Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap. A mailed fist rapped softly but distinctly on the great gate of Spanish oak in the chill, dark hour before dawn.
Almost immediately, a small panel at eye level opened. A wizened hand emerged, like an anaemic spider. It grasped ineffectually at the air. Despite the tension of the moment, Captain Abd ibn Hassan gave a little smile at the absurdity of it.
He pressed the purse that he held into the hand, and it disappeared. He heard the faint chink of the coins being counted, and felt his patience ebbing. With so much at stake, did the old man think that the armies of Allah would bother to cheat him of a few bezants?
“It’s all there, old man,” he hissed angrily at the gate. On the other side, the chinking could be heard to continue at an unhurried pace.
After what seemed an eternity, the sound of the coins ceased, and was presently replaced by that of the great beam on the inside of the gate being withdrawn. Hassan turned and signalled to his men to be ready.
However, what was unknown to both Hassan and the old gatekeeper was that when the fortress had been built, an ingenious acoustic tunnel had been built into the walls, allowing the slightest sound from the gate to be amplified and transmitted to the guardroom, deep within the ramparts. Thus, the guards were swiftly alerted to the treachery that was taking place. A hue and cry was raised, and soldiers leapt from their beds.
The gate opened a crack, and the old man, swathed in a dark cloak, slipped away into the darkness, even as Hassan’s men surged forward. They pushed the gate open and surged through.
And so it begins, thought Abu Adun, son of the great warlord Mohammed Adun, and heir to his terrifying reputation. Abu Adun was seated on his stallion on a slight rise, beyond the range of the Christians’ weapons, the breeze rustling the hem of his djellaba. Absently, he fingered the gold pendant on his breast, a representation of the Hand of Fatima, and reflected on what had brought him to this point. Eight hundred years previously, the sword of Islam had swept through North Africa, across the narrow strait that now lay before him, and on, deep into Europe, to be halted at Poitiers, in France, and slowly, slowly, driven back. Now, almost nothing remained of the Moors’ European dominion, but Abu Adun believed that if he could just take this fortress, this last toehold in Christendom, he might yet turn the tide once more, and regain these lands for Allah. He had besieged this place, perched on a jagged granite chine, for months, and now, finally, where military prowess had failed, venality had succeeded, for the thickest walls could not stand against human greed.
The Christians, he mused, called the place Gibraltar. Perhaps they were unaware of the fine irony in that, for the name derived from Jabal Tariq, “Tariq’s Mountain”, named in honour of Tariq ibn Ziyad, the first Arab conqueror of Spain.
There was another irony Abu Adun was aware of. He knew that the people here had corrupted his name, calling him Abaddon, after the Destroyer in their holy book. Well, he would show them what it meant to be a Destroyer. He would burn their holy book, and teach them instead the true Word of the Prophet, the Koran. As throughout Islam’s conquests, these infidels would be offered a simple choice: the book or the sword.
Hassan found that beyond the gate, a long ramp sloped upwards between the vertical walls of the outer rampart, as if a wedge had been carved out of it. This enabled the defenders to fire down on the attackers and hurl rocks and other missiles. It was not long before the Moslems were having to scramble over the encumbrance of their own dead blocking the passageway, slipping and sliding in a river of blood as they endeavoured to force their way upwards. In their favour, however, they had their dogged determination and the sheer weight of their numbers, against which the Christians were ultimately powerless.
By late morning, they had taken the outer ramparts, clearing them of defenders for the benefit of those following behind. They descended into the outer courtyard, and began their assault on the chemise, or jacket-wall, the next line of defence before the keep itself. Slit windows in the wall and machicolations in the salient towers spat forth a continuous murderous hail of arrows, while from the wooden galleries atop the wall, boiling oil would suddenly and unexpectedly rain down on any hapless warriors who penetrated to its base.
But Hassan knew that the Christians could only have just so much oil, just so many arrows. He could afford to be patient.
The unending clash of steel on steel, as the Moslems carved a path with their Damascene swords, fending off the ferocious blows of the defenders with their embossed metal shields, and the chilling screams of the dying, carried continuously to the keep, where Hammence, Marquis of Guadacorte, struggled to co-ordinate the defence of his castle against overwhelming odds. With him was his beautiful wife Constancia, who sought in vain to soothe their three-year-old son Danien.
In a lull, Hammence stood idly running his hands through the little boy’s glossy raven-dark curls, reflecting, as he had so often done, how much the lad took after his mother: the same black locks, the same dark passionate eyes, the same winning smile.
In a moment of inspiration, Hammence went to a small jewellery box and pulled out a slender gold chain. He took the signet ring of office from his finger, contemplated for a moment the insignia, the great rock encircled by a coronet, and then slipped the ring on the chain. He fastened it round his son’s neck, then slipped it away inside Danien’s camlet tunic.
He looked intently at Constancia. “If there is any way at all of bringing him out of this alive...”
She nodded. “I know.”
“I don’t know what more I can do,” Hammence said dejectedly. “They are too strong for us.”
Still clutching Danien to her hip, she put her free arm around her husband. “You have done your best,” she replied softly. “You cannot do more than that.” And she kissed him.
In the last hours of daylight, when efforts to stem the Moorish tide became still more desperate, high towers of scrap timber were hastily erected along the perimeter wall on either side of the keep. From this greater elevation, archers were better able to fire down into the melée, picking off enemy soldiers one by one. It was truly a last ditch effort, for behind the archers was nothing but a sheer drop into the foaming, crashing ocean hundreds of feet below.
Through the night, the fighting lulled, but never died away completely. Ever and anon, there was the sound of a skirmish in one part of the castle or another. Hammence paced restlessly, going out frequently onto the battlements to encourage his men and to discuss tactics. He frequently crossed paths with the priest, who was kept busy hearing confessions.
Danien slept in a cot shaped like a boat, a token of the little principality’s dependence on the sea for its livelihood. From time to time, he would stir, and Constancia would rise from the pallet where she lay and gently rock his boat until his breathing resumed its regular rhythm once more. Thus the long weary hours passed.
The sound of renewed fighting awoke Constancia. Through sleep-mired eyes she peered around. The room was suffused with the first dim, crepuscular light of a new day. The air seemed to be thick with smoke. She could smell burning, indeed, distantly, she could hear the rush and crackle of flames, then a cracking sound, and cries of terror.
The Moors had reached the makeshift towers and set their supporting legs ablaze, sending them and the men atop them plunging into the sea
Hammence swept in, dressed in armour and carrying a bloodied sword. He placed his free hand on her shoulder. “The Moors have taken the chemise,” he announced. “It looks bad for us, my love.” And he kissed her passionately.
Suddenly, the room was full of soldiers, forming a last human barrier to protect their liege lord and his lady. Outside, the sounds of battle grew yet more intense, and drew ever closer.
With all the commotion, Danien was crying again. Constancia swept him up from his bed and wrapped him tightly in a blanket against the air’s chill. Clasped tightly in his hand he held his favourite toy, a bulky wooden figure of a knight on horseback. He sometimes said he thought it looked like his daddy. Whenever he was troubled, it was the chief source of consolation, and he had never been as troubled as he was now.
Constancia and Danien withdrew to the oriel window. Behind her, the sun rose in splendour, casting a glittering golden caparison over the Mediterranean.
Outside the door, a cry went up: “Abaddon comes!”
And there he was in the doorway, his swinging scimitar clashing loudly on one Toledo-forged blade after another, striking men down ruthlessly and relentlessly. Moors streamed into the room, their faces filled with a terrifying determination to crush the infidel or else, in the attempt, die a hero’s death. And little by little, the defence withered, until at last, Hammence and Abaddon faced each other.
Abaddon glanced past his foe, and his gaze rested on Constancia, a gaze filled with lasciviousness and scarcely-contained desire. He fixed Hammence with a knowing smile.
Hammence had no trouble reading the other man’s thoughts. With an enraged roar, he raised his sword, but Abaddon was ready for him, and struck first. The Arab’s blade sank deep into Hammence’s shoulder, and with a scream he recoiled. Like lightning, the great curved sword fell again, almost decapitating Hammence, and he fell as his blood spurted in a fountain across the room. Constancia gave a terrifying scream, then shrank still further into the shadows.
A silence fell. Constancia stared at her slain husband’s body, illuminated by a rectangle of golden light from the morning sun. Her eyes then moved to Abaddon, his white robe dyed scarlet, as he stepped over the corpse to claim his prize.
Almost before she had formulated the thought, her hand had seized the window catch and thrown the window open and, clasping Danien tightly to her breast, she jumped.
At once the skirts of her heavy brocade dress billowed up, arresting her fall. She gasped. A bitterly cold wind swept about her nether parts. The sea below was floating up to meet her. She could see the ferocious fighting still going on along the walls. Once or twice, an armoured man plummeted, pulled instantly beneath the waves by the weight of his armour.
She screamed in agony as an arrow scythed through her thigh. She grasped it, struggling to pull it out with her left hand, the hand that was not clasped around her son, but her fingers were sticky and slippery with her own blood, and she succeeded only in snapping off the shaft.
Suddenly she was in the water, which chilled her to the marrow. And she swiftly became aware that her dress, which moments before had saved her life, was becoming waterlogged and about to pull her under. And suddenly, recalling Hammence’s words, she knew that she must not die, that she must save Danien at all costs. She floundered, hoisting the child onto her shoulder as she ripped open her bodice and wormed her way out of the dress.
As she came gasping to the surface, relieved that neither of them had drowned, she looked around. A short distance away was a piece of one of the wrecked towers. She kicked towards it, gasping with every stroke as she felt the arrowhead grate against bone in her leg. Gratefully, she took the flotsam under her arm and transferred Danien to it. Then she sought to pull herself onto it. It would not take her weight, and began to sink. At once she slipped off it, back into the water.
Danien was coughing up sea water. She slapped him on the back. He began to scream again. His screams reached an intensity she had not known possible. She gasped for air, staring up at the sky. Twisting her head around, she looked back, and was amazed to see how far she had come. Castle Guadacorte stood on its precipice, plumes of smoke curling skyward, the sounds of battle carrying on the still morning air. But it was all receding at considerable speed. She was caught in the tremendous current from the great world-encircling ocean, funnelled through the Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar on the European side, and its African counterpart, Jabal Musa, and rapidly she was being swept away from all that she had known.
Around her, the water was stained dark with her blood.
The day passed slowly, as she drifted past the coast of Andalusia. Clad only in a linen shift, she shivered uncontrollably. The seawater she had swallowed made her thirsty. Danien had screamed himself into a state of exhaustion, and was now so still that she was unable to tell whether he was alive or dead, but within her the spark of hope remained alive. He was well swaddled, and she was doing all that she could to keep him out of the water.
The pain was unrelenting. Clasping at her wound, she drifted in and out of consciousness. She reflected on her life, her time with Hammence, and relived again and again the hideousness of his death. It all seemed hopeless. She prayed, for rescue or for an end to it all.
She woke with a start. Something had scratched her face. She waved her arm blindly, and there was a loud whirring, and a breeze fanned her. She looked around, and a gull was sitting on the water close by her. She put her fingers to her cheek and they came away bloody. She struggled to remain alert, but it was getting harder.
When she opened her eyes again, the sun seemed to have crossed much more of the sky, and was inclining westward. Faint noises alerted her to the fact that there were now a good many gulls hovering around her. Icy fingers clasped her heart as she realised that they were waiting for her to die.
It seemed to be getting dark, even though the sun was still well above the horizon. She thought again of Hammence. “I’m coming, my dear,” she murmured through salt-chapped lips. “I’m coming.”