Volume 5, Chapter 30: Separated by Life and Death
The Northern Han army was surrounded in the wilderness. Battling for over a dozen days, seeking to break out each day, they were eagerly denied by the Yong army every time. Similarly, no matter how impatient the Yong army was, they could not break the Northern Han formations.
On the eighteenth day of the fourth month, with the Northern Han army's provisions exhausted, they slaughtered their horses to serve as food. At daybreak, they split into separate forces to break the encirclement. Thus was the battle decided.
—Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three
What does it mean to be a hero in crisis? What is desperation? Long Tingfei softly let out a sigh. After campaigning for many years, he had never faced such dangerous circumstances. However, Long Tingfei was amazed to discover that his mood had surprisingly not fluctuated in the slightest. Since the moment that he discovered he had been surrounded, he could clearly hear the snapping of his heartstrings. He was simply too tired. Over these years, he had practically propped up the situation in Northern Han by himself, while he had faced an endless stream of enemies. Moreover, he had been tenacious and unyielding,1 without being arrogant at victory nor despairing at defeat, practically forcibly grinding away his sharpness and fighting spirit. The subordinate generals that he relied upon had either died or turned traitor. At present, he was now all alone in the world and had even dragged his fiancée down with him into this situation. His road was likely coming to an end. Long Tingfei understood quite well that there weren't any hopes that he would be able to escape.
When the Yong ambushing troops combined with the regrouped army of the Prince of Qi, over four hundred thousand troops had completely surrounded the Northern Han army in the wilderness. While there wasn't an absolute difference in fighting strength, unless they made disastrous sacrifices, it would be impossible to break out.
The terrain of Qinzhou was narrow. If they wanted to break out, they could only do so either towards Jishi or Zezhou. However, if they escaped in the direction of Zezhou, Long Tingfei was well aware that it would be impossible for them return to Northern Han. The enemy held the clear advantage, while his side's alternatives were extremely limited. Under these circumstances, over the last dozen-plus days, Long Tingfei and Lin Bi had personally planned several attempts at trying to escape. Unfortunately, because they sought to bring their entire army out, they were stopped every single time by the Yong army, and left behind countless casualties in vain. The Qin River had run red with blood. As the Yong army increasingly tightened its encirclement, the soil was also saturated by the blood.
Seated on a woven mat in a simple and crude tent, in the illumination of the dusky lamplight, Long Tingfei's wasted and haggard appearance made him appear even more heroic than before. The present Long Tingfei had indifference and desolation on his face. Only his aqua eyes still had a bit of their former radiance. However, only those who paid attention would have noticed that it was very different from his former arrogance that looked disdainfully down upon the entire world. The radiance of his eyes was filled with an awareness of the world and an indescribable sorrow.
From outside, the sound of footsteps could be heard. Long Tingfei did not raise his head, still looking at the simple map that Xiao Tong had personally drawn. Upon it was recorded the Yong army's defenses that the scouts of the army had investigated, risking life and limb. Someone entered the tent and stood in front of Long Tingfei. The lamplight stretched the individual's shadow very long. The shadow blocked the light falling upon the map. Long Tingfei frowned slightly before raising his head. The flickering flame shone upon the depths of his eyes and illuminated the figure of the individual before him—her deep green armor and a silk cloak embroidered with a golden phoenix. The visitor was Lin Bi.
Lin Bi also looked quite haggard. Her once beautiful face was weighed down by hardships. Her clothes were bloodstained. Long Tingfei was filled with sorrow seeing someone of her status wearing a battle gown stained with blood. He placidly asked, "Does Princess Bi need something?"
Shaking her head lightly, Lin Bi sat down across from Long Tingfei, dropping her head into her hands. It was a long time before she answered, "Just now, the Yong army used arrows to shoot messages into my camps."
Long Tingfei softly replied, "Might they be trying to persuade you to surrender? These past few days, my camps have received quite a lot of those messages too. Were it not for my repeated attempts at boosting morale, it would likely be certain my army would descend into chaos."
Pride glimmered in Lin Bi's eyes as she explained, "They weren't trying to persuade us to surrender. The messages only sought to tell my army that the barbarians have invaded Daizhou with great strength and momentum. My second elder brother, Lin Cheng'er, commanded the army and sallied forth and tragically fell into the barbarian's trap. Going all-out, second elder brother cut a bloody path before dying with over a dozen arrows sticking out of his back outside of Yanmen Pass. In addition, my father's illness has relapsed and the army is leaderless."
Long Tingfei felt his mind quake. What a truly vicious strategy. Regardless of whether the contents of the messages were real, the Daizhou army's morale would definitely waver. He weakly gave, "This could be the enemy's ruse."
Lin Bi smiled thinly, her smile packed with sorrow. She somberly stated, "I also wish that this was the enemy's ruse. However, even if it were so, they have already succeeded. At present, feelings of alarm permeate the officers and soldiers of my camp. Even my third elder brother, Chengshan, and fourth younger brother, Chengyuan, have lost all taste of battle. Further, the news is probably true. This letter was one personally and specially penned by the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, to me. Its contents are different from other letters, explaining in great detail what is occurring in Daizhou. Li Xian is not someone who would use false information to deceive me." Finished speaking, Lin Bi handed a letter to Long Tingfei.
Long Tingfei accepted the letter and read it rapidly. Sure enough, the letter explained the military situation in Daizhou in great detail. If even Lin Bi felt that there weren't any holes, then it was most likely true. He feebly set the letter down and asked, "Have you made a decision? If the Daizhou army wants to surrender, I will not blame you."
Lin Bi rose to her feet and coldly responded, "The Daizhou army has never committed any acts of perfidy. This campaign was the result of public talks. How can we change our minds on the battlefield? Ever since the Daizhou army was established, we will only perish along with the enemy and never bend our knee in surrender. Even when we pledged allegiance to Northern Han, we never uttered the word surrender."
The expression on Long Tingfei's face became solemn. Also rising to his feet, he replied, "I have long anticipated that the Princess's resolve would be so firm. I was only sounding you out just now. I am the commander-in-chief and understand the importance of morale. Sister Bi, please forgive me."
Her expression somewhat softening, Lin Bi replied, "However, since the situation has reached this point, we have to do something in response and must firmly resolve to break out, disregarding all sacrifices. If we continue to tarry, morale will likely collapse."
An icy gleam glittered in Long Tingfei's eyes. He stated, "I had just wanted to invite you over to discuss breaking out. Over these days of fighting, Sister Bi should understand that the Yong army will definitely not let me off. Every single time I lead an attempt to break the encirclement, the Yong army will stop me with complete disregard of losses. If the Daizhou army were to charge their defenses alone, the Yong army would try to take us a bridge too far. Were it not for Sister Bi's resolve, you probably would have been surrounded by the enemy long ago. From this, we can seen that the Yong army's principal targets are the Qinzhou army and me, while they actually give some leeway to the Daizhou army. As a result, I have meticulously planned a new escape plan and require Sister Bi's all-out assistance."
Lin Bi did not speak. How could she not understand what Long Tingfei was saying? However, even if the Daizhou army was even more valiant, they only had fifteen thousand troops. Even if the Yong army decided to be lenient, wishing to seize the opportunity to charge through the Yong lines was impossible. Slowly, she raised her head and in a weak and understanding voice asked, "Do you want my Daizhou army to cover your Qinzhou army for the escape?"
Long Tingfei smiled slightly and answered, "By itself, it would be impossible for the Daizhou army to cover the Qinzhou army's escape. The Yong army only needs fifty thousand elite troops to stall the Daizhou army's assaults. If I seize the opportunity to lead the main force and break out, the Yong army would definitely hem me in with all its strength. If we lack strength, even if the Daizhou army is able to escape, the Yong army won't allow my army to get away. Sister Bi must understand that when it comes to loyalty to Northern Han, my army is far above your distinguished army. As a result, the Yong army will definitely focus primarily upon the Qinzhou army."
Lin Bi did not reply. She calmly continued to listen, waiting for Long Tingfei's explanation. Long Tingfei continued, "As a result, I have decided that we will break out in three waves. The Daizhou army which you command will serve as the first wave and break out to the northeast. The Yong army will definitely employ its usual methods and do its utmost to lure the Daizhou army into a separate envelopment to isolate our armies from each other. Then I will lead twenty thousand elite cavalry with great fanfare and assault directly north. The Yong army will definitely exhaust everything to stop me. After that, the Lu family brothers will lead my army's main force to try to break out to the northwest while sending some troops to the Qin River to destroy the Yong army's ballistae and catapults which are blocking the river to help the navy to escape the trap."
Lin Bi grew cold, as she asked, "Are you trying to use yourself as the bait to lure the Yong focus to allow Qinzhou's main army to escape?"
Long Tingfei solemnly answered, "Only by doing this can I preserve the core of Qinzhou's army. My leadership has failed, implicating the officers and soldiers of the entire army. If I were to try and cherish my life and live on without purpose, with what face do I have to meet His Royal Majesty? The Yong army surrounds us in all four directions, especially to the north with over a hundred thousand. Just, if our army is engaged in arduous fighting, the remaining three sides will attack us from behind. That is why we have not been able to break out. This time, I will personally lead the assault and lure the entirety of the enemy's main force to surround me. Based upon the boldness and ferocity of the Lu family brothers, the chance of escape should be very high. In addition, when the Yong army mistakenly believes that the Daizhou army is covering my army's escape, their encirclement of Sister Bi will definitely weaken. The chance of the Daizhou army's escape will also be very high. Sacrificing my life and the lives of my twenty thousand personal troops in exchange for the escape of the majority of our armies will be worth it. But with Sister Bi taking the lead, the losses will definitely be heavy. That is why I wanted to consult with you over this."
Seeing how Long Tingfei was so indifferent when he talked about his death, Lin Bi's tender body was on the verge of collapse. The man before her was her fiancé. For lack of a better option, with their country imperiled and since both of them were generals who commanded troops, they were separated more frequently than they were together. Every single time they met, they discussed nothing aside from military matters, only rarely speaking of personal matters. However, Lin Bi had long since considered him as her lifelong companion. Now that they were about to part mid-journey, how could she accept it? At this moment, she was no longer the "Princess General" the entirety of Daizhou admired and only an unfortunate woman who was about to lose her lover.
Forcibly holding back her tears, Lin Bi softly inquired, "As you are so fervently seeking your death, what about me? Do you still remember the timing of our wedding? It is to happen at the end of this year."
The expression on Long Tingfei's face changed as his countenance revealed an overwhelmingly sad expression. In order for the Daizhou army to send troops, Lin Yuanting had made an extra requirement, stating that their marriage could not be delayed. The Northern Han King had taken charge and set a date. If the Yong army retreated, the two would be married at the end of the year. At the time, Long Tingfei was also secretly happy. If they could drive the Yong army off, then he had the face to take a bride. However, from the present circumstances, even if the two had been brought together by fate, they didn't have the fortune and did not have the opportunity at being married.
Hardening his heart, Long Tingfei answered, "Sister Bi, it isn't that Tingfei is deliberately avoiding our agreement. It is because of our country that Tingfei does not dare to be greedy for survival."
Covering her face, Lin Bi staggered out, relying on the walls of the tent. She could be seen to faintly tremble. Although there was no sound of crying, the forceful suppression of the sounds of sobbing was enough to make others feel even more heartbroken. Even if Long Tingfei had a heart akin to steel or stone, he was incapable of bearing it. With large strides, he stepped out and pulled Lin Bi into his arms. As she buried her head into his bosom, fragmented sounds of weeping echoed within the tent. Long Tingfei could feel the battle gown on his chest grow warm and knew that Lin Bi's tears had permeated his clothes. His heart aching painfully, he tightly held Lin Bi to him. At this moment, the lantern extinguished and the tent fell dark. In the narrow confines, there were only the sounds of the two of breathing and Lin Bi's soft sobbing. In the darkness, Long Tingfei, a famous general of the generation who always glowed with health and vigor before others, also felt tears of sorrow fall.
After a good while, Lin Bi lightly extracted herself from Long Tingfei's arms. Softly, she stated, "Since it is already decided, I will go back to make the arrangements."
Long Tingfei did not speak a word, listening as Lin Bi pulled open the tent flaps and departed, the crunching of her footsteps fading away. His hands clenched tightly into fists, he bleakly said, "For a living man to be unable to protect his country to repay the benevolence of his ruler, and unable to protect his wife, leading to her battle gown being stained with blood, with what face do I have to remain alive in this world?"
Suddenly, Long Tingfei heard a delicate and feeble voice singing. It wasn't long before that voice became increasingly audible and he could hear the verses clearly. Long Tingfei listened carefully. It seemed like the song was coming from the Daizhou army's encampment.
"Dark clouds looming heavy over the city threaten to overwhelm it,
Like golden scales the armor glistens in the moonlight.
Bugle horns paint the sky with colors of autumn,
Frontier rouge freezes into a nocturnal purple.
Red banners half-furled over the Yi River,
The war drums muffled from heavy frost and cold.
To repay the trust of the Gold Tower,I guide my Jade Dragon sword and die for My Lord.2
This battle song was one that the Daizhou army was fondest of singing. When the Daizhou army battled the barbarians, they often did so in autumn when the horses had been properly fed. Taking up arms, the Daizhou troops would defend their homeland, relying upon Yanmen Pass to resist the barbarian cavalry. Although the season was wrong, this song being sung at this moment was enough to arouse the battle intent of the Daizhou army.
At the beginning, the song was raspy and rough, probably because the soldiers had shouted their voices hoarse from the continuous fighting. But, as the song continued, it came increasingly resonate. At first, there were only a hundred or so individuals singing. Towards the end, more and more joined in. At the end, aside from the Daizhou army, even the Qinzhou army also joined in. Like a thousand rivers converging unto the ocean, the grandeur of the song coming together was like a boundless and majestic current. The singing buoyed the formerly despondent morale of the Northern Han army into becoming an unstoppable force.
The distress on Long Tingfei's face was completely washed away. Slowly tightening the armor on his body, he walked out of his tent with his fiery battle gown and his ruthless, handsome appearance. The decisive battle was tomorrow. What time did he have to be immersed with love?
When he walked out of his tent, Long Tingfei only spotted scattered bonfires under the pitch-black sky as far as the eye could see. The scent of blood permeated the air. Apart from the song that resounded through the wilderness, he could also faintly hear the painful moans of the wounded. As he calculated the chance of success, Long Tingfei listened to the desolate and heroic singing. The still cold spring night was filled with loneliness, somberness, and desolation. Long Tingfei's mind was extremely clear. He knew that Lin Bi had ordered the Daizhou army to sing that well-known army song to arouse the morale of the surrounded troops. Wholly grateful, Long Tingfei even more resolutely hoped that Lin Bi would be able to escape during the breakout the next day. He understood quite well that the danger Lin Bi faced was only slightly less than his. Most likely, both of them would die tomorrow.
At this moment, Xiao Tong walked to his side. Even though it was only a dozen or so days, Xiao Tong had completely wasted away and his expression was haggard. Aside from exhausting himself trying to discover the enemy's troop locations, he also felt tremendous guilt. Ever since the Yong army had invaded Qinzhou, his scouts had repeatedly suffered setbacks, losing countless spies to death or injury. Having been ambushed without discovering the enemy, Xiao Tong constantly loathed his own incompetence and dereliction of duty. Because today's perilous situation had happened, under both internal and external pressure, Xiao Tong's appearance had degraded to such an extent.
Arriving next to Long Tingfei, Xiao Tong apprehensively stated, "General, this subordinate met the Princess just now and heard that you have already decided to break out."
"That's correct. I will support the Lu family brothers' breakout in the last wave," replied Long Tingfei indifferently. "I will explain the detailed arrangements in a while during the military conference."
Xiao Tong replied, "General, you are our army's commander-in-chief. How can you put yourself in danger? It is best that someone else serves as the bait. There is no harm for us to select someone who has a similar build to wear your armor to serve as the bait. With the Daizhou army serving as the main force breaking out, it is highly likely that General can get away."
Long Tingfei impassively responded, "I am the army's commander-in-chief. If I cannot take command, how can I motivate the soldiers to meet their deaths? As for having the Daizhou army serve as the sacrifice, you must not make such a suggestion again. Originally, there was no need for the Daizhou army to participate and send troops. Now that they have fallen into such a dangerous situation to help us, if we are uncouth, with what gall do we have to face the people of Daizhou?"
Although Long Tingfei's tone was uncaring, they were like words carved on rocks using a steel sword. Hearing this, Xiao Tong knew that Long Tingfei had made up his mind. Since there was no way of saving the situation, he knew that Long Tingfei's words were correct. Only if Long Tingfei personally took charge would the Yong army be enticed. Sighing inwardly, Xiao Tong kneeled on the ground and said, "General, please permit this subordinate to follow you."
Long Tingfei glanced at Xiao Tong and replied, "Why so? Although you suffered repeated setbacks this time, that is because the enemy's head agent is truly formidable. When it comes to spying and scouting, no one in the Northern Han army is your match. If someone else replaced you, we would likely be no better than the deaf and blind. There is no need for you to feel needless guilt. The defeat this time was not your fault and rather because I did not anticipate that the enemy would try to lure us into an ambush. My inferior thinking caused today's perilous situation. Xiao Tong, you have to listen to my orders this time and follow the Lu family brothers to escape. Those three brothers are poor when it comes to strategy, which worries me deeply. Having served at my side for years, you have been influenced by me. Your accompaniment will ensure that they will be able to successfully escape."
Xiao Tong remained silent. It was some time before he kowtowed, stating, "This subordinate obeys." He had already made up his mind to atone for his mistakes by remaining alive to help the Lu family brothers with everything he had to escape. If he were to die, he would wait until everything had calmed down in the future.
Seeing that Xiao Tong had agreed to accompany the Lu family brothers, Long Tingfei cheerfully said, "Okay. Since it's already close to third watch, go issue orders for rations to be prepared for third watch and the break out to start at fifth watch. For now, have all the generals come see me."
Xiao Tong's heart jumped as he replied, "General, our army no longer has any provisions. This subordinate did not report this because the general has always been pondering a plan in your tent."
Long Tingfei smiled humorlessly. When was such an important matter not reported for such a reason? When his prestige was especially grand, he would have long since received clandestine reports from the soldiers. This was likely the result of secret discussions among the generals of the Qinzhou army. If this weren't the case, he wouldn't have been so resolute in his decision to break out at dawn tomorrow. Originally wanting to warn Xiao Tong, Long Tingfei caught himself, seeing Xiao Tong's anxious and frightened look. Remembering that they would be forever parted tomorrow, Long Tingfei was unwilling to be overboard with his reprimands, only indifferently stating, "Okay, got it. Slaughter all of the wounded and extra warhorses so that the entire army can eat."
Under Long Tingfei's stoic gaze, Xiao Tong only felt himself breaking out into a cold sweat, withdrawing. After dinner, the entire encampment had run out of provisions. In the private talks among the generals, the only solution available was that they had to break out tomorrow. And in order to be successful, a portion of the army had to be sacrificed. Because of the apathy between the Qinzhou and Daizhou armies, all of them wanted to force Long Tingfei to sacrifice the Daizhou army to guarantee that the main strength of the Qinzhou army could escape. However, they were all worried that Long Tingfei would disagree and wanted to use the lack of provisions to coerce Long Tingfei. However, none of them could have imagined that Long Tingfei had thoroughly resolved to sacrifice himself in order to give the majority of the Qinzhou army and the Daizhou army an escape route.
As each of the injured or intact warhorses let out lengthy whinnies, with their eyes the size of bells revealing looks of disbelief, sabers chopped down on the necks of the horses, gushing blood out. As one of the heavy bodies of the horses collapsed to the ground, the Northern Han soldier who wielded one of the sabers tossed his weapon aside and fell onto the corpse crying bitterly. Although he was pulled away by several other soldiers, tears flowed without end down his face. As cavalrymen, their horses were their most intimate of friends. In order to properly raise a warhorse and form a tacit understanding with the horse, these cavalrymen essentially lived with their horses, eating and sleeping together. T0 them, the order to kill their own horses was something incomprehensible. Generally speaking, they would only kill horses when they had been hopelessly and seriously injured. In addition, consuming horse flesh was something not permitted. But now, they had slaughtered a large quantity of warhorses. Some of these horses had suffered light wounds, while others were completely unharmed, only losing their riders. The Northern Han army that was about to break out only needed to retain enough warhorses. All of the extra horses had to be killed to serve as food.
Butchering the horses not only allowed the entire army to eat their fill in preparation for breaking out, but the remainder was retained to serve as rations. After all, no one knew how long the following battle would last. A bitter atmosphere pervaded the entire encampment. The mental shock of killing their beloved horses made every single Northern Han soldiers' eyes turn red with raging flames and mourning.
Having eaten what was likely their last meal, the Northern Han army began to mobilize. Gazing at the orderly and neat encampment even after numerous setbacks, Long Tingfei spurred his horse forward and took up position before the camp. Behind him were the commanders of each of the units. The whole army had finished assembling, only waiting for the commander-in-chief's orders before setting forth. Long Tingfei's expression was tranquil, seemingly not about to meet his death and actually on his way to attend a banquet on the invitation of a dear friend. He listened to the familiar sound of horse hooves and the melodious ringing of bells. Long Tingfei's bladelike eyebrows rose and he turned his head with a smile. Sure enough, as expected, with the escort of her bodyguards, Lin Bi had ridden over.
Arriving by Long Tingfei's side, Lin Bi wanted to say something, but found that she had nothing to say, almost as if everything that could be said had been said the night before. Almost impudently, she stared fixedly at Long Tingfei's thin, handsome face. Unconsciously, a tear rolled down her face. Immediately seeing Lin Bi's swollen eyes, he wanted to reach out to comfort her. However, he ultimately did not do so. Instead, he saluted from his saddle and said, "Breaking out this time, we will have to rely upon Sister Bi's valor. Tingfei is very grateful. With the country imperiled, Sister Bi is still an honored princess and must think carefully to help His Royal Majesty."
Lin Bi turned her head away. It was some time before her tranquil voice spoke, "General, take care of yourself. Although this breakout is dangerous, with General's divine martial valor, if you have the protection of the Heavens, it is possible that we will meet again."
Long Tingfei smiled faintly and replied, "It is close to daybreak. Sister Bi is in the first wave. Please make all preparations."
Lin Bi spurred her horse and galloped away, loudly shouting, "Lin Bi obeys! General, please take good care of yourself!"
When her horse turned in the direction of the Daizhou army's formation, Lin Bi took the opportunity to turn around and look. Although she was already far away, Lin Bi could still clearly see Long Tingfei's aqua eyes. Within those eyes that were as deep as the ocean were accumulated sorrow and blessing. She had never seen that pair of eyes reveal such complex emotions before. In the short moment that their eyes locked, all kinds of deep emotions suddenly disappeared without a trace. Lin Bi's entire body trembled. She nearly fell from her horse but for the help of one of her female bodyguards.
Before she had even disappeared from the sight of those aqua eyes, she saw the banners of the Daizhou army. As her heart pounded, she cast aside all distracting thoughts. Taking up her silver spear, Lin Bi waved her hands and let out a sharp whistle. The clear and resonating whistle that seemed to penetrate the Ninth Heaven reverberated in the air. Their spirits greatly aroused, the Daizhou army also joined in with their loud whistles. The earthshaking whistles apparently shattered the last of the darkness before dawn.
Footnotes:坚韧不拔, jianrenbuba - idiom, lit. firm and indomitable; fig. tenacious and unyielding This is a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet, Li He, entitled Ode for the Governor of Yanmen Pass (雁门太守行).