A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part IX: The Arab Mare
Christians are very respectful and protective of mares. Even the Black Knight never took one of his mares anywhere near the Horse-Haters. The Christians keep mares where they can raise their foals in peace, and they are only ridden by their own human mares and sometimes human foals. The Saracens, on the other hand, use slave mares in battle. I suppose they might be afraid stallions will rebel and run away. Or maybe they don’t have enough stallions. Whatever the reason, many of them ride mares even when they invade to attack us.
After the other knights had chased the Horse-Haters back where they’d come from, Lord Balian and the other knights, squires and horses from Ibelin who were still alive started for home. We hadn’t gone far before we came upon one of the Saracen slave-horses. Lord Balian said she was an Arab mare.
Like me after my first battle, she was standing forlornly by the spring, evidently abandoned. She was pretty — even caked with dried sweat, covered with dust, and with burs in her mane and tail. She was a rich chestnut color, with a cheeky blaze that curled a little over her left eye. She was dainty, with neat little feet and a rounded rump that was wonderfully inviting.
Somehow she’d managed to get rid of both her bridle and saddle, but her knees were torn open and caked with dried blood still oozing fresh blood here and there. The knees were in such terrible shape, it hurt her to bend them so she couldn’t move without pain. Some of the humans wanted to put her down at once. Dawit wouldn’t hear of it. He protested vehemently to Lord Balian, and although I couldn’t understand his flood of words, his meaning was clear: she was bruised and scraped but she would heal if given care and time. Lord Balian nodded and gave him permission to bring her along with us.
She didn’t want to come at first. She was clearly terrified of the Christians. The Saracens had obviously told her lies about them, saying they would hurt her. But she couldn’t run away from us on account of her stiff, scabbed knees. She tried, of course, tearing all the scabs off and starting a new rush of blood, but when she gave up in despair, Dawit took her in hand. He didn’t just calm her, he had some ointment he rubbed on her knees that made them feel better almost at once. When the men mounted up to continue, Dawit had both her and me on the lead behind him.
I was happy about that because I could tell she was a nice filly and I could sense how frightened she was. I tried to ease her fear and distract her from the pain in her knees by telling her how nice it was in Ibelin. I told her my first owner (I didn’t mention how terrible he was) had been killed in a battle just like hers, but that I’d then been taken in by Lord Balian, nodding to him as he rode ahead of us on Rufus.
“Usman wasn’t killed,” she nickered to me in a soft, sad voice, “he abandoned me!” You should have heard the pain in her voice! She hung her head in shame too.
“Surely he just couldn’t find you,” I comforted her, thinking she might not know how easily humans were killed if unhorsed.
“No,” she sighed, dropping her head even lower with her ears hanging down in misery. “He came and took his precious saddle, but he left me to starve.”
“But why would he do that?” I protested.
She sighed and her nose was all but dragging on the ground. “He blamed me for stumbling. He said I nearly broke his neck. He said I was lucky he didn’t kill me.”
“Well!” I assured her indignantly. “He was right about that because now you’re with us, and we’ll take good care of you. Lord Balian has miles of orchards and he gives us apples and pears and even pomegranates!”
She looked at me sidelong from under her beautiful lashes as if she didn’t believe me, but I could see a flicker of hope in her eyes too. “Really?”
“Really!” Then I asked her to tell me more about herself.
She had lived a very sheltered life it seemed, and was still a virgin. I was glad to learn that because it would have been embarrassing if she’d had more experience than me. In fact, she said she’d hardly been around stallions at all, but she’d had several riders and Usman was only the last in the series. She said she’d fallen a little in love with him because he was so masterful and other men seemed to look up to him, although he was an archer not a lancer.
That evening when we camped and we were all turned out to graze, some of the other stallions came sniffing around. A couple of young studs (you know the kind, brutes that think mares are only good for one thing) tried to harass her. I chased them away in no uncertain terms, biting one so badly that he bled, and Rufus gave me a warning nicker because he belonged to a strange knight who was riding with us for some reason. I didn’t care if I left scars! Amira – that was what Lord Balian later called her — wasn’t in season and she was wounded and frightened and shy. They had no business coming anywhere near her. She stayed near me after that, grazing so close we could swat away each other’s flies and sometimes brushing against one another. I loved that.
The next day already, she was must happier. She held her head higher, lifted her ears and she even started to pick up her feet, not shuffle along as she had the day before. Dawit was pleased with her progress too, pointing it out to Lord Balian. He smiled at us and nodded. When we paused for water later, he came back and inspected her with interest for the first time, checking over her knees and noting her other cuts and scrapes. Then he turned to me and put his palm on my forehead under my forelock. It had been nearly a year before I had overcome the memory of the Black Knight’s beatings enough to let him do that. “Found a lady, have you?” he asked me. I leaned against him and rubbed my head on his shoulder to tell him she certainly was a lady and he had to treat her right.
When we got back to Ibelin, everyone who had been left behind was aflutter at our return. They made a huge feast, you could smell it everywhere, and Mathewos ordered the grooms to give us all proper baths and we had molasses pellets in our feed that night and the deepest, softest bedding ever. Still, I was a little sad because Amira and I were separated for the first time since we’d met; she was given a stall with the other mares at the other end of the stables.
