HOLY WAR preview

Holy War – Chapter 1

December, 1181: Cairo

Yusuf tugged his panther-skin cloak more tightly about him. The chill wind from the north brought with it a stinging rain and the sound of distant masons’ hammers. The winter weather had not stopped construction on the citadel rising on the hills south of Cairo; nor would it prevent Yusuf’s monthly inspection of his troops. The pennants that rose above the ranks of the army hung wet and limp, but the men beneath them sat straight in their saddles, despite the rain that soaked their caftans and beaded on their burnished mail.

‘You have done well,’ Yusuf told his younger brother. It had been Selim’s task to rebuild the army after the disaster at Montgisard. Four years ago, Yusuf’s army had marched to within a few miles of Jerusalem before being surprised and routed by the Christians. Yusuf had lost thousands of men. Afterwards, he had given his brother five years to rebuild the army. Selim had done it in four. The army before them was fifteen thousand men strong, larger than it had been before Montgisard. ‘You have earned yourself a new name, brother: Saif ad-Din.’

‘Shukran Allah.’ Selim bowed in the saddle. ‘Sword of Islam. It is a good name.’

Yusuf spurred forward to inspect the ranks. He rode past the mushtarawat: four thousand mounted men, all wearing saffron-yellow caftans over their mail to distinguish them as his personal troops. Each man carried a light bamboo spear in one hand and a small round shield in the other. Curved bows were slung over their backs and swords hung from their sides. The rain pinged off their steel helmets. They were Yusuf’s most skilled warriors, and among them were some of his oldest friends. He nodded as he passed Husam, with his gold tooth, and Nazam, a bald-headed, lean man, quick as a snake. Yusuf acknowledged several other men, but it was the absences that struck him. The peerless archers Liaqat and Uwais and the giant Qadir had all fallen at Montgisard.

Beyond his yellow-clad warriors were his brother’s mamluks and those of the emir Qaraqush. Some of them wore jawshan vests composed of hundreds of tiny steel plates sewn together. Others wore mail or padded cotton lined with steel plates. Next came the five thousand men of the light cavalry, all in padded vests and with only bows and light spears for arms. Last of all, Yusuf rode through the ranks of the infantry. The five thousand men carried tall shields and long spears, which would allow them to turn aside a cavalry charge.

When he had ridden past the final row, Yusuf turned his horse and cantered back to the front of the army. ‘Are there any cases for me to hear?’ he asked Qaraqush.

The stout emir with the grizzled beard nodded. ‘Prisoners!’ he shouted, and the guards herded forward three men. Yusuf was disappointed to see that one of them was his cousin, Nasir ad-Din. It was not the first time that the young man been brought before him. Nasir ad-Din had been a boy of only seven when his father Shirkuh died. He had been raised at the palace in Cairo, and had become fast friends with Yusuf’s nephew, Ubadah. Yusuf had given his cousin Homs to rule, hoping that commanding others might teach him discipline, but Nasir ad-Din had not yet set foot in his lands. He preferred to stay in Cairo while he enjoyed the revenues from Homs. Qaraqush pointed to him. ‘Nasir ad-Din was found drunk in the barracks with two women. One of them was married.’

Nasir ad-Din was thin as a stalk of wheat, and like a stalk of wheat, he was trembling, though more likely from fear or shame than the cold wind. His eyes were fixed on the ground at Yusuf’s feet.

‘Look at me, Cousin,’ Yusuf commanded. ‘Explain yourself.’

‘I—I meant no harm,’ Nasir ad-Din began. He spoke haltingly at first, and then the words came out in a rush. ‘Three of my men reached their eighteenth year this last month. They were freed and became full mamluks. A leader must share his men’s joys as well as their pains. My father taught me that. I took them to Chandra’s to celebrate. I fear I became quite drunk.’

‘And the married woman? Who was she?’

‘She never told me her name, Malik. She never told me she was married, either. I swear it! I—’

‘Enough.’ There was a time when Yusuf might have forgiven his cousin’s indiscretions. After all, he too had once slept with another man’s wife. But Yusuf had been a different man then, before Montgisard, before the desert. ‘You have disgraced yourself and our family with your drunkenness and lewd actions,’ he said sternly. ‘There are few crimes more heinous than to sleep with another man’s wife, and to do so in public, in the barracks amongst your men …’ Yusuf shook his head. ‘You will suffer ten blows from the lash, and you will pay a hundred dinars to the man you have wronged. As of tomorrow, you are banished from Cairo. Go to your lands in Homs and learn to rule justly and wisely. I pray for your sake that I do not hear further ill tidings of you.’

