A DEAD MAN lay at the side of the limestone road that wound through the hills of Lebanon. His thin, dark face was framed under a steel helmet wrapped about by a white cloth ogal. His hand, upturned in death, still held the hilt of a curved scimitar whose blade was snapped in half. Another dead man, in striped jelab over ring-mail armor, lay beyond him, and beyond that man, another. The dead men left a trail from the limestone road to a high hill where a frankincense tree stirred bare branches against the hot wind.
A lone horseman on the limestone road frowned down at the dead Saracen. He was a big man in silvery chain mail under a white surcoat that was emblazoned with a large red cross. A flat helm, from which fell a collar of interwoven links, gave him the appearance of an iron man. His wide, sensitive mouth was set under a slightly jutting jaw tinted almost copper from six years of fighting in this Syrian sunlight.
The rider came down out of the high wooden saddle and knelt beside the first dead man. He put a hand on the short black shaft that protruded from the Moslem's throat and tugged it free, his hard gray eyes studying the broad steel point and the cut of the feathers.
He turned the arrow over and over in his fingers, his yellow brows drawn together in puzzlement. John of Lincoln had never seen an arrow like this one, with its lacquered shaft and those odd black feathers. He went to his war horse and, loosening the strap that held the worn leather saddlebag at the high, curved pommel, tied the arrow to it. Then he swung his mailed body up into the saddle and toed the stallion forward.
He found two more dead Saracens in a little gully, each of them dead of those short, black shafts. More of them lay huddled on the slope of a hill beyond the row of poplars bordering the road.
"No Turk or Arab fires such an arrow," he told the chain collar that hung at his throat. "No Christian knight, either."
His duty was to gallop back along the limestone road that stretched between these craggy hills to the Buqaia River, where it turned south and west to the coastal city of Tripolis. Some miles behind him the Lady Hodierna, sister to Melisande, queen of Jerusalem, impatiently awaited his return.
John of Lincoln grimaced. Her soft red mouth would lash him mercilessly, reminding him of his duty to the wife of Raymond, Count of Tripolis. And she would stir and move her rounded legs and arms, and twist that curving torso, smiling boldly up at him with her hot blue eyes to challenge his manhood.
"Hai," he muttered into the wind. "She will tell me in many ways that it is my duty to escort her to the Krak."
The Krak of the Knights was the powerful Crusader fortress whose stone bulk guarded the mountain passes of Lebanon from the attacks of Saracen raiders in this year of Christ 1141. John of Lincoln was riding there to take command in the name of Raymond, to fly the red and yellow banner of Tripolis above its score of towers.
For over forty years the Holy Land had been safely in the mailed hands of the Crusaders. Godfrey of Bouillon lay buried in a sarcophagus at Calvary, as Baldwin lay at Golgotha. The kingdom these men had begun at Antioch and Ascalon still was strong and robust, but cracks in that armed facade were already appearing. Quarrels between the proud Crusader lords were undermining the united front that had swept the Musselmen out of the coastal strip of the Holy Land, leaving it full of treachery and mistrust. To further their own ends, certain Frankish rulers were rumored to be making treaties with their Moslem enemies.
Moreover, the Saracens were uniting under a Seljuk Turk, Imadeddin Zengi, who was gathering the Moslem strength and directing the eyes of all True Believers toward the Holy Land. To harass the infidels, the Seljuks often made swift forays into Lebanon.
John of Lincoln knew that these dead men formed part of such a raiding force. He knew that it was his duty first to consider the safety of the Lady Hodierna in these troubled times; but that black shaft drew him with the odd fascination of a magical incantation.
He must learn what manner of men fired those strange arrows with the wide steel points. Let the Countess rage as she would, he meant to see those archers for himself! His lips thinned to a hard line, the Crusader spurred his black horse up the sloping hill, and past the tall poplars, riding hard.
As he swayed in the high-cantled wooden saddle, his right hand fumbled at his knee, where a mace-and-chain hung over a wooden pommel peg. He lifted the short chain and the large spiked iron ball by its horn handle, which had turned black with much use. He swung the ball over his head twice, and the sound of its passing made an eerie whistle in the air. There were thin passages bored through the solid iron, and the wind whirling through them came out screaming.
The crest of the hill was bare, its ancient red clay littered with cracked boulders and broken marl. From its height the lone rider could look down into a natural bowl-like valley, half a mile wide, where a single low mound, covered with cracked stone and rock slag, was set almost in its middle.
