Chapter 34: Assailed in the Snow
Xi’an Prefecture during the Yuan dynasty was called Fengyuan Route. In the third month of the second year of the Hongwu reign of the Ming dynasty the name was changed to Xi’an Prefecture, the administrative capital of Shaanxi Province. This city was a strategic area in the northwest, and was an ancient city of the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Every dynasty’s rise and fall involved bloodshed in this city. Since ancient times the city had been called Chang’an, meaning “everlasting peace”, but in reality peace had never lasted long here. Still, it was a famous historical city. This city once made China the shining beacon of the medieval world, and its the Chinese looked at the city and its history as a great honor.
The area surrounding the city was also called Chang’an. When county officials headed west on some unofficial business they had to do it outside the capital due to all the hidden talents lurking within.
And the people of this region called themselves citizens of Chang’an. Saying Xi’an would have been strange; they took pride in calling themselves citizens of Chang’an.
This was a high-walled city with a moat, perfectly square and imposing. Here you would not find a single worthless little alley. Four large avenues were heavy with traffic, with magnificent, towering archways everywhere, and spectacular and opulent mansions of all kinds.
History was brutal. Spilling blood and lighting fires seemed to be mankind’s only goal. The Epang Palace was gone, the Weiyang Palace destroyed. The seventy-mile city of the Sui dynasty had vanished, but Chang’an had not been extinguished. It endured forever.
In the beginning years of the current dynasty Chang’an was established once again. It was rebuilt, but at half the size, at the location of the old Sui and Tang capital. It was half the size, claiming to be forty miles, but it actually was not that big, only twenty-seven miles. The capital in Beijing was only forty miles; how could Chang’an be larger than the capital?
It had four massive, imposing gates, city walls over thirty feet high and sixty feet thick, wide enough for horses and carriages. Because it was reduced in size, most of the 106 residential wards, the nine markets, eight streets, and nine sectors had already vanished.
It was dusk when he reached Baqiao. It was still ten miles to Chang’an, so he would not make it that night. The gates opened with the crowing of the cocks and closed at sunset. One must wait until the gates opened again the next morning to pour into the city, unless you were an envoy from the capital or the nominal ruler of the prefectural city, the Prince of Qin, returning home. So he had to stay here in Baqiao for the night and prepare to enter the city the next day.
Baqiao was a large town on the bank of the Ba River. It was a place famous for seeing people off before they headed east, people often holding farewell dinners here. But Chang’an was no longer the capital, and even though many people still bid their friends farewell here, it was nothing like in the old days.
Unfortunately, all the inns were booked up, and he only had twelve coppers on him. Even buying a meal would be a problem. He had only been in the jianghu a short time and had not worked out his expenditures and means of making a living yet. Being without money made him somewhat anxious, and he had not yet developed the nerve to eat and run and slink off without paying.
I need to find a place to stay for the night, then enter the city tomorrow, he thought.
He hadn’t yet figured out what he would do after he entered the city, what he would do with his life. There were still five days until his meeting with Black Iron Pagoda. He didn’t know where he would stay those five days. And after they met? He didn’t feel like thinking about it.
He exited the town to the west but still didn’t have the courage to ask someone to put him up for the night. By the time he got to the outskirts of town he was still uncertain.
Let’s just go, he thought, conflicted. I’ll worry about it when I get there.
He strolled west and before long it was completely dark. It was already thawing season, but the strong wind was still bitterly cold. He walked on, thinking about the days ahead. The lanternlights of Baqiao flickered in the frigid wind behind him.
As he was walking he heard the sound of urgent horse hooves pounding the snow behind him. Two horses were racing toward him. They were soon right behind him.
The public road was broad. There was a lot of pedestrians and horse carts coming and going during the day, so the snow on the road was not fresh, but broken and mixed with mud to form a dark, sludgy road. People naturally tended to walk down the middle of the road, so it seemed even narrower.
He was walking down the middle of the road when he heard the horses galloping. He moved off casually to the outside, not turning to look. He was going his own way, not minding other people’s business.
The two horses ran side by side, kicking up snow behind them. A spray of snow hit him, drawing his attention. He shielded his face with his sleeve off to the side and looked. Those guys are awfully reckless, he thought.
The horses suddenly reined in about thirty feet out. The two of them, dressed in black, were excellent riders. The horses were puffing and stamping their hooves, but the black-clad riders sat them still as mountains.
“Eh, I think that’s him,” one of the riders turned and said.
“Big Brother, just ask him,” the other one said. “Don’t be crude and rash.”
They turned the horses around and waited for Wenchang to approach.
Wenchang was wearing a cloak with a hood, his sheepskin jacket and teal pants. He had nothing with him otherwise, not even a small bag. He looked like neither a traveler nor a local, and it was hard to make out his face in the dark, so mistaking him for someone else was quite possible.
He had no other friends, so he didn’t take offense at these two riders. They were all just going about their own business. He was getting closer. Eh, he thought. They’re wearing swords on their backs. Must be men of the martial fraternity. They must have mistaken me for someone else.
When he was ten feet or so away the older of the black-clad riders called to him, “Halt. State your name.”
His tone was arrogant and overbearing; Wenchang was a bit annoyed, but he put up with it. He stopped. “Before I state my name, may I ask what this is about?”
“Aren’t you the guy who was causing trouble earlier east of the town?” the rider asked.
“I didn’t cause anything east of the town. Brother, you’re mistaken.”
“You’re denying it?”
“What a joke.” Wenchang couldn’t help but laugh. “Sir, what’s the meaning of you being so aggressive? Why do you insist on blaming me for something I had nothing to do with?”
“Eh!” the rider said. “You’re a fiery lad.”
Wenchang started off. “We’ve never met, sir. Questioning me with such a haughty attitude is really rude.”
The black-clad rider hmphed and slid down from the saddle and blocked the road. Before his buddy could tell him to stop, he threw a punch head-on, a move called “Black Tiger Snatches the Heart”.
Wenchang was on his guard as soon as the man slid from his saddle. The fist came at him without warning, whistling in the wind. An expert isn’t hurried, a hurried man is not an expert. He calmly dodged to the right and reached out with his left toward the man’s wrist with “Silk Reeling Hand”. He snorted and threw his right fist out with “Lightning Thunderclap”, three short, hard punches aimed at vital points on his chest and midsection.
The black-clad rider was incredible. He quickly retracted his right fist and dodged the “Silk Reeling Hand”, then blocked Wenchang’s fist. “This guy’s rather thorny… Ah…”
He blocked Wenchang’s right fist, but he wasn’t expecting the left to take advantage of that moment and attack. His jaw was rocked with a heavy blow, making him see stars and staggering him back to the left.
The other man leapt down and said, “Stop! Listen to me…”
A fight is not easily broken up; they were trading blows with blinding speed, neither willing to give up until someone fell. Wenchang saw the man had a sword strapped to his back; he wasn’t about to let him draw it and fight it out with him. Now that he had connected, he closed in quick, unmercifully, his fists like lightning, three punches connecting, but the man only grunted. The last punch hit the man in the left ear and he fell to the right and crashed to the ground like a mountain, blood flowing from his mouth. He was unable to get back up.
The other man had not yet finished calling for them to stop before his buddy was already on the ground. He came in from behind to strike Wenchang with a crushingly powerful palm to the back, the air pushed by his hand powerful enough to penetrate to the internal organs.
Wenchang knew he was up against a master. He took the opportunity and attacked low, leaning to the side and turned over, his legs spinning in a counterattack.
The man was taken by surprise. He didn’t react as quick as Wenchang, and with two rushes of air he was hit with a kick to the outer left knee joint, and at the same moment the tip of Wenchang’s right foot hit the man in the chest.
The man cried out and fell down to the right.
Those kicks were not light; they would have been unbearable for anyone who was not a master in internal force training and qigong. The man was not made of steel, how could he not be knocked down?
Wenchang sprang up and said coldly, “Three punches and two kicks were nothing, just giving you all a taste so you’ll remember and avoid this next time.”
The man who had been knocked down with punches struggled to his feet and drew his sword. “Junior, you have a lot of guts,” he said, flustered. “The nerve to provoke the Yang Family Village of Baqiao. State your name, you’re in a lot of trouble now.”
The sound of more horse hooves in the direction of Baqiao.
Wenchang didn’t know anything about any Yang Family Village. He took a step back as he said, “Brother, you attacked me first, who are you blaming? Put away that sword, it’s not intimidating. It would be a shame for you to die for nothing just cause you drew your sword.”
