G R Matthews
Copyright © 2017 G R Matthews
All rights reserved
IN THE SOUTH OF THE EMPIRE
“You know the problem with outlaws, Liu?” Gang twirled the great hammer above his head and brought it down upon the leather armoured skull of his current opponent.
“There are always more of them?” Liu dropped under the wild slash of a Dao and hooked an axe blade behind another outlaw’s knee, dragging him forward, off balance. A kick to the downed man’s head sent him into oblivion.
“No, that’s not it.” Gang swept his hammer left to right, crushing another’s ribs.
Liu stepped forward, one axe rising high to deflect the sword blow aimed at his head, the other axe burying itself in the attacker’s unprotected neck. “Their lack of skill?”
“Keep guessing.” Gang reversed his swing forcing the three who faced him to stumble backwards in panic. The large man jumped into the gap and swung again.
“Gang,” Liu began, twisting around the stab of a tasselled spear and chopping at the hands that held it. “I’m not one for these games.”
“I have to have something to entertain me in these fights, Liu.” Gang’s hammer clattered into an upraised sabre, snapping the blade and the arm that held it.
“Battle is not entertainment, Gang.” Liu’s axes rose and fell, chopping down another life. “We came here to help the village. Not to enjoy ourselves.”
“Why can’t we do both?” Gang drove another thief to his knees with a blow from the studded hammer and grabbed the last in meaty hands, lifting the man from his feet with ease.
“Keep that one alive, Gang. We need information.” Liu cautioned as he wrenched his axe blade from the collar bone of the last attacker. It came free with a crack and a wet, sucking squelch and the smaller man looked at the blood with a disappointed expression. “Bring him with us.”
“If you don’t like blood, don’t use axes,” Gang growled as he dragged the outlaw by the hair towards Liu. The outlaw’s legs scrabbled and kicked at the ground. “Stop your moaning or I’ll forget my friend said to keep you alive.”
“So what is the problem with outlaws?” Liu said, taking a rag from inside his plain robes and wiping the last of the blood from the blades of his axes.
“They steal things, Liu. I thought you knew that. You should have got that one easily.” Gang guffawed as he finished and shook the outlaw in his grasp.
The village, Cuandixia, was set at the bottom of a snaking valley that ran northwest towards the frontier. To the west, a series of low ridges and dry valleys and, to the east, the mountains rose into the mist of the early morning. Gang, Liu and the captured outlaw followed the narrow path of the valley floor around another spur of land.
“Been here before?” Liu asked, pulling the scarf tight about his throat.
“Never understood why you feel the cold so much, Liu,” Gang said, gesturing with his free hand at the layers of clothes which Liu always chose to wear. “Springtime is warm. If you’d ever let a little bit of sun hit your flesh, you’d be as warm as me.”
Gang saw Liu’s raised eyebrow and sidelong look.
“You’ve flesh enough for us both, Gang.”
The large man laughed and grabbed the stomach that threatened to break through the thin wrapping of the food stained robe Gang had chosen to cover his body at the start of this mission. “Keeps me warm in the winter.”
“The village,” Liu said, his quiet voice cutting through Gang’s laughter.
Stone houses lined the dirt track which climbed up the valley. A few one storey dwellings were crushed up against the sheer face of an overgrown cliff and the main bulk of the village, small, courtyard houses and a ragged collection of wooden and plaster built homes, climbed the lower slopes of the hill. Above them all, on a flattened platform a two storey home overlooked them all.
“Chief’s house.” Gang pointed at the largest home.
“Let’s go,” Liu said. “Bring the outlaw with you.”
The thief was sweating in the cool morning air and when Gang grabbed his arm, he could feel the trembling fear in the man’s frame. Gang pulled him round to look into his eyes. “You give me any trouble and I’ll smash what’s left of your brains out of your ears.”
“Make sure he can still talk,” Liu said, turning up the street towards the Chief’s house.
Up close it was a less than impressive house. White plaster fading to dirty grey barely covered the woven wooden frame of the walls. The windows were simple shutters that may once have had some intricate carvings and scroll work but age had worn them down to the merest imagining of artwork. The poorest person in the capital would have been ashamed to have such carpentry on display.
Liu knocked on the door and waited. When there was no answer Gang reached past the smaller man to bang on the wooden door. It rattled on its hinges.
“I’m hungry,” he explained.
A moment later the door was wrenched open and small, wiry man with an uncontrolled shock of hair glared up at them. “What?”
“Greetings,” Liu said, bowing. “We have come to see the Chief of the village.”
“On a matter he regarded as important,” Liu answered in a smooth unruffled tone.
“Who are you?”
“This is Master Gang,” Liu used a flat open palm to indicate the larger man, “and I am Master Liu.”
“Who’s he?” The wiry man squinted at the trembling outlaw.
“An outlaw,” Liu said. “We met him and a few of his friends on the road just south of here.”
“They’re dead,” Gang added.
“What?” The little man screamed, hopped from foot to foot and, poking his head out of the doorway, cast desperate glances around. “You shouldn’t have killed any of them. They’ll find out and they’ll blame us. We’ll have to pay them even more of what we haven’t got. No, no, no. You shouldn’t have hurt them. Oh dear, no.”
Gang sucked in a deep breath to respond, but the words caught in his throat. Behind the old man, a young lady with dark hair tied up in an elegant style and possessing the most beautiful eyes Gang thought he’d ever seen, stepped into view.
“There you are grandfather,” she said. “Who are these people?”
“Masters Liu and Gang, from the Capital,” Liu said after a pause. “We came at the request of the Chief?”
“My father,” the young lady said. “He was injured in an outlaw attack a week ago. Come in. Come in. My name is Nuan. I will get you some refreshments and take you to him. The doctor is with him at the moment.”
“You honour us,” Liu bowed.
A sharp pain in his foot caused Gang to complete his own bow and he saw Liu’s foot retreat as he looked down. “Any food?”
“Of course, Master Liu,” the young lady said.
“My apologies, Master Gang.” She smiled and returned their bow. “Out of the way, Grandfather.”
They were shown through to the greeting room and seated in chairs that had been hand-crafted with love and polished by years of use. The legs were intricately carved. Monkeys cavorted on the legs of one, climbing vines and playing games amongst the arm rests. On another, long sinuous dragons curled and meandered through the wood.
“Beautiful carvings,” Liu said. Gang picked up his chair and cast an eye over it.
