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May 1565. Suleiman the Magnificent, emperor of the Ottomans, has declared a jihad against the Knights of Saint John the Baptist. The largest armada of all time approaches the Knights' Christian stronghold on the island of Malta. The Turks know the Knights as the "The Hounds of Hell." The Knights call themselves "The Religion."
In Messina, Sicily, a French countess, Carla la Penautier, seeks a passage to Malta in a quest to find the son taken from her at his birth twelve years ago. The only man with the expertise and daring to help her is a Rabelaisian soldier of fortune, arms dealer, former janissary, and strapping Saxon adventurer by the name of Mattias Tannhauser. He agrees to accompany the lady to Malta, where, amidst the most spectacular siege in military history, they must try to find the boy-- whose name they do not know and whose face they have never seen--and pluck him from the jaws of Holy War.
The Religion is Book One of The Tannhauser Triology, and from the first page of this epic account of the last great medieval conflict between East and West, it is clear we are in the hands of a master. Not since James Clavell has a novelist so powerfully and assuredly plunged readers headlong into another place and time. Anne Rice transformed the vampire novel. Stephen King reinvented horror. Now, in a spectacular tale of heroism, tragedy, and passion, Tim Willocks revivifies historical fiction.
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Tim Willocks is a novelist and filmmaker. He is the author of the novels Bad City Blues, Blood-Stained Kings, and Green River Rising, which has been translated into fifteen languages. Willocks holds a degree in surgery and practiced psychiatry and addiction medicine until 2003. He also spent ten years writing screenplays and producing films in Hollywood. He completed The Religion in a cabin in the backwoods of upstate New York and now lives in County Kerry, Ireland. Simon Vance is the critically acclaimed narrator of nearly 300 audiobooks, the winner of seven "Earphone" awards, and a three-time Audie nominee.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Prologue The Devshirme Spring, A.D. 1540 The Fagaras Mountains—East Hungarian Marches On the night the scarlet horsemen took him away—from all he knew and all he might have known—the moon waxed full in Scorpio, sign of his birth, and as if by the hand of God its incandescence split the alpine valley sheer into that which was dark and that which was light, and the light lit the path of devils to his door. If the dogs of war hadn’t lost their way, the boy would never have been found, and peace and love and labor might have blessed him all his days. But such is the nature of Fate in a time of Chaos. And when is Time not Chaos? And when is War not a spawnhole of fiends? And who dries the tears of the nameless when even saints and martyrs lie sleeping in their crypts? A king had died and his throne was disputed and emperors fought like jackals to seize the spoils. And if emperors care little for the graveyards they scatter in their wake, why should their servants care more? As above, so below, say the wise men, and so it was that night. His name was Mattias and he was twelve years old and of matters of Policy and State he knew nothing at all. His family were Saxon metalsmiths, transplanted by his migrant grandfather to a steep Carpathian valley and a village of no importance except to those who called it home. He slept by the kitchen hearthstone and dreamed of fire and steel. He awoke in the dark before dawn with his heart a wild bird in his chest. He pulled on boots and a scorch-marked coat and silently—for two sisters and his mother slept next door—he took wood and summoned flames from the pale pink embers in the hearth so that warmth would greet the girls on their rising. Like all firstborn men of his line, Mattias was a blacksmith. His purpose today was to complete the making of a dagger and this filled him with joy, for what boy would not make real weapons if he could? From the hearth he took a burning brand and stole into the yard and the sharp air filled his chest and he stopped. The world about was painted black and silver by the moon. Above the mountain’s rimrock, constellations wheeled in their sphere and he sought out their shapes and marked them under his breath. Virgo, Bootes, Cassiopeia. Lower down the slopes headlong streaks of brightness marked the valley’s forked stream, and pastures floated misty beneath the woodlands. In the yard, his father’s forge stood like a temple to some prophet unknown and the