Eskinder started at the sight of his youngest son. He seemed to have grown six inches and matured a year in the past three months. The young man standing opposite him was tall, lean, and very poised.
“Did you get Lady Bella to safety?”
“Yes, Father. That first day, just as you ordered, and then twice afterwards Jens and I slipped out of the castle by night and collected information.”
Eskinder frowned. “Is that what you were told to do or did you two go off on adventures of your own?” Without even waiting for an answer, he admonished sharply. “I told you to do what Master Olaf said!”
“But, Father, I was helping. Sergeant Gautier himself came to get me when I broke my ankle!”
“What? Because of you, Sergeant Gautier had to leave his post? Whatever did you do? No, don’t tell me now, as I see Lord Balian coming, and I want to be able to face him without shame.”
“But, Father, please listen to me. I want to be like Uncle Dawit. I want to become a knight, and if you ask Lord Balian—”
“What nonsense is this? You’re a stablemaster’s son. Isn’t that good enough for you anymore? If I’d known you’d let a little independence go to your head, I would not have let you stay. I’ll hear no more of this nonsense!”
There was time for no more argument because Lord Balian had reached the foot of the steep winding path from the southern barbican and nudged Damon for a short canter to bring him to Eskinder faster. He swung himself down from the stallion. As Eskinder went down on one knee respectfully, Balian pulled him to his feet and embraced him like a long lost brother.
“Ato Eskinder!” Balian used the Ethiopian title of respect which he had learned as a child from his father. “God is my witness; you are the savior of the House of Ibelin! My father reports that we lost nearly all our horses at the disaster at Casal Imbert. We still have many good knights, squires, and sergeants, but what good are all those men without horses? For want of horses and ships, we are trapped here while Filangieri plunders King Henry’s kingdom, besieges his sisters, and seizes our own ladies. Our hands have been tied—until now. You have ridden to our rescue like St. George himself!”
Lord Balian’s effusiveness embarrassed the Ethiopian. He answered diffidently, “I was only doing my duty, Lord Balian, as my father did for your grandfather.”
“While the rest of the town surrendered!” Lord Balian retorted, the bitterness still evident in his voice. “It may have been your duty as you saw it, but the fact remains that you have rendered my House and King Henry a service of immeasurable value. Indeed, given our desperate finances, neither my father nor the King will be able to reward you as you deserve. If you have any favor that is not material, however, I would grant it to you now.” Balian cast a smile in Jusef ’s direction, but the youth looked down miserably knowing already his father’s answer.
“Lord Balian, I did not remove or return the horses for the sake of reward. These are your father’s horses that he entrusted to me. By looking after them, I sought only to do my duty as God would have me.”
Lord Balian nodded and responded in the same earnest tone as Eskinder. “Would you make me or the House of Ibelin seem ungrateful, arrogant, and dishonorable? That would surely be the case, if we fail to reward our most loyal men.”
“If you insist, my lord, I do have a request,” Eskinder conceded at last.
“Please,” Lord Balian prompted.
“I have a sister, Tsion. Your father may remember her. She grew up in Ibelin and she married a Frankish knight, Sir Gabriel. He died on the last sortie from Jerusalem, when your grandfather tried to kill Saladin in his tent. After the surrender of Jerusalem, my father took her and my brother Dawit’s widow back to Ethiopia with him. Dawit’s widow looked after my father like a daughter until he died and has now been called to God herself, but Tsion remarried and had a new family. In her old age, however, she longs to come to what she still calls “home”—to the Holy Land. She wants to join a convent and die here. She can travel with one of the groups of Ethiopian pilgrims that follow the Nile and take a ship from Alexandria, but she does not want to make such a long trip surrounded by strangers. She would like to bring one of her granddaughters with her. She has held back from following her heart for fear of what will happen to a lone Ethiopian maiden so far from home. She wrote me asking to give my great niece a home and find her a good husband. I did not want to promise anything without your permission—”
“Of course, your great niece is welcome! I will personally see that she has an adequate dowry when the time comes. Surely there is more I could do?” Again, he glanced at Jusef, but the youth kept his eyes down and Eskinder insisted there was no more he wanted.
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