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Authors: Jack Hight

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BOOK: Holy War
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‘I will do what I can for you, John,’ Joscelin said just before the dungeon door slammed shut.

March 1183: Jerusalem

John started awake. His cell was dark; he could barely see his hand in front of his face. He groaned as he sat up. He was sore all over from weeks spent sleeping on the stone floor with only his cloak for covering. He cocked his head at the sound of approaching footsteps. Breakfast already? His stomach turned at the thought. Breakfast was rancid boiled wheat with dead weevils in it. At first, John had picked the weevils out. Now, he ate them first. At least they weren’t spoiled.

The footsteps stopped, and torchlight filtered in through the grille in the cell door. John was rising as the door swung open. He blinked against the light.

‘You smell awful, John.’ It was William, torch in hand.

John embraced him. ‘And you smell sweet as a rose. Thank God you have come.’

William’s brow furrowed. The cell door shut behind him. ‘I am sorry, John. I have not come to free you.’

It was as if John were a marionette, and the string holding him up had been cut. He started to fall, but William caught him and helped him to the wall to sit. ‘I have no influence in Jerusalem now. Sibylla and Reynald rule; Guy is their stooge. I have come to say farewell.’

‘Farewell? Where are you going?’

‘To Rome.’ William sighed. ‘Guy removed me from my post as chancellor, and Heraclius has excommunicated me. I am travelling to Rome to ask the Pope that I be reinstated as Archbishop of Tyre.’

‘No. You must stay here. Fight them! When Baldwin recovers—’

‘It has been two months now, John. Baldwin is only rarely lucid. The doctors say he will not recover.’

‘So you will leave me here to rot?’

‘I have done all I could, but I fear any further efforts on my part will only make matters worse for you. And if I do not leave soon, I may be joining you in the dungeons. I am sorry, friend.’

John’s head fell. William bent down and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘You do have friends in the Kingdom. Raymond and Reginald have demanded your release. Agnes, too.’ John’s head jerked up. ‘I do not know what game she plays, but she can be a powerful ally. Be patient. You are a noble and a man of the cloth. They cannot hold you here forever without a trial.’

The cell door creaked open. The gaoler stood there with mace in hand. ‘Your time is up, priest. You must go, unless you have more coin.’

William stood. John rose and embraced him again. ‘I will pray for your success in Rome.’

William stepped from the cell and handed the gaoler a heavy pouch of coins. ‘This is for my friend. See that he is treated well.’

The gaoler grunted affirmatively.

William looked back to John. ‘God save you, friend.’

hapter 3

April 1183: Diyarbakir

‘I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.’ Yusuf looked to his right and murmured, ‘Peace be upon you.’ He looked left and repeated the phrase. He rose, his morning prayers completed, and stepped outside his tent. The hundreds of tiny plates of his golden jawshan armour flashed in the light of the newly risen sun. Before him, the Tigris River valley was covered in a low mist pierced by the roofs of hundreds of tents. Beyond them, his men had drawn up ranks on the plain. The thousand closest to Yusuf were mounted, but the rest were on foot and the mist came up to their chests. Spears as numerous as blades of grass poked up from the ranks.

Beyond the army rose the black walls of Diyarbakir. They were fifteen feet thick and reached a height of forty feet. Massive towers studded the wall and framed each of the city’s four gates. They were the most impressive fortifications Yusuf had ever seen, and they had made the emir of Diyarbakir bold. Yusuf had spent the last months isolating Aleppo by subduing the towns and fortresses between it and Mosul. The cities of Edessa, Saruj, Rakka and Nisbin had surrendered with hardly a fight. But Ishfaq of Diyarbakir had decided to resist. Yusuf would make an example of him. After today, none of the other minor emirs would dare oppose Yusuf.

‘As-salaamu ‘alaykum, Malik,’ Qaraqush called as he approached along the spine of the hill with Ubadah at his side. Behind them came Muhammad. The carefully groomed emir of Hisn Kaifa had soft hands, an immaculately trimmed beard and a tongue of silver. He looked uncomfortable in a coat of heavy mail. He was one of three emirs of Al-Jazirah who had joined Yusuf in return for new lands. Muhammad had been promised Diyarbakir.

