The sound of children cascaded over the wall of the little complex and Balian had to ring twice before someone came to the gate. At the sight of him, Lady Morphia’s face lit up and she exclaimed, “Praise be to Our Lord!” Then she turned and called, “Lady Bella! Lady Bella! It’s your brother, home safe!” before remembering to open the gate and let Balian in.
Bella had been with the children. She straightened and looked over frowning slightly—until she realized Lady Morphia was talking about Balian rather than Johnny. She ran to him then, opening her arms and flinging herself into his with so much enthusiasm she nearly knocked him off his feet. “Balian! Balian! I was so afraid! I thought I might never see you alive again! I could have killed you for charging after Filangieri, almost alone! The archers could have killed you! They nearly did kill you! And I was watching the whole thing! It was horrible! Oh, Balian, hold me!” She dropped her head on his chest and started sobbing her heart out.
“It’s alright, Bella,” Balian soothed swaying back and forth as he did when he held Yvette sometimes. “It’s alright. Everything’s—well, no, not really. But for the moment, there is nothing to fear.”
“Oh, I’m being so silly.” Bella tried to pull back, ashamed of herself for letting go, but now Balian held her fast.
“Let me hold you,” he told her gently.
She relaxed in his arms and let him hold her, her own emotions gradually calming as she felt his steady breathing and could inhale the smell of him, the unique mixture of leather and horse sweat combined with the rosemary-scented soap he used, even when travelling. She loved her “dandy” brother for being so meticulous. As her own explosion of feelings faded, however, her brain and instincts started working. Something was wrong. “Balian? What’s wrong? Is Father—or Baldwin? Hugh? Guy?” She had so many brothers to worry about!
“As far as I know, they are all fine, Bella.”
“As far as you know? Aren’t they here with you?”
“No. I was in Tripoli with just five knights trying to lure the Prince of Antioch into our camp, but he didn’t take the bait.”
“Isabella of Cyprus.”
“Oh. And Father?”
“Father and our other brothers went to Acre, where, rumor has it, they were very well received and are raising funds, troops, and ships. Evidently, so successfully, that Filangieri gave up. I don’t know the details. I was cut off from everything in Tripoli.”
“Balian?” She looked up at him. “What’s the matter?”
He dropped a kiss on her upturned nose. “I’m afraid that my devout sister may never speak to me again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been excommunicated, Bella. By the pope himself.”
“My god!” Bella drew back from his arms and gaped at him in genuine shock. “Whatever have you done?” She asked in horror, terrified for his soul.
“It is reassuring to note that you assume I have done something to deserve this,” Balian remarked dryly. The hurt in his eyes made Bella cry out and reach for him, but Balian drew back. “No. Keep your distance. I wouldn’t want to endanger your soul too.”
“Balian! Stop it! Please! Give me a chance to understand. Tell me what you’ve done.”
“Marry Eschiva de Montbèliard—with your approval, as I recall—and refuse to set her aside, much less repent my marriage and do penance!”
“But you had a dispensation!”
“From the Papal Legate. The Pope has overridden him.”
Bella took only a second to absorb that before she threw herself back into her brother’s arms. “Then he’s a fool and a puppet of the Holy Roman Emperor!”
Balian took her back gladly but asked softly. “Are you sure about this, Bella? You’ll stand by me despite the risk it may bring to your soul?”
“A thousand times, Balian! A million times! Oh, Balian! What of Eschiva? She must feel totally alone! Worse, she may feel abandoned or discarded! She will despair! Have you been able to get word to her that you stand by her?”
“Then that’s the first thing we must do,” Bella concluded firmly.
Not a trace of doubt or self-pity remained in any bone of her body. The chance to do something positive after the helplessness of the long siege reinvigorated her. Bella felt as restored to life as Balian felt grateful for her support.
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