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 selections from A Hero Born—you can find all the previous chapters here! And check back every morning this week for another installment of the third episode: “Swirling Sands”.
Guo Jing waited until darkness had fallen and the soldiers charged with clearing the battlefield had left, before emerging from his bush and starting back.
It was well past midnight by the time he arrived home, where Lily Li had been waiting with ever increasing alarm. Guo Jing was met by a relieved mother’s arms. He described to her all he had seen. Lily Li listened to her son’s stammering, clumsy account, and was reminded of her late husband—his twitching caterpillar eyebrows, his fascination with battle—and it felt like the thrust of a blade to her heart.
A few days later, Lily Li left for the nearest market, some thirty li hence, with two wool blankets. Guo Jing, meanwhile, took the sheep out to pasture as usual. Out in the grassland, his mind galloped back to the fight. He spurred his horse, raised his whip and shouted, herding his flock, imagining himself to be a general leading his men.
Just then the beating of hooves could be heard in the east. A horse was approaching. At first it appeared to be riderless, but Guo Jing realized as it drew close that its master was resting his head on the mane. It stopped and the rider looked up.
It was the black general from the battle, his face soiled with blood and dirt. In his left hand he held what remained of his saber, not more than a hilt—it, too, covered in blood. This was his only weapon. His left cheek had been slashed, with blood pouring from the wound, as had his horse’s legs. The man shuddered, locking his bloodshot eyes on Guo Jing.
“Water… Some water please?” the man managed to gasp.
Guo Jing ran the short distance back home and emerged with a bowl of water. The man grabbed it and drank it all down at once. “Another bowl!”
Guo Jing fetched another. Blood turned the water red as he drank. The man laughed, then his face twitched and he fell from his horse.
Guo Jing did not know what to do. But before long the man regained consciousness. “Some water for my horse. And how about something to eat?” he said.
Guo Jing reemerged with some chunks of cooked lamb and more water.
Food seemed to energize the man, and once finished he struggled to his feet. “Thank you, brother!” He then slipped a thick gold bracelet from his wrist and handed it to Guo Jing. “Here—for you.”
Guo Jing shook his head. “Mother says you should never expect anything in return for common kindness.”
“You’re a good boy!” the man said, replacing the bracelet. He then tore a section from his sleeve and began bandaging the horse’s wounds as well as his own.
Then, from the east, came the sound of more horses.
“Won’t they let me go?” the man growled.
On the horizon, rolling waves of dust were already visible. They were coming this way.
“Boy, do you keep a bow and arrows in the house?”
“Yes!” Guo Jing replied, and ran back inside.
The man was visibly relieved, but relief quickly turned to disappointment when he saw Guo Jing reappear with the small bow and arrow he used for playing. “I meant the kind for fighting—a big one!”
Guo Jing shook his head.
The riders were getting closer, their banners now visible in the distance. The black general realized he would not be able to outrun them on an injured horse.
“I can’t fight them by myself, so I’m going to hide,” he said to Guo Jing. But there was nowhere suitable in or around the small thatched cottage. He was desperate. The only place he could think of was the large pile of drying hay nearby.
“I’m going to hide in there,” he said, pointing. “Chase my horse away as far as you can. Then find somewhere to hide and don’t let them see you.” With that, he scrambled into the haystack.
Guo Jing whipped the man’s horse and it cantered far into the distance before stopping to munch on some fresh grass. Guo Jing mounted his colt and took off in the opposite direction.
The riders had spotted people ahead, and sent two men on before them. They soon caught up.
“Boy, have you seen a man on a black horse come past this way?”
Guo Jing was no good at lying, so he did not answer. The men asked again, and again, but still the boy refused to speak.
“Let’s take him to see the Prince,” one of the men suggested. They took hold of Guo Jing’s reins and rode with him back to the cottage.
I won’t tell them anything, Guo Jing decided as they approached his home.
There stood a tall, thin man draped in a red cape, encircled by a crowd of soldiers. Guo Jing recognized the man: he had taken part in the battle on the hill only two days before.
“What did the boy say?” the Prince barked.
“He’s frightened and won’t speak.”
The Prince cast his eyes around him until they fell upon a black horse grazing in the distance. “Is that his horse? Bring it here,” he said.
Ten soldiers split into pairs, surrounded the horse and led it back.
“This is Jebe’s horse, is it not?”
The Prince approached Guo Jing and struck him lightly across the head with his whip. “Where is he? Tell me. You can’t fool me.”
Jebe gripped his broken saber even tighter, his heart thudding. He knew this was Temujin’s eldest son, Jochi, famed for his brutality. The boy was going to give him away; he had to be prepared to fight.
