As Aimery fell into place at the end of the still-forming shield wall, the first wave of Saracen horse came thundering toward the other end of the line with hooted challenges and cries of “Allahu Akbar!”
Someone handed him a lance, and he worked feverishly to bury the butt deep enough in the soil for it to be fixed firmly. On his right, horses were squealing and whinnying in panic and pain. Their eyes rolled back in their heads as they refused to impale themselves on the protruding lances, while the crossbows took a terrible toll. As the lead horses crumpled up, spilling their riders in the dust, the horses in the ranks behind spun about on their haunches and bolted for safety, oblivious and indifferent to the efforts of their riders to make them turn back.
Although that first charge broke within minutes, there were thousands of other horsemen milling out of range and preparing to charge. Aimery had no time to return for his hose. The next wave was already rushing forward to test the strength and resolve of his end of the line.
Aimery started saying the Pater Noster by rote. He gritted his teeth together and braced for the onslaught. On either side of him Pisan archers, likewise kneeling on one knee, held their crossbows to their shoulders. No one was giving orders. They fired independently when they thought the Saracens swarming toward them were within range, but as soon as one had fired, he moved behind the nearest knight or man-at-arms to reload, while his companion took aim and fired.
“Steady! Steady!” Aimery recognized King Richard’s voice and realized he had come to stand behind their section of the wall, just as he had been at the eastern section when it was attacked. “Make each shot count!” he admonished the archers. “Wait till they’re too close to miss.”
Aimery took hold of his lance with his right hand to make sure it held firm and steady. Sweat was pouring down his face, although it was still very early morning and not yet hot. His throat was parched and his breathing short. He had never before knelt before a cavalry onslaught. His place had been mounted on a tall horse, lance couched under his arm, whether on the tourney fields of Flanders, the soggy green pastures of Aquitaine, or the hard-baked and dusty plains of Outremer. When he had, rarely, fought on foot, it had been upright with a sword in his hand. He had never before knelt bare-legged in the dirt, crouching behind his shield while hundreds of mounted men charged at him. He had never been so terrified in all his life.
But soon the horses were squealing and whinnying again. This time they were so near he could hear the crossbow bolts thudding into them, and their blood splattered down on him. Horses were falling over sideways, their legs flailing the air until the bolts and arrows embedded in their bellies made them go still. Behind them more horses reared and spun about, dumping their riders onto the heaps of cadavers. Any man who tried to rise was cut down by the arrows that came steadily from behind the shoulders of the Franks holding the shields.
Aimery had no sense of time, but eventually the pressure eased up on his part of the line while a new assault was trying to turn their flank, attacking at the extreme right. Aimery tried to relax his grip on his lance long enough to wipe the sweat from his brow, but his fingers were cramped and he had to pry them open. Nor did he have a surcoat to wipe the sweat on, and the metal links of his hauberk were blisteringly hot.
Aimery glanced over his shoulder, wondering if there was anyone not on the defensive perimeter. To his amazement, he saw that the squires had organized themselves and had drawn water from the springs around which they were camped. They were bringing this forward to the men holding the line. When they reached Aimery, he gulped down the still-cool water and then ordered his squire to bring him his hose and boots.
By midmorning the heaps of corpses before their perimeter were so high they could hardly see over them, and the flies were so thick Aimery was sure he was going to swallow one every time he opened his mouth. The Saracen attacks had slackened, but they had not withdrawn. The Saracen cavalry kept milling about just out of range, apparently trying to decide what to do next. At this juncture someone brought up a string of fifteen horses that had been rounded up in Jaffa.
Not one of these horses looked particularly fit, and none were stallions. They were mares and geldings, long in the tooth, with bog and bone spavins, bowed tendons, and any number of other faults. Aimery suspected half of them were packhorses, and the others merchantmen’s docile palfreys. Not one was destrier material. They were terrified by the sight of the dead horses, but not spirited enough to resist the harsh handling of the men bringing them. King Richard walked over and chose the one that looked best. Then he chose fourteen other knights, including Aimery, to join him.
As they filed out from behind the shield wall, the men remaining behind gave them looks of wonder mixed with pity. Aimery simply reckoned there was no better way to die than in the defense of the Kingdom he had come to love, at the side of a king who was already legendary. It was a little like being in Roland’s company at Roncevaux, he told himself. It was certainly better than defending his idiot brother Guy!
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