The Horns of Hattin, A.D. 1187

Cover by Sphere Books, United Kingdom

Cover by Sphere Books, United Kingdom

 

ONE

“We should never have left La Safouri. In Christ’s name, a blind man could see that.”

“Is that so? Then why didn’t some blind man speak up and say so before we left? I’m sure de Ridefort would have listened and paid heed, especially to a blind man.”

“You can shove your sarcasm up your arse, de Belin, I mean what I say. What are we doing here?”

“We’re waiting to be told what to do. Waiting to die. That’s what soldiers do, is it not?”

Alexander Sinclair, Knight of the Temple, listened to the quiet but intense argument behind him, but he took pains to appear oblivious to it, because even though a part of him agreed with what Sir Antoine de Lavisse was complaining about so bitterly, he could not afford to be seen to agree. That might be prejudicial to discipline. He pulled the scarf tighter around his face and stood up in his stirrups to scan the darkened encampment around them, hearing the muffled sounds of unseen movement everywhere and another, distant Arabic voice, part of the litany that had been going on all night, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” God is great. At his back, Lavisse was still muttering.

“Why would any sane man leave a strong, secure position, with stone walls and all the fresh water his army might ever need, to march into the desert in the height of summer? And against an enemy who lives in that desert, swarms like locusts and is immune to heat? Tell me, please, de Belin. I need to know the answer to that question.”

“Don’t ask me, then.” De Belin’s voice was taut with disgust and frustration. “Go and ask de Ridefort, in God’s name. He’s the one who talked the idiot King into this and I’ve no doubt he’ll be glad to tell you why. And then he’ll likely bind you to your saddle, blindfold you and send you out alone, bare-arsed, as an amusement offering to the Saracens.”

Sinclair sucked his breath sharply. It was unjust to place the blame for their current predicament solely upon the shoulders of Gerard de Ridefort. The Grand Master of the Temple was too easy and too prominent a target. Besides, Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, needed to be goaded if he were ever to achieve anything. The man was a king in name only, crowned at the insistence of his doting wife, Sibylla, sister of the former king and now the legitimate Queen of Jerusalem. He was utterly feckless when it came to wielding power, congenitally weak and indecisive. The arguing men at Sinclair’s back, however, had no interest in being judicious. They were merely complaining for the sake of complaining.

“Sh! Watch out, here comes Moray.”

Sinclair frowned into the darkness and turned his head slightly to where he could see his friend, Sir Lachlan Moray, approaching, mounted and ready for whatever the dawn might bring, even though there must be a full hour of night remaining. Sinclair was unsurprised, for from what he had already seen, no one had been able to sleep in the course of that awful, nerve-racking night. The sound of coughing was everywhere, the harsh, raw-throated barking of men starved for fresh air and choking in smoke. The Saracens swarming around and above them on the hillsides under the cover of darkness had set the brush up there ablaze in the middle of the night, and the stink of smoldering resinous thorn bushes had been growing ever stronger by the minute. Sinclair felt a threatening tickle in his own throat and forced himself to breathe shallowly, reflecting that ten years earlier, when he had first set foot in the Holy Land, he had never heard of such a creature as a Saracen. Now it was the most common word in use out here, describing all the faithful, zealous warriors of the Prophet Mohammed—and more accurately of the Kurdish Sultan Saladin—irrespective of their race. Saladin’s empire was enormous, for he had combined the two great Muslim territories of Syria and Egypt, and his army was composed of all breeds of infidel, from the dark-faced Bedouins of Asia Minor to the mulattos and ebony Nubians of Egypt. But they all spoke Arabic and they were now all Saracens.

“Well, I see I’m not alone in having slept well and dreamlessly.” Moray had drawn alongside him and nudged his horse forward until he and Sinclair were sitting knee to knee, and now he stared upward into the darkness, following Sinclair’s gaze to where the closer of the twin peaks known as the Horns of Hattin loomed above them. “How long, think you, have we left to live?”

“Not long, I fear, Lachlan. We may all be dead by noon.”

“You, too? I needed you to tell me something different there, my friend. I would never have believed that so many men could die as the result of one arrogant braggart’s folly … one petty tyrant’s folly and a king’s gutlessness.”

The city of Tiberias, the destination that they could have reached the previous evening, and the freshwater lake on which it stood, lay less than six miles ahead of them, but the governor of that city was Count Raymond of Tripoli, and Gerard de Ridefort, Master of the Temple, had decided months earlier that he detested Raymond, calling the man a Muslim turncoat, treacherous and untrustworthy.

In defiance of all logic in the matter of reaching safety and protecting his army, de Ridefort had decided the previous afternoon that he had no wish to arrive at Tiberias too soon. It was not born of a reluctance to meet Raymond of Tripoli again, for Raymond was here in camp, with the army, and his citadel in Tiberias was being defended by his wife, the lady Eschiva, in his absence. But whatever his reasons, de Ridefort had made his decision, and no one had dared gainsay him, since the majority of the army’s knights were Templars. There was a well in the tiny village of Maskana, close to where they were at that moment, de Ridefort had pointed out to his fellow commanders, and so they would rest there overnight and push down towards Lake Tiberias in the morning.

Of course, Guy de Lusignan, as King of Jerusalem, could have vetoed de Ridefort’s suggestion as soon as it was made, but, true to his vacillating nature, he had acceded to de Ridefort’s demands, encouraged by Reynald de Chatillon, another formidable Templar and a sometime ally of the Master of the Temple. De Chatillon, a vicious and foresworn law unto himself and even more arrogant and autocratic than de Ridefort, was the castellan of the fortress of Kerak, known as the Crow’s Castle, the most formidable fortress in the world, and he held the distinction of being the man whom Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, hated most in all the Frankish armies.

And so the signal had been passed and the army of Jerusalem, the greatest single army ever assembled by the eighty-year-old kingdom, had stopped and made camp, while the legions of Saladin’s vast army—its cavalry alone outnumbered the Franks by ten to one—almost completely encircled them. Hemmed in on all sides even before night fell, the Frankish army of twelve hundred knights, supported by ten thousand foot soldiers and some two thousand light cavalry, made an uncomfortable camp, dismayed and unnerved, alas too late, by the swift-breaking news that the well by which their leaders had chosen to stop was dry. No one had thought to check it in advance.

When a light breeze sprang up at nightfall they were grateful for the coolness it brought, but within the hour they were cursing it for blowing the smoke among them throughout the night.

