Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


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 14, 2014

Excerpt from "St. Louis' Knight: The King and All His Knights are Captured!

The Kingdom of Cyprus                    
April, Anno Domini 1250
  
“The French King and all his knights have been captured by the Saracens,” the herald intoned. His deep voice, more commonly used to proclaim the ancestry and deeds of knights at tournaments, was muted with both respect and shock. His bright livery was shrouded in a dark cloak as if he were in mourning for a lost cause, and his boots and hose were splattered with mud, betraying his haste to bring the news to the Dowager Queen of Cyprus.
His words provoked an eruption of shocked and frightened exclamations from the little audience. The Dowager Queen was on her deathbed, and had been for months. She lived in almost complete seclusion, served only by a household of Cypriot servants and four ladies, three of whom were almost as old as she was herself.
One of these ladies began crossing herself repeatedly and reciting the Rosary in a tone of almost hysterical desperation. Another clapped her hands over her mouth and stared at the herald as if she expected Saracens to come storming through the door behind him. A third protested, “But that can’t be! King Louis had the greatest army anyone had ever seen! He had scores of barons and nearly three thousand knights. They can’t all have been captured! Not all those brave knights! And the King’s brothers! And what of the French Queen and the ladies of the court?”
“When the messenger left Egypt, the French Queen and her ladies were still in Damietta with the handful of knights and men-at-arms left there for their protection, but I doubt that is still the case. With the King captive and his army destroyed, the Sultan of Egypt will undoubtedly try to recapture Damietta. The knights with Queen Marguerite are urging her to remove herself to safety immediately. If she chooses Cyprus over Acre, she could be here any moment.” The herald glanced toward the large double-light window that looked south, towards Egypt, as if expecting to see the sails of a Genoese round ship straining to bring the French Queen to safety. But the window offered only a view of the walled garden of this isolated manor.
The Dowager Queen clicked her tongue and drew the herald’s attention back to the interior of the room. “What did you expect?” the old woman asked rhetorically. “All these foreign kings and princes think crusading is a lark! They think we hang onto only the fragments of the Holy Land because we, the nobility of Outremer, have become weak, cowardly, and luxury-loving. They all come out here thinking that they, so splendid and so brave, will chase the Saracens back into the desert. Ha!”
The herald did not contradict her. There was some truth to what the old Queen said. Although King Louis himself had seemed a sober and far from lighthearted crusader, his younger brothers and many of his knights had been as arrogant and ignorant as the Queen suggested. Besides, the Queen was a woman who knew more about politics in the Holy Land than almost anyone else alive. Alice of Champagne had been widowed when her son, King Henry I, was only eight months old and had acted as his regent until he came of age ― by which time she had weathered a civil war on Cyprus and a crusade led by the Holy Roman Emperor. As if that hadn’t been enough, as the granddaughter of the Queen of Jerusalem, she had been Regent of Jerusalem for the under-aged King Conrad IV as well. While it was fair to say that Alice of Champagne’s politics had not been crowned by particular success, no one could deny that she understood the complexity of surviving in Christian Palestine.
“So,” the old woman scoffed, “the Sultan of Egypt has humiliated the most powerful monarch in Christendom. The Holy Roman Emperor must be dancing for joy to see the Pope’s favorite humiliated like this.”
“Madame! How can you think in such terms when a Christian monarch and all his knights and nobles are at the mercy of the godless Saracens?” one of Alice’s ladies admonished her ― inducing her praying colleague to raise her voice even more shrilly to the Mother of God.
The old Queen silenced both ladies. “Enough of your howling, Catherine! You have the brain of a hen, Eschiva! Godless or not, the Sultan loves gold. He’ll let them all go when enough ransom has been paid, and if France is beggared, then the Holy Roman Empire will be stronger.” The Dowager Queen had always sided with the Holy Roman Empire against the barons of the Holy Land, and now she smiled to herself. Then she cleared her throat and announced, “Thank you, Sir Herald. Blanche, give the herald ten livres for his trouble! Eleanor, see him to the kitchens and tell the cook to give him a hearty meal. I weary.”
The interview was over. The Queen signaled for assistance to rise, and two of her ladies sprang to help her from her armed chair, while the third retrieved her mistress’ purse and doled out the promised reward. The herald found himself following the fourth of the Queen’s ladies, Eleanor de Najac, down the spiral stairs from the Queen’s tower chamber toward the kitchen on the ground floor.
Eleanor was the only one of the Queen’s women who was less than sixty years of age. The herald guessed she was no more than twenty or twenty-one. All the herald knew about her was that she was a ward of the Comte de Poitiers, the French King’s younger brother, and had had the misfortune to shipwreck on the coast of Cyprus or her way to join the Comtesse de Poitiers’ household.
