Two unlikely English heroes are swept up in an epic and bloody sea battle that will change history. 1571. Chained to a slave galley in the heart of the Mediterranean, it seems that English adventurers Ingoldsby and Hodge might have finally run out of luck. But they've survived worse, and as the men around them drop dead at their oars, they're determined to escape. By a miracle of fate, they find their way back to dry land and freedom - but unable to return home. With the Ottoman Empire set on strangling the crusading Christian power before it can take root, hostilities between East and West - Muslim and Christian - are vicious and deadly. And as the sun rises on one day in October, five hours of bloodshed will change the course of history. Once again, the two Englishmen find themselves living on borrowed time...
Release date: July 5, 2012
Print pages: 395
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Clash of Empires: The Red Sea
A hush fell upon the gilded audience chamber of the Topkapi Palace in the heart of Constantinople. Every head bowed. There came a swish of silken robes over the polished floor, and then a herald declared, ‘Bow knee and head for the Sultan of the Ottomans, Padishah of the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the White, Guardian of the Holy Cities of Islam, Lord of the Lords of this World, son of Suleiman the Lawgiver: Selim.’
But first appeared a tall, lean man in a plain dark robe, striding swiftly, his broad forehead and keen eyes betokening the highest powers of observation and intellect. Behind him waddled a much shorter man in gorgeous golden robes and a huge silk turban, beneath which showed puffy eyes, a round nose and plump, sagging jowls. His feet slapped the marble-tiled floor with a sound like a duck on wet flagstones, then he shuffled over the priceless carpets of Tabriz like a slippered octogenarian.
All eyes followed the commanding figure in the dark robe. His footfall made no more sound than a cat’s. He halted before the Imperial Throne. His plump follower hitched up his skirts, and made his way laboriously up the seven steps to the throne as if ascending Mount Ararat. Thus symbolising his perpetual elevation seven planes higher than the world of mortal men.
A monkey in a tree sat higher, thought Sokollu Mehmet.
At the top, Sultan Selim turned and sank back into the throne in an unregal slump. His doughy complexion shone with sweat and he breathed hard. You could smell the wine on his breath at five paces.
Sheitan, ruler of the seven hells, thought the Grand Vizier, bowing before the panting sultan. Was this truly the sole surviving son of Suleiman Kanuni, The Law Giver, whom even the Christians called The Magnificent? What in the name of Azrael had gone wrong?
He stood upright again and regarded his Sultan directly, as Ottoman court etiquette expressly forbade. Never in his life had Sokollu dared to look into the eyes of Suleiman the Law Giver. But Selim’s he held steadily, until the Sultan’s own bloodshot, bulging orbs dropped away. Sokollu nodded and stepped back, and Selim took a roll of paper from his inner robe. He unfurled it with pudgy, shaking hands, resting it on the tight little mound of his belly. Sokollu bowed his head to listen to the address along with the rest of the assembled dignitaries. The delivery was hopelessly weak and hesitant, but the meaning strong and clear, as Sokollu knew it would be. He had written every word.
‘It has long been Our Duty to carry the religion of the Prophet to the farthest corners of the earth,’ declared Selim in his reedy, diffident voice. ‘Beneath the benign shelter of a single world empire, an Islamic Caliphate, we are called upon by the Just, the Merciful Himself, to save all primitive peoples and idolaters from the error of their ways. To bring mercy, peace and the heavenly law of Sharia to reign from the mountains and deserts of Asia to the Straits of Gibraltar, and from the heart of Europe to the sands of Africa.’
The court murmured polite assent to this noble plan.
‘Muslim merchants, eager to spread their wealth over the globe, have already carried the word of the Koran with them on their voyages to the farthest east, to the ports of Goa and Jakarta and the Spice Islands. We have even heard that there are records of Chinese voyages a hundred years ago, which discovered a vast new continent in the southern ocean, the antipodes.’
The Lord of the Lords of this World had a sudden attack of coughing, and reached out for a cup. He always drank from a beaker of dark red glass, so that the more orthodox among his courtiers should not see that it was wine rather than water. But everyone knew. The wine-loving Sultan. Selim the Sot.
‘The antipodes,’ he resumed waveringly, eyes scanning the page to find his place again. ‘Er. Ah.’ He coughed once more. ‘The greatness of the world, and of our task in bringing light to its darkest corners, is a heavy burden of responsibility upon Our Shoulders.
‘And in addition to that, the Truth has many enemies.’
There were angrier murmurs.
‘The Empire of the Persians claims to follow true Islam, although Shia is mere mockery and heresy. The many kingdoms of Mughal India, although its Emperor Akbar claims to be a true Muslim, allow the worst idolatries of Hinduism to flourish, in the name of tolerance. And in the west, most implacably of all, are the Christians. They have conducted brutal Crusades against Islam and its holy places for centuries, they continue to lord it over lands once and forever rightfully Muslim, from Cyprus to Sicily to Spain, and at the forefront of their aggression have ever been the Crusading Order of the Knights of St John, may their name be accursed.
‘The Sultan will not divulge His plans further, for as you know there are spies and deceivers everywhere.’ Selim swallowed at these words, and for one painful moment Sokollu thought he was going to stare around with those bulging hare eyes of his, as if expecting to see a couple of Knights of St John, maybe, standing at the back of the hall in their red surcoats, listening to his every word. But he controlled himself and resumed.
‘Yet the Sultan knows that, in his Grand Vizier and closest advisers, he has the wisest counsellors any ruler could wish for. And so it is with them, his admirals and commanders, that he will discuss further plans. Know that the holy war continues. And that the shame of Malta will soon be avenged.
‘In the name of Allah, the Just, the Merciful, I give you good day.’
Then Selim was helped down from his throne by a bodyguard and shuffled from the chamber.
Sokollu followed close on his heels.
As darkness fell that day, two of the three most powerful men in the Ottoman Empire met to discuss strategy. Selim was not among them.
The absent third was Lala Mustafa Pasha, Commander of Land Forces, currently away planning for the coming Cyprus campaign, much to Sokollu’s satisfaction. Both men were ambitious, ruthless, immensely talented, and inevitably the bitterest enemies.
Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet, supreme intelligence and manipulator behind all the doings of the Sublime Porte, was born into a Bosnian Christian family. Taken as a young child into Ottoman service, he had risen to the top by supreme ability. Though never a military commander in the field, yet he could master any discipline he set his mind to.
With him sat Muezzinzade Ali – Ali, ‘son of the muezzin singer’, born into a humble family in the ancient Ottoman capital of Edirne. Like Sokollu, he too had risen by sheer ability alone. Turkish and Muslim from birth, Muezzinzade was devoted and loyal, with the simplicity of true greatness, and recently appointed Kapudan Pasha: Supreme Commander of the Ottoman Fleet. He was of slight, wiry build, yet powerful enough still to draw the compound bow. Many times Muezzinzade had fought in the forefront of battle – and would once more.
Sokollu pushed a fruit bowl aside and ordered various maps of that Turkish cartographer of genius, Piri Reis, spread across the table before them.
‘As you know,’ said Sokollu, ‘I have long argued for a continued land assault on Christendom, through Hungary, Austria, the Danube valley. Our Janizaries are the finest infantry in the world. Even the Christians acknowledge it. But it seems fate has offered us another chance of victory in the Mediterranean.
‘Yet we must wait. Three dangers remain on our flanks, as we look west.’ He moved a long, lean forefinger over the maps. ‘To the east, the Persians are and always will be our enemies, until the blessed day when Allah gives us victory over them. But this victory will not come soon. The Shia rebels in the mountains of Yemen also remain in revolt against us – stirred up by Persia, I have no doubt. And to the north, the Grand Duchy of Muscovy grows ever greater in power. Her ruler, Ivan, with ludicrous presumption, even calls himself Caesar, or Czar in his barbarous tongue. There is no Caesar but Selim.
‘We must strangle this new Christian power at birth, or she will grow ever stronger, a constant threat to our northern border. Her potential empire is all of Scythia. We landed forces at Astrakhan, but . . . the campaign was a difficult one, and we were obliged to change course. Instead our trusted ally, the Khan of the Crimea, is even now riding north with his Tatars, carrying the finest Ottoman muskets, arquebuses and guns. He will raze this upstart city of Muscovy to the ground.
‘Then, having secured our borders to our satisfaction, all our strength may be turned upon the Inland Sea, and the push west. A Jihad fil-bahr: a Jihad of the Sea. We will take back Cyprus, then the Adriatic coast. Already our galleys rule that sea, and Venice does not stir. We also possess the vital port of Avlona, ruled over by our dear friend, the Black Priest, Kara Hodja.’
Muezzinzade smiled grimly. The renegade Dominican friar, Kara Hodja: corsair, cut-throat, and now Bey of Avlona. His reputation was so terrible it caused almost as much anxiety to his Ottoman overlords as did the Christians.
‘We will take the squabbling city states of Italy piece by piece. Even Venice, and the Papal States.’
‘And Malta,’ said Muezzinzade. The very name was like a dark stone dropped into water.
Sokollu’s expression was unreadable. ‘Yes. This time we will finish it.’
Muezzinzade shifted in his seat. ‘Grand Vizier, I have heard it said – and I do not wish to believe it – that as we sow discord among our enemies, so they sow discord among us. The work is done especially by agents of the Knights of St John. They seek to harass and weaken us by working in Russia, they have fomented rebellion in the Yemen, they even send secret embassies to the Sultanate of Morocco, encouraging the Moors to view us as enemies.’
‘Rumours fly faster than facts,’ said Sokollu tersely. ‘Because they are light and insubstantial. The Christians do not have that kind of intelligence.’
‘And the Grand Master in Malta,’ persisted Muezzinzade, ‘Jean de la Valette, sold his Order’s lands in Cyprus just before his death. As if he knew of our coming invasion.’
‘Mere chance. His beloved Malta will fall soon. And Morocco is our Muslim brother and ally now. Remember that in ports such as Larache and Rabat, Sultan Abdallah possesses harbours which face not east, but west: out across the Atlantic, where a whole new world lies. From the Moroccan shore, they hear the cries of their oppressed brethren, the Moriscos, in the lost Berber kingdom of Andalus. And to sharpen the insult, they see an endless stream of Spanish treasure ships returning from the New World. The trade winds carry them from Havana to Cadiz in little more than twenty days, laden with all the silver of the inexhaustible mines of Potosi.
‘Which brings us to the greatest prize of all.’ Sokollu spread his fingers wide over another map. ‘Spain. And her vast new territories in the Americas.’
Here Piri Reis had truly excelled himself, showing the coast of Europe, Africa and the Americas enclosing the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Upon the coast of Brazil there were images in pen and ink of elegant beasts and fowl, and also men with their faces in their chests. Piri Reis himself did not credit such far-fetched travellers’ tales, but they made for amusing illustrations.
‘With this unimaginable wealth,’ said Muezzinzade, his eyes roaming over the Americas as if he could devour them, ‘we will reign over earth and sea.’
Sokollu said, ‘Do you not feel the force of destiny?’
Muezzinzade nodded, slow and solemn. ‘Yet if all the kingdoms of Christendom were to stand together against us – the powers of Spain and Portugal, the superb soldiery of the German princes, French chivalry, the armies of the Papacy, the vast resources of Genoa and Venice—’
‘Perhaps aided by some small contribution,’ Sokollu interrupted sarcastically, ‘by that rain-lashed little island, England, ruled over by a woman . . .’
Sokollu waved his hand. ‘Perhaps then the Sublime Porte might have something to fear. But it will not happen. The Christian princes fight amongst each other like scorpions in a sack.
‘The French hate the Habsburgs. The Genoese and Venetians hate and mistrust each other. And that is only the Catholics. Germany and the Netherlands are riven by Protestant rebellion, France massacres its own Protestants, England begins to persecute its Catholics. Christendom is now in a permanent state of low-level war with itself. It would take some man of genius to unite her. Yet’ – he reached out for the fruit bowl – ‘the hour is come, but not the man. Christendom is a fruit close to rottenness, and overripe for picking.’
He pulled a grape from the stalk and crushed it between his teeth.
The sun burned white in a cloudless sky, and spangles of sunlight danced on the placid sea. Occasionally dolphins broke the surface, their oilskin flanks darkly gleaming, before curving back into the green silence below. Away to the south, on the distant horizon, the sky was a dusty ochre over the burning deserts of Africa.
Tiny fluttering shapes of flying fish skimmed over the small waves, disturbed by a long dark shadow cutting through the water behind them. And the clean sea air suddenly soured with the stench of a Barbary slaver.
It was a low-slung black galley with a single mast, little more than a brigantine. The wind was so light the sail was furled. Fast, light and nimble, made for lightning raids on sleepy villages and lumbering merchantmen. A hawk of the sea.
They said you could smell the stench of a slave galley a mile away, and a downwind gust from this one would surely make any man tighten stomach and craw as he fought the urge to vomit. It was the stench of fifty men chained and rowing under the lash, the bilge water around their rotting feet a stew of salt water, urine and faeces. For slaves like these lived on the rowing bench until they died. But it was also the stench of permanent exhaustion, and despair so deep that death was all they longed for.
The Barbary slaver was some sixty feet in length and carried a single centre-line gun at the bow. Her primary armaments were the crew of twenty or so corsairs who lounged at the stern under the sun-blanched canopy, naked to the waist, flashing teeth and eyes, hooped gold earrings and elaborate henna tattoos. And armed with every variety of knife and dagger, mace and club, scimitar and half-pike imaginable.
One or two scanned the horizon from east to west, keen eyed and hungry for carrion. The rest diced or dozed, chewed qat or smoked kif. Other than men, the slaver – her name was the Sweet Rose of Algiers, without apparent irony – carried nothing more but the ballast of pebbles below, and the captain’s chest, an iron-bound treasury of gold and silver coins of every nation: Spanish escudos, Venetian ducats, Ottoman akçes, as well as a pair of bejewelled crucifixes they had looted from a little chapel on the coast of Sardinia. There was also, in a small velvet pouch, the dainty curio of a sun-dried nose, sliced from the face of a Sicilian nun they had captured onshore a few weeks ago and taken with them for a while. Eventually they had tired of raping her and tumbled her over the side.
The dip of the oars was slow but steady. If any rower faltered, the bull-hide lash of the boatswain would cut his back open. A rower on a slave galley was unlikely to last a year, and was usually grateful if he died before.
Among the Sardinians and Neapolitans, the Sicilians and Spaniards, there were two blue-eyed Northerners. A thickset young fellow with an impassive expression, and another with burning gaze and a pale beard that showed he was fair haired. Thin but strong, his torso showed many scars. Each wore nothing but filthy loincloths and rags on their heads to protect them from the Mediterranean sun. Still the sun blistered ears and cheeks, shoulders and hands. Slave owners commonly tried to keep their slaves in good condition, as they would any other of their possessions, and shielded their rowers with crude canopies. But not these corsairs. They were the dregs even of their low profession.
They were also careless in other ways.
On a Barbary slaver it was usual to work your slaves to death, ditch their corpses and then capture more on a further raid. The supply was endless and free, and that was what the slave galleys did: they consumed men. They existed to enslave their rowers, who rowed that they might exist.
And the life itself – the lawless raiding and ravaging – was itself so dark and seductive a pleasure. Erupting out of the night upon some huddled fishing town, cutting a swathe of bloody terror through its wailing streets, destroying and looting as the fancy took you. A corsair was nothing but a penniless back-street cut-throat in the shadowy alleyways of Tunis or Algiers or Tripoli, a poor fisherman’s son from some desolate dust-blown village of the Barbary Coast. But on a corsair slaver he was free to follow every desire, to heap up other men’s treasure as his own, to do what he wished with their wives and daughters. None ruled the sea but the gun and the sword alone. And a captain was the king of his ship. Even of so wretched a vessel as the Sweet Rose of Algiers.
Each rower pulled a single oar, but one had collapsed and moved no more. Immediately the rhythm was lost, other oars fore and aft clonking into his trailing blade.
The boatswain was upon him in an instant, beating him and howling curses, but he was too far gone. A fisherman’s son, taken from Sardinia only a few weeks ago. The light was gone from his eyes and his heart had already shrivelled and died within him.
The blue-eyed English youth with the fair beard was called Nicholas Ingoldsby. He glanced at his countryman, Hodge, across the narrow gangway. His eyes blazed. More than the single manacle that fixed a galley slave to the rowing bench in front, it was the manacles of the mind which held him enslaved. Few there dreamed of freedom, most dreamed of death. But in Nicholas Ingoldsby’s burning blue eyes there was no despair.
And the manacle round his ankle was loose.
Five days ago the galley had pulled into a narrow bay on a deserted island and the carpenter had gone ashore to find decent timber. The repair took some hours and the rowers rested, aching with longing to see land so close. But the corsairs’ scimitar points were always at their throats.
‘Slaves you are and slaves you will remain!’ bawled the boatswain. ‘Rebel and you will lose your ears, your noses, your eyes – a blind man can row as well as a sighted! I have seen rebellious slaves skinned alive. And then your throats will be cut and you will go down to feed the fish. No flowers on a sailor’s grave. None on a galley slave’s either. Your seed will die out and you will be forgotten for ever. Now do not stir while we work.’
They did not stir. Anger still burned like a red fire in Nicholas’s belly. As long as he still felt that, he might live. Others here would die. Most of them. But not I, he thought. Not I. Nor Hodge either. Soon our time will come.
They had been through worse than this before.
The corsair who doubled as ship’s carpenter replaced a spar, but in a moment of carelessness let a short iron bolt drop beneath the rowing benches, to subside in the foul water. In a trice Nicholas had clenched it between his toes and kept a hold on it, knowing a man’s life might depend on such a trivial thing. He clung to that iron bolt like a sinner to the Cross.
The boatswain raised his whip. The Sardinian fisher boy was about to be beaten to death before their eyes.
Nicholas bowed his head. He could never bear to watch this final scene, this epilogue to so wretched a life, though he had seen and endured many horrors himself in his twenty-two years. There were many scars on his arms, his lean torso, and a lumpy white cicatrice over his left elbow where a musket ball had once smashed into him as he swam desperately across a harbour. Long ago now. Upon the island of Malta . . .
The boy groaned at his trailing oar but could not move himself. The whip cut and cut in pointless cruelty.
For five days now that iron bolt had been passed around, mostly at night, going from one rower to another. It was terrible work, and their punishment had they been caught would have been beyond imagining. Skinning alive would have been the least they suffered.
After five days of agonised filing and wrenching at their manacles, in the snatched seconds when the boatswain was not overseeing them, when they were on rest watch, in moments of darkness when clouds covered the face of the moon and dulled the brilliant Mediterranean stars, they had prayed to God to help them break their single cursed manacles.
And now for three of them, just three, their manacles were broken. Nicholas, Hodge, and the great bear-like Easterner whose language no one else spoke, but who said he came from ‘Rus, Rus’. It was scarcely believable. He meant the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, they thought, an almost unknown realm in the heart of snowbound Scythia. None knew how he had come here. But his expression was one that even the corsairs did not like to consider too long. As if the moment he had the chance, he would rise up and tear each of them limb from limb with his bare hands.
The slaves could have waited longer. The precious iron bolt might have been passed on night after night, freeing more and more. But then they might have been discovered. And they could have better chosen their moment to rise in revolt too. A natural time would be when the corsair galley came in sight of its next prey, when they were attacking a Christian merchant ship, and battle was engaged. Then they might just be saved. But to rise up now, only three of them, was suicidal. Patience was as important as courage.
The Sardinian boy groaned, blood coursed from his head and face, and he began to shake and tremble violently all over, his eyes closed. He could no more pull an oar than he could fly. He would die soon, before their eyes. Then his emaciated body would be unlocked from the bench, hauled up and rolled over the low gunwales. He would make barely a splash, his soul already flown to other spheres.
The bearlike Rus turned his great head on his rounded shoulders and glowered at Nicholas from beneath dense black brows. Whether it was a smile was impossible to say. But he showed his teeth. And then he made a noise that Nicholas did not understand. Blowing softly through his lips, he made a sound like a great, distant explosion.
The boatswain gave up his beating and leaned over, unlocking the boy’s manacle. He angrily ordered two of his men to haul in and stow the oar, and drag the half-dead boy aft.
The corsair captain in the stern grinned, his teeth stained with qat. ‘Row on, my Christian gentlemen, row on! Do not be troubled by your dying comrade there. For there is gold still to be discovered, emeralds, amethysts, bars of silver – and of course your white-skinned maidens . . .’
The dying boy was dragged to the gunwales.
Nicholas flexed his hands.
The oars were far too long and unwieldy to be drawn in and used for weapons. What else was there?
‘For St Nicholas and Mother Russia!’ cried a voice as deep and cavernous as a great bronze cannon. The huge Rus had hauled himself up on to the narrow gangway over the rowers’ heads, and was standing there facing the open-mouthed corsairs at the stern, huge and adamantine, his arms flung wide, his broken manacle still trailing from his ankle. He was virtually naked, though back and shoulders were matted with dark hair, and quite weaponless. Yet still it was a few shocked moments before the boatswain ran at him with drawn sword.
The Rus somehow evaded the sword-thrust altogether and took the boatswain in an embrace. He lifted him from the gangway and squeezed. The boatswain’s eyes bulged in their sockets and his scimitar clattered on the planks. The Rus grinned.
In a scrambling panic, a couple more corsairs fitted arrows to their curved bows and one of them shot. Just as the bowstring thrummed, the Rus turned a little, and the arrow thocked hard into the boatswain’s back. His breath sighed from his mouth and his head rolled free. The Rus thrust his arm between the dead man’s legs, twirled him above his head, and flung him like a straw doll at the onrushing corsairs.
Other corsairs ranged their broad blades over the rest of the rowers below, ready to strike their heads from their necks if any more should stir. Nicholas cursed as he felt a cold blade touch the back of his neck. They were trapped. But what the devil was the Rus thinking of?
The Rus had run to the prow and turned again, still grinning like a deranged bear just loosed from its chains. He leaned down to a wooden hatchway. An arrow thudded into his belly and he paused for a moment, and then continued.
It was the powder store.
The corsairs were screaming and running at him, but everything happened in no more than a few breaths. With his mighty strength, the muscles of his arms and shoulders bunched like knots of towing rope, the Rus wrenched the locked door of the hatchway free, flinging it upright to give himself momentary cover just as two more arrows thudded into its planks.
The narrow gangway between the rowing benches allowed only one corsair to attack him at a time, and the first came sweeping wide with a side-bladed glaive or half-pike. Again the Rus’s agility belied his size, not to mention the two arrows that now stuck in him, belly and thigh, narrow rivulets of blood trickling from each. He ducked the half-pike and then swiped his assailant backhanded as if he were no more than a troublesome fly. The corsair reeled, blood erupting from flattened nose and split lips, and dropped to the deck.
The Rus leaned down and dragged him to his feet and held him tight to his flank in another crushing one-armed bear-hug. He shuffled near to the open hatchway again, his constricted captive trying to suck in air, his mouth a horrified gaping O.
Another corsair darted forward with a wheel-lock pistol hurriedly primed, and the Rus grinned widely, savagely, as if this was all that he had hoped for. Not even looking, he put the heel of his hand under his captive’s chin and shoved his head back with terrifying force. Nicholas heard the neck vertebrae snap. Again he threw a corpse into the arms of his onrushing assailants, then in a blur of speed he seized the arm of the fellow with the squat wheel-lock, snapped his arm at the elbow, and caught the pistol in his own paw.
He turned and leapt into the hatchway.
The air was filled with screaming, from the corsair with the shattered arm, and behind, from the captain himself. A scream of genuine panic and terror.
Nicholas’s eyes too flared wide with terror. Now he understood that sound the Rus had made. The soft explosion. He would kill them all in his madness. They would all go down together, Mohammedan and Christian alike, equals at last in the drowning sea.
Corsairs came struggling over the bodies of their fallen comrades, but it was too late. The Rus had moved with astonishing swiftness, his movements planned weeks and months before in bitter dreams of vengeance.
He reappeared from out of the hatchway like a demon in a stage dumbshow rearing up out of hell, deranged, filthy, triumphant – and holding upon his left shoulder a barrel of gunpowder that it would take two normal men to lift. In his final triumph now he was actually singing, some old Russian hymn, in deep baritone. Blagoslovi, Dushe Moya . . . He smashed the barrel down upon the rest of the store below, waved the wheel-lock tauntingly one last time at the captain as his desperate screams fell silent, his mouth still open, disbelieving. Finally the Rus crossed himself, dropped to his knees, gritting his teeth at the arrow’s agony in his belly, held the sparking mechanism of the pistol to the spill of serpentine black powder – a scrabbling corsair leapt on to his back with a knife raised high in his fist – and fired.
The massive explosion blew the bow clean off the galley. After that, events unfolded in a strange, dreamlike silence but for a faint distant ringing. For the explosion had deafened every man aboard.
The single centre-line gun pitched head first through the flaming timbers and sank directly down to the ocean floor, a few last air bubbles trailing from its black mouth. The rest of the slaver seemed to rear back for a few moments, as if in horror at its own mutilation. Spars and scraps of burning sailcloth turned and wheeled high in the blue sky, and among them, heads and limbs and limbless torsos of corsairs and slaves alike.
The decapitated galley crashed down again and immediately her hold was swamped by the inrushing sea. Rowers on the benches scrabbled desperately at their manacles, but it was useless. There were only seconds left. Groaning forward, the galley began to slide down below the surface. Bubbles and eddies came up from the drowned hold, a casket of oranges floated free, a severed arm revolved in a small whirlpool. The captain held his chest of treasures clutched under his arm, looking wildly around. The Sweet Rose of Algiers carried no longboat or dinghy, and few of the corsairs could swim. The galley had been their home, their mother, their country.
The water swirled in around the rowers, and the salt made them reel in agony as it coursed past blistered thighs and backsides, chafed by months on the accursed bench. But swallowing their pain and s
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