Now the sky was growing pale with the first light of the approaching day, and Sinclair knew, deep in his gut, that the likelihood of him or any of his companions surviving the coming hours was slim at best. The odds against them were laughable.

The Temple Knights, whose motto was “First to attack; last to retreat,” loved to boast that a single Christian sword could rout a hundred enemies. That arrogant belief had led to an incredible slaughter of a large force of Templars and Hospitallers at Cresson, a month and some days earlier. Every man in the Christian force, except for the Master de Ridefort himself and four wounded, nameless knights, had gone down to death that day. But the army surrounding them this day would quickly put the lie to such vaunting nonsense, probably once and for all. Saladin’s army was composed almost entirely of versatile, resilient light cavalry. Mounted on superbly agile Yemeni horses and lightly armored for speed, these warriors were armed with weapons of damascened steel and light, lethal lances with shafts made from reeds. Thoroughly trained in the tactics of swift attack and withdrawal, they operated in small, fast, highly mobile squadrons and were well organized, well led and disciplined. There were countless thousands of them, and they all spoke the same language, Arabic, which gave them an enormous advantage over the Franks, many of whom could not speak the language of the Christians fighting next to them.

Sinclair had known for months that the army Saladin had gathered for this Holy War—the host that now surrounded the Frankish army—contained contingents from Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, and he knew, too, that leadership of the various divisions of the army had been entrusted to Saladin’s ferocious Kurdish allies, his elite troops. The mounted cavalry alone, according to rumor, numbered somewhere in the realm of fifteen thousand, and he had seen with his own eyes that the supporting host accompanying them was so vast it filled the horizon as it approached the Frankish camp, stretching as far as the eye could see. Sinclair had clearly heard the number of eighty thousand swords being passed from mouth to mouth among his own ranks. He believed the number to be closer to fifty thousand, but he gained no comfort from that.

“De Ridefort’s to blame for this disaster, Sinclair. We both know that, so why won’t you admit it?”

Sinclair sighed and rubbed the end of his sleeve across his eyes. “Because I can’t, Lachie. I can’t. I am a Knight of the Temple and he is my Master. I am bound to him by vows of obedience. I can say nothing more than that without being disloyal.”

Lachlan Moray hawked and spat without looking to see where. “Aye, well, he is not my master, so I can say what I want, and I think he’s insane … him and all his ilk. The King and the Master of the Temple are two of a kind, and that animal de Chatillon is worse than both of them combined. This is insane and humiliating, to be stuck here in such condition. I want to go home.”

A grin quirked at the corner of Sinclair’s mouth. “It’s a long way to Inverness, Lachlan, and you might not reach there today. Best you stay here and stick close by me.”

“If these heathens kill me today, I’ll be there before the sun sets over Ben Wyvis.” Moray hesitated, then looked sideways at his friend. “Stick close by you, you say? I’m not of your company, and you are the rear guard.”

“No, you are not.” Sinclair was gazing eastward, to where the sky was lightening rapidly. “But I have the feeling that before the sun climbs halfway up the sky this day it will be of no concern to any of us who rides with whom, Templars or otherwise. Stick you by me, my friend, and if we are to die and go home to Scotland, then let us go back together, as we left it to come here.” His gaze shifted slightly towards the light that had begun to glow within the massive black shadow that was the royal tent. “The King is astir.”

“That is a shame,” Moray muttered. “On this, of all days, he should remain abed. That way, we might have hope of doing something right and coming out of this alive.”

Sinclair shot him a quick grin. “Build not your hopes on that, Lachlan. If we come through this day alive, we will be ta’en and sold as slaves. Better to die a clean, quick death—” He was interrupted by the braying of a trumpet, and his hands dropped automatically to the weapons at his belt. “There, time to assemble. Now remember, stay close by me. The first chance you have—and I swear it will no’ be long—head back for our ranks. We won’t be hard to find.”

Moray punched his friend on the shoulder. “I’ll try, so be it I don’t have to leave my friends in danger. Be well.”

“I will, but we are all in danger this day, more than ever before. All we may do now is sell our lives dearly, and in the doing of that, simply because my brethren are all Templars, you will have more chance to fight on with me than I would have with your companions, brave though they be. Fare ye well.”

Both men swung about and headed towards their allocated positions, Sinclair among the Temple Knights at the rear of the knoll behind the King’s tents and Moray among the hastily assembled crew of Christian knights and adventurers who had answered the call to arms sent out by Guy de Lusignan after his coronation. It was these men who now surrounded the King’s person, and the precious reliquary of the True Cross that loomed above them all.

Glancing up, Sinclair saw that it was already close to daybreak, the sky to the east flushed with pink. And then he shivered, in spite of himself, as he saw the bright, blazing new star in the lightening sky. He was not superstitious, unlike most of his fellows, but he could barely suppress the feelings of unease that sometimes welled up in him nowadays. This star had appeared a mere ten days before, exactly three weeks after the slaughter of the Templar knights at Cresson, and the sight of it stirred dread among the Franks, for it was another in a long string of strange occurrences that they had seen in the skies in recent times. Since the year before this one, there had been six eclipses of the sun and two eclipses of the moon. Eight clear signs, to most people, that God was unhappy with what was happening in His Holy Land. And then had come this blaze in the sky, a star so bright that it could be seen by day. Some said, and the priests said little to discourage them, that this was a reappearance of the Star of Bethlehem, burning again in the sky to remind the Frankish warriors of their duty to their God and His beloved Son.

Sinclair was more inclined to believe what was being said among the French-speaking Arabs of his acquaintance. They believed that the stars moved independently of each other, and that a number of the brightest stars in the firmament had now somehow moved into alignment with each other and combined their light to generate this blazing beacon, so bright it could often be seen even at noon.

When he reached his own squadron, Sinclair settled his flat steel helm more firmly on his brows and scanned his men. All awake and solemn; no badinage or laughter this morning … not, he reflected, that there ever was much laughter among the Knights of the Temple. It was officially discouraged as being frivolous and not conducive to pious behavior. He sought out Louis Chisholm, the sergeant-at-arms, Alexander Sinclair’s personal servant since boyhood. Faced with the prospect of life as free man when his employer joined the brotherhood of the Temple Knights, Chisholm had opted to remain close to the man he knew best in all the world, and had volunteered as a sergeant brother in the Order. Now as Sinclair approached him, he twisted around in his saddle and peered up through the drifting smoke towards the peaks of the Horns of Hattin.

