All Things Are Lights – Day 193 of 200

The two Templars, swords out and shields high, backed toward Nicolette and the mosque.

The old man, Maurice, remained standing in the open. Amalric, now at the west end of the plaza, jerked on his reins, slowing his horse’s gallop, and pulled its head around toward Maurice.

“What the devil are you doing here with her?” Amalric roared at Maurice.

Maurice spread his empty hands. “I serve you no longer, Count Amalric. The Sultan is dead. Emir Baibars is in command, and he wants the King and the crusaders to live.”

“Traitor!” Amalric shouted.

“No traitor,” said the old man with quiet pride, “but Mukaddam ben Faris, servant of the Panther, Mameluke and thirty years a Muslim.”

Amalric gave a yell of anger and spurred his horse, pointing his lance at Maurice’s chest.

Maurice, though Amalric was almost on top of him, managed to sidestep the lance point.

Amalric threw down the lance, the long wooden pole ringing on the hard-packed earth, and snatched his ax from his saddle.

Maurice ran for the mosque, but Roland could see that the old man was misjudging Amalric’s expert control. In an instant Amalric wheeled his charger about and was running Maurice down. Leaning far out of the saddle Amalric swung his ax. The blade bit deep into Maurice’s shoulder and chest, and Amalric dragged him a short distance before he jerked his weapon free.

Roland heard Nicolette’s scream from the doorway of the mosque. She was running out to the fallen, bleeding Maurice.

“Get back, Nicolette!” Roland shouted.

Ax high over his head, Amalric was riding straight at her. Roland leaped for the lance Amalric had dropped, picked it up, and drove it at the horse’s side. It struck, the force of impact knocking Roland to his knees. The horse whinnied in pain. Roland had not weight or strength enough to penetrate the charger’s mail coat, but he had hurt it and thrown it off stride.

Nicolette flew back to the safety of the mosque doorway, where one of the Templars stationed himself in front of her.

Amalric galloped away, circling the burial pit to the north. Roland could hear him shouting to his men at the palace gate to bring him another lance.

“Has the Count gone mad?” said the Templar standing near Roland.

“Read the letters!” Roland cried.

Nicolette rushed out of the doorway again and knelt by Maurice. Knowing he was not strong enough to wield the lance to good effect on foot, Roland threw it into the pit and hurried to her side.

“No tears, Madame,” the toothless old man whispered. “I am bound for a Paradise that offers many more delights than yours does.” Blood trickled from his nose and mouth, and his head fell back. “Allahu akbar,” he sighed.

Roland put his hand on Nicolette’s shoulder as she shook with sobs.

“Nicolette, in God’s name get yourself to safety,” he pleaded.

“What is happening?” said a Templar, coming up behind them and interrupting them. “Who are you, Messire?”

Roland turned to face him. The Templar was many years older than Guido had been, with a flowing white beard that glistened like silk in the bright sunlight.

“I am Roland de Vency, and I was one of the captives at Fariskur. If you will look at those messages —“

“Look out!” the other Templar called, and Roland again heard the terrible drumming of hooves. Amalric, charging down on them, had a new lance now, aimed at Roland.

Roland stood to meet Amalric as the Templar pulled Nicolette to safety.

He felt no fear. Instead he had the strange sense that all movement around him had slowed. Only inside him did everything move swiftly.

Amalric, riding toward him through clouds of white dust and shimmering heat waves, was like a knight riding through water. Roland could distinguish every movement of the charger’s legs, thick as young trees. He stood perfectly still until the glittering steel head of the lance was perhaps an arm’s length from his chest. Then he stepped to his left. The movement was almost leisurely, and he saw the lance point follow him, but it was slow, slow, and it slid by, barely grazing his right shoulder.

Then Amalric was gone, and the dust around Roland was settling. His heart was still hammering, and he felt the fatigue in his starved limbs. If I am to win, he thought, I must finish quickly.

He drew the dusty air deeply into his aching lungs. Looking about him, he saw the body of Maurice, lying where he had fallen, saw Nicolette standing between the two Templars in the tall, pointed doorway of the mosque, saw people all around the plaza watching from rooftops and walls, saw the deep pit in the center. Saw the drover’s long leather whip lying where he had dropped it when he fled.

The pounding of the war-horse’s hooves was growing louder. Roland darted to the whip, picked it up, and ran to the edge of the trench. He flexed the whip and drew back his arm.

Again he felt that strange clarity and sense that time had slowed down. The exhilaration of it reminded him of moments of blinding light Nicolette and he had known at the peak of Love.

Horse and rider were looming over him. He darted out of the way, crouching, and then lashed the whip at the charger’s racing forelegs. Galloping, the horse had both legs together. The whip coiled itself around the horse’s shins, and the animal gave a terrified whinny and went down head first, with that same strange slowness. The war-horse and the man on it were gone.

There came a clattering metallic crash from the burial pit. The horse, as Roland had hoped, had toppled over the edge. He ran to look in.

What he had scarcely dared hope for had come about. He saw the horse struggling, its huge eyes rolling under its steel chauffron. Beneath its heaving body Amalric lay motionless. His helmet had been knocked off by the fall, and the side of his face was bloody. His head was partly buried in the mud at the bottom of the pit. One of the horse’s legs was bleeding heavily, and it was bent in the middle of the shin. Poor creature, he thought.

“Roland.”

He turned.

“My goddess,” he whispered.

His entire body seemed to tingle, and hot tears ran down his cheeks. Her eyes, too, were overflowing with tears. He could hear her panting, as if she had run a long, hard way.

“I never thought I would see you again,” she sobbed. “I cried for you every night.”

His heart was still beating hard, but in a different rhythm now, slower and stronger. “And did you doubt the power of Love?”

“No,” she said softly, “but I doubted that we would ever meet again in this world.”

Slowly, almost as if they had a will of their own, Roland’s arms reached out to her. My hands must touch her face. I must hold her against me.

Just as the tips of his fingers were about to come to rest on her cheeks, she screamed.

His heart gave a great leap in his chest.

He heard a scraping sound, steel grinding against earth, behind him.

Nicolette, her eyes with terror, was looking past him.

Amalric stood at the edge of the grave, holding his battle-ax high. His surcoat was filthy. A long gash in his cheek was bleeding freely. But his face was aglow with the frenzy of battle.

“Get back to the shelter, Nicolette,” Roland said softly. “Hurry,” he urged her through clenched teeth. He dared not take his eyes from Amalric, who advanced a step even as Roland heard Nicolette run back to the mosque. Left-handed, he slid the scimitar for the first time from its sheath. He remembered Baibars praising it as Damascus steel, but even that would not cut through Amalric’s chain mail.

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