Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to 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, June 26, 2015

A Destrier's Tale Part IX: The Arab Mare

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part IX: The Arab Mare

Christians are very respectful and protective of mares. Even the Black Knight never took one of his mares anywhere near the Horse-Haters. The Christians keep mares where they can raise their foals in peace, and they are only ridden by their own human mares and sometimes human foals. The Saracens, on the other hand, use slave mares in battle. I suppose they might be afraid stallions will rebel and run away. Or maybe they don’t have enough stallions. Whatever the reason, many of them ride mares even when they invade to attack us.

After the other knights had chased the Horse-Haters back where they’d come from, Lord Balian and the other knights, squires and horses from Ibelin who were still alive started for home. We hadn’t gone far before we came upon one of the Saracen slave-horses. Lord Balian said she was an Arab mare.

Like me after my first battle, she was standing forlornly by the spring, evidently abandoned. She was pretty — even caked with dried sweat, covered with dust, and with burs in her mane and tail. She was a rich chestnut color, with a cheeky blaze that curled a little over her left eye. She was dainty, with neat little feet and a rounded rump that was wonderfully inviting.

Somehow she’d managed to get rid of both her bridle and saddle, but her knees were torn open and caked with dried blood still oozing fresh blood here and there. The knees were in such terrible shape, it hurt her to bend them so she couldn’t move without pain. Some of the humans wanted to put her down at once. Dawit wouldn’t hear of it. He protested vehemently to Lord Balian, and although I couldn’t understand his flood of words, his meaning was clear: she was bruised and scraped but she would heal if given care and time. Lord Balian nodded and gave him permission to bring her along with us.

She didn’t want to come at first. She was clearly terrified of the Christians. The Saracens had obviously told her lies about them, saying they would hurt her. But she couldn’t run away from us on account of her stiff, scabbed knees. She tried, of course, tearing all the scabs off and starting a new rush of blood, but when she gave up in despair, Dawit took her in hand. He didn’t just calm her, he had some ointment he rubbed on her knees that made them feel better almost at once. When the men mounted up to continue, Dawit had both her and me on the lead behind him.

I was happy about that because I could tell she was a nice filly and I could sense how frightened she was. I tried to ease her fear and distract her from the pain in her knees by telling her how nice it was in Ibelin. I told her my first owner (I didn’t mention how terrible he was) had been killed in a battle just like hers, but that I’d then been taken in by Lord Balian, nodding to him as he rode ahead of us on Rufus.

“Usman wasn’t killed,” she nickered to me in a soft, sad voice, “he abandoned me!” You should have heard the pain in her voice! She hung her head in shame too.

“Surely he just couldn’t find you,” I comforted her, thinking she might not know how easily humans were killed if unhorsed.

“No,” she sighed, dropping her head even lower with her ears hanging down in misery. “He came and took his precious saddle, but he left me to starve.”

“But why would he do that?” I protested.

She sighed and her nose was all but dragging on the ground. “He blamed me for stumbling. He said I nearly broke his neck. He said I was lucky he didn’t kill me.”

“Well!” I assured her indignantly. “He was right about that because now you’re with us, and we’ll take good care of you. Lord Balian has miles of orchards and he gives us apples and pears and even pomegranates!”

She looked at me sidelong from under her beautiful lashes as if she didn’t believe me, but I could see a flicker of hope in her eyes too. “Really?”

“Really!” Then I asked her to tell me more about herself.

She had lived a very sheltered life it seemed, and was still a virgin. I was glad to learn that because it would have been embarrassing if she’d had more experience than me. In fact, she said she’d hardly been around stallions at all, but she’d had several riders and Usman was only the last in the series. She said she’d fallen a little in love with him because he was so masterful and other men seemed to look up to him, although he was an archer not a lancer.

That evening when we camped and we were all turned out to graze, some of the other stallions came sniffing around. A couple of young studs (you know the kind, brutes that think mares are only good for one thing) tried to harass her. I chased them away in no uncertain terms, biting one so badly that he bled, and Rufus gave me a warning nicker because he belonged to a strange knight who was riding with us for some reason. I didn’t care if I left scars! Amira – that was what Lord Balian later called her — wasn’t in season and she was wounded and frightened and shy. They had no business coming anywhere near her. She stayed near me after that, grazing so close we could swat away each other’s flies and sometimes brushing against one another. I loved that.

The next day already, she was must happier. She held her head higher, lifted her ears and she even started to pick up her feet, not shuffle along as she had the day before. Dawit was pleased with her progress too, pointing it out to Lord Balian. He smiled at us and nodded. When we paused for water later, he came back and inspected her with interest for the first time, checking over her knees and noting her other cuts and scrapes. Then he turned to me and put his palm on my forehead under my forelock. It had been nearly a year before I had overcome the memory of the Black Knight’s beatings enough to let him do that. “Found a lady, have you?” he asked me. I leaned against him and rubbed my head on his shoulder to tell him she certainly was a lady and he had to treat her right.

When we got back to Ibelin, everyone who had been left behind was aflutter at our return. They made a huge feast, you could smell it everywhere, and Mathewos ordered the grooms to give us all proper baths and we had molasses pellets in our feed that night and the deepest, softest bedding ever. Still, I was a little sad because Amira and I were separated for the first time since we’d met; she was given a stall with the other mares at the other end of the stables.

After that we rarely had a chance to exchange more than a nicker or two. I always greeted her when I was led in or out and she invariably stood with her head over her stall door when I came or went. I saw that her knees healed perfectly except for some scars. Once, when we went out to the tiltyard, she was in the paddock, and she lifted her tail and galloped along beside the fence to show me how beautifully she moved and how fast she was. I could have watched her all day! Lord Balian laughed at me and patted my neck, admitting she was a “fine filly.”

Then one evening not long afterwards, when Dawit was bringing me in from the paddock at dusk, Amira was waiting for me in her stall and as I passed her she muttered in a very soft nicker: “I’m in season.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and I looked at her. Our eyes met. She wanted me!

Dawit was clicking and tugging at the lead, but I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed by desire. Dawit laughed and yanked down firmly on the lead. “Get it out of your head!” He told me firmly ‘though kindly. “She’s not for the likes of you!”

Not for me? The shock broke my resistance for the moment, and he led me to my stall and turned me loose inside. But I wasn’t interested in my feed or even water any more. Amira wasn’t for me? Why not? And if not for me, then for who? Surely they weren’t going to let one of the household stallions have her? How could they? I was Lord Balian’s destrier! Rufus? No, he was as much a virgin as I was. Gladiator? For the first time I looked at my predecessor with anger and jealousy. He got all the mares, just because he wasn’t good for anything else! To make matters worse he started called down to Amira, “hey little Arab? Ready for a real stallion at last?”

Amira didn’t dignify him with an answer, and I screamed at her, “Don’t believe him! He’s a broken down nag! He can’t walk on four legs and he’s got rotten teeth!” (Which wasn’t true, but I hated him in that moment.)

“Centurion!” She cried in a high-pitched terrified whinny: “Don’t let him rape me! I don’t want anyone but you! Please, Centurion.”

I screamed back to her that I would rather die than let any other stallion near her.

All our whinnying, of course, upset the humans. Matthewos came out and admonished me to “behave” — as if I was the one causing trouble! Then he ordered one of the junior grooms to take Amira and a couple of the other mares outside to the paddock.  A half hour later they came to get Gladiator too. He pranced out with his crooked, lame-assed gait, flicking his tail at me and all but crowing in triumph.

I started making runs at the stall door to break it down. When that didn’t’ work, I turned around and kicked at it with the full force of my hind legs, twice, three, four times. The door held. I started pacing around my stall again, I was sweating and I swung my head back and forth at knee level as I tried to think how to escape and rescue Amira.

Someone must have told Lord Balian what a state I was in because suddenly he was at the stall door. It was completely dark by now and the stable was lit only by some oil lamps. Lord Balian never came to the stables after dark, but he was here and Mathewos with him.

“He won’t drink or eat,” Mathewos reported accurately.

I flattened my ears on my head and snapped furiously at Mathewos. He knew perfectly well what the problem was!

Lord Balian did too. He glanced over his shoulder at Amira’s empty stall. “There’s nothing wrong with him that Amira can’t cure.”

Mathewos shook his head firmly. “They are a bad match, my lord. Too similar in temperament. Any foal they produce will be more nervous than nine cats, and, as for looks, greys and chestnuts don’t mix. You’re likely to get either ugly markings or a roan.”

Lord Balian nodded, and said, “I’m sure you’re right, Mathewos. Let me walk him a bit.”

