Barbarossa - George Upton




The Emperor to the Rescue

We left the Emperor fighting furiously in the streets of Iconium. Where the danger was greatest he fought with the bravery always characteristic of him. None could withstand him. They either fell before his vigorous attacks, or fled as fast and far as their feet could take them. The Christians were equally bold even when the Turks assailed them with the fierceness of lions. Their bitter resentment over broken faith, their remembrance of the sufferings they had undergone, the thought of so many fallen comrades, and their unwavering belief that the destruction of the enemies of Christianity was pleasing to God, inflamed them to a pitch of fury that extinguished every spark of humanity. They did not desist until every turban wearer was killed or, like the Sultan, fortunate enough to make his escape. The Emperor was one of the last to sheathe his reddened sword. Many fell utterly exhausted, for in the excitement of the battle they had not noticed their waning strength.

The foot-soldiers, who had driven stakes into the ground to protect themselves from the enemy's cavalry charges, were hardly able to move. In addition to an immense amount of spoils and the wealth of the city, they secured an abundance of subsistence. All who were able procured enough for themselves and for the needs of their exhausted comrades.

After the Emperor's work was complete, and in the midst of his exultation over his victory and the fruits of his conquest of the city, he first learned what he had lost in the meantime. He could hardly trust his ears when he was informed of the capture of his wards. After repeated assurances that the news was true, and that their faithful caretaker had been found dead, the Emperor's cheeks paled and his flashing eyes dimmed, for he realized at once the impending fate of the unfortunate lads.

"You could not have struck me a harder blow than this, cruel Sultan," he said, grimly. "You were cunning enough to know how dear those boys are to me. A fine proof of your courage this is, you coward, who shun open battle face to face, who can only succeed with overwhelming numbers, who lie in wait and strike your foeman in the back!"

The glory of his victory was dimmed for him. The spoils he had won lost all their value in his eyes. This was no more than he had often done. But how should he redeem his knightly word, which never yet had been broken? He had allowed himself to be deceived by a subtle enemy, to whom he had exposed the boys, fancying them secure even when not under his watchful eye, and the result might be fatal to those who had trusted to his protection.

His associates vainly tried to convince him he had not been guilty of any neglect of duty. Empty words could not comfort him. "It has all happened because of my negligence," he replied. His first move was to order immediate pursuit of the enemy, in the hope of rescuing the boys.

The most devoted of his knights mounted steeds they had captured, and set off in pursuit of the fugitives, believing that the latter, after the long day's battle, could not have gone any considerable distance. They returned shortly, however, bringing with them a messenger sent by the Sultan to the Emperor. He was at once taken before him, and announced that the two boys were in the Sultan's power, and that the latter well knew how dear the sons of the Emperor's old friend were to him, as well as the promise he had made to that friend in his dying moments. He further announced that the Sultan would engage to return them if the Emperor would give up the spoils he had captured, as well as the Sultan's possessions. If the Emperor refused the proposal, the boys should die in the strong castle by the sea the moment he attacked it.

The messenger's announcement caused general astonishment. When the first shock of the blow had passed, however, the Emperor's eyes gleamed with exultant determination. His very soul revolted against such a proposal, and his anger against the Sultan for expecting him to accede to it was furious.

"Tell your prince," he exclaimed in thunder tones, "tell your prince I spurn his proposal. My imperial honor will not allow me to release my wards in such a manner. By God's grace, I will keep my word, but I will not surrender the fruits of a victory purchased with the blood of thousands. No! with God's help, I will find some way to redeem my promise becoming to a hero and an Emperor. Tell the Sultan I will hold him responsible with his head for the safety of my boys."

With these words the Emperor turned his back upon the messenger. All present applauded the reply of the old hero. Though none had believed he would accept the Sultan's terms, they had thought it possible that the Emperor might open negotiations, and, if possible, reach a settlement without bloodshed. They feared any such arrangement, as it would only secure them a fickle-minded and unreliable friend; and should conditions arise at any time like those they had found in their dealings with the Greeks, they would never be certain whether he was their friend or their enemy. Every step they took would be hindered, and their plans might be entirely frustrated. But since the Emperor had replied in such a decisive manner, and the messenger's departure from the city would end all negotiations, they knew to a certainty that they now had to deal with an enemy.

The Germans remained in Iconium an entire week. The houses were filled with wounded who had to be cared for, and this duty was all the more imperative because of the lack of doctors. The knights and their attendants were so well skilled in the treatment of wounds that they were of great service; but in the cases of those who had been overcome by their strenuous exertions, and weakened for want of proper food, the wounds were exceedingly dangerous; and, besides, the danger was aggravated by the heat. The natives could not be trusted; hence every one had to depend upon the love of his Christian neighbor; and if ever this most beautiful doctrine of Christianity was practised, it was there. Proud knights who governed hundreds at home, cared for all their faithful attendants, even for the sons of the lowest of their vassals; and sometimes those who had been accustomed to wealth and splendor, and perhaps had been hard rulers, waited upon the meanly born. Again, some knight nursed another of equal station who, before they espoused the cause of the Cross, had been his mortal enemy and might then have been attacking him or burning his castle, had they not ceased their strife to go to the rescue of Christians in the Orient. Such were the extraordinary scenes among these warriors whose swords were still red with Turkish blood. But a moment ago they were fierce as lions and tigers; now they were as gentle as lambs.

The Emperor was omnipresent. He had room in his heart for every one in his service. He consoled many an old comrade lying on his bed of pain. He closed many an eye which had watched for him and with him. He held many a cold hand which had wielded the sword for him, and tears of sympathy often came to his eyes. Then he turned to the well who were enjoying rest in the plazas and streets of the city, and cleaning their weapons and armor; or he visited the sentinels on the walls to see if they were faithful to their duties. While there, his eyes involuntarily turned to the spot where he thought the castle stood in which his boys were prisoners. Notwithstanding they were far away, he strained his eyes as if to find out their condition and to read in their faces whether they still confided in him, or whether, like their present master, they doubted his word.

The Emperor gave long consideration to the means at his command for effecting their rescue, but none of them appeared practicable. One thing was certain. If an attack were made upon his really impregnable castle the Sultan would carry out his threat. Then again of what use would it be to capture the castle, even if it were possible? They could not catch the Sultan and bring him to account so long as they could not cut off his escape by sea. As for negotiation, the Emperor gave it no thought. He was certain that the Sultan would not make a second offer; and even if he found that the Emperor was willing to listen, he felt sure that he not only would repeat the old demands but probably would add new and not less ignominious ones.

From every point of view the deed was almost superhuman. The castle could be approached only by land, over a narrow causeway, which was in plain sight and could be easily defended. But even if they crossed it without resistance, they would come to portcullises which could be easily lowered so as to cut them off and ensure their destruction. Seawards a large inclosure was filled with most trustworthy guards—a number of huge and powerful lions, tigers, and panthers, whose loud roars were terrible enough to prevent any one from attempting to scale the wall on that side. But even supposing a knight were found ready to attempt this rash exploit, what could be accomplished? Could he rescue the boys from the Sultan and escape with them past the castle garrison? And if he failed what would become of the Emperor's promise? Would he have risked his life for them as he agreed? He would have done no more than any other might have done and the faithless Turk would have laughed at him for his pains. Frederick's honor had thus far been unquestioned. His word was of more worth than gold. He could not escape the conclusion that to uphold his honor to the last he must undertake the deed alone.

This thought flashed through his mind like the lightning. A knight in every sense of the word, as his whole life had shown, Frederick had all the virtues of true knighthood in their highest development. In his time knighthood was not satisfied with ordinary dangers. It sought for daring exploits, and purposely invited and magnified them that victory might be all the more glorious. It was regarded as a misfortune that the world no longer swarmed with dragons and serpents, with which, according to the legends, the heroes of the olden time contended. Giants and goblins had also disappeared, and the knightly heroes therefore eagerly seized the opportunity to encounter dangers in the Orient they had never faced before, and to overcome them and thereby display their knighthood as well as their religious enthusiasm.

No exploit more dangerous than that which Frederick decided to perform could have been conceived. He industriously made plans to reach the Sultan, rejecting this and that, until but one remained. He must risk that, and no other. But in the meantime how could he attend to his other duties? His army certainly was safe from any immediate attack by the Turks. But did the Sultan actually expect that his proposal would be accepted? Probably, otherwise he would have been more actively engaged. But what would happen in case he, the Emperor, failed in this dangerous undertaking? In that case, if his army were attacked, his name would no longer be a terror to the enemy, and still, with so many valiant knights in the army, it would not lack for a leader. His son, inheritor of his name and his virtues, now in the very flower of youthful strength and courage, would lead it to victory, with God's help, as he had clone.

The evening star was shining serenely on the horizon when the Emperor completed his plans. He determined there should be no further delay. What was to be done must be done quickly. He went to his son, Frederick of Swabia, frankly laid his plans before him, assigned him to the chief command of the army, and requested him to keep his absence a secret, so that it should not have a disquieting effect upon the army. If he did not return in three days he instructed him to attack the Turkish castle by the sea with all his strength, and look for him there.

Night had enveloped the city in thick darkness when the Emperor, disguised in plain costume, passed through the gate leading to the south. With his armor and cloak securely packed upon his horse, he rode through the ranks of the sleeping army. Now and then a sentinel challenged him, but he was not halted as he well knew the watchword. He had very wisely selected one of those horses which could be relied upon to cover a long distance in a short time, and which in battle were accustomed to carry heavy armor in case their riders were exhausted.

