Chapter 10: Fine Horse Village
Fine Horse Village originally had been the second postal relay station on the old road, the first being Layered Peak Station southeast of Wuguan. In the third month of the thirteenth year of the Chenghua emperor, Shangzhou was upgraded from a county to a prefecture. The ancient road was becoming more and more prosperous by the day, to the point where it attracted as many traveling merchants as the main road of Tong Pass. Layered Peak Station was upgraded to a county and called Shangzhou County, making Fine Horse Station the first postal relay station, which grew to become a large town with a population of over a thousand. The markets there flourished, becoming a popular stopover destination for traveling merchants before they headed out the next day for Shangzhou.
Commerce was booming in the town, and people from all walks of life gathered there. Not only were there many merchants traveling over land, many ships traveled down the Han River; from the northeast you could reach Shangzhou through the western passage. Unfortunately, it was unpassable for ships during the winter.
In those days a long village wall was erected along the northern side of Red River, running from northwest to southeast. The rammed earth walls were over twenty feet high, marked by four towering village gates, an imposing sight. The mansions were in the southeast corner of the town, and the commercial district was at the southern end of town. In the northwest was the questionable region of town, where people of all walks of life and of every shade and description swarmed.
Village Head Zhang Liangzuo of Shadow Rock had property in every area. The mill was to the north, the oil shop in the southern commercial district, and a smithy in the northwest situated between two inns.
Wenchang found Head Steward Zhang Hong at the mill, but he had no interest in walking behind a donkey as it turned the mill, so instead he went to the smithy to swing a big hammer.
He was big and tall, and after two years of blacksmithing this seventeen-year-old lad was strong as a lion, but his upward-slanting eyebrows, bright eyes, white teeth, and red lips made him look like a young scholar. A pity that he rarely smiled, always with a clouded, guarded look. But when he worked, stripped to the waist, he was strong and thick, a sharp and defined mountain of muscle. At seventeen he was already imposing at eight spans1 tall, and his big hammer was heavier than others', and he wielded it like a dancing rush.2
Don't think his great strength was only good for doing heavy manual labor. Oh no. His skill with a sword and with concealed weapons was superb; all his fellow customers from the jianghu praised him. If you didn't know the craftsmanship of Cai Wenchang's Zhang ironware then you weren't a man of the jianghu.
He also made axles, nails, horseshoes, plows, hoes, etc. But his specialty was sharpening the products that fellow men of the jianhu ordered. He had joined the smithy in a special position. He was neither an apprentice nor a master. He had only come to see if he could maybe settle down. But he loved it there. In less than half a year he had become a mastersmith at the shop; no matter what the job was he need only look at it and he could do it, and with a little guidance he would become even more proficient at it. The storefront was large. Zhang Ironware was the star of Fine Horse Village. In front was the storefront, then the ironworks in the middle. Customers could pass through the courtyard to tour the ironworks. In back was employee lodging.
The ironworks had three parts. One was the smelting area, nominally called the steel smelter, though it actually couldn't smelt steel. Second was the forge, which had over a dozen furnaces. Third was the testing center. This was the best part. There was equipment for testing cutting, cleaving, chopping, and stabbing, as well as leather, wood, and rope targets, and other multipurpose moving targets for concealed weapons testing. They had everything.
Wenchang was not only the pillar of the old smithy, he was also the best consultant at the testing center. He had acquired much precious experience with the special skills of all manner of swords, knives, and concealed weapons.
There was a lot of manpower at the smithy, twenty mastersmiths alone. There was no need to rush their work. According to practice they quit work after supper and didn't work a night shift so they could all enjoy themselves.
After Cai Wenchang left Cai Family Village there was no one to make the old men angry, so it was a lot quieter there. They didn't pay any attention to Wenchang's warning about his family property. Later they heard he was a blacksmith at Fine Horse Village and he became the subject of ridicule. Mostly they talked bad about him. One person said, "That bastard is worthless. You can tell by his pathetic appearance that he's nothing special."
"Hmph! Like father, like son. A rat is born able to burrow a hole. That's all he is. His father was just as worthless!"
"That piece of shit blacksmith will come back in three years to settle the score!"
"When he comes back we'll haul him before the ancestral temple for judgment and bury him."
"He was a thief ever since he was little, a disgrace to our ancestors. If he comes back we'll break the cur's legs.
"If he really dares to come back, don't let him inside. Bury him outside the village."
A year later the Cai Family villagers were a bit scared because everyone who had seen Wenchang had been terrified by his fierce, lion-like physique.
Two years later the villagers began to feel a sense of foreboding, because Wenchang had entered the community and was becoming well-known in Fine Horse Village. By day, he worked earnestly and was reticent. At night, he went to see Head Steward Zhang Hong at the northern end of town because he could tell that Zhang Hong was not an ordinary man. He went to Head Steward Zhang to learn martial arts.
That first year, Teacher Shang Lan came to work as an accountant at the mill. The school he taught at had hired two other teachers and he no longer wished to stay on there.
The three of them hung out together and Wenchang's fighting and literary ability advanced by leaps and bounds. Shang Lan and the head steward highly regarded this lovable young man with his astonishing natural talent and keen perception. During those two years they taught him everything they knew, but gradually it came to be that they had nothing left to teach him.
During those two years Wenchang came to know more about these two unusual men.
Teacher Shang Lan's surname was actually a different "Shang". Thousand-Hand Scholar Shang Letian was famous among the martial fraternity. His name was feared among all on both sides of the Yangtze and both banks of the Yellow River. His Three-in-One concealed weapons were unmatched on both sides of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. He killed people like flies. He was a rare hero among those who walked the light path.3 Ten years earlier in the capital he had killed Lan Anping, concealed weapons expert of the Brocade Guard. The authorities issued a warrant everywhere for his arrest and had dispatched masters from both Shaolin and Wudang to pursue him, so he had to make himself scarce and go into hiding. He had concealed his identity for the past decade.
Head Steward Zhang Hong's surname was not really Zhang, either. It was Zhao. His given name was real, however. Mention Chief Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong of the Hero Stronghold of Mt. Lu to any men of the Greenwood4 within the five northern provinces and they'd all give you a thumbs up and tell you he was extraordinary. But why had he given up his dominating position as chief of Hero Stronghold of Mt. Lu and hegemon of the Greenwood to come to this small mountain area to work as a head steward?
You need only pay attention to activity within the jianghu to know about the surprise attack on the Hero Stronghold of Mt. Lu thirteen years ago by a group of chivalrous heroes from the martial fraternity of the Five Northern Provinces. Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong had held up an escort party from Five Province Security Agency, which was based in the capital, creating deep animosity between the two sides. There was a month given to ransom the stolen goods. During that month Five Province Escort Chief Gold Sabre Tempest Shi Shiquan ascended Mt. Lu three times to ask his senior brother, Heretic Sabre Li Yun to go and get a one month extension for the ransom. But Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong refused and said that according to the rules, once time was up the goods would be divided up. The seized goods were rare jewels, and Five Province Security Agency stood to lose 18,000 taels of gold. Gold Sabre Tempest wasn't about to accept that, and Dragontown Gambling Den boss Dongfang Ping was even more unwilling. He immediately sent out invitations to various gallants and organized a large party to attack Mt. Lu, while the owner of the stolen goods asked the Shandong authorities to launch a raid on the mountain. There was fierce fighting for two days and nights, but Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong in the end had to lead his inferior force in a night attack to break the encirclement and escape. With that, the Hero Stronghold of Mt. Lu dissolved.
He had lost his base in the north and couldn't stay there, so he fled to the northwest to lie low and had not talked about those events during the past decade.
During the time they taught him, these two extraordinary men of the jianghu never learned that Wenchang knew the rare art of Ultimate Breathing. They had no way to know that Wenchang had decided not to reveal his true skill. From what those two had told him he knew that breathing techniques of the internal arts were difficult to master nad quite formidable. After some thought he realized that the Ultimate Breathing techniques the old freak had taught him were the most profound of breathing techniques. But he remained unperturbed and just put his head down and continued practicing diligently.
