Chapter 7: Encountering Robbers Within the Deep Woods
The roads of early summer weren’t as difficult to traverse as those during the spring season. The ground was flat and the climate was pleasant. Nan Huo and Zhao Ke estimated that they could reach Beiping around June, and then after a short rest, head for the Imperial capital. They would be able to reach the Imperial capital roughly around September, approximately in accordance with the time in the message that had been delivered from the back of a fast horse, “this autumn”. Nan Huo and Zhao Ke breathed sighs of relief upon thinking that they would arrive in time.
Along the way, the trees and shrubs were luxuriant and the flowers and grass were fragrant. However, the land was sparsely inhabited and the fields lay fallow. The houses by the side of the road were often abandoned with no one living in them, so all of them looked a bit run down after many years without repair.
Lotus knew that this place had always been occupied by northern Yuan dynasty4, and along with the Hamyong Province5 and Gangwon Province6 of Korea, had all belonged to the Shuangcheng General Governing Office of the Yuan dynasty. It wasn’t until the twentieth year of Hongwu when Lord Protector Lan Yu set out on an exhibition and defeated Naghachu7 in a great battle that the Mongols were finally expelled from the Liaodong8 Peninsula and thereafter made their way to Mobei9. The Great Ming dynasty created the Tieling Garrison and the commander-in-chief there maintained control over the Liaodong Peninsula.
It was for precisely this matter that the conflict between Emperor Hongwu and the king of the Goryeo dynasty had arisen. The king had proclaimed that “from the north of Tieling, the provinces of Liwen, Gao, He, Ding, Xian including the town of Gong Jian are all Goryeo territory”, but had forgotten that these territories had been in the hands of the Mongols for the previous hundred years. It had been the Ming dynasty that had expelled the Mongols and thus Emperor Hongwu naturally didn’t agree to this. The king of Goryeo had sent King Taejo, then only a commander, to lead troops to Liaodong. He sought to use forty thousand cavalry and troops to battle the several hundred thousand strong great Ming army stationed at Tieling. King Taejo hadn’t been as arrogant or naive as the king of Goryeo. He had thought deeply and decided that even though they’d already crossed Duck Green River, he would still go back and dispose of the king of Goryeo, hence establishing Korea. Afterwards, King Taejo honored Great Ming as the motherland and voluntarily styled Korea into a vassal state. He sought Emperor Hongwu’s approval in all things. Emperor Hongwu then considered that since there were still large remnants of Mongol powers remaining in the northeast, he would redeploy the Tieling Garrison to the Fengji fort in Liaodong. Emperor Hongwu further moved to the Yingzhou District10 of Tieling in his 26th year, leaving the northeast portion of the Korean peninsula to Korea until modern times. It could be seen from this matter that Emperor Hongwu had an obstinate temper that could to be won over by reason and not by force. People who came at him with force, debate, arguments, and battles would find their efforts fruitless. Rather, the use of reason and relationships was much more effective.
It had been less than ten years since Lan Yu’s expedition, and the bleak and chilly postwar scenes could be seen in all directions. There was no place to take shelter in this desolate land scattered with ruins and wreckage. Since Lotus’ entourage consisted of so many people, they couldn’t find places to stay anywhere. They could only eat dry rations or cook their own food along the way, pitching their own tents at night to sleep. It was a good thing that there was no rain along the way.
They had almost reached Liaoyang on this day. The Ming court had established a Liaodong military waystation here and it happened to be located in Liaoyang. It was also called the Liao Middle Guard That night, Nan Huo and Zhao Ke came to ask Lotus if she was going to pay her respects. Lotus thought for a moment and still felt that hurrying on their way was the most important. She commanded Nan Huo to send a message on a fast horse and that the entourage should continue on their way.
There were still no signs of human civilization along the way and the trees and shrubbery had become thickly overgrown. Lotus could help but sigh when she thought of the harsh cruelties of war and how citizens had become destitute and homeless. She lowered her head, closed her eyes and began silently reciting scripture.
Would this trip to the imperial capital and taking up residence within the East Palace truly result in the successful acquirement of reinforcements? Would she be able to satisfy the wishes of everyone and relieve the hardships of all living creatures?
