THE DEVIL'S PEARL
CHAPTER 1 DALMATIA, SPRING 1527
The four mercenaries stood in the smoke-blackened gateway of the monastery and cursed the callous brutes who could perpetrate such an outrage. As battle-hardened soldiers-of-fortune they’d each served many masters, and experienced the worst of war’s many horrors, but the sight that now met their eyes sickened them.
What had once been a haven of peace was now a charnel-house littered with the bodies of slaughtered monks and most of them had died cruel, painful deaths. The lucky ones had been merely hanged from the arches of their own cloister, whilst the unlucky ones had been slowly roasted over open fires, yet the worst fate had been reserved for the Monastery of Salona’s elderly abbot. He’d been crucified, nailed to the door of his own chapel.
“By all the torments in Tartarus, not even Benedictines deserve to die such blasphemous deaths,” said Bos de Vries as he shook his shaggy, bovine head in revulsion.
As a devout follower of Luther’s new religion, the gruff, red-headed Frisian usually had little sympathy for those who chose the monastic life but no one could remain unmoved by such savagery. Bos’ three comrades were equally disgusted by the carnage and, for some minutes, they debated who could inflict such shameful tortures on unarmed men of prayer. Eventually, the Englishman called Thomas Devilstone declared that the killers had to be in the pay of the Ottoman Sultan.
“The men who did this must be a Turkish raiding party, or have we forgotten why we’ve been hiding in caves and thickets like frightened roebuck these past few months? We’ve been running ever since we had our arses kicked at Mohacs, so let’s continue our journey to Spalato before our bloodthirsty enemies return,” he said, and to end the discussion, he reminded the others that their destiny lay in Italy, not Dalmatia.
It mattered not that, having seen just twenty-seven summers, the good-looking, athletic Englishman was the youngest of the four men who’d sought refuge in the ruined monastery. Thomas’ quick wits, skill with a blade and wide, though not entirely deserved, fame as a practitioner of the Dark Arts meant that the others generally trusted his judgement. However, on this occasion, the broad-shouldered, dark-skinned Nubian named Prometheus insisted that Thomas was mistaken.
“Sultan Suleiman’s janissaries didn’t murder these Brothers-in-Christ. Such devilry can only be the work of Barbary corsairs and they’ll sweep through the plains of Dalmatia just as the plague of locusts swept through Pharaoh’s Egypt. They’ll strip the churches of their gold and plunder the villages for slaves. The weak, the old and those who resist will die but those who are fit and healthy will be condemned to the bagnio,” said Prometheus and he shuddered as he remembered the living hell of North Africa’s slave-prisons.
Being well over six feet tall, with proud, hawk-like features and a leonine mane of tightly curled black hair, Prometheus not only looked like an exotic African prince, he’d once ruled the Nubian kingdom of Dotawo, until a confederation of nomadic tribes from the south had conquered all the desert lands between Abyssinia and Egypt. After being betrayed to these heathen invaders, Prometheus had been loaded with chains and sent to the great slave market in Alexandria, where he’d been sold to a corsair chief.
Though most galley captains were reluctant to use slaves to propel their precious vessels, the incessant war between Venice and the Ottoman Turks had led to a shortage of free rowers, so the immensely strong Nubian had spent two years chained to the oar of a Barbary galley before being rescued by a Venetian fleet. During his long months of servitude, the only things that had sustained the last Prince of Dotawo were a desire to punish his tormentors and the Christian faith of his ancestors.
“St. Peter in the Mamertine didn’t suffer as I suffered at the hands of those pirates, yet I kept faith with The Lord Jesus and prayed to the Holy Virgin, who answered my prayers,” said Prometheus, however Bos scoffed at his comrade’s piety.
“The ever-wise Luther teaches that all those who pray to the Mother of God are guilty of a grave heresy,” he declared loftily, whereupon Prometheus turned on the irascible Frisian with anger in his eyes and murder in his heart.
“No man may call a Prince of Dotawo a heretic and live, so take back those words before I ram them down your godless Lutheran gizzard, you spavined son of a diseased jackal!” Prometheus cried, but Bos ignored the threat and continued to taunt his comrade.
“You’re no longer a king and, even if you were, I bend my knee only before God,” he snapped. This prompted Prometheus to grit his teeth, and clench his huge fists, but Luis Quintana stepped between the two giants before they could come to blows.
Though the wiry, fox-faced, black-bearded Portugee was the oldest of the four men, he was also the smallest and he looked like a spindly sapling between a pair of massive oaks as he tried to part the two giant pugilists. Despite his smaller stature, Quintana was fearless in his pursuit of peace, so further threats of violence didn’t deter him from urging Bos and Prometheus to forget their differences before their quarrelling brought ruin upon them all.
“Be quiet! Hunger and fatigue may have brought us to the edge of madness but Thomas is right. Whoever killed these monks could still be nearby and we can’t rest until we’re safe behind the walls of Spalato. Besides, not even Beelzebub could bear the foul stench of this butcher’s yard, so let’s quit this place before we choke to death,” said Quintana, who, despite suffering the agonies of starvation, was struggling not to retch.
The sickly smell of roasted human flesh that permeated the monastery reminded Quintana of the time when, as a ten-year old boy, he’d seen hundreds of Lisbon Jews burned to death by a fanatical mob and the passage of years had done little to erase those dreadful memories. For more than two decades the pitiable cries of those innocent victims had haunted Quintana’s dreams, but Bos and Prometheus didn’t share their comrade’s fear of the holy fire, and the Portugee’s plea for sanity went unheeded until Thomas hissed another warning.
Whilst the others had been arguing, the Englishman had taken it upon himself to mount a guard, so he’d scrambled to a hole in the monastery’s crumbling walls and peered into the gloom. Once his eyes had focused on the horizon, Thomas saw what he dreaded most and, as soon as his comrades had joined him, they understood the reason for his cry of alarm.
“If you doubt that the wild dogs who tore this monastery apart have picked up our trail, take a look over there,” Thomas whispered and he pointed across the marshes to a line of figures silhouetted against the dawn sky.
At first, the others thought that the shadowy phantoms picking their way through the grassy tussocks were fishermen coming to check their nets, but the angry crack of whips confirmed Prometheus’ worst fears. Fifty corsair slavers were herding twice as many captives through the mist that was rising from the waterlogged ground and the chilling groans of the condemned drifted over the landscape like the icy winds of winter.
As the column drew closer, Prometheus and the others could see that the prisoners’ arms had been tied behind their backs and their necks yoked together with long ropes of braided leather. Despite the cruelties of the lash, which the corsairs wielded with increasing ferocity, the captives continued to pray loudly for their deliverance and, so heart-rending were their pleas, those hidden in the monastery thought they were looking at a procession of the damned being led to the gates of Hell.
“If we’re truly deserving of Christ’s mercy, it’s our duty to do what we can to save those destined for the bagnio,” Prometheus growled and yet, though the others agreed that charity was the greatest of Christian virtues, Bos pointed out that there was little they could do without weapons.
“I don’t care that we’re only four against fifty, if we don’t have swords, we’re as useless as a pope’s prayer in Purgatory,” he said, whereupon Thomas confounded his comrades by insisting that abandoning the slaves could be to everyone’s benefit.
“As I’ve foreseen, fate has decreed that we must travel to Italy to search for the lost treasure of Alaric the Goth but, once we’ve found what we seek, we’ll have enough gold to ransom these poor wretches. So, let’s leave this House of Death with all speed, for no one will prosper if we’re lying in our graves,” he said but, whilst Bos and Quintana agreed with Thomas, Prometheus still hesitated.
