Volume 5, Chapter 25: Incinerating the Qin River
When the Yong army retreated in defeat, they blocked the river with an iron chain to hinder the Northern Han navy. The terrain of the mountainous regions made it difficult to attack and defend. The two armies battled for control over the valley for two days, fighting to a stalemate.
On the first day of the fourth month, Long Tingfei commanded his subordinate, General Duan, to pour petroleum onto the river and burn it. The Yong army retreated in defeat with countless casualties. Over the next thirty years, not a blade of grass grew in this mountainous area, the river void of life.—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three
In the early morning of the thirtieth day of the third month, Li Xian walked out of his tent. Although spring had already arrived, the morning temperature was still quite low and the breeze from the river was quite chilly. Because cold concentrated on the Qin River, a fog formed. Li Xian racked his brains. Nearly ten thousand troops could be hidden within this valley and was the closest position to where the Northern Han army had encamped outside of the valley. Last night, the Yong army had set up camp in over a dozen similar valleys along the banks of the Qin River. Starting today, they would slowly retreat with infantry support. The valleys in this area were not ideal locations to repel enemy attacks. Although it was very worthwhile to use infantry to defend against Northern Han cavalry, Li Xian never liked to make such sacrifices when there wasn’t any chance of victory.
As a result, in Li Xian’s view, retreat was the only option. Moreover, who knew if Northern Han would think of a way to attack? After all, these valleys also restricted the movements of the Yong army’s cavalry. Most importantly, in order to attain victory, the Yong army could not remain entrenched here. It was only that the timing of the retreat needed to be inspired and ensure that the Northern Han army could not detect that the Yong army did not intend to defend the valley. Of course, there also needed to be as few casualties as possible.
As he pondered how to deal with the military situation before him, Li Xian walked towards a nearby tent that was Xuan Song’s. Li Xian was extremely angry as he thought. Because everything was so hectic yesterday, he had only heard that Jiang Zhe had departed beforehand and had no opportunity to question further. Today, he intended to thoroughly question Xuan Song on how that fellow had fled before battle approached.
Pulling open the flaps to Xuan Song’s tent, Li Xian discovered that there was no one inside. Xuan Song had presumably gone to arrange the defenses. Li Xian did not pay much attention to this. Without consulting anyone, Xuan Song walked inside. As befitting of a ranking general, Xuan Song’s tent was quite cozy, divided between the inner and outer sections by heavy curtains. Within the inner section was a standard military bed. In the outer section were a table and a chair. The ground was covered by a thick felt carpet.
Li Xian sat down in the chair, beginning to consider how they would be able to retreat tidily and nimbly. At this moment, he heard footsteps outside the tent. One set was neither hurried nor slow instead clear and melodious, while the other was like a prancing tiger or dragon, heavy and powerful. Li Xian could hear that the two were walking side by side. Without having to see them, Li Xian knew that Xuan Song and Jing Chi had come together. Both of them were the emperor’s trusted lieutenants and had been colleagues for years. Presumably, they had a lot of catching up to do. There was no harm in him eavesdropping on their private conversation, right?
Having made his decision, Li Xian lifted the heavy curtain and walked into the inner section of the tent. Just as he hid his figure behind the curtains, Jing Chi pulled open the flaps to the tent. With large strides Jing Chi entered the tent and without leave sat down next to the desk. Picking up the teapot on the desk, he poured a large cup of green tea before downing the cup in one gulp. Xuan Song followed Jing Chi inside. Seeing this scene, he shook his head and said, “General is still fond of gulping. What a pity for this top-quality tea that is offered as tribute to the Emperor. This is excellent tea that I won from the Army Supervisor daren by playing weiqi!”
