The Crane Startles Kunlun, Chapter 14.
from Wang Dulu's He Jing Kunlun.
A rescue is for naught; an embroidered shoe is left deep in the mountains.
Grace and enmity are as ere when a crisp song is heard in his hometown.
Hearing these words, Ji Guangjie seemed to have some apprehensions and reined up his horse, breathing deeply as he said angrily, "Then what is it you suppose we do? I, Ji Guangjie, have done nothing but suffer the losses of your Kunlun School since arriving in Guanzhong, not only the losses of your men, but those of your women as well. After Aluan was given to me in marriage, she's done nothing in accordance with me, even escaping behind my back this morning to run straight into the tiger's mouth. Is this to intentionally tarnish the name of the descendants of the Xia of Longmen?"
Ge Zhiqiang heard him speak and couldn't help his own indignation. Lu Zhizhong tried to mollify them, saying, "Right now, Miss Luan has been taken into the mountains, so how can we now fight amongst ourselves? I do not think a firm tack is possible now. Our only option is to ask Brother Ge to let go of some face and go up the mountain to meet with Hu Li the Silver Dart. Speak with him a bit or agree to give him some money, and only then might he let Aluan go!" Ge Zhiqiang sighed, "Why would I be afraid of losing face now? By this day the Kunlun School has already long ago lost all of its face! When I see Hu Li the Silver Dart, if he's willing to release Aluan, I'll even kowtow to him!" Ji Guangjie said, "I'll come with you up the mountain to see this Hu Li!" Ge Zhiqiang said, "If you are coming with me, would it not be easier for you to kill me here and now? If you go up the mountain to see Hu Li, you will not be able to hold your temper. You will surely engage him in battle, and I will surely die up on that mountain. It's not because I fear Hu Li's blade or spear, nor do I fear those brigands atop the mountain. I have qualms about those darts of his!"
Hearing this, Ji Guangjie smiled slightly and tossed his sword with a clatter onto the ground. He untied his darts sheath and threw that down as well. He then patted around his body and opened both his empty hands for Ge Zhiqiang to see, saying, "Look, there is not an inch of metal of me now and my thigh is injured, so how would I be able to fight with Hu Li the Silver Dart? It's simply that, no matter if Bao Aluan is good or bad, she is still my wife. My wife has been abducted by mountain bandits, and that is dishonor enough for me. If I do not then go to reason with Hu Li in person, how could I face anyone else in the future!" Ge Zhiqiang thought it over for a bit and then nodded, "All right, then I will not need to bring a weapon either." Lu Zhizhong threw a look at Ge Zhiqiang, signaling him not to take Ji Guangjie with him up the mountain. Ge Zhiqiang, however, did not catch his meaning and said, "Zhizhong, wait for us here. We'll be gone momentarily, and then come back." So saying, he turned his horse around and rode off with Ji Guangjie. Lu Zhizhong and the four attendants hurried after them and said, "Wouldn't it be wiser to bring at least a small weapon?" Ji Guangjie added to Ge Zhiqiang, "I am not carrying a weapon because you are afraid I will fight with Hu Li, but there's no harm in you bringing a saber."
Ge Zhiqiang reined his horse in and thought about it, but then shook his head, saying, "There's no need. If I bring a saber, that Hu Li will be able to use his darts against us without letting us uttering a word." Thus, with his horse in front and Ji Guangjie's horse behind, they followed the mountain road, winding off into the distance. After turning through a few mountain loops, they spotted a tall peak in front of them, thick with trees. A smoky mist hovered about and the path was both narrow and steep. Ge Zhiqiang sat atop his horse and looked back, saying to Ji Guangjie, "Look, that's it." Then he whispered, "This mountain is called Harrierfall Peak, for even harriers cannot fly through to it. Now you must understand how dangerous it is! Hu Li has occupied this mountain peak by relying on his silver darts, and in over twenty years not a single man has dared provoke him. Not even large groups of military officers and soldiers have been successful in eliminating him." They rode as he spoke, until they reached halfway up the mountain where the horses could go no further.
Ji Guangjie's left thigh was in intense pain when Ge Zhiqiang said, "Let's dismount. From here, we will have to walk the horses up. If we were to ride them and they lost their footing, it would too dangerous!" Thus, the two got off their horses together. When Ji Guangjie dismounted, a tinkling sound came from his chest area. In fact, he had hidden a couple darts on himself, though Ge Zhiqiang did not hear this sound. The two men led their horses up a short distance when they spotted two date trees growing out of a crack in the rocks by the road. Ge Zhiqiang said, "Let's tie our horses up here, so they don't get lost." The two men then both hitched their horses here. Just as they were tying the reins onto the tree, someone suddenly shouted loudly from a higher place, "Hey! Who goes there?"
Ge Zhiqiang looked up and saw five or six brigands standing atop the mountain, all holding sabers in their hands and glaring down at them as they questioned them. Ge Zhiqiang clasped his hand to them and faced upward, saying, "I am Ge Zhiqiang of the Lishun Security Office in Xi'an. I am here with Ji Guangjie, and we'd like to meet with your good captain, the great sir Hu. We did not bring weapons with us, and come here without ill intentions. Can we trouble you good brothers to take our message back?" Some of the brigands hardened their glares as they looked down at them, and then talked amongst themselves before sending one of them back to the stronghold with the message.
Ge Zhiqiang turned back to Ji Guangjie and said, "We'll just wait here!" Ji Guangjie angrily cursed to himself and sat down on a rock on account of the pain in his thigh. Ge Zhiqiang then instructed him, "In-law Ji, when we see Hu Li, no matter what he says, you must hold your temper. Even without mentioning his silver darts, there are over a hundred brigands on that mountain of his, and we are no match for that. Not only would the two of us die, but Miss Aluan would also be killed!" Ji Guangjie nodded and remained silent.
They waited a short while. Ge Zhiqiang recognized one of the bandit leaders who was holding a saber in each hand. He was one of Hu Li's more useful men, Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey. Ge Zhiqiang walked up a few steps and said, "Second Brother Qiu, could I trouble you to bring us to see Captain Hu? I could never have imagined that today my disciple-niece Bao Aluan would hurt the two brothers of the Hu household, or that Great Brother Yu would also die tragically. We have come here now, not so much to plead leniency for Aluan, but to see Captain Hu and beg him for forgiveness." He then pointed behind him at Ji Guangjie and said, "This is the good grandson of the Xia of Longmen, Ji Guangjie. He is Aluan's husband."
The Red-faced Monkey frowned and said, "How do you people still have face enough to see our captain? Lu Zhizhong brought that Bao girl with him. She caused grievous harm to our two young captains and the great sir Yu! We let Lu Zhizhong off lightly by letting him go, and you still dare come here courting death? Even if you wanted to see that Bao girl again, you couldn't. She accompanied several of our brothers to early bed, and just now we've dismembered her..."
Hearing this, Ji Guangjie became so furious he rushed upwards, but Ge Zhiqiang hurriedly held him back, urging him, "We cannot trust the words of the Red-faced Monkey! Hu Li the Silver Dart is a bandit, but he is not so cruel as that. I am certain Aluan is still alive!" Ji Guangjie was so angry his face was a deathly white and he was breathing heavily. Ge Zhiqiang then said to the Red-faced Monkey, "Second Brother Qiu, please show me some face. I, the one named Ge, have traveled below your great mountain for more than twenty years and our friendship is much more than a day old. Bao Aluan killed the young captain Hu, so it concerns me not if you put her to death. But regardless, I must see the Captain Hu." Ji Guangjie pounded him from behind with a fist and said, "You should go back now, and let me see Hu Li by myself!"
Ge Zhiqiang turned around with a furrowed brow and said to Ji Guangjie, "Have you still not born down your anger? What good will come of it! Aluan is still alive. I guarantee it, because Hu Li the Silver Dart is afraid of sowing enmity with us. He is especially fearful of our master. When he wounded Bao Zhiyun ten years ago, he very urgently sent men to our master to apologize for his offense. This time, if he was willing to let Lu Zhizhong go, we can see that he is still afraid of us. But that doesn't mean we should force him into a corner. If we do that, then Miss Luan will not go on living!" Ji Guangjie was still fuming as he said, "Even if they have not killed Aluan, she cannot suffer their dishonor!" Ge Zhiqiang waved his hand, saying, "That is even less likely! Hu Li the Silver Dart and our master have a similar character. He absolutely loathes the lecherous. Those henchmen who follow him may do any manner of bad deed, but they may not rob from women. Otherwise, if he comes to find out, he will kill them." It wasn't until Ji Guangjie heard this that he settled down a little bit and lessened his fury. By now, Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey had already sent a brigand to notify Hu Li the Silver Dart and, with a pair of sabers in his hands, he had brought a dozen or so men to stand guard on the mountain path while he glowered downward.
After waiting another short while, they saw Hu Li the Silver Dart show up on the mountain peak with several men. Ge Zhiqiang hurriedly instructed Ji Guangjie that by any means he had to be patient, and then he ran up a few steps and clasped his fist at Hu Li, saying, "Great Brother Hu! I have come with Ji Guangjie to apologize for our offenses!" Ji Guangjie's face still carried an angry expression, but he uttered not a word as he trailed Ge Zhiqiang up.
Hu Li the Silver Dart's face tightened and his whiskers stood up on end, as he gazed down on Ge Zhiqiang with eyes glowering with ferocity but also a bit of grief. Ge Zhiqiang had made his way onto the peak and had arrived in his vicinity before he spoke, "Sixth Brother Ge, I have nothing to say to you. You'd best go back. Don't cause trouble here and damage our ten and more years of friendship. Tell Ji Guangjie to come up here. I have long esteemed his great name, and I must talk with him!"
Ji Guangjie had followed Ge Zhiqiang up to the peak. He opened by saying, "Bao Aluan is my wife. She killed your son and we shall speak of that later. Let me ask you right now, is she still alive?" Hu Li the Silver Dart fixed his eyes on Ji Guangjie and said, "So what if she has died? And what if she hasn't?" Ji Guangjie sneered, "Then naturally there are two ways this conversation could run!" Hu Li the Silver Dart's face sunk a bit as he said, "Ji Guangjie, you have come to my place, so do not be presumptuous. Do not think that I fear you because you are the grandson of the Xia of Longmen! Bao Aluan murdered my son today and killed my subordinate, Yu Dabiao. I have never suffered such insult before. If she was not married to you, I would long have already punished her!" Upon hearing this, Ji Guangjie laughed and said, "Now, this I can understand!" He gave Hu Li's shoulder a pat, whereupon Hu Li hastened back several steps in alarm, thinking that the Xia of Longmen's grandson must know dianxue.
Hearing that Hu Li hadn't killed Aluan because he himself was feared, Ji Guangjie became ever more arrogant, saying proudly, "As things are such, why don't we be friends! Send my wife out safe and sound and let me take her away, and in the future I will owe you a favor. Right now there is one Jiang Xiaohe, who will soon come to the Qin Mountains. Once he does, he will flatten your mountain stronghold. Your silver darts will be of no use, but at that time I will come to your aid, for I am the only one who can cause him to yield!" Hu Li angrily stamped his foot and said, "Do not mention Jiang Xiaohe here to scare me! And I fear you even less. Now that I have Bao Aluan in my keeping, I cannot just free her to leave the mountain. Just as I cannot put her immediately to death, I cannot also let her live as she pleases. I have already told Lu Zhizhong, call the father and son of the Bao household, and the one named Ji, to come to my mountain within five days. After you've spoken your nice words, you are to kneel down and kowtow to the two coffins. You are then to send up five thousand taels of silver and ten horses, whereupon I will cut off one of Aluan's hands. Only then can I let her off this mountain. Otherwise, I am liable to do just about anything!"
Ji Guangjie was so enraged he raised his fist to strike, but Ge Zhiqiang quickly held him back. Hu Li jumped back a few steps and laughed wildly, "Ji Guangjie, don't display your strength here! Right now your wife in my hands. I, Hu Li the Silver Dart, have been a good man all my life, but if things get out of hand presently, I may have to ruin her a bit!" Ji Guangjie angrily stamped his foot, thump, thump, but Ge Zhiqiang held onto him once again so he couldn't charge over. As Ge Zhiqiang kept Ji Guangjie back, he pleaded with Hu Li, "Great Brother Hu! Please leave us some face. Is it necessary for you to create such extraordinary enmity between you and our Kunlun School and the Ji household of Longmen?"
When Hu Li heard this, he changed his attitude a bit and said, "It is not that I want to sow hatred with you. I have been very courteous to you all in the past ten years, and there is even less animosity between me and those named Ji. It is you who have come looking for me. Come and see!" So saying, he told Ge Zhiqiang and Ji Guangjie to follow him up. Ge Zhiqiang turned back again and whispered to Ji Guangjie, "You must be more patient!" Ji Guangjie thought it over and bore down his anger. Thereafter, the two men walked up behind Hu Li the Silver Dart. The Red-faced Monkey brought several other bandits to gather around them, all armed with sabers, and glared crossly at them.
In a short while they arrived at the mountain stronghold. Inside, there was an earthen structure with about thirty-some rooms and twenty or thirty cave dwellings carved into the mountain, in which people lived. As Ji Guangjie and Ge Zhiqiang came here, more and more brigands gathered, until they numbered fully more than a hundred, all of them with weapons in hand, surrounding them layer upon layer. Ge Zhiqiang's face was yellow with fright. Ji Guangjie felt a bit of dread, but he kept a haughty expression on his face. Hu Li the Silver Dart brought the two of them in front of two coffins and couldn't help but shed tears, saying indignantly, "Look at this! My son Hu Baoshan was twenty-five years this year and he has a wife. Yu Dabiao was with me for over a dozen years and his entire household is in this place of mine. Now, they've met with violent deaths this morning. You both traverse Jianghu and neither of you are unreasonable men, so think: How excessively malicious were Bao Aluan's actions? Can we truly complete this matter indifferently?" Ge Zhiqiang sighed and said, "This truly is unimaginable! However, I know that Aluan must not have deliberately taken these two men's lives. This was certainly done by accident!"
Ji Guangjie added, "When two sides raise their blades and engage in combat, one cannot say for certain who will hurt whom. It is tragic when an innocent dies, and that is considered a grave offense. But when one dies in battle, there is nothing to begrudge. I, Ji Guangjie, suffered a sword stroke from Jiang Xiaohe in my left thigh. The wound is not light, but I do not hate Jiang Xiaohe. In the future when we meet again, if I have the skill, I will stab him in turn, and if I haven't, he will stab me again. You, Hu Li the Silver Dart, have dominated this mountain range for more than twenty years and it's not as if you haven't hurt others before. But now that someone else has hurt you, you feel it is a tragedy!"
Hu Li glowered and said, "If that's how you'll speak, then I have captured Aluan, which means that I can kill her without any mercy!" Ji Guangjie said, "If you kill her, then I cannot let you live!" Hu Li guffawed and said, "Are you still being so discourteous and unreasonable?" With a grin, he had his henchmen on all sides advancing together with sabers brandished, but Hu Li then signaled them with his eyes to stop. The color to Ji Guangjie's face turned, but he still laughed arrogantly, "Don't scare me with your numbers. If you really want to attack, then be clear about it and we shall have ourselves a fight!" Hu Li looked down for a while and said, "In fact, it would be an easy task to kill you, but because your thighbone is already wounded, even if we did kill you, we would not be heroes. Get off my mountain! Bring the Bao father and son to see me within five days, and we will talk further."
Ji Guangjie took a deep breath and he relaxed a bit, saying, "You tell me again to leave the mountain and invite the Bao father and son to come here. That's simple. To kowtow before these coffins, that's naturally impossible. However, I am certain we can give you the five thousand taels of silver. But before I can go, you must take me to see my wife so that I can be assured she is still alive!" Hu Li the Silver Dart thought this over and then nodded, saying, "Fine. I will take you to see her!" Thus again with Hu Li in the lead, they went before the caves as the many brigands thronged around Ge Zhiqiang and Ji Guangjie.
These caves had been carved into the mountain rock, some very deep, though even the ones that weren't had windows that resembled mouse holes from a distance. There were two caves on which very thick iron bars had been installed, like in a jail, and the interiors were darker and bleaker than caves toward the front. Ji Guangjie peered inside and saw Aluan rushing to the iron bars. She was not yet disheveled, but her right shoulder to her wrist was fully stained with blood. Her spirit remained strong though as she widened her eyes and said, "What are you doing here?" Ji Guangjie said, "While wounded, I have put myself in danger to come here with Uncle Ge to rescue you!" Aluan said with anxiety and frustration, "I don't need to be rescued. They can go ahead and kill me if they like. Get out of here! And don't tell my grandfather to come!" She wept as she spoke. Ge Zhiqiang said, "Miss Luan, please be patient here for a few days. The great captain Hu does not intend to harm you. I assure you we will get you out of here within five days."
Ji Guangjie said, "I won't need five days. I can get you out of here today or tomorrow!" Hu Li stood by and couldn't help but sneer a bit. Ji Guangjie became furious and turned to Hu Li and said, "I want you to release my wife now. If there's anything to be said, we can talk about it afterwards. I am sure we can resolve this, but I will not stand for this humiliation of me, Ji Guangjie!" Still sneering, Hu Li said, "That's very easy for you to say, but if I let her go, then will my son and friend have died for naught? We have nothing further to discuss. I am giving you five days to bring me the Bao father and son. Otherwise, do not bother coming to the mountain and forget about this Bao Aluan." He walked over, tapped the iron bars, and felt the large iron lock, smirking, "Look, this cave cell could keep even a cougar. If you were to make a futile attempt at coming up the mountain under cover of night to rescue her, you would be walking to your own death!"
When he said this, he was but twenty or so paces from Ji Guangjie, whose face was now white with fury. Ji Guangjie suddenly pulled out a dart and clapping his hand, flung it at Hu Li. He was unaware that, as a great bandit who had long traversed Jianghu, Hu Li had already seen early on that Ji Guangjie was concealing hidden weapons on his person and was ever watchful. As he saw Ji Guangjie's dart coming at him now, he quickly ducked out of the way, dodging it completely. At this time, the mass of bandits nearby surged forward with sabers brandished and immediately cut Ge Zhiqiang down. Ji Guangjie had stolen away a saber and engaged the bandit mob in close combat. The brigands numbered too greatly, with their sabers, spears and shouts coming at him all at once from every direction, so Ji Guangjie had no real way to hold them off by himself. He cut down several of the brigands and charged his way out of the encirclement. Enduring his thigh wound, he headed down the mountain at a sprint, but the entrances had been blocked by the bandit mob, so Ji Guangjie could only climb his way back up the mountain. However, because his thigh injury caused him weariness, climbing was difficult. There were also too many brigands and Hu Li was waiting for him with a dart in hand, so he only made it a dozen or so paces up before Hu Li's dart came from below and struck him in his left crotch. It hurt so much he couldn't stay up, so he came tumbling off the mountain. The bandit mob advanced on him, swinging their sabers, about to chop Ji Guangjie into a meat paste. However, Hu Li whistled and the mob all stopped at once.
Hu Li ordered his men to have Ji Guangjie bound as well, and when he frisked him, he found yet another dart in his clothes. Hu Li scoffed, "Young one! Did you really dare to use darts against me? This is exactly what we call, blowing tornadoes before Tianshi, or peddling the Three Character Classic in front of the sage's gate." Even tied up, Ji Guangjie did not surrender, saying, "Little one, what will you accomplish by killing me? There were one or two hundred against me, not to mention that you used hidden weapons to capture me. What is heroic about that?" Hu Li laughed, "What are you still blustering about? As the grandson of the Xia of Longmen, you thought you were a hero peerless upon Jianghu, but you too have been caught by me!" Ji Guangjie glared angrily at him. Though his body was bound with a very thick rope and he was bleeding from wounds on his left leg both old and new, he still struggled to get up and strike at Hu Li, but he was pressed down by a few of the brigands.
Hu Li ordered a few of his men to hold Ji Guangjie up as they came before the cave where Aluan was imprisoned and he called for Aluan to look. Seeing Ji Guangjie wounded and also in their custody, Aluan couldn't help feeling a deep sorrow. She held onto the iron bars and wept, "You tell them! Tell them to kill both of us! We will be husband and wife in the underworld, and when we get there I promise I'll be good to you!" A heavy bleakness came to Ji Guangjie's face, but he forced himself to smile, saying, "There's no need to say that. Whether they kill us or not is all up to them. I'll die with no regrets except that I was not able to kill Jiang Xiaohe for your Kunlun School!" This made Aluan even sadder and she lowered her head and cried bitter tears. Ji Guangjie said to Hu Li, "The one named Hu, let me beg one thing of you: kill me before you kill my wife. Otherwise, you must imprison us together." Hu Li smirked slightly and without saying anything, turned and left.
He returned to his residence and rested for a spell. Then, he was overjoyed, feeling that capturing the two, Bao Aluan and Ji Guangjie, was sufficient to avenge his own son and Yu Dabiao. At this time, his bandit henchmen Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey and Fourth Jiao came to his room and asked him for instructions, "What are the captain's plans? That Ji Guangjie is causing a terrible racket. We were thinking, wouldn't it be better to dispatch him first?" Hu Li shook his head and said, "He is the grandson of the Xia of Longmen. He must have a good many disciple-brothers. If we killed him, we would sow a grave enmity, and in the future there will surely be others more skilled than him coming to look for us!" The Red-faced Monkey said, "I hear that Ji Guangjie's martial skill is one of the best in Jianghu. Even the disciple of the Dragon of Shu, Li Fengjie, was driven out of Guanzhong by him. If we kill him and others come for us, they will not be able to beat the captain's silver darts." Hu Li still shook his head, saying, "Put him in another cave first, one a little far away from the girl's, but don't hurt him." The Red-faced Monkey looked over at Fourth Jiao to signal to him that he disapproved. Fourth Jiao then asked, "How do we deal with that Ge Zhiqiang? He is not yet dead." Hu Li the Silver Dart said, "Bring him here!"
Presently Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey and Fourth Jiao the Copper Hammer left his room. After a little more time, Fourth Jiao and some brigands arrived supporting Ge Zhiqiang. Ge Zhiqiang had not yet been tied up, but he had severe cuts in both his shoulder and his back. His face was sallow from pain and he couldn't stop groaning. Hu Li instructed the men to help him onto a stool and then said, "Sixth Brother Ge, I am truly sorry for what happened today, but it was not my aim to hurt you. This was all caused by Ji Guangjie. It's likely he did not harbor good intentions when he came up the mountain with you, and you suffered the consequences for him." Ge Zhiqiang muttered, "Why continue talking about it? This has gotten this far and there's nothing I can do about it. Since you are still willing to speak of friendship with me, I ask that you send a few men to take me down the mountain. Lu Zhizhong is waiting for me there right now. Bring me to him and I'll tell him to take me back to Chang'an to recover my wounds. I no longer care about any of this!"
Hu Li nodded and said, "Very well! As you no longer care, then this no longer concerns you. In the future, however far I take it with Bao Kunlun, it will have nothing to do with you, Sixth Brother Ge." He then commanded the brigands to ready a plank on which to carry Ge Zhiqiang down the mountain to Lu Zhizhong. Afterward, he brought several brigands for an inspection of the front and back of the mountain, and also each cave. He instructed his underlings that from today forward, none were allowed to leave the mountain to do business. They were only to keep the mountain stronghold secure day and night. He then told them not to deprive Ji Guangjie or Bao Aluan of food or drink and to apply some cut medicine to their wounds. He stressed that they not be allowed to die. After he gave his orders, Hu Li returned once more to his residence.
After a while, the brigands that had taken Ge Zhiqiang down the mountain all came back, and they said, "We have handed Ge Zhiqiang over to Lu Zhizhong. Lu Zhizhong told us to ask the captain to allow them a few more days' time so that they could find Bao Kunlun." Hu Li smirked slightly, but didn't say anything as he waved the brigands away.
Hu Li had occupied this mountain range for twenty some years, and because his silver darts were always on target, not only did the various security escorts not dare to provoke him, but none of the other bandits here dared to usurp him. There were three summits in the area. One of them was Harrierfall Peak. Another was Cowstongue Ridge to the west, which had been held by his son Hu Baoshan the Young Yang Jian. The other was Horseneck Ridge, which used to be guarded by his eldest son, but now that he had been wounded by Aluan, it was secured in his stead by a bandit called the White Tiger along with several dozen brigands.
In the evening, the White Tiger came to Harrierfall Peak. The first thing he did was to go before the coffins of Hu Baoshan and Yu Dabiao and weep for a spell. Then, he went inside with Hu Li the Silver Dart, Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey, and Fourth Jiao the Copper Hammer, and the four bandits conversed. The White Tiger said, "Lu Zhizhong rode south today on his own. When we stopped him, he told us he was going to look for his master Bao Kunlun. Since it was the captain that told him to find him, we let him pass. Now we wait for Bao Kunlun to arrive, and I will make him pay!" The White Tiger continued, "I doubt Bao Kunlun would dare come, since Jiang Xiaohe is making his way to Zhenba to find him to avenge Jiang Zhisheng. He's already fled, his whereabouts unknown." Hu Li pondered for a while, and then asked, "What kind of man is Jiang Xiaohe?" The White Tiger said, "I hear his martial arts are very powerful, well above those of Ji Guangjie, Li Fengjie and the Xia of Langzhong. Otherwise, how has he gotten Bao Kunlun so scared?"
Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey said, "I was thinking, why don't we befriend Jiang Xiaohe? We should send someone to try to find him and invite him back to the mountain to be our vice-captain. As for Ji Guangjie, we needn't make it a public event. We'll get rid of him secretly and save us great trouble. That Bao Aluan's just a wench. There are limits to her skill, so we needn't harm her life. We'll keep her locked up here forever and I'll watch over her. I assure you she won't escape. It would be fine if Bao Kunlun comes up the mountain with some silver taels to see his granddaughter, but if he wants to take his granddaughter back down the mountain, that wouldn't do. We need to keep her as a hostage, or else in the future Bao Kunlun will surely plan his revenge."
Hu Li heard these words but was yet undecided, because he was running these two scenarios in his head: The first was about Jiang Xiaohe. He wasn't sure if this man would come to the mountain and join their gang, and if he did join the gang, Hu Li wasn't sure if Jiang Xiaohe would slowly overshadow him and crush him under foot. The second matter was Bao Kunlun. Though Hu Li had kept the disciples of the Kunlun School in check with his silver darts for twenty years, he still harbored an awe of the old master Bao inside. He knew that old master Bao's martial arts were extraordinary and that he was robust despite his years. If he really did come up the mountain and wouldn't be able to leave without his granddaughter, he would without a doubt acknowledge the wrongs done. However, it would be hard to anticipate events after letting his granddaughter off the mountain. If he didn't care whether his granddaughter lived or died and engaged Hu Li in a mortal battle, then perhaps he would be an even harder knot than Ji Guangjie to untie.
The four bandit leaders spoke for a while, but didn't come to a conclusion, after which they drank some wine together. After the wine, the White Tiger, Fourth Jiao the Copper Hammer and the Red-faced Monkey split up to patrol around once more before they went inside to sleep. However, Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey couldn't fall asleep, as he was thinking about a woman. This woman was the one who had kill their young captain and Yu Dabiao today, and then been injured and captured: Bao Aluan.
There had never been very many women atop this mountain peak. There was Hu Li's wife, but she was already half an old woman. Then there were Hu Baoshan and Yu Dabiao's wives. They had both been abducted from mountain families and both of them were exceedingly ugly. This year, the Red-faced Monkey was over twenty years and he had been a bandit now for seven or eight years, yet he still didn't have a wife. He had never before laid eyes on someone like Aluan, who was young and looked as if a heavenly immortal, so he wasn't about to fall asleep this night. He thought, That little wench, with skill so powerful and actions so tremendous, if she were willing to be my wife, I would definitely consider it. But I need to take advantage now of the fact that she is wounded and imprisoned in the cave. Thus, he picked up a saber and left the room. At this time, the moon and stars were distant in the sky and the mountain wind was blowing urgently. The Red-faced Monkey walked several paces and then stopped in his tracks. It had come to him that he hadn't the key to open the jail on him. The key was always put away by Hu Li himself after its use, and the lock was a very special one, both big and heavy, and could not be opened with any other key.
The Red-faced Monkey stared into space for a moment and decided that he would have to think of a way to get the key from Hu Li tomorrow. Today, he would tell the little wench his feelings so that she could keep him in her mind first. Thus he walked quietly to the cave cell where Aluan was being kept and came upon two brigands squatting in front of it. When they saw him coming, they both stood up and asked, holding their sabers out, "Who goes there?" The Red-faced Monkey said, "It's me!" The two brigands recognized the Red-faced Monkey's voice and made out his face under the hazy moonlight. They said to him, "Second Sir Qiu, we were just squatting here. We weren't asleep!" The Red-faced Monkey said, "I know you weren't sleeping. Get out of here! I'll stand guard." The two brigands hurried away with their sabers.
The Red-faced Monkey walked in front of the iron bars and it was pitch dark inside. He couldn't see where that pretty little wench was crouching nursing her wounds. He called inside, "Aluan! Aluan!" several times, but no one replied. He tugged a the lock and found it still shut very tightly, so he pressed himself up against the bars and said, "Bao Aluan! Wake up! Let me tell you, I'm the third captain here. They call me Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey. I am a good man. If you're good to me, I can save your life!" Aluan spat angrily from inside, "Go away!" The Red-faced Monkey laughed and said, "Let me tell you, don't be suspicious! I am a good man and I've very young. If you can obey me, I'll see you tonight. After a few days, I'm sure I can rescue you..." When he got to here, he suddenly felt someone wrapping both their hands around his neck from behind. He stamped both his feet erratically and dropped his saber, but he wasn't able to make any noise. The person behind him took his head and slammed it violently onto the iron bars. He very soon lost consciousness.
Inside the cave cell, Bao Aluan was in disbelief. She had been feeling the pain of her left rib and right shoulder dart wounds all day, and after Ji Guangjie and Ge Zhiqiang's capture on this mountain for the sake of rescuing her, she'd felt even more miserable. She didn't fear death, but the dark and dank cave cell with its floors covered with centipedes and large ants were truly hard for her to bear. The words just spoken by that bandit, the Red-faced Monkey, almost made her mad with fury! She wanted to find something on the ground and throw it at him, striking that ill-intentioned bandit dead. Presently, she abruptly heard two or three bizarre sounds and saw the Red-faced Monkey collapse to the floor as if he had died, as a tall figure loomed outside the bars.
Aluan was taken aback. The tall figure reached out and handled the iron lock. With a loud click, the lock fell to the floor and the cell door swung open. The tall figure walked into the cave cell and startled, Aluan asked him, "Who are you?" The man stood in place and said in a serious tone, "Do not fear! It is Jiang Xiaohe!"
Hearing this, Aluan felt at turns pleasure and sadness. Her heart beat rapidly and tears streamed from her face, but she was unable to utter a word. She heard Jiang Xiaohe say into the darkness, "Aluan, come with me, quickly!" Aluan asked sternly through tears, "Where would I go with you? If it weren't for you, I would not have fallen into this place!" Jiang Xiaohe sighed faintly and said, "Let's not talk about that now. Come with me first. I have a place set up for you. Afterward, I must still hurry back and save your husband Ji Guangjie!" Aluan wept and walked a few paces reluctantly. Jiang Xiaohe wrapped his arms gently around Aluan and picked her up, as Aluan grabbed Jiang Xiaohe's sturdy back tightly with both her hands. She was still weeping unceasingly when Jiang Xiaohe instructed her, "Stop crying! If those brigands hear you, it will not be easy to save Ji Guangjie!" Carrying Aluan on his back, he came out of the cave cell and gave the halfway-dead and unconscious Red-faced Monkey a few kicks, rolling him into the cave. With one hand holding onto Aluan and the other pulling on the crags, he climbed nimbly up the mountain without being detected by the bandits.
As Aluan was being carried on Jiang Xiaohe's back, she continued shedding tears. She watched as Jiang Xiaohe moved with swift agility and couldn't help but think mournfully back on their childhood, of Jiang Xiaohe's agility when he climbed the tree to retrieve her kite for her. She had admired Jiang Xiaohe when they were little, and now Jiang Xiaohe's martial ability was even more admirable. Jiang Xiaohe climbed over the peak with her, crossing several places where there were only footholds in the precipice and jumping down a distance of thirty or forty feet. Aluan was frightened and nervous, but Jiang Xiaohe's feet didn't slip even a little bit. Shortly, Jiang Xiaohe placed Aluan gently on a large, flat and smooth boulder, saying, "Do not be afraid, Aluan. Wait for me and in a moment I will rescue Ji Guangjie!" Aluan sorrowfully choked out a response. Jiang Xiaohe then turned around and bounded off like a cougar back up the mountain peak.
By this time, the peak was ablaze with fire. The one who had been kicked by Jiang Xiaohe into the cave cell, Second Qiu the Red-faced Monkey, had regained consciousness and shouted out from inside the cave, rousing the bandits, including the White Tiger, Fourth Jiao the Copper Hammer and Hu Li the Silver Dart. Once Hu Li discovered that Aluan had been broken out, he immediately ordered each bandit henchman to lead the other brigands in a search. Twenty or thirty torches were lit into a glorious blaze and shone upon the valley as if it was daylight. However, Jiang Xiaohe was standing somewhere high up on top of a crag that wasn't illuminated. Jiang Xiaohe saw many cave dwellings in the mountain rock below his feet, several of which were lit from inside. The brigands were like rats, leaping and running out of the caves one after the other, towards the area lit by fire to help others on the manhunt.
