“Who dares wins.”
--David Sterling


Chapter 100 – Repossession

The next day saw a stand-off. The remnants of the grand army that had departed gloriously under Marshal Gao Fang had returned before the walls of Tigertrap Fort under very different circumstances. A hundred thousand soldiers had marched through the fort, now barely forty thousand returned. Most of the officers were missing, including the marshal himself. The most senior commander in charge of the weary survivors was Great General Huang Zheng. In an ironic twist of fate, the first leader to have ventured into Wei was also the first one to return alive and well.


In Tigertrap Fort, Qin Lang was trying his best to remain calm. He did not expect for Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong to boldly march here, despite his refusal to open the gates. It was a tense situation as the defenders of the fort faced against the returning soldiers, but fortunately he had replaced most of the garrison with his own people. Even so, Qin Lang thought he could see the reluctance in his soldiers when he told them to wear their armour and take up their arms. Why were they on their guard against heroes of their country?


“Qin Lang! Open the gates!” Huang Zheng called out.


“As I said before, I cannot open the gates without the marshal’s orders!” Qin Lang shouted back.


Huang Zheng grimaced. “The marshal has fled, nobody knows whither had he gone!”


There was a sneer on Qin Lang’s face. “Why does the general besmirch the marshal so? Your feud is known to all, I did not expect you to bring your private quarrel into public matters!”


It took all the self-control Huang Zheng had not to explode into a paroxysm of swearing. Nearby, Huang Ming saw his father’s face turn into an interesting shade of purplish rage. Zhao Tong too was gnashing his teeth in anger, his short beard bristling. As entertaining as it was, Huang Ming knew the fury was real and decided to step in before his elders pop a blood vessel.


“At least allow the wounded to return! They can no longer participate in the campaign, let them have shelter and rest!” Huang Ming said.


Qin Lang thought he had stung Huang Zheng into silence, and thus was emboldened.


“What if there are Wei spies hiding in your midst? No, the marshal’s order is quite clear. Nobody is to return without the proper authorization!” he said with a vicious smile. The rat-faced man did not notice the wave of doubt spreading in his own troops when they heard his callous words.


“Why are you so heartless?” Huang Ming asked, dangling a rope for Qin Lang to hang himself.


The man with rat-whiskers did not disappoint. Qin Lang waved a hand is dismissal as he proclaimed, “Our country have no use for men who would not fight. I do not know by what scheme you have misled them to come here, but if you rejoin the marshal in his great crusade, I’m sure all would be forgiven!”


Huang Ming put on a look of disbelief. “You would push the weak and injured to fight a lost cause?” he asked imploringly.


“It would be their honour to sacrifice for the country!” Qin Lang said righteously.


Zhao Tong laughed in derision. “Qin Lang, pray tell us; what battles have you fought? Why don’t you come and take our place then?”


Qin Lang did not get to where he was without having a thick skin, thus such rebuke did not shame him.


“Each man has his duties, mine did not take me to the front. On the other hand, Generals Huang and Zhao, you are frontline commanders! Go forth and do your duty, I’m sure the marshal will find use for you!” he said as he tugged on his rat whiskers in gloating fashion.


Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong were perfectly furious, but Huang Ming stopped them from launching an actual assault on the fort. He told them to retire the army a safe distance away. The weary and wounded soldiers were itching for a fight after hearing Qin Lang’s shameless diatribe but obeyed.


One of Qin Lang’s subordinates went to speak with him. “Sir, what if it’s true? Shouldn’t we at least ascertain the truth?” he asked, remembering the indignant looks on the men that they had so cruelly turned away.


“I will not disobey the marshal,” Qin Lang said coldly. “Even if it’s all true, it would only mean that Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong had fled the battlefield to save themselves. All they have is their word about what happened, but I have a valid, standing mandate and I intend to follow it. Do not worry, we are merely doing our duty. We have the law on our side.”


***


“Well, what do we do now, my brilliant son?” Huang Zheng asked sarcastically.


“The men I picked are ready, I have told them about what needs to be done. Tonight I’ll go and open the gates. Have your best veterans be ready to storm in quickly,” Huang Ming stated nonchalantly.


“You’re not going anywhere until you explain further,” his father replied. Nearby, Huang Ming could feel the heat from Sunli’s glowering stare on his back.


“Fine, fine…” Huang Ming sighed. “It’s like this…”


They were not reassured after hearing his explanation.


“What recklessness! I actually thought you had a real plan! What you’re suggesting is suicide!” his father exclaimed.


Huang Ming shrugged. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”


“Then let me come with you,” Huang Ke said.


Huang Ming gave him a once over and shook his head. “Too big, too heavy, too conspicuous,” Huang Ming said, and his brother unhappily agreed with his assessment.


“What about me?” Sunli demanded.


Huang Ming opened his mouth to respond negatively when he saw the tanned woman narrow her eyes, as if daring him to say something about her weight. Wisely he shut his mouth and nodded meekly.


“This does not look like a job for mortals,” Zhao Tong said worriedly.


“Relax, I’ve done this before,” Huang Ming said with a smile. ‘In another life, at another world…’


***


That night, a small troop of a dozen men stealthily approached Tigertrap Fort. The men were all dressed in black and they virtually blended into the darkness of the night. In addition to their daggers and hand axes, all were carrying a backpack each.


Sunli thought they were to quietly scale the fort’s walls, but then Huang Ming led them to the canyon rockface instead.


“Alright, listen up. We’re going to climb up this cliff. Halfway to the top is a ledge and a small cave, we’ll gather there,” Huang Ming announced.


“So that’s why you go climbing in your free time,” Sunli exclaimed.


“Do you think I climbed these places just for fun?” Huang Ming smirked.


Sunli’s half-lidded stare was enough answer, apparently she did think that his hobby was just that.


“But why are we climbing here?” she asked. “Do you mean to clamber back down into the fort afterwards? But that will take ages, and we’ll all be too exhausted afterwards to do anything useful!”


“You’ll see, don’t ask so much!” Huang Ming admonished, causing the men to chuckle. Sunli’s eyes flashed angrily, and the men quietened down. They knew better than to antagonize the fearsome Amazon.


“I’ll go first. I’ll mark the handholds with chalk, so take your time and don’t panic!” Huang Ming told them.


With Huang Ming leading the way, the odd dozen made the climb. The men were brave on the battlefield but something unfamiliar as this made them nervous. When they saw Sunli climbing up fearlessly, it inflamed their sense of competition. They were helped by the relatively low difficulty of the rockface, and the later climbers were assisted by a guiding rope once Huang Ming reached the ledge.


Still, a few were huffing and puffing as the height and darkness compounded their difficulties.


Sunli joined Huang Ming at the ledge, from their position they could look down at Tigertrap Fort. But it still entailed a long, dangerous shimmy across the rockface, and Sunli was doubtful of the entire enterprise.


“This won’t work,” she said softly as not to disturb the men. “I don’t see how you’re going to lead them all across the face of this cliff and then climb down into the fort.”


“Who said anything about climbing down?” Huang Ming said with a smile. He snapped his fingers to get the attention of his men, and they quickly unslung their backpacks. As she did not have one, Sunli watched on with curiosity as each person unpacked a large canvas of sorts and securing it to their belts via metal anchors and ropes. Then they checked the canvas for creases and folds.


“What is this?” she inquired as the men busied themselves.


Huang Ming made a sliding motion with his hand, ending it with his fingers splayed open. “It’s a parachute,” he said, before turning to face his men. “Alright lads, we got a dark moon and little wind tonight. So keep calm and remember the plan. Have your knives ready to cut the parachute off, we’ll have to move fast.”


“A what now? I don’t understand, what does it do?” Sunli asked warily even as the men nodded and signalled their readiness. By now, the men were wearing mouth masks that was garishly decorated with motifs of sharp fangs and dangling tongues, making them look like bloodthirsty demons.


“Something to gently drop us down when we jump,” Huang Ming explained off-handedly as he pulled on his own mouth mask.


“When we jump?” Sunli exclaimed. “What about me? I don’t have one!”


Huang Ming grinned wolfishly underneath his mask as he slid an arm across the small of her back and pulled her close.


“Hold on tight!”


Before she could mount a further protest, Huang Ming made a running leap. The crude canvas parachute spread open behind them to slow their descent, but Sunli was still terrified. Her eyes squeezed shut when she felt her legs dangling in the air. Instinctively her arms and legs twined themselves onto Huang Ming. Perhaps if she had peeked at his smug eyes, her fright would be replaced by anger.


This wasn’t a romantic interlude, the drop was actually quite short which was why Huang Ming was confident about the canvas that was normally used for tents. Despite the urgency of the situation, he couldn’t help but enjoy the moment. The redoubtable Amazon who was a fiery war goddess on the battlefield was now as timid as a rabbit in his arms.


“Brace yourself, we’re going to tuck and roll into some company!” he said to Sunli’s ears. She opened her eyes to see the parapets rushing up to meet them, and she reflexively bent her knees to absorb the impact. In one swift motion they landed and rolled forward, and Sunli jumped back onto her feet.


On the parapets of Tigertrap Fort, the guards did not notice their approach until they were already landing. How could they, when they had absolutely no reason to think that an attack could come from above. When Huang Ming and the first of his men landed on the walls, the guards stood still and gawked. Then they saw these black figures with their terrible teeth. And they came from the sky!



“Demons!”


Huang Ming’s men added to the confusion by howling and baying for blood. They quickly whipped out their short swords and hand axes and charged towards the defenders. The people of this world were still a superstition lot and the guards fled without a fight, screaming in terror as they ran away in panic. They simply did not think of using the bows and spears in their hands to resist.


“The gatehouse!” Huang Ming ordered, and his men quickly swarmed the installation. By now the fort was waking up to the cries of alarm, torches were being lit and the men were being roused. But it was too late, for Huang Ming’s infiltrators had opened the gates.


Almost immediately a cavalry unit led by Huang Ke appeared. He charged into the fort to quickly reinforce his brother.


The rest was almost a formality. Qin Lang was not the sort to inspire military confidence, and most of the men quickly surrendered when they saw the attackers were the very same people that they had heartlessly drove away earlier.


By the time Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong showed up proper with the main force, Qin Lang himself had been captured, and the fort was back in the hands of the Huangs.


“Rebellion! This is rebellion!” Qin Lang sputtered at the two aged generals.


“Qin Lang, come to your senses. Our army really was defeated, and Marshal Gao really is missing,” Huang Zheng said, pitying the delusional man.


“B-b-but.. but we had a hundred thousand men! How could we lose?” Qin Lang said as his shoulders slumped in disbelief. Huang Zheng shook his head, already thinking about how to inform the royal court of the disaster. But first, time to give his son a dressing down.


“That was ridiculously dangerous,” he said.


“But it worked,” his son answered lazily.


“If you keep this up, there won’t be a next time,” Huang Zheng growled.


“Alright, next time I’ll just build a secret big red button that would blow up the fort on command,” Huang Ming replied. Then he frowned, and Huang Zheng saw that his son was actually seriously entertaining such an idea.


Events proceeded very quickly thereafter. Huang Zheng took control of the fort and reorganized its defences, this time paying attention to what his youngest son had done, adding spikes and more torches to prevent similar ambushes.


In the Wu capital of Gusu city, news of Marshal Gao’s colossal failure soon spread and reached the courts. The King of Wu, ill as he was; hastily convened an emergency meeting.


In a way, Marshal Gao’s disappearance provided a convenient scapegoat for the entire affair. The impetus of war and the failure of the campaign was heaped at his feet. The king distanced himself from the stigma of defeat, and court officials soon poured memorials after memorials decrying the marshal’s warmongering and waste of lives. Even if the marshal was alive, he would find himself unwelcome in his home country. His family name quickly fell into disgrace, and his clan’s influenced waned. The likes of Qin Lang and other lackeys that were associated with the marshal were dismissed, and a search for the new leader of the armies began. The obvious choice was Huang Zheng, but he was needed to stand against Wei. Other officers and generals who were sidelined by Gao Fang cast their eyes towards the capital…


The one who benefited the most from this debacle was Prime Minister Tong Xuan. Though he had a hand in the war’s conception, it was Gao Fang who took charge of it. Before anyone could rebuke him, Tong Xuan had sent in a pre-emptive memorial to express his remorse. The King of Wu did not want to lose his loyal ‘Heavenly Hound’ and thus quickly glossed over his faults. The few remaining upright officials of the court were outraged, but they were unable to defy their king.


In the midst of all this terrible atmosphere, the court frantically searched for a silver lining. Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong’s return was lauded as ‘miraculous’, and their deeds to save their men were praised to the heavens to contrast against the marshal’s crimes. Huang Zheng was formally installed as the Guardian of the West, and Tigertrap Fort was officially under his direct command with Zhao Tong as his colleague.


Still, the King of Wu was troubled. Marshal Gao was gone, and the two generals Huang and Zhao were already aged. Were there no young heroes in his kingdom?


It was then that the names of Huang Ke, Huang Ming and Sunli reached his ears; whispered by the loyal officials who were seeking new tools to check Prime Minister Tong Xuan’s influence. Huang Ke was a busy military officer assisting his father at Tigertrap Fort, while Sunli was just a woman. Surely her exploits had been exaggerated.


But Huang Ming, wasn’t he the poet whose works had shook the country? Was he gifted as a strategist as well?


“Send forth an edict and call Huang Ming to the capital!”


Thus, a new part begins...
 

Marshal Gao played with soldiers,
Wanted too much on his shoulders.
Ran Wei the merciless,
Took advantage of his carelessness.
One hundred thousand lives wasted in battle,
Pity them, slaughtered like so much chattel.
But lo! Generals Huang and Zhao,
Made of iron, they did not bow.
A young tactician gave them a scheme,
With it they broke a situation most grim.
They took the defeated home safe and sound,
And even killed two Wei officers of renown.
The old have been swept away,
New leaders emerge from the gray,
Now the young master is called to court,
A new intrigue for him to consort...​

 

END PART TWO - THE WAVE-QUELLER’S FOLLY​