Read an Excerpt
The City Of Brass
by Deborah Turner Harris and Robert J. Harris
The killing began at noon.
As the desert sun approached its zenith, seven battered and bloodstained Templar knights were dragged forth from the back of the covered cart where they had been languishing in chains since their capture. Wrists bound behind them, they moved haltingly, weakened by heat and hunger and the debilitating pain of untended wounds. Last to emerge into the pitiless midday glare, the young knight known to his brothers as Thierry de Challon favored his Mamluk guards with a wordless snarl of defiance. Whatever fate might be in store for his fellow captives, he did not intend to go meekly like a lamb to the slaughter.
He and his six companions were the only survivors, as far as Thierry knew, of the engagement that had taken place two days ago at Cresson, a small natural spring half a day's journey to the east of Nazareth in the sunbaked heart of the Holy Land. One hundred thirty Templar knights, riding out under the command of Gerard de Ridefort, had arrived at the oasis to find the surrounding terrain occupied by a Muslim host numbering several thousand. What insane impulse of vainglory had prompted de Ridefort to hurl his own relatively insignificant force against this mighty contingent of Saladin's army, Thierry could not begin to guess. But de Ridefort was their Grand Master, and when he charged the Saracen lines, they had been compelled to follow.
The ensuing engagement had been a massacre. Many Mamluk warriors had died, cut down in the initial fury of the Frankish charge, but more had surged in totaketheir places, surrounding the embattled knights like a tide. Exposed to the arrows of the emir's Turkish archers without the shielding support of their own infantry, the Templars had had their horses systematically shot out from under them. Once dismounted, each of them had continued to fight, on foot and in isolation, until the bitter, bloody end.
Thierry had been among the last left standing. He had fought his hardest, until at last his sword had been struck from his hand. Winded and bleeding, he had steeled himself to be hacked to pieces by the bloodstained scimitars of his swarming adversaries. Instead, to his fury and utter humiliation, they had thrown a net over his head, dragging him down into the dust as if he had been some brutish wild beast to be captured and caged for the decadent amusement of Saladin's captains and their languishing concubines.
It was still not clear why he and his fellow captives had been denied the dignity of death on the battlefield. None of them possessed any special advantage of family wealth or influence to make them valuable as hostages, nor were any of them sufficiently highly placed within the Order to have incurred Saladin's personal wrath. Nevertheless, there had to be a reason why their lives so far had been spared. As his guards chivied him along behind the others, Thierry grimly surmised that they would not have to speculate for very much longer.
The prisoners were hustled uphill toward a crescent-shaped formation of stones that rose up out of the midst of the Saracen encampment like an island from the sea. Waiting for them within this elevated amphitheater of stones was a strange deputation from the crowded encampment below. Foremost among them was an aged faqir, a spidery, shriveled figure wearing nothing but a filthy twist of rags wound around his leathery loins. Behind the faqir, like a mountain overshadowing a tree loomed the towering figure of a Mamluk swordsman.
The swordsman was stripped to the waist, the knotty muscles of his arms and chest glistening with sweat in the sweltering heat. His head was bare, clean-shaven except for the obligatory scalplock of hair by which the Prophet would draw him up into heaven. The giant's powerful hands grasped the hilt of a broad-bladed scimitar, its point resting lightly on the ground between his sandaled feet. The singular length and heaviness of the blade identified it as a weapon of execution.
First to face up to the weight of the sword was the English knight Robert of Shrewsbury. Hands tightly trussed behind his back, he was taken to the faqir, before whom he stood swaying dizzily in the heat. The faqir looked long and hard at the young Englishman for several minutes, searching his face as though looking for some secret, hidden sign. Then he muttered something aside to the headsman in Arabic and gave a curt nod.
A single whistling sweep of the great scimitar sent the Englishman's head flying from his shoulders in a far-flung splatter of blood. The head struck the ground with a dull thud and rolled away among the rocks. As one set of guards heaved the headless trunk to one side, the faqir scanned the remaining Templars in search of another victim. This time the choice fell upon a young Burgundian, Reynald d'Arnaux.
Thierry held himself erect, even though his senses were swimming with the blistering heat and the sickly sweet stench of spilled blood. Five years ago, he had gone down on his knees before the wealthy and beautiful Isabeau Vilenoise, begging her to overlook his poverty and marry him. She had spurned him with the cruel reminder that he was only a younger son with no entitlements to his credit. Forced to swallow this bitter humiliation, Thierry had vowed afterward never again to bow his knee in servile petition to any other creature of the earth.
Instead, he had dedicated his life the life that no one else cared for to a purpose of his own choosing. Joining the Knights Templar had been a part of that choice, and since then he had lived and worked in expectation of reaping future benefits. If he died now, it would be without fulfilling his sworn promises. Likewise he would never have tasted the rewards of his service.
With this thought in mind, Thierry watched in stony silence as, one by one, the other knights were brought before the faqir to be examined and then beheaded. Beside him the Saxon knight Conrad of Bremen was praying in a harsh whisper for the salvation of his immortal soul. He was still praying when the guards hustled him forward, and he died with the words of the Paternoster on his lips.
Then it was Thierry's turn. The faqir studied him closely, his black eyes alight with burning intensity, as if their owner were attempting to penetrate the uttermost depths of his soul. In a voice as hot and dry as the desert wind, he inquired, "Why do you not pray, infidel?"
The question was posed in Arabic. Thierry summoned a sneer. "I am not like these others," he informed the faqir in the same language. "Give me a chance and I will prove it."
The old man grinned malevolently. "If you are speaking the truth, the sword will prove it for you."
