Friday, November 21, 2014

Interview with Charlene Newcomb

Charlene Newcomb and I have a lot in common when it comes to writing -- both what interests us and what gives us a thrill and sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, Char was recently named a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree for Men of the Cross  So, I'm very pleased to have her answer some questions about herself and her latest book, Men of the Cross, set in the Third Crusade.

Did you want to be an author when you were younger?

My creative energies focused on music when I was young - piano, guitar, rock band. I had casts of characters and story ideas in my head but only committed anything to paper when demanded by English classes. One of those was an alternative historical where the Confederacy had won the Civil War. I didn’t pick up the pen seriously until many years later when I had a number of short stories published in the Star Wars Adventure Journal, a role-playing game magazine licensed by Lucasfilm, Ltd.

I know you have a degree in US History, but you didn’t go to college immediately after graduating from high school. What prompted you to join the Navy? Did your time in military service influence your writing?

I convinced my father to take me to the recruiters office when I was in the 9th grade (around age 14 for your international readers). I’m certain my parents and the recruiters thought it was passing fancy. I wanted a break from school and studies. I loved travel, was interested in learning other languages, and had a patriotic streak. (Shades of my main character Henry de Grey from Men of the Cross? Probably!) “Join the Navy and see the world” sounded like an excellent way to fulfill those dreams. I took the oath at 18 and shipped out to Florida for boot camp. Unfortunately, the “world” wasn’t part of my Naval career. All my training and jobs were stateside, but my experience as a communications technician/voice language analyst did infiltrate my earliest science fiction short stories, which were filled with spies and underground freedom fighters.

With that US History degree, why aren’t you writing historicals set in the United States?
A story set during the Revolutionary War has been on my “to-write” list for as long as I’ve been writing. I’ve mapped out significant plots points, have names for two main characters, and know the opening scenes, but my history degree barely touches on the depth of information I’ll need to write that novel. Life and research for my current book series take most of my time right now.

What prompted you to write a novel about the Third Crusade?

My interest in the Third Crusade was piqued by episodes of the BBC television series Robin Hood that featured Richard the Lionheart. The show may have been filled with historical anachronisms, but the images of war’s impact on young men - what we would call PTSD - and the characters’ loyalty to the king and to each other were powerful. Ever since childhood, I’ve been driven to learn more about subjects that interest me. I dove into translations of primary sources of the crusade and books on the life and times of Richard I. I have the perfect day job to fill that curiosity and research need: I work in a large university library.

You are working on Book 2 of Battle Scars. How long did it take you to write Men of the Cross, and how is progress on the second book coming along?

Men of the Cross began its life as a short story I penned in 2009. I intrigued my critique partners in those ten pages with two knights recently returned from serving Richard the Lionheart in Outremer. How did these men end up defending the Kentish coast in early 1193? Because I was working on another book, I didn’t start writing Men of the Cross until early 2012. The short story became the ending of the novel. While awaiting final editorial comments on Book 1, I completed a rough draft of Book 2, For King and Country. I am revising the last few chapters now. With luck, I’ll begin begin round two of edits by January and then ship the manuscript to beta readers.

Did you uncover any surprising historical persons, places, events or things in your research?

Contemporary chroniclers brought events to life. There were times I felt like I was reading fiction rather than an historical diary of everyday events in the lives of the men marching towards Jerusalem. The conditions of the march, the weather, how these men survived (or not). The tapestry of their lives and times fills me with incredible respect, and downright awe. On a lighter note, I learned that it can snow in Jerusalem. I guess it is like Kansas - until you’ve been here, you only have a perception in your mind of what it is like based on television, movies, or the news. Everyone remembers flat farmland and tornadoes from Wizard of Oz, when in reality, the northeast part of the state has beautiful rolling hills and gorgeous prairie. I can imagine wagon trains and buffalo as I drive along the I-70 corridor towards Kansas City. And though I haven’t traveled to Israel, I did experience it with King Richard’s army through the chroniclers.

Why should we read this book?  
Men of the Cross is a story of loyalty, friendship and love during wartime. It is the human drama against actual historical events as seen through the eyes of two knights. One is a young, naive, and devout Christian: Henry is gung-ho, ready to take up arms in the name of God. Stephan is only two years older, but he has been fighting at Richard’s side for five years. Stephan’s loyalty to Richard is what drives him. He follows his king on crusade and has little regard for the Church. If you like a bit of adventure and humor with your historical fiction this may be the book for you.

What are some of the complications in the book?
The harsh brutalities of war - moving armies thousands of miles - the politics of Richard, Philip of France, Leopold of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor - Saladin’s tactics - questioning beliefs taught about the Church, about life, about love - post-traumatic stress syndrome - same-sex relationships.

In your author’s note, you write: “Though one of the underlying themes of Battle Scars is the relationship between Henry and Stephan, I do not refer to the question of King Richard’s homosexuality.” When I saw blurbs about your book my question was simply: Why did you choose homosexual heroes in an age where homosexuality was viewed as far more damning (literally) than fornication and adultery etc.? It certainly was not "accepted" and viewed as normal! Particularly, why the homosexual angle now that historians have debunked inference, popular 50 years ago, about Richard I being homosexual?

Let me start with your last question first. I’d read many articles, primary sources, and biographies of Richard, and agree that evidence cited previously was circumspect. Because Men of the Cross features a gay main character, I mentioned the accusations about Richard to show I’d done my research and because some readers may only have a movie like The Lion in Winter for reference.

Numerous scholars note that attitudes about and punishment for homosexuality varied tremendously despite the stance of the Church in the 12th century. (I provide more background on the topic in a recent post here: The two main themes of Men of the Cross are the effects of war on a young knight and the comraderie and friendship, and ultimately love, that develops between two men. The story relates the human angle, recognizing homosexuality as part of the human condition. Certainly, “forbidden” love provides tremendous conflict. I could have written about a “forbidden” male/female relationship - any sex outside of marriage would have been a mortal sin. (And there was plenty of sinning going on given the number of illegimate children born to the nobility and the clergy!) But that story didn’t speak to me. Men of the Cross lets me dive into Henry’s inner turmoil as he questions his beliefs. Stephan readily admits his preference for men, but has never known or expected love. It is self-discovery for both men as their friendship deepens.

Does the book have any homo-erotic scenes?

The novel is not erotica. Men of the Cross is about the relationship, not about the sex. Like many novels, there is sexual tension and attraction. Yes, there are a few sex scenes. I'd call them emotionally charged. A friend called one “steamy.” There are tender and sometimes passionate touches, kisses, and a sense of intimacy and sensuality without being too graphic. I am a big believer in fade-to-black. The readers’ imagination can fill in the details.

Do you have a favorite scene from Men of the Cross? Which one & why?

Henry is profoundly affected when he witnesses the execution of 2,700 prisoners in Acre, one of the ugly blemishes of Richard the Lionheart’s history. After the crusaders fight off Saladin’s troops, Henry disappears. Stephan finds him bruised and bloodied at the waterfront. The scene shows Henry’s frailty and Stephan’s compassion, and to me, it is one of the most emotional scenes in the novel. Henry’s innocence lost. Stephan's helplessness.

Your book blurb mentions the ‘seeds of a new Robin Hood legend.’ Seeds?

Men of the Cross includes an origin story for Robin Hood - barely. I introduce a knight named Robin who is extraordinarily skilled with bow, and who left a girl back home named Marian. Allan and Little John are minor characters, young teenaged camp-followers, who are taken under the knights’ wings. I hope the reader sees how their lives and actions move them towards that ‘rob from the rich, give to the poor’ attitude, especially as their story arcs are developed further in Book 2. But don’t expect to see them outlawed and living in the greenwood at the end of Book 2.

What part of novel writing do you enjoy the most?

I love to imagine being in far away places and times, trying to visualize what my characters see, think, and feel. I love when a character surprises me, and takes me down a path I wasn’t expecting. Seeing words added to the blank page (or screen) is an exhilarating feeling, but hearing a chuckle or seeing that I tugged a heartstring when I share my work with my writing group and other readers is priceless.


Find Char on her website,, on Facebook, and Twitter. Men of the Cross, is available in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes & Noble, and on Smashwords.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Historical Balian d'Ibelin

My most recent novel, "Knight of Jerusalem," is a three-part biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin. So just who was Balian d'Ibelin? Here's some background information:

The Kingdom of Heaven, a film directed by Ridley Scott and released by 20th Century Fox in 2005, was based — very loosely — on the story of Balian d’Ibelin, a historical figure. Although Scott’s film was a brilliant piece of cinematography, the story of the real Balian d’Ibelin was not only different but arguably more fascinating than that of the Hollywood hero.

The Hollywood Balian: Orlando Bloom

Balian d’Ibelin was the younger son of Barisan d’Ibelin, an adventurer from Western Europe, who first emerged in history when he was made Constable of Jaffa and then later granted a fief in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-1140s.  Barisan than did what every self-respecting adventurer did: he married an heiress, the heiress of Ramla and Mirabel. On his death, his eldest son Hugh, evidently by an earlier marriage, inherited the paternal title of Ibelin, while Barisan’s eldest son by his second and richer wife inherited Ramla and Mirabel. The youngest son, Balian, was left empty-handed — a phenomenon unknown in earlier ages but increasingly a problem by the 12th century.

Despite this handicap, Balian rose to such prominence in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that Arab sources describe him as “like a king.” Unusually, and in sharp contrast to his elder brother, he was not merely an outstanding fighting man and knight, effective on the battlefield in offense and defense, but he was a diplomat and peacemaker. Balian played a decisive mediating role between factions within the Kingdom of Jerusalem and between the Kingdom and its external enemies, including negotiations with Saladin himself on two known occasions.

Salah-ad-Din from the film "Kingdom of Heaven"

Almost equally astonishing for a younger son, he made a brilliant marriage that catapulted him into the royal family, and, indeed, his descendants would repeatedly intermarry into the royal houses of both Jerusalem and Cyprus. Furthermore, this marriage was as close to a love-match as one could come among the nobility in the 12th century.

A 19th Century Painting of a Byzantine Queen

Such a man, it seemed to me, deserved a biography — a biography based on all the known facts, not just those that fit into Ridley Scott’s film concept. But while there are many intriguing known facts about Balian, there are many more things we do not know, making a traditional biography impossible — just as is the case with Leonidas of Sparta. A biographical novel, on the other hand, is a media that can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable.

That is my objective with a novel in three parts: to tell Balian’s story and to describe the fateful historical events surrounding the collapse of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th century. The historical record is the skeleton of this biographical novel, but the flesh and blood, faces, emotions, dreams and fears are extrapolated from those known facts.  I hope I have created a tale that my readers will find as fascinating, exiting and engaging as I do.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Leper King

My most recent novel, Knight of Jerusalem, is set in the lifetime and reign of Baldwin IV of Jerusalem. It therefore seemed only fair to introduce my readers to the historical Baldwin IV -- most commonly known as the "The Leper King." 

Balian d'Ibelin and Baldwin IV as depicted in Ridley Scott's Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin was born in 1161, the second child of Amalric of Jerusalem and Amalric's first wife, Agnes de Courtney. At the time of his birth, his father was the younger brother and heir apparent to King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. Two years latter, his uncle died and his father ascended the throne -- but only on the condition that he set aside Agnes de Courtney. Agnes was duly disposed of, but Baldwin with his sister Sibylla remained at court with their father, recognized as his heirs. In 1167, Amalric remarried, this time to the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena.  

At about this same time, Baldwin was diagnosed with leprosy by his tutor William, later Archbishop of Tyre. According to Tyre, the leprosy first manifested itself as a lack of feeling in Baldwin’s right hand. Yet there was no discoloration much less ulcers.  Accounts also stress that he was at his time an agile rider. 

In 1174, Baldwin's father died unexpectedly of dysentery on his way back from a campaign against Nur ad-Din, the Sultan of Damascus. Baldwin, despite his handicap, was elected King by the High Court of Jerusalem, despite the fact that other crown vassals afflicted with leprosy were required to join the Knights of St. Lazarus.  Being still a minor (13) at the time of his father's death, the Kingdom was placed in the care of a regent, Count Raymond of Tripoli, himself a descendent of Baldwin II and one of the most powerful barons. Notably, at this time Baldwin could still move and above a ride without apparent impediment.

