A Game of Chess
Disclaimer: I don't own anything from the film.
Chapter 9: The Return of the Knight
The entire court of Jerusalem had gathered, save for the fugitive baron of Ibelin and his cohort. The sea of faces looked expectantly at the new king as the Saracen emissary named Saladin's terms. "The Sultan demands the return of his sister's body, the heads of those responsible, and the surrender of Jerusalem," said the Saracen in his very accented but comprehensible Latin. Guy de Lusignan wished he could simply wring the man's neck and be done with it, but he was king, and he had to be slightly diplomatic. Intoxicated by power and victory, he failed to notice the severity of their situation. Not only did the Saracens outnumber them, their cavalry dwarfed that of the Franks.
"Does he?" said Guy lazily, pulling out his dagger and examining it.
"What answer do you give to the Sultan?" said the emissary.
Guy sneered. "This," he said, plunging the dagger's thin blade into the man's neck. Blood sprayed out like a flood unleashed. Raymond of Tiberias remained seated to watch the show unfold, but even he rose as Guy beheaded the man. Panic reigned. Templars and the knights of some of the barons seemed ready to fight each other. The emissary's companions were shouting in rapid Arabic.
"Take the head to Damascus," said Guy as the Saracens dragged the headless body away, leaving a trail of blood on the white flagstones of the courtyard. He felt empowered. "I am Jerusalem," he said to himself, and then raised his bloody sword. "Assemble the army at al Saffuriya. We're at war."
The Franks cheered, not knowing that they were welcoming their own doom.
"Assemble the army," said the Sultan. His face was pale with anger although his voice remained calm. "We make for Tiberias."
"Tiberias?" said Imad. "Surely you mean to take Jerusalem. Tiberias is of no importance."
Salah-al-Din smiled. It was not an expression of amusement. "We lure them out to Tiberias and destroy them before they ever reach it. Then we can take Jerusalem."
'Thank Allah that Balian will be safely holed away in Tripoli driving poor Humphrey de Toron to insanity,' thought Imad. When the Sultan was in this sort of mood, he was at his most dangerous.
3 July 1187
Approximately sixty-nine miles from Jerusalem
Guy had never felt as powerful as he did now, with all the noblemen and peers assembled at al Saffuriya. He surveyed his troops; a grand shining war machine bearing the cross of Jesus Christ. Each soldier was bound for sainthood, no matter what they'd previously done, because today, they were marching to meet Saladin's army of infidels.
The iron-shod feet of horses and soldiers raised voluminous clouds of hazy yellow dust. It clung to the sweaty skin of the soldiers, making them look like dust demons. The Turcopoles, Saracen mercenaries who fought for whoever paid them, in this case the Franks, waited to one side, separate from the other mounted soldiers. It was the height of summer, and the blistering heat surrounded them like a constricting cocoon, robbing them off their will to move. Only the king's canopy provided some sort of reprieve for the noblemen who were sitting under it.
"Now that this gathering of barons and lords is assembled, we may begin talking about serious business," said Guy. He stood up and slowly walked to and fro in front of the seated noblemen in the shade. "There are those among you who may disagree with our accession," he continued, looking pointedly at Tiberias "but it is war, and I am the king." He smiled at that. It sounded good coming from his lips. "We march at once. What say this council?"
"Aye!" shouted Reynald de Chatîllon.
"Aye!" the other lords and barons chorused.
"No, you cannot," said Tiberias. "This is a most ridiculous notion."
"Ridiculous?" said Guy incredulously. "The Saracens have attacked your lands at Tiberias, my lord count. Surely we cannot let this insult go unpunished?"
"I would rather lose the town of Tiberias than the entire Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem," declared Raymond.
"My lord," interrupted Gerard de Ridefort. "You wife Eschiva is trapped behind besieged walls. Surely you must go and rescue her."
Tiberias fell silent for a moment, and then spoke again. "What is my wife's life compared to the fate of this kingdom?" he finally said. "She should be honoured to sacrifice her life for the kingdom."
"Nevertheless, my mind is made," said Guy. He'd wanted so long for this moment. He was not going to let one old count ruin it. This was his chance to become the King of the Holy Land and gain glory for himself. "We will fight."
"If you must have war," said Raymond in a last attempt to save Jerusalem "This army cannot move away from water. If you stay here at Al Saffuriya, where there is water, you still have a chance for victory, but if you move out against Saladin, the army will be destroyed, and Jerusalem left utterly defenceless."
"My lord count, I do not think it will be as serious as you say," drawled Guy. "Our cause is, after all, vindicated by the Pope and thus God."
Gerard de Ridefort saw his chance to make his mark forever in the annals of history. He stood up. "We should meet the enemies of God!" he shouted, raising a fist to emphasize his point.
"And so we shall," said Guy.
