Excerpt

In the beginning in the Eleventh Century they were Benedictine monks, tending sick and injured Christian pilgrims, and Muslims and Jews. They became Knights Hospitaller to protect pilgrims and the Holy Land, and no armed monastic order reached such fame and infamy, except the Templars their siblings. Always few, the warrior monks and remaining crusaders multiplied their strength with armour, castles, mercenaries, and above all, courage. An alien aristocracy imposed by the sword, they were ultimately deposed by it.

The battle at the Springs of Cresson was an omen. In May 1187 one hundred and fifty knights, mostly Templars, attacked a raiding party of seven thousand Saracens. Nazareth was threatened, the birthplace of Mary the mother of Christ, holy war at its holiest. A Saracen survivor said the blackest hair turned white at the sight and sounds of the charge. The two sides crashed together and the knights were engulfed, no quarter. Neither drunk nor otherwise drugged, they were horrifying-- no sane leader would have risked battle with such men twice. Three nonetheless fought their way out, all badly wounded, all Templars. One was their Master Gerard de Ridfort, responsible for the charge.

Jerusalem fell within months to Saladin the Kurd, and with no Temple to protect, the Templars removed their convent, their official seat, from Palestine. Exploiting their reputation for honesty and their strongholds throughout Europe, they became the most successful bankers in Christendom. Wealthier than any monarch, they flaunted it, until envy and their greed and pride destroyed them. In 1307 Philip the Fair, the King of France, accused them of unspeakable sins and seized their French possessions. He was abetted by Clement V, a weak man whom French bribery had made Pope, and after five years of inquisition and debate, the Templars were suppressed. Two years later, their Master Jacques de Molay was slowly roasted to death over a charcoal fire, for denying the confessions tortured from him and for professing his innocence and the innocence of his Order.

Providence exonerated him-- Pope Clement died within a month, King Philip within the year, in terrible pain. But the Templars’ fate was a warning. The Hospitallers had left the Holy Land a century later, when Acre fell to the Mamelukes, and with it the last shards of crusader power. They too had strongholds and estates throughout Europe, but acted with restraint. They continued tending the sick and injured, a worthy occupation, and transferred their crusade to the sea. Surviving on their exploits as had gladiators, the Mediterranean became their Colosseum.

Near invincible in their galleys and armour, like Samson they had a flaw. They needed a base. A lair. Re-forming in Cyprus after Palestine, they settled in Rhodes for two centuries, where their Masters became Grand Masters-- monarchs. Twice besieged by the Ottomans and finally expelled on New Year’s Day 1523, they became fugitives. Stateless and disintegrating, their convent moved seven times in as many years, to Messina, then Civitavecchio, Viterbo, Cornetto, Nice, Siracusa, and finally, Malta…

THE IONIAN SEA.
ST VALENTINE’S DAY, SUNDAY FEBRUARY 14th 1564

From miles away the bird had seen the red and white-crossed sails and the movement of the oars. Sounds came at last, barely audible but growing in strength and range-- the hint then throb of drums, followed by the grinding and splashing of oars and the measured breathing of oarsmen. Sharper less powerful noises followed-- the smack of rods, clink of chains and shrill of drill whistles.

The bird keened and turned, feathers riffling. Its wing tips splayed out again like fingers. Beneath were three war galleys in line abreast, bedecked in red flags with white Latin crosses, lateen sails bulging, gilt-work gleaming in the weak noon sun. Overhead the sky was a cold winter-blue, but darkening to the northwest with rain. The galleys were moving like giant predatory water-insects, oars mastering the light swell, wakes flanked by splash marks, vermilion hulls jerking forward at each stroke.

In the distance a heavily laden carrack desperately added sail, a suspicion of gold crescents on the green snake-like ensign at her stern. Beyond her was land to the north and east, but the bird’s eyes returned to the galleys, drawn to the movement of the slaves. Four or five worked each oar. Chained by their outer ankles and naked, they were rowing and breathing as one. At each stroke, they plunged the oars in the sea and fell back, then stood, pushing down to raise the blades and stepping forward, to brace their unfettered legs. The closely packed benches appeared and disappeared under them as they toiled, like the skeleton of a fish.

The rhythm was suddenly marred on the nearest galley, at the rearmost oar bank. The bird watched. The two outer slaves on the right bench were fighting. The inner three rowed on.

Armed men were stationed between the oars, along the outriggers. The nearest leant over the moving oar handles. His sword flashed twice, and rowing stopped while the bodies were thrown from the stern, and replaced. The first vanished. The second broke surface revived by the cold. His mouth opened in a desperate scream, as the breeze carried the bird towards the carrack and the green and grey streaks of land.

Drowned…at last. Gone. Diego de Nava watched from the stairs by the galley’s stern, as distance and the swell erased the ripples, but the scream and dying face lingered on. His blade had been quick. He had even helped eject the bodies. But no training had prepared him for the grinding and cracking of bones against his blade, nor for the brief resurrection of the second slave.

He shivered in shock. His body was remote and sluggish, his upper lip moist with sweat. The bird appeared in the moment of feverish clarity before his stomach heaved. Narrow-winged and fork-tailed, a hawk no eagle, it swept overhead as bile stung his throat and the back of his nose. He swallowed, metal clanking and scraping as he reeled against the stern. There was no handrail, and the Ionian Sea, jerking to the oars, a few feet beneath him, was as deadly as a precipice. His armour would take him straight to the bottom.

His pride and the sounds of laughter rescued him. Pausing for balance and a deep breath, he winced at the aroma wafting up through his steel collar. Then he turned to climb the stairs. The legs clustered at the top were in shoes and stockings, like his-- thankfully leg-armour was too cumbersome at sea, or he would have probably fallen in. He looked up at the veteran Knights Hospitaller and servants-at-arms grinning down at him, gap-toothed, grizzled, scarred and weather-beaten. On full battle alert, they had been armoured day and night for two weeks, and their dishevelment mirrored his. Their armours were dull and rusting, their red and white-crossed surcoats, rust-stained and crumpled, their hair and beards, matted with sweat and salt.  

They pounded him on the back when he reached them, laughing and joking at his expense. He spread his lips in a grin, not to have to speak. Then a familiar voice intruded, languid with power. “Let my aide be. Let him pass.” The French was accent-less, although the speaker was English. Diego heard him in gratitude and relief. His Knight, Sir Oliver Starkey, was no mere Knight of Justice but a Knight Grand Cross. Only the captain outranked him on the galley, and only on board. 

All the men-at-arms had stiffened to attention. Diego passed through them, avoiding the gauntlets, weapons and helmets at their feet, and the bobbing plumes. As he crossed the fighting platform between the stern and oars, Sir Oliver almost embraced him but stopped-- wary of displaying emotion in public. The Knight Grand Cross looked like a stern Old Testament prophet, but was a quiet, pensive man, who was strong when he had to be. “The scream was a lapse in your swordsmanship,” he said, keeping the compassion in his eyes from his voice. He relaxed back against the wooden railing between him and the oars. “We shall discuss it when you have composed yourself. Return to your post.”

“Yes Sire.”

Diego’s Spanish-accented French grated alien in his head. A glance told him that sailors had replaced the two slaves-- their beards and hair distinct from the braided topknots and shaven heads and faces, ebbing and flowing with the oars. As he reached his post on the right outrigger, between the stroke oar and the next, a ram baaed and broke wind. Others took the hint. He took comfort from the familiar sounds without bothering to look, still easing himself back to normal. Lashed to the ends of the rowing benches amidships, the rams were enough to drive a lion to vegetables. He listened. The usual buckets of seawater were flushing the droppings into the sluice beneath the slaves’ feet.