The sea was dead calm and blue. At dawn there was a light mist from the swamps along the shores of Corfu, but the sun came brassy and hot and burned the ocean surface clean. Off Point Scorpha, two long lines of ships faced one another. Each line was like the blade of a scythe and the ends of the line curved ominously toward one another. Occasionally the oars of a galley would reach into the air, slash sharply into the blue Mediterranean water, and the galley would edge back into its proper station. For a moment water sparkled on the wet oars and then nothing moved.
It was 1571, and after two years of preparation, elaborate maneuvers, evasions and false starts, the oar-driven navies of the Christian and Turkish worlds faced each other. Across three miles of still water the two fleets stood poised; hardly yet able to believe that in the dark hours of the night they had come face to face. For weeks the two fleets had crawled across the Mediterranean. Like strange, dis-formed amoeba the huge fleets flowed toward one another, avoiding the shoal water, edging past rocks and sandbars, past the countless islands of the Ionian Sea, around the reefs of Corfu. During the preceding night the two fleets had advanced again. As the sun burned the mist off the sea, the two long lines of sleek, low galleys suddenly came into clear view of one another.
At once the sea, the tides. the wind, the men aboard the ships all seemed to be gripped by a massive paralysis. The air seemed thick with surprise and fear. The 150,000 men aboard the six hundred ships moved very slowly, wishing that time could be made to run backward and the battle and the death and the blood could pushed away, somehow. Men yawned with nervousness. Time stretched thin with tension.
There was one man who waited with a savage, controlled patience for the battle to begin. His name was Sergeant John Baptist Conte. He was a galley slave on the Turkish ship Scimitar.
Like all of the slaves, John Baptist's hands were horny with callouses and his skin was burned a tough brown. Like all of the slaves he was naked except for the iron ring and chain around his ankle. Like the rest of the slaves he was a Christian. But there was something different about John Baptist. While the other slaves slumped over their oars, John Baptist sat straight on his bench. The eyes of the other slaves had the birdlike glitter of men starving to death, but John Baptists eyes were narrow, attentive, watchful.
John Baptist had been a professional soldier. The other slaves had been everything: pilgrims, cobblers, clerks, pimps, monks, stonemasons and carpenters. John Baptist's profession set him off from the others. They were frightened, for this was their first battle, but John Baptist had been in many battles before. This was the time for patience, for resting.
He remembered the day, twenty years ago, when as a boy of thirteen he had enlisted in the army to fight in North Africa. He was a Venetian slum boy, his skin white and pasty, his eyes shifting and nervous, his arms thin and wiry. The recruiting sergeant went along the line of men, pushing out the cripples, the drunks, the men who were diseased.
"You're too skinny, boy," he said to John Baptist and pushed him out of the line. "This is not a hospital. It's an army."
John Baptist came back at him like a tense, baited animal. He jabbed the sergeant in the stomach, ducked and wove, his hands darting out in cruel sharp blows that hurt the sergeant. The sergeant fought for several minutes and a look of respect came ever his face. Then with a long, graceful blow he knocked John Baptist unconscious. When John Baptist recovered he was wearing the tunic, short sword, and jacket of a soldier.
He remembered the hot, bone-dry, killing days of his first African campaign. He learned to live on a pint of water a day, to handle a sword, to fight. He learned what made one group of men a good platoon and another a frightened mob. He learned the ageless, subtle tricks of soldiering. He noticed that in a battle men are always frightened of the soldier with a bloody sword and after that he carefully cut his finger before each battle and smeared blood over his sword.
The campaign was hard and bitter and few men lasted more than a year at desert fighting. But after three years of it, John Baptist had become a sergeant and was leading a platoon. His body was fleshed out and muscular, he was skillful with a sword. He fitted all the fragments of the soldier's life into a smooth, protective pattern of survival.
For twenty years be had soldiered. He had fought in Anatolia, in Rumelia, in Cyprus, against Arabs, Turks, Frenchmen, Romans and Englishmen. He fought with short sword, saber, spear, hackbut, pick-axe, and bow and arrow. Deliberately he became an expert in each weapon. He learned that in a battle everyone knows fear, but the person who can control his fear is the one who will survive. In short, be became a professional.
