Continue Jin Yong’s Kung Fu Wuxia Epic A Hero Born: “The Seven Freaks of the South” (Part 2)

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 all summer long—you can find all the previous chapters here! And check back every morning this week for another installment of the second chapter/episode: “The Seven Freaks of the South”.

 

CHAPTER TWO
“The Seven Freaks of the South”

 

2

 

The Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals sat on the banks of South Lake. It was late spring and the water was clear like a sheet of blue-green jade. A light mist clung to the water’s surface, which trembled as leisure boats scored ripples across it. The lake too was scattered with the emerald leaves of the water chestnut. South Lake produced the sweetest, most tender water chestnuts for miles around, crisp and refreshing.

Wanyan Honglie’s eyes drew in the scene and he felt relaxed and contented. Just then a long, narrow boat came skating across the water, its bow jutting upward. He was not paying particular attention at first, until he noticed that it had overtaken another boat which only moments before had been some way out in front. As it came closer he noted the passenger and someone at the back with a paddle, wearing a cape made from rushes. To his surprise, the oarsman was in fact a woman. She twisted the paddle lightly, slicing the boat through the water like an arrow. The boat alone must have weighed at least one hundred jin, Wanyan Honglie reflected, which meant both oarswoman and oar must be exceptionally strong.

With just a few more twists the boat pulled up beside the tavern. Sunlight glinted off the paddle. It must have been made of metal. The woman tied the boat to a wooden post at the foot of the tavern’s stone steps and jumped adroitly onto land, taking the paddle with her. The man in the boat picked up a shoulder pole with two bundles of firewood and followed her up the stairs to the first floor of the restaurant.

“Third Brother!” the woman called out to the rider, and sat beside him.

“Fourth Brother, Seventh Sister, you’re early!” he replied.

Wanyan Honglie surveyed the two new arrivals. She looked to be around seventeen or eighteen, slim, with large eyes, long eyelashes and skin white like snow. A pretty girl of the local rivers and lakes. She had removed the straw hat to reveal her gorgeous black hair, which hung, like inky clouds from a painting, around her face. She may not be as beautiful as my Madam Bao, but she has a certain charm, he thought to himself.

The man with the firewood looked to be in his late twenties, dressed from head to toe in black, with a coarse rope tied around his waist—into which was tucked a small axe—and straw sandals on his feet. His hands and feet were huge, his expression honest but dull. He put down the shoulder pole and leaned it against the table. Large enough to sit eight, it creaked and shot back a few centimeters under the weight of the pole. The pole did not appear to be remarkable in any way, black and glossy with a slight bend in the middle, each end capped by a small sheath, Wanyan observed. It too must have been cast from metal.

Just as they took their seats, the sound of footsteps echoed on the stairs and two more people emerged.

“Fifth Brother, Sixth Brother, you’re here.”

The first man was tall and sturdy, and must have weighed some two hundred and fifty jin. His shirt was open and he had rolled up his sleeves, revealing a bushy chest and arms covered in thick black hairs. Over this he wore a greasy butcher’s apron, with a foot-long knife tucked into its strings. Behind him came a shorter man, his skin pearly white, a felt cap perched on his head. He carried a set of scales and a bamboo basket.

At that moment, they heard what sounded like someone beating metal against stone. The sound grew louder. A man appeared, dressed in rags, dragging an iron staff up the stairs. Wanyan Honglie thought he looked to be around thirty, with razor-sharp features and a graying complexion. His eyes were covered in a white film.

The others stood up and announced in unison: “Big Brother.”

“Big Brother, sit here,” the woman said, patting the seat beside her.

“Thank you,” the blind man replied. “Second Brother isn’t here yet?”

“Second Brother just arrived in Jiaxing,” the butcher replied. “He should be here any moment.”

“That’s him,” the woman said, smiling, as they heard the sound of leather slapping against the steps.

Wanyan Honglie froze. There, at the top of the stairs, appeared a broken black oilpaper fan.

It quaked briefly, and then behind it followed a head. It was him.

“He took my money,” Wanyan Honglie growled, anger germinating inside him. The man grinned at him, stuck out his tongue and turned to greet the others. This was Second Brother.

They’re clearly important fighters of the jianghu, Wanyan Honglie thought. They could do a lot for me. The filthy one may have stolen my money, but it will be of no consequence if I can persuade them to come with me to the north.

Second Brother took a swig of wine and began reciting a poem, his head swaying from side to side as the words dipped and soared:

“Ill-gotten gains, let them go,
For the Jade Emperor is about to blow!”

He reached into his shirt and removed ingot after ingot, laying them out neatly on the table. Eight gold, two silver.

Wanyan Honglie recognized them by their size and lustre—they were his! But caution overcame his anger. I can understand how he took the ones from my room, that was easy, but my shirt? He tapped me with his fan, but otherwise I didn’t feel a thing.

It soon became clear the seven martial siblings were the hosts, and they were waiting for guests. The innkeeper had placed only one set of chopsticks and a cup at each of the two remaining tables. Two guests. I wonder if they will be as strange, Wanyan Honglie thought to himself.

One cup of tea later, they heard someone reciting Buddhist scriptures at the bottom of the stairs. “Amituofo!”

“Venerable Monk Scorched Wood is here,” the blind man said.

“Amituofo!”

At that moment, an emaciated monk, spindly like a twig, appeared at the top of the stairs. He must have been around fifty years of age, dressed in jute robes. In his hand he carried a piece of firewood, one end scorched black. What could it be for? Wanyan Honglie wondered.

The monk greeted his seven friends and the man in rags led him to one of the empty tables. “He came looking for me,” the monk said, hovering above his seat before sitting, “but I knew at once that he was too strong. I must thank the Seven Heroes of the South for your kind help and ever solid sense of justice; I am forever in your debt.”

“Do not thank us, Venerable Monk Scorched Wood,” the blind man replied. “It is we who are indebted to your daily kindness. How could we just look on when Your Reverence was in trouble? Why did this fellow challenge Your Reverence to a fight? He obviously doesn’t think much of us masters of the southern wulin. There was no need—”

Before he could finish his sentence, the stairs began to creak. Indeed, it was so loud it sounded as though a water buffalo or some other giant creature was coming up the stairs.

“You can’t take that up there!”

“You’re going to break the floorboards!”

“Quick, stop him! Bring him back down!”

The innkeeper and his men were clamoring, but the creaking continued and only grew louder.

Wanyan Honglie was aghast. There, at the top of the stairs, stood a Taoist carrying a full-sized temple censer made of bronze, usually used for burning large quantities of paper money and sticks of incense. It was Elder Eternal Spring, Qiu Chuji.

The real purpose of Wanyan Honglie’s previous trip had been to gain favor with important officials under the Emperor, so that when the Jin invaded the south, they would have secret allies inside the Song court. He was accompanied on his travels by a Song envoy, Wang Daoqian, who had done everything he could to exact the highest bribes from the Jin for his cooperation. Having long been protected by the northern barbarians, he was a symbol of the worst excesses of Song corruption. But as soon as they entered the city, he was happened upon by a Taoist, who had chopped off his head. Fearful his scheme had been uncovered by the Taoist, Wanyan Honglie fled with his aides. With the help of Lin’an’s finest soldiers, they returned to track the assassin, chasing him all the way to Ox Village, where they engaged him in battle, only to discover he was an exceptional practitioner of the martial arts. Qiu Chuji caught Wanyan Honglie in the shoulder with an arrow before he had even launched one punch, and then went on to kill the rest of Wanyan’s men. Had Wanyan Honglie not fled and chanced upon Charity’s kindness, Qiu Chuji would have made Ox Village his grave.

Wanyan Honglie collected himself. Qiu Chuji had barely glanced in his direction and seemed far more concerned with Scorched Wood and the Seven Heroes of the South. Perhaps the Taoist had defeated him so quickly he could not recognize him? He calmed himself and turned his attention to the enormous censer the Taoist was carrying.

At four foot in diameter, it must have weighed more than two hundred jin on its own, but a waft of fragrant rice wine told Wanyan Honglie that it was not empty and must be considerably heavier. And yet the Taoist looked perfectly comfortable holding it. The weight continued to make the floorboards groan, and downstairs the innkeeper, his men, and the other guests had pressed through the main door and out onto the street, fearful that the ceiling was about to collapse.

“We thank the esteemed Taoist for gracing us with his presence,” Scorched Wood said coldly, “but why has he brought with him the bronze incense burner from my temple?”

