The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (52 page)

BOOK: The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege
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On some of the ships a strange light was seen, dancing blue and white on the shuddering mast-tops, hissing audibly and malevolently, a sign that terrified them. A Christian among them who had turned Turk and corsair because it paid better suddenly found that he was crossing himself. His comrades seized him and held knives to his throat and demanded to know what was happening.

‘The flames on the tops,’ he muttered. ‘Among the Christians, it is called St Elmo’s fire.’

They let him drop, and stood aghast. Truly they were damned.

The once Grand Fleet slipped into Constantinople under cover of darkness, in silence but for the slow rise and dip of tired oars. A forest of shattered masts, of stinking galleys, ruined and shamed. Of the forty thousand who had sailed, fewer than ten thousand returned. Of the corsairs and cut-throats who had joined from
the African coast, from Egypt and Tripoli and Algiers, hardly any returned at all.

Suleiman decreed, as only the Lord of the Universe can, ‘
Malta Yök

Malta Is Not.

Mustafa and Piyale were removed from their commands, but to general surprise, both kept their heads. All of the city went into mourning. Few had not lost a brother or a cousin in the disaster. A number of Christians and Jews were stoned or stabbed to death in impotent vengeance.

Yet the work of conquest could not stop. It was the Will of Allah that Islam should reign supreme over all the earth. Suleiman vowed –
Malta Yök
notwithstanding – to lead another army the following year, in person, and this time he would slaughter every man, woman and child on the island. He ordered fifty thousand oarsmen and forty thousand soldiers to be ready by the following March.

In time they heard of the news across Europe. Church bells rang out and people danced in the streets of Lisbon and Amsterdam and Munich and Rome and Vienna. In time they would hear even across the great divide of Christendom, and celebrate in Moscow and Kiev. And weeks later, in the old Christian heartlands of the Levant, oppressed now for a millennium, there would also be secret rejoicing at the victory of the true faith, among the Maronites and the Copts of Syria and Egypt. For the mighty sword of Islam had been broken, shattered in pieces by a small, ill-defended but unimaginably courageous Mediterranean rock, no more than two or three hours’ walking from side to side. Yet even amidst their celebrations, anxiety would remain. As if they knew the war of the world had only just begun.

Celebrations were more grave on Malta itself.

The guns fell silent, the miraculous rain washed the streets clean, and the people breathed again. They looked around and saw their shattered city as if for the first time, and the farmland beyond stripped of livestock, untended now for four long months under the broiling sun. Any sense of victory was tempered by how much labour would be needed to rebuild their beloved island. There were
no dances or bonfires in those rubble-strewn streets, their houses overthrown as if by almighty hand or earthquake, but only humble thanksgiving.

A slow hymn arose from the rubble, at once mournful and yet inexpressibly triumphant. The voices of men and women and children, unaccompanied, singing in their ancient language, voices high and low, young and old commingled. It was inexpressibly moving to hear it arise from the ruins. It was one thing for a people to love their proud and beautiful city, if that city was gilded and magnificent Venice or Genoa – but quite another for them to love this barren rock so deeply. Smith turned to Stanley and Nicholas with tears in his eyes and said, ‘If you love a thing, you fight for it. But if you fight for a thing, in time you come to love it.’

And it was true. The knights themselves had so loved their lush and beautiful island of Rhodes, island of butterflies and roses, and so despised this substitute of Malta, so mean in comparison. But now they loved it as ardently as the people themselves. Love grows in the hardest ground.

Malta of gold, Malta of silver, Never will we forsake you, Never will we forget you, Made precious with our blood

It was the small, weary, steadfast song of a people whom even the greatest army on earth could not break. They came up the street towards their church, where nothing awaited them, no precious paintings or treasures or even a living priest. Only the consoling silence of God. Barefoot and ragged and half starved, skinny arms raised to the sky, they were going to give thanks. They held their heads high and raised their tear-streaked faces to the blue heaven, a dusty black column of old men tottering on olive sticks, widows with veils raised, children arm in arm, helping each other as they limped along, a boy with a bandaged leg, a little girl with one hand. All sang.

