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”.
“The Seven Freaks of the South”
The night Qiu Chuji chanced upon Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang, he had traveled back to Lin’an in some distress. He spent the next few days resting by West Lake. At its north end towers Ge Peak, where the Taoist Ge Hong made his renowned immortality pills. Qiu Chuji’s mornings were spent sightseeing and his afternoons in the temple practicing martial arts and reading from the Taoist canon.
As he was strolling along Qinghefang Lane one day, he noticed a small group of soldiers staggering toward him, swinging their helmets and dragging their armor and broken weapons behind them. They had just been defeated in battle. We are not at war with the Jin at the moment, Qiu Chuji thought, and I have not heard talk of bandits lately. What battle have they been fighting? He asked people on the street but no one knew. His curiosity piqued, he followed the soldiers back to their camp at Command Post Six.
Late that night, Qiu Chuji crept into the camp. There he found a soldier and dragged him outside into a nearby alley for interrogation. The soldier, fast asleep only moments before, now had a blade at his throat. He told Qiu Chuji everything he knew about the events in Ox Village, including Skyfury Guo’s death and Ironheart Yang’s injuries. It was unlikely Ironheart had survived, but no one knew of his whereabouts. The wives were captured, but their captors had been ambushed by another group of men while riding back. A bloody fight ensued and they lost many of their number.
Qiu Chuji grew ever more furious as the story went on, but the soldier had just been following orders. There was no use getting angry with him. “Who is your commander?”
Early the next morning, a pole was erected in front of the camp, bearing a severed head. A warning. Qiu Chuji recognized it at once; it was Skyfury Guo. These men were descended from loyal patriots, he said to himself. They invited you to drink with them and yet you repaid their kindness by bringing death upon them and destroying their families. Picking up a stone, he flung it at the flagpole, splintering it.
He waited until darkness, climbed the pole and took down Guo’s head. He then went to the shores of West Lake, where he buried it. Placing his palms together, he bowed, and with tears spilling down his cheeks he made a promise: “Brother Guo, Brother Yang, I swore I would pass my kung fu skills on to your children. When I make a promise, I keep it. If I don’t make martial arts heroes of them, I will not be fit to face you both in the afterlife.”
First, he would find Justice Duan and kill him. Then he would rescue the widows and settle them somewhere safe so they could give birth and continue the Guo and Yang family lines.
For two nights he searched Command Post Six, but Justice Duan was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he lived in luxury, rather than alongside his soldiers? On the third night, he made his way to the commander’s residence: “Justice Duan, I know you’re in there! Come out at once!”
Duan was inside and happened to be questioning Lily Li over the disappearance of her husband’s head—which bandits did Guo count among his friends?—when he was interrupted by the disturbance outside. He poked his head through the window and saw a Taoist breaking through a crowd of his men, a soldier in each hand.
“Loose your arrows!” those of rank were shouting, but the men either had no bows or else no arrows.
Justice Duan was furious, drew the saber from his belt and ran out. “Is this a rebellion?”
He brandished the weapon at Qiu Chuji, but the Taoist stopped, cast aside the soldiers and grabbed Duan’s wrist. “Tell me, where is that foul dog, Justice Duan?”
A searing pain shot through Duan’s wrist and body. “Is Your Reverence looking for Commander Duan? He… You’ll find him on a pleasure boat on the West Lake. I’m not sure if he plans to return this evening.”
Taking this stranger at his word, Qiu Chuji released him. Duan then turned to two nearby soldiers. “Take the Reverend to the lake. He’s looking for Commander Duan.”
The soldiers hesitated.
“Hurry!” Duan growled. “Or the commander will be angry!”
The two men understood, turned and left. Qiu Chuji followed.
Justice Duan was too frightened to remain at the camp, so he gathered some men and Lily Li, and hurried to Command Post Eight. The commanders frequently enjoyed an evening drink together. Duan’s friend was furious when he heard what had happened to him. But just as the eighth commander was about to order some of his men to track down this vile Taoist and have him killed, an altercation was heard outside. The Taoist had come to them. The soldiers must have cracked under Qiu Chuji’s questioning.
Justice Duan ran, taking his men and Lily Li. This time they made for Command Post Two at Quanjie, outside the city. It was more remote and therefore less easy to find. Duan was frightened; the image of the Taoist fighting his way through a whole crowd of soldiers would not leave him. His wrist was also throbbing and beginning to swell. The army doctor examined it and determined he had broken two bones. After being treated with ointment and fitted with a splint, Duan decided he could not return to his encampment, but would have to stay at Command Post Two for the night.
Duan slept soundly until midnight, when he was awoken by more shouting outside. Reports came that one of the sentries had vanished.
He leaped out of bed, sensing that the guards must have been captured by Qiu Chuji. As long as he stayed in army camps the Taoist was going to find him. And he was too skilled a fighter for Duan. So what now? The Taoist seemed determined to catch him. Duan’s men might not be able to protect him. As panic started to take hold of him, he remembered his uncle, a monk of exceptional martial skill now residing in Cloudy Perch Temple. The Taoist’s arrival had to have something to do with Skyfury Guo’s death, so he would take Lily Li with him for security. He forced the widow to disguise herself as a soldier and dragged her out into the night.
His uncle had assumed holy robes many years before, taking the name Withered Wood. He was now Abbot of Cloudy Perch Temple, but had once been an officer in the army and received his martial arts training from the Masters of the Immortal Cloud Sect, a branch of the Shaolin school dominant in the areas of the jianghu straddling southern Zhejiang and Fujian.
Withered Wood had always despised his nephew and did as much as he could to avoid any association with him, so when Duan arrived at the temple door in the middle of the night, his response was less than welcoming. “What are you doing here?”
Duan knew the extent of his uncle’s hatred for the Jin, so he could not possibly tell him the truth: that he had helped the enemy kill two patriots. Uncle would have him killed there and then. But Duan had spent the journey concocting a story. He knelt before his uncle, and under the monk’s cold gaze, kowtowed. “Uncle, I beg for your help. I am being threatened.”
“You’re an officer in the army, people thank the heavens above for every day that you’re not bullying them. Who would trouble you?”
“Indeed, I deserve it,” Duan replied, putting on his best performance. “Uncle is right. Some friends and I went to Blushing Cherry Lodge by Lingqing Bridge the day before yesterday to enjoy the atmosphere.”
Withered Wood snorted. The story had not started well. The ladies of Blushing Cherry Lodge did not provide the kind of atmosphere respectable men enjoyed.
“I usually visit one girl in particular, my mistress I suppose. She was drinking and singing with me, when without warning a Taoist came bursting in. As soon as he heard my girl singing, he demanded she join him instead…”
“Ha! Nonsense. Men of holy robes do not frequent such obscene places.”
“Exactly. I made some comment to that effect and ordered him to leave. But the Taoist turned nasty and started cursing me. Then he said I shouldn’t bother picking fights when I’d be losing my head soon anyway.”
“What did he mean by that?”
“He said the Jin will be crossing the Yangtze within days and are going to kill the entire Song army.”
“He said that?”
“Yes. I got angry and started arguing with him. Even if the Jin did come south, I said, we would fight to defend this great country. And there was nothing to say we would be defeated.”
Justice Duan’s words were calculated to rouse emotion in his uncle, and the Abbot nodded as his nephew spoke. These were the only sensible words to have come out of his nephew’s mouth since the day he emerged from his mother’s womb.
Duan saw they were having the desired effect, so continued. “We then got into a fight, but as you know, I’m no match for a Taoist trained in the martial arts. He pursued me and I had nowhere to go. Uncle, you’re my only hope.”
“I am a monk,” Withered Wood said, shaking his head, “I cannot understand these petty fights over a woman’s attentions.”
“I ask for Uncle’s help just this once. It will never happen again.”
Withered Wood could not help but think of his brothers in the army and fury rose within him. “Fine, you can hide here in the temple for a few days. But no trouble.”
Justice Duan nodded.
“You’re an army officer.” Withered Wood sighed before continuing. “Such debauched behavior. What will we do if the Jin really do decide to cross into the south? Back when I was a soldier…”
Duan may have threatened Lily Li into silence, but she was listening to every word.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.