“You know, this is not the conduct of a gentleman.”
--
Lord General Cornwallis, ‘The Patriot’

Chapter 88 – Infuriating Fei Yue

Wu Vanguard camp,
Within Wei


“Well, we’ve done it,” Huang Zheng grunted heavily as he looked up from the letter of challenge.


“It’s about time,” Zhao Tong grumbled.


Their vanguard force of forty thousand soldiers had marched unchecked, sowing chaos among the rural population. The lack of a concrete objective for the vanguard meant the Wu soldiers were free to split and merge their units as often as they liked, behaving akin to a very large group of bandits; ravaging the Wei countryside.


The irony was not lost on Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong, having pretended to do so earlier back home. But it was not to this scale.


Many of the lesser townships and villages did not bother to resist, most simply fled at the sound of their arrival. In honesty, Huang Zheng had his troops deliberately slow down and beat the drums and gongs loudly so that the citizens would have some measure of time to evacuate. Then his troops proceeded to march unopposed and seize the crops, leaving only empty granaries for the returning inhabitants.


There were a few settlements with stalwart leaders that dared to conscript a militia, but the poorly armed villagers would flee when they saw the Wu soldiers. The charismatic leaders that had stirred their fighting spirit would shout and scream at them to no avail. Some were opportunistic to make names for themselves, others were truly patriotic and slit their own throat in despair rather than to surrender or escape. To them, the passing Wu soldiers would give a respectful salute.


There was also an uncharitable reason for Huang Zheng’s measures of mercy. The survivors would return to find their homes bereft of food and their fields trampled, and would have no choice but to seek aid from the nearest city. The influx of refugees placed pressure on the city’s supplies, and each day of inaction from the city’s authorities against Wu only heaped more criticism and anger on them.


As word began to spread about their ‘atrocities’, even the Wu soldiers were beginning to question themselves. The concept of a professional army as Huang Ming understood it had yet to arrive in this world: many of the soldiers were farmers themselves and hoped to return home to their own fields once their tour of duty was completed for the year. A standing army, trained and maintained for a tenured period had yet to be truly implemented except for the royal guard; as it was costly for kingdoms to pay and feed people ‘idling’ around in the military when they could be farming or working as labourers. That was a reason why many cities were impressively walled, so as to buy time for the rest of the country to mobilize their conscription and armaments.


It was one of the things that Huang Ming wished to change to make warfare more efficient. There were many ‘outdated’ practices that he wanted to abolish, for example; the lack of a proper chain of command among the ordinary soldiers. On the whole, the army formations and legions were unwieldy. A general would lead ten thousand men (or more) and might detach part of it to a trusted aide for maneuvers, but the idea of lower ranked officers like sergeants and corporals given responsibilities and acting on their own initiative were virtually unheard of. Perhaps this was why many soldiers revered the older leaders like Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong, for they rose through the ranks and did what nobody had expected of them.


Another of the existing concepts Huang Ming found amusing was the letter of challenge, one of which had just been delivered to them. Apparently, the raiding tactics of Huang Zheng were unorthodox and contrary to the usual practices. The Wei general had marched from one crisis point to another, but was unable to catch or intercept to the constantly moving Wu force because they were not aiming for a specific city. After a few instances of this, the Wei general finally opted to send multiple messengers in every direction with copies of a letter of challenge so that a formal, ‘old-fashioned’ battle on an agreed time and place could be fought.


“So who are we fighting?” Huang Ke asked.


“A force of seventy thousand, under the command of Fei Yue,” Huang Zheng said.


“Fei Yue, bah!” Zhao Tong said scornfully. “Nothing but a windbag who can’t fight his way out of a women’s skirt.”


Huang Ming raised an eyebrow at this comment. “He’s an incompetent?” he asked.


“He’s all talk and little action,” Zhao Tong said and spat.


“To be honest, I expected their best. Someone like General Ran Wei,” Huang Zheng said. Then he unrolled a map and marked several locations with pins. “Still, they slightly outnumber us. Fei Yue has proposed three sites of battle. Here, here and here. Send some scouts to all three, we need more information,” he said.


Huang Ming was aghast. “Wait a minute, don’t tell me you’re accepting?”


