Chapter 23: Ambush
He turned to everyone in the crowd and saluted them, then stood next to a man dressed as a spirit demon and waited for the others in his troupe. They came forward using traditional stilts moving techniques. You couldn't call it walking; that was impossible on the solid ice.
The twelve of them gathered, performing along the way, and headed east, Wenchang leading.
Among the crowd on the east side were five hideous-looking men wearing light clothing and fur caps with earflaps, watching the proceedings. Several other nondescript men furtively spread out on the left.
Sickly Wuchang and Spirit Fox were with Daddy Ma the Fifth on the balcony of a building at end of the street, looking down on the crowd as they laughed and talked as if nothing was amiss. They were calmly waiting for the fun.
At the front of the crowd a shabby beggar boy of thirteen or fourteen wearing a tattered padded jacket was squatting, bobbing his head in appreciation. The little beggar had delicate features, white teeth and red lips and big, shiny clear eyes harboring untold intelligence, amicably spirited. A yellow-bamboo dog-beating staff lay at his feet, indicating he was not a local. A small bundle hung down by his ribs, and he wore tight-fitting black clothing under his padded jacket. A long, footlong leather bag was stuck in his belt, round and about an inch thick. His long glossy black hair was carelessly pulled up on his head, but he wore no turban. He wore padded cotton pants and short, thin-soled shoes. At a glance he looked like a little beggar, but he didn't have a beggar's face; his was delicate and handsome, yet strong, and his face and hands were clean, not at all in accord with the rest of his dress.
Wenchang's friends in the crowd were hooting and hollering their applause. He was arm in arm with the man dressed as a deity as they held the center of attention, smiling and calling out to their friends as they moved through the crowd before turning and watching the other troupes' performances. The other ten members of their troupe had already been helped out of their stilts and were sitting to the side resting and catching their breaths.
Another troupe performed, but the cheers had just about vanished.
Wenchang watched for a bit, then said to his buddy, "This contest is ours, but hang on brothers, we haven't won it yet."
He was just wiping the sweat from his brow, his legs crossed to maintain his balance, when three grey, iron caltrops suddenly shot out of the crowd, shooting toward his lower body, one at an acupoint between his kidneys, the other two seeking the hollow in the back of each knee.
The little beggar squatting on the ground heard a strange whistling over his head and looked up just in time to see three grey streaks. "Watch out, concealed weapons!" he said instinctively.
Wenchang fell to the side and crashed to the ground with a thud as the three iron caltrops just grazed his clothes, nearly hitting him.
He rolled into the crowd in the blink of an eye, dropping his horse whip and colored lantern as he tried to hurry out of the stilts. His attackers had struck hard with concealed weapons; if he went out he would be a target, so he had to blend into the crowd to lose them and make his escape. At the same time he noticed it was the little beggar who had helped him, as the beggar was already turned toward the back, shouting abuse. At least he was getting a little help from the little beggar.
The crowd was alarmed, the shouts more thunderous than the applause as eight big men pushed through the crowd toward Wenchang, who was still on the ground.
Just then someone shrieked.
"Master Cai is a murderer, Master Cai is a murderer!" Several people shouted this.
The little beggar was quick to shout, "Goddamn son of a bitch!" He whipped his dog-beating staff out violently, knocking down two of the eight advancing men.
"Ah…" they screamed as the staff belted them both in the back.
Wenchang didn't have time to free himself from the stilts, and he was unarmed; he had not brought any of his weapons with him. Seeing six big men bearing down on him, he had no choice but to get nasty in order to protect himself.
When on the ground, if you didn't have a weapon in hand it was best not to spring up suddenly, otherwise you might be in trouble. Hands and feet combined, a person on the ground had four things he could use to attack, as he could use his arms and legs freely.
Wenchang's legs were plenty powerful on their own, but now he had stilts attached to them; no one would be able to get within ten feet of him. He roared and swept both legs out in a circle. The six men screamed as their legs snapped and they fell wailing one by one.
"Everyone not involved get out of the way," someone shouted from the left. "Inspector Huang from Shangzhou is here to arrest the murderer." A group of minor functionaries dressed in black official uniforms swarmed out, iron rulers swinging as they ran for Wenchang.
Wenchang grabbed his stilts and pulled as hard as he could, ripping the bindings off. He leapt up.
Two iron rulers were already chopping down at his head. "Tie up the murderer. Don't resist."
Indescribable fury raged within Wenchang. If he didn't resist it would be a miracle if those iron rulers didn't split open his skull.
"Master Cai killed someone with a throwing knife," someone yelled. "Don't let him get away."
He heard it clearly. It was Old Fifth, one of Spirit Fox's diehard followers. He felt a jolt of realization.
