They closed around him, all speaking at once. “His horse galloped past us!” “His squire called for help!” “We can’t move him!”
“Is he still alive? Where is his squire?” Balian asked as he pushed past the peasants to go on one knee in the mud beside his brother. The reeds around his brother had been broken and trampled, but it was hard to know if it had happened in some incident before his fall or when the peasants came to his assistance.
Hugh’s face had been tanned and scarred by half a century in the Holy Land. It was now deathly pale and tense with pain. Balian could hear his brother’s rasping breath and reached out to take one of the calloused and aging hands.
Hugh flinched. Then his hand grasped Balian’s in a fierce grip, and his eyes flew open. “Balian?”
“Yes. It’s me. What happened? Where’s Alexis? How badly are you hurt?”
“Bad. Gottfried stumbled—cantering. Threw me—over his head. Landed—on my back. Can’t move—my legs.”
“Jesus God!” Balian crossed himself. Although the peasants could not understand the French the brothers were using, they understood Balian’s gesture and crossed themselves. Balian switched back to Arabic to tell them. “I need a stretcher.”
Hugh contradicted him. “Sent Alexis—Hospitallers.”
“The closest Hospitaller house is at Blanchegarde,” Balian protested. “That’s three times as far as Ramla.”
“Hospitallers,” was all his brother answered.
Balian did not argue. He looked helplessly at the peasants, conscious of the moisture soaking through his hose at the knee. His brother was lying on cold, moist earth that was chilling him. He needed warmth, yet Balian also knew that moving a man with a back injury could cause greater damage. The best he could do was remove his cloak and lay it over his brother.
As he tucked the cloak carefully around his brother’s shoulders, Hugh’s hand caught his wrist. He gasped out, “Balian?”
“I’m here, Hugh.”
“My son.” Hugh croaked out.
Balian was confused. Hugh had no son.
“You,” Hugh spoke again, gripping Balian’s wrist and looking at him intensely. “You—are—my son.” Balian had been born only a few months before his father’s death in 1150. He had been raised by Hugh, who was their father’s son by an earlier marriage and more than thirty years older. Their relationship had always been more like father and son than brothers.
“Want you—to have—Ibelin,” Hugh brought the words out between clenched teeth.
Balian stirred uneasily. He gently removed his wrist from Hugh’s grasp to take his hand instead. He laid this on Hugh’s chest without letting go and told his brother. “You’re not dead yet, Hugh. There’s no need—”
“Priest.” Hugh answered. Then turning his head, he switched to Arabic to ask if they’d sent for the priest.
“He’s coming!” “He’ll be here soon!” They assured him.
Hugh returned his attention to Balian. “Barry has—Ramla-Mirabel. You—should have—Ibelin.”
Hugh might want Balian to be his heir, but the laws of the kingdom recognized primogeniture. This made Balian’s elder brother Baldwin, (known as “Barry” in the family), Hugh’s legal heir. Barry could not be wished away. He was five years older than Balian, tall, powerfully built, and proud. More importantly, at his mother’s death when he was just 13, he had inherited the maternal barony of Ramla-Mirabel. As Barry’s guardian, Hugh had controlled the barony for two years, but as soon as Barry reached legal maturity at 15, the latter had taken control of his inheritance. Since then, he’d lived in Ramla as an independent lord with more wealth and more knights than Hugh at Ibelin. Barry was very conscious of his superior status, self-assured and, for as long as Balian could remember, condescending toward his “little” brother. Balian could not imagine Barry voluntarily surrendering Ibelin to him.
Still, there was no point in arguing with Hugh. He was in shock and pain, which made him fear death. Yet, although gravely injured, there was no reason to assume Hugh would die shortly. Men in his condition sometimes lingered for years. Hugh would not want that. He had always been an active man, fighting alongside their father in the early, precarious decades of the kingdom, distinguishing himself at the capture of Ascalon almost twenty years ago, and more recently taking a prominent role in the invasions of Egypt. No, Hugh would not want to be an invalid, but Balian could not believe there was no chance of recovery. Hugh was only 53 years old. He was strong, tenacious, and devout. Just this past summer, he’d traveled to Santiago de Compostela and returned determined to reconcile with Agnes. Balian couldn’t believe he would die any time soon.
“Balian?” Hugh’s voice broke through his thoughts again. “Do you remember when you lost your first communion cross—the one I’d had engraved—with your name and the date?”
“Of course, I remember,” Balian assured him, unsure why this triviality should be important now. “It was the first—and almost only—time you ever flogged me. I’d been careless with a precious gift.”
“You were seven. I overreacted.”
“I learned a valuable lesson.”
“So, did I. I shouldn’t have said I’d never give you another.”
“It’s alright, Hugh—
“My cross. The one my mother gave me….”
It took a second for Balian to understand, but then he reached inside his brother’s gambeson and shirt to pull out the simple cross Hugh had worn as long as he could remember. He placed the cross in Hugh’s hands, but Hugh shook his head. “I want—you to have it—to wear it.”
“Hugh you’re going to be fine. I’m going to get you to—”
“Please! Put it on. For love of me.”
Balian reluctantly opened the clasp so he could draw it off Hugh’s neck without moving his head or shoulders. He laid the cross on his own chest and closed the chain behind his neck.
Hugh seemed to relax after that, taking a deep breath before saying. “Don’t doubt—your worth. If Barry—forget Barry. Amalric.”
When he said no more, Balian prompted. “Amalric? You mean the king?”
“Yes. He owes me a favor.” Hugh paused, but this time Balian let him take his own time. “If Barry won’t—surrender Ibelin—to you. Go—to Jerusalem.”
“Yes, of course, but—”
“Balian!” Hugh’s hand clasped his fiercely, whether from pain or the intensity of his feelings Balian wasn’t sure. “Promise to feed at least a hundred paupers—at the funeral.”
“I promise, but it’s too soon to talk of funerals. I think I see the priest coming now—”
“Balian! Don’t forget. Sometimes—it’s alright—to break—the rules.”
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