Reaching the open country, the noble animal flew along with the ease and speed characteristic of Oriental steeds. There was no obstruction in his way, no enemy in sight. They seemed to have vanished as completely as if the wind had swept them away. His way now stretched over luxurious grassy plains, now through gloomy mountain forests. Many miles lay behind him, but his steed seemed as fresh as at the start, and the Emperor himself was but little wearied. The fresh night air, the pleasure of the ride, and the thought that at last he would redeem his word inspired him with more enthusiasm than he had felt at any time since the loss of the boys. He rode to face danger as exultantly as if he were faring to a tournament.

In the early gray of the morning the Emperor came to a solitary fisherman's hut, which showed no sign of life within. Evidently it was either deserted or its owner was sleeping. He was now sure he was in the vicinity of the castle. He knocked at the door and waited long for admission. He soon grew impatient and had just decided to break down the weak door and wait inside until daylight; or if he found the occupant had been afraid to open it, to take him along as a guide. A person looked out of the little window, but instantly drew back as if in fear when he saw the knight. Frederick espied him and demanded admission.

After considerable delay the fisherman opened the door. He suddenly appeared to have recovered from his fright, for he received the knight very hospitably, brought him food, placed it upon the table, and begged his guest to partake. "I would gladly offer you more, brave knight; but I am poor, and this is all I have."

"Make no excuses, my good man," replied Frederick. I am not so satiated that I need to have luxuries. I have been living on simple fare for several days, and have become quite accustomed to it."

"Are the Christians reduced to their old straits again?" asked the fisherman.

"Yes, thanks to the Greeks and Turks. They have proved alike unfaithful. Your Greek Christians have broken their word again, and would have been open enemies had they not been afraid of the brave Germans. Your master, the Sultan, has been worse than any of them."

"But his subjects ought not to be held responsible for his offences. They say your Emperor is a powerful sovereign, but mild and conciliatory also."

"If you had been with him daily you could not have described him more accurately, but neither your people nor your Sultan should presume upon his gentle disposition too far. It has bounds. The entire country is now subdued. The enemy has fled, and the Sultan has taken refuge in his castle by the sea. Tell me, do you know anything about that place?"

"Oh, yes, Sir Knight, I can inform you about it if you wish to know. Come here! Look! there are its walls with towers overtopping them. You can recognize them though it is not yet day. The Sultan is staying there now."

"Alone?"

"No, oh, no! The garrison is not strong, but the castle is by no means empty. I will tell you, but in confidence, that the Sultan keeps two boy-prisoners there who are very dear to the Emperor."

"Have you seen them?" said the Emperor, with much excitement.

Not yet; but I heard of them when I was there selling fish."

"Ah!" said the Emperor, with an air of indifference, not wishing to betray himself, for he observed that the fisherman was watching him curiously. "Does the Sultan keep no guards about him because he has no fear that the Emperor will attack him?"

"Oh, sir, he is safe against all the armies in the world! I ought not to reveal this to you, for the Sultan is my master; but believe me, I have so much respect for your Emperor that I am willing to do him or one of his knights a service. The castle is strongly protected. It cannot be taken from the land side, and seawards it is skirted by an inclosure filled with savage beasts. Oh, sir! I have now and then seen those cruel animals from a distance, and been terribly frightened by their dreadful roars. When I have seen them spring upon one another in mighty leaps, though they were only in sport, it has scared me so that I have seized my oars and rowed far from the spot."

"You timorous hare! Do you suppose a German knight fears to go among those beasts?"

The fisherman stared at the knight in astonishment. "For God's sake, Sir Knight, do not think of going there. No prisoner who has tried to escape that way has ever come out alive. They could hardly find his bones in the morning, and sometimes only a few blood spots told the story of his awful death."

"But how can a prisoner get in there?"

"Near the centre of the enclosure there is a door which remains closed, but unlocked, day and night. A passage from it leads to the lion tower where the prisoners are. You can see it rising from the centre of the castle. They say that the guards sometimes pay no attention to their prisoners, because they know that if they seek to escape through this passage they will meet an awful death."

The Emperor's blood ran cold as the thought occurred to him that the Sultan might take the same course with the boys, but he quickly regained his composure.

"Promise me, Sir Knight, not to throw away your life there."

"Fool, where did you get that idea? If I wished to go there I should not hesitate, for I should expect to succeed; but I don't know that I have any interest over there. Find me a quiet little place where I can sleep a few hours."

The fisherman promptly replied: "No one will disturb you here, for no one else lives here. Lie down anywhere and rest. I am going to look for firewood, and shall not be back until it is time to get dinner."

"Many thanks to you, but go as soon as you can, so that I can sleep."