“SIR BALIAN! COME QUICK! THERE’S BEEN an accident!” The voice was breathless from the exertion of taking the stone stairs two at a time.
Balian frowned and looked up from the deed he was holding. His elder brother had tasked him with settling a bitter dispute between two of their tenants, which turned on whether a half-dozen acres given as a dower portion could be inherited by sons of a second marriage. Balian was digging through the barony records in search of the land title, and was loath to be interrupted. “What, then?” Balian demanded of the speaker, one of the young grooms, not yet convinced this was something serious.
“My lord’s horse has just galloped over the drawbridge without him.”
That got Balian’s attention: his elder brother was not the kind of man to be unhorsed easily, as he had proved often enough in battle and joust. But he was over fifty now, and his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela two years earlier had left him with a chest ailment that gnawed at his health. On the other hand, today’s mishap might have been an ambush of some kind. Robber bands and renegades still operated in the mountains to the east, and they might have come down onto the plain because the winter had been harsh and they were short of supplies. It would be just like his brother to try to stop the looting of one of his villages—even if he were alone with no one but a young and inexperienced squire in attendance. Hugh d’Ibelin was nothing if not courageous.
Whatever had happened, Balian was determined to find out. He pounded down the spiral stairs and careened into the castle ward. The stallion had raced home for the safety of his stall, but he felt guilty for leaving his rider behind and so was now tearing around between the keep and the outer walls, trying to avoid the increasing number of grooms and men-at-arms trying to catch him. Balian joined the others, anxious to see if the horse was wounded—or covered in his brother’s blood.
They were so focused on catching the horse that they didn’t notice the man who came running over the drawbridge and collapsed, panting, just inside the barbican, until he called out: “Lord Balian! Lord Balian! Come quick! The Baron is badly injured.”
Balian turned to look at the man in surprise that rapidly turned to horror as the words sunk in. The messenger’s long kaftan and sandals marked him as a tenant farmer from one of the Syrian villages, and the wooden cross hanging around his neck marked him as a Christian as well. “What happened?” Balian demanded in Arabic, but then turned to order one of the grooms to saddle his fastest horse before turning back to the breathless farmer.
The farmer shook his head. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. It happened near the crossroads.” He gestured and spoke in a rush of Arabic too fast for Balian, whose command of the language was limited. Balian grasped intuitively, however, that this man was just the last in a chain of runners. The accident had taken place several miles away, and word had been sent by improvised relays of men passing the message on when they could run no farther. What Balian didn’t understand was why his brother’s squire had not come with the news himself. Was the squire or his horse also injured?
“Alexis!” Balian called out to his brother’s older, more experienced squire, who had been attracted by the commotion in the ward. The young man needed no further orders; he simply nodded and ran toward the stables for his own horse.
Within little more than ten minutes, Balian and Alexis set out for the place where the road to Ibelin crossed the main road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. They were armed and wearing hauberks in case there had been some kind of ambush. They also had fresh horses and set a fast pace, splashing through puddles on the road and cutting across country where they could do so without damaging crops. They skirted around villages of flat-roofed stone houses that stood out white against the lush, green fields. Just short of the main road, they caught sight of a horse tethered near a stand of palm trees beside the main road. There was no sign of any skirmish—no bodies, no lost equipment, not even torn-up turf. Beside the horse, however, Balian made out a figure sitting on the ground. The figure rose to his feet when he spotted the riders and came towards them, waving.
Balian drew up beside the squire. The youth looked up at him, deathly pale, and Balian could read the fear in his eyes. “Sir! Your brother’s gravely injured! Come quick!”
“So why didn’t you come yourself instead of sending farmers on foot?” Balian asked angrily.
“I—I didn’t think—I should leave my lord alone, sir. I’m sorry—”
Balian had already lost interest in the squire. He swung himself down from his stallion, Alexis following his lead, and strode to the imperfect shade of the palms, where Balian could see his brother laid out on his cloak. The sight made him catch his breath. His brother’s face was contorted with pain, and although the air was chilly, his skin was drenched in sweat. Balian dropped on one knee beside him. “Hugh! What happened?”
The injured man answered with a gasp, and then opened his eyes and found his younger brother’s face. “Thank God! Balian! Fetch me a priest!”
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