Barbarossa - George Upton




Conrad's Victory in the Valley

At last the Germans reached the sacred land of Asia Minor. He who beholds it for the first time cannot fail to admire the surpassing beauty of the country. Winter, instead of destroying its luxurious vegetation, enriches the exceedingly fertile soil with refreshing rains. The numerous mountain ranges, which traverse that region in all directions, covered with majestic forests, present ever-changing spectacles of beauty. Blooming valleys stretch between them abundantly watered by clear and sparkling brooks. Groves of beautiful fruit-trees cover them in some places, and in others olive-trees delight the eye with their dark green foliage. Unusually large and brilliant poppies grow there and the cotton and corn fields yield abundant harvests. Between its numerous cities are pretty villages, which add to the natural beauty of the country. The stranger is impressed by the thought that life must be very enjoyable there; but those acquainted with the history of the people, while admiring all this beauty, only mourn that men should give way to their evil passions and change this paradise into a place of wretchedness and suffering.

"This blessed land," said the Emperor Frederick, who was well versed in history, "has had stranger and more varied experiences than almost any other country on earth. Here once stood mighty Troy, which excelled its neighbor, Greece, in learning and the arts, until the folly of a prince's son led the outraged Greeks to destroy it. Centuries later, there were many peoples here—among them the Mysians, Carians, Lycians, Paphlagonians, Bithynians, and Lydians,—the last the most powerful of all, and to whom all the rest were tributary, and whose king was the richest person on earth. But, happy? No! His wealth tempted Cyrus to invade the country, and its effeminate people were powerless to resist him. But Cyrus did not long enjoy his plunder; nor did Alexander, at a later period. After the latter's time, the country was split up into petty kingdoms, which fell into the hands of the Romans, one after another being subjugated more or less easily, as the King and people were cowardly or warlike. The innumerable ruins which everywhere meet the eye are mute witnesses of the dreadful experiences of this land. Those wretched hovels cover the spot where once stood famous Ephesus with its splendid temple of Diana. The ancient Nicomedia, residence of Roman emperors after Diocletian's time, is to-day an insignificant place. Of many other famous places hardly a trace can now be found.

"Where Christianity in its early stages enjoyed its greatest prosperity, where the most famous and the greatest of its communities lived and transformed the land into a garden, the Turk now rules and persecutes Christians with fierce hatred and sharp swords, thanks to the cowardliness and faithlessness of the Greek Emperor and his people."

The sad story of desolation which the Emperor briefly outlined to his listeners made a sorrowful impression upon them, but it also awakened the sense of duty in their brave souls; and a feeling of gratitude that they were called upon to rescue and redeem this land filled the hearts of the brave champions of the Cross. They even hoped that the Sultan of Iconium, as the country was then called, would prove faithless, like Isaac, for then they could act regardless of him, and victory would be assured. This singular wish, which was natural enough at that time, when knights were ever eager to encounter new dangers, was soon gratified. Kilidj Arslan proved as faithless as Isaac.

Conrad of Feuchtwangen, leader of the vanguard, encountered Turkish troops at the very outset. As soon as he entered the mountain region he was harassed on all sides by swift, alert horsemen. Every grove and hill concealed them. As the Germans approached they dashed out, brandishing their scymitars or shooting arrows at them. Strong bands suddenly attacked them in ravines and narrow passes, and when the Germans attempted to resist in regular battle order, they disappeared like the wind in all directions. It was impossible for the heavily mailed knights to follow them or to force them to make a stand. Although the attacks were not very disastrous, as the scymitars made no impression upon the mail and arrows glanced off from it, yet stragglers fell easy victims to the Turks. Many were suddenly killed, and there was no one near to avenge them. Under such circumstances the stoutest grew uneasy, even though there were no actual hand-to-hand encounters. There was no time to rest, for the enemy was active both day and night. Subsistence began to fail, and hunger and thirst, the Turks' best allies, threatened to claim the Crusaders for their victims.

Thus matters continued day after day, and each morning brought more enemies, weakened their own numbers, and increased the need of subsistence. The Turks destroyed everything they could not take with them, and filled up or polluted the wells. The scanty supplies furnished by the Greeks were insufficient for the main army, and nothing reached the vanguard from that source.

It was hard to believe these were the same Crusaders who presented such a brilliant spectacle in camp at Belgrade. Wan and worn they sat upon their emaciated steeds, which dragged themselves forward like farm horses. The hopelessness of the situation was depicted upon every face. Their once glittering arms were stained and rusted from lack of care, for all their leisure was spent in searching for roots and herbs to satisfy the cravings of hunger. Thousands succumbed to their hardships, but the German knights made no complaint. The influence of their training was apparent. Accustomed from boyhood to strenuous exertions they rendered splendid service on this expedition.

From a lofty mountain ridge Conrad surveyed his little band. Hardships troubled him little; but when he looked upon his sons, who had been so full of hope, whose robust health was impaired, and whose rosy cheeks were now pale, it nearly broke his heart. When they noticed the tears in his eyes and inquired the cause, he regained composure by a strong effort, to show them they must still keep up courage.

Indeed, there was little time for brooding over misfortunes, as the Turks were assailing them on all sides. There lay the beautiful valley flooded with sunshine, far as the eye could reach. The fields were luxuriant with verdure, and a plashing brook sparkled in the sunlight. They beheld an abundance which they could not enjoy. Suddenly the Turks rushed up the slope like sand driven before the wind. Fear seized the knights, but they summoned up courage and resolved either to conquer or die. If they could only gain a half-hour in which to appease the pangs of hunger and quench their thirst with the cool waters of the brook, they would die, if they must, or they would fight with renewed strength, even though the legions of hell were on the enemy's side.

They prepared to meet the attack without command or the need of encouragement from their leader. They raised their shields with tired hands, grasped their lances, and stood in orderly array, awaiting the onset. The Turks delayed, but their desperate purpose did not escape the experienced eyes of the knights; their numbers continually increased and still the attack was delayed. The knights grew impatient, but at a sudden signal from Conrad the entire band swept down the slope like the whirlwind. The front ranks of the enemy were shattered and gave way. Steeds and their riders were piled in heaps. Nothing could withstand the Germans. They dashed into the thickest of the fight, unmindful of dead or dying, and exchanging their lances for the terrible battle-axe, they rained blows upon the Turks, death following every stroke. It was a terrible harvest of death in that small area. The Turks were appalled by the sudden attack. They now recognized their own danger, and advanced upon the Christians with all the bravery of their race, and the skill and adroitness of their methods of fighting. The storm of arrows, which struck upon the knights' mail, unceasingly but uselessly, was discontinued, for it injured more friends than enemies. They engaged their foes man to man, with their sharp scymitars, and tried to perforate the grooves of the mail; but the Christians still had the advantage, for they mowed them down with swords and war-clubs before the Turks could make use of their shorter weapons. Still the latter swarmed about the little band like ants.

With the swiftness of the tiger they would leap upon their enemies, cling to them and seek to pierce the mail where it was weakest; but with equal swiftness the Christians drew their daggers and used them with dreadful effectiveness. Hundreds of the enemy were killed; others, badly wounded, sought safety in flight, and riderless steeds were rushing about the mountain side in numbers, and yet there seemed to be no decrease in the numbers of the enemy.

Resting for a moment, Conrad anxiously scanned his little band. He was solicitous for the safety of his sons, who, because of their light armor, were more exposed than the knights. He saw them in the very thick of the fight, in turns attacking the enemy and protecting each other. A number of fallen Turks showed that the boys were doing their duty. Conrad noticed that Raymond was mounted on a magnificent Arab courser and that, while he was in great danger, he was making a successful fight. A gleam of satisfaction lit up his face, but it was only temporary, for almost in an instant it changed to deadly apprehension.

A Turk, noticing his apparent forgetfulness of the battle, rushed swiftly at him, seized him in his powerful arms, and held him as in a vice. Pressing his heels against the horse's flanks, he sought to drag Conrad off, in hopes he would be trampled under the animal's hoofs. But Conrad sat as immovably as if rider and steed were one, trying to use his dagger, for his arms were pinioned. His enemy could easily have killed him with his own weapons, but he sought to dispose of him in another way. Slightly unloosing his hold the Turk tried to drag him aside, so that he might hurl him into an abyss; but, notwithstanding all his exertions, he could not accomplish it. Though old and wellnigh exhausted, Conrad had sufficient presence of mind to improve every advantage and to save his strength.

The Turk now had to consider the danger to which he himself was exposed in bringing the struggle to a close. His cries attracted the attention of the knights. Warding off blows on every hand, a young Christian champion made his way through the enemy, dashing over the fallen at the imminent risk of his life. A skilfully directed blow severed one of the Turk's arms, and a second stretched him upon the earth, howling with pain and rage. It was Conrad's eldest son, whose heroic act had saved his father's life. They exchanged grateful looks of satisfaction, and then side by side engaged the foe.