“They say that’s where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount,” he said. “Right up there on the slopes of that mountain. I wonder if anything he could say to that crowd out there today would make any difference to what’s going to happen.” He turned back and looked Sinclair in the eye, then lapsed into a heavy Scots accent. “We’ve come a long way from Edinburgh, Sir Alec, and we’ve changed a bit, the two o’ us, since we first set out … but this is an awfu’ grim place to die.”

“We had nae choice, Louis,” Sinclair replied quietly, pronouncing the other’s name in the Scots fashion, as Lewis. “It wasna our doin’.”

Chisholm grimaced. “Aye, well, you know what I think about that.” He looked about him again. “We’re about ready. The Hospitallers are starting to form up, over there on the right. They’ll move out soon, so we’d best be ready here. Ye’ll have seen how many we’re up against out there?” He spat, then ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth, sucking at the grains of sand there before spitting again. “It’ll be a short fight, I’m thinking, but we’ll try to make it a good one. Good luck to ye, Sir Alec. I’ll be right at your back, minding your arse.”

Sinclair smiled as he reached out and took the other man’s hand. “God bless you, Louis. I’ll have an eye for you, too. Now, what’s causing the delay?”

As he said the words, the first trumpet call rang out and was answered immediately by others as the army began to move into its battle formations, beginning with the Knights of the Hospital, who formed the army’s vanguard. The King’s division in the center, his royal standard swaying high above him, moved forward behind the veteran Hospitallers, although, encircled as they were, there was no clearly defined front for the Hospital Knights to face. Nevertheless, the knights of the royal bodyguard formed up at the King’s back, as did the Christian prelates and priests, bearing the giant, elaborate reliquary. It was fashioned in the shape of a mother-of-pearl cross and encrusted with jewels and precious stones, and it provided a highly visible rallying point, not only for its protectors but also for their attackers.

Beyond the block formations of the Christian army, surrounding them on all sides, Saladin’s great force eddied and moved, visible now although obscured at times by drifting smoke and the dust stirred up by their own movement. They waited patiently, and largely in silence, to see what the Christian army would attempt to do.

The crowd around Sinclair was abnormally quiet. Each man rose in his stirrups and craned to see over the heads of the men directly in front of him in the dawning light. The sounds of the horses were all that was utterly familiar—the stamping hooves and snorting breaths and the creaks and jingle of saddle leathers and harness. Already even the little movement they made was stirring up clouds of choking dust to add to the swirling smoke.

Sinclair loosened his sword in its sheath and bent forward in the saddle slightly to glance across at Louis Chisholm again.

“Bide ye close by me, now, Louis. This is going to be a dour, dirty fight.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a flurry of competing trumpet calls began to sound, and as the army around him stirred in response, preparing to surge forward, Sinclair wondered who could have been responsible for such idiocy, for they had nowhere to go that did not lead directly into the masses of enemy cavalry. That single thought was the last coherent memory he would have of the chaos that followed, for a commotion in the ranks of the Templars at his back announced the arrival of a heavy charge of Saracen cavalry who had approached unseen from the still-dark west, under cover of the drifting smoke.

Sinclair and his fellow Templars of the rear guard, outmaneuvered and outnumbered from the outset, fought grimly to repulse the attack from their rear by Saladin’s elite cavalry. They mounted charge after futile charge against an enemy who fell away in front of them each time, only to regroup and encircle the frustrated, heavily armored knights. Enraged by the perfidy of the Muslim archers who concentrated on killing their horses and then picked off the dismounted riders, the Templars were driven inexorably backward into their own forces, only to discover that the King had ordered his followers to erect a barrier of tents between him and the enemy encroaching from the rear. The barrier, flimsy and futile though it was, nevertheless generated chaos among the surviving Templars, forcing them to break their depleted formations as they wheeled and dodged to ride between the useless tents, with the enemy cavalry snapping at their heels. Even when they passed beyond the canvas walls they found neither relief nor support, because the knights of the center were milling helplessly around the King and the True Cross, impeding one another and oblivious to any need to give themselves space in which to fight.

Sinclair, acting purely on instinct, swerved to his right and led his own squadron around the vast knot of floundering men and horses, veering hard left in a tight arc, aware that in so doing he was exposing their unshielded right sides to the missiles of the enemy archers. He saw Louis Chisholm go down, struck by at least two arrows, but he himself was under attack at that moment from a warrior who had charged at him out of nowhere on a hardy, agile little mount. By the time Sinclair had deflected the Saracen’s sweeping scimitar and brought himself knee to knee with his assailant for long enough to chop him from the saddle with a short, savage slash to the throat, Louis lay far behind him, and Sinclair was too hard pressed to look back for him.

What had become of their ten thousand infantry? Sinclair could see no sign of them, but by then his world had been reduced to a tiny, trampled arena filled with smoke, dust, chaos and all the screams of Hell, as man and beast were maimed and killed on every side. He saw and recognized things and events in snatches of vision and incomplete thoughts, forgotten in the urgency of the next eye blink, the next encounter with a savage, bare-toothed face, the next swing of his shield or sword. He felt a heavy blow against his back and saved himself from being unhorsed only by hooking an elbow on the cantle of his saddle. That cost him his shield, but he knew he was a dead man anyway if he was hit again or fell. He managed to right himself, wrenching at his horse’s reins to turn the animal away from the threat. Then, for a space of heartbeats, he found himself on the fringes of the melee, at the edge of the high ground, looking down a slope to where the Hospitallers of the vanguard were surrounded, cut off from the main army by a wedge of enemy horsemen who had cut cleanly through the narrow space between van and center.

He had no time to see more than that, for his presence there alone had been noticed and he was being attacked again by two men at once, converging on him from each side. He chose the man on the right, the smaller of the two, and spurred his tiring horse straight for him, his long sword held high until the last moment, when he dropped it to the horizontal and allowed the fellow to impale himself on it, the speed of his passing almost wrenching the weapon from Sinclair’s grasp. Panting, he spun the horse around, left-handed, searching for the second man who was now close behind him. His horse reared and shied, taken unawares by the hurtling shadow closing on it. In a feat that he had practiced times beyond counting, Sinclair bent forward in the saddle, then, standing in his stirrups, he dropped the reins on the rearing horse’s neck and drew his dagger. A straight sword thrust deflected the enemy’s stabbing blade, and as their bodies came together he stabbed upward, hooking desperately with the foot-long, one-edged dirk in his left hand. The point struck a metal boss on the quilted armor of his assailant’s chest and angled upward, plunging into the soft flesh beneath his chin, the shock of the impact tumbling him backward from the saddle, heels in the air. Sinclair tightened his grasp instinctively, bracing himself again the falling weight of the dead man, but the dirk slid free easily and he was able to right himself. He reeled helplessly for the few moments it took him to see that he was alone again, in an eddy of comparative stillness.

