Despite Gabriel’s better control of the destrier, Thor was still more interested in kicking at other stallions, his ears flat on his head, than in drinking. “Why doesn’t he drink?” Ernoul asked irritably, watching Gabriel yank Thor’s attention away from the stallion he was trying to kick, squealing his challenge as the other stallion swung his haunches and kicked back. Meanwhile, Centurion plunged his head down and sucked the cool water up his throat in loud, satisfied slurps.
Gabriel shook his head in incomprehension as he patted the black stallion and tried to calm him before circling around for another approach to the springs.
“I just hope we stay here now,” Ernoul continued.
“Why shouldn’t we? Wasn’t that what they decided in Acre?” Gabriel asked, looking up sharply.
Ernoul explained, “A messenger rode in about an hour ago. The Saracens have overrun the town of Tiberias, driving the population into the citadel. The Countess of Tripoli has requested relief, and her sons are hotly urging the army to go to their mother’s aid, while Châtillon—of all people!—is saying it would be ‘unchivalrous’ not to assist a lady in distress.”
“But Tiberias is fifteen miles away—and there’s not much water between here and there!” Gabriel protested.
“That’s what Tripoli is trying to tell the King,” Ernoul confirmed.
“How do you know?”
“Lord Balian ordered me to fetch a map from his tent and bring it to the King’s tent, where the barons are in council.”
Gabriel gave Ernoul a reproving look, noting, “And, of course, you stood around eavesdropping as soon as you finished your errand. No wonder I couldn’t find you anywhere and had to set up the tent by myself!”
“But listen!” Ernoul answered, not bothering to deny the accusations. “They’re at each other’s throats in there! Châtillon and Ridefort have all but accused Tripoli of being in Salah ad-Din’s pay, and Tripoli has told them he’d rather see his wife in Saracen hands than move a foot farther from the coast. He said in this heat it would be wiser to withdraw to Acre and make Salah ad-Din come to us. He says whichever army takes the offensive will have to find fodder and water, while the army that takes up a strong defensive position can just sit back and watch the enemy melt away in the heat.”
Gabriel frowned. “That’s all very well for Tripoli to say. His lands are north of here! What do you think would be left of Nablus or Ramla if we just hole up in Acre? If we don’t face Salah ad-Din here, he’ll let his horde spread out and plunder everything. We’ve got all the fighting men with the army now. The cities and towns are practically defenseless. What’s the point of calling up the army if we’re not going to fight?”
“That’s what Châtillon said,” Ernoul agreed.
“What did Lord Balian say?” Gabriel asked.
“You know him,” Ernoul remarked with a shrug; “he held his counsel until the Constable specifically asked for his advice.”
“Well, he said it would be madness to withdraw to Acre, leaving the rest of the country open to plunder and exposing the farmers and burghers to capture.”
“You see!” Gabriel declared, delighted to have his lord agree with him.
“But he called the relief of Tiberias equal madness. He said the only reason Salah ad-Din had taken the city was to lure us away from the springs here and force us across the high, arid plateau between here and there. He said we should stay where we are now and force Salah ad-Din to take the offensive. From here, he argued, we can block attacks on either Nazareth or Acre, or if necessary put ourselves across the road to Jerusalem. The key, he said, was to force Salah ad-Din to commit himself.”
Gabriel nodded, satisfied. “And did the others listen?”
Centurion had had enough to drink, and he lifted his head to nuzzle Ernoul for the carrots that he knew the squire kept tucked inside his gambeson. Gabriel had not yet succeeded in watering Thor, however. With an exasperated sigh, he decided he should give up for the moment and return later when there were fewer other horses around. Leading the stallions, the squires returned side by side to their lord’s tent.
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