A dozen Saracens in striped jelabs and gleaming mail crowded around three figures on the knoll, curved scimitars bright and golden in the sunlight. John of Lincoln knew their kind. He had fought with them at Montferrand and Balat, and only recently at Niksar. In turn, he reflected grimly, the paynims knew John of Lincoln and his great spiked ball.
But it was the three figures fighting the Moslems that caught and held the Crusader momentarily motionless in the saddle. Two of them were short men with swart faces under leather caps trimmed in fur, and clad in black sheepskins over lacquered leather armor. They fought with curving swords and strange, two-hafted daggers called katars. On their left arms they wore round shields of bull-hide, varnished and strengthened by bands of red copper and bossed with iron.
The third figure was that of a woman. She wore brocaded riding trousers stitched with red leather that fitted her tightly from her thighs down to her knees, where they were slit to flare wide apart, revealing dusty red leather boots. A short brocaded coat was belted at her slim waist by a girdle of golden disks. Over her face, where it was not shadowed by her woolen cloak, a thin yashmak, or veil of black silk, fluttered to her movements.
The woman fought with a scimitar as did the men; but instead of a round shield, she held two twisted lengths of black horn, fitted together with a space for gripping fingers. John of Lincoln watched the woman move the hand shield here and there expertly, and as the hard horn deflected the Seljuk blades, her own scimitar thrust hard.
The Crusader admired bravery, even pagan bravery. He lifted his battle cry into the hot Syrian air, and his mace-and-chain began to rotate faster and faster. He dug his golden prick spurs into his horse and careened down the hill. The spiked iron ball was whirling rapidly now, screaming shrilly. He drove in among the Seljuks and the iron ball came down and around in a mighty sweep. Two men died as those long metal spikes bit deep into their faces.
As he fought, he shouted the Templar battle cry: "Bauceant! Bauceant!"
He handled the chained ball as though it were an extra fist. It went out to a man and brained him, then darted sideways to plunge long spikes into a throat or an eye; then danced lightly, with the grace of a skimming bird, to fell a third by crushing his high spiked helmet in its turban wrapping.
As he swung the spiked ball, he mocked them. "Taste the kiss of the whirling devil! No houri of paradise offers her caress!” the ecstasy she can bring you. Only once may a man taste
They knew this mad rider and his whistling weapon. Hai, how they knew him! They had faced him at Aleppo, and on the coastal plains of Tripolis, when his flailing mace had smashed a path for Count Raymond's father to flee to the mountains.
Their curved scimitars lifted and swung, but were snapped in two by the flying ball. They rushed him, jelabs flying, but the mace came to meet them, caving in chests and ribs, puncturing their grooved mail as though it were wet vellum.
The black war horse had been trained in the palace fields at Jerusalem for this work. His great shod hoofs lifted as he reared, then lashed out at paynim faces. His blasting trumpet echoed the whistling scream of the thudding mace.
They fought madly, these Saracens, with passion twisting their dark faces. But they could find no way to stop that hurtling spiked ball; and so, sullenly, they withdrew.
The Crusader watched them go, resting his mace arm across the high pommel of his wooden saddle. As he had thought, they were just a raiding band of Seljuks sweeping in over the Lebanese border for what they could snatch of Christian treasure or Christian women with skins the color of fresh milk.
It was the others that commanded his attention. He sighed and turned toward the trousered woman with the veil and the small archers who had been defending her. But the little rise of rocky ground where they had fought was empty. They had disappeared as ruins disappear before the encroaching advance of wind-blown sands.
Gratitude is never one of their virtues, the Templar thought wryly.
He could see them in the distance, galloping on shaggy ponies past a high stone hummock that lifted lean and jagged from the level of the valley floor. Lacquered bow cases and quivers were slung on their hips, on either side of their black barracans.
The woman straddled a big bay horse with black mane and tail. John of Lincoln knew a sudden restless desire to withdraw the silk veil that sheathed the lower part of her face. He wondered whether her features resembled the fat moon faces of the paynim women who worshiped in the Aksa mosque, below the Dome of the Rock and above the royal palace at Jerusalem, or the soft oval loveliness of the houris that Mohammad taught his followers waited to welcome them to paradise.
The black war horse shook his head with a jingle of the armorial pendants attached to his chest straps. The Crusader leaned forward, patting the thick glossy neck.
"We ride, Thane. And we ride fast, lest the Lady Hodierna vent the spleen of her temper on us, as we've seen her do to others who displeased her!"
