17 May, 1102 A.D.
There was a road that ran along the coastline of the Levant, built by the Romans.
Despite being weathered by hundreds of years of blistering sun and tortuous winds, it was wide enough to fit four horsemen across its face.
The cobble was chiseled to perfection, and made up of the pale, bland limestone that dominated much of the Levant. With an unending clopping noise that drowned out the waves of the nearby Mediterranean Sea, King Baudouin marched his personal guard of cavalry down the path.
The King was parched after four hours of traveling, and reached for his wine sack strapped around the horn of his saddle, which was covered in a glossy red velvet. He took a moment to empty it, enjoying the feeling of the liquid running down his throat before turning to his main advisor.
“Atallah, how many miles till we reach Ramla? Perhaps I can store the prisoners there in the tower, and move on with our mission.”
The advisor was an Arab, dressed in long white robes that flowed over each side of the saddle as he rode. Atallah’s speaking was difficult to understand, as he struggled through the strange Frankish dialect.
“Malik, we should be nearing city soon, before sun down. The um...prisoners will be...put in tower, as you wish, Malik.”
King Baudouin liked to watch people struggle, which is why he put Atallah as his personal retainer. The man was royal advisor to the sultan of Jerusalem, before the Crusade.
He had, of course, enslaved Atallah’s family in his royal court to ensure he remained loyal.
“Excellent! Inform the men of our destination.”
King Baudouin shook the last drops from his wine skin before throwing it down onto the sand to be trampled by the knights behind him.
Estienne looked about.
His massive steed continued to lumber forward with the formation, so he let the reins loose. He had ridden near three other knights for the entirety of the journey so far.
One was the tall, popular Sicilian. Apparently his name was Savio. Two others were unknown to him, their sunburnt faces unfamiliar, and their helms bowed in boredom. It had been a long day.
Estienne looked forward down the road, searching the horizon. In the distance was the outline of a small city. He could see a few large buildings shimmer and bounce in the heat waves that reverberated off the stone path. Noticing Estienne’s gaze held forward, Savio looked as well.
“Well, sarò dannato. Is that the city of Ramla, or a mirage fooling our thirsty eyes?”
Estienne turned towards Savio, looking him up and down. He had an uncut swath of dark, curly hair that sprayed out from his helmet. Savio was younger than he was, looking to be in his late twenties.
“No mirage, Savio. We will soon take shelter in its walls, enjoying ourselves near the palm trees.” Estienne laughed, genuinely joyful.
Savio was confused. Didn’t he know he would be imprisoned there with his German friend as soon as they arrived?
“Norman...do you not know your fate?”
“What do you mean?” Estienne’s smile disappeared.
“Ramla is to be a temporary prison for you and the German until King Baudouin returns with the Fatimid party. I thought you knew this. Everyone does.”
Estienne’s features shriveled up in disgust.
“You lie, Sicilian! Why did I receive this armor from the King if I am a common criminal?”
Savio was a patient man, he knew Estienne’s anger was not truly directed towards him.
“The armor is but a cruel joke from Baudouin. I’m surprised you actually wore it….”
Estienne’s disgust turned to horrible realization, looking down at the silvery chainmail.
“Wha...where will I be taken after Ramla?”
“You will be most likely given a quick trial in Jerusalem sentencing you to...your end. I am sorry, Estienne. I wish there was something I could do, but the King is absolute. I-”
Savio opened his mouth for more words, but Estienne reared his horse up, sending it galloping down the road.
Estienne’s horse was bred to perform in quick bursts of energy, allowing him to ride up the formation with incredible speed.
Estienne couldn’t believe it. Why had his friend lied to him this whole time? Did Conrad simply not want him to know what was happening until the noose was wrapped around his neck? How could he do this? Estienne was trapped in the white hot realm of anger, but his perception was perfect. He charged down the column passing knight after knight, his brows furrowed as he searched.
A furious sweat dripped down from his helmet, but the rushing wind blew it away.
Estienne confronted his long time companion, furious. His horse skid to a stop, breathing heavily. Estienne gitted his teeth, drawing his sword to challenge the German.
“Face me, you traitorous lout! How could you lie to me this whole time?”
Conrad fumbled for words, soon drowned out by Estienne’s accusations.
“You told me this cursed armor was a gift! You told me we were to help the king on his journey, then we were to return to Europe! Y-you told me remission was ours! Two weeks ago on the boat, you said the Lord always offers another chance for forgiveness.”
