Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The King Who Would Be Saint: Excerpt from St. Louis' Knight

The king was not alone, but Eleanor was far too tense to take note of anyone else. She was only vaguely aware that there were far too many priests and monks and far too few knights. She could sense the presence of the Inquisition, whispering insidious things about her into the king’s ears, while the shortage of fighting men underlined the king’s hopeless situation. His brothers had sailed for home the day before, and they had been some of the last of the crusaders to depart. Surrounding King Louis now were not French but local barons, men who could not sail away because their land ― what was left of it ― was here, and officers of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller.
Eleanor kept her eyes fixed on the king. He was tall and blond with a strong resemblance to the Count of Poitiers, except that the king was much thinner and frailer. Poitiers looked like the kind of man who earned his living with the sword; the king looked like a monk. He was dressed simply for a king too, with none of Poitiers bright-colored clothes and glittering jewels. He was not wearing a crown or any form of collar. His belt, while tastefully made of brass and enamel disks, would not have been inappropriate on a merchant's waist. He wore no armor, but a long blue robe dusted with the lilies of France, over a silk shirt of a lighter blue. He wasn’t even wearing boots and spurs, Eleanor registered, with a pang of remembrance and a futile wish to be back on Cyprus with Sir Geoffrey at her side.
Perhaps it was this moment of inattention, or just the fact that she was so tense, but her foot caught on the edge of a carpet and she pitched forward headlong. As she tried to recover, the carpet slid on the polished marble floor and she crashed down on her hip so hard the thump was audible throughout the room. She gasped in pain and then felt what seemed like a dozen hands reaching out, voices asking if she was alright. Had she hurt herself? She tried to get up, assuring everyone that she was fine, but no one paid her any attention. Strong hands had hold of her and were guiding her to a seat, ordering her to sit down. “I’m so sorry,” she stammered, “I’m so sorry.”
The hands were warm and dry and reassuring. “Just sit and catch your breath, my dear,” the voice said gently.
A chalice with wine was pressed into her trembling hands. “Sip this. It will calm your nerves.”
Eleanor accepted the wine out of embarrassment, and grateful for anything that deferred the ultimate confrontation with the king. It had been bad enough with the Count of Poitiers in an old-fashioned gown, but to have stumbled and fallen was even worse. She was certain the king was watching this ridiculous drama with impatience.
And then she realized that the hand offering the cup of wine had a signet ring with lilies of France on it. She froze. The sleeves of the gown beyond the wrist were blue. Her eyes crept up toward the elbows to the broader sleeves of the gown: dark blue powered with lilies. She looked up and straight into kindly blue eyes. “Your Grace!” Eleanor gasped and tried to get up again so she could courtesy.
“Just relax,” The king ordered her. “You may have injured yourself more than you know.”
“But ― “
“Hush.” He insisted, his eyes smiling at her. When she went still, he pressed the wine on her again, remarking, “As my ward, child, you are as a daughter to me, and I intend to do my best to make up for the hardships you have already endured. I hope you are not too disappointed not to be going home with my beloved brother of Poitiers?”
“Home, your Grace?” Eleanor was still too disoriented to fully grasp how she had come to sit next to her worst enemy. The mention of home, however, roused the dead, and she realized with horror she was drinking from the king’s blood soaked hand. It was as if she the blood of her brothers had colored the wine he held. She drew back, fighting the temptation to let herself get seduced by his superficial kindness. “How can I ever go home?” she asked, seeing her brother Roger’s face, “when everyone I loved is dead? Killed, not by the Saracen, but by ―” on the brink of saying “you” she stopped herself and substituted “France.”
King Louis caught his breath, and Eleanor winced, expecting him to slap her for so much impudence. When the blow did not come, she held her breath and waited for the inevitable anger that would bring the full weight of royal fury down upon her head. Now it was her brother Henri, who spoke in a tone of desperate sadness, “Oh, Nel! How could you do that! Why insult a king to his face?”
Still King Louis did not answer. He considered her intently, while Eleanor looked down at her hands, clutching her skirts in her lap. Then he took a sip of his own wine before remarking. “I was still a boy when my father died; I became very dependent upon the advice of my mother. My mother saved my kingdom for me ― from Flanders, from the Plantagenets, from the rebellious barons Hugh de Lusignan and Peter de Dreux. Who was I to doubt her, when she said I must crush the rebellion of the Count of Toulouse? I do not mean to place blame on someone else, but I would like you to consider the fact that a king too must learn his trade. Your brother Roger murdered unarmed men of God, but your brother Henri, had he not died in prison, would have been pardoned.”
“I loved my mother too, your grace,” Eleanor countered softly but intensely, “And you burned her at the stake.”
The silence in the chamber was so intense Eleanor could hear the voices of the gardeners in the courtyard. She could feel the stares of all the other men in the room, sense their outrage.
Louis nodded slowly, and his eyes searched her face. She did not dare meet those eyes. She looked down at her hands; she had unconsciously wrapped her left hand in her skirts to cover the ugly burn scar on the palm.
“Will you try to forgive me?” The king asked softly, and Eleanor snapped her head up in astonishment. Their eyes met, and she felt her heart start to quaver. He meant it. He was asking for her forgiveness.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…” It was her mother’s voice in her head now. Her mother, who taught that forgiving the sins of others was the basis of all Grace. “Did Christ clothe himself in gold and jewels and ask his disciplines to bow down to him? Did he ask for praise and flattery?” she asked rhetorically. “No! All he asks is that we forgive the sins of others, if we expect Him to forgive our own.”
“Yes, your Grace,” Eleanor heard herself saying in a weak but clear voice that carried across the room. “Yes. I will try to forgive you.”
Suddenly, she and the King of France were smiling at each other.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Fisherman: Excerpt from St. Louis' Knight

