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Authors: Jack Hight

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BOOK: Holy War
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John blinked. ‘My lord?’

‘For imprisoning you. Heraclius and Reynald urged me to. Why do they hate you so?’

‘Old disagreements, my lord.’

Guy nodded. ‘I was driven from France by men who hated me. And now I am to be king. I never wished it, John. But Sibylla dreams of the throne. She says I will be a great king.’ He sighed as he turned to look out of the window. John stood, the dagger in his hand. ‘I love her, but I sometimes feel I am only a pawn in some game she is playing. I have so many advisors telling me what to do. Sibylla. Heraclius. Reynald. I sometimes do not know who to trust.’

John lowered the dagger. This man was not worth killing. Heraclius and Reynald, they were the true danger. He was slipping the blade back into its sheath when there was a knock
on the door.

‘Enter!’ Guy called.

Reynald stepped into the room. His eyes widened when he saw John. He sniffed the air. ‘You smell like shit, Saxon.’ He looked back to Guy. ‘The scouts have returned, lord regent. Saladin is no longer at Mount Tabor. His army’s tracks head south.’

‘Jerusalem,’ John said.

‘There are other targets in the south, lord regent. Kerak, Shawbak and Ascalon.’

The regent nodded. ‘You are right. Our southern border must be protected. You go to Kerak. I will ride for my lands in Ascalon. John, you are the abbot of Mount Sion. Your place is in Jerusalem. You will go there with Raymond to defend the city.’

C
hapter 5

October 1183: Kerak

Yusuf pulled up the hood of his cloak as a light rain began to fall, rippling the waters of the Dead Sea. It was the first rain of the year. Yusuf would see to it that a few sheep were slaughtered that night so the men could celebrate properly. Some had begun to pray in thanks. Others stood beside their horses, which were drinking from a stream that flowed into the sea. More men huddled under their cloaks and chewed on hard bread. Yusuf bit into his own piece and looked south towards Kerak.

His army had left Mount Tabor two weeks before. The feint north had served its purpose. Yusuf had drawn the Frankish army to Saffuriya, and while they sat there, Selim had led Egyptian troops up from the south. Today, Yusuf would join them at Kerak.

Yusuf turned at a sudden burst of merriment. Nu’man was emerging naked from the Dead Sea, and Gökböri was roaring with laughter, his belly shaking. ‘Never seen a real man before?’ Nu’man grumbled as he strode to his horse. He noticed Yusuf watching. ‘I wanted to see for myself, Malik.’

‘See what?’

‘Gökböri says the waters have healing properties.’

‘I’ve been drinking a spoonful a day for years,’ Gökböri declared. ‘Costs more than a few fals to have it shipped north, but it’s worth it. Look at me.’ He slapped his belly. ‘Strong as a mule.’

Yusuf could not help but smile. ‘Well, how do you feel, Nu’man?’

Nu’man shrugged as he pulled on his tunic. ‘Still too short.’ He pulled on a boot, then stopped and pointed to the north. ‘A scout is returning.’

Yusuf spotted the rider cantering along the shore of the lake. He had left a few men behind to keep track of the Frankish army.

The scout’s horse spattered Yusuf with mud as it was reined in before him. The scout swung from the saddle and prostrated himself. ‘My apologies, Malik!’

‘Get up. What news do you bring?’

‘The Frankish army has broken up. Most went to Jerusalem.’

‘And Reynald?’

‘He headed down the west side of the Dead Sea. At the pace he and his men were riding, they should have reached Kerak some time last week.’

‘Good. The bird has come home to roost.’ Yusuf looked to Nu’man. ‘Get dressed. I wish to reach Kerak before nightfall.’

They continued south along the shore. The rain stopped, and the sun broke through the clouds, transforming the sea from flint grey to a brilliant turquoise. Their Bedouin guides led them into a green valley that wound its way through the hills east of the sea. Yusuf saw the tall white walls of Kerak from more than a mile off. The castle sat on a spur of land that thrust out on to a barren stretch of white sand and dusty soil. Steep hills faced in stone dropped away from either side of the spur. There was no way up those hills. The attack would have to come along the neck of the spur.

