The surprise was absolute. One moment the Saracen troops were happily squabbling over the spoils, flinging wine down their throats, and stuffing their tunics with stolen goods—and the next instant, straight out of the smoldering and smoking ruins of the eastern town, massive horses bearing armed men rode them down. Before they could run, lances skewered them. The knights killed with such devastating ease that many lances could be reused twice or even three times. When their lances eventually broke, the Christian knights drew their swords and kept riding, slashing downwards: right, left, and right again.
When the Saracens tried to run out the southern gate, they were met by more mounted Christians with leveled lances. When they tried to seek refuge in the narrow alleys between the houses, thinking the knights would have no room to swing their swords, the Christians’ horses trampled them down with malicious intent. When they tried to hide inside the houses they had plundered, they discovered that the squires had dismounted and were ready to hack them to pieces as they cowered on the beds where—so short a time ago—they had taken delight in raping the girls they found. If any of them escaped, it was by slipping silently out of the still-open gates and hiding in the surrounding orchards until there were no more mounted men scouring the town for prey.
Balian left the mopping-up to the others and returned to the basilica of St. George. He jumped down and hammered on the door with his mailed fist, shouting: “This is Balian d’Ibelin. The town is cleared of Saracens.”
He was greeted by a loud, inarticulate murmur and then the sound of heavy objects being dragged away from the doors. At last the doors swung open and a priest fell on his knees in front of him. “Christ has heard our prayers! Truly, my lord, you are sent from Heaven!” The priest was staring up at him as if he were an angel.
Embarrassed, Balian pulled him to his feet, shocked by how much the parish priest had aged since the last time he had seen him. The priest, who he remembered being a vigorous forty-something, had gone completely white. Balian could not know that it had happened in the last few hours. “We saw the fires, Father Vitus,” he explained simply as the priest embraced him, terror still shaking the older man’s bones. Balian tried to calm him with the firmness of his own clasp. “You’re safe now,” he assured the priest, who had taught him his catechism as a child.
From the interior of the church, townspeople were spilling out into the cool, damp air of the pre-dawn day. The terror of the last hours was still naked on their faces, and one after another they tried to kiss Balian’s hands—or if they could not reach them, the hem of his surcoat. Yet even as they thanked him for their rescue, the sight of the shambles of their town made many break out into tears or cries of lament.
Balian was disquieted by how many were here in the church, which at best offered only temporary refuge. The church had solid, sheer stone walls and only very narrow, high windows, but it housed neither water nor food, and the Muslims were known for setting churches on fire and burning alive those trapped inside. Pulling gently but firmly away from the Syrian women who were still trying to kiss his hands, Balian directed them toward the castle. He remounted and guided Gladiator in the same direction, wondering again where his brother Barry was while his town burned. Hugh and his father, he thought, must be clawing at the roofs of their tombs trying to get out!
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