Volume 4, Chapter 20: Breaking a Goshawk’s Wings (End)

Tan Ji was employed in an important position by Grand General Long Tingfei. Beginning as an uneducated individual, Ji was personally taught military strategy and tactics by Long Tingfei, rising from a commoner to become a general. This in itself was not an easy task. His personality was melancholic and unsociable. Every time the Grand General held a banquet to raise morale, although Ji would reluctantly attend, he never touched a drop of alcohol, sitting by himself, causing the entire mood to be depressed. After several occasions, the Grand General could only cease to invite Ji. Ji was severe towards his subordinates. Any violators of military regulations, regardless of distinction or bravery, would be executed. As a result, his command’s formations were orderly, never fearing death in battle, showcasing a vigorous military prestige that was rarely seen in the world. Although Ji held a high position, he retained his previous simplistic lifestyle. Whenever he was conferred with rewards, he would always share them with his subordinates. Although his subordinates feared Ji, they were more than willing to serve him to the death.
Ji’s parents died in the chaos of war, leaving Ji with deep hatred. Every time he campaigned, he always perpetrated slaughter, repeatedly massacring captives and disturbing the common people. No matter how Grand General tried to exhort him, he did not listen. However, because Ji was a talented commander, filling the people of Yong with dread, the Grand General did not wish to limit him. Ji’s appearance seemed to be scholarly and handsome, and carried a miserable past that frequently made him ashamed. He concealed his face with a bronze mask, always wearing it. People nicknamed him the Ghost-Faced General. His guards copied him, striking fear into both friend and foe.
—Northern Han Dynastic Records, Biography of Tan Ji

A goshawk flew past the horizon under the clear sky and over the boundless brush of the wilderness by the whimpering Qin River. A mournful hawk cry sounded, causing the heart to feel a sense of loneliness. Tan Ji sat on his horse on the banks of the Qin River, his gaze filled with cold austerity. Several scouts galloped over. Dropping off their horses onto their knees, one of them reported, “Reporting to the General, the enemy supply camp is located at Miaopo. Rations and fodder are piled up like mountains. The supply camp is located between two rivers with the rear camp a mere three li from the Autumn Breeze Crossing where the rivers intersect. There are four pontoon bridges across the Qin River and three over the Shili River. There are over a thousand boats of the navy at the Autumn Breeze Crossing. With every single delivery, they can bring several days’ worth of provisions and supplies. The supply camp has Jing Chi’s banner flying over it, and possesses ten thousand horsemen and twenty thousand infantrymen.”

Tan Ji did not make any sound, only signaling with his hands. A member of the thirty-six-man strong Ghost Cavalry behind him and to the side guided his horse forward and stated in a clear voice, “The General orders you to withdraw.”

The scouts breathed a sigh of relief and respectfully withdrew. There were very few individuals who could face Tan Ji calm and composed. After the scouts had withdrawn, Tan Ji stonily spoke, “Luo Meng, tell me, why was an imposing general dispatched to defend the supply camp? Jing Chi is one of Great Yong’s two best cavalry commanders, but was given an idle position and sent off to defend the supplies. The Prince of Qi never did this before, even though he controlled military authority. With the arrival of the Yong Emperor’s trusted adviser to supervise the army, how could such a thing happen?”

The bodyguard hesitated before responding, “General, there is nowhere that power struggles do not exist. Although the Prince of Qi’s authority is great, he could do nothing to Jing Chi, as he was dispatched by the Yong Emperor. For the Prince of Qi to give him an idle position, wouldn’t that represent a brazen challenge towards his Imperial Brother? Now that a new person has come to restrict the Prince of Qi, then Jing Chi is no longer important. The Prince of Qi would naturally take this opportunity to deal with him. In this age, who worries about whether their subordinates are loyal or traitorous? As long as they’re useable, they’re treated as valuable as money. When they’ve served their purpose, they’re tossed aside like a worn shoe. That year when General was seriously injured by an assassin, didn’t some individuals try to make things difficult for General? The Grand General did not make any effort to help you out of said predicament.”

This bodyguard of the thirty-six Ghost Cavalry had accompanied Tan Ji the longest and was naturally highly trusted. That was why he dared to wantonly speak so bluntly. Listening to his words, Tan Ji did not get angry nor did he get surprised. He indifferently replied, “That is the nature of human emotions … there is nothing I can say. However, the Grand General’s grace towards me is as heavy as a mountain. You are not permitted to disparage him. General Shi was only being frank and outspoken, disapproving of my methods. He was not deliberately causing trouble for me. You are not permitted to speak in such a way in the future.”

Luo Meng hurriedly voiced his promise before asking, “How does General plan on defeating the enemy? Jing Chi is a formidable opponent. If we are the least bit incautious, it is likely that we will be defeated.”

Tan Ji smiled ruthlessly and answered, “What is to fear about a hot-headed, discontented man like him? I already have a plan. The enemy relies upon shipping to transport supplies. This was originally something good, but unfortunately it has given me a fault to exploit. I intend to transform the enemy supplies into ash; I want to see how they will have a way of continuing the conflict. It is only because they want to fight a decisive battle, otherwise why would they have set their supply camp at Miaopo? Although this location is convenient for transportation, its protection cannot be compared to the deep moats and curtain walls of fortified towns. Luo Meng, pass along my orders. Gather all of the commandants and prepare for battle.”

Luo Meng was excited. He knew that General Tan Ji had divine strategic planning and was rarely at a loss for ideas. If Tan Ji could accomplish great feats today after Shi Ying’s recent crushing defeat, they would be able to redress the humiliating stifling of Shi Ying and the others over the last several years. Although the general did not mind, Luo Meng had observed all of the exclusionary disregard that the general had experienced. As a result, Luo Meng promptly went to relay the orders, preparing all to follow their commander to once again smash the enemy and perform glorious deeds.

In the dim, dark of night, the interior of the Yong supply camps was brightly lit. Within the main tent, the man sitting upon the commander’s seat was not Jing Chi, but rather the Prince of Qi in a set of ordinary azure armor. This time, in order to avoid being discovered by Northern Han spies and scouts, the Prince of Qi and his bodyguards had changed into the uniform of typical soldiers. In addition, twenty thousand horsemen had been hidden within the supply camp. On the surface, there were only twenty thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand horsemen, while there were in fact twenty thousand foot soldiers and thirty thousand horsemen. The center of the camp had many tents erected with heavy cavalry hidden within, taking turns to reveal themselves, keeping the Northern Han army in the dark.

Sitting below the Prince of Qi, Jing Chi excitedly stated, “Your Imperial Highness, all of the scouts who we dispatched have not returned as scheduled. It seems that Tan Ji, as expected, has already arrived. Sir Jiang’s calculations are truly divine! This time, if we are able to capture Tan Ji, not only will Long Tingfei lose a key deputy, we will be able to inspire our army’s morale. That Tan Ji has devastated Zezhou for many years. If he is hacked into mincemeat, it should help to dispel seething popular discontent.”1

Li Xian smiled and replied, “We still don’t know if we are able to capture him alive. I have heard that the man’s natural disposition is severe and unyielding, as cunning as a fox when leading troops. Many individuals who are cold-hearted and merciless often fear death. I hope that Tan Ji won’t leave me disappointed.”

Just as the two were chatting idly, an uproar came from the soldiers outside. After a short while, a soldier entered the tent to detail, “Reporting to Your Imperial Highness, General Jing, someone released fire boats from upriver of the Qin River, setting fire to the pontoon bridges and the supplies on both banks. In front of the camp there are over a thousand Northern Han troops inviting battle.”

Li Xian was startled as he stated, “They have come as expected. Jing Chi, act according to the plan.”

Jing Chi stood and saluted before walking out of the tent with giant strides, shouting, “Bring my weapon! I want to see who dares to oppose this old man!”

Li Xian smiled slightly. To Zhuang Jun, a bodyguard at his side, he told, “Make the preparations. After General Jing has drawn away the enemy troops, we will also sally forth.”

Showing a cheerful expression, Zhuang Jun replied, “Your Imperial Highness, do not worry. We made preparations long ago and are eagerly waiting to go into battle. We’ve all been badly stifled these last several days.” Saying this, he turned and walked out of the tent to pass along the orders.

From a distance, Tan Ji watched Great Yong’s heavy cavalry leave the supply camp at full speed with boundless vigor. He could not help but sigh and state, “This kind of capable general and is left by them to defend the supplies. Truly a pity.” He laughed humorlessly and continued, “I want to see if this general who can charge and break through enemy lines is capable of stoutly defending these camps.” Finished speaking, he led his Ghost Cavalry and charged at the Great Yong army. When the two armies were roughly a hundred paces apart,2 the Northern Han army suddenly changed direction, avoiding the Yong army’s spearhead, hitting the Yong army in the flank. With his thirty-six Ghost Cavalry, Tan Ji charged into the Yong formation. The Ghost Cavalry was an elite unit that was the best Northern Han had for breaking through enemy formations. Wherever they brandished their dagger-axes, carnage followed. The cavalry behind them wielded sturdy crossbows, shooting bolts in all directions. This combination caused the Yong formation to be destabilize. Jing Chi charged out, leading seven thousand horsemen. Tan Ji met him head on. After tearing through the Yong formation, Tan Ji pranced off into the distance. Jing Chi, humiliated and angered, led his troops to save the supplies. Although only the tents along the riverside had been ignited, the losses were not small. It took until the afternoon to be tidied up.

However, at this moment, fire boats floated down the Shili River. This time, although the Yong army were prepared, heavy losses were still incurred. Jing Chi guided his horse and waited at the entrance to the camp, issuing orders and cursing Tan Ji. Just then, Tan Ji had once again led a thousand or so horsemen to challenge Jing Chi.

Jing Chi was infuriated, leading his armored cavalry out of the camp again. At this moment, a civil official in the uniform of an adjunct tried to stop Jing Chi, admonishing, “General, the enemy is only challenging us with a fraction of their force. They are clearly trying to lure us into an ambush. General, please be cautious!”

Refusing to listen, Jing Chi cursed, “What does it matter if the enemy has reinforcements? Our thirty thousand troops are being made fun of by a few thousand enemy troops! If this were to spread, wouldn’t people say that our Great Yong is composed of nobodies? Besides, I’m only leading the cavalry out. Don’t tell me that twenty thousand foot soldiers aren’t enough to protect the camp?” Finished speaking, Jing Chi led his cavalry out.

When the two armies met this time, Great Yong was able to showcase its military might. In a few short seconds, the losses suffered by the Northern Han army were disastrous. Seeing the huge disparity in strength, Tan Ji led his troops in a withdrawal. This time, Jing Chi pursued them mercilessly,3 recklessly risking his life to give chase. Personally leading his Ghost Cavalry, Tan Ji served as the rearguard. In this fashion, they fled and chased for several dozen li. Although Tan Ji had few troops, they were the best of the best. In addition, Northern Han’s troops were composed of light cavalry, maintaining an arrow’s distance of separation from Jing Chi. If Jing Chi got too close, the Yong force would be forced back by arrows and bolts. Jing Chi was a master of cavalry warfare, so he simply followed. As long as the Northern Han army in front slacked, he could destroy them. The two sides came to a deadlock, fleeing and pursuing.

After nearly an hour had passed, Tan Ji reached the banks of the upper reaches of the Qin River. Here, Northern Han had set up several pontoon bridges. Under Tan Ji’s command, the Northern Han troops retreated across the river to the western bank of the river. Jing Chi was furious, commanding, “Catch them for me! Do not allow them to destroy the pontoon bridge!”

It didn’t take long for the thousand or so Northern Han cavalry to cross the pontoon bridge. On the opposite shore was a hill. Seeing that the enemy had circled to the rear of the hill, Jing Chi was increasingly anxious. However, a single pontoon bridge was not enough for the nearly ten thousand Yong armored horsemen to use. He was full of urgency. Not bothering to wait until everyone had crossed, Jing Chi led his household troops and charged forward, circling the hill and meeting seven thousand Northern Han light cavalry. Galloping up to the hilltop, Tan Ji raised his dagger-axe. A bugle horn sounded. Instantly, Jing Chi and his thousand household troops were surrounded. Tan Ji divided his troops in two, one half surrounding Jing Chi while the other half blocked the remainder of Jing Chi’s command using the favorable terrain.

Luo Meng excitedly stated, “I had originally believed that Jing Chi would dispatch an advance guard to first scout. Who would have thought that he would personally lead his household troops, allowing us to take advantage?”

Tan Ji dryly replied, “Be careful. If things are unusual, something is definitely off. We are the ones who need to be on our guard against a trap.”

Smiling, Luo Meng said, “General is being overly anxious. This is undoubtedly a result of Jing Chi’s dissatisfaction at being placed in an idle position. Daren used fire boats twice, causing him to suffer heavy losses. In the future, if the Prince of Qi were to investigate, he would definitely be unable to escape censure. It is no wonder he is so annoyed. Moreover, Jing Chi is a valiant and fierce general. We have not heard that he is resourceful and intelligent. Hasn’t the Grand General already investigated this matter? Although Jing Chi has performed outstanding services, they all came from charging from the front. Although he has subordinates that are skilled at defense, at this moment, even if that man came with Jing Chi, he was probably left behind to defend the supply camp.”

“We cannot be careless,” spoke Tan Ji apathetically. “Moreover, although our army released fire boats and burned down several tents, they arranged flame retardant materials between the tents. In reality, the losses they have suffered are not as disastrous as they appear. Jing Chi has led out basically all of his cavalry. Although this is in accordance with Jing Chi’s style, I feel as if something is off.”

By now, Jing Chi was covered in blood. Leading his household troops, he had managed to break through the encirclement. With a bugle horn, the obstructed Yong troops began to retreat like the tide back towards the pontoon bridge. Tan Ji involuntarily frowned. “It is no wonder that Jing Chi is so reckless. So he is this formidable. All right … let us go pursue Jing Chi. He is the lone unit. We must seize this opportunity to eliminate him.” Finished speaking, Tan Ji ordered troops to destroy the pontoon bridge and cut off the Yong army on the eastern bank, not allowing them to cross over and help. Afterwards, he chased after Jing Chi.

After pursuing for a hundred li, with the help of his scouts, Tan Ji had grasped the direction that Jing Chi was fleeing, seeking to return to the supply camp via a circuitous route. The thought of victory inevitably rose in Tan Ji’s mind. If he were able to capture Jing Chi, this would be no small achievement. In addition, after chasing for half a day, according to the scout reports, the Yong army that had been left behind had become a headless chicken, unable to reinforce Jing Chi. Exultant, Tan Ji was increasingly unwilling to give up his pursuit. He had familiarized himself with the terrain on the western bank of the Qin River long ago. Splitting his forces, Tan Ji had continuously intercepted Jing Chi’s troops, encircling Jing Chi in a narrow region. However, there was a single fact that caused Tan Ji to frown. This location was only a little over ten ten from the supply camp on the eastern bank of the Qin River. Although the pontoon bridges had been destroyed, greatly increasing the time it would take for troops to cross the river, Tan Ji was still worried that something unforeseen would happen.

However, seeing that his intention of capturing or killing Jing Chi was approaching fruition, Tan Ji impulsively smiled wryly and said, “I’d hate to give this kind of bait up, no matter how poisonous.” Tan Ji contemplated. After all, there weren’t too many Yong generals more capable than Jing Chi. If Great Yong had placed two ranking generals to his rear, he could only admit defeat if he fell into a trap. Since he had made his decision, Tan Ji issued the order to concentrate his troops in an encirclement in order to destroy Jing Chi.

Raising his hand to wipe off the blood and sweat on his face, Jing Chi looked with distress at the several hundred troops who he had left by his side. He thought, If the Prince of Qi wants to get somebody else to do his duty work, he will likely be successful. At this moment, unable to see the arrival of reinforcements, Jing Chi could not help but suspect the Prince of Qi. However, after some consideration, even if the Prince of Qi had such intentions, he would not damage the overall situation. As a result, Jing Chi once again charged forward and took the lead to intercept the Northern Han army, booming loud shouts of encouragement to boost the morale of his household troops.

Atop his mount at an elevated position, Tan Ji gazed down at the encircled and struggling Yong army. Elation rose within him. What were life’s pleasures for a man living in this world if he could not be filled with elation for killing and waging war?

Just then, Tan Ji saw smoke and dust billowing from the supply camp out of the corners of his eyes. He unintentionally froze. The distance was too close. If he dispatched scouts to investigate, they would likely be killed by enemy troops before they could return. He promptly ordered hawks be launched to investigate. The smoke and dust became increasingly close. Tan Ji did not see the hawks return. Seeing the smoke and dust concentrate and not scatter, Tan Ji knew instinctively that enemy’s reinforcements had arrived. Tan Ji was greatly startled. How could the enemy have crossed the river so quickly? Could it be that they had made preparations long before and once Jing Chi sallied forth they had been building a bridge to cross the bridge? He seemed to have truly fallen into a trap, and Jing Chi had reinforcements.

However, Tan Ji quickly calmed down. The enemy will arrive soon. Jing Chi still has several hundred troops beside him, their morale and vigor not diminished in the slightest. If I want to capture or kill Jing Chi, I will definitely be taken advantage of by the enemy. It is best to adopt the wedge formation, risking everything in this battle. If I can rout the enemy’s center, I will be able to withdraw safely and suppress the enemy army’s arrogance. Even if I cannot kill the enemy commander, I will still be able to batter the enemy center and force the enemy to focus on defense. With that, it will be easier to break out.

Although this plan was risky, it was the sole way for Tan Ji to escape. Reaching this conclusion, Tan Ji immediately issued orders to organize his troops. The Northern Han army did not understand why their encirclement was pulled back just when they were about to force the enemy into a crisis. However, Tan Ji’s command demanded strict adherence and no soldier dared to delay. After all was said and done, they formed a wedge. Just when the formation had been formed, deafening hoofbeats clearly rang out. Within the billowing smoke and dust, red-armored Great Yong armored horsemen, like tigers and dragons, escorted a golden dragon imperial banner. The two wings fanned out, lightly showing intentions to surround the Northern Han army. The Prince of Qi had ordered his subordinates to switch back to their original armor for this final attack.

As they closed, the oncoming armored horsemen did not rest for a moment, charging directly towards the Northern Han army. Tan Ji shouted, “Life and death depend on this moment! Follow me!” Finished speaking, Tan Ji led his troops and charged towards the Yong army. He was intelligent. Once he saw the imperial banner, he knew that something he could never have predicted had happened. The Prince of Qi was surprisingly not overseeing the main army. As such, this was definitely a trap. Although Tan Ji did not know why the Prince of Qi was trifling about4 nor why he had come to deal with his auxiliary force, he knew that if he did not fight desperately, then it would be impossible for him to leave this location.

Li Xian stared at Jing Chi’s blood-soaked appearance. He then gave an impromptu apology, “This Prince is to blame. If it weren’t for the need to keep Tan Ji and his elite troops occupied, this Prince would not have allowed General Jing to be surrounded.

Weakly and without strength, Jing Chi slumped down on his mount. It was some time before he spoke. “It will be fine as long as Your Imperial Highness doesn’t forget to bestow that bottle of imperial wine from the Emperor to this general.”

Li Xian broke out into laughter. Jing Chi could not help but join him. With this shared laugh, the misunderstandings and discord between the two vanished like smoke.

At this moment, Jing Chi saw a somewhat unfamiliar youth in typical azure armor and a white battle gown behind the Prince of Qi. Slung over his left shoulder was a silver bow. The man had a handsome appearance, his expression icily arrogant with electric eyes. He seemed to be quite formidable. Jing Chi impulsively asked, “Your Imperial Highness, this general is?”

Li Xian smiled and introduced, “This is an honored guest of this Prince, Duanmu Qiu. Golden Bow Zhangsun, Emei Qingshan, Silver Bow Duanmu, and Red Clothed Rakshasa. He is Silver Bow Duanmu. A few days ago, he came from the capital to see this Prince. Thinking of the extremely annoying hawks of Northern Han, this Prince had him stay. Just now, he shot down two black hawks. Although Duanmu is not known for military tactics, when it comes to archery, he is not inferior to Zhangsun Ji.”

Jing Chi and Duanmu Qiu exchanged salutes. Jing Chi thought, It is a pity that this kind of character has not enlisted.

Just then, Tan Ji led his thirty-six Ghost Cavalry and surprisingly broke through the layers of obstructions. Seeing that they were about to penetrate to the Yong army center, Jing Chi tensed up and suggested, “Your Imperial Highness, issue orders for the two wings to come support.”

Li Xian shook his head. “Although we have more troops, the enemy is valiant and fierce. If we relax the encirclement and give him an opportunity to escape, then all of our painstaking efforts will have been for naught.5 Besides, do you think that this Prince’s household troops cannot match Northern Han’s cavalry?”

Li Xian shouted the last few words. Hearing these words, the prince’s household troops were filled with resentment and humiliation, staking their lives in battle. In a short time span, even the thirty-six Ghost Cavalry could not advance a single step.

Seeing this situation, Tan Ji seemed to have returned to the moment when he watched his family massacred, while he could only hide behind a boulder and watch his family die helplessly. That kind of distressing humiliation and desire to immediately die left him unable to control himself. Tan Ji shouted, “Everyone! We have countless blood debts with Great Yong! If we are captured by the enemy, even if we are hacked to pieces, we will be unable to repay our sins! Why not fight to the death and avoid suffering shame when captured!”

Finished speaking, Tan Ji did not avoid the lance stabbing towards him. Reaching out, he wedged the lance under his armpit, using his dagger-axe to cut off the Yong soldier’s head. Then Tan Ji balanced his dagger-axe on his saddle, grabbing that corpse and lifting it above his head with both hands. He shouted, “If the enemy exists, we cannot! Fight to death to seek survival!”

Afterwards, Tan Ji used all of his strength and ripped that corpse into two. The blood and organs fell out, dyeing Tan Ji red with blood. The Yong army fell into an uproar, while the savagery of the Northern Han army was aroused, following behind Tan Ji and breaking through the obstructions before them, penetrating into the Yong army center.

Jing Chi tensed, immediately gripping his lance. However, he felt his limbs lacked strength. At this moment, the Prince of Qi was laughing nonstop. He spurred his horse forward. His bodyguard quickly followed him and charged forward, seeking to ensure the Prince of Qi’s safety. However, the Prince of Qi’s horse was swift, meeting the head of the Northern Han diamond, Tan Ji, directly.

Tan Ji was originally charging smoothly and unhindered. Suddenly, he felt that his dagger-axe was blocked. Looking up, Tan Ji saw that the man before him wore golden armor and a fiery-red battle gown. Aside from the Prince of Qi, it could be no one else. Thinking of the possibilities if he killed this man, including the enemy army falling into chaos, Tan Ji could not help but feel revitalized, repeatedly using killing techniques. The Ghost Cavalry swarmed and tried to surround the Prince of Qi, risking their lives to try to kill the enemy commander. However, the Prince of Qi, Li Xian, was taught by famed martial arts masters. In addition, he had fought on the frontlines on many occasions. His martial arts were not worse than Tan Ji’s. In addition, the prince had numerous warriors by his side. When the prince had charged forward, they had followed. Both sides became embroiled in a bloody battle. Tan Ji’s offensive was, at least temporarily, checked. If it were with normal circumstances, this would have been insignificant. However, the Northern Han army was encircled right now. The result was very different. Seizing advantage of the blunting of Northern Han’s wedge formation, the other Yong units redoubled their attacks, Northern Han’s flanks and rear gradually became disorderly. It wasn’t long before the thronging Yong armored horsemen overtook the Prince of Qi’s position and completely surrounded the Northern Han army.

Withdrawing back to his banner, Li Xian took a deep breath of the ice-cold air. Spending so many years fighting on the frontlines did not mean that he had hovered on the boundary between life and death, especially due to his status as a prince ensuring that he only occasionally met with danger. However, just now, Li Xian clearly felt the thin line between life and death when he faced Tan Ji and the thirty-six Ghost Cavalry. Li Xian gratefully glanced at Jing Chi. Just now, Jing Chi had not been in a rush to charge forward to protect him, only swiftly issuing orders to strengthen the attack, giving Li Xian the opportunity to withdraw. Staring at the cornered beast6 that was Tan Ji and company, Li Xian not only did not feel any anger, but rather was filled with appreciation. These last several years, he had seen plenty of valiant and fierce generals. However, generals like Tan Ji, brave and resourceful, were few and far between. If Northern Han had not made a mistake from the start, it would have been impossible for Li Xian to trap this man here. After some additional time had passed, Jing Chi’s subordinate cavalry finally arrived. Their entry into the battle finally ascertained Great Yong’s victory. Although the Northern Han army had already formed a circle to stoutly defend, without any reinforcements, they would lose and die sooner or later. Everything had been settled.

After fighting at close quarters for some time, the sky gradually darkened. Worried that Tan Ji would take advantage of the darkness to break out, Li Xian mobilized the infantry, lighting torches in all directions, illuminating the battlefield. The Northern Han army only had three thousand men left, allowing Li Xian to completely control the offensive rhythm. He was unwilling to let go of this opportunity to completely destroy the enemy army. The surviving Northern Han troops strongly defended with a circular formation, while the Yong army surrounded them with an ever larger circular formation, slowly whittling away the lives of the Northern Han troops. As the surrounding circle increasingly narrowed, Li Xian had his troops rotate, while the Northern Han army could only fight on without rest, becoming further exhausted. As long as the Northern Han circular formation broke, they would be completely annihilated. However, under Tan Ji’s direction, the Northern Han army surprisingly did not lose their will to fight or their military strength.

Standing in the middle of the formation, Tan Ji had chapped lips. Only seventeen riders were left of his Ghost Cavalry. Since he had begun to lead troops, he had never before experienced such a crushing defeat. However, there was not a hint of frustration or apprehension in his eyes. They were as icy and uncaring as always. These Northern Han troops were, by nature, valiant and fierce. Although they were on the edge of destruction, Great Yong had irreconcilable grievances against all of them. Although normally there was no blame on the battlefield, they were very different. Their hands were stained with the blood of innumerable Great Yong commoners. Any of Tan Ji’s subordinates who fell into the hands of Great Yong only died. At this moment, these soldiers did not have any resentment or grudges against Tan Ji. Although they had walked down this slaughtering path under Tan Ji’s leadership, all of them understood that only by serving Tan Ji were they able to receive so much gold and silver in such a short few years. Although they were going to die on the battlefield, their families had long received sufficient funds to survive. For their families, they could only fight to the death. As long as Northern Han was preserved, their families would be safe and sound. This kind of conviction ensured that even though they were on the verge of death none of them had any thoughts about seeking survival.

Watching this scene, Li Xian was filled with admiration, stating, “This kind of iron army, unwilling to surrender even now, is truly rare. Even my Great Yong does not have this kind of cavalry unit. Jing Chi, what say you if this Prince demands their surrender?”

Jing Chi hesitated before replying, “Tan Ji is deeply hated by Great Yong’s military and civilians. It won’t be easy to obtain their surrender.”

Thinking it over, Li Xian uttered, “I know about these things … There is no need for you to avoid such a taboo. The grievances between Tan Ji and Great Yong are as deep as the ocean. Ignoring the deaths of his parents and kinsmen, the blood debts caused by his perpetrated massacres in Zezhou and Zhenzhou are crying out for retribution. However, this Prince truly cherishes his talents. If he is willing to surrender, at worst, we can send him to the southern border.”

Speaking to this point, Li Xian raised his voice and shouted, “Tan Ji, you are already trapped and on the border of death. If you are willing to surrender and pledge your allegiance, this Prince promises that your life will not be harmed. Even your subordinates can be pardoned. This Prince’s words are as lofty as the mountains. Are you willing to consider my offer?”

His voice was powered by his internal energy. Although the battlefield was extremely chaotic, everyone could hear his words clearly. The Yong army, under the guidance of their officers, temporarily lessened their offensive.

Tan Ji heard Li Xian’s words plainly. The Ghost Cavalry at his side could hear husky laughter issuing forth from behind the bronze mask. It wasn’t long before Tan Ji responded, “Tan Ji is a general of Northern Han and has received Grand General Long’s incredible kindness! Although I am defeated today, I merely face death! Your Imperial Highness, there is no need for you to waste your words. Tan Ji vowed long ago that I would never be humiliated by anyone!”

Li Xian shouted, “Although you do not value your life, what about the lives of your subordinates?”

