All Things Are Lights – Day 141 of 200

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.”

Without waiting for a response he wheeled his horse and headed off northward.

He had to hold back his horse almost to a walk to give his men on foot — which most of them were — a chance to keep up. In the past few weeks horses had become more valued for eating than for riding.

He glanced at the site where the crusaders had first camped on arriving before Mansura. Servants, priests, and other camp followers were swarming like ants whose hill has been kicked open, striking tents, loading bundles on their backs, and fighting over the few remaining donkeys and camels.

“Wait, Monseigneur, will you let us ride with you?” some of the rabble called.

He ignored them.

He rode past galleys tied up along the shore, eyeing them covetously. He could be in Damietta in less than two days if he could commandeer one of those. But Louis, damn him, had insisted on loading the galleys with the sick and wounded. Well, they would be lucky if they got away before the Egyptians fell upon them.

He rode on. He had left the camp a good distance behind when d’Etampes, who was bringing up the rear, trotted up.

“Monseigneur, it appears that our army has turned to stand and fight.”

Amalric’s stomach burned with anger. He had no time for d’Etampes and his stupid reports. He wanted to get himself back to Damietta and safety. That was what counted.

But now he would have to make at least a show of concern.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that some knights and archers had formed a defensive line around the galleys. Fools, he thought. The Saracens will annihilate them.

“The King commanded a retreat,” he said curtly, “and retreat we will, unless he calls me back.”

And not even then, he thought to himself. If Louis should live through this day — and I pray he will not — and he calls me to account, I shall just say I received no message.

They rode along in silence, d’Etampes on one of the few war-horses that had not been eaten, Maurice on Amalric’s other side on a gray palfrey that the wily old man had managed to find somewhere. Before them rode an equerry with the purple and gold Gobignon banner. The Gobignon contingent retreats in good order, Amalric thought with satisfaction, considering what we have been through.

By Saint Dominic, I will see Nicolette again. The thought of her made his groin ache. He had had no woman in months. The filthy, brown Egyptian women disgusted him.

Nicolette, and no more troubadour coming between us, he exulted. That is all over forever.

The shouts and clanging of fighting drifted to Amalric’s ears like a reproach. He was ill at ease with what he was doing — riding away from battle. But knightly conduct or not, what was the purpose in staying? Louis’s army was outnumbered, and the men were too weak to fight. Saint Dominic grant there are no more Saracens waiting up ahead for us.

His troops were not the only ones fleeing such unfavorable odds. Looking back, he could see small bands of men breaking away from the fighting and hurrying up this same road.

He ground his teeth as, one by one, the galleys loaded with the sick and wounded sailed by, moving swiftly downriver with the brown current. Sailing to Damietta loaded with useless ones, he told himself, while he and his men must plod along the road.

In silence he rode, his followers strung out along the riverbank behind him.

At mid-afternoon he heard himself hailed and turned to see a perspiring, terrified-looking priest on a donkey.

“If you please, Monseigneur, will you have your men clear the road? The party of His Excellency the Patriarch of Jerusalem is behind yours and must hurry on.”

Damn! Amalric thought. More lost time. But he could not deny the right-of-way to the most eminent prelate on the expedition. Grudgingly, he passed the order to d’Etampes.

Amalric recognized the Patriarch, a wizened old man wrapped in a black traveling cloak. Even though he was nearly eighty, he kept up easily with the rest of his party without assistance. Clustered about him on horses and donkeys were a flock of priests and monks, most of them, Amalric noted contemptuously, with white faces and wildly staring eyes. They know that the Saracens have especially ugly ways of killing Christian priests, he thought. Two Templars, perhaps the last of the lot that had ridden under William de Sennac, rode on the flanks of the party.

The Patriarch made the sign of the cross at Amalric and his men as he passed by them. Amalric touched forehead, breast, and shoulders in response, but shuddered as he did.

I have done everything I could to destroy this crusade, to bring about the death of the King and his brothers. I have Robert’s blood on my hands. Can a blessing do me any good, or am I damned?

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