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”
Yang was slumped at the table, playing with the dagger, more drunk than he had realized. Charity helped her husband into bed and collected the dishes. The navy blue sky was dotted with stars, but there was still enough light for her to go outside and collect the chicken cages. Just as she was pulling the back door shut, however, she caught sight of some blood on the snow only a few meters from the house. I must clean it up right away, or else there could be trouble. She hurried to collect her broom and stepped out again into the icy night.
But the blood did not stop there. She followed it with her broom all the way to the pine trees behind the house. The snow had also been disturbed; someone had clearly dragged themselves through it toward the woods. There, by an old grave tucked in between the trees, she spotted a large black mound on the snow.
Charity approached to get a better look. A body! One of the men Qiu Chuji had been fighting earlier. She was about to go and wake her husband to ask him to bury it when it struck her that someone could come past at any moment and see the body. No, it would be better to pull it into a nearby bush and then go and tell her husband. She edged toward it and, summoning all her strength, she took hold of its black clothes and pulled.
Suddenly the body twitched and groaned.
Was it a ghost? Fear paralyzed her. She watched it for a minute or so, but it did not move. Reaching for her broom, she gently poked it. The body groaned again, only this time the sound was much quieter. He was still alive. She approached and peered over the body. There, embedded in the back of his shoulder, was a large wolf-fang arrow. The snow was still falling, albeit much lighter now, and a thin layer of snowflakes had settled on the young man’s face. He would soon freeze to death out here.
Charity had always been exceptionally kindhearted, ever since she was a young girl. She was forever bringing home injured sparrows, frogs, and even insects, which she would nurse back to health, and those she could not save she would bury, the tears flowing down her cheeks. Her father, a country scholar from Red Plum Village, had named her for this unusual sensitivity, and her mother was never allowed to slaughter any of their roosters or hens. Any chicken served at the Bao family table for dinner had to be brought home from the market. Indeed, Charity had not changed much as she grew older, and this was one of the things Ironheart Yang loved about her. Their backyard was still a sanctuary for chickens, ducks and every other sort of small creature that chose to make its home there.
There was no way she could let this man die in the snow. She knew he must be bad, but she could not leave him here. She scrambled to her feet and ran back to the house to discuss it with her husband. But Yang had fallen into a deep sleep, and no matter how she shook him, he would not wake up.
Deciding that she should save the man first and worry about the consequences later, she ran to the herbal medicine cabinet and fetched her husband’s blood-clotting powder, and then found a small knife and some pieces of cloth. She grabbed the jug of warm wine that was still on the stove, and ran back outside. He had not moved. Charity helped him sit up and she trickled the leftover wine into his mouth. She knew a bit of basic medicine. The arrow sat deep in his flesh, and pulling it out might cause him to lose a lot of blood. But if she did not remove it, there would be no way of caring for the wound. So she took a breath, cut around the arrowhead, and tugged as hard as she could. The man screamed and instantly passed out. Blood spurted from the wound, covering her shirt in bright red splashes. Her heart was thumping in her chest but, steadying her shaking hands, she sprinkled the blood-clotting powder over the sore and bandaged it as tight as she could with the scraps of cloth. After a short time he began to regain consciousness.
Charity was so frightened her arms could barely muster the strength to hold the man up, let alone move him. But she had an idea. She went to the small barn by the side of the house and found a loose wooden plank. She pushed the plank under the man and shunted him onto it, and then dragged the plank through the snow back to the barn, as if pulling a sled.
Knowing he was safely sheltered, she crept back inside the house to change out of her bloodied shirt and wash her face and hands. She then ladled a bowl of leftover chicken soup, lit a candle, and went back to the barn. His breathing was now steady, if weak. Charity approached the man and urged him to sit up again so that she could feed him the soup.
She held the bowl to the man’s lips with her right hand, and in her left she moved the candle so that the warm glow highlighted his sculpted features and elegant nose. This was the first time she had been able to take a good look at his face and she almost gasped. He was so handsome. The blood rose in her cheeks and her hand began to tremble, splashing a drop of candle wax onto his smooth forehead.
He winced, and for the first time looked up at her. There, before him, was a face as delicate as a flower, two cheeks flushed pink like rose petals, and a pair of kind eyes sparkling like stars reflected in a river.
“Are you feeling any better?” Charity whispered. “Here, drink the rest of the soup.” The man tried to take the bowl in his hands, but he was too weak and nearly spilled the hot broth on himself. Charity quickly took the bowl back and continued to feed him, one spoonful at a time.
By the time he finished the bowl, some color had returned to his cheeks. He looked up at the heavenly creature nursing him with such care, but Charity squirmed under his gaze. Hastily she clambered to her feet, and fetched an armful of straw to keep him warm. Taking the candle with her, she slipped out of the barn and back inside the house.
She did not sleep well that night. Her husband was plunging his spear through the man’s chest. The man lunged at her husband with his saber. The man chased her between the pine trees. Every few hours she woke from a new nightmare, damp with sweat. As the sun warmed her eyelids, she began to stir, and she turned to discover that the other side of the bed was empty. She sat up. Had her husband found the man? She climbed down, folded the quilt, put on her outer robe and hurried into the front room. He was sitting at the table, sharpening the head of his spear. She nodded, before slipping outside toward the barn and pushing open the door. But she saw no one there, just a messy pile of straw. The man had gone.
There, beyond the barn, a fresh trail in the snow led out toward the pine trees behind the house. For a minute or so she was lost in her thoughts as she stared out in the direction in which the man had left. A gust of icy wind rushed at her cheeks, and as if wakening her to her body, she felt a sharp pain in her stomach and her legs buckled. She stumbled back inside, where her husband greeted her with a proud grin: “I made you and the baby some rice porridge.”
She smiled weakly, and sat. He would only get angry and jealous if he knew about the events of the previous night, so, she reasoned, she would have to keep them to herself.
Winter gasped its last breath and spring returned. Charity’s belly had ballooned, and preparations for the baby’s arrival had pushed almost all thoughts of the man in black from her mind.
The Yang family had just finished dinner, and Charity was huddled by the small pool of light cast by their lamp, sewing new clothes for her husband. Yang was hanging up the two pairs of straw sandals he had just finished weaving, ready for the spring.
“I’m going to see Carpenter Zhang tomorrow to see if he can fix the plow I broke this morning.” Yang looked over at his wife. “Please don’t make me any more clothes. Rest, my dear. Think of the baby.”
Charity looked up at her husband and smiled, her fingers still moving the needle swiftly through the cloth. Yang walked over to where she was sitting, and took the sewing from her. Charity stretched, blew out the lamp, and together they went to bed.
At midnight, Charity was suddenly snapped out of her dreams by her husband sitting up in bed. In the distance, to the west, came a faint sound of hooves drumming against the dirt. Before long it could be heard from all directions.
“Why are there so many horses?”
Yang jumped down from the bed and started dressing. The drumming was growing louder; a neighbor’s dog started barking. “We’re being surrounded.”
“What’s happening?” Charity’s voice was trembling.
“I have no idea,” her husband replied, handing her the dagger Qiu Chuji had given them. “Take this, to protect yourself!” He unhooked his spear from the wall.
By now the sound of hooves had subsided into an intermittent clatter, largely drowned out by the horses neighing and their masters shouting. Yang opened one of the shutters at the front of the house and looked outside. A company of soldiers had surrounded the entire village, the light from their torches illuminating his neighbors’ cottages. Some of the riders were struggling to still their excited horses as they rode among the houses.
“Find the traitors,” the man in charge shouted to his men. “They must not get away!”
Were they here for Qu San? Yang had not seen the tavern keeper since before winter had come and gone. Even he would struggle to fight off so many men.
Suddenly one of the soldiers shouted something that made Yang’s heart freeze in his chest. “Skyfury Guo! Ironheart Yang! Come out now and face the consequences of your treacherous actions!”
Charity had joined her husband by the window. These words made the blood drain from her cheeks.
“They come chasing innocent citizens when the traitors are among their own ranks!” Ironheart said. “Skyfury and I can’t possibly fight so many men at once. Our only option is to run. Don’t worry, I will protect you with my spear.” He fetched a bow, slung it across his back and wedged some arrows in his belt. He then reached for his wife’s hand and squeezed it tightly.
“I’ll pack,” she replied.
“Pack? We’re leaving everything.”
“But… our home?” A tear had crept from the corner of her eye and was making its way down her cheek.
“We’ve got to focus on getting away first. We can start another home elsewhere.”
“But what about the chickens? And the cats?”
“Silly girl, thinking about them at a time like this?” He paused and then continued. “What would they do with your chickens and cats?”
“They eat chickens.”
Just then a red-orange light came flickering through the window, throwing shadows across their simple furniture. The soldiers had just set fire to two thatched cottages nearby. Two foot soldiers were walking toward them along the main road through the village. “Skyfury Guo! Ironheart Yang! If you don’t come out now we’ll set fire to the whole village!”
A red rage rose in Yang, and before Charity could stop him, he had opened the door and stepped out. “I am Ironheart Yang. What do you want?”
Two soldiers dropped their torches in fright and backed away.
One of the other men rode his horse up to the front of the Yang family house and stopped. “So you are Ironheart Yang? Come with us to see the magistrate.” Turning to the foot soldiers, the man barked, “Take him!”
Four men ran toward him. Yang twirled his spear in a Rainbow Crosses the Sky, and swept three of the soldiers to the ground. He followed this with a Deafening Spring Thunder, picking up one of the soldiers with the shaft of his spear and throwing him into two other men. “First you must tell me what crimes I am being charged with.”
“Traitor!” the man on the horse bellowed. “How dare you resist arrest?” He may have sounded brave, but he was noticeably reluctant to come any closer.
Another man on horseback drew level with the first man. “Come without a fight and there will be no new charges to add to your existing crimes. We have the official documents for your arrest here.”
“Let me see them!”
“What about the other traitor, Skyfury Guo?”
Skyfury thrust his upper body out of the window of his house, along with a bow and arrow, and called, “Here I am!” He aimed the arrow at the first man on horseback.
“Put down your bow. Only then will I read the document to you.”
“Read it now!” Guo pulled the arrow all the way back.
Glancing at the other man on horseback, he rolled out the document and began reading. “Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang of Ox Village, Lin’an Prefecture, are charged with collusion with the intent of wrongdoing. A warrant for their arrest has been issued in accordance with the laws of the Great Song Empire, in the name of the Ningzong Emperor.”
“Which official issued the order?” Guo asked.
“Chancellor Han himself.”
Guo and Yang were taken aback. What have we done that could merit the ire of Chancellor Han? Yang thought to himself. Did they find out about Qiu Chuji’s visit?
“Who is the accuser?” Guo added. “Based on what evidence?”
“We only have orders to capture you and bring you to the court at Lin’an. If you want to plead your case, you can do so with the judge.”
“The court at Lin’an only knows how to harass innocent citizens. Everyone knows that!” Guo called back. “We’re not falling for that lie!” He shifted his arrow so it was now pointing at this soldier.
“So you are resisting arrest?” the first man on horseback called back. “Another crime to add to the list.”
Yang turned to his wife and whispered, “Quickly, put on some more clothes. I’ll get his horse for you. Once I shoot their commanding officer, the rest of the men will panic.”
He drew his bow from his bag and shot an arrow, hitting the officer in charge in the chest. “Aiya!” The force knocked him from his horse and he fell with a thud into the dirt. The soldiers started shouting in surprise: “Seize them!” The foot soldiers ran forward. Yang and Guo began firing arrows as fast as they could, and within seconds they had killed seven more men between them. But there were still too many soldiers.
Howling, Ironheart Yang swung his spear up above his head and charged forward. The soldiers shrank back in surprise and fear. He made straight for an official sitting astride a white horse, and lunged his spear at him. The man tried to block it with his own lance, but Yang was too quick, plunging his spear deep into the official’s thigh. He lifted the man like a piece of meat on the end of a skewer, and flicked him from his horse.
Yang then dug the other end of his spear into the ground and flipped himself onto the back of the horse. Squeezing his calves, he jolted the horse forward. It reared, before leaping straight toward the house. Yang speared another soldier by the door, leaned down and scooped Charity up with one arm. “Brother, follow me!”
Guo was spinning his double halberd at the crowd of men, holding his wife behind him with his other hand. The remaining soldiers were frightened and began shooting arrows in panic.
Yang galloped over to Guo and Lily, and dropped down from the horse’s back. “Sister, get on.” Against her protests, he threw her up onto the horse. Charity took hold of the reins and started to move the horse forward. The two men followed on foot, spearing and slicing any soldiers brave enough to approach.
Suddenly, a thundering of hooves sounded in the west. Yang and Guo glanced at each other and started looking for an escape route. Just then Charity screamed; the horse had been hit by an arrow. It lurched forward and landed on its front knees, before falling to its side and throwing the two women to the ground.
“Brother, you look after them,” Yang said. “I’ll get another horse.” Clutching his spear, Yang ran straight into the crowd of soldiers ahead. A dozen or so formed a line, raising their bows at Yang.
There were just too many soldiers, Guo reasoned, and their chances of escaping with their wives was not looking good. Perhaps they should give themselves up and argue their case in court? None of the men had survived the fight against Qiu Chuji that winter’s afternoon, so there could be no witness to say they had been part of it, let alone killed any of the soldiers themselves. “Ironheart, stop!” Guo called. “Let’s go with them!”
Yang halted in surprise and ran back, dragging his spear in the dirt.
The officer in command of this second group of soldiers ordered the men not to shoot and instead surround the traitors. “Throw down your weapons, and you will be spared!”
