Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 4 of 6

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.

Avalon 7.4 People in the Middle, part 2 of 6

Inside the tent, Lincoln pointed at the map Zheng She got out and laid over top of the new map they were making. He said it was a copy of the map made originally for the Emperor of Han by Zhang She’s ancestor, Zhang Qian.  

“Bactria,” Lincoln said, checking the map against the one in the database.  He pointed.

“Soon to be called Balkh,” Katie said.  “Avestan, mostly, I would guess.  Mostly folk religion and Zoroastrian.  I don’t know how far Buddhism has penetrated.  It could be all Buddhist by now, but I doubt any Nestorian Christians have gotten there.  Not yet.”  She looked up and saw the Chinese men in particular staring at her, like women should not speak in the presence of men.  “Sorry,” she said, and Lincoln continued.

“Here, where it is marked Dayuan.  That is as far as the Greeks under Alexander reached.”

“He got that far?”  Lockhart was impressed.

“Up here, marked Kangju, is Sogdinia.

“Where Roxana, Alexander’s wife came from.” Katie tried to whisper.

Lincoln ignored her.  “Back here, across the Tarim Basin is where the Yuezhi come from. They have pushed down into all this area and pushed out the Parthians, more or less. Merv, here, is on the edge of Parthian territory these days.”

“The Anxi?” Zheng She asked, seemingly unsure who the Parthians might be.

“The Arsacid dynasty of Parthia,” Katie spoke up again.  “The Chinese name an area after the people, usually after the king’s or emperor’s dynastic name, being generally applied to the people.  China is presently the land of the Han, though eventually, the name China sticks.”

“But here?” Captain Ban got interested and did not hesitate to ask the woman.

“The Yuezhi form a confederation of five?  I think five tribes.”  She looked at Lincoln who started to look it up in the database before she waved him off.  “The important tribe is the Kush.  They eventually take over the old Greco-Bactrian empire, push up into Sogdinia and eventually all the way to the Hindu Kush, and they form the Kushan Empire between China and the Parthians.  Pushing from their end, and with the Romans on the other end, they weaken the Parthians who eventually fall to the Sassanids.  A Parthian civil war doesn’t help.  The Scythians invading from the north and killing a couple of Parthian kings doesn’t help, either.  To be honest, the Kushan empire is never strong, being made up of various loosely connected tribes.  But they do control the road, here, between the Tian Shan and the Taklimakan desert.”

“Not at all,” Zhang She said.  “That whole area has been made the Western Protectorate of the Han.  It was a hundred years ago the great general Zheng Ji drove the Xiongnu out and made the land a protectorate of the Han.  That is another reason for our journey.  After these hundred years, much has changed in the west, and the great Han emperor wishes to know what has transpired.”

Lincoln made a knowing sound before he spoke.  “There was a rival dynasty set up some years back and the Han got involved in their own civil war.  The Han won and reestablished the dynasty about five, or less than ten years ago. My guess is, now that things have settled down, the Han want to know what has happened in the west, which is a long way from home.”

“The Western Protectorate,” Captain Ban nodded.

“Protectorate, yes,” Katie agreed.  “But you do not live here.  The Yuezhi have moved in with many western peoples.”

“So I have seen,” Zhang She said.

“Our primary trouble these days remains with the Xiongnu, not the Yuezhi.  The Xiongnu pushed the Yuezhi out of the western lands and across the desert,” the captain said.

“The Mongols,” Katie named them.  “But look.  The Tian Shan, the mountains in the north, and the Kunlun Mountains in the south with the desert in between make an affective barrier separating the Mongolian tribes from the Yuezhi.  And in the steppes, the Scythians have moved in and make an equally affective barrier against the Mongolian hordes.  It will be twelve hundred years before the Mongolians build enough strength and numbers to break through those barriers.”

“What is down here?” Gan Ao asked, sort of changing the subject.

“That points to India,” Katie answered.  “Shendu,” she read the name on the map.  “Probably Sindhu, a name for the Indus valley, roughly modern Pakistan.  It is an area still heavily influenced by the Greeks, like Bactria and Sogdinia were.  The actual India, of the Ganges, is further over.”

“My great ancestor. Zhang Qian failed to find a safe way from the Han to the Shendu people,” Zhang She said, out loud.

“The Himalayas.”  That was all Katie had to say.

“The Hindu Kush.  From the Kushan of the Yuezhi people?” Gan Ao asked.

“No doubt,” Katie said, and looked at Lockhart.  “And it occurred to me I am probably saying too much.  Most things are best to find out on your own.”

“I wonder if Tien is still around,” Boston said, pointing to the Tian Shan on the map.

“Tien?” Zhang She asked, while the four men of Han stared at Boston’s red hair.

“Tien Shang-Di,” Boston said happily.  “A really nice guy, and a good friend.”

“You mean, the god of heaven?” Gan Ao asked.  He grinned again, like he knew something.

“I guess so,” Boston said, confirming the guess, but not committing to it.

“Boston,” Katie scolded her.  “You know perfectly well that is who you are talking about.”

Boston grinned and shrugged.  “Yeah, but I’m ready for breakfast, and you will just stand around talking maps and history and stuff till the cows come home.”  She left the tent.

“Food must be ready,” the map maker, Djo-Djo agreed, and they all piled out of the tent to where the cooking fires burned.  Nanette complained.

“They are all eunuchs.  There are no women at all in this camp.  Only broken men.”

“The eunuchs serve, as is their duty and right,” Zhang She said, not exactly understanding the complaint.

“The Romans and Egyptians have slaves,” Decker said again, as the others came to the fire at the same time.

“Yes,” Lincoln said.  “But in Rome a man can earn his freedom.”

‘But we treat our eunuchs well, and if they serve well, they can win titles and lands with great honor,” Captain Ban said.

“But in Rome, a man can earn his freedom with titles, lands, and honor, and still have his manhood, to have children to pass down his prosperity to the next generation,” Lincoln said.

“Stop it,” Alexis said.  “There are eunuchs even in our day, the result of cancer, and other things.”

“There were Greco-Roman Eunuchs too,” Katie said.  “And in the middle east and Egypt, for centuries.  They are all over the world.  It probably started as far back as Sumer.  The Persian empire was full of Eunuchs in imperial service, and Alexander did not end the practice.  You might as well get used to the idea because we will probably run into eunuchs several more times during our journey.”

Lockhart turned up his nose and shivered but said nothing.  Decker remained stoic, but he looked at Nanette, and she looked at him with a look that said she could deal with it if he could.  He nodded slightly, but they also said nothing.

“And what does the one with flaming hair say?” Djo-Djo asked.

“Yes,” Zhang She said.  “I have seen yellow hair among the Yuezhi, though only once or twice.  I have seen blue eyes, but I have never seen hair the color of the flames.”

“I say we should eat and get moving or Lydia will get to the city ahead of us.”