Thierry's guards dropped back. The executioner raised the scimitar high, its curved blade still dripping with the blood of its last victim. Thierry's bound hands writhed behind his back, fighting the constraint of the ropes long enough for his fingers to trace an invisible symbol in the air.
Hear me, Master! he urged without speaking, as I have placed my soul in your hands, I charge you to deliver me from this untimely death.
With this injunction, he lifted his eyes toward the sky. His defiant, unblinking gaze was drawn through the near-blinding light to a point of darkness at the center of the sun. There was a scintillating flash and a shrill whistling hiss.
"Stop!" called the faqir.
Fire scored the underside of Thierry's jaw. He gave an involuntary start, then realized that his head was still attached to his shoulders. He shut his eyes and swallowed, feeling the scimitar quiver against his throat where its edge had gashed the skin. Through a sudden haze of dizziness, he heard the faqir's voice say, "He is the one who will serve. Remove his bonds and let him be taken to the Servant of the Prophet."
Once his hands were free, Thierry was led down off the hill and taken to a tent in a neighboring part of the camp. Here he was provided with food and water and the services of an Arab physician, who bathed and tended his wounds. Thereafter, eased and refreshed, he was given fresh clothes and conducted back through the Saracen lines toward a flourishing grove of greenery which marked the presence of an oasis. Here beneath a cluster of date palms stood a pavilion of striped silk surmounted by the green silk banner of the Prophet.
While the guards stationed themselves on either side of the threshold, a soft-footed servant ushered Thierry into the tent. The abrupt change from light to shade momentarily confounded his sight. As he stood blinking, a steely voice addressed him in Frankish from the cool shadows.
"Welcome, sir knight. Come forward and be seated. You and I have matters of import to discuss."
Thierry knuckled the lingering dazzle from his eyes. Before him, on a pile of variegated cushions, lounged a lean, hawk-faced man clad in the loose, lightweight robes of a desert prince. The dark, intelligent features, surmounted by a jeweled turban of yellow silk, were those of Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub himself.
Thierry squared his shoulders. Glaring down at his Order's most formidable adversary, he said coldly, "I was not aware that we had anything to discuss."
"That remains to be seen," said Saladin. "The report of you I have had from my holy man suggests that you might be one to profit from what I have to tell you."
He gestured toward an adjoining spread of rugs and cushions. Warily, Thierry sank down amid the opulent welter of soft fabrics and intricate embroideries. Saladin settled back, languid and feral as a resting lion. Surveying the young knight's scowling, blond-bearded face, he asked, "Have you ever heard of a place called the City of Brass?"
Thierry mutely shook his head.
"Among the legends of my people," Saladin informed him, "are tales concerning an ancient stronghold, built long ago by a race of sorcerers. These stories place that city the City of Brass somewhere in the midst of these lands that were once ruled by Solomon the Wise. It is said that in a palace at the heart of the city lies a marvelous relic, the possession of which confers wealth and power. Some claim it is the head of a sorcerer or perhaps an afreet which can foretell the future. Many have gone out to look for this city, hoping to lay claim to its secrets, but none has ever yet returned. Certainly this mysterious relic of which we speak is still there for the finding."
He paused. Thierry asked, "What has this to do with me?"
Saladin's chiseled lips framed a thin smile. "It may have everything to do with you, Knight of the Temple. It would be no small help to me if I had the means to foretell the course of future events. What I require is someone to seek out the City of Brass on my behalf, find this head of prophecy, and bring it back to me. You have given indications that you might succeed where others before you have failed."
"A strange compliment," said Thierry with a mirthless grin. "Why do you not send one of the many thousand men under your command?"
"Because the legends assert that any man who enters the City of Brass will surely lose his soul," said Saladin. "As a true servant of the Prophet, I cannot send a believer there. An unbeliever like yourself, however, is another matter. There are some, even among your own people, who claim that you Templars are servants of the demon Baphomet. Perhaps the loss of your soul is not something you have any reason to fear "
An explosive exclamation from Thierry interrupted him. Blue eyes glittering, the young knight lurched to his feet, his right hand moving toward his hip where the hilt of his sword should have been. Saladin made a gesture of placation.
"Peace!" he exclaimed. "I spoke only in jest. I do not doubt the strength of the Templars' faith, however misguided it may be. Your religious convictions are of less concern to me than your proven fortitude as a fighting man unless, of course, you would be prepared to forswear this false god of yours and embrace the true religion of the Prophet?"
Thierry subsided, still bristling. "I could not change my allegiance," he informed Saladin, "even if I wanted to."
The Saracen lord shrugged. "In that case, I offer you this choice. You can return to the hill, where your head will be struck off from your body. Or you can seek out the City of Brass and return with a head with which to ransom your own. Should you manage to discharge this errand and live to tell about it, you will have earned my gratitude and your own freedom."
Thierry considered this proposal in silence. After a long moment, Saladin spoke again.
"My armies are gathering," the Saracen leader said softly. "When they are all assembled, we shall fall upon Jerusalem as a lion falls upon a yearling goat. Undertake this mission for me, and you may ride on before me to render an account of the size of my host and the disposition of my captains to your brother knights and anyone else who will listen to you. Moreover, having done what none of the Faithful have been able to do, you will have proven the superiority of your god. Well?"
Thierry drew himself up. He said roughly, "Tell me how to find this City of Brass."
A look of stern satisfaction passed across Saladin's face. "In good time," he said. "First you must swear by all you hold holy that you will indeed seek out the fabled city and return here to my camp with the prize I seek."
Thierry placed his right hand over his heart. "I do so swear," he said grimly.