Excerpts from Chapter 2
April to June 1148: Acre
John leaned over the ship’s rail and vomited into the sparkling, clear blue waters of Acre harbour. His company of knights had been at sea for a week, sailing down the coast of Outremer from Attalia, and John had been miserably sick the entire trip. Still, he thanked God that he had not been left behind, prey to hunger, thirst and the devilish Seljuk Turks. They had shadowed the crusading army throughout the long march across the arid lands of Anatolia, swooping down after dark on their sleek horses and riddling the crusaders with arrows before melting back into the night like ghosts. The Seljuks had killed thousands, and when the leaders of the crusade took a handful of men and sailed from Attalia, thousands more had been left to the Turks’ mercy. At sixteen, John was only a foot-soldier, but his noble blood had entitled him to a place on the ships. At least it was good for something, he thought, and then puked again. John wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked up at the city of Acre. Ships lined the curving quay, their tall masts bare of sails. On the decks, sailors were busy unloading casks, sacks of grain and bleating sheep. Beyond the ships, the harbour was crowded with market stalls, and past them sat square, dusty-white buildings set one on top of the other. To John’s right, the buildings stretched away to a massive tower, part of the wall that protected the city; to his left, they ran uphill to a thick-walled citadel.
‘Saxon!’ someone barked, and John turned to see the hulking, thickly bearded figure of Ernaut stomping towards him. Ernaut smirked when he saw the trail of yellow-brown vomit on John’s white surcoat. ‘Stop your puking and get your arse over here. Lord Reynald wants to speak to us.’
John followed Ernaut to the foredeck, where the other men had gathered in their chainmail and surcoats, white with red crusader’s crosses on the chest. Ernaut disappeared into the rear cabin and returned a moment later with Reynald. Reynald de Chatillon was a handsome, well-proportioned man of twenty-three. He had sharp features, closely cropped hair and a well-groomed, short black beard. He smiled at them, revealing even, white teeth.
‘My men,’ he began, ‘it has been nearly a year since we left our homes for the Holy Land. Now at last, by the grace of God, we have arrived, and our holy work can begin.’ Several of the men sniggered. Reynald had drunk and whored his way through every village between Worms and Attalia. Reynald’s eyes narrowed and his smile faded. The sniggering stopped immediately.
‘You may be wondering why we have not sailed to Antioch with King Louis and the others,’ Reynald continued. ‘Our king has entrusted me with an important mission at the court of Baldwin, King of Jerusalem.’ As he was speaking, three of the ship’s sailors leapt the short distance to the dockside, grabbed ropes and began to pull the boat tight against the quay. ‘As emissaries of King Louis, we must be on our best behaviour.’ Reynald’s voice was hard-edged. ‘I will go ashore to announce our presence to King Baldwin. You are to wait at the docks until we are told where to camp. I want no trouble. That means no women and no wine.’ The men groaned. Reynald’s hand dropped to his sword hilt, and the men quieted. Reynald was a deadly swordsman. He nodded, satisfied. ‘You will wait here,’ he repeated and marched off down the gangway the sailors had set up, followed by two sergeants, Thomas and Bertran.
‘You heard Lord Reynald,’ Ernaut bellowed at the men. ‘There’s to be no trouble. Now get below and grab your gear.’ John followed the other men below decks. The dank hold was lit only dimly by a shaft of light shining through the hatch above. The huge warhorses whose stalls took up most of the space nickered and stamped, thinking that they were going to be fed. John kept his distance. It was not the size of the chargers that set them apart from other horses, so much as their temperament. It had been John’s task during the voyage to muck out their stalls, and he had been bitten, stepped on or kicked more than once. John headed away from the stalls to the cramped space where the knights had slept, their thin blankets laid out almost on top of one another. John grabbed the leather rucksack containing his helmet, spare tunic, simple tent, woollen blanket and prayer book. He already wore his most valuable possessions: leather boots and breeches; chainmail armour that hung to his knees; a tattered cloak; a tall, kite-shaped shield slung over his back; a waterskin dangling from his shoulder; and hanging from his belt, his father’s sword and a pouch containing a few coppers and his wetting stone.
John climbed from the hold with his rucksack slung over his shoulder and marched down the gangway. Several other men were kneeling on the ground and kissing the soil. John joined them, crossing himself and offering up a prayer to the Virgin for his safe arrival. It seemed like a lifetime since he had fled England with only the armour on his back and a sword at his side. He had joined the crusade in Worms and marched through the great cities of Salonika, Constantinople and Ephesus. Now, at last, he was in Outremer, the Holy Land. He rose and breathed deeply. The usual smells of a port – salty sea air and freshly caught fish – were overlaid with more pungent odours from the nearby market: heavily perfumed women, roasting meats, yeasty bread and burning incense. Joining the other men, John took his helmet from his rucksack and sat on it. The late-morning sun beat down, and he wiped sweat from his brow as he gazed at the market. Only a few feet away, two olive-skinned Saracens in white burnouses – loose-fitting cloaks with broad sleeves – were selling swords and knives. John had never seen anything like the blades, with their polished steel surfaces covered in interlacing patterns in darker grey.
‘What are they doing here?’ said one of the knights, pointing at the two Saracens. He was a loudmouth named Aalot, nicknamed One Eye. He claimed that he had lost his eye fighting the English in Normandy, but John had heard that a vengeful prostitute was to blame. ‘I thought we came to fight those sand-devils, and here they are setting up shop in a Christian city.’
‘Let it be, One Eye,’ Ernaut ordered. ‘We’re not to make any trouble.’
One Eye spread his hands in protest. ‘I’m not making trouble.’ He turned to Rabbit, the youngest of the men at only thirteen. His real name was Oudin, but the men had dubbed him Rabbit, as much for the way his nose twitched when he was nervous as for his large ears, which were completely out of proportion to his skinny, freckled face. ‘I hear the Saracens eat their captives,’ One Eye said. ‘They cut their hearts out while they’re still alive and eat them raw.’
‘That’s after they bugger them,’ another of the men added.
Rabbit’s eyes were wide. ‘Those are just stories.’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ One Eye insisted. ‘You fought in the first crusade, Tybaut. You tell him.’
Tybaut, a grey-haired bull of a man, was sharpening his sword with slow, rasping strokes of his wetting stone. He did not look up as he spoke in a low, gravelly voice. ‘You’re young enough, Rabbit, that they’d take you as a slave. Then they’d bugger you.’ The men laughed. Rabbit’s nose twitched.
‘It’s damnable hot out here,’ Ernaut grumbled, interrupting the laughter. ‘You, Saxon! Go and fetch me some water.’ He tossed John a leather waterskin.
‘Christ’s blood!’ John cursed under his breath as he rose. ‘Yes, sir,’ he added more loudly.
‘Me too, Saxon,’ said One Eye, tossing John his skin. Two-dozen more waterskins followed as the other men added theirs.
‘’Sblood!’ John cursed again. As the second youngest member of the troop and an Englishman too, he was subjected to constant ribbing and always assigned the most degrading of tasks. He began to gather up the skins. It would be all he could do to carry them back once they were filled, and that’s if he could find a well.
‘I’ll help.’ Rabbit shouldered eight of the waterskins.
‘Remember, Saxon: you’re only supposed to fill up the skins!’ One Eye made a crudely suggestive gesture with his hands, and the men laughed.
‘What’s he talking about?’ Rabbit asked.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ John told him as he began to shoulder his way through the market crowd, a mixture of fair-skinned Franks, bearded Jews, local Christians, Saracens and dark-skinned Africans, all dressed alike in turbans and loose burnouses. Veiled women passed through the crowd here and there, the men giving them wide birth. John passed a stall where a black-haired Italian was showing strips of leather to two clean-shaven Templars in the distinctive surcoats of their order: half-black, half-white and emblazoned with a red cross. Next to the stall, a monk in his black cowl was staring out to sea as he chewed some unidentifiable meat off a stick. John stopped next to him. ‘Excuse me. I’m looking for a well.’ The monk looked back uncomprehendingly, then spread his hands and said something in Greek. John moved on towards a veiled lady in a golden tunic, who was examining glass goblets at the booth of a fat, bearded Jew in a skullcap. ‘Pardon me, lady.’
She turned to look at him, wide-eyed. A second later, John was grabbed from behind and shoved roughly aside. He turned to see a tall, thickly muscled Frank in chainmail. ‘You’re not to speak to the lady,’ the Frank growled. He and the lady moved away into the crowd.
John turned to the Jewish merchant. ‘Pardon me, sir,’ he began in Frankish, but the man shook his head and replied in a language that John did not understand. ‘Do you speak English?’ John tried. Again the Jew shook his head no, then tried another language that John did not recognize, and then another. ‘Latin?’ John asked.
The Jew’s eyes lit up. ‘Of course.’
‘I’m looking for a well.’
‘There are no wells in the city.’
‘No wells?’ John asked, dumbfounded.
‘There is a fountain, that way.’ The Jew pointed down the quay to a shadowy alleyway that led deeper into the city. ‘You will find water there.’
‘Thank you. Come on,’ John told Rabbit, switching back into Frankish. The two headed down the quay towards the alleyway.
‘How did you learn all of those languages?’ Rabbit asked.
‘I was a second son. I was trained to enter the Church.’
‘Why didn’t you?’ John winced. He gestured to the red crusader’s cross sewn to his surcoat. ‘I took up the cross instead.’
‘None of your business,’ John snapped, but his words were drowned out by a shouting crowd just ahead. Men were pressed four-deep around a raised platform, where a skinny young Saracen stood, naked but for a thin loincloth.
An Italian slave merchant stood beside the Saracen, loudly touting his virtues in accented Latin. ‘He is strong as an ox,’ the Italian declared, squeezing the Saracen’s stringy bicep. He slapped the boy, who did not move. ‘And docile, too.’
John turned away and headed into the shadowy alleyway that the Jew had indicated. The path twisted left and right, growing narrower and narrower. John had to step over a beggar, who sat with head bowed and hand out. A few feet further on, a scantily clad, buxom Saracen woman stepped out of a dark doorway. ‘Only ten fals,’ she said in Latin. John squeezed by her, and she turned her attention on Rabbit. ‘Ten coppers,’ she purred, pressing herself against him. John pulled Rabbit away.
They emerged from the dark passageway into a bright, three-sided plaza. In the centre, water bubbled from the mouth of an ancient stone head and filled a wide pool, where turbaned men and veiled women were busy filling red clay jars.
‘Water flowing from stone,’ Rabbit whispered. ‘How is it possible?’
John strode to the pool and bent over, scooping the cool water into his mouth. ‘I don’t know, but it tastes blessedly good.’ He felt a tap on his shoulder and looked up.
Rabbit was pointing to the men and women around them. They had stopped filling their jars and were staring at John with undisguised menace. One of them, a tall, olive-skinned man with a long beard and a curved dagger belted to his waist, pointed at John and shouted something in Arabic.
John spread his arms. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand.’ The man stepped closer and began to yell what sounded like a string of insults, repeatedly poking John in the chest. ‘I told you: I don’t understand your dirty Saracen tongue,’ John growled. ‘Now leave me be.’ He shoved the Saracen, who stumbled back several feet. The man’s hand went to his dagger hilt, and John and Rabbit both drew their swords.
‘I suggest you sheathe your weapons,’ someone behind them said in Frankish. John turned to see a young, tonsured man of slight build, wearing black priest’s robes. The priest gestured for John to look around him. At least a dozen turbaned men stood around the plaza with daggers drawn.
‘Do as he says,’ John told Rabbit.
‘Thank you,’ the priest said. ‘We want no violence here.’ He went to the angry Saracen, and the two men exchanged words in Arabic. The Saracen and priest kissed one another on each cheek, and the Saracen turned away, apparently satisfied. The priest turned back to John.
‘What did the Saracen want?’ John asked
‘Oh, he is no Saracen. These men are native Christians.’
‘Could have fooled me,’ John muttered.
‘Syrian and Armenian Christians have lived amongst the Saracens for centuries,’ the priest explained. ‘They have adopted Arab customs, but they are as Christian as you or me.’
‘Well what did he want?’
‘He said that the two of you should bathe before coming to the fountain. He fears that you will pollute the waters.’ John looked at the men and women around him. They all had clean hands and faces, and were wearing impeccably clean white linen caftans. The priest too had neat hair and clean, trimmed nails. John looked down at his dirty surcoat, still stained with traces of vomit. Rabbit was little better, with matted hair. ‘I hope I do not offend,’ the priest continued, ‘but your odour is rather rank. The bath-house is just over there.’ He pointed to a large building just down the street.
‘A bath-house?’ Rabbit asked. ‘What kind of savage place is this?’
The priest smiled. ‘You are in a land of savages now, good sir. You shall have to learn to behave as one.’ He turned to go.
‘Thank you for your help, Father,’ John called after him. ‘Might I ask your name?’
‘William,’ the priest replied. ‘William of Tyre. I welcome you to the kingdom of Jerusalem, good knights. I hope you find all that you seek.’ And with that, the man turned and walked away.
‘What now?’ Rabbit asked. John grimaced. ‘Now we bathe…’
* * *
‘By Christ’s wounds, it’s hot,’ John muttered, wincing as his hand glanced against the skirt of his scalding-hot chainmail. He followed Rabbit to a spot in the shade of the city wall, where a ring twelve paces wide had been marked off on the dusty ground. A large hour-glass had been placed on a stool, to keep time for betting purposes. Reynald’s men stood around the ring, shifting uncomfortably in their hot armour. John and Rabbit elbowed their way to the front, directly across from Reynald and Ernaut. As word spread, other knights came – Hospitallers, Templars, Franks, and Germans – forming a dense crowd, those at the back standing on their helmets for a better view. Others gathered on top of the nearby wall to look down on the sport.
When Reynald judged that a suitable crowd was present, he stepped into the centre of the ring. ‘Today, while out hunting, my men and I came across a dozen spies from Damascus, sent here by Emir Unur to gauge the strength of our forces. Their presence in our lands is an outrage, a violation of our treaty with the emir, and they fled at the sight of us. We gave chase, and three fell to our swords. By the Grace of God we captured four more!’ The men roared their approval.
‘Now, I have heard talk amongst you of our enemy, of their bravery, their skill, their ruthlessness,’ Reynald continued. ‘I have heard men say they are monsters, savage beasts.’ He turned slowly around the circle, meeting the eyes of his men. ‘But today you will see that the Saracens are no monsters. They are men of flesh and blood. And they die like any other man!’ He turned and called out over the crowd: ‘Bring forth the prisoners!’
The crowd turned as the four prisoners approached. They had been stripped of their armour and wore only flimsy linen loincloths. They were unarmed, but Reynald was taking no chances: the prisoners were led by a man-at-arms, sword drawn, and followed by two more soldiers carrying spears. As the Saracens approached, the assembled soldiers jeered and shouted insults at them. The first prisoner was tall and lanky, with olive skin and long black hair that hung well past his shoulders. The second was shorter, spare and compact. He was older, with a greying beard and a pronounced limp, left by some old wound. The third Saracen was a huge man; a good head taller than John, with a round chest like a beer barrel, an ample belly, and upper arms as thick as John’s legs. He was bald, and his head glistened in the sun. The last man was dark-skinned and solidly built, with thickly muscled arms and a broad chest criss-crossed with scars. Of all the prisoners, he alone walked straight-backed, his head held high.
The prisoners reached the ring, where they were lined up before Reynald. He examined the four men for a moment, then placed himself in front of the huge Saracen. The other prisoners were led off to the side, where they stood shifting their weight as they eyed the menacing crowd around them. Meanwhile, Reynald had retreated to the edge of the ring and grabbed a sword. He threw it at the feet of the giant Saracen, who picked it up cautiously, as if he feared some trick.
‘Ernaut, you hairy oaf!’ Reynald yelled. ‘This fat-arse is yours.’
Ernaut pulled on his helmet and stepped forth to face his adversary. As Ernaut drew his sword, Reynald turned the hourglass. An excited clamour went up from the crowd as bets were laid on how long it would take Ernaut to dispatch the Saracen. A few men even took the long odds and bet on the Saracen to win. There was little chance of that. Ernaut was not quite as tall as the Saracen, but he was even broader. And whereas the Saracen had nothing but his sword to protect him, Ernaut carried a shield and wore full-length chainmail with plating on the chest.
‘Two coppers on Ernaut in under one turn!’ Rabbit shouted, waving the coins.