What am I doing here? Geoffrey asked himself with a searing flash of guilt.  The images from Mansourah clamored in the back of his brain. The screaming of the wounded horses, the shouts of the triumphant enemy, the gasping of Master de Sonnac in his arms… They were all dead. All of his comrades, and the King of France was a prisoner…. How could he be standing here on a peaceful beach listening to the laughter of simple fishermen, as if there had never been a crusade? Much less a catastrophic defeat?

The most dangerous thing on earth is a man who thinks he talks to God, Master de Sonnac said inside his head.
Geoffrey reached for the hilt of his sword, wrapping his hand around the crystal vial holding St. John’s bones and tried to feel the presence of the Saint. But how could he expect the saint to favor him with Grace and presence, when he was still so bitter about what had happened in Egypt? When he did not want to accept God’s Will? Because that was the real problem: he didn’t want to believe that God could want what had happened….
Someone seemed to be approaching him from the beach. Had another boat put in later than the others? Geoffrey made a quick count. Yes, there were now seven boats moored side-by-side.
The man coming towards him was dressed like the other fishermen in a loose linen shirt, bound with twine at the waist, over baggy trousers rolled up to the knee. He walked barefoot toward Geoffrey with an uncanny self assurance, as if he met armored knights at the village shed every evening. “God be with you, my friend,” he greeted Geoffrey in a deep, melodic voice.
“And also with you,” Geoffrey replied automatically.
The man smiled gently. “Will you not join me for the feast?” He asked.
“Of course,” Geoffrey answered confused. How could the late comer know about the feast? Then again, the smell of roasting kid reached all the way to here, as did the laughter and the voices. Geoffrey looked around for Petrus and fisherman answered his gesture by pointing to the shadow of Petrus already scampering up the incline to the village, “the boy has gone ahead.”
Geoffrey nodded absently and fell in beside the fisherman.
When they reached the tables, the fisherman gestured to an empty space at the very end of the table, and asked, “Will you break bread with me?”
“Of course,” Geoffrey answered without thinking.
“Wait for me here, I’ll be right back.”
Geoffrey did as he was bid, while the fisherman withdrew into the darkness beyond the range of the lamps on the table.... 
The fisherman returned to Geoffrey. “You are Sir Geoffrey de Preuthune?” He asked.
“Yes,” Geoffrey conceded.
“Ah! Then I beg you to bless me, sir.”
“Bless you? I’m a knight, not a monk. I did not take my vows,” Geoffrey admitted, nervously aware of his guilt.
The man smiled, “But you carry St. John the Baptist’s hand with you. I would be honored to be blessed by the hand that has held the saint’s in his.”
Geoffrey was embarrassed, conscious of his unworthiness. “I assure you, good fisherman, I am not fit to bless you. The sword was only loaned to me until it can be returned to its rightful owner. I am a sinner.”
“As are we all,” the man answered knowingly. “Here,” he had brought a loaf of bread with him and a jug of wine. He tore the end off the loaf and handed it to Geoffrey. “Eat this in remembrance of Him that gave His flesh for the sake of all sinners.”
Geoffrey was so startled by this mockery of the Mass that he knocked over his cup. The red wine splashed onto the table and splattered his white surcoat with bright red drops. “His blood that was shed for thee,” the fisherman intoned.
“This is not the Mass!” Geoffrey reproached the fisherman sharply.
“Isn’t it?” He answered calmly. “Didn’t Christ break bread on the banks of Galilee with the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John? Didn’t he drink wine with them and laugh together as the stars grew bright in the night sky?” He gestured to the glittering heavens overhead. “Do not seek God only in the houses men have built for Him, sir; seek Him rather in the cathedral He built Himself,” the fisherman opened his arms wide in a gesture that took in the world around them.