The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (3 page)

Mustafa Pasha stopped abruptly before the Throne of the Caliph and bowed low. Stood swiftly again. A grey moustache and pointed beard, deep-set eyes, and the great hooked nose of a bird of prey, so that many whispered that Arab blood ran in him. He did not look directly at the Sultan, naturally, but he held his head high and haughty nonetheless. His face was deeply lined, and there were sword cuts and gunpowder burns visible on his strong, thick-veined right hand.

‘You are keen to share with us your view of the Knights Hospitaller?’

Mustafa needed no further encouragement. Nor did he trouble with Kustir Agha’s grandiloquent flatteries. His voice sounded deep and harsh, filling the great audience chamber.

‘The Knights we know of old. And this accursed rock of Malta, their new base, stands between you and your rightful possessions. From this rock with its great harbour – the finest in all the White Sea – their lean galleys come out like wolves to attack our ships, enslave our brothers, steal our cargoes.

‘Your Majesty plans the conquest of Christendom. But you will do nothing unless you first capture Malta, and exterminate once and for all these dogs of St John. It is time to wipe the Knights off the face of the earth, as you would wipe out the rats in your barn.’

There was an uneasy silence. Mustapha had come perilously close to criticizing Suleiman’s previous clemency. But if anyone was permitted such lèse majesté, it was this ancient warrior.

Suleiman stroked his trim beard. ‘Tell us more.’

Mustafa gestured widely, his robe filling like a sail. ‘This barren rock is the key to the western Mediterranean. You cannot mount any naval operations beyond it with safety.’

‘Our galleys have sailed many a time beyond Malta and returned.’

‘Many more have never returned. Like Kustir Agha’s precious, though under-defended ship,’ his lip curled, ‘the

Kustir Agha blinked furiously but said nothing. Mustafa Pasha had a foul temper. None crossed him, all meekly accepted his sneers.

‘The island of Malta dominates those narrow straits between Sicily and Africa, only sixty miles from coast to coast. An Ottoman galley might pass through, but an entire armada, such as will be needed for the final conquest of Christendom – no. Those sea wolves would wreak havoc upon us. Their flagship, the
Great Carrack
, is the most powerful warship in the White Sea. With my own eyes I have seen it. Alone it could destroy a dozen of our galleys.

‘The Sultan will never conquer the rest of Europe without first conquering Malta.’

Suleiman’s eyes were old and haunted. ‘Forty-two years ago I drove the Knights from Rhodes. They fought bravely, and in my munificence I let the survivors depart with honour.’ His voice
became steely again, he sat straight-backed. ‘Yet it is in the book of Ibn Khaldun, the book of prophecies, that the armies of Islam will come by sea, and ultimately the lands of Christendom will fall to them. For all men in time will bow the head to Mecca.’

He turned to a slave. ‘Bring me the map of Ptolemy.’

In a trice, a wide table was brought and a great map spread out.

It was a map made by the Greeks, centuries ago, and many a time Suleiman had traced its outlines with rapt attention to detail. Here would be a good place for a new city, a new Ottoman capital of the West. Here was a fine harbour, here an enchanting island in the ocean stream, fit for the palace of a conqueror. Everywhere he saw dreams of conquest and glory. He, Suleiman, Padishah of the White Sea, the Red and the Black. Now he narrowed his eyes upon the tiny island of Malta. They said you could walk across it in three hours. This speck of grit in the Ottoman oyster.

He raised his head again and addressed the gathered crowd with inimitable authority. Every word was heard, to the back of the vast chamber.

‘Allah has prepared this for us: that the Christian idolaters should fight against each other and never come to alliance. The Franks have treated with us in secret, they will not lift a finger to save Italy, Spain or Austria. These territories are ours for the taking. Soon the cry of the muezzin will sound in Vienna, and then in Rome. That great charnel house of saints’ bones that they call
Saint Peter’s
, we will make into a mosque, as Hagia Sophia is now a mosque. We will bring even France under our sway, Paris will bow the head to Mecca – the French willingly obey a conqueror, for the sake of peace and wine. And finally England, which is ruled by a mere woman, and the cold islands beyond. All this will come to pass during our reign. All will be ours, submitting to the law of the holy Koran.

‘One empire, one faith, one leader.’

