This story concerns a tribe of Asiatic people, the Xiongnu, who are attacked by their dynastic neighbors, the Zhou. The Xiongnu lived in present day Mongolia, and the Zhou lived in present day China. Both civilizations existed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The story also treats the desperate love between a young husband and wife, and the lengths that the husband is willing to go to to get revenge on his enemies.
The Xiongnu people lived in the country that we currently call Mongolia. Mongolia is basically sandwiched between Russia and China, south of Russia, north of China. It’s a large country known for its broad flat plains, big blue skies, continental weather, nomads, and dexterous horsemen. People then lived in round buildings made of felt. They got the felt from the herds of sheep that they kept. Twice a year, they’d shear the sheep, roll all the wool smoothly out on the ground, pound it flat with sticks, then apply moisture and heat. It’s a process called felting, and it’s still practiced today. The homes of these Xiongnu people, which were called a yurt or a ger, had a circular ring at the top of each home, which held the roof up. These rings were connected by spindles, so that the form looked like what you’d see if laid a spinning wheel or a bicycle wheel on its side. This hub (that is, the ring at the yurt’s top) is called a compression ring. It’s the critical piece that allows the builder to put equal pressure on all the ribs, and which of course allows for a great deal more weight than otherwise to be put upon the roof. The yurts could be picked up, collapsed, and moved very easily, a necessary trait because the Xiongnu people who lived in them were nomads.
In those days, the populations of diverse species of animals were much higher. Accordingly, it was not uncommon to see snow leopards, Amur falcons, Caspian tigers (now extinct), wisent, and the Altai argali. A wisent is a type of European buffalo, and an argali is a brown-furred, white-faced sheep with heavy, spiraling horns.
You’d see the wisent bull rolling in the grass, its hooves up in the air, dust clouds rolling off the ground. You’d see the Amur falcon swooping over the river, rushing down mountain passes, high stone on either side. You’d see the world burnished at dawn and inked at dusk, painted every spring with pink, purple, and white wildflowers along the miles of green grass that faded into the mountains.
Every night, the stars glowed more brightly than you have ever seen. The summer sky was blue and rich. There was peace and quiet without engines or electronics. The Xiongnu people were known amongst other tribes for their excellent horsemanship and stylish fashion. They wore brightly colored clothes, of designs and styles not seen today, except in pictures and dreams. Winter clothes were made from the hides of Bactrian camels and summer clothes from light silk. They wore pointed caps and long robes, curving decorations along the shoulders, broad belts, and leather shoes. They had carpets of dazzling blues and reds and golds. They had fires, stories, and freedom. Now that world is gone, and it will never return.
At this time, there was also a group of people (we now call them the Zhou Dynasty) who settled in what is today China. The Zhou were at the forefront of global civilization’s bronze-making, and they were slavers, and, although they had a demarcated territory of their own, their armies were known for plundering, rape, and pillage. Their king was called King Li of Zhou, and he was infamous for his decree that he could issue a sentence of death upon anyone at any time.
For the most part, the affairs of the Zhou and the affairs of the Xiongnu did not affect one another, and the average citizens lived their days out in peace.
In a great valley surrounded by hills and mountains, there was a young Xiongnu couple. The woman’s name was Mazus Reptans and her husband’s name was Albie Sibirica. They herded sheep.
It was summer and the grass was green. The sheep’s wool was getting long, but it was not yet ready to be shorn, and there was little for a sheep herder to do during the day. Albie would sit among the stones on the hillside and would watch his sheep eat grass. There were no wolves or eagles nearby, which were the two main predators of sheep, other than bandits. Albie was near to a running stream, and every day when the sun was highest in the sky, and the day felt warmest, Albie would strip naked and bathe himself in the stream. During the days, he would think of going home at night to his wife, where there was sheep and goat meat cooked over the fire, and he could hold her in his arms at night.
Butterflies flew; crickets leapt in the grass; in the distance wild mountain goats sprang upon the rocks on the hillside. Falcons circled in the air, and, far out along the horizon, a herd of skylit musk deer grazed along what seemed to be the edge of the world, where the green grass met the blue sky.
The attack came with little warning.
