“Go that way!” The soldier cracked his whip, “carry it over here!”
“Did you not eat?! Where’s your strength!”
The laborers were only clad in pieces of rags, their bodies stooped, skin dark and dirty. In actuality, their ages were not even that old but looking at them though, they appeared to be extremely advanced in years. They trembled as they carried the coal, not daring to even let out a sound.
“Someone fell down!”
“He’s not breathing!”
The soldier rolled his eyes and said in an irritated tone: “Throw the body in the pit outside.”
The laborers barely reacted, their heads down and doing their own work, as if they were mindless animals.
The soldier took a sip of wine from the flask he had on him and yelled: “Bring out your strength!”
The laborers did not talk, silent and submissive like old oxen working the fields.
Li Congrong looked at the scene in front of him behind the hillside and spat, cursing lowly: “Bunch of cowards who only dare to bully the common people. Abusing people like that as if they are pigs and dogs. Even with dogs you need to feed it for it to be loyal.”
Zhu Zhongba consoled: “Don’t be hasty brother Dao. When the sky darkens I’ll go burn their granary, at that time brother Dao you sneak into the crowd and fan the hate, people will answer correspondingly.”
Although Li Congrong had not read any books on military tactics but he knew the old saying ‘the food supply precedes the soldiers and horses.’ They knew just how important the food supply was. This place was just a small coal mine and the soldiers guarding the place weren’t alot. The largest official was a bai hu (TN: equivalent to a centurion in the Roman army), only 100 soldiers under his command.
But the laborers here numbered more than a 100.
Most of these people were neighboring villagers and farmers and had been held here to dig and transport coal. They were already nearing their limits. Looking at the soldiers who had meat and wine for meals, only they themselves knew how they felt.
Li Congrong and Zhu Zhongba changed into rags and prepared to take action once the sky darkened.
“It’s so cold.” Li Congrong’s teeth chattered in the cold despite his muscular physique.
Zhu Zhongba was also no better off. People were made of flesh and knew the cold and pain.
“Brother Dao, endure for a bit more.” Zhu Zhongba said.
The sky gradually darkened and seeing the people walking back to their shacks Li Congrong took a small path down the hillside and stood outside the shacks, a bit hesitant which shack to enter.
Just when Li Congrong was feeling rather awkward, someone pushed him from the back.
Only two words flashed through Li Congrong’s mind: “Oh no.”
But once he turned around he saw instead, a skeleton thin middle aged man. His numb eyes seemed to be fogged over as they examined Li Congrong and asked tonelessly: “Newcomer?”
Li Congrong nodded stiffly. The man pulled up the rag curtain on the doorway of the shack: “Come in.”
Li Congrong followed the man inside and saw a rather empty shack with people just laying on the floor. The people saw a stranger had come in and looked alertly at Li Congrong but their eyes were filled with sympathy.
The man that lead him in pointed at an empty floor space: “You can sleep there.”
So Li Congrong went over and sat on the damp ground. Here, there weren’t even dry grass or hay to put over the floor. Li Congrong asked the person at his side: “How come you don’t spread some grass to cover the floor?”
The person let out a laugh of ridicule: “Would the lord master let you go cut some grass?”
Li Congrong did not mind being sneered at, he asked again: “How long have you all been here?”
No one answered him.
Li Congrong continued talking: “I am originally a porter in Wu City, although life isn’t that great but I didn’t worry too much about food and drink. Sometimes if I’m lucky I can even eat some meat.”
Still no one responded.
Li Congrong scratched his cheek: “Right, where are your wives and children?”
Finally someone answered in a muffled voice: “Don’t know.”
“I don’t have children, my wife likely ran off with someone else.”
“My parents were still waiting for me to return in my old hometown.”
“Wonder what this year’s harvest is like.”
Li Congrong said immediately: “Currently, the outside is in an upheaval, alot of people are selling themselves. You should go back and have a look. If there’s no man at home wouldn’t just anyone be able to pick on them?”
“You think you can still leave after coming here?” Someone turned over, “here no one can leave, only when you’re dead then your corpse will be thrown out.”
Li Congrong’s eyes flickered: “On my way here I heard that there were some people who killed the soldiers supervising and escaped.”
The shack fell very silent.
Suddenly someone said: “The soldiers have weapons.”
No one spoke anymore.
“Sleep, leave it for tomorrow.”
Li Congrong became anxious: “Rather then live a life worse than animals here, why not fight back? The worst is death but if we fight back there would be a chance for survival!”
Someone angrily rebuked him:”How is it that simple! You think no one tried before? The few who tried were skinned alive! A clean death would be better than that!”
Li Congrong paused in a daze, not having expected the officials here to be so insanely cruel. Were they not humans too? How could they be this cruel?
