All Things Are Lights – Day 116 of 200

After a moment of hesitation Louis said, “Sire Roland, tell the envoys I must discuss this with my counselors. Make them comfortable.” Turning, he reentered the palace, followed by his brothers Charles and Robert and the other great barons.

Raoul de Coucy gripped Roland’s arm. “I may be back home with my wife in a month,” he said with a delighted grin. He hurried off to join the King’s council.

Roland felt his joy replaced by unease. He had not seen an answering eagerness in Louis’s face. The Sultan’s offer, of course, had to be discussed. They must make sure it was not a trick. And there would be arrangements and guarantees to settle.

Still, Louis should have shown some pleasure.

Did he want to go on fighting?

Roland determined to go in after Louis and speak for peace, if peace needed a spokesman.

He delivered the King’s response to the Mamelukes, who bowed and seated themselves cross-legged on the tiles. Politely but firmly they refused his offer of food and drink. Roland understood. They would not accept hospitality from an enemy. So courteous-seeming were they it was hard to think of them as enemies. Yet there was a strangeness in their calm that made Roland uneasy as he turned his back on them.

The audience hall of the palace was a large circular room, its vaulted ceiling held up by stone columns. Since Islam forbade the depicting of natural objects, the walls were decorated with mosaics in patterns so exquisitely detailed it hurt Roland’s eyes to look long at them. Sunlight slanted down from skylights, and whatever other illumination was needed was supplied by hanging oil lamps of filigreed brass.

When Louis first took over the palace, he had a table and many chairs moved into the hall. Now he sat in the chair with the tallest back, and the barons formed a circle around the table. Before them was spread a map of Egypt painted on a large parchment sheet. Tiles dug out of the wall rested on the four corners of the map to keep it from rolling up.

“It is only fifty leagues to Cairo,” Robert d’Artois, Louis’s eldest brother, was saying as Roland entered. “God has delivered the land of Egypt into our hands.”

Half the barons, it soon became apparent to Roland, wanted to march on Cairo. To them the Sultan’s willingness to bargain was at best a sign of weakness, and more probably he had no intention of fulfilling his promise.

Furthermore, though the avowed purpose of the crusade was to secure the holy places, these men, Roland saw, wanted more. They wanted to seize more land, to crush the Muslims.

Amalric put the views of these barons in a sentence: “Infidels are to be fought, sire, not bargained with.”

As one after the other spoke, Roland’s alarm grew greater. Not permitted to speak unless consulted, he struggled to contain himself.

One who urged acceptance of the Sultan’s offer was William de Sennac, grand master of the Knights Templar, Guido’s superior. “The fifty leagues between here and Cairo are as crowded with natural and human enemies as Hell is filled with devils,” the gray-bearded Templar warned. “The Nile may flood at any time now. If we advance, we are almost certain to be mired and destroyed. If we remain pent up in this city, the summer heat and the diseases of Egypt will take many lives. It is sensible to march on Cairo only when we can be sure of being stronger than the Egyptians.”

The grand master’s views were echoed by the King’s more cautious younger brother, Charles d’Anjou, by Raoul de Coucy, and by others.

The argument went on through the morning until the bell hung by monks in a minaret of Damietta’s great mosque rang the hour of Sext, the middle of the day.

Then the King spoke. “Many lives hang on what I decide,” Louis said. “It is my duty to listen to as many voices as possible. Sire Roland, you know much about the Saracens. What do you think of this offer?”

Roland felt as if his heart were swelling in his chest. Saint Michel, if ever I needed eloquence, I need it now.

He stepped forward to the table and looked at the faces around it. Amalric glared back. William de Sennac looked expectant. The King’s face was unreadable. Lord, how do I reach him?

“I believe the knights of Islam are proud men,” he began, “men of honor, who for the most part would rather die than break their word.”

“So we have found them,” agreed the Templar master.

Amalric snorted in disgust. “They are tricksters and thieves.”

Roland felt his face grow hot, but he held his anger in check.

“Sire,” he said, “I have talked with people who live here in Damietta, both Christian and Muslim. They all say that our victory here was an accident. Damietta could have held out against us for a year or more if a few officers of the city had not given way to panic when the Sultan’s army withdrew. The Sultan has had thirty of Damietta’s former officials strangled, I hear. So we should not think he is afraid of us or too weak to fight us.”

“Are we to listen,” Amalric sneered, “to rumors repeated by those who consort with infidels?”

Roland’s left hand twitched, wanting to go for his saber.

“I would not put it as you do, Count,” Louis said reasonably. “If one of our knights can learn from the people who live in this country, we should listen.”

But then Louis turned from Roland, and Roland had a terrible feeling that he had not said enough. Louis consulted others in the room. Roland was relieved to hear many agree that the next encounter with the Egyptians would not be so easy.

When he had listened to everyone, and some several times over, the King spoke. “I have been praying and thinking. It is true that it will weaken us to stay here in Damietta while the Nile is in flood. Not only the bodies of our men but their souls are in peril. We have been here only a week, and already I could not throw a stone in any direction from this palace without hitting a brothel.”

Roland joined in the general laughter.

Louis cut it short by staring about him sternly. He had not meant it as a joke.

Louis spoke on in the silence that followed his angry look. “It is also true that we cannot expect another easy victory the next time we meet the Egyptians — though I would prefer to call the capture of Damietta a miracle and thank God that so few lives were lost, rather than say it was an accident.”

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)