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 clichés 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, August 28, 2015

"It's rare to see the Templars arrive late for a battle...": An excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

“It’s rare to see the Templars arrive late for a battle,” Sir Walter noted with a short laugh, pointing to a Templar galloping on to the field from their left. They all turned to watch with bemusement. The Templar pride at always being first in battle grated on their nerves to some degree. As they watched, more Templars appeared, also at a full gallop but not in any kind of formation. At almost the same instant, they collectively realized these Templars weren’t attacking: they were fleeing.

Ibelin automatically looked left to see what the Templars were fleeing from, and gasped: “Holy Cross and St. George!” A wide, deep line of Saracen horse had crested the hill with all their banners fluttering. Salah ad-Din’s banner was the largest, in the middle of the host.

Ibelin jammed his helmet on his head, pulled his shield back onto his left arm, then grabbed up his reins as he put his spurs to his stallion. Around him his knights frantically did the same without being ordered. It didn’t take a genius to recognize the danger they were in: the Christian army was scattered all over the field. Ramla was across the river; Tripoli and Lusignan had been lured fully two miles to the north in their maneuver to cut off Farrukh-Shah’s escape. And even those knights still on the battlefield were, like Ibelin and his hundred knights, dispersed and partially spent.

Fortunately, Centurion had been refreshed by the drink and the soothing coolness of the running water on his legs and belly. He responded with alacrity. Once he was out of the river and onto the firmer ground of the plain, Balian stood in the stirrups and leaned forward, urging him onwards. Soon the stallion was going flat out, leaping over the bodies of man and horse in a mad dash to rejoin the King’s forces.

On his right, Lusignan and his knights were also racing back to rejoin the King, while Tripoli took charge of the valuable prisoner and with a handful of his knights rode west for the coast.

The sound of the approaching Saracen charge became an increasing rumble. The Saracens could see their foe spread out and vulnerable before them—and could see Ibelin and Lusignan rushing to regroup. They, too, spurred their mounts forwards. Neither army had mustered infantry for what on the Muslim side had been a raid, and on the Christian side a counter-raid. Nor did Salah ad-Din appear to have the usual contingents of mounted archers; they had apparently been deployed with Farrukh-Shah. The Saracen horse thundering down toward the scattered Frankish forces were heavy cavalry armed with lance and sword. They shouted battle cries, the wind fluttered the pennants on their lance tips, and the sunlight caught on their raised swords. Centurion laid his ears flat back on his head as he raced, determined to escape the onslaught from his left.

But they weren’t going to make it. The enemy was advancing too fast.

They could not risk being run over from the side.

Ibelin flung out his left arm toward the enemy to indicate they had to turn into the attack. He could not take the time to look over his shoulder to see if his knights understood him. Instead, he reached forward and with his left hand took hold of the bridle directly behind the bit. Then he leaned with all his weight on his shield arm and pulled Centurion around—more by the strength of his will than his arm. He barely managed to sit back in the saddle before the lines of horses clashed.

Centurion was thrown on his haunches by the impact from the first lance, and Balian felt blows raining down on his shield, helmet, forearms, and thighs. As the enemy swept past him, each Saracen within range tried to kill him without actually stopping.

That was what saved his life. After their lances shattered, the slashing strokes of the Saracens’ swords as they swept by could not penetrate his chain mail. It took a direct, piercing blow to penetrate the linked steel rings, and none dared slow long enough to deliver that kind of thrust.

Ibelin huddled behind his shield, his head down to protect his face and eyes, making no attempt to fight until Centurion recovered his balance and began staggering and stamping his way forward, with a dogged determination that testified to the stallion’s own will to survive. At once Balian straightened, and screaming to reawaken his own courage, he started fighting—even if this consisted of little more than warding off the blows still directed at him, using both his shield and his sword.

Finally the wave of Saracen cavalry rolled over them, and the knights of Ibelin and Nablus emerged from the clouds of dust billowing up behind the enemy. Like islands in the swirling dust, clusters of mounted fighting men emerged. They were scattered across three hundred yards. Immediately beside and behind Balian, the knights of Ibelin still made up a coherent body of men, while the knights of Nablus formed a half-dozen distinct clumps.