Yusuf rode out from the hills and on to the arid plain. Nothing grew there, but Kerak’s wealth did not come from the land. It came from preying on the caravan route that ran from Damascus to Ayla, and from there across the Sinai to Cairo. To the north, hundreds of tents sat in the shadow cast by the castle above. A group of men rode out from the tents to meet the army. Yusuf recognized his brother Selim at the head. He had Yusuf’s sharp features and thin build, but he was half a head taller than his older brother.

‘As-salaamu ‘alaykum, Brother,’ Selim declared as he drew alongside Yusuf and leaned over to exchange the ritual kisses.

‘Wa ‘alaykum as-salaam,’ Yusuf replied. He reached out to touch his brother’s beard, which showed traces of grey. It still seemed only yesterday that Selim had been a fat-cheeked boy. ‘You grow old, Brother.’

Selim let out a short bark of laughter. ‘The camel calls the mule stubborn. Tell me, was it snowing in the hills, Brother? I see more white than black in your hair.’

‘A mark of wisdom,’ Yusuf replied with a smile. He looked to Kerak and grew serious. ‘How goes the siege?’

‘We arrived three days ago. We took the town easily enough, but the castle is another matter. The walls—’

A gust of wind brought with it the sound of music. Yusuf looked to Selim’s camp and frowned. ‘What is this?’

‘Not my men, I assure you, Brother. The Wolf is celebrating a wedding. His son-in-law Humphrey of Toron is marrying King Baldwin’s half-sister, Isabella.’ Selim spat in the dust. ‘The girl is only eleven. It is an abomination.’

Yusuf shrugged. Frankish marriage customs were no business of his. But if the girl were the king’s sister, that might create problems. ‘We must take the castle quickly. Tell me of the walls.’

‘I will show you, Brother.’

Yusuf followed Selim through the camp and on to a trail that zigzagged up to the plateau on which Kerak sat. A dozen men from Yusuf’s khaskiya followed them to the top. The light was brighter up here, where the sun had not yet set. They rode through the town and out on to the narrow spur of land that led to the castle. A line of four catapults stretched across the spur. As Yusuf watched, Selim’s men loaded a heavy stone into one of them. The catapult sprang into action, hurling the rock towards the castle. Yusuf lost track of it, then spotted it again just before it slammed into the wall with a loud crack. Tiny flakes of rock flew from the wall, but nothing more.

‘Rest for a moment,’ Selim told the men at the catapults as he rode past. Beyond the siege engines, an earthen barricade topped with spikes had been erected across the face of the spur. Three hundred mamluks stood watch behind it, ready in case of a sortie from the castle.

‘It is best if we continue on foot,’ Selim said. He dismounted and took hold of Yusuf’s stirrup.

‘Saqr, come with us,’ Yusuf said as he dismounted. He followed his brother through a narrow opening in the barricade. Ahead, the land of the spur had been cut away by the Franks to create a gap twenty feet across and ten feet deep. A bridge lay across the gap. As Yusuf crossed, he looked down and saw burnt timbers on the ground below.

‘They burned the bridge,’ Selim explained. ‘We had to build a new one.’

‘Be sure to post guards at night, in case they seek to burn this one.’

They stopped at the far side, only fifty yards from the castle wall. The music had become much louder – flutes were playing a cheerful melody over the strumming of a lute.

‘We should go no closer,’ Selim cautioned. ‘They have crossbowmen on the wall.’

The wall was higher on the right, where it protected the upper court of the castle. Here and there, the facade was rough where bits of stone had fallen away, and Yusuf saw a few cracks near the top of the lower wall. That was the extent of the damage from the catapults. ‘Concentrate the bombardment on the walls of the lower court,’ he said. ‘When last I besieged Kerak, those walls fell first. Once we take the lower court, we can storm the upper.’ He put a hand on Selim’s shoulder. ‘You have done well, Brother.’

‘I am glad you are pleased. Perhaps you would grant me a request?’

‘Name it.’

‘I am wasted counting coins in Cairo, Brother. The battle is in the north, with Mosul and the Franks. When we are done here, give me Aleppo.’

Yusuf’s lips pressed into a thin line. ‘My son Az-Zahir rules in Aleppo.’

‘He is clever, Brother, but he is only a boy. I will teach him how to govern.’

‘And who would govern Egypt for me with you gone?’

‘Ubadah.’

‘Our nephew is too impulsive.’