“If we want Our Lord Jesus to bless our endeavour, we must promise to use what we find in Italy to buy freedom for every Christian held in bondage by the Turks and their Barbary allies,” he said, and he refused to move until the others had sworn to this condition. With no time to argue, the others reluctantly took the Nubian’s briefly whispered oath before they turned their backs on the hapless slaves and set off for Spalato.
To reach the only Dalmatian port still in Christian hands, Thomas and the others would have to cross the River Jadro, which flowed a hundred paces to the south of the ruined monastery. Unfortunately, the river was swollen with water from heavy spring rains and there was no possibility of reaching the nearest bridge, which lay several miles upstream, without being seen by the approaching corsairs. These perils persuaded the four ragged adventurers to head downstream in the hope of finding somewhere to ford the Jadro’s turbulent waters.
As the river entered the sea less than a mile to the west of the monastery, it wasn’t long before Thomas and the others arrived at the broad lagoon which formed the Jadro’s estuary. This shallow expanse of brackish water was separated from the Adriatic by a range of dunes which, on the seaward side, gradually dwindled into a low bank of sand and gravel that curved away from the shore like a giant hook. This natural breakwater reached almost to the opposite side of the river but any hopes the fugitives had of using it as a bridge, to reach the safety of Spalato, were dashed when they saw three ships beached halfway along its length.
Once they’d crawled to the top of the nearest dune, Thomas and the others could see that these vessels were galiots of a type much favoured by Barbary corsairs. Though similar in appearance to the mighty war galleys of Venice or Genoa, galiots were considerably smaller in size, and had a much shallower draft, which made them ideal for raiding fishing villages, monasteries and other lightly defended coastal settlements.
“Those must be the slavers’ ships waiting to load their human cargo,” Prometheus whispered angrily, and the position of the vessels could only confirm his suspicions. Large galleys normally beached stern first, so they could be rowed off again, but the galiots had been driven on to the sand-bank facing inland so their pointed, iron-tipped spirons, which served as both a battering ram and a boarding plank, pointed at the dunes.
Even in the half-light of dawn it was easy to see why the corsairs had done this because, behind each vessel’s prow, there was a low forecastle upon which were mounted several swivel guns. These light cannon fired a storm of small balls that could sweep a deck, or a beach, clear of enemies with one salvo but, even more deadly, were the falconets. Each galiot had one of these much larger guns fixed to the centre-line behind its spiron and, whilst falconets usually fired a single iron projectile large enough to smash a hole in a hostile ship’s hull, they too could be loaded with hundreds of stone pebbles or lead pellets.
Together, the three galiots’ battery of falconets and swivel guns could slaughter any force that dared venture along the sand-bank and, with sunrise just a few minutes away, anything larger than a crab would be quickly spotted by the ships’ watchful sentries.
“By the holy milk of the Madonna, what do we do now?” Quintana moaned, but before anyone could answer him, the ground upon which the four men were lying seemed to rise up as thirty hideous earth-demons emerged from their subterranean lairs.
Despite their monstrous appearance, these troglodytes moved with the swiftness of cobras and, in a matter of seconds, their astonished victims were lying on their backs with their limbs bound and stinking rags stuffed in their mouths. All the while, the chief demon danced around the stricken men, laughing maniacally and promising them that their punishment for butchering the monks of Salona was death.
“Hear me, scabrous spawn of Hagar, my only regret is that I don’t have time to make your suffering last more than a few minutes,” the demon cried and he lifted his dagger to slit Thomas’ throat. The blade’s highly polished steel glinted in the weak light of the dawn but, at the last minute, the monster stayed his hand. Through the holes in his prisoner’s tattered shirt, the chief demon had glimpsed a mark on Thomas’ shoulder and the sight filled the unspeakable creature with awe.
“The Ouroboros! No infidel would bear the sign of the winged-serpent swallowing its own tail, so how does a servant of dragons come to be in Dalmatia?” the astonished fiend asked and he ordered Thomas’ gag to be removed. For a moment, the Englishman could do nothing but suck in a great lungful of fresh air, but when he found his voice, he chastised the creature for its ignorance.
“By the great horned head of the demon Furfur, do you know to whom you speak? I’m not the servant of dragons, I’m their master! I’m the same Thomas Devilstone who commanded the Graoully to free me from my persecutors in Metz. I’m the man who rode the Firedrake from the highest tower of the Hornberg and I raised the Balaur from the depths of the earth to destroy Lord Dracul’s Castle of Poenari. Now release me and my companions before I summon a leviathan large enough to devour you all in one bite!” he cried and, though these names meant nothing to the chief of the earth-demons, the brand that had been burned into the Englishman’s shoulder with a red-hot iron convinced the monster to lower its dagger and introduce itself.
“I’m Novak and I salute any man who bears the Draconist mark because, like the Order of the Dragon’s illustrious knights, I and my Uskoks have pledged our lives to keeping all Christian lands free from Sultan Suleiman’s tyranny,” said the demon proudly and it was only now that Thomas could see that his captor was no more of a devil than himself.
In order to conceal their presence from their enemies, Novak and his men had dressed in drab clothing, wrapped themselves in sand-coloured cloaks and fastened clumps of marram grass to their brimless felt caps. When standing upright, this strange attire gave these men the appearance of golem, the demons of Jewish lore fashioned from mud and given life by sorcery, but when lying in the shallow hollows they’d excavated in the dunes, they became invisible. Such skills, Novak explained, had earned his men the name of Uskok, which meant ‘ambush’ in the language of Dalmatia’s Croats.
Whilst his men freed the rest of their prisoners, Novak added that his was just one of many Uskok bands formed from the displaced peoples of the Balkans. Some of these warlike irregulars were Catholic Croats defending their homeland, though most were Orthodox Serbs, Bosnians or Wallachians, like himself, who’d refused to convert to the Mahometan faith after their countries had been conquered by the Ottoman Turks.
Amongst the Uskoks, the ancient schism between Greek and Roman churches had been forgotten and their overlords, the Hapsburg emperors, had put these lawless exiles’ hatred of the Ottomans to good use. Rather than have them resort to brigandage or piracy, successive Holy Roman Emperors had paid the Uskoks to guard their border with the Sultan’s empire and men like Novak had willingly accepted the imperial gold. Now he and his confederates hunted Turks with the same enthusiasm that other men hunted wild boar, however on this expedition, their quarry had been Sultan Suleiman’s Barbary allies.
“We had word that corsairs were raiding the coast for slaves and so we’ve laid a trap for them,” Novak said grimly, whereupon Prometheus begged to be given a sword.
“If you want infidel throats cut, give me a blade and I’ll gladly assist you, for I too was driven from my kingdom by those who’d deny Christ and, what’s more, I’ve also been touched by the dragon’s fire!” Prometheus cried and he tore open his shirt to reveal the same livid brand of the dragon swallowing its own tail as borne by Thomas.
“You’re a Christian?” Novak asked in disbelief, for he’d never imagined that black-skinned Africans could be part of the Communion of Saints.
“By all the hairs in the great grey beard of Bishop Frumentius, is there no limit to the ignorance of barbarians? If only your wits were as prodigious as your boasts you’d know that the light of the gospels was burning brightly in Nubia long before it was kindled in the dark forests of the north!” Prometheus cried.
On hearing this, the Uskok captain offered Prometheus both his apology and a sword before declaring that it was always an honour to fight at the side of men who loved God as fervently as himself. This prompted Bos to announce that he too was ready to serve the Prince of Peace by killing those who denied Christ’s Resurrection. Unfortunately, this mutual profession of faith, was too much for Quintana and he anxiously reminded his comrades that they had urgent business on the far side of the river.
“On any other day, we’d gladly stay and help you in your fight but we must reach Spalato before daybreak. We carry news of a great battle between the King of Hungary and the Turkish Sultan and we must bear these tidings to the Imperial Viceroy in Naples without delay,” he said. However, this new revelation failed to impress Novak.