Early in the summer, Thousand-Hand Scholar Shang Letian was the first to leave and re-enter the jianghu, followed by Valiant Tiger Zhao Hong. They disappeared to parts unknown.
Wenchang once again descended into loneliness. Luckily he was already good friends with the other mastersmiths at the smithy, so he began hanging around in the Fine Horse Village underworld.
To the left of the smithy was Shangluo Inn, Fine Horse Village's most elaborate inn. The guests were all rough men, and to the left of the inn was a small lane. That little lane was even more elaborate than the inn. Gambling dens large and small dotted the lane, twenty-four of them in total. There was an establishment for high-rollers, and a small den for low-stakes gambling, something for everyone. There was an unlicensed brothel, the prostitutes rumored to all be from Xi'an. The price for one night ranged from three hundred cash to five taels of silver, the prices determined by the quality of the goods. The merchants traveling through need not worry about a lonely journey.
A small place like Fine Horse Village was not as extravagant and ostentatious as Xi'an prefecture, which had pleasure quarters of all kinds and money-squandering dens with much higher stakes, as well as upright officials and low prostitutes, and singers and dancers as pretty as celestial maidens. But here there weren't any big spenders, just stingy rich men, and it wasn't extravagant, only a dozen or so establishments. None of them were public brothels. It was rare even to see a prostitute leaning in the doorway soliciting patrons. If you wanted to see one you had to find someone to lead you in.
The one who ran this abnormal little lane was the local mob boss Sickly Wuchang Guo Zhixian, aka Third Daddy Guo. His mansion was in a well-to-do neighborhood in the southeast corner of the town, but he was rarely at home, usually somewhere around the lane, though it was not easy to find him. If you wanted to find him you might try your luck at Shangluo Inn. But if someone caused trouble there, and his henchmen couldn't handle it for some reason, then he would suddenly appear. For many years, ever since Fine Horse Village had grown from a large postal relay station, the little lane had also developed in its own way. Third Daddy Guo rarely had to come out and settle things down. At worst, his trusted advisor and bodyguard Spirit Fox Li Peijie might have to come out and take care of things.
Most of the mastersmiths at Zhang Ironware had wives and children and so very rarely played around down the lane. Because the little scoundrels always came in to by knives and iron staffs and the like, the two sides were somewhat familiar with each other, and because there was no real conflict between them there was always a means to make money. So they never crossed each other, but also never had dealings with each other.
But Wenchang had already decided he needed to make a ferocious and tough name for himself and become a part of the criminal underworld. Only then would he be able to return to Cai Family Village and vent his grievances. Actually, he had no intention of going back home and murdering people and becoming a hero. He only wanted them to know that Cai Wenchang was not a helpless lamb, that he could live just fine on his own, away from Cai Family Village, that the years of abuse he had received had been carved into his bones and engraved in his heart. No wonder he had such thoughts and ambitions.
The other reason that sent him to this extreme was the old freak. He had tried to help him but instead was harmed himself. He detested those insincere hypocrites. He wanted revenge. Before the old freak had acquired the dragonhorn stalks he had shown him the utmost care, teaching and guiding him in his breathing practice untiringly like an impressive venerable elder. But once he had the dragonhorn stalks in hand the old freak had immediately tried to take his life. It made him bitterly disappointed and furious. He felt that there were no good people in the world aside from Thousand-Hand Scholar and Valiant Tiger.
Something was fated to happen. That day finally arrived.
I'm using span for 尺, which is a Chinese foot. It was roughly 9 imperial inches in length in ancient times, about the same length as an English span. ↩ Rush plant. The pith of these plants was used to make a kind of candle called a rushlight. ↩ This is somewhat like the light/dark side in Star Wars. In wuxia the light and dark paths refer to the "good" and "bad" guys, respectively. Those who uphold righteousness vs those who don't, pretty much. ↩ The 綠林, literally 'green wood'. It refers to the community of bandits and thieves. In wuxia novels the Greenwood is often contrasted with the wulin, the martial fraternity, thos some authors place the Greenwood within the wulin. The martial fraternity (wulin, sometimes translated as martial world) is simply the community of martial artists within the jianghu. ↩