Couriers galloped up and down along the length of the procession, cart drivers cried out. The harness tightened across the backs of the oxen.
The army left the mountains surrounding Calan-Kalesi and crossed the Aballava, spilling in the meandering valleys, like a river of humans and beasts, filling the pine scented, humid air with shouts, the cracking of whips and the creak of harness.
The host retreated into the forest for the night. Aeife dined in her tent in the company of Egill and a bottle of good deheubarthian wine.
“We are near Almon-Diblajatim, right?” She wound the chain of the Talisman around her finger.
“A couple more days of riding, perhaps a week.” The count sprawled in his chair, cleaning his nails with a dagger. The Gidel-Moe insignia of helmet-and-three arrows glinted gold on his hauberk. He waved with the blade. “Theodoric told me they had a smooth trip. What, you bought a new necklace? I thought you needed all the money for the trip.”
She let go of the chain. “Did they come by Őmát’Ím?”
“By Aziabelis. He said they were mostly undisturbed. Can I see?”
Egill stopped picking his nails and looked at her. “Sister, what is wrong with you?”
“Did they see anything?”
“The ships wait at Colwyn.” Egill said, as if that settled the matter. “Whatever we might come across on the way should not pose a threat to an army of this size.”
The servants brought in deer stew. The count picked up his fork in anticipation. “Is it from one of your countless admirers?”
It crossed Aeife’s mind that her brother kept harping on her necklace to distract her from her worries, but after a short deliberation she dismissed the idea. She didn’t know Egill to be so sly, nor so considerate. She glanced up from her plate. “Don’t confuse me with Plaisance.”
He guffawed. Aeife picked at chunks of meat. “You don’t seem to care about the South, not even after last night and all the things that Fiγsmi had said.”
Egill seemed uncomfortable for the first time. “Now you start worrying? What do you want me to do? The reports don’t mention anything like that.”
“What do they mention?”
He shovelled in the food with a great elan. The baroness wondered how he could stay so lean with such an appetite. “Well, since you are so hell-bent on knowing, they speak of shadows, of voices whispering in the woods and suchlike…” he shrugged.
Aeife remembered what Plaisance had told her a month ago.
Egill stood and stretched. “Can I ask Afavldr if it’s from him?” he asked on his way out.
“What? No! No, you can’t! Egill!”
But he was already gone, with only his laughter echoing in the dusk. She fumbled with the cords of the tent flap fuming. Her brother flung himself into the adventure with his usual jolly nonchalance, as if this was just another joust or border feud. Aeife envied him a little. How much easier it would be to make light of everything like he did!
Deciduous trees replaced the pine forest in the domain of Slievemargy. The horses trod on a thick, wet carpet of fallen leaves.
The host gathered information from travellers on the road; flocks of pilgrims, lords with their entourages, peasants from rural towns driving their animals to the local marketplaces. Aeife got around to asking Theodoric about their journey, but she didn’t learn much from it. (“Men woke up to strange cries in the dead of the night,” he frowned, “a certain sinister miasma lingered that made the men and the beasts ill, but all these… phenomenons ceased as we approached An t-Aonach Môr.”)
They were cutting across the mountains that separated the coastal lowlands from the rest of Őmát’Ím. The throng was descending from a ridge, when scouts arrived hotfoot.
The crowd slowed down and stopped, buzzing, with messengers scurrying to and fro. Aeife caught one of them. “The vanguard… is gone…,” the boy panted. “They come out at night, seem to avoid open areas…”
“Who?” A captain nearby interrupted.
“We… we don’t know. They don’t seem to be human.”
They came at dawn, moving like a silent wave. Their first attack was swept away by the knights, yet there was no prospect of an easy victory; the host was stuck in a glen between two promontories. The strangers retreated, but not so far as to let the army out of the trap. The commanders sent out smaller units to sneak past the enemy lines to secure the ships in the nearby havens.
Priests walked around the camp, blessing everyone who asked for it. Warriors huddled around fires, sharpening weapons, casting wary glances into the dark beyond the firelight.
Halfway between sleep and waking Aeife sensed someone entering her tent. “Quick Milady, get up.”
She wanted to cover her ears and sink back into sleep, but the other grabbed her shoulder and shook her quite rudely.
The baroness looked up, but only saw a black shape, a page or a courier, she guessed. She decided to admonish him later for his bad manners and dressed hastily instead.
People swarmed outside in the pre-dawn darkness, weaponry rattled, horses whinnied. The wind brought screams.
In the light of the scattered fires she saw that the intruder was Afavldr. A page tried to restrain a skittish Hilla.
“You may want to stay close to me, Lady.” Aeife had a hard time hearing him in the noise.
“Where is Egill?”
They dodged overturned carts, some of them burning, passed heaps none of them wanted to investigate closely. Their group grew; mercenaries and knights joined them. Suddenly the trees ran out and they were standing on a field, looking around horrified. Someone sobbed softly. Others were loudly sick. A foot soldier crossed himself. “This is the work of the Devil.”
The meadow was littered with mutilated and burned bodies.
Aeife found Egill a few steps away. “What happened here?” Her voice was muffled through her sleeve that she pressed to her face against the stench.
He searched the multitude over her head. “There’s a bigger force out there. No-one saw them clearly…”
“Where are they now?”
“Everywhere. Get on your horse.” He raised his voice, as he addressed the crowd around them. “Our only chance is to beat them to the havens.” And pray that the ships are still there, intact, he didn’t add.
For a while it seemed that they would get away, galloping down the path unhindered. Then Aeife spotted shadows moving parallel with them, keeping up with the racing horses with an unnerving ease. Wild animals, she told herself. That must be it, they are running from… from…
She heard whispers and giggles and someone called her name. The forest was alive, teeming with glowing eyes and grinning mouths full of teeth.
Aeife looked around, searching for Kolfinna and Afavldr. Egill rode some distance ahead and she dug her heels in the mare’s side to catch up with him. A shadow grabbed the man riding next to the count; his horse bolted among the trees. People and beasts got snatched along the length of the column. She saw gárlin-chogs in the chaos, their one orange eye glowing like a lantern in their shiny black face. They felt, rather than heard a rumble, resonating in their bones, coming from everywhere. Aeife did not dare to imagine the creature that made such a sound.
A mouldy grey hand plunged down from the darkness and closed around an ox cart, with the screaming driver holding on to the seat. A small part of her mind that wasn’t frozen noted that the trunk-sized fingers took up the colour of the wooden planks of the cart and the hide of the ox. Aeife could make out the outlines of the thing and wished she couldn’t; a shapeless hole in the middle of vast expanses of flesh the colour of decay, that expanded as the thing stuffed the driver and the ox into it. The howling stopped abruptly. The cart fell back, with the rest of its cargo feathering around it, splinters flying around as it crashed to the ground.
“MOVE!” Egill slapped Hilla’s rump. The horse bolted after the other panicking animals, with Aeife holding on to the saddle. The harbour was in sight, when a new kind of horror struck. Men twitched, hit their legs and arms frantically, horses stumbled for no apparent reason to disappear in the fray with rolling eyes and open, foamy mouths. A man was lumbering towards her. There was… something on his legs, arms and face, some kind of watery material that waved and bubbled as it ate itself into his skin and flesh, down to the bone. He was almost upon her, when a blade pierced his chest and he collapsed.
She didn’t remember how she got on the ship. Between the man with the bloody hole growing on his cheek, and her, crouching trembling in the corner of a cabin, it was a blur. She reconstructed the events later from Egill’s account. The four war-galleys waited in a nearby harbour, sailing up to the haven when word came of the army. The hired sailors let down the oars, unleashed the ropes with a feverish urgency, and the sails with the coat of arms of king Ethal unfurled. The last of the oxen were left behind to slow down the horde, but still, a lot of the stragglers never made it. Those on the vessels could watch them being dragged away, vanishing among the trees.
One of the deputies, a certain Alenard was among the casualties, along with other men of rank, knights, squires, foot soldiers, the falconer and most of Aeife’s warriors.
She shared the cabin with Kolfinna; the maid’s chatty nature left her, her movement became slow and brittle. When she was not serving her mistress, she sat on the plank-bed with her arms around her knees, staring into thin air.
