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10

Xin Yan rode back to where Chen and the others were waiting, crying all the way. The beseiging Manchu forces did little to stop him as he passed, loosing off a dozen or so arrows as a matter of form only. He jumped off the white horse, led it onto the pit then sat down and began sobbing loudly.

"Don't cry, what's the matter?" Zhou Qi asked.

Xu sighed. "Is there any need to ask? Huo Qingtong refuses to send troops to rescue us."

"I kowtowed before her…I pleaded…" Xin Yan sobbed. The others were silent.

Princess Fragrance asked Chen why he was crying. Not wishing to hurt her, he said: "He couldn't break through to get help." The Princess took out her handkerchief and gave it to him.

The morning of the third day dawned with the snow still falling heavily and the Manchu forces showing no signs of attacking. Xu was greatly puzzled. He turned to Xin Yan and said: "What questions did Mistress Huo Qingtong ask you?"

"She asked how may Manchu troops were surrounding us and whether the armoured units had attacked yet."

Xu was excited. "We're saved! We're saved!" he exclaimed happily. The others stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"I was stupid to have doubted Mistress Huo Qingtong," he said. "Truly small-minded. She is much, much wiser than I."

"What?" asked Zhou Qi.

"If the Manchu armoured cavalry attacked us, would we stand a chance?"

"Hmm," Zhou Qi replied. "Yes, it's strange."

"And even if they didn't have armoured cavalry, if so many thousands of soldiers charged at once, could the eight of us hold them off? We would be trampled to mincemeat." The others agreed the Manchus had been remarkably restrained.

Chen suddenly understood. "Yes, that's it!" he cried. "They have held back on purpose in the hope of luring the Muslim forces in to try and rescue us. But Mistress Huo Qingtong has guessed it and refused to be tricked."

"Whether she's tricked or not, we're still finished," commented Zhang Jin.

"No, we're not," Chen replied. "She is certain to think of a way out."

Their spirits were suddenly revived, and leaving two of the heroes to keep guard, the others settled down to rest at the bottom of the pit.


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