Jin Yong’s A Hero Born is a fantastical generational saga and kung fu epic, stretching from the Song Empire to the appearance of a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.
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—start here with “Suddenly A Snowstorm,” continue on with “The Seven Freaks of the South,” and check back every morning this week for another installment of the third episode: “Swirling Sands”.
A HERO BORN
After his father, a Song patriot, was murdered, Guo Jing and his mother fled to the plains and joined Ghengis Khan and his people. Loyal, humble and driven, he learned all he could from the warlord and his army in hopes of one day joining them in their cause. But what Guo Jing doesn’t know is that he’s destined to battle an opponent that will challenge him in every way imaginable and with a connection to his past that no one envisioned.
With the help and guidance of his shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing returns to China to face his foe and carry out his destiny. But in a land divided by treachery and war, betrayal and ambition, he’ll have to put his courage and knowledge to the test to survive.
The monks sobbed bitterly at their abbot’s death, but quickly turned to bandaging the wounded and carrying them to the temple guesthouse.
A knocking from inside the bell in the hall suddenly interrupted their work. The monks looked at each other: was it a monster? They began chanting “The King’s Sutra,” accompanied by the mysterious banging. Eventually some among them pulled the bell aside and together lifted the censer. To their horror, out rolled a ball of flesh. The monks jumped back in fright. The ball then slowly uncurled and stood up; it was Ryder Han. He was unaware of how the fight had ended, but immediately spotted that Scorched Wood was at eternal rest and his martial family gravely injured. Taking up his Golden Dragon whip he marched toward where Qiu Chuji was lying and raised it above the Taoist’s head.
“Third Brother, no!” Gilden Quan cried.
“You mustn’t,” was all his brother could manage through the pulsing pain in his stomach.
Ke Zhen’e had been struck in both legs, but he was not badly hurt and was as alert as ever. He removed a vial of antidote from inside his shirt and instructed one of the monks to administer it to Qiu Chuji and Jade Han. He then explained all that had happened to his third martial brother.
“Where is Duan?” Ryder Han demanded.
“We’ll find the scoundrel soon enough,” Ke Zhen’e replied. “First you must help your brothers, they are badly wounded.”
Zhu Cong and Woodcutter Nan’s injuries were the most serious, and the kick to Gilden Quan’s stomach had done its damage too. Zhang Asheng’s arm was broken and his chest thumped with pain, but at least he was conscious once again.
The monks sent runners to report the day’s events to Withered Wood at Cloudy Perch Temple, and to start making arrangements for Abbot Scorched Wood’s funeral.
It took a few days for the poison to dissipate. Qiu Chuji was in fact well versed in the medicinal arts and spent his time mixing herbal recipes and giving massages to the Freaks. Before long they were able to sit up in bed. Together they gathered in the monks’ sleeping quarters.
Eventually Jade Han broke the silence. “Elder Qiu is wise and capable, and the Seven Freaks are not exactly amateurs. And yet this dog tricked us into turning on each other. If word gets out, we’ll be laughed out of the wulin. Your Reverence,” she said, turning to Qiu Chuji, “what do you think we should do?”
Qiu Chuji held himself very much responsible. If only he had spoken calmly with Scorched Wood, surely the truth would have come out. “What do you think, Brother Ke?”
Ke Zhen’e was short-tempered by nature, and had only become more so following the events which led to his being blinded. He considered the defeat of his martial family at the hands of the Taoist an event of unparalleled humiliation, and his leg was spasming with pain. His answer, therefore, was rather short. “Elder Qiu has no respect for anyone, so long as he carries his sword. Why ask us our opinion?”
Qiu Chuji was stunned by this response, but understood Ke Zhen’e’s anger. He got to his feet and bowed to each in turn. “Please forgive my ill manners. I have wronged each one of you. I beg for your forgiveness.”
Zhu Cong and the Seven Freaks bowed too, all except Ke Zhen’e, who pretended not to notice. “My martial brothers and I are no longer worthy of involving ourselves in matters of the martial world. We shall take to fishing or collecting firewood. As long as Your Reverence would be so good as to allow us a horse and leave us alone, we will live out the rest of our days in peace.”
