Ayn Jalut (The Pools of Goliath), the Kingdom of Jerusalem
september 3, 1260 ad
The sun was approaching its zenith, dominating the sky and turning the deep ocher of the desert to a bleached bone-white. Buzzards circled the crowns of the hills that ringed the plain of Ayn Jalut and their abrasive cries hung on the air, caught in the solidity of the heat. On the western edge of the plain, where the hills stretched their bare limbs down to the sands, were two thousand men on armored horses. Their swords and shields gleamed, the steel too hot to touch, and although their surcoats and turbans did little to protect them from the sun's savagery no one spoke of his discomfort.
Mounted on a black horse at the vanguard of the Bahri regiment, Baybars Bundukdari, their commander, reached for the water skin that was fastened to his belt beside two sabers, the blades of which were notched and pitted with use. After taking a draft he rolled his shoulders to loosen the stiffened joints. The band of his white turban was wet with sweat and the coat of mail that he wore beneath his blue cloak felt unusually heavy. The morn-
ing was wearing on, the heat gaining in strength, and although the water soothed Baybars's dry throat it couldn't quench a deeper thirst that blistered within him.
"Amir Baybars," murmured one of the younger officers mounted beside him. "Time is passing. The scouting party should have returned by now."
"They will return soon, Ismail. Have patience." As Baybars retied the water skin to his belt, he studied the silent ranks of the Bahri regiment that lined the sands behind him. The faces of his men all wore the same grim expression he had seen in many front lines before battle. Soon those expressions would change. Baybars had seen the boldest warriors pale when confronted with a line of enemy fighters that mirrored their own. But when the time came they would fight without hesitation, for they were soldiers of the Mamluk army: the slave warriors of Egypt.
"What is it, Ismail?"
"We've heard no word from the scouts since dawn. What if they've been captured?"
Baybars frowned and Ismail wished he had remained silent.
On the whole, there was nothing particularly striking about Baybars; like most of his men he was tall and sinewy with dark brown hair and cinnamon skin. But his gaze was exceptional. A defect, which appeared as a white star in the center of his left pupil, gave his stare a peculiar keenness; one of the attributes that had earned him his sobriquet --- the Crossbow. The junior officer Ismail, finding himself the focus of those barbed blue eyes, felt like a fly in the web of a spider.
"As I said, have patience."
Baybars's gaze softened a little as Ismail bowed his head. It wasn't many years ago that Baybars himself had waited in the front line of his first battle. The Mamluks had faced the Franks on a dusty plain near a village called Herbiya. He had led the cavalry in the attack and within hours the enemy was crushed, the blood of the Christians staining the sands. Today, God willing, it would be the same.
In the distance, a faint twisting column of dust rose from the plain. Slowly, it began to take the shape of seven riders, their forms distorted by the rippling heat haze. Baybars kicked his heels into the flanks of his horse and surged out of the ranks, followed by his officers.
As the scouting party approached, riding fast, the leader turned his horse toward Baybars. Pulling sharply on the reins he came to a halt before the commander. The beast's tan coat was stained with sweat, its muzzle flecked with foam. "Amir Baybars," panted the rider, saluting. "The Mongols are coming."
"How large is the force?"
"One of their toumans, Amir."
"Ten thousand. And their leader?"
"They are led by the general, Kitbogha, as our information suggested."
"They saw you?"
"We made certain of it. The advance isn't far behind us and the main army follows them closely." The patrol leader trotted his horse closer to Baybars and lowered his voice, so that the other officers had to strain to hear him. "Their might is great, Amir, and they have brought many engines of war, yet our intelligence suggests it is but one-third of their army."
"If you cut off the head of the beast, the body will fall," replied Baybars.
The strident wail of a Mongol horn sounded in the distance. Others quickly joined it until a shrill, discordant chorus was ringing across the hills. The Mamluk horses, sensing the tension in their riders, began to snort and whinny. Baybars nodded to the leader of the patrol, then turned to his officers. "On my signal sound the retreat." He motioned to Ismail. "You will ride with me."
"Yes, Amir," replied Ismail, the pride clear in his face.
For ten, twenty seconds the only sounds that could be heard were the distant horns and the restless sighing of the wind across the plain. A pall of dust cloaked the sky in the east as the first lines of the Mongol force appeared on the ridges of the hills. The riders paused briefly on the summit and then they came, flowing onto the plain like a sea of darkness, the flash of sunlight on steel glittering above the black tide.
Behind the advance came the main army, led by light-horsemen wielding spears and bows, and then Kitbogha himself. Flanking the Mongol leader on all sides were veteran warriors, clad in iron helms and lamellar armor fashioned from sheets of rawhide, bound with strips of leather. Each man had two spare horses and behind this thundering column rolled siege engines and wagons laden with the riches pillaged in the Mongols' raids on towns and cities. The wagons were driven by women who carried great bows upon their backs. The Mongols' founder, Genghis Khan, had died thirty-three years ago, but the might of his warrior empire lived on in the force that now faced the Mamluks.
Baybars had been anticipating this confrontation for months, but his hunger for it had gnawed at him for much longer. Twenty years had passed since the Mongols had invaded his homeland, ravaging his tribe's lands and livestock; twenty years since his people had been forced to flee the attack and request the aid of a neighboring chieftain who had betrayed them and sold them to the slave traders of Syria. But it wasn't until several months ago, when a Mongol emissary had arrived in Cairo, that an opportunity for Baybars to seek revenge upon the people who had precipitated his delivery into slavery had arisen.
The emissary had come to demand that Kutuz, the Mamluk sultan, submit to Mongol rule and it was this imposition, above and beyond the Mongols' recent devastating assault on the Muslim-ruled city of Baghdad, that had finally spurred the sultan to act. The Mamluks bowed to no one except Allah. While Kutuz and his military governors, Baybars included, had set about planning their reprisal, the Mongol emissary had had a few days to reflect upon his mistake buried up to his neck in sand outside Cairo's walls, before the sun and the buzzards had finished their work. Now Baybars would teach a similar lesson to those who had sent him.
Baybars waited until the front lines of the heavy cavalry were halfway across the plain, then wheeled his horse around to face his men. Drawing one of his sabers from its scabbard he thrust it high above his head. Sunlight caught the curved blade and it shone like a star.
"Warriors of Egypt," he shouted. "Our time is now at hand and with this victory we will build of our enemy a pile of corpses that will be higher than these hills and wider than the desert."
"To victory!" roared the soldiers of the Bahri regiment. "In the name of Allah!"
As one, they turned from the approaching army and urged their horses toward the hills. The Mongols, thinking their enemy was fleeing in terror, whooped as they gave chase.
The western line of hills that bordered the plain was shallow and broad. A cleft divided them, forming a wide gorge. Baybars and his men plunged through this opening, riding furiously, and the first riders of the Mongol advance came charging through the clouds of dust that choked the air in the wake of the Mamluk horses. The main Mongol army followed, funneling through into the gorge, causing loose rock and sand to shower down from the hillsides with the tremor of their passing. The Bahri regiment, at a signal from Baybars, reined in their horses and turned, forming a barrier to block the Mongols' approach. Suddenly, the blare of many horns and the cacophonous thudding of kettledrums echoed through the gully.
A figure, dark against the glare of the sun, had appeared on one of the ridges above the gorge. The figure was Kutuz. He was not alone. With him on the ridge, poised above the valley floor, were thousands of Mamluk soldiers. The cavalry, many of them archers, were ranked in sections of color, marking the various regiments: purple; scarlet; orange; black. It was as if the hills wore a vast patchwork cloak that was threaded with silver wherever spearheads or helms caught the light. Infantry waited bearing swords, maces and bows, and a small but deadly corps of Bedouin and Kurdish mercenaries flanked the main force in two wings, bristling with seven-foot-long spears.
Now that the Mongols were caught in Baybars's trap all he had to do was tighten the noose.
After the sounding of the horns came a war cry from the Mamluks, the roar of their combined voices drowning, momentarily, the kettledrums' pulse. The Mamluk cavalry charged. Some horses fell on the descent in a billow of dust, the cries of riders lost in the ground-shuddering thunder of hooves. Many more hurtled toward their targets as two Mamluk regiments swept onto the plain of Ayn Jalut to herd the last of the Mongol forces into the passage. Baybars swung his saber above his head and yelled as he charged. The men of the Bahri regiment took up his cry.
"Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!"
The two armies met in a storm of dust and screams and the clang of steel. In the first seconds, hundreds from both sides went down and the dead clogged up the ground, making treacherous footing for those left standing. Horses reared, throwing their riders into the chaos and men shrieked as they died, spraying the air with blood. The Mongols were renowned for their horsemanship, but the passage was too narrow for them to maneuver effectively. Whilst the Mamluks drove relentlessly into the main body of the army, a line of Bedouin cavalry prevented the Mongol advance from outflanking them. Arrows hissed down from the hillsides and once in a while an orange ball of flame would explode across the melee as the Mamluk troops hurled clay pots filled with naphtha. The Mongols hit by these missiles flamed like torches, screaming hideously as their horses ran wild, spreading fire and confusion through the ranks.
Baybars swung one of his sabers in a vicious arc as he swept into the fray, taking a man's head clean from his shoulders with the momentum of the blow. Another Mongol, face splattered with the blood of his fallen comrade, took the dead man's place immediately. Baybars lashed out with his blades as his horse was knocked and jostled beneath him and more and more men poured into the turmoil. Ismail was at Baybars's side, drenched in blood and shrieking as he thrust his sword through the visor of a Mongol's helm. The blade stuck fast for a moment, buried in the man's skull, before the officer wrenched it free and searched for another target.
Baybars's sabers danced in his hands, two more warriors falling under his hammering blows.
Kitbogha, the Mongol general, was fighting savagely, swinging his sword in tremendous haymaker strokes that were cleaving skulls and tearing limbs and even though he was surrounded no one seemed able to touch him. Baybars's thoughts were on the bounty that awaited the man who captured or killed the enemy lord, but a wall of fighting and a hedge of arcing blades blocked his path. He ducked as a feral youth rushed him, whirling a mace, and forgot about Kitbogha as he concentrated on staying alive.
After the first lines had fallen or been beaten back, Mongol women and children were fighting alongside the men. Although the Mamluks knew that the wives and daughters of the Mongol men fought in battle, it was a sight, nonetheless, that caused some to falter. The women, with their long, wild hair and snarling faces, fought just as well as and perhaps even more fiercely than the men. A Mamluk commander, fearing the effect on the troops, raised his voice above the din and sent out a rallying cry that was soon taken up by others. The name of Allah filled the air, reverberating off the hills and ringing in the ears of the Mamluks, as their arms found new strength and their swords new purchase. Any compunction was lost in the heat of battle and the Mamluks cut through all those who stood against them. To the slave warriors, the Mongol army had become an anonymous beast, ageless and sexless, that had to be taken piece by piece if it were to perish.
Eventually, the sword strokes grew sluggish. Men, unhorsed and locked together in combat, leaned on one another for support as they parried each blow. Groans and cries were punctuated by screams as swords found slowing targets. The Mongols had led a final storm against the infantry, hoping to break through the barrier and ride in behind the Mamluks, but the foot soldiers held their ground and only a handful of the Mongol cavalry had penetrated the line of spears. They had been met by Mamluk riders and were dispatched instantly. Kitbogha had gone down, his horse pulled over by the sheer press of men around him. Victorious, the Mamluks had severed his head and flaunted it before his broken forces. The Mongols, who had been called the terror of nations, were losing. But, more important, they knew it.
Baybars's horse, pierced in the neck by a stray arrow, had thrown him and bolted. He fought on foot, his boots slick with blood. The blood was everywhere. It was in the air and in his mouth, it was dripping through his beard and the hilts of his sabers were slippery with it. He lunged forward and hacked at another man. The Mongol slumped to the sand with a cry that ceased abruptly and when no one took his place Baybars paused.
Dust had obscured the sun and turned the air yellow. A gust of wind scattered the clouds and Baybars saw, flying high above the Mongols' carts and siege engines, the flag of surrender. Looking around him, all he could see were piles of bodies. The reek of blood and opened corpses was thick on the air and already the carrion eaters were shrieking their own triumph in the skies above. The fallen lay sprawled across one another, and among the leather breastplates of the enemy were the bright cloaks of the Mamluks. In one pile, close by, Ismail lay on his back, his chest cleaved by a Mongol sword.
Baybars went over. He bent to close the young man's eyes, then rose as one of his officers hailed him. The warrior was bleeding heavily from a gash at his temple and his eyes were wild, unfocused. "Amir," he said hoarsely. "Your orders?"
Baybars surveyed the devastation. In just a few hours they had destroyed the Mongol army, killing over seven thousand of them. Some Mamluks had fallen to their knees, crying with relief, but more were roaring their triumph as they made their way toward the survivors who had rallied around the discarded carts. Baybars knew that he would have to regain control of his men, or their jubilation might incite them to plunder the enemy's treasure and kill the survivors. The remaining Mongols, especially the women and children, would fetch a considerable sum in the slave markets. He pointed to the Mongol survivors. "Oversee their submission and see that no one is killed. We want slaves we can sell, not more corpses to burn."
The officer hurried across the sands to relay the command. Baybars sheathed his sword and looked around for a horse. Finding a riderless beast with bloodstained trappings, he mounted and rode over to his troops. Around him, other Mamluk commanders were addressing their own regiments. Baybars looked out across the weary yet defiant faces of the Bahri and felt the first stirrings of exultation swell within him. "Brothers," he shouted, the words sticking in his parched throat. "Allah has shined upon us this day. We stand triumphant in His glory, our enemy vanquished." He paused as the cheers rose, then lifted his hand for silence. "But our celebrations must wait for there is much to be done. Look to your officers."
The cheers continued, but, already, the troops were forming into some semblance of order. Baybars headed over to his officers and gestured to two of them. "I want the bodies of our men buried before sundown. Burn the Mongol dead and search the area for any who may have tried to flee. Have the wounded carried to our camp, I'll meet you there when it's done." Baybars scanned the devastation for Kutuz. "Where is the sultan?"
"He retired to the camp about an hour ago, Amir," replied one of the
officers. "He was wounded in the battle."
"No, Amir, I believe the injury was a minor one. He is with his physicians."
Baybars dismissed the officers and rode over to the captives, who were being rounded up. The Mamluks were ransacking the carts and throwing anything of value into a mounting pile on the crimson sands. A scream sounded as two soldiers dragged three children out from their hiding place beneath a wagon. A woman, Baybars guessed to be their mother, leapt up and ran across to them. Even with her hands tied behind her back she was ferocious, spitting like a snake and kicking out with her bare feet. One of the soldiers silenced her with his fists and then hauled her and two of the children by the hair to the swelling group of prisoners. Baybars looked down on the captives and met the terrified gaze of a young boy who was kneeling before him. In the boy's wide, bewildered eyes, he saw himself, twenty years ago, staring back.
Born as a Kipchak Turk on the shores of the Black Sea, Baybars had known nothing of war or slavery before the Mongols' invasion. After being separated from his family and auctioned in the Syrian markets, he had been enslaved by four masters before an officer in the Egyptian army had purchased him and taken him to Cairo to be trained as a slave warrior. In the Mamluk camp on the Nile, along with many other boys who had been bought for the sultan's military, he was clothed, armed and taught to fight. Now, at thirty-seven, he commanded the formidable Bahris. But even with chests of gold and slaves of his own, the recollections of his first year in servitude were bitter memories that he tasted daily.
Baybars gestured to one of the men presiding over the arrests. "Make sure all the spoils arrive in camp. Any man who steals from the sultan will regret it. Use the damaged engines as fuel for the pyres and take the rest."
"As you command, Amir."
The hooves of his horse churning the red sands, Baybars headed for the Mamluk encampment, where Sultan Kutuz would be waiting for him. His body was leaden, but his heart was light. For the first time since the Mongols had begun their invasion of Syria, the Mamluks had turned the tide. It wouldn't take them long to crush the rest of the horde and once that was done, Kutuz would be free to turn his attention to a more critical matter. Baybars smiled. It was a rare expression that looked foreign on his face.
