All Things Are Lights – Day 123 of 200

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.

XXIV

The silver wolf’s head glistened, the lance point glowed blood-red in the firelight, the black charger’s hooves shook the ground.

Nicolette was right in Amalric’s path. She was naked, tied to a stake, a shimmering ring of flame surrounding her. Roland struggled to reach her, crawling up an endless hill. Amalric was almost upon her, the lance aimed straight at her heart. Roland reached for his sword. His scabbard was empty. His body was all he had to stop Amalric. He threw himself in front of the black war-horse. Now the lance point was aimed at him. It struck him, pierced him.

“Master!”

Perrin was shaking his right shoulder. His tortured bones ached fiercely. Perrin was usually careful not to touch that shoulder. Something must have excited him.

“Is it an attack?” Roland’s heart pounded fiercely, still in the thralldom of his terror for Nicolette. He felt the pain of the dream lance in his breast.

“No, master. The King has sent for you.”

“What is the hour?”

“Past midnight, master. Dawn is still far off.”

No peace in sleep, no peace waking, he thought. A melancholy had hung over him since the night the stone-casters burned. It was so deep now that he had to force himself to move.

The skin of his chest still hurt when touched, though it had had two months to heal. He wondered if Nicolette, back in Damietta, had heard about the loss of the siege machines. And if she had, how did she feel toward her troubadour now?

If only he had kept his guards spread out. If only he had been quicker to get help. If only he had tried harder to persuade the King to put more men on guard.

He cursed himself. We shall all die here in this damned Egyptian swamp because of me.

On his way to the King’s tent he felt groggy. He had been sleeping for only a few hours. The night air was cold, as it always was in this desert country, but he wore only tunic, hose, and boots. Back home, the mountain passes would be blocked with snow this time of year.

Before the King’s tent he descried, standing in the orange light of a big campfire, nearly two dozen figures wearing fur pellisons against the night’s chill. Near the fire the Oriflamme hung, glistening gold like a dragon’s skin. Roland saw figures coming out of the darkness from all directions, converging on the King’s pavilion.

Louis stood bareheaded at the doorway of his tent. He had on a long white linen robe with a huge red cross sewn on the chest. To Roland he looked like a warrior monk. After months in Egypt Louis was even thinner than usual, and his sunburned skin was mottled red and white. He seemed elongated and fragile, like a statue of a Biblical king.

One of the friars who traveled with the King checked Roland’s name off a list as he joined the semicircle of knights.

Shortly after Roland’s arrival the friar reported that the men sent for were all present. Roland looked around the circle of firelight and saw that the men were important barons and knights close to the King. He noticed Robert d’Artois; William Longsword, the English earl; William de Sennac, grand master of the Knights Templar; and Raoul de Coucy.

Roland saw Guido Bruchesi standing near his superior. Guido waved, and Roland, feeling cheered to see him, waved back.

Louis beckoned to someone behind him. To Roland’s surprise, Amalric de Gobignon emerged from the royal pavilion to stand beside the King. He, too, had grown leaner in Egypt, but he still seemed three times heavier than Louis. His face was the brown of a seasoned oak log, making his sun-bleached fair hair look almost white.

“Many of you have heard me say that I would make any man Constable of France if he could show me the way across the Nile,” Louis began. “Behold now our new Constable of France.”

Roland shut his eyes and forced himself to keep from groaning aloud. It was almost as if Amalric had succeeded in making himself King. Now he was commander of all the armies. His word final, his plans to be followed. No one could gainsay him.

Oh, Louis, Louis, how could you be such a trusting lamb? Amalric’s hatred is not for me alone. Fear, not so much for himself, but for the army and the kingdom, flooded through Roland. Fear and hopelessness.

And anger. He almost deserves to lose his throne. I should never have come on this crusade.

The King said much in praise of Amalric, then asked him to explain how he had discovered a way across the Nile.

Amalric stepped forward with a confident smile. “You have all heard that the Sultan had many officers of the Egyptian garrison at Damietta strangled for abandoning the city. It happens that one of those executed was the former Saracen master of my man Maurice. A kinsman of Maurice’s dead master holds high position in Mansura. Maurice slipped a message to him through the Saracen lines. The Saracen pigs are like us in one respect, they are loyal to family. As we hoped, this Egyptian Maurice wrote to wants to avenge himself on the Sultan. Today, before dawn, he will guide us to a place where it is shallow enough for men on horseback to cross the river. It is three leagues south of here. All of you present here have been chosen to be in the first troop of the army to go over.” Amalric bowed graciously to the King.

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