Hope at Damietta
Cold dawn with its promise to transform into sweltering desert heat later that afternoon broke over the lines of sleeping, heavily-chained captives. My brother Juste and I were among them. It was several months after the utter defeat of the Battle of Fariskur, where our army had been annihilated and our king, the saintly Louis IX of France, had been captured along with thousands of his crusaders. I opened my eyes, instantly alert and painfully aware of how stiff and sore my whole body was. Juste was fettered a few soldiers away from me, his blond head gleaming in the pale gold, blush, and violet that filled the Egyptian sky.
Suddenly everything was noise as our captors roused us for another day’s work.
“Up dogs and sons of dogs!” one bellowed, his dark eyes eager to catch any sign of delay among us and give him an excuse to punish somebody. He spoke in the lingua franca, a strange mix of French, Italian, Greek, Arabic, and Spanish that we were all getting pretty good at understanding. Well, enough to get the general idea anyway.
“Juste!” I hissed at my brother, looking anxiously over at him. “Juste wake up!”
His pale face twitched and he slowly opened tired blue eyes that still bore dark rings around them showing how exhausted he was. It looked like he hadn’t gotten any rest at all, and I was sorry to have to wake him. Still, better that I should do it than that the angry Muslim notice him. Juste was sick, and the heat, hard labor, lack of proper food, and exposure to the cold nights chained outdoors as we were weren’t helping anything.
When the Muslims had first captured our starving, plague-ridden army they’d spent a week beheading the weakest of us in batches of 300-400 soldiers per day. The awful memory of that blood bath still haunted us. Juste didn’t have the plague, but several more crusaders had died because of the conditions under which we were kept and I feared for him. Death before becoming one of those who had taken bribes and converted to Islam to avoid more suffering though, the poor wretches.
“You can’t keep doing that forever,” the soldier next to me whispered hoarsely. He was careful that no one else should hear him, his mouth barely moving in his browned face, black eyes cast downward.
“It doesn’t have to be forever,” I said determinedly. “Just until the ransom comes.”
“Ha!” his laugh was like a cough. “And what makes you think we’ll be freed then? Our God has abandoned us, why should not our king as well?”
“God has no more abandoned us than he did Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane,” I said. “And none of us will ever feel what it is to be alone more than he did then.”
“God delivered us into the hands of our enemies when we thought we were fighting for him. He doesn’t care about us anymore.”
“The Crucifixion disproves your words more than any argument of mine ever could,” was all I said to that.
He did not speak to me again as we went about our labors of the day. The hours of hard work gave me a good chance to pray, and I said a few prayers for the man, Martin as I heard the others call him. I also had plenty of time to think over all of the things that had led to our captivity. The subject was often on my mind, relived over the countless days of scorching heat and sweat. It was not so long ago that my brother and I set out from France, full of hopes for recapturing the Holy Land and bright-eyed with the prospect of adventure in the name of such a worthy cause.
We were lead by King Louis IX and joined by somewhere near 20,000 others who were eager to regain Jerusalem after the short hold of Frederick II upon the city had ended. The Holy Roman Emperor had claimed the throne as King of Jerusalem through his wife’s bloodline, only to lose his doubtful position when the barons of the Crusader states called upon a technicality and declared the crown up for grabs, naming their own regent meanwhile. Warfare broke out between the Muslims soon afterward, the result being the defilement of the tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem, the burning of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the turnout of over 6000 Christians from the city as the Muslims took over Jerusalem once more.
Pope Innocent IV called for another crusade, and our King Louis, who’d promised on his sick bed that if he should recover he would lead a holy war and seek the liberation of Jerusalem from Muslim hands, did something few rulers have been known to do – he kept his oath. He recovered and for three years he raised money to fund a crusade. My brother and I were resolved to join him, and in 1248 we set sail with the crusader army for Cyprus.
There we met with delays and political discussions that disappointed our plans for immediate action. When we were finally able to get over to Egypt it was flood season for the Nile river, and our troops were grounded for six months at Damietta, a city we’d taken easily and hoped to use as a base for further military action. We entered the city singing Te Deum and had a personal promise from Louis that any misdemeanors committed by his soldiers would meet with stern punishment. Things went well for a little while after that, but then came the defeat and death of Robert of Artois, the King’s brother, and the siege of Mansourah.
Our own men were struck by the plague and starved outside the gates, and we were probably worse off than the city we were besieging. We held out for a while, but in the end we fled back to Damietta, pursued by our adversaries. The army was wiped out and King Louis and his nobles, along with thousands of our soldiers were captured by the Muslims.
There was a ridiculously high ransom placed on Louis, which France would eventually pay. All we had to do was wait, and when Louis was free he would find a way to get us out. It was that, or risking the most torturous and unpleasant of deaths devised by our captors for runaways. I knew that many of my companions despaired. Like that soldier, Martin, they felt that God had abandoned us long ago, that Louis would forget us, or that we would all be dead by the time the ransom came anyway.
Chained up once more at the end of another day it was certainly tempting to lose hope. Especially looking over at my young brother Juste. I wondered if he would make it through all of this. I was trying my best to keep up my spirits for his sake and to keep him alive, but the gray shade of his wan face and the lifelessness of his eyes when he thought I couldn’t see made my heart sink.
“Another day closer,” I said to him cheerfully. “It can’t be long now.”
He mustered up a smile for me.
“Juste?” I said.
“Yes, Emilien?” he said.
“We have only to remain brave until the king comes.”
“If he does . . .” It was Martin, the soldier from that morning, again.
“Of course he will,” I said with certainty. Maybe more certainty than I actually felt, but Juste didn’t need any help despairing. “Other lords may forget the men that fight under them, but Louis does not. He will not. Remember this is the man who feeds hundreds of poor with his own hands, the king who wished he could have been a monk and who trembled with the weight of his responsibility when he took oath and was crowned as a twelve year old boy; who lives simply and in penitence and devotion, going to Mass twice daily when he can, and whom, I hear, says the Hours even in captivity. When he is free I am sure that he will do everything he can to get us out of here. We just have to hold out until then.”
“I know,” Juste said bravely. “I’ll be alright.”
“Good lad,” I was proud of him.
“He’s holding on by a thread,” Martin whispered to me afterwards. “He’ll never make it.”
“He will,” I didn’t even look at him. This man was starting to annoy me. It was hard enough to try to keep Juste’s spirits up without him singling us out for his own bellyaching audience.
“You’re wasting your time,” Martin shrugged.
“And how else would you have me spend it?” I demanded. “In complaint and despair as you do?”
His black eyes were strange as stars in the dark and the curls of his dark unkempt hair shaded his face. He didn’t respond for a minute or two, and when he did speak his voice was softer, more broken.
“How did we end up here?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to answer him. I don’t know if I even had an answer to his question at all, and felt that any words I could say would be clumsy and inadequate.
“It is not our place to understand the workings of the mind of God,” I said, trying to put words to it. “We are called to trust in him and remain in his grace to the best of our ability. All suffering here will end, and we will know its purpose some day, but for now . . . we can only try to do and be good.”
Again Martin was silent. I hoped as I fell asleep that something in my words may have been able to help him.
The next afternoon Juste almost fainted. This got him noticed by an old mullah.
“You!” the mullah snarled in his face. “Allah il Allah, we Mohammed rassul Allah. Say it!”
The sentence said something like God is God, and Mohammed is the prophet of God. White as a sheet, Juste to his great credit shook his head and refused to repeat the words.
“Dog!” the mullah struck him.
I thought shot into my mind, something I could do instead of standing idly by. I knew it probably wouldn’t do any good, besides the slight chance that it might distract the mullah from Juste. Bu that slight chance was enough to justify it in the moment, and I flew at the mullah, hitting him square in the face. To my great surprise Martin dove in after me. We’d barely moved before five other Muslims were on us and it was all over. Their leader appeared on the scene and stopped us, sentencing Martin and I to twenty lashes of the whip each.
Minutes later Martin and I sat next to each other, our backs burning from where the fiery strikes of the whip had cut into our flesh.
“Why did you do that?” I asked him, gingerly moving to try to adjust my body into a more comfortable position.
“Why did you?” he returned.
“You know why,” I said. “To me it was worth it to distract them from him. You . . . that wasn’t your reason.”
“Why shouldn’t I try to keep the boy from harm?” he asked, and then shrugged at the skeptical look I gave him. “Alright, maybe I had another reason. Maybe I didn’t want you to get all the satisfaction of punching that old mullah to yourself.”
I let it go. From that day I saw a change come over Martin, and he no longer sulked and complained quite as much. A week later the news came that Louis had been ransomed and we were all freed to march out of Damietta to Acre with our beloved king once more.
“Thank you,” Martin said, a trifle awkwardly, as he and Juste and I walked together leaving the city of our captivity.
“For what?” I asked when he didn’t continue.
“For being so annoyingly . . .” he began, and then said simply, “For giving me hope.”
I could think of no response to that, except to take his hand and clasp it firmly. We were separated at Acre, as Juste and I stayed on another four years with Louis and tried to help the Crusader States get themselves sorted out before finally returning to France, where Martin had gone home immediately following his release. There he joined a monastery and devoted the remainder of his days to living out his vocation.
(Originally Published on Ink and Fairydust)