Aeife huddled on the berth, clutching the Talisman in a sweaty, shaking hand. She saw that man again and again, awake and in her nightmares, his half-bare skull looming in the first light of dawn. She spent days and nights in the cabin, not touching the food Kolfinna put in front of her. She jumped when someone slammed the door open. It was Egill.
“It’s only a matter of time until these hordes reach the north. Caelfind, Gunthar and Ua must be warned.” He took a closer look at his sister and shook his head. “Come, let’s walk a bit outside.” He grabbed her arm and half-dragged, half-carried Aeife out onto the deck.
She leaned on the parapet and let Egill’s talk wash over her, not hearing a word he said, staring at the glittering path the setting sun painted on the sea.
“…lost almost a quarter of the host, though it seemed more to me in that chaos. The king will be disappointed if–”
“What if they follow us on the sea?”
“What? The reverend fathers say they cannot go near water.” He spied the horizon. “They pray every day to keep them away. As do I, to see your spirit restored.”
“How do they know?”
The count shrugged. “They didn’t attack the ships in the harbour, right? The priests blessed the vessels, that might have helped as well.”
Aeife turned to him, although she couldn’t see much of him from the bright spots in her vision. “A lot of those blessed in the camp died the same night.”
“You don’t have enough faith, sister, I always say,” Egill scowled.
The days became sunnier and a warm sea breeze filled the sails. The rest of the journey was uneventful; they weren’t plagued by storms or pirates. Around the middle of spring they reached the port of Acre. The air had an alien smell; a blend of salt, smoke, spices and something else Aeife couldn’t identify. The crooked alleys of the sukh, the walls and the houses were hewn of ivory-coloured stones, same as the gates and watchtowers, clad in flowers and the royal banner of Jerusalem. City folk cluttered the piers, crowded in windows and on balconies, rented out for a hefty price for the spectacle. Bejewelled noblemen waited under a blue awning by the city wall. Notes of music drifted on the breeze.
Aeife retired to the cabin to prepare from the little she had left of her belongings. She donned a green velvet gown that reminded her of the thick forests of An t-Aonach Môr. The silver embroidery glinted on her gray robe only if the light fell on it in the right angle. With her few l’aïa pieces she’d look rather seedy compared to the splendour of the locals, but that couldn’t be helped.
Kolfinna combed and braided her hair. The maid pursed her lips as she made some final adjustments to the veil covering Aeife’s head and neck. “Him, of all the men…!” The baroness was secretly glad to have Kolfinna’s meddlesome nature back.
The sailors were tying up the ships when Aeife stepped out on the deck. She pulled the hood over her face against the sun. A delegation arrived on horseback, but he was not among them. Although she’d never seen her knight before, she was sure she’d recognize him. She mounted Hilla, harnessed with the best saddle and bridles they could find and, following the chief men of the army, paced down the ramp. With family ties to the royal house Egill and Aeife spoke the tongue of the Outremerites, but of the intricate Latin greeting of the leader of the delegation she understood just bits and pieces. She was all too aware of the patchy looks of the Iamtalanders, as they rode in the wake of the locals back towards the awning.
The procession stopped when a smaller party rode out from the cover of the awning to meet them. They were following one on a destrier, bedecked with the most magnificent trappings Aeife had ever seen. She felt like she was punched in the chest. It was him, his hair held down by a gem-studded circlet, that red-gold hair familiar from her Talisman. It was him she beheld for the first time, not looking at the multitude that fell on their knees in front of him. The king halted his horse in front of them, measuring them with a glance. The local nobles crossed themselves, the Northerners bent themselves from the waist. She noted every detail, the way he controlled the beast with his knees only, the heavy crimson and blue fabrics enveloping his figure, the gleam of sunlight on his hair, the freckles where his skin was still more or less intact.
He made a sign to dismount; Outremerites and foreigners made haste to do so before him, and by the time his feet reached the ground they were kneeling with heads bent. He beckoned to them to rise and talked with Afavldr and her brother. All too soon the moment Aeife was dreading and anticipating came when Egill gestured towards her. There he was in front of her, studying her and Aeife couldn’t have blurted out a word if her life depended on it. He was towering over her by at least a head, but it was not just because of that, that Aeife felt small in his presence.
