The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (10 page)

To their surprise, the master came forward and said a Paternoster and an Ave Maria before his men were allowed to eat.

‘Is this not a Protestant ship?’ said Stanley evenly.

The master said in his gravel voice, and with a distant stare out to sea, ‘For the Bishop of Rome and the Church of Italy I care not. And this newfangled Church of England makes my head ache, since I don’t see how Christ could have founded such a church when he never came ashore on English soil.’

‘Ah,’ said Stanley, ‘the pragmatical English mind.’

‘And he lived and preached before England was even a kingdom, I heard tell, so how can he have appointed the Queen’s forefathers as head of such a church?’

‘A theologian ship’s master,’ said Stanley delightedly. ‘And preaching what sounds like Popery!’

‘Popes and Protestants,’ said the master in a flat, bored tone and a wave of his hand. ‘Such tangled arguments belong on land. We’re not on land, we’re at sea, and the law is different here. I decorate my ship and make my prayers as I see fit, and I will pray to God and his Holy Mother under any name I know, if he’ll send us clear weather and plain sailing. When a man’s fifty miles out in the Bay of Biscay, that’s his usual religion.’

Istanbul: Winter 1564 – Spring 1565

All that winter Istanbul had been in a ferment, devoted to the coming war.

From the forests of the Crimea came timber, from the high plains of Anatolia came hemp and flax. Out of the vast Imperial workshops came coils of rope and bales of sailcloth, while in the naval dockyards, they said a new war galley was being built every week. Saltpetre for gunpowder came in from Belgrade, sulphur from Lake Van, copper from the mines of Kastamonu, and church bells throughout the conquered Balkans were melted down, turning the Christian’s own iron and bronze against them.

Day and night there was the ring of hammer on anvil, the steady tapping of shipwrights and the hot stink of burning pitch poured over the caulking ropes, tamped down into the seams of the wooden hulls to make them watertight. Oxen drew carts bringing vats of tallow straight from the slaughterhouses, steering them carefully down to the dry docks where they would be used to grease the galleys’ hulls, making them slip still faster over the waves of the White Sea.

Day and night, too, the great forges of the Ottoman arsenals on the Bosphorus glowed red, while within, shovelling charcoal into hungry cast-iron mouths, super-heated by giant bellows, the faces of the slaves dripped with sweat. The bellows roared, oil burned, the winter sky was filled with smoke, and at night the very moon and stars were obscured. Greek fishermen along the shore muttered among themselves, and clutched the evil eye amulets around their brawny necks, saying the red glow of the Sultan’s furnaces was like the fires of hell.

Overseeing the frenzy of activity in the arsenals from a high walkway was a figure in a plain black robe, hook-nosed, deep-set eyes missing not one detail. From the huge casts, monstrous cannon of solid bronze emerged, each one requiring a team of forty or fifty slaves to move on iron axles and wheels. One basilisk, Ghadb-al Lah – the Anger of Allah – required its own galley. The destructive power of these monsters when unleashed would be unimaginable. They could hurl balls of marble or iron in excess of two hundred pounds. The roar would deafen any nearby, and their effect on walls of mere stone would be devastating.

‘The whole island of Malta will rock about on the sea,’ said the forgemaster, spitting out a mouthful of charcoal dust and swiping his sweaty face with the back of his hand. ‘Like a fisherman’s boat in a storm.’

Mustafa’s eyes gleamed.

He interrogated provisioners and quartermasters, inspected warehouses filled with everything from gunstocks to biscuits to opium supplies to massive pyramids of cannonballs, surveyed acres of hundredweight gunpowder barrels. There were wooden frames for making speedy breastworks, hides for protecting siege towers, sacking for trenches, and crates full of double-baked biscuit that would last for ever, though they would also break your teeth.

There were stables full of horses and oxen, all needing to be transported and fed, so they could drag gun carriages and platforms at the siege. When their strength finally failed, they would be eaten.

He questioned the shipmasters, and looked in on the Christian slaves, waiting in their pens to be chained to the rowing bench again.

‘Only a little while yet,’ he rasped through the bars at the huddled wretches within. ‘We must catch the spring tide, when there’s war in the air!’

On a windy day in early March, Mustafa for the first time stepped aboard his fig-wood flagship with its high stern and its twenty-eight rowing benches aside.
. The Victorious. She would fly like the wind. From the mast above fluttered and snapped the green silk banner of Islam with its crescent moon and its verses from the
Koran, and at the stern was planted the standard of the Sultan: a golden globe with horsehair tassels, symbolising the globe of the world, which he was destined to rule.

Mustafa gripped the taffrail hard, his lips clenched, and glared back ferociously at the workshops and furnaces of the Bosphorus.
It was time to sail. It was time to fight.

Cannons firing salutes, pipes wailing and cymbals clashing. Janizaries in their plumes of heron and ostrich feather, holy men in green turbans, great drums beating, marching in a slow stately rhythm out under Palace Point to the waiting galleys. The greatest naval venture in four centuries of Ottoman history. Wind batting the sails, salt tang on the air. The ground trembling under the weight of those sixteen-team ox-carts and their monstrous cannon, and the remorseless thunder of the drums.

All Europe knew of the frenetic preparations in the empire of the Turk. But where would his scimitar fall? Some said Cyprus, some said Sicily.

One man knew, and sent out word. Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, of the Knights of St John of Malta.

He knew.

Across Europe, old men with bent backs and white beards shook out their time-worn tabards. White cross on red. The tabard of war. Elderly retainers oiled old-fashioned hauberks of mail and whetted ancient blades.

The sword of Islam was raised, pointing straight at the heart of the Christian Sea. And if Europe’s kings and princes would not go to the aid of that small beleaguered island, then loyal knights might yet.

Let him laugh and mock,
l’uomo nuovo, l’uomo universale
, and count his ducats, and say that money and science, knowledge and advancement were now the thing. The Age of Machiavelli was come, the Age of Chivalry was dead. From the villages of Spain and Italy, Provence and Auvergne they still came, the old knights, the old brothers. Some on horses, some on donkeys, some on dusty mules.

Some sang the old ballad for company as they rode.


Then rising from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall

The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall

The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung

That once went singing southward when all the world was young

In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid

Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade

A song to keep them company on the perilous voyage to Malta, and into the eye of the coming storm.


‘So, Matilda,’ said Edward Stanley. ‘What do you know of foreign parts?’

Hodge was whittling a stick. ‘My name’s Hodge,’ he said woodenly.

Stanley bowed low. ‘A thousand pardons.’

Hodge took a deep breath. ‘Well. I know the country round Cambridge is a flat and sodden country, not fit for any but fen-men and fish. Men of Essex are turbulent and lawless and born cheats, and men of London the same, only worse. Further north they are coarse as farmyard swine and drop their breeches without shame and make their business in the middle of the street. Men of Lincolnshire are notorious dullards and villains, and men of Lancashire and Yorkshire are worse, so quarrelsome and stiffnecked they would find fault with a fat goose.’

‘By foreign I meant … out of England.’

‘Ah, Wales,’ said Hodge. ‘They are barely of the race of men. They live in caves and eat raw mutton and speak in a tongue so barbarous it frightens the birds off the trees. Men of the south and west be Welsh too in all but name, idle and sly and deceitful from the first day out of their mother’s wombs. ’Tis only in Shropshire you’ll find honest men, and only in the parishes west of Shrewsbury. The rest are fools.’

Nicholas laughed. It felt like the first time he had laughed in months.

Hodge drew breath.

‘Across the sea they are all foreigners. Sail to Scotland or Ireland
and you’ll wish you’d stayed home, even with a witch for a wife, my old dad used to say. The Scots are nought but barbarians, they go naked all year but for animal skins. The Irish are worse, with hardly the wit to feed themselves and so starve often.

‘The Germans are fat drunkards. The Danes, drunkards also. Dutchmen, drunkards and gluttons to boot, with huge swag-bellies and beards thick with grease from their last dinner. They skate over ice on cows’ shoulder bones, though it’s a wonder the ice holds ’em. The French are a vile race, slothful as swine and as evil-smelling, foppish, curtseying, arrant, vain, silk-dressed perfumed treacherous deceitful cowardly knaves one and all, forever bowing the head or bending the buttock to any who will flatter them.’

‘Hear hear,’ said Smith. ‘The lad speaks some sense.’

‘The Switzers fight well but stink of cheese, for they eat nothing else. Of the Austrians I know not and care less, also the Hungarians, the Polacks, and others to the cruel cold East. The Russians live in everlasting ice and snow and eat their own parents when they die. Your Spaniard is cruel and treacherous, conceited and a braggard, your Italian avaricious, shallow and malign, and as given to incest as any villain in Norfolk. The Greeks are swarthy and notorious fools.

‘Beyond them they are not even Christian. The infidel Turks go circumcised and have four wives apiece and murder their own brothers, and “to turn Turk” is to turn evil and worship the Devil, who they call Mahound. Their brothers the Arabs ride camels and their evil and cruelty are almost beyond telling. The Jews we know of, wandering gold-hoarders and Christ-deniers, and then there’s the Ethiop, who’s barbarous and black as coal and couples with monkeys. Beyond him is the Parsee, the Hindoo and the Chinaman, all idolaters and devils. In the New World there are none but savage men who live in trees, often with tails, who some say are not truly human at all.’

‘Well,’ said Stanley. ‘Though you have not gone far in the world, friend Hodge, yet you are as stuffed full of opinions as a puritan preacher.’

Hodge regarded him impassively.

‘I think you will enjoy your foreign travels.’

‘Enough bandying words,’ said Smith, standing abruptly. ‘Here. Take this.’

And he handed Nicholas a sword.

Of course Nicholas had many a time taken down his father’s old sword above the fireplace, when his father was not about. It felt as heavy as a sack of grain, and as he well knew, was long-rusted in its sheath.

Now Smith handed him a very different article.

‘An Iberian blade,’ he said, ‘finest Toledo steel.’

Hodge chuckled. ‘Seems funny we’re going to fight the Spaniards with their own swords.’

Stanley eyed him askance. ‘The Spaniards will be fighting alongside us.’

Hodge’s mouth fell open.

‘Look down the blade,’ said Smith. ‘See the furrow that strengthens it. Is it straight?’

It was as straight as a rule.

‘Now. Stretch out your arm and raise the sword to your shoulder height a dozen times.’

Nicholas began. At the seventh, his shoulder muscles were hot and burning. At the ninth, his arm failed. He angrily let the sword drop, nearly throwing it to the ground.

‘Have a care,’ said Stanley sharply. ‘Never let the point fall, you’ll only blunt it.’

‘I’ll be a bowman,’ said Nicholas. ‘I know a crossbow.’

‘Very useful,’ said Smith neutrally. ‘But crossbows are for foot soldiers. The noble-born use swords, and you are the son of a Knight of England.’

‘I’m not,’ said Hodge.

Smith turned to him. ‘What
your father?’

‘Bit of everythin’, really. Hedgin’ and ditchin’ mostly in the winter, shepherdin’ in the summer. He could smith too.’

‘Truly a man of universal talents,’ said Stanley.

Hodge fixed him with a stare. ‘I’ll not have you make mock of my old dad, even if you are a knight and he was none.’

There was an awkward silence. Then Stanley said solemnly, ‘Forgive me, Hodge.’

Hodge nodded.

‘Here,’ added the knight. ‘You will learn to use a sword too.’

Hodge took the fine blade tentatively. Surprisingly, though of stockier build, his arm too tired quickly.

‘You see what this means,’ said Smith. ‘A few times you will raise your sword to parry the enemy’s thrust. And then one more parry, and you will fail, and you will die. In a battle, this will happen within the first minute.’

Nicholas hung his head.

‘Despair,’ said Stanley quietly but crisply, ‘is not among the knightly virtues. Raise you head, lad, and attend. You too, Hodge.’

Smith reached for another bag, a lumpy hessian sack.

‘Now we are past the coast of Brittany, it will be another two weeks of sail to Cadiz. Perhaps three, and certainly there will be more rough weather. But you will be too exhausted to fret over that.’

He indicated two barrels close by.

‘Our small beer. By day five it will taste like horse piss, but you will drink it the same. You will need it.’

He held open the sack before them.

‘Contents: sixty barley loaves, twelve flitches of bacon, four heavy cheeses, one flagon of vile wine. These are our rations until Cadiz, where we will take on more of the same. Also figs, dates, almonds, and oranges which will do the job of the scurvy grass until Malta. Spanish sailors get less of the Dutch disease. You will neither thirst nor starve, but you will have an appetite. Why? Because you will be working to put beef on your bones for the next four weeks. What we call your sword-muscles.

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