Jiang Xiaohe took the opportunity to leap down. Three brigands ran at him head-on, asking, "Who are you?" Jiang Xiaohe spoke not a word in reply, instead swinging his sword, cutting two of them down and seizing the other one unharmed, demanding from him, "Where are you keeping Ji Guangjie? Take me there!" The brigand trembled in fear as he took Jiang Xiaohe to a cave on the eastern side. At this time, several other brigands spotted Jiang Xiaohe clutching one of their men and whistled, fweee. The flames and murderous sounds from every direction converged on him. Jiang Xiaohe hurriedly forced the brigand into the cave.
This cave was very deep and was lit by a dim rapeseed oil lamp. There were currently four brigands inside keeping watch over Ji Guangjie. Seeing Jiang Xiaohe bursting in, they brandished their sabers and raised their staffs and charged at Jiang Xiaohe. Jiang Xiaohe swung his sword and wounded two of them. The remaining two ran out of there, along with the one that Jiang Xiaohe had released. Jiang Xiaohe quickly picked up Ji Guangjie from the floor, his hand and feet bound. Ji Guangjie had seen that it was Jiang Xiaohe that had come to rescue him and said, "Jiang, use your sword to sever these ropes on me. I can walk on my own." Jiang Xiaohe was too busy to reply to him, and with one hand carrying Ji Guangjie and the other swinging his sword, he rushed out of the cave door.
By now, Hu Li and a hundred of his bandits had caught up with him. They shouted loudly, their sabers and spears coming at him in a jumble. Jiang Xiaohe's sword swung quickly and gracefully, blocking the multitude of weapons and cutting down a good many brigands. He then bounded up onto a mountain crag. He was without injury, nor did he allow Ji Guangjie to be wounded. Just then several darts came flying at them, all of them either dodged by Jiang Xiaohe or knocked away with his sword. Jiang Xiaohe caught sight of the man who had thrown the darts standing amid the crowd of torches. He had kept sideburns, so Jiang Xiaohe thought to himself, This man must be Hu Li. He sheathed his sword on his back. Under one arm, he held onto Ji Guangjie, while the other arm was unfolded, as he waited for more darts from below. Beneath them, Hu Li was extremely aggravated because the mountain crag that Jiang Xiaohe had leapt onto was thirty feet above the ground and was a lone rock formation onto which there were no paths to scale. All they could do was stand below and look up at him, for no one was able to climb up there.
When none of his darts had hit their mark, he ordered the brigands to climb onto the shoulders of others to make their way up, and then he prepared another dart. He aimed this one with special care and flung it up. This time, the dart did not fall back down, but it was because Jiang Xiaohe reached out and caught it. Jiang Xiaohe cracked a smile and flung the dart he'd obtained back at Hu Li. It struck Hu Li in the top of his head and he collapsed onto the ground. The mass of bandits below were sent into a panic, and the brigands who were trying to climb up were sent tumbling back down after being wounded by Jiang Xiaohe. Jiang Xiaohe bounded upwards while carrying Ji Guangjie, again like a cougar. He jumped across the mountain peak and came to the place he had put Aluan.
He set Ji Guangjie on the ground, not bothering to cut him free as he went to find Aluan first. Yet, when his eyes made contact with the large, flat rock, he was startled! The rock was there as before, but there was no trace of Aluan. Under the faint moonlight, he looked in every direction. He saw tree branches swaying in the mountain breeze, but not one person. Jiang Xiaohe couldn't help shouting in alarm, "Aluan! Aluan!" The echo from the valley replied, "Aluan! Aluan!" But, no person gave a response. Jiang Xiaohe became anxious. Ji Guangjie was also anxious as he said, still laying on the ground, "Cut these ropes off of me first!" Jiang Xiaohe went over and severed Ji Guangjie's ropes with his sword, and then continued crying out, "Aluan! Aluan! Aluan!" Ji Guangjie had wriggled up and shouted a couple times. When no one replied, he asked Jiang Xiaohe, "What's happened? Was Aluan just here?" Jiang Xiaohe stamped his foot rapidly and said, "I rescued Aluan first and then I brought her here and told her to wait. Then, I went to rescue you. It has not been a long time, so how could she then disappear?"
Ji Guangjie heard this and became even more anxious and shouted again with alarm, "Aluan! Aluan! I've come!" However, no matter how they called out, there was still no reply. He said to Jiang Xiaohe, "Could she have been recaptured by the mountain bandits?" Jiang Xiaohe shook his head and said, "No, no, there are no paths to ascend to this peak. Excepting me, no one else can climb to here." Ji Guangjie said, "Could she have been carried away in the jaws of a cougar? Every kind of wild beast lives in the Qin Mountains." Hearing this, Jiang Xiaohe couldn't help be taken aback. He searched everywhere once more, but didn't find any animal tracks or blood trails. Seeing Jiang Xiaohe turning this way and that worriedly, he became more fretful, calling out, "Let us go down and have a look. She may not have liked it here and jumped down the mountain on her own."
Jiang Xiaohe said fretfully, "She couldn't have made it down on her own. This area before us is all jagged rocks. If one fell, they would certainly die. And behind is a deep mountain stream full of water!" When he said this, he suddenly thought, Could Aluan have killed herself? He became even more worried and anxious. Ji Guangjie called out another few times, "Aluan," but still there was no answer. He walked over slowly and said to Jiang Xiaohe, "You do things poorly. If you had kept your nose out of this, Hu Li the Silver Dart would never have dared kill me. I could have escaped on my own and Aluan would not now be lost!" Jiang Xiaohe stood angrily in place but did not speak. Ji Guangjie then asked, "Who asked you to come up the mountain to save us? How did you know that we had been struck by Hu Li's darts up here?"
Jiang Xiaohe said, "I followed you secretly when you left Chang'an. I felt you were riding too slowly and became impatient following, so I crossed the Qin Mountains ahead of you. When I arrived in Ziwu, I encountered an old of mine, Qi Yong the Hooked Blade. I entrusted him with the task of making some inquiries for me, and I stayed in Ziwu to await his return. After two days, he had still not completed the inquiries. This evening, Lu Zhizhong passed through and we met. Though there is bad blood between me and many of the Kunlun School, Lu Zhizhong has always been good to me. We met and spoke and I came to know that you and Aluan were both wounded by darts and captured, so I hurried my way to rescue you two. Because I am only one person, I had to save one of you before I could save the other. I didn't think that Aluan would—ah!" He sighed and stamped his foot.
Ji Guangjie laughed bitterly and asked, "If there is enmity between you and us, why did you come save us? Aluan is the granddaughter of Bao Kunlun. Why are you so anxious now that she's missing?" Jiang Xiaohe said frankly, "There is no enmity between you and me. You may have written that 'capture Jiang Xiaohe' nonsense everywhere, but since that time you offered disaster relief in Zhengyang, I saw that you were also a righteous xia and could not harm you. Elsewise, though you are the grandson of the Xia of Longmen, if I intended to harm you, it would be no effort at all." Ji Guangjie sneered and asked, "You speak the truth. From whom did you learn your martial arts? I have heard it said that your master is a thin, elderly man, but no one knows his name." Jiang Xiaohe said, "I do not know my master's name either, but I haven't the time to explain this to you. There is a horse at the foot of the mountain, a white one that I rode away from the Ba Bridge on. You may leave atop it. When you arrive at the Mou Inn in Ziwu, Lu Zhizhong will be there. After you leave, I will give the mountain another careful search for Aluan."
Ji Guangjie heard this and grew angry, saying, "Why should you go and look for my wife? Jiang, what feelings do you have for my wife?" Jiang Xiaohe said, "It was because I rescued her that she is now missing, so I must look for her as a matter of course. There would be no way for you to search, Ji Guangjie, in these high mountains and lofty peaks, these forests and deep mountain streams." Ji Guangjie laughed bitterly again, "That is only because my crotch and leg have both suffered injury. When my wounds are healed, not only will I come to this mountain and take revenge on those bandits, but we shall have another match, you and I!"
Jiang Xiaohe nodded and said, "Very well. We can fight later whenever you want, I grant you that. But right now, I cannot wait here with you any longer. I'll carry you down on my back, and you can leave on my horse. After I've located Aluan, I will send her to Ziwu. There is no reason to doubt me. I, Jiang Xiaohe, am an open and honest man. Though Aluan and I were sweethearts since we were young and there is some affection between us, her grandfather is my enemy and I cannot abandon the great wrong of my father's murder for the sake of my personal feelings. That is not to mention that she is already married to you. I am even less able to have improper feelings for a woman with a husband. If you do not believe me, then if there ever comes a time that I, Jiang Xiaohe, perform immoral acts, you can go to Mount Jiuhua in Jiangnan and find my master. Either my master or my disciple-brother will definitely come and slay me!"
