SOE Chapter 1

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Chapter 1: Death of a Hero

It was the seventh month, sun shining high in the sky. The beginning of autumn1 had just passed, and it was already cooler in the mountains than on the plains, though the vegetation had not yet taken on autumn’s colors. Fall had come early this year.

Thunderous hoofbeats broke the silence.

The distant howl of a wolf in the mountain forest was startling.

Two horses came hurtling out of the east, galloping west, pale yellow dust curling up behind them.

The hoofbeats slowed steadily as they neared, and soon two robust chestnut steeds gradually came into view. They clopped side by side as they followed an old path around a bend in the river.

A long, loud cry suddenly reverberated through the sky, up to the highest heavens, like the roar of a celestial dragon.

The shout gently dissipated, followed by sonorous singing:

Lightning fist, cold gleaming blade.

Through a sea of swords, a charge through sabers braved.

Shaking heaven and earth, a hero loses heart;

Love and passion true, man and woman never part.

As the sound faded another deep, bold voice followed:

No matter, in Luoyang flowers bloom;

Don’t linger, Jiangnan’s a work of art.

Fame and fortune are like morning dew.

Family and wealth like clouds passing through.

The sea of men is vast, but I float along;

Rivers and lakes boundless, but I rise above.

Then the two voices sang in unison, only the lofty sentiments of before that had been imbued with feeling were now replaced by detached grief and melancholy:

To back of beyond, my spirit wanders as in dream.

I’ve tasted every bitterness life can bring.

Roaming the world, long and worn.

Exiled from men, lone, forlorn;

This hero is gone, when will he return?

The singing dissipated, hoofbeats ceased. The horses shook their heads and flicked their tails, their forehooves kicking up the dust.

On the horses were two imposing, middle-aged men wearing black turbans and black-cloth jackets, a sword hanging from their waists, on their arms a ‘Hundred Treasure’ travel bag, and saddle packs cinched up behind the saddle. One look and you’d know these were men of the jianghu. They reined in their horses and stared ahead at a five or six hundred foot high cliff extending into the middle of the river, their faces solemn. The sound of the water falling from the edge of the precipice thundered faintly.

The man on the right flicked his reins, took a deep breath and said, “There ahead is Tiger Ridge. That cliff sticking out of the river was originally called Tiger Head Peak, also called Tiger Head Cliff. That’s where ‘The Fugitive’ Cai Wenchang and ‘White Dragongirl’ of Princess Island, Xia Yuanjun, of the martial fraternity2 died. Look, see there on the top of the tiger’s head, isn’t that a big stone tablet pavilion? That’s their cenotaph and memorial tablet, set up by friends of the jianghu to commemorate them.”

The man on the left shook his head and smiled wryly. “He was a rare breed among the jianghu. Ah! He ran amuck throughout the jianghu and accomplished many feats to make people now cherish his memory. Ah! Life is so tenuous! Big brother, that time you were there, do you really mean to say that of all the master pugilists who were there, good and bad, no one was able to recover their bodies?”

Big Brother shook his head. “Dear little brother, you can hear the sound of the water and know, there are rapids on the upper reaches of the river, and at the lower end is Black Dragon Pond. A fengshui master called those dangerous waters Tiger Suppresses the Dragon’s Veins. The natives call it Black Tiger Suppresses the Black Dragon. Black Dragon Pond’s water flows toward the inner bend; its suction is powerful. The water pounds against the cliff walls. Except for fish, anything that enters that water disappears without a trace. Who would dare go into the dragon pond to retrieve the bodies?”

“The bodies never washed up somewhere?”

“Squeezed between the rocks, how could they emerge anywhere? Come on! We’ll go pay our respects.”

The horses took off and soon reached the foot of the mountain. The peak looked like a crouching tiger, about ten miles3 in circumference, the tiger’s head stretching from the northeast to the riverside. The tiger’s tail wasn’t too steep; horses could climb it. An old path extended to the foot of the mountain, bending toward the right, winding northeast crossing the tiger’s tail before changing to the northwest.

Winding around the mountain to the northeast was a small path branching off, leading to the summit. This was the path leading to the stone memorial tablet. The path looked like it had never fallen into disrepair ever since the tablet had been erected.

The horses galloped up the mountain. The mountain ridge was an ancient forest extending to the tiger’s head.

A violent sound from behind as the horses ambled through the woods. A dozen horses flying toward them.