Hearing this, Tan Ji laughed again, understanding that Li Xian was seizing this moment to strike a psychological blow at the Northern Han army’s morale. Surprisingly, this Prince of Qi was truly cautious. Even at this moment, he was still focused on breaking the enemy’s morale. Tan Ji evenly looked around his surroundings. Smiling, he declared, “You are all citizens of Northern Han. If any of you wish to surrender, there is no harm in speaking now. This general will not prevent you from seeking survival.”

Everyone who heard him speak knew that Tan Ji did not have any intentions about luring out and killing those with shaky resolve. This was something that Tan Ji had always felt was beneath his dignity. After a short moment, all of the Northern Han soldiers shouted in unison, “We are willing to follow the general to the death!”

Tan Ji heaved a sigh, his eyes falling upon the shortest member of the Ghost Cavalry. He stated, “Lin Duan, you are only seventeen years old this year. Both of your older brothers were once a part of my Ghost Cavalry. It is a pity that they died on the battlefield. Half a year ago, if it weren’t for your outstanding martial arts and persistent begging, I would not have selected you for the Ghost Cavalry. If you wish to surrender, I won’t blame you.”

Lin Duan promptly leapt off of his horse and kowtowed. He removed his bronze mask and revealed a handsome, but still childish face. Sobbing, he replied, “Why is the general saying such words? Since youth, my brothers and I were orphans, wandering destitute without anyone to depend upon. Were it not for General teaching us martial arts, we would still be beggars who everyone could bully and humiliate. Duan is willing to die alongside the general. General, please do not say any more words like that.”

Listening to him speak, Tan Ji felt his heart warm. His heart, frozen since his family had perished, began to feel a bit of affection. He indifferently spoke, “Get up. I won’t drive you away.” He watched as that youth wiped away his tears, put his mask back on, and jumped back onto his horse.

Tan Ji glanced up at the sky. Clapping his hands together, he sang:

“From the perfidy of the Heavens arouses chaos, from the perfidy of the Earth arises fire beacons.

Kin and parents turned to dust, forlorn with a broken heart and a broken will.

Retribution wrought, yet hate does not end.

A lord’s great grace unpayable even upon death.

I regret not the slaughtering and leaving of bodies everywhere, shedding blood enough to float a shield and plunging the people into misery and suffering.

Men wield crossbows and I a dagger-axe, mounted and galloping together.

My body buried by the cold Qin River, traveling to the underworld in peace.

Meeting fate not with fear or indignation but magnanimity, feeling sorrow parting with old friends!”7

At the beginning, the Northern Han troops only hummed along. As time passed, they joined in singing. Their bold and tragic song reverberated between the Heavens and the Earth. The bloodlust of the Northern Han army soared, as each and every soldier faced death unflinchingly.

Witnessing this scene, Li Xian no longer questioned any further, only heaving a sigh. He commanded, “Kill them all.” For enemies deserving of respect, the only way to pay tribute to them was to give them the honor and glory of their deserved death.

Under the undulating torchlight, the Great Yong heavy cavalry charged at the Northern Han troops. At this moment, the foreboding clouds in the sky dispersed. The bright moon and scattered stars shone down upon the cruel and savage battlefield, peering upon the last struggles of the Northern Han army.

Footnotes:

民怨沸腾, minyuanfeiteng – idiom, lit. seething popular discontent; fig. people boiling with resentment
About 150 meters (165 yards)
不依不饶, buyiburao – idiom, lit. not to overlook nor spare; fig. unwilling to forgive, merciless
舍本逐末, shebenzhumo – idiom, lit. to neglect the root and pursue the tip; fig. to neglect the fundamentals and concentrate on the details
前功尽弃, qiangongjinqi – idiom, lit. to waste all one’s previous efforts; fig. all that has been achieved goes down the drain
困兽犹斗, kunshouyoudou – idiom, lit. a cornered beast will still fight; fig. to fight like a cornered beast
The first line and format of this song is from a collection of songs composed by Tang Dynasty poet, Liu Shang (刘商), to the zither pieces entitled Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute (胡笳十八拍) that tell the story of the Han Dynasty poet, Cai Wenji (蔡文姬).

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