He had been returning to Venice on a nef--a big, clumsy merchant ship that moved only under sail--when he was captured. The nef bad been taken by the Turks and John Baptist was sent aboard the Scimitar to replace a galley slave who had died.
The Scimitar was a long, low graceful galley. Sunlight glittered off her silver and brass decorations. The sails were blood red. At the prow of the ship, reaching far out and curving cruelly upward, was the ramming spur. The tip of the spur was covered with hammered iron and came to a sharp point which was also red . . . but it was the duh, rusty, clotted red of blood.
The Turks pushed John Baptist up the gangway. He stood for a moment at the top of the ladder. The Scimitar was divided lengthways by a narrow, raised deck which connected the forecastle and the tiller house at the stern. The Turkish sailors and soldiers lived in the forecastle. On each side of the narrow deck was a band of slaves; one hundred and twenty slaves on each side, four men to an oar. The slaves were fastened to their benches by chains which were connected to rings around each slave's left ankle.
A terrible odor rose from their benches. Like a putrid gas it hung over the ship. The bilges below the slaves benches were awash with excrement, bits of decayed food, rotting bones, the stinking residue of millions of drops of sweat. Slaves were never allowed to leave their benches and their spaces were cleaned only during rough weather when the seas washed over the ship.
Most of the slaves slumped over their oars; others were engaged in a fretful, nagging argument. A group of them were gambling with straws for an orange. They had identical faces: bright, suspicious eyes, a quick, glancing look.
John Baptist knew the look. At once he felt the contempt of the sergeant for the recruit. The slaves were ridden by fear. And they were disorganized, almost beyond any kind of discipline.
Aluch Ahi, the Turk in charge of the galley slaves, walked down the deck toward John Baptist. John Baptist knew that in a few more minutes he would be fastened to a bench. He must find something out before then.
"They are a good bunch, eh?" John Baptist said as Aluch Ali shoved him down the deck. "Better than a bunch of Turks would be if they were starved and chained."
"They are the sons of Christian whores and as lazy as dogs," Aluch Ahi said. He smiled, but his eyes narrowed. "Don't talk, just get down to that stroke oar."
"Don't insult your superiors, potbelly," John Baptist said.
The heads of the slaves snapped up; bickering and fighting stopped. A dead silence fell over both banks of slaves. Aluch Ali reached for the whip at his waist. John Baptist stepped forward, swung his fist in a vicious punch that sank his hand almost wrist-deep in the Turk's belly. The blow made a flat, splatting noise and was followed by the wind whistling out of Aluch Ahi's nostrils. The Turk pitched forward to the deck, his hands waving futilely.
The other Turks beat John Baptist with the butts of their swords and finally threw him into the starboard bank of slaves and riveted him to a chain. John Baptist took it calmly for he had seen the quick, wolfish look of satisfaction that went over the faces of the slaves when he hit Aluch Ahi. They were still capable of hatred.
From the first day John Baptist planned to make a mutiny and to escape. His expert soldier's eye watched everything that happened aboard the ship. In the long quiet nights at anchor, while the rest of the galley slaves were fighting for space in which to sleep, John Baptist sent questions up and down the bank of men and the whispered replies were stored in his memory. In a month he knew the conditions in which a mutiny could be successful.
One night when the Scimitar was anchored off Constantinople, John Baptist began preparations. He turned to the man next to him who was named Dee Gaunt, an English pilgrim who had been captured four years before and had been on the Scimitar since.
"Gaunt, it has been decided that there will be a mutiny," John Baptist said.
"Who has decided?" Gaunt asked. He stared at John Baptist in the yellow moonlight. "Look, leave me out of it. I will die soon from overwork. Let me die a natural death."
"Gaunt, they tell me that Englishmen are reasonable," John Baptist said slowly. "I will make you a reasonable proposal. If you join the mutiny you may get killed and you may get free. No one can be sure. But if you do not join the mutiny, I will strangle you right now."
Gaunt looked at John Baptist. John Baptist was not smiling. Gaunt looked toward the glimmering lights of Constantinople. He moved his leg and the chain clanked at his ankle. When lie turned there was a grin on his face.
"You were right, John. The English are reasonable," Gaunt said.
Slowly Gaunt and John baptist spread the conspiracy. First they convinced the other two men on the stroke oar to join. Then the men on the next oar. Then they had to depend on others to persuade, for they could not move from their bench. It took two months for the slow persuasion to cover the starboard bank of slaves. It was a tedious, slow, delicate and violent job. It was a conspiracy that took place in whispers, during the night, among men who were stunned with fear or fatigue or starvation. Some men opposed the mutiny and John Baptist sent directions back down the bank of slaves: Break a finger a day until they join. Occasionally in the night there would be a sharp scream in the bank of slaves and in the morning another slave had joined the conspiracy. The web of the conspiracy spread, toughened, and finally John Baptist knew that he had control.
One night a frantic whisper sped down the bank of slaves to John Baptist. One of the slaves was preparing to betray the conspiracy to the Turks. The other men on his oar asked what they should do.
"Strangle him," John Baptist said.
"No, John. Do not kill him," Dee Gaunt said. "First find out if he is really trying to betray us."
John Baptist looked at Gaunt for a moment, then he turned and whispered the order to the men at the next oar.
"If the man opens his mouth to call for Aluch Ahi, strangle him," John Baptist said. He turned back to Gaunt and said, "It is cruel, but it is necessary."
Two days later a slave in the middle of the bank suddenly shot to his feet and called for Aluch Ahi, but in the few seconds that it took the fat Turk to waddle down the deck the other slaves had pulled the man down and strangled him. When the dead slave was thrown over the side, his eyes were still bulging with terror. It was the only attempt made to betray the conspiracy.
John Baptist knew that he must now make the conspiracy work; that the men must accept some common discipline.
"Gaunt, if we are to make a successful mutiny, several of us must be at least as strong as the Turks," John Baptist said to Dee Gaunt one night. "The Turks keep us half-starved because starved men cannot mutiny. We must keep several of our men well fed."
"Shall we ask the Turks for more food?" Gaunt said ironically. "Tell them we are making a mutiny and that we would appreciate extra rations?"
"No. We will have the men in our bank contribute part of their food to a common pool and will feed four men extra amounts so that they will be as strong as the Turks."
"But most of our men are starving already," Gaunt protested. "They won't give up any of their food."
"Yes, they will. They have to," John Baptist said. "A bit of food from each man will only make him starve a bit faster and it will be enough to keep four men strong.
The slaves boiled with protest, whispered arguments hissed among them during the night. John Baptist was as firm as a rock. Repeatedly he sent the order down the bank of slaves. The tiny portions of food began to come down the bank of slaves, passed from hand to hand, and finally gathered at the stroke-oar bench. It was only a pinch from each man; a shred of cheese, a sliver of meat, a thumb-sized piece of bread. The tiny pieces were sweat-smeared, greasy from handling, but as they came carefully clown the bank, from hand to hand, John Baptist counted each piece. Each day when a hundred and twenty pieces were assembled, John Baptist knew that each slave in the bank had contributed; when the number was short, he waited ruthlessly until the missing pieces were delivered. Under protest, bitterly, with reluctance, the slaves fell into the habit of passing down the tiny pieces of food.
They hated John Baptist as he carefully divided the food and passed it to the four men on the stroke oar. They hated the four men as they ate the extra food. But they took a secret pride in the four men as they got stronger.
"You are a statesman, John Baptist," Gaunt said. "You understand the politics of fear and hunger. The food was not the reason you collected the portion from each man. You did it for the sake of discipline."
John Baptist smiled thinly. He knew the slaves hated him, but he had no desire to be liked. He wanted to make a mutiny. With the sure instinct of an old soldier he knew that none of the slaves would now betray the mutiny to the Turks. Each night he sent whispered orders down the bank of slaves. Over the months each slave memorized his part in the mutiny. Slowly the plan matured.
John Baptist snapped alert. The fleets were starting to move. . .the stalemate was broken. In the middle of the Turkish line the oars of a large galley flashed through the air, dug into the water, and the galley shot ahead of the Turkish line. A flag broke out at the masthead. The galley fired a shot to identify itself as the Turkish Royal. At once a ship in the middle of the Christian line shot out. It broke a huge flag which had been blessed by the Pope. It fired a shot to identify itself. It was the Christian Royal.
