Tales from the Crusades, Part 5, “The Warrior” by Jean-Christophe, Illustrated by Amalaric

Yüsef fought valiantly – but vainly – against overwhelming odds. In truth, the outcome of the unexpected skirmish was a foregone conclusion and defeat was inevitable. Outnumbered, Yüsef and his Saracen comrades were no match for the Crusaders lead by Raynald de Châtillon, Lord of Oultrejourdain.

Despite his belief in the righteousness of his own cause, Yüsef was overwhelmed by the absolute fanaticism of the Franj. Surely, he thought, these Unbelievers aren’t merely men; they must be evil djinns, the spawn of Shaytan.

Yüsef and his small band of holy warriors had been caught unawares by a numerically stronger troop of Crusaders. The ensuing battle was brief but merciless. Yüsef and his comrades stood back to back and valiantly fought the Franj inflicting death and injury upon them with their flashing, bloody scimitars. And yet, as they fought, they knew their situation was hopeless. Worn down by successive waves of Franj warriors, they were finally overcome and in those final, few moments, Yüsef prepared for death. But an honorable death was denied him that day; Raynald de Châtillon had other plans for his captives and their lives were spared. Stripped of their weapons and roped together, Yüsef and the other survivors – they totalled seventeen – were marched into captivity at his fortress of Al-Karak.

Raynald, a man of overweening pride, ambition and greed, saw himself as a petty king answerable to no man whether it be the Christian king, Baldwin of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem or Saladin, leader of the Saracens. He was an implacable foe of all infidels in general and of Saladin in particular and he’d once belligerently proclaimed, “What is the value of an oath sworn to infidels?”

He’d recently broken the truce between King Baldwin and Saladin by attaching Moslem merchants and pilgrims from the safety of his stronghold at Al-Karak and he’d recklessly decided on a bold course of action that would ultimately lead to his own undoing and death at the hands of his arch-enemy, Saladin.

Boldly and perhaps unwisely, Raynald decided to take the war to the Saracens on their own ground and even to the gates of Mecca itself. He planned to launch five galleys on the Red Sea to harass Arab merchant shipping and to attack Arab ports on both the Egyptian and Arabian shores.

The logistics of such a plan would have proved daunting to a lesser man than Raynald. But his intense hatred of the infidels and the burning need to take the “battle to the enemy” consumed him with such passion that he never considered the task as impossible.

The Red Sea lay surrounded by Arab lands – indeed many people in those remote regions had never seen a Franj – and the purchase of five galleys posed a problem. Even in those areas, the reputation of the hated Crusaders was well known and it would prevent a true believer from ever trading with a despised Franj.

Undaunted by this, Raynald de Châtillon devised the ingenious plan of having his artisans at Al-Karak prefabricate the galleys and then to transport the components and oar-slaves over the desert to the Gulf of Aqaba at the southern end of Oultrejourdain. Here his artisans would assemble the galleys before launching them into the Red Sea and then chaining his oar-slaves to the rowing-benches.

Even some of Raynald’s strongest critics among the knights and nobles of Outremer were impressed with the audaciousness of his plan. And while some among the Crusader barons and nobles had serious misgivings about openly provoking the Arabs, others praised him for his boldness and courage. On the other hand, the Arabs alarmed that he was venturing into their territory, would see him as a common pirate.

On their arrival at Al-Karak, Yüsef and his fellow captives were stripped naked, branded, collared and made ready for their new roles as Raynald’s galley slaves. The noisome dungeons of Al-Karak were overflowing with the captives taken by Raynald during his raids on caravans of merchants and pilgrims travelling through the Syrian Desert. All were to see service as Raynald de Châtillon’s galley slaves and Yüsef joined their unhappy number.

The days following his branding were spent locked in an overcrowded, unsanitary cell with other prisoners. Yüsef spent most of that time drifting in and out of a fitful, feverish sleep. Each time he awoke, the pain of his brand reminded him of where he was and he cursed that fact that he’d been denied a warrior’s noble death on the battlefield and made to suffer ignominy as the slave of “Brin Arnet” the name by which Arabs called their arch-enemy, the most detested of all the Franj, Raynald de Châtillon.

Yüsef understood he’d been enslaved and he could only speculate about the fate that awaited him. Would he be taken to a slave-market and sold? Or would Arnet use him in some other capacity? Perhaps his fate would be to labor on the fortifications of Al-Karak. On his arrival, he’d seen gangs of near naked slaves toiling under the Christians’ whips as they added to and strengthened the fortress’s impregnable walls.

But even in his wildest imaginings, Yüsef had no inkling of the awful fate that awaited him.

They came for Yüsef and his cellmates in the predawn gloom and marched them out of Al-Karak into an open area just beyond the main gates. Yüsef was reminded of a caravanserai where travelling merchants stayed overnight with their goods and camels. In fact, Yüsef saw gangs of slaves busily loading the backs of loudly protesting camels with provisions for a long journey. The sun was barely above the eastern horizon and already many of the heavily laden “ships of the desert” were being goaded to their feet ready to begin a journey to some as yet unknown destination. Yüsef was amazed at the feverish activity taking place at such an early hour and instinctively, he knew this activity didn’t bode well for him.

As Yüsef shivered, he wondered if it was from the early morning chill – which always precedes the fierce, desert heat of the day – or fear of the unknown. More likely it was because of the ominous cracking of the overseers’ whips as they lashed the hapless slaves into a single line ready for shackling.

Yüsef and his companions were given into the custody of a brutal overseer who wasted no time in chaining them into the coffle ready for their long, desert trek to the coast.

The march proved arduous and Yüsef suffered much under the relentless whips of his infidel masters. He’d barely taken his first, awkward steps before an impatient overseer’s whip snaked out and wrapped itself around his naked torso. The angry red stripe left by the whip was only the first of many that Yüsef would feel before journey’s end.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The loud sound of the tambour overrides the creaking of the oars while the rattling of his chains drowns out Yüsef’s labored breathing. Above him, from the central walkway, the whip-masters drive the galley-slaves to back-breaking effort while the air whines with the sinister hiss and crack as their whips scourge the hapless slaves’ sweating, naked bodies. And, of course, these cruel exhortations are answered by the agonized cries of the chained and tortured victims of Raynald de Châtillon’s wild ambitions.

The sun hangs like a molten ball of hot metal in a cloudless, blue sky as the galley slices its way through the still, mirror-like surface of the Red Sea. The sun broils Yüsef’s naked, whip-shredded body, his throat is parched and his tongue sticks to the dry roof of his mouth. Yüsef wonders how many hours have passed since he was last given water to drink. He doesn’t know precisely as time means nothing to him; a galley-slave’s time is measured by the beat of the drum and the number of oar strokes he is forced to row each minute. But he remembers his last drink was given to him in the predawn semi-darkness prior to beginning this day’s torments.

Yüsef’s placement at the oar is one of the least desirable ones. Positioned next to the walkway, his back is an easy target for the impatient whip-masters and several times this morning he has felt the fiery sting of the lash.

As he strains at his oar, Yüsef is confronted by the closely-packed ranks of sweat-sodden slaves in front of him. He sees their long, matted hair and beards and the filth of their unwashed, sun-blackened bodies. Each back is a crisscrossed patchwork of stripes; some are old and scabby while others are more recent and still oozing blood.

The forward and backward motion of his oar places an intolerable strain on Yüsef and opens up the whip cuts on his back causing him to audibly wince in pain. And yet, he rows with all the strength he can muster in the vain hope of avoiding a zealous overseer’s whip.

Today, as he rows, Yüsef’s naked body is racked with pain. Rowing places enormous stress on every muscle in his body and they scream out for relief. However, they’ll be no rest until day’s end when the galley seeks refuge from the open sea and anchors overnight in some secluded cove or inlet.

His body tells him it has reached the limits of its endurance and his mind screams – ENOUGH!

But his fear of the whip keeps him toiling at his oar. His sweat trickles down over his naked torso; its saltiness irritates the lash marks on his back, it stings his eyes and enters his mouth adding to his thirst. His muscles flex and strain under the unrealistic demands made of them and his tortured lungs gulp in the hot desert air drifting out over the sea from the nearby land.

Yüsef’s head is a void; empty of all thoughts and impervious to all but the mind-numbing and repetitious beating of the drum, the monotonous to and fro motion of the oar and the awful pain he feels. His body no longer belongs to him and it ceases to function as a separate entity; he is but one cog among many in the vast engine of chained muscle that powers the galley.

And in the loneliness of the night, slumped over his oar, Yüsef thinks about his loss of freedom and he curses the cruel fate which denied him a warrior’s glorious death on the battlefield. Bitterly, he thinks about the Franj who have consigned him to lifelong slavery and of his agony at the oar. Vehemently, he damns their unbelieving souls to the everlasting torments of Jahannam.

And as 23 year old Yüsef considers the bleakness of his existence, he realizes that he already suffers the torments of the damned; for his is the living hell of the galley-slave.

Despairingly, Yüsef loses all hope!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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