Book 19 Chapter 13 – A Heavy Load And a Long Road
A clear ring shook the entire battleground.
Kou Zhong and his saber became one entity, which interlocked with Mi Fang, who was struggling to defend himself while flying in the air. Like a kite with cut string the latter flew sideways, and ‘Bang! it crashed into the boarded up wooden door of a nearby shop, and fell inside the shop, but his feet were dangling outside the hole, giving the impression that most probably he was no longer alive.
At the exact same moment, Ku Ge’s hatchets collided with Xu Ziling’s punch, jolting him off the horse’s back.
Xu Ziling somersaulted onto the horseback. Reaching backhandedly at a spear stabbing his back, he snatched the spear and turned it into millions of spear shadows, attacking Ku Ge, who was just springing up from the ground.
Under Xu Ziling’s attack, sweats were flowing down Ku Ge’s back. He rolled away to evade.
Using the remaining power after killing Mi Fang, Kou Zhong leaped onto a rider-less horse and moved his horse charging to the left and dashing to the right, chopping anybody who happened to be on his way.
By this time, the remaining seventy or so bandits in the city already lost their fighting spirit, they flocked toward the city gate, trying to escape. On the other hand, Chen Jiafeng and his men’s morale was greatly aroused; releasing rain of arrows, they killed a dozen more enemies.
Ku Ge knew he had lost. Hopping onto the back of one of his men, he mingled into the crowd of riders fleeing out of town.
By killing as many as two hundred Khitan horse-mounted bandits, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s fame for fighting prowess spread to the four winds, shaking the land under the heavens.
The next morning, Chen Jiafeng and the others were holding them in the same regard as they would a deity; they waited upon the two boys with full attention.
When the two were eating their breakfast at the same restaurant they ate the previous day, Chen Jiafeng came toward the two boys’ table and spoke respectfully, “Subordinate already spread the word, calling all Xiongdi of our gang from all over the place to come here to return to their duty.”
Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “You are not my subordinate, why would you do that?”
Chen Jiafeng smiled apologetically and said, “We have had internal discussion! Hereafter we are going to follow two Daye in charging into the world. As for summoning our brothers to come here, it is for dealing with Yuwen Huaji. He is not the same as the horse-mounted bandits of last night; he won’t be that easy to deal with.”
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Kou Zhong said, “It does not matter how many people you are summoning, we will still be defeated without any chance of victory. Dealing with Yuwen Huaji is our job. If you want to express your gratitude to us, just monitor closely for any activity on Yuwen Huaji’s side, and when you have any news, report to us immediately.”
Chen Jiafeng had no choice but to leave with his countenance sinking.
Kou Zhong sighed. “Are we going to really wait in here doing nothing?” he asked, “Jiangdu’s situation is certainly very urgent, otherwise, there is no reason for Li Zitong not to grab a strategic city like Liangdu.”
Suddenly he noticed that Xu Ziling was staring blankly at the street outside the door. Quickly turning around, Kou Zhong saw several mule carts and horse-drawn carriages, carrying loads and loads of men, women, young and old, were passing through.
Kou Zhong’s scalp went numb. “My Niang!” he exclaimed, “What are they doing back here?”
※ ※ ※
Dusk, the next day.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were standing on the city wall, above the city gate, watching, with blank expression, the endless stream of carts and horses, along with trailing men and women, the town residents flocking back into the city along the main street.
At the dock, the number of boats has also increased, from about a dozen, to more than a hundred.
In just two short days, the city of Liangdu, which had become a ghost town, has returned to life.
Chen Jiafeng’s brothers have also increased, from about fifty men to more than five hundred. On their own initiative, they took the responsibility of maintaining order in the city.
His head spun, Xu Ziling said, “Chengshou Daren [officer guarding the city], what do we do now?”
Kou Zhong sighed and replied, “You asked me, whom should I ask? You ought to tell me how to be a proper Chengzhu [lit. master of the city].”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “Don’t you always want to contend for hegemony over the world? Just consider this as a practice.”
Kou Zhong dejectedly said, “I still have lingering fears from the battle of Jingling that day. At that time at least we had a group of well-trained troops guarding the city. But now we have nothing but the mob from Peng Liang Hui. Killing a group of horse-mounted bandits is still possible, but guarding the city? It would be no different than sending them to their death.”
Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, “In that case, why don’t we try how to train the troops? These past couple of days, didn’t you diligently studying Mr. Lu’s military strategy and tactics book? This ought to be the moment to apply what you are studying.”
“You are kidding, right?” Kou Zhong cried out involuntarily.
Xu Ziling pointed to several boys riding on a mule cart entering the city; he said, “Look at their little faces! Although they are unbearably tired from the journey, their faces are brimming with longing and anticipation. Who would want to leave the city they are used to and the homeland they had put down their roots? As long as there is a sliver of hope, they would immediately rush back. We have acted before thinking, and happened to give them that sliver of hope. Do you have the heart to force them to leave again?”
Aghast, Kou Zhong said, “It was just a misunderstanding; I don’t know which lunatic spread the rumor everywhere that they all came back.”
Xu Ziling reached out to grab Kou Zhong’s shoulder; he said, “Nothing is a big deal anymore. Even Li Mi is not your match; just consider Yuwen Huagu a bit more experienced. You have aspiration to unify the world anyway, why not starting from Liangdu?”
With pained expression, Kou Zhong said, “Liang Du is just a lone city. It lacks food supplies and short of water; in fact everything is deficient. It would be hard to defend even for half a day, the best move is still to flee for our lives.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “Don’t exaggerate; this is called you shrink back as the time for battle approaches. Have you forgotten Pengcheng? With Peng Liang Hui people helping you, governing these two cities is as easy as a hand’s turn. How many men can Yuwen Huagu bring to attack us? Pull yourself together! You and I have become the entire city of Liangdu’s only hope. How can Twin-dragon of Yangzhou let Yuwen Huagu come here wantonly?”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “Now it looks like the one who wants to contend over the world is you instead of me, ay! I’ll accompany you become the hero this time! I just hope we won’t be buried with this city.”
※ ※ ※
Horses’ hooves stepped onto the suspension bridge that has just lowered down, creating a rumbling noise like thunder rolls.
More than a dozen riders, under Kou Zhong’s leadership, were galloping into the city, leaving a cloud of dust, which rose to half of the sky, on the road outside the city.
Xu Ziling met the dusty Kou Zhong at the city gate, and then rode side-by-side with him toward the Zongguan [chief manager] Mansion at the heart of the city.
With grave expression Kou Zhong said, “Yuwen Huagu is indeed leading his troops personally heading this way. According to our spy, he is already aware that the two of us are in charge of the general situation over here. He is boasting to his subordinates that he is going to pull our dead bodies into pieces with five horses as a sacrifice to his banner.”
Xu Ziling’s eyes shot fiery hatred; laughing coldly, he asked, “How many troops and horses does he have?”
Kou Zhong nonchalantly replied, “Ought to be fifteen to twenty thousands, with Yuwen Zhiji and Yuwen Wudi as deputy commanders. Using the observing-the-dust technique taught by Linglong Jiao, only Yuwen Huagu’s five thousand personal troops are trained elite troops, the rest are new troops who were recruited not too long ago.”
And then he asked in low voice, “Is there any new development these past couple of days?”
Xu Ziling replied indifferently, “There is an old friend waiting for you at the Zongguan Mansion. With her here, the situation is a bit clearer.”
※ ※ ※
As Kou Zhong was stepping into the main hall of the Zongguan Mansion, the Peng Liang Hui’s Third Chief ‘The Amorous Lady’ Ren Meimei, who was as graceful as ever, met him with smile on her face.
Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong said, “It’s great that San Dangjia have arrived! This residence can be handed over back to you.”
Displeased, Ren Meimei said, “How could it be that easy? Were it not for the two of you in charge here, this Miss had no interest coming here.”
Standing on the side, Chen Jiafeng smiled apologetically and said, “Let’s sit down first! Let’s sit down first!”
After they were seated, Xu Ziling said, “San Dangjia had just arrived this morning, and she brought several hundreds Xiongdi with her, so now our force is three thousand men strong.”
Ren Meimei shook her head and said, “Please don’t call me San Dangjia. Peng Liang Hui is no more; now we are looking up to you!”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked at each other in surprise. The former said, “Where did your honorable Society’s Mr. Nie go?
Ren Meimei’s countenance turned dark, she said, “At the battle of Liangdu, Da Dangjia [first chief] was injured by Yuwen Huaji, and have not recovered when recently the battle with Ku Ge broke. New injury and old misfortune intersect, his wound flared out, about ten days ago he passed away despite having received medical help. Therefore, Peng Liang Hui is already finished.”
“There is still you, San Dangjia!” Kou Zhong said.
Smiling ruefully, Ren Meimei said, “You know how much weight I carry; I am not even able to take revenge and wipe out a grudge for our Xiongdi who had lost their lives. Right now who does not know Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s great names?”
“How’s the situation at Pengcheng?” Kou Zhong asked.
Ren Meimei replied, “Pengcheng was defeated by Khitan evil thieves that the wall crumbled the roof failed; without a few years of effort, don’t even think it would recover its strength.”
Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “This is bad! I was thinking of repeating Li Mi’s strategy in defeating Yuwen Huagu: by dividing our military power evenly between the two cities. Whichever city he attacked, the other city would drag his rear leg. But if Pengcheng has become a destroyed city, this strategy won’t work.”
Ren Meimei said, “Didn’t you have glorious military success by painstakingly defending Jingling for more than ten days? Although currently Liangdu is weak, the morale is high. With tens of thousands of people all of one mind, considering Yuwen Huaji’s strength is far below Du Fuwei’s strength that time, plus their morale is low, we are not without any chance of victory at all.”
Dejected, Kou Zhong said, “When Xu Yuanlang’s men left, they took along all rations and fodder in the storage and granary. If our supply line is cut off, our provision can only support us for three days.”
“On that, I have the solution,” Ren Meimei said, “Between Pengcheng and Liangdu, our Peng Liang Hui has several towns and villages where we stockpile enormous amount of provisions. If we transport them all into the city, we can make it last at least a month, maybe more.”
The two boys’ spirit was greatly aroused.
Chen Jiafeng joined in, “Please excuse your subordinate to speak: on the subject of the terrain of the nearby mountains and rivers, no one is more familiar than we. I was wondering if we could select several strategic locations to ambush the enemy’s forces invading our territory. If we could burn Yuwen Huaji’s army provision, our chance of victory will be greatly increased.
Kou Zhong said, “Yuwen Huagu is a battle veteran, he has full knowledge of the art of war; it can’t be that easy for us to ambush him and burn his provision. We have to think of something else to deal with him.”
Smiling, Xu Ziling said, “We might have our knight in shining armor [orig. saving star].”
Stunned, the other three looked at him.
Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, “The reason Yuwen Huagu is dying to capture Liangdu is naturally because he knew Dou Jiande is not to be trifled with. Therefore, he took advantage of the golden opportunity bestowed by heaven, while Dou Jiande and Xu Yuanlang are fighting with each other, he wanted to take Liangdu at a stroke, and then going downstream along the Canal to attack Jiangdu. Therefore, the person most concerned with Liangdu’s safety ought to be Li Zitong. If we bend our finger to call him here, I guarantee he will deploy his men to provide support for us.”
Slapping the table, Kou Zhong said, “Wonderful plan! Li Zitong can’t be afraid of us. With Liangdu in our hands, it will only bring benefit to him without any harm. So then we can paint by holding two brushes [fig. to work on two tasks at the same time]: while strengthening city defense, transporting provisions and drill the troops, we can also send someone to Jiangdu, to persuade Li Zitong to send troops here. But whom should we send?”
Ren Meimei said, “The two of you cannot leave Liangdu, whereas our Peng Liang Hui has always had somewhat friendly relationship with Li Zitong, so let me be the lobbyist!”
Kou Zhong slapped Xu Ziling’s shoulder hard, and said, “Your brain is indeed very quick. His mother! Finally we are going to have a showdown against Yuwen Huagu, so that he could come but he could never leave.”
An unprecedented thick and deep murderous intent flashed through Xu Ziling’s eyes, while a sliver of as-cold-as-ice-and-frost smile escaped from the corner of his lips.
The time has finally come to settle the blood debt.
 Chapter title – from the dictionary: fig. to bear heavy responsibilities through a long struggle (cf Confucian Analects, 8.7)