The siege of Beihai (2)
“A Fortress circumvented ceases to be an obstacle. A Fortress destroyed ceases to a threat. Know the difference.”
--Warhammer 40,000, “The Tacitca Imperialis”
Chapter 181 – The siege of Beihai (2)
Despite the dramatic appearance of the Jin army, the actual siege itself took days to begin proper. The huge cavalry charge from the horizon and the accompanying blood-thirsty yells were more for show than any real practical purpose.
There were some in Beihai who were intimidated by the Jins, but most were grimly determined to fight. The militia which to outsiders seemed to sprout overnight were quickly organized and mobilized. They had no illusions of their effectiveness, but the alternative was to passively await slaughter.
That was not to say that Huang Ming allowed the city to lapse into complacency. In fact, he ordered strict war-time measures, from curfews and food rationing to having the security forces conduct checks and patrols.
It kept everyone busy and on their toes and avoid the feeling of helplessness as the Jin siege towers were completed. The biting winter chill added to their frustrations.
There were some who chafed at his orders, thinking that the young scholar was unnecessarily austere. After all, General Yin would rescue them soon, wouldn’t he? Why should they need to limit their meals as though relief would never come?
It was not until the first boulder from a catapult slamming into the city wall did the realities of a siege truly hit home figuratively and literally speaking.
Beihai itself did not have the weapons to retaliate. Having grown accustomed to meeting invaders in the open field, the successive governors and generals neglected to maintain such heavy siege weapons. General Yin himself made the ‘difficult decision’ to continue the trend and instead spent the money on recruiting actual soldiers.
Soldiers which he then took away from Beihai…
Very quickly the mantra of ‘thirsty days’ spread through the city. That was the number Huang Ming had quoted to General Yin. The relatively short timeframe seemed very realistic to the citizens and it helped to convince them to bear with the inconvenience of being surrounded by a horde of barbarians.
Indeed, there was little the outnumbered soldiers in Beihai could do. But due to their scarceness, it meant the heavy boulders launched by the Jins struck the walls but caused insignificant casualties.
Yet it provoked little to no response from Beihai.
The lack of reaction from Beihai was puzzling to the Jins. They were causing some structural damage with the siege weapons, but the lack of retaliation meant the rest of the Jin army had little or nothing to do. There was no need for the infantry to shield the engineers, no need for the cavalry to wander around the gates to prevent the defenders from rushing out.
As it was, the only sound of war was the creaking tendons and ropes being pulled back, the whistling sound of a projectile flying through the air and the cracking boom of a hit. Other than the occasional cheer from the siege engineers, there were no swords clashing, no screams from men dying, no shouting for one’s mother… none of the traditional sounds of battle.
It was akin to someone throwing rocks at an empty house.
In the Jin camps, a council was held. The leaders huddled around a fire, their breaths puffing visibly as testament to the falling temperatures.
“What the hell are they doing? Why aren’t they fighting back? Don’t they know that they are being attacked?” the Jin commander asked as he gestured angrily at the near empty battlements and parapets of Beihai.
“Maybe they can’t fight back,” one of his subordinates guessed. “The Masked Man did report that Beihai is significantly weakened.”
“To this degree? I find it hard to believe,” the Jin commander snorted.
Usually in a siege, the heavy artillery was used to break down the walls and clear off the defenders on it. Later, the rams and ladders were brought in to exploit the breaches in the defences. The soldiers would then storm the city, secure the gatehouses and throw them open for the rest of the army to enter to rape and pillage.
But in this particular case, it was as if Beihai had arbitrarily conceded the first round, and it made the several days of tedious unpacking and assembling the heavy machines of war all seem wasteful.
“Perhaps we should circumvent the city and strike the heartlands of Wu instead?” someone suggested.
“Do you wish to disobey our Prince of Jin?” the Jin commander asked coldly.
He glared at the huge banner flying high from somewhere within Beihai. The word ‘Huang’ fluttered in the winter wind arrogantly, as if unimpressed with the efforts of the Jin besiegers.
“The Prince of Jin gave us 30 days to take the city, but from what I see it is overly generous. If the Wu cowards inside Beihai are not willing to come out and fight, then we’ll go in and kill them,” the Jin commander said disdainfully.
He then ordered for a general attack on the city. The Jin soldiers cheered; finally there was action for them instead of sitting huddled around campfires in the cold.
It was a strange opening battle for the Jins. Here they were, marching towards Beihai yet there was not even a single arrow shot from the Wu soldiers on the walls. The Wu soldiers merely scurry around like rats as the Jins advanced towards the weakest points of the battered wall.
Seeing no resistance, the Jin soldiers rushed forward with their huge ladders. This was a frontal assault, and they made sure all knew it by beating the war drums and filling the air with their battlecries of ‘Ala-la-la-la-la-la!’.
It seemed that the entire city was silently awaiting its doom.
A hundred paces away from the walls proper, those lusty battlecries turned into screams of anguish and surprise. The Jin rush was halted in confusion, but those in the rear were unaware and kept pushing those in front.
“What is going on?” the Jin commander growled.
A runner from the front breathlessly reported: “There were hidden pits in front of the city walls, filled with spikes!”
Just then, a cheer rose from within Beihai. The great bell was rung, and then as if by magic, the soldiers of Wu reappeared on top of the walls. The entire wall was lined with mass of archers, far more numerous than the Jins had seen previously. The archers drew their bows and let loose hails of arrows, showering the stricken Jins below with deadly consequences. The Jin soldiers were thrown into chaos: were they to continue to press forward, leaping over the dead and dying bodies of their comrades? Or were they to pull back?
“Cowardly treachery!” the Jin commander swore. He then ordered the drums to signal for his soldiers to pull back.
“We’re retreating?” someone asked.
“They laid low to lure us in, they obviously have more traps waiting for us. There is no reason for us to play their game. Have the men pull back, we will secretly fill the pits in at night,” the commander replied.
The soldiers were aggrieved at the ‘cowardly’ tactics employed by the defenders of Beihai, and they reluctantly retreated. It was the height of frustration: to finally be given the order to attack and yet were told to pull back at the brink of actual assault.
Inside the city of Beihai, the defenders jeered at the retreating backs of the Jins.
Huang Ming looked on pensively.
“Sir, should we prepare the traps again?” one of the soldiers asked as his colleagues listened with trepidation. The prospect of going out of the city to clear the pits of the dead bodies were daunting to say the least.
Huang Ming shook his head. “No, this tactic won’t work again. They will be filling up the pits at night.”
“Then… should we try to stop them?”
“No, we won’t be able to stop them,” Huang Ming said.
The soldier looked at the corpses in the pits below them. “Really?” he asked sceptically.
“They have much more men than us. All they need to do is order each man to carry bags of earth to the pits, and they will be done in a few nights.” Huang Ming enlightened.
The Wu soldier said nothing, but looked meaningfully at the bow in his own hands.
Huang Ming chuckled. “Are you confident of hitting them with each shot… at night? You might cause them some inconvenience, but they will accomplish their goals. Save the arrows, there will be plenty of time to use them effectively later.”
The Wu soldiers nodded in understanding. Over the past few weeks before the Jin attack, Huang Ming had ordered them to dig deep pits, much to their irritation. Why were they digging these great holes for no reason?
Now they saw how their efforts had reaped deadly results. They looked down at the wall, staring at the corpses of the Jins that lay in those very pits that they have dug.
There were other baffling preparations that was ordered by Huang Ming well in advance, but now the Wu soldiers realized that their young leader had prodigious foresight.
“Look, it’s snowing!” someone whispered.
It seemed even the heavens were paying tribute to the dead.
The Wu soldiers gazed at their young strategist with awe and wonder. The way he stood solemnly at the parapet, his hand outstretched to catch the snow in a picturesque manner…
Then they were confounded again by his next order:
“Since the Jins will be busy with digging earth to fill up the pits, I want every man here to prepare two buckets of water each. Bring them up to the wall tonight, those who fail will be severely punished.”
That left the soldiers scratching their heads in puzzlement.
“Water? Why not oil to burn the Jins?” they ventured to ask, referring to the standard tactic of pouring incendiaries at a besieging force.
“Save the oil and flammables, we will be needing them in this cold weather,” Huang Ming explained.
The soldiers obeyed, but some could not help but look at his back as he wandered off.
Just what was in the head of their young leader?
For the enemy, it was tragic.