Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Fateful Encounter

At an agonizing pace, they had at last emerged from the gorge to find themselves on the coastal road. To the left the shore reared up in steep white cliffs to form a headland several miles to the east, and straight ahead the rocks had broken off from the cliffs already and spilled out into the little cove at the foot of the gorge. The sight was spectacularly beautiful at one level, but the sound of the waves and the wind reminded Eleanor all too sharply of the wreck, and to make matters worse, clouds seemed to have come out of nowhere to scud across the sky, low and ominous. The sea was an iron gray, except for a tiny sliver of silver far out to sea and fast retreating. The sound of breakers hammering the beach was so reminiscent of the wreck that Eleanor had to stop herself from holding her hands over her ears.
Even without her hands on her ears, fear deafened her. The archer had to shout at her to move out of the way of riders approaching from behind at a fast pace. Only then did Eleanor look over her shoulder and register two men in armor with a packhorse on a lead, approaching at a purposeful canter. Their chain mail chinked in rhythm with the canter, and their kit banged against the flanks of their horses. The shod hooves pounded the hard-packed surface of the road.
She tried to guide her mare to the side of the road, but the lame horse balked, as if this were one demand too many. Eleanor kicked her heels into the mare’s sides to no avail, humiliated by being reduced to such undignified methods. A lady shouldn’t have to ride a horse as insensitive as this, she thought to herself, tears in her eyes.
A dark horse loomed beside her. The smell of horse sweat and leather was overpowering, and she glanced left, keeping her eyes down out of embarrassment and modesty. What she saw were black suede over-the-knee boots with golden spurs studded with blue enamel fleurs-de-lis.
The King of France!
But it couldn’t be! He was a prisoner in Egypt. As were his brothers. But who else would dare wear spurs like these? She raised her eyes sharply and found herself staring at a young man with a neatly clipped brown beard and short hair ― something long since out of fashion in France. Next she took in his plain, unbleached, shabby linen surcoat. The surcoat was more suited to a common archer or a man-at-arms and completely out of place over the gold and enamel spurs. No knight in her experience ever dressed like this, but no one but a knight was entitled to golden spurs ― much less ones with the lilies of France.
The knight seemed hardly less astonished by the sight of Eleanor than she was surprised by him. He drew up sharply, his massive and heavy-boned European stallion flattening his ears and flinging up his head in protest. “My Lady! What are you ― May I be of service in some way?”
The question couldn’t have been more chivalrous, but the man’s tone was harsh and his expression forbidding. He certainly knew nothing of courtesy, Eleanor concluded, lumping him instantly with all the other brutes from France who had plundered her homeland and spoke the langue d ’oil as he did.
“My horse stumbled and came up lame, but my man will ride for a remount as soon as we reach the next village,” Eleanor told him haughtily.
This answer so astonished the knight that he was silenced for a moment. He turned and looked at the archer, who shrugged and whined, “I advised against it, sir. I told her we must turn back, but my lady wouldn’t hear of it.”
“And where are you bound?” the knight asked the archer rather than Eleanor.
“The Lady Eleanor de Najac is on pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. George to pray for the safe return of her guardian, the Comte de Poitiers.”
“I see.” The knight twisted in his saddle and ordered his squire to off-load the packhorse and transfer Eleanor’s saddle to it.
Only then did the knight turn back to Eleanor and announce, “We will bring you to Paphos, My Lady. We should be able to reach it before nightfall ― if not before the rain breaks.” He glanced grimly at the gathering clouds. “You are with the King’s court in Nicosia?”
“No, I am temporarily in the household of the Dowager Queen. And just who are you, sir?”
“Sir Geoffrey de Preuthune, Mademoiselle,” he answered absently, not even looking at her as he spoke because he was already turning to her archer, ordering: “Take the lame horse back to Her Grace the Queen. I will see your lady safe to Paphos, where I’m sure Lord Tancred will be able to provide her with a suitable remount and an escort to Agios Georgios.” (He gave the shrine it’s Greek name, Eleanor noted.)
This solution clearly suited the Queen’s archer, who nodded and agreed with alacrity, “Very good, sir.”
Eleanor, however, felt like a child or a prisoner again. No one was even asking what she wanted, and that angered her. Besides, even if his name meant nothing to her, his spurs suggested he was closely associated with her enemy, the King of France. Certainly he spoke the French of her homeland’s oppressors. She did not want his services! “I have not accepted your generous offer, Monsieur,” she pointed out sharply, adding pointedly, “I do not travel with strange men.”
