At the time when the Tang dynasty reigned over the Middle Kingdom, there were master swordsmen of various kinds. Those who came first were the saints of the sword. They were able to take different shapes at will, and their swords were like strokes of lightning. Before their opponents knew they had been struck their heads had already fallen. Yet these master swordsmen were men of lofty mind, and did not lightly mingle in the quarrels of the world. The second kind of master swordsmen were the sword heroes. It was their custom to slay the unjust, and to come to the aid of the oppressed.
They wore a hidden dagger at their side and carried a leather bag at their belt. By magic means they were able to turn human heads into flowing water. They could fly over roofs and walk up and down walls, and they came and went and left no trace. The swordsmen of the lowest sort were the mere bought slayers. They hired themselves out to those who wished to do away with their enemies. And death was an everyday matter to them.
Old Dragonbeard must have been a master swordsman standing midway between those of the first and of the second order. Molo, however, of whom this story tells, was a sword hero.
At that time there lived a young man named Tsui, whose father was a high official and the friend of the prince. And the father once sent his son to visit his princely friend, who was ill. The son was young, handsome and gifted. He went to carry out his father’s instructions. When he entered the prince’s palace, there stood three beautiful slave girls, who piled rosy peaches into a golden bowl, poured sugar over them and presented them to him.
After he had eaten he took his leave, and his princely host ordered one of the slave girls, Rose-Red by name, to escort him to the gate. As they went along the young man kept looking back at her. And she smiled at him and made signs with her fingers. First she would stretch out three fingers, then she would turn her hand around three times, and finally she would point to a little mirror which she wore on her breast. When they parted she whispered to him: “Do not forget me!”
When the young man reached home his thoughts were all in confusion. And he sat down absent-mindedly like a wooden rooster. Now it happened that he had an old servant named Molo, who was an extraordinary being.
“What is the trouble, master,” said he. “Why are you so sad? Do you not want to tell your old slave about it?”
So the boy told him what had occurred, and also mentioned the signs the girl had made to him in secret.
Said Molo: “When she stretched out three fingers, it meant that she is quartered in the third court of the palace. When she turned round her hand three times, it meant the sum of three times five fingers, which is fifteen. When she pointed at the little mirror, she meant to say that on the fifteenth, when the moon is round as a mirror, at midnight, you are to go for her.”
Then the young man was roused from his confused thoughts, and was so happy he could hardly control himself.
But soon he grew sad again and said: “The prince’s palace is shut off as though by an ocean. How would it be possible to win into it?”
“Nothing easier,” said Molo. “On the fifteenth we will take two pieces of dark silk and wrap ourselves up in them, and thus I will carry you there. Yet there is a wild dog on guard at the slave girl’s court, who is strong as a tiger and watchful as a god. No one can pass by him, so he must be killed.”
When the appointed day had come, the servant said: “There is no one else in the world who can kill this dog but myself!”
Full of joy the youth gave him meat and wine, and the old man took a chain-hammer and disappeared with it.
And after no more time had elapsed than it takes to eat a meal he was back again and said: “The dog is dead, and there is nothing further to hinder us!”
At midnight they wrapped themselves in dark silk, and the old man carried the youth over the tenfold walls which surrounded the palace. They reached the third gateway and the gate stood ajar. Then they saw the glow of a little lamp, and heard Rose-Red sigh deeply. The entire court was silent and deserted. The youth raised the curtain and stepped into the room. Long and searchingly Rose-Red looked at him, then seized his hand.
“I knew that you were intelligent, and would understand my sign language. But what magic power have you at your disposal, that you were able to get here?”
The youth told her in detail how Molo had helped him.
“And where is Molo?” she asked.
“Outside, before the curtain,” was his answer.
Then she called him in and gave him wine to drink from a jade goblet and said: “I am of good family and have come here from far away. Force alone has made me a slave in this palace. I long to leave it. For though I have jasper chop-sticks with which to eat, and drink my wine from golden flagons, though silk and satin rustle around me and jewels of every kind are at my disposal, all these are but so many chains and fetters to hold me here. Dear Molo, you are endowed with magic powers. I beg you to save me in my distress! If you do, I will be glad to serve your master as a slave, and will never forget the favor you do me.”
The youth looked at Molo. Molo was quite willing. First he asked permission to carry away Rose-Red’s gear and jewels in sacks and bags. Three times he went away and returned until he had finished. Then he took his master and Rose-Red upon his back, and flew away with them over the steep walls. None of the watchmen of the prince’s palace noticed anything out of the way. At home the youth hid Rose-Red in a distant room.
When the prince discovered that one of his slave-girls was missing, and that one of his wild dogs had been killed, he said: “That must have been some powerful sword hero!” And he gave strict orders that the matter should not be mentioned, and that investigations should be made in secret.
Two years passed, and the youth no longer thought of any danger. Hence, when the flowers began to bloom in the spring, Rose-Red went driving in a small wagon outside the city, near the river. And there one of the prince’s servants saw her, and informed his master. The latter sent for the youth, who, since he could not conceal the matter, told him the whole story exactly as it had happened.
Said the prince: “The whole blame rests on Rose-Red. I do not reproach you. Yet since she is now your wife I will let the whole matter rest. But Molo will have to suffer for it!”
So he ordered a hundred armored soldiers, with bows and swords, to surround the house of the youth, and under all circumstances to take Molo captive. But Molo drew his dagger and flew up the high wall. Thence he looked about him like a hawk. The arrows flew as thick as rain, but not one hit him. And in a moment he had disappeared, no one knew where.
Yet ten years later one of his former master’s servants ran across him in the South, where he was selling medicine. And he looked exactly as he had looked ten years before.
Note: This fairy-tale has many features in common with the fairy-tales of India, noticeably the use of the sign language, which the hero himself does not understand, but which is understood by his companion.