Dusty sunshine painted intricate patterns on the thick carpet. The buzz of the sukh near Damascus gate filtered through the wooden grids in the arched windows. Tin containers filled with spiced wine, rosewater and dried fruit cluttered a low table.
Her suite was higher than most of the small cupolas of the closely huddling buildings, so Aeife could peek into hidden courtyards and secret gardens. The twilight sun dressed the houses and church towers with a rosy glow, painted the sky with pink and blue stripes.
Sometimes the wind brought sand from the desert, enveloping the city in a thick, yellowish haze. The Northerners’ skin flaked in the dry air and the eternal dust made them cough and hawk. It covered everything in a thin layer despite the best efforts of the servants, as Aeife learned from Kolfinna’s constant grumbling.
It was nearly impossible to get around in the sukh after sunrise and before vespers, with throngs of people swarming in the narrow alleys, vendors loudly advertising their wares. The household cooks used a lot of strange spices; mint, garlic and cinnamon.
Even the animals puzzled her; the nimble, fine boned horses and the beast called dromedary, with its quaint looks and noises.
Aeife attended Sunday mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and visited all the famous places of pilgrimage. It was during such a trip that she saw the Devil. She was fighting her way through a marketplace in Bethlehem with her entourage. First the baroness thought it was one of those dark skinned people that she first saw in Outremer; only later did she notice the twin sparks of his eyes, the blazing fall of hair. His skin was smooth like polished ebony. When he noticed her watching he grinned and she could see triangular, black teeth in the furnace of his mouth. Aeife crossed herself and with her other hand showed the sign against Evil. The next moment he was gone.
There was still some traffic on the streets of Jerusalem after sunset; merchants and pilgrims were seeking night shelter, noisy inns were inviting guests, Templar and Hospitaller squadrons went about their errands, carts loaded with goods rolled past her and her manservant. Aeife pulled the hood deep over her face against the light of torches in the wall sconces.
Colourful carpets hung along the gaily painted uneven walls, knick-knacks covered every inch in the smoky halls of the tavern where they agreed to meet. At Egill’s request Aslanian, the stout innkeeper led them to a table at the back. They talked quietly, although the precaution was needless, given the noise in the hall.
They were served mutton with rosemary and garlic, olives in small plates, cinnamon-and clove-cakes, dates, with rosewater and spiced wine for refreshment.
Egill ogled an olive, then took a careful bite. “Commerce is stalling, ships sail at multiple cost to the West, and not at all to Őmát’Ím. Caravans come and go along the Via Maris, but not for long, I’m afraid.”
“Do you think Outremer is in danger?” She swirled the wine in her goblet to stir the spices settled at the bottom. “The king has enough to deal with as it is.”
“I don’t know. Is that your biggest concern? Talking of the king, what was that bizarre behaviour in the harbour? You just stood there gaping like a kitchen maid – I was mortified.”
Aeife was amazed at the way Egill jumped between topics. Her manners at the harbour were on par for him with the world possibly ending. She snorted. “Mortified. You. Well, that’s a first.”
But he didn’t let her change the subject. “Aeife?”
She cast her eyes down. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Why not now?”
“Egill please. Now, what about the things Fiγsmi said?”
He cast her a flat glance. “What about them? Shadowsword, dreammaster, have you heard of such things before? I haven’t. Never read of them in any of the chronicles, no idea where to look for them.”
Not like you’ve read that many chronicles, Aeife didn’t say. That wasn’t an answer to his question. The truth was, there were no answers. “So, what do we do?”
“For starters, you could explain your behaviour at the harbour.”
Aeife groaned. He was nothing if not persistent. She realized she didn’t have the words to explain.
The sight of the Talisman rising from her neckline wiped the grin off his face. It shut him up finally, and made him gape like a kitchen maid. The pendant lay in the shelter of her palms heavily. Egill glared at it unblinking. “I received this not long before we left, and he carries the one I sent him about a year ago. At least I hope he does. This is the main reason why I wanted to come.”
