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”
The moment her Ironheart had pushed her away, Charity felt as if her heart had been sliced in two by her husband’s own blade. The soldiers were upon her within seconds. There was no escape.
One of the officers held a torch to her face.
“It’s her,” he said. “Who’d have guessed those two southerners alone could have caused our men such injury.”
“At least we can say we were the ones to complete the job,” another said. “They’ll have to give us at least ten taels of silver for our efforts.”
“Huh!” the first officer snorted. “I’ll just be happy if the generals leave a few coins for us.” He turned to the bugler. “Time to go back.”
The bugler brought his instrument to his lips and blew.
They kept riding. Charity tried to swallow her tears. What had happened to her husband? The sun had now risen. People started to appear on the road, but they slipped away again at the sight of the soldiers. Charity was surprised, however, to find the men polite in both word and deed, so after some time she began to relax.
After several more li, they heard shouts coming from up ahead. Another group of men clad in black charged at them from the side of the road.
“Disgusting vermin!” their leader shouted. “Murdering innocent subjects! Get down from your horses!”
The highest-ranking officer was furious. “How dare you bandits show your faces out here on the outskirts of the capital? Get away, now!”
The men in black rushed forward. What they lacked in numbers, they made up for with their superior kung fu.
Charity was quietly excited. Maybe her dear Ironheart’s friends had come to rescue her?
In the chaos, an arrow came flying toward Charity from behind and hit her horse in the rump. It jerked and began racing forward. Charity desperately wrapped her arms around the horse’s neck for fear of falling. Before long, she heard the beating of hooves against the dirt behind her. A black horse drew level with hers and then edged in front. The man riding it was spinning a rope, and with a swish! it flew through the air and looped over the head of Charity’s horse. The man pulled on the rope, drawing them level and then slowing them. He whistled, stopping his animal dead. Charity’s horse was pulled to a halt, neighing and rearing.
Charity was worn out after such a long and eventful night. Terror and grief had weakened her so she could no longer hold the reins. She fainted, flopping from the horse and to the ground.
Charity felt herself waking gradually. She did not know how long she had been asleep. A cozy feeling cloaked her, and she imagined herself to be lying on a soft bed, wrapped in a thick cotton quilt. As she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was a fine green canopy decorated with flowers above her, and as she turned, a lamp lit on a bedside table. Was she imagining it? Or was there a man in black sitting by her bed?
Hearing her stir, the man stood up and parted the bed curtains. “Are you awake?” he whispered.
Charity was still half-asleep, but the man seemed familiar.
“You still have a fever,” the man murmured, placing his hand on her forehead. “Don’t worry, the doctor will be here soon.”
Dazed, Charity fell back into the comfort of sleep.
Later, she was dimly aware of a doctor examining her and someone feeding her medicine. She felt almost paralyzed by exhaustion.
Then, suddenly: “Ironheart! My dear Ironheart!” She broke from her dream with a start. Someone stroked her shoulder, consoled her.
The sun was high in the sky by the time she next woke. A groan rose from deep within her. Someone came to the bed and pulled aside the curtain. She looked at him, and shock shot through her. The handsome, friendly-looking man standing before her was none other than the injured soldier she had saved in the snow all those months ago.
“Where am I? Where is my husband?”
The young man gestured for her to be quiet. “There are soldiers everywhere out there looking for us. We’re staying with a local farmer. Your humble servant begs your forgiveness, my lady, I had to lie to the farmer and say that I am your husband. Please don’t say anything.”
Charity blushed and nodded. “Where’s my husband?”
“My lady is still weak. I will tell you everything once you feel better.”
A jolt went through Charity; the tone of his voice was enough to tell her it was serious. She gripped the corner of her quilt and asked again, her voice shaking, “He… What happened?”
“Worrying will accomplish nothing now. Your health is the most important thing.”
“Is he dead?” she pressed.
“Was Squire Yang tall, with broad shoulders, around twenty? Did he use a spear?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
Knowing he had no choice but to tell her now, he nodded. “Squire Yang was unlucky. Those hateful soldiers killed him.” He shook his head and sighed.
Pain pulsed in her chest and she fainted. When she came to again she instantly began sobbing. The man tried to soothe her.
“How did he die?” she stuttered between sobs.
“I saw him fighting a group of soldiers earlier today. He killed a few of them. But then… one of the soldiers crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back with his spear.”
The shock temporarily knocked her out again. For the rest of the day she neither drank nor ate. The man did not force her, and instead attempted to distract her with chatter.
After some time, Charity began to feel guilty for not asking the man any questions. “May I ask sir’s name? How did you know we were in trouble and needed help?”
“My surname is Yan, my given name is Lie. I was passing by with my friends when we saw those soldiers harassing you. We decided to help, and as it turns out, the heavens decreed that I should save my own savior. We were destined to meet again.”
His words made her blush and she turned away from him. But her mind was working as his story struck her as suspicious. She turned back to face him. “Are you one of them?”
Yan Lie looked surprised.
“Weren’t you one of the soldiers who tried to capture the Taoist that day? That’s how you got hurt?”
“I was unlucky, that’s all. I was coming south and was passing through your village on my way to Lin’an. But then an arrow came out of nowhere and hit me in the back. If it weren’t for my lady’s benevolence, I would have died out there. But why were they trying to catch the monk? Taoists catch ghosts—why would a soldier want to catch a monk? They’ve got it all muddled.” He looked amused.
“So you were just passing through? You weren’t with them? I thought you were also coming after the Taoist. I wasn’t sure I should help you that day.” She then went on to tell him why the soldiers were there and how Qiu Chuji killed them all.
Charity continued talking, until she caught him staring at her, captivated. She fell silent.
“My apologies.” He smiled. “I was just thinking about how we’re going to escape without getting caught by the soldiers.”
Charity started to cry. “My husband’s gone—how can I live on? It is my duty, as his wife. I should do the honorable thing.”
“Madam, your husband was murdered by rebel soldiers and his death is yet to be avenged. How can you think of suicide? Squire Yang was a hero in life. He’ll never find peace beneath the Nine Springs of the Underworld if he hears you talking like that.”
“But I’m just a feeble woman. How can I possibly avenge his death?”
“My lady’s burden,” Yan Lie said in righteous anger, “I will gladly assume. Do you know who the culprit is?”
Charity thought for a while before answering. “Their leader was called Justice Duan. He has a scar on his forehead and a birthmark on his cheek.”
“We have a name and distinguishing features. It doesn’t matter if he runs to the ends of the earth or the corners of the sea, we will bring him to justice!” He went outside and came back with a bowl of rice porridge and some peeled salted eggs. “But you won’t get your revenge if you don’t take care of your health first.”
Charity agreed this made sense, took the bowl and started to eat. She then fell back into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, Charity arranged her clothes and got out of bed. She went to the mirror and brushed her hair, found a piece of white cloth and fixed a white flower in her hair, out of respect for her husband. But the sight of the beautiful woman in the mirror, widowed at such a young age, plunged her back into the depths of her grief and she started weeping bitterly.
Just then Yan Lie walked in. He waited for a pause in her sobs. “The soldiers have retreated. Let’s be on our way,” he said softly.
Charity followed him out. Yan Lie handed the master of the house a piece of silver, and then brought the two horses round. Her horse’s wound had been taken care of.
“Where to now?” Charity asked.
Yan Lie hushed her with a look, and helped her up onto her horse. Together they began riding northward, side by side.
“Where are you taking me?” Charity asked again, several li thence.
“First we’re going to find somewhere to lie low. Once everything has calmed, I will go back and bury your husband. Then I will kill Justice Duan!”
Charity was mild in character and rarely put forward her own suggestions. Furthermore, the events of the previous night had left her all alone in the world, and she was just grateful that Yan Lie had
“Master Yan, how am I ever to repay you?”
“My lady, you were the one to save me!” he exclaimed. “I will be your humble servant for the rest of my days, through fire and rain, even in the face of the cruellest torture.”
“I only hope we can kill that horrible man as soon as possible, so that I can join my husband in the knowledge he has been avenged.” Tears tumbled down her cheeks.
They rode for a full day before stopping for the night at an inn in Chang’an. Yan Lie told the innkeeper they were married and got one room. This made Charity extremely nervous, but she remained silent, and instead gripped Qiu Chuji’s dagger under her clothes. If he does anything untoward, I’ll kill myself, she decided.
Yan Lie instructed one of the men to bring them two bundles of rice straw. Once the man left, he locked the door and arranged the bundles on the floor. He then lay down on one of them and drew a rug over himself. “Sleep well, my lady,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Charity’s heart was thumping. Thoughts of her dead husband tore at her insides, and she sat staring into the darkness for over an hour before eventually blowing out the candle with a sigh. Clutching the dagger, she climbed onto her bundle of straw and slept in her clothes.
By the time Charity woke the next day, Yan Lie had already readied the horses and was requesting breakfast. Charity was grateful he was proving to be such a gentleman, and began to think perhaps she need not be so worried. Breakfast consisted of fried strips of chicken and tofu, ham, sliced sausage, smoked fish, and a small pot of the most deliciously fragrant rice porridge. Charity was from a simple but honest background and had lived off the land since marrying into the Yang family. Breakfast for her usually consisted of pickles and a small piece of tofu. She only got to eat such varied fare at Spring Festival or wedding banquets. She ate, but felt a little uncomfortable.
After they finished, an inn boy came in with a bundle. Yan Lie had already left the room.
“What’s this?” Charity asked.
“As soon as the sun was up, Master went out and bought new clothes for Madam. He says you are to wear them.” He placed the bundle on the floor and left.
Charity opened the bundle and was surprised to find a mourning dress made from white silk, with a complete set of matching accessories, from stockings, shoes, underwear to a padded jacket, silk scarf, and sash.
“He’s thought of everything,” she muttered. “What an unusual young man.”
She dressed in her new clothes, but just knowing Yan Lie had selected them made her blush. She had left home in a hurry and her own clothes were now torn and dirty after a night on the road. The new outfit did cheer her a little. When Yan Lie returned, she noticed he too was dressed in expensive new clothes.
And so they set off again, riding in single file, or sometimes side by side. Spring was just turning into summer south of the Yangtze. Willows by the side of the road reached out and brushed against their shoulders as they passed, flowers filled the air with their intoxicating scent, and the fields were covered in a green quilt of new shoots.
Yan Lie spent the entire journey idly chatting in order to distract Charity from her grief. Charity’s father, a minor scholar, was the most educated man of their small village, and her husband and his sworn brother had both been straightforward, simple men. Never had she met a man as refined and cultured as Yan Lie. His every word revealed a depth and sharpness of thought. But they seemed to be heading farther and farther north, away from Lin’an, and he had not mentioned the subject of avenging her husband’s unjust death all day. She could hold back no longer: “Master Yan, do you know the whereabouts of my husband’s body?”
“Of course I wish to look for Squire Yang’s body and give him a proper burial, it’s just that I killed government men while rescuing my lady. Right now it’s very dangerous for me to go back there; they would kill me as soon as I set foot in Lin’an. In any case, soldiers are out everywhere looking for my lady. Squire Yang committed treason by killing officials of the Song Empire, after all, and that’s a serious crime. When they capture the relatives of a traitor, the men are beheaded and the women forced into prostitution. I’m not so worried about my own safety, but I couldn’t leave my lady without protection. They would do terrible things to you.”
Charity nodded at his sincerity.
“I have given the matter considerable thought,” Yan Lie continued. “The most important thing is to give your husband a proper burial. So we are heading for Jiaxing where I can obtain enough silver to send someone to Lin’an to take care of it. If Madam will only find peace in the knowledge that I have organized it personally, then I will first make sure you are safe in Jiaxing, and then go back myself.”
Charity thought it would be expecting too much to ask him to take such a big risk for her, so she replied, “If Master can find someone trustworthy to handle it, then I suppose that will do.” She paused, and then continued, “My husband also had a friend—they were sworn brothers—by the name of Skyfury Guo. He died alongside my husband. I’m sorry to trouble you by asking this, but if you could ensure that he too is buried properly… Well, I would…” She was interrupted by her own tears.