Sunlight glinted on metal in the morning light above and beyond him and he glanced up to see another distant battle taking place high on the slopes of Mount Hattin. Infantry formations, obviously Christian, appeared to be breaking away from the crest of the high ridge and heading down to the east, towards Tiberias. But then he heard his name being called and swung away to see a tight knot of his brothers in arms sweeping towards him. He spurred his horse and rode to join them, vaguely aware of arrows filling the air about him like angry wasps, and together they charged back up the hill to the King’s tent, to defend King Guy and the True Cross. Once there, close to the King, they won a brief respite as the enemy withdrew to regroup, and Sinclair, looking towards the distant heights with his companions, saw a tragedy develop.

The infantry—on whose orders it was never known—were attempting to scale the slopes of Mount Hattin. They had almost reached the summit before being blocked by even more of Saladin’s inexhaustible supply of cavalry formations. The hillside seemed to be ablaze up there, and the entire infantry brigade, ten thousand men supported by two thousand light cavalry, apparently driven insane by thirst and smoke, wheeled away and began a desperate foray down towards the sanctuary offered by the distant sight of the waters of Lake Tiberias, glinting far below them in the morning sunlight. It was evident that they intended to smash through the enemy ranks and win through to the lake, but Sinclair knew exactly, and sickeningly, what was going to happen. There was nothing he could do, and his own duty was clear—he and his fellows had threats of their own to deal with—so he had little time to watch the slaughter that occurred on the lower slopes, where the Saracen cavalry simply withdrew ahead of the charge and left it to their mounted bowmen to exterminate the advancing infantry. Within the hour it was all over, in plain view of the knoll where the King’s tent was pitched. There were no survivors, and as hard set as they were while the carnage was carried out below them, there was not a single knight among the ranks surrounding the King who was unaware that twelve thousand of their men had died uselessly down below, beyond the reach of any assistance they might have thought to offer.

The Saracens saw it too, and their response was a frenzied attack on the mounted party atop the knoll. They pressed in hard from all sides, advancing and withdrawing in waves, intent upon wiping out the mounted knights by sheer weight of numbers. Saladin, as Sinclair would later learn, had thought deeply on this attack for months beforehand and had decided that his mounted bowmen would be his strongest asset in the fight against the heavily armored Christian knights. Every archer had gone into the fight with a full quiver of arrows, and seventy camels in their baggage train had been laden with extra arrows to replenish them. The Frankish knights fell quickly, battered and beaten by a hailstorm of missiles shot at them from all sides.

 

Two

Lachlan Moray saw Sir Alexander Sinclair fall, but he was unable to tell if his friend was wounded or not, because it was Sinclair’s horse that he actually saw topple, its chest and flanks bristling with arrows. Sinclair he merely glimpsed as the white-mantled knight pitched forward behind the animal’s rearing bulk, disappearing from view among the rocks as his Templar companions fought to control their terrified mounts and to bring the fight to the elusive enemy.

Moray himself was already bewildered, having suddenly found himself the only survivor of a knot of six knights making their way towards King Guy and his party. They had been isolated for a moment, separated from the King’s retreating party by a steep, stony slope, and before they could catch up to the others they had been singled out by the enemy’s bowmen. Moray had never seen anything remotely like the volley of arrows that struck them; it had been almost opaque, a sudden darkening of the air as the lethal missiles landed upon them, and before he could grasp what had happened, he had found himself alone, his companions swept from their saddles into death. Miraculously, although he would not think of it that way for some time, both he and his horse remained uninjured. He had been hit by only one arrow, and that had glanced off his shoulder harness, knocking him back in his saddle but doing no damage.

Moray was alone and vulnerable and he knew he would be dead before he could urge his mount up the stony scree above him. Remembering Sinclair’s words, he turned to look below for him, just in time to recognize his friend and see him go down. Cursing, the Scots knight spurred his mount hard, looking about him in vain for an enemy to strike as he hurtled down the slope. But no enemy warrior came within reach of his sword, and he flung himself down from the saddle beside Sinclair’s dead mount, making no attempt to tether his own and noting that the Temple Knights who had swarmed there moments earlier had moved away.

He scrambled to the first fallen knight he saw and crouched above him, using the bulk of a dead horse for protection. But the corpse was not Alec Sinclair, nor was the man lying beyond him, in a sprawl of armored limbs. Farther away, two more men lay, pierced by many arrows, but he could see they were too far away to be his fallen friend. He could see no sign of Alec Sinclair. In the meantime, his untethered horse, unnerved by the smell of blood, had cavorted away. He considered chasing after it, thinking that Sinclair must somehow have escaped on his own, but he stifled the urge quickly, for an unmanned horse was no target, but a running man was. And so he let the beast go, hoping that it would stop soon and wait for him.

Moray rose to a crouch and looked about him, aware in the back of his mind that he appeared to be in no danger, at least for the moment. He spotted a crevice in the rocks close by, a shadowed cleft between the boulder nearest him and the one directly behind it. He stepped towards it quickly and saw an armored leg thrusting up from a narrow rift that was wider than it had at first appeared. Two more running steps and he was close enough to crouch and peer into the hidden space. The body there was lying face up: it was Sinclair. To Moray’s relief, his friend appeared to be uninjured, for there was no blood visible on or about him. He was deeply unconscious, however, and Moray quickly climbed into the crevice and bent over him. His left shoulder was unnaturally twisted, and the limb attached to it had been wrenched up behind his back where nature never intended it to go. Moray dragged him farther into the crevice, to where he could lay him flat in what turned out to be a tiny, cave-like shelter formed by three large, wind-scoured slabs of stone, one of them forming an angled roof above the other two.

