Balian took a deep breath and prepared to put on his helmet as well.
Someone caught his arm. Annoyed, he turned to see who it was.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem was beside him. Heraclius might not look as exhausted and filthy as the soldiers, but he had deep, dark circles around his eyes, his lips were chapped, and he looked thinner than a week ago.
“Your eminence?” Ibelin asked in a tone bordering on mockery. The Saracens were already shouting their battle cries and beating their drums. The first assault wave of what was sure to be many was about to come over the crest of the ruined wall. This was no place for the Patriarch to be, and no time for a discussion.
“My lord—you must negotiate with Salah ad-Din!”
“It’s too bloody late!” Ibelin snarled. “You could have negotiated in July! You could have negotiated in August! You could have negotiated ten days ago! But not now! Not after Salah ad-Din has suffered thousands of casualties and broken down the walls!” Ibelin could not understand how Heraclius failed to grasp this simple fact.
“Try,” was the churchman’s answer.
“Try to negotiate! Not for my sake, my lord. Nor for the innocent women and children.” He made a dramatic gesture that included the women—who had, strangely, come out again today in force, apparently determined to share martyrdom with their menfolk rather than face a lifetime of sexual abuse, humiliation, and contempt. “Do it for the Holy Sepulcher! Do it for Christ! If they take this city in fury, they will not stop at razing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They might very well destroy the Grave of Christ itself!” The churchman’s horror was real. He was shaking with emotion, and his voice was so strained it broke. “Save the Holy Sepulcher from destruction!” he pleaded.
Ibelin stared at him. Then he crossed himself as he thanked God. Without a word to Heraclius, he turned and started running, gesturing for Sir Mathewos to follow him. They plunged into a side street just as the first wave of Saracens came charging over the pile of rubble.
“My lord?” Mathewos called, trying to catch up with him. “What is it?”
“Have Georgios tack up Centurion and a horse for yourself while you secure a large white banner and attach it to a lance.”
“You’re going to try to negotiate?” Mathewos asked, amazed.
“Yes! We exit by the Jehoshaphat Gate.”
Mathewos started running faster, motivated.
The Ibelin palace was only around the corner, and conditions in the palace were chaotic. It was in range of some of the mangonels, so the staff had set up buckets of water in the courtyard and on the roof to be ready to fight any fires that started. However, only half the staff was still here. Most had joined the defenders, although for the first time Beth was not among them. Beth was trying to comfort Tsion for the loss of Gabriel, and the Ethiopian girl’s keening penetrated to the farthest corner of the house.
Balian took the stairs two at a time to reach his chamber. He tore off his dirty, blood-stained surcoat and rummaged in a trunk until he found one with gold edging. He had no time to bathe, but he hastily brushed his hair. When had his sideburns gone gray? He washed his hands, taking a scrub brush to his nails so vigorously that it tore open some of the cuts on his hands. He found his signet ring, which he usually didn’t wear when he expected to use his sword. He thought briefly about taking a leather cloth to Defender of Jerusalem to clean away some of yesterday’s blood, but then decided that the sword was far more eloquent if he left it bloody.
In the courtyard, Georgios waited with an excited Centurion. Only the night before, the horse had yet again extricated his rider from what seemed like certain death; Georgios had been in the midst of grooming him but had not yet finished. The hair between his thighs was still matted and he had stable stains on his knees, but he seemed eager. He nickered at the sight of Balian.
“They will certainly kill me if we do not get a truce,” Mathewos answered.
The Street of Jehoshaphat seemed abandoned. People were either trying to hold the enemy at the breach, or were already attempting to barricade themselves in hiding places. As they passed the Convent of St. Anne, they could hear the nuns singing with tangible desperation.
Ibelin called up to the men on the gate tower to signal the enemy by waving the banners of Jerusalem and blowing horns. When they reported they had the attention of some of the troops opposite, he ordered them to open the Jehoshaphat Gate.
The first moments were the most terrifying. Sir Mathewos rode out with Ibelin behind him, and they kept expecting arrows to rain down on them. They could hear the noise of the battle from the breach in the wall off to their left, but immediately in front of them all seemed deathly still.
“Now what?” Mathewos asked.
“Keep riding, straight for the Sultan’s tent.”
They had just come abreast of the Church of Gethsemane when a troop of Mamluke cavalry rushed down the hill to block their path from about thirty feet away. “Who are you and what do you want?” a voice shouted in Arabic.
Ibelin let out a sigh of relief. They were willing to talk.
Ordering Mathewos to remain where he was, he continued forward until he was near enough to speak without shouting. “You know perfectly well who I am,” he told them, seeing the way their eyes scanned his surcoat and even looked at the hilt of his sword. When he was satisfied that they did indeed know who he was, he continued, “I wish to speak to the Sultan Salah ad-Din.”
“Do you surrender?”
“No. I have come to discuss terms.”
This provoked an eruption of angry exclamations from some and laughter from others, until someone said, “The only terms you can negotiate are converting to Islam or death!”
“Well said,” the Sultan’s voice answered, and the riders parted, bowing their heads to him and backing their mounts out of his way.
Salah ad-Din rode forward until his horse’s head was level with Centurion’s tail and the two men were exactly opposite each other, but a good eight feet apart—too far apart for a sword to reach.
The baron bowed his head to the Sultan.
Salah ad-Din looked Ibelin in the eye. “You want to negotiate for yourself or for Jerusalem?”
“You’re too late,” Salah ad-Din told him with a dismissive gesture. “No one negotiates for the possession of a city he already holds.” As he spoke he stretched out his arm and pointed, making Ibelin turn around in his saddle. Behind him, on the corner tower at the junction of the eastern and northern wall, one of the Sultan’s banners was fluttering proudly.
Balian felt his heart stop.
Dawit, fighting at the breach, saw a handful of Saracens break off the assault to scramble from the rubble up to the edge of the broken wall. In horror, he saw them gain the wall and start to hack and slice through the archers, who were so focused on the men still contesting the breach that they failed to see the Saracens who had scaled the wall behind them until it was too late. Several Syrian archers fell backwards over the wall into the city as they spun to face this new danger and lost their footing. And while most of the Saracens cleared the top of the wall, one rushed to plant the Sultan’s banner on the corner tower.
The sight of that banner flying over Jerusalem sent Dawit into a berserker rage. It symbolized for him total destruction—the slaughter of his wife and infant son. He roared and flung himself up the mound of rubble, running with so much force that even his enemies ducked out of his way. His strides were long and he was possessed of superhuman strength as he flung himself onto the wall, still bellowing in fury and oblivious to the surge of comrades behind him. He lunged for the banner and with all his might flung it down again into the ditch, even as three Saracens closed around him and stabbed him from all sides.
The Baron of Ibelin and the Sultan of Egypt and Syria were still staring at the banner when it was thrown down, followed by the bodies of a dozen men—evidently tossed over the side by a ferocious Christian counterattack.
Ibelin noted coldly, “No, you are not yet in possession of the city. And before you do take possession, we will kill every Muslim prisoner, every woman and every child, and then—before we sally forth on our last sortie—we will enter the Dome of the Rock, and with pickaxes we will destroy the foundations right down to the grotto underneath. We will—”
He didn’t have to continue. Salah ad-Din had blanched. “You would not dare!”
“Oh, yes, we would, your excellency. Oh, yes, we would.” Everything depended on the Sultan believing him. And in that minute, Balian was completely prepared to carry out his threat. “We would rather destroy the Holy Sepulcher ourselves than let you do it. We will destroy every monument sacred to your faith and mine before we leave you a city full of rotting corpses! And then we will come out of the city and we will fight without any fear. Not one of us will die without having killed several of you!” By the time he finished, Balian meant every word of it.
Salah ad-Din glanced again to the ramparts, but the banners of Jerusalem flew from every tower along the length of the entire wall, and from the shouts coming from the unseen breach it was clear that the most recent assault wave had also been repelled. The shouts of “Jerusalem!” and “Ibelin!” were too loud and too distinct to mean anything but that the Christians had again repulsed the assault.
Salah ad-Din looked back at Ibelin and studied his face. He did not think the man was bluffing. Furthermore, he recognized his mistake. He had told him he did not want the sacred sites damaged. That Ibelin exploited that knowledge now was only to be expected, and it was his own fault.
Still he hesitated. He looked again to the ramparts, hoping that by some miracle his own banners would reappear, but they did not. Instead, the remnants of the last assault on the breach limped into view, carrying their dead and wounded.
This was crazy. He had wanted to take the city intact, and he’d already damaged much of it and sacrificed thousands of lives. “You will surrender the city and withdraw? Every single man, woman, and child?”
“Yes.” Balian didn’t dare breathe. He didn’t dare believe the Sultan was seriously considering his offer.
“No,” Salah ad-Din answered.
Balian let the air out of his lungs and waited for the next blow, utterly without hope.
“Not after the casualties you have inflicted. If you surrender the city intact, then I will guarantee there will be no slaughter—as your forefathers perpetrated—but every citizen must buy their freedom. In exchange for a ransom of ten dinars per man, five per woman, and two per child, the citizens will be permitted to purchase their freedom and withdraw with as much as they can carry. Those who cannot raise the ransom will remain my slaves.”
Hope took hold of Balian’s heart in a grip so fierce it seemed to almost crush the life from him. This offer could mean life for nearly sixty thousand Christians, but ten dinars was more than the poor of the city could possibly pay. “The city is full of refugees, your excellency. Some thirty thousand men and women with their children, fled here in terror for their lives after the Battle of Hattin. They came here with nothing, and so have nothing with which to buy their freedom.”
Salah ad-Din nodded solemnly. “No doubt. And no doubt the treasury of Jerusalem is still largely intact. Or your Church, I am certain, will be moved by pity to sacrifice some of its infamous wealth for the sake of the poor the prophet Jesus so eloquently championed.” The sarcasm in his tone was unmistakable. “With one hundred thousand dinars, you can buy the freedom of them all.”
Ibelin wanted to accept, but there was no way they could scrape together a hundred thousand dinars. “Look at the dome of the Temple of God,” he countered, pointing behind him. “The gold has already been stripped.” Salah ad-Din’s eyes shifted to the dome and back to Ibelin, but he said nothing. Ibelin was forced to be explicit. “We do not have one hundred thousand dinars in the whole city.”
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