Part 1 - Investigation
ACRE, HOLY LANDS
The spurt of blood sprayed into a messy mist across his cheek, but he didn’t really acknowledge it as he blindly wiped it away with a gloved hand before ripping out his blade and immediately stabbed it into the next soldier that charged at him. The Saracen choked slightly as his bloodied blade tore through him and he stared grimly at the particular soldier’s face before pulling the blade out, coated with the fresh shine of the soldier’s blood. The Saracen fell back onto the dusty ground and choked once before stilling in deathly silence.
Robin of Locksley shook his sword to try to get the blood off of it and was a bit dismayed that only a couple of droplets fell to the ground. Cleaning the blade would be hell tonight he mused silently to himself as he glanced up at the battlefield of carnage. His brown hair was sweat slicked and half covered in blood, none of it his thankfully, but the stench of it permeated through his nose. He did not gag though, having already used to the smell of blood and dead bodies long ago.
As his eyes scanned the battlefield of the city known as Acre, he could see his remaining men finishing off the Saracen forces of Salah al-Din that had tried to stop them from invading the city. It was almost over and most definitely a victory for the King and his forces. However, he knew the cost had come at a steep price. There would be pockets of resistance still even though the combined English and Franken forces had stormed the port city and had taken over much of it.
Many good men had died today defeating the Saracens. He had a feeling that Salah al-Din or Saladin as he was known to them, would not be pleased. Yet it was the right step in the right direction to reclaiming the Holy City of Jerusalem from the barbaric forces the man commanded. He hoped that now that they had an assured footing closer to Jerusalem, his King and allies including King Phillip would be able to push faster to the Holy City thus ending the bloodshed.
“Master!” Much’s plaintive cry made Robin stop his scan of the area and instead stared at his manservant who was running towards him, a bit battered, but otherwise healthy looking.
Robin could feel the tug of a relieved smile pushing the corner of his lips, but instead nodded at greeting to him.
“You’re alive,” Much however, couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and fussed over him, “anything broken, Master? Here, let me take your sword-“
“Much,” this time Robin let the tired smile appear on his face, “stop. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“Much,” Robin said in a warning tone, but kept the smile on his face so to show his faithful servant and friend that he was serious, but not too serious.
“Yes Master,” Much stopped his fussing and instead stared at his bloodied sword, “Can I at least clean your sword, Master? It’s going to rust at this point.”
“Just a quick clean. And have you seen Tomas?”
“Over there,” Much took his bloodied sword and quickly wiped as much of the blood from it as he could before handing it back to him. Robin sheathed the sword and glanced over to where Much was pointing. His faithful second-in-command was wiping the grime and blood off of his own sword before sheathing it and looking around.
Robin raised his hand, catching Tomas’ attention and the jogged over to them, straightening his helm that had fallen over one of his eyes. His dark brown hair was matted against parts of his face and back down the nape of his neck. His armor and chain mail were bloodied and dirty from the fighting they were doing to take the port city, but otherwise, Tomas looked unharmed. “Sir,” Tomas greeted. His voice was forever youthful, but Robin knew the man was at least ten years older than he was.
“How many?” he asked quietly as he absently handed Much a waterskin bag and his manservant left his side to help the other men who were left alive on this bloodied battlefield.
“The First and Second columns were wiped out and Third were almost routed if not for Carter’s rally with the Fifth. The King himself lead the charge into the portcullis – he is fine, Robin,” Tomas held up a hand against his plated chest to stop him from even speaking and Robin closed his mouth, giving him a wiry grin.
“You know me too well, friend,” he shook his head slightly, “where is the King now?”
“I last saw him riding towards the stables by the left hand side of the walls. I think he’s sent Alphonse and his column off to form a perimeter and search for remnant forces.”
“Alphonse? The man doesn’t even know how to shoot straight,” Robin frowned, “take your men and join up with him. My orders.”
“Yes sir,” Tomas nodded before grabbing the waterskin from Much’s hand as he came back and took a long gulp before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and headed off, calling to his men to gather around him and they headed into the battered and smoldering remnants of the gate to Acre.
Robin watched as the last man disappeared into fog-like cover of smoke and dust from the battlefield before turning to look at his own men that Richard had given him to command for this assault and to his dismay saw that at least half of them had been killed during the fierce and long fight. They had been the closest to the King’s column, Robin’s position as Captain of the Private Guard had assured that, but during the midst of the battle, they had been separated and ended up fighting a small force of Saracens who were determined to re-take the gate.
He didn’t know how they had slipped past both King Phillip and Robert de Sable’s men, all whom were ruthless in their own right, but this small group of Saracens had proven to be much harder to fight than the usual rabble Salah al-Din had thrown at them. “Corin!” he called a lanky boy over, one of their pages who had been assigned to his column. When the battle had started in earnest he had told the boy to hide behind one of the merchant stalls and not to come out until it was safe to do so.
“Sir?” his French-tinged English made his answer almost unrecognizable.
“Tell Robert to send his troops to secure the gate. We hunt Saracens, King’s orders,” he made sure to emphasize that it was the King’s orders to Corin, and the boy nodded, giving him a smirk before running off, the grey-red tunic and pants he wore flying behind him. He was wearing the colors of King Richard and thus would not be harmed by either Phillip or Robert as he ran to their positions.
However, if there were any other Saracens around between the gates and the road leading out to the plains, they would see that the boy was unarmed and not even wearing armor. Robin keep and watch on Corin’s form before the boy disappeared over a ridge and breathed a quick sigh of relief.
“Master, your bow,” Much’s voice made him turn slightly to accept his primary weapon and slung it over his right shoulder. Even though he was competent in fighting with a sword, he never really liked using one, preferring to hit his enemies from a distance with his God-given gift of accuracy with a bow.
His accuracy was enhanced further with a Saracen recurved bow that he had stripped from an assassin who had tried to ambush his liege’s encampment just days ago. Robin had managed to fell the man and Richard himself presented the bow to him as a reward. Robin had immediately started practicing with it, wondering how a Saracen could shoot an arrow from the distance they had been in and nearly hit his King.
He was shocked to find out that the bow was deadly accurate, if in the hands of a marksman. Luckily, the assassin was not a marksman from where he had stood. So Robin switched his longbow to the recurved one. But when they had almost been routed today, he had to abandon it for close quarters combat. His arrow pack had stayed snug against his back and had even protected him from a couple of blows when he had been fighting.
