Gates of Empire by Robert E. Howard
[The Road of the Mountain Lion]
First published in Golden Fleece, January 1939
Also published as "The Road Of The Mountain Lion"
THE CLANK of the sour sentinels on the turrets, the gusty
uproar of the Spring winds, were not heard by those who reveled in the cellar
of Godfrey de Courtenay's castle; and the noise these revelers made was
bottled up deafeningly within the massive walls.
A sputtering candle lighted those rugged walls, damp and uninviting,
flanked with wattled casks and hogsheads over which stretched a veil of dusty
cobwebs. From one barrel the head had been knocked out, and leathern
drinking- jacks were immersed again and again in the foamy tide, in hands
that grew increasingly unsteady.
Agnes, one of the serving wenches, had stolen the massive iron key to the
cellar from the girdle of the steward; and rendered daring by the absence of
their master, a small but far from select group were making merry with
characteristic heedlessness of the morrow.
Agnes, seated on the knee of the varlet Peter, beat erratic time with a
jack to a ribald song both were bawling in different tunes and keys. The ale
slopped over the rim of the wobbling jack and down Peter's collar, a
circumstance he was beyond noticing.
The other wench, fat Marge, rolled on her bench and slapped her ample
thighs in uproarious appreciation of a spicy tale just told by Giles Hobson.
This individual might have been the lord of the castle from his manner,
instead of a vagabond rapscallion tossed by every wind of adversity. Tilted
back on a barrel, booted feet propped on another, he loosened the belt that
girdled his capacious belly in its worn leather jerkin, and plunged his
muzzle once more into the frothing ale.
"Giles, by Saint Withold his beard," quoth Marge, "madder rogue never wore
steel. The very ravens that pick your bones on the gibbet tree will burst
their sides a-laughing. I hail ye—prince of all bawdy liars!"
She flourished a huge pewter pot and drained it as stoutly as any man in
At this moment another reveler, returning from an errand, came into the
scene. The door at the head of the stairs admitted a wobbly figure in close-
fitting velvet. Through the briefly opened door sounded noises of the night
—slap of hangings somewhere in the house, sucking and flapping in the
wind that whipped through the crevices; a faint disgruntled hail from a
watchman on a tower. A gust of wind whooped down the stair and set the candle
Guillaume, the page, shoved the door shut and made his way with groggy
care down the rude stone steps. He was not so drunk as the others, simply
because, what of his extreme youth, he lacked their capacity for fermented
"What's the time, boy?" demanded Peter.
"Long past midnight," the page answered, groping unsteadily for the open
cask. "The whole castle is asleep, save for the watchmen. But I heard a
clatter of hoofs through the wind and rain; methinks 'tis Sir Godfrey
"Let him return and be damned!" shouted Giles, slapping Marge's fat haunch
resoundingly. "He may be lord of the keep, but at present we are keepers of
the cellar! More ale! Agnes, you little slut, another song!"
"Nay, more tales!" clamored Marge. "Our mistress's brother, Sir Guiscard
de Chastillon, has told grand tales of Holy Land and the infidels, but by
Saint Dunstan, Giles' lies outshine the knight's truths!"
"Slander not a—hic!—holy man as has been on pilgrimage and
Crusade," hiccuped Peter. "Sir Guiscard has seen Jerusalem and foughten
beside the King of Palestine—how many years?"
"Ten year come May Day, since he sailed to Holy Land," said Agnes. "Lady
Eleanor had not seen him in all that time, till he rode up to the gate
yesterday morn. Her husband, Sir Godfrey, never has seen him."
"And wouldn't know him?" mused Giles; "nor Sir Guiscard him?"
He blinked, raking a broad hand through his sandy mop. He was drunker than
even he realized. The world spun like a top and his head seemed to be dancing
dizzily on his shoulders. Out of the fumes of ale and a vagrant spirit, a
madcap idea was born.
A roar of laughter burst gustily from Giles' lips. He reeled upright,
spilling his jack in Marge's lap and bringing a burst of rare profanity from
her. He smote a barrelhead with his open hand, strangling with mirth.
"Good lack!" squawked Agnes. "Are you daft, man?"
"A jest!" The roof reverberated to his bull's bellow. "Oh, Saint Withold,
a jest! Sir Guiscard knows not his brother-in-law, and Sir Godfrey is now at
the gate. Hark ye!"
Four heads, bobbing erratically, inclined toward him as he whispered as if
the rude walls might hear. An instant's bleary silence was followed by
boisterous guffaws. They were in the mood to follow the maddest course
suggested to them. Only Guillaume felt some misgivings, but he was swept away
by the alcoholic fervor of his companions.
"Oh, a devil's own jest!" cried Marge, planting a loud, moist kiss on
Giles' ruddy cheek. "On, rogues, to the sport!"
"En avant!" bellowed Giles, drawing his sword and waving it
unsteadily, and the five weaved up the stairs, stumbling, blundering, and
lurching against one another. They kicked open the door, and shortly were
running erratically up the wide hall, giving tongue like a pack of
The castles of the Twelfth Century, fortresses rather than mere dwellings,
were built for defense, not comfort.
The hall through which the drunken band was hallooing was broad, lofty,
windy, strewn with rushes, now but faintly lighted by the dying embers in a
great ill-ventilated fireplace. Rude, sail-like hangings along the walls
rippled in the wind that found its way through. Hounds, sleeping under the
great table, woke yelping as they were trodden on by blundering feet, and
added their clamor to the din.
This din roused Sir Guiscard de Chastillon from dreams of Acre and the
sun-drenched plains of Palestine. He bounded up, sword in hand, supposing
himself to be beset by Saracen raiders, then realized where he was. But
events seemed to be afoot. A medley of shouts and shrieks clamored outside
his door, and on the stout oak panels boomed a rain of blows that bade fair
to burst the portal inward. The knight heard his name called loudly and
Putting aside his trembling squire, he ran to the door and cast it open.
Sir Guiscard was a tall gaunt man, with a great beak of a nose and cold grey
eyes. Even in his shirt he was a formidable figure. He blinked ferociously at
the group limned dimly in the glow from the coals at the other end of the
hall. There seemed to be women, children, a fat man with a sword.
This fat man was bawling: "Succor, Sir Guiscard, succor! The castle is
forced, and we are all dead men! The robbers of Horsham Wood are within the
Sir Guiscard heard the unmistakable tramp of mailed feet, saw vague
figures coming into the hall—figures on whose steel the faint light
gleamed redly. Still mazed by slumber, but ferocious, he went into furious
Sir Godfrey de Courtenay, returning to his keep after many hours of riding
through foul weather, anticipated only rest and ease in his own castle.
Having vented his irritation by roundly cursing the sleepy grooms who
shambled up to attend his horses, and were too bemused to tell him of his
guest, he dismissed his men-at-arms and strode into the donjon, followed by
his squires and the gentlemen of his retinue. Scarcely had he entered when
the devil's own bedlam burst loose in the hall. He heard a wild stampede of
feet, crash of overturned benches, baying of dogs, and an uproar of strident
voices, over which one bull-like bellow triumphed.
Swearing amazedly, he ran up the hall, followed by his knights, when a
ravening maniac, naked but for a shirt, burst on him, sword in hand, howling
like a werewolf.
Sparks flew from Sir Godfrey's basinet beneath the madman's furious
strokes, and the lord of the castle almost succumbed to the ferocity of that
onslaught before he could draw his own sword. He fell back, bellowing for his
men-at-arms. But the madman was yelling louder than he, and from all sides
swarmed other lunatics in shirts who assailed Sir Godfrey's dumfounded
gentlemen with howling frenzy.
The castle was in an uproar—lights flashing up, dogs howling, women
screaming, men cursing, and over all the clash of steel and the stamp of
The conspirators, sobered by what they had raised, scattered in all
directions, seeking hiding-places—all except Giles Hobson. His state of
intoxication was too magnificent to be perturbed by any such trivial scene.
He admired his handiwork for a space; then, finding swords flashing too close
to his head for comfort, withdrew, and following some instinct, departed for
a hiding-place known to him of old. There he found with gentle satisfaction
that he had all the time retained a cobwebbed bottle in his hand. This he
emptied, and its contents, coupled with what had already found its way down
his gullet, plunged him into extinction for an amazing period. Tranquilly he
snored under the straw, while events took place above and around him, and
matters moved not slowly.
There in the straw Friar Ambrose found him just as dusk was falling after
a harassed and harrying day. The friar, ruddy and well paunched, shook the
unpenitent one into bleary wakefulness.
"The saints defend us!" said Ambrose. "Up to your old tricks again! I
thought to find you here. They have been searching the castle all day for
you; they searched these stables, too. Well that you were hidden beneath a
very mountain of hay."
"They do me too much honor," yawned Giles. "Why should they search for
The friar lifted his hands in pious horror.
"Saint Denis is my refuge against Sathanas and his works! Is it not known
how you were the ringleader in that madcap prank last night that pitted poor
Sir Guiscard against his sister's husband?"
"Saint Dunstan!" quoth Giles, expectorating dryly. "How I thirst! Were any
"No, by the providence of God. But there is many a broken crown and
bruised rib this day. Sir Godfrey nigh fell at the first onset, for Sir
Guiscard is a woundy swordsman. But our lord being in full armor, he
presently dealt Sir Guiscard a shrewd cut over the pate, whereby blood did
flow in streams, and Sir Guiscard blasphemed in a manner shocking to hear.
What had then chanced, God only knows, but Lady Eleanor, awakened by the
noise, ran forth in her shift, and seeing her husband and her brother at
swords' points, she ran between them and bespoke them in words not to be
repeated. Verily, a flailing tongue hath our mistress when her wrath is
"So understanding was reached, and a leech was fetched for Sir Guiscard
and such of the henchmen as had suffered scathe. Then followed much
discussion, and Sir Guiscard had recognized you as one of those who banged on
his door. Then Guillaume was discovered hiding, as from a guilty conscience,
and he confessed all, putting the blame on you. Ah me, such a day as it has
"Poor Peter in the stocks since dawn, and all the villeins and serving-
wenches and villagers gathered to clod him—they but just now left off,
and a sorry sight he is, with nose a-bleeding, face skinned, an eye closed,
and broken eggs in his hair and dripping over his features. Poor Peter!
"And as for Agnes, Marge and Guillaume, they have had whipping enough to
content them all a lifetime. It would be hard to say which of them has the
sorest posterior. But it is you, Giles, the masters wish. Sir Guiscard swears
that only your life will anyways content him."
"Hmmmm," ruminated Giles. He rose unsteadily, brushed the straw from his
garments, hitched up his belt and stuck his disreputable bonnet on his head
at a cocky angle.
The friar watched him gloomily. "Peter stocked, Guillaume birched, Marge
and Agnes whipped—what should be your punishment?"
"Methinks I'll do penance by a long pilgrimage," said Giles.
"You'll never get through the gates," predicted Ambrose.
"True," sighed Giles. "A friar may pass at will, where an honest man is
halted by suspicion and prejudice. As further penance, lend me your
"My robe?" exclaimed the friar. "You are a fool—"
A heavy fist clunked against his fat jaw, and he collapsed with a
A few minutes later a lout in the outer ward, taking aim with a rotten egg
at the dilapidated figure in the stocks, checked his arm as a robed and
hooded shape emerged from the stables and crossed the open space with slow
steps. The shoulders drooped as from a weight of weariness, the head was bent
forward; so much so, in fact, that the features were hidden by the hood.
"The lout doffed his shabby cap and made a clumsy leg.
"God go wi' 'ee, good faither," he said.
"Pax vobiscum, my son," came the answer, low and muffled from the
depths of the hood.
The lout shook his head sympathetically as the robed figure moved on,
unhindered, in the direction of the postern gate.
"Poor Friar Ambrose," quoth the lout. "He takes the sin o' the world so
much to heart; there 'ee go, fair bowed down by the wickedness o' men."
He sighed, and again took aim at the glum countenance that glowered above
Through the blue glitter of the Mediterranean wallowed a merchant galley,
clumsy, broad in the beam. Her square sail hung limp on her one thick mast.
The oarsmen, sitting on the benches which flanked the waist deck on either
side, tugged at the long oars, bending forward and heaving back in
machine-like unison. Sweat stood out on their sun-burnt skin, their muscles
rolled evenly. From the interior of the hull came a chatter of voices, the
complaint of animals, a reek as of barnyards and stables. This scent was
observable some distance to leeward. To the south the blue waters spread out
like molten sapphire. To the north, the gleaming sweep was broken by an
island that reared up white cliffs crowned with dark green. Dignity,
cleanliness and serenity reigned over all, except where that smelly, ungainly
tub lurched through the foaming water, by sound and scent advertising the
presence of man.
Below the waist-deck passengers, squatted among bundles, were cooking food
over small braziers. Smoke mingled with a reek of sweat and garlic. Horses,
penned in a narrow space, whinnied wretchedly. Sheep, pigs and chickens added
their aroma to the smells.
Presently, amidst the babble below decks, a new sound floated up to the
people above—members of the crew, and the wealtheir passengers who
shared the patrono's cabin. The voice of the patrono came to
them, strident with annoyance, answered by a loud rough voice with an alien
The Venetian captain, prodding among the butts and bales of the cargo, had
discovered a stowaway—a fat, sandy-haired man in worn leather, snoring
bibulously among the barrels.
Ensued an impassioned oratory in lurid Italian, the burden of which at
last focused in a demand that the stranger pay for his passage.
"Pay?" echoed that individual, running thick fingers through unkempt
locks. "What should I pay with, Thin-shanks? Where am I? What ship is this?
Where are we going?"
"This is the San Stefano, bound for Cyprus from Palermo."
"Oh, yes," muttered the stowaway. "I remember. I came aboard at Palermo
—lay down beside a wine cask between the bales—"
The patrono hastily inspected the cask and shrieked with new
"Dog! You've drunk it all!"
"How long have we been at sea?" demanded the intruder.
"Long enough to be out of sight of land," snarled the other. "Pig, how can
a man lie drunk so long—"
"No wonder my belly's empty," muttered the other. "I've lain among the
bales, and when I woke, I'd drink till I fell asleep again. Hmmm!"
"Money!" clamored the Italian. "Bezants for your fare!"
"Bezants!" snorted the other. "I haven't a penny to my name."
"Then overboard you go," grimly promised the patrono. "There's no
room for beggars aboard the San Stefano."
That struck a spark. The stranger gave vent to a warlike snort and tugged
at his sword.
"Throw me overboard into all that water? Not while Giles Hobson can wield
blade. A freeborn Englishman is as good as any velvet-breeched Italian. Call
your bullies and watch me bleed them!"
From the deck came a loud call, strident with sudden fright. "Galleys off
the starboard bow! Saracens!"
A howl burst from the patrono's lips and his face went ashy.
Abandoning the dispute at hand, he wheeled and rushed up on deck. Giles
Hobson followed and gaped about him at the anxious brown faces of the rowers,
the frightened countenances of the passengers—Latin priests, merchants
and pilgrims. Following their gaze, he saw three long low galleys shooting
across the blue expanse toward them. They were still some distance away, but
the people on the San Stefanocould hear the faint clash of cymbals,
see the banners stream out from the mast heads. The oars dipped into the blue
water, came up shining silver.
"Put her about and steer for the island!" yelled the patrono."If we
can reach it, we may hide and save our lives. The galley is lost—and
all the cargo! Saints defend me!" He wept and wrung his hands, less from fear
than from disappointed avarice.
The San Stefano wallowed cumbrously about and waddled hurriedly
toward the white cliffs jutting in the sunlight. The slim galleys came up,
shooting through the waves like water snakes. The space of dancing blue
between the San Stefano and the cliffs narrowed, but more swiftly
narrowed the space between the merchant and the raiders. Arrows began to arch
through the air and patter on the deck. One struck and quivered near Giles
Hobson's boot, and he gave back as if from a serpent. The fat Englishman
mopped perspiration from his brow. His mouth was dry, his head throbbed, his
belly heaved. Suddenly he was violently seasick.
The oarsmen bent their backs, gasped, heaved mightily, seeming almost to
jerk the awkward craft out of the water. Arrows, no longer arching, raked the
deck. A man howled; another sank down without a word. An oarsman flinched
from a shaft through his shoulder, and faltered in his stroke.
Panic-stricken, the rowers began to lose rhythm. The San Stefano lost
headway and rolled more wildly, and the passengers sent up a wail. From the
raiders came yells of exultation. They separated in a fan-shaped formation
meant to envelop the doomed galley.
On the merchant's deck the priests were shriving and absolving.
"Holy Saints grant me—" gasped a gaunt Pisan, kneeling on the
boards—convulsively he clasped the feathered shaft that suddenly
vibrated in his breast, then slumped sidewise and lay still.
An arrow thumped into the rail over which Giles Hobson hung, quivered near
his elbow. He paid no heed. A hand was laid on his shoulder. Gagging, he
turned his head, lifted a green face to look into the troubled eyes of a
"My son, this may be the hour of death; confess your sins and I will
"The only one I can think of," gasped Giles miserably, "is that I mauled a
priest and stole his robe to flee England in."
"Alas, my son," the priest began, then cringed back with a low moan. He
seemed to bow to Giles; his head inclining still further, he sank to the
deck. From a dark welling spot on his side jutted a Saracen arrow.
