Chained naked, with his arms and legs spread painfully apart, he writhed in vain. He was gripped by raw fear as cold sweat ran in rivulets down his contorted face and aching ribs. Served up like a sacrificial lamb, he was defenseless. Suddenly, a finely polished, curved steel blade flashed in the stark torchlight as his merciless, hooded tormentor slowly drew it from its scabbard. He could see hatred seething in the man's wolflike eyes; a blazing yellow fire seemed to dance in each dark orb. Mortified, he pathetically attempted to beg the executioner to spare his life, but the words froze in his paralyzed throat. As the relentless blade moved steadily toward him, he tried one last time to jerk his arms and legs free, but it was no use, as the rusted iron manacles only tore deeper into the soft flesh of his wrists and ankles. He was to be castrated, like an animal.
"No!" he managed to scream as he braced his naked groin to withstand the unimaginable pain.
"Constantine." The executioner miraculously stopped and shouted his name. "Constantine!"
Suddenly, the chains fell away from his arms and legs. The man was laughing.
Constantine sat bolt upright, dripping wet, and stared at the man, disoriented.
In the dim candlelight, he could see his older cousin, standing beside his bed. A toothy grin split the short charcoal beard that wrapped around his mouth and chin. He began to laugh heartily. Embarrassed, Constantine Ziani fell back and sucked in a deep breath as he wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand. He glanced at his wrists. They were no longer bleeding and sore.
"You were having a nightmare. Now get up and get dressed. Captain-General Loredan wants to see us--now."
He struggled to comprehend Paolo's words as he awkwardly hopped on one leg, vainly trying to push the other into his tangled pants. Paolo lit an oil lamp. Constantine's frame glowed ghostlike in the flickering light that played over his muscular back and shoulders. He had no scars, unusual for a soldier. He had not yet experienced battle in his short life. The only blood he had ever drawn belonged to his sword-fighting instructor. Just twenty years old, whiskers sprouted from his face like the annoying weeds that poked through Venice's less frequented brick-paved campi. At just two inches shy of six feet, he was very tall. But his physical appearance and naïve optimism, not yet dimmed by life's experiences, belied his maturity. His uncompromising steel gray eyes provided the only clue that a man lived inside his youthful shell.
Constantine neither sought out nor retreated from an argument or a fight. His values reflected the Venetian ways he had been diligently taught from the time he was a child, making him wise beyond his years. Like all Venetian nobili, the aristocratic men who ruled Venice, his aim was to serve honorably in any capacity required by his beloved Republic and, in so doing, to merit increasingly important assignments in the future. Personal honor was more than a code; it was a religion. Men willingly died to preserve it.
"Why does he want to see us?"
"How should I know? A guard woke me a minute ago and said that we are to come at once."
Constantine put on a wool shirt and pulled on his stiff leather shoes. Still rubbing grit from his eyes, he followed Paolo into the fortress yard. It was dark outside; not a single star broke through the vast, black, moonless sky. Smokelike mists, driven by mountain winds, blew around them. In the distance, they could see two soldiers standing by the door to the massive keep. One held a blazing torch that seemed to ignite his haggard face.
"It must be after midnight," muttered Constantine as they walked toward them.
Suddenly, he tripped on a cobblestone, nearly losing his balance. I cannotleave this godforsaken place soon enough, he thought. His toe throbbed painfully as he ran a few steps to catch up to Paolo. As they reached the door, the two guards exchanged glances, and one motioned for them to follow him.
The fortress towered above Scutari, a market town nestled in the northwestern corner of Albania, fifteen miles inland from the Adriatic and at the southern end of the lake for which it was named. The Venetians had built the citadel there on a promontory that dominated the town and countryside below. They called it La Roccaforte. It was well named with its seven imposing towers and thick stone walls. Rising on steep piles of sheer gray rock, it was virtually unassailable on three sides, and the fourth was protected by a wall, in places fifty feet thick. The only gate was a massive, impenetrable iron door at the end of a long tunnel with killing slits along both sides of its entire length.
The Turks had laid siege to the fortress seven months earlier, but after finding it so strongly defended, they had wisely decided not to storm it. The Venetians had been surprised to find that the besiegers had chosen not to manhandle their vaunted artillery over the rugged Balkan Mountains to pound La Roccaforte's walls into rubble as they had in the past at Constantinople and Negropont and a score of smaller fortresses throughout Greece.