Qiu Chuji raised his left hand out of respect. “I went first to the temple, but the Abbot Withered Wood told me the Venerable Monk Scorched Wood had invited me to the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals to drink wine with him. I assumed the Venerable Monk Scorched Wood wouldn’t be alone, and I was right.”

“Let me introduce the Seven Heroes of the South.”

“I have long heard spoken the great deeds of the Seven Heroes of the South. Your reputation precedes you, and today I am lucky enough to make your acquaintance myself. It has been my life’s great wish.”

“This is Elder Eternal Spring, Qiu Chuji, of the Quanzhen Sect,” Scorched Wood explained to the Seven Heroes. Turning to Qiu Chuji, he continued. “This,” he said, gesturing to the blind man, “is their leader, Flying Bat Master Ke Zhen’e, Suppressor of Evil.”

He went on to introduce the others, one by one. Wanyan Honglie listened carefully, committing each name to memory. The second was the dirty man who had stolen his silver, Quick Hands Zhu Cong the Intelligent. Next came the short, rotund man who arrived on a horse, Protector of the Steeds, Ryder Han. The fourth man to be introduced was the farmer carrying firewood, Woodcutter Nan the Merciful. Fifth was the burly man in a butcher’s apron, Laughing Buddha Zhang Asheng. The young man who carried the scales was called Gilden Quan the Prosperous, also known as the Masked Haggler. Last came the young oarswoman, Maiden of the Yue Sword, Jade Han. She was the youngest.

Qiu Chuji bowed at each in turn as they were introduced. He was still holding the heavy bronze censer in his right hand but did not appear tired. Meanwhile, the other customers started venturing back inside and some even climbed the stairs, curious to see what was going on.

“We are a martial family, often called the Seven Freaks of the South,” Ke Zhen’e began. “We are mere eccentrics, we daren’t call ourselves martial arts masters. We have long been great admirers of the Seven Disciples of the Quanzhen Sect, and greatly respect Elder Eternal Spring for using his wuxia skills solely in the name of justice. Venerable Monk Scorched Wood is in turn most considerate and warmhearted. How, may I ask, might he have offended Elder Eternal Spring? Please do us the honor of letting us act as peacemakers. While you both may pray to different deities, you have still both chosen a life of the temple, and are great men of the wulin. Why not air past grievances and drink together?”

“Venerable Monk Scorched Wood and I are strangers to one another,” Qiu Chuji replied. “There is no ill will between us. If he surrenders the women, I will return to Fahua Temple and offer my sincerest apologies.”

“Surrender which women?”

“Two of my friends were betrayed by the Song government and died violent deaths at the hands of marauding Jin soldiers,” Qiu Chuji replied. “Each left behind a widow without family or friends. Master Ke, do you think I should ignore this injustice?”

The cup in Wanyan Honglie’s hand shook, spilling a little wine onto the table.

“They need not be friends of ours for us to feel compelled to act. We would only have to hear of such a story to be moved, it is our duty as members of the wulin.”

“Indeed! And so I am asking our friend the monk to hand over the two wretched widows. He has assumed the robes of a holy man, so why is he detaining them in his temple? The Seven Heroes live by the wulin’s code of honor; can you explain this logic to me?”

Scorched Wood and the Seven Freaks were astonished by Qiu Chuji’s words, as was Wanyan Honglie. Does he mean the wives of Ironheart Yang and Skyfury Guo? he asked himself.

Scorched Wood’s normally sunken cheeks flushed crimson with anger. It took him a while to gather the words to reply. “How can you make such dishonorable accusations?” he stammered. “They are nonsense.”

This angered Qiu Chuji even more. “You are also a great man of the wulin. How dare you lie to me!” he cried, and with one hand flung the bronze censer full of wine at Scorched Wood.

The frightened crowd gathered at the top of the stairs now pushed at each other in a scramble back down.

The monk dived out of the way. Laughing Buddha Zhang calculated he would be able to catch it, despite its weight. He strode forward, moved his inner strength to his arms and roared. The censer swooped at Zhang Asheng and stopped in his arms, the muscles in his shoulders and back bulging as his body absorbed its momentum. He lifted the censer above his head, but the weight was too much for the floor beneath him and his left foot tore through the wooden floorboards. A scream went up from downstairs. Zhang Asheng stepped forward, his arms slightly bent, and performed Open the Window and Push Back the Moon, thrusting the censer back at Qiu Chuji.

