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As fall painted the foliage and sharpened the air, Henry Bolingbroke and his men travelled deeper into the heart of Europe. The days were largely routine. With Henry’s carts filled with gold and treasure, they had to be on the lookout for robbers, but with such a well-armed troupe, an occasional skirmish would have relieved the inevitable boredom. Yet there was much of interest to see. The cities through which the English passed, with unpronounceable names like Polschken, Schievelbein, Dramberg, and Arneswald were beautiful and sophisticated and Henry, with the prestige of his family name and position, not to mention his seemingly endless funds, was welcomed by each region’s monarchs, great lords and wealthy merchants.

By mid-November, 1392, they reached Vienna.  While Henry stayed in splendor at the palace of King Wenceslas—brother of England’s own Queen Anne--he sent several knights, including Lancelot and Serill, ahead to Venice. Armed with the inevitable letters of introduction, the knights would be tasked with making arrangements to purchase a galley that would take them across the Mediterranean to the Holy Land.

          Often described as the world’s most beautiful city, Venice was an international financial and trading center, boasting a fleet of three thousand galleys that prowled the seas in search of goods. Venezia possessed such wealth and sophistication that it was easy to feel awkward and boorish among the sleek, sumptuously dressed merchants who governed it.  But Venice’s Doge, Antonio Venier, and its senate were so honored that a member of England’s royal family would travel such a great distance to visit, they voted to present the galley to Henry Bolingbroke as a gift.

           While awaiting Henry’s arrival, Serill and Lancelot spent days exploring the city, which housed twice the population of London. Everywhere they saw the winged lions of St Mark, who was the patron saint of the Republic of Venice. A republic rather than a monarchy. How odd!

“What precisely does that mean?” Lancelot wondered.

Serill shrugged. “Something to do with the Greeks,” he replied vaguely.

             It was here in Venezia’s markets and streets that they encountered their first Saracens. Although various popes had excommunicated Venice for trading with the Islamic world, Venetian merchants and diplomats considered it a mark of status to decorate their palaces with the infidels’ ceramics, textiles, arms and armor, metalwork, and manuscripts. Individual Saracens, particularly scholars and doctors, were also treated with deference, for they seemed privy to arcane knowledge lost to their Christian counterparts.

Here, Serill and Lancelot also saw their first Jews--at least walking around like ordinary folk. In most of Europe, Christ’s killers were confined to certain areas, though even in Venice they still had to dress in a proscribed manner so that Christians would be warned of their identity. As if their tails and the stench they exuded wouldn’t be enough to alert even the most obtuse! (Though Lancelot hadn’t been able to glimpse any tails beneath their voluminous robes. And he certainly hadn’t gotten within smelling distance of them.)

Most commonly, Jews set up their tables on the outskirts of the Rialto, Venice’s main marketplace, where they acted as moneylenders and kept guard over the cash of the various merchants selling their tapestries, brocades, silks, carpets spices, exotic foods, drugs, crystal vases and books. Side streets were home to goldsmiths—Exquisite pearls a specialty!--tailors, cobblers, rope sellers, linen and cloth dealers.   Palaces of surpassing beauty mingled with places of business. Reminders, if reminders were needed, that Venezia’s merchants possessed the real power. 

Therein lay the trouble for Lancelot. Yes, trade was important and yes, a man like John of Gaunt could probably have bought and sold most of Venice with his wealth. But John of Gaunt was a knight, a warrior whose stated purpose in life was to protect those around him. What good did all the riches in the world do if you had not the sword to guard them? To Lancelot, it all seemed…decadent… an affront to the natural order of things.

        As Lancelot’s mood darkened, he began spending more time alone. He would still prowl the city, but he did not include Serill—who was so unfailingly cheerful it made  Lancelot grit his teeth—or anyone else. Daily, he would settle into one of the ubiquitous gondolas with instructions for the gondolier to take him wherever he would. Venice’s architecture was a stunning mix of Byzantine and Gothic, and the frescoes inside St Mark’s Basilica were so saturated with gold that when the light hit just so, Lancelot might as well be gazing into the sun.  There was something exotic about the paintings at St Mark’s and other churches, though not being an expert in such things, Lancelot couldn’t pinpoint what exactly. A difference in shapes, colors, poses?