Qiu Chuji blushed at Ke Zhen’e’s reproof. He sat stiffly, saying nothing, and then took to his feet. “It was I who was at fault. I will not insult you further by wasting your time with my chatter. As for Abbot Scorched Wood’s death, the responsibility is mine and I will ensure that the villain Duan meets my blade. Now I must go.” Qiu Chuji bowed once more and turned to leave.
“Wait!” Ke Zhen’e called after him.
Qiu Chuji turned. “Was there anything else, Brother Ke?”
“You have caused each of us great injury,” Ke Zhen’e said. “Is that all you have to say?”
“What was Brother Ke hoping for? I will do everything in my power to please you.”
“Your tone is most rude. You can’t just expect us to swallow it,” Ke Zhen’e answered, his voice quiet.
The Seven Freaks could be generous and just, but they were also afflicted by an exaggerated pride, bordering on arrogance. It was not for nothing they were named the Seven Freaks, after all. As individuals they were accomplished, but together they were formidable. This was their first taste of defeat. Some years previously, they triumphed over the Huaiyang Gang on the shores of the Yangtze River, defeating more than a hundred men. Jade Han was only a child at the time, but she had killed two. From that day on, their fame spread throughout the jianghu. To be defeated by a lone Taoist was intolerable; all the more so that they were responsible for the death of their good friend Scorched Wood, and for no just cause. No, Qiu Chuji was to blame: he had been impetuous. Never mind that he had been right about a woman hiding in the temple. Skyfury Guo’s wife, no less.
“I was gravely injured,” Qiu Chuji said, “and would have died, had it not been for Brother Ke’s antidote. So I must admit defeat this time.”
“If that is so,” Ke Zhen’e replied, “then leave us the sword on your back as proof, so there can be no more fighting.”
Only Ryder Han and Jade Han were fit for combat, and there was no way they could prevail alone. Ke would rather his martial brothers die by his own hand than by the Taoist’s blade.
I have saved them face by admitting defeat, Qiu Chuji said to himself. What else do they want? “The sword is my protection, just like Brother Ke’s staff.”
“Are you ridiculing my condition?” Ke Zhen’e raised his voice.
“I wouldn’t dare.”
“Everyone is injured, we cannot fight again,” Ke Zhen’e growled. “But I invite Your Reverence to meet us back in the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals this very day one year from now.”
Qiu Chuji frowned. Suddenly an idea hit him. “Of course we can arrange another fight, but I should set the rules. Although perhaps we needn’t go another round as I already lost the drinking contest to Brother Zhu and have lost again in the temple.”
Ryder Han, Jade Han and Zhang Asheng took to their feet and the others straightened themselves as much as their injuries allowed. “We are happy to fight one more round. Our opponent may choose the time, the place, and the rules.”
Qiu Chuji smiled. They were indeed competitive. “So you will agree to my suggestion, no matter what?”
Zhu Cong and Gilden Quan were confident they stood a chance at victory, whatever perverse or clever trick the Taoist came up with. “You decide!”
“The word of a gentleman…” Qiu Chuji said.
“… is as true as a horseman’s whip!” Jade Han finished.
Ke Zhen’e made no reply.
“If my terms are deemed unsuitable, I will of course admit defeat,” Qiu Chuji continued. It was an obvious tactic, playing to their vanity.
“Just give us the rules,” Ke Zhen’e said.
Qiu Chuji sat back down. “The method I have devised may seem protracted, but it is a true test of skill rather than brute force or momentary bravery. Every martial artist is trained to fight with fist and blade, there is nothing special about that. And besides, we have our good reputations to protect. We are not mere thugs.”
If we’re not going to fight, then what? the Seven Freaks wondered. Another drinking contest?
“This challenge, seven against one, will not only determine who has more skill, but also determination and stamina, as well as tactical intelligence. By the end, we will know who is worthy of the name ‘hero.’”
The Seven Freaks were boiling over with anticipation.
“Tell us!” Jade Han said.
“If the challenge involves mixing together elixirs of immortality or charms to drive away ghosts we must accept defeat now,” Zhu Cong said, smiling.
Qiu Chuji smiled back. “And I wouldn’t want to compete with Brother Zhu in a contest of pickpocketing and filching.”
“Tell us!” Jade Han was growing ever more impatient.