“Was it necessary to say that it was the King’s orders Robin?” Much asked as they stepped past a couple of bodies and towards the rest of his unit who were gathering in a small group, some of the men hugging and slapping each other on the back, others saying quick prayers by the bodies of their fallen comrades.
“Yes, otherwise you know Robert. He will not comply with anything unless it comes from the King’s own mouth,” Robin shook his head, looking sideways at his manservant. Sometimes, he thought Much was a little bit daft at times. Other times…well…those times he was glad to have such a good friend along.
“But…oh,” Much’s eyes lit up as he realized what Robin had done.
Technically the King did not order Robert, but Robin knew he had enough clout with the King to force an order if necessary and plus he knew his King valued his strategies on more than one occasion. Pulling Robert de Sable and some of his men back to the gates of Acre would be beneficial should Salah al-Din launch a counter attack from the plains. King Phillip of France’s men would be first in line to defend against the attacks and plus it would save Robert from losing too many of his men, all whom were united under the English banner.
Robert was Norman-French; no doubt about that, same as the King, but Robert was more loyal to the King than to Phillip. He had seen and heard the whispers of Phillip and his lieutenants grumbling about Richard and his control over Normandy when they had first arrived and while the two Kings did work in harmony for the most part, Robin knew that there was a silent power struggle going on between the Kings.
And since Robert de Sable was one of the more charismatic of Richard’s generals, he wanted to make sure that Robert was closer to the King. However, Robin still had his suspicions about de Sable, not of his loyalty to Richard, but mainly towards the dark dealings he had heard from the pages and soldiers around the camps. His plan was to keep Robert close to Richard, but also keep him close so that Robin could keep an eye on him.
But after all of this, he would still have to tell his King what he had done or else Robert’s fury would fall upon him and therefore crush his efforts to find out what the man was really after in the Holy Lands and if he was truly loyal to Richard and their cause. They did not need another Phillip who was teetering on the edges of disinterest towards their cause. Besides, de Sable was Grand Master of the Knights Templar, his own elite cavalry and knight forces that were instrumental against Salah al-Din’s light cavalries. Robin knew how much the King relied on de Sable’s support and efforts in each of the battles they fought.
“Sir, flags!” one of his men suddenly called out and Robin turned to see him pointing at the ridge where young Corin had disappeared off to and saw the banners of de Sable coming towards them.
Robin tilted his head slightly, stretching his neck and steadied himself for what was probably an irate de Sable coming to see him. He had no doubt that the Grand Master had probably seen through his attempted ruse and wanted to talk with him face to face. The Private Guards and Knights Templars never really got along with each other. The only one that seemed to straddle both lines was Carter, a young Englishman whose roots were deep within one of Sable’s territories Anjou, who was also excellent horseman.
He saw his men scatter to the side as de Sable thundered through the main path to Acre, ignoring some of the shouts of a few wounded men who barely got themselves out of the way of his horses and pulled his charger to a halt right before Robin. Robin let the corner of his lips twitch up in a slightly feral smile as he eyed the large charger whose flanks were covered in matted sweat and eyes slightly rolled back into its head. The horse was tired, but Robin knew that it would carry its master to the ends of the Earth if need be.
“Captain Locksley,” de Sable greeted him curtly with a nod of his head.
“Grand Master de Sable,” Robin also nodded his head. Technically, while he was only a lowly Captain, he was also the leader of the Private Guard which meant he had equal footing with any of Richard’s generals. However, how de Sable managed to make his title sound like a peasant’s was even beyond Robin himself. But he also was too well versed in the barbs he constantly traded with de Sable whenever they talked to let such taunts fall upon him.
“The King, he has ordered my men to guard the gates, yes? To what reason as I am a busy man and have more pressing matters to attend to,” de Sable asked, his French-accented English heavy and almost unrecognizable to untrained ears.
“The King had ordered his Guard to help in the search for any Saracen forces left in Acre. He believed that the Knights Templar would be beneficial as a secondary defense force,” Robin lied through his teeth, but also made his voice steady and hard as if he was relaying real orders from Richard himself.
The Grand Master snorted indignantly, “Leaving ailing Phillip on the front lines is hardly beneficial, however my King knows of my pressing matter. I will leave Carter in charge, will that satisfy you Captain?” Robin could see the man’s eyes staring at him calculating. He suspected that his “orders” weren’t quite truthful, but also wasn’t willing to risk Richard’s wrath if they were true. Instead, leaving Carter in his stead was mutually beneficial to both factions and thus would appease the two of them.
“Yes,” Robin replied shortly before he saw de Sable wave Corin forward, the young boy a bit winded looking, but otherwise brightened at seeing Robin. However, he paused by the large warhorse and looked up at de Sable, ready to take his orders. Robin could see fear in Corin’s eyes, but the boy held himself steady to such a great and powerful man.
“Carry a message to Carter and his Fifth Column. He is to pull his forces to watch the gates and await my return,” he ordered the boy in French before Corin nodded before hurrying away towards the secondary gates to deliver his orders.
“Where do you ride to?” Robin asked as de Sable wheeled his horse around, the charger whickering slightly, glad to be on the move once more.
Robert turned his head slightly, “Your curiosity will be your undoing, Captain. Can a man not pray to God in peace?”
This time it was Robin’s turn to snort indignantly as de Sable heeled his horse in the ribs and it started off, his men following behind him, leaving a trail of dust and debris. Robin watched as they disappeared over the ridge and shook his head. He did not believe that Robert de Sable prayed like any pious man did. No, he knew Robert was headed off somewhere and the clues were in his words. The only question was, what temple, if any, around the area that they held did Robert go off to?
With Robert gone, he turned and started to pick at the arrows embedded in some of the dead Saracens, trying to see if they were salvageable. It was dirty business, Robin knew that, but he also wanted to conserve resources. They may have finally taken Acre and have a secured port city in order to bring in supplies, but that didn’t mean they needed to waste resources.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his men doing the same, checking for spare weapons or any useful ones off of Saracen bodies. Their own people however, they did not touch. That was one line Robin would not cross – grave robbing his own men. Much stood silent next to him; his hands holding the arrows he had thought were salvageable. His manservant knew better than to talk while he was doing his silent work. He stepped over the body of a Saracen soldier, teeth still bared in the rictus of death and pulled an arrow embedded quite shallowly in his fallen comrades’ leg.
Flies were already buzzing around the area and he absently waved them away from his face before giving the arrow to Much and pulled another one out of the same man. However, the shaft broke halfway and he stared at it, shaking his head. His men were fine archers, some personally trained themselves, and he couldn’t blame the force in which their arrows had struck the enemy.
Throwing the broken shaft away, he continued to the next few bodies, collecting the arrows that he could salvage. Both of Much’s hands were nearly full when the distant sounds of horses galloping their way made Robin turn and look towards the ruin battlements to see the flags of the Fifth Column coming towards them.
“Master…” he held up a hand to shush his manservant as he saw a familiar blond-haired man with piercing grey eyes riding up towards him, an easy, but tired grin on his face.
“Robin Locksley,” Carter greeted him, dismounting from his white charger and strolling over.
“Carter Tulane,” Robin returned the grin, gripping his outstretched hand tightly before slapping him on the shoulder.
The two of them had an odd sort of greeting with each other. Technically Robin was usually addressed as Robin of Locksley, but Carter had decided when they had first met to shorten the ‘of’ in his title and instead give him the last name of Locksley, like one of the King’s courts of nobles instead of just a regular noble’s title. And so Robin returned the favor, knowing that having an ally like Carter and fellow Englishman within the Knights Templar would be very useful.
“Much,” Carter looked over to Much who had a slightly sour expression on his face, “still alive?”
“No, quite dead,” Much replied sarcastically and Robin chuckled slightly. Somehow, he never quite understood why Much did not like Carter and apparently the cavalryman had picked up on that and teased him to no end about the littlest things. He had tried to ask his manservant about it, but Much was very tight-lipped and would not say a thing. He thought he was jealous of his friendship with Carter, but apparently Much did not mind his friendship with any of the men within the Private Guards nor with some of the locals they had befriended as they rode to Acre. It was only Carter that Much somehow did not like.
A thought occurred to him, was it because Carter was a Knights Templar? Surely it couldn’t be the reason…
“Well, I’ll have to take those arrows of yours and shoot them in you to see if you are truly dead,” Carter gave him a wolfish smile before turning back to Robin, “Corin came over and told me that Robert wanted me to watch the gates?”
“I’m sending my men ahead to join Tomas in searching Acre for any remnant pockets of resistance and attending to the King,” Robin gestured with a chin towards the damaged portcullis, “if you can set up a perimeter, it would be much appreciated.”
“You’re lucky that the Fifth is so good,” Carter replied a bit arrogantly, “we’ve got men to spread around.”
Robin frowned at the implied statement and saw the leader of the Fifth Cavalry hold up his hands, an apologetic smile on his face, “Sorry, old habits. I know you meant to keep these lads alive. But we can do it.” He coughed awkwardly, “So, did Robert say where he was going? Corin didn’t say.”
“Your Master,” Robin could barely keep the contempt out of his own voice, but he knew Carter did not care that his tone was borderline rude when talking about de Sable, “said he was going to pray to God.”
“More like have a woman pray to him on her knees,” one of Robin’s men muttered none too loudly and Robin glared at him, shutting him up immediately, “my apologies sir.”
Carter had a mild look on his face at the comment and Robin wondered if he had stored the insult in the back of his head to use later or even to do something with it. He knew the man was shrewd and would have never straddled the lines between Knights Templar and friend of the Private Guard without keeping some information to himself. It was what made him an excellent source of information too. However, he also knew he had to be cautious around the man since he was a Knights Templar after all.
“If he rode away from here, the only known temple I know is Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. But how he could get into that Saracen infested city is beyond me,” Carter shrugged indifferently before turning his voice cheery again, “well, you lot better get a move on. The big cavalry boys are here now.”
“Yeah, you and your precious steeds,” another one of the men snickered and Robin rolled his eyes at his men’s antics. Even some in the Fifth Column who had ridden over with Carter were snickering, the banter between the two factions light in the aftermath of such a bloody battle.
“My men,” he decided to get them into a semblance of an elite military unit, “form up, ranks. Wounded, to the medical tents, not so wounded,” he gave them a slightly arched look, “help Tomas.”
Some of his men gave him wounded looks and a slight grumble filled the air, but Robin knew that it was very good-natured and his men would not hesitate to help out the second branch of the Private Guards. They were all brothers-in-arms and thus wanted to help each other, especially if there was more hunting down of Saracens involved. Nodding to Carter, he followed his men as they formed into three lines, the wounded in the middle line, the two outside lines protecting the wounded and started marching towards the main gates.
Robin took up to the side of the patrol formation, inspecting each and every one of his men with a critical eye. Many of them sported minor wounds, and the grievous ones sported some stab wounds, but were otherwise mobile. They would live, the men that survived this battle would live, he was sure of it. A sense of pride filled him as he marched along side of them, giving a rueful smile to some of the other commanders of smaller units and soldiers who were by the broken gates staring at them as they marched past. He had disciplined and trained his men to be the best and the elite; choosing them from the English and French men that Richard had recruited from his domains to join him on his Holy Crusade.
The Private Guard was one of the most elite archery and sword battalions ever to serve the King. They weren’t as prestigious as the Knights Templar or other cavalry or lancer forces, but every one of his men was a sure shot and good with a sword. They were the King’s last line of defense and his shadow protectors. Richard always had at least a small contingent of three to four cavalry men around him, but Robin made sure that the Private Guard was also always around Richard, protecting him even though he may not have seen them.
However, when he wanted to, he made sure that people noticed the Private Guard and by having them march into the battered gates of Acre, the bleak and desolate grey-black smoking houses in the poorest and hardest hit section of the city, it ensured that everyone knew who had conquered Acre. They were marching in like victorious soldiers who hadn’t come from a bloody battle, but looked like they had just taken a jaunt out to Church and back.
“And halt!” Much called out behind him in French, the unofficial guide of the march for the most part and his men stopped suddenly, standing ridged in the middle of the market square after passing through the gates. Around them the burnt, smoking, and half-destroyed buildings of homes, business, and stalls were a testament to how bitterly Acre had fought huddled some of the surviving merchants, Palestinians, and some Saracen civilians.
All of them were staring wide-eyed at the parading group and Robin noticed that many of the wounded and resting Crusaders who had just decided to take refuge in the shade of a few burnt husks of houses from the blasting heat of the summer, were also staring at them. Some had half-smiles on their faces, while others looked a bit shocked at seeing such a grandiose display of both wounded and hale Crusaders.
“Seamus, Michael, Julian, split the men, find Tomas and continue the search. Geoff, you and the rest of the wounded to the medical tents,” he looked at them solemnly, “well done, men.”
That was their cue to break formation and they did, the three he had pointed out chattering excitedly with the others before they headed deeper into the city, waving goodbyes to some of the other Crusaders who were resting. He saw Geoff and the other wounded limp off to the medical tents which were pitched on the right side of the gates. Already, a faint odor of decaying flesh was emanating from the area, but Robin couldn’t exactly tell since the smell of burnt flesh was still cloying the air from the battle.
“Much,” he gestured to his friend to follow him as they turned to their left and walked past a series of off-white tents already set up on the left side of the gates. These were the generals’ tents and Robin knew that they had been erected in a hasty fashion since the King took the city.
His own tent would have already been set up next to the King’s tent and he found his right next to a lavish and large tent pitched further into the side of the city. A rather large mound of debris from the ballistas and trebuchets that had knocked rocks into the buildings was piled up on one side of the tent, a sure way of protecting the King from any enterprising assassination attempt from the roofs, but also provided him some shade from the hot sun that his tent couldn’t provide.
Robin saw the King’s own physician, Jacques walking out of the entrance, the flap closing behind him before he headed off towards the direction of the medical tents on the opposite side of the broken gate. He knew that was a good sign that his King was in his own tent, perhaps still resting and recovering from the illness that had been plaguing him and King Phillip for the past week and half.
He knew his King was more ill than Phillip himself, but he had pulled his strength together and lead the charge and assault on Acre. It was a testament to how strong Richard was and Robin had been in awe of his King’s awesome might in pushing away his fatigue and sickness in order to personally lead his troops. It was also why he considered Richard a better king than the French’s Phillip who had decided to stay in the back lines and instead let his generals do all of the work.
Taking one more glance at his King’s tent, he ducked into his own and immediately shucked off his gloves, handing them to Much who placed them on a large table before helping him out of his armor. They worked in silence, Robin undoing the straps, belts, and buckles that held his armor together, Much taking away the pieces and putting them on the table to be cleaned of their blood and filth from the day’s battle.
They worked in quick silence, save for the clanging of metal on metal and the shouts of the other men around the camp, and Robin finally removed the chain mail shirt, slipping it over his head and tossing it unceremoniously onto the table. He didn’t bother removing his chain mail pants, knowing that they were pretty useful in preventing scrapes and cuts, especially in such rubble before they had a chance to clean it up.
“Here,” Much handed him a clean shirt and he put it on, feeling somewhat clean, but he really wanted a bath of sorts to wash the grime off of his arms and body. Jumping into Acre’s port waters was not an option due to the salt content and jumping into any of the nearby oasis was definitely not an option due to the dead bodies littered everywhere.
“Thank you,” Robin replied as Much silently handed him a small bowl of clean water from their stores and he splashed his face, before grabbing a small towel hanging from a chair and scrubbing his face as best as he could with it. He glanced at the cloth and grimaced a bit as he saw that it was nearly black with soot, dust, and blood from his battle. If his face and hair looked like that, it was a wonder that his own men could recognize him in his armor.
Sighing quietly, he draped the cloth back over the back of the chair and took a slightly cleaner version of the tunic with the crest of King Richard and put it on. It offered little protection, but the freedom of movement, perfect for his role as the King’s protector when there wasn’t a huge battle to be fought. There was an optional hood that he knew many of his men in the Guard sometimes wore, but Robin disliked wearing it and did not do so. He liked having the ability to have full range of vision instead of impeding it with an archer’s hood.
He knew some of his men disagreed with his opinion about the hood, finding that without the side view distractions and the slight darkness the hood provided it helped them zero in on their targets. To Robin, he wanted to be able to see everything, including potential enemies that may attack him from the side. Plus he had the gift of being able to shoot any target he wanted to from 100 meters and hit it dead on.
He glanced down at his arrow pack and holstered his recurved bow across its proper place on his pack. He had designed a small hook to secure his bow on his pack instead of slinging it across his shoulder, but it wasn't designed to be use in the heat of battle. Shouldering his arrow pack again, he grabbed his sword belt and buckled it on before straightening his tunic.
“Clean your face before you use the water to clean the armors, all right?” he turned to Much and saw a spark of gratefulness on his face at his generosity. He knew that his relationship with Much was much different than many of the other nobles who had manservants and squires to attend them. After all they had been through for the past four years, he had long considered Much more than a manservant and instead saw him as a loyal friend instead.
But, however much he wished to free Much of his duties to the Locksley household, he could not do so yet. Not while there was so much to do and they were so close to accomplishing the goal of recapturing Jerusalem for the Church. Perhaps after they returned home...maybe Bonchurch would be a good reward to Much for his services to Locksley. He knew it was more than what other squires or servants would get for their own services to their Lords and Masters in the Holy Land.
So he tried to treat Much more like a fellow man than a servant. He knew many of the other lords, generals, and commanders of King Richard frowned upon his treatment of Much, but he didn't care. His own men understood, having fought side by side with Much, and they understood his instance of generosity in the midst of their bloody and violent work. He just did not want to lose his humanity like many had already lost in the four years they had been here.
“The King?” Much asked as he picked up a slightly dirtied cloth and placed it in the bowl of water before wringing it out and scrubbing his own face.
Robin nodded, “I will be back soon.” With that, he ducked out of his own tent and headed next door, nodding to the two knights stationed outside of the entrance. They nodded their own greetings back before continuing to stand at attention, not distracted by the sweat pouring down their faces in the late-afternoon heat.
He stepped in and immediately spotted his liege sitting amongst a pile of maps and parchments on a table set up along one end of the tent. In the far corner of the tent was his palate, placed right next to where the mound of debris was thickest to prevent anyone from ambushing him. In the middle of the tent was a large table thick with maps and small metal figures depicting troop forces of both Salah al-Din, Phillip, and his own forces. Robin moved to the side as a young page scurried out of the tent, carrying a few documents.
“Sire,” he greeted, bowing his head as he presented himself to the King.