Qiu Chuji caught the censer with his right hand and held it above his head. “The Seven Heroes of the South are deserving of their reputation!” Then he turned to Scorched Wood. “What about the women? You have captured them and are keeping them in the temple. What do you want with them? If you hurt so much as one strand of their hair, I will grind your treacherous bones to dust and burn your temple to the ground!”

“His Holiness Scorched Wood is a virtuous and eminent monk,” Zhu Cong said, flicking his fan and nodding. “How could he possibly do such a terrible thing? Your Reverence must have heard this rumor from some lowly beggar. Who could believe such fabrications!”

“I saw it with my own eyes,” Qiu Chuji cried with rage. “How could it be a fabrication?”

The Seven Freaks froze.

“You have come south to establish your name—why ruin mine in the process?” Scorched Wood cried. “Ask the people of Jiaxing, could Scorched Wood the Monk be capable of such an evil deed?”

“Fine.” Qiu Chuji smiled coldly. “You have supporters. Without them, defeat would be certain. But I will not let this go. You are hiding two women in a sacred temple, which is sin enough. Why kill their husbands, two such loyal patriots?”

“Elder Eternal Spring claims the Venerable Monk Scorched Wood is hiding the women, and the Venerable Monk insists he is not,” Ke Zhen’e summarized. “Why don’t we go to Fahua Temple and see who is telling the truth? I may be blind, but the rest of my martial family are perfectly able to see.” The others agreed.

“Search the temple?” Qiu Chuji smiled. “I have already searched it several times, but even though I saw them enter, I could not find them inside. I don’t understand it. So it is up to our friend the monk to hand the women over!”

“Perhaps they were not women,” Ke Zhen’e interrupted.

“What?”

Ke Zhen’e gazed unseeing at Qiu Chuji, his face still with perfect solemnity. “They must be goddesses. Either they have made themselves invisible or else they have disappeared into thin air.” The other Freaks tittered.

“I see you are mocking me. The Seven Freaks have allied themselves with the monk.”

“Our skills may not seem much to a Master of the Quanzhen Sect. You may laugh at them, perhaps. But here in the south we can claim some fame. People say, ‘Those Seven Freaks may be crazy, but they are no cowards.’ We may not be masters of the wulin, perhaps, but we will not stand by and watch a friend be bullied.”

“The Seven Heroes of the South do indeed claim a fine reputation, I have long heard of your skill. But this matter does not concern you, there is no need to be sullied by such murky matters. Let me deal with the Venerable Monk myself. Please forgive me, my friend; come with me.” Qiu Chuji reached his left hand to take Scorched Wood by the wrist, but Scorched Wood twisted free of his grip.

The fight was starting.

“Elder Eternal Spring!” Ryder Han cried. “Are you deaf to reason?”

“What is it, Third Brother Han?”

“We believe Venerable Monk Scorched Wood is telling the truth,” Ryder Han replied. “If he says he doesn’t have them, then he doesn’t have them. Such a steadfast and respected member of the wulin cannot be lying.”
“So if he is not lying, then it is I who is the liar?” Qiu Chuji was furious. “I, Elder Eternal Spring, am to distrust my very own eyes? Seeing as they are so easily deceived, perhaps I should gouge them out and present them as a gift? They are useless to me. So, to confirm, you are allied with the monk?”

“Yes!” the Seven Freaks responded in unison.

“In that case, please everyone take a cup of wine. Let us first drink, then we fight.” He lowered his right arm, put the bronze censer to his mouth and took a long gulp. “Here, for you.” He flung the bronze censer at Zhang Asheng.

How am I going to drink from it, even if I catch it above my head? Zhang Asheng thought to himself. He retreated back two steps and placed his hands outstretched before him, but as the censer came hurtling toward him he opened his arms and let it crash against his chest. He carried some extra weight in that area, so his flesh absorbed the impact as if it were a soft cushion. With a deep breath, he thrust forward his chest and wrapped his arms around it. Gripping it tightly, he dipped his head and drank from the bowl. “Delicious!”

He pulled his arms away and let the censer balance a few moments, before pushing it away in a move known throughout the wulin as Two Hands to Move a Mountain. Wanyan Honglie watched in amazement.

Qiu Chuji caught the censer, drank another large mouthful of wine before propelling it toward Ke Zhen’e. “Master Ke, please!”

He’s blind, how will he catch it? Wanyan Honglie thought. But he was unfamiliar with the extent of the Seven Freaks’ martial skill, and the fact that Brother Ke was the most accomplished among them. Using his hearing alone, Ke could place a flying object to within a centimeter just by listening for the rush of air around it. He sat calmly, focused, seemingly unconcerned by Qiu Chuji’s cry. Then, at the last possible moment, up shot his hand, and he struck the censer with his walking staff. He caught the censer and it spun like a plate on a bamboo stick. Ke Zhen’e then tipped the staff and the censer dipped, spinning a stream of rice wine from the rim. Ke Zhen’e opened his mouth and drank three or four mouthfuls, the spray drenching his clothes. He then jerked the stick with the lightest of touches, righting the censer, before flicking it up in the air. As it fell, he hit the censer one more time, sending it back, ringing, to Qiu Chuji.

“Master Ke must spin plates in his spare time!” Qiu Chuji laughed as he caught the censer with ease.

“We didn’t have much money when I was a child, I used to spin plates to help my parents,” Ke Zhen’e said, through gritted teeth.

“Honest work makes the man,” Qiu Chuji said. “A toast to Fourth Brother Nan!” He took another gulp of wine and sent the censer to Woodcutter Nan.

Clang! Woodcutter Nan said nothing, but stopped the censer with his shoulder pole and scooped a handful of wine as it fell. He then spun his pole horizontally, dropped onto his right knee, placed the pole on his left, caught the censer with the other end of the pole and, pushing downward, flicked it back into the air.

As the censer flew back in the direction of Qiu Chuji, Gilden Quan spoke. “I never turn down a good deal, let me drink.” He appeared at Woodcutter Nan’s side and waited for the censer’s return. Just as it was falling, he too fished out a handful of wine, caught the censer with his feet and then kicked it back at Qiu Chuji. The backward momentum sent him flying into the wall behind, where he slid to the ground.

“Wonderful, simply wonderful!” Zhu Cong declared, flicking his broken fan.

Qiu Chuji caught the censer and drank again. “Wonderful, wonderful. Now a drink for Second Brother.”

Aiya! I’m a master of the mind, not of the body. I can’t hold my drink. I’ll be drunk in seconds.” The censer was already making its way back toward him before Zhu Cong could finish. “Help, it’s going to squash me!”

He dipped his fan into the wine, drank, then struck the bottom of the censer, flicking it away. At that point, the floorboards creaked and a large crack appeared. “Help!” he cried as he fell through.

Everyone knew he was playing the fool. Wanyan Honglie, however, was still marveling at Zhu Cong’s use of the small fan, which appeared as strong as Woodcutter Nan’s shoulder pole.

“What about me?” Jade Han called, and with the tap of her right foot she flew up into the air like a swallow. In an instant she had jumped over the censer, lowered her head and drunk from it, before landing nimbly on the window ledge. She was a master of lightness qinggong kung fu and swordsmanship, but she was not the strongest and realized it would have been beyond her to catch the censer and launch it back at the Taoist.

The censer, meanwhile, flew past Jade, through the window and out onto the crowded street. Alarmed, Qiu Chuji raced out to stop it, but with a whoosh! and a whistle, Ryder Han swept past the Taoist, calling his horse round onto the street. Everyone gathered upstairs ran to the window to watch Ryder Han career into the censer, knocking them both onto the back of his horse. The horse lurched forward and steadied itself, then turned back toward the tavern and started climbing the steps. The treads creaked and cracked under its weight, but somehow it made it upstairs.

Ryder Han was in fact balanced beneath the horse’s belly, his left foot caught in a stirrup and his hands holding the censer on the saddle. The horse was fast and steady on the stairs. Once at the summit, Ryder Han flipped back onto the horse’s back, leaned down and drank from the censer, before pushing it off the horse with his left arm. He then snorted, cracked his whip and jumped out of the window, landing the beast with ease on the street outside. Ryder Han then dismounted and walked back up the stairs, arm in arm with Zhu Cong.

“The Seven Heroes of the South are worthy of their reputation indeed,” Qiu Chuji responded. “I am humbled by your skills. As long as Venerable Monk Scorched Wood vows to release the women, I will trouble him no further and leave.”

“Elder Eternal Spring,” Ke Zhen’e replied, “in this matter you are mistaken. Venerable Monk Scorched Wood has spent decades living a life free from bodily temptations, he is a virtuous and devout Buddhist whom we have long admired. Fahua Temple is also one of Jiaxing’s most sacred Buddhist sites. How could he be hiding respectable women inside?”

“There are always those who claim good reputations falsely,” Qiu Chuji declared.

“Elder Eternal Spring believes us to be lying?” Ryder Han was struggling to control his fury.

“I choose to believe my own eyes.”

“So what is Elder Eternal Spring going to do now?” Ryder Han bellowed. The power of his voice more than made up for his short stature.

“This matter did not concern the Seven Heroes to begin with, but as you insist upon getting involved, you must be confident in your skills. I am a mere novice, so I can only suggest we fight it out. If I lose, the Seven Heroes may decide how the matter is to be settled.”

“If this is Elder Eternal Spring’s desired recourse, please lay out the rules,” Ke Zhen’e said.

Qiu Chuji hesitated, then spoke. “There is no feeling of enmity between us and I have always admired the Seven Heroes of the South. To take up weapons or use our fists will only harm our friendship. We will do it like this… Innkeeper!” he called out. “Bring us fourteen large bowls!”

The innkeeper had been hiding downstairs, but as all was quiet upstairs he went to fetch the bowls.

Qiu Chuji instructed him to fill them from the censer. “A drinking competition,” he said, turning to the Seven Freaks. “For every bowl you drink, I will have one, until we have our winner. How about that?”

Ryder Han and Zhang Asheng were drinkers, so they agreed.

“But this is one against seven,” Ke Zhen’e contended. “It could never be an honorable win for us. Could Elder Eternal Spring devise another contest?”

“What makes you so sure you’ll win?”

“Fine! Then I’ll start!” Jade Han retorted. She was forthright by nature, particularly for a young woman. “I have never known anyone to treat us with such disrespect.” She grabbed a bowl of wine and gulped it down in one, her snowy cheeks blooming cherry red.

“Miss Han is quite the brave young squire!” Qiu Chuji exclaimed. “Men, please!”

The other men each picked up a bowl and drank. Qiu Chuji downed bowl after bowl as each was emptied. The innkeeper was now in higher spirits and cheerfully refilled the bowls. Within moments, they had been drained again.

By the third round of drinks, Jade Han’s hands were shaking so much she could not lift the bowl to her lips. Zhang Asheng took the bowl from her: “Sister, I will finish for you.”

“Elder Qiu, is that acceptable?” she asked.

“Of course, I don’t mind who drinks.”

They drank another round before Gilden Quan was also forced to stop.

By now Qiu Chuji had downed twenty-eight bowls, and to the surprise of the Seven Freaks, he appeared entirely sober. Wanyan Honglie was still watching and was even more shocked. I hope they get this Taoist drunk and finish him off, he said to himself.

Gilden Quan calculated there were still Five Freaks left, each capable of drinking for two men, and good for at least another three, maybe four, rounds. Could the Taoist really take another twenty bowls of wine in his belly? The volume alone would be too much; victory had to be theirs. But at that moment, he happened to glance down at Qiu Chuji’s feet, where a large puddle had formed.

“Second Brother,” he whispered in Zhu Cong’s ear. “Look!” He pointed down at the floor.

Zhu Cong glanced down. “This isn’t good. He’s using his inner strength to force the wine out through his feet.”

“Amazing. What now?”

Zhu Cong paused to think. “With this little trick, he could drink a hundred more bowls. We need another contest.”

He stepped back and without warning dropped through the hole in the floorboards he had created earlier. “I’m so drunk!” he called as he fell. They started another round, but by now the floor beneath Qiu Chuji’s feet was soaked through as if a spring had appeared underneath the boards. Woodcutter Nan, Ryder Han, and the others had also noticed, and were applauding such an amazing feat of inner strength, while Zhu Cong climbed back to join them.

Ryder Han placed his bowl back on the table, ready to admit defeat. But Zhu Cong looked at him meaningfully and turned to Qiu Chuji. “Elder Eternal Spring’s display of inner strength is quite remarkable, we are indeed much in admiration. But we are still five against one. It does not seem an honorable fight.”