Saint-Martin's Gate, Paris
september 3, 1260 ad
The young clerk sprinted down the alley, his breath coming in ragged bursts. His feet skidded in slimy pools of mud and night soil that coated the ground; his nose was clogged with the stink of human waste and rotting food. He slipped, threw out a hand to grab the sharp flint wall of the building beside him, caught his balance and ran on. To his left, between the buildings, he caught a glimpse of the wide blackness of the Seine. The eastern sky was beginning to lighten, the tower of Notre Dame reflecting the faint gleam of dawn, but in the labyrinth of alleyways that crisscrossed between the wharf houses and tenements it was still midnight. His hair plastered to his head with sweat, the clerk headed away from the river and north toward Saint-Martin's Gate. Every so often, he risked a glance over his shoulder. But he saw no one and the only footsteps he heard were his own.
Once he handed over the book he would be free. By the time the bells rang for Prime he would be on his way to Rouen and a new life. He paused in the mouth of an alley and bent forward straining for breath, one hand on his thigh, the other clutching a vellum-bound book. A movement caught his eye. A tall man dressed in a gray cloak had appeared at the other end of the alley and was striding toward him. The young clerk turned and ran.
He zigzagged between buildings, intent on losing those footsteps now echoing after his own. But his pursuer was dogged and the distance
between them was closing. The city walls were rising ahead. His hand tightened around the book. It meant a sentence, whether of death or imprisonment he wasn't sure, but without evidence they might not be able to convict. The clerk darted down a narrow passage between two rows of shops. Outside the back door of a wine seller's several casks were stacked in a neat row. The clerk looked over his shoulder. He heard the footsteps, but couldn't see his pursuer yet. Dropping the vellum-bound book behind the casks, he ran on. He could always double back to collect it, if he escaped.
The clerk made it down three more streets before he was caught outside a butcher's, where the ground was stained red with the previous day's slaughter. He yelled as the tall man in the threadbare gray cloak pinned him roughly against the wall.
"Give it to me!" The man's words were masked by a thick accent and even though he wore the cloak's cowl pulled low over his face the dark tone of his skin was apparent.
"Are you mad? Let go of me!" gasped the clerk, struggling vainly.
His attacker drew a dagger. "I have no time for games. Give me the book."
"Don't kill me! Please!"
"We know you stole it," said the man, raising the dagger.
The clerk heaved in a shuddering breath. "I had to! He said he would ...! Oh, dear God!" The clerk hung his head and began to cry. "I don't want to die!"
"Who made you take it?"
But the clerk just continued sobbing.
With a gruff sigh the attacker stepped back and sheathed the dagger. "I will not harm you, if you tell me what I need to know."
The young clerk looked up, eyes wide. "You followed me from the
"The man I ... Jean? Is he ...?" The clerk trailed off, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"He is alive."
The clerk exhaled sharply.
There was a clatter somewhere behind them. The man in gray turned, his dark eyes scanning the buildings. Seeing nothing, he looked back at the clerk. "Give me the book and we can return to the preceptory together. I will see you come to no harm if you tell me the truth. Start by telling me who forced you to steal it."
The clerk paused, then opened his mouth. There was a sharp click, followed by a soft whistle. The man in gray ducked instinctively. A second later the bolt from a crossbow had buried itself in the clerk's throat. His eyes widened, but he didn't make a noise as he crumpled to the ground. The man in gray spun around in time to see a shadow move across the dark rooftops above the passage, then vanish. He cursed and dropped down beside the clerk, whose legs were shaking violently. "Where have you put the book? Where?"
The clerk's mouth opened and blood came out. His legs stopped thrashing, his head lolled back. The man in gray cursed again and searched the body, even though it was obvious the young man had nothing on him but the clothes he was wearing. He looked up, hearing voices. Three men were moving through the alley. They were wearing the scarlet cloaks of the city watch.
"Who's down there?" called one, raising the torch he held, the flames quivering in the breeze. "You there!" shouted the guard, seeing a shadowy figure bent over something on the ground.
Not heeding their commands for him to halt, the man in gray began to run.
"After him!" the guard with the torch ordered his comrades. He went closer and swore as the flames revealed the dead clerk's black tunic with the splayed red cross of the Temple on the chest.
A few streets away, a wine merchant by the name of Antoine de Pont-Evêque was in his shop, sighing over some muddled accounts, when he heard the shouts. Curious, he left his table, opened the back door and peered out. The alley was empty, the sky above the rooftops pale with morning. The shouting was fading. Antoine, yawning deeply, turned to go back inside. He stopped, his eye drawn to something on the ground. It was half hidden by the row of empty wine casks and he doubted he would have noticed it at all if not for the fact that it glinted when the light caught it. With a grunt, Antoine stooped to pick it up. It was a book, fairly thick and neatly bound in polished vellum. The writing on the cover was done in shimmering gold leaf. Antoine couldn't read the words, but the book was beautifully crafted and he couldn't imagine how anyone could discard, or lose, such an expensive-looking item. He had a moment's thought of putting it back, but after a quick, guilty look around, he took it inside his shop and shut the door. Pleased by his find, Antoine put the book on a dusty, cluttered shelf beneath his counter and returned reluctantly to his accounts. He would ask his brother, if the rogue ever visited, to tell him what it was about.
new temple, london, september 3, 1260 ad
Inside the chapter house of New Temple, a company of knights had gathered for the initiation. They sat in silence on the benches, facing a raised dais upon which was an altar. Kneeling alone on the flagstones, his back to the knights and his head bowed before the altar, was an eighteen-year-old sergeant. His standard black tunic had been discarded and his bare chest was stained amber in the candlelight. The frail flames, spluttering in their sconces on the walls, were unable to dispel the perpetual gloom of the inner chamber and most of the assembly was shrouded in shadows. Aided by two clerics dressed in black, a priest ascended the steps of the dais. He stood before the company, clasping a leather-bound book, as the clerics prepared the altar. After they had arrayed the holy vessels, the clerics stepped back behind the altar where two knights were waiting, clad, as were all Templars, in long white surcoats with a splayed red cross emblazoned across their hearts.
The priest cleared his throat and surveyed the company. "Ecce quam bonum et quam jocundum habitare fratres in unum."
"Amen," replied a chorus of voices.
The priest looked out across them. "In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and in the name of Mary, most Divine Mother, I welcome you, my brothers. As one we are gathered here for this holy rite and so, as one, let us proceed." He turned his gaze upon the genuflecting sergeant. "For what purpose have you come here?"
The sergeant strove to remember the words he was supposed to say, which he had learned during his night in vigil. "I come to deliver myself, body and spirit, unto the Temple."
"In whose name do you deliver yourself?"
"In the name of God and in the name of Hugues de Payns, founder of our holy Order, who, forsaking this life of sin and darkness, cast from him his worldly duties and ..." The sergeant paused, heart racing. "And taking up the mantle and the cross journeyed to Outremer, the land beyond the sea, to take sword and fire to the infidel. And who, once there, swore to keep safe all Christian pilgrims on their paths through the Holy Land."
"Do you now wish to accept the mantle of the Temple, knowing that in doing so you too shall cast away your worldly duties and, following in the footsteps of our founder, become a true and humble servant of Almighty God?" When the sergeant gave his affirmation, the priest took a clay pot from the altar and carefully deposited its contents into a gold censer. The resinous mixture of frankincense and myrrh ignited as it touched the charcoals and a plume of smoke swirled up to engulf him. He coughed and stepped back. Behind him, the two knights came forward.
One of the knights drew his sword from its scabbard and pointed it toward the sergeant. "See you us now, clad in fine raiment and armed with mighty weapons? Look in wisdom at these things, for you see with eyes that cannot see and heart that cannot comprehend the austerities of our Order. For when you wish to be on this side of the sea you shall be beyond, when you wish to eat you shall go hungry and when you wish to sleep you shall remain awake. Can you accept these things for the glory of God and the safety of your soul?"
"Yes, Sir Knight," answered the sergeant solemnly.
"Then answer truthfully these questions."
