Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Fateful Encounter

At an agonizing pace, they had at last emerged from the gorge to find themselves on the coastal road. To the left the shore reared up in steep white cliffs to form a headland several miles to the east, and straight ahead the rocks had broken off from the cliffs already and spilled out into the little cove at the foot of the gorge. The sight was spectacularly beautiful at one level, but the sound of the waves and the wind reminded Eleanor all too sharply of the wreck, and to make matters worse, clouds seemed to have come out of nowhere to scud across the sky, low and ominous. The sea was an iron gray, except for a tiny sliver of silver far out to sea and fast retreating. The sound of breakers hammering the beach was so reminiscent of the wreck that Eleanor had to stop herself from holding her hands over her ears.
Even without her hands on her ears, fear deafened her. The archer had to shout at her to move out of the way of riders approaching from behind at a fast pace. Only then did Eleanor look over her shoulder and register two men in armor with a packhorse on a lead, approaching at a purposeful canter. Their chain mail chinked in rhythm with the canter, and their kit banged against the flanks of their horses. The shod hooves pounded the hard-packed surface of the road.
She tried to guide her mare to the side of the road, but the lame horse balked, as if this were one demand too many. Eleanor kicked her heels into the mare’s sides to no avail, humiliated by being reduced to such undignified methods. A lady shouldn’t have to ride a horse as insensitive as this, she thought to herself, tears in her eyes.
A dark horse loomed beside her. The smell of horse sweat and leather was overpowering, and she glanced left, keeping her eyes down out of embarrassment and modesty. What she saw were black suede over-the-knee boots with golden spurs studded with blue enamel fleurs-de-lis.
The King of France!
But it couldn’t be! He was a prisoner in Egypt. As were his brothers. But who else would dare wear spurs like these? She raised her eyes sharply and found herself staring at a young man with a neatly clipped brown beard and short hair ― something long since out of fashion in France. Next she took in his plain, unbleached, shabby linen surcoat. The surcoat was more suited to a common archer or a man-at-arms and completely out of place over the gold and enamel spurs. No knight in her experience ever dressed like this, but no one but a knight was entitled to golden spurs ― much less ones with the lilies of France.
The knight seemed hardly less astonished by the sight of Eleanor than she was surprised by him. He drew up sharply, his massive and heavy-boned European stallion flattening his ears and flinging up his head in protest. “My Lady! What are you ― May I be of service in some way?”
The question couldn’t have been more chivalrous, but the man’s tone was harsh and his expression forbidding. He certainly knew nothing of courtesy, Eleanor concluded, lumping him instantly with all the other brutes from France who had plundered her homeland and spoke the langue d ’oil as he did.
“My horse stumbled and came up lame, but my man will ride for a remount as soon as we reach the next village,” Eleanor told him haughtily.
This answer so astonished the knight that he was silenced for a moment. He turned and looked at the archer, who shrugged and whined, “I advised against it, sir. I told her we must turn back, but my lady wouldn’t hear of it.”
“And where are you bound?” the knight asked the archer rather than Eleanor.
“The Lady Eleanor de Najac is on pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. George to pray for the safe return of her guardian, the Comte de Poitiers.”
“I see.” The knight twisted in his saddle and ordered his squire to off-load the packhorse and transfer Eleanor’s saddle to it.
Only then did the knight turn back to Eleanor and announce, “We will bring you to Paphos, My Lady. We should be able to reach it before nightfall ― if not before the rain breaks.” He glanced grimly at the gathering clouds. “You are with the King’s court in Nicosia?”
“No, I am temporarily in the household of the Dowager Queen. And just who are you, sir?”
“Sir Geoffrey de Preuthune, Mademoiselle,” he answered absently, not even looking at her as he spoke because he was already turning to her archer, ordering: “Take the lame horse back to Her Grace the Queen. I will see your lady safe to Paphos, where I’m sure Lord Tancred will be able to provide her with a suitable remount and an escort to Agios Georgios.” (He gave the shrine it’s Greek name, Eleanor noted.)
This solution clearly suited the Queen’s archer, who nodded and agreed with alacrity, “Very good, sir.”
Eleanor, however, felt like a child or a prisoner again. No one was even asking what she wanted, and that angered her. Besides, even if his name meant nothing to her, his spurs suggested he was closely associated with her enemy, the King of France. Certainly he spoke the French of her homeland’s oppressors. She did not want his services! “I have not accepted your generous offer, Monsieur,” she pointed out sharply, adding pointedly, “I do not travel with strange men.”
The archer groaned out loud and rolled his eyes. The Cypriot woman crossed herself and started praying. The squire suppressed a laugh, and Sir Geoffrey stared at her, baffled. Then, after a moment, he reasoned with her. “My Lady, you cannot continue on that horse, and it looks like it could rain any moment. If you are new to Cyprus, perhaps you do not know how violent the storms here can be at this time of year. I beg you to reconsider and allow me to bring you under the shelter and protection of the Lord of Paphos as rapidly as possible.”
His gesture toward the clouds and a renewed gust of wind made her look again at the dark, churning clouds gathering overhead. As she watched, a flash of lightning pierced them and she shuddered involuntarily. She could not stay here. She glanced toward the packhorse and noted with surprise that, stripped of its packs, it was a lovely fine-boned mare with a delicate face and large eyes. Indeed, it was a beautiful horse with the narrow legs of a racer and the arching neck of a proud palfrey.
Again Eleanor looked at the knight in confusion. The “packhorse” matched his spurs more than his plain surcoat. Something wasn’t right about this knight, but the threat of the storm was tangible, too. Her whole body was in a state of alarm, and reason told her it made more sense to accept the offer of a good mount and a strong escort than to insist on remaining here on a lame horse with a sullen archer and a native woman she could barely talk to. If only he hadn’t been wearing King Louis’ lilies on his heels …
Eleanor pulled herself together. “Your name means nothing to me, sir. Are you in the service of the King of France?”
“No, My Lady. I am Cypriot. My father was in the service of King Richard of England, and accompanied him on crusade, but remained here at the orders his liege lord.”
“The Duc d’Aquitaine? Coeur de Leon?” The legendary Lionheart was so much a hero of her childhood that it was as if this strange knight had been transformed into a long-lost friend by his association with the late English King. As soon as Geoffrey answered her question with a somewhat baffled, “Yes, Mademoiselle,” Eleanor nodded her consent and dismounted.
Within moments her saddle and the leather saddlebags with her modest belongings had been transferred to the knight’s “packhorse,” while Sir Geoffrey’s luggage was distributed between his own and his squire’s stallions. When all was ready for her, Sir Geoffrey swung himself down from his horse and went to hold the off stirrup, asking as he did so, “Do you ride well, My Lady?”
“I did as a girl,” Eleanor answered unhelpfully, as she approached the little bay mare, trying not to limp. She took hold of the pommel with her left hand, and facing back, turned the stirrup toward her with her right hand. Twice she pointed her toe in the stirrup, but it was no use. With a horrible sense of humiliation, she realized she did not have the strength in her right leg, the leg shattered in the wreck, to push herself up off the ground.
She withdrew her toe from the stirrup. “Sir, I have an injured leg; could we find something to use as a mounting block?”
“Forgive me, My Lady. I didn’t know. Ian, give the lady a leg up!”
The young squire cheerfully jumped down from his horse again and came to help Eleanor. He locked his fingers together and held them for her to step into. She held onto the pommel with both hands, set her foot in the squire’s hands, and he lifted her up until she could swing her right leg over the cantle of the saddle.
No sooner did her bottom settle onto the saddle than the mare started moving. The knight held her firmly just behind the bit, so she swung her haunches in first one direction and then the other. This mare was not like any “packhorse” Eleanor had ever seen before. She could feel the nervous energy of the animal, and was instantly alarmed. It was too long since she had ridden a horse like this. Ashamed of her own fear, Eleanor reproached the knight. “This is a very nervous packhorse, sir!”
“She’s not a packhorse, My Lady,” he answered candidly. “She’s an Arab warhorse. We killed her last master, but she refused to flee like the other horses. Should I take her on the lead?”
“No, of course not!” Eleanor answered without thinking. Only children ― and prisoners ― were led. “I can manage, sir.” Eleanor thought the knight looked skeptical, but he did not insist. Instead, he let go of the mare’s reins to return to his own stallion. At once the mare broke into a trot. Eleanor reined her in sharply, so she danced in place uneasily.
“We best hurry, My Lady, and try to get as far as possible before the rain breaks,” the knight told her.
“Of course,” Eleanor answered despite her inner alarm.
At once the knight took up a trot, and Eleanor’s mare followed without any urging, with the squire on her flank. Anna, crossing herself and lamenting in Greek, brought up the rear, while the archer set off in the opposite direction with the lame horse in tow, whistling happily.

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