The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (4 page)

The fairhead smiled pleasantly. ‘The weapon looks rusted in its sheath.’

Sir Francis growled and pulled hard at his sword hilt – and sure enough, the scabbard leapt with it.

The fairhead gazed keenly at Sir Francis, eyes gleaming. Raindrops ran down his cheeks and beard, and water puddled on the flagstones round his battered leather boots. When he spoke his voice was strangely softened, cracked with emotion. He said words that none but Sir Francis himself could have understood, tenderly, with not a hint of sarcasm. At the sight of the old man’s dauntless courage, trying to pull a rusty sword from its scabbard in solitary defence of his ancestral home, the fairhead murmured, ‘Ah, Brother Francis. The Religion hath need of thee, and such as thee.’

Then he pulled his cloak down at the throat to reveal a brilliant silver cross on a chain. A cross with four equal arms and eight points.

Sir Francis let go of his sword. ‘My brothers!’ he gasped.

Nicholas stared rapt at the blazing silver cross, and it seemed to burn into his eyes forever.

The strangers locked the door again behind them, using the key this time. Nicholas wanted to know how they had unlocked it from without, what mysterious trickery they had used. The fairhead seemed to sense his burning curiosity, but only smiled and tapped the side of his nose.

‘My brother and I have travelled far and wide, and learnt much in our travels,’ he murmured infuriatingly. ‘From the locksmiths of Germany, the alchemists of Alexandria, the gymnosophists of India …’

‘If you come as friends,’ said Sir Francis, ‘why pick the lock of my door?’

The fairhead grinned. ‘Had you peered out of your window and seen two such figures as us – on such a night as this – would you really have let us in?’

Sir Francis guffawed. ‘Not till the crack of doom.’

‘And besides – we are in a hurry. It is better we were not seen by any others.’

Nevertheless, the two visitors insisted that the family resume the Mass. They would willingly join them.

As Father Matthew intoned the solemn church Latin, there was a chance to study the newcomers sidelong. They smelt of horsehair
and leather and sweat, and somehow, distant and exotic lands. The ruddy cheeks of the fairhead were really burned a reddish brown, Nicholas now saw, as were Blackbeard’s, and their massively powerful hands too. The deep, deep brown of a hot sun.

After Mass, Father Matthew rode away into the night on his Welsh pony, and the children and servants were sent early to bed. Some lingered on the darkened stairs, peering down. This was the most exciting thing to happen in the village since the miller fell down the well.

‘To bed with you!’ bellowed Sir Francis, and they scuttled away to their rooms.

In his library, Sir Francis poured three cups of Portugal wine. His unexpected guests stood before the fire, their wet cloaks hung over the backs of chairs and steaming. Hodge still lingered in the doorway, eyes wide. Blackbeard glanced back, and then strode over and pushed the door shut in his face.

‘Along with us, Hodge,’ said Nicholas.

‘But how’ll I sleep, Master Nicholas? With them foreigners under the roof?’

Hodge thought anyone who came from across the millstream was a foreigner.

They went upstairs.

Once he had heard all the bedroom doors shut, Nicholas slipped out again, burning with curiosity. What a hypocritical villain he was, to be sure. He crept down the stairs in darkness, keeping close to the edges so as not to creak, and knelt outside the library door.

There he heard confused snatches of urgent conversation. About The Knights, and the island of Malta, the Great Sultan, war galleys, and of a Grand Master of St John, called Jean de la Valette, who was ‘dauntless’. Yet some vast and terrible threat hung over them all, and there was desperately little time left.

The two strangers continually addressed his father as Brother Francis, which baffled and intrigued Nicholas at once. As if his father was a monk or a friar! His father never talked about his own early life. It was a mysteriously forbidden subject. He married late, a much younger girl, the daughter of an old friend of his, and they were blissfully happy for nine years, until she died in childbed.
Nicholas was eight when she died, and even now could not think of her and speak at the same time. Her golden hair, her radiant smile …

He made no sound now, hardly able to hear himself breathe. Yet the strangers knew he was there. The door was abruptly flung open and Blackbeard seized him by the collar of his jerkin, hauling him inside and slamming the door again behind him.

His father rose up from the table with a thunderous expression.

‘How dare you, boy! How dare you eavesdrop like some petty sneakthief on a private conversation, and one of such consequence. I’ll give you such a beating, you disobedient wretch!’

Blackbeard let the boy go and he slumped, head bowed in shame.

Sir Francis was just raising his fist to strike him when the fairhead murmured,

‘Ay, I was young too once, and thrilled by tales of voyages and adventures.’ And he laid his hand on Sir Francis’s arm.

Sir Francis scowled at him, then slowly, very slowly, the thunder subsided from his face and his arm fell.

