“When the hell are we going to charge?” Sir Galvin echoed Nablus’ complaint, his ax ready in his hand. “Does the King of England think we can just wear them down without attacking? That’s not going to happen. There are too many of them. What the hell is the English King waiting for?”
“I haven’t a clue what the King of England thinks,” Ibelin admitted, removing his right hand from his soaked mitten to wipe the sweat away from his eyes. His face was caked with dust, as were the faces of all his companions. The sweat from his hair left little rivulets on his cheeks before disappearing in the sheet of perspiration on his neck beneath his chain mail. He reached down for his water skin, took a sip, and then gestured to Georgios to bring water for Centurion as well.
Georgios had just joined them and was leaning out of his saddle with the water bucket for Centurion when an arrow whizzed in and landed with a chink at the feet of Sir Galvin’s stallion. The veteran warhorse whinnied and snorted, and Ibelin looked quickly over his shoulder to where the arrow had come from. “Are they moving in closer?” he asked Sir Galvin in alarm.
The Scotsman nodded, muttering his usual obscenities about the sexual organs of their enemy. Ibelin saved his breath, but shouted to his men, “Close up! Shields up!”
As if that first arrow had been the start of a thundershower, a few more arrows pattered down, and then abruptly a storm of arrows rained on them. Ibelin felt one lodge itself in the armor on his left shoulder, while Centurion snorted and bucked in irritation as one pricked his left haunch before falling to the ground.
Some of the men, exhausted already, had been slow to respond, and his troop suffered a half-dozen casualties all at once. Worse: a look at the sky warned that more volleys had been launched.
“Close up!” Ibelin roared at his men, lifting his own shield this time. No less than three arrows thudded into the heavy wooden surface and two bounced off the leather of Centurion’s trapper, while Sir Galvin was now wearing an arrow in his helmet like a jaunty feather. Ibelin swung Centurion around to ride back down the length of his battalion, shouting at the men to close up and raise their shields.
“We can’t win a battle this way!” Sir Galvin snarled at his side, and Ibelin tended to agree. He would have liked to find out what King Richard was doing and thinking, but the vanguard was far too far away.
The Hospitaller Master, meanwhile, had returned to his battalion looking furious. Certainly the signal was not given to charge, and the pressure on the Hospitallers was, if anything, worse than before. A glance back at the Hospitallers suggested that more knights and Turcopoles were walking than riding. They were leaving a trail of equine corpses behind them, while the Saracens, receiving less and less answering fire, were pressing in closer and closer. For a second time, Garnier de Nablus galloped past on their right.
For a moment, Ibelin had a horrible sense of déjà vu. A voice of panic whispered: It’s Hattin all over again! His reason answered sharply: Nonsense! The infantry is unbroken, and the man in command is not a fool! Although he’d only known him three months, Ibelin could not imagine Richard Plantagenet sitting slack-jawed on his stallion and watching with dazed eyes while his army disintegrated around him. There had to be some plan behind all this, he told himself, but he couldn’t help wondering if King Richard fully appreciated what was happening here at the rear.
In fact, although it was hard to see through the clouds of dust, Ibelin had the impression that Salah ad-Din’s cavalry was dismounting and firing across the backs of their horses. This increased the force and impact of the arrows, effectively overcoming the advantage of armor, but it also made them more vulnerable. If ever there was a time to charge, this was it.
No sooner had the thought formed than a shout of “St. George!” erupted from his left. He turned toward the cry and saw the Hospitaller marshal, a sage and seasoned veteran of many battles, break out of the Hospitaller formation at full gallop with his lance lowered. Almost at once the cry was answered from the right, as a knight broke out from the battalion of Flemings beyond Champagne. Meanwhile, the remaining mounted Hospitallers followed their marshal, lances lowered and a scream of “St. George!” in their throats. Picking up the call a split second later, the Count of Champagne broke through his infantry at full gallop, his horse stretching out its neck, and the banner of Champagne glittering as it fluttered on an upraised lance beside the Count’s lowered one. His knights, some of the best equipped and proudest in the army, were so close behind him that the earth trembled.
