Jin Yong’s A Hero Born is a fantastical generational saga and kung fu epic, filled with an extraordinary cast of characters. This Chinese classic—coming to the U.S. for the first time on September 17th as translated by Anna Holmwood for St. Martin’s Press—is a tale of fantasy and wonder, love and passion, treachery and war, betrayal and brotherhood.
Want to start reading now? Tor.com is serializing A Hero Born every day this week! Check back every morning for another installment of the first chapter/episode: “Suddenly a Snow Storm”.
“Suddenly a Snow Storm”
It was during the third watch later that night. Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang had been waiting for more than two hours to spear a boar or a muntjac in the woods seven li west of the village, but it was looking increasingly unlikely they would catch anything and they were losing patience.
At that moment a loud smack of wood against metal echoed around the woodland from beyond the tree line. Skyfury and Ironheart looked at each other.
Then came the sound of men shouting:
“Where do you think you’re going?”
A shadow had entered the woods and was running in their direction. The moonlight caught a man’s robes and Guo and Yang were able to make him out. It was Qu San. He was jabbing his wooden crutches into the undergrowth. Knowing that he would struggle to outrun the men following him, Qu San flew straight up into the air and back down behind a nearby tree. Guo and Yang looked at each other in astonishment.
“Qu San practices martial arts?”
By now Qu San’s pursuers had reached the edge of the woods. There were three of them, and they stopped, whispered something to each other, and began to walk toward Guo and Yang. They were dressed in military clothing and each carried a saber, their blades flashing a cold green in the moonlight.
“Damned cripple! We can see you. Come out and surrender!”
Qu San stood utterly still behind his tree. The men were waving their weapons like machetes, swinging and chopping through the straggly bushes, slowly edging closer.
Just then: Thump! Qu San thrust his right crutch out from behind the tree, hitting one of the men squarely in the chest and sending him lurching backward with a yelp. Startled, the other two men waved their blades in the direction of the tree.
Using his right crutch for leverage, Qu San flew up to the left, dodging the flailing blades and thrusting his other crutch in one man’s face. The man tried to block the crutch with his saber, but Qu San pulled back and swung his right crutch at the other man’s stomach. Though he needed the crutches to support himself, he wielded them with speed and elegance.
A saber cut into Qu San’s bundle, ripping the cloth and spilling its contents all over the forest floor. Taking advantage of the distraction, Qu San smashed his crutch down onto one man’s head, knocking him to the ground. Terrified, the last soldier turned to run. Qu San reached between the folds in his robe, and with a sharp flick of his wrist hurled something at him as he fled. It glinted an inky black as it sailed through the air, drawing a curve and landing on the back of the soldier’s head with a dull thud. The man howled and dropped his saber, his arms waving wildly. He fell forward as if in slow motion, and landed in a crumpled heap on the ground. His body spasmed twice, and then he was still.
Guo and Yang watched, their hearts thumping, hardly able to catch their breath. “He just killed government officials. That’s punishable by death.” Guo gasped. “If he sees us he’ll kill us too, to keep us quiet.”
But they had not hidden themselves as well as they had thought. Qu San turned toward them and called out: “Master Guo, Master Yang, you can come out now!” Reluctantly they rose to their feet, grasping their pitchforks so tightly their knuckles turned white. Yang looked at his friend and then took two steps forward.
“Master Yang,” Qu San said with a smile. “Your family’s spear technique is famous throughout our land, but in the absence of a spear, a pitchfork will have to do. Your best friend Guo, however, prefers to fight with a double halberd. The pitchfork doesn’t fit his skills. Such friendship is rare!”
Yang felt exposed; Qu San had all but read his mind.
“Master Guo,” Qu San continued. “Let’s imagine you had your double halberd with you. Do you think together you could beat me?”
Guo shook his head. “No, we couldn’t. We must have been blind not to have noticed you were a fellow practitioner of the martial arts. A master, even.”
“I don’t have full use of my legs. How can I be considered a master?” Qu San shook his head and sighed. “Before my injury, I would have defeated those guards effortlessly.”
Guo and Yang glanced at each other, not sure how to respond.
“Would you help me bury them?” Qu San continued.
They looked at each other again, and nodded.
The two men did their best to dig a large hole using their pitchforks. As they were burying the last body, Yang noticed the black, round object sticking out of the back of the dead man’s head. Yang tugged at it and succeeded in pulling it out. He had seen one of these before. A steel Taoist Eight Trigram disk. He wiped the blood onto the dead man’s uniform and handed it back to Qu San.
“My sincerest gratitude.” Qu San took the Eight Trigram disk and put it back inside his robe. He then spread his outer robe on the ground and started to gather his belongings. Guo and Yang finished shoveling soil into the makeshift grave, and then turned to look at Qu San’s collection, which included three scrolls, as well as several shiny metal trinkets. Qu San put a gold jug and bowl to one side. After tying up his bundle he handed the jug and bowl to the two men. “I stole these from the Royal Palace at Lin’an. The Emperor has done enough harm to the peasants, it’s not really a crime to take something back. Consider these a gift from me.”
Neither man moved.
“Are you afraid to accept them, or is it that you don’t want them?”
“We did nothing to deserve such gifts,” Guo replied. “That’s why we can’t accept them. As for tonight, you don’t have to worry about a thing, Brother Qu. Your secret is safe with us.”
“Ha!” Qu San scoffed. “Why should I be worried? I know all about you—why else would I let you walk away alive? Master Guo, you are the descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang. You are skilled in the use of the halberd, as taught to you in accordance with your family’s customs, only your halberd is short rather than long, and has two blades instead of one. Master Yang, your ancestor is Triumph Yang, one of the commanders who served under the beloved General Yue. You are both descended from two of this country’s most loved and respected patriots. When the Jin army conquered the north, you began wandering the lakes and rivers of the south, practicing your martial arts. It was then that you became brothers-in-arms. Together you moved here to Ox Village. Am I right so far?”
The two men nodded, astounded by the detail of Qu San’s knowledge.
“Your ancestors Prosperity Guo and Triumph Yang were both rebels before they swapped sides to fight for the Song Empire,” Qu San continued. “Both stole from the government, which was in turn stealing from its own people. So tell me: are you going to accept my gifts or not?”
“We are most grateful. Thank you,” Yang said as he reached out to receive them.
“Back home!” Qu San said, slinging his bundle over his shoulder.
“I got some excellent things tonight,” he continued as the three men picked their way between the trees and out of the woods. “Two paintings by Emperor Huizong and a scroll of his calligraphy. He may have been a useless Emperor, but his skills with the brush were quite superb.”
Once home, Guo and Yang buried their gold and made no mention of the night’s antics to their wives.
Autumn slowly gave way to winter. The days were getting colder and the first flakes of snow were beginning to fall. Soon the earth was covered in a veneer of white that shone like polished jade. Ironheart Yang called to his wife, “I’m going to get some food and rice wine before Skyfury and his wife arrive.” Slinging two large gourds over his shoulder, he left for Qu San’s tavern.
The snow was falling more heavily. As he trudged up toward the tavern, he noticed the door was shut tight and even the sign had been removed. Yang banged on the door a couple of times, shouting: “Qu San, I’m here for some wine.”
He called out again, but still no response. He walked over to a window and peered inside. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. What’s happened? Yang thought. I hope it’s nothing serious. He spotted Qu San’s daughter playing nearby, but she was too young to give him any answers. As Qu’s inn was the only place to buy wine in Ox Village, Yang had no choice but to brave the blizzard and walk the two miles to Red Plum Village. At least there he would also be able to purchase a chicken for their meal.
When her husband returned, Yang’s wife, Charity Bao, put the freshly slaughtered chicken into a big pot along with some cabbage, tofu, and thin bean noodles. As it boiled, she cut and arranged a plate of cured meat and fish, and then went next door to call on Skyfury Guo and his wife, Lily Li, who had been suffering of late from morning sickness. Lily did not feel able to eat, so Charity stayed to chat and drink tea, sending Guo ahead.
The two women returned to discover the men sitting by the fire, eating and drinking warm wine. Charity added more wood, then sat down beside her husband. The two men looked agitated.