Being given this impassioned speech by Jiang Xiaohe, Ji Guangjie was dumbstruck. He called out "Aluan" several more times, and as before there was no response. He gave a long, bleak sigh and peered down from the mountain peak, seeing only an expanse of misty clouds, not knowing how deep it went. He could do nothing but rest upon Jiang Xiaohe's back as Jiang Xiaohe sped downward, pulling upon trees and stepping on boulders, cutting through brambles and leaping streams. There were several times that Ji Guangjie saw very serious danger and was so frightened he wanted to scream, but Jiang Xiaohe was not the least bit apprehensive. There wasn't much difference for him in running across this precipice and running on level earth. Ji Guangjie couldn't help but be impressed, thinking, Jiang Xiaohe's martial arts are too powerful. I cannot compare to him. I truly must concede to him.
Shortly, they arrived at a mountain road. Jiang Xiaohe placed Ji Guangjie on the ground. Ji Guangjie hadn't the strength to get up and walk himself. Jiang Xiaohe said, "Wait here for me a moment. I will quickly return with the horse!" So saying, he sprinted away. Ji Guangjie sat on the ground and sighed, looking up once again at the little pebble of the hazy moon peeking through the unruly mountain. He became anxious again and shouted "Aluan" loudly several more times. Still, no response. In a short while, he heard the rumbling of hooves, as Jiang Xiaohe arrive on a white horse. He dismounted and helped Ji Guangjie onto it. He gave directions for the route south out of the mountains and then draw his sword from his back and handed it to Ji Guangjie, saying, "You may encounter bandits before you make it out of the mountains, so I'm giving you this sword to protect yourself with!"
Ji Guangjie was so touched by Jiang Xiaohe's gesture that no amount of arrogance remained in him. He sighed and said, "Brother Jiang, from this day on I, Ji Guangjie, will respect you! If you do not refuse it, I wish to become friends with you. From now on, I will only try to bring your two houses together and never again side with the Kunlun School against you!" Jiang Xiaohe also sighed, saying, "Save those words for another time. You must depart quickly. By tomorrow, the bandits will come down the mountain and leaving will not be so easy!" Ji Guangjie then said, "Stay here and look for Aluan. If you find her, you must convince her to go to Ziwu. When she gets there, I have much to say to her. If you cannot find her, it is no matter. Life and death are decided by fate. No amount of force can change that!" Jiang Xiaohe acknowledged him with a sigh. That moment, Ji Guangjie sheathed the sword in his hand into the scabbard below the saddle and spurred his horse southward.
Jiang Xiaohe stood alone amid the multitude of mountains as he listened to the sound of hooves grow distant. He stared blankly into space for a while before he starting walking to search in every direction. At this time, the moonlight was fainter and the clouds were thicker, making it so that nothing around him could be seen. He called out as he walked, but the whistling mountain wind muddled his shouts. He sighed and laid down on a rock by the path. At first, he glanced up at the misty clouds in the sky and the hazy moon as he held misgivings in his mind concerning Aluan's disappearance. Then, because his body was beyond exhaustion, he drifted off into a deep sleep.
By the time he was awakened by the twittering of mountain birds, the day was already light. The clouds were slowly dissipating and dew covered the rocks and grass. Jiang Xiaohe's body was wet as well, and he felt cold. He stood up and stretched his limbs, and then leapt onto a crag with a whoosh. He ran up the ridge in a circle and came once again to the ledge upon which he had dropped Aluan off the evening previous. The large bluestone remained flat across there as he searched carefully all around, still finding no trace.
Jiang Xiaohe felt frustrated. He stood at the brink of the precipice and looked down, seeing only that the water in the mountain stream was quite shallow, as if it was just the runoff from the rain. Jiang Xiaohe thought to himself, Could Aluan have jumped into the stream last night to kill herself? Why would she commit suicide? Was it because of her sorrow? Thereupon, Jiang Xiaohe bounded down the mountain and swam in the mountain stream for a spell. He was holding on to a crag covered in moss when something distinct caught his eye, laying upon a crag to his side. Jiang Xiaohe jumped over and picked it up. It was a woman's embroidered red shoe. He was immediately startled and felt an ache in his heart. He thought painfully, Aluan must have fallen into the stream and died! If she hadn't killed herself, some wild animal must have forced her down... He entered the water again. The water only reached his knees, so he used his feet to try to find Aluan's body and pull her out. However, he walked the entire mountain stream up until its end and saw only a cliff beyond it where the water from the stream wound its way downward.
Though the water on the rock face was deep enough to cover one's feet, many trees had grown here, and some of the trees looked like they had been chopped at before with an ax, as if there were woodsmen that were able to come here. Jiang Xiaohe searched all around, finding only a very steep and very narrow path by which a person could walk down. Jiang Xiaohe tucked the embroidered red shoe into his chest and made his way downward while holding onto the rocks and trees that lined the path. Before long, he had descended by this path and came upon a flat valley opening up in front of him. The water from the mountain stream flowing from above became a small river here, snaking its way down.
Four or five cave dwellings had been carved into the rock here, but none of them had windows. Jiang Xiaohe entered all of the caves to investigate and found them all uninhabited, save for a few mountain hares that scuttled into their holes upon seeing a person. Jiang Xiaohe realized that there had been people living here before, but looking at its current state, it had been a long time since there was any trace of people here. But then he thought, Could Aluan still be alive? And then he shouted loudly, "Aluan! Aluan!" He called several more times in succession, and when still no one responded, he couldn't help but give another long sigh.
He paced the valley once around and then continued his way down. When he left the empty valley, he came to a mountain ridge, calling out "Aluan" as he walked. After he crossed the mountain ridge, the sun in the east shone upon his face through cracks between the peaks. He then spotted two hunters, one carrying a trident, and the other a crossbow, walking up the ridge. While they were still rather far away, Jiang Xiaohe hailed them.
By the time they drew near, Jiang Xiaohe clasped his fist and asked them, "Did the two of you happen to see a young lady coming down the mountain?" After hearing this, the two hunters both appeared confused and asked, "A young lady? How old was she? What was she wearing?" Jiang Xiaohe said, "She was twenty and more years, already a young wife, and she was wearing...blue clothing, I think. She's only got one red shoe on." The two hunters noticed that Jiang Xiaohe was wet from head to toe and that his hands were dirty with moss and the straw sandals on his feet were wet as well. They thought him a madman, so they said, "We haven't seen her. There aren't often women in these mountains. There aren't even very many men walking these trails so early in the morning." Jiang Xiaohe then asked, "What sorts of wild animals are there in this range?" The two hunters said, "We've got every kind! Hares, foxes, wolves, tigers, cougars." When they finished, they laughed and followed the trail up the mountain ridge.
Jiang Xiaohe stood there and stared into space, thinking, Aluan must be dead! After I left her last night, a ferocious beast must have come, and with no weapon in her hand, she was naturally unable to drive it away. The beast carried her back to its lair and ate her, leaving only this one embroidered red shoe! Once his thoughts reached here, in his mind the elegant figure he'd longed after for so many years turned into the apparition of a pile of scattered flesh. He couldn't help feeling both grief and revulsion, wanting to scour the entirety of the mountain ridge and kill off all of its wild animals to avenge Aluan. But then he suddenly thought, I am being ridiculous. Aluan is a daughter of the house with which I have enmity, not to mention that she has already married another. It was already intrusive of me to expend so much effort to rescue her this time. The reason I learned the martial arts for ten years was to take vengeance for my father. It's been half a year since I left my master and descended the mountain, and all I've done is stirred up these useless entanglements and sought these pointless worries. I have yet to meet my true enemies Bao Kunlun and the Long Brothers, nor have I even inquired into the fates of my birth mother and my natural brother. How could this be anything but a disappointment to the hard work of learning the martial arts from my master and a violation of the determination I have kept with me for the past ten years? Thus, he forced himself to suppress the grief and anxiety in his heart and descended the mountain ridge, looked for a mountain road and made his way south.
After traveling a while, he became very hungry and his body short of strength. He continued on and saw several cave dwellings at the side of the road. It turned out to be a mountain inn. Jiang Xiaohe entered and called for the innkeeper to cook some dark, thick noodles for him to eat. He questioned the innkeeper, mentioning Aluan's age and appearance again, but the innkeeper too said that he had not seen her. Jiang Xiaohe forced down his heartache, finished his noodles, and departed. The innkeeper chased after him and said quietly, "Dear guest, do not continue south. Not far down that way is Horseneck Ridge." Jiang Xiaohe asked him, "Why's that? Are there still tigers on that ridge?"
The innkeeper said, "Well, there are no tigers there, but there are things more terrible than tigers." He pulled Jiang Xiaohe back into the cave and whispered, "I can tell by your look that you are well-traveled, so how is it you don't know that Horseneck Ridge is a splinter of the stronghold at Harrierfall Peak? Just now the White Tiger came by with several of his henchmen and returned to Horseneck Ridge. I knew some of those he'd brought with him and they said they had come from Harrierfall Peak. Last night the Mountain Chief Hu Li the Silver Dart was killed by someone with a flying dart." He lowered his voice even further, saying, "Hu Li employed the silver dart his entire life. Who knows how many people have fallen to them? Now that he's been slain by a dart, we can only see this as retribution. But now those bandits will be in disarray. Those brigands will surely attack unrestrained. After hearing this news, the few guests staying in our inn are all afraid to leave. After several days, the officials will likely catch wind of Hu Li's death and come with soldiers to subdue them. We'll see a large flood of guests, some of which will be security escorts, and you'll be able to cross over with them. For now, it'd be best for you to rest here with us a while. Whether you have money or not, it doesn't matter!"
Jiang Xiaohe grinned and said, "Innkeeper! I thank you for your concern, but I have no money on me, so I fear not the bandits robbing me. At most the bandits will take my life, but I do not think they will have any use for it." So saying, he clasped his fist and left the inn. The innkeeper was about to call him back, but another guest said, "Leave him to it! Let him go court death! The White Tiger and the rest of them are in a panic right now!" Jiang Xiaohe was not far from the inn and heard every word spoken behind him. He simply smiled and walked southward.
He had tried as hard as possible to forget about Aluan, but for some reason, his heart was constantly suffused with sadness and misgivings kept cropping up in his mind. He felt even more as if a kind of angry hatred was pressing down on him. He wished he could encounter a few ferocious tigers and vicious cougars and kill all of them himself. He wanted to find the bandits' lair and wound several dozen of them, and then steal a good horse and speed his way to the town of Ziwu. He walked with large strides, and sure enough, after turning through a few mountain loops, he spotted a sinister mountain ridge whose form resembled a horse rearing its head high. Jiang Xiaohe was certain then that this was Horseneck Ridge, the territory occupied by Hu Li's subordinate, the bandit called the White Tiger.
When he had come before the ridge, Jiang Xiaohe looked up and saw a clump of people, approximately numbering a dozen. Because they were too high up, their faces could not be seen clearly, but no doubt they were brigands. The group of them seemed to be able to see the person below as well, but Jiang Xiaohe was alone, not mounted, and did not carry any baggage on his back. They thought he was a poor mountain man and not worth robbing, so they didn't come down. Jiang Xiaohe walked up toward the mountain bandits, causing them alarm. They all called out signals and soon more of the bandits from the ridge gathered. The White Tiger himself appeared, holding a long spear. Before Jiang Xiaohe drew near, he asked angrily, "What are you doing here? Stop right there!"
Jiang Xiaohe continued walking up and when he was a few dozen paces from them, he spoke to them dauntless, "Are you the White Tiger? I've come to borrow a horse from you. I encourage you all to disband quickly and seek another livelihood. Otherwise, not only will government officials come to suppress you, but sooner or later I must eliminate every last one of you. I cannot allow men like you to hold such a main throughway and stand in the way of travelers and merchants." The White Tiger was immediately enflamed and hollered, "Who the hell do you think you are! How dare you speak to me like that?" Jiang Xiaohe widened his gaze and said, "I am Jiang Xiaohe. Hu Li the Silver Dart was struck down by me last night!"
Upon hearing this, the brigands all raised their weapons immediately but the White Tiger held his subordinates back. In amazement, he took careful measure of Jiang Xiaohe for a long moment before he sneered slightly and said, "It is a great honor to meet you! So the one who killed the great captain Hu last night and broke out Ji Guangjie and Bao Aluan was you. Good! No wonder they say that you encountered some extraordinary man and learned yourself a set of great martial arts. You have found your way here today to borrow a horse. Fine! I'll bring out a few for you to pick. Let us be friends!" He then ordered someone into the stronghold to bring back some horses.
Seeing his manner, Jiang Xiaohe's anger subsided and asked, "I do still encourage you all to disband."
The White Tiger laughed and said, "Don't you worry. Now that the great captain Hu has died, we won't be able to hold our ground here. We have no problem leaving the Qin Mountains on our own, but if anyone thinks to come and force us out, we would have no choice but to fight. Brother Jiang, this is the first time you and I have met but I know all your history. You are the son of Jiang Zhisheng, and your father was murdered by Bao Kunlun. You learned your martial arts in order to find Bao Kunlun and avenge your father. Those of us in the Green Woods all very much admire you. Even Hu Li the Silver Dart when he was alive, he had hoped you would come and eliminate that old man Bao Kunlun. But now I see that you haven't got it in you. Your martial arts are powerful, but your conduct has fallen much too short. You haven't gone to see Bao Kunlun to enact your revenge, but instead come to set yourself against us. Ji Guangjie is Bao Kunlun's lackey and Aluan's but a girl who's disgraced the Kunlun School, yet you'd risked your life to save them. You can't even tell the difference between grace and enmity, so how can you be considered any kind of hero?"
Jiang Xiaohe's glare grew ever wider and he charged forward, yelling, "How dare you lecture me!" The White Tiger stepped several paces back in fright, but then scoffed, "What is your bullying worth? There is no grievance between us from the past, nor is there recent enmity. Even if you killed us all, you wouldn't be able to boast about it to others. Why don't you properly go and look for your enemies! Not being able to kill your enemies and killing others instead, you're asking for ridicule from those in Jianghu!" He cupped his fist again and said, "Don't you think so? Jiang Xiaohe, you are a good man, so give it some careful thought. Bao Kunlun killed your father and forced your mother to remarry..." Jiang Xiaohe dreaded hearing this these words most, as grief surged into his heart.
By now the brigands had brought three healthy horses out. The White Tiger invited him to select one, saying, "No need to be courteous! If you're lacking in travel expenses, please speak up. Two hundred, five hundred, we can give it to you. Because we respect you and you are a good man! If it had been Bao Kunlun who'd come, we wouldn't be doing this. Even if he killed us, we wouldn't hand any horses over to him." Jiang Xiaohe did not reply as he took a random horse, mounted it, and galloped down the ridge. On the ridge, the White Tiger instructed his henchmen to shout loudly together, "Jiang Xiaohe, until we meet again!" Jiang Xiaohe did not look back and fuming, spurred his horse on.
He pondered as he rode, feeling the White Tiger a rather crafty brigand. He knew he was no match for me, so he didn't dare fight me, inciting me to go kill Bao Kunlun instead. He's hoping that neither Bao Kunlun nor I will come out a victor, but the words he spoke were very correct. Ten years ago Bao Zhenfei acted too mercilessly against my family. Had I not encountered my master, even if I hadn't died in the mountains ten years ago, who knows what condition I might have fallen into. I ought think of nothing else but to express my grievance.
Thus, he came out of the mountain pass, freed his horse to gallop even faster, and arrived in the town of Ziwu. He hastened off his horse and entered the Mou Inn. He called Lu Zhizhong out of his room and asked him, "Has Ji Guangjie come yet?" Lu Zhizhong said, "He arrived early this morning. Anything of Aluan's whereabouts?" Jiang Xiaohe shook his head and said, "She is still missing, likely wounded by some sort of wild animal. I searched everywhere to no avail!" Lu Zhizhong knit his brow and said, "Come inside and rest a bit, why don't you? Ji Guangjie is sleeping right now. I'll go wake him and you can talk to him!" Jiang Xiaohe shook his head and said, "I have no need to speak with him. If he has not given up, tell him to return to the Qin Mountains and conduct a closer search. Hu Li the Silver Dart is dead, so there is nothing left to fear. I have urgent matters I must attend to, so I must leave quickly!" He asked Lu Zhizhong to go to the room and bring his sword out. He put it away, turned around, and led the horse out.
Lu Zhizhong ran after him and said, "Xiaohe, do not be in haste. I have a couple things I'd like to speak with you about!" Jiang Xiaohe stopped and listened to Lu Zhizhong say, "Great heroes must be generous. Bao Zhenfei has been excessive in his actions during his lifetime, but he is quite old now. Can you not spare that old life of his?" Jiang Xiaohe heard this, but could not help but remain in sad silence. It was a moment before he said, "Fine! Because of Uncle Lu's words, when I see Bao Zhenfei, I will certainly show him a bit of mercy!" So saying, he cupped his fist and led his horse away. There was another inn a short distance south. Jiang Xiaohe went inside with an inquiry and discovered that Qi Yong the Hooked Blade had already returned.