The Turks soon realized the hopelessness of their efforts. Half of them lay dead or wounded, and the other half were exhausted with their efforts to make some impression upon the knights' mail, while the Christians still confronted them with unimpaired strength. Soon German reinforcements were seen approaching, which inspired hopes of victory. The Turks were still making a furious fight, when a sudden shrill cry from their leader changed the aspect of the situation. The Turks instantly disengaged themselves from the enemy, and wheeling their swift steeds about, rushed down the mountain side, and quickly disappeared. The Christians watched them as if dazed. It was like waking from a dreadful dream. They could hardly trust their senses or believe their leader when he told them the battle was over and the enemy had fled; but when he pointed to the other side of the valley and they saw the riders vanishing away like ghosts, they were convinced of their glorious victory.

Their first act was one of thanksgiving to God. Then they hurried to the valley as rapidly as they could to seek refreshment. Their tired steeds could hardly make their way, and many a knight dismounted and led his horse by the bridle, choosing rather to suffer himself a little longer than forsake his battle-companion.

The little band exulted when they reached the valley. The refreshing water strengthened man and beast. The fruits of that genial climate satisfied hunger, and the luxuriant grass was enjoyed by the exhausted animals. Conrad advised them to exercise wise moderation, for he knew from experience that over-indulgence after severe exertion was injurious and might have dangerous results in that climate.

The eventful day at last drew to a close, and all felt invigorated by food and drink. Cooling baths had revived their strength, and after a few hours of sleep they hoped to be able to withstand anything the next day. They now made their arrangements for rest. A comfortable spot in an olive grove where they could easily protect themselves was picked out and sentinels were stationed. Conrad, however, was very anxious.

"We are safe here for the time," said he, "but the enemy will again appear with reinforcements to drive us from this blessed valley, for they well know that its abundant product is our only salvation. We are too weak to hold it for ourselves and our approaching comrades, who are now suffering from hunger and thirst, while we are relieved."

"They ought to hurry forward as fast as their strength will allow," said one.

"A messenger should be despatched to inform the Emperor."

"But whom can we afford to send? Whom would you deprive of this night's needed rest and send into danger?" said Conrad.

The knight made no reply.

"Send me, dear father," implored Raymond. "I am not so weary that I cannot make the effort."

"Do not send the boy! The errand is more dangerous than he imagines. If no one else will go, I will," said the former speaker.

"Oh, no, no!" said Raymond. "I am no longer a boy. I can take care of myself. Spare your tired bones, for you are no longer the youngest, and my strength is sufficient."

"I do not dispute that. Who could, after seeing the many deeds you have performed?"

"Then assign me to the duty."

"It is all the more dangerous because of the strength required. Even if you had a giant's strength it might be of no avail. You must remember that the enemy are swarming about us on all sides. They are hovering between us and the army, like birds of prey, seeking to swoop down upon their victims. Foresight and skill, cunning and shrewdness, alone can avail, and only one whose steed can equal the speed of their horses may hope to escape unharmed."

"That I can do better than any of the rest of you," said Raymond. "You are not aware that I have captured a Turkish horse, one of those incomparable coursers. Having lighter armor than the rest of you, I can surely go without danger."

"That is fortunate. It almost seems as if the Divine Hand were pointing the way to the accomplishment of our wishes," said Conrad. "I have no objection, and assign you to this difficult task. But be wary and alert. Delay not a moment. Let not weariness overcome you, and be not deceived by the quiet around you. It is only the noble lion who openly seeks his prey; the bloodthirsty tiger lies in wait for the approach of its unsuspecting victim. So it is with our enemies. When you reach the camp, hasten to the Emperor's tent, and if you have to rouse him from sleep, do so, and urge haste upon him and the army. If that is of no avail, then tell them of this valley. Tell them they will find an end to their privations here and they will long for wings to fly hither. Now depart with God's blessing, and may He go with you."

A hearty embrace followed these words. The boy went out, mounted his horse, and flew across the valley like the wind. The last rays of the setting sun gilded the mountain tops, and those in the valley saw the young hero riding as if in a blaze of golden glory, and waving his hand to them in greeting, as he disappeared behind the heights. The little band were soon sleeping, all save the sentinels, who noiselessly paced their rounds, listening and watching for any suspicious sound or object.