This surprised Qiu Chuji. “Then what does Second Brother Zhu suggest?”

“Let me take you on, one on one,” Zhu Cong said, smiling.

The others were puzzled. Zhu Cong was clearly the most drunk; why would he take the Taoist on by himself? But they also knew that, while their brother liked to appear the fool, in actual fact he had a belly full of tricks. He always had the best plan in any given situation.

“The Seven Heroes are competitive, that’s for certain.” Qiu Chuji chuckled. “How about this: if Second Brother Zhu and I can finish what’s left of the wine, and neither passes out, then we’ll say it is I who has lost.”

The censer was still half full; they would have to have bellies like two laughing Buddhas to be able to finish it. But Zhu Cong was unconcerned. “I may not be famed for holding my liquor, but I did once drink a few sturdy men under the table while on my travels,” he said, fluttering his fan in his right hand and waving the sleeve of his left. “In one!” he cried, and drank.

Together they drained bowl after bowl. “What a drinker!” Qiu Chuji exclaimed.

“I once went to India, where the king challenged me to a drinking competition with a water buffalo. They never determined who won.”

Qiu Chuji knew he was being made fun of, but he didn’t care. He did notice, however, that despite the nonsense and the wild gesticulating, Zhu Cong was keeping pace. He did not seem to be expelling the liquid by the use of inner strength, and his belly had swollen in size. Was he able to expand it with just the force of his mind?

“Two years ago I went to Siam,” Zhu Cong continued. “That was even crazier. The Chancellor brought out an elephant to see who would win. The idiot drank seven barrels. How many do you think I had?”

Qiu Chuji knew Zhu Cong was making it up, but he could not help himself. “How many?”

Zhu Cong’s tone suddenly turned solemn and, lowering his voice, he hissed, “Nine.” Then, raising his voice again, he cried, “That’s it, drink up!”

Zhu Cong’s movements were growing ever wilder as he oscillated between drunk and crazy, but together they finished the wine. The other Freaks had no idea Zhu Cong could drink so much, but they were happy, if a little uneasy.

“Brother, what a feat. I salute you!” Qiu Chuji said, genuflecting in admiration.

Zhu Cong laughed. “Elder Eternal Spring used his inner strength, but I had to resort to external skills. Take a look!” He flipped backward and landed, holding a wooden bucket. A quick swirl released the sweet aroma of Blushing Maiden rice wine. Only Ke Zhen’e knew what his martial brother had been doing, and Zhu Cong’s stomach was now perfectly flat. The Seven Freaks of the South convulsed with laughter. Qiu Chuji’s cheeks went pale.

He was Quick Hands Zhu Cong, sleight of hand was his forte. This was no new trick, it had been handed down from generation to generation. Always a flourish, always a backflip. One backflip, a gold fish. Another backflip, a bowl of water. It continues—another backflip, another bowl with a fish swimming inside. Audiences in raptures. Zhu Cong had fetched the bucket when he dropped through the hole in the floorboards, of course, and the mad gesticulating was designed to distract Qiu Chuji. A true magician’s illusions cannot be deduced even with hundreds of eyes watching, and Qiu Chuji had not the merest notion that Zhu Cong would devise such a scheme.

“You call that drinking?” he said.

“And what about you? My wine is in this bucket, yours is on the floor. What’s the difference?”

And he paced up and down, slipping on the puddle of wine at Qiu Chuji’s feet. Qiu Chuji caught him. Zhu Cong jumped back and started walking in a circle. “Such a beautiful poem!” he cried out abruptly.

“Since ancient times mid-autumn’s moon,
Radiant, as icy winds clean the night;
Heavy hangs the Milky Way
As water dragons vault the seas.”

He almost sang the lines, stretching out the words.

Qiu Chuji was speechless. That’s the poem I started writing around Mid-Autumn Festival last year but did not finish, he thought to himself. I keep it on me at all times, as I can never think of the next four lines. But I have never shown it to anyone. He reached into his shirt, only to find the poem missing.

Zhu Cong spread the poem out on the table, a smile unfolding across his face. “Elder Eternal Spring is not only a peerless master of the martial arts, but his poetry is quite exquisite. Wondrous!”

