In the waters of the flowing Mediterranean Sea, a rowboat bounced over the waves.
It was long enough to fit four, and made of sturdy, hazel oak that was lovingly proofed with water sealant by an English sailor long ago.
Sitting on the front bench, shielding his eyes from the glorious sun, was a Norman. Under his palm were his facial features, sharp and deliberate. He had a lengthy nose that hung over his scruffy facial hair like a gargoyle on a castle wall. The Norman bore temples riddled with a snow-white scar from conquest long ago. He opened his dried lips to speak.
“Look, Conrad, the coast!” Estienne called out.
Behind him was a German, tall and blonde. His striking yellow hair was twisted into braids that fell over his shoulders, perfectly framing his strong features. Eyes were set close, and determined. His stalwart mustaches, matching in color, quivered as he strained to row the boat over the waters.
“But what coast is it?” Conrad grunted as an oar nearly slipped from his tight grasp.
“We were headed to Messina last I heard. Who knows how far the storm blew us off course.”
“Only one way to know where we are. Keep going East, we’ll reach the coast soon enough.” Estienne commanded.
Conrad circled his broad shoulders, sending the rowboat over the calm waters.
In the back of the rowboat sat a young knight of Paris. He had blue eyes. The young knight was not far from 21 years, having just taken his traditional oaths of knighthood. Despite this, there was little to distinguish him from a squire. Only the purple wyvern on his jerkin, serving as his coat of arms, showed his true status. Hugues settled into a comfortable position on the bench, and Estienne continued to guide Conrad towards the shore.
Within an hour, Estienne tapped Conrad’s shoulder.
“Do you see it? A group of white buildings. At least we’re nearing a city.”
“Yeah, probably Ascalon. I’m sure we’ll be welcomed with open arms by the entire Fatimid army.” Conrad rolled his eyes but continued to power the boat over the shining waves.
Estienne saw two buildings in detail as they growed closer. One was a small mosque, with a glittering golden dome bubbling out from the roof. To the knights in the rowboat, it was a bad sign. The other looked to be some sort of shed to store fishing equipment and perhaps used to dry out the day’s catch. A paved road stretched behind the group of buildings, running along the beach.
Particularly focused on the potential food inside the shed, Estienne urged Conrad to row faster.
“Conrad! Give it all you got. We need to hurry.”
“I already have been giving it all I’ve got! It’s not easy you know, rowing us all.”
“There might be some food in one of those buildings, you idiot. Row.”
“Well, in that case-”
The boat shot forward, as if suddenly gifted with some heavenly haste enchantment.
In reality, it was Conrad’s enormous biceps. After a few minutes of incredible speed, the rowboat soon stuck into the bleached sand, and the castaways climbed out, sloshing through the shallows to dry land. Conrad pulled them all close, whispering into the huddle he formed.
“Estienne, there better be food here or else your head will be in two pieces. Keep quiet, and stay hidden. I’ll go in first to see if the shed is clear, and wait for my signal.”
Hugues and Estienne ran behind a coastal bush for cover. Conrad soon slipped away from them, stealthily entering the shed, a dagger in hand.
After a few anxious seconds, a cry of glee rose from the shed, and they both rushed in after him. The shed was filled with smoked fish. Racks of bogue and tuna lined the walls of the structure. Normally the smell would be horribly overpowering, but to the knights it smelled like heaven. Hugues snatched a fish and eagerly bit into it. Estienne pulled salted anchovies out of a pot, eating them like berries. Conrad ripped off a hunk of a swordfish. Feeling the results of a half hour of feasting, they all made their way out of the hut, content.
Conrad spoke up, flicking a fish eye off his shoulder.
“Well, we could follow this road until w-”
Estienne halted in mid sentence, holding up a frozen palm.
Down the highway, a huge mounted party approached, their hoofbeats echoing across the coastal air. Hugues saw the silhouettes of hundreds of unknown riders. The three scrambled behind a small hillock of sand topped with shrubbery, lying close to the ground. Conrad pushed through the waxy bushes, making a viewing hole to examine the strangers. He could hear the mysterious riders trotting at a medium pace.
They remained as still as possible as the stamping grew closer, along with the sounds of whinnying and metal buckles clanging. Estienne found little relief in the fact that it was a large party of mounted warriors, not a complete army of any sorts.
Hugues was terrified.
This was his first time in the Holy Land, being a passenger on the Grendel before they picked up Estienne and the rest of the survivors after the battle of Mersivan. Where were the undaunted crusader armies that dominated these deserts? Where were the glorious ports selling exotics and relics from looted mosques and synagogues? Here he was in unknown territory, hiding from what could be the Fatimid escort of some ferocious sultan, surrounded by his finest mamluks who would hack them to pieces without a second thought. And he was stuck with two knights who seemed to have a lust for a noble death. He had heard the Norman’s soliloquy, and how he yearned for another chance for salvation. It seemed that the German felt the same way.
Hugues considered Estienne and Conrad foolishly suicidal. If they were looking for a chivalrous death, he wanted no part of it. Hugues thought himself a logical man. He was a devout Christian, sure, but he did not believe a man should seek to needlessly throw his life away just for forgiveness. The same goal could be found in a peaceful life, with prayer and study till God chooses for you to come back to him. Hugues had no desire to die, and especially not thousands of miles away from home.
If found by these riders on the road, he would be cut down by Saracen swords, thrown out to sea, and forgotten. Hugues sunk deeper into the sand, and prayed not to be found.
Conrad crawled to the summit of the mound. He eagerly pushed his viewing hole wider, anxious to see whoever it was on the road. There was a thick, winding stem in the way. In his rush, he completely uprooted the plant, tearing up the sand around it. An almost perfectly circular boulder fell loose from the soft sand, and it toppled down the hillock, smashing into other rocks at the bottom. Even if they didn’t see the rock fall, the noise it made seemed to reverberate through the air, the unnatural sound detectable above the cacophony of riders.
“Scheisse.” Conrad gritted his teeth.
The entire mounted formation halted from some unseen signal, a group of riders dismounting. Heavy, spurred boots pounded the sand.
Estienne glared at Conrad.
With a flurry of movement, sixteen armed men rushed to both sides of the hillock, aiming loaded crossbows at their hearts.
“Ne bouge pas.” A sergeant shook his ebony crossbow in emphasis.
Estienne raised his arms, and tried to rise to his knees.
“Ne bouge pas!”
Five of the crossbowmen sprinted forward, bludgeoning Estienne with the stocks of their crossbows. Estienne was soon crumpled in a ball on the ground, his head cut open, a gushing stream of blood pooling in his hair.
Conrad and Hugues remained completely still as the rest of the men bound their hands behind them with leather cords. They were pulled to their feet and pushed around the hillock. Estienne was dragged, and thrown down onto the sand.
From the mass of mailed cavalry, three Frankish knights trotted forward on immense destriers, one ahead of the others. Each was layered in the finest silvery chainmail, grasping a steel lance in their right hand, colored a bright gold. Their flowing white tunics bore the insignia of a square cross, their sturdy kite shields similar.
The knight in front wore a Norman helm, painted in glossy white. A gold crown encircled the top of his head, with the occasional green emerald shining in the radiance of the sun. He had a square, sunburnt face that was stained with a rippled and discolored scar on his forehead, presumably from a burn. He wore his wavy reddish-brown hair in long sideburns that connected to a well groomed goatee. The man loosened the mail coif around his neck, and spoke down to Conrad.
His voice was authoritative and ardent, matching the accent of most Frankish knights.
“I am Baudouin of the House of Boulogne, King of Jerusalem.”
King Baudouin rose one of his perfect eyebrows.
“Who are you?”
Conrad looked to Estienne to respond, but he was eerily still, his head down in the sand. Stumbling over his words, he bowed his head in deep respect to the King of Jerusalem.
“I...I am Conrad of the Holy Roman Empire, constable to Emperor Heinrich IV. These are my companions from the crusade- Hugues of Brulis, a knight of France, and Estienne Henri, count of Blois and Chartres. We escaped the battle an-”
King Baudouin interjected, caring little about the lesser nobility before him.