“Lord Locksley,” Richard did not look up from his maps and parchments, making a note with an eagle-feathered quill before looking at another parchment.
Robin clasped his hands behind him and stood at ease in front of his King, “Gate skirmishes have been completed. The Fifth Column has been placed by the portcullis and other gates to watch for ambushers. King Phillip and his forces are beyond the ridge making camp. Captain Alphonse of Maine led his unit into Acre to root out and capture any Saracen remnants. I have sent my leftenant Tomas and the rest of my men to assist him.” He recited his whole report in French, knowing that his King preferred to speak in his native tongue instead of English. The first thing he had learned in his studies when he was younger was speaking the languages of both English and French. His father had originally thought to perhaps offer up the Locksley family as spies within the King's court, but that idea had not come to fruition due to the elder Locksley's untimely death.
“And what of Grand Master de Sable?” Richard asked, still not looking up from his parchment and make another mark, this time on the map.
“He had other issues to attend to, milord,” Richard knew that he and Robert did not get along ever since he had asked King Phillip to use the Grand Master as one of his spearheads in their campaign towards Acre. It wasn't the matter of having to work with the Frenchman, after all he knew his King barely spoke a word of English and preferred his Norman lands to English soil even though he was their king.
He never held that against Richard, though he knew amongst some of the English nobles, they were not too happy. The peasantry populace however, was thankfully unaware of Richard's own preferences. Even some of his own generals were unaware, and Robin intended to keep it that way.
No, he and Robert de Sable did not get along because of all the rumors that had surrounded the man since his appointment as Grand Master of the Knights Templar earlier in the year. There were rumors and suspicions as to how someone who had only recently joined the Knights Templar had been made Grand Master when there were infinitely more qualified men who had been with the Knights Templar for a much longer period. Plus there was something about the man that had him on edge all of the time. A dark aura of sorts that made Robin naturally suspicious. De Sable was too ambitious, too mysterious to warrant any less attention.
Plus there was the little matter of de Sable trying to dismiss the King's Private Guard as nothing more than frivolous, saying that his Knights Templar were the only forces who could properly protect the King. Now that Robin had an issue with...and one that his men also had a serious issue with. No one dismissed the King's Private Guard after preventing an assassination attempt on him just over a year ago.
“Issues?” Richard finally looked up from his parchment, a frown on his face, his red eyebrows in a 'v' shape on his forehead.
“He said he was going to pray to God, sire,” Robin replied as neutrally as possible, “I suspect he may have gone to Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.”
“Interesting,” Richard stroked his beard, “why do you say that, Captain?”
“Sire, we are in the process of securing Acre and clearing out pocket remnants of rebellion. Jaffa and Arsuf are of no consequence to his Holiness the Pope and they are controlled by Saracens. Damascus is a Saracen stronghold. I believe, he may have gone to Jerusalem.”
“With his men?”
“No sire,” Robin shook his head, “I believe with only a small group of his loyal Knights Templar.”
Richard looked at him curiously, “On Phillip's orders?”
“I do not know, sire,” Robin replied honestly, “shall I investigate?”
His King paused for a second, thinking before holding up a hand, “Discreetly, on your own time, Lord Locksley. If it is on Phillip's orders then he may know of a faster way into Jerusalem than he is letting on.”
Robin nodded once, “As you command.” He sketched a short bow before turning around and leaving the King to his work once more. Stepping out of the tent he weighed his options. He knew that he would need to first figure out if de Sable had gone to Jerusalem as Carter had suggested. Perhaps he could send Corin to ask a few innocent questions. The young boy was well-liked as an efficient page by many of the other captains, not really directly reporting to any one commander save for the King himself.
However, what Richard had said about perhaps Phillip ordering Robert may have merit. He knew the two Kings did not really like each other, even though they were polite and deferred to each's own expertise in certain situations. Whoever conquered Jerusalem would win the glory of the Pope in this Crusade. If Phillip was ambitious enough to know of a different way into Jerusalem, he would undermine Richard's authority over a majority of the troops.
But, Richard had told him to investigate on his own time, which meant his King was not too concerned with Phillip trying to undermine him. However, he was curious as to what his wayward Grand Master was doing. He knew his King was more occupied with his own health and those of his own men. He wanted to quickly secure Acre and move on, that was of the objective. The underlying message was clear – if Robert de Sable wanted to get himself killed going to Jerusalem without the backup of an army then it was fine and would be God's will.
Robin's task in this was to make sure that de Sable wasn't going to Jerusalem to betray Richard's forces to Salah al-Din. But he had to be discreet... That task was easier said than done. However, it wasn't impossible. Many generals and commanders of Richard's ignored him, seeing him as one of the troops. It was if he were to question de Sable's men and the Knights Templar directly was where he was going to find trouble. Then there were some of the more troublesome commanders like James of Atherstone, Captain of the Second and Third Guard under the Fourth Column.
He had his suspicions that James was de Sable's own spy within Richard's camp, reporting to both Phillip and de Sable, but he couldn't prove his suspicions. What he could prove was that the man was sadistic and loved bloodshed. Then there was William of Montferrat. On loan from Phillip to bolster the First Column, he was most definitely loyal to the French cause and saw Richard as an obstacle to the French regaining their lands in Normandy and kicking out whom they thought was a foreign King on their soil.
However, Robin knew that there was nothing he could do about William and so did Richard. The man was a seasoned veteran of the Second Crusades and had also been captured during the Battle of Hattin and released by Salah al-Din a year later as a truce of sorts. Both Phillip and Richard saw William as a valuable and knowledgeable ally. The man came out even more dangerous, in Robin's opinion, knowledgeable or not.
However, had heard rumors about the rift between his second son, Conrad who governed Tyre, and William. Rumor had it that the two did not see eye to eye. Perhaps if he sent a messenger to Tyre to snoop about for information about William? It was a thought, but not a practical one. It would take time to get messages from Tyre and back and by then, Robert may have already made his move – whatever it was.
The only thing he knew he could do at the moment was to wait until Robert made his move, until then, he would wait. Watching and listening to all the rumors carefully.
It was at least a week later when news reached them that the Grand Master of the Knights Templar had pulled all of his troops, including Carter's Fifth Column for a skirmish somewhere north. It was another week later when the troops returned, at least a third of the small army missing. King Richard personally met the battered and haggard troops outside of Acre, the portcullis rebuilt and most of the debris cleared away. However, the smell of dead and decayed bodies still lingered. King Phillip of France had fallen ill once more and was overcome by severe dysentery.