Hearing the words “army supervisor daren” Jing Chi immediately spewed all of the tea he had drunk. He burst out into laughter and replied, “So this was won playing weiqi. If so, then this was easily won. In those days, everyone within the residence of the Marshal of Heavenly Strategies knew that, although Sir Jiang’s talents were exceptional, he had mediocre skills at weiqi. On one occasion when he lost especially miserably, he recited a poem entitled Seven Absolutes to politely refuse to play weiqi. Even though I’m a coarse fellow, I still remember the poem. It went like this, ‘All things in life involve emotion, its norm declined like each successive game of weiqi. Not out of fear of difficulty do I willingly sit with hands folded, but hating that black and white are too distinct.’”1
Hearing this poem, Li Xian nearly burst out into laughter. Li Xian was well aware of the story behind the poem, to the extent that he knew the only reason Jing Chi remembered this poem was because Jing Chi was attending to Jiang Zhe on that day. At the time, Jing Chi could not help mocking Jiang Zhe and had been punished to copy this poem a hundred times. In the past, although the security of the prince’s residence was tight, the Fengyi Sect still had some spies within the residence. Li Xian had heard the story from Qin Zheng. However, afterwards, the security within the Prince of Yong’s residence became increasingly tight. Toward the end, it was extremely difficult to acquire any useful intelligence.
Xuan Song naturally did not know these personal details. Instead, he sighed deeply, “The Marquis of Chu has an amiable temperament, caring not for fame and fortune.2 And yet, his dedication is unquestioned as he strives his utmost. In the past, I heard Jiang daren had fallen seriously ill before out of exhaustion. Originally, I treated it as merely a story. However, I found this was not the case yesterday. Yesterday, before he departed, Jiang daren practically could not get into his carriage of his own will. Presumably his exhaustion has reached the extremes. We can only spare no effort to complete the plan that Jiang daren has prepared, otherwise we will betray His Imperial Majesty’s benevolence and Jiang daren’s painstaking efforts.”
Hearing this, Li Xian trembled. During the coup attempt at the Hunting Palace, he had personally witnessed Jiang Zhe’s emaciated figure within the Dawn’s Frost Palace Hall. On that day, Jiang Zhe seemed to be gravely ill to his bones, his temples streaked with frost, as if on the verge of death. When he saw Jiang Zhe again in the Eastern Sea, although Jiang Zhe had recovered his health, Li Xian still felt sorrow when he saw Jiang Zhe’s gray hair and frosted temples.
These days, although Jiang Zhe seemed relaxed on the surface, Li Xian knew that Jiang Zhe would frequently stay awake into the wee hours of the morning to read over the assorted intelligence reports and had personally made many seemingly unfathomable arrangements. However, Li Xian was well aware of Jiang Zhe’s skill when it came to planning and naturally did not think that Jiang Zhe was messing around. Yesterday, when he heard that Jiang Zhe had retreated in advance, Li Xian only had some slight resentment. After all, he knew that Jiang Zhe’s body probably couldn’t bear the difficulties of retreat. As a result, Li Xian had not really gotten angry.
Now, hearing how poor Jiang Zhe’s health had gotten before his departure, Li Xian could not help feeling apprehensive. If Jiang Zhe suffered a relapse, what then? Not only would was his own mind restless, he couldn’t explain the situation to either the emperor or Princess Changle.
With his mind a mess, Li Xian’s breathing deepened. When he heard about Jiang Zhe’s condition, Jing Chi originally also frowned deeply. However, when he heard breathing within, he was startled. Dropping his hand to the hilt of his saber, he yelled questioningly, “Who is inside? Why are you eavesdropping?”
As a scholarly general, Xuan Song’s martial arts were poor. Hearing Jing Chi’s yell, he immediately rose and moved towards the flaps of the tent. If there really were an assassin or spy present, then Xuan Song naturally did not want to be a burden to Jing Chi and make it difficult for him to fight freely. Under Xuan Song’s gaze, the curtains to the inner section of the tent were pulled aside and Li Xian walked out. The prince’s face was icy, as he dimly said, “General Xuan, immediately reorganize our army’s baggage train and begin to retreat according to the plan. This Prince is not in the mood to dilly-dally with Northern Han.”
Xuan Song and Jing Chi were both startled. However, seeing the prince’s low spirits and with their position as subordinates, they could not criticize His Imperial Highness for eavesdropping. After immediately voicing their assent, they departed to make the proper arrangements. The original plan called for the Yong army to defend this area for a few days before retreating en masse. Right now though, the Prince of Qi wanted to make changes to the plan. Feeling that the impact wouldn’t be too big, Xuan Song did not speak up.
By this time, the sun had risen high up into the sky. In the mouth of the valley ahead, the Northern Han army had already begun to challenge the Yong army. In order to prevent the Yong army from becoming suspicious, the Northern Han army had repeatedly sought battle and had built siege weapons. As a result, they did not reveal any openings. Under ordinary circumstances, Li Xian would probably personally go to battle to confront the enemy. However, once he heard the news that Jiang Zhe had fallen ill, he had become depressed and was disinclined to go to battle, only having Jing Chi lead troops to face the enemy.
Within the Northern Han formation, Long Tingfei and Lin Bi sat on their horses that stood side by side, gazing at the confrontation raging at the mouth of the valley with looks of frustration. After a good while, Long Tingfei sadly remarked, “After being defeated yesterday, the Yong army used only one night to completely recover their spirits and aura. Our army falls short in the face of the unyielding resolution of the Yong army.”
Feeling the same way, Lin Bi replied, “At present, Great Yong has an enlightened monarch above and capable generals below. Their officers and soldiers obey orders and are willing to sacrifice their lives. It is a pity that even though Northern Han occupies a corner of the world, although united, we are not as strong as we wish.”
“Sister Bi, there is no need to be like this,” returned Long Tingfei with a smile. “Once we have captured or killed Li Xian, the losses suffered by Great Yong will be disastrous. For many years, they won’t have any way of invading Qinzhou. When the time comes, we can use diplomacy and ally with Southern Chu and Hanzhong. At that point, Great Yong will only be a shadow of its former self.”
Lin Bi smiled slightly. She knew that Long Tingfei was only consoling her. It wouldn’t be so easy for Great Yong to collapse. In addition, she was growing increasingly worried. Leading these Daizhou troops out, she had promised her father and elder brothers that she would return to Daizhou before the twelfth day of the fourth month. How could she not worry? With the barbarians stirring restlessly and Daizhou possessing only ten thousand troops—although the people of Daizhou slept with weapons under their pillows—her two elder brothers were both valiant generals but not capable commanders-in-chief, and her father was bedridden.
While the battle at the mouth of the valley raged, one of Jing Chi’s youthful deputies was especially brave and fearless. He repeatedly broke into the Northern Han formation, undaunted by all perils, before returning to the Yong army to cheers. Long Tingfei frowned. Just as he was about to dispatch someone to chop the enemy deputy down, Xiao Tong hurriedly rushed over. In a low voice, Xiao Tong reported, “General, allow the Lu brothers to go into battle. That deputy is one of our people. He definitely has urgent news to pass along.”
Long Tingfei’s expression shifted as he loudly shouted, “Boyan, Zhongtian, Shuhan, lead some troops over. You must definitely capture or kill that deputy general!”
The three Lu brothers was already impatient to enter battle. They promptly and simultaneously assented. By this point, Xiao Tong had long since retreated to the side and spoken a few instructions to Lu Shuhan. A cold gleam flashed across Lu Shuhan’s eyes before he followed his two elder brothers into battle.
Very quickly, the three Lu brothers had charged to the fore. Lu Boyan and Lu Zhongtian personally led troops to directly confront the charging Jing Chi. Lu Shuhan, either intentionally or otherwise, led troops to head off the deputy general. Both sides knew that the Northern Han army was taking this opportunity to establish their might. As such, no one found this strange.
Raising his lance, the deputy general charged forward. Borrowing his horse’s power, he seemed unstoppable. However, Lu Shuhan was a fierce general not inferior to the now deceased Vanguard General Su Dingluan. Smiling coldly, Lu Shuhan swung his lance, causing the deputy general to let out a cry of alarm as he lost hold of his weapon. Lu Shuhan gave a harsh shout, sweeping his lance, just enough to strike the deputy general’s ribs and knock him to the ground. However, the deputy did not concede defeat. Even though he had fallen off his horse, the deputy general jumped up.
Lu Shuhan stabbed forward with his lance. Right as the lance was about to pierce the deputy general’s throat, the deputy general flipped into the air. Lu Shuhan’s lance brushed past the deputy’s cheek before stabbing into the soil. Unable to remain standing, the deputy general collapsed to the ground. However, the deputy threw his hand up and a deadly sharp throwing knife shot out like a flying meteor towards Lu Shuhan’s face. Unable to dodge in time, Lu Shuhan opened his mouth before biting down, catching the throwing knife with his teeth. In this split second, the deputy general was rescued by the onrushing Yong soldiers.
Even though the two armies fought chaotically and there was hand-to-hand combat everywhere, this neat and tidy confrontation was clearly observed by all. Both sides were full of iron-blooded men and deeply respected warriors. Besides, Lu Shuhan’s attack was fierce, while the deputy general’s response was vigorous and nimble akin to a wily fox. Although the deputy was defeated, he had not lost too much face. As a result, both armies belted shouts of acclaim. At this moment, the Northern Han army had retrieved its prestige.
Having battled for some time and seeing that the sun was reaching its zenith, both sides beat the gongs to sound the retreat. Consequently, both armies slowly retreated. Back in the Northern Han encampment, after the generals had been dismissed, Lu Shuhan handed the throwing knife to Xiao Tong. Xiao Tong gently rotated the handle of the knife. The knife’s handle was hollow. Within was a rolled piece of paper. Upon it was written in small characters:
There are rumors in the army that the Marquis of Chu has suffered a relapse and has already returned to Zezhou. The Prince of Qi is determined to retreat ahead of schedule, starting this afternoon.
Finished reading the intelligence, Long Tingfei’s anxiety was replaced with joy. He silently handed the paper to Lin Bi, while his hand lightly rapped the desk, appearing to fall deep into thought. After a good while, Lin Bi lifted her head and said, “If it is true that the Marquis of Chu has fallen ill, then this is the best opportunity. The relationship between the Yong Emperor and the Prince of Qi relies upon this man for reconciliation. If the Marquis of Chu is bedridden, the Prince of Qi will definitely be worried at this moment, making him expedite the retreat. With this, the Yong army’s morale will inevitably become restless and they will be hasty in its retreat, increasing the ease with which we will prevail.”
Frowning, Long Tingfei replied, “However, it is difficult to determine the veracity of this matter. In addition, if the Yong army expedites its retreat, the effects of our fire ploy will be greatly reduced. Xiao Tong, what do you think about this report? Is it the truth?”
Xiao Tong respectfully and solemnly answered, “That man is a collateral disciple of our Devil Sect. He hails from Northern Han. His parents and relatives are all in Jinyang. Two years ago, when our army plundered Zezhou, we massacred a village. This subordinate commanded him to replace one of the slaughtered villagers. Over the last two years, this secret piece has never been utilized. That is why this subordinate absolutely believes that the man’s identity has never been discovered. In addition, although the intelligence that he risked his life to send back is of the utmost importance, it isn’t detailed. This is in keeping with his identity. Jing Chi only rendezvoused with the main Yong army yesterday. It is impossible for that man to know anything detailed. He is intelligent and courageous. If he cannot determine the veracity of the information, he will definitely not take such risks.”
Both Long Tingfei and Lin Bi silently nodded their heads. The two exchanged a look, having come to a decision. Rising, Long Tingfei stated, “Relay orders to Wudi. Although not all of the petroleum has been delivered, we can’t wait any longer. Tonight, begin the fire attack. Afterwards, when we are pursuing the Yong army, there is no harm in disseminating the rumor that the Marquis of Chu has deliberately set the Prince of Qi up for defeat and now has fled before the battle has erupted. When the time comes, the Yong army’s morale will definitely collapse. Perhaps Li Xian has these same thoughts.”
In the deep of night, atop the Qin River, over a thousand Northern Han troops in dark-colored garb softly and quietly poured barrel after barrel of petroleum into the Qin River. In the dark of night, without the light of the moon and the stars, the serene Qin River was covered by a thick layer of petroleum that began to flow downriver. Not in the least was the Yong army within the valley alerted.