The hall was filled with the murmur of war.

‘But first,’ he raised a hand, ‘as I have always said – first, we shall conquer Malta. It is written.’


By candelight that very evening, a much smaller meeting took place. Around a marble-topped table in an upper room, the map of Ptolemy again before them, just three men sat in counsel. Suleiman on a raised chair, to his left Mustafa Pasha, and to his right, Piyale, admiral of the grand fleet. Where Mustafa was a cunning Anatolian peasant risen to the heights by ruthlessness and ability, the aristocratic Piyale, little more than half Mustafa’s age, smooth and charming, had been raised in the Imperial Palace itself. He also made the cunning move of marrying Genhir, one of the Sultan’s granddaughters.

Mustafa was speaking, sharing his limitless knowledge of the White Sea.

‘It will be a distant campaign. The island is almost a thousand miles away’ – he traced a bony finger over the blue-tinted sea of the map – ‘and has no resources. Not a timber, not a stick of firewood. We must take everything.

‘Aside from the harbour, dominated by the Castle of the Knights, San Angelo, Malta is no more than a bare sunburnt rock, some ten miles across. A wind-scoured mountaintop between Europe and Africa, its roots on the bed of the White Sea. A merciless desert of thorn scrub, a few carob trees, no rivers. Other inlets on the east side, a small harbour to the south, shallow bays to the north, but to the west, towering, impassable cliffs. A handful of wretched villages, and an ancient city in the heart of it. Note well this city’s name: Mdina.’

‘The Arabic for
,’ murmured Piyale.

‘For three hundred years,’ nodded Suleiman, ‘this island was under Islamic rule. And as Islamic law teaches, a land that has once been under Islam, is always under Islam.’

He waved his hand for Mustafa to continue.

‘Rainwater is collected in cisterns. Now it will be raining, but by March the rain will stop, and not fall again till autumn. The island lies further to the south than even Algiers or Tunis. In summer the sun can kill a man in armour.’

‘We know the number of knights?’ asked Piyale.

Suleiman knew everything, from the name of the French king’s new mistress to the private finances of the Pope.

‘There are some four hundred knights now stationed at Malta,’ he said. ‘As many again might answer the call from Italy, Spain, France and Germany. The Hospitallers still have commanderies and estates across Europe. But many of those “knights” are farmers in all but name. We will face eight hundred knights at most.’

‘And our Army of Malta will number forty thousand,’ said Mustafa.

Sultan, general and admiral contemplated these figures with satisfaction.

Mustafa resumed. ‘The inhabitants other than the knights are a decrepit and ancient Maltese nobility in Mdina, and an ignorant village peasantry, devoted to Christian idols. Raids by the North African corsairs have only made them more ardent in their un-belief.

‘A harsh and worthless land, then, but for those dogs of St John who must be destroyed, and the great harbour, which must be taken. It will be our base for the southern conquest of Europe. The war requires planning and supplies, yet its course will be simple. First the harbour will be captured, then the knights destroyed, and the population slaughtered, enslaved or exiled. Slaughter is satisfying, but slavery enriching.’

Suleiman almost smiled. A typical maxim. ‘We should seek to rupture the island’s water cisterns,’ he said.

‘Majesty.’ Mustafa nodded. ‘Cannon will be needed for this, and to reduce fortifications. Dragut’s knowledge of the island would also be useful.’

Suleiman looked up.


Mustafa smiled. ‘Dragut. The very sound of his name is a weapon of terror in Malta.’

Shropshire, England: Autumn, 1564

Father Matthew was saying Mass when they heard the horses’ hooves approaching.

The priest had been about to bless the bread –
hoc est enim corpus meum
, that holiest moment. But he stopped and instead prayed silently that the hooves would pass on.

There was a frightened silence in the small oak-panelled room, lit only by candlelight. Father Matthew with his head bowed, lips moving, beside the table spread with the bread and wine. Sir Francis Ingoldsby, white-haired, broad-shouldered and bow-legged, with his four children behind him. The eldest, Nicholas, and his sisters Susan, Agnes and Lettice. The servants behind them. The October wind moaning in the chimney, the flames in the fireplace dancing in torment, the thin rain pattering against the leaded windowpanes. Ironshod hooves on the road.

The listeners barely drew breath.

