Chen Rong leaned motionlessly against Murong Ke. His cold armor caused her flesh to ache, and his hot breaths raised goosebumps on her skin. In her previous life, she wouldn’t be able to look at her lover anymore if a strange man had touched her like this, would she?
And now? Chen Rong bitterly smiled.
Murong Ke’s mount was a tremendous horse. It carried another person as if she added no extra weight. Each jostle it made, however, slammed Chen Rong’s delicate frame against the armor behind her.
The sky was pitch black for it was the very last hour before dawn. The darkness was especially dark, like thick ink extending from the depths of the earth all the way to the sky.
Torches flickered in the wind.
Chen Rong looked around to see shrubs and trees lining their way. Above them was a hill – one that wasn’t very high, only about five meters, and everything beyond was unrecognizable.
Half of the troops had gone into the valley. However, people had difficulty moving because the road was dusty and gravelly. Their journey became bumpy, and the queue kept stretching out.
Chen Rong glanced back.
Of the two thousand men whom Murong Ke kept with him, only half were fine riders while the rest were foot soldiers. Chen Rong’s eyes stilled at the burning flames.
“What are you looking at?” a low voice inquired over her head.
“Nothing,” she replied.
Murong Ke harrumphed: “It won’t be long until you get to see your man. Think of what to say to him.” He paused, and then added in a mocking voice: “It may be your last conversation.”
When Chen Rong didn’t answer, he looked down at her.
Chen Rong kept her face cool and calm. Not waiting for Murong Ke to speak, she looked up and said, “You’re right.”
She straightened her back and put a smile on her face. Smoothing her hair and pulling her lapels together, she said, “This will be the last time I see him… What people say or what he thinks is no longer important. I have to make him remember me.”
She carefully groomed her appearance with both of her hands. Murong Ke’s fingers clenched to see this.
His hand was resting on her chest, and as it clenched, it closed around her breast.
Chen Rong froze, unable to maintain the smile on her face.
Murong Ke looked up and stared intently ahead. “What’s wrong?” he asked with a mockery in his cold voice.
Chen Rong lowered her gaze.
Her hands dropped weakly.
Murong Ke’s voice grew impatient when she did not speak. “Why aren’t you saying something?”
After a while, Chen Rong’s quiet voice sounded: “What would you like me to say, my lord?” She numbly smiled. “To cry and beg for mercy, or jump off the horse in despair and kill myself?”
Murong Ke froze at these words.
Chen Rong slowly removed his hand from her chest. “M’lord, you forgot yourself.”
He did forget himself.
Wang Hong wasn’t even in the vicinity at this time. What was he doing, being frivolous to her? Was it jealousy?
When the wind blew coldly by, Murong Ke growled.
He did not speak, but he moved his hand to her waist.
Chen Rong could hear his ragged breathing. Apparently what he did just now had also discomfited him.
Just as Chen Rong thought he would never answer her, Murong Ke spoke in a moderate manner: “You’re right, I forgot myself.”
He stared ahead and coldly commanded, “You are to never repeat these words.”
Two-thirds of the troops had passed with much effort, but the queue had stretched even longer, and when she turned to look, it was a couple of miles long.
Several screams suddenly rang amid the silent progress.
Almost at the same time as these screams, she heard someone crying: “Ambush, there’s an ambush!”
Murong Ke frowned. Without waiting for him to give orders, four or five places among the queue began to shout: “Ambush, there’s an ambush!” Immediately following were the extinguishing of lights, loud clanking noises, and neighs of horses and screams of men – the kind before they were to die.
Hearing these sounds in the middle of the night made her think the entire cavalcade was being attacked.
Murong Ke held a tight grip on his neighing horse and commanded, “Where are my captains? Get back to defense immediately.”
As soon as he spoke, his guards loudly exhaled and unfurled their banners.
The soldiers Murong Ke brought along moved as one, as they were strictly disciplined. The captains relayed his order and the nearby men more or less quieted down.
Galloping hooves closed in. Before long, a captain approached Murong Ke and relayed to him: “My lord, there aren’t many of them. They pushed down boulders and trees to split our troops. Not too many of us were killed or injured.”
“What about the enemy?”
“They left no traces after the attack.”
Murong Ke’s face sank.
While he pondered on the news, the neighing around them had substantially ceased.
“General, what will we do next?” asked several of his captains.
“Take a look and see how long it will be before we can move again.”
Several horses came back in a short time. “There’s no issue with leaving in a quarter of an hour.”
Murong Ke looked to the horizon where the sky was still as dark as ink.
“Wanted to slow me down?” he sneered. “Why bother?”
The cavalcade set off again half an hour later.
As they went along, Murong Ke said to his scouts, “Go, remember to take a careful look.”
Amid the rumbling hooves, a captain approached the reticent Murong Ke. He involuntarily looked at Chen Rong in her disheveled state, swallowed and asked, “My lord, what did they want?”
Murong Ke shook his head and coldly replied, “Whatever it is, we will have an answer for them.”
After half an hour of hasting along, a faint dawn light was now spreading over the sky.
A similar mountain road appeared in front of them.
There was nothing remarkable on the two sides of the Yangtze River, only low mountain peaks and bushy roads.
Murong Ke stopped and stared at a scout, who lowered his head to say: “My lord, there’s nothing irregular ahead.”
There was uncertainty in his voice this time. They had said the same thing on the last similar road.
Murong Ke retracted his gaze to only say: “Be on your watch. There are dense grasses, beware of their fire attack.”
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They continued to move forward.
As they went, Murong Ke’s low voice was heard: “How far are we from Murong Yu’s troops?”
“Still another fifty miles, my lord.”
He looked up and stared ahead. “The perpetrator must have been your man’s bodyguard,” he suddenly said.
“The bodyguards of the Jin upper class are the funniest. They have no real skills but a lot of tricks up their sleeves.” If there were that many people involved in the ambush, they wouldn’t have been able to hide from his scouts.
Chen Rong did not answer.
After pausing for a while, Murong Ke suddenly said, “Even with 3000 fewer men, I can still rob them of their goods. If he dares to come, the same can be said about his life.”
Seeing that Chen Rong remained unspeaking, Murong Ke looked down at her: “What are you thinking about?”
Chen Rong shook her head. “I’m just a woman. I don’t follow your words, Your Highness.”
As soon as she said this, Murong Ke felt a little ashamed and couldn’t help thinking: Yes, why did I forget that she’s just an ordinary woman.
He no longer paid attention to Chen Rong. He bowed his head at this time and thought to himself: It was just a message from Mo’yang and yet I was led out of my nest. Not only did he resolve all the laid out traps, but he also turned the situation around and led me by the nose… Wang Qilang is really something.
The group continued to move forward.
As they went, a tragic scream sounded behind them. Chen Rong turned around to see a sea of fire. The fire wasn’t ignited in the middle of the cavalcade, but towards the end of it. Thick smoke followed the wind to relentlessly drown the Hu.
Still using fire to attack?
Just as Chen Rong stared wide-eyed, Murong Ke shouted: “Don’t panic. Cover your mouth and nose with your sleeves and move slowly.”
People at once took his order and went on.
Even so, the smoke was so suffocating that the horses could not remain unaffected. Neighs, screams and panicking sounds ensued.
As Murong Ke urged his horse to gallop out, all of a sudden, smoke billowed on the hillside. Everyone lifted his head to see a shroud of pervading dust. It was as if countless people were raising sand bags to throw at them.
The soldiers were undoubtedly panicking by now.
A captain hurriedly approached and relayed to Murong Ke: “It doesn’t look good, my lord. Our people saw billowing smoke some miles from here, and large troops riding toward us.” A pause. “They have about a thousand men.”
Murong Ke barked with a scowl, “Whose banner is it?”
“It says Shi on one side, and Xuan on the other.”
Murong Ke was clearly dismayed this time. He stopped his horse and uttered, “Shi Xuan?” Shi Xuan was under Shi Hu. Now that Shi Hu was gravely ill, there was a severe power struggle between his sons, Shi Xuan being one of the most powerful contenders.
In recent years, the Murong House of the Xianbei tribe had been warring for territory against the Later Zhao. If Shi Xuan could kill Murong Ke and plunder his goods, it could be said that the Later Zhao kingdom, left by the legacy of Shi Lei, would have Shi Xuan’s name written in stone.
