Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Once More onto the Breach...: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"


Kenneth Branagh in the film of Shakespear's "King Henry V"
 "Once more onto the breach, dear Friends"
On September 29 at about 5:15 in the afternoon, the attackers set fire to the timbers holding up the tunnel that ran for roughly thirty meters under Jerusalem’s northern wall between St. Stephen’s Gate and the Postern of Mary Magdalene. The excited shouts of the Saracens as they poured out of the far end of the tunnel gave the Christians a fifteen–second warning, and some of the men manning that sector of the wall managed to get away. Many more were sucked down by the collapsing masonry and were crushed or suffocated in the rubble as the wall collapsed.

Ibelin had been on the Gate of Jehoshaphat at the time. He heard the sound of rolling thunder coming out of the earth, then the crashing of stones and the screams of men, and he started running in the direction of the sound, oblivious to the arrows aimed at him. Even before he reached the breach, he was screaming orders for archers to pour fire into the gap. He shouted down into the streets for men to rush into the breach to stop the inevitable Saracen assault.

Sir Roger, who had been on St. Stephen’s Gate, converged on the breach from the opposite direction, shouting identical orders. The dust had not yet settled before Sir Mathewos arrived with a troop of crossbowmen who had been held in reserve for this event, while from St. Mary Magdalene Sir Constantine brought the last of his Greek engineers.

The Saracens, of course, had prepared an assault troop just behind the head of the tunnel. As the wall collapsed, shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” went up from across the Saracen camp—and thousands of jubilant Saracen troops, whether Turks, Kurds, Egyptians, or Nubians, pumped their swords or bows over their heads in triumph.

The troops selected for the honor of being the first to enter Jerusalem rushed forward with élan and elation. This was their moment of greatest glory yet! Hattin had been a victory, to be sure: they had humiliated the Non-Believers and crushed them once and for all. But this—this was a moment that would live in history forever. They would repay the outrage of the Christian massacre of their brothers eighty-eight years ago and make them drown in their own blood. They would liberate the Dome of the Rock from the filth of the Franks and raise it again to the third greatest shrine of the True Faith.

They surged up over the rubble, which was still encased in clouds of dust and billowing smoke from the burning timbers of the tunnel underneath. Because the stones had been dislodged but not settled, they foundered and scrambled as the blocks shifted under their weight. They fell as the broken masonry gave way under their feet, and the leading men started small landslides that knocked down the men behind them. And all the while, death rained on them, loosed by Christian archers on either side of the breach.

Just as they crested the highest part of the rubble and were ready to run down into the city, they were hit head-on by a barrage of crossbow bolts and flaming arrows. The defenders were at such close range that when the bolts struck the Saracens they went clear through their first victim, and some killed the man behind as well. Behind the crossbowmen came slingers releasing pots full of Greek fire. Within a quarter-hour, the breach in the wall was a burning graveyard.

But Salah ad-Din did not have a shortage of fanatical followers ready to take the place of the failed first assault team. The second wave rushed forward, calling on Allah as they charged. These had an easier time mounting the north-facing slope of the debris, but met the same barrage of crossbowmen and Greek fire at the crest. So did the third and fourth assault wave. By then the sun was setting and the muezzins called the Faithful to prayer.

Ibelin stood on the corner tower, watching the survivors of the last assault drag as many of their dead comrades as possible out of the flames and back down the slope of rubble. Then he turned and strained his eyes in the direction of the Sultan’s tent. He thought he saw a flicker of motion: the tent flap opening or closing. Salah ad-Din had no doubt been watching just as he had. Hopefully he had had enough for today.

People were shouting all around him, trying to get Christian wounded to the Hospital and Christian dead to the improvised catacombs. Men had collapsed against the inside of the ramparts and were sobbing from exhaustion, terror, relief—who knew. Somewhere a woman was keening as she discovered her husband, son or lover among the dead. And then the bells of the Holy Sepulcher began to clang. Balian lifted his head and looked across the rubble, through the smoke and dust, toward the dome of the great church, and wondered how many more times it would be allowed to raise its deep, comforting voice.


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