He put the fight behind him, for he was used to these border skirmishes. But he was aware of a vague, dissatisfied regret in him that he used the mace only in these futile little forays. If only he fought in some mightier battle, where he might, like Godfrey and Baldwin of the Mount, stand alone on Jerusalem's wall to hold off the Musselmen while the scaling ladders were lifted!
John of Lincoln conceived himself born a generation too late. The Holy Land, which had passed from Arab to Seljuk Turk in 1076, and from Seljuk Turk to Crusader twenty years later, was now safely in Christian hands. From Tortosa and Antioch in the north, the coastal cities of Tripolis and Beirut and Jerusalem itself, flew the Crusader banners.
There was no path now where a man with a weapon might hew out a monument to his faith. The Holy Sepulcher was in Frankish hands. The Cross flew over the towers of Acre and Beirut. Only in the lands beyond the thin strip of coastline, beyond the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan, were there paynim cities. And no man in his right mind cared who held those hot desert lands.
Glumly John of Lincoln removed his iron helm with its attached collar of mail. He hung it at his pommel above the straps that held the black lacquered arrow, and rode with his poll naked to the air, pale yellow hair cropped close in the Templar fashion.
He moved up the hill to the frankincense tree, and down the far slope to the limestone road where the poplars grew. He put the black stallion to a canter, aware that the Countess of Tripolis would be angry at his long absence.
Two miles below the band of the road where the dead Saracens lay, he came upon a litter. It was an ornate thing, its sturdy frame and wooden poles coated with blue paint. The wheels were tall, colored blue and crimson, and where the carved poles held the flat canopy, silken curtains were drawn back to reveal tufted cushions.
The Countess stood before it, regal and haughty, her chin upheld proudly as she scanned the bare brown hills. She wore a bliaud of blue silk that fitted tightly at shoulder and bosom down to wide hips, where it fell in graceful folds to her slippered feet. A girdle of thin silver rings bound her slim waist. On her head, against the Lebanon heat, she wore a wimple of white silk fitted with a blue velvet toque. A great square emerald glittered on her forefinger.
That she was angry the Lady Hodierna revealed in the studied disdain with which she ignored John of Lincoln as he reined his war horse to a halt. She moved a shoulder petulantly, and her thin, aristocratic nostrils flared to the temper that made her blue eyes blaze.
"I found this, milady," he explained, bending from the saddle to show her the lacquered arrow shaft. "A strange arrow fired by small men whose like I have never seen."
He went on with his explanation, revealing the presence of the swart men and the veiled woman. "The paynims attacked them. They are their enemies, then, as well as ours. I have been considering a possible search party, that we may seek them out and have words with them. An alliance would be a good thing."
"You have been considering an alliance, messier? You ought only to have been considering my safety!"
She looked at him now, and there was more than anger in the blue eyes that sought his face. Her hands came together. “We are few, Sir John. Only a handful of men at arms. We are near the Krak. And where the Krak is, there are the pagans. It might have been me trying to defend myself as you tell me that trousered woman defended herself."
The Lady Hodierna seemed faint at the very thought. She touched the back of her hand to her forehead, pushing back the wimple so that a few strands of thick chestnut hair slid out to caress her soft cheek.
It was the signal for John of Lincoln to make amends. He swung down and put a mailed arm about her shoulders. It seemed to him that the Lady Hodierna leaned more heavily against him than her malaise warranted. He felt the rondure of an ungirdled hip on his, and the touch of a soft thigh.
Her white, ringed hand clasped and held his fingers. From the pillow of his chest her lovely face smiled up at him.
"Sir John! Sir John! How you try our patience!" she sighed.
"Forgive me then, milady. It was only the thought of your safety that sent me over the hill. I wanted to see the paynims, and the numbers of the strange little men with the black arrows."
She caught at the solace he offered, and her soft fingers squeezed his hand. "If I could believe it was my safety that was your main concern! You are so hard, so strong! Like a man of iron in all that mail, with that sword at your belt, and that horrible spiked ball on your saddle!"
He smiled uneasily. She could not know how she affected him, with her sweet perfumed flesh that was so disturbingly soft and yielding. She could not realize how the wind pressed her silken bliaud against her body.
"Assist me, messier," she directed, and contrived so to walk against him that his face was flushed as he handed her into the curtained litter.
Her laughter mocked him gently as she lay back among the cushions. The Lady Hodierna was a fleshly woman, with the full breasts of recent motherhood. Her ample hips and dark complexion were inherited from the Armenian princess who had been her mother. There was a languorous quality to her large dark eyes and moist red mouth, and the scented brown hair she displayed with such artful disarrangement under the silken folds of her wimple was thick and heavy. Sensual and arrogant, she let her heavy lips droop into a smile as her hungry eyes drank in the mailed form of John of Lincoln. His hair was flaxen, glowing in the Syrian sunlight. He was a pleasure to the eyes, this big knight, and the Lady Hodierna congratulated herself on her discernment. His presence was a relief from the boredom that had plagued her in the gardens of her Tripolitan palace.
"You are courteous, messier, not to reproach me for my unjust criticisms. My concern was more for your safety than my own."
Her ringed fingers gestured at the escort that flanked the limestone road behind her, indicating that the men at arms her husband had furnished were more than a match for any raiding Saracens.
John of Lincoln bowed his head in acknowledgment. He was not used to women, and he was finding the Countess of Tripolis a disturbing distraction to eyes that should be alert for danger.
That the Lady Hodierna was aware of his distraction was evidenced by the smile on her wide mouth. She lay back, flaunting herself at his gray eyes, toying with the girdle of silver rings at her waist.
"You will ride beside me, to keep me company for the remainder of our journey, Sir John. There are certain matters I would speak of that only your ears should hear.”
Despite the languor in her eyes, her request was an order. John of Lincoln waved two men at arms forward at the gallop, then swung the black war horse in beside the litter.
They paced slowly through these barren hills, flanked to the east by the vast red desert stretching from the Orontes as far as the Euphrates. Southward lay the mountains of Lebanon, and beyond them the Sea of Galilee. Behind them was the coast, and the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
They paced through this coastal plain, known to the Crusaders as La Bocquee, through which flowed the waters of the Nahr-el-Kebir. Like a wedge between the mountains, it formed an arrow at the heart of the Frankish mid-kingdoms To guard this vital passage between the natural mountain barriers, great stone fortresses had been built: Arima and Akkar in the Lebanons, and beyond them the mighty ramparts of the Krak of the Knights.
It was the Krak that was their destination, John of Lincoln riding to command its garrison and its massive walls, the Lady Hodierna to further her own interest, under the pretext of a holiday in the dry inland regions.
The sun was warm on his coat of ring mail, and on the mailed chausses on his legs, but it was not the heat of the sun so much as the dark eyes of the Lady Hodierna that made the Crusader squirm in his big wooden saddle. The mocking smile on that red mouth and the occasional sigh with which she drew his eyes to her as she turned on the brocaded cushions of the litter added fuel to the inner warmth that was bringing a film of sweat to his brow.
"You are no longer a Templar, Sir John," she reminded him, as they moved through a dry wadi dotted with thorn scrub. Her blue eyes were bright and avid. “You have been relieved of your vows by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. What were those vows again? Poverty and obedience?"
“And chastity, milady."
Her laughter was low and rich. "Ah, yes. A verbal ceinture de chastité."
His cheeks flushed as he rode with his gray eyes set straight ahead on the twisting limestone road. A silken pompon from a litter cushion touched his hot cheek, then fell away.
"Talk with me, Sir John. My husband gives me all the moody silences I want."
“My speech would bore milady. I only know the art of war and fighting."
"But you know them well. I've heard the manner in which you fought at Shaizar and Aleppo. Of how you and that terrible ball smashed the Saracen charge at Balat. What is it they call it? The whirling devil? One might almost perceive the qualities of a Bohemund or a Godfrey in you. They became kings in Outremer, in these lands beyond the sea.”
The languor was gone from her throat, and in its place was a repressed excitement. He caught that note of eagerness and turned to stare down at her curiously. She leaned toward him on an elbow, her eyes flashing.
“A king! King John of Syria! A paladin beyond reproach! A champion of the Cross! A brilliant general! The Saracens know you and fear you. It would not take much to put you on a throne."
"You're mad!” he cried out hoarsely.
"No, not mad. Ambitious. Ah, yes! I'm ambitious as my father was ambitious. But I'm not a man, and I need a man, a strong man, to stand at my side to further that ambition. There's only one man in all the Holy Land who has the sort of strength I need. That man is you, Sir John! You, with a gold crown on your helmet. By the Cross, what a king you could be!"
As if overcome with her own imaginings, the Lady Hodierna fell back into the cushions and lay there, sprawled and relaxed, her body moving rhythmically as it responded to the swaying of the little van. His eyes moved from her lovely oval face down over the tight fittings of her blue silk gown.