He blew out the air he didn’t notice he was holding in. “A Talisman, for God’s sake! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Keep you voice down.” But she couldn’t intercept the flood of his words. Heads turned toward them.
“This is a stronger bond, than death–”
“Ssshh! I know,” she nodded impatiently. “But I cannot be his consort–”
“His consort? Aeife, I… damn!”
“He is a leper, I don’t know if you noticed that minor detail. Doesn’t that concern you?”
Aeife traced the chisels on the pendant’s back. “He is not a leper, he is Baldwin. And where the Talisman truly works, where we can be united at last, he won’t be a leper any more.”
Egill shook his head, for once too stunned to say anything.
“Until then, I try to serve him as best as I can. I didn’t tell you, as I don’t think it is anybody’s business apart from me and him.” Aeife watched the tables nearby as she tucked the Talisman back under her shift, “and it’s not like it has anything to do with our problems.”
Egill was still staring at her with a mixture of wonder and horror when Afavldr arrived.
“Lord Afavldr,” the count tried to compose himself. He called for more wine. Afavldr didn’t comment about the tense mood at their table. “We were just discussing where to get the Shadowsword and a dreammaster to boot. Any ideas?”
He filled the knight in about the council with Fiγsmi earlier on. “Was it Markward’s doing in the South?” Afavldr wondered.
The count drummed on his fist with his fingers. “We don’t know. We know nothing about this whole matter, but I’d think he is just the vehicle of… greater powers.”
“Fiγsmi said the cave can be used as a portal to other worlds. Maybe wo could use it to get the Shadowsword and the dreammaster…”
Egill looked at her. “The last time we went close to it, it nearly killed us, sister. Whatever lives therein, I doubt it forgot us or that it would let us off so easily the next time.”
Aeife looked away. She wanted to argue, wanted to prove it could be done, that it might be the only way, but she didn’t know for sure. None of them did.
With the scorching weather the baroness switched to the lighter garments of the local ladies; when the royal summons came, she donned best gown – a golden silk piece ornate with delicate needlework. She followed the messenger through the vault-roofed alleys, past the Sepulchre, the textile-market and the Hospital and turned towards David’s gate and the square where tolls were collected in the shadow of the Citadel and the Royal Palace.
In the Palace a certain Anfroi led her down corridors adorned with glittering, colourful mosaics, past enclosed gardens, up winding staircases. Nervous officials rushed past them. The bustle intensified as they approached the heart of the palace; nobles, courtiers were conversing, arguing on the torch-lit corridor.
Beyond the corridor, in a lustrous parlour, scribes, ambassadors, secular knights, members of the military orders, office-bearers were gathering. The light of torches and oil-lamps danced on jewels and gemstones.
She spotted Theodoric in the crowd. The envoy beckoned to her and they passed more chambers and corridors before halting in an antechamber, where Aeife was told to wait.
Illustrious men came and went through a mother-of-pearl inlaid ebony door. The baroness was summoned when the last of them departed. Polychrome marble covered the walls behind the embroidered draperies. The vaulted ceiling was painted to resemble the starry sky. Stone arches on her left opened to a two-storey courtyard, with a white marble fountain splashing in the middle. It was studded with semi-precious stones and was surrounded by mosaics depicting the sea so lifelike she half expected the waves to move.
Plants carpeted the ground-floor along the walls. Trees grew in three corners, sprouting higher than the courtyard. Twiners climbed the walls, dissolving the rigid angles of the stone, fell curtain-like from the upper level, swaying in the light breeze.
Sculptures, silver and bronze vessels, reliquaries and icons, treasures from faraway countries glinted in the light of the few candles. Incense burners streamed scented smoke, not quite covering the underlying smell of medicines and ointments.
A flock of white-clad doctors and servants looked up as she entered. The king sat with Theodoric by an octangular table, clad in dark brocades embroidered with golden thread. The men joked like old friends – Aeife couldn’t help noticing how young the king sounded; a boy, rather than a man, as he laughed with shoulders shaking and head tilted back, so uninhibited, so unkingly it was almost embarrassing to look at. The Laughing King.
They talked about the future and the coming campaign for a while, then Theodoric excused himself and left with the rest of the servants.
“We lamented the death of lord Senach this spring. He was a true and loyal servant of the crown. You bear your grief with grace, which must be a comfort to him surely,” he gestured and Aeife took a seat. “I thank you for bringing your knights, my lady, yet if I recall correctly, I did not ask you to accompany them.”
Her cheeks were burning. “I beg your pardon Sire,” she breathed. “I brought you something.”
She took the package she brought from Iamtaland and unwrapped it with clumsy fingers. It was a psalter book, a family heritage from her grandfather Conall, king of Dalriada before Aedan; a masterpiece of the monks and illuminators of the Isles, costing them long years and many a half-blinded eye to complete. The verses were framed in and interlaced with a net of knotwork and stylized animals and plants of extraordinary complexity, each of the initials being a part, or branching off this web of curving lines. Scenes from the life of King David were carved on the ivory binding in minute detail. The eyes of the figures were rubies and emeralds. Aeife looked up at him.
He kept watching her with eyes so pale and transparent they looked like gemstones themselves, and the baroness hoped he didn’t think she wanted to appease him with a gift of such value.
She wondered if he wore the Talisman she sent him and her hand wandered to where her own pendant hid under her garment, above her heart. His eyes followed the movement but he gave no other sign of recognition, and she had to be content with that.
“Your brother told me of your perilous journey.”
“I fear that this trouble in Iamtaland will reach Outremer sooner or later.”
“Should that happen, I will see to it.” He glanced at the arches. Birds rustled in the greenery; one of them, barely bigger than a horsefly zigzagged around the courtyard chirping an intricate tune, glittering like a jewel in the sunlight. He turned his cool glance back to her. “Or do you think me unfit to do so?”
“No, I… all I ask of you, I beg you to be careful, Sire. None of us has seen anything like this foe before. It’s greater and more dangerous than any mortal enemy you might face.” Aeife wanted to say something else, but the king interrupted her. “Tell me of your homeland.”
Her eyes veiled at the memory. “It is a much greener land, with dense forests and trees that grow so high the clouds get tangled in their crowns. There is a lot of fog and rain throughout the year and–”
“And you miss it.”
Aeife clasped her hands. “I wish I could show it to you.”
He seemed unmoved by the prospect. “Alas, that is not possible. But you can see it again soon.”
The baroness thought she misunderstood. “Why do you say so?”
“Two ships carrying pilgrims are sailing to the West. You will join them with your household.” He watched her fumbling for a reply. “Do you have an objection?” His tone suggested that he’d rather she didn’t.
“Yes… I mean no, but may I ask why?” She hated that whiny tone in her voice.
“It was foolish of you to come and it would be foolish to stay; this is not a land for a lady like you.”
Aeife wanted to argue, she wanted to point out that other women lived in Outremer too, like his Lady mother and sister, but she knew it was pointless. You don’t haggle with a king.
She touched the cover of the psalter book. “I wanted to bring you a falcon as well, the best one there was in An t-Aonach Môr. Findchoém was her name, and she was famed and desired in Iamtaland and beyond. She was the bird of my late husband Senach. She fled, at least I hope she did, when we were running for our lives at the Colwyn harbours. I wanted to give her to you, because…” her voice failed her.
Because it is what you are. A hunting falcon.
She would sit at her windows for long hours, contemplating the city, trying to commit to memory every little detail, reliving her time with the king over and over again, colouring and moulding their conversations more to her liking. She remembered what it was like to be in his presence, basking in his star-like, distant radiance.
Egill visited her on such a day. Dressed in his hunting clothes, he sprawled on a chair. “Sister, you look like a tavern wench. You could have the decency to dress up properly when you have a male visitor.”
She pulled her robe together absent-mindedly. “He wants to send me away, Egill. Why?”
The count tried hard not to lose his temper. “You forget the order of importance, Iamtaland and Outremer with all their troubles, versus your indecent and outrageous love affair.” His voice dripped with scorn at the last words. “Have you visited Senach’s grave even once since we arrived?”
He sighed. “He is buried on the Mount of Olives, you know. Died in the service of your beloved king. Talking of whom, try to think with his head. What use does he have of you? He can’t even use you in a dynastic marriage. He never wanted you here in the first place but of course you had to come, no matter what. Truth be told, he rebuked me for letting you join me.”
Aeife looked at him wounded. “But I… I brought him an army.”
“No, you put those men under my command. I brought an army, you just brought yourself and your household.”
For the lack of an answer, she turned back to the window. “I wanted to lay eyes on him just once this lifetime. Just once,” she mumbled.
“Well, you have. Happy now? Fret not, you won’t leave before the fate of this coming campaign is settled, as the king needs every fighter, those of Afavldr included – he is to accompany you. This might be his only chance at a conclusive strike against Salahaddin, to bring at least a few years of peace to the realm…”
The weather cooled down late in the autumn, with freezing dusks and dawns and frequent rains, that made the stone-paved streets slippery. On the feast of St. Catherine, Baldwin won the greatest triumph of his short life, the victory that would be remembered for hundreds of years, long after the fall of the kingdom.
Word reached the city that Salahaddin was marching against Jerusalem with the largest force that had ever been seen in Outremer, with the intention of razing the Holy Sepulchre and the Royal Palace to the ground, and put to the sword every Christian living in the city.
The panicky denizens flooded the narrow passages, with their most important possessions tied in bundles on their back. The streets were blocked by carts and by the mob that wanted to go in the same direction at the same time. People were arguing, shouting, horses neighed, women begged not to be pushed, children cried.
Aeife decided to use an alternative route branching off St. Stephen street, but she wasn’t the only one with the same idea. The maddening crawl came to a halt where Patriarch street joined David street. A cart turned over ahead, and a group of men were working on pushing it aside. Once it was moved, the crowd inched on, one step at a time. Aeife and Kolfinna were squeezed from every side; they had to catch each other from falling time and again.
“We’re almost there,” she said as much to herself as to Kolfinna, looking for the top of the hillock above the sea of heads. The white mass of the Citadel was already visible. The surrounding streets gushed streams of people to David square. They were racing to the Citadel, the city’s last bastion of defence. The few officials left in the city shouted orders, trying to maintain a semblance of order. Inside the stronghold Aeife and Kolfinna drew close to a loophole, watching the hours pass by, praying, spying the horizon in the pouring rain.
Some whispered that the king, with the small host he could muster was trapped in Ascalon by Salahaddin’s rearguard. There were rumours about the king’s death and the great vizier capturing the True Cross, dragging it in the mud behind his horse.
The crowd buzzed with the arrival of a group of couriers. There was a tumult at the door, when a blood-stained warrior barged in.
“Egill!” Aeife tried to shout above the noise.
“Silence!” He bellowed. The crowd hushed, only scattered murmurs were heard.
The count still panted from the rush and the excitement. “The danger has passed. Go home good people, get ready to greet the king upon his return to Jerusalem.”
The servants announced Egill’s arrival a few days later.
“What happened? How is the king?”
He sipped from the sweet date wine, smacking his lips in delight. “I’ve retold the story a hundred times in the past few days, allow me some moments of peace.”
Aeife prayed for patience. He was doing this just to spite her; there was no point in rushing him.
He studied the colourful, intricately carved ceiling, with his hands folded behind his head. “Well, this was a close one – we were an inch away from annihilation,” he began at last. “Makes me wonder how many more narrow escapes the realm can afford. Even so, I was glad to be there.”
Salahaddin, informed of the king’s plans of the campaign, manoeuvred his armies near the southern frontiers. Taking notice of his movements, Baldwin left for Ascalon with barely more than three hundred Templars. He was ensnared there by a detachment sent by Salahaddin, who commanded tens of thousands. He marched on to Jerusalem, not considering the king a serious threat. However, Baldwin broke out from Ascalon and pursued the Muslim troops along the coast.
