Friday, June 19, 2009

The Simurgh and the Nightingale (Part 24)

Chapter 38
Velvet Castle, Smyrna, Turkey. 
October 12th 1638

The journey from Tvanshanli through the parched ravines and scorched plateaux of the Anatolian highlands had taken them the best part of a week. But now, as they dismounted in the outer courtyard of the Velvet Castle, they could see city of Smyrna below them with the topaz-blue waters of its bay beyond. In the roads were numerous ships waiting to discharge their cargo and others waiting to take onboard the huge cotton bales that were piled high on the quayside.
Djivo’s attention was drawn to a bleeding wound on one of his horse’s forelocks. As he was about to bend down and inspect it one of the gate sentries approached their group. Catherine moved towards the soldier and he was about to ignore her until surprised when she addressed him in Turkish. She said that she wished to see the Aga and indicated that she was relaying a message from his fellow Aga and friend - Murad Corbasi - in Broussa. The sentry turned smartly on his heel and almost ran back to the gate to relay the conversation. Presently the soldier returned. This time he was accompanied by an odabasi who ordered Catherine to return with him inside the fortress. She looked briefly at Djivo before following the officer. He waved her on before turning back to attend the horse. 

Although they would not be needing the horses for much longer Djivo was relieved - after cleaning away the congealed blood and dirt - to see that the wound was very superficial and causing no pain to the animal. He stood up and had just begun to unload their baggage when he saw a small troop of horsemen gallop at high speed into the courtyard. They pulled to a sudden halt opposite the gate. It was only when the dust cloud thrown up by the hooves had cleared that Djivo recognised the two lead figures as Dermico O’Driscoll and Marco Comneno. They were escorted by four siphai cavalrymen elaborately dressed in the uniform of the Grand Vizier’s personal guard and riding horses that had obviously been captured in the Sultan’s Persian campaigns. Djivo could see that the panting animals were branded with the tulip mark of the Shah’s royal stables. He hesitated for a moment before stepping out into full view from behind his horse.
The two Europeans had dismounted quickly and were brushing away the accumulated dust from their Cavalier hats when Dermico O’Driscoll suddenly saw Djivo. He immediately rushed towards him. Djivo stayed where he was but shouted out a greeting. “This is a chance meeting, is it not O’Driscoll? ”
The Irishman’s face was a contortion of anger and sneering malevolence. “Do not toy with me Slavujovic. I have chased after you these past two weeks and my patience is sorely at an end. Hand over the Scrolls this instant. Their recovery is my sworn duty and you had better not obstruct me.”

