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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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7

Lu and Yuanzhi watched the whole fight through the window, and saw Zhang enter as the officers were leaving.

"That's the man who took the knapsack from me last night," Yuanzhi said.

"Go quickly and draw him away, the further the better," Lu whispered. "If I'm not here when you return, start out tomorrow without me and I will catch you up."

He watched Zhang chase Yuanzhi out of the inn gates then picked up a writing brush and hurriedly wrote a letter which he placed inside his gown. He ran to Wen's room and knocked lightly on the door.

"Who is it?" a woman's voice called.

"I am a good friend of 'Divine Knife' Luo," said Lu. "I have important news for you."

There was no answer from inside. Wu and the other two officers appeared and stood at a distance keeping watch, obviously suspicious of Lu. The door suddenly opened and 'Scholar' Yu looked out.

"May I ask who you are, sir?" he asked.

"I am your martial uncle 'Hidden Needle' Lu."

A look of hesitation appeared on Yu's face. He had heard of Lu but had never met him.

"I'll prove it to you," Lu whispered. "Stand aside."

Yu's suspicions deepened, and he planted his foot firmly on the opposite door post, blocking the way with his leg. Lu's left hand shot out, aiming to hit Yu's shoulder. Yu dodged, and Lu slipped his right hand underneath Yu's armpit and pushed him to one side using the first move in the Wudang school's Long Arm Fist style. "It really is 'Hidden Needle' Lu!" Yu thought, both surprised and delighted. As Yu back, Luo Bing raised her sword and dagger ready to attack, but Yu stopped her. Lu waved his hands at them, indicating they should stand clear, then ran back outside into the courtyard.

"Hey, they've gone!" he shouted to Officer Wu. "Come and see!"

Wu rushed into the room with the other two officers and Lu closed the door behind them.

Wu saw Yu and the others in the room and shouted frantically: "It's a trap!" But before the officers could turn, Lu's two fists smashed into their heads, shattering their skulls and killing them instantly.

More quick-witted, Wu leapt onto the kang, and with both hands raised to protect his head, threw himself at the window. Wen Tailai, who was lying on the kang, sat up and struck out with his left fist, breaking Wu's right shoulder with a sharp crack. Wu wavered, but steadied himself against the wall with his left foot, then broke through the window and escaped. Luo Bing launched a throwing knife after him which lodged itself in his back. But he ignored the pain, and fled for his life.

Yu and Luo Bing no longer harboured any suspicions about Lu, and they both bowed before him.

"Uncle Lu, please forgive me for not being able to pay my respects to you properly," Wen said from the kang.

"There's no need," said Lu. He looked at Luo Bing. "What is your relationship with 'Divine Knife' Luo?" he asked.

"He was my father."

"He was a very good friend of mine," Lu said. He looked at Yu and added: "You are a pupil of Ma Zhen's, I presume. How has Elder Brother been recently?"

"He is well," said Yu. "He has often expressed concern about you. He said he hadn't seen or heard anything of you for more than ten years."

"I miss him too," Lu said regretfully. "Did you know that another of your martial uncles has been here looking for you?"

Yu looked up in fright. "Zhang Zhaozhong?"

Lu nodded. Wen Tailai shuddered slightly at the sound of Zhang's name, and then gasped in pain. Luo Bing quickly went over and supported him with her hand, her face full of love and pity.

Yu looked on, absorbed. "To have a wife like that would be better than being a god, even if I was badly wounded," he murmured.

"Zhang has brought shame upon our school, but his kung fu is excellent," Lu said. "And I would guess that reinforcements will not be far behind him. With Brother Wen so badly wounded, I think all we can do at the moment is to avoid them."

"We will do whatever you suggest," Luo Bing said. She looked down at her husband, who nodded.

Lu pulled a letter from his gown and handed it to Luo Bing. On the envelope was written the words: "Respectfully adressed to Lord Zhou Zhongying, Iron Gall Manor."

"Do you know him?" asked Luo Bing, delighted.

Before Lu could answer, Wen said: "Who?"

"Lord Zhou Zhongying," replied Luo Bing.

"Is he here?"

"I have never met him, but we have been friends from afar for a long time," Lu said. "I think Brother Wen should hide there while one of us goes to your respected society to report what has happened." He saw a hestitant look on Wen's face. "What do you think, Brother Wen?"

"Your arrangements would be perfect, but I cannot deceive you. I am involved in a bloody feud with the Emperor Qian Long who won't be able to eat or sleep in peace until he sees me die with his own eyes. I know Lord Zhou would take us in, but I am afraid he would bring great trouble upon himself by doing so."

"To members of the fighting community, there is nothing more important than helping a friend in need," said Lu.

"But in my situation, the greater the friend, the less I am able to involve him."

"Refusing to involve others in your problems is an upright and manly thing to do. But I do think it's rather a pity."

"What is?" Wen asked quickly.

"If you refuse to go, we will have to stay here and fight. I don't want to exaggerate the enemy's strength or denigrate our own, but who do we have to match Zhang? I am nearly sixty years old, my life is of little value. But my martial nephew here has a promising future and your wife is full of youth. Just because you want to play the hero… aah… it means we will all die here."

Wen began to sweat profusely.

"Husband!" Luo Bing exclaimed. She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow, then held his hand.

Wen's affection for his wife outweighed his sense of duty and he relented. "You are right," he said. "I will do whatever you say." But then he sighed. "Once we reach Iron Gall Manor, the Red Flower Society will be beholden to yet another person."

The Red Flower Society always took care to repay its benefactors and to exact revenge on its enemies – hence the fearful reaction of the Zhen Yuan agency men.

"What relationship is Zhao Banshan to you?" asked Lu.

"Brother Zhao? He is third master of our society."

"So that's it! Just what your Red Flower Society is involved in, I don't know. But Zhao and I would willingly die for each other. In the old days when we were both in the Dragon Slayers' Society, we were closer than natural brothers. If he is a member of your society, then your affairs are certain to be just. What does it matter what great crimes you have committed? The biggest crimes are supposed to be the assassination of officials and rebellion. Ha! Well, I just killed two running dogs of officialdom!" He gave one of the corpses a kick.

"There's too much to explain," Wen said. "After this is over, if I live, I will tell you everything. But briefly, the Emperor sent eight Imperial Bodyguards to arrest my wife and myself. I was wounded in a fight at Jinquan but we escaped and came here. They'll get me sooner or later, but the Emperor has a secret I must expose before I die."

Lu asked where the Red Flower Society leaders were.

"The Red Flower Society has 12 masters of the Incense," said Yu. "Apart from Brother Wen and Luo Bing, they are already gathered in Anxi. We have asked the Young Helmsman to assume the leadership of the society, but he is unwilling to do so. He says he is too young and inexperienced and insists that Second Brother, the Taoist priest Wu Chen, should be leader. At present, the matter is deadlocked. The meeting to choose a new Helmsman will not start until Brother Wen and Luo Bing arrive."

Yu turned to Wen, his superior in the society's heirarchy. "Should I first return to Anxi to report?" he asked.

Wen hesitated, uncertain of what to say.

"Let us do it this way," suggested Lu. "You three start out immediately for Iron Gall Manor. Once you are settled there, Brother Yu can continue on his business. Meanwhile, I will go to Anxi to report."

Wen pulled a red silk flower from his gown and handed it to Lu. "When you arrive in Anxi, fasten this flower to your lapel and you will be met by someone from our society," he said.

Luo Bing helped her husband up while Yu lifted the two corpses from the floor onto the kang and covered them with the bedclothes. Then Lu opened the door and strode calmly out, mounted a horse and galloped off westwards.

After a short while, the others also emerged from the room, Yu leading the way. Luo Bing supported herself with the door bar in one hand and held up Wen with the other. The inn's staff shrank away as the three approached, and Yu threw three taels of silver onto the front desk.

"There's money for the room and the food," he said. "We have left two very valuable items in our room. If there is anything missing when we get back, we will deal with you."

The manager nodded rapidly, almost too scared to breathe. Servants led out their horses. Wen could not get either of his feet into the stirrups, so he placed his left hand on the saddle and with one push flew lightly onto the horse's back.

"Excellent kung fu, Master Wen," Yu praised him. Luo Bing gave a dazzling smile and mounted her own horse, and they rode off.

In the town, Yu enquired about the way to Iron Gall Manor, and they raced off southeast. Luo Bing was happy: she knew that once they got to the manor, her husband would be safe. Lord Zhou commanded great respect throughout the border regions.

The road was covered with loose stones and long grass which gave it a rather desolate air. Suddenly, they heard the sound of galloping hooves ahead and three horses raced towards them. The riders were all large, strong men, but one was particularly tall and impressive with silver-white whiskers and a smooth rosy face. In his left hand, he jiggled two iron balls together. As they passed, the riders looked at Wen in surprise, but they were galloping fast, and flashed past in an instant.

"I'm afraid that was Lord Zhou," Yu said.

"I was thinking that too," replied Luo Bing.

"We'll find out when we get to the Manor," said Wen.