“Even if you aren’t caught, your situation isn’t any better.” Someone said quietly, “when I left, my wife was already pregnant. I want to see my kid.”
A little while later, someone continued: “My parents are already old, and I’m the only child…..”
“When I left, my son was only 3 years old.”
The group of people who had already become numb to their situation suddenly teared up as they talked.
“Who’s talking!” Outside a soldier yelled, “you better sleep now! If you delay tomorrow’s work you will see what’s coming for you!”
The person’s voice was extremely loud, the people in the nearby shacks could all hear it.
But everyone was already used to it. They all shut their mouths tight afraid of attracting a beating.
After all, even if they got injuries from the beating they would still have to work. And when they didn’t work up to standards with injuries hindering them then they would attract another beating. A lot of people died in such a way.
Just when everyone closed their eyes and prepared to sleep, Li Congrong hollered: “Your gramps, I, would be afraid of a coward like you?! So long as you have balls, follow me and fight back!”
Everyone was shocked into a daze by this.
Especially the soldier making his rounds. He paused for a moment before reacting: “Who just said that! Get your ass out here!”
Li Congrong: “Your gramps said that, grandson!”
The soldier was rather young and temperamental, he immediately rolled up his sleeves and pulled the whip from his belt: “You just wait, I’ll skin you alive!”
Not a small amount of soldiers were attracted by the shouting.
The people in the same shack as Li Congrong trembled in fear.
Just when the footsteps came closer, a shout from outside was suddenly heard: “The granary is up in flames! Hurry and put the fire out! Hurry!”
The nearing footsteps moved farther away. Li Congrong turned his head and looked at the people who had already sat up, his face cold: “If you’ve got the balls then charge out with me, and fight to the death! Staying here means death tomorrow if not death today. Fight back and you have a chance of survival.”
“Big grown men reduced to animals and actually don’t even think of resisting.”
“As good, respectable men, where’s your unyielding stuanchness!”
“Think of your wife! Your son! Your parents!”
Li Congrong lifted the door curtain: “If the lord masters up high won’t give us a way out, then we can fight for a way out ourselves!”
Li Congrong turned his head and found that the men originally sitting had all stood up.
They didn’t say anything but stood behind Li Congrong. Li Congrong finally let out a relieved sigh.
Everyone left the shacks and picked up nearby wood or rocks. Li Congrong charged barehanded in the front, raising his voice in a shout: “Fight back!”
A group of skeleton-like men followed his lead, eyes red as they screamed along: “Fight!”
Likely due to the disturbance being too loud, the people in other shacks also came out fearfully.
There wrre still some soldiers who did not go to put out the fire. One saw Li Congrong and the crowd of laborers and immediately came over cracking his whip: “What are you doing! Get your asses back inside! Or else you’ll get what’s coming!”
But Li Congrong threw himself over and grabbex the other’s whip, his weight holding the other down and used the whip to suffocate the soldier around his neck. The man’s face flushed red with lack of air, his hands grabbing and legs kicking, his mouth letting out gurgling sounds.
“What are you doing? Rebeling?!” Another soldier camr over but this time the people who followed Li Congrong stood forward.
They swarmed the soldier who had been used to these people being submissive and not knowing how to resist. Before he could react they had him pressed to the ground, his head cracked open with a rock, breath disappearing in an instant.
Li Congrong raised the whip: “We must survive! We must go back and see our families! Charge!”
The soldiers split up with one group to put out the fire and while the other group might have weapons but they could not hold up against the greater numbers of laborers. These soldiers had never been on the battlefield, their army ranks being hereditary. Normally they were used to lording it over the common people, abusing and taking advantage of them. But when they did come across an angry mob of common people fighting for their lives, these soldiers were the first to show fear and retreat.
But in a matter of life and death, retreating meant death.
The laborers had no other road left for them. If they retreated and gave up now, later when it was time to settle scores, none of them would escape punishment, and might even get their families implicated.
The step having already been taken, they now had no choice but to see it to the end.
Besides, emotions were infectious. When everyone around you were charging forward, those not at first would end up charging along in the end.
In the dark, the people could not see the blood, could not see how it had dyed the ground red. Only hatred and the image of their enemies remained in their eyes. Their weapons were randomly picked up objects like rocks and tree branches and knives that used to belong to the soldiers. They were all just normal people without any training in fighting, but they had the mentality of putting their life on the line and fighting to the death.
Like a pack of starving wolves.
The soldiers as their prey.
In that moment, emotions ran high, their blood boiling as if they had all forgotten their fear of death, charging forward without a care for their own lives. As if they could not see the people falling under their attack.
The moon was hidden behind clouds. Li Congrong raised his head and looked up, thinking that the moon was also dyed red.