The knights thought their hearts would break. And then on impulse one knight sank down on his knees at the side of the street, and bowed his head in all humility to the people passing by. This people with the hearts of lions. The knight was La Valette. Jean Parisot de la Valette, 48th Grand Master of the impeccably aristocratic Order of the Knights of St John.

Then one by one, all the knights did as he did. All down the
street, the stony ground rang with the clank of poleyns and greaves as the noblest sons of European chivalry, hair matted, beards filthy, beribboned in bloody bandages, sank down and bowed before a troop of dust-covered peasantry. They closed their eyes and rested shaggy, blood-encrusted forelocks on their clasped fists, holding their swords before them like crosses set in the ground, like knights in midnight vigil before the Cross.

What an Island of Heroes they had fought for and died for. What a high honour it had been. Suleiman should see this, the Magnificent, the Lord of the World, Padishah of the Red Sea, the White and the Black. Then at last he might be humbled. For such a people as this could never be destroyed.

Later that night, a message came from La Valette. The relief force from Sicily, under Don García de Toledo, had landed on the north of the island at Mellieha Bay. They had not been able to sail earlier, because of bad weather.

Then La Valette gave a rare laugh.


It was just an ordinary backstreet house in Birgu that had been struck by one of the last Turkish cannonballs fired into the town. The house had a small courtyard where the family used to sit, old Mama and mother and father and their daughter and two boys. The boys slept in the tiny room up the stairs from the courtyard at the top of the house. But some days before, the daughter had looked at the other houses hit by cannonball, and had made her brothers change rooms with her. Her noisy, dirty, scrappy, irritating, beloved little brothers. They said they didn’t want to move, they liked their room, but she said they must, it was dangerous. They said but then she would be in danger and she said don’t argue, go and sleep in my room. Or we could all sleep in the cellar, they said, but she said that would not be decent as they well knew, for men and women did not sleep in the same room after a girl had become a woman. And besides, cellars collapsed and buried people alive. They wouldn’t like that. So the boys grumpily took up their blankets and their thin straw pallets and moved into her room and she into theirs.

Nicholas ran back to the Street of the Bakers, a surge of wild survivor’s joy in his young heart. It was over, and he lived. He and Hodge and Maddalena all still lived. Suddenly a future was possible again, after months when he thought he might die here. Images of the green hills of Shropshire flooded into his mind, long distant plans, confused desires, his sisters found and restored, their rightful estates … Hodge his companion on the hills once more,
long fowling pieces over their shoulders, dogs at their heels. And a beautiful young wife, taken back to England with him. How she would complain of the snowbound winters! Suddenly it was all possible. He shivered with happiness.

When he came running pell-mell into the Street of the Bakers, the house of Franco Briffa was no longer there. Just a shattered waste of white stone and dust, a section of wall hanging free in the air above, suspended in shock.

A woman saw him and took his hand and led him to a small courtyard further down the street, and there was Franco Briffa and Maria, her head sunk on his chest, and old Mama, and Mateo and Tito sitting nearby on the ground looking wide-eyed, and beneath a white shroud a slender body covered from head to toe.

Nicholas cried out in every language that he knew, broken fragments of Spanish and Italian and Maltese and English, and he tore off the pure white shroud that covered her and saw what the cannonballs and the falling stones had done to her. Yet her face was untouched and as beautiful as ever in life, and he fell on her and kissed her, until at last gentle hands held him and stilled him and then helped him up.

Franco Briffa was speaking to him, and Maria also, but he could not hear their words. His ears screamed. But then he tried to make himself hear them. Was it not their grief too? He had loved her more than he would ever love another, but her parents too had loved and lost her, borne her, nursed her, raised her. For four months she had been a flame in his heart, a painful beautiful burning flame, but for fourteen years she had been their jewel, and they had lost her. He gulped down his desperate sobs and strained to hear their words.

‘You would have been my son,’ said Franco Briffa, and held him to his breast. Maria wept beside him and stroked his hair as if she was truly his mother.

