After Chu Hechao waited for Yuan Li to finish washing his hair, Chu Hechao twisted the water out of Yuan Li’s hair. When Yuan Li was ready to take a bath, Chu Hechao lazily left. Yuan Li felt more comfortable by himself. He leisurely took a wash and the next day, he joined everyone else on the final journey to Youzhou feeling clean and refreshed.
The further they went to Youzhou, the more desolate the terrain became.
They entered Youzhou from Zhuo County. As they entered Zhuo County, a scout who was exploring the road ahead hurriedly rode back on his horse and said, “General, we have found a rebel army looting Beixincheng County ahead. They number around twenty thousand!”
“Twenty thousand?” Yang Zhongfa exclaimed in surprise, his face looking grim. “How could there be so many White Rice Gang in Youzhou?”
Chu Hechao frowned and asked, “What’s the situation?”
“They are burning, killing, and looting in Beixincheng County,” the scout replied. “The county government has been destroyed, and the white flag of Du Liang Wang has been raised!”
The leaders of the rebel army were Du Nie, Liang Zhou, and Wang Jian, collectively known as the Du Liang Wang Rebel Army. The common people used white cloth tied to their doors as a mark, and their flag was also made of white cloth with drawings of rice grains on it. Therefore, the rebel army was called the White Rice Gang.
Although Youzhou was the fief of Chu Wang, the Chu Wang family had never managed it. Over time, local officials and powerful figures became like local emperors, constantly annexing land and increasing taxes. After the rebellion led by Du Nie, Liang Zhou, and Wang Jian, many people in Youzhou responded to the call and joined the army of Du Liang Wang.
Yuan Li halted his horse and pursed his lips tightly for a moment. He turned his head to face Chu Hechao directly and said, “General, there are towering and treacherous mountains on both sides. We can’t smuggle military supplies through the mountains. We can only move forward and pass through Beixincheng County to enter Jixian in Guangyang Commandery.”
And Jixian in Guangyang Commandery was their destination.
If they were to retreat and turn back, they would probably be delayed by another month on the road.
The group stood still in the middle of the road, momentarily frozen.
Throughout their journey, they had encountered attacks from the White Rice Gang, but the presence of a thousand cavalrymen had deterred them from getting too close. However, this time they were facing not scattered rebel forces but a full twenty thousand people!
A thousand cavalry against twenty thousand infantry, even if these infantry were peasants who had never undergone military training and only worked in the fields, the vast difference in numbers would undoubtedly lead to their annihilation.
Chu Hechao pondered for a short moment and quickly made a decision. He raised his hand resolutely and said, “Yuan Congyun, you lead five hundred cavalrymen to stay here and protect the military supplies. Remember, if the supplies are lost, your life is forfeit.”
Yuan Congyun’s expression turned serious as he clasped his fists and said, “I will obey the order.”
“Yang Zhongfa, you and Han Jin will accompany me and another five hundred light cavalry to secretly infiltrate Beixincheng County,” Chu Hechao said calmly. “Instruct them to drop their baggage, remove their armor, and only carry bows, arrows, and large knives.”
Yang Zhongfa and Han Jin replied in unison with determination, “Yes.”
Yuan Li immediately spoke up, “I will go with you.”
Chu Hechao knew that Yuan Li was capable of killing enemies and had strategic abilities, so he nodded in agreement. Yuan Li turned to Liu Jixin and Wang Er, saying, “I leave things here in your hands. Mr. Liu, you are wise and resourceful. Please take care of everyone.”
Liu Jixin and Wang Erdao responded together, “Please rest assured, young master.”
Soon, the five hundred light cavalry gathered together. Chu Hechao led the group as they hurried towards Beixincheng County through a small mountain path.
Beixincheng County was surrounded by mountains on all sides. They rode around the mountains for two quarters of an hour before stopping at a highly elevated and concealed location, overlooking the situation inside Beixincheng County from above.
War, whether in ancient times or modern times, whether with cold weapons or firearms, is always brutal.
Inside Beixincheng County, chaos and carnage filled the air, with corpses scattered everywhere.
The rebel army was massacring the civilians.
The people cried out as they were cut in half with a single blow, limbs and flesh scattered, houses set ablaze, and black smoke rising from multiple locations.