Murong Ke drew his lips taut.
His captains were also trading glances.
“My lord, we’ve been tricked!”
If the one who came was Shi Xuan, then it was clear that Wang Hong had given news to Ran Min. Shi Xuan, who happened to be with Ran Min, was coming along with him. A stone designed to hit two birds, one that would not only destroy Murong Ke, but also plunder goods from the Mo’yang mayor… Yes, that must be it. Since Wang Hong could tell him the mayor’s crucial news, he too could pass it on to other people.
Murong Ke and Wang Hong were mortal enemies by this point in history. As long as he could destroy the cause of his trouble, what did it matter to sacrifice a woman or sellout his compatriot?
The more the captains thought, the more unnerved they became.
Murong Ke frowned.
His captains’ eyes were on him, but he couldn’t say with certainty that Wang Hong wouldn’t do it… The Jin man was several years younger than him, but he just could not figure him out.
Regret was pointless now. “Gather our troops and prepare for battle.”
He rode forth and grabbed Chen Rong by the arm, unseating her from her horse. Although he was fast, his movement was gentle.
As soon as Chen Rong landed, he ordered, “Have someone keep an eye on her.”
Chen Rong’s heart shook to see several pairs of eyes leering at her. She ran back to her horse, mounted it and chased after Murong Ke.
Her actions were nimble and decisive, taking the people around her by surprise. They didn’t wake up until she had caught up to Murong Ke.
At this moment, the fire was spreading worse and worse, and in the thick smoke, horse neighing had become more chaotic.
On horseback, Chen Rong took off her outer robe and consequently stunned everyone who caught sight of her body.
In a flash, however, she had taken her sleeves and tied them around her neck and waist so that her skin was no longer visible.
Her actions were quick and determined, and she did everything in just a blink of an eye. After she finished, she looked to the left and right to ascertain that there were fewer and fewer people looking at her, and then she rode toward the rising smoke.
There were people who saw Chen Rong riding in the opposite direction. Several were about to shout but slowed down when they saw that she was following behind a few captains who came to give orders. She was wincing as she followed them and did not look as if she was trying to run away.
They turned their attention elsewhere.
When they looked again moments later, Chen Rong was still riding away.
As they wondered, Chen Rong had rode into the smoke.
As soon as she entered the thick smoke, she turned from the horse’s back and jumped into the bushes.
By the time she was halfway up, a footsoldier yelled out, “That woman wants to escape!”
“That woman is escaping!” they all yelled together.
Their bows and halberds aimed at Chen Rong. Just when all bows were raised and drawn, all eyes turned to Murong Ke.
They were waiting for his instructions. Her beauty would tempt even the gods; naturally, their prince liked her very much. They didn’t dare to hurt her without his permission.
While they dithered, Chen Rong grabbed onto the bamboo bush and began to make her way to the hill.
A captain screamed at last, “Idiots, shoot her limbs!”
As soon as his order was issued, arrows flew at Chen Rong in a blitz and, thereupon, one pierced her left shoulder.
But she didn’t seem to care at all. She let her blood flow freely and continued her climb upward.
Murong Ke looked out at this time.
He stared after Chen Rong, thoughts swirling in his head as he yelled, “We got tricked by Wang Hong! The one who came isn’t Shi Xuan!”
No one here knew Wang Hong better than Chen Rong. She was definitely smart enough to know that she was still a woman in Murong Ke’s hands, but less than an animal in Shi Xuan’s hands. If she could flee so decisively, then the person who came wasn’t Shi Xuan.
For whatever reason, Murong Ke believed that Chen Rong was not only intelligent but she was also knowledgeable. Just by looking at the way she tied her clothes so that they would not hinder her, one would know this was a determined woman who acted with a plan… If it wasn’t Wang Hong who came, she would never run away at the risk of her life.
At this moment, a captain raised his bow and hurriedly said, “General, that woman is about to escape!” He gritted his teeth and yelled, “Why don’t we just shoot her down?”
Eyes swept to Murong Ke.
Murong Ke hesitated. He only needed to nod his head and the red figure that was going farther and farther away would be shot dead, an arrow through her heart as she rolled down the hill.
He only needed to nod his head.
