Gates of Empire
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The clank of the sour sentinels on the turrets, the gusty uproar of the Spring winds, were not heard by those who reveled in the cellar of Godfrey de Courtenay's castle; and the noise these revelers made was bottled up deafeningly within the massive walls.
A sputtering candle lighted those rugged walls, damp and uninviting, flanked with wattled casks and hogsheads over which stretched a veil of dusty cobwebs. From one barrel the head had been knocked out, and leathern drinking-jacks were immersed again and again in the foamy tide, in hands that grew increasingly unsteady.
Agnes, one of the serving wenches, had stolen the massive iron key to the cellar from the girdle of the steward; and rendered daring by the absence of their master, a small but far from select group were making merry with characteristic heedlessness of the morrow.
Agnes, seated on the knee of the varlet Peter, beat erratic time with a jack to a ribald song both were bawling in different tunes and keys. The ale slopped over the rim of the wobbling jack and down Peter's collar, a circumstance he was beyond noticing.
The other wench, fat Marge, rolled on her bench and slapped her ample thighs in uproarious appreciation of a spicy tale just told by Giles Hobson. This individual might have been the lord of the castle from his manner, instead of a vagabond rapscallion tossed by every wind of adversity. Tilted back on a barrel, booted feet propped on another, he loosened the belt that girdled his capacious belly in its worn leather jerkin, and plunged his muzzle once more into the frothing ale.
"Giles, by Saint Withold his beard," quoth Marge, "madder rogue never wore steel. The very ravens that pick your bones on the gibbet tree will burst their sides a-laughing. I hail ye--prince of all bawdy liars!"
She flourished a huge pewter pot and drained it as stoutly as any man in the realm.
At this moment another reveler, returning from an errand, came into the scene. The door at the head of the stairs admitted a wobbly figure in close-fitting velvet. Through the briefly opened door sounded noises of the night--slap of hangings somewhere in the house, sucking and flapping in the wind that whipped through the crevices; a faint disgruntled hail from a watchman on a tower. A gust of wind whooped down the stair and set the candle to dancing.
Guillaume, the page, shoved the door shut and made his way with groggy care down the rude stone steps. He was not so drunk as the others, simply because, what of his extreme youth, he lacked their capacity for fermented liquor.
"What's the time, boy?" demanded Peter.
"Long past midnight," the page answered, groping unsteadily for the open cask. "The whole castle is asleep, save for the watchmen. But I heard a clatter of hoofs through the wind and rain; methinks 'tis Sir Godfrey returning."
"Let him return and be damned!" shouted Giles, slapping Marge's fat haunch resoundingly. "He may be lord of the keep, but at present we are keepers of the cellar! More ale! Agnes, you little slut, another song!"
"Nay, more tales!" clamored Marge. "Our mistress's brother, Sir Guiscard de Chastillon, has told grand tales of Holy Land and the infidels, but by Saint Dunstan, Giles' lies outshine the knight's truths!"
"Slander not a--hic!--holy man as has been on pilgrimage and Crusade," hiccuped Peter. "Sir Guiscard has seen Jerusalem and foughten beside the King of Palestine--how many years?"
"Ten year come May Day, since he sailed to Holy Land," said Agnes. "Lady Eleanor had not seen him in all that time, till he rode up to the gate yesterday morn. Her husband, Sir Godfrey, never has seen him."
"And wouldn't know him?" mused Giles; "nor Sir Guiscard him?"
He blinked, raking a broad hand through his sandy mop. He was drunker than even he realized. The world spun like a top and his head seemed to be dancing dizzily on his shoulders. Out of the fumes of ale and a vagrant spirit, a madcap idea was born.
A roar of laughter burst gustily from Giles' lips. He reeled upright, spilling his jack in Marge's lap and bringing a burst of rare profanity from her. He smote a barrelhead with his open hand, strangling with mirth.
"Good lack!" squawked Agnes. "Are you daft, man?"
"A jest!" The roof reverberated to his bull's bellow. "Oh, Saint Withold, a jest! Sir Guiscard knows not his brother-in-law, and Sir Godfrey is now at the gate. Hark ye!"
Four heads, bobbing erratically, inclined toward him as he whispered as if the rude walls might hear. An instant's bleary silence was followed by boisterous guffaws. They were in the mood to follow the maddest course suggested to them. Only Guillaume felt some misgivings, but he was swept away by the alcoholic fervor of his companions.
"Oh, a devil's own jest!" cried Marge, planting a loud, moist kiss on Giles' ruddy cheek. "On, rogues, to the sport!"
"En avant!" bellowed Giles, drawing his sword and waving it unsteadily, and the five weaved up the stairs, stumbling, blundering, and lurching against one another. They kicked open the door, and shortly were running erratically up the wide hall, giving tongue like a pack of hounds.
The castles of the Twelfth Century, fortresses rather than mere dwellings, were built for defense, not comfort.
The hall through which the drunken band was hallooing was broad, lofty, windy, strewn with rushes, now but faintly lighted by the dying embers in a great ill-ventilated fireplace. Rude, sail-like hangings along the walls rippled in the wind that found its way through. Hounds, sleeping under the great table, woke yelping as they were trodden on by blundering feet, and added their clamor to the din.
This din roused Sir Guiscard de Chastillon from dreams of Acre and the sun-drenched plains of Palestine. He bounded up, sword in hand, supposing himself to be beset by Saracen raiders, then realized where he was. But events seemed to be afoot. A medley of shouts and shrieks clamored outside his door, and on the stout oak panels boomed a rain of blows that bade fair to burst the portal inward. The knight heard his name called loudly and urgently.
Putting aside his trembling squire, he ran to the door and cast it open. Sir Guiscard was a tall gaunt man, with a great beak of a nose and cold grey eyes. Even in his shirt he was a formidable figure. He blinked ferociously at the group limned dimly in the glow from the coals at the other end of the hall. There seemed to be women, children, a fat man with a sword.
This fat man was bawling: "Succor, Sir Guiscard, succor! The castle is forced, and we are all dead men! The robbers of Horsham Wood are within the hall itself!"
Sir Guiscard heard the unmistakable tramp of mailed feet, saw vague figures coming into the hall--figures on whose steel the faint light gleamed redly. Still mazed by slumber, but ferocious, he went into furious action.
Sir Godfrey de Courtenay, returning to his keep after many hours of riding through foul weather, anticipated only rest and ease in his own castle. Having vented his irritation by roundly cursing the sleepy grooms who shambled up to attend his horses, and were too bemused to tell him of his guest, he dismissed his men-at-arms and strode into the donjon, followed by his squires and the gentlemen of his retinue. Scarcely had he entered when the devil's own bedlam burst loose in the hall. He heard a wild stampede of feet, crash of overturned benches, baying of dogs, and an uproar of strident voices, over which one bull-like bellow triumphed.
Swearing amazedly, he ran up the hall, followed by his knights, when a ravening maniac, naked but for a shirt, burst on him, sword in hand, howling like a werewolf.
Sparks flew from Sir Godfrey's basinet beneath the madman's furious strokes, and the lord of the castle almost succumbed to the ferocity of that onslaught before he could draw his own sword. He fell back, bellowing for his men-at-arms. But the madman was yelling louder than he, and from all sides swarmed other lunatics in shirts who assailed Sir Godfrey's dumfounded gentlemen with howling frenzy.
The castle was in an uproar--lights flashing up, dogs howling, women screaming, men cursing, and over all the clash of steel and the stamp of mailed feet.
The conspirators, sobered by what they had raised, scattered in all directions, seeking hiding-places--all except Giles Hobson. His state of intoxication was too magnificent to be perturbed by any such trivial scene. He admired his handiwork for a space; then, finding swords flashing too close to his head for comfort, withdrew, and following some instinct, departed for a hiding-place known to him of old. There he found with gentle satisfaction that he had all the time retained a cobwebbed bottle in his hand. This he emptied, and its contents, coupled with what had already found its way down his gullet, plunged him into extinction for an amazing period. Tranquilly he snored under the straw, while events took place above and around him, and matters moved not slowly.
There in the straw Friar Ambrose found him just as dusk was falling after a harassed and harrying day. The friar, ruddy and well paunched, shook the unpenitent one into bleary wakefulness.
"The saints defend us!" said Ambrose. "Up to your old tricks again! I thought to find you here. They have been searching the castle all day for you; they searched these stables, too. Well that you were hidden beneath a very mountain of hay."
"They do me too much honor," yawned Giles. "Why should they search for me?"
The friar lifted his hands in pious horror.
"Saint Denis is my refuge against Sathanas and his works! Is it not known how you were the ringleader in that madcap prank last night that pitted poor Sir Guiscard against his sister's husband?"
"Saint Dunstan!" quoth Giles, expectorating dryly. "How I thirst! Were any slain?"
"No, by the providence of God. But there is many a broken crown and bruised rib this day. Sir Godfrey nigh fell at the first onset, for Sir Guiscard is a woundy swordsman. But our lord being in full armor, he presently dealt Sir Guiscard a shrewd cut over the pate, whereby blood did flow in streams, and Sir Guiscard blasphemed in a manner shocking to hear. What had then chanced, God only knows, but Lady Eleanor, awakened by the noise, ran forth in her shift, and seeing her husband and her brother at swords' points, she ran between them and bespoke them in words not to be repeated. Verily, a flailing tongue hath our mistress when her wrath is stirred.
"So understanding was reached, and a leech was fetched for Sir Guiscard and such of the henchmen as had suffered scathe. Then followed much discussion, and Sir Guiscard had recognized you as one of those who banged on his door. Then Guillaume was discovered hiding, as from a guilty conscience, and he confessed all, putting the blame on you. Ah me, such a day as it has been!
"Poor Peter in the stocks since dawn, and all the villeins and serving-wenches and villagers gathered to clod him--they but just now left off, and a sorry sight he is, with nose a-bleeding, face skinned, an eye closed, and broken eggs in his hair and dripping over his features. Poor Peter!
"And as for Agnes, Marge and Guillaume, they have had whipping enough to content them all a lifetime. It would be hard to say which of them has the sorest posterior. But it is you, Giles, the masters wish. Sir Guiscard swears that only your life will anyways content him."
"Hmmmm," ruminated Giles. He rose unsteadily, brushed the straw from his garments, hitched up his belt and stuck his disreputable bonnet on his head at a cocky angle.
The friar watched him gloomily. "Peter stocked, Guillaume birched, Marge and Agnes whipped--what should be your punishment?"
"Methinks I'll do penance by a long pilgrimage," said Giles.
"You'll never get through the gates," predicted Ambrose.
"True," sighed Giles. "A friar may pass at will, where an honest man is halted by suspicion and prejudice. As further penance, lend me your robe."
"My robe?" exclaimed the friar. "You are a fool--"
A heavy fist clunked against his fat jaw, and he collapsed with a whistling sigh.
A few minutes later a lout in the outer ward, taking aim with a rotten egg at the dilapidated figure in the stocks, checked his arm as a robed and hooded shape emerged from the stables and crossed the open space with slow steps. The shoulders drooped as from a weight of weariness, the head was bent forward; so much so, in fact, that the features were hidden by the hood.
"The lout doffed his shabby cap and made a clumsy leg.
"God go wi' 'ee, good faither," he said.
"Pax vobiscum, my son," came the answer, low and muffled from the depths of the hood.
The lout shook his head sympathetically as the robed figure moved on, unhindered, in the direction of the postern gate.
"Poor Friar Ambrose," quoth the lout. "He takes the sin o' the world so much to heart; there 'ee go, fair bowed down by the wickedness o' men."
He sighed, and again took aim at the glum countenance that glowered above the stocks.
Through the blue glitter of the Mediterranean wallowed a merchant galley, clumsy, broad in the beam. Her square sail hung limp on her one thick mast. The oarsmen, sitting on the benches which flanked the waist deck on either side, tugged at the long oars, bending forward and heaving back in machine-like unison. Sweat stood out on their sun-burnt skin, their muscles rolled evenly. From the interior of the hull came a chatter of voices, the complaint of animals, a reek as of barnyards and stables. This scent was observable some distance to leeward. To the south the blue waters spread out like molten sapphire. To the north, the gleaming sweep was broken by an island that reared up white cliffs crowned with dark green. Dignity, cleanliness and serenity reigned over all, except where that smelly, ungainly tub lurched through the foaming water, by sound and scent advertising the presence of man.
Below the waist-deck passengers, squatted among bundles, were cooking food over small braziers. Smoke mingled with a reek of sweat and garlic. Horses, penned in a narrow space, whinnied wretchedly. Sheep, pigs and chickens added their aroma to the smells.
Presently, amidst the babble below decks, a new sound floated up to the people above--members of the crew, and the wealtheir passengers who shared the patrono's cabin. The voice of the patrono came to them, strident with annoyance, answered by a loud rough voice with an alien accent.
The Venetian captain, prodding among the butts and bales of the cargo, had discovered a stowaway--a fat, sandy-haired man in worn leather, snoring bibulously among the barrels.
Ensued an impassioned oratory in lurid Italian, the burden of which at last focused in a demand that the stranger pay for his passage.
"Pay?" echoed that individual, running thick fingers through unkempt locks. "What should I pay with, Thin-shanks? Where am I? What ship is this? Where are we going?"
"This is the San Stefano, bound for Cyprus from Palermo."
"Oh, yes," muttered the stowaway. "I remember. I came aboard at Palermo--lay down beside a wine cask between the bales--"
The patrono hastily inspected the cask and shrieked with new passion.
"Dog! You've drunk it all!"
"How long have we been at sea?" demanded the intruder.
"Long enough to be out of sight of land," snarled the other. "Pig, how can a man lie drunk so long--"
"No wonder my belly's empty," muttered the other. "I've lain among the bales, and when I woke, I'd drink till I fell asleep again. Hmmm!"
"Money!" clamored the Italian. "Bezants for your fare!"
"Bezants!" snorted the other. "I haven't a penny to my name."
"Then overboard you go," grimly promised the patrono. "There's no room for beggars aboard the San Stefano ."
That struck a spark. The stranger gave vent to a warlike snort and tugged at his sword.
"Throw me overboard into all that water? Not while Giles Hobson can wield blade. A freeborn Englishman is as good as any velvet-breeched Italian. Call your bullies and watch me bleed them!"
From the deck came a loud call, strident with sudden fright. "Galleys off the starboard bow! Saracens!"
A howl burst from the patrono's lips and his face went ashy. Abandoning the dispute at hand, he wheeled and rushed up on deck. Giles Hobson followed and gaped about him at the anxious brown faces of the rowers, the frightened countenances of the passengers--Latin priests, merchants and pilgrims. Following their gaze, he saw three long low galleys shooting across the blue expanse toward them. They were still some distance away, but the people on the San Stefano could hear the faint clash of cymbals, see the banners stream out from the mast heads. The oars dipped into the blue water, came up shining silver.
"Put her about and steer for the island!" yelled the patrono. "If we can reach it, we may hide and save our lives. The galley is lost--and all the cargo! Saints defend me!" He wept and wrung his hands, less from fear than from disappointed avarice.
The San Stefano wallowed cumbrously about and waddled hurriedly toward the white cliffs jutting in the sunlight. The slim galleys came up, shooting through the waves like water snakes. The space of dancing blue between the San Stefano and the cliffs narrowed, but more swiftly narrowed the space between the merchant and the raiders. Arrows began to arch through the air and patter on the deck. One struck and quivered near Giles Hobson's boot, and he gave back as if from a serpent. The fat Englishman mopped perspiration from his brow. His mouth was dry, his head throbbed, his belly heaved. Suddenly he was violently seasick.
The oarsmen bent their backs, gasped, heaved mightily, seeming almost to jerk the awkward craft out of the water. Arrows, no longer arching, raked the deck. A man howled; another sank down without a word. An oarsman flinched from a shaft through his shoulder, and faltered in his stroke. Panic-stricken, the rowers began to lose rhythm. The San Stefano lost headway and rolled more wildly, and the passengers sent up a wail. From the raiders came yells of exultation. They separated in a fan-shaped formation meant to envelop the doomed galley.
On the merchant's deck the priests were shriving and absolving.
"Holy Saints grant me--" gasped a gaunt Pisan, kneeling on the boards--convulsively he clasped the feathered shaft that suddenly vibrated in his breast, then slumped sidewise and lay still.
An arrow thumped into the rail over which Giles Hobson hung, quivered near his elbow. He paid no heed. A hand was laid on his shoulder. Gagging, he turned his head, lifted a green face to look into the troubled eyes of a priest.
"My son, this may be the hour of death; confess your sins and I will shrive you."
"The only one I can think of," gasped Giles miserably, "is that I mauled a priest and stole his robe to flee England in."
"Alas, my son," the priest began, then cringed back with a low moan. He seemed to bow to Giles; his head inclining still further, he sank to the deck. From a dark welling spot on his side jutted a Saracen arrow.
Giles gaped about him; on either hand a long slim galley was sweeping in to lay the San Stefano aboard. Even as he looked, the third galley, the one in the middle of the triangular formation, rammed the merchant ship with a deafening splintering of timber. The steel beak cut through the bulwarks, rending apart the stern cabin. The concussion rolled men off their feet. Others, caught and crushed in the collision, died howling awfully. The other raiders ground alongside, and their steel-shod prows sheared through the banks of oars, twisting the shafts out of the oarsmen's hands, crushing the ribs of the wielders.
The grappling hooks bit into the bulwarks, and over the rail came dark naked men with scimitars in their hands, their eyes blazing. They were met by a dazed remnant who fought back desperately.
Giles Hobson fumbled out his sword, strode groggily forward. A dark shape flashed at him out of the melee. He got a dazed impression of glittering eyes, and a curved blade hissing down. He caught the stroke on his sword, staggering from the spark-showering impact. Braced on wide straddling legs, he drove his sword into the pirate's belly. Blood and entrails gushed forth, and the dying corsair dragged his slayer to the deck with him in his throes.
Feet booted and bare stamped on Giles Hobson as he strove to rise. A curved dagger hooked at his kidneys, caught in his leather jerkin and ripped the garment from hem to collar. He rose, shaking the tatters from him. A dusky hand locked in his ragged shirt, a mace hovered over his head. With a frantic jerk, Giles pitched backward, to a sound of rending cloth, leaving the torn shirt in his captor's hand. The mace met empty air as it descended, and the wielder went to his knees from the wasted blow. Giles fled along the blood-washed deck, twisting and ducking to avoid struggling knots of fighters.
A handful of defenders huddled in the door of the forecastle. The rest of the galley was in the hands of the triumphant Saracens. They swarmed over the deck, down into the waist. The animals squealed piteously as their throats were cut. Other screams marked the end of the women and children dragged from their hiding-places among the cargo.
In the door of the forecastle the bloodstained survivors parried and thrust with notched swords. The pirates hemmed them in, yelping mockingly, thrusting forward their pikes, drawing back, springing in to hack and slash.
Giles sprang for the rail, intending to dive and swim for the island. A quick step behind him warned him in time to wheel and duck a scimitar. It was wielded by a stout man of medium height, resplendent in silvered chain-mail and chased helmet, crested with egret plumes.
Sweat misted the fat Englishman's sight; his wind was short; his belly heaved, his legs trembled. The Moslem cut at his head. Giles parried, struck back. His blade clanged against the chief's mail. Something like a white-hot brand seared his temple, and he was blinded by a rush of blood. Dropping his sword, he pitched head-first against the Saracen, bearing him to the deck. The Moslem writhed and cursed, but Giles' thick arms clamped desperately about him.
Suddenly a wild shout went up. There was a rush of feet across the deck. Men began to leap over the rail, to cast loose the boarding-irons. Giles' captive yelled stridently, and men raced across the deck toward him. Giles released him, ran like a bulky cat along the bulwarks, and scrambled up over the roof of the shattered poop cabin. None heeded him. Men naked but for tarboushes hauled the mailed chieftain to his feet and rushed him across the deck while he raged and blasphemed, evidently wishing to continue the contest. The Saracens were leaping into their own galleys and pushing away. And Giles, crouching on the splintered cabin roof, saw the reason.
Around the western promontory of the island they had been trying to reach, came a squadron of great red dromonds, with battle-castles rearing at prow and stern. Helmets and spearheads glittered in the sun. Trumpets blared, drums boomed. From each masthead streamed a long banner bearing the emblem of the Cross.
From the survivors aboard the San Stefano rose a shout of joy. The galleys were racing southward. The nearest dromond swung ponderously alongside, and brown faces framed in steel looked over the rail.
"Ahoy, there!" rang a stern-voiced command. "You are sinking; stand by to come aboard."
Giles Hobson started violently at that voice. He gaped up at the battle-castle towering above the San Stefano. A helmeted head bent over the bulwark, a pair of cold grey eyes met his. He saw a great beak of a nose, a scar seaming the face from the ear down the rim of the jaw.
Recognition was mutual. A year had not dulled Sir Guiscard de Chastillon's resentment.
"So!" The yell rang bloodthirstily in Giles Hobson's ears. "At last I have found you, rogue--"
Giles wheeled, kicked off his boots, ran to the edge of the roof. He left it in a long dive, shot into the blue water with a tremendous splash. His head bobbed to the surface, and he struck out for the distant cliffs in long pawing strokes.
A mutter of surprize rose from the dromond, but Sir Guiscard smiled sourly.
"A bow, varlet," he commanded.
It was placed in his hands. He nocked the arrow, waited until Giles' dripping head appeared again in a shallow trough between the waves. The bowstring twanged, the arrow flashed through the sunlight like a silver beam. Giles Hobson threw up his arms and disappeared. Nor did Sir Guiscard see him rise again, though the knight watched the waters for some time.
To Shawar, vizier of Egypt, in his palace in el-Fustat, came a gorgeously robed eunuch who, with many abased supplications, as the due of the most powerful man in the caliphate, announced: "The Emir Asad ed din Shirkuh, lord of Emesa and Rahba, general of the armies of Nour ed din, Sultan of Damascus, has returned from the ships of el Ghazi with a Nazarene captive, and desires audience."
A nod of acquiescence was the vizier's only sign, but his slim white fingers twitched at his jewel-encrusted white girdle--sure evidence of mental unrest.
Shawar was an Arab, a slim, handsome figure, with the keen dark eyes of his race. He wore the silken robes and pearl-sewn turban of his office as if he had been born to them--instead of to the black felt tents from which his sagacity had lifted him.
The Emir Shirkuh entered like a storm, booming forth his salutations in a voice more fitted for the camp than for the council chamber. He was a powerfully built man of medium height, with a face like a hawk's. His khalat was of watered silk, worked with gold thread, but like his voice, his hard body seemed more fitted for the harness of war than the garments of peace. Middle age had dulled none of the restless fire in his dark eyes.
With him was a man whose sandy hair and wide blue eyes contrasted incongruously with the voluminous bag trousers, silken khalat and turned-up slippers which adorned him.
"I trust that Allah granted you fortune upon the sea, ya khawand ?" courteously inquired the vizier.
"Of a sort," admitted Shirkuh, casting himself down on the cushions. "We fared far, Allah knows, and at first my guts were like to gush out of my mouth with the galloping of the ship, which went up and down like a foundered camel. But later Allah willed that the sickness should pass."
"We sank a few wretched pilgrims' galleys and sent to Hell the infidels therein--which was good, but the loot was wretched stuff. But look ye, lord vizier, did you ever see a Caphar like to this man?"
The man returned the vizier's searching stare with wide guileless eyes.
"Such as he I have seen among the Franks of Jerusalem," Shawar decided.
Shirkuh grunted and began to munch grapes with scant ceremony, tossing a bunch to his captive.
"Near a certain island we sighted a galley," he said, between mouthfuls, "and we ran upon it and put the folk to the sword. Most of them were miserable fighters, but this man cut his way clear and would have sprung overboard had I not intercepted him. By Allah, he proved himself strong as a bull! My ribs are yet bruised from his hug.
"But in the midst of the melee up galloped a herd of ships full of Christian warriors, bound--as we later learned--for Ascalon; Frankish adventurers seeking their fortune in Palestine. We put the spurs to our galleys, and as I looked back I saw the man I had been fighting leap overboard and swim toward the cliffs. A knight on a Nazarene ship shot an arrow at him and he sank, to his death, I supposed.
"Our water butts were nearly empty. We did not run far. As soon as the Frankish ships were out of sight over the skyline, we beat back to the island for fresh water. And we found, fainting on the beach, a fat, naked, red-haired man whom I recognized as he whom I had fought. The arrow had not touched him; he had dived deep and swum far under the water. But he had bled much from a cut I had given him on the head, and was nigh dead from exhaustion.
"Because he had fought me well, I took him into my cabin and revived him, and in the days that followed he learned to speak the speech we of Islam hold with the accursed Nazarenes. He told me that he was a bastard son of the king of England, and that enemies had driven him from his father's court, and were hunting him over the world. He swore the king his father would pay a mighty ransom for him, so I make you a present of him. For me, the pleasure of the cruise is enough. To you shall go the ransom the malik of England pays for his son. He is a merry companion who can tell a tale, quaff a flagon, and sing a song as well as any man I have ever known."
Shawar scanned Giles Hobson with new interest. In that rubicund countenance he failed to find any evidence of royal parentage, but reflected that few Franks showed royal lineage in their features: ruddy, freckled, light-haired, the western lords looked much alike to the Arab.
He turned his attention again to Shirkuh, who was of more importance than any wandering Frank, royal or common. The old war-dog, with shocking lack of formality, was humming a Kurdish war song under his breath as he poured a goblet of Shiraz wine--the Shiite rulers of Egypt were no stricter in their morals than were their Mameluke successors.
Apparently Shirkuh had no thought in the world except to satisfy his thirst, but Shawar wondered what craft was revolving behind that bluff exterior. In another man Shawar would have despised the Emir's restless vitality as an indication of an inferior mentality. But the Kurdish right-hand man of Nour ed din was no fool. The vizier wondered if Shirkuh had embarked on that wild-goose chase with el Ghazi's corsairs merely because his restless energy would not let him be quiet, even during a visit to the caliph's court, or if there was a deeper meaning behind his voyaging. Shawar always looked for hidden motives, even in trivial things. He had reached his position by ignoring no possibility of intrigue. Moreover, events were stirring in the womb of Destiny in that early spring of 1167 A.D.
Shawar thought of Dirgham's bones rotting in a ditch near the chapel of Sitta Nefisa, and he smiled and said: "A thousand thanks for your gifts, my lord. In return a jade goblet filled with pearls shall be carried to your chamber. Let this exchange of gifts symbolize the everlasting endurance of our friendship."
"Allah fill thy mouth with gold, lord," boomed Shirkuh, rising; "I go to drink wine with my officers, and tell them lies of my voyagings. Tomorrow I ride for Damascus. Allah be with thee!"
"And with thee, ya khawand."
After the Kurd's springy footfalls had ceased to rustle the thick carpets of the halls, Shawar motioned Giles to sit beside him on the cushions.
"What of your ransom?" he asked, in the Norman French he had learned through contact with the Crusaders.
"The king my father will fill this chamber with gold," promptly answered Giles. "His enemies have told him I was dead. Great will be the joy of the old man to learn the truth."
So saying, Giles retired behind a wine goblet and racked his brain for bigger and better lies. He had spun this fantasy for Shirkuh, thinking to make himself sound too valuable to be killed. Later--well, Giles lived for today, with little thought of the morrow.
Shawar watched, in some fascination, the rapid disappearance of the goblet's contents down his prisoner's gullet.
"You drink like a French baron," commented the Arab.
"I am the prince of all topers," answered Giles modestly--and with more truth than was contained in most of his boastings.
"Shirkuh, too, loves wine," went on the vizier. "You drank with him?"
"A little. He wouldn't get drunk, lest we sight a Christian ship. But we emptied a few flagons. A little wine loosens his tongue."
Shawar's narrow dark head snapped up; that was news to him.
"He talked? Of what?"
"Of his ambitions."
"And what are they?" Shawar held his breath.
"To be Caliph of Egypt," answered Giles, exaggerating the Kurd's actual words, as was his habit. Shirkuh had talked wildly, though rather incoherently.
"Did he mention me?" demanded the vizier.
"He said he held you in the hollow of his hand," said Giles, truthfully, for a wonder.
Shawar fell silent; somewhere in the palace a lute twanged and a black girl lifted a weird whining song of the South. Fountains splashed silverly, and there was a flutter of pigeons' wings.
"If I send emissaries to Jerusalem his spies will tell him," murmured Shawar to himself. "If I slay or constrain him, Nour ed din will consider it cause for war."
He lifted his head and stared at Giles Hobson.
"You call yourself king of topers; can you best the Emir Shirkuh in a drinking-bout?"
"In the palace of the king, my father," said Giles, "in one night I drank fifty barons under the table, the least of which was a mightier toper than Shirkuh."
"Would you win your freedom without ransom?"
"Aye, by Saint Withold!"
"You can scarcely know much of Eastern politics, being but newly come into these parts. But Egypt is the keystone of the arch of empire. It is coveted by Amalric, king of Jerusalem, and Nour ed din, sultan of Damascus. Ibn Ruzzik, and after him Dirgham, and after him, I, have played one against the other. By Shirkuh's aid I overthrew Dirgham; by Amalric's aid, I drove out Shirkuh. It is a perilous game, for I can trust neither.
"Nour ed din is cautious. Shirkuh is the man to fear. I think he came here professing friendship in order to spy me out, to lull my suspicions. Even now his army may be moving on Egypt.
"If he boasted to you of his ambitions and power, it is a sure sign that he feels secure in his plots. It is necessary that I render him helpless for a few hours; yet I dare not do him harm without true knowledge of whether his hosts are actually on the march. So this is your part."
Giles understood and a broad grin lit his ruddy face, and he licked his lips sensuously.
Shawar clapped his hands and gave orders, and presently, at request, Shirkuh entered, carrying his silk-girdled belly before him like an emperor of India.
"Our royal guest," purred Shawar, "has spoken of his prowess with the wine-cup. Shall we allow a Caphar to go home and boast among his people that he sat above the Faithful in anything? Who is more capable of humbling his pride than the Mountain Lion?"
"A drinking-bout?" Shirkuh's laugh was gusty as a sea blast. "By the beard of Muhammad, it likes me well! Come, Giles ibn Malik, let us to the quaffing!"
A procession began, of slaves bearing golden vessels brimming with sparkling nectar....
During his captivity on el Ghazi's galley, Giles had become accustomed to the heady wine of the East. But his blood was boiling in his veins, his head was singing, and the gold-barred chamber was revolving to his dizzy gaze before Shirkuh, his voice trailing off in the midst of an incoherent song, slumped sidewise on his cushions, the gold beaker tumbling from his fingers.
Shawar leaped into frantic activity. At his clap Sudanese slaves entered, naked giants with gold earrings and silk loinclouts.
"Carry him into the alcove and lay him on a divan," he ordered. "Lord Giles, can you ride?"
Giles rose, reeling like a ship in a high wind.
"I'll hold to the mane," he hiccuped. "But why should I ride?"
"To bear my message to Amalric," snapped Shawar. "Here it is, sealed in a silken packet, telling him that Shirkuh means to conquer Egypt, and offering him payment in return for aid. Amalric distrusts me, but he will listen to one of the royal blood of his own race, who tells him of Shirkuh's boasts."
"Aye," muttered Giles groggily, "royal blood; my grandfather was a horse-boy in the royal stables."
"What did you say?" demanded Shawar, not understanding, then went on before Giles could answer. "Shirkuh has played into our hands. He will lie senseless for hours, and while he lies there, you will be riding for Palestine. He will not ride for Damascus tomorrow; he will be sick of overdrunkenness. I dared not imprison him, or even drug his wine. I dare make no move until I reach an agreement with Amalric. But Shirkuh is safe for the time being, and you will reach Amalric before he reaches Nour ed din. Haste!"
In the courtyard outside sounded the clink of harness, the impatient stamp of horses. Voices blurred in swift whispers. Footfalls faded away through the halls. Alone in the alcove, Shirkuh unexpectedly sat upright. He shook his head violently, buffeted it with his hands as if to clear away the clinging cobwebs. He reeled up, catching at the arras for support. But his beard bristled in an exultant grin. He seemed bursting with a triumphant whoop he could scarcely restrain. Stumblingly he made his way to a gold-barred window. Under his massive hands the thin gold rods twisted and buckled. He tumbled through, pitching headfirst to the ground in the midst of a great rose bush. Oblivious of bruises and scratches, he rose, careening like a ship on a tack, and oriented himself. He was in a broad garden; all about him waved great white blossoms; a breeze shook the palm leaves, and the moon was rising.
None halted him as he scaled the wall, though thieves skulking in the shadows eyed his rich garments avidly as he lurched through the deserted streets.
By devious ways he came to his own quarters and kicked his slaves awake.
"Horses, Allah curse you!" His voice crackled with exultation.
Ali, his captain of horse, came from the shadows.
"What now, lord?"
"The desert and Syria beyond!" roared Shirkuh, dealing him a terrific buffet on the back. "Shawar has swallowed the bait! Allah, how drunk I am! The world reels--but the stars are mine!
"That bastard Giles rides to Amalric--I heard Shawar give him his instructions as I lay in feigned slumber. We have forced the vizier's hand! Now Nour ed din will not hesitate, when his spies bring him news from Jerusalem of the marching of the iron men! I fumed in the caliph's court, checkmated at every turn by Shawar, seeking a way. I went into the galleys of the corsairs to cool my brain, and Allah gave into my hands a red-haired tool! I filled the lord Giles full of 'drunken' boastings, hoping he would repeat them to Shawar, and that Shawar would take fright and send for Amalric--which would force our overly cautious sultan to act. Now follow marching and war and the glutting of ambition. But let us ride, in the devil's name!"
A few minutes later the Emir and his small retinue were clattering through the shadowy streets, past gardens that slept, a riot of color under the moon, lapping six-storied palaces that were dreams of pink marble and lapis lazuli and gold.
At a small, secluded gate, a single sentry bawled a challenge and lifted his pike.
"Dog!" Shirkuh reined his steed back on its haunches and hung over the Egyptian like a silk-clad cloud of death. "It is Shirkuh, your master's guest!"
"But my orders are to allow none to pass without written order, signed and sealed by the vizier," protested the soldier. "What shall I say to Shawar--"
"You will say naught," prophesied Shirkuh. "The dead speak not."
His scimitar gleamed and fell, and the soldier crumpled, cut through helmet and head.
"Open the gate, Ali," laughed Shirkuh. "It is Fate that rides tonight--Fate and Destiny!"
In a cloud of moon-bathed dust they whirled out of the gate and over the plain. On the rocky shoulder of Mukattam, Shirkuh drew rein to gaze back over the city, which lay like a legendary dream under the moonlight, a waste of masonry and stone and marble, splendor and squalor merging in the moonlight, magnificence blent with ruin. To the south the dome of Imam Esh Shafi'y shone beneath the moon; to the north loomed up the gigantic pile of the Castle of El Kahira, its walls carved blackly out of the white moonlight. Between them lay the remains and ruins of three capitals of Egypt; palaces with their mortar yet undried reared beside crumbling walls haunted only by bats.
Shirkuh laughed, and yelled with pure joy. His horse reared and his scimitar glittered in the air.
"A bride in cloth-of-gold! Await my coming, oh Egypt, for when I come again, it will be with spears and horsemen, to seize ye in my hands!"
Allah willed it that Amalric, king of Jerusalem, should be in Darum, personally attending to the fortifying of that small desert outpost, when the envoys from Egypt rode through the gates. A restless, alert and wary king was Amalric, bred to war and intrigue.
In the castle hall the Egyptian emissaries salaamed before him like corn bending before a wind, and Giles Hobson, grotesque in his dusty silks and white turban, louted awkwardly and presented the sealed packet of Shawar.
Amalric took it with his own hands and read it, striding absently up and down the hall, a gold-maned lion, stately, yet dangerously supple.
"What talk is this of royal bastards?" he demanded suddenly, staring at Giles, who was nervous but not embarrassed.
"A lie to cozen the paynim, your majesty," admitted the Englishman, secure in his belief that the Egyptians did not understand Norman French. "I am no illegitimate of the blood, only the honest-born younger son of a baron of the Scottish marches."
Giles did not care to be kicked into the scullery with the rest of the varlets. The nearer the purple, the richer the pickings. It seemed safe to assume that the king of Jerusalem was not over-familiar with the nobility of the Scottish border.
"I have seen many a younger son who lacked coat-armor, war-cry and wealth, but was none the less worthy," said Amalric. "You shall not go unrewarded. Messer Giles, know you the import of this message?"
"The wazeer Shawar spoke to me at some length," admitted Giles.
"The ultimate fate of Outremer hangs in the balance," said Amalric. "If the same man holds both Egypt and Syria, we are caught in the jaws of the vise. Better for Shawar to rule in Egypt, than Nour ed din. We march for Cairo. Would you accompany the host?"
"In sooth, lord," began Giles, "it has been a wearisome time--"
"True," broke in Amalric. "'Twere better that you ride on to Acre and rest from your travels. I will give you a letter for the lord commanding there. Sir Guiscard de Chastillon will give you service--"
Giles started violently.
"Nay, Lord," he said hurriedly, "duty calls, and what are weary limbs and an empty belly beside duty? Let me go with you and do my devoir in Egypt!"
"Your spirit likes me well, Messer Giles," said Amalric with an approving smile. "Would that all the foreigners who come adventuring in Outremer were like you."
"And they were," quietly murmured an immobile-faced Egyptian to his mate, "not all the wine-vats of Palestine would suffice. We will tell a tale to the vizier concerning this liar."
But lies or not, in the grey dawn of a young spring day, the iron men of Outremer rode southward, with the great banner billowing over their helmeted heads, and their spear-points coldly glinting in the dim light.
There were not many; the strength of the Crusading kingdoms lay in the quality, not the quantity, of their defenders. Three hundred and seventy-five knights took the road to Egypt: nobles of Jerusalem, barons whose castles guarded the eastern marches, Knights of Saint John in their white surcoats, grim Templars, adventurers from beyond the sea, their skins yet ruddy from the cold sun of the north.
With them rode a swarm of Turcoples, Christianized Turks, wiry men on lean ponies. After the horsemen lumbered the wagons, attended by the rag-and-tag camp followers, the servants, ragamuffins and trolls that tag after any host. With shining, steel-sheathed, banner-crowned van, and rear trailing out into picturesque squalor, the army of Jerusalem moved across the land.
The dunes of the Jifar knew again the tramp of shod horses, the clink of mail. The iron men were riding again the old road of war, the road their fathers had ridden so oft before them.
Yet when at last the Nile broke the monotony of the level land, winding like a serpent feathered with green palms, they heard the strident clamor of cymbals and nakirs, and saw egret feathers moving among gay-striped pavilions that bore the colors of Islam. Shirkuh had reached the Nile before them, with seven thousand horsemen.
Mobility was always an advantage possessed by the Moslems. It took time to gather the cumbrous Frankish host, time to move it.
Riding like a man possessed, the Mountain Lion had reached Nour ed din, told his tale, and then, with scarcely a pause, had raced southward again with the troops he had held in readiness since the first Egyptian campaign. The thought of Amalric in Egypt had sufficed to stir Nour ed din to action. If the Crusaders made themselves masters of the Nile, it meant the eventual doom of Islam.
Shirkuh's was the dynamic vitality of the nomad. Across the desert by Wadi el Ghizlan he had driven his riders until even the tough Seljuks reeled in their saddles. Into the teeth of a roaring sandstorm he had plunged, fighting like a madman for each mile, each second of time. He had crossed the Nile at Atfih, and now his riders were regaining their breath, while Shirkuh watched the eastern skyline for the moving forest of lances that would mark the coming of Amalric.
The king of Jerusalem dared not attempt a crossing in the teeth of his enemies; Shirkuh was in the same case. Without pitching camp, the Franks moved northward along the river bank. The iron men rode slowly, scanning the sullen stream for a possible crossing.
The Moslems broke camp and took up the march, keeping pace with the Franks. The fellaheen, peeking from their mud huts, were amazed by the sight of two hosts moving slowly in the same direction without hostile demonstration, with the river between.
So they came at last into sight of the towers of El Kahira.
The Franks pitched their camp close to the shores of Birket el Habash, near the gardens of el Fustat, whose six-storied houses reared their flat roofs among oceans of palms and waving blossoms. Across the river Shirkuh encamped at Gizeh, in the shadow of the scornful colossus reared by cryptic monarchs forgotten before his ancestors were born.
Matters fell at a deadlock. Shirkuh, for all his impetuosity, had the patience of the Kurd, imponderable as the mountains which bred him. He was content to play a waiting game, with the broad river between him and the terrible swords of the Europeans.
Shawar waited on Amalric with pomp and parade and the clamor of nakirs, and he found the lion as wary as he was indomitable. Two hundred thousand dinars and the caliph's hand on the bargain, that was the price he demanded for Egypt. And Shawar knew he must pay. Egypt slumbered as she had slumbered for a thousand years, inert alike under the heel of Macedonian, Roman, Arab, Turk or Fatimid. The fellah toiled in his field, and scarcely knew to whom he paid his taxes. There was no land of Egypt: it was a myth, a cloak for a despot. Shawar was Egypt; Egypt was Shawar; the price of Egypt was the price of Shawar's head.
So the Frankish ambassadors went to the hall of the caliph.
Mystery ever shrouded the person of the Incarnation of Divine Reason. The spiritual center of the Shiite creed moved in a maze of mystic inscrutability, his veil of supernatural awe increasing as his political power was usurped by plotting viziers. No Frank had ever seen the caliph of Egypt.
Hugh of Caesarea and Geoffrey Fulcher, Master of the Templars, were chosen for the mission, blunt war-dogs, grim as their own swords. A group of mailed horsemen accompanied them.
They rode through the flowering gardens of el Fustat, past the chapel of Sitta Nefisa where Dirgham had died under the hands of the mob; through winding streets which covered the ruins of el Askar and el Katai; past the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, and the Lake of the Elephant, into the teeming streets of El Mansuriya, the quarter of the Sudanese, where weird native citterns twanged in the houses, and swaggering black men, gaudy in silk and gold, stared childishly at the grim horsemen.
At the Gate Zuweyla the riders halted, and the Master of the Temple and the lord of Caesarea rode on, attended by only one man--Giles Hobson. The fat Englishman wore good leather and chain-mail, and a sword at his thigh, though the portly arch of his belly somewhat detracted from his war-like appearance. Little thought was being taken in those perilous times of royal bastards or younger sons; but Giles had won the approval of Hugh of Caesarea, who loved a good tale and a bawdy song.
At Zuweyla gate Shawar met them with pomp and pageantry and escorted them through the bazaars and the Turkish quarter where hawk-like men from beyond the Oxus stared and silently spat. For the first time, Franks in armor were riding through the streets of El Kahira.
At the gates of the Great East Palace the ambassadors gave up their swords, and followed the vizier through dim tapestry-hung corridors and gold arched doors where tongueless Sudanese stood like images of black silence, sword in hand. They crossed an open court bordered by fretted arcades supported by marble columns; their iron-clad feet rang on mosaic paving. Fountains jetted their silver sheen into the air, peacocks spread their iridescent plumage, parrots fluttered on gold threads. In broad halls jewels glittered for eyes of birds wrought of silver or gold. So they came at last to the vast audience room, with its ceiling of carved ebony and ivory. Courtiers in silks and jewels knelt facing a broad curtain heavy with gold and sewn with pearls that gleamed against its satin darkness like stars in a midnight sky.
Shawar prostrated himself thrice to the carpeted floor. The curtains were swept apart, and the wondering Franks gazed on the gold throne, where, in robes of white silk, sat al Adhid, Caliph of Egypt.
They saw a slender youth, dark almost to negroid, whose hands lay limp, whose eyes seemed already shadowed by ultimate sleep. A deadly weariness clung about him, and he listened to the representations of his vizier as one who heeds a tale too often told.
But a flash of awakening came to him when Shawar suggested, with extremest delicacy, that the Franks wished his hand upon the pact. A visible shudder passed through the room. Al Adhid hesitated, then extended his gloved hand. Sir Hugh's voice boomed through the breathless hall.
"Lord, the good faith of princes is naked; troth is not clothed."
All about came a hissing intake of breath. But the Caliph smiled, as at the whims of a barbarian, and stripping the glove from his hand, laid his slender fingers in the bear-like paw of the Crusader.
All this Giles Hobson observed from his discreet position in the background. All eyes were centered on the group clustered about the golden throne. From near his shoulder a soft hiss reached Giles' ear. Its feminine note brought him quickly about, forgetful of kings and caliphs. A heavy tapestry was drawn slightly aside, and in the sweet-smelling gloom, a slender white hand waved invitingly. Another scent made itself evident, a luring perfume, subtle yet unmistakable.
Giles turned silently and pulled aside the tapestry, straining his eyes in the semidarkness. There was an alcove behind the hangings, and a narrow corridor meandering away. Before him stood a figure whose vagueness did not conceal its lissomeness. A pair of eyes glowed and sparkled at him, and his head swam with the power of that diabolical perfume.
He let the tapestry fall behind him. Through the hangings the voices in the throne room came vague and muffled.
The woman spoke not; her little feet made no sound on the thickly carpeted floor over which he stumbled. She invited, yet retreated; she beckoned, yet she withheld herself. Only when, baffled, he broke into earnest profanity, she admonished him with a finger to her lips and a warning: "Sssssh!"
"Devil take you, wench!" he swore, stopping short. "I'll follow you no more. What manner of game is this, anyway? If you don't want to deal with me, why did you wave at me? Why do you beckon and then run away? I'm going back to the audience hall and may the dogs bite your--"
"Wait!" The voice was liquid sweet.
She glided close to him, laying her hands on his shoulders. What light there was in the winding tapestried corridor was behind her, outlining her supple figure through her filmy garments. Her flesh shone like dim ivory in the purple gloom.
"I could love you," she whispered.
"Well, what detains you?" he demanded uneasily.
"Not here; follow me." She glided out of his groping arms and drifted ahead of him, a lithely swaying ghost among the velvet hangings.
He followed, burning with impatience and questing not at all for the reason of the whole affair, until she came out into an octagonal chamber, almost as dimly lighted as had been the corridor. As he pushed after her, a hanging slid over the opening behind him. He gave it no heed. Where he was he neither knew nor cared. All that was important to him was the supple figure that posed shamelessly before him, veilless, naked arms uplifted and slender fingers intertwined behind her nape over which fell a mass of hair that was like black burnished foam.
He stood struck dumb with her beauty. She was like no other woman he had ever seen; the difference was not only in her dark eyes, her dusky tresses, her long kohl-tinted lashes, or the warm ivory of her roundly slender limbs. It was in every glance, each movement, each posture, that made voluptuousness an art. Here was a woman cultured in the arts of pleasure, a dream to madden any lover of the fleshpots of life. The English, French and Venetian women he had nuzzled seemed slow, stolid, frigid beside this vibrant image of sensuality. A favorite of the Caliph! The implication of the realization sent the blood pounding suffocatingly through his veins. He panted for breath.
"Am I not fair?" Her breath, scented with the perfume that sweetened her body, fanned his face. The soft tendrils of her hair brushed against his cheek. He groped for her, but she eluded him with disconcerting ease. "What will you do for me?"
"Anything!" he swore ardently, and with more sincerity than he usually voiced the vow.
His hand closed on her wrist and he dragged her to him; his other arm bent about her waist, and the feel of her resilient flesh made him drunk. He pawed for her lips with his, but she bent supplely backward, twisting her head this way and that, resisting him with unexpected strength; the lithe pantherish strength of a dancing-girl. Yet even while she resisted him, she did not repulse him.
"Nay," she laughed, and her laughter was the gurgle of a silver fountain; "first there is a price!"
"Name it, for the love of the Devil!" he gasped. "Am I a frozen saint? I can not resist you forever!" He had released her wrist and was pawing at her shoulder straps.
Suddenly she ceased to struggle; throwing both arms about his thick neck, she looked into his eyes. The depths of hers, dark and mysterious, seemed to drown him; he shuddered as a wave of something akin to fear swept over him.
"You are high in the council of the Franks!" she breathed. "We know you disclosed to Shawar that you are a son of the English king. You came with Amalric's ambassadors. You know his plans. Tell what I wish to know, and I am yours! What is Amalric's next move?"
"He will build a bridge of boats and cross the Nile to attack Shirkuh by night," answered Giles without hesitation.
Instantly she laughed, with mockery and indescribable malice, struck him in the face, twisted free, sprang back, and cried out sharply. The next moment the shadows were alive with rushing figures as from the tapestries leaped naked black giants.
Giles wasted no time in futile gestures toward his empty belt. As great dusky hands fell on him, his massive fist smashed against bone, and the Negro dropped with a fractured jaw. Springing over him, Giles scudded across the room with unexpected agility. But to his dismay he saw that the doorways were hidden by the tapestries. He groped frantically among the hangings; then a brawny arm hooked throttlingly about his throat from behind, and he felt himself dragged backward and off his feet. Other hands snatched at him, woolly heads bobbed about him, white eyeballs and teeth glimmered in the semi-darkness. He lashed out savagely with his foot and caught a big black in the belly, curling him up in agony on the floor. A thumb felt for his eye and he mangled it between his teeth, bringing a whimper of pain from the owner. But a dozen pairs of hands lifted him, smiting and kicking. He heard a grating, sliding noise, felt himself swung up violently and hurled downward--a black opening in the floor rushed up to meet him. An ear-splitting yell burst from him, and then he was rushing headlong down a walled shaft, up which sounded the sucking and bubbling of racing water.
He hit with a tremendous splash and felt himself swept irresistibly onward. The well was wide at the bottom. He had fallen near one side of it, and was being carried toward the other in which, he had light enough to see as he rose blowing and snorting above the surface, another black orifice gaped. Then he was thrown with stunning force against the edge of that opening, his legs and hips were sucked through but his frantic fingers, slipping from the mossy stone lip, encountered something and clung on. Looking wildly up, he saw, framed high above him in the dim light, a cluster of woolly heads rimming the mouth of the well. Then abruptly all light was shut out as the trap was replaced, and Giles was conscious only of utter blackness and the rustle and swirl of the racing water that dragged relentlessly at him.
This, Giles knew, was the well into which were thrown foes of the Caliph. He wondered how many ambitious generals, plotting viziers, rebellious nobles and importunate harim favorites had gone whirling through that black hole to come into the light of day again only floating as carrion on the bosom of the Nile. It was evident that the well had been sunk into an underground flow of water that rushed into the river, perhaps miles away.
Clinging there by his fingernails in the dank rushing blackness, Giles Hobson was so frozen with horror that it did not even occur to him to call on the various saints he ordinarily blasphemed. He merely hung on to the irregularly round, slippery object his hands had found, frantic with fear of being torn away and whirled down that black slimy tunnel, feeling his arms and fingers growing numb with the strain, and slipping gradually but steadily from their hold.
His last ounce of breath went from him in a wild cry of despair, and--miracle of miracles--it was answered. Light flooded the shaft, a light dim and gray, yet in such contrast with the former blackness that it momentarily dazzled him. Someone was shouting, but the words were unintelligible amidst the rush of the black waters. He tried to shout back, but he could only gurgle. Then, mad with fear lest the trap should shut again, he achieved an inhuman screech that almost burst his throat.
Shaking the water from his eyes and craning his head backward, he saw a human head and shoulders blocked in the open trap far above him. A rope was dangling down toward him. It swayed before his eyes, but he dared not let go long enough to seize it. In desperation, he mouthed for it, gripped it with his teeth, then let go and snatched, even as he was sucked into the black hole. His numbed fingers slipped along the rope. Tears of fear and helplessness rolled down his face. But his jaws were locked desperately on the strands, and his corded neck muscles resisted the terrific strain.
Whoever was on the other end of the rope was hauling like a team of oxen. Giles felt himself ripped bodily from the clutch of the torrent. As his feet swung clear, he saw, in the dim light, that to which he had been clinging: a human skull, wedged somehow in a crevice of the slimy rock.
He was drawn rapidly up, revolving like a pendant. His numbed hands clawed stiffly at the rope, his teeth seemed to be tearing from their sockets. His jaw muscles were knots of agony, his neck felt as if it were being racked.
Just as human endurance reached its limit, he saw the lip of the trap slip past him, and he was dumped on the floor at its brink.
He groveled in agony, unable to unlock his jaws from about the hemp. Someone was massaging the cramped muscles with skilful fingers, and at last they relaxed with a stream of blood from the tortured gums. A goblet of wine was pressed to his lips and he gulped it loudly, the liquid slopping over and spilling on his slime-smeared mail. Someone was tugging at it, as if fearing lest he injure himself by guzzling, but he clung on with both hands until the beaker was empty. Then only he released it, and with a loud gasping sigh of relief, looked up into the face of Shawar. Behind the vizier were several giant Sudani, of the same type as those who had been responsible for Giles' predicament.
"We missed you from the audience hall," said Shawar. "Sir Hugh roared treachery, until a eunuch said he saw you follow a woman slave off down a corridor. Then the lord Hugh laughed and said you were up to your old tricks, and rode away with the lord Geoffrey. But I knew the peril you ran in dallying with a woman in the Caliph's palace; so I searched for you, and a slave told me he had heard a frightful yell in this chamber. I came, and entered just as a black was replacing the carpet above the trap. He sought to flee, and died without speaking." The vizier indicated a sprawling form that lay near, head lolling on half-severed neck. "How came you in this state?"
"A woman lured me here," answered Giles, "and set blackamoors upon me, threatening me with the well unless I revealed Amalric's plans."
"What did you tell her?" The vizier's eyes burned so intently on Giles that the fat man shuddered slightly and hitched himself further away from the yet open trap.
"I told them nothing! Who am I to know the king's plans, anyway? Then they dumped me into that cursed hole, though I fought like a lion and maimed a score of the rogues. Had I but had my trusty sword--"
At a nod from Shawar the trap was closed, the rug drawn over it. Giles breathed a sigh of relief. Slaves dragged the corpse away.
The vizier touched Giles' arm and led the way through a corridor concealed by the hangings.
"I will send an escort with you to the Frankish camp. There are spies of Shirkuh in this palace, and others who love him not, yet hate me. Describe me this woman--the eunuch saw only her hand."
Giles groped for adjectives, then shook his head.
"Her hair was black, her eyes moonfire, her body alabaster."
"A description that would fit a thousand women of the Caliph," said the vizier. "No matter; get you gone, for the night wanes and Allah only knows what morn will bring."
The night was indeed late as Giles Hobson rode into the Frankish camp surrounded by Turkish memluks with drawn sabres. But a light burned in Amalric's pavilion, which the wary monarch preferred to the palace offered him by Shawar; and thither Giles went, confident of admittance as a teller of lusty tales who had won the king's friendship.
Amalric and his barons were bent above a map as the fat man entered, and they were too engrossed to notice his entry, or his bedraggled appearance.
"Shawar will furnish us men and boats," the king was saying; "they will fashion the bridge, and we will make the attempt by night--"
An explosive grunt escaped Giles' lips, as if he had been hit in the belly.
"What, Sir Giles the Fat!" exclaimed Amalric, looking up; "are you but now returned from your adventuring in Cairo? You are fortunate still to have head on your shoulders. Eh--what ails you, that you sweat and grow pale? Where are you going?"
"I have taken an emetic," mumbled Giles over his shoulder.
Beyond the light of the pavilion he broke into a stumbling run. A tethered horse started and snorted at him. He caught the rein, grasped the saddle peak; then, with one foot in the stirrup, he halted. Awhile he meditated; then at last, wiping cold sweat beads from his face, he returned with slow and dragging steps to the king's tent.
He entered unceremoniously and spoke forthwith: "Lord, is it your plan to throw a bridge of boats across the Nile?"
"Aye, so it is," declared Amalric.
Giles uttered a loud groan and sank down on a bench, his head in his hands. "I am too young to die!" he lamented. "Yet I must speak, though my reward be a sword in the belly. This night Shirkuh's spies trapped me into speaking like a fool. I told them the first lie that came into my head--and Saint Withold defend me, I spoke the truth unwittingly. I told them you meant to build a bridge of boats!"
A shocked silence reigned. Geoffrey Fulcher dashed down his cup in a spasm of anger. "Death to the fat fool!" he swore, rising.
"Nay!" Amalric smiled suddenly. He stroked his golden beard. "Our foe will be expecting the bridge, now. Good enough. Hark ye!"
And as he spoke, grim smiles grew on the lips of the barons, and Giles Hobson began to grin and thrust out his belly, as if his fault had been virtue, craftily devised.
All night the Saracen host had stood at arms; on the opposite bank fires blazed, reflected from the rounded walls and burnished roofs of el Fustat. Trumpets mingled with the clang of steel. The Emir Shirkuh, riding up and down the bank along which his mailed hawks were ranged, glanced toward the eastern sky, just tinged with dawn. A wind blew out of the desert.
There had been fighting along the river the day before, and all through the night drums had rumbled and trumpets blared their threat. All day Egyptians and naked Sudani had toiled to span the dusky flood with boats chained together, end to end. Thrice they had pushed toward the western bank, under the cover of their archers in the barges, only to falter and shrink back before the clouds of Turkish arrows. Once the end of the boat bridge had almost touched the shore, and the helmeted riders had spurred their horses into the water to slash at the shaven heads of the workers. Skirkuh had expected an onslaught of the knights across the frail span, but it had not come. The men in the boats had again fallen back, leaving their dead floating in the muddily churning wash.
Shirkuh decided that the Franks were lurking behind walls, saving themselves for a supreme effort, when their allies should have completed the bridge. The opposite bank was clustered with swarms of naked figures, and the Kurd expected to see them begin the futile task once more.
As dawn whitened the desert, there came a rider who rode like the wind, sword in hand, turban unbound, blood dripping from his beard.
"Woe to Islam!" he cried. "The Franks have crossed the river!"
Panic swept the Moslem camp; men jerked their steeds from the river bank, staring wildly northward. Only Shirkuh's bull-like voice kept them from flinging away their swords and bolting.
The Emir's profanity was frightful. He had been fooled and tricked. While the Egyptians held his attention with their useless labor, Amalric and the iron men had marched northward, crossed the prongs of the Delta in ships, and were now hastening vengefully southward. The Emir's spies had had neither time nor opportunity to reach him. Shawar had seen to that.
The Mountain Lion dared not await attack in this unsheltered spot. Before the sun was well up, the Turkish host was on the march; behind them the rising light shone on spear-points that gleamed in a rising cloud of dust.
This dust irked Giles Hobson, riding behind Amalric and his councilors. The fat Englishman was thirsty; dust settled greyly on his mail; gnats bit him, sweat got into his eyes, and the sun, as it rose, beat mercilessly on his basinet; so he hung it on his saddle peak and pushed back his linked coif, daring sunstroke. On either side of him leather creaked and worn mail clinked. Giles thought of the ale-pots of England, and cursed the man whose hate had driven him around the world.
