A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part VIII: On the Litani
I learned to trust Lord Balian. I admit, it took time. The scars left by the Black Knight and the Horse Trader were deep. But step-by-step he overcame my fears. It wasn’t just that he could ride. Andy and Mathewos could ride too. But with Lord Balian it was different; the moment he put his left hand on my withers in preparation for mounting until he jumped down again we became one being. And besides that, he talked to me. By talking to me he recognized that I was more than just a means of transport or a weapons platform; I was, and he knew I was, a living being with thoughts and feelings.
Of course I couldn’t understand all his words, but that didn’t matter. By talking to me, he recognized that I was with him, seeing and hearing the same things he did. He would point out the birds in the early morning, or explain about the crops in his fields (he owned everything around Ibelin), or tell me about the people we met along the road. Now and then, he would just talk to me about his own worries. That’s why I liked those rides alone together more than anything else.
But we also had fun jousting. I was terribly nervous (as you can imagine) the first time he took me to the exercise field with the other knights and squires. I was sweating without even warming up because I knew what was coming and no matter how good a rider Lord Balian was, there was no guarantee he was also good with a lance. I’d learned from the Black Knight not to shy away from the approaching horse and rider, because the Black Knight always wanted me to charge straight and fast like an arrow. I was confused when Lord Balian leaned to the right, weighting the right stirrup as if he wanted me to veer right— exactly the thing that had gotten me in so much trouble with the Black Knight! I did what he wanted, however, because by then I always did what he wanted. The next thing I knew, he shifted his weight the other way and – whomp! – the other knight was rolling in the dirt! That had never happened with the Black Knight. As Lord Balian sat back and we slowed down I realized everyone was cheering us too. I arched my neck and pranced with pride. Then we turned around and did it again and again. It was wonderful!
After I’d been with Lord Balian about a year and we’d won every single joust (well, alright, now and again things didn’t go perfectly, but not often enough to mention), I learned that the human word for Horse-Haters was “Saracen.” You see, a messenger arrived on an exhausted palfrey with word that “Saladin has invaded.” After that everyone was agitated and upset, talking about “Saracens” all the time. People got short-tempered and they did a lot of running about pointlessly. Even Dawit and Matthewos, who were usually so calm, were distracted and anxious. Over the next few days, strange knights started arriving at Ibelin, and they each brought three or four horses. We had to double up in stalls and all the mares were banned to the far paddocks. Finally, after a week or so, they started packing the sumpter ponies and the donkeys, saddling the palfreys and Dawit took me on the lead as we rode out in a large, noisome cavalcade across the drawbridge of Ibelin.
We rode like that, in a big cavalcade, for three days and along the way we joined up with other bands of knights and horses. I now knew what was coming. We were going to confront the Horse-Haters. After my last experience, I was not happy about this prospect, but I knew from our jousting success that this time I had a rider who wasn’t going to fall off if I had to jump sideways or lost my footing and, better still, a rider who was capable of defending me.
Eventually, just like the last time, we joined a huge muster with many more horses than I could count and lots of bright, billowing tents. Lord Balian had a tent of his own, and we were put to graze on improvised pasture. At least this time the muster was in a fertile valley with lots of grass although it was hot and the grass was turning pretty brown and dry.
As I knew would happen, within a day or so the moment came when the people started shouting frantically and everyone started running around like madmen. Dawit rushed out to collect me and tacked me up with a distracted — not to say nervous — haste. Around us the other destriers were also made ready. Lord Balian emerged from his tent in his armor and Dawit handed him two lances as soon as he’d settled in the saddle. Then we formed up with the other destriers into a large formation. Lord Balian rode much closer to the front than the Black Knight had, but ahead of us were still three score of men or more, several wearing gleaming armor and bright silk surcoats. The rider in the middle wore white with glittering gold trim and he even had a ring of gold around his helmet. He rode a big, pure white castrate — not grey like me, but really white. All the humans bowed their heads to him, even Lord Balian, although he smiled at Lord Balian and nodded a greeting to him. Lord Balian bent slightly and stroked the side of my neck as he explained. “That’s the King, Centurion, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem.” After he’d told me that, I looked again remembering I’d seen him before. He was riding a different horse, but it was still a castrate.
We caught the Horse-Hatters in the act of trying to steal cattle and we fell upon them with a vengeance. It was quite exhilarating, really, because there were more of us than them — not like the last time. Furthermore, they didn’t have any footmen to stab us in the bellies or slice at our tendons. Because they were cattle-rustling, they were all mounted on their little slave-horses and they were clearly taken by surprise. They tried to run away from us, and we ran them down.
Lord Balian was a killing machine. He dropped the reins on my neck as he did in jousts, and guided me entirely with is knees and weight. He would pick a victim and steer me toward him and — wham — just like a joust he knocked his target out of his saddle. When his lances were broken, he drew his sword and he used it to hack men’s heads in two — clear through their turbans and helmets — or decapitate them so their heads spun through the air. They weren’t fighting really, just running away. At one point, Lord Balian seemed to think we’d done enough and slowed me to a trot, but then another knight in fancy armor rode past us shouting at him, and Balian took up the pursuit again. We chased them all the way to a broad, brown river running through the middle of the valley. By this point, there was so little resistance that Lord Balian slung his shield on his back and killed two-handed until we reached the far side of the river. There Lord Balian sat back, took up the reins and turned me around, although many of the other Christians were urging their horses out the far bank and still pursuing the Saracens.
When I stopped, I noticed I was dripping sweat and parched with thirst. So I dropped my head and drank deeply of that water, even though it was turning an unpleasant red from the blood of the Saracens that had fallen in it. Still, it tasted good and the feel of it flowing past, washing the sweat off my belly and cooling my legs was enormously refreshing. Gradually many of the stallions from Ibelin gathered around us. Lord Balian and his knights and squires were drinking too from the goat-skins they carried. We were all at ease and the knights even laughed about something, and then Lord Balian exclaimed: “Holy Cross and St. George!” pulled his helmet and shield back on and spurred me back across the river. I swear it was the first time he’d ever turned his spurs into my sides and it didn’t half scare me. I knew he wouldn’t do that without reason, so I was frightened even before I saw them: infinite numbers of Horse-Haters pouring over the hill to our left chasing after a few terrified red-crosses.
Lord Balian was clearly trying to get back to the King who was far behind us surrounded only by a few knights. Half the knights had continued across the river and hundreds of others were way off to our right pursing another band of Horse-Haters. Clearly, even if we were all together we weren’t more than half those Saracens, but if we let them catch us all spread out like that we didn’t have a chance.
Lord Balian stood in his stirrups so I could stride out to my maximum speed. I was going all out and if something lay across my path I just leaped over it — living or dead, man or horse. We had to get back to the King and his knights! But even as I strained with every muscle of my body, I could feel the earth starting to tremble and hear the thunder of ten thousand hooves. I flattened my ears on my head to try to block out that sound and stretched out my neck out even farther. But you could feel them getting nearer. We weren’t going to make it!
The next thing I knew Lord Balian was lying on my neck and his hand found the bridle just behind the bit. He leaned all his weight on his left arm and I didn’t have any choice but to turn. I don’t know how at that speed, but we turned left and the next instant they hit us. I was flung back on my haunches and staggered as they swept past us slashing downward with their swords, screaming and howling in rage and hatred. I flung my head up out of sheer terror, whining in panic. I was sure we were going to die right then and there, just be cut to pieces and I was scrambling frantically to get my feet under me again so we could run away. Only there were so many of them that the air become chocked with dust and I could hardly breathe or see what was happening.
Eventually I did recover my footing and start to move forward again and as soon as I moved Lord Balian started fighting. He used his shield as well as his sword to slash a way forward. It seemed to take forever, but finally we emerged out of the enemy. They had swept over us, still galloping in the direction of the King. I stopped and Lord Balian turned me around to look at the cloud of dust from which other horses and men on foot were emerging. The men on foot were staggering forward, and some of the other horses were stumbling, while one was screaming in pain. As the dust settled, we could see the crumpled corpses of men and horses killed by that torrential hoard of riders, as well as one horse thrashing about miserably as it tried to stand despite two broken legs. Dawit couldn’t stand it. He jumped down and crossed the distance to the wounded horse to put it out of its misery. Meanwhile, Lord Balian was ordering the men without horses to mount up behind some of their comrades. When he sent them away in the direction of the camp but turned me in the opposite direction, I knew what was coming: we were going to attack again.
The Horse-Haters hadn’t expected that. They were focused on trying to kill the horses ahead of them — trying, most of all, to kill that beautiful white castrate the King rode. Lord Balian dropped his reins again and I started biting the backs of the calves, even the buttocks, of Saracens as Lord Balian and his knights attacked them with their swords. It was slow going, hacking our way through so many men, but eventually we could see the King’s white castrate in the middle of a knot of men fighting furiously. Just then, a huge Horse-Hater stood in his stirrups and dropped his sword on the neck of the man right beside the King. His sword sliced deep into the knight’s chest. Blood gushed — spurted actually — into the air as the body fell sideways onto the King’s castrate. His white shoulder turned brilliant, shiny red and he reared up whinnying in terror as if he’d been wounded not just bloodied.
An instant latter, he had something to scream about: they were stabbing him in the belly and slicing it open mercilessly. Now he lashed out with his hooves, screaming in pain and terror — as the King toppled helplessly off his back. I’ve never seen such terrible horsemanship. He didn’t even try to hold on. I was disgusted, but Lord Balian dug his spurs into me a second time and then next thing I knew we were beside the King and Lord Balian had jumped down — right there in the middle of the battle! Men and horses were fighting and dying all around us, and Lord Balian had me by the reins and was trying to bring me closer to the King. He held the King in his arms, and the King was limp and helpless. There was something wrong with him. You could tell. He had a strange smell. He was not normal.
Lord Balian tugged on the reins and clearly wanted me to let the King mount, but I’d seen what had happened to his last horse. I knew if he got on my back the same would happen to me. He wouldn’t protect me! He would let them hack me to pieces. I didn’t want him on my back, King or not! Lord Balian yanked on the reins, something he’d never done before, but I’d suffered far worse from the Black Knight. I shook my head, furious, and I stamped my feet and whinnied my refusal at him. “No, no, no!”
Suddenly, Lord Balian’s squire Daniel was beside Lord Balian and he too was on foot. He pulled the King on to his own back. Then he ran crouched over, almost like he was on all fours, between the horses, below the line-of-sight of the Horse Haters. It was an amazing sight, and I'll never forget it.
With the King gone, Lord Balian remounted, but he’d lost his shield and had run out of lances long ago. He turned me away from the enemy and we fled. Maybe it was cowardly, but it was the only sensible thing to do. We didn’t stop until we were all the way back to a castle. I had survived my second battle, and this time I was still with my rider and we were both safe.
A landless knight,
The Battle on the Litanai is described (from human perspective) in:
Book II of the Balian d'Ibelin TrilogyBuy Now in Paperback!
Centurion is also a character in Book I of this Biographical Novel:
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.