Chapter 24: Making a Friend
The horsemanship and archery competition outside the village gates had not yet started and the news of the ruckus had just reached them; the riders were leading their horses back into the village to have a look, still not sure just what was going on.
Wenchang burst through the village gates and saw a rider. "Second brother Zhang, lend me your horse."
He didn't wait for the man to agree but took the reins and vaulted into the saddle, turned the horse, pressed his heels into its flanks and shook the reins. The horse's hooves lifted from the snow and it took off toward the mountainous area to the north. Soon all that remained were its hoofprints in the snow.
A group of people poured out of the village gates. They each snatched a horse. "He can't escape," Sickly Wuchang said. "Just follow his tracks."
Spirit Fox didn't grab a horse. "Don't do it, boss. His concealed weapons are formidable. We can't go after him."
Fine Horse Village had been turned upside down; dozens of townsmen had been trampled in the chaos, and the silver spearknives had seriously wounded two people. The lantern festival had to be cancelled.
Inspector Huang was severely wounded, and of the eighteen functionaries he had brought with him, only three had come away unscathed. Of the others, some could not stand on their own, and others would be bedridden for three months.
The shuttle-shaped throwing knife lodged into the back of the person who had been assassinated at the start was not four inches but eight, and one end was completely blunt. Wenchang's good friends were in an uproar and demanded the real killer be found. Sickly Wuchang never in his wildest dreams imagined the man he had gotten to assassinate the guy would change it at the last minute. A four-inch shuttle-blade was never going to be enough to kill a man, so the guy had switched it with a different knife, and now there was a public uproar.
The Five Uglies of Mt. Hua had run into some bad luck. The first, second, and fourth Ugly had been killed and the fifth blinded. Only the third Ugly was intact. They had tried to steal a chicken only to end up losing the rice used to lure it. He hurried back to Mt. Hua to find his master, Priest Celestial Void.
The little beggar who had helped out was nowhere to be seen. No one in Fine Horse Village knew the boy; he must have come from somewhere else. The little beggar had knocked down two expert fighters with his staff, really incredible.
That night, the only ones who attended Sickly Wuchang's celebratory banquet were his right-hand man Spirit Fox, Walking Retribution, Old Fifth who was one of the eight henchmen, and Daddy Ma the Fifth's five bodyguards.
They were already on the sixth course and were just getting ready to talk about what had happened. Wenchang had escaped, but the authorities had him on file. For sure he would not dare come back, so Sickly Wuchang was delighted.
At exactly the third watch a strong wind began to howl and heavy snow once again fell. An unexpected guest followed the tempest to the mansion, Death coming right behind.
Wenchang became more and more angry as he fled from the village. The world was vast, but the number of people one could truly trust was very few. So dreadful.
"Son of a bitch!" he said to himself spitefully. "I'll slaughter that ungrateful bastard." He was ablaze with rage.
He stopped in a withered forest and dismounted. He took some styptic powder from his travel bag and applied it to his spearknife wound. It wasn't severe so he didn't worry about it.
The more he thought about it the angrier he got. An urge to kill rose from deep within him. He found something to eat at a nearby farmhouse and got his horse fed, then at the beginning of the second watch he rewarded the farmer handsomely before spurring his horse back the way he had come.
The snowfall began at the beginning of the third watch, just as he happened to reach the northern gates of the village. The gates were shut tight. He led the horse under the gate eaves to get it out of the snow, then leapt onto the twenty-foot high wall to the right of the gates.
Something wasn't right. There were usually five sentries at the guardtower, so why was there no sound at all? Perhaps they had went to sleep because of the snow, but why would they sleep so early on the night of Lantern Festival?
He was about to leap down when he heard a voice from the guardtower. "Warrior, why not wait a bit? It's still early!"
Oh! It was the little beggar's voice, he thought. He must have guessed I would return. What a smart kid.
He jumped to the guardtower and whispered jovially, "Is that you, little brother?"
