PROLOGUE: THE TRANSCAUCASUS, 1850Fort Platov crouched like a panther over the Lezhgian Military Highway. Native carts and post coaches under Cossack escort crawled by as military couriers galloped with dispatches from the Tsar to his generals. Jewish and Armenian traders breathed easily, for this stretch of road was relatively safe, more than could be said of the wilder regions to the south in the heart of the mountains. Fort Platov’s cannons and soldiers offered protection to Russian settlers and loyal natives. They had a hard fist for the abreks, the bandits and rebels that infested the mountains.
Over fifty years ago the Tsar’s armies had marched south to humble the arrogant Persians, the cruel Turks, and the upstart mountain tribes. The sultan and the shah fell back before Russian might but the tribes, Chechen, Lezhgian, Avar, Abkaz and Circassian, battled on. In 1828 Kazi Mollah of Daghestan proclaimed jihad against the tyranny of the infidels and flames of war swept the highlands. Twenty-two years later the murids, the holy warriors, still fought under Imam Shamyl. The green flag of Islam still waved. The cry “Allah Akbar!’ still defied the Russian Empire and blood still flowed in the mountains.
Lieutenant Stepan Sergeivich Lazarenko nervously paced the floor of his cell in Fort Platov. Here and there prisoners had left their marks. Crude pictures, a tally of days, initials, and even a verse from the Koran were incised in the wall.
The sound of heavy boots stomped down the hall and stopped outside Lazarenko’s cell. A key scraped in the lock and the door swung open. The sergeant of the guard and a private stood outside. They were smartly turned out in dark green blouses and spiked helmets, in sharp contrast to Lazarenko’s shabby cherkesska and fur cap.
“Come on, the colonel wants to see you.” The sergeant gestured and the private shifted his musket. Lazarenko and his guards marched down mazelike halls, across a courtyard toward a stoutly built blockhouse. They stopped before a solid oak door. An orderly let them in and escorted them into an office hung with regimental flags. A portrait of the Tsar gazed steely-eyed at an icon of the Holy Virgin who stared back no less fiercely.
Count Colonel Golinkov sat at his desk. Lazarenko stopped before it and saluted his commander. The escort withdrew, leaving the commander of Fort Platov alone with his prisoner. The contrast between the men was sharp. The colonel was a polished, aristocratic Muscovite. His uniform was impeccable, from his carefully blacked boots to the Saint George cross that gleamed on his chest. A post with a regiment of Guards in Saint Petersburg would have been more to his taste than command of a grim pile of stone on the north side of the Caucasus. Still, if one couldn’t enjoy a fashionable billet, the Caucasian frontier offered action and chances for distinction and promotion.
Lazarenko, on the other hand, was frontier born and bred. He was a broad faced, stocky man with shaggy hair and an unkempt mustache. Though still a young man in his twenties, Lazarenko was old in the ways of the border. He wore no uniform save for lieutenant’s shoulder straps on his cherkesska. Lazarenko sprung from the Greben Cossack host, a little tribe of frontiersmen who had drifted into the killing zone of the Terek steppe and had made it their home.
“So Lazarenko, you and your company were found on duty at the Number 14 watchtower in possession of a herd of stolen horses worth several hundred rubles. The horses bore imperial government brands. Vous avez joué de malheur.” Like most aristocrats, Golinkov affected to speak French. Russian was for dogs, serfs, and Cossacks.
What was it to be, Lazarenko gloomily wondered, hanging, Siberia, or something worse?
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
“We thought we were stealing Chechen horses.”
Golinkov glared at Lazarenko. “Fortunately for you the illustrious Prince General Znamenski has a soft spot for Cossacks. Some romantic notion has led him not to send you all to Siberia. Instead you are to be allowed to win back your freedom by une amende honorable in combat.” Golinkov sighed at the folly of unmerited lenience. “The order has been approved by the Tsar himself. His majesty has stipulated that the service must be… most arduous.”
“I thank the general for his mercy.”
“Thank him when you come back alive.” Golinkov smiled sardonically. “You are to proceed to the aul of Kizil-tchock. General Neiderwaldov seized this village in the summer offensive of 1849 and the elders submitted to Russian rule. Shamyl sent a band of Lezghian abreks to punish the people there for surrendering. One of the survivors escaped the massacre and warned us. The abreks have consolidated a major arsenal there. Shamyl will use it to devastate the Russian settlements to the north and Georgian villages to the south. You are to make a diversionary attack at night to hold the abreks in place while a column under my command moves up for an overwhelming assault in the morning. You may need to hold out a few hours against superior numbers of enemy, but you Cossacks are resourceful.”
Lazarenko stiffened. Try as he might his expression betrayed his disgust and shock. It was suicide, not just for him but all his men. He yearned to smash Golinkov’s arrogant sneer into bloody pulp. He would strangle the French phrases out of Golinkov. He would refuse. Siberia was positively a boon. After serving his sentence a man could find all manner of opportunity in the East. And he would be far from the arrogant, sneering, heretical, damnable Golinkov.
Golinkov barked a laugh. “You are of course free to decline. I hear Siberia is quite healthful this time of year. Discipline is strict, but what Cossack ever feared a flogging or branding?” He paused and added, ”You may know the abrek chief’s name. It’s Jibrail Khan.”