A STRENUOUS SWORD DUEL IS BROKEN OFF UNDECIDED; FOUR MEN DRINK WINE IN THE HOSTEL OF YEN-CHOW
HOONG quickly turned round in his saddle to hand his master his sword. But an arrow swished past his head.
"Leave the toothpick alone, old man!" the archer shouted. "The next arrow goes right into your throatl"
Magistrate Dee quickly surveyed the situation. Angrily biting his lip, he saw there was little he could do; they had been taken completely by surprise. He cursed himself for not having accepted the military escort.
"Hurry up," the first ruffian growled. "Be grateful that we are honest highwaymen, who let you off with your life."
"Honest highwaymen!" the magistrate said with a sneer as he climbed down from his horse. "Attacking an unarmed man, and that with an archer to cover you! You two are just a couple of common horse thieves!"
The man jumped from his horse with amazing quickness and stood himself in front of the magistrate, his sword ready. He topped him by an inch; his broad shoulders and thick neck showed him to be a man of extraordinary strength. Pushing his heavyjowled face forward he hissed, "You can't insult me, dog-official!"
Magistrate Dee's face went scarlet. "Give me my sword!" he ordered Hoong.
The archer drove his horse immediately in front of the graybeard.
"Keep your mouth shut and do as you are told!" he said threateningly to the magistrate.
"Prove that you aren't just a couple of thieves!" the magistrate snapped. "Hand me my sword. I'll first finish off this rascal and then settle with you!"
The big man with the sword suddenly guffawed. Putting his sword down, he called out to the archer, "Let's have a little joke with the beard, brother! Let him take his sword, I'll cut him up a bit to teach that brush-wielder a lesson!"
The other gave the magistrate a thoughtful look.
"There's no time for jokes!" he said sharply to his companion. "Let's take the horses and be gone."
"Just as I thought," Magistrate Dee said contemptuously. "Big words but small hearts!"
The large man cursed violently. He stepped up to Hoong's horse, grabbed the sword the graybeard was carrying and threw it to the magistrate, who caught it and quickly took off his traveling robe. He parted his long beard and knotted the two strands together behind his neck. Drawing his sword, he said to the ruffian, "Whatever happens you'll let the old man go free!"
The other nodded, then at once attacked with a quick thrust at the magistrate's breast. He easily parried it, then followed up with a few swift feints that made the ruffian fall back with a gasp. The man now attacked with greater caution, and the sword duel began in earnest, Hoong and the archer looking on. As they exchanged blow for blow the magistrate noticed that his opponent had apparently learned the art by actual practice; his fencing lacked the finer points of the schooled swordsman. But he was a man of formidable strength, and showed himself a clever tactician by enticing Dee repeatedly to the rough ground by the roadside, where the magistrate had to pay much attention to his footwork. This was the magistrate's first real fight outside the training hall, and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He thought that before long he would get a chance to disable his opponent. But the other's common sword could not stand up so long against the tempered blade of Rain Dragon. When the ruffian parried a sharp blow, his sword suddenly snapped in two.
A SWORD DUEL ON THE HIGHWAY
As the man stood there looking dumbfounded at the stump in his hand, Magistrate Dee turned to the other.
"Your turn!" he barked.
The archer jumped from his horse. He took off his riding jacket and tucked the slips of his robe under his belt. He had seen that the magistrate was a first-class fencer. But after a swift exchange of thrusts and counterthrusts the magistrate also knew that this was a dangerous opponent, a schooled sword fighter, with whom one could take no chances. The magistrate felt thrilled. The first fight had loosened his limbs; now he felt in perfect condition. The sword Rain Dragon felt like a part of his own body. He went for his opponent with a complicated combination of feints and hits. The other sidestepped-he was surprisingly light on his feet for a man of his bulk-and counterattacked with a succession of quick cuts. But the sword Rain Dragon swished through the air; it parried each of the thrusts, then shot out in a long stab that missed the other's throat by the fraction of an inch. The man didn't flinch; he quickly made a few feints preparatory to a new attack.
Suddenly there was a loud clang of arms. A group of twenty horsemen came round the bend and quickly surrounded the four men. They were heavily armed with crossbows, swords and pikes.
"What is going on here?" their leader shouted. The short mail jacket and the spiked helmet proclaimed him a captain of the mounted military police.
Annoyed at this interruption of his first real sword duel, the magistrate replied curtly, "I am Dee Jen-djieh, newly appointed magistrate of Peng-lai. These three men are my assistants. We had a long ride, and are engaging in a friendly bout of fencing to stretch our stiff legs."
The captain gave them a dubious look.
"I'll trouble you for your papers, magistrate," he said in a clipped voice.
Magistrate Dee pulled an envelope from his boot and gave it to the captain. He quickly glanced through the documents inside, then gave them back and saluted.
"I regret to have bothered you, sir," he said politely. "We got a report that there are highwaymen about here, so I have to be careful. Good luck!"
He barked a command at his men, and they galloped away. When they had disappeared from sight, the magistrate raised his sword.
"We go on!" he said, and aimed a long thrust at his opponent's breast. The other parried the blow, then held up his sword, and put it back in its scabbard.
"Ride on to your destination, magistrate," he said gruffly. "I am glad there are still officials like you in our empire."
He gave a sign to the other. They jumped on their horses. Magistrate Dee gave his sword to Hoong, and started to put on his robe again.
"I take my words back," he said curtly. "You are indeed highwaymen. But if you go on like this, you'll end up on the scaffold like common thieves. Whatever your grudge is, forget it. There's news about heavy fighting with the barbarians up north. Our army needs men like you."
The archer shot him a quick look.
"And my advice to you, magistrate," he said calmly, "is that you carry your sword yourself, else you'll be caught unawares again." He turned his horse round, and the two disappeared among the trees.
As Magistrate Dee took his sword from Hoong and hung it over his own back, the old man said contentedly, "You gave them a good lesson, sir. What kind of people would those two have been?"
"Usually," the magistrate replied, "it is men with some real or imagined grudge who choose to become outlaws. But their code is to rob only officials and wealthy people; they often help people in distress, and they have a reputation for courage and chivalry. They call themselves 'brothers of the green woods.' '"'ell, Hoong, it was a good fight, but we have lost time. Let's hurry on."
They entered Yen-chow at dusk, and were directed by the guards at the gate to the large hostel for traveling officials in the center of the town. Magistrate Dee took a room on the second floor, and ordered the waiter to bring them a good meal, for he felt hungry after the long journey.
When they had finished their meal, Hoong poured out a cup of hot tea for his master. Dee sat down near the window and looked out on the place below, in front of the hostel, where there was a busy coming and going of lance-knights and footmen. The light of torches shone on their iron helmets and breastplates.
Suddenly there came a knock on the door. Turning round, the magistrate saw two tall men enter the room.
"August heaven!" he exclaimed, astonished. "Here we have our two brothers of the green woods!"
The two bowed awkwardly. They still wore their patched riding jackets, but now they had hunting caps on their heads. The burly fellow who had attacked them first spoke. "Sir, this afternoon on the road you told that captain that we were your assistants. I talked this over with my friend, sir, and we agreed that we wouldn't like to make you a liar, you being a magistrate. If you'll take us on, we'll serve you loyally."
The magistrate raised his eyebrows. The other man said hurriedly, "We know nothing of the work in a tribunal, sir, but we know how to obey orders, and we thought we could perhaps make ourselves useful by doing the rough work for you."
"Take a seat," Magistrate Dee said curtly. "I'll hear your stories." The two sat down on footstools. The first laid his big fists on his knees, cleared his throat and began.
"My name is Ma Joong, I am a native of Kiangsu Province. My father owned a cargo junk, and I helped him as mate. But since I was a strong boy who liked fighting, my father sent me to a wellknown boxing master, and had him teach me also some reading and writing, so as to qualify for becoming an officer in the army. Then my father died unexpectedly. Since there were many debts, I had to sell our boat, and entered the service of the local magisstrate, as his bodyguard. I soon found out that he was a cruel and corrupt scoundrel. Once he cheated a widow out of her property by extracting a false confession from her by torture. I quarreled with him and he made to strike me. Then I knocked him down. I had to flee for my life and took to the woods. But I swear by the memory of my dead father that I never wantonly killed a man, and robbed only those who could afford the loss. You can take my word for it that the same goes for my blood brother here. That's all!"
Magistrate Dee nodded, then looked questioningly at the other man. He had a finely chiseled face, a straight nose and thin lips. Fingering his small mustache, he said, "I call myself Chiao Tai, because my real family name is well and honorably known in a certain part of the empire. A high official once willfully sent a number of my comrades for whom I was responsible to their death. The scoundrel disappeared, and the authorities to whom I reported his crime refused to take action. Then I became a highwayman, and roamed all over our empire, hoping one day to trace the criminal and kill him. I never robbed the poor, and my sword is unsullied by unjust blood. I'll serve you on one condition, namely that you'll allow me to resign as soon as I have found my man. For I have sworn by the souls of my dead comrades that I would cut off his head and throw it to the dogs."
The magistrate looked intently at the two men in front of him, slowly caressing his side whiskers. After a while be said, "I'll accept your offer, including Chiao Tai's condition-on the understanding that, should he find his man, he'll first give me an opportunity for trying to redress his wrong by legal means. You can go with me to Peng-lai, and I'll see whether I can use you. If not, I'll tell you so, and you'll promise then to have yourselves enlisted at once in our northern army. With me it is all or nothing."
Chiao Tai's face lit up. He said eagerly, "All or nothing, that'll be our motto!"
He rose and knelt before the magistrate, knocking his forehead to the floor three times in succession. His friend followed his example.
When Ma Joong and Chiao Tai had risen again Magistrate Dee spoke.
"This is Hoong Liang, my trusted adviser, from whom I have no secrets. You'll closely co-operate with him. Peng-lai is my first post; I don't know how the tribunal there is organized. But I presume that the clerks, constables, guards and the rest of the personnel are, as usual, locally recruited. I hear that queer things are happening in Peng-lai, and heaven knows how far the personnel of the tribunal is mixed up in those. I need people by my side whom I can trust. You three shall be my ears and eyes. Hoong, let the waiter bring a jug of wine!"
When the cups had been filled, Magistrate Dee pledged the three men in turn, and they respectfully drank to his health and his success.
The next morning when the magistrate came downstairs he found Hoong Liang and his two new assistants waiting for him in the courtyard. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai had evidently been out shopping already; they now wore neat brown robes with black sashes, small black skullcaps completing their uniforms of officers of the tribunal.
"The sky is cloudy, sir," Hoong remarked. "I fear we'll get rain." "I strapped straw hats to the saddles," Ma Joong said. "Those should see us through to Peng-lai."
The four men mounted their horses and left the city by the east gate. For a few miles they rode along the highway crowded with travelers; then the traffic grew less. As they entered a deserted mountainous country, a horseman came galloping from the opposite direction, leading two horses on a leash. Glancing at them, Ma Joong observed, "Good horseflesh! I like that blazed one."
"The fellow shouldn't carry that box on his saddle," Chiao Tai put in. "That's asking for trouble!"
"Why?" Hoong asked.
"In these parts," Chiao Tai explained, "those red leather boxes are always used by rent collectors to carry their cash. Wise people conceal them in their saddlebags:"
"The fellow seems to be in a mighty hurry," Magistrate Dee remarked casually.
At noon they reached the last mountain ridge. A torrential rain came pouring down. They took shelter under a high tree on a plateau by the roadside, overlooking the fertile green peninsula on which the district of Peng-lai was located.
While they were eating a cold snack Ma Joong told with gusto some stories about his adventures with farm girls. Magistrate Dee took no interest in ribald tales, but he had to admit that Ma Joong had a certain caustic humor that was rather amusing. But when he began on another similar story, the magistrate cut him short saying, "I am told that there are tigers in these parts. I thought those animals favored a drier climate."
Chiao Tai, who had been listening silently to the conversation, now remarked, "Well, that's hard to say. As a rule those brutes keep to the high wooded land, but once they have acquired the taste for human flesh they'll also roam about in the plains. We might get good hunting down there!"
"What about those tales about weretigers?" Magistrate Dee asked.
Ma Joong cast an uneasy glance at the dark forest behind them. "Never heard about it!" he said curtly.
"Could I have a look at your sword, sir?" Chiao Tai asked. "It seemed a fine antique blade to me."
As he handed him the sword, the magistrate said, "It is called Rain Dragon."
"Not the famous Rain Dragon!" Chiao Tai exclaimed ecstatically, "The blade all swordsmen under heaven talk about with awe! It was the last and best sword forged three hundred years ago by Threefingcr, the greatest swordsmith that ever was!"
"Tradition has it," Magistrate Dee observed, "that Threefinger attempted to forge it eight times, but each time he failed. Then he swore he would sacrifice his beloved young wife to the river god if he were successful. The ninth time he wrought this sword. He at once beheaded his wife with it on the river bank. A fearful tempest arose and Threefinger was killed by a thunderbolt. The bodies of him and his wife were washed away by the roaring waves. This sword has been an heirloom in my family for the last two hundred years, being always passed on to the eldest son."
Chiao Tai pulled his neckcloth over his nose and mouth so as not to soil the blade with his breath. Then he drew it from the scabbard. Raising it reverently in both hands, he admired its darkgreen sheen, and its hair-sharp edge that did not show a single nick. His eyes shone with a mystic fire as he spoke. "If it should be ordained that ever I should die by the sword, I pray that it may be this blade that is washed in my blood!"
With a deep bow he handed the sword back to Magistrate Dee. The rain had changed into drizzle. They mounted their horses again and began descending the slope.
Down in the plain they saw by the roadside the stone pillar marking the boundary of the district Peng-lai. A mist hung over the muddy plain, but the magistrate still thought it a nice landscape. This was now his territory.
They rode along at a brisk pace. Late in the afternoon the city wall of Peng-lai loomed through the mist ahead.