Obviously that was an order not a request, and Mathewos had no choice but to hand him my halter but his whole expression and demeanor expressed his disapproval. Lord Balian stepped into the stall and looked me in the eye. I was so agitated I glowered back at him, but I also figured if he took me out of the stall, I had a better chance to break free so I let him slip the halter over my head. Then I followed him out of the stables, across the ward, and out the postern that led to the paddocks.

As soon as we were beyond the walls I froze and lifted my head to find out where Amira was. There were several different paddocks, you see. I lifted my head and sniffed the air. She had already seen me. She lifted her voice and squealed in a frenzy of passion. “Centurion!”

That was all I needed. I bolted. If Lord Balian had tried to stop me, I would have dragged him with me. But he didn’t. He just let me go. I galloped straight past a dismayed Gladiator, who was in one of the small paddocks by himself, and I screeched to a halt opposite Amira. Now there was only the fence between us but there wasn’t space to make a running start at that fence. I started running back and forth in the lane between the paddocks, while Amira kept pace with me, calling my name. I was on the brink of trying to take that fence from a standstill, when Lord Balian appeared again. He unlatched and opened the gate to let me in. I put my head down and my tail up and galloped right past him to Amira.

When our passion had been sated, we grazed together side-by-side just as we had the first days we met. Later, we lay down to sleep a bit and she stayed so close I could feel her warmth against me. It was the most beautiful night of my whole life.

Mathewos was wrong about our foal to. Well, half wrong. I have to admit that she wasn’t pretty by most standards. Her coat was a very light chestnut, a bit of a roan to be honest, and she had a white face and four white socks, but she was the sweetest little filly you’ve ever seen. Born in love, she came into the world full of it, and when Lord Balian’s timid daughter Helvis needed a horse that she could trust absolutely and always, Lord Balian’s choice fell on our Ginger. But that is getting ahead of my story.

Life in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last decade before the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin is described (from human perspective) in:

Book II of  the Balian d'Ibelin TrilogyBuy Now in Paperback!  

Centurion is also a character in Book I of this Biographical Novel:

A landless knight,
                       a leper king,                                                                                          and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin, Book I, is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.

Buy now!

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Destrier's Tale Part VIII: On the Litani

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part VIII: On the Litani

I learned to trust Lord Balian. I admit, it took time. The scars left by the Black Knight and the Horse Trader were deep. But step-by-step he overcame my fears. It wasn’t just that he could ride. Andy and Mathewos could ride too. But with Lord Balian it was different; the moment he put his left hand on my withers in preparation for mounting until he jumped down again we became one being.  And besides that, he talked to me. By talking to me he recognized that I was more than just a means of transport or a weapons platform; I was, and he knew I was, a living being with thoughts and feelings.

Of course I couldn’t understand all his words, but that didn’t matter. By talking to me, he recognized that I was with him, seeing and hearing the same things he did. He would point out the birds in the early morning, or explain about the crops in his fields (he owned everything around Ibelin), or tell me about the people we met along the road.  Now and then, he would just talk to me about his own worries. That’s why I liked those rides alone together more than anything else.

But we also had fun jousting. I was terribly nervous (as you can imagine) the first time he took me to the exercise field with the other knights and squires. I was sweating without even warming up because I knew what was coming and no matter how good a rider Lord Balian was, there was no guarantee he was also good with a lance. I’d learned from the Black Knight not to shy away from the approaching horse and rider, because the Black Knight always wanted me to charge straight and fast like an arrow.  I was confused when Lord Balian leaned to the right, weighting the right stirrup as if he wanted me to veer right— exactly the thing that had gotten me in so much trouble with the Black Knight! I did what he wanted, however, because by then I always did what he wanted. The next thing I knew, he shifted his weight the other way and – whomp! – the other knight was rolling in the dirt! That had never happened with the Black Knight. As Lord Balian sat back and we slowed down I realized everyone was cheering us too. I arched my neck and pranced with pride. Then we turned around and did it again and again. It was wonderful!

After I’d been with Lord Balian about a year and we’d won every single joust (well, alright, now and again things didn’t go perfectly, but not often enough to mention), I learned that the human word for Horse-Haters was “Saracen.”  You see, a messenger arrived on an exhausted palfrey with word that “Saladin has invaded.” After that everyone was agitated and upset, talking about “Saracens” all the time.  People got short-tempered and they did a lot of running about pointlessly. Even Dawit and Matthewos, who were usually so calm, were distracted and anxious. Over the next few days, strange knights started arriving at Ibelin, and they each brought three or four horses. We had to double up in stalls and all the mares were banned to the far paddocks. Finally, after a week or so, they started packing the sumpter ponies and the donkeys, saddling the palfreys and Dawit took me on the lead as we rode out in a large, noisome cavalcade across the drawbridge of Ibelin.

We rode like that, in a big cavalcade, for three days and along the way we joined up with other bands of knights and horses. I now knew what was coming. We were going to confront the Horse-Haters. After my last experience, I was not happy about this prospect, but I knew from our jousting success that this time I had a rider who wasn’t going to fall off if I had to jump sideways or lost my footing and, better still, a rider who was capable of defending me.

Eventually, just like the last time, we joined a huge muster with many more horses than I could count and lots of bright, billowing tents. Lord Balian had a tent of his own, and we were put to graze on improvised pasture. At least this time the muster was in a fertile valley with lots of grass although it was hot and the grass was turning pretty brown and dry.

As I knew would happen, within a day or so the moment came when the people started shouting frantically and everyone started running around like madmen. Dawit rushed out to collect me and tacked me up with a distracted — not to say nervous — haste. Around us the other destriers were also made ready. Lord Balian emerged from his tent in his armor and Dawit handed him two lances as soon as he’d settled in the saddle.  Then we formed up with the other destriers into a large formation. Lord Balian rode much closer to the front than the Black Knight had, but ahead of us were still three score of men or more, several wearing gleaming armor and bright silk surcoats. The rider in the middle wore white with glittering gold trim and he even had a ring of gold around his helmet. He rode a big, pure white castrate — not grey like me, but really white. All the humans bowed their heads to him, even Lord Balian, although he smiled at Lord Balian and nodded a greeting to him. Lord Balian bent slightly and stroked the side of my neck as he explained. “That’s the King, Centurion, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem.” After he’d told me that, I looked again remembering I’d seen him before. He was riding a different horse, but it was still a castrate.

We caught the Horse-Hatters in the act of trying to steal cattle and we fell upon them with a vengeance. It was quite exhilarating, really, because there were more of us than them — not like the last time. Furthermore, they didn’t have any footmen to stab us in the bellies or slice at our tendons. Because they were cattle-rustling, they were all mounted on their little slave-horses and they were clearly taken by surprise. They tried to run away from us, and we ran them down.

Lord Balian was a killing machine. He dropped the reins on my neck as he did in jousts, and guided me entirely with is knees and weight. He would pick a victim and steer me toward him and — wham — just like a joust he knocked his target out of his saddle. When his lances were broken, he drew his sword and he used it to hack men’s heads in two — clear through their turbans and helmets — or decapitate them so their heads spun through the air. They weren’t fighting really, just running away. At one point, Lord Balian seemed to think we’d done enough and slowed me to a trot, but then another knight in fancy armor rode past us shouting at him, and Balian took up the pursuit again. We chased them all the way to a broad, brown river running through the middle of the valley. By this point, there was so little resistance that Lord Balian slung his shield on his back and killed two-handed until we reached the far side of the river. There Lord Balian sat back, took up the reins and turned me around, although many of the other Christians were urging their horses out the far bank and still pursuing the Saracens.

When I stopped, I noticed I was dripping sweat and parched with thirst. So I dropped my head and drank deeply of that water, even though it was turning an unpleasant red from the blood of the Saracens that had fallen in it. Still, it tasted good and the feel of it flowing past, washing the sweat off my belly and cooling my legs was enormously refreshing. Gradually many of the stallions from Ibelin gathered around us. Lord Balian and his knights and squires were drinking too from the goat-skins they carried. We were all at ease and the knights even laughed about something, and then Lord Balian exclaimed: “Holy Cross and St. George!” pulled his helmet and shield back on and spurred me back across the river. I swear it was the first time he’d ever turned his spurs into my sides and it didn’t half scare me. I knew he wouldn’t do that without reason, so I was frightened even before I saw them: infinite numbers of Horse-Haters pouring over the hill to our left chasing after a few terrified red-crosses.

Lord Balian was clearly trying to get back to the King who was far behind us surrounded only by a few knights. Half the knights had continued across the river and hundreds of others were way off to our right pursing another band of Horse-Haters. Clearly, even if we were all together we weren’t more than half those Saracens, but if we let them catch us all spread out like that we didn’t have a chance.

