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4

More than ten thousand Manchu cavalry chased westwards after the Third Unit of the Muslim's Black Flag Brigade. The Muslims were riding the best horses, but the commander of the Manchu troops was under orders from General Zhao Wei to catch the Muslim force, and he urged his men on mercilessly. The two armies charged across the desert, the roar of horses's hooves sounding like thunder. After a few dozen miles, a herd of several thousand cattle and sheep suddenly appeared in the path of the Manchu army and the soldiers chased after them shouting for joy, and killed as many as they could for food. Their pace slowed. The Muslims, meanwhile, galloped on, never once being forced to clash with the pursuing Manchu troops. Close to evening, they saw a pall of thick smoke rising from the east.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong has won!" The Muslim commander shouted. "Turn back east!" The warriors' spirits soared and they reined their horses round. Seeing them turning, the Manchu troops were perplexed and charged forward to attack, but the Muslims swung round them at a distance, the Manchus following.

The Muslim units galloped through the night, the Manchus always in sight. The Manchu commander wanted to gain great merit for himself, and many of his cavalry horses died of exhaustion. Towards midnight, they came across General Zhao Wei riding in front of about three thousand wounded. Zhao Wei's hope rose slightly as he saw the Manchu column approach.

"After their success, the enemy will be in a state of unpreparedness," he thought. "So if we attack now, we will be able to turn defeat into victory." He ordered the troops to advance towards the Black River, and after ten miles or so, scouts reported that the Muslim army was camped ahead. Zhao Wei led his commanders onto a rise to view the scene and a chill shook each of them to the bottom of their hearts.

The entire plain was covered in camp fires, stretching seemingly endlessly before them. They heard from far off the shouts of men and the neighing of horses, and they wondered how many warriors the Muslims had mustered. Zhao Wei was silent.

"With such a huge army against us, no wonder…no wonder we have encountered some set-backs," one of the senior military officials, Commander Herda, said.

Zhao Wei turned to the others. "All units are to mount up and retreat south," he ordered. "No-one is to make a sound."

The order was received badly by the troops who had hoped to stop at least long enough for a meal.

"According to the guides, the road south passes the foot of Yingqipan Mountain and is very dangerous after heavy snows," Herda pointed out.

"The enemy's forces are so powerful, we have no choice but to head southeast and try to meet up with General Fu De," Zhao Wei replied.

The remnants of the great army headed south, and found the road becoming more and more treacherous as they went. To the left was the Black River, to the right, the Yingqipan Mountain. The night sky was cloudy and ink-black, and the only light was a faint glow reflecting off the snow further up the mountain slope.

Zhao Wei issued a further order: "Whoever makes a sound will be immediately executed." Most of the soldiers came from Northeast China and knew that any noise could shake loose the heavy snow above them and cause an avalanche that would kill them all. They all dismounted and led their horses along with extreme care, many walking on tip-toe. Three or four miles further on, the road became very steep, but as luck would have it, the sky was by now growing light. The Manchu troops had been fighting and running for a whole day and a night, and there was a deathly expression on the face of each one.

Suddenly, there was a shout from a scout and several hundred Muslim warriors appeared on the road ahead standing behind a number of primitive cannons. Scared out of their wits, the Manchu troops were thrown into confusion and many turned and fled just as the cannons went off with a roar, spraying iron shards and nails into them, instantly killing more than two hundred.

As the boom of the cannon faded, Zhao Wei heard a faint rustling noise, and felt a coldness on his neck as a small amount of snow fell inside his collar. He looked up the mountain side and saw the snow fields above them slowly beginning to move.

"General!" Herda shouted. "We must escape!"

Zhao Wei reined his horse round and started galloping back the way they had come. His bodyguards slashed and hacked at the soldiers in their path, frantically pushing them off the road into the river below as the rumble of the approaching snow avalanche grew louder and louder. Suddenly, tons of snow intermingled with rocks and mud surged down onto the road with a deafening roar that shook the heavens.

Zhao Wei, with Herda on one side and Zhang Zhaozhong on the other, escaped the catastrophe. They galloped on for more than a mile before daring to stop. When they did look back, they saw the several thousand troops had been buried by snow drifts more than a hundred feet thick. The road ahead was also covered in deep snow. Surrounded by such danger and having lost an entire army of forty thousand men in one day, Zhao Wei burst into tears.

"General, let us go up the mountain slope," said Zhang. He picked up Zhao Wei and raced off up the slope with Herda following along behind.

Huo Qingtong, watching from a distant crest, shouted: "Someone's trying to escape! Catch them quickly!" Several dozen Muslims ran off to intercept them. When they saw the three were wearing the uniforms of officials, they rubbed their hands in delight, determined to catch them alive. Zhang silently increased his pace. Despite the weight of Zhao Wei, he seemed to fly across the treacherously slippery slope. Herda could not keep up with him and was cut off by the Muslims and captured after a spirited fight. Apart from Zhao Wei and Zhang, only a few dozen of the Manchu troops survived the avalanche.

Huo Qingtong led the Muslim warriors back to their camp, along with the prisoners. By now, the Muslims had taken the main Manchu camp, thereby acquiring huge supplies of food and weapons. The Four Tigers were among those taken prisoner after being found bound and gagged inside a tent. Chen asked them why they had been put there, and the eldest of the four giants replied: "Because we helped you. General Zhao said he would have us killed after the battle." Chen pleaded before Huo Qingtong to allow the four to go free, and she agreed.


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