All Things Are Lights – Day 148 of 200

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.

They know they have nothing to fear, thought Amalric.

When the voices of the Saracens were only a distant murmur upriver, Amalric and Maurice spurred their horses on. They rode without further incident until dawn.

As the sun appeared over distant brown hills to the east, their way was blocked by two knights with drawn swords. White mantles. Templars.

“The Constable of France!” exclaimed one of the Templars when Amalric identified himself. “You are most welcome, Monseigneur. We are escorting the Patriarch of Jerusalem back to Damietta, and God knows what enemies lie ahead of us. Did you see those Saracen ships? Where did they come from?”

They took Amalric to the Patriarch, who was resting in a grove of olive trees, and Amalric knelt and received the old man’s blessing for a second time. The Patriarch’s party had left the crusaders long before the surrender and knew nothing about it. When Amalric told the old man the news, tears ran down his bony cheeks.

“Surely God has sent you to help us. But how did you escape, my son, when all surrendered?”

“The King urged me to ride with all haste to Damietta, your excellency,” Amalric improvised, “to take command of the defense.”

“We must hurry on, then,” said the old man. “We not only have to fear Bedouins before us, but Mamelukes behind us.”

The Templars shared their provisions with Amalric — bread and dried beef as hard as Egyptian bricks, and wine that had turned to vinegar.

The party set out just after sunrise. Amalric prayed they would encounter no enemies. It was now a whole day and a night since he had last slept, and he felt too weak to fight. His eyelids burned, and his arms were too heavy to lift. He was barely able to hold himself in the saddle. He raised his tired eyes and saw that the sky was cloudless, as it almost always was here in Egypt. It was April — they had celebrated Easter only a few days before the retreat — and in this part of the world that meant suffocating heat. He dreaded the day’s ride.

His companions seemed stronger. The Patriarch and the Templars had rested part of the night, they had brought food with them, and they were used to this climate, having lived most of their lives in Outremer.

Later in the morning he opened his half-shut eyes when he heard a note of fear in the voices around him. Ahead of the party a strange humming sound filled the air and black birds the size of geese rose and fell. One of the Templars rode ahead while the party waited in silence.

When he came back, his eyes were haunted and his face was sallow under his deep tan. “The field ahead is full of dead men. They have all been beheaded.”

“Who are they?” asked the Patriarch.

“Christians. They have been stripped, and their skin is white. We must ride past them, your Excellency. There is no way around.”

The members of the party drew cloaks over their noses and mouths as they rode past the field of slaughter. The bodies had been exposed for many hours. The hum Amalric had heard, now almost deafening as they passed, was the sound of millions of fat, black flies, sharing the feast with the great vultures of Africa.

Amalric glanced at the corpses and then turned his face toward the river. If he were to go back to Mansura he would see a sight like this, and there the blood of the dead was on his hands.

He cringed from that thought, even as he kept his gaze away from these bodies.

A sudden notion struck him. Maurice will have to die. He knows too much.

But no, not while he is still so useful.

Around a bend in the river Amalric saw another sight that made him gasp. The riverbank and the shallows were strewn with wrecked galleys, their sails blackened tatters, many of them burnt to the waterline.

“Our sick and wounded,” said Amalric. “They took them off these boats and slaughtered them in that field we passed.”

“Remember, I said we would be safer on shore, Monseigneur,” said Maurice. “I suspected something like this when no food reached us from Damietta for so many weeks.”

“Those Egyptian ships that passed, going up the river last night,” said one of the Templars. “They did this. But how did they get between us and Damietta?”

“Baibars must have sent his galleys down another branch of the river and then transported them overland to the Damietta branch,” said Maurice. “A difficult feat, but the Egyptians have light ships that can be carried in sections on camelback.”

“May God have mercy on all our poor, lost men,” said the Patriarch of Jerusalem. “They are surely in the bosom of Seigneur Jesus now. We should give them Christian burial.”

“We few could not bury all these bodies in a month,” said one of the Templars sadly. “And it is not safe to stay here, Your Excellency. We shall be in peril of our lives until we reach Damietta.”

“Damietta is not safe either,” said Amalric. “Who is there left to protect it?”

“See there,” said Maurice. He pointed to a flat-bottomed barge floating in a slime-coated green backwater, half hidden by a thick stand of papyrus reeds. “That boat looks in good enough condition to carry us down the river. We can collect some oars from the other galleys, and the current will help us along. We could be in Damietta this very night.”

Yes, thought Amalric. And then there will be no one to stop me from taking all the power I want — the power to depart for France, first of all, and leave Louis with no Damietta to use in bargaining for his life. If he lives even now.

Let us get to Damietta. Take the barge. It will mean having to leave this fine horse behind, but I am too tired anyway to ride any farther.

A Templar said, “There may be more Saracens on the river.”

“Almost certainly all the Saracen ships have gone upriver to Mansura,” said Maurice.

Slowly they rode toward the barge. “Is the crusade over, then, count?” asked the Patriarch. “We began with such high hopes and so many thousands of stout fighting men. Is all lost?”

“Yes, it is, your excellency,” said Amalric, making his voice sound heavy with grief but feeling grim pleasure despite his weariness. “All is lost.”

His chest swelled, and his limbs felt lighter. Fatigue and exultation together made him dizzy.

He looked with satisfaction into the watery eyes of the Patriarch. You thought surely you would get your bishop’s throne in Jerusalem back, did you not, you old fool? All is lost for you, but not for me. My greatest victories are all ahead of me. And tonight, in Damietta, I shall be with Nicolette again.

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