Friday, October 27th 1307. Feast day of St Frumentius.
Hebrew: First day of Kislev 5068
Chapel of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey.
Two miles West of London. Midnight.
The mourning bell rings out over Westminster as the massive West doors to the Abbey creak open. Sir Cristian Gilleson, Lord of many manors and companion for sixty-two years to the dead King Edward I, enters. He pauses momentarily as the huge candle-lit space opens before his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he moves on.
His young squire pushes the oaken door closed and follows his master down the long nave towards the high altar. Mailed feet ring out on the cold hard flagstones as they walk with measured steps and sombre mien towards an appointment with a dead king. The bell tolls once more.
The Abbey echoes the soft chanting of many priests and the metallic swish of incense burners. Scented fumes mix with the smoke from thousands of guttering candles. A wandering dog sneezes in the perfumed air.
A tired young monk kneels, fidgeting, bored; he craves sleep. He looks up, and gasps as the tall grey-haired figure dressed in the full panoply of war comes abreast of him.
“The King’s Jew,” he whispers, clutching at his neighbour’s scrawny elbow through the rough cloth of his robe.
In an instinctive gesture of submission, his fluttering hand makes the sign of the cross. His priestly colleague throws an arm over his shoulder, curtailing further foolish words.
The knight walks on between the rood screens. Another night, another time, he would have dragged the monk from his knees and exacted swift retribution. But for now, he has other problems to consider.
With a steady step, he passes the pulpit and tall lectern. Not a flicker of emotion crosses his bearded face.
Entering the Confessor’s chapel, he sees six knights of the realm atop a dais beneath an awning emblazoned with the coat of arms of the English King, gules three lions passant guardant: the lions of England, Normandy, and Aquitaine. Below them is the plain black Purbeck-marble sarcophagus wherein lies his friend.
With swords unsheathed and gauntleted hands firmly on hilts, these guardians stand like statues, their black cloaks unmoving, solid like the tomb. They bestow the gift of honour to the dead man, King Edward, the first by that name after the Conquest.
The bell booms its sad sound to the world as he climbs the steps toward the watchers. Spurs jingle, sword, sheath, and belt ends creak. He takes his position in the only space remaining above the coffin.
From below, his squire hears a soft word, and the knights sheath their swords in one slow, rehearsed movement. Solemnly they bow their heads and file off the platform to disappear into the dark recesses of the Abbey. Sir Cristian wishes he knew whither they went and were they friend or foe.
He stands alone, his thoughts in another place, another time. Absent-mindedly he removes his whale-bone-covered right gauntlet. His finger itches, his little finger, both. The only thing he has in common with the man who sired him is the extra finger. He scratches the withered digit against his richly worked and gilded belt, replaces the glove and gazes around the chapel.
The clergy kneel and pray before him in the many side chapels of the Saints that cluster around this shrine to the Confessor.
These fractious monks disturb him. He craves silence, time to think. So many doubts and memories assail him on this night of danger and intrigue. The praying throng averted their eyes as his gaze moved over them.
In the shadows, one monk stands apart from the rest, a hooded figure lurking behind a stone column. His eyes fill with hatred as he observes the powerful warrior. He knows this man, this Cristian Gilleson, was once the most trusted of the old king’s retainers. And a Jew lover! Good Christians should have no truck with the Jew, yet this man prospered.
Sir Cristian has many enemies, powerful men who would move heaven and earth to bring him down. They circle the Abbey even now, prowling like wild dogs waiting for the lion to falter, to show weakness. Only then will they pounce. This quarry is still wholesome and strong, yet he will fall. The new king has decreed it, and the will of the king is the will of God.
The watching monk scans the nave. He smiles as he sees the squire. The old knight is unprotected; the boy will run at the first sign of trouble. With a silent step and to the sound of the bell, he disappears into the gloom