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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sneak Preview 6: An Excerpt from "Envoy of Jerusalem"

The fate of the Christian captives enduring slavery is an important theme of "Envoy of Jerusalem." In this scene, we catch a glimpse of what is happening to the daughter of Balian's knight Sir Bartholomew in Aleppo. 

Beatrice prayed God for forgiveness as she brought the filthy linens to the laundry for the umpteenth time. Some part of her Christian soul knew that she ought to feel pity for the 14-year-old struggling to bring her baby into the world, but Fatima had been too heartless and selfish a mistress for Beatrice to feel anything but satisfaction. Imad ad-Din’s others wives were all older women, women he had married in his youth, women who had born him several children each and were in their own way not only weary but wise. Not one of them had been kind to Beatrice, but they had not be cruel either. They recognized that she was a slave because of misfortune beyond her control. For them it was simply the will of Allah that she had to accept no less than they did.

Fatima, on the other hand, came to the household after the death of Imad ad-Din’s second wife. At 13 she was still very young, but she had rapidly recognized that her 60-something husband was smitten with her. He had lavished gifts on her, seemed unable to deny her any wish, and neglected his other wives in his eagerness to savor her charms. The knowledge that she was the master’s favorite rapidly went to her head. She relished showing the other wives that she could get whatever she wanted, while they were rebuked for their “greed” and “covetousness,” if they asked for the smallest thing. She ate in front of them the ice and figs they had been denied, and she laughed and stuck out her tongue when the First Wife tried to rebuke her.

To the slaves she had been even worse, of course. No one ever pleased her, and she threw temper tantrums that included not only throwing things at whoever offended her but also scratching their skin with her excessively long nails or spitting on them. She had taken particular pleasure in mocking Beatrice, calling her “my lady slut” and “my lady whore,” asking how many men it had been the night of her capture. Was it three or four or maybe even a dozen or a score? What had it been like having so many different men inside you, one after the other? Had she been able to climax for them all? Her questions had been so shocking that the First Wife had intervened, chiding Fatima for immodesty and sending Beatrice away to spare her further indignity. But Fatima had pursued the game again when the others were out of hearing.

Beatrice straightened and put her hands to the small of her aching back. “Christ forgive me,” she muttered, “but I hope she dies and her little Muslim brat with her!” With a sigh, she reached for the clean linens, stacked neatly on shelves outside the laundry. She had stacked them there herself after taking them down from the line this morning and folding them exactly as instructed. (When she first came, she had often been slapped or kicked for doing things the Frankish way.) As she took the clean sheets, she was reminded of the effort that went into making them so — something she had not appreciated in her former life. Clean linens had simply been her right as a lady, and laundresses were an almost unseen part of the household. They were generally widows and other poor women, who were allowed to sleep in a dormitory and eat at the bottom of the table in exchange for keeping clean the underclothes, bedclothes and tablecloths of their lord, his family and retainers.  

But just this morning she had stood for hours over a cauldron full of boiling water, stirring the clothes as the steam drenched her in sweat and scalded her hands. The lye soap stank and stung, and the smell of it up close almost chocked her. The skin of her hands was permanently red and rough from the exposure to the damp heat and lye steam. She avoided looking at them now because they made her sad. Once, she had loved her long fingered-hands adorned with rings….

She entered the long, dingy corridor between the laundry courtyard and the haram, and was startled when the delivery door suddenly crashed open and people poured inside. They were chattering Arabic much too fast for her to understand it (although she now understood most orders and many ordinary conversations). An elderly woman was removing her veils, now that she was inside, and handing them off to the woman behind her, as she questioned the eunuch leading her toward the haram. She was dressed in very rich robes decorated with strands of gold, Beatrice noted with wistful envy. Most notable, her tone of voice was commanding; she was obviously a First Wife in some important man’s household, Beatrice concluded. 

The next instant, she was distracted by the realization that the woman trailing her, who had now removed her veils as well, was blond! More than that, she looked familiar. “Jesus God and all his Saints! Constance!” She called out in utter amazement.

The woman spun about startled, and then let out a cry of recognition so piercing it stopped her mistress and the eunuch in their tracks. They turned back angrily and saw the two Christian slaves fall into each other arms. A moment later they chattering in French, oblivious — and utterly indifferent — to the disapproval of the others. 

“Beatrice! Beatrice!” the new-comer gasped, clinging to her. “I never thought I would see you again! Oh, sister! What of your children?”

Beatrice clung to her younger sister as tears streamed down her face. “Don’t ask. Let us be thankful for this moment instead.”

Constance was suddenly crying too. Her heartrending wails came from the depths of her heart as she folded her head upon her sister’s breast and sobbed like a little child. She did not see the look of astonishment on her mistress’ face, much less hear the sharp question from the eunuch demanding an explanation.

“She is my sister,” Beatrice told him, meeting his glare firmly. “You may flog me till I die, if you like, or kick me ‘till my guts spill out my mouth, but you will not stop me from holding my own sister!”

“Leave them!” Constance’s mistress snapped. “We have more important things to do!” She swept on to see to her sister-in-law, leaving the Christian slaves alone in the hall.

My three-part biographical novel is dedicated to bringing Balian, his age and society "back to life." 

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