The little beggar still looked shabby leaning against the base of the wall gnawing on a piece of cold roast chicken. The five sentries within the guardtower were sound asleep.
"Warrior, have a drink first to fight off the cold." The little beggar pitched him a wine gourd.
Wenchang caught it and knocked the snow from his clothes and took a dozen or so drinks. He sat next to the little beggar. "Me, I'm The Fugitive, Cai Wenchang. May I ask your name, little brother?"
"You're not a man of the jianghu. You're Master Cai from Zhang Ironware, good at making weapons, later reduced to a petty thug." He had broached the topic and stated it matter-of-factly.
Wenchang took two more drinks. "What are you nagging me about all that for? You warned and helped me. I have to thank you." He handed the wine gourd back and stood up. "Thanks for the drink. See ya later, little brother."
"Hold on, aren't you looking for the person who framed you?"
"I'll help you."
"I don't want anyone's help with my affairs."
"I'll follow you."
"I don't want any favors."
"I never did you any favor. Heehee. I like you. Your skill with those stilts on the ice was really incredible. You're not an ordinary guy. How about we be friends?"
"Can't count on friends. I don't want any."
Having said that, Wenchang leapt through the window like a giant bird and dropped down into the village and hurried south.
The little beggar threw down the wine gourd and the chicken bone and took up his dog-beating staff and followed, giggling, "I'm a friend you can count on; why so cynical?"
Wenchang's lightness skill was incredible, but the little beggar not only matched him step for step, he went on talking and laughing as he did so as if it was nothing at all. Wenchang was getting more and more surprised and sped up.
The little beggar giggled, still unperturbed. "The public square is coming up. There's still people out enjoying the snow. If you show your lightness skill out there then your plan for revenge will be nothing more than a pie in the sky."
Wenchang suddenly stopped short and turned to the little beggar, unhappy. "Kid, you go your way, I'll go mine. Why do you keep sticking close to me like a ghost? I'm going to kill someone tonight and I take responsibility for myself. There's no need for you to get your hands dirty. If you tag along you'll just get in the way."
The little beggar blinked his big eyes and wiped the snowflakes from his face. "Brother, I know all about it. A man of the jianghu ought to step in and right a wrong. I can handle it, and I've decided."
"Except, I don't want you to."
"Another person is another helper. Brother, there's no need to refuse me."
"Ah, then I'm not going."
"Haha! You'll go. If Ma the Fifth goes back to Shangzhou tomorrow won't it be hard for you to exact your revenge? Brother, don't be so petty and narrow-minded. If I was too cocky and arrogant back there on the guardtower and offended you, then I apologize."
The little beggar giggled and cupped a hand over his fist. "My surname is Fang, given name Xiaoshan. I'm fourteen, a native of Chuandong1. I'm just fooling around in the jianghu, leading a wandering life. Brother Wenchang, you're already a jianghu fugitive; the sea of men is vast and the jianghu is a dangerous place, not easy to get around in. Why don't we team up and roam around together? Won't it be convenient with a worldly-wise person like me by your side? Let's be friends. If later on you don't like it, we can part and go our separate ways any time. What do you say?"
So proud of his age and experience, boasting like that. Wenchang snickered. "A little guy like you is fourteen? Go to hell. How old are you really?"
"Heehee! Thirteen and a half. Don't look down on Fang Xiaoshan. I'm from an important jianghu family and I've been roaming the jianghu for over a year. Come on! Time's a wasting."
Wenchang nodded. "I'm a bit eccentric. We can be friends, but if we don't get along we'll go our separate ways. And that's that. Tonight you sit by and watch. I want to kill those sons of bitches myself."
"Alright, that's that then. I'll keep a lookout for you. Come on, to the rooftops. You're good at climbing, but mind the snow on the roof tiles. Heehee! What am I saying, I nearly forgot your skill with those stilts on the ice."
They jumped up on the tiling and took off.
