Book 27 Chapter 10 – The Guest Acts as the Host
That evening, about the second watch of the night (9-11pm), a small sailboat set off from Jingling, under the cold wind and hard rain, sailing along the Han River in the direction of Xiangyang.
Steering the boat was Xu Ziling. He and Kou Zhong disguised themselves as Qian Duguan’s men. Naturally they could not let a royalty like Tuli Khan to do such a menial job as taking the helm of a small sailboat.
Kou Zhong and Tuli were sitting on the bow, watching for any movement along the river course, as well as on both banks of the river. With the wind on their tail, they smoothly, without any surprise, any danger, sailing upstream for nearly thirty li, before they could heave a sigh of relief.
Kou Zhong looked up to feel the taste of rain on his face. As if talking in his sleep, he said, “Zhao Deyan’s spy clearly knew who Ziling and I are; otherwise, he could not possibly pretend not to recognize us, and would not avert his eyes as they met ours.”
Tuli, who was wearing bamboo rain hat, nodded and said, “I also noticed that; this is called a thief having a guilty conscience. The most blatant was when I ordered him not to contact anybody else, including Kang Qiaoli, unexpectedly he did not look the least bit surprised. Just now, before we set sail, I really wanted to grab a spear and get rid of him.”
Kou Zhong smiled and said, “Did Khan notice that before we set sail, his hand was trembling? My guess is when he got home, the first thing he did was to thank God for His kindness.”
Thinking deeply, Tuli said, “Do you think we can completely leave the pursuers behind?”
Kou Zhong said, “We set off this late at night, hence we created the situation where they did not have enough time for careful consideration. However, because we are going against the current, we can’t go faster than swift horses galloping along the land route. In my estimation, before reaching Xiangyang, one of the group of riders might successfully be able to intercept us. And they must do so, because Xiangyang is the confluence of Xiao River and Han River, the road diverges to various directions, so that pursuing us will be a lot more difficult!”
Tuli nodded and said, “They are most afraid that I will receive assistance from Qian Duguan. In this case, it seems that hard fighting will be difficult to avoid.”
Kou Zhong said, “Qian Duguan is another unclear factor. Yin Gui Pai is the biggest Sect within the demonic schools in the Central Plains. In term of strength, they are not inferior to Shi Feixuan and the Four Great Holy Monks’ troops. If this time they suffered big loss, based on their style, they would not be willing to let the matter drop. Therefore, good shows will come one after another.”
Tuli pondered silently.
Kou Zhong asked, “Does ‘Khan’ mean the emperor?”
“More or less,” Tuli replied, “But there’s great and lesser distinction. Great Khan is the one considered real sovereign. Lesser Khan is like your Wangzi [prince, son of a king] or Taizi [crown prince]. If Xieli is done for, the one most qualified to ascend the Great Khan position is me, Tuli.”
Kou Zhong said, “In that case, when he bestowed you the lesser Khan title in the past, it must be because he was constrained by circumstances and did not have any choice. Now that his imperial throne is stable, he wants to find a way to eliminate you. Therefore, this time Xieli must be going all-out against you, otherwise he will lose a golden opportunity and fail to gain victory. Ha! Very good!”
Smiling wryly, Tuli said, “What’s good about it?”
Kou Zhong cheerfully said, “When you are desperately seeking something, there’s the possibility you will fail. Desperate people might make mistake or do stupid things; it’s difficult to escape from clever and knowledgeable person.”
Tuli stared at him for quite a while, before nodding his head and said, “Only now I really understand why Li Shimin considers you as his only formidable opponent. Shao Shuai is that kind of natural born leader. Although I, Tuli, am conceited, I cannot but admit that when fighting a battle side by side with you, being subjected to your complete confidence, influenced by your intelligence and a hundred-scheming charisma, not only I am ready to hear and obey your order, I will take pleasure in it. This is a trait that even Li Shimin is lacking.”
Kou Zhong’s old face turned red, he said, “Khan overpraised me! Hey! When you return to your distinguished country, are you going to see Xieli?”
Tuli said, “My command tent is located north of your Youzhou [ancient province in north Hebei and Liaoning], governing several dozens of khanates on the east side, just like another Khan court, with our own army. If he is not benevolent, I won’t be friendly, why would I want to look up at his breath!”
Slapping his leg, Kou Zhong said, “That’s even better. If Yun Shuai won’t succeed, Zhao Deyan will be forced to make his move, then we will have a chance to kill him. This is splendid!”