“I wouldn’t quite say escaped, German. You ran, like little dogs before the Seljuks. Word on battles travels to my ears before anyone else’s. I heard about your failed pilgrimage, the disastrous defeat, and the thousands you left behind just to save your own hides. Very knightly indeed, noble constable. Your actions make me hesitate to bring you on my journey, but I must. Pity I can’t just string you up here. After we complete our mission, I shall drag you back to the Tower of David and have you hung for cowardice! With a completely fair trial first of course.”
The King of Jerusalem laughed to himself, a flowing, sardonic chuckle.
“But for now, equip yourselves with the finest my personal guard has to offer.
There is battle before you must face your crimes.”
Conrad was starstruck.
“...H-hung for cowardice, my lord? Wha..what is the mission, sire? Where are we going?”
King Baudouin smiled. He had perfect, pearly teeth.
“Don’t worry, it is but a small detachment of Fatimids searching the countryside for any survivors of your little crusade. My spies indicate there are no more than seventy, and we have the advantage of surprise. You and your companions will come with me to see them off, and then we shall take you to trial. How does that sound, German?”
With a whirl of his mailed glove, King Baudouin shooed them off.
Multiple retainers and servants came forward to the three companions on the sand, picking them up. In a rush of practiced protocol, their leather bindings were cut and Estienne was rushed away to the camp doctor. Conrad and Hugues were taken away, and seated on small satin pillows.
The servants quickly put up a small white soldier’s tent around them, encircling them in cloth and stakes.
Conrad turned to Hugues, a puzzled expression on his face.
“Are we camping for the night?”
Hugues shrugged, a content expression on his face.
He was relieved to be in the hands of dependable royalty, and knew King Baudouin’s reputation as a strong leader. He was not on trial for cowardice, and was glad knowing he was no longer stuck with the two radicals, Estienne and Conrad. For now, he could just sit back and enjoy the show until he was returning home to Paris.
Finding little comfort in Hugues who seemed to not care, Conrad grew frightened. Where was the second chance he felt that he had been promised? It seemed just hours ago that remission would be his, but here he was, a closely watched prisoner of the King of Jerusalem, being escorted to his speedy trial. He would be hung for cowardice, a common event in crusader-held Jerusalem. Conrad began to pray, but was disturbed by the sound of the tent doors flapping open.
Two servants walked in, carrying Estienne between them. He was still unconscious, but the blood flow on his scalp had been staunched with a white linen wrapping around his cranium. He was gently laid on a pillow, and the servants walked out of the tent. Conrad rushed up to tend for his friend. He quickly propped Estienne’s head up with another pillow, and listened to his breathing.
It was calm and regular, his heartbeat the same. Apparently the camp doctor was a good one.
Exhausted from the days chaotic events, and happy to see Estienne in good condition, he soon fell asleep on a pillow, just a few feet from Estienne’s side.
The night passed with ease, as they were within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Not even the most daring emir would march an army this far into Christian territory, it was unthinkable. Conrad awoke, blinking his eyes to wake up. He stretched his muscles, and started to get on his feet. He turned away from Estienne, walking towards the tent flap.
He nearly tripped over the armory laid before him.
At Conrad’s feet were three hauberks of the silver chainmail that every knight in King Baudouin’s personal company was required to wear. Conrad knew that the silver coating on the chainmail was a useless add-on, but with nearly two hundred of his finest knights wearing this, it showed King Baudouin’s immense wealth to his enemies.
On each of the hauberks was laid an arming sword and its polished scabbard. The beautiful weapon was forged with shimmering Damascus steel and inlaid with a carved cross on the flat surface of the pommel. Conrad picked it up, swinging it in circles.
It had perfect balance.
To the right of each suit of chain was placed a heavy Norman helm, similar to most knights. They were each laid on top of a wooden kite shield which bore the insignia of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a square yellow cross adorned with a smaller cross in each of the corners.
Conrad noticed that as prisoners, even very well armed prisoners, they were not allowed to wear their own personal coat of arms given to them in their early manhood. This fact heavied his heart, reminding him of the depressing state of events, but he was still glad to receive the extravagant equipment before him.
Never, even as the constable of the Emperor did he have the funds to wear anything like this.
He immediately began to slip the silver hauberk over his shoulders, but stopped when he noticed a small note on parchment, laid next to the pile.
~ King Baudouin.
Conrad read the note, but quickly tucked it away into his trousers for nobody to see. He didn’t want Estienne to know these were simply an expensive put-down from the King.
At the sound of Conrad adjusting the hauberk on his shoulders, Estienne and Hugues awoke.
“Conrad!” Estienne sat up, his hands on his wounded head and the wrappings around it. He looked to be in acute pain. “Ughh….”
“Good morning, Frenchie! Look at these new toys the King brought us! Perhaps this will take your mind off your wounds.”
“The King? Where are we..? Wh-.....What in the blemmyae’s beard?”
Estienne jolted to his feet in start, examining the magnificent armor.
“Wonderful, aren’t they? We are in King Baudouin’s camp, his guests of honor.”
Conrad couldn’t bear to tell his friend the truth. Hugues gave an amused snort of absurdity.
Ignoring Hugues, Conrad continued.
“Those crossbowmen that knocked you out were simply scouts of the King, and meant you no real harm. Your wounds have been cared for by some doctor in the camp, and we were given a place to rest. I’ve only just woken up myself. Look at the swords!”
Estienne ran his fingers along the tempered steel, careful to not cut himself.
“Why would King Baudouin give us all this? Are we not to be sent home?”
“The King is leading his finest knights on a journey to see off a small band of Fatimids who are searching for any survivors of...of our crusade. We have agreed to accompany them on their journey until we can return to Jerusalem and the King can organize a ship for us to get back to Europe.” Conrad explained.
Hugues shook his head, disappointed at the utter lies coming out of Conrad’s mouth.
“Fatimids? Perhaps this is our chance for remission, Conrad! A fight against the heathens will-” Estienne began.
“The scouts say it is no more than a group of seventy or so, Estienne. Most likely they’ll just surrender outright. I’m sorry, Estienne. It seems our second chance is not soon to come.”
Conrad placed a hand on Estienne’s shoulder.
“Come, let's get this all on.” Conrad pointed to the piles of equipment on the ground.
After the three dressed, fully armored in the finest the Crusader states had to offer, they exited the white tent.
Estienne watched the rush of the camp around him, perfectly orchestrated into efficiency.
Servants buzzed about the camp, packing up the tents and piling up the pillows that lay inside into packs on the sides of mules. Squires, young men in their late teens, helped their masters put on their armor. From clinking gauntlet to polished riding boot, they fitted each item on in perfect rhythm. It was breathtaking to watch. It seemed to Estienne the entire camp was one well oiled machine, like the trip hammers in Italian workshops across the sea. Within minutes, the camp was ready for travel. Tents and supplies were strapped to baggage animals, knights fully dressed, and some people breaking off to find a private place to give their own personal morning prayer.
A robed priest and his followers stuck a golden cross into the sand, kneeling in respect.
They began to chant a morning hymn to raise spirits. Their voices blended in one peaceful harmony, carrying over the bustle of the camp servants.
“Da pacem, Domine,
in diebus nostris!
Quia non est alius
Qui pugnet pro nobis
Nisi tu Deus noster!
Fiat pax in virtute tua,
et abundantia in turribus tuis!”
Estienne, Conrad and Hugues dropped to their knees in respect, drawing their swords to form the natural cross the weapon shaped. All around the camp, crusaders bowed their mailed heads. Estienne prayed that his chance would come. Inside his heart, he poured out his desires to the Lord.
‘My Lord, thou art the most forgiving and gracious of all.
I ask for you to but show me, your pious follower, another chance. Give me a way to prove myself. I will gladly follow you to my noble death!
I promise you, Lord, that I will not fail thee! The demons of fear and cowardice no longer have hold over my soul. Give me a way to the salvation you promise all true saints! I will deliver, my God, even if it means my mortal life ends. Just give me another chance.
I await your sign, my Lord.’
Estienne finished his prayer, and looked up to the heavens, hopeful that God would indeed give him another chance to prove himself where he had failed before. He smiled, content that He had indeed heard his prayer.
Conrad was not as hopeful. With the dreadful reality of the upcoming death sentence tearing down on his conscience, he found that he could not bear to talk to God. He was ashamed, for it was evident the Lord cared little about his damned soul. The Lord had obviously given him a chance for salvation already at Mersivan. Conrad knew his chance was spent.
Hugues gave a simple prayer, thanking the Lord for his good health and newfound safety in the protection of King Baudouin.
All three knights rose as the monks finished the chant, each expressing an entirely different emotion in fervent spiritual examination. God heard each of them.
The camp servants brought the horses in from where they had been pastured for the night, and matched each to its rider in the same efficiency as before. Each was saddled and watered. Two more camp servants, dressed in simple red clothing, lead three steeds behind them. They approached the three, and one of them spoke.
“Our finest horses for you, sirs.” He smiled at Estienne.
Giving thanks, they took the horses, and easily mounted each one that they chose.
Conrad chose an immense, midnight-black Friesian stallion, and easily climbed up into the saddle. Estienne preferred a smaller, quicker horse, choosing an Andalusian with a tint of grey marking its shining white coat. Hugues chose a quick brown mare with tufts of white at the hooves. Far ahead in the vanguard they could see King Baudouin with his retainers, being helped into the saddle. He was a fit man who could have easily done it himself, but Estienne knew even kings have codes and etiquette to follow, whether they like it or not.
With everyone in the camp on horseback, nobles on fine steeds, knights on immense destriers, and servants riding pack animals, they finally set off on the road that lined the coastline. Hundreds of hoofbeats clapped through the air, the same sound that had frightened the three companions just yesterday.
Now it was the bounding noise of comradery.
They traveled for much of the morning before stopping for a quick lunch. Each knight was offered a skin of wine with his jerked beef and half a loaf of fine bread. Conrad took two meals, and they all enjoyed the break before setting off on the road again. They journeyed through the hottest part of the day, with multiple wings of cavalry guarding each side of the column of riders. Noon was the most common time for surprise raids from Islamic war bands, seeking to take advantage of the crusader’s weakness to the heat in their armor.
The rest of the afternoon gratefully passed without incident, and having traveled many miles that day, the king decided they should camp for the night. Camp was quickly set up, and the three dismounted from their horses after a long day of riding. They rubbed the same muscles that every mounted warrior for millenia did, and stumbled to a campfire near their assigned tent.
Many of the other fires were packed with knights except theirs, and so many came to join them. Passing around mugs of ale, the night grew merrier. After a few too many drinks, a bearded Frank hushed all those around the fire, wanting to tell a story.
“Now, did any of you ever hear the story of the greatest king in all of Britannia?”
The crowd grew excited, smashing their mugs against one another’s. The bearded knight’s talk was slurred, and hard to understand.
“Long, long...long ago in time of old, there was a boy named Arthur. Hi-”
The knights around the fire booed him down, shoving him to a seat.
“We’ve all heard that, fool!” a tall Sicilian knight stood up, obviously better liked by those around the fire.
“Have any of you heard the tale of the invincible warrior Corineus?”
The knights crowded around the Sicilian as he recalled the heroic anecdote.
Estienne, tired of the crowd and seeking a peaceful place, walked out of the hassle and smoke. It was getting darker, but he was able to see well enough in the struggling evening light. He walked for some time, till he could no longer hear the boisterous laughter of the knights. He fell to his knees to give his evening prayer, but was startled to find an entire swath of tracks laid before him, heading the direction the small Fatimid band was reported to be going.
He saw hundreds of hoofprints in the sand, their imprints clear and concise. They weren't old tracks, and they pointed to a group larger than anything reported, and larger than anything that had been seen in the area for months. Estienne checked to see if the tracks continued further, but it looked like a strong wind blew them away everywhere except this spot, which was surrounded by a small mound. An amount of hoofprints this large pointed to an army in the hundreds, possibly even thousands.
Estienne began to panic, but smiled when he realized his mistake.
These were probably just tracks from his own party, laid over one another by many horses traversing the same patch of sand.
Chuckling, he returned to his evening prayer, head bowed in solemnity.