Boston, Sukki, Captain Ban and a dozen of his soldiers rode back from the point with a warning. The ones out front stopped, and eventually, the whole train came to a stop. Yuezhi bandits were hidden in the grass and small hills of the open land, ahead, just on the other side of the trees. They could not say how many, though certainly thirty. No doubt many more. The hill suggested a small army.
“Not good,” Zhang She said. “I had hoped we lost them once we got free of Pamir.”
“Elder Stow, can you get a fix on them?” Katie asked.
“I’ll take a look,” Decker volunteered and stepped from the group to sit and meditate.”
“Captain Ban…” Zhang She started to give orders, but Lockhart interrupted him.
“Wait until we see what we are dealing with.”
It did not take long for Elder Stow to report. “The scanner says three hundred and seven human life signs. There appear to be less than a hundred horses ahead. Here, let me show you.” He held up his scanner and projected a holograph of the area ahead. “See. We are in blue, here, on this side of the group of trees. I am green. Boston does not appear, but I would make her red. The bandits are all in yellow, which is the color of danger. See the dots, here, just on the other side of the trees. They are on both sides of what you call the road, and on this side, up this hill.” He paused to let Gan Ao and Zhang She stare.
“No,” Elder Stow said before Katie or Lockhart could ask. “I could put a stationary screen around this big a group, but not one we could move with. Too many obstacles to account for on such a large projection. Trust me. And a Decker Wall will not stretch nearly far enough to cover even one whole side of the group, in case you were thinking of those things.”
“They are not moving?” Boston asked. “I figured they would move, once they were seen.
“No,” Elder Stow shook his head. “Not moving.”
“Because they certainly saw us,” Captain Ban said.
“They tried to shoot us,” Sukki added, with a little huffing and puffing, like she ran away, personally.
Katie pointed at the projection. “They appear to be settled down. My guess is they are arguing. They probably believe you saw a few bandits, like thirty at most, and you will expect them to flee once your big group appears. There is no reason you should expect three hundred and seven ready to spring an ambush.”
“They are probably also mad that some jumped too soon,” Captain Ban said. “We escaped unharmed.”
“Decker?” Katie called as Alexis, Tony and Nanette came up to ask what was happening. Decker also came, and he had a plan, having seen the land ahead through the eye of his eagle totem.
“Captain Ban. You already have your troops divided to march along the left and right sides of the train. Send one group to where the trees end, and then follow the far side of the trees to the back of a hill. The enemy is hidden in the rocks on the other side of the hill, but it does not look steep. You should be able to climb up and easily see them. You can fall down on them from above and drive them out on to the road, then use the rocks and the height as cover for your own troops.”
“And the others?”
“Send your other group three hundred yards the other way. That is, three hundred large paces. Send them through the woods and have them spread out in the grasses and stay hidden. Tell them to get their bows and arrows ready and try to not be seen. If the bandits want to stay off the road to avoid soldiers and civilians, they will have to run through the grass where your archers will be waiting.”
“You got it all figured?” Lockhart said.
Decker nodded. “Elder Stow can put his screen around us in the front. We will move to the exit from the woods and a little way out into the open area beyond. The train can move up some but stay behind us and stay in the woods to not be exposed. We can occupy the bandits’ attention while Captain Ban gets his two groups in position.”
“Will you not fear to risk your lives so?” Zhang She asked, concerned about his guests.
“Elder Stow’s screen will protect us,” Katie said, only to be interrupted by Alexis.
“Nanette and I will bring up the wagon. We will send Lincoln to you, but I have no intention of participating in killing people if I don’t have to.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nanette agreed, and they wheeled around and rode back down the line to their wagon, gently nestled behind the wagon for Zhang She’s things and the wagon for the map maker.
Captain Ban sent six men off to get each column to do their job, but he and a half-dozen riders stayed with him in the front. Gan Ao rode down the line to tell the wagon drivers to stay in line, move up, but stay on the road and in the woods. Zhang She stayed close, not willing to miss what this screen business was all about. They waited a half-hour, to allow the troops time to get in position, then they moved slowly through the woods.
Elder Stow had his scanner out and kept one eye on it. He had his screen device hooked to it, as usual, and spoke. “A few more horses than expected, but I have programmed in the trees and ground, so they will not be disturbed by our passage.” They got partially exposed when Elder Stow said, “Stop. Stop moving.” The group stopped moving. “There is a boulder underground ahead.” He flipped a couple of switches and slid his fingers on the device. “A bit larger… Around the boulder… Okay. Move on.” The people moved until they became completely exposed. They stopped again when they saw the first head pop up from the ground.
Decker fired. The man spun and fell. A rain of arrows followed. Zhang She and several horsemen wailed before the arrows struck and bounced off Elder Stow’s screen. Two dozen men rushed up with long spears. They also bounced off the screen, and Lockhart ordered Decker not to kill them unless they went around and headed toward the wagons.
“Now,” Captain Ban said, looking up at the top of the hill. “Now, already.”
About eighty horses came from around the hill in a cavalry charge. Elder Stow got quickly down and set his screen device against the ground. “if I did not set this in a solid location, the horses would have pushed me right off my horse and thrown me back some distance, with the screens driven back as well. But by setting the screens, they should bounce off like the arrows.”
Katie imagined letting the horses break on the screens would be cruel. She flipped her rifle to automatic and Decker saw and did the same. Katie, at least, imagined shooting and killing a few horses in the front to stall the charge would be kinder. She and Decker opened fire. Horses certainly went down. The charge stalled as expected, then Decker actually stopped firing first.
Lincoln fired behind them. “Tony and I are watching the rear.” Some bandits were trying to find a back door to the screens.
“I’ll help,” Boston said, and she pulled out her wand and shot a stream of fire to one side and then the other. No bandits got badly burned, but they all decided to run.
Then the men sent to the hill came pouring down on the enemy among the rocks, and things happened very fast. The men in the rocks tried to escape down the hill. The men in the grass on that side of the road got caught up in the panic. The horsemen, utterly confused, rode off across the field, which got the men in that field to abandon their position. They ran into a wall of arrows, and Boston thought it looked like more arrows than she expected. She got mad and yelled, full volume.
“Brusher. Cut that out. If any of you folks get hurt, Lydia will yell at me, now, come on.” She did not notice any slack in the number of arrows, so she decided not to look.
Plenty of bandits, in particular, the ones on horseback, made it through the line of archers and escaped. Plenty escaped by turning and running down the road until they got far enough away to head across country. But quite a few bandits got put down, and they only had to wait a while as Captain Ban’s men made sure the ones left behind were indeed dead.
Boston got a quick visit from Brusher and his band of gnomes. They wanted to assure her that none of them got hurt, so maybe she would not mention it to Lydia. Boston wondered why they got involved in the first place. Brusher said the god, Tien Shang-Di ordered them to.
“No good can come from avoiding what the god says. The law says we have to listen and obey the gods. It is part of our job, you know.”
Boston nodded and said she would not tell Lydia, but then pointed out that Lydia probably already knew. As she watched the gnomes disappear back into the wilderness, she wondered what they would do when the gods finally and fully went away. That was happening very fast, from her perspective, traveling though time the way she was. She feared briefly that the little spirits of nature might run amok, being suddenly set free without the gods looking over their shoulders. But then she remembered that her god, the Kairos, would still be active in the world. Besides, the little ones, like the human race, had over four thousand years of learning, training, and growing up. Hopefully, they had matured enough in that time to stick to their tasks and not run wild.
“Time to grow up and start adulting,” she said out loud, without explaining to anyone. She called Sukki to join her out on the point. Captain Ban and some of his soldiers also joined them.