Giles gaped about him; on either hand a long slim galley was sweeping in
to lay the San Stefano aboard. Even as he looked, the third galley,
the one in the middle of the triangular formation, rammed the merchant ship
with a deafening splintering of timber. The steel beak cut through the
bulwarks, rending apart the stern cabin. The concussion rolled men off their
feet. Others, caught and crushed in the collision, died howling awfully. The
other raiders ground alongside, and their steel-shod prows sheared through
the banks of oars, twisting the shafts out of the oarsmen's hands, crushing
the ribs of the wielders.
The grappling hooks bit into the bulwarks, and over the rail came dark
naked men with scimitars in their hands, their eyes blazing. They were met by
a dazed remnant who fought back desperately.
Giles Hobson fumbled out his sword, strode groggily forward. A dark shape
flashed at him out of the melee. He got a dazed impression of glittering
eyes, and a curved blade hissing down. He caught the stroke on his sword,
staggering from the spark-showering impact. Braced on wide straddling legs,
he drove his sword into the pirate's belly. Blood and entrails gushed forth,
and the dying corsair dragged his slayer to the deck with him in his
Feet booted and bare stamped on Giles Hobson as he strove to rise. A
curved dagger hooked at his kidneys, caught in his leather jerkin and ripped
the garment from hem to collar. He rose, shaking the tatters from him. A
dusky hand locked in his ragged shirt, a mace hovered over his head. With a
frantic jerk, Giles pitched backward, to a sound of rending cloth, leaving
the torn shirt in his captor's hand. The mace met empty air as it descended,
and the wielder went to his knees from the wasted blow. Giles fled along the
blood- washed deck, twisting and ducking to avoid struggling knots of
A handful of defenders huddled in the door of the forecastle. The rest of
the galley was in the hands of the triumphant Saracens. They swarmed over the
deck, down into the waist. The animals squealed piteously as their throats
were cut. Other screams marked the end of the women and children dragged from
their hiding-places among the cargo.
In the door of the forecastle the bloodstained survivors parried and
thrust with notched swords. The pirates hemmed them in, yelping mockingly,
thrusting forward their pikes, drawing back, springing in to hack and
Giles sprang for the rail, intending to dive and swim for the island. A
quick step behind him warned him in time to wheel and duck a scimitar. It was
wielded by a stout man of medium height, resplendent in silvered chain-mail
and chased helmet, crested with egret plumes.
Sweat misted the fat Englishman's sight; his wind was short; his belly
heaved, his legs trembled. The Moslem cut at his head. Giles parried, struck
back. His blade clanged against the chief's mail. Something like a white-hot
brand seared his temple, and he was blinded by a rush of blood. Dropping his
sword, he pitched head-first against the Saracen, bearing him to the deck.
The Moslem writhed and cursed, but Giles' thick arms clamped desperately
Suddenly a wild shout went up. There was a rush of feet across the deck.
Men began to leap over the rail, to cast loose the boarding-irons. Giles'
captive yelled stridently, and men raced across the deck toward him. Giles
released him, ran like a bulky cat along the bulwarks, and scrambled up over
the roof of the shattered poop cabin. None heeded him. Men naked but for
tarboushes hauled the mailed chieftain to his feet and rushed him
across the deck while he raged and blasphemed, evidently wishing to continue
the contest. The Saracens were leaping into their own galleys and pushing
away. And Giles, crouching on the splintered cabin roof, saw the reason.
Around the western promontory of the island they had been trying to reach,
came a squadron of great red dromonds, with battle-castles rearing at
prow and stern. Helmets and spearheads glittered in the sun. Trumpets blared,
drums boomed. From each masthead streamed a long banner bearing the emblem of
From the survivors aboard the San Stefano rose a shout of joy. The
galleys were racing southward. The nearest dromond swung ponderously
alongside, and brown faces framed in steel looked over the rail.
"Ahoy, there!" rang a stern-voiced command. "You are sinking; stand by to
Giles Hobson started violently at that voice. He gaped up at the battle-
castle towering above the San Stefano. A helmeted head bent over the
bulwark, a pair of cold grey eyes met his. He saw a great beak of a nose, a
scar seaming the face from the ear down the rim of the jaw.
Recognition was mutual. A year had not dulled Sir Guiscard de Chastillon's
"So!" The yell rang bloodthirstily in Giles Hobson's ears. "At last I have
found you, rogue—"
Giles wheeled, kicked off his boots, ran to the edge of the roof. He left
it in a long dive, shot into the blue water with a tremendous splash. His
head bobbed to the surface, and he struck out for the distant cliffs in long
A mutter of surprize rose from the dromond, but Sir Guiscard smiled
"A bow, varlet," he commanded.
It was placed in his hands. He nocked the arrow, waited until Giles'
dripping head appeared again in a shallow trough between the waves. The
bowstring twanged, the arrow flashed through the sunlight like a silver beam.
Giles Hobson threw up his arms and disappeared. Nor did Sir Guiscard see him
rise again, though the knight watched the waters for some time.
To Shawar, vizier of Egypt, in his palace in el-Fustat, came a gorgeously
robed eunuch who, with many abased supplications, as the due of the most
powerful man in the caliphate, announced: "The Emir Asad ed din Shirkuh, lord
of Emesa and Rahba, general of the armies of Nour ed din, Sultan of Damascus,
has returned from the ships of el Ghazi with a Nazarene captive, and desires
A nod of acquiescence was the vizier's only sign, but his slim white
fingers twitched at his jewel-encrusted white girdle—sure evidence of
Shawar was an Arab, a slim, handsome figure, with the keen dark eyes of
his race. He wore the silken robes and pearl-sewn turban of his office as if
he had been born to them—instead of to the black felt tents from which
his sagacity had lifted him.
The Emir Shirkuh entered like a storm, booming forth his salutations in a
voice more fitted for the camp than for the council chamber. He was a
powerfully built man of medium height, with a face like a hawk's. His
khalat was of watered silk, worked with gold thread, but like his
voice, his hard body seemed more fitted for the harness of war than the
garments of peace. Middle age had dulled none of the restless fire in his
With him was a man whose sandy hair and wide blue eyes contrasted
incongruously with the voluminous bag trousers, silken khalat and
turned- up slippers which adorned him.
"I trust that Allah granted you fortune upon the sea, ya khawand?"
courteously inquired the vizier.
"Of a sort," admitted Shirkuh, casting himself down on the cushions. "We
fared far, Allah knows, and at first my guts were like to gush out of my
mouth with the galloping of the ship, which went up and down like a foundered
camel. But later Allah willed that the sickness should pass."
"We sank a few wretched pilgrims' galleys and sent to Hell the infidels
therein—which was good, but the loot was wretched stuff. But look ye,
lord vizier, did you ever see a Caphar like to this man?"
The man returned the vizier's searching stare with wide guileless
"Such as he I have seen among the Franks of Jerusalem," Shawar
Shirkuh grunted and began to munch grapes with scant ceremony, tossing a
bunch to his captive.
"Near a certain island we sighted a galley," he said, between mouthfuls,
"and we ran upon it and put the folk to the sword. Most of them were
miserable fighters, but this man cut his way clear and would have sprung
overboard had I not intercepted him. By Allah, he proved himself strong as a
bull! My ribs are yet bruised from his hug.
"But in the midst of the melee up galloped a herd of ships full of
Christian warriors, bound—as we later learned—for Ascalon;
Frankish adventurers seeking their fortune in Palestine. We put the spurs to
our galleys, and as I looked back I saw the man I had been fighting leap
overboard and swim toward the cliffs. A knight on a Nazarene ship shot an
arrow at him and he sank, to his death, I supposed.
"Our water butts were nearly empty. We did not run far. As soon as the
Frankish ships were out of sight over the skyline, we beat back to the island
for fresh water. And we found, fainting on the beach, a fat, naked,
red-haired man whom I recognized as he whom I had fought. The arrow had not
touched him; he had dived deep and swum far under the water. But he had bled
much from a cut I had given him on the head, and was nigh dead from
"Because he had fought me well, I took him into my cabin and revived him,
and in the days that followed he learned to speak the speech we of Islam hold
with the accursed Nazarenes. He told me that he was a bastard son of the king
of England, and that enemies had driven him from his father's court, and were
hunting him over the world. He swore the king his father would pay a mighty
ransom for him, so I make you a present of him. For me, the pleasure of the
cruise is enough. To you shall go the ransom the malik of England pays
for his son. He is a merry companion who can tell a tale, quaff a flagon, and
sing a song as well as any man I have ever known."
Shawar scanned Giles Hobson with new interest. In that rubicund
countenance he failed to find any evidence of royal parentage, but reflected
that few Franks showed royal lineage in their features: ruddy, freckled,
light- haired, the western lords looked much alike to the Arab.