The man raged and swung at him twice.
It was a good sword, its cold gleam threatening. The man’s injuries just now had not reduced his strength. If either of those slashes connected they would be fatal for sure.
Wenchang got angry. The guy was actually trying to kill him! He backed up ten feet or so to avoid the sword. He waited until the second swing, then before the man had pulled back back for a third he dug the tip of his boot in the snow and kicked up a spray of snow in the man’s face, then shot in like a gust of wind and blocked the man’s sword hand with his right, then blasted him in the face with a slap, bloodying his face. The man’s resistance evaporated.
He wasn’t done. He caught the man under the armpit and spun and shouted, “Get the f*ck out of here!”
The man was flung thirty feet, his sword long gone from his hand, and crashed down on his back. He grunted and twitched twice, then blacked out.
The man who had been kicked had been seriously injured. He lay in the snow and said weakly, “You… You have a lot of guts to provoke the Yang Family Village. You must… must be a rotten bandit. State… State your title and… name… And you’ll… you’ll see what happens.”
“What the hell is Yang Family Village?” he said coldly.
“Head of Northwest Armed Security Escort Agency, Divine Spear Yang Hu. You must have heard of him.”
“Oh, hired thugs acting as bodyguards to officials and prominent families,” Wenchang said disdainfully.
“State your name. There are people who will get even with you.”
“I don’t have to tell you nothing.”
“You look down on the rules of the jianghu?”
“The rules of the jianghu are not worth half a copper. Oh right. I just happen to be low on travel expenses. If I turned down this great business opportunity it would be like turning my nose up to your honorable escort agency. At any rate, you all hold your hands out to those esteemed officials, so squeezing a little out of you is totally fair.”
He reached into the fainted man’s robe and dug out three ingots of gold, picked up the sword and went over to the other man on the ground and pointed it at him. “Brother, are you going to be good and hand it over, or do you want me to stick this sword to your throat and get it myself?”
The man reached into his robe and fished an ingot of gold and one of silver from his pocket and handed it over. “I, Valiant Rider Wang Ying, admit defeat. The verdant mountains never change; we’ll meet again.”
Wenchang didn’t realize that in the dead of night a martial arts man’s eyesight was much keener than a normal person’s. And here dim light reflected off the snow, so when he reached down to take the gold and silver, his handsome face was plainly visible to Valiant Rider Wang Ying.
He dropped the sword and turned to the east. In the dim light he saw three or four horses galloping toward him like mad, already no more than half a mile away.
“Later, brothers.” He turned and left.
Valiant Rider Wang Ying suddenly whistled. The oncoming riders answered with a return whistle and sped up.
“Shit, they’re together,” he cursed lightly. He jumped onto a horse and sped off to the west.
Horse hooves pounded behind him like thunder, whistling piercing the air as they gave chase in hot pursuit. He heard hooves ahead as well, then more shouting.
Shit, those men up ahead are with them as well, he thought.
As they neared he saw it was five horses galloping side by side, kicking up snow.
He slid down to the side by the horse’s belly and used his hiding skills to make himself inconspicuous on the side of the horse. He planned to charge ahead and maybe he’d get lucky and find an escape.
As they neared, someone roared, “Who’s there?” No response.
Another said, “Rein in your horse.”
Nearer. Only a hundred feet. The one who had spoken first said, “Eh? It’s a riderless horse.”
“Whatever, let’s just stop it and see what’s up,” the other one said.
The five horses slowed and split off to the right and left. Two riders from the left and right yelled and threw lassos onto the saddle’s pommel.
Wenchang could see everything from where he was, stuck to the horse’s belly. He cursed inwardly. From the skill and power those men had used to throw the lassos he knew he was in deep shit.
In the blink of an eye there was no more time to think. More lassos were thrown from each side around the horse’s neck, and the two horses on either side turned toward the left and right, respectively.
Someone yelled, a horse whinnied, hooves kicked up snow into the wind. At that moment, Wenchang flung himself thirty feet and fled to the left into a snow-enveloped forest. He darted into the woods and was gone.
“Bastard!” someone shouted. “That guy is sly. After him!”
The five horses turned tail and charged into the woods, knocking ice and snow from the trees.