Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Very Definition of Epic

It’s the early 17th Century. The Turks are certain to march north into Russia when the weather allows it. Guarding the border along the Dnieper River are the Cossacks. But they lack arms and supplies and their leader—Rurik—is a prisoner of the Turks.

So the young chief Demid and his big partner Ayub plan to raid down into Ottoman territory, stealing enough gold to pay Rurik’s ransom.

Well, there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers serving under the Ottoman flag, all of whom would gladly cut the throat of any Cossack they catch. How many men will Demid need to carry out a successful raid that will take him deep into the heart of enemy territory?

Demid figures thirty men will be enough.

This is the premise of Harold Lamb’s novella “The Witch of Aleppo,” published in the January 30, 1924 issue of Adventure magazine. I’ve written about Lamb’s superb Cossack stories before. They are true edge-of-your-seat adventures, written with a real sense of time and place, filled with great characters and plots with many twists and turns as well as exciting action.

This is the October issue of Adventure. I was unable to locate an image of the January issue.

Though “Witch” does not star Khlit, the aged Cossack who is my favorite Lamb character, it’s perhaps my favorite of his stories. It has a truly epic feel to it—the small band of Cossacks must ride huge distances, capture a galley and row across a hostile sea, then ride again for many more leagues before they reach the city of Aleppo (located in what would today be Syria), in which--rumor has it--a great treasure is stored.

Then there’s just the small matter of getting into the walled and heavily guarded city, then getting out again with the treasure.

Demid and Ayub—a true odd couple to start with—are wonderful characters in of themselves. Demid is a young and quick-thinking warrior who has already earned an authority over others despite his youth. Ayub is a big veteran who is deadly in a fight, wielding a huge broadsword, but is also superstitious and sometimes prone to act without thinking.

They had already appeared in several earlier stories. This time around, they are joined by Michael—an itinerant Irish swordsman isn’t as foppish as he first seems—and Lila, an Armenian woman rescued from the Muslims who may or may not be trusted to help. Lila is the title character, a beautiful young lady who Ayub soon decides is a witch who has cast a spell on Demid—since why else would he insist on bringing a woman along? But Demid has a plan for getting into Aleppo and he needs the girl to carry it out.

There are a number of great action set-pieces here, most notably a fight to capture a galley; a frantic escape from the beached galley sometime later; and a desperate battle in a secret treasure room at Aleppo. Demid thinks and plans his way out of seemingly hopeless situations on several occasions. Stuff happens that makes you think Lila can be trusted. Then stuff happens that changes your mind. Then even more stuff happens that might possibly change your mind again.

I don’t want summarize too much of the story, because I don’t want to spoil any of the great plot twists that keep coming up. Suffice to say that Demid’s raid into Aleppo lasts about seven months, with he and his men in constant danger pretty much all the time.  Despite the relative short length of the tale, Lamb is able to give a real sense of distances to be crossed and dangers to be confronted—creating an adventure that the Cossacks will be telling each other about over their campfires for years to come. 

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