Hawking was a popular sport at his time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He clearly took the reins of government for himself and signalled this by calling his mother back to court and placing his maternal uncle into the powerful position of Seneschal of Jerusalem. Tripoi appears to have been sidelined, but not in anyway humiliated. 

Given his own illness and the certainty that he would not sire a successor, the most pressing business of the Kingdom was the marriage of Baldwin's older sister Sibylla as she was de facto his heir. In fact, Tripoli had already arranged a marriage for her with William de Montferrat, a man from a powerful north Italian family. Unfortunately, William died in the summer of 1177, leaving Sibylla pregnant at 17. 

Meanwhile, the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah-ad-Din had first murdered the Vizier in Cairo and then, on the death of the Fatimid Caliph, declared Egypt Sunni. The death of the Sultan of Damascus in 1174 opened the way for Salah-ad-Din to seize control of Damascus as well, with Nur-ad-Din's legal heir fleeing to Aleppo. Although Salah-ad-Din would need almost ten more years to consolidate his position and eliminate all his rivals, he had effectively united Shiia Egypt and Sunni Syria under his rule by 1177 -- and to bolster his own legitimacy he had declared jihad against the Christian states in the Holy Land. 

Saladin in "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. Baldwin hoped to capitalize on disaffection among Salah-ad-Din's Shiia/Arab subjects for the Sunni/Kurdish usurper. Unfortunately, the Count of Flanders, who had arrived from the West with a large contingent of knights, thought he should be made King of Egypt if he helped conquer it, and the coalition fell apart. The Byzantine fleet withdrew and the Count of Flanders went off to campaign against Syria, taking many of the barons and knights of Jerusalem with him. 

Salah-ad-Din had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion and suddenly saw the Kingdom of Jerusalem open and practically defenseless before him. He invaded, sacking and plundering as he advanced north, leaving well defended positions like the Templar castle at Gaza untouched until he came to Ascalon. Ascalon has been in Egyptian hands until 1153 and was considered a key strategic position for the defense of Egypt -- or the attack on Jerusalem. Saladin prepared to besiege the city.

In a dramatic move, Baldwin IV rode to the rescue of Ascalon with only 367 knights, reaching the city just before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But now Baldwin was trapped inside and Jerusalem was more defenseless than ever, so Salah-ad-Din decided to strike for the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. Leaving maybe a third of his forces around Ascalon to keep Baldwin in the trap, Salah-ad-Din moved the bulk of his army north. Salah-ad-Din had such overwhelming superiority of force and so little respect for a leper youth of 16 that he allowed his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal.

He had miscalculated. Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, called up the feudal levies and fell on Salah-ad-Din from the rear, winning a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. (Watch for my entry on or near that date.) 

A Modern Depiction of Montgisard, Copyright Talento

But the consequences for Baldwin personally were also devastating. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, which state he had lost the feeling in his arm but that there were no other symptoms such as discoloration or ulcers, modern experts in the disease believe that Baldwin IV initially had primary polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. There was, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), nothing inevitable about this deterioration.  However, puberty itself can induce the deterioration as can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah-ad-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that caused Baldwin's leprosy to take a turn for the worse. According to Mitchell, children who develop lepromatous leprosy are likely to die prematurely, and so once Baldwin’s leprosy had become lepromatous it inevitably led took its course through the gruesome stages of increasing incapacitation to a an early death.

But Baldwin wasn't dead yet. In 1180, he allowed his sister Sibylla to marry a young adventurer from the West, Guy de Lusignan. According to one contemporary chronicler, Sibylla was seduced by Guy (and she would not have been the first princess in Outremer to be seduced by a young adventurer), and Baldwin first threatened to hang Guy for "debauching" an princess, but then gave in to his sister and mother's pleadings to let his sister marry "the man she loved." Other sources suggest that Baldwin feared the Count of Tripoli was planning to depose him by arranging a marriage between Sibylla and Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Whatever the reason, with Sibylla's marriage to Guy the succession appeared secure again.

A Royal Wedding in Jerusalem

The succession might have been secure, but the Kingdom was not. Salah-ad-Din had invaded a second time in 1179 and Baldwin had been unhorsed in the engagement, an indication of his deteriorating condition. When Salah-ad-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride and commanded his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. The following year, however, he was seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed designated his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah-ad-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem returned in a rebellious mood. The news that the key castle of Kerak was under siege (with both Princesses of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen all trapped inside for a wedding) should have triggered the immediate dispatch of a major relief force. Instead, the entire High Court (allegedly unanimously) refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere. He was dismissed as regent, and Baldwin IV had to drag is disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army. The mere approach of the Leper King, however, was enough to convince Salah-ad-Din to withdraw. 

By now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband William de Montferrat crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the boy's death a year latter -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah-ad-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected.

Baldwin IV plays a major role in the first two volumes of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

Book I: Knight of Jerusalem was released in September 2014.

A landless knight,

                     a leper king,
                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Friday, October 31, 2014

"I cannot tell you the pain I am in." - Excerpt 7

Kingdom of Jerusalem, December 1177

During this altercation, Balian had gone to Ibrahim. The old slave had been knocked backwards by Sibylla’s blow, or his efforts to avoid it, and he sat on the floor holding his face in his hands. “Ibrahim! Are you hurt?”

“Hurt?” The old slave looked up at Balian with tears in his eyes. “I cannot tell you the pain I am in, my lord.” His lips were quivering with emotion. “The leprosy is spreading again and it has become ulcerous! My lord’s feet are covered with running soars, and his own sister does not care! Does not even want to hear about it!”

Balian turned to stare at the closed door separating him from Baldwin, and then he reached down and helped Ibrahim to his feet. “I will go to him—“

“No, my lord! He ordered me to keep everyone away! I tried to stop Lady Sibylla, but –“

“I will go to him, Ibrahim, and he will not blame you. Zoe! Come help Ibrahim wash the blood from his lips and nose.”

Maria Zoe was already taking the old slave by his elbow and leading him to one of the waiting benches, while Balian gently opened the door to the inner chamber and slipped inside.

The chamber was completely dark. Not a single candle burned here and the only light came from a double-light window facing west out of city to the luminescent sky in which the sun had set. Balian stood inside the door adjusting to the dark, searching with his eyes and ears for the room’s occupant. After almost a minute, he realized that there was no one in sight, but the curtains to the bed were closed. Taking a deep breath, Balian moved silently to the bed and slowly drew back the curtain.

Baldwin was lying on his side, his back to Balian. His shoulder was shaking convulsively. Balian knelt with one knee on the edge of the bed and laid his hand on Baldwin’s shoulder.

“Why?” Baldwin croaked out of a throat cramped from suppressing his sobs. “Why does God hate me, Ibrahim?”

“He does not hate you, Baldwin.”

“Balian! Where did you come from?” Baldwin reared up and turned around in a single gesture. He stared at his friend with wide eyes and a face streaked with tears.

“We’ve been waiting in the anteroom for hours, but were told you were not ready to receive us. Ibrahim tried to stop me, so don’t blame him.”

“Of course not! If I’d known you – Oh, Balian, have you heard? The leprosy. We thought it had stopped spreading but it’s –“ Baldwin broke down again and started sobbing.

Balian sat down on the bed and pulled the teenager into his arms. “Ibrahim told me.”

“Why?” Baldwin cried into his breast. “Why? Why? Why? What have I done to deserve this? Why does God want to punish me? For what?”

“Not for anything you have done, Baldwin. Like Christ, you are suffering for our sins ― the sins of your subjects.”

“That’s not fair, Balian! Other kings don’t suffer for the sins of their subjects. Why me?”

“I don’t know, Baldwin, I can only tell you that while you may suffer in this life, He will take you into his arms like a long lost son in the next. You will go straight to heaven, Baldwin, while the rest of us languish in our graves, in purgatory or in hell. He has laid upon you the suffering He reserves only for those He loves most: His Son, His saints and His martyrs.”

Baldwin drew back enough to look Balian in the face. “Do you really believe that?” He asked at length.

“I have to, Your Grace, or I would lose faith in God himself.”

Baldwin drew a ragged breath and then slowly straightened up, pulling out of Balian’s embrace. “I don’t want you to be infected,” he whispered, the tears streaming down his face nevertheless. Balian grabbed the bed sheets and found a corner with which to wipe the tears from his king’s face. Then he held him firmly by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. “It will be as God wills it, Baldwin, but it seems He does not think me worthy of your suffering.”

“Or He wants to reward you in a different way,” Baldwin suggested with a weak attempt at a smile. “Why are you here?”

“To ask ― to ask a favor,” Balian confessed.

“A favor?” Baldwin asked frowning. “You too?” 

 Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Just who was Balian d'Ibelin? - Excerpt 6

Ascalon, Kingdom of Jerusalem

Disappointed, Maria Zoë went to one of the chairs between the arches and slowly sank down onto it. From habit she folded her hands in her lap, and the image she presented to the outside world was one of a patient queen, awaiting the refreshments promised. Behind that façade, however, her emotions were teetering on the brink of panic. She had ridden all this way, mystifying those around her, for a confrontation with what? A ghost from her past? A figment of her imagination?

Just who was Balian d’Ibelin?

In this functional room, shorn of all her dreams and wishful thinking, she realized that she did not know him at all. He had never said one word about himself―about his feelings, his plans, his dreams. He had always spoken of Baldwin. Baldwin had been their shared interest. Nothing more.

There was a knock on the door and she caught her breath, turning toward it expectantly. But the tall young knight who entered was not Balian. He looked vaguely familiar, but Maria Zoë could not place him. He came toward her, smiling, and bowed deeply from two feet away before announcing, “My lord was out in the lists, but he will return shortly. Meanwhile, is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable, your grace? Sherbet is being prepared even as we speak, but perhaps you would like something more substantial?”

“At the moment, no, aside from learning your name, sir.”

“Oh, I’m Sir Walter. You’ll remember me as Sir Balian’s squire.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” Now that he said it, she did recognize him, although he had matured significantly; his lean body had filled out and his face looked like it could now grow a beard. “So you’ve been knighted,” she noted politely. Two years was a long time for a youth on the brink of manhood.

Walter grinned at her. “Sir Balian didn’t have any choice. He felt the city was inadequately defended, so he doubled the number of knights in Ascalon by knighting me.”

Maria Zoë looked suitably shocked, and Walter laughed. “And even so, he’d rather tilt with the quintain than with me. I fall off the horse from just thinking about the lance hitting me. Ah! Here’s the sherbet.” Walter went to open the door wider for a servant carrying a silver tray, laden with two glazed pottery bowls packed with sherbet, a bowl of cashews, and spoons. The servant set the tray down on the table beside Maria Zoë and offloaded it. Rahel motioned to Walter to sit with her lady, but he shook his head, adding graciously to the waiting woman, “Refresh yourself, my lady. You’ve had a hot ride, while I’ve been comfortable in the shade. But I will keep you company, if you like?” 
The question was directed to the Queen.

“By all means,” the latter assured him as Rahel sat down, and Walter grabbed a stool to sit astride at Maria Zoë’s feet.

Maria Zoë’s head was filled with questions that Walter could undoubtedly answer. For example, was Balian looking for a wife? And if so, where? And if not, why not? But she dared not ask.

“Did you come directly from Jerusalem, your grace?” Walter asked in the vacuum left by her own silence.

“Yes, we did.”

“Then could you be so kind as to tell us the latest news? Is it true Salah-ad-Din has left Damascus?”

“Yes, he has returned to Egypt. Our spies suggest there was a revolt, but Salah-ad-Din is said to have ruthlessly suppressed it with terrible bloodshed.” Maria Zoë had been with the King when this word was brought to him by a Syrian Christian who traded in ivory between Cairo and Damascus. “Our source says that he sealed off the quarter of the city in which the rebels lived and sent his men in to slaughter the women and children house by house until none survived.” Maria Zoë shook her head in aversion at the story, adding,
“And now he is preaching jihad and threatening us with the same fate. It is said Salah-ad-Din has vowed to drive the Kingdom of Jerusalem into the sea.”

“Then this is an odd time to visit Ascalon,” Balian remarked softly, coming in the open door.

Maria Zoë started at the sound of his voice and looked up with racing pulse. He was exactly as she remembered him―no, he was much more handsome. Two years ago he had been a knight in her husband’s service: young, strong, tanned, and earnest, as befitted the only knight who dared serve a leper. Now he commanded a city, and his new position gave him stature. But the eyes were still the same molten bronze. No, they weren’t. They were much bolder. He looked her straight in the eye as he approached, and it took her breath away.

Balian’s skin was flushed from the steam bath and glowed with oils, and he smelled of balsam. His hair was still wet and looked almost black, but the drying strands looked as soft and silky as Maria Zoë’s own when her hair was freshly cleaned, only straight rather than curly. Balian’s chin was slightly darkened with the promise of a beard to come, as he had not taken the time to shave. Maria Zoë heard her heart thundering in her ears―and registered that this must be what the troubadours meant when they sang of a knight making his lady’s blood burn.

Balian had crossed the room, and he bowed deeply over her hand. “Welcome to Ascalon, your grace. I regret that without warning, we could not provide you with a more suitable welcome. I hope Sir Walter has been behaving himself and has made you feel at home?”

“Sir Walter is a paragon of chivalry, my lord,” Maria Zoë answered smoothly, too conscious of the turmoil of her emotions to realize how cool and aloof she sounded.
Walter had jumped to his feet when Balian arrived, and Rahel had stood, too. She again gestured to the seat she had occupied.

Balian shook his head to Rahel, gesturing for her to resume her seat. He looked over his shoulder and found a smaller chair, which he grabbed and placed before the table. “To what do we owe the honor of your presence in Ascalon, your grace?”

Balian could not have been more formal, and Walter wanted to kick him. That’s no way to court a lady, he wanted to shout at his lord, not any lady―much less one of the most beautiful creatures on God’s earth, with a queen’s dower portion on top!

Walter was right, of course. Maria Zoë felt as if she had been burned by ice. Balian had always been meticulously polite to her, of course, but before, it had been a façade. Hadn’t it? He had been polite to disguise how much he really felt for her, hadn’t he? She had been so sure of it at the time. She had believed in his affection for the two years she had been with the Carmelites. It was the conviction that he would be pleased to see her that had brought her here―two days’ ride from Jerusalem to the most vulnerable city in the Kingdom.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Salah-ad-Din! - Excerpt 5

Ascalon, November 1177

“Salah-ad-Din!” the man shouted up to the lookouts on the ramparts of the barbican. “With his whole army!” He gestured wildly to the south with one hand while trying to drag a reluctant overloaded mule toward the closed Gaza Gate with the other. It was nearly midnight and the gates were locked and barred, but the watch peered down at not just one man with a mule, but dozens of people streaming toward the city by the light of the setting moon.

The captain of the watch squinted into the darkness, trying to estimate the number of refugees. Then he turned to the man next to him and said, “Better rouse Sergeant Shoreham. I’m not opening these gates without his orders.” He leaned over the ramparts and shouted down to the man with the mule, “Patience! We’ll let the lot of you in at once, not piecemeal.”

By the time Roger arrived, his hair sticking up in all directions, the crowd at the gate had grown to an angry, milling mob of nearly a half a hundred people, including squalling babies, whimpering children, and pleading women. “Salah-ad-Din!” the men kept shouting and gesturing. “He’s coming with his whole army!”

Roger gave the order to admit the refugees and, after hesitating a moment, also ordered the sounding of the alarm to call the garrison to the walls. The men stared at him in shock, but then one of them grabbed the bell cord and began vigorously ringing the heavy brass bell on the Gaza barbican with all his might. The sound seemed paltry in the vastness of the night, but it was quickly answered by the bells on the other gates―and slowly, haphazardly, as priests and deacons were roused from their sleep, the bells of the city’s churches took up the clangor. Within minutes St. Paul’s added its deep, heavy voice to the chorus of bells, and St. Mary’s, the main Orthodox church, seemed to be competing for the loudest clang.

The sound brought Balian from his sleep with a start, trying to remember what saint’s day it was. Then he registered that it was pitch dark, and he sat bolt upright in his bed as he realized the bells could only be ringing alarm. He had been Constable of Ascalon for fifteen months now, but this was the first time he had heard the bells rung in earnest. He flung off the light covers and jumped out of bed. “Arms! Bring my arms!” he shouted at a bewildered Dawit, just dragging himself out of his own sleep.

Balian flug off his nightshirt and grabbed his braies. He pulled them on and tied the cord, while Daniel stumbled to his feet to bring him his shirt. Balian pulled this over his head and snapped his fingers for his hose, which Daniel brought and helped him draw on and make fast to his braies. Balian was already in his gambeson and stuffing his feet into knee-high suede boots by the time a servant knocked on the door, shouting: “Sir Balian! Sir Balian! Sergeant Shoreham requests your presence at the Gaza Gate!”

“I’m coming!” Balian answered, and bent so Dawit could slip his hauberk over his head. He pushed his arms through the slack chain-mail sleeves while Daniel waited with his surcoat. He pulled this on, grabbed his sword from Dawit’s outstretched arms, and selected the lighter, open-faced crevelier rather than the heavy helm Daniel offered him. Finished at last, he ordered his squires to dress themselves, wake Sir Walter, and join him on the Gaza Gate.

By the time Balian reached the Gaza Gate, the number of refugees had swollen to nearly a hundred, and the ten Hospitaller knights had also mustered on foot. “They’re saying Salah-ad-Din is on the move with his entire army!” one of the Hospitallers called out to Balian as the latter jumped down from Jupiter to mount the stairs onto the barbican.

Balian handed his reins to one of the Hospitallers, asking: “How far away is he supposed to be?”

“Not more than twelve miles, they say. Most of these people fled early in the morning and have been making for Ascalon all day.”

“That would mean he’s marched past the Templar castle at Gaza,” Balian countered.

“These people are reporting one hundred thousand soldiers with Salah-ad-Din; the Templars only have five hundred fighting men at Gaza. Even they wouldn’t be mad enough to attack against those odds.”

“These people are panicked refugees. I’ll believe this is Salah-ad-Din’s whole army, and not just a raid, when I have better evidence than the panicked claims of fleeing peasants. How soon can you be ready to ride?” he asked the Hospitaller.

The man glanced back at his troops and then replied, “Ten minutes.”

“Good. Make ready,” Balian ordered (although he had no right to do so), and then plunged into the darkness of the narrow spiral stairwell leading up to the ramparts of the barbican.

When Balian stepped out of the stairwell onto the roof of the barbican, he quickly counted double the number of men usually stationed there, and recognized George Smith and Joachim Zimmermann among them. They were wearing leather jacks with hoods and had swords at their hips. Just as Roger had promised, it wasn’t just the garrison that had responded to the clanging of the bells.

Roger caught sight of Balian and went over to him. “You’ve seen the refugees, my lord? They’re saying Salah-ad-Din is on the march with his whole army.”

“What makes you think this is an invasion and not a raid?”

“I don’t know, sir. I would just rather be safe than sorry.”

Balian nodded his approval, but his guts were twisting themselves in knots. Salah-ad-Din had assembled his army to counter a threat posed by a Byzantine fleet sent to support the troops of the Count of Flanders and the Army of Jerusalem, but Flanders had quarreled with the Byzantines (ignoring Zoë’s advice, she confided in him), and now the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the Count of Flanders had gone campaigning in the north. This left Salah-ad-Din with his assembled forces on the southern border of the Kingdom at a time when it was virtually denuded of troops. The Saracens would be mad not to take advantage of the situation and attack, Balian thought as he followed Roger to the parapet. And Ascalon made the most tempting target. The Sultan must be itching to take it back and regain a base for his own fleet.

“There! Do you see the pinpoints of light on the horizon?” Roger broke into his thoughts.

Balian had to look very hard, but then he nodded. “Burning villages?”

“That’s my guess, my lord.”

Balian nodded again. “Roger, I want you to put the city on the defensive.”

“Yes, my lord, that’s what we’ve done.”

“Yes. What I meant is: I want you to take command of the defense.”

“But, my lord―”

Balian held up his hand and turned to Walter, Dawit, and Daniel, who had just arrived together. “Dawit, tack up Gladiator―with battle gear, the chain reins―and bring him here.”

“Do you need your lance and helmet, sir?” Daniel asked with breathless excitement.

“You aren’t going out there, my lord!” Roger gasped.

“The Hospitallers and I will ride reconnaissance,” Balian answered.

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