There was no time to think. He tilted his head to the side and his left shoulder ate the two iron rulers with a muffled thud. They were heavy blows, making him seethe with anger. He had concentrated his qi to protect himself, but it still hurt like hell.
He knew now it was a group of constables. Normally he wouldn't dare resist openly, but Old Fifth's exclamation had rocked him. He was obviously being framed, and there was no way to know if he would be able to argue it in court.
Nope! I'm not a fool.
"Son of a bitch!" he roared. He brandished his stilts menacingly as he plowed through the crowd, hitting left and right like a crazed tiger.
"Ah…" One fell.
"Ah…" Another fell.
Inspector Huang, who had been the first to hit him with an iron ruler, grunted as a staff belted him in the ribs. He toppled over.
The little beggar swung his staff as he shouted, "Get out of here quick."
The little beggar scurried through the crowd like a crafty fox, his dog-beating staff domineering and vicious. Whoever he hit in the gut or the nads was unable to get up again and fight.
Wenchang dealt with ten officials like a tiger among a flock of sheep. "You go on ahead, little brother."
"See you later," the little beggar said, and he wormed through the crowd and vanished.
Wenchang glanced in the direction the little beggar had gone and suddenly looked up and saw Sickly Wuchang and Spirit Fox looking on surprised and bewildered, along with a man with a pockmarked face. Their eyes met.
Isn't that Pockmarked Tiger from Shangzhou? Now Wenchang was about half-sure what was going on.
He knocked down two more officials, then turned and ran north.
"Get him, don't let him get away." Again it was Old Fifth calling out.
Wenchang felt another jolt of realization. He was six-tenths sure now.
Walking Retribution darted from the steps of a building to the right at the northern end, hiding among the chaotic crowd. But Wenchang saw the quick flash of a smile on his face and was now seven-tenths sure.
He broke away from the scattered officials and fled like mad to the north and in a few steps entered the panicking crowd.
As he was running he turned and saw five strange, ugly men pushing violently through the surging pack of wailing spectators on their way toward him.
Pockmarked Tiger made him think of the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua. Now he was eight-tenths sure. He had never seen the Five Uglies, but one glance and he knew it was them.
Shit! I don't have a weapon. It will be hard to take on the five of them.
Fine Horse Village was in an uproar. This was an out-and-out "lively" Lantern Festival.
He fled madly along the northern street as the Five Uglies gave chase seventy to eighty feet behind.
It looks like they're coming for me, he thought, his dander up. He slowed his steps.
He ran into the public square which was swarming with people unaware of what had happened. Everyone was looking toward the street entrance.
As Wenchang stepped into the square the first of the Uglies closed within ten feet. Up ahead five people were staring blankly at the turbulent stream of people. They suddenly saw Wenchang emerge from the crowd and they said in unison, "Eh? Master Cai…"
"Go on back home," Wenchang yelled. "There's trouble afoot." He continued running headlong.
His exclamation had distracted him. Three of the big Ugly's shiny silver spearknives1 were already flying toward his back. They would be there in an instant.
Wenchang just happened to turn and look and saw a silver flash of light out of the corner of his eye. He knew it was trouble and abruptly dodged to the side as a shiny silver spearknife dug into the left side of his back just near his spine and buried half an inch into his skin. His underdeveloped ultimate breathing skill reduced its power by eight-tenths and the spearknife was dislodged. Blood flowed freely from the wound.
He heard two screams ahead as two people fell.
In that split second he spun and countered, roaring as he stuck close to the ground and swung his boxwood stilts, breaking one in half as it broke the knee of the senior Ugly, who screamed and fell. The surging people behind him trampled over the big Ugly. You can imagine the result.
Wenchang tossed the broken stilt away and ran into the square. The flock of sheep in front of the temple was in chaos as the huge sheep scattered into the crowd.
Two more Uglies caught up with him from behind, their long sabres flashing down on him.
Wenchang was not willing to trample over people so he was slower than his pursuers. The Five Uglies were big and strong, heedless of the safety of others as they barreled through the crowd, so they were faster than Wenchang.
He pushed aside someone in front of him but didn't see the sheep there and felt his knee run into something soft and cottony. He thought it was a person and tried to twist away, but he lost his balance and fell over.
Shit! The sabre arrived.
He didn't have time to dodge so he grabbed the sheep and threw it behind him with all his might. This was a large, trained sheep, weighing about seventy or eighty catties with two large, thick horns. It was a shocking sight to see it soaring through the air.
In that instant he grabbed two handfuls of snow and sprang up and threw them, then darted ahead along with the other sheep.
