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, September 25, 2015

The Leper King's Vision: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"



“Look,” Daniel coaxed. “Doesn’t it make even me look comely?” He held the silver mask over his own face and confronted the King, who was lying in bed, propped upon pillows.

“You’re always comely, Daniel,” Baldwin replied, with a weary smile that only made his deformed face more hideous.

“Your grace, your hands and feet are covered with bandages and clothes; why shouldn’t we cover your face as well? If you don’t like this particular mask, we can commission another one. You can choose whatever visage you like—you could even change it from day to day!” Daniel suggested eagerly.

Baldwin sighed. “The only face I want is the one I had before ….”

“We asked the silversmith to try to reproduce it,” Daniel admitted, looking down at the mask in his hand, “but he wasn’t skilled enough. Or maybe he just couldn’t remember what you looked like before ….”

“I’ll wear it if you can’t stand the sight of me anymore,” Baldwin offered, “but otherwise, now that I’ve turned over the affairs of state to my brother-in-law, why do I need to hide?”

“It’s not for me,” Daniel hastened to assure him. “It’s just that your sister thought …” Daniel looked nervously down at the mask again. The Countess of Jaffa had charged him with making Baldwin wear this. She’d told him she couldn’t bear the sight of her brother’s face another day. Daniel knew she would blame him for failing to convince the King to wear the mask, and Princess Sibylla could be hell on earth when she was displeased.

Baldwin caught his breath at the mention of his sister, and after a moment he repeated slowly and deliberately, “My sister.” It wasn’t a question by the time it came out of his mouth, because now that it was out in the open, it was so obvious. His sister was somehow ever present—yet never really at hand. His mother had repeatedly assured him she was here, but she had never come close enough for him to see her with his dimming eyes.

“My sister wants me to wear the mask,” he concluded.

Daniel nodded vigorously. “She—she says she loves you too much to see you like this.”

“Yes,” Baldwin said stoically. “Too much.”

Sibylla had always been attracted to beauty, he reminded himself, striving for the thousandth time to find an excuse for his sister. But the words rang falsely even in his own head. If she loved him so much, then surely she would see beyond his deformed face to his heart and soul? Surely she would care more about what he was feeling than what she was seeing? Like Ibrahim.

Baldwin suddenly realized he had not seen or heard from Ibrahim in days. The thought distracted him from his sister’s pseudo-love. “Daniel, where is Ibrahim? He hasn’t been with me for days. He hasn’t fallen ill, has he? He didn’t catch the fever, did he?” Even as he spoke, Baldwin was seized with fear that Ibrahim might be dead. Old people, like children, were the most vulnerable to fevers, and Baldwin could distinctly remember Ibrahim at his bedside during the worst stage of his fever, when he had been half mad and had thrashed around in the bed trying to escape his worthless body. Ibrahim had come and calmed him, cooing to him in Arabic.

Daniel looked up in alarm. This was the first day in a month that they had been alone together. It was the first time Daniel had seen the King lucid and completely free of fever. “Didn’t …” Daniel started.

“Didn’t what?” Baldwin asked.

“Didn’t the Countess of Jaffa tell you?”

“He’s dead?” Baldwin asked, rearing up from his pillows in alarm, his grief so great that it gave him strength.

Daniel shook his head vigorously.

Baldwin sank back onto the pillows, exhausted from even this little rush of adrenalin. “Christ be praised for that. But where is he, then? Is he ill?”

“No,” Daniel admitted, “no, the Countess of Jaffa complained that he only got in the way and underfoot—”

Baldwin was sitting bolt upright again. “She didn’t—she couldn’t have said that!” he protested, yet his tone and expression belied his words. It was as if he were hearing these very words again in his memory, as if he had recorded them in his subconscious and they were echoing now in his conscious mind.

Daniel could not meet his eye, because he was ashamed he had not done more to defend Ibrahim at the time. He muttered, “She said he’s too old to serve, and sent him away.”

“What?” Baldwin protested in shame and outrage. “Sent him away? Without my consent! And where? Where is he now?” Baldwin demanded.

“I don’t know, your grace,” Daniel mumbled shamefacedly.

“But how could you just let him go?” Baldwin wanted to know. Reproach was in the King’s words, making Daniel realize that his lord knew how jealous he had been of the love the King showed the old Muslim slave.

“I—I was too concerned about you at the time, your grace,” Daniel defended himself lamely. “We all thought you were about to die.”

“All the more reason to ensure poor Ibrahim was not thrown out! He has no family like you have, Daniel. He has no one in the whole world. No where to go. You must find him. You must go—” Baldwin had been about to order Daniel to go to the hospice of the Hospital—but then he realized Ibrahim would never seek solace in a Christian institution, and there was no mosque or Muslim community in Jerusalem either.

“I think he might have gone to Ibelin,” Daniel ventured. “He said Lord Balian had promised to take him in ….”

Baldwin leveled reproachful eyes on Daniel. “Ibelin is fifty miles away! How is poor Ibrahim supposed to get there? He’s at least seventy years old!”

Daniel looked down at his feet.

“Daniel, I hold you responsible for Ibrahim’s welfare. You must send a man to Ibelin at once to see if Ibrahim is safely there. If Balian has given him a home, then we will let him be—but in the name of the Virgin Mary, if he is not there, I will not let you rest until we have found him and brought him back to me.”

“Yes, your grace,” Daniel muttered.

“Leave me,” Baldwin ordered, lying back on his pillows and closing his eyes.

“But, your grace—” Daniel protested, knowing that without Ibrahim there was no one but himself to help the King do anything, now that he had lost the use of all his limbs and was almost blind.

“Wait outside the door. I’ll call if I need you,” Baldwin insisted, without opening his eyes or stirring until he heard the door close behind Daniel.

When he was alone, Baldwin tried to sort out his thoughts.

It had seemed so natural to give up the burden of ruling when he was ill. It had been such a relief. “Yes, Guy can be Regent,” he had told his mother—anything but the smothering sense of a duty he could not fulfill. He had just wanted to rest, to die in peace, without the guilty conscience of leaving the Kingdom ungoverned.

“You’ll retain Jerusalem, of course,” his mother had promised. “And an annual income of ten thousand pieces of gold.”

What did he want with an income of ten thousand gold pieces when he was dead? And of course he would retain Jerusalem, because he would be buried beside his father and uncle in the Holy Sepulcher.

Only he wasn’t dead yet. He drew a deep breath. The room smelled slightly foul—from unchanged sheets, a dirty garderobe, and rotting bandages. Ibrahim had never left his bandages lying around, nor let the garderobe get dirty, either. Daniel—Daniel was strong still and devoted to him, but he hated cleaning the garderobe and, not unnaturally, he hated touching the used bandages, too.

How could it have taken him this long to register that Ibrahim was missing? Baldwin reproached himself. How long had it been? A week? Two? Even three? Christ, forgive me! He squirmed uneasily in his guilt, and then went still with a paralyzing sense of fear.

He was alone. Utterly alone. Everyone who truly loved him had been chased away. The Archbishop of Tyre, after being passed over for the post of Patriarch of Jerusalem to make way for his mother’s lover, had resigned as Chancellor in offended outrage. Tante Marie had been turned into a bitter enemy because they’d taken her little girl away from her—to please his mother. Balian had been alienated first by the insult to his brother, and then by the loss of his stepdaughter. And now poor, harmless Ibrahim—thrown out in his old age without so much as a pension.

Baldwin felt cold, but he could not pull up the covers on his own. He lay on the bed feeling the chill gnawing at his rotting bones, but he did not cry out for Daniel, because he felt God’s wrath in the cold around him.

“You have created this cold by your own faithlessness,” God said in his conscience. “You have replaced those who loved you with those who love only the power they derive from you. You have turned your back on love and basked in its counterfeit.”

Baldwin felt the urge to cry, but he had long since lost the ability to shed tears. Instead he began to writhe in silent agony. With a clarity and vividness that only existed in his mind, he remembered how Ibrahim had come to put him to bed the day the doctor suggested he had leprosy; the other servants were all in hiding or had run away altogether, but Ibrahim had smiled at him and tucked him into to bed. Next he remembered the day Balian had come into his life and put his arm around his shoulders—risking his own health and life to give comfort to a frightened child. He remembered, too, the day his father died and he had been so terrified of becoming king, but Balian had knelt and offered him fealty, telling him he could be king without the use of his hands. “You will be king by the force of your mind and the courage of your heart,” Balian had said. Even when the leprosy had attacked his face, Balian had helped carry him—with Ibrahim. They loved him. They would not have asked that he hide behind a mask.

Baldwin was racked with dry sobs as he thought next of Tante Marie. She had kissed his hands the day she returned to court, making his mother and sister gasp because they had not dared. She had brought little Isabella to him, while Sibylla insisted she could not risk her son’s life in his presence. And how had he rewarded Tante Marie? By taking Isabella away from her.

Baldwin’s writhing was becoming more violent, and his breathing came in gasps. How could he have done that? How could he have let his mother and Sibylla talk him into such an act of cruelty? What were Tante Marie and Balian going to do to or with Isabella that was so dangerous to him? Nothing! They loved him.

Maybe it was good to marry Isabella to Humphrey before she was old enough to be driven by sexual desire like Sibylla, but why hadn’t he ordered Humphrey to go to live with Balian and Maria Zoë, rather than tear poor little Isabella away from the people she loved and who loved her? How could he destroy a family after suffering so much from the destruction of his own?

The voices of his mother and sister seemed to be everywhere around him—chattering, nagging, vowing their love to him while cooing poisoned advice and begging him to reward their lovers. Guy, Heraclius, Guy, Heraclius. He had made their men the most powerful men in the Kingdom: the head of the State and the Church respectively. And where were they now? Probably in bed with their lovers, while he lay here alone in the growing stench of unchanged bandages and linens and a dirty garderobe. He was starting to shiver and his teeth began to chatter—but he still did not call to Daniel, because he had brought this upon himself. God was right to punish him.



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