Friday, October 17, 2014

Salah-ad-Din! - Excerpt 5

Ascalon, November 1177




“Salah-ad-Din!” the man shouted up to the lookouts on the ramparts of the barbican. “With his whole army!” He gestured wildly to the south with one hand while trying to drag a reluctant overloaded mule toward the closed Gaza Gate with the other. It was nearly midnight and the gates were locked and barred, but the watch peered down at not just one man with a mule, but dozens of people streaming toward the city by the light of the setting moon.

The captain of the watch squinted into the darkness, trying to estimate the number of refugees. Then he turned to the man next to him and said, “Better rouse Sergeant Shoreham. I’m not opening these gates without his orders.” He leaned over the ramparts and shouted down to the man with the mule, “Patience! We’ll let the lot of you in at once, not piecemeal.”

By the time Roger arrived, his hair sticking up in all directions, the crowd at the gate had grown to an angry, milling mob of nearly a half a hundred people, including squalling babies, whimpering children, and pleading women. “Salah-ad-Din!” the men kept shouting and gesturing. “He’s coming with his whole army!”

Roger gave the order to admit the refugees and, after hesitating a moment, also ordered the sounding of the alarm to call the garrison to the walls. The men stared at him in shock, but then one of them grabbed the bell cord and began vigorously ringing the heavy brass bell on the Gaza barbican with all his might. The sound seemed paltry in the vastness of the night, but it was quickly answered by the bells on the other gates―and slowly, haphazardly, as priests and deacons were roused from their sleep, the bells of the city’s churches took up the clangor. Within minutes St. Paul’s added its deep, heavy voice to the chorus of bells, and St. Mary’s, the main Orthodox church, seemed to be competing for the loudest clang.

The sound brought Balian from his sleep with a start, trying to remember what saint’s day it was. Then he registered that it was pitch dark, and he sat bolt upright in his bed as he realized the bells could only be ringing alarm. He had been Constable of Ascalon for fifteen months now, but this was the first time he had heard the bells rung in earnest. He flung off the light covers and jumped out of bed. “Arms! Bring my arms!” he shouted at a bewildered Dawit, just dragging himself out of his own sleep.

Balian flug off his nightshirt and grabbed his braies. He pulled them on and tied the cord, while Daniel stumbled to his feet to bring him his shirt. Balian pulled this over his head and snapped his fingers for his hose, which Daniel brought and helped him draw on and make fast to his braies. Balian was already in his gambeson and stuffing his feet into knee-high suede boots by the time a servant knocked on the door, shouting: “Sir Balian! Sir Balian! Sergeant Shoreham requests your presence at the Gaza Gate!”

“I’m coming!” Balian answered, and bent so Dawit could slip his hauberk over his head. He pushed his arms through the slack chain-mail sleeves while Daniel waited with his surcoat. He pulled this on, grabbed his sword from Dawit’s outstretched arms, and selected the lighter, open-faced crevelier rather than the heavy helm Daniel offered him. Finished at last, he ordered his squires to dress themselves, wake Sir Walter, and join him on the Gaza Gate.

By the time Balian reached the Gaza Gate, the number of refugees had swollen to nearly a hundred, and the ten Hospitaller knights had also mustered on foot. “They’re saying Salah-ad-Din is on the move with his entire army!” one of the Hospitallers called out to Balian as the latter jumped down from Jupiter to mount the stairs onto the barbican.

Balian handed his reins to one of the Hospitallers, asking: “How far away is he supposed to be?”

“Not more than twelve miles, they say. Most of these people fled early in the morning and have been making for Ascalon all day.”

“That would mean he’s marched past the Templar castle at Gaza,” Balian countered.

“These people are reporting one hundred thousand soldiers with Salah-ad-Din; the Templars only have five hundred fighting men at Gaza. Even they wouldn’t be mad enough to attack against those odds.”

“These people are panicked refugees. I’ll believe this is Salah-ad-Din’s whole army, and not just a raid, when I have better evidence than the panicked claims of fleeing peasants. How soon can you be ready to ride?” he asked the Hospitaller.

The man glanced back at his troops and then replied, “Ten minutes.”

“Good. Make ready,” Balian ordered (although he had no right to do so), and then plunged into the darkness of the narrow spiral stairwell leading up to the ramparts of the barbican.

When Balian stepped out of the stairwell onto the roof of the barbican, he quickly counted double the number of men usually stationed there, and recognized George Smith and Joachim Zimmermann among them. They were wearing leather jacks with hoods and had swords at their hips. Just as Roger had promised, it wasn’t just the garrison that had responded to the clanging of the bells.

Roger caught sight of Balian and went over to him. “You’ve seen the refugees, my lord? They’re saying Salah-ad-Din is on the march with his whole army.”

“What makes you think this is an invasion and not a raid?”

“I don’t know, sir. I would just rather be safe than sorry.”

Balian nodded his approval, but his guts were twisting themselves in knots. Salah-ad-Din had assembled his army to counter a threat posed by a Byzantine fleet sent to support the troops of the Count of Flanders and the Army of Jerusalem, but Flanders had quarreled with the Byzantines (ignoring Zoë’s advice, she confided in him), and now the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the Count of Flanders had gone campaigning in the north. This left Salah-ad-Din with his assembled forces on the southern border of the Kingdom at a time when it was virtually denuded of troops. The Saracens would be mad not to take advantage of the situation and attack, Balian thought as he followed Roger to the parapet. And Ascalon made the most tempting target. The Sultan must be itching to take it back and regain a base for his own fleet.

“There! Do you see the pinpoints of light on the horizon?” Roger broke into his thoughts.

Balian had to look very hard, but then he nodded. “Burning villages?”

“That’s my guess, my lord.”

Balian nodded again. “Roger, I want you to put the city on the defensive.”

“Yes, my lord, that’s what we’ve done.”

“Yes. What I meant is: I want you to take command of the defense.”

“But, my lord―”

Balian held up his hand and turned to Walter, Dawit, and Daniel, who had just arrived together. “Dawit, tack up Gladiator―with battle gear, the chain reins―and bring him here.”

“Do you need your lance and helmet, sir?” Daniel asked with breathless excitement.
“Yes.”

“You aren’t going out there, my lord!” Roger gasped.

“The Hospitallers and I will ride reconnaissance,” Balian answered.




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