“Men, you are about to embark on a great crusade to stamp out runaway decency in the west. Now you men will only be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.”
--Hedley Lamarr, ‘Blazing Saddles’
Chapter Seventy Nine – Tigertrap Pass
The atmosphere turned heavy as they digested what the mysterious Lady of the Lichun had told them.
“Suppose you are right…” Huang Lang began warily.
“Don’t just take my word for it. Send scouts to Tigertrap Pass, you will see that there is already an encampment of soldiers there,” Qiong Ying said.
“How do you even-” Huang Ke sputtered with disbelief.
“The transport caravan that General Zhao Tong raided was destined for that pass,” Qiong Ying told him, omitting the part on how she had gotten the information in the first place. But after what she had told them, it needed not to be said.
“How many soldiers are there?” Huang Zheng demanded.
Qiong Ying shook her head in regret. “My information is not that detailed. I only knew that there was a supply convoy headed there, and thus arranged for General Zhao to intercept it. I do not know how many troops are there in Tigertrap Pass itself.”
“Father, we must destroy the camp lest it be reinforced as Wei’s staging area,” Huang Ke said urgently.
“Why destroy it?” Huang Ming smiled.
“What are you saying? We can’t allow Wei to build a strategic fortification right in front of our noses,” Huang Zheng said, his brows furrowed with worry.
“I mean, why destroy it when we could take it over?” Huang Ming asked. “We already know war is coming. Why sit back and let them dictate the pace? We should go forth and seize the initiative.”
“Take it over? You mean…”
“I’m serious. The reason they are invading is because they perceive our country to be weak and distressed internally. They would never expect a strike from us first,” Huang Ming explained.
“This might work…” their father said as he rubbed his wintry beard thoughtfully.
Huang Ming saw that his father was becoming convinced, and he pressed on by saying, “The best defence is a good offence. Right now, we have the advantage. They will not know that we’re coming. One swift stroke and we could very well prevent Wei’s invasion from ever taking place by taking over Tigertrap Pass. If they were to be given time to assemble and prepare, we could find ourselves outnumbered and overwhelmed in the future. Of course, Marshal Gao would dither in sending reinforcements, and how could we survive then?”
“Good!” Huang Zheng said and slapped the armrest of his chair. “The best defence is a good offence, I will have to remember that one.”
“Does that mean we’re attacking?” Huang Ke asked, his blood boiling with excitement.
Huang Zheng nodded. “You will act as the vanguard, I’ll be supporting you,” he said, and Huang Ke was pleased. He saluted his father and immediately set off, pausing only to give Liu Yuchun a whisper or two.
“Father, I would like to follow him,” Huang Ming interjected, much to the shock of those present.
“War isn’t a game,” his father said with a frown.
Huang Ming laughed. “It’s not as if I’m going there to swing a sword or pull a bow. I want to observe, it’s time for me to learn about such matters.”
“You are right,” Huang Zheng agreed.
“I want to follow as well,” Sunli spoke up.
“Good, you can look after him then,” Madam Li said in satisfaction, much to the annoyance of the persons concerned.
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Huang Ming groused while Sunli scowled in response.
“No, but you need a capable guardsman,” his mother said in a tone that brooked no further dissent.
The preparations were made quickly, and Huang Lang was sent to inform Governor Cao about what was happening.
As Huang Ming climbed onto his own horse to join his brother, Qiong Ying appeared.
“You don’t need to be so hasty to prove yourself,” she said quietly.
He tussled her hair and laughed. “It’s time I make something of myself, I can’t be trapped with my ridiculous reputation forever,” he said.
“We have to go,” Sunli said brusquely, motioning at the departing legion ahead of them. Huang Ke did not wait for his brother, he was eager to score a merit and had set out without him.
“Alright,” Huang Ming said. “I’ll be back,” he told Qiong Ying and spurred his horse.
“Take care of him,” Qiong Ying said to the guardswoman. Sunli looked at her expressionlessly and nodded. Then she too kicked her horse and rode after Huang Ming.
She looked on to his disappearing profile with mixed emotions.
“You will have to get used to this,” Madam Li said.
“I’m not sure that I ever will,” Qiong Ying said absent-mindedly.
Huang Ming was similarly absent-minded as he joined his brother’s column.
‘I need to learn how the military forces and weapons in this world works,’ he thought. ‘Then I’ll see about making my mark and building my forces… then...’
“Ah!” he exclaimed involuntarily.
“Something wrong?” Sunli asked as she rode beside him. Huang Ming shook his head hastily.
“No, er, I just remembered something, nothing important,” he said vaguely.
Sunli narrowed her eyes suspiciously but dropped the issue. Instead, she paid attention to Huang Ke and saw how he was directing the troops. The Mountain-Splitter was a famed veteran soldier, and she mentally took notes regarding his methods.
Huang Ming was grateful for the distraction, he did not want Sunli to know the reason he had yelped. He had shifted his body in mid-thought and discovered that he was saddle-sore. It was a physical and painful reminder that despite his mental experience, his current physical body was not quite up to what he was accustomed to. He had exercised regularly to build up his strength, but things like getting used to saddle soreness and developing sword callous would have to develop naturally.
Then he saw that several scouts were making their report to Huang Ke, and he rode forward to hear it as well.
“Sir, there are indeed Wei troops in the pass. Several thousands of them, and most of them are busy building a wooden fort as if for a long-term use,” a scout reported.
Huang Ke nodded grimly. “Looks like she was right,” he grudgingly said to his younger brother.
“What do you plan to do?” Huang Ming asked him.
“Attack, of course,” Huang Ke said matter-of-factly.
Huang Ming was astonished. “Head on?”
“You’re the one who suggested a lightning strike,” Huang Ke reminded him.
“That was before I saw the place. It’s easy to go in and attack, but if they are well-drilled it would be costly to dislodge them,” Huang Ming said.
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Lend me some soldiers, I’ll draw them out,” Huang Ming said.
One brother was blunt,
The other a stunt.