“What’s the matter?” Lily asked. “Has something happened?”
“We were just discussing the latest troubles at the Imperial Court in Lin’an,” her husband replied. “I was at the Pavilion of Joyful Rain, the teahouse by Tranquility Bridge, yesterday,” Guo added, “when I heard some people talking about that criminal Chancellor Han. One man said all reports at court must now be presented to him, as well as the Emperor, or else they won’t be read. Such arrogance is scarcely to be credited.”
Yang sighed. “Only bad Emperors keep bad Chancellors. Old Huang, who lives outside Lin’an’s Golden Gate, told me a story. One day, when he was out collecting firewood on the mountain, he caught sight of a group of soldiers guarding some officials. It turns out the Chancellor had come on a sightseeing trip with his men. Old Huang was minding his own business, cutting wood, when he heard the Chancellor say, ‘What a delightful country scene, such charming bamboo fences and thatched cottages. Shame there are no chickens clucking or dogs barking.’ Then, at that moment, they heard barking from behind one of the bushes.”
Charity smiled. “That little dog certainly knew how to please the Chancellor.”
“I’ll say! After a couple of barks it jumped out of the bushes. And what kind of dog do you think it was? Turns out it was our honorable friend, the Magistrate of Lin’an, His Excellency Mr. Zhao!”
Charity burst into laughter.
“And that’s how he’ll earn his promotion,” Guo concluded.
They continued drinking as the snow fell outside, the wine warming their bellies. After a while, Guo and Yang decided to step outside to cool down. Suddenly the stillness was broken by the sound of feet swishing across the snow. There, up ahead, was a Taoist monk wearing a conical bamboo hat tied under his chin with a ribbon, and a cape speckled with large flakes of snow. He carried a sword on his back, the yellow tassel swinging from side to side as it dangled from the handle. He was the only person braving the weather, a lonely silhouette making rapid progress across the gray-white fields.
“Look at how he skims across the snow,” breathed Guo in admiration. “A master of kung fu.”
“Indeed,” Yang replied in equal amazement. “Let’s invite him in for a drink.”
They hurried to the edge of the field in front of Yang’s house. In the short time it had taken them to run the hundred-odd meters, the monk had already passed by, and was some distance down the raised path that ran between the fields.
“Your Reverence, please stop!” Yang called out.
The Taoist monk turned and gave them a cursory nod.
“Such terrible weather,” Yang continued shouting through the snow. “Why don’t you come inside and drink a couple of bowls of wine to warm up?”
Within seconds the Taoist was standing before them. “Why do you want me to stop?” His reply was as cold as the winter air. “Speak!”
Yang was shocked and angered by the Taoist’s tone, so he looked down at his feet and gave no reply. Guo clasped his fist as a sign of respect and said, “We were drinking by the fire when we saw you pass by alone in the snow. So we thought you might like to join us. Please forgive us if we have offended you.”
The Taoist rolled his eyes. “All right. If you want to drink, let’s drink,” he said, walking past them and in through Yang’s door.
This made Yang even angrier. Without thinking, he grabbed the Taoist’s left wrist and tugged. “We don’t know how to address you, Your Reverence.” But the Taoist’s hand slipped through Yang’s fingers like a fish. Yang knew he was in trouble and stepped back, but before he could pull away he felt a sharp, hot pain as the Taoist tightened his grip around his wrist. No matter how hard he struggled he could not free himself, and he felt all his strength draining away as his arm went limp.
Guo could see from his friend’s crimson cheeks that he was in a lot of pain. “Your Reverence,” he said. “Please sit.”
The Taoist laughed coldly. He let go of Yang, walked deliberately into the center of the room and sat down in one smooth movement. “You two young men are obviously from the north but pretending to be farmers here in the south. Your accents give you away. And what’s more, why would two farmers know kung fu?” He, too, spoke with a Shandong accent.
Yang felt embarrassed and angry, and retreated to the back room. There he found a small dagger in a drawer, which he tucked into his shirt before returning to the front room. He poured out three bowls of wine, raised his as a toast, and downed its contents without a word.