He thought of Jane le Babbe with her charming drawings and smiled at the idea of asking her, “What do YOU see, my lady?” He imagined her solemn face as she considered…

Being a loyal Englishmen, Lancelot ultimately decided that St Mark’s Basilica was less breathtaking than Canterbury Cathedral or St Paul’s and being a man of action, well, there was only so much exploring one could do without becoming mind-numbingly bored.  Venice possessed so many relics they were piled everywhere like heaps of trash. And, by the blood of Christ, how many body parts could one ogle? Lancelot had viewed the hand of the Blessed Virgin, the arm of St Damien embedded in a golden bowl; the head of St James the Less; the thumb of the Emperor Constantine; Mary Magdalene’s breastbone, and all of  Catherine of Sienna, with her flesh and bones still intact. At least the portrait of the Virgin painted by angels was something different. However, when viewing a pitcher Jesus had used when turning water into wine, Lancelot had experienced the most unsettling thought.  Which returned when a guide pointed out a piece of the sponge that had been used to wipe Christ’s face whilst He suffered on the cross.

How do I know these are true relics?  What proof is there? Are these clerics simply the religious equivalent of the merchants in the Rialto selling their wares?

Blasphemy!  Lancelot quickly made the sign of the cross and reminded himself that such heretical thoughts were an affront to God. But still…

   What Lancelot did enjoy was the history behind many of the relics. For Venice contained something England did not. The treasures of the Fourth Crusade. The bronze horses from Constantinople’s Hippodrome that adorned the façade of St Mark's Basilica and many of the impossibly ornate relics gracing Venice’s cathedrals and palaces and piazzas had arrived in quite a bloody fashion.

On his solitary sojourns, Lancelot would purchase freshly baked bread from one of the bakeries near St Mark’s Basilica before slipping into its cavernous, impossibly ostentatious vastness.

There he would find a quiet corner, sit and eat.

 Close his eyes. Concentrate on the rise and fall of his breathing. Until images flashed through his mind. 

1204. The Sack of Constantinople. Venetian galleys, which even then ruled the seas, maneuvering close enough to allow crusading knights to seize some of Constantinople’s towers and scale its walls. French soldiers (for wasn’t it always the troublesome French?), in their dented helms and blood-soaked surcoats, terrorizing Constantinople, swarming like angry wasps through its ancient buildings and holy places, destroying or stealing everything of value. Slaughter. Rape. Desecration of holy places.

The images were all so very real.

Of course. Because Lancelot was cursed. Whether atop Glastonbury Tor, when he could mentally view Arthur and his knights riding, fighting or seated at their Round Table, or here in St Mark’s Basilica, he could not escape his mother’s inheritance. Much to his shame, Lancelot had inherited Elizabeth Ravenne’s flights of fancy.

Rather than reveal what was really going on in his sometimes over-fevered brain, Lancelot of Glastonbury had simply learned it was most prudent to keep one’s mouth shut.

* * *

Finally, finally in early December, 1392, when the bitter breath of an Adriatic winter had chilled the English knights to their marrow, Henry Bolingbroke arrived. He set up quarters in nearby Portogruaro, where he could row back and forth in hired barges--though sometimes those on-board had to break through sheets of ice in order to expedite passage. While Henry was being feted by the Doge and Venezia’s elite, his clerks completed all the tasks necessary for Henry’s departure. They haunted the markets, buying vast quantities and varieties of fish; then the sugar candies and other sweets that Henry so favored. Two thousand dates were loaded on Henry’s galley; one thousand pounds of almonds, which would be used as almond milk in cooking, and the usual assortment of pigs, hens, eggs, chickens and ducks. 

While his lord Bolingbroke’s arrival meant that Lancelot’s time in Venice was mercifully approaching its end, he still felt a pressing melancholy, a darkness that even troubled his dreams. It began with the water, which one could never escape. Lancelot, all of them, were perched atop a vast sea like pelicans atop a pier pillar and, as he lay upon his pallet or trod the various piazzas, Lancelot imagined the waves lapping ominously beneath him.  Sometimes he pictured a leviathan rising from the deep to swallow Venice whole. He’d grown so weary of landscapes that ever ended thus. One could never strike out on foot or run as one did during the usual martial trainings or race one’s horse… where? Where was there to go? Into the  dirty, disgusting canals?

Lancelot discovered the Venetian Arsenal, the city’s massive shipyard which also contained the world’s largest industrial facility. The Arsenal boasted a gunpowder factory, foundry and a ropeworks which Lancelot explored, though he was particularly fascinated by the galleys, all in various stages of construction. Even when his face stung with cold, Lancelot would wrap himself in the fur mantle his lord had given him two Christmases past and spend hours at the Arsenal, listening to the constant hammering and noise and watching the scurrying of workers in their frenetic, oddly choreographed activities.

 These workers, these ordinary men, were producing something. As were the women employed in the ropeworks factory. (Women working in factories? That too was odd.) What was he, Lancelot of Glastonbury doing, other than marking time?

Later, reflecting upon what happened next, Lancelot forever berated himself. Not a decade of confessions or ten thousand mea culpas could excuse his selfishness. (Or even the forthcoming pilgrimage to Jerusalem, regardless of pardoners’ promises.) For, immersed as he was in his silly melancholia, he had broken his vow to her.

Jane le Babbe had trusted him.

And he had proven himself unworthy of her trust.

  This past fortnight, Serill and Lancelot had seen little of each  other. Tonight, there would be a fete at the Doge’s Palace, in honor of Henry Bolingbroke, so Lancelot and the rest of the earl’s retainers would attend. Lancelot had been dreading the very idea—having to make conversation with various Venetian ladies with their painted faces and licentious behavior. So bold in the art of seduction he suspected that, if he lifted their skirts, he would find they possessed a man’s private parts….

“I wonder if your friend will show off his inamorata tonight,” said Sir Peter Bructon, who their lord Bolingbroke had appointed as leader of their advance expedition to Venice. Lancelot and Bructon roomed with two other knights, who’d already departed for the Palace.

 “What say you?” Lancelot asked, raising an eyebrow. “You do not mean Serill, do you?”

When Bructon nodded, Lancelot felt his face flush. He knew enough Italian that he could translate inamorata, but that meant a female lover. Which better not be correct.

“Serill met her in the Rialto,” Peter Bructon said, setting a fur hat atop his head and adjusting it. “You know how the Venetian donne like to preen and parade themselves about.”

 “What are you saying?” Lancelot experienced a mixture of rage and confusion. He’d visited the Rialto with Serill, and he’d noticed nothing unusual. What had he missed?

“Sophia is her name, I believe. Quite a beauty. But then aren’t all courtesans?”

“Courtesan?” Lancelot echoed stupidly. “What do you mean?” But he knew what Peter Bructon meant.

Fool. You promised Janey. You broke that promise.

And courtesan was just another name for whore.

“Mayhap you’ll see her tonight at the reception.”

Lancelot charged past Bructon, out of the chamber, down the stairs and out into the cold of the gathering darkness. The distance to the Doge’s Palace wasn’t far but he had to make his way in a serpentine fashion, past the rapidly emptying Rialto and across the Rialto Bridge that spanned the Grand Canal.

Thoughts dark with rage, Lancelot passed two columns that were used for hanging criminals. This even they sported a pair of corpses swarming with scavenging birds who flapped their wings and squawked at his passing.

Sunset had just started streaking the sky, which, according to Venetians, signaled the end of one day and the beginning of the next, when Lancelot finally spotted Serill. He was standing in the Piazzetta di San Marco, right outside the Doge’s Palace, face bent attentively toward a smaller figure, obviously a woman.

“Sweet bloody Christ,” Lancelot swore. He pushed his way past the musicians that were such a part of Venice, as well as the bejeweled merchants, ladies and guests who were headed toward one of the Palace entrances.

Stalking toward the pair, Lancelot took little notice of the creature beyond her red hair, the sinful décolletage of her rich gown and artfully painted face. Lancelot knew enough. She was not Serill’s wife. Who he, Lancelot of Glastonbury, had failed.

Lancelot grabbed his friend’s arm. Serill turned with a frown but seeing him, broke into a grin.

“Lance! Where have you been? I’ve been wondering where you’ve hidden yourself.”

His creature said something in an approximation of English. Lancelot shoved her rudely in the direction of some strolling musicians. He pulled a protesting Serill away, in the direction of the Grand Canal.

“I should toss you in,” he growled, his free hand gesturing toward the glistening waters.

“What is wrong? What have I done? What has put you in such a foul mood?”

“Lady Jane. Your wife,” Lancelot sputtered. He was so angry he could not speak. Which was good because if he had, he might have blurted his promise and that would be breaking faith with Janey more than he’d already done.

“What is wrong? Has something happened to Janey? Who has written? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Lancelot shook his head, even more angered by Serill’s sudden concern. So many thoughts roiled in his brain, he couldn’t distinguish one from the other.

            “Have a care to your soul,” he finally managed. “What you’re doing is mortal sin.” Sweet Jesus. He sounded like some mewling Dominican, though they at least flushed out heretics and were not afraid to torture. What could he do, wring his hands in woe? Challenge Serill to trial by combat?

   Serill looked confused. “What are you talking about?” Finally, realization dawned. He gave a dismissive wave in the direction of his inamorata. “You mean Sophia? Really, Lance, everything we do is mortal sin, you know that. From the time we arise in the morning until we settle into bed. Even our dreams if they are of the wrong nature. So why should I not enjoy myself?”

  “You broke your marriage vows.”

“By God’s bones!” Serill shook his head. “’Tis just a bit of fun, such as, I don’t know, watching a play or dancing. It means nothing.”

He and Serill glared at each other. “You missed your profession,” Serill finally said. “You’d make a far better priest than a knight.” He began walking away, toward his whore and the Doge’s Palace, before swiveling around. “Besides, there is nothing I could do to make Janey cease loving me. You of all people should know that.”

Lancelot stared after him. At this moment, he hated Serill Hart.  With a shudder he turned away. The sun had cast its final rays upon the nearby waters; the wind blew cold with a desolate whistling sound.

How lonely it was, out here alone in the Piazetta.

Lancelot walked along the Grand Canal, barely taking note of the slapping waves. A galley slipped past. Ice bumped against its prow with a dull thud before breaking apart with a crack and a groan.

My word is meaningless.

 Eventually, Lancelot retraced his earlier route, passing the hanged men and their feasting, squawking companions; the luxury shops, now locked and shuttered, that radiated from the Rialto’s marketplace. Then the Rialto itself. The stench from the fish markets mixed with that of the canal and a nearby abattoir.

Venice’s night people, those who had nothing in common with the glittering lords and ladies now dining at the Doge’s Palace, began slinking out from darkened alleyways. A prostitute, face painted in the manner of Serill’s whore, approached him. Despite Lancelot’s poor Italian, he knew exactly what she was offering and shook his head.

Finally, he reached the chamber he shared with two other knights.

Sweeping his fur mantle from his shoulders, Lancelot shook it and hung it on a peg.

There is only one thing I can do, he thought. Once home, I will avoid Janey. If that proved impossible, he would make sure they were never alone together. For he could not break her heart by telling her the truth. And it was not in his nature to lie. 

Mayhap, If God is good, I will die in Jerusalem.

Lancelot struck flint to steel in order to light a pair of braziers that would warm the room.