“Brother, don’t fall for their lies,” Yang hissed. Guo shook his head, looked his friend straight in the eye and, holding his gaze, threw his double halberd to the dirt. Yang looked across at his wife. Fear seemed to reach out of her eyes and cling to him. He sighed and threw his spear to the ground. Ten spearheads appeared inches from their faces, and eight foot soldiers stepped forward to bind their hands.
Yang held his head high, a sneer spread across his face. The officer in charge walked his horse forward and lashed Yang across the cheek with his whip. “Damned traitor! Are you really not afraid to die?”
“And what’s your name?” came Yang’s reply, a snarl rather than a question.
This drove the man on the horse even wilder with rage. “Justice Duan—His Excellency Duan to you! And don’t forget it. You can tell them about me when you reach the gates of hell!”
Yang stared back at the man without blinking, his eyes fixed on Duan’s.
“I’ve got a scar on my forehead and a birthmark on my right cheek,” Duan continued. “Know who I am now?” At this he whipped Yang across the other cheek.
“He’s a good man, he’s done nothing wrong,” Charity called out. “Why are you beating him?”
Yang spat at Duan and a globule of phlegm landed on his birthmark. Furious, Duan pulled out his saber. “I’m going to kill you right now, you disgusting traitor!” He lifted his saber high above his head and brought it down in a clumsy slash. It was not hard for Yang to step out of the way. Two foot soldiers moved their spears to Yang’s sides and pushed the metal tips against his taut muscles, pincering him. Duan raised his saber again and swung it down somewhat more elegantly than before. Unable to move sideways, Yang could only pull back. Despite appearances Duan had in fact practiced some martial arts, and immediately he thrust his saber forward. The blade had a saw-toothed edge, and this time he managed to swipe it through Yang’s left shoulder. He pulled back again for another chop.
At that moment Guo jumped up and thrust his feet at Duan’s face. Duan tried to block Guo’s feet with his saber, but despite having his hands tied behind his back, Guo managed to twirl his left leg away and round Duan’s sword, while jabbing his right foot into Duan’s stomach.
“Spear them!” Duan coughed. “Our orders were to kill them should they resist arrest.”
But Guo had kicked two men to the ground. Duan came from behind him and swung his saber down hard, severing Guo’s right arm at the shoulder. Yang had been trying to struggle free from the ropes around his wrists, but seeing his oldest friend so badly wounded gave him a new surge of strength. He snapped his bonds, punched the closest soldier, and grabbed his spear. By now he had nothing to lose: he could fight or they would all die. He speared two more in quick succession.
Duan shrank back in fear. He could see renewed and ferocious determination in Yang’s eyes, the fear of killing government troops now gone. The remaining soldiers ran.
Rather than give chase, Yang turned to his friend. He crouched down beside Guo. Blood was pumping from the wound in crimson spurts and his cream robe was already drenched down one side. Tears ran like rivulets down his cheeks.
Guo forced a smile. “Ironheart, don’t worry about me. Go. Go!”
“I’m going to fetch a horse,” Yang said. “Whatever happens, I’m going to save you.”
“No, don’t worry.” Guo passed out.
Ironheart Yang removed his shirt so he could bandage up the wound. But Duan’s sword had sliced through Guo’s shoulder and into his chest. It would be impossible to stem the bleeding. Guo came round again and called, “Brother, save our wives. I’m not going to make it.” Then he gasped and died.
Ever since they were little, the two friends had always thought of each other as flesh and blood. Rage surged in Yang’s chest, and he recalled they had once sworn to each other, “Together we will die, same day, same month, same year.” Yang looked around him. He had no idea what had happened to their wives amid the chaos.
“Brother, I will avenge your death!” he cried out, grabbing hold of his spear and charging toward the nearest group of soldiers.
By now the soldiers had resumed their formation. Justice Duan issued an order, and a swarm of arrows came flying straight at Yang. But he marched ahead through the storm, knocking the arrows aside. One military officer swung his saber hard at Ironheart’s head, but Ironheart ducked and tucked himself underneath the belly of his horse. The saber was left to swipe blindly through the air. The officer was trying to turn his horse when a spear pierced through his back and into his heart. Yang lifted the corpse and flicked it off the end of his spear, before mounting. He waved his spear at the remaining soldiers. None dared fight him, choosing instead to flee.
Yang continued to chase them for a while until he caught sight of one of the officers riding away, with a woman slung over his horse. Ironheart jumped down from his horse and skewered one of the foot soldiers with his spear. Taking the soldier’s bow and arrow, he aimed as best he could, with the light from the burning houses as his only guide, pulled back and fired. The arrow speared the horse’s behind, sending the animal to its knees and the two riders tumbling to the ground. Ironheart fired another arrow, killing the officer. He then ran over to the woman, who was struggling to sit up.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.