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Women’s March on Versailles

‘Cécile, Cécile!’ Victoire’s voice sounded more like a whisper instead of a shout. The roars of the women who had gathered on the market place reigned over the usual tones that governed Paris. Vendors muttered into each other’s ears rather than yelling the latest prices of cabbages and onions. The clicking of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles was buried underneath the clanging bells of the nearby Sainte-Marguerite church.

‘Cécile!’ Victoire shouted again while the woman next to her yelled that they must march to the city hall before going to Versailles. The king would listen if they had weapons.

Victoire tried to remember when she had last felt her sister’s soft hand holding her own dry, cracked skin. The child had been standing next to her when she had accused the baker’s wife of hoarding grain to drive up the prices. Twelve sous! For bread that was blackened, hard enough to hammer every nail back into the crumbled walls of the Bastille. Then Cécile had been playing with a worn-out doll on the pavement while Victoire manoeuvred underneath the red parasols of a café, gulping down someone else’s wine. She could still taste the watered-down flavour of red grapes and cherries on the tip of her tongue. Victoire remembered going back to the baker’s shop, Cécile holding Victoire’s hand, hiding behind a group of outraged water-carriers, waiting until the baker’s wife would make a mistake. Cécile had wanted to say something, but Victoire had shushed her, and when the well-fed woman was about to blunder, Cécile was gone.

‘Have you seen a girl?’ Victoire asked a thin woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. ‘She’s nine, grey skirt, ginger-brown hair, missing all her front teeth except one.’ The woman shook her head.

The newly formed national guard whistled and clapped when the market women began their march towards the Place de Grève. Vendors started to load their wares into wagons.

Victoire looked inside an abandoned carriage, behind a heap of empty barrels, underneath a market stall, and behind piled up cages holding chickens captive. She even had the courage to step over a dead cat and peer into a small alleyway.

Victoire placed her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath. She had wanted to leave her sister at home, but she had not forgotten yesterday, and neither had Cécile. Glass shattering on the ground, a faint fragrance of jasmine filling the room, the only bottle of perfume Victoire had ever owned. Wasted. Broken. She had slammed her fists on the wobbly kitchen table, pulled at her sister’s hair and locked her out of the mice-infested chambers Victoire rented in a five-storey building. Victoire had yelled at her sister, telling her that she was a plague, while Cécile sobbed in the hallway. This morning when Cécile had asked to come, she had wanted to say no, but couldn’t.

Victoire ran to the other side of the square. Tripping over a raised cobblestone, she fell into a stream that flowed into the marketplace from under the gates of the butcher’s inner courtyard, its red colour gluing itself to her plain blue dress.

‘I can scrub that off for you, only two sous.’

Victoire shuddered. She recognised that croaky voice. She was skilled in avoiding the bony figure and grey sunken eyes that accompanied it. Victoire and Cécile called her Mme Macabre, Cécile being convinced that she must be at least two hundred years old and had crawled out of one of Paris’s overcrowded graveyards. Mme Macabre lived in the same building. She always sat in a chair, blocking the doorway with a woven laundry basket resting in her lap. The same one she was carrying now.

‘I’ve lost my sister, have you seen her?’

‘Escaped, has she? I would have run away sooner.’

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

‘If my sister fell into the Seine, and drowned, or was hit by a carriage, or trampled upon by the mob, or I don’t know what, it’s your fault.’

Mais non, she was eating cheese and went that way.’

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

‘Very well.’ Mme Macabre walked away and sat down on a taboret. Victoire sighed. She gave Mme Macabre her arm without looking at her, while the laundry basket was pushed into Victoire’s other arm.

Mme Macabre led Victoire to the Place de Bastille, her sour-smelling hair blowing into Victoire’s face every time there was a gust of wind. Her long nails piercing through Victoire’s cotton sleeves.

Victoire felt as angry as the men who had fired at the fortress some weeks ago. She remembered the smoke, the heat, the sound of cannon balls flattening the walls. She had heard every command Stanislas Maillard had been yelling at his fellow citizens. She had seen his every movement, his nonchalant way of loading his musket, throwing his liberty cap into the air when the Bastille was taken and the tired scowl on his face when only seven prisoners could be found within its damp walls. She had wanted to embrace him, kiss him, tell him that he was a hero. Instead she had gone home, answering her sister’s silly questions while Victoire chased a mouse with a broom.

Mme Macabre pointed to the Rue St Antoine. The usual stench of fishbones and rotting lettuce mingled with sewage made Victoire wish she had no sense of smell at all. This street went to the Place de Grève. Cécile must have followed the market women to the city hall.

‘You can manage on your own,’ Victoire said as she put the laundry basket on the ground and walked away as quickly as she could. She had already passed the now barricaded drapery shop when she heard that croaky voice call her back.

‘I’m acquainted with those aristocrats you play housemaid for. And you’re a little thief, aren’t you? Stealing rouge from Mademoiselle’s boudoir to hide those filthy smallpox marks on your face.’

Victoire clenched her fists. Five years had passed, she still went to the Notre-Dame every day to light a candle for her parents. She stamped her foot on the ground and returned. Mme Macabre flinched when Victoire grabbed her arm.

‘You’re French. Not a savage,’ Mme Macabre said while she stroked her arm as if Victoire had inflicted her with a mortal wound.

‘I don’t like spies.’

‘I’m not a spy. You’re just not very good at keeping secrets.’

Mme Macabre looked behind her after every five steps, scrutinising every alleyway as if she expected masked men to rob her at any moment.

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

Victoire untied her stained shawl and wrapped it around Mme Macabre’s shoulders.

‘Look, there’s a bench, wouldn’t you like to wait, while I get my sister?’

‘I lost my husband sixteen years ago, never found him.’

‘Oh, is that why you always sit in the doorway? Waiting for your valiant musketeer to return? Better hope he brings something to eat.’

‘Here, have this.’ Mme Macabre gave Victoire a small slice of bread. Splitting the bread in two, Victoire put one half in her pouch, the other in her mouth. She almost choked when she swallowed the thick crust. She felt as if she had forgotten how to chew, forgotten that bread was supposed to be soft, tasting of salt and butter, not leathery or dry.

Something shiny sticking out of Mme Macabre’s laundry basket caught Victoire’s attention. She took it out.

‘Some deranged plan to kill Madame Deficit?’ Victoire asked holding a large breadknife in her hand.

Mais non. We’re not English, we don’t kill queens.’

‘I would be honoured to take you to the asylum at Charenton, I’m sure they’ve got clean water, and nice soft sheets.’

Non, It’s for him.’

‘Your husband? Poor you! Whatever did he do?’

‘He exists.’

Victoire put the breadknife back into the basket while Mme Macabre covered it up with a foul-smelling petticoat that had been half-eaten by moths.

Mme Macabre told Victoire all about her arranged marriage, how her husband used to gobble when he ate, how he used to snort and puff in his sleep, how he used to strangle all of the air out of the room, and how she lost him at a market stall selling apples. Apples! Something else Victoire didn’t remember the taste of.

‘I wouldn’t worry about him ever coming back,’ Victoire said as their footsteps echoed in the empty archway of a church. She tried to quicken her pace when the cheers and drums of the crowd came closer, but every time she did so Mme Macabre fastened her nails even deeper into Victoire’s flesh.

The crowd on the Place de Grève was larger than Victoire had expected. A group of women were hauling a cannon out of the city hall, while others ran around with muskets and sabres. She told Mme Macabre to wait next to some bourgeoisie-dressed ladies who were debating what should be done with the quartermaster who had tried to stop them from taking gunpowder.

‘I will not be left alone,’ Mme Macabre tried to grab Victoire’s sleeve but Victoire was too fast. Seeing her sister nowhere on the square, she ran into the city hall. The many wooden clogs stomping on the floor made the candles hanging in webs of colourless crystal tremble. A statue had fallen on the ground; its head had rolled into an open broom cupboard.

She had to squirm her way into the next room where a strong smell of burning paper made her take out her handkerchief and cover her nose and mouth. No Cécile. She went upstairs. A group of women were running down, pushing Victoire against the bannister while throwing papers into the air and ripping them to shreds.

Victoire pulled at her bodice to get some air. White dots were dancing before her eyes, obscuring the heaven scene depicted on the painting opposite her. She sat down on the marble steps, wanting to cry out when someone stepped on her hand, leaving a red boot print on her pale skin, but no sound would leave her lips. She was aware of cloudy voices muttering in the distance, of being lifted, of feeling too hot, of feeling too cold, of having something forced down her throat, of drizzle falling softly on her cheeks.

The dots ceased dancing. She was leaning against the rugged bricks of the city hall. Something with a bitter, yeasty taste was stuck between her front teeth, she moved her tongue to remove it. A small hand was holding hers.

