Chapter 2 - Survival
It was an almost impossible task to mask and keep secret the movement of 22,473 people and the same amount of animals, if not more. The caravan was ripe for the picking by roving bands of marauders and contesting groups of people vying for autonomy and in need of weapons and animals. Fortunately for the people of the caravan, the region of the Zagros Mountains was a sparsely populated area too harsh for agriculture, with not enough known natural resources to support a town, let alone a society.
The peaks had been pushed up over millions of years by a gradual movement of the Arabian tectonic plate northward and the Indian continent slamming into the Asian landmass. The peaks of those mountains towered in the sky, with many of them over 9,500 feet and one, Zard-Kuh, reaching a staggering height of 14, 922 feet. It is a mountain range not to be trifled with, and one full of danger from the elements, animals, and the landmass itself.
Talmido and his men had no desire to be caught within those mountains when the snows began to fall. They wanted to be well beyond the dangers of landslides, avalanches, mudslides, and the wild indigenous people and their barbaric practices. They kept up a punishing pace for days on end, not relenting to the cries of children, the weeping of women, and the giving out of their oxen. To stop was to invite destruction; to stay was to be defeated. They had to push forward despite whatever came at them. They had to move out of the mountain range before it was too late.
Meanwhile, twenty-one leagues behind them, the Babylonian Golden Lions army unit of five thousand men continued its investigation, and of course, upon finding the caravan’s trail, they pursued it to within seven leagues of its position. The scouts of the rear guard reported the emergence of the Babylonian army unit trailing their convoy. Panic almost overtook the people to the point that pandemonium was beginning to set in. Talmido and Si-tatious had to move among the rank and file to calm nerves and build courage within the hearts and minds of those panicked travelers. The fear added to the strain and stress of the people and soldiers. The anxiety motivated every one of them to call upon every ounce of reserved energy to either move forward or die.
They were quickly approaching a tributary coming off the mountains and draining into the Tigris River, as evidenced by the animals picking up its scent and quickening their pace along with the various scout reports. A bridge-building contingent was sent ahead to construct their way across while an increasing number of platoons were sent to the rear guard to build a wall of fighting men for when the crossing commenced. The valley, due to the steep angles of the mountains, opened up suddenly to the river running perpendicular to the valley’s course. The whole of the caravan spilled out along the banks of the river while the military units moved en masse to the valley exit.
“We must construct the bridge faster, Si-tatious. The Babylonians are quickly closing in,” Talmido said.
“I agree. We need everyone pitching in to help. I will organize the militia and the families,” Si-tatious replied.
“Good. I will work with the men at the rear of the convoy to make sure defensive measures are appropriately implemented,” Talmido said.
Thousands of people and animals assisted with the construction of the bridge. Trees were cut and hewed into lumber and poles for the bridge. It was not pretty, but it was most certainly functional and would do the job. The bridge was built over the course of one night as the Babylonian army group drew closer to the rearguard formation.
It was a race against fear and panic. All the people threw everything they had into the construction of the bridge, the coordination of the deployment across the river, and the possibility of an ensuing battle against the Babylonians. Those acts were testaments to the men, the women, and their desire for freedom and liberty. Nothing was going to stand in their way.
The men of the Babylonian army unit were mostly conscripts from the surrounding conquered nations. They were men usually bought or brought into the military against their will. Fear and greed were the primary motivating factors in their decision to stick with military life and not desert. They were professional soldiers, honed in their skills of death and destruction. Talmido and the veteran soldiers used to fighting against men of that caliber knew what to expect.
Standing in the command tent, arms folded, Talmido asked, “Is the rampart finished? Are the men deployed within their units?”
“Yes, sir. Everything and everyone are in position,” a junior officer answered.
“Move the archers up onto the rampart,” Talmido ordered.
“Yes, sir,” the officer replied and turned, walking out of the tent to issue the orders.
The next morning, the Babylonian army camped itself no more than a half league away from the ramparts, as if taunting the defenders. As in previous battles, a parley was requested by the commander in charge, and Talmido accepting spurred on the setup of the tent of meeting halfway between each camp, with the negotiations scheduled for the next day at noon.
When the time arrived, Talmido and the Babylonian envoy sat down at a table of prepared meats and goblets of wine to begin discussing the purpose and nature of the caravan, and why Assyrian people were crossing Babylonian territories.
“Tell me why you and your people have presumed upon the graces of our king to move about our land, harvest our wildlife, and use our resources without expressed authorization?” the Babylonian army commander asked.
“We are looking for new land to the east to settle in freedom from the slavery we have experienced,” Talmido replied. “We mean the Babylonian king and his representatives no disrespect. We will pay back all that we have taken in our journey through your lands. We have no desire or intent to stay within Babylon. Please grant us the authority to cross through over into Elam as we are moving east. We do not quarrel with Babylon.”
“You look Assyrian. In fact, your dialect indicates you are someone from Assyria’s northwest sector. Why are you fleeing the Assyrian hegemony?”
“We are not fleeing. We are exercising our will to leave and pursue our path for ourselves.”
“No, it would seem you have deserted the will of the Assyrian emperor. What should we do? As a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire and as a representative of the Babylonian king, I am responsible if I do not report this. So the question is, what is to be done?” the commander asked.
“If I may say so, you do not look like a natural-born Babylonian. From what nation are you originally?” Talmido asked.
“An interesting question. As with most men within the Babylonian Kingdom recruited into its army, I am from a little-known tribe to the northeast of the city of Babylon. My ancestors are Sutean. We assimilated into Babylonian society 130 years ago. Why do you ask?”
“Are you compelled to serve your masters, or are you a volunteer? We yearn for our independence and free will. Do you not yearn likewise?” Talmido smiled as he sat back on his couch and took a sip of his wine.
The commander raised an eyebrow and sipped his wine as well, contemplating Talmido’s question.
It is most difficult for a man who was born a slave to consider anything other than being a slave. Freedom seemingly represented too much responsibility and accountability; for slaves, it is not their conditioned nature to desire freedom from the physical or psychological walls surrounding them.
Many men will choose the path of least resistance, even if it means less choice, free will, and material things. It becomes even more pronounced when they have wives, children, and a few material possessions granted them, as they do not want to lose what they have. Even their current allowed status and self-fulfillment may discourage them from wanting to reach out for liberty.
“So, Talmido, what is it that you are proposing?” the commander queried while stroking his beard and looking outside.
“My brother, let us not fight, for we have nothing to fight over. We do not wish any harm to you or your men, and we do not wish any insult to your king or your gods. Life is short. Why should we waste it by slaughtering each other? Perhaps you and your men may consider the possibility of the choice of freedom and join us in our journey,” Talmido stated with a firm resolve in his tone and body language.
“Ah, the proposal. We have families and lives back in our respective cities. We cannot risk such things by joining a possibly foolhardy journey. The Babylonian hierarchy, as well as the Assyrian hegemony, will never acquiesce to this. What you are doing risks their legitimacies and power bases, and will ultimately risk and undermine what my family and the families of the men under me have done. It is not a simple decision,” the commander said with a soft, contemplative tone while leaning forward and looking Talmido in the eye. He shrugged and gestured his hands outward, which showed non-confrontation but also questioning, and perhaps, confusion.
“Yes. Of course, it is not a simple decision, and yes, there are many things to be risked and possibly lost. Even if you and your men desire not to join us, let us not fight each other, for there is no reason. Please, let us be on our way,” Talmido asserted again with a little more emphasis and resolve in his request. “Perhaps we can provide a travel tax to the king of Babylon for the troubles we have inadvertently caused.”
“Let us reconvene two days hence, as I need time to consider your offers,” the commander suggested, standing up and bowing toward Talmido and Si-tatious.
The men left the tent of meeting and headed back to their respective camps. The discussion had gone as well as was expected. Talmido was under no illusion that the commander and his men would join their cause. While they were in negotiation, all the non-military personnel and animals were being moved across the river and marched along its south bank toward the area of the Tigris River on a slope west toward the flat grasslands and marshes of Mesopotamia.
While the commander thought over Talmido’s proposals, the Assyrian military deserters and militia gradually began to cross over and march south toward the caravan. At first, the front columns slowly started to thin out as men moved back from their positions; eventually, the men on the ramparts left as other groups made torches indicating campfires to cover their escape.
By early morning, all the men were across and already three leagues south of the Babylonian position. When the Babylonians awoke the next morning, they were shocked to see the Assyrian military camp empty and the bridge dismantled and left to float down the river. The commander was livid with rage and fear, knowing that if he did not detain those interlopers, he would find his head stuck on a spear.
He shouted orders for the men to gather their equipment and disembark immediately to march down the north side of the river toward a bridge already constructed just two leagues east of the Tigris River. The men scrambled for their kits and weapons, pulling their units together, and within thirty minutes, the army group was ready to move out.
The commander dispatched messengers to the Babylonian post northwest of their position to inform them of their movement and of the current developments that had taken place, and also requested an additional fifteen thousand men to rendezvous at the bridge crossing the tributary.
Now two groups were racing south against time along each side of the river, each faction bent on their destination with fear pushing them from behind and purpose pulling from the front.