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Pilgrim
 


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Pilgrim


  Also by James Jackson

  Dead Headers

  Cold Cut

  The Reaper

  The Counter-Terrorist Handbook

  Blood Rock

  Pilgrim

  THE GREATEST CRUSADE

  JAMES JACKSON

  www.johnmurray.co.uk

  First published in Great Britain in 2008 by John Murray (Publishers)

  An Hachette UK Company

  © James Jackson 2008

  The right of James Jackson to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All rights reserved. Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

  All characters in this publication - other than obvious historical figures - are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

  Epub ISBN 978-1-84854-466-6

  Book ISBN 978-0-7915-6934-0

  John Murray (Publishers)

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  www.johnmurray.co.uk

  For Harriet, Kate and Imo

  In 1212, some seventy thousand children left Europe in holy crusade for Jerusalem. They were to vanish into history . . .

  When, lo, as they reached the mountain side,

  A wondrous portal opened wide,

  As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;

  And the Piper advanced and the children followed ...

  From The Pied Piper of Hamelin

  by Robert Browning

  Beginning

  4 JULY 1187. THE HOLY LAND.

  They should have known it would end this way, might have guessed when the old Arab crone had cursed them as they departed camp and the fire they set beneath her failed to catch. It seemed a long time ago, before weary miles of parched earth and dust-clogged throats, of constant skirmish and faltering advance, of gradual decline and encroaching death. This was the bloody conclusion. A final stand on a sloping and god-forsaken plain they called the Horns of Hattin. The end of Christendom, of Jerusalem, of everything for which they had fought.

  ‘To your fronts! They come again!’

  ‘Stand fast!’

  ‘The Lord is with us . . .’

  But they could not stand fast, could barely stand at all. And the Lord was far away. However hard they prayed, whatever sallies the Templars and Hospitaller knights made against the Moslem horde, the enemy pushed on, pressed in. The Turk horsemen wheeled their steeds, loosing their arrows on the move, the shard tips bringing down horses, puncturing chain-mail, winnowing the huddled and depleted mass of Christians.

  Smoke billowed and drifted. It came from the bundles of kindling and brushwood placed by religious muttawiyah irregulars during the night, set ablaze to further torment the Latin army. A hellish place. The burning haze stung the eyes, scoured the lungs, joined the heat of the day to bear down on the crumbling defence. In the distance, the waters of Lake Tiberias glittered like a mirage, cool and unattainable. Most of the Christian infantry were streaming east towards it in a trampling panic of thirst and desperation. The Moslems were ready to block any exodus, to butcher any straggler. Their cavalry closed again, and the Latin foot soldiers disappeared in a broiling throng of swords and javelins.

  Saladin, the great Salah ad-Din, unifier and commander of the Islamic world, had been clever, had drawn his opponents to this spot. He knew they would come. He had brought his forces across the river Jordan into Palestine, laid siege to the strategic town of Tiberias, planned to pick off the Christian enclaves one by one, fort by fort, and eventually retake Jerusalem itself. And so King Guy of the Latins had led out his knights and barons, the priest-warriors of the military Orders, the mercenaries paid for with the thirty thousand marks put aside for future crusade that would never be. It was a trap. Some forty-two thousand Moslems drawn up against twelve hundred cornered knights and their twenty-two thousand drought-crazed hirelings. No contest. Or at least none that would outlast the day. Now Saladin stood on a hilltop, a still figure attended by his emirs and Mamluk bodyguards, hemmed in by the armoured ranks of his jandariyah praetorians, gazing down upon grim and violent spectacle. Fluttering above them were the black and green banners of their cause, the yellow dynastic pennants of the Ayyubids, the horsehair standards of the Turcomans. A gathering of the elite watching the inevitable. He gave a nod.