I did not feel a thing, Qiu Chuji said to himself. What if he had tried stabbing me instead of merely stealing a poem? He could have killed me. But he showed mercy. This quelled his anxiety. “As Master Zhu finished the censer of wine with me, I will keep my word and admit defeat. Let it be known that, today, here in the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals, Qiu Chuji was defeated by the Seven Heroes of the South.”

“Please, please,” the Seven Freaks exclaimed politely. “It was all just a silly game.”

“And Elder Eternal Spring displayed an inner strength none of us could ever hope to equal,” Zhu Cong added.

“I may be admitting defeat,” Qiu Chuji replied, “but the fact remains, those two widows of my friends must be rescued.” He cupped his hands in a sign of respect and picked up the censer. “I’m going to Fahua Temple.”

“But you have admitted defeat. How dare you continue to trouble Scorched Wood the Monk?” Ke Zhen’e was furious.

“They are in grave danger. Victory, defeat, it’s all irrelevant. Great Hero Ke, if your friend was killed and his widow left to suffer all manner of insults, would you stand back and do nothing?” Suddenly his expression changed. There was a pause. “You called for backup? Even if you bring ten thousand men on ten thousand horses, I won’t give in!”

“We are seven, no more,” Zhang Asheng said. “Why would we call on anyone else?”

But Ke Zhen’e had also heard it. The clanging of metal. Men were approaching. “Everyone get back!”

They all heard it now and reached for their weapons. Moments later there came a clattering from below.

Men in Jin army regalia appeared at the top of the stairs.

Qiu Chuji respected the way the Seven Freaks of the South conducted themselves and had assumed they were ignorant of Scorched Wood’s true nature. He had been careful not to offend them. But Jin soldiers? Rage surged inside him. “Scorched Wood!” he said. “Seven Freaks! Jin soldiers? How dare you claim to be righteous members of the wulin?”

“Who called on the Jin?” Ryder Han cried back.

These men formed part of Wanyan Honglie’s personal retinue. Rumors were spreading of a violent confrontation at the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals, and Wanyan Honglie had not returned.

“Excuse me if I don’t stay any longer! But this is not over.” Still carrying the censer, Qiu Chuji went toward the stairs.

“Reverend Qiu, there’s been a misunderstanding!” Ke Zhen’e said, rising from his seat.

Qiu Chuji did not stop. “A misunderstanding? You’re the heroes, you tell me why you called on Jin soldiers to help you.”

“We didn’t,” Ke Zhen’e replied.

“I’m not blind,” Qiu Chuji retorted.

If there was one thing Ke Zhen’e could not abide, it was being laughed at for his impairment. “But I am, it’s true,” he snarled, planting his iron staff on the floor.

Qiu Chuji said nothing, raised his left hand and struck his palm against the forehead of one of the Jin soldiers, killing him instantly. “That’s what I can do!” And with a flick of his wrist, he pushed him down the stairs.

Horrified, the soldiers lunged at Qiu Chuji with their lances, but he flicked each one away without turning. The men were ready to charge when Wanyan Honglie called for them to stop.

“This loathsome Taoist is beyond belief,” he said, turning to Ke Zhen’e. “Why don’t you all join me for a drink and we can discuss how to deal with him?”

Ke Zhen’e was furious. “Get the hell out of here!”

Wanyan Honglie was visibly taken aback.

“Brother said, ‘Get the hell out’!” Ryder Han cried, shunting Wanyan Honglie in the left hip with his right shoulder. Wanyan Honglie stumbled a few steps backward, as the Seven Freaks and Scorched Wood fled.

Zhu Cong was last. He tapped Wanyan Honglie on the shoulder as he passed. “Have you sold the girl you kidnapped? Why not sell her to me?” Zhu Cong had not known who Wanyan Honglie was when they first met, but he had realized instantly Wanyan Honglie and Charity were not husband and wife. He had heard Wanyan boast of his wealth and decided to teach him a lesson. Now it transpired he was of some rank in the Jin army. Justice done then, surely?

Wanyan Honglie reached into his shirt and, as expected, his gold was gone. He was relieved he had not approached Ryder Han about joining him in the north. Given their fighting skills, he had no desire to reveal to the Seven Freaks that Madam Bao was with him. He rushed back to the inn. They would leave for the Jin capital that night.

 

Continue with Part 3 of “The Seven Freaks of the South” here.

Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.

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