“PHILIP, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” A young, male voice called out anxiously.
Sir Philip of Novare couldn’t see the owner of the voice because his squire was trying to pry his misshapen great helm off his head—without taking half his face off with it. Philip had just lost a “friendly” joust. Although his opponent had used only a blunted mace, he’d still managed to bash in the side of Philip’s helm.
Philip was sweating profusely, as much from increasing panic as the heat of a Cypriot summer day. The air inside the helm seemed to grow thinner and thinner as his squire Andre twisted the metal pot to try to maneuver it past Philip’s chin. The pounding of his blood in his temples and the rasping of his breath seemed to echo inside the helmet, blotting out most other sounds. He could barely hear Andre answer the newcomer in an anxious, frightened voice. “I can’t get the helm off, sir.”
“Let me try,” the voice answered, coming nearer. “It’s me. Balian.”
“I can hardly breathe anymore, Bal,” Philip gasped.
Firm hands grasped the helmet, and a moment later the air flooded back into Philip’s lungs like a fresh breeze. Balian had twisted the helm so that both the eye slit and breathing holes were in position again. Their eyes met, and Philip could see the concern and question in Balian’s eyes.
“I’m fine—if I could just get this damned thing off!” Philip assured his friend.
Balian and he had just spent the last three years earning their spurs together. Yesterday, in an extravagant ceremony, they had been knighted by Balian’s father, the powerful Lord of Beirut, along with Balian’s younger brother Baldwin and five other youths. Today’s jousting was part of the three-day celebration, which would culminate in a full-scale melee pitting the barons and knights of Syria against those of Cyprus.
Balian was already seventeen and had long felt ready for the accolade of knighthood. Philip knew that Balian was both wounded and resentful that his father had delayed his knighting so long—and then knighted his fourteen-month-younger brother at the same time. Being so close in age, the brothers had always been rivals, but the intensity of their competition was aggravated by the fact that they were very different in temperament. Baldwin was like water to Balian’s fire—and took pleasure in dousing Balian’s enthusiasm and pride. Balian’s need to prove himself better than Baldwin in front of all the peers of the realm had provoked him into taking stupid risks this morning. Fortunately, he’d gotten away with them and ridden undefeated from the lists.
Under the circumstances, Philip thought, he might have been forgiven for basking in his hard-won glory and gloating a bit instead of coming down into the dusty tent-city to find out what had happened to his friend. After all, in addition to practically every baron and knight of Outremer, there were scores of ladies and maidens in the stands. Balian had the kind of good looks that appealed to women. By the way the maidens had been biting their fingernails at Balian’s near falls and cheering his successes, Philip could imagine all too vividly the way Balian would be adulated and adored by blushing young beauties the moment he joined the spectators. Instead, Balian hadn’t even taken the time to change out of his sweat-soaked gambeson and dusty surcoat.
“I think I better fetch an armorer, Philip,” Balian told Philip after a moment of inspection.
“He’ll want to cut it open!” Philip protested with a new kind of panic. Unlike Balian who was heir to the lordship of Beirut, son of one of the richest men in both Syria and Cyprus, Philip was an orphan. His father, a knight from Lombardy, had died during the first siege of Damietta when he was only twelve. A Cypriot, Sir Peter Chappe, had taken Philip under his wing, letting him serve as his page until Philip’s skill at reading earned him the patronage of a more powerful lord, Sir Ralph of Tiberias. The latter had been nearing death, however, and Philip had soon found himself without a lord, let alone a fief. Balian’s father had rescued him by bestowing a small Cypriot fief upon him and sending him to serve as a squire in his brother’s household, where he had met and befriended Balian. Philip had spent all the cash he could raise from his one fief just to outfit himself—and now his expensive helm was in risk of being ruined beyond repair.
“Very probably,” Balian agreed calmly, and Philip knew his friend just couldn’t understand. Balian’s armor had cost twice as much in the first place, and he wouldn’t have given a thought to replacing it on a whim. Balian didn’t hesitate to wear silk surcoats on the tiltyard either or buy a sword with an enameled pommel or a saddle with ivory inlays.
“Balian! I can’t afford a new helmet!” Philip protested in exasperation.
“You can’t exactly spend the rest of your life wearing that one either,” Balian retorted practically. “You can’t drink or eat in it for a start. I’m going to fetch the armorer. Andre?” He turned to his friend’s young, inexperienced and frightened squire.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Draw a cold bath for Sir Philip. When we get him out of that thing, he’s going to need to cool off. He very likely got a concussion and doesn’t even know it yet.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I’ll be right back, Philip,” Balian assured his friend, and ducked under the partially opened tent flap.
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