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”.
One day, Guo Jing was playing with some of the other children when two riders came galloping into the encampment with urgent news for the Khan. They rushed to Temujin’s ger and within moments the horns were sounded and soldiers ran from their tents. The men were organized into squads of ten, each with its own commander. These were then organized into companies made up of ten squads, battalions of one thousand men and, finally, divisions of ten thousand, each with their own commander. Temujin kept close control of his army through this chain of command.
Guo Jing and the other children watched as the men took up their weapons and mounted their horses. Another horn blast sounded, and the ground shook as the horses gathered into formation. By the end of the third blast, silence had descended as all fifty thousand men were lined up before the encampment’s main gate. Only the occasional horse’s snort broke the quiet; no one spoke, no clanging of weapons was heard.
“Of our many victories the Jin Empire knows,” Temujin cried as he walked through the main gate with his three sons. “The Jin Emperor sent his Third and Sixth Princes here today to appoint your Khan an officer of the Jin!”
The soldiers raised their weapons and hailed their Khan. The Jin controlled all of northern China by the force of a strong and disciplined army; their influence stretched east to the seas and west to the deserts. The Mongols, in contrast, were just one of many nomadic tribes on the steppe. To be named an official of the Jin Empire was an honor for Temujin.
The Khan ordered his eldest son, Jochi, to lead his ten-thousand-strong corps to welcome their guests. The remaining forty thousand men would wait in formation.
News of the growing power of northern tribes such as Temujin’s worried the Jin Emperor Wanyan Jing, titled Ming Chang. In reality, the Princes were not here just to secure an alliance between the Mongols and the Jin Empire, but to ascertain at firsthand their capabilities in case of future conflict. The Sixth Prince, Wanyan Honglie, was the very same Prince who had traveled to Lin’an, where he was wounded by Qiu Chuji, and on to Jiaxing, where he encountered the Seven Freaks of the South.
After some wait, a blot of dust appeared on the horizon, announcing Jochi’s return with the two Princes, Wanyan Hongxi and Wanyan Honglie, and their force of ten thousand elite soldiers, dressed in the finest brocade and armor. Those on the left of the formation were armed with spears and those on the right with wolf-fang clubs. The clanking of their armor was audible for miles. Sunlight glinted on their uniforms of silk and metal, and they shone ever more resplendent as they came into view. The brothers rode side by side, while Temujin and his men stood by the road, waiting.
As they drew near, Wanyan Hongxi caught sight of the children watching, and laughed. He puffed himself up, reached into his shirt for a handful of gold coins and threw them at them. “A gift!”
But, to Mongolians, throwing coins like this was the height of disrespect. These children were descended from soldiers and generals. Not one of them moved to pick up the coins.
“Come on, you little devils!” Wanyan Hongxi cried, throwing another handful of coins in frustration.
This angered Temujin and his men even more. They may not have had the grand outward trappings of other great civilizations, but the Mongolians were a refined people. They did not swear, even against their gravest enemies or in jest. To step inside a ger was to be treated with utmost hospitality, whether friend or foe, and a guest was to return this favor with decorum. They may not have understood Wanyan Hongxi’s heavily accented Mongolian, but they understood his attitude all too well.
Guo Jing had grown up on stories of Jin scorn, and of how they had invaded his motherland China, corrupted its officials and killed its greatest general, Yue Fei. He stepped forward now. “We don’t want your money!” he cried, picking some coins from the dirt. He ran and hurled them as hard as he could at the Third Prince.
Wanyan Hongxi ducked, but one struck him on the cheekbone. Temujin’s men cheered.
It did not especially hurt, but such humiliation at the hands of a six-year-old boy was too much. He swiped a spear from one of his guards. “I’ve got you, you little devil!”