And then he asked, “That kid Li Yuanji, how’s his martial art skill? Have Khan ever played a hand or two with him? Is he more formidable than Li Shentong?”
Tuli said, “They are three brothers, the difference in martial art skill among them is not far. Although I have not pitted myself against him, I always feel that although Li Yuanji is outstanding, he can’t surpass Li Shentong. At most there’s only a sliver of difference.”
Kou Zhong has had experienced fighting against Li Shentong; hearing Tuli’s remark, he was emotionally moved and said, “That can be considered not bad at all.”
This moment the sailing boat was rounding a sharp corner, the river course turned perfectly straight and narrow. Under the drizzle and the dark of the night, they saw bright lanterns ahead, four warships were sailing speedily toward them. The three men were shocked; how could the enemy intercept them this quickly?
Suddenly hundreds of torches brightened both sides of the river. A difficult-to-count number of archers appeared from their hiding places under the bushes and in the forest, with arrow on the bow, ready to shoot. The three felt like they were plunging into a nightmare abyss.
The sound of trebuchets and crossbow machines were coming from the warships ahead with ten-thousand-jun thunderbolt momentum, attacking them and catching them off-guard.
Just before the rocks and arrows reached them, fast as lightning Kou Zhong drew the Moon in the Well, pounced forward and swept the saber across the boat’s only mast, while shouting loudly, “Let them come!”
Upon contact with the saber, the solid mast snapped like a fragile piece of paper.
This saber strike carried the entire power stored up in Kou Zhong’s body; it was certainly no small matter.
Because the boat was sailing under tailwind, when the mast broke, naturally the sail fell swiftly forward to meet the arrows and rocks shooting toward them.
In this critical moment, Tuli and Xu Ziling understood Kou Zhong’s intention. They knew that even if they jumped off the boat to flee, it would still be difficult to avoid perishing under the arrows. The only way out was to seize the space and time between one breath and the next.
Tuli swiftly pushed forward with both palms, striking the surface of the river, creating a splash of water in front of the boat. Having lost its only sail, immediately the boat changed direction and swiftly floated backward.
Xu Ziling cheered inwardly. Applying pressure with his foot, he pushed the boat so that it spun seven, eight times in succession, and tilted and slipped backward about ten zhang. If not for they were traveling against the stream, it would be difficult to exploit the current to achieve such an ideal result.
All the shooting rocks and arrows hit an empty space.
The enemy’s ships pursued at top speed, but for the time being, they were already outside the range of the archers on both sides of the river.
Kou Zhong shouted loudly, “Pull to the shore! Brothers!”
Pulling his body up, he flew toward the shore, which was no more than five zhang away from them. Xu Ziling and Tuli followed closely behind. In the blink of an eye they disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
Two chunks of big rock hit their abandoned boat at the same time. The poor boat shattered on contact, unable to maintain its shape anymore.
All these things happened within a period of ten breathings, but the danger involved was not inferior in any way to a life and death showdown between two martial art masters. If any one of these three reacted a bit slower or slightly inaccurately, they would turn into corpses going down into the bottom of the river; definitely no luck was involved here. Even with Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling’s ability, if they wanted go deep underwater, which was only about two zhang depth, hiding from the powerful arrows and shooting rocks was already beyond their reach.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling have a strange feeling of history repeating itself, like that time they were hiding in Luoyang, while running away from Li Mi and Yin Gui Pai hunting them for a thousand li. Only this time Tuli took Ba Fenghan’s place, and Shen Luoyan’s strange bird was replaced by an even more formidable sparrow hawk.
Kou Zhong flitted through the gaps among the branches and the leaves on top of the jungle, focusing his power into his eyes to look around. But under the drizzling rain and dark night, he could barely see a small black dot, which was about a hundred zhang above the ground, circling overhead silently.
Frowning, he said, “I wonder if this flat-feathered chap is Yun Shuai’s or Zhao Deyan? Khan, Laoxiong, can you tell?”
Tuli replied with a rueful smile, “You make me feel more and more inferior. All I can see is an expanse of darkness; were it not for you telling me, Xiaodi basically did not know that we are being watched by a hawk. Yet even during daytime, it is not easy to recognize, unless it is willing to fly down.”
Xu Ziling said, “Just now, ambushing us at the Han River must be Zhu Can and Yun Shuai’s coalition army. If it was Zhao Deyan, it’s less likely that he’d have this kind of troop arrangement and momentum. We are a bit careless as well; we did not expect the enemy would guard a tree-stump, waiting for rabbits [idiom: to trust to chance rather than show initiative] by blocking off the river course, while sending out the hawk to monitor any activity around Jingling region from high altitude, and then conveniently lay out the ambush, nearly cutting off the opponent’s way. Therefore, the possibility that this hawk belongs to Yun Shuai is rather high.”
The three ran about a hundred li at a stretch. By this time they already felt tired, but they were still unable to throw off the hawk following their track from high in the sky. They would be lying if they say that they were not dispirited and anxious.
Sighing, Kou Zhong said, “Between that old thief Zhu Can and us, two brothers, there is an enmity as deep as the ocean; it would be strange indeed if this time he won’t pour out his entire strength to take revenge on us. Presently, our only way out ought to be crashing into Xiangyang.”
Xu Ziling said, “In any case, I would not rely on Yin Gui Pai for protection, so the road is not worth taking.”
Tuli spoke heavily, “I agree with Ziling Xiong’s decision. Besides, we don’t know what trick Zhao Deyan might be playing. While Yin Gui Pai is unfathomably demonic and strange, going to Xiangyang will only add one more complication.”
Kou Zhong did not care that his proposal was overruled; he made another one, “No problem. We’ll pretend that we are going to Xiangyang, but actually going someplace else. This is called ‘the troops deployed to mislead the enemy’ strategy. Only inside the city will we be able to get rid of this high-altitude tracker.”
While Tuli was still thinking, Xu Ziling asked him, “Can it see us?”
Tuli looked up to the sky and said, “When a hawk is hunting for food, it can hover around thirty, forty zhang above the ground. Like now, it is about a hundred zhang in the air, it can only get a broader field of view. Therefore, no matter where we are in the forest, we cannot escape its sharp vision, which is far superior to ordinary people.”
Kou Zhong had a big headache; blowing out a mouthful of cool air, he said, “Your flying sentinel is very formidable.”
Xu Ziling’s sword-shaped eyebrows knitted tightly, he spoke heavily, “We must solve this beast problem first, otherwise we will lose the initiative. My guess is that it is Zhao Deyan’s eyes and was not sent by Yun Shuai, because along the way on the boat, I always paid attention to the sky, but I did not see it.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “Ling Shao’s remark made a lot of sense. If after we left the spy in Jingling notified Zhao Deyan, who was hiding somewhere nearby, he might immediately release the hawk; it should catch up with us just about this time.”
But then he said in astonishment, “Could the hawk be this formidable? After all, this is not a place it is familiar with. Could it be that Zhao Deyan simply told the old flat-feathered beast, ‘go seek along the river, if you see those three, follow them closely, and if you have the opportunity go back and tell me’?”
Tuli’s countenance changed. “Not good!” he cried out, “You are right! Zhao Deyan’s troops must be nearby, directed remotely using torches or some other things, it’s just that we cannot see them.”
Xu Ziling said, “For the time being, we are still safe. In such a dense forest like this, a crowd will not be effective. If we could lure them into the jungle, we will be able to kill them to our heart’s content.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “There’s still a sichen or so before daybreak, at that time it will be their turn to enter the jungle to their heart’s delight!”
Xu Ziling was the first to sit down by a tree. Only then did the other two realize the importance of taking a rest. Following his lead, they also sat down.
Xu Ziling said, “In the process of tracking and searching, under what circumstances would the hawk fly low?”
Tuli put the Subduing Eagle Spear across his stretched-out legs; muttering to himself irresolutely, he said, “Our hawks are trained to track the enemy, under no circumstances would they be lured to drop to the ground. Even if they have to fly low to observe, they can’t possibly fly lower than thirty zhang. Furthermore, they are very astute; as soon as they hear slight bowstring’s twang or palm wind, they would immediately soar high to evade. Killing them won’t be easy at all.”
Kou Zhong resolutely said, “Beasts are beasts; no matter how intelligent, they are still animal, how could they surpass the people who skillfully train them? There must be a way to beat them.”
“What happen when the hawk is hungry?” Xu Ziling asked.
Tuli shook his head and said, “When the hawks are carrying out their master’s order, they only eat the culinary delicacy that their master reward them with. But during long distance assignment, it may hunt for its own food.”
Kou Zhong slapped his thigh and said, “That will do! We will combine its reconnaissance and hunting for food activities into one, turning it into brilliant scheme of snatching away its little life. Come! Although it is innocent, but I am sorry that I have to do it this time; I wish it will come as a good chick in the next life!”
The forest suddenly rang with the sound of chasing and fighting, followed by a blood-curdling screech, and smell of blood soaring into the sky.
Naturally no one was really hurt; the blood was coming from an unfortunate wild fox wandering in the vicinity that Kou Zhong caught and chopped its head.
Xu Ziling was hiding high on a tree, holding his breath and staying really still.
Sure enough, the sparrow hawk’s sensitive ears heard the sound of hunting, immediately it spiraled down from about a hundred zhang high-altitude to about fifty zhang. Probably because of the smell of blood combined with its natural instinct, it suddenly made a rapid circle and dived down swiftly.
Xu Ziling cheered inwardly, while raising his arms and secretly performing an image, gathering all the strength in his body and storing up the momentum in waiting.
Since the beginning of his self-cultivation, he had already fallen in love with observing the flight of birds in the sky, from which he learned not a few of the martial art principles. Unexpectedly the moment has come where he had to turn this knowledge around to deal with a bird; inwardly he felt a big sense of helplessness, yet there was no other choice.
Under the fine drizzle, the sparrow hawk came to within ten-zhang distance from him. As soon as it entered the five-zhang distance, he was certain that he could send a strike over the empty space to shock it and turn the living bird into a dead one.
While he was estimating the distance, suddenly the sparrow hawk shook; after going down another zhang, it suddenly flapped its wings. The sharp sparrow hawk eyes shot lightning light toward Xu Ziling, who was hiding on a branch on top of the tree.
Inwardly Xu Ziling knew the situation was bad; he did not expect the hawk would be this quick and acute. Immediately he released the power accumulated into his fist into a sudden punch.
The sparrow hawk spread out its wing to swat the punch, as well as to stop its downward dive. A bit more, then the punch would hit its target. But it only brushed a few of the tip of the hawk’s wing.
‘Screech!’ the hawk cried out in fear, while a few pieces of its feathers fell off. It flew back unnaturally into the air for a short period of time, before, having just recovered from the shock, flying to the south and disappeared from sight.
Xu Ziling jumped back to the forest floor. Kou Zhong and Tuli felt a great sense of pity for his failure within sight of success, but Xu Ziling shook his head and said, “No! We succeeded.”
Staring blankly, Kou Zhong said, “Did Ling Shao mean that the bird received internal injury, its heart and veins broken, and that after it is back, it would vomit blood and die?”
Tuli did not understand either, so he listened to his explanation.
Xu Ziling asked Tuli, “When the bird is frightened, will it return to its master?”
Tuli understood. He nodded his head in affirmative. But he was still puzzled, “Even if Ziling Xiong is able to see the place where the hawk is falling and speculate the location where Zhao Deyan’s troops are hiding, but our knowledge of their strength is limited. If we simply grope around and fight, we will be at the very disadvantageous position.”
Kou Zhong smiled and said, “Khan has forgotten that other than they, there is another group of people who are seeking our harm. If we could make Yun Shuai, Zhu Can, and the others think that Zhao Deyan is here to provide support for Khan’s troops, there will be a good show that we can watch.”
At first Tuli was stunned, but then he was greatly delighted. “That is indeed a brilliant scheme,” he said, “But how are we going to proceed?”
Xu Ziling said, “Do you, Eastern Tujue people, have special long-distance communication method?”
Putting his hand into his pocket, Tuli took out a conch-shaped metal whistle and said, “We can send different signals by blowing this in different lengths. When Yun Shuai hear it, he would know that it is the man from our side.”
Kou Zhong reached out to take the whistle; while looking at it, he said, “Such a marvelous thing, why didn’t you tell us earlier?”
Turning to Xu Ziling, he said, “Your brains have always been clearer than mine. Why don’t you think of something this time?”
A mischievous smile appeared on Xu Ziling’s face; he said, “Based on Zhao Deyan’s intelligence, if he heard the whistle, how would he react?”
Tuli said, “If I were him, I would immediately withdraw, because Yun Shuai definitely does not have favorable impression toward him.”
Kou Zhong said, “This time it is our turn to hunt and kill him!”
The three you looked at me, I looked at you, they all saw smiling expression growing in the other’s eyes, as well as in their faces. And then they all squealed at the same time, and like three little kids, under Xu Ziling’s leadership, they ran through the forest, heading toward the south.