‘I’ll take that,’ a man behind him called.
Rabbit turned to face John. ‘Aren’t you going to bet?’ John shook his head. A fair fight was one thing, but he had little taste for this sort of blood sport. He had come to the Holy Land for redemption, not for this.
Ernaut stepped towards the centre of the ring, and the crowd whistled and jeered as the Saracen backed away. The men surrounding the ring drew their swords, poking at the Saracen and forcing him back into the centre of the ring, where Ernaut waited. As the Saracen inched forward, Ernaut launched an attack, thrusting for the huge man’s unprotected middle. But the Saracen was quicker than he looked. He parried Ernaut’s thrust, spun away and slashed at Ernaut, who barely raised his shield in time to deflect the blow. The crowd roared as the two men separated. John looked to the glass, which was nearly a quarter empty.
‘Finish him!’ someone yelled. Others who had bet on a quick end for the fight took up the cry. With a roar, Ernaut raised his sword over his head and charged, bringing his blade down in a deadly arc. At the last second the Saracen sidestepped the blow and with a cry of triumph slashed at Ernaut’s unguarded side. The blow should have killed him, but instead it glanced off his armour. Ernaut spun and struck out, catching the huge Saracen in the neck. The man dropped his sword and fell to his knees, blood gurgling in his throat. Then he dropped face first and lay unmoving, his blood pouring out to stain the dusty earth red. There were cheers and curses from the crowd as men settled up their bets. Reynald grabbed Ernaut’s hand and raised it high. ‘The victor!’ he roared. ‘A skin of my best wine for Ernaut tonight!’
Whilst the crowd cheered, John stepped forward and picked up the dead Saracen’s sword, testing the blade with his thumb. His suspicions were confirmed; the blade had been dulled. It would not cut through hardened leather, much less chainmail. The Saracen had been given no chance.
‘Give that here, Saxon,’ Reynald said, and John handed the sword over. Reynald turned again to the crowd. ‘Bring the next prisoner! The skinny one!’
The lanky Saracen was matched against Tybaut, the old bull of a man who had fought in the first crusade. Tybaut made short work of his opponent, parrying the young Saracen’s clumsy first strike and dispatching him with a quick counter-blow to the chest. The older Saracen was next, and Reynald fought the man himself. The Muslim warrior was a confident swordsman, and at first the fight seemed even as he and Reynald traded blows. But the Saracen’s limp made him a step slow. When Reynald pressed his attack, the Saracen stumbled, lowering his guard. He was standing just in front of John when Reynald finished him with a vicious blow, nearly decapitating the Saracen and spraying John with gore.
John wiped the blood from his face and looked at his hand, smeared with red. He closed his eyes as memories surged up inside him: his brother’s shocked face; the pommel of their father’s sword, engraved with the head of a lion; John’s own face and hands wet with hot blood. He turned away from the ring and started to push his way through the crowd.
‘You! Saxon!’ Reynald called. ‘Where do you think you’re going? It’s your turn.’
John stopped. Around him the men stepped back, opening a path back to the ring. John stood clenching and unclenching his fists as he struggled with his dark memories. Perhaps this was how God had decided he would pay his blood debt; here, against this Saracen. He turned and strode back to the ring.
Rabbit’s nose twitched nervously as he presented John with his helmet. ‘Keep it,’ John said as he shed his shield. ‘And help me with my armour.’ Rabbit helped pull off the heavy coat of chainmail. John removed his tunic too, so that now he wore only his leather breeches and boots. His bare chest was already glistening with sweat under the intense sun. John drew his sword and stepped into the ring where the battle-scarred Saracen stood waiting for him.
Reynald stepped in front of John. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he hissed.
‘I’ll fight him fairly, or I won’t fight,’ John replied. Reynald looked from John to his opponent. John was lean and fit, but he was still smooth-faced, barely a man. His opponent was an experienced warrior, broad-chested and thickly muscled. Reynald shook his head and opened his mouth to speak, but John cut him off. ‘Like you said, he’s only a Saracen, flesh and blood. I’ll handle him.’
‘I like you, Saxon. I hope you live.’ Reynald stepped away, leaving John to face his opponent.
