The Siege of Acre

The city of Acre, besieged by the forces of Richard the Lion-Hearted, slouched in terror of invincible armor, of horses mythical in size and steadfastness, of a human frenzy that had deserted the Moslem world two centuries earlier. To hold against this menace meant slow but certain annihilation and growing depravity. To capitulate meant… what? Blood ankle deep in the streets, rape, torture, death beyond all conceivable deaths, the sundering of reason from body. Those who already quaked with the fever of pestilence shook like wind chimes at the mention of surrender. 

Sulieman Hareim, vendor of needlework excerpts from the Koran, had shivered enough in times of peace, hounded throughout his life by something never far behind that refused to make itself manifest. Now, at last, that something had a name. It lurked beyond the walls, though still unseen by those who, like Sulieman, were not chosen to battle it.

The tales of the invaders were five times truth, perhaps ten, but to those who knew the truth, it was enough: fanatics under the banner of a military zealot, more cunning that a religious one, huge in the saddle, with the strength of kings of legend, merciless in pursuit of..  not the True Cross, not the Holy Land, but of competition which knew no limit. Such a force had been long absent in that part of the world, the desire to be and to do, to win without ultimate object, so that each victory must be succeeded by another, greater, until the world, believed flat by the ignorant, should be rendered so in fact.

Sulieman knew the stories of this Avenger who dared Allah Himself and seemingly fought the Only One to a standstill. The merchant’s belief in the forces of destiny grew stronger, even as his acceptance of the limitless might of Allah lay shaken. A wrath greater than the wrath of God had reached through a rent in the fabric of the world. Yet if Sulieman was powerless before this scourge, might it not rightly be also his personal scourge, brought to afflict the city of Acre only as a portal to his spirit?

His one-room dwelling was piled high with the product of his wife’s deft fingers. She it was who transformed the flowing testament of Allah from the pages of the Holy Book to simple cotton cloth. Nor did the siege restrict her output. Day after day she added to the heaps of coarsely embroidered sayings which she knew to recite by heart, but which she could no more read than could her husband.

“What are we to do with these?” he asked. “We cannot put them for sale in such times. The infidels would desecrate them when they conquer. That would be a sin.”

“It is a sin to oppose the will of Allah.”

“The will of Allah has gone elsewhere.”

His wife did not reply, nor did her fingers slow.

At night a hypnogogic form assailed Sulieman, ten feet tall, mounted on a horse with breath of fire, its hooves bearing down upon him, sometimes in the street, other times here in his bed. The stained yellow background held no contrasting feature, only horse, rider, and the sharp-edged, brilliant colors of their motion. A great iron bucket encased the rider’s head, featureless but for eyeholes and the sinuously delineated outlines of ears. He bore a shield nearly his own height, embossed with a cross of fire, a mouth writhing at the cross’s intersection, speaking in an unknown language words too vile to be comprehended in any tongue. The twisted lips spat molten saliva that hissed and steamed where it struck the horse’s flanks. The steed’s head, uncovered, shone with flesh so lean, skin so tight over the bones, it appeared to be clothed in an impenetrable substance.

The rider rose in his saddle by aid of strange boot-holders strapped across the animal’s middle, and he lifted a lance that stretched backward to the edge of thought. Its tip speared a beating heart, pulsing with the desire to incorporate, to master. At its touch, a gout of red fell across Sulieman, sucking greedily at this flesh. Then the image died, vanished of its own accord, and the shaking spasms left his body. An unexplained blessing filled his head and he slipped into true asleep.

Richard had taken sick before the walls, no less human in the face of pestilence than his adversaries or his supposed invincible cohorts, who fell like flies and boiled inside their cushioned chain mail, until relieved of it by those with sufficient strength remaining to lift more than their own weight. Food was short, patience and tempers shorter. Close to half the horses were dead, the rest put out of their misery, one by one, to serve as provisions, strips of flank and belly drying over smoky fires. Saladin threatened, at a distance, to descend upon their encircled position. Richard raved for half a day, believing himself back in England, berating John for the black-hearted whimsy of his regency.

Close to sunset, the great king blinked, sat upright, and demanded a flagon of water. The fever did not leave him, but his will returned, and with it his hope, which outstripped even his ambition. He called together his lieutenants, a wretched lot dripping sweat, hacking phlegm onto the already putrid ground. Great sores enveloped their bodies from the chafing of the armor they felt constrained to don each day as a sign that right, wielded by the arm of might, would triumph.

