Fabio's Sword

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A bright beam of morning sunlight plummeted through the sky and glanced off the silver blade of a sword, into the solemn eyes of the boy who was holding it – a boy who was about to sail into the greatest adventure of his life. Fabio Merici, nineteen years old, stood on the deck of the Marchesa, leaning his arms on the railing and looking out over the green ocean waves, over which flecks of light shimmered like a million miniature sequins on a merchant’s roll of cloth. It was October 7, 1571, and the Marchesa was sailing into the Gulf of Lepanto.
“Well, Fabio! Ready for your first taste of battle?” boomed a rough but cheerful voice. Fabio looked up from his sword to find Gasparo Giovanni, a rather wild-looking young soldier several years older than himself, leaning c***ily over the railing with an almost sneer-like smile curling under his scraggly mustache.
Fabio gave a nervous smile. “I guess,” he said simply. His gaze wandered again to his sword-blade, glittering as he turned it in the sun; and as his eye wandered, so did his mind, back to his last evening home in Genoa. Still he could remember Mother’s teary eyes above her firmly-set mouth, Father’s shaky voice, Erminia’s troubled face. They had all known he might never come back. Even thirteen-year-old Antonio, who could talk of battles and swords and tactics as endlessly as though he really knew what he was talking about, had been somber as their father handed Fabio the precious family heirloom – the sword he was to use in battle.
“Your grandfather used this, when he was young,” his father had explained. “He called it Giustizia – ‘justice’. Use it well, son.”
“It’s a beautiful sword, Fabio,” Antonio had said wonderingly as he touched the blade with an awed finger. Fabio could still hear his little brother’s voice ring through the air, as plain as day.
“No, it isn’t.” Erminia’s voice broke in on his thoughts, exactly as it had those many months ago. His sixteen-year-old sister’s voice trembled and cracked. “It’s a horrible sword.”
Fabio could not blame her for the way she had felt. It rather hurt him that she was so vehemently opposed to his going to battle, but he knew it was all for love of him that she sulked so. She never would have dreamed of calling their grandfather’s sword “horrible” before. It was such a very lovely sword –simply made but slender and graceful, with something regal about it: a sword a poet could easily envision flashing and dancing gallantly in battle. But Fabio knew what Erminia meant. It was horrible to look at the steel edge of the weapon and think what it was capable of doing – what it had done in its younger days, and what it was about to do now. Once again he found himself wondering what he had wondered so often since he had left Genoa: who was right about the sword, Antonio or Erminia? Was it beautiful or was it ugly?
Once again, his musings were interrupted by words, only now they were real words rather than the mere memory of speeches made by loved ones long ago. They cut through the air and shattered his daydream, bringing him back to reality with their coarse carelessness. “You’ll be ready, alright,” Gasparo said, looking out to sea and fingering his musket. “You’ll be ready for battle, when the time comes. Just wait until we sail in among the corsairs and get a taste of Turkish blood.” He gave a harsh laugh. “You’ll find it quite agreeable, I think.”
Fabio shuddered. Gasparo had been friendly enough on the long voyage from Genoa, but there had always been something about him which put the new soldier ill at ease. Such a lust for blood, even for such savage blood as the Turks had, was repulsive to Fabio. He had not joined the Holy League to kill; he had joined the Holy League to protect. The threat of the sultans upon the land of kings was very real and very terrible. Europe, and all of Europe’s people, was in need of defense. It was for this reason that not even Erminia had asked Fabio to stay safe in Genoa.
Suddenly Gasparo stood up very straight. “There they are,” he said.
Fabio looked out over the sea and felt a shiver run down his back. There, spread along the horizon, was a line of Turkish ships – enemy ships, full of enemy men and enemy guns. His heart lurched along with the Marchesa, and for a moment he felt more cowardly than he ever had in his life. For a moment he was sure that the defense of Christendom was already a lost cause. How could the little Christian fleet ever hope to hold its own against that impenetrable wall of Turkish galleons? A cannon boomed somewhere from up ahead. The battle had begun.
