At long last, the joyful crowd saw a glimmer of hope. Harbhara and Caganbhara somehow still retained enough strength to cheer and race around like unbridled and saddle-free wild horses. Even the usually calm and collected Uncle Alham joined a group hug and heartily clapped his fellow tribesmen on the back with his remaining left hand.
After hearing Qin Yining speak, Alham stopped to respond sincerely, "Yes, that makes sense. I will tell everyone to be careful. We should first send someone to scout the road ahead. You're still thinking calmly, but we've gotten too happy to consider these things."
Qin Yining dimpled. "That’s only normal. I’m actually rejoicing as much as everyone else. However, it’s during these times that we can’t relax our guard. We can’t let all of our efforts till now go to waste."
"You're right." Having observed Qin Yining the entire trip, Uncle Alham and his people had long since committed themselves to her. They had utmost faith in everything she proposed.
Alham promptly turned to address his tribesmen. "We weren’t heavily pursued, which proves Utkin Khan didn't arrange for many of his men to wait for us in the desert. Someone as two-faced as him will surely be making a great show out of avenging that demon Anari, so if the soldiers pursuing us through the desert were few, that means he stationed men outside the desert."
The group nodded at his words, with some panic percolating through the crowd. "What if he really has sent soldiers after us?"
"That's simple. We'll send two of our quickest warriors to scout the road ahead while the rest of us proceed slowly while searching for water. We'll decide what to do next once the scouts return with intel."
"Alright, as you say then!" The tribesmen assented unanimously.
Alham then explained what he had said to Qin Yining, who smiled and nodded. "You are a war veteran with experience. I’m not so informed on such matters, so I leave the arrangements entirely up to you."
Filled with delight, Uncle Alham turned and appointed two men to scout the road ahead. The group quickly fell back into order, refraining from spreading out in a long line. Rather, the one thousand of them gathered together in a rhombus formation, ready to react to danger at the drop of a hat.
They carefully and slowly pressed onward. Because of Alham's words, every member of the group cautiously scanned their surroundings and listened hard, as if a wild beast were about to spring forth at any second and take a bite out of them.
After an hour of travel, the sun had begun to set.
The initially high-strung group relaxed slightly over time; even Qin Yining wondered if she had been worrying about nothing.
Just as she considered whether she should let everyone stop for a rest or not, they heard a sudden shout to their left, a voice gravelly from thirst scraping like a dull knife against rough stone tiles.
"Soldiers have come for us! Soldiers have come for us!"
Off into the distance not too far away, a group of nearly a hundred soldiers on horseback charged at them. Wielding large sabers, they laughed madly and jeered at the ‘refugees’ who’d just reached the end of the desert.
Some began to panic.
Alham barked in the Tatar tongue, "Stay calm and slash the horses' legs! Let's show them what we're made of so they know the Minuo are not made of cowards!"
Over the course of their journey, they’d devised various countermeasures for several different scenarios. Those who had battle experience had taken the time to teach the others how to fight off enemies.
Though a large group of men dashed at them brandishing cleavers, the group that had endured the tribulations of the desert forced themselves to calm down. Instead of panicking, they changed formation to face their enemy.
Qin Yining guarded Lu Heng and his kneeling horse with a cleaver in hand. With pursed lips, she fixed her sharp eyes on the enemy's movements, looking so prepared to rush into battle that Uncle Alham couldn't help nodding at her ferocity.
Only roughly one hundred and fifty soldiers were stationed in this crucial area. Siqin hadn’t deployed many men here, as this exit was the furthest one from the borders of Great Zhou, according to the calculations of the khan and his strategists. Unless these people lost their minds in the desert, they wouldn't have come all the way here.
Since it was so remote that it was the least likely place for the group to go to, this location wasn’t as heavily staffed as the others. Never did they predict that these death-seeking madmen would actually come to the place they were supposed to least likely to head for.
The soldiers leered at the Minuo as if they were scanning glittering silver sycees, frisky livestock, and an endless array of beautiful women. The khan had declared the ones who captured Anari Khan's killers would be promoted and enjoy a life of riches; they would be awarded a thousand taels of silver and a hundred pretty ladies.
They looked so giddy it was as if they had been injected with adrenaline, for the Minuo tribesmen before them cut such sorry figures that they barely batted an eye at their sorry opponents.Previous Chapter Next Chapter