“Brother!” Wanyan Honglie said, realizing the situation was getting out of control. But it was too late: the Third Prince had already thrown the weapon. Guo Jing turned, rather than stepped aside. At the last possible moment, an arrow came from the left, like a meteor shooting for the moon, and hit the spear on the head, deflecting it. Guo Jing ran back to the other children, the cheers of Temujin’s men shaking the ground beneath him.
The arrow belonged to Jebe.
“Third Brother, forget about him!” Wanyan Honglie hissed.
The cheers of Temujin’s men left Wanyan Hongxi shaken. He glared at Guo Jing. “Little bastard,” he muttered.
Temujin and his sons stepped forward and led the Princes to the Khan’s ger, where they served their guests koumiss and plates of lamb and beef. With the help of interpreters, Wanyan Hongxi read the royal decree, conferring upon Temujin the title of “Queller of Northern Uprisings.” Temujin knelt before Wanyan Hongxi and accepted the title and a golden belt, a symbol of his allegiance to the Jin Empire.
That night the Mongolians honored their guests with a lavish feast.
“Tomorrow, my brother and I will bestow Ong Khan with a title,” Wanyan Hongxi stuttered, drunk on koumiss. “Will our Queller of Uprisings join us?”
Temujin was delighted and agreed at once. Ong Khan, a Kerait, was recognized as leader of the northern tribes of the steppe. He was the richest, and commanded the most men, but was known to be fair and magnanimous in his treatment of others. He was universally liked and respected. Ong Khan was sworn brother of Temujin’s father. After Temujin’s father was poisoned and Temujin fled, it was Ong Khan who took him in as his own son. Not long after Temujin was married, his wife was captured by the Merkits. It was only after receiving help from Ong Khan and Jamuka, Temujin’s sworn brother, that Temujin managed to defeat the Merkits and reclaim his wife.
“Is the Jin Empire granting titles on anyone else?” Temujin asked.
“No,” Wanyan Hongxi said. “There are only two men of note in the northern steppe: Ong Khan and the Great Khan Temujin.”
“No one else would be worthy of a title,” Wanyan Honglie added.
“I disagree. There is one man the Princes are perhaps unfamiliar with,” Temujin said.
“Is that so? Who?” Wanyan Honglie said.
“My sworn brother, Jamuka. He is most righteous and commands his men with a just hand. May I ask the Princes to bestow an official title on him as well?”
Temujin and Jamuka had grown up together, cementing their friendship with a bond of brotherhood when Temujin was just eleven, a custom known among the Mongolians as anda, sealed with an exchange of gifts. Jamuka and Temujin swapped hunting stones made from deer bone. After the boys became anda, they went to the Onon River while it was still frozen over and threw them out across it. When spring came the boys swore their brotherhood again, Jamuka giving Temujin a whistling arrow he had carved himself from two ox horns, while Temujin presented his friend with a cedar arrowhead.
When they reached manhood, they lived with Ong Khan. They would compete every day to see who could rise first and drink a cup of yoghurt from Ong Khan’s own jade cup. After Jamuka and Ong Khan helped recover Temujin’s wife, the sworn brothers exchanged gifts once more, this time gold belts and horses. By day the men drank wine from the same cup and at night slept under the same blanket.
Their tribes, however, were eventually forced to take different directions in the search for fresh pasture, and the two men were separated. But both tribes flourished and their loyalty endured. It was natural that he should wish for his anda to be honored as well.
“We don’t have titles to give to all you Mongolians. How many do you think we have?” Wanyan Hongxi stammered, by now half drunk. Wanyan Honglie cast his brother a meaningful look, but was ignored.
“Fine, give him my title instead.”
“Does a title mean so little you would give it away?” Wanyan Hongxi cried.
Temujin stood up. Without uttering another word, he downed the contents of his cup and left. Wanyan Honglie was left to diffuse the situation with some hasty and not particularly amusing jokes.
The next morning, just as the sun was climbing above the horizon, Temujin mounted his horse and went to inspect the five thousand mounted horses already lined up in formation. The Jurchen Princes and their men were still sleeping.