The two Royals crabbed slowly around until they were headed directly for one another. Then in the same instant the two Royals raised oars and brought them crashing down into the water. The blue water was suddenly picked white as twenty thousand oars in the two fleets rose and fell. The two lines moved toward one another.
In a moment, the air which had been unnaturally still and silent was filled with noise. Men who had had to wait too long screamed with relieved tension. Ugly, multiple sounds echoed across the water: the slogging of wet oars on the tholepins, the puckering sound of whips on slaves' backs, the clanking of swords and pikes, the sound of hatches hammered shut, the hissing noise of long punks that would be used to fire the guns.
The slaves rose from their benches; each man put his unchained foot on the bench in front of him.
"Stroke," Aluch Ahi shouted.
The oars bit into the water and the slaves fell backward with all their weight. The slaves rose, dipped, and fell backward; twenty-six times a minute, in a pattern they had learned over many months. Their backs glistened with sweat, wind whistled from between their teeth. Aluch Ali then did what he had never done before: his turned his eyes away from the slaves and looked toward the Christian fleet. John Baptist had counted on this. He looked around quickly. The eyes of every Turk on the ship were staring at the enemy, watching the two lines sweep toward one another.
"Now is the time," John Baptist hissed. "On the next stroke."
The other men on the stroke nodded. Their faces were drawn tight, their eyes glittered, sweat dropped from their noses.
John Baptist had carefully gathered all of the slack chain that he could underneath his bench. When the stroke oar came out of the water he lifted his chained leg, stuck it into the thole-hole through which the oar projected. He held the rusted iron anklet on his leg so that the butt of the oar would come squarely against it when the next stroke was made. The oar was thirty-eight feet long and weighed over a hundred and fifty pounds and John Baptist was gambling that its weight would shatter the iron anklet.
"Bring it back hard, men," John Baptist said.
The men dipped the oar, but this time they skimmed the oar just over the water so that its full weight came crashing against the iron ring around John Baptist's ankle. He felt an enormous sharp pressure against his ankle, a hot pain shot up his leg and for a moment he thought that the iron was so soft that it might bend instead of break. And then he heard a sharp crack and knew that the anklet had shattered. At once the men reversed the oar. John Baptist pulled his leg out of the thole-hole. He resumed his position and glanced around the ship. The Turks had not seen the act.
He looked down. The ring had been broken in two places and although his ankle was bleeding he was free . . for the first time in eight months he was not bound to the ship.
Quickly now the other men on the stroke oar did what John Baptist had done. Two of them were successful and the rings were broken, but the ring on the third man had rusted so badly that it only bent without breaking and when he lifted his foot out of the thole-hole it was a smashed and mutilated lump of flesh, the bones broken, blood dripping from the toes and the iron circle buried into the flesh. His face white with pain, he continued to row.
John Baptist waited until Aluch Ahi looked over the bank of slaves. At once, John Baptist jerked up the oar as if it had caught a crab and then, in a procedure they had rehearsed carefully for many weeks, the four men acted as if they were fighting to get control over the oar. Aluch Ahi came down the deck.
"Get that oar back in the water," he screamed. "Down with it, feather it straight and get it in the water."
The butt of the oar was high in the air; it seemed to weave in the air with a will of its own. The slaves stood on their bench, fighting for control. Aluch Ali stood beside them, reached upward to help.
"Now," John Baptist said quietly.
With a sharp jerk the four men snapped down the butt of the oar. Like an enormous club it hit Aluch Ali on the top of his head and they could all hear his skull crack. He tumbled into the rowing benches. John Baptist whisked the sword out of Aluch Ali's scabbard. Dee Gaunt took the key to the chains from his belt. Then they pushed the body into the bilges where it fell face down in the water and filth. At once the men on the oar regained control an~l fell into the beat.
"Pass the key to the other oars," John Baptist said. "Pass the word to keep the stroke ready at twenty-six.
