All Things Are Lights – Day 135 of 200

Roland heard his name from the Mameluke’s lips with a small shock. How strange that this man of a barbarian race should have found it out.

I must walk a fine line with this man. If I frustrate him, he will kill me. But if I tell him too much I could hurt King Louis.

“There is little I can say about myself, Lord Baibars. I am a troubadour, a maker of songs, a poor knight, a vassal of the King of the Franks.”

“And as a vassal of the King of the Franks, were you obliged to invade my country?”

Roland tensed himself. The atmosphere in the room was like the air before a thunderstorm. He cast another quick glance around the room to see whether he was dealing only with Baibars, or if there were other high-ranking Egyptians about. He saw only warriors and servants.

I had best be honest, he thought, but not say everything. “We are here because you seized Jerusalem, Lord.”

“Jerusalem!” Baibars exclaimed. “It draws you Franks as a mirage draws travelers in the desert. I am glad, though, that you came to make war on us.” He smiled broadly, but without mirth, baring strong teeth under the red mustache. “I was delighted, as you saw, when your King refused to bargain with our late Sultan.”

Then it is true, Roland thought. The Sultan is dead.

Excitement flickered through his weary body. I have not told him anything important yet, but he has just told me something very important. Perhaps I can learn more from this Mameluke commander.

“Why do you prefer war to peace with us, lord?” Roland asked boldly.

The gaze of the single eye fixed Roland like the point of a dagger. “I commanded our army at Gaza. There we destroyed the Franks and their allies of Damascus and Jordan. And then I went on and took Jerusalem. It was I, Baibars al-Bundukdari, who took Jerusalem from you infidels. I did not like to see my master, the Sultan, offer to give the city back to you. But I want more than Jerusalem. I wish to defeat your King in battle. I wish to wage war on you Christians until I have taken all your cities in Palestine and Syria, leveled your castles, torn down your churches, and cut the throats of your priests. Until I have driven every Christian out of the lands of Islam forever.”

“Christians will never stop fighting for Jerusalem, lord,” Roland said. “It means as much to us as Mecca does to you.”

Somewhere in the streets outside, horns, drums, and cymbals were playing parade music, and crowds were cheering. The Mamelukes who had come to relieve the threatened city today must be enjoying the applause of its people.

Baibars held up a long, tapering finger. “You are wrong. Most of you Christians have already given up Jerusalem. Tell me, when your King Louis began to talk of this crusade, did the Pope approve? Did the Emperor Frederic? What of those close to him, such as the Queen Mother and the great Frankish nobles, the lords of Coucy and Gobignon, Champagne and Toulouse? Did they greet your King’s call for a holy war with shouts of joy?”

Roland was amazed at Baibars’ knowledge of the Christian world. He had gone to very great lengths to learn about his enemies.

Tension knotted Roland’s stomach. Am I going to add to his knowledge and make him even more dangerous?

“I think you know the answer to your questions, lord.”

“Yes,” said Baibars with a satisfied smile. “No one in Europe wanted this war except your King. Long ago, the first of you crusaders took Jerusalem, and you held it for over a hundred years. Then you lost it to the great Saladin, on whom be peace. The Emperor Frederic regained it by treaty. And then you lost it again, to me. By now very few Christians really care enough about Jerusalem to fight for it. King Louis may be the last. Tell me, what sort of man is he?”

Cold with fear of a misstep, Roland remained silent, thinking carefully. He must not say anything that would give Baibars an advantage over the King.

“I think,” Roland said slowly, “that if he were an ordinary man and not King, he would still be one of a kind. He believes more deeply in the truth of his religion than any other Christian I know.”

A sudden breeze rustled the hangings in the room, rattled the beaded curtains and made the lamps flicker. It was going to be a cold night, especially for the prisoners.

“As a Christian, such a man is wasted,” said Baibars. “Go on.”

“The King is not some impractical holy man, though,” Roland said, “with his eyes fixed on the next world. He works at being King the way a master mason works at planning and building castles and cathedrals. In planning this war he has moved slowly and carefully, and his preparations have been as complete as he could make them. He does not want to shed blood unnecessarily. He does not hate Islam. He only wants Jerusalem, because to us it is a holy city. If you could strike a bargain with him, you could trust him to keep faith with you forever.”

Baibars sat back and laughed deep in his throat. “A bargain? Yield Jerusalem to him? Every inch of Islam’s soil is sacred to us, and to us Jerusalem is also a holy city. Do you not know that it is the place from which the Prophet ascended into Heaven? Until no Christian feet tread our land, we will not rest.”

Roland shook his head sadly. “Think of all the lives it will cost, on your side as well as ours.”

Baibars laughed again. “What better way to spend lives than in war? As I said to you at Damietta, Allah delights in war.”

Roland felt his body sag. “What will happen will happen.”

“What will happen,” Baibars said, “will happen as Allah decrees, Roland de Vency. Allah will show that he is the only God by giving his people victory. You have undertaken to learn our language. Now, why do you not learn our faith? You are a man of wit, of learning, and of noble qualities. I have need of men such as you.”

A strange mixture of emotions flickered through Roland as he heard this. He is proposing that I convert to Islam and betray my people. If I say no, will he have me killed, like our poor men-at-arms?

He felt sweat break out on his forehead, even though the night air was chill.

I could never embrace Islam. These contending religions all seem to me equally true and equally false. But I would rather die than betray Louis.

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