“Did we miss the signal?” Ibelin asked.
“Does it matter?” Sir Galvin answered rhetorically, closing his grasp on his ax.
“Open the ranks!” Ibelin shouted to his infantry as he fastened his aventail, then dropped his visor and grabbed the lance offered by Georgios. As soon as the path was open, he pointed Centurion at it, leaned forward, and shouted, “St. George!”
Behind him his knights repeated the improvised battle cry, but Ibelin could no longer hear. Centurion was plunging furiously after the knights of Champagne, his ears flat back and his strides so strong he was streaking across the desert. All along the line of march, bannerets with their knights were breaking out of the infantry and streaming after the leaders. The effect was a rolling echelon of compact bodies of knights, each of whom chose a target in the mass of Saracens flanking them. The Franks smashed into the enemy forces not simultaneously, but in a series of mailed punches.
The Hospitallers, of course, struck into the enemy line first, knocking their opponents to the ground and piercing deeper into the Saracen ranks. They rode right over the Saracens who had dismounted to improve their archery. Heads were literally flying through the air as they used their swords like scythes. Riderless horses scattered in panic, adding to the confusion among the enemy.
The knights of Champagne hit the enemy next, and then Ibelin and his knights crashed into the Saracen line. Although this initial impact was dramatic and satisfying, Ibelin was acutely conscious of how rapidly the effect of a charge could dissipate if it lacked sufficient momentum, depth, or energy. The Constable’s charge at Hattin had started well, only to get bogged down in the sheer numbers of enemy that closed around the Frankish horsemen. That charge had ground to a halt short of a breakthrough, and they’d lost scores of knights before they could extricate themselves, achieving nothing. Furthermore, at Hattin a breakout toward Lake Tiberius offered the prospect of water, rest, and the promise of survival, whereas now, the depth of the Saracen lines was greater and there was no place to escape to. The territory beyond the Saracen army was hostile.
Movement to Ibelin’s right caught his eye. He risked looking over his right shoulder. Like a hawk out of hell, the English King was cutting across the dusty plain at a pace so fast it was more like flying low than riding. King Richard had captured Isaac Comnenus’ stallion, reputed to be amazingly fast, but Ibelin still found it hard to believe any horse could carry a fully armored man as fast as this—or that any rider would take the risks the King of England was taking by riding at that speed across a plain broken by gullies and scrub brush.
King Richard did not slow his pace even as he sliced into the battle. He skewered two successive men with his lance, tossed it aside, and started hacking his way through the Saracen army with apparent ease. He was not alone. His Angevin, Gascon, and Poitevin knights were in his wake, although the English and Normans remained by the standard. The hole the King punched in the enemy was only the tip of the spear; his knights pried open the entire Saracen host.
Ibelin found himself fighting with the rest in what had become a massive melee. The forward thrust of the charge had gradually diminished until there was nothing but a field full of men and horses wheeling and lunging, leaping, staggering, and falling as they fought in a cloud of dust that thickened with each footfall. Ibelin’s lance was long since shattered. The bronze inscription on the blade of his sword, “Defender of Jerusalem,” was lost under a coat of blood to the hilt. Blood had splattered over his forearms and left stains upon Centurion’s trapper as more than one opponent had fallen headless against his shoulders. Under Centurion’s hooves, bones snapped and organs ruptured. There was no mercy on that field.
Gradually and intangibly, Ibelin felt the enemy start to give way. The change was not clear-cut. Some men continued fighting, unaware that their colleagues were already in flight. Some misjudged the moment to break off. Others were so lost in blood lust that they could not stop killing until they were alone and overwhelmed. Certainly no trumpets sounded the retreat. The Saracens, or their morale, were simply slowly crushed by the fury of the Frankish assault.
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