June 1531, Somewhere in the Uzbek Khanate
Alexios Skaramagos slammed his shovel into the pile of camel shit, wishing to high heaven it was the face of Nuruddin. He scooped up the steaming waste and dumped it onto a rough-cut board, pounding away to try and flatten it into something resembling a flat circle. Once this was done, he slid his shovel under it and dumped the disks into a wicker basket nearby, then turned back to the pile of dung. He raised his shovel, picturing the face of Nogai Ahmed Khan in the patterns of the black-brown heap and smashed it in again. A moment later, he hefted it again and glowered down at the remaining pile, mentally forming the face of that son of ten thousand dogs, Ioannes, who had gotten him into this damn mess. He brought it down with all his might, grimly enjoying watching the shit fly in all directions.
As he worked, attention dulled by the routine monotony of it, he thought back to the long and sorry chain of events that had landed him here. As much as he hated to admit it, part of it was his own damn fault. In hindsight, taking the job from Ioannes and his associate in the first place was utter foolishness. There was no way in hell that they would have had multiple employers, and given his previous refusal they were probably just trying to get rid of him. Trying to kill the khan of the Golden Horde at a mosque during Friday prayers was also damned foolish, something he never should have tried. The perch, a tiny windowsill in the closet of an adjoining complex several hundred paces from the mosque, had been perfect, too perfect, and he should’ve expected betrayal. Should’ve, should’ve, should’ve…
He sighed, resting the shovel in the pile and leaning against it. He wished none of it had ever happened, but if wishes were horses he could outride any man on the steppe. The truth was the important thing, and the truth had been ugly. He reflexively ran his tongue over the stumps of his front teeth, recoiling at the sharp pain. Nogai Ahmed Khan had been ‘generous’ enough to not kill him, instead dumping him in a cell in the bowels of New Saray to be experimented upon by his various goons and torturers. It had been a hellish three years, and thank God he had blocked out most of it, but he had managed to get through it. He had lived, albeit heavily scarred physically and mentally, but he had lived. He would have his revenge, by God and the devil.
The horizon stretched out before him in all directions, as vast as the empty sky. Not for the first time, he mulled over making a run for it. It would be suicide on foot, of course, but there was a small cluster of horses on the other side of the yurt complex he was shoveling behind. He could make it to them, he knew, but he wasn’t sure how far he could make it after that. Most of the Uzbeks would be gone by now, out herding, but just one or two could kill him or worse. He should wait until he was sure he could escape. Then again, he could wait forever before it happened, and he didn’t have very many years left in him….
“Franj! You lazy bastard, get back to work!”
He repressed a sigh, furtively glancing over his shoulder. The voice belonged to Nuruddin, the Uzbek warrior who’d ‘rescued’ him from the prison of New Saray and immediately imprisoned him with his clan. The dashed hope of escape and relief was more cruel than the torture had ever been.
Nuruddin waddled towards him, cursing loudly but stumbling over every other word. He was drunk, evidently, unusual for the middle of the day. Nuruddin was also the herdsman posted closer to the yurts on warm days such as this one, a fact which Skaramagos had gleaned through weeks of methodical observation. An idea occurred to him.
He gave a rasping, slurred cry that was intended to be a mixture of Latin, Greek and Arabic. None of it would make sense, he knew, even if Nuruddin spoke anything other than feeble Mongol. He’d never been too good with two of those languages, and it was rather difficult to speak with only half of a tongue.
“What did you say to me? Are you mouthing off?! You’re in for it now, shithead, I’ll kill you.....”
Skaramagos listened to his ongoing rant as the drunken man advanced, ignoring the increasingly impractical threats and instead counting the footfalls. It was a practice he’d picked up decades before, great for tracking the movement of targets in the darkness and picking them off even at impossible distances. He’d watched Nuruddin for days and knew exactly how long his stride was, and was fairly sure he had the distance down correctly. Every step towards him was another one closer to vengeance against this bastard, and he wouldn’t miss this chance. He remained rigid in place, hands clenched around the shaft of the shovel.
Six. “Piece of shit, not even worth the food….”
Five. “Should’ve left you to the dogs!”
Four. “How’d you like that, huh? They’d rip the rest of your face off, it’d be an improvement!”
Three. Nuruddin paused and took a hacking breath, worked up so much he had lost his breath.
Two. “Argh! Damnit, damn you, damn your seventh grandfather…”
“Damn you, Franj, can’t you fu--”
With a shrieking, mangled cry Skaramagos leapt upwards, wrenching the shovel from the pile of shit and hurtling it towards him with every ounce of strength in his body. Nuruddin gave a startled, strangled yelp before the blade of the shovel bit into his mouth, sending a spray of blood, bones and teeth flying. He stumbled backwards, a look of pure shock on his face as he reflexively lifted his arm to try and block the blow but Skaramagos had already pulled the shovel loose. He swung it back up, every memory of beatings and slights flashing through his mind as he raised it over his head. He hammered it down again, slamming it into Nuruddin’s temple with the sound of shattering bone. The Uzbek fell to the ground, limp, but Skaramagos kept going, swinging the shovel again and again until the man’s face was a bloody pulp detached from the rest of his body.
Chest heaving, Skaramagos turned and strode away, carrying his shovel like a mace. It had been far too long since he’d killed someone, and the old thrill of death coursed through his veins and gave him new energy. The cold checklist that’d raced through his mind earlier returned to him and he went into action like a well-oiled machine. He needed to get a horse and he needed cover to get away, both of which were fairly easy given his present circumstances.
He turned and trotted towards one of the yurts. The tent flap was little obstacle and he tore it open, revealing a collection of shocked elderly women clustered around a dish containing banked coals. He darted across the room and snatched up the dish, stiff-arming aside one of the women and carrying it barehanded in his left hand. Any feeling in that hand had been taken by the Mongol torturers, and so he casually picked out sparking coals and hurled them at the yurts as he made for the horses. The thickly woolen tents caught fire almost at once, spreading rapidly with a chorus of startled shouts and flurries of desperate movement. In the chaos of bodies spilling out of the flaming structures, he went completely unnoticed. By the time he had reached the small group of horses outside one of the outlying tents the entire area was in anarchy.
He grabbed the strongest looking of the horses by the mane and swung up onto its back. He’d never been a strong rider, but he could ride bareback if his life depended on it, which it probably did. Once he had righted himself, he reached over and slapped the flanks of the other horses, or chucking embers at their fleshy bits. It had the desired effect and within minutes they had scattered across the plains at full gallop. His own mount stirred restlessly, but he firmly calmed her and pointed her towards the west. From his quiet watching, he knew that most visitors came from the east, and so figured the opposite direction was the best way to go. He kicked her sharply and they were off, galloping across the steppe towards freedom.
He would have his revenge, or he would die trying.