Call of the dead
“It's a trick. Get an axe.”
--Ash Williams, ‘Army of Darkness’ (1992)
Chapter 182 – Call of the dead
As predicted by Huang Ming, the Jins filled the pits during the following nights. The Jin soldiers were simply ordered to run at the pits with bags of dirt and to throw them into the pits. In the falling snow, digging up the soil and then running to and fro for the enterprise was a feat of sheer determination.
A few of the Wu defenders on the walls of Beihai could not resist firing a few arrows at the dark mass of shadows in the night, but like what Huang Ming had said, it only caused a few casualties. The Jins did not stop, they merely picked up the fallen bags of dirt and pressed on. Some even stripped off their upper clothing and treat it as some sort of deadly sporting challenge, sweating with both exertion and anxiety despite the winter nights.
After two nights, the Wu defenders saw that their pits had been completely covered over. It was a little disheartening to see the weeks of digging be negated in merely two nights, and Huang Ming only asked them to gently pour buckets of water over the face of the wall and to the ground below. It was as if they were washing the wall face… but why? There were no blood shed on the wall yet…
Due to Jin’s preoccupation with the earthworks, they did not notice the wet endeavour. But by the dawn of the third day, the Jins awoke to find a glistening face of ice on the walls of Beihai. The dipping temperatures had froze the water poured by the defenders at night.
Of course, the Jins had no idea what had happened. It was as if an armour of ice had been magically draped over the walls of Beihai.
While Jin had been rapidly developing under the guidance of the Princess of Jin, their nomadic and shamanistic traditions still remained in their core. The sudden appearance of a glistening, icy façade on the walls of Beihai shook the more superstitious of the common rank and file. The sunlight gleamed off the ice and reflected a glare directly back at the Jin army. From the invader’s perspective, it seemed that there was an unearthly halo over Beihai.
The Jin commanders were obviously irritated by the hesitation in their troops. A proposed direct attack that day and the next had to be called off as some of the men refused to obey. Harsh military punishment had to be exacted to whip them back into line, and their morale fell.
Even the Wu defenders in Beihai were surprised by the icy wall. A simple act of freezing water over the nights had delayed enemy action for two full days. The men and citizens now look at Huang Ming reverently: in addition to being a strategist, he was now almost a prophetic figure.
Yet they did not know that despite his calm outward demeanour, Huang Ming returned home each day worn and weary. Miss Xilei saw how the young man would sigh every now and then. He was growing irritable at every passing day, and it seemed his responsibilities were physically causing a bent back and slumped shoulders.
It brought some cheer to the Jin agent. The fake maid and her fellow spies Songdan and Wu Zhi had been trapped in Beihai ever since the siege, unable to enact their plans to kidnap Huang Ming. Despite being advised by the Masked Man, the speed of the Jin army’s advance surprised them all. Not a day passed without Songdan cursing about the Masked Man’s vague warnings. Xilei herself became suspicious especially since the Masked Man did not turn up again since that night.
Xilei had mixed feelings about the siege. On the one hand, she was trapped in a war situation. On the other, it meant she was stuck in Beihai and was able to remain close to the enigmatic Quan Lu…
The voluptuous maid shook her pretty head, willing the devilishly handsome face away from her mind. Instead, she brew a pot of tea and approached Huang Ming.
“You must take care of yourself, sire,” she murmured, acting the part of a concerned maid as she poured him a cup.
Huang Ming chuckled hollowly, but drank the tea with relish.
He looked at her face as she refilled the cup. Noticing his attention, she blushed demurely.
“I have done you wrong,” Huang Ming said suddenly.
“Sire?” she asked, startled.
“I should have sent you away with General Yin. Now you are trapped here, facing an uncertain future.”
She smiled. “Had I remained in the wilderness, I would have suffered a terrible fate by the Jins anyway. My life was saved by you, and I am indebted to you,” she said.
Huang Ming sighed. “Just as well. Had you remained there, the Jins would have thought that you were someone sent to do so officially, and would desecrate those graves. Such a thing would be a terrible blow to Beihai. Luckily without you keeping vigil there, the Jins would assume the graves were of no importance, and would ignore it.”
Later that night, Xilei slipped away to meet her compatriots and passed Huang Ming’s worries to them.
The elderly hunchback Wu Zhi rubbed his chin in thought.
“This could prove useful. Now that we are trapped here, we should do what we can to aid our army to take the city quickly,” he said slowly.
Songdan was less than enthusiastic, moreso since the information came from Xilei who was at odds with him.
“Really? What if such an act enrage the Beihai people instead?” he asked.
Xilei was irritated by the scarred man’s pessimism, but conceded that it was a possibility.
Wu Zhi nodded at him. “You may be right, but then it would also provoke them to go out and fight. The citizens might be furious enough to demand immediate retaliation, forcing Huang Ming out of his defensive tactics.”
“I guess it would be preferable than watch our army bleed clumsily in this siege,” Songdan grumbled.
“This Huang Ming is much more resourceful than we thought. Who could have thought that a thin sheet of ice is enough to deter the army from attacking?” Wu Zhi sighed.
“A paltry trick, fit only to fool the ignorant,” Songdan sneered.
“But it worked,” Xilei reminded him, just to be contrary.
“Whose side are you on?” Songdan shot back.
“Enough,” Wu Zhi said wearily. “It is a simple sleight of mind, but the important thing is that it worked.”
“It goes to show just how hastily conceived this attack was. Whoever convinced our Prince to attack in winter needs to be strung up and hung as a traitor,” Songdan said vehemently.
“There is no point debating what had already happened. I will write the message and seal it with my emblem, but as to delivering it to our army outside…” Wu Zhi trailed off.
“It will have to be tied to an arrow. All I need is a Wu soldier’s uniform,” Songdan said.
“That’s not all you need. Their soldiers know each other well, and will question someone with a face like yours. I’ll go with you to distract them, they will be eating out of my palm,” Xilei said smugly.
Wu Zhi then wrote the letter and sealed it with a wax imprint of his emblem. Songdan disguised himself accordingly, and made as if he was escorting Xilei to the city wall.
“Miss Xilei, what are you doing here? It can be dangerous!” the Wu soldiers on the wall exclaimed.
“How can I remain at home when brave men like you are risking your lives? At the very least, I can provide some hot food for you,” Xilei said, gesturing to the small basket with her.
“You are such an angel!” the Wu soldiers gushed, swarming around her as she doled out some plain dumplings.
Songdan suppressed his urge to vomit, and instead slipped away to a shadowy part of the wall. After checking that nobody was watching, he quickly fired an arrow which was painted red and tied with a small bell in addition to Wu Zhi’s letter. The sound would alert the Jin soldiers, and the colour would stand out in the morning snow.
The next morning saw the resumption of Jin activity. The Jin commander was completely enraged after reading Wu Zhi’s missive: to think that their entire army had ground to a halt because of plain water!
To demonstrate to the superstition men that the ice was merely ice, the Jin commander launched the first catapult himself. The Jin soldiers waited with bated breath as the heavy projectile flew through the air. It struck Beihai with a crash, smashing the thin ice and breaking a chunk of the wall with it.
“See for yourself! It’s just plain ice! Ice!” the Jin commander roared, the veins in his neck bulging.
The Jin soldiers raised their voices.
“The Wu people are deceitful and underhanded! They refuse to fight honourably! Think of how they are making fun of you! They must be laughing at all of us!”
The Jin commander raised his fist in a dramatic gesture.
“They won’t be laughing any more! Look!” he said, and pointed to a ghastly procession behind him. Exhumed corpses and skeletal remains were being strung up on huge crosses; some were so decrepit that their coffins were also tied up to the crucifixes.
The ghastly displays were then hoisted up for all to see.
“See this! These are the remains of the Yin clan, the bogeymen who had defied the Jins for so long! See how they cannot even provide a decent burial for the men who fight and died for them, see how little they think of them!”
The Jin commander then pointed at the huge ‘Huang’ banner.
“I want that banner destroyed! Take it down!”
A brazen provocation,
Causing much violence.