Albie was naked in the stream when he heard rocks falling along the mountainside. He looked toward the mountain, but he saw nothing.
Then, a moment later, a horde of Zhou warriors stormed over the cliff face. The effect was as sudden as if they’d appeared out of thin air. One moment the warriors were hiding on the far side of the mountain, the next they were galloping down the near side.
Albie’ heart seemed to freeze a moment in the cold water, then he rushed out of the water, pulling on his pants and snatching his shirt. He ran back to his people.
From a distance, the Xiongnu camp looked peaceful and cozy. Their yurts were grayish white. There was a slow burning fire in the camp, its smoke winding peacefully to the sky. Horses stood staked to the ground, quietly eating grass. Women and children moved about their site. The women were mending fabrics and preparing foods.
Albie called to them, and one of them, hearing, looked up, and she dropped the work in her hands. Albie saw her hands fly to her chest as she screamed.
Behind Albie, the Zhou warriors quickly closed the distance. They drew nearer and nearer.
Their leader wore a purple and blue striped robe, and he carried a bow, with a quiver of arrows across his shoulder, and a hatchet in his belt. He rode a chestnut colored horse that was foaming at the mouth and whose eyes were wide. His face was Asiatic with a long black mustache whose ends hung off the corners of his mouth. His ears were pierced and hung with rings. Behind him thundered twenty more men, all on horseback, all with murderous intent.
By the time that Albie reached the village, the men were on horseback, and the women were carrying the children to such safety as they might. Albie ducked into his yurt, and he found there his wife, Mazus. He gripped her wrist. He pulled her out of the yurt. Together they ran to their horse. Albie pulled its stake from the ground, and he sprung astride it, Mazus leaping up behind him.
The Zhou hordes were upon them, however, and the Xiongnu people were not warriors, but shepherds. Coupled with the advantage of surprise, the raid was a rout. The Zhou men cut the heads off men and women and children alike, set fire to the yurts, and carried off the youngest girls. The Xiongnu horses were screaming, as were the remaining men and women.
Together Albie and Mazus fled their home. Albie turned the horse to the direction that the musk deer had been seen along the horizon, and he urged the horse to its fastest gallop. Mazus looked back. Three men pursued them. The men wore swords and carried bows and arrows, and they lofted the arrows over and around Albie and Mazus. Beyond the pursuers, Mazus could see their encampment burning. She saw a Zhou man thrust his sword through a person on the ground. She closed her eyes, and she looked ahead.
A moment later, one of the Zhou arrows caught the horse in the flank, and the horse fell. They were thrown from the horse. Albie and Mazus fell hard to the ground, and Mazus lay groaning. The men’s horses pounded to a stop beside them, and a man pulled taut the string of his bow and looked ready to let fly an arrow into Albie’ heart. But the man next to him uttered a sharp command, and the archer held himself in check.
The three men beat Albie, then they carried him and Mazus back to the site of the Xiongnu village. There were only four people left alive: Albie, Mazus, and two young women. The dead lay strewn about. The Xiongnu yurts burned.
Two Zhou men tied Albie’ hands with rope, and they hung a cangue around his neck. A cangue is like the stocks or the pillory without the base. A cangue is comprised of two sets of boards with a hole in the middle through which the prisoner’s head is put through, and then the boards are locked together. They are heavy, twenty pounds or more. But the most dangerous aspect of the cangue is that its shape makes it a barrier to feeding oneself. Prisoners can starve while wearing a cangue, because the prisoner can’t reach around the boards to feed himself. The boards of the cangue impede a person’s ability to put food in his own mouth.
The men then staked the cangue into the ground.
Albie looked at them. They were slim, dangerous men. They wore swords at sashes around their waists. They spoke in loud, rough tones. They laughed like horses. They spoke in the caustic, mordant Zhou tongue. Albie looked to the distance. The land otherwise seemed peaceful and calm. He felt a great fear for Mazus.
The man in the purple and blue striped robe looked at Albie. “If any come after, you will serve as the warning of the fearsome nature of the Zhou. Live or die, that cangue will mark you as a Zhou victim.”
