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The Age of Ironfire
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On Sale Jan 6, 2004

A Delacorte Book
Bantam Dell
A Division of Random House, Inc.
ISBN 0-385-33601-2
$ 24.95

On Sale in the UK
Nov 2003

under the title

The Sword and the Scimitar
A Division of
Random House UK
ISBN: 0091799414

On Sale in Germany May 2003
under the title
Asha: Sohn von Malta
ISBN: 3795118263
EUR 22,90

an Ottoman fleet carrying 40,000 of the world's elite warriors set sail from Constantinople, bound for the tiny island of Malta. The island was defended by 500 Knights of St. John, 8,000 militia, and every woman and child who could light a fuse or overturn a pot of boiling oil. On the 18th of May, the massive fleet was sighted. A fast galley was dispatched, carrying an urgent message to the Christian rulers of Europe:

The battle for Malta had begun.

From The Histories of the Middle Sea
by Darius, called the Preserver

Court Historian to the Sultan Achmet

It is well recorded that in the third year of his reign, Suleiman had driven the Order from their fortress of Rhodes. The young sultan was greatly moved by the gallantry of the knights who so bravely defended their island. Rather than executing those who survived, as was his right, he showed them mercy, allowing them to sail away in exile. He did so after the grand master, L’Isle Adam, gave his solemn oath that the Order of St. John would never again raise arms against the Ottomans.

The oath was broken as quickly as it was made. Even now the knights interfered with the holy pilgrimage of the faithful to Mecca, and their raids grew bolder with time. In recent years the Order had taken nearly fifty Muslim ships. Most lately Romegas had captured the Sultana, a ship owned collectively by the chief white eunuch, the women of the seraglio, and the sultan’s own daughter, Mirahmar. Her favorite nurse, an old woman, was taken captive along with the governor of Alexandria, and of course the ship’s holds were brimming with precious cargo. In the great ebb and flow of events of empire, it was but a minor thorn in Suleiman’s side, yet it inspired the mullahs to soaring rhetoric in their calls for jihad against the godless knights. It was one thing to plunder, the mullahs said, but the Order’s interference with the pilgrimage was an affront to Allah.

To capture the island of the knights would right an old wrong and give the Ottomans command of a strategic jewel, permitting the sultan to marshal his forces there should he decide to move against Sicily and Italy. Time was critical, Suleiman’s viziers counseled him, for the Christian allies remained weak after their great defeat at Djerba. It was important to strike before they could regain their strength.

A further advantage lay in the disarray of the European courts and the diplomatic isolation of the knights. It did not require an astute observer to see that there would be precious little help to the island from the Christian princes of Europe. The German emperor was occupied with his own borders, which the Ottomans were harrying at every opportunity. The French king Charles was a mere boy of fourteen, and firmly under the thumb of his mother, Catherine de Médicis. Mother was leading son on a tour of France, which was preoccupied by the religious conflicts that would so consume it in years to come. Why journey a fortnight to kill a Turk when there were so many Huguenots near at hand? Besides, the king had treaties with the Porte to honor, treaties of commerce and prosperity. While Charles would give no aid to Suleiman, the many French knights among the Order would simply have to fend for themselves, with the good wishes of a grateful king.

The English queen would sit upon her Protestant throne and lament the loss of a Christian citadel, but her hand was too weak to be raised in defense of a nest of troublesome Catholic knights, particularly if in so doing she might lend aid to the Spanish. The pope had few troops, and what little money he had was dedicated to exterminating the Calvinists and Lutherans seething like serpents at his door.

Only Philip, the Spanish king, was in a position to do anything at all. If Malta fell, it was his own soft Sicilian belly that would next feel the sting of the Ottoman scorpion. Yet his resources were spread thin, and his long-standing enmity with other European rulers only added to his difficulties.

Finally, Suleiman believed that the Maltese themselves so hated the foreign knights who ruled them that they would do little to help them in a fight.

It was time to strike.

— From Volume VII
The Great Campaigns: Malta


An excerpt from Ironfire
Book Six:  The Siege


18 May, 1565

Fençu  heard the rumble of cannon fire from St. Angelo.

Three blasts.

He scrambled to the entrance of the cave and slipped outside. A moment later he stood atop the hill by the carob tree, from where he had a grand view. Although he had been expecting the sight for months, the scale of it stunned him.

“May Elohim preserve us.” His voice was but a whisper.

Elli clambered up from below and stood next to him. Huffing from the exertion, she took her husband’s hand in her own. A moment later Elena and Moses joined them, and then Cawl, Villano, and Cataldo and their families. They stood in silence, trying to absorb the enormity of it. Even Moses stopped his play and straddled his mother’s hip, staring in silent awe.

The sun was just rising, burning away the predawn mists to reveal an Ottoman sea. The horizon was a forest of masts and sails, above a solid field of ships of every description. Still some distance away, the fleet sailed in the form of an arrowhead, moving inevitably, almost casually, toward the island. At the point of the arrow were the galleys, their oars waving and dipping, their goose-winged lateen sails stretched before them. Behind them were the larger galliots, and behind those the roundships, merchantmen of two thousand tons or more, very high fore and aft, their decks a woodland of pikes and halberds, the turbans and helmets and blades of the soldiers providing bright splashes of color and flashes of light. There were flags and banners and pennons of every description, heralding the identities of the pashas and aghas and their proud regiments. Every deck bulged with guns and stores and men.

Fençu led the others back inside. It was, he reminded them, the eighth day of the month of Sivan, in the year 5325 of the Hebrew calendar. His voice echoed off the rock walls as he led them in prayer.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

“In this time of Shavu’ot, a time when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, a time when the first fruits were brought to the Temple, let us remember that death is not a tragedy, but a beginning.  In this, thy temple of M’korHakhayyim that is the source of life, O God, let thine enemies who breach its spaces know the might of thy sword….”

When his prayer was finished they drank goat’s milk sweetened with honey. Elena and Cawl ran outside to bring in all the chickens and their three remaining goats. Maria had taken the rest with her to Birgu. The cook fire was put out for fear the smoke might be seen. Fençu  cut the throat of one of the goats and butchered it. The other goats would follow sooner or later, depending on when the Turks might come close enough to hear them bleating.

The Jews of M’kor Hakhayyim took up their posts, to watch and wait.

In Birgu, in the conventual chapel of St. Lawrence, where it was the eighteenth day of May, Anno Domini 1565, the Grand Master solemnly addressed his knights. Behind him, resting in its jeweled silver case on a stand of velvet, was the most sacred of the Order’s relics, the severed hand of John the Baptist. “A swarm of barbarians are rushing upon our island. It is the great battle of the Cross and the Crescent that is now to be fought,” La Valette said, in his voice of iron. “We are the chosen soldiers of Christ. The hope of all Christendom rests upon our efforts. If Heaven requires the sacrifice of our lives, there can be no better occasion than this.” His knights shared the body and blood of Christ, took up their armor and weapons, and streamed from the church, racing for their assigned stations.

Aboard the galley Alisa it was the Sabbath, the seventeenth day of the month of Shawwal, in the year 972 of the Hijrah of the Prophet. Beneath a fluttering green banner of Mohammed emblazoned with the red crescent of the Ottomans, Asha Raïs finished his ablutions and knelt on his prayer mat. He faced the rising sun, pressing his forehead to the mat. He listened to the fervent prayer of the mokkadem on the flagship, whose voice floated like the morning mists over the water and through the fleet.

And those who disbelieve will be gathered unto hell, that Allah may separate the wicked from the good.

“The wicked he will place piece upon piece, and heap them all together, and consign them unto hell. Such verily are the losers.

“And Allah said, ‘ I will throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve, then smite the necks and smite of them each finger. . . .’”

In the parish church of St. Agatha’s in Birgu, Monsignor Domenico Cubelles celebrated Mass, assisted by his vicar, Giulio Salvago. The bishop called upon the Angel of Death to strike down the Lord’s enemies.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. O loving and mysterious Father, preserve Thy soldiers who fight darkness in Christ’s name. We remember the words of Jesus, who said, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. . . .’”

Women crossed themselves and clutched their children and wept. Men crossed themselves and clutched their weapons and set off to their posts.

Across the piazza, the bell chimed in the watchtower. From the quay beneath Fort St. Angelo, a fast galley set out for Sicily, carrying the Grand Master’s urgent message to Europe:

The battle for Malta had begun.


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