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, September 11, 2015

Return from Hell: An Excerpt from "The Defender of Jerusalem"

Balian had escaped from the great hall where the drinking had started in earnest and cautiously followed the vaulted passage that ran north from the chapel to the underground postern. Part of it was curiosity, for he was interested in the defenses of every castle he visited, but mostly he was seeking solitude so he could think.  Isabella had been sent to bed long ago, before the entertainment became too crude, but the touch of her lips on Balian’s cheek as she said good night still lingered like a reproach. She knew he planned to depart without her on the morn, and although she had said she understood, it was hard to leave her here after three days “enjoying” the Lady of Oultrajourdain’s hospitality.

Furthermore, previous visits had also been before the Red Sea raids, and Balian knew that many of the men sitting at the tables and sharing their meals with Isabella were mercenaries capable of all the atrocities attributed to the raiders.  Like Oultrejourdain, Balian and Maria Zoё had their informers. Greek traders with strong ties to Alexandria had provided them with some very gruesome details of both the raids — and the fate of the survivors. The reports had all spoken of “mercenaries” and sailors from the gutters of the Levant — led by a blond knight of great height and strength with a nose that hung straight from his forehead like the nosepiece of a helmet.

Height and strength were always attributed to an opponent that was difficult to subdue, it increased the prowess of the victors in the end, and most Franks were considered “blond” by their Arab foes, but the detail about the nose was what had led Balian to believe Henri was the leader of the raid. Barry and Henri both had a nose like this, but it was most pronounced in Henri’s case. Barry’s face was otherwise harmonious and attractive so the dominant nose didn’t jump out at you as much; Henri’s hunger for land, fame and fortune had carved out his cheeks and left his nose more prominent than ever.

Out of the darkness that face emerged to confront Balian. It was blackened, however, as if burned, and encased in a Bedouin headdress. Balian caught his breath and stepped back, certain he was facing a ghost.

The ghost laughed. “Afraid of your own brother, are you?”

“Henri! Where have you come from?”

“Hell.” Came the simple answer.

The answer seemed to corroborate that this was his brother’s soul, but at the same time the image seemed far too substantial. Dust soiled and weighed down the hem of the Bedouin robes, and the smell of sweat — thick and masculine —oozed from his brother as he blocked the passageway. Surely ghosts wouldn’t smell.

“Chatillon tells me you went voluntarily,” Balian ventured.

His brother laughed harshly. “Oh, that I did, and the Heaven part came before the Hell. Ever make love to harem slaves? I assure you, it’s like nothing else in the world!” He laughed again. “And they have wine in Aden, Balian, like the nectar of lotus that drove Ulysses’ men mad. You can’t imagine what it’s like to lick that sweet wine from the thighs of dancing girls. And the treasure, Balian, the treasure was more than we could carry. The men started paying their whores with ruby rings and ivory bracelets. I could have bought Ibelin ten times over with what I had in my sea chest alone.”

“Ibelin is not for sale,” Balian replied, certain now that this was no apparition but his brother very much in the flesh, who had somehow managed to disguise himself as a Bedouin and escape the vengeance of the Egyptian authorities.

“No? I’m not so sure. Even our saintly, little leper might have been tempted by the treasure I could have lain before him. It was surely enough to build a wall all around the Kingdom of Jerusalem — or pay a thousand knights from the West.”

“He might have been tempted,” Balian agreed, “if you had managed to keep it and bring it here.”

“They trapped us, Balian,” the tone of voice changed from triumph to bitterness. “We were betrayed! I killed a dozen of the Pisan bastards — just to set an example, but it was too late. We had to abandon all we had — the ships, the treasure, the girls — and headed inland.  But the Bedouins led us into a ravine with no escape and then tried to disappear among the rocks. I chased after them while the rest of the fools fought off our pursuers. The rock crevices were so sharp, they cut like the edge of a knife.” He opened his hands and looked down at the scars on them as if amazed by the jagged, scabbed lines that now deformed them.

Balian waited, torn between shock and sympathy.

“I finally brought one of the bastards down, cut his throat and took his robes. I dressed his corpse in my armor and kicked it over the edge of the cliff. It rolled its way back into the ravine to land at the feet of the Egyptian troops, the face so smashed and ravaged by the rock edges that they never even suspected the deception. When they looked up, I waved back to them, clenched my fist over my head and shouted “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” The idiots answered with similar shouts and never even tried to come after me.”

“I’m surprised the Bedouins didn’t get you,” Balian observed, still trying to sort out his feelings; he was glad Henri was alive, and yet ashamed of what he’d done.

Henri just laughed. “So am I. Of course, I still had some gold in my purse that helped with some of them. The others I had to kill.”

“You have a lot to confess, it would seem,” Balian concluded. After all, it was not his place to judge his brother; that was for God to do.

“Don’t preach to me, Balian. You haven’t been where I was.”

“No, and I hope I never am.”

“Barry always said you weren’t ambitious enough.”

“I’m a Baron of Jerusalem and an honorable man. That’s good enough for me.”

“Yes, I know. But not for me. Did Chatillon tell you about the little girl he’s going to give me?”

“Yes, with a fief worth more than Ibelin, I know. You’re welcome to it, Henri, because you are right: I would not have done what you have done to get it. May God have mercy on your soul.”

“That sounds rather like you are washing your hands of me.”

“Does it?”

“Yes.” Something in Henri’s tone sounded distressed, as if some last, flickering remnant of decency or maybe just affection had flared up in him.  Or maybe he was just suddenly afraid of losing Balian.

Balian heard it, but it was too faint to sway him. “You are beyond my help, Henri. Go collect your earthly reward from Chatillon, and see that you enjoy it. The Day of Judgment will not be far behind, and I do not want to be in your shoes.” He turned and walked back in the direction of the chapel.

Henri called after him. “Nor I in yours, Balian! Nor I in yours! For all you goodness will not help you when Salah-ad-Din comes!”

An excerpt from:

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