All Things Are Lights – Day 146 of 200

Amalric heard a roar of triumph swell up from the lines of Mamelukes that moved to enclose the crusaders. He saw the yellow banners move forward and the sun flash on scimitars.

He became aware suddenly of the danger of his own position. There was nothing between him and the oncoming Mamelukes but an army that had just laid down its arms. He dare not stay.

There was one sight, though, that he had to wait for. Louis. Amalric held the black war-horse steady, peering at the cluster of tan-walled, flat-roofed huts where Louis and his brothers had taken shelter. The Oriflamme, shining brightly in the glow of sunset, hung over the center of the village.

Now the banner was in motion. A man on horseback, a crusader, had picked it up and was riding this way with it. Trying to save it from the disgrace of being captured by the Saracens. The rider’s faint cry of “Saint Denis.”‘ Reached Amalric’s ears above the din.

A spearhead of Mamelukes, cutting through the crusaders unopposed, had almost reached the village. They fired a volley of arrows at the fleeing rider with the Oriflamme. The horse stumbled to a stop, and the man fell backward out of the saddle. Like a tree cut down by a woodsman, the war banner of France toppled into the mud beside the Nile. A groan of grief went up from the Frenchmen who saw the Oriflamme fall.

Amalric turned away. If only I could have had the glory of saving it. He spurred his horse up the road a few paces, but could not resist the urge to look back again.

A Mameluke had reached the Oriflamme. He swung down out of his saddle, seized the banner’s staff, and lifted it out of the mud. With a long scream of triumph he galloped back to the Egyptian lines waving the red and gold banner wildly.

Not a man among the French moved. That, thought Amalric, shows how completely they are defeated.

Mamelukes on horseback, Amalric now saw, crowded into the village where Louis was. A thrill of terror and delight went through Amalric. Perhaps I shall see his head raised up on a pole and carried off in triumph like the Oriflamme. He was suddenly struck with the thought that if Louis were killed he could turn and ride back among the crusaders, rally them, and lead them to victory.

What a mad notion.

Then he saw Louis. The King’s blond hair gleamed above the turbans and spiked helmets crowding around him. Many hands seized him. They were lifting him up. They set him on a war-horse, and he sat rigidly, like a man in fetters. Doubtless they had wrapped chains around him. Slowly his horse moved through the crowd of Saracens, back toward Mansura. Charles and Alphonse, also mounted, followed. Mameluke horsemen in green cloaks positioned themselves around the royal brothers.

It was over.

Amalric felt as if someone had struck him with a hammer. He remembered the first time he had ever killed a man — a peasant he had found poaching in his forest at Gobignon. He had run the man through with his sword, and then been astonished by how quickly something so terrible could happen, something that could never be undone.

In just the few moments it had taken him to ride from his tent to this little hill the great French army had succumbed. Four long years Louis had spent putting that army together. Another whole year to move it from France to Egypt. Nearly another year of bloody campaigning. And now all over, in the blink of an eye.

And Amalric had done it, and the army was forever past saving. His body froze with the horror of it.

There was no outcry from the French knights at the sight of their King in chains, but Amalric saw a man kneel in the mud. Then more were kneeling. Soon the entire crusading army was on its knees, watching in silence as their King was led away.

Tears welled up in Amalric, and he rubbed his eyes with his bare hands, the empty mail gloves clinking.

“Oh, dear God!” he muttered to himself.

Why am I weeping? This is what wanted, what I have worked for.

Louis got what he deserved, he told himself. He took a deep breath, clenched his fists on the reins, and turned his face away from the unmanning sight of all those poor wretches being dragged off to captivity.

He pulled his stallion’s head around and set out on the road to Damietta.

The riverbank ahead was mostly empty. Here and there he passed groups of women and servants who had been part of the crusader camp, trudging north, trying to escape. The Bedouins will get them if the Mamelukes do not, Amalric thought.

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