Smoke soiled the sky, turning the sun orange and drifting over the walls of the citadel to drop cinders and ash upon the thousands of refugees crowding the ward. The breeze also brought shouts, cries, and the raised voices of men quarreling, along with the sound of things being dragged, broken, and smashed. Many children were crying in terror, held by mothers hardly less terrified themselves, while priests chanted in a half-dozen languages, and men murmured and argued and looked anxiously to the thin walls around them.
Maria Zoë, who had been looking out of the interior window of the hall, drew back, closing the shutters. Her household knights, Sir Constantine and Sir William, were discussing urgently the best defensive strategy for the citadel, but there had not yet been an assault, and the fires suggested there would be none today. The Saracens appeared to have taken the bait of plunder over the risky business of attacking the citadel—no matter how weak it was. She had bought them time, but how much?
“Water, food, and latrines,” she said out loud, turning back to face the men in the room.
“How many people are sheltering here? Do we even have a head count?” For this she looked not to her steward, who was conspicuously lurking in the shadows trying to avoid her eye, but to her confessor Father Angelus and the Abbot of St. Sebastian, an energetic and competent man.
“A head count?” Father Angelus answered with a glance toward the abbot. “No, but we estimate eleven thousand.”
“That would be the entire Christian and Jewish population of Nablus,” Maria Zoë responded dismissively.
The churchmen looked at one another and nodded. “Yes, madame. Except for the Muslims, who consciously remained outside, the entire population is here: Christians, Jews, and Samaritans.”
“We can’t possibly feed eleven thousand!” Maria Zoë protested next, after she absorbed the magnitude of her own success at getting the residents of Nablus into the citadel.
“Not for long, no,” Father Angelus admitted.
“For how long?” Maria Zoë wanted to know.
“The castle was stocked to feed fifty fighting men and twenty others for a year,” Father Angelus answered. “That means we can feed eleven thousand for …” he pursed his lips as he did the math in his head, “three to four days at the most—on short rations.”
“Is that long enough?”
“That depends on what has happened to the Christian army,” Sir Walter replied, coming up beside her with the other knights in his wake. “If the Saracens are here because they have already defeated the forces under King Baldwin, we cannot expect relief at all.”
Maria Zoë had been far too focused on the immediate threat to think about that.
“How do we find out what has happened to King Baldwin?” she asked, carefully avoiding the question about her husband, brother-in-law, and son-in-law.
Silence answered her question, and as she looked from man to man, they dropped their eyes. “I see,” she answered her own question. “Either someone comes to our relief—or they don’t.”
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