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This week, we go back two centuries from medieval Italy, to medieval England - the setting for our interpretation of the St. George and the Dragon Legend, "Armor of Light," the first book in the "Ascalon Saga."
From "Armor of Light:"
For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
“IF YOU’VE no money to spend, best get on.”
Robert’s breath was wasted. The young stranger didn’t move and was still looking, hands on narrow hips when Robert repeated himself in a less than cordial tone. The stranger shook his head and waved a hand at the shelves. There were plenty of swords—enough to array the town guard—and the price was good. There was something for every kind of man at arms: broadswords, daggers, Robert had them all.
The sun crossed the smithy while this young man studied the cluttered shelves. Rays of winter sun threw dusty shafts of light over a head of tousled, golden hair that went from the brightest gold to burnished copper; they highlighted the dust and mud of a long journey on clothes that had seen better days. His cloak still showed signs of worth but it had been patched once too often and the back was faded, as if it had faced the sun for weeks. The white tabard beneath it was torn and rust-stained and on its breast, the crudely-repaired arm of a Crusader’s cross was visible through a threadbare spot in the cloak.
“Did you not hear me, sir? If you’ve no money, you’d best—”
The stranger reached for the topmost shelf and pulled a fine sword from under a heap of lesser weapons. He hefted the sword, testing its weight, and tried a few moves so that the sun flashed off it in bursts and sparks. Figure eights, broad circles, and flourishes caught Robert’s attention. He laid aside the polishing rag he’d been clutching in his fist and smoothed his leather apron as he came from behind the counter. Now that the stranger was an arm’s length away and in better light, he looked much younger and nobler than Robert supposed. The face was tanned and unlined, and his large, blue eyes looked like they were made of quartz. He heard it said that eyes were the windows to the soul, but this young man’s eyes were like mirrors. Robert could see his own face reflected back. There were no glimpses into his soul. There was something disturbingly familiar in the lad and Robert struggled to guess.
“I see you know the best, sir,” Robert murmured. “That sword’s never been used; it was made on commission by baron Waldric of Northumbria for Lord Thomas FitzHugh’s son, Oswin when he was struck knight. I suppose you’ve heard of them?”
“Thomas FitzHugh of Lichfield? I knew him. And his son. Oswin could never duck—neither in tilt yard nor on a field,” the stranger remarked as he examined the sword. “He was best suited for chanting psalms, you know, and his father, well, more than once he had a squire waiting at the edge of a battlefield with a horse ready to ride. With Waldric following close behind, of course. I suppose that’s why the sword is still here.”
Robert snorted, and then laughed outright. “Bold enough words! You didn’t know the FitzHughs are great lords in these parts?”
“I know the cut of their cloth—though your words are bold indeed to make them so great.”
“Well, if you knew them—”
“I knew enough of Oswin to know there wasn’t much left of him after—how much?”
He tried the sword again, this time throwing it into the air and catching it. On the third round, Robert reached for the sword and grabbed it by the leather-bound grip, fearing the worst—that some harm would come to his best-made weapon in the hands of this foolish lad.
“If you have to ask you can’t afford it. The silver and jewels in the pommel alone cost a gold angel!” Robert scoffed.
“How much for this? Would it be a fair exchange?”
The stranger unloosed the sword hanging from a sheath on his belt and offered it. Robert knew the sword—he’d made it almost thirty years ago and it looked all the worse for wear. The original leather and gold wire wrapping on the grip was replaced by rough cloth. There was a gaping hole where a large sapphire once sat in the pommel. The inscription along the blade’s fuller was worn down from honing and sharpening so that only the ‘A’ and ‘T’ of the scripture sentence he’d engraved with patience and dedication was decipherable.
Robert took a step back, sputtering as if the breath had been squeezed out of him, and dropped to one knee. “George Ascalon! My lord of Grasmere! Pardon! I didn’t know you—that is, I didn’t know you’d come home; there’ve been stories going ‘round about how you were put to death in Constantinople, so,”
“How much, sir? There’s not a tradesman in Grasmere who’d turn away a sovereign or angel, even if it came from a dead man like me.”
Robert dared to glance up. “Wha—?”
“I said, how much for my sword—in fair exchange?”
“That’s the sword I made for your father when he was struck knight!”
“It’s not doing him much good these days, is it?”
“And who’s to stop me?”
“Two angels, then!”
“Come, man! A sword like FitzHugh’s is worth at least five, and the sword of Ascalon has been valued at eight. I can give you six if it’s a better profit you want.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, that’s your father’s sword,” Robert said, nodding at the weapon in George’s right hand. “Why on earth would you want to sell it for something less? Why at all?”
“I thought that would be apparent to all in Grasmere.”
George Ascalon made ready to turn over his sword and paused, studying it. He glanced at the other for a longer moment and then carefully placed it back on the shelf. The sword of Ascalon went back into his scabbard. Robert made an exasperated sound, knowing he’d lost a sale that would thatch the roof and buy coal for the rest of the winter.
“Truly sir, I didn’t know it was you; it’s been a while, two, almost three years, hasn’t it? It’s been a long day—I wouldn’t have been so cross; I beg you, take no offense!”
A golden angel flew out of the young man’s palm and landed on the counter to spin wildly among swords laid out for repair. Robert snatched the precious coin before it sailed downward into the rushes.
“God speed,” George called over his shoulder. He made ready to leave and then wheeled about. “Is the Golden Vine still at the end of Butcher’s Lane?” he asked.
Robert nodded and came to the door, pointing the way up a lane flooded with the amber glow of a setting sun.
“Just beyond the glover’s. You’ll see the apothecary first.”
“Then I know the way.”
Robert nodded and watched the broad, straight back of the young man as he trod up the lane, waiting until he was a speck in a maze of wattle and daub cottages before slamming the shutters on the coming night.
The noise made George turn and look at the cottages and shops behind him. His eyes darted from dwelling to shop and back again, waiting. The shout for lights made him glance into the west. What caught his attention then was a formation of clouds over the lake. They drifted lazily together and finally met in one cohesive shape though it was hard to tell what the shape might be. First it was a boat, then a flower, and, at last, a beast of some kind. He paused a moment to study them and wheeled about, choosing to walk north toward Canterbury Street to a favorite haunt of past days, Deadman’s Last.
Two and a half years had passed since he left Grasmere, yet all was the same. Every cottage and shed seemed to have been preserved in winter ice and snow, slumbering in the intervening days. This impression was never more so apparent than when George approached the inn and tentatively pushed the door open.
He sucked in a breath of foul, greasy air as he entered the common room, the same stale air he’d inhaled a thousand times before. If he were to go into the kitchen, he’d find Joan the scullery sleeping close by the coals of a dying fire. The meat would still be on the spit, dry and tough from turning all afternoon; the small beer would be flat. The bread, if there was any, would be stale or moldy. And the girls . . .
Ah, the girls.
The common room was filled with travelers stopping for the night and a few found spaces on the floor beside a hearth that belched clouds of smoke. George glanced about and saw Will Draper, the weaver from Kettle Lane, sitting at a table by the kitchen door. Beside him, as always, was Stephen Black, the sheriff of Cumbria. Off in the corner beside the hearth was the only vacant table in the room with an empty trencher and cup laid out. A lamp over it glowed like a beacon. George made his way through the cluster of patrons and sat down at the table. When he raised the cup, a perfect, dark circle lay underneath. He took the lamp off its hook on the wall and set it on the table. From around his neck, he removed a leather satchel and emptied its contents before him: a Bible, icon, and a dark stone polished by age and water.
“It’s true!” Ralf the innkeeper swore as he burst out of the kitchen. “I heard you’d been seen on the road from York!”
“How are you, Ralf?”
“Better than most these days. I suppose you’ll have stories to tell, eh, my lord?”
“That would depend on who wants to hear them. Broth and bread, some meat—if it’s fresh. Oh, and a clean bowl and cup?” Two gold coins fell out of the worn scrip tied to George’s belt and he pushed them toward the man. “May I have the loft room? I’m not ready to go home.”
“It’s already yours! Welcome back, sir!”
The meal came quickly. George folded his hands before him and was ready to give thanks for the food when he noticed one of the patrons watching him with too much interest: an old gentleman who, in the dusky light and shadows, resembled a crow, the miserable birds that used to nest at his father’s castle and torment George when he was a boy. George reached for the pot of ale instead and drank deep, wiping his mouth on the hem of his cloak.
“That’s a Crusader’s sword!”
George ignored the rather loud whisper at first, but that one whisper was joined by many. He turned to see that they came from travelers seated by the hearth: a youngish man who wore the cloak and cap of a scholar, a pale boy, the old crow, and several Lombard merchants. He gave them a look that warned silence and pushed bread across the trencher to sop up broth, took another drink of ale, and then filled his cup from the pot. These innocuous movements seemed to entertain, for George’s audience kept staring as if there was nothing else to do but watch a man eat.
“He’s been in the Holy Land!” the boy exclaimed. “I’ve seen those swords. Only Crusaders have them. Sir! Sir! Are you a knight of the Temple? A Templar?”
“You’ve a good eye, boy,” George said between bites. “Now leave me to my supper.”
“You didn’t answer me. Are you or aren’t you?” the boy demanded, coming close and standing over George. The roundness of the boy’s still childlike face was made more apparent by the flickering lamplight. He looked no more than fifteen if that. His peat-colored hair cast ruddy highlights and his eyes, though wide for the moment, looked tired and dull. George knew he was of some consequence in the world, for when the boy opened his mouth his teeth were white, clean, and even. He stank of garlic and onions, not of decay.
“I suppose you killed a fair number of Saracens with that?” the boy queried, reaching for the sword.
“I suppose,” George answered. “It could kill a few more. Or a boy who won’t leave be.” George rested his fingers on the hilt and used them to gently remove the boy’s hand. “Look you, sir, I’ve been a long way from home, and I want to finish my supper quietly. Surely you know from your betters how to leave be?”
“Master Adam, be quiet and sit down! Leave well enough alone!” his companion hissed.
“Let him speak!” the old crow rasped, heaving himself up on a fine walking staff carved with ancient symbols of the Old Ways. He limped forward and leaned heavily on the table, jostling George’s pot of ale. Spilling the drink annoyed George; the old man's stare unnerved him. Nevertheless, George smiled and nodded in greeting, saying, “Is there something you want, old man?”
“Let the boy ask. Or maybe you don’t want to talk of it. After all, there’s no pride in coming home a coward.”
“And who might you be, to pronounce my lot?” George demanded quietly.
“It doesn’t matter who I am; all that really matters is what you’re going to do,” the man replied though George paid more attention to the velvet gown he wore than the wordsspoken. It fell in large folds over an emaciated frame, as if cut for a larger man, and the gold embroidery was tarnished from wear and age. Dull patches marked where jewels once decorated the fabric. Pushing the lamp towards him, George got a better look.
“I think I should know you,” George murmured, pulling the lamp back.
“You just might—”
“—I tell you again, my lady must have a room for the night! Not for herself, alone, mind; her maid has taken ill and must rest. It’s too far a ride to Arkengarthdale! And tell this boy to let his betters by!”
The shout made George and his interrogators look toward the common room door where two travelers had their entry barred by the spit boy brandishing a metal rod upon which a partridge was skewered.
“Like my boy told you, there’s no more room,” Ralf interjected. “If the lady wants to stay the night, I can give her new straw and a good blanket. We can clear away the kitchen and the girl can rest there if she wants privacy. Or go to the abbey – they have an infirmary.”
The man looked about nervously and leaned closer, saying in a low voice. “The girl is a Jewess! The abbey would never take us. You do understand?”
“Well enough!” Ralf stated, straightening his back. He jerked his head towards the door. “On your way!”
“A room! Do you know who her father is?”
“Her father could be John the blessed bloody Baptist and it wouldn’t do her any good tonight! Not for you or your kind!”
“And what if the girl dies? What then?” the man shouted and silenced the room.
