All Things Are Lights – Day 179 of 200

“Did you ever see a prettier bonfire?” de Joinville chortled.

Roland did not answer, thinking of other great fires he had seen — at Mont Segur, at Mansura, his stone-casters. This whole uprising, too, was a kind of fire, and it might well spread and consume them all. When these Mamelukes finished with Turan Shah, what then? Roland had a momentary vision of their racing toward these galleys, the steel scimitars turned on himself and his friends. His hands felt empty, his arms weak.

Now Turan Shah was running down the steps. The Mamelukes crowded to the base of the tower to receive the Sultan with their blades.

His feet at a level with their heads, he suddenly leaped from the tower toward the river. He struck the ground hard, rolled, and picked himself up. He must have hurt himself, because he was limping badly. But he had gained a few precious moments, and he reached the water’s edge ahead of his pursuers.

In spite of himself, Roland was beginning to feel pity for the Sultan. He could feel the pain of the man’s hurts, his desperate longing for life.

Turan Shah turned to face the men who were trying to kill him and shouted angrily at them. Roland could imagine what he was saying. He was their Sultan, raised above them by Allah. To strike at him was to strike at his great ancestor Saladin.

“The dogs!” It was the King’s voice, trembling with rage. “He is unarmed. They have not even enough honor to let him defend himself.”

Roland turned. The King’s long face was twisted with anguish. He was pale and trembling, and Roland took his arm as he tottered to the railing and continued to hold him, afraid Louis might fall over the side.

Then Roland heard a scream from the river’s edge and looked back to see an emir’s sword bite deep into Turan Shah’s side.

“Stop it, you swine! Stop!” the King shouted. “You will answer to God for this.”

Now there was no need to keep Baibars’s secret.

“Sire, the Sultan has been plotting to kill us. He planned to take the ransom money and Damietta and kill us all anyway.”

Louis turned to stare at Roland with his large eyes. “I have always thought that he might, but how can you be sure?”

“Baibars himself told me in secret last night.”

“The Sultan is still trying to get away!” came de Joinville’s amazed shout from beside him. Louis and Roland turned to look again.

Turan Shah had turned away from his attackers and was facing the river. The scimitar was still caught in his ribs. Half falling, half diving, he threw himself into the muddy water.

Near the spot where the Sultan had jumped in there were longboats pulled up on shore. Leaping waist-deep into the river, the Mamelukes launched one of them and piled into it. Three of them stood up and poled it swiftly into mid-river, laughing and shouting like men enjoying a day’s hunting.

Roland’s pity for the Sultan grew. Why could they not just let him go? Then he realized why that was impossible. Alive, Turan Shah would find forces loyal to him and counterattack.

Anxious to see what would happen, Roland ran to the riverward side of the galley. Hundreds of others were doing the same. The old wooden ship listed dangerously as all aboard crowded along one rail.

Turan Shah had swum straight out into the river. Roland marveled that with such terrible wounds he still had the strength to do that. There was a trail of blood in the brown water behind him. Perhaps, thought Roland, he really did inherit some of Saladin’s might.

Where is the King?

Not seeing him at the railing, Roland turned. The King was kneeling on the deck, his eyes shut, his hands clasped before him, his lips moving in silent prayer. The sight of Louis praying for his enemy filled Roland with awe.

But Heaven protect us, thought Roland, smitten with a sudden pang of fear. If he pities the Sultan so, will he be willing to deal with the Mamelukes? He just called them swine. What if he insults them and they understand it? They will butcher all of us.

A shout rose from the watching crusaders, like the cry of spectators at a tournament. Roland looked back at the river and saw that the boatload of Mamelukes had caught up with Turan Shah. Almost tipping over, they were reaching for him with grappling hooks, beating him with their poles, and striking at him with their swords. Roland could hardly see the Sultan himself in the midst of the spray thrown up by his frantic thrashing.

The crusaders on the galleys were now falling silent, horror replacing their amusement.

The Mamelukes dragged Turan Shah up against the boat, stabbing at him with their swords. One held him by his wet, long, black hair as they poled the boat back to shore, pulling his body.

Roland could not tell whether the Sultan was alive or dead, but there was a cloud of red in the water all around him.

The crusaders crossed the deck again as the Mamelukes pulled their Sultan up on the bank and the robed figures with their bloody swords gathered around the body. The silks of the Sultan were now but shreds, their once bright colors obscured by blood and mud.

Baibars, scimitar in hand, strode down the bank. He gazed down at Turan Shah for a moment, and Roland thought he saw the Sultan move. Suddenly Baibars lunged, driving his scimitar into Turan Shah’s chest. The fallen man quivered from head to foot, then lay still. Baibars gathered up part of his white robe to wipe the blood from his blade, leaving a dark red smear. He deliberately marks himself with the Sultan’s blood, thought Roland. After a long look at the other Mamelukes, Baibars sheathed his sword and walked away.

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