Copyright © Simon Scarrow

First published in 2012 by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP

Simon Scarrow is a former teacher who now- devotes himself to writing full time. He lives outside Norwich with his family.


My main thanks, as ever, go to Carolyn for supporting me through the writing process and then carefully reading through and com¬menting on the final product. I would also like to thank Chris Impiglia for letting me read his dissertation on the defences of Malta at the time of the siege. And Isabel Picomell provided some very useful background detail on the historical setting and together with Robin Carter checked through the final draft for me. Thanks to all.


The Mediterranean, July 1545

The sea was pitch-black in the night and the galley rose and fell JL gently on the slight swell outside the bay. The Swift Hind was hove to half a league from the shore, just beyond the dark mass of the headland. A young knight stood alone on the foredeck, one hand clasped tightly around the shroud that arced down from the top of the foremast. The air was uncomfortably humid and he raised a hand to wipe the beads of sweat from his brow. At his back were two long brass cannon, their muzzles plugged up to keep out the spray. He was long used to the motion of the galley and had no need of a handhold on the calm sea, yet he held the rough tarry cord in a clenched fist as he stared intently across the dark swell. His ears strained to pick up the least sound above the rhythmic slap of the wavelets against the hull beneath him. It had been more than three hours since the captain and four of the sailors had taken a small boat ashore. Jean Parisot de La Valette had patted Thomas lightly on the shoulder and there was a dull gleam of teeth as he smiled reassuringly and told Thomas to take command of the galley in his absence.

‘How long will you be, sir?’

‘A few hours, Thomas. Just long enough to make sure that our friends have settled down for the night.’

Both men had instinctively glanced in the direction of the bay the other side of the headland. No more than three miles away the Turk merchant ship would be lying at anchor not far from the beach, just where the fisherman they had encountered the day before had told them it was. Most of the crew would be ashore, sitting around campfires while a handful of men remained aboard the galleon, watching for any sign of danger from the sea. The waters along the African coast were plagued by corsairs but it was not the fierce pirates that the Turks would be looking out for. The writ of Sultan Suleiman in Istanbul protected their vessel from the depredations of the corsairs. There was a far greater danger to Muslim vessels journeying across the White Sea, as the Turks called the Mediterranean. That danger came from the Order of Saint John, a small band of Christian knights who waged ceaseless war against those who followed the teachings of Mohammed. The knights were all that remained of the great religious orders that had once held sway over the Holy Land, before Saladin had driven them out. Now their home was the barren rock of Malta, gifted to the Order by the King of Spain. From that island the knights and their galleys ventured on to the sea to prey on the Muslims wherever they might be found. On this moonless night one of the galleys of the Order was poised to attack the large merchant ship lying at anchor no more than three miles’ distance.

‘There will be rich pickings. . .’ Thomas had mused.

‘Truly, but we are here to do God’s work,’ the captain reminded him in a stern tone. ‘Whatever spoils we take will be put to good use in fighting those who follow the false faith.’

‘Yes, sir. I know,’ Thomas replied softly, shamed by the thought that the older knight might think he was after plunder.

La Valette chuckled. ‘Easy, Thomas. I have come to know your heart. You are as devout a member of the Holy Religion as I am, and as fine a warrior. In time you will have your own galley to command. When that day comes you must never forget that your vessel is a sword in the right hand of God. To him the spoils.’ Thomas nodded and La Valette turned to ease himself through the gap in the ship’s rail and down to join the four men in the small craft bobbing beside the bow of the galley. The captain had growled an order and the other men had set to the oars, stroking the small craft across the sea. They had been swiftly swallowed up by the darkness as Thomas stared after them.

Now, hours later - too many hours, it seemed - Thomas’s mind was filled with fear for his captain. La Valette had been gone for too long. Dawn was not far off and unless the captain returned soon, it would be impossible to take advantage of the cover of night to spring their attack upon the Turks. What if La Valette and his men had been captured? The unbidden thought caused a deep chill in Thomas’s heart. The Turks often delighted in the torture and protracted death of any knights of the Order who fell into their hands. Then another alarming thought occurred to him. If La Valette was lost then the burden of command would fall on his shoulders and he knew with a sickening certainty that he was not ready to captain the galley.

He sensed movement close behind him and quickly looked over his shoulder as a tall figure ascended the short flight of steps to the small foredeck. The man was bare-headed and his body was bulked out by a padded gambison beneath a dark surcoat whose white cross was faintly discernible in the light from the stars. Oliver Stokely was a year older than Thomas but had joined the Order more recently and was therefore his junior. Despite that, the two had become friends.

‘Any sign of the captain?’

Thomas could not help a faint smile at the needless question. He was not the only one whose nerves were being exercised by the long wait.

‘Not yet, Oliver,’ he said, affecting an untroubled air.

‘If he leaves it much longer then we’ll have to call it off.’

‘I doubt he will do that.’

‘Really?’ Stokely sniffed. ‘Without the element of surprise we risk losing more men than we can afford.’

It was a fair point, Thomas mused. There were fewer than five hundred knights still with the Order on Malta. The unending war against the Turk had its price in blood and it was proving increasingly difficult to replenish the ranks. With the kingdoms of Europe at war amongst themselves, and the strict entry requirements for those joining the Order, the number of young nobles presenting themselves for selection was dwindling. In the past, a veteran like La Valette could have gone to sea with a dozen younger knights on his galley, eager to prove themselves. Now he had to make do with five, of whom only Thomas had faced the Turks in battle.

Despite that, Thomas knew his captain well enough to know that he would not refuse a fight unless the odds

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