Volume 5, Chapter 21: Troops Sally Forth from Hu Pass
Hu Pass was a formidable pass that guarded the strategic route of Baixing through the Taihang Mountains. From Zhenzhou, one was able to pass through Baixing to enter into Northern Han territory. Surrounded by mountains, Hu Pass was an important stronghold that controlled the entire Baixing. To the north was Mount Baigu and to the south was Mount Shuanglong. The pass was called the Jar Pass because it was wedged between the two mountains. Once Hu Pass fell, the Yong army could penetrate deep into the Northern Han hinterlands.
As the Yong army had split in two this time, the one responsible for attacking Hu Pass was Jing Chi. This time, he had brought thirty thousand horsemen and forty thousand troops of the Zhenzhou garrison, beginning a fierce assault upon Hu Pass starting on the fourteenth day of the third month. Hu Pass’s garrison commander, Liu Wanli, was a famous general. At the head of seven thousand troops, he stoutly defended the pass without withdrawing. After assailing the pass for eight days straight, the Yong army still found it difficult to conquer Hu Pass.
On the twenty-first day of the third month, Jing Chi urged his horse forward until he arrived at his command banner. With a frosty gaze, he looked upon the fortifications stained red with blood. Only his somewhat chapped lips revealed his inner anxiety. This time, his orders were clear. He had to breach the Hu Pass before marching upon Shangdang1 to reach Qinyuan and rendezvous with the Prince of Qi to pincer the main Northern Han army. The Northern Han army was heavily outnumbered and could only defend a number of key fortifications. As long as Hu Pass fell, there was only vast, undefended territory behind. However, even though Hu Pass had been assaulted for eight days straight, it remained towering over the Yong army without falling. Jing Chi felt like a fire blazed in his heart, itching to personally take the field. However, it was too much of a great waste to use cavalry to attack fortifications. The Prince of Qi’s intent was very clear—the Zhenzhou garrison was to attack the fortifications, while Jing Chi’s cavalry was to be used for the breakthrough and could not suffer heavy losses at Hu Pass.
Raising his eyes to look up at the sky, Jing Chi saw that the sun had already set behind Hu Pass, shining over the entire walls and towers a blood red light. He ferociously stated, “Recall the troops.” Afterwards, he spurred his horse and returned to camp. He had to think of a way. In at most two days, if he did not capture the pass, he had to set foot within the pass even if he had to personally lead the assault.
On the twenty-second day of the third month, the commander of the Zhenzhou garrison responsible for assaulting Hu Pass, Lin Ya, stood atop the three zhang2 tall command tower with a look of agitation. Over these days, countless numbers of battering rams, ballistae, siege ladders, and catapults had been destroyed. The land below the walls was in utter shambles. The moat had already been filled. The city gates had long been burned to a crisp by the oil used by the Yong army, but the passageway had been completely plugged with stones, bricks, and tree trunks by the Northern Han army. Lin Ya knew that if Jing Chi could capture the pass, it would adversely affect military plans.
It was unfortunate that Liu Wanli was cruel and malicious. When he learned that the Yong army was about to attack Hu Pass, he had levied all of the men in their primes from neighboring areas to help in the pass’s defense, forcing all of the levied men to monitor each other through collective punishment. Although Great Yong had a number of agents who infiltrated Hu Pass, they never had the opportunity to coordinate with the attackers outside of the pass. Were it not for the shrewdness of several of the agents to exploit the tossing of tree trunks and rocks to also pass messages, the Yong army likely would not know the real situation within the pass. Even so, the walls of Hu Pass were firm and the pass was protected on both sides by mountains. Liu Wanli had established strongholds on each mountain. With the three positions working in cooperation, the Yong army suffered heavy losses without success.
Today, Lin Ya had steeled his heart and dispatched the best of his soldiers and officers. As he watched, a siege ladder collapsed under the raging inferno and the blood of the brave Yong warriors was painted upon the façade of the walls of Hu Pass. Even though he was a veteran of a hundred battles,3 Lin Ya felt his temples throb, a raging fury rising.
Just as Lin Ya with directing the assault, he felt the wooden command tower under his feet begin to tremble. He could not help gazing below, and caught sight of Jing Chi climbing the tower. Jing Chi only wore a battle gown that did not cover his left shoulder with the rest billowing behind him. In Jing Chi’s hands was a war drum as tall as a man. Arriving atop the tower, Jing Chi set the war drum down and shouted in a loud voice, “Bring the drum mallets!”
One of Jing Chi’s personal troops who had followed Jing Chi up promptly handed over two drum mallets with red silk wrapped around their heads. With a loud cry, Jing Chi began to brandish the mallets, forcefully beating the war drums. The drumbeat resounded through the skies, almost like unending thunderclaps rumbling throughout the entire battlefield. After the Battle of Zezhou, Jing Chi had heard of how Jiang Zhe had beat the drums to assist the Yong army to a decisive victory and wished to copy Jiang Zhe’s example. During his leisurely period, Jiang Zhe had only taught Jing Chi for a few days. Although Jing Chi didn’t know anything about music, being an experienced soldier and a military commander, it boosted morale with its magnificence, boldness, and power even though the drumbeat he created did not have countless permutations.
Hearing the drumbeat, the Zhenzhou troops felt their blood surge. After learning that the one beating the drums was Jing Chi, the soldiers were both stirred and ashamed. Simultaneously, they shouted out, “We are attacking Hu Pass under orders to allow General Jing to invade Northern Han! However, we have battled bitterly without success, forcing General Jing to wait here painfully! Now that General Jing is personally beating the drums to cheer us on, if we cannot take Hu Pass, it will be impossible for us to lift our heads before General Jing! In addition, Zhenzhou’s reputation will have been completely lost by our failures!”
The Zhenzhou soldiers and officers mutually encouraged each other. This time, the assault was unstoppable. Hu Pass seemingly began to quake and waver under the drumbeat. In the sky, dark clouds gathered, almost as if the Heavens did not wish to see the bloody and brutal battle on the ground below.
Standing atop the walls, Liu Wanli’s entire face was covered with grime. His eyes were frigidly cold, because there were no reinforcements. The main Northern Han army was battling with Yong’s Zezhou troops; the only available troops were in Jinyang or Daizhou. However, the Jinyang troops could not be lightly moved. As for the Daizhou troops, Liu Wanli groaned. When Lin Yuanting had surrendered to Northern Han, he had come to an agreement with the Northern Han King. The Daizhou army would not leave the borders. On the one hand, this was likely to prevent the powerful Daizhou troops from affecting Northern Han’s political situation. However, Lin Yuanting had cheerfully agreed and proclaimed that the sole purpose of the Daizhou army was to protect the homeland, not for the sake of internecine strife. As a result, over these years, the Daizhou army had never stepped foot outside of Daizhou. Of course, the Daizhou army still marched out of Yanmen to attack the barbarian tribes.
As a result, Liu Wanli knew he could only rely upon his own troops to defend Hu Pass. However, after eight days, Liu Wanli knew that Hu Pass was on the verge of collapse, while the Yong army continued to attack without end. In this battle, he could not win and could only be defeated.
Liu Wanli’s deputy walked over. His lips were blistered and his voice hoarse, as he said, “General, the enemy is attacking again. This time, they have brought up four siege towers. They are truly determined to win.”
Liu Wanli gave a light sigh. The terrain before Hu Pass was narrow. Generally speaking, three siege towers were more than enough. With four siege towers, they would inevitably become too concentrated and increase the casualties. However, in addition, the pressure on the enemy would be quite high as well. A few days earlier, Yong had taken its time in the assault to the extent that they only used two siege towers. Heaving a deeper sigh, Liu Wanli said, “Set them on fire.”
