Friday, July 25, 2014

Knight of Jerusalem -- Search for the Cover

My current project is a biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts. The first book in the trilogy will be released this fall under the title: Knight of Jerusalem. The publisher has provided three mock-up covers. Please tell me which you like best by taking part in the poll.

The cover text below will tell you a little more about the content of the book -- and I'll provide more information about it as the publication date gets closer.

Balian, the landless son of a local baron, goes to Jerusalem to seek his fortune. Instead he finds himself trapped into serving a young prince suffering from leprosy. He appears condemned to obscurity and an early death — until the king dies unexpectedly making the leper boy King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem.

The Byzantine princess Maria Comnena was just 13 years old when she arrived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to cement the alliance between Latin Jerusalem and Greek Constantinople.  Despite her excellent education and intelligence, she is little more than a pretty doll in the eyes of her husband, a man almost three times her age.  Then suddenly the King is dead and at just 20 years of age Maria finds herself a wealthy widow with a vulnerable two-year-old daughter on her hands.

 Meanwhile, the charismatic Kurdish leader Saladin has united the forces of Islam and vowed to drive the Christians into the sea.  Only a united and vigorous defense can save the Christian kingdom, but not only is the king young, inexperienced and mortally ill, the barons are divided among themselves and the militant orders bitter rivals.  As the King tries to chart a course to salvage his Kingdom from certain obliteration, he leans increasingly upon his boyhood friend, Balian d’Ibelin.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Tribute to Friedrich Olbricht and the "General's Plot" Against Hitler

General Friedrich Olbricht was the first of literally thousands of Germans to fall victim to the National Socialist purge that followed the failed coup of 20 July 1944. It is fitting that he should die first, because -- with the exception of Generaloberst Ludwig Beck, who died almost simultaneously -- no other figure in the German Resistance to Hitler had been such a consistent and effective opponent of the regime.

Olbricht was an opponent of Hitler from before he came to power. This was because on the one hand he recognized Hitler's demonic and dangerous character; and on the other hand he had been one of the few Reichswehr officers who served the Weimar Republic with conviction and sincere loyalty.  Because he did not view the Republic as a disgrace and long for some kind of national 'renewal,' he never allowed himself to believe that Hitler and his movement might be a positive force for the restoration of German honor and power.

Furthermore, because Olbricht recognized the legitimacy of the Republic, he discerned the illegal nature of the Nazi regime from the very start.  Nor was he enchanted by Hitler's early successes.  Regardless of how much he may have welcomed an expansion of the Reichswehr, he saw the murders of June 30, 1934 as the barbaric acts of lawlessness that they were. He did not look the other way or rationalize what had been done.  As a result, his moral standards were not corrupted by rationalization of, much less complicity in, crimes. Because Olbricht's opposition and resistance were motivated by moral outrage at the policies and methods of the Nazis, his opinion of and attitude toward the Nazi regime never softened despite internal and international successes.

By 1938, Olbricht's opposition to the increasingly dangerous and lawless Nazi regime had reached the point where he was prepared to consider a coup d'etat against the government. From 1940 onwards he belonged to the inner core of a conspiracy centered around Generaloberst Beck, which actively sought to bring down the Nazi regime. Starting in early 1942, he developed the clever tactic of using a legitimate General Staff plan, Valkyrie, as the basis for a coup against the government. By the end of 1942, according to Gestapo reports, he argued "with increasing urgency that the military must act regardless of how difficult the coup might be." After two failed assassination attempts in early 1943, he recruited Claus Graf Stauffenberg for the Resistance. On July 15 1944, he issued the Valkyrie orders two hours in advance of the first possible opportunity for the assassination.

On 20 July 1944, Olbricht waited only for confirmation that an 'incident' had occurred before he set the coup in motion for a second time in the same week. Once the coup started, he was, according to all accounts, consistently energetic and forceful in trying to drive the coup forward to success. He did not call it off when Keitel denied Hitler was dead, and he arrested Fromm and others.  If one gives credence to the reports of eyewitness -- rather than the most-mortem commentary of historians -- at no time on 20 July did Olbricht hesitate or lose heart.

As for Claus Graf Stauffenberg, all his burning desire to 'save Germany' would have served him little if his next assignment after his severe wounds in North Africa had landed him in any other of the almost infinite number of jobs available to a German army lieutenent colonel in the summer of 1943.  HIs energy and commitment would have brought no benefit to the German Reistance if he had found himself serving, say, on the staff of Military District XVII in Vienna, or -- as a former cavalry officer -- as coordinator of the supply remounts for ain increasingly horse-dependent Wehrmacht. But Olbricht chose Stauffenberg as his new Chief of Staf and so gave him the opportunity to become one of the leading figures in the German Resistance to Hitler.

Olbricht and Stauffenberg worked together well. Stauffenberg brought fresh energy, fresh perspectives and new dynamism to the coup, but he did not replace Olbricht. Rather he complimented him.  While Olbricht was disciplined and mature, canny and experienced, Stauffenberg was passionate, flamboyant and creative. Olbricht and Stauffenberg saw themselves as a team, as comrads, working together towards the same goal. And no description of Olbricht and Stauffenberg would be complete without mentioning that htey liked working together.  One of the secretaries who worked in the small office between their respective offices reported: "When the two of them were together, you heard so much laughter, just laughter."

It is Olbricht's tragedy that his pivotal role in the German Resistance to Hilter has been overshadowed by others and his contributions underestimated, demeaned or forgotten.  

(The above is paraphrased from the concluding chapter of Codename Valkyrie: General Olbricht and the Plot against Hitler, by Helena P. Schrader, Haynes Publishing, 2009.

Olbricht also plays a key supporting role in my novel about the German Resistance An Obsolele Honor 

(Kindle edition: Hitler's Demons: A Novel of the German Resistance.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Battle of Hattin

July 4 marks not only U.S. Independence Day but also the anniversary of 
the Battle of Hattin, fought in 1187.

 The Battle of Hattin

The devastating defeat of the combined Christian army at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, was one of the most significant disasters in medieval military history.  Christian casualties at the battle were so enormous, that the defense of the rest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem became impossible, and so the defeat at Hattin led directly to the loss of the entire kingdom including Jerusalem itself. The loss of the Holy City, led to the Third Crusade, and so to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I “Barbarossa”, and extended absence from his domains of Richard I “the Lionheart.” Both circumstances had a profound impact on the balance of power in Western Europe. Meanwhile the role of the critical of Pisan and Genoese fleets in supplying the only city left in Christian hands, Tyre, and in supporting Richard I’s land army resulted in trading privileges that led to the establishment of powerful trading centers in the Levant. These in turn fostered the exchange of goods and ideas that led historian Claude Reignier Condor to write at the end of the 19th Century that: “…the result of the Crusades was the Renaissance.” (The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 to 1291 AD, The Committee of Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897, p. 163.)

The importance of Hattin to contemporaries was not just the magnitude of the defeat, but the unexpectedness of it.  In retrospect, the victory seems inevitable. Muslim states had always surrounded the crusader kingdom (as they hem in Israel today) and the Muslim rulers could always been able to call on much larger military forces than their Christian opponents.  In the early years of Latin presence in the Holy Land, the divisions among the Muslim leaders, most especially the rivalry and hatred between Shiite Caliphate of Cairo and the Sunni Caliphate of Damascus, had played into Christian hands.  However, once Saladin had managed to unite Syria and Egypt under a single, charismatic leader the balance of power clearly tipped to the Muslims.

This ignores the fact that Christian armies under Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and Richard I of England defeated Saladin on the battlefield more than once.  Saladin was a powerful, charismatic and clever commander, who knew how to deploy his forces effectively and use terrain to his advantage — but he was not invincible. Indeed, he was dealt a defeat every bit as devastating as Hattin in November 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard. His invading army was annihilated, and he himself had to flee on the back of a pack-camel. In July 1182, the Christian army under Baldwin IV stopped another full-scale invasion by Saladin, forcing him to withdraw across the Jordan with comparatively few Christian losses. In June the following year, 1183, the Christian army confronted yet another invasion on an even larger force and again forced Saladin to withdraw — this time without even engaging in an all-out battle.

Despite these apparent successes, it was clear to the King of Jerusalem that Saladin was getting stronger with each new invasion attempt.  Saladin had increased his own power base from Cairo and Damascus to Aleppo, Homs and Mosul, while the Christians had no new infusions of blood, territory or income. In consequence, in 1184 Baldwin IV sent a frantic plea to the West, begging for a new crusade and offering the Western leader — whoever he might be — the keys to the kingdom. The lack of response reflected Western complacency about the threat to Jerusalem and implicit confidence in the ability of Baldwin and his barons to continue to defeat Saladin’s attempts to push the Christian kingdom into the sea.

It was because of Baldwin’s earlier successes against Saladin, that the news of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem shocked the West, allegedly causing the immediate death of Pope Urban III. How was it possible that a young and vigorous king, Guy I, could lead the same army to defeat that a youth suffering from leprosy (and only commanding his armies from a liter) had led to victory again and again?  

Rarely in human history has a defeat been so wholly attributable to poor generalship on the losing side as at Hattin. To be sure, Saladin set a trap for the Christian armies. The bait was the citizens and garrison of Tiberius under the command of the Countess of Tripoli, who were besieged in the citadel after the fall of the city on July 2.  The Christian army was mustered at Sephorie, only some 15 miles to the west. The pleas for help from the Countess and Tiberius naturally evoked a response from the Christian army, most notably her four grown sons.  But the Count of Tripoli himself warned that it was a trap and opposed the decision to go to the aid of Tiberius. Tripoli’s reasoning convinced the majority of his peers and the council of war composed of the leading barons agreed to stay where they were and force Saladin to come to them. However, the Grand Master of the Temple went separately and secretly to King Guy after the council dispersed and convinced him to order the advance for the following day. In short, although warned, King Guy took the bait.

To relieve Tiberius, the Christian army had to cross territory that was at this time of year devoid of fodder for the horses and where water sources were widely dispersed. With Saladin’s forces already occupying the springs at Cafarsset, on the southern route from Sephorie to Tiberias, the Christian had no choice but to follow the northern track, which led via the springs of Turan. Intense heat and harassment by the enemy slowed the Christian march to a crawl, and by noon on July 3, the Christian army had advanced only six miles to the springs of Turan.  With nine miles more to go, it was clear the army could not reach Tiberius before nightfall and prudence alone should have dictated a halt at Turan, where men and horse could rest and drink. Instead, King Guy against all reason ordered the advance to continue. Immediately, Saladin sent his troops to occupy Turan, thereby not-only blocking the Christian retreat but harassing the Christian rear-guard and further slowing the rate of advance.

A depiction of the Christian army advancing toward Hattin carrying the “True Cross”
from the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

When darkness fell on July 3, the Christian army was still six miles short of its objective and forced to camp in an open field completely surrounded by enemy forces.  The Christians had been marching and fighting for hours without water in the intense heat of a Palestinian summer. Men and horses were exhausted and further demoralized by the sound of Saracen drums surrounding them and the countless campfires advertising the enemy’s strength. 

By morning, those fires were brush-fires intentionally set ablaze to windward of the Christian army in a maneuver that dried their already parched throats further while half-blinding them with smoke. Out of the smoke came volleys of arrows, and again “some of the Christian lords” urged King Guy to charge Saladin’s position at once, in an attempt to win the battle by killing the Sultan.  King Guy instead chose to try to march the entire army toward the springs of Hattin, still some three miles away and cut off by one wing of Saladin’s army.

While the Christian cavalry tried to drive off the Saracen cavalry in a series of charges and counter-charges, the infantry stumbled forward until, half-blinded by smoke, constantly attacked by the enemy and near dying of thirst, the morale of the Christian infantry broke.  As casualties mounted, some of the infantry retreated up the slopes of the “horns” of Hattin, two steep hills that flanked the plane on which the army had camped and now marched and refused to fight any more. 

Meanwhile, the Count of Tripoli with his knights and Lord Reginald of Sidon finally broke-through the surrounding enemy, charging east toward the Lake of Tiberius.  The Christian infantry that had not fled up the slopes tried to follow in the wake of the cavalry, but the Saracens under the command of one of Saladin’s nephews stepped aside to let the armored knights through and then closed ranks again, cutting off the Christian infantry that was cut down or taken captive.

By now it was later afternoon, and with the infantry either already slaughtered or refusing to come down from the hilltop, King Guy ordered his knights to retreat up the slope as well. By now, many of the knights were fighting on foot because their horses became vulnerable once the infantry cover was withdraw.  It was probably at this stage in the battle that the relic, believed to be a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified, was lost. The Bishop of Acre, who had been carrying it, was killed, and the effect on Christian morale of the loss of this most precious relic — believed to have brought victory in dozens of earlier battles was devastating.

The final stages of the Battle of Hattin as depicted in the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

But still King Guy did not surrender.  What few knights were still mounted made one (or two) last desperate charge(s) to try to kill Saladin, who was mounted and clearly identifiable among his troops.  This charge was probably lead by Balian d’Ibelin. While the charge came close enough to Saladin for him to have to shout encouragement to his men, like Tripoli before him, once Ibelin was through the enemy, he had no chance of fighting his way back up-hill through the ever thickening ranks of the enemy closing in on their prey. Within minutes, King Guy’s last position was over-run and he along with most of his barons were taken prisoner.

Of the roughly 20,000 Christian soldiers who had set out from Sephorie, only an estimated 3,000 infantry managed somehow to escape into the surrounding countryside and eventually take refuge in the castles and walled towns then still in Christian hands. Of the 1,200 knights and barons that mustered for the battle, only four barons, Tripoli, Sidon, Edessa and Ibelin, escaped capture along with maybe 100 - 200 knights. The remainder including the King of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital, the Constable Aimery de Lusignan, the Lords of Oultrajourdain, Toron, Gibelet, and others — effectively the entire nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. While the majority of these lords and knights were held for ransom, the 230 Templars and Hospitallers that survived the battle were executed at Saladin’s orders.

Medieval painting of prisoners being led away (here by a Christian king)

As a result of these losses, both killed and captured, the kingdom was effectively denuded of defenders. King Guy had issued the equivalent of the “levee en masse” of the Napoleonic era, the arriere ban, and every able-bodied fighting man had mustered at Sephorie. Left behind in the castles, towns and cities were women, children, the old and the ill. There were no garrisons capable of offering an effective resistance. Worse, even if there had been, there was no point to resistance since there was no army capable of coming to the relief of a city under siege. Thus when Saladin’s army appeared before the walls of one fortress or city after another, the citizens had the choice of surrender in exchange for their lives and such valuables as they could carry or hopeless resistance. Since the rules of contemporary warfare dictated that resistance justified massacre, rape and enslavement, it is hardly surprising that the Christian cities and castles capitulated one after another, starting with Nazareth, and the Acre on July 8, followed by Haifa, Caesarea, Arsuf, Jaffa, Ramla, Ibelin, Darum, Sidon, Beirut, Gibelet, Nablus, Beirut and Ascalon.

By mid-September only isolated castles and two cities defied Saladin: Tyre which was particularly defensible and to which he barons of Tripoli and Sidon and the garrisons of the surrendered cities withdrew, and Jerusalem itself.  But the siege of Jerusalem is material for another post….

Friday, June 20, 2014

Resurrecting the Dead: The Art of Historical Fiction

Biographical fiction is the art of bringing historical figures back to life. Effective biographical fiction can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable. Good biographical fiction provides insight into the psychology of real historical characters and can help explain the historical events these people shaped by explaining the motives and character traits that drove them to play the role they did in history.

Writing biographical fiction requires all the skills necessary for writing historical fiction – and more. You need to maintain a balance between action, dialogue and description. You need to write effectively to be able to evoke scenes and environments with which the reader is not automatically familiar (the past!). And you need to have done your homework and really know about the historical period and society in which your book is set. In addition, you must know everything there is to know about the subject/central character – and the historical figures with whom he/she interacted. Thus, research in biographical fiction not only enables a novelist to produce a vivid environment – an effective and colorful stage on which the characters can act, but provides the story-line, plot and to a large extent the cast of characters as well.

Yet even two completely accurate, non-fictional biographies can produce radically different images of the subject. There are always gaps in the historical record, phases of a person’s life that were not meticulously recorded, or events so controversial that multiple – even conflicting – versions of them exist. Unless the subject of a biography also kept diaries of their thoughts and doings every day of his/her life, there is also the challenge of trying to understand motives for recorded actions. Yet even if the subject of the biography did keep diaries or write letters, there is the issue of how honest or self-serving such documents are. Biographers fill in the gaps, select which of several competing accounts of events seems most plausible and speculate about motives and emotions not recorded. Non-fictional biographers do this openly by discussing the different possible interpretations and explaining the reasoning for their analysis of the character's actions and motives. Novelists do this by turning their portrayal into a novel.

Another way of looking at it is to see the historical record is the skeleton of the biographical novel. Without it, you have no substance – and no credibility. But most readers do not want to read about skeletons, certainly not inert ones: they want characters with flesh and blood, with faces, emotions, dreams and fears.

So you need to research more than the life of your subject, you need to understand their family background, their profession (and that of their parents),  the customs and contemporary culture of the society they lived in, the legal system to which they were subject, the technology and fashions of the age, and  more.  And you need to know about the other historical figures who influenced them: their parents, siblings, spouses, colleagues, superiors and subordinates, opponents and rivals.  

If you understand the environment in which a person lived and the relationships your protagonist had, you will find it is easier to understand why your subject acted in certain ways, what he/she was likely to have felt in certain situations, and even begin to understand the fears and inhibitions that might have warped and hindered the protagonist.  If you understand enough about the environment and relationships of your subject, you are half-way to developing a complete character, with not only a skeleton but a face, a mind, and spirit as well. An excellent example of this is Sharon Kay Penman’s biographical novel of Richard III. She effectively explains King Richard III by showing how his childhood relationships with his brothers and his Neville cousins made him the man he became. The Sunne in Splendour is historical biographical fiction at its best.

With good research, then, you can establish the plot line of your biographical novel and acquire the knowledge necessary to create the scenery and backdrop in which the plot unfolds. With good research you can give the skeleton meat and animate it with emotions. But now it gets tricky.  Biographical fiction strives to be not only a record of history (in this case a historical personality), but also a work of art – and that means that you may have to deviate – carefully, selectively and strategically – from the historical record.

Let me give an example from the world of painting. There is only one known (or surviving) painting of Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, which was painted during her life time by an artist who may have met her.  It is not a very good painting; it is stiff and lifeless, dark and almost amateurish. There are also many portrayals of Isabella by artists, who did not know what she looked at all. These later works may not as accurately depict Isabella’s physical features, yet they may capture her spirit in that they make the viewer see aspects of Isabella’s known personality – her piety combined with iron will etc. etc.

This explains how different works of biographical fiction about the same subject can be very different, yet equally good. Is Schiller or Shaw’s Joan of Arc better? I cannot say off-hand which historians would choose as more accurate, but I do know that both – regardless of which is more accurate – are great works of biographical fiction.

Creating a work of art requires clarity of purpose, consistency of style, a proper use of light and dark, and it will require not only extrapolating and interpreting but some outright falsification. It is almost always necessary to create some fictional characters – servants or friends, lovers or rivals – that serve as foils for highlighting character traits, explain later (known) behavior or provide contrast necessary to give the central character deeper contours. However, from my experience as a writer of non-fictional biography (Codename Valkyrie: General Olbricht and the Plot Against Hitler) and biographical fiction (the Leonidas of Sparta trilogy, my current work on Balian d’Ibelin, and unfinished work on Edward the Black Prince), the greatest challenge for the novelist is paring away or condensing some of the known facts or making conscious changes in the historical record in order to produce a clearer, more compelling, central character. 

The risks of making changes are enormous – and someone is bound to catch you on them. But the risks of not making surgical edits are even greater: you can end up with a tome no one wants to read. To take another example from the works of Sharon Kay Penman, I feel her biographical novel about Richard I, Lionheart, fails to live up to her biographical novel about Richard III precisely because she put in too many facts and too many characters. As a result she failed to give us a clear the novel clear focus and Richard gets lost in all the action and subplots and sketches of other historical characters, few of whom come to life on their own. If you are writing about a person so fascinating that he/she inspired you to write a whole novel about them, then the greatest disservice you can do them is build them a monument that collapses under its own weight and complexity. 

Keep in mind that when resurrecting the dead, we raise the spirit not the body.  The spirit, not each pound of flesh or each wrinkle on the face, is what we wish our readers and future generations to understand and honor. And spirits are always ethereal, elusive – and not quite real.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Honorable Tradition of Historical Fiction

By the 20th Century, "Historical Fiction" had fallen into disrepute. Many people associated it with "bodice rippers" and other forms of trashy romance. It was -- and remains -- "genre fiction," and not very respected genre fiction at that.

Of course, that was largely because for all the good historical novels that were still being written, the market was flooded with far too many "bodice rippers" and "costume dramas," in which characters with modern-mentalities dressed up in fanciful costumes to prance around in worlds littered with anachronisms. For a reader unfamiliar with a particular period of history, it was difficult to distinguish between well-researched and sloppily researched novels. As a historian, I have too often picked up a book praised by reviewers for being "meticulously researched" only to encounter glaring and offensive (to a historian) errors on nearly every page. There is a great deal of trash out there masquerading as "historical" fiction!  

In the 21st Century there appears to be some gentle course correction in progress, with many serious readers recognizing that -- despite all that fake "historical" stuff -- real historical fiction based on comprehensive research and fashioned by master storytellers is a legitimate "genre." As a historian who also writes novels, I am pleased by this trend. After all, historical fiction is arguably the oldest of all the genres.

What, after all, was the Iliad if not historical fiction? It was developed hundreds of years after the events it describes and intended to make those events comprehensible to contemporary audiences. Admittedly, for years it was dismissed as "pure fiction" but ever since Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the archaeological remains of the "fabled towers of Troy" -- and subsequent archaeologists have established that it was sacked and burnt etc. it is clear that the Iliad was not "pure" fiction but rather historical fiction.  Thus the modern, Western tradition of literature starts with a (magnificent!) work of historical fiction. 

Other examples of literary masterpieces that fall into the "genre" of historical fiction are, of course, Shakespeare's Histories (including great works like Hamlet and Henry V), War and Peace by Tolstoy, and Margret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Admittedly, Shakespeare wasn't a great historian, but the quality of his writing makes up for that deficiency!  Tolstoy and Mitchell, on the other hand, were meticulous in their research, albeit many today will find Mitchell's point of view politically incorrect.

Modern historical novelists ought to keep in mind that unlike our colleagues writing vampire stories, steamboat punk and even science fiction, which are all relatively new inventions, we are following in the (very large) footprints of some truly great authors. We have a tradition to maintain -- and if we do it right, recognition will (hopefully) follow.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The King Who Would Be Saint: Excerpt from St. Louis' Knight