‘A few years counting coins might help cool his temper.’

Yusuf rubbed his beard. ‘I will think on it.’

‘Shukran Allah. Now come, Brother. I am staying in the town. I have prepared refreshments in my home.’

When they had crossed the bridge there were shouts of alarm from amongst Selim’s men, who began to pour forth from behind the barricade. Yusuf turned to see the gates of Kerak swing open. His hand fell to his sword hilt. But this was no attack. Two stooped old men in tunics came out. Each carried a platter heaped with food. Yusuf motioned for the troops to stay back. ‘Saqr, search them.’

Saqr met the men on the far side of the bridge, and they submitted to his search. ‘They bear no weapons, Malik.’

Yusuf waved them forward. One man carried a platter with a whole roast suckling pig. Selim paled at the sight of it. The other carried a pitcher of wine and a haunch of lamb, dripping with bloody juices. It was clearly not halal.

Yusuf gestured to the food. ‘What is this?’ he asked in Frankish.

‘From our lord,’ the man with the pig said. He pointed back to the wall. Squinting, Yusuf could just make out Reynald.

‘Saladin!’ the lord of Kerak shouted. ‘You honour me by your presence at the marriage of my son. I have sent you these dishes so that you may take part in the feast!’

‘The insolent dog,’ Selim spat. He knocked the platters to the ground. The wine from the pitcher soaked quickly into the sandy soil.

‘Your master has our answer,’ Yusuf told the old men. He turned his back to them and strode through the barricade to where the catapults stood. ‘Resume your work,’ he told the men. ‘Chase that faithless dog from the wall.’

Rain pitter-pattered off the hood of Yusuf’s cloak, and the muddy ground sucked at his boots as he and Saqr trudged towards the walls of Kerak for Yusuf’s daily inspection. At this distance, the walls appeared as only a vague shape looming through the curtain of rain. Frequent showers had plagued them throughout the first month of the siege, leaving the bowstrings of his men slack and making it impossible to roll a ram through the mud to the citadel gate. Yusuf had never known such a wet autumn. As he passed the catapults, one of them swung into action. Its basket had filled with rain, and it hurled a shower of water along with its stone. Yusuf lost track of the projectile against the cloudy sky, but he heard the loud crack as it struck the walls. At the barricade, the mamluks were huddled under their cloaks. They straightened as Yusuf approached.

‘What did he send today?’ Every day, Reynald sent Yusuf a new dish. None was halal. They were both an insult and a message: the citadel had plenty of food and could hold out for weeks to come.

‘Some foul thing,’ one of the guards replied. ‘I have never seen the like.’ He signalled to another man, who brought forth a basket. It held sausages that were almost black, with just a faint reddish sheen. ‘They smell of blood.’

‘Put them with the rest.’ After that first day, Yusuf had begun setting the dishes aside. When Kerak fell, he planned to shove them down Reynald’s throat. He stepped through the barricade and strode across the bridge. The rain was heavy, and he had to get close to clearly see the walls. The ground before them was a sea of churned-up mud littered with the debris left by half a dozen assaults. Yusuf had to pick his way carefully in order to avoid the broken arrow shafts and the occasional blade buried in the mud. He stopped within thirty yards of the castle – well within crossbow range on a dry day, but the rain would have played havoc with the crossbow strings, as with his men’s bows. Besides, the wall was empty save for the impaled heads of a dozen of Yusuf’s men, who had fallen in battle, and two guards, who were hunched under their cloaks, paying him little mind. He turned his attention to the lower wall. A network of cracks ran across its face and pieces of the battlement had been knocked away, but the wall looked no closer to falling than it had a week before. Yusuf frowned. He was running out of time. The Frankish army was on its way. And his scouts told him that it was not Raymond or Guy who led it, but King Baldwin himself and a priest: John.

Yusuf heard squelching footsteps approach from behind. It was Selim. ‘The scouts have returned,’ Yusuf’s brother said as he splashed to his side. ‘The Franks are only two days off, less if the rain stops.’

Yusuf nodded. He continued to examine the wall. He looked again to the guards huddled under their cloaks. A week ago, Yusuf had sent a dozen men under cover of darkness to scale the wall and open the gates. They had failed, but perhaps if he tried again, during heavy rain . . .

BOOK: Holy War
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