All Things Are Lights – Day 150 of 200

Get away?

Nicolette fought panic. But the men — we do not even know what has happened to them. We cannot leave. What is he saying?

A white-bearded man wearing a cylindrical black hat and a black robe entered the bedchamber. A large silver cross with a double crossbar hung around his neck. Nicolette had seen him many times in Damietta before the army left. It was the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Surely he will not want to flee from here, she thought, feeling a little more hopeful.

“Is Madame the Queen able to travel?” the Patriarch asked Nicolette after she had kissed his ruby ring.

“Travel where, your excellency?”

It is true, she thought, feeling tears sting her eyes. They want to abandon Damietta.

“There is no Christian army between this city and the Saracen host,” said Amalric. “All the crusaders are taken or slain. All.”

There was a shriek from the doorway, followed by an outburst of hysterical sobs. Nicolette turned and saw a group of ladies clustered there.

“Shut that door,” said Amalric harshly.

Maurice went to the cedarwood door and firmly closed it.

But the damage is already done, Nicolette thought. By now the whole city knows.

I want Roland here. I want him here.

Her vision blurred, and she put her hands on the Queen’s bed to steady herself. Oh, let him be alive. Please let him be alive.

Marguerite had come out of her faint. She looked up at Nicolette, her brown eyes overflowing with tears. She struggled to sit up, and Nicolette held her and soothed her.

“The Muslims have always allowed Christian knights and barons to ransom themselves,” Marguerite said in a weak voice. “We must offer at once to pay for the King and his men.”

“If they are still living, Madame,” said Amalric evenly.

God, I would like to kill him. Nicolette thought. He is trying to hurt her.

But Marguerite seemed to have found some inner strength. She sat a little higher in bed and looked unwaveringly back at Amalric.

“We must have faith, Count. My husband is too good a man. God would not let him be killed.”

Amalric hesitated.

“You may be right, Madame,” he said after a long pause. “We shall offer to ransom him and the other barons. Once we are back in France, I shall see to collecting the money myself. By Saint Dominic, I will empty my own treasury to win our King Louis back!” He struck his palm with his fist.

At the sound of her husband’s name Marguerite began to sob quietly.

“To be honest, though, Madame,” Amalric went on, “I cannot hold out much hope. There are no people more treacherous than the Saracens. They could take ransom money from us and still kill the captives. They have no more mercy than wild beasts. On our way here we found the headless bodies of thousands of our sick and wounded.”

“Oh, Mary, mother of God!” Marguerite’s weeping became louder.

Nicolette sprang to her feet and glared at Amalric across the bed.

“Will you stop!”

Amalric’s blazing eyes swung to her. “Be quiet,” he said through his teeth.

“Nicolette is only trying to protect me, Count,” said Marguerite. Her woe-filled eyes turned to Nicolette. “But it is all right, Nicolette. I must know everything. I have to make the decisions now.”

How proud I am of you, Marguerite, Nicolette thought.

“How did this happen?” Marguerite asked, looking pleadingly at Amalric. “Our army was so strong. The King did everything to make it so.”

Amalric shook his head. “Ah, Madame, I fear he was misled and betrayed. He and all the other brave knights who followed him here. We did not lose the war here on the battlefield but at home in France. It is the conspirators and heretics in our own country who have won.” Again he pounded his fist into his palm. “I will make it my life’s work, after I return to France, to avenge our royal family and all the poor men who died here in Egypt.”

Staring across the bed at him, Nicolette thought how much the fire in his blue eyes reminded her of Hugues. It was frightening.

The Queen looked bewildered at what he was saying.

“I do not know what you mean, Count Amalric,” she said. Her pale hands rose from their resting place on her swollen belly, then fell helplessly back.

“No need to concern yourself, Madame,” said Amalric with a faint smile. “The important thing is for you to realize that there is no one to defend you here in Damietta but a handful of knights, most of them elderly, and a few unreliable Genoese sailors. We must take ship at once for Cyprus.”

“Would you have her give birth at sea?” Nicolette exclaimed. “It could kill her.”

“Would you have the Queen give birth in a Saracen prison?” said Amalric gratingly. “Or a harem?” he added in a horrified tone that did not sound sincere. He turned to Marguerite. “Give the order, Madame, and we shall start boarding the ships at once.”

Still weeping, Marguerite shook her head. “I cannot sail away and leave my husband. I must think what I can do to help him. I need time.”

“Every moment of delay will make your position more dangerous,” said Amalric.

“I see that,” said Marguerite. “But I am not going to abandon Louis. I am afraid, Count, but I am not that afraid.”

Marguerite sank back into the huge silken pillows.

“I need to be alone now,” she said. “To think and to pray. And to rest.” She turned to Nicolette. “Nicolette, your husband needs care. I give you leave to see to him.” She added in a desolate voice, “You can thank God you have a husband to see to.”

The Egyptian men who usually carried Nicolette’s sedan chair had run away, she discovered. Amalric sent for a horse from the Queen’s stable. When a page brought it, Nicolette climbed up behind him and they rode the short distance to the Saracen mansion he had claimed for himself when they took Damietta. Maurice said he would follow them on foot.

The locals who had been working in Nicolette’s household also had vanished. Her French servants were trembling with terror. Agnes, who loved a man who had gone off with the army, was red-eyed and unable to speak.

Calmly and firmly Nicolette ordered Agnes to bring wine and to have a tub filled for Amalric in the bedroom.

She helped Amalric undress, forcing herself to do all a dutiful wife should for a husband who has returned after a long absence from a terrible war. She washed his body with precious perfumed soap from Spain. She washed his hair and cut it, combed the lice out, and even picked the nits out with her fingernails.

He said nothing, seeming caught up in his own thoughts.

The Queen’s women and my own have men they love at Mansura, Nicolette thought, and they do not know whether they are alive or dead. But they at least can weep, or scream, or faint. I must keep my fear for my beloved locked in my heart.

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