On the morning the slavers came, the children were looking for treasure.
Swept up in their purpose, they didn't see the mast of the corsair galley, all but obscured by the high rocks surrounding the cove where the ship had anchored in the night.
They didn't see the dead sentry hanging upside down on the watchtower. It was Bartholomeo, an older boy who lived on their own street, his throat cut deep as he slept, cut from ear to ear. His blood had already baked dry on the platform from which he was to have sounded the alarm, a platform from which his killers had stolen several planks of wood. The children didn't see Bartholomeo because they were hiding from him, keeping to the deep gullies or crouching behind the low stone walls that separated fields so dry and barren that even the crows didn't bother to scavenge there anymore. As long as they stayed behind those walls they knew Bartholomeo couldn't glimpse them and spoil their plans. He would do that, and just for spite: Bartholomeo was plain mean.
They couldn't see or hear the stream of galley slaves snaking along the ravine a hundred paces to the east, men laboring in silence as they hauled water beneath the watchful eyes of their guards.
And they couldn't smell the galley, because the wind was at their backs, a majjistral blowing from the northwest. With the right winds the smell of a galley preceded the sight, the stench an unmistakable herald of danger. Had they smelled it, they would have known the scent of doom. There would have been time to fear, time to flee.
Today, however, they smelled nothing but Maria's dreams.
"Father's going to whip us," Nico said solemnly. He was breathing heavily, struggling to keep up with his sister as she led him toward the southern coast of Malta. The limestone over which they ran baked under a sun that was already scorching despite the early hour. "We're supposed to be cleaning out the dung pit."
"He'll never know," Maria said. On bare feet she moved like quicksilver over the rocks, threading her way barefooted between stands of prickly pear. She was thirteen but small for her age, athletic and lean, her figure as yet betraying no sign that she was a girl. Her clothes were worn through in spots, and she carried a knife in her belt. Her hair was cut short and ragged, like a boy's. Her face was smeared with grime, her skin deeply browned by the sun, her green eyes lit with determination and adventure. "He's busy today, seeing the capumastru for a job building one of the knights' new forts. Besides, I'm not giving up until we've found it. If you'd rather slop shit than dig treasure, suit yourself. I don't care."
They'd been two long days at the dung pit beneath their house, hauling out pail after pail of human and animal excrement to be spread over a rocky field outside the village where their family tried to grow vegetables. They emptied the pit twice a year, when the flies in the kitchen got too thick. Except for the flies, Maria saw no point to it. Nothing had grown in that field for two years. It was the same all over Malta. The rains hadn't come, and there had been no grain from Sicily. Her own baby sister and brother, twins, had starved to death, like half the babies in the village of Birgu that year. "Nothing grows in Malta but rocks and misery," her mother often said. "Nothing but dung, that is. If only there were a market for it, we would be rich beyond dreams." It was perhaps the only matter in which Maria agreed with her mother. Spreading the dung was pointless, just another of Father's nasty chores. It was better to be here, doing something that mattered.
"We've been looking forever and we haven't found it," Nico grumped.
"We'll find it today. But you can go back if you want."
He would never go back, of course. He idolized his sister, who was the sunrise in his life. She protected him from the anger of their father and the despair of their mother and all the troubles of a hostile world. She wasn't like the other girls her age, not at all. Most of them covered their faces with barnuzi and stayed indoors. "A woman should be seen but twice in public," Maria's mother said. "The day she is married and the day she is buried." Maria never listened. She was a tomboy with a hot temper, and she vowed never to hide behind a barnuza. The other girls shunned her. She shunned them back. That suited Nico because it left him someone to run with, someone who knew things and told stories and climbed rocks and hunted treasure. If she asked, he would follow her over the edge of the cliffs, even though such devotion often meant trouble for him with their father.
"I just don't want to get whipped."
"There are worse things."
"Like what?" Nico could feel the leather of his father's belt on his backside. There wasn't much worse than that.
"Like spending your life hauling shit. Like letting someone else find the treasure. Here we are," she said.
They'd arrived at their private place, a series of ruins situated on a plateau overlooking the sea. They'd never seen another soul there. Dust carried on the winds of eons had buried most of it, but there remained great megaliths of stone, marking a temple built by some ancient and forgotten race. A few stone columns still rose to the sky, while others had toppled into a confused jumble. There remained subterranean chambers and innumerable places to hide. They'd explored much of it, crawling through openings and burrowing beneath slabs, sometimes discovering new passageways and rooms merely by moving rubble and digging a little.
Somewhere in that labyrinth, carefully concealed in a box or a pot or behind a stone panel, Maria was certain there was treasure. Half a century earlier the Jews had been expelled from Spain and her domains, including Malta. During their flight from persecution, they were believed by many to have buried their uncountable riches, intending to return for them later. So far all Maria had found were seashells and some old bones, but even without the hope of treasure she'd have come anyway. She loved the ruins. There was a purity to them, from their smell to their glorious view of the sea to their telltale hints of glories past. She felt the presence and spirit of the people who built them, people who had money and enough food and wore clothes even more magnificent than the Knights of St. John, who strutted like peacocks through the streets of Birgu. These people had lived well, dancing and laughing and holding great feasts. She told Nico all about them as they dug at the bases of the columns and turned over stones.
