Although the tribe was mentally prepared, no one anticipated that the pursuing soldiers would return so soon. If it weren’t for Qin Yining and Lu Heng’s precise calculations allowing them to escape just in time, they would’ve ran into a battalion of a thousand cavalry and infantry on their way to the uninhabited desert region.
Once again, all the pursuers could do was kick at the ashes of extinguished campfires to vent fits of ill temper. Just like before, they were left with finding nothing but the dust in the tribe’s wake.
“General, something’s wrong with those Minuo traitors! They’re going toward the no-man’s land!”
The leading general waved his hand with a stern look, cutting off his subordinate’s words. His mind had long twisted itself into knots of confusion.
They’d obviously forced the Minuo into a corner, and the tribe had decided to respond by bringing the supply wagons into that swathe of barren desert. It seemed the tribe would rather throw their lives away than hand over the supplies!
That group of filthy slaves were having a swell time with their defiance, but what about them who were ordered to retrieve the supplies?!
It wasn’t like he could just put on a sheepish expression and report to the khan, “We are truly very sorry. Our calvary couldn’t overtake a group of old, weak troops transporting heavy wagons. We chased them into the barren desert, and then didn’t dare pursue further!”
They might as well kill themselves first if they wanted to say that!
“After them! Speed up! We have to overtake them before they enter the no man’s land!” The general’s obvious franticness lit a fire under the usually calm soldiers. Rushing around with preparations, those who were taking a break and quaffing some rations were urged back onto their horses to continue the chase.
Who dared to slack off when their lives were at stake?
However, they didn’t catch a single trace of the Minuo in the whole trip from the camp to the border of the desert. Howling gales leveled massive hills of sand into flat ground in the blink of an eye, to say nothing of hoof or foot prints. There were no tracks to follow!
The battalion tightened their reins anxiously as they looked in the direction of neverending mounds of sand. Nobody dared set even half a step into the desert.
The general’s face turned an unsightly pallor as he swung a fist at the air, as if that would help vent some of the brooding frustration in his heart.
“General, what do we do?” His lieutenant scanned the worsening weather and whirling sands in the desolate sand dunes, gulping in fear. If they were ordered to continue chasing, he feared that there’d be few who would have the courage to actually do so.
Everybody knew how frightening the vast, barren deserts were. The climate was dreadful and the landforms were always changing. Flat land could turn into sandy dunes with just a moment’s notice, and just one’s night sleep could leave one buried alive. Furthermore, it was impossible to know where to go from here. Nobody knew how far away or what was to be found on the other side.
Entering the desert was tantamount to stepping half way into hell. Nobody had the courage to challenge it.
“Curse those Minuo madmen!” The general spat angrily, gnashing his teeth. “Set up outposts and keep an eye out along the entire border of this swathe of desert. I don’t believe those crazies aren’t afraid of death!
“They have a similar number of people as us, so maybe, just maybe, somebody will come back out soon. If they aren’t led well, we can take advantage of their internal strife! If we can bring back one of them alive, that’ll be enough to get us off the hook.”
“The general is wise!” Everybody saluted, secretly heaving sighs of relief. Anything was fine as long as they didn’t have to pursue the tribe into the desert! The soldiers split into several groups and scattered into a big net around the desert border, waiting to scoop up any possible deserters.
However, they had no understanding of the Minuo’s determination and unity.
At this moment, Qin Yining was leading the group in a bleary trek through the desert. Harsh winds found the smallest chinks in their headscarves to send grains of sand through, and sometimes the gales threatened to send her toppling over. However, she continued to persevere, forging on at the head of the group while leading on a horse saddled with jugs of food and water.
Lu Heng also pulled along a horse as he walked by her side. During particularly gusty moments when the wind blew so hard that her delicate figure could barely move, he badly wanted to take her arm in support.
However, his arm just hovered from start to finish and never touched her. Instead, he seemed more like a guardian with arms spread out wide to protect her.
When Uncle Alham, Harbhara, and Caganbhara saw the two at the front, notes of lament sprung in their hearts.
They could all see the affection that Lu Heng cherished for Qin Yining, but they also tell that the princess consort was wholeheartedly devoted to her husband. She only saw Lu Heng as a comrade she could trust.
They were companions on a journey that brought them a little closer to death with every step they took. At this point, mere matters of the heart all seemed quite superfluous. If they could exit the desert alive, it meant that the heavens wished for them to live.
Although the icy grasp of fear closed around the tribesmen’s hearts when they considered this desert that seemed to have no end to it, no one ever breathed a word of complaint. If they’d remained in the capital, they might have already been tortured to death in the Tatar court.
Compared to their previous nightmare of enslavement, oppression, exploitation, and wanton slaughter, this was much better. They now grasped life and death in their own hands, and satisfaction filled their hearts even under such desperate straits. All was fine as long as they could persevere together with their comrades.
Just as Qin Yining led her group through the desert and pursuing soldiers set up a large net around the desert border, Li Qitian glowered broodingly at Li Guanwen back in the imperial palace of Great Zhou. “What did you say? Repeat it to Us once more.”
Li Guanwen fell to the ground in fear, repeatedly kowtowing on the floor. “Please quell your anger, Your Majesty. This-this servant is sure I heard that the Faithful Prince of the First Rank left the city with his manor’s personal guard.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter