Faced with ferocious enemy attack, the Knights must summon all their strength if they are to escape annihilation. Amongst those returning to Malta is Sir Thomas Barrett, exiled in disgrace decades before. Loyalty and instinct compel him to put the survival of his men and the Order above all other concerns, yet his allegiance is divided. On Queen Elizabeth’s orders, he must retrieve a hidden scroll concealed on the island, which threatens her reign.
As Sir Thomas confronts the past that cost him his honour and a secret that has long lain buried, the Ottoman horde lands and lays siege to the defenders. Vastly outnumbered and with no sign of the help promised by distant kings, the knights and their Maltese allies know- that the future of the Orders faith, and of the western world, hangs in the balance...
‘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.’