By now, she had already departed for two months and the hardships of the road had far surpassed the limited thoughts she had while sitting at home. Heavy rain or even wind could bring about frightening and unforeseen consequences. The scene was often uncontrollable and diligence was no longer the only factor at play. Perhaps she had been too naive? The road was long, what other troubles would it bring? Lotus began to lose her confidence when she thought of the unknown future. Perhaps Lee Fangyuan was right. What could she do as a weak girl? How much would she be able to accomplish with this trip?
Lee Fangyuan, was he alright? It was already spring, the Japanese pirates of the Cholla province had likely begun their activities? Would he lead the armies in the fight against the Japanese pirates? Would the king and royal consort agree to his participation? And Mother, was everything alright? She must miss me a lot, I also miss home and I miss her… Lotus’ thoughts were scattered as she hesitated about the direction that she should take.
The carriage’s speed began to slow down as they travelled. Hai Shou was next to the carriage as he said, “Princess, we’re passing through the woods.” Liaodong had many trees, and there was a great expanse of plains to the west of Liaoyang. There was also an exceedingly thick growth of trees there as well. Shan Xi lifted the carriage curtains. The chill from the thick branches and leaves blotting out the sky was a bit overwhelming. There was only a small, narrow road within the forest. Nan Huo and Zhao Ke were directing the carriage slow progress, passing through the road one by one. Lotus nodded and Shan Xi lowered the curtain.
Suddenly, piercing whistles sounded from all directions as a rain of arrows flew out from the woods on both sides. Many of the people and horses who lagged behind were immediately pierced and fell down with agonized wails. Some of the arrows had their tips alight with flames and began burning fiercely when they hit the carriages. At that moment, horses panicked and started neighing shrilly as they jumped around. The groomsman pulled tightly at their reins, but many people and horses still fell to the ground after the back of the entourage was attacked. Chaos reigned supreme in an instant.
Zhao Ke unsheathed his sword and yelled loudly, “Ambush! Everyone to your positions and wait to receive the enemy!” The soldiers hastened to find cover or hide behind the carriages and fallen horses, dodging the rain of arrows as they unsheathed their weapons. However, the robbers had obviously come prepared. They lay in wait in the trees and shot arrows from both sides of the forest. The entourage in the center was besieged from all angles and found it hard to fight back. Injured civilian workers and frightened horses created continuous chaos. It wasn’t too long before half the soldiers had collapsed on the ground. Nan Huo had also been hit by an arrow that’d passed cleanly through his chest. It looked like it would be difficult for him to live. A vaunted administrative commander of Korea would thus die ignobly in the forests of the Ming dynasty’s Tieling province. Zhao Ke directed the soldiers to dash forward bravely, but were beaten back by layers of arrows.
Hai Shou brandished his soft whip beside Lotus’ carriage. The road was too narrow and so he could only create small circles, just barely managing to clear out the space around the carriage. The fallen arrows had collected in a circle around the carriage. The thick woods became a mess of whip slashes, whooshes from the flights of arrows, whinnying from horses, and raspy yells from soldiers. Shan Xi’s face was ghastly white from fright as she cowered in a corner of the carriage, trembling from head to toe. Lotus also sat unmoving, although she was quite agitated in her heart.
More and more soldiers fell to the arrows as yells in stilted Mandarin rang out from the trees. “Kill them all!” “Capture the girl alive!” Calls emitted ceaselessly from both sides as the robbers were about to rush out. Numerous disorderly footsteps rang out as countless heavy boots shook the earth. There were around a hundred of them.
Zhao Ke continued to release arrows behind the carriage to stop the enemy as he yelled at Hai Shou, “Hurry, take the princess and leave! Hurry!” Another twenty or thirty soldiers and civilian workers also yelled out, “Escape with the princess! Hurry!” Some of the soldiers rushed up in defiance of the rain of arrows.
Hai Shou no longer hesitated as he urged his horse near the carriage. Waving the whip with his left hand, he ripped open the carriage curtains with his right and said shortly, “My apologies Your Highness!” He then grabbed Lotus with one hand and lifted her in front of him. As Lotus cried out, “Shan Xi, Shan Xi!”, Hai Shou had no choice but to haul Shan Xi up behind him. He lashed the whip in his left hand and took the reins with his right, spurring the horse off.
Hai Shou’s horse was a fine Goryeo horse bestowed upon him by the king. It had no problem travelling a thousand li in one day. However, the small road was littered with injured or dying horses at this moment. Civilian workers, soldiers, and carriages had also overturned within the mess. All sorts of tributes were scattered by the carriages and blocking the way. Amidst all of this, Hai Shou still had to wave his whip and block the arrows. The fine horse couldn’t make good time. They seemed to hear Zhao Ke’s agonized yell in the distance as he too fell to the robbers.
Bloodcurdling shouts and hoofbeats rose to the sky behind him. More than ten robbers had mounted the tribute horses and were in hot pursuit. Sweat beaded on Hai Shou’s forehead as he clamped his legs and urged the horse onwards. The sounds behind him became louder and louder as the robbers called out, “Leave the girl behind!” “You can’t get away!” Arrows whistled by one after another with lightning speed. As the people handling the bows were all strong experts as some arrows pierced straight through the trees.
Shan Xi had been sitting behind Hai Shou, clasping Hai Shou’s belt with both hands. She looked back to see the pursuers getting nearer and nearer and knew that the three of them on one horse would soon be overtaken. She made up her mind, loosened her grasp and rolled down the horse. “Take Her Highness away!”, she called out loudly.
Hai Shou was dumbfounded but his feet didn’t stop as he urged the horse into a flat out gallop. Lotus was heartbroken as she cried out, “Shan Xi, Shan Xi!” She wanted to struggle down the horse but was firmly pressed down by Hai Shou. She could hear Shan Xi call out in the distance, “Go far away from here Your Highness!” “Go!” “Ah!” A loud wail rang out as she was murdered by the robbers. She had followed Lotus since she was young and had never gone on a trip far from home. Shan Xi was lively, kind and noisy. Shan Xi had been filled with admiration and curiosity for the imperial court. She died thus in the woods, defending her mistress, on the fifth day of reaching the imperial court.
Hai Shou took Lotus with him in a frantic dash, but unfortunately, the sounds behind him grew closer and closer. Two of the horses had already caught up to them. Hai Shou thrust the reins in his right hand at Lotus and said urgently, “Princess, you control the horse!” He then took out a bracelet of metal beads from his clothes and started flinging the beads backwards without taking aim in a hail of attacks.
“Ah!” “Ah!” Screeches rang out as two robbers were knocked off their horses. The other robbers didn’t slow down as they yelled out, “Beware of his hidden weapons!” Their pursuit became even more fierce as the ten horses neared.
In the twinkling of an eye, Hai Shou roared and flung out another handful of beads. He took advantage of the instant in which the robbers were dodging and evading to leap off the horse and give the horse’s butt a vicious flick with the whip in his left hand. The horse surged forward with a squeal.
Hai Shou called out, “Princess, go!” His long whip started dancing as he stood in the middle of the road and fended off the robbers by himself.
Lotus cried out, “Hai Shou! Hai Shou!” as the horse beneath her dashed forward faster and faster, leaving the sounds of the the whip, arrows, and whinnying behind her.
Lotus had been born in a family with generations of generals and had learned how to ride a horse since she was young. But as a girl from a cultured family, she’d only practiced in the stables at home and had never gone out riding. This kind of horse-riding, alone on the small trails of the forest while fleeing for her life, was truly a first. She felt the trees on both sides whip by and the wind howl past her ears. The wind was so fierce that she could barely open her eyes. Her two hands grasped tightly onto the reins, slippery with sweat.
Another round of yells sounded out from the trees up ahead as several burly men rushed out, wearing all black and with black scraps of cloth covering their faces. Killing intent emanated from them as they careened headlong towards Lotus’ horse, yelling, “Get down!”
Lotus’ body crouched tightly on the horse’s back as she beat the horse fiercely, attempting to barge through them. However, the burly men on both sides leapt up and grabbed hold of the horse’s reins on both sides. The horse was startled as it screamed and reared. Lotus couldn’t hold onto the reins and crashed onto the ground behind its back.
“That’s her!” She seemed to hear this sentence when she was flung midair.