The left side of Sinclair’s flat steel helmet was scratched and crusted with a residue of gray dust that matched some deep scrapes on the rock he had clearly struck head-first in falling. Thinking quickly now, and gratefully aware that he could hear nothing threatening happening close by, Moray stretched the other man out at full length and attempted to adjust the twisted arm. It moved, but not to its original position, and he knew that the shoulder had been wrenched out of its joint in the fall. He could not tell, however, whether the arm was broken, and so he sat down with his back against one side of their shelter, laid his unblooded and unused sword down by his side, then braced his legs against Sinclair’s body and hauled brutally on the injured limb, twisting it hard until he felt it shift and snap back into place. The pain would have been insufferable had Sinclair been conscious, but it failed to penetrate his awareness, and Moray sank back, exhausted.

He began to look about him. They were completely hidden there, he realized; the only thing he could see in any direction was an expanse of sky above the cleft through which he had entered. He listened then, concentrating intently. There were sounds aplenty out there, the noises of battle and the screams of dying men and animals, but they were far away and he suspected they were coming from the hillside high above them, although he knew he might be misinterpreting sounds deflected and distorted by the surrounding stones. Cautiously, after glancing again at the unconscious Sinclair, he crawled back to the entrance and slowly raised himself up, keeping his head in the shadow of the sloping boulder above him, to where he could look out at the surrounding terrain.

There was not a living soul in sight for as far as he could see. He raised himself higher, careful to make no sudden movements, until he could see up the hill, beyond the side of the great stone in front of him. Even then he could see little, because of the boulders littering the ground behind their shelter. All the noise was definitely coming from up there, and the silence surrounding their refuge seemed ghostly by comparison. Emboldened, he moved out slowly from his hiding place, keeping his head low and creeping forward between massive stones and around outcrops of rock until he found a vantage spot that allowed him to observe without being seen.

There were people everywhere he looked now, all of them Saracens, and all making their way swiftly up towards the top of the ridge that had drawn King Guy and his supporters, and the crest itself, when he was finally able to see that far, swarmed with mounted warriors. He caught sight of the True Cross in its magnificent jeweled casing, held high above the surging throng, with King Guy’s great tent rearing behind it, marking the center of the Christian forces. But at that precise moment the upright Cross swayed alarmingly, then righted itself briefly and finally toppled from sight. Moray shivered with horror as the King’s tent itself collapsed and disappeared from view, its guy ropes evidently cut. The immediate, swelling howl of triumph from the heights above him told its own story: the victory at Hattin had gone to the Followers of the Prophet.

Stunned and sickened, unable to believe how quickly the army of Christendom had been destroyed, or even to begin to imagine what would follow on the heels of such a conquest, Sir Lachlan Moray turned away and looked down at the slopes below the rocks that had sheltered him. Bodies lay everywhere, both men and horses, and few of the dead wore the desert robes of Saladin’s warriors. In the distance, where the Frankish infantry had made its futile charge, the corpses lay in overlapping heaps, a long, thick caterpillar of death stretching from where they had begun their doomed advance to the point at which the last of their ten thousand had fallen. Frowning and dry mouthed, shaking his head yet in disbelief, the thought came to him that he ought to be weeping at such loss. Ten thousand corpses in a single place. His next thought told him he ought not to be alive, and he wondered briefly why he had been spared, but he knew now that it was merely a matter of time before he and Sinclair would be discovered and killed like the others, for the Prophet’s faithful seemed to be taking no prisoners. He swallowed hard, his throat parched, and crouched there in his hiding place, staring down the hillside.

Vultures were already spiraling downward, landing in increasing numbers to feast on the dead, and as he watched them, time slipped away from him and he lost all awareness, for a spell, of who and where he was. But he straightened up in shock, vibrantly alive again, when a loud, keening wail of agony told him that his friend Sinclair was no longer oblivious. Moments later he was scrambling back towards their rocky hiding place, keeping his head low and almost whimpering in terror at the thought that the enemy might hear the noise Sinclair was making before he could reach him and stifle his cries. But the noises suddenly stopped, and the silence that followed them, broken only by the scrambling clatter of his own booted feet on the rocks, seemed a blessing.

Moray crouched spread-legged in the entranceway to the shelter, peering in at Sinclair, his heart still pounding with fright. He was relieved to see his friend was still alive, for he had begun to have doubts, so abrupt had the transition been from wailing to stillness. But now he could hear for himself that Sinclair was breathing stertorously, the labored rise and fall of his chest visible even beneath the bulk of his armor. Then, before Moray could move closer to him, Sinclair tossed an arm out violently and began to keen again, his head thrashing from side to side. Moray reached him in a single leap and clamped his hand over the unconscious man’s mouth, and the moment he did so, Sinclair’s eyes snapped open and he fell silent, staring up at the face that was bent over him.

Moray saw the intelligence and sanity in those eyes, and he removed his hand cautiously. Sinclair lay unmoving for a few moments, still gazing up at his friend, and then he glanced up at the weathered boulder that roofed their hiding place.

“Where are we, Lachie? What happened? How long have we been here?”

Moray sagged back on his heels and grunted with relief. “Three questions. That means your head’s still working. I suppose you want one answer?”

Sinclair closed his eyes and lay for a while without responding, but then he opened them again and shook his head. “The last thing I remember is rallying some of my knights and turning them to ride uphill, towards the others on the slopes above us. Before that, we had watched our infantry being slaughtered.” He coughed, and Moray watched the color drain from his cheeks as pain racked him from somewhere, but then he gritted his teeth and continued. “I know, too, that had we fared well in the fighting, you and I would now be surrounded by friends. We are not, so I assume you came seeking me as I bade you. Where’s Louis?”

“I’ve no idea, Alec. I’ve seen no sign of him since the start of this. He might have made his way up onto the crest with the rest of them … but there was no safety up there, high ground or no.”

Sinclair stared at him. “What are you saying? They lost the high ground?”

Moray pursed his lips, shaking his head. “More than that, Alec. They lost everything. I saw the True Cross captured by the Muslim. I saw the King’s tent go down, mere moments later, and I heard the howls of victory. We lost the day, Alec, and I fear we may have lost the kingdom itself.”

Shocked into speechlessness, Sinclair made to sit up, but then the breath caught in his throat. The color drained instantly from his face as his eyes turned up into his head, his body twisted, and he lapsed back into unconsciousness.

Moray could do nothing for him, with no certain knowledge of what was causing his friend’s pain. But Sinclair recovered quickly this time, and although his face was still gray and haggard when he opened his eyes, his mind was lucid.

“Something’s broken. My arm, I think, although it feels like my shoulder. Can you see blood anywhere?”

“No. I looked when I first found you in here, thinking you might have been wounded. You were like a dead man when I found you, and your arm was out of its socket, so I took the opportunity to snap it back, knowing you might not feel the pain.” He hesitated, and then grinned. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I’ve seen that kind of thing done twice before. I couldn’t find any other breaks in your arm … but evidently you’ve found one.”

“Aye, evidently.” Sinclair drew a deep breath. “Here, help me to sit up against the rock there. That should make it easier to find where the pain is coming from. But be careful. Don’t kill me simply because you can’t feel the pain.”

Moray, not deigning to recognize his friend’s black humor, concentrated on raising Sinclair to where he could sit in some kind of comfort and look about him, but that was more easily said than done, for in the course of his manipulations he discovered that his friend’s left arm hung uselessly and hurt Sinclair unbearably whenever it swung loose. The upper arm bone—he knew it must have a name, but could not begin to guess what it might be—was broken a short distance above the elbow. He lodged his friend upright and leaned into him, holding him in place while he used both hands to undo and remove the belt from around his own waist, and when he was done, he worked to immobilize the broken limb, strapping it as tightly as he could against Sinclair’s ribs.

It was only when he had finished that task and moved back to seat himself that he realized he could no longer hear any sounds coming from the hillside above, and that he had no recollection of the noises fading away. He looked over to find Sinclair looking at him.

“Tell me then, what happened?”

As he listened to his friend relating what he had seen and heard, Sinclair’s face grew increasingly strained, but he made no attempt to interrupt until Moray eventually fell silent. Then he sat chewing on his lip, his features pinched.

“Damn them all,” he said eventually. “They brought it on themselves, with their jealousies and squabbling. I knew it in my gut, from the moment they decided to stop the advance on Tiberias yesterday. There was no sound reason for doing that. No reason a good commander could justify. We had already marched twelve miles through hellish heat, with less than six remaining. We could have won to safety before nightfall had we but stuck together and continued our advance. To stop was utter folly.”

“Folly and spite. And arrogance. Your Master of the Temple, de Ridefort, wanted to spite the Count of Tripoli. And Reynald de Chatillon backed him, using his influence on the King and bullying Guy into changing his mind.”

Sinclair grunted from pain and cradled his broken arm with his other hand. “I cannot speak for de Chatillon,” he said between gritted teeth. “I have no truck with him nor ever have. The man is a savage and a disgrace to the Temple and all it stands for. But de Ridefort is a man of principles and he truly believes Raymond of Tripoli to be a traitor to our cause. He had sound reasons for his distrust of him.”

“Mayhap, but the Count of Tripoli’s was the only voice of sanity among our leaders. He said it would be madness to leave our solid base in La Safouri with Saladin’s masses on the move, and he was right.”

“Aye, he was, but he had made alliance with Saladin prior to that, and then reneged on it, or so he would have us believe. And that alliance cost us a hundred and thirty Templars and Hospitallers at Cresson last month. De Ridefort was right to distrust him.”

“It was de Ridefort who lost those men, Alec. He led them, all of them, in a downhill charge against fourteen thousand mounted men. It was his arrogance and his hotheadedness that are to blame for that. Raymond of Tripoli was nowhere near the place.”

“No, but had Raymond of Tripoli not granted Saladin’s army the right to cross his territory that day, those fourteen thousand men would not have been there to provoke de Ridefort. The Master of the Temple might have been blameworthy, but the Count of Tripoli was at fault.”

Moray shrugged. “Aye, you might be right, but when we were talking about leaving the safety of La Safouri, Raymond’s own wife was under siege in Tiberias, and even so he said he would rather lose her than endanger our whole army. That has no smell to me of treachery.”

Sinclair said nothing for a while after that, then grimaced again, his teeth clenched in pain. “So be it. There is no point in arguing over it now, when the damage is irretrievable. Right now, we have to find out what’s going on up on the crest. Can you do that without being seen?”

“Aye. There’s a spot among the rocks. I’ll go and look.”

Moray was back within minutes, scuttling sideways like a crab in an effort to keep his head down and out of sight from anyone on the hillside above.

“They’re on the move,” he hissed, moving directly to Sinclair and gently pushing him down to lie on his back. “They’re coming down. The hillside’s alive with them, and they all seem to be heading this way. In five minutes’ time they’ll be all around us, and if we aren’t seen and dragged out of here it will be a miracle. So say your prayers, Alec. Pray as you’ve never prayed before—but silently.”

Somewhere close by a horse nickered and was answered by another. Hooves clattered on stone, as though right above the two motionless men, and then moved away. For the next hour or so they lay still, scarcely breathing and expecting discovery and capture with every heartbeat. But the time came when they could hear nothing, no movement, no voices, no matter how hard they strained to hear, and eventually Moray crawled out of the concealment and looked about him.

“They’re gone,” he announced from the mouth of the shelter. “They don’t appear to have left anyone up above, on the heights, and the mass of them seems to be headed now for Tiberias.”

“Aye, that’s where they’ll go first. The Citadel will surrender, now that the army’s destroyed. What else did you see?”

“Columns of dust going down from the ridge up there, towards Saladin’s encampment, east of Tiberias. It’s bigger than the city. Couldn’t see who was going down, because of the slope of the hill, but they’re raising a lot of dust. Whoever it is, they’re moving in strength.”

“Probably prisoners for ransom, and their escorts.”

Sir Lachlan Moray sat silent after that, frowning and chewing gently on the inside of his lip for a while, until he said, “Prisoners? Will there be Templars among them, think you?”

“Probably. Why would you think otherwise?”

Moray shook his head slightly. “I thought Templars were forbidden to surrender, but must fight to the death. It has never happened before, because it has always been death or glory. They’ve never been defeated and left alive, but—”

“Aye, but. You are correct. And yet you’re wrong, too. The Rule says no surrender in the face of odds less than five to one. Greater than that, there is room for discretion, and the odds today were overwhelming. Better to live and be ransomed to fight again than to be slaughtered to no good purpose. But we have duties to fulfill. We need to find a way back to La Safouri with word of this, and from there to Jerusalem, so we had better start planning our route. If Saladin’s force is split in two, to the south and to the east of us, then we will have to make our way back the way we came and hope to avoid their patrols. They will be everywhere, mopping up survivors like us. Here, help me to sit up.”