John of Lincoln felt his tongue thick and heavy in his mouth. This woman was putting into words the thoughts that had come to him more and more often of late. For where he went in the forefront of the battle, there the gonfalons advanced. The knights and men at arms had come to listen for the scream of his whirling mace, and catch fire from the sound. They looked on him as men once looked on Bohemund the Mighty. And Bohemund was uncrowned king of Antioch when he died.
He shook his head, angry at the weakness in him that would let him listen to this temptress without a challenge. He muttered as if to convince himself, "I'd be a fool to think of it. Besides, I'm a loyal knight. Loyal to my vows. Loyal to my liege lord.”
"Yes," she said, unmindful of his words, "it would be very easy to make you king of Outremer. Men have married into royalty before. You could do it, too."
They rode in silence after that, through the stony wastes of the Syrian countryside, where loose gravel lay beside rocks that were streaked whitely with limestone veins, and where the brown hills folded in over themselves to begin the foothills of the Lebanon Mountains, which the paynims called Jebel Libnan.
But now John of Lincoln rode with a fermenting fever boiling in him, and the more he fought the thoughts that swirled in his head, the more they distracted him. To be a king in the Holy Land! To join the kingdoms into a long sword aimed at the Moslem might beyond the Orontes! To wear a crown on his yellow poll, and know his word was law!
It was of this he had dreamed in the English and Norman castles, serving his apprenticeship to knighthood by waiting on tables and furbishing armor. With this in mind he had listened to tales of far travelers in the palace rooms. Too, this hunger had been in him when he set foot on the deck planks of the carrack that brought him to Jerusalem. Scowling in his inner turmoil, he was blind to the fact that the Lady Hodierna was watching him slyly, and that the corners of her red mouth were twisted upward in a contented smile.
Toward sunset they came in sight of the tall stone walls of the Krak. The fortress came upon them suddenly. One moment they were riding the curving road on an upward slope, rounding a ridge of clay and gravel, and the next the Krak of the Knights stood there on its high hill of solid rock. It loomed monstrous in the sunlight, its yellowed stones gleaming as if with gold.
Built with concentric walls that overlapped, it was a magnificent citadel. Its vastness stunned the eyes. On three sides, sheer precipices fell away from under its curtained walls. Only from the east could an entrance be made, by a tower gateway. A ring of outer walls, set with towers, stood around the inner court, which was flanked by even higher walls, where the great strong works and loggia towered upward to overlook the entire bastion.
On the south side, between the inner and outer enceintes, stood a moat, filled with water from mountain springs conducted by a stone aqueduct through the southern wall. Sloping talus was set against the base of the high inside walls, encasing the towers with mortar and loose rubble. It was a living mountain of stone, this Krak, gigantic in its sprawling splendor. To the Moslems who eyed it in disgust, it was a fist that held them out of Lebanon, on the hot deserts of outer Syria.
From its chapel tower a sentry could look across the Orontes and see the Moslem town of Homs; north and westward, he saw the Crusader fortress of Safita. Arrow slits that were wide at their stone base and narrow at the top, like hollow stirrups, gave the defenders full vision in which to direct their shafts. Attacking ladders could find no toehold against these sheer escarpments. The Krak was impregnable.
With John of Lincoln pacing his war horse beside the creaking litter, they came up the twisting road on the south and passed by the stone aqueduct. High above, on the warden tower, the red and gold banner of Tripolis flapped in the wind.
A narrow passageway beyond the portcullis and its arched gateway formed the only entrance to the stone Krak. Beyond this gate, an inclined ramp swung sharply left, then cut back to parallel itself at a wide elbow in the sheer walls.
They clattered under the huge portcullis of oak and iron, suspended in grooves in the stone arch by a series of chains and pulleys, and moved slowly up the ramp.
A second gateway beyond the folded passageway gave them ingress into the inner bailey. Here the lower walls of the chapel and refectory were set with delicate arches fitted with stone traceries and Gothic piers.
Esquires in Tripolitan livery came running to take the reins of their horses, while maidservants stared from the outer stairs.
With the lowering sun throwing long black shadows, John of Lincoln escorted the Lady Hodierna into the cool recesses of the great hall. Her hand was warm on his arm as she told him, "I would speak alone with you, Sir John. Later, after we have eaten."
He bowed over her hand, and watched her move away between the battle standards that flanked the long hall, their poles set in iron wall sockets, their gaily colored gonfalons idle in the air. He realized suddenly that he was afraid to be alone with this woman; afraid, and yet curiously eager, for he was remembering vividly the words she had spoken to him on the limestone road that afternoon.