The wind blew from Beixincheng County, carrying a strong stench of blood that made one feel nauseous. The screams and pleas of the people in Beixincheng County could be heard clearly, even from a distance where Yuan Li and the others stood.
The White Rice Gang waved their white flags, scattering throughout the county. Their faces were ferocious, their clothes soaked in blood, and their pockets filled with gold and silver treasures. It was evident that they had become bloodthirsty.
In front of the burned county government office, there was a man wearing shiny black armor and wielding a steel knife. He looked exceptionally wealthy and was surrounded tightly by numerous White Rice Gangs. He should be the leader of this group.
“I recognize him! This man is called Ma Renyi, a famous powerful figure in Zhuo County. He once sent gifts to my mansion, trying to use me as a middleman to buy an official position from the general,” Han Jin identified the leader and said with a serious expression. “So, among these twenty thousand White Rice Gang, there are probably many of his followers and trusted men.”
Yuan Li coldly observed the scene before him.
In ancient times, as valuable laborers, the population rarely faced the massacre ordered by rulers when there was no resistance. Firstly, it had a bad reputation, and secondly, it was a waste of effort and meaningless.
However, these rebel armies were composed of impoverished and starving peasants. Of course, there were very few among them who enjoyed killing. But when they captured a city, and went door to door demanding wealth, everything changed.
Everyone wants money, but the money of the common people is not endless. If you give money to one person, there won’t be any left for the next person who comes knocking on the door. People who have no money are unwilling to accept that and may resort to violence.
Resources are scarce, so the White Rice Gang quickly realized that they can use killing as a means to threaten the common people and acquire all their wealth at the fastest pace possible.
Give them money, or they die.
The men must die, but the attractive women can be kept as spoils of war.
After looting one household, they move on to the next, always aiming to seize more money than the others!
These rebel forces are made up of common people who have been forced to rebel. Lacking financial support for their operations, they burn government offices, kill officials, and plunder everywhere. They ravage the farms of the wealthy landlords. When they raise their swords against other common people, they have become perpetrators themselves.
Behind the rebel forces, the literati who incite and support the rebellion are aware of but indifferent to these circumstances.
These aristocratic families know that the dead will include common people, the wealthy, and the literati.
However, they still chose to guide the rebellion, sacrificing the lives of the majority of common people and a few wealthy and literati individuals in order to change their own predicament and regain power.
They are not truly serving the country or the people; they are serving themselves.
Those literati who stand at the top do not concern themselves with the deaths of the common people. Even if tens of thousands or millions of common people die, as long as the Northern Zhou Dynasty survives, the remaining millions of people will continue to live.
War does not destroy the land. As long as the land remains, the population can increase again, right?
Yuan Li looked at the dilapidated city walls and the streets filled with blood and corpses, remaining silent for a long time.
Han Jin muttered, “Isn’t this worse than the underworld?”
Yuan Li suddenly asked, “Is the underworld terrifying?”
Han Jin replied, “Of course it is. Not only I am afraid, but the common people, the nobles, the officials, and even the emperor are afraid.”
“Is that so?” Yuan Li’s voice was calm. “The common people always think that the underworld is the most terrifying, but isn’t the most terrifying thing in the human world?”
Han Jin suddenly froze, turning his head to look at Yuan Li.
Yuan Li said, “If I could…”
He abruptly stopped speaking.
Yuan Li absentmindedly placed a hand on his chest.
His heart thumped, beating violently, as if something he didn’t yet understand had started to grow within him.
If I could…
What can I do?
What do I want to do?
Yang Zhongfa spoke from the side, “General, what should we do?”
Yuan Li snapped back to reality and looked at Chu Hechao.
Chu Hechao’s lips tightened, his jaw clenched. He said, “The White Rice Gang is just a rabble. Once we capture Ma Renyi, they will scatter. 20,000 men are nothing to fear. Yang Zhongfa, you and Han Jin will each lead a hundred cavalry and launch feigned attacks from the east and west, creating a show of force and making some noise. Once the White Rice Gang comes chasing after you, feint a retreat and lure them away to prevent them from providing assistance. Wu Kai, I’ll give you two hundred cavalry. When both groups of the White Rice Gang are drawn away, I want you to launch a surprise attack from the southeast through the narrow passage. Are you up for it?”
