Nablus, July 7-12, 1187
Word of the disaster at Hattin seeped out across the Kingdom on the tongues of deserters and the smoke of burning villages. The former spoke of the mad decision to abandon the springs of Sephorie and clad themselves in the robes of prophets, claiming to be the only clear-sighted men in an army seized with collective blindness. The latter spoke only the irrefutable language of ominous and approaching danger.
Maria Zoë was not prepared to believe the word of deserters. Men who fled before a battle were neither men of good character nor the most knowledgeable about a battle’s outcome. Many an apparently lost battle had been won in the end. One had only to remember Montgisard.
Sir Constantine agreed in principle, but he was uneasy nevertheless. There was ample evidence from victualers and whores that the army had left Sephorie and marched toward Tiberias—and then it simply disappeared. That was impossible in high summer in the middle of Palestine. He decided to send riders to Nazareth and Tiberias to try to get more information.
Meanwhile refugees began streaming through Nablus, heading south. At first it was just a trickle, but the numbers increased steadily. Most of those passing through with carts crammed high with household goods and loaded pack animals could report only rumors. No one had actually seen anything, but they had heard that the Christian army had been annihilated. They had heard the King and the True Cross were captured. They had heard that Tiberias had fallen and Acre was under siege. The more people Sir Constantine questioned, the worse the stories became.
Maria Zoë still refused to believe the rumors. “These people have panicked,” she insisted. But Sir Constantine started to make preparations for their own withdrawal to someplace defensible.
It was three days after the scouts had been sent out that one returned in a state of nervous agitation. He galloped into the city on a near-foundered horse. He was unkempt, dirty, and wild-eyed. “They’ve slaughtered the whole army! There’s nothing left of it at all! Tens of thousands of corpses are rotting unshriven on the Horns of Hattin—feeding the vultures and the wild dogs!”
“Pull yourself together!” Sir Constantine ordered the youth of barely sixteen.
“I’m not exaggerating!” his young messenger shouted back, too agitated to respect authority. “I saw the vultures in the sky—more of them than you can imagine! They were like a swarm of gnats! And you could hear them screaming at one another!”
“Did you verify it was Christian and not Muslim dead?” Sir Constantine asked.
“You’re not listening to me!” the panicked young man shouted. “There is no Christian army! If anyone survived the slaughter, they have been taken away in chains—slaves! There are nothing but Christian corpses from Sephorie to Hattin!”
Sir Constantine dutifully reported this account (in more sober terms) to the Dowager Queen—but it was not until the other scouts returned the next day, reporting that Acre too had fallen, that he put his foot down and insisted that Maria Zoë withdraw to Jerusalem. “Nablus has no walls, my lady, and with the men we have, we cannot hold the citadel for long. Besides, without an army to relieve us, what would be the point?”
Maria Zoë gazed at him without answering. She was not blind or simple-minded. She had refused to accept that the rumors were correct, but that is not the same thing as dismissing them. She had spent every minute, when she was not actively engaged in doing something else, imagining and weighing the consequences. The very fact that there were no counter-rumors and no confusion, and the fact that Balian had not sent her any kind of message whatsoever, strongly suggested that the Christian defeat had indeed been devastating—and that Balian was dead or captured. Every time she thought of her husband, she said a prayer for his life. Yet even as she prayed, she recognized that survival alone might seem a poor substitute for heaven if he had lost a limb, been blinded, or otherwise crippled. So she prayed again, begging that he be of sound mind and body, and then forced herself to think beyond his condition to her children, her household, her people. She was not, therefore, unprepared for Sir Constantine’s announcement. She answered him: “My children are at Ibelin. We will go there.”
Sir Constantine cursed himself. He should have anticipated this reaction. “My lady,” he spoke as forcefully as he could. “The information we have suggests that there is absolutely no Christian force capable of deterring but less preventing Saracen actions. Salah ad-Din’s forces can move about the Kingdom at will—and that’s exactly what they’re doing. The only—I repeat, the only—defenses we have are the walls of our cities and castles.”
“Is not defensible with the garrison it has, and Master Shoreham knows that! Shoreham will do what we—and most of the burghers of the Kingdom—are doing: he will take your children to a more defensible place, either Jaffa or Ascalon.”
“Then we will join him at Ibelin and fall back to Jaffa with him,” Maria Zoë answered.
“My lady.” Sir Constantine paused, considered a more flowery, more diplomatic, more Greek response, and then opted for the brutal reality: “No.”
Maria Zoë started. She was not used to being contradicted by a subordinate.
Before she could reprimand him, Sir Constantine continued, “I cannot and will not risk the trip to Ibelin. We have far too little intelligence about where the Saracens are, but sufficient information to know that Salah ad-Din has more than enough troops to be able to divide his forces. If Acre has indeed fallen, as the rumors suggest, he has already cut the Kingdom in two, and he will then probably try to re-establish his lines of communication with Egypt. He is most likely to move south along the coast. It would be madness to run into his arms. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is unlikely to be threatened immediately, and it is by far our most defensible inland city. The brothers and sisters of the Hospital have already departed, taking the sick, destitute, and children with them to the safety of Jerusalem. If Christ has not completely abandoned us, it is the city we are most likely to hold—until relief comes from the West, if need be. I will escort you to Jerusalem—and nowhere else.”
They stared at one another. Maria Zoë very much wanted to say, “Then I will go without your escort,” but she didn’t dare. The truth was, she was afraid to ride across a kingdom in which there was no longer anyone to enforce order. She was afraid to ride straight into a Saracen patrol—or a pack of deserters—without an armed escort. A woman alone or with only a handful of servants would be prey for common thieves and brigands no less than for enemy. Instead, she appealed to Sir Constantine’s conscience. “And my children? Do you expect a mother to abandon her children?”
“No, I trust Master Shoreham to see to their safety as best he can—just as your lord husband did when he left his children in Master Shoreham’s care.”
“Sir!” Maria Zoë was starting to lose her temper. “My husband is in all probability dead. My son John is therefore Lord of Ibelin, Ramla, and Mirabel! He and his younger brother and sisters cannot simply be abandoned to the care of a sergeant—no matter how loyal or courageous! Either I go to my children, or they must be brought to me!”
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