Despite the defenders' well-known inexhaustible water supply, the Turks instead hoped they could starve the garrison into submission before winter, knowing its food supply could not last forever. They could not safely advance up the Adriatic coast, toward Venice, as long as La Roccaforte remained in Venetian hands.
Finally, Constantine and Paolo were shown to a large room where Captain-General Antonio Loredan and his officers were engaged in what appeared to be a heated council of war. The guard announced them and, closing the wooden door with a thud, departed. Six men were seated around a heavy, ornately carved oak table. Loredan abruptly held up his hand, stopping the conversation, and stood to greet them.
"Lieutenant Ruzzini," he addressed Paolo, "time is short, so I will get right to the point. Just before the Turks laid siege to La Roccaforte, we inserted several spies into their camp. One has proven particularly useful. He is an Albanian merchant who provides fine goods and other, more personal pleasures to the Turkish officers. His women frequently engage these Turks in both forms of intercourse. Each day, at noon, we look for a communication from him relating what he has learned from these liaisons. Days often pass without a message, but this morning we received most disturbing news.
"It seems the sultan has finally grown impatient with his commander's attempt to starve us out, so he has ordered him to breach the walls and assault the fortress, quickly ending the siege--something I would have done right from the start.
"We have learned that the Turks have hauled one of their largest guns overland, all the way from Istanbul. With our fleet denying them a sea route through the Adriatic, we had hoped they would not be able to drag a gun of this size over the mountains on those wretched old Roman roads, but our spy reports that it arrived two days ago. If you look out at their camp in the morning, you will see the wooden enclosure they have built, which is intended to protect the gunners from our fire when they move it up close to the wall. They have covered it with animal hides so we cannot burn it with flaming arrows."
Loredan's expression became grave. "If the Turks are able to fire that monster at close range, we are done for. Captain Cavazzo estimates it will take them only a few days to destroy a fifty-foot section of the wall. That would compel us to surrender since we estimate that they outnumber us by at least ten to one."
Constantine and Paolo exchanged glances.
"Captain-General," interrupted Paolo, "how does this spy get his messages through? A rat could not sneak into this place from the outside, through their lines."
"At noon, when the sun is directly overhead, he uses a mirror to flash his messages from the old church tower beyond their camp. The Turks never go in there, and his signals cannot be seen from below, but we can read them well enough from our towers up here. He has been feeding us information, undetected, for months."
Loredan smiled, but he could not hide the strain on his brow or the concern in his dark eyes. The great weight he bore seemed to be finally beating him down.
"And now I must tell you why I have sent for you," he said, changing his tone. "I want you both to lead a sortie out of the fortress to destroy that gun. It is our only hope."
His words took only a few seconds to utter, but their meaning was chilling, eternal. They could both be killed or worse--become playthings for the Turks to torture at their leisure.
"But how? There are thousands of Turks in that camp," asked Paolo.
"We have given that question much thought."
Cavazzo stood and cleared his throat. He walked around the table and placed his hand on Paolo's shoulder. Constantine knew that Paolo admired the older officer.
"Just after sunset tomorrow, we will lower you and a company of ten men on ropes down the outside of the western wall. By holding on to the ropes, you can safely move along the wall to the southwest corner tower, where it meets the front wall. There, you can tie yourselves together and carefully feel your way along the boulders in the darkness until you find a good place to hide. Hopefully this damned weather will clear and the half-moon will light your way. If someone loses his footing, the others can keep him from falling to his death. As a precaution, tomorrow we will post all of our crossbowmen near that spot to prevent any Turkish scouts from discovering your hiding place."
Paolo looked quickly at Constantine. He appeared to be impressed with the thought that had gone into the plan so far.
"Then," Cavazzo continued, "you will wait through the day, until just after sunset when the Turks are at their evening prayers. As a diversion, five minutes after their prayers begin, our spies will set a building on fire near the center of their camp, to draw the Turks' attention. While they are occupied with trying to put the fire out, you and your men will rush the gun, unseen in the darkness. It is only about two hundred yards from the wall and all downhill. It should take you no more than a minute or two to cover that distance but remember: you must not be discovered. Surprise is essential."
"Then"--he smiled--"you will kill any guards you find there, take powder sacks that will surely be there, fill the gun barrel, light the fuse, and then run like deer before the gun explodes--destroying it beyond repair."
"But what if they have not stockpiled the powder?" asked Paolo.
"Trust me. There will be a mountain of black powder there. They are nearly ready to begin bombarding the wall. That is why we have waited until now to attack. We wanted to ensure it would be there.
"When you light the fuse--keep it as short as you dare. Then run for your lives back up to the citadel. We will open the gate for you. But I warn you, any man who is left behind or unable to flee will be mercilessly killed by the Turks--or worse."
Finished, Cavazzo let his words sink in. He was obviously confident of success. It was the kind of plan you could feel good about making for someone else but the kind you worried about if your own life depended on it. Important questions ran through their minds, but before they could ask them, Loredan spoke.
"Paolo, I knew and admired your father, and, Constantine, your father is a hero and also my friend. I am not surprised they raised fine sons like you. Now you both have the privilege to emulate them, just as they did their fathers. You can choose whoever you wish to go with you. Tell CaptainCavazzo who you want and he will arrange everything. Form your company tomorrow afternoon at four o'clock by the western wall. Now, try to get some sleep."
Constantine and Paolo finally drifted off to sleep shortly before sunrise, in their windowless room. After rising at midday, Paolo advised Cavazzo of the ten soldiers they had chosen to lead on the dangerous mission. By four o'clock, they assembled at the wall, all dressed in dark clothing. They would travel light. Each man would carry no arms or armor, other than his dagger. The only other things they would carry were food and water for the long wait the next day, hidden among the boulders. Two would also carry matches and a length of oil-soaked cord to use as a fuse to explode the gun.
An hour passed as the raiders engaged in idle talk, trying to push back the ever-present fear of the unknown that hung over them like a shroud. Suddenly, a muezzin's high-pitched singing broke the silence. It was time.
The twelve men filed up the stairs to the top of the wall. The soldiers there helped them to tie ropes around their waists and attach bags, filled with food and water, to straps hung around their necks. The soldiers on the wall looked at them grimly but gratefully, admiring their courage. The rumors had been true; there was going to be a sortie. They knew how dangerous it would be to leave the protection of the citadel. There were so many things that could go wrong. Most of the soldiers pitied the twelve, relieved that they had not been selected to go.
Just after the sun set behind the purple hills to the west, the raiders were lowered to the sheer cliff, a narrow line of jagged rocks barely discernible in the faint moonlight, thirty feet below. High above, on the wall, three soldiers strained to hang on to each man's rope as they walked their precious cargo, like a marionette, along the wall to a point next to the southwest corner tower, where a previously identified large flat rock provided a good landing spot.
Paolo, in the lead, used the prearranged signal and pulled hard three times on his rope. It suddenly dropped at his feet. He threw the end to Constantine, who tied it around his waist. As Paolo moved off, Constantine swung and dropped to the same spot and began searching with his feet for the flat surface. Finding it, he jerked on his rope. The end fell to his feet. He threw it to the man behind him, ten feet away, who, in turn, tied it around his waist. Within five minutes, all twelve men were tethered together, ready to begin their trek across the mass of rocks near the southwestern corner of the wall. The going was agonizingly slow in the darkness. Two hours later, cut,bruised, and exhausted, they finally found shelter under a massive boulder and, even though it was September, they prepared for the cold night on the exposed windblown promontory. Only one man was injured. His ankle was too severely sprained for him to take part in the attack.
At sunrise the men ate their food, saving only some water, and settled down for the long wait. Paolo allowed the men to talk quietly. The nearest Turk was two hundred yards away and he knew that the wind, blowing briskly from the west, would not carry their voices into the Turkish camp.
The warm autumn day crept by slowly. Most of the men tried to sleep; a few sharpened their daggers but not Paolo. He busily crawled from man to man, talking to each one. He made certain that each knew his role by having him repeat not only his own orders but those of the other men. Their only chance was to slip in undetected, quickly rig the gun to explode, and then run for their lives back up the hill to the citadel. Paolo had chosen two artillerists who would cut and light the fuse. The rest were selected for their strength and speed and, most important, for their ruthlessness. Paolo had decided to choose men who terrified even him. He had succeeded.
