Baldwin looked back at Balian with wide, serious eyes. “And you aren’t afraid to catch my illness?” he asked bluntly.
“The good archdeacon assures me we can take precautions to prevent it.”
Baldwin turned instantly to the archdeacon to ask, “If it’s not so dangerous, why can’t my sister and stepmother come to visit me?”
“Because should your illness prove to be incurable, the future of the kingdom is in their hands. Now, it seems to me you should stop complaining about what you don’t have and rejoice in Sir Balian’s presence and his willingness to take chances for your sake instead,” the churchman reminded the prince firmly.
Baldwin looked duly chastened, biting down on his lip as he looked at his feet for a moment, but then he faced Balian and announced forthrightly, “I’m sorry, sir. I did not mean to be discourteous or ungrateful. Tell me more about what I will have to do. I’ve never seen men ride without using their hands.”
“Perhaps not, but you know the Turks and our turcopoles are mounted archers; they use their bows while charging at a gallop. They guide their horses entirely with their knees, calves, and the weight of their bodies because they need both hands for their bows.”
“That’s true!” Baldwin agreed eagerly, his eyes brightening again; he was starting to believe what Balian promised. “And you can do that? Are you a mounted archer? I thought you were a knight.”
“I am, but I have mastered mounted archery as well.”
“Oh! And you can teach me to ride like the turcopoles, with just my legs?”
Balian nodded, “I can try.”
“When can we start? Can we start today?” Baldwin turned automatically to the archdeacon for permission.
Balian laughed at his enthusiasm and tried to curb it. “My lord, this is going to take a very long time, and the first step is finding a suitable mount. Not all horses are sensitive, intelligent, and devoted enough. Together we will have to find a palfrey that not only can but also wants to do the job.”
“Can we go do that now?” Baldwin turned again to Tyre and pleaded earnestly, “Please, Master William, please! Let us go to the stables right now. I can catch up on my other lessons tomorrow. It’s been a whole year since I was anywhere near horses. Please let me go with Sir Balian?”
“You are getting ahead of yourself, my lord. Sir Balian has only explained the process. I’m sure this will take some time to organize, and he will need to talk again to your father first. Am I right, Sir Balian?”
“Yes, I will need to find several horses that are suitable, and then, at a time when the stables are not busy, we can go down together and see which of the horses Prince Baldwin likes best.”
Baldwin’s disappointment was so tangible that Balian felt compelled to offer some form of consolation. “My lord, with the archdeacon’s permission, I could explain a little more about what we’ll be looking for. Shall we sit down for a moment?” He indicated the window seat flanking the window through which the sunlight spilled.
William nodded his agreement, and Balian led the way, expecting Baldwin to sit opposite him. Instead, Baldwin plumped down beside him, their thighs touching. The physical contact set a panicked shock through Balian. He was touching a leper! His instinctive reaction was to leap up and increase the distance between them, but he couldn’t. Baldwin’s action had been too innocent, too spontaneous and, more importantly, an inarticulate plea for human contact. Baldwin might be the heir to the throne, but he was also a ten-year-old boy who had been isolated for over a year. The archdeacon was undoubtedly a good and kindly man, but he was an elderly intellectual. Baldwin was desperately lonely. He craved physical contact and human warmth.
Balian heard Hugh’s voice in his head. “Compassion—not prowess, nobility, or even piety—is the greatest virtue of a knight.” Hugh had just returned from Spain and he’d been reflecting on it. “People make such a fuss about chivalry these days,” he’d had grumbled. “All this talk of ‘perfect, gentle knights’ just obscures the fact that knighthood is about protecting the weak. Protecting the weak and showing compassion for the poor, the sick, the defeated, and the brokenhearted….” Balian reached out and put his arm around Baldwin and gave him a quick, firm hug, just as Hugh had done when he was a boy of this age.
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