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Blade-dance of the Two Lovers Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Four men, dressed in clothes that were wrapped tightly around their bodies, stood shoulder-to-shoulder across the road, effectively blocking it to all traffic.

The man whose way was obstructed sized the four up with a keen eye: If these were fearsome bandits from one of the fortified mountain villages, they should not be only four in number, unless more men lay hidden in the dark pine forest around us. If these men were just petty thieves who waylaid and robbed travellers, they would have long been frightened away by my loud and powerful-looking team of escorts. Therefore, they would never dare to block the road in such a bold and impudent manner. Could these men actually be highly-skilled members of the pugilistic community , who had come because of me?

The first fellow on the left was short and small of build, but he looked very lively and capable. His chin was so pointed that it seemed almost like a paring knife. He had, in his hand, a pair of crescent-shaped splints that were made of steel. The second man was so tall and fat that he looked like an iron pagoda that was planted on the ground. He had, in front of him, a large stone slab on which these words were etched: "My late father, the son of the Huang Family, Chengben's, tomb." The slab was indeed a tombstone, but what purpose did it have standing in front on the man?

Huang Chengben? I have never heard of such a pugilist before in the wanderers' world!

The third man had a medium build, with very fair skin and clean-cut features. If not for a set teeth that protruded an inch out of his mouth and a nose that caved half an inch into his face, this fellow could be considered quite handsome. In his hands was a hammer, to which two iron balls were attached. The last man, the one on the right, was a middle-aged sickly-looking fellow who was dressed in shabby clothes. He chewed nonchalantly on a long- stemmed tobacco pipe, opening and closing his eyes dreamily before spouting a mouthful of smoke. He did not seem to be bothered at all by the seventy-odd people who made up the team of escorts.

The first three men could be easily done away with, but the sickly-looking fellow could turn out to be a strong opponent with profound skill in the use of internal strength. In an instant, a number of anecdotes that were well-known in the wanderers' world popped into his mind: A white-haired grandmother killed five lead escorts with her bare hands and made away with a huge cargo. An old beggar stirred up trouble in the office of the Taiyuan Prefecture and chopped off the prefect's head before disappearing as mysteriously as he had come. A beautiful young woman defeated a master pugilist surnamed Zhang of the Datong Prefecture in north Shanxi. Zhang had been enjoying fame and fortune for more than twenty years ... in short, the more unassuming the person looked, the higher his martial arts skills were. After all, a saying in the wanderers' world went: "An able person does not show off, but a show-off lacks abilities."

The Chief Escort of the Weixin Escort Agency of Xi'an in Shaanxi, Tiebian Zhen Bafang Zhou Weixin, who was also known as the Iron Whip that Quells Eight Directions, glanced at the sickly-looking fellow who was smoking with his eyes shut. He could not help but hesitate and reach out to touch the cloth-wrapped bundle on his back.

The cargo that he escorted contained ten thousand liang [one liang is about 50 grammes] of silver, entrusted to him by Wang Derong, a salt merchant from Xi'an. Of course, this was not a small sum, but the Weixin Escort Agency had delivered twenty thousand liang of silver safely before.

Once, it had even sent forty thousand liang successfully, hence gold and silver did not figure much for the agency. Since leaving Xi'an, the only things that weighed on his heart were the two sabres that were hidden in the cloth- wrapped bundle on his back, and the words that he had heard at the Chuang'shaan Provincial Office a couple of nights ago.

The Provincial Governor of Chuang'shaan, Liu Yuyi, was the one who spoke to him that night. Although Zhou Weixin was an illustrious personage in the wanderers' world, the highest government official that he had met was only a mere futai, the lowest of all governing positions. This time, with the Provincial Governor meeting him in person, he could not help but be overcome with fear and trepidation, fidgeting uneasily as he stood.

Lord Liu's words played themselves over and over again in his ears: "Chief Escort Zhou, this pair of sabres is called Yuanyang Dao, or the Twin Sabres. They are no small matters, so you had better take good care of them. Even before he ascended the throne, the Emperor had secretly sent out his most trusted men to look for these sabres.

Then, as soon as he was enthroned, he ordered all the eighteen provincial offices in the country to step up the search. Finally, the two owners of the Twin Sabres were tracked down, but these cunning fellows ended up hiding these precious weapons. The investigations and searches that ensued produced nothing, as if the sabres were stones that fell into the deep sea. They were never heard of again, until one day, I found them. Ha, ha! Your Weixin Escort Agency is considered rather reliable, so I want you to deliver the Twin Sabres to the Capital. You must not breathe a single word about this along the way. Once the sabres reach Beijing safely, you will be rewarded well!"

Zhou Weixin had heard about the fame of the Twin Sabres from his martial arts teacher. The old man had said, "The Yuanyang Dao consist of a short knife and a long sabre. A great secret of the pugilistic community is hidden within these blades, and the one who eventually gets hold of it will be matchless in the whole world." These five words, "matchless in the whole world", expressed the dearest dream of those who learnt martial arts. At that time, Zhou Weixin did not really believe what his teacher said. Where on earth was there a pair of Twin Sabres that could render its owner matchless in the whole world?

But lo and behold! The Provincial Governor of Chuang'shaan, Lord Liu, had actually found the Twin Sabres! Furthermore, he had ordered him to take it to the Capital and present it to the Emperor. The sabres were wrapped tightly with a piece of yellow cloth, and marked with the Provincial Governor's seal. Needless to say, he had wanted to take a look at the sabres, for if he, by a lucky chance, figured out the secret, the Iron Whip that Quells Eight Directions would become the Iron Whip that is Peerless in the World! This would be absolutely fantastic, but who dared to break the Provincial Governor's seal? Chief Escort Zhou thought until his brain hurt, yet he could not find a way to take a peek at the sabres.

The Provincial Governor had also sent with him, four of his most trusted bodyguards. Dressed as escorts, these bodyguards could be considered as additional help, or viewed as unwelcome watchers of his every move. Even before the team of escorts set out on their journey, the Provincial Office had sent several axe-bearing men to his home, and "invited" the entire family of twelve to the military barracks. The reason given was that once Chief Escort Zhou left for the Capital, he would worry about his family. Therefore, out of concern for him, the Provincial Office relocated his dependants. But Zhou Weixin had many years of experience in the wanderers' world, so how could he not realise the truth behind the action of the Provincial Office?

Indeed, the Office was not concerned about Chief Escort Zhou or his family, but it was Lord Liu who was worried about the precious pair of sabres. Therefore, he had the man's parents, wives and children taken as hostages. If anything happened to the Twin Sabres along the way, not only would his head be separated from his body, but his entire family would also lose their lives. He had weathered many a stormy experience in life, from high glory and bravery to low shame and cowardice. He had even chopped off someone's head, but his own had been untouched. All these made him an old hand of the wanderers' world, but it never crossed his mind that this particular trip would bring him both excitement and joy. If the precious sabres reached the Capital safely, Lord Liu's promise of great reward would come true. After all, a man's word was like a horse whipped. Once the word had been spoken, it could not be withdrawn, just like the whipped horse that could not be stopped. Furthermore, if the Emperor was pleased, he could even grant him a post or two. Besides bringing glory to his ancestors, this would give his career a meteoric boost.

Then, Chief Escort Zhou would become Lord Zhou.

The journey from Xi'an to Beijing was neither long nor short. Along the way, there were at least thirty to forty fortified mountain villages. For run-of-the-mill bandits who were not shaken by his Iron Whip that Quells Eight Directions, he could still find one or two ways to beat them off. But how many of the highly-skilled members of the pugilistic community would not fall under the spell of the Twin Sabres and its matchless promise? So he escorted the cargo of the salt merchant ostensibly and hid the precious sabres. It did not matter if the silver was lost, for everything would be fine when the sabres arrived at the Capital. Once he became a government official, Lord Zhou would be rolling in riches. How, then, could he not afford to make up for the ten thousand liang of silver? Come to think of it, Lord Zhou should only be receiving silver, and not giving it out!

Zhou Weixin touched the iron whip at his waist and glared at the four men who were blocking to road in front of him. After a while, he raised his clasped hands and said, "I have come to your place, but did not visit you to pay my respects. This is impolite, so please, my friends, forgive me." He had decided a moment earlier that it would be best not to start a fight, for the sickly fellow could be difficult to deal with. A saying in the wanderers' world went: "A cautious heart travels the whole world, but an impetuous foot hardly moves an inch." But he heard only the sound of the sickly fellow tapping his chest, followed by a series of loud coughs.

The short and small-built man raised his crescent-shaped splints and said in a soft voice, "It is not necessary to bow before us and pay your respects. Just leave us the precious cargo that you are carrying!"

Surprised, Zhou Weixin thought, When we set out, even my closest colleague thought that we were only carrying silver, so how did these people know that I have something precious? A saying in the wanderers' world went: "Kindhearted people do not come, but those who do appear are wicked." I had better to careful. So he clasped his hands again and said, "Please forgive my poor awareness, and tell me your names, my good friends."

"Tell us your name first!" the short man answered.

Zhou Weixin said, "My surname is Zhou and my given name is Weixin. My friends in the wanderers' world call me the Iron Whip that Quells Eight Directions."

The sickly fellow laughed coldly and said, "Ha! The word Quells should be changed to the word Respects."

The short man turned to the sickly fellow and stared dumbly at him for a moment. Then, he said, "Changed to the word Respects? Hey, Mr Zhou, my Eldest Brother has given you a bandit's nickname, the Iron Whip that Respects the Eight Directions! My Eldest Brother has divine insight and his words are reasonable." He and the other three men burst into laughter at once. Zhou Weixin thought, A saying in the wanderers' world went: "Enduring a moment's anger will spare one of a hundred days' calamity." So he forced himself to remain calm and said, "Please do not laugh at me ! Where do you four good men come from? On which mountain have you set up your esteemed organisation? Who among you is the chief?"

The short man pointed to the sickly fellow and answered, "All right, there is no harm telling you, but you must be careful not to be frightened out of your wits. Our Eldest Brother is Yanxia Shenlong Xiaoyaozi, the Free and Unfettered Divine Dragon Covered with Rosy Smoke. The Second Brother is called Shuangzhang Kaibei Chang Changfeng, the Palms that Break Stone. The Third Brother is Liuxing Ganyue Hua Jianying, the Meteor that Chases the Moon. I am merely the Babu Ganchan - Saizhuanzhu - Taxue Wuhen - Dujiao Shuishangfei - Shuangchi Gai Qisheng Gai Yiming, the Eight-Step Toad Chaser - Purposeful Competitor - Unmarked by the Avalanche - Flying over Water on One Foot - the Unparalleled Twin Splints in Seven Provinces!"

The more Zhou Weixin heard, the more curious he became. These fellows' nicknames are so long-winded! he thought.

Then, he heard the short man say, "We are four brothers sworn by loyalty, who walk in heroic and righteous ways. We specialise in suppressing the strong and aiding the weak, and stealing from the rich to help the poor. The people of the wanderers' world call us Taiyue Sixia, the Four Heroes of the Grand Mountain!" Zhou Weixin thought: According to their nicknames, the short man's skill in qinggong must be quite astounding, while the fat fellow's palms must very strong and vicious. The pale-faced man's skill with the meteorite hammer must be very accomplished. As for the sickly fellow, the phrase "Free and Unfettered Divine Dragon Covered with Rosy Smoke" must indicate that he is from the previous generation of pugilists. I have actually never heard of the Four Heroes of the Grand Mountain, but since they call themselves "Heroes", they should not be mere pip-squeaks. A saying in the wanderers' world went: "Rather not recognise any words, than not acknowledging another person." Hence, he raised his clasped hands for the third time and said, "I have heard about you for a long time, and am very pleased to meet you! My escort agency has never been involved with the Four Heroes, so please let us pass. I will make it a point to visit you another day."

Gai Yiming raised his twin splints and made a "ding, ding" noise with them before saying, "It is not difficult to let you pass, for we do not want the silver in your cargo at all.

However, we must borrow one or two of your precious items before you go."

Zhou Weixin asked, "What precious items?"

Gai Yiming laughed and replied, "Ha, ha! It is strange that you would ask me such as question. If you do not know the answer, how then would I know?"

At this juncture, Zhou Weixin knew that the matter could no longer be concluded in a friendly manner. The Four Heroes of the Grand Mountain had come because of the pair of Twin Sabres on his back, causing a thought to pop into his mind: A saying in the wanderers' world went: "Merciful people do not fight, but when they do, there will be no mercy." Once these four fellows strike, a massacre will follow. Therefore, he slowly pulled his double-whip out and said, "In this case, I will have to learn from the immense skills of the Four Heroes of the Grand Mountain. Who will attack first?" He turned around and made a gesture with his hand.

Five escorts and the four bodyguards from the Provincial Office walked towards him at the same time. "We do not have to follow the customs of the wanderers' world in dealing with these greenwood bandits and thieves," Zhou Weixin said to them in a low voice. "Just attack them together. After all, a saying in the wanderers' world went: "So long as there are many hands, even a decorated archway could be carried across the river."" By then, he had made a decision in his heart: Let them fight with the Four Heroes and I will seize a path out of here. The best option is to deliver the Twin Sabres to the Capital, for a saying in the wanderers' world went: "A fight is like a gust of wind, for the wounded will be thrown here and there."

Gai Yiming said, "Hey, Chief Escort, my Unparalleled Twin Splints in Seven Provinces wants to fight with your Iron Whip that Quells Eight Directions!" At the same time, he shook himself and charged forward.

Zhou Weixin did not get off his horse, but he raised his iron whip in a move called "Seizing the Ancient Weapon in the Peach Garden" and pushed the crescent-shaped splints away. Then, he kicked his heels and rode off.

"The Chief Escort must be stopped!" shouted Gai Yiming at once. But Zhou Weixin turned his head and answered, "I am going to take a look in the forest, for there could be an ambush there!" He rode further and further away. Hua Jianying's meteorite hammer flew towards his back, but Zhou Weixin raised his whip in a move called "Attacking Three Fortified Villages in the Night" and sent the meteorite hammer flying back towards its master.

Now that he had experienced the weapons of Gai and Hua, he realised that their pugilistic skills were not particularly astonishing. Their internal strength was not great either.

Then, he noticed the Free and Unfettered Xiaoyaozi leaning against a tree with his long-stemmed tobacco pipe, watching all the escorts surround the other Three Heroes of the Grand Mountain without a single expression or sound.

Zhou Weixin was surprised. Once this fellow strikes, I will not be able to run away anymore, he thought. A saying in the wanderers' world went: "Those who refuse to take shelter on a cloudy day will eventually be drenched in rain." So he struck his horse with his whip. As the animal began to run as if it was mad, he saw Xiaoyaozi move his hand and heard him say, "Watch out for the dart!" The wind whistled and a black lumpy weapon flew towards him.

Zhou Weixin raised his whip to block the object, only to have it stick firmly on the steel surface of the whip. He was shocked. This Xiaoyaozi is as highly-skilled as I had expected him to be, he thought. Even his hidden weapon is different from those used by others. After all, a saying in the wanderers' world went: "Once a man sticks out his hand, his strengths and weaknesses will be known." By then, his horse had already run out of the forest. Zhou Weixin saw that no one was pursuing him, so he calmed himself down and took a look at the hidden weapon that was stuck on his whip. It was actually a tattered old shoe! The shoe was coated with mud, so it had remained glued to the whip.

He was even more shocked this time. The highly-skilled men of the pugilistic community can kill by just throwing flowers and dispersing leaves, he thought. He was indeed merciful not to hurt me with his tattered old shoe! He could not decide whether to continue riding towards the Capital or wait for the current situation to change. Then, he heard a loud cry coming from the forest, as if someone was butchering a pig. It was followed by a strange silence. Zhou Weixin's heart thumped loudly. Could all the escorts and the four bodyguards have fallen prey to the Four Heroes of the Grand Mountain in such a short time? he asked himself.

Then, he heard a loud voice shout, "Chief Escort! Chief Escort!" It sounded like his colleague, Escort Zhang. Zhou Weixin touched the cloth bundle on his back silently and thought, A saying in the wanderers' world went: "To be smart, one must first listen. To see clearly, one must stand at a distance." A moment later, another voice called, "Chief Escort! Come back! The thieves have gone! We have chased them away!"

Zhuo Weixin was surprised. How could it be so easy? he asked himself, as he pulled at the reigns and turned his horse around. He saw one of his men run up and shout, "Chief Escort, the pip-squeaks have gone! All our cargo is safe!"

"Really?" Zhou Weixin asked happily. 

"We attacked them all at once and fought bravely," added the man. "Escort Zhang managed to slash the sickly fellow with his sabre and caused a gash on his brow. The four men ran away after that."

Now that the report had proven true, Zhou Weixin's heart was filled with joy. He rode his horse into the forest once more and said, "There were ten pip-squeaks lying in ambush outside the forest, but they all ran away once I attacked them!" He could not help but turn red as soon as the lie was out of his mouth. A saying in the wanderers' world went: "A man who thieves has an uneasy heart; a man who farts has a red face," he thought. I must calm myself down and not allow the others to see the flaw in my story.

By then, Escort Zhang was waving his sabre proudly in the air. "What Four Heroes of the Grand Mountain?" he said arrogantly. "They are but a mouthful of hot air!" The other escorts and the bodyguards laughed loudly in agreement. Zhou Weixin looked at the tombstone that had been left on the ground and wondered about its origins again.

Suddenly, a loud shout came from the forest. "Ai-yo! Ai-yo!"

"It is the pip-squeak who was hurt!" said Zhou Weixin at once. The men ran towards the direction of the shout and saw that it had come from a clump of thorny undergrowth. They spread out and surrounded the bush before Zhou Weixin said, "Petty thieves, come out!" No one appeared.

Instead, the shouts from the bush grew louder, so he waved arm and released a wrist-arrow into the undergrowth. A loud "Ah!" sounded, confirming that the fellow inside the bush had been hit.

"You got him!" said two escorts. "The Chief's shooting skills are great!" Then, they took out their sabres, charged into the undergrowth and pulled out the fellow inside. As soon as the escorts saw him, they fell silent in surprise.

The man in the bush was actually the salt merchant, Wang, who had engaged the escorts to deliver a batch of silver. His clothes were already shredded to bits by the thorns in the undergrowth. A saying in the wanderers' world went: "Nine out of ten fat men are rich, but they may not have any backsides!" But this fat salt merchant had a backside indeed, for the wrist-arrow was stuck on it!

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