Tears streamed down Estienne’s cheeks, collecting the sweat and dust from the day.
“Where is the second chance now, Conrad? We are to be sentenced to death! There is no holy forgiveness to be found in a noose hanging from the Tower of David!”
He raised his sword high up into the air. It shook in his feverish hands. He tensed to strike, and Conrad recoiled in fear. Estienne couldn’t bear the thought of striking his friend down. He rode away in anguish, his mouth sputtering with the poisonous feeling of betrayal.
Conrad was left alone, shocked. The knights nearby stared at him, whispering in hushed tones.
He felt terrible, he wanted to apologize to his friend for his lying. Estienne was the only friend he would have in these final days. Why did he ruin this friendship? Why didn’t he just confess the terrible fate they were both destined to experience? Perhaps at least then he would have someone to share the pain with.
Conrad called out to his friend, desperate to tell his true feelings.
But he was gone.
Estienne forced his horse down the Roman road as fast as possible, madly stabbing his spurs into its flesh. The steed squealed in pain, sprinting as fast as it could. Estienne’s vision was hazed with red, his eyes blurred with tears, but he had found his target.
Nearing the top of a hill that overlooked the city of Ramla, was King Baudouin and his personal assistants. Estienne could see his bejeweled crown gleaming in the afternoon light, and knew exactly what he had to do. Steering his exhausted mount towards a cart of weapons, he snatched a steel lance from the pile, tucking it under his arm with practiced efficiency.
With Estienne riding towards the King at full speed, many of the knights reacted. Cries rang out, and many tried to force him to a stop. Each knight was trampled under his massive horse’s hooves, and left writhing on the cobblestones. Estienne’s horse slowed to a canter as it tried to summit the hill with its loose sand and uneven footholds. The Roman road here was weathered and broken.
He screamed into the horse’s ear, forcing it to go faster.
King Baudouin didn’t seem to hear him. The wicked king, his jailkeeper and judge, wasn’t even looking at him.
Snatched out of his anger for a moment, Estienne was puzzled by the King’s apparent uncaring attitude. Him and his advisors seemed to be focused on something else, pointing down at the valley before them.
King Bauduoin’s face was fearful, but not because of Estienne. An uneasy feeling washing over him, Estienne let his horse take its time to clamber up the hill.
Surfacing at the summit, all of Estienne’s fury disintegrated, replaced with shock and awe.
The valley was filled with the biggest army Estienne had ever seen.
Three separate blocks of men that stood in formation, battle ready. Banners, flags and all the signs of war were scattered across the immense gathering, painted in the gaily colors of the Fatimid Caliphate, a deep red and a piercing yellow. He was struck dumb by the raw, malevolent energy the army before him mustered. Estienne saw an immense mass of Egyptian light cavalry, with their turbans wrapped around conical helmets. Each grasped a long lance similar to the Frankish knights.
There were multiple divisions of infantry, hardened desert Arabs armed with a spear that would mangle any horse thrown onto it. Supporting the main force was a square formation of archers, their skin black as night. Estienne had heard about these dark skinned peoples, but had never before seen them in the flesh. They came from the distant land of Sudan, and covered their black skin in white cloth that cooled them from the sun.
This was no small riding party sent to see off survivors,
This was an army of twenty thousand.
Atallah spoke up.
“That is the banner of Al-Musta'li! We are doomed!”
Leaning from his horse, King Baudouin grabbed Atallah by the throat, lifting him from his exquisite saddle.
“Saracen fool! It was your job to send out scouts! Why didn’t they mention...this?!”
Atallah could barely get any words out from his constricted windpipe.
“I h-had no idea, malik! I promise you! I se-”
With a hiss, King Baudouin drew his sword from its scabbard, goring it deep into Atallah’s chest. The royal sword slipped through his robes.
Atallah’s screams were silenced by the King’s hand around his throat. Dropping the blood-soaked Arab to the sand, King Baudouin yelled to his trumpeter, his face contorted with stress.
“Gather the men!”
Managing to pull his eyes away from the egregious army before him, the boy blew the signal for the knights to gather, two short, anxious blasts.
Soon all of Baudouin's personal guard were racing up the hill to catch a glimpse of what was causing all the commotion. The two hundred gathered around their king. Down below in the valley, multiple horns rang out. In the group of Sudanese bowmen, multiple green banners were raised, covered in golden Arabic script.