The king was not alone, but Eleanor was far too tense to take note of anyone else. She was only vaguely aware that there were far too many priests and monks and far too few knights. She could sense the presence of the Inquisition, whispering insidious things about her into the king’s ears, while the shortage of fighting men underlined the king’s hopeless situation. His brothers had sailed for home the day before, and they had been some of the last of the crusaders to depart. Surrounding King Louis now were not French but local barons, men who could not sail away because their land ― what was left of it ― was here, and officers of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller.
Eleanor kept her eyes fixed on the king. He was tall and blond with a strong resemblance to the Count of Poitiers, except that the king was much thinner and frailer. Poitiers looked like the kind of man who earned his living with the sword; the king looked like a monk. He was dressed simply for a king too, with none of Poitiers bright-colored clothes and glittering jewels. He was not wearing a crown or any form of collar. His belt, while tastefully made of brass and enamel disks, would not have been inappropriate on a merchant's waist. He wore no armor, but a long blue robe dusted with the lilies of France, over a silk shirt of a lighter blue. He wasn’t even wearing boots and spurs, Eleanor registered, with a pang of remembrance and a futile wish to be back on Cyprus with Sir Geoffrey at her side.
Perhaps it was this moment of inattention, or just the fact that she was so tense, but her foot caught on the edge of a carpet and she pitched forward headlong. As she tried to recover, the carpet slid on the polished marble floor and she crashed down on her hip so hard the thump was audible throughout the room. She gasped in pain and then felt what seemed like a dozen hands reaching out, voices asking if she was alright. Had she hurt herself? She tried to get up, assuring everyone that she was fine, but no one paid her any attention. Strong hands had hold of her and were guiding her to a seat, ordering her to sit down. “I’m so sorry,” she stammered, “I’m so sorry.”
The hands were warm and dry and reassuring. “Just sit and catch your breath, my dear,” the voice said gently.
A chalice with wine was pressed into her trembling hands. “Sip this. It will calm your nerves.”
Eleanor accepted the wine out of embarrassment, and grateful for anything that deferred the ultimate confrontation with the king. It had been bad enough with the Count of Poitiers in an old-fashioned gown, but to have stumbled and fallen was even worse. She was certain the king was watching this ridiculous drama with impatience.
And then she realized that the hand offering the cup of wine had a signet ring with lilies of France on it. She froze. The sleeves of the gown beyond the wrist were blue. Her eyes crept up toward the elbows to the broader sleeves of the gown: dark blue powered with lilies. She looked up and straight into kindly blue eyes. “Your Grace!” Eleanor gasped and tried to get up again so she could courtesy.
“Just relax,” The king ordered her. “You may have injured yourself more than you know.”
“But ― “
“Hush.” He insisted, his eyes smiling at her. When she went still, he pressed the wine on her again, remarking, “As my ward, child, you are as a daughter to me, and I intend to do my best to make up for the hardships you have already endured. I hope you are not too disappointed not to be going home with my beloved brother of Poitiers?”
“Home, your Grace?” Eleanor was still too disoriented to fully grasp how she had come to sit next to her worst enemy. The mention of home, however, roused the dead, and she realized with horror she was drinking from the king’s blood soaked hand. It was as if she the blood of her brothers had colored the wine he held. She drew back, fighting the temptation to let herself get seduced by his superficial kindness. “How can I ever go home?” she asked, seeing her brother Roger’s face, “when everyone I loved is dead? Killed, not by the Saracen, but by ―” on the brink of saying “you” she stopped herself and substituted “France.”
King Louis caught his breath, and Eleanor winced, expecting him to slap her for so much impudence. When the blow did not come, she held her breath and waited for the inevitable anger that would bring the full weight of royal fury down upon her head. Now it was her brother Henri, who spoke in a tone of desperate sadness, “Oh, Nel! How could you do that! Why insult a king to his face?”
Still King Louis did not answer. He considered her intently, while Eleanor looked down at her hands, clutching her skirts in her lap. Then he took a sip of his own wine before remarking. “I was still a boy when my father died; I became very dependent upon the advice of my mother. My mother saved my kingdom for me ― from Flanders, from the Plantagenets, from the rebellious barons Hugh de Lusignan and Peter de Dreux. Who was I to doubt her, when she said I must crush the rebellion of the Count of Toulouse? I do not mean to place blame on someone else, but I would like you to consider the fact that a king too must learn his trade. Your brother Roger murdered unarmed men of God, but your brother Henri, had he not died in prison, would have been pardoned.”
“I loved my mother too, your grace,” Eleanor countered softly but intensely, “And you burned her at the stake.”
The silence in the chamber was so intense Eleanor could hear the voices of the gardeners in the courtyard. She could feel the stares of all the other men in the room, sense their outrage.
Louis nodded slowly, and his eyes searched her face. She did not dare meet those eyes. She looked down at her hands; she had unconsciously wrapped her left hand in her skirts to cover the ugly burn scar on the palm.
“Will you try to forgive me?” The king asked softly, and Eleanor snapped her head up in astonishment. Their eyes met, and she felt her heart start to quaver. He meant it. He was asking for her forgiveness.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…” It was her mother’s voice in her head now. Her mother, who taught that forgiving the sins of others was the basis of all Grace. “Did Christ clothe himself in gold and jewels and ask his disciplines to bow down to him? Did he ask for praise and flattery?” she asked rhetorically. “No! All he asks is that we forgive the sins of others, if we expect Him to forgive our own.”
“Yes, your Grace,” Eleanor heard herself saying in a weak but clear voice that carried across the room. “Yes. I will try to forgive you.”
Suddenly, she and the King of France were smiling at each other.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Fisherman: Excerpt from St. Louis' Knight

What am I doing here? Geoffrey asked himself with a searing flash of guilt.  The images from Mansourah clamored in the back of his brain. The screaming of the wounded horses, the shouts of the triumphant enemy, the gasping of Master de Sonnac in his arms… They were all dead. All of his comrades, and the King of France was a prisoner…. How could he be standing here on a peaceful beach listening to the laughter of simple fishermen, as if there had never been a crusade? Much less a catastrophic defeat?

The most dangerous thing on earth is a man who thinks he talks to God, Master de Sonnac said inside his head.
Geoffrey reached for the hilt of his sword, wrapping his hand around the crystal vial holding St. John’s bones and tried to feel the presence of the Saint. But how could he expect the saint to favor him with Grace and presence, when he was still so bitter about what had happened in Egypt? When he did not want to accept God’s Will? Because that was the real problem: he didn’t want to believe that God could want what had happened….
Someone seemed to be approaching him from the beach. Had another boat put in later than the others? Geoffrey made a quick count. Yes, there were now seven boats moored side-by-side.
The man coming towards him was dressed like the other fishermen in a loose linen shirt, bound with twine at the waist, over baggy trousers rolled up to the knee. He walked barefoot toward Geoffrey with an uncanny self assurance, as if he met armored knights at the village shed every evening. “God be with you, my friend,” he greeted Geoffrey in a deep, melodic voice.
“And also with you,” Geoffrey replied automatically.
The man smiled gently. “Will you not join me for the feast?” He asked.
“Of course,” Geoffrey answered confused. How could the late comer know about the feast? Then again, the smell of roasting kid reached all the way to here, as did the laughter and the voices. Geoffrey looked around for Petrus and fisherman answered his gesture by pointing to the shadow of Petrus already scampering up the incline to the village, “the boy has gone ahead.”
Geoffrey nodded absently and fell in beside the fisherman.
When they reached the tables, the fisherman gestured to an empty space at the very end of the table, and asked, “Will you break bread with me?”
“Of course,” Geoffrey answered without thinking.
“Wait for me here, I’ll be right back.”
Geoffrey did as he was bid, while the fisherman withdrew into the darkness beyond the range of the lamps on the table.... 
The fisherman returned to Geoffrey. “You are Sir Geoffrey de Preuthune?” He asked.
“Yes,” Geoffrey conceded.
“Ah! Then I beg you to bless me, sir.”
“Bless you? I’m a knight, not a monk. I did not take my vows,” Geoffrey admitted, nervously aware of his guilt.
The man smiled, “But you carry St. John the Baptist’s hand with you. I would be honored to be blessed by the hand that has held the saint’s in his.”
Geoffrey was embarrassed, conscious of his unworthiness. “I assure you, good fisherman, I am not fit to bless you. The sword was only loaned to me until it can be returned to its rightful owner. I am a sinner.”
“As are we all,” the man answered knowingly. “Here,” he had brought a loaf of bread with him and a jug of wine. He tore the end off the loaf and handed it to Geoffrey. “Eat this in remembrance of Him that gave His flesh for the sake of all sinners.”
Geoffrey was so startled by this mockery of the Mass that he knocked over his cup. The red wine splashed onto the table and splattered his white surcoat with bright red drops. “His blood that was shed for thee,” the fisherman intoned.
“This is not the Mass!” Geoffrey reproached the fisherman sharply.
“Isn’t it?” He answered calmly. “Didn’t Christ break bread on the banks of Galilee with the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John? Didn’t he drink wine with them and laugh together as the stars grew bright in the night sky?” He gestured to the glittering heavens overhead. “Do not seek God only in the houses men have built for Him, sir; seek Him rather in the cathedral He built Himself,” the fisherman opened his arms wide in a gesture that took in the world around them.