Lord Balian stood in his stirrups so I could stride out to my maximum speed. I was going all out and if something lay across my path I just leaped over it — living or dead, man or horse. We had to get back to the King and his knights! But even as I strained with every muscle of my body, I could feel the earth starting to tremble and hear the thunder of ten thousand hooves. I flattened my ears on my head to try to block out that sound and stretched out my neck out even farther. But you could feel them getting nearer. We weren’t going to make it!

The next thing I knew Lord Balian was lying on my neck and his hand found the bridle just behind the bit. He leaned all his weight on his left arm and I didn’t have any choice but to turn. I don’t know how at that speed, but we turned left and the next instant they hit us. I was flung back on my haunches and staggered as they swept past us slashing downward with their swords, screaming and howling in rage and hatred. I flung my head up out of sheer terror, whining in panic. I was sure we were going to die right then and there, just be cut to pieces and I was scrambling frantically to get my feet under me again so we could run away. Only there were so many of them that the air become chocked with dust and I could hardly breathe or see what was happening.

Eventually I did recover my footing and start to move forward again and as soon as I moved Lord Balian started fighting. He used his shield as well as his sword to slash a way forward. It seemed to take forever, but finally we emerged out of the enemy. They had swept over us, still galloping in the direction of the King. I stopped and Lord Balian turned me around to look at the cloud of dust from which other horses and men on foot were emerging. The men on foot were staggering forward, and some of the other horses were stumbling, while one was screaming in pain. As the dust settled, we could see the crumpled corpses of men and horses killed by that torrential hoard of riders, as well as one horse thrashing about miserably as it tried to stand despite two broken legs. Dawit couldn’t stand it. He jumped down and crossed the distance to the wounded horse to put it out of its misery. Meanwhile, Lord Balian was ordering the men without horses to mount up behind some of their comrades. When he sent them away in the direction of the camp but turned me in the opposite direction, I knew what was coming: we were going to attack again.

The Horse-Haters hadn’t expected that. They were focused on trying to kill the horses ahead of them — trying, most of all, to kill that beautiful white castrate the King rode. Lord Balian dropped his reins again and I started biting the backs of the calves, even the buttocks, of Saracens as Lord Balian and his knights attacked them with their swords. It was slow going, hacking our way through so many men, but eventually we could see the King’s white castrate in the middle of a knot of men fighting furiously. Just then, a huge Horse-Hater stood in his stirrups and dropped his sword on the neck of the man right beside the King. His sword sliced deep into the knight’s chest. Blood gushed — spurted actually — into the air as the body fell sideways onto the King’s castrate. His white shoulder turned brilliant, shiny red and he reared up whinnying in terror as if he’d been wounded not just bloodied.

An instant latter, he had something to scream about: they were stabbing him in the belly and slicing it open mercilessly. Now he lashed out with his hooves, screaming in pain and terror — as the King toppled helplessly off his back. I’ve never seen such terrible horsemanship. He didn’t even try to hold on. I was disgusted, but Lord Balian dug his spurs into me a second time and then next thing I knew we were beside the King and Lord Balian had jumped down — right there in the middle of the battle! Men and horses were fighting and dying all around us, and Lord Balian had me by the reins and was trying to bring me closer to the King. He held the King in his arms, and the King was limp and helpless. There was something wrong with him. You could tell. He had a strange smell. He was not normal.

Lord Balian tugged on the reins and clearly wanted me to let the King mount, but I’d seen what had happened to his last horse. I knew if he got on my back the same would happen to me. He wouldn’t protect me! He would let them hack me to pieces. I didn’t want him on my back, King or not!  Lord Balian yanked on the reins, something he’d never done before, but I’d suffered far worse from the Black Knight. I shook my head, furious, and I stamped my feet and whinnied my refusal at him. “No, no, no!”

Suddenly, Lord Balian’s squire Daniel was beside Lord Balian and he too was on foot. He pulled the King on to his own back. Then he ran crouched over, almost like he was on all fours, between the horses, below the line-of-sight of the Horse Haters.  It was an amazing sight, and I'll never forget it.

With the King gone, Lord Balian remounted, but he’d lost his shield and had run out of lances long ago. He turned me away from the enemy and we fled. Maybe it was cowardly, but it was the only sensible thing to do.  We didn’t stop until we were all the way back to a castle. I had survived my second battle, and this time I was still with my rider and we were both safe.

The Battle on the Litanai is described (from human perspective) in:

Book II of  the Balian d'Ibelin TrilogyBuy Now in Paperback!  

