More than a hundred yards out, the first arrows started raining down on them. These were spent arrows that fell harmlessly on the decks without the force to penetrate anything. The ones hitting the sails (which there had been no time to hand, despite being under oar) clattered down on them as well, making the barrage seem thicker than it was. With each oar-stroke, however, the missiles became more lethal. Nevertheless, the Genoese crossbowmen were lining the gunnel and returning fire with brutal efficiency. By now the enemy was densely crowded on the shore to repel the impending amphibious assault so the Genoese could hardly fire without hitting something. There was no need for careful aim, and they fired as fast as they could load. The screams of the killed and wounded Saracens mingled with their battle cries in counterpoint.
“Brace!” the captain shouted as the bows entered the breakers. Aimery dropped on one knee and clutched the side of the ship. Arrows were raining down thick and fast, with so much force that they stuck upright in the planking of the deck. With a hideous squealing crunch, the ship struck fast, flinging men forward onto their faces. Yet the ship had hardly come to a halt before King Richard grabbed the nearest crossbow off an archer, and grabbing the rail with his free hand, he swung himself over the side of the ship. He fell four feet into the frothing waves, landing groin-deep in the surging surf, and staggered forward until he found solid footing. Then he raised the crossbow to his shoulder and fired before sloshing his way up the steep incline of the beach.
No man could lag far behind such an example, and they were all over the side of the ship as fast as they could. The crossbowman from whom the King had grabbed his weapon reached him as he went to toss it aside, and rescued it from the waves so he could use it himself. Meanwhile the King had already drawn his sword, and then with his left hand he grabbed a Danish battle-ax from his belt. Methodically he hacked his way through the enemy as they collided at the water’s edge.
The Franks had two advantages. On the one hand, they’d beached their ships north of the harbor but still close under the city walls, so they were, at most, two hundred yards from the city itself. On the other, the Saracens were singularly disorganized. The men who had filled this space wore the armor of all Salah ad-Din’s various subjects: Kurds and Turks, Arabs and Nubians, hairy Mamlukes and black-skinned Berbers. They were all fighting fiercely, screaming in their different tongues and wielding whatever weapons they had, but they appeared to have no plan and no one seemed to be in command.
King Richard made straight for the city gate with the clear objective of gaining the city. Aimery was uneasy about what would happen if the gate was barred from the inside. If the enemy had done that (as they surely should have), they might find themselves fighting with their backs to the wall—or have to beat a retreat back to the ships. On the other hand, if they could get inside, they would be less vulnerable. There, even small numbers would be able to control confined spaces using walls as shields. If too hard pressed, they would be able to barricade themselves in one of the buildings, and hope the garrison holding the citadel would sally out to their rescue.
For now Aimery, like the King, was killing two-handed. He had forsaken his shield for a mace he could wield with his left hand while keeping his sword in his right. Although the King still formed the point of their living spear, the knights around him widened the wedge he was thrusting into the body of enemy troops. Behind them the archers spread out to use their weapons more effectively, taking a murderous toll.
Within minutes, Frankish knights were wading through the bodies of the dead and dying, finding it increasingly difficult to get a solid foothold. Yet unbelievably, the pace was picking up rather than slowing. Aimery risked glancing in the direction of King Richard and realized why: Saracens had started quailing and stepping back, reluctant to come within range of the King’s bloodied ax, much less try to cross swords with him. As the Saracens drew back, the King lengthened his stride until, abruptly, there was no one between him and the wall. He sprang forward, but to Aimery’s astonishment he did not make for the gate. Instead, he ran toward the base of the tower flanking it. Here he wrenched open a postern door that Aimery had not even noticed. “Holy Cross!” he thought—the King of England had the eyes of a hawk as well as the heart of a lion.
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