Constantine's admiration for his cousin approached adoration. He had always looked up to Paolo. Five years older, Paolo was the kind of man a soldier willingly followed. To such a decisive and courageous fighter, failure was unthinkable.
Constantine smiled as he watched Paolo move among the men. Finally, his circuit completed, he returned to the place where the two of them would await sunset together, in the most advanced position. As the orange half-sun sank lower on the hazy horizon behind the hills, he could feel the tension build.
"Are you afraid?" he asked Paolo.
"Yes, but not for my own life. I am afraid that if I do not make the right decisions, we will not accomplish our mission and these brave men will die for nothing."
Paolo placed his hand on Constantine's shoulder. "Are you afraid?"
"I am not sure. I would not tell this to anyone but you, Paolo, but part of me wants to watch what happens from the security of the citadel wall while the other part wants desperately to be a part of whatever happens down at the bottom of this hill."
"Well"-Paolo smiled--"just think of all of our ancestors in heaven, smiling proudly as they watch you. Their time is past; they are gone but not forgotten. They are counting on you, and now you must do as they wouldhave done. There is no one else. Strange how life is, nearly a million souls in our empire and it all comes down to just us twelve, here in this place, at this moment."
Constantine smiled and thought for a long time. "Do you think we can do it, Paolo? Destroy the gun, I mean."
"I do not know. I only know that we have been sent to do it and we will die trying to do it. They can ask no more of us than that. It is in God's hands now."
"Just remember one thing. In war, nothing ever goes according to plan. You must be prepared for anything and everything, so for God's sake, be alert and stay close to me."
Several minutes slipped by in silence. Suddenly Constantine spoke, revealing his innermost thoughts. "I was just thinking. All these years, my father has recounted his life and his experiences in war and I have eagerly listened. Then, it was easy to revel in the glories of it all. I actually used to lament that I might never know the great deeds and noble sacrifices of a soldier. I worried that I might never shout, 'For St. Mark and Venice,' as I defended Venice's honor, slaying her enemies."
He looked deep into his cousin's eyes, searching for a hint of acknowledgment.
"But now ... that I too am a soldier, doing what my father did, I have begun to understand so much more, and I see his stories in such a different light. War is at once beautiful and terrible. Now my thoughts are not of the glories and the nobility of it all. They are, instead, of survival, seeing my mother again, old friends, the beauty of Venice. God, Paolo, I want to live."
Paolo placed his hand on Constantine's shoulder. "You think too much to be a soldier, cousin." He smiled affectionately. "Soldiering is a job, much like a gondolier's, a farmer's, or a baker's, only ... a soldier can lose his life doing it. Worse, if you command others, you can get them killed unnecessarily if you do not know what you are doing.
"Take that yearning you spoke of for family, friends, and Venice and make that your reason to fight, to bleed, to suffer the privations of camp ... and, perhaps, to die. What could be nobler than that?"
They looked deep into each other's eyes. Constantine was the first to speak.
"Is it like that for you?"
"It used to be," he replied wistfully, "but the veteran quickly becomes callous to war. Hard as it is to believe, once you have seen your comrades killed--their broken, lifeless bodies, where a soul once stirred, laughing andfull of life, that a woman once loved, lying like garbage on the field of battle--it changes you. All that matters is the respect of your fellow soldiers and your own respect for duty and your flag. You put your head down and get through it. That is what I shall do in a few hours."
It was not the answer Constantine had hoped for. It was too simple, too stoic. "I do not think I could ever become like you ... about war, I mean."
Paolo shook his head. "That is what I thought when I was your age. Just wait. Someday you will tell me I was right. The sooner you understand that, the better. War is hard enough without feelings. I can no longer imagine waging it any other way. I would go mad otherwise."
"Perhaps you are right," muttered Constantine. As he considered all that Paolo had said to him, he marveled even more at what his father had achieved in his life. He was a true war hero. As time passed, Constantine, huddled under the rock, slowly resolved that he would survive and return to Venice to tell his father how much he admired him and all he had learned. Now, more than ever, he wanted to be like him.