All Things Are Lights – Day 124 of 200

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.

Chosen? Who chose me? Roland wondered. Was it Amalric who selected me, as he suggested me to guard the casters? Roland remembered Amalric’s face when he came out of his delirium after mentioning Diane. He wants me dead.

Then will this river crossing win us the victory we hope for?

No, thought Roland, his heart chilled by foreboding. Not if Amalric has devised this. He looked at de Gobignon, standing proudly beside Louis, his arms folded across his purple and gold tunic. Even more than he wants my death, Amalric wants to destroy the King. And Maurice, that gray bird of ill omen who appeared just before the burning of the casters; if he is in on this, there is surely doom in it.

But it may have been Louis who chose me.

In spite of his doubts, eagerness tingled through Roland’s limbs. This could be my chance to redeem myself. If I were in the vanguard, if I fought well, if we took Mansura…

The disgrace of the burnt stone-casters would be erased.

He wanted to go. He wanted to believe that this fording of the river could lead to victory.

Then he remembered. Victory. Mansura.

Whose victory? Ours or theirs?

“Does any man need to know more?” Louis asked.

The men standing around the King shifted from one booted foot to another and looked at each other, their faces ruddy in the firelight. No one spoke. They were ready to go, Roland realized. After three months of camping in the mud, they were dying for battle.

I cannot just allow my suspicions to go unvoiced, Roland thought. I owe it to Louis to speak up. It is all too easy.

But they would sneer at him, he knew. They wanted to fight. They wanted to hear nothing of doubts.

He could not bring himself to speak. The silence stretched on. He listened to the ancient Nile burbling past the camp, smelled its dank smell, heard the distant call of a Saracen guard across the river.

Are you a coward as well as a fool? he asked himself. Are you truly afraid to raise your voice in this company of great seigneurs? More men’s lives could well be lost because of your silence. A cold breeze rustled the dry palm fronds overhead.

He took a deep breath. This was harder than riding out to face Saracen swordsmen. He stepped forward, out of the circle, moving closer to the fire. The ring of hard, bright faces, eager for battle, turned toward him.

“Sire,” he said, his throat constricted, “what assurance do we have that this is not simply an ambush?”

He heard an irritated mutter run through the gathering of barons and knights.

Amalric glowered across the fire at Roland. “Do you think your King has not considered that? If you are afraid to come with us, by all means stay behind, Messire. Tell me, have you written a song yet about your glorious defense of our stone-casters?” This brought a roar of laughter from the knights and barons, and Roland felt fire in his cheeks.

Louis stepped between Amalric and Roland, his white robe rustling. “Count, your baiting of this loyal knight distresses me. I am pleased with you tonight. Please do not do anything to mar my feeling. Remember, your appointment is not final until our army has successfully crossed the river.”

Roland unclenched his fists, wishing the King had not intervened. If only I could challenge Amalric. If I could kill him it would rid Louis of a deadly danger and lift the burden of hatred that weighs ever on my heart.

He looked past the King into Amalric’s eyes and knew that de Gobignon wanted to fight him, too. Amalric shrugged his shoulder, making his fur-trimmed cloak fall away from his arm and his sword.

Holding Amalric’s eyes, Roland said, “With your permission, sire, I repeat my question. How do we know this is not a trap?”

Amalric answered, not addressing Roland, but speaking to the standing circle of barons and knights. “The renegade Egyptian tells us that the bulk of the Saracen army is encamped in the suburbs south of Mansura. We will be able to see them when we cross the river. If they show signs of being ready for us, we will know.”

“I do not intend to send the greater part of the army across the river until I know it is safe,” said Louis. “Led by Amalric and my good Robert” — he held out his hand and smiled affectionately at his tall young brother, Robert d’Artois — “you will cross as quickly as possible. A thousand mounted knights will follow you. After sunrise, when you have assembled across the river and scouted the countryside between the ford and Mansura, you will set up a defensive line at the ford to hold that end of the crossing. Then I will lead the rest of the army across.”

The King raised a warning hand. “On no account are you to fight with the enemy until all our forces are across. When our army crosses, we will storm Mansura. We cannot hope to take the city from the Saracens unless we attack it with our entire strength at once.” He smiled. “Today is Fat Tuesday. God willing, we shall hold carnival in Mansura.”

“And then, on to Cairo!” Amalric shouted.

“On to Cairo!” the assembled knights shouted back.

A surprising feeling of hope came over Roland. A sudden attack like this might just do it. The bulk of the Sultan’s army was facing them here. If they defeated these Egyptians, they could take Cairo.

He desperately wanted to believe that this river crossing would bring them victory, and that he could be part of it.

A great yearning for life seized him, and he saw Nicolette, glowing warm like the sun. They will not kill me. Not Amalric, not the whole Saracen army. Nicolette, I am going to get back to you if I have to cut my way through all of Egypt to do it!

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