well sir," said Princess Fragrance. "Are you going to sing a song or tell a story?"

He could see it was impossible to refuse, so he said: "All right. I'll sing a song."

In a high-pitched voice he began singing: "For you and I, life when we were young was like a play, and we cried…" He glanced over at his wife.

As she listened, Madame Guan remembered how good life had been just after their marriage. If Master Yuan had not returned, they would have been happy for the rest of their days. She leaned over and lightly squeezed his hand. Bald Vulture felt dizzy at this sudden show of affection from his wife, and tears welled into his eyes. Chen and Princess Fragrance looked at each other knowingly, both aware of the love these two old people had for each other. They played the sand game again and Chen lost. He told a story. Then Bald Vulture lost again.

As the night deepened, Princess Fragrance began to feel cold and edged closer to Madame Guan, who embraced her and carefully rearranged her wind-blown hair. The Twin Eagles had no children and often felt very much alone in the great desert. Madame Guan sighed and wished she could have had such a daughter. She looked down and saw the girl was already asleep. The candle had been blown out by the wind, but under the starlight, she could see a vague smile on her face.

"Let's get some rest," Bald Vulture said.

"Don't wake her," his wife whispered. She carefully carried Princess Fragrance into the tent and covered her with a blanket.

"Mother," the girl called faintly, and Madame Guan froze for a second in shock.

"It's all right, go to sleep now," she replied softly. She crept out of the tent and saw Chen setting up his tent a long way from the girl's. She nodded slightly.

"Are we going to wait till he's asleep or go over and give him a chance to explain first?" Bald Vulture asked.

"What do you think?"

His heart was full of tender thoughts and he had no stomach for killing at that moment. "Let's sit a while and wait for him to sleep so that he can die painlessly." He took his wife's hand and the two sat silently together on the sand. Soon after, Chen entered his tent and went to sleep.

The Twin Eagles could normally kill people without batting an eyelid, but they found it difficult to deal with these two slumbering youngsters. The constellations slowly turned, the wind grew colder and the old couple hugged each other for warmth. Madame Guan buried her face in her husband's chest and Bald Vulture lightly stroked her back. Before long, both were asleep.


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