Read The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3) Online
Authors: G R Matthews
Book 3 of
The Forbidden List
G R Matthews
Copyright © 2016 G R Matthews
All rights reserved.
Family is not an important thing. It is everything.
Michael J. Fox
Red and orange blooms of
, the soundless explosion of fireworks on the inside of his eyelids.
There was noise. The clink of metal on metal, the creak of leather and wood. The soft neigh of a horse and the slap of fabric in the wind.
There were scents on the wind. Sweat. Ripe and pungent. Smoke. Dry and ticklish in his throat. The aroma of burnt meat, charred flesh. A smell he knew well. Hunger battled with revulsion.
He lifted his arms, or tried to. They didn’t move. Tight constrictions around his wrists resisting movement. After a quick check, he determined the same bonds existed around his feet.
In his mind he reached for the blue thread. The link to his power, to the other world, the means of his salvation. It wasn’t there.
Fear and panic swept through him.
All the sounds of outside were subsumed by the beating of his heart, the pulse thudding in his ears, the pressure in his neck, the sound of waves crashing, a surging sea of red. Breath came in sharp, short bursts.
He forced himself to think, to be calm. Listening to the beating of his heart, he timed his breaths. Five beats, inhale, five more, exhale. Again and again. The fear receded. It didn’t disappear. It lurked in the shadows, its claws hooking into passing thoughts and twisting them, turning them from their purpose to its own. He held it back. It was the hardest fight of his life.
Memories came. A struggle to piece together the last sights and sensations. The Wall, long and sinuous, stretching to the west and east. Crowded with soldiers. Little ants in armour, rushing about in lanes, clambering over each other at the bottlenecks. Screams and shouts of battle. The sound of metal slicing through leather and into flesh. The scent of desperation and death on the air.
Cold. A winter’s chill slicing through his bones, cooling and congealing his blood, confusing his thoughts and slowing decisions. A veil descended, blocking the view of battle and deadening the sounds. The world was muted and still.
Realisation, rage, anger, revenge, justice. A growl and a leap, hands extended, sharp claws pushing through fingernails. A dark shape turning towards him, raising a staff and calling out words. Pain coursing through his body. Flying, rising into the air. Over the wall and down.
# # #
It was still dark, but now tempered by the knowledge that he was alive.
There was breath in his lungs. He could feel his chest rise and fall, the regular thump of his heart behind his ribs and the subtle pulse, felt throughout his body, of blood flowing through arteries and veins.
He lay still, unmoving, and listened. The voices carried rhythms and intonations that were foreign to his ears. On the edge of memory, they tickled his thoughts, teased them and skipped away. There were other signs of life, the tramp of footsteps and whinny of horses. Metal struck metal, a bright chime that cut through the bass notes of all the activity.
No breeze or wind caressed his skin which meant, he assumed, he was inside a building of some sort. The muffling of the voices and other noises backed up his theory.
A rough cord abraded the skin around his wrists and ankles as he tried to move. The cords were tight, there was room to move and twitch, but not enough to gather leverage sufficient to break free.
The cause of his blindness was, judging by the way his eyelashes rubbed and flicked across a surface, a covering of material. A blindfold. Not a hood, his breath was free and clear. No hint of too warm air hung around his nose and mouth. No gag either, he was free to speak, to call, and that strongly hinted that his captors were unconcerned about anything he could say or do.
They would learn different, the determined thought padded to the front of his mind. He smiled and reached for the blue thread in his mind, the link to the realm of the spirit, the guide for his spirit and the conduit. The anticipation of the power about to flow down the thread and swell the strength in his muscles was intoxicating. He felt the grin form on his face and a growl of pleasure began to well up in his throat.
The fingers of his mind stretched towards the thread. They delved through the memory vaults in his mind. Those most recent memories of battle, on the Wall and at the mountain. Past the memories of people, Xióngmāo, Boqin and the other
, the Emperor with his strange eyes, Haung, the Yaart spy, the enigmatic Enlai. The search took him past the locked doors behind which he hid the sins committed, the deaths he had caused and carried out.
Then the last door. The one at the very end of the darkest corridor in his mind. He paused outside. It was made from the thickest imaginings of wood and steel his brain could conjure. Horizontal bars, chains and a lock kept it closed. As he stared, the door began to tremble, the chains rattled and the bars creaked under the pressure of the memories behind. This was the strongest door in the vaults of his memory yet it was the one most easily broken down. For all its locks, one key would open it and the memories would flood his mind.
He moved on. Now was not the time. The time was never right. That door needed to be opened, he knew that. It would be best if the door did not exist, if those memories became part of him, but the pain, whenever the door failed, was too great. Move on, he told himself and he did, in search of the power those memories had unleashed.
The thread was there. Bright blue in the darkness, coursing with energy, sparks flying from it, tendrils of lighter blue wrapped around. It was a comforting sight, a welcome vision after the locked cell doors of memory. Here it was, in the emptiness at the centre of his mind, the core of his being.
His imaginary self stood at the edge of his memories. Beyond here, between the edge of memory and the bright thread, an empty plain of nothing. No barriers, no distractions, nothing to stop him grasping his power and breaking free. The illusion of a smile drifted across his face as he stepped forward, onto the plain, and towards the thread.
Sharp, burning fire raced up his legs and into his skull, setting his brain on fire. In the vision of his mind, his body caught light, red flames flicking and flickering through his body. Skin blackened and began to split, weeping clear serum and deep red blood. His mouth opened in a silent scream.
His physical body, the one tied down and blindfolded, tensed. Every muscle tightened. Those in his legs, abdomen, arms, shoulders, neck and face, all at once, exerting every ounce of their strength, pulling his body into an arched rictus. His mouth stretched open but no scream issued forth. Even his diaphragm, the muscle that should push the air from his lungs up and across his vocal chords, was unable to move.
The fire scorched the skeleton in his mind. The strain on his physical muscles, the denial of air and blood to his brain lasted an eon. A thousand years of pain passing in the seconds of his capture. His vision body was coming apart, his mind was being burnt to a black crisp. Much longer and there would be nothing left. He had to move, to retreat, and, despite the pain, he made the effort.
Step back, he commanded the muscles aflame in his mind. Tendons stretch and do not snap. Muscle fibres stretch and do not tear. Bones move and do not break. It took every ounce of will, every little piece of pain, of exquisite loss, every tear and moment of rage, every display of anger, all the death he had seen and caused.
All was there to be used and he leaned upon it, dragged it into that flaming, charred, burning body. Rebuilding the muscles of pain, the tendons of sadness and the bones of rage. The fire still burned, the pain still stabbed like a million needles, but he fought it. He constructed the body of his mind, armoured it with every emotion he could recall, and took the step back into the place of his memories.
The pain lessened and his physical muscles relaxed, air flowed back into lungs, blood returned to his brain, and his heart began to beat once more.
“I would not try that again,” a voice said in his ear.
The call came from a lowly soldier in blood caked armour with a weary look in his eyes. The man stood to attention. The intention was to stand straight and tall, but his shoulders seemed too heavy for his spine to support and the weight of the sword in his hand dragged them down further. At any other time such a slovenly appearance would be grounds for punishment. Now, here, in this situation, Haung considered it lucky the man was standing at all.
“You have news?”
“Yes, sir. Colonel Gongliang reports that the reinforcements from the towers to the west are less than a day away,” the soldier said.
“Some good and welcome news. Could you ask the Colonel to meet me in the tower half an hour before evening briefing?”
“Yes, sir, right away.” The soldier saluted and turned away, paused and turned back. “Sir, will they come again today?”
Haung waited a moment before answering, inspecting the soldier once more, noting the grey pallor to the skin that hinted at more years than the lack of wrinkles on the man’s face indicated. He glanced at the soldier’s hair. It was dark and, yes, matted with blood, but no grey hairs to be seen.
“How long have you been in the army?” he asked.
“Five months, sir. The Wall was my first posting.”
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen, sir.” The soldier forced his shoulders up, pushing his body to its full height and puffing out his chest.
The effort must have taken a lot of energy, Haung thought. What was I doing at sixteen? I was in the army. I’ve always been in the army, they raised me and trained me. Gave me a life and a career. At sixteen, I was trying to impress the serving girls, and Jiao. I was competing with all the other trainees, doing my time as a door guard, learning to salute properly. Standing on a wall, having seen hundreds of my friends have their brains, guts and blood spilled in front me, was something I could not have imagined. At sixteen, I had my illusion of immortality, this lad can have none left.
“They’ll come one more time and we’ll beat them back, just like yesterday. By the end of tomorrow, the reinforcements will be here.” Haung finished with a reassuring smile.
“Sir?” The young boy looked confused. “What then?”
“Then we will make sure the last of the refugees and wounded are on the road. Once they are clear, we will pull back to the Empire. The Emperor will have the armies marshalled and we will wipe that Mongol army from the face of the earth. Go and give my message to the Colonel, then get some rest. We can beat the next attack without you, but tomorrow you’ll need to be at your best. One more day, soldier.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy soldier smiled and with a smart, parade ground turn, headed off in search of Colonel Gongliang.
“You will send him with the refugees?” A soft female voice spoke from near the wall.
“I will. He is too young to be here, to have seen all this.”
“You are all too young,” Xióngmāo said.
# # #
“I’m not sure how much longer we can last,” Gongliang stated.
“You’ve said that every night for the past week.” Haung rubbed his tired eyes.
“That’s because I don’t know the answer.” Gongliang took a cup of water off of an aide and drank it down in one.
“We should leave now,” Enlai said. “Without access to the magical defences of the Wall we don’t have the manpower to defend it.”
“The reinforcements will...” Gang’s answer was cut off by a raised hand from Haung.
“I know we should leave, but we have to give the refugees time to get a good head start. They’ll be easy pickings on the roads back towards the capital. If everything Xióngmāo says is true about the Mongols’ capacity for fast movement, and I’ve no reason to doubt her, then every day we hold them here is important.” Haung rested both hands on the desk in front of him. The wooden surface, inlaid with a map of the Wall, was covered with papers and reports. Each one detailed the strength of a section along the Wall, and all were depressing reading.
“Once we leave the Wall, how do we protect ourselves on the road?” Liu asked. The lithe warrior’s sharp axes rested on their belt hooks and he absently rubbed the wooden haft as he spoke.
“We leave everything behind that we can and travel light. The cavalry will ride screens and the infantry will march as fast as possible,” Haung answered.
“How long do you think it will take them to get past the Wall?” Enlai said.
“A day, maybe less.”
“If they bring their whole army in one go, but that isn’t the way they fight. As soon as one group is through they’ll send them to harass us. Your cavalry is no match for their riders. They’ll attack and fade back when you move to engage.” Xióngmāo said, with a shake of her head.
“I am open to ideas. The reinforcements will be here within the hour, but they’ll be in no condition to fight.” Haung took a sip of his water.
“Do we know what they are bringing? What strength of arms?” Gang said.
“Their messenger detailed a force strong enough to bolster our own, not enough to replace our losses. They are also bringing in some powder.” Gongliang waved the scroll as evidence.
“And,” Haung began, pausing to look around the small command group, “they have a few
Gang leaned forward to glare at Haung as he said, “Do we know if they are tainted like the rest?”
“We don’t,” Haung admitted, “but Xióngmāo assures us that she has a way to find out.”
“Then why didn’t she use it before they betrayed us,” Gang accused.
“Because I didn’t know what to look for,” Xióngmāo answered. “Now I do.”
“If they are clean, can they use the Wall defences?” Enlai said.
“I don’t know,” Xióngmāo admitted. “I was kept away when they were put in place. My... the Emperor was very secretive about their construction, as were the
he employed. Haung?”
“I don’t know anything. The subject was not part of my training as a
seem to be as keen on their secrets as the Emperor. We will have to enquire of those that arrive.”
“There is some good news,” Xióngmāo said. “The Wall was built to keep Mongol magicians out of the Empire and as long as it is not destroyed it will do that. Even if they open the gates, their magicians will not be able to pass into the Empire.”
Haung tapped the table to get quiet as everyone started speaking at once. “How sure are you of this?”
“If she says it, it is true,” Enlai said and Haung turned a quizzical look at the ex-corporal and revealed
. The quiet man returned a steady gaze, giving nothing away.
“That should give us more time to get the refugees away. They’ll have to split their force. One group to chase after us and another to look after their magicians.” Haung felt a weight lift from his shoulders before another thought occurred to him. “Can they break the wall? From this side?”
“Unlikely,” Xióngmāo responded. “And even if they tried, it would take them many months to destroy enough of it to allow their magicians to pass through.”
“Well then,” Haung began, but a raised hand from the small
brought him to a halt.
“There is some bad news too,” she said.
“There is always bad news,” Gang grumbled and Haung saw her nod in acceptance of the sturdy warrior’s comment.
“I’m very sure that some of the magicians the Mongols have brought are not Mongol magicians,” she said.
There was silence for a few moments as the group dissected the comment.
“You’ll have to explain that one to me,” Gang finally admitted.
“Mongol magicians look different, act differently, to the those in the Mongol army. I think they have some magicians who are not using Mongol magic.”
“So?” Gang looked around the group. Haung could see the confusion in his eyes, it mirrored his own, he suspected.
“You know the
can pass the wall. How else could we send them on the patrols? The Wall only stops Mongol magic and Mongol magicians. Others can pass through without any ill effects or setting off the warnings.” Xióngmāo met Haung’s eyes for a moment. “If they haven’t been using much magic until now, it was because they didn’t need to. With reinforcements arriving, they may feel it is time to deploy their own magic.”
“Can you prevent them, like you did earlier?” Haung asked.
“I didn’t. I had to ask for help and they gave what they could. Some may be able to assist again. I will ask, but I would advise you not to rely on it.”
“Gongliang, I want to see the
as soon as they arrive. In the meantime, let’s get the last of the refugees moving out. And that messenger I sent earlier, the young man, make sure he goes with the refugees,” Haung said.
“I would, Haung, but he died in the last attack.”