After that we rarely had a chance to exchange more than a nicker or two. I always greeted her when I was led in or out and she invariably stood with her head over her stall door when I came or went. I saw that her knees healed perfectly except for some scars. Once, when we went out to the tiltyard, she was in the paddock, and she lifted her tail and galloped along beside the fence to show me how beautifully she moved and how fast she was. I could have watched her all day! Lord Balian laughed at me and patted my neck, admitting she was a “fine filly.”
Then one evening not long afterwards, when Dawit was bringing me in from the paddock at dusk, Amira was waiting for me in her stall and as I passed her she muttered in a very soft nicker: “I’m in season.”
I stopped dead in my tracks and I looked at her. Our eyes met. She wanted me!
Dawit was clicking and tugging at the lead, but I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed by desire. Dawit laughed and yanked down firmly on the lead. “Get it out of your head!” He told me firmly ‘though kindly. “She’s not for the likes of you!”
Not for me? The shock broke my resistance for the moment, and he led me to my stall and turned me loose inside. But I wasn’t interested in my feed or even water any more. Amira wasn’t for me? Why not? And if not for me, then for who? Surely they weren’t going to let one of the household stallions have her? How could they? I was Lord Balian’s destrier! Rufus? No, he was as much a virgin as I was. Gladiator? For the first time I looked at my predecessor with anger and jealousy. He got all the mares, just because he wasn’t good for anything else! To make matters worse he started called down to Amira, “hey little Arab? Ready for a real stallion at last?”
Amira didn’t dignify him with an answer, and I screamed at her, “Don’t believe him! He’s a broken down nag! He can’t walk on four legs and he’s got rotten teeth!” (Which wasn’t true, but I hated him in that moment.)
“Centurion!” She cried in a high-pitched terrified whinny: “Don’t let him rape me! I don’t want anyone but you! Please, Centurion.”
I screamed back to her that I would rather die than let any other stallion near her.
All our whinnying, of course, upset the humans. Matthewos came out and admonished me to “behave” — as if I was the one causing trouble! Then he ordered one of the junior grooms to take Amira and a couple of the other mares outside to the paddock. A half hour later they came to get Gladiator too. He pranced out with his crooked, lame-assed gait, flicking his tail at me and all but crowing in triumph.
I started making runs at the stall door to break it down. When that didn’t’ work, I turned around and kicked at it with the full force of my hind legs, twice, three, four times. The door held. I started pacing around my stall again, I was sweating and I swung my head back and forth at knee level as I tried to think how to escape and rescue Amira.
Someone must have told Lord Balian what a state I was in because suddenly he was at the stall door. It was completely dark by now and the stable was lit only by some oil lamps. Lord Balian never came to the stables after dark, but he was here and Mathewos with him.
“He won’t drink or eat,” Mathewos reported accurately.
I flattened my ears on my head and snapped furiously at Mathewos. He knew perfectly well what the problem was!
Lord Balian did too. He glanced over his shoulder at Amira’s empty stall. “There’s nothing wrong with him that Amira can’t cure.”
Mathewos shook his head firmly. “They are a bad match, my lord. Too similar in temperament. Any foal they produce will be more nervous than nine cats, and, as for looks, greys and chestnuts don’t mix. You’re likely to get either ugly markings or a roan.”
Lord Balian nodded, and said, “I’m sure you’re right, Mathewos. Let me walk him a bit.”
Obviously that was an order not a request, and Mathewos had no choice but to hand him my halter but his whole expression and demeanor expressed his disapproval. Lord Balian stepped into the stall and looked me in the eye. I was so agitated I glowered back at him, but I also figured if he took me out of the stall, I had a better chance to break free so I let him slip the halter over my head. Then I followed him out of the stables, across the ward, and out the postern that led to the paddocks.
As soon as we were beyond the walls I froze and lifted my head to find out where Amira was. There were several different paddocks, you see. I lifted my head and sniffed the air. She had already seen me. She lifted her voice and squealed in a frenzy of passion. “Centurion!”
That was all I needed. I bolted. If Lord Balian had tried to stop me, I would have dragged him with me. But he didn’t. He just let me go. I galloped straight past a dismayed Gladiator, who was in one of the small paddocks by himself, and I screeched to a halt opposite Amira. Now there was only the fence between us but there wasn’t space to make a running start at that fence. I started running back and forth in the lane between the paddocks, while Amira kept pace with me, calling my name. I was on the brink of trying to take that fence from a standstill, when Lord Balian appeared again. He unlatched and opened the gate to let me in. I put my head down and my tail up and galloped right past him to Amira.
When our passion had been sated, we grazed together side-by-side just as we had the first days we met. Later, we lay down to sleep a bit and she stayed so close I could feel her warmth against me. It was the most beautiful night of my whole life.
Mathewos was wrong about our foal to. Well, half wrong. I have to admit that she wasn’t pretty by most standards. Her coat was a very light chestnut, a bit of a roan to be honest, and she had a white face and four white socks, but she was the sweetest little filly you’ve ever seen. Born in love, she came into the world full of it, and when Lord Balian’s timid daughter Helvis needed a horse that she could trust absolutely and always, Lord Balian’s choice fell on our Ginger. But that is getting ahead of my story.
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.