All Things Are Lights – Day 119 of 200

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.

“The ruins are on high ground,” she said. “You can see the city from there. It is easy to see if someone is coming. But the grasses around the temple are tall, and anyone within it is hidden from sight.”

Roland and Nicolette took a small boat, which Roland poled through the reed-bordered canals that crisscrossed the delta marshes. The crescent moon was rising over the east as they set out. By the time they found the island the moon had traveled about a quarter of the way along its path through the night sky.

They made love against the base of a broken white column, under the huge, bright stars of Egypt. Later they felt the carvings in the marble with their fingertips, wondering what deeds of the Goddess the ancients had portrayed here.

“When you are gone, I will come to this place from time to time and think of you,” said Nicolette. She took his hands in hers, and her grip on them was so tight it hurt.

“I will think of you wherever I am,” he said.

“I am so frightened,” she whispered.

“You will have us between you and the Turks,” he said, trying to give her a reassurance he did not feel himself.

“It is you I am afraid for,” she said. “If anything happens to you I will not care if the Turks kill me.”

Now he tightened his own grip. “Listen well to me.” A sudden anger against all the dying he had seen boiled within him. “I will not hear any talk from you of not caring. This readiness to die is a plague. Louis and his whole host have come out here prepared to die. Enough. I want to live, and I want you to live. I am going to stay alive and come back to you. And you are going to stay alive and wait for me. That is my vow to you, and I demand that you vow the same to me.”

She pulled her hands free and her arms went around him again. “Yes, my darling, yes. In this place sacred to the Goddess, let us vow to each other to live.”

“I have asked my counselors their advice,” Louis said, breaking in on Roland’s reverie. “My cousin, Count Amalric, proposed that we rebuild the bridge, using stone instead of wood.”

“Stone is difficult to find in these marshlands, sire. And even if we could gather enough of it, the Saracens would bombard the workers with their Greek fire. We would lose a dozen men for every foot of bridge we built.”

“The Count de Gobignon said we should force the fellahin to build the bridge. I declared that would be unworthy of Christian knights. Just as unworthy as this Greek fire would be, if we were to use it.”

Except that Greek fire was invented by Christians, Roland thought. But he held his tongue.

Louis stood up. He led Roland out of the tent, and the afternoon sun struck Roland’s head like a blast of the terrible Greek fire. They were on a narrow point of land between the Nile and a broad canal which joined it at Mansura. Here near the water greenery grew lush, but less than a league to the east or the west, Roland knew, there was only desert.

Beyond the tents Roland spied a line of huge wooden machines, like strange, long-necked beasts out of Africa, trundling on wooden wheels along the riverbank. Long lines of oxen were drawing them.

The stone-casters. Louis had sent for them a month ago, when the crusaders had reached Mansura. It had taken the engineers in Damietta this long to build and transport them here.

They were so big and powerful that at the sight of them Roland felt a new hope stirring within him. These great engines might turn the siege of Mansura — and thereby the crusade — in their favor.

“That is the only way we can strike at those devils now, with those,” said Louis. “No, no bridge of stones. But we will hurl stones at them. Our machines, praise God, are bigger and more powerful than any the Egyptians have. With them we shall lay down a barrage so fierce that our men will be able to cross in boats.”

“Our stone-casters, alas, do have a weakness, sire,” Roland said. “They are made of wood.”

And where in this marshland are we going to find enough ammunition for them? he wondered.

“True, and it will be late in the day before all six of them are in position,” said Louis. “Tonight they may be terribly vulnerable to attack. But again, my cousin Amalric had a suggestion. You, of all the knights in this camp, know most about the Saracens. That is why I sent for you. As Amalric proposed, you shall be in charge of the guard to protect our casters from enemy attack.”

Roland felt a falling sensation in his stomach. Amalric had sentenced him to almost certain death. The Saracens were sure to attack.

“Sire, I shall do my best, but there is no protection against Greek fire.”

Louis smiled imperturbably. “Be it God’s will, we may destroy the enemy’s fire-thrower this afternoon. If not, I will have our stone-casters sprinkled with water from the holy well of Saint Denis. If there is aught of the Devil’s work about this Greek fire, that may help keep it off.”

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