All Things Are Lights – Day 156 of 200

Her face was expressionless and her eyes dry as she stepped through the arched doorway of the mansion. She smelled the salt on the cool breeze from the north and for a moment wished she were at sea, escaping from this horrible land.

Just as she was crossing the courtyard to the outer gate she heard running footsteps and Agnes’s voice calling her. She stopped and turned.

“Madame, it is not safe to go out.”

Nicolette looked at Agnes. Her eyelids were red, her cheeks sunken in. Oh, poor friend, what have I led you into?

“I will be safe enough,” Nicolette said quietly, impatient to leave.

Agnes took a deep breath. “I will go with you, Madame,” she said, swallowing hard. “If you want me to.”

How much courage it must have taken for her to say that, Nicolette thought, feeling a rush of love for Agnes. Poor thing, she is terrified. But she would face the whole Egyptian army at my side, if I asked her to.

“I am not going far,” Nicolette lied. “Go back inside, Agnes. I will be fine.”

After she went out the gate, she drew a veil like a Muslim woman’s over her face and raised the hood. She glanced up at the burning African sun. It was mid-afternoon. She would have to be back before dark.

She was relieved to see that the gateway through Damietta’s triple walls was still open. That must mean that the Saracen army was not yet approaching. The sergeant in charge spoke roughly, warning her that the gate would be closed at sunset. He evidently took her for a woman of low degree or even a Saracen woman.

She had but one thought in mind, to mourn for Roland. But she could not let Amalric, or anyone who knew Amalric, see her sorrow. Leaving Damietta, with the Bedouins prowling outside, was even more dangerous than walking in the streets, but she had to be alone with her grief.

She went down to the river. She knew no Arabic, but the Egyptian boatman understood her gestures and the offer of a Cypriot silver drachma. She indicated that she intended to row out alone, and the Egyptian shook his head and shrugged. He probably thinks I am mad, she thought, but that coin is worth more than his skiff, and why should he care what happens to me?

She started to row upriver. Under the afternoon sun the muddy water was the color of brass. She had not been to the island since that night with Roland last autumn, but she thought she could find the place again.

The river was quiet. She was rowing against the current, but the Nile’s flow was not strong in April. She left the walls of Damietta behind and slid past small Egyptian villages with their waterwheels turned by buffaloes, and dovecotes on the roofs of the gray mud huts. Canals branched off the river, and she recognized one and turned into it, rowing by islands formed by the crisscrossing network of waterways. The island she wanted rose higher than the others and was crowned by temple ruins.

There. She saw slender white columns, broken off near the top, rising above the reeds. She grounded the boat and climbed out. Her deerskin boots sank in the soft earth as she pushed through the reeds to the temple, built ages ago when pagan Greeks had ruled here.

From the slight rise at the center she had a clear view, beyond the flat marshes, of the walls and towers of Damietta. She walked into the circle of columns and dropped to her knees on the marble floor. She looked for and found a carving that she and Roland had talked about the night they came here. It had fallen from the temple roof and showed a naked young man facing three naked women and holding out an apple to one of them. Roland had said the one receiving the apple was the Goddess of Love. She reached out and with her fingertips touched the smooth shoulder of the young man.

“Roland!” she screamed. “Do not leave me!”

She lay on the marble, sobbing until her throat hurt and she was too hoarse to do more. She wept and thought of Roland and wept still more as the sun slowly descended and the shadows of the columns grew longer.

Oh, Roland, I cannot bear it. I cannot believe you are gone. Our souls were united in Love. They must still be linked. Would I not feel it if you were killed?

For a moment she allowed herself to hope.

But despair took over again. He must be dead. When so many thousands had died, how could he still be alive?

Then she heard footsteps. Voices.

Her heart stopped. Her body froze. The voices were speaking Arabic. Sweet Jesus, the Bedouins!

She shrank into the shadow of the fallen temple wall. On this little island there was no place to hide. And they probably had already seen her boat. She could hear the men coming closer, their footsteps crushing the low shrubbery, their voices getting louder. She wrapped her arms around herself in terror. In her grief she had given no thought to her danger. But if these were Bedouins, the same who had been murdering unwary crusaders, first they would rape her, and then they would take her to Cairo and sell her, and she would spend the rest of her life as a slave whose body belonged to any man who owned her. And she had not even thought to bring a dagger with her, to defend or kill herself.

A tall man in Bedouin robes emerged from the reeds.

Though he was dressed as an Arab his long mustache was red and one of his eyes was blue — the other white as an eggshell, and a scar ran through it from brow to cheek.

The reeds parted again and a second man appeared. He stared at her in amazement.

“By Saint Christopher! It is Madame the Countess!”

Her hood and her kerchief had fallen away during her spasms of grief, so Maurice had no trouble recognizing her.

She read a succession of feelings in the wizened face — surprise, dismay, anger, and calculation. Why is he here? And who is this Arab, or whatever he is?

She climbed to her feet and made herself stand straight and face the two men. Muslims despise women who let their faces be seen, she thought. This Bedouin probably thinks I am a whore.

The one-eyed man took a few steps toward her, speaking to her in a low but commanding voice, in his own tongue. His mouth was a lipless slash under the red mustache, and his grin was frightening.

“Maurice, you are my husband’s vassal. Protect me.” She hoped the trembling of her knees would not be visible under her gown.

“Be careful, Madame. This man is the chieftain of a powerful tribe. Be polite to him. Do not anger him, and he will not hurt you.”

The Bedouin asked Maurice a question, and Maurice’s answer seemed to Nicolette as fluent as if he had been born in Egypt, although his toothless mouth muffled his words. He spoke softly and with respect that bordered on fear, the way he might speak to a great seigneur. Nicolette caught the words “Countess de Gobignon” in the midst of the long string of Arabic phrases.

The one-eyed man looked surprised, then laughed a little and shrugged.

He reached out with his right hand and grasped her face. His hand was huge, and the palm and fingers were rough.

She wanted to pull away, but she felt paralyzed, transfixed by the gaze of the single blue eye. She thought of tales she had heard of one-eyed giants who lived somewhere on the shores of the great sea.

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