Albie looked at his wife. Mazus was a short woman, five feet tall, with dark hair and dark eyes and skin the color of walnuts. She had teeth that Albie loved. The front teeth projected slightly like a rabbit’s, and he found them adorable. She looked into his eyes, and her eyes were wide with fear.
“I love you,” said Albie.
“I love you too,” Mazus said.
The Zhou raiders then pressed fabric into the women’s mouths, and tied the fabric into place to prevent the women from talking or screaming. Mazus and the two girls were thrown across the backs of three Xiongnu horses, and they were tied into place. Albie called to his wife, saying again that he loved her. He heard no reply. The Zhou rounded up the remaining Xiongnu horses and nearly a hundred sheep. The man in the blue and purple robe looked around at the waste and the desolation that he had laid upon the Xiongnu people. He looked round to see if there was additional loot.
The Zhou leader signaled to two of his men, “There is meat on the fire. Take it, and we will eat as we ride.”
The men did as they were bid.
With a last look around, the men took the hundred sheep, the twenty horses, and the three young women. Leaving Albie staked to the ground, his hands tied behind his back, and the cangue around his neck, they rode away.
After less than two hours, they were gone from sight. Albie could not free his hands. He could not stand because the horse, when it threw him, had tossed him at an awkward angle, and Albie felt that there was something wrong with his ankle. He could not rest easily, because he could not put his head down. The cangue around his neck impacted the ground long before his head could touch the soft turf of the Xiongnu valley.
By late afternoon, sweat dripped from his brow, and his neck burned. His mouth longed for the taste of cold, sweet water. As the sun set, Albie’ fear increased. That night, the clouds dispersed, and with them the heat rose through the atmosphere. The temperature fell. The moon and stars looked cold and merciless. Albie could not sleep at all. So it was that the next day, when the sun came, and the light colored the land, Albie felt thirsty, tired, and near death. His neck ached. His hands felt like they were going to fall off. His throat was parched. His thoughts felt crazy and his mind full of fear. He worried about himself. He worried about Mazus. When the sun rose, flies descended on his friends and family in the Xiongnu camp. The fires had burned out during the night, and there were black patches on the grass where the yurts had been. For as far as Albie could see in any direction, there was not a single person. He felt horror at the solitude. He knew that the Xiongnu camp was off the traditional road for any wayfarer. There should be no reason for a person to cross the plains and to find him. He gave himself up for dead.
In his mind, he saw the face of the man in the blue and purple robe. The man had a triangular jaw and crooked teeth. He had narrow eyes and thin black eyebrows. He had small ears. He was short and lightweight. He had in his throat an Adam’s apple. Albie kept the image in his mind, and he nursed a thought of revenge.
Near noon, Albie fell asleep. He slept for seven minutes, then his neck slowly drifted downwards until his windpipe was resting on the cangue, and the pressure cut off his air, and he woke again. Albie opened his eyes blearily. He fell asleep again, and a few minutes later, he was awakened again, coughing, as his air was cut off. Albie rested fitfully, waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping.
He pulled at the stake in the ground, but the captors had driven the stake deep, too deep to free.
Day turned to night. Albie thought that this night would be his last. Again the clouds parted, and again the heat vanished. Albie shivered, and he shook. The full moon shone brightly.
In the night, a man, horseworn and tired, came riding up out of the plains. Albie, spotting him in the light of the moon, tried to call out. His voice came as a kind of croak, a whisper. The man stopped in the distance. He appeared to be looking at the remains of the settlement, and trying to determine what it was that he was seeing. The yurts looked like strange structures. Their felt flapped in the wind, and the ribbed architecture of the roof looked skeletal.
The horseman rode slowly up to the encampment. Albie tried calling again. There was no voice to him left. As the man rode into the Xiongnu camp, he saw the corpses lying supine. The man stopped. He looked over the scene. He had the tense and wary energy of a stranger entering a dangerous place by night.
Albie stirred. The man nearly turned his horse and galloped away, but he checked himself. He trotted the horse forward.
“Who’s there?” asked the man in the Xiongnu tongue.
Albie tried to say his name. The sound was unintelligible and no more than a murmur.
The man rode up.
“You’re wearing a cangue,” he said. He saw then that Albie’ hands were bound behind his back.