He would never forget this night, never forget his first kill.
Aside from being scared witless, he felt something else as well.
A feeling of excitement that couldn’t be put into words.
He finally understood something Lin Yuan said. “Don’t rebel, then there won’t be a way out. Only if you rebel can you survive.”
Li Congrong hollered: “Kill!”
In the dark, Li Congrong lost count how many he killed. He had wounds himself but he did not feel the pain, his brain on overdrive and conciousness overly excited.
But the situation worsened for them.
The opponents were after all soldiers. Even if they had never been on the battlefield they were still soldiers with weapons that the laborers did not have. When they gathered together, the laborers simply weren’t their opponents.
Just when Li Congrong and the others became more and more disadvantaged, a sudden shout was heard coming from the hill, echoing across the area and deafening in its clamor.
They had finally come!
Li Congrong slashed the stolen blade at a soldier in front of him. The soldiers were only dressed in clothes with no armor; the soldier turned trying to get a last glimpse of the person who killed him.
Li Congrong also saw the other clearly in the moonlight, a young puerile face with an expression of surprise.
Li Congrong bit down hard and turned his gaze away yelling: “Our reinforcements have come! Don’t be scared! They are here to help!”
Likely because Li Congrong charged in the front from the very beginning so the laborers all seemed to listen to him, believing his words without a second thought. His words lifted the fighting spirits of the laborers, even if the reinforcements were just the 40 men that had been waiting for the right moment up on the hill.
Li Congrong let out a relieved sigh, it seemed Zhu Zhongba had managed not to be caught.
After all, the plan was for Zhu Zhongba to burn the granary and then go back up the hill to bring the men charging down.
The shouts caused the soldiers to lose their composure, the bai hu Burigude shouted: “It’s just a bluff! No retreating! Anyone who retreats will be punished by martial law!”
Burigude raised his blade: “Follow in my lead!”
Li Congrong also shouted: “Get them!”
Zhu Zhongba and the 40 men also arrived at the battlefield. In their hands were hoes and compared to the laborers their physique was much more muscular, their arms with more strength.
Zhu Zhongba said to them: “Treat them as pigs and goats, don’t take them as people! If they don’t die then we will die!”
The men screamed: “Understood!”
Amidst the carnage, Zhu Zhongba searched for Burigude. Burigude was after all a bai hu so even if he charged in the front he was still surrounded by protectors.
Zhu Zhongba carefully moved closer, in his hand was a small knife Li Congrong gave him. He could hear his heartbeat, even feel his blood rushing. He had never been as afraid or as excited as he was at that moment.
Burigude cut off someone’s head and exclaimed while breathing heavily: “Kill them all!”
And then he said to a person at his side: “Don’t mind me, I am a warrior of the Great Yuan, these inconsequentials cannot come close to me.”
Hearing this his personal guards moved farther away.
Burigude camr from a family of soldiers, their wealth amassed from cutting off the heads of enemies. He eas the only person here who had ever been on a battlefield.
In his eyes, the laborers were no opponents.
“Bai hu.” Someone called him.
Burigude turned his head and saw a young man, and likely because he appeared healthy and muscular unlike the laborers that he naturally assumed him to be one of his soldiers: “What is it? Why aren’t you killing the enemies?”
The young man appeared fearful: “I…..I lost my knife……”
Burigude sneered: “Useless thing.”
Saying so, he threw over his own knife: “Use mine.”
He had more than one blade.
The young man moved closer: “Bai hu, I’m afraid..….”
Burigude snapped with impatience: “A coward with no balls! Go already!”
“Bai hu.” The young man looked eagerly at him and moved a few steps closer, “I will protect you.”
Burigude sneered: “I am…..”
He had yet to finish speaking when he saw a cold flash of light and could no longer speak.
Burigude clasped a hand to the wound on his neck, blood flowing incessantly, his mouth also spilling blood.
Because he couldn’t speak, not even the name of his personal guards could be called.
Burigude fell to the ground and could only watch as the other walked closer and then——his sight darkened.
Zhu Zhongba cut off Burigude’s head and climbed to a higher spot on the hill and shouted loudly: “Your bai hu has already been killed! Surrender and be spared! Your bai hu has already been killed! Surrender and be spared!”
In order to capture the thieves one must first capture their king. Zhu Zhongba had not read many military books but he naturally understood this tactic.
The soldiers immediately lost their composure and became absentminded, the scythe of death had already fallen upon them.
Only when the soldiers at their side fell one after the other did they begun to put down their weapons and kneeled on the ground.
The sky gradually lightened. The battle had fought through the entire night. Only once the sunrise could be seen did they all finally witness the carnage from the previous night. Corpses of the soldiers, of the laborers, blood staining everything. Someone let out the first sob.
Slowly, the sobs rose in volume.
It’s unclear if they were crying for the dead or crying for their own suvival.
Li Congrong’s shoulder and back were covered in wounds but luckily they weren’t deep. He sat on a rock and breathed in exhaustion.
Zhu Zhongba had the remaining soldiers tied up before saying to the laborers: “We have our own destination. If you want to return home then you can leave. If you have no place to go then you can come with us.”
Most of the survivors chose to return to their hometowns; they had family they were comcerned for.
Only a few chose to follow them.
Li Congrong sprawled on the ground and asked: “What shall we do now.”
Zhu Zhongba said calmly: “Bring the weapons along, pull as many carts of coal as we can, and return home.”
It would soon be deep winter. The things they had on them were not enough for them to survive past the deep of winter. They must return to the farmstead as soon as possible especially as their food supply was almost used up.
“Got it.” Li Congrong said, “let me lay for a bit.”
Zhu Zhongba also sat down. Looking at his expression, Li Congrong asked: “You aren’t even scared one bit?”
One person, alone and unarmed, leaving to go burn the granary. How did he have such calm nerves?
He even killed the bai hu. Li Congrong believed that he would not have been able to do the same.
Zhu Zhongba smiled at Li Congrong: “I don’t know either.”
Admist the battle cries and sounds of fighting he gained the strength and courage; his hatred towards the imperial court exploding and causing him to fall into a state of extreme excitement.
Those who wanted to return home left, each with some beans enough for a full meal given to them by Zhu Zhongba. They even kneeled and kowtowed to Li Congrong and Zhu Zhongba before they left with stoop backs.
They didn’t know what their future held and could only move forward on the road in front of them.
“Although we didn’t find any iron but finding coal is also not bad.” Li Congrong recalled their motive for leaving the farmstead, “as long as there is coal then we can turn the iron pots and kitchen knives into proper weapons. These blades aren’t bad at all.”
The soldiers did have good things.
They stayed for half a month and then began their journey home. Aside from the original 40 men, 10 new men joined them.
The new arrivals soon familiarized themselves with the 40 farmstead men.
At night by the fire, they listened to the men talk about the farmstead.
“You can eat your full.” This was the biggest attraction.
“Boss doesn’t hit people.”
“At night we can sleep in beds with cotton blankets.”
Their hope for the farmstead reached a high point when Zhu Zhongba brought over clothes for them. Although the clothes were not cotton, but it was warmer than normal rough cloth clothes with the soft grass in the linings. Besides, back in the coal mine they didn’t even have rough cloth clothes to wear.
A lot of people froze to death during last winter. They survived that winter but they knew that they likely wouldn’t be able to make it through this winter.
But now, they could see the hope for life.
So long as there was an opportunity to continue living everyone would want to do so.
The snowflakes danced in the wind and left a thin layer on the ground. Lin Yuan stood in front of the window; it was the first time he saw snow in the south. Much less than the north and not common every year.
The people in the farmstead all exclaimed.
“There’s snow! It’s actually snowing this year!”
Er Liang and Gou zi squatted outside and made snowballs from the bit of snow.
They were teenage boys after all, with playfulness not yet grown out.
Lin Yuan looked at the snow and hoped next year’s harvest would be even better.
Currently the granaries were full, and two shacks were used for raising pigs, ducks, and chickens. If everything went smoothly, then by next year the farmstead would be completely self-sufficient.
If Li Congrong and Zhu Zhongba could come back safely, and with the tasks of finding coal and iron successfully completed, the farmstead would also be able to raise armed forces.
When the uprisings and revolts emerge all across the empire they would be able to share in the action amongst the warlords and despots.
Towards the future, Lin Yuan only had a vague plan. He needrd more time to think it over, and more time to implement his ideas.
“Boss! They have returned!”
“Brother Dao and the others returned safely!”
Celebratory shouts came from outside.
Lin Yuan charged out the door, he ran so fast he nearly couldn’t breath.
They returned safely!
He looked at the unharmed brother Dao and Zhu Zhongba, breathing harshly.
In the end it was brother Dao stepping forward and giving Lin Yuan a hug.
“This trip can be considered living up to expectations, right?” Brother Dao laughed, pleased with himself.
He soon followed that with a whisper: “Living up to expectations’, this phrase did I get it right?”
Lin Yuan also laughed: “That’s right! You said it right!”
Lin Yuan said to the women behind him: “Go catch some chickens and ducks, there will be meat tonight!”
“There’s meat to eat!”
“Boss says we will eat meat tonight!”
Lin Yuan felt as if he had never been happier than at that moment, unable to put away the foolish smile on his face.
It was noon, the sunlight beamed down and melted the remaining snow on the ground.
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