Nasir ad-Din opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. ‘Yes, Malik.’
The next man to be brought forward was bald, with a fat face. His sodden caftan was plastered over a round belly. ‘Shaad is a cook,’ Qaraqush declared. ‘He has been found guilty of thievery.’

‘Malik, I never! I have been a cook for twenty years and more. I served your uncle, Shirkuh. I—’

Yusuf drew his sword and the cook fell silent. ‘What did he steal?’

‘Each month, he kept some of the money intended to buy food for the troops.’
Shaad fell to his knees on the muddy ground. ‘It was only the once, Malik. I swear it. Have mercy!’

Yusuf dismounted. ‘You have grown fat on food that was intended for your fellow soldiers. You shall lose your post and suffer a thief’s punishment.’ He gestured to the guards, who grabbed the cook from behind. One of them stretched out his right arm. Another took a strip of cloth and tied it tightly just below the elbow, to staunch the flow of the blood that was to come. As Yusuf raised his sword, the cook thrashed and squirmed. ‘I will have your hand,’ Yusuf told him. ‘Hold still if you want a clean cut.’ Shaad ceased resisting, and Yusuf brought his sword down. The cook fainted, and the guards dragged him away, leaving his severed hand on the parade ground. Yusuf’s gut burned, but he hardly noticed. It was always burning of late.

He returned to the saddle as the final prisoner was brought forward. The man was very handsome, with a trimmed black beard and golden eyes. ‘What did this one do?’
‘Rape, Malik. A glass merchant’s daughter.’

‘There are witnesses?’

Qaraqush gestured to four men in silk caftans. With them was a woman wearing a niqab that hid all but her eyes. ‘Four men, as required by law, Malik.’

The prisoner met Yusuf’s eye without flinching. ‘It was no rape. She wanted it, Malik.’

‘He lies!’ one of the men in silk shouted. ‘Look what he did to my daughter, Malik.’ The woman removed her niqab. Her cheek was bruised, her lip split and bloodied. ‘He has disgraced her. What sort of bride price will I find for her now?’

‘The mamluk will be stoned to death as decreed by law,’ Yusuf declared. ‘You shall be compensated for your loss. A hundred dinars.’

The father was bowing his thanks as Yusuf turned his horse and rode for Cairo with his guard trailing behind. He was cold and wet and in a black mood, as he often was after dispensing justice. He wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a warm meal, but that was not to be. No sooner had he shed his cloak in the palace entrance hall than Al-Fadil limped towards him. The tiny, hunchbacked secretary was suffering from gout.

‘The birds have brought news,’ Al-Fadil said. Yusuf frowned. ‘It is important, Malik.’

‘Walk with me,’ Yusuf told him and continued on to his chambers.

‘I have a letter from the Barka. The Almohad sultan is said to be preparing his fleet to move on Tripoli, on the African coast.’

Yusuf’s forehead creased. He had sent Ubadah to conquer the coast west of Egypt over a year ago, but his nephew’s victories had brought nothing but trouble. ‘Reduce the size of the garrison. Inshallah, the sultan will take Tripoli from us. It has cost me more to keep the city than it pays in tribute.’

‘Very good, Malik.’ Al-Fadil took another message from one of the pockets that lined his silk robes. ‘News from Alexandria. Two more ships have launched to join your new fleet.’ Yusuf could only nod. He stopped for a moment and clutched at the wall, sweat beading on his brow as the pain twisted like a knife in his gut. ‘Are you well, Malik?’

‘A passing indisposition …’ Yusuf straightened and continued down the hall. He could not think of Alexandria without thinking of Turan. Yusuf had sent his older brother to govern the city after his failure during the Montgisard campaign. In a few short months, Turan had run up debts of more than two hundred thousand gold dinars before he died of what was officially declared an excessive use of hashish. Yusuf knew better. It had been justice, but the memory of his brother’s death still pained him.

When they reached Yusuf’s study, Al-Fadil handed him a scrap of paper. ‘I thought it best that you read this in private.’

Yusuf scanned the message, which was written in the miniscule script used for the pigeon post. Al-Salih was dead. The young man had been the ruler of Aleppo, and he was Yusuf’s son, the product of his affair with Asimat when she was still the wife of his lord, Nur ad-Din. Yusuf dropped the message and went to stand at the window. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the ledge. ‘It does not say how he died.’

‘It appears he was murdered, Malik.’

‘And who rules in Aleppo now?’

‘The boy’s cousin, Imad ad-Din. He was given the city by his brother, Izz ad-Din, who rules in Mosul.’

Yusuf turned to face Al-Fadil. ‘That cannot be allowed to stand. You will begin setting aside coin for a campaign.’

‘To Aleppo?’

‘Mosul. Izz ad-Din is the true threat.’ As ruler of Al-Jazirah, the fertile lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Izz ad-Din was rich in both money and men. Yusuf had met him when they were both young men at Nur ad-Din’s court. Even then, Izz ad-Din had been ambitious. ‘I cannot take Jerusalem if I must also defend Damascus from Izz ad-Din and his brother. We will march in the spring, when the winter rains have ended. Go now and tell my brother Saif ad-Din to begin gathering arms and provisions.’

‘Very good, Malik.’ Al-Fadil moved to the door, where he paused. ‘One more thing. I have received news that your wife Asimat is on her way here from Aleppo.’

Yusuf had not seen Asimat in years. After their marriage, she had stayed in Aleppo with their son. He did not wish to face her now, but he could hardly refuse. ‘You will make her comfortable when she arrives.’

Al-Fadil bowed and left. Yusuf returned to the window. He thought of those nights long ago in Aleppo, when he had snuck through the window of Asimat’s chambers to be with her. They had risked everything. They had made a child together. And now that child was dead.

The door behind Yusuf creaked open, and he turned to see Shamsa enter. His first wife was no longer the beauty she had been when he met her. Age had left fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth, and had sharpened her features, making her cheekbones more prominent. But he still saw that enticing mixture of challenge and invitation in her dark eyes. She smiled, showing straight white teeth. Then, her smile faded. ‘You are not well, habibi.’

‘I am fine.’

She came to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. ‘You work yourself too hard. Come. We must get you out of these wet clothes.’ She began to untie the lacing that secured his vest of golden jawshan armour.

Yusuf gently pushed her away. ‘There is work to be done, Wife. We will have war in the north.’ He sat and placed a portable desk on his lap. He reached for a quill, but Shamsa plucked it from his hand.

‘Surely that can wait until after you have had a bath. The roads will not be passable for some months.’

Yusuf picked up another quill. He did not want to bathe. He wanted to lose himself in work, to drive away his thoughts of Turan and Al-Salih and the man he had ordered stoned today. ‘And we must be ready to ride when they are. I cannot allow Imad ad-Din time to build his strength in Aleppo.’ Yusuf picked up a sheet of paper. His brow furrowed in concentration as he began composing a message to Al-Muqaddam, his governor in Damascus.

Shamsa watched him for a moment. ‘You are not alone, habibi,’ she said softly. ‘You should share your burdens with me.’

‘No.’ Yusuf feared she would not call him her beloved if she knew all he had done. ‘I am the king, Shamsa. They are not your burdens to bear.’

February 1182: Cairo

Yusuf’s face was an expressionless mask as he waited in the entrance hall of the palace. Asimat would arrive any moment, and despite his calm demeanour, Yusuf could feel sweat trickling down his spine. He had dressed in his kingly garb: robes of heavy gold thread, a tall white turban, and a jewelled sword at his side. Selim and Shamsa stood just behind him, along with his children. Al-Afdal and his brother Al-Aziz were ten and nine now, almost old enough to be given lands of their own. They both fidgeted, unable to contain their boyish energy. Az-Zahir, who was Al-Aziz’s junior by two years, stood motionless, a mirror image of his father. The younger children – Ishaq, Mas’ud, Yaqub and Da’ud – were off to the side with their nurses and Yusuf’s six daughters. Yusuf noticed the budding breasts on his oldest daughter, Halima, the child of a slave girl. He would have to find her a husband soon.

The doors to the hall opened, and Yusuf squinted against the bright sunshine. Asimat strode forward out of the light, followed by an entourage of guards and courtiers. They knelt while Asimat continued towards Yusuf. She seemed to have aged immensely in the five years since he had last seen her. Her skin was still milky white and smooth, but now her cheeks were hollow and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her long black hair was touched with grey.

‘Wife,’ Yusuf greeted her.

‘Husband.’ She bowed. Her gaze moved from him to Shamsa, and then to the children. She blinked away tears. ‘I wish to speak with you alone.’

‘Of course. I will show you to your quarters. Selim, see that her retinue is made comfortable.’

They did not speak as Yusuf led her across the palace to the harem. ‘These will be your quarters,’ Yusuf said as they entered a comfortable suite of rooms, the floors covered with thick goat-hair carpets and the walls decorated with silks. The windows looked out on a courtyard filled with fragrant rose bushes.

Asimat hardly spared a glance for her new home. ‘It will do.’ She met his eyes. ‘You do not seem happy to see me, Husband.’

‘Why have you come? You could have stayed in Aleppo.’

‘With the men who murdered my son? He did not die a natural death. He was poisoned.’

‘I know.’

Her eyes widened. ‘You know?’ She seized his arm. ‘Who did it? Tell me.’

‘Izz ad-Din.’

‘But he is Al-Salih’s cousin.’

‘He is an ambitious man. Now he rules from Mosul and his brother sits on the throne of Aleppo. With Al-Salih dead, they are the heirs to Nur ad-Din’s kingdom. They will look to Damascus next.’

‘Izz ad-Din,’ Asimat murmured. ‘I should have known.’ All strength seemed to suddenly go from her, and she sank into a pile of cushions on the floor. She sat with her head cradled in her hands for a moment; then she met Yusuf’s eyes. ‘I am the one who found him. He was alone in his chamber when he died. His cup of wine had fallen from his hand. His face was blue as if he had been strangled, but there was no sign of a struggle. I should have been there. I should have protected him.’

Yusuf knelt beside her and took her hands in his. ‘You did all you could.’

‘No. There is one last thing I must do for my son. I must give him vengeance.’ She clutched his hands. ‘If you ever loved me, Yusuf, then avenge me. Avenge our son. March on Mosul. Kill those who took my child from me. Kill that bastard Izz ad-Din.’

Yusuf looked away, unable to bear the sight of her grief. His stomach was burning and he tasted bile in the back of his throat. ‘Those who killed Al-Salih will suffer,’ he told her. ‘You have my word.’

November 1182: Mosul

A long stretch of the imposing sandstone wall of Mosul was sheathed in flames that licked up from the battlements towards a sky that threatened rain. The fires were the last trace of the burning naphtha that the defenders had poured down on Yusuf’s men, leading him to call off the attack. The breeze had brought Yusuf the stench of burning flesh. Now, it carried him the catcalls of the city’s defenders, who mocked his men as they limped back to camp, carrying their dead and wounded. Stones and other objects hurled from catapults soon joined the insults. Yusuf’s fists clenched so tightly that his nails dug into the palms of his hands.

His army had arrived a week ago. Yusuf had deployed his troops around the city and begun a bombardment, but with winter coming, he did not have time for a long siege. He had hoped that a show of force would hurry the decision of the caliph in Baghdad. Yusuf had written to him to request that he be given rule of Mosul. After today, he feared the reply he would receive. Yusuf was still watching his army limp back into camp when Qaraqush galloped up and dismounted. His face was spattered with blood, and part of his caftan had been burned away. He gingerly held a boot in his calloused hands.

‘Casualties?’ Yusuf asked him.

‘A hundred men, give or take. Ubadah’s men took the worst of it. They were the ones hit by the fire.’ Qaraqush shook his head. ‘It’s no use, Malik. Izz ad-Din has too many men for us to storm the city. They fight like devils. Look at this.’ He held out the boot.

Yusuf took it carefully. It was filled with nails, some of which protruded from the sides. They were wet with blood.

‘They are hurling buckets full of them with their cursed catapults,’ Qaraqush explained, shaking his head. ‘This one hit the man beside me in the face.’