Saruj had gone to Gökböri, the governor of Harran, who was huffing along after Muhammad. He was as fat as Muhammad was thin, with red cheeks and a curly black beard that hung down to his ample belly. ‘A beautiful day for a battle!’ he declared with a grin as he tucked his beard inside his suit mail. ‘Been growing this since I was a boy. Don’t want it to get cut off, Malik.’

‘You know what they say about men with long beards,’ muttered Nu’man. The emir of Al-Birah was short, almost a dwarf, with pinched features and a scowl that never seemed to leave his face. He wore a suit of oft-repaired mail that looked to have seen a dozen battles, and strapped to his back a massive battle-axe. Yusuf had given Nu’man the rich city of Edessa, and he had not regretted it. He would not have wanted the man as a foe.

‘And what would you know about the size of my cock?’ Gökböri asked the short man. ‘Did your mother give you a full report?

Nu’man’s scowl deepened. Qaraqush guffawed but then grew serious as he turned to Yusuf. ‘The men await your command.’

Yusuf kept his instructions simple, so there would be no misunderstandings. ‘When the horn sounds, Ubadah will lead the first wave. His men will strike the western wall, forcing the defenders to spread themselves thin. The torchbearers will strike there.’ Yusuf pointed to where three weeks of tunnelling and bombardment had opened a ten-foot gap in the wall. The city’s defenders had built a wooden wall atop the rubble. ‘Once that wall begins to burn, the drums will signal for the second wave to attack. Qaraqush and Gökböri, you will lead five hundred men through the gap and open the gate.’

Muhammad stepped forward. ‘As Diyarbakir has been promised to me, I request the honour of leading the—’

‘I will lead the cavalry charge myself,’ Yusuf said. ‘Once we have taken control of the central square, Muhammad will move on to secure the north gate and Nu’man the south. I will take the east gate. You all understand your roles?’ The men nodded. ‘Good. Take your positions, and Allah yasalmak.’

As his emirs departed, Yusuf went to his horse and swung into the saddle. He checked to see that his shield, light spear, bow and quiver were all in place, and looked up to Diyarbakir. The sun had risen clear of the horizon and was gilding the city’s tallest minaret with golden light. On the plain before the city, Ubadah was galloping towards the front ranks of the army. His red standard dipped when he was in position.

Yusuf nodded to Saqr. ‘Signal the attack.’

! Saqr blew a piercing blast on a curved ram’s horn. Before the sound had faded, the front ranks of Yusuf’s army were already surging forward, spreading out across the golden plain like ink spilling over parchment. A cloud of arrows flew from the wall. Most fell harmlessly to the ground or thumped into the shields that the foot-soldiers had raised over their heads. The stones hurled by catapults mounted on the towers struck with more devastating effect. They splintered shields, crushed helmets and ripped off limbs. But the catapults were too few to slow the charge. Yusuf’s men reached the wall and began to throw up ladders. Other men hurled grappling hooks and climbed up the ropes. A soft breeze from the east brought Yusuf the din of battle – screams of pain and rage mixed with the clang of steel upon steel.

The torchbearers had reached the breach and were hurling torches at the foot of the temporary wall. The wood began to smoke, but then the defenders tipped several cauldrons of water over the wall and extinguished the flames. Yusuf’s face remained impassive, but inside he was cursing. The emir of Diyarbakir
was a clever man. He had been prepared.

‘Shall I signal the retreat, Malik?’ Saqr asked.

‘No. We will give Ubadah more time.’

Yusuf had spotted his nephew. He thought the red cloth that Ubadah tied about his helmet was a foolish affectation, but Ubadah claimed it helped his troops to rally to him in battle, much like Yusuf’s golden armour. It seemed to be working now. Ubadah was on horseback only a dozen yards from the breach. He waved his sword, gathering several dozen men around him, and then pointed his sword to the wall. Some of the men began shooting arrows at the defenders while the rest ran forward and threw grappling hooks over the wooden barrier. But instead of climbing, they began to pull on the ropes. The wooden wall shook, then tilted outwards and collapsed.

‘Saqr, signal Qaraqush and Gökböri.’

‘Drums!’ The command was relayed to the drummers at the base of the hill.
Boom, boom, boom
. They beat their large goatskin drums, and five hundred mamluks surged forward with Qaraqush and Gökböri at their head.
Boom, boom, boom
. The beat increased, and the men began to run, driving like a spearhead towards the gap in the wall.

Yusuf turned to Saqr. ‘Sound the horn when the gate opens.’

The hundred men of Yusuf’s khaskiya fell in around him as he rode down the hill. The ranks of the cavalry waiting below parted to allow him and his private bodyguard to ride to the front, where he joined Nu’man and Muhammad. From the plain, the walls of the city looked even taller. He could see men swarming around the breach, but it was difficult to make out what was happening. He busied himself stringing his bow. To his left, Muhammad was readying a large shield. His free hand drummed nervously on the hilt of his sword. Beyond him, Nu’man held his double-bladed war-axe in both hands. Yusuf located Nasir ad-Din in the ranks of cavalry. He hoped his cousin was sober for a change.

Yusuf raised his voice. ‘The men of Diyarbakir have defied us, and now they will suffer for their arrogance. Spare the women and children, but grant no quarter to any warrior. And bring me the head of Ishfaq!’

Yusuf’s last words were lost in the blast of the horn sounding behind them. He readied his small shield and took his light bamboo spear from his saddle. ‘It is time, men. For Allah!’

‘For Saladin!’ the men roared back.

Yusuf spurred his horse to a gallop. He passed fallen men, some dead, some moaning in pain. He weaved around a man whose chest had been crushed by a rock from a catapult. Ahead, the Urfa gate was open. As Yusuf neared it, arrows began to fall around him. One struck him in the chest, but did not penetrate his mail. He spurred his horse still faster. He sped through the gate but then pulled back on the reins; the road ahead was blocked by several hundred enemy foot-soldiers with spears bristling from their ranks.

Nu’man galloped past, his axe raised high. ‘Kill the bastards!’ he roared. ‘Kill them all!’ He rode straight for the enemy, turned at the last second and swung down, cleaving a man’s skull in two. He urged his horse into the gap, hacking at the men to his left and right.

Yusuf followed. He jabbed his spear, catching one of the enemy soldiers in the throat. The next man caught the spear on his shield, and the bamboo shaft shattered. Yusuf drew his sword and spurred on into the enemy ranks. A warrior jabbed at him, and Yusuf twisted out of the way as he slashed across the man’s face, spraying the cobblestones with blood. A spear glanced off Yusuf’s side, tearing away several scales of his gold armour. He hacked down at his attacker, and the man cried out in pain as the sword cut through his mail and into his shoulder. As Yusuf wrenched the blade free, another man plunged a spear into the neck of his horse. The beast collapsed, and Yusuf rolled free before it pinned him beneath it. He sprang to his feet just in time to sidestep another spear thrust. Yusuf cut across his attacker’s thigh, dropping him. He heard a shout from behind and was turning when an enemy soldier slammed into him, knocking away Yusuf’s sword and sending the two of them skidding across the bloody cobblestones. The man who ended up on top of Yusuf had a bushy black beard and wild eyes. His hands closed around Yusuf’s throat. Yusuf tugged at the man’s arms, but it was no use. His foe had the heavily muscled forearms and thick fingers of a smith. Lights began to swim before Yusuf’s eyes. His gasped in vain for breath.

‘Die!’ the bearded man growled, showing rotting brown teeth. ‘Die!’

Suddenly, the pressure on Yusuf’s throat lessened as someone grabbed a handful of the man’s beard from behind and yanked his head back. His throat was slit, spattering Yusuf’s face with hot blood. The bearded man slumped to the side. In his place stood Nasir ad-Din. He extended his hand and helped Yusuf to his feet.

‘Shukran, cousin,’ Yusuf managed. His throat was bruising already, and it hurt to speak. Yusuf looked about for someone to fight, but the enemy had begun to fall back, retreating towards the square at the centre of the town. Yusuf’s men spurred after them, and the retreat became a rout.

‘Congratulations, Malik,’ Muhammad said as he gingerly picked his way towards Yusuf over dead bodies. There was not a drop of blood on the emir’s armour or on the blade of his sword. ‘A great victory. I—’

‘Malik!’ Nu’man was cantering towards them. A cut above the dwarf’s eye had left his face masked in blood. He held a decapitated head in his hands. Nu’man slid from the saddle and held it towards Yusuf. ‘The head of Ishfaq of Diyarbakir.’

BOOK: Holy War
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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