All Things Are Lights – Day 112 of 200

Roland turned again to face the enemy and found that they were falling back. Banners aflutter, still shrieking defiance, they formed a line across the beach, blocking the way to the towers and walls of Damietta. Sunlight flashed on their scimitars.

The heat was almost unbearable. It was high noon, and the sun, directly overhead, was turning his helmet into an oven that baked his scalp. And this is only June, he thought, dismayed. Even if we can beat the Egyptians, the heat here may beat us.

He heard excited cries behind him and turned. A small group of shouting, gesticulating men, most of them wearing the ornamented helmets of great barons, was gathered around the Oriflamme. In the center was Louis’s crowned helmet, and near it, one topped by a silver wolf’s head.

Fear flooded back into Roland’s limbs. The sight of the wolf’s head made him grip his saber angrily. Amalric. One small mishap and the King could be dead.

The King’s face was brightly flushed. “Bring me my horse. Bring me Veilantif,” he commanded. “I will ride against the infidel alone. Let them see what stuff French knights are made of.”

Roland heard a chorus of protests as his heart sank.

Louis has been carried away by his first sight of the foe. He should be making plans and giving orders, not rushing out in front of his army. He will be killed today — now — if we do not stop him. And he may get us all killed.

Roland tensed as he heard Amalric’s voice shouting, “Equerry! You heard the King. Bring his horse at once.”

Amalric, in purple and gold surcoat and shining steel helmet, was standing beside Louis. He had his longsword out and ready, even though there were no Egyptians nearby. Perhaps to cut down any of us who contradict him, Roland thought.

Knowing it would be accounted disrespect for one of his low rank to address the King unbidden, Roland still felt the need to speak up.

“Please, do not so sacrifice your life, sire,” he called out.

“One great deed of arms now will inspire our men and prove to the infidel that ours is the true God,” said Louis. His face was aglow with what Roland had come to think of as his Jerusalem look.

Roland despaired as he made way for an equerry leading a magnificent white charger into the ring of knights. Louis reached for the pommel and put an armored foot into the stirrup.

Without thought or hesitation, Roland reached out and seized Louis’s arm. The horse whinnied angrily.

“Please, sire! Think how our men will despair if you should be… hurt.”

“Take your hands off the King.”‘ shouted Amalric, brandishing his sword.

To Roland’s relief, Jean de Joinville came to his aid. “Sire, this good knight wants only to preserve your life. Let us all ride together against the Egyptians.”

“If I ride against them alone, God will protect me,” said Louis.

A new figure pushed into the circle. He wore the white surcoat and red cross of a Templar over his mail. With a leap of his heart, Roland recognized Guido Bruchesi.

Guido looked at him but did not acknowledge him. He went directly to the King.

He spoke quietly but firmly. “Sire, what you have just said is presumption.”

“I do not see how that could be, brother Templar.” But Louis took his foot out of the stirrup as Roland watched with growing hope. You can always catch Louis’s attention with a religious argument, Roland thought, even on the battlefield.

“Sire,” said Guido, “Satan tempted our Seigneur Jesus, telling Him that if He cast Himself down from the mountaintop, angels would lift him up.” Guido cast a sidelong look at Amalric. “You, sire, are being tempted to ride alone against the whole Egyptian army, expecting God’s protection. You are demanding a miracle. That is presumption.”

Louis was silent for a moment. “Perhaps you are right.”

Roland let out a long breath.

Calmer now, the King looked around him with his usual gentle smile. “Well, then, Messires. Shall we ride against the Saracens together?”

Roland felt his body go limp with relief. He would have felt better if Louis were off on one of those ships. But at least now he is not taking a greater risk than the rest of us.

Roland’s steel-shod feet sank in the wet sand as he ran to the water’s edge to look for Perrin and Alezan.

Facing east, Amalric studied the beach carefully, systematically, beginning at the shoreline on his left and peering long at the brush and palm trees to his right. He was let down, disappointed. The enemy had suddenly disappeared. There was no one for him to fight.

His shadow on horseback stretched far before him on the rust-colored sand. He had been fighting for so many hours that his arms and legs ached. There was a sharp, stinging pain in his cheek where an arrow had grazed it.

He sat brooding in his saddle, recalling the fighting. Many skirmishes. Three fine charges by our side. Two Saracen counterattacks. Their horses are fast, but ours are heavier. They are deadly with those damned bows, but we are better at hand-to-hand fighting.

Where the devil have they got to?

There had been an eerie horn blast a few moments ago, and then the Saracens had all ridden away. All he could see now were the dead ones, their bodies scattered over the beach, distinguishable by the bright reds, greens, and yellows of their garb. Sunlight gleamed dully on the mail and helmets of slain Christians. The friars were already moving among them.

The Saracens had not ridden toward Damietta, but south, staying on this side of the river. He squinted, looking for bridges connecting the west bank with the east bank, where Damietta stood. He could not see any.

The glare from the wide mouth of the Nile hurt his eyes. The river gleamed like a sheet of copper under the afternoon sun. On the other side of the water the dun-colored walls of Damietta looked high and solid. He studied the defenses, noting that it was a triple wall surrounded by a moat, and the inner wall must be at least forty feet high. He counted seventeen square towers along the walls. It had taken the last crusaders a year to break into that place.

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