As soon as Moray slipped his arm about the other man’s waist and began to raise him up gently, he heard a loud click as Sinclair’s teeth snapped together, and he saw the color drain from the man’s cheeks again, his lips and forehead beaded with sweat and his teeth gritted together against the pain that had swept up in him. Appalled, and not knowing what to do, Moray was barely able to recognize the urgency with which Sinclair was straining to turn to his right, away from the pain of his broken arm. Only at the last possible moment did he have an inkling of what was happening, and he twisted sideways just in time to let Sinclair vomit on the floor beside him.

Afterwards, Sinclair lay shuddering and fighting for breath, his head lolling weakly from side to side as Lachlan Moray sat beside him, wringing his hands and fretting over what he should do next, for there was nothing he could think of that might help his friend.

Gradually the injured man’s laborious breathing eased, and suddenly his eyes were open, staring up into Moray’s.

“Splints,” he said, his voice weak. “We need to set the arm and splint it so that it can’t be moved or jarred again. Is there anything nearby we could use?”

“I don’t know. Let me go and look.”

Once again Moray crawled out of their hiding place and disappeared, leaving Sinclair alone, but this time Sinclair lost all awareness of how long he had been gone, and when he next opened his eyes, Moray was crouched above him, his face drawn in a mask of concern.

“Did you find splints?”

Moray shook his head. “No, nothing good enough. A few arrow shafts, but they’re too light, not enough rigidity.”

“Spears. We need a spear shaft.”

“I know, but the Saracens appear to have taken all the weapons they could find on their way past. They took the horses, too, which is no surprise. I’ll have to look farther uphill to find a spear shaft.”

“Then I’ll come with you, but after dark. We can’t stay here, and it’s too dangerous for us to separate. We’ll use more belts and my surcoat to bind my arm to my chest and prevent it from moving, and then I’ll lean on you and use you as a crutch. Fortunately, my sword arm is sound, should we have need of it.”

By the time they eventually secured the limb so that it hung comfortably and largely without pain, Moray had been outside several times to gather spent arrows with which to frame and brace the arm before they bound it tightly into place. By then it was growing dark, and as soon as they judged it dark enough to emerge, yet still sufficiently light to see without being seen, they began to make their way up towards the ridge on the skyline behind them. It was slow going, and arduous, and it did not take long for Sinclair’s arm, even constrained as it was, to react unfavorably to the constant jarring of walking uphill across uneven terrain. Within the first few hours of setting out on their odyssey, he lost all will to talk and walked grimly on, his eyes unfocused and his mouth twisted in a rictus of pain, his good hand clutching firmly at Lachlan Moray’s elbow.

During those first few hours Lachlan discovered that his belief that the Saracens had all gone down the mountain was inaccurate. It was a burst of unrestrained laughter that warned him that he and Sinclair were not alone. He left Sinclair propped up among a clump of boulders and made his way alone to where he could see what was going on at the top of the ridge of Hattin, and what he saw—a collection of several large tents surrounded by a large number of Saracen guards, everyone in high spirits—was sufficient to send him back and lead his friend thereafter in a completely different direction, heading northwest, away from the Saracen presence and directly towards La Safouri and its oasis.

 

Two

They walked from dusk until dawn that first night, although they did not make anything like the kind of progress they were used to. With no horses beneath them, they were reduced to the pace of ordinary men. Although the going improved once they had cleared the breast of the hill and started back downward in the direction of La Safouri, some twelve miles distant, Moray estimated that they had not covered half of that distance after more than seven hours of walking. But the stink of the charred, sour underbrush had diminished as soon as they had drawn away from the battlefield, and the battlefield itself had been mercifully veiled by the darkness of the moonless night. They had stumbled only twice over bodies lying directly in their path, and one of those had been a horse, with a full skin of water lying between its stiffened legs. This had slaked their thirst and given them energy to keep moving.

Dawn came too soon, and Moray was faced with making a decision concerning how to proceed, since his glassy-eyed companion was clearly not capable. They were in a stretch of giant dunes, and he knew the sun would broil them there no matter what they did. Was it better to keep moving in search of shelter and a place to rest, secure in the advantage offered them by the skin of water? Or would they be safer simply digging themselves a pit of some kind in the side of a dune and waiting in there for darkness to come around again? Moray decided on the former, purely because they had nothing with which to dig a hole of any kind, and so he kept walking, leading Sinclair, who was now reeling with every step, his glazed eyes staring off towards some distant place that he alone could see.

Several hours later they emerged from the dunes into an entirely different landscape, littered with sparse scrub and sharply broken stones. They soon found a dry streambed, the kind the local residents called a wadi, and Moray made his ailing companion as comfortable as he could in the shade of a slight overhang on one of the banks. He gave Sinclair more to drink and then left him in the meager shelter while he took the single crossbow and the few bolts he had salvaged from the battlefield of Hattin and went hunting for anything he might find that moved and could be eaten. The desert was a deadly place, but he knew, too, that it sustained an astonishing variety of creatures. Alec Sinclair’s life depended on him and upon his hunting skills, and so he gave no thought to his own tiredness, which was quickly approaching exhaustion. Moving slowly and with great caution, so as not to alarm the shy desert creatures that might be watching him, Moray armed his crossbow, his eyes and ears on full alert, poised for the sound or sight of movement.

He found more of both than he had bargained for.

It was a dust cloud that first attracted his attention and made his spirits soar, for it was the sign of mounted men, and it came boiling towards him from the direction of La Safouri, the oasis to which he and Sinclair were heading. For a while he stood there in plain sight, watching the dust plume grow as the riders drew closer, but then, just before they would have been close enough to see him, a distant, circular shield flickered in the sun’s glare, its shape unmistakable. The sight of it was enough to drive Moray to his knees, and from there to his rump, with his back pressed against the stone closest to him. Circular shields were unknown among the Franks; only Muslims used them, light, flimsy-looking things that nonetheless worked beautifully and efficiently. As he sat there, absorbing that, he saw another plume of dust, this one approaching from the south to meet with the one from La Safouri, and he cursed, estimating that the two paths would converge right where he sat. The riders were coming quickly, and he knew that if he was to hide, he had bare moments in which to do so.

Moray examined the terrain around him, looking for concealment, but saw only one grouping of boulders, and that did not look as though it offered any sanctuary. He had no choice, however, and he saw at a glance that the crossbow he carried would be a liability, impossible to disguise or conceal. Moving quickly, he scooped a shallow hole in the sand beside him and buried the weapon, covering it sufficiently, he hoped, to conceal its shape without hiding it so well that he would not be able to find it again. Then, aware of just how little time he had left before the distant riders arrived, he dropped flat and snaked towards the boulders, using his elbows to propel himself and offering a quick, agonized plea to God to keep his friend Sinclair unconscious and unaware.

There were five large stones in the cluster, and nothing approaching a sheltering roof among them, but he wormed himself among them until he could fold his body into the space on the ground created by their shapes. It was less than perfect, but he told himself that only a direct examination would betray him, and besides, there was nothing else he could do as everything around him, sight and sound, was swept away in the thunder of hooves. He had guessed, from what he had been able to observe, that there must be approximately two score, or perhaps even three, in each of the two groups, and the babble of voices that replaced the drumming of hooves seemed to support his conjecture. He was confident that he was listening to a hundred men in high spirits, exchanging good tidings and information.

Moray did not speak Arabic, but he had been in Outremer long enough to have grown familiar with the sounds and cadences of the language, and it no longer intimidated him as it once had. He could pick out certain spoken combinations, too, common words and phrases such as Allahu Akbar, God is great, which seemed to be the single most-used expression among the Muslims. Now he heard a single word, Suffiriyya, being spoken over and over again on all sides. Suffiriyya, he knew, was the Arabic name for La Safouri, and he interpreted the excitement surrounding him as a probable indication that Saladin’s army had captured the oasis after the departure of the Christian army for Tiberias. He wished Sinclair were with him, for his friend’s knowledge of Arabic was wondrous and he would have understood every word of the gibberish that flooded over Moray’s head.

Frustrated by his inability to see what was happening, he had no option but to lie still and hope that no part of him was sticking out where it would be visible. As one noisy group approached his hiding place he grew tense, expecting at any moment to hear a howl announcing his discovery. He heard them halt very close to him and knew they must be standing above him, almost within arm’s length of where he lay. Then there came a series of grunts and indecipherable sounds of movement, followed by a rapid, unintelligible gush of conversation involving three or perhaps four voices. Listening to them, holding his breath and willing himself to shrink into invisibility, Moray felt a surge of despair as his leg muscles began to tighten into what he knew immediately would be savage cramps.

Sure enough, the ensuing five minutes seemed to him to be the longest in his entire life as he lay in agony, unable to move or to make a sound while his tortured limbs objected to the unnatural way they were arranged. He did remain silent, nonetheless, concentrating on willing his leg muscles to relax, and eventually, gradually, the dementing pain began to recede. Shortly after that, just as he was beginning to adjust to the idea that the cramps had gone, the Saracens left, too, in response to a series of commands from a loud but distant voice that rang with authority. At one moment there were men above him speaking in loud voices, and then, without warning, they fell silent and moved away, only the sound of their receding footsteps announcing their departure.

It seemed to him that the individual groups were separating again, returning to the paths they had been following when they first saw each other. The dwindling sounds of their shouted farewells made it simple for him to deduce that the first group was heading towards Tiberias again, while the other continued north, into the desert wastes. Moray gave the last of them ample time to ride away before he emerged from his cache—and his heart sprang into his mouth when he saw that he was not alone. A single Saracen lay, apparently asleep, on the sand beside the boulders. Moray stood frozen, one hand on the boulder that separated them, before he saw the blood that stained the sand beneath the man’s body.

Cautiously, not daring to make a sound, he inched forward until he heard, and then saw, the clouds of flies that swarmed over the recumbent form. The man was dead, his torso pierced by a crossbow bolt, his chain-mail shirt clotted with gore and his face sallow beneath his sun-bronzed skin. He lay between two long spears and had obviously been laid carefully to rest, his arms crossed on his chest, his bow and a quiver of arrows laid beside him, and it became clear, as Moray studied him, that the fellow had been a man of some influence among his people. His clothing and the quality of the inlaid bow and quiver by his side proclaimed both wealth and rank, but his rich green cloak was blackened with blood, and the shimmering tunic of fine chain mail he wore had been insufficient to protect him from the lethal force of the steel bolt that had driven the metal mesh into his wound.

The spears on each side of the body puzzled Moray initially, until he gave them a closer look, and realized instantly that they had formed a kind of bier, their tapered ends separated by a short crossbar made from a broken length from another spear shaft bound firmly in place by tight lashings of rawhide that had been soaked in place and then allowed to dry in the sun. From that junction several long ropes of tightly plaited leather lay piled on the ground. The man, whoever he was, had been strapped onto the bier and obviously pulled behind a horse, for the marks where the ends had been dragged were deep and clearly defined. It was no great feat for Moray to divine that the man on the litter must have been supported on a network of more leather straps, lashed around the two spear shafts. He must have died a short time before his escorts reached this spot, Moray concluded, and his comrades, having left him so decorously laid out, would no doubt return to collect him.

Moray stepped out from behind his rocks and looked all around him now, seeing no signs of movement in any direction. The sun had started its fall towards the west, but it still had a long way to go, and its strength was ferocious, baking the landscape so that the rocks and even the sand itself shimmered and wavered, their surfaces warped by the heat that rose up in palpable waves. He searched the dead man quickly, hoping against hope to find a water bottle, but he found nothing of value, other than the bow and its quiver of arrows. The dead man’s sword and dagger were missing, probably taken by his comrades for safekeeping.

He picked up the inlaid bow before slinging the quiver over his shoulder and setting off to find his friend Alec.

Sinclair was still unconscious when Moray returned. Deep lines and creases had settled into his sleeping face, and his forehead was fiery hot to the touch. Moray grew increasingly apprehensive, for he knew that in order to provide the kind of help his friend needed, he would have to either lead Sinclair home safely to their own kind, and quickly, or surrender them both to the mercies of the Saracens. The latter was unthinkable, and so he decided that they would rest for the remainder of the day, then walk again throughout the night. But where could they go, now that La Safouri was closed to them? Back towards Nazareth was the only solution that presented itself to Moray, and it was the last image in his mind as he fell asleep that afternoon, huddled beside Alexander Sinclair.

 

 

Leave a Reply