Yusuf studied the boot for a moment before tossing it aside. ‘They will stop soon enough, else they will run out of shoes.’

‘It is no laughing matter. I shudder to think what they will send us next.’ Qaraqush scratched his beard. ‘Our catapults have hardly put a dent in their walls, Malik, and the wet weather makes mining impossible. Forgive my bluntness, but we are wasting our time here.’

Yusuf knew Qaraqush spoke for the rest of his men, and he was no doubt sparing him the worst. He forced himself to smile. ‘We will sit before the fires in the palace of Mosul soon enough, old friend. I expect the Caliph’s messenger any day. Once Al-Nasir grants me lordship over Mosul, Izz ad-Din will be forced to admit my lordship and welcome us into the city.’

‘And if the Caliph does not do as you hope?’

‘He will. I sent him gifts worth many thousands of dinars: a valuable Koran, musk, amber necklaces, aloe, balm of Judea, a hundred bows, seven hundred arrows of the best quality, and twenty horses with fine saddles.’

‘Izz ad-Din no doubt sent him gifts as well.’

Yusuf frowned. ‘I cannot take Jerusalem while the men of Mosul sit poised like a dagger at my back. Even the Caliph must see that.’


‘I must see to the wounded. Speak to the emirs, Qaraqush. Tell them what I have told you.’

A light rain began to fall as Yusuf made his way down the hill with Saqr at his heels. Yusuf had made the young man the head of his private guard years ago, after Saqr saved his life during the siege of Alexandria, and he had never had cause to regret the decision. The men called Saqr ‘Saladin’s Shadow’, because he was always at Yusuf’s side. They walked past the ordered tents of the mamluks to where a sprawling tent had been set up at the centre of the camp. Inside, shaded lanterns hung from the ceiling, casting a dim light on dozens of injured men. This was the dark side of glory, the side the poets never spoke of. The wounded sat close together, some moaning in pain, others staring forward in grim-faced silence. Most of these men would live. They had suffered minor cuts or small burns. Those who were worse off were kept at the centre of the tent, in a section screened off from the rest. Yusuf headed there first.

As he entered, he stepped past a man who clutched an arm that was missing a hand. Beside him a man lay on his side trying to hold in his guts, which protruded from a ragged gash in his stomach. His eyes were glazed and he was mumbling something under his breath.

‘You fought well,’ Yusuf told the men. ‘Allah will reward you.’

The man with the missing hand nodded. The other man showed no sign of having heard. He continued to mumble to himself. Yusuf continued into the room, past dozens of men who had suffered terrible burns. Some clutched their bloody, blistered flesh and moaned in pain. Others had skin that was black and charred. They made no sound at all. Yusuf said what words of comfort he could. He paused when he came to a man whose face was one raw, bleeding wound. Ibn Jumay knelt beside him. The doctor noticed Yusuf’s pained expression.

‘His face is not the worst of it,’ Ibn Jumay said. ‘His lungs have been burned. There is no hope for him. I have given him extract of poppy for the pain.’

The man moved, and his eyes blinked open. The fire had blinded him, and he stared straight ahead without seeing. He whispered something in a rasping voice. Yusuf knelt beside him. He had to bring his ear close to the man’s mouth to hear. ‘Malik.’

‘Yes, soldier.’

‘Remember—when—’ Each word was a gasp that caused the man’s face to contort in pain. ‘—we—fought.’ Yusuf frowned. He looked again at the man’s face, but his features had been burned away. ‘Tell Bashir.’

‘Nazam.’ The man nodded. Yusuf took his hand. ‘I remember, friend.’

‘Wife.’ Nazam took a long, shuddering breath. ‘My wife!’

‘She will be provided for.’

Nazam sank back, a smile on his ruined lips. Ibn Jumay gave him another spoonful of poppy extract, and Nazam’s eyes closed. After a moment, his rasping breathing stopped.


Yusuf turned to see Ubadah and Nasir ad-Din enter the screened-off portion of the tent. His nephew’s mail was red with blood and his hair was singed. At twenty-four, lean and strong, Ubadah looked more like his father, John, than ever. Nasir ad-Din’s tunic was also red, but it looked to be from spilled wine, not blood. Yusuf’s jaw set. He pointed to Nasir ad-Din’s tunic. ‘You dare come before me in this state? I had hoped you would learn discipline in Homs, but I can see my hopes were ill founded. Were it not for the love I bore for your uncle, Shirkuh, I would have your tongue cut out as an example. Instead, I shall have your lands. You are emir of Homs no longer.’

Nasir ad-Din’s cheeks had flushed scarlet. ‘But Malik—’

‘Go, or I will have your tongue after all!’

The young man bowed and backed from the room.

Yusuf turned to Ubadah. ‘And you! Where have you been? Your place is here. These men fought for you. They are dying for you.’

Ubadah’s nose wrinkled in disgust as he took in the wounded men. ‘What of it? They are mamluks, bought and raised as slaves. It is their duty to die.’

Yusuf slapped him. ‘I was like you once, Nephew,’ he said, his voice as sharp as a sword’s edge. ‘When I was given my first command, I thought that I could force the men to obey me with threats and beatings. I was lucky they did not wring my neck. My uncle Shirkuh taught me what I now tell you: each time you go into battle, you put your life into your men’s hands. Men who despise you will let you die; men who respect you, love you even, will give up their lives to protect you. But you cannot win your men’s respect by keeping apart from them. You must share their joys, and their pains, too.’

‘Yes, Uncle,’ Ubadah murmured as he stared at his feet. He cleared his throat. ‘I came to tell you that there are messengers from the Caliph. They have been shown to your tent.’

‘You stay here. Talk to the men. Comfort them as you are able. I will speak with the Caliph’s emissaries.’

Outside, the rain was now coming down in sheets. Yusuf was cold and splattered with mud by the time he reached his tent. He stepped inside to find three bearded men in robes of black silk enjoying food and drink with Qaraqush and Imad ad-Din. Yusuf walked to his camp-stool. He sat and gestured for the messengers to approach. ‘The servants of Caliph Al-Nasir are always welcome in my tent. What message do you bring?’

The shortest of the messengers stepped forward and gave a small bow. ‘The Caliph prays for your success and the prosperity of your kingdom. And he sends this …’ The man produced a scroll from his robes.

Yusuf took it and broke the seal. It was all he could do to keep his face impassive as he scanned the text. This was not the diploma of investiture for which he had hoped. I confirm you as king of Syria and Aleppo, the caliph wrote, but I cannot turn my back on my loyal servant Izz ad-Din. It pains me to see conflict between two great men of the faith. I urge you to make peace and to turn your attentions to the Franks in the west. He stopped reading. The rest was compliments and false-piety: empty words.

Yusuf set the scroll aside. The three messengers were shifting nervously. No doubt they knew the contents of the message and feared his wrath. Yusuf smiled at them. The caliph had failed him this time, but Yusuf might have need of him again. Sweet words would help his cause more than threats and curses. ‘My thanks for bringing this message,’ Yusuf told them. ‘My servants will show you to a tent while I prepare my response.’

When they had gone, Yusuf rose and tossed the letter on the brazier. It smoked for a moment and burst into flames. ‘The blind fool!’ he growled. ‘He takes my gifts and spits in my face. He tells me to make peace with Izz ad-Din.’

‘Perhaps you should,’ Imad ad-Din ventured. ‘Mosul—’

‘Must be mine if I am to take Jerusalem. I cannot turn west while Izz ad-Din sits on my borders, waiting to pounce.’

‘The walls of Mosul are thick and its defenders many,’ Qaraqush cautioned. ‘Today’s defeat was just a taste of what lies in store, Malik. You will lose thousands if you attempt to take the city by storm.’

‘And I will gain as many men when the city falls.’

‘Men who were once your enemies; men you cannot trust.’

‘We could starve them into submission,’ Imad ad-Din suggested.

‘We are not prepared for a long siege,’ Qaraqush countered. ‘Who will feed us while we wait for them to starve? Mosul is a prize for another day, Malik. First isolate Izz ad-Din. Take his lands in the west. Aleppo is the prize you should seek now.’

Yusuf frowned as he gazed at the smouldering coals in the brazier. It pained him to retreat, but Qaraqush was right. ‘Izz ad-Din can keep Mosul. We will take everything else from him. Once Aleppo is ours, he will surrender, or he will die.’


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