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, 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.

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