“Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you.”
-- Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’
Chapter 95 – Aftermath
The plains of Dashan were littered with the corpses of the Wu soldiers. After Gao Fang had fled the battlefield, the leaderless army of Wu were easily crushed. Those who fled threw aside their weapons and armour to avoid capture. Indeed, it seemed that Wei spent more time gathering their loot than on the actual decisive action itself; such was the swiftness in the collapse of Gao Fang’s army.
Yet, there were those who were already looking forward for more. As Ran Wei scanned the horizon whilst still atop his warhorse, a troop of his officers came to see him. Among them were the brothers Feng Dan and Feng Liu, as well as his sister Ran Bing. All showed signs of exertion, their armour and uniforms bloodied, their weapons still dripping with blood from the carnage that they had wrought.
“General, you have scored a great victory here; but shouldn’t we push on?” Feng Dan asked.
“Yes, we can take this chance to seize Tigertrap Fort back,” Feng Liu added.
Ran Wei smiled coldly at the young brothers. They were part of his carefully raised cadre, the next generation of Wei leaders for him to command as if they were his hands and feet. He had taken the opportunity of Wei’s desperation to call up these young men and given them responsibilities, directly over the heads of some of the older officers.
Ran Wei was pleased at their performance, for it was their trickery that had inveigled Du Fang to his death and started the destruction of Wu’s army. They were eager to prove themselves and had none of the prejudices of the establishment that had so often stymied Ran Wei’s path to power in Wei.
However, they were still young and their question revealed their lack of experience.
“Has Du Fang’s idiocy infected you two?” Ran Wei growled.
The two brothers hastily bowed, more out of fear than actual understanding. Ran Wei saw this, and allowed them to tremble a few seconds more.
“We may have defeated Gao Fang, but did any of you see Huang Zheng? Or Zhao Tong?” he demanded.
The officers shook their heads.
“Those two veterans must have avoided the calamity that we have caused. It meant somewhere out there, there are two very experienced Wu generals lurking about,” Ran Wei said, waving his bloody halberd at the distance.
Various looks of enlightenment dawned on the officers. But not all were convinced. Some of the older officers who were previously not under his command were still belligerent, even though they had taken part in Ran Wei’s stunning victory.
“But when will we have another chance to retake the fort and wipe away our previous shame?” one of them spoke up.
“The enemy is in a full rout and we’re at the full height of morale, we should take advantage of this timing!” another insisted.
Ran Wei narrowed his eyes, these two men were named Zhe Chou and Yan Bei respectively. These two officers were part of the old guard, sent by the competing factions within Wei to check him. Even in Wei’s moment of crisis, there were selfish factions looking out for their own interests. Ran Wei had won, but these factions could rightfully say that they too had contributed men and material to his victory. But if he was defeated, then these factions would be the first to discredit him and push forward their own agenda.
Zhe Chou pressed on, saying, “Besides, we should make every effort to pursue Gao Fang himself. He have slipped pass us, but we might still be able to capture him!”
“Indeed, think of Wu’s humiliation if their marshal was captured and paraded for all to see,” Yan Bei added.
There was a none too subtle criticism in their words; it gave the impression that Ran Wei had made a mistake by allowing a prize like Marshal Gao Fang to escape.
Ran Wei quelled his annoyance from surfacing and instead rubbed his chin, as if seriously considering their proposal. “Fine,” he said at last. “You two may do as you wish and strike towards Tigertrap Fort. I’ll support you once we are done here.”
Zhe Chou and Yan Bei did not hide their delight, they quickly saluted and ordered their men to begin the quick march.
Feng Dan and Feng Liu were dissatisfied, why did Ran Wei denied them and but allowed two others to have this opportunity for glory? Yet they did not open their mouths for fear of angering their general.
“Brother, why?” Ran Bing asked, her own curiosity just as great as theirs.
“Those two will not return,” Ran Wei said ominously.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you recall what I had said about Huang Zheng and Gao Fang previously?” Ran Wei asked.
Ran Bing frowned, causing the scar on her nose to deepen. “You mean, about how Gao Fang tried to send Huang Zheng to his death by ordering him to attack our country without support?”
Ran Wei nodded. “Those two officers will never submit to my authority. Since they are so eager to die, so be it.”
“Now I understand, but what if they do manage to capture Gao Fang?” Ran Bing asked.
Ran Wei sneered. “So what? The marshal counts for nothing, we all saw his folly today. He would just be a trophy, nothing more. In fact, it would benefit us more if he manages to return home safely, for he will do anything to save his reputation, and this would mean uprooting anyone who would dare to bring up his shameful defeat. This will inevitably cause more chaos in their military and weaken them even further.”
“And should Zhe Chou and Yan Bei do manage to capture Tigertrap Fort and return victoriously?” Ran Bing continued.
Ran Wei barked harshly in laughter. “Gao Fang’s mistake was that he gave free license to Huang Zheng to preserve his own reputation, and the general did as he pleased and thus avoided all the death traps. But those two idiots are heading directly to Tigertrap Fort. Even if they had somehow managed to defeat both Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong on the way, how are they going to assault the fort itself? In the small chance that they dare to return with their tails between their legs, I’ll just execute them for their failure!”
He then turned his glowering eyes at the Feng brothers. “You two are worth too much to be thrown aside like them,” he said.
The Feng brothers eyes glowed with fanaticism despite the chilling ease at how Ran Wei had revealed his murderous intentions earlier. This was a decisive man worth following, unlike the self indulgent and prejudiced Wei leaders like Fei Yue.
Ran Wei did not allow himself bask in their adoration, he turned his gaze once more towards the horizon.
“Still, I did not expect Huang Zheng and Zhao Tong to have seen through our plans and kept their own troops intact. I had only heard of their martial prowess, but this campaign had showned they are also shrewd. It would have been a perfect victory had these two veteran generals fallen into our hands,” he said.
Ran Bing shrugged. “There is a saying about how old dogs can learn new tricks,” she said casually.
“Yes, but who are they learning from?” Ran Wei muttered.
The same tricks,
Used as a quick fix.