Chapter 7 – Fierce Battle in River and Lake
Little Lingzhong was playing on the velvety cotton-padded mattress setup in the living area of his cabin, under the care of the young maid and the wet nurse, continuously squealing in delight. Sitting in the corner, Xu Ziling watched with a smile on his face, but his heart was actually wringing in pain, his breathing was ragged.
Fortunately, Bu Tianzhi arrived this moment. The two men climbed the spiral staircase toward the bridge.
Bu Tianzhi said, “We received the latest intelligence: Zhong Ye has assumed a title for himself ‘Shao Shuai’, the generals and soldiers under his command is called Shao Shuai Army, more than ten days ago they captured Xiapi, and also destroyed Ku Ge’s Khitan group of horse-mounted bandits. The cities and villages formerly attached to Xu Yuanlang or Li Zitong have pledged allegiance to him. Now in Shandong, other than Donghai, everything else has become Shao Shuai Army’s territory. Zhong Ye indeed did not disappoint our expectation.”
Xu Ziling inwardly thought that Kou Zhong has finally spread out his might. It seemed like in the world, other than Li Shimin, Du Fuwei, Dou Jiande, Liu Wuzhou, and Xiao Xian, these several particularly outstanding military leaders and hegemons, the rest would find it difficult to be his opponent. “Is he still in Xiapi now?” he asked.
“That is a big possibility,” Bu Tianzhi replied, “Therefore, we are thinking of changing course, to follow the Huai River going east, after passing Hongze Lake [in Jiangsu] and Chengzi Lake, we turn north to Si River, and then after Huaiyang we can reach Luoma Lake. Xiapi is located northwest of Luoma Lake. If he has returned to Liangdu, we can make sharp turn to the west.”
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “This way our journey will be two days farther, plus we have to break through that section, Zhongli City. Are you sure?”
Bu Tianzhi smiled and said, “Li Zitong’s navy has always been weak, time and again they are thwarted by Du Fuwei, so we need not be afraid. Plus we have always had business deal with him, he ought to give us a bit of face.”
“How’s Xiao Xian’s relationship with him?” Xu Ziling asked.
Bu Tianzhi replied, “Xiao Xian has been secretly supporting Li Zitong, his objective is to drag Du Fuwei’s hind legs. But Ziling need not worry that Li Zitong would become Xiao Xian’s hunting dog, because at most Li Zitong is only a dog who does not have time to take care of himself, and not a very competent one. Although our strength is a trivial three warships, our performance exceeds his, plus we have our martial art masters at the helm. Zhongli’s navy may roar like a tiger, enough to scare merchant ships or fishing boats, but they cannot stop us.”
Under normal circumstances, Xu Ziling did not need to consider his own safety, but for the sake of little Lingzhong’s safety, also to avoid Susu’s remains to be disturbed, he had no choice but to be cautious.
After asking Bu Tianzhi further about all kinds of contingency plans, he finally set his heart at ease and nodded his agreement.
By dusk that day, the ships arrived at Zhongli. Contrary to Xu Ziling’s expectation, Zhongli’s navy did not give them any trouble at all; they simply let them swagger away.
Trouble came when they reached Hongze Lake.
※ ※ ※
The fleet of ships slowly turned a bend and enter a straight section, where the river suddenly narrowed, and the stream became rapid.
Kou Zhong’s command ship was at the front; he and Jiao Hongjin were standing on the bridge, fixing their eyes on the river ahead.
Following the setting sun, the earth gradually grew dim.
Half a sichen ago, they sailed pass Muyang, and entered what Kou Zhong thought to be the most dangerous section of the river. Three more sichen, and then they would reach the ocean. Sailing to the north along the coastal area for another sichen or so, they would arrive at Donghai City.
At Muyang, the fleet made a short stop, where Li Xingyuan came aboard the ship to discuss the grand plan to attack Donghai City. After a bit of mutual deception, the fleet continued their journey at double speed.
Jiao Hongjin spoke in low voice, “This river is unreasonably quiet, not even a single fishing boat is in sight. This is the time when the fishermen are rushing home from their day catching fish on the sea.”
On their left they saw lantern light blinking at certain pattern, a certain sign that the enemy’s navy in some kind of deployment, but they did not come forward to issue any challenge like originally expected.
Jiao Hongjin and Kou Zhong looked at each other. They both felt that something was not right.
Kou Zhong swept his gaze around; he asked, “What kind of place is ahead?”
Jiao Hongjin replied in heavy voice, “About four li ahead is Du Long Xia [poisonous dragon gorge]; both side of the gorge are steep mountains, the cliff along the river is full of reefs, the river becomes a rapid. But General Luo has already dispatched his men to lie in wait over there. If the enemy has any arrangement, they can’t possibly deceive our eyes and ears.”
Shaking his head, Kou Zhong said, “The situation is very bad; we must have underestimated that fellow, Tong Shuwen.”
Frowning, Jiao Hongjin said, “Since they are not going to ambush us ahead, and their navy did come out to challenge us into battle, how are they going to deal with us?”
With a grave expression Kou Zhong said, “It is precisely because we cannot see through their arrangement that we feel something is very wrong.”
He issued an order, the ship cast its anchor.
Jiao Hongjin spoke in low voice, “Could it be that we wronged Li Xingyuan? Perhaps he really wanted to take refuge in us.”
Kou Zhong resolutely said, “I definitely did not misjudge this person. Hey!”
Following his example, Jiao Hongjin turned his head around to look; in the dim twilight, the other six navy ships were slowing down, following the command ship, ready to cast their anchor. The river looked calm and peaceful.
Kou Zhong suddenly laughed and said, “Oh my God! This time our navy ships are done for!”
※ ※ ※
Battleships covered the Hongze Lake like the cloud; tense atmosphere permeated the air.
Under cover of the starry sky, this fourth largest freshwater lake in the Central Plains appeared to be extending forever into the distance. More than a dozen hostile warships appeared on the surface of the lake in fan-shaped formation, so they have the potential to close in and surround them.
The biggest distinguishing feature of Hongze Lake was that there were reeds everywhere, practically covering the entire lake, so lush and flourishing that it was difficult for boats to sail on it. Furthermore, the bottom of the lake was shallow and flat, with muds sloping up and down. The maximum depth was no more than two zhang, average depth was only within 10 chi; therefore, even if one dived into the water to flee for his life, it would still be difficult evade the enemy’s powerful arrows.
The enemy’s move was obviously a deliberate, well-planned operation.
It was at this point they finally understood why the Zhongli City’s Li Army easily let them pass, because once they reached this place, they could only be involved in a chaotic warfare on the vast, boundless flat lake. Furthermore, with multitude enemies, few friends, if they could not hold their ground, they would not be able to leave the water, go to the shore and escape on land. This was a carefully laid trap targeting Xu Ziling, a top quality martial art master.
Shaken, Bu Tianzhi said, “Unexpectedly they are Da Jiang Hui [great river society] ships [See Book 7 Chapter 1].”
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “Are they under the Da Jiang Hui’s ‘Dragon Lord’ Pei Yue and the ‘Tiger Lord’ Pei Yan’s leadership, and not under Zheng Shuming-led Changjiang Lian’s [Yangtze River Alliance]?”
In the past, he and Kou Zhong left Shuang Long Bang’s [twin-dragon gang] ‘thief nest’ hauling salt into the Yangtze River, when Pei Yan, in company with Wang Bo’s son, the ‘Thunder Saber’ Wang Kuijie, clipped their tail and pursued them. It was entirely by relying on thick, black smoke that they were able to get away. Unexpectedly they met again today.
This moment Chen Laomou came to Xu Ziling’s other side and answered his question, “They are precisely the ‘Snake and Dog Two Lords’ who won’t shrink from any crime; I never thought they would be foolish enough to take shelter under Li Zitong, who is on his way downhill. It is really hard to believe.”
Bu Tianzhi shook his head and said, “These two lowly men are snobbish; the one they are relying on is Xiao Xian. Humph! Let’s give them a tough battle.”
Xu Ziling asked, “Can we release black smoke to confuse the enemy and then wait for the opportunity to escape?”