The deputy commander voiced his assent, turning to issue the order. In order to hold out longer, Liu Wanli had already issued orders to wait for the enemy to close before retaliating. The four siege towers pushed the Yong troops to the walls. When the deputy commander issued the order, the Northern Han troops on the walls collected the firewood into bundles. After pouring oil on them, they were catapulted to the feet of the siege towers. Afterwards, fire arrows were loosed. The siege towers were immediately caught in raging infernos. With this, the Yong armies could not climb on top of the siege towers to shoot arrows into the pass.
At this moment, the Yong soldiers below the walls did not act normally and climb the siege towers. Instead, they forcibly pushed over the siege towers. In an instant, the four siege towers had toppled against the walls, creating an incline. Just then, bugle horns sounded. The Zhenzhou troops opened files and a squadron of five hundred horsemen galloped forward. Under their hooves, billowing dust was kicked up, dispersing the smoke and fire. Unexpectedly, the horses actually jumped onto the toppled siege towers and charged up onto the walls.
Liu Wanli loudly shouted, “Loose! Loose!” No longer using arrows sparingly, the Northern Han army began to desperately shoot at the charging Yong cavalry. At this moment, the general leading the cavalry charge began to laugh heartily as he arrived atop the walls. Two Northern Han soldiers were stampeded by hooves the size of saucers. The general brandished the lance in his hands, sending blood flying all around him. Afterwards, even more Yong soldiers arrived atop the walls.
Hu Pass is about to fall! thought Liu Wanli. Although he was on the verge of despair, the indomitable blood of Northern Han people was ignited. After secretly issuing orders, he personally led the Northern Han soldiers on the wall in a desperate effort to repel the attackers for a period before he shouted, “Retreat! Retreat! Allow them to climb the walls!”
At this moment, Liu Wanli’s face was stained with blood, almost as if he were a devil. Although the defenders on top of the wall were puzzled, they were all intimidated and unwittingly retreated. With this, the remaining four hundred Yong horsemen all ascended to the walls. However, just as they were celebrating, Liu Wanli shouted, “Loose the crossbows!”
A continuous string of crossbow mechanisms clunked and fifty to sixty bolts were shot into the gathered Yong cavalry. Almost every single bolt pierced a horse or a rider. Atop the narrow walls, the horsemen had no way of dispersing or dodging. The retreating Northern Han soldiers had revealed thirty crossbowmen armed with Divine Armed Bows. This crossbow was used to defend fortifications. Each bolt that it fired was four chi4 in length. Each time, the crossbow could fire two bolts. However, each crossbow required three soldiers to operate. Because of the crossbow’s enormous power, the bolts it fired were able to penetrate all armor within a hundred zhang.5 As a result, they were the most formidable prizes used to defend fortifications. Because these crossbows were easily damaged, Liu Wanli had held off from using them, hoping to employ them at the most desperate moment to catch the enemy off guard and seize the advantage. Since it was a matter of life and death right now, Liu Wanli had allowed the Yong cavalry to mount the walls while he secretly marshaled crossbowmen.
Now, the crossbows were showing their awesome power. After three volleys, the Yong horsemen had suffered disastrous losses. At this moment, the Northern Han defenders seized the opportunity to surround the surviving Yong horsemen. At the same time, they poured boiling oil down onto the toppled siege towers, forcing the Zhenzhou foot soldiers to retreat. Finally, the toppled siege towers were ignited and burned to ash. With this, the tens of thousands of Yong troops below the walls could only watch as the cavalry that had mounted the gates were surrounded and annihilated, making all of them feel brokenhearted. As the sounds of battle gradually diminished atop the walls, a hoarse and reverberating voice sang in a loud voice from above:
“Grasping spears, armor sharp,
Our troops are few and chariots broken.
The enemy’s banners hide the sun like the clouds
And arrows fall as soldiers fight.
I walk over the fallen, the left flank dead,
The right flank wounded; and in the dust,
The chariot wheels and mangled horses
Mix with striking drums.A hateful fate—”6