“It’d be one less serving girl, and I’m sure you’d find another before long,” Ralf grumbled. He glanced behind them into the lane. “Where’s this girl? I see no lady’s maid.”
“The lady may take my lodgings,” George spoke up.
The man glanced around the heads of the patrons to see who had spoken and nodded deferentially when George rose and came forward.
“George Ascalon, earl of Grasmere, sir,” Ralf introduced. “And do you know who his father is?”
“Who does not?” the man gushed. “Sir, my lady and I are indebted to you for this small kindness!”
“Now just a moment!” Ralf protested. He turned to George, smiling nervously. “My lord, you cannot sleep in the common room! These people—”
“I’m sure their gold is as bright as mine, Ralf. Just see to it—for old times’ sake if nothing else.”
George now looked at the woman standing to one side, her face shadowed by a hood and the now dim light. He could see that she was fair of color and her eyes though smudged with the lack of sleep, looked bright enough, perhaps blue and perhaps slate. What he noticed most of all was the serenity. In the midst of chaos, she was calm and looked otherworldly.
George nodded in greeting. “No kindness is ever too small.”
“I am Stephen Langley, steward of the Golden Tower.” The man announced. “May I present Lady Richildis of Eskeleth?”
She threw back her hood, stepping forward into better light and looked directly at George. Although he’d loved or bedded a number of women, he’d swear an oath on twenty Bibles that none were as beautiful as this young lady.
George was fair of eyes and hair, but Richildis of Eskeleth was fairer. What caught his attention more than her eyes was her hair. It was so pale gold it looked transparent. He imagined what it would be like with the sun streaming through it, and wondered if her pale skin was just as incandescent.
“Madam, you do me honor,” George took her hand to kiss it. To his surprise, she withdrew her hand and enclosed it in the folds of her cloak.
“My thanks are in proportion to your offering, sir,” she said, her voice soft, low, and musical. George now imagined how it would sound in song, perhaps a chanson de virelai. He was tempted to take the fantasy further, to a bedchamber in a castle somewhere in France, when the boy called Adam shoved his way into their circle.
“My lady, I have better quarters in a manor at Little Langdale. Why should you be given a bachelor’s rooms? They’re bound to be full of lice or vermin! I gladly offer the manor rooms leased to me, for it befits your station and beauty,” Adam pronounced. He grinned boldly and made a sweeping gesture so that his hair almost dusted the floor when he bowed.
“Would you, indeed?” George murmured.
“Forgive the young man, Lady,” the boy’s companion hissed, “he is Adam Middleton, heir to the lordship of Gawthorp, and thinks his title gives him leave to speak whatever comes out of his mouth!”
“Most of it foolishness,” said George. “His father would be ashamed to hear it.”
Adam’s dull eyes flared a moment and he placed a hand on his sword hilt, being careful to show the lady he carried such a weapon. He turned to George and offered a look of flint though he was forced to crane his neck, for George was taller than most men.
“Do you presume to know my father?” Adam demanded.
“I do. I fought beside him many times.”
“Ah! Forgive me! You are the celebrated George Ascalon!” said Adam with a tinge of sarcasm and adolescent bravado. “My grandfather says you fled the taking of Constantinople, that you left your men to die by Byzantine swords and atrocities. How foolish was that? How did it feel, to take flight on a ship from Byzantium, getting away free and clear?” Adam continued, his voice and stance growing bolder.
“You are mistaken!” George hissed, trying hard to keep his temper. “Good night.”
George pushed his way out of the common room. He let the door bang against him and waited there on the threshold to take in the stinging cold night air while he cooled his temper. He was deciding what to do next when he noticed two men and a girl approaching from the east, coming from the deserted market square. George wouldn’t have given them a second thought until they were close enough for a look. The girl was covered in horrific sores that bled and oozed the worst of a body’s impurities. Rather than shrink back, George met them at the door.
“I’ve seen this,” George said, looking from one man to the other and then finally the girl.
“Have care! It’s certain to be plague!” one of the men hissed as George touched the girl’s forehead and found it as he expected – burning hot and damp with sweat. “She is past contagion. The worst is over if the sores rupture and fever takes her for a while, and that has happened. I’ve seen this in the Holy Land. Do not feed her, but give her nothing more than water tonight. God keep her safe and you also, good men.” Having said this, George bade them a good night and paused only for a moment when he noticed the lady Richildis, watching.
“Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ above me, Christ below me.”
Words from an ancient prayer came to his lips. George crossed himself and stepped out into the lane, walking toward St. Cuthbert’s Abbey in the northeast part of town.
The streets were now quiet, save for a stray dog sniffing piles of midden and a wolf growling from a hiding place among the trees against the abbey walls. Yet George heard the unmistakable sound of boots and spurs on the path behind him. Gripping the hilt of his sword and closing the other hand around a dagger at his waist, George slowed his pace, straining to hear as the wind picked up. The footsteps quickened and George drew his sword, spinning a half circle to find a pale, diseased Crusader staring at him, the soldier’s breath rising in noxious, billowing clouds from his mouth.
“Iou nteserb to ntê phor iour sins!” the Crusader rasped, struggling for air and it was apparent why. His neck was covered in a torn, filthy and bloody bandage and a great wound was visible at the throat.
“What?” George demanded, taken off guard and unsure of what the man had said. His knowledge of Greek was excellent, but the words were meshed together, more like a cry in pain than a sentence.
“Iou nteserb to ntê phor iour sins!” he said again, then adding in French: “Vous méritez de mourir pour vos péchés!”
You deserve to die for your sins.
George understood now. He raised his sword and, with a shout, let it fall rapidly—on nothing.
He looked about, puzzled, turning a full circle, listening but only hearing the wind in his ears and the soft padding of a dog as it hurried across the street to get out of George’s way. The street was empty, quiet. Trembling from cold and confusion, and some shame, he sheathed his sword and waited. When nothing unexpected or strange happened, George continued on towards the abbey. From time to time he glanced back and was glad to see no one.
The abbey’s postern gate was unlatched, although it was past dark. The Benedictines of Grasmere were accommodating to travelers and thieves alike who passed in and out of the borderlands, paying no mind to their business or the hour. George glanced at the porter snoring on his bench and dropped a silver penny in his lap as he went by. He walked a familiar path among the vegetable and herb gardens, past the infirmary, to the abbey church. George went in and sat in one of the choir stalls, the wood groaning under his weight, and was there for some time when a door opened and fell shut, and footsteps echoed then stopped suddenly.
“Benedicte, friend: have you need of food or lodging—George? My blessed saints, is that you?”
George barely turned at the voice. He watched the candlelight dancing off the polychrome Virgin in her vestibule and then began whispering the prayer again, letting the words fall in their familiar pattern.
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ above me, Christ below me, Christ behind me, Christ around me . . .
Footsteps clipped and echoed on the sandstone pavement, an uneven gait, grew close, and then stopped.
“It is you! I thought it was; I didn’t want to hope—you’ve grown some. What a man you’ve become!”
George looked out into the shadows where the man stood. “How is it with you, Father?”
“Your mother told me she received a letter full of nonsense and rambling, how you quit crusade.” A Benedictine brother materialized in the glow of a lantern and settled into the stall beside George’s. “It’s good to see you, Geordie!” After a painful silence full of innuendo, he reached up to tousle George’s hair as if he was a small boy, but George grabbed the hand. A thin, white scar that looked like a tree branch spanned Aubrey Ascalon’s palm and did not go unnoticed by his son.
“What’s here? I don’t remember this. Cut yourself making parchment for bibles?”
“An old battle wound,” Aubrey explained.
George wrestled free and in doing so, the icon hanging around Aubrey’s neck caught his attention. The image was visible in the candlelight—an enchanting and beautiful Madonna. George stopped the icon swaying in its course with a thumb and forefinger and studied it more closely.
“Mater Dolorosa. This used to hang over your bed. I’ve always wondered about the woman who posed for this. Is it Mother?”
“A woman important to no one except to God. A gift from one who was once a friend. How you stare at it! I’ll not deny she was uncommonly beautiful . . .”
“Lady Jacopa from Florence or Elizabeth of Derwent? I lost count of your mistresses long ago,” George remarked. He now glanced at the man sitting to his left. It was like looking into a still pond at his own reflection, he thought. The only difference was the span of twenty years that separated father and son.
“You’re unhurt? No wounds?” Aubrey queried, holding the lantern close.
“None a man can see,” George murmured, and then, “You’ve done well for yourself, Father. Lord Abbot, I hear. Some say you’ll be Archbishop of York.”
“Were I a favorite of the king, yes, but I have enough enemies and those whose anger will not be quelled barring any hopes of that.”
“Exactly.” A telling pause and then a sigh. “I suppose your mother hates me now.”
“No more than any wife whose husband gives up all, exchanging one lord for another.” The statement was just that, a statement; not a conviction, nor accusation.
“Doesn’t matter what I think, does it?”
“Yet you returned.”
“Not because of what you did. It’s not important. I’m home.”
“Much will be made of your return . . .”
“It’s a foolish undertaking,” George stated. “Surely not what our Lord intended when He asked us to love one another!”
Aubrey leaned closer, gripping George’s hand. “George, people are whispering evil things about you, of what happened in Constantinople, and there are stories—”
“I came home because I was sick of war and sick of watching people die, of killing men. Where is the dishonor in that? I came home because rather than let your lands and revenues fall to the king or his favorites, I want to claim them for myself, as is my right as your son if you must know. Besides, my sister and mother have no one to protect them.”
“Not fair, George; not fair!”
“Was it fair when you left the note for Mother and said not even a word of goodbye, or gave a truthful explanation?”
“When the call comes it’s one that you don’t ignore or dismiss lightly. I’d pretended for so long.”
“Ah, that would explain why you sent me off to murder in the name of Christ. You wanted someone else to do your dirty work while you prayed away the hours.”
“You don’t understand—or don’t want to!”
George waved away further explanation. “Tell me this. Am I the earl of Grasmere, or did you sell my inheritance to purchase your holy orders?”
George glanced to where his father’s elegant hand directed, a hand muscular and large that used to wield a sword and now held a prayer book. The hand’s shadow fell on the smiling, docile Virgin.
“At the foot of the Virgin there is a loose paving stone. Beneath that is the title and warrant for your lordship.”
“Why do you hide it?” George wanted to know, rising up and taking a step. Aubrey held him back.
“Leave it. If anything should happen to you, your family is safe.”
“Not our family, Father?”
“All is provided for; I saw to it, made sure it was done.”
George was ready to argue and tell his father he was a fool for giving up an ancient birthright but the abbey bells struck the hour and Aubrey embraced him. “Come and see me again, George, for I have missed you!”
The familiar embrace made George’s heart pound. The father he remembered, the gilt giant with merry blue eyes, the man who laughed and played with him, the man who rode to war as happily as tumbling his latest mistress in his great bed, was nowhere to be found in the pale contemplative now hurrying off to Chapter, leaving behind a scent of frankincense and a lifetime of regret. George waited for the footsteps to die before he left the abbey church. For the second time that day he would leave a familiar place with a heavy heart.
Out beyond the postern gate, George pulled his worn cloak about him to stave off the wind that now brought a light snowfall. He stamped his feet against the cold and tried to decide which way to go—back to the inn or on to Skelwith Castle, his family’s home at Little Langdale. Looking to the west, he saw the reddish glow on the horizon and frowned. The tang of burning wood and fiber filled his nostrils as a new wind assailed him. A house in the poor neighborhood of Butcher’s Lane had gone up.
George sprinted to the market square and rang the bell, then headed towards the conflagration.
A spiritual journey of the most frightening kind . . .
The legend of Saint George has been in cultures throughout the world since the Fifth Century, C.E. "Armor of Light" is a retelling of the legend. It is the story of George Ascalon, Earl of Grasmere, who returns from the disastrous Fourth Crusade a broken, humbled, man. He cannot rest, however, for his father has pledged him for another challenge, and one more onerous and frightening than watching the destruction of Constantinople at the hands of Crusaders.
George reluctantly takes up the Sword of Ascalon he hopes for a last time . . .