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Cold Steel

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Cold Steel

by David Pilling

Hasan Al-Asim, outlaw, assassin, thief for hire and currently a mercenary soldier, watched indifferently while the Duke of Slaveni was slaughtered by a howling mob of men-at-arms.

Cornered with his back to a tree, the doomed nobleman reminded Hasan of a stag at bay surrounded by a pack of hounds.  Grimy hands ripped the Duke’s pole-axe from his grasp and pitched him into the thick winter mud. Halberds, spears and axes smashed down onto his fine gilded plate armour as he struggled to rise.

The Duke’s ignoble death was the last act in a long and bitter war between the Kingdom of Salymra and Slaveni, a rebel province. Eighteen months of war, of slaughter and siege and fire, and Hasan had somehow survived with nothing worse than a few scars and a lot of difficult memories.

He had been shrewd enough to sign up for the winning side, which was why he was not one of the scattered fugitives currently being pursued through the woods while their master was butchered. Always a military blunderer, the Duke’s last mistake had been to lead his army into a forest ambush.

“Three shillings says he drowns first.” said a rough voice.

Hasan turned to its owner, a hard-faced stripling named Hungry Jock. Jock was an army scout like Hasan. Unlike Hasan he was a tough Wastelander with a casual attitude towards murder, rape and other people’s property.

“I don’t care to wager upon a man’s death.” Hasan replied quietly.

Jock grinned and spat a stream of tobacco juice. “Happy enough to watch him die, though, aren’t you?” he sneered “but no matter. He’s gone.”

The Duke’s steel limbs had stopped thrashing. As Jock had predicted, he had drowned in the mud before he could be beaten to death. The men-at-arms whooped and cheered and bent to the difficult task of removing the dead man’s elaborate helm.

‘The war should be over soon,” Jock said cheerfully as they rode away from the grisly scene ‘the victory here should clinch it. Soon we can take our ease. Nothing to do but squander our pay on dice, whisky and tarts.”

Hasan scowled. “Don’t be a fool. The enemy have other armies in the field, and many towns and castles too. It will drag on for years.”

Jock laughed and slapped Hasan on the shoulder. “What a miserable brute you are. The fighting will be done in three months, at the most.”

He spurred his pony into a canter. ‘Three months!” he cried, turning to wave at Hasan and spit out another quid of tobacco. Then he spurred on ahead, weaving a path between the piled corpses and groups of fighting men.

Hasan sighed and ran a hand through his sparse hair. Jock was young, he knew, and took a thoughtless delight in war and killing. Right now he had ridden off to amuse himself with a quart of whisky and one of the whores that followed in the army’s wake. Hasan had been like that once, though the hard years had stripped away much of his joy in life.

He missed his wife, Eva, whom he had rescued from the gaggle of prostitutes that followed in the army’s wake. A dark-skinned almost-beauty with shimmering black hair and a caustic wit, Hasan paid for her company but what started as a business transaction soon turned into real affection. She became his lover and then, secretly, his wife.

One cold morning Hasan woke up to find that Eva was gone, snatched from her tent in the night and spirited away from the camp without anyone noticing. Hasan went berserk, threatened to kill the sentries on watch that night and was only reduced to brooding silence after a flogging.

Eva had carried his child. She was only a couple of months away from her time when she was taken. The lack of knowing what had become of his wife and child ate at Hasan like a cancer, driving him on like no whip ever could.

He looked up as something wet touched his face. Snowflakes had begun to fall, swirling down from the pale barren sky. He grimaced. The snow would settle and add a new hardship to this war-torn land, carpeting it in a thick layer of white death.

Hasan came from a warm distant climate where snow was unknown. Every harsh Western winter he had to endure took years off his life. He dug in his saddlebags for a bottle.

Whisky now, then sleep. Tomorrow he would find his family. If not, then the next day, or the next.

#

The flush of victory quickly faded as the army resumed its painful march, slogging along miles of bad roads in worsening conditions. The Duke’s head was sent ahead and brandished on a pole before the gates of enemy towns and castles to frighten them into surrender. Instead it only stiffened their resolve and the war bogged down into the drudgery of siege warfare.

It was during one such siege, with the army entrenched around yet another stubborn hilltop fortress, that Hasan saw his king.

He was fighting through his usual breakfast of salt pork, black bread and scalding coffee when a troop of horsemen cantered past his tent. Hasan glanced up without much interest and froze in mid-chew when he saw the royal leopards decorating the shield and tunic of the leading horseman.