Centurion is also a character in Book I of this Biographical Novel:

A landless knight,
                       a leper king,                                                                                          and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin, Book I, is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Destrier's Tale: Part VII -- Lord Balian

Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part VII: Lord Balian

I recognized him at once. I mean, he walked in and the grooms and even the squires stopped to bob their heads to him. The horses nickered. The big bay stallion in the stall next to me, who had nearly been killed by the Horse-Haters and was now lame, immediately went to hang his head over the stall door. And he stopped to clap Gladiator on the neck and tousle his forelock. Then he looked straight at me.

It was terrifying. First of all, he was tall and dark — which reminded me of the Black Knight. He had golden spurs — just like the Black Knight. Although he wasn’t in armor, he had an enormous sword in a fancy sheath at his hip. He was a knight alright. Lord Balian.

He started toward my stall door and I retreated into the corner. I tried to get as far away as possible, and just waited for what would happen next. Nothing did. So I looked over my shoulder to see if he’d gone away. He hadn’t. He was still staring at me — and so was Gladiator in the next tall.

He slid the bolt back to let himself into the stall, and I tried to make myself smaller. He stopped. By now I was trembling from head to foot out of sheer nervous anticipation. I knew that I was only going to be allowed to stay in this beautiful place if I pleased Lord Balian, but he reminded me so much of the Black Knight I was terrified. I’d tried to please the Black Knight too, but he had still beaten me. I had never intentionally thrown the Black Knight, not like later with the horse trader, but he still fell off and blamed me for it. What if Lord Balian was the same?

For the moment, he proved himself more patient. He retreated, left my stall, and just leaned on the stall door considering me. I started to relax. He held out his hand palm up. I considered it. There was something on it. I stretched out my neck to try to see what it was and sniffed. It smelt like sugar, but it looked different, small and granular.

“Come on! “ He coaxed. “Come and try it.”

I looked to make sure the stall door was still bolted, then took a step and reached out my neck as far as possible. I was still too far away. I had to take another step. Finally I could lick it up. It was sugar and it melted in my mouth! It was better than any cane. He laughed at my expression of surprise and left his hand out like that until I’d licked the last trace of it off his hand.

After that he came every day. Step by step, he stroked me, put a halter on, led me around the courtyard and out to the paddock. He lunged me as if I were still a colt, and he took me on the lead when he rode his big red palfrey Rufus.

I was beginning to think he was never going to ride me, but then one day he took me out into the ward, tied me there and brought a heavy saddle. I started to tremble again. This was the moment of truth. Because no matter how nice he seemed to be, I knew that if he didn’t like the way I performed under saddle, I would not be allowed to stay.

Mathewos and Dawit appeared out of nowhere and together they tacked me up while Lord Balian watched them. Then Dawit held the off stirrup and Lord Balian pointed his foot in the near-stirrup and swung himself up to land in the saddle so gently I wasn’t entirely sure he was there for a moment. Dawit and Mathewos stepped back warily as if they thought I might go wild or do something stupid when Lord Balian took up the reins. Well, partially took up the reins. He held them, but not tightly, then he nudged me with his calves. No one had ridden me like that since I’d left home.

We walked around the ward, then he turned in the saddle and I followed him. We were pointed for the gate and the draw-bridge. I started sweating. It was all very well at a walk, but what was going to happen when he wanted me to trot or canter? We walked to the edge of town and then out into the surrounding countryside. By now I knew this quite well from being on the lead. There were beautiful pomegranate and orange orchards all around Ibelin, and beyond that rich fields of wheat and barley.

Still on a long rein, he turned me away from the cultivated fields and toward the sand dunes. We rode past a hard-packed area where a dozen men in armor were jousting with each other. The squires turned to watch us ride past, bobbing their heads respectfully at Lord Balian. There was a trail of sorts between the dunes and Lord Balian asked me for a trot. I picked it up immediately, anxious to please, and by all the Horse Gods, his seat didn’t leave the saddle! It was as comfortable under him at a trot as at a walk. I started to relax, shaking my head and snorting to tell him what a pleasure it was not to have someone pounding on my back. He reached down and stroked my neck, and then clicked and tightened his legs. No kicking, no gouging. He didn’t even turn his heels inward to prick me with his spurs. Just tightened his legs. I picked up the canter and tensed for the horrid thumping on my back. It didn’t come! It was as if he were glued to my saddle.

Because he wasn’t pounding down on my back, jarring and hurting me, I felt free — liberated and alive for the first time since I’d left home. I risked going faster and faster. Soon we were racing over the sand, the bushes rushing past. It was wonderful! The wind was blowing back my mane and tail. The sand was flying back from my hooves. Lord Balian leaned forward, putting his weight on his knees and the stirrups and it was as if I didn’t have a rider at all. I felt as if I could fly.

And the next thing I knew there was this huge, gleaming, writhing monster in front of us. At the sight of us, it reared up and snarled viciously, slobbering foam and growling deep in its throat!

I’d never turned around so fast in my whole life! I just spun around on my haunches and tried to run in the opposite direction. In that moment, I was much more afraid of the monster than of Lord Balian or any human on earth. After five or six seconds, I realized that Lord Balian was somehow still on my back and he was hauling on the reins (none too gently under the circumstances) to get me to slow down.  I was relieved that he hadn’t fallen off, but I was not about to stop until I’d put more distance between us and the monster. Eventually, however, he did convince me to slow down to a walk, and I snorted at him in agitation. That monster was huge and who knew how fast it might be? I thought we should get back to the safety of the castle.

Lord Balian had other ideas. He wanted me to go and face the monster again. I kept shaking my head and when he turned me toward it, I backed up as fast as I could. I couldn’t understand why he was so determined to face that monster. It couldn’t possibly bring us any advantage, and it might very well kill us! The sensible thing was to get to the safety of Ibelin Castle.  But Lord Balian was not being sensible. He jumped down, took the bridle behind the bit, and started walking toward the monster.

At first I followed him, thinking maybe he knew something I didn’t know. Maybe the monster was already gone. But then we came over the last dune and it was still there! It was still seething with hostility and snarling at us, licking its lips ready to swallow us. I was not going any nearer! I reared up and spun about again on my haunches, lifting Lord Balian clear off the ground and starting to drag him with me before he let go of the reins.

After that, I just kept going at full speed, anxious to get to safety as soon as possible.

By the time I trotted across the drawbridge, I knew I was going to be in trouble for leaving Lord Balian behind, but had decided I was just going to have to weather it. He shouldn’t have tried to make me face a monster like that!

At the stables, everyone was so astonished that I returned alone that they didn’t immediately get mad at me. That’s when I realized how unusual it must be for Lord Balian to come back on foot (in contrast to the Black Knight, who’d done it rather a lot). Then I realized that most of the agitation was because they thought Lord Balian must be hurt. They were going crazy about that, calling for stretchers to be brought while Dawit rushed out on one of the fleetest mares. But I knew he hadn’t been hurt so I wasn’t too upset. Still, I knew he was going to be furious at me for leaving him behind, and I started to feel a little guilty.

When I heard the commotion at the door indicating he was back, I put my head down in the corner of the stall and waited for the storm. From the door I heard Lord Balian’s voice: “Is he ok?”

Is he ok? That was his first question: whether I was OK.

Dawit assured him I looked okay and they came over in a group. He stood leaning on the stall door and I looked over my shoulder at him.

“Silly boy,” he opened. “The sea can’t hurt you. It’s just water.” Then he held out his hand, palm up.

I wasn’t falling for that trick! If I’d gone over, he might have snatched hold of the bridle and then hit me. I stayed out of range.

He dropped his hand and remarked. “I don’t know. I thought of naming you ‘Centurion,’ but Roman officers were very brave, and you’re just a big coward.”

Coward? Me? After all I’d been through? But, of course, he didn’t know about the Black Knight or the Slaughter House. And I liked the sound of ‘Centurion.’ Anyone can be “Grey” or “Foggy” but Centurion was noble. I stood up straighter and lifted my head.

But he was gone. Fortunately, I caught the words, “We’ll try again tomorrow” as he left the stables.

Lord Balian and Centurion are characters in my three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin staring with:

A landless knight,

                     a leper king,

                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin, Book I, is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.

Buy Now!

A divided kingdom,
                         a united enemy, 

                                                  and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin

Book II

Buy Now in Paperback!  
or Kindle!

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Destrier's Tale: Part VI -- Ibelin

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part VI: Ibelin

I went willingly with the black man, striding out for the first time in a long time. He led me through the town and then to a deep, dry ditch surrounding a castle. To get to the castle, I had to cross a bunch of wooden boards laid across the ditch. It didn’t look all that safe to me, so I stopped. Well, alright, I balked.

The black man looked back at me, and I started to back up as fast as I could anticipating his anger. This was not a good start, I realized, but how could I step on boards that were obviously going to break and send me crashing down into the ditch?

The black man did the strangest thing: he let go of my lead! I broke free and ran a few strides back toward the town. Then I stopped and looked over my shoulder confused. He was standing there with his hands on his hips just looking at me. Then he shook his head and walked over to me, talking to me as he came. “It’s all right. Haven’t you ever crossed a draw bridge before?”

I thought about that. I supposed I had going to the other castle, but then I’d been with the other horses.

He stroked and patted my neck, and finally took the lead again but rather than trying to drag me across the bridge he walked over to the guard house on the nearside of the drawbridge and handed the lead over to a soldier who’d come out to watch.

“What have you got here, Master Mathewos?” the soldier asked.

“A new destrier for Lord Balian.”

The soldier shook his head. “Doesn’t look like a good buy to me.”

“We’ll see what Lord Balian says. Hold him for me will you.”

So his name was Mathewos, and he now crossed that draw bridge and disappeared inside the gate to the castle. The soldier let me graze on the grass growing around the ditch until Mathewos returned with a second man, who looked so much like him that it could only be his son. They were both leading mares. I mean mares. Not broken down old female nags, but pretty little fillies. You know what I mean: high stepping little fillies that mince around flicking their tails at you and waggling their backsides while pretending to be totally indifferent to you! These two were not only foxy, they were so well groomed their coats absolutely gleamed in the sunlight and their hooves were oiled black, while their manes and tails were so fine they blew in the slightest breeze. I hadn’t seen anything like it since I’d left home, and I just stood there gaping at those two beauties until I got so excited everyone could see.

Mathewos and his son (later I learned his name was Dawit) brought those mares over the draw bridge and then turned around and walked them back over the drawbridge right in front of me. That did it. If both of those fillies could be on the bridge at the same time — and cool as cucumbers! — then it was sure to hold me. I mean, each was smaller than me, but together they weighed more. And if they weren’t afraid, how could I be?

Once I was through the gatehouse into the castle, I knew things were going to be alright. The place was clean, and the humans were happy. You could tell. Some boys were sweeping the yard and they were chattering and laughing together, and children were playing on the top of one tower, laughing as they chased each other. A woman was wringing out laundry and hanging it up to dry and singing as she did so. Yes, I said, this is a happy home and if the humans are happy, surely they’ll be good to the horses. Besides, I had Mathewos to look after me and those two little fillies sure the hell hadn’t been mishandled by anyone!

Mathewos led me into the stables and I stopped dead in my tracks out of sheer wonder. Every horse had his own box stall! And it smelled of wood shavings, hay and sweet-feed. I was taken to a stall (at the other end of the stables from the fillies, mind), and everything was ready for me.  Fresh wood-savings so deep and fluffy I sank right into them and the sound of my hooves were silenced. There was a hay-net stuffed to over-flowing with hay and clover, and a water trough that had clean, cool water. It was wonderful.

Over the next several days, Mathewos and Dawit got me cleaned up. They brought in a farrier to re-shoe me with better fitting and lighter shoes. They oiled my hooves twice a day to spur the heeling of the tear. They trimmed my mane and tail. Before long those fillies and their friends would look up and nicker when I was lead past, proving I was still a stud — even if I’d never had a filly yet.

After several days, I was taken out to a pasture behind the castle and allowed to run around in a field that was green with long grass and dotted with flowers — even though it was the middle of the summer. The air here had a unique smell that unsettled me at first, but the other horses laughed it off and just said. “That’s the sea.”

“What’s the sea?”

“Water that stretches to where the sun goes down. It puts the sun out at night.”

That sounded pretty far-fetched to me, but they said I’d see it eventually, and went back to grazing.

So everything was fine — except the nagging memory of Mathewos saying he’d bought me for his lord. It was pretty obvious from this castle that his lord must be like the man who’d owned the last castle I’d visited: that is, he had to be important. And if he was important, he would be demanding and expect a lot of his horse. Although I tried not to think about it, I was nervous about meeting Lord Balian.

Lord Balian and Centurion are characters in my three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin staring with:

A landless knight,

                     a leper king,

                                 and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Knight of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin, Book I, is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and finalist for the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction.

Buy Now!

A divided kingdom,
                         a united enemy, 

                                                  and the struggle for Jerusalem!

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin

Book II

Buy Now in Paperback!  
or Kindle!