A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
They woke us up in the middle of the night. That had never happened before. And the mood among the humans was like none I’d known before. Worst of all, Lord Balian was angry. I mean boiling mad. Not that he shouted or lashed out at people like the Black Knight had done when he was angry, but you could tell he wanted to bite someone. His eyes were narrowed and his jaw set and no one wanted to cross him, even for a second.
The next strange thing that happened was that Thor and I were saddled up and laden with the long, transport waterskins like the ones the Saracens tie to camels. They were not made for horses — much less destriers. I was insulted and indignant at such a burden, but Ernoul smacked me hard when I tried to protest by nipping him from behind and told me: “Lord Balian’s orders! You’ll do as you’re told, just like the rest of us!”
We set out in three divisions. Thor and I, led by Gabriel and Ernoul respectively, were with the middle division around the wagons, carts, and supplies. Ahead of us were knights and infantry led by strangers, while Lord Balian was behind us with the Red-Crosses. We could only progress at the speed of the slowest, of course, and the sun was hot. The horses of the first division kicked up a lot of dust on that dry road and I was looking forward to a drink long before noon. But when we reached the springs several hours later they were poisoned! I put my nose down to drink and smelt it immediately. I snorted in disgust and stepped backwards. We were all doing that, and the humans understood too. They were really in a tizzy now, running about like a bunch of headless chickens.
I kept looking over my shoulder for Lord Balian, wondering why he wasn’t here to sort things out, but he seemed to have been delayed. There was no sign of him. Ernoul gave me a drink from one of the water skins I’d been carrying myself. The water was almost too hot to drink and not very refreshing, but better than nothing. Thor, however, was still being silly. He wanted his water in a bucket, not out of a skin. I told him he better take what he could get, and he answered that he was a “stud” and didn’t drink “like an unweened foal.” “Suit yourself,” I told him with a snort and drank his share too.
Eventually we set out again, this time striking off the road which made the going very rough for the wagons and carts. They lurched over the uneven terrain, often getting a wheel stuck in a gully or stopped by a rock. The humans were cursing and sweating, smelling even worse than usual, and I could tell they were unhappy. At no earlier muster had the mood been like this, not even at that first one with the Black Knight. The humans were acting like they were scared, looking around like frightened rabbits and they kept looking at this one wagon with a tall gold cross mounted on it and surrounded by Black-Robes. I guess it was something important to them and they seemed afraid of losing it.
When darkness fell we were in the middle of nowhere with no shelter and no water. Now Thor was starting to regret his foolishness. He kept sniffing the barren, dusty ground and pawing it, as if he thought he could dig down deep enough to find the water under the earth. When Gabriel offered him water that night, he didn’t make any stupid remarks about not being a foal and drank from the goat-skin just like I did.
Water or not, however, I was really getting nervous because there was still no sign of Lord Balian. The humans were kneeling in front of the wagon with the big gold cross, and knights were scurrying this way and that in obvious agitation because in the darkness around us other humans and horses were gathering like a swarm of flies at a dung-heap. It could only be Horse-Haters and in greater numbers than ever before. As darkness fell, they howled and yowled like wolves at a full moon, and then lit fires as numerous as the stars over our heads.
Finally, Lord Balian dragged in. That was really the only word for it. Rufus was at the end of his strength and crashed to the ground beside Lord Balian as he dismounted. Ernoul rushed over to give him water, but he was finished. So were the horses of the other knights, while the knights themselves were bristling with arrows. The foot soldiers were in even worse shape — and there were half as many as had been left behind. After Rufus had revived a little, I asked him what happened. “They attacked us all day long,” he gasped out tucking his feet under him to half sit-up. “Mounted archers,” he explained.
“They’re all around us,” I noted nodding toward the surrounding hills.
“We’re finished,” Rufus concluded in utter despair. “Lord Balian kept us behind the footmen, but the Red-Crosses charged them several times. All they got was dead horses! It was as if they didn’t care about their horses at all. As if they were fighting for something else than our safety. Don’t trust the Red Crosses,” he concluded and then his eyes rolled back into his head and he sank into a miserable sleep.
The morning brought the smoke of brush fires from the west and the hot air became almost unbreathable. The army stirred, but it was the stirring of turtles stranded on the beach. Neither horse nor human had any energy after the dry, sleepless night. Only the relentless approach of the fires forced us to advance toward the rising sun.
But there, spread out across two hills that loomed up like two horns on either side of an arid valley was the host of Horse-Haters. They were as numerous as the sand on the shore of the great sea, as numerous as grass in the pastures of Ibelin. We were like a herd of lost lambs surrounded by wolves.
Lord Balian took Thor. It broke my heart. I could see it on his face that he expected to die that day — and he chose to die with Thor rather than me. I protested. “I’m your destrier!” I called to him. “Me!” But he didn’t even look over at me. His face was closed. His thoughts and emotions locked inside.
So I was left with the palfreys, pack-horses and draught horses around the baggage train. It was the ultimate humiliation! The others, even Rufus, were too exhausted and thirsty to take an interest in anything, but I couldn’t ignore what was happening only half a mile away. The Saracens used arrows first, as always, and there were so many of them that they overwhelmed our armor — finding the weaknesses, breaking the links. Men and horses were sinking down under that deadly hail. The Christians tried a charge, but they were too weak. After initial success, they lost momentum in that hoard of Horse-Haters. Meanwhile, the Christian footmen had had enough. They were no longer willing to die for us. They retreated up the slopes of those hills and left the horses almost completely exposed.
At this point, even the humans realized that there was no hope of fighting the Horse-Haters, we had to try to escape. Some Christian knights made a desperate charge that broke through the enemy, but Lord Balian wasn’t with them. When I couldn’t find him among the knights escaping, I tried to find Lord Balian in the shrinking cluster of knights left behind, but he was gone! Just gone! I was still looking, when Ernoul emerged out of nowhere.
The boy was in bad shape. He stank abominably, as only humans do when they’re scared shitless. He was shaking too, but he jumped down from his rather dazed castrate and started saddling me up. Only then did I grasp what had happened. Thor was dead and Lord Balian needed me! The younger horse had failed him!
When I was tacked up, Ernoul remounted his castrate and led me onto the battlefield right up to the corpse of Thor. He didn’t have a wound worth talking about on him; he had collapsed from thirst! Lord Balian was pretty exhausted too. It took him two tries to mount.
By the time he had mounted, the break in the enemy lines had closed again and we were all trapped. One of the other knights still trapped on that bloody field was suddenly beside us pointing at the infantry cowering on the hill to our right around that wagon with the gold cross. He was pointing toward it and saying we had to go up there, behind the foot soldiers. I didn’t think much of that suggestion. They’d abandoned us once before; they would surely do it again. I preferred the idea of trying to break out.
So did Lord Balian. He pointed at the enemy and the other knight backed down. Lord Balian couched his last lance and all the horses still with him, even the squires on their castrates, clustered around. We got as close together as possible, seeking protection and courage from each other. Then we charged.
He killed two men with his first charge — one with the lance and the second when the first fell backwards and knocked his companion off his horse. After that we were a single killing machine — he with his sword and me with my teeth and hooves. I had no idea how far we were from escape. I certainly couldn’t see the end of the Horse-Hater’s ranks, when something smashed into us from the left. It must have been a whole herd of horses because they knocked several of my comrades down completely and I was staggered. I lost my footing and stumbled so violently that Lord Balian lost his stirrups. He started to fall off, and grabbed my mane desperately to stay on my back. I had recovered my footing and knew that we had to get away from whatever had hit us. It was pure instinct. All of us together were running in the opposite direction which was strangely open.
It was a stampede and the humans had nothing to do with it. Lord Balian was struggling to get back into the saddle and stay with me, and I was determined to get him — and me — out of there! Off that field. I hadn’t reckoned with Lord Balian’s skill, however. He somehow managed to get his seat back in the saddle, pick up the reins and start checking me.
OK. I know I said I’d learned to trust him, but flight was the only thing that made sense in this situation and I wasn’t inclined to listen to him. I guess I did slow down a little, however, out of respect and habit. It was a good thing I did because the next thing I knew we were crashing over the edge of that valley between the horn-like hills and the slope on the far side was so steep we began all slipping and sliding and scrambling.
I sat on my haunches and tore the skin off my hocks as we skidded down that slope, dirt, stones and rocks rolling with us. We crashed through the underbrush and tore up the thorns and bramble as we descended. Lord Balian flung himself off my back and tried to steady me, but he lost his own footing in that rock-and-flesh slide and we only stayed together as we slid down hill because he didn’t let go of my bridle.
Gradually we slowed down and were able to walk side-by-side down a gravel gully. Around us were the other knights and squires of Ibelin and Nablus, and even some of the foot soldiers. With each step we were farther from the battle that still raged, the sounds of it grew ever fainter behind us.
Ahead was a great lake. You could smell the sweet water on the warm, afternoon air. We walked straight into it until the water lapped around my belly, then I put my head down and drank and drank and drank.
The Battle of Hattin is described from the human perspective in:
A divided Kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem!
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The first book in the series, Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin, is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.
A landless knight,
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem!
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem!