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Wednesday, 06 January 2016 03:18

The Book, the Rock and the Sword, by Peat Simons

CHAPTER 1
Acre 1291

Jeremiah led the group of new recruits out along the southern breakwater, which jutted east towards the Tower of Flies. He had strolled along this sea wall countless times, but he stared transfixed for a moment by the tower, standing alone and resolute on its rocky outcrop, at the end of the eastern breakwater. From a gaping hole in its side, just above the water line, a gigantic sea-chain spewed into the ocean. Rusty, barnacled and befouled with seaweed, it hung in a massive arc across the harbour entrance. The links, each bigger than a man’s head, rested just below the surface of the water, creating a choppy line of little waves. The Office of the Chain had ordered it raised from the sea bed as soon as the siege began, to ensure no Mameluke boats entered the harbour unexpectedly.

 

Barely a hundred metres of deep-water channel separated the recruits from the impressive Tower, which had become a symbol of Europe’s domination since the crusaders themselves captured the city one hundred years earlier. After its upgrade they’d nicknamed it Ba'al-zebub, after a deity belonging to the original builders. It meant ‘Lord of The Flies’ and it brooded menacingly over Acre as if anticipating the inevitable spilling of blood and stench of death that was about to rain down upon them.

Beyond the tower the ocean stretched in a thin line on the horizon, a deep iridescent turquoise; cool, inviting and deceptively serene. Jeremiah fiddled with his belt, which he’d recently had to adjust in a notch, and tried not to focus on the distant thud of the catapults spewing stones and fire over the city walls. The battle was raging less than a kilometre to the north and even from here the hum of thousands of arrows was pierced by muffled cries, as some found their mark.

The night before, as he had sat by himself in the communal dining hall, playing with his meagre dinner of thin, fatty broth, trying to guess what the forlorn items floating in it were, Commander von Eschenbach had sought him out. The commander was an aging veteran of the Holy War, and with all his vast experience he was still struggling to hold one of the twelve key towers on the wall with the dwindling number of knights and soldiers he had left.

“I have thirty new recruits just arrived, Jeremiah.” Von Eschenbach landed the information upon him as if the force of his tone would provide Jeremiah with all that he needed to know.

“How can I assist, sir? Do you want me to show them the hospital?” Jeremiah asked, hopefully.

Von Eschenbach looked at him as if he was as weak as the stew that dripped from the spoon hovering in front of his mouth. Eschenbach was only capable of one volume. He yelled. “I want you to give them an understanding of the layout of Acre at first light tomorrow, then get them armed. Do you think you can manage that?”

“I— I’m needed at the hospital. Isn’t there someone else?” Jeremiah managed.

Eschenbach looked angry enough to strike him. “You are dispensable from the hospital, in fact if I get too short of men I will have you on the wall.” Jeremiah’s spoon had shaken so violently that the broth spilled down the front of his tunic. “These are the last new men I will have to save your sorry arse. Besides, you know this city. You’ve been nine years in Acre, haven’t you? You should at least know your way around.” As he turned away he added, “Get them back to the wall as quickly as possible when you’re done...”

‘So this is the last of them’, Jeremiah had thought. ‘Europe’s grown tired of supporting us in a lost war. It’s only a matter of time before Acre falls...’

Now, on the breakwater, his mind snapped back to the men surrounding him and he raised his voice enough to get their attention. “Acre is built on a promontory. We’re at the northern end of the Bay of Haifa and this is one of the most strategic and protected deep-water ports in the Holy Land. That’s why it must not fall. If we lose Acre, we lose our access to the East and that’s the end of two hundred years of crusades, and Europe’s foothold into the Holy Land, all for nothing!”

“We won’t let it fall!” yelled a fifteen-year-old boy with a mat of dirty blond hair, a big smile and blisteringly bright blue eyes. He smashed the point of his rusty, poorly crafted sword into the stone path and a spark flew as its point ground into the cobbles. The others joined in with a wild frenzy of support and Jeremiah wished with all his heart that they were justified in their faith.

Trying to smile, Jeremiah raised his hands for quiet. “The walls you will be defending are considered state of art and have resisted countless attacks and sieges. The eastern breakwater...” He indicated the long, low sea wall that joined the Tower of Flies to land at the Tower of the Patriarch, “...was added to create a double defence around the harbour. The majority of our walls have outer and inner fortifications, metres thick, with moats, murder holes and catapults to decimate the enemy before they ever get a chance to break through.”

He made it sound better than it was, and omitted the news that the Sultan’s men had already reached the walls with their heavy wicker screens and had started the task of mining out the foundations of the towers with carabohas, which would eventually bring them down. “You’ll be deployed to one of those towers,” he pointed, “but you will no doubt be stationed in reserve while you get your bearings.”

“I’ll not be put at the back of anyone.” Blue Eyes stabbed his sword at the ground again.

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