He settled himself comfortably in his seat, and carefully put the helmet on, pulling it down firmly until it was properly seated. For a moment, he could see nothing.
Then his hand moved up and, with a flick of the wrist, lifted the visor. Ahead of him, in serried array, with lances erect and pennons flying, was the forward part of the column. Far ahead, he knew, were the Knights Templars, who had taken the advance. Behind the Templars rode the mailed knights of Brittany and Anjou. These were followed by King Guy of Jerusalem and the host of Poitou.
He himself, Sir Robert de Bouain, was riding with the Norman and English troops, just behind the men of Poitou. Sir Robert turned slightly in his saddle. To his right, he could see the brilliant red-and-gold banner of the lion-hearted Richard of England--_gules, in pale three lions passant guardant or_. Behind the standard-bearer, his great war horse moving with a steady, measured pace, his coronet of gold on his steel helm gleaming in the glaring desert sun, the lions of England on his firm-held shield, was the King himself.
Further behind, the Knights Hospitallers protected the rear, guarding the column of the hosts of Christendom from harassment by the Bedouins.
“By our Lady!” came a voice from his left. “Three days out from Acre, and the accursed Saracens still elude us.”
Sir Robert de Bouain twisted again in his saddle to look at the knight riding alongside him. Sir Gaeton de l’Arc-Tombé sat tall and straight in his saddle, his visor up, his blue eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun.
Sir Robert’s lips formed a smile. “They are not far off, Sir Gaeton. They have been following us. As we march parallel to the seacoast, so they have been marching with us in those hills to the east.”
“Like the jackals they are,” said Sir Gaeton. “They assail us from the rear, and they set up traps in our path ahead. Our spies tell us that the Turks lie ahead of us in countless numbers. And yet, they fear to face us in open battle.”
“Is it fear, or are they merely gathering their forces?”
“Both,” said Sir Gaeton flatly. “They fear us, else they would not dally to amass so fearsome a force. If, as our informers tell us, there are uncounted Turks to the fore, and if, as we are aware, our rear is being dogged by the Bedouin and the black horsemen of Egypt, it would seem that Saladin has at hand more than enough to overcome us, were they all truly Christian knights.”
“Give them time. We must wait for their attack, sir knight. It were foolhardy to attempt to seek them in their own hills, and yet they must stop us. They will attack before we reach Jerusalem, fear not.”
“We of Gascony fear no heathen Musselman,” Sir Gaeton growled. “It’s this Hellish heat that is driving me mad.” He pointed toward the eastern hills. “The sun is yet low, and already the heat is unbearable.”
Sir Robert heard his own laugh echo hollowly within his helmet. “Perhaps ‘twere better to be mad when the assault comes. Madmen fight better than men of cooler blood.” He knew that the others were baking inside their heavy armor, although he himself was not too uncomfortable.
Sir Gaeton looked at him with a smile that held both irony and respect. “In truth, sir knight, it is apparent that you fear neither men nor heat. Nor is your own blood too cool. True, I ride with your Normans and your English and your King Richard of the Lion’s Heart, but I am a Gascon, and have sworn no fealty to him. But to side with the Duke of Burgundy against King Richard--” He gave a short, barking laugh. “I fear no man,” he went on, “but if I had to fear one, it would be Richard of England.”
Sir Robert’s voice came like a sword: steely, flat, cold, and sharp. “My lord the King spoke in haste. He has reason to be bitter against Philip of France, as do we all. Philip has deserted the field. He has returned to France in haste, leaving the rest of us to fight the Saracen for the Holy Land leaving only the contingent of his vassal the Duke of Burgundy to remain with us.”
“Richard of England has never been on the best of terms with Philip Augustus,” said Sir Gaeton.
“No, and with good cause. But he allowed his anger against Philip to color his judgment when he spoke harshly against the Duke of Burgundy. The Duke is no coward, and Richard Plantagenet well knows it. As I said, he spoke in haste.”
“And you intervened,” said Sir Gaeton.
“It was my duty.” Sir Robert’s voice was stubborn. “Could we have permitted a quarrel to develop between the two finest knights and warleaders in Christendom at this crucial point? The desertion of Philip of France has cost us dearly. Could we permit the desertion of Burgundy, too?”
“You did what must be done in honor,” the Gascon conceded, “but you have not gained the love of Richard by doing so.”
Sir Robert felt his jaw set firmly. “My king knows I am loyal.”
Sir Gaeton said nothing more, but there was a look in his eyes that showed that he felt that Richard of England might even doubt the loyalty of Sir Robert de Bouain.
Sir Robert rode on in silence, feeling the movement of the horse beneath him.
There was a sudden sound to the rear. Like a wash of the tide from the sea came the sound of Saracen war cries and the clash of steel on steel mingled with the sounds of horses in agony and anger.
Sir Robert turned his horse to look.
The Negro troops of Saladin’s Egyptian contingent were thundering down upon the rear! They clashed with the Hospitallers, slamming in like a rain of heavy stones, too close in for the use of bows. There was only the sword against armor, like the sound of a thousand hammers against a thousand anvils.
“Stand fast! Stand fast! Hold them off!” It was the voice of King Richard, sounding like a clarion over the din of battle.
Sir Robert felt his horse move, as though it were urging him on toward the battle, but his hand held to the reins, keeping the great charger in check. The King had said “Stand fast!” and this was no time to disobey the orders of Richard.
The Saracen troops were coming in from the rear, and the Hospitallers were taking the brunt of the charge. They fought like madmen, but they were slowly being forced back.
The Master of the Hospitallers rode to the rear, to the King’s standard, which hardly moved in the still desert air, now that the column had stopped moving.
The voice of the Duke of Burgundy came to Sir Robert’s ears.
“Stand fast. The King bids you all to stand fast,” said the duke, his voice fading as he rode on up the column toward the knights of Poitou and the Knights Templars.
The Master of the Hospitallers was speaking in a low, urgent voice to the King: “My lord, we are pressed on by the enemy and in danger of eternal infamy. We are losing our horses, one after the other!”
“Good Master,” said Richard, “it is you who must sustain their attack. No one can be everywhere at once.”
The Master of the Hospitallers nodded curtly and charged back into the fray.
The King turned to Sir Baldwin de Carreo, who sat ahorse nearby, and pointed toward the eastern hills. “They will come from there, hitting us in the flank; we cannot afford to amass a rearward charge. To do so would be to fall directly into the hands of the Saracen.”
A voice very close to Sir Robert said: “Richard is right. If we go to the aid of the Hospitallers, we will expose the column to a flank attack.” It was Sir Gaeton.
“My lord the King,” Sir Robert heard his voice say, “is right in all but one thing. If we allow the Egyptians to take us from the rear, there will be no need for Saladin and his Turks to come down on our flank. And the Hospitallers cannot hold for long at this rate. A charge at full gallop would break the Egyptian line and give the Hospitallers breathing time. Are you with me?”
“Against the orders of the King?”
“The King cannot see everything! There are times when a man must use his own judgment! You said you were afraid of no man. Are you with me?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Sir Gaeton couched his lance. “I’m with you, sir knight! Live or die, I follow! Strike and strike hard!”