Translated with: Jia<3
Xiao Chiye’s communications with Duanzhou were completely cut off three days after he left Zhongbo. They vanished in the snow after Achi’s return in resounding victory. Tantai Hu’s scouts could no longer find any traces of him. This squad of vanguards seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
The Biansha Cavalry had set up a perimeter to the west of the Chashi River, and this squad of vanguards had walked into the encirclement trap, where they were hemmed in by Achi at the Chashi River. Tantai Hu had no way of searching the battlefields, but even as he waited anxiously, he had to deliver the news truthfully to Dajing and Cizhou.
If something untoward had happened to Xiao Chiye, then Wu Ziyu would have to immediately notify Guo Weili of the Shasan Camp. They had to head down south to block off access from the opening that was Mount Luo. Otherwise, the consequences would be unimaginable.
Shen Zechuan did not take the horse carriage, but rode on Feng Ta Shuang Yi instead. When he arrived at Mount Luo, it was already late at night. Wu Ziyu trotted out to receive him and saw no expression on the Prefectural Lord’s frozen blue face.
“Your Lordship.” Not daring to engage in idle chatter, Wu Ziyu cut to the chase and followed Shen Zechuan into the campground. “The encirclement is located in the southeast of Duanzhou. It’s mainly to stop Tantai Hu, who is still in the west, from proceeding further, and to deprive us of the chance to snoop around. For this reason, Second Master must still be in the southeast.”
Shen Zechuan stood at the entrance of the camp, his shoulders covered in snow. “Who are the Attendant Officers tagging along?”
“Gu Jin, Yin Chang, and Hairigu,” Wu Ziyu answered. “Second Master only had Tantai Hu stay put.”
“Master,” Fei Sheng spoke up behind him. “Why not let the Imperial Bodyguards hurry over to Tantai Hu’s camp? We can serve as scouts. By tomorrow night…”
Shen Zechuan had already turned around. He got on his horse once more and said to Wu Ziyu, “Write a letter to Yu Xiaozai and Kong Ling. Tell them to seal off all the Zhongbo’s bridle paths heading west right now and have all the merchants traveling to the mutual trade market take a detour from Cizhou.”
Yan Heru had just gotten off the carriage. His backside had not even gotten comfortable when he heard Shen Zechuan’s words. He still wanted to do business with Fanzhou and Dengzhou, especially now that these two places were suffering from a shortage of grains and clothing! Thus, he hurriedly ran a few steps after the horse and lifted his head to say, “Your Lordship, come on, let’s discuss this. Can the grains from Hezhou to the two prefectures still be allowed access? If so, why not…”
“Sure.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes were thin and icy. He bent down and patted Yan Heru’s cheek with the horsewhip. “But only grains. If your company of merchants dares to smuggle anything else other than grains to the east of Zhongbo before I give my approval, I will hang your head up at the city gate tower of Hezhou.”
The remaining bandits in the two prefectures of Fanzhou and Dengzhou had yet to be completely eradicated. So who knows if Yan Heru would play tricks again? Shen Zechuan was too preoccupied now to watch Yan Heru, but he had ways to make Yan Heru behave himself and stay put.
Yan Heru did not dare to move. He meekly swallowed his saliva, not even daring to blink his eyes. It was only after Shen Zechuan turned his horse around that Yan Heru realized his legs were trembling.
◈ ◈ ◈
The saker falcon soared through the dancing snow and wandered around the banks of the Chashi River. The sky at the hour of you was dark and dreary, and the snow looked more like crushed grains of rice the closer they got to the ground. It felt uncomfortable to have them sticking to one’s temples. The Gobi desert stretched on endlessly into the horizon. Bayin, from where he sat on horseback with a book under his arm, looked out into the distance before him.
“There will be a snowstorm tonight.” Bayin muttered in the Biansha tongue.
The world was presently a picture of frozen landscape. Bayin could not bear the cold even when he was all bundled up in fur. Yet, Achi was squatting on the Chashi River washing his face with water from the hole cut in the ice. He rubbed his fingers clean, staining the water bloody red.
“I’ll send you across the river tonight.” Achi’s right arm had a scorpion tattooed on it. His face, which was as dark as Bayin’s, appeared a little good-natured.
Bayin was the brains by Hasen’s side. He initially worked under Huhelu, but was now transferred over to Achi’s side to observe the Duanzhou battle. He was the eyes Hasen put here.
Seven days ago, Xiao Chiye arrived at Duanzhou. Their siege on the city was unsuccessful. The Biansha Cavalry had already learned to use the weapons from within the city of Duanzhou itself. With the advantage they had from their occupation of the city, they left Xiao Chiye out in the cold outside the city gates to wear him down. Three days ago, Xiao Chiye launched a surprise attack, and Achi left the city to give chase. He chased them down near the Chashi River, where he annihilated the left flank squad of the Libei Armored Cavalry.
Bayin turned his head back and said to Achi, “Perhaps I should stay for a few more days.”
“Hasen needs you.” Achi stood up and lifted the Libei head in his arms as he said to the Scorpions on the bank of the river, “The Libei Armored Cavalry is already at the end of their tether. This pack of wolves is helpless against us. Last night is the proof. They can’t withstand a single blow just like they couldn’t before the new year.”
Achi threw away the head in his hand.
“The Armored Cavalry is no longer our medal of honor—they are not worthy.”
The Scorpions, who were mingling among the cavalry, followed Achi’s lead and boo-ed as they threw away the heads at the side of their horses. They were collecting the helmets of the Libei Armored Cavalry, using them as nighttime chamber pots in the wilderness.
Achi turned to Bayin. “We are elites of the Scorpions. It’s not a good idea for the Hero to put us in Zhongbo. If I kill Xiao Chiye, you have to tell Hasen to transfer me back to the northern battlefields. That is where I should be.”
This unit was the elites Amu’er left in Duanzhou. Achi was the leader of the Black Scorpions, having taken Hairigu’s place. After Jida’s death, he became the undisputed despot of Duanzhou. He wanted to obtain lands, and so he had to think of ways to render meritorious military service. For this reason, he was already displeased with Amu’er’s arrangement to leave him in Duanzhou.
“You are all the natural enemy of the wolf pack.” Bayin placated Achi. “The Hero naturally has his own considerations for his arrangements.”
“His arrangement is to make me clear out the position for Hasen.” The expression in Achi’s eyes was gloomy. “Hasen stole the credit from the Scorpions.”
Bayin did not have the numbers and strength to back him up, so he could not start a dispute with Achi here. He swallowed his frustration and watched as Achi got up his horse and stepped onto the frozen ice surface of the Chashi River with the Scorpions.
The Chashi River would freeze over in winter, and the layer of ice was strong and solid enough to bear the weight of the Biansha Cavalry. They liked to pass through the territory during winter in the past, as this would allow them to cross the Chashi River without having to take a long detour. The “slender waist” of the Chashi River was close to Gedale. If they moved fast, they would be able to arrive in one night.
The snow started to intensify. Worried that his book would get wet, Bayin kept it back in his leather bag. He wore a leather hat and a fur collar that covered his nose and mouth tightly, but even so, it was still so freezing cold that his exposed ears turned red.
“Spring had better come soon.” Achi’s horse trotted beside Bayin. “Many people in Gedale have died of starvation this winter. They gave all the grains they grew to the northern battlefields.”
“This battle is a must for Biansha’s transformation into a lion.1 We have too few fields.” Bayin said in a muffled voice. “There is no extra land in the desert to grow food. It’s only by attacking our way west that we can survive. Zhongbo is a good place… you actually don’t have to hate it that much.”
“If my unit puts down their iron hammers, they will once again be reduced to being slaves of the various tribes.” The iron hammer at the side of Achi’s horse was stained with blood all over. He shook his head. “We will not till the land.”
As the Scorpions’ leader, Achi had once negotiated with Amu’er. The Scorpions wanted lands and names. It would be best if they could be merged into the Twelve Tribes and not serve as slaves. But Amu’er rejected him. He required the Scorpions to completely crush the Libei Armored Cavalry in this battle, and it was only when Libei fell would he consider Achi’s suggestion.
Bayin was merely part of Hasen’s retinue and could not question the Hero, Amu’er, but he understood Amu’er’s intent. Amu’er was unwilling to give the Scorpions names because he wanted to hold them captive in his hands. Only then would these homeless bastards truly put in their best efforts.
