All Things Are Lights – Day 121 of 200

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.”

“Water only spreads the Greek fire.”

“True, but it thins out the stuff that burns and makes it easier to stamp out.”

That is a good mind at work, Roland thought. This man’s worth was as much in his ability to build as to fight.

A white-haired man appeared suddenly out of the blackness. He identified himself to a crossbowman and strolled toward Roland, his hand raised in greeting. Roland recognized him as Maurice, the old crusader Amalric had found in Damietta. He wore a purple tunic, as did most of Amalric’s men. His belt was adorned with silver, and the scabbard of his dagger was set with colored stones. Amalric treats him well, Roland thought.

“I came to look at your magnificent stone-casters, Monseigneur,” Maurice said, his smile revealing shrunken gums. “They are far bigger than any we had in my day when we sieged this city. I wager we shall reduce Mansura to dust on the morrow.”

“You should not be wandering around in the dark, old man,” Roland said brusquely. “We lose a few men to the Bedouins every night.”

Sorrow stabbed Roland as he thought of one of his own men, the second of his little company to die, his body discovered without a head outside Damietta.

“Yes, yes, the Sultan has promised them ten gold bezants for every Christian head,” Maurice said. “A fortune. But the Bedouin has not been born who can sneak up on me, Monseigneur. I have not stayed alive thirty years in this country without learning how to guard my back.”

Roland eyed the old man with dislike. He wanted him gone. He was Amalric’s man. Reason enough to distrust him.

And so fawning. He knows I am not a baron. Why does he keep calling me “Monseigneur”?

Perhaps, though, I do him injustice. After all, it is not his fault that Amalric was the one to find him. And a man cannot be a slave for so long without learning to act like a dog.

Still, he could not resist speaking harshly. “We have no need of you here, Master Maurice. And go back to your quarters after you leave us. Else, if the Bedouins do not take your head, our sentries may shoot you by mistake.”

“Yes, Monseigneur,” said Maurice, his blue eyes veiled. “Thank you and good night to you, Monseigneur.” He bowed and walked off, out of the ring of torchlight.

Roland stood with the sergeant a while longer. All seemed quiet enough, and he decided to go back to his tent.


The shrill cry came from the vicinity of the stone-caster at the other end of the row.

Then Roland heard the blood-chilling battle shrieks of the enemy. All night he had half expected this, that they would wait till now, just before dawn.

He drew his saber and ran toward the threatened spot. The sergeant pulled out his own two-handed sword and followed him.

The sentries had set up a wall of shields and were firing their crossbows out into the darkness. Two guards already lay dead, arrow-pierced, beside the man-high wooden wheel of the machine nearest Roland.

“Do not shoot unless you can see what you are shooting at,” the sergeant shouted angrily. “Stay down behind your shields.”

Roland peered beyond the torchlight. The Saracens’ irregular skirmish line was only a few yards away when he finally saw them. They wore the dark, billowing robes of Bedouins, the wild desert tribesmen of Outremer. They were charging on foot. He felt a kind of helpless fury. There could be hundreds out there in the night, more than it would take to overwhelm his little force.

He turned to the sergeant. “Get help!”

But there was no time. The Bedouins threw themselves at the crusaders, shouting the names of their clans. The crossbowmen fell back to reload, while Roland, the sergeant, and a few other guards with swords held their ground.

Roland found himself dueling with a small, fox-faced man. He was quick and agile, forcing Roland back with feints of his scimitar. From somewhere behind Roland a lance darted at his opponent, who jumped back and vanished in the blackness.

As he braced himself to meet the next attacker, Roland asked himself what these Arabs were trying to do here, armed as they were with nothing but bows and scimitars. He could hear the main camp rousing themselves to come to the defense of the siege engines.

“Hell’s fire!” he shouted. “A diversion!”

Even as it dawned on him, the first Greek-fire missile broke and splattered on the capstan of the machine at the opposite end of the line.

Suddenly scores of robed Egyptians were running into the lighted area around the machines. They were throwing pottery balls no bigger than a man’s fist at the casters, and the balls broke and burst into flame where they struck. Nearly every guard had rushed to Roland’s end, and the Saracens had overwhelmed the remaining few who had tried to resist them.

Now, along with the torchlight, there was firelight to see by.

In agony, Roland shouted again, “Get help!”

An arrow whistled out of the night and caught the sergeant in the chest. He fell face down, that good mind extinguished more easily than these fires would ever be.

All around him Roland heard shouts, the cry for help being taken up in the camp. But it was all over. Each of the six machines was burning furiously in dozens of places.

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