"If they were so great," Nico said, pawing through the rubble, "why is this all they left?"
"They went to Franza. It's greener there. Everyone is rich."
"Who says they left treasure here, anyway?"
"I say they did. Dr. Callus told me. He spends all his time looking for it, too. Some Jews left it about a thousand years ago, after the king made them leave."
"Jews wouldn't leave money. Mother says Jews would leave their children before they'd leave their money."
"Well, these did," Maria huffed. "It was gold and silver. They couldn't carry it all. And I'm going to find it. I'll hide it until I'm old enough, and then I'm going to buy a castle in Franza." At the wharf she'd heard talk about France, about its mountains and rich fields of lupine. That sounded grand: she'd buy a castle and put slaves in her fields, growing lupine.
"What's lupine?" Nico asked.
"I don't know exactly, but I'll have lots of it. And servants, and all my clothes will be spun from silk, and my spoons will be made of silver. You can live with me if you like."
"Girls can't have castles."
She snorted at that. "Queens can. I will. You'll see."
They dug for a while without uncovering anything but more dirt and rock. She was almost ready to suggest they go look in the caves that dotted the cliffs overlooking the sea. Some were occupied, but not all. She knew the Jews would have had many clever hiding places, and caves would make good ones. She was digging with the tip of her knife when she heard a clink. She cleared away the earth with her fingers and found a small object. It was oval in shape, crusted with age.
"Look!" She held it up.
"What is it?"
"Munita! A coin!"
"It looks like a rock to me."
"Your head is a rock! It's old, stupid, but it's still treasure." She scraped it with her knife. In the sunlight she could see the dull glint of corroded metal. "There, look, don't you see? A man's head. He's wearing a helmet!"
Nico didn't see, but his eyes went wide anyway.
"You can keep it," she said magnanimously, passing it to him. "There's more here. What did I tell you? Now put it in your pocket. Whatever you do, don't show it to a grown-up. They'll just take it away."
"Grazzi," Nico breathed, scarcely believing his good fortune. He slipped the coin into his pocket and labored feverishly beside her, his enthusiasm renewed. They dug for more than an hour, sweat mingling with thick dust on their brows as they grunted and heaved and dug for her dreams. She unearthed a bowl, well preserved but broken in two. Buried beneath that they found a perfect white femur. "You see? It's a Jew bone," Maria said confidently. "A marker. They always leave them near treasure. We're getting close."
Nico gave a low whistle. They dug ever more furiously.
Maria stopped abruptly. She tugged his sleeve for quiet. "What was that?" she whispered.
She cocked her head, listening intently. A blue thrush hopped among the rocks, looking for insects. A tiny lizard clung to the side of a rock. The wind blew steadily, dry and hot. "I thought I heard voices."
A moment later she shook her head. "Never mind. It was nothing."
The timbers on the Algerian galliot creaked softly as the ship rode the gentle swells at anchor. Seawater lapped quietly at the freeboard. Soldiers stood in the poop with their arquebuses at the ready, nervously awaiting the return of the slaves fetching water from an inland spring. The ship had been brought about in the cove until her prow faced the open sea, ready for a quick departure.
She was a sea hunter, swift and lean, a galliot of the same type that had carried the legions of Rome and the trade of Carthage. Long and sleek, she was a fair-weather craft, shallow draughted so she could lurk in rivers and lagoons from which she might prey on rich shipping. Although her mast bore a single goose-winged lateen sail, it was not generally the wind that drove her through the sea, but the force of slave labor. She was primarily a rowing ship. Three men were chained naked to each of the twenty-four benches ranged along each side, pulling at their oars. During the long months of the sailing season they never left their stations. They ate, slept, and relieved themselves where they sat, in fair weather and foul.
Rais Ali Agha, master of the Algerian vessel, wouldn't have come to Malta alone except in an emergency. The island was home to the Knights of St. John, the infidels whose base lay just two leagues distant, at Birgu.
He'd come to make fast repairs and to take on urgently needed water. He had nearly been a victim of his own success. A daring shore raid in Sicily netted him a hundred and thirty slaves. As he was making for Algiers, he encountered an unescorted French merchantman. He took the ship without firing a shot, tying her crew belowdecks and offloading bales of silk and boxes of spices until his galliot rode dangerously low in the water. When he dared take no more cargo, he cut the merchantman adrift and made haste for home.
He would have made it easily but for a freak spring storm. The shallow draught of his keel was designed for speed, not for fighting an angry sea. The waves tossed the vessel like cork. A small cannon, a Portuguese-made verso taken from the French ship, broke free of the heavy timber balks to which it had been lashed. The gun careened wildly on the deck, smashing through water casks like tinder, then splintering wood and the helmsman's legs as it slid the other way. Finally it broke through the wood railing and toppled into the hold.
Only the beneficent hand of Allah guided the cannon onto a group of slaves rather than through the hull itself. The wretches were huddled together in fear of the storm. Their bodies cushioned the cannon's impact, preserving the hull, but the mouth of the gun penetrated the planking at the waterline, which, owing to the heavy load, was even higher than usual. The sea poured in with every swell. The boat was in mortal peril.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ironfire by David Ball. Copyright © 2003 by David Ball. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.