  Instantly the command was relayed by signallers waving flags, was received and sent on by the battle-field jawush and munadi criers stationed below. Their calls and whistles could be heard shrill through the clamour and clash of arms, redirecting and reorganizing, ordering tactical feint and rapid manoeuvre. A fresh assault was in train. In a travelling wave, the Kurdish archers and Arab spearmen drew back as the Moslem heavy cavalry thundered through, galloping on to the plateau in a stormburst of dust and war-yells, their couched lances crashing against Frankish shields, their swords rising and falling in the tumult.

  ‘See, Count Raymond of Tripoli counter-attacks!’

  Count Raymond of Tripoli had misjudged his moment. Valour or folly, it made no difference. It was the wife of this nobleman who was besieged in the citadel at Tiberias, this nobleman who even so had cautioned against rash move upon Saladin. He understood the strength of the Moslem foe, had cried out on the arid and inland march that all was lost and they were dead men. It did not prevent him from taking his knights and serjeants-at-arms in headlong rush against the enemy swarm. Perhaps he could break out, create escape for the rest of his brethren. The response was immediate. As the Count plunged through the scrub fires and rolling banks of smoke, the entire army of Saladin opened wide. The velocity of the charge carried the Christians on. They could not halt or turn, could not withdraw to their beleaguered comrades or their starting line. Then they were past, and the Moslem phalanxes closed once more. A simple trick, a different method of combat that had further disabled the crusaders.

  Encirclement of the Christians tightened. Men fought or cowered, prayed and died. Killing time. There was little left to do. A knight lumbered haphazardly down the slope, his sword raised in challenge towards the crowding enemy. He took two crossbow quarrels in his shield. A third struck his throat, cutting short his mission, projecting a pink halo about his head before he fell. Nearby, a dismounted sergeant had retrieved a discarded Bedouin spear, was using it to jab wildly at the encroaching multitude. He did not see the approach of the Ghulam cavalryman behind, would not have felt the blow from the animal-shaped war-club that dashed out his brain. Nor would he have noticed the ragged band of five Hospitallers cut off on the flank by racing flames that burst around them, consuming their writhing shapes in an incendiary sea. Everywhere chaos, a thousand vignettes of pathos and pain and splintering defeat. Here a mercenary in chain-mail hauberk crumpling from heatstroke, there a soldier pinned by a lance that ruptured his chest and the English lion emblazoned on his surcoat. And always the furnace disc of the sun, sapping strength, evaporating the last impulse to resist. Yet the men would live long enough to regret responding to the arrière ban, the general call-up that had brought them to such plight. It was the Moslem year of 583. A terrible time to be an able-bodied Christian male in Outremer.

  ‘We cannot hold them!’

  ‘Commit yourselves to God, your lives to preserving the True Cross from the infidel!’

  ‘Retreat to the royal tent and guard it to the last!’

  That tent stood bright red and visible in the midst of their position, a totem of sovereign authority reduced to an isolated s
ymbol of powerlessness and hubris. Fighting had erupted around it. On the adjacent plain, the northern horn of Hattin, the infantry were already dead or captured. This was merely the untidy finale. A few more forays by exhausted knights, clustered groups of ghostly forms standing back to back, whispering psalms, hurling rocks, presenting their shattered swords and dented battleaxes. All were swept aside. The hours had leached into the afternoon and it was done. Guy-ropes were cut, and the billowing structure of the royal tent sank.

  ‘Sanctum Sepulchrum adjuva . . . Sanctum Sepulchrum adjuva . . .’

  ‘Help us, Holy Sepulchre.’ It was the prayer of the Crusaders, the words panting high and fast in the throat of the Bishop of Acre. He knelt and kept his eyes tight shut, a fat cleric sweating in fright and misery, far from the comfort of his sinecure. His head bent forward, pressed against the gold and gem-studded sleeve of the hallowed relic. It seemed to comfort him, to transport him to the moment when another man took the sins of the world upon his shoulders. He was at the feet of the crucified Christ. His arms held the gilded object close, for it was the holiest of holies, a gift to mankind, the very span of wood on which the Lamb of God had been nailed. The True Cross.

  It could not save him. The arrows flew true, puncturing the instant, raking the corpulent form with multiple strikes. Wallowing confused in his own viscera, peering at the seven feathered flights protruding from his chest and belly, the Bishop pitched forward. His place was taken. The Bishop of Lidde had snatched up the Cross, was clambering across the rock scree, mewling and weeping in exertion, the precious burden weighing on his shoulder. If only he could gain height, could put distance between himself and the arrow-bolts, the blades, the spears, the howling onrush of the heathen. A lasso uncoiled and dropped around his neck. Quickly it tensed, wrenching him back, reeling him in. The sacred relic fell away and tumbled among the boulders. Possession had passed, and a torrent of colours, the rajjalah regiments of Saladin, closed in. And at the centre of a charnel field the collapsed remnants of a royal tent covered the earth like a blood spill.

  Saladin took his time. He surveyed his trembling captives with the cool aloofness of a leader whose most merciful God had delivered victory and would yet send the Latins crawling from these lands. They were a woeful sight, no longer the haughty princes of their Frankish realm, but subjugates with torn flesh and blackened faces. King Guy of Jerusalem and his brothers Prince Amalric and Geoffrey of Lusignan, Marquis William of Montferrat, Lord Reynald of Châtillon, Lord Humphrey of Toron, the Grand Masters of the Temple and the Hospital. All present, all uncertain of the fate he had chosen for them.

  He breathed deep, let the perfumed interior of his tent filter to his brain. Frankincense could calm, the aroma of rose petals soothe. Yet they were overlaid with the scent of war, the sweat and sour despair of his prisoners, the cindered aftermath of conflict intruding from outside. Maybe it was how every meeting between Moslem and Christian should be accompanied.

  Finally he spoke, his words translated by an aide. He knew the tongue, the mind, the tactics of the Unbeliever. But he would not stray from Arabic, would not honour these savages and barbarians.

  ‘I see your Count Raymond of Tripoli departed the field in haste.’

  ‘He performed his duty.’

  ‘Or abandoned his post, as you would have been wise to do yours.’ Saladin stared at the King, noted his quivering hands, his face contorting through fear and thirst. ‘He is at present riding hard with his knights for Tyre. My men trail him, have followed him along the Wadi Hammam.’

  ‘Then at least a few of my brethren make it home.’

  The Saracen leader afforded him the slightest of smiles. ‘Home? You stripped your castles of every soldier, your coffers of every gold and silver piece, for a battle that you lose. There is no sanctuary, no crown, no army, no reinforcement from the west.’

  ‘I remain a king.’

  ‘Without a kingdom you are nothing. Soon I shall take Jerusalem, seize your remaining towns, restore each to the True Faith and the rule of my people.’

  ‘Others will come, will avenge this day.’

  ‘They will be too late, too weak.’

  ‘With righteousness we may conquer all.’

  ‘You have failed to conquer me.’

  Saladin walked to a long table and poured iced rosewater from a jug into a pair of deep chalices. The Christians had not drunk for over twenty-four hours, had bypassed the springs at Tur’an, found the well at Lubiya dry. Small wonder their tongues were swollen, their lips cracked, their voices rasped with the desiccation of a desert. He felt the collective intensity of their gaze as the vessels filled.

  ‘If it is of consolation, from when first you mustered and advanced upon us from your camp at the fort of Saffuriyah you had no chance.’

  ‘There is ever chance.’

  It was Gérard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, who spoke. A zealot, a man who had broken every truce, abandoned all judgement, for the sake of perpetuating holy war. His bloodshot eyes radiated a venomous loathing.

  ‘What is a man of religion if he possesses neither wisdom nor humility, Gérard de Ridefort?’

  ‘Our fight is eternal.’

  ‘Yet for the present I see it is over, your power is spent.’

  ‘My authority is from a higher source. He will guide us to great and just victory. He will rain down fire and brimstone upon your head and the armies of darkness.’

  ‘The same reasoning that brought you here, that impelled you to attack our reconnaissance force at the springs of Cresson. Each move has cost you dear.’

  ‘I would glad sacrifice myself, ten thousand of my brothers, for the glory and sanctity of combat.’