Temujin had at first been impressed by the Jurchen army; they appeared strong and well equipped. But still sleeping? Temujin snorted. Now he saw they were undisciplined and libertine. “What do you think of the Jin?” he asked Muqali.
“A thousand of our men could defeat five thousand of theirs,” was Muqali’s reply.
“Just what I thought,” Temujin said with a smile. “But they say the Jin has more than a million men at its command. We have only fifty thousand.”
“But you can’t lead one million men into battle at once. If we were to fight them, we could take ten thousand today and another ten thousand tomorrow.”
“We always agree when it comes to military strategy.” Temujin patted him on the shoulder. “A man weighing one hundred jin can eat ten oxen, each weighing ten thousand jin. He just needs time.” They laughed.
Temujin pulled at his reins. Then he caught sight of his fourth son Tolui’s horse without its rider. “Where is Tolui?”
Tolui was only nine years old, but Temujin treated his sons in the same way he did his troops, with an iron discipline. Anyone breaking his rules was punished.
Temujin’s men were uneasy. General Boroqul, Tolui’s mentor, was overly concerned. “The boy never sleeps late. Let me see.”
Just as he turned his horse, he saw two children running toward him holding hands. The boy with a strip of brocade tied around his forehead was Tolui, the other was Guo Jing.
“Father!” Tolui was excited.
“Where have you been?” Temujin demanded.
“Guo Jing and I swore an oath of brotherhood down by the river. Look, he gave me this,” Tolui said, waving an embroidered red handkerchief Lily Li had made for her son.
Temujin recalled with fondness the time he and Jamuka became sworn anda, two innocent children just like those standing before him now. “And what did you give him?”
“This!” Guo Jing said, pointing to his neck, to the gold necklace Temujin’s son usually wore.
“From now on, you must love and look after each other,” Temujin said.
“Now, mount your horses,” Temujin said. “Guo Jing is coming with us.”
The boys climbed into their saddles in excitement.
After yet another hour’s waiting, the Jin Princes emerged from their gers, washed and dressed at last. Wanyan Honglie caught sight of the Mongolian soldiers waiting in formation and sent a hurried order to his men to get ready. But Wanyan Hongxi believed in making the Mongolians wait, to let them know who had the power. He ate at a leisurely pace, accompanying the snacks with a few cups of wine, and then mounted his horse. It took another hour for the ten-thousand-strong Jin army to muster before setting off.
They marched northward for six days until they were met with a delegation sent by Ong Khan consisting of the Khan’s son Senggum and his adopted son Jamuka. When word reached Temujin that his sworn brother was up ahead, he galloped on. The two men jumped from their horses and embraced. Temujin’s sons followed close behind to greet their uncle.
Jamuka was tall and spindly, Wanyan Honglie observed, his upper lip decorated with the finest threads of gold. His eyes were quick. Senggum, in contrast, was pale and flabby, no doubt from having lived a life of opulence. He looked nothing like the men hewn by the harsh climate of the steppe. He was haughty and showed a noticeable disregard for the Great Khan.
Together they rode on again for another day. Then, just as they were approaching Ong Khan’s camp, two of Temujin’s advance guards came riding back. “The Naiman are blocking the way ahead. Some thirty thousand of them.”
“What do they want?” Wanyan Hongxi was anxious after hearing the translation.
“To fight, it would seem.”
“They’ve really brought thirty thousand men?” Wanyan Hongxi stuttered. “Isn’t… Aren’t we outnumbered”
Temujin did not wait for Wanyan Hongxi to finish. Turning to Muqali he said, “Find out what’s going on.”
Muqali rode on with ten bodyguards while the rest of the entourage waited. He was back before long. “The Naiman say that since the Great Jin Empire granted a title to our Khan, the Princes should bestow one on them too. If Your Excellencies don’t, they will take you hostage until such a title is forthcoming. Not only that, they want a rank of higher status than that given to our Great Khan Temujin.”