'God,' thought Raymond. 'Have you abandoned us? Why must fools such as these rule the Kingdom?' He sighed, just as another thought came unbidden to his head. 'It should've been Balian who was crowned.' Godfrey's heir would not have led them into such folly. God, as usual, gave him no reply, at least not one which he could detect.
Almost all the fighting men in the kingdom, fifteen thousand in total, set out from Al Saffuriya. Raymond led the vanguard. Guy and Reynald were in the centre and Gerard brought up the rear with his Templars and the Hospitallers. They moved like one giant lumbering metal tortoise. Their armour and weapons weighed them down. There was a drought that summer, and to make things even worse, miles of barren desert lay between them and Tiberias.
The sun glared down on them, as if the natural elements had taken it upon themselves to prove that Raymond had been right. The count wished they'd proved him wrong instead. For once in his life, he sincerely wished that he was wrong.
The heat was unbearable. They were melting in their heavy chainmail and quilted gambesons. Reynald splashed water onto himself; it sizzled on the iron rings of his chainmail. Men toppled in the heat, and were left lying in the sand; food for the patient vultures who trailed the army. They seemed to know that the Franks were doomed to fail. Not even crows ventured out here in this barren landscape.
Dust caked their throats. Everyone seemed to gain a new spurt of energy when the scout reported that there was an oasis in front of them. Some men from the infantry pounced on the muddy water, slurping it up to quench their thirst. Moments later, these men lay writhing on the ground, clawing at their throats and faces with broken fingernails. After what seemed like an agonizingly long time, they stopped moving altogether and died, with blood trickling from their mouths, ears, nostrils and even eyes.
"Poisoned water," said Raymond. "It seems that Saladin's men have been here first."
"Ingenious," whispered Guy. His tongue felt and tasted like a wad of parchment. He cursed the sultan. They desperately needed water, and they'd passed so many dried up riverbeds. How was an army supposed to fight if it was dying of thirst?
As they went on—tired, demoralized and in no shape to fight—the terrain became increasingly rugged. Hills rose. When they least expected it, a contingent of Saracen horsemen rode out, trumpeting their war cries. Like an attacking hawk, the horsemen swooped down on the rearguard and fired arrows into the midst of the Hospitallers and Templars.
"Give chase!" ordered Gerard. His knights rushed to obey, to no avail. The Saracens were not weighted down by heavy armour or weapons, and their light-footed mares were much swifter than the Franks' destriers. The Saracen horsemen easily escaped. The knights rejoined the ranks. Half a mile later, the Saracens attacked again, only to escape on their swift mares when the Franks pursued them. This repeated for about eight times, and the Latin army was utterly exhausted. The terrain only became more mountainous. Finally, Gerard sent word to Guy. The sun was setting. Could they possibly stop and rest for the night?
"Where are we?" Guy asked.
"At the Horns of Hattin, Sire," said the scout. "Lake Tiberias is not two and a half miles south east of here, although the Saracens are blocking the road."
"We make camp here tonight," said Guy. "Tomorrow, we break through their ranks and ride to Tiberias, and the lake where the Lord brought the Good News to the crowds."
As night fell, the Franks could see the Saracens' fires crowning the nearby hills. Their enemy's war cries and drumbeats and horns echoed in the darkness, as if they had an army of millions. The men could not sleep for fear that they would be attacked during the night and annihilated.
When the day dawned, they found themselves surrounded. Saladin had ordered his men to light the dry brush on the surrounding hills and then fan the smoke towards the Crusaders. The men's eyes were watering and they were coughing their lungs out. How could they possibly fight? Even worse, the Saracens were pouring water on the ground for the Franks to see. The sight of water, and knowing that the Saracens had it while they didn't, put despair into the hearts of the Crusaders. The enemy was not dying of thirst. The enemy was not exhausted from a long march through the desert. The enemy had slept well the night before.
"Ingenious," breathed Guy, looking around him. He was in a state of slight shock as he surveyed the situation. His eyes stood out, starkly white against his soot and dirt covered face. Why did it seem that God was on the side of the infidels? If this had been a game on a chess board, Guy would know that he'd lost, but this was his life, his kingdom, his chance for glory and power. He refused to see that he'd failed. He couldn't give up so easily.
"Soldiers of God!" he cried, drawing his sword. Vaguely in his mind, he remembered that there was a little village called Hattin somewhere north of this godforsaken barren hell. There would be water there. "Have heart! We bear the cross of Christ. He will save us!" The king pointed his sword to the north. "Do you see it? There lies water and salvation!"
The men roared, desperate for any chance to escape. They charged in the direction that Guy was pointing at, only to find their path blocked by row after row of Saracen soldiers with round shields and light swords and spears.
Raymond refused to accept defeat. Someone had to get out of here, and somehow make it back to Jerusalem. The city needed protecting. Someone had to do it. He dug his spurs into his horse's sides, knowing that his men would follow him.
Imad saw the count rallying his contingent. "Would that we'd been friends instead of rivals, Raymond of Tiberias," said the Spymaster. He greatly admired the man for his zeal, Christian or not.
Swords clashed against shields, creating a cacophony worthy of the wildest of storms. Blood spurted up and rained down on the fighters. Weapons, flesh and bone were thrown everywhere. The Crusaders were relentless. They were fighting for their lives. The loss would've been great, if Imad had not given the command to let Raymond and his contingent pass through, and then seal their ranks again. With Raymond and Guy separated, the Christian forces were severely weakened.
The count of Tiberias tried several times to get back to the main army but each time, he was repelled by Saracen archers. He threw back his head and raised his arms to the sky in despair. The sun blazed down on him. "Lord God, our war is over!" he cried. "We are nothing but dead men and the Kingdom has come to an end!"
"My lord, where to next?" asked one of his knights.
Raymond looked back at the battle. They'd broken through north of the melee and the only way to get back to Jerusalem was by taking a long detour around Saladin's forces, through desert and following the coast. He was tired, and he'd lost the will to fight. What were they fighting for? What were they dying for? For God? No. God would never condone such killing. They were fighting for their own personal advancement. With the army gone, Jerusalem would be lost. It was just a matter of time. He remembered Balian, still awaiting news at Tripoli.
"To Tyre, then onto Tripoli," he said wearily. He had no desire to involve himself in the business of this doomed kingdom anymore. He'd heard that Cyprus was a beautiful place, full of peace and quiet. He wouldn't mind seeing some of that.
Balian rushed down to meet Raymond, having heard that the count had arrived in Tripoli that morning. The young man was close to being fully recovered, but his mind was restless. He didn't even greet the man, but launched straight to his point. "Tiberias, what news of Jerusalem?" he demanded. Humphrey had not told him anything for fear of affecting his convalescence.
"The boy is dead," said Raymond.
"Guy," said Balian, his eyes hardening.
"No," said the count. "The boy was leprous like his uncle. She gave him peace. She let him go, and Jerusalem along with him."
"Tiberias, what exactly has happened?" said Balian. He'd never seen the other man so dispirited. Something must have gone wrong; terribly wrong.
Raymond related all the events leading up to the disastrous battle at Hattin to the younger man. Balian's heart clenched as he thought of Guy's stupidity and Sibylla's pain and vulnerability. Who would protect her, now that her army was decimated?
He got up to stride out. "Where are you going?" asked Raymond.
"To Jerusalem," said Balian without turning.
"Balian, there is no hope left for the kingdom."
"That doesn't matter," said the young man. "This is my purpose. I swore to safeguard the helpless. I am a knight, Tiberias. I will stay with this game until I am taken or until the game is over. There is no other way."
"Then may God be with you, my young friend," said Raymond. There was no doubt that this was Godfrey's son. Christ, he could see Godfrey's shadow on this man. Godfrey would've said the same thing. "He's no longer with me."
Balian nodded. His mind was already far away, back to the game in which he was merely a piece.
My grandsons fix me with their wide-eyed stares. "So what happened, Grandpa?" asks the older boy. "What happened to Balian and Raymond and Guy and all the others?"
"Balian went back to Jerusalem, and I rode alongside him. We fought hard, in the holiest of cities. There were no knights other than Balian, but that did not frighten him. He was a brave man. He simply made knights."
"And that's why you're a knight," says my grandson knowingly.
"Yes," I say, smiling at the memory. His words are still fresh in my mind, as if he'd uttered them just yesterday. "Balian knighted me." I move my thumb over the piece in my hand. A knight. That's what Balian was. That's how he lived, and how he died, if he is indeed not in the world of the living any longer. I will never think of him as just a name in history. He will always be the energetic rash and brave man who led his men on a suicidal charge against a Muslim contingent ten times the size of our own. Maybe one day I will write his history, because the world should not forget a man like him. For one, I, Almaric, who served him as a man-at-arms and through his grace rose to become a baron, will never forget him.
Historical note: Jerusalem fell on 4 October 1187. Balian of Ibelin negotiated the surrender of the city and in exchange, the Muslims would not massacre the people. All the refugees were required to pay a tax in order to go free. Those who could not afford to pay were enslaved. However, Balian, Salah-al-Din and his brother managed to free most of those who were enslaved by paying the tax for them. Heraclius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, walked out of the city laden with treasures from the churches. He did not use his considerable wealth to pay for those who could not afford the price of freedom.
A/N: Hard to believe that the beginning of this story came to me as a dream. The battle of Hattin was not included in the film, mostly, so I wrote it based on the historical information. Historically, Balian was there and he was captured, only to be later ransomed. All the other details are mostly accurate, including Salah-al-Din's tactics. The Muslim ranks did part to let Raymond through, but I'm certain that Imad was not the one who commanded that move, since his character is entirely fictional and named after the historian Imad-al-Din.