All Things Are Lights – Day 136 of 200

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.

Baibars sat expectantly, looking catlike in the wavering lamplight. The night breeze blew through the drapery, and the silent guards and slaves shifted their feet. The whole room seemed to be waiting.

Roland composed himself, smiling at Baibars to show that he had no fear. “Will you kill me if I do not submit to Islam? Make a slave of me if I do?”

Baibars waved the suggestion away with a large, powerful hand, fingers twinkling with pearls and diamonds. “I despise those who accept Allah out of fear of death. As for being a slave, I am a slave, as all Mamelukes are. Yet I am also commander of the Sultan’s army. Sole commander, now that Fakr ad-Din is dead.”

Ah, Guido was right, Roland thought. Baibars is pleased that I killed Fakr ad-Din.

“I was not born a Muslim, any more than you were,” Baibars went on. “I had wit and strength when the Turks bought me.” He raised a clenched, glittering fist, and his voice seemed to shake the walls. “But Islam has multiplied my powers a hundredfold. Allah blesses all who serve him faithfully.”

He is really trying to convert me, Roland thought. Feeling somewhat safer, he shook his head. “Lord, as my mind is shaped now, I cannot be a strong believer in any religion.”

Baibars’s face darkened. “A doubter, are you? Doubters weaken themselves, and their presence in an army weakens its will. Perhaps the great victory Allah shall grant us tomorrow will stamp out your doubts.”

The tight knot of fear in Roland’s stomach loosened, and he felt muscles ease all over his body. If I am to see tomorrow’s victory, I can hope to live at least that long.

Baibars said, “I send you back to your fellow Christians. Stay alive as best you can. I may have some use for you in the future.”

He beckoned to the guards standing behind Roland, and they came forward to take him away.

Three young women in long embroidered cloaks, their faces hidden behind translucent veils, smiled at Roland with their black eyes as the guards pushed him out of the room. He stumbled down the corridor, followed by the sound of drums, reed pipes, tambourines, and stringed instruments striking up behind him. Baibars carouses, he thought, and makes my captivity the more bitter. All around him now he could hear the rejoicing of victorious Mansura. They were dancing in the palaces and singing in the streets.

When he said Allah would let him win again tomorrow, Roland realized, he spoke with such assurance that it never occurred to me to doubt him. What will become of the King and all the others?

He was like a man who had been made to walk for uncounted hours at the very edge of a cliff. Again and again, facing death, his mind and heart and body had been forced to their highest pitch of fury, terror, and grief. Now he had no strength left. He had encountered Baibars the Panther and lived, but he felt no joy, only a dull ache of sorrow for those who had died this terrible day and pity for all others, including himself, who must go on living and suffering.

Chains clashing, Roland stumbled back into the prison room, now plunged into total blackness. From all around him came snores, mutterings, the groans of sick and wounded men. Once, a scream. Some man must be dreaming of what he went through that day. Sure that he would never find Guido and Perrin in the dark, Roland sank down into the first clear space he found on the floor. The men on either side squirmed closer to him for warmth. The stench of human excrement assailed his nostrils, but he was too tired to let it bother him. Exhausted and aching both in heart and body, he fell into a fitful sleep, like a man in a fever.

He felt fingers prodding his arm and shaking him. “Roland, Roland.” It was Guido’s voice. Roland opened his eyes slowly. It seemed as if he had just closed them on darkness, but now a weak gray light was filtering in through the barred window that had looked out on yesterday’s butchery in the garden courtyard. “We must talk,” said Guido. “There will not be much more time. I thought I might never see you again when they took you away.”

Roland sat up, his mind shrinking from full awareness of what had happened to him yesterday. His entire body, his right shoulder most of all, ached from yesterday’s fighting and from the cold, hard floor.

“Baibars himself sent for me.” Roland described his meeting with the Mameluke. “In my judgment he is more than a match for any of our commanders.”

“The Tartars are warriors without peer,” said Guido gloomily. “They have conquered half the world.”

“Baibars spoke of ‘the late Sultan.'”

“Then it is true that Ayub is dead. His eldest son, Turan Shah, will claim the throne.”

They spoke in low voices. The men all around were sleeping, except for one who got up, stumbled to a corner of the room, and let go a stream of piss against the wall.

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