All Things Are Lights – Day 122 of 200

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.

No one had even touched the barrels of river water. And no one would. It was too late.

But he could not just stand there and watch. Even if he accomplished nothing he had to fight on.

He ran at one of the Egyptians, a bone-thin man in white robes who was calling upon Allah gleefully as he made ready to throw a ball of Greek fire. The man was not even carrying a sword. A dervish, one of the ecstatic Muslim holy men. Roland drove his saber into his heart.

As he died, the Egyptian flashed a white-toothed grin at Roland and smashed the fragile vessel on Roland’s mailed chest.

Roland screamed in pain and fear as the fire spread instantly over his tunic. The Egyptian, his hands burning, fell away, a beatific smile on his dead face.

I am going to die, Roland thought. Burned alive.

He dropped his saber and tore frantically at his tunic, but the flaming garment searing his chest would not come off.

He threw himself down on the sand and screamed as he felt the chain mail, almost red-hot, press into his flesh. He raised himself, and the fire flared up. Again he flattened himself, and forced himself to stay there despite the pain, beating out the tendrils of flame along his sides with his bare hands.

After a moment the pain was less. The fire was out.

He stood up, and the agony of his burns came back full force.

He staggered a few steps, then looked up at the stone-casters.

“Oh my God.”‘ he cried.

The machines were frameworks of pure fire. Every stick, every timber, was ablaze. He almost wished the fire had killed him.

He fell to his knees, sobbing. He had failed his King and his comrades.

Who would have guessed the Turks could make Greek fire vessels small enough for a man to hold in his hand and throw like a rock? Even Emperor Frederic had not known that.

The orange flames shot into the sky, high as a cathedral steeple.

How many times had Diane told him death was but a release from the sufferings of life? At this moment he wanted to throw himself on the nearest fire and burn up with the casters he had failed to save. Burn as she had burned.

No, I can try to keep fighting. Then maybe the next Muslim will kill me.

He had dropped his saber when he threw himself down. Now, as he bent over to pick it up, his burnt skin creased, and the pain was so terrible he came near to screaming again. Clenching his teeth he picked up the saber and looked about for those demons in long robes.

But no Saracens were to be seen, except a few who lay on the ground, stabbed or arrow-struck, beside the Christian dead. The Egyptians had done their work well and had vanished into the night. From afar Roland heard cries of rejoicing, thousands of voices raised across the river in Mansura.

A hand gripped his arm. “My God, your whole chest is black. How bad is it?” It was Guido, his bearded face lined in concern.

“It is the pain inside that is worst,” Roland said. “I have lost us the battle. Maybe the war.”

“Well, Messire,” another voice, full of contempt, broke in, “you seem to have done an excellent job of protecting our siege machines.” Amalric de Gobignon stalked out of the darkness to gaze at Roland with haughty amusement. “Could you not at least have managed to get yourself killed?”

Guido swung around to stare at Amalric. “Count, this man is badly hurt. If you want to provoke a fight, I am at your service.”

“You, Sire Templar, like this troubadour, have a way of turning up whenever calamity strikes. I wonder if you have some part in bringing it on.”

“Just what do you mean, Monseigneur?”

“I saw you at Beziers.”

“You saw me do no wrong there, or you would have spoken of it before this,” said Guido shortly, turning away.

Guido at Beziers? Surely I would have known if he had been there. The exchange made no sense to Roland.

Amalric was hoping I would be killed. And I, I swore to Nicolette I would stay alive and come back to her. And yet moments ago I wanted the Saracens to kill me. It is a disease, this yearning for death, and I can catch it as quickly as the next man.

Slowly Roland’s knees buckled, and Guido held his arms and lowered him to the ground.

Roland looked up and saw Perrin standing over him.

Always there when I need him. But the fires are blazing up. And I must save Diane.

From a great distance, he heard Guido’s voice say, “Get that hauberk off him, Perrin. We need to tend his burns.”

I vow to your memory, burnt ones, that I will do whatever I can to put an end to such evils as this.

Who said that?

Perrin is hurt. Guido has brought him. We must help him. He is burned.

“Where is Diane?” Roland said. “She knows what to do for burns.”

“Hush, master,” said Perrin.

Roland’s vision cleared, and he saw Amalric’s face staring down at him, full of rage or astonishment, Roland could not distinguish.

I was delirious, he thought. I spoke of Diane in front of Amalric. Now he will be sure I had Hughes killed.

Perrin had his dagger out and was cutting away Roland’s burned tunic and the lacings of his mail shirt. Another figure swam into Roland’s ken. It was the King.

Roland struggled to rise.

“Stay as you are, Sire Roland,” said Louis, “in God’s name.” His voice shook with grief. “Why did I not listen to you? You warned me this could happen.”

Roland was weeping. “Sire, I know you can never forgive me, but —“

“Be still, Sire Roland,” said Louis. “There is no blame in this for you. It is I who have been careless. I laid an impossible task on you.”

“Sire,” Amalric said, “an idiot could have seen that the first Bedouin attack was only a trick to draw the guards away. This fellow led his whole troop in the wrong direction. He is supposed to know so much about Saracens. I say he should be tried and punished.”

Louis turned on Amalric. “How do you know all this, then, Count? About first attacks and second attacks. Were you here? And if you were, why were you not fighting?”

“My man Maurice, the crusader we liberated at Damietta, he saw it all, sire.”

Maurice, Roland thought. He saw the Egyptians attack and went running gleefully to tell his master. Toothless old dog.

“The King should be punished first of all,” said Louis in a dull voice, “for not having assigned more men to guard our machines.” His tone changed, became brisker. “But do you know what this means, Amalric? The Egyptians were able to come at us from behind with their Greek fire in the night. There must be a place near here where the river can be forded. I say once more, if a man can find a way for me to cross this river and attack Mansura, I will make him Constable of France.”

Perrin had cut all the lacings of Roland’s hauberk and was about to pull the chain mail away from the burnt, blistered flesh. “Easy now, master,” he said softly. Gently he began to lift the links of mail away from Roland’s chest.

“Do it quickly, Perrin,” Roland said, gritting his teeth. Perrin pulled. In an instant the pain blazed up beyond Roland’s bearing. Then he saw Diane and Nicolette standing together, smiling at him.

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