Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Montgisard: An Excerpt from "Knight of Jerusalem."

“Salah ad-Din!” Sir Tancred shouted as he drew up beside Balian. “He’s getting away!” He pointed after a man in magnificent brocade tunic hunched over the back of a camel he was flaying into a gallop.

Balian turned Gladiator to pursue and felt him lurch. The stallion’s hip dropped away and Balian nearly fell backwards out of the saddle. He looked down and back, and saw the horrible gash that had cut open the stallion’s flank. Blood was pouring out of the wound and Gladiator would not put weight on his hip. Tancred and other knights of the King’s squadron were flying after the fleeing Sultan, but Balian could not join them. He paused to catch his breath and looked around at the battle field.

The floor of the ravine was littered with Saracen dead, scattered equipment, trampled tents, toppled field kitchens and panicked horses still running this way and that. Here and there, at the fringes, the Templars were still slaughtering, but there was no organized resistance, only pockets of desperate men determined to sell their lives dearly. Others, however, were on their knees begging for mercy of the secular knights, while farther away, the Christian foot-soldiers were trying to stop some of the fleeing Muslims.

Ransoms! Balian thought with sudden clarity now that the danger was past. The young men who had rushed to Salah ad-Din’s defense were surely men of quality. If he could take just one or two of them captive, he would be a made man: maybe even rich enough to marry a dowager queen. He flung himself down from Gladiator and strode back to the men Gladiator had so effectively cut down, his sword drawn.

Three survivors were still there: the man who had taken a hoof in the face was sitting cross-legged holding a blood-soaked cloth to his face and swaying back and forth in pain. Beside him, the man with a broken shoulder was hunched in pain, while a third man, or youth really, tried to bind it in a sling. They looked up at Balian’s approach, their eyes widening in alarm, and the youth who was not wounded leaped to his feet and brandished his sword.

Balian raised his sword over his head, and addressed him in Arabic. “I’ll kill you if you want, but your army is destroyed, your Sultan has fled. Throw away your sword and surrender to me, and you will live to grow a beard.”

The young man hesitated, but the man with the broken shoulder called out between clenched teeth. “It is enough. Enough widows and orphans among the Believers this day.” Then turning to Balian he declared. “We are your prisoners. All of us.”

Just then the King trotted up beside Balian. “I think,” he declared cautiously, still not daring to believe what he saw, “I think, the day is ours.”

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

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Once More onto the Breach...: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

Kenneth Branagh in the film of Shakespear's "King Henry V"
 "Once more onto the breach, dear Friends"
On September 29 at about 5:15 in the afternoon, the attackers set fire to the timbers holding up the tunnel that ran for roughly thirty meters under Jerusalem’s northern wall between St. Stephen’s Gate and the Postern of Mary Magdalene. The excited shouts of the Saracens as they poured out of the far end of the tunnel gave the Christians a fifteen–second warning, and some of the men manning that sector of the wall managed to get away. Many more were sucked down by the collapsing masonry and were crushed or suffocated in the rubble as the wall collapsed.

Ibelin had been on the Gate of Jehoshaphat at the time. He heard the sound of rolling thunder coming out of the earth, then the crashing of stones and the screams of men, and he started running in the direction of the sound, oblivious to the arrows aimed at him. Even before he reached the breach, he was screaming orders for archers to pour fire into the gap. He shouted down into the streets for men to rush into the breach to stop the inevitable Saracen assault.

Sir Roger, who had been on St. Stephen’s Gate, converged on the breach from the opposite direction, shouting identical orders. The dust had not yet settled before Sir Mathewos arrived with a troop of crossbowmen who had been held in reserve for this event, while from St. Mary Magdalene Sir Constantine brought the last of his Greek engineers.

The Saracens, of course, had prepared an assault troop just behind the head of the tunnel. As the wall collapsed, shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” went up from across the Saracen camp—and thousands of jubilant Saracen troops, whether Turks, Kurds, Egyptians, or Nubians, pumped their swords or bows over their heads in triumph.

The troops selected for the honor of being the first to enter Jerusalem rushed forward with élan and elation. This was their moment of greatest glory yet! Hattin had been a victory, to be sure: they had humiliated the Non-Believers and crushed them once and for all. But this—this was a moment that would live in history forever. They would repay the outrage of the Christian massacre of their brothers eighty-eight years ago and make them drown in their own blood. They would liberate the Dome of the Rock from the filth of the Franks and raise it again to the third greatest shrine of the True Faith.

They surged up over the rubble, which was still encased in clouds of dust and billowing smoke from the burning timbers of the tunnel underneath. Because the stones had been dislodged but not settled, they foundered and scrambled as the blocks shifted under their weight. They fell as the broken masonry gave way under their feet, and the leading men started small landslides that knocked down the men behind them. And all the while, death rained on them, loosed by Christian archers on either side of the breach.

Just as they crested the highest part of the rubble and were ready to run down into the city, they were hit head-on by a barrage of crossbow bolts and flaming arrows. The defenders were at such close range that when the bolts struck the Saracens they went clear through their first victim, and some killed the man behind as well. Behind the crossbowmen came slingers releasing pots full of Greek fire. Within a quarter-hour, the breach in the wall was a burning graveyard.

But Salah ad-Din did not have a shortage of fanatical followers ready to take the place of the failed first assault team. The second wave rushed forward, calling on Allah as they charged. These had an easier time mounting the north-facing slope of the debris, but met the same barrage of crossbowmen and Greek fire at the crest. So did the third and fourth assault wave. By then the sun was setting and the muezzins called the Faithful to prayer.

Ibelin stood on the corner tower, watching the survivors of the last assault drag as many of their dead comrades as possible out of the flames and back down the slope of rubble. Then he turned and strained his eyes in the direction of the Sultan’s tent. He thought he saw a flicker of motion: the tent flap opening or closing. Salah ad-Din had no doubt been watching just as he had. Hopefully he had had enough for today.

People were shouting all around him, trying to get Christian wounded to the Hospital and Christian dead to the improvised catacombs. Men had collapsed against the inside of the ramparts and were sobbing from exhaustion, terror, relief—who knew. Somewhere a woman was keening as she discovered her husband, son or lover among the dead. And then the bells of the Holy Sepulcher began to clang. Balian lifted his head and looked across the rubble, through the smoke and dust, toward the dome of the great church, and wondered how many more times it would be allowed to raise its deep, comforting voice.

An excerpt from:


Sunday, November 15, 2015

What Lepers Can Do: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

“They might just kill us all—as we’re no use as slaves. When the enemy comes, we must take refuge in the city,” a middle-aged leper, whose fingerless hands were wrapped in bandages, declared forcefully.

“What makes you think the citizens of Jerusalem will let us inside?” a little man without ears or nose asked back bitterly. He had been expelled from his native Cologne and had walked all the way to Jerusalem in hope of a cure. Instead, he found himself segregated with his fellow lepers, albeit in better circumstances than in the Holy Roman Empire.

“We can appeal to the Grand Hospitaller,” a woman with deforming ulcers on her face and neck answered. The Order of St. Lazarus was an offshoot of the Knights of St. John.

It was at this point that Sir Daniel straightened and raised his voice. “No—Ibelin is in command now, and I will go to him.”

The congress of lepers fell restlessly silent as they turned to look at the speaker. Sir Daniel was one of them—and he wasn’t. He had never really fit in, and then he had gone off to serve the King. When he returned, he had kept himself apart, as if he thought he was better than the rest of them. Yet the leprosy had rendered his left arm useless; it was ulcerous and the fingers were rotting away. Because he could no longer hold a shield, he had not been allowed to go with the knights that mustered with King Guy, despite his protests and pleading.

Now he stepped out of the side aisle to stand directly in front of the altar (the lepers were meeting in the church) and reminded them: “Listen to me. I once served the Baron of Ibelin. If I go to him, he will grant what we request.”

Several in the audience, who didn’t like Daniel very well and thought him arrogant, grumbled to themselves that he shouldn’t be so sure about what the Baron of Ibelin would or would not do. The majority, like him or not, nodded and agreed that what he said made sense.

“But first we must decide what it is we want,” Daniel’s voice rang out, amplified by the acoustics of the church. His audience grew still, surprised and captivated by something in his tone.

“Do we want to cower behind the walls of Jerusalem like piteous rubbish, waiting for our fate?” He paused, but no one answered him; most of his audience, in their rags and rotting limbs, didn’t see what choice they had.

“Or do we want to follow in the footsteps of the late King Baldwin?” Again he paused, but now an intangible excitement had gripped them. The lepers toward the back or behind taller people squirmed and strained to get a better view of Sir Daniel.

Sir Daniel was still a surprisingly impressive figure. His face was not yet marked by the disease, and he stood tall and straight, a habit from his years in the King’s service. His rotting arm was wrapped in bandages and hidden from view in his cloak.

“King Baldwin never stopped fighting for his Kingdom, for this city, for Christ. Even when he was too weak to stand, when he could not use his hands, when his sight was dim. To the very end, he fought. Three times, the Leper King threw back Salah ad-Din’s armies! It took a healthy man to lead the Army of Jerusalem to defeat!” he reminded them, and suddenly they were nodding and congratulating themselves.

“I say if he could fight in his condition, then so can all of us!”

“He had others to do his fighting,” one of Sir Daniel’s detractors grumbled. “All he had to do was command.”

“Well, if you want to just whine and act like an infant, then do so!” Sir Daniel sneered. “But I know that I can be useful—and so can you, Tom, and you, too, Molly!” Daniel began addressing them by name. “In fact,” Daniel continued, “there are things we can do better than the healthy! With less feeling in our limbs, we can handle hot cauldrons with boiling oil and water, or even stamp out fires with our senseless feet. And who knows better than we how to prepare strips of cotton or how to wind them firmly? Why, then, who better than we to wrap arrows with cotton strips and dip them in tar and oil so they can be sent flaming over the ramparts to the enemy?”

His enthusiasm and conviction were contagious. Particularly, the younger and healthier of his colleagues were with him. “Yes, yes!” they started to shout. “We can help!”

“We can tend fires—”

“And put them out!”

“We can remove the dead!”

“We can throw the enemy dead back at them!”

“We can!”

“We can!”

All doubts, voiced and unvoiced, were soon drowned out in the euphoria of newfound purpose, and Sir Daniel was elected “Master” of the Lepers of St. Lazarus at Jerusalem by popular acclaim. 

An excerpt from:


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Listening for the Voice of God: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
The courtyard of the church was full of people, but they parted for him, a whisper of awe running through the crowd from those who recognized him to those who did not. He passed through the portal into the church itself. This was lit by candles, and the air was heavy with incense. Immediately ahead of him, against the back side of the choir, were the tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem. Balian paused to kneel before Baldwin IV’s tomb.

“You were lucky to go when you did,” he told his former pupil silently.

“But if I’d lived longer, maybe I would have found a way to get rid of Guy,” Baldwin seemed to answer.

“Guy and Ridefort together lost Jerusalem,” Balian told his dead friend.

“Jerusalem?” Baldwin asked back. “Guy and Ridefort lost Hattin. Jerusalem is still Christian.”

“Am I to defend it with just two knights?”

“How many knights did you have at Ascalon?”

“You brought me 376 knights.”

“I issued the arrière-ban. Do not underestimate the power of people imbued with faith.”

Balian looked up at the effigy on the tomb. It was calm and beautiful, unmarked by the ravages of leprosy; it was not a portrait but a symbol. It was the way Baldwin would have liked to be remembered. “What would you have done if you had survived?” Balian asked silently.

“How can you even ask?” Baldwin reproached him. “When did I ever fail to defend my Kingdom? I would do so from the grave if I could. And you are still my knight, Balian. You were always my lance and my sword. Do not fail me now.”

Balian stood and proceeded to the rotunda. Here the crowds were thicker than ever; many people knelt on the flagstone floor, praying fervently. Others were lighting candles before the Grave Chapel, while in the choir several hundred people stood pressed together, following the Mass being read by the canons of the Holy Sepulcher. All twelve canons who had accompanied the True Cross to Hattin had been killed. There could not be more than a dozen left, Balian reckoned. But two of these stood as usual at the entrance to the Grave Chapel, controlling access. They recognized the Baron of Ibelin as he approached, and parted without a word; one even bowed his head.

“I wish to be alone,” Ibelin told them as he passed into the chapel. They did not answer, but took up their position before the entrance again, ensuring no one could follow.

Balian descended the steep stairs to the grave itself. The grave was cool, almost chilly, lit only by candles. Balian went down on his knees and bowed his head. He recited the Lord’s Prayer. Then he sat back on his heels and considered the grave.

“Thy will be done.” It was so easy to say, but he was expected to make decisions and take actions.

Balian did not doubt the divinity of Christ even for an instant—but he knew, too, with what conviction and fervor the Muslims too believed that they were doing God’s will. Did they not shout “God is great” every time they won a victory over the armies of Christ? He had even been told that they shouted “God is great” while executing the unarmed and bound Templar and Hospitaller prisoners after Hattin.

Balian did not believe it was God’s will for helpless men to be gruesomely tortured to death, as had happened in Damascus. He did not believe it was God’s will that the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been squandered on a single battlefield because of the poor decisions of a usurper. He did not believe it was God’s will that Guy was King of Jerusalem at all. And that was his problem. Men made decisions and took actions that were—all too often—not in accordance with His will.

Balian laid himself face down on the cold surface of the grave beside the ledge on which Christ’s mortal remains had lain more than a thousand years before. The space was too narrow for him to stretch out his arms to either side, so he cradled his head on them instead, and tried to empty his brain entirely. He was not here to plead, beg, or even ask for anything. He was here to receive the Will of God. 

An excerpt from:


Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Child in Jerusalem, August 1187: An Excerpt from "Defender of Jerusalem"

John had escaped the tedium of the classroom, the prattle of his siblings, and the droning of Father Angelus for the kitchens. It wasn’t that he was hungry—but it was in the kitchens that he learned the most about what was really going on. His mother and aunts, his tutors, and even the servants all wanted to “protect” him by not telling him what was happening. They treated him like a baby and kept telling him “everything will be all right,” when obviously it wasn’t!

Nablus, Ibelin, Ramla, and Mirabel had all fallen. Everything he had ever known as home was overrun by the enemy. Salah ad-Din’s forces controlled the countryside all around Jerusalem, and there were no knights left in the city. John understood perfectly that that meant there was no way they could defend themselves. He and his siblings, his mother, his aunts and tutors and servants—they were all trapped within the city, with no hope of relief.

What was more, John knew what happened to women and children when a city was sacked. They were rounded up and sold as slaves. The women would be violated and ravished—like Beth had been—and the children would be made to work, just like the kitchen boys turning the spit before the fire or the boys that scrubbed out the latrines. John shuddered—and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He tried to picture himself defending his sisters and little brother. He imagined saying, “My father is Balian d’Ibelin, and—” And what? They would laugh at him, because his father could not rescue him. His father could not even buy his freedom, because his father had nothing. With the loss of Ibelin, Ramla, Mirabel, and Nablus, they had lost all their land and income. Of course his mother and Master Shoreham had managed to bring most of their movable treasure here, but when Jerusalem fell that would all be seized as plunder by the Saracens.

“Master John!” It was the stern voice of Father Michael. John jumped and then looked over his shoulder with an expression of guilt mixed with rebelliousness on his face. “You’re supposed to be at your lessons, young man!” Father Michael admonished.

“What’s the point of learning Greek when the only language I’m going to need in the future is Arabic?” John flung furiously at Father Michael, his pent-up terror erupting as defiance.

Father Michael was taken aback for a second, but then reproached himself. John wasn’t a fool, and an eight-year-old could reason. The tutor went down on his heels to be at John’s eye level and looked him squarely in the face. “It is your Greek blood that might just save you. Your mother’s cousin is Emperor of the Greeks.” He was stretching the point somewhat—the Emperor Isaac II Angelus was only distantly related to Maria Zoë—but for John’s sake he was willing to bend the truth a little. He continued, “And he has made a truce with Salah ad-Din.”

John just stared at him, his lips a grim, defiant line.

Father Michael laid a hand on his shoulder and spoke in a gentler voice. “John, what good does it do to get in people’s way here?” They were very much underfoot at the moment, for dinner was over and the serving boys were trying to clean up and put things away. Several women were soaking rags in warm, sudsy water to wipe down the tables, while other servants were preparing to sweep out the hall. The cooks were busy sorting out the leftovers into things for reuse (such as the wine), alms for the poor, and bones for the dogs. Just outside the kitchen door, the usual crowd of beggars was waiting in the street for alms. They seemed louder than usual, even more aggressive.

Someone was shouting, “Ibelin! Ibelin!”—as if that would get them more food or fed faster, Father Michael noted with irritation.

Then the noise spilled from the street into the kitchen itself when one of the scullery servants started squawking in a high-pitched voice: “A rider with the banner of Ibelin is approaching St. Stephen’s Gate.”

“A rider?”

“It must be a ruse!”

“There’s nothing but Saracens north of us!”

“It’s the Ibelin banner! Clear as day!”

“How many riders?”

“Just two.”

“That’s madness! If Ibelin were coming to our relief, he’d bring his whole three thousand men."

“I tell you,” the scullion insisted. “They’ve seen it!”

John ducked down and darted for the door while the others were distracted. He dodged past the cook and the excited scullion and was outside before Michael could stop him.

In the street the crowd was more agitated than the scullion. Everyone was talking at once. “I told you he’d come!” someone kept repeating. Other people were asking more skeptically how he could have gotten through the enemy alone, and while holding his banner upright on a lance. Others were sure it was a trick. “If we open the gates to this rider, they’ll flood in!”

“How? He’s alone, with just one squire.”

A rider forced his way through the crowd, calling for them to make way. “I have a message for the Dowager Queen!” the man kept shouting. But they blocked his way, surrounding his horse and demanding his news.

“The Baron of Ibelin is approaching! Let me in!”

The crowd erupted into even more agitated discussion, but they let the rider continue to the main entrance, where he jumped down and disappeared inside. John was too far away to follow. Instead, he was trapped with the rest of the crowd, and from farther up the street the shouting had grown much louder. More: the shouting had turned to cheering. They were still shouting “Ibelin!” but it had become a chant. “Ib-lin! Ib-lin! Ib-lin!”

More people poured out of the houses and shops lining the street and crowded the balconies and the rooftops, trying to see what was going on. The cheers were coming nearer, growing louder. Everyone seemed to be shouting and waving, and John couldn’t see for all the people ahead of him. He pushed and squeezed, stamping on people’s feet and clawing his way forward, until he fought his way clear to the front. He looked up the street and could just make out two mounted men, the second of whom held upright a lance with the banner of Ibelin, but John had eyes only for the lead rider: it was his father!

John understood at once. His father had come to rescue them!

John wanted to run to him, but the crowds stood in his way. He shouted his father’s name and jumped up and down, but he was just one small child in a city awash with refugees and desperate residents. They all stood between him and his father: beggars and shopkeepers, refugees and priests, rich merchants and nuns who didn’t normally rub shoulders with the poor.

His father, meanwhile, was so completely surrounded by people that he was unable to advance another step. Scores of hands held his bridle so that the faithful Centurion fretted and tried to shake them off, while people clung to his father’s stirrups and Centurion’s trapper as well.

John could not hear what they were saying, but he understood their gestures. They did not understand that his father had come only to rescue his wife and children. They saw in the lord of Ibelin a nobleman, an experienced battle commander, the only lord to have fought his way out of the encirclement of Hattin with honor. They saw him as the savior of Jerusalem itself.

That made John angry and frightened—because if his father stayed to defend Jerusalem, then he, his mother, his sisters, and his little brother would not be able to escape. His father had to say “no” to the others! He had to ignore them, and instead sweep John up onto his saddle and ride with him out of the city to safety.

John shouted and jumped up and down, trying to make himself seen and heard, until tears of frustration ran down his face. But it did no good.

An excerpt from: