This was a hard chapter to translate, because it was a hard chapter to read. Lest we forget, Da Mo Yao is set during a period of the Han dynasty where the empire was expanding and engaged in bitter warfare with their main rivals the Xiong Nu tribe. In volume 1, Huo Qu Bing went off to war while Yu Er stayed in Chang An, and since DMY is narrated in her first person perspective, she never got a personal understanding of the ravages of warfare aside from her vast consumption of military manuals. Now that she is with the Han army, she’s thrust immediately into large scale military warfare. She learns that life and death may be outside of people’s control, but choosing how to live life and face death is a choice everyone had a right to make. Huo Qu Bing is a General born into a military family, but Yu Er is just an orphan, wolf and Xiong Nu-raised, who still can’t find her destiny in life. But she’s getting there, though the price will likely be steep.
Chapter 19: Pigeon Souls
The army is leaving after resting for two days. Huo Qu Bing and Gong Xun Aou discuss how to attack the Xiong Nu from both sides in tandem, while General Li Guang’s army brings up the rear. In the blue black sky, there isn’t a single star, just a crescent moon shining coldly on the earth. Under the sound of horse hoofs, with thousands of armor glittering, there is only unending dust before and behind me. I feel a sense of inexplicable uncertainty.
Huo Qu Bing looked at me and reached out to grab my hand “Don’t worry, I won’t let the Xiong Nu hurt you.” I bit my lip “I’m worried about Li Cheng. Was I wrong? I don’t know the cruel dangers of the battlefield. The moment he gets on that horse is life and death. It’s not like having good fighting skills means survival.”
Huo Qu Bing’s hand is around his horse whip, his eyes look straight ahead with a coldness like the shiniest moon “If killing the Xiong Nu is his greatest wish in life, then even if he dies, it’s doing something he wanted. There will be no regret. Does he want to live an ordinary life? No one can guarantee whether they will survive in a battle.”
I smirked at him “That was contradictory. Didn’t you just promise nothing would happen to me?” He turned and smiled at me “That is because I am Huo Qu Bing, and you are the exception.”
I wrinkled my nose at him but still smiled, the worries of moments ago having dissipated. After traveling for a day and a night, the army finally sets up camp. I tried to prepare myself, but after such a long time on a horse, my hips and waist feel like it doesn’t belong to me. When I heard Huo Qu Bing call for rest, my body slid off the horse and I laid down on the ground. Huo Qu Bing sat down next to me “Now you now how hard I work to earn my money? In the future don’t spend it so easily.”
Chen Kang An suddenly walks up and with a somber expression announces that there has been no communications with the armies led by the other generals. Huo Qu Bing asks him to keep trying to reach them, and especially not to reveal word that we have not been able to reach General Gong Xun Aou.
I thought about it, and based on my extensive reading of military texts, I know the proper response is to retreat. If the army you are coordinating an attack with suddenly disappears, plus the rear flank is also unreachable, then this battle is a mess before it has even started. Huo Qu Bing paced a few times and told me to get some rest and not think too much. He actually laid down and went to sleep.
That confused me so. He wasn’t thinking of what to do under these circumstances. But then I thought about it some more and decided that if he wasn’t freaking out, I shouldn’t be either. If the sky fell he would be the first person hit. I curled up and went to sleep.
Before the sun even rises the army is ready to leave. There is still no word from Li Guang or Gong Xun Aou. Huo Qu Bing laughs that Li Guang has gotten lost in the past, but now it appears Gong Xun Aou has also gotten lost. I ask what to do, and he points to the distant Qi Lian Mountain “We’re going there.”
I immediately let out my pent up breath and stare at the Qi Lian Mountains. My emotions calmed down. He’s not new to fighting alone. The first time he took eight hundred troops and sneaked into the Xiong Nu army base. Next he took ten thousand troops and with the speed of the wind destroyed five Xiong Nu tribes in six days. Even though the plan had changed, he can handle fighting alone.
Qi Lian Mountain is rich and fertile, the place where the Xiong Nu herd their livestock. It is also one of their pride and joys. This battle will not be easy, but if we win, Papa will surely be very happy. Papa….
He saw me staring at the mountains, apologizing “I thought this battle would be easier, who knew we’d be rushing yet again.” I gather myself, not wanting him to worry, acting casual “I won’t let you make us wolves seem useless.””
He smiled and nodded his head, then flew off towards the front of the army. The rising sun reflected off his back, with the armor giving off a thousand beams of light. It was like a flying sun, breathtaking to behold in its majesty.
Huo Qu Bing’s forces were already the most fierce, but after he threw some fuel in the fire, they were even more revved up to go. Ten thousand fearless men marched behind him, traversing this great North Western territory.
After we traveled for awhile, I asked Chen An Kang why we appeared to be heading back. He looked around, unable to confirm because this Gobi Desert looks all the same to him. I tell him to go ask the General if he knows he’s walking backwards. Otherwise he can laugh about General Gong Xun getting lost and then he ends up getting lost himself.
After a few moments Huo Qu Bing returns to my side and explains that the Xiong Nu have gotten word of where the army is expected to move, so he needs to change directions otherwise they will lay in wait for us. I look at the circling falcons above and remain silent. He continues “I’ve been around the desert many times with Uncle since I was a kid. I can walk around here without getting lost. And with you here, I can relax and let us wander aimlessly. If we get the Xiong Nu confused, then it will be better for the attack.”
I turn and ask the person holding the cage to be careful and not let Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian out, but I can see they are frustrated with being cooped up.
From morning until evening we rushed around, and Huo Qu Bing’s expression grew more and more concerned. After turning in the Gobi Desert a few times, the Xiong Nu ought not to be able to track us, yet they are still able to know where the army is. There is still a tracker following a distance behind the army.
During dinner, he doesn’t eat and I ask what he is thinking about. “With our speed, and this random moving around, the Xiong Nu shouldn’t know our every move. This has never happened before. Usually we attack the Xiong Nu, but this time they are chasing us.” He furrowed his brows and looked perplexed.
I point to the sky and he looks upward. In the sky are two tiny black specks. He startled and then asked “Are you saying those two furry beasts are the Xiong Nu’s tracking agents?”
I laugh and nod “Those guys are the most annoying. In the past when we would capture a prey, they would circle overhead and try to steal our prey. Sometimes they would even fight with the wolves for it. Because they can fly, the wolves can’t do much except chase them away. But they would fly away and then dive back down to fight. Since I’ve tangled with these guys in the past, I can tell that those two above are behaving unusually. Instead of looking for prey, they continue to follow us and stay above our heads.”
Huo Qu Bing smiled bitterly “I had heard the rumor that pigeons can pass word for their owners, but now this other legend has come true. Just my luck to run into it. I wonder how many the Xiong Nu have trained?”
I respond “Their nests are always in hard to reach places so it’s hard to capture a young one. They are arrogant and love freedom, so unless they were raised from infancy, they won’t listen to human commands. For the Xiong Nu to have two is rare enough, otherwise this wouldn’t just be a legend. Also, you wouldn’t have been able to sneak into the Xiong Nu base with your eight hundred men.”
He laughed and slapped his legs “Just two? That’s easy! Tomorrow I’ll serve it each an arrow and we’ll dine on roasted bird tomorrow night.”
Shooting down birds is not a hard task, but those two have been well trained, so all morning they circled just above the reach of any flying arrow. There remains no opportunity to shoot them down, and I’m beginning to get impatient and go check on them. Huo Qu Bing doesn’t have his usual impetuousness, and instead looks calm and determined. Right now he’s like an experienced wolf, laying in wait for his prey. No matter how many days, no rush and no worries, just scouting the prey and waiting for the right moment to give it a deadly blow.
Suddenly there was a roar and I looked up to see a black spot hurtling towards the ground. At that time, there was a cry and the other falcon follows it down. But an arrow just barely misses it, and it immediately pulls back up and circles once again outside the reach of the arrows. The other archer kneels and begs forgiveness for his failure, while Huo Qu Bing just looks solemnly at the remaining falcon in the sky. I worriedly look towards Huo Qu Bing, knowing this is not good.
These two falcons have been trained and have better instincts than wild ones. With this fright, it will not give us another chance to shoot at it. The Xiong Nu will clearly be enraged by the death of their valuable agents, meaning we might soon be engaged in a battle, one in which the enemy knows us but we do not know the enemy.
Huo Qu Bing suddenly looked at me and his face broke into a wide smile, full of confidence. He was just like the noon sun over the Gobi Desert, shining his light over everything and leaving no shadow. I’m affected by his attitude and I can’t help but smile a little. Even I’m influenced by his confidence, much less his troops who trained under him and fought with him. In two battles, he has had an overwhelming victory, so his Yu Lin Army brothers trust him implicitly. It’s like as long as they are following Huo Qu Bing, no matter the enemy ahead, they will prevail. That is the confidence he instills in every soldier.
Because the army needs a lot of water, Huo Qu Bing asks me where the nearest water source is. We decide to head to the Ju Yen Sea, the name comes from the Xiong Nu language to mean weak water in flowing sands. It is situated within Xiong Nu territory.
The lone falcon continues to follow us and Huo Qu Bing would occasionally look up at it, though he never looked concerned. As we neared the Ju Yen Sea, Chen An Kang and another young man named Zhao Puo Nu came over and gave me a strange look. Zhao Puo Nu spoke up “The Xiong Nu must know now that we are headed to the Ju Yen Sea, so this upcoming battle is unavoidable. But having the Xiong Nu aware of our moves puts us always at a disadvantage. Your servant I have an idea for killing that falcon.”
I knew what he was getting at and huffed coldly before turning away. Huo Qu Bing told them to never mention this again. Zhao Puo Nu kneeled down “General, using the pigeons as bait, as long as we shoot the falcon first, the pigeons won’t be harmed. And even if the pigeons are sacrificed, it is for the greater good of the army. When we return to Chang An I will personally buy the Brother here two pigeons.”
I glared at Zhao Puo Nu and stalked away with the slash of my whip. I grabbed the pigeon cage and refused to let anyone handle it. Only next to me do I feel safe. Chen An Kang rode next to me for some time and asked me not to be mad anymore. The General didn’t agree with their proposal, right? I kept staring ahead and he had no choice but to be quiet. I tell him to bring Li Cheng over here, I’m worried about him.
The lake is clear and surrounded by verdant greenery. The sky and the clouds reflect on the surface, and with a wind blowing through, small ripples sway and dance. Near the lake are some cranes dancing in the water and ducks taking flight. Li Cheng gaped at this beauty, that the Xiong Nu have such beautiful lands. I was about to explain how I played here as a kid, but I stopped talking.
When suddenly a thousand water fowls loudly cried out in fright and then took flight, Huo Qu Bing was the first to raise his bow and arrow. It’s not like I haven’t experienced a life and death struggle before, but being in the middle of a battle of tens of thousand is the first time I realized that what I experienced before was comparatively child’s play.
The horses wail and the people roar. The swords slash in the air, the beauty of the lake marred with one cold slash after another. The red of the blood splatters everywhere, almost like a red flower blooming for just a moment before immediately wilting. I can’t see what is happening, everywhere around me is just blood and fighting. Chen An Kang shook me “The first time on the battlefield I almost peed my pants, you’re doing better than me, your face is just ghostly white.” I know he’s trying to distract me but I am speechless.
I suddenly look around for Li Cheng, and Chen An Kang thinks the kid probably ran to the front. I was so angry I wanted to slap myself. I jumped on a horse and want to take off but Chen An Kang refuses to let go “You cannot go to the front line, these are the General’s orders. And even if you go now you can’t do anything, you won’t be able to find Li Cheng. You haven’t practiced with the army before so you don’t know how to fight in tandem, so you’ll just distract the soldiers. You need to wait here until the fighting is done.”
I tightly grasp the horse reins and stare straight ahead at the violent battle. Chen An Kang softly said “Once on the battlefield, life and death is but a moment’s difference. What was yesterday’s drinking buddy might be fallen before you tomorrow.”
My heart suddenly wrenched into a tight knot, my body still as can be. I calmly asked “Then….the General….he will be fine?”
Chen An Kang was silent for a moment “There are no guarantees on the battlefield. But the General has been training with the Yu Lin Army since he was a child. He also learned directly from the Great General Weil. With his experience, he will be fine.”
The blood of the Xiong Nu, the blood of the Han, I cannot tell why my heart is shaking. I look skyward, making certain that the blue sky and the white clouds still remain unchanged.
The Xiong Nu army is defeated and retreats, leaving the Ju Yen Sea returned to it’s normal tranquility. Except for the smell of blood and a sea of dead bodies littering the area. I see eagles circling overhead, waiting to feast. I looked around and Huo Qu Bing rode up to me “Are you alright?” I force a smile and nod, but my eyes are still searching through the crowd. Chen An Kang pointed “Isn’t that Li Cheng?” and there Li Cheng stood holding a sword and waving to me. I finally relaxed and waved back. He was so excited, yelling “I finally avenged my family, I helped defeat the Xiong Nu…..”
Suddenly an injured Xiong Nu soldier heaved himself up and threw a dagger at Li Cheng. “Watch out!” I cried as I rushed towards him, but I was too far away and couldn’t use my gold bells to deflect the dagger. I could only watch it embed itself in Li Cheng’s chest. An arrow flew past me and pinned the injured Xiong Nu soldier dead to the ground.
Li Cheng stared at the dagger in his chest and then looked at me, confused as to what was happening. I held him in my arms and tried to stop the bleeding as Chen An Kang called for a medic. Huo Qu Bing walked over and took a look, indicating to me that it was a clean stab right into the heart.
Li Cheng asked if he was about to die, and then told me not to be sad. He had killed Xiong Nu and was now going to see his parents and his sister. He missed them so much…. His hands grew cold and I watched as the blood drained out of him. My heart felt cold, knowing this was all my fault, my fault…..
Huo Qu Bing quietly stood next to me and looked out over the Sea. I gently laid Li Cheng down and walked over to the edge of the water to wash the blood of my hands. Huo Qu Bing looked at me, and then ordered Li Cheng’s body to be cremated. He walked over to me and bent down to wash his hands “After the war is over, I’ll have his ashes sent back to be cremated with his family, so he’s not lonely.”
I raised my head to look at the circling eagles, and I can’t differentiate the tracking falcon anymore.
The horses are thundering forward and I remain silent. Huo Qu Bing continues to silently ride beside me. I occasionally raise my head to look at the falcon and then resume riding. As I looked towards the sky once again, Huo Qu Bing spoke up “It’s not your fault, so stop blaming yourself. There will be deaths in battle, and this is something Li Cheng knew when he joined the army.” I stare at the sky “If I didn’t promise he could go to battle, he might still be alive.”
Huo Qu Bing was exasperated “You’re so obstinate. Without you Li Cheng would find a way onto the battlefield. As a man he needs to stand up for what he believes in. Between revenge and going on with his life, if you let Li Cheng choose again, he would still choose to go to battle.”
I looked at Huo Qu Bing “If we don’t shoot down that damn bird, we won’t be able to arrive safely at Qi Lian Mountain.” He tells me to be patient, that falcon can’t be alert all the time.
I look at Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian “The armies have been split into three routes, but now General Li Guang and General Gong Xun Aou are nowhere to be found. We are in the middle of Xiong Nu territory, and our advantage is a sneak attack. If we keep waiting, we might all end up dead at the base of the Qi Lian Mountains.
I touched the cage and slowly opened the door. Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian, having been cooped up for so long, happily jump on my arm. I tell Huo Qu Bing “Prepare your bow and arrow.” I lightly stroked their head and whispered “I’m sorry, sending you to do such a dangerous mission. Don’t get close to the falcon, just lure it lower. You have to do your best to fly as fast as you can.”
Huo Qu Bing called “Yu Er!” indicating that he was ready. I waved my arm, sending Xiao Qian and Xiao Tao into the air. I pick up the whistle around my neck and begin to blow into it, ordering Xiao Qian and Xiao Tao to lure the falcon lower. Xiao Qian circles overhead, still uncertain, but Xiao Tao has already dived straight for the falcon. Xiao Qian has no choice but to quickly fly behind Xiao Tao.
That falcon is well trained, because with food so near it remains uninterested and continues to circle high overhead. Xiao Qian and Xiao Tao try to lure it from a distance for quite some time but cannot tempt it. Xiao Tao suddenly rushes the falcon, ignoring my shock and attempts to summon her back, flapping her wings right in front of it a few times before flying away.
Falcons are one of the most vicious predators in the animal kingdom, and this one has likely never seen a bird so disrespect it. It becomes enraged and lets out a piercing cry and swoops with its sharp claws straight for Xiao Tao. I desperately blow my whistle to summon them back. Xiao Tao tries to descend but a pigeon is no match for a falcon’s speed and soon she is right under the grasp of the falcon’s claws.
To save Xiao Tao, Xiao Qian ignores my whistles to descend and instead swoops in to peck at the falcon’s eyes. The falcon spreads its wings and Xiao Qian is swept aside. Xiao Qian’s body falls from the sky and the falcon zooms down to grab him when suddenly an arrow pierces its chest and it falls straight to the ground.
Xiao Qian descends in a shaky fashion and I rush over to catch him. Before he lands on my hands a few drops of blood hit me first. When Xiao Qian lands on my arm, he cannot even stand. His head lolls to one side and he falls on the ground. I catch him before he hits the ground, but his eyes are closed. One wing and an entire side of his chest is covered in blood. My hands shake uncontrollably. Xiao Tao cries out and uses her head to butt Xiao Qian’s head. Xiao Qian opens his eyes to look at Xiao Tao, and with one final shudder his eyes shut for good.
The medic touches Xiao Qian and then turns to shake his head at Huo Qu Bing. I’m cradling Xiao Qian in my hands, like knives slicing into my heart. Xiao Tao uses her beak to fix Xiao Qian’s feathers and coo’d pitifully a few times. I have never seen Xiao Tao so patient or gentle before. I can’t control my tears anymore and drops start to fall on Xiao Qian. I keep saying over and over “I’m….sorry…..I’m…..sorry….”
Xiao Tao turned to look at me and rubbed her head on my hand, comforting me. She used her beak to fix Xiao Qian’s feathers one more time and then suddenly took flight. I look up at Xiao Tao as she flies higher and higher. I suddenly react and start blowing my whistle. Come back. Come back now.
Xiao Tao continues to fly higher and higher. I start screaming “Xiao Tao, come back! Come back! You’re not allowed to leave me all alone! You’re not allowed to leave me!” Before I finish speaking, a black dot comes hurtling from the sky and Xiao Tao slams into the ground. The army has been watching in silent shock at the pigeon and falcon battle, and now with Xiao Tao’s passionate act, everyone gasps. My voice is stuck inside my throat and I can’t make any sound. My eyes are wide open and can only stare at Xiao Tao’s body laying far away. I slowly sink to the ground.
Huo Qu Bing covered my eyes “Don’t look anymore.”
I violently jerked his hand off but he grabbed my arm. I started to hit him “This is all your fault, all your fault! Why did you make me follow you…..”
“It’s all my fault, it’s all my fault. I will make sure the Xiong Nu pays for this.” Huo Qu Bing gently said to me as he took a wet cloth from the army medic and placed it over my nose. I smelled a fragrant scent of flowers and my strength in hitting him decreases. My mind clouds and I lay on his shoulder, passing out.