“My grandfather’s work.” Nuan nodded to the little man who had followed them in. “He was a gifted carpenter many years ago, when his eyesight was undimmed and his hands did not shake. The chairs are the last thing he made and the only items we have to remind us of his former skills. Please, be seated. I will have a servant bring you refreshment and then we will see my father. The doctor should not be too long. Does your servant require food?”
“Servant?” Gang looked up at her and tried not to stare. “Ah, no. He is not our servant. An outlaw we captured on the way to the town.”
He saw Nuan’s face pale and she drew back.
“He won’t hurt you, Miss,” Gang said. “If he knows what’s good for him, he won’t even look in your direction.”
Nuan glanced once more at the outlaw and bowed in Gang’s direction. “Let me get you some tea and food. Please, sit.”
Gang watched her bow once more, turn and hustle her grandfather out of the room.
“You can start breathing again now, Gang,” Liu whispered, a small chuckle backed up the words.
“Funny, little man.” Gang leaned his hammer against the wall and sat down in the dragon carved chair. It creaked under his weight, but there was sufficient give in the frame to make it comfortable and the wood was strong enough not to break. He looked over at the captured outlaw. “Go and stand by the wall where I can keep an eye on you. One wrong move and I’ll break your legs.”
The tea was hot, clean and refreshing. The food, some rice and meat, did little to fill the hole in Gang’s belly. Still, he tried not to spill too much of the sauce down himself.
“The doctor has finished with my father,” Nuan said. “We can go and see him now.”
She led the way up the wooden creaking stairs and knocked lightly on the door at the end of the short corridor.
“Father,” she bowed towards the figure lying in bed, “these men have come to help us with the outlaws. Masters Gang and Liu. Masters, my father, Keung Li.”
The older man, grey peppering his temples and lines around his eyes the result of too long spent under the bright sun, shuffled into a seated position. “You honour my house.”
“You sent for help,” Liu said, bowing to the chief.
“And here we are.” Gang added his own bow.
“You are very welcome,” Keung Li replied.
“The outlaws did that?” Gang nodded to the bandage wrapped around Keung Li’s upper arm and shoulder.
“They came demanding more food and we had little to give. I tried to explain that to them, but they did not wish to listen. Already the children are going hungry. Before long we will be boiling grass and leaves.” The chief shook his head and winced at the pain the movement caused.
“Lay still, father.” Nuan bustled over to her father.
“Do not fuss so, daughter. The wound is healing despite the foul smelling poultice the doctor insists on applying.” He looked up, an apologetic look on his face. “Daughters worry about their fathers. It is a hard lesson to learn, that your parents are not immortal. Her mother died when she was very young. She has taken care of us all since then.”
“All of you?” Gang answered and received a sharp elbow in his ribs from Liu. “What was that for?”
“Myself, my father and my son.” Father and daughter shared a look.
“Son? We have yet to meet him,” Gang said and felt another elbow gouge into his ribs.
“The outlaws took him,” Nuan said without looking at them. “A year ago.”
“He’s dead?” Gang said. Liu sighed and the large man moved an arm to cover his ribs.
“No.” Keung Li’s voice was firm, but Gang noted the cracks. “He was taken hostage against our good behaviour. We haven’t seen him in a year, but he is allowed to write letters so we know he is alive. He was… is a good boy. I hoped he would take the Administrator’s exam next summer. He studied hard and the travelling tutors said he was a gifted alchemist. He could have been… could be a doctor too.”
“It was very brave of you to ask for help,” Liu said.
“My daughter said that we should not. My father agreed. But the village is dying. We do not have enough food to feed everyone. Soon the people will start to leave or die. I had to do something even if it costs my son his life.” Gang saw Keung Li rest his hand over his daughters.
“We’ll get him back,” Gang assured them, receiving a grateful smile from Nuan.
“We will try,” Liu corrected and Nuan’s smile turned to a scowl. “What can you tell us?”
“They have a base in the mountains. There is a path leading up to it just a little way north. It used to be one of the goat herder’s trails. It led through a ravine and onto a plateau where they would graze their animals if the weather was good.” Keung Li gestured for some water and Nuan complied, pouring it from a clay jug into a small cup and passing it over.
“How many?” Liu said.
“We don’t know,” Nuan replied.
“Based on the amount of food they take. At least twenty, maybe thirty. It depends on how they supplement their supplies. There are stories of outlaw activity on the other side of the mountain and along the road between the villages. We may not be the only village who suffers, but none of the other chiefs will say anything.” Keung Li sipped at the water.
“We caught an outlaw on the road up here,” Gang said. “He will be able to give us some information.”
Keung Li sat up straighter in the bed. “He may have news of my son.”
Gang nodded and grabbed the front of the outlaw’s his armour and dragged him forward. “This is him.”
“You are one of the outlaws plaguing my village?” Keung Li said and the outlaw nodded. “My son, he is alive and well?”
“He is alive,” the outlaw said.
Keung Li nodded and Gang saw some of the worry fade from the man’s face. Nuan’s expression did not change.
“You shouldn’t have asked for help. The chief is not going to be happy. You’ve made things worse for yourselves.” The outlaw looked round the room and his gaze rested on Nuan. “He’ll come for her.”
“If comes near her, he’ll die,” Gang stated, feeling the blood swell in his heart.
“You don’t know him. You’re strong, but he is stronger. He will kill you without a thought or worry,” the outlaw said. “He will kill you all.”
“Tell me about him,” Keung Li demanded.
“You’ll find out when he comes down from the mountain.”
“It may be that we will go and see him,” Liu said, interrupting the outlaw.
“You can’t go up the mountain,” the captured outlaw said, his voice rising in pitch, “the dragon will kill you before you reach our camp.”
“You know the problem with outlaws, Liu?” Gang said.
“They think they are invincible?” Liu answered.
“No,” Gang said with a smile, turning and smashing his fist into the side of the outlaw’s head. “They talk too much.”
The leather armoured outlaw was a heap on the floor, moaning and groaning.
“My apologies,” Liu said, bowing towards the village chief. “My companion is not renowned for his patience.”
Keung Li waved the comment away with a smile. “He would tell us little, I suspect. What are your plans? I am afraid we can muster little in the way of assistance. Peasants armed with farming staves, forks and shovels are no match for armoured outlaws.”
“A meal, a night’s sleep and we will head up the path, Honoured Keung Li,” Liu said.
“We’ll clear out this nest of outlaws and make your village safe again,” Gang said and puffed out his chest, catching the glance that Liu gave him. “What?”
“What do you know of their chief and this dragon our groaning friend mentioned?” Liu said in a quiet voice.
“From what we can gather, the chief is new. When this was done,” the chief indicated his wound, “they warned us that this was only the beginning. The new chief was going to change things. As for the dragon, I have no idea.”
“No such things as dragons,” Gang, feeling on firm ground, said. “I’ve travelled a lot of the empire and never seen one.”
“He seems convinced there is something up there.” Liu pointed to the recumbent outlaw. “Though I would guess he has never seen it.”
“What are we going to do with him?” Gang nodded at the outlaw.
“Tie him up and keep him out of the way,” Keung Li said. “If the villagers find out, they will be sorely tempted to have him executed.”
“Why don’t we?” Nuan asked a look of surprise on her face.
“He is a prisoner, Honoured Nuan,” Liu said.
“He might be useful later on,” Gang said at the same time.
“He hurt my father and holds my brother captive,” she said.
“And we may need him,” Liu said. “It would not make sense to give up an advantage.”
Keung Li shared a glance with his daughter. “The basement is cut from the rock and we can lock the outlaw away. He will be safe and hidden in there.”
“I’ll take him down,” Gang said.
“The servant will show you the way and see to the locking of the door,” Keung Li said. “My daughter will show you to a room.”
“Two rooms,” Liu cut in. “If at all possible.”
“Liu, really?” Gang turned his gaze on the smaller man.
“You snore, Gang.”
“I do not,” he said.
“Either you snore or you always sleep next to lumberjack sawing wood.”
“We have two spare rooms,” Keung Li interrupted and Gang turned to see a smile on the old man’s face and, next to him, Nuan had covered her mouth. It didn’t hide the laughter in her eyes.
“Liu,” Gang said plaintively.
“I’m sorry, my friend, but I need my sleep. I’ll make it up to you. There is little point going up the mountain this afternoon. I think it would be good to tour the village and see how it can be made defensible, should it be needed.”
The afternoon passed quickly as they wandered the streets, dry mud under their feet and frightened peasants casting glances their way. It did not take long to determine the village was indefensible.
“Fifteen trained men and this village would fall within minutes,” Liu said in a quiet voice.
“Fifteen. More like five,” Gang said without regard for whoever was listening. “No weapons. No wall. Few fit men and none of them trained.”
“Then we must stop the outlaws in the hills,” Liu said as they trailed back up towards the chief’s house.
Gang came to a halt, and stared out across the valley towards the setting sun. “I hate hills.”
“The exercise will do you good,” Liu said.
“But all that climbing, and the tracks are never straight.”
“Is it a family condition?”
“What?” Gang turned a puzzled gaze on his smaller friend.
“This need to moan and whine about everything. Or does it just give you something to say?”
“There are times when you are not a pleasant…”
“Masters. Masters.” The high pitched female voice cut off Gang’s last words. “You must come quickly. There has been a terrible accident. Come quick.”
They turned from their contemplation of the distant hills to see one of the chief’s servants, a middle aged lady with a nervous look, hurrying down the road on sandaled feet. She was waving at them both, beckoning them towards her.
“Good lady,” Liu said, “what has happened?”
“Come quick, please. The Chief needs you. Something terrible has happened.” She flapped her arms as she approached and kept glancing over her shoulder towards the chief’s house.
“What has happened?” Liu tried again.
“The poor miss,” the servant said, eyes wide and flooded with worry.
“What’s happened to her?” Gang grabbed the servant’s arm which only served to increase the woman’s level of panic. She started babbling and broke down into heaving sobs accompanied by a rainstorm of tears.
“Let’s go to the house,” Liu said. “We’ll get more sense up there.”
Gang released the terrified woman with a snort of disgust and stomped up the path towards the chief’s house. Liu trailed behind, the servant following further back.
He did not stop to knock but barged through the door, into the house and looked around. The servants took one look at his face and vanished through the doors to other parts of the house, suddenly remembering an important task they hadn’t yet finished. With no one in sight, Gang rushed up the stairs to the chief’s room.
Slamming open the door he said, “What’s happened?”
The chief was sat on his bed. His eyes were haunted and he moved as though the weight of the world was dragging him backwards.
“She’s gone,” he mumbled.
“What? Who?” Gang stomped over the village chief, put his hands under the other man’s armpits and lifted him to his feet. “You’re the Chief of the village, man. Stand up, take charge and tell me what’s going on.”
The older man slumped back to the bed, his legs unable to hold his weight, and raised his hand to clasp the wound in his shoulder. To his small credit, Gang thought, the man didn’t lay down. Clearly, the chief wanted to be up and about, to be doing something, but did not know what.
“She’s gone,” the chief mumbled again.
“Who’s gone? Speak up.”
“Nuan,” the chief mumbled.
“She’s gone?” Gang felt his heart stop and his stomach drop through the floor. “How? Where?”
“Gang?” Liu’s soft, calm voice came from the open doorway.
“The chief’s daughter’s gone,” Gang said.
“I don’t know, he hasn’t told me yet.” Gang squatted down in front of the broken man. “Tell me what’s happened.”
“She,” the chief began, “she went down to feed the outlaw.”
“And?” Gang pushed.
“Now she’s gone,” the chief said.
“Dead?” Gang said.
“Gang,” Liu admonished.
“We don’t have time for being nice, Liu. We need to know. If she isn’t dead, there is something we can do. If she is, we’ve got even more reason to fight.” The large man turned his attention back to the chief, reaching out a meaty hand and resting it softly on the other man’s uninjured shoulder. A tender gesture at odds with his bloodthirsty and bombastic personality. He did not need to turn to know Liu was shaking his head. “Where is she?”
“My servant found the bowl of food on the floor in the cellar. The outlaw was gone and so was,” he went silent for a moment, “Nuan.”
“The outlaw took her,” Liu said.
“Then there is a chance she isn’t dead,” Gang stated. “We’ll get her back.”
He waited, expecting Liu to correct him or tell him off for promising something he couldn’t guarantee, but the other man stayed silent.
The chief looked up into Gang’s eyes, hope flaring in them. “You can?”
“He’ll have taken her to the camp,” Gang said.
“I’ll find us a guide,” Liu said. “There’ll be someone in the village who knows the way. You gather up our stuff.”