Murong Ke kept staring without making a single movement. Just as his captains lost their patience, he said, “Let her go.”
“We beg your pardon?”
Incredulous eyes were staring at Murong Ke.
He watched the red figure run up the hill and into the woods… He retracted his gaze and quietly said, “She’s just a woman. It doesn’t matter whether she lives or dies.”
He had spoken, but his captains were not pleased, and one exclaimed, “If it doesn’t matter, then why did you capture her?”
“We have three thousand men whose survival are unknown because of her,” another said. After a pause, the man added, “My lord, please allow me to capture her.”
How far could she escape with the strength of a woman? If they wanted to catch her alive, they still had the time to do it.
Murong Ke seemed to still be in shock. As he was about to give his command, an adviser’s voice composedly spoke, “Why must we be angered? The situation is already not in our favor. Didn’t Wang Hong get involved just for this woman? Releasing her will also prevent things from exacerbating.”
The phrase ‘The situation is already not in our favor’ was admission that Murong Ke had failed. He failed even before Wang Hong’s shadow made an appearance.
Murong Ke was angry this time. “Chase her down,” he growled. “If things don’t go well, then just kill her.”
“Aye,” multiple voices replied.
Chen Rong made a few leaps and made it uphill. Her shoulder blade was in severe pain, and her bleeding left a trail of blood behind her.
She ran and ran toward the billowing smoke. As long as she got to the woods that was less than 200 steps away she would reach the hill. Dust was flying at the foothill, however, and someone was apparently already there.
Footsteps were chasing behind her. Meanwhile, she heard someone yell: “Catch her!”
Chen Rong turned her head and saw a dozen figures crossing the hill towards her. They had come from another hillside and were about one hundred steps from her.
Even though it was only a hundred steps, she was already injured and her clothes weren’t conducive to running. Most importantly, as soon as they crossed the hill, they raised their bows and halberds at her.
Chen Rong gritted her teeth. She stumbled forward and shouted at the top of her lungs: “Ah Rong of the Chen House is here, Ah Rong of the Chen House is here – ”
Her shouts were crisp, but they got lost in the chaos and were not very loud.
His men must be able to hear me. I’m wearing a conspicuous red dress this entire journey. As long as they wanted to, his men must hear me. Chen Rong ran as she thought to herself.
Just then, someone shouted behind her, “Stop! We will shoot if you don’t stop.”
His voice was only seventy or eighty paces away from her.
Chen Rong’s face was burning. She kept her head down and desperately ran as if she didn’t hear him.
“Ready, aim, fire!” the man ordered.
The deadly wind was palpable to Chen Rong.
As she was running heedlessly and the rain of arrows flying at her, a series of hooves rumbled from the woods. “She’s here, she’s here!” came several Jin voices.
There was joy in their cries.
Chen Rong was also thrilled to hear them. She looked up just as the wind hissed behind her. She shuddered and dropped to the ground.
Just as she leapt to the ground, several long arrows whistled past her head.
She scrambled up from the ground and continued to stagger forward.
At this exact time, a figure jumped down from a branch to grab her. They leapt up and dodged the arrows as they ran to the riders.
After meeting with the other riders, the man placed Chen Rong onto his horse. “Retreat,” he barked to see the Yan troops getting closer.
They were within the range of the Yans’ arrow strike. Thus after the man gave his order, they could only wield their weapons and slowly retreat.
At this moment, a Yan captain stared at the rolling smoke below the hill and said, “Go, report back to the prince.”
The two groups continued their confrontation, one slowly backing away while the other slowly approached. The retreating side was backing toward a hill.
Murong Ke quickly arrived. The group of five or six people was already standing on the hill. Once they stopped, the man in black who rescued Chen Rong whispered, “When the time comes, I will carry the young lady and jump down. You all ride out from the sides and meet up with us.”
While they were whispering to one another, Chen Rong struggled to her feet. As soon as she found her footing, the first thing she did was brush her hair away from her eyes.
She quickly looked down to see that they were about a dozen feet from the foothill where a narrow, bending road sat. The tip of the bend was right under the hill.
Smoke and dust rose skyward from the distance, as though announcing the arrival of a large army.
At this moment, the eastern sky lit up as a ring of dawn rose from the horizon.
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