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, May 15, 2015

A Destrier's Tale: Part III -- Slaughter House

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part III: Slaughter House


The third time the rains came after the Black Knight had taken me away from home, a catastrophe struck. In that dusty manor, I had come to rejoice at the coming of the rains. They made grass sprout between the cobbles of the enclosure and along the side of the road. I could sometimes snatch something fresh and green if I was quick about it. But this year, smoke came with the rains. We were woken up in the middle of the night by the smell of it, and we whinnied and cried out to the humans, trying to warn them. The next thing I knew, the Black Knight was shouting at everyone and I was dragged from my stall although it was the middle of the night. The Black Knight’s other horse, Red, was hauled out too and saddled, while the Black Knight’s squire took two of the other horses, one for himself and the other he loaded with the Black Knight’s equipment. By the time the sun came up the four of us were on the road.

The wind was coming out of the south and laden with smoke. You could see it smudging the horizon, and humans were fleeing before it — whole families herding their animals and carrying their children. As we rode, other knights and their squires joined us until we were a little band of twenty or so. It was invigorating to find myself among horses that were well-groomed and sleek, beside stallions who pranced and arched their necks in pride. It reminded me of what I had once been, and I lifted my head a little.

We rode to a castle. It was the first castle I had ever seen up close, and I found it very intimidating. All of us crammed together to ride up a steep, winding road and then pass through a narrow gate. I was frightened and wanted to bolt, but there were so many of us there was no place to go, and the other horses were clearly content. Inside, there was a cobbled courtyard with a well and deep troughs, where we all got a chance to drink while the squires unsaddled the riding horses. We were housed that night is enormous stone stables. Although they were dark and crowded, you could see that they would have been pleasant under normal circumstances. They had sweet, moist hay too, and some oats with molasses pellets; the best meal I’d ever had at that point in my life.

The following day when we set off we were more than fifty knights. With destriers, squires, and pack-horses that made a good two hundred horses. The man leading wore armor so beautiful it fit him like the skin of a snake and it gleamed whenever the sun broke through the clouds. His surcoat was brightly colored and fluttered in the breeze. All the other knights were very deferential toward him, so he was clearly the leader among the humans. His palfrey was young and cocky, all swagger and nervous energy, but his destrier was going grey at the muzzle and he exuded calm confidence. I would have like to ride closer to him and learn more about his rider, but the Black Knight was relegated to the back of the long column. I got the feeling that none of the other humans took him very seriously.

In the course of the day we crossed barren countryside, good only for grazing goats, and then descended by a steep road beside a gorge onto a fertile plain. It was richer than the countryside around my home. The harvest had been taken in, of course, but the tilled fields stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with peaceful villages, each clustered around a church and manor. Wherever there was a low hillock, there were vineyards or olive orchards.

We spent the second night at a castle nestled in a valley and surrounded by orchards. The stables were too small for all of us, so most of us were turned loose in a pasture for the night and could move freely and graze on that wonderful grass. Although it was drizzling and some of the horses complained about the lack of shelter, I couldn’t get enough of that grass. Some of the older horses warned me I could get a colic if I didn’t show more restraint, but they didn’t understand what it was like to go without fresh grass for more than two years.

The following day about noon we joined the largest host of horses I had ever seen. It was as if all the horses in the whole world were collected there. They were tethered or hobbled in a massive herd, while the humans milled about on foot or collected around cooking fires.

The Black Knight hobbled me and Red and just left us with the other horses. The mood was bad. Many of the horses were matted with sweat and dirt, and clearly hadn’t been groomed in days. Many complained of hunger too. Some horses had even lost shoes or been injured and yet no one was looking after them. Many of the horses were nervous, and the worst of it was that it was the older, experienced horses that were most unsettled. They kept lifting their heads and sniffing the air anxiously. “The Horse Haters” someone muttered in my ear. When I looked at him blankly he shook his head as if at the flies and snorted into the grass. “Stupid green horn.”

A band of men all wearing white or black surcoats with red crosses on them galloped up. One of the veterans whinnied at them: “Horse Haters?” Several horses from the returning troop confirmed. “Horse Haters! Thousands of them!” Now the alarm grew worse than ever, while the humans too were crowding together in a big knot, trying to hear what the leader of the red-crosses said. Before long, the humans started cheering — except for the red-crosses, who dismounted from their horses, knelt on the dirt and muttered together.

Meanwhile, the knights and squires came running towards us, including the Black Knight. Even before he pointed at me, I guessed what would happen. While he rode Red for travelling, he rode me for jousting, and he was carrying his helmet. With so many other knights around, all fastening their aventails and hauling their helmets on, there was clearly going to be some sort of huge joust. I was thoroughly frightened by now. First there were thousands of “Horse Haters” around, and now I was going to have to carry the Black Knight in a joust that might involve all these other horses. I was sure something would go wrong, and he would blame me for it. It didn’t help that he looked as agitated and nervous as I felt. He started jerking down on the reins to make me stand still, bruising my jaws terribly. Then he flung himself into the saddle and hauled me around like I was made of wood and felt nothing. His squire handed him a lance and the next thing I knew we were squeezed in among hundreds of other knights and horses, all jostling against one another as we trotted forward.

