The dirt path they were on was just wide enough for two, so the Masters rode side-by-side, and Ullrich and Gebhard rode in single file behind Master Pedro with a Teutonic Knight beside each of them. The trail wound its way through the rugged landscape, gradually climbing toward the backside of the vicious spine of the mountain. It frequently skirted giant outcrops of limestone and dense stands of trees. Gorse, thorn and stunted pines clung to the ever-steeper slope on their right. The men and horses, although silent, made enough noise to frighten birds of prey into the air, where they circled silently, looking critically down on the pairs of horses stretching out for half a mile.
After riding well over an hour, Gunther von Falkenhayn broke the silence. “Are you sure this is the way to St. Hilarion?” he asked Montaigu with a frown.
“Very,” the Templar answered with supreme confidence. Adding, “To be precise, it is the only way to St. Hilarion on horse. Indeed,” Master Pedro lifted his arm and pointed toward the jagged peaks rearing up ahead of them yet still several miles off. “If you look hard, you can make out the chapel and the barracks of the middle ward.”
Falkenhayn and Ullrich looked where the Templar Master was pointing and saw nothing. Falkenhayn frowned at the Templar but didn’t dare challenge him.
Master Pedro assured him, “You’ll see better as we get closer.”
Ullrich like the Teutonic Marshal kept searching the mountain peaks ahead for some sign of a castle, but he couldn’t find anything that looked like walls, ramparts, and battlements. He twisted around in his saddle with a questioning look for Gebhard, who just grinned at him.
They must have ridden another half hour before, with an exclamation of “Donnerwetter!” the Teutonic Marshal drew up sharply and sat gaping at the landscape ahead. The limestone had at last resolved itself into a chain of crenelated towers nestled into the very crest of the rock. The jagged spine rose to two peaks, separated by a pine-filled gorge, and on each of the peaks reared a tower replete with arrow-slits, battlements, and banners. From the nearest of these peaks, a wall cascaded down a sixty-degree slope of the mountain to a lower wall that curled around the foot of the cliffs boasting a chain of towers. From this far away, the walls looked tiny, but the dots of light that indicated men, whose helmets were reflecting the light of the sun, set things in proportion. The walls were at least 35 feet high and supported by towers even higher. Yet the top of the highest wall did not reach the foot of the bedrock on which the chain of upper towers had been built. Ullrich did a quick calculation and estimated that the sheer rock cliff crowned by the castle itself was more than 160 feet high. With the towers added, that was 200 feet from the base of the rock to the fighting platforms. Not only was it physically impossible for a man to climb such a precipice, it would be impossible to fire missiles that high either. From the base of the rock, arrows would have been shot at an angle so vertical they would come back down on the heads of the men firing them; from farther away they would simply shatter themselves on the rock cliffs.
“It will only take you a couple of days to reduce these castles, wasn’t that what you said?” Master Pedro gloated.
Falkenhayn glowered and nudged his horse into motion again. As they continued along the path, the castle only became more impressive. There was a powerful barbican protecting the gate on the lower wall, but it was irrelevant. Capture of the lower gate and outer wall only brought an attacker onto a steep, rugged slope on which a substantial number of horses and cattle grazed. This led to the foot of the cliffs where they were still 160 feet below the castle. It would be pointless to try to tunnel through bedrock; not only would that be time-consuming and expensive it would not undermine the buildings so far overhead.
“What about the other side, the north?” Falkenhayn growled.
“The drop is both steeper and greater on the north,” Master Pedro replied. “Not even a goat track can come close. The forest is very dense as well. As you see, at least to the south there’s a broad shoulder on which besieging armies are wont to camp.”
“There can be no water up there,” Falkenhayn snapped, his eyes scanning the line of buildings, some square some round, some wider, some narrower, that perched upon the contours of the mountain crest. The higher up the slope the larger the windows became, until, the largest building below the two peaks with the towers smiled down from large, gracious windows with delicate tracery that haughtily proclaimed complete immunity to attack.
“The mountain gets a great deal of rain in the winter and the water is collected from all the rooftops and funneled through a network of drains to gigantic cisterns that are carved under the castle. The castle has been known to run low on supplies, never water. Knowing that, of course, Beirut has been provisioning the castle for the last two weeks. It is said to have sufficient grain, oil, and wine to feed the current garrison for twelve months—not to mention all those cattle on the hill that will provide plenty of beef.”
The Teutonic Marshal looked furiously at his Templar companion, and his face was red as much from pent-up fury as sunburn.
They were, meanwhile, close enough to see the banners of Ibelin flapping from the flag-poles on the barbican and other towers. The bright yellow banners stood out sharply against the blue sky, the red crosses curled and straightened on the wind like living beasts.
It struck Ullrich that they were the same red crosses that the Templars wore, the mark of martyrdom. Maybe Falkenhayn thought the same thing because his eyes narrowed as his gaze shifted between the banners of Ibelin to the Templar Master and his two German Templar knights.
“The Ibelins,” Master Pedro remarked in a mild voice, his solemn face looking almost saintly, “were defending Jerusalem more than half a century before the Deutsche Ritter-Orden was founded.”
Falkenhayn growled something under his breath and spurred forward to ride along the base of the outer wall. When he came to the corner where the wall turned to go up the slope to the base of the upper towers, his horse stumbled and almost fell. As it scrambled to find its footing, it set off a tiny avalanche of stones that rattled down the slope behind him. Falkenhayn turned and rode back to the other end of the wall. This ended at the sheer rock face on which not so much as a thorn could grow. He drew the reins and looked up the face of the rock, squinting into the sun.
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