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Authors: Jack Hight

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BOOK: Holy War
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‘Carry me, John,’ Baldwin whispered, his voice weak.

John lifted him with ease. The king was all skin and bones. John carried him to his chamber and deposited him in a chair before the fire. He tucked a blanket around the shaking man.

William had followed them in. He shrugged off his cloak and moved to the fire to warm his hands. ‘Bring warm wine for the King!’ the priest called.

‘The wine can wait,’ Baldwin countered. ‘Bring me Amalric and Jos.’

William exchanged a glance with John and then nodded. ‘Of course, Your Grace.’ He left to retrieve the constable and seneschal, while John went to fetch the wine himself. He was pouring a glass when William returned with Amalric.

‘Your Grace,’ the constable murmured.

The seneschal, Joscelin of Courtenay, entered a moment later. He was a short man, with the same slim build, wavy blond hair and blue eyes as his sister Agnes. He bowed gracefully. ‘Your Grace, I apologize for my absence at Mass. I was occupied with—’

‘That is not why I have asked you here, Uncle. The whores you fuck may trouble your wife, but they are no concern of mine.’ Baldwin paused to look at each of the men gathered around him. ‘I have brought you here to discuss war.’

‘War, Your Grace?’ Amalric’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. ‘The last I heard, Saladin’s army was far off in Al-Jazirah.’

‘Yes, and his absence is a chance not to be missed. As soon as the army is gathered, we will march on Damascus.’

John glanced at the men around him. Their stunned expressions mirrored his own surprise. Joscelin was the first to recover. ‘Forgive me, Your Grace, but is that wise? Perhaps we can attack later, when you have recovered your strength.’

‘I am a leper, Jos! Rest will not cure what ails me. Last year, I walked in the procession with hardly an ache. This year, it was all I could do not to collapse before I reached the palace. My days are numbered, and my heir is only a child. I must make the Kingdom secure before I die, or I fear it will not stand.’

‘The King is right,’ John agreed. ‘Once Saladin has Aleppo and Mosul in hand, he will turn on us. If we wait, we will fall.’

‘What of peace, John?’ William asked. ‘You once told me that Saladin was a reasonable man.’

‘He was. Since Montgisard, I am not so sure . . .’ John had heard disturbing rumours coming from Egypt, where Turan had died a suspicious death, and from Aleppo, where the young emir had been poisoned.

Baldwin nodded. ‘John knows Saladin better than any of us.’

‘I too spent many years amongst the Saracens, Nephew,’ Jos said. As a young man, he had been a prisoner of Nur ad-Din for twelve years after being captured at the Battle of Harim. ‘I spent much of that time in Damascus, and I tell you it is no easy prize. Your father failed to take it, as did your uncle before him.’

Baldwin straightened in his chair. ‘I am not my father. Gather the army, Amalric. Damascus will fall.’

December 1182: Damascus

John’s horse splashed through a muddy stream that ran along the floor of the narrow ravine, or wadi. He had made this trip many times: in 1148 as part of the doomed Second Crusade; in the opposite direction while serving as the commander of Yusuf’s private guard; and most recently in 1174, with Baldwin’s father. He did not remember crossing any streams, but then again, much of this trip had been unfamiliar. Steady rain had transformed the landscape. Where once there had been only dusty hills and dry ravines, now there were rivulets and desert flowers blooming in the rain. John’s horse was caked in mud, and he found it impossible to stay dry, no matter how tightly he wrapped his cloak about himself. He hunched forward in the saddle, shivering in the cold wind that blew from the sea.

The foot-soldiers were worse off. All around John, men wearing heavy packs and with spears over their shoulders slogged through mud that came up to their calves. Just ahead, a soldier stumbled and fell. His fellows helped him up, and as the poor man wiped mud from his eyes, he gave John a resentful look.

‘Spare your horse for a poor soldier, father?’

John made the sign of the cross. ‘God will give you strength.’

The soldier spat. John could not blame him. He continued past him and on down the long line of men. Baldwin had gathered five thousand infantry, but only two hundred knights had joined him. Guy and Reynald were keeping their men in the south, claiming they were needed to prevent Saracen incursions from Egypt.