We trotted together for at least an hour, then halted. One of the stallions nudged me to point out that among all those stallions there was one castrate. He was a beautiful grey, rather like me, but they’d put the knife to him. I shuddered at the thought.  His rider, however, was a beautiful youth with bright yellow hair and his helmet was encircled with a gold ring adorned with crosses. His surcoat was very dusty, but you could see that it was embroidered with gold crosses as well and all the other humans bowed their heads or even went down on their knees when they approached him.

“The King,” the stallion muttered.
“On a castrate?” I couldn’t believe it.
“He’s a leper," he answered, but I didn't know what that meant.

Eventually the command came to form up into squadrons. The odd thing was we were still all facing the same direction, a rise ahead of us. The red-crosses moved in front of us, and the King was in the center of the squadron behind us. The Black Knight took up his position on the right flank of the largest squadron. There must have been 250 of us in that single block.

We trotted forward in the dust left by the red-crosses, crested the hill and suddenly I saw what the others had been talking about: the valley beside a narrow stream was crawling with thousands and thousands of men and horses — more than anyone could ever count. These humans were dressed differently from any human I had ever seen before. They wore cloths wrapped around their heads and their surcoats had long sleeves but short skirts that revealed boots. Most of the men were dismounted, and the horses were tethered or hobbled. There were camels too, and big, bright, billowing tents flying long thin banners. They looked like they had just settled down for an evening meal as big cauldrons were steaming over fires. Everyone was peacefully going about his business as I’d seen often, either before or after jousts. I thought we would now join them and joust tomorrow.

But the men around us started shouting, and the Black Knight gouged his spurs into my ribs without any warning. I sprang forward, despite being on the downward slope, and soon we were plunging downwards so fast we couldn’t have stopped ourselves even if we tried. I still didn’t understand what was going on because the men in the valley obviously weren’t ready for a joust, but then something much worse happened: they started firing long, sharp, pointed sticks at us. I latter learned they were called arrows. The arrows came with such force that they pierced clear through skin and muscle. All around me, horses were screaming in pain. Some, struck in some vital place, collapsed completely and their bodies rolled down the slope, knocking others down and crushing their riders. Blood was gushing and spurting from the wounds of those around me. I wanted to turn and run the other way, but I was in the middle of that mass of horseflesh and the Black Knight hauled so hard on the reins to keep me from swerving that I thought my jaw would break. Then he kicked me forward, drawing blood with his spurs.

As we crashed down the hill, the Black Knight was hammering my back with each stride as he was thrown out of the saddle and fell back on it. With his hands he was jerking me this way and that making it hard for me to find my footing. We splashed through the river at the foot of the hill, the arrows still raining down on us, and broke in among the men who had been peacefully preparing to camp there but were now firing arrows at us.

When we closed with them making their arrows worthless, I thought they would run away, but instead they attacked us with swords and knives, with maces and axes and spears. They tried to trip us with their spears, and sliced at our chests with their swords as we neared them or jabbed at our bellies with daggers if we rode past them. Our humans tried to protect us. From our backs they used first their lances and then their swords to kill the Horse Haters. Even the Black Knight was doing his part. It was the first time I’d ever felt any kindness toward him.

Meanwhile, some of the Horse Haters had mounted on slave-horses and came charging toward us. At the time I was outraged that fellow horses would help humans so intent on slaughtering us, but latter I came to realize they were slaves and had no choice — any more than I had a choice of not doing what the Black Knight wanted.

I was using my front hooves to trample down the men trying to kill me with their swords when suddenly we were attacked from the side by some mounted Horse Haters. I heard the Black Knight grunt and then his weight shifted abruptly to the right. The next thing I knew, he fell sideways so far that he nearly tore the saddle off my back. He'd let go of the reins too, so I sprang forward and felt him thump against my thigh. That terrified me into a new leap forward. Suddenly his weight was completely gone. Without him to protect me, however, the only chance of survival I had was in flight. I didn’t have time to think of anything else. In sheer panic I burst through the men attacking me, trampling down anything in my way, and I galloped away from the carnage with all the strength in my heart and body.

The Battle of Montgisard (described above by the grey destrier) is a major episode in Book I of my three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin. Buy now!


A landless knight,

                     a leper king,

                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem!






Book I of the three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction.  Buy now on amazon or barnes and noble



Book II in the series

A divided kingdom,
                       
                           a united enemy,                                                                              
                                      and the struggle for Jerusalem!



Defender of JerusalemA Biographical Novel of Balian d'IbelinBook II




Buy now!







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