All Things Are Lights – Day 181 of 200

“Our King says he respected your Sultan as a brother monarch,” said Roland, “and he is anxious to know what your lord’s misdeeds were, that they merited his death.”

“Does your master think to put me on trial before him?” said the Mameluke angrily. “I saved his life, and I expect a reward. Very well!” He threw the heart down on the deck with a sodden thump.

Roland quickly turned his head away from the sight.

The emir shouted, “We know how to treat ingratitude! Line up, all of you, and lie down on the deck.”

Roland’s limbs turned to water as he translated this for those around him. We are dead men, he thought. In a moment they will cut us to pieces, just as they did Turan Shah.

Roland now saw many more Mamelukes, of the middle and lower ranks, boarding the galley to reinforce the emirs. The officer who had addressed Louis turned and repeated his orders to the other Mamelukes.

With blows and menacing gestures with their swords, the Saracens conveyed the command to the crusaders. Groaning and wailing, the weak, sick prisoners sank to the deck.

Two of the Mamelukes seized King Louis and started to pull him away from his men.

Roland pushed his way to Louis’s side, ready if need be to throw himself on the scimitars that swung in his direction.

“Do as they say, Roland,” said Louis. “If it be God’s will, we shall live through this night.”

They took Louis off in the direction of the tent on the afterdeck in which he and his brothers were quartered.

The rest of the crusaders were forced to lie on their backs in rows, one man’s head beside another’s feet. On either side of Roland were Count Peter of Brittany and the Sire de Joinville.

“Roland, will you hear my confession?” de Joinville called.

“I am not a priest,” Roland answered, embarrassed by the request.

“It matters not. I will tell my sins to you and make a good act of contrition, and perhaps I shall go to Heaven when they chop off my head.”

De Joinville then babbled out a list of sins. He had not confessed, he said, since the Saracens massacred all the priests last month at Mansura. Roland tried not to hear him, and in his fear for Louis and for himself found it easy to turn a deaf ear. Then when the knight finished, Roland at de Joinville’s insistence forgave him and even made the sign of the cross, feeling foolish.

“Now I will hear your confession,” de Joinville offered.

“You are kind,” said Roland, “but I would rather make my peace with God in my heart.”

Before the blade falls on my neck, what ought my last thoughts to be? I must feel glad and grateful that before I died I was given the grace to love two of the loveliest women who ever walked the Earth.

And he composed himself to wait for death.

So passed the watches of the longest night of Roland’s life. The thousands of birds that nested in the reeds along the banks of the Nile raised their chorus to the dawn, and Roland began to see light around him.

The sun was high in the sky when he heard the emirs coming back. He listened, his body tensing, as they gave orders in the distance. Now the slave-warriors of Egypt would fall upon them with their swords.

A voice called in Arabic, “Where is the Frank called Roland?”

Wondering if this was to be his last moment, Roland sat up to look into the eyes of a Mameluke guard with a spear.

“You are to come,” said the guard. “Your King orders it.”

Moving one stiffened limb at a time, Roland slowly pushed himself to his feet. The King was still alive! His eagerness to see Louis gave him strength.

He saw now that the Mamelukes were allowing the crusaders to sit up and to stand and move about. Following his guard’s gesture, Roland limped, step by painful step, to the middle of the ship.

King Louis, wearing the black coat the Sultan had given him and surrounded by emirs in clean white robes, stood at the head of the gangplank.

“It appears we are to enter the lair of the Panther,” said Louis. “When he growls, you must be my voice.”

As they descended the gangplank, Roland saw that during the night the fallen tents of the Sultan’s compound had been taken away, and the top of the grassy slope was now occupied by a smaller tent, cool white in the morning sunshine. Before the tent stood two poles. From one hung a yellow banner inscribed with black Arabic letters: “For the safety of the faith, slay the enemies of Islam.”

On the other pole was the scarlet and gold Oriflamme of France. Louis groaned aloud and wept when he saw it. He had to stand a moment to get a grip on himself.

Roland had not seen the Oriflamme since he was captured at Mansura. The sight of it hanging in captivity brought tears to his own eyes. True, he had been a reluctant crusader, but this banner had become part of his life. It stood, not for the glory of warfare, but for King Louis and his visions.

And now, could there be accord between Louis, a zealous Catholic, and Baibars, a fanatical Muslim? Would Louis’s pity for the late Sultan and scorn for his murderers provoke him to insult Baibars? The thread by which their lives hung was so slender.

Roland’s body stiffened with apprehension as he followed Louis into Baibars’s tent. It was a single spacious chamber. Four poles of dark, gleaming wood held up the roof. The floor was covered with Arabian carpets. Baibars, in red robe and yellow turban, was seated on the carpet, leaning back against a jeweled saddle. A small mahogany chest lay beside him.

The one-eyed emir stood to greet them, then bowed them to places on the carpet. A mullah, perhaps one of those who had escaped from the Sultan’s tower last night, was seated before an open Koran on an ornately carved reading stand.

As Louis and Roland seated themselves, he finished reading, “Sun, moon, and stars, each in its own sphere doth journey on.” He closed the book and stood up. Baibars bowed reverently to him, and he left. Louis and Roland were alone with Baibars.

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