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When I was a child, I spake as a child...
Dante de Montcada pondered the words, their truth absolute. There was little else to occupy him for the moment, while he awaited a return to battle.
...I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things....
And so he had done on the bloody fields of Palestine. He had taken up the sword, a weapon of war that fit his hand and suited his disposition. He reckoned himself good for little else.
He sat his fine Spanish charger in expert fashion, honored every knightly vow he had taken, but in his dark eyes lay a shadow of discontent. Hidden deep in his heart was a temperament that ran to recklessness, a trait that would cost him mightily.
He turned in his saddle and scanned the plain, then let his gaze fall heavy upon the fortress.
Around him thousands more fought to retake the mighty St. Jean d' Acre, a Crusader fortress on the coastal plain of Outremer, lost to the infidel three years past. The bastion now suffered continuous assault by Crusading men-at-arms, as well she should for her deception and disloyalty, blood being the cost of their ambition and the fee for their claim. A great prize demanded great payment.
Less arrogant in her position now after two long years under siege, she sat in stone-faced silence, her fortifications marred by the constant pounding of siege engines. St. Jean d' Acre's bulwarks challenged the sea on three sides, and on this side her magnificent stone curtain drew a straight line across the arm of land upon which she rested. Her battlemented wall reached skyward, fingers outstretched towardHeaven as though pleading with God for mercy. Her vast walls and spires and loopholes, her breastwork and towers and grand galleries, gates strengthened with iron, were at once a gem and a scar on the coast of Outremer.
The sun shot glints from sword and shield and polished link, from bowmen and foot, from siege engine and mantlet. During the brief lull in the fighting, Dante removed his fine Spanish gauntlets, then raised one hand to shield his eyes from the glare.
To the inland east and on the outlying edge of the fighting, tendrils of smoke curled from a charred wooden barricade near him. With his back to the fortress curtain, he along with hundreds more guarded their flank against attack.
Beside him sat Iago Calderon, a young lion among many occupying the plain, a man trained to war. Dark hair, a piercing glance and a nervousness that spoke of both an extraordinary courage and a depthless fear marked him among men. Possessed of a sober spirit, he laid claim to a powerful gift of which he rarely spoke and a hidden past about which he refused to speak at all.
Iago crossed both hands on his saddlebow, his reins loose on his horse's neck. He nodded toward the plain. "It seems they are not of a mind to withdraw and shall come at us again."
Dante nodded, certain the enemy would once more sling forth their minions to unleash havoc upon the faithful of Christendom. After being thrown back yet again, the Saracens were regrouping. "There's time enough left in the day." He pushed against his own chest to reposition a spaulder, then shrugged his linked mesh up higher onto his shoulders, hot in the sun's relentless burn.
In the momentary calm he silently crafted a prayer for Sakeena, his forbidden love -- heathenish some would say -- inside St. Jean d' Acre. He had loved her all his days and dreamt of her each night.
"You think of her," Iago said, as though he read Dante's thoughts. "You court disaster if you do not let her go." There was sternness in the warning, an aspect that grew each time the caution was uttered and that was often.
Though Dante loved his friend as a brother, Iago's intrusive remarks aggravated an already tender wound. "I invite no such disaster, but if it should befall me then I shall gladly fight it." He could not afford the distraction but was rendered helpless before the power of her memory.
"She should have been away long ago," he added, the remark strained with worry.
Iago turned, gazing over his shoulder toward St. Jean. "Perhaps so. But she has power beyond what you see. And," he added cautiously, "she loves her brother."
"But why did Asad not send her away?" A question he asked of himself more than of his companion. Of a certainty she loved her brother. As did Dante, though they now were called enemy rather than friend.
"He is not devoid of scruples and does little without reason, generally good reason." Iago grasped his friend's arm. His dark eyes reflected the gravity felt in his grip. "There are many things, Dante, that require your attention and your skill. Leave this preoccupation that may well cost you your life. And perchance hers, as well."
Dante pulled away and focused on the activity at St. Jean's feet.
Hundreds of Franks again stormed the fortress, their voices raised, weapons poised. Trebuchets sat loaded, fat stones in their slings and counter weights raised, ready at the command. As Dante gazed at the montage of men and horses and tents and weaponry, an expression of grim determination deepened the character easily seen in his face. The day would yet yield up much blood and suffering before the sun disappeared into the sea and, he hoped, took its great heat with it. Such was the price of arrogance and foolish pride.
He massaged his right arm, flexing his hand, his sword sheathed for the moment and gauntlets at rest on his saddlebow. He wiped dust and sweat from his face with the tail of his crimson and gold surcoat, the colors of Don Sabiano de Montcada's house, one that grew more and more foreign to him. Though a Spaniard, bone and blood, at twenty-nine years of age he had never seen Spain and so felt little allegiance to his country. He motioned for a squire to bring him a water flask.
After nine years of hard fighting he longed for a respite from war, from the hostility that ravaged this land. He tipped the flask to his lips and allowed the tepid water to track down his chin and throat, refreshing against the sweltering July heat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"He comes!" A man stood in his stirrups and pointed toward the sea. The shout echoed along the line and rose above the heads of men and horses gathered at St. Jean d' Acre's feet. Standards hung limp in the sun's mighty heat, exquisite Templar crosses, red on a checkered field of black and white, beside those of the Knights of St. John. King Guy's silken insignia and the ensign of King Phillip's men rippled long and extravagant, a field alive with splendor, brilliant color and majesty, with bloodied steel and the shouts of the brave.
A roar rose from those gathered, rippled as a tidal wave across the floor of the plain and flayed the clouds with its volume. Weapons spiked the air as warriors raised their blades in salute. Dante's stallion shook his head and danced away from the clamor.
Copyright © 2004 E.L. Noel