October, 1448 – The Plains of Kossova
Longo lay still under the dead bodies of two Turkish soldiers and waited as the last of the Turkish army streamed past. The Christian crusade had been routed, and now the enemy marched all around and over him, their boots squishing in the blood-drenched earth. He could just hear the distant horns of the scattered Christian army as it fled, followed by the cries and drums of the pursuing Turks. The field fell silent save for the moans of the wounded and the harsh squawking of the ravens that were arriving to feast upon the dead. One settled on a corpse near Longo and began to peck at the soft flesh of the face. If the ravens were here, then the battle was truly over. He had waited long enough.
Longo rose, stiff after lying so long on the cold, wet ground. He kicked at the raven, sending it flying away, cawing in protest, and then drew his sword, a long thin blade of dark-grey steel. The battle might be over, but Longo was not done fighting. He scanned the horizon and saw only a few distant enemy soldiers, pillaging amongst the thousands of dead. Longo ignored them; they were not the prey he sought. He was looking for one man: a Turk with pale grey eyes and a gruesome scar stretching down the right side of his face from his temple to his jaw.
At the height of the battle, Longo had seen his quarry behind the Turkish lines, wearing chainmail covered in scarlet fabric. He rode beneath a golden standard from which hung three horse tails—the mark of a vizier. Longo had no sooner spotted him, however, than the Christian line had broken, and the retreat had been sounded. In the ensuing chaos, Longo had played dead. He had searched for this man for years, and now that he had finally found him, he would not let him escape
Stepping over the bodies of the dead, Longo strode towards the Turkish camp. As he neared the first tents, five Turkish soldiers came out to meet him. They were ragged bazibozouks, peasant soldiers who were recruited to the defense of Islam whenever the Ottoman Empire went to war. Two carried heavy axes, better for chopping wood than fighting. One held a sword, while the last two carried crude wooden clubs studded with protruding nails. As they rushed Longo, they screamed the ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’ battle cry of the Turks, but Longo did not hear them. He heard only the blood pumping in his ears as he stood his ground and readied his shield and sword.
At the last second, Longo sprang to his left, outflanking the group so he only had to face one man. He knocked the first Turk’s club aside with his shield and then slashed down with his sword, dropping his enemy. Then, he waded straight into the rest: at close-quarters their clubs and axes would be less effective. He sidestepped a clumsy ax blow and spun away in one fluid motion, slashing across the face of his attacker before thrusting up past the guard of the next man. Leaving his sword embedded in the Turk’s chest, Longo drew a dagger from his belt, turned, and threw. It caught the second to last Turk in the throat. The dying man’s club dropped from his hands, and he fell in a mass of blood.
Longo felt the hard slap of a sword glancing off the chainmail along his side. He turned just in time to raise his shield and deflect another blow, this one aimed for his face. Longo stepped back, weaponless, and faced his final assailant, a huge Turk who wore a long beard. The man smiled, revealing yellow, rotting teeth. ‘Now you die, infidel!’ he roared and swung in a huge arc for Longo’s chest. Longo feinted as if to block the blow, then ducked it and came up under it, smashing the Turk in the face with his shield. The Turk staggered backwards, his broken nose pouring blood, then turned on his heel and stumbled away, fleeing for his life.
Longo retrieved his own sword and grimaced as he reached over to feel the bruise that was already forming along his side. He had been lucky. A more experienced swordsman would have killed him. Offering up a prayer of thanks to the Virgin, he stepped into the shadow of the nearest tent and peered deeper into the camp. Cooks were busy tending dozens of cooking fires, but there were relatively few soldiers and no sign of his quarry. He had almost given up hope when he heard a horse whinny behind him and turned to see the vizier riding towards the camp, surrounded by some two-dozen black-armored janissaries.
With no thought of anything but his blazing need for revenge, Longo raised his sword and charged. The janissaries saw him coming and formed a square with spears bristling on the outside and the scarlet-armored vizier protected at the center. Longo hurled himself into the guards. He deflected one spear with his shield and knocked another aside with his sword before barreling into one of the janissaries, knocking him backwards and whirling away just in time to avoid a spear thrust. He hacked down, snapping the spear shaft in two, and then waded deeper into the fray, spinning and slashing in a mad frenzy as he pressed his way towards the vizier, each foot forward bought with blood and death.
A spear skipped off Longo’s shield and drove into his shoulder. Oblivious to the pain, he grabbed the spear and jerked on it, pulling the janissary forward and then slashing down to finish him. Longo saw a flash out of the corner of his eye and narrowly ducked a blow that would have decapitated him. He turned quickly, swinging his sword in a wild effort to keep the janissaries at bay. Swords were glancing off his chainmail, but Longo ignored them. A spear drove into his leg, and he dropped to one knee. Still, he kept fighting, striking out again and again as he yelled with rage and pain. The vizier was only a few yards away. The man’s thin face was now lined and his beard and mustache had grayed since Longo last saw him all those many years ago, but there was no mistaking his pale eyes or the jagged scar that Longo had left on his face. Longo crawled towards him, but a janissary stepped in front, blocking his path. Longo tried to stab at the man, but someone grabbed his arm from behind and wrenched away his sword.
As Longo raised his eyes, he saw death towering over him: a janissary with his long yatağan raised high, the sword’s inward-curving blade dark against the bright sun. He felt no fear, only a bitter disappointment at having failed. He noticed a knick on the long blade, the smooth black leather of the pommel, the janissary’s bulging arm, and then the sword began its fatal descent.
‘Stop!’ The sword froze inches short of Longo’s neck. ‘Leave him to me.’
The janissaries stepped away to reveal a huge man, well over six feet and barrel-chested, wearing the black armor of a janissary, with the fur-trimmed cloak and yellow boots of a general. The man spoke briefly to the vizier, who turned his horse and rode away. ‘Go! Escort him to the sultan,’ the general commanded the janissary troop as he pulled an impossibly long yatağan from the scabbard at his side. ‘I will finish this one.’ He swung his huge sword lightly side to side as he approached Longo.
The general waited until the other janissaries were well distant and then sheathed his sword. He offered Longo his hand. ‘Get up,’ he ordered. Longo hesitated, then took his hand and pulled himself to his feet, wincing at the pain in his injured leg. He stared into the janissary’s face, trying to understand. ‘You haven’t forgotten me, have you?’ the general asked.
Longo blinked, his pain momentarily forgotten as he remembered where he had seen that face before. It had been a younger face then, thinner and unscarred—a boy’s face. Long ago in the godforsaken camp of the janissaries, this was the one man he had called friend. ‘Ulu,’ Longo whispered.
‘You saved my life once, Longo,’ Ulu said urgently. ‘Now I have returned the favor – but if you wish to escape, you must go quickly. Head south and pray to Allah that we never meet again. For my debt is paid, and the next time we meet, it will be as enemies. Now go!’ Turning his back on Longo, the general strode away.
Longo watched him disappear into the Turkish camp. As his blood rage vanished, Longo felt the pain from his wounds flood back, mixed with the familiar cold ache of vengeance delayed. He turned and limped away from the camp, to the south. If he hurried, perhaps he could catch up with his men. Otherwise, it would be a long, lonely walk to Constantinople.