The archer groaned out loud and rolled his eyes. The Cypriot woman crossed herself and started praying. The squire suppressed a laugh, and Sir Geoffrey stared at her, baffled. Then, after a moment, he reasoned with her. “My Lady, you cannot continue on that horse, and it looks like it could rain any moment. If you are new to Cyprus, perhaps you do not know how violent the storms here can be at this time of year. I beg you to reconsider and allow me to bring you under the shelter and protection of the Lord of Paphos as rapidly as possible.”
His gesture toward the clouds and a renewed gust of wind made her look again at the dark, churning clouds gathering overhead. As she watched, a flash of lightning pierced them and she shuddered involuntarily. She could not stay here. She glanced toward the packhorse and noted with surprise that, stripped of its packs, it was a lovely fine-boned mare with a delicate face and large eyes. Indeed, it was a beautiful horse with the narrow legs of a racer and the arching neck of a proud palfrey.
Again Eleanor looked at the knight in confusion. The “packhorse” matched his spurs more than his plain surcoat. Something wasn’t right about this knight, but the threat of the storm was tangible, too. Her whole body was in a state of alarm, and reason told her it made more sense to accept the offer of a good mount and a strong escort than to insist on remaining here on a lame horse with a sullen archer and a native woman she could barely talk to. If only he hadn’t been wearing King Louis’ lilies on his heels …
Eleanor pulled herself together. “Your name means nothing to me, sir. Are you in the service of the King of France?”
“No, My Lady. I am Cypriot. My father was in the service of King Richard of England, and accompanied him on crusade, but remained here at the orders his liege lord.”
“The Duc d’Aquitaine? Coeur de Leon?” The legendary Lionheart was so much a hero of her childhood that it was as if this strange knight had been transformed into a long-lost friend by his association with the late English King. As soon as Geoffrey answered her question with a somewhat baffled, “Yes, Mademoiselle,” Eleanor nodded her consent and dismounted.
Within moments her saddle and the leather saddlebags with her modest belongings had been transferred to the knight’s “packhorse,” while Sir Geoffrey’s luggage was distributed between his own and his squire’s stallions. When all was ready for her, Sir Geoffrey swung himself down from his horse and went to hold the off stirrup, asking as he did so, “Do you ride well, My Lady?”
“I did as a girl,” Eleanor answered unhelpfully, as she approached the little bay mare, trying not to limp. She took hold of the pommel with her left hand, and facing back, turned the stirrup toward her with her right hand. Twice she pointed her toe in the stirrup, but it was no use. With a horrible sense of humiliation, she realized she did not have the strength in her right leg, the leg shattered in the wreck, to push herself up off the ground.
She withdrew her toe from the stirrup. “Sir, I have an injured leg; could we find something to use as a mounting block?”
“Forgive me, My Lady. I didn’t know. Ian, give the lady a leg up!”
The young squire cheerfully jumped down from his horse again and came to help Eleanor. He locked his fingers together and held them for her to step into. She held onto the pommel with both hands, set her foot in the squire’s hands, and he lifted her up until she could swing her right leg over the cantle of the saddle.
No sooner did her bottom settle onto the saddle than the mare started moving. The knight held her firmly just behind the bit, so she swung her haunches in first one direction and then the other. This mare was not like any “packhorse” Eleanor had ever seen before. She could feel the nervous energy of the animal, and was instantly alarmed. It was too long since she had ridden a horse like this. Ashamed of her own fear, Eleanor reproached the knight. “This is a very nervous packhorse, sir!”
“She’s not a packhorse, My Lady,” he answered candidly. “She’s an Arab warhorse. We killed her last master, but she refused to flee like the other horses. Should I take her on the lead?”
“No, of course not!” Eleanor answered without thinking. Only children ― and prisoners ― were led. “I can manage, sir.” Eleanor thought the knight looked skeptical, but he did not insist. Instead, he let go of the mare’s reins to return to his own stallion. At once the mare broke into a trot. Eleanor reined her in sharply, so she danced in place uneasily.
“We best hurry, My Lady, and try to get as far as possible before the rain breaks,” the knight told her.
“Of course,” Eleanor answered despite her inner alarm.
At once the knight took up a trot, and Eleanor’s mare followed without any urging, with the squire on her flank. Anna, crossing herself and lamenting in Greek, brought up the rear, while the archer set off in the opposite direction with the lame horse in tow, whistling happily.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Excerpt from "St. Louis' Knight: The King and All His Knights are Captured!

