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.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Road to Hattin: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

The shift in direction, however, meant that the Christian army left the road and started cutting across country. That made walking much more difficult for the infantry, as there were frequent gullies, rocks, and thorns. That was bad enough for men just walking forward; it was much harder for men trying to stay in formation under unrelenting attacks. As a result, the rear guard was slowed down even more, and a gap threatened to open up between the main body of Christian troops and the rear guard. It was a gap the Saracens were bound to exploit—and if they did, the rear guard would be surrounded and cut to pieces.

As that threat loomed larger with each excruciating step forward, Ibelin rode over to consult with Gerard de Ridefort. The latter proposed charging the enemy to drive them back, but Ibelin angrily rejected the plan. It was too obvious that the enemy would simply fall back before the heavy cavalry, and then attack again as soon as the charge was spent. 

“That’s a waste of energy,” Ibelin told the Templar Master bluntly.

“You’re just afraid to charge!” Ridefort retorted hotly.

“Don’t try that crap on me, Ridefort. I’m not a frightened dandy like the King you made! Charging light Turkish cavalry is idiocy—and if you do it, you do it alone.” Ibelin let his eyes sweep the Templars around the Master, hoping to find a man like Jacques de Mailly, willing to challenge their Grand Master and support him. But the men with Ridefort today only dropped their eyes and would not look at him.

“God is on our side!” Ridefort barked belligerently, making his own men sit up straighter in their saddles.

“Really? As he was with you at Cresson?” Ibelin shot back.

“Do you doubt Christ is with us?”
“It is blasphemy to confuse your own will with the will of God.”

“We charge!” Ridefort spun his horse on its haunches and spurred it forward, ordering the Templar standard-bearer to fall in beside him.

Ibelin rode back to his own knights and announced grimly, “The Templars insist on charging.”

“That’s madness!” Sir Bartholomew protested, and Balian noted how haggard the old man looked. His eyes were sunken in his skull, all but lost in shadow in the depths of his helmet. He shouldn’t be here, Balian registered. He should be enjoying his old age in peace on his manor, not facing certain death. Then again, he had only daughters, and the feudal duty fell next to his eldest grandson, a boy just thirteen years old. So on second thought, the old man was probably prepared to die to save that boy and his younger brothers.

Out loud, Ibelin retorted curtly, “This whole march is madness!” and added before anyone else could protest: “We hold formation, and take advantage of the relief the Templars will temporarily give us to jog forward as far and as fast as we can.”

Then he reached down, unfastened his goatskin, and took several gulps of water before demonstratively pulling Rufus’ head around to offer the water to the chestnut palfrey. Rufus gratefully closed his lips around the spout of the goatskin, and Balian upended it so that the water flowed into his horse’s mouth until the skin was about half empty. Then he took it away, closed it, and tied it again to his saddle. Around him, his knights followed his example of sharing their water with their horses, while the infantry drank deeply. While they drank, the Templars burst through their infantry protection screaming “Vive Dieu St. Amour!”—head-on into the next Saracen attack.

The Saracens just wheeled their horses around and galloped away like the wind. Their fleeter horses, with lighter gear and riders, easily outdistanced the Templars. The latter, armed only with lances and swords, could not hope to inflict the slightest damage and soon drew up, turned, and began to trot back to Ibelin’s division, which was jogging as fast as the tired limbs and dehydrated bodies of the infantry would let them. Only Ibelin remained immobile, his horse facing backwards, his eyes squinting against the sun as he awaited the next attack. It came even before the Templars had rejoined the rest of the rear guard. Ibelin shouted a warning, and Ridefort wheeled his knights around and charged again.

This repeated itself four or five times, until the Templar horses were swaying from exhaustion, the sweat dripping from their bellies, their heads hanging in utter dejection. Only then did Ridefort recognize—but not acknowledge—that Ibelin had been right. Furiously, he ordered Ibelin to send one of his knights to the King to demand that the main army wait for the rear guard.

“No,” Ibelin answered.

“They must wait for us! If they don’t, we’ll be cut off and slaughtered! If we’re slaughtered, the army doesn’t stand a chance. A third of our forces are right here!”

“I agree, but you’re the one who brought us here, so you’re going to be the one to tell your puppet King that you were wrong! You tell him to stop before he reaches water! You tell him we can’t make Tiberias tonight! You tell him the entire Christian army is trapped in the middle of a wasteland with no water and completely surrounded by the enemy. You tell him!”

They stared at one another, and for the first time something like doubt crossed Ridefort’s eyes, but he blinked it back. “I don’t have a horse that can trot, let alone canter. You must send one of your knights.”

“Oh, I’ll lend you a horse,” Ibelin answered, “but only you! Not one of your sacrificial lambs,” he gestured toward the silent Templars around them. Balian had never been so acutely aware of how young many of these bearded men were. Behind their beards and their tonsures, behind the façade of their white robes, half of them were little more than boys! He noted with poignancy that many of them had faces the color of cooked crabs and peeling skin—clear indications that they were newly come from countries with cool, rainy summers. Why, many of them might have arrived only weeks or days ago, replacements for the men lost at Cresson. They were, he knew, suffering more in this heat than any of the men from Ibelin, Ramla, or Nablus. He could sense that they were frightened, too. They had believed in their cause, their virtue, and their invincibility. And they were starting to ask themselves what had gone wrong.

“Damn you, Ibelin!”

“What for, Ridefort? For pushing your nose in your own shit? You made this King, and you made this catastrophe. Tripoli warned you. I warned you. By God, half the barons of Jerusalem warned you. But you thought yourself cleverer than all of us together. This is your dung heap, and you are going to lie in it! I only pray to God that He will not punish the rest of us for your stupidity, arrogance, and hubris!”

“I’ll kill you, Ibelin!”

“You already have, Ridefort. You’ve killed all of us. Now, do you want my stallion or not?”
Ridefort’s eyes flashed with hatred so intense that he refused. Dragging his own poor, tired mount around, he dug his spurs into its flanks, forcing it to lumber forward in an exhausted, miserable lope.

Ibelin let his eyes sweep across the faces of the remaining, still-stunned Templars and shook his head. Then he rode back to his own men to face the next Saracen onslaught.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

A Queen under Siege: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

Smoke soiled the sky, turning the sun orange and drifting over the walls of the citadel to drop cinders and ash upon the thousands of refugees crowding the ward. The breeze also brought shouts, cries, and the raised voices of men quarreling, along with the sound of things being dragged, broken, and smashed. Many children were crying in terror, held by mothers hardly less terrified themselves, while priests chanted in a half-dozen languages, and men murmured and argued and looked anxiously to the thin walls around them.

Maria Zoë, who had been looking out of the interior window of the hall, drew back, closing the shutters. Her household knights, Sir Constantine and Sir William, were discussing urgently the best defensive strategy for the citadel, but there had not yet been an assault, and the fires suggested there would be none today. The Saracens appeared to have taken the bait of plunder over the risky business of attacking the citadel—no matter how weak it was. She had bought them time, but how much?

“Water, food, and latrines,” she said out loud, turning back to face the men in the room.
“How many people are sheltering here? Do we even have a head count?” For this she looked not to her steward, who was conspicuously lurking in the shadows trying to avoid her eye, but to her confessor Father Angelus and the Abbot of St. Sebastian, an energetic and competent man.

“A head count?” Father Angelus answered with a glance toward the abbot. “No, but we estimate eleven thousand.”

“That would be the entire Christian and Jewish population of Nablus,” Maria Zoë responded dismissively.

The churchmen looked at one another and nodded. “Yes, madame. Except for the Muslims, who consciously remained outside, the entire population is here: Christians, Jews, and Samaritans.”

“We can’t possibly feed eleven thousand!” Maria Zoë protested next, after she absorbed the magnitude of her own success at getting the residents of Nablus into the citadel.

“Not for long, no,” Father Angelus admitted.

“For how long?” Maria Zoë wanted to know.

“The castle was stocked to feed fifty fighting men and twenty others for a year,” Father Angelus answered. “That means we can feed eleven thousand for …” he pursed his lips as he did the math in his head, “three to four days at the most—on short rations.”

“Is that long enough?”

“That depends on what has happened to the Christian army,” Sir Walter replied, coming up beside her with the other knights in his wake. “If the Saracens are here because they have already defeated the forces under King Baldwin, we cannot expect relief at all.”

Maria Zoë had been far too focused on the immediate threat to think about that.

“How do we find out what has happened to King Baldwin?” she asked, carefully avoiding the question about her husband, brother-in-law, and son-in-law.

Silence answered her question, and as she looked from man to man, they dropped their eyes. “I see,” she answered her own question. “Either someone comes to our relief—or they don’t.”

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Friday, October 9, 2015

A Convenient Truce: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

When the Christians were safely out of hearing, al-Afdal protested hotly, “Ibn Barzan insulted you.”


“By referring to the murder of Shawar!”

“Never be offended by reference to your deeds,” the Sultan advised his son. “To take offense is to suggest regret. I do not regret killing Shawar. He had lost his utility to us, and his murder paved the way for the reunification of Islam. Do you mean to suggest it is not a good thing that the heretical Fatimid caliphate has been destroyed?”

“Of course not!” al-Afdal protested. “But the Christian meant it as an insult.”

“That is his problem.” The Sultan dismissed the matter, adding, “I liked him.” 

Farrukh-Shah protested with a look of distaste, “Ibn Barzan lacks subtlety.”

“Subtlety? Perhaps, but diplomacy does not consist of deceit, but rather in the art of finding common ground. In this case it is in both our interests to stop fighting for a bit. A truce is not a peace—and ibn Barzan knows that as well as I do. Ibn Barzan is an honest man, and precisely because he did not try to flatter me or pretend to be my friend, I trust him.”

“You think, then, that the Christians are united behind this boy king?” al-Adil asked skeptically.

“I think they are—because he is the lowest common denominator. It would seem that none of the other barons are man enough to put the boy aside.” It was obvious to his brother, son, and nephew that Salah ad-Din was making a disparaging comparison between his own willingness to set aside Nur ad-Din’s rightful heir and the reluctance of the Christians to depose Baldwin V. “I thought at first that Ramla was such a man—that he would take revenge on Guy de Lusignan for the dishonor of stealing his bride—but you saw ibn Barzan’s reaction. Ramla may hate Lusignan, but he does not have sufficient support among his peers to actually hold on to the throne if he were to set aside this boy and his stepfather Lusignan.”

“Who is there to oppose him?” Farrukh-Shah asked. “Tripoli and Antioch are his friends.”

“Yes,” Salah ad-Din admitted, “but Oultrejourdain is his rival. And then there are the Templars. I’ve heard they now back Guy de Lusignan. If so, that changes the balance of power in Jerusalem. Don’t forget these Christian fanatics have access to enormous resources in the West, and they can deploy as many knights as the entire Kingdom. It is significant that the Hospitaller Master was sent to make peace with us, but the Templar Master was not in the party.”

“You would have been even less willing to receive him!” Farrukh-Shah pointed out.

Salah ad-Din laughed. “Of course—and it would have given me greater pleasure to refuse him. But the fact that he was not sent says a great deal. In the past, both Masters were sent on embassies.”

“I have heard rumors that the new Grand Master hates Tripoli,” Farrukh-Shah insisted.

“Good. Then your spies tell you the same thing that my spies tell me,” Salah ad-Din told his nephew pointedly.

“So this is where the Kingdom starts to crack?” Al-Adil suggested uncertainly.

“Maybe, but ibn Barzan is right: it has not cracked yet. Furthermore, our harvests have been poorer than theirs. We have bread riots; they do not. We have Mosul to contend with; they have only supporters in their rear. We have little to gain by attacking now, and waiting is likely to be more to our advantage than theirs.”

“So you will give them a truce?”

“I think four years should be about right.”

The others nodded in agreement. It would not be such a bad thing, after all, to have time to see to their own affairs. 

An excerpt from:


Friday, October 2, 2015

Clash of Queens: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

A page rushed ahead of the Dowager Queen to announce her, but she was too close on his heels for the Queen Mother or Princess Sibylla to do anything more than look up in astonishment. After all, she had lived in this palace seven years and she knew exactly where she was going, even if she had avoided it since the disastrous Easter court two years ago when Sibylla had married Guy de Lusignan. Certainly she had not set eyes on Agnes de Courtenay since the Queen Mother had connived to steal Isabella away from her.
Maria Zoë had no doubt whatever who had instigated the theft of her child. She knew that the King was not really the originator of the idea, and she was convinced that neither the King nor even Balian, good man that he was, fully understood what was at stake. They both saw in Isabella a potential contender for the throne of Jerusalem who needed to be “controlled” — but Maria Zoë recognized that to Agnes de Courtenay, Isabella was a threat to her children. While Maria Zoë was certain that Baldwin meant his half-sister no harm, she remained convinced that Agnes was plotting Isabella’s death behind her son’s back.

Maria Zoë had made no less than five trips to Kerak in the last two years, but on the last two occasions she had been told that Isabella was “away”—allegedly on pilgrimage in one case and at Montreal on the other. Maria Zoë believed none of it. If it hadn’t been for Dawit’s regular reports on Isabella’s physical health and fierce determination to survive her imprisonment, she would have been frantic enough to take desperate measures. What measures, she didn’t know, but she knew she was capable of doing things no one expected of her.

One of them was walking straight up to the King’s mother and sister and holding out her hand for them to kiss her coronation ring. It was a gesture so haughty that all the ladies in the garden gasped. Maria Zoë knew at some level that such gestures did not make her popular, but she was in no mood to seek the approval of others. This was the ring of Jerusalem that had been placed on her finger at her coronation. She was an anointed queen—something neither Agnes de Courtenay nor Sibylla could claim. Agnes was a baroness, Sibylla Countess of Jaffa; Maria Zoë outranked them both.

Flushing with fury, Agnes just stared at her, while Sibylla threatened, “I will tell my brother about this.”

“Please do!” the Dowager Queen answered, turning to look at her coldly. “King Baldwin understands the significance of being an anointed monarch. He will not be pleased by your insult to his Crown.”

Agnes choked on something she wanted to say, and Sibylla leapt up and ran away from this woman, who always made her feel so inadequate, worthless, and small.

That suited Maria Zoë. She was now face to face with her hated rival. “So, madame, whose child are you planning to steal today?” Maria Zoë asked. Agnes turned even redder, but still could not seem to find her tongue. “If it is my niece’s unborn child,” Maria Zoë continued with only the barest glance in Eschiva’s direction, “think again. Aimery de Lusignan is not as susceptible to your poisonous whispers as your poor, pious son. Oh, but then you must know that—since you knew Aimery so very well.”

“How dare you?” Agnes de Courtenay had found her tongue at last and jumped to her feet in outrage, her fists clenched.

“How dare I what, madame? Draw attention to your morals? But they are common knowledge.” Maria Zoë made a gesture of innocence that included all the other ladies, who gawked at them in shock. Then she added in a voice as hard as steel, for all that it was barely more than a whisper: “Everyone knows you have as much virtue as a bitch in heat.”

Agnes tried to slap Maria Zoë across her face, but Maria Zoë was faster. She caught the Queen Mother’s arm before she could strike and held it, her fingers digging into her Agnes’ wrist until she whimpered in pain. “Let me go!”

Maria Zoë dropped Agnes’ arm, and they stared at one another. “Don’t think you have won,” Maria Zoë warned. “Isabella may be a child, but she has friends far more powerful than you and your vultures.”

“You can’t mean my ineffectual brother-in-law,” Agnes sneered.

 “No, of course not,” Maria Zoë answered, refusing to be provoked. “We both know my husband is too honorable for the games you play.” Maria Zoë was bluffing about having powerful friends. Her great-uncle was dead, her relatives murdered or chased into exile, but she could see the fear that suddenly shot through Agnes’ eyes, and that was satisfying enough for the moment.

The fear, however, made Agnes bluster, “You are not welcome here. I order you to leave at once.”

“I’ll leave when I want to,” Maria Zoë countered. “And don’t think your son’s guards will lay a hand on me! They know the difference between an anointed queen and a king’s whore—”

“Get out of here!” It was Sibylla who shrieked this, coming back to defend her mother at last.

“With pleasure,” Maria Zoë answered. “I do not like the company of sluts—or fools.” The latter remark was directed at Sibylla.

“Baldwin will hear of this!” Sibylla shrieked, louder than ever.

“I wonder whose side he’ll take?” Maria Zoë answered evenly. It was not so much that she seriously believed Baldwin would approve of her calling his mother a whore—much less a bitch in heat—but she was, in fact, so furious with him for letting his mother steal her child that she wanted to hurt him. And perhaps, just perhaps, if he learned what she had done, he would be shocked into understanding just how deeply she had been hurt and how dangerous a mother animal in fear for her young was. Maybe, just maybe, he’d begin to see that his mother was not his best adviser, and that engendering the hatred of those who had loved and served him best was stupid—and could be very dangerous as well.

With this thought she turned to a pale, wide-eyed Eschiva and ordered, “Come with me, child. You’ll be far more comfortable at the Ibelin residence, and I’ll be with you until your time has come and you are safely delivered of the child in your womb.” 

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