John Baptist glanced around the ship. No one was watching them. For the southern squadrons of the Turkish and Christian lines had come together. Galley crashed into galley, cannons exploded, arrows fell blackly through the blue sky. The Turks on the Scimitar watched the battle. The squadrons which had not yet engaged were moving slowly, maneuvering for position, and John Baptist knew it would be ten minutes before the Scimitar was in action.
Gaunt passed the key to the next oar and the outboard man unlocked the chain that ran through the anklets of the men on the oar. Then he passed it on. The noise of the loosened chains being removed was lost in the greater noises of the battle. Finally John Baptist saw a man on the last oar raise his hand. The entire starboard bank of slaves was free.
John Baptist knew that this was a critical moment. Men who had been slaves for years might, in their first moment of freedom, lose their discipline.
"Steady at twenty-six strokes," he muttered and the word was passed down the line. "Every man heave round."
The bank of slaves settled down. As they heard the old familiar order, their faces lost the excitement and they picked up the stroke.
John Baptist looked over the sea. At the northern end of the line a squadron of Turkish ships had broken off and was attacking a Christian galleass. The galleass was a huge, clumsy ship, so heavy that it had to be towed into battle by four galleys. But it was armed with many cannons and carried several hundred soldiers and marines. It hung low in the water, like an ugly, powerful fortress. The light, fast Turkish galleys came after it like dogs baiting a bear. They ringed the galleass and then, one after another, came boring in for the kill. The galleass fought back skillfully and with courage. The Christians waited until the galleys were under their thwarts and then let their arrows go in black flashing clouds; rows of soldiers rose in rotation and discharged their hackbuts in volleys. The cannons fired down into the Turkish galleys and the grapeshot tore huge holes in the surging, disorderly mass of Turks.
"The Christians are winning," John Baptist said to Dee Gaunt. "If the battle continues like this the Turkish fleet will be ruined."
"But what do we do?" Dee Gaunt asked. "When do we carry out the rest of the plan?"
"In a moment," John Baptist said firmly. "We must wait for a diversion of some kind so that we can capture the tiller."
At that moment the diversion happened. Someone in the Christian fleet had fired a trial shot at the Scimitar with a hackbut. The rough iron bullet hit a soldier in the stomach and he spun around with his hands holding his intestines in place. Blood dripped from between his fingers. The Turks milled around the spur in confusion.
John Baptist leaped from his seat, raced toward the stern of the galley and stepped out on the small steering platform. There were three Turkish sailors handling the tiller. They looked at him in surprise. He stood there for a moment--the short boarding sword held tightly in his hand. Then one of the Turks drew his sword and stepped forward. Before the Turk's sword was out of his scabbard, John Baptist moved. The hand of the Turk still grasped the sword, but the hand was now separated from the wrist. Two jets of bright, arterial blood shot from the stump. The Turk had courage, for he continued to walk toward John Baptist, his left hand awkwardly fumbling for a dagger in his belt. John Baptist put the tip of his sword against the man's chest, pushed hard. The man slipped in his own blood and fell backward off the platform, his face still twisted into a tough, unfrightened grin.
John Baptist moved toward the other Turks with a wide-legged, fighting stance, hefting the sword in his hand. They hesitated a moment, their faces suddenly glistening with the sweat of fear and then they turned and dove into the ocean. The slaves now controlled the tiller platform and could steer the Scimitar.
John Baptist peered around the housing which surrounded the tiller platform and motioned to Dee Gaunt.
"Should we not free the slaves on the port bank?" Dee Gaunt asked. "They could be of help.
"No," John Baptist said. "We do not know any of them. No."
John Baptist looked around the housing at the port bank of slaves. Although for eight months he had lived only twenty feet away from the port bank of slaves, they might just as well have been men from another planet. His old, cunning sergeant's instinct told him not to trust them.
Several of them realized that John Baptist was starting a mutiny and that somehow he had managed to escape his chains. Instinctively their hands left their oars and they stuck out their hands with the thumb up in the sailor's gesture for help that had been carried down from the days of the gladiators. It was the deep, gnawing fear of every galley slave that in a battle his ship would be sunk and he would go down with it, chained to a sinking hulk.
John Baptist did not hesitate. He held his fist out with the thumb pointing down. The hands fell back on their oars. The faces of the chained slaves went flat with hatred and desperation.
"You are not going to unlock their chains?" Gaunt asked.
"No," John Baptist said. "I have not trained them. I do not know what they will do. It is too great a risk."
"But what it the ship is sunk?" Gaunt asked. "We should give them a chance for their lives. We should. . ."
"We will not," John Baptist said flatly. "Get ready to cut the lines holding the rigging. Do you remember the plan?"
Gaunt hesitated a moment, licking his lips with anxiety, He was disturbed by the thought of the chained slaves. John Baptist plucked the sword from the severed hand before Gaunt could speak and pressed in into Gaunt's hand.
The front part of the ship was covered with a heavy rope rigging to which the Turks were hanging. Some of them carried fire balls; others held linen bags of quicklime which would split when they hit an enemy deck and raise a cloud of dust which would bite savagely into human flesh; others held pots of grease to make enemy decks slippery.
"Ready?" John Baptist said.
"Ready," Gaunt replied.
They came out of the tiller housing and ran down the deck to the ropes that held the rigging. As they ran they could hear the thin, fluting whistle of arrows in mid-air and the solid thud as they dug into the sides of the ship. The shouts from the Christian ships were growing louder.
They reached the cleats and chopped at their lines. High in the air the rigging started to quiver. With a slow, rending crash it fell to the deck, heaving like a net full of huge fish. Bags of quicklime were broken, the fireballs smoked, men screamed in agony and pawed at the net in an effort to escape.
John Baptist put his finger in his mouth and whistled shrilly. At once, the slaves on the starboard bank started to come out of their benches and haul in their oars. With precision each foursome of slaves hauled their oar in through the thwart, climbed up on the narrow deck and held their oar, as if it were a spear, pointing toward the forecastle.
As the Turks disentangled themselves from the grease and quicklime and rigging, they turned and looked down at the deck. Drawn up in orderly rows, four men abreast, the galley slaves were standing ready, their thirty-eight-foot oars held in front of them like massive, dangerous spears. They stood quietly, remembering the instructions that John Baptist had given them.
"Steady, men," John Baptist shouted. "Steady all. Don't break ranks."
On the spur, one of the Turks was cranking up a crossbow. His arm spun as the crank drew the heavy bowstring slowly back. Armed only with oars, the slaves had no defense against the crossbow, and John Baptist knew that. He also knew that someone had to get killed.
"Draw up your lines," John Baptist roared. "Get ready to advance."
With a queer, shuffling precision the slaves performed the maneuver they had practiced so many times in their minds. They dressed their lines, raised their oars at an angle and like a huge many-footed porcupine moved down the deck toward the spur where the Turks were reassembling.
The Turk had finished cranking up the crossbow. He picked up the charged, ugly weapon gingerly, held it to his shoulder. From his quiver he took a short iron bolt and fixed it to the crossbow. The bolt had a blunt, roweled head, shaped so that it would tear a man's body to pieces when it struck.
As the Turk brought the bow down and aimed it at the slowly advancing column of slaves, there was a moment of hesitation, an almost invisible dragging of feet. The hundred and twenty slaves looked up at the puckered, black eye of the Turk who was aiming the crossbow and knew that one of them must die. The wavering increased and suddenly a slave took his hands from his oar, turned and started to run back. John Baptist was waiting for him. As the slave came down the deck, John Baptist slapped him across the chest with the flat of the sword. It was not a painful blow, but it was hard enough to stop the man in his tracks.
The slave turned to run back to his oar. Seconds later he was struck by the bolt and was a mangled corpse. But the line of slaves held firm and advanced slowly.
The slaves poured down the deck, up the ladders leading to the forecastle and spur. Each oar was held steady by four naked, skinny, half-starved slaves. The Turks turned to face them. The long heavy oars were weapons they had never experienced. Their swords were useless, for they could only knock chips off the tips of the oars. The slaves pushed to the forecastle, the oars jabbing and sweeping, pushing Turks over the side, ramming through armor plate, tripping men. The Turks stumbled backward into their own quicklime which rose in a white, burning cloud around their legs.
