All Things Are Lights – Day 147 of 200

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.

I am all alone.

A strange sensation. All of his life he had never gone anywhere without an entourage, often an entire army. From the age of five he had been the Count de Gobignon. And now he was traveling alone, fleeing for his life in an enemy country. True, he was fully armored, carrying both a longsword and a battle-ax, but he felt naked and helpless.

Because I deserted my men.

He thought of them, two hundred or more knights from the house of Gobignon, whom he had left behind to perish.

But if I had led them into battle and they had all died fighting? A leader cannot feel sorry for the men he loses.

Just after sunset he came to a heap of dirt and logs the crusaders had piled up across the mouth of an irrigation canal to dam it so they could cross it more easily. Beyond this artificial hill he reined up and waited. Not likely that the Mamelukes would pursue any who escaped this far north.

One man, at least, he could take out of this disaster with him. Of all of them, Maurice had proved the most valuable. He was bold, despite his age, and he knew the country. Amalric would wait here for him.

Time passed slowly as he sat on the ground beside his horse in the twilight. Why the devil did I not think to bring something to eat or drink with me?

A group of the commoners he had passed earlier, appearing a few at a time out of the darkness, gradually gathered around him. No doubt, he thought, they felt safer in the company of an armored knight. None had any food. There was none to be had in the camp when they left it. One had a wineskin, and Amalric drank deeply of the sour wine and then chased them away.

“You are wasting your time. Your only hope is to get as far from the Turks as you can. When I ride on, I am not going to wait for you, and you will not be able to keep up with me.”

He saw fear and resentment in the shadowed faces of the servants and camp followers, but none dared to speak out. Slowly, single file, they set off along the river road.

What is going on back at Mansura? he wondered. If Maurice does not reach me by moonrise, I will have to go on without him.

He heard the hoofbeats of a horse ridden hard. A dark figure clattered through the stony bed of the gully that had been a canal and reined up before him. Peering into the gloom, Amalric saw that it was Maurice.

“You need not fear pursuit, Monseigneur. They will be occupied for hours with the slaughtering of the foot soldiers.”

“Saint Dominic!” Talons of remorse sank themselves into his innards.

“It was only to be expected, Monseigneur. They cannot spare food for so many. They have not yet started to kill the knights and the barons. They may give them a chance to send home for money to ransom themselves. The common men die happy, thinking that by their sacrifice they have saved the life of their King.”

Maurice’s words jolted Amalric. Ransom? If that happens, I am undone. I will not achieve my purpose at all.

“What of the King?”

“He still lives, as far as I know, Monseigneur.”

“Would they let him ransom himself?” The thought of Louis buying his way out of captivity and walking again among the living and free infuriated him. No, that must not be.

“They must know that he is the chief cause of this crusade that has ravaged their country,” Maurice said. “They will probably either behead him or hold him prisoner for the rest of his life.”

Amalric let out a deep breath.

A full moon rose over the Nile as Amalric and Maurice rode quickly on. The common folk stumbling north did not even look up as the two men on horseback passed. After some hours Amalric drowsed in the saddle, assailed by images of good, brave men falling unarmed under Muslim swords. It was Louis’s fault. Didn’t I advise him to fight on instead of run begging to the Turks for a truce? Those men would at least have died with their swords in their hands. And who led them to Mansura in the first place?

He was almost asleep when Maurice slapped his arm. “Off the road, quickly, Monseigneur.”

Instantly he was alert. By moonlight he saw the white and black horizontal stripes of Egyptian sails on the river ahead of him. He and Maurice turned their horses into a clump of shrubbery and palms and watched as a dozen long, narrow boats slid toward them over the shimmering water. But how did they get north of Mansura, where our galleys are supposed to control the river?

Amalric realized with horror that he could be trapped between Mansura and Damietta. If those on the galleys saw him and Maurice, a volley of arrows could well be the end of them. Though the desert night was cold, sweat dripped down his sides.

The Saracen ships glided past, propelled by many oars as well as by sails, the voices of the warriors on board carelessly raised in merry shouts, song, and laughter.

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