All Things Are Lights – Day 140 of 200

But that would not bring Guido back. His heart was a ball of pain. He hugged his knees to his chest, trying to draw his body tightly together so that it would hurt less. He buried his face in his arms and sobbed bitterly, the paper with Guido’s poem on it clenched in his fist.

XXVII

The crusade was over, Amalric thought, whether Louis realized it or not. He sat on a big, brown war-horse on the riverbank opposite Mansura and watched the last remnants of the crusader army hastily retreating. They were crossing the bridge of boats built seven weeks ago while knights and Mamelukes had been battling on Fat Tuesday on the south side of the city.

Amalric glanced behind him at the remainder of his army, about two hundred knights and eight hundred men-at-arms. Half the number he had brought with him from the Gobignon domain. But the losses had been for good purpose.

He remembered the tears Louis had shed as he realized that he had to abandon the ground his brother and so many others had died for.

Here is where I want it to end, and soon, with Louis and his other two brothers dead in the mud. Dead as Robert. Dead as that bastard de Vency.

Saint Dominic, I wish I could have seen de Vency’s body. Did they burn it, I wonder, or just throw it in the Nile?

If only Louis had decided to stay and fight it out. There would have been a good chance then that he and his brothers might already have been killed. The fortified camp Louis built on the Mansura side would surely have been overrun soon.

Was it only seven weeks since that Fat Tuesday battle? It seemed more like a lifetime to Amalric. Well, he had fought, endured, and stayed alive. And there had been some pleasures, such as watching men who might have been obstacles to him fall. Raoul de Coucy. That gave Amalric a warm feeling. Enguerrand, who had managed to stay home, would now be seigneur of Coucy, and Enguerrand hated the King just as much as he did.

And William de Sennac, killed only a few days after he had survived the fighting in Mansura’s streets, and nearly all his white-cloaked Templars dead, too.

The men retreating across the bridge of boats were far from the strong, brave knights who had marched south from Damietta last autumn. It had been weeks since the galleys from Damietta had brought any fresh food. But why? No one he had spoken to knew. Only this morning Amalric had heard of a barrel of rotten salted beef being sold for eighty silver livres. Back home that would buy a first-rate destrier.

Amalric’s chest swelled as he felt the strength and health in his own body. He knew how to care for himself. Some foolish barons had shared their provisions with the less fortunate and were now as starved and sick as their poorest men-at-arms. Amalric had kept his food and money for himself and for the men he valued most, such as d’Etampes and Maurice. Thank Saint Dominic for Maurice, who could slip out of the camp now and then and come back with fresh fruit and meat.

The retreating men shuffled and stumbled over the bridge. Many of them looked too weak to swing a sword. They were riddled, Amalric knew, with fever, scurvy, and the flux, maladies that had killed more of Louis’s men than the Mamelukes had.

And what of the Mamelukes? He eyed the still unbreached walls of Mansura. Behind those walls, he knew through Maurice’s contacts with the Egyptians, ever greater numbers of Saracens were gathering, coming in from the farthest reaches of the Sultan of Cairo’s empire.

Movement under the walls of Mansura caught Amalric’s eye. He saw banners unfurl and heard the Saracen drums and war cries. Those heart-freezing yells were now as familiar to him as the sight of death.

Our damned fool engineers, they have not even started to cut the ropes that hold the bridge together, thought Amalric. It looked so inviting, lying wide open before the rapidly massing Egyptian army. Amalric could now hear fear in the shouts of the crusaders as they, too, caught sight of the Saracens pouring out of Mansura.

“Allahu akbar!” A great shout reached Amalric from the other side of the river.

What a loathsome din. Thousands of Saracens were howling, backed by hundreds of pipes, trumpets, and drums.

First to come onto the bridge were bizarre-looking men dancing and singing, in black and white robes with long beards. Some stopped every few steps and twirled on their toes so rapidly that their robes billowed out like huge white flowers. Behind them walked tambourine and flute players.

These mad priests — “dervishes” Maurice called them — often led a major Saracen attack. Amalric felt a chill on the back of his neck. Sorcerers!

Now Egyptian foot soldiers with long spears marched onto the bridge. Behind them the Mameluke cavalry came trooping, yellow and green banners waving above their spiked helmets.

Suddenly he could no longer see where the Egyptian vanguard began and the French rear ended. Bodies were tumbling into the river. The water was being stained red. Clouds of Saracen arrows were arching into the sky and falling on the crusaders.

Guy d’Etampes rode up. “Have we had any change in orders from the King, Monseigneur?”

“No,” said Amalric. “And we cannot afford to wait for his command. Give the order to ride past the old camp and stop again when we are on the road to Damietta.”

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