“What was that?” Elizabeth, sitting in the window seat overlooking the courtyard, asked in alarm.
“Probably just more guests arriving,” Eloise surmised.
“Maybe my brother the King is coming to my wedding,” Isabella suggested, revealing a hope she had harbored silently for weeks.
But with the shutter open the noise from outside was more distinct, and it was clear the shouting was angry or alarmed. Then a horn started blowing. “What does that mean?” Elizabeth asked. Trumpet signals were standardized throughout the Kingdom to ensure there was no confusion in time of war.
Maria Zoë answered soberly, “That’s the signal calling the garrison to arms.”
Elizabeth looked at Maria Zoë in shock and then hastily got out of her way, as Maria Zoë stepped into the window niche and bent forward to look out of the window. Torches were being lit and handed out as men poured through the barbican and spread out to the various tower stairs. Before long they heard men’s feet pounding up the spiral stairs of the tower. There must have been a half-dozen men on the stairs, and their breathing was heavy and rasping as they hurried past.
Maria Zoë crossed briskly to the other side of the chamber and flung open the shutters of the window that looked out across the desert. The sight before her made her catch her breath and hold it. The desert was not empty, as it should have been. It was crawling with men and horses and fluttering banners lit up by torches.
“What is it?” Elizabeth demanded, fear making her voice unnaturally sharp.
“Yes, tell us what’s going on.” Eloise echoed in a frightened whine.
Maria Zoë looked over her shoulder at her daughter, and then back out at the host gathering in the darkness, as fear crawled its way up her spine. In her mind she was trying to calculate just how many men they had gathered here. Oultrejourdain, at least, had all his knights, and she had brought sixty fighting men from Nablus. Edessa would not have come with his sister and the Countess of Jaffa without a substantial force. Maybe three hundred men?
In a castle like this, that ought to be enough to fight off an assault—but in a siege the large number of wedding guests, with their escorts and servants, would devour stores at an alarming rate, maybe ten times faster than the garrison alone. Even more dangerous, the cisterns of a desert castle might be overtaxed by the number of people gathered here. Maria Zoë fought back from her consciousness the tales told of besieged garrisons reduced to eating rats and drinking dirty water until they died of disease like flies. She tried to focus on what she could see outside, trying now to estimate the size and character of the force besieging them. In the darkness it wasn’t really possible, so she drew the shutters closed and turned to face the others.
She opened her mouth to speak, but something clattered on the wall just beside the window. The sound was so close and loud that Beth screamed in terror and Eschiva pulled her into her arms, as much to comfort herself as her maid. There was loud shouting from overhead as the noise repeated itself. A pair of feet tore down the stairs. A fist pounded furiously at the door and a man shouted, “Keep the shutters closed, for Christ’s sake! They’re shooting flaming arrows at us!”
“Who is shooting at us?” Elizabeth wanted to know.
“Salah ad-Din—with his entire host.”
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