A few miles further on, as evening drew near, Iron Gall Manor appeared before them. The wind was strong and the clouds low, but the rays of the setting sun shone brightly through the twilight. They looked at the lovely manor, set amidst an endless expanse of withered grasses and yellow sand. Seeking sanctuary as they were, the mood of the three was despondent, and the desolation of the area affected them all. They spurred their horses forward and found the manor was surrounded by a moat, the banks of which were covered with willow trees. The bare branches whirled and danced in the strong west wind. Around the manor were fortifications and a watchtower: it was an imposing sight.

One of the manor's attendants invited them in, seated them in the great hall and brought them tea. Then a middle-aged man with the air of a housekeeper came out to receive them. He said his name was Song, and asked Wen and the others for their names.

"I have heard much about you," he said, startled to hear that they were members of the Red Flower Society. "But I had thought that your honourable society was based in southern China. I wonder if you could tell me why you have come to visit our Lord? I am afraid he went out a short while ago." Song carefully weighed up the visitors and wondered what their intentions were.

Wen, meanwhile, was becoming angry at Song's coolness. "Since Lord Zhou is not at home, we will excuse ourselves," he said. "We came at an inopportune time." He stood up using a chair for support.

"There's no rush," Song replied. "Please stay and have a meal before leaving." He turned and whispered a few words to an attendant.

Wen insisted they would go.

"Well, please wait a while first, otherwise our Lord may blame me for neglecting honoured guests." As he spoke, the attendant re-appeared carrying a tray on which were two large silver ingots. Song took the tray.

"Master Wen," he said. "You have come a long way to visit our humble manor and we have not had a chance to look after you properly. Please accept this as a favour to me for your travelling expenses."

Wen, filled with rage, picked up both of the ingots with his left hand. "We did not come to your honourable manor to extort money," he said. "You underestimate us, friend Song."

Song quickly protested that he would not dare to suggest such a thing.

Wen laughed coldly and placed the ingots back on the tray. "Goodbye," he said.

Song looked down and started in fright. With just one hand, Wen had crushed the two ingots together into a flat cake of silver. He led the three toeards the gate, offering profuse apologies as he went. Wen ignored him. Three attendants led their horses up, and they mounted immediately.

Luo Bing took out a gold ingot many times more valuable than the silver offered by Song and gave it to the attendant holding her horse. "Thank you for your trouble," she said. "Here's a little something for the three of you to have a drink." For a moment, the attendants did not seem to believe their luck, then they began thanking her over and over again. Luo Bing smiled in reply.

Just as they were about to ride off, a rider galloped up, leapt off his horse and saluted Wen with his fists. "Please come into our humble manor and make yourselves comfortable," he said.

"We do not wish to trouble you," Wen replied. "We will visit again another time."

"We passed you on the road a while ago and our Lord guessed you were coming to the manor," the man continued. "He would have liked to turn back, but he has important business to attend to. So he ordered me to come to receive you. He is eager to make your acquaintance. He said he would definitely return tonight, and insisted that you stay at our humble manor."

Wen's anger melted as he heard the sincerity in the newcomer's voice, and they went back into the manor. The man introduced himself as Meng, Zhou's senior pupil, as Song stood to one side looking very uncomfortable. Guests and host sat down and fresh tea was served. An attendant whispered something to Meng who stood up and bowed before Luo Bing.

"Our lady invites you to go into the inner hall to rest," he said.

A maidservant led Luo Bing through a passageway and a woman in her forties strode out and grasped Luo Bing's hand familiarly.

"They told me just now that some members of the Red Flower Society had arrived and then left again. But you've come back and saved face for me. Our Lord will be so happy! Now, don't rush away. You can stay for a few days. Look, all of you," she said, turning to her maidservants. "Look how beautiful this girl is! She puts our girls to shame."

Luo Bing thought the woman was rather indiscreet. "What is your name, Madame?" she asked. "My husband is surnamed Wen."

"See how muddle-headed I am!" the woman said. "I'm so happy at seeing such a pretty girl that I've gone silly!"

"This is our lady," one of the maidservants explained.

The woman was Lord Zhou's second wife. His first had borne two sons, but both had died in fights. This second wife had given birth to a daughter, Zhou Qi, a wild girl of eighteen always getting into trouble, and it had seemed as if Zhou was destined to have no more sons. But in his fifty-fourth year, another was unexpectedly born. The couple were overjoyed to gain a son so late in life.

"Call the young master in quickly," Madame Zhou said after seating herself comfortably. "Let Madame Wen see him."

A lively, good-looking child emerged from the inner rooms and Luo Bing judged from his bearing that he had already received several years of training in the martial arts. He kowtowed towards Luo Bing, who took hold of his hand and asked him his name and age.

"My name is Zhou Yingjie and I'm ten this year," the child replied.

Luo Bing unfastened the pearl bracelet from her wrist and gave it to him.

"We have come from far away, and I don't have anything nice to give you, but you can put these pearls round the edge of your cap," she said. Madame Zhou protested, but to no avail.

While they were talking, one of the maidservants rushed in crying: "Mistress Wen! Master Wen has fainted!"

Madame Zhou quickly gave orders to fetch a doctor while Luo Bing ran back to her husband. Wen's injuries were already serious, and he had used up a great deal of his remaining strength to squeeze the silver ingots together. Wen was unconscious, his face drained of colour. Luo Bing ran to him, calling his name over and over again. Slowly, he regained consciousness.

Meng dispatched an attendant to report to Lord Zhou that the guests were settled in. As he turned back inside after seeing the attendant gallop off, he noticed a figure dart behind a willow tree. He made no sign that he had seen anything unusual, but slowly walked back into the manor and ran up to the watchtower. After a while, he saw a a short man creep furtively out from behind one willow tree and run behind another.

Meng called for Lord Zhou's young son and whispered some instructions to him. Then he ran out of the manor gate, laughing and shouting: "Little brother, I'll pretend to be afraid of you, all right?"

The boy followed close behind, shouting: "Where do you think you're running off to? You won't admit defeat, will you? Come here and kowtow before me!"

Meng bowed and mockingly begged for mercy. The boy made a grab for him and Meng ran straight for the willow behind which the intruder was hiding. He charged straight into the man, knocking him flat.

It was the Zhen Yuan Agency's Lead Escort Tong. He had seen Wen and the others leave the inn and had followed them, determined to prove wrong those who said he was good for nothing but eating and talking. Tong had few abilities, but he was quick-witted and knew immediately that Meng had planned the collision to test his kung fu, so he let his whole body go loose,pretending that he knew none at all. Since his kung fu was mediocre, pretending to know none at all was not difficult.

"Excuse me," said Tong. "Is this the road to Sandaogou?" He tried to get up, but cried out in pain: "Ai-ya! My arm!"

"I'm very sorry," Meng said. "You're not hurt, are you? Please come into the manor and I'll have a look at you. We have some excellent medicinal ointments."

Tong was powerless to refuse. Meng helped him up and led him into an ante-room.

"Please undo your clothes and let me examine your wounds," Meng said. He felt around Tong's body, testing him. When an enemy's fingers touch fatal spots, a kung fu initiate would be forced to flinch.

"Heroic Uncle Tong is not afraid to die," Tong thought. "Act the lamb until the end!" Meng pressed the 'Solar Yuedao' points on his temples and toughed other Yuedao points on his chest and armpits, making Tong giggle.

"Ai-ya! Stop that! I'm very ticklish," he said.

They were all fatal points but Tong seemed unconcerned. Meng decided he really didn't know any kung fu. "From his accent, he isn't a local," he thought, still suspicious. "Could he be a petty thief, I wonder?"

Meng could not detain Tong without authority, so he walked him back towards the gate. Tong peered about him as they walked through the manor, trying to discover to where Wen and the others were. Meng decided he must be a scout for a gang of thieves.

"Be careful, my friend," he said. "Remember where you are."

Tong looked around in mock awe. "Such a big place! It looks like a great temple. Except there's no Buddha."

He asked Tong what his business was in the area.

Meng escorted him over the drawbridge and laughed coldly. "Goodbye friend," he said, clapping Tong heavily on the shoulder. "Come and visit us again sometime."

The pain from the blow went straight to Tong's marrow. Swearing profusely, he found his horse and galloped back to the Antong Inn in Sandaogou. As he entered the room, he saw Master Zhang, Officer Wu and the agency men together with seven or eight men he didn't know. They were in the midst of a discussion on where Wen Tailai might have escaped to. No one could think of an answer, and their faces were gloomy.

Tong smugly related how he had followed Wen, naturally omitting the part about his encounter with Meng.

Zhang was delighted. "Let's go," he said, adding with uncustomary warmth: "Brother Tong, you lead the way."

The whole group immediately set out for Iron Gall Manor, rubbing their hands in anticipation as they went. Tong boasted extravagantly of how he had used Lightness kung fu, and of the risks he had taken in tracking Wen. "This is an assignment from the Emperor himself, so Uncle Tong went all out against the renegades," he said.

Officer Wu, who had already employed a bone-setter to help mend his fractured shoulder, hurriedly introduced Tong to the newcomers. Tong started in fright as he heard their names: they were all top fighters employed by the court, famous martial arts specialists, both Manchu and Chinese, who had come specifically to arrest Wen Tailai.


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