But there were also a score of unhorsed men staggering out of the clouds of dust, stumbling, coughing, holding their hands to their bleeding wounds or cradling broken wrists, dislocated elbows, and wrenched shoulders. As the dust settled further, the trampled corpses of horses and a half-dozen other men emerged, while the piercing screams of a wounded stallion struggling to get to his feet despite two broken legs blotted out all other sounds.

An excerpt from:

                                                                                                       or Kindle!

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Destrier's Tale, Part XVII: Surrender

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

Incredibly, Lord Balian tried a second night sortie just a few days later. But this time the Horse-Haters were waiting for us. No sooner were we across the bridge, than they swept down on us from all sides. There was literally no way to escape them — except to get back inside the city.

The horrible thing was that the Horse-Haters seemed to be concentrating on Lord Balian rather than me — trying not so much to kill him as to drag him out of the saddle. By now, I was pretty confident that I could defend myself. I could bite and trample and kick viciously enough to make the Horse-Haters back away long enough for me to spin around and run for safety behind the walls. (In the dark there were no archers.) But I wasn’t going to leave Lord Balian to those murderers! Behind us the knight-colts were breaking and running, and only Gabriel was still with us it seemed. He pressed in to try to come between the Horse-Haters and Lord Balian. His intervention enabled me to swing on haunches and start back for the draw-bridge. Gabriel and his stallion were right behindw me.

We had just made the drawbridge when Gabriel’s stallion Gypsy gave a blood curdling scream and reared up. I don’t know how they did it, but they brought him down just yards from safety.  He tumbled right off the side of the bridge into the ditch, tossing poor Gabriel through the air. Horse-Haters pressed forward, hot on our heels. They were on both sides of us, yelling their curses and grabbing for Lord Balian. One came up so close on our left that he grabbed for my bridle, apparently intent on pulling me around and into their camp.

The only thing I could think to do was to leap up and kick out with my hind legs. I landed that kick with so much force that the attacker’s mare crumpled up and fell into the ditch with a piercing whinny — chocked out when she broke her neck as she hit the bottom. I was now through the gate, however, and although some of our pursuers came in with us, they were quickly slaughtered by the Christian infantry.

In fact, the Christians were so frantic by now that they killed the slave horses as well as the Horse-Haters. Just swarmed over them hacking, stabbing, jabbing and screaming in fury.

On my back I felt Lord Balian crumple up, falling forward on my neck. I was sure he was wounded, maybe mortally so, and was grateful when a half dozen humans rushed over to him, calling “My lord! My lord! Are you alright?”

“They were waiting for us! We rode straight into a trap!” He gasped out, righting himself again with a groan and adding in a voice laden with pain and grief. “We lost Sir Gabriel.”

“You did the best you could, my lord.”

When I got back to the stables, Georgios untacked me, checked me over for wounds, and made sure I had fresh water and hay, but I was exhausted. What was more, I could tell the situation was hopeless. In the first sortie, we’d managed to destroy those terrible giants that threw rocks and flaming balls at us, but within two days the Horse-Haters had recruited even more of them. The bombardment was worse than ever, and now we couldn’t sortie out anymore either. Our situation was absolutely hopeless.

I guess I went to sleep eventually, but so late that I was still groggy when Georgios led me out after daybreak to brush away the sweat stains of the night before. He wasn’t even finished, however, when suddenly Mathewos ran into the yard yelling for Georgios to tack me up. Again? I thought. I have to admit that for a moment I was genuinely reluctant and snapped irritably at Mathewos and Georgios.

But then Lord Balian appeared and he had fixed himself up. He was in a surcoat with gold trim and his hair was brushed, his face shaven. He was going to face the enemy! And there was no way I could let him down. I pulled myself together and arched my neck to show him I was ready too. If we were going to die, it would be together — fighting. I nickered my readiness to him.

But he didn’t call the remaining colt-knights together. Instead he took only Mathewos and he carried an all-white banner, rather than the one with the arms of Ibelin. We rode again to the Jehosaphat Gate and the streets were completely empty, apparently abandoned, but I could hear the distinct sounds of battle raging to our left. Men were screaming, shouting, cursing and the clang of metal was audible too. Those sounds, I realized with horror, couldn’t have come from outside the walls. Somehow the Horse-Haters had gotten inside the city!

Lord Balian ordered the men manning the gate to signal to the enemy. They started waving banners and blowing horns until they reported they had the enemy’s attention. Only then did Lord Balian ordered them to open the gate.

We rode straight out at a sedate walk. I wanted to charge. I feel stronger charging, but Lord Balian kept me to a walk. So I pranced and danced my way forward with my nose tucked in and my tail up. We rode like that all the way to the large church set among olive trees before the Horse-Haters swept down on us and blocked our way about 30 yards ahead of us. They didn’t attack us though. It was like back at the city-by-the-sea. Somehow the Horse-Haters knew Lord Balian had come to talk not fight.

Lord Balian ordered Mathewos to remain where he was and advanced until we were just 10 feet apart. The humans exchanged words in the language of the Horse-Haters, and the tone was harsh and threatening. Then another Horse-Hater appeared in magnificent robes with a jewel-studded turban and he rode a stallion that was almost as big as me. When he spoke the others backed away and Lord Balian and he were then alone but about 8 feet apart with my head level with his stallion’s tail and vice-versa.

They seemed to talk for a long time and the emotions were raw in both voices, though I couldn’t understand the words. First one then the other raised his voice, then they both grew more reasonable but still sharp. Until, abruptly, it was over. The Horse-Hater turned and started to ride away. Lord Balian called something after him. He paused, looked back at us with fury in his eyes, but then nodded and rode away. At last Lord Balian turned me back toward the city.

We reached Mathewos. “I have surrendered Jerusalem,” Lord Balian said. He did not sound very happy about it, although after they had talked a bit more Mathewos exclaimed “This is a miracle, my lord!”

Lord Balian clearly didn’t think so, he drew up and questioned Mathewos further, but then we continued together toward the city. We hadn’t even reached the bridge before people started streaming out and surrounded us. Some were cheering, others weeping, still others singing. They completely enveloped us just as when we’d first arrived in the city. I didn’t understand it at first, but then I realized that the giants had stopped hurling things at us, the archers had stopped shooting at us and the sound of combat had died away. Whatever it was Lord Balian had said, he’d convinced the Horse-Haters to let us live — at least for another day.

The siege of Jerusalem is described (from human perspective) in Book II of my Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin:

                                                                                                       or Kindle!

The three part biography begins 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.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Destrier's Tale Part XVI: Siege & Sortie

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part XVI: Siege and Sortie

I wasn’t given much time to enjoy that victory though. Just a couple days later the largest host of Horse-Haters ever seen was attacking Jerusalem. At first they just charged at the walls, but the Christians — men and mares both — fought them back. The Christian archers were on the walls all day firing at the Horse-Haters, and Lord Balian rode me around and around the city so he could tell the humans what to do.

But then the Horse-Haters found giants willing to throw boulders and flaming balls over the walls and into the city itself. Those rocks were so huge they made the earth shake when they struck they smashed anything that got in their way — masonry or flesh. Most of the horses had been taken out of the city, of course, or were protected in stables, but I didn't like those boulders roaring through the air. Worse, however, were the flaming balls. They set the shops and many a roof on fire and I saw one person go up in flames too. After a couple days of this the whole city seemed to be on fire.

That night Georgios, who had replaced Gabriel as Lord Balian’s squire, woke me up. Dawit and Mattheows were there too, tacking up their own horses, and as soon as we were ready, Lord Balian mounted me and we all rode to the Postern of Mary Magdalen. Here we three were joined first by three strangers in funny clothes, and then by a pack of about two score of those colt-knights that had panicked so badly in the last fight before the siege started. They were riding their horses, who were nickering among themselves and generally behaving badly.

Lord Balian ordered everyone to be silent, then he closed the chainmail flap over his mouth and chin and took a lance in hand before leading that pack out of the postern into the night. Just beyond the postern, Lord Balian pointed me not at the bridge but the ditch. I hesitated, but he urged me forward and so we descended into the dry ditch surrounding the city and walked along the bottom of that ditch along the north side of the city. The ground was very uneven and there were rocks littered around down there too so you had to be careful about your footing. Lord Balian trusted me and gave me a long rein so I could find my way but progress was slow.

Eventually, however, Lord Balian signaled a halt and jumped down. He flung the reins over my head and led me up the steep bank out of the ditch. We emerged just beside the Leper Pool, and here he remounted. Then we just sat there doing nothing. It was hard to see in the dark, but I was pretty sure there were Horse-Haters up to the hill to our right and they appeared to be guarding the terrible giants that flung the stones at us. But there were Horse-Haters on our left too. They were crowded around the giants that were leaning right up against the corner tower of the city.

Suddenly there was a lot of shouting from that direction, and several of the young colts behind me shied at the noise. You could hear the clang of metal and then screams of pain. Lord Balian wasn’t happy at all. His muscles tensed and although he wasn’t telling me what he wanted, I could sense that he wanted action of some sort. I stamped and slapped him with my tail. I even flung my head up to try to make him pay more attention. The next thing we knew a huge flame shot up into the air with a roar. We all jumped and some of the younger colts bolted in panic. Lord Balian seemed oddly relieved, and with a shouted “now” he tightened his calves on my sides. I didn’t need any more urging than that. We started charging up the hill toward the sleeping giant.

Unfortunately some of the Horse-Haters who had been rushing to put out the fires behind us, now turned and starting running to take us in the flank. Lord Balian saw the danger the same time I did, and he turned to face them while some of the other knights continued toward the sleeping giants. There were no mounted Horse-Haters and we ran these footmen down pretty easily.

But then somehow that sleeping giant went up in explosive flame too. When that went up, we all bolted and soon we were just racing back for the comparative safety of the barn. Along our left flank, however, the camp of the Horse-Haters was alive with shouts of alarm and anger. Soon they started charging down at us, firing their arrows blindly. Fortunately, the Christians were manning the wall to our right and returned fire. I knew we had to let the archers fight it out and just stretched out my neck to flatten my stride and make us a smaller target.

Galloping across open countryside in the dark is pretty risky. A wrong step will break a leg and as we turned the corner to get around to the eastern wall, one of the horses did just that. Even in all the noise of the stampede you could distinctly hear his leg snap. Then he crumpled up, flinging his rider off as he fell, but we just kept going. We didn't have a choice.

I could see ahead of us the bridge to the Jehosaphat Gate was down and the gates were open. Humans were lining the wall cheering us on. Some of those younger stallions were trying to get ahead of me in their panic, but I shouldered them out of the way. Lord Balian had led this sortie out, and Lord Balian would lead it back! We thundered over the bridge in a pack and into a city that was wild with jubilation: cheering men and women, singing black-robes, and children jumping up-and-down and screaming with excitement. 

The siege of Jerusalem is described (from human perspective) in Book II of my Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin:

                                                                                                       or Kindle!

The three part biography begins 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.

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Destrier's Tale Part XV: Encounter at Bethlehem

A Destrier’s Tale
Balian d’Ibelin’s Destrier “Centurion” Tells his Story
Part XV: Encounter at Bethlehem

There were more horses in the stables than I’d ever seen. All the horses from Ibelin were there — except poor Rufus, of course, and the others who had been killed on that horrible battle on the barren hills above the lake. Amira was there and Ginger too, and they were amazed to see me. But I knew things were bad when Lord Balian sent all the mares, colts and fillies away, horse and human both. The younger colts and fillies, who hadn’t been broken to the saddle yet were laden with panniers like common pack horses, and the older horses all had riders. All that were left in the stables after they went were old Spirit, Lord Balian’s old palfrey, myself, a couple of castrates the squires used to ride along with a half dozen pack-horses. I don’t know what had become of Gladiator, but he wasn’t with us anymore.

At first I rather enjoyed having so much peace, quiet and space. Furthermore, unlike at the city-on-the sea, Lord Balian took me out every other day or so. We would leave Jerusalem by one gate or another and ride about until we found an abandoned herd of animals, then we’d chase them back to the city. Once or twice we stopped to harvest apples, pears and plums that were ripening on the untended trees of the surrounding orchards.

But the mood was bad and Jerusalem itself was overflowing with people. At least it was a bigger city with more gardens than in the city-on-the-sea, so the stink wasn’t quite so bad, but it still wasn’t normal. There were too many people, and most of them were human-mares and human-foals. Far too many of the latter. Lots of black-robes too. I’ve never figured out what use these humans have. They didn’t seem to like horses at all and usually ride mules. They certainly never carried weapons and couldn’t defend themselves let alone us, but Lord Balian was always polite to them. I don’t why.

The weather was turning a touch cooler, when we went out in a hoard of knights and horses all the way to a town about five miles south of Jerusalem. It sat white upon the yellow-brown landscape, with orchards now laden with rotting fruit, at its feet. Lord Balian was leading a troop of about 80 knights and we rode into the very heart of the little town without seeing a single living soul — unless you count stray dogs.  In the large cobbled marketplace, Lord Balian jumped down, turning my reins over to Dawit, and entered the tall building flanking the square. The rest of just waited there in the hot sun swatting and stamping at flies.

Two of the knights apparently got bored and rode off on their own. Dawit told them not to, but they ignored him, saying something about water. I thought water sounded like a good idea, and was beginning to get annoyed with standing around in the heat, when those two horses came crashing back into the square at a full gallop. “Saracens! Saracens!” One of the knights was screaming in terror.

And sure enough, there were Horse-Haters right behind them. Hundreds of them. They came clattering into that square with their swords drawn and the ties of their turbans flying. They were hooting and shouting in triumph — until they saw how many of us there were. Then they sat back and tried to stop their slave-horses. That’s not so easy on pavement, and the slave-horses were soon skidding and scrambling. Half lost their footing and the others were nearly knocked over by the horses behind them running into them.

Meanwhile, Gabriel had drawn his sword and started shouting. The knights around me followed his lead and within a moment they were rushing at the Horse-Haters but not in an organized, proper charge. A bunch of amateurs! Furthermore, half the horses were screaming and trying to run away rather than putting their heads down and helping their riders fight. The slave-horses weren’t helping things, because they were screaming too, and in all that confusion, horses couldn’t find their footing on the cobbles.  I flattened my ears and stamped my feet, snorting at the idiots to close ranks and fight properly, but no one was paying any attention.

Fortunately, Lord Balian came out of the building and seeing what was happening just grabbed my saddle from the off-side and hauled himself into it. The minute his seat hit the saddle, I turned toward the enemy like a bat out of hell. Ears flat and teeth bared I aimed at the nearest Horse-Hater, confident that Lord Balian would have his sword out in time to support me.

He did. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever seen him fight the way he did that day. It helped that there were no archers, of course, and no infantry either. It was just us against those Horse-Haters on their slave horses, but the other knights were a bunch of colts, really, none of them old enough to grow a beard and you could see how panicked most of them were. Their horses, sensing their fear, weren’t feeling very confident either. So it was up to me and Lord Balian to show them how it was done.

Suddenly this Saracen in a gawdy coat that glittered gold in the sunlight came charging at us on a white stallion. Now, he was no slave! He was scrambling on the cobbles in his eagerness, and he had a look of hatred in his eye as he came at me. I knew it was him or me. Lord Balian seemed to understand that. He spurred me forward for the first time in years, and even as I tore off half that stallion’s neck, the top half of that Horse-Hater fell over onto the bloody cobbles while the lower half of him bobbed away on the back of his bleeding stallion. That bastard then showed his real worth by fleeing from me abjectly.

When the other slave-horses saw their stallion run away, they turned and followed him without a thought to what their riders wanted. They were racing each other to get away from me, but I wasn’t surprised that  Lord Balian sat back and signaled “no pursuit.” What was the point of chasing a bunch of terrified mares and castrates? I’d shown the stallion which if us was better!

Lord Balian re-sheathed his sword and gave orders to the other knights to collect the dead and wounded. As he turned back to the frightened black-robes crowded in the building on the side of the square, he reached down and patted me on the side of the neck. “Well done!” he told me in a low voice. “Well done.”

That was even more satisfying that defeating that arrogant Saracen stallion, and I snorted my thanks and pranced with pride.

The siege of Jerusalem in 1187 is described (from human perspective) in:

                                                                                                       or Kindle!

The three part biography begins 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.