Then the horses’ hooves clattered to a halt outside.

At once there was movement in the room. Father Matthew took up the silver chalice and drained it and wrapped it up in a cloth along with the bread. The servants licked their fingertips and snuffed out all but one candle. Nicholas flung open the door and looked down the hall. At that instant the studded front door seemed to shake on its hinges at a mighty knock from sword hilt or musket butt.

‘Quickly, Father,’ urged Sir Francis. But the gaunt and bony Father Matthew was not of an age to move anywhere quickly.

The other three Ingoldsby children stood back in the shadows, white-faced, the younger girls trying not to cry. A servant named
Hodge, an expressionless, solidly built youth, was hauling back a section of linen-fold panelling. Another, louder knock came at the door. The wind moaned.

‘They’ll not knock a third time!’ said Nicholas in a desperate whisper.

‘That door has stood for four centuries,’ muttered his father. ‘It’ll stand a while yet.’

‘Patience, patience,’ muttered Father Matthew, with his bundle and missal under one arm, clambering slowly and stiffly into the tiny priest’s hole beside the fireplace. ‘Unto everything there is a time and a purpose and so forth.’

There was no more violent knocking, only a curious grating sound from around the huge old iron lock. Then to Nicholas’s horror, a part of the mechanism moved as if at the hand of a ghost. The lockbar went back and the door swung slowly inwards. At first the others didn’t even realise it had happened. Father Matthew was still settling himself down in the hole, muttering about the dignity of the priesthood, Hodge standing by holding the panel.

Only when they heard the rising howl of the wind and felt a gust of chill air from the hall and saw the solitary candleflame lean and flutter did they freeze and stare.

His father cried, ‘What the devil?’

Nicholas could only stare back aghast, as if it were somehow his fault.

In the open doorway stood two hulking, thuggish men, their hoods concealing their faces, the wind whipping their travel-stained cloaks about their legs and mud-spattered boots. One had a sword already drawn from the scabbard, the other held a storm lantern. He raised it high and both were eerily illuminated. The one with the lantern pushed back his hood to reveal unkempt fair hair and a beard the colour of old tallow, and high ruddy cheeks. The other did likewise, showing a much darker, more threatening appearance. Black beard and black burning eyes, the whites bloodshot, making him look like a bull of dangerous and evil temperament. His sword hung loosely from a great right hand.

‘No, sir, no!’ cried a voice from behind Nicholas. It was Hodge. He even put out an arm to restrain his master, but old Sir Francis
would have none of it. He would die defending his household if need be.

‘Out of my way, boy!’ he roared. He pulled down the sword in its scabbard that hung above the fireplace and strode out into the hall. Or strode as best he could, with his aged joints, his left leg crooked from an ancient wound.

The tallow-headed ruffian smiled to see the old warrior.

‘We have interrupted you at some game?’ he said. ‘Or perhaps some more spiritual exercise? Have you a visitor?’

Nicholas glanced back in terror to see if Father Matthew was hidden yet.

A mistake.

The fairhead said, ‘Ah, so he’s in there.’

Blackbeard beside him said nothing. He was not one for talking, it was clear. Killing was more his temper.

‘Please,’ said the first ruffian. ‘Pray continue, Sir Francis.’ And both of them took a step forward into the hall out of the rain. Blackbeard kicked the door shut behind him and lazily, insultingly, sheathed his own sword. They seemed even bigger now, infernal figures, lit only by their own lantern and the single flickering candle of a servant. The girls whimpered in terror. The youngest, little Lettice, held a tiny white handkerchief up to her eyes so she couldn’t see. Nicholas groped at his belt and found he wasn’t even carrying his dagger. Beside him, Hodge was slowly reaching out for a horsecrop that lay on the oak chest. Much good would that do him against two such men. Yet even at that slight movement, Blackbeard’s gaze turned on Hodge and his reddened eyes burned like coals in the night. Hodge froze.

‘God damn you,’ muttered Sir Francis, standing protectively before all his household, still powerfully built despite his crooked leg. ‘Coming to my home with weapons drawn. Whatever my offence may be, I have the same right to a trial as any freeborn Englishman. You are no agents of the Queen or of the Church, you are nothing but low criminals. And if you take one step further into my house, your guts will feel my sword.’

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