Chen Laomou shook is head and said, “The wind is too strong, plus on the lake, releasing smoke screen is just a waste of energy and manpower.”
And then, waving his hand, he shouted loudly, “Brothers! Prepare for battle!”
Immediately battle drums shook the heavens, the sound reverberated far and wide.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong whispered in Jiao Hongjin’s ear, “Look at the hull of our ship where it contacts the water.”
And then he shouted loudly, “Continue to sail, the slower the better!”
Jiao Hongjin focused his attention to look; severely shaken, he said, “Oh my god! Someone play a trick on our ship.”
He saw that the hull immersed in the water was daubed with kerosene; without even asking, he knew that it must have happened near Muyang somewhere, some people dumped kerosene on the river, so that when the ships passed through, they would be stained with kerosene.
Jiao Hongjin said, “If this is Sichuan’s kerosene, it will burn even after entering the water, and it cannot be extinguished by pouring water on it. This is indeed a very formidable trick.”
Kou Zhong’s entire body relaxed; he laughed and said, “The most formidable aspect is that after we fell into the trap, we still foolishly unaware, let alone a fleet of Donghai navy must be hiding in a tributary near Muyang, ready to pursue and catch our tail. Our plan must go different direction. Ha! Prepare to abandon the ship!”
※ ※ ※
 The term Jianghu (river and lake) has always been used to describe martial art world; more specifically the wanderers, itinerant entertainers, swindlers, etc. But in this case the battle did happen on a river and a lake, hence I opted to translate it the way it is.
All three Jukun Bang warships extinguished their lights, but their speed was continuously rising, as they sailed speedily toward the west side of the lake in triangular formation.
Bu Tianzhi’s wrinkled, slender face was calm as usual; he spoke indifferently, “The water flowing into Hongze Lake is concentrated from the western part of the lake; the main source is from Huai River, where we came from, the others are Sui River, Bian River, and An River. The water is coming out of the lake via three different waterways, the main river course is separately discharging into the Yangtze River and the ocean. The enemy is blocking our way to the east, so we are going to play cat and mouse with them; we’ll see who is more familiar with Hongze Lake, see whose night navigation skill is more superior.”
Chen Laomou added, “The entire Hongze Lake is shaped like a swan spreading its wings with its head high. According to ancient books, the origin of the lake was a low-lying ground where the water could not flow freely. After it became a lake later on, due to the shallow water with a lot of mud, it is one of the bodies of water where water battle is to be avoided at all cost.”
Xu Ziling looked back at the pursuing enemy ship from the rear; he asked, “And those ships are going to avoid water battle at all cost?”
As if enumerating his family valuables, Bu Tianzhi said, “Big is better than small, solid subdues fragile, tail wind surpasses headwind, going with the flow beats going against the stream, watch for shallow water, guard against fire, protect from the wind, guard against chisel, guard against iron lock; these are nine cardinals of water battle. If you violate just one of them, you would end up in ship-capsize, people-perish disaster.”
Xu Ziling had a sudden understanding, “No wonder Zhi Shu wanted to go against the stream first toward the west, rushing to into the waterway west of the lake, and then turn around to enter the lake to meet the enemy head-on. This way it will become ‘going with the flow beats going against the stream’.”
Chen Laomou smiled and said, “Ziling is indeed a child that can be taught. The so-called acting in accordance with upstream to placate the power of the water, making it difficult to battle facing the stream, just like land battle’s living high and looking down [i.e. occupying the high ground], clearly taking up the superior position. However, we have never tried facing the Da Jiang Hui’s Pei Clan’s brother in hand-to-hand combat; they are not easy to deal with, Tianzhi must be careful.”
He had not finished speaking, from the west of the lake appeared seven dots of ships. Shockingly, they were the Yangtze River Alliance’s warships.
Suddenly the situation was reversed; the enemy ahead occupied the upstream position, while there was no escape route behind them, so that they had fallen into the enemies-in-front-and-behind, the-enemy-strong-we-are-weak inferior position.
※ ※ ※
More than thirty warships quickly appeared like galloping horses from behind, sailing downstream toward Kou Zhong’s Shao Shuai Navy fleet. Looking at their speed, it appeared that they would be able to overtake Kou Zhong right about Du Long Gorge. Because the hull of Shao Shuai Navy’s ships were already contaminated with kerosene, if the enemy attacked using fiery arrows, it could be guaranteed that the Shao Shuai Navy, which was weary after a long voyage, would be completely wiped out. The calculation was accurate, the method was ruthless.
Even if the long-range attack failed, because the enemy was sailing with the current and had the advantage of tail wind, plus Donghai’s navy ships were big and sturdy, they would easily overcome the smaller and more fragile navy vessels of Kou Zhong’s side. By riding the wind plus the momentum of going with the current, it would be like a cart crushing a praying mantis, a battle between the ships and not between the soldiers; grasp it, and victory is assured.
It was clear that Donghai Navy was waiting for the Shao Shuai Navy to pass Muyang before they took advantage of the current to chase after them; indeed it was a display of deep comprehension of naval battle strategy, the crucial point where victory was within grasp.
This moment, Li Ziyun, Tong Shuwen and Li Xingyuan were standing on the bridge of the command ship, looking at the seven enemy ships that were forced to close in. All seven ships were in total blackout, leaving only one wind lantern on the bow to illuminate the river in front of them. The banners on the ships were as dense as a forest, so that the enemy was not able to clearly see the situation on the ships.
Li Ziyun looked to be around thirty years of age, big, tall, and mighty. Pointing his finger ahead, he laughed and said, “People say Kou Zhong is so formidable, but I say he is just a fool, not someone who knows how to operate the boat, but wholeheartedly making things easier for us to annihilate them by crowding together like that. Brothers, be ready!”
Battle drums were beaten. The men on the foremost three warships lighted their arrows and bent their bows, ready to shoot.
But Li Xingyuan leaned over and whispered in Tong Shuwen’s ear, “It seems like something is wrong!”
Tong Shuwen, who at first glance appeared to be dignified, elegant like an immortal, but upon closer look was spoiled by triangular shaped eyes, laughed coldly and said, “So what if something is wrong? Even if they setup an ambush on the shore, our ships are equipped with cowhide and iron panels, enough to deal with their arrows. Much less both sides of Du Long Gorge are steep cliffs; setting up an ambush is just a wishful thinking. Therefore, this time we are definitely occupying the invincible position. The question is whether we will be able to kill Kou Zhong, and thus eradicate this threat once for all!”
After careful thought, Li Xingyuan also felt that he was overly suspicious; therefore, he had no choice but to obediently shut his mouth up.
By this time, Kou Zhong’s Shao Shuai Navy was sailing fast toward the mouth of the gorge, the current turned nasty, both sides’ ships, one side pursuing the other, were moving with a thousand-li momentum.
The moment victory was in sight, the most impossible thing to happen suddenly happened.
The seven Shao Shuai Navy ships suddenly stopped in the middle of the swiftly flowing river and positioned themselves in a row, so that the entire surface of the Mu River was like blocked by the ships. Not only ship and ship was locked together, they even had chains locking the ships to the big trees on both sides of the river, sealing the entire mouth of the gorge.
While Li Ziyun, Tong Shuwen, and the others were looking at this scene, flabbergasted, the seven enemy ships suddenly caught fire at the same time; the blazing flame soared to the sky.
Although fully aware that they were entering the sea of fire, the seven or eight ships at the front were unable to hold their own momentum; as their cry of alarm reached the heavens, their ships simply rammed against the burning ships.
The rest of the Donghai Navy ships at the back hastily steered their boats toward both banks. But while they were thinking that they had just avoided the danger zone, suddenly from both banks battle cry shook the heavens, followed by the number one great master/artisan of the present age, Lu Miaozi’s creation, the ‘Fire Flyer and Catcher’ and the ‘Cross-shaped Fiery Arrows’, raining down from the cliff on both sides toward the enemy ships dropping by their door. Sparks and flames flew everywhere, brightening the night sky on the river; the continuous rumbling noise adding to the liveliness, creating magnificent sight. However, for the Donghai and Muyang coalition forces, it was the spell of doom.
Li Ziyun finally realized who the real fool was.
※ ※ ※
The three Jukun Bang warships changed course toward the north, in their attempt to escape through the gap before the enemy’s ships closing in to form the siege.
Greatly astonished, Xu Ziling asked, “Isn’t tail wind surpasses headwind? Why do we turn north toward the wind and not to the south to obtain tail wind?”
While carefully observing the enemy warship closing in from both sides, Bu Tianzhi calmly said, “Since previously the enemy was already able to guess that we were going to seize the advantageous upstream position, they would also be able to guess that we might flee with the tail wind. Therefore, we are going against the norm so that their carefully layout plan would not be effective anymore.”
Chen Laomou shouted loudly, “Raise the panel and lower the sail!”
The drums were sounded, the order was transmitted.
While Xu Ziling was slightly startled, hundreds of iron plates to shield against the arrows were erected on the cabin walls on both sides, top and bottom decks, greatly enhancing their defense against darts, rocks, and fiery arrows.
By the time the sail was down, windows appeared on the gigantic hull of the ship; eighteen long oars came out from each side, which were swiftly dropped down to the water and started to paddle in strong rhythm. The strength and dynamic was really pleasant to the eyes.
Without the drag from the sail, the three warships easily glided against the wind; they advanced swiftly and in a short time were able to escape from the enemy’s siege via the gap.
It was only this point that Xu Ziling understood that naval battle actually involved deep knowledge, so much so that even unfavorable situation could be turned into a favorable one; it was definitely not as simple as it appeared on the surface. Now that the sail, which was the most obvious target of the enemy’s fire, they no longer had to fear the enemy releasing fiery arrows.
The enemy sounded the drums. They released more than fifty fast boats onto the water to pursue relentlessly. The oars rose and fell, their speed was several times faster than the huge ships, plus they had the advantage of agility, so that they were not afraid that Jukun Bang’s warships might try to ram into them. It was an ingenious strategy.
Bu Tianzhi issued an order; the three ships changed formation from triangular into a line, as if they did not have any plan on dealing with this contingency. Chen Laomou suddenly shouted, “Scatter the ashes! Throw the stone! Release the arrows!”
Battle drums echoed throughout the lake under cover of the starry night.
First, the three warships released big lumps of lime from their stern, which was the darkest part of the ship, which, due to the breeze above the water, quickly became a wall of dust rolling toward the enemy’s boats.
At the same time, the arrows and rocks were released, violently attacking the pursuing enemies within ten zhang distance.
Continuous screams and groans of pain ensued; caught off guard, more than half the enemies had the dust of lime assaulted their eyes, while the rest turned their heads around while covering their eyes. Right this moment the rocks and arrows arrived like rain. The fleet of fast boats, which originally pursued with torrential momentum, was beaten until everything was broken and in disorder, and was routed completely.
While the sailors were cheering, the three warships finally escaped the siege, and ran away to the north.
“Raise the sail!” Bu Tianzhi shouted.
This moment Xu Ziling really prostrated himself in admiration to Bu Tianzhi and Chen Laomou’s skill in naval battle, while inwardly thinking that no wonder Jukun Bang was able to become a prominent member of the Eight Gangs, Ten Societies. “And now, are we going to change course to sail downwind?” he asked respectfully.
Bu Tianzhi nodded and said, “If we don’t sail downwind to the south, how can we go to Xiapi? But if we don’t play a little trick, the enemy might overtake us.”
Finished speaking, he issued a string of orders.
The three warships, which had easily broken out of siege, sailed eastward around the bend, and went straight toward the east shore, where the concentration of the reeds was the highest.
Under Chen Laomou’s direction, all three warships produced a pair of floating boards, which looked like wings, from both sides of the hull, and thus greatly increased their buoyancy, so that the huge hulls were able to cope with the shallow bottom of the lake.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Bu Tianzhi said, “That will do!”
The sails were suddenly opened to their full width to catch the tail wind, and they glided speedily along the coast in the southeasterly direction. Everywhere the bow divided the water, the reeds broke in pieces; it looked like the three ships were gliding on green ripples of the water. Very soon they already left the enemies far behind, and entered the junction out of the lake, where the ripples appeared to be glittering under the starlight.