 And then I’ll not have to worry about anything at all.


Chapter 26

February1393, Jerusalem

Henry Bolingbroke stood on the prow as his Venetian galley approached the port city of Jaffa. Gateway to Jerusalem. The only other members of the English royal family who had ever viewed the emerging shoreline were kings: Richard the Lionheart and Edward Longshanks. And neither of them had entered the Holy City itself, as Henry was about to do. At this moment, with the wind lashing his hair, seagulls circling the galley’s billowing sails, the rhythmic splashing of oars, the acrid smell of rotting fish and brine in his nostrils, Henry was overcome. Not with religious reverence, however, not yet. While Henry Bolingbroke’s religion, his love for his Creator, were as much a part of him as breathing, he was thinking of someone else. Henry was a deep student of history, and here it was laid out before him. The history of the crusades. More specifically, that of his crusading ancestor, Richard Coeur de Lion. It was Richard’s blood that flowed through Henry’s veins rather than the blood shed by their Savior that he now pondered.  In 1192, King Richard had disembarked, perhaps in the same path as Henry’s galley, to blaze like a comet across the Holy Land. (Only Richard’s light had yet to be extinguished.)

Here it was that Richard the Lionheart  had waded ashore, sword above his head, leading a mere handful of knights in order to inspire the garrison of Jaffa’s citadel, over which Islam’s banner flew, to resume fighting. In the heat-blasted summer of 1192, the Lionheart had defeated Saladin. Twice. Vastly outnumbered, commanding fifty-four knights and two thousand infantrymen against seven thousand Saracens, Richard had routed his foe—losing a mere two knights in the process. After which he and Saladin had signed the Treaty of Jaffa, bringing the Third Crusade to a satisfactory end.

Yet, at this moment, Henry, a scholar who also understood the truth of omens, was not only contemplating the middle of Richard I’s reign but its beginning.

For in one’s beginning one can plot one’s end, isn’t that so? he often mused.

Richard had been crowned King of England on September 3, 1189. Astrologers considered the date itself, referred to as Egyptian Day, to be inauspicious. During the ceremony, a bat had found its way into Westminster Abbey where it had circled  and screeched around Richard’s coronation chair.  As ominous, a bell from Westminster’s tower had pealed upon the ceremony’s completion, which bell ringers swore had not been rung by their hands or the hands of any mortals.

But that had not been the worst of it.

Afterward, there was that business with the Jews.

In his travels Henry had come across the curiosities many referred to as Christ Killers.  Jews had willingly earned that moniker, hadn’t they, when they’d cried to Pontius Pilate, "His blood shall be on us and on our children!" One could expect no humanity emanating from such a race. Occasionally, Henry had seen their places of worship, which were referred to as Synagogues of Satan.  Some even accused Jews of spreading the Black Death, which had annihilated half of Europe, by poisoning wells. Their ritual murders were well known. Henry wasn’t as sure about the tales of their fattening up children before crucifying them and drinking their blood. Then there was the business of Jezebel, from the Old Testament, who’d hated hermits, all clerics and those who taught the Christian faith, and had ordered them to be robbed and beaten so they would flee Palestine.

Henry was skeptical, however, since the Old Testament had been before the time of Christ.

And, as far as the Jews he’d personally dealt with, they were simultaneously obsequious and crafty--as were money lenders of other faiths.  It was simply the nature of their profession.

However, during the first Richard’s time, Jews had still been allowed in England. More for prudence’s sake than personal animosity--preparations for the Third Crusade were well under way and emotions were running hot--Richard had banned them from his coronation banquet. Unfortunately, Jews being Jews, several, bearing expensive gifts, had tried to attend.

The resultant trouble they’d brought upon themselves.

Barons at the feast had forcibly ejected them. Celebrants still milling about the grounds of Westminster Abbey, after hearing there’d been a plot against the new king’s life, fell upon the Jews, killing several. Then they’d marched back into London’s Jewish sector, crying “Death to the unbelievers!”, and there pulled down and burned their houses. More murders.

However, it was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comment afterward that Henry of Bolingbroke now pondered.

 "If the king is not God's man,” the Archbishop had said, “he had better be the devil's."

Aye, God or the devil. For Richard Coeur de Lion had been a crusader non-pareil, but as a King to England? Hardly.

And, while the Lionheart’s blood ran through Henry’s veins, it also coursed through the current king’s, along with the shared name.

So, where does that leave us? Henry wondered, facing Jaffa’s rapidly approaching shoreline. A king who is not a warrior and has shown himself to be, at least so far, a negligent ruler. Furthermore,  if one looks to omens, there are as many pointing to the second’s troubled reign as there were to the first’s.

Henry Bolingbroke shook himself, like a dog shedding itself of water,  forcing himself away from thoughts of secular kings to those concerning the King of Kings.  

* * *

Serill Hart clutched the ship’s railing, watching the activities taking place on Jaffa’s beach.  Already it was filling with pitched tents, great lumbering camels and white-garbed infidels, whose clothing appeared ever brighter against the dullness of surrounding sand.

Spontaneously, knights around Serill began singing the Te Deum.

 “We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.”

Hairs prickled on Serill’s neck, as if someone behind had breathed upon him. He felt a shiver through his soul. That was the only way he could describe it, a feeling unlike anything he’d experienced even standing in the grandest of cathedrals, participating in the most sacred of services. He’d never been an overly religious person. Like every Englishman he attended mass regularly (though not daily when he could avoid it), went to confession (though as seldom as possible and depending on the censorious nature of the priest), offered praise and thanks and thumbed the prayers on his paternoster beads when he thought about it. But this was different.

It was as if the spear that had pierced Jesus’ side had also pierced Serill’s soul.

Made even more powerful because it was so unexpected.

The sweetness of Christ’s love enveloped him.

Serill had visited numerous shrines and purchased thousands of years’ worth of indulgences, but it had been more an automatic act than one of devotion. Not so here, not in the holiest spot on earth. Just stepping inside Jaffa would earn him absolution from seven years’ worth of sins; touring Jerusalem itself meant a reserved seat in Paradise.

With his gaze still fixed on Jaffa’s shoreline, Serill felt the power of such things for the first time.

Wait until I tell Janey.

* * *

Lancelot stood beside Serill.  Their hands gripped the galley’s railing with less than a foot of separation. Lancelot had to force himself not to move his hand away or to step to another part of the prow rather than suffer Serill’s nearness. Lancelot hoped this pilgrimage, the grace that would surely descend upon him, would soften the rage he yet harbored against Serill Hart. Surely this most blessed pilgrimage would melt the ice that had crept across his soul; good friends were too few to cast aside but this was very difficult…  

I thought you were a better man, he wanted to yell at Serill. While Lancelot’s own father probably had bastards throughout East Anglia, Matthew Hart’s faithfulness to his wife was well known. Yet here was his son, who took his marriage vows so lightly that he couldn’t keep his prick inside his hose.

Once they disembarked upon an expanse of beach bustling with tents and wares and Saracens--the men turbaned, the women veiled and both swathed all in white--Lancelot’s first surprise was Jaffa itself. The formerly great Crusader port was little more than a pile of rubble guarded by a handful of soldiers. Nearby caves served as storehouses for goods and lodgings for the few pilgrims traveling this time of year. But as for the rest…

Jaffa was just the beginning of surprises in store for Lancelot of Glastonbury.

While Henry Bolingbroke maintained he wished to be treated like any pilgrim, of course he wasn’t. His guides were high ranking members of the Latin Catholic faith, as opposed to those of the Eastern version. (Here, in Palestine, one would soon experience more, rather than fewer, religious divisions.) And, while Henry had made it plain that he and his men would walk all the way to Jerusalem—nearly forty miles to the east—and pretended his food and lodgings would be identical to those of the lowest pilgrim, that was not true either.