“Ready yourself, boy,” Gasparo said, looking more grim than Fabio had ever seen him but with the greed of a hungry hawk in his eye. “Things are going to get messy.”
“What am I doing here?” Fabio thought sickly. He tossed his eyes upwards, towards the clouds, wishing desperately for a way to escape. A fluttering flag caught his vision, and he focused on the image depicted upon it – that of a veiled young Indian woman, clothed in bright beams of sunlight, her hands joined in prayer.  At the reminder of the Lady who had crushed the serpent under her feet, an arrow of hope took hold in Fabio’s spirit. Perhaps he would die here; but he would die like a man. He gripped his sword hilt and looked down again, towards the fleet of Turkish ships.
“Strike them with terror, Lord,” he prayed. “Show the nations they are only human.”
A favorable wind set the sails flapping, and the Marchesa plowed through the water, pitching slightly now and again as though striving eagerly for battle. Fabio shivered again, with excitement now, for he felt as though the vibrant wind was exhorting the Holy League to courage. He tightened his grip on his sword and kept his eyes locked on the Turkish line, growing ever nearer.
“Friends.” A new voice rang through the air, steady and clear, yet with something tremulous about it. Fabio turned and saw Francesco San Fedra, the commander of the Marchesa, standing in the middle of the deck where all could see him, his armor glinting in the early daylight. Fabio was standing near enough to see the brave and grim expression on his face. All the men listened attentively as he spoke.
“You know why we are here. You know why we are fighting, and what we are fighting for. I need not remind you of the bloodthirsty injustice of these men, or that we are all that stands between them and the civilization which we so love.” He paused, then went on. “There is not much I can say to you in these moments before battle, so I will not say much. But remember this.” He raised his voice a little higher. “We are not alone in this fight; indeed, this battle is not in our hands, but in God’s.” He lifted his rosary beads for all to see. “We fight for Him and with Him; let us not, then, tremble with fear! The Lord rules forever, has set up his throne for judgment. It is he who judges the world with justice, who judges the peoples with fairness. Take heart.” He drew his sword with a ringing of steel, and turned towards the open sea, where the line of Turkish ships was swiftly closing in. “Come, my brothers, let us fight – for Christendom, for our faith, for our God.”
A resounding cheer sounded from the deck. Even the Marchesa herself bobbed her prow as though expressing her enthusiasm for the Holy League’s mission.
But they were not the only soldiers ready for a fight. Those aboard the Turkish galleys were every bit as determined for victory. One of these enemy ships was, by now, drawing very near. As the Marchesa sailed fearlessly forward, a shower of arrows flew over the deck. Fabio ducked just in time to avoid one of the cruel bringers of death; they embedded themselves all around in the wooden planks of the ship, and several men fell heavily to the deck.
Boom! Boom! The Marchesa’s cannons roared. The air began to be filled with black smoke and the groans of wounded men. Beside Fabio, Gasparo stood with his musket ready to fire, waiting for the Turks to come into range.
They came soon enough. Looking over the side of the ship, Fabio could see the Turkish galley looming through the smoke, coming ever closer, headed straight for them, full of swarming, shouting bodies in brightly colored cloaks and turbans. The Turkish arrows flew thick and fast; Fabio jumped to the side as one shot right past him. Before he could regain his balance, there was a terrific jolt and a crashing thud. Fabio was thrown hard to the deck. As he lay half stunned, a hand seemed to come out of nowhere and grasp his own, pulling him to his feet. In a moment, he had regained his breath and his composure well enough to recognize his helper’s face. It was Francesco San Fedra.
“You alright, son?” he asked briefly.
“Yes, sir.” Besides a shaken confidence and a bruised hip, Fabio was unhurt.
The commander of the Marchesa leapt to the port side of the ship, where the Turkish ship had rammed the galley and was now throwing grappling hooks over the railing, to board the Christian vessel. For one short moment, Fabio stood in a sort of dazed awe, watching San Fedra shout orders to the men as he prepared for the Turkish onslaught, sword held high in the air – the very picture of a military hero. Then he snapped back to attention, remembering suddenly that he was not merely an onlooker, but a combatant in this battle. He hurried to San Fedra’s side just as the first wave of Turks began to flood onto the ship. One sprang over the railing, sword raised, ready to hack savagely at Fabio; one quick thrust of Giustizia, and the Turk fell dead. For a moment Fabio stared in horror at his bloody blade. What had he just done?
There was no time to ponder that now. Another Turk clambered aboard the Marchesa; another time Fabio brought Giustizia down on the turbaned head. Soon he was all but oblivious to his surroundings, too busy trying to keep back the flood of Moslem soldiers on the Christian ship. Around him the cannons continued to boom, the arrows continued to fly, the swords continued to clash; the ships rolled and shook, the captains shouted and bellowed, the soldiers struggled and died. Fabio caught a glance of Gasparo wrenching his sword free from a fallen Turk, a cool, satisfied cruelty in the action.
The Christian cannons, meanwhile, had been well-manned. Several smoking gaps in the Turkish galley’s hull stood as proof of this fact; but Fabio did not fully understand what this meant until he heard the cry taken up by a frightened Turkish soldier – “The ship! The ship! The ship is going down!”
It was true. Shattered by cannons and flooded by water, the Turkish ship had begun to list dreadfully to one side. In a panic, the Moslems made a frenzied scramble for the Christian ship, to be met by swords and musket-balls. There was no hope for them to take the galley now; their numbers had been devastated. Fabio watched as the dispirited Moslem commander begrudgingly surrendered his flag to Francesco San Fedra.
For the Marchesa at least, the day was won.
Fabio leaned wearily against the ship’s railing as the din of battle died down. In the gulf all around them, cannons still boomed and shouts still rang out, but for the moment, the Marchesa was calm. “I’m alive.” It was the only thought Fabio could really grasp. “I’m coming home, Erminia.”
He took a deep breath and looked at his sword, held limply in his hand, now wiped clean of the blood that had so horrified him. Now that he had seen it in action, he ought to be able to know more clearly what he thought of it. Yes, the blood had been ugly. Yes, the killing had torn his soul. But he had done his part to protect Christendom. That was as far from ugly as anything could get.
Thoughtfully, he turned the sword over. Giustazia. “Justice”. Was there any name more fitting? It was justice which brought him from Genoa, justice which gave him the courage to sail into the Gulf of Lepanto. It was justice which lent beauty to the mission of the Holy League and the lack of justice that lent ugliness to the actions of the Turks. It was justice which set Francesco San Fedra aglow with a hero’s aura, and the lack of justice which made Gasparo Giovanni’s war against the Turks nothing more than a lust-hunt for blood. Anytime there was beauty in warfare, it was because of justice. Anytime there was ugliness in warfare, it was because of a lack of justice. And justice was not something which a sword had any power to summon. It was something only man could achieve. Yet even man could not be just without God’s help.
Fabio leaned over the railing and looked out over the waves, over a watery battlefield stained by carnage. Yes, there was ugliness there, but there was beauty as well. For this battlefield had been a struggle, not only between Christian and Turk, Western and Eastern, but between justice and injustice, good and evil, life and death. He had had a part in it; and he had been on the side of justice, and won.
A broad but gentle smile broke out on Fabio’s face as he imagined what he would tell Erminia when he came home to Genoa. There were many things he would be eager to describe to her – the colorful characters he had met on his voyage, the Turkish ships sailing full-fledged into battle, his discovery that justice was the key to beauty or ugliness in war. But what she would want to hear of most would be, of course, the battle itself; and to describe this, the words of the ninth Psalm kept jumping into his mind:
I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous deeds.
  I will delight and rejoice in you, I will sing hymns to your name, Most High.
  When my enemies turn back, they stumble and perish before you.
For you upheld my right and my cause, seated on your throne, judging justly.
So the Battle of Lepanto was not man’s victory after all, but God’s.
 






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