Djivo managed to force an expression of puzzled innocence as he nonchalantly removed his heavy riding cape and draped it over his left arm. His right hand then came to rest on the hilt of his sword. “We no longer have the Scrolls. They are deposited in a safe place. You have wasted your time.” O’Driscoll noticed the movement of the sword hand and his momentum slowed. 
The commotion in the courtyard had been brought to the attention of the Aga. Jumbing up from his seat in the divan he strode out of the building and through the gate towards where the siphai sat atop their sweating horses. At the sight of his obvious anger the horsemen shifted uneasily in their saddles. High above him Djivo could see a troop of musket-carrying soldiers taking up their positions on the battlements. The guns were immediately trained on the new arrivals. A fierce argument between the Aga the leading siphai erupted. The Aga suddenly turned his back on the horsemen and came towards where Catherine, who had followed the Aga out, and Djivo were standing.
At that moment Djivo thought he saw a slight nod of the Aga’s head. A fusillade of shot rang out across the yard and all four siphai were instantly blown from their horses. Three appeared to have been killed outright but one was moving agonisingly on the ground, as he clutched a huge wound that coursed across his right shoulder. He tried crawling away but was trapped by the sudden collapse of one of the horses - whose death was caused by a fountain of blood gushing from its severed carotid artery - across his legs. Looking back at the carnage the Aga stopped, then retraced his steps and stood for a while watching the injured man squirm. All of a sudden, as if tiring of the spectacle, he drew his sword and decapitated the fallen siphai with two crude hacks. 
Simultaneously a troop of Negro slaves rushed into the yard and began removing the bodies. The Aga calmly cleaned his sword on the headless soldier’s tunic and walked back over to rejoin Catherine and Djivo. By now four of his Janissaries had pinioned O’Driscoll and Comneno’s arms and had forced them to kneel. Catherine’s face could not disguise the disgust she felt at the carnage she had just witnessed. The Aga turned to her. “Those lice were part of the Grand Vizier’s guard who murdered near 10,000 of our Janissary brothers. One of those cruelly killed was my brother Hasan. Today is my revenge. Allah was merciful to them in granting a quick death. Indeed woman . . .” he bellowed to allow the insulting tone of his voice carry across the courtyard, “I was thinking of crucifying them between a pig and a dog. As an example.” Catherine swallowed hard - to stop herself gagging - as the Aga looked down at where O’Driscoll and Comneno were pushed to the ground. He turned to Djivo as he threw a sneering glance at the cowering Europeans.. “What shall I do with these sons of whores? ”
“Aga Hakem al-Buda this is my fight. Let that man up,” Djivo said sternly. He pointed at O’Driscoll who hadn’t taken his wild eyes off him. “If I die, let the other go.”
The Aga nodded, smiling at the prospect of an unexpected afternoon’s entertainment. O’Driscoll stood up, shook off the dust from his tunic and haughtily accepted his sword back from one of the Janissaries. He growled at Djivo, “Defend yourself, you Ragusan coward. You and your harlot witch will pay for your treachery.”
Djivo immediately smarted at the insult. He squeezed Catherine’s hand before stepping to one side and drawing his own blade. He could see that O’Driscoll’s sword was broader and heavier than his own, but also noted that he carried it lightly with a well muscled arm. Djivo swished his rapier a number of times through the air, briefly admiring the flashes of glinting sunlight. He would have to be careful. He thought to himself. Although his sword was more manoeuvrable, its lighter construction would make it suspect to breaking if hit by O’Driscolls broadsword. He drew in a large breath as he reminded himself of Saviolio’s teachings.
“Judgement, measure and a two-fold mind.” Djivo murmured as he took position, adopting his Italian fencing master’s close ward position. Placing his right foot forward he took most of his weight on the back left foot. The hilt of his sword was by his right hip and its point aimed upwards towards O’Driscoll’s face. O'Driscoll on the other hand was moving forward in the high ward position, his intention was clear. To get in close and press the first attack. It came, fast and with furious intent. Djivo deflected the lunge as he pulled back to one side but was now caught on the back foot. O’Driscoll took the initiative pressed again and again with repeated stocatta until Djivo - retreating - was trapped against the castle wall. Despite the protection offered by the riding cape wrapped around his left forearm he knew he was bleeding from deflecting some of the blows. He could feel the warm liquid seeping through the draped cloth. 
The courtyard and overlooking battlements were, by now, filled with spectators. The Aga was clearly enjoying the sport on offer and whispered to Catherine in an excited voice. “Your friend is defending well but the other is strong. However both men are tiring and someone will soon make a fatal mistake.” Catherine shuddered as she watched the rivulets of sweat course down Djivo’s face. 
Djivo did feel the fatigue setting in but so too was O'Driscoll. Because of his heavier sword the Irishman was having to make a wider and wider arcs with his elbow and shoulder in order to press home his attacks. This gave Djivo momentary respite in defending the blows but also meant that O’Driscoll was more open to a counter-thrust if only Djivo could get on the offensive. Dermico O’Driscoll was smiling, confident, as he pressed forward yet again. Once more Djivo deflected the oncoming blade down with his left arm but trapped, as he was, against the castle wall the trailing bloodstained cloth of his cape suddenly caught under his foot and he stumbled. O’Driscoll was poised. He knew this was his chance to finish his opponent off. With an explosive burst he brought his rear leg forward and began his shoulder rotation to launch his thrust, in full extension, at Djivo’s exposed chest. At that moment terror was etched across Djivo’s face. Catherine could not watch any more. The Aga was jumping forward. The spectators began to shout. The Ragusan could not possibly avoid the oncoming blow.
As Djivo waited, mesmerised momentarily by the oncoming blade completing its initial arc. His brain screamed at him. ‘Attack! Attack now! Close the distance.’ At that very instant he sprang forward taking an angle to the right. Imbrocatta. He dropped under the arc of O’Driscolls thrust deflecting the blade’s direction with the hilt of his rapier. It was only enough, however, to take the point away from his chest. Its direction and force cut through the muscles of Djivo’s shoulder and he could feel its edge run along bone before existing to spark off the stone wall behind. At that moment, Djivo saw his opening. His own blade had travelled past O’Driscolls right temple and as his momentum had taken him to open space on the other side. As he drew his sword back he executed a quick reverse flick of his wrist and opened a deep wound across O’Driscolls forehead. Djivo’s own pain then set in. Although now away from the wall, his left arm hung limp, useless, the draped cape trailing on the ground. 
O’Driscoll temporarily blinded by the spurting wound on his head disdainfully wiped the blood away, turned to face his opponent and made to attack again. He watched with satisfaction as Djivo appeared to slump, his guard in a very low ward and with the point of his blade caught behind the cape.
Catherine let out a cry. The Aga smiled as he sensed the kill. The soldiers pressed forward to surround them. Everyone was shouting. The noise grew louder and louder. O’Driscoll lunged again. 
Then... a sudden silence. At the very moment it looked as if he was doomed Djivo stood suddenly erect. With a sudden lateral movement of his wrist he lifted - with the point of his blade - the trailing cape off his arm. The strength of the movement threw the sodden cloth high into O’Driscoll’s onrushing face. The Sant’Iago Knight was instantly stopped in his advance - almost as if hit by one of the earlier musket shots - and realising the danger twisted in mounting panic to his right as he tried to disentangle himself. Djivo pressed his own attack. Extending his sword arm fully, he lunged and powered by two quick forward steps of his hind leg drove his rapier up and at O’Driscolls undefended side. He could feel its blade bending as it scraped off the ribs and buried itself deep in O’Driscoll’s chest. He then continued the thrust at an angle forcing the blade’s point to cut laterally. Air then blood hissed and spurted from the entry wound. O’Driscoll - for a brief moment - tried his best to recoil away from the plunging steel but then suddenly collapsed as his heart muscle was torn asunder. 
As he toppled forward Djivo took the weight of the fall to one side and then pressed back to push Dermico O’Driscoll’s lifeless body to the ground. Standing over him he then gave a final twist of his sword before stepping on the Sant’Iago Knight’s chest to remove the crimson blade. He turned away holding his left shoulder, leaving the bloody cape to cover the death mask of somebody who once had been his comrade in arms. He only managed a few faltering steps before collapsing - exhausted from the effort and the blood loss from his own wounds - to the ground.

As Catherine rushed to attend him, the Aga and the watching soldiers returned to their day’s duties, bemoaning the brevity of the sport. They dragged Comneno with them leaving O’Driscoll’s body to be cleared away by the Negro slaves. 

©R.Derham 2001,2009

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