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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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8

Lu Feiqing galloped westwards, braving strong winds which whipped his face. Passing through Black Gold Gorge, he noticed the blood spilled during the previous day's battle had already been washed away by the rain. He covered about twenty miles in one stretch and arrived at a small market fair. Although the sky was growing dark, he was impatient to continue on his way but his horse was exhausted. As he considered what to do, he saw a Muslim at the edge of the fair leading two large, well-fed horses and looking around as if waiting for someone.

Lu went over and asked if he could buy one of them. The Muslim shook his head. Lu reached into his cloth bundle and took out a large silver ingot, but the Muslim shook his head again. Anxious and impatient, Lu turned the bundle upside down and six or seven more silver ingots fell out: he offered them all. The Muslim waved his hand to indicate the horse was definitely not for sale, and Lu dejectedly began to put the ingots back into his bundle. As he did so, the Muslim glimpsed a dart amongst the ingots, which he picked up and examined closely. It was the dart Huo Qingtong had thrown at Lu after he followed her to the Muslim camp site. He asked where the dart came from. In a flash of inspiration, Lu said Huo Qingtong was his friend and that she had given the dart to him. The Muslim nodded, placed the dart back in Lu's hand and passed over the reins of one of the horses. Delighted, Lu pulled out an ingot of silver again, but the Muslim waved his hand in refusal and walked away.

"I would never have guessed that such a flower of a girl would have such great influence among the Muslims," Lu thought.

He rode off, and in the next town, came across more Muslims. He pulled out the dart and was immediately able to trade his mount for another strong horse.

Lu continued to change horses the whole way and, eating dry provisions as he rode, he covered two hundred miles in a day and a night. Towards evening on the second day, he arrived at Anxi. Lu was a man of great strength, but he was getting on in years, and galloping for so long without rest had exhausted him. As soon as he entered the city, he took out the red flower Wen had given him and stuck it in his lapel. Only a few steps later, two men in short jackets appeared in front of him, saluted and invited him to accompany them to a restaurant. Once there, one of the men sat with him while the other excused himself and left. Lu's companion was extremely courteous, and ordered food and wine without asking any questions.

After three cups of wine, another man hurried in, came over to them and saluted with his fists. Lu quickly stood up and returned the salute. The man, aged about thirty, wore an ordinary gown. He asked Lu for his name and Lu told him.

"So you are Master Lu of the Wudang School," the man said. "We have often heard our Third Brother Zhao speak of you. I have great admiration for you. Our meeting today is very auspicious."

"What is your honourable name?" Lu asked.

"My name is Wei."

"Please take a seat, sir," Lu's first companion said. He saluted both Lu and Wei, and then left.

"Our Society's Young Helmsman and many of our brothers are here in Anxi," said Wei. "If we had known you were coming, they would certainly have all been here to greet you. In a moment, if you don't mind, we will go and everyone can pay their respects to you."

They left the restaurant and rode out of the city.

"You have met our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai and his wife," Wei said.

"Yes. How did you know?"

"The flower you are wearing is Brother Wen's. It has four green leaves."

Lu was surprised at how openly Wei talked about their society's secret signs, treating him not in the slightest like an outsider.

After a while, they arrived at an imposing Taoist monastery surrounded by tall, ancient trees. Over the main gate was a wooden tablet inscribed with four large characters: "Jade Nothingness Taoist Monastery". Two Taoist priests standing in front of the monastery bowed respectfully. Wei invited Lu inside, and a young apprentice priest brought tea. Wei whispered in his ear, and the apprentice nodded and went inside. Lu was just about to raise his cup when he heard someone in the inner hall shout: "Brother Lu! I've been worried to death about you…" It was Lu's old comrade, Zhao Banshan.

Zhao's questions came thick and fast. "Where have you been all these years? What brings you here?"

Lu brushed the questions aside. "There is an urgent matter to be discussed first. Your honourable society's Brother Wen is in serious trouble."

He outlined the predicament of Wen and his wife. Even before he had finished, Wei ran inside to report. While he was still talking, Lu heard Wei arguing loudly with someone in the courtyard.

"Why are you holding me back?" the other shouted. "I must go to help Brother Wen now!"

"You're too impatient," Wei replied. "It must be discussed by everyone first, and then it is up to the Young Helmsman to decide who goes." The other continued to protest.

Taking Lu by the hand, Zhao walked into the courtyard, and Lu saw the hunchback who had severed the tail of Yuanzhi's horse.

Wei gave the hunchback a push. "Go and pay your respects to Master Lu," he said. The hunchback walked over and stared dumbly at him for a moment. Lu knew the hunchback remembered his face and, uneasy at the thought of how Yuanzhi had laughed at him that day, he was about to apologise when the hunchback said:

"You have ridden more than two hundred miles in a night and a day to report on behalf of Brother Wen. I, Hunchback Zhang Jin, thank you!" He knelt down, and kowtowed to Lu four times, his head banging on the flagstones.

Lu wanted to stop him but it was already too late, so all he could do was to kneel down and return the gesture.

