Read The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3) Online
Authors: G R Matthews
Zhou turned towards the voice, but Boqin did not react.
The memory began to fade.
Yángwū said as the darkness rose.
# # #
“What are you looking for?” Zhou said and he staggered towards the stairs and the small, round-bellied man on them.
“Another key, another leap, another journey, another realm,”
Yángwū said and he took another step up.
# # #
A light rose slowly. It was not the yellow of the sun or even the flicker of a candle. It was bright and verdant. It was the scent of a spring morning, the calm after a storm, the faint mist rising from the fields, the cold snap of winter, the earthy richness of autumn, the heat of summer. It was the light of all those things. Ancient and yet youthful. It was the light of life, death and rebirth.
It surrounded him, embraced him. The light drew him in and gave him succour, fed him energy and resolve. Hope was reborn in the light.
Outside of the light was a wail, a scream of rage.
“Stay alive, little cat, someone is coming.”
The light lifted him to safety and the scream was drowned by the music of the world.
“We haven’t got the numbers to hold them back,” Gongliang shouted over the noise of battle.
Haung swept his
sword high, diverting the path of the axe away from his head. The soldier next to him stabbed his blade into the Mongol soldier’s stomach. Another took his place and with a sweep of his sword Haung knocked him off the wall.
“Push the ladder aside,” he called. “Every moment we keep them back is a little more time for our forces and the refugees to get away.”
“We still need to get off this wall,” Gongliang stepped up beside him as the ladder fell away. “Preferably with as many men as we can to protect our own retreat to the capital.”
Haung looked out over the wall and over the hordes of Mongol soldiers that swarmed before it. They were waving swords and shields above their heads, desperate to get into the fight. By now, they knew they were going to win. The Empire soldiers on the higher walls still peppered them with crossbow bolts, but this had little effect on overall numbers.
“Do you think we can hold them till nightfall?” Haung said.
“Not a chance,” Enlai said, stepping out of the crowd of soldiers on the Wall. The older
held one sword in his hand and the other was still in its scabbard across his back. Blood spattered the front of his leather armour and Haung knew that it all belonged, had belonged, to the Mongol warriors who had faced him in battle. Enlai seemed untouchable and tireless in battle. Wherever the Mongols were about to break the resistance on the wall, in he swept. The soldiers cheered him each and every time, but he never acknowledged it. His face, in battle, was blank and his eyes saw everything at once. There were whispers in the camp that he was an immortal, a god of war, but Haung knew that was wrong. When his own training was complete, and after enough years of practice, he would be that strong, that good. It scared him.
“We are losing men too quickly,” Gongliang agreed. “Soon we will be stretched too thin. Haung, the time is close. We have to go, and in good order too. The traps and barriers in the town will hold them for a time, as long as our own troops don’t set them off during a rout.”
“And the gate?” Haung said.
“We’ve strengthened it as much as we can, and set our own series of traps there. Once it is down they’ll be able to get their horses through and chase us. We’ve piled rubble high behind it and dug pits in the road. It will buy us some time,” Gongliang said, shrugging his shoulders.
“I think that I may have a way of slowing them down,” Xióngmāo said.
Haung turned to face the small woman. She was dressed in her own leather armour and now carried a small repeating crossbow as her weapon. Throughout all the days of battle on the Wall he had never seen her carry the same weapon twice in a row, however she seemed to be proficient with whatever she had chosen to carry on that particular day.
“You can slow them down? How?” Haung said.
The dark-eyed woman looked up at him, and he could see the years in those eyes. She seemed young still, maybe a year or two older than him, five at the most. However, he knew that she had lived for hundreds of years. Without her, and Zhou, the Wall would have been lost days ago. Her allies were nameless and Haung had yet to see them, but the effects were hard to deny.
“We have a new ally,” she said.
“We do, who?”
“Her name is not important, but she can help. I will need to speak to her and convince her of the need, but I think I have a way of making it worth her while.”
“Where is she?” Gongliang asked, looking around.
Enlai shook his head. “Do you need a guard?”
Xióngmāo shared a smile with him and shook her head. Haung noted again the closeness of these two very different people. How they knew each other was a secret he had not managed to prise out of either them. Respecting their privacy was right and proper, but secrets were not something he liked. At least, when those secrets were not his own.
“How long?” Haung asked.
“An hour at the most,” she said. “It will take me a little time to find her and convince her. We will also discuss the... nature of help she can give. I might be able to gather a few
to lend a hand.”
“Can we hold for an hour?” Haung asked his assembled command staff. They all nodded. “Then let’s get back into the battle. One hour and then we start to pull the troops out. Gongliang, get the recently wounded moving. Enlai, can you find Gang and Liu, tell them the plan?”
“Take care of yourself in the battle, Haung,” the
said. “My lady, as ever, your servant. Call should you need me.”
The small woman smiled and walking to the edge of the Wall, the town side, she jumped to the ground. Haung took an involuntary step forward, raising a hand in shock. From the corner of his eye he saw Enlai shake his head at the reaction.
“Don’t cross her, you wouldn’t like her when she is angry.” The
smiled as he turned and ploughed back into the battle.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Gongliang said.
# # #
All the practice, the drills, the training, exercising, running and lifting was something he had cursed at the time. Now, after days of fighting on the wall he could finally appreciate everything his sword masters had been saying. Even the past year of training in the capital, intense as it had been under his
master, had not made him as tired as he felt now. Dropping into the quiet was becoming more difficult. Building the image in his mind was becoming more of a struggle every time the enemy crested the walls. Letting go was too easy and the wave of exhaustion that flowed through his limbs when he did almost drove him to his knees.
“How much longer?” Haung said to Gongliang.
If he looked as tired as his second in command then Haung was sure that they were both due about seven weeks of sleep. Either that or, given the caked dust and dried blood that covered their faces, they were already dead.
“Hopefully not too long,” Gongliang said, hefting the dented shield on his arm.
Around them the Empire soldiers were tending the injured, binding the wounds of their fallen comrades, or pitching the Mongols back over the Wall.
The battle for the Wall tended to ebb and flow like the tide, Haung noted. The attackers would crest the Wall and fight like demons for every stone of territory in an effort to establish a safe zone from which to expand their presence. The battle would descend from carefully ordered lines into pockets of a chaos. Each soldier forgot, in those moments, that they were fighting for their country, that they were weapons of their respective generals. In those moments, as swords stabbed and swung, as shields were raised and men screamed out in fear and anger, they were totally selfish, they were fighting only for their lives. That is not to say that there not moments of altruism, but even those had overtones of selfishness, of self-preservation. You saved the man next to you, if you could, so that they in turn could save you.
Once the Mongols were pushed from the Wall, the tide ebbed and a moment of calm descended. Each man, Haung included, spent their first breath wondering whether they were still alive and unhurt. The second breath was given in thanks that all was well. With the third intake of life giving air, thoughts turned to their comrades. The selfishness and joy of survival was brushed away, hidden in the pit of shame that each man dug for themselves in their first real battle. In that small window between high and low tide, civilisation returned.
“Haung.” A deep voice boomed along the wall and the tired, recently promoted general turned towards the large warrior stomping through the Empire soldiers who scrambled out of his way.
“Gang,” Haung nodded. “I’m glad you are still with us.”
“Not one of those ill-trained, fur-lined, horse stinkers has even come close. I’d be embarrassed if they did,” Gang said, lifting his great ball hammer in one hand and shaking it to emphasis his point. “But...”
“But?” Haung heart sank. The big warrior had been unfailing in his joy of battle. He encouraged the troops, raised morale and generally acted as if he was wringing every ounce of enjoyment from every second of life. This was the first word the man had spoken which did not reflect that nature.
“My section is close to breaking. Liu’s are not far off either. We just don’t have enough men fit and able to hold it much longer. They’re good men, the best, but they are exhausted.”
“When one section goes, the rest of the Wall will not be far behind,” Haung said.
“We have to hold.” Gongliang spoke at the same time.
Gang shared a look with both of them, dipping his gaze to take in the bandage on Gongliang’s upper arm. “I know that. I also know battles and this one is lost. If you want to live we have to pull back now, whether the lady’s plan is ready or not. We don’t have the luxury of time.”
“We can go now,” Enlai said, striding up to the group with Xióngmāo only a step behind.
“General?” Gongliang said.
Haung stood still, thinking. Abandoning the Wall was admitting defeat, but had not that already been done. Sending the refugees and wounded away over the past few days was an admission of failure. He had been sent to investigate the refugee problem and identify the enemy. In that regard, he had succeeded. It had never been part of the plan to lead the defence of the whole wall.
“Haung, we’ve lost,” Gang said. “We knew we didn’t stand much of a chance when we saw the enemy before us. When the
betrayed us that tiny chance vanished. We’ve done well to hold on this long. This battle is over. Let’s just make sure we are ready for the next one.”
He understood the words, the meaning behind them and knew that it was time. “Pull back. Get the troops off the Wall. Gongliang use whatever you have left to buy our troops the time to clear the Wall. You know what to do.”
Gang turned and started barging his way through the troops as Gongliang started to call orders. Haung felt hollow. Defeat was not bitter, it was empty.
“Win some, lose some,” Enlai said. “But one warrior is not an army and one battle is not a war. There will be time for revenge, if you wish it, later.”
Haung put aside his thoughts and looked, not for the first time, at Enlai. He was more of a mystery now that he had revealed himself to be a
. The battle had not left time for much conversation and Haung determined to find out more, as soon as he had the chance to. It was impossible to deny his words, it was time to live and that meant retreat.
A rumble ran through the wall. It vibrated through his legs and chest. A loud crack echoed through the valley. It was followed by others along the length of wall. The thunder came from the ground not the sky and it was from here that clouds rose. The Mongols below, those enveloped in the mist and smoke from the last of the powder weapons, the
, saved for this very moment, began to scream. The gas stole the air from their lungs, each scream was the last exhalation of life, and it stung their skin, scalded their eyes. Blisters burst out on any uncovered flesh and the smell of burning flesh rose up the wall.
“Go, off the wall. Remember the pathway,” Haung shouted and started to move the troops off the wall.
These were the last of his army, the one he had inherited. They were the best fighters, warriors, killers and survivors. Every soldier here had fought on the Wall, had faced death every minute and had somehow survived. These men were the rear-guard, hand-picked, volunteered and pressed into the role. They would not let him, or their comrades, down.
At the base of the stairs, Gongliang waited. “Move along, General. I need space.”
The same message was given at the base of every stairway by those of Gongliang’s special troop who had survived. Each held a cord in their hand and, when the last of the troops had cleared the stairs, they gave a strong tug and started to run.
Haung turned at the edge of the safe area and watched Gongliang run towards him. Behind the sprinting man, the stairs began to fall. Large blocks of stone slid from their positions and crashed to the floor. One after the other, stairs and stones tumbled to the floor. The first hit with dull thumps and with a dancers grace came to rest on the compacted mud floor beneath the wall. Those that followed clattered onto the fallen stones. The latecomers shattered and cracked. Stones heavier than ten horses snapped in half and sharp retorts could be heard to the left and right. Dust rose to obscure the mounds of rubble that marked the last position of stairs that once had led from earth to rampart.
“That will hold them back a little,” Gongliang gasped.
“If they cannot get to the ground they cannot pursue,” Haung said. “The wall builders thought of everything.”
“They can still get through the gate,” Enlai said.
“Not for a little while,” Gongliang responded. “We’ve blocked that.”
“We’ve bought a little time, but we need to get moving, “ Haung said.
The group led the remaining soldiers on a twisting and turning route through the army barracks and the now empty refugee town. Only a few days ago this place had been full of life, wretched, tired and hungry, but full of people. Now there was only the clink of metal, creak of leather and tramp of boots as the Empire soldiers headed out on to the plain beyond.