Without Richard, nothing had triumphed but disease.

“We must undermine the tower,” the revitalized king said, “bring the whole damned mass of masonry down on their heads. Can you not envision it? Bloody heathens up on their wall while we scurry about like moles under the earth, chomp, chomp, chomp, chewing away on the foundations, then we haul back on the supports, heave ho, and their grand stupid walls vanish into a chasm.”

“We built those grand stupid walls,” observed the Duke of Gascony, wiping a bony arm across his nose.

“And we’ll bloody well tear ’em down again. Who better for it? Eh? Got to get out of this confounded litter.”

Richard rose from the litter, stood tall, and fell into a faint.

Sulieman rose from the rank straw pallet where he had been avoiding the afternoon. Feet slapped past his doorway, a few at first, then many, racing from the walls. Cries ran with them, cries without words, or with words so shrill they became both more and less than words. As the feet and cries dwindled, other sounds replaced them, thumpings and bangings and clankings at the walls. What could they mean, he asked himself, knowing that they could mean only the end, the triumph of that madness beyond the reach of Allah.

After a time, even these sounds diminished, replaced by a silence louder than battle. Had for forces of Allah, armed only with spears, lacking metal armor, held the God of Chaos at bay? The thought of victory called to his faith, but what answered was not his faith. Something deep within him wept that the destiny which had searched him out across seas and deserts had been defeated.

Runnels of sweat streaking his filthed flanks under his burnous, he ran, against the resistance of terror, toward the walls. The odor of blood rose as sweet as the blossoms of a carrion plant. The tower steps were piled with bodies, three deep in places, taking on rigor in the heat. With muscles now unyielding, they turned like logs beneath his feel, throwing him off balance.

Atop the tower, wounded defenders, gore encrusting their bodies and pasting their arms to their sides, slumped against the walls. A single crusader lay arched across the stone of a crenel. His sword was a broken stump, the jagged ending bloody, suspended from his forearm as though by magic, some small nick or snag in the metal caught on his chain mail. His helmet, a battered piece of iron crossing his head from brow to nape, was pressed hard against his crown. Sulieman knelt to see his face, but it was covered by a veil of chain, struck with sufficient force to drive it through eyes and sockets both, to hidden places within. Sulieman’s stomach attempted to erupt, but is contents were too meagre to respond.

He stood so he could inspect the body from above. It seemed little larger than his own, and the armor, though efficient, did not obliterate the underlying human form as his mind had pictured. Here was a man who had fought for a cause which, though unjust, had led him to assail a great heigh with but a broken sward. Sulieman pulled at the leather ties behind the infidel’s shoulders and found that he could lift the body. With a cry of what could have been taken for rage he pitched it over the wall.

A short laugh sounded behind him.

“Well done. You fight the dead with valor.”

“Allah be praised,” mouthed Sulieman, his lips moving from instinct

“Allah,” said the soldier, “Allah.” He laughed again.

Something spoke to Sulieman’s feet as he sidled to the stairway, as though a loquacious bug had crawled beneath his step. He stopped. The stone sang to him through his soles, the grating voice of eternity from the throat of the inanimate. He shook and his teeth chattered. He placed his hand against the wall, and the voice was there also, a snicker at first, then laughter harder than the soldier’s.

Sulieman hurdled down the stairway, setting off avalanches of stiffened flesh. The odor of decay hand increased tenfold, the flies a hundredfold. He fought through black swarms that he inhaled in his panic, causing him to cough and retch again. At the doorway to his hovel, he raised his hands above his head and feigned a dance of celebration.

“Allah be praised,” he shrilled, “Allah be praised.” His wife looked up only briefly from her needlework, never ceasing her careful stitches. Sulieman lowered his hands.

The infidels launched no concerted attack during the following week. Though sorties rode to the base of the walls, they turned back as the defenders massed above them. They made no feints toward the tower. The city’s inhabitants, straining for normality, drifted back to their homes close under the walls. The Crusaders’ naval blockade prevented supplies from reaching them, and brother eyed the shrunken shanks of brother as the corpses in the streets threatened to equal the number of the living.

Sulieman made trips to the tower daily. Some of the bodies of the defenders had been claimed; far more, with regret, had been carried to the wall and let fall. The soldiers did not question him. He was a fact of life that came, looked on the Christian camp with strange intensity, then departed.

One mid-day a small party of horsemen approached the wall but stopped beyond bowshot. Something hung between two of the horses, something rich in colors, assertive yet vulnerable in the barren, ruined land of siege.

“That is he,” said a soldier at Sulieman’s side.


“The Lion-Heart.”

Sulieman leaned into the crenel and swung his head left to right. “Where? Which is he?”

The soldier pointed to the isolated group “There, in the litter. He has been ill, they say.”


The great Avenger from beyond time… an injured man in foppish colors tied between horses. From the stones beneath Sulieman’s feet the song sang again; as before, the singer did not identify itself.

His nighttime vision returned, but stripped of its majesty. The armored rider slumped in the saddle, his shield hacked and dented, the cross upon it little more than two sticks crudely fastened. The mouth at their intersection slobbered idiot drool over blistered lips. No heart adorned the lance, though the broken tip pumped gore like a bellows, issuing a stream of red that, for all its liquid flow, spoke of an unslakable thirst. The horse broke into a brief canter, then stumbled to its knees. The dissolution of the image brought nothing of its former peace.

Rumors of impending surrender circulated both within the walls and without. Saladin continued to promise resistance, but his armies remained in place. One day a massive sound erupted throughout the walls, the bellow of the earth itself. The tower wavered like a harem dancer before the Sultan, shifted forward and settled downward, shorter by the height of three men. Its stairway clogged with fallen stone and a renewed supply or corpses, yet the tower wall stood solid in what had been intended as its breach.

“Blast,” said Richard, swinging his weakened legs over the side of the litter. “What sort of mole-work is that? Never give a job to Frenchmen, they do everything half-assed.”

Conrad of Montferrat, no friend to Richard at the best of times, blinked from smoldering eyes. “At least there are fewer of them. The mining collapsed prematurely. The moles, all, were killed.”

Richard wavered slightly on his feet. “In that case, they died nobly, none I’d rather have make the attempt. Where’s my armor? The delegation is due today. Find something regal for me to sit on, deuced upsetting if I fell over in the middle of things.” He looked toward the tower. “We know how to build ‘em. Just as well, might come in handy once we enter. Acre will be ours by nightfall.”

And so it was. Saladin’s rebuff of the defenders’ terms of surrender arrived too late. The garrison of Acre had already staggered through the gates, prisoners of the Lion-Heart. Yet no massacre followed – not then. After thirty months of siege, the infidels entered the city in relative quiet, their minimal rape and pillage little more than a pro-forma exercise by wasted, weary men.

They sacked Sulieman’s dwelling in an almost cursory way, the words of Allah taken, strewn in the street and beaten into the dust. An infidel knight ripped the veil from his wife but found the fact beneath less than the promise unseen. He cuffed the woman, bloodying her face, but left her otherwise in peace. The colored embroidery threads he appropriated for his own spouse, should he ever return from this accursed land of Christ.

Sulieman fled, attempted to scale the tumbled tower stairs without success, then took up with a contingent of soldiers who recognized him from his wanderings atop the wall. Together, they were rounded up by the conquerers, sent from the city, and confined with a thousand others on a small stretch of open ground, one tiny stream serving for both drink and the removal of wastes.

Sulieman felt no resentment. Allah, in His unknowable wisdom, had found the Faithful expendable. Less comprehensible to the merchant was the behavior of the infidels, who lived, by choice, little better than he. True, they ate well, now that food flowed freely into the camp, but food itself, the basic process of life, seemed to make them crazed. Bowmen, surrounded by their own refuse, squatted and tore at their provisions. Nobles, devouring gobbets of half-raw flesh, spattered their gilded finery with grease and used the ruffled sleeves as depositories for the excesses of mouth and nose. The horses, trained for nothing but stolidity in battle, dropped their waste before the tents, soiling the cloth, leaving it crawling with flies.

At first, Sulieman fixed his gaze on the central tent, waiting for a view of the Lion-Heart, who did not emerge. At night he grappled with the remnants of his vision, reduced to a muddle of disconnected figures and tumbled geometry. Once these too had fled, he fell into mindless stupor. Before the second week had passed, he no longer kept watch on the fly-specked pavilion of the Avenger.

So the situation remained, static, for five weeks. Saladin sent Richard repeated offers of exchange, but none pleased the victor. Rid of his fever and eager again to win momentous battles, to capture Jerusalem, to return to his realm and uproot the certain mischief of John, he found it degrading to haggle over the worthless bodies of his enemy.

On the final morning, the prisoners awoke to a mad din, the gnashing of demon teeth and the torment of the damned. As the upper limb of the sun cleared the horizon, the infidels beat swords and shields, warbled and whistled and bellowed like bulls. Sulieman blundered from his deep stupor to a lighter one, then burst fully awake, his weeks of numbness torn away. In their exaltation, the infidels had raised a pall of dust through which the sun shone as golden as the streets of paradise. It was the color of his former vision, rich yet terrifying.

“Allah, Allah,” he prayed, but questioningly.

Leaping and whirling through the golden mists, the knights at last took on the aspect of their legend. Their movements were quick, huge, exalted, as they swung their swords in arcs before them, fwuuuh, fwuuuh, fwuuuh, the sound of rooks alighting to claim the eyes of the dead. Slowly, the massed figures parted, forming a lane to the great tent. Down this lane strode the Lion-Heart, a true colossus, a head taller than any man else in the assemblage, angular from illness but firm of tread. Larger than life, his motions signaled the immortality of the present.

He strode the soldiered highway to an open area between his warriors and the cowed prisoners, and boomed barbaric sounds, the song the stones had sung to Sulieman. At the Lion-Heart’s last grating note, a cheer arose from the knights, rooks taken flight once more. Each man took a step forward, as if pulled by an unseen cord. Richard drew his sword, raised it high, then swept downward.

The infidels surged forward and the slaughter began. The prisoners shrieked and fled, but Sulieman stood unmoved until the giant form became lost in the swirl of maddened men armed with any implement of death that came to hand – sword or crude wooden truncheon, morningstar or sharpened segment of broken harness.

The captives still standing were cut down, the fallen skewered where they lay. Swordsmen hewed arms as a butcher cleaves chickens, slit abdomens and tossed the tangled entrails high, sundered heads, scattered brains until a grayish red mixed into the golden light, darkening it toward orange.

Bowmen and squires lashed right and left without care, catching at each other and striking sparks from knights’ armor as their bloodlust increased with each kill. A youth of perhaps eighteen, clad in green tatters, thew up an eyeball, still trailing its optic nerve, and made as if to catch it with open mouth. At the last, he stepped back so that it fell before him, then ground it into the squelch of gore, giggling all the while. Everywhere, the siege plain echoed with cries and laughter, screams of death and howls of belated vengeance.

Sulieman, loosed from stasis, tumbled into the reddened, viscous mud. Above him a sword cut the air with the note of a wind-touched lyre. A man, still standing, had been sliced diagonally from right shoulder to left flank. His upper section levered away on a hinge of flesh, leaving legs supporting one arm and a scant triangle of body. The exposed organs squirmed and pulsated, unaware of their end, then the knees curtsied to the attacker, who staggered off, giddy, in search of the center of mayhem.

Sulieman rose slowly. After the soft drop of the halved body, a local silence pushed outward, driving the clamor of carnage before it, until a single sound remained, a repetitive liquid sibilance, as of stones dropped into a shallow pond. Twenty yards distant, a gigantic rider approached astride a still more gigantic horse, a beast with legs of stone, a third taller than the tallest Arabian.

Richard reined in the Percheron, a workhorse commandeered from the supply ships. Its massive feet sank through the mire to find firm purchase beneath. The Lion-Heart wore neither the shield or helmet of Sulieman’s vision. Instead, a slowly browning crust of others’ blood covered horse and rider alike in an armor more terrible than steel. The Avenger’s eyes shone brilliant as the orange-yellow light. Of a sudden he bellowed laughter and lowered his lance to the ready. A spume of spittle, mixed with the blood on his lips, arched from him in a reddish spray.

Sulieman threw his arms wide, his body forming a living cross. The Lion-Heart held still, tossing back his head to shake loose his stiffening hair. He laughed again, almost soundlessly, then wheeled the horse. With his heels he coaxed it into a reluctant canter as it carried him away. The heavy splashes turned to lighter splashes, to drips of sound, to nothing.

Sulieman lowered his arms in the grief of abandonment, surrounded by the bodies of the dead, the silence of death, and a dead, empty light.

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