The second Ugly's sabre came down with a crunch, splitting the sheep's skull.
The third Ugly didn't dodge and got a faceful of snow. The snow had come too fast, wounding him in the eye. He screamed and covered his eye and waved his podao2 around in defense.
Wenchang broke in suddenly from amidst the sheep, his iron fist like lightning, slamming into the second Ugly's groin and pushing his scrotum up into his body. The Ugly wailed and dropped his sabre and crashed into two bystanders.
Looking to finish what he started, Wenchang picked the podao up and roared at the fourth and fifth Uglies who were approaching, one of them carrying the first Ugly on his back. "You the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua? Come get some!"
The fifth Ugly put down the first Ugly's corpse and they came at him with their podao.
Metal clanged on metal and sparks flew.
The crowd had drawn back, everyone looking on from a safe distance.
Three flashes of light circled as three podao rained down. One hit would mean death, one step certain doom, blades flashing in a rush of howling wind.
Blood seeped between the fingers of the third Ugly who was covering his eyes with his left hand. Both eyes were done for. He waved his blade around but realized there was no enemy around, and he heard metal clashing not far away so he knew his brothers were there. He gnashed his teeth. "My eyes are ruined. Avenge me."
Wenchang calmed down. This was all the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua could do; he no longer took them both on at once. He fixed on the fourth Ugly, advancing and retreating like the wind, bearing down menacingly, concentrating on attacking the side, not giving them a chance to attack at the same time.
He decimated the fourth Ugly's "Blade Chopping Mt. Hua" with a bang, then stuck close and closed in, not retracting his blade as he spun to the left, turning his blade with "Jade Belt Around the Waist". The tip of his blade found flesh and he took the opportunity to leap ten feet away.
"Ah…" the fourth Ugly cried and straightened up. He charged ahead two steps, rolling his big eyes, his mouth wide, but nothing came out. His podao dropped to the snow, his legs buckled, and he double over and fell. Blood flowed as his intestines spilled out from the long cut in his belly.
This was the first time Wenchang had killed someone and it shook him. He immediately dropped his blade and ran toward the ao-turtle lantern display. There was a small alley nearby that connected to the alley that led to Shangluo Inn.
He turned a corner and ran head-on into Little Monkey Qiu the Sixth. The little guy was sharp. He ran over and shouted, "Master Cai, get out of here quick! Hey! Your things."
Wenchang took the large bundle and set it on the ground and opened it. He strapped on his two leather bracers and changed into clean, teal clothes and threw on the sheepskin coat and a fur hat with earflaps. He repacked his bag as he said, "Little brother, how did you know to get this ready for me?"
Little Monkey Qiu the Sixth was out of breath from running. "Not long after you left I went to Spirit Fox's den to beg some money from Meifeng, but in the alley I overheard some stranger's voice inside, bragging to her. I was curious so I stopped to listen. It would have been better if I hadn't f*ckin' heard anything, cause once I did I broke out in a cold sweat."
"What did you hear?"
"Turns out that bastard Ma the Fifth came down from Shangzhou to take command of the village. He told all about that son of a bitch Sickly Wuchang's sinister scheme, and he said Meifeng wouldn't have to receive customers anymore. He… wanted…"
"Son of a bitch, Sickly Wuchang sold us out. Ma the Fifth is going to be the boss now, and he brought in the Five Uglies of Mt. Hua and Inspector Huang from Shangzhou to take you down. Once I heard that I didn't listen anymore. If I was discovered I'd be done for. I wanted to look for you, but then I thought that with them bringing in personal friends as well as government officials there's no way you'd be able to stay here. The world is huge, where can you not set up shop? So I got your things together for you and was headed to the square to tell you. Heavens! You're hurt. They attack you?"
"Thank you, little brother. I killed one of the Five Uglies and seriously injured three others. I have to leave. We'll meet again sometime and I will repay your kindness. Take care, little brother." He turned and left.
"Big bro, take… care…" Little Monkey's voice was trembling.
He went back down the alley and out to the square by the ao-turtle display and ran like mad for the northern gate. At the street entrance to the square, Sickly Wuchang, Pockmarked Tiger, Walking Retribution, and their henchmen had gathered. They saw Wenchang running away and they shouted and chased after him crazily.
I'm translating 鏢 as spearknife. It's a concealed weapon, similar to a throwing knife, only the blade end is shaped like a spearhead. So basically it's a spearhead with a short handle and is thrown like a throwing knife (FYI: throwing knife, 飛刀, is sometimes translated as "flying dagger", a literal translation). ↩ A sabre attached to a long pole; also called a horse-cutting sabre. Also the translator of Gate of Revelations on Wuxiaworld. ↩