Robin stood on one of the makeshift parapets by the gates, his bow strung and ready to fire at anyone who looked remotely suspicious. Even though all of the Crusaders marching in were wearing the colors of the Knights Templar, he and his men wouldn't take any chances of a potential Saracen amongst them looking for the opportunity to assassinate the King.
One of their nearly 2,700 Saracen prisoners from the battle two weeks ago had proven that when Richard had visited them. Poor Seamus had taken blade meant for Richard by only happenstance. Robin had immediately killed the Saracen, but there was nothing they could do for Seamus. The man lingered for two more days before finally dying in the early hours of the morning amidst a blood-red dawn. Seamus had a proper burial and Robin had said a few kind words, but he had felt hollowed when they had buried the young man.
He had seen so many deaths, so many defeated and beaten looks on his men and even amongst their prisoners that he felt immune to them, like they were nothing to the hardened shield he had over his heart. He had killed the Saracen assassin like it was nothing, quickly dispatching him with his short blade before anything else could happen. There was no questioning of why the man did it, or why it had to happen. Just kill and let it be done.
More than once in this year he had wished they would just capture Jerusalem and then let them all go home. He missed the quiet green fields of Locksley, the gentleness of the woods and the forests of Sherwood. He missed seeing his peasants, friends, even the familiar walls of Nottingham Castle. But most of all he missed-
Robin immediately mentally shut himself from seeing her face. The face of his beloved; gentle, youthful, ever smiling. A bitter thought formed in his head...she was probably married now, some noble who had not answered the call of their King, was her husband. Probably with at least one or two children. Marian would not wait for him as she had promised.
He pulled himself from his thoughts as he finally saw Carter and his cavalry force riding behind him. At least more than half looked exhausted, haggard, and did not march in a tight formation. Carter himself was sporting a few bloody cuts on his face and looked like he was favoring his left side as he sat on his horse. He glanced down towards his King and saw him already deep in a quiet but slightly animated discussion with de Sable, the two of them moving slowly away from the main group.
“Tomas,” he called over to his second in command who unstrung his bow and nodded, pointing out four other men before barking orders to them and they left their posts and headed towards the King. The four of them formed a loose perimeter around the two, following the King's own personal knights back into Acre.
“Much,” he murmured quietly to his servant, standing next to him, bow out, but not drawn. While Much was as much of a fighter as Robin was, he was also not recognized as an official Crusader since he held no lands or titles, nor was drafted to serve like some of the peasantry. “Check on Carter, make sure he gets a physician to look at him. I know Jordan may worry over him, but he can be easily pushed aside by Carter.”
Jordan was Carter's own manservant; a smallish mousy man who easily scared and did not really go into battle unlike Much. He was instead usually instructed to help move the supplies from camp to camp. Robin knew that Carter would try to push Much away, but thankfully his friend was much more stubborn than anyone gave him credit for. He also knew that Carter, while arrogant to a fault at times, was also a self-sacrificial man, having seen his older brother, Thomas die a year ago after leading a rash assault on a village in the northern areas.
Robin had personally led the rescue mission to help the seasoned warrior, but it was too late. The original Fifth Column had been obliterated by Salah al-Din’s forces and the village was left in ruins. That had also been one Richard’s heaviest losses and he had de Sable commission a new Fifth Column to replace the one that had been lost and Carter was nominated to take over his brother’s command.
As a result of his brother’s violent death and his appointment to lead the new Fifth Column, Carter had developed a self-sacrificial streak, not wanting to see so many of his men die and preferred them to get treatment before he did, even though his own wounds were sometimes grievous.
“Yes Master,” Much replied before climbing down from the parapet and hurrying over to Carter’s horse and tug on the charger’s bridle before chatting with the man who was looking curiously down at him. Next to Much standing by the horse was Jordan who had a slightly relieved expression on his face, seeing a potential ally in the simple-minded man.
Robin saw Much gesture a bit with his hands before Carter’s head turned slightly, his eyes seeking him out and he gave him a small nod as Carter found him and frowned. He decided to keep his expression as neutral as possible and met the blond-haired man’s gaze with a simple one of his own before Carter finally turned away and allowed his charger to be lead in by both Jordan and Much towards the makeshift hospital tents within Acre.
“Men, form up,” he projected his voice to the rest of the Private Guard and they acknowledged by climbing down from whatever structure they had decided to use as their perches or secured location point, and forming up next to the remaining bedraggled forces marching in.
The Private Guard numbered around thirty men, all whom were completely loyal and hand-picked by Robin himself to protect the King. Many of them were not masters of any weapons, but rather jack-of-all-trades men, both good with archery and swords. Some of his men also specialized in other forms of unique weaponry, axes, halberds, and even one wielded a sledgehammer of sorts.
However, half of them were still stationed inside Acre, making sure to watch over the King at all times and Robin gestured for his archers to follow him back in. He saw Richard, still in a slightly heated discussion with Robert de Sable and gestured wordlessly for his men to form a perimeter around the surrounding buildings, joining up with the others of the Private Guards.
Briefly sharing a look with Tomas who was standing near Richard, he made a quick gesture with his hands, a silent signal for him to take over in his stead. He had a feeling that the King was going to take a while to chastise de Sable about why he had returned with at least fifty less men and almost three quarters of the Knights Templar injured in some way. A small part of him was glad that de Sable’s ego was getting knocked down a few pegs, but he quickly quashed that part of him. Men had died today and he did not need to glorify in their leader’s incompetence.
Tomas acknowledged the switch over with a practiced ease of a flickering hand before Robin headed off to the hospital tents. They were mostly empty, the main bulk of the physicians, most of them belonging to the Knights Hospitalier, had moved to the fortress near the middle of the city. It was by the debris walls which separated the two western entrances of the city. Robin knew that Richard was originally set to use the fortress as his base, but instead, after they had cleared the city of any remnant Saracens, had discovered a better fortified and less damaged fortification alongside the rocky southern coast of Acre.
Richard’s fortification jutted neatly out into the sea, allowing him visibility towards the southern reaches where Jerusalem was, but also prevented anyone from potentially ambushing him by land or by sea. It had originally taken the Private Guard and a majority of the First Column a while to clear out of remnant Saracen forces. Immediately afterwards, Richard had put William of Montferrat in charge of rebuilding and tasking him with the governorship of Acre.
