The Pope’s Conspiracy by Lewis M. Weinstein
Chapter 1 … on the Mediterranean
The Abu Sa’d had passed Sardinia and was well into the channel between the islands of Corsica and Elba when the captain’s worst fears were realized. On the horizon ahead of them, one after another, the sails of five mighty Spanish warships appeared. The Spanish did not press closer. Instead, maintaining their distance, they retreated before the Moorish ships, drawing them into the narrowing channel. Each mile they sailed further constricted the ability of the Abu Sa’d to maneuver. After fifty miles or so of this strange dance, the Spaniards ceased their northward course and arrayed themselves directly across the path of the Abu Sa’d and its accompanying ships.
“Our caravel is a faster and more maneuverable ship than the square-rigged warships King Fernando has sent against us,” the captain explained to Benjamin Catalán, his passenger and the reason for the threatening presence of the Spanish ships.
“We could try to sail through them or around them, or we could turn and run southward. But our rowing galleys and the slower trading ship would have little chance to escape a serious attack from five Spanish warships.” His smile was more nervous than confident. “I do have a plan,” he said. “My orders have already been communicated to the crew.”
Benjamin hurried to the small cabin which had been constructed for his family under the deck at the stern of the ship. “We’re going to be attacked in the next few minutes,” he said to his wife Esther.
It had been a long journey fraught with peril … racing out of Seville on horseback; pausing just long enough on the plains for Esther to deliver the baby; almost caught by the troops of King Fernando of Spain; saved by the Moorish troops of King Hasan of Granada; slipping past Fernando’s warship in the harbor of Malaga; surviving a winter storm in the Mediterranean; stopping at Oran and several other port towns along the North African coast. Now, tantalizingly close to their destination, they were facing a one-sided battle at sea.
“You and the children must stay off the deck,” Benjamin urged. He bent to kiss his seven year old son Judah and the five week old infant Isaac. There was no question of Esther’s courage or her resourcefulness when in danger. She had proven that many times. But as they hugged, they both knew it might be for the last time.
Returning to the stern castle, Benjamin removed his sword from its scabbard and gazed at the sea ahead. He noticed a slight gap between the three ships on the western end of the Spanish line, nearest Corsica, and the other two ships to the east, nearer Elba. Rather than sail toward that gap, however, the captain had directed his fleet at the most westerly ship. The four galleys led the way, rowing fiercely, followed by the Abu Sa’d, with the large trading ship lumbering behind. All five Spanish warships immediately adjusted course to a more westerly direction.
When the distance had narrowed enough for Benjamin to make out the faces of the Spanish soldiers, the captain raised a signal flag and the Moorish fleet immediately disbursed. The Abu Sa’d tacked sharply back in an easterly direction. The trading ship turned slowly to the west on a wide arc to the south. The four war galleys continued to row straight ahead toward the Spanish warships. The galleys increased their stroke and leaped to a pace Benjamin had not imagined possible.
The three most westerly Spanish warships fired their cannon and a hail of small stones flew at the galleys. Arrows flew from cross-bows on both the Spanish ships and the Moorish galleys. Several soldiers in the galleys were hit and fell overboard. Slaves were also hit, but chained to their rowing positions, they fell forward.
The entangled oars of the dead slaves broke the rhythm of the remaining rowers and the galleys lost speed. By then, however, they had reached their objective. The sound of crunching wood reached the Abu Sa’d as the galleys rammed into the warships. Using their impaled rams as bridges, soldiers from the galleys clambered upward onto the Spanish ships. The first to make the climb were cut down by swords slashing above them, but those who followed gained the decks and began a murderous hand-to-hand fighting.
It seemed to Benjamin that the Moorish warriors were seriously outnumbered. He was right, and the attack soon became a suicide mission. Men are dying, Benjamin thought with a moan, so I and my family can reach Italy. He closed his eyes, grieving for the soldiers and slaves whose lot it had become to sacrifice their lives on his behalf.
Directly ahead of the Abu Sa’d as it now sailed to the northeast were the other two Spanish warships, both of which fired their cannons. Stones raked the deck of the Abu Sa’d. Two soldiers were ripped to pieces; several others were severely bloodied. The Abu Sa’d steered a path splitting the distance between the two warships, forcing the square-rigged ships to adjust sails and rudder to try to narrow the space between them. But as soon as they did so, the more agile caravel veered sharply to starboard and sought to pass to the east of both warships.
It didn’t work. The Spanish warships smoothly re-adjusted course eastward and successfully closed off the opening along the coast. With no more room to maneuver, the Abu Sa’d was trapped. The Spanish cannon were in perfect position to rake the caravel. Surprisingly, however, no more cannons were fired. The Spanish ships closed on either side of the Abu Sa’d. Hundreds of soldiers crowded near the rails, preparing to board the caravel.
“Give us Benjamin Catalán and his family and we’ll let your ship go,” came a voice across the diminishing distance.
“If you want Señor Catalán,” shouted the captain of the Abu Sa’d, “you’ll have to come get him.”
Soldiers on the Abu Sa’d cheered defiantly and prepared to defend their ship and valued passenger. One of the Spanish warships drew up on the starboard side of the Abu Sa’d. Fierce war shrieks accompanied the clang of swords as the first Spanish soldiers clambered aboard. Positioned amidst the defending Moors along the freeboard wall, Benjamin swung his sword and found a target. A Spanish soldier fell into the sea. Several other men on both sides soon lost their lives. But even in the chaos of battle, not a single Spanish soldier attacked Benjamin Catalán. Orders had clearly been given to take him alive.
The second Spanish ship was almost in place on the other side of the Abu Sa’d. Once boarded from both sides, their defense would be hopeless. Benjamin turned to the captain, expecting to see the dejected look of one who had tried mightily but failed. Instead, he saw an ear-to-ear grin.
Benjamin followed the captain’s gaze over the stern of the Abu Sa’d. Closing fast behind them were seven warships, every one of them larger than any of the Spanish ships. The Spanish soldiers who had already boarded the Abu Sa’d leaped back to their own ship, which hurriedly turned and sailed westward. Cannonballs flew several hundred yards across the water, passing the Abu Sa’d and slamming into the sides of the retreating Spanish ships. A huge roar from the seamen of the Abu Sa’d accompanied each volley.
“I didn’t know they had such powerful guns,” the captain gasped. “And they’re firing iron cannonballs, not rocks and stones.”
“Who are they?” Benjamin asked.
“The ships behind us are from the fleet of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.”
“What are they doing here?” Benjamin asked.
“My best guess is that like you, they’re on their way to Florence to see Lorenzo Il Magnifico.
The Turkish fleet pursued the retreating Spanish ships, blasted them again and again. The towering mainmasts on both of the fleeing ships came crashing down, crushing the bodies of both living and dead. Shots raked across the decks, killing anyone who was foolish enough to remain standing. Finally, white flags were waved. The Turks boarded, took the few living sailors and soldiers prisoner, threw the dead unceremoniously into the sea, and dispatched their own crews to repair and then sail what would become the newest additions to the Sultan’s navy.
Farther to the west, the other three Spanish ships had disengaged from the Moorish galleys and set sail westward to what Benjamin imagined would be an extremely unpleasant encounter with King Fernando. The damaged galleys picked up whatever survivors they could find in the sea and rowed slowly toward the Abu Sa’d and its Turkish escort.