Summer, 1101 AD Near Mersivan, northern Anatolia.
Two thousand hooves beat on the yellowed sand, their rhythm growing in intensity.
Estienne let his horse fly under him, and rode ahead of his charging men, feeling the saddle pulse like a beating heart. Giving a quick glance behind him, he gazed upon his six hundred knights, pondering their facial expressions. Some men rode with a visage of anger, some wide alert, some with a blank stare.
Estienne wondered if they would die with that expression on their face. Noticing their commander look back at them, many raised their lances, crying out.
Estienne did the same, lifting his to the skies, and put all of his newfound adrenaline into a cry.
“Deus lo Vult!”
“DEUS LO VULT!” he heard it echo behind him in the hundreds.
His horse was now in a full sprint, gliding across the hill, and he could see the white in the Turkish eyes ahead of him. He lowered his lance, knowing his men did the same.
Estienne targeted one man directly ahead of him, a wiry sergeant with a scaly coat of mail.
The Turks, looking to challenge the crusaders, lowered their spears and gave a call of their own.
“Allahu Ackbar! Allahu Ackbar! Rafae alramah!”
Estienne’s horse has impaled by five separate spears, and his mailed form sent flying forward into the Turkish crowd. His lance, still in hand, missed the sergeant but gored into two others.
Estienne slammed into the ground, flopping into the soil like a wet rag.
His knights pushed into the wall of spears, most being flung from their horse and dropped fifteen feet away. Some managed to swerve through the spears and skewer unlucky Turks with their lances, soon switching to their longswords that gleamed in the flaxen sun.
Estienne was awoken by a sandal crushing down on his windpipe. With a startled coughing fit he ripped the foot off, swinging himself up on his feet, surrounded by four spearmen.
Hastily drawing his sword, he slapped one’s spear away, stepping up to slip his sword across his throat. The man fell to his knees, gloved hands convulsing around his neck as blood bubbled over his knuckles like a mountain stream.
One Turk rushed forward with a sabre, while the other two were obliterated by a Frankish destrier crashing into the crowd.
Estienne turned to find the Turk stabbing into his lower rib cage, and he felt the bite through his chainmail. Clutching his chest he chopped down into the man’s arm, severing the tissue.
The Turk simply gazed in frozen shock at his stump, and Estienne kicked him to the ground.
Estienne looked up to see the battle raging around him. Many of his knights were eerily still on the ground or impaled on someone’s spear, and the others were viciously fighting for their lives in a symphony of cuts and hacks. He heard a rally call, and shielded his eyes to watch his friend Conrad riding circles on his horse, trying to gather all the survivors to himself.
“Versammle dich hier, Ritter des Herrn! Versammle!”
Estienne found an unscathed horse running amok through the bloodbath, and quickly mounted it, grasping the reins. Galloping over to Conrad, he helped gather the remaining knights, seeing many of the faces he observed earlier.
Conrad was relieved to see Estienne had survived, and grasped his shoulder.
“Where in God’s name are the infantry, Estienne?” Conrad’s voice was shaking.
“Were they not right behind us?” Estienne shielded his eyes from the sun.
An exasperated squire steered to a stop in front of the two generals, gasping for breath.
“Sir, Raymond and the infantry have been surrounded by Sipahis, and they are trapped. He calls for your aid.”
“Sipahis? We didn’t receive a report of any Sipahis in the area….Tell him we ride to his relief.”
Estienne did not sound like he meant it.
The squire urged his exhausted horse away, jumping over a pile of mangled corpses from the initial charge.
Estienne and Conrad rode their horses to the crest of a small hill, overlooking the disastrous scene.
In a stroke of genius military tactics, the Seljuks had separated Estienne and the knights from Raymond and his infantry, and were now spelling out the final steps of their doom.
Circling around the exasperated infantry were swarms of mounted bowmen, the Sipahis.
Nobles and rich landowners of Anatolia, they were the finest horse archers this region had to offer. They were dressed in shining scale armor, with conical helmets and golden greaves.
Each held a shortbow that they could aim well enough to find the gaps in any knight’s armor.
They buzzed around Raymond and his heavy infantry, sticking them with searing arrows.
From his viewpoint he watched a single horsemen ride through the fray, taking down four separate crusader footmen. They fell to their knees, grasping the arrow in vain.
Estienne’s horrified stare session ended as a black-shafted arrow pierced into his helm, embedding itself in the metal. The force of the arrow nearly sent him sprawling from his horse.
Conrad looked up to see a small band of Sipahis riding their direction.
He saw two pull their drawstrings back, and managed to raise his kite shield in time to block the two arrows that came whistling his way.
Estienne was nearly blinded from the stars that blinked and popped in his distorted vision, and the world swirled before his eyes.
