We will storm the city before nightfall.’
I am too weary to laugh. I’ve been staring at those impregnable walls for five months, freezing through the cold winter nights, my stomach aching with hunger, watching my men die a slow painful death.
The Romans knew what they were doing when they built Antioch.
Every day, I’ve marvelled at the sheer scale of its defences. A fortress that would defy the largest of armies, where the walls were too high to climb and where the natural world mingled with man’s ingenuity to repel any attack from the sharpest and fittest of men. When the sun comes up, I’ve huddled up close to the dying embers of the fire and studied every inch of the walls snaking along the Orontes River and climbing towards the mountains of Staurin and Silpius. I’ve counted every one of the sixty towers and wondered what chance we had to win this siege. It is two years since I arrived in Calais from England before beginning my journey to the Holy Land. Two long years of fighting, not just the forces of Islam but also pestilence, disease and starvation. We are a rag bag army, severely depleted but driven on by the belief that God was on our side. But what if God supported the Arabs and not us. What if God decided that we were strangers in a foreign land? What if God decreed that we should be slaughtered?
After all, we worship the same God.
The man who is talking to me and my fellow knights is Raymond of Toulouse. However cynical I am, he deserves to be heard. In January, those of us who were left had resorted to eating dogs and rats to survive another day, but this man gave us hope. When British ships arrived in Latakia and St Simeon, he took some men to the ports to unload the much-needed provisions. They fought off bloody attacks and ensured the materials we needed to carry on with the siege were delivered to our camp. Our morale has been raised but I remain sceptical about how we will penetrate these formidable walls.
‘A traitor has been caught and killed,’ said Raymond.
The sound of shocked voices ripple through the crowd of assembled knights.
‘By whom? I was not aware we had a traitor.’ I said.
Raymond hesitated. ‘None of us here was aware. Our knights did not catch the traitor. He was killed before I had a chance to interrogate him. For this reason, I don’t trust the source of the information we’ve received.’
‘If you don’t trust the source, then why are we discussing it?’ I replied, irritated that he thought we could attack with unverified intelligence.
‘He’s not a Frank, not one of us, which is why I’m nervous. It was Bohemond of Taranto who advised me of the traitor’s death,’ said Raymond, pacing the line, shifting his eyes away from my intense gaze. ‘The excuse was the anger of the mob who craved revenge for the traitor’s treachery. There should have been more discipline but, as I have said, these men are not Franks.’
Raymond didn’t like acknowledging his rival, an Italian of all people, who had come up with a plan superior to his own.
‘We must accept the words of Bohemond whether we like them or not.’ Raymond continues to speak with remarkable authority, such that the knights listen, hanging on every word he utters. ‘A traitor was feeding information back to our enemies and if we don’t act soon, our chances of winning will be diminished.’ He pauses for effect and looks at the tired soldiers in front of him. ‘God is calling us into battle and if we don’t answer his call we will be slaughtered.’ Raymond speaks with the eloquence of a leader and I like his readiness to lead. It is the mission I no longer have the stomach for.
‘We cannot rely on the disunity of our enemies.’ Raymond continues. ‘The traitor has been instrumental in providing the Sultan of Baghdad with cause to send an army to defeat us. A Sunni army is on its way. The traitor has alerted our enemies that we cannot sit out this siege indefinitely. If we don’t attack now, we will be easily beaten when the army arrives.’
The hours of the day pass slowly. I wonder whether the traitor is genuine or are we walking with our heads held high straight into a trap? In truth, we would attack whatever the outcome. I’m prepared to die. It might even be a blessed relief. My father, Peter de Valognes would be proud that his son Robert had died a hero.
The sun is falling in the sky when we approach the city’s south eastern ramparts. It is a quieter section of the walls which are not well defended. Why did we not see this weak point before? It may be a trap, but our options are limited. We must try or we will be all dead when the Sultan’s army arrives. I watch as a small band of Behomond’s men peel off with ladders and begin scaling the walls. But where is their leader? Not leading from the front, that much is certain. If he can send his men to their deaths and protect his own life, then I fear the worst possible outcome.
I need not have worried. The small postern gate near us opens. Men spill into the city. Bugles sounding and chants fill the air.
‘God wills it…God wills it.’ A marauding cry of my fellow crusaders which I no longer believe to be true.
What does God will?
What I see when entering the city is too horrific to describe. The city streets are flowing with blood and no one is spared. Women, children, the old and infirm are being hacked to death in vast numbers. There is little resistance. I try to avoid this indiscriminate murder and take my leave down a small side street. A mistake.