“Demanding a title?” Wanyan Hongxi’s cheeks had gone pale. “That’s sedition. What should we do?”
Wanyan Honglie started organizing his troops into their fighting positions as a precaution.
“Brother,” Jamuka said, turning to Temujin, “the Naiman frequently steal our livestock and harass our people. Are we really going to let them get away with this? What do Your Excellencies want us to do?”
Temujin had by now surveyed the terrain and concocted a plan. “Let’s show the Princes how we do things here on the steppe.” Temujin let out a cry and cracked his whip twice. Five thousand Mongolians howled in response, startling the Jin Princes.
Up ahead, the Naiman were approaching.
“Brother,” Wanyan Hongxi said, “order our men to charge. These Mongols don’t know how to fight.”
“Let them go first,” Wanyan Honglie whispered.
Realizing his brother’s intentions, Wanyan Hongxi nodded. The Mongolian soldiers howled again, but still they did not move.
“Why are they howling like animals?” Wanyan Hongxi said. “Shouting alone isn’t going to make them turn back.”
Boroqul was positioned on the left flank. He turned to Tolui, who along with his sworn brother Guo Jing had joined his voice with the other men. “Follow me and don’t fall behind. Watch and learn.”
Just then enemy soldiers appeared through the dust up ahead. Still the Mongols howled, still they did not move.
Wanyan Honglie was growing more and more anxious. The Naiman were fierce and might attack at any moment.
The first row of Jin men released several rounds of arrows, but the Naiman were still beyond reach. They were charging at speed toward them. Wanyan Hongxi began to panic, his heart thudding. “Why don’t we just give them what they want?” he said to his brother. “We can make up some title, something high ranking, it doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t cost us anything.”
With two cracks of Temujin’s whip, the Mongols fell silent and split into two flanks. Temujin and Jamuka each took one. Leaning low in their saddles, they galloped toward higher ground on either side, calling orders to their men as they rode. The riders split off into small groups as they ascended, covering all positions. Now they had the height to their advantage, they loaded their bows and held them high.
The commander of the Naiman too looked for higher ground. But the Mongolians had erected walls made from layers of sheep’s fleece to shield them from incoming arrows. The Naiman shot up at the Mongolians, but their arrows fell short, or were caught up in the fleece barricades.
The Mongolians returned fire, and the Naiman fell back in chaos and confusion.
Temujin watched the tumult from his position high on the left. “Jelme, attack the rear!”
Armed with his saber, Jelme charged, one thousand men behind him, and blocked the Naiman retreat.
Jebe took up his spear and pressed to the front of the charge. His target was the Naiman commander in chief; he would kill him as an expression of gratitude to Temujin.
Within moments the Naiman rear guard fell apart and the foremost ranks were in chaos. The Naiman commander hesitated, giving Jamuka and Senggum time to join the charge. Facing attack on all sides, the Naiman fell into disarray. Abandoned by their commander, the remaining men threw down their bows, dismounted and surrendered.
The Mongols had killed over a thousand Naiman men, captured two thousand more and gained almost as many horses before the rest of the army fled. They had lost no more than a hundred of their own.
Temujin ordered the captives be stripped of their armor and split into four groups, one for the Wanyan brothers, one for his adoptive father Ong Khan, one for his sworn brother Jamuka and one for himself. Mongolians whose relatives had died in battle received compensation: five horses and five slaves.
The battle now over, Wanyan Hongxi burst into nervous laughter. “They want a title?” he said, turning to his brother. “How about ‘Conqueror of the Northern Queller of Uprisings’?”
For all his brother’s jokes, Wanyan Honglie was feeling decidedly nervous. The Empire would be in trouble if Temujin or Jamuka ever united the northern tribes and took command of the steppe.
The Mongols were a genuine threat.
He was still mulling this over when yet more dust appeared on the horizon. Another army approaching.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.