As it turned out, Jiang Xiaohe had peeked into window of Ji Guangjie and Bao Aluan's room at the inn in Wugong and seen the affection between the married couple. He became disheartened and focused his thoughts on going first to Ziyang to find the Long Brothers, and then to look for Bao Zhenfei. He came to Ziwu and by chance encountered the friend he had made a decade ago in Northern Sichuan, Qi Yong the Hooked Blade. Qi Yong, Yang Xiantai the Short Blade, and Lü Xiong the Flower Blade had all been disciple-brothers. In the last year tens, Yang Xiantai had returned to his hometown in Henan, and Lü Xiong had died from illness. Qi Yong had had a disagreement with Jiao Dechun the Golden-armored God at the Fuli Security Office in Langzhong, quit as a security escort and gone elsewhere to make a living.
Qi Yong had fallen on hard times for the past few years and had drifted his way to Hanzhong, performing saber shows and peddling medicine. One day he was working in Ziwu, hawking his wares while carrying his hooked saber and holding his medicine tray, he ran into Jiang Xiaohe. The two had not seen each other in ten years, but Qi Yong had already heard people upon Jianghu speak in detail of Jiang Xiaohe's deeds. Thus, Qi Yong packed his things up, brought Jiang Xiaohe back to his room at the inn, and the two caught up with each other as old friends. Afterward, Qi Yong declared his willingness to assist Jiang Xiaohe in his revenge, and in his estimation, Bao Zhenfei must not have gone far, hiding instead somewhere nearby Zhenba. Because Bao Zhenfei had offended so many people in Jianghu when he was in his prime, now that he was old, he wouldn't dare travel far so easily.
Jiang Xiaohe asked Qi Yong to help him make inquiries while he himself waited in Ziwu, so that he could catch Bao Zhenfei off guard. He wanted to uncover his whereabouts and capture him without alerting him to his presence. As a result, after Qi Yong departed, he stayed for two days, rarely stepping foot outside the gates of the inn. In the evening, he went to a tavern to drink some wine, unaware that he would encounter Lu Zhizhong. Lu Zhizhong had always treated Jiang Xiaohe well, so Jiang Xiaohe was the first to greet him. Lu Zhizhong hastily informed him of Aluan and Ji Guangjie's wounding and capture in the Qin Mountains, and mentioned that he had just sent someone to return an injured Ge Zhiqiang to the Dasan Pass. Now he was to hurry south to Nanzheng to see Bao Zhiyun and find out what was to be done.
Upon hearing that Aluan had become trapped in a bandits' den, he became very concerned and undertook to go there. He rushed into the Qin Mountains, killed Hu Li the Silver Dart, and rescued Ji Guangjie and Bao Aluan, but he hadn't counted on Aluan disappearing. Now that Qi Yong the Hooked Blade had returned, Jiang Xiaohe met with him. Qi Yong said, "This is what I've discovered. The old man Bao is already on his way to Northern Sichuan. Some have seen him in northern Jiange, heading south, but no one knows where he is going. He is riding by himself. The Long Brothers are still in Ziyang, though they are both pretending to have gone elsewhere on an escort job. In actuality, they are both staying within the walls of Ziyang City, but I was not able to get a clear answer as to whose home they were hiding in."
Hearing this, Jiang Xiaohe couldn't help clenching his jaw. He thanked Qi Yong with a clasped fist, said, "Farewell," and went inside. He picked up the baggage he had set down here the previous day, went back outside, mounted his horse, and departed from the south. The horse he was riding was still the one he had demanded from the White Tiger, pure black and very energetic. He determined his route and headed north to look for Bao Zhenfei. Though he had already promised Lu Zhizhong that he wouldn't put Bao Zhenfei into the ground when he saw him, at that moment he couldn't say for certain whether or not he would be able to hold in his anger, or grant any mercy. He urged his horse on, straight through Hanzhong without stopping. The more he traveled, the closer he got to the city. However, the grief in his heart grew more and more, his pain mixing with his anger.
At approximately the second hour of the afternoon, he arrived at Zhenba City. Perhaps because he had been to Jiangnan, or because he had just come from large cities like Chang'an and Hanzhong, he felt his hometown much smaller and more humble than he had remembered a decade ago. He didn't want others to take notice of him, so he dismounted his horse before entering the city. However, once he walked in with his horse in hand, he felt his two feet weighed down and as if something heavy was pressing down on his chest. All five of his viscera were as if they had been sliced and both his eyes ached. There were quite a few people walking on the street, some of whom he had known before. Now they had become old, thin, poor, as if they had all changed appearances. Jiang Xiaohe walked by them, but no one recognized him, and Xiaohe did not greet any of them. At the same time, he suspected that he himself had gone through a change in appearance in the last ten years.
He sighed with every sort of emotion and made a supreme effort to keep in his tears. Before walking very far, he came to the door of the Ma Smithy, and some of his tears couldn't be held inside. He hitched his horse to the shop sign and peered inside, seeing only pitch darkness and hearing absolutely nothing, not even the clang of striking metal, nor was there anyone there. He was taken a bit aback and stepped inside the shop with his heavy feet, calling out with sorrow, "Uncle! Uncle!" There was a young apprentice squatting by the base of the smoke-blackened wall dozing off. He was no more than eleven or twelve years, about the same age as Jiang Xiaohe had been when he was an apprentice here.
The young apprentice woke up and asked, "What are you buying?" Xiaohe said, "I'm not buying anything. I'm here looking for the shopkeeper Ma." The young apprentice stood at the door to the courtyard and called out, "Shopkeeper, there's someone here for you." Someone seemed to answer from the inner courtyard and Jiang Xiaohe stood and waited. He looked around and saw very little in the way of inventory at the smithy. Only two or three woks hung from the wall and were all covered in a thick layer of dust. A few hoes and shovels were laying on the ground, and they too appeared neglected for a long time. Jiang Xiaohe knew then that Ma Zhixian too must have fallen on hard times in recent years, and his heart ached even more.
After a moment, a man came from the inner courtyard, sallow and thin, wearing pants covered with mending nails. His queue was rolled up on top of his head, caked with mud. At first, Xiaohe was unable to determine if this was his uncle, but after looking for a while, he recognized him. Hot tears flowed from his eyes and he took a deep bow, calling out, "Uncle!" Ma Zhixian was astonished and looked directly at him as he asked, "Are you Xiaohe?" Xiaohe replied sorrowfully, "I am Xiaohe. Uncle, we have not seen each other in ten years!" Ma Zhixian jumped up in elation and took hold of Xiaohe's large, thick hands and said, "Oh my! Have you returned? Good child, you have quite the spirit! I really admire you! Come! Come into the inner courtyard and we'll talk!" He was buzzing with tension as they came to the inner courtyard and he led Jiang Xiaohe inside the house where his wife Li-shi was preparing to cook dinner.
Li-shi was also thinner, paler and much older than she had looked ten years ago. She had once been a young wife who wore rouge on her face, but now she was bony and yellow, truly half an old woman, her clothes extremely tattered. When she saw her husband bring inside a tall, dark-faced, robust youth, she was very taken aback as well. Ma Zhixian smiled and said, "Look who it is. Do you still recognize him?" Xiaohe took a deep bow and called her "Aunt." Li-shi knew then but was still in shock, saying, "Is it Xiaohe?"
Ma Zhixian laughed, "Who else could it be? Look what a good man he's become. Who knew that our cousin-in-law would have such a good son?" When he said this, he couldn't help the mournful look on his face and the tears rolling from his eyes. He said to Xiaohe, "Sit! Sit!" Xiaohe sat atop the frayed seat on the couch and wiped his tears, saying, "Uncle, how have you been lately?" Ma Zhixian waved his hand and sighed, "Let's not dwell on it! The countryside has had poor harvests these past few years. If it wasn't a drought, it was a flood. Business in the city is hard to come by. I haven't fired the stove at the smithy for two or three days now, and it's already been a long time since I've had to let all my assistants go, leaving just one apprentice to watch the door for me. I stay at home all day and after dinner, I leave the city for the Gong Farmstead and keep watch for the Juren Gong. It's through this that we are able to have some coarse grains to eat and haven't starved. But these few years, I've been getting sick quite often and spent not a little money on medicine, oh!"