“They are here today,” the wild winds say,
“But who can trace the track of tomorrow?
“And who can shackle a roving heart
“That leans to the winds that waver and start,
“Or chain a soul like the ocean spray,
“Whiter than glory and brine as sorrow?”
— Robert E. Howard, “The Path of the Strange Wanderers”
After two hundred years as the masters of Rhodes and the scourge of Turkish shipping, the Knights of St. John had been dislodged from their stronghold. Sultan Suleiman, the young Ottoman ruler, had accomplished their defeat after a terrible siege lasting months and costing sixty thousand Turkish dead. Even then he had been forced, as the price of their surrender, to allow them to depart unmolested.
Sailing west in their famous galleys, they came to Sicily, then a Spanish possession, early in 1523. The island was already being ruled as badly by the Spanish Hapsburgs as it had been by the Aragonese. Corrupt nobles, the equally corrupt Spanish Inquisition (Sicily was then ruled from Spain), and lack of interest in Sicily except as a source of wheat, turned the peasants’ lives into an even closer approximation of hell than usual. Extortionate bailiffs drove them off the land. They turned to banditry to survive, and robbers were seen as heroes by folk who had no other champions, no other source of any kind of justice. Sicily, in short, like the kingdom of Khoraja in the Hyborian Age as described by Conan, was “in a devil of a mess.”
The knights found a new base there for some years. The German Gottfried von Kalmbach, a younger son who had worn the mantle of the Order for a few years, was thrown out shortly after they arrived. Although a courageous fighter, whose sustained performance on the ramparts of Rhodes had been heroic in a disreputable fashion, he was nevertheless a drunkard, rakehell and brawler. His frequent breaches of the Order’s vows would have assured his dismissal sooner or later, and discipline was needed more than ever now. Gottfried chose the wrong time to get into a fight with two Portuguese knights, and kill one of them; he was lucky not to swing from a gallows. The Portuguese had accused the Grand Master, Philip de l’Isle Adam, of making one of their fellows a scapegoat for the loss of Rhodes by a trumped-up charge of treason, and Gottfried had called them liars. The result had been drawn swords and spilt blood. After a swift hearing, the Order decided it could do without the unruly German.
Gottfried shrugged his mighty shoulders and went his way, his only assets his sword, the broad knowledge of sea-fighting, siege-craft and gunnery he had acquired with the Order, proficiency in three languages, and an acquaintance with a number of others. He also possessed some experience and practice in medicine. This too was characteristic of men who had served in the langues of the Hospitallers.
Gottfried in short order became captain to a baron near Bronte, west of Mount Etna. His qualifications made him the best man a scheming minor noble, in a once glorious island now fallen upon sorry times, was ever likely to recruit to the post. Like many others in Sicily, Baron Orri made his chief occupation courting the Spanish viceroy’s favor and seeking a greater title, such as marquis or duke. Higher rank, even if essentially empty, meant a better chance of lucrative offices – which were awarded by appointment.
The former Hospitaller lost no time finding a pretty mistress among the villages of the baron’s estate. Even while a knight of the Order, he had broken his vows of chastity, wenching among the villages of Rhodes, but due to the Order’s discipline, less often than he would have preferred. Now a free agent, aged twenty-four, he felt he needed to catch up, and set about doing that. His steady mistress, Marcia, was not the only girl Gottfried bedded, and not being blind or witless, she found out, going into more than one shrieking rage in which she hit the huge German with anything handy. Their fights were as passionate as their reconciliations.
Baron Orri had rivals with the same ambitions as himself. One, a neighbor of his, sought to be rid of him by denouncing him as a heretic. The Inquisition’s soldiers came to Orri’s castle and arrested him. Gottfried, his captain, assured the arresting party that he was a devout son of the Church, and allowed them to take him without resistance. Directly they were out of sight, Gottfried disguised himself and his men as bandits, followed the party, and fell upon it in the night before it came close to Palermo and the dungeons of the Inquisition. Orri was freed and the arresting party, those that survived, sent on their way barefoot and naked.
After taking Baron Orri home, Gottfried’s wasted no time in attacking the castle of the neighbor who had accused him. The place was a poor bastion beside the sort of fortifications Gottfried was used to. He took it with ease. Then he had Baron Orri’s enemy hanged in his own courtyard. The problem with the Inquisition still existed, but as Gottfried pointed out, the baron only had to sit in his castle and ignore its summons until a new viceroy arrived. They were replaced frequently. A suitable bribe ought to gain the approval of the new man.
Gaining the money for a suitable bribe in impoverished and exploited Sicily presented a bit of difficulty. However, as a former Knight of St. John, von Kalmbach was a competent sea-fighter and pirate. He had plundered Turkish and Venetian shipping as one of the Order; now, backed by Baron Orri, he took a caravel out of Messina and waylaid a Genoese merchant ship. The cargo, fine Merino cloth from Spain and some silver from the new world, proved worth the effort. With that in his hands, and the master of two baronies now, not one, Orri felt himself in a firm position. He was well pleased with his new captain, and Gottfried felt pleased with himself.
Within limits he had achieved a triumph. But his rescue of the baron from the Inquisition party, disguised as a bandit chief, did not hold water long. Von Kalmbach’s huge size, tawny hair and drunken blue gaze made him hard to mistake. Suspicion soon attached to him, and mere suspicion on the part of the dreaded Inquisition could doom a man. Looting a Genoese ship, too, had its consequences, for the great Genoese sea-fighter Andrea Doria took exception to that. Then Admiral of the French Mediterranean fleet, in the service of Francis I, Doria was a busy man, but he made time to command his underlings to hang Gottfried von Kalmbach if they happened to lay hands on him. (The Italian liner which sank in 1956 with a loss of over 50 lives was named after Andrea Doria.)
The Dominicans at Palermo cherished similar intentions towards Gottfried. Also, the Knights of St. John, who had thrown him out and disowned him, now operated from Sicilian shores. (The Emperor Charles did not endow them with Malta until 1530.) They remembered his heroism at Rhodes, but still considered him a disgrace, and were as displeased as the Inquisition by his recent antics. They began working with the latter to bring him to account. Gottfried decided it was time he departed. He had become a little weary of Sicily in any case, and there was much more of the world to see.
Baron Orri, whom he had served well if unlawfully, made a decision of his own – to sell out his turbulent captain and make peace with the Inquisitors at Palermo. Gottfried had to fight his way clear, ride hard for the coast, and escape to Naples in a fishing boat. The Order of St. John did not catch the fugitive. Perhaps some former comrades felt unwilling to pursue him.
From Naples, Gottfried reached Corsica. The island was a Genoese possession (Andrea Doria and his uncle had quelled a revolt there between 1503 and 1506), and the huge Bavarian was almost captured, but once again slipped through his enemies’ fingers. He entered Provence without a coin to his name.
Down on his luck, he worked as a bouncer in a brothel for a short time, in the ancient town of Arles. Although a big rough bear of a man, he protected the girls from sadists, and they appreciated it. Most were sorry to see him leave.
He returned to Bavaria and appealed to his family. The tales of his misdeeds had gone before him, though, and Gottfried’s father was a stern man. He had his scapegrace son driven from the estate by lackeys with whips, though a number of casualties ensued. That ended Gottfried’s attempts to mend fences with his kindred. He never again went near their lands or castle.
Thus, in 1524, he rode north-east into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Its fortunes in its endless wars with Muscovy had turned sour, and two years before, under the peace treaty of 1522, Lithuania had been forced to cede immense lands to the Russians. Gottfried saw few opportunities there, and so he travelled further east, into Russian lands. He took service as a mercenary with the Grand Duke of Muscovy, Vasili III. Despite his successes against Lithuania, the Grand Duke was having difficulty with his own feudal lords, Gottfried’s old enemies the Ottoman Turks, and the Crimean Tatars. He welcomed the former Knight of St. John with open arms, while Gottfried for his part found it convenient to serve a ruler who had no need to truckle to the Inquisition or the Pope.
He led Russian warriors against the Tatars. His men boasted of his prowess, called him “bogatyr”, and admired his strength and daring. He thwarted many of the Tatars’ notorious slave raids into Russia, and twice led his men to the Crimea itself, sacking caravanserais, burning towns, even slaying a khan. The Tatars cursed his name, which they pronounced as “Gombuk” – an epithet used by two separate characters in “The Shadow of the Vulture”, the Crimean Tatar Yaruk Khan and the Vulture himself, Mikhal Oglu.
Gottfried on occasion rode beside Zaporozhian Cossacks, though he never fully trusted them. They might fight against the Tatars when it suited them, but they allied themselves with Tatars too, again when it suited them. He might conceivably have met Red Sonya of Rogatino in those days, since she had become an adopted daughter of a Zaporozhian hetman after the raid that saw her sister Roxelana abducted by Tatars, except that Sonya had ridden west at approximately the same time Gottfried rode east. Another Cossack chieftain had tried to rape her, and Sonya had killed him, after which she had to leave the Zaporozhian sech. She and Gottfried were to meet, but not till later, on the walls of besieged Vienna.
As for Gottfried, despite his successes and growing repute, he too wrecked his chances in Russia by killing the wrong person – in his case a jealous noble. Once more he had to decamp hastily to save his life. He regretted it, a little, since in some ways he had found Russians congenial, at least for their courage, endurance and drinking habits, though their cruelty did not sit especially well with him. In any case he was not a man to indulge in futile moping. He turned his face to the west again.
He arrived in threatened, riven Hungary in precise time for the battle of Mohacz.
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven