Part 53: A Scotsman In Egypt - Chapter 52Winter in Russia.
In some regions, the temperature reached as low as -60 °C and even in the more "temperate" regions, could reach as low as -30 °C. Cold blasts of wind seemed to penetrate clothes, furs and armor as if they were not there; even saltwater ports could freeze over; and if fires were not tended to throughout the night, people had been known to freeze to death in their beds.
The fact that people could not only survive through such conditions but thrive was testament to the hardiness of man and to the peoples of Russia in particular. Many an invading army had found to their doom that it was not just the stubborn, proud people of Russia you fought when you came into Russian land, but also the very land itself. Entire armies had frozen to death and been buried beneath huge hills of snow, their equipment and weapons taken by Russian farmers and children come the melts and converted into ploughs and other farming gear, or used by children as toys.
So it was that Captain Zhiznobud moved his small band of troops with impunity through the snow. Everyone in what was left of the once Russian Empire had heard of the mad Scotsman who had taken Novgorod, with some saying he had actually eaten alive the City's Commander. But Zhiznobud also knew that no matter how mad the Scotsman was, no non-Russian was mad enough to move an army through the wind-blasted, snow-blinded landscape of a Russian Winter.
In fact, sometimes Zhiznobud actually wondered if he was mad to be out in these conditions himself. He was moving his men towards Riga, where his cousin Miloslav controlled a garrison of 800 men. With his own 271, he could bring the size of the garrison up over 1000, and with a full winter to train militia units, they could have 1500 men ready to defend Riga come Spring.
He held his arm up in front of his helm, blocking out the wind and trying desperately to peer through the almost pure white air before him. He thought they were headed in the right direction, but it was difficult to say for su-
"What the hell is that?" he muttered, as he looked up past the scouts leading them saw first one pin prick of light in the sky, then a series more as the sky seemed to light up with strange orbs of light brighter even the white sky.
"What in the name of God is thi-" grunted Zhiznobud, and then got his answer.
"FLAMING ARROWS!" roared Zhiznobud, and charged forward over the crest of the snow-covered hill to try and see through the poor visibility.
What he saw made him wish the conditions had left him blind.
If the Highlanders were put off by the cold on their exposed skin, they gave no sign, merely firing volley after volley of flaming arrows through the air in the rough direction of Zhiznobud's men. The sounds of screaming as Russians were set alight told them they were hitting at least some of their targets. Angus grinned behind his helm, his bruised and battered face almost healed now, sitting on his horse and staring with pride over his assembled men. After less than a month in Novgorod, even as the cold winter settled in, he had told them he was marching West to deal with an outland band, and none had even hesitated to join him. The cold truly was more than even the staunchest Scot had faced before, but they suffered without complaint, marching on through the snow and cold to kill more Russians.
But even the Scottish had limitations, and for all his madness, Angus knew that they could not last long in the cold. So he meant to end this battle quickly and decisively and use the boost in morale to push them on towards Riga.
No matter what Roy Macgoulchane had to say on the matter.
"CAVALRY!" he ordered,"CHARGE!"
"RUN!" screamed Zhiznobud,"LOSE YOURSELF IN THE SNOW! DISAPPEAR INTO THE TREES!"
In the end, Zhiznobud himself managed to complete his last orders, but only four of the men managed to do the same. The dead bodies of 266 Russians joined 70 Scotsmen to freeze and disappear beneath the snow, and his cousin Miloslav would not have the reinforcements he was expecting.
"BRAVE SCOTSMEN TRUE!" roared Angus as his men cheered, the cold forgotten in the heat of battle,"LEGEND TELLS OF THE HARSH WINTER OF RUSSIA! BUT LEGEND WILL ALSO TELL OF THE MEN OF SCOTLAND WHO PROVED ITS MASTER! NOW WILL YE FOLLOW ME ONWARDS AND PROVE THIS IS NO FLUKE? WILL YE FOLLOW ME TO RIGA!?!"
The men roared in approval and Angus felt his body flush with pleasure... and then Roy Macgoulchane spoke.
"Nae, Angus," he snapped, loud enough to be heard but not shouting, not raging, sounding more irritated than anything,"The winter will only get worse and the euphoria of victory will carry these men only so far. We return to Novgorod now, and if ye are still mad enough to want to add Riga to ye list of conquests, we will return in the spring. But nae now, Angus, nae now."
Angus stared furiously at his "Field Commander", but Macgoulchane returned his glare steadily. Not for the first time, Angus cursed the streak of steel he'd sensed in Roy from the first time they met as children, and not for the first time he found himself unwillingly impressed by it.
"Are ye suggesting they are not man enough to survive this Winter, Macgoulchane?" he demanded.
"I am suggesting they are man enough to not follow an obsessed man blindly," replied Roy smoothly,"Riga will still be there in Spring, Angus, what point is there in killing half the men before ye arrive at the battle? Ye are being impatient, which can be tolerated only to the point where it starts threatening the lives of the men under our command."
The gathered soldiers stared in fascination at the battle of wills going on between their two Commanders. Angus was a figure of legend to them, the scarred and uncompromising General who had fought alongside them as they secured the Northern Border. But Macgoulchane had impressed them with his willingness to fight beside them, and the efforts he took to save the lives of his men.
"I am returning to Novgorod," Macgoulchane announced as Angus continued to glare at him,"Those of ye who wish to live can follow me, those who want adventure and glory so badly that it blinds them to oncoming death.... follow ye "hero" to Riga."
Roy turned and led his horse in the general direction of Novgorod, and to Angus' horror, first a few single soldiers started to follow him, then more, then more. Finally they were gone, disappearing into the whiteness that surrounded them on all sides, and Angus looked around at those men who had remained. Of the 1400 he had led out of Novgorod, only 450 remained with him in the middle of the bleak Russian Winter. A soldier stepped forward and stared up at the black-faced General and asked the question on the minds of all those who had remained.
"My Lord, can we take Riga with so few?"
And in reply, Angus threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"Can we? Ach my lad, Roy Macgoulchane has nae learnt all of my tricks just yet!"
His name was Robert of Edinburgh, named for his father and his place of birth. He had much in common with his Father - his name, his face and body, his good humor and easy, laughing demeanor. His fits of rage when piqued, his ability to hold a grudge, his tolerance for ale and weakness for women.
After Robert of Edinburgh had returned from Egypt along with Alexander Canmore and thrown back the English, he'd quickly fallen back into old habits. He slept his way around the brothels of the city, sired any number of bastards, gambled wildly and got drunk with his men. When Alexander died, Robert wasn't sure if he was happy or sad. The man had vowed to take the crown back from Edward the Pretender, but upon his return to Edinburgh had shown more interest in lavishing attention on his son Adam. Adam himself had always struck Robert as a particularly shallow and mean-spirited child, and he'd never understood why Alexander seemed to think the sun shone out of his ass. When Adam had quickly violated his marital vows by all but openly taking on a beautiful young courtesan called Cassandra as his mistress, Robert had only found it more reason to despise the whelp. He became obsessed with Cassandra, wanting to understand what she saw in Adam, and when she became aware of his interest she encouraged it, seeming to take delight in teasing and enticing him.
Finally she was his, and in the aftermath of having her, he asked her all the questions that had been running through his head and she answered them all. What did she see in Adam? Power, of course, and the potential for more power. He soon came to realize that other than satisfying her own desires, her only interest was in taking power and exercising it. Even their own affair was more about her desire to exert control and power, and it gave her a sadistic satisfaction to be sleeping with another man when she was supposed to be the "property" of Adam Canmore.
Together they continued an affair that extended for over a decade, until Robert's accidental death following a heavy drinking session where he slipped on icy cobbles one winter and split his head over on the ground. Cassandra's grief had extended only so far as she no longer had a proper sexual outlet (Adam had never done much to satisfy her), but she had attended the funeral out of a desire to see who attended and how Robert was remembered. It always amused her to see how the public recognition of a person meshed with the private reality, and thus she had been forced to stifle laughter as the priest spoke of Robert's fidelity and honesty and his commitment to the Crown. The funeral had also seen her introduced to Robert's son, imaginatively named Robert, and she'd been instantly struck by his similarity to his Father. Though only a youth, he all ready had the height and shoulders of his father, and his face was a near perfect match. From the moment she saw him, she set upon seducing him, making him a new lover in his Father's image, teaching him all the things from the beginning that she had taught his Father.
He became an eager lover after she got him over the initial immature "moral" objections to sleeping with his Lord's Mistress, and she'd soon urged him to grow resentful at the power that Adam's quirk of birth had given him. Together they spoke treasonous words, and thus she tied him close to her, and became what she'd groomed his Father to be for her. More than just a sexual outlet for her, he was a secret weapon, a poisoned arrow to be directed at Adam Canmore's heart if he ever turned against her.
And now the time had come for Cassandra to use it.
