Jin Yong’s A Hero Born is a fantastical generational saga and kung fu epic, filled with an extraordinary cast of characters. This Chinese classic—coming to the U.S. for the first time on September 17th as translated by Anna Holmwood for St. Martin’s Press—is a tale of fantasy and wonder, love and passion, treachery and war, betrayal and brotherhood.
Want to start reading now? Tor.com is serializing selections from A Hero Born—you can find all the previous chapters here! And check back every morning this week for another installment of the third episode: “Swirling Sands”.
Justice Duan grabbed at Lily Li, slipped out of the temple and began running. Some distance thence, he looked back, and was relieved to see no one following them. He slowed the pace and made for the river. There he spotted a small boat, jumped down onto the bow and, brandishing his sword, ordered the ferryman to start moving. The land south of the Yangtze was crisscrossed with a spider’s web of rivers. Canals and boats were the usual mode of transportation, just as northerners traveled the plains by horse and carriage. No boatman would dare disobey an official, so the man unfastened the moorings and pushed the boat out away from the city.
What a mess! Duan’s thoughts were an internal tussle. If I go back to Lin’an, my uncle will surely have me killed. I’d better go north. With any luck the Taoist and the Seven Freaks will have perished from their injuries and my uncle from his anger. Then I will be able to return and resume my post.
He instructed the boatman to follow the river northward. Duan changed out of his official’s clothes and forced Lily Li to do the same.
They swapped boats several times on their way north. After ten days they arrived in Yangzhou, where Duan stopped at an inn. But just as they had settled in, he heard someone outside asking the innkeeper if a Commander Duan had come this way. He peered through a crack in the door. There stood an extraordinarily ugly, stumpy man accompanied by a pretty young girl. They spoke with heavy Jiaxing dialects. The Seven Freaks, he deduced. As luck would have it, the Yangzhou innkeeper was struggling to understand them, giving Duan enough time to grab Lily Li and slip out the back door. She tried to call out, but Duan silenced her, boxing her around the ear despite the searing pain in his arm. He then dragged her back to the water.
They were back on the Grand Canal within minutes and on their way north again. This time, they did not stop until they arrived at the garrison post of Liguo on the shores of Lake Mount Wei, just inside the borders of Shandong province.
Lily Li spent every waking hour wailing and cursing her captor. Duan was no gentleman, to be sure, but he never had any improper intentions, as far as she could discern; she was a somewhat plain country girl with unbound feet, who was by now much swollen with child. Instead, they bickered and scuffled, and never had a moment’s peace. He may have been a commanding officer in the Song army, but his martial arts were poor, and fighting Lily Li with only one arm was taking all his strength.
Within days, however, the short man and the pretty girl had caught up with them. Duan wanted to hide in their room, but knowing her rescuers had come, Lily Li started screaming. Duan seized a cotton quilt and stuffed it into her mouth, hitting her as he did so.
Lily Li was proving to be a liability. He would be better off killing her, he reflected. After they heard Ryder Han and Jade Han leave, Duan drew his saber.
Lily Li had been waiting for a chance to avenge her husband, but Duan tied her hands and legs every night before bed. She saw a murderous glimmer in his eyes, and whispered to herself, “Dear husband, please protect me and help me kill this villain. I will be with you soon.”
She reached into her shirt and removed the dagger Qiu Chuji had given her. She had hidden it so well that Duan was unaware of its existence.
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A Hero Born
Duan sneered and raised his saber. Lily Li was prepared. She summoned her strength and ran at Duan, dagger first. A gust of cold air skimmed Duan’s cheeks. He twisted his weapon, hoping to knock the dagger from her grasp. Yet its blade was so sharp that it sliced crisply through the saber’s blade. The tip of Lily’s dagger chipped off and ricocheted in the direction of Duan’s rib cage. He stumbled backward as it slashed open the front of his shirt, and scored his flesh with a bloody stripe. Had Lily used just a little more force, the blade would have eviscerated him. He grabbed a chair and held it in front of him. “Put the dagger down and I won’t hurt you!”
Too exhausted to fight anymore, and with the baby kicking inside her, Lily crumpled in a heap on the floor, panting. But she held the dagger firm.
Duan manhandled her onto another boat and together they headed farther northward to Linqing, Dezhou, and on to Hebei province.
Lily Li was not making escape any easier. She screamed and shouted nonsense when they stopped at inns or traveled in boats, attracting considerable attention. She would tear at her clothes and pull strange faces. Had she gone mad? At first Duan believed it must be so. But after a few days he realized she was leaving a trail of clues for her rescuers. Summer had passed and an autumn chill cooled the air. They were by now far into the Jin-controlled north, but Duan was running out of silver and his enemies were still close behind.
They traveled until they reached the Jin Empire’s capital, Yanjing. There they would find a quiet place to hide, and Duan would get rid of her. The Seven Freaks would never find them in such a large city.
But before they reached the city gates, a group of Jin soldiers stopped them and commanded them to carry supplies. The soldiers were traveling north with an emissary, charged with presenting the northern Mongolian tribes with Jin imperial ordinances. Ordinary Han Chinese citizens were being forced to act as porters. Lily was dressed in men’s clothing, but as she was so short was given a lighter pole. Duan was left to stagger under his one-hundred-jin load.
Duan tried protesting their treatment, but reply came in the form of several lashes across the head. This was not an alien situation to Duan, it was just that previously he had been the one holding the whip. A crucial difference.
Octobers in the north were bitter, the sky swirled with snow and sand, and shelter was hard to come by. They lined up alongside the three hundred Jin soldiers, and together they trudged through open country. One by one they caught the faint sound of shouting carried on the wind from up ahead, and in the distance they could make out a cloud of sand kicked up by a throng of horses.
They fast approached: a defeated tribe from beyond the Gobi, swathed in furs. The Jin ranks dispersed, throwing their weapons behind them. Those without horses escaped on foot, but were soon crushed in the stampede.
Lily Li dropped her pole and ran in the opposite direction to the others. She could not see where Duan had gone, but no one was taking any notice of her.
She ran and ran, until after some distance she felt a stabbing pain in her stomach. She collapsed behind a sand dune and fainted. There she remained until long after nightfall, when she woke to what in her confusion sounded like the cries of a baby. Her mind a fog, she wondered if she might in fact have passed into the afterlife, but the wails were getting louder. With a sudden jerk, she felt something warm between her legs. There was a break in the snow and a bright round moon peered from behind the clouds. She was awake now, and her chest was heaving with heavy sobs. Her baby was born.
She sat up and took the baby into her arms. A boy. Still crying, she bit through the umbilical cord and wrapped him tight to her bosom. His eyes shone in the moonlight, beneath two thick eyebrows. His cries were strong and carried far. These were no conditions for giving birth, but the sight of her baby gave Lily Li a strength she had never before known. She rolled over onto her knees, and pulled them both into a small ditch nearby to take shelter. There she cried for her baby’s father, lost forever.
They made the ditch their home for the night. The next day, when the sun was high in the sky, Lily Li summoned the courage to move. She looked out across the steppe at the dead men and horses scattered everywhere. Not a survivor to be seen.
She found some food in the knapsack of a dead soldier, as well as a knife and flint. She sliced some flesh from a horse and cooked it over a fire. Then she skinned another, wrapping one hide around the baby and another around herself. She and the baby lived like this for ten days, eating horse meat preserved in the snow, until she had regained enough strength to take her child and make her way east in the direction of the rising sun. The hate and anger she had been carrying with her was now transformed into love, and on she walked, doing her best to protect her son from the cutting desert winds.
She walked for days, the ground around her gradually turning ever greener. As the sun began to set, she saw two horses approaching on the horizon. The riders pulled on their reins and stopped to ask if she needed assistance. They were Mongolian shepherds, and did not know Chinese, but instinctively they understood the young mother’s story. They brought her back to their gers and gave her food and a place to rest. They were moving camp the next morning in search of fresh pasture, but before departing they gave her four lambs for her new family.
And so it came to pass that Guo’s son was born and raised on the Mongolian steppe.
Excerpted from A Hero Born, copyright © 2019 by Jin Yong.