‘You looked like a ghost, and a man carried you outside, and I gave him my cheese, and he gave it to you, and he said you would get better, and you are better now, aren’t you?’

Cécile’s eyes were red and swollen. Victoire pulled her closer. Holding her as tight as she could, she kissed her on the forehead, only letting go when Cécile started to wriggle.

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

‘I did not. I was waiting for you, like she said I should, and I did, and you didn’t come.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

Cécile stared at the ground, rubbing the hem of Victoire’s dress between her palms.

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

‘We’re going home.’ Victoire swayed when she stood up. She saw Mme Macabre’s bony figure speaking to a group of women. They laughed, shook their heads and walked away. Mme Macabre tried to grab someone’s sleeve and was rewarded with a raised fist, after which, she attempted to climb on one of the carts, changing her mind when the owner’s black dog bared its teeth.

Victoire sighed. She tried to figure out if she should pity or despise Mme Macabre. She gave Cécile the piece of bread she had saved earlier, while the crowd shouted, ‘to Versailles,’ and raised their pitchforks and pikes into the air.

The crowd started to leave the square in a long procession just when large raindrops began to fill the grooves between the cobblestones. They looked just as disciplined as the king’s royal army.

Victoire descended the steps of the city hall. Attentively listening to the sound of Cécile’s clogs clacking behind her, she tapped Mme Macabre on the shoulder.

‘Don’t you ever leave me alone again,’ Mme Macabre said.

‘Who do you think I am? Your wet nurse?’

Mais non. No harm done, but we must not dally. We must follow. Quickly.’

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

‘Versailles is farther away than the next street corner, you know that, don’t you?’

Bien sûr, and I know where the royals store their bread.’

‘By the time you are there, there won’t be anything left to ransack.’

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

‘Please,’ Cécile said while she was licking bread crumbs from her fingers, ‘I want to go too.’

‘No, you don’t,’ Victoire dragged Cécile away from Mme Macabre, ignoring the old woman’s threats about those aristocrats she worked for, and the stealing and the rouge.

‘That’s him! He gave you my cheese,’ Cécile pointed to a man with an untrimmed beard, his hair partly hidden away underneath a hat, the red-white-blue cockade of the revolution pinned on his dark brown coat. Maillard.

Victoire moved closer. This time she would have the courage to speak to him, thank him, perhaps even kiss him on the cheeks. She stopped when she overheard him complaining to another revolutionist about this miserable army that he was forced to lead. Victoire had to suppress the urge to slap him. Whispering instructions into Cécile’s ear, she gave her sister the last four sous she had. Cécile disappeared.

The raindrops had changed into a rainstorm. Victoire smiled. Only last week she remembered running inside a shoemaker’s shop, pretending to buy something until they chased her out. Now she wiped the rouge she had so carefully applied this morning from her cheeks. It didn’t matter anymore.

Cécile came back with a cart, pulled by two women. Victoire went to Mme Macabre who was watching the marchers leaving the square.

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

Mme Macabre revealed her yellowish-brown teeth, thanking Victoire three times while she loaded her laundry basket on the wagon. Victoire seized Mme Macabre’s wrist. She had wanted to pinch her, but the widening of Mme Macabre’s grey eyes and her trembling body deterred Victoire from doing so.

‘Use my sister against me again, and I’ll find a use for that breadknife of yours,’ Victoire whispered in Mme Macabre’s ear.

‘You wouldn’t have come if I had asked,’ Mme Macabre said in a weak voice.

‘You don’t know that,’ Victoire paused. No, if Mme Macabre had knocked on her door this morning she wouldn’t have opened it, but now she wasn’t so sure, ‘you’ve succeeded in making me feel responsible for you.’

Victoire helped Mme Macabre climb into the cart. Cécile crawled beside Mme Macabre who took the child’s hand and lay it in her lap.

‘I was a cook at Versailles once,’ Mme Macabre said, ‘no need to let those wretched children starve, I thought, the king didn’t think so. I slept in the dungeons for giving his surpluses away.’

‘Men may have stormed the Bastille,’ Victoire said, ‘women will do more than storming Versailles, we’ll eat the king’s bread and take him back to Paris, where he belongs.’

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

Signe Maene is from Belgium where she lives in Ghent. She studies English literature at the Open University UK. Her first language is Flemish.

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The Triumph

By  Nickolas Urpí 

 “Memento mori…”

Whispers slave whispers throngs bells jangling like the inconsistent shouts of the masses of people shouting “io triumphe io triumphe” purple purple purple burning of torches choking on smoke flooding nostrils incendiary

I had consented to let the soldiers burn the huts as they looted the thatched homes in the city as was customary of the time everyone always burns as is their right the right of the conquered is it not so?

“Of course it is so” I had said to myself with the slopping of boots across the muddied ground the same shouting bursting in my ears “There is no other way”

“Imperator! Imperator!” Calvinus the procession like a long snake winding its way up through the Forum heading directly to the Capitoline choking the streets the throngs of people shouting shouts shouts shouts repeat repeat repeat the hard cobblestones swallowing the noise the soldiers red glimmering bronze beaming like ten thousand suns painful to the eyes “To the Gauls came the torch, from the steps of his porch, the enemy was sprawled, by our general who’s bald!” reach for the top of my head, feel the empty spaces and the laurel wreath crinkling beneath my hot fingers in the sun the golden cloak at my feet and the studded sandals the laurel wreath adorning the son of Jupiter the red paint of Mars clinging to my face the red clay the statues of the heroes lining the procession, gilded and adorned with luscious paints brilliant colors dancing in the sun’s cascading lights—

“Memento mori…”

The statues in the golden beaming of the sun—

“Your father triumphed twice in his lifetime,” they had said. “Your grandfather fought alongside Quintus Fabius Maximus in repelling Hannibal. He died in Zama. Of course you will go to war and defeat numerous enemies,” they had said this, encircling me in the atrium of my own house, my bulla my childhood medallion that had felt so light I had never truly felt it feeling so weighty as it was removed from me the wax faces of my ancestors peering out at me from around the room “Of course you will”

“Must I?” I had said. “Will I?”

The light from atop the Capitoline the sun’s fingers clinging to the Temple of Jupiter the greatest and best the greatest and best the shouts from the adoring crowd having earned their approbation and love and respect the way the ancestors had always done it the way of the ancestors the way of our fathers lining the streets watching the procession from atop their marble columns the fingers of their ambition poking the clouds Clavinus finding his name etched in stone across the way from his father my father the great Clavinus who took eight hundred prisoners had slain fifty thousand in battle brought back three million sesterces to the public coffers the great Calvinus who weareth the laurels of Jupiter atop his four horse chariot white as the day and pure as the light

“Memento mori…”

Fifty thousand slain the prisoners bound by hemp to the carriage which pulls them thus to their imminent death or saledeath their eyes shadow cast and downfallen beneath the banners “Here are the captured prisoners of war from Britain” prisoners of war war war war

They had lost. Our glinting steel dulled and bloodied—dried up in the hot sun and cold wind the panoramic vista of a fresh lake with the reeking of severed limbs and drowning corpses in the evening glare. The golden sunset had faded into the crimson settling of the glare lingering beyond the horizon’s threshold.

“The town lies just beyond the ridge. They would have evacuated by now. Shall I give the order to burn the houses?” he repeated to me. It seemed as though my tongue had been pinned to the roof of my mouth the way the spear had been driven into that man’s head and split his skull.

“That is what is always done,” I had replied to him. The smoke from the burning huts beyond that thin invisible veil that separates what is seen from what is unseen.

The smoke rose up and filled my nostrils again the procession winding its way around the city like the curdling of milk the prisoners watching their precious metals piled atop each other like their comrades’ burnt corpses the savoring taste of defeat’s bitter dust lingering on their tongues are they not men too? The reds and the purples washing the sea of crowds shouting and shouting How could I not have said “That is what is always done” for it was always done it was the way of the ancestors

the ancestors’ watched atop the corpses of wasted quinqueremes and

the cheering and the shouting

Shouting “Calvinus!” my name the men marching onwards with their glimmering helmets the colossal monoliths of the ancestors peering down and gravely sending their approbation between the dying light of day and the ascension of the Capitoline rising before the heads of the four horses the smell of cypress trees congratula—

“Memento mori…”

the cypress boughs

“Your father would be proud if he could see you today,” they said as the dirt began to pile atop him beneath the marble slab which listed his achievements which I did not care to read as I had memorized them long ago against the death written on his face when he became a wax mask to hang next to grandfather. “You will of course be consul and follow in his footsteps and slay many foes.”

“Must I?” I had said.

“Of course you must,” they had replied in unison.

I must have then no choice in the matter it was expected it was the way of the ancestors then the smoke ripping and tearing the water from the ducts in my eyes running down the cheek and mingling with the redness of my painted faces Mars’ and mine faces the shouting and cheering mixed with the cries of anguish and death and the smell of burning burning burning

“Is that not what the old generals had done?” he had asked, his armor spattered with the boiling blood of a Gaul.

“Then I must,” I had said. Though perhaps I could—

No perhaps only way the ancestors had done the cheering throngs of crowd singing as the ancestors fell behind in the procession but continued to glare casting their shadow over the crowd and I musn’t the son of Jupiter the face of Mars the mighty conqueror of the barbaric west laid waste the enemies of the people of Rome Calvinus the magnif—

“Memento mori…”

I must I must I must the way of the ancestors there is no shame no shame no shame no shame the lingering redness of Mars across the battlefield night is falling hold onto the horses tighter the reins the army marching in red the crimson son the rock falling upwards cannot go upwards can it? No it cannot

“A wise man once said the rock can never be trained to move upwards, no matter how many times it has been thrown,” they had said to me when I still had my bulla.

“Why not?” I had asked.

“That is simply the way it is done,” they had said to me.

“But what if it wants to go up?” I had asked them.

“It does not matter what it wants—it cannot choose when everything tells it to fall down,” they had said to me. “Besides… a rock cannot want.”

“Let them have their pillage. I cannot stop them. I must let them do what is… as expected,” I said to him whilst my knees soaked in the freshly strewn lake lingering in the dying sun with fifty thousand lives extinguished before the second began to be counted.

“A marvelous victory.”

A marvelous victory resounding with the name Calvinus and the thoughts of shimmering gold armor adorning the triumphal column with his immortal visage atop it—

“Memento mori…”

The sheep was led up to the altars the knife in my hand gleaming like the sword of Mars hanging above us all perhaps there is no expectation

But their faces are looking at me, looking at me with the grave approval of the ancestors to place this knife into the neck of this beast perhaps there is a—but no—there is only the way of the ancestors I must I could not have

I could not have the blood is dripping on my hands

“There are fifty thousand dead and eight hundred prisoners still alive mostly women and children.” The camp sat upon the hill looking over the field, the rancid and pungent grotesqueness of death sifting through the night breezes.

“The men forgot to place a barricade around the camp,” I had said.

“But there are no more enem—… yes, imperator I will see to it that it is done,” he had said. “The town was burned to the ground, as you wanted, imperator.”

“As I wanted?” I had said. “But, of course, that is always done. I could not more avoid it than a lion change his roar.”

The night was drifting away again, the moonlight pale and condescending

Of course there was no alternative the choice was not mine the choice was not mine to make not mine no choice the way of the ancestors compel compel push push force force like a blacksmith’s hammer to anvil the rock must fall the rock must fall yes it always falls

“Memento mori…”

men are not rocks

______________________________________________________________

Nickolas Urpí is the author of the literary war fantasy novel The Legend of Borach and has been published in HCE Review literary journal, Soft Cartel magazine, Ripples in Space magazine, and The Fall Line magazine. His writings fuse his studies of ancient history, literature, and philosophy with his crafted prose to immerse the reader in the world of his fiction through vivid settings and characters. An alumnus of the University of Virginia, he resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Mont Gisard

By David Hourani

Southern Palestine, 1177

Sweat and dust caked the young man’s hair and cropped beard as he rode the road north from Ascalon.

Youssef ibn Bakhus was the son of the Muqaddam of Ehden, the Maronite lord of the town. His father was a vassal of the Count of Tripoli, and as such, was a rear-vassal to the king of Jerusalem.

When the crusaders came to the Levant, they were surprised to find thriving Christian settlements in the mountains of Lebanon. The Maronites saw the benefit in having much needed allies in their fellow Christians from Europe, and homage was a small price to pay for security. The Crusaders recognized the asset having indigenous guides and translators would be.

Youssef and his men were trained with the bow, lance, and sword from a young age. Unlike the Franks, they fought in light armor, composed of quilted silk and hardened leather, with interlinked mail across the chest and torso. The horses they rode were slightly smaller, but were faster and had more stamina than the large European destriers their counterparts rode.

He had known the king since they were children. When offered the chance to join the king’s household two years prior, he had taken it, bringing with him thirty men from Ehden and the surrounding villages, but leaving his younger brother behind. The transition had been difficult initially. He had been looked upon with some suspicion by several of the nobles at court upon his arrival; however, over time he had earned their grudging respect, and the friendship of several.

As he rode, his mind wandered to what had led to this point.

Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem, suffered from leprosy and, as such, could not produce any heirs and the most likely candidate to inherit the kingdom would be a child of his sister Sybilla, who was recently widowed and pregnant.

Philip of Alsace, the Count of Flanders, and one of the most powerful nobles in Europe had come to the Levant on Crusade. On his arrival, he had demanded that Sybilla marry one of his vassals. Baldwin had not outright refused this as he could not afford to anger such a powerful lord. Instead, he simply did not answer and sought to form an alliance with the Greek Empire in Constantinople with the goal of striking at Egypt, hoping to threaten the base of the power and wealth of Salah al-Din, the Sultan of Syria and Egypt. When Salah al-Din learned of this, he began strengthening the defenses of Egypt and calling his levies.

Philip of Alsace had other plans. He did not want to share the wealth or crown of Egypt with the Greeks. He decided instead to move to attack northern Syria with several knights of the kingdom and the lords of Tripoli and Antioch.

With the Kingdom of Jerusalem weakened with many of its warriors in the north, Salah al-Din decided to invade from Egypt with the thirty thousand man army he had gathered for its defense. Baldwin had less than six thousand men with which to defend his kingdom.

The Frankish army had moved south to meet the Muslim threat, but as its numbers became known, they realized that a pitched battle would be futile and retreated inside the defenses of Ascalon, remaining there as Salah al-Din had moved north raiding Ramla and the surrounding villages.

Youssef now rode with three men, and they had seen no sign of Salah al-Din’s forces other than the occasional charred field or house. One of his men pointed in the distance at two riders approaching swiftly. He recognized two of his men he had sent forward with strict instructions to find Salah al-Din’s rear screen line and then return.

“Speak, Samir.”

“Lord, we came within sight of the rear-guard and baggage train.

“Were you seen,” Youssef questioned quickly.

“No, lord. There is no screen line.”

Quickly realizing the importance of this information he turned his steed back toward Ascalon. En route, he came upon more of his scouts with similar information, as well as others with information that the road south to Gaza  was clear of the Muslim army as well.

 * * * * *

When he arrived in the great hall in the Citadel of Ascalon, he found King Baldwin in quiet discussion with Joscelin of Edessa, his uncle, and Reynald de Chatillon, the lord of Transjordan and the newly appointed regent of the realm.

The lord of Transjordan looked more like a common soldier than one of the most powerful vassals of the kingdom, more comfortable in a camp than a great hall. A tall man with auburn colored hair and beard, and skin turned dark tan by years in the sun of Outremer, he had a scar ran down the under his right eye, giving him an almost sinister appearance. The younger son of a Burgundian nobleman, he had come to the Holy Land twenty years prior seeking his fortune during the Second Crusade. He found it,  becoming Prince of Antioch through marriage to the then heir, Constance of Antioch. He ruled the Principality for the next eight years and developed a reputation as a man of prowess, ruthlessness and brutality on the battlefield. Captured by Nur ad-Din in 1161, he was held in captivity for fifteen years during which his wife had died. His stepson, Bohemond had become Prince of Antioch during his imprisonment, and so upon his release, he was again landless. He traveled south to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and offered his services to the young king. King Baldwin consented to and arranged to his marriage of one of the great heiresses of the kingdom, Stephany of Milly, who was heir of the Transjordan. Reynald had returned the king’s favor with undivided loyalty.

Youssef made his obeisance before the king, but the king quickly motioned him to his feet, recognizing the urgency in his expression and step.

“Speak, Lord Youssef.”

“Salah al-Din has split his forces. His vanguard has burned Ramla and is marching on Lydda, while a portion of his army has been sent to burn the hill villages,” he paused for breath, before continuing. “He has left no screen of scouts between Ascalon and the army. The road to Gaza remains clear as well.”

All three men were quick to understand the implications of the report. The other lords in the hall turned their attention as Baldwin quickly stood to his feet, waving aside the assistance from his servants.

“Send a messenger to Gaza, instruct the Grand Master to meet us on the coastal road south of Ibelin. Call the men to arms, call out the city levies as well,” the king ordered.

“Sire, even with only part of his army, Salah al-Din will still have more than twice our numbers,” Joscelin of Edessa reminded him, “victory is in no ways assured.”

Although always one for action, the lord of Transjordan looked unsure as well, as did several of the other lords; however, the king had no doubts.

The king’s face, scarred from his leprosy, was resolute as he stared coldly at his uncle.

“I would rather face try the dubious chance of battle with the enemy than suffer my people be exposed to rape, fire and massacre, while I remain safe behind tall walls. The kingdom is my charge and I will safeguard it.”

Before the king’s uncle could argue further, Reynald de Chatillon shouted, “To arms!”

With that, the discussion was ended and the hall sprang to life. Youssef quickly gathered the rest of his men who had not been scouting with him. He saw the stepsons of the count of Tripoli, Hugh de St Omer and his brother William gathering their household knights. The summoners were riding through the streets calling the feudal levies that had gathered to arms.

Youssef was surprised by how quickly Reynald had been able to organize their forces. They numbered around five thousand men in total, with six hundred mounted knights. They left late in the afternoon and headed north along the coastal road toward Ibelin and Jaffa.

Youssef had to bridle his impatience, the speed of their march limited by their footsoldiers. Despite having their left flank covered by the sea, they were still incredibly vulnerable on the march.

It was not long before an alarmed scout road up reporting mounted men approaching the rear of the column. Most likely it was the Templars from Gaza, but Reynald dispatched Hugh de St. Omer and Balian d’Ibelin with their household knights to the rear just to be safe. Because time was of the essence, the march would not be halted.

It was not long before a messenger arrived at the head of the column reporting the arrival of the Templars, shortly followed by Odo, Hugh and Balian at the head of their knights.

The Grand Master had brought eighty knights. He joined Baldwin and Reynald at the head of the column. As they neared Azotus, a rider approached where Youssef and Hugh de St Omer were riding with their men in the column. As the rider drew closer, Youssef was surprised to see it was the lord of Transjordan.

“Lord Youssef, I want you to take your men and scout ahead east of Ibelin.”

“Yes, my lord,” he responded, spurring his Arab courser toward where his men rode in the column, he called them from the formation.

They quickly rode out along the coast before turning inland to pass east of Ibelin. They were all armed in a similar fashion to Youssef. A hardened leather vest interweaved with quilted silk and steel plates guarded their torsos. They all had quivers strapped across their backs. When they had rode out from the column, they had all strung their bows which were now secured to their saddles. They were all armed with either a sword or axe as well.

After an hour they could see Ibelin to the northwest. All around them they could see the devastation that Salah al-Din’s army had wreaked. The burned fields in the countryside surrounding Ibelin, with smoke rising in the distance from the village of Ramla itself. Night was beginning to fall and the distant campfires could be seen to the east.

They had yet to come across any significant Saracen force. It seemed as if the majority of Salah al-Din’s cavalry was north, raiding near Lydda and Arsuf.

* * * * *

When they reached the head of the Frankish column it was already dark. Youssef reported to Baldwin and Reynald what he had seen. He had left scouts out in the field and continued to get frequent reports as their host continued on through the night, driven by the will of their ailing king. Baldwin had acquiesced to riding in a litter, but only after much insistence by his seneschal and regent.

Their night was free of attack and by morning, their scouts reported they were within five miles of Salah al-Din’s camp. They had been heading inland for several hours, using the low lying hills to screen their movements as much as possible. The Bishop of Bethlehem had accompanied them with the True Cross. His face dripping with sweat even though the autumn air was cool and the sun was far less unforgiving.

One of Youssef’s men rode in out of breath about midmorning.

“Lord Youssef! Salah al-Din’s baggage train has become mired  in the mud. His rear-guard has not been able to keep contact with the main column!”

Without bothering to respond, Youssef spurred his mount to the head of the cavalry column motioning his man to follow him. Once to the king and Reynald, he motioned for his man to repeat his report. The effect was what Youssef had anticipated.

“Heavy cavalry to the center, have the infantry in the vanguard form the left wing, my lord seneschal, the command is yours,” the lord of Transjordan ordered, “my lords Baudouin and Balian,” he said, addressing the brothers Ibelin, “The command of the right wing is yours. Once the center charges, attempt to cut off their retreat south.”

The changes took place as they still moved forward. In the center a force of almost a thousand cavalry was the main thrust of the attack. The heavy Frankish knights in their full body mail, carrying heavy lances, and on their large steeds. Youssef and his men rode with the king.

They could see dust and smoke rising in the distance as they neared Ibelin and Tell Jazaar, or Montgisard, as the Franks called it. After rounding a turn, the Muslim baggage train came into view, mired in the mud of a wadi. The Frankish forces urged their horses to a high speed, leaving their foot soldiers behind. Salah al-Din’s rear guard realized too late their peril as they scrambled to form battle lines.