The knights returned to their places and the priest read from the book, his words echoing out around the chapter house. "Do you believe in the Christian faith, as decreed by the Church of Rome? Are you the son of a knight, born of legitimate wedlock? Have you made a gift to any in this Order that you may be received as a knight? Are you firm of body and not concealing any ill that may make you unfit to serve the Temple?" The sergeant gave a clear reply to each and the priest inclined his head. "Very well." He handed the book to one of the clerics, who descended to the sergeant and held it out before him.
"Behold the Rule of the Temple," said the cleric, "written for us with the aid of the blessed saint, Bernard de Clairvaux, who at the founding of our Order supported us and whose spirit lives on within us. Look upon our laws, as they are written here, and swear to uphold them. Swear that you will always be faithful to the Order, obeying without question any command you are given. But only if that command comes directly from an official of the Temple, these officials being first the Grand Master, who governs us in wisdom from his seat in the city of Acre; the Visitor of the Kingdom
of France, commander of our Western strongholds; the Marshal; the Seneschal; then the Masters of all kingdoms where we hold sway throughout the East and the West. You will obey, too, your commanders in battle and the Master of any preceptory where you are posted in times of war or peace, and keep civil always with your brothers-in-arms, with whom the bond you now share is thicker than blood. Swear that you will preserve your chastity and live without property, except that bestowed upon you by your Masters. Swear too that you will aid our cause in Outremer, the Holy Land, defending the strongholds and estates we retain in the Kingdom of Jerusalem against all enemies and, in gravest need, giving of your life in this defense. And swear that you will never leave the Order of the Temple, save when permitted by the Masters, for thou art joined to us by this oath and ever shall be in the eyes of God."
The sergeant put a hand to the book and swore that he would, indeed, do these things.
The cleric ascended the steps and laid the leather-bound book on the altar. As he stepped back, the priest reached down and gently, lovingly, picked up a small black box gilded with gold. He removed the lid and brought out a crystal vial, its many-faceted surface catching the light of the candles.
"Look upon the blood of Christ," murmured the priest, "three drops of which, captured within this vessel, were brought to us almost two centuries ago from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Hugues de Payns, founder of our Order, in whose name you deliver yourself and in whose footsteps you follow. Look upon it and be received."
The company sighed and the sergeant watched in awe: He hadn't been told about this part of the ceremony.
"Do you deliver youself, body and spirit?"
"Then bow your head before this altar," ordered the priest, "and ask for the blessings of God, the Virgin, and all the saints."
With his cheek pressed against the wall, Will Campbell watched as the sergeant prostrated himself on the flagstones, arms splayed like the crosses on the knights' mantles. Will, who was tall for thirteen, shifted in his cramped position as his legs began to throb. The tenacious burrowing of mice had eroded an uneven stone at the base of the wall that separated the chapter house from the kitchen's storeroom, forming a tiny cleft. Around him, the storeroom was in relative darkness. Only thin slivers of light sifted through the cracks in the door that led to the kitchen. A musty smell of mice droppings and moldering grain permeated the air. The two large sacks that he had squeezed between offered some measure of comfort from the cold rising from the stone floor, as well as cover from possible detection.
"You seen enough?"
Will took his cheek from the wall and glanced at the stocky youth huddled behind him, propped against a sack of grain. "Why? Do you want
"No," muttered the youth, stretching out his legs and wincing as the blood found its flow. "I want to leave."
Will shook his head. "How can you not want to see? Not even the ..." He frowned, trying to think of a good example. "Not even the pope has witnessed a knight's initiation. This is your chance to know the Order's most secret ceremony, Simon."
"Yes, secret." Simon cocked his head. "There's a reason it's secret. It means no one's supposed to see. Only knights and priests are allowed and you're neither." He stamped his foot on the ground. "And my leg's gone to sleep."
Will rolled his eyes. "Go then, I'll see you later."
"Through the bars of a prison cell maybe. Listen to your elder for once."
"Elder?" scoffed Will. "By one year."
"One year in age maybe." Simon tapped his head. "But at least twenty years in sense." He sighed, folding his arms across his chest. "No, I'll stay. Who else is fool enough to watch your back?"
Will returned his eye to the cleft. The priest was stepping down from the dais holding a sword. The bare-chested sergeant rose to his feet, keeping his head bowed.
Will had seen in his mind's eye the priest descending to him a thousand times with the sword and had seen himself sheath the blade in the scabbard at his side. But most of all, he had imagined the hand of his father, firm on his shoulder, as he was accepted as a Templar Knight; clothed in the white mantle that signified the cleansing of all past sins.
"I've heard they station archers on the rooftops of some preceptories when the ceremony takes place," continued Simon, prodding a bulge in the sack that was pressing into him. "If we're caught they'll probably shoot us."
Will didn't answer.
Simon sat back. "Or expel us." He groaned and prodded the sack again, viciously. "Or send us to Merlan." He gave an exaggerated shudder at the thought. When he had first arrived at the preceptory a year ago, one of the older sergeants had told him about Merlan. The Templar prison in France had acquired an ominous reputation over the years and the sergeant's description of it had deeply affected Simon.
"Merlan," murmured Will, not taking his gaze from the priest, "is for traitors and murderers."
The kitchen doors opened with a bang. The shafts of light filtering into the storeroom intensified in their brightness as sunlight filled the chamber beyond. Will ducked down, his back to the wall. Simon scrabbled between the sacks and wedged himself in beside Will as the sound of heavy foot-
steps drew nearer. There was a clatter and a muttered curse, followed by a scraping sound. The footsteps stopped. Ignoring Simon who was shaking his head, Will inched forward easing himself out from between the sacks. Padding to the door, he peered through one of the cracks.
The kitchen was a large, rectangular room divided by two long rows of benches where the food was prepared. At one end, near the doors, was a cavernous hearth in which a fire smoked and spat. Shelves lined the walls, crammed with bowls, pots and jars. Stacked on the floor were barrels of ale and baskets filled with vegetables, and suspended on hooks hanging from the rafters were pairs of rabbits, joints of salted pork and dried fish. Standing at one of the benches was a brawny man, clad in the brown tunic of a servant. Will groaned inwardly. It was Peter, the kitchen supervisor. Peter hefted a basket of vegetables onto the bench, then took up a knife. Will glanced around as Simon sat up, his scruffy thatch of brown hair appearing over the sacks.
"Who is it?" Simon mouthed.
Will moved back to him and crouched down. "Peter," he whispered. "It looks like he'll be here for a while."
Simon pulled a face.
Will nodded toward the door. "We'll have to go."
"We can't stay in here all day. I'm supposed to be polishing Sir Owein's armor."
"But with him out there?"
Without giving Simon a chance to refuse, Will went to the door and opened it.
Peter started, his knife poised in midair. "God in Heaven!" He recovered quickly, his eyes narrowing as he saw Will. Setting down the knife, he wiped his hands on his tunic, glancing past Will as Simon hastened out and shut the storeroom door. "What were you two doing in there?"
"We heard a noise," said Will calmly. "We went to see what it ..."
Peter pushed past him and yanked open the door. "Pilfering rations again?" He scoured the storeroom's shadows, but could see nothing out of place. "What was it last time? Thieving bread?"
"Cake," corrected Will. "And I wasn't thieving, I was ..."
"And you?" Peter turned on Simon. "What need has a groom in the kitchens?"
Simon hooked his thumbs in his belt and shrugged, shuffling from one foot to the other.
"The stable broom was broken," said Will. "We came to borrow one."
"Takes two of you to carry it, does it?"
Will stared back at him in silence.
Peter scowled. He had served the preceptory for thirty years and refused to have his intelligence insulted by these upstart adolescents. But he didn't have the authority to force a confession from them. He looked from the storeroom to Will, then ceded with a grunt of annoyance. "Take your broom and be off then." Returning to the trestle, he snatched up the knife. "But if I see either of you in here again, I'll report you to the Master."
Will hastened through the kitchen, pausing to grab a besom from the wall by the hearth. He headed outside, blinking at the sun's brightness and turned, grinning, as Simon came out behind him. "Here."