And so they hunted the Mountain Lion up the valley of the Nile, until they came to el Baban, The Gates, and found the Saracen host drawn up for battle in the gut of the low sandy hills.
Word came back along the ranks, putting new fervor into the knights. The clatter of leather and steel seemed imbued with new meaning. Giles put on his helmet and rising in his stirrups, looked over the iron-clad shoulders in front of him.
To the left were the irrigated fields on the edge of which the host was riding. To the right was the desert. Ahead of them the terrain was broken by the hills. On these hills and in the shallow valleys between, bristled the banners of the Turks, and their nakirs blared. A mass of the host was drawn up in the plain between the Franks and the hills.
The Christians had halted: three hundred and seventy-five knights, plus half a dozen more who had ridden all the way from Acre and reached the host only an hour before, with their retainers. Behind them, moving with the baggage, their allies halted in straggling lines: a thousand Turcoples, and some five thousand Egyptians, whose gaudy garments outshone their courage.
"Let us ride forward and smite those on the plain," urged one of the foreign knights, newly come to the East.
Amalric scanned the closely massed ranks and shook his head. He glanced at the banners that floated among the spears on the slopes on either flank where the kettledrums clamored.
"That is the banner of Saladin in the center," he said. "Shirkuh's house troops are on yonder hill. If the center expected to stand, the Emir would be there. No, messers, I think it is their wish to lure us into a charge. We will wait their attack, under cover of the Turcoples' bows. Let them come to us; they are in a hostile land, and must push the war."
The rank and file had not heard his words. He lifted his hand, and thinking it preceded an order to charge, the forest of lances quivered and sank in rest. Amalric, realizing the mistake, rose in his stirrups to shout his command to fall back, but before he could speak, Giles' horse, restive, shouldered that of the knight next to him. This knight, one of those who had joined the host less than an hour before, turned irritably; Giles looked into a lean beaked face, seamed by a livid scar.
"Ha!" Instinctively the ogre caught at his sword.
Giles' action was also instinctive. Everything else was swept out of his mind at the sight of that dread visage which had haunted his dreams for more than a year. With a yelp he sank his spurs into his horse's belly. The beast neighed shrilly and leaped, blundering against Amalric's warhorse. That high-strung beast reared and plunged, got the bit between its teeth, broke from the ranks and thundered out across the plain.
Bewildered, seeing their king apparently charging the Saracen host single-handed, the men of the Cross gave tongue and followed him. The plain shook as the great horses stampeded across it, and the spears of the iron-clad riders crashed splinteringly against the shields of their enemies.
The movement was so sudden it almost swept the Moslems off their feet. They had not expected a charge so instantly to follow the coming up of the Christians. But the allies of the knights were struck by confusion. No orders had been given, no arrangement made for battle. The whole host was disordered by that premature onslaught. The Turcoples and Egyptians wavered uncertainly, drawing up about the baggage wagons.
The whole first rank of the Saracen center went down, and over their mangled bodies rode the knights of Jerusalem, swinging their great swords. An instant the Turkish ranks held; then they began to fall back in good order, marshaled by their commander, a slender, dark, self-contained young officer, Salah ed din, Shirkuh's nephew.
The Christians followed. Amalric, cursing his mischance, made the best of a bad bargain, and so well he plied his trade that the harried Turks cried out on Allah and turned their horses' heads from him.
Back into the gut of the hills the Saracens retired, and turning there, under cover of slope and cliff, darkened the air with their shafts. The headlong force of the knights' charge was broken in the uneven ground, but the iron men came on grimly, bending their helmeted heads to the rain.
Then on the flanks, kettledrums roared into fresh clamor. The riders of the right wing, led by Shirkuh, swept down the slopes and struck the horde which clustered loosely about the baggage train. That charge swept the unwarlike Egyptians off the field in headlong flight. The left wing began to close in to take the knights on the flank, driving before it the troops of the Turcoples. Amalric, hearing the kettledrums behind and on either side of him as well as in front, gave the order to fall back, before they were completely hemmed in.
To Giles Hobson it seemed the end of the world. He was deafened by the clang of swords and the shouts. He seemed surrounded by an ocean of surging steel and billowing dust clouds. He parried blindly and smote blindly, hardly knowing whether his blade cut flesh or empty air. Out of the defiles horsemen were moving, chanting exultantly. A cry of "Yala-l-Islam!" rose above the thunder--Saladin's war-cry, that was in later years to ring around the world. The Saracen center was coming into the battle again.
Abruptly the press slackened, broke; the plain was filled with flying figures. A strident ululation cut the din. The Turcoples' shafts had stayed the Saracens' left wing just long enough to allow the knights to retreat through the closing jaws of the vise. But Amalric, retreating slowly, was cut off with a handful of knights. The Turks swirled about him, screaming in exultation, slashing and smiting with mad abandon. In the dust and confusion the ranks of the iron men fell back, unaware of the fate of their king.
Giles Hobson, riding through the field like a man in a daze, came face to face with Guiscard de Chastillon.
"Dog!" croaked the knight. "We are doomed, but I'll send you to Hell ahead of me!"
His sword went up, but Giles leaned from his saddle and caught his arm. The fat man's eyes were bloodshot; he licked his dust-stained lips. There was blood on his sword, and his helmet was dinted.
"Your selfish hate and my cowardice has cost Amalric the field this day," Giles croaked. "There he fights for his life; let us redeem ourselves as best we may."
Some of the glare faded from de Chastillon's eyes; he twisted about, stared at the plumed heads that surged and eddied about a cluster of iron helmets; and he nodded his steel-clad head.
They rode together into the melee. Their swords hissed and crackled on mail and bone. Amalric was down, pinned under his dying horse. Around him whirled the eddy of battle, where his knights were dying under a sea of hacking blades.
Giles fell rather than jumped from his saddle, gripped the dazed king and dragged him clear. The fat Englishman's muscles cracked under the strain, a groan escaped his lips. A Seljuk leaned from the saddle, slashed at Amalric's unhelmeted head. Giles bent his head, took the blow on his own crown; his knees sagged and sparks flashed before his eyes. Guiscard de Chastillon rose in his stirrups, swinging his sword with both hands. The blade crunched through mail, gritted through bone. The Seljuk dropped, shorn through the spine. Giles braced his legs, heaved the king up, slung him over his saddle.
"Save the king!" Giles did not recognize that croak as his own voice.
Geoffrey Fulcher loomed through the crush, dealing great strokes. He seized the rein of Giles' steed; half a dozen reeling, blood-dripping knights closed about the frantic horse and its stunned burden. Nerved to desperation they hacked their way clear. The Seljuks swirled in behind them to be met by Guiscard de Chastillon's flailing blade.
The waves of wild horsemen and flying blades broke on him. Saddles were emptied and blood spurted. Giles rose from the red-splashed ground among the lashing hoofs. He ran in among the horses, stabbing at bellies and thighs. A sword stroke knocked off his helmet. His blade snapped under a Seljuk's ribs.
Guiscard's horse screamed awfully and sank to the earth. His grim rider rose, spurting blood at every joint of his armor. Feet braced wide on the blood-soaked earth, he wielded his great sword until the steel wave washed over him and he was hidden from view by waving plumes and rearing steeds.
Giles ran at a heron-feathered chief, gripped his leg with his naked hands. Blows rained on his coif, bringing fire-shot darkness, but he hung grimly on. He wrenched the Turk from his saddle, fell with him, groping for his throat. Hoofs pounded about him, a steed shouldered against him, knocking him rolling in the dust. He clambered painfully to his feet, shaking the blood and sweat from his eyes. Dead men and dead horses lay heaped in a ghastly pile about him.
A familiar voice reached his dulled ears. He saw Shirkuh sitting his white horse, gazing down at him. The Mountain Lion's beard bristled in a grin.
"You have saved Amalric," said he, indicating a group of riders in the distance, closing in with the retreating host; the Saracens were not pressing the pursuit too closely. The iron men were falling back in good order. They were defeated, not broken. The Turks were content to allow them to retire unmolested.
"You are a hero, Giles ibn Malik," said Shirkuh.
Giles sank down on a dead horse and dropped his head in his hands. The marrow of his legs seemed turned to water, and he was shaken with a desire to weep.
"I am neither a hero nor the son of a king," said Giles. "Slay me and be done with it."
"Who spoke of slaying?" demanded Shirkuh. "I have just won an empire in this battle, and I would quaff a goblet in token of it. Slay you? By Allah, I would not harm a hair of such a stout fighter and noble toper. You shall come and drink with me in celebration of a kingdom won when I ride into El Kahira in triumph."