The prologue from 'Crusader's Valor'
Submitted to Agents
©Levi Jess Mecham,2020
Map by Levi Mecham
July 4, 1187
His mouth felt as dry as the desert around him and his swollen tongue threatened to choke him. The smell of smoke, sweat and blood filled the air. Around him lay scores of dead and dying men. A horse lay nearby, its eyes open, yet unseeing. The scene was familiar as was the smell; it was the scent of battle, yet it now smelled only of loss.
Sir Louis de Beaumont kneeled among the debris of war; hands bound in front of him. As he sat on his heels, he remembered another time. He was kneeling then as well. The hall of the Cour de La Commanderie had smelled of smoke also, but it had the sour smell of incense rather than the acrid brush smoke that pervaded his senses now. He had been only eighteen. It was late autumn and there was a chill in the air that cut through his armor better than any sword could have. He remembered the sweat that beaded on his forehead and ran into his eyes despite the weather, betraying his nervousness to the onlookers. Sir Ridefort himself had been the one to knight him, he should have been proud to have been knighted by the Grand Master of his order, but he could not summon the respect he had once felt for the man.
He kneeled now because he and other men were prisoners after a lost battle. There was no question defeat had been complete. With this loss, the Christians would no longer have the men to wage war in the region. They had lost. They had lost Jerusalem. How had it come to this?
An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or Saladin, had been consolidating power in Syria, Egypt and the Levant for years. As the Christian power declined the Arab’s, under Saladin, grew.
Tensions had been high between Saladin and the Christians for some time, but Louis pinned the tipping point on the death of the King of Jerusalem. When Baldwin died, Guy de Lusignan became King through his marriage to Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla. Guy had been a member of the knights Templar, as well, before becoming King. Another man I should be proud of. Louis thought. Instead of pride, he felt shame. Guy had only been king for one year and he had already led his army to its own destruction.;
King Guy of Jerusalem had sallied forth with his army of twenty-thousand to meet the united army of Muslims under Saladin's command and had completely underestimated the enemy. When they had begun their march many of the men were sure of their victory, Louis wasn’t, however. Guy had marched the army through the desert during the hottest part of the day in heavy armor with little water.
The objective had been to march to Tiberias, where the Muslim army had the countess of Tripoli trapped in a besieged castle. They had moved away from the life-giving waters at Sephoria to come to the rescue of the Countess, despite her own husband’s adamant pleas for the army to stay in the relative safety of the spring-fed valley. Raymond III, count of Tripoli, loved his wife, but he had had the same doubts of a Christian victory as Louis had. Far more than the safety of his lady wife was at stake.
Louis was of low-rank among the Templars, and couldn’t easily approach the Grand Master, with any objections; let alone the King. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had complained, Raymond had voiced his concerns as did others, but Guy and his cadre of followers ignored them.
Louis took a petty delight in seeing the King sweat along with the rest of the army as they marched. The tyrannical rule of the sun humbled all equally. It scorched the land below and made the chain-mail on his back so hot that it felt as if it would melt.
Dust filled the air from the men and horses as they marched around and in front of him. It invaded his eyes and mouth and formed a crust where it had stuck to the sweat on his face. His eyes felt dry and the brilliant light that was reflecting from almost every direction was blinding. Louis heard yells of excitement ahead and lifted his gaze, squinting as he did so. The sound of the energized men seemed foreign among the weary soldiers.
There seemed to be a haze in the air, but a small hill blocked his view of much else as the column marched up. The men farther up the hill were the ones causing the commotion.
Louis spurred his horse forward. He crested the hill and saw light reflect off the distant waters of Lake Tiberias, shining like a jewel in the desert sun. The fear of death went rushing out of him in one great sigh of relief.
But fear came rushing right back when he crested the hill completely and saw what stood before the lake.
Saladin had placed his army between the King’s army and the cool waters. The brush around the lake was ablaze, filling the air with dark smoke.
There was nothing behind them, or to either side, but Saladin had trapped them all the same. They needed water, without it they were dead.
With one stroke Saladin had claimed victory. He had the defensive position, superior numbers, and rested men.
The smoke burned Louis’ already dry throat and eyes. The burning brush confused and disoriented the men as they blindly charged the enemy. The battle could not have gone much worse.
Louis had been in the second of many cavalry charges that broke upon the enemy spearmen like water over so many stones.
The clash of steel and the terrible cries of dying men and horses rose to deafening intensity as Louis and his unit closed on the enemy. The Muslims stood their ground, stalwart, letting the horsemen ride into their waiting spears. Louis had been lucky. Unlike many of his allied knights, he had found a break in the spear lines and had smashed into the surprised footmen in front of him with bone-crushing momentum, sending men flying. The advantage of momentum, however, vanished when the press of numbers around him became too much for his mount to push through.
He heard his horse, Fermete, cry out in fear and pain as a spearman stabbed the frightened horse viciously in the neck. Fermete reared and Louis struggled to keep his seat while simultaneously slashing at the surrounding men. Even now, hours after the battle, the memory shook him.
There were too many spearmen and as he slashed at his left side, a heavy iron-headed spear found his right. The chain mail that he wore under his tunic had slowed the spear, causing a painful but relatively superficial wound to the ribs. The blow, however, was enough to remove him from his already precarious perch. Louis landed hard on his lower back, but adrenaline brought him to his feet despite the pain and shock he felt. As the men pressed in around him on all sides, he looked back at the already closed formation of spearmen he had broken through.
The few knights and horsemen that remained on their mounts had no hope of reaching him. He slowly kneeled, bringing his sword in front of him, point down in the dirt. He kissed the cross in the center of the crossguard as he said a quick prayer and then lifted the sword again, holding it in front of him by the blade, an offer of surrender.
Maybe they would give him some water. Of all the lands and titles he would eventually inherit, water was the most precious that he hoped for.
What gave him solace was that Saladin’s victory today would spell his own defeat, eventually. Uproar in Europe would follow the news of Saladin’s success and armies would come with numbers twice that of Saladin’s.
Here he was, kneeling in the harsh sun, waiting as he had so many years ago before his knighthood. What was odd was that he didn’t feel as nervous now as he had when he was kneeling in La Commanderie being knighted?
So thirsty. Were they going to let them die of thirst out here in the sun?
He realized as he kneeled, prisoner, that he would probably sweat if he had any water left in his parched body. He felt weak with thirst and fatigue. He looked down the line of prisoners to the right and left of him and made another realization. All the surrounding men were knights Templar like himself, or Hospitallers, holy orders, both.
No footmen, spearman, or horsemen kneeled with the knights in their solemn ranks and no other knights. Louis thought that strange and moved to remark as much to the man kneeling next to him, but stopped as a file of men came marching into view. As they neared, he could see that they had a somber cast to their eyes.
The column made a left face, turning to walk just in front of where the knights kneeled and as the soldiers filed past, Louis made the assumption that this was their execution force. He absently wondered which one would be the one to kill him.
The Column finally came to a stop and Louis' silent question was answered as he looked up at the large man in front of him. Black cloth obscured the bottom half of his face as if he were ashamed of what he was to do. The heavy dark-skinned man didn't look at Louis as he walked slowly around to stand behind him.
A murmur rose from the waiting knights as they came to the same conclusion as he had. The Hospitallar next to Louis broke down and sobbed a tearless grief-filled lament.
It surprised Louis to not feel anything he thought he would in this situation. All he could think of was how thirsty he was, and why couldn't they at least give him one last drink. The ironic injustice of it made him smile.