P.O. Box 1333
Merchantville NJ 08109, USA
Throne Room of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent,
Dragut entered the modest
observation room and Suleiman told the slaves to leave. The
sultan looked up
from his couch.
"Take your leisure," he nodded toward an unoccupied divan.
"The sultan is too kind," Dragut unhitched his sword and sank gratefully into the seat. He reached for the waiting sorbet and studied a bowl of fruit.
"They did not feed you?" Suleiman asked.
"Yes, Lawgiver, but at my age every morsel is welcome." Dragut's wrinkled face cracked into a smile. "One never knows when Allah shall request his presence in paradise."
Suleiman nodded. "So true, so true. I trust to most merciful God your craft was dry and the sailing smooth."
"The journey was uneventful, noble born majesty."
"Please!" Suleiman said. "Call me 'lord', and nothing else. Let's leave the flowery speech to men with more time and fewer thoughts."
"Very well, lord."
Suleiman swallowed a handful of figs and burped loudly.
"Speaking of flowers, have you seen my gardens?" he inquired proudly.
"Then you shall before you return to Africa."
The two old men ate in silence for a few moments. The sultan watched Dragut devour a cluster of grapes; the pirate seemed oblivious to the scrutiny. Suleiman spoke at last.
"Did you catch a glimpse of those seagoing dogs? Those Hospitalers?" he asked nonchalantly.
"Almighty God, no," Dragut laughed grimly.
Suleiman raised a bushy eyebrow. "Does even the 'drawn sword of Islam' fear those cross-bearing snakes?"
"Certainly, my lord. I take no enemy lightly. That way lies destruction."
"Very wise," Suleiman replied curtly. "Do I take my adversaries lightly?"
"My lord of East and West, how can you say such things?" Dragut affected shock. "You are Allah's instrument as I am yours."
"Since you broach the subject, however," Dragut plucked a grape, "I must tell you it grieves me that your goods get savaged by a handful of thieves in possession of a cursed rock unworthy of sea gull droppings."
Suleiman chuckled. "You too are a thief, my friend."
"No, perfect lord," Dragut corrected him, "I am your humble Corsair. I leave thievery to Christians."
"I see," Suleiman said.
"My lord, may I speak frankly?"
"Certainly. Of what?"
"Malta." The pirate drew breath and began a long-prepared speech. "My lord, until you have smoked out this nest of vipers you can do no good anywhere. Malta is weak, but its Master is strong and is an implacable enemy of the true faith."
Suleiman squinted in Dragut's direction.
"You know the Master of these Knights, don't you?" he recollected.
Dragut, who had made a pyramid of Christian skulls after conquering Tripoli, shuddered to recall the most painful moment of his life.
"I met him," he said.
Suleiman waited. Dragut resumed:
"I was captured by the Knights many years ago and consigned to the galleys. La Valette, the Master of Malta, was among those who captured me."
Suleiman looked genuinely dismayed, though it had been both his and Dragut's pleasure to condemn many thousands of men to the living death of the oars.
"An evil little man, I'll warrant."
"No, my lord," Dragut said. "He was tall as a Janissary and there was an air about him. I knew when he spoke he would be their master some day."
"What did he say?" the sultan was engrossed.
"He bowed and said, 'Monsieur Dragut--it is the custom of war.' I cannot help but believe his sympathy was sincere. He had once been sentenced to the oars himself."
"What was your reply?" Suleiman demanded.
"I answered 'And the change of Fortune.' Thank Allah I was soon liberated!" Dragut looked into the sultan's eyes. "He will continue making fish food of your sailors as long as Malta harbors his galleys."
Suleiman grimaced at the indictment, then protested:
"I expelled these Knights from Rhodes many years ago."
"And they have returned to haunt you, like a chancre."
Suleiman's stomach soured as it always did when he grew irritated. He suddenly wished to be alone.
"Leave me, for now," he commanded.
Dragut rose instantly and grabbed his sword.
"My lord," he said, bowing.
Suleiman’s stomach worsened. He lay sleepless on the couch far into the night. Why had he left Malta unconquered? The island's fine ports, barely a day off the coast of Italy, were lances against Europe's underbelly.
My mind must be slipping, he thought, recalling both the capture of his chief eunuch and the kidnapping of his daughter's nurse by the Knights. Even the Imam of the great Mosque had reminded him that true believers languished in Hospitaler dungeons.
"It is only thy invincible sword," the Imam had said, "that can shatter the chains of the unfortunates whose wails rise to heaven!"
Suleiman felt arthritic pain course up his arms at the thought of the Knights.
Will you leave these Hospitalers unpunished when you go to paradise?
He massaged his pained hands, saying: "There is no question Dragut is right."
The sultan summoned Dragut in the
morning. Dragut, wearing a confident expression, looked as though
he had slept well though Suleiman's spies reported he had studied maps
throughout the night.
"My lord?" he bowed.
"I must crush Malta!"
Dragut looked pleased. "Such a deed would make the Mediterranean your lake," he promised. "Many more difficult victories has your scimitar reaped. Malta is lightly manned and is not well fortified."
"And from Malta I will take Italy...and Rome." Suleiman's eyes blazed with purpose. "That shall be my last, and greatest, task before I march triumphant into heaven!"
Only then did Dragut realize the depth of Suleiman's passion. Suleiman's appetite for conquest was whetted to a greater extent than in years.
"May I sit, my lord?" Dragut asked.
Suleiman nodded fiercely.
After a moment of reflection, Dragut admitted: "It may be done."
Suleiman stood. He felt vigor in his veins and a twinge in his loins; he considered a rare visit to his harem where he would drop his handkerchief beside the first woman who caught his fancy.
"I was twice turned away at Vienna but I shall take that pathetic rock Malta and press north to England! I feel in my bones it is Allah's will that Europe shall be won for the True Faith." Suleiman prepared to attend the seraglio but Dragut's voice brought him up short.
"We must conquer the Knights first, my lord."
Suleiman spat on the floor, saying:
"As for those sons of dogs, whom I have already conquered and who were spared only by my clemency at Rhodes--I say now that, for their continual raids and insults, they shall be crushed and completely destroyed!"
Turkish cannon greeted the dawn
with such enthusiasm their voices reached Sicily. Birgu and
Senglea had little hope St. Elmo would survive the day.
Those at St. Elmo concurred.
The Knights kept low but Turkish shot found them. Cannonballs ricocheted throughout the fort, seeking out defenders and blasting them to bits. Blood was the order of the day and the screams of dying men lifted over Sciberras, a tortured chorus.
Crumbling St. Elmo smoked beneath the scorching sun.
DiCorso lay a dying Knight on the
ground. The man had been struck on the forehead by a flying stone.
"DiCorso?" the delirious Frenchman groaned.
"I am here."
Michele took his hand. "Yes, brother?"
"The crucifix about my neck--see it is returned to my family...ours since the Great Crusade."
DiCorso nodded. "If at all possible, I shall return it myself."
The Knight smiled faintly, apparently relieved.
"So speaks the saint."
DiCorso stayed until the Knight died, then transferred the gold chain to his own neck.
"Take him away," he told a soldier then gathered his weapons and returned to the crumbling wall.
Rambaldi had not slept for two
days and he felt pleasantly feverish. Knights lay dead all around
"Come now, slaves!" he shouted over the wall. "Shall I teach you to aim better?"
The snipers had missed him so many times he felt invulnerable. An arquebus shot zipped by his head.
"Not good enough!" he cried, aimed at a distant figure and pulled the trigger.
A red splash erupted from the Turk's forehead and he fell from sight. Rambaldi laughed and squatted behind the parapet, telling a young Spanish soldier:
"He should have stayed home!"
"My-my lord?" the soldier stammered.
Rambaldi reloaded without looking.
"Stay low, boy," he advised.
At that moment a cannonball crashed through the chapel roof; men streamed from the building. Rambaldi stared at the spectacle, mulling a past misdeed. He was surprised to hear himself whispering a Psalm. Finishing, he crossed himself.
"You'd think God would spare a church," the Spaniard said.
Rambaldi gave a dry chuckle.
"When he didn't spare his own son?"
"It doesn't seem right."
Rambaldi looked into the soldier's wide eyes. "Don't fret, boy. He won't spare us, either."
The Knight stood and fired.