Read The Red Plains (The Forbidden List Book 3) Online
Authors: G R Matthews
The Mongol army was still filtering across the bridge and arraying itself in front of the wall. The front ranks were sat astride their horses, spears raised and fur lined helmets firm on their heads. Each new rank filed into place behind the one in front, swelling the army, line by line, spear by spear.
“Still think we could have held them at the bridge,” Gang grumbled.
“Not a chance,” Gongliang said. “With those bows they use? It would have been simple for them to pick us off whilst we stood in battle lines waiting for them to charge us.”
“We are safer behind the walls,” Haung agreed. “Remember, our strategy is to hold for a few days until the Emperor’s army reaches us. They’ll come with all the supplies we lack, all the things we had to leave behind at the wall. We defend.”
“I prefer attack,” Gang said.
Haung acknowledged the comment with a nod and continued to survey the Mongols as they settled into formation. At the centre, a single horseman stood high and waved his spear to either side. The front rank raised their spears higher in response and gave a great cheer. The sound flowed over the ground between the Mongols and the wall, crept up the stones and into the hearts of the defenders. A groan came from the army on the wall. It was followed by shouted orders, demands and exhortations from the Empire officers.
“The militia will not hold,” Gang said.
“They will,” Haung answered. “I’ve seen a militia hold when all was lost. The desire to protect their families, their wives and children, is strong and it will come out in the battle. Gongliang, how far out is the first pit?”
“That line of stones, at the base of the first slope is the furthest extent of the pits. Any further out and they flooded with water. We had to backfill and hide them,” the Engineer explained. “My wife is going to kill me for getting involved in two battles in less than a year.”
“I can’t imagine that mine is going to be too happy either,” Haung agreed, resting a hand on Gongliang’s shoulder and giving a reassuring squeeze.
Liu reappeared through the throng of soldiers on the wall. An old man, who carried a semi-circle of thin wood and a quiver of arrows, followed the axe master.
“This is Yu Dayou,” Liu said. “All the others agree that he is the best
master we have in the army and town.”
“Master Yu,” Haung said in greeting, bowling slightly. “Could I ask of you a small task?”
The man’s thin grey hair fell across his face as he bowed to Haung and slowly straightened. Archers, Haung had always thought, required strong backs, muscled arms and clear eyes. The old archer in front of him possessed the piercing eyes needed, but it was clear from his frame that the best years were behind him. Haung gave Liu a quizzical look. The tall, thin axe-wielding warrior returned it with a shrug.
“General,” Gongliang said, pointing out across the wall and down towards the Mongol army arranged on the inner slope of the sweeping meander. “Here they come.”
There was movement within the front ranks. The warrior who had stood tall now moved his horse forward at a slow, steady pace. He was flanked by two more, their spears raised.
“Master Yu,” Haung said, “we may have need of your bow.”
The old man nodded and dipped his finger and thumb into a pouch tied to his belt, drawing forth a waxed bow string. Haung watched as the archer hooked a loop of the string over a hook at one end of the strange semi-circle of his bow. The weapon appeared to be made in sections, strong hooks at either end and a length of wood inlaid, halfway towards to the centre grip, with a darker material. As the sunlight caught the bow Haung could see that it was more complicated than that. The wooden sections, on both sides of the grip, appeared to consist of different woods, all layered and joined so well that only the slight change in hue gave the clues to the construction. This was not the simple bow of an Empire soldier. Even the Crossbows looked simple in comparison.
The master archer placed one end of the bow down on the stone floor of the battlements, then using his knees, feet and all the strength his small frame could provide, strung the bow. For one desperate moment, it was possible that either the bow would break or the old man’s arms would snap. However, with a last twist of his body, Master Yu slipped the other loop of string over its hook and the bow snapped into place.
“I am ready,” Master Yu said, a sheen of sweat on his head, a smile on his face and the recurved bow in his hand.
“Good,” Haung said and pointed. “You see the line of stones out there? Can your arrow reach that far?”
“Yes and further” the archer replied.
“Really?” Haung said in surprise. “I want you to put an arrow in front of their horses. Close to them if you can, but do not hit them.”
“Of course, General.” The old man took an arrow from his quiver and brought it to the bow string. Two steps later, he had moved to the wall, sighted and raised the bow to the sky, drew and released in one smooth movement.
Haung watched the arrow rise into the sky and followed its path. At the top of its arc, the fletching just visible against the clouds, it paused and then fell like a swooping hawk. He could almost feel its impact with the earth, ten paces in front of the horses trotting towards the wall.
“A few more, if you please, Master Yu,” Haung said. Small and tiny though the old man was, there was no denying his skill as three more arrows left the bow in quick succession. Every one rose to the sky, paused and then dived at the ground.
The three Mongols stopped. In the middle, the warrior rose once more in his saddle and shook his spear at the wall. Haung could see that the man was shouting, but the sound was drowned out by distance and the jeers from the Empire army.
“Thank you, Master Yu. Very impressive,” Haung said.
“Do you want me to kill one of them?” Yu said.
“Not right now, I think, but thank you for the offer,” Haung said, focusing upon the three Mongol warriors as they raised their spears to the sky, reversed them and plunged them into the earth, their tassels twisting in the breeze. The rest of the front rank of enemy soldiers galloped forward and mirrored their leaders actions until a wall of spears sprouted from the ground covering the area from the bridge to the river, following the arc of the wall.
“Clever,” Gongliang said.
“I wasn’t sure, but last time they planted their spears at the edge of our bow range. This time, thanks to Master Yu, we have given them the firm idea that our reach is much further than they thought.”
“And it protects the pits, for a little longer,” Gongliang said.
“There is that,” Haung smiled. “Has anyone seen Enlai today?”
By the end of two days alone, Zhou was beginning to think that the whole Mongol army had left him here. The noises outside had grown louder immediately following the fall of the Wall. It had been almost impossible to sleep. Crashing and booming sounds swept through the camp almost non-stop. Yángwū had explained that the Empire soldiers had fled the Wall and now they were clearing the gate of all the debris left behind. The strange, random attacks, from the ground had ceased and the Mongols were working non-stop.
Then there was the unmistakeable noise of an army clearing its camp. Women’s voices could be heard for the first time, higher pitched, softer and still beyond his understanding. It was, he supposed, more a travelling city than an army. The noise of the horses hooves continued all day as the army pulled out. Finally, quiet returned.
Not absolute silence. There were still people out there, still Mongols talking and going about their daily business, but the sounds he associated with the army had gone. He had tried to access the spirit, but still something blocked his path and kept him from it. With nothing to do Zhou had meditated, slept and spent what energy he could in maintaining the barriers in his mind, those designed to keep memories at bay and those that sought to thwart Yángwū’s invasions. He was getting hungry and thirsty.
On the third morning, as far as Zhou could reckon it, the door to his yurt opened and in walked Yángwū with a platter of food and drink.
“My apologies,” Yángwū said. “A lot to do, instructions to give, things to organise. However, it is all sorted.”
“The army has gone,” Zhou stated.
“A lot of it, yes.” The former-
and current immortal, if he was to be believed, placed the platter down on the floor. “Please, eat and drink. You must be quite hungry.”
Zhou gazed at the steaming slices of meat and the bowl of rice. His stomach rumbled.
“It is not poisoned, I promise you that. There has been plenty of time for that since you became my guest.”
“Prisoner,” Zhou said.
“Guest, prisoner, captive, visitor, choose the one that you feel suits you best, but eat, Zhou, eat.” Yángwū sat cross-legged on the floor and began picking at the meat.
There was no denying the hunger Zhou felt and so, after a moment of indecision, he sat opposite Yángwū. Taking a bowl, he lifted a slice of meat onto the rice and let the juices flow down between the grains. He sniffed it, which brought a flood of moisture to his mouth, and drew another rumble from his stomach. The first bite was as delicious as only the first mouthful of food can be when you are famished.
“It is good?” Yángwū said.
Zhou nodded and continued to chew, swallow and stuff more food into his mouth. When the pangs of hunger had abated, he slowed down to a more respectable speed of eating. He sipped water from the wooden cup and let the food settle in his stomach.
“We have a problem, Zhou,” Yángwū said when they had finished eating.
“I am very upset to hear of your problems,” Zhou said.
“Indeed.” Yángwū paused to fish out a slender thread of meat from between his teeth with his fingernails. “Well, this problem involves you.”
“Me?” Zhou waved a hand at the walls of his tent. “I pose no problem. You have me trapped in this prison and are preventing me from accessing the Spirit. There is nothing I can do.”
“True, but only for the moment. You are a puzzle, Zhou. There are some things about you I would like to understand and yet I must move on if I am to reach the mountain in time.” Yángwū paused for a sip of his own water. “The simple answer would be to kill you, remove you as a threat, but the puzzle nags at me.”
“You don’t expect my help.” The threat of death had hung over his head since the day of his capture and yet he was still alive. He intended to remain that way and, he knew, help was on the way.
“Zhou, I told you that I would treat you with honesty and that is what I am doing. I have not yet reached a decision. However, if you cannot assist me in answering the questions I have, if you cannot help me find out the information I need, then sadly I will have no need of you.”
“You could let me go,” Zhou said.
“I would certainly miss your little jokes and humour if you were to die, but let you go? I cannot see that as a viable alternative. You have information that I need. If you didn’t, I would have killed you by now. Something happened on the Wall, Zhou. The spell I used should have killed you.”
“But it did not,” Zhou said.
“It did not and that is a puzzle. Sadly, the Fang-Shi who had loaned me his body had senses much less refined than my own. I am not a fan of unanswered puzzles, Zhou. I told you I was a doctor, a scholar. I lived for learning in those early days of becoming a Wu. The mountain offered me everything I could want. A small library, a place to start finding the answers to all the questions I had and, beyond that, the chance to do my own research. I travelled a lot in the first forty or fifty years. Other countries, other cultures, new languages and new magics. It was an exciting time and learned all that I could from everyone I met. There was no question that, given time, I could not find the answer to. In the next hundred years, I added so much magical and scientific knowledge to the library and to other places of learning around the world.”
To Zhou’s ears, the man sat opposite sounded genuinely confused. “I am not sure what I can do to help you, if I wanted to.”
“I know, Zhou. I look at you and see me many lifetimes ago. You are young, barely weaned, and you have been thrust into the world of the Wu. A long life is yours to discover many things and find your own answers. I envy you that. To have so many questions that you do not yet know the answer to. Many of mine have been asked and answered. The others will all find their answers when I become the Jade Emperor, when I can converse, as an equal, with the universe itself.”
“And what then?”
“When you have all your answers,” Zhou said.
“Oh, Zhou, still so young. If this single world has enough questions to keep me occupied for thousands of years, what will the whole of creation have? New worlds to visit, with new rules to learn. There will always be questions. The universe does not know everything. If it did, it would never have created beings capable of fighting against it. It is an imperfect universe, it is always creating new questions,” Yángwū said and Zhou could see the passion, a glow of excitement, in the man’s eyes. “We will talk again, tomorrow, but now I must think. I must decide your fate.”
The small man picked up the platter of food, nodded to Zhou and left the tent. The wooden door closed behind him and the locks clicked from the other side.
When Zhou was sure that Yángwū was not going to return, he raised his hands before his face. They stayed steady, no nerves, no excitement and no feeling of weakness. Why then were Yángwū’s trembling as he had picked up the food?