King Samuel IV happened to look down at Hasan and for a moment their gazes locked. Hasan opened his eyes wide to take the man in, but there was nothing there except a dreary impulse to do one’s duty. He realised that Samuel was a puppet, dancing to an old tune of feudal and dynastic hatreds that had been set in motion long before he was born, and almost pitied him.

The moment passed and Samuel rode on, followed by his personal guard. These were the Inner Circle, an elite group of knights bound to the king by tradition and close kinship. Among an army of half-frozen scarecrows they were resplendent, mounted on white chargers and decked out in gilded armour.

“Watch out,” muttered Hungry Jock, who was sitting cross-legged next to Hasan “here comes your boyfriend.”

The other Wastelanders seated around the fire chortled and nudged each other as a knight left the troop and reined in next to Hasan.

“Well met,” boomed the knight’s hearty voice as he flicked open his visor “well met indeed!”

The face inside the helmet was young, fleshy, ruddy of cheek and keen of eye. It was the face of a nobleman in the first flush of his chivalrous youth with rich prospects before him, an exciting war to fight and the best cuts of meat on his very large plate every night.

“Hello, Sir Jocelyn,” said Hasan, smiling weakly as he tried to ignore the stifled mirth of his comrades “I am glad you survived the battle.”

“I did more than survive, my friend!” Sir Jocelyn bellowed, giving his tasseled lance a shake. “I killed four men. Four! How about that, eh? That’s what you call winning your spurs!”

“A noble achievement.”

Hasan could think of nothing more to say, and an awkward silence fell. Sir Jocelyn had taken an uncomfortable shine to Hasan ever since a skirmish in the early stages of the war, when Hasan had killed a man about to drive a spear into the knight’s back. Ever since Jocelyn had taken delight in Hasan’s amusing foreign ways, by which he meant his religion, and insisted on referring to him as “my little brown friend”.

Jocelyn was far too thick-skinned to remain embarrassed for long. “Good! Excellent!” he cried. “Well, I see you are thriving. Keep it up. Be seeing you, you rogue!”

He snapped his visor shut and galloped away, the hoofs of his enormous charger showering Hasan and the Wastelanders with churned-up lumps of snow.

“Arrogant bastard,” muttered Hungry Jock, wiping his face “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Him and his horse.”

This met with growls of agreement from his fellow Wastelanders seated round the fire. Hasan said nothing and studied his comrades.

They were a formidable-looking bunch, with lean hook-nosed faces obscured by growths of scrubby black beard. Their lean bodies were clothed in filthy woollen breeches, threadbare cloaks and cracked boots, and they had little in the way of armour save a few plates of horn sewn onto their sleeveless leather jacks. Months in their company had failed to accustom Hasan, who was fastidious about hygiene, to their stink of old goat.

He could only assume that Hungry Jock’s comment about trust was meant as a joke. The Wasteland, a vast inhospitable region that lay beyond the farthest reaches of the Western Kingdoms, bred a peculiarly savage and amoral people. A typical Wasteland clansman would happily sell his own brother to an enemy and be thought none the worse for it. Treachery was considered a virtue by Wastelanders and their short lives were cheerfully spent in plundering and betraying each other.

Not for the first time, Hasan suspected that Hungry Jock or one of his fellows had had something to do with Eva’s disappearance. As yet he dared not voice his suspicions, for the Wastelanders were a wary bunch and had little time for Hasan. He had earned their respect, for he was as good a horseman as any of them and better with a sword, but they still regarded him as a dubious foreigner.

“Hasan’s giving us the evil eye, boys.” said Jock, grinning evilly as he tamped some of his foul tobacco into a clay pipe.

“Missing his woman, he is,” snickered a one-eyed villain named Patie’s Hobbe “should have taken care better of her.”

More laughter ensued, followed by a few coarse suggestions of how Eva should have been taken care of. Hasan gritted his teeth and said nothing. One day soon he would get Hungry Jock alone and ask him a few pointed questions.

With the onset of winter and supplies beginning to run low, the army was prey to disease. Frostbite, dysentery and fever thinned the ranks. The dead were left unburied where they fell, leaving a trail of frozen corpses in the army’s wake.

Still the army trudged on, though buffeted by raging ice storms and howling blizzards. King Samuel and his nobles called upon their suffering troops for one more heroic effort, promising that the enemy’s capital city, Bishek, was only a few days away.

“Just a little longer, men,” urged the heralds, struggling to make themselves heard above the screaming winds “within a week you will be warm and comfortable inside the walls of Bishek. All the Slaveni treasures will be laid before you. Hot wine, pliant women, fat roasted capons, endless rivers of gold…”

Hasan pulled his hood down and tried not to listen. His lungs were full of crackling rheum, his hands and feet felt like useless lumps of ice and he couldn’t remember the sensation of warmth.