Captain Miloslav knocked back his vodka and winced slightly, feeling the burn in his upper chest and running his fingers across his unshaven cheek. He hadn't asked for the responsibility of running a city, but he'd been left with little choice after the Russian Nobility had managed to be wiped out or wipe themselves out. Now in the midst of Winter when all he wanted to do was sit by a fire and drink, he had to worry himself with such mundane things as managing Riga's food supplies and setting patrol schedules for the City Watch.
"Captain," snapped a voice, and Miloslav turned from the window to stare at the Commander standing before him.
"What is it?" he asked, trying to keep the boredom out of his voice,"Another fight in the market? Has Leo been putting his prices up again?"
"Captain," repeated the Commander,"The mad Scotsman has ridden a force up to our walls."
"In the midst of Winter!?!" gaped Miloslav in shock,"How many?"
"450 Scotsmen," started the Commander, and Miloslav laughed.
"450? Against our 800?" he laughed,"He truly is mad, we'll wipe him ou-"
"And close to 1000 mercenaries," finished the Commander, and Miloslav's laughter died out.
Angus grinned fiercely behind his helm. The weather today was crisp but bright, the cloudy sky lit bright by a strong sun that made the day almost warm. The walls of Riga loomed up before him and his army, but they did not concern him. He blessed the foresight that had seen him arrange for the mercenary camp he had encountered when he first rode into these lands to move West towards Riga to await his call. He had promised them money he did not have, but after sacking Novgorod he'd had enough to pay the Polish their exorbitant fee for military access as well as the cost of the mercenaries with more left over besides.
He watched as panicking Russians rushed onto the walls and fired arrows wildly into the air and allowed a sneer of contempt. The pride and stubbornness of the Russians had been the thing of legend, but now he knew - and soon the world would too - that they were as nothing compared to the Scottish. With their royal bloodline gone, they were left under the command of fools and simpletons, men who could fight well enough but not lead.
"The men on those walls irritate me," he snapped to the Mongols who had wheeled their cart of rocket-launchers through the snow without complaint,"Do away with both of them."
"Are ye as tired of these snows as me, lads!?!" roared Angus with good cheer,"Then through those breaches! Those Russians are in our city, they just dinnae ken it yet! GO AND TELL THEM!"
The Russians moved to block the breach but found flaming arrows raining down on top of them, and then hundreds of Scotsmen and mercenary spearmen thundering through the holes in the wall and the shattered gates to smash into them. They turned and ran in desperation, thoughts of the atrocities at Novgorod fresh in their minds. Everyone knew the Scottish were demons, but their leader was a monster, a blood drinking, flesh eating monster, and even the hardiest of Russians feared him.
As they fled up the narrow streets followed by the Scottish, Captain Miloslav took a desperate gamble and rode his horsemen directly into the narrow vanguard of the Scottish forces, hoping to break them and send them stumbling back, creating a ripple effect and stalling their forward progress. But instead he found himself riding into veterans - whether mercenary or Scots - who parted around the horses to allow them in before swallowing them up in their ranks, and Miloslav found himself with nowhere to go but down, torn from his mount by baying, laughing mercenaries.
Angus rode his own cavalry through the streets as his Scotsman and mercenaries tore through the Russians. He rode into the main City Square where a small reserve force stood waiting, and he screamed in challenge to the terrified Russians and charged them. His Highland Archers had followed, and with expert aim they fired into the Russians as they were charged down by Angus, those who survived trampling and the sword being set alight by burning arrows.
Angus sat his horse between the burning, writhing bodies of the last of the Russians, then turned to stare at a Highland Archer who had dropped to his knees and was screaming in a mixture of defiance and joy.
"Aye lad, Macgoulchane does nae ken what it means to conquer," smiled Angus, speaking to himself,"But he soon will. The Russians are gone, but I am nae done yet.... the time has come to convince King Domnall to go to war once more.... it does nae matter with who, but as long as any part of this world is nae Scottish, my work is nae done."
"Ye want me to do what!?!" gaped Robert, staring at Cassandra in dismay.
"Ye heard me," smirked Cassandra, laying nude beside him in bed and running fingers up his body. They had finished making love and had just been talking, something that Robert almost enjoyed more than the physical act of love itself.
But what she had asked him to do... it was beyond the treason they spoke of post-coitus. It was more than just words, she was asking him to match action to word and commit an act of treason... more than that, an act of blasphemy.
She wanted him to kill Kirk Canmore.
"A wee bairn, ye want me to kill a defenceless wee bairn?" he gaped,"What in God's name are ye asking me woman! This is madness!"
"No, madness is Adam Canmore crossing me after I served him as mistress for more than two decades," hissed Cassandra, her voice dripping with venom,"Madness is tossing ME aside like I was some whore he paid for at a tavern. I want him to learn the cost of his madness, I want him to suffer, I want to take everything away from him that he loves. I want his precious child dead, and I want his wife dead.... raped first, if you can get it up for that dry old bitch, and make it clear she was raped as well, to truly hammer it home for him. I want everything taken away from him, all he loves and holds dear. Dougall Macdonchie is his man as well since Adam saved his life taking this city, so I'd like him dead too, but he's still in Leon so I guess he will have to wait."
Robert stared at her in horror, terrified more by the way her voice became steadily more matter of fact as she detailed atrocity after atrocity.
"And ye think I will commit these blasphemies for ye?" he gasped,"Ye are mad, woman, truly mad."
He stood up and began dressing himself, prepared to walk away... but then she spoke words that stopped him in his tracks.
"Your Father would have done it for me."
He turned to stare at her, and she smiled cruelly,"Oh yes, I never did tell you, did I? Before I made you my lover, your Father was mine. He was obsessed with me, he did anything for me just for a chance to be between my thighs, and he wouldn't have hesitated a second to do what I asked him... he was a real man."
"Then consider me a boy," Robert replied coldly, and turned to move on out of her room within the Palace of Toulouse. But once again she said words that stopped him in his tracks.
"Leave and I'll ruin your Father's name," Cassandra said, and her voice was ice. He turned and found himself facing Cassandra's true face, ugly and contorted with rage, jealousy and bitterness,"I have letters, some he wrote to me and others he wrote to Alexander Canmore. Your Father and the so-called Hero of Edinburgh once plotted the overthrow of Edward Canmore, if I was to reveal those letters your Father would be remembered as a traitor and Adam Canmore's Father along with him. I could have my revenge on Adam that way, if this is what you'd prefer, or you could save your Father's name and ruin Adam.... the choice is yours."
She smiled smugly, knowing that she had him trapped, he had loved and respected his Father and the thought of the man being posthumously dishonored would be more than he could bear. He would commit infanticide to prevent it, he would rape a 50 year old woman and murder her, and then he would truly be hers, body and soul.
That was the thought that went through Cassandra's head as Robert of Edinburgh stood staring at her.
The thought that went through her head moments later as an incoherently screaming Robert lap on top of her strangling the life from her was that she hadn't considered just what it meant when you took away a man's every option.
Old Rory had seen and done it all in his time. He'd been a farmhand, a soldier, a mercenary and a soldier again. He'd fought the Egyptians, English, the Milanese, even the Danes once. He'd grown too old for War by the time the war with the Spanish came about, and had settled in to his duties as a City Guard in Toulouse. He enjoyed his life, he slept the days away, enjoyed food and drink with friends in the early evening, and then patrolled the streets through the night before returning to his small but comfortable lodgings to sleep. It was a life of food, friends and drink, which suited him just fine. He'd been married in his youth but his wife was long dead and his sons long since grown up and gone on to soldiering careers of their own, making him proud by fighting alongside the King in Spain.
As he moved down the quiet streets keeping an eye out for footpads (unlikely) or drunks (far more likely) he was surprised to hear a dragging noise and what sounded like sobbing. Placing his hand on the hilt of his short sword, he moved down the cobbled streets and came across a most unwelcome sight... a man dragging a body.
"Hold ye ground!" he snapped angrily, drawing his sword as the man dragging the body froze in place. He stepped up and held his torch up, illuminating first the body, then the face of the man dragging it... and sighed unhappily,"Robert of Edinburgh?"
"A... aye," nodded Robert unhappily, tears streaming down his face.
"Well lad, ye've made a big mistake here," grunted Old Rory, staring down at the nude body of a woman who had obviously been strangled to death.
"Aye, I ken," moaned Robert,"But she said, and I said.... the things she..."
"Ye misunderstand me, lad," sighed Rory, and walked around the nude body and grabbed her ankles,"Ye're dragging her body down the back alleys but they only lead to the City Walls.... ye want to take her down to the Garonne River and dump her body there."
"Wh... what?" gasped Robert in shock.
"Oh come now, lad," chuckled Rory,"Ye dinnae think ye are the first noble to get carried away with a whore in bed.... come on now, no need to ruin ye life for such as her, I'll help ye get rid of her."
Robert stood gaping at the old guard for a few moments, then grabbed Cassandra's shoulders and lifted her, and together they took her body to dump it in the river.
Cassandra - Adam Canmore's long serving mistress - was dead.
None would miss her.