“Are you the criminal that did this?” he asked. He was referring to the burned yurts and the dead.
“The Zhou,” whispered Albie.
The man frowned.
“Water,” whispered Albie.
The man pulled a leather pouch from his side. He dismounted, and he gave water to Albie.
“Help me,” whispered Albie.
The man frowned again. He looked around. “Who else is alive here?” he asked.
“Only me,” said Albie.
“And the rest?”
“Killed or taken,” said Albie.
“When did this happen?” asked the man.
“Help me,” whispered Albie.
“When did this happen?” demanded the man.
“Two days ago? Three?”
The man frowned.
The man led his horse away.
“Help me,” said Albie.
The man walked with his horse to a nearby yurt, and he looked inside cautiously. There was no one inside. The man walked into it. Its effects had been burned, and there was nothing useful inside. The man led his horse to the next yurt, and he repeated the process. Within a few minutes, he satisfied himself that Albie was telling the truth, that he was the only living person in the Xiongnu settlement.
The moon shone like a weak sun upon them as the man knelt next to Albie.
“Why are you in a cangue?”
“The Zhou said it was a warning,” whispered Albie. “Food. I need food. Get me out.”
The man untied the ropes that held Albie, and he broke the cangue with a stone.
Albie fell prostrate onto the ground. He was too weak to move. The man put some food into Albie’s mouth, and Albie slowly chewed it, but he could not swallow. The man lifted Albie’s head, and he poured a little water into Albie’s mouth. Albie was able to swallow.
The man put a hide of Bactrian camel fur over Albie, and he carried him into one of the burned out yurts.
There the man stayed with Albie for seven days, nursing him back to health. Albie slept most of the time, and, while Albie slept, the man buried the Xiongnu dead in accordance with what we now call slab graves. This kind of inhumation means that the people were buried in masses with their heads to the east and their feet to the west, and a great stone, that is, a slab, is laid over them. He tore the yurts down, and he reclaimed what felt he could for his own benefit.
The days grew in warmth, and on the seventh day, Albie was able to stand and to walk again. His ankle and his wrists felt tender, but he felt that they would completely heal.
As he recuperated, he thought of revenging himself on the man in the blue and purple robe, and of seeing his wife again.
At dusk, he sat down with the man, and they had their first real conversation. The man was a monk from the province of Hebei, and he had been falsely accused by the authorities for stealing seven sacks of grain from a local warlord who had, in fact, sold them for profit. The man had been forced to flee Hebei in the night, and along the roads there was a reward for his head.
“My name is Li Zhen,” the man said. “You should know that the government will arrest you and amputate your left foot. It is the penalty to those who help those who flee.”
“I owe you my life,” said Albie. “I’m not ashamed to be seen with you.”
“Then you’re welcome to come with me,” said Li Zhen. “I’m going north. But it is not an easy life. By night I ride across the hills and plains. By day I sleep.”
“I must go to the Zhou settlement,” said Albie. “I’m searching for a man with a purple and blue robe. He’s stolen my wife, and I must get her back and take my revenge on this man.”
Li Zhen thought for awhile. “Is he a small fellow? With a triangular face? And teeth like a donkey’s?”
“Yes,” said Albie.
Li Zhen said, “I know this person. His name is Lin Chow. He’s a government magistrate. He’s very corrupt, and he’s been known to murder his servants. His brother is the judge, so nothing ever happens to him. Together, they rule Cangzhou. I’m afraid that you have no hope. The city is loyal to them.”
“I have to try.”
“Do you say that they took your wife?”
Li Zhen shook his head sadly.
“Why do you shake your head?”
“No,” said Li Zhen slowly. “It is not for me to say. It is merely speculation, and I would not want you to feel terror if my guesses are not correct.”
“Tell me what you think,” said Albie. “I’m not afraid of what you have to say.”
“I will tell you,” said Li Zhen. “But you must not hold me responsible if I am wrong or right. After all, I have only heard rumors, and the rumors have led me to my speculation.”
“I will not hold you responsible,” said Albie. “Just tell me what you think.”
Li Zhen looked out over the plains to the mountains beyond. He did not meet Albie’s eyes. He said, “I’ve been told that Lin Chow’s sister is the madame of the brothel in Cangzhou. If that’s true, then your wife is probably a whore by now.”