"How kind," said Simon, as Will handed him the broom. "I hope your curiosity is satisfied. If a knight had found us ...?" He sucked in a breath. "The next time you want someone to keep watch for you, I'll be in the Holy Land. I expect I'll be safer there." He shook his head, but gave Will a broad smile that revealed his jagged front tooth, broken when a horse had kicked him. "Will I see you before Nones?"
Will wrinkled his nose at the mention of the afternoon office. He hadn't even begun his chores and the morning was already drawing to a close. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day for all the things he was expected to do, however fast he tried to work. Between mealtimes, daily training on the field with the sword, and all the menial tasks he had to undertake for his master, there was very little time left for anything else, let alone the seven offices to God. Will's day, as all sergeants', began before dawn with the office of Matins, when the chapel, summer or winter, would be cold and gloomy, after which he would see to his master's horse, then be given his orders. At around six was the office of Prime and following this, Will and his fellow sergeants would break their fast, while listening to a reading of the scriptures, then return to the chapel for the offices of Terce and Sext. In the afternoon, between lunch, chores and training, he attended Nones. At dusk there was Vespers, followed by supper, and the whole day ended with Compline. Some Templars might be proud to be known as the warrior monks, but Will resented seeing more of the inside of the chapel than his own bed. He was about to complain of this to Simon, who was already well versed in his objections, when he heard someone shout his name.
A short, red-haired boy was running toward them, scattering the hens that were pecking in the yard. "Will, I've a message from Sir Owein. He wants to see you in the solar immediately."
"Did he say why?"
"No," replied the boy. "But he didn't look pleased."
"Do you think he knows what we was doing?" murmured Simon at Will's side.
"Not unless he can see through walls."
Will grinned, then sprinted off across the yard, the sun warm on his back. Diving down a passage that led past the fragrant-smelling kitchen garden, he came out in a large courtyard surrounded by gray stone buildings. Beyond the buildings to the right rose the chapel, a tall, graceful structure built with a round nave in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Will made his way toward the knights' quarters, which lay at the far end of the courtyard near the chapel, dodging groups
of sergeants, squires leading horses and servants moving purposefully about their various errands. New Temple, the principal English preceptory,
was also the largest in the kingdom. As well as extensive domestic and official quarters, the compound contained a training field, armory, stables
and its own private wharf on the Thames. Commonly, up to one hundred knights were in residence, as well as several hundred sergeants and general laborers.
Reaching the doors of the two-story building that was set around a cloister, Will slipped inside and ran down the vaulted passage, his footsteps echoing. Upstairs, he halted before a heavy oak door, breathing hard, and rapped his knuckles on the wood. Glancing down, he saw that his black
tunic was smudged with dust from the storeroom floor. He brushed at it with his sleeve as the door swung inward, revealing the imposing figure of Owein ap Gwyn.
The knight gestured sharply. "Inside."
The solar, a room that some of the more high-ranking Templars shared, was cool and dark. There was an armoire against one wall, several stools in a shadowy corner that was partially concealed by a wooden screen, and a table and bench beneath the window, which looked out over the clois-
ters onto a square of well-kept grass. A small piece of colored glass in the trefoil cast a green glow across the piles of scrolls and sheaves of parchment on the table. Will held his head high, keeping his gaze fixed on the view outside the window as the door banged shut behind him. He had no idea why his master had summoned him, but hoped he wouldn't be kept too long. If he managed to polish Owein's armor before Nones, then he might be able to spend an hour on the field before the training session later that afternoon. There wasn't that much time left available in which to practice: The tournament was fast approaching. Owein came to stand before him. Will saw displeasure etched in the furrows of the knight's brow and his steel-gray eyes. His hope sank. "I was told you wanted to see me, sir."
"Do you comprehend how fortunate you are, sergeant?" questioned Owein, the accent of his birthplace, Powys, thick with anger.
"To be in your position? A position denied to so many of your rank that grants you tutelage under a knight-master?"
"Then why do you disobey my commands, betraying both myself and your eminent station?"
Will said nothing.
"Mute, are you?"
"No, sir. But I cannot reply when I don't know what I've done to displease you."
"You don't know what you've done to displease me?" Owein's tone roughened further. "Then perhaps it's your memory and not your mouth that is deficient. What is your first duty after Matins, sergeant?"
"To see to your horse, sir," replied Will, realizing what must have
"Then why, when I passed the stables, did I find the hayrack empty and my horse not groomed?"
Following Matins, the first office, Will had forsaken this chore to investigate the hole he'd discovered in the storeroom wall in readiness for the initiation. Last night, he had asked one of the sergeants with whom he shared quarters to feed Owein's horse for him. The sergeant must have forgotten. "I am sorry, sir," said Will in his most contrite voice. "I overslept."
Owein's eyes narrowed. He strode around the table and seated himself on the bench behind it. Resting his arms on the table, he laced his hands together. "How many times have I heard that excuse? And countless others? You seem incapable of following the simplest orders. The Rule of the Temple isn't here to be broken and I will not tolerate it any longer!"
Will was slightly surprised: He had done worse than neglect to feed his master's horse before. He began to feel uneasy as Owein continued.
"To be a Templar you must be willing to make many sacrifices and abide by many laws. You are training to be a soldier! A warrior of Christ! One day, sergeant, you will almost certainly be called to arms and if you cannot follow orders now, I cannot see how you hope to maintain order as a knight on the field of battle. Every man in the Temple must obey, to the letter, the commands given to him by his superiors, however trivial they might seem, else our entire Order will fall into chaos. Can you imagine the Visitor in Paris, or Master de Pairaud here in London failing to follow any task appointed to them by Grand Master Bérard? Failing, for instance, to send a requested number of men and horses to help fortify one of our strongholds in Palestine because they overslept on the morning the ship was due to leave?" Owein's gray eyes bored into Will's. "Well, can you?" When Will didn't answer the knight shook his head irritably. "The tournament is only a month away. I am considering excluding you from entering."
Will stared at Owein for a long moment, then breathed a sigh of relief. Owein wouldn't bar him from the contest: His master wanted him to win as much as he did. It was an idle threat and Owein knew it.
Owein studied the tall, wiry boy, whose tunic was dust-stained and whose posture was erect, defiant. Will's dark hair had been cropped raggedly across his forehead and several strands hung in his green eyes, giving him a hooded look. There was an adult keenness in the hard angles of his cheeks and his long, hawk-like nose, and Owein was struck by how much like his father the boy was starting to look. It was no use, he knew; anger and threats had never worked. Probably, he thought with some chagrin, because he could never stay furious with the boy for long, or recourse to more brutal punishments employed by other knights.
He glanced at the wooden screen that partitioned the solar, then back at Will. After a moment, Owein rose and looked out of the window to give himself a chance to think.
Will's uneasiness returned as the quiet dragged on. Rarely had he seen Owein so pensive, so ominously silent. Perhaps he was wrong: Perhaps his master would bar him from the tournament. Or perhaps this was worse, perhaps ... The word expulsion flashed in Will's mind. After what seemed an eternity, Owein turned to face him.
"I know what happened in Scotland, William." Owein watched Will's eyes widen, then narrow to fierce slits as the boy averted his gaze. "If you want to make amends, this isn't the way. What would your father think of your behavior? When he returns from the Holy Land I want to be able to commend you. I don't want to have to tell him I'm disappointed."
Will felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. All his air had gone, leaving him dizzy, sick. "How ...? How did you know?"
"Your father told me before he left."
"He told you?" said Will weakly. He hung his head, then shook it and looked up. "Can I receive my punishment and be dismissed, sir?"
To Owein, it was as if a mask had come down over Will's face. That fragility was gone almost as soon as it had appeared. He watched a vein in Will's temple pulse as the boy clenched his teeth. The knight recognized that stony resolve. He had seen it in James Campbell's face when he had advised the knight not to pursue a request for transfer to the Temple's preceptory in the city of Acre. James hadn't been called to Crusade and as well as Will in London, he had a young wife and daughters in Scotland, but he had refused to listen to Owein's counsel. Owein wondered whether he was getting through to the boy at all. It was time, he decided, to speak plainly. "No, Sergeant Campbell, you may not be dismissed. I'm not finished."