“Eh! Who dares be so impertinent to rush madly about near the stone memorial tablet?” Big Brother turned his head to look.

His younger brother smiled. “They shouldn’t gallop near the memorial tablet, but it’s not forbidden. They’re just respecting Cai Wenchang by doing things their own way and ignoring the jianghu taboo. No need to make a fuss. Plus, Cai Wenchang made a lot of enemies, too many to count. It’s not surprising if any of them don’t show restraint.”

The dozen horses had already reached them as they neared the edge of the forest. The two brothers turned. Their faces fell and they reined in their horses and pulled them off to the side of the road and watched dumbfounded as the horses flew past them.

Among the horses, the lead rider had arching eyebrows and tiger eyes, three tufts of black beard brushing his chest, a wide nose and forehead, and a complexion like old bronze. Even when not angry he was still intimidating. About fifty years old, well-built and strong. His inner clothes were neat, dark green with a ruyi pattern on the collar. His outerwear was a surcoat of the same color and quality. Clearly a man of talent.

Behind his horse rode two women. The one on the right was a middle-aged faded beauty, with a melon face, pretty as a painting. She carried with her an aura of beautiful nobility and elegance befitting a fair maiden, which made one not dare to get any improper ideas. If it were not for the dim laugh lines at the corners of her eyes you would not be able to tell she was middle-aged.

The one on the left was beautiful, a young woman, about seventeen or eighteen by her looks, pretty to take your breath away and make your heart jump. her face was eighty percent like the other woman; her facial features looked like the gods put a lot of effort into arranging them so that any change to any part would not make her look better. Too bad though, her face was pitifully pale. Her eyes, more white than black, lacked energy. She was clearly a pretty young girl just recently recovering from some illness. The young woman looked dignified, yet still contained some slight melancholy. Her whole body was white, dazzlingly white. Her torso under her cloak protruded where it should protrude, was thin where it should be thin. If you added a little you’d think her fat, if you subtracted something she’d be too thin. In a word, she was just right.

The other nine riders all wore black, with heavy muscular builds, tall with big fists and thick arms. From their saddles hung instruments of death.

The two brothers waited until they had gone a bit ahead, then big brother said, stupefied, “No! No! It’s really too hard to believe. It can’t be.”

Big brother, who are those people? What’s hard to believe?”

“Heavens! That’s Four Seas Dragon Xia Chengguang of Dongting Princess Island, and the girl in white is White Dragongirl Xia Yuanjun. How… How is this possible?” He was tongue-tied and dumbfounded, staring at the departing riders.

“Big brother, is it really White Dragongirl? It can’t be, it’s probably her younger sister.”

“Four Seas Dragon only has one daughter and only one son. Everyone in the jianghu knows this. How can it be her sister? Let’s go! We’ll go see what this is all about.”

On the cliff overlooking the river was a stone tablet pavilion, thirty feet high and thirty feet wide on all sides with stone pillars thick enough to wrap your arms around, a vast construction. In the center of the pavilion was a huge tablet twenty feet high, sitting on a three-layered base, the whole thing intricately carved from granite. There was a hall with stone benches, stone tables, and stone balustrades on either side of the pavilion. In front of the pavilion was a sacrificial altar holding a pair of stone cauldrons big enough for three people to wrap their arms around. Smoke drifted up from the cauldrons.

This place was a cliff with a bunch of rocks of grotesque shape. The wind off the river screamed and the sound of the water was like thunder. The summit was about a mile wide, and within sprouted many small pine trees from the cracks and crevices of rock. The rest was scattered rock and weeds with vines and creepers growing haphazardly.

The cliff extended into the middle of the river. The pavilion was erected about ten feet from the edge, facing north, its back to the south. Below the southern face was a sudden five or six hundred foot drop into the roiling river.

Tiger Head Peak’s northwest face was a slightly sloping hillside. Many sheep and cattle were put to pasture there, though originally this place had been deserted.

A group of poor kids from the countryside were gathered inside the pavilion, and leaning on a stone pillar to the right wearing shabby clothes was an old man of about seventy. They were making merry when they heard the hoofbeats, and then they turned to look.

The dozen horses reined up in front of the altar and they all dismounted. Four Seas Dragon held back White Dragongirl who was too impatient to get into the pavilion.

The old man half-closed his eyes and turned to the children. “Kids, out! Out! You’ll have to wait ’til next time to listen to this old man. Mind your livestock don’t fall off the cliff. Go on! Go on!”

The children dispersed except for a few who sat around the old man, curiously watching the group that had just arrived.

Two lines of calligraphy in the style of Yan Zhenqing were carved on the front of the huge stone memorial tablet: Cai Wenchang. Xia Yuanjun. Running parallel to these was the word: Cenotaph.

In the middle were three words: Spirit Memorial Tablet.

Inscribed: Great Ming, Thirty-fifth Year of the Jiajing Reign, Fire Dragon Summer, Fourth Month of the Fire Horse, Reverently Erected Mutually by Members from Jiangnan.”

On the back side was carved in densely-packed script several sections. The first section was the lyrics to the song mentioned earlier.

The second section was written: Cai Jun (deceased), styled Wenchang, Shangzhou prefecture, native of Fine Horse Village and Cai Family Village, born Great Ming, Fifteenth Year of the Jiajing reign, Autumn of the Ninth Month of the Metal Horse, died Thirty-fifth year of the Jiajing Reign, Second Month of the Earth Boar, Aged Twenty and One Years. Cai Jun lost both parents at an early age…”

The next section concerned White Dragongirl Xia Yuanjun’s information, very simple. Then it mentioned the burial information on Tiger Head Peak, but it was not detailed. The particulars of how it all came about will be told in subsequent chapters here.

The last section, in the corner, was carved in large characters: Righteous, Immoral, a Xia, a Bandit.4 Fugitive to the ends of the earth, freely strolled through the world of men. Right or wrong? Opinions differ. Friend or foe? The answer rests in each man’s heart.

Judging by the tone of the inscriptions, the people who erected this memorial were men of the jianghu, friends from the far corners of the earth, some perhaps enemies. At any rate, when a person dies, all personal grudges should be crossed out with a single stroke! These men were not people of high status within the jianghu.

Four Seas Dragon saw his beloved daughter’s name on the tablet plain as day. How could he not be enraged? No wonder he stamped in fury. He stood before the tablet and turned to a man at the foot of the steps. “Custodian, check for me; I want to see what bastard put up this memorial.”

But his wife said: “Chengguang, don’t get upset; suppress your anger first and calm down.”

“Nonsense! Is this not brazenly cursing our child?” Four Seas Dragon roared in anger, his long beard shaking. He took two steps toward the tablet and shot his palm out from his sleeve, and with a mighty roar chopped at the tablet.

“Hold it, Dad!” White Dragongirl cried out.

Four Seas Dragon pulled his punch and let his huge palm slant down to the side, brushing past the memorial tablet. He reined his palm in and turned and said, “What is it, child?”

“Your daughter feels you can leave the tablet as it is.”

“Eh! Why?”

“Cai Wenchang might still roam the world of men. Leave it so he can destroy it.”

“What? You think he took two stabs from your sword, fell into Black Dragon Pond and didn’t die?”

“I was stabbed twice by him as well, fell into Black Dragon Pond as well, but I didn’t die.”

“That’s not the same. You fell downstream of Black Dragon Pond…”

“I was dizzy, yet I still recall distinctly being violently pulled out from the midst of the whirlpool. When I woke up I fell asleep in a rock crevice due to my sleep acupoint being pressed, and when I woke up I was dead tired, but I still remembered. Everyone was on the cliff watching the fight. No one was at the bottom, so who saved me and put me in the crevice? It couldn’t have been anyone else but him.” As she was talking energetically, her pallid face blushed, and her lifeless eyes lit up with spirit.

“Child, you’re telling an impossible fairy tale.”

Two lines of tears fells suddenly from White Dragongirl’s eyes. She beckoned the pavilion custodian to come up the steps, took a few joss sticks, and knelt at the altar, mumbling. Then as the fragrance of the incense mingled she said faintly, “Right before he fell off the cliff he was really speaking from the heart. Why didn’t he say something earlier? I waited far too long to hear his innermost feelings. Why didn’t he say something earlier? He’s gone. Leaving me only this bitter suffering to bear. I’m remorseful, but it’s too late now. For the rest of this life I will struggle with this pain, until the day I step into the grave.” She looked up at her father and smiled bitterly. “Dad, your daughter doesn’t have the courage to think back to the aftermath of that day. I can only contemplate and hope that nightmare wasn’t real…”

“Child, the facts are all there.”

“Your daughter must comfort myself with this illusion, deceive myself as well as others, fantasize that he still lives in this world, lives in my prayers. In reality, I fell and was saved, and the reason is too obscure. If only my fantasies and inferences were true. Dad, your daughter’s hope has not been shattered…”

The two brothers who had been standing respectfully to the side quietly drove off the half dozen little kids. Big brother reached out to rouse the old man in shabby clothes who was leaning against a pillar.

Four Seas Dragon raised his hand and shook his head. “Pugilist, no need to disturb them, lest people say us men of the jianghu bully and tyrannize the people.”

Big brother drew back his hand and bowed in respect. “Your junior respects your command.”

Four Seas Dragon went down the steps and nodded. “Would you two mind telling me your honorable names?”

“Your juniors are Zhao Wen and Zhao Wu, from Nanjing” Big brother replied courteously.

“Oh! So you are the twin Zhao brothers from Zhao Gully. Pleased to meet you, pleased to meet you. You two are…”

“We’re on our way to Xi’an, and since it’s on the way we decided to come here to pay our respects.”

As they exchanged courtesies, White Dragongirl went to the edge of the cliff behind the pavilion. Strange rocks in a disordered mess, weeds knee-high, the wind on the river howling, the water below gurgling. She stood at the edge and looked down. It was really hair-raising; timid people couldn’t even speak of looking down there, much less approach the edge.

After a while, the dozen riders mounted up and descended the mountain. The Zhao Family Twins also burned incense and paper money, and once this was finished, they too mounted up and left.

The old man in shabby clothes by the pillar was snoring like he didn’t have a care in the world.

But at the sound of hoofbeats, his eyes opened a few times, flashing a strange radiance.

The hoofbeats now distant, the old man sunk back into sleep. The children gathered again and sat around the old man. A boy of about twelve went up and grabbed the old man’s jacket and shook him. “Hey, grandpa, wake up, wake up…”

The old man opened his eyes. “Settle down, settle down, you little monkeys. Go on! Get out of here! I want to sleep.”

“No, you have to tell us big brother Wenchang’s story.”

The old man waved his hand and said languidly, “Your big brother Wenchang lived here and died here. Don’t tell me you didn’t listen to your uncles tell you all about it? Asking me, what a joke.”

The kid curled his lip and said, “My dad said big brother Wen was the cause of our village’s ruin, said he’s a degenerate, a hooligan, a scoundrel. Said don’t mention him, don’t ask about him. Whoever asks about him will get smacked in the mouth!” He waved his hand imitating a smack.

The old man laughed until he was crying, then said, “Since he brought ruin, was a degenerate, a hooligan, and a scoundrel, then why are you asking me about him?”

“But some people spent money to put up a memorial tablet for big brother Wenchang, and since then Fine Horse Village has become even more illustrious. You see, every day people come from miles around to burn incense. I just don’t believe big brother Wenchang was a bad egg.”

The old man sat up with great effort and tousled the boy’s hair, smiling. “That’s right, big brother Wenchang really was a bad egg.”

“I say he wasn’t,” the boy said defiantly.

The old man reached for his wine gourd and took a few pulls and laughed. “You all want to hear big brother Wenchang’s story?”

“Yes.”

“I want to hear.”

“Tell it, grandpa.”

The old man sat up straight, shaking his head. “Alright, listen up. Every day after the sun has peaked you all come here. Grandpa will speak for a couple hours, and in a few days I should be able to tell it all. Remember, you mustn’t go home and tell your parents or your uncles, alright?”

“Okay.”

“Alright,” the little devils all shouted.

The old man’s eyes suddenly flashed like lightning, looking around in all directions. He inhaled so that the muscles in his face quivered, the look in his eyes shifting from time to time.

“A long, long time ago…” The old man casually began to tell his story.


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  1. 立秋, one of the twenty-four solar terms. It marked the beginning of autumn and the start of the seventh lunar month. I calculated it, and in the year this novel opens the day fell on July 29, a Friday
  2. 武林 Wulin, at term denoting the community of martial artists within the jianghu
  3. 里 a Chinese “mile”. About half a kilometer
  4. 俠 Xia, a term referring to people who live by a code of their own choosing, putting others before themselves and helping those in need while shunning fame and wealth. A chivalrous person. Often translated incorrectly as “hero”. A xia is not necessarily a hero, as we shall see. Due to the unique nature of the term I have decided to leave it untranslated. It’s really its own thing, like the samurai is to Japan.