‘You would have been our son,’ she said. ‘We would have been proud of you as though you were true-born Maltese, and you would have been our son. For she would have had no other but you.’

Nicholas and Hodge sat out on the headland beyond Gallows Point and watched the sun go down over the island. Nicholas sat with his arms around his knees and his head bowed as if he was praying,
but he was not praying. Hodge sat near to him, squinting, pulling a bit of dried grass. It had all been for nothing. The chivalry and heroism and the unimaginable hardship. What was it all about? A few barren miles of island and a dead girl’s grave.

Now the world was all before them, and they had nothing but their lives, their limbs and their spirits, wounded deep but not broken. It was more than many. What was next for them? Return to England? For there was business still to be done in Shropshire, and much to be set right there. Or Cadiz? Venice, and the hope of fortune? Or eastwards, to unimaginable adventures? Perhaps they would become wanderers of this Inland Sea, and of the blazing, war-torn borderland between two worlds, the Cross and the Crescent. Nicholas knew he had too great a restlessness, too great a sorrow, for any peace. Would they lose their honour and sink to mere mercenaries, going from war to bloody war, swords for hire, men who have looked on so much horror it has left their souls emptied out of everything once human?

‘I’m sorry for it, though,’ Hodge suddenly blurted out. ‘The girl and everything.’

Without Hodge, he might have chosen to die here, leave his bones here. But he would go on. Hodge made it bearable.

‘You have a stout heart and a noble soul, Hodge. For a peasant.’

‘That I have, Master Nicholas, that I have.’

‘I’m not your master.’

‘Just as you say, master.’

The sun sank slowly down.

‘I’m glad you’re here, Hodge.’

‘I’m not. Don’t know why I’m here, any more’n you do.’

Nicholas thought he had known. To fight for her. Afterwards to be with her. Just to be with her, just a few years. The tears came.

‘Come on then,’ said Hodge. ‘They’re pouring the wine free in all the taverns. We should go back to town and get drunk as badgers. Remember how they used to get drunk at night, down in the cider-apple orchard?’

Long ago, when they were boys. Nicholas raised his head, crying with a smile.


Jean Parisot de la Valette was offered a Cardinalate in Rome, but he smiled and gracefully declined. ‘For the next few years,’ he said, ‘I must needs be a builder.’

Money now poured into the coffers of the Order, from those European princes who had been so slow to send help while the battle raged. Their small consciences pricked, they delved into their treasuries and sent gold and silver, food and supplies, fresh livestock, seedcorn, and teams of stonemasons and engineers.

‘Birgu will be rebuilt as before,’ said La Valette. ‘And a glorious new capital will be founded upon Mount Sciberras, called Humilissima. The Humble.’

The first stone was laid on 28th March 1566 by La Valette himself, a stone bearing the impress of a golden lion on a bloody field, his family device. Everyone else already called the city Valletta in his honour, but he always referred to it as Humilissima. He said they should never be too proud of a victory that was ultimately in the hands of God.

A stranger rumour circulated in the ports and harbourside taverns of the Mediterranean at that time. It was said that during the winter of 1565-66, La Valette had sent a covert team of knights, all fluent speakers of Turkish and Arabic, on a mission to assassinate Suleiman. A mission of astonishing daring and danger, which perhaps not surprisingly failed. The Lord of the Universe was one of the most closely guarded rulers on earth.

But it was said that the assassins themselves escaped from the Topkapı without being captured, and instead took another
revenge. For in January 1566, the massive arsenals which lined the Bosphorus, where materials, weaponry and powder were already being stockpiled for a second invasion of Malta that summer, went up in an explosion so vast that it sent waves crashing across the Golden Horn and into the walls of Seraglio Point, shaking the very foundations of the Topkapı Palace itself. It was whispered to be a stupendous act of sabotage by the Knights of St John themselves.

La Valette naturally denied it. As if the Knights of St John would engage in such underhand tactics as assassination and sabotage! But he smiled and admitted that such a devastating misfortune for the Grand Sultan had certainly been music to his ears. He thought that Suleiman would probably not attack Malta again soon.

BOOK: The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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