‘John!’ Baldwin called brightly as he trotted up alongside. The king, at least, was in good spirits. He always seemed younger when in the field, and healthier, too, thanks to the gloves that hid his scarred hands and the helmet whose nasal and broad cheekpieces disguised his face. ‘How much farther?’

‘Damascus should come into view once we are atop that hill.’ As Baldwin gazed at the distant slope, whose crest disappeared in the driving rain, John took a closer look at the king. Baldwin’s face was flushed, his eyes bright and feverish. ‘Perhaps we should camp here, Your Grace, until the worst of the storm has passed.’

‘Camp? When we are so close?’

‘You look unwell, Your Grace.’

Baldwin’s mouth set in a thin line, and he spurred ahead. John should have known better. The king was stubborn when it came to his illness. He hated nothing more than when people made allowances for him.

John reached the hill, and his horse struggled up the muddy slope. At the top, he was surprised that he could not see Damascus. Instead of green orchards stretching towards mud-brown walls, he saw only driving rain.

‘John! Are you certain we are close?’ Baldwin called from near by.

‘I have marched up that hill more than once, Your Grace. I will not soon forget it. Damascus is there.’

Baldwin raised his voice. ‘Constable!’

Amalric rode over. He was huddled under so many furs that only his dull eyes were visible. They betrayed an oxlike stupidity, but the constable was undeniably brave and a fierce warrior. ‘Yes, Your Grace?’ he said, and blew snot from his nose.

‘Have the men form a column with the knights in the centre. We will march in formation until we reach the city. We will make camp south of Damascus, on the banks of the Barada. Have the sergeants build an earthen rampart and keep a careful watch. I want no surprises during the night.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Your Grace,’ John said when Amalric had cantered away. ‘The orchards to the west of the city—’

‘I know, John. I must take them if I wish to starve out Damascus. But I do not plan to starve them; nor do I intend to waste our men’s lives fighting in those orchards. You have told me what a death-trap they are. We do not need them. I have brought enough food for a month in the field. By that time, Damascus will be ours. We will take the city by storm.’

The next morning John rose before dawn. It was an old habit from when he had been a slave and would be whipped were he not at his post by sunrise. He was stiff after a night spent on the hard ground. He had turned fifty earlier that year, and nights in the field were not so easy as they once were. He slowly worked out the aches left by a half-dozen old injuries. His right shoulder had been badly injured outside Damascus during the Second Crusade, the day he was captured by the Saracens. He rolled it until it loosened, and began on his left shoulder, which had been dislocated on the rack after the Christians captured him at the Battle of Butaiah. His sword hand was always stiff in the morning. He flexed it and massaged his forearm, which was scarred where he had received a nasty gash a few years back while fighting Reynald of Chatillon’s men. After stretching, John pulled on his padded vest, then lifted his suit of mail over his head and wriggled into it. He buckled the strap that tightened the collar, placed a steel cap on his head and grabbed his mace. It had a three-foot handle that led to a heavy, grooved head. As a priest, he was forbidden to shed blood, but that did not mean he could not bash in his enemies’ heads.

John stepped from his tent to find that the rain had stopped. The tents of the army dotted the plain south of Damascus. He walked through them and away from camp to the latrine. It had been poorly dug due to the muddy ground and was filled with rainwater. As he pissed, John looked towards the orchards east of the city. Even in the dim light of early dawn, he could make out trees heavy with oranges. The city was nothing more than a dim shape, a greater darkness crouching in the morning gloom.

When he had finished at the latrine, John went to the river and splashed water on his face. It stung it was so cold. He scooped up more to wet his short hair. The men were starting to stir when John returned to camp. He heard the rasp of swords being sharpened and the jangle of mail as men dressed. He went to the cooking fires at the rear of the camp. One of the cooks
– a fleshy man with a prominent mole on his cheek – offered John a piece of hot flatbread and ladled boiled wheat into his upturned helmet.

‘Does God favour us, father?’

