The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (32 page)

Lanfreducci turned and swung his great two-hander over his head in the face of the approaching horde and cried out, ‘For San Marco and the Two Kingdoms!’ and a ball cut through his mail and grooved his upper arm. Another kicked up dust between his feet and he turned and ran on, cursing this first time in twenty-eight years he had ever shown his back to the enemy.

Somehow they all got home alive, Lanfreducci and De Guaras both hit but neither fallen.

Panting and grinning, Lanfreducci tore off his bloody tabard and breastplate and padded shirt and stood there on the walls, naked to the waist, his great muscled chest bare, his handsome face thrown back, his thick dark hair curling down his neck, teeth gleaming in the moonlight. Entirely exposed to the Janizary muskets and utterly unafraid, laughing down at them … Nicholas saw him then as some ancient hero, Hector or Sarpedon on the walls of Troy, casting mockery down on the foe, magnificently careless. Not even glancing down at his own bloody arm, the Italian knight took a strip of clean white linen in his teeth and tore it in two and tossed the narrower strip to Nicholas. He extended his muscled, blood-slathered arm.

‘Tie me up tight but not too tight, boy. You know the drill.’

Nicholas did his best.

‘Hm.’ Lanfreducci eyed the reddening dressing. ‘Not so bad. You are the English boy, the Insulter? You tie a good bandage. You’ve done this before.’

‘First time.’

Lanfreducci grinned. ‘Well, good enough for first time. Come, let us drink some wine, and the wound in my arm may have some too. We have earned it, little English brother. They say your father was a Hospitaller, is this so?’

Exhausted and still terrified and now elated all at once, Nicholas bowed his head, near overwhelmed with emotion, as the Italian knight laid his good arm over the boy’s thin shoulders and they went down to the inner yard to drink wine.

A hospital chaplain came to urge Lanfreducci inside the store too, to lie down so he could dress his wound.

‘’Tis done, Fra Gianni,’ said the knight. ‘But a splash of brandy …’

He drank wine while his arm was doused in brandy, and showed no reaction until the chaplain had gone back inside. Then he screwed up his face. ‘By the arse of Mohammed, that stings.’

Nicholas grinned.

‘So you wish to become a brother too, to follow after your father?’ said Lanfreducci. ‘You know about the rule of chastity?’

He looked away. ‘I will not be a knight, I think.’

‘Then why are you here? There is no compulsion. And you know we are in terrible danger.’ He hesitated a moment. ‘Indeed, most of us here will die.’

He passed Nicholas the cup of wine and he drank.

‘I suppose,’ said the boy, wiping his mouth, ‘I think I won’t die. And I am here because of my father.’

Lanfreducci nodded in the darkness. ‘The Blessed Virgin look over you, boy. There is no need for you to fight. Bring up water, wine, casks of powder. Bulk the walls. Help the chaplains here. Tie a good bandage. Keep your head down, and keep away from the front line. My heart would be heavy if boys like you died here.’ And he hugged him hard.

They might snatch a couple more hours’ sleep before dawn. But first Nicholas needed a word with someone.




Stanley snorted and stirred. ‘What is it, boy?’

Nicholas hesitated.

‘For all the saints. Be quick. I was dreaming of roast beef.’

‘It’s about Lanfreducci.’

‘What of him?’

‘Forgive me, only I need to ask you … he’s not … he’s not, is he?’

‘Not what?’

‘A …
un sodomità

Stanley said in a tight voice, ‘Lanfreducci?’


‘No.’ He gave a strangulated laugh. ‘No, the Chevalier Francesco di Lanfreducci is most certainly not
un sodomità

‘Only – he kept putting his arm around me, and then he hugged me.’

‘Ay. And soon enough he’ll be telling you he loves you,’ growled another voice out of the darkness. It was Smith. ‘It means nothing, boy. He’s just

‘In fact,’ said Stanley, ‘Brother Francesco is one of our order who is most troubled by the vow of chastity.’

‘He’s not troubled by it at all,’ said Smith. ‘He’s quite happy with his mistress over in Birgu.’

‘Mistress?’ said Nicholas.

Stanley nodded, looking serious. ‘We are knights, boy, not saints. Though it is a shameful thing for a knight to break a vow. Yet the Chevalier Lanfreducci fights as valiantly as any knight in the Order – you have seen – and besides, it must be said, he has the looks of some ancient god, and the women will pursue him to exhaustion, like hounds after their quarry. And he is too lazy and smiling and—’

,’ said Smith.

