Volume 6, Chapter 14: Whose Son Is This?

Volume 6, Chapter 14: Whose Son Is This?


The Yong and Chu armies faced off across Guazhou Ferry, both sides biding their time. Three days later, Huaixi requested emergency assistance. Zhangsun Ji’s subordinate, Cui Jue, had attacked Shouchun with his force; Dong Shan’s force from the Xuzhou Barracks had attacked Zhongli. Zhongli fell after five days. Governor Zhu and Commandant Chen refused to be taken prisoner and were executed together. The two armies launched a joint attack on Shouchun. Shouchun is a strategic town in Huainan. To take Huainan, one must take Shouchun.

Then, Lu Can’s eldest son, Yun, received orders to help Shi Guan defend Shouchun. Yun was thirteen, his valor outstanding. When the civilians and soldiers of Huaixi learned Yun had arrived, they all said: “The Grand General is not abandoning us, so we will unite and fight to the death! The Yong armies shall not advance a single step!”

Zizhi Tongjian, Yong Records Volume Three

Dong Shan had finally captured the city of Zhongli, but he didn’t show a hint of joy. The city of Zhongli, with only three thousand defenders, had made him suffer setback after setback for five whole days. His army of thirty thousand had attacked the city day and night. Zhongli, which had seemed so obviously weak, never surrendered. After the outer city walls fell, the defenders retreated to the inner city. After the inner city walls fell, the defenders fought for every inch of every street and alleyway. The tiny city of Zhongli had nearly sucked the Yong force’s blood dry.

Sitting in the court of the office of the Zhongli governor, Dong Shan watched as soldiers pushed and shoved the Zhongli governor as they escorted him in. Dong Shen took a deep breath and said, “You resisted an Imperial army of Great Yong, an unpardonable sin. If you’re willing to surrender, this general will have mercy on you for the time being. If you do not, don’t blame me for using your head to memorialize my bravely departed.”

The Governor of Zhongli was a middle-aged man in his thirties. He guffawed and said, “Zhu is the tanhua of the King’s first special imperial examination. I received the King’s blessing in no small measure. How could I bend the knee and surrender to the enemy? If you want to kill me, kill me. Why talk so much?”

Dong Shan was furious. “Drag him outside and behead him. Help him fulfill his loyalty.”

The soldiers pushed the governor outside. When they exited the government office, they wrestled him to the ground and were about to carry out the execution. Then a helmet was flung to the ground as a badly battered general who had been tied and bound by the Yong military was delivered here. When the officer saw the governor was to be executed, he hissed, “Why did you defend the city to the last without a thought of retreat, Governor daren? And even disobeyed orders to surrender?”

“I received orders from the Court to govern Zhongli. How could I abandon the city and flee?” Governor Zhu replied. “Furthermore, the Yong army’s offensive was fierce. If I had any thoughts of survival, Zhongli would have long since fallen. Retreating is easier said than done, let alone with so many soldiers who have already taken the next step. How could this governor keep them waiting? Though the Grand General is forgiving, the two of us are Southern Chu subjects. How can we not die for our kingdom?” Finished speaking, Governor Zhu craned his neck in expectation of the beheading.

The officer sighed and said, “Even Governor daren, a scholar, is willing to die for his country. How could Chen, an officer, not?” After he was captured, he had planned to surrender. Seeing the governor dying for the kingdom, he could no longer cling to life. Although Dong Shan demanded he surrender when he entered the court, he didn’t say a word. Dong Shan was impatient and also ordered he be put to death. The general didn’t say a word even in death.

After recuperating in Zhongli for an entire day, Dong Shan’s force marched the Xuzhou army to Shouchun. Twenty li1 away from Shouchun, Cui Jue of the Nanyang Barracks dispatched an envoy to personally greet him. For this assault on Shouchun, the Nanyang Barracks were the main force. However, because the soldiers of the Nanyang Barracks weren’t familiar with the geography of Huainan, the imperial court decided to have Pei Yun send a division of troops to reinforce Zhangsun Ji. Though Dong Shan and Cui Jue were old acquaintances, as the two of them had served under the Prince of Qi, their paths had diverged many years ago.

The bodyguard sent to welcome Dong Shan was a nephew of Cui Jue, Cui Fang. He was also an old acquaintance of Dong Shan. Dong Shan spurred his mount forward and sized up Cui Fang for a bit, then laughed and declared, “You’ve grown so much in the few years I haven’t seen you, boy! How’s it going? How goes the progress of the battle? How’s the health of your uncle?”

The young bodyguard also laughed and replied, “Uncle Dong, my uncle’s in great health. The battle is intense and violent. Shouchun’s garrison troops are basically throwing their lives away in resistance. Uncle had been thinking that we didn’t have enough manpower, so your arrival is perfect.”

Dong Shan was shaken. Looks like Shouchun won’t be easy to take either. Then he respectfully said, “Deputy General of the Xuzhou Barracks, Dong Shan, received orders from the Military Commissioner of Huainan, General Pei, to come and accept General Cui’s assignment.”

The envoy put on a respectful face as well, seeing the changed expression. “The Nanyang Barracks’ General Who Conquers Distant Lands, Cui Jue, acts under orders from General Zhangsun to attack Shouchun. This subordinate, Cui Fang, acts under orders from General Cui to welcome General Dong,” he responded.

The two men exchanged a smile after this greeting. Dong Shan passed the order down for his men to first encamp. Afterwards, he took some bodyguards along and followed Cui Fang to the front of the troop formations to find Cui Jue.

Smoke and fire filled the air before the walls of Shouchun. Cui Jue, who was in his thirties, furrowed his brows as he gazed ahead. He had originally been a man with fine features, but unfortunately, a scar on his cheek had damaged his features beyond repair.

When Dong Shan spurred his mount to the front of the formations, he saw Cui Jue point his whip at Shouchun’s walls and state, “Order a forlorn hope to climb the walls from there. The enemy general is certain to be there, or else the garrison wouldn’t be so staunch.”

The order was passed down. Soon after, a troop of austere soldiers wearing azure armor ran toward the walls of Shouchun. Naturally, Dong Shan knew these soldiers had either violated military law or were simply banished convicts. If they could make great contributions and return alive, they could restore their freedom. As a result, they were eager and brave in battle. Most of all, they were especially bold and fierce. Every Yong army had a system like this in place.

Cui Jue realized Dong Shan had arrived. He turned around and said with a smile, “Zhongli has already been captured? I’m still in a tough spot here.”

Dong Shan greeted him while mounted. “How have you been, big brother Cui? Don’t make fun of me. I had to siege the tiny Zhongli for five days, but I didn’t even capture a single important prisoner.”

“What, did the defending general and Governor of Zhongli die in battle?” Cui Jue asked in curiosity.

“I had captured both of them, but I got outraged and had them beheaded,” Dong Shan said in shame.

Cui Jue was a little stunned, but he smiled and said, “This isn’t a big deal. General Pei won’t blame you because of this event. He’s actually likely to help you cover things up. However, the Southern Chu army in Huaixi is brave and skilled at waging war, as expected. Your force should rest first, then assault the city with me tomorrow. Who knows if the forlorn hope can inflict heavy casualties on the garrison there.” He pointed at a section of the walls of Shouchun.

Dong Shan gazed in that direction. He saw the forlorn hope troops had already taken the brunt of the hail of arrows and stones and climbed to the top of the walls, seemingly without any obstacle. Dong Shan furrowed his brows and said, “It looks like it’s very easy.”

“Strange. I’ve assaulted the city multiple times over these past few days, and it’s been extremely difficult to approach from this direction every time,” Cui Jue said in suspicion. “Even if they could reach the top of the walls, nobody could return alive. Why is it so easy today?”

The two men watched as the forlorn hope warriors’ azure armor disappeared past the battlements. An inexplicable feeling that this attack definitely would not succeed arose within them. Right at this time, the walls of Shouchun rang out with piercing screams mixed with sounds of close quarters combat. And on the same battlements, the Southern Chu troops appeared.

Cui Jue and Dong Shang looked at each other in dismay. “I didn’t expect they would invite us into a trap this time,” Cui Jue said with a bitter smile.

Dong Shan sighed. “Presumably, Southern Chu also knows the formidability of the forlorn hope, so they simply let them charge in to slowly annihilate them. We can’t see the actual battlefield situation. If we based our next decision of the offensive on the state of the battle there, any decision we made might have been wrong. The officer defending that area must be full of confidence and stratagems. But I didn’t see the commander-in-chief’s banner there. It’s presumably an ordinary officer. The city of Shouchun truly has a great number of competent people.”

Cui Jue knew that this forlorn hope had likely walked right into a trap. However, because the forlorn hope was sure to still fight hard, the outcome was still uncertain. As a result, he mobilized a massive force to take advantage of the occasion and try to seize the walls. After passing the order down, he smiled wryly and said, “Who said it wasn’t? General Pei cut through Huaidong like a hot knife through butter, while every step is arduous for us in Huaixi.”

“This cannot be blamed on you and me,” Dong Shan consoled. “It took less than a day to smash through Huaidong’s forces, because General Pei sent out countless scouts into Huaidong over the years to probe for intelligence. He knew the generals of Huaidong like the back of his hand. If not for this, how could General Pei have risked infiltrating the Chuzhou Barracks alone and assassinating the enemy commander?”

Cui Jue kept his eyes on the situation atop the walls of Shouchun while saying with a smile, “I heard the Emperor reprimanded General Pei, not allowing him to put himself in danger again. His Imperial Majesty nearly expunged his achievement of capturing the Chuzhou Barracks alone.”

“General Pei certainly won’t mind. However, he presumably won’t risk himself lightly for the time being,” Dong Shan said nonchalantly.

While the two men were conversing, the sounds of fighting atop the walls had vanished. Cui Jue smiled bitterly, knowing the forlorn hope he had bestowed great hopes upon had been annihilated. He gave the order to ease the offensive. This assault on the city had also failed.

Atop the walls, Lu Yun collapsed to the floor, panting heavily. He gazed at the scattered corpses of the Yong forlorn hope that had been encircled. Then he looked at the dulled, steel blade in his hand. Blood stained his battle gown. The ground flowed with rivers of blood.

He was able to turn back from the gates of hell in the recent close combat fighting. If not for two soldiers fighting to the death to block the swords of the enemy from striking him, his head would have been rolling on the floor. He may have been the son of a martial family, was beautiful inside and out, and contained extraordinary power in both his arms, but compared to the valiant soldiers unafraid of death, he wasn’t as imposing. When he thought of this, not only did he get a little scared, he realized his trap had nearly invited disaster. However, he didn’t have much of a choice. He clearly knew the advancing enemy were forlorn hope warriors. If his forces didn’t surround and annihilate them, and only opposed the enemy’s onslaught, he feared the enemy would breach his lines of defense.

After the battlefield was cleared, the officer in charge of defending this area, Chen Ming, walked over. He smiled and said, “Young General, it was indeed a good plan. We’ve also fought the enemy’s forlorn hopes before. If we didn’t take three times the casualties, we couldn’t eliminate the forlorn hope. This time, we’ve suffered less than half the casualties.”

Lu Yun blushed and replied, “Everyone is fighting to the death. I only suggested the idea.”

Chen Ming patted him on the shoulder. “You’ve proven yourself to be the son of the Grand General. Our general sent someone to ask you to go over.”

Lu Yun hesitated before saying, “Is now convenient? Isn’t the enemy still assaulting the walls?”

“It’s all right. The Yong army’s momentum has weakened,” Chen Ming said with a smile. “We can successfully hold out today as well.”

At this moment, a soldier bellowed, “Not good! The enemy has unfurled the banner of the Xuzhou Barracks. Zhongli has fallen!”

Lu Yun and Chen Ming were both surprised. They ran the few steps to the battlements and gazed down. They saw that in the center of the Yong army, beside the commander-in-chief’s banner, were two additional large banners. One was the banner of the Xuzhou Barracks; the other had the character Dong (董) writ large on it. Lu Yun shivered. He knew the fall of Zhongli would happen sooner or later, but learning it had become reality was still a tough pill to swallow.

Then, a man from the Yong camp hollered, “Our army has captured Zhongli. The heads of the Governor and Commandant of Zhongli are here! Listen up, generals defending Shouchun! If you do not surrender, all your heads will be displayed upon the city gates once the city falls!” Once he finished, someone else picked up two poles with heads on them and stuck the poles in the ground ahead of the troops.

The defenders on the walls burst into an uproar. Morale dropped like a rock. Many soldiers rushed to the battlements and looked down, seeing the heads mounted in provocation. Though they couldn’t see too clearly, a deep gloom settled over the walls.

All of a sudden, Lu Yun heard the chattering of teeth right next to him. He turned to see who it was and saw Chen Ming full of rage and murder. Chen Ming was looking at the large banner with the Dong character in the center of the Yong army. His face showed a surprisingly mournful expression, tears falling from his eyes and rolling down his cheek. Lu Yun didn’t know what to do and looked left and right. A soldier whispered to him, “Commandant Chen of Zhongli was big brother Chen’s elder brother.”

Lu Yun gasped and looked at Chen Ming with sad eyes. Then he saw Chen Ming jump onto the parapet and declare, “Listen up, traitors below the walls! You killed my elder brother. I, Chen Ming, will avenge his death even if I must risk my life! Brothers, why are you hanging your heads? Governor Zhu and Commandant Chu have already laid down their lives for the kingdom. Are we going to let them laugh at us before King Yan2 for cowardly clinging to life?”

From the front of Shouchun, under the commander-in-chief’s banner, a low and powerful voice rang out. “I vow to defend the city, killing enemies and seeking vengeance.”

Shouchun’s defenders heard the voice and followed up, shouting, “We vow to defend the city, killing enemies and seeking vengeance!” The noise rattled the earth, and the prior grief and depression disappeared.

Beneath the walls, Cui Jue and Dong Shan exchanged a look. Their plan to destroy the enemy’s morale had failed. Cui Jue furrowed his brows and signaled to a bodyguard with his eyes. The bodyguard was a famous, talented archer. Under Zhangsun Ji’s command were numerous soldiers skilled at archery. He understood Cui Jue’s intention and spurred his horse forward. Screened by several soldiers, he loosed an arrow toward the top of the walls. The arrow streaked in like a meteor, lightning fast. It was almost impossible to see the figure of the arrow. The arrow flew three hundred paces3 in the blink of an eye, shooting toward Chen Ming, who was still standing atop the parapet. Chen Ming was still gazing at his brother’s severed head and shedding tears. He didn’t even notice the Yong army’s surprise attack.

The soldiers on the walls all cried out, “Watch out!”

However, faster than their alarmed yells were two arrows. One came from behind Chen Ming, the other from the commander-in-chief’s banner. The two arrows hit the surprise attack arrow at nearly the same time, breaking it into three pieces. The two arrows rebounded off, having visibly less power than the other arrow. The defenders on the walls cheered and applauded, while the Yong soldiers below also cheered, “Great archery!”

The Yong army had never begrudged their enemy praise. However, not only had their will to fight not diminished, but they became more vigorous, all of them itching to have a go at the enemy.

Cui Jue and Dong Shan both gave wry smiles. The morale of the enemy on the walls had increased. And though their own side’s will to fight had raised as well, if they continued to assault the city at this time, they would do nothing but increase their casualties. The two of them looked up to check the time of day and both decided to withdraw their troops.

Watching the slowly retreating Yong army, Lu Yun set down his bow and arrows. He gave a mental sigh and thought, No wonder Great Yong could stand firm all these years with warlords all about lying in wait. He saw their soldiers cheer for their enemy, but it didn’t seem to weaken their vigor, instead increasing fighting spirit. He knew that even his father’s crack troops couldn’t compare. After all, they lacked the confidence and determination of the Yong. Even if the Yong troops lost their commander, they could still advance and retreat with discipline. On the other hand, if something happened to his father, the Jiangxia and Jiujiang Barracks would act like chickens with their heads cut off when leaderless.

Amid the thanks of Chen Ming and the praise of the other troops, Lu Yun asked in curiosity, “I wonder who shot an arrow at the same as me just now. Why don’t I remember a bodyguard of General Shi who’s this skilled an archer?”

When the soldiers heard this, they suddenly smiled sly smiles. Chen Ming had struggled out of some of the grief he felt for his dead brother and forced a smile. “Young General, since our general is waiting for you over there, why not go and see?” he replied.

Lu Yun thought it made sense, so he walked over. Soon, he arrived under the commander-in-chief’s banner. He saw the Commander of Huaixi, Shi Guan, overseeing the repair of the city walls and preparing for the next day’s battle. Lu Yun’s eyes fell upon the body of a youth who was standing beside Shi Guan. The youth was close to Lu Yun in age, features seventy percent similar to Shi Guan, though the teen was much more elegant. Shi Guan had always looked stately, and the youth was beautiful and dignified. While she was not as majestic as Lu Yun, with the sword at her waist, the bow on her back, and her aura of talent, she had a valiant and heroic bearing.

Lu Yun recognized the talent of the youth when he saw her. He thought it had to be this youth who shot the arrow just now. However, he did not speak to her first. He went up and saluted Shi Guan, then said, “Lu Yun replied late to General’s summons. Please forgive me, General.”

Shi Guan glanced at Lu Yun and stated with a smile, “Nephew Yun is indeed young and heroic. Your archery is preeminent and your use of troops quite artful. You’ve proven yourself the tiger cub of the Grand General. And you don’t have to be so courteous. I was under the command of the veteran general, the Duke Who Suppresses Distant Lands, for many years. I also addressed your father as brother. Even though there’s a great disparity in power these days, you should still call me uncle.”

Because General Shi Guan was solemn and formidable, Lu Yun had never dared to use such an endearing term of address. He simply followed military guidelines and called him general. Today, seeing Shi Guan’s affable demeanor set his mind at ease. He bowed low and said, “Nephew Lu Yun pays his respect to Uncle.”

Shi Guan reached out to help him up and pointed at the beautiful youth. “This is my daughter, Shi Xiu. She was a stubborn and disobedient child, so her paternal grandmother and maternal relatives raised her as a boy. She’s older than you by a year, so you should call her big sister.”

Lu Yun’s eyes widened. How is this possible? This youth may be very pretty, but her features are full of martial spirit. She has no trace of a girl’s femininity and tenderness. How can she be a young woman?

Shi Xiu scowled at his reaction. She went over and kicked Lu Yun right in the shin. Lu Yun staggered around in pain, nearly crying out. Shi Xiu angrily said, “What are you looking at? Also, you’re not allowed to call me big sister. If you dare do so, don’t blame me for slashing you eight or ten times.”

Shi Guan pretended he didn’t see anything, neglecting the two to continue organizing military affairs. His daughter had been a tomboy since childhood. She didn’t have an ounce of a girl’s behavior. If not for this, how could she not have suitors or a betrothed when she was going to reach marriageable age next year?4 Even his men obediently called her “young master” or “young general.” Some of the men didn’t even know Shi Xiu was actually a girl. However, he could never tell Lu Yun he had a son. Besides, after these few days, he understood Lu Yun inside and out. He did have a plan in place, but he didn’t know if he could climb the social ladder, so he immediately explained who Shi Xiu was.

The young man and woman didn’t understand his intentions, of course. When they saw Shi Guan busy himself with military affairs, Shi Xiu hauled Lu Yun aside. She threatened and cajoled him, not permitting him to address her as big sister.

Shi Xiu would have had an elder brother, except he had died young. As a result, after Shi Xiu was born, Shi Guan raised Shi Xiu as a boy to comfort his mother and wife. Shi Xiu’s temper also resembled her father’s to an extreme degree. None of the feminine arts other girls were skilled at agreed with her. On the other hand, she took to archery, horsemanship, and martial arts instantly. Later, she also studied internal martial arts styles and swordsmanship under an Emei Sect expert who had sought refuge after escaping from Sichuan. From a young age, her martial arts were already outstanding. She had an unyielding personality and didn’t like sewing with the young women her age. She only liked to practice with swords and spears, ride her horse, and hunt with the bow. When she saw that Lu Yun was also a youngster who excelled at martial arts, she found him to be a kindred spirit. After chatting for a while, the two of them were laughing and getting along like brothers.


***


The next day, Cui Jue and Dong Shan rallied their troops for another assault on the city. This time, the two men ignored psychological warfare and morale. They attacked the city normally and captured every weak point, seizing every opportunity. With this slow but steady offensive, it didn’t take long for them to launch a violent storm of attacks. Night raids, surprise attacks, they pulled out every trick in the book. Shi Guan refused to show any weakness in defending the city, steady as a rock. He also took the opportunity to raid the enemy camp at night. For twelve whole days, the two armies drilled nearly every tactic of the besieger and defender.

Taking advantage of the protection of the solid walls, Shouchun’s defenders could be said to have as much strength as the Yong army. As for combat power, although the Yong army was stronger, the Huaixi army weren’t weaklings either. Both sides were essentially waging a battle of morale and willpower. The Shouchun garrison weren’t lacking these either.

For the past several days, Lu Yun had been defending wherever the enemy’s main attack came from. By the time he reached maturity after starting as a greenhorn, he became a one in a thousand warrior for the Southern Chu army. Even the Yong troops besieging the city knew Shouchun contained a talented, young archer, a teenage warrior. In this way, Lu Yun turned into the pillar of the civilians and soldiers of Shouchun. As long as Lu Yun were here, a relief force would arrive. Because Lu Yun was so courageous at such a young age, Grand General Lu definitely deserved his reputation. As long as a relief force showed up, they would defeat the Yong army in battle. These thoughts made every Huaixi soldier valiant and fearless of death. From the Yong perspective, Shouchun became a site of carnage second only to the reaping of human life at Xiangyang.

Shi Xiu didn’t show any signs of weakness either. She had an extreme rivalry with Lu Yun. Her treasured sword and exquisite bow took just about as many lives as Lu Yun’s weapons. Furthermore, for some unknown reason, the two of them wore the same armor. They were of similar height and possessed the same superb archery skills. Though one used the saber while the other used the sword, they became the same person in the eyes of the Yong army. As a result, the young Shouchun warrior who could suddenly appear on both the left and right flanks became a mystical, terrifying thorn in the side of the Yong army.

On the twentieth day of the eleventh month, at five in the evening, the Yong army finally halted its offensive. They once again retired from the field without making any gains. Lu Yun gazed at the Yong army departing into the distance. Because of the Southern Chu troops raiding their encampment over the past several days, the Yong army had shifted their encampment ten li5 away from the walls. Exhausted and weary, Lu Yun shook his numb limbs. He dropped the straight saber in his hands, his own steel blade long since ruined. This saber came from the hands of the assaulting Yong troops. It could be tossed away as soon as the edge dulled.

At this time, Shi Xiu walked over taking long strides. Her martial attire was also soaked with blood. When they were defending the city or raiding the enemy encampment, the two of them had a mutual understanding to not appear in the same place. But a mysterious, invisible force seemed to pull them together. Even if a thousand, ten thousand men separated them, they still seemed to feel the other’s presence.

“Little brother Yun, are we attacking the camp tonight as well?” Shi Xiu went over and asked Lu Yun.

“Not today, Yujin,” Lu Yun said as he shook his head. “We raided them for three straight days. Today, the Yong army will certainly be on guard. I’ve already talked to Uncle.”

In the course of Yong and Southern Chu raiding and assaulting each other’s camps, Lu Yun had showed a quite astute intuition. He picked very suitable times to raid the enemy encampment. And if the enemy had prepared an ambush, he always felt something was amiss before the scouts could investigate. Even Lu Yun found it strange. Perhaps he had been duped too many times in Chang’an, so he became rather sensitive.

Lu Yun called Shi Xiu “Yujin” because she wouldn’t let him call her big sister, and addressing her by her given name would be impolite, so he decided he might as well address Shi Xiu by her style. Her master bestowed her it half a year ago before he left.

Shi Xiu nodded. She said uncaringly, “All right then, let’s return. It’s so uncomfortable to wear these bloody clothes.” She then rolled her shoulders impatiently. If any other woman performed this action, it would look boorish and ugly. However, when Shi Xiu did so, it gave off an air of freedom and grace. Moreover, she was wearing male attire and looked remarkably similar to a young general. She didn’t have an ounce of a woman’s bearing.

Lu Yun had become accustomed to seeing this action and bearing. But for some reason, Lu Yun’s heart suddenly stirred today. He thought of the Princess of Zhaohua, Jiang Roulan, who he had hidden away in his memories. The first time he met Roulan, she was wearing male attire, but it was different to Shi Xiu’s. Although Roulan wore male attire, she still looked beautiful and graceful. She had a pure character, as lucid as a clear spring. Perhaps because of her status, she shone with a dazzling radiance. Although she didn’t act spoiled—a considerate person, even—and was innocent and childlike, Lu Yun always held Roulan in high esteem and felt she was distant. On the other hand, Lu Yun felt close to the young woman before his eyes, as close as brothers or flesh and blood. The two of them were inseparable when together and almost didn’t require words to communicate freely.

Shi Xiu looked at Lu Yun, who was inexplicably lost in thought. Out of habit, she sent a kick at him. Lu Yun unconsciously tried to dodge, but when he saw the annoyance in Shi Xiu’s eyes, he couldn’t move his body for some reason. So he got kicked hard. Lu Yun shrieked, which made the nearby soldiers cover their mouths as they chuckled. Funny scenes like this one were constantly happening these days. They had long since gotten used to seeing it.

At this time, one of Shi Guan’s personal guards ran over and said, “Young General, young master, the general has summoned you two.”

Lu Yun and Shi Xiu exchanged a curious glance. Then Lu Yun stopped rubbing his leg and stood up. He walked with Shi Xiu to where Shi Guan was. Once they reached him, they saw a gray-feathered, red-eyed messenger pigeon perched on his left shoulder. Lu Yun was surprised and went forward. He asked in astonishment, “Uncle, has the time to counterattack arrived?”

Shi Guan smiled and handed the fine, bamboo paper in his hands to Lu Yun. Lu Yun took it and looked at the paper. He saw only the word “battle” written upon it in vigorous and fine brush strokes. Southern Chu Grand General Lu Can’s seal was stamped below the word. Besides these inscriptions, the note contained the word “third” written tiny in one of the corners. Lu Yun felt his heart explode with joy and couldn’t speak. Next to him, Shi Xiu read the note in confusion and decided to wrest it from him, flipping it over repeatedly, trying to make heads or tails of it.

Lu Yun saluted Shi Guan and stated, “Uncle, Lu Yun wishes to accompany Uncle into battle to kill the enemy. Please authorize it, Uncle.”

Shi Guan furrowed his brows a little. During the defense of the city, Lu Yun could obviously participate, and he wasn’t a hindrance during the encampment raids. But the counterattack was near at hand. In open battle, weapons were ruthless. If something happens to Lu Yun, how can I explain myself to the Grand General?

Seeing him hesitating, Lu Yun followed up with, “Uncle, you also know that I’ll have to go into battle and kill the enemy sooner or later. You’ve seen my martial arts as well these past several days. When I go into battle this time, I’ll make sure to follow Uncle closely. I absolutely will not charge in without permission.”

Shi Xiu had studied the note for a long time by this point and still didn’t understand the meaning, so she returned it to Lu Yun. Lu Yun was looking at Shi Guan with eyes full of eagerness, but he still received the note extremely effortlessly.

Shi Guan saw the small interaction between the two of them and couldn’t help but smile. He thought, My girl can finally get married. Fine, this kid has to go into battle sooner or later, so following me will always be better than following another. He then spoke, “Okay, I’ll prepare a horse and weapons. When the time comes, serve in my bodyguards.”

Because of his words, Shi Xiu finally understood the note. The defenders were to sally out and do battle. “Daddy, I wanna go into battle and kill the enemy too,” she said in a hurried tone.

Shi Guan refused her and said in fury, “Don’t cause trouble. A girl who’s just about to get married doesn’t know to learn cooking; she only knows swordsmanship. You can’t go this time. Stay in the city like a good girl.”

Shi Xiu tugged on her father’s battle gown. “Daddy, how am I worse than little brother Yun? If he can go into battle, why can’t I? At most, I’ll stay with Daddy’s bodyguards. What’s more, I won’t marry those sons of officials Mother has selected. If I must marry, marry me off to a heroic man who can go into battle with me and kill enemies,” she declared, a hint of shyness appearing on her face during the last few words. However, her eyes were shining bright without a trace of retreat present.

Lu Yun got absorbed in her eyes and said, “Uncle, Yujin’s martial arts are so outstanding. Let her come with me. On the battlefield, I’ll be certain to protect her well.”

Surprisingly, Shi Xiu was ungrateful and sent a flying kick at him. “Who wants your protection? Are my martial arts worse than yours?”

Lu Yun didn’t try to dodge. He simply made a face and suffered the kick.

Shi Guan held in his impulse to roar with laughter. He looked at Shi Xiu again. Her expression said, “If you don’t let me go into battle, I’ll go by myself.”

He thought, All right, I’ll be more at ease with her by my side. “Okay, you two can go together. However, you’re not allowed to leave my side,” he said.

Lu Yun and Shi Xiu were both ecstatic. They spontaneously held hands and ran off to sort out their mounts and weapons, completely unaware they should be avoiding suspicion. Delight shone in Shi Guan’s eyes, then he calmed down. He looked back at the note. “Third” meant that the two messages of “first” and “second” had been lost at the very least.6 The Yong army had very strict defenses. However, there was nothing wrong with the notes falling into Yong hands. This note was simply a signal.

The next day, Lu Yun and Shi Xiu were clad in armor from head to toe. As it happened though, nothing unexpected occurred all day. Both the Yong and Southern Chu forces were familiar with the other side’s tactics. Almost as soon as the enemy moved, the other knew how to respond. Although the close combat was deadly, nothing was new.

At sunset, Cui Jue tossed the two notes in his hands away and said, “So it was sheer nonsense. The Southern Chu army must be trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Even if Lu Can has a gigantic amount of courage, he is still too scared to leave Jingkou.”

A gust of wind blew past. The notes danced in the wind, the seals on them facing the sky.

On the twenty-first day of the eleventh month, Shi Guan still had his soldiers clad in armor, ready to do battle at any time. He also pulled out a division of crack troops to have them recuperate and save their strength.

The two sides battled until noon, by which time the sun had moved south in the sky. Today was a rare sunny day. The winter weather may have been rather cold, but sweat soaked through the overcoats of the soldiers on and off the walls. Both sides were already spent, relying almost entirely on willpower to struggle on. A dozen days of endless siege warfare truly sapped the strength and determination of the men.

Cui Jue and Dong Shan exchanged a look. Each saw the anxiety in the other’s eyes. Dong Shan hesitated before stating, “General Pei and Lu Can are confronting each other in Yangzhou. Our capture of Huaixi has been part of the established strategy. However, the difficulty in fighting through Huaixi has been truly unexpected.”

“There’s been no choice. In any case, Shouchun doesn’t have reinforcements,” Cui Jue said, “so we have the upper hand. All right, assault the city again. Take advantage of the defenders’ noontime fatigue and add another force.”

Dong Shan nodded. This was the usual practice. If this attack did not succeed, they could withdraw and rest until one in the afternoon. Then they could fight without letup until sundown.

Cui Jue pressed three armies into battle and started to attack the city. The relieved troops were so exhausted they collapsed and nearly fell asleep. They hadn’t just been physically fatigued for the last few days, but mentally as well. Seeing this state of affairs, Cui Jue kept opening and closing his mouth before eventually deciding not to put these troops on guard duty.

This offensive seemed to have quite good results. Shouchun’s defenses were rather weak, and against the unrelenting assault of the Yong attack, they showed indications of wavering. Generals Cui and Dong felt happy and exchanged a knowing look. They sent out their most elite forlorn hope, preparing to give the Shouchun garrison a decisive blow. Perhaps they could capture Shouchun today. Not only did these two generals have this in mind, the soldiers assaulting the city felt the exhaustion of the defenders atop the walls and attacked with all their strength.

Right at this time, behind the forests on the hillsides countless li away, a set of eyes flashed with killing intent, and the person gently raised a hand. Behind him came nervous breathing and the soft snorting of warhorses. Then the person threw his arm down and took the lead, skirting the gentle slope, curving around it to charge the rear of the Yong army.

“Kill!” Piercing shouts, the deafening sound of hooves crushing the ground, and the rumbling of war drums all resounded through the air at the same time.

Cui Jue and Dong Shan were surprised. They looked to the side and saw smoke and dust billowing in the distance. A division of cavalry was charging in their direction. They couldn’t count how many troops there were in a split second, but there were at least five thousand. The riders all wore silver armor. The armor reflected the bright sunlight, which made it hard for people to keep their eyes open.

How can this be? the two men thought to themselves in terror. Southern Chu was good at naval combat; they didn’t value cavalry too much. As far as they knew, Southern Chu currently had no divisions of cavalry with enough strength to fight with the twin exceptions of Xiangyang’s nine thousand and Jiangxia Barracks’ three thousand cavalry. These cavalry troops were mostly the remnants of the Prince of De’s defeated army. So where did this cavalry division come from?

Thousands of thoughts flew through their minds before the two men simultaneously shouted, “Retreat, fall back!”

However, the division of silver-armored cavalry had already slammed into the rear of the Yong army. The Yong troops were already exhausted through and through, and when caught off guard, they collapsed and fell into disarray the instant contact was made. The cavalry division charged in without abandon, cutting the Yong army to pieces with the ease of a sharp razor shave.

Right at this time, the previously sealed gates of Shouchun opened. This was the Yong army’s original hope, but it made things worse today. The commander on horseback next to the gate was Shi Guan. On both his left and right, a young general wearing a white uniform and white armor protected him. Both of them wielded silver spears, exquisite bows slung over their backs. Quivers hung from their mounts. Both their warhorses were nearly identical, being eight-foot-tall white steeds. They had their visors down so no one could see their faces. Although their statures were a little different, the differences couldn’t be seen when hidden under the battle armor. The two of them seemed like a pair of twin brothers.

Many Yong soldiers who saw them thought I see for no reason. Images of the active young warriors fighting atop the walls of Shouchun for the past several days raced through their minds.

These Yong troops then saw the officers point their sabers forward. Five thousand fresh troops charged out of the city into the front lines of the Yong army. The Shouchun garrison didn’t succeed at organizing into cavalry, though. Outside of Shi Guan’s unit of one hundred bodyguards, no other warhorses could be found. However, they didn’t have weak combat strength, and the heavy blow their entrance into the battle inflicted on the Yong army was no weaker than the rear charge of the cavalry.

The bird trapped in the net broke free; the mood of the hunter need not be explained.

With the Southern Chu forces attacking in a hammer and anvil, the sixty thousand Yong troops were in a precarious position. The casualties suffered while assaulting the city were too heavy.

Cui Jue and Dong Shan looked each other in the eye. Their eyes met where they had quarreled without speaking countless times. Afterwards, Dong Shan gave a fist and palm salute and barked, “Follow me.” Then he went to face the Southern Chu army.

Sorrow appeared in Cui Jue’s eyes, and he also barked, “Follow me.” Then he charged southeast.

After the two men split up, the Xuzhou army subconsciously followed Dong Shan to cover the retreat, while the Nanyang army followed Cui Jue to break out of the encirclement.

The sounds of killing on earth were deafening. Southern Chu’s two armies were like two iron fists, echoing each other’s slaughter of the Yong army. The Yong army, meanwhile, were veteran elites, and under Dong Shan’s desperate rearguard action, Cui Jue eventually succeeded in bringing over thirty thousand men out of the encirclement by killing his way through. They changed directions and headed north. The Southern Chu forces didn’t pursue, instead devoting themselves to wiping out Dong Shan’s force. The seventeen thousand troops of the Xuzhou army that remained behind to cover the retreat and the ten thousand-odd troops of the Nanyang army that couldn’t escape in time may have sacrificed themselves in the mutual struggle, but the crack troops of Southern Chu that had been saving their strength got the first strike in on the troops fatigued after a drawn-out battle. The outcome of the battle was a foregone conclusion.

Dong Shan could feel blood covering his eyes. He couldn’t stand it and wiped it off with the sleeve of his battle gown. Even though he saw that the Southern Chu cavalry’s mounted archery was outstanding and they excelled in martial arts when he took a closer look, he still spotted traces of rust. They had gone through good training, but they had never actually been on the battlefield before. However, it would be different after today, as this victory would turn them into a truly powerful force.

The feeble groans and low curses of his comrades reached his ears. Dong Shan’s gaze fell upon a pair of young generals doing battle side by side. The silver spears they wielded spiraled and flew through the air, strong yet flexible. They coordinated flawlessly. One was like a flood dragon coming out of the sea; the other created tiny pear blossoms. They left behind a sea of blood.

In the middle of the Southern Chu army, under the commander-in-chief’s banner that had the character “Shi” (石) on it and was planted in the ground, a middle-aged general yelled, “Dong Shan, your forces are trapped in a field of death. Why do you not drop your weapons and surrender?” Following his shouting, the Southern Chu troops began to ease their attack but tightened the encirclement.

Dong Shan ordered the Yong troops to draw up close to him. “Great Yong’s sons have no reason to surrender,” he shouted back.

A low-ranking officer hurled abuse from among the Southern Chu forces in a loud voice. “Dong Shan, you killed my elder brother! Chen was just looking for you to take revenge.

Dong Shan gave the officer a hard look. “I’ve fought and killed on the battlefield for ten years,” he said with a smile. “The number of men I’ve killed is uncountable. Who knows which one your elder brother was. If you want revenge, just spur your horse over. Why the pretense?”

The officer was infuriated. However, he wasn’t riding a horse, so he couldn’t possibly charge into a cavalry general. He could only tear the general apart with the hate in his eyes.

The two young generals wearing white battle gowns returned from the chaotic fighting to Shi Guan’s side. One of them lifted their visor and hollered, “General Dong, you might not care about your own life, but don’t you cherish your troops? Do you want to let all of your men die? If you’re willing to lay down your weapons, I promise your men will receive the proper respect. Our army absolutely will not murder or abuse them.”

Dong Shan’s eyes burned bright as he gazed at the youth, seeing that he was no older than fourteen. However, the teenager was full of martial spirit, a young hero indeed. He laughed and said, “If you want me to surrender, that is impossible. How about this? If you all have warriors who can defeat this general on the battlefield, this general hereby vows that whether I live or die, my men will all drop their weapons and surrender.”

Shi Guan and the leader of the cavalry division exchanged a look. They weren’t softhearted; rather, they worried the cavalry would suffer too many casualties if they kept fighting due to the vengeful dying throes of the Yong army. Then it wouldn’t be worth it. However, if they considered the duel, who among them had the confidence to defeat this Great Yong general? If they lost, how could they face their comrades and Grand General Lu Can? The two men’s gazes happened to fall upon Lu Yun. Lu Yun was Lu Can’s son. If he dueled Dong Shan, both victory and defeat could be explained away. After all, he was only thirteen years old. But the two men worried that something might happen to Lu Yun. That would be terrible for them.

Seeing no response from the Southern Chu forces even after stalling for a long time, Dong Shan threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Sure enough, Jiangnan has no real men. No one is brave enough to battle me.”

His boast infuriated someone—Shi Xiu. She had been worried about how she’d lost herself in the killing frenzy, having long forgotten her promise to stay by her father’s side, and would be dressed down by her father. But when she saw Dong Shan’s unbridled arrogance, she furrowed her long, shapely eyebrows in anger. She lifted her visor and shouted, “Dong Shan, don’t say Jiangnan has no real men. You might not even be able to beat us kids. If you have the courage, he and I will challenge you to a duel. Our two ages added together is no greater than your age. Will you accept?”

Dong Shan was startled, but he remembered the two youths’ recent valor. He didn’t feel humiliated and thought to himself, At their young age, going into battle and killing their enemies certainly qualifies them as heroes. If I die to the hands of these two young heroes, it won’t count as shameful. If I kill them, I can eradicate another two sources of trouble. This is truly more than worthwhile. As a result, he didn’t allow Shi Guan and company to object to it. He spurred his horse and galloped out of the Yong formation. “All right, I, Dong Shan, accept your challenge. Present yourselves to let this general know who he’s killing,” he declared.

Lu Yun heard the words and was overcome with a feeling of heroism. He forgot his protests and loudly said, “My father has the honor to be in the position of Grand General. My name is Lu Yun. Do remember it, General Dong.”

Shi Xiu was smart. She knew she couldn’t let just anyone learn her name as she was a girl. She might not mind, but if her mother found out, she would be furious. So Shi Xiu raised her voice and said, “My father is the commander responsible for Huaixi. My name is Shi Yujin. Don’t forget it, General Dong.”

Although Dong Shan had already figured out these two youths had exceptional statuses, he didn’t think one would be the son of Lu Can while the other would be the son of Shi Guan—though he couldn’t tell that Shi Yujin was a young woman. He laughed richly. “All right. So you two were young generals. I thought you were the tiger cubs of a martial family.”

Once he finished speaking, he raised his lance and charged forward. Lu Yun and Shi Xiu exchanged a glance, and they both spurred their mounts into a charge. Shi Guan hastily ordered the archers into position. As soon as Dong Shan had the possibility of injuring Lu Yun and Shi Xiu, he would loose a volley to rescue them at any cost.

The three steeds circled each other, two silver spears and one lance fighting an interminable struggle in the dust and sand. The blue-gray armor and white armors intertwined and blended together.

This battle wasn’t as one-sided as a majority of people expected it to be. Dong Shan may have been a fierce general, but Lu Yun and Shi Xiu didn’t have weak martial arts either. Coupled with their tacit understanding of each other, the two of them were in close coordination. Dong Shan was tired to the bone as well, so they were in fact fighting on an even footing.

One round, ten rounds, one hundred rounds. After the battle passed a hundred rounds, the three fighters and their steeds were exhausted and spent. Dong Shan teetered atop his mount. Neither Shi Xiu nor Lu Yun were much better. Still though, Lu Yun was male, and he had been taking the pills sent by Jiang Zhe for the past several days. It was very beneficial, as the pills consolidated and supported his vigor. As such, he could still brace himself in the saddle. Shi Xiu, on the other hand, was gasping for air. Sweat had already soaked through her armor, and she seemed unable to grip the silver spear in her hands.

Dong Shan saw the state they were in and rallied his remaining energy for an attack on Shi Xiu. He stopped dodging Lu Yun’s silver spear. Even though Lu Yun was more valuable to him, he couldn’t rely on his sapped strength, so he chose the easier to handle Shi Xiu. Thrusting with the lance, he penetrated her armor. Shi Xiu’s silver spear slipped out of her hands, and her body tumbled off her horse.

Grief tore through Lu Yun, and he cried out. Anguish and anger let him guide his spear with full strength. The silver spear turned into a rainbow and stabbed for Dong Shan’s back. However, right when the silver spear was about to make contact, Dong Shan twisted in a strange fashion on his mount. The spear merely passed by his right ribs. Lu Yun had overexerted himself and had to lean forward. Dong Shan gave a brief smile and thrust his lance at Lu Yun’s throat, utterly ignoring the wounds on Lu Yun’s body.

In what seemed like no time at all, the situation abruptly changed. The Southern Chu troops burst into an uproar. Shi Guan wanted to order a volley of arrows, but his body had stiffened. He could only watch as his beloved daughter’s body fell through the air. He couldn’t take any actions or even get a single word out.

Seeing his lance about to impale Lu Yun’s throat, Dong Shan grinned with delight. Even if he died, it would be worth it to kill two future heroes of Southern Chu before his own death. Then he felt a pain in his chest. He slowly looked down and saw the tip of a spear, silver in color, sticking out of his chest.

The sharp tip of the lance was about to reach Lu Yun’s throat. On the brink of death, Lu Yun saw the pretty Shi Xiu materialize before his eyes. She was glaring and clenching her teeth. He had suspected he was imagining it, but the silver spear that was sticking out of Dong Shan’s chest and the slowing of the speed of the lance thrust awakened him to the truth.

Shi Xiu had done a hideaway fender and rolled out of her saddle onto the ground. She then retrieved her silver spear and thrust it again, this time skewering Dong Shan in the lower abdomen.

As Dong Shan had suffered three fatal spear thrusts, the light of life in his eyes finally dissipated. He gazed northward into the sky in yearning, and his body slid off his mount.

Lu Yun couldn’t hear the deafening cheers of the nearby Southern Chu troops, nor could he hear the pained cries of the heartbroken Yong troops. He sat back up in the saddle and stared at Shi Xiu, who was facing him, in astonishment. The two teens dreamily gazed into each other’s eyes, separated by a warhorse that had lost its master, its saddle empty.

The instant before Dong Shan’s lance impaled Shi Xiu, she had sobered up. An idea streaked into her mind, and she pretended she got pierced by the lance and fell from her horse. In reality, the lance strike merely left behind a shallow wound. Because Dong Shan was utterly exhausted and his hands were numb, he didn’t even notice the lance didn’t strike true. By the time he turned back to deliver a biting attack, Shi Xiu had already jumped onto her feet. The silver spear bounced off the ground and right to where she thought it would be. She grabbed it and thrust with all her might, and the spear dealt him a fatal blow, which weakened Dong Shan’s hand strength so that Lu Yun could escape the jaws of death.

The nearby cheering continued as the eyes of the two teens gradually returned to reality. They both felt like life had come back to their own bodies. Thinking of their recent life-and-death struggle, the two of them shuddered. They turned their mounts around and trotted back to Shi Guan, their eyes never leaving each other. Each feared they were seeing an illusion, the other already killed by Dong Shan.

Shi Guan had come to his senses by this point and quietly wiped away the tears in his eyes. He spurred his horse forward to meet them. He put one hand on each of the kids’ arms and bellowed, “The Heavens have blessed Southern Chu! And bestowed heroes among our youths!”

“The Heavens have blessed Southern Chu and bestowed heroes among our youths! Lu Yun, Shi Yujin! Lu Yun, Shi Yujin!” the Southern Chu troops shouted.

The chanting was uninterrupted and stirred the hearts of the people. Amid the cheers of the Southern Chu army, a Yong soldier dropped the weapon he was wielding in sadness. The other Yong troops seemed to get infected, and a continuous stream of weapons crashed to the ground.


Footnotes:

  1. 10.8 km (about 6.7 miles)
  2. In Chinese mythology, King Yan (阎王) is the God of Death and ruler of Diyu, as well as the judge of the underworld.
  3. About 360 meters (360 yards)
  4. 15 years old for girls
  5. 5.4 km (about 3.4 miles)
  6. These refer to the watches of the night. Third watch is midnight.
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