In a few minutes the forecastle and spur were cleared of all Turks except those that were dead and those that could not move. The slaves had captured the ship. John Baptist turned and ran aft to the tiller house. He must now steer the Scimitar out of the battle and identify himself to the Christian fleet.
As he ran, he heard the warning cry.
"Stand by for a ram," came in a sharp chorus from the port bank of slaves. They pointed to two Christian galleys skimming across the water, their spurs just at the water line, making full speed for the Scimitar. Already they were so close that John Baptist could see the faces of the soldiers, could see the bowmen tensing their bows. He waved his arms and ran toward the side of the ship, but before he could make himself heard, the Christian galleys were upon them. Almost simultaneously, their spurs dug into the Scimitar.
It was a hard, stunning shock and John Baptist could feel the fundamental timbers of the Scimitar twist and then break. He knew the ship would sink. He dropped his sword and making a megaphone of his hands he yelled to the Christian galleys.
"We are Christian slaves. We have made a mutiny against the Turks. Stop firing."
Startled faces looked down, men stopped in mid-motion, fingers fell away from bows. The captain of one of the galleys came to the forecastle, looking down at the Scimitar. He stared cautiously and then smiled.
"Come aboard; your ship is going to sink," he said. "Hurry. You don't have much time."
The slaves from the starboard bank started across to the Christian galleys. Sailors reached down to help them. The Scimitar shivered, as if in fear, and went down slightly at the stern.
John Baptist was stepping across the port benches went he felt a pair of arms wrap solidly around his legs. He jerked, but could not free himself. He looked down into the face of one of the chained slaves. The man's face was thin and contorted, his body was emaciated, but his arms were like bands of steel around John Baptist's knees.
"Unlock us," the man said in a voice that was low and controlled. "You did not unlock our chains. We will go down with the ship."
Suddenly John Baptist realized that he no longer knew where the key was. The Scimitar was already tilting.
"Where is the key to the chains?" John Baptist shouted. Some of the freed slaves turned in their scramble and looked at him.. . then they continued to crawl toward the Christian galleys. John Baptist looked around for Dee Gaunt. He could not be seen.
"Let me go and I will get the key," John Baptist said. He struggled but the thin man had a terrible urgent strength.
"No, get the key first," the man said, his eyes bright with insanity and fear.
The Scimitar listed sharply. Behind him John Baptist could hear the chained slaves screaming. He shouted. He saw Dee Gaunt's face appear over the side of one of the Christian galleys. Gaunt started over the rail, but was pulled back by strange hands. They would not let him go.
There was a brief, silent moment when the Scimitar stood on its beam ends and shivered. Gaunt pushed to the rail. John Baptist looked up at him.
"What can I do?" Gaunt screamed.
John Baptist felt a sudden calm. He smiled and then as he opened his mouth to reply, the Scimitar went under.
The battered corpse of the ship spun in huge, slow circles as it sank through the water. Slaves spun wildly on their chains in green luminous water. John Baptist could see the surface of the ocean receding. Looking up he could see the keels of ships, the black dots made by floating bodies, strange tints made by blood and oil. Muffled in his ears was the sound of booming cannon. John Baptist did not breathe; he relaxed in the steady grip of the slave. The ship sank in faster, tighter spins and the green gave way to darkness and John Baptist's lungs grew hot, were laced with veins of piercing coldness, and still he waited. Slaves clawed the water desperately. Bubbles came from their mouths and fled in round perfect spheres toward the surface. With their last breath men made silent shrieks.
The ocean water was almost black when he felt the grip around his legs relax. He spiraled toward the surface, suddenly buoyant. He forbade his body to breathe ... patience, patience.
He popped out of the water like a cork. For a moment he could do nothing but breathe in great gulps. Then he shook the water from his eyes and looked for the Christian galleys. They were only a few feet away and at the rail was Dee Gaunt.
From the water John Baptist looked up into Gaunt's face. For a moment they stared at one another and then Gaunt shook his head in a sort of dumb astonishment.
When John Baptist was hauled aboard the galley Dee Gaunt shook his hand, but something had changed. As the galley made its way back to Italy it was almost as if the pilgrim and the soldier had become enemies. They never spoke of the Scimitar.