All Things Are Lights – Day 197 of 200

Among the Templars was the one with the shining white beard. He nodded almost imperceptibly to Roland.

Baibars, leading them outside again, said, “You have endured crushing hardship with calm and courage, O King of the Franks. Do you know that there were those among the Mameluke emirs who admired you so much they wanted, were you to convert to Islam, to make you Sultan to replace him whom we slew?”

Louis shrugged sadly. “It is easy enough to bear hardship. A donkey can do that. It is the duty of a ruler to accomplish much more.”

From his sorrowful countenance, Roland could tell that a great heaviness was upon the King.

They stood in the open air now. Saracen guards with round shields and drawn scimitars formed a ring around the pavilion at a respectful distance. A Genoese galley with a red cross painted on its sail now had entered the river and was maneuvering to anchor downstream from the prison ships.

“Just so,” said Baibars with a harsh laugh. “I persuaded the emirs that they were mistaken in you. I reminded them that, believing you were following the command of God, you led a great army to disaster.” He paused and fixed his blue eye on Louis. “You must take care to remember what happened here if ever again you think you are hearing the voice of God.”

Louis drew himself up to his full height. “I am a slave of my God, just as you are a slave to yours.”

Fear beat upon Roland’s heart as he translated this. Thank God the women had left Damietta yesterday for the Genoese ships.

Baibars never seemed more like a panther about to spring than in that moment. “Would you make war on us again?” it came as a soft growl.

“I have given you my word that I will not make war on you for twenty years,” said Louis.

“But it seems you have learned nothing from this defeat,” said Baibars thoughtfully. “Besides the emirs who wished to make you Sultan, there were those who urged that I do as Turan Shah had intended. Perhaps I should have listened to them.”

The terror grew stronger in Roland. His left arm quivered with the urge to reach for his scimitar.

Instead, he reached for words.

“The kingdom of France is very large and very difficult to govern, Emir Baibars,” he said. “And much can happen in twenty years.” Baibars knew, he remembered, that King Louis was the only ruler left in Christendom who still believed in crusading. “I do not think we will trouble you again.”

He held his breath.

Baibars looked from Roland to Louis and back again, swinging his head. “Ah, well,” he said, after a pause, “I promised the lady Spray-of-Pearls I would honor the treaty I made with you. She has taken pity on you. You Franks may not realize it, but you have been saved by two women, the Sultana and Queen Marguerite.”

Roland sensed that the moment of greatest danger had passed, relaxed a bit. Three women, he thought. Nicolette, too.

Baibars took a scroll from his belt and handed it to Roland. “Read this to your King. One of our poets composed it for this occasion.”

The scroll was of a heavy Egyptian paper made from the reeds that grew along the Nile, cream-colored, covered with the calligraphic right-to-left black strokes of Arabic letters. As he read, he translated. Grasping the import of the cruel words, he wanted to stop, but he looked up at Baibars and saw that diamond-hard single eye commanding him to continue.

“Bear to the lord of the French these words
Which are traced by the hand of truth —
May Allah reward you for having destroyed
The followers of Jesus the Messiah.
You thought to be master of Egypt — you believed
You would meet here only drums full of air.
And you led your warriors to the gates of death
Where the tomb gaped open for them.
Where are the twenty thousand, your men?
Dead, wounded, and captive!
If you wish to come again to Egypt,
Know that the mansion of Lokman still stands,
With its chains and its eunuch awake!
May your God be merciful to you
For all that you have accomplished.”

Roland looked up at Louis when he had finished and saw tears standing in his eyes.

“Your poet is right, Emir Baibars,” Louis said. “I need God’s mercy more than anyone else does.”

“Truly, you are a holy madman,” laughed Baibars. “You should be a prophet, not a king.”

“Was not your Prophet also a ruler of men?” asked Louis.

Baibars shook his head. “That does not mean ordinary men like you and me can be both. None can compare with the Prophet.”

He gestured, and a warrior in a gilded breastplate brought forward a long bundle wrapped in silk. “Permit me to give you another parting gift, O King of the Franks, one less bitter than that poem.” Baibars unrolled the bundle ceremoniously. It was the Oriflamme.

Louis clutched the banner to him, weeping, and kissed its scarlet fringe. “Thank you, thank you. I thought never to see it again. May God bless you for your kindness.”

“See that you never risk it in battle here again,” said Baibars brusquely. “May Allah render to you the mercy you hope for.” He bowed, turned, and walked away.

Roland walked with Louis as, the Oriflamme cradled in his arms, the King descended the bank of the river to board the Genoese galley that was waiting for him. Mameluke officers accompanied him. Roland heard a whistle on the galley deck, and in an instant the railing was lined with Genoese crossbowmen, their weapons trained on the Mamelukes.

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