Inside the hall there was much boisterous drinking and revelry. Saliva spewed from Daddy Ma the Fifth's mouth as he said, "Brother Zhixian, rough men like us don't beat around the bush but speak frankly. The losses I suffered this time were great; it wasn't worth the effort. The little bastard was wounded and escaped, but given the circumstances he's surely not dead. I dare not predict whether or not he will return and make inquiries in the days to come. There's no way to hide it forever. If he learns what went down, just think, how dangerous that would be? Brother Zhixian, I think it's best if you and Brother Cheng come to Shangzhou and lie low at my place for a while. I'll manage the outcome of the situation here for three and a half months, and once this has all blown over I'll come back and get you. Won't that be best for everyone?"
Sickly Wuchang and Spirit Fox were greatly shocked. They grumbled inwardly. Judging by this talk, Daddy Ma the Fifth was not only openly usurping their power, he also wanted to banish them to Shangzhou and leave them out of things. What a mess. He had wanted to borrow a pair of tweezers to take the nail out of his eye, but instead the pair of tweezers wanted to take out their eyes.
"Daddy Ma, you mean… you mean…" Sickly Wuchang's face was sinking.
"My place in Shangzhou is large and expansive, plenty large enough for you two to cleanse your spirits. Oh! Brother Zhixian, you must be worried about your enterprise here? Please don't worry. In a year and a half once you two come back you'll see it will be even more prosperous than it is now."
Three months had now become a year and a half. Pockmarked Tiger's ambition was abundantly clear. Sickly Wuchang grumbled to himself. He had outsmarted himself and invited a wolf into his home and it was already too late for regrets.
Spirit Fox after all, though, was quite resourceful. He immediately thought to assemble his men. He stood. "Excuse me, brother…"
"Brother Peijie, where are you off to?" Daddy Ma the Fifth was smiling.
"It will be more convenient if I wait in the back."
"No need. We're just chatting here." Daddy Ma the Fifth had seen through Spirit Fox's ruse. This kind of excuse was not near good enough. He coughed and continued, "To tell the truth, the fewer who hear our conversation the better. If your men heard it and there happened to be a leak, well I don't even want to think what that would do to your reputations. That would be just awful! Cai Wenchang is quite the popular one. You can't say he doesn't have any loyal followers. We can't overlook the trouble they could cause. You both know what I mean, so there's no need for me to go into it. Hehe… Sit down! Haha…"
Daddy Ma the Fifth's laughter was like a hooting owl2, making Sickly Wuchang's hair stand on end.
"Daddy Fifth, don't you think this trick is going a bit too far?" Walking Retribution had betrayed his anger by cutting in. He stood.
Pockmarked Tiger roared with laughter and drained his cup of liquor. "My intentions are good; you sirs are misunderstanding my goodwill."
Sickly Wuchang put his cup down heavily, his mind made up. "I, Guo, will never leave Fine Horse Village, over…"
Pockmarked Tiger cut in with a smile, "Over your dead body, right?"
"I'm not dead yet."
"Haha! Your honorable residence has about a dozen faithful subordinates, all quite skilled. But to actually put up a fight… Haha! Brother Zhixian, don't say it. Why send them to their deaths for nothing? Please think it through before you act."
"Daddy Fifth, your men here are nothing special."
Pockmarked Tiger roared with laughter and stuck his thumb out at a man at the nearest table. He leaned back in his chair. "Brother Zhixian, do you know who this brother is? Haha! You must have heard. He's Wei Taixing, the second of the Three Heroes of Songyang. He once beat to death the lay monk from Shaolin, Brocade Fur Tiger Tong Shouchang. If you don't believe it, you can try him."
Wei Taixing had a knife scar on his right earlobe. His face and eyes were dark and sinister. He stood, expressionless, and tossed back a cup of liquor. His cold gaze flashed around the room, like countless sharp arrows shooting into everyone's chest.
Chuandong is in the eastern Sichuan province. ↩ This is some clever wordplay by Yun Zhongyue. Ma the Fifth is really laughing in a hooting manner, but the word used for owl, 梟, also refers to someone who is spirited and brave and full of wild ambition… ↩