  Stupidity would ever find outlet in bluster, Saladin supposed. He should be grateful the Latins were so poorly led. Only two months before in Galilee, commanded by de Ridefort, one hundred and thirty knights and a few hundred lightly armed turcopoles had charged a travelling Moslem force some thousand strong. Three knights emerged alive, their foolish Grand Master among them. He had plainly not learned. But there were others worse, leaders whose base crimes and wickedness surpassed any outrage committed by a Templar.

  ‘And you?’

  His attention swung to Reynald of Châtillon, master of Oultrejordain. It was met with lifeless eyes and blank indifference. Saladin expected no less. The man was a breed apart, a monster whose domain had straddled the caravan routes, who raided with abandon, slaughtered without conscience. Reynald it was who mutilated women and children and murdered pilgrims on the hajj, who secretly built a fleet of pirate galleys and launched them into the Gulf of Akabah. Wherever his ships had ventured, they brought terror and death, pillaging the coasts of the Red Sea, landing parties of cut-throats to forage for treasure and slaves. It was merely a foretaste. For the true purpose of the mission had lain hidden until soldiers disembarked at the port of ar-Raghib and marched inland for Mecca to seize the body of the Prophet Mohammed. They failed. But the profanity and insult were not forgotten. As Keeper of the Holy Places, as a devout Moslem, as a human, Saladin had prayed for this encounter.

  He passed the goblets to servants who bore them first to King Guy and to Humphrey of Toron. Both gulped long and greedily, the younger noble sobbing with relief. It was more than water; it was the granting of life, for the Moslem code was that whomsoever received hospitality would come to no harm. The others watched, waited.

  Saladin continued to study Reynald. ‘You say nothing, Lord of Oultrejordain.’

  ‘Of what is there to speak?’

  ‘The reckless gamble of position. The loss of all you possess.’

  ‘It was my intent to provoke, to bring you to battle.’

  ‘And battle you have had.’ Saladin peered closer. ‘Some have obligation to God, but your sole master was avarice. It brought you wealth and influence, spurred your cruelty, and now brings you low.’

  ‘I will not be taught by any Saracen.’

  ‘But you will yet
pay for your insolence and perfidy.’

  King Guy had slaked his immediate thirst and passed the cup to Amalric. He too drank, before handing it to Reynald. The end of the line. Before he could put the rim to his lips, a Mamluk guard dashed it from his grasp. It clattered noisily, the declaration clear.

  ‘We give you choice that you did not offer your victims, Reynald of Châtillon. Life or death. Renounce your Christ, choose our way, convert to the one True Faith, or you will suffer the consequence.’

  Reynald laughed, and was still laughing as he was pushed forward, as Saladin drew his scimitar from its proffered scabbard and struck the head from its shoulders. Amid howls of disbelief, the freeze-tension of the moment, the arterial spray of blood, the shuddering torso of Reynald dropped. Wide-eyed, the prisoners cowered in the aftershock, some vomiting, others snivelling, lowing, frenziedly crossing themselves. Saladin had their attention.

  Amalric of Lusignan could barely articulate a sound. ‘What will you have done with us?’

  ‘Whatever it is that Allah ordains, Connétable.’

  They were dragged away to their new existence, a pleading and struggling rabble of dejected nobility. He would spare them, not through compassion, but for use. Princes and barons could earn good ransom. Grand Masters of military Orders could be co-opted to persuade fanatical followers into laying down arms. The rest would be less fortunate, condemned to slavery in the galleys and mines or to the blade of an executioner. War was capricious that way.

  For a while he stood alone with his thoughts among the body parts and abandoned water beakers. A waste of ice brought from the slopes of Mount Hebron, he reflected. At least he had rid the country of one miserable brigand. But there were many more to go before he cleansed the whole. He moved to the far end of the tent and ducked through its embroidered portal into the sarcophagus-dark interior of another. The scent of perfume was deeper here, the only light that of oil lamps shimmering weakly and barely picking out the lone figure standing in the centre.

 
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