“Major Powers wants us to die in a loud, grotesque, military manner.”
--Corporal 'Stitch' Jones, ‘Heartbreak Ridge’
Chapter 86 – The march
Not a day passed without General Huang Zheng looking eastwards towards Tianxin City where his wife and daughters-in-laws were. He and Madam Li made liberal use of Qiong Ying’s relay network, sending covert messages to each other to keep each other updated and comforted.
Huang Zheng’s heart burned with a combination of pride and anger as he read how his wife had thwarted the unwanted advances of Marshal Gao. The marshal made Tianxin his temporary base as the rest of his forces mobilized, and he took advantage of his time there to ‘visit’ the Huang residence. Upon the advice of the shrewd Cao Tianyun, Madam Li had the gates of the residence opened to the public, and Huang Zheng found himself snickering when she described the incredulous look on the marshal’s face when he saw the bustling amount of visitors.
When Huang Zheng showed the missives to his sons at the fort, Huang Ming took it a step further. He wrote back to his mother, telling her to start a campaign to raise funds and awareness for the army.
“Spread word about father being made vanguard. Collect monies and goods to be sent to Tigertrap Fort. Even common things like winter clothings, dried foods. Hire artisans and craftsmen and stockpile weapons and trustworthy men, and hide them with the help of Governor Cao and Liu Xiang so that they would not be seized by the marshal. I have a feeling that this campaign will not end well, for we all but announced to the world that we’re attacking Wei from a predictable direction. Speed is the essence of war, and secrecy its essential component; and the marshal had violated this precept with his ponderous mobilization. You must take care in not to repeat his mistakes.
“Make known to all that you’re supporting the Great General in this terrible endeavour, that you are worried but proud that my father has the heaviest of responsibilities. After all, he was appointed as the tip of the spear by Marshal Gao himself. Make sure you stress the point that this campaign was the brainchild of the marshal, that father does not love war but he serves the country because he is called.
“In other words, you must frustrate the marshal, so that he will have to justify himself to the public when his methods are revealed in the future. In this dark times, our only real ally is public sentiment. Therefore you must paint a heroic picture of father, that of a reluctant warrior forced to obey orders.”
Huang Zheng and Huang Ke nodded in approval when he showed them the draft reply.
“I like this phrase, about ‘speed is the essence of war’. Where did you learn this? Certainly not from me,” Huang Zheng said, giving Huang Ming a scrutinizing look.
“From my foreign books,” Huang Ming said off-handedly.
“But your books are all about women,” Huang Ke said disbelievingly.
Huang Ming smiled. “Ah, so that’s why some of my books disappear and mysteriously reappear at times.”
Huang Ke ignored the smug look on his younger brother’s face.
“Will it be as bad as you say? You’re basically telling mother to prepare for our retreat all the way back to Tianxin City,” he said instead.
“It doesn’t hurt to prepare while we’re away in Wei,” Huang Ming shrugged.
“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Huang Zheng asked.
“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean’?” Huang Ming shot back. “Am I not going with you?”
Huang Zheng and Huang Ke exchanged looks. “No,” they chimed in unison.
“Why not?” Huang Ming demanded.
“Because you’re staying here,” his father told him. “You said it yourself that things are liable to get bad. Therefore it stands to reason that you’re to hold this pass while we go forth.”
Huang Ming scoffed. “You think that Marshal Gao will approve? He will mostly like make one of his toadies take charge of the fort.”
“Then what is to be done if we have to pull back?” Huang Ke asked in alarm.
“Don’t worry, I’ll think of something,” Huang Ming said with a smile.
“I hope so, because I would not want to end up as a corpse outside of this fort, with an arrow in my back from one of the marshal’s dogs,” Huang Zheng said grimly.
A few days later, two legions of men arrived at the fort. One was headed by General Zhao Tong whom was greeted joyously by the Huangs. The moment he dismounted, he gave a great big hug to his daughter Sunli.
“Made any progress yet?” Zhao Tong asked leeringly, causing the dark-skinned woman to flush.
“This is not the time nor place,” Sunli seethed through clenched teeth. She had timed her return just as Qiong Ying had returned to Tianxin City with messages from the Huangs, and the two women had missed each other.
“Ships passing each other in the night,” Huang Ming said when Qiong Ying complained before leaving. But they knew that Sunli was making excuses to avoid her.
Sunli pushed his father away and led him to Huang Zheng’s office.
“Once more into the jaws of death, my friend,” the general said when he saw his old comrade.
“Speak for yourself, I have no desire to die because of that old goat,” Zhao Tong rumbled, his short beard bristling.
“Calm yourself, one of his creatures is nearby,” Huang Zheng murmured.
The other body of men was led by a certain Qin Lang, a known associate of the marshal. He arrived a few hours after Zhao Tong, appearing as if to catch the two aged generals at the same time. He bore with him the formal orders of appointment. The royal seal affixed to the scroll was a damning endorsement from the royal court, and Huang Zheng could not help but secretly sigh at the state of affairs at the capital.
Qin Lang was a thin fellow with a pencil moustache that gave him all the appearance of a mean rat. His armour was ostentatious and ill-fitting, it was all too obvious that he was the sort that could only direct battles from behind a desk.
He opened the scroll and launched a long-winded spiel about the invasion of Wei. Huang Ming resisted the temptation to yawn and only snapped back to attention when his father’s name was finally mentioned.
“...General Huang Zheng is to be leader of the van, General Zhao Tong to be his assistant. They will lead forty thousand men into Wei and clear the path for the marshal and the rest of our forces,” Qin Lang droned.
“Is there an actual, physical objective?” Zhao Tong asked with barely concealed contempt.
“Of course,” Qin Lang said, displeased at being interrupted. “The immediate goal of this invasion is the capture of the Wei cities on the other side of this pass. The marshal does not expect you to capture the cities themselves, that is far beyond your capabilities. It is sufficient that you bypass them and drive straight towards their capital and draw away their defenders. Thirty days after your departure from here, the marshal’s forces will then sweep in to take the empty cities.”
Zhao Tong’s eyes bulged with fury. Anyone with half a brain knew that it was a suicidal order. It was basically telling them to survive on their own for a month in enemy territory.
Huang Zheng grabbed his friend by the shoulder to prevent an outburst. “Who is to take charge of this fort while I’m away?” he asked.
“I am,” Qin Lang said, almost gloatingly.
Huang Zheng sighed. His son was right again.
Three days later, forty thousand men under the command of General Huang Zheng and General Zhao Tong marched out of Tigertrap Fort.
Forty thousand lives to burn,
How many will return?