Translated with: Jia<3
The Tudalong Banner was located in the eastern mountain ranges of the Hongyan Mountains; it was to the northwest of the Shayi Camp, and leading directly east of was the Biansha Twelve Tribes. Before this year, it was not a place of contention for both sides, but with Libei’s repeatedly retreating battlefront, this place became a strategic point above the battleground. Huhelu’s squad broke through the checkpoints and watchtowers ahead, so Changzhu Camp could only confront them on the west side of the Tudalong Banner. Both sides often engage in slanging matches across the marshland of the Tudalong Banner.
Xiao Chiye took a detour from the Bianbo Camp, which just so happened to put him to the south of Changzhu Camp. But the collapse blocked off the bridle path leading right to Changzhu Camp, and the Tudalong Banner lay just to the right. Hasen’s squad often wandered around this area. If Xiao Chiye refused to abandon the grains to extricate himself, then he could only come face to face with Hasen with the supplies in tow. However, the grain wagons were too heavy. Wu Ziyu’s Armored Cavalry could not run on mud, and the Imperial Army did not have enough light cavalry to interfere. Under such circumstances, it was simply too dangerous to turn around and head for the Tudalong Banner.
Wu Ziyu wanted to refute, but Chen Yang and the rest had already turned their horses around. That was a kind of trust that could not be described with words alone. They unconditionally obeyed Xiao Chiye. Even if it was a critical moment of life and death right this moment, they could immediately carry it out, as long as it was Xiao Chiye’s commands. Wu Ziyu, who stood among them, involuntarily shuddered.
It was now a quarter past the hour of shen, and the sky was overcast, having been affected by the rainstorm. Gu Jin was well-acquainted with this area, and the convoy squad entered Tudalong Banner. The grain wagons rolled heavily across the mudholes; just a little oversight, and they would sink in them. Everyone stilled their breathing and focused with rapt attention, not daring to be sloppy in the slightest.
Xiao Chiye wanted to conceal the grain wagons here.
No matter how brave the cavalry of Biansha was, they would not enter the Tudalong Banner rashly. The marshland was similarly a difficult place for them to navigate. Besides, rainy days affected not just Xiao Chiye, but Hasen as well. Meng’s inability to do reconnaissance meant that the saker falcons were not able to either. Both sides could not get a clear look at the other party’s movements through the rainstorm; they could only rely on their knowledge of the battlefield to make their moves against each other. But this kind of delicate balance could only be maintained in the rainstorm. Once the rain stopped, Xiao Chiye’s current squad would not be able to withstand Hasen’s assault.
“Wu Ziyu, stay to guard over the grain wagons.” Xiao Chiye said rapidly. “Let the Armored Cavalry hang up the chains to surround the grain wagons.”
The paths around the Tudalong Banner were all muddy, and the Armored Cavalry were too heavy on rainy days. It was easy for the horses’ hooves to get bogged down in the mud, so staying behind to watch over the grain wagons was the most appropriate decision to make. The chains were something Xiao Fangxu had them equipped with. Hooked them on the armors, and they could turn the Armored Cavalry into the grain wagons’ “armor”. That way, even if Hasen could break through Xiao Chiye’s guerrilla attack and enter the inner area of the Tudalong Banner, he would still be unable to break up the iron wall of the Armored Cavalry right at once.
Xiao Chiye remained in place and said to the Imperial Army, “Hasen is leading the Hanshe Tribe. Their speed is fast, and their strikes are powerful; we can’t catch up to them or stop them. But the east side where they are located is overgrown with bushes, which makes it easy for us to hide. The saker falcon can’t go ahead with their patrols on rainy days; this is an opportunity.”
It was clear who was the stronger and weaker one between the enemy and them. Xiao Chiye could not let Hasen’s squad remain intact; he would have no chance of winning if that was the case. He had the Imperial Army split up into small groups to feel their way out of the Tudalong Banner’s marshland, set up ropes to trip the enemies’ horses, then similarly break up and divert the unsuspecting Biansha Cavalry all over the Tudalong Banner. As long as the Biansha Cavalry fell off their horses, they would lose their advantage.
“Gu Jin should bypass Hasen’s squad and rush over to the battlefield at top speed.” Xiao Chiye turned around and looked at Gu Jin. “Zhao Hui didn’t come, and that means the Three Great Training Divisions of Liuyang are unable to move at this moment. The war situation further north is likely to be more dire than we thought. We can only now ask the battleground for reinforcements.”
Gi Jin had been injured before in the Tudalong Banner. He knew the roads of the Tudalong Banner by heart. He promptly voiced an acknowledgment and led a row of lightly-equipped scouts on ahead.
“Laohu, head northeast. I’ll go to the east. Chen Yang, assume personal command here.” As Xiao Chiye spoke, he strode forward. “No matter what, we have to ensure the army provisions can be successfully delivered to the site of battle.”
Having followed Xiao Chiye bustle all over the place, Chen Yang knew best about the status of the various granaries’ reserves in Libei. If Xiao Chiye were defeated, then Chen Yang would have to release a falcon once the rain stopped to inform the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path to reallocate army provisions up north without further delay. As the convoy squad, their lives and deaths were nowhere near as important as the army provisions for the battlegrounds.
This place was close to Hongyan mountains; the rain would not be stopping any time soon. The Imperial Army who was lying low in the mudholes had to endure the bone-chilling cold. Their inner garment clung to their skin, having already been drenched through. All their limbs had to be soaked in the mud, and it took less than an hour for all their fingers and toes to be frozen.
The autumnal rains of Libei were like blades; August had barely begun, yet the temperature had already dropped so low it appeared snow might fall any moment.
The convoy squad had yet to change into outer coats to keep out the cold. Long before heading out, Xiao Chiye had already asked that they switch the water they carried on hand with “On Horseback”.1 Strong wine could dispel the cold, and thus it was a pivotal item to have in this frontier of capricious wind and snow.
Xiao Chiye crouched in a mudhole and chugged down the wine, one mouthful at a time.
For the most part, the battle between Libei and Biansha would not drag past the eighth or ninth month, as a further delay meant the coming of snow, where the grasslands of both parties would be ravaged by raging snowstorms. During the long and harsh winter, groups of Libei’s military craftsmen would spend this time tirelessly re-forging and repairing equipment for the Armored Cavalry. On the other end, Biansha would herd their flocks of sheep closer to the south. Everyone would spontaneously enter a period of truce without fail. It was only during the third year of the reign of Xiande that something unforeseen had happened. Then, the Hanshe Tribe headed south and breached the banks of Chashi River to relieve considerable pressure on the provisions for the Twelve Tribes of Biansha.
For some reason, in the past couple of days, Xiao Chiye had a premonition that there would be no truce this winter. Amu’er’s combat style was too aggressive. If what Amu’er had done in early spring was to enter his enemy’s territory to plunder food, then right now, Amu’er seemed more like he was full-on suppressing Libei with no intention of retreat. By transferring Hasen over here from Qidong, Amu’er was deploying and letting loose his most powerful troops on the battlefields of Libei, which were completely unlike the small-scaled battles and skirmishes they had engaged in during the last few years.
All of a sudden, the sound of horse hooves rose through the rain. Xiao Chiye hung back his flask and held up two fingers to signal for the Imperial Army behind him to get down. He crouched down, his face almost touching the mudhole, and used only his eyes to search the bushes in the rain. A troop of cavalrymen appeared amidst the pouring rain, the hooves of their horses splashing muddy water all over as they galloped. Xiao Chiye silently observed them, and Langli Blade gradually slid out of its sheath as the distance between them shortened.
The sound of horse hooves intensified, while the sound of the Biansha Cavalry’s whistle dispersed in the rain. Xiao Chiye had already felt a slight tremor with the palm he had pressed against the ground.
He did not move, and neither did the Imperial Army behind him.
The Biansha Cavalry was just right before them; just a couple steps more, and they would be trampling over the Imperial Army. But then, the horse in the lead suddenly neighed, its front hooves caught by the rope. The horse’s front knees protruded forward, and it fell straight down. A wave of mud instantly splashed over Xiao Chiye’s face. He moved. At the same time the cavalryman fell down along with the horse, Langli Blade had already broken free of its sheath. Xiao Chiye cleaved down at the man. Fresh blood that spewed from the neck of the man gushed into the mudhole. The cavalrymen behind the man were caught off guard, and consequently, their formation was thrown into disarray.
Xiao Chiye did not give the other party the chance to regroup. The Imperial Army followed him closely as he killed his way into the Biansha Cavalry. A blend of mud and blood trickled onto Xiao Chiye’s nape. The pungency of “On Horseback” flooded through his stomach, causing him to burn up all over.
This was like a head-on blow that swiftly sent the Biansha Cavalry gathering their wits about them. Both parties were small squads, fighting at close quarters and killing one another as the rainwater poured over them. But it was a quick battle. By the time the Biansha Cavalry pulled themselves together, the Imperial Army had soundlessly vanished into the torrential rain again.
The Biansha Cavalry’s squads set up around the Tudalong Banner all received varying degrees of assaults from the Imperial Army. As soon as they tried to follow up with an attack, these batches of ruffian soldiers would shrink back in retreat. The Biansha Cavalry was forced to come to a halt beyond the marshland of the Tudalong Banner. Whenever they wanted to turn back and rejoin the others, the Imperial Army would sneak up on them and attack. After a few times, the Biansha Cavalry was beyond fed up. They could not use their speed to full advantage, and their charges were all over the place. They were just like headless flies being harassed by the Imperial Army, who shoved and kicked them. Pent-up rage simmered in them as they fought with ire and resentment.
Xiao Chiye was hidden under the torrential rain all this time. The Biansha Cavalry could not make out the exact hiding place of the Imperial Army at all. Without the heavy armors and horses of the Libei Armored Cavalry, the Imperial Army could disappear from the Biansha Cavalry’s field of vision as long as they lie low on the ground, coming and going elusively like a shadow.
Very quickly, Xiao Chiye’s wine was drunk down to the last drop. At the hour of xu, the sky grew completely dark. The Biansha Cavalry was still trapped by the Imperial Army at the fringe of the Tudalong Banner, unable to advance or retreat. Chances of victory kept improving; it seemed as if Xiao Chiye had grasped the rhythm of the battle. He would not let it go to his head. It did not matter if the Biansha Cavalry showed weakness or resorted to intimidation, the rhythm remained firmly in his control. But time lapsed, and Xiao Chiye still had yet to catch sight of Hasen.
The chill was even more intense in the night, and it was incomparably pitch-dark all around. Xiao Chiye’s boots were choked full of mud. Rainy days were wet and slippery. In order to prevent his blade from slipping off his hand, Xiao Chiye had it bound to the area between his thumb and index finger with a strip of cloth. At this point, the cloth was soaked through and utterly waterlogged. He squatted in place and tore away the old one to replace it with a new one.
Man’s physical strength was limited. This kind of back-and-forth battle required both sides to be on high alert at all times. Nerves had to be stretched taut; they could not afford to make even the slightest oversight or negligence. But Xiao Chiye had to catch his breath too. He closed his eyes slightly and shook his head twice so that he would not go numb from the repetitive actions.
By tomorrow latest at the hour of chen, the reinforcements from the battlegrounds would have hurried their way over. Tonight was of crucial importance. But Heaven still favored Xiao Chiye. Even if the rain were to abate some, there would be no starlight and moonlight tonight. The night was still as the Imperial Army’s disguise.
Xiao Chiye huffed out warm air and flexed his five fingers before tightening his grip on Langli Blade. But just as he rose to his feet again, the sound of disorderly footsteps rang out from the shrubbery. The person who brushed aside the leaves to reveal himself turned out to be Gu Jin.
Xiao Chiye promptly had an ill sense of foreboding.
Sure enough, he saw Gu Jin looking grim as he hastily kneeled on one knee and whispered, “Master, the roads to the site of battle are all blocked! Hasen’s elite forces are right at the southeast, and they have cut off my access!”
Xiao Chiye’s heart suddenly sank. It hit him almost instantly.
He had walked into a trap.
Every skilled commanding general knows the principle of imposing his will on the enemy but not allowing the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.2 The reason Xiao Chiye had been scoring one victory after another from Qudu was that he was always taking the initiative. This allowed him to control the pulse and rhythm of the battlefield without fear of the enemy’s numbers. But he had forgotten that Hasen was the same kind of commanding general as he was.
This rain was no coincidence.
It was a meticulously planned round-up.
From the time Xiao Chiye’s squad headed north, Hasen had already laid down an encirclement trap to hunt and kill this wolf pup. At the same time Xiao Chiye was watching the Biansha Cavalry, he was also being observed by Hasen. Xiao Chiye thought he was taking the initiative, but he was, in fact, paralyzing himself. Right from the moment he decided to turn around and head for the Tudalong Banner, he had already fallen into the role of the passive player.
The sound of horses’ hooves rose once more.
- 马上行 Wine from Libei. Background story in chapter 102
- 致人而不致于人 From Sun Tzu’s Art of War