“We cut ahead of them at a hillock called Montgisard.” Egill gesticulated widely as he warmed into the tale. “The enemy wreathed at our feet, stretching to the horizon. We could hope for nothing more than being a slight nuisance to them, while they cut us down to the last man. Not that that would deter Baldwin. He fought like a hero of legends, Aroth or Cid, as if he wanted to smite them down all by himself. We overran them and, confused and disorderly as they were, our three hundred-something knights crushed them. Salahaddin fled on a race camel, but Baldwin still had his great nephew killed. It was an honour to fight for him that day.”
He summoned her for the last time some days after his return. Aeife found him in the highest tower of the Citadel. He contemplated the city from one of the narrow windows, his gloved left hand resting on the ivory coloured stone. She was glad to see he was well enough to be out of bed. She wondered what it must be like to bear such responsibility, to be the only person standing between the kingdom and its downfall, and doing so while being so gravely ill.
“I heard you fought like a… a falcon striking down upon its prey,” she told his back. “They say you have a lion’s heart and that you know no fear…”
“Know no fear?” He snorted. Her heart sank when he turned to her. The saviour of the city, their champion looked more dead than alive now. The baroness needed all her strength not to betray her dismay. Of course she could not fool him. He learned not to notice people’s looks, and almost pitied her for her embarrassment.
The king glanced at the city below. The square next to the Citadel teemed with trade. “I have never been so scared in my life. Everything was at stake, the kingdom, the Sepulchre, Jerusalem…” His voice gained a hoarseness lately that was never to leave it. “Salahaddin was a hair’s breadth away from taking it all. But we are not here to discuss this. Prepare your household for departure.” He stretched out a gloved hand. “You may keep one of my rings to remember me.”
Aeife said goodbye to her city house and to Jerusalem, to the customs she found so odd at first, to the sounds, the smells and tastes she had grown to like. She doubted she’d see Outremer again.
She bid farewell to Egill too. The news of the king’s victory reached far and wide, and her brother was busy running errands and attending court meetings.
They met in one of the hidden palace gardens. It had a splashing fountain in the middle and they sat near it to avoid being overheard.
“I heard you sail soon, sister.”
She traced the needlework on her sleeve.
Egill cleared his throat. “You’ll be the first of our family to see Dalriada, apart from mother of course.”
She finally lift her glance to meet his. “Will we meet again, brother?”
He squeezed her arm. “If God wills it.”
Egill came to see her off in the port of Jaffa. He did, but not the king, as Aeife secretly hoped he would. The count watched as her and Afavldr’s servants carried their chests on board Einherier.
“The king asked me to give you this.” He held an ivory box on his palm. She sank it in her purse.
“Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”
Aeife ignored his question. “I came here to aid him, Egill. To stand by him whenever he needed support. A lousy servant I turned out to be, didn’t I?” She asked with a sad smile. They strolled on the wooden jetty, with the sailors rolling barrels past them.
Egill scratched his chin. “Aeife…,” he sighed. “I don’t know where you get this idea from that the king needs your, or anyone else’s assistance. He is getting on quite well without your help, trust me. Don’t make such a face,” he nudged her with his elbow.
“Go ahead, rub it in. Where do you put your sense of diplomacy when talking with me?”
He looked ahead towards the ships. “This is not against you. Outremer is just not for a northern lady. Caelfind, Ásný… none of you are used to the cut-throat struggle that goes on here. Jerusalem is the centre of the world. An t-Aonach Môr can barely compare. Here intrigue is not about who’s going to wear what at the Summertide festival.”
She pegged down in the middle of the wharf. “So, why doesn’t he send them away as well?”
Egill sighed. “Don’t do this, sister.”
They walked on. “Ásný the Virtuous is here? Then Afavldr…”
“Aye, she arrived months after us, together with Caelfind. I suppose you didn’t notice their presence amidst your sea of duties. Some of Afavldr’s warriors will stay here under Ásný’s command. Caelfind moved into my house.”
They were at the ships Ocean Foam and Einherier. “What does she say about Gidel-Moe?”
Egill swallowed. Her heart clenched seeing him so distraught. “Forgive me, I was consumed by my own grief,” she hugged him tight. “Fare thee well brother.”
Egill held her close for a moment, stroking her veiled head. “May we meet again soon, sister.”
It was the last time they saw each other.