‘And Italian,’ said Stanley, ‘to say no. Hence the mistress – the very pretty mistress, I acknowledge – in Birgu.’

‘And the one in Naples,’ said Smith.

‘And in Messina,’ said Stanley.

in Messina.’

Stanley looked over his shoulder. ‘Two?’

‘Ay. The Contessa as well.’

Stanley looked back, reflective, his eyes distant. ‘Well,’ he said. Then he focused on the boy again. ‘Unseemly talk for your ears, boy. Get some sleep. And have no anxieties about Lanfreducci that way. He is not interested in you for your – fleshly configuration. But you might pray for his soul. He needs it.’


From San Angelo, La Valette and Starkey looked out at the beleaguered fort, silently smoking in the night.

‘The banner of St John flies yet,’ said Starkey, ‘though they have fought there two days and two nights.’

‘And will be fighting all tomorrow too, no doubt of that,’ said La Valette. ‘Against entirely fresh troops. But they have withstood well so far, and Birgu is grateful for it. Not a minute has been wasted.’

In a courtyard in a quiet backstreet, a mother said to her daughter, ‘What is it, child?’

The girl said nothing.

‘Is it the English boy?’

Then tears came to the girl’s eyes, and she stood and ran into an inner room.

‘You know it is the English boy,’ said Franco Briffa, throwing another wad of dried brush in the brazier. ‘Leave her be.’

The woman bent over her sewing again. ‘How it hurts to be young and in love.’

‘Love,’ sighed Franco. ‘Ay, I remember that word. But as to its meaning …’

His wife smiled in the firelight and pricked him in the leg with her needle. Franco chuckled.

The Turks fell on Elmo again the next day, and the defenders fought from dawn till dusk, and then the next. The high confidence of the first day and the blistering counter-attack began to wane. In their
weariness they began to make misjudgements, and Smith stood to move along the line just as new gunfire poured in upon them at close range.

He was struck in his broad bullneck by a musket ball. He fought on, blood slowly drenching his throat and shoulder, before he suddenly weakened and tottered, and then said with great dignity, ‘Brothers, I must leave you,’ and went below.

Stanley rammed a fresh musketball home with vehemence. ‘He’ll live,’ he said. It sounded as much a prayer as a prediction.

Nicholas glanced after Smith, Sir John Smith, the indestructible, knight of both England and Malta … And Hodge, too, was not well. He drank excessively, and ate little, and looked wan, and struggled to bring the smallest sacks of powder and ball up the steps to the walls. But Nicholas would not let Hodge die. He had decided that they would fight the good fight as long as they could, but then somehow make their way back across the water before Elmo fell, to Birgu, alive, to fight again.

Men’s plans are not God’s plans.

Hodge dropped down beside Nicholas with a grunt, the sack of balls hitting the ground and the dull leaden spheres rolling away over the stone.

‘For God’s sake boy, pick ’em up!’ roared a nearby soldier.

But Hodge could not. He lay back sickly, lips thin and drawn, eyes barely open, trembling. Nicholas scrabbled around gathering up the musket balls again and passed them up to the soldier on the wall. He ducked as another explosion went off overhead, and more masonry tumbled down and hit the yard below.

‘Master,’ whispered Hodge, ‘I am going.’

‘I’m not your master, Hodge,’ said Nicholas fiercely. ‘Master no more. And you’re not dying. You’re fevered, and tonight you will go—’

‘Fevered and hit too,’ said Hodge. He moved his left arm slightly across the stones, and it was limp, and left a slather of blood in the dust.

Nicholas in dismay sliced open Hodge’s sleeve and saw the horrible sight of a white splintered arm bone gouging up through the torn flesh of his forearm, the flesh around it blown clean away, more white bone showing, and blood leaking everywhere.

‘O sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, look down …’ gabbled Nicholas, tearing off the band of cloth around his head that kept the sweat from his eyes and trying to slip it under Hodge’s shattered arm. Exhausted and near delirious as he was, Hodge arched his back at the merest touch of the material and screamed. Nicholas felt the agony, his very arm throbbed in unison. And the worst thing, panic began to set in.

The soldier above them gave a grunt and stepped back, the soldier to whom he had given the fresh bag of musket balls. Then he fell across them and crashed down. He was already dead, half his head gone, his helmet rolling clumsily away across the parapet and over the edge. Another man was screaming with madness, and there were more shouts of sheer desperation,

‘They’re coming in! We can’t hold them!’

Nicholas held onto Hodge’s other hand, stricken helpless. A shadow fell across him from behind, and he knew it was a Turk up on the cordon, yet even then he could not look round. Smoke and dust blinded his eyes, his eyeballs stung with grit, his ears were stunned and deaf, his throat like sharkskin as it had been for days now. Yet he could not look up, could not move, and the cries of despair around him seemed even now very far away. There was only him kneeling there in the dust below the half-shattered parapet, and Hodge lying before him, near dying, to be buried here in this stone-hard fly-blown island, forgotten and far from home.

O sweet Jesus

Then two more Spanish infantrymen were fighting behind him. It was García and Zacosta, thrusting over the cordon with fantastic savagery, their half-pikes dripping, and there was another man kneeling beside the boys, keeping his head low. It was Lanfreducci. You beg of Jesus, and a mortal man comes. But that is how Jesus answers. With practised skill he held Hodge’s shoulder in one hand, and then swiftly but gently drew his hand up and across, ignoring the boy’s cries, so that the shattered forearm lay across Hodge’s own belly. Then he scooped Hodge up in strong arms, keeping him prone and motionless, and carried him down to the stores for the chaplains to tend. They were so low on medical supplies, they were splinting with scabbards now.

Nicholas ran down after them. His every desire was to go with
Hodge, sit with him, be with him. But that was worthless, and not his duty. He was urgently needed on the walls. He seized more bags and powder packs and ran up the steps once more. Sweat immediately began to pour into his eyes again in the atrocious heat, salt to sting his cracked and sunburned face. The sun was a living fire, but it punished all equally. He paused half-way up to tie the cloth around his forehead again, for without it he could barely see to crawl along behind the cordon, handing out the bags and packs.

Behind him came another knight up the steps, his throat wrapped tight with a white bandage, limping badly, his face deathly pale. The rest of his wounds and his half-destroyed body were hidden by his fine suit of armour. He raised his vizor and smiled at Nicholas above him. It was Bridier de la Gordcamp.

‘Brother!’ called one of the chaplains from the yard. ‘You cannot—’

Bridier raised his hand without turning. ‘Later, brother, later.’

The situation on the walls was desperate. The Janizaries were pushing with vast concerted force now to finish this damned fort and be done, knowing that the defenders had been fighting for close on seventy-two hours, with barely a rest. That lunatic counter-attack of theirs must have boosted their morale, yet still they must be near finished.

The heat was terrible, and while they in their white silk robes had it better, the Christians in their suits of armour must surely be dropping of suffocation and thirst if nothing else. A quarter of them were dead already, and the rest must surely be destroyed soon. And yet those dogs of St John fought on, like men who did not know when their appointed time was come.

Not twenty men stood behind the north-west cordon, locked in struggle with the packed Janizary assault. Though distant Turkish snipers might try to pick off isolated defenders, yet guns were in the main useless in this mêlée of swords and half-pikes, deteriorating into the crudest blows with shield boss or butt in the face with armoured head.

Through the ranks of the soldiers and his brother knights, not one of them unwounded, slipped the slender Bridier. He stepped up onto the cordon of barrels and bales, drew his sword and cried out the name of the Saviour. Then before the astonished eyes of
all, attackers and defenders both, he flipped his grilled vizor down, dropped in among the Janizaries themselves and began slaying.

For a moment it seemed like he was a man enchanted, or a demon come from below. His armour was of the very finest, of the workshops of Brescia, and even the most powerful cuts and thrusts made no headway against him, while his own long lean blade sliced cruelly through Turkish flesh without ceasing. The attack began to fail, some Turks fell away, some retreated. Then a veteran Janizary sergeant aimed grimly and stabbed the point of his scimitar straight at the exposed underarm of the fair-haired knight and drove it in deep.

Bridier pulled himself back from the scimitar and swung his sword and missed and staggered and fell. Janizaries crowded vengefully forward, but from the roof of the bastion came a command to his own men to duck down, and then a perfectly timed volley of crossbow bolts under Luigi Broglia’s all-seeing direction. They flew in hard and hit the close-packed Turkish soldiery while the prostrate Bridier lay safe below them. Half a dozen more Turks fell. In the pause, Bridier climbed to his feet again, leaning on his sword, and then raised it once more, beyond exhausted, just enough to drive it low into the sergeant’s belly. The Turk leaned forward and vomited blood over the weapon that had killed him. Bridier pulled his sword free and sank to his knees. The sergeant knelt with him, facing him. They appeared like men confessing their last sins to each other.

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