"I do not wish to speak of this, sir," said Will in a low voice. "I won't!"
"We won't have to," said Owein calmly, seating himself on the bench, "if you start behaving like the sergeant I know you can be." When Owein saw he had the boy's attention, he continued. "You have a sharp mind, William, and your enthusiasm and skill on the training field is laudable. But you refuse to apply yourself to the most fundamental obligations of our Order. Do you think our founders wrote the Rule for their own amusement? We must all strive to follow the ideals they prescribed in order to fulfill our role as Christ's warriors on Earth. Being able to fight well is not enough. Bernard de Clairvaux himself tells us that it is useless to attack exterior enemies if we do not first conquer those of the interior. Do you understand that, William?"
"Yes, sir," said Will quietly. The sentiment touched something deep inside him.
"You cannot continue to jeopardize your position by flouting the Rule whenever you think it dull, or senseless. You must start obeying me, William, in all of your duties, not just the ones you enjoy. You must learn discipline else you will have no place in this Order. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Sir Owein."
Owein sat back, satisfied that Will had listened and understood. "Good." He picked up one of the scrolls that was lying on the table. Unrolling the parchment he smoothed it flat with his palm. "Then your next duty will be to bear my shield at a parley between King Henry and Master de Pairaud."
"The king? He's coming here, sir?"
"In twelve days." Owein looked up from the parchment. "And his visit is a private affair, so you are forbidden from speaking of it."
"You have my word, sir."
"Until then, you will be assigned to the stables as punishment for neglecting your responsibilities this morning. This will be in addition to your daily work. That is all, sergeant. You are dismissed."
Will bowed and headed for the door.
"My threats may have seemed without substance in the past. But if you test my patience any further, I won't hesitate to have you expelled from the Order. Stay out of trouble. The good Lord knows it follows you around like a stray dog, but the next time you turn and pet it, it may well bite you."
When Will had gone, Owein rubbed at his brow wearily.
"You are far too lenient on the boy, brother." A tall knight with flint-gray hair and a leather patch over his left eye appeared from around the wooden screen, where he had been sitting throughout the meeting. He crossed to Owein, holding a sheaf of parchments. "To bear the shield of a Templar is a great honor, greater still given the setting. His punishment seems more like a reward."
Owein studied the scroll before him. "Perhaps the responsibility will help to temper him, brother."
"Or lead him to worse abuses of his rank. I fear your affection for the boy has blinded you. You are not his father, Owein."
Owein looked up, frowning. He opened his mouth to object, but the flint-haired knight continued.
"Boys of his age and breeding are like dogs. They respond better to
the whip rather than the word."
The knight gave a tiny shrug and laid the sheaf of parchments he held on the table. "It's your decision, of course. I merely offer my opinion."
"Your opinion is noted, Jacques," said Owein, mildly but firmly. He picked up the parchments. "Have you read them all?"
"I have." Jacques walked to the window and surveyed the Temple's grounds. The leaves on the trees were beginning to wither, turning brown and crumpled at the edges. "What does Master de Pairaud say? Is he confident that Henry will concede to our demands?"
"Fairly. As I have been dealing with this matter for some months, Master de Pairaud has, to some extent, left it in my hands as to how we proceed during the parley. I have talked through my thoughts with him and it has been agreed that we should compile not only the treasury reports of what has been lent to the royal household over the past year, but also exactly where we believe those monies to have been spent. I will need your help with some of the details."
"You have it."
Owein nodded his thanks. "It will all serve to strengthen our case."
"However strong our case is, the king will not be pleased."
"No, he will not. But although I believe we should tread with some caution in this matter, Henry does have very little choice but to concede to the Temple's demands. Even if he refuses, we can request that the pope order him to agree."
"Caution is needed, brother. The Temple may stand beyond the king's authority, but he can still make our lives difficult. He has done it before when he attempted to confiscate several of our estates. And," added Jacques grimly, "we currently have more than enough to worry about without having to deal with the petty reactions of jealous monarchs." He pulled up a stool and sat before Owein. "You spoke to the Master this morning. Did he say whether he has received any further reports from Outremer?"
"We will discuss it in the next chapter meeting, but, no, he has received nothing since we learned about the Mongol attacks on Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad, and the Mamluks' move to confront the horde. And that, for me, is good enough incentive to confront the king sooner rather than later about his debts. We will need all the money we can lay our hands on if we have cause to counter this new threat. If the Mamluks face the Mongols and win we will have their entire army marching triumphant and confident through our territories." Owein straightened up the neat stack of parchments on the table with the tips of his fingers and shook his head. "I cannot think of anything more perilous."
Ayn Jalut (The Pools of Goliath),
the Kingdom of Jerusalem
september 3, 1260 ad
The Mamluk camp was tumultuous; noisy with exultation and preparation as the army celebrated its victory in song and officers shouted their orders, maintaining tight control of what, at first glance, would have appeared to be chaos.
On reaching the sultan's pavilion, Baybars reined in his horse and leapt down. Pausing to tether the beast to a hobbling post he surveyed the gorge, far beneath him. The sun had dipped below the hills, casting shadows across the valley. He could hear the dull echo of axe blades against wood as the Mongols' siege engines were torn down for the pyres of their dead. His eyes moved to the chain of Mamluk wounded, which was winding its way slowly up the hillside from the battleground. Those able to walk were being helped by their comrades and the less fortunate were laid out on carts that bounced and rattled over the rocky ground. Come dawn, the physicians would be exhausted, but the gravediggers would be wearier still. Baybars headed for the pavilion. Guarding the entrance were two white-cloaked warriors of the Mu'izziyya regiment, the sultan's Royal Guard. They moved aside and bowed at his approach.
The air inside the pavilion was thick with the scent of sandalwood and the flames filtering through the oil lanterns exuded a soft, buttery light. It took Baybars a moment to become accustomed to the dim interior, but when he did his gaze was drawn first to the throne, which stood on a wooden platform that was covered by a canopy of white silk. The throne was a magnificent item, spread with embroidered cloth, the arms crowned with the heads of two lions sculpted from gold, beasts that snarled down at all those who stood before them. It was empty. Baybars looked around until his eyes came to rest on a low couch that was partially hidden by a mesh screen. Reclining there amidst a panoply of cushions and drapes was Sultan Kutuz, the master of the Mamluks and ruler of Egypt. His brocaded mantle of jade damask was drawn tight against his huge frame and his long black beard was sleek with perfumed oil. As usual, the sultan was not alone. Baybars quickly studied the rest of the men who occupied the pavilion. He had trained himself, on entering any enclosed space, to assess who was there and how many were armed. Invariably, the answers to these questions when in the presence of the sultan, were all those who mattered and everyone but the servants. Baybars had long thought that Kutuz's status was marked less by the slim band of gold that circled his brow, than by the retinue that always surrounded him. Attendants bearing trays of fruit and goblets of hibiscus cordial moved deftly between the royal advisors and the military governors of the various Mamluk regiments, who stood in small groups talking quietly. More of the Mu'izziyya were just visible in the shadows.
A gust of cool air swept into the pavilion with a messenger who hurried over to one of the governors. The draft stirred the incense smoke into fitful clouds. Kutuz looked up. His dark eyes fixed on Baybars.
"Amir." Kutuz beckoned. "Come forward." He waited as Baybars approached the couch. "My praise to you," he said, watching Baybars bow. "Because of your plan, we have won our first victory against the Mongols." Resting against the cushions, Kutuz took a goblet from one of the proffered trays. "What do you believe our next move should be?" He shot a glance at a group of men who were standing at the side of the pavilion. "Some of my advisors have suggested that we fall back."
Baybars didn't take his eyes from the sultan. "We should move out to engage the remaining Mongol forces, my lord. The rest have fled east and reports from the borders indicate concern over the throne in Mongolia. It would be good to strike while they are in disarray."
"That may be difficult," voiced one of the governors. "It is a long road east and—"
"No," interrupted Kutuz. "Baybars is right. We must strike while we are able, if we are to complete our success." He motioned to a scribe, who was seated at a table in one corner of the pavilion. "I have drafted a letter to the Western rulers of Acre, informing them of our victory and asking for their continued support of our campaign. Have one of your officers take it to the city and place it in the hand of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights."
Baybars took the scroll reluctantly. The act of asking their enemy for permission to enter their territories, stolen territories, had affronted him and the brief rest the Mamluks had taken in Acre on their journey through Palestine had only reinforced his hatred. While the army was camped outside Acre's walls, the Teutonic Knights, a military Order from the Kingdom of Germany, had invited Kutuz into their stronghold to feast at their table, where the sultan had asked them for an alliance of arms against the Mongols. Negotiations between the Christian and Muslim forces were not uncommon. There had been many such alliances forged since the first Crusaders had come, at the call of their pope, to redeem the birthplace of their Christ from the unbelievers, spurred by the promise of absolution in the next life and the prospect of land and riches in this. On new shores they had become the infidel themselves and, over time, had learned to negotiate with their enemy, until, in the midst of conflict, trade and even friendships had flourished. But, on that day, although the Western rulers had permitted the Mamluks to cross their territories, they had bluntly refused the entreaty for a military alliance.
Baybars, seated in silence at the sultan's side for the feast, had watched grimly as Muslim servants had brought the platters to the boards. In Acre, those the Muslims called al-Firinjah—the Franks—held the power. It was a term used broadly for the fighting classes of the West whatever their nationality, but the two things the Franks had in common were their Roman Christianity and that they had come to the East uninvited. In the towns and cities ruled by the Franks, native Christians, Jews and Muslims were allowed to work, practice their religions and organize their own administrations. But what the Franks saw as tolerance was insult to Baybars. The Western Christians, who had come to take their Holy Land by force, had enslaved his people and were growing fat and happy on the spoils. Acre's rulers could try to hide behind their adopted refinements, their perfumed hair and flowing silks, but Baybars still saw the filth of the West on them and all the soap in Palestine couldn't wash them clean. He stared at Kutuz. "I would rather take a war to the Franks than a message, my lord."
Kutuz drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch. "For now, we must concentrate our forces on one enemy alone, Amir. The Mongols must pay in full for their insult to my position."
"And," interjected Baybars, "for the eighty thousand Muslims they killed at Baghdad?"
"Indeed," replied Kutuz, after a pause. He drained the goblet and handed it to an attendant. "At least the Franks show me courtesy."
"They show you courtesy, my lord, because they fear to lose territory to the Mongols. Not willing to lift their own swords, they have let us fight their battle for them."
Baybars held Kutuz's gaze easily. A tense silence descended, broken only by the footfalls of the attendants and the muted sounds of the camp outside. Kutuz was the first to look away. "You have your orders, Amir."
Baybars said nothing. There would be time during their campaign to turn Kutuz to his will. "There is the matter of a reward, my lord."
Kutuz sat back with a nod and the tension in the pavilion was expelled like a breath. "The spoils of war will always benefit the soldiers who fight them, Baybars." He motioned to one of his advisors. "Have a chest filled with gold for the Amir."
"It wasn't gold I was seeking, my lord."
Kutuz frowned. "No? Then what do you want?"
"The governorship of the city of Aleppo, my lord."
Kutuz didn't speak for several moments. Behind him, some of the advisors stirred uneasily. The sultan laughed. "You request a city held by the Mongols?"
"It won't be for much longer, my lord. Not now we have broken a third of their force and prepare to march on their strongholds to finish what we've started."
Kutuz's smile faded. "What game are you playing?"
"No game, my lord."
"Why do you request such a prize? What would you do with Aleppo when your greatest desire is to lead my army to war against the Christians?"
"The position of governor wouldn't deter me from that cause."
Kutuz folded his arms across his chest. "Amir," he said, his soft tone belied by the hardness of his gaze, "I don't understand why you wish to return to a place so full of memory."
Baybars stiffened. He knew that Kutuz made it his business to learn everything of his officers, including their histories. But he hadn't thought anyone, Kutuz included, knew of his time in Aleppo.
Seeing that he had struck a nerve, Kutuz smiled slightly.
"I have served you and your predecessors since I was eighteen." Baybars's deep voice filled the pavilion and advisors and attendants alike stopped what they were doing to listen. "In that time I have brought fear to the enemies of Islam and triumph to our cause. I led the van at the Battle of Herbiya and killed five thousand Christians. I helped capture the Franks' king, Louis, at Mansurah and killed three hundred of his best knights."
"I am grateful for all you have done for me, Amir Baybars, but I'm afraid I wouldn't give up such a jewel, even if it became mine to give."
"Grateful, my lord?" Baybars's voice was light, but his hands were fists at his sides. "If not for me you wouldn't have a throne to sit on."
Kutuz rose quickly from the couch, scattering the cushions. "You forget yourself, Amir! In the name of Allah, I should have you whipped!" He strode to the throne and stepped onto the platform. Turning, he seated himself and grasped the heads of the lions.
"I beg your forgiveness, my lord, but I believe I am deserving of this reward."
"Leave!" spat Kutuz. "Leave now and do not return until you have considered the position of a sultan and the position of a commander and have a clearer understanding of which is the greater. You will never have Aleppo, Baybars. Do you hear me? Never!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Baybars saw that several members of the Mu'izziyya had stepped forward. Their hands were resting on the pommels of their sabers. He forced himself to bow to Kutuz, then swept out of the pavilion, the scroll clutched tightly in his fist.
As he strode through the Mamluk encampment the men fell back at the rage that enveloped him like a cloud. The sun had set and down in the gorge the pyres of the Mongol dead were burning, the flames leaping high into the purple skies. The sounds of laughter and cheering drifted on the chill desert air and, closer, a woman's screams. When he reached his own tent, Baybars wrenched open the flaps. He stopped in the entrance. Standing
in the center of the tent was a Mamluk officer, a lean man with a plain, honest-looking face and a slightly crooked nose.
"Amir! I missed you in the battle, but I've already heard ten tales of your valor."
Baybars handed his swords to an attendant who was waiting nearby, as the officer came forward and embraced him.
"All I hear when I walk through the camp are men praising your name. They exalt you." The officer motioned to a low couch, before which was a chest laden with platters of figs and spiced meats. "Take off your armor and drink with me in celebration."
"The time for celebration is passed, Omar."
Baybars glanced at his attendants. The one who had taken his swords had set about cleaning them. Two others were stoking the charcoals in the braziers and a fourth was pouring water into a silver basin. "Leave us."
The attendants looked up in surprise, but seeing their master's expression left their stations hurriedly. Baybars tossed the scroll onto the chest and pulled off his bloodied cloak, letting it fall to the sand. He sat heavily on the couch and seized a goblet of kumiz. He drank deep, the fermented mare's milk soothing his throat.
Omar sat down beside Baybars. "Sadeek?" he pressed, reverting, now that the attendants had gone, to the more familiar appellation, friend. "In the eighteen years I've known you I've never seen you angered by victory. What is the cause?"
Omar waited for him to continue and remained silent as Baybars spoke of the sultan's denial of his request. When Baybars had finished, Omar sat back and shook his head. "Kutuz is obviously fearful of you. Your reputation precedes you and he is only too aware of the military's capability in the deposition of a sultan. After all, he too took the throne by force. Kutuz has reigned for only one year and his position isn't fully secured among all in the regiments. I would say he believes you would have too much power should he give you Aleppo. Power that you, in turn, may use against him." Omar spread his hands. "I cannot see what you are to do, though. The sultan's word is law."
"He must die," said Baybars quietly. So quietly that Omar wasn't sure he had heard correctly.
Baybars glanced at him. "I will kill him and place a more suitable ruler on the throne. A ruler who rewards his officers. A ruler who will bring them the victories they deserve."
Omar's eyes moved to the tent entrance. The flaps were open and outside he could see the flickering torchlight and the shadows of men who were hauling the plunder they had taken into the camp. "You cannot even think such things," he murmured. "Get some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day and your anger may diminish with your dreams."
"You may be one of my highest officers, Omar, and you may be as a brother to me. But if you believe that then perhaps you don't know me at all. You were there when we killed the Ayyubid, Turanshah. It was my hand that wielded the blade that took that sultan's life. I can do it again."
"Yes," replied Omar quietly. "I was there." He stared into Baybars's eyes and couldn't see one shred of doubt or indecision there. Omar had seen that look before.
On that day, ten years ago, he had been resting with the other officers of the Bahri regiment, following a victory against the Franks at Mansurah, a victory won by Baybars. At the time, the Bahris had been the Royal Guard of Sultan Ayyub, whose predecessors had gathered and raised the Mamluk army. Shortly before the Battle of Mansurah, Ayyub had died and his heir, Turanshah, had ascended the throne. Turanshah had riled the Mamluks by putting his own men in positions of power and Baybars had been ordered by Aibek, the commander of the Bahris, to rectify the situation with the persuasion of cold steel. He had come to Omar and the other officers late that night when Turanshah was holding a banquet. With swords concealed beneath their cloaks, the party had stormed the feasting hall. Turanshah had fled to a tower on the banks of the Nile, but Baybars had followed him doggedly, ordering that the tower be put to the torch. As the flames devoured the wood the sultan had jumped into the river and there, like a half-drowned rat, had begged for his life. Baybars had vaulted down the bank and ended the sultan's cries and the line of the Ayyubids with a single stroke, securing the seat of power for the Mamluks and making the slaves the masters. Omar would never forget the moment when Baybars had plunged his sword into Turanshah's belly, his face twisted beyond recognition by the fervor that consumed him.
Omar shook his head. "It wouldn't work this time. Kutuz is always guarded. You would be killed."
A voice from the shadows made them both whip around, Baybars reaching instinctively for the dagger in his boot.
"Oh, it would work. It would! It would!"
A cackle of laughter followed the words and Baybars relaxed. "Come here."
A moment later, something crawled out of the shadows. It was an old man with a toothless grin, matted black hair and dark skin that was as wrinkled as old fruit. He wore a threadbare cotton robe and his feet were bare and scarred. The nails on his toes were yellow and his eyes were milky with cataracts. Omar relaxed, slightly, as he recognized Khadir, Baybars's soothsayer. Hanging from a chain around Khadir's waist was a gold-handled dagger, the hilt of which was inlaid with a glossy red ruby. This dagger was the only indication that the wretched figure had once been a warrior in the notorious Order of Assassins, an elite group of radical fighters founded in Persia just prior to the First Crusade. As adherents of the Shi'ah branch of Islam, a Muslim minority who had split from the traditionist Sunnis over Muhammad's succession, the Assassins' mandate was to destroy enemies of their faith and this they did with brutal efficiency. From secret strongholds high in the mountains of Syria they slipped unnoticed to fall like black spiders, silent, deadly, upon their chosen targets, poison or a dagger their preferred methods of murder. Over the years, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks and Mongols had learned to fear them, and with good reason. But occasionally they had also used them for their own purposes, at a high price, for there were none better skilled in the art of murder.
Omar didn't know why Khadir had left their ranks. As far as he was aware, the soothsayer had been expelled from the Order, but other than a few unsubstantiated rumors, the reasons for his dismissal were unclear. All Omar knew was that the old man had arrived in Cairo, wearing the same shabby robe he wore now, shortly after Baybars had been handed control of the Bahris, and had offered the commander his allegiance and services.
As Khadir came closer to the braziers' dancing light, Omar noticed that a viper was entwined around the soothsayer's hand.
"Speak," commanded Baybars.
Khadir crouched in the sand, watching the snake coil around his wrist as if mesmerized, then leapt to his feet. His eyes focused on Baybars. "Kill Kutuz," he said coolly. "You will have the support of the army."
"You are certain?"
Khadir giggled and dropped to the sand, where he sat cross-legged. Pinching the head of the snake between his thumb and forefinger, he drew it from his wrist and whispered to it, before letting it fall to the ground. The viper slid across the sand, making a thin, waving trail toward the couch. Omar resisted the urge to lift up his legs as it slithered over his boot. It was only young but its venom was still potent.
Khadir clapped his hands as the snake glided closer to Baybars. "See! It shows you the answer!"
"His sorcery is an affront to Allah," said Omar quietly. "You shouldn't allow him to perform it."
Khadir's hooded gaze swiveled to Omar, who looked away, unable to meet those white eyes.
Baybars was watching the snake slide between his feet seeking the darkness beneath the couch. "Allah has given him this gift, Omar, and he has never been wrong." Before the viper could disappear, Baybars lifted his boot and stamped down on its head. He scuffed the dead snake across the sand with his foot and looked at Khadir. The soothsayer was scratching a sore on his leg.
"You say the army would support me in this action, but what of the Mu'izziyya regiment? Surely the Royal Guard would stand with Kutuz?"
Khadir shrugged and rose to his feet. "Perhaps, but enough of their loyalty can be purchased with gold and your men guard today's plunder." Walking over to the couch, he picked up the dead snake. After staring sadly at its crushed body, he stowed it in his robes. He looked at Baybars with something akin to fatherly pride. "I see a great future for you, master. Nations will fall and kings will perish and you will stand above them all on a bridge of skulls that spans a river of blood." His voice dropped to a whisper as he knelt at Baybars's feet. "If your hand wields the knife that kills Kutuz, you will be sultan!"
Baybars gave a bark of laughter. "Sultan? Then Aleppo would be the least of my treasures." His laughter died as his mind clamped around that thought like a vice.
When Baybars had deposed Turanshah, it had been the privilege of the man who had ordered the killing, the then commander of the Bahris, Aibek, to take the throne. But Baybars hadn't been properly rewarded for his part in it and, refusing to serve the man whose rise he had aided, he had left Cairo. He had returned one year ago, after Kutuz had deposed Aibek's successor, hoping that the new sultan would prove more faithful than the others: to the men and to the cause. He had been sorely disappointed.
Rising from the couch, Baybars moved to the entrance of the tent. Outside, the sky was ruddy from the flames of the pyres and the moon had risen red above the desert. The hills rose and fell in black peaks and troughs, tumbling into darkness as they reached the flat plain that was spread out beneath him. In the south, the Pools of Goliath glinted like steel in the moonlight. The Franks had once come to this plain to challenge the Egyptian sultan, Saladin, with their crosses and swords. Their army had been surrounded, their supply routes cut, but they had survived by fishing the Pools for food, and Saladin, unable to invade their camp, was forced to retreat. For almost two centuries, the Franks had eaten their food, slaughtered their people and defiled their places of worship. Where once Allah had been revered, pigs now rooted in excrement.
But as Baybars stood there, his gaze on the Pools, a sense of anticipation began to replace his rancor. Khadir's words crackled in his mind like fire. He had a destiny, a part to play in the Franks' demise. He could feel it inside. "If I were sultan," he murmured, "I would fight the barbarian Franks so fiercely that not even the buzzards would find a feast of their bones."
Omar came to stand beside Baybars. "I know you long for their blood to be spilled, but don't mistake the Franks for mindless savages. They are seasoned warriors and cunning strategists and it won't be easy to destroy them."
Baybars turned to him. "You are wrong. They are barbarians. In the West, the Franks live like swine. Their homes are hovels, their ways uncultured and coarse. They looked to the East and saw the beauty of our cities, the elegance of our people and our great schools of learning. They looked to the East and they wanted it for themselves and so they came on their Crusades. Not for their God, but for the plunder." Baybars closed his eyes. "Every day that they have spent in our nation must be avenged."
"The sultan has given his orders," said Omar. "It is the Mongols we go to fight."
"They won't take long to crush. Once that is done we will make our plans for Kutuz." Baybars grasped Omar's shoulder. "Will you stand with me?"
"You have no need to ask that."
"Take what gold I own," said Baybars, pointing to a small chest, "and see that the officers are paid. Pay them well, for if I'm to take this action against Kutuz we must bind as many to our cause as possible."
"Then?" Baybars looked at Khadir, who was crouching in the sand, eyes gleaming in the braziers' red glow. "Then we prepare for war."
Excerpted from BRETHREN: An Epic Adventure of the Knights Templar © Copyright 2011 by Robyn Young. Reprinted with permission by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.