“Deus le volt!”

The battle cry of the kingdom rang out down the line of mailed warriors. The heavy cavalry charge crashed over the Muslim rear guard like waves against sand, killing hundreds in an instant. Horses on both sides broke their necks in the crash. Knights thrown from their mounts were quickly trampled; however, the majority of the Frankish cavalry continued on, as the Frankish infantry followed into the broken lines, killing what remained of the shocked Muslim troops.

Following the few fleeing survivors of the rear guard, they soon came into sight of part of Salah al-Din’s main body. Like the rear guard, however, the alarm was too late. As the Franks moved their horses to a hard gallop, Youssef glanced towards their center at the king who had insisted on riding into battle. Flanked by Reynald de Chatillon and his household knights, his illness seemed a thing of the past.

Looking back up, Youssef saw the yellow and green standard of Salah al Din, marking the Sultan’s presence in the field. The Frankish knights yelled their battle cry once more and pushed deep into the hastily assembled Muslim lines.

Youssef impaled a rider with his lance and unsheathed his sword. He pushed his horse towards another opponent, making quick work of him. He was in the vanguard, with the King, Reynald de Chatillon, Hugh de St Omer, and several other knights. Before he realized it, they had pushed to the center of the Muslim host, facing the elite Mamluk bodyguard of Salah al-Din.

The Mamluks were Eastern European, Slavic, and Turkish, soldiers, who had been taken from their families as young boys and sold as slaves into Muslim houses. Raised from a very young age in the art of war, they were the backbone of the Muslim army.

The fighting had slowed as the fleeing Muslims beginning to rally; however, the Franks knew that if the Sultan was to fall, the battle would be won. With this thought they threw themselves at Salah al-Din’s Mamluks.

Youssef found himself fighting a giant of a man, armed with a long curved sword called a shamshir and a shield. He pushed his mount towards the man and at the last moment threw himself at the giant. Both ended up on the ground, but only a moment before they were back on their feet. Youssef gave the man no time to regain his bearings and immediately charged, parrying a strike with his sword, before bringing his fist into contact with the man’s throat. The shock was enough for Youssef to drive home the killing strike.

The king’s men pushed forward, giving no quarter. Youssef parried a spear thrust, closing with the wielder and killing him a fluid motion. The ground became slippery with blood as the killing continued, but Youssef could feel the wave of battle pushing them forward.

Thirty paces away, Youssef saw one of Hugh de St Omer’s household knights lunge at the Sultan, whose horse reared, taking the blow in the neck. As the knight was killed instantly by one of the Mamluks, Salah al-Din deftly rolled off the falling horse.

Another adversary occupied Youssef for another moment, before he was quickly killed by the now surging Frankish forces.

Cheering caught his attention, and he looked in time to see Salah al-Din fleeing on camelback, only a handful of his bodyguards behind him. His colors, left behind, lay in the dirt surrounded by the Sultan’s dead Mamluks.

Reynald was urging on them on, and Youssef knew he was right. A commander as skilled as Salah al-Din could still rally his troops if given time. Remounted, they pushed on, but found no formed battle lines, only fleeing soldiers, leaving behind weapons, armor, and other spoils of war. Those that surrendered were taken prisoner, others were quickly dispatched. As they came to a halt, Reynald sent out lieutenants to continue the rout of the Muslim army, pushing them back towards Egypt.

Their losses had been heavy.They would find later they had suffered almost two thousand casualties, with over a thousand dead. The eight hundred wounded Franks were evacuated to the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem.

Despite this, their mood was euphoric, for their losses were nothing compared to the decimation they had dealt to Salah al-Din. The rout continued for the next ten days, as more of the Muslim soldiers were taken prisoner and killed. Salah al-Din evaded capture, eventually making it back to Egypt; however, only ten percent of his army had survived.

* * * * *

A great feast was held in Jerusalem, celebrating the victory and the king that had lead them. Youssef watched the revelries with pride in his king, whose determination and courage had done so much to bring them the victory; however, he could not help but feel a melancholy at the same time. It would only be a matter of time before the combination of the king’s failing health and the might of Salah al-Din’s empire would place them in jeopardy once again. He looked out on the laughing, smiling faces, wondering which would be missing in a year. He forced himself out of his mood. Worries for another time. Today, they would drink.

______________________________________________________________

Dr. David Hourani is a medical doctor and student of Middle Eastern and Crusader history.

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