Guo Jing was in pain but fought back his tears. “Why did you hit me?” he asked, holding his head high. “I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“You’re a stubborn boy,” Jochi growled as he whipped Guo Jing once more. This time tears gathered in Guo Jing’s eyes.
Jochi’s soldiers had been searching the house, and two men even poked at the haystack with their spears, but as luck would have it, they did not hit Jebe.
“He can’t have got far without his horse. Boy, are you going to tell me where he is?” Jochi struck Guo Jing across the head three more times, each time a little harder. Guo Jing made a vain attempt to grab the Prince’s whip.
Then came the sound of horns in the distance.
“The Great Khan is coming!”
Jochi lowered his whip. The soldiers rushed to gather around the Khan as he stopped in front of them. “Father!”
Temujin’s injuries were grave. The Khan had summoned his last reserves of energy to fight out the battle, but fainted several times after Jebe fled. His general Jelme and third son Ogedai took turns sucking the blood clots from his wounds, and together his four sons and best generals waited by his bed through the night until he was out of danger. Early the next morning, the Khan’s men rode in search of Jebe, swearing they would catch and quarter him. One small group found him around dawn that morning and a fight ensued, but the black general had prevailed.
“Father, we found his horse!” Jochi announced, pointing it out for the Khan.
“The horse is no good to me. I want the man!” Temujin replied.
“Of course, Father, we’ll find him,” Jochi said. He went back to Guo Jing, unsheathed his saber and swung it menacingly above the boy’s head. “Well? Are you going to tell me now?”
The earlier beating had emboldened the boy. “No!”
Temujin noted the boy did not claim ignorance. “Trick it out of him,” Temujin whispered to his third son.
Ogedai approached Guo Jing with a smile and plucked two resplendent peacock feathers from his helmet. “These are yours if you tell me.”
“No!” Guo Jing insisted.
“Release the dogs!” An order from Temujin’s second son, Chagatai. The soldiers brought forth six of Chagatai’s beloved mastiffs, led them to where Jebe’s horse was grazing to catch his scent, and then let them loose. They ran straight for the cottage and out again, roaring and barking.
Guo Jing was no friend to Jebe, but he had admired the general’s bravery on the battlefield, and Jochi’s whipping had only strengthened his resolve. Guo Jing whistled to his sheepdog. Chagatai’s mastiffs were circling in on the haystack, but Guo Jing commanded his dog to block them. Chagatai shouted and the mastiffs pounced. Howls, barks, teeth clashing. Though outnumbered, Guo Jing’s sheepdog fought back bravely, but within moments he was covered in large gashes. Guo Jing cheered between his tears.
Temujin, Ogedai and the rest of their men knew Jebe must be in the haystack, but as there was no escape for the black general they decided to enjoy the dogfight first.
But Jochi could not wait and took his whip to Guo Jing. The boy rolled on the grass in pain, close to where Jochi was standing. Then suddenly he jumped up and grabbed hold of Jochi’s right leg. Jochi tried to shake him off, but Guo Jing was surprisingly strong. Jochi’s brothers started laughing and even the Great Khan had to hide a smile. Jochi’s cheeks flashed scarlet. He pulled out his saber and swung at Guo Jing’s head. Just as the blade was about to slice the boy’s head clean from his neck, out from the haystack popped a broken saber to block his swing. Jochi felt his fingers shake and he nearly dropped his weapon.
Jebe scrambled out from under the hay and pulled Guo Jing behind him. “Taken to bullying children now? Have you no shame?”
The soldiers surrounded Jebe, spears at the ready. He had nowhere to go. Jebe threw down his broken saber. Jochi made to punch Jebe in the chest.
“Go on, kill me!” the black general shouted back, instead of defending himself. “Shame I won’t be granted the honor of dying at the hands of a true hero.”
“What did you say?” Temujin cried.
“Were I to die on the battlefield, defeated by a hero, I would have no regrets. But today an eagle has fallen and is about to be eaten by ants.”
Jebe then howled. Chagatai’s hunting dogs had pinned Guo Jing’s sheepdog to the ground and were chomping and snarling at it, but Jebe’s call stopped them, and they retreated, tails between their legs.
“Great Khan, such arrogance is not to be tolerated,” one of Temujin’s men cried, stepping out from the crowd. “Let me fight him!”
“Fine! You show him,” Temujin replied. It was one of his best generals, Bogurchi. “If there’s one thing we have plenty of, it’s heroes.”
“I’ll kill you. So you may die with no regrets,” Bogurchi cried, as he stepped forward.
“And who are you?” Jebe replied, eyeing the sturdy man opposing him.
“My name is Bogurchi! Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
Jebe felt a shiver go through him. So this is the famous Bogurchi? Jebe said to himself. His fame precedes him; he is a hero among the Mongols. But he rolled his eyes and snorted, feigning indifference.