The storm that struck in March of the previous year had been one of the worst in living memory, and it had scattered half the French King’s fleet then assembling for the voyage to Egypt. In the confusion following the gale, hardly anyone took note of a small French vessel that went ashore on the west coast with the loss of all hands ― especially since the only corpses found were those of common sailors and tonsured men, presumably clerics bound for the Holy Land.
Weeks later, however, a second ship from France brought letters making reference to the passage of the heiress of Najac aboard a previous vessel. The Comte de Poitiers, who was by then in Egypt with his brother, asked the King of Cyprus to find out what had happened to his ward.
A search for her corpse was instituted along the coast, and to the wonder and amazement of those sent to find her body, Eleanor was found alive ― albeit severely injured ― in a fishing village. Since Eleanor spoke no Greek and the fishermen spoke neither Latin nor French, Eleanor’s rescuers had not realized she was a high-born lady and heiress; they had not thought to notify the authorities.
The herald was familiar with the cramped, stinking cottages of the local fishermen. He was certain that for a French noblewoman the weeks in the Cypriot fishing village had been a hell ― especially since one of her legs had been crushed in the wreck and she was in pain and feverish.
Even now, more than a year after the wreck, she walked with a limp as she led him across the inner courtyard to the kitchen tract. The experience had also left its mark on her face and soul, the herald surmised, for her face was too guarded and sober for a gentle maiden still in the bloom of youth.
Furthermore, although the herald knew professionally that the sires of Najac were ancient and wealthy lords, Eleanor neither looked nor acted like a haughty heiress. The simplicity of her dress, a soft linen gown with a pale-blue surcoat, would not have been out of place on the wife of a country squire or town merchant. Her auburn hair was neatly braided down her back and her head covered with a flat, modestly embroidered hat, held in place by simple white veils. The effect was neat and attractive ― but not suited to an heiress. The Cypriot court was filled with young women who adorned themselves much more lavishly and brightly, although they claimed hardly more than a thimbleful of noble blood rather than a barony! They compared to Eleanor of Najac like butterflies to a moth.
Not that Eleanor was plain. The herald considered her with the eyes of a connoisseur of women as Eleanor gestured for him to sit at a table in the passageway before the kitchen. She was pretty in a soft, understated way, he decided. She had wide-set hazel eyes, dark straight eyebrows, and an elegant long nose in an oval face. Her skin was flawless and very pale. Her only bad features were her nearly colorless, narrow lips ― but even this defect would have been forgotten, if only she smiled.
 “Wait here, Sir Herald, while I inform the cook of your needs,” she told him simply, before lurching down the stone steps leading to the kitchen.
Waiting for her, the herald wished he had some means to make her smile. If only he had brought good news instead of word of this catastrophe! It was only too natural that Eleanor was deeply troubled under the circumstances. Her guardian was in grave danger, a prisoner of the Saracens, and even if the Sultan was unlikely to harm a prince of France, she must worry that the ransom he imposed would impoverish her, since the income from her inheritance flowed into the Count’s coffers as long as she was unwed.
 While the herald was still lost in these thoughts, Eleanor returned with a bronze aquarelle in the form of a lion and a linen towel.
“My Lady, it is unseemly that you wait on me. Send for a servant, and sit with me instead,” the herald urged, indicating the bench on the other side of the table from him.
She seemed flustered by his remark, hastily putting the aquarelle down and stepping back as if she had done something wrong.
He smiled to reassure her and gestured to the bench opposite him again, urging, “Sit with me a moment, My Lady. Perhaps I can be of service with some information? My travels take me all over the island.” The herald had long since learned to use his natural access to information to satisfy the interest of others in gossip.
Eleanor nodded, but not with eager curiosity as he had expected. Instead she sat very stiffly on the bench opposite, and there was so much tension in her that the herald felt compelled to reassure her. “You must not distress yourself too much. I’m sure the Comte de Poitiers is in no great danger.” In the herald’s experience, maidens of Eleanor’s age were rarely interested in the fate of their fathers or guardians. It was far more likely that Eleanor was worried about some young knight who had courted her or otherwise caught her fancy. But no modest maiden would confess such an interest to a strange man, so the herald knew he had to pretend to talk about her guardian.
Eleanor drew a deep breath, “Would you ― would you mind telling me more of what has happened in Egypt? I have been very isolated here,” she hastened to excuse herself.

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