1. XAGHRA’S REVENGE is an historical fiction piece focusing on something that, sadly, continues to today--slavery. What is it in your past or psyche that facilitated the need to obtain social justice for Gozo's inhabitants?
Never mind the past, I am a slave now! I don’t just mean marriage; a slave to the economic system; a slave to society’s cultural mores and laws. I am a slave to my damn brain. It’s a writer’s lot to own a rabid imagination and mine gets into the being of my characters so much I can’t escape. Of course it’s not like the physical slavery of people being brought from a poor country and forced to work for example in my Britain because they owe a fortune to the gang who brought them. I hadn’t come into contact with an actual slave or knew much about them before I went on a family holiday to Malta. There I learnt with horror about the 1551 mass abduction by pirates of the entire island of Gozo. I couldn’t believe that cultured and intelligent people such as those pirate leaders could do that. We’re not talking about uncouth Hollywood pirates, but well-educated Muslims (Rais Dragut, who had himself been a galley slave to a Christian Knight of St John!) and Jews (Pasha) who have loving families at home. Yet it was acceptable for them to abduct whole towns and islands. Split up families, torture and kill for their meagre wealth then go home to their own people. It’s another culture completely to that I was brought up with. Of course Dragut had religion on his side. If the abducted were righteous their God will see them right, Okay?
On Gozo I discovered that not many people knew much about the 1551 abduction. It didn’t happen to them or their personal families because the emptied island was looted and reoccupied by people from Italy, Sicily, and Malta. The pirates were cunning enough to steal property deeds and sell them to the rich in Tripoli and Constantinople. I found direct descendants of those Gozo abducted but over in Tarhuna, Libya. They are still there! I could not find many people who felt strongly about that abduction so I had to do something on their behalf. Xaghra’s Revenge is for those 5,000.
Excerpt from XAGHRA’S REVENGE
Xaghra is a real town on the small Mediterranean island of Gozo. I chose it to begin the story because I’ve been there many times. It’s the site of one of the world’s oldest buildings, The Ggantija Temple – older than the pyramids and Stonehenge! I’ve hugged those huge limestone blocks and the vibes touched me. I’ve stood in the spot where Stjepan hears the alarm bell, where he sees his friends chased by pirates, and outside his house. It’s personal.
This opening sets the story with a contrast and conflict: an idyllic rural and family scene versus a worrying incursion threatening to disrupt everything.
CHAPTER ONE from XAGHRA’S REVENGE published 15th July 2017 via Solstice Shadows, imprint of Solstice Publishing.
The Mediterranean island of Gozo 1551, July 24th
Stjepan leaned on his hoe and listened. His beans needed rescuing from the bindweed, but they’d have to wait if that was the warning bell coming from the city.
Five… He stepped up onto a low limestone wall and scanned the horizon. A flock of starlings created an air sculpture – God’s chariots chasing each other. It always lifted his heart.
Six… The Citadel topped the hill to the west; the clock tower visible, but he couldn’t see if people were running up the lanes to the city walls.
Seven, eight… He strained to see, but hills prevented a clear view of the ocean even though Gozo was less than a day’s ride across.
Nine… Perhaps a pirate ship had been seen again. The damned Turkish corsairs raided more often these days. Pirate dogs. He spat at the soil. His short sword lay under his cot at home.
Ten... In spite of the heat, he shivered at the thought of his wife and four-month-old son thrown into the dank belly of a corsair galley.
Eleven, twelve… He held his breath as if that aided hearing. The starlings swirled around the citadel as if they knew something. His heart sank.
Thirteen, fourteen… curses.
He drove his hoe into the stony soil, wishing it was Dragut’s black heart. Stjepan picked his way through berry bushes and olive trees until he reached his village, Xaghra. Karlu, his neighbour, called as he walked in the opposite direction towards the capital, Rabat.
“Ho, Stjepan, you’ll get fined again.”
“I’m not going without Lidia and my son. Your wife?”
Karlu stopped, scratched his head and twitched his moustache. “In Rabat, staying at her mother’s. She’s been coughing up hairballs.”
“That’s cats. Ah, you never liked Senora Angelina. I’ll see you there.”
In spite of the humour, panic tightened his chest as he ran across the central square. Stjepan saw his marmalade cat, its tail upright. She possessed a sense for trouble. “Heket, you’re supposed to be Lidia’s guardian.”
He frowned pushing past neighbours then saw Lidia waving at him outside the church.
“Father’s tripped on the steps. He can’t walk to Rabat.”
“He’ll have to go on the priest’s cart.”
Stjepan gnawed on a knuckle while his brain raced. He couldn’t afford another florin fine, yet the alert was probably another false alarm.
“I’ll carry your father.” Blood seeped through Alfredo’s grey robe from his knee. His eyes apologised.
Stjepan crouched before the old man. “Come on, I’ll carry you on my back.”
They crossed the wide village square. Stjepan found the old man lighter than he expected. Nevertheless, he stopped.
“What about Calypso’s Cave?”
“No.” Lidia breathed heavily carrying infant Pietru. “It’d be too obvious a hiding place. Keep going.”
He did, with increased pace until he reached the top of the steep scarp slope. The lane wriggled as it fell to the valley floor before climbing the Citadel’s slopes an hour’s walk away. They could see the exodus along the most direct route from Xaghra to Rabat.
Lidia stopped. “No.”
“What?” He followed her free arm pointing to the north. A dozen men ran along the valley floor lane. Their scimitars flashed in the midday sun, and their white turbans gave them away as Turkish corsairs.
* * *
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There’s another excerpt from Chapter 23 where two slaves consider escape while watching a beetle in the hot desert sand.