The hunchback stood up. "I am leaving now," he announced. As he passed through the circular doorway, a very short man coming in the other way caught hold of the hunchback. "Where are you going?" he asked.

"I am going to find Brother Wen and Mistress Luo Bing. Come with me." Without waiting for an answer, the hunchback pulled him along by the wrist.

The hunchback Zhang Jin had been born with a deformed body, but his strength was frightening. When talking to others, he often referred to himself as 'Hunchback Zhang', but anyone else calling him a 'hunchback' was courting disaster. He ranked 10th in seniority in the Red Flower Society; his travelling companion was Xu Tianhong who ranked seventh. Xu was very short and slight in build, almost the size of a dwarf, but his wisdom and resource made him the Red Flower Society's chief tactician, and the fighting community had dubbed him 'The Kung Fu Mastermind'.

One by one, the other members of the Red Flower Society came out and were introduced to Lu. They were all famous heroes and Lu recognised most of them after having passed them on the road several days before. The formal greetings were kept to a minimum, and after a moment the one-armed Taoist priest, who ranked second within the society, said: "Let us go and see the Young Helmsman."

They went through to the rear courtyard and entered a large room. On one of the wooden walls a huge 'encirclement chess' board had been carved.* (* the game, Wei Qi, is best known by its Japanese name – Go.) Two men were sitting on a couch about thirty feet away, fingering chess pieces and throwing them at the vertical board, each piece lodging itself in the lines which formed the squares. In all his wide experience, Lu had never seen chess played in such a manner. Playing white was a young man with a refined face wearing a white gown who looked like the son of a nobleman. His opponent, playing black, was an old man dressed in farmer's clothes.

"I wonder who this old hero is," Lu thought. "Never have I seen anyone with his strength and accuracy." He could see black was in a dangerous position, and that with just one more move by white, all the black pieces would be lost. The young man threw a piece, but his aim was slightly off: the piece failed to embed itself in the intersection of the lines and fell to the floor. The old man laughed.

"You missed," he said. "Admit defeat!" He pushed the chess pieces aside and stood up.

His opponent smiled. "We'll have another game in a while, teacher," he said. The old man saw the group entering, and strode out of the room without so much as a greeting.

"Young Helmsman," Zhao said. "This is Brother Lu Feiqing of the Wudang School." And to Lu: "This is our Young Helmsman. I hope you will get to know one another well."

The young man brought his two fists together in salute. "My name is Chen Jialuo. I would greatly appreciate your honoured counsel."

Lu was surprised to find that this Young Helmsman gave every appearance of being a dissolute young man from a wealthy family, the complete opposite of the rest of the bandit-like bunch.

Zhao informed the Young Helmsman of how Wen had taken refuge in Iron Gall Manor, and asked him for a plan of action. The Young Helmsman turned to the Taoist priest. "Priest Wu Chen," he said. "Please give us your advice."

A large, fat man, whom Zhao had introduced a moment before as 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, stood up and shouted: "Fourth Brother is badly wounded, someone we have never met before has ridden hard for a day and a night to report to us, and we are still deferring to each other. We will kill Fourth Brother with all this deference! Can we stop this nonsense? Who dares to disregard the wishes of the old Master? Young Helmsman, if you do not respect the dying wish of your foster father, you are unfilial. If you despise us brothers so much that you are unwilling to become our leader, then the Red Flower Society's seventy or eighty thousand members may as well go their separate ways."

Everyone began talking at once: "We cannot remain leaderless like this! If the Young Helmsman continues to defer, our devotion will be finished! Fourth Brother is in trouble! We must follow the Young Helmsman's orders and go to save him!"

The young man, Chen, looked greatly distressed. His eyebrows drew together in a deep frown as he silently pondered the problem.

"Brothers!" shouted one of the Twin Knights of Sichuan. "Since the Young Helmsman obviously despises us, we two intend to return to Sichuan as soon as Fourth Brother has been rescued."

Chen saw he had no alternative and saluted the heroes with his fists. "Brother Wen is in trouble and we can wait no longer. All of you insist that I become Helmsman, and because of the respect I have for you, I will do as you say."

The heroes of the Red Flower Society shouted and applauded with delight and relief.

"Well then," said the Taoist priest. "The Great Helmsman should now pay his respects to his predecessor and accept the Flower of Authority."

Lu knew that each society had its own special rites and ceremonies of which the initiation of a new leader was by far the most important. As an outsider, Lu felt uncomfortable about being present during such a ceremony, so he congratulated Chen and immediately excused himself. He was extremely weary after his journey, and Zhao led him to a room where he washed and slept. When he awoke, it was already night.

"The Great Helmsman has left with the others for Iron Gall Manor," Zhao said. "But he left me here to keep you company. We can follow on tomorrow."

And then, after two decades apart, the two men talked. They talked of the doings of the fighting community over the years, the good and the bad, the living and the dead, until the east grew light.

"Your Great Helmsman is so young," said Lu. "He looks like nothing more than just another rich man's son. Why are you all willing to follow him?"

"It would take a long time to explain," Zhao replied. "You rest for a while longer and we can talk again later when we're riding."


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