Even the Saracen traders and merchants who called out to the English knights knew Henry Bolingbroke’s identity and that he shared Richard Lionheart’s blood. They treated “Malik Ric’s” descendant with special respect. For, while the Lionheart had committed cruelties during the Third Crusade, such was the way of war. Malik Ric was still a legendary warrior and brilliant general, whose reputation had only been enhanced over the last two centuries.

Before leaving Jaffa, Henry’s guides pointed out numerous biblical sites--the outcropping where Peter, while still a fisherman, had cast his nets into the sea; the spot where he’d raised his handmaiden, Tabitha, from the dead; the very stone upon which Peter was standing when Jesus ordered, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

 Jaffa had also been the port from which Jonah had sailed before being swallowed by the whale, and the guides charmingly recounted a Jewish legend asserting that all the sunken treasure in the world flowed toward Jaffa.

“That accounts for King Solomon’s riches,” they said, as if Solomon himself was just over the next hillock, counting out his fortune while lounging in his great temple. 

The following morning, the troupe readied to set out. While handing out the ubiquitous guidebooks, Henry’s guides relayed detailed warnings on how to behave. 

They began with:

“All Moors are dishonest, as are all Jews and Eastern Christians. None possess a conscience.”

They continued with:

 “Do not look at Saracen women.” (Who were so veiled, what could anyone actually see?) “Never try to engage them or flirt in any way.”

 “Do not offer wine to the infidel for he will not drink it. Bring your own. Otherwise, you’ll only be able to drink water—which you should also bring--until we reach Ramleh tonight.”

“If a Saracen bumps against you, he has just stolen your purse.”

“Speak sweetly to every Saracen and pay them whatever they ask for their wares or lodging. Ne’er forget you are at their mercy.” The guides added that many pilgrims had been imprisoned, beaten, and tortured for minor indiscretions, a fact that horrified ordinary folk but merely caused Henry’s knights to scowl their displeasure.

They  finished their round of dictates with “Never, ever enter a mosque,”--as if any Christian would want to--“for you will be immediately dispatched to heaven, hell or purgatory, depending on your sins.”

Every word spoken, every inch of the landscape and its people reminded Lancelot that they were (barely tolerated) intruders. With all the crusades, some more successful than others, and the millions of Christian pilgrims, he’d made certain assumptions about the hegemony of his religion that were already proving false.

With the guides’ warnings ringing in their ears, Henry Bolingbroke, Serill, Lancelot, and their fellow knights began their pilgrimage.

* * *

Arabs called February “the one-eyed,” because it had two faces—dark on one side and bright on the other. Almost immediately, clouds gathered to the east, in the direction that was Jerusalem. The day alternated between sunshine, sudden showers and winds before repeating itself. One of the guides recited an Arab saying about the storms of February, that they “had the smell of summer to them.”

Lancelot couldn’t imagine what summer would be like in a climate that already seemed far too hot; especially if one were a crusader dressed in full armor.

“We would be boiled alive, like lobsters,” he commented to Serill.

Lancelot did his best to view the terrain through which they passed with the eyes of enchantment. They saw remains of castles and settlements interspersed with bleak looking plots, obviously former gardens. Therefore, the ground must have once been fertile. But no longer. The Bible called this the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey? What had happened?

Occasionally, they passed pilgrims,  detoured to some stony field in the middle of nowhere in order to  eat their  cheese and hard-boiled eggs, or shared the road  with others perched upon sleepy-looking  donkeys, clutching their guidebooks while  singing hymns of praise. Always, the groups were watched over by fierce-looking Saracens with their wicked, curving scimitars.

      The terrain grew rougher. Drops of rain splashed upon barren soil. Clouds played hide-and-seek with the sun. They passed villages more beggared than any Lancelot had ever seen.      

     “The infidel are poor husbandmen,” he observed to no one in particular.