The Kingdom of Cyprus                    
April, Anno Domini 1250
“The French King and all his knights have been captured by the Saracens,” the herald intoned. His deep voice, more commonly used to proclaim the ancestry and deeds of knights at tournaments, was muted with both respect and shock. His bright livery was shrouded in a dark cloak as if he were in mourning for a lost cause, and his boots and hose were splattered with mud, betraying his haste to bring the news to the Dowager Queen of Cyprus.
His words provoked an eruption of shocked and frightened exclamations from the little audience. The Dowager Queen was on her deathbed, and had been for months. She lived in almost complete seclusion, served only by a household of Cypriot servants and four ladies, three of whom were almost as old as she was herself.
One of these ladies began crossing herself repeatedly and reciting the Rosary in a tone of almost hysterical desperation. Another clapped her hands over her mouth and stared at the herald as if she expected Saracens to come storming through the door behind him. A third protested, “But that can’t be! King Louis had the greatest army anyone had ever seen! He had scores of barons and nearly three thousand knights. They can’t all have been captured! Not all those brave knights! And the King’s brothers! And what of the French Queen and the ladies of the court?”
“When the messenger left Egypt, the French Queen and her ladies were still in Damietta with the handful of knights and men-at-arms left there for their protection, but I doubt that is still the case. With the King captive and his army destroyed, the Sultan of Egypt will undoubtedly try to recapture Damietta. The knights with Queen Marguerite are urging her to remove herself to safety immediately. If she chooses Cyprus over Acre, she could be here any moment.” The herald glanced toward the large double-light window that looked south, towards Egypt, as if expecting to see the sails of a Genoese round ship straining to bring the French Queen to safety. But the window offered only a view of the walled garden of this isolated manor.
The Dowager Queen clicked her tongue and drew the herald’s attention back to the interior of the room. “What did you expect?” the old woman asked rhetorically. “All these foreign kings and princes think crusading is a lark! They think we hang onto only the fragments of the Holy Land because we, the nobility of Outremer, have become weak, cowardly, and luxury-loving. They all come out here thinking that they, so splendid and so brave, will chase the Saracens back into the desert. Ha!”
The herald did not contradict her. There was some truth to what the old Queen said. Although King Louis himself had seemed a sober and far from lighthearted crusader, his younger brothers and many of his knights had been as arrogant and ignorant as the Queen suggested. Besides, the Queen was a woman who knew more about politics in the Holy Land than almost anyone else alive. Alice of Champagne had been widowed when her son, King Henry I, was only eight months old and had acted as his regent until he came of age ― by which time she had weathered a civil war on Cyprus and a crusade led by the Holy Roman Emperor. As if that hadn’t been enough, as the granddaughter of the Queen of Jerusalem, she had been Regent of Jerusalem for the under-aged King Conrad IV as well. While it was fair to say that Alice of Champagne’s politics had not been crowned by particular success, no one could deny that she understood the complexity of surviving in Christian Palestine.
“So,” the old woman scoffed, “the Sultan of Egypt has humiliated the most powerful monarch in Christendom. The Holy Roman Emperor must be dancing for joy to see the Pope’s favorite humiliated like this.”
“Madame! How can you think in such terms when a Christian monarch and all his knights and nobles are at the mercy of the godless Saracens?” one of Alice’s ladies admonished her ― inducing her praying colleague to raise her voice even more shrilly to the Mother of God.
The old Queen silenced both ladies. “Enough of your howling, Catherine! You have the brain of a hen, Eschiva! Godless or not, the Sultan loves gold. He’ll let them all go when enough ransom has been paid, and if France is beggared, then the Holy Roman Empire will be stronger.” The Dowager Queen had always sided with the Holy Roman Empire against the barons of the Holy Land, and now she smiled to herself. Then she cleared her throat and announced, “Thank you, Sir Herald. Blanche, give the herald ten livres for his trouble! Eleanor, see him to the kitchens and tell the cook to give him a hearty meal. I weary.”
The interview was over. The Queen signaled for assistance to rise, and two of her ladies sprang to help her from her armed chair, while the third retrieved her mistress’ purse and doled out the promised reward. The herald found himself following the fourth of the Queen’s ladies, Eleanor de Najac, down the spiral stairs from the Queen’s tower chamber toward the kitchen on the ground floor.
Eleanor was the only one of the Queen’s women who was less than sixty years of age. The herald guessed she was no more than twenty or twenty-one. All the herald knew about her was that she was a ward of the Comte de Poitiers, the French King’s younger brother, and had had the misfortune to shipwreck on the coast of Cyprus or her way to join the Comtesse de Poitiers’ household.