Meanwhile, Garnier de Naplouse, the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitalier appointed himself lord and ruler of the ruined fortification as well as the main medical facility were within the city. Richard did not argue with it, letting King Phillip’s man having run of his little fortification. It also helped since now the pilgrims and refugees have a place to rest and heal before they continued their way deeper into the city or onwards to Jerusalem. Ever since they had captured Acre over two weeks ago, pilgrims had been flocking to Acre to pay their respects at the impressively built Cathedral of the Holy Cross before continuing on.
During the initial skirmish upon what was now called Richard’s Citadel, Robin and the men following him had lingered a bit at the massively huge cathedral that was before the Citadel, wondering how God had built such a magnificent structure.
After the battle, he had only visited once more, staring from one of the nearby rooftops towards the spire. A brief thought had occurred to him there, seeing a few loose and jutting bricks and tiles. If he hadn’t been afraid of falling to death from such a height, he wondered if he could climb all the way up to its cross. What a magnificent view of the city the architect that had built the cathedral must have gotten by placing the cross so high up there. He had probably even touched the face of God while doing so…
He quickly checked the remnant hospital tents and saw that only a few Crusades with minor wounds were there. There was no sign of Carter, Much, or Jordan and he suspected that meant that the blond-haired Crusader had a much more serious wound which required him to go to the Hospitalier fortress.
He immediately headed there, his boots splashing on the rancid water left in the streets, avoiding as best as he could the fecal matter, blood, and other bodily wastes still left on the streets. This was definitely the poorest of all the districts within Acre, being the most heavily shelled and battered of all. He saw beggars wandering the streets, some trying to plead with pilgrims to give them some money for food, others just wandering around aimlessly, occasionally shoving a pilgrim or even merchants who were cautiously making their way back into the city.
The murmurs of shops selling broken wares were a mix of Arabic, English, French, and even a smattering of German. Robin understood almost all of the languages spoken, with the exception of German since he had not had exposure to the hard-sounding language when he was young. He had picked up Arabic in his four years in the Holy Lands, finding it very useful to eavesdrop on unsuspecting merchants or pilgrims who thought him as an ignorant Crusader. He couldn’t speak it quite as well, but it was somewhat passable to issue commands to civilians to either evacuate or to calm them down if they were in a panic.
Through his walk towards the Hospitalier fortress, he kept a watchful eye on his surroundings for anyone acting suspicious. It was calm now, two weeks after the battle, but he did not doubt for a second that there were assassins or even spies within the city, gathering information to give to Salah al-Din. Above him a few guards patrolled the rooftops, watching the people down below and even some of the Hospitaliers and other Crusaders patrolled the streets, all of them wary and cautious.
Most of the uniforms were the white-crosses on black tunics of the Hospitaliers, Garnier’s men, but Robin did not doubt that their loyalty was to the Crusaders and the cause of recapturing Jerusalem. He had no personal grudge against Garnier or the Knights Hospitalier, but he was curious as to why they all looked at Richard and his emblem with such disdain at times.
He ignored their looks as he was doing at the moment, but he wondered why they held such an animosity. He walked into the small courtyard beyond the portcullis of the fortress and looked around, frowning. There were patients, both civilians and Crusaders milling about, some wandering around aimlessly others wide eyed and seemingly in a fog of wonderment as they walked drunkenly around.
“Excuse me,” he asked in French, stopping a nun who was walking from one of the entrances to another, “have you seen a blond-haired man with Richard’s emblem? Captain rank?”
“Over there,” the nun smiled kindly at him before curtsying and hurrying away. Robin followed where she pointed her finger, brushing past a few Crusaders and civilians, side-stepping to narrowly avoid a glancing blow from a drunkard who looked like he was just spinning in random circles.
He finally found Carter, being examined by a physician for a nasty looking hip wound on the man’s left side. Without his chain mail and tunics on, the paleness of Carter’s chest stood out against the bleak grey backdrop of the Hospitalier fortress. Robin saw numerous crisscrossed scars of old wounds and scratches received from battle for the past year since Carter had taken over the Fifth Column. He knew his own body was in similar shape, but seeing the scars on someone else’s body somehow unnerved Robin a little.
He saw Much and Jordan standing a bit away from them, Carter’s squire looking more than fretful and Much looking like he wanted to calm the man down, but wasn’t quite sure how to do it.
“Robin,” Carter gave him a wincing smile, looking up at him from where he laid on a palate. The physician was pulling a needle and stitching through his wound. It was still bleeding, but a nun next to the physician made sure to dab the bleeding wound whenever it dripped down his side.
“Carter,” he pulled up a stool and sat down near the man, giving him a rueful smile, “finally found something that could make you bleed?”
“A pike from one of those damned Saracens,” Carter replied before stifling a hiss as best as he could as the physician finished up, tying the black stitching into a rather large knot.
“Saladin?” he asked. If Robert had encountered Saracens then perhaps he was wrong about the man’s intentions. Maybe in his four years here he had become more paranoid with the threat of attack hanging over them for so long. Maybe it was he who had broken instead of Robert de Sable as he originally had thought. That sobering thought cut through Robin like a knife to butter. If he truly thought that…
“Assassins,” Carter spat the word like a curse and it jolted Robin from his dark thoughts.
“What?” he blinked, “Assassins?” Maybe he wasn’t going crazy after all…maybe Robert de Sable did have a hidden agenda.
“We got the order to ride north, across the deserts and mountains to some little fortification called Masyaf,” Carter pushed himself up from his palate as the nun quickly bandaged his wound, wrapping the white clean cloth around his waist a few times before finally finishing up and curtsied to Carter and himself before hurrying away. Robin barely acknowledged the nun’s departure, too focused on the blond-haired man’s words.
“What happened? Why attack some town we are not interested in?” he wondered if attacking the rumored stronghold of the mysterious Hashshashin sect, or Assassins in the English tongue, was such a bright idea. And was it related to whatever Robert had said about praying a couple of weeks ago?
Carter shrugged, taking a slightly dirt-smudged white shirt and putting it on before putting his tunic with the crest of the Knights Templar back on. “Robert didn't say,” he said, “only that we were to attack Masyaf for scouting purposes.”
“Scouting,” Robin stated flatly, “the man has you attacking the Assassins' stronghold for scouting. We are at war with Saladin, not with the Assassins!”
“You think I don't know that?” Carter glared at him, “I lost ten of my men when those damned bastards loosened logs from what we had thought was just a scout tower. Fifteen more before that when Robert had the bright idea to attack civilians in the ravine town.”
“He attacked civilians?” if there was one line that Robin had never vowed to cross in his four years in the Holy Lands it was always to spare civilians whenever possible. Sometimes that wasn't the case as the civilians themselves became warriors or even silent assassins. He knew Robert had no qualms about attacking civilians, having seemingly lost his humanity somewhere in the midst of battling against Salah al-Din's forces.
“We thought they were all Assassins until the real ones came to let the townsfolk escape up to their fortress,” Carter frowned, staring at one of the stone-pocketed walls. Robin knew he probably blamed himself for launching an attack on civilians, but how could he know with such an unknown quantity.
“Masyaf is the stronghold of the Assassins,” a slightly nasal heavily French-accented voice spoke up near them. Robin turned slightly to see the resident head physician and Grand Master of the Knights Hospitalier Garnier de Naplouse examining a patient lying on a palate next to Carter's.
“Grand Master,” he greeted, “I did not know you were aware of what has happened in Masyaf.”
“My patients,” the slightly built Frenchman looked over them down his hooked-nose, “all but talk of their misdeeds and nightmares. It is simple to pick up the murmurings of my children and try to soothe them.
“But it is as you may say, a wolf in sheep's clothing, yes?” Garnier scratched his chin, “for all Robert may have known, everyone was an Assassin.”
“True,” Carter shrugged, “haven't really thought of that point. Still doesn't make me feel any better losing twenty-five of my men for a poorly fought battle.”
“They are with God, young one,” Garnier bent over his patient once more before making a small clucking noise and walked away to another bed, engrossed in his work once more.
Both Robin and Carter shared a look before Much huffed near them, crossing his arms, “Mental, I tell you...”
Robin had to laugh a bit at his statement and Carter also grinned in return. However, he immediately sobered up and leaned over quietly, “I do have to tell you something since I know you're looking into the Grand Master's plans.”
“I am not,” Robin immediately denied, wiping the smile from his face.
Carter gave him a look that plainly said he knew he was lying, “I know I am your source of information for anything that goes on within the Knights Templar and we both know that I am on Robert's good side at the moment; though that may change since he got twenty-five of my men killed for no good reason.”
Robin looked at Carter, weighing whether or not he could trust the man. Carter was a good man, he knew that, but how deep his loyalty ran to Robert de Sable if it was proven that the Grand Master was a traitor he did not know. His King had commanded him to be discreet and to investigate on his own time. So far no one else had figured it out that he was investigating de Sable, but he knew given their history that it may come out sooner than expected. Carter was the first one to figure it out, but then again, he was also a prime source of information. By telling Carter and letting him in, he risked being fed false information or having his own investigations go against him should Carter report back to Robert.
But to not trust Carter would be slamming the metaphoric door of their friendship on his face. And it was about then that he realized what he had lost in the Holy Lands. He lost faith and he lost the ability to trust anyone save for his own King. That was not an issue of trust, but rather it was loyalty. He didn't even trust Much, constantly cautioning him, ignoring him when he felt like he was whining. He didn't really trust Tomas to lead in his stead. It was just out of habit that he knew Tomas would lead when he was there. But he always had to check everything that his men did just to be sure that everything was all right.
Robin made a decision, “I am to assure of Robert's loyalty to our cause. Any information you can provide to prove that assurance would be helpful.” It wasn't saying out loud that he trusted Carter, but rather it was a more formal way of saying that he wasn't going to slam the door of friendship in his face. He hoped Carter got the message and saw him sit back, his face neutral before giving him a crooked smile.
“Two can play that game, Locksley,” Carter replied before leaning forward again, “Robert met us half way to Masyaf from farther south. Rumor has it he rode from Jerusalem saying something about a stolen treasure of God.”
“Something to help in our Crusade?” Robin asked quietly, “a weapon?”
Carter shrugged, “That's all I heard...”
Robin nodded. He wanted to tell Carter to keep him posted on anymore information, but that would bring him into his investigation and ultimately he did not want to compromise the man's position within the Knights Templar. There would be other means of finding out information...and if Garnier de Naplouse indicated as such, patients within the Hospitalier fortress would be a good place to gather information.
There was still the lingering question of why de Sable had attacked Masyaf in the first place and how was it related to Jerusalem? They had no quarrel with the Hashshashin and as far as Robin knew of the politics within the Holy Lands, the Hashshashin of Masyaf were extremely neutral in this war. Their only mandate as far as he could tell was highly visible political assassination of those who were corrupt men in the cities they ruled. They did not want anything to do with King Richard and Phillip's Crusade.
He got up, gripping hands once the Knight Templar, “Get well soon Carter and thank you.”
Carter returned the firm hand shake with a slight twinkle in his eye, showing that he had forgiven Robin for abrupt attitude, “Any time.”
Robin caught Much's eye and the two of them headed out, Jordan bustling behind them to finally attend to his stubborn master. As soon as they were back in the open courtyard of the fortress, he turned to Much, “Much, can I trust you to be discreet?”
“Of course,” he looked a bit affronted.
“See if you can find out from the others what de Sable was doing in Jerusalem. But don't let anyone else know what you're looking for,” he cautioned.
“Robin?” Much looked a bit confused.
He shook his head as they stepped back out into the streets of Acre and looked around, “Robert is up to something. I don't know what, but I want to make sure that it won't harm the King in any way.”
“Do you think the Assassins will come after the King since Grand Master de Sable attacked them?” Much asked quietly as they headed deeper into the city, towards Richard's Citadel.
Robin glanced at his manservant in surprise. He had not really considered the idea. He did not know how the Hashshashin would react to such an attack because he did not know how their society or laws worked. What he did know was that they had strictly refused to help Salah al-Din and that they were an outcast branch of the Muslim faith that followed different tenets. Was it possible that they would interpret de Sable's attack as the harbinger of an incoming Christian force?
“For de Sable's sake he better hope that does not happen,” he finally replied to Much's inquiry, “otherwise I will kill him first.”