Translated with: Jia<3
Early in the morning, Shen Zechuan stared fixedly at those messy footprints and asked Fei Sheng, “Does it belong to a grain wagon?”
The tracks left by the wheels were very distinct, a clear sign that it had been carrying a heavy load.
“Heavier than a grain wagon.” Fei Sheng dropped to one knee and scrutinized it for a moment. “It looks like it was carrying some kind of heavy weaponry. Master, they went to the trouble of taking a detour to Libei. Could they be thinking of launching another raid?”
“The Shasan Camp is now well-equipped and well-trained. With Guo Weili stationed there and its location so close to Bianbo Camp, it would be difficult to get anything good out of a raid without a large number of troops to back them up.” Shen Zechuan faced the south. “Furthermore, they are coming from Dunzhou; it’s possible that they’re thinking of transporting supplies to the border along the Chashi River.”
But what was there in Dunzhou?
Dunzhou’s granaries had long been squandered clean by the bandits. Furthermore, there were no garrison troops in Dunzhou, so why bother taking an unnecessary detour?
Shen Zechuan thought carefully for a moment, running through everything he remembered about Dunzhou. He recalled that the Biansha Cavalry had used a stone catapult when they raided Bianbo Camp during the sixth month. Taking a few steps along the wheel tracks, he suddenly spoke, “Military supplies, provisions—armaments.” He turned back. “After the defeat of the Zhongbo troops, the Ministry of War didn’t reclaim the armories of the Six Prefectures, intending to leave it for the re-established garrison troops. However, Qudu was later negligent in their inspection rounds, and all of these armories were not mentioned again.
Not bothering with the mud on his knee, Fei Sheng stood up. “Among them are plenty of heavy weaponry meant for sieges. If they fall in the hands of Biansha, then Duanzhou will be in imminent danger.”
“Continue to follow them.” Shen Zechuan said.
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The wheels got stuck in the mud, and the horses could not pull them out.
Liu’er, who was wrapped up in a coat and wearing a biangu hat,1 wanted to huddle up into a bundle, but he did not manage to do so. That Biansha man disguised as a traveling merchant yanked him by the ankle and dragged him off the wagon, then lashed at him with the horsewhip to wake him up as he cursed, “Get up. Go push the wagon!”
Liu’er “ow-ed” a few times and hurriedly crawled to his feet before limping over to push the wagon. He was advanced in age, and his hands were shaky. Someone stomped on his feet and nearly made him kneel from the pain. There were many bandits escorting this wagon. All of their blades had been seized by the Biansha men, and they were now toiling as manual labor under the cracks of horsewhips.
The bandits of Mount Luo returned home crestfallen following their defeat in Cizhou, and news that Lei Jingzhe was a spy for the Imperial Army spread like wildfire. Subsequently, Mount Luo split up into over ten small mountain strongholds that fought tooth and nail with one another. Liu’er, Ding Niu, and the others each formed their own band of bandits, wanting to recreate Lei Changming’s glory and become the chief of Mount Luo. But who knew that they would be disbanded in Duanzhou by bandits who had the help of the Biansha Cavalry? Not only did they lose their main forces, but they were also recaptured as the Biansha Cavalry’s prisoners.
Ding Niu refused to transport grains for the Biansha Cavalry and was killed at the end of the seventh month. Liu’er, cherishing his life, did not dare to resist any further and was now transporting the grain wagons for the Biansha people.
Liu’er hunched over like a monkey, his long, drooping eyebrows quivering along with his movements. He blended in among the crowd, not daring to slack off right under the Biansha men’s eyes. But even so, he did not escape a lashing. Liu’er grimaced in pain and tried his best to make himself smaller so that others would block the blows for him.
The road was hard to navigate, and ragged panting filled the chilly night. These bandits who were used to riding roughshod over others could not hold up against the lashings of the Biansha people, and there were quite a number of people who were whipped until their skin was flayed open and their flesh was torn. The horse wagon came to a stop only during the hour of yin. Several rows of cavalry roved around the surroundings, hollering at the bandits to assemble and stand properly.
Liu’er’s coat had been shredded to ribbons by the whips, with wads of cotton spilling out. He held his arms around himself and waded in the muddy marsh with a build-up of a thin layer of ice on it. His robe was already in rags now, and both legs of his trouser fluttered to reveal a pair of legs that looked like hemp stalks. The old man was so freezing cold that he shivered.
