Blood on the Sand
August 20th, 1191
I awoke to the sound of tortured screams.
This was the not the first time that this had happened. Since capturing the city almost two months, there had many long nights filled with the screams of the Moslem prisoners as our soldiers tortured them in hopes of discovering the location of Saladin and his armies.
Sitting up groggily in my bed, I peered out the window. I saw a brown-skinned man in the courtyard, tied to a stake, wearing a dirty white caftan and turban. As I had expected, a group of knights, wearing their fancy, cross-decorated uniforms, were wielding their swords and yelling at him to confess his secrets. But the man, being an Arab, did not speak one word of English, French or Latin. A pity for him.
In reality, I could go down there and stop this. I could summon all the forces I had brought with me from Europe to retake Palestine to release the Moslem and let him go. Yes, I, Richard I Plantagenet, King of England, could do this.
But I will not. The nickname I have been appraised with is 'Coeur de Lion'; French for 'the Lionhearted.' It is a name that one does not gain through naught, and certainly not by showing leniency to Seljuk Turks who slay Christians on their holy mission from God. No, the name 'Lionhearted' is earned through brutality, never weakness.
I looked away from the window. If the French and Germans were here with my Englishmen in Acre, their leaders may have had even less pity to the poor Moslem souls that had remained here after the siege. However, those people were long gone. After the death of Emperor Frederick, the German army lost their spines and began limping back home; not that I cared all that much. I had never gotten along with those easterners. The French, on the other hand, were rather useful. I had thought that King Philip would remain here, but once the fighting at Acre stopped-because of my intervention-he took his troops away to the city of Tyre in the north.
That had been almost a month ago. Now, with no others to help, I, the King of England, sit here alone in this foreign, unknown place, trying to fight an enemy I cannot see.
There was a knock on the door that shook me out of my thoughts. I grasped my sword, which lay on the floor next to me. In a world full of hostile, bloodthirsty heathens, it's always handy to be on guard for assassins. "Yes?" I called out in French.
"It is me, sire." A voice replied, also in French. "Roland."
I relaxed. "Enter."
A man of about thirty came into the small timber lodging I had made my private quarters. It was hardly fitting for a king. Back in my castle at Normandy, there were paved and tiled floors, with beautiful tapestries and glass windows on the walls. Here in Acre, my housing space consisted of dirty wood and mud-brick walls. And at the moment it looked even more shabby than usual compared to the newcomer.
Sir Roland de Roquefort was my most valued and trusted commander in Acre, perhaps in all of the Holy Land. He had taken off his heavy chain mail hauberk and spurs due to the heat (an August day in this desert is nigh unbearable), and wore instead his leather aketon. It was white and painted with a red cross, signifying his station as a Templar Knight. His open helmet showed his sweaty red face.
"What is it?" I asked him, rubbing the drowsiness out of my eyes.
"Sire," He said, panting. "I've just come from Tyre. A messenger from Saladin had arrived to meet with King Philip."
I sat up straight. Saladin was said to have unlimited intolerance to his enemies; a messenger could mean a great deal. There had been many recent reports of discontent in the Moslem ranks; the troops were becoming weary of war, and the Arab princes were rumored to be in disunion with Saladin. Could this be a sign of an armistice? I hardly dared to believe it.
"Did you hear what he had to say?" I asked him, curious as to the answer.
Roland hesitated. I have known him long enough to know that this meant he was wagering how much to tell me, and judge what my reaction was to be (kings are not known for their good tempers). "Yes, sire." He said at last. "Saladin wishes to bestow gifts to our leaders."
I raised an eyebrow. Gifts from foes was about as common as a hen with teeth. "Oh?"
"Yes, sire." Roland repeated. "He sends us Christians he has captured on the battlefield, with a great ransom. He also sends us the True Cross."
My heart almost leaped out of my throat with ecstasy. This 'gifts' were incredibly valued. A host of freed prisoners of war to fight again, a sack of money to help finance the war, one of the greatest of all Christ's relic; a piece of the cross upon which he was crucified. This tribute from Saladin could very well revitalize the entire war effort.
But I slowed my imagination. No man, Christian or Moslem, gives such thing away so readily; there must be a price to it. "And what does he wish in return?" I said to Roland, wondering.
The knight's face darkened. "He wants the prisoners here in Acre."
My heart sank back into my body. "All of them?"
Roland nodded grimly. "Almost three thousand Saracen hostages, including the women and children. He wants every last heathen sent to him in exchange for this tribute he is giving."
I cursed violently, causing Roland to flush. Saladin might be a Moslem, but he could deal like a Flemish merchant when he needed to.
I sighed. "Very well. I suppose some starved Arab infidels are a fair exchange for what Saladin is offering. Give the orders to the Frenchmen for their release."
"But, sire-" Roland began.
