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 15, 2015

What Lepers Can Do: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"



“They might just kill us all—as we’re no use as slaves. When the enemy comes, we must take refuge in the city,” a middle-aged leper, whose fingerless hands were wrapped in bandages, declared forcefully.

“What makes you think the citizens of Jerusalem will let us inside?” a little man without ears or nose asked back bitterly. He had been expelled from his native Cologne and had walked all the way to Jerusalem in hope of a cure. Instead, he found himself segregated with his fellow lepers, albeit in better circumstances than in the Holy Roman Empire.

“We can appeal to the Grand Hospitaller,” a woman with deforming ulcers on her face and neck answered. The Order of St. Lazarus was an offshoot of the Knights of St. John.

It was at this point that Sir Daniel straightened and raised his voice. “No—Ibelin is in command now, and I will go to him.”

The congress of lepers fell restlessly silent as they turned to look at the speaker. Sir Daniel was one of them—and he wasn’t. He had never really fit in, and then he had gone off to serve the King. When he returned, he had kept himself apart, as if he thought he was better than the rest of them. Yet the leprosy had rendered his left arm useless; it was ulcerous and the fingers were rotting away. Because he could no longer hold a shield, he had not been allowed to go with the knights that mustered with King Guy, despite his protests and pleading.

Now he stepped out of the side aisle to stand directly in front of the altar (the lepers were meeting in the church) and reminded them: “Listen to me. I once served the Baron of Ibelin. If I go to him, he will grant what we request.”

Several in the audience, who didn’t like Daniel very well and thought him arrogant, grumbled to themselves that he shouldn’t be so sure about what the Baron of Ibelin would or would not do. The majority, like him or not, nodded and agreed that what he said made sense.

“But first we must decide what it is we want,” Daniel’s voice rang out, amplified by the acoustics of the church. His audience grew still, surprised and captivated by something in his tone.

“Do we want to cower behind the walls of Jerusalem like piteous rubbish, waiting for our fate?” He paused, but no one answered him; most of his audience, in their rags and rotting limbs, didn’t see what choice they had.

“Or do we want to follow in the footsteps of the late King Baldwin?” Again he paused, but now an intangible excitement had gripped them. The lepers toward the back or behind taller people squirmed and strained to get a better view of Sir Daniel.

Sir Daniel was still a surprisingly impressive figure. His face was not yet marked by the disease, and he stood tall and straight, a habit from his years in the King’s service. His rotting arm was wrapped in bandages and hidden from view in his cloak.

“King Baldwin never stopped fighting for his Kingdom, for this city, for Christ. Even when he was too weak to stand, when he could not use his hands, when his sight was dim. To the very end, he fought. Three times, the Leper King threw back Salah ad-Din’s armies! It took a healthy man to lead the Army of Jerusalem to defeat!” he reminded them, and suddenly they were nodding and congratulating themselves.

“I say if he could fight in his condition, then so can all of us!”

“He had others to do his fighting,” one of Sir Daniel’s detractors grumbled. “All he had to do was command.”

“Well, if you want to just whine and act like an infant, then do so!” Sir Daniel sneered. “But I know that I can be useful—and so can you, Tom, and you, too, Molly!” Daniel began addressing them by name. “In fact,” Daniel continued, “there are things we can do better than the healthy! With less feeling in our limbs, we can handle hot cauldrons with boiling oil and water, or even stamp out fires with our senseless feet. And who knows better than we how to prepare strips of cotton or how to wind them firmly? Why, then, who better than we to wrap arrows with cotton strips and dip them in tar and oil so they can be sent flaming over the ramparts to the enemy?”

His enthusiasm and conviction were contagious. Particularly, the younger and healthier of his colleagues were with him. “Yes, yes!” they started to shout. “We can help!”

“We can tend fires—”

“And put them out!”

“We can remove the dead!”

“We can throw the enemy dead back at them!”

“We can!”

“We can!”


All doubts, voiced and unvoiced, were soon drowned out in the euphoria of newfound purpose, and Sir Daniel was elected “Master” of the Lepers of St. Lazarus at Jerusalem by popular acclaim. 



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