‘You are a confounded disobedient dog, and obedience is one of the truest virtues. Have you learnt nothing in all your schooling?’

Nicholas’s face was red with shame. ‘I am heartily sorry, sir. My curiosity was greater than my judgement.’

‘Hm.’ He stumped back to his chair. ‘Prettily said, if not done.’

‘Is the boy discreet, brother?’ asked the fairhead.

‘Is he?’ His father glared at him. ‘Well, boy? Are you?’

‘Have you ever known me not, sir?’

Sir Francis rubbed his white beard. ‘You mean we let him stay and hear?’

Blackbeard spoke for the first time, his voice a bearlike growl. ‘If only all stayed to hear what we say. All of Christendom. Our news is bitter, and time is damnably short.’

‘Very well.’ Sir Francis nodded. ‘Sit, boy. Listen and learn, and speak not a word. Not now, not hereafter, not to any living soul. Or countless lives will be sacrificed for it.’

Then the three men resumed speaking, as if Nicholas were invisible.

The fairhead said, ‘If Christendom would stop tearing itself apart
for just one moment – like a dog tearing open its own stomach – and stop, and look up towards the eastern horizon – then it would see a far, far greater danger approaching like a whirlwind. A danger that will make all arguments between Catholics and Protestants, Greeks, Calvinists, Anabaptists and whatever other sectaries seem lunatic in their pettiness. For this is a danger that will, if it is not faced and conquered, destroy all of Europe. It is a danger that has never ceased to menace Christendom since that damned Mohammedan creed first arose like a demon out of the sands of Arabia, a thousand years ago. It will never cease to threaten us. It is the religion of perpetual warfare. The religion of the Barbary corsairs, the Moors, the Saracens, of Saladin, of the drug-maddened Assassins in the Alborz mountains of Persia. It is the perpetually drawn Sword of Islam. Now that sword is wielded by the most fearsome enemy we have yet faced. Suleiman the Magnificent. He who calls himself the Lord of All Under Heaven.’

‘And this single battle,’ added Blackbeard, ‘this one last, desperate stand against the numberless army of the Ottomans, will decide the fate of Christendom for ever.’

The fire gave a loud crack, and Nicholas jumped.

Blackbeard remained unmoved.

Sir Francis said, ‘The Christian powers will send no aid?’

The fairhead smiled bitterly. ‘They are too busy fighting each other, as usual. The German Protestant princes, and of course this fair realm of England, regard us as wicked Catholics. Why would they help us? Italy is torn apart by perpetual war, and the competing ambitions of the French, the Spanish, even the Papal States. The great republics of Venice and Genoa, their treasuries overflowing, still care only to amass more gold. If we receive any help at all, it will be from King Philip of Spain. But he has troubles of his own. The Protestants are stirring to revolt in the Spanish Netherlands. English privateers – as they are called – relentlessly harry his treasure ships. His mad son, Don Carlos, is a perpetual torment to him.’

‘Mad ever since he fell down the stairs, going to a midnight assignation with a porter’s daughter,’ said Blackbeard.

‘So there he sits in his gloomy palace of the Escorial and dithers. We cannot rely even on him. And so we wait, we four hundred
knights, on our barren rock, for the wrath of the entire Ottoman Empire to fall on us. And soon.’

‘And if Malta falls,’ said Blackbeard, ‘then you know what will follow. The Rock of the Mediterranean guards those straits for the whole of Western Europe. The war galleys of the knights plough those seas unceasingly, to the terror of the Barbary corsairs, and even Suleiman himself.’

Sir Francis nodded. ‘But if Malta falls …’

‘If Malta falls,’ said the fairhead, ‘and our Great Harbour is lost, then Suleiman is free to roam westwards as he wills. He can fall on the Italian coast, the Spanish, the French—’

‘The French!’ roared Blackbeard with sudden violence. ‘The French deserve all they get!’

The fairhead nodded at his comrade. ‘My Brother John here does not care for the French.’

‘Those mincing treacherous milk-livered cotqueans! Only twenty years ago, that woman of a king, their Francis, made secret alliance with Suleiman, to spite the Emperor Charles V and the Hapsburgs. Do you not recall?’

‘I remember it,’ said Sir Francis. ‘All of Christendom was disgusted.’

‘The French,’ concluded Blackbeard, and made an extraordinary noise, somewhere between a snort and a growl. Nicholas thought of the she-bear devouring the little boys in the Book of Kings. ‘Don’t speak to me of the
, nor expect any aid from
quarter. They are born cowards and collaborators all.’

‘Is Grand Master Jean de la Valette not a Frenchman?’ enquired Sir Francis.

‘No,’ said Blackbeard. ‘He is a Knight.’

There was a silence, and then the fairhead resumed.

‘The delicate matter of France aside,’ he said with the lightest irony, ‘if our island fortress of Malta should fall – as fall it surely will, without aid, in only a few days – then the Grand Fleet of the Turks will be free to pass westwards, even beyond Gibraltar. To roam the Atlantic, to capture the Spanish treasure fleets returning from the Americas laden with the silver and gold of the Indies. To sail onward to the New World, even, and plant the Green Banner of Islam on the American shore. It is only twenty-five days’ sailing
from Cape Florida to the Scillies on a good wind, after all. And northwards too, up the English Channel, the Scheldt, the Rhine … the Thames? Before long, the minarets of the Mohammedans might soon appear in place of the towers of Christianity, in Antwerp, and Cologne, and London. The unearthly cry of the muezzin will be heard drifting over the spires of Oxford …’

Sir Francis grimaced. ‘You have a poet’s fancy.’

‘Perhaps. But you understand me? If Malta should fall, the balance of power in Europe will be for ever changed. Suleiman will have complete mastery of the sea. And he who rules the sea, rules the land.’

Sir Francis Ingoldsby brooded long and deep. ‘It will take time for me to raise any small aid—’

‘Time we do not have!’ cried the fairhead in a sudden passion, stepping forward. ‘Forgive me, Brother Francis. But day and night the forges of the Ottomans are ablaze, the great furnaces fed by the forests of Armenia and the Crimea. The waters of the Bosphorus glow red with their flames, the arsenals are stacked high with cannon, cannonballs, powder barrels. The greatest of their guns, the monstrous basilisks, could bring down the walls of Krak des Chevaliers!’

‘War has changed,’ murmured the old knight sadly. ‘Oh to have fought and died at Krak des Chevaliers! But now guns and gunpowder reign over all, and chivalry is no more.’

‘There is always chivalry,’ growled Blackbeard unexpectedly.

‘Suleiman’s army numbers perhaps forty thousand men,’ said the fairhead, ‘and his corps of Janizaries – well, you know the Janizaries.’

‘No warriors more ferocious under heaven,’ murmured the old knight.

‘They long to die for the faith, and go straight to their promised Paradise. They champ at the bit for war like maddened horses. Suleiman’s navy is the greatest fleet seen on the Mediterranean since the days of Ancient Rome. And over this vast force presides Suleiman himself, seventy years of age, and not a whit more peaceable for his white hairs. Scarce one decade of his life has been spent at peace. And he is in a hurry now to finish the job. Before he dies. To destroy Christendom once and for all.’

Sir Francis’s old face, battered and weather-beaten, furrowed with disbelief. ‘You really believe he could do this?’

‘I do,’ said the fairhead quietly. ‘He has planned all his life for it. Once he has taken Malta, then he will fall on the rest of Europe like a ravening wolf. And as we squabble and fight amongst ourselves, weakened and vulnerable, he will devour us one by one. The entire conquest could be achieved in no more than … five years?’

A heavy silence oppressed the small oak-dark room. Suddenly it seemed as if even here, in this peaceful corner of a quiet English shire, the shadow of an evil power in the East was arising.

‘His entire army,’ resumed the fairhead, ‘this numberless armada, will soon be sailing. As soon as spring comes, and the seas quiet, this army of fanatics will sail west, and descend on Malta. And you know how crude the defences of our barren island home, compared to our beloved Rhodes before. Or Acre—’

‘Or Krak des Chevaliers.’

‘And you know how many we are. Even with all our scattered European brothers, eight or nine hundred at most. Against forty thousand. Valorous we may be, but that is no fight we can win. We need all aid, brother. And we need it now.’

Ingoldsby looked from one to the other. Nicholas felt invisible. ‘You are not men for wild exaggeration. And if Jean de la Valette has heard from his spies that the Turkish fleet is sailing soon, and the Sultan’s evil eye has fallen on Malta – then I do not doubt it. But you know that I am no longer a knight, though a thousand times I have wished I were. You know that when King Henry, and the entire realm of England, broke from Rome, the Catholic Order of St John was suppressed throughout this kingdom. And you know that each and every Knight of the English Langue was forced to make the most dreadful decision of his life. To abandon the Order – or to abandon his country.’

Other books

Crazy for Love by Victoria Dahl
Edge of Darkness by J. T. Geissinger
From This Moment by Sean D. Young
HedgeWitch by Silver RavenWolf
Blaze by Joan Swan
Haunted Destiny by Heather Graham
Skyfire by Mack Maloney
NOT What I Was Expecting by Tallulah Anne Scott
Zambezi by Tony Park Copyright 2016 - 2023