“I feared as much,” said Albie. “I have no time to waste. I must go.”
“But you don’t have a sword, a horse, or even any food.”
“I know the way to Cangzhou. That’s enough. I’ll steal and beg if I have to. But there is nothing for me here. Everything that I cared about is in my heart, with my people, who are dead, and with my wife who is captive.”
“Well,” said Li Zhen. “I will not go with you. I think your road leads to death. You are welcome to come with me. There are many more women in the world, and who knows? Maybe your wife is already dead. It’s suicide to take your path.”
“I have to go,” said Albie. “Even if it kills me.”
“Then take at least some rice that I have, and take with you my friendship and hopes for a good result,” said Li Zhen.
“Thank you,” said Albie. “You’ve saved my life, and I’ll never forget it. If I can ever do anything for you, no matter how big or small, you have only to ask, and I’ll do everything in my power to help you.”
“It was only what anyone would do,” said Li Zhen.
They hugged. Li Zhen gave Albie a bag of cooked rice, and Albie started into the mountains. He passed the river where he had bathed just a week before, when everything in his life had seemed peaceful and serene. He climbed up the mountain which the Zhou raiders had hidden behind. He crested it, and he looked over the rivers and dells that lay beyond.
The way to Cangzhou was a three day ride, and it would be a week long walk.
Albie walked by the river, and he ate only small amounts from the rice every day. He was thin and lean. He passed field laborers, and he begged vegetables from them. They gave him spinach and rice. One night he came upon a couple of men sitting beside a fire. They said that they were bandits, but, because Albie had nothing for them to steal, and because he too was against the government, then they let him eat with them. They gave him stewed goat with bok choi, and they let him share their wine. Albie told them his story of the Zhou raiders, and, when the men exchanged empathetic glances, Albie asked them why they looked at each other that way. The bandits also said that Yang Wu, the sister of Lin Chow, was the mistress of a bordello, and that Albie’s wife was likely working for her. This information made Albie more determined than ever to reach Cangzhou and revenge himself upon Lin Chow.
When the bandits went to sleep that night, Albie repaid their kindness by stealing one of the bandits’ swords, and by riding away in the night with one of their horses and some of their food. He felt desperate. It was the first time that he had ever stolen anything. With the horse, he made better progress toward Cangzhou, and with the sword he felt more confident.
He realized that he would need a plan for confronting Lin Chow, and he devised one as he rode. He thought that because Lin Chow had cut off the heads of his family and friends, that he wanted to cut Lin Chow’s head off too.
At last, Albie settled on a plan.
When he reached Cangzhou, he found that it was a city bigger than any that he had ever been to before. There seemed to be a maze of streets stretching before him.
Albie stopped at the first place that he came to. There was a tall thin man who was pickled fish and chickens. When Albie stepped up to his stall, the man cut the head off a chicken with a large cleaver.
“Can I help you?” the man asked. He was deftly plucking the chicken, not even looking at it as he spoke to Albie.
“I’m looking for the fine and reputable establishment that I hear is run by the elegant Yang Wu.”
The chicken seller broke into a smile. “Ah! Hello stranger! You must be from out of town, because everyone in town knows where Yang Wu keeps her business.”
“I’m from out of town. Where is it?”
“It’s the only building in the town that has four doors. They are so that people can move discreetly in and out of the entrances. Just keep going into town. You can’t miss it.”
“Here,” said the shopkeeper. “Buy a chicken or some fish too, won’t you?”
“No, thank you,” said Albie, and he rode on.
When Albie saw the building with four doors, he noticed that it was across the street from the government office.
Albie went into the brothel. It was dark and cool inside, and there was a girl drinking tea and eating sheep.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m here because I heard that there are new girls working here now.”
“Yes, there are three.”
“I want to see them,” said Albie.
The girl nodded, and she rose. She went past a curtain, and she was gone for a short time.
Albie felt his heart pounding in his chest.
When the girl came back, she had Mazus and the other two girls from the Xiongnu camp with her. They all expressed surprise at seeing them, but he shook his head quickly so that they would not speak. They looked tired and weary. They looked sad and broken. Albie felt hatred surge in his heart for Yang Wu.
“These girls look cheap and broken,” he said to the girl. “I was told that they were new.”
The girl shrugged. “They are Xiongnu girls,” she said. “What do you expect? Of course they are cheap.”
Albie held his temper. “I want to speak to the madam,” he said. “Yang Wu. Bring her to me.”
“You don’t want the girls?” asked the assistant.
“I traveled a long way to be here,” said Albie. “I was under the impression that the girls would look fresh and healthy. These girls look like they’ve been sleeping on a bed of iron every night and being fed with salt and water.”
The assistant shrugged and she went to get the madam.
As soon as she was gone, Albie and Mazus stepped forward. They embraced, and they hugged.
“I’m so glad you’re alive!” said Mazus. “I thought you were dead! Where did you get that sword? How did you survive?”
“Hush!” said Albie. “I’ll tell you everything soon. Now you should know that I have a horse, and a plan to get us all out of here. But you must play along—Yang Wu must be coming soon.”
Mazus stepped back. A few moments later, Yang Wu entered through the curtains. Albie was pretending to be examining the wall.
“What is it that you want?” asked Yang Wu. She was dressed in silky reds and golds , and she wore seven golden rings on her fingers. She had an evil face like an old and cunning wart hog’s. “You come into my place, and you tell me that my girls are not good enough? You should see yourself. You don’t look like a prince. You look like a scrawny vine.”
“Where is your assistant?” said Albie. “Bring her in too. I will show you more gold than you have ever seen in your life, and I want your assistant here so that she can speak to the truth of it. And I want you to tell everyone in town that there’s a new man with deep pockets, and he’s willing to spend—but only on the very best!”
Yang Wu looked doubtful. She called her assistant in, however, then Yang Wu said, “Now show me the gold.”
Albie instead drew his sword, and with one great swipe he cut off the head of Yang Wu. With a second great swipe, he split the assistant in half.
“You were a fool to trust me,” Albie said. “But your brother was an even greater one for leaving me alive. If your ghost wishes to haunt anyone, then haunt him for his foolishness. He is the true cause of your death. Without him, I would never have come here.”
Mazus and the other two girls were delighted to see that they had been freed.
“Let’s go home,” said Mazus.
Albie shook his head. “That’s impossible. Our home is gone. And I want revenge on Lin Chow. Here is my plan. I want one of you to go to the government office, and to request Lin Chow’s presence. Tell him that his sister, Yang Wu, has learned information which only he must hear, and that he must come immediately.”
One of the Xiongnu girls left to make the request.
“The other two of you,” said Albie, “Must help me clean this space. We cannot have corpses lying in the entranceway. If someone comes in, it would ruin our plans.”
Albie and the two women lifted the corpses of Yang Wu and her assistant out of the entranceway, and they placed them in rooms of the brothel.
“Now,” said Albie to his wife. “Stand outside the brothel. When Lin Chow comes, tell him to go into the brothel through one of the side doors. This will prevent him from seeing the bloodstains on the entranceway floor. When he inside, tell him to go into the room where his dead sister is. Tell him she is waiting for him there.”
Mazus agreed, and, a short time later, Lin Chow arrived at the brothel. Mazus stopped him from going in. She whispered in his ear that there was a special surprise for him. Lin Chow grinned widely. Mazus told him to go into the brothel by the side entrance, and Lin Chow did so. Then, she instructed Lin Chow to go into the room of the brothel where they had placed his dead sister.
During this time, Albie was waiting across the hall in a separate room. He heard Lin Chow enter brothel, and he heard him open the door. Then he heard Lin Chow scream in despair.
Albie appeared from behind the curtain. Lin Chow was holding his face in his hands. He was wearing his purple and blue robe.
“You left me to die,” said Albie. “And you destroyed my village and prostituted my wife. A simple death was too good for you.”
Then Albie ran Lin Chow through with the sword.
Albie took his wife and the two women from the Xiongnu community, and together they left the Zhou lands and went back into the Xiongnu lands. There they joined another nomadic tribe. Albie and Mazus had four children together, and their children had children, and Albie and Mazus lived happily ever after.