He seemed to know Wu Kai quite well.
Wu Kai clenched his fist, bowed his head, and said in a muffled voice, “I am.”
With only two hundred cavalry against a large number of the White Rice Gang, although launching a surprise attack through the narrow passage would give Wu Kai and his men the advantage of seizing the initiative, they would undoubtedly be in a precarious situation once the White Rice Gang realized what was happening.
However, the White Rice Gang had few cavalry and mostly consisted of infantry with little combat capability. Once they gained the upper hand, the two hundred cavalry could fiercely fight and kill over a thousand of their opponents. Once the enemy became afraid of being killed, this group of irregular troops would scatter and flee, wary of approaching and giving Wu Kai and his men the time to delay them.
Chu Hechao cracked his knuckles as he clenched his fist and said, “The rest of you, come with me to take Ma Renyi’s head.”
“General, I’ll go too,” Yuan Li calmly followed, “I’m good with a bow and arrow. I can try to take his life amidst a thousand soldiers.”
Chu Hechao glanced at him, his gaze piercing. “Really?”
Yuan Li replied, “Really.”
Just like a skilled marksman, it was rare to find one among a thousand men. But once such a person appeared, they would undoubtedly be the ace of the military.
Chu Hechao gave him a deep look, then turned and led the group, slowly approaching the forest behind the county magistrate’s office, far away from Ma Renyi and his main army.
Chu Hechao and Yuan Li, along with a hundred cavalry, waited silently.
They were waiting for Yang Zhongfa and Han Jin to make their move.
Once they made their move, the large army surrounding Ma Renyi would split into two, with more of them sent to confront the enemy. As long as the commotion they caused was significant enough, Ma Renyi would send more people to resist the enemy.
Afterwards, it was time for Wu Kai to take action. The three sides launched their attacks, creating a sense of being surrounded from all directions. Ma Renyi would undoubtedly try to escape. Once he began to panic and flee, it would be the opportune moment to take his life.
In the midst of silence, Chu Hechao suddenly spoke, “Sister-in-law, you only have one chance.”
Yuan Li was busy adjusting his wrist, inspecting his bow and arrows. He bowed his head and rubbed the arrowhead, saying, “I know.”
Once the attempt failed, Ma Renyi would surely realize that someone was trying to kill him, making it difficult to make another attempt.
Chu Hechao trusted his judgment and didn’t say anything more, patiently waiting for the opportunity.
Finally, the chaos began.
Someone hurriedly ran up to Ma Renyi and said a few words, pointing to the east and west. Ma Renyi’s face changed drastically, and he immediately sent people to confront the enemy.
After sending them off, he anxiously strained his neck, eagerly awaiting news of victory. But instead of news of victory, he encountered fierce cavalry charging at him from an unexpected direction.
Those were cavalry!
Ma Renyi became even more panicked. He intended to retreat with the protection of his subordinates. At this moment, Yuan Li, concealed by Chu Hechao and the cavalry, had already arrived at the rear of the county magistrate’s office.
The billowing smoke served as a cover for their movements, but it also hindered Yuan Li’s vision, causing potential mistakes.
Chu Hechao frowned as he looked at the choking smoke. “Can you manage?”
Sweat dripped from the side of Yuan Li’s temples, and a few strands of black hair stuck to the side of his face. With an intense focus, he gazed ahead, his eyes piercing through the smoke, scanning the ranks of the rebels.
Upon hearing this, Yuan Li suddenly revealed a relaxed smile.
“General,” Yuan Li’s gaze intensified. He tilted his head slightly, aiming at the panicked leader hiding among the rebels. His voice was light and fragile, “Don’t underestimate the logistics corps, sir.”
His bow was ready.
Yuan Li decisively released his grip.
A swift whistling sound pierced the air as the arrow flew rapidly, cutting through the rolling smoke and flames, and plunging into the crowd.
Ma Renyi’s eyelids suddenly twitched, his heart pounding so hard that his legs went weak. He had a sense of something amiss and looked up.
The arrow grew closer and closer, and in the face of the rebel leader’s incredulous expression, it pierced through his forehead without hesitation, instantly ending his life.