He turned his attention again to Shirkuh, who was of more importance than
any wandering Frank, royal or common. The old war-dog, with shocking lack of
formality, was humming a Kurdish war song under his breath as he poured a
goblet of Shiraz wine—the Shiite rulers of Egypt were no stricter in
their morals than were their Mameluke successors.
Apparently Shirkuh had no thought in the world except to satisfy his
thirst, but Shawar wondered what craft was revolving behind that bluff
exterior. In another man Shawar would have despised the Emir's restless
vitality as an indication of an inferior mentality. But the Kurdish
right-hand man of Nour ed din was no fool. The vizier wondered if Shirkuh had
embarked on that wild-goose chase with el Ghazi's corsairs merely because his
restless energy would not let him be quiet, even during a visit to the
caliph's court, or if there was a deeper meaning behind his voyaging. Shawar
always looked for hidden motives, even in trivial things. He had reached his
position by ignoring no possibility of intrigue. Moreover, events were
stirring in the womb of Destiny in that early spring of 1167 A.D.
Shawar thought of Dirgham's bones rotting in a ditch near the chapel of
Sitta Nefisa, and he smiled and said: "A thousand thanks for your gifts, my
lord. In return a jade goblet filled with pearls shall be carried to your
chamber. Let this exchange of gifts symbolize the everlasting endurance of
"Allah fill thy mouth with gold, lord," boomed Shirkuh, rising; "I go to
drink wine with my officers, and tell them lies of my voyagings. Tomorrow I
ride for Damascus. Allah be with thee!"
"And with thee, ya khawand."
After the Kurd's springy footfalls had ceased to rustle the thick carpets
of the halls, Shawar motioned Giles to sit beside him on the cushions.
"What of your ransom?" he asked, in the Norman French he had learned
through contact with the Crusaders.
"The king my father will fill this chamber with gold," promptly answered
Giles. "His enemies have told him I was dead. Great will be the joy of the
old man to learn the truth."
So saying, Giles retired behind a wine goblet and racked his brain for
bigger and better lies. He had spun this fantasy for Shirkuh, thinking to
make himself sound too valuable to be killed. Later—well, Giles lived
for today, with little thought of the morrow.
Shawar watched, in some fascination, the rapid disappearance of the
goblet's contents down his prisoner's gullet.
"You drink like a French baron," commented the Arab.
"I am the prince of all topers," answered Giles modestly—and with
more truth than was contained in most of his boastings.
"Shirkuh, too, loves wine," went on the vizier. "You drank with him?"
"A little. He wouldn't get drunk, lest we sight a Christian ship. But we
emptied a few flagons. A little wine loosens his tongue."
Shawar's narrow dark head snapped up; that was news to him.
"He talked? Of what?"
"Of his ambitions."
"And what are they?" Shawar held his breath.
"To be Caliph of Egypt," answered Giles, exaggerating the Kurd's actual
words, as was his habit. Shirkuh had talked wildly, though rather
"Did he mention me?" demanded the vizier.
"He said he held you in the hollow of his hand," said Giles, truthfully,
for a wonder.
Shawar fell silent; somewhere in the palace a lute twanged and a black
girl lifted a weird whining song of the South. Fountains splashed silverly,
and there was a flutter of pigeons' wings.
"If I send emissaries to Jerusalem his spies will tell him," murmured
Shawar to himself. "If I slay or constrain him, Nour ed din will consider it
cause for war."
He lifted his head and stared at Giles Hobson.
"You call yourself king of topers; can you best the Emir Shirkuh in a
"In the palace of the king, my father," said Giles, "in one night I drank
fifty barons under the table, the least of which was a mightier toper than
"Would you win your freedom without ransom?"
"Aye, by Saint Withold!"
"You can scarcely know much of Eastern politics, being but newly come into
these parts. But Egypt is the keystone of the arch of empire. It is coveted
by Amalric, king of Jerusalem, and Nour ed din, sultan of Damascus. Ibn
Ruzzik, and after him Dirgham, and after him, I, have played one against the
other. By Shirkuh's aid I overthrew Dirgham; by Amalric's aid, I drove out
Shirkuh. It is a perilous game, for I can trust neither.
"Nour ed din is cautious. Shirkuh is the man to fear. I think he came here
professing friendship in order to spy me out, to lull my suspicions. Even now
his army may be moving on Egypt.
"If he boasted to you of his ambitions and power, it is a sure sign that
he feels secure in his plots. It is necessary that I render him helpless for
a few hours; yet I dare not do him harm without true knowledge of whether his
hosts are actually on the march. So this is your part."
Giles understood and a broad grin lit his ruddy face, and he licked his
Shawar clapped his hands and gave orders, and presently, at request,
Shirkuh entered, carrying his silk-girdled belly before him like an emperor
"Our royal guest," purred Shawar, "has spoken of his prowess with the
wine-cup. Shall we allow a Caphar to go home and boast among his people that
he sat above the Faithful in anything? Who is more capable of humbling his
pride than the Mountain Lion?"
"A drinking-bout?" Shirkuh's laugh was gusty as a sea blast. "By the beard
of Muhammad, it likes me well! Come, Giles ibn Malik, let us to the
A procession began, of slaves bearing golden vessels brimming with
During his captivity on el Ghazi's galley, Giles had become accustomed to
the heady wine of the East. But his blood was boiling in his veins, his head
was singing, and the gold-barred chamber was revolving to his dizzy gaze
before Shirkuh, his voice trailing off in the midst of an incoherent song,
slumped sidewise on his cushions, the gold beaker tumbling from his
Shawar leaped into frantic activity. At his clap Sudanese slaves entered,
naked giants with gold earrings and silk loinclouts.
"Carry him into the alcove and lay him on a divan," he ordered. "Lord
Giles, can you ride?"
Giles rose, reeling like a ship in a high wind.
"I'll hold to the mane," he hiccuped. "But why should I ride?"
"To bear my message to Amalric," snapped Shawar. "Here it is, sealed in a
silken packet, telling him that Shirkuh means to conquer Egypt, and offering
him payment in return for aid. Amalric distrusts me, but he will listen to
one of the royal blood of his own race, who tells him of Shirkuh's
"Aye," muttered Giles groggily, "royal blood; my grandfather was a horse-
boy in the royal stables."
"What did you say?" demanded Shawar, not understanding, then went on
before Giles could answer. "Shirkuh has played into our hands. He will lie
senseless for hours, and while he lies there, you will be riding for
Palestine. He will not ride for Damascus tomorrow; he will be sick of
overdrunkenness. I dared not imprison him, or even drug his wine. I dare make
no move until I reach an agreement with Amalric. But Shirkuh is safe for the
time being, and you will reach Amalric before he reaches Nour ed din.
In the courtyard outside sounded the clink of harness, the impatient stamp
of horses. Voices blurred in swift whispers. Footfalls faded away through the
halls. Alone in the alcove, Shirkuh unexpectedly sat upright. He shook his
head violently, buffeted it with his hands as if to clear away the clinging
cobwebs. He reeled up, catching at the arras for support. But his beard
bristled in an exultant grin. He seemed bursting with a triumphant whoop he
could scarcely restrain. Stumblingly he made his way to a gold-barred window.
Under his massive hands the thin gold rods twisted and buckled. He tumbled
through, pitching headfirst to the ground in the midst of a great rose bush.
Oblivious of bruises and scratches, he rose, careening like a ship on a tack,
and oriented himself. He was in a broad garden; all about him waved great
white blossoms; a breeze shook the palm leaves, and the moon was rising.
None halted him as he scaled the wall, though thieves skulking in the
shadows eyed his rich garments avidly as he lurched through the deserted
By devious ways he came to his own quarters and kicked his slaves
"Horses, Allah curse you!" His voice crackled with exultation.
Ali, his captain of horse, came from the shadows.
"What now, lord?"
"The desert and Syria beyond!" roared Shirkuh, dealing him a terrific
buffet on the back. "Shawar has swallowed the bait! Allah, how drunk I am!
The world reels—but the stars are mine!
"That bastard Giles rides to Amalric—I heard Shawar give him his
instructions as I lay in feigned slumber. We have forced the vizier's hand!
Now Nour ed din will not hesitate, when his spies bring him news from
Jerusalem of the marching of the iron men! I fumed in the caliph's court,
checkmated at every turn by Shawar, seeking a way. I went into the galleys of
the corsairs to cool my brain, and Allah gave into my hands a red-haired
tool! I filled the lord Giles full of 'drunken' boastings, hoping he would
repeat them to Shawar, and that Shawar would take fright and send for
Amalric—which would force our overly cautious sultan to act. Now follow
marching and war and the glutting of ambition. But let us ride, in the
A few minutes later the Emir and his small retinue were clattering through
the shadowy streets, past gardens that slept, a riot of color under the moon,
lapping six-storied palaces that were dreams of pink marble and lapis lazuli
At a small, secluded gate, a single sentry bawled a challenge and lifted
"Dog!" Shirkuh reined his steed back on its haunches and hung over the
Egyptian like a silk-clad cloud of death. "It is Shirkuh, your master's
"But my orders are to allow none to pass without written order, signed and
sealed by the vizier," protested the soldier. "What shall I say to
"You will say naught," prophesied Shirkuh. "The dead speak not."
His scimitar gleamed and fell, and the soldier crumpled, cut through
helmet and head.
"Open the gate, Ali," laughed Shirkuh. "It is Fate that rides tonight
—Fate and Destiny!"
In a cloud of moon-bathed dust they whirled out of the gate and over the
plain. On the rocky shoulder of Mukattam, Shirkuh drew rein to gaze back over
the city, which lay like a legendary dream under the moonlight, a waste of
masonry and stone and marble, splendor and squalor merging in the moonlight,
magnificence blent with ruin. To the south the dome of Imam Esh Shafi'y shone
beneath the moon; to the north loomed up the gigantic pile of the Castle of
El Kahira, its walls carved blackly out of the white moonlight. Between them
lay the remains and ruins of three capitals of Egypt; palaces with their
mortar yet undried reared beside crumbling walls haunted only by bats.
Shirkuh laughed, and yelled with pure joy. His horse reared and his
scimitar glittered in the air.
"A bride in cloth-of-gold! Await my coming, oh Egypt, for when I come
again, it will be with spears and horsemen, to seize ye in my hands!"
Allah willed it that Amalric, king of Jerusalem, should be in Darum,
personally attending to the fortifying of that small desert outpost, when the
envoys from Egypt rode through the gates. A restless, alert and wary king was
Amalric, bred to war and intrigue.
In the castle hall the Egyptian emissaries salaamed before him like corn
bending before a wind, and Giles Hobson, grotesque in his dusty silks and
white turban, louted awkwardly and presented the sealed packet of Shawar.
Amalric took it with his own hands and read it, striding absently up and
down the hall, a gold-maned lion, stately, yet dangerously supple.
"What talk is this of royal bastards?" he demanded suddenly, staring at
Giles, who was nervous but not embarrassed.
"A lie to cozen the paynim, your majesty," admitted the Englishman, secure
in his belief that the Egyptians did not understand Norman French. "I am no
illegitimate of the blood, only the honest-born younger son of a baron of the
Giles did not care to be kicked into the scullery with the rest of the
varlets. The nearer the purple, the richer the pickings. It seemed safe to
assume that the king of Jerusalem was not over-familiar with the nobility of
the Scottish border.
"I have seen many a younger son who lacked coat-armor, war-cry and wealth,
but was none the less worthy," said Amalric. "You shall not go unrewarded.
Messer Giles, know you the import of this message?"
"The wazeer Shawar spoke to me at some length," admitted Giles.
"The ultimate fate of Outremer hangs in the balance," said Amalric. "If
the same man holds both Egypt and Syria, we are caught in the jaws of the
vise. Better for Shawar to rule in Egypt, than Nour ed din. We march for
Cairo. Would you accompany the host?"
"In sooth, lord," began Giles, "it has been a wearisome time—"
"True," broke in Amalric. "'Twere better that you ride on to Acre and rest
from your travels. I will give you a letter for the lord commanding there.
Sir Guiscard de Chastillon will give you service—"
Giles started violently.
"Nay, Lord," he said hurriedly, "duty calls, and what are weary limbs and
an empty belly beside duty? Let me go with you and do my devoir in
"Your spirit likes me well, Messer Giles," said Amalric with an approving
smile. "Would that all the foreigners who come adventuring in Outremer were
"And they were," quietly murmured an immobile-faced Egyptian to his mate,
"not all the wine-vats of Palestine would suffice. We will tell a tale to the
vizier concerning this liar."
But lies or not, in the grey dawn of a young spring day, the iron men of
Outremer rode southward, with the great banner billowing over their helmeted
heads, and their spear-points coldly glinting in the dim light.
There were not many; the strength of the Crusading kingdoms lay in the
quality, not the quantity, of their defenders. Three hundred and seventy-five
knights took the road to Egypt: nobles of Jerusalem, barons whose castles
guarded the eastern marches, Knights of Saint John in their white surcoats,
grim Templars, adventurers from beyond the sea, their skins yet ruddy from
the cold sun of the north.
With them rode a swarm of Turcoples, Christianized Turks, wiry men on lean
ponies. After the horsemen lumbered the wagons, attended by the rag-and- tag
camp followers, the servants, ragamuffins and trolls that tag after any host.
With shining, steel-sheathed, banner-crowned van, and rear trailing out into
picturesque squalor, the army of Jerusalem moved across the land.
The dunes of the Jifar knew again the tramp of shod horses, the clink of
mail. The iron men were riding again the old road of war, the road their
fathers had ridden so oft before them.
Yet when at last the Nile broke the monotony of the level land, winding
like a serpent feathered with green palms, they heard the strident clamor of
cymbals and nakirs, and saw egret feathers moving among gay-striped
pavilions that bore the colors of Islam. Shirkuh had reached the Nile before
them, with seven thousand horsemen.
Mobility was always an advantage possessed by the Moslems. It took time to
gather the cumbrous Frankish host, time to move it.
Riding like a man possessed, the Mountain Lion had reached Nor ed din,
told his tale, and then, with scarcely a pause, had raced southward again
with the troops he had held in readiness since the first Egyptian campaign.
The thought of Amalric in Egypt had sufficed to stir Nour ed din to action.
If the Crusaders made themselves masters of the Nile, it meant the eventual
doom of Islam.
Shirkuh's was the dynamic vitality of the nomad. Across the desert by Wadi
el Ghizlan he had driven his riders until even the tough Seljuks reeled in
their saddles. Into the teeth of a roaring sandstorm he had plunged, fighting
like a madman for each mile, each second of time. He had crossed the Nile at
Atfih, and now his riders were regaining their breath, while Shirkuh watched
the eastern skyline for the moving forest of lances that would mark the
coming of Amalric.
The king of Jerusalem dared not attempt a crossing in the teeth of his
enemies; Shirkuh was in the same case. Without pitching camp, the Franks
moved northward along the river bank. The iron men rode slowly, scanning the
sullen stream for a possible crossing.
The Moslems broke camp and took up the march, keeping pace with the
Franks. The fellaheen, peeking from their mud huts, were amazed by the
sight of two hosts moving slowly in the same direction without hostile
demonstration, with the river between.
So they came at last into sight of the towers of El Kahira.
The Franks pitched their camp close to the shores of Birket el Habash,
near the gardens of el Fustat, whose six-storied houses reared their flat
roofs among oceans of palms and waving blossoms. Across the river Shirkuh
encamped at Gizeh, in the shadow of the scornful colossus reared by cryptic
monarchs forgotten before his ancestors were born.
Matters fell at a deadlock. Shirkuh, for all his impetuosity, had the
patience of the Kurd, imponderable as the mountains which bred him. He was
content to play a waiting game, with the broad river between him and the
terrible swords of the Europeans.
Shawar waited on Amalric with pomp and parade and the clamor of
nakirs, and he found the lion as wary as he was indomitable. Two
hundred thousand dinars and the caliph's hand on the bargain, that was
the price he demanded for Egypt. And Shawar knew he must pay. Egypt slumbered
as she had slumbered for a thousand years, inert alike under the heel of
Macedonian, Roman, Arab, Turk or Fatimid. The fellah toiled in his
field, and scarcely knew to whom he paid his taxes. There was no land of
Egypt: it was a myth, a cloak for a despot. Shawar was Egypt; Egypt was
Shawar; the price of Egypt was the price of Shawar's head.
So the Frankish ambassadors went to the hall of the caliph.
Mystery ever shrouded the person of the Incarnation of Divine Reason. The
spiritual center of the Shiite creed moved in a maze of mystic
inscrutability, his veil of supernatural awe increasing as his political
power was usurped by plotting viziers. No Frank had ever seen the caliph of
Hugh of Caesarea and Geoffrey Fulcher, Master of the Templars, were chosen
for the mission, blunt war-dogs, grim as their own swords. A group of mailed
horsemen accompanied them.
They rode through the flowering gardens of el Fustat, past the chapel of
Sitta Nefisa where Dirgham had died under the hands of the mob; through
winding streets which covered the ruins of el Askar and el Katai; past the
Mosque of Ibn Tulun, and the Lake of the Elephant, into the teeming streets
of El Mansuriya, the quarter of the Sudanese, where weird native citterns
twanged in the houses, and swaggering black men, gaudy in silk and gold,
stared childishly at the grim horsemen.
At the Gate Zuweyla the riders halted, and the Master of the Temple and
the lord of Caesarea rode on, attended by only one man—Giles Hobson.