All turned to face him questioningly.


“Of course we are. I’m not about to refuse combat against Fei Yue of all people!” Zhao Tong said, and Huang Zheng concurred.


Huang Ming stared at them as if they were mad. “Just because the enemy sent a piece of paper doesn’t mean we have to agree!”


“This is an opportunity to destroy their army in the field,” Huang Ke pointed out.


“We’re the one with the initiative, why should we drop it and fight where and when the enemy wants?” Huang Ming demanded.


“What do you propose then?”


Huang Ming glanced at the map. “Tell Fei Yue that we choose the one on the left,” he said casually.


His brother exploded. “What? But you just said-”


“I didn’t say that we’re going to be there,” Huang Ming interrupted blandly. “We’re going the opposite direction, I’m sure we can find a few other places to sack.”


“You want us to lie? But I thought all along that we were to draw the enemy into the open, and now they are literally begging us to fight!” Zhao Tong said bemusedly.


“Oh, we’ll fight. At a time and place of our choosing,” Huang Ming chuckled. “Since they are the ones who are desperate, we should turn the screws on them and seek favourable conditions for ourselves. After all, we do need to survive until the thirty days are up before Marshal Gao moves his fat ass.”


“Assuming he will move at all,” his father muttered.


Huang Ming nodded grimly. Then he beckoned them to come closer and lowered his voice.


“This is what we’ll do…”



General Fei Yue’s camp,
Within Wei

“Those miserable, dishonourable cretins!” Fei Yue raged, crumpling the letter in his hand.


His seventy thousand Wei soldiers were hungry for vengeance. They were eager to lay their hands on the Wu invaders, and their anger was further inflamed when they heard how their countryside had been pillaged. Yet, there was no predictable pattern to Wu’s movements. He had led his men fruitlessly, chasing the down the latest emergency report; only to find their quarry had already left the area. Their only reward was exhaustion and irritation, and the scorn of the villages and towns that saw their belated arrival as proof of their incompetence.


If Fei Yue was a more flexible commander, he would have coordinated with the garrisons of the nearby cities to entangle the Wu vanguard so that he could bring his bigger force to bear. But he was a prideful person, and having blustered in front of the King of Wei to seize the opportunity from General Ran Wei, Fei Yue loathed to ask for help.


He had thought the Wu invaders to be cowards who kept evading and avoiding his superior force. But as the days wore on, he realized that they were simply ignoring him to continually raid the rural civilians. Thus he had resorted to the time honoured letter of challenge to end the cat and mouse chase. His subordinates were skeptical, but they had no other recourse.


Much to Fei Yue’s surprise, the Wu vanguard actually accepted; and he happily marched his force towards the designated place. As custom dictated, they were supposed to camp facing each other, have a brief parley between the commanders and then the battle could commence.


When Fei Yue reached the designated location, he was delighted to find it empty. It meant his troops could set camp first and enjoy a brief respite while waiting for the Wu vanguard to arrive. After the promised date had lapsed, Fei Yue decided to wait one more day… only to feel as if his face was slapped when the next spy report told him that the Wu vanguard were nowhere near the promised site. In fact, they had struck towards the opposite direction, and in multiple areas at once! It was as if they couldn’t care less about Fei Yue and his numerically superior force, the Wu vanguard was brazen enough to split its forces. It flew against the tenets of war: an inferior force should not divide itself against a bigger opponent.


Fei Yue had enough, he felt he had been utterly shamed.


“Split our forces into three! We’ll march in three pincers: from the north, south and east and push them back towards Tigertrap Pass! We’ll surround the Wu devils and finish them once and for all!” he roared.


A subordinate was brave enough to speak against it. “But sir, if we’re to cast the net that wide, that would mean a very large gap between the three blocks. It would be very difficult to coordinate with each other.”


Fei Yue nodded. “You have a point. Let’s do it this way then, we’ll set a date to reform in the centre. Even if we do not catch them, then we’ll just regroup and push directly into Tigertrap Pass. If we cannot destroy these damned Wu bandits, then we’ll just take the fort itself!”

 

All the toil and sweat,
His appetite was whet. ​