“By the Devil’s teeth! Fortune favours you, Sir Perpignan! I’ve never seen anyone so lucky at dice. Every toss brings me nothing but misery! Eighty gold ducats in two nights! Inconceivable! If my luck doesn’t turn soon, swear to me you’ll put a bullet in my chest, better you than one of those wretched heathens when they take Famagusta.”
“If they take it, Captain Lazinski.”
“You have doubts, Sir Perpignan?”
“I know the worth of our men. Our Slavs will defend these walls to the last; the Republic knows how to choose her soldiers.”
“Bah, aside from myself, there’s not a Polish warrior among the lot.”
“What are you saying, Captain? Do you doubt their ability?”
“Perish the thought, sir, perish the thought! But a few Poles would add might to our ranks, we are after all the most renowned warriors in Christend—”
He stopped suddenly, his words interrupted by the angry murmur of voices and the sound of mail and metal jingling as arms reached for their swords.
“Easy! Easy!” he said, changing tone with a smile. “You know I love to jest, my friends. You know I love to jest! Four months we’ve been fighting side by side, keeping those heathen dogs at bay. I know your worth! You’re all fine lads, all fine warriors to a man! Sir Perpignan, what say we resume our game? I still have twenty ducats that I’d like to grow into a fortune now that the Turks are leaving us be.”
A cannon thundered darkly as if to deny the captain’s words.
“Scoundrels! What I’d give for just one night of peace,” complained the Pole. “Bah! There’s still time for a throw or two, what do you say, Sir Perpignan?”
“By all means, Captain.”
“Roll the dice.”
“Nine!” shouted Perpignan, rolling the dice on the wooden bench the two men were using as a gaming table.
The captain cursed as laughter burst out around him.
“By the beard of the prophet!” exclaimed the Pole, throwing two ducats onto the bench. “You must have made a pact with the devil, Sir Perpignan.”
“Nonsense, Captain; I’m too good a Christian.”
“I’ve never seen anyone so lucky, except maybe Captain Tempesta. Tell me, Sir Perpignan, did the captain teach you how to cheat?”
“The captain and I often play together, but I can assure you neither of us cheats. He’s always been a proper gentleman.”
“Gentleman! Huh!” replied the captain, a note of bitterness in his voice.
“Everyone in this room would vouch for him. He’s an extraordinary young man renowned for his great valour and courage.”
“Young man indeed…”
“What are you getting at, Captain? I doubt he’s more than twenty.”
“You misunderstand me, Sir Perpignan. Bah, no matter. Shall we resume our game?”
“You haven’t lost enough?”
“I need to recoup my losses. I never go into battle without a few coins in my pocket. What would happen to me if I’m slain? Everyone knows you’ve got to pay the ferryman to cross the Styx. I couldn’t face Charon empty handed.”
“The Styx!” laughed Sir Perpignan. “You’re certain of going to hell?”
“Absolutely,” replied Lazinski, picking up the dice and shaking them angrily. “Two more ducats.”
The exchange had taken place in a large tent that served as both barracks and tavern. A large number of mattresses had been stacked against one end, and numerous barrels lined the other, defended by a tavern keeper, a stout, middle-aged fellow, who sat upon a table, sipping a jug full of Cyprian wine.
A Murano glass lamp hung from the main tent pole; the two men had been playing dice beneath it, surrounded by a circle of about fifteen Slavs, mercenary soldiers that the Venetian Republic had gathered from its Dalmatian colonies and sent to the Middle East to fight the Turks.
Captain Lazinski was a large muscular man, in his forties, with blonde spikey hair, small beady eyes, a large red nose, and an enormous bushy moustache that drooped over his mouth and his chin. His heavy iron breastplate and the huge broadsword that hung from his side gave him the look of a sell-sword—a mercenary who pledged his blade to the highest bidder.
Sir Perpignan was about ten or fifteen years younger than his Polish companion. He was a typical Venetian, tall and wiry, with black hair and pale skin. He was dressed in the elegant Venetian attire of the time: an embroidered tunic that hung down just below his hips, striped hose and leather boots and his head was crowned by a blue toque adorned with a pheasant’s feather. He was armed with a light sword and a small dagger and, all in all, he looked more like the doge’s page than a warrior.
Both men resumed the game with enthusiasm, the Slav soldiers looking on with great interest, standing in a circle around the wooden bench, while off in the distance, the cannon continued to thunder from time to time, the lamp’s flame flickering with each dark blast.
No one, however, seemed to take much note of those discharges, not even the tavern keeper, who continued to sip wine from his jug.
The captain had already lost another half dozen ducats amidst a flurry of curses, when the tent flap rose and a person wrapped in a large black cloak and wearing a helmet adorned with three blue feathers strode into the barracks.
“Hard at work I see,” the newcomer said ironically. “Are you planning to buy off the Turks with your winnings, Captain Lazinski? Or maybe you were so engrossed in your game you didn’t hear the cannons. We need to defend the bastion. Come.”
While the Slavs went to collect the halberds, maces and battleaxes they had set down in a corner of the tent, the Pole, who was in a foul mood due to his heavy losses, quickly looked up and fixed the newcomer with an angry look.
“Capitan Tempesta!” he exclaimed mockingly. “A man of my experience knows the difference between the sound of a few cannon blasts and that of an army storming a wall. You can let us play in peace; the Turks won’t take Famagusta tonight.”
With one swift movement, Capitan Tempesta swept back his cloak, and rested a hand on the hilt of the sword he wore in his belt.
He was a handsome young man, tall, thin, with coal black eyes, a small mouth, lightly bronzed skin and long dark hair. His face was elegant and delicate, far more feminine than those common to captains of fortune.
Though youthful in appearance, his manner suggested he was accustomed to command. His full armour and golden spurs proclaimed him a knight, while the coat of arms engraved in the middle of his breastplate—three stars surmounted by a crown—announced that he was of noble birth.
“What did you say, Captain?” he asked sternly, his hand still resting on his sword.
“The fort won’t fall tonight,” shrugged the sell-sword. “Even if the Turks somehow managed to breech the wall we have more than enough men to chase them back to Constantinople or whatever desert hole they crawled out of.”
“That’s not what you meant, Captain Lazinski,” said the young man. “You implied—”
“You’re hearing things,” replied the Pole still irritated by his losses. “I was annoyed you interrupted our game just as my luck was beginning to turn. And I’m right about the attack. I was wielding a sword long before you were suckling at your mother’s teats. ”
Sir Perpignan put a hand to his sword and took a step towards the Pole.
“That’s no way to talk to my commander,” he said coldly. “What say we settle this, you and I?”
“There’s no need for that, Sir Perpignan,” said Capitan Tempesta, staying him with a gesture. “We shouldn’t be duelling among ourselves in the middle of a siege. If Captain Lazinski wishes to quarrel with me to vent his anger for his losses or because he doubts my courage, as I’ve heard tell—”
“What!” exclaimed the Pole, drawing himself up to his full height. “By Saint Stanislaus! I’ll kill whichever wretch told you that. While it’s true I think your reputation...”
He paused, uncertain if he should proceed.
“Continue,” said Capitan Tempesta, calmly.
“I think your reputation is exaggerated,” replied the Pole. “You’re hardly a seasoned veteran, this is only your first campaign. You’re good with a sword, I’ll give you that, but a renowned warrior? Hardly. What’s more…”
He paused once more and eyed the captain suspiciously.
“Don’t stop now,” smiled Capitan Tempesta, staying Sir Perpignan with a gesture once again, the nobleman having put a hand to his sword for the second time. “You amuse me, Captain.”
The Pole kicked the bench and glared at the young man.
“By Saint Stanislaus!” he shouted, his thick bushy moustache twitching in anger. “You’re mocking me, Captain!”
“You noticed at last,” the young man replied.
“It’s never wise to poke a bear, lad, especially if you fight like a woman.”
The young man turned pale for moment then frowned.
“I’ve slain more Turks than you have,” he said after a short silence, “I’ve fought in the trenches and on the ramparts and been in more battles. There’s not a man here who would deny it. You claim to be a great warrior, but I see little more than an adventurer standing there before me, better suited to dice and drink than wielding a blade.”
Captain Lazinski turned pale.
“I’m as much of an adventurer as you are,” he howled.
“I’m from a noble house. Do you see this coat of arms?”
“Any fool can get one engraved on his breastplate,” laughed the Pole. “The true test of metal is how you handle your sword, and you milord, or should I say milady, don’t have the courage to face mine.”
“Let’s settle the matter once and for all,” said the young captain.
The Slavs had grabbed their weapons and gathered behind Capitan Tempesta and had listened to that exchange in silence. But at those words they all took a step forward, determined to tear the Pole to pieces.
Even the tavern keeper had jumped down from the table and had grabbed an empty keg, ready to hurl it at the reckless adventurer, but Captain Tempesta quickly stayed them all with a gesture.
“As I said, we shouldn’t be duelling among ourselves in the middle of a siege. You doubt my courage? Very well. Let’s put it to the test. Every morning a Turk rides out beneath our walls to challenge our best swordsmen to a duel. He’ll be there again tomorrow. Are you brave enough to face him? I am!”
“I’ll slay him with one blow,” replied the Pole. “I haven’t met a Turk yet who was a match for my sword.”
“To tomorrow then.”
“I’ll be there.”
“So will I.”
“Who will face him first?”
“You may choose.”
“Age before beauty. I’ll fight him first; does that suit you, Captain Tempesta?”
“I predict a quick victory,” said the Pole, chuckling. “You can watch and cheer me on.”
Capitan Tempesta smiled and shook his head then drew his cloak about his shoulders.
“Come,” he said, addressing his men. “To St. Mark’s bastion. That’s where the danger is greatest.”
He went out, without casting another look at Captain Lazinski, followed by Sir Perpignan and the Slavs, who had taken up their harquebuses and halberds.
Left alone in the tent, the Pole, unable to vent his ire on anyone, knocked over the bench and began to kick at it repeatedly, despite the tavern keeper’s howls of protests.
The squad of the Slavs, commanded by Capitan Tempesta and Sir Perpignan, his lieutenant, quickly made their way towards the ramparts, passing through narrow streets lined with two storey houses.
The night was dark; not a single lantern burned behind the shuttered windows. A hot wind, blowing in from the Libyan desert, came in slow bursts and rain drizzled down from the heavens.
The cannon blasts were becoming more frequent; from time to time large stone round shot would come whistling over the rampart and crash into the rooftop of one of the houses opposite, shattering roof tiles and smashing through the floors beneath them.
“A miserable night,” said Sir Perpignan, walking alongside Captain Tempesta, who had wrapped himself completely in his large cloak. “The Turks couldn’t have chosen a better time to attack.”
“Their efforts will be in vain,” the young captain replied. “Famagusta won’t fall tonight.”
“But it will fall eventually, sir, if the Republic doesn’t send us reinforcements.”
“Best rely on the value of our swords, Sir Perpignan. La Serrenissima is too busy to defend its Dalmatian colonies. Besides, they’d need to send an armada to get past the Turkish galleys patrolling the waters of the Archipelago.”
“Then the day will come when we’ll be forced to surrender.”
“And slaughtered; it’s rumoured the Sultan has ordered his men to put us all to the sword to punish us for our long resistance.”
“The dog! Bah, we’ll likely be dead by then, Captain, and be spared the sight of such a tragedy,” sighed Sir Perpignan. “It’s the townspeople I feel sorry for. They won’t escape the Sultan’s wrath either. They’d almost be better off dying in the attack; it would be more merciful.”
“Enough talk of this, lieutenant,” said Captain Tempesta. “We must fend them off for as long as we can.”
The squad had just emerged from a narrow lane onto a wide street enclosed on one side by a row of houses and on the other by a tall rampart. A row of torches blazed along its summit, illuminating the remnants of the battlements.
Several men clad in armour could be seen among the reddish light, bustling about some culverins. From time to time a flash of lightning would rent the darkness, followed by a peal of thunder.
Behind the gunners, long lines of women, some in splendid attire, others dressed in rags, advanced silently, dragging heavy sacks that they emptied upon the battlements, fearlessly ignoring enemy artillery. They were the brave women of Famagusta, reinforcing the rampart with rubble from their homes, the once splendid houses that Turkish volleys had destroyed.
" I found it as interesting and engaging as when I read it as a teenager. He writes very strong, and interesting, female characters." ~ Ana T., Goodreads.com