Lazarenko moved stealthily, using the broken ground and rocks for cover as he approached the wall. The wall was of stone cemented with mud. It wouldn’t withstand cannon, but what army could drag cannon through the barren crags of Daghestan? Lazarenko studied the wall until he saw what he needed. A plane tree growing inside the wall spread its boughs over the parapet. Fashioning the picket rope into a running loop, he whirled it over the branch and hauled himself up the rope and over the wall. Soon he was walking the streets of the aul.
As he approached a corner, Lazarenko heard a man humming the sonorous notes of the Lezghian war dance. Bracing himself, Lazarenko waited for the man to round the corner. A tall warrior bristling with weapons stepped forward. His left hand held a lantern and a ring of keys dangled from his belt.
“Koshkildy.” Lazarenko mumbled. The Cossack’s accent and dress were very similar to that of the mountain tribes and in the dim light he hoped to pass with little scrutiny.
“What are you doing here?” The warrior’s reached for his kindjal hilt. “By the Prophet’s beard I know you not!”
With the speed of a striking adder, Lazarenko’s hand shot to the warrior’s throat, choking off his shout. His left clutched the warrior’s right wrist and they struggled for the kindjal. The warrior dropped the lantern and vainly tried to break the iron grip on his throat. Lazarenko felt a sharp sting in his side as the dagger plowed though his hip. Convulsively he forced back the blade from his body and warm blood flowed. The Cossack forced his hold to tighten on the warrior’s throat. The man clawed futilely at the vise-like grip that choked off his breath. His eyes bulged and his face turned purple. Locked in a death embrace, sweat poured from the fighters. Lazarenko’s head swam and his body burned from the cut. Again the warrior advanced the dagger toward Lazarenko until the tip touched the Cossack’s throat. Blood started from under the dagger’s tip. With bone cracking effort Lazarenko held on to his enemy’s throat. A gurgling sound came from the warrior and the arm with the dagger relaxed its iron clutch. The warrior sagged and collapsed, dead instantly from the terrific strain of battle and the deadly chokehold that had crushed the life from him.
Swiftly, Lazarenko took the keys and the lantern and went in the direction the guard had come. He tore a strip from the warrior’s cherkesska to staunch the blood from his wound. It wasn’t deep, but bled freely. A dozen yards past the corner where they had battled was a massive iron bound door. Lazarenko tested the keys in the lock until one fit. He stepped inside and stared in amazement at the contents of the house.
He stood in a storeroom crammed with weaponry. There were stands of British muskets, cases of Belgian pistols, thousands of Turkish cartridges, and even a cannon with a quote from the Koran piously inscribed on the muzzle. Stacked neatly by it were cannon balls and powder charges with French markings. Small windows allowed for ventilation, which reminded Lazarenko that he still held a burning lantern. A staircase led to an upper floor and a trapdoor opened to a basement. Both were packed with guns and ammunition. In the corner of the basement was a bricked-up archway.
Lazarenko set down the lantern and set about laying a powder train to a keg of loose gunpowder. As he finished the wailing call to prayer arose from the minaret. It ended and Lazarenko stood in silence, counting the beats of his heart. He allowed enough time for the abreks to gather at the mosque. He placed the key in the door but did not lock it. The powder train was long enough that he could get out the door and away before the arsenal blew itself to bits. Just that and no more. Lazarenko got the lantern and applied it to the powder train.
He heard the hiss and pop of the gunpowder as it burned behind him, but his whole mind was focused on the door. He reached it in two steps and a thousand heartbeats. From outside there was a sound of shouting. As Lazarenko’s hand touched the key, there was a pounding at the door. The Cossack recoiled as if he’d touched an adder. The door swung open, an abrek stood there, naked sword in hand. He stepped through and slammed the door behind him. Swiftly the abrek twisted the key.
“There is an alarm! No one is to enter the arsenal. We are to guard…” Then he stopped as he realized the man before him was a stranger and the stink of burning gunpowder filled the room.
With a snarl the abrek reached for the door. Lazarenko lunged at him, if the abrek got away the Cossack was as good as dead. The abrek, caught between a wild desire to escape and the onrush of the Cossack, fumbled at the lock and dropped the key. With a chill of death, Lazarenko realized he was locked in a room with a deadly foe seconds away from a massive explosion.
The abrek lunged at Lazarenko, raining wild slashes. Lazarenko parried desperately as he retreated toward the burning tip of the gunpowder train. He thought he saw the flame and broke from the fight to stamp on it. In the thickening smoke he missed and the deadly burning trail escaped, the flame crackling derisively. The abrek rushed to the attack and missed cutting off the Cossack’s arm by a hairbreadth. Lazarenko’s sleeve was slit open and blood flowed from the shallow cut.
Lazarenko spun and returned to the battle. Slash, cut and thrust, he drove the abrek before him. The only sounds were the panting of the fighters, the clash of swords and the low, sinister hiss of burning gunpowder. Lazarenko feinted to his foe’s left and changed the stroke into a cut that bit deep into the abrek’s leg. The man groaned and sank down in agony. Lazarenko could have chopped him down where he stood, but the Cossack leapt away, desperately lunging for the burning powder trail. He saw it and in a frenzy flung himself onto the flame. Daggers of fire slashed his hand and scattered away.
Lazarenko gasped in the nauseating, smoke-filled air. Even as he relaxed in relief a sword chopped into the floor beside his head. The abrek was on him, stumbling on his injured leg. He stumbled against a powder keg that toppled and spilled gunpowder on the still glowing sparks. The powder trail lit anew. The abrek raised his sword in both hands, rearing back for the deathblow. He would chop Lazarenko in half before they were blasted into a flaming hell.