All Things Are Lights – Day 118 of 200

Roland stood staring at the dust cloud the three riders left behind. He whispered to himself the Arabic word for victory.

“Mansura.”

XXIII

Heat and weariness weighed on Roland as he walked through the crusader camp to the King’s tent. He stopped as his path came to the river’s edge. The tents of the crusaders stretched northward along the bank. Their once bright colors were faded to a muddy grey-brown after the months of campaigning, and the camp looked like a field of rust-colored mushrooms that had sprung out of the dampness of the Nile Delta. Upstream were the pathetic remains of the bridge of boats the crusaders had tried so desperately to build. Now there was nothing except a few blackened ribs of galleys protruding grotesquely above the water.

He watched the brown Nile flow, over a thousand feet wide here, oblivious to the crusaders. Across the river the yellow brick walls of Mansura curved in and out along the bank. In this flat country they looked as formidable as high mountains. Sturdy, square towers rose at intervals along the walls. To the north and east of the city Roland could see rich green fields where the Egyptian peasants, the fellahin, worked on as usual, ignoring the invaders across the river and supplying Mansura with all the provender it needed.

Could this truly be January? How amazing that crops here never stopped growing. The sun was as hot as August in Languedoc.

He slapped at the flies that kept settling on his face, drawn by his sweat.

It is only fifty leagues to Cairo, he could hear Robert d’Artois saying just after they took Damietta in June of twelve hundred and forty-nine — six months ago. It has taken us that long to cover half of those fifty leagues. And now they have stopped us at Mansura. A month now in this one spot.

Mansura — victory. Just as well I have not told anyone what that name means.

He came to the King’s yellow and blue tent, and the two equerries on guard saluted him. He went in, grateful for the cool shade, and bowed to the King. Louis gestured him to a cushion.

The King lay, exhausted and ill, on a Turkish divan brought by river galley from Damietta. Sweat plastered his long blond hair to his brow. His eyes were a sickly pink, the lids edged with red, symptoms of an affliction that ran through the whole crusader host. Some men, Roland knew, had already gone blind from it. A small Egyptian boy fanned flies away from Louis.

“I had heard the Saracens practice witchcraft, but until I saw that fire weapon destroy our bridge today I did not believe it.” The King spoke with almost no voice, feebly, sadly.

“It is not quite witchcraft, sire,” Roland said. “It is a work of alchemy.”

“Alchemy?” Louis asked. “What do you know of it, de Vency?”

“It is a weapon devised by the Greeks of Constantinople,” Roland said, “a mixture of oils and other substances. The exact formula is secret. It burns hotter than ordinary fire, sticks to whatever it touches, and cannot be put out. I saw it demonstrated once at the Emperor’s court.”

Louis looked surprised. “You mean Frederic uses this? I never heard that.”

Roland shook his head, recalling how Greek fire had shocked even the German ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a man with neither fears nor scruples.

“He will never use it, sire. Too destructive, he says.”

“How true!” said Louis, clenching his fist. “And though this Greek fire be not the work of witches, it still must surely be inspired by the Devil. I think of our poor fellows burned to death on the bridge this morning, and I cannot stop crying. Did you see it? Even the water seemed to burn.” He stopped and wiped tears from his inflamed eyes. “If only I could get at those heathen savages, get across this river and meet them man to man. If there were a man who could show me a way across this river, I would declare him Constable of France. I must end this war.”

Roland felt a flash of resentment. Bitter words sprang to his lips: You could have ended it half a year ago! But it was too late for that now.

They were at the turning point, he knew. The Egyptians had brought all their strength to bear at Mansura. If Louis broke the Saracens here, he could drive on to Cairo and win. But with every passing day the Egyptians grew stronger and the crusaders weaker. If the enemy could hold Louis here long enough, they would destroy him.

“We all want the war to end, sire,” he said quietly.

“To think of my beloved Marguerite waiting there in Damietta, guarded by only a handful of knights,” Louis said, his mind plainly having taking another turn. “Have I told you she is with child?” He smiled tenderly. “Even in the midst of war, life goes on.”

And if you loved life more than your damned holy war, Roland thought, you would lead all of us out of here today.

Thinking how deep his own love of life ran reminded Roland of his last night with Nicolette. The next day — six months ago now — the crusaders had begun their march up the Nile. Amalric had already left, riding ahead with the vanguard, and Nicolette and Roland had decided that, just this once, they must break their pledge not to meet again in Outremer. These might be the last moments they would ever share with each other.

An Egyptian serving woman Nicolette had hired told her about a secret place among the islands of the Nile Delta. On a certain island, she said, were the ruins of a temple, once dedicated to a great Goddess. Good Muslim that she was, she made a warding-off motion with her thumb and little finger. But despite her gesture she admitted to Nicolette that sometimes women of Damietta went to that island after dark to ask for aid in matters of love.

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