The setting sun was casting its level rays across the steppe grass as the last of the beaters brought in their game on the back of pack horses. The game was piled by the shores of the lake where Khlit, the Cossack of the Curved Saber and Kha Khan of the Jun-gar Tatars, had ordered the night's encampment. Through the ranks of the hunters spurred a powerful man with a scarred face, who reined his horse to a halt before the kibitka of Khlit.I discovered Khlit the Cossack about six years ago through the auspices of the tireless software at Amazon. I purchased Robert E Howard's The Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient, and Recommended for Me was wolf of the Steppes, the first of four volumes collecting Harold Lamb's tales of the aged cossack.
"Our outriders, lord," he cried to the Cossack, who was standing before his tent, "have come upon the one who says that he is from the Holy City. He wears the orange robe of a Chutuku lama, and his name is Dongkor Gelong."
Khlit raised his gray head and scanned the messenger keenly. Although his costume of furred coat with wide sash and horse-hide boots was similar to those of his companions, the Cossack was taller. His hard gray eyes were not aslant like those of the Tatars. He had taken off his heavy woolen cap and his gray hair hung to his powerful stooped shoulders. A veined hand tugged thoughtfully at his dropping white mustache. The deep lines of his browned face alone showed his age.
As a boy I'd read Mr Lamb's Durandal, about the Crusader, Sir Hugh of Taranto, who joins the Golden Horde of Ghengis Khan. Since I was a boy I was fascinated by the tales of Sinbad and the Arabian Nights. The Silk Road was the pathway of my dreams, its cities - Khiva, Tashkent, Samarkand, Kashgar - their citadels. Even now there is nothing more exotic to me than the lands in the shadow of the Roof of the World.
But though I'd read, and loved, Durandal, I'd never heard of Khlit, the old warrior cast out of the Cossack sietch who wandered East, across Tartary, to Ming Dynasty China and Moghul India, and through those cities and along those paths which lay at the heart of my imagination.
Khlit is both a conventional and unconventional hero, a great swordsman and brilliant general, but clever first and foremost. Harold Lamb manages to tread the fine line between the furious action his pulp readers demanded and complex tales of intrigue and mystery in an artfully rendered ancient land.
I was inspired to run Flashing Blades after reading Robert E. Howard's "The Shadow of the Vulture," about the 1529 siege of Vienna by Suleiman the Great, from Lord of Samarcand. The stories of Khlit take place in the first decades of the 17th century, little more than a decade before the start of our campaign, and I've drawn inspiration both from the tales themselves and his amazingly evocative setting. There are rumors and legends in Le Ballet de l'Acier which may lure the adventurers east, to the Levant, to Persia and Tartary, and to the Roof of the World itself, in search of fortune and glory. Will our swashbuckling adventurers trade the palaces of Paris and Turin for a felt yurt or a dusty caravanserai, their Andalusians for shaggy Tatar ponies? Will their rapiers clash with Mongol sabres someday? That will be for the players to decide, of course - such is the nature of sandboxes - but among the tales of Khlit are those of his friend, the Afghan mansabdar Abdul Dost, and the English trader, Sir Ralph Weyand.
Swashbucklers on the Silk Road? That's got an helluva ring to it, doesn't it?