John had seen enough of battle to know that God did not concern himself with the wars of men, but that was not what this cook wanted to hear. The man was fiddling with the medallion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre about his neck. ‘God favours the virtuous,’ John told him.

The cook grinned. ‘Have another piece of bread, father.’

John took it with a nod of thanks. He ate as he made his way to the king’s tent. He was using the bread to scrape up the last
of the boiled wheat as he stepped inside. Though it was early, Baldwin already wore his hauberk, a tunic of mail that covered him from neck to mid thigh. He stood leaning over a table covered with papers. The king’s face was flushed; he was sweating despite the morning cool. John knew better than to mention Baldwin’s health. He knelt. ‘God grant you good day, Your Grace.’

‘John.’

‘Have you broken your fast, my lord? I can have food brought.’

‘Later. Come, have a look at this.’ A map had been laid out at the centre of the table. It showed the city of Damascus with hills to the west, plains to the east and the Barada River running from north to south through the city. ‘I will send a thousand men against the southern wall to draw their defences. The bulk of the army will attack here.’ Baldwin pointed to a stretch of the eastern wall.

John nodded. ‘The walls are weakest in the east.’ He met Baldwin’s eyes. ‘But they would be weaker after a week’s bombardment.’

‘And we will be weaker, too. I have read the histories, John. The Second Crusade failed because they waited too long. We will attack today, while the men are strong and eager.’

‘As you say, Your Grace.’

Either Baldwin did not notice the reluctance in John’s voice, or he affected not to. ‘I will focus the attack at the Gate of Saint Thomas,’ he continued. ‘Our men have only to scale the walls and open the gate. The knights will be waiting to charge through. Most of Damascus’s warriors are in the north with Saladin. They will not be able to stop us once we are inside the city.’

John’s forehead creased. The last time the Franks had conquered a Saracen city, the streets had run with the blood of men and children, and hundreds of women had been raped. He might be a servant of the king, but he still had friends in Damascus. He did not want to see Al-Muqaddam gutted or Faridah raped. ‘If you pillage the city, you will stir up resentment amongst the populace, Your Grace. You will make Damascus that much harder to hold.’

‘I will think on it.’ Baldwin stepped away from the table. ‘Pray with me, John.’ They knelt. The ground had been covered in carpets, but they were wet, water having seeped through from the muddy ground beneath.


De profundis clamavi ad te domine
,’ John began. ‘
Domine
,
exuadi vocem meam
.’ When he had finished the
De profundis
, he added, ‘Lord God, strengthen the arm of your servant Baldwin, that he might win victory in your name. Grant him the wisdom to lead his men wisely, and the grace to treat his enemy with compassion.’

Baldwin took his helmet from the table and started for the tent flap, but stopped. He drew his sword and turned to John. ‘Bless my blade.’

John made the sign of the cross over the sword. ‘I beseech thee, O Lord, to hear our prayers and to bless with your majesty the sword of your servant Baldwin. May it be the scourge and terror of your enemies and the salvation of the people of God.’


Amen
!’

John followed Baldwin outside. The thousand sergeants who would attack the southern wall had already formed a column bristling with spears. Some of them carried scaling ladders; others held ropes with grappling hooks or heavy crossbows to pick defenders off the wall. The rest of the sergeants were just beginning to form ranks. The knights were mounting their horses and being handed lances and kite-shaped shields by their squires.

‘My horse!’ Baldwin shouted. One of the king’s squires led forth a chestnut destrier. It pranced as it came, showing off a thickly muscled chest and hindquarters. The seat of the saddle was taller than Baldwin, and it took two squires to help him mount in his heavy armour. Another squire handed Baldwin his shield. He urged the horse towards where the knights were gathering, but it had only taken a few steps when the king swayed, then fell from the saddle.

John was the first to reach him. ‘My lord!’ he cried, but there was no response. As the squires and knights gathered around, John gently removed Baldwin’s helmet. There was a swelling bump on the king’s temple where he had struck his head during the fall. ‘My lord!’ John repeated, this time shouting.

BOOK: Holy War
2.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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