The storm that struck in March of the previous year had been one of the worst in living memory, and it had scattered half the French King’s fleet then assembling for the voyage to Egypt. In the confusion following the gale, hardly anyone took note of a small French vessel that went ashore on the west coast with the loss of all hands ― especially since the only corpses found were those of common sailors and tonsured men, presumably clerics bound for the Holy Land.
Weeks later, however, a second ship from France brought letters making reference to the passage of the heiress of Najac aboard a previous vessel. The Comte de Poitiers, who was by then in Egypt with his brother, asked the King of Cyprus to find out what had happened to his ward.
A search for her corpse was instituted along the coast, and to the wonder and amazement of those sent to find her body, Eleanor was found alive ― albeit severely injured ― in a fishing village. Since Eleanor spoke no Greek and the fishermen spoke neither Latin nor French, Eleanor’s rescuers had not realized she was a high-born lady and heiress; they had not thought to notify the authorities.
The herald was familiar with the cramped, stinking cottages of the local fishermen. He was certain that for a French noblewoman the weeks in the Cypriot fishing village had been a hell ― especially since one of her legs had been crushed in the wreck and she was in pain and feverish.
Even now, more than a year after the wreck, she walked with a limp as she led him across the inner courtyard to the kitchen tract. The experience had also left its mark on her face and soul, the herald surmised, for her face was too guarded and sober for a gentle maiden still in the bloom of youth.
Furthermore, although the herald knew professionally that the sires of Najac were ancient and wealthy lords, Eleanor neither looked nor acted like a haughty heiress. The simplicity of her dress, a soft linen gown with a pale-blue surcoat, would not have been out of place on the wife of a country squire or town merchant. Her auburn hair was neatly braided down her back and her head covered with a flat, modestly embroidered hat, held in place by simple white veils. The effect was neat and attractive ― but not suited to an heiress. The Cypriot court was filled with young women who adorned themselves much more lavishly and brightly, although they claimed hardly more than a thimbleful of noble blood rather than a barony! They compared to Eleanor of Najac like butterflies to a moth.
Not that Eleanor was plain. The herald considered her with the eyes of a connoisseur of women as Eleanor gestured for him to sit at a table in the passageway before the kitchen. She was pretty in a soft, understated way, he decided. She had wide-set hazel eyes, dark straight eyebrows, and an elegant long nose in an oval face. Her skin was flawless and very pale. Her only bad features were her nearly colorless, narrow lips ― but even this defect would have been forgotten, if only she smiled.
 “Wait here, Sir Herald, while I inform the cook of your needs,” she told him simply, before lurching down the stone steps leading to the kitchen.
Waiting for her, the herald wished he had some means to make her smile. If only he had brought good news instead of word of this catastrophe! It was only too natural that Eleanor was deeply troubled under the circumstances. Her guardian was in grave danger, a prisoner of the Saracens, and even if the Sultan was unlikely to harm a prince of France, she must worry that the ransom he imposed would impoverish her, since the income from her inheritance flowed into the Count’s coffers as long as she was unwed.
 While the herald was still lost in these thoughts, Eleanor returned with a bronze aquarelle in the form of a lion and a linen towel.
“My Lady, it is unseemly that you wait on me. Send for a servant, and sit with me instead,” the herald urged, indicating the bench on the other side of the table from him.
She seemed flustered by his remark, hastily putting the aquarelle down and stepping back as if she had done something wrong.
He smiled to reassure her and gestured to the bench opposite him again, urging, “Sit with me a moment, My Lady. Perhaps I can be of service with some information? My travels take me all over the island.” The herald had long since learned to use his natural access to information to satisfy the interest of others in gossip.
Eleanor nodded, but not with eager curiosity as he had expected. Instead she sat very stiffly on the bench opposite, and there was so much tension in her that the herald felt compelled to reassure her. “You must not distress yourself too much. I’m sure the Comte de Poitiers is in no great danger.” In the herald’s experience, maidens of Eleanor’s age were rarely interested in the fate of their fathers or guardians. It was far more likely that Eleanor was worried about some young knight who had courted her or otherwise caught her fancy. But no modest maiden would confess such an interest to a strange man, so the herald knew he had to pretend to talk about her guardian.
Eleanor drew a deep breath, “Would you ― would you mind telling me more of what has happened in Egypt? I have been very isolated here,” she hastened to excuse herself.

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