"Well, let us attack Zhao Wei's forces from the side and catch them unawares," he replied.
"They have more than forty thousand troops while we only have fifteen thousand," she pointed out. "In a pitched battle we would certainly lose."
"So from what you say, your sister and the others are bound to die," Muzhuolun exclaimed. "I cannot bear to lose your sister, and I refuse to leave our friends in danger. I will take five hundred men with me. If we can rescue them, it will be because of Allah's help. If we cannot, then we will die with them."
Huo Qingtong said nothing.
Xin Yan began frantically kowtowing before her once more, his forehead striking the ground heavily. "If our master has done anything to offend you mistress, please forgive him," he cried.
Huo Qingtong realised he suspected her motives. "Don't talk such nonsense," she said angrily.
Xin Yan looked startled for a second, then jumped up. "If you are determined to be so cruel, I will go and die with my master," he said. He ran out of the tent, leapt on the white horse and galloped away.
"We must go and help them!" Muzhuolun pleaded.
"Father, the Chinese have a saying that it is better to rely on a good plan than on bravery. We are out-numbered, so we must make use of surprise if we are to gain victory. We must beat Zhao Wei's trap with a trap of our own."
"Really?" said Muzhuolun, only half believing her.
"Father!" she exclaimed, her voice shaking. "Don't say that you suspect me too?"
Muzhuolun saw the tears brimming in her eyes and his heart softened. "All right," he said. "We will do as you say. Now send out the troops immediately."
Huo Qingtong thought for a moment, then said to an attendant: "Strike up the drums." The drums rolled and the commanders of each of the military units entered the tent. By now, the snow was falling thickly outside the tent and was already several inches thick on the ground.
Huo Qingtong flourished the Command Arrow and announced: "The first unit of the Green Flag Brigade will go to the western side of the Great Gobi Quagmire, and the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth units of the Green Flag will gather together the local herdsmen and farmers around the other sides." She gave the commanders their orders and the units departed one by one. Muzhuolun was unhappy that some of their best troops had been sent off to do construction work rather than being sent to the rescue.
"The first, second and third units of the White Flag Brigade will go to Yarkand City and to the Black River, and will make various preparations as I will indicate," Huo Qingtong continued. "The first unit of the Black Flag and the Kazakh unit will go up into the hills along the Black River. The Mongol unit will station itself on Yingqipan Mountain." She gave each commander his individual orders, after which they bowed and left.
"Father, you will command the forces to the east. Brother, you will command the forces to the west, I myself will command the second unit of the Black Flag Brigade and coordinate things from the centre. The general campaign plan is like this…" She was just about to explain in detail when Muzhuolun stopped her.
"Who is going to rescue your sister and the others?" he demanded.
"The third unit of the Black Flag will ride in from the east to save them. The fourth unit of the Black Flag will do the same from the west. When you meet Manchu troops you must do as I indicate in these orders." She quickly wrote out two notes and handed them to the commanders. "Your units must have the best mounts available," she added. The two Black Flag unit commanders bowed and retired.
"You have sent thirteen thousand of our best soldiers off to do unimportant work and two thousand young boys and old men to effect a rescue. What is the meaning of this?" Muzhuolun demanded.
"My plan is to…" Huo Qingtong began, but Muzhuolun angrily cut her off.
"I don't believe you any more! You love Master Chen, but he loves your sister, so you intend to let both of them die. You… you're heartless!"
Huo Qingtong almost fainted from shock. Muzhuolun stared at her for a second, then stormed out of the tent shouting: "I will go and die with your sister!" He leapt onto his horse and galloped away into the desert, brandishing his sabre.
Her brother saw how distressed she was and tried to comfort her. "Father is very confused," he said. "He didn't know what he was saying. Don't worry."
Xin Yan rode back to where Chen and the others were waiting, crying all the way. The beseiging Manchu forces did little to stop him as he passed, loosing off a dozen or so arrows as a matter of form only. He jumped off the white horse, led it onto the pit then sat down and began sobbing loudly.
"Don't cry, what's the matter?" Zhou Qi asked.
Xu sighed. "Is there any need to ask? Huo Qingtong refuses to send troops to rescue us."
"I kowtowed before her…I pleaded…" Xin Yan sobbed. The others were silent.
Princess Fragrance asked Chen why he was crying. Not wishing to hurt her, he said: "He couldn't break through to get help." The Princess took out her handkerchief and gave it to him.
The morning of the third day dawned with the snow still falling heavily and the Manchu forces showing no signs of attacking. Xu was greatly puzzled. He turned to Xin Yan and said: "What questions did Mistress Huo Qingtong ask you?"
"She asked how may Manchu troops were surrounding us and whether the armoured units had attacked yet."
Xu was excited. "We're saved! We're saved!" he exclaimed happily. The others stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"I was stupid to have doubted Mistress Huo Qingtong," he said. "Truly small-minded. She is much, much wiser than I."
"What?" asked Zhou Qi.
"If the Manchu armoured cavalry attacked us, would we stand a chance?"
"Hmm," Zhou Qi replied. "Yes, it's strange."
"And even if they didn't have armoured cavalry, if so many thousands of soldiers charged at once, could the eight of us hold them off? We would be trampled to mincemeat." The others agreed the Manchus had been remarkably restrained.
Chen suddenly understood. "Yes, that's it!" he cried. "They have held back on purpose in the hope of luring the Muslim forces in to try and rescue us. But Mistress Huo Qingtong has guessed it and refused to be tricked."
"Whether she's tricked or not, we're still finished," commented Zhang Jin.
"No, we're not," Chen replied. "She is certain to think of a way out."
Their spirits were suddenly revived, and leaving two of the heroes to keep guard, the others settled down to rest at the bottom of the pit.
Many hours later, they heard shouting in the distance. The sound of galloping hooves and clashing swords increased in volume until they heard a man near the pit shout: "Daughter! Master Chen! Where are you?"
"Father! Father! We're here!" Princess Fragrance called.
The heroes leapt out of the pit and saw Muzhuolun, sabre in hand, galloping towards them with a ragged bunch of Muslim soldiers behind, fighting bravely. Princess Fragrance ran to him crying "Father! Father!"
Muzhuolun took her in his arms. "Don't be afraid," he said soothingly. "I have come to save you."
Xu jumped onto the back of a horse to get a better view of the situation. He saw a great cloud of dust rising to the east and knew the Manchu armoured cavalry were coming.
"Master Muzhuolun!" he called. "Let's retreat to that high ground to the west!" Muzhuolun immediately ordered his troops to comply. They started out from the pit with the Manchus close behind, and as they reached the hill, saw another force of Manchu troops moving in from the west.