“I CAN HANDLE HIM! I CAN handle him!” John insisted furiously.
It was a beautiful, sunny day, and Balian was taking a patrol into the surrounding countryside for forage and reconnaissance. John had asked not only to come along, but to ride Balian’s aging destrier, Centurion.
The request wasn’t completely unreasonable. There had been no sign of the enemy since January. Many refugees had moved outside the walls of Tyre and were gradually building a substantial (if indefensible) town of adobe, wood, and stone on the mainland. Ibelin, meanwhile, had fenced off pasture for his horses and was trying to keep them and his knights fit and trained. They had a riding ring for training the young horses, a tiltyard to hone their own skills, and an archery range for the archers. John came out with the men every day and had ridden Centurion in the ring many times.
With the loss of their land, neither Ibelin nor Maria Zoë had any income, but they still had substantial expenses. Maria Zoë had cleverly exploited the insecurity of the ruling despot of Cyprus (a distant relative who styled himself “Emperor of Cyprus” and claimed to represent the “legitimate” Emperor against the usurper in Constantinople) to sell her coronation crown at an enormous price. Her crown had come from the Imperial treasury in Constantinople, was Greek in style, and had been part of her dowry. Sibylla, naturally, had been crowned with the traditional Latin crown of Jerusalem, and Maria Zoë had retained possession of her crown—until she sold it to Isaac Comnenus.
The proceeds of this sale would keep the whole household clothed, fed, and equipped for at least six months, but Balian had been quick to point out that she had only one crown to sell. Maria Zoë countered that she next planned to sell to the Cypriot “Emperor” her jewel-studded coronation robes for his wife or daughter. But the sale of his wife’s jewels could never be more than a stopgap, and Ibelin was obsessed with finding a sustainable means of maintaining his family and household. He placed his hopes in his horses.
Trained destriers often cost a knight’s annual income, even in the West. Good destriers commanded an even higher price in Outremer, because many horses failed to survive the rigors of sea travel or the climate and conditions once they arrived. As a result, many a rich and powerful nobleman—and many more knights—found themselves without a mount in Outremer. A knight or noble without a horse was worthless. New arrivals had been known to pay half a fortune for little better than a broken-down nag.
There had been a steady stream of promises of help from the West, and some early recruits, like Haakon Magnussen, had already trickled in, but Ibelin hoped that when the Mediterranean opened again for long-range traffic, the trickle would become a flood. If he could have several first-rate destriers ready for sale, he calculated, the combined proceeds from Maria Zoë’s jewels and his horses would to get them through a full year or more. After that, it was a matter of breeding and training more colts indefinitely.
The barony of Ibelin had had a good stud, and Shoreham and Maria Zoë between them had rescued the bulk of the brood mares and some of the older colts. Although they had lost some of the older stallions and mares and the youngest foals (those not able to travel at the pace or distance required), they had the makings of a good herd.
That said, Ibelin had lost his younger destrier, and he and all his knights had lost their palfreys at Hattin, so they were themselves very short of horses. The bulk of his grooms had preferred to continue to Tripoli and Antioch, so Ibelin, his knights, and their squires had to do the training themselves. Not all of them were suited to the task.
With Ibelin concentrating on training two promising three-year-old colts, exercising Centurion had fallen to the eager John. Balian had been pleased to discover that John not only loved horses, but was a natural rider. He seemed glued to the saddle (once he managed to get into it), and he had rapidly developed a rapport with the old warhorse, who (Balian swore inwardly) was more docile and calm for John than ever he had been for Balian.
Still, Centurion had always been prone to shying when confronted with something unexpected or new. The first time he’d seen the sea almost a decade earlier, he’d nearly killed both Balian and himself in his panicked about-face and bolt across the dunes near Ibelin. Furthermore, this was a reconnaissance patrol, and there was always the risk of running into the enemy. With the weather improving, Salah ad-Din, too, might feel it was time to resume the offensive. For a start, Salah ad-Din was known to be besieging Belfort Castle, which still held out under Reginald de Sidon.
“The only way to find out if John can handle Centurion in open country is to try,” Eskinder suggested (unhelpfully, from Balian’s perspective).
Balian snapped back, “It was because Ernoul couldn’t handle Thor that I was late to the rendezvous at Le Fevre, which led to the massacre at the springs of Cresson, which in turn led to—”
“The fall of the Kingdom, no doubt,” Sir Bartholomew interrupted with a wink at John. “We know. It was all Ernoul’s fault. But now there’s no kingdom left to lose. Let John come along. The sooner he learns about reconnaissance, the better.”
“We can bring him home at the first sign of trouble,” Sir Galvin chimed in.
“Please, my lord!” John pleaded earnestly, using the formal “my lord” as he always did in front of his father’s knights, and stroking Centurion’s neck.
There was no point threatening punishment if something went wrong. If something went wrong it would bring a catastrophe worse than any punishment. Fearing that he was losing his nerve and turning into an old woman, Ibelin reluctantly agreed.
John beamed at him and scrambled up on the mounting block to fling himself into the saddle. Ibelin signaled for Eskinder to bring him one of the colts he was training, and within minutes they were riding out onto the road, a party almost fifty strong. They wore hauberks but no chausses, and although they rode with their coifs over their heads, their helmets hung from their pommels. They were not expecting trouble, but they were prepared for it.
They rapidly left behind the large, flat apron around Tyre, still scarred by the perimeter ditches and improvised mud walls of the Sultan’s army. The entire area was littered with discarded equipment and broken weapons. It had been a trampled morass throughout January, but it was now sprouting grass, a testimony to how rapidly the land recovered on this fertile, coastal plain.
As they turned onto the road leading north to Sidon, Beirut, and Tripoli, the footing became harder, enabling the company to take up a trot. John rode between his father and Sir Bartholomew. Centurion, used to leading, snapped irritably when the younger horse edged a little ahead of him. The young stallion flattened his ears and snapped back, causing Centurion to squeal and swing his haunches for a kick.
“Get your horse back under control!” Ibelin ordered his son sharply, “Or I’ll send you right back to the stables!”
“But—” John started to protest, then he clamped his mouth shut. Still glaring at his father, he bent and told Centurion: “Behave yourself, or we’ll both be sent home!”
The knights around them laughed, but Ibelin did so ruefully. He’d always talked to Centurion, too.
“The outer town is growing up very fast,” remarked one of the younger knights, looking over his shoulder at the improvised city spreading north along the coast.
“I’ve heard some of the refugees who first continued to Tripoli have returned,” another knight reported. “They prefer to live out here where they have more space and can plant kitchen gardens. They figure if Salah ad-Din returns, they’ll still have time to get back inside Tyre.”
Ibelin reflected inwardly that all that depended on how suddenly and stealthily the enemy attacked. But that was not his problem, he told himself, turning his attention to the countryside around them. It was green from the winter rains and already going wild—although some men had found plows and draft horses and were starting to till the coastal plain all the way to the banks of the Litani. It was good, fertile soil—just as at Ibelin, Balian reflected—but it was very late for planting, and success would depend on late rains.
At this thought he searched the skies, and registered that rain might indeed be in the offing. It was certainly worth trying to farm, he reflected. While the land belonged to the Archbishop of Tyre and the men tilling it would owe him rent, the prices they would command with their harvest—if they had one—would more than compensate them.
Ibelin was so distracted by the men attempting to cultivate the soil so late in the season that Sir Galvin saw them first. With a grunt of alarm he called out, “Riders! Coming down the Litani from the east!”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish