“You're gonna have to give him a moment, son. Dewey Cox has to think about his entire life before he plays.”
--Sam McPherson, ‘Walk Hard’
Chapter 83 – Rocky contemplation
Vicinity of Tigertrap Fort,
Huang Ming sighed with relief as he stretched his aching muscles, breathing in deeply the dew-laden morning air. Unceremoniously he sat on the rocky outcropping, taking in the view of Tigertrap Pass from his lofty, precarious position. He had made it a habit to climb the rocky walls of the pass, to familiarize himself with its features, making note of important features to be added later to a map. At first everyone were aghast at his barehanded rock-climbing, saying things like ‘the idiot was too free after a meal’, but the fruits of his surveys were useful. Not to mention, the exercise he was getting out of it.
The pass was a deep gorge, a large cleft between two sheer cliffs of stone with jagged, weather-worn features. In between them was flat ground where a large river used to run; leaving a desolate land of loose soil and small stones that were the curse of merchant wagons. In the dry months, the stony paths could wreak havoc on their wooden wheels, while during the rainy season the soil became muddy; ensnaring those who would travel on it.
There was little vegetation, the tallest of green, leafy plants were barely knee-high shrubs. They never grew dense enough to stand out, from a distance the view was blended into blotches of brown and grey.
Huang Ming looked down at the single sign of human activity: Tigertrap Fort. The rival country of Wei had expended tremendous resources and manpower to transport the material necessary to build it, but it was still merely a wooden structure of fencing and tents when Huang Ming led a small troop of Wu soldiers to capture it.
That was a few weeks ago, and a lot had changed since. The wooden fencing was replaced by brick and rammed earth, rising much higher than the palisades the Wei soldiers had built before. Wei had only meant for it to be used as a temporary fortification, an encampment used to house soldiers and supplies to stage an invasion of Wu.
But Wu saw the wisdom of a permanent fixture. Huang Ming's father General Huang Zheng ordered for an ambitious project to upgrade the fort, effectively turning the tent encampment into a full fledged stone complex that stretched from one wall of the gorge to the other, effectively turning into a wall-and-gate structure; sealing the entire pass beneficially to Wu. Now no invader could go through the pass without first surmounting Tigertrap Fort.
It was a logical idea to build the wall and fort, but it was never done due to the lack of materials in the immediate area. But once Wei laid the foundations, it was easy enough for Wu to arrange for expedited construction. After all, it would be a waste to simply destroy what Wei had built. And how humiliating it would be for Wei to see the labour of their hard work be in the hands of Wu?
Indeed, Huang Ming heard that General Ran of Wei was furious at the loss of Tigertrap Pass. The hapless commander that had surrendered it to Huang Ming was executed, his head stuck on a pike. Far from deterring Wei from launching their invasion of Wu as he had hoped, it seemed that General Ran was stepping up preparations instead.
Nobody was sure where the first blow would land, but Tigertrap Pass would surely be a prime target to wipe away Wei’s humiliation.
That explained the near constant stream of caravans and transports from various cities of Wu to the fort: carrying construction material, supplies, workers and soldiers to upgrade Tigertrap Fort. Now it was a bustling, burgeoning complex that housed twenty thousand souls, the first line of Wu’s defence against Wei. Once word got out that Wei was up to its old tricks again, the spirit of patriotism was ignited in Wu’s population and everyone chipped in. Young men were inspired to sign up for the army, while merchants vied with each other in their deliveries to help out the fort.
He smiled as he recalled the looks on faces of his friends when he drafted them into service. Zhang Ping the Stone General took charge of the stone work, using his skills and connections as a quarry merchant and rock artisan. Lei Yan who was a mathematical genius nicknamed the Dancing Abacus became the quartermaster, settling accounts and logistics. He Ding the Odd Brush became General Huang Zheng’s personal secretary, writing and recording with deft strokes. It was their prodigious talents that hastened the smooth construction of the fort, a true case of men rising to the challenge.
Only Min Guang the White Jade was left out; he simply disappeared without so much as a goodbye once word got out about Huang Ming’s double engagement. The Min family was unhelpful, and Huang Ming wondered at the fate of his young friend. Perhaps they were more than happy to have Min Guang away from the so-called ‘corrupting influences’ of Huang Ming, even though bulk of the blame was due to the insidious nature of Nangong Xie.
Ah, Nangong Xie. The Handsome Scholar soon found himself ostracised. He had thrown in his lot with Lord Fang La in the latter’s attempt to seize military authority from General Huang Zheng. Only the coincidental raid by ‘Wei’ prevented such a move, giving sudden enlightenment to Lord Fang La that he was perhaps not ready to take command in an actual military situation. Lord Fang La returned to Gusu City, and Nangong Xie had no choice but to follow suit.
A slight breeze blew past Huang Ming, whipping his hair slightly and cooling his sweat. The sun was rising rapidly, but he sat on the rocky outcropping and enjoyed the solitude. And he wondered who he truly was.
He was not rewarded for his capture of Tigertrap Pass. He wasn’t a soldier when it officially happened, he was merely ‘tagging along’ for experience. Instead, he got an earful from his irate parents when they learnt what he had done. In retrospect, he agreed with their views that he was reckless. After all, in their minds; he was just a dissolute young man without any formal military training nor qualifications.
Then he suggested joining the army officially under his father’s command, and they were somewhat assuaged. They had been worried about his future, his literary career was just starting but to their minds it was also the reason he was so lackadaisical. The original Huang Ming was a prodigal son: wasteful and lazy and unmotivated, sick and drunk most of the time.
General Huang Zheng approved of his youngest son joining the army as an advisor and administrator so that he could keep an eye on him. The general thought his wife had been too lenient on Huang Ming, and wanted to take him to Tigertrap Fort to put some steel into his back.
“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just send him home,” the aged general had said to his wife.
Huang Ming looked into the distance, there was a merchant caravan approaching the fort from the direction of home, Tianxin City.
Maybe one of his friends were in the caravans today.
Wu trumped Wei,
Stole their wall and kept them away.