The fat Englishman wore good leather and chain-mail, and a sword at his
thigh, though the portly arch of his belly somewhat detracted from his
war-like appearance. Little thought was being taken in those perilous times
of royal bastards or younger sons; but Giles had won the approval of Hugh of
Caesarea, who loved a good tale and a bawdy song.
At Zuweyla gate Shawar met them with pomp and pageantry and escorted them
through the bazaars and the Turkish quarter where hawk-like men from beyond
the Oxus stared and silently spat. For the first time, Franks in armor were
riding through the streets of El Kahira.
At the gates of the Great East Palace the ambassadors gave up their
swords, and followed the vizier through dim tapestry-hung corridors and gold
arched doors where tongueless Sudanese stood like images of black silence,
sword in hand. They crossed an open court bordered by fretted arcades
supported by marble columns; their iron-clad feet rang on mosaic paving.
Fountains jetted their silver sheen into the air, peacocks spread their
iridescent plumage, parrots fluttered on gold threads. In broad halls jewels
glittered for eyes of birds wrought of silver or gold. So they came at last
to the vast audience room, with its ceiling of carved ebony and ivory.
Courtiers in silks and jewels knelt facing a broad curtain heavy with gold
and sewn with pearls that gleamed against its satin darkness like stars in a
Shawar prostrated himself thrice to the carpeted floor. The curtains were
swept apart, and the wondering Franks gazed on the gold throne, where, in
robes of white silk, sat al Adhid, Caliph of Egypt.
They saw a slender youth, dark almost to negroid, whose hands lay limp,
whose eyes seemed already shadowed by ultimate sleep. A deadly weariness
clung about him, and he listened to the representations of his vizier as one
who heeds a tale too often told.
But a flash of awakening came to him when Shawar suggested, with extremest
delicacy, that the Franks wished his hand upon the pact. A visible shudder
passed through the room. Al Adhid hesitated, then extended his gloved hand.
Sir Hugh's voice boomed through the breathless hall.
"Lord, the good faith of princes is naked; troth is not clothed."
All about came a hissing intake of breath. But the Caliph smiled, as at
the whims of a barbarian, and stripping the glove from his hand, laid his
slender fingers in the bear-like paw of the Crusader.
All this Giles Hobson observed from his discreet position in the
background. All eyes were centered on the group clustered about the golden
throne. From near his shoulder a soft hiss reached Giles' ear. Its feminine
note brought him quickly about, forgetful of kings and caliphs. A heavy
tapestry was drawn slightly aside, and in the sweet-smelling gloom, a slender
white hand waved invitingly. Another scent made itself evident, a luring
perfume, subtle yet unmistakable.
Giles turned silently and pulled aside the tapestry, straining his eyes in
the semidarkness. There was an alcove behind the hangings, and a narrow
corridor meandering away. Before him stood a figure whose vagueness did not
conceal its lissomeness. A pair of eyes glowed and sparkled at him, and his
head swam with the power of that diabolical perfume.
He let the tapestry fall behind him. Through the hangings the voices in
the throne room came vague and muffled.
The woman spoke not; her little feet made no sound on the thickly carpeted
floor over which he stumbled. She invited, yet retreated; she beckoned, yet
she withheld herself. Only when, baffled, he broke into earnest profanity,
she admonished him with a finger to her lips and a warning: "Sssssh!"
"Devil take you, wench!" he swore, stopping short. "I'll follow you no
more. What manner of game is this, anyway? If you don't want to deal with me,
why did you wave at me? Why do you beckon and then run away? I'm going back
to the audience hall and may the dogs bite your—"
"Wait!" The voice was liquid sweet.
She glided close to him, laying her hands on his shoulders. What light
there was in the winding tapestried corridor was behind her, outlining her
supple figure through her filmy garments. Her flesh shone like dim ivory in
the purple gloom.
"I could love you," she whispered.
"Well, what detains you?" he demanded uneasily.
"Not here; follow me." She glided out of his groping arms and drifted
ahead of him, a lithely swaying ghost among the velvet hangings.
He followed, burning with impatience and questing not at all for the
reason of the whole affair, until she came out into an octagonal chamber,
almost as dimly lighted as had been the corridor. As he pushed after her, a
hanging slid over the opening behind him. He gave it no heed. Where he was he
neither knew nor cared. All that was important to him was the supple figure
that posed shamelessly before him, veilless, naked arms uplifted and slender
fingers intertwined behind her nape over which fell a mass of hair that was
like black burnished foam.
He stood struck dumb with her beauty. She was like no other woman he had
ever seen; the difference was not only in her dark eyes, her dusky tresses,
her long kohl-tinted lashes, or the warm ivory of her roundly slender
limbs. It was in every glance, each movement, each posture, that made
voluptuousness an art. Here was a woman cultured in the arts of pleasure, a
dream to madden any lover of the fleshpots of life. The English, French and
Venetian women he had nuzzled seemed slow, stolid, frigid beside this vibrant
image of sensuality. A favorite of the Caliph! The implication of the
realization sent the blood pounding suffocatingly through his veins. He
panted for breath.
"Am I not fair?" Her breath, scented with the perfume that sweetened her
body, fanned his face. The soft tendrils of her hair brushed against his
cheek. He groped for her, but she eluded him with disconcerting ease. "What
will you do for me?"
"Anything!" he swore ardently, and with more sincerity than he usually
voiced the vow.
His hand closed on her wrist and he dragged her to him; his other arm bent
about her waist, and the feel of her resilient flesh made him drunk. He pawed
for her lips with his, but she bent supplely backward, twisting her head this
way and that, resisting him with unexpected strength; the lithe pantherish
strength of a dancing-girl. Yet even while she resisted him, she did not
"Nay," she laughed, and her laughter was the gurgle of a silver fountain;
"first there is a price!"
"Name it, for the love of the Devil!" he gasped. "Am I a frozen saint? I
can not resist you forever!" He had released her wrist and was pawing at her
Suddenly she ceased to struggle; throwing both arms about his thick neck,
she looked into his eyes. The depths of hers, dark and mysterious, seemed to
drown him; he shuddered as a wave of something akin to fear swept over
"You are high in the council of the Franks!" she breathed. "We know you
disclosed to Shawar that you are a son of the English king. You came with
Amalric's ambassadors. You know his plans. Tell what I wish to know, and I am
yours! What is Amalric's next move?"
"He will build a bridge of boats and cross the Nile to attack Shirkuh by
night," answered Giles without hesitation.
Instantly she laughed, with mockery and indescribable malice, struck him
in the face, twisted free, sprang back, and cried out sharply. The next
moment the shadows were alive with rushing figures as from the tapestries
leaped naked black giants.
Giles wasted no time in futile gestures toward his empty belt. As great
dusky hands fell on him, his massive fist smashed against bone, and the Negro
dropped with a fractured jaw. Springing over him, Giles scudded across the
room with unexpected agility. But to his dismay he saw that the doorways were
hidden by the tapestries. He groped frantically among the hangings; then a
brawny arm hooked throttlingly about his throat from behind, and he felt
himself dragged backward and off his feet. Other hands snatched at him,
woolly heads bobbed about him, white eyeballs and teeth glimmered in the
semi-darkness. He lashed out savagely with his foot and caught a big black in
the belly, curling him up in agony on the floor. A thumb felt for his eye and
he mangled it between his teeth, bringing a whimper of pain from the owner.
But a dozen pairs of hands lifted him, smiting and kicking. He heard a
grating, sliding noise, felt himself swung up violently and hurled
downward—a black opening in the floor rushed up to meet him. An
ear-splitting yell burst from him, and then he was rushing headlong down a
walled shaft, up which sounded the sucking and bubbling of racing water.
He hit with a tremendous splash and felt himself swept irresistibly
onward. The well was wide at the bottom. He had fallen near one side of it,
and was being carried toward the other in which, he had light enough to see
as he rose blowing and snorting above the surface, another black orifice
gaped. Then he was thrown with stunning force against the edge of that
opening, his legs and hips were sucked through but his frantic fingers,
slipping from the mossy stone lip, encountered something and clung on.
Looking wildly up, he saw, framed high above him in the dim light, a cluster
of woolly heads rimming the mouth of the well. Then abruptly all light was
shut out as the trap was replaced, and Giles was conscious only of utter
blackness and the rustle and swirl of the racing water that dragged
relentlessly at him.
This, Giles knew, was the well into which were thrown foes of the Caliph.
He wondered how many ambitious generals, plotting viziers, rebellious nobles
and importunate harim favorites had gone whirling through that black
hole to come into the light of day again only floating as carrion on the
bosom of the Nile. It was evident that the well had been sunk into an
underground flow of water that rushed into the river, perhaps miles away.
Clinging there by his fingernails in the dank rushing blackness, Giles
Hobson was so frozen with horror that it did not even occur to him to call on
the various saints he ordinarily blasphemed. He merely hung on to the
irregularly round, slippery object his hands had found, frantic with fear of
being torn away and whirled down that black slimy tunnel, feeling his arms
and fingers growing numb with the strain, and slipping gradually but steadily
from their hold.
His last ounce of breath went from him in a wild cry of despair, and
—miracle of miracles—it was answered. Light flooded the shaft, a
light dim and gray, yet in such contrast with the former blackness that it
momentarily dazzled him. Someone was shouting, but the words were
unintelligible amidst the rush of the black waters. He tried to shout back,
but he could only gurgle. Then, mad with fear lest the trap should shut
again, he achieved an inhuman screech that almost burst his throat.
Shaking the water from his eyes and craning his head backward, he saw a
human head and shoulders blocked in the open trap far above him. A rope was
dangling down toward him. It swayed before his eyes, but he dared not let go
long enough to seize it. In desperation, he mouthed for it, gripped it with
his teeth, then let go and snatched, even as he was sucked into the black
hole. His numbed fingers slipped along the rope. Tears of fear and
helplessness rolled down his face. But his jaws were locked desperately on
the strands, and his corded neck muscles resisted the terrific strain.
Whoever was on the other end of the rope was hauling like a team of oxen.
Giles felt himself ripped bodily from the clutch of the torrent. As his feet
swung clear, he saw, in the dim light, that to which he had been clinging: a
human skull, wedged somehow in a crevice of the slimy rock.
He was drawn rapidly up, revolving like a pendant. His numbed hands clawed
stiffly at the rope, his teeth seemed to be tearing from their sockets. His
jaw muscles were knots of agony, his neck felt as if it were being
Just as human endurance reached its limit, he saw the lip of the trap slip
past him, and he was dumped on the floor at its brink.
He groveled in agony, unable to unlock his jaws from about the hemp.
Someone was massaging the cramped muscles with skilful fingers, and at last
they relaxed with a stream of blood from the tortured gums. A goblet of wine
was pressed to his lips and he gulped it loudly, the liquid slopping over and
spilling on his slime-smeared mail. Someone was tugging at it, as if fearing
lest he injure himself by guzzling, but he clung on with both hands until the
beaker was empty. Then only he released it, and with a loud gasping sigh of
relief, looked up into the face of Shawar. Behind the vizier were several
giant Sudani, of the same type as those who had been responsible for Giles'
"We missed you from the audience hall," said Shawar. "Sir Hugh roared
treachery, until a eunuch said he saw you follow a woman slave off down a
corridor. Then the lord Hugh laughed and said you were up to your old tricks,
and rode away with the lord Geoffrey. But I knew the peril you ran in
dallying with a woman in the Caliph's palace; so I searched for you, and a
slave told me he had heard a frightful yell in this chamber. I came, and
entered just as a black was replacing the carpet above the trap. He sought to
flee, and died without speaking." The vizier indicated a sprawling form that
lay near, head lolling on half-severed neck. "How came you in this
"A woman lured me here," answered Giles, "and set blackamoors upon me,
threatening me with the well unless I revealed Amalric's plans."
"What did you tell her?" The vizier's eyes burned so intently on Giles
that the fat man shuddered slightly and hitched himself further away from the
yet open trap.
"I told them nothing! Who am I to know the king's plans, anyway? Then they
dumped me into that cursed hole, though I fought like a lion and maimed a
score of the rogues. Had I but had my trusty sword—"
At a nod from Shawar the trap was closed, the rug drawn over it. Giles
breathed a sigh of relief. Slaves dragged the corpse away.
The vizier touched Giles' arm and led the way through a corridor concealed
by the hangings.
"I will send an escort with you to the Frankish camp. There are spies of
Shirkuh in this palace, and others who love him not, yet hate me. Describe me
this woman—the eunuch saw only her hand."
Giles groped for adjectives, then shook his head.
"Her hair was black, her eyes moonfire, her body alabaster."
"A description that would fit a thousand women of the Caliph," said the
vizier. "No matter; get you gone, for the night wanes and Allah only knows
what morn will bring."
The night was indeed late as Giles Hobson rode into the Frankish camp
surrounded by Turkish memluks with drawn sabres. But a light burned in
Amalric's pavilion, which the wary monarch preferred to the palace offered
him by Shawar; and thither Giles went, confident of admittance as a teller of
lusty tales who had won the king's friendship.
Amalric and his barons were bent above a map as the fat man entered, and
they were too engrossed to notice his entry, or his bedraggled
"Shawar will furnish us men and boats," the king was saying; "they will
fashion the bridge, and we will make the attempt by night—"
An explosive grunt escaped Giles' lips, as if he had been hit in the
"What, Sir Giles the Fat!" exclaimed Amalric, looking up; "are you but now
returned from your adventuring in Cairo? You are fortunate still to have head
on your shoulders. Eh—what ails you, that you sweat and grow pale?
Where are you going?"
"I have taken an emetic," mumbled Giles over his shoulder.
Beyond the light of the pavilion he broke into a stumbling run. A tethered
horse started and snorted at him. He caught the rein, grasped the saddle
peak; then, with one foot in the stirrup, he halted. Awhile he meditated;
then at last, wiping cold sweat beads from his face, he returned with slow
and dragging steps to the king's tent.
He entered unceremoniously and spoke forthwith: "Lord, is it your plan to
throw a bridge of boats across the Nile?"
"Aye, so it is," declared Amalric.
Giles uttered a loud groan and sank down on a bench, his head in his
hands. "I am too young to die!" he lamented. "Yet I must speak, though my
reward be a sword in the belly. This night Shirkuh's spies trapped me into
speaking like a fool. I told them the first lie that came into my head—
and Saint Withold defend me, I spoke the truth unwittingly. I told them you
meant to build a bridge of boats!"
A shocked silence reigned. Geoffrey Fulcher dashed down his cup in a spasm
of anger. "Death to the fat fool!" he swore, rising.
"Nay!" Amalric smiled suddenly. He stroked his golden beard. "Our foe will
be expecting the bridge, now. Good enough. Hark ye!"
And as he spoke, grim smiles grew on the lips of the barons, and Giles
Hobson began to grin and thrust out his belly, as if his fault had been
virtue, craftily devised.
All night the Saracen host had stood at arms; on the opposite bank fires
blazed, reflected from the rounded walls and burnished roofs of el Fustat.
Trumpets mingled with the clang of steel. The Emir Shirkuh, riding up and
down the bank along which his mailed hawks were ranged, glanced toward the
eastern sky, just tinged with dawn. A wind blew out of the desert.
There had been fighting along the river the day before, and all through
the night drums had rumbled and trumpets blared their threat. All day
Egyptians and naked Sudani had toiled to span the dusky flood with boats
chained together, end to end. Thrice they had pushed toward the western bank,
under the cover of their archers in the barges, only to falter and shrink
back before the clouds of Turkish arrows. Once the end of the boat bridge had
almost touched the shore, and the helmeted riders had spurred their horses
into the water to slash at the shaven heads of the workers. Skirkuh had
expected an onslaught of the knights across the frail span, but it had not
come. The men in the boats had again fallen back, leaving their dead floating
in the muddily churning wash.
Shirkuh decided that the Franks were lurking behind walls, saving
themselves for a supreme effort, when their allies should have completed the
bridge. The opposite bank was clustered with swarms of naked figures, and the
Kurd expected to see them begin the futile task once more.
As dawn whitened the desert, there came a rider who rode like the wind,
sword in hand, turban unbound, blood dripping from his beard.
"Woe to Islam!" he cried. "The Franks have crossed the river!"
Panic swept the Moslem camp; men jerked their steeds from the river bank,
staring wildly northward. Only Shirkuh's bull-like voice kept them from
flinging away their swords and bolting.
The Emir's profanity was frightful. He had been fooled and tricked. While
the Egyptians held his attention with their useless labor, Amalric and the
iron men had marched northward, crossed the prongs of the Delta in ships, and
were now hastening vengefully southward. The Emir's spies had had neither
time nor opportunity to reach him. Shawar had seen to that.
The Mountain Lion dared not await attack in this unsheltered spot. Before
the sun was well up, the Turkish host was on the march; behind them the
rising light shone on spear-points that gleamed in a rising cloud of
This dust irked Giles Hobson, riding behind Amalric and his councilors.
The fat Englishman was thirsty; dust settled greyly on his mail; gnats bit
him, sweat got into his eyes, and the sun, as it rose, beat mercilessly on
his basinet; so he hung it on his saddle peak and pushed back his linked
coif, daring sunstroke. On either side of him leather creaked and worn mail
clinked. Giles thought of the ale-pots of England, and cursed the man whose
hate had driven him around the world.
