The certainty of war keeps her wakeful. Some European spies remain unsure of the objective—at least, according to discussions she’s overheard in the bailey. Malta is presumed, but several observers maintain Spain or Sicily is the target of Suleiman’s spear. With the pace of labour redoubled, most Maltese do not indulge in such dangerous optimism. The Grand Master has ordered all tradesmen to work through the night at the armoury, Robert and Belli among them. Malta may sink under the weight of all its newly fashioned weapons.
The moon, curved like a white feather, shines through the window, catches floating bits of straw-dust and turns them into silver flakes. Tramonto, her family’s splendid black Arabian, nickers in the stall next to her. To the other side, the offspring of Odin and Freya respond with piercing bleats.
Kat rests her head back against the wall, closes her eyes, and tries to capture this rare moment of peace. Although she and Robert laboured to restore his mother’s house, all but destroyed by a cyclone years ago, they’ve settled in with Belli the past few months. Best to be closer to family and friends—even four-legged ones—in these precarious times.
The stable door creaks on its hinges. Katrina’s eyes pop open. Peppone cocks an ear. Kat peeks over the enclosure. Domenicus, his face drawn yet alert. Probably couldn’t sleep either.
“Everything all right?” she asks, pushing open the stall gate.
The lantern swings in his grip. Shadows move up the walls. “Given the fact that the world is about to end, everything is as good as it can be.” He sets his lantern down beside hers on the bench and gives his horse a nuzzle. “Too long since you’ve had a good gallop, hey?”
Tramonto stretches his neck over the gate, and Kat gives him some love, too. She strokes the charger between the eyes and glances across her shoulder to her brother. “This is pleasant. I could be seven again.”
“Remember how many times Mama begged me not to sleep in the pen with Peppone?” Domenicus reminisces.
“And how many times I ignored her?”
“Almost as many times as I did,” Kat replies.
Her brother laughs—a foreign sound these days, and one most welcome. “Or the time you came here and used Belli’s saw to hack off your braid?”
At that, Katrina too bursts into laughter. “The day I decided I no longer wanted to be a girl. Oh, our poor mother.”
“She’d be proud of you, you know.”
Kat’s throat constricts. “And just as proud of you.” She swallows. “…In over twenty years, I have never thanked you.”
She takes her brother’s hand into both hers. “We were children when Mama fell sick. You tried everything to save her. And when it failed, you tried harder. Thank you for that.”
Domenicus blinks, eyes watering as they reflect the glow of the lanterns. “Kat, I want you to leave for Sicily tomorrow with the Viceroy’s ships.”
She drops his hand.
“Please, hear me. Angelica will not go without you.”
Katrina crosses her arms. “You expect me to leave my home in its time of greatest need? Not when I can help. Not when I can teach someone who has never lifted a bow how to defend himself.”
“There are others who can instruct—some even trained by you. The knights are also teaching citizens to handle guns. Marcello has been working with locals for weeks.”
“With little success,” Katrina counters.
Kat softens. “Angelica is your wife. She will never leave without you. No more than I would leave without Robert. Why don’t you take her and go? Attend the apothecary school in Messina.”
“Attend school while my home is reduced to ashes? Don’t be absurd.”
“I’m not. After the war, Malta will need educated men to help restore…” Kat stops—her brother is right.
“How could I abandon you here?” he says. “Abandon Robert and Belli and Anton? How could I dishonour Pa so?”
“Oh? And you think it would be so easy for me?”
“No. That’s why I’m begging you. If something happened to you or Angelica, it would kill me. And you think after everything Robert endured to be with you, it wouldn’t destroy him if you…” He never finishes. “You want to thank me for trying to save Mama? Do so by staying alive.”
Kat turns her face away, unable to meet her brother’s eyes. “That isn’t fair.”
“Fair? Nothing about any of this is fair. Reports claim a force upwards of fifty thousand men is preparing to depart Istanbul for our shores. They outnumber us ten to one.”
“You tell me how terribly the odds are stacked against us yet in the same breath, tell me to leave?”
The stable door scrapes open a second time. Angelica walks in, steps tentative, a candle in hand, eyes narrowed. She wears a wool stole tight around her shoulders, her hair in a messy pile atop her head. Beautiful, as always, but ever since her unspeakable ordeal in the Inquisitor’s dungeon, her eyes have lost much of their sparkle, her smile, its spontaneity. The sight of her causes a shift within Kat.
“Angelica,” Domenicus says, voice throaty.
She lowers the candle. “I woke because you were not beside me. I came to Belli’s house and found it empty. Saw the light in the stable.”
“Found my sister here,” he replies, gesturing in Katrina’s direction.
Angelica squints beyond Domenicus. “Kat, you all right?”
“Yes.” She shakes her head. “No… I think we… Angelica, I think we should accept the gift of safety and leave with the Viceroy’s ships tomorrow.”
Domenicus looks over his shoulder. “I thought—”
“Malta does not stand a chance,” Katrina interrupts. “Had the Viceroy offered men, perhaps. But we stand alone in this fight—a boulder in a sandy vale.”
“I’m not leaving,” Angelica says. Her tone is final and somehow, prepared.
Domenicus exhales. “My love, please—”
“You want to send me away because you think I’m weak? Some fragile flower easily crushed underfoot?” She stands taller, raises her chin.
“Never,” Domenicus replies. “But you are my weakness, and I need to know you are somewhere safe.”
“Safe is together.”
“Angelica,” Kat cuts in, “I want to go. Robert has lost so much. His father. His brother. His mother. Dr Callus… He’ll put himself at risk to protect me.”
Angelica presses her lips, shoulders rigid. She sucks in a breath, holds the air inside her. Shifts her gaze to Domenicus. Exhales. “You would do the same.”
He nods. “So, you see, I need you to protect me.”
Angelica tips her face to his but glances to Kat almost imperceptibly from the corner of her eye. “I will pack a few things.”
Marthese Fenech is the author of bestselling historical novels, Eight Pointed Cross and Falcon’s Shadow, set in sixteenth-century Europe. Ash Fall is her third novel. She has also written an award-winning pilot episode of a television series based on her Siege of Malta trilogy.
Research has taken her to the ancient streets her characters roamed, the fortresses they defended, the seas they sailed, and the dungeons they escaped. Obstinate curiosity has led her to sixty-five countries across six continents. She does her best plot-weaving while hiking mountain trails, wandering local markets, paddle boarding cliff-sheltered bays, and sitting at home with her Siberian husky curled at her feet.
The youngest of five, Marthese was born in Toronto to Maltese parents. At twelve, she moved to Malta for six months and was enrolled in an all-girls private school run by nuns; she lasted three days before getting kicked out for talking too much.
A former kickboxing instructor, Marthese snowboards, surfs, scuba-dives, climbs, skydives, throws axes, and practices yoga—which may sometimes include goats. She lives north of Toronto with her brilliant, mathematically-inclined husband and brilliant, musically-inclined dog, known to lead family howl sessions on occasion.
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Congratulations on your upcoming new release, your book sounds amazing.ReplyDelete
Your book sounds amazing, Marthese.ReplyDelete