All Things Are Lights – Day 165 of 200

“Walk with me,” Louis said. “I do not want to speak of these things here in the open.”

As they trudged along the path that led to Louis’s cottage, a group of men stopped the King.

“Is it true we are to be ransomed, sire?”

Louis held up a warning hand. “Pray that it be God’s will, my men. Much could yet go awry. But I have talked to the Sultan, and we have come to terms.”

The men began to cheer.

“This is a time for prayer, not for celebration,” Louis reproved them gently. “Pray for me, that I may be given the grace to find a way to free us.”

“God hears your prayers sooner than He hears ours,” said one knight heartily. “When you are not talking to the Sultan, sire, put in a word for us with the Almighty.”

“What are the terms, sire?” another said. “Many of us spent all we have on men and equipment for this crusade. We have little left for ransom.”

Louis shook his head. “Not one man is to pay his own ransom. The whole sum will come from the royal treasury.”

They gasped in amazement. “Never has there been such a king!” said one, and the others chorused agreement. The men nearest him began to kneel and reach out to touch him as if he were a holy object.

Louis reddened and drew back from them.

“On your feet, Messires, if you please. This is unseemly. Pray, I tell you again, that all goes as I hope it will.”

“If anyone can make it happen, sire, you can,” someone called.

What faith they have in him, Roland thought, even though he has led them only to defeat and captivity.

“I will do whatever God lets me do,” said Louis with his head bowed. He started again to walk toward his hut, and despite his evident embarrassment, kneeling knights lined his path. As word of the ransom proposal spread, more and more knights came running. Even more embarrassed than the King, Roland followed him a dozen paces behind, so that the knights would be on their feet again before he passed them.

Roland caught up with Louis as he stepped into his cottage. The King’s back stiffened.

Moving to Louis’s side, Roland saw the royal brother Charles throwing unpainted wooden dice with Isambert the cook. With three quick strides Louis kicked their little piles of silver coins in all directions. The deniers rang against the gray brick walls of the cottage and sparkled on the brown dirt floor. He stooped down and seized the dice and threw them out the door.

“Hey, brother!” the stocky Charles cried, jumping to his feet. “I spent hours carving those dice.”

“Spend your hours doing something useful,” Louis scolded. “Help to bury the dead. Our poor men are dying out there while you gamble.”

“I cannot do anything for them,” Charles grumbled.

“Go among them,” Louis cried. “Show them that you care about them. Go on, get out of here.”

Muttering, Charles charged out the door, pushing Roland aside.

Isambert scrambled around the small room, gathering up the coins.

“Whose money is that?” asked Louis grumpily, seating himself on the pile of cushions and blankets that was throne and bed for him in this mud brick palace.

“Mine, sire,” said Isambert. “The Count d’Anjou borrowed some of it from me to play, but I was winning it all back.”

“May Our Lady give me patience,” Louis sighed. “Do not encourage my brother in vice, Isambert. He needs little enough help in that direction.”

“When you begin preaching again I know you are feeling better, sire,” said Isambert with a grin.

Louis smiled back at him.

“Leave us now, Isambert. There are matters I must discuss with this gentleman.”

When they were alone, Louis invited Roland to seat himself on the hard-packed dirt floor and said, “I know only this. Your Perrin was brave and true, as you are brave and true. As for the state of his soul and what you knew about it, you must answer to God.”

What kind of man was this, who buried a self-confessed heretic with his own hands, then flew into a rage at his brother for playing with dice? Thousands who followed him were now dead. How could a man who cared so much about right and wrong live with that?

“We all have a great deal to answer to God for, sire,” Roland said tiredly.

Louis smiled sadly. “Still testing me, Roland de Vency?” Then his cadaverous face turned solemn. “Do you truly think God is angry at me? I was dying, six years ago, when the vision of Jerusalem came to me. If God had not wanted me to go on crusade, he could have let me die then and there. I cannot believe God gave me back my health only so I could lead a whole army to death and defeat. God cannot be so cruel.”

“You know what the Cathars say about the two Gods, sire,” Roland said.

Louis raised his hands in horror. “Do not repeat it. That is blasphemy. There is only one God, and He is a good God. I know it. I believe it. Suffering is part of His plan, and His plan is good.”

Roland shrugged. “Many of these same men suffering here with you, or their fathers, crusaded in Languedoc and destroyed it. Perhaps God has chosen this way of punishing the French for what they did in Languedoc.”

“That is not possible,” said Louis.

“Sire, you heard Perrin mention the name Diane. She was a woman I loved, a Cathar woman. She was the kindest, the gentlest woman I have ever known. May I tell you what happened to her? Amalric de Gobignon’s brother, Hugues, had her tortured for weeks and then tried to burn her at the stake. An arrow sped by a merciful hand ended her life. Sire, in Languedoc thousands suffered as Diane did. It was your barons, your knights and priests who did those deeds.”

“I know,” Louis said, his voice mournful. “I know. I cannot understand how Christian men could have strayed so far from the teachings of Jesus. I could not stop what they did. But by this crusade I hoped to heal those wounds. You know that. That is why you are with me. Still, I accept the blame.” He bowed his head. The sun had set, and the room was in twilight. The Saracens gave them no lamps or candles. Roland could not discern Louis’s features below his palely gleaming hair.

He had faced the King with all the doubts he had felt ever since he had entered Louis’s service. Louis had heard and answered.

“Thank you for letting me speak so freely to you, sire,” he said.

“Thank you for all your good service to me, Roland,” said Louis. “In the past and in time to come.”

In the darkness of the hut, Roland heard a movement and felt a hand, thin and cold, but firm, take his.

As night fell over the prison camp, the two men sat together in the silence of friends.

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