Fear ruled his mind, and he thought of the deadly riders coming his way, seeking to kill him with their blinding hails of endless arrows.
He no longer felt any pride or duty to the soldiers under his command, and only sought to run away from this horrible place.
Estienne reared his horse up into the air, and gored his spurs into its sides. The horse whinnied in fright, and sprinted off away from the danger.
With a startled yelp as another arrow whirred inches from his face, Estienne fled the battle.
1 day later On board the Grendel bound for France.
Estienne couldn’t bear it. He hated himself. Here he was, resting on a ship as his camp full of women, children, priests and wounded were likely in Seljuk chains, forced into an endless hell of labor. He was their leader. He was supposed to protect the afflicted and innocent, he had taken an oath at his knighting long ago and before this dreaded crusade. He had failed.
Sitting miserably in a mess of netting, Estienne was avoided by the rest of the knights who fled with him. They too felt the pangs of guilt that came after failure, and the ship was silent.
Days passed, with each bleak morning seeming to worsen Estienne’s depression, and each dreadful night spent in anguish.
With Estienne’s sorrows came haunting nightmares that entered his mind through the pain.
Estienne was locked in a cage.
Looking down at his wrists, he pulled on the shackles that bound him. With a startled cry, he beheld the sores that wrapped around his skin, results from days of being bound.
The cage was crammed full with starving priests and women.
He heard an infant start to cry, and saw the mother try to hush its pleading.
She looked exhausted, starving, and rabid, with rings around her eyes. Her hair was matted and soaked with dried blood. Concealing the infant in what was left of the folds of her dress, she closed her eyes, praying.
Outside of the cage, a Seljuk footman pounded on the bars. He was the same sergeant Estienne had seen in the charge and missed with his lance.
With a smile, he gestured towards the infant under the cloth, and whispered to her.
The mother was terrified.
Estienne saw that there were no other babies in the cage.
The horses pulling the mobile prison were brought to a halt, and the sergeant ordered two of his men inside.
With a crash, the barred door was thrown open, and the two men surrounded the mother.
Pulling out a curved knife, one of them rushed towards her.
Suddenly, a priest tackled him to the ground. His helmet flying off in the impact, his head crunched against the bars, and the guard was left dead under the white robes of the monk.
The other guard, alarmed at the sight of the men’s open skull, pierced the monk’s body with his spear. His white robes soaked up the blood like a sponge.
The sergeant saw his man die, and started screaming to his other soldiers. Five more entered the cage, stabbing the mother who still clutched her crying infant.
The priests rose up, crying out. They clustered in the corners of the cage, desperately seeking to get as far away from their bloody spears as possible.
The Seljuk spearmen gored the priests one by one, until all the begging and screaming had stopped. They turned towards Estienne, who was unnoticed so far, simply watching the horrific scene play out.
Two came forward with their spears, and Estienne made a hurried attempt to swipe the points away. But they struck home, and searing pain shot through his body as the spears stirred his intestines around.
He awoke, screaming, on the bottom deck of the Grendel, with Conrad clutching his shoulders.
“In the name of Saint Boniface, good man, what is wrong with you?”
Conrad had heard Estienne scream, and rushed below to see what was going on.
Estienne turned towards Conrad, his shadowy eyes lit with energy.
“I-I saw them, Conrad. All those we left to die in Mersivan. I saw them chained in a cage, I saw them stabbed, I saw the poor thing crying, I heard the screams-”
“Estienne, it was just a dream. We don’t know what happened to them, and it wasn’t our fau-”
Estienne rose in anger.
“You do know what has happened, you just refuse to admit it! It was our fault! It was! We abandoned them, we left them to their deaths, to a life of slavery!”
“There was nothing we could have done! We were defeated. We were destroyed by the Sipahis riders, our army split in two. What, did you expect us to just die with them? Would that have been better?”
Conrad spread his gloved hands in an expression of disbelief.
“We were cowards, Conrad! We ran from the field of battle, the great revealer of all men’s character. We found our character, alright. We are cowards! Vermin! Traitors!”
Estienne started to weep.
Conrad looked down at him in pity, and climbed back above deck.
Estienne saw his friend go, and continued to feel the consequences of his cowardice. There he was, a knighted man of valor and bravery, collapsed in a pile of guilt and misery.
He felt the ship rock under him, more powerful and sudden than the usual swaying. His sadness was replaced by suspicion, and he stood up to gaze out of the hatch that led to the deck.
Heavy, dense clouds choked the sky with an ugly purple haze. Out of the soup came a crackling lightning bolt, which snaked through the sky like an angry python.
Thunder followed, shaking the ship with its intensity.
A storm was brewing.