“You are named for your great skills with the bow and arrow,” Temujin said to Jebe. “Why not see who is more skilled: you, or my sworn brother here?”
“You are a sworn brother to the Great Khan?” Jebe turned to Bogurchi. “In that case, I’ll take pleasure in killing you first.”
The Mongol soldiers burst into laughter. Bogurchi’s unparalleled fighting skills had made him famous across the steppe. Jebe may well be a talented archer, but was he a match for the great Bogurchi?
As a boy, Temujin had been taken prisoner by his father’s former allies, the Tayichi’ud, and taken to the banks of the Onon River, where they thrust his head through the flat wooden panel of a cangue. There they drank, and lashed him with their whips. Temujin waited until his captors were incapacitated with drink before knocking the guard over the head with the cangue, still locked around his neck, and escaping into the forest.
The Tayichi’uds called a search across the steppe. A young man by the name of Tchila’un took pity on Temujin, and, risking the wrath of the Tayichi’ud, broke the cangue from Temujin’s neck, burned it, and sheltered the fugitive in a cart of fleeces. Presently the Tayichi’ud men came and searched Tchila’un’s home. The men spotted the cart and began removing the fleeces, one layer at a time. Just as they were about to uncover the future Khan, Tchila’un’s father interrupted the soldiers.
“The weather is so hot, how could he be hiding in the fleeces? He would be dead by now.”
The summer solstice was upon them, and sweat poured from their bodies like storm rains. The old man spoke sense, so the soldiers left.
Temujin had fled home, and now, along with his mother and younger brother, was forced to keep moving across the steppe, surviving on wild rats and his horsemanship to keep them ahead of their pursuers.
One day, eight of Temujin’s white horses were stolen by a rival tribe. Temujin was giving chase when he encountered a young man, milking his horse. Had he seen where the thieves had fled? This was Bogurchi. “We both know the hardships a man faces in these grasslands. Let us be friends,” he said.
They rode together for three days before at last catching up with the thieves. They fought side by side. Their arrows slayed hundreds of men, and together they recovered the horses. Temujin offered to give Bogurchi four, but Bogurchi refused. “This I did for friendship, nothing more.”
In one another they found a bond deeper than any other.
Temujin now gave his bow to Bogurchi and jumped down from his steed. “Ride my horse, use my bow and arrows. It will be as if I killed him myself.”
“As you command.” Bogurchi took the bow in his left hand, the arrows in his right, and jumped up onto Temujin’s beloved white horse.
“Give your horse to Jebe,” Temujin said to Ogedai.
“He is most fortunate indeed,” Ogedai said, dismounting. One of the bodyguards led the horse to Jebe.
“I am surrounded,” Jebe said to Temujin, once seated on Ogedai’s horse. “You could have killed me easier than a sheep. I dare not ask for more favors. Just give me a bow—no arrows are necessary.”
“No arrows?” Bogurchi said.
“That’s right. I can kill you with just a bow.”
Again the Mongolian soldiers guffawed.
“How he boasts!”
“What a braggart!”
Temujin ordered them to give Jebe one of their best bows.
Bogurchi knew Jebe’s shot was precise. But to fight without arrows? Bogurchi realized Jebe must be planning to send his arrows back at him. He squeezed his thighs and Temujin’s horse sprang forward.
Jebe pulled on his reins. Bogurchi nocked an arrow, pulled back and shot. Jebe reached out. The arrow was in his hand.
Impressive, Bogurchi said to himself.
Jebe listened as it cut through the air. This one he couldn’t catch. He pressed his body flat against the horse’s back. The arrow passed above, ruffling the hairs on his head. He spurred, turned his horse, hauled himself upright. But Bogurchi fed his bow quickly, and two more arrows came whistling toward him. He slipped down from his saddle, his right foot still hooked into the stirrup, and held himself inches from the ground slipping by below. There he fluttered at the horse’s feet, like a trapped kite. He turned, loaded the arrow he had caught, fired it, and flipped back into the saddle.
“Amazing,” Bogurchi breathed. He shot at the approaching arrow. The arrowheads clashed, twisted and sank into the sand. Cheers rose from Temujin and his men.
Bogurchi nocked an arrow, aimed left, waited for Jebe to react, and shot right. Jebe knocked the arrow away with his bow into the dirt. Bogurchi fired three more arrows in a rapid flurry, all of which Jebe dodged with ease. Jebe spurred his horse, leaned down, picked three arrows from the dirt, bent his bow and shot.
Bogurchi leaped up and stood on his saddle in an extravagant display. Balancing on his left foot, he kicked the flying arrows away with his right, before pulling back his bow with all his power and letting fly. Jebe jerked to one side and shot an arrow at Bogurchi’s, splitting it along the shaft.
Bogurchi was growing uneasy and increasingly impatient. He fired a blur of arrows. Unable to catch so many in succession, Jebe contrived to avoid them. But still the arrows kept coming, thick and fast, until he was struck in the left shoulder. The crowd cheered.
Smiling, Bogurchi reached for another arrow, intending to kill Jebe. His hand felt into his quiver’s deepest corners. There were none left. He always took sufficient supplies with him into battle: two quivers around his waist and six on the horse. But he was not using his own mount now; he was riding the Khan’s. He pulled the horse round, stooped, and swept at the moving grass.
Jebe knew this was his chance, and fired an arrow square into Bogurchi’s back. A gasp rose from the crowd. It was a painful blow, but despite the force of the shot, the arrow failed to penetrate Bogurchi’s clothing and fell to the ground. Bogurchi reached down and inspected the arrow. Jebe had removed the arrowhead.
“I avenge the Great Khan! You needn’t show me any mercy!” Bogurchi cried, sitting back in the saddle.
“Jebe shows no mercy to his enemies. I have killed you, in all but deed.”
Temujin had been watching in distress, but his fears were allayed when he realized Bogurchi was unhurt. He would have exchanged ten thousand sheep, oxen, and horses to keep his best general and friend from being killed. “Enough!” Temujin called. “You have proven your prowess. We no longer seek vengeance upon you.”
“I am not asking the Khan to spare my life.”
“Then what do you want?”
“It is him I wish to be spared!” Jebe answered, pointing at Guo Jing standing by the door. “All I ask is that the Khan troubles the child no more. As for myself,” he continued, “I wounded the Khan and deserve punishment. Come, Bogurchi!” He pulled the arrow from his shoulder and loaded his bow, the blood still dripping from the tip.
“Fine! Let’s fight!”
A deluge of arrows rushed from Bogurchi’s bow, forming a chain through the air.
Jebe hooked his foot through the stirrup, tucked himself under his horse’s belly, and aimed. Bogurchi’s white colt pulled left without his master’s command, but Jebe had been swift, and the arrow hit the horse in the forehead, bringing it crashing to the ground.
Bogurchi fired as he rolled, splitting the bow in Jebe’s hand. Jebe cursed, and steered his horse away from Bogurchi’s arrows. Cheers rose from the spectators.
He’s an impressive archer, Bogurchi had to admit. He bent his bow, aimed at Jebe’s back and let go.
The arrow hit Jebe in the back of the head. Jebe convulsed and fell from his horse, the arrow landing in the grass beside him. But Bogurchi too had removed the arrowhead. He loaded another arrow and held it aimed at Jebe. “Great Khan!” he cried, turning to Temujin. “Have mercy and let him go!”
“Will you not surrender?” Temujin responded.
Jebe’s stubborn defiance was overcome. He ran over to Temujin and knelt at his feet.
Temujin smiled. “From this day forward, you fight with me!”
Mongolians often turn to song to express their feelings. Kneeling before the Khan, Jebe began to sing:
“The Great Khan is merciful, as befits his name,
Which I will repay with my protection,
With contempt of fire and water,
And rebel against dark seas and rupturing cliffs.
Take our enemies, gouge out their hearts!
I will go wherever I am needed.
For the Khan I am always willing,
Ten thousand miles by sun or moon!”
Temujin produced two gold ingots and gave one each to Bogurchi and Jebe.
“Great Khan, may I give this to the boy?”
“You may do with your gold as you please,” Temujin replied.
Jebe approached Guo Jing and held out the ingot, but Guo Jing shook his head: “Mother says you should never expect anything in return for common kindness.”
Temujin admired the boy’s bravery, but liked him even more after hearing this. “What an impressive young man!” Then, turning to Jebe: “Bring him to me later.” He then left, instructing a squad to mount the dead horse on the backs of two others, and to follow behind.
Jebe was exhausted, but pleased with the outcome. He lay in the grass to rest and wait for the boy’s mother to return.
“You’re a good boy, you did the right thing,” Lily Li said to Guo Jing after Jebe told her of her son’s fearless conduct, even if the wounds on his face did trouble her. But how would the boy avenge his father’s death if he remained a shepherd his whole life? No, it would be better to let him train with the Great Khan’s men. So mother and son agreed to go with Jebe, and join Temujin’s tribe.
Jebe was put in command of a team of ten under Temujin’s third son, Ogedai. Jebe and Bogurchi held each other in great esteem, and became loyal friends. Nor did Jebe forget his debt to Guo Jing. He took good care of mother and son, and decided he would teach Guo Jing all his skills with the bow and arrow, as soon as the boy was old enough.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.