The Taoist looked past the two men, and out toward the snow falling outside. He neither drank nor spoke. Guo guessed that the monk was suspicious of the wine, so he took the bowl intended for their guest and drank it down in one gulp. “The wine gets cold quickly. Let me pour you another bowl, Your Reverence. A warm one.” He filled a clean bowl and handed it to the Taoist, who in turn drank it down in one.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if you had drugged the wine,” the Taoist replied. “It wouldn’t have affected me.”
Yang had had about as much as he could take. “We invited you into our home to drink with us, not to try and hurt you. If this is how you are going to behave, please leave now! It’s not as if we gave you sour wine or rotten food.”
The Taoist ignored him, and grabbed the wine gourd. He poured and drank three more bowls of wine in quick succession, and then untied his bamboo hat and threw it on the floor, along with his cape. For the first time, Guo and Yang could properly examine his face. He was around thirty years of age, with slanted eyebrows and a square jaw, his cheeks flushed red. His eyes had a penetrating quality. Next, he untied the leather bundle from his back and threw it down on the table.
Together, Guo and Yang jumped up in disgust as from out of the bundle rolled a bloody human head.
A scream came from the corner where Charity had been standing, and she ran into the back room, followed by Lily Li. Yang’s hand moved to his chest to make sure the dagger was in place. The Taoist gave the leather bundle a shake, and two more bloody lumps of flesh fell out. A heart and a liver.
“You good-for-nothing Taoist!” Yang shouted as he pulled the dagger from his chest and lunged at the monk.
The Taoist was amused. “You want to fight?” He tapped Yang’s wrist with his left hand. A numbing pain shot down through Yang’s hands to his fingers. Before he realized what was happening, the dagger was gone.
Guo was astounded. His friend’s kung fu was much better than his own, but even Yang was powerless against the monk. Guo knew the move was the legendary Bare Hand Seizes Blade, but he had never actually seen anyone perform it. Guo reached for the wooden bench he had been sitting on, just in case he had to block the dagger.
But still the Taoist ignored them. Instead, he turned his attention to the heart and liver, which he began hacking to pieces with Yang’s dagger. Then, without warning, he roared. The tiles on the roof rattled, and he chopped down so hard, the objects on the table jumped and the table split in two. The head rolled onto the floor.
Yang was furious. He reached for an iron spear in the corner and marched outside into the snow. “Come. I’ll give you a lesson in the art of the Yang Family Spear!”
“A government lackey like you knows the Yang Family Spear?” The Taoist smiled as he followed Yang outside.
Guo ran back to his house to fetch his double halberds. By the time he got back, the Taoist was standing ready, his sleeves flapping in the wind.
“Unsheathe your sword!” Yang cried.
“I’ll fight you traitors with my bare hands,” was the Taoist’s only reply.
Without warning, Yang launched straight into Deadly Dragon Flies the Cave, his spear a smear of red as the tassel spun and the tip swirled toward the Taoist’s chest.
“Impressive!” the monk called as his upper body arched backward until it was almost horizontal. He then spun to the left and swung back up again. Once on his feet, his palm flipped upward and knocked the spear away from Yang’s hands.
Ironheart Yang had spent years practicing with his spear, ever since his father taught him his first moves as a young boy, a variant of the southern tradition. The northern tradition had been lost many years ago. His ancestor Triumph Yang led an army of three hundred Song soldiers against forty thousand invading Jin at the Battle of Little Merchant Bridge, with his spear his only weapon. They killed over two thousand Jin men that day, including their highest-ranking commander. The Jin’s arrows had fallen like rain, but Triumph Yang merely snapped the shafts from the arrowheads lodged in his flesh and carried on fighting. He gave his life for his country on that battlefield. When the Jin army burned his body, over two jin of molten metal flowed into the mud beneath him. After this battle the Yang Family Spear became famous all across China’s great plains.
Ironheart Yang may not have been a true master of the technique like his forefathers, but those years of training had not been in vain. He thrust, swung, flicked, blocked, the point of his spear glinting silver in the sunlight, the tassel a blur of red.
Yang’s moves may have been quick, but the Taoist dodged them with ease. The Yang Family Spear consisted of seventy-two separate moves, and after having used seventy-one without success, Yang was exhausted and desperate. He lowered his spear, turned and walked away. But just as he had anticipated, the Taoist came after him, and drawing together all the strength he had left, Yang pulled his weapon up into both hands, twisted at the waist and thrust it back at the Taoist’s face. Known as the Returning Horse, this move was traditionally used to break enemy formations. Triumph Yang had in fact used it to kill General Yue’s brother before he left the rebels and joined the Song army.
The Taoist clapped his hands together, clamping hold of the spear’s point just before it plunged into his left cheek. “Excellent!” Yang put all his weight behind the spear and pushed, but it did not move. Alarmed, he tried pulling it back instead, but still he could not free his spear from the Taoist’s grip. The Taoist chuckled. Suddenly he moved his right hand, and quick as light he struck the handle of the spear with his palm. Yang felt the base of his thumb and index finger go numb, and instantly the weapon fell to the snow at his feet.
“You appear to know some Yang Family Spear after all.” The Taoist smiled. “Sorry if I offended you. Will you do me the honor of telling me your name?”
Still in shock, Yang answered without thinking, “My family name is Yang, my given name Ironheart.”
“Are you a descendant of General Triumph Yang?”
“Yes, he was my great-grandfather.”
The Taoist cupped his fist and nodded his head in respect. “I mistook you for scoundrels, but it turns out that you are descended from patriots. Please forgive me. May I be so bold as to ask this gentleman’s name?”
“My name is Skyfury Guo.”
“He is my brother-in-arms,” Yang said, “the descendant of Prosperity Guo, one of the heroes of the Marshes of Mount Liang.”
The Taoist bowed again. “Your humble servant was rude, and quick to make assumptions. Please forgive me.”
Guo and Yang bowed in return. “Not at all. Would the Reverend please come in for more rice wine?” Yang said, picking up his spear.
“Of course! I’d be delighted to join you.”
Charity and Lily Li had been observing the fight anxiously from the doorway, and at this they scuttled back inside to warm the wine.
They sat at the table and the men asked the Taoist his name. “My name is Qiu Chuji.”
Yang jumped up in surprise, and Guo was similarly aghast. “Master Eternal Spring?”
“That is the name my Taoist friends gave me.” Qiu Chuji smiled. “I dare not claim such a name myself.”
“Master Eternal Spring of the Quanzhen Sect,” Guo said, “I am honored to make your acquaintance.” The two men cast themselves onto the packed earth floor of the cottage and kowtowed.
Qiu Chuji leaped up from his bench and helped them to their feet. “I killed a traitor today,” he began to explain. “The government’s men were chasing me, and then you gentlemen suddenly invited me in for a drink. We are close to the capital here and it is clear that you are not ordinary farmers, so I became suspicious.”
“My friend here has always had a temper,” Guo said with a smile. “And then he tried to fight the Master. You were right to be suspicious.”
“Indeed, farmers aren’t usually that strong. I thought you were undercover government dogs.”
Yang smiled. “You weren’t to know.”
The men continued to drink and chat until Qiu Chuji pointed at the battered head lying on the floor: “That’s Wang Daoqian. He was a traitor. Last year he was sent by our Emperor to convey his respects to the Jin Emperor on the occasion of his birthday, but once there, he agreed to help them invade the south. I pursued him for ten days before at last catching him.”
“We are so lucky to have met the Master,” Yang said. “Won’t you stay a couple of days?”
But just as Qiu Chuji was about to answer, his expression froze and hardened.
“What’s wrong?” Guo asked.
“Someone has come for me. Whatever happens, you two must stay inside. Do not come out under any circumstances. Do you understand?” The two men nodded. Qiu Chuji picked up the human head and went outside, where he jumped up into the branches of a tree and hid among its dense crest of leaves.
Guo and Yang had no idea what had just happened. They could hear nothing save for the howling of the wind. They waited, until a few minutes later they could discern from the west the faint sound of hooves beating against frozen ground.
