All Things Are Lights – Day 120 of 200

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.”

Roland felt a hot flush of anger rise to his cheeks. “That will do as much good as water from the river there.”

Shocked at his own temerity, Roland cursed himself for his too-quick tongue.

Louis looked surprised, then amused. He laughed.

“You men of Languedoc are too skeptical for your own good. Happy are we who believe in miracles.”

“I will not fail you, sire,” Roland promised. “But the Egyptians are all around us. An attack might come from anywhere.”

Louis’s smile faded. “You are overly fearful, Messire. If the Saracens were minded to, they could have attacked our machines on the road from Damietta. They are less likely to attack now that the casters are safely in our camp.”

“Then I would advise you to put the whole camp on alert, sire,” Roland persisted, stung at having his courage questioned.

“I plan to launch a general attack tomorrow,” Louis said, waving his hand irritably, “after the casters have done their work. I want the men well rested.” He looked earnestly at Roland. “Sire Roland, I know Count Amalric must have suggested you out of ill will. I chose to follow his advice, however, because you are our best man for this task. I do not think you will be killed, but it is my duty to send men into peril of death. I will have my own men watching over you. If there is any treachery here, Amalric will pay.”

“I understand, sire.” He knew that if he argued anymore, he would be thought trying to shirk the responsibility.

But Roland could envision the vessels of Greek fire flying across the river with a whistling roar. He could see the flaming liquid splash on those great wooden machines. And his body broke out in cold sweat.

Roland stared fixedly into the flame. The black ring painted around the hour-marked candle turned to gray liquid and ran down in waxen rivulets that hardened again, sullying the whiteness.

Time to visit my sentries again.

He stood up. The Nile dampness made his right shoulder ache. He stepped out of his little tent that stood on a hummock overlooking the line of casters. The stars above were snowflakes of white fire.

He felt somewhat reassured that the wooden walls and rows and rows of tents of the entire camp lay between the stone-casters and the Nile. He was pleased that he had talked Louis into having the casters dragged to the far side of the camp. Louis had ordered that the engines be grouped together for the night beyond the range of the enemy’s fire-throwers. A detachment from the main camp, headed by Roland, would encircle the stone-casters, making a smaller camp to protect them.

It had been a grueling job, and Roland would have liked it better if they could have kept bombarding Mansura’s walls all night, but they had run out of stones.

Still, it had been a fine feeling when they had scored a direct hit on a fire-thrower!

He smiled in the night, remembering. The thump as the counterweight smashed into the soft earth. The boulder, big as a wine cask, tumbling through the air above the river. It had seemed to fly ever so slowly. He had held his breath.

Then, at the very end of its descent, it appeared to speed up.

The Saracens never moved, perhaps paralyzed with fear.

The boulder had crashed down. Splinters of the Saracen machine flew in all directions.

Roland roared with delight, and the whole crusader camp had cheered.

Then vessels of Greek fire around the crushed machine had broken open, spilling their horrid contents, turning a troop of Egyptians into living torches.

That had made him think of Diane, and of Mont Segur, and sorrow overcame triumph.

“Who comes?” a guard challenged him.

“The Sire de Vency.”

The sergeant, one of the engineers who had built the stone-casters and were now operating them, saluted. “Still up, Sire Roland? You can rest easy now. It will be dawn in another few hours, and no infidel has dared approach our big girls.” He looked affectionately up at the nearest of the huge engines. They all had names, Roland knew, Alix, Beatrice, and Iolanthe among them.

“These are the darkest hours,” Roland said. “We have enemy territory on all sides. So keep a sharp watch.” He eyed the line of torches, tied to high poles short distances apart, surrounding the casters. “Keep those torches burning and replace any that go out, so no one gets close without your seeing them. But remember, the light on our machines makes it hard to see into the darkness beyond.”

The sergeant gestured to his men, standing with crossbows at the edge of the lighted area, and to the surviving seven of the ten men Roland had brought with him on the crusade.

“Any Saracen who tries to sneak up on us will be turned into a pincushion, Messire. We can handle anything except that fire weapon of theirs. Thank Saint Genevieve, we destroyed it, and we are out of range now if they try to bring up another. In any case, I have set casks of river water near each machine.”

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