“It’s no trouble,” Yan Lie replied. “Just leave it to me. As for avenging their deaths, the traitor Justice Duan is a government official, so it’s going to be difficult to kill him. Besides, we need to be especially careful right now. We’re going to have to be patient and wait for our moment.”
Charity knew Yan Lie was right, but she was desperate to see Justice Duan dead so she could join her husband in the next world. But who knew when such an opportunity would arise? She would have to be patient. The tears flowed even faster.
“I don’t care about getting revenge,” she stuttered between sobs. “Even a hero like my husband was unable to defeat him. I’m just a wretched woman—how can I wait for him to be brought to justice? Just let me join my husband.”
Yan Lie paused to think. “Madam, do you have faith in me?”
“Then the only answer,” he said, “is to continue north, away from the soldiers. The Song officials can’t catch us up in the north, we’ll be out of danger as soon as we cross the River Huai. Once things have calmed, we’ll come back south to avenge these heroes. Please be assured, my lady, I will see to it that justice is done.”
I have no family now, Charity thought to herself, hesitating. If I don’t follow him, where is a woman like me to make a life for herself? I saw those soldiers attack my husband and burn our home with my own eyes. Had they captured me, I would have suffered a fate worse than death. Yet this man is neither friend nor relative. Should a widow like me be traveling on her own with a young man like him? But he would no doubt stop me if I tried to commit suicide. All she knew for sure was that the road ahead would be difficult and uncertain, and her guts felt twisted with worry. She had been crying for days now and it felt as if she had no tears left.
“If my lady doesn’t agree with any part of my plan, then please tell me. I will do anything Madam asks.”
He was so accommodating that it made Charity feel guilty. Other than taking her own life, she could see no other way. “Then let’s do as you suggest,” she said, unable to look up.
Yan Lie visibly rejoiced, and exclaimed, “I am forever in Madam’s debt, for you saved my l—”
“Please don’t mention it again,” Charity interrupted.
That night, they stopped at another inn in the town of Wudun, and once again Yan Lie arranged for them to stay in the same room.
He had been noticeably less reserved since Charity had agreed to go with him to the north, and occasionally he would become a little too excited. She was beginning to feel uneasy again, but as he was yet to do anything improper as such, she decided he must just be trying to show his gratitude.
They arrived at Jiaxing around noon the next day. It was one of the biggest cities in western Zhejiang, where the rice and silk trades had thrived for centuries. Known as Drunken Plums in ancient times and Bounteous Grains during the Five Dynasties, it had changed its name to Jiaxing following Emperor Xiaozong’s birth in the city.
“Let’s find a place to rest,” Yan Lie suggested.
Charity, however, was concerned the soldiers might find them. “It’s still early, let’s press on.”
“The markets here are good and Madam’s clothes are worn. We should buy you some new ones first.”
“But you bought these only yesterday,” Charity said. “You call these worn?”
“The roads are dusty; clothes lose their shine after only a couple of days. Besides, Madam is so beautiful, it wouldn’t be right for you to wear anything but the finest.”
Charity enjoyed his compliment, even if she could not admit it, but she looked away. “I’m in mourning”
“But of course,” he replied at once. “I understand.”
Charity was quiet. She was indeed a beautiful young woman, but her husband had never once told her so. She stole a glance at Yan Lie. He seemed sincere. A flutter went through her, but it was tinged with anxiety.
Yan Lie asked passersby for a place to stay and was directed to the Elegant Waters Inn, the largest in the city. After freshening up, Yan Lie and Charity ordered some snacks in their room and sat facing each other, eating. Charity had wanted to ask for a separate room, but did not know how to phrase it. Her cheeks alternated between bright crimson and pallid white as they ate, her worries pressing constantly against her chest.
“Please make yourself comfortable, my lady. I’m just going to buy a few things. I’ll be back soon.”
Charity nodded. “Please don’t spend too much.”
Yan Lie smiled. “It’s such a shame Madam is in mourning and cannot wear pearls or gems. Anyhow, I could never spend too much, even if it was my greatest desire.”
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.