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9

After breaking out of the ring, Xin Yan followed the route Chen had indicated, galloped to the Muslim camp and presented the letter to Muzhuolun. The old man had been frantic with worry, and jumped up joyfully as he read his daughter's note.

"Call the troops together!" he ordered.

"How many Manchu troops were there surrounding you?" Huo Qingtong asked Xin Yan.

"Four or five thousand altogether."

Huo Qingtong bit her lip and paced from one side of the tent to the other, deep in thought. Horns sounded outside as the soldiers began to gather, and Muzhuolun was just about to go out to join them when Huo Qingtong suddenly turned to him.

"Father, we can't go," she said.

Muzhuolun looked at her in astonishment, uncertain if he had heard correctly. "Whatwhat did you say?"

"I said we can't go."

He was about to fly into a rage, but then remembered how clear-thinking and intelligent his daughter usually was. "Why?" he asked.

"Zhao Wei is a very capable general. He would not dispatch four or five thousand troops just to capture our two envoys. It must be a trap."

"Even if it is a trap, how can we stand by and let the Manchus kill your sister and our Red Flower Society friends?"

Huo Qingtong hung her head and said nothing. "I am afraid that if we go, we will not only fail to rescue them, but will sacrifice several thousand more lives as well." she said finally.

Muzhuolun slapped his thigh in exasperation. "But she is your own flesh and blood!" he cried. "And we owe Master Chen and the others a great debt. Even if we died trying to save them, what would it matter? Youyou" He was both angry and hurt by his daughter's ungratefulness.

"Father, listen to me. It may be possible to save them and win a great victory as well."

Muzhuolun's expression changed immediately. "Well, why didn't you say so earlier, child?" he said. "How can we do it? I will do whatever you say."

"Father, are you truly willing to do whatever I say?"

"I was talking nonsense a moment ago. Don't pay any attention. How should we proceed? Tell me quickly!"

"Well, give me the Command Arrow. I will command this battle." Muzhuolun hesitated for a second then handed it to her. Huo Qingtong knelt to receive it, then prostrated herself on the ground, praying to Allah.

"Father," she said when she stood up. "You and Brother must follow my orders."

"If you can save them and beat the Manchus, I will do anything," he replied.

"All right, then it is settled." She walked out of the tent with her father and over to the troops, already waiting in ranks with their commanders.

"Brothers!" Muzhuolun called out to them. "Today, we will fight the Manchus to the death. The battle will be commanded by Mistress Huo Qingtong."

The soldiers raised their sabres and roared: "May the True God protect her and lead us to victory!"

"Right," said Huo Qingtong flourishing her Command Arrow. "Everyone return to their tents to rest." The commanders led their troops away. Muzhuolun was too stunned to speak.

They went back inside the tent and Xin Yan prostrated himself before Huo Qingtong and kowtowed frantically.

"Mistress, if you don't send troops to save them, my master will surely die," he pleaded.

"Get up. I didn't say I wouldn't save them."

"There are only nine of them, of whom your sister does not know kung fu," he cried. "But the enemy is numbered in thousands. If we delay even for a moment, they will be, they will be"

"Have the Manchu armoured troops charged them yet?" Huo Qingtong interrupted him.

"Not when I had left, but I'm afraid they will have done so by now." Huo Qingtong frowned silently. Xin Yan cried even more mournfully and Muzhuolun paced about the tent, uncertain of what to do.

"Father, have you ever seen a wolf trap? A piece of mutton is fastened to a metal hook, the wolf bites on it and pulls and the trap snaps shut. Zhao Wei sees us as the wolf and my sister as the mutton. No matter how brave the Red Flower Society fighters are, they could not stop four or five thousand determined soldiers. That means that Zhao Wei has purposely decided not to order an attack." Muzhuolun nodded. "The Manchus let this young man out on purpose to get us to send a rescue force. Otherwise how could he have made it alone through so many troops?"

"Well, let us attack Zhao Wei's forces from the side and catch them unawares," he replied.

"They have more than forty thousand troops while we only have fifteen thousand," she pointed out. "In a pitched battle we would certainly lose."

"So from what you say, your sister and the others are bound to die," Muzhuolun exclaimed. "I cannot bear to lose your sister, and I refuse to leave our friends in danger. I will take five hundred men with me. If we can rescue them, it will be because of Allah's help. If we cannot, then we will die with them."

Huo Qingtong said nothing.

Xin Yan began frantically kowtowing before her once more, his forehead striking the ground heavily. "If our master has done anything to offend you mistress, please forgive him," he cried.

Huo Qingtong realised he suspected her motives. "Don't talk such nonsense," she said angrily.

Xin Yan looked startled for a second, then jumped up. "If you are determined to be so cruel, I will go and die with my master," he said. He ran out of the tent, leapt on the white horse and galloped away.

"We must go and help them!" Muzhuolun pleaded.

"Father, the Chinese have a saying that it is better to rely on a good plan than on bravery. We are out-numbered, so we must make use of surprise if we are to gain victory. We must beat Zhao Wei's trap with a trap of our own."

"Really?" said Muzhuolun, only half believing her.

"Father!" she exclaimed, her voice shaking. "Don't say that you suspect me too?"

Muzhuolun saw the tears brimming in her eyes and his heart softened. "All right," he said. "We will do as you say. Now send out the troops immediately."

Huo Qingtong thought for a moment, then said to an attendant: "Strike up the drums." The drums rolled and the commanders of each of the military units entered the tent. By now, the snow was falling thickly outside the tent and was already several inches thick on the ground.

Huo Qingtong flourished the Command Arrow and announced: "The first unit of the Green Flag Brigade will go to the western side of the Great Gobi Quagmire, and the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth units of the Green Flag will gather together the local herdsmen and farmers around the other sides." She gave the commanders their orders and the units departed one by one. Muzhuolun was unhappy that some of their best troops had been sent off to do construction work rather than being sent to the rescue.

"The first, second and third units of the White Flag Brigade will go to Yarkand City and to the Black River, and will make various preparations as I will indicate," Huo Qingtong continued. "The first unit of the Black Flag and the Kazakh unit will go up into the hills along the Black River. The Mongol unit will station itself on Yingqipan Mountain." She gave each commander his individual orders, after which they bowed and left.

"Father, you will command the forces to the east. Brother, you will command the forces to the west, I myself will command the second unit of the Black Flag Brigade and coordinate things from the centre. The general campaign plan is like this" She was just about to explain in detail when Muzhuolun stopped her.

"Who is going to rescue your sister and the others?" he demanded.

"The third unit of the Black Flag will ride in from the east to save them. The fourth unit of the Black Flag will do the same from the west. When you meet Manchu troops you must do as I indicate in these orders." She quickly wrote out two notes and handed them to the commanders. "Your units must have the best mounts available," she added. The two Black Flag unit commanders bowed and retired.

"You have sent thirteen thousand of our best soldiers off to do unimportant work and two thousand young boys and old men to effect a rescue. What is the meaning of this?" Muzhuolun demanded.

"My plan is to" Huo Qingtong began, but Muzhuolun angrily cut her off.

"I don't believe you any more! You love Master Chen, but he loves your sister, so you intend to let both of them die. You you're heartless!"

Huo Qingtong almost fainted from shock. Muzhuolun stared at her for a second, then stormed out of the tent shouting: "I will go and die with your sister!" He leapt onto his horse and galloped away into the desert, brandishing his sabre.

Her brother saw how distressed she was and tried to comfort her. "Father is very confused," he said. "He didn't know what he was saying. Don't worry."


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