“At the heart of our dispute lay a misunderstanding. All because the lives of two descendants of loyal patriots are in danger. It is to this matter we must return.”
Qiu Chuji began relating the story of how he met Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang, the fight in the snow and his pursuit of Justice Duan to this very temple. The Seven Freaks were just as disgusted with the corrupt Song court as with the brutal Jin, and vowed their allegiance to the brothers Guo and Yang.
“The woman Commander Duan kidnapped was Skyfury Guo’s widow, Madam Li. You saw her, I am sure.”
“I remember her voice—I could never forget it,” Ke Zhen’e said.
“Good,” Qiu Chuji continued. “I know not where Ironheart Yang’s widow is to be found, however. But I have met her, and you have not. So, my suggestion is—”
“We find Madam Li and you find Madam Bao, and whoever succeeds first will be determined the winner. Am I right?” Jade Han interrupted.
“Finding them may not be easy, but it is hardly a test worthy of determining a hero. No, my proposal is more complicated.”
“What is it?” Impatience was now getting the better of Ke Zhen’e.
“Both women are pregnant. We will find them, make sure they are safe and help them with the birth. As the children grow and mature…”
The Seven Freaks were astonished at where this was going.
“Then what?” Ryder Han urged.
“We will train them. Once they have reached the age of eighteen, we and other invited masters of the wulin will gather at the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals. First we will feast, and then our disciples will fight each other.”
The Seven Freaks looked at each other.
“Were we to fight and the Seven Heroes defeat me, the glory of the victory would be tainted by the fact that you outnumber me. But in passing our skills on to one disciple each, we will better see whose skills are worthy of earning them the title ‘Master.’”
“So it shall be!” Ke Zhen’e cried, thumping his staff against the temple floor.
“But what if Madam Li has already been killed by Commander Duan?” said Gilden Quan.
“That is a matter for fate,” Qiu Chuji replied. “If the heavens have favored me, then so be it.”
“Fine,” Ryder Han rejoined. “We will have helped those poor widows and their unborn children even if we lose, which is the noblest course of action.”
“Exactly, Brother Han,” Qiu Chuji said, gesturing his approval. “I would be most grateful if the Seven Heroes took care of my dead brother Guo’s child and raised him to adulthood.” He turned and bowed to each one in turn.
“You have been exceedingly clever with this plan,” Zhu Cong said, “as it will involve eighteen years of hard work.”
Qiu Chuji’s countenance changed and he started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Jade Han challenged.
“The Seven Heroes have a reputation for generosity and a willingness to help others in need,” Qiu Chuji said. “Heroes with a strong sense of justice, they say.”
“And?” Ryder Han and Zhang Asheng demanded in unison.
“But I see now this was a gross exaggeration.”
The Freaks were incensed and Ryder Han slammed his fist on the bench. But Qiu Chuji continued before he could interrupt.
“Since time immemorial, martial heroes have sworn allegiance to one another. They have been prepared to die for friendship. ‘In times of peril, who cares for mine own flesh.’ Justice was the only honorable consideration, for who could balk at giving their life for such a noble cause? Could you imagine Jing Ke or Nie Zheng hestitating over such a matter? The Yang and Guo families are in grave distress and in need of our assistance, and you quibble over the details of our contest?”
Zhu Cong’s cheeks were hot with shame. He was an educated man and knew well the righteous conduct of ancient men described in the biographies from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. “Yes, Your Reverence is correct to point this out. I was mistaken. We will do just as you suggest.”
“Today is the twenty-fourth day of the third lunar month,” Qiu Chuji began, standing up. “We shall meet again on this very same day, eighteen years from now, at noon, at the Garden of the Eight Drunken Immortals. With the other heroes of the wulin as our witness, we will see who among us is truly deserving of the title ‘Master.’” And with a flick of his sleeve, he left.
“I’m going to look for Justice Duan,” Ryder Han announced. “We can’t let him go to ground, or we’ll never track him down.”
As the only one not to have sustained any injury, he marched out of the door, swung himself up onto his famous golden steed, Wind Chaser, and went in pursuit of Commander Duan and Lily Li.
“Brother, brother!” Zhu Cong called after him. “You’ve never laid eyes on them before!”
But it was too late; Ryder Han was impatient by nature and his horse true to its name.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.