“Good morning, Sergeant-Major!”
--Sergeant Ernie Savage, ‘We Were Soldiers’
Chapter 162 – Forging
When Huang Ming arrived at Beihai and observed for himself the state of affairs in the important fortress city, he came to the conclusion that there were three major problems:
Firstly, the soldiers. Fifteen thousand soldiers were simply too few to simultaneously garrison the city, patrol the border with Jin and also maintain a mobile force that was capable of sortieing to meet an incoming threat. In Tianxin City his father maintained a force of thirty thousand soldiers at all times, and that was in addition to the formidable Tigertrap Fort and a narrow strip of very defensible terrain. Beihai on the other hand was like an island in a sea of snow and grass plains, it stood out like a sore thumb.
Secondly, the city itself was stagnating. It was barely generating enough income and supplies to sustain itself, and there was an emerging dependence on sourcing food and material from other friendly cities.
Thirdly, the Jins themselves. They were like an invisible threat; one could almost feel the predatory eyes of the fierce Jins looking ever southwards. News and rumours of their incredible growth in recent years have fuelled speculation and fears of an invasion of Wu, with Beihai being the first target.
All of these resulted in bleak atmosphere that hung over Beihai like a dark cloud. The transfer of its former commander General Yin Yanzhao only compounded the gloomy air; it was as if even the celebrated figure too had thrown in the towel and beat an honourable retreat in order to preserve his family’s illustrious reputation.
Huang Ming quickly wrote several letters. There was a brief but terse report to the King of Wu to inform him of the situation, but he refrained from being scathing of General Yin’s previous administration. General Yin was now the king’s confidant, there was no point in antagonizing him yet when Huang Ming himself was so far away.
Besides, the king sent him to solve problems, not to create more. Thus Huang Ming felt it would be pointless to sit and wait the king to take action.
Next were more letters to his friends and relatives.
Lei Yan the Dancing Abacaus and He Ding the Odd Brush have changed from the frivolous young men that Huang Ming remembered in Tianxin City. The duo were now very respectable and capable officers for General Huang Zheng and Governor Cao Yuan.
When Huang Ming’s letter arrived, they wasted no time to cast the net far and wide. With Lei Yan’s miraculous calculations and He Ding’s elegant prose, they succeeded in persuading other provinces of the kingdom to send whatever they can spare to Beihai.
Soon caravans of supply transports began to stream into Beihai, followed by enterprising merchants who brought an infectious wave of optimism with them. The city was bustling once more as it shook away the cobwebs of a sluggish slumber.
As for the soldiers… the brawl between the Black Bears and the White Wolves became the stuff of legends among the younger troops. Even more talked about was how Huang Ming had nonchalantly told General Li Jing that “it was just some fun and games”.
Somehow the mass brawl between the veteran units inspired an almost tribal fervour among the younger recruits. It was like first time spectators in a sports stadium suddenly becoming overwhelmed by the roaring atmosphere all around them, and instantly converted into devoted fans themselves.
When Huang Ming was given oversight of the two units, the veterans initially shuddered as they thought they were in the hands of a mere scholar that they had offended.
But Huang Ming completely ignored the fact that he had been struck in that free-for-all. He only told them to clean up the training ground and report for duty as usual the next day.
The Black Bears and White Wolves were stunned. Happy, but puzzled by the lack of an immediate punitive measure. Where were the threats of extra hours of duty? Pay cuts? Food rationing? All the usual but ineffective penalties that the veterans had experienced before and unafraid of?
The soldiers had feared an immediate repercussion for their faults and thus were left even more perplexed when the next day began as normal. Not wanting to give their new commander any excuse to persecute them, the Black Bears and White Wolves turned up with their uniforms cleaned and their weapons polished. Some sported bandages as a result of the great fight, but they still presented themselves as if they were preparing for a parade; standing with their spines straight and their eyes forward during the morning assembly.
A picture of perfectly disciplined troops, yet there was an air of cynicism all around them.
Come on, prove us right! You’re just a scholar, what do you think you can do to frighten us soldiers?
But Huang Ming merely went on as if it was normal. He calmly introduced himself to the grizzled, thuggish veteran soldiers; some of whom were as old enough as his father.
“I am Huang Ming of Tianxin, and from this day forth you shall answer to me,” Huang Ming said very simply and calmly.
After that was the usual announcements of the week’s duty roster and other routine minutia being read by a herald. The Black Bears and White Wolves felt their backs ache as the herald droned on, dreading the moment their punishment was to be announced.
“...and that is all. Dismissed!” the herald shouted.
The leader of the White Wolves, the one who had dragged Huang Ming into gambling; was the most relieved. He was also the most baffled, and he could not understand why they were not punished for their blatant transgressions. Did the new commander perhaps want to keep them constantly on their toes and drop the hammer when they least expected it? How vicious! Better to take the pain now than to be kept waiting!
He jutted his chin proudly and growled, “Sir! We are ready to be punished as you see fit!”
Huang Ming tilted his head quizzically at him. “Punished? For what?” he asked mildly.
The White Wolf leader’s eyes narrowed. Aha! This young scholar wanted to humiliate them by forcing him to admit that they were gambling.
How naive! We are hardened men who have been soldiering long before you had grown hair down there, did you think we would be ashamed to admit what we have done?
“Sir! For the fighting yesterday, sir! And the gambling!” the White Wolf shouted daringly.
“Ah,” Huang Ming nodded. Then he smiled slyly and replied, “But I was gambling too.”
The scarred White Wolf blinked, not initially registering what he had just heard. Did the scholar just throw his lot in with them?
“But thank you for reminding me. As I recall, we won the bet. Where’s my cut?” Huang Ming asked.
The grizzled soldier stared back at him, flabbergasted.
Seeing Huang Ming’s conspiratorial grin caused the heavily scarred soldier to laugh loudly in return. It was infectious, and soon the men of the White Wolves and Black Bears were swept up in the hilarity. The younger soldiers and those who did not witness the fracas were confused. Later their older brethren would enlighten them about the incident, with each retelling becoming more exaggerated and embellished.
“You are all experienced soldiers, what have you not seen or done?” Huang Ming asked, voicing their earlier thoughts. “You have been bathed by the rain and combed by the winds, you men know how to play hard. I only ask that you also work hard and lead by example.”
Huang Ming then outlined a reform of the troops. Instead of putting all the veterans into just two elite units, they were to split up and take groups of younger soldiers under their charge.
In effect, each of the White Wolves and Black Bears were suddenly promoted into leaders of men. They were now responsible for leading and teaching the younger soldiers below them.
“Imagine this. Arrows flying through the air, mud in your shoes and smoke in your eyes! The battle just shifted, and you don’t know what happened. You cannot see your general, you cannot find your friends in the midst of battle. What do you do?” Huang Ming asked one of the newer recruits.
“Uh…” the young soldier stammered. Huang Ming hit him with a stabbing motion into his chest.
“Too late! An enemy spear had just went through your lungs! You’re dead!” Huang Ming informed him. He then whirled on his feet to face another recruit.
“You! What do you do?” he repeated the question, only to be met by the same hesitation. This time Huang Ming responded by lightly chopping the man’s neck with a palm.
“Too late! An enemy sword had just cut off your head! You’re dead!”
“Too late! An arrow just hit you in the eye! You’re dead!”
The young recruits were frightened, they could almost see themselves in the situation Huang Ming had described. The way the older veterans nodded grimly as Huang Ming spoke only added weight to his descriptions.
Then Huang Ming said gravely to the veterans:
“When your terms of service have ended, there must be others to take your place. Do not let your years of expertise be wasted, you must teach the younger men what you know! They will be ones fighting and dying long after you have gone!”
The veterans nodded. They puffed out their chests and squared their shoulders, their eyes gleaming with a sense of renewed purpose.
This time, there were nothing cynical about the way they stood.
He lionized the old,
And found use for rusted iron.
They are not to be sold,
For they are worth more than gold.