The Saracen swung his sword from side to side, testing its weight, and then stood still, his blade held low. John raised his own sword, holding it with both hands. His heart pounded in his chest, and sweat trickled down his face. He could hear men shouting in the crowd. ‘Five on the Saracen!’ ‘The Saracen in one turn of the sands!’ ‘Get on with it, bath-boy!’ Others began to shout his name, and gradually their voices merged into a chant: ‘Saxon! Saxon! Saxon!’
John took a step towards his opponent, and the Saracen moved sideways. John pivoted in the middle of the ring, while the Saracen circled around him. A drop of sweat stung John’s eye, and he blinked. Instantly, the Saracen attacked, his sword sweeping up from the ground and towards John’s groin. John parried, but no sooner had he blocked the blow than the Saracen spun away and launched another slicing attack at John’s head. John ducked the blade, but a moment later his face exploded in pain as the Saracen’s knee connected with his jaw. John stumbled backwards, stunned, and barely managed to deflect a wicked thrust aimed at his gut. The Saracen resumed circling.
John stood in the centre of the ring, breathing hard. His jaw was on fire, and he worked it side to side to make sure nothing was broken. The Saracen continued to circle, his sword pointed down towards the earth. John had never faced someone who fought like this: always spinning and circling. He had been trained to fight head-on, in a line. He thought back to the countless hours he had spent in practice with his father. John could hear the gravelly voice in his head: ‘Keep your distance, find a pattern, break him down.’
The Saracen attacked again, slicing up towards John’s face. John raised his sword, but at the last second the Saracen shifted his attack, cutting back down at John’s waist. John jumped backwards, and the tip of the blade missed him by inches. He chopped down at the Saracen, but the man was already spinning away. John’s sword bit into the dirt, and he barely brought it up in time to block a vicious blow aimed at his chest. The two swords locked, bringing him close to his opponent. The Saracen head-butted John in the face, sending him reeling backwards. John raised his sword to fend off another attack, but the Saracen had moved away, circling again.
John licked his lower lip and tasted blood, metallic and salty. His jaw clenched as anger rose in him, driving away the fear, the pain, and the sound of the chanting crowd until there was only him and his opponent. ‘Bastard!’ he snarled as he raised his sword and sprang forward, slashing at the Saracen’s side. The Saracen parried and spun away, swinging for John’s head as he did so. But this time John anticipated the move. He dropped to one knee to avoid the blade, then lunged forward, driving his sword at the Saracen’s gut. The Saracen just managed to deflect the blow, but not entirely. John’s blade slid past and sliced his adversary’s side, leaving a ragged crimson gash.
John stepped back, and this time he was the one to begin circling. His opponent, a grimace of pain on his face, stood holding his sword in one hand and clutching his side with the other, bright blood oozing between his fingers. John charged forward, stabbing at the Saracen’s chest. The Saracen parried, knocking John’s sword aside, and John reversed his blow immediately, swinging for his opponent’s neck. The Saracen ducked the attack and lunged at John, who sidestepped the blow and brought his sword down hard, knocking the Saracen’s blade from his hand. John kicked the sword away and stood facing his defeated foe. The Saracen sank to his knees, waiting for the blow that would finish him. John raised his sword, and as his anger faded, the roar of the crowd came rushing back to him. ‘Kill him!’ someone yelled. ‘Finish him!’
John hesitated. Honour and mercy, the virtues of a warrior: that was what his father had taught him. He had not come to the Holy Land to place more blood on his head. He lowered his sword and stepped away. ‘I spare you.’ The crowd booed.
‘Very chivalrous of you,’ Reynald said as he stepped past John. In one smooth motion, he drew his sword and brought it down on the captive’s neck, killing him instantly. The crowd roared its approval as Reynald hacked down again and again, severing the man’s head from his body. Reynald picked up the head and threw it to the cheering crowd. Then he turned back to John and put his arm around his shoulders. ‘You’re brave, Saxon; a man after my own heart. What’s your real name?’
‘Iain, my lord. Iain of Tatewic.’
Reynald frowned. ‘That’s no name for a knight.’ Franks could never get their mouths around ‘Iain.’
‘John, sir. You can call me John.’
‘Very well, then, John. You will come to the castle with me tonight, and you will meet our King.’