Gang heard Liu’s soft footsteps fade away and the creak of the stairs as the man descended. All the while he stared into the Chief’s eyes. “We’ll get her back. I promise you.”
Gang turned his back on the wounded chief, hearing the first sob wrenched from the broken man as he closed the door. He paused, thick hands clenching at his side, and took a deep breath, pushing away the worry and finding his centre. Calm descended upon him and his smile found its way back to his face. Taking action was always better than worrying. Reflex was better than thought. This had always been his way. It was comfortable and comforting.
The stairs creaked under his weight and the door leading outside was open. He grabbed their packs as he passed and stepping out into the late evening air gifted a sense of freedom. The stars were beginning to rise and the moon was climbing over the horizon.
“Gang,” Liu’s soft voice carried up the slope to his ears.
“Found someone?” he replied.
“There’s an old rice farmer waiting for us at the bottom of the road. He says he knows the path up,” Liu said.
“And he’ll show us the way?” Gang said, handing Liu’s pack and axes across to the smaller man.
“He will lead us to the bottom of the path,” Liu said, shrugging the pack onto his back and settling the twin axes through his belt loops. “He can’t take us all the way, but he reckons it is passable.”
“He can’t take us all the way up?” Gang hefted his hammer, settling the heavy, studded ball on his shoulder.
“Too dark,” Liu said and smiled, “and he’s too old. Say’s his old bones need to be in bed, not traipsing around the countryside in the dark.”
“Fair point,” Gang said with a sigh.
Gang followed the smaller man down the road. The village streets were empty and the flickers of fire and candlelight from the homes were complemented by the sounds of soft laughter, murmured conversations and a few gentle snores from those worn out from the day’s hard labour.
“That’s him,” Liu said, gesturing towards the elderly man at the base of the road.
“Hey,” Gang called.
“Ssssh,” Liu whispered. “People are trying to sleep.”
“Way too early to sleep,” Gang said. “I am hungry though. Did you bring anything to eat?”
“Later,” Liu said. “His name is Li Jun and he used to farm some of the terraces further up the mountain.”
“I can talk for myself,” the old farmer said.
“Of course, Li Jun,” Liu said in a calm tone. “My apologies.”
“I used to farm up the mountain,” Li Jun said in a dry voice that rustled at the edges. “Had quite a few paddies up there and a buffalo of my own. I was a rich man back then. My family have squandered it all. Never have children,” he gave Gang a hard look, “they’ll waste your money and complain about it as they do so. Ungrateful. That’s all they are. No thanks for raising them, feeding them, giving them a roof over their head.”
“Good advice,” Gang smiled, clapping the old man on the shoulder, feeling only skin and sharp bones below the robe. “Can you show us the track?”
“Of course I can, you overgrown fool,” Li Jun snapped. “Just told you I used to farm up there. Haven’t lost my memory yet. Money’s all gone and the children have moved away. Went looking for more money when they’d spent all mine. But the memory, that’s still good. What you still standing there for? Come on. I want to get to bed. No clouds. Going to be cold tonight.”
Li Jun set a brisk pace down onto the valley floor, stepping lightly across the stones in the small river, where Gang rumbled through causing water to splash and soak his robe. The old man carried a walking stick but did not use it.
“At least you’re getting a wash,” Liu laughed as he followed in the older man’s footsteps.
“I’m not trusting those tiny stones,” Gang pointed the ones below Liu’s feet. “One twist or a turn and I’d tumble into the water. Maybe break an ankle. A little water won’t hurt me.”
“Might do something about the smell too,” Li Jun’s voice floated back to them.
“I don’t stink,” Gang protested.
“There is a certain smell you carry about,” Liu added. “Like a shadow, it is always there, downwind.”
“Scent of a man,” Gang explained. “Can we get a move on?”
“Of course, Honoured Gang,” Liu laughed as Gang emerged from the stream.
“Track’s a little way up the valley. Not more than an hour’s walking,” Li Jun said, stepping across the rounded pebbles and fine silt that made up the river’s bank.
“An hour?” Gang complained.
“We are going to find Nuan, Gang,” Liu reminded him.
“We’d best keep an eye out for tracks too,” Gang said and began peering at the ground. “Can’t see a thing.”
“It is a little dark,” Liu said. “It doesn’t matter. That outlaw will be taking her to their camp. With the brother and sister in his custody the outlaw leader will be able to the force the chief to do anything he wants.”
“And what will he do to her?” Gang growled. “Outlaws have no honour or respect for women, Liu.”
“Something we’ve seen too often. Perhaps it is best if we get a move on,” Liu said, resting a hand on the haft of an axe.
They followed Li Jun along the river bank, the uneven ground tiring to traverse and came upon a smaller tributary. It fed the slightly larger stream with more water from the hills and had cut a narrow valley down the mountainside.
“We turn here,” Li Jun said. “Not far now. A bit further on the valley widens and the track is on the left slope. It’s easy to miss, especially in the dark, but if you notice the left bank rise into a sharp cliff you’ve gone too far.”
“You’re not coming?” Liu asked.
“You won’t need me to find the track. Stick to the left bank and look for the cliff,” Li Jun replied.
“Come and show us,” Gang said.
Li Jun shook his head. “No. I am old. It is late and I need my bed.”
“Tell the chief we’ve gone after his son and daughter,” Gang said.
“Beware of the Dragon,” Li Jun said.
“Is there really a dragon up there?” Gang peered into the gloom.
“I’ve no idea,” Li Jun answered. “There are strange noises that come down from the hills sometimes. Roars and rumbles. I’ve seen flashes of light in the high peaks sometimes.”
“But a dragon?” Liu said. “I’ve travelled a lot of the empire and never seen one.”
“They don’t exist,” Gang grumbled.
“Something is up there,” Li Jun said.
“Nuan and her brother,” Gang said.
“And a lot of outlaws,” Liu added.
“Good luck.” Li Jun waved his walking stick at them and turned back down the valley towards the village.
Gang watched the old man totter over the ground for a moment before turning to Liu. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” Liu smiled. “We’ve got a climb ahead of us. I’m not happy doing this in the dark, but if we can get close the camp, we can scout about and then rest while we work out a plan.”
“Plan?” Gang said, his eyebrows rising. “That’s easy. Find the camp, challenge the chief, kill all the outlaws, and rescue Nuan and her brother.”
“It has its simplicity to recommend it. However, what is to stop the outlaw killing Nuan, or threatening to, when you issue the challenge? Or, what if there is something to this dragon story? You’re no Jiin-Wei or Wu, let alone a Fang-Shii. Killing the dragons of the myths and stories would not be an easy feat,” Liu said with a smile.
“If I can hit it, I can kill it.” Gang patted the head of his hammer. “And I can hit anything that gets in front of me.”
“Let’s get up the mountain and have a look at what we face.”
The first section of the trail was wet and soggy. The small stream had flooded in the last rain and the ground, caught in the shadow of two mountains, had yet to dry out. They squelched and tramped their way through it. Liu in silence. Gang muttering swear words with every step. A short while later, as the moon continued its journey through the celestial heavens, the valley widened enough that they could find dry, solid ground to walk over.
“There,” Liu whispered, pointing into the star lit gloom. “There’s a small track over there.”
“Where?” Gang grumbled. “Can’t see a damn thing.”
“Follow me,” Liu said.
“Where are you? Who said that?” Gang looked around, purposefully avoiding Liu’s exasperated expression.
“Funny,” Liu whispered. “They might have guards and lookouts, you realise?”
“Good. I could do with a nice fight to warm me up.”
“Follow me, you fat fool,” Liu said.
“Fat? I’ll have you know a belly this large doesn’t come cheap,” Gang argued, insulted. “It cost me a small fortune and a lot of years.”
“Then you won’t be hungry while we climb, will you? You can eat the memory of all the meals that passed your lips through those years.” Liu started off towards the promised track.
“You’re a cruel man sometimes, Liu. Got a tongue sharper than any woman’s,” Gang muttered as he began to follow.
The slope steepened but the terrain eased. The track was not used often, it seemed, but there was a small path, the width of his shoulders wide, of compacted mud with the occasional tuft of vegetation battling through to trip the tired or unwary.
Gang fixed his gaze on Liu’s back and trudged upward. The path turned back on itself a number of times before the grass gave way to low shrubs and to the tall spindly trunks of a bamboo forest. The fronds spread at the top, out of reach, and cut off more of the starlight. Looking up, Gang frowned. Nights like this were made for a few bottles of rice wine, a large meal and falling into a comfortable bed, preferably in the company of a young lady whose virtue was for sale. He shivered and pulled his robe about him. Liu’s multiple layers of clothes would keep the thin man warm. All Gang had to rely on were layers of flesh and the boasts about his ability to withstand the elements. He walked on.
“There’s a light ahead,” Liu whispered, stopping and pointing up the trail. Gang followed the line of Liu’s finger and in the grainy haze of near-midnight caught the flicker of flames.
“How far from the camp are we?” Gang asked.
“I’ve no idea, Gang,” Liu replied. “The flame could be from a guard’s camp or a lookout.”
“Or a farmer? One of the goat-herds?”
“I think we are little far up for the goat herders,” Liu said. “The grassland is below us.”
“Goats eat anything and I’d bet this forest gives way to grass again later on,” Gang replied. “A lot of the mountains in this province have plateaus. Some small and some large.”
Liu stayed quiet for a moment and Gang shuffled from one foot to the other. “You’ve been here before,” Liu finally said.
“Not here,” Gang replied. “But I spent some time in a town a few days to the south. Might have been five or six years ago now.”
“What do you want to do about the lookout?”
“Kill him and see if he has any food,” Gang said.
“Question him first,” Liu suggested. “We need information.”
“You can’t eat information,” Gang said with the whisper of a chuckle.
“Come on,” Liu said, drawing the two axes from his belt. “Let’s see how many there are.”
Gang did his best to match Liu’s quiet steps, but few moved with the lithe grace of the axe wielding master. A Heavy hammer, a joyous heart and, he conceded, a rounder than average belly did not make a stealthy approach the easiest thing to accomplish. The bamboo stalks rose straight and branchless towards the sky and fallen leaves had turned to mulch which helped to deaden his otherwise solid tread.
“Three of them,” Liu whispered, lowering himself to the ground.
“Let’s rush them,” Gang said.
“Which will make a lot of noise. There may be others about.”
“Then we kill them too,” Gang answered.
“I’d like one alive to question, Gang. Maybe we can find out if Nuan was brought through here.”
“I don’t know. That’s what I’d like to discover. Also, we might be able to find out what this dragon really is,” Liu said. “I’ll go round to the left. You creep up this way. They’ve been staring at that fire for a while; their night-vision will be next to useless.”
“It is not their eyes I am worried about,” Gang mumbled.
“I’ll go in first, you come rushing in when their attention is on me. You can be quite intimidating when you try. Just try not to make too much noise,” Liu said, slipping off into the dark of the bamboo forest. Within a few steps the small man had vanished into the moon shadows.
“Great,” Gang sighed. He stood, hefted his hammer and tried to creep closer. The small fire the group of three had going was enough to light the clearing they had camped in. Each man had a Dao, a long sabre, propped against their legs as they sat close to the flame trying to drink in its meagre heat. Bed rolls hinted that they intended to stay for a while and from the tiny pot that hung over the fire the smell of burnt meat wafted to Gang’s nose. His belly rumbled.
Liu erupted from the bamboo in a flutter of robes and the whisper of an axe. The guard closest fell forward, limp and boneless, before anyone could react.
Gang leapt to his feet and charged, dodging around the bamboo stalks with a fluidity that belied his bulk, and crashed into the back of the next guard. The man had been reaching for his Dao which now fell from a hammer shattered arm. The guard opened his mouth to scream and Gang’s reverse sweep blasted all the air from his lungs. The lookout flew backwards, clattered against the bamboo and collapsed to the floor.
The third man rose with Dao in hand, turned to face Gang, and found two axes at his throat.
“Choose,” Gang said. “Talk or die.”
“I’ll never tell you…” Gang’s fist, free of the hammer, ended the outlaw’s sentence.
Liu’s expression never changed, but Gang could feel the displeasure radiating off of the other man.
“How hard did you hit him?” Liu slid the axe hafts back into his belt and knelt next to the downed guard.
“Not very,” Gang said.
“He’s dead,” Liu said, looking up at the big man.
“I didn’t hit him that hard,” Gang protested.
“One punch, Gang. You know how fragile life is. One punch kills too often, and too often it isn’t intended.”
“Sorry. One of the others might be alive.” Gang admitted and looked around the clearing, spotting the man he’d smashed in the ribs with his hammer. Blood, black in the light of the fire, pooled around his open mouth and sightless eyes reflected the flickers of orange. “All right, not him. What about the one you hit?”
Liu moved over the first man he’d hit, rolled him over and lifted an eyelid. “He’s out. Alive but he isn’t going to wake up for a few hours.”
“You hit him too hard,” Gang accused.
“Maybe a little,” Liu admitted.
“What’s in the pot?” Gang stomped over to the fire and lifted the pot from its hook over the fire, sniffing at its contents.
“Food,” Gang said. “I think.”
“It is all yours,” Liu smiled. “We might as well rest here for a bit and move on in hour or two. It will be still be dark. As you’re eating, I’ll try to get some sleep. You’re on first watch.”
“What…” Gang began, but his words fell on disinterested ears as Liu lay down on one of the bedrolls, so he settled for digging a spoon out his pack and tucking into the burnt food. It was hot, filling and not worth thinking about the ingredients.
The dead were poor company and offered nothing in the way of conversation. The unconscious lookout remained so and Gang let his thoughts wander. There was urgency within them, the desire to rush to Nuan’s aid, to rescue her and her brother, but it was tempered with experience. Rushing in was likely to end in their deaths or his. Liu often cautioned against his headstrong, impulsive actions, but they had not yet let him down. Dragged him into danger, put his life at risk, led to wounds that took a month or two to recover from, all of those things it was true, but he was too old to change. His Tao was set, the path he followed was his and he was happy to travel it.
When he judged the moon had traversed the sky a sufficient distance, he woke Liu and took his spot on the now vacant, warm, bedroll. Without pause he fell asleep.
Moments later, a hand pushed his shoulder. He slapped at it and succeeded only in striking the meat of his own flesh.
“Wake up, Gang.” Liu’s voice came to him through dreams and layers of warm sleep.
“Let me sleep,” he mumbled.
“No time,” Liu replied. “It is getting lighter and I want to be at the camp before full sunrise.”
Gang opened an eye, saw the glow of the embers, and closed it again. “What about the other guard?”
“He’s like you, won’t wake up,” Liu said.
Gang opened both eyes and rolled over to stare up at the night sky through the fronds and leaves of the bamboo forest. “I’m awake. What are you going to do with him?”
“Leave him here,” Liu said.
“I’ve tied him to the bamboo,” Liu answered. “He won’t be going anywhere for a long time.”
“How far to the camp?”
“I’ve no idea,” Liu said, and Gang felt a toe nudge him in the ribs. “There’s no one to ask. Now, let’s get a move on.”
Gang sighed, farted, and struggled upright.
“Pleasant,” Liu sighed.
“Can’t fight on a gas filled belly,” Gang smiled in return.
They crept through the forest, following the track further up the mountainside, keeping an eye and ear out for more guards and lookouts. There were none. After an hour or so, and as the first arc of the sun began to climb above the mountains, its light piercing the gloom of the bamboo forest, the track widened and joined another.
The new track was well used. Compacted mud and crushed vegetation marked the passage of many feet. It led to the left and right.
“Which way?” Gang said, gazing up and down the path.
“Up the mountain,” Liu said. “If the outlaws have a proper camp, the road will lead to it and not beyond. I don’t think it can be far past this junction.”
“There’ll be guards on the road.” Gang let the haft of his hammer slap down into his large hand.
“We go with care, Gang.”
“You’re no fun.”
“And yet still alive. Funny how that works,” Liu said, patting his axes. “Come on.”
The road was easy to travel and twice in the next half an hour they had to duck into the forest to avoid the patrols of guards. Each group had three outlaws, each armed with a different weapon. There had been a short, but heated argument when the first group had passed them by.
“We could have killed them,” Gang said.
“And then what?” Liu answered in a hushed whisper.
“What about the next group to come past or come looking?”
“We kill them too,” Gang stated.
“You’ve a big head, Gang, start using the brain within it to actually think, and not just about food,” Liu had said and stomped off along the track.
“What did I say?” Gang said to the other man’s retreating back.
When it became clear, from the noise and voices that they were getting close to the camp they left the road and climbed up through the bamboo forest slopes to a vantage point overlooking the outlaws domain.
They had built, in a cleared bowl of land on the mountainside, a sizeable camp. Roughly constructed timber homes, canvas tents and a large hall surrounded a muddy central area and the remains of a large fire. Wafts of smoke drifted upwards into the early morning sky. Individuals had risen from sleep and were moving slowly around the compound, beginning their day with the search for food. Of Nuan there was no sign.
“Where do you think she’ll be?”
“Either in the large house or one of the wooden shacks,” Liu answered.
“Wait for night and go in?” Gang said.
“Funny, I thought you’d want to rush in right now,” Liu said, glancing at Gang.
“I do,” Gang said, stifling a chuckle. “I was trying to use my big head to think, for a change.”
“There aren’t many up and about,” Liu said. “Just those patrols that went out, and I’d bet they find the lookouts we dealt with last night before long. When they do they’ll be rushing back here and raising the alarm.”
“You want to go in now?” It was Gang’s turn to be surprised.
“I don’t think Nuan will have the easiest of days if we wait,” Liu said.
“I’ll take the shacks and tents,” Gang said. “They might recognise everyone in the camp, but I’m rough enough to get past a quick inspection. You look too…”
He tailed off, unsure of the exact words to complete that sentence.
“I agree,” Liu said after a short pause.
They slid and scrambled down the slope, using the stems of bamboo for support and kept a careful watch on the camps inhabitants. The dirt made little impression on Gang’s tied robe, but Liu picked up some smears and smudges. Still too well turned out to be an outlaw, but at least making an effort to fit in, Gang decided.
No fence barred their way, the slope, mountain, bamboo and patrols were sufficient to safeguard their camp. Until now, Gang smiled. Clapping the smaller man on the shoulder, Gang lifted his hammer and strode off through the camp, the picture of calm confidence and belonging. Liu headed off to the left, sticking to the shadows.
None of the early risers paid him any mind as he sauntered towards the first shack. Opening the door and peering in, he saw nothing but sleeping bodies and wrinkled his nose at the scent of so many in such a small space. The next shack held the same, as did the third. By the fourth, people were beginning to stir and he still had no sign of Nuan or her brother.
The tents needed checking but, Gang admitted, few prisons were made of cloth and canvas. It was too easy to escape from. However, it paid to be thorough and Liu would only chastise him if he failed to look in them. Sighing, and casting a measuring glance at the rising sun, he stomped off towards the nearest.
Shouts of alarm erupted from the large building, the hall, towards the far end of the clearing. Changing direction, Gang began to make his way across the mud that made up the central area of the camp. From the shacks and tents, the sounds of people rousing themselves, the grunts, groans and curses against the start of a new day. He picked up his pace.
Those souls already up and about had stopped in their tracks and looked in the direction of the house, but none moved that way.
Liu flew out of the door, his axes drawn and leading the way. At the bottom of the stairs, Gang saw Liu dive forward and roll to his feet, spinning on the spot to face the doorway. A moment later, three guards piled out and down the stairs. They did not pause, but charged straight at Liu. Now the others began to move too, towards Liu and their fellow outlaws.
The first guard to reach Liu died as the small man dodged the clumsy attack and riposted with an axe blow to the neck. The second held back, brandishing a Pudao, a polearm with a long curved blade, whilst the third began shouting for assistance, his Dao shaking in his grasp.
Outlaws began to emerge from the shacks and tents, barely dressed but sporting a variety of weapons. Gang began to run, closing the distance. Liu didn’t turn, but the guards saw Gang coming and smiled, their confidence building as the large man raced up behind the axe wielder.
Liu stepped aside as Gang reached him and the big man did not stop. His hammer swung down, smashing through the Pudao’s hasty block and crushing the chest of its wielder. Liu skipped around the clash and struck out at the third outlaw, burying an axe in his ribs. It ripped free with a wet, sucking sound and the man collapsed.
“This is not going to plan,” Gang said, spinning the hammer in his hands and turning to face the crowd of outlaws behind them.
Liu stepped over to Gang, his eyes firmly on the house. “I found Nuan.”
“And?” Gang glared at the outlaws, all of them armed, but waiting at a safe distance. No one was willing to be the first to die.
“She’s fine,” Liu answered. “They had her in a locked room. Sadly, I was seen before I could get her out. I left a few guards dead inside. Others were shouting for the chief when I ran.”
“You reckon that’s who they’re waiting for?” Gang lunged forward, a feint, and smiled when the front rank of outlaws backed away.
“I suspect so,” Liu said.
A hush fell over the crowd and as one the outlaws straightened.
“Chief’s here,” Gang said.
“Yes,” Liu answered. “Turn round. I don’t think they are going to attack right now.”
Gang glared once more at the outlaws facing him, sweeping his gaze as he would his hammer across them, but none were looking at him.
The chief of outlaws was a man who deserved the title. He was large, but where Gang ran to fat the chief was muscle. The hilt of a sword protruded over his shoulder and the grey tunic was belted at the waist by a white sash. The object in his hands drew Gang’s attention. It was a large box, longer than the Dao swords, almost the length of the Pudao, with intricate carvings along its length. In the early dawn light, the nature of the carvings was difficult to make out. The open end faced Liu and Gang, a dark mouth gaping.
“What is it?” Gang said, as the outlaw chief came to a halt some ten paces away.
“I don’t know,” Liu said, “but it has dragons carved on it.”
A wisp of smoke drifted upward from the open mouth of the dragon box.
“Where’s Nuan?” Gang took a pace forward, hammer ready.
“Safe,” the outlaw chief answered. “She told me my father had asked for assistance from the Emperor and that he had sent two Masters.”
“Father?” Gang asked.
“You’re the chief’s son,” Liu stated. “Why are you doing this? Your village is dying and your father was hurt by your men. It is not the way a dutiful child should act.”
“Dutiful,” the outlaw chief spat. “I was an obedient and dutiful son, right up until he began paying the outlaws to leave him alone. Not fighting, but paying them. Not saving his village, but cowering in the house. Blaming heaven, the Jade Emperor, and everyone for his faults. Doing nothing to put them right.”
“Yet you joined them,” Liu said.
“I lead them,” the chief answered. “I give them purpose and do not blame others for mistakes. I don’t hide away and send others to do my fighting.”
“He does what he must to protect his people,” Liu replied.
“They aren’t fighters, boy,” Gang interrupted. “They’re farmers. They fight the soil, the elements and all of nature to raise crops and animals to feed their families. They don’t hide from the weather, the rain, the frosts and storms. Every day they rise from their beds to fight again. And you steal it all.”
“They should fight for what is theirs,” the chief said.
“As you did?” Liu said.
“They took me,” the chief said, shifting the box to face Liu, “and he did nothing. I rotted in a cell and when they came to beat me, I fought them. I stood up and took the hits, striking back. I took my freedom from them. I stood up to the chief and I beat him.”
The last words were growled. A sound from deep in the outlaw chief’s chest, it rumbled and snarled across the space between them. Gang saw the man’s hands clench, his muscles ripple along his arms, in the chief’s eyes there was a fire and his forked tongue flickered out of his mouth.
Gang took a shocked step back, and Liu followed suit.
“Guài,” Liu said, lifting his axes. “Demon.”
“Dragon,” the chief shouted and squeezed the box. A flash of flame shot from the front of the box, a cloud of smoke erupted from the rear, and a loud explosion rocked the camp.
Liu spun out of the way. Three graceful and lithe steps carried the thin man to the side and the line of outlaws that surrounded them. When one of them tried to strike at Liu they found his axes faster than their sword.
Gang brought his hammer round in front of him and rushed forward at an angle.
Tongues of flame and bright projectiles issued forth from the dragon box, screaming through the air in whirling, twirling paths that held only the edge of order but owed more to chaos. They flew everywhere within a wide cone from the dragon box’s gaping mouth. One struck Gang’s hammer, almost wrenching it from his grasp, but he held on and continued his advance on the chief.
There were shouts and screams of agony from all around. The projectiles had found unintended targets in the outlaws. Secondary explosions roared behind Gang and more screams followed.
The outlaw chief dropped the Dragon Box and drew his sword, swinging it in one fluid move. Gang raised his hammer and caught the blow; it drove him to his knees. Never before had someone managed to do that. Never had the shock of an impact coursed up his arms and shaken his skull so. The outlaw chief was strong, immensely so.
Gang let himself fall to the ground and rolled away as the Dao fell again, cutting a chunk of earth wide open. Rising to his feet, Gang set himself, feet wide apart, body sunk low and hammer held before him. Injured outlaws, some smouldering and some aflame, raced about. None looked in his direction, more concerned with their own injuries. To the left, Liu was dancing with a few of the outlaws who had been out of the cone of destruction. At least three were already bleeding out on the dirt floor and two more were staggering away from the lithe man’s axes.
“You’re going to die,” the chief said with a sibilant and undulating cadence to his voice.
“Not today, guài,” Gang answered, slamming the haft of the hammer down into his palm.
They charged each other, weapons leading the way. The Chief’s Dao sliced from right to left, faster than Gang had seen anyone move, but he was inside its arc, punching straight out with the round head of the hammer. Striking the chief’s chest with all of his weight and strength behind it the outlaw staggered backwards, but did not fall.
Gang stepped in again, drawing back the hammer and executing a horizontal strike from left to right. The guài jumped backwards, away from the hammer. A smaller man than Gang would have been carried around by the sweeping hammer, but practice, weight and years of familiarity meant he could bring the weapon up once again to deflect the chief’s attack. The blow was as strong as before, but this time Gang did not try to stop the blow just redirect its energy.
Sword and hammer were pushed out wide so Gang let go with one hand and threw a heavy punch. It cracked off the chief’s jaw to no effect. Cocking his hand again, Gang threw a second punch. A hand almost as large as Gang’s own caught his fist and stopped it in its flight.
A kick to the inside of the guài’s knee caused the musclebound man to stumble, but he did not let go of Gang’s hand. Raising the hammer in a short swing, Gang caught the chief’s ribs with little power, hoping the shock or impact would cause the outlaw to let go and retreat.
The chief did neither. Ignoring the impact, the outlaw raised his own sword and struck down at Gang’s neck. With no way to retreat, to dodge or time to raise his own hammer in defence, Gang did the only thing he could. He dropped the hammer and caught the chief’s wrist in a grip of his own. The Dao slowed and, digging his heels into the mud, Gang stopped it.
Locked together, arm against arm, muscle fighting muscle, the two men stood still. Blood pumped in Gang’s system, the sound of crashing waves echoed in his ears. Breath laboured. Sweat sprung out on his forehead as the outlaw guài bore down with all his weight and strength. Gang gritted his teeth, drawing upon all his training, his experience, his desire and confidence.
On the guài’s face there was only a smile. “You are going to lose, little man.”
“Not,” Gang gasped, “today.”
“Yesss, today,” the outlaw chief, the guài, whispered. Leaning forward, the chief opened his mouth and a forked tongue flickered out, tasting the air before it extended further, running its raspy slickness across Gang’s cheek. “You will make a tasty meal.”
“Not,” said another voice, soft and full of promise, “today.”
There was a solid clunk and the guài’s eyes lost focus, his arms weakened, grip loosened and the large man fell forward. Gang let go and stepped out of the way.
Silence fell as the outlaw chief, the guài, the leader of the outlaws hit the ground face first with an axe buried in the back of its head. Behind the fallen demon stood Liu, one axe still held ready and a look of concern on his face.
“Never thought I’d see anyone as strong as you,” Liu said, stepping forward and looking forlornly down at the embedded axe.
“Nor me,” Gang said, bending down and retrieving his hammer from the floor. “I’ll get your axe.”
Resting his foot on the back of the dead chief’s neck, Gang grabbed the axe haft in one hand and with a strong wiggling action freed it from the bone, blood and brain.
“The other outlaws?” Gang asked.
“Gone,” Liu said accepting the axe back. “I’ve killed a few, the Dragon Box killed more, and when he,” Liu nodded at the body on the ground, “fell, they all ran.”
“Nuan?” Gang asked.
“Inside,” Liu said. “I’m sure you can open the door.”
“What are you going to tell her?”
“I’m not a good talker, Liu,” Gang said with a half-hearted smile. “A boaster and drinker, but we’ve just killed her brother and he was the man making life in the village impossible for everyone.”
“She knows what her brother did. We can’t hide that from her,” Liu admitted before adding. “Bring the dragon box weapon, the Emperor will be interested in it.”
“He was a demon. His tongue,” Gang said and shuddered. “What if they are all like that, her family?”
“I think he was a Wu, Gang. Out of control and insane, but still a Wu. We don’t need to tell her that,” Liu said, “and what we tell her, she will tell her father. Let’s save them some pain if we can.”
“You know the problem with outlaws, Liu?”
“They steal things?”
“No. The problem is they exist.” Gang lifted his hammer onto his shoulder and marched towards the house.
If you enjoyed this little story then maybe you should check out my other books.
THE FORBIDDEN LIST SERIES
THE STONE ROAD
THE BLUE MOUNTAIN
THE RED PLAINS
Fantasy-Faction Book Club – Book of the Month, June 2016
“G.R. Matthews has taken two of the best things ever created: fantasy novels & Kung Fu movies, thrown them together into a blender and left us with something wonderful.”
Marc Aplin (Fantasy-Faction.com)
NOTHING IS EVER SIMPLE
THREE TIMES THE TROUBLE (OUT 2017)
Mark Lawrence (Author of Prince of Thorns, Prince of Fools)
“(A) book that isn’t short on action or imagination and the setting is an interesting change of pace, so check it out!”
You can also find out more about the books at:
And you can find me on twitter @G_R_Matthews and Facebook too.
It will be great to get to know you and hear what you thought about of the books.
Thanks to Julia Sarene for the constant encouragement and help with everything.
Also, to my wife Su, for her help with the cover and colours.
G R Matthews grew up on the edge of the West Country, a place renowned for its rolling chalk downs, hill forts, barrows and ancient stone circles. It was no surprise that he turned a love of reading into the desire to write fantasy novels and science-fiction stories. He holds a degree in Geography and a Diploma in Creative Writing (and literature).
In the south of the Empire, Outlaws plague a small village. Gang, master of the hammer, and Liu, master of the axe, are sent to their aid, but word of a Dragon in the mountains might mean it is more than even they can handle. Outlaw Mountain is a short story set in the world of The Forbidden List - The Stone Road, The Blue Mountain, The Red Plains. Fantasy-Faction Book Club - Book of the Month, June 2016 "G.R. Matthews has taken two of the best things ever created: fantasy novels & Kung Fu movies, thrown them together into a blender and left us with something wonderful." Marc Aplin (Fantasy-Faction.com)