firelight on its pale stone walls promised magic and marvels, and the doing of Things that no one had done before. As his father, Kristofer, had taught him, Mattias crossed himself on the threshold and whispered a prayer to Saint James. Kristofer was out on the road, shoeing and sharpening tools for the farms and manors thereabouts. Would he be angry, when he returned, that Mattias had wasted three days’ forging? When he might have made fishhooks or a wood saw or a scythe—goods that always found a ready buyer? No, not if the blade were true. If the blade were true, his father would be proud. Mattias crossed himself and stepped inside. The forge smelled of ox hooves and sea salt, of clinker, horses, and coal. The firepot was readied as he’d left it the evening before and the kindling caught with the firebrand’s first touch. He worked the bellows and fed yesterday’s coke to the flames, coaxing the fire, building it, until burning charcoal lay two inches deep on the tuyere. He lit the lamp, then unearthed his blade from the ashes in which he’d buried it overnight. He’d taken two days to straighten and harden the steel, six inches in the blade and four in the tang. Knives he’d made before but this was his first dagger, and the requisite skill was multiplied in the weapon’s double-edged symmetry and the forging of strength in the spine. He hadn’t perfected the symmetry but the edges didn’t roll beneath a file. He blew away the ash and sighted down the bevels and found no warp or screw. With a damp rag he wiped the blade clean and worked its either surface smooth with pumice. Then he polished the blade until it gleamed dark blue, with powder of Emril and butter. Now would his Art be tested in the temper. On the charcoal bed he laid a quarter inch of ash, and on the ash the blade, and watched the color creep through the steel, turning it face over face so the heat remained even. When the cutting edges glowed as pale as fresh straw, he pulled the blade clear with the tongs and plunged it into a bucket of damp soil. Burning vapors spiraled with a smell that made him heady. In this first quench, by his grandfather’s lore, the blade laid claim at its birth to the power of all four elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Such a blade would endure. He rebuilt the coal bed and layered the ashes on top, and took the lid from his second quench, a bucket of horse piss. He’d collected it the day before, from the fleetest horse in the village. "Can I watch, Mattie?" For a moment his sister’s voice vexed him. This was his work, his place, a man’s place, not a place for a five-year-old girl. But Britta adored him. He always saw her eyes glow when she looked at him. She was the baby of the family. The death of two younger brothers before they could walk remained at the back of Mattias’s mind, or rather, not their deaths but the memory of his mother’s grief and his father’s silent anguish. By the time he turned, his anger was gone, and he smiled to see Britta in the doorway, her silhouette doll-like in the first gray rumor of dawn. She wore a nightshirt and clogs and she clenched her hands about reedy arms as she shivered. Mattias took off his coat as he walked over and slipped it around her shoulders. He picked her up and sat her on the sacks of salt inside the door. "You can watch from here, as long as you stay back from the fire." The bargain wasn’t ideal, he could see, but she didn’t demur. "Are Mamma and Gerta still sleeping?" he asked. Britta nodded. "Yes. But the village dogs are barking. I was scared." Mattias cocked an ear. It was true. From down the hill came a chorus of yaps and snarls. Absorbed by the crackle of the forge he hadn’t noticed. "They must have found a fox," he said. "Or a wolf." He smiled. "The wolves don’t come here anymore." He returned to his blade and found it cool enough to touch. He wiped it clean and laid it once more on the fire. He was tempted to pump the bellows, for he loved the surge of life within the coals, but if the color rose too fast the core of the steel might weaken, and he resisted. "Why don’t the wolves come here anymore?" Mattias flipped the blade. "Because they’re afraid of us." "Why are the wolves afraid of us?" The edges flushed dark fawn, like a deer’s coat in autumn, and he grabbed the blade with the tongs and flipped it again, and yes, the color was even and rising still, with magentas in the spine and tang, and the second quench was upon him. He pulled the blade from the forge and plunged it into the urine. The hiss was explosive and he turned his face from the acrid
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