Standing on the shore, both Long Tingfei and Lin Bi wore solemn expressions. According to their estimates, a third of the Yong army had already retreated during the day. If they were unfortunate enough to have the petroleum be discovered by the Yong patrols, then the chance of victory would be even smaller.
Approaching the two, Duan Wudi softly stated, “Based on the speed of the flow, the petroleum should extend thirty li around the fourth watch.3 Princess, Grand General, when should we ignite the fire?”
Lin Bi slightly nodded her head before sighing lightly. Although she was decisive when it came to battles in Daizhou, the majority of the fighting was hand-to-hand carnage. She had never used this kind of method to incinerate a body of water. As a result, she unavoidably felt a bit of apprehension. After all, the heroes of Daizhou were fondest of direct and honest confrontations.
Long Tingfei looked calm as he replied, “Excellent. I hope that this fire will be able to incinerate the Yong army’s courage and confidence.”
Within the valley, the Yong commander’s tent was brightly illuminated. Today, under Li Xian’s insistence, twenty thousand foot soldiers and over ten thousand horsemen had withdrawn. Li Xian, Jing Chi, and Xuan Song were discussing the continued retreat throughout the night. As a result, even though it was late at night, they had yet to retire. They were completely unaware of the hidden, grave danger that stemmed from the Qin River. The river’s current was swift. Since the wind followed the river downstream and because the petroleum had been processed, no acrid scent assailed one’s nostrils. As a result, no one discovered the hidden crisis.
During the third watch,4 hardly any sound could be heard from the Yong encampment. Aside from the troops defending the mouth of the valley out of fear that the Northern Han army would launch a nighttime raid, everyone else was fast asleep. At this moment, two individuals walked out of a small tent. Both of them were in azure armor. However, from the nearby torchlight, it could be seen that the two had delicate appearances. They were actually two women. These two were Su Qing and her trusted maid, Ruyue.
Having experienced countless death-defying experiences, Su Qing was capable of handling any crises. Although it was mostly based upon her martial arts and resourcefulness, there was another aspect on which no one could match—her sensitivity to danger. Su Qing could notice some things even if they had yet to happen and no indications had been revealed. Although they were frequently only uneasy feelings and even palpitations of her heart, they were nearly always efficacious. This was the key reason behind her ability to move unhindered throughout Northern Han as a woman.
Tonight, in the deep of night, she had been startled awake by a nightmare. After she had climbed out of bed, Su Qing discovered that she was soaked with cold sweat. Consequently, she immediately roused Ruyue. Donning her armor, she walked out of her tent. Although she could not sound the alarm based on her own mood, she could as the least still investigate to see if there was anything off.
Su Qing walked slowly through the encampment. The patrolling soldiers that ran into her all bowed in salute, while Su Qing returned their courtesy one by one. However, her mind had flown off elsewhere and she single-mindedly checked the entire encampment, hoping to find traces of what was giving her such ominous feelings. But all she could discover was the heavy atmosphere and silence. Gradually, Su Qing began to grow fretful and she turned to walk toward the Qin River.
In the darkness, she decided to sit beside the river to listen to the blubbering of the water. This was probably the best way to clear her mind. Reaching the bank of the river, Su Qing took a deep breath. The ice-cold air was inhaled into her lungs. Suddenly, Su Qing frowned. There was a faint and familiar scent in the air that was bitingly pungent to the nose. A frosty gleam suddenly appeared in her eyes and her eyes flicked about, gradually falling on the surface of the river.
Su Qing’s face suddenly became terrible. Without needing to think, she turned and walked toward the commander’s tent. She knew that she needed to remain calm and not disturb the entire encampment, or else the encampment would suffer the danger of a massive explosion.
The lights in the Prince of Qi’s tent had already been extinguished. Arriving outside, Su Qing saw that the one on guard was one of the Prince of Qi’s trusted bodyguards, Zhuang Jun. She hurriedly walked over and whispered, “Is His Imperial Highness here? This general has an urgent military matter to report.”
Astonishment glinted in Zhuang Jun’s eyes, not understanding why Su Qing’s expression was so grave. However, he knew that Su Qing was an excellent scout. As a result, he quickly rushed into the tent. It wasn’t long before the Prince of Qi walked out with a battle gown draped around his shoulders. The torchlight shone on Su Qing’s face. Her beautiful complexion was as pale as snow.
After hearing Su Qing make her report, raging flames flared in Li Xian’s eyes and he immediately sent orders down the chain of command. The entire Yong army immediately began to retreat. Although they did not when the Northern Han would light the river on fire, Su Qing was well aware that the smoke from such a fire was poisonous. Even if they fled into the valleys beside the river, it would be impossible to escape. Moreover, once the Northern Han army began to attack, it would likely be a turkey shoot,5 killing everyone in this dangerous location. Therefore, regardless of how, the only chance was running. Fortunately, during these last two days, no one in the Yong army took off their armor nor removed saddles from their horses. As a result, in only an hour, the entire army was ready to move. The fastest group had already begun to move.
Li Xian gazed at the puzzled looks on the faces of the infantry. It was extremely difficult for them to escape in time. Originally, they had been retained for defensive purposes and to ensure that the Northern Han army did not discover the hidden intentions behind the retreat. However, these brave men would now have to die in a humiliating fashion here. Although Li Xian did not know when the Northern Han army would act, he knew that it would be extremely difficult for these foot soldiers to escape the valley before daybreak, as the road was too narrow. But Li Xian knew that he could not reveal what was actually happening. If these soldiers were to learn that they had fallen into a desperate situation, chaos would likely ensue. When the time came, the Northern Han army would be alerted. If that happened, nobody would be able to escape.
Steeling his heart, Li Xian ordered, “Xuan Song, send someone to lead them to wait at the mouth of the valley. Simply say to raid the Northern Han encampment when dawn breaks. When the fire erupts, have them led out of the valley and attack the Northern Han army. Select someone who is ready to meet death.”
Though he felt sorrow at heart, Xuan Song knew that this was the only way. Stepping forward, he saluted and stated, “Your Imperial Highness, this general has led these soldiers for many days now. It would be best if this general personally commands them to sally forth and ensures that there isn’t any mistake in the timing and they are sacrificed sensibly.”
Li Xian angrily replied, “Nonsense! You are a ranking general within the army. This Prince is about to rely heavily upon you. How can you take on this suicidal task?”
Xuan Song answered, “Your Imperial Highness relies heavily upon this general only for the sake of stopping Northern Han’s pursuing troops. Your Imperial Highness has always been an expert at retreat. This general’s existence isn’t necessary. Contrary to what might be expected, future bloody battles with the Northern Han army will necessitate fierce generals like General Jing. In addition, if there is no ranking general to bring up the rear, something will likely happen to the army’s morale. This general is the most suitable candidate. Besides, the miscalculation this time was all because this general failed to detect the enemy’s plot. This general should stay behind to compensate for my failures.”
Hearing this, Li Xian found it difficult to endure the distress he was feeling. However, he was well aware that if a ranking general like Xuan Song did not bring up the rear, the rearguard would definitely collapse. Lament shone in his eyes, as he softly replied, “All right. Jing Chi, let’s go.”
Finished speaking, Li Xian mounted his horse. Without turning, he spurred his horse and galloped forward. Hesitating momentarily, Jing Chi could only follow him. Knowledge of the enemy’s intent to use fire was limited to the Prince of Qi and a small cadre of generals. As a result, there wasn’t the slightest bit of disorder within the Yong army’s ranks; they only knew that the Prince of Qi had decided to retreat that very night.
After spurring his horse for a distance, Li Xian suddenly turned his horse and galloped back. Pointing at Xuan Song, he said, “General Xuan, you have full authority to act at your discretion here. You cannot lightly die for our country. If there are any mishaps, this Prince will bear all responsibility.”
Xuan Song shook, knowing that the Prince of Qi was hinting that he could surrender to preserve his life. Although this wasn’t something that he could do, Xuan Song still kneeled down and replied in a faintly sorrowful tone, “This general obeys.”
Once the Prince of Qi had disappeared into the night, Xuan Song recovered his tranquil appearance. He commanded, “At daybreak, prepare to raid the enemy encampment. Right now, relay the orders and have the entire army set forth.”
Presently, it was still the dead of night. Xuan Song had his rearguard put coins in their mouths before making everyone cover their mouths and noses in cloths soaked in clear spring water. He further had his trusted personal troops take up position in the column by the river. Even with the dim light from the Heavens above, no one discovered the hidden danger, surprisingly. Although those clever had already detected that something was off, orders needed to be obeyed. If they were to make known their misgivings, they likely would be cut down immediately. As a result, they could only remain taciturn and march along.
It wasn’t long before the Yong army reached the mouth of the valley. Xuan Song commanded one of his bodyguards to move ahead to scout the situation outside. When the bodyguard returned, his complexion was utterly ghostlike as he softly reported, “General, the enemy’s encampment is not far from here. I saw a large number of figures by the riverside.” Having already learned the truth, the bodyguard knew how dangerous the situation was.
Just then, a sudden blaze erupted outside the valley. In an instant, the nearby Qin River immediately surged with raging flames. The poisonous black smoke swelled toward the shore. This was because the wind direction was off, otherwise the entire valley would probably be permeated with smoke. Unable to see anyone on the opposite bank, Xuan Song had his troops sound the drums. The drumbeats were deep, almost like they were an entrapped beast’s sad howls. Following orders, the Yong rearguard charged out of the valley.
Cries of surprise immediately yelped in front of them and combined with sounds of clashing weapons. Xuan Song’s eyes glistened with tears. This was suicide. For twenty thousand Yong foot soldiers to fight a hundred thousand elite cavalry from Northern Han and Daizhou, the only result was death. In a low voice, Xuan Song muttered, “Marquis of Chu, this general has failed to live up to your expectations and was unable to anticipate that the enemy would incinerate the Qin River. If this general had learned of this ahead of time, there would definitely have been ways to deal with it. At present, I can only atone for my sins with my life. I hope that your plan will succeed and avenge for the men of Great Yong this profound hatred.”
Raising his head, Xuan Song unsheathed the sword at his waist. Under the protection of his bodyguards, he charged forward, rushing towards the death that awaited him. Behind him, the flames on the Qin River had spread several li in a flash and were still continuing to expand. Underneath the flames was cold water, while there were raging flames above. The black smoke billowed up into the sky, carrying poisonous particulate matter. The vegetation on both sides of the river were set ablaze, causing the fire become even more ferocious. Even the rocks were burned pitch-black. If there were anyone present, there would be no hope of survival. For thirty li, the entire region became a living hell, as the inferno engulfed all life.
After the Northern Han army had incinerated the Qin River, aside from the over ten thousand horsemen and twenty thousand foot soldiers, the Prince of Qi and Jing Chi had thirty thousand horsemen with them. Over a thousand were consumed by the flames. Because they had retreated in a timely fashion and because there wasn’t enough petroleum, the Yong army’s main force was able to survive. As for the twenty thousand foot soldiers who launched a suicidal attack, aside from temporarily throwing the Northern Han army into disarray and killing a thousand or so Northern Han horsemen, they were completely wiped out. So far, of the one hundred thirty thousand troops that composed Great Yong’s northern expedition, only half remained. Although its main force remained, the Northern Han army had already seized the clear advantage.
Footnotes:This is a poem from the thirty-fourth chapter of the Qing Dynasty novel The Story of Hero Boys and Girls (儿女英雄传) by Yanbei Xianren (燕北闲人), who wrote under the pen name of Wen Kang (文康) in 1878. 淡泊名利, danbomingli – idiom, lit. indifferent to fame and fortune, indifferent to worldly rewards 1-3 AM 11 PM-1 AM 瓮中捉鳖, wengzhongzuobie – idiom, lit. to catch a turtle in a jar; fig. go after easy prey, a turkey shoot, shooting fish in a barrel