A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
I had landed in the hands of a horse trader. That meant we travelled from market-town to market-town, always staying at the worst inns and taverns, and anyone who wanted was allowed to ride me. I didn’t want anyone to ride me. I’d had enough. So when they tried, I reared and backed up and made a terrible fuss. Of course, the horse trader beat me for that. At first I fought back, but then he denied me food and water. I capitulated.
It was summer, and the heat was terrible during most of the day. The sun burned right through my hair and if we had to travel any distance I was soon drenched in sweat. I had lost all interest in my surroundings by now and remember nothing of what happened before he found me except I was standing in the middle of a cobbled market place with people milling about looking at us as usual. Some stupid boy was even throwing things and hooting to make me and the other horses shy. One of his missiles hit me on the haunch and I lashed out with my hind hooves, more in irritation than fear. I hated all humans!
A voice cut through the usual mutter of humans and a silence fell. The boy started to dart away, obviously frightened, and another human caught him by the arm and dragged him forward, shoving the now reluctant boy at a tall, elegant man with black skin. There had been men with black skin among the Horse-Haters, so I tried to back away from him a bit, but he wasn’t dressed like a Horse-Hater. He wore a long, gently flowing surcoat that ended mid-calf and a leather belt, but no sash or turban. He also had a large cross made of metal hanging around his throat. After lecturing to the boy in a stern voice, he turned and approached me.
I tried to back away warily, but I was tied so when I got to the end of my rope all I could do was lean back on my haunches with my head raised as high as possible. He started muttering to me and reached out his hand. I was trembling all over for fear of a blow, but he started stroking me with the palm of his hand. Just stroking me. He didn’t pinch or poke or pull my lips apart. He just stroked me gently and talked to me in a low voice.
The horse trader came over and started to sing my praises. I was a great destrier. I’d been owned by great knight. Unfortunately, he lied, my knight had been killed at “Montgisard” — wherever that was supposed to be. Yes, yes, I’d lost a shoe in the battle, he said, and the tear wasn’t completely healed, but I wasn’t lame any more. To prove this, he took my lead and started trotting me up and down on the cobbles. The crowd was strangely still and everyone seemed to be watching.
After a bit, the black man signaled for him to bring me back, and he started stroking me again. Everything was fine, until he reached up toward my face. It’s stupid. I really knew at some level that he didn’t want to hurt me, but I was tied and those beatings by the Black Knight were still so vivid in my memory. I reacted instinctively, screaming and throwing my head back so violently that I found myself scrambling to get my feet back under me. Then one of my hind feet slipped completely out from under me and I landed on my haunches. By now the horse trader was shouting at me, and yanking on the lead to try to get me to stand up again. The black man shook his head and walked away.
That was the worst moment of my life. Worse than all the humiliations and the pain that had gone before because I had started to hope that this gentle man would buy me and take me away the hell I was in. But now, because of my own stupid reaction, he was disgusted with me and turned his back on me.
The trader saw it the same way and was furious with me. He hissed insults at me and slapped me a few times. Then he led me back to the stinking livery stable and shoved me into the stall, snarling. “No food or water for that behavior!”
I told myself I didn’t care, but it was so hot and soon I was so thirsty I was desperate. I whinnied and tried to tell the horse trader I was sorry. I begged him to give me just a drop to drink. OK, I’d go without food, but I needed the water. I was so distraught after a couple of hours, I pawing at the filthy straw and rocking back and forth, but, of course, I was tied in the standing stall so tightly I couldn’t turn my head.
I didn’t know what was happening until a hand touched my haunches and that lovely, soft voice was there beside me. I tried to turn my head, rolling my eyes as far back as possible, but I was tied too short. But it really was him, and he had a bucket full of cool, clean water. He loosened the tie, and I plunged my head down into that water and drank the bucket dry. Yet even as I was drinking he stroked my withers and talked to me in his own tongue.
When I’d finished drinking, I lifted my head and we looked at one another. He said clearly and distinctly, “I’m not going to hurt you, but you have to let me find out your age and injuries.”
I looked at him skeptically.
“I want to buy you for my lord, but he will want to know more about you.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. What if his lord was like the Black Knight? After all, the Black Knight’s squire hadn’t been so bad. Maybe things could get worse than this?
“Lord Balian is the best horseman I’ve ever seen. He taught the King to ride, even though he can’t use his hands. You have no reason to fear Lord Balian.”
I continued to look at him.
He started stroking my back, massaging it really. It felt so good I sighed unconsciously and he smiled at me. He worked his way down my spine, not pinching it like the horse trader did, just massaging it with his long, strong fingers. Eventually, he ran his fingers down the back of my legs too, and then he came back and faced me.
We looked at one another, and he slipped his hand under his surcoat and brought out a carrot. I wanted that carrot and I reached out my head a little to show him I wanted it, but then drew back afraid of him grabbing my head or hitting me. He held out the carrot to me on the palm of his hand and let me eat it unmolested. Then we looked at each other again. He brought out a second carrot. After the third one I let him touch my face and lift my lips to judge my age. He even slipped his fingers between my back and front teeth and tested now sensitive my jaw nerves were. But he did it very gently and respectfully.
When he was finished, he picked up the bucket, patted me on the withers and promised. “I’ll be back.”
That was the longest night of my life. The trader brought me no feed or water, but since I’d had that bucket and it was now cooler, I got through the night. In the morning, the trader came with water and food. Grumbling at me not to “muck up again,” he led me out to the market square. I looked everywhere for the black man. But he wasn’t there. The hours crawled by. The sun rose up the sky, getting hotter and hotter. The crowds of people came and went. My hope started to die. I let me head drop more and more.
The trader started toward me and he was smiling broadly. He had a halter in his hand and he fastened it around my neck before taking the halter holding me to the railing off. It was only when he started to lead me away in the new halter that I saw him. The black man was standing there smiling at me. He took the lead from the trader and led me away.
The protagonist of this story is also a character in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin, starting with:
A landless knight,
a leper king, and the struggle for Jerusalem!
Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin, Book I, is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.