The little English troop arrived just in time to share in the capture of the Holy City, to join in the eager procession of conquerors to the Holy Sepulchre, and to hear Godfrey de Bouillon elected to defend the sacred possession, refusing to wear a crown where the King of Saints and Lord of Heaven and Earth had worn a Crown of Thorns.
A feudal castle, of massive stone, with donjon keep and high crenellated wall, gateway tower, moat and drawbridge, was a strange, incongruous sight in one of the purple-red stony slopes of Palestine, with Hermon’s snowy peak rising high above. It was accounted for, however, by the golden crosses of the kingdom of Jerusalem waving above the watch-tower, that rose like a pointing finger above the keep, in company with a lesser ensign bearing a couchant hound, sable.
It was a narrow rocky pass that the Castle of Gebel-Aroun guarded, overlooking a winding ravine between the spurs of the hills, descending into the fertile plain of Esdraelon from the heights of Galilee Hills, noted in many an Israelite battle, and now held by the Crusaders.
Bare, hard, and rocky were the hills around—the slopes and the valley itself, which in the earlier season had been filled with rich grass, Calvary clover, blood-red anemones, and pale yellow amaryllis, only showed their arid brown or gray remnants. The moat had become a deep waterless cleft; and beneath, on the accessible sides towards the glen, clustered a collection of black horsehair tents, the foremost surmounted by the ill-omened crescent.
The burning sun had driven every creature under shelter, and no one was visible; but well was it known that watch and ward was closely kept from beneath those dark tents, that to the eyes within had the air of couching beasts of prey. Yes, couching to devour what could not fail to be theirs, in spite of the mighty walls of rock and impregnable keep, for those deadly and insidious foes, hunger and thirst, were within, gaining the battle for the Saracens without, who had merely to wait in patience for the result.
Some years previously, Sir William de Hundberg, a Norman knight, had been expelled from his English castle by the partisans of Stephen, and with wife and children had followed Count Fulk of Anjou to his kingdom of Palestine, and had been endowed by him with one of the fortresses which guarded the passes of Galilee, under that exaggeration of the feudal system which prevailed in the crusading kingdom of Jerusalem.
Climate speedily did its work with the lady, warfare with two of her sons, and there only remained of the family a youth of seventeen, Walter, and his sister Mabel, fourteen, who was already betrothed to the young Baron of Courtwood, then about to return to England. The treaty with Stephen and the success of young Henry of Anjou gave Sir William hopes of restitution; but just as he was about to conduct her to Jerusalem for the wedding, before going back to England, he fell sick of one of the recurring fevers of the country; and almost at the same time the castle was beleaguered by a troop of Arabs, under the command of a much-dreaded Sheik.