Although the conflict saw fighting as far west as the Atlantic coast of America, as far south as Luanda in Africa, and as far east as the Oxus, the European Jihad takes its name from the Russian epicentre of the conflict, where three-quarters of its military dead left their bones. The loss of the Caribbean sugar islands broke the fortunes of many prominent families; colonial campaigns in Africa threatened the rule of Islam over millions of restive tribal subjects; the blockade of the European coast caused widespread famine – but none of these blows, heavy as they were, could force a state the size of the Caliphate to the peace table. To do so took the loss of a half a million men to frostbite, starvation, and dysentery, and another hundred thousand battle deaths; not without reason is the disastrous campaign of 1690 called “The Winter of the Faith”.
— From Cross and Crescent: Religious Conflict in Europe from 1204 to the present
January 14th, 1691
A battlefield of the European Jihad, somewhere in Russia
The Cossacks were well out of musket range. Ahmed spared the energy for a brief glower in their direction, but nothing more. His main attention was on bringing his left foot up, forward, down in the snow, then the right foot, then the left… he’d worked out, the other day, how many steps it was from here to the Dniepr, and found the answer discouraging; but there was no faster way to reduce it. And is the Dniepr salvation? The Italians were allies, but not Muslims, and their soldiers had a disconcerting tendency to give way under Russian attack and uncover the flanks of their betters… but perhaps it was better not to dwell on that. The Dniepr was at least possible. As for the Alps, why not dream himself in sunny Granada while he was at it?
“Vultures,” Jamail snarled, to his left. Ahmed looked at him briefly; his friend’s lips were drawn back in an angry snarl, indicating that he had more reserves than Ahmed, or that he was less careful about hoarding them. Might he have held back some bread, or even meat, that he hadn’t told his comrades about? The thought bore considering; a friend was a friend, but meat was life.
“Why won’t they fight?” Jamail went on. “Cowardly swine.”
Why should they? Ahmed thought, but did not waste precious calories on saying aloud. Just by staying where they were, threatening a raid, the Cossacks were forcing the regiment to march with muskets loaded and in column of fours, ready to repel their attack. That wasted powder, which outside a cartridge would not stay dry in this icy wind; and meant twice as much work making a path through the endless snow. Merely by existing, the Cossacks were striking blows for their Czar. That was, after all, why he allowed bands of “brave free men” to exist within his borders, steal his noblemen’s serfs, and treat with his envoys as sovereign equals; the Cossack regiments, alone in all the Russias, sent men to fight not by ukase of the Czar but by treaty and contract.
“We should give them a blast of grapeshot,” Jamail suggested. “Teach them to keep their distance.”
Well, that was at least constructive. For a moment Ahmed stopped being an exhausted soldier trudging his way home through far too much snow, and thought like an officer of the Caliphate, gauging the distance, the remaining stock of powder, the number of Cossacks… “Not worth it,” he decided. “Too few, too far away, too scattered.” And there was little gunpowder left; not really enough even for the muskets, if it came to a real fight and not this skirmishing. Every time they fired the cannon used fifty or a hundred cartridges’ worth of powder. Perhaps it was time to abandon it, then? But without the threat of the cannon, even if he daren’t use it, the Cossacks could close to within archery range and start picking off men with near impunity; then he’d have to waste powder firing muskets beyond their effective range, in the hope of hitting one or two Cossacks with a volley… no, best to leave matters as they were. The Cossacks had, indeed, learned to keep their distance, and that was the way Ahmed liked it. They would still strip the corpses, or the still-living bodies, of anyone who couldn’t walk, but that couldn’t be helped; anyway, for all he knew, having your throat slit by a sharp Cossack knife was a better way to go than dying of cold or hunger. Not that our uniforms can be worth much at this point, he thought mordantly; even he, an officer commanding a regiment of a thousand men, had holes in his boots. The state of his men’s feet was not to be thought of; Ahmed would count himself lucky if five hundred of his men saw the Dniepr, but there was certainly no question of five thousand toes doing so.
He sneaked a sideways glance at Jamail, checking the state of his boots. Ahmed hadn’t yet decided to kill a brother officer for the mere possibility of meat – he thrust away the thought that while Jamail might or might not have meat in his pockets, there was certainly meat on his bones; once that sort of thing got started there would be no stopping it – but a pair of good boots was something else again; healthy feet were life, even more so than food. Even bad boots might be better than his own. Besides, leather was edible.
Jamail’s boots were hidden under the snow; he couldn’t tell if they had holes in them. He became uncomfortably aware that his thoughts were sinful, that he might already have damned himself; he sent a hasty silent prayer to Allah, apologising, but noting that he was weak with hunger and cold. And, he thought excusingly, it’s not the boots, anyway. I could get good boots the next time someone can’t walk any more. It’s the damn chatter! Couldn’t the man stay quiet for a change? The thought of Jamail’s endless complaining – Cossacks, snow, the idiocy of higher command, the smell of the soldiers – decided him. He would let Allah save the man, if He wanted to, by making him shut up for the rest of the day. It couldn’t be sinful to kill a man for destroying the morale of the regiment; he needed his men cheerful, or at least, they shouldn’t see their officers grumbling.
They crested a small ridge, and Jamail swore gutturally at the sight of more Cossacks, clustered around something – an unfortunate straggler of the regiment ahead of them, no doubt. They spotted Ahmed’s men and mounted up, fleeing well before there could be any possibility of firing, even at hazard; but their presence had sealed Jamail’s fate. No doubt Allah agreed with Ahmed, and had decided not to sully His heaven with constant chatter; and if He was sending him to Hell anyway, why not this day? Jamail might even be grateful to be out of the constant cold, although perhaps only briefly; men were sinful creatures.
The thought of good boots and blessed silence kept Ahmed warm until nightfall.