Read The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3) Online
Authors: G R Matthews
“Trick?” Haung said.
“Some of that
magic you were trained in.”
“I don’t use it,” Haung said.
“You what? Why?” Enlai’s voice contained a note of surprise.
master forbade me from using it.”
“Haung,” Enlai said and paused a moment before continuing, “I don’t want to go against your wise teacher’s advice, but as you can see we are stuck between two opposing armies, in the dark and have a job to do. A job you set us. Now, if you want to see your wife and child again you’ll give up foolish notions and take any advantage you can get. Worry about the rest later, when you have time.”
Haung strained his eyes, peering into the dark, trying to pick out his targets. He could not see a thing. The grey grain of flickering night vision was not up to the task. The most likely outcome of the night’s excursion was either falling down one of his own pits or bumping into the Mongols that were out here looking for the pits themselves.
“Haung, the Mongols will be using whatever magic they have to see in the dark.” Enlai’s whisper was a faint breeze against his ear.
“One moment,” Haung said, and drew the small knife from his belt. He rolled up his sleeve and drew the sharp edge over his skin, drawing a thin line of blood, black against his skin in the dark. Collecting the first, fresh well of blood from the cut he drew a smeared symbol on each eyelid. A deep breath and he opened the locked door in his mind, the place where he had contained the cold power of the void. He let a tiny bit leak out and then slammed the door shut again. He pushed the power along the meridian pathways of his body, focusing their energy in his eyes and locking it in place with blood symbols. There was a feeling of sickness in his stomach that passed quickly. “Done.”
It was not perfect, but it was a lot better. Colour was still absent but the blurry collection of dark grey and black had come into focus. The blades of grass were so clear he could make out the tiny hairs that lined the edges. Into the distance and the effect lessened, the tents were visible and he could make out the faint lines that delineated one from another, but that was as far as it went.
“If we wait here much longer, the whole army will be waking up,” Enlai said.
“Let’s go,” Haung said, “and be careful not to fall into our own pits. You take the western valley end and I’ll take this side.”
“See you back at the wall in two hours.” Enlai’s hand rested on his shoulder for a moment. “Don’t get killed and don’t be tempted to stay out here too long. Let’s just make our point and get back inside.”
Haung watched the
disappear into the darkness and shook his head. From bad-tempered to concerned in the space of a heartbeat, his more experienced companion remained a puzzle. Putting aside his concerns and worries, Haung focused on the task at hand. He raised a hand to his neck and felt the familiar outline of the amulet, the one his
had made for him, and he brought the image to mind, every detail, every nuance and emotion. He understood them all and let them wash over him, accepting it all. The quiet enveloped him, the silence of life, death and the night.
Vision sharpened further and the slight dips of the pits in the landscape were visible. The susurration of the breeze over the grass was a tickle in his ears, a waft of conversation from the wall flowed over him, the scratch of a stone on another from ahead, a quiet crunch of pebbles from the right. On the breeze, the scent of promised rain, the odour of horse and sweat. Every sense reached out into the darkness and Haung gave up conscious thought to the quiet, letting it lead him.
In his hands he carried the scabbarded
sword, hiding the blade lest any stray light reflect from it and give away his position. He crept across the ground, keeping low, following the sound of movement away from Enlai, and between the pits.
Ahead he spotted the first one and stopped, lowering himself to the ground,
sword resting on the ground and hand around the grip.
The Mongol warrior was stepping forward with great care, the long stick in his hand probing the ground as he moved. Haung watched him come and noted the warrior had forgone his helmet and thick armour though he still carried a sword on his belt. Three steps ahead of the warrior was a pit and it was between him and Haung.
Step, probe the ground around him, step again, probe the ground. One more step and the long stick sunk into the pit. The warrior bent down, placing the probe down beside him and began to feel for the outline of the pit with his hands.
Haung moved. Rising up and taking two graceful steps forward he reached the distracted Mongol. So swift was the movement that the warrior did not realise he was no longer alone and had no time to cry out as Haung slid the sword free of its scabbard and stabbed downwards. The sharp-edged blade took the warrior through the back of his neck, silencing him forever.
The sword went back into its scabbard and Haung bent down to check the Mongol’s pulse. It was fluttering and weakening. The temptation to grant mercy was strong, but the warrior would die of his wounds and the need to move on was pressing.
Leaving the dying warrior, Haung crept away, into the dark.
The hand clamped over his mouth woke him. Instinct made him grab at it and attempt to prise it off, but the owner was too strong. Zhou twisted his head from side to side and kicked his legs. The hand stayed firm across his mouth and his feet met only air.
The tent was dark and all he could make out was the darker shape that loomed over him. He struck out with a free hand and missed. His assailant grabbed his hand and held it steady.
“If you don’t stop struggling we are never going to get out of here,” the shape said in a voice he recognised. His struggles ceased and the voice continued. “Good. Now I am going to release my hand. Do not shout out or scream. The guards outside are asleep, but there are others around.”
Under the hand, Zhou nodded and the pressure released.
“Xióngmāo,” he whispered.
“It’s good to see you alive,” she answered. “We have to go. The camp is quiet at the moment and I’ve had to get some help from the others, but we are at the limit of their reach. The red plain is dampening all that they can do. Just follow.”
Zhou struggled to his feet, wiping sleep from his eyes and stifling a yawn. He had been told someone was coming and was glad it had been Xióngmāo, though he would have welcomed Biānfú with open arms if it had been him.
His prison door opened and he followed his rescuer outside. The two guards were indeed asleep at their posts. The one to the left of the door was laying down on the grass, his spear propped against the tent and his fur-lined helmet had rolled off his head a little way. To the right, the guard was sat on the ground, his back resting against the tent. In his hands, he cradled an empty cup.
“A simple drug to put them to sleep. They’ll wake up with a mighty headache,” Xióngmāo said to him. “This way, to the horses.”
As they crept through the quiet camp, the gloom of night stealing colour and deepening shadows, Zhou could, for the first time, see the place where he had been kept captive. Large circular tents were laid out in haphazard fashion and no two doors faced the same direction. Each tent was different too. Not in their shape, the circular walls with the low conical roof were everywhere, but in the decoration around the walls and on the roofs. Though the colours were difficult to make out, the bold patterns, roof edging designs and tassels were clearly visible.
Xióngmāo raised a hand and they stopped moving. From the right, the sound of Mongol voices drifted down the winding pathway between the tents. Zhou held his breath and waited, trusting in Xióngmāo to make the decision to move on, fight or flee. The mere fact that she had found him, in a tent amongst other tents, in a Mongol camp that despite the bulk of the army having left was still much larger than he had expected, was enough of a miracle that he was content to follow her lead without any concern.
The voices died away and she waved him on. They crept forward, past more tents, stopping three more times as voices wended their way through the camp. Passing one tent, a dog started to yap. This was followed by a squeal, a whine and an angry voice.
They found the corral of horses on the outskirts of the camp. The horses were smaller than those favoured by the empire forces, but Zhou had seen, first hand, how fast they could ride and how well the Mongol warriors controlled them whilst still being able to employ their bows. The beasts nickered and whinnied as Zhou and Xióngmāo passed down their lines.
“Xióngmāo,” he whispered, “just choose a horse and let’s get away from here.”
She turned to him and he took his first real look at the outfit she was wearing. Gone were the loose robes she had favoured on the mountain, gone was the leather armour she had worn on the Wall, instead she was dressed in tunic that buttoned up at the front and a long skirt that reached to the ground. Around her waist a simple piece of material had been wrapped many times to create a belt and on her head a scarf was held in place by clips. The scarf covered her hair and flowed down her back, almost to the waist belt.
“The horses won’t just run for anyone. I’ve spent two days preparing this, getting to know the horses and having them get used me. You’ve seen how the Mongols treat their horses, like they are family. There has to be trust between horse and rider for them to do what they do in battle.”
“What about me? I have not prepared a horse,” Zhou said.
“As long as I lead the way, you will be fine. Once we clear the camp and find somewhere safe, we can retrain the horse.”
“What about guards?”
“They’re all asleep, I hope,” Xióngmāo said. “The ones we want are down here.”
A few moments later, she was walking up to a horse that, to Zhou, looked no different than any of the other hundred or so other beasts in the corral. He watched her lift a hand to the horse’s face and stroke it lightly. She did the same to the horse next to it. Both animals seemed to recognise her and they nuzzled at her hands.
“Here you go,” she said to them, dipping her hands into her belt and pulling out something that both horses took from her hands with wide lips and long tongues. “Honeyed dates,” she explained. “Help me with the blankets and saddles.”
“Where did these come from?” Zhou asked as he laid the thick woollen blanket across his horse’s back and then, with a struggle, lifted the split-wooden framed saddle into place.
“I told you I had to prepare the horses,” Xióngmāo said. “Part of that was preparing some saddles too. Rescuing you was not a simple matter of riding in, fighting all the warriors and riding out.”
Zhou bent down, under the horse’s belly and chest to tie the straps tight. The saddle slipping as they rode away would put their escape in jeopardy as well as being deeply embarrassing in front of Xióngmāo.
“Ready,” Zhou said.
“Good,” she answered. “We will lead the horses for a while. There are a few hours till dawn and there is no need to risk the horses over uneven ground or to make enough noise to wake the camp. Once it is light enough, we’ll mount up and head for supplies I have hidden.”
He watched her untie the horse from the line and did the same. The horse was reluctant to move for him, but once Xióngmāo’s moved, it followed without a qualm.
“Archers,” Haung called, “pick your targets and loose.”
The Mongols had woken in the morning to a field of death. To the left, ten Mongol warriors lay on blood-soaked grass. Some were facing the sky, others face down. One had only his bottom half sticking up and out from a pit. Against the numbers of the Mongol army the ten were nothing.
On the right, Enlai’s night time work was visible. The
had made a statement of each of his kills. One warrior was sat, cross-legged, as if meditating, the man’s weapon stabbed into the ground holding him upright. Another warrior had been laid out on the ground, his own weapon standing proud from his chest. A third was in two pieces, separated at the waist.
“Was killing them not enough?” Gongliang had asked.
“We are fighting for our lives,” Enlai said, placing the stress on the ‘our’, “and we must use every advantage or tactic we can. Fear and anger are just that. I want them to know we are not scared, that we can strike at them wherever and whenever we want to. That I had time to do those things and not be seen or heard, is a message to them. What they do with it is up to them, but we can play on it. Half of all battles are won or lost before the first swing of a sword.”
had spoken without anger, but then turned and walked away from the Engineer shaking his head.
Now the Mongols were trying to recover their dead and Haung was stopping them. Battle was anything but glorious. There was no honour to be found in battle, only death. The lessons of Wubei were forever in his memory. The destruction and the waste, the base emotions of men who survived and the horror of those that revelled in it.
Empire archers were picking and choosing their targets carefully. None were the equal of Master Yu, but enough arrows flew that the Mongols were dissuaded from collecting the bodies of their fallen. Every obstacle, body, arrow or pit, was another distraction, another means of slowing the Mongols down. Every advantage was one to be welcomed. He hated it.
As Haung watched, the front rank of the Mongol army formed up. At the Wall, the Mongols had used a mounted charge to rake the wall with arrows, forcing Empire soldiers to duck behind the battlements, whilst those on foot had approached with ladders. Now, here at the city, the fear of pits had forced them to change their tactics.
The Mongols lined up, a warrior with a shield next to one of their archers. The shield would provide cover as they moved forward. The archers doing their best to distract, or kill, the Empire soldiers on the wall. However, Haung thought, men on foot are a lot slower and easier to hit than those on horseback.
“Here we go,” Haung said. “Gongliang, are your men ready?”
“They are, General. The signal was seen this morning and we are ready to give them the order,” Gongliang replied. “The sooner it is done, the better. It will take time to reach its full height.
“I understand.” Haung rubbed his thumb on the grip of his sword. “I don’t want to show our hand too soon though, I think there are more advantages to be wrung out of this plan of yours.”
“Another battle, Haung. Life is certainly interesting around you,” Gang said as he strolled along the wall, appearing unconcerned by the massed Mongol army. The large warrior had his hammer resting over his shoulder, the great studded ball on the end looked clean and polished. In his wake, the strange
Gan Ji, followed, staring at the floor.
“Same battle, different wall,” Haung said.
“Every battle is the same.” Liu had followed Gang along the wall, twin axes tucked through his belt and thick clothes wrapped round his thin frame. “You must defeat your own fear first before you can defeat the man in front of you.”
Haung settled for a grunt of acknowledgement. There was no denying Liu’s thoughtful wisdom, but in the minutes before battle was not the time to hear it, Haung thought. “How is our
“Gan Ji, tell the general how you are this morning,” Gang nodded in the thin man’s direction as he issued the instruction. The only response from the magician was a shuffle of his feet and a barely perceptible nod. “Funny thing is, I couldn’t get him to shut up last night. Books, reading, more books, have I read this, have I read that, it really is most interesting... on and on till the small hours. Off the topic of books and he doesn’t say a word.”
“He may prove to be useful yet,” Haung said with a great deal more hope in his voice than he actually felt. “Take up your positions and try not to get yourselves killed.”
“Ha,” Gang laughed. “This lot won’t get anywhere near me.”
“A fact, I am sure, they are all grateful for,” Liu said, moving away, towards his section of the wall and troops before Gang could respond.
Haung laughed at the dumbfounded expression on Gang’s face. The man was loud, bullish and indelicate, but also easy to like. The troops, Haung knew, adored the large warrior and considered it lucky to fight close to him. Liu was quieter, an aura of competence and tireless grace surrounded him. The troops of his section respected him, they followed his commands without delay or argument. Two different warriors with different styles of leadership, both effective in their own way.
The troops followed Gongliang because he was one of them, an army man. His career had begun in the army and it would likely finish there when the man retired. They had spoken, during the battle on the Wall and on the journey south, of his desire to research and develop the use of the powder. The idea of being a sage, a wise man, appealed to Gongliang and Haung had noted the light that appeared in his eyes whenever he spoke of inventing new things. The man found joy in knowledge, but he was also a soldier who knew how to fight and a parent who wanted to see his children again. A desire Haung shared.
Then there was Enlai. The troops had taken to him in much the same way that people respect a fire. It keeps you warm but get too close and you will catch fire, be burned and killed. He had refused Haung’s offer of a section of wall to command, preferring, the
had said, to be wherever he was needed most. Of them all, the one with whom Haung should have the most in common, he knew the least. Did the man have a family? A wife and children? Where was his home? And, why had he been on the Wall at all?
And why is it, every time I am about to fight a battle I get swamped with questions I cannot answer, Haung thought. To distract myself from the fear, he answered his own question.
A great cheer erupted from the Mongols and they rushed forward. A ragged line of leather and fur armoured warriors. The shield warriors did not stop to guard the archers, they raced for the wall waving swords and axes high above their heads. The Mongol archers, stopped, drew, released and ran again, falling behind those who were meant to protect them. The first volley of enemy arrows fell far short of the wall, but it would not be long before they reached the top and started to kill Empire soldiers.
On the wall, the shouted commands of the officers sent an answering volley of Empire arrows. They rose into the grey sky like a cavorting flock of starlings, too numerous to count, only visible as a whole body, and plummeted towards the advancing Mongols. The added height from the wall increased the range of Empire bows and the arrows struck shields, armour and flesh.
Screams rose into the air as the Mongol warriors discovered more pits in the ground. The sharp wooden spikes at the bottom of the shallow pits were driven through feet, legs and torsos. Those behind did not stop, they simply trampled the fallen warriors ahead of them. The bodies of the dead and dying providing safe passage across the pits.
“I didn’t think of that,” Gongliang said.
“I don’t think anyone should have,” Haung answered.
Another volley from the Mongol archers stretched out towards the wall. Most clattered against the stones and fell harmlessly to the earth. A few reached the top and were stopped by the shields of the Empire soldiers. The response was another swarm of arrows and, now that the Mongols were closer to the wall and in range, the click-clack of crossbow bolts being loosed. Men fell in their hundreds but still the Mongols came on.
“Down,” Gongliang shouted.
Mongol arrows now flew to the top of the wall and over. Empire soldiers ducked behind the merlons, stepping out only to loose arrows or bolts before finding the safety of thick stone.
Now that they had found their range, the Mongol arrows changed. They still sought out Empire flesh with the sharp tipped arrows, but added in were arrows that flamed into the sky and descended on the homes of the city dwellers. Slate roofs of the rich homes were safe, the arrows bounced off and the fire teams that Gongliang had organised quickly put them out. The thatch roofs of the poorer homes were not so lucky. The citizens had done what they could and doused their roofs in water that morning, but there was no way to ensure the dry straw would not catch. And it did. Great billowing clouds and columns of smoke and steam rose into the morning air.
There was a scream to the right and snapping his gaze in that direction, Haung saw Gang was wrestling with the
. The thin man was doing his best to tear himself away from the much larger warrior. More arrows flew over the top of the wall, trailing tendrils of black smoke and they seemed to send the magician into further fits of panic. Two more soldiers grabbed the thin magician’s legs and brought him to the ground where he continued to thrash about.
“What is that about?” Gongliang said.
“I am not sure, but that magician is a liability on the wall. He will cause panic and distract the soldiers. Gang needs to get him away,” Haung said. Moving away from the merlon which he had his back against and down the wall was just inviting trouble. Jiao would never forgive him if he put himself at further risk. Gang could handle the magician, Haung was sure.
He continued to watch the drama play out on the wall. Gang wrapped his thick arms around the magician and was speaking into the man’s ears. Still the
tried to fight and escape, but the more Gang talked, the weaker the struggles became and abruptly ceased. The magician seemed to go still, all his muscles tensed, for a moment and he twisted his head to look into Gang’s face. The large warrior nodded once, and it was returned by the magician.
Gang released his hold and Gan Ji did not, as Haung had half-expected, bolt from the wall. Instead the magician dragged himself to the merlon and into a sitting position. As Haung continued to observe, the man dipped a hand into his robes and pulled out a crumpled sheaf of papers which he placed on the floor. From a pocket came a brush and pot of ink. The magician opened the ink pot, spat into it and swirled the brush around, coating the hairs in the now liquid ink. With rapid strokes the
moved the brush over the first piece of paper, then did the same with the two below.
There was a rapid conversation between magician and warrior which resulted in Gang calling over two soldiers with shields. These were raised into the embrasure, providing more cover for the
who rose to stand behind them. Once in position, the man crumpled up the first piece of paper and threw it high into the sky. Haung could not hear what was said but the paper flashed yellow and orange, transforming into a ball of incandescent flame which, at a wave of the magician’s arm, sped down into the midst of the advancing Mongols.
The explosion was loud, a booming thunder and a rumbling of echoes. Mongol warriors were thrown from their feet and those on the edge of the blast caught fire. Their fur-lined armour burned and they screamed in panic.
Two more balls of fire were thrown by the
and caused the same effect on the enemy who were struck. Now though, they had discovered where the magic was coming from and archers directed their arrows in that direction.
“Seems we have a useful
after all,” Gongliang said.
“Twenty more and we would have a chance,” Haung said. “Not that I am bitter, but I think we can expect the Mongol magicians to retaliate at some point.”
“Ladders,” one of the soldiers shouted a moment before the wooden supports crested the wall.
“Push to side, to the side.” Gongliang stood and shouted the orders.
Haung drew his
sword and prepared to fight, slipping into the quiet of his mind with an ease which had eluded him at the beginning of his training but now was as natural as breathing.
The storm of arrows from the Mongols ceased and the first enemy warrior reached the top of the wall. Haung’s sword sliced across the man’s neck, slipping between the helm and neck guard. The body toppled off the ladder, taking the man below with it. The soldier next to him, armed with a spear, planted his weapon on the ladder and pushed. Haung added his strength and the ladder fell to the side.
Along the wall, the same thing happened. Ladders that reached the wall were pushed to the side and Mongol warriors fell. As yet, none had set foot upon the wall, but it was a matter of time only. The wall was not high enough, the climb too quick, and the defenders vulnerable to Mongol marksmen as they tried to tip the ladders.
It was Liu’s section that broke first. A cheer went up from the Mongol warriors that crested the wall and took their first steps in the city. More followed them and the Empire soldiers fell back, granting the enemy a foothold.