The troops walked on the ice for four hours, and the snowstorm obscured the directions in the night. Achi came next to the route markers the Biansha Cavalry left behind and did not immediately stop. He wanted to escort Bayin to the opposite bank as soon as possible, then head back to annihilate the remaining Libei Armored Cavalry and clean up the Duanzhou battlefield.
Xiao Chiye was a nobody, but he was a wolf pup through and through. It was to the regret of Biansha that Hasen did not bring back Xiao Fangxu’s head. Achi had his eyes locked on Xiao Chiye. He wanted to use Xiao Chiye’s head to negotiate with Amu’er again. They attacked Libei relentlessly and without reservations, for they were already fed up with the stalemate in the northern battlefields.
Bayin lifted his fur collar and drank a couple mouthfuls of water. The wind and snow blew so hard that he could not open his eyes. As he attempted to cover himself, he shouted at Achi. “Let’s stop for now and rest here. The snow is too heavy!”
The saker falcon was unable to continue flying and had already landed on its master’s shoulder. The wind blew the snow on the ice into slopes, which gave off creaking sounds with every step taken. Achi dismounted to scout the path ahead. He swept off ice that had formed on the route markers, only to discover footprints before him.
Given how intense the snow was, there could only be two reasons why there could still be tracks left behind. The first was that they were too heavy and had compacted the ice underneath; the second was that the other party had left not too long ago and was very likely standing right next to them across the curtain of snow.
“The wolf is here,” Achi estimated the depth of the footprint with his fingers, then lifted his head to shout, “the armored cavalry has been here!”
Bayin waded through the thick snow, huffing and puffing as he kneeled and lay in front of the footprints. “But they were heading west. That’s the way back to Zhongbo.”
These footprints were all facing the direction that they had come from.
“Three days ago, you took out the left flank of the Libei Armored Cavalry.” Bayin looked towards Achi. “But their vanguards aren’t dead yet. It is very likely that Xiao Chiye led them to escape their way onto the frozen Chashi river. They’re looking for the way back.”
“It could also be a cover-up.” Achi prodded at the snow. “They could have walked backward so that they would be able to hide ahead of me and set up an ambush.”
Bayin shook his head lightly, frowning as he watched the snow. “It doesn’t benefit them to head east. That’s where our territory lies.”
Achi swiftly swept aside the snow along the footprints and saw that these footprints were all heading westward. He knew how Xiao Chiye had taken Huhelu out of the picture. In his heart, this person was adept at bluffs and ambushes; the more obvious the footprints were, the more he was certain that Xiao Chiye was right in front of them.
“We’ll take a detour.” Achi got to his feet. “Even if Xiao Chiye stays on the ice, he can’t go without water to drink. They will definitely leave traces behind. We’ll go after them by following their tracks.”
Bayin thought it was not the opportune time tonight to cross swords with the Libei Armored Cavalry. He chased after Achi. “If we can’t stop here to rest, we should still continue to head east. Achi, Dazhou has a saying, ‘do not pursue a beaten enemy too far’.2 Don’t get led astray by them. Let’s return to Gedale first before making our plans.”
Achi shoved Bayin aside, exposing the scorpion on his right arm. His eyes were filled with murderous intent as he said, “the wolves are right here in this heavy snow. If we let them go, it will not bode well for us. You have absolutely no idea how to fight a war at all. By letting Xiao Chiye remain on the Chashi river, our unit could end up getting ambushed by him tomorrow morning!”
As Bayin watched Achi mount his horse, he reached the end of his forbearance and could not help but shout out, “I once advised Huhelu, but he didn’t listen to me. In the end, he didn’t even leave a corpse behind!”
“Was this how you advised Hasen?” Achi turned his horse around and spat with contempt, “So that was why he lost the King of Wolf’s head; it was all to preserve his own life.”
Having said that, Achi cracked his horsewhip and headed southeast.
“Achi!” Bayin chased a few steps after him, then spat hard and cursed under his breath. “Bastard, you won’t be able to tell the directions once you veer away from the route markers!”
Achi galloped among the snow without turning back. If he could not find his way around, then neither could Xiao Chiye. But he was more familiar with the Chashi river than Xiao Chiye was.
The wolf was close by.
And Achi was going to catch him.
Credits: Thanks to mimi for pointing out the typo! <3