Sunday, February 20, 2011

#SampleSunday: Renegade, Chapter Four

Chapter Four – The Grand Admiral of Algiers

Algiers, Algeria - July 1631

By noon, Murad stood at the high, narrow stern of the fluyt, surrounded by most of his principal officers. The ship entered the swirling, turquoise waters of Algiers. Atop the mainmast, a red flag fluttered overhead, the crescent moon symbol at its center gleaming white.

Twelve bronze guns of the fluyt and its consort, the more-heavily armed Dutch man-of-war, boomed in unison. An answering signal from the long-range guns perched on the lofty summits of the Kasbah’s citadel, echoed though the sweltering air.

Whitewashed, brick residences with galleries and flat roof patios or gardens dotted the green, undulating land. The denizens of the white city spilled out on to their terraces. Some lined the waterfront, pointing with amazement and excitement as the lead ships, followed by their Spanish and Irish prize vessels, slowed and bypassed them, heading for the harbor. Algiers welcomed its most-famed corsair captain home. In unison, its citizens greeted his return with the words, “Al Hamdu li Allah ala Salamtek.”

Beside Murad, Mathys repeated the phrase. “Praise be to God for your safe return.”

A line of fortresses towered along the Mole, a semi-circular breakwater of white stones protecting the harbor. Their batteries roared a welcoming salvo, to which the fluyt and its consort responded with their thunderous guns. Just beyond the gateway of the fortified Mole, Ali Bichnin, the Grand Admiral of Algiers stood. Gleaming diamonds and sapphires covered his bulbous, yellow turban. His ever-present retainers, a group of fifty pages, swarmed him like bees. The boys wore golden silk, almost as fine as their master’s embroidered, jeweled waistcoat. Four slaves bore a silken canopy on poles, sheltering the admiral beneath it from the fiery, midday sun.

Born Niccolo Piccini, a Venetian by birth, Ali Bichnin led the corsairs’ council. Murad first met him several years before, and then, as now, he did not like him. Ali Bichnin’s opulent palace in the city, his arrogant claims regarding the sixty ships and thousands of slaves he owned, and the mosque he had constructed, which also bore his name, marked him for a boastful fool. However, his appearance on the Mole offended more than it disturbed.

Murad glared at Heyreddin, Ali Bichnin’s minion. “Has your master arrived to collect the required ten percent of the spoils and the port fee himself? Doesn’t he trust you, his faithful dog, to accomplish such a meager task?”

Heyreddin flushed to the roots of his black hair. “His appearance here means he does not trust you, captain. The nature of your latest enterprise remains a mystery to the Taife Raisi. What really drew you into making such a bold attack on the Irish? Tell me, for you must know there can be few secrets kept from the corsair council for long.”

Murad smiled. “I believe the Taife Raisi will not care for my purpose when the prizes are distributed. Surely, you have learned this in your years of devoted service to the Grand Admiral. Greedy men care little about the source of their wealth, so long as coins fill their coffers.” He edged closer to Heyreddin and pitched his voice low. “And my secrets, if I have any, are mine to keep. You’d do well not to pry into matters that are not your concern.”

Heyreddin gasped. “If you make threats against me, a representative of the council, you also threaten your fellow corsairs and the Pasha!”

Murad splayed his fingers and cracked the knuckles. “I am a man of deeds, not idle words. Has our voyage not proven this to you?” With a smile, he descended the short steps from the stern.

Bastardo, may wild asses defile the grave of your grandmother!” In the din of the roaring guns and bloated waves, Heyreddin’s staccato voice sliced through the wind but Murad continued his stroll, undeterred.

Light and swift galliots, brigantines, fleet xebecs, and a few sleek galleys vied with the captured prizes of other nations for moorings along the crowded harbor. The captains and crews of other ships hailed Murad from their vessels. He acknowledged them all, even fellow corsairs whom he viewed as enemies, rather than compatriots. Renegades all, their love of the corso, or trade in piracy bound them to a common goal: plundering the wealth of the sea from Sicily to Gibraltar and beyond.

As his crew tossed the mooring lines ashore, he entered the hold. The captives, whom he had consigned below earlier in the morning, now stared with widened eyes. He understood their palpable fear and uncertainty. Andries stood from his position beside Mistress Joane Broadbrook, who clutched her belly and groaned.

Andries whispered, “It’s her time, captain. May I have your permission to ask for Kara Yahudi?”

Murad growled low in his throat and squatted beside her. She jerked away even as he reached for her shoulders. “Damn you, woman, your belly does its business now of all times?”

She reared back, struggling against his firm grip. “I don’t want my child born aboard this heathen ship. Do as you like with me, godless pirate, but I won’t let you have my baby!”

When he pushed her away, she thudded against two casks of water. He stood and swept the cavernous hold with an assessing glance. The men, more so than the women, shrank under his gaze. Perhaps they anticipated what would come, while for their females, the bliss of ignorance seemed a preferable state. He did not need Ali Bichnin witnessing their desperation, not when they were still aboard his flagship. He needed absolute control of them, now more than ever.

He turned to Andries. “Summon Kara Yahudi and then prepare the slaves for the initial inspection. The leader of the Taife Raisi has come.”

“Ali Bichnin? But, why now?”

Murad did not reply, though he knew the answer. He mounted the stairs again and walked to his cabin. When he entered, the door swung back on its hinges, revealing Moira crouched on the floor. She covered her ears with her hands. Her charge, Alice, glanced at him before pressing her face against the bulkhead.

“Have we been attacked? I heard the cannon fire.” Moira raised her tear-stained face. “What’s to become of us? Seized by another band of pirates? Murdered? Are we never to return home?”

His rumbling laughed filled the cabin. “Be at ease, girl. The guns salute my successful, safe return. Our voyage has ended.”

She wiped her cheeks. “We’ve reached Algiers? Will there be anyone here to ransom us? Some of the men said so. Will you do it? Will you let our countrymen buy our freedom?”

Grasping her chin in his hand, he gripped her tight. “The Pasha, the local ruler, will decide the fates of many, and indeed, some could be ransomed by the English ambassador here in Algiers. Though it is unlikely, for Sir Thomas Roe rarely negotiate ransoms, except for the nobles. I doubt the villagers of the Cove are so important to their government. Whatever the fates of your fellow captives, you will not share it. You will remain with me.”

She struggled against him. Her fingers tore at his hold. “Don’t touch me! What do you want of me?”

He released her abruptly and sighed. “Nothing. Everything. Now, follow me. You must appear on deck. Many of my people will want to see you and your people.”

“Why? I am certain they’ve seen pirates return with their poor captives many times over.”

He hauled her up hard against him. “When I tell you to do something, do it. You do not ask questions. This is your last….”

He had barely finished speaking when Alice sprang at him. “Let her go!”

Her jaws snapped closed on his forearm. He shoved Moira away and she crumpled. He clouted Alice’s head and kicked her legs from under her. “Bitch!”

Moira pulled Alice against her, cradling the girl who still refused to cry. “You’re the very Devil! How can you be so brutal? She’s just a child. What sort of man hurts a child? Look at what you’ve done to her, to us. Stolen our freedom in the dark of night and destroyed the Cove, the only home we have ever known. You brought us here aboard this accursed vessel to be slaves of your people. Alice’s father and sister are dead now, because of you. Why did you do this to her, to us? Why?”

She rose and stood defiant before him. Her fists tightened. As did his.

“Must I train you so soon, woman? Do not try my patience. Now, come.”

When he reached for her, she stood her ground. “I won’t go.”

He backhanded her with such force that she toppled, and struck her head against a chest. Hauling her against him by her ravaged neckline, he drove his fist into her nose. Blood smeared his knuckles. Another blow caught her chin. Her head lolled backward. The fourth aimed for her right eye. Only when crimson flecks dotted his silk shirt and she lay prone beside the weeping girl, did he stop.

***


When Murad emerged from the cabin in a fresh waistcoat, Mathys wore a grim expression. He stood between Ali Bichnin and Heyreddin, the latter of whom sniggered when Murad approached.

“Praise be to God for your safe return, captain. I am pleased your vessel and consort have returned.” Ali Bichnin splayed jeweled fingers over his belly, as though he savored the prospect of a fine meal.

His dark expression belied the placid greeting. Murad was the only corsair who rivaled him in wealth and prestige among all the renegades. Ali Bichnin did not like rivals.

“Likely, you are more pleased at the prospect of fair virgins for your bed, Ali Bichnin,” Murad said.

The Venetian scowled. “You will address me with more respect. Must I remind you, I am leader of the Taife Raisi and Grand Admiral of the Pasha’s corsair fleet?”

Murad sneered and turned away as Andries emerged from below decks. “You forget, Ali Bichnin, I have been an admiral before.”

“Then go back to Salé, if you dare, renegado.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? It would make it a little easier for you to hold the Pasha and corsair council in your sway if I returned to Morocco. My deepest regrets, but you will have to suffer me a little longer. I’ll make my way to Salé in my own time.”

Andries knelt beside him and at his gesture, stood and whispered in his ear. “Kara Yahudi came. It happened fast. A stillborn girl. Mistress Broadbrook lives.”

Murad nodded. “A pity, but it will make it easier on the mother.”

Ali Bichnin edged closer, a curious expression on his leathery face. Murad eyed him. Andries had done well, deliberately addressing him in a language only he and Mathys knew.

In Sabir, Murad ordered Andries to assemble the captives on deck. “And fetch Mistress Crosbie and her charge.”

While he spoke, Heyreddin joined Ali Bichnin in a conspiratorial whisper.

The admiral smiled and regarded Murad with renewed interest. “You’ve been especially kind to your captives, I hear. Extra rations for a woman with child and even sheltering one of the fair maidens in your cabin.”

Murad nodded. ‘My generosity knows no bounds, even to those who don’t deserve it.”

He glanced at Heyreddin, whose black eyebrows knitted together in a puzzled expression.

Shackled together by long chains dragged at the heels, the people of the Cove emerged from the hold. Some blinked harshly against the noonday soon glinting off the white city spread before them. The men preceded the women and children. Andries emerged from the cabin, herding Moira and Alice before him. Manacles soon connected them to the others.

When Mathys glanced at Murad, he shrugged.

Ali Bichnin strolled across the deck with Heyreddin, the captives averted their eyes. He paused a few times when he reached the women and spoke in low tones with Heyreddin. The Turk made notes on a sheet of vellum draped over his arm.

Near the end of the line, where Moira sagged against Alice, Heyreddin and his master’s voices soon rose in a crescendo.

“But this can’t be her! Look at her face.”

“She wasn’t like that when I first saw her, Admiral. It is the same woman. I recognize her yellow hair. Ask Murad Raïs what happened to her.”

When Ali Bichnin summoned him, Murad dutifully walked toward the man and his minion. “How may I aid you?”

“Heyreddin says this,” Ali Bichnin’s long fingers gestured toward Moira, “was the woman you sheltered in your cabin.”

“I regret my generosity. She proved disagreeable, particularly after the loss of her lover during the voyage, father of the girl standing beside her.”

“How do you know she had a lover?”

“She claims she was his servant, but I never saw such a one so devoted to her master.”

“Is the child hers?”

“She says not, but who can be certain with these treacherous English, eh? There was another child with them, though younger, who took sick with ship’s fever. The woman’s lover dove overboard with the body. And she hasn’t been the same since.”

Ali Bichnin turned a baleful glare on Heyreddin. “Come, I’ve seen enough. The Pasha awaits us.”

When the admiral and his servant left them, Mathys joined Murad. He nodded to Moira, who covered her swollen face with her hands while she sobbed. “Was it truly necessary?”

Murad grunted. “Ali Bichnin chooses the fairest women for the Ottoman Sultan and the Pasha, but always keeps the most flawless of the yellow-haired ones for his pleasure. You know how he treats his slaves. I am a far less cruel master than he could ever be.”

Alice wrapped her arms around Moira’s waist and held her. He could only guess at whether she whispered words of comfort to soothe the battered woman or her own fears of the auction.

He did not care either way. He followed in Ali Bichnin’s wake, Mathys behind him.

“Cursed pirates!” Moira screamed her fury at their backs.

Only Mathys acknowledged her. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. Murad slowed his pace.

Mathys bellowed, “Shut up, woman! He’s done you a kindness.”

“A kindness? By all the blessed angels, you call his fists in my face a kindness? Then, I should wish he was cruel instead, by that false measure.”

“He’s saved you from a worse fate. One day, you may thank him for it.”

Murad shook his head. He doubted it very much.

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