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, November 1, 2015

A Child in Jerusalem, August 1187: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"




John had escaped the tedium of the classroom, the prattle of his siblings, and the droning of Father Angelus for the kitchens. It wasn’t that he was hungry—but it was in the kitchens that he learned the most about what was really going on. His mother and aunts, his tutors, and even the servants all wanted to “protect” him by not telling him what was happening. They treated him like a baby and kept telling him “everything will be all right,” when obviously it wasn’t!

Nablus, Ibelin, Ramla, and Mirabel had all fallen. Everything he had ever known as home was overrun by the enemy. Salah ad-Din’s forces controlled the countryside all around Jerusalem, and there were no knights left in the city. John understood perfectly that that meant there was no way they could defend themselves. He and his siblings, his mother, his aunts and tutors and servants—they were all trapped within the city, with no hope of relief.

What was more, John knew what happened to women and children when a city was sacked. They were rounded up and sold as slaves. The women would be violated and ravished—like Beth had been—and the children would be made to work, just like the kitchen boys turning the spit before the fire or the boys that scrubbed out the latrines. John shuddered—and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He tried to picture himself defending his sisters and little brother. He imagined saying, “My father is Balian d’Ibelin, and—” And what? They would laugh at him, because his father could not rescue him. His father could not even buy his freedom, because his father had nothing. With the loss of Ibelin, Ramla, Mirabel, and Nablus, they had lost all their land and income. Of course his mother and Master Shoreham had managed to bring most of their movable treasure here, but when Jerusalem fell that would all be seized as plunder by the Saracens.

“Master John!” It was the stern voice of Father Michael. John jumped and then looked over his shoulder with an expression of guilt mixed with rebelliousness on his face. “You’re supposed to be at your lessons, young man!” Father Michael admonished.

“What’s the point of learning Greek when the only language I’m going to need in the future is Arabic?” John flung furiously at Father Michael, his pent-up terror erupting as defiance.

Father Michael was taken aback for a second, but then reproached himself. John wasn’t a fool, and an eight-year-old could reason. The tutor went down on his heels to be at John’s eye level and looked him squarely in the face. “It is your Greek blood that might just save you. Your mother’s cousin is Emperor of the Greeks.” He was stretching the point somewhat—the Emperor Isaac II Angelus was only distantly related to Maria Zoë—but for John’s sake he was willing to bend the truth a little. He continued, “And he has made a truce with Salah ad-Din.”

John just stared at him, his lips a grim, defiant line.

Father Michael laid a hand on his shoulder and spoke in a gentler voice. “John, what good does it do to get in people’s way here?” They were very much underfoot at the moment, for dinner was over and the serving boys were trying to clean up and put things away. Several women were soaking rags in warm, sudsy water to wipe down the tables, while other servants were preparing to sweep out the hall. The cooks were busy sorting out the leftovers into things for reuse (such as the wine), alms for the poor, and bones for the dogs. Just outside the kitchen door, the usual crowd of beggars was waiting in the street for alms. They seemed louder than usual, even more aggressive.

Someone was shouting, “Ibelin! Ibelin!”—as if that would get them more food or fed faster, Father Michael noted with irritation.

Then the noise spilled from the street into the kitchen itself when one of the scullery servants started squawking in a high-pitched voice: “A rider with the banner of Ibelin is approaching St. Stephen’s Gate.”

“A rider?”

“It must be a ruse!”

“There’s nothing but Saracens north of us!”

“It’s the Ibelin banner! Clear as day!”

“How many riders?”

“Just two.”

“That’s madness! If Ibelin were coming to our relief, he’d bring his whole three thousand men."

“I tell you,” the scullion insisted. “They’ve seen it!”

John ducked down and darted for the door while the others were distracted. He dodged past the cook and the excited scullion and was outside before Michael could stop him.

In the street the crowd was more agitated than the scullion. Everyone was talking at once. “I told you he’d come!” someone kept repeating. Other people were asking more skeptically how he could have gotten through the enemy alone, and while holding his banner upright on a lance. Others were sure it was a trick. “If we open the gates to this rider, they’ll flood in!”

“How? He’s alone, with just one squire.”

A rider forced his way through the crowd, calling for them to make way. “I have a message for the Dowager Queen!” the man kept shouting. But they blocked his way, surrounding his horse and demanding his news.

“The Baron of Ibelin is approaching! Let me in!”

The crowd erupted into even more agitated discussion, but they let the rider continue to the main entrance, where he jumped down and disappeared inside. John was too far away to follow. Instead, he was trapped with the rest of the crowd, and from farther up the street the shouting had grown much louder. More: the shouting had turned to cheering. They were still shouting “Ibelin!” but it had become a chant. “Ib-lin! Ib-lin! Ib-lin!”

More people poured out of the houses and shops lining the street and crowded the balconies and the rooftops, trying to see what was going on. The cheers were coming nearer, growing louder. Everyone seemed to be shouting and waving, and John couldn’t see for all the people ahead of him. He pushed and squeezed, stamping on people’s feet and clawing his way forward, until he fought his way clear to the front. He looked up the street and could just make out two mounted men, the second of whom held upright a lance with the banner of Ibelin, but John had eyes only for the lead rider: it was his father!

John understood at once. His father had come to rescue them!

John wanted to run to him, but the crowds stood in his way. He shouted his father’s name and jumped up and down, but he was just one small child in a city awash with refugees and desperate residents. They all stood between him and his father: beggars and shopkeepers, refugees and priests, rich merchants and nuns who didn’t normally rub shoulders with the poor.

His father, meanwhile, was so completely surrounded by people that he was unable to advance another step. Scores of hands held his bridle so that the faithful Centurion fretted and tried to shake them off, while people clung to his father’s stirrups and Centurion’s trapper as well.

John could not hear what they were saying, but he understood their gestures. They did not understand that his father had come only to rescue his wife and children. They saw in the lord of Ibelin a nobleman, an experienced battle commander, the only lord to have fought his way out of the encirclement of Hattin with honor. They saw him as the savior of Jerusalem itself.

That made John angry and frightened—because if his father stayed to defend Jerusalem, then he, his mother, his sisters, and his little brother would not be able to escape. His father had to say “no” to the others! He had to ignore them, and instead sweep John up onto his saddle and ride with him out of the city to safety.

John shouted and jumped up and down, trying to make himself seen and heard, until tears of frustration ran down his face. But it did no good.

An excerpt from:





                                                                                                   

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