"What?" I snapped back at him.
Again, he hesitated. Finally, he said, "The ransom from Saladin has not yet even left his camps. And you can be sure to expect he will want to haggle more before he sends it out."
I breathed heavily.
"Very well," I told Roland. "Only I have an idea. How close are Saladin's camps from here?"
Roland considered. "If you leave within the hour, sire, you could be on the outskirts by midday."
"And how long would it take to bring all the prisoners with me, along with a contingent of knights?"
"If the prisoners were to walk, you would arrive several hours before nightfall."
"Good." I said, satisfied. "Prepare your corps for travel. And rouse the prisoners as well."
I dressed myself with a woolen over-shirt, and walked out the door.
"But sire!" Roland called after me. "Are you suggesting that the prisoners be given to Saladin now? We have not yet received his ransom orders-"
"Damn the ransom!" I shouted back to him. I was already frustrated with the morning's news, and it was high time I finally did something in this godforsaken wasteland. "My intentions, Roland, are entirely my own. You just have to carry them out."
Roland sighed. "Very well, sire." He said. "Whatever you say."
How to describe a trek through the Saracen deserts? To put in a few simple words; it was incredibly long, and incredibly hot.
I've never understood how the Arabs do not simply fall over and die from the heat. Perhaps we Europeans are too new to the environment to yet adapt to it properly. Maybe it was a matter of perseverance. If it was, then it was slightly embarrassing to see battle-hardened knights in their wonderful coats of armor stagger from the sun's rays and the impoverished Moslems stride through the sand in their rags as though on parade.
After much marching, we stopped when smoke from campfires could be seen in the distance. "Halt!" I called. "We stop here."
"Why, sire?" A Templar asked me. Not Roland; he'd stayed behind in Acre to manage the fortress. He insisted that someone needed to keep things in order, but I think it was because he could bear what was to come. This knight had a dose more of bravado; a younger man named Charles. "The Moslems' camp is just beyond that ridge! We could ride forth and wipe them out!"
I snorted in derision. The younger men-at-arms were always full of ideas of chivalry, glory and victory; only the older ones know that the life of a knight is typically lived in a world beneath the one filled with chivalric ideals. They believe themselves invincible with their bright swords and cross-painted shields against hordes of Saracens. And it is always too late that they realize they are not.
"Absolutely not." I told Charles sternly. "Just line all the prisoners up in the top of the sand hill. I want Saladin to see this."
In less than twenty minutes, my orders had been carried out. The three thousand or so prisoners were kneeling towards the camp, murmuring in Arabic. I wondered if it was a prayer to their god. Perhaps they knew what was going to happen, and were preparing themselves for the climax.
"More people should be like that." I thought suddenly. "Not weak and cowardly when faced with their fates, but proud and accepting of it."
As I pondered the behavior of the Moslem, a host of men were riding out of the camp. They were led by a tall, black-bearded man with skin the color of dirt at the bottom of the Nile.
I became excited. That must be Saladin! I had never seen the fabled Moslem commander, but legends sprang up about him like weeds. Some said he was a barbarian from the lands of Egypt, others claimed Ethiopia. I once a band of French knights boast that he was as civilized and chivalric as any European. It was thrilling to discern the fact from the fiction about the man.
One of the men riding with Saladin shouted in French "Richard, king of England!"
I said nothing in response.
The Moslem repeated himself. "Richard, king of England! Why have your traveled here, leading a host of our folk?"
"To show your Saladin what happens when he cheats Christians out of rightful rewards!" I shouted back.
This was a terrible lie. The ransom had been made by Saladin, not by me. But what choices did I have? In recent weeks, my forces were becoming restless. They would soon riot if I did nothing. Now, just as the Romans did, I would keep them with line with Panem et circenses; bread and circuses. Or rather in this case, blood and circuses.
With a cry that I would remember for the rest of my life, I yelled, "Kill them all!"
The Moslem commanders cried out, but their words were drowned out by the drawing of the swords in my knights. In one great motion, they were brought down upon the prisoners, and they fell, lifeless, their blood trickling into the sand.
During this great massacre, I studied Saladin's face. I had expected to see anger, fury, or even disbelief. But what I saw jarred me more than rage or incredulity.
Saladin was weeping.
A year later, I would meet Saladin again, to negotiate the end of the crusade. We spoke amiably, discussing battles long past until we came around to the actual dealings. I discovered that he was in fact very direct with his wishes, and he knew how to get them; no doubt how he'd fought the war for so long. The agreement was to allow Christian pilgrims to enter Jerusalem-the city for which the war was launched, and which I never in fact captured- freely and unharmed by the Moslems who still held it.
I would then depart from the Holy Land entirely a month later, to defend English lands in France. But I never forgot my discussions with Saladin, and he and I both knew that neither of us could forget that day with the blood on the sand....