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.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Road to Hattin: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"


The shift in direction, however, meant that the Christian army left the road and started cutting across country. That made walking much more difficult for the infantry, as there were frequent gullies, rocks, and thorns. That was bad enough for men just walking forward; it was much harder for men trying to stay in formation under unrelenting attacks. As a result, the rear guard was slowed down even more, and a gap threatened to open up between the main body of Christian troops and the rear guard. It was a gap the Saracens were bound to exploit—and if they did, the rear guard would be surrounded and cut to pieces.

As that threat loomed larger with each excruciating step forward, Ibelin rode over to consult with Gerard de Ridefort. The latter proposed charging the enemy to drive them back, but Ibelin angrily rejected the plan. It was too obvious that the enemy would simply fall back before the heavy cavalry, and then attack again as soon as the charge was spent. 

“That’s a waste of energy,” Ibelin told the Templar Master bluntly.

“You’re just afraid to charge!” Ridefort retorted hotly.

“Don’t try that crap on me, Ridefort. I’m not a frightened dandy like the King you made! Charging light Turkish cavalry is idiocy—and if you do it, you do it alone.” Ibelin let his eyes sweep the Templars around the Master, hoping to find a man like Jacques de Mailly, willing to challenge their Grand Master and support him. But the men with Ridefort today only dropped their eyes and would not look at him.

“God is on our side!” Ridefort barked belligerently, making his own men sit up straighter in their saddles.

“Really? As he was with you at Cresson?” Ibelin shot back.

“Do you doubt Christ is with us?”
                       
“It is blasphemy to confuse your own will with the will of God.”

“We charge!” Ridefort spun his horse on its haunches and spurred it forward, ordering the Templar standard-bearer to fall in beside him.

Ibelin rode back to his own knights and announced grimly, “The Templars insist on charging.”

“That’s madness!” Sir Bartholomew protested, and Balian noted how haggard the old man looked. His eyes were sunken in his skull, all but lost in shadow in the depths of his helmet. He shouldn’t be here, Balian registered. He should be enjoying his old age in peace on his manor, not facing certain death. Then again, he had only daughters, and the feudal duty fell next to his eldest grandson, a boy just thirteen years old. So on second thought, the old man was probably prepared to die to save that boy and his younger brothers.

Out loud, Ibelin retorted curtly, “This whole march is madness!” and added before anyone else could protest: “We hold formation, and take advantage of the relief the Templars will temporarily give us to jog forward as far and as fast as we can.”

Then he reached down, unfastened his goatskin, and took several gulps of water before demonstratively pulling Rufus’ head around to offer the water to the chestnut palfrey. Rufus gratefully closed his lips around the spout of the goatskin, and Balian upended it so that the water flowed into his horse’s mouth until the skin was about half empty. Then he took it away, closed it, and tied it again to his saddle. Around him, his knights followed his example of sharing their water with their horses, while the infantry drank deeply. While they drank, the Templars burst through their infantry protection screaming “Vive Dieu St. Amour!”—head-on into the next Saracen attack.

The Saracens just wheeled their horses around and galloped away like the wind. Their fleeter horses, with lighter gear and riders, easily outdistanced the Templars. The latter, armed only with lances and swords, could not hope to inflict the slightest damage and soon drew up, turned, and began to trot back to Ibelin’s division, which was jogging as fast as the tired limbs and dehydrated bodies of the infantry would let them. Only Ibelin remained immobile, his horse facing backwards, his eyes squinting against the sun as he awaited the next attack. It came even before the Templars had rejoined the rest of the rear guard. Ibelin shouted a warning, and Ridefort wheeled his knights around and charged again.

This repeated itself four or five times, until the Templar horses were swaying from exhaustion, the sweat dripping from their bellies, their heads hanging in utter dejection. Only then did Ridefort recognize—but not acknowledge—that Ibelin had been right. Furiously, he ordered Ibelin to send one of his knights to the King to demand that the main army wait for the rear guard.

“No,” Ibelin answered.

“They must wait for us! If they don’t, we’ll be cut off and slaughtered! If we’re slaughtered, the army doesn’t stand a chance. A third of our forces are right here!”

“I agree, but you’re the one who brought us here, so you’re going to be the one to tell your puppet King that you were wrong! You tell him to stop before he reaches water! You tell him we can’t make Tiberias tonight! You tell him the entire Christian army is trapped in the middle of a wasteland with no water and completely surrounded by the enemy. You tell him!”

They stared at one another, and for the first time something like doubt crossed Ridefort’s eyes, but he blinked it back. “I don’t have a horse that can trot, let alone canter. You must send one of your knights.”

“Oh, I’ll lend you a horse,” Ibelin answered, “but only you! Not one of your sacrificial lambs,” he gestured toward the silent Templars around them. Balian had never been so acutely aware of how young many of these bearded men were. Behind their beards and their tonsures, behind the fa├žade of their white robes, half of them were little more than boys! He noted with poignancy that many of them had faces the color of cooked crabs and peeling skin—clear indications that they were newly come from countries with cool, rainy summers. Why, many of them might have arrived only weeks or days ago, replacements for the men lost at Cresson. They were, he knew, suffering more in this heat than any of the men from Ibelin, Ramla, or Nablus. He could sense that they were frightened, too. They had believed in their cause, their virtue, and their invincibility. And they were starting to ask themselves what had gone wrong.

“Damn you, Ibelin!”

“What for, Ridefort? For pushing your nose in your own shit? You made this King, and you made this catastrophe. Tripoli warned you. I warned you. By God, half the barons of Jerusalem warned you. But you thought yourself cleverer than all of us together. This is your dung heap, and you are going to lie in it! I only pray to God that He will not punish the rest of us for your stupidity, arrogance, and hubris!”

“I’ll kill you, Ibelin!”

“You already have, Ridefort. You’ve killed all of us. Now, do you want my stallion or not?”
Ridefort’s eyes flashed with hatred so intense that he refused. Dragging his own poor, tired mount around, he dug his spurs into its flanks, forcing it to lumber forward in an exhausted, miserable lope.

Ibelin let his eyes sweep across the faces of the remaining, still-stunned Templars and shook his head. Then he rode back to his own men to face the next Saracen onslaught.



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