A man is charging towards me screaming. ‘Allahu Akbar.’
His sabre swings above his head, ready to bring it down on my skull. I stand my ground parrying the flashing blade with my shield. In one clean movement, I run the man through with my sword, piercing his heart. As I pull the blade from the man’s chest, I instinctively slit his throat, giving him no chance of survival. As the man falls, I hear another scream, this time from a woman.
It would have been easy to kill her, but I cannot slay a helpless woman in cold blood. She kneels, ignoring me, spreading her hands over the dead man who must be her husband. There is no time for guilt. There are more voices rushing towards us. “God is great. God is great,’ they scream in unison, the same words cried by my attacker in Arabic, a mob lusting for blood and justifying their actions because they think God approves. If they see this woman weeping over the corpse of an Arab, they will kill her and probably me too for trying to protect her life. We must escape. With only seconds to spare, I lift the woman off the ground. She screams in protest, but I know I must save her.
‘Come’ I say in the broken Arabic I’ve learnt on our travels. ‘I will not hurt you.’ I shout.
‘My children,’ she wails, waving her hands wildly.
There are two boys hiding under an arch, no more than seven or eight years old. ‘Come.’ I bellow again to the boys and their mother is also beckoning them to follow. The city is a maze of alleys, deliberately designed to confuse the invader. My instinct is to take those streets which are too narrow to pull a cart which lead downwards, knowing that they’ll lead to the walls. The noise from the crowd seems to be fainter but for how long? The Arab woman is calmer, so I put her down and trust her to follow me. Her boys stick close, showing no signs of fear.
We arrive in a small square with a Christian church dominating the space. I can see that the slaughter has reached here and moved on, leaving rivers of blood in its wake. The woman is hysterical, weeping at the carnage before her. She covers the boys’ eyes with her hands, but it is already too late. There are at least twenty bodies lying in the square, some are decapitated, and the heads sit on marble plinths for all to see. A red stream trickles down the church steps. None of the dead are Arabs; they must be Greek Christians. They are killing their own because they lived in peace with the Muslims. I look up to the sky in despair and see the moon rising behind the buildings to the right of the church and remember that this must be south east, where the smaller undefended postern gate can be found. I put my arms round the shoulders of the woman, in a hopeless attempt to console her. I point in the direction of the moon, trying to express the urgency of our predicament. ‘We must go,’ I say with a firm but gentle voice and move quickly away.
At the edge of the square, I notice one of the bodies is a priest lying facing the heavens. As we pass, I hear him groan. I turn and look down, gesturing to the woman and children to keep moving. The holy man is clutching an icon in one hand and a book in the other. The wooden cross round his neck is soaked in blood from a deep slash to his belly. Kneeling, I realise that he will not live more than a few moments but at least I can give him some comfort in death. He is muttering what little sounds he can muster which I cannot understand. His hands lift towards me, while he stills holds the icon and the book, and he calls out again. This is the last thing he says. His eyes close and his hands fall to his side, blood trickling from his lips, the book and icon spilling onto the floor. A vermillion pool is forming around the priest and I see it spreading towards the book which I now see is a Holy Book judging by the cross embossed on its cover made of animal hide. I pick it up for no other reason than wanting to save it from damage and follow the woman and her children.
We find the smallest gate and as I hoped it is no longer manned. In a second, we are out of the city and heading towards the river. There are few people about as all the able-bodied men are killing within the city walls. There is a cave that I know down by the river which I believe will protect the woman and her children until I can bring them food. There seems a strange acceptance on the woman’s face. She knows I killed her husband but now she has only one concern to protect the lives of her sons. She recognises that I’m the only one able to help her and she seems to acknowledge what I have done so far. I hold her hands and say sorry. Her eyes are the colour of lapis lazuli; they appear to reflect what little light seeps into the cave. A smile flickers across her lips, a recognition perhaps that I killed her husband in self-defence. The oldest of the two boys looks up to me and clutches my hand. I’m still holding the icon and the bible in my other hand. I bend down to his level and stare into his eyes. I ask his name. My Arabic will not stretch to anything else. The woman hears my words and speaks.
‘Masood… His name is Masood.’
‘And what is your name?’ I ask.
I hand Akila the icon, placing the bible inside my tunic. ‘I’ll bring food.’
She nods her approval. I step out into the sunshine and return to the city.