All Things Are Lights – Day 114 of 200

He rode through a maze of blank, plastered walls, trying not to think about the pots of boiling oil, the arrows, the rocks, the daggers that might await him in these crooked streets. He had heard on Cyprus that the Saracens had a weapon called Greek fire, a substance that would burst into flame on striking its target, a flame that clung to its victim and could not be put out.

A city like this, he told himself, would be a perfect place to trap and destroy a whole army. But Damietta seemed empty of all life, save occasional packs of stray dogs.

After what seemed hours of riding, with his flesh sweating under his hauberk, his arm aching from holding his sword at the ready, and every sense strained, he turned a corner and found himself looking at a plaza and, beyond it, a Muslim temple. The spires he had used as landmarks rose above the mosque’s majestic blue dome. The very splendor of the building made Amalric want, all the more, to burn it down. But, of course, our good priests will want to turn it into a church. Oh, Hugues, if only you could be here to say a mass in this conquered temple.

In the center of the plaza huddled the first people he had seen in Damietta, a small group of men, women, and children. He tightened his grip on his sword.

At the sight of Amalric and his men all the people fell to their knees, except for a gray-bearded man in a black robe, who held up a cross on a long staff. Amalric felt a stab of disappointment.

Could they be Christians? Behind the people a fountain splashed pleasantly, reminding Amalric of how thirsty the heat and fighting had made him.

One man detached himself from the group in the plaza and ran to throw himself facedown in the dust in front of Amalric’s horse.

“Blessed be you who come in the name of our Seigneur!” he cried.

“Who are you?” Amalric demanded, pointing his longsword at the prostrate man’s back, lest he turn out to be a killer disguised as a supplicant. But would a Saracen be speaking French?

The man raised his head. His face, marked by networks of tiny wrinkles, was brown as any Egyptian’s, but his eyes were pale blue. When he opened his mouth to speak, Amalric saw that he had no front teeth.

“I am called Maurice, Monseigneur. I come from the town of Vailly. I was a foot soldier in John de Brienne’s army, which came here I do not know how many years ago. When we lost the war at Mansura, the damned Mamelukes made a slave of me.”

“Who are these others?” Amalric asked.

“They are Coptics — Egyptian Christians — who welcome you and beg your protection, Monseigneur.”

His disappointing suspicion confirmed, Amalric bowed curtly to the gray-bearded man in the black robe, the priest, who moved his right hand in a gesture of blessing.

“Where is the Egyptian army?” he asked Maurice.

“Gone, Monseigneur. A few hours ago they withdrew up the Nile. The authorities here — of whom my master was one — became frightened. They thought the army was abandoning them. They set fire to the arsenal, the granaries, and the bazaars, and they rode away — so swiftly that I was able to hide and stay behind. Everyone except these Christians fled with the garrison. They were afraid for their lives.”

As well they should have been, thought Amalric.

Then a vast relief swept over him. Slowly he sheathed his sword and flexed the arm at last freed from that great weight. No ambush. No fight at all. The city is ours. Mine. Thank Saint Dominic!

“Damietta is yours, Monseigneur,” old Maurice echoed his thought, throwing his arms wide. He began laughing and sobbing all at once, tears streaking the wrinkled face. “Forgive me, Monseigneur. You are the first Frenchman I have talked to since I was captured so long ago.”

It occurred to Amalric that it could be useful to have a man in his service who had lived among the Egyptians for many years. Louis, after all, had de Vency and the Templars to interpret for him. One never knew when discreet communication with the enemy might be necessary.

He climbed down from his horse and beckoned to d’Etampes.

“Secure that mosque. And send a party to set my banner in the highest tower of the city, where the King and our army can see it.”

In a moment, Amalric was alone with Maurice.

“Master Maurice, you may stand up. Can you speak the Saracen tongue?”

“I can,” said Maurice as he slowly and shakily got to his feet. “My master put me in command of all his house slaves, because I had been a soldier. To do my work, I had to speak to them. Tell me, Monseigneur, have you come with an army great enough to conquer all of Egypt?”

“That is our aim, God willing,” said Amalric piously.

“And how many are you, Monseigneur?”

Amalric shrugged. “One cannot be exact. We lose some men and gain others every day. But I would say we are nearly six thousand knights and ten thousand men on foot.”

Maurice clapped his hands and laughed. “A mighty army! God be praised! No wonder the Turks fled. Are you the leader of this great crusade, Monseigneur?”

“I am Amalric, Count de Gobignon. He who leads us is the King of France.”

“I suppose the great Philippe Auguste, who was King when I left France, does not still live?”

“Alas, no,” said Amalric, making himself look grave. “Our King now is his grandson. As it happens, I, too, am a grandson of Philippe Auguste, on my mother’s side.” Maurice looked awed, and Amalric was gratified.

“This King is a rather different piece of work from Philippe Auguste,” Amalric went on. “I fear you will be sorry to learn more of him. He is a friend to heretics.”

Maurice looked shocked. “To heretics? A crusading King? How is that possible?”

D’Etampes was coming back from the mosque now.

“I cannot explain more here and now, Master Maurice. I will tell you about this King when we are able to speak in private.” Amalric turned to d’Etampes. “See that this good old crusader is treated with high honor, Sire Guy. I want you personally to escort him back to our camp. And then you can carry my compliments to the King. Say to him that it is safe to enter the city.”

Maurice of Vailly went back to the little group of Christians around their priest to tell them about his conversation with Amalric. As he did so, Amalric called d’Etampes back.

“Keep that man under your eye at all times, Sire Guy. Make sure he speaks to no one at our camp except you and me.”

D’Etampes saluted and rode off to get a horse for the old man.

Now, thought Amalric, to find the biggest mansion in the city, before the rest arrive. That is the least I deserve for taking this risk.

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