And so they hunted the Mountain Lion up the valley of the Nile, until they
came to el Baban, The Gates, and found the Saracen host drawn up for battle
in the gut of the low sandy hills.
Word came back along the ranks, putting new fervor into the knights. The
clatter of leather and steel seemed imbued with new meaning. Giles put on his
helmet and rising in his stirrups, looked over the iron-clad shoulders in
front of him.
To the left were the irrigated fields on the edge of which the host was
riding. To the right was the desert. Ahead of them the terrain was broken by
the hills. On these hills and in the shallow valleys between, bristled the
banners of the Turks, and their nakirsblared. A mass of the host was
drawn up in the plain between the Franks and the hills.
The Christians had halted: three hundred and seventy-five knights, plus
half a dozen more who had ridden all the way from Acre and reached the host
only an hour before, with their retainers. Behind them, moving with the
baggage, their allies halted in straggling lines: a thousand Turcoples, and
some five thousand Egyptians, whose gaudy garments outshone their
"Let us ride forward and smite those on the plain," urged one of the
foreign knights, newly come to the East.
Amalric scanned the closely massed ranks and shook his head. He glanced at
the banners that floated among the spears on the slopes on either flank where
the kettledrums clamored.
"That is the banner of Saladin in the center," he said. "Shirkuh's house
troops are on yonder hill. If the center expected to stand, the Emir would be
there. No, messers, I think it is their wish to lure us into a charge. We
will wait their attack, under cover of the Turcoples' bows. Let them come to
us; they are in a hostile land, and must push the war."
The rank and file had not heard his words. He lifted his hand, and
thinking it preceded an order to charge, the forest of lances quivered and
sank in rest. Amalric, realizing the mistake, rose in his stirrups to shout
his command to fall back, but before he could speak, Giles' horse, restive,
shouldered that of the knight next to him. This knight, one of those who had
joined the host less than an hour before, turned irritably; Giles looked into
a lean beaked face, seamed by a livid scar.
"Ha!" Instinctively the ogre caught at his sword.
Giles' action was also instinctive. Everything else was swept out of his
mind at the sight of that dread visage which had haunted his dreams for more
than a year. With a yelp he sank his spurs into his horse's belly. The beast
neighed shrilly and leaped, blundering against Amalric's warhorse. That high-
strung beast reared and plunged, got the bit between its teeth, broke from
the ranks and thundered out across the plain.
Bewildered, seeing their king apparently charging the Saracen host single-
handed, the men of the Cross gave tongue and followed him. The plain shook as
the great horses stampeded across it, and the spears of the iron-clad riders
crashed splinteringly against the shields of their enemies.
The movement was so sudden it almost swept the Moslems off their feet.
They had not expected a charge so instantly to follow the coming up of the
Christians. But the allies of the knights were struck by confusion. No orders
had been given, no arrangement made for battle. The whole host was disordered
by that premature onslaught. The Turcoples and Egyptians wavered uncertainly,
drawing up about the baggage wagons.
The whole first rank of the Saracen center went down, and over their
mangled bodies rode the knights of Jerusalem, swinging their great swords. An
instant the Turkish ranks held; then they began to fall back in good order,
marshaled by their commander, a slender, dark, self-contained young officer,
Salah ed din, Shirkuh's nephew.
The Christians followed. Amalric, cursing his mischance, made the best of
a bad bargain, and so well he plied his trade that the harried Turks cried
out on Allah and turned their horses' heads from him.
Back into the gut of the hills the Saracens retired, and turning there,
under cover of slope and cliff, darkened the air with their shafts. The
headlong force of the knights' charge was broken in the uneven ground, but
the iron men came on grimly, bending their helmeted heads to the rain.
Then on the flanks, kettledrums roared into fresh clamor. The riders of
the right wing, led by Shirkuh, swept down the slopes and struck the horde
which clustered loosely about the baggage train. That charge swept the
unwarlike Egyptians off the field in headlong flight. The left wing began to
close in to take the knights on the flank, driving before it the troops of
the Turcoples. Amalric, hearing the kettledrums behind and on either side of
him as well as in front, gave the order to fall back, before they were
completely hemmed in.
To Giles Hobson it seemed the end of the world. He was deafened by the
clang of swords and the shouts. He seemed surrounded by an ocean of surging
steel and billowing dust clouds. He parried blindly and smote blindly, hardly
knowing whether his blade cut flesh or empty air. Out of the defiles horsemen
were moving, chanting exultantly. A cry of "Yala-l-Islam!" rose above
the thunder—Saladin's war-cry, that was in later years to ring around
the world. The Saracen center was coming into the battle again.
Abruptly the press slackened, broke; the plain was filled with flying
figures. A strident ululation cut the din. The Turcoples' shafts had stayed
the Saracens' left wing just long enough to allow the knights to retreat
through the closing jaws of the vise. But Amalric, retreating slowly, was cut
off with a handful of knights. The Turks swirled about him, screaming in
exultation, slashing and smiting with mad abandon. In the dust and confusion
the ranks of the iron men fell back, unaware of the fate of their king.
Giles Hobson, riding through the field like a man in a daze, came face to
face with Guiscard de Chastillon.
"Dog!" croaked the knight. "We are doomed, but I'll send you to Hell ahead
His sword went up, but Giles leaned from his saddle and caught his arm.
The fat man's eyes were bloodshot; he licked his dust-stained lips. There was
blood on his sword, and his helmet was dinted.
"Your selfish hate and my cowardice has cost Amalric the field this day,"
Giles croaked. "There he fights for his life; let us redeem ourselves as best
Some of the glare faded from de Chastillon's eyes; he twisted about,
stared at the plumed heads that surged and eddied about a cluster of iron
helmets; and he nodded his steel-clad head.
They rode together into the melee. Their swords hissed and crackled on
mail and bone. Amalric was down, pinned under his dying horse. Around him
whirled the eddy of battle, where his knights were dying under a sea of
Giles fell rather than jumped from his saddle, gripped the dazed king and
dragged him clear. The fat Englishman's muscles cracked under the strain, a
groan escaped his lips. A Seljuk leaned from the saddle, slashed at Amalric's
unhelmeted head. Giles bent his head, took the blow on his own crown; his
knees sagged and sparks flashed before his eyes. Guiscard de Chastillon rose
in his stirrups, swinging his sword with both hands. The blade crunched
through mail, gritted through bone. The Seljuk dropped, shorn through the
spine. Giles braced his legs, heaved the king up, slung him over his
"Save the king!" Giles did not recognize that croak as his own voice.
Geoffrey Fulcher loomed through the crush, dealing great strokes. He
seized the rein of Giles' steed; half a dozen reeling, blood-dripping knights
closed about the frantic horse and its stunned burden. Nerved to desperation
they hacked their way clear. The Seljuks swirled in behind them to be met by
Guiscard de Chastillon's flailing blade.
The waves of wild horsemen and flying blades broke on him. Saddles were
emptied and blood spurted. Giles rose from the red-splashed ground among the
lashing hoofs. He ran in among the horses, stabbing at bellies and thighs. A
sword stroke knocked off his helmet. His blade snapped under a Seljuk's
Guiscard's horse screamed awfully and sank to the earth. His grim rider
rose, spurting blood at every joint of his armor. Feet braced wide on the
blood- soaked earth, he wielded his great sword until the steel wave washed
over him and he was hidden from view by waving plumes and rearing steeds.
Giles ran at a heron-feathered chief, gripped his leg with his naked
hands. Blows rained on his coif, bringing fire-shot darkness, but he hung
grimly on. He wrenched the Turk from his saddle, fell with him, groping for
his throat. Hoofs pounded about him, a steed shouldered against him, knocking
him rolling in the dust. He clambered painfully to his feet, shaking the
blood and sweat from his eyes. Dead men and dead horses lay heaped in a
ghastly pile about him.
A familiar voice reached his dulled ears. He saw Shirkuh sitting his white
horse, gazing down at him. The Mountain Lion's beard bristled in a grin.
"You have saved Amalric," said he, indicating a group of riders in the
distance, closing in with the retreating host; the Saracens were not pressing
the pursuit too closely. The iron men were falling back in good order. They
were defeated, not broken. The Turks were content to allow them to retire
"You are a hero, Giles ibn Malik," said Shirkuh.
Giles sank down on a dead horse and dropped his head in his hands. The
marrow of his legs seemed turned to water, and he was shaken with a desire to
"I am neither a hero nor the son of a king," said Giles. "Slay me and be
done with it."
"Who spoke of slaying?" demanded Shirkuh. "I have just won an empire in
this battle, and I would quaff a goblet in token of it. Slay you? By Allah, I
would not harm a hair of such a stout fighter and noble toper. You shall come
and drink with me in celebration of a kingdom won when I ride into El Kahira