For the millionth time he cursed the desire to escape persecution at home that had led him to flee to the benighted West. He was certain that he would die here, traipsing through this hellish landscape until the last of his strength gave out and he collapsed into the snow.

His salvation arrived one evening in the unlikely form of Sergeant Hoist, a grizzled veteran with a face like a hairy knuckle covered in scar tissue.

“Quartermaster’s dead.” Hoist announced, dragging Hasan from the relative warmth of his tiny tent.

Hasan shook himself free of the man’s grip. ‘So what?” he snapped.

‘So we need a new one, and there aren’t more than a few men in this army who can read and count worth a damn. Except the nobles, of course, but they wouldn’t touch the job with a shitty stick. Too much like real work.”

Hoist prodded Hasan in the chest with a thick finger. “You’re one of the few, and the only one who’s honest. The others are all debtors and swindlers. Only in the army to avoid hanging.”

Hasan thought for a moment. Working as quartermaster might not be so bad. At least he would be close to regular supplies of food and drink. And he would be in the warm, insofar as that was possible.

“Very well,” he said “I accept.”

“It was an order, not a bloody offer,” retorted Hoist “but still, congratulations on your promotion.”

#

Hasan’s comrades were not sorry to see him ago, though some tried to bribe him. “Make sure I’m first in the queue for grub, eh?” wheedled Patie’s Hobbe, offering a handful of greasy coins.

Hasan pushed away the money and shook his head, earning himself a volley of abuse. When he realised that Hasan could not be moved Hobbe stormed off, shaking his fist and swearing vengeance. A similar pattern occurred with the others who tried to bribe him.

Hungry Jock’s parting words were bitter. “I reckon quartermaster is about right for you,” he spat “sitting in a tent counting pennies while real men do the fighting”

“I am not averse to fighting.” Hasan replied quietly, loosening his tulwar in its scabbard. He had brought the thin curved sword with him from his homeland. It looked about as deadly as a toothpick next to the heavy Western broadsword, but Jock and others had witnessed Hasan wielding it with lethal skill.

Jock backed away. ‘To hell with you, Hasan”, he snarled “I’ve seen you chop up too many men with that little knife. It doesn’t prove anything. You’re hiding from this war and we both know it.”

I wonder what you’re hiding, thought Hasan. He looked around at the camp, debating whether this was the right time to interrogate Jock about Eva’s disappearance.

No. It was still daylight and there were too many people about. Another time. He shrugged and walked away, ignoring Jock’s angry stare.

#

Hasan assumed his new duties immediately and spent the next few days in the vile discomfort of a covered wagon at the head of the army’s baggage train, attempting to make sense of chaotic munitions lists by the light of a single lantern.

What he saw only confirmed his deepest suspicions. Since the war began the best victuals had been creamed off by the nobility or doled out among privileged regiments such as the Inner Circle or the Whitecoats, the king’s own regiment of pikemen. Most of the rank and file were living off basic rations and their wages were months in arrears.

As Hasan squinted at the lists of barely legible figures, he felt no surprise that the previous quartermaster had died. The poor man probably took his own life. Hasan calculated that unless dwindling supplies were immediately redistributed, the bulk of the army would soon be down to living off stale bread and triple-watered wine.

His efforts at redistribution met with no success. He was blocked at every turn by the clerks of the commissariat, who smugly informed him that an unequal division of food and drink was only to be expected.

“And what if there is a mutiny?” Hasan angrily retorted “is that only to be expected as well?”

The clerk’s oily well-fed face broke into his most patronizing smile. ‘There will be no mutiny. Every man in this army is a loyal subject and would not dream of raising a hand to their king. Well, almost every man. I would not expect a foreigner to understand.”

Somehow Hasan refrained from punching the clerk, but violence soon broke out as the most badly provisioned regiments began stealing from each other. Two chaplains who attempted to mediate were fatally stabbed and King Samuel sent a brigade of his Inner Circle knights to restore order. Their efforts resulted in eighty of the troublemakers trampled and speared to death in the snow while the survivors were flogged and put on quarter rations.

After another week much of the army was reduced to a straggling column of angry starving men with more hatred for their superiors than the enemy. Wholesale mutiny was only prevented when the army arrived, at last, before Bishek. The enemy capital looked a formidable place, a sprawling jumble of thick red stone walls and square towers that spread across the pristine white horizon like a dirty red stain. It was big, with enough space inside its precincts for over fifty thousand people.

‘This is the most ancient city in the West,” remarked Hasan. ”It has endured countless sieges and assaults.”
“It shall not withstand this one!” bellowed Sir Jocelyn “we will carry it by storm, damn it!”

Jocelyn’s belligerent cry was taken up by some of his fellow knights but ignored by the sullen mass of the infantry.

Sensing the mood of his army, King Samuel sent forward a group of heralds to demand the city’s surrender. They reported that their demands had met with no reply and that the walls appeared to be undefended.

A regiment of Whitecoats was cautiously sent forward with a ram to test the massive gates. At first impact the gates swung open.
King Samuel hesitated, wary of a trap, but was persuaded to order a general advance. Regiment after regiment marched through the gates into the city. They encountered nothing. The snow-washed cobbled streets and plazas were desolate and empty, as was every building from the meanest hovel to the late Duke’s fine stone palace. Bishek was a ghost town.

They’ve evacuated the city and taken everything with them, thought Hasan. Including every scrap of provisions ...how will we survive now?
He could think of only one way the army could possibly hope to survive another month before men started eating each other. It would require him to do something he had never done before. He was going to have to beg.

King Samuel and his generals were holding an emergency council of war in Bishek’s central plaza. At the height of their bickering Hasan appeared and went down humbly on one knee, waiting patiently for someone to notice him. At last an aristocratic voice brayed out:

“My Gods, what on earth is that?”

“It’s that foreign chap,” someone else drawled “the one Jocelyn’s so fond of.”

“What’s he doing here? Shouldn’t he be digging latrines or something?”

“No idea. Someone move the wretched fellow before the king sees him.”

“The king…”

Hasan risked glancing up and once again found himself looking at the heavy features and tired red-rimmed eyes of King Samuel IV. Samuel was flanked by half a dozen of his Inner Circle, including Sir Jocelyn.

“I have seen this man before” King Samuel said slowly “who is he?”

“He is a friend of mine!” Sir Jocelyn barked “a fine fellow!”

“Majesty, my name is Hasan Al-Asim” Hasan replied courteously, ignoring his unwanted friend. “Once a scout, but recently appointed quartermaster. I come to beg a favor.”

“What favor?” asked the king.

“You should know that your lords and knights plunder supplies while ordinary soldiers are left to starve. An army that cannot eat cannot fight. I beg you to allow me to share out what is left of our provisions fairly among the men.”

This met with spluttering laughter and protests from the assembled nobility, mixed with a few angry shouts. The king held up his hand for silence.

“This man is a straight talker,” he said “I like him. Gentlemen, we shall do as he asks. It is time to tighten our belts. Master Hasan, you shall begin by examining the accounts of every man on my payroll.”

Hasan bowed his head in thanks and quickly rose to leave. A storm of complaint broke out behind him, but he knew he was safe. No one would dare challenge the king’s decision.

Within hours of Hasan’s successful plea the enemy was sighted. Hungry Jock and his Wastelanders spotted them while scouting the country west of Bishek. They galloped back, shouting that a mighty host, many thousands strong and marching under the banners of the late Duke’s vengeful sons, was advancing towards the city.

“They mean to trap us here and starve us into surrender” suggested one general.

“To hell with that,” snarled another “let’s march out and give them a taste of cold steel. Smash them in the open field!”

“Cold steel! Smash them!” echoed Sir Jocelyn and others like him. Soon most of the army was screaming for blood. The endless sieges, the long painful march only to discover an empty city at the end of it, all was wiped out by the prospect of immediate action.

King Samuel decided to go with the majority vote. “We will meet them in the field.” he announced to widespread cheers.

#

Hasan stood on the ramparts of desolate Bishek and watched the army march out of the western gate, long lines of horse and foot with banners flying and drums beating and trumpets blasting. As quartermaster, Hasan took no part in the fighting but was left behind to ensure that the army’s few surgeons were sober enough to work.

“You will need steady hands when the wounded start coming in,” he warned the sorry crew of port-faced medicos and sawbones ‘so lay off the spirits, or else.”

Otherwise he had little to do except kill time by poring over the payroll accounts. Those of the Inner Circle made interesting reading. Most knights were extremely wealthy but there were a few exceptions, usually ones who had mounted up gambling debts. He was surprised to discover that Sir Jocelyn was among them, for the young knight was notorious for splashing his money about.

For much of the campaign Jocelyn had appeared to live off nothing except his wages. Hasan knew this not to be true and could only assume that he had borrowed heavily off friends. Then, after a certain date, his expenditure had increased dramatically.

Hasan read and re-read the date, for he couldn’t quite believe it: October the Fifth. Eva had gone missing that same night.

#

That evening a lone horseman rode out of Bishek’s western gate. He wore armour, a mail shirt and steel cap, and carried his tulwar and a brace of daggers. Hasan was riding to war against a single man.

A little way from the city met with a rabble of exhausted fugitives, their eyes glazed with terror and shock. They called out piteously to Hasan in hoarse voices but he galloped past, undeterred and uninterested.

He encountered increasing numbers of these human derelicts as he rode on. Crippled and mutilated men, leaning on shattered comrades for support or limping alone through the snow. Then the trail of corpses began.

Dead men and horses lay everywhere, singly and in heaps, carpeting the winter landscape and spattering it with gore. Broken and shattered weapons were strewn about along with the trampled and torn remains of once-proud banners.

Hasan reined in to gaze upon the wreckage. There had been no victory here, no tactical masterstrokes or glorious chivalric encounters. The long war had ended with two badly-led armies blundering together in this white hell and smashing each other to pieces.

He hardened his heart and moved on. It was none of his concern. Hasan had renounced his loyalty.

“Hasan…Hasan, is that you, man?”

The feeble voice belonged to Hungry Jock. He was lying flat on his back with his head propped up against a shield and his guts leaking out through a great hole in his belly. Hasan stopped to look down at him.

“How goes the day, Jock?”

Jock tried to laugh and coughed up blood. “What do you think? I’m dying.”

“So you are.”

“Hasan…I’m sorry, about calling you a coward and all. You came back for me.”

“No I didn’t.”

The dying muscles of Jock’s ghastly pale face twitched into a frown. “But…can we part as friends, at least?”

“No.”

Hasan dug in his heels and rode on.

There was no sign of the king. Hasan assumed that he had escaped the slaughter. Kings generally did. Many of his Whitecoats had lost their lives, and here and there he saw the steel form of an Inner Circle knight lying dead in the snow. But never the man he was looking for.

At last he found him. Sir Jocelyn was kneeling as though at prayer, his armoured bulk wreathed in mist.

“Sir Jocelyn” said Hasan, drawing his tulwar “I have come for you, false knight.”

The kneeling man slowly got to his feet and turned to confront Hasan, who recoiled at what he saw. Sir Jocelyn’s right arm was hacked off just below the shoulder, leaving a ragged fin of bleeding flesh, and that side of his face had been smashed to a pulp. He gazed vacantly at Hasan out of his remaining eye, pinkish foam dripping from his ruined lips.

“Hasan. My friend.” he said tonelessly.

Hasan hesitated, unsure what to do.

“You sold my woman, Eva.” he said accusingly. Sir Jocelyn nodded.

“That I did” he replied in the same flat voice. “I needed money, and she was a pretty thing. The enemy bought her for a good price.”

“I should kill you.” said Hasan, without much conviction. He no longer felt any hatred for Sir Jocelyn, only disgust.

The knight curled his remaining hand into a fist. “Come, then. Let us fight. I can still fight. I am still a man.”

Hasan shook his head and sheathed his tulwar. There was no vengeance to be had in killing this pathetic cripple.

“I am still a man!” Sir Jocelyn shrieked as Hasan rode away “a man!”

#

Hasan searched the reeking field all night for any sign of Eva, picking his way through the carnage with the aim of finding the enemy baggage train. That was his best chance of finding her. The baggage was where the camp followers and other non-combatants took shelter during a battle.

For hours he searched, his heart pounding every time he turned over a body and studied a dead face. Wolves padded onto the battlefield and tore at the corpses with sharp teeth, but he ignored them.

The black pit of night was gradually easing into dawn and the sky just beginning to lighten when he found her.

Eva’s slim body lay beside an overturned wagon on the eastern fringe of the battlefield. Other wagons were scattered about, their beasts and occupants lying slaughtered around them. Eva lay face down in the snow, but Hasan recognized her instantly by her long dark hair.

She had taken great pride in her hair, combing it incessantly and refusing to have it cut. Now the thick tresses were tangled and greasy with dried blood from the sword slash that had killed her.

Hasan knelt beside his late wife and cradled her head in his arms. Tears came, slowly plodding down his hollow unshaven cheeks, and what little hope there was inside him shriveled and died.

Yet a spark remained. Despite his grief, he realised that Eva’s body was no longer pregnant. He gently laid her down and frenziedly searched the wagons, half-mad with terror at the thought of discovering the final horror of his murdered child.  
His search yielded nothing of the sort and a fresh desperate hope filled him. Maybe the child had been carried away. Maybe it was still alive somewhere, a newborn infant, vulnerable and defenseless.

Hasan buried Eva, commending her soul to his gods, and set out on his new quest. He was far from home, his war was over and his woman was dead, but he still had a purpose.

©2010

 

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