EIGHT POINTED CROSS
About the Novel
Those who cannot bravely face danger are already slaves of the enemy.
The violent clash between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St John on the island fortress Malta serves as the backdrop to Eight-Pointed Cross. Young siblings Domenicus and Katrina Montesa live under constant threat of raids by the Ottoman Turks, the staunchest enemies of the Christian knights. All the while, hundreds of leagues away in Istanbul, Demir’s dream of becoming an imperial horseman in the Sultan’s cavalry is his only salvation against relentless torment by his cruel brother.
The Turkish invasion of Malta and the island’s bloody defence will forever change the lives of the three protagonists, whose fates are intertwined not only with each other, but with nobles and peasants, knights and corsairs, tyrants and galley slaves, on both sides of the conflict as the novel sweeps across the Mediterranean world of the sixteenth century—from Malta, a barren Christian outpost, to Istanbul, the glittering seat of Islam, from filthy prison cells to lush palace gardens.
Against soaring sea-cliffs and open sea-lanes, the men and women of Eight-Pointed Cross face corruption and oppression, broken vows and betrayal, as two great empires collide. Surviving this battle-soaked world of swords and scimitars will test the limits of every character’s courage, loyalty, and love.
Chapter One Teaser
Immersed in a rare moment of quiet, the family does not sense the approach of the corsairs. They cannot see the North African slavers advancing over the island’s rocky terrain and through the dark streets of the fishing village Birgu, now a mere fifty paces from the stone walls of the Montesa house. And they cannot smell the reek of the galleys, moored in a cove concealed by soaring headland. This night, the family senses only peace, smells only melting beeswax.
Domenicus sits on his father Augustine’s lap. Winking candlelight creates shadows that move over his face.
“What story tonight, lad?” Pa asks. “Will I tell you of the battle for Rhodos, or of how good fortune blessed your mother the day we met?”
Across the room, Isabel gives a little smile without looking up from her embroidery.
“The story of you and Mama,” Domenicus replies, resting his sandy head against Augustine’s chest, the boy’s hair smelling of sea salt, dried into each strand after a mid-day swim. He sighs contentedly, as always feeling not the power in his father’s strong hands but his gentleness, the easy smile in his eyes, the quiet dignity with which he carries himself. Other village men might brag and bully, but his pa never does. Domenicus often spends long moments staring at his own reflection in the surface of a puddle or the side of a pot, willing his features to develop as his father’s have. Augustine’s face is a smooth palette, glowing with the fresh sheen of a man mindful of indulgences. His jaw is sculpted into angles that meet at his chin, forming a countenance both beautiful and fierce. His dark hair seems forever windswept, heavy locks falling over his forehead.
Just as he opens his mouth, Katrina dashes out from behind a cedar chest. “We heard about you two yesterday! You haven’t told us a battle story since forever.” With an imaginary sword, she duels an invisible opponent. Mama laughs, the pretty sound broken by a cough. She brushes away auburn strands that have strayed over her eyes, returns her attention to the needlework. Katrina plops cross-legged on the stone floor, looks expectantly up at Papa. He glances to Domenicus for permission, and once it is given, folds battle-scarred arms loosely across his chest and leans with his back to the wall.
“Rhodos. June, 1522. It was my twentieth year, and I stood staring out over the sea from my vantage on the walls. The air was alive with jasmine from the island plains, salt off the Aegean, and fear from a city in ferment.” The small fire in the hearth flares suddenly, illuminating the whole house. It is a home like most in Birgu: bedrooms defined by sackcloth curtains separating straw pallets from the rest of the dwelling, one window casement panelled with oiled linen, easily removed to let in air.
“Two days following the feast of John the Baptist, she came: the Ottoman armada. Formidable. Beautiful. She was one hundred and three galleys strong, further strengthened by three hundred other vessels—triremes, brigantines, carracks, a tremendous fleet breaking the horizon.” Domenicus loves his father’s rich, deep voice, perfect for storytelling. “We soldiers, together with the Knights of St John, were positioned along the ramparts—” he pauses, distracted.
Domenicus looks up. He tilts his ear and listens closely but hears only the creak of crickets. “What is it, Papa?”
“Nothing. …A stray dog, perhaps.” Augustine passes his fingers over the small, silver and turquoise eight-pointed cross, symbol of the Knights of St John, that dangles from a thin chain around his neck. “So. All men of Spanish ancestry were stationed at the bastion of Aragon, one of eight fortresses encircling the city. I had just returned from church, where every knight, every soldier, every citizen flocked once news of the coming siege had spread.”
“Then,” he continues, “Fra Gabriel Mercadal came to muster the men. The pilier of the Aragoneseshook us: Those who cannot bravely face danger are already slaves of the enemy! And not one among you is a slave!” His words echoed off the walls into the very heart of me.”
“Were you frightened, Father?” Domenicus asks, though he has heard the story a hundred times and knows the answer.
“Not frightened enough. An army of one thousand sheep led by a lion is far more destructive than an army of one thousand lions led by a sheep. Suleiman the Magnificent led this attack—we faced an army of lions led by a lion.” He leans slightly forward on his seat, lowers his voice for effect. “The Muslim pride marched ashore, hungry for Christian flesh.”
Clearing her throat, Mama sets down her embroidery. “Time for bed, little ones. Papa can finish the story tomorrow. Or,” she winks “perhaps he’ll tell you of our adventures raising flowers in a reluctant plot instead.”
As the three open their mouths in protest, violent commotion rumbles from the narrow village streets. Hooves trample cobblestone, rattling shelves, sending pottery jugs to crash and break on the floor. The four stand as one, Domenicus and his sister huddling close to their father.
“Slavers!” It sounds like Nicolo, the cobbler.
“Corsairs!” shouts another villager. Domenicus is not sure which one. “Hide!”
“Hide,” a Moor snarls in the pidgin dialect of the Barbary Coast, “And when we find you, we cart you to El Djezair in pieces!”
El Djezair. Algiers. Domenicus shudders at the name. The Whip of the Christian World they call it, the Wall of the Barbarian. He knows the stories. For centuries, Malta has been plagued by pirates, but none so efficient, so terrifying, as the Barbary corsairs from Algiers.
Smoke from the burning reeds of North African torches permeates his house and makes Mama cough—a deafening sound in this need for silence.
“Crystal-clear descriptive language … Ms. Fenech has recreated the compelling world of the Montesa family of Malta and the Knights of St. John as though she time-travelled back to the sixteenth century to do her research. An impressive debut!”
— Karen Connelly, author of The
"I believed every minute of it."
— Carol Rasmussen, former book review editor at Library Journal
"Eight Pointed Cross has all the ingredients that I consider importan in a novel: a gripping plot, engaging, believable characters, stunning description, violence, love, sex, remarkable psychological insight, historical detail… The first English literary critic, Sir Phillip Sidney, wrote that the purpose of literature was to teach and to delight. I learned much from Eight Pointed Cross. And the internal struggles of characters such as Augustine and Franco lend depth and substance to the characterization. A more recent literary giant, William Faulkner, in his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, opined that the only thing worth writing about is the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. You, Ms. Fenech, have passed both of these tests with flying colours."
— John Heighton, reader for the Porcupine's Quill