“You’re too late, the whole world knows of the disaster at Mohacs so, if you’re truly men of honour and not cowardly deserters, you must fight with us,” he said and the tone of his voice indicated that he wouldn’t take no for an answer. In reply, the Portugee could only stare at the ground as he remembered the horror of that terrible defeat.
Though the Hungarians and their landsknecht mercenaries ‒ whose ranks on that fateful day had included Thomas, Bos, Prometheus and Quintana ‒ fought with courage, the Christian army had been utterly destroyed at Mohacs and the few survivors had only escaped the massacre by hiding in the marshes at the edge of the battlefield. Even after Sultan Suleiman’s janissaries had marched away, the four men had faced a bleak future until Thomas revealed that he knew the whereabouts of an immense treasure.
The tale Thomas told the others described how, in the last days of the Caesars, the barbarian Goths had sacked Rome and hidden their plunder in a secret, underground vault located somewhere in Southern Italy. With little prospect of making their fortunes in war-ravaged Hungary, Thomas had easily persuaded the others to help him search for this fabled treasure, and together, the four men had set out for the coast.
In their eagerness to become as rich as Borgia popes, the fugitives had decided that the Venetian port of Spalato would be the best place to find a ship that would take them across the Adriatic but, after the battle, all roads from Mohacs to the sea were in Turkish hands. To add to their woes, winter had arrived before they could find an unguarded path through Dalmatia’s mountains, and for three long months, the four men had been forced to seek shelter in lonely caves or abandoned barns.
During these desperate times, Thomas’ repeated promises of vast wealth had provided as much sustenance as the roots they’d gouged from the frozen earth, however in their current predicament, recovering the Gothic treasure was the last thing on the Englishman’s mind. Turning to Novak, he declared that he’d also fight with the Uskoks in return for safe passage to Spalato after the prisoners had been freed.
“You’re right, My Lord of Uskoks, rescuing your captive countrymen will restore our honour after the shame of Mohacs,” he said with a bow and Novak beamed with delight. The others thought it prudent not to remind Thomas of his earlier willingness to abandon the slaves, so they said nothing as the Uskok captain outlined his plan of attack.
“I’d dearly like to capture those galiots on the sand-bank but their guns make any direct assault impossible. Nor can we use the lagoon to outflank them, because the river-mouth is a treacherous labyrinth of currents and quicksand, yet all is not lost. If we attack the slavers as they advance along the river-bank, the dunes will shelter us from their ships’ gunfire,” he said and, he ordered his men to return to their shallow trenches to await the corsairs. Not long afterwards, the first sounds of anguish began to drift across the salt-marsh.
The crack of the slavers’ whips, mingling with the chorus of pathetic sobs from the cavalcade of lost souls, stiffened every man’s resolve, but Novak had underestimated his enemy and he felt his blood run cold as he realised that he’d been outwitted.
The corsairs were also skilled in the art of ambuscade and their chief had recognised the tactical dangers, and advantages, presented by the sand dunes. As a consequence, instead of returning to their ships along the river-bank as Novak had expected, the slavers were approaching the sand-bar from the north, following the line of the sea-shore. This meant that the Uskoks would have to cross the killing ground covered by the galiots’ guns after all and Novak doubted if half his men would survive such a rash charge.
Seized by the agony of indecision, the Uskok captain bit his lip and asked God to show him the way. Yet, even as he cursed the cruelty of the unfeeling Almighty, Novak felt a sharp tug on his sleeve.
“My Lord Captain, if you wait until all the prisoners are on the sand-bank, then attack the column’s rear, the galiots won’t be able to fire their guns for fear of hitting their own men,” Thomas whispered.
On hearing these words, Novak’s expression changed from perturbed confusion to a broad grin, and he nodded in acceptance of Thomas’ plan, but it seemed to take an age for the corsairs to reach the landward end of the sand-bank. For ten interminable minutes, the Uskoks lay motionless in their places of concealment until finally, just as the agonies of cramp began to seize their limbs, their captain gave the order to strike.
“For God and St. Domnius!” Novak cried and his men leapt to their feet. Yelling their own blood-curdling entreaties to Salona’s patron saint, the Uskoks charged down the dunes’ sandy slopes and the women captives screamed in terror as their rescuers fell upon the slavers like a swarm of vengeful hornets.
Despite being taken by surprise, the highly disciplined corsairs had no difficulty meeting the Uskoks’ charge. Whilst half their number continued to drag the strings of prisoners towards their ships, the rest of the slavers drew their deadly flyssa swords and formed themselves into a line across the sand-bank. The two sides clashed in a shower of sparks, as slender Barbary blades struck heavy Uskok sabres, but Novak’s men failed to break their enemy’s formation and the corsairs were quickly reinforced by their comrades from the galiots.
Just as Thomas had predicted, the corsairs couldn’t fire their guns for fear of hitting their own men, however as soon as the gunners realised their cannon were useless, they came tumbling out of their ships to help their brethren. In the light of this new danger, Novak urged his men to redouble their efforts, yet in spite of the Uskoks’ burning desire to rescue their countrymen, only Thomas managed to penetrate the corsairs’ hedge of steel.
Once the Uskoks’ frantic charge had become a confused mêlée, Thomas found himself facing a bearded brute who wielded his flyssa with great strength but little skill. This corsair was more used to slaughtering helpless monks and milkmaids than fencing with a seasoned veteran of the Anglo-Scottish Wars, so Thomas had no difficulty in parrying the man’s ill-judged strokes. Eventually, as the corsair became more frustrated, he let his guard drop and the end came when an expert slash from the Englishman’s sabre opened the man’s chest from collarbone to belt buckle. The man was dead before his bloody corpse had fallen to the ground but, as Thomas sprinted towards the nearest group of prisoners, the line of battle closed behind him.
The hot humours of war coursing through Thomas’ veins had blinded him to the danger of being cut off from his comrades, however the slaver trying to drag a dozen, struggling women to the galiots had failed to realise his own peril.
The corsair was so intent on wrestling with his wailing captives, he didn’t notice Thomas until the Englishman’s bone-smashing sword lopped off his forearm. The force of the blow spattered the shrieking women with gore, which only served to increase their frenzy, and when Thomas cut the ropes that bound the prisoners to each other, they were too gripped by fear to flee.
“Run, unless you want to spend the rest of your miserable lives being ploughed by fat Saracen tanners!” Thomas cried, and at last, the prisoners came to their senses. Though the fighting prevented them from using the sand-bank to reach the mainland, these fishwives and cockle-pickers were well acquainted with the secret paths through the lagoon, so they hitched up their skirts and splashed away through the shallow water like frightened geese. Thomas watched them go with a sense of pride, but even as he congratulated himself on his victory, he felt something tighten around his ankle.
In his hurry to free the women, Thomas’ leg had become entangled in the lengths of braided leather that he’d cut from the prisoners’ necks and one the slavers had spotted the trap that the Englishman had inadvertently set for himself. Grabbing the loose end of the discarded rope, the slaver pulled hard and Thomas’ story might have ended in the marshes of Dalmatia, had it not been for the selfishness of his comrades.
A few months after their first meeting, Bos, Prometheus and Quintana had seen Thomas survive his own hanging and this miracle had convinced them that the Englishman had been chosen by God for some higher purpose. Witnessing their comrade’s failed execution had also persuaded the three highly superstitious mercenaries that their own fortunes were inextricably tied to Thomas’ fate, so, the instant they saw him fall, they hurried to rescue their precious talisman before he was cut to pieces.
With a bludgeoning, backhanded stroke Bos cleaved the skull of the nearest corsair in two whilst Prometheus skewered two of the slavers with a single thrust. These successes allowed Quintana to confront the man who’d up-ended Thomas and the result of this contest was never in doubt. The Portugee’s reluctance to use his sword belied his talent with a blade and he neatly eviscerated his opponent with the speed of a fishmonger gutting his catch.
As the dying slaver crumpled, Quintana caught a glimpse of Thomas lying prostrate on the sand, yet in the space of a heartbeat, the rising sun had transformed the damp dawn air into a thick fog that hid friend from foe. Seconds later, Quintana heard Novak telling his men to return to the safety of the sand dunes but the Portugee ignored the order and, instead, set about trying to locate his fallen comrade. Unfortunately for Thomas, before Quintana could find his bearings, the Portugee felt himself seized by strong hands and dragged away.
Alone in the murk, Thomas also heard the Uskok captain’s command but his fall had left him stunned and, in his haste to rejoin his comrades, he stumbled. One moment he was staggering over an outcrop of limestone polished smooth by the sea, the next he’d missed his footing on the slippery rock and slithered into the stinking mud of the salt-marsh. Cursing his own foolishness, Thomas tried to grab hold of something solid but his scrabbling fingers couldn’t find a grip on the wet stone.
“By all the carp in St. Peter’s nets, are there no fishers of men who’ll save a good Christian from a watery grave!” Thomas yelled, but he fell silent when he remembered that he’d no way of knowing who’d won the battle of the sand-bank. To add to his peril, a series of explosions, made by the galiots firing their guns, shook the quivering mud around him and he felt himself sink deeper into the bottomless morass.
Imprisoned up to his waist in cloying ooze reminded Thomas of the time when, as a boy, he’d strayed into a similar mire near his home. The voracious bogs of England’s wild border country with Scotland could swallow a cart, along with its entire team of horses, and the memory of the dread he’d felt that day now threatened to paralyse his limbs. Yet, before he became completely incapacitated by panic, the end of a rope landed in the mud beside him.
With a sigh of relief, Thomas looped the line under his arms and, the next thing he knew, he was lying face-down on dry land, panting like a stranded flounder. However, when he turned his head to thank his rescuer, he found himself staring into the eyes of a ferocious-looking man wearing a turban.
The corsair screamed a foul oath in an unrecognisable language before kicking Thomas hard in the face and then, from out of the gloom, more slavers appeared. They too rained curses, punches and spittle on the Englishman’s prostrate body until Thomas felt as if the sky was falling upon him, piece by piece. To protect himself from this vicious assault, Thomas tried to cover his head, yet in the same instant he raised his arms, he felt his wrists seized and bound with tight cords that cut into his flesh.
Once the Englishman had been trussed like a chicken in an East Cheap market, the corsairs hauled their prisoner to his feet and marched him to the last of their ships still beached on the sand-bar. Now the fog was beginning to lift, Thomas could see that the other two galiots were already several hundred yards from shore, but since there was no sign of Bos, Prometheus or Quintana, there was nothing he could do to prevent himself from being manhandled on to the remaining corsair vessel.
With the last of the raiding party safely aboard, the galiot’s bosun barked an order and there was another thunderous roar as the ship’s falconet spat hundreds of small stones towards the sand dunes. Not only did this lethal barrage deter another attack by Novak’s Uskoks, the violent recoil pushed the galiot off the sand-bar. As there was no wind, most of the corsairs hurried to their places on the rowing benches but four of the slavers seized hold of Thomas and lashed him to the ship’s mast.
All the while, Thomas, who was still dazed from his merciless beating, could offer no resistance. Nor did he react when his tormentors deafened him with another torrent of unintelligible abuse. It was only when the brutes began brandishing their daggers in front of his face, that terror drove the dark clouds of pain from the Englishman’s mind.
The long, curved shape of the corsairs’ blades reminded Thomas of the knives that English butchers used to cut the skin off slaughtered meat, so even though he couldn’t understand his captors’ words, he knew that they meant to flay him alive.