“How did he hear that?” Yang asked in a whisper. The rhythmic thudding of the hooves was growing louder and on the horizon a cloud of snow was making its way toward the village. Before long, ten riders dressed in black appeared and reined in a hundred meters from their door.
“The footprints stop over there. It looks like there’s just been a fight.” Several of the men jumped down from their horses and inspected the footprints in the snow. “Search the house!” the man who appeared to be their officer barked. Two more men jumped from their horses and hammered on the door.
Suddenly something came flying through the air from a nearby tree, thwacking one of the men on the head, with such force that it cracked open his skull. The other men started to yell as they surrounded the tree. One man picked up the object and cried out in shock: “His Excellency Wang’s head!”
Their commanding officer pulled out a saber and the remaining men rushed to form a ring around the tree trunk. The leader shouted another order, and five men raised their bows and shot into the dense clump of leaves above them.
Yang reached for his spear, but Guo grabbed at his arm and hissed, “Master Eternal Spring told us not to go outside. Let’s wait awhile at least. If he gets into trouble we can help him then.” Just then an arrow came hurtling from the branches above and hit one of the men, still on his horse. He cried out, dropped from the horse’s back and landed in the snow with a dull thud.
Qiu Chuji removed his sword, jumped down from the tree, and sliced through two of the men before the soldiers could react.
“It’s the Taoist!”
Qiu Chuji bowed quickly and then sha, sha, sha! slashed his sword through the whipping wind, knocking another two men from their horses. Yang watched in awe, trying to follow the movement of the Master’s sword. Qiu Chuji had obviously held back during their duel; if he had not, Yang would be dead by now.
Qiu Chuji moved as if he were being carried by the wind as he bounced and hopped between the horses, branches and the ground. His next opponent was the commanding officer, who continued to bark orders at his men. He had a certain gift for fighting, but Guo and Yang could tell Qiu Chuji was deliberately prolonging the duel so as to use breaks in their fight to outmaneuver the other men. If he killed the leader before he managed to kill his men, they might run.
By now there were only six men left. The officer knew they could never defeat the Taoist, so he turned his horse and tried to escape. Qiu Chuji reached out with his left hand and grabbed the horse’s tail. Pulling on it lightly, Qiu Chuji lifted himself from the ground. Before he had landed on the horse’s back, he had already sliced his sword straight through the officer’s back to the base of his spine. Qiu Chuji threw the body from the horse, grabbed hold of the reins, and started to chase the others, his blade dancing silver against the gray-white of the storm. Screams were swallowed by the wind as one body after another fell to the ground and plumes of blood decorated the snow.
Qiu Chuji stopped and looked around him. The only sound came from the three riderless horses galloping into the distance, their hooves pounding at the softly packed snow. He rode back to where Guo and Yang stood by the door, waved, and called, “How did you like that?”
Guo and Yang opened the front door and stepped slowly out. “Your Reverence, who were they?” Guo asked, still in shock.
“We’ll know when we search them.”
Guo walked over to the commanding officer’s body and leaned down to take a look. His torso was sliced in two, and lay in a pond of blood. Guo reached for a leather pouch still fastened around the man’s waist, and removed an official-looking document. It was from Magistrate Zhao, and stated that an order had come from the Jin ambassador that Song government troops were to assist them in capturing Wang Daoqian’s murderer. Guo’s hands shook with rage as he rose to his feet. He was just about to show the document to the other two men when Yang called out. He had found some tags written in the Jurchen language on some of the bodies. There were Jin soldiers among these men.
“Our government has now given free rein to enemy soldiers to capture and kill patriots within our own borders?” Guo exclaimed. “Song officials now take orders from the Jin?”
“Even our Emperor must refer to himself as an official of the Jin.” Yang sighed. “Our officials and generals are now no more than their slaves.”
“We monks are supposed to be merciful and good in heart and action, we are not supposed to harm any living being,” Qiu Chuji added bitterly. “But I could no longer withhold my anger, not when faced with traitors and enemies who do nothing but torture our people.”
“You were right to kill them!” Yang said.
“They deserved to die!” Guo added.
Ox Village was small, and in a snowstorm like this everyone kept to their homes. If there had been any witnesses it was doubtful they would come out and ask questions. Yang went to fetch two shovels and a hoe, and the three men buried the bodies. Lily Li and Charity fetched brooms and began sweeping the bloodstained snow until the stench began to make Charity retch. A white mist descended in front of her eyes and with a gasp she fell to her knees.
Yang dropped his shovel and ran over to her. “What’s the matter?”
But Charity closed her eyes and did not answer. Her face and hands were now as white as the snow that fell upon them.
Qiu Chuji hurried over, took hold of Charity’s wrist and felt her pulse. A smile burst across his face. “Congratulations!” Yang looked aghast as Qiu Chuji grabbed his hand.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
Charity came to with a faint grunt. The three men were standing above her. Feeling shy, she scrambled to her feet, and with Lily’s help went inside, where her friend poured her a cup of tea.
“Your wife is pregnant.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am master of nothing and can claim to know a little of only three things. Of these little kung fu tricks I am a mere novice, and as for poetry I am able to write a few couplets, but no more. But I can safely say that if I can lay claim to any expertise, it is in the field of medicine.”
“Your Reverence, if yours are only ‘little kung fu tricks,’ then we are merely children playing.”
Having finished burying the bodies, the men collected their tools and went inside to celebrate.
Yang could not stop smiling. If Qiu Chuji wrote poetry, he reasoned, he would be the perfect person to name his child, as well as Guo’s. “My brother Skyfury’s wife is pregnant as well. Could we trouble Your Reverence to think of two names for our children?”
Qiu Chuji sipped from his bowl of rice wine and thought for a while. “For Master Guo’s child I suggest Guo Jing, meaning ‘Serenity,’ and for Master Yang’s child, Yang Kang, meaning ‘Vitality.’ This will remind them of the humiliation of the year Jingkang, when Kaifeng was sacked and the Emperor captured by the Jin. These names can be used for girls just as well as boys.”
He reached into his shirt, removed two daggers, and put them on the table. They were identical in every way, each with a green leather sheath, a gold cross guard and an ebony handle. He picked up one of the daggers and on the handle swiftly carved the characters for “Serenity Guo” as if writing with brush and ink. Then he carved “Vitality Yang” on the handle of the other. He turned to the two fathers-to-be and said, “I don’t have anything else suitable with me, only this pair of daggers. For the children.”
The two men received them and thanked him. Yang unsheathed his. The blade was cold in his palm, and sharp.
“I came to possess these daggers quite by accident. They are extremely sharp, but they are too small for me to use. They would be perfect for the children. In ten years’ time, if I am still lucky enough to be of this world, I will return to Ox Village and teach them some kung fu.”
The two men were delighted and thanked the Reverend repeatedly.
“The Jin are occupying the north and torturing the people there,” Qiu Chuji went on as he took his last gulps of rice wine. “The situation cannot continue for long. Gentlemen, please take care of yourselves.” Then he stood up and made for the door. Guo and Yang jumped to their feet and tried to make him stay, but he had already slipped out into the storm.
“Masters like him come and go like the wind.” Guo sighed. “We were lucky to meet him today. I was hoping to talk to him some more, but alas it was not to be.”
Yang smiled. “Brother, at least we witnessed Master Eternal Spring killing Jin soldiers.” He held up the dagger and unsheathed it again. Gently stroking the blade, he suddenly looked up at his friend. “Brother, I’ve just had a foolish idea. Tell me what you think of it.”
“What is it?”
“If our children are boys, they will be sworn brothers. If they are girls, they will be sworn sisters—”
“And if we have one boy and one girl, they shall be married,” Guo cut in. The men laughed and embraced.
At that moment, Lily Li and Charity emerged from the back room. “Why are you so happy?” Yang repeated their agreement and they blushed, happy their families would forever be united.
“Let’s swap the daggers now as our pledge,” Yang suggested. “If they turn out to be sworn brothers or sisters, we can switch back. If they are to be married—”
“Then apologies, but both daggers will belong to my family,” Guo interrupted.
Charity laughed. “You never know. Maybe we will be the ones to have a boy.”
The men swapped daggers and gave them to their wives for safekeeping.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.