The Biansha men wanted to eat, so the bandits could only stand at their sides to shield them from the wind.
Liu’er folded his arms up his sleeves. He was so hungry he was seeing stars. He licked his lips and quietly squatted down to take a rest.
“When will these shitty days come to an end?” A former subordinate before him muttered as he took off the cloth bag stuffed on his back and secured it on his waist. “Goddamnit, they are going to whip me to death this trip! These motherfuckers really don’t hold back, whipping people like we are some livestock!”
Liu’er shifted his feet. He was so hungry he could taste bile in his mouth, and yet he was still thinking of taking a smoke. He fumbled in his sleeves for a long time before fishing out some tobacco, whereupon he brought it to his nose and sniffed hard. “They aren’t educated; that’s why they treated people as livestock, no? Those tattoos on their bodies are all of beasts and birds of prey. Heck, they even drink blood raw.”
The former subordinate spat. “If I had known I’d end up this way, I’d have switched camps and joined the Imperial Army back in Cizhou. Damn it. At least it wouldn’t have given the Biansha people an advantage.”
“Bullocks.” Liu’er stuffed the tobacco back and sneakily peeked at the Biansha men through other people’s legs. “We are all bandits. What good ends can we come to by defecting over to the Imperial Army? We would still be traitors. These military weapons are being sent over to fight Libei and Zhongbo. Who knows? Maybe even the emperor in Qudu will be taken prisoner when the time comes. We might still even have to kneel to a Biansha emperor.”
Liu’er had not even finished his words when his former subordinate suddenly pulled him up. With his legs trembling, Liu’er stuck close to the group and stood straight, not even daring to glance around arbitrarily.
The Biansha man was called Jida. His head was cleanly shaven, and the muscular arms he exposed had a poisonous scorpion tattooed on it. He passed by them while wiping his mouth, the expression in his eyes causing Liu’er’s legs to tremble even harder, so much that he was about to pee his pants.
But Jida did not give them any trouble tonight and merely led his man to the front where the supply wagon carrying the mounted crossbow2 was parked. The Biansha people were very interested in giant siege weapons such as the mounted crossbows.
The bandits remained where they were and rested. All their field rations were soaked and smelled musty. With his yellow tobacco-stained teeth, Liu’er ate the rations. The few of them huddled together to keep warm. Fortunately, it did not rain tonight, or the amount of people who froze to death would be more than just a few. They sat on the ground, not daring to fall asleep.
But Liu’er was old. It gradually became harder for him to hang in there, and he eventually dozed off against the wheel.
◈ ◈ ◈
“Such a small number of troops following along?” Fei Sheng squatted down once again and examined the footprints. “Most of them are bandits pushing the wagon along. There aren’t that many Biansha Cavalry.”
The brigade commander put on his helmet and sat on his horse like a statue cast in iron. As he pulled the reins on his horse, he spoke in a deep, muffled voice, “They are in disguise because they don’t want to alert others. I’m afraid they still have planted agents in Mount Luo. Otherwise, they wouldn’t dare to penetrate this far with these few people. Prefectural Lord, if you want to get to the bottom of who is on the inside collaborating with them, then we have to intercept them before they enter Mount Luo’s territory and interrogate them.”
There were not that many men from the Libei Armored Cavalry following along, but they were all elites on the battlefields who had fought the Hanshe Tribe with Xiao Fangxu. With the Imperial Bodyguards’ assistance in battle on such a dark night where the frost was heavy, intercepting this small batch of people would not be a problem.
Shen Zechuan took a look at the darkness of the night and ordered, “Ding Tao, stay where you are. Fei Sheng, go with the Libei Armored Cavalry.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Liu’er woke up from the freezing cold and rubbed both of his feet, feeling as if he was going to freeze to death. He raised his head and saw the Biansha Cavalry standing a distance ahead, crowding around the mounted crossbow. This crossbow was not something that could be drawn on one man’s strength alone. Usually, it would be used to bring up the rear and hold the battle array or to defend cities. It was an absolute heavy-duty weapon in combat and common in the Libei camps. The Biansha Cavalry had suffered and taken quite the beating in its hands.
Liu’er did not call out to anyone. He propped his hands on the ground and used the wagon as a cover to make his way quietly to the back. He crawled under the bottom of the wagon, sticking close to the ground to hide from view. When he crawled to the end, he practically kicked out with his shoes and lunged forward, cutting a sorry figure as he broke into a run.
Jida was wiping an arrow when he caught a flash in his peripheral vision. He bellowed in the Biansha language, “Someone’s fleeing!”
The Biansha Cavalry instantly mounted their horses and brandished their whips as they bellowed and chased after him.
How in the world would Liu’er expect Jida to be so sharp-eyed?! To think he could still catch sight of him from such a distance away and in such a dark night too. He thought of stopping and giving them the excuse that he was merely taking a piss, but when he looked back and saw all those scimitars drawn out of their scabbards, he knew he would die if he did not escape tonight!
Liu’er anxiously tightened his waist sash and kicked off his shoes in the mud. He fell, then climbed to his feet. All he could see before him was the way Ding Niu looked when he died.
They were able to rise to prominence on Mount Luo all because of the Biansha Cavalry, and now, it was also all because of the Biansha Cavalry that they had become prisoners on Mount Luo!
Liu’er muttered unintelligibly as he prayed for help and pleaded with all the deities and buddhas he knew of. Sores that had formed on this old man’s soles made him scrunch up his face in pain. He was so fearful of death to the extent he even wanted to kneel now and beg for mercy.
But the bellows and cursings of the Biansha Cavalry made it clear that it would not be a simple matter of capturing Liu’er back. They had no lack of people; what they lacked were chickens they could slaughter in public. Liu’er shivered and fell into a mudhole.
The Biansha Cavalry surrounded him, and Liu’er promptly burst out crying. He raised both hands and felt himself peeing his pants in the icy cold, muddy water. The foul, turbid stench of urine soaked through the legs of his trousers. Liu’er could not understand the Biansha language and could only kowtow to the cavalry in terror.
“I’m at fault.” Liu’er wailed hysterically. “Don’t kill me!”
The Biansha Cavalry coughed a couple of times and spat thick phlegm on Liu’er’s face. They smashed their scabbards down onto Liu’er’s back, making him sprawl in the mudhole and drink filthy water. Both of Liu’er’s long, drooping brows were lifted by the scimitars, and he drank that water in fear, crying and laughing as snot and tears soiled his face.
Jida stood where he was and watched as the cavalry amused themselves with Liu’er. He propped up a leg and kicked away the fabric cover of the mounted crossbow, then shouted for the men to drag Liu’er further away so that he could use Liu’er to test the crossbow.
Liu’er was scared out of his wits on hearing the sound of the mounted crossbow being shifted. He kneeled on the ground as they dragged him away, slapping himself with both hands while cursing.
Why the heck did he run?!
Liu’er slapped himself until his cheeks were red and swollen. They hoisted him up and hung him a distance away. Liu’er bent over at the waist and took in huge gasps of air as he watched the cavalry load the mounted crossbow with an arrow. That arrow was as thick as a child’s arm, and its arrowhead was unusual, with a rounded end cast out of iron. When they rained down from the sky, the impact could send one’s brain matter splattering all over. The wheel and axle started turning with a “click”. As long as Jida pulled the trigger, Liu’er would be able to see that arrow springing up high in the sky before hurtling down on himself.
Liu’er voicelessly moved his mouth. In an unexpected burst of courage, he bared his yellow-stained teeth and burst out cursing, “Fuck your ancestors! Fuck all of your ancestors!”
Tears streamed down Liu’er’s face as he choked with sobs so hard he looked as if he could breathe his last any time.
He used to be a bandit in the past too, but he was not alone. He had a son and daughters back at home, and his wonderful wife was his childhood sweetheart who had followed him out of the village. It was only when husband and wife were past their prime that they bore three children. Of them, two were daughters who had been matchmade in the third year of Xiande and would have been able to get married once winter that year passed. His son wanted to join the garrison troops, and Liu’er spent a long time buttering up to Lei Changming before he managed to send his son into the Duanzhou Garrison Troops.
But in the end, the entire Duanzhou Garrison Troops perished in the Chashi Sinkhole that year, the year the Biansha Cavalry came to massacre the city.
Credit to Tea for proofreading!
- 边鼓帽 biangu hat, a round hat with a brim with origins from the Yuan dynasty, commonly used by street youths, commoners, and servants. It was most popular in the reign of Emperor Jiajing of Ming Dynasty and commonly seen in the Qing dynasty.
Example of a mounted crossbow 床子弩. There are different kinds, like the triple-bowed mounted crossbows, etc.