Li Wenxiu was both stunned and furious. She called out, “What are you doing?” The boy answered, “I’m catching Tianling birds. Are you catching them too?” Li Wenxiu said, “Why must you catch them? Isn’t it better to let them sing freely and happily?” The boy said, grinning, “I catch and play with them.” He stretched his right hand into his coat. When he removed the hand, he had grabbed that pale yellow bird. The Tianling bird fluttered its wings continuously, but it was unable to free itself from the boy’s grasp. Li Wenxiu said, “Let it go, can’t you see how pitiful it is?” The boy said, “I scattered wheat grains on the path as I went along, and attracted this bird over here. Whoever asked it to eat my wheat grains? Haha!” Li Wenxiu was dumbfounded. This was the first time she understood the meaning of ‘trap’. He knew the little bird wanted to eat wheat grains, so he scattered them, leading it to its doom. She was too young to understand that, for thousands of years, people had always quoted this proverb, ‘people die for wealth; birds die for food’. She felt an indistinct fear for plots, and realised the attraction of ‘lure’. Of course, she had a blurry idea of what these ideas meant, and could not fully comprehend them.
They boy played with the Tianling bird, making it twitter in pain. Li Wenxiu said, “Would you please give the bird to me?” The boy replied, “Then what will you give me?” Li Wenxiu felt in her clothes, but had nothing with her. She thought, then said, “I will sew you a pretty pouch to hang on your body.” The boy laughed, “I won’t fall for your trap. You might go back on your words tomorrow.” Li Wenxiu turned red, and said, “I will certainly give you what I promised. Why should I go back on my words?” Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t believe you.”
Under the moonlight, he saw that she was wearing a jade bangle on her left wrist which sparkled gently. He said carelessly, “Unless you give this to me.” The bangle was from her mother, and other than this bangle, she had no other memento to remember her mother by. She was reluctant to part with it, but when she saw how pitiful the bird looked, she removed it from her wrist, saying, “For you!” The boy did not expect her to agree to his request. As he took the jade bangle, he said, “You won’t want it back, will you?” Li Wenxiu answered, “Of course not!” The little boy replied, “Good!” Then he handed the Tianling bird to her.
Li Wenxiu held the bird with both palms, and felt its soft body, and its rapid but faint heartbeat. Using three fingers from her right hand, she stroked the feathers on its back gently. Opening her palms, she said, “You can go! But next time you must be more careful, and not get caught again.” The bird spread open its wings and flew back into the grass. Puzzled, the boy asked, “Why did you release the bird? Didn’t you exchange the jade bangle for it?” He held onto the bangle tightly, as if afraid that Li Wenxiu would want him to return it. Li Wenxiu said, “Now the bird can fly and can sing freely, and it is happy.” The boy cocked his head and looked at her and queried, “Who are you?” She responded, “My name is Li Wenxiu, what’s yours?” The boy said, “My name is Su Pu.” After speaking, he jumped up and yelled at the top of his lungs.
Su Pu was two years older than Li Wenxiu. He was very tall, and looked rather mighty as he stood in the pastures. Li Wenxiu said, “You’re very strong, aren’t you?” Su Pu was very pleased, for this little girl’s casual comment described what he was most proud of. He pulled a short knife from his waistband, and said, “Last month, I used this knife to attack a wolf and nearly killed it. Unfortunately, it escaped.” Li Wenxiu was startled, “You’re that powerful?” Su Pu felt even prouder of himself, and said, “One night, two wolves came to prey on my family’s sheep. My father wasn’t home, so I grabbed a knife to chase the wolves away. When the larger wolf same my flaming torch, it escaped. But with one blow, I injured the other wolf.” Li Wenxiu asked, “You injured the smaller one?” Su Pu felt embarrassed, but nodded. He quickly added, “But if the larger wolf hadn’t escaped, I would’ve killed it with one blow.” Although he said this, he wasn’t really certain that he could do it. But Li Wenxiu believed him wholeheartedly, and said, “The bad wolves want to bite the little sheep, they deserve to be killed. Next time you kill a wolf, could you please inform me so that I can take a look?” Su Pu said cheerfully, “All right! When I kill a wolf, I’ll skin it and give its pelt to you.” Li Wenxiu said, “Thank you! I’ll make Grandfather a wolfskin mat, for he has given his own mat to me.” Su Pu replied, “No! You use the one I give you, and return your grandfather’s mat to him.” Li Wenxiu nodded, “That is as well.” In both their little hearts, unfulfilled hopes of the future were no different from incidents of the past. They both dreamed of killing a wolf, but acted as if the wolf was already dead.
In this way, the two children became friends. Su Pu, with his ruggedness and boldness characteristic of Kazak men, and Li Wenxiu, with her gentleness and kindness characteristic of Han women, got along very well.After a few days, Li Wenxiu sewed a little pouch and filled it with malt candy, and took it to Su Pu.
The gift had given this little boy a surprise. After exchanging the little bird for a jade bangle, he already felt that he had gotten an advantage. Kazaks are born honest, and so was Su Pu. He felt that he should provide some form of compensation for Li Wenxiu. Thus, he spent one night on pastures, and caught two Tianling birds. The next day, he gave the birds to Li Wenxiu. However, his generous gesture was misintentioned. Li Wenxiu spent a long time talking to Su Pu before he realised that she liked Tianling birds to be free, and not suffering in captivity. Su Pu finally understood. However, at the bottom of his heart, he felt that her kindness was rather silly, eccentric and laughable.
As the days passed, Li Wenxiu’s parents did not appear as frequently in her dreams as before, and the traces of tears on her pillow gradually lessened. More smiles appeared on her face, more songs came out from her mouth. Whenever she and Su Pu herded sheep together, they could hear young couples’ ‘question-and-answer’ love songs from far away in the pastures. Li Wenxiu found these sentimental songs pleasant to her ears. After listening to them frequently, she could hum them without difficulty.
Of course, she did not understand what the songs meant. Why would a man fall head over heels for a woman? Why did a woman admire a man so? Why did hearing your sweetheart’s footsteps make your heart beat violently? Why did graceful figures cause people to suffer sleepless nights? But she could sing these songs well with her clear, melodious voice. Those who heard her all said, “This little girl can sing very well, just like a Tianling bird from the pastures.” During the freezing winter, the Tianling birds had all migrated south in search of warmer quarters. But Li Wenxiu’s songs still reverberated throughout the pastures, “Oh, my beloved herder, may I know how old you are? When you wander in the desert alone at night, would you mind if I accompany you?” At this point, there would be a short pause in the singing. All those who heard the singing thought in their hearts, “After hearing this beautiful voice, who wouldn’t want to be your companion?” Then the singing would continue, “Ah, my dear, please don’t be angry, it is hard to know who’s good and who’s bad at once. For the Gobi Desert to become a garden, it only thing needed is a well-matched couple.” Flowers bloomed in the hearts of those who listened, and even the coldest, cruellest hearts were warmed, “If a well-matched couple gets together, the Gobi Desert would naturally become a garden, and nobody would be angry with you.” The older people became younger by two decades, while the hearts of the youths filled with joy. But Li Wenxiu did not understand the meanings of the love songs she sang.
The one who listened to her songs the most was Su Pu. He did not understand the hidden meanings of these love songs from the pastures, until one day, they met a wolf in the snow.
The appearance of this wolf was extremely sudden. Su Pu and Li Wenxiu were sitting, shoulder to shoulder, on a small hill, watching the sheep scattered all over the pastures.
As usual, Li Wenxiu was telling him stories. Some of these stories were told to her by her mother, others were told to her by old man Ji, and the rest she made up. Su Pu liked the old man’s thrilling stories the best, and disliked the childish tales which Li Wenxiu made up the most. But a suspenseful story retold a few times would lose its suspense, thus he was forced to listen patiently to how the little white rabbit could not find its mother, and how the little spotted dog helped it look for its mother. Suddenly, Li Wenxiu toppled backwards with a loud cry. A huge grey wolf was baring its sharp teeth at her throat.
The wolf had crept quietly towards them from the back, so both children had not noticed it. Li Wenxiu had learnt some martial arts from her mother, so she instinctively tilted her head backwards, avoiding the wolf’s bites aimed at her throat. When Su Pu saw how huge the wolf was, he was so frightened that his legs softened. But he immediately thought, “I must save her!” Grabbing a short knife from his waistband, he threw himself forward, and stabbed the wolf in the back.
The grey wolf’s bones were very hard, and the short knife slid down its back, cutting only a little skin and flesh. But the grey wolf was realised that it was in danger. Letting go of Li Wenxiu, it opened its large mouth wide and leapt upwards. Its forelegs landed on Su Pu’s shoulders, and it attempted to bite his face.
Su Pu was stunned and fell backwards. The wolf’s movements were as quick as lightning. Putting some force on its forelegs, its sharp white teeth was already touching Su Pu’s cheeks. Li Wenxiu was terrified, but she mustered up her courage. With much strength, she tugged the grey wolf’s tail backwards. The grey wolf moved back a step, but it was extremely hungry and planted its feet firmly on the ground. Li Wenxiu thus was unable to pull it away. It attempted to bite Su Pu again.
Su Pu yelled loudly as the wolf bit his left shoulder. Li Wenxiu was on the verge of tears, but she managed to summon all her strength and pulled the wolf backwards. The wolf gave a howl of pain, and released its grip on Su Pu’s shoulder. Dazed, Su Pu thrust his knife forwards, and by chance stabbed the wolf’s soft belly. The entire knife sank into the wolf, and its hilt could not even be seen. He was about to pull out the knife and stab the wolf again when it bounded up violently, rolled in the snow several times, and died facing upwards.
As the grey wolf rolled about, Li Wenxiu also took a few tumbles. But she still clung onto the wolf’s tail, never letting go. Su Pu struggled to get up. Seeing the huge grey wolf lying dead in the snow, he was momentarily astounded. Then he cried jubilantly, “I’ve killed a big wolf, I’ve killed a big wolf!” Stretching his hand to help Li Wenxiu up, he said proudly, “A’xiu, look, I’ve killed a big wolf!” He was so proud of himself that although his shoulder was bleeding profusely, he did not feel any pain. Li Wenxiu realised that his woolen jacket and soaking with blood and quickly pulled it open. She took a handkerchief from inside her clothes, and pressed down on his bleeding wound, asking, “Is it painful?” If Su Pu had been alone, he would be wailing loudly in pain. But at this moment his heart was filled with lofty heroism, and shook his head, saying, “I’m not afraid of pain!” Suddenly, someone from behind said, “A’pu, what are you doing?” Both of them turned their heads, and saw a large bearded man riding on a horse. Su Pu cried, “Father, look, I’ve killed a wolf.” The large man was pleased, and got off his horse. He saw that his son’s face was spattered with blood, and then ran a glance over Li Wenxiu’s face. He asked Su Pu, “You were bitten by the wolf?” Su Pu replied, “I was listening to A’xiu tell stories, and suddenly this wolf wanted to bite her…” Instantly, the large man’s face darkened. Gazing at Li Wenxiu, he said icily, “Are you the daughter of those Hans punished by Allah?” Li Wenxiu recognized him as Su Lu’ke, the man who had kicked her. She recalled old man Ji’s words, “His wife and eldest son were both killed by Han bandits overnight, and thus he now hates Hans terribly.” She nodded, and was about to say, “My father and mother were also harmed by those bandits.” Before she could say a word, there was a loud ‘swish’. A long reddish gash appeared on Su Pu’s face. His father had used a horsewhip to lash his face.
Su Lu’ke yelled, “I told you to hate the Han people for all eternity! But you forgot what I said, and actually went off to play with a Han girl, and even risking your life for her!” With another ‘swish’, he lashed his son a second time.
Su Pu did not dodge, but gazed dumbfounded at Li Wenxiu, and asked, “Is she really one of the Hans punished by Allah?” Su Lu’ke roared, “Isn’t she?” With another ‘swish’, he whipped Li Wenxiu’s face. Li Wenxiu moved two steps backwards, pressing her face with her hands. Su Pu had already been seriously injured by the wolf, and after being whipped twice, he was unable to support himself, and crumpled onto the ground.
Su Lu’ke was shocked when he saw that his son had shut his eyes and fainted. He carried his son, and leapt onto the horse’s back. He threw out a circle of rope, and lassoed the dead wolf’s neck. With a kick, the horse galloped off. The dead wolf was pulled along, leaving a long trail of blood in between two rows of hoofprints in the now. After riding about ten zhang, Su Lu’ke turned his head, and gave Li Wenxiu a poisonous glare, as if saying, “If I see you again, I’ll give you a good hiding.” Li Wenxiu was unafraid of his glare. But she felt an emptiness in her heart, for she knew that from this day onwards, Su Pu would not longer befriend her, and he would no longer listen to her sing and tell stories. She felt that the wind was so cold that it was unbearable, and the gash on her face hurt intensely as her pulse raced.
Sadly, she drove her sheep home. The old man Ji noticed a lot of blood on her clothes, and that there was a reddish mark of a whip on her face. Shocked, he questioned her on what had happened. Li Wenxiu simply said, “I was careless, and fell down.” Of course the old man did not believe her. But even after repeated questionings, Li Wenxiu continued to say the same thing. When he questioned her anxiously, she burst into tears and refused to speak anymore.
That night, Li Wenxiu ran a high fever, and her little face was flushed bright red. She raved continuously, “Big grey wolf! Su Pu, Su Pu, save me quickly!…Hans punished by Allah…” The old man Ji was able to guess what had happened, and was extremely anxious. Fortunately, at dawn, Li Wenxiu’s fever subsided, and she fell into a deep slumber.
Her illness lasted for more than a month. When she finally got out of bed, the harsh winter had ended. The snow on the mountains had begun to melt. The melted snow formed little streams, flowing down into the pastures. Tender blades of grass had started to appear in the pastures.
One day, Li Wenxiu awoke. She opened the door, intending to bring the sheep to the pastures. Then she saw a wolfskin mat outside the door. Li Wenxiu was stunned. The colour of the fur was exactly the same as the colour of the fur of the wolf which had tried to bite her in the snow that day. She bent down and saw that there was a hole made by a knife stab in the wolfskin’s belly area. Her heart thumped quickly, for she knew that Su Pu had not forgotten her, and he had not forgotten what he had said, secretly placing the wolfskin in front of her door in the middle of the night. She hid the wolfskin in her room, and did not mention it to the old man Ji. She herded the sheep to the pastures, and then went to their usual meeting place to wait for Su Pu.
She waited until sunset, but Su Pu did not turn up. She saw the flock of sheep belonging to Su Pu’s family, but the shepherd was a youth aged about seventeen or eighteen. Li Wenxiu thought, “Could it be that Su Pu has not yet recovered from his injuries? But then, how did he place the wolfskin outside my door?” She badly wanted to go to his tent to take a peek at him, but then she recalled Su Lu’ke’s whip.
In the middle of the night, she mustered up her courage, and walked to the back of Su Pu’s tent. She did not know the purpose of her visit. Was it to say, “Thank you for your wolfskin?” Was it to see if his wounds had healed? She herself did not know the answer. She hid behind the tent. Su Pu’s sheepdog recognized her, sniffed her body several times before trotting off, and did not make a sound. The tent was lighted by a candle made from beef fat, and Su Lu’ke was roaring loudly.
“Which girl did you give your wolfskin to? Good boy, you are young but know that you should give the first animal you killed to your sweetheart.” Every time he roared out a sentence, Li Wenxiu’s heart would throb violently. When she listened to Su Pu tell stories, he had told her about the Kazaks’ customs. Every youth would give his beloved sweetheart the precious first animal he had killed, as an indication of affection. When she heard Su Lu’ke’s yelling, her face flushed, and her heart burst with pride. They were too young to understand true love. But indistinctly, they felt the sweetness and bitterness of first love.
“You must’ve given it to that Han girl who was punished by Allah; that wretch called Li something, right? If you don’t tell the truth, let’s see whether you are stronger, or your father’s whip stronger?” She heard a series of swishes, and the sounds of a whip hitting flesh. Many Kazaks, like Su Lu’ke, strongly believed that whipping could produce strong, valiant men. One could not use gentle methods to discipline one’s son. His grandfather whipped his father in this way, his father whipped him in this way, and he would also whip his son in this way. But the love between father and son did not weaken because of this. When men dealt with other men, with friends and relatives they used fists and whips, with enemies they used short blades and long swords. But for Li Wenxiu, her parents never spoke a harsh word to her face since young. If their faces lost their smiles and tender looks, it was already a painful punishment to her. She could feel the pain of each whipping, thinking, “Su Pu’s father must hate me to the core. He is beating his own son so badly; would he beat him to death?” “So, you refuse to answer? Will you answer or not? You must’ve given it to that Han girl!” The whip continued its relentless whipping. At first, he gritted his teeth, trying to bear with the pain. Later, he cried, “Father, stop whipping, stop whipping, I’m in pain, I’m in pain!” Si Lu’ke said, “Then you’d better tell the truth, did you give the wolfskin to that Han girl? Do you know that your mother died in the hands of those Han bandits, and your elder brother was also killed by them? Do you know that they call me the bravest Kazak warrior, but my wife and son were still killed by Han bandits? Why wasn’t I home that fateful day? Why couldn’t I find these bandits and take revenge for your mother and elder brother?” At this time, Su Lu’ke’s whip was no longer disciplining his son, but venting the wild fury in his heart. Every time he whipped, it was as if he was whipping his enemies. “Why can’t those cursed bandits have a showdown with me using swords and spears? Why don’t you answer? How can I, Su Lu’ke, the bravest Kazak warrior, be unable to beat several Han crooks…” The child whom Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai’s men killed was his most beloved eldest son. The wife, who had been insulted and killed by the men, had been his sweetheart since young, and they had grown up together. And he was considered the bravest Kazak warrior for more than two decades. Whether it was comparing strength, fist fighting, or horse racing, he had never lost to anyone.
Li Wenxiu pitied Su Pu for being beaten by his father, and felt that his crying and yelling was also very pitiful. “He is whipping so hard; he must not love Su Pu any longer. He doesn’t have a son anymore, and Su Pu doesn’t have a father anymore. It’s all my fault; me, this Han girl who was punished by Allah!” Suddenly, she began to pity herself.
She could not bear to hear Su Pu’s cries any longer. So she returned to the old man’s hut, and removed the wolfskin from underneath her bedding, and looked at it for a long time. She was separated from Su Pu’s tent by more than two li of land, but it was as if she could hear Su Pu’s cries, and the swishing of Su Lu’ke’s whip. She liked this piece of wolfskin very much, but she could not keep it.
“If I keep this wolfskin, Su Pu will be beaten to death by his father. Only Kazak girls, girls from the Islamic faith can keep this big piece of wolfskin. Among all the many Kazak girls, who is the most beautiful? I like this piece of wolfksin a lot, it was from the wolf Su Pu killed, the wolf which he risked his life to save me from. Su Pu gave it to me, but… but his father will beat him to death…” The next morning, a bloodshot-eyed Su Lu’ke came out from his tent. He heard Che Erku hum mountain folk songs loudly. He cocked his head and gazed at Su Lu’ke, a curious expression on his face. He was smiling, and there was goodwill in his eyes. Che Erku was a famous Kazak warrior, and people from a thousand miles away knew his talent in taming wild horses. He was extremely swift when he ran. Some said that no steed could outrun him within a distance of one li. Even if he lost to the horse after running more than one li, he would lose only by the length of a nose. When the nomads in the pastures sat around fires chatting, many said that Che Erku would’ve won if his nose wasn’t that flat. Su Lu’ke never had a good relationship with Che Erku. Su Lu’ke was very famous, for his swordfighting and fist fighting skills were invincible. For this, Che Erku was secretly jealous of him. He was younger than Su Lu’ke by six years. Once, they competed in swordfighting. Che Erku lost, and suffered a long gash in his shoulder. He said, “Today I have lost, but after five years, or even ten years, we’ll compete again. Su Lu’ke replied, “In another two decades, we’ll compete again. But then, my strokes will not be so light!”
But today, there was no hostility in his smile. Su Lu’ke’s fury had not subsided, so he glared angrily at him. Che Erku laughed, “Old Su, your son certainly has good taste!” Su Lu’ke said, “Are you talking about Su Pu?” He grasped the hilt of his knife, shooting Che Erku a poisonous look, thinking, “You’re ridiculing me because my son gave his wolfskin to a Han girl.” Che Erku was about to say, “If I’m not talking about Su Pu, do you mean you still have another son?” Instead, he smiled and said, “Of course I’m talking about Su Pu! The boy is quite good-looking, and he’s quite capable too. I like him.” Whenever a father hears other people praising his son, he would obviously feel pleased. But he was used to bickering with Che Erku, so he retorted, “Are you envious of me? Too bad you are unable to bear a son.” But Che Erku did not get angry. Smiling, he said, “My daughter A’man is not that bad either, otherwise why would your son take a fancy to her?” Su Lu’ke spat, “Stop showing off, who says my son has taken a fancy to A’man?” Che Erku grabbed his upper arm, saying, “Follow me, I’ll show you something.” Su Lu’ke was puzzled, so he walked shoulder to shoulder with him. Che Erku said, “Your son killed a big grey wolf some time ago. For a young boy, that is extraordinary. When he grows up, won’t he be exactly like his father? The father is a hero; the son is a good man.” Su Lu’ke did not answer. He suspected that Che Erku was laying a trap for him to fall into, thinking, “I must be extremely careful from now on.” They walked for more than three li before reaching Che Erku’s tent. He went closer. Wasn’t that the big grey wolf which Su Pu had killed? He clearly recognized that it was the first wild animal which his son had killed. After a moment’s confusion, he was pleased yet perplexed, “I blamed A’pu wrongly, and gave him such a heavy beating last night. So he had given the wolfskin to A’man, not to that Han girl. Stupid boy, why didn’t he tell the truth? Children are easily embarrassed and don’t dare to tell the truth. If his mother was still around, she would’ve restrained me. Ai, children would always pour out their problems to their mothers…..”
Che Erku slapped Su Lu’ke back using his thick, large hands, and said, “Let’s have a bowl of wine.” Che Erku’s tent was neat and tidy. Woolen rugs with red flowers and green grass woven onto them were hung all around the tent. A slim girl carried wine out. Che Erku smiled and said, “A’man, this is Su Pu’s father. Are you afraid of him? This huge bearded man is very ferocious!” A’man’s blushing face was even more beautiful. Her eyes seemed to smile, as if saying, “I’m not afraid.” Su Lu’ke laughed heartily, “Old Che, I heard others saying that you have a daughter who is like a flower walking on the pastures. Yes, a walking flower, this description is extremely apt.” The two men, who had contended with each other for a decade, suddenly became close friends. You toast me, and I toast you. Su Lu’ke drank until he was drunk. With sleepy eyes he lay on the back of a horse, and returned home.
After a few days, Che Erku brought two fine woolen rugs. He said, “These were woven by A’man; one for the father, one for the son.” On one woolen rug was woven a large man holding a long blade. The man had killed a leopard, and a second leopard was running away with its tail between its hind legs. On the other rug was woven a boy who had stabbed a large grey wolf to death. Both of them looked majestic and heroic. Su Lu’ke was delighted, and praised, “Excellent skills, excellent skills!” There were few leopards in the Muslim Region, but one year two leopards appeared and harmed the livestock. Su Lu’ke pursued them into the snow-covered mountains, and killed a large leopard, while the other leopard escaped with injuries. A’man had woven the heroic achievement he was proudest of on the rug, and he was extremely pleased by this.
This time, the one who lay, drunk, on a horse’s back was Che Erku. Su Lu’ke asked his son to send him home. Inside Che Erku’s tent, Su Pu saw his wolfskin. While he was puzzling over the matter, a blushing A’man thanked him. Su Pu muttered something, but did not know what he was talking about. He did not dare ask how the wolfskin landed up with A’man. Early the next day, he went to the small hill where he had killed the wolf, hoping to meet Li Wenxiu so that he could ask her about it. But she did not turn up. He waited for two days but to no avail. On the third day, he mustered up his courage and went to the old man Ji’s hut. Li Wenxiu answered the door. When she saw him, she said, “I never want to see you again. “ Then she shut the door with a loud slam. Su Pu was stunned for a long time, and went home feeling bewildered. Listlessly, he mused, “Ai, a Han girl, who knows what she is thinking of?”
Of course, he did not know that Li Wenxiu hid behind the door, hiding her face in her hands and crying. She cried for a long time. She would have liked to play with Su Pu again, and tell him stories. But she knew if his father found out, Su Pu would have to suffer another round of whipping. He might even be whipped to death.
The days passed, one by one. The three children were blown taller by the winds from the pastures, and grew bigger by the freezing snow at the foot of the mountains. The walking flower became more beautiful, the wolf-killing child became a handsome youth, while the Tianling bird in the pastures sang even more melodiously. But she hardly ever sang. Late at night when there was no one around, she would go to the small hill where Su Pu had killed the wolf and sing. She did not forget this childhood playmate for even a day, and often spotted him riding together with A’man. She also heard them singing those ‘question-and-answer’ love songs to each other.
When Li Wenxiu was young, she did not know what these songs meant, but now she understood them all too well. If she had continued to be ignorant of their meanings, would it not have spared her so much unhappiness? Spared her so many sleepless nights? But once she understood the things that she did not understand previously, she was unable to return to the childish puzzlement she had felt when young.
Late one spring night, Li Wenxiu rode the white horse to the little hill where the wolf had been killed. The white horse had shed the hair which had been dyed yellow a long time ago. And now its body was as white as the snow in the mountains.
She stood on the small hill. Far away, she could see a large bonfire burning in the middle of the Kazaks’ tents.
Li Wenxiu thought, “He and she must be feeling exceptionally happy today, for it is so lively, so joyous.” The ‘he’ in her heart, was of course none other than Su Pu; and the ‘she’ was of course A’man, the walking flower. She could hear the rising and falling sounds of music and merrymaking. This day was one of the Kazaks’ festivals. The young men and women gathered around the bonfire, dancing and singing, enjoying themselves thoroughly.
But this time Li Wenxiu did not guess correctly. Su Pu and A’man did not feel exceptionally happy, but felt exceptionally nervous. Near the bonfire, Su Pu was wrestling with a tall and thin youth. This was the most important component of the festival. The winner of the wrestling competition won three prizes: a fine steed, a fat cow and a beautiful rug.
Su Pu had already defeated four strong youths in a row. The tall and thin youth was called Sang Si’er and was a good friend of Su Pu’s. Still, a victor had to be declared. Furthermore, he also loved that walking flower. Who wouldn’t love so pretty a face, so graceful a figure, so skilful two hands? Sang Si’er knew that Su Pu had been on good terms with A’man since childhood, but he was a stubborn and proud youth. On the pastures, whoever’s horse was fastest, whoever’s strength was greatest had an advantage over everyone else. He always thought, “If I defeat Su Pu in a publicized match, A’man will like me.” He diligently trained in wrestling and swordfighting for three years. His master was A’man’s father Che Erku.
Su Pu’s martial arts skills were passed to him by his father.
The two youths were tangled up. Suddenly Sang Si’er suffered a hard punch in his shoulder. He staggered and toppled backwards. But as he fell, his right leg caught Su Pu who then fell too. Both of them leapt up simultaneously, and gazed at each other. They moved in a circular direction, each searching for the other’s weak spot. Neither dared to take the first strike.
Su Lu’ke sat in a corner watching, his palms full of sweat, calling out, “Too bad, too bad!” But Che Erku’s feelings were harder to describe. He knew how his daughter felt, and even if Sang Si’er won, she would still like Su Pu, perhaps even more intensely than before. But Sang Si’er was his disciple. This wrestling match was exactly like a competition between himself and Su Lu’ke, the bravest Kazak warrior. Wouldn’t it be glorious if Che Erku’s disciple defeated Su Lu’ke’s son? This matter would spread throughout a thousand li of pastures. Of course, A’man would be unhappy for days, but this did not bother him. Thus, he still hoped that Sang Si’er would win, even though Su Pu was a good boy and he liked him.
The people gathered around the bonfire cheered the two youths on. This was a competition between two evenly-matched youths. Su Pu was more powerful, but Sang Si’er was more agile. Nobody could tell who would be the eventual winner.
Sang Si’er dodged right and left, managing to avoid Su Pu’s grasps. The cheering of the spectators became louder. “Faster, Su Pu, faster!” “Sang Si’er, attack! Don’t just dodge here and there!” “Aiyo, Su Pu has slipped!” “Never mind, use your strength to pull him down!” The sounds travelled far away, and Li Wenxiu could hear their faint cries of “Su Pu, Su Pu”. She was puzzled, “Why is everyone calling for Su Pu?” So she rode the white horse towards the cries. From behind a large tree, she saw Su Pu wrestling with Sang Si’er, and the spectators calling out excitedly. Suddenly, she saw A’man near the bonfire. Concern and excitement flickered about her face, tears shone in her eyes. One moment she was worried, the next moment, joyful. Li Wenxiu had never observed A’man so clearly before, and thought, “So she really likes Su Pu a lot.” Suddenly, all the spectators shouted in unison as Su Pu and Sang Si’er both fell to the ground. Li Wenxiu was unable to see them wrestle through the wall of people. But by listening to the crying and calling, one could imagine that Su Pu was on top, then forced to the ground by Sang Si’er. Li Wenxiu’s palms began to sweat. As she was unable to see what was going on, she was more anxious than anyone there. Suddenly, the cries of the crowd stopped completely. Li Wenxiu clearly heard the sounds of heavy breathing coming from the two wrestling youths. Then one of them stood up, trembling. The crowd cheered, “Su Pu, Su Pu!” A’man ran into the circle of people, and grasped Su Pu’s hand. Li Wenxiu felt gladdened yet desolate. She turned her horse around and walked away slowly. The spectators crowded around Su Pu, and no one noticed her.
She did not control the reins, but allowed the horse to canter leisurely in the desert. She had travelled for quite some time before realising that the white horse had reached the edge of the pastures. If she went any further, she would reach the Gobi Desert. Softly, she chided, “What did you bring me here for?” At this point, two horses appeared, and then another two appeared. Under the moonlight, she could roughly make out that the riders on the horses were all dressed in Han clothes and were gripping long blades.
She was shocked, “Are they Han bandits?” Within a moment’s hesitation, she heard one of them call out, “The white horse, the white horse!” All the riders galloped over, shouting, “Stay still! Stay still!” Li Wenxiu cried, “Quick, gallop!”
But to the west was the boundless Great Gobi.
When she was younger, Su Pu had told her that there were ghosts in the Great Gobi. Anyone who ventured into the desert never walked out alive again. No, even if they turned into ghosts, they were unable to escape. Once someone ventured into the desert, he would walk in large circles. As he wandered around the desert, he would suddenly find a trail of footprints. He would be jubilant, thinking he had found the way out. But as he followed the footprints, he would finally realise that the footprints were actually made by him, and that he had been walking around in circles. He who perished in this manner was incapable of resting in peace, even when he had become a ghost. For he was unable to enter the heavenly paradise, and was doomed to walk in large circles continuously for all eternity.
Li Wenxiu had once queried the old man Ji, if the Great Gobi was really that frightening, and if people who ventured into it really never walked out again. When the old man heard her questions, the muscles in his face suddenly convulsed, revealing a terrified expression. He stole a look outside the window, as if he had seen many ghosts and demons. Li Wenxiu had never seen him so terrified, and did not dare to persist in her queries. She thought that this matter must be true, and perhaps Grandfather Ji had even seen those ghosts.
The white horse galloped madly. Seeing the thick yellow sands of the vast desert, and thinking about the ghosts doomed to walk in circles forever, made her extremely afraid. But the bandits were in hot pursuit of her. She remembered her parents, and remembered Su Pu’s mother and elder brother. She knew that if the bandits caught up with her she would be killed or perhaps suffer a fate worse than death. But if she went into the Great Gobi, she would not be able to rest in peace even after she turned into a ghost. She wanted to stop the horse and not escape anymore. As she looked back, she was no longer able to see the Kazaks’ tents and the verdant pastures. Five bandits were still chasing her, shouting and calling, while the remaining two had fallen behind. She heard those rough voices filled with excitement, “There can’t be any mistake, it is that horse! Catch her, catch her!” Hatred hidden in her heart for years burst out suddenly, and she thought, “Father and Mama were killed by them. I’ll lure them into the Great Gobi and we’ll perish together, exchanging my life for the lives of five bandits. After all… after all… there is no pleasure in living.” Her eyes filled with tears. Without any hesitation, she urged the white horse to gallop towards the west.
But even if they spoke very loudly, Li Wenxiu heard but paid no attention for she was not eavesdropping on their lovers’ prattle. It was as if she saw a little boy and a little girl before her eyes, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the grass like they were doing now. The little boy was Su Pu, but the little girl was herself. They were telling stories, but as to what stories they were, she had long forgotten, but the scene from ten years ago still appeared clearly before her eyes…
These men were subordinates of Huo Yuanlong and Chen Dahai’s protection agency, and had pursued White Horse Li San and his wife to the Muslim Region. Even though they had killed Li San and his wife, they had lost all trace of the little girl. They knew that Li San possessed the map to the Gao Chang Labyrinth. But since it was not found on Li San and his wife’s bodies, it had to be with that little girl. The Gao Chang Labyrinth hid countless treasures, thus the men from Jinwei Protection Agency refused to give up, and wandered about in this region, searching for that little girl. They had wandered for ten years. They did not work, and bullied the nomads on the pastures into giving them livestock by flaunting their martial arts skills. They only needed to pull out knives, and went around killing, burning, pillaging, raping…
In these ten years, they did not stop their search for that little girl. But the pastures were so vast, wherever could they start looking? The little girl could have died and her bones turned into ashes. As bandits in the pastures, they enjoyed much freedom. They felt much freer than operating a protection agency back in the Central Plains. So why would there be a need to return to the Central Plains?
Sometimes, they would discuss the treasures in the Gao Chang Labyrinth, and White Horse Li San’s daughter. Even if the girl had not died, she would have matured and would be unrecognizable. Only that white horse would remain unchanged. Tall, pure white horses like it were rare, and one could spot it from afar. But what if the white horse had also died? The lifespan of a horse was much shorter than the lifespan of a human. As the days passed one by one, they began to lose hope.
Whoever knew that they were actually able to spot the white horse? Yes, there was no mistake, it was that white horse!
The white horse was already aged. The strength of its legs was much lesser as compared to when it had been younger, but it was still able to run much faster than an ordinary horse. At dawn, it had already outrun the five bandits by a great distance, and she was unable to hear their pursuing hoofbeats. But she knew that she would leave a trail of horse prints and footprints. Even if the five bandits were unable to catch up with her now, they could still find her by following the prints. Thus, she did not dare to dally about.
She rode for more than ten li. The sun had already risen for quite some time. Riding over several sand dunes, she saw a hilly ridge in the northwestern direction. On the ridge grew lush verdant vegetation. Seeing this greenery in the desert was like seeing a heavenly paradise. Several sand dunes rising from the desert, hiding the ridge from view, thus one could not see it from far away. Li Wenxiu quaked, “Could this be a ghost hill? How come I’ve never heard anyone mention the existence of this hill?” Then she thought, “It’s best that this is a ghost hill; perfect for luring these five bandits inside.”
The horse moved quickly, and reached the front of the ridge in no time, and entered a valley. Between two hills flowed a little stream. The white horse gave a joyful neigh and dashed straight towards the stream. Li Wenxiu leapt off the horse. Using her hands, she scooped up some clear water to wash the sand and dust off her face. She then drank a few mouthfuls, and felt that the water tasted slightly sweet, and could be even considered as cool and refreshing.
Suddenly, she felt a hard object pressing against the back of her head. A hoarse voice said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Li Wenxiu was stunned, and was about to turn around when the voice said, “My staff is aimed directly at the back of your head. The slightest movement and you will die from serious injuries.” She felt the hard object move forwards slightly, and immediately felt dizzy. She did not dare to move, thinking, “Since this person is able to talk, I suppose he is not a ghost. He also asked me what I was doing here, which means that he must live here and therefore must not be a bandit.”
The voice continued, “I’m asking you something, why are you not answering me?” She responded, “Some bad people were chasing me, and I fled to this place.” The person queried, “What kind of bad people?” Li Wenxiu replied, “Many bandits.” That person said, “What kind of bandits? What are they called?” Li Wenxiu answered, “I don’t know. They used to be protection agents, but after they came to the Muslim Region, they became bandits.” That person asked, “What is your name? Who is your father? Who is your master?” Li Wenxiu said, “My name is Li Wenxiu; my father’s, White Horse Li San; my mother’s, ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’. I have no master.” That person grunted in reply, and said, “Oh, so ‘Gold and Silver Little Swords Sanniangzi’ married White Horse Li San. Where are your parents?” Li Wenxiu said, “They were killed by those bandits who also want to kill me.”
That person grunted in reply, and ordered, “Stand up!” Li Wenxiu stood up. That person then instructed, “Turn around.” Li Wenxiu turned around slowly. The sharp metal tip of that person’s wooden staff left the back of her head. He withdrew, and then extended the staff, so that it was pointing at her throat. But he did not exert all his strength, using only a little force to point the staff at her throat. Li Wenxiu glanced at him, and was surprised by what she saw. When she heard that hoarse, cold voice, she assumed that that person probably looked fierce and fearsome. But she saw a withered old man, who was thin and frail, and had a worried expression. He was wearing Han clothes which were extremely tattered and torn. But his hair was curly, and he did not look like a Han.
Li Wenxiu asked, “Old Uncle, what is your name? What is this place?” That old man was astounded to see that Li Wenxiu was rather beautiful. After being momentarily stunned, he answered coldly, “I don’t have a name, nor do I know what place this is.” Then they heard the indistinct sounds of hoof beats come from far away. Shocked, Li Wenxiu cried, “The bandits are here! Old Uncle, hide quickly.” That man said, “Why must I hide?” Li Wenxiu replied, “Those bandits are extremely evil, and they will kill you.” That man answered coldly, “We are strangers to each other, why do you care about my life or death?” At this time, the sound of the hoof beats came closer. Without caring that the tip of his staff was pointing at her throat, she stretched out her hand and grabbed his arm, saying, “Old Uncle, let’s escape together on the horse, or else it will be too late.”
That man shook his hand, trying to escape from Li Wenxiu’s grasp. But his shake lacked strength, and he was unable to free himself. Li Wenxiu asked, “Are you ill? I’ll help you up the horse.” She supported his waist with both her hands, and pushed him up onto the saddle. He was thin, and even though he was a man, his weight was lesser than that the weight of a well-proportioned Li Wenxiu. He sat in the saddle, swaying from side to side, as if he would fall off the saddle any time. Li Wenxiu also mounted the horse behind him, and urged the horse towards the interior of the hills. Within their delay, the five bandits had already ridden into the valley, and their cries could even be heard indistinctly. That man turned his head back suddenly, and cried, “You are in cahoots with them, aren’t you? You set a trap for me to fall into.” Li Wenxiu saw the sickly expression on his face turn to a hideous one, and a fierce light shone in his eyes. Frightened, she said, “No, no, I’ve never ever met you before, what trap would I set for you?” Sternly, he said, “You want to trick me into taking you to the Gao Chang Labyrinth…” Before he could finish his sentence, he suddenly shut his mouth.
When Li Wenxiu had fled to the Muslim Region with her parents, she had heard her parents mention the three words ‘Gao Chang Labyrinth’ in their conversations. At that time, she did not understand what the term meant, and so she did not take much notice of it. Ten years later, this old man suddenly brought it up. She could not remember at once when she had heard someone mention it, and asking ignorantly, “The Gao Chang Labyrinth? What is that?” The old man saw that her expression was honest, and did not look as if she was lying. His voice relaxing, he said, “You really don’t know about the Gao Chang Labyrinth?”
Li Wenxiu shook her head, saying, “I don’t know, ah, it must be…” The old man asked severely, “Must be what?” Li Wenxiu replied, “When I was young, I fled to the Muslim Region with my parents, and heard them mention the Gao Chang Labyrinth before. Is that a very fun place to be?” Harshly, the old man questioned, “What else did your parents say? You’d better not lie to me.” Sorrowfully, Li Wenxiu answered, “If only I could remember more of the things my parents said. Even if it were just one more word, it would still be fine. Unfortunately, I can never hear their voices again. Old Uncle, I’ve always foolishly hoped that my parents would return from the dead so that I can have another look at them. Ai! If only they were alive; even if they were to hit and scold me continuously every day, I would still be very happy. Of course, they would never ever hit me.” Suddenly, she seemed to hear the sounds of Su Lu’ke whipping Su Pu cruelly, and his furious scoldings.
The old man’s expression softened, and he grunted a reply. Suddenly, he asked loudly, “Have you married yet?” Li Wenxiu blushed and shook her head. The old man asked, “Who have you been staying with all these years?” She answered, “With Grandfather Ji.” He continued, “Grandfather Ji? How old is he? What does he look like?” To the white horse, Li Wenxiu urged, “Good horse, the bandits are catching up, run quickly, run quickly.” She thought, “In such a critical situation, why do you keep asking about such unrelated matters?” But when she saw suspicion cloud his face, she finally said, “Grandfather Ji is more than eighty years old. He has a head of white hair, and a face completely wrinkled, and he treats me very well.” The old man asked, “Do you know any Hans in the Muslim Region? Who else lives in Grandfather Ji’s house?” Li Wenxiu replied, “There is no one else. I don’t even know any Kazaks, much less any Hans.” The last sentence was said indignantly. She recalled Su Pu and A’man, and felt that even though she knew them, it was equal to not knowing.
Since there were two people riding on the horse, it could not gallop very swiftly. The five bandits were coming closer. Swoosh! Swoosh! Swoosh! Three arrows whizzed past them. The bandits wanted to capture her alive. Their intention was not to shoot her to death but to intimidate her so that she would stop the horse.
Li Wenxiu thought, “In any case, I have already decided to perish with these five bandits. So let this uncle flee alone!” She leapt off the horse, and slapped the horse’s buttocks, calling, “White horse, white horse! Escape with uncle quickly!” The old man was stunned. He did not expect her to be so kind-hearted as to tell him to escape alone. He hesitated, and in a low voice said, “Catch hold of the needles in my hands. Be careful that you don’t get pricked by their tips.” Bending her head, she saw him hold a thin needle between two fingers from his right hand. She stretched her hand out and took the needle, but did not understand its purpose. The old man said, “There is an intense poison applied to the tip of this needle. If those bandits capture you, prick them lightly and they will die.” Li Wenxiu was shocked. She had seen him holding the needle earlier, but did not take much notice of it. Apparently, if he had found her answers to his questions unsatisfactory, he would’ve pricked her with the poisoned needle. The old man then urged the horse on.
The five bandits approached, and surrounded Li Wenxiu. When they saw that she was such a beautiful young girl, none of them thought of pursuing the old man.
The five bandits leapt off their horses, and grinned hideously. Li Wenxiu’s heart beat furiously. Although that Old Uncle had said that the poisoned needle could send someone to his doom, but it was such a small needle, how could she use it to hold off these five fierce-looking men in front of her? Even if she could prick one of them to death, four more men remained. Or should she prick herself to death to prevent herself from being humiliated by them. One of them shouted, “What a pretty little girl!” Then two of them pounced on her. With a hard punch, the man coming from the left felled the other man, shouting angrily, “Are you vying with me?” Then he grabbed hold of Li Wenxiu’s waist. Flustered, she pricked his right arm, crying, “Evil bandit, let go of me.” The burly man gazed blankly at her with wide eyes. He had suddenly become immobile. The man, who had fallen, stretched out both hands and grabbed hold of her leg. With a strong pull, he caused her to fall to the ground. Propping herself with her left hand, and stretching out her right hand, she pricked the man in the chest. That man was laughing uproariously, and suddenly his laughter stopped. He became immobile: his mouth hung open and his body was frozen.
Li Wenxiu scrambled up, and quickly jumped onto the back of one of the horses, riding towards the hills. When the remaining three bandits saw the two men freeze suddenly as if under an evil spell, they thought that she had sealed their acupoints. As they thought that this young girl had powerful martial arts skills, they did not dare to pursue her. Since all three of them did not know how to seal and unseal acupoints, their only option was to bring their two companions to see their leaders. But both bodies felt cold to the touch. They tried to detect a hint of breath, but the two men had already stopped breathing and were dead.