      The guides gestured to rude “cemeteries” that had been placed on the outskirts of the hovels. “Do not step on any graves,” they warned, “lest you disturb the dead.” But everything was dead here. Wasn’t that why they’d come? To worship ghosts?

 They passed an occasional cotton field, but overall the terrain remained hostile--just like their Saracen overlords. Not for a moment could one forget that Christians were wayfarers in an inhospitable land. 

Lancelot didn’t feel inspired. He felt…alert. A wolf among jackals. His gaze swept the increasingly rugged surroundings for the thieves they’d been warned against--though an armed troupe of knights, even on foot, would not be easy prey. Instead of humans, he saw a variety of strange animals slipping below the skyline or among the stunted trees or watching them from malformed rock croppings. Some, like foxes, he recognized. Others, such as cheetahs and hyenas, were identified by a guide when Lancelot pointed them out. Once, he saw a leopard gliding past a small grove of almond trees just beginning to bud.

Then there were the scourges closer to the ground--the scorpions and centipedes and poisonous snakes. Disturbed by the knights’ passing, the creatures would scamper over rocks or even across the toe of a leather boot.

The men spoke very little, though the quiet was not of a strained nature. Judging from the swiveling heads, they were drinking in every inch of their surroundings. Lancelot alone seemed out of step. But he was used to that.

It wasn’t that he didn’t honor pilgrimages. He’d been to Glastonbury near as often as his mother. And he made regular treks to the wilds of Tintagel and to Alnwick Castle, home of the Henry Percys, which was also said to have  been Lancelot du Lac’s home. Not religious pilgrimages to be sure but pilgrimages all the same.

The difference was that, whether he stood upon the cliffs of Tintagel overlooking the crashing sea or traveling to various cathedrals, castles or shrines, his surroundings possessed a vibrant, even aching, beauty.

While this is desolation.

On the knights strode, weapons jangling, boots dislodging an occasional rock. The clop of the hooves of the lone pack horse that Henry had allowed to accompany them; the occasional scream of birds Lancelot didn’t recognize.

When he passed a stunted tree—could those be vultures perched atop knobbed branches?—Lancelot suddenly understood what was wrong.

Palestine is cursed.

 The revelation struck him with the force of a blow.

It was so simple, really. Jews had killed the Christ and their sins, the sins of all mankind, had blighted the countryside. The very earth itself mourned their abomination by passing sentence upon this land. It was as if God had placed the entire kingdom under interdict.

Lancelot shivered. 

Doesn’t anyone else see it? he wondered. His gaze swung to Serill, who,  judging from his wide eyes and permanent half-smile, was enjoying a very different experience.

The second day, Henry’s troupe continued climbing Judea’s barren hills, following precipitous paths and narrow passes strewn with boulders. Here, they needed no reminders of potential robbers and kept their hands close by their weapons.

 In biblical times, so the guides said, this area boasted forests and orchards of date and almond trees.

“Centuries of war,” was their puny explanation for the current wasteland.

Lancelot felt like screaming. Do you not realize the truth? Or do you think pilgrims are too blinded by religious fervor to discern it?

By mid-afternoon, they climbed Mount Joy, where Samuel the Prophet was buried.

A guide extended his arm. “From here,” he said, “you can see Jerusalem.”  In the summer its domes and walls shimmered in the heat waves. But it was February and still Jerusalem shimmered. As recommended by the guidebooks, ordinary pilgrims had dismounted from their donkeys to kneel among the rocks and scorpions and steeple their hands in prayer while tears coursed down their dusty cheeks. Several knights followed suit. Henry bowed his head and made the sign of the cross. Serill plunged his sword into the hard soil so that it made its own cross and bent his knee before it.

Lancelot gazed at the Holy City and felt the previously missing emotion rise like a tidal wave. His traitorous mind had wandered off as Christ had wandered off in the desert where He’d been tempted by Satan, but now Lancelot felt it, the pull of his faith, of all those millions who’d worshipped before him.

And was relieved that he, Lancelot of Glastonbury, wasn’t so very different after all. 

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