Estienne circled his horse back down the hill, searching for anyone he knew. Tensions from just moments ago were forgotten in the face of this new enemy.
“Conrad!” Estienne called out.
Estienne’s horse tramped about nervously. The animal could feel the rising pressure, and sensed his rider’s concern.
Conrad leaned closer to Estienne.
“What is it? What’s down in the valley?”
Savio cantered up next to them.
“Estienne! Were those horns? What is down there?”
“It’s an army, Savio. Twenty thousand or more, between us and Ramla.”
Estienne looked to each of his companions, seeing them react with pale faces.
“Wir sind fertig.” mumbled Conrad, shaking his head.
Savio’s usually brilliant demeanor was shattered.
“What about the scouts? They-”
“They were wrong, Savio, hopelessly wrong.” explained Estienne.
Conrad spoke up, his voice shaky.
“Let us see the army, Estienne.”
The three joined the rest of the knights as they looked down into the valley.
“God save us!” cried a knight, placing his shaking hands on his helm to calm himself.
“We must surrender!” said another. “What chance do we have?”
King Baudouin, sensing his soldiers’ resolve start to slip, caught their attention.
“We will not surrender, you can be sure of that.”
In the valley, the banners of the Sudanese archers flipped around, revealing new colors. The entire division of archers moved in unison, each archer bending his back to pick up an arrow.
King Baudouin turned to his soldiers.
“They’re firing! Take cover!”
The entire crusader cavalry formation went into a panic, many knights frantically reaching for shields that were stowed away in leather packs on their saddles.
Estienne had kept his shield strapped to his arm, and was ready to raise it when he needed. Conrad and Savio had theirs in pouches, but managed to get them out quickly enough.
Estienne noticed many knights searched in vain, until an appalling realization dawned on them. Man had left theirs in a weapons cart somewhere far behind in the column of riders.
Estienne watched as the Sudanese archers raised their bows to the sky, aiming at a predetermined degree. His heart pounded through his chainmail.
With the twang of two thousand bows letting loose, a dark cloud soared up from the valley, rising like a dragon from the depths. The Frankish cavalry were paralyzed in fear, watching the flock of arrows fly ever closer and closer. Arrows darted and circled inside the cloud like Chinese fireworks, with a sickening whistling sound filling the air, growing louder as they approached.
Finally, the hail of jet-black arrows was too close to remain unacted upon. Each knight raised his shield, grimacing in anticipation.
An early arrow thudded into Conrad’s shield, pushing his arm back with its surprising power.
“They’re heavy arrows, Estienne! Armor pierc-”
Conrad’s words were cut off as the tenacious storm rained hell upon them.
The sound of arrows hitting everywhere was deafening, as their velocity came to a sudden stop.
Each knight’s shield was barraged with arrows, embedding themselves deep into the painted wood. Despite being nearly five feet long, the raised shields left the knight’s feet unprotected. Savio watched a knight roar in pain as an arrow bit deep into his chausses. His natural instinct was to recoil in pain, and he grabbed his foot with both hands, dropping his shield. Two more arrows perforated into his chest, dropping him from the saddle.
The knights without shields covered their heads in vain, being riddled with arrows. Each fell from the saddle, their muscles convulsing from the foreign objects stuck in their flesh.
Countless arrows lost themselves in the sea of sand, while many stuck into the horses. Estienne’s stallion took at least five arrows all along its body, squealing in pain. No other horse fared better. A horse behind Conrad took an arrow to the eye, rearing up and bucking its rider.
Gradually, the arrows fell less and less like the last drops of a dying rainstorm. Finally, it was over, leaving twenty knights dead and sixty others wounded.
Down in the valley, the Arab cavalry advanced, lances held up to the skies in the ready position.
King Baudouin drew his sword, yelling above the sounds of the dying men on the sand.
“Knights of Jerusalem! Crusaders of God! Hear my words!
Even now, their light cavalry advances, with the intent of finishing us off! These infidels, heathens of the false prophet Mohammed, expect us to fall quickly!”
The King urged his horse closer to his troops, waving his sword in circles. His natural charisma entranced his men, each loyal knights who had personally pledged their service to Baudouin years ago.
“Take your steel to the Moslems! Drag down as many to Hell as you can, whether by lance, sword, or your own teeth and fists! If you can escape from the gauntlet of fighting, fall back to Ramla. There we will gather in the courtyards.
In the name of St. Peter and St. John, vanquish all who fight you under the reviled banner of Islam! Lucifer awaits his wicked disciples, sentence them to their damnation!
With a rally cry, the knights gathered around their King, ecstatic to sacrifice themselves, taking down as many of the Fatimids as possible. They rose together, in one more chorus.
With cries of insane glee and yips of excitement, the knights of King Baudouin grabbed lances from their squires who had run in from the back with supplies.
Down in the valley, the Egyptian cavalry began to gain speed, forming into a perfect charging line, multiple ranks deep.
King Baudouin looked over the men that he had inspired, and saw that they were ready. They automatically formed into a wedge formation, practiced from years of drill in Europe. Savio instinctively fell in with the group, leaving Estienne and Conrad.
Conrad looked to his friend, grabbing the reins of his horse.
“We have to join them, Estienne. If you can, make it to the courtyard as he said. Hopefully we’ll see each other there.”
Estienne nodded his head, forming into the back of the wedge with Conrad.
The German grabbed a steel lance from servants, testing its weight.
King Baudouin once again gathered his men.
“Death in battle is the only true way to die, knights! Meet them with your lances!”
Rearing his steed up, King Baudouin trotted down the hill, followed by his personal guard.
One hundred and fifty knights began their charge against twenty thousand.
Baudouin’s guard stayed true to the wedge formation as their horses gained in speed, aided by the occasional jab from their spurs. The knights flowed over the hill like an ocean wave, emptying into the valley. Estienne made sure to remain close to Conrad as he rode. He felt the extravagant silver chainmail wear heavy on his chest, reminding him of its intentions. It was a gift meant to embarrass him, but that meant little now. He only hoped that it would hold up against Egyptian sabres.
With a tighter grip on his lance, he pulled it close to his torso. At the right moment, he would lower its point, aiming for an enemy. The power of the lance was his greatest tool in battle, and he had to use it wisely.
He shrugged his shield into a better position, caring little about the arrows that still remained from the storm just seconds ago. His eyes squinted against the blatant radiance of the setting sun, but he kept focus on the enemy ahead.
King Baudouin, riding at the point of the wedge, urged his horse into a canter. The crusaders automatically matched his speed. The knights, with a holy fervor pumping through their veins, raised their lances into the air. Some waved their swords in circles as they bounced on the saddle, roaring with excitement.
Estienne looked past the knights before him. The figures of the Fatimid cavalry grew on the horizon, coming closer. They too pushed into a faster pace, crying their own praises.
They matched the Franks’ ferocity with something else. Confidence. A cocky, prideful assurance that stemmed from the fact that their enemy was outnumbered in the thousands.
Noticing this, Estienne slammed his spurred boots down into his horse’s ribs. He drove the beast mad, and it sped forward across the plains, gritting down on its bits. The horse was transformed into a monster. Its mouth foamed with saliva, and its eyes opened wide.
There was no stopping the monster now.
The knights watched as Estienne flew ahead of the group, admiring how he worked his mount into a carnal fiend. They too pushed their horses into a realm of anger and pain, born of the heat and flames of battle. Their monsters were at full speed, rushing over the plains like a pack of wolves.
The two charging lines, one Fatimid and the other of Jerusalem, came closer and closer, each galloping over the plains. The Arab cavalry broke from their original flat charging formation. Two flanks of Arabs steered away from the main group, each side curving outwards. It was a flanking maneuver.
King Baudouin noticed this, but knew there was nothing he could do about it at this point. He was expecting this. It was a move any commander would make. There was no time for readjustments, no time for a new plan of attack.
There was only steel, and there was only death.
Estienne’s beast was surrounded by its brothers, one hundred and fifty Hellhounds from the deepest cage in Satan’s pleasure palace.
The two sworn enemies, enemies of the holy war, were now close. The knights, with one hand holding the reins of their monster, lowered their lances into striking position. They formed a perfect ninety degrees, still and unmoving with the powerful grips of the knights. The lances fell like trees in a forest, catching themselves perfectly straight upon the forest floor. Estienne dropped his lance into position, aiming for a hooded Egyptian rider ahead of him.
The man was doomed, hexed to receive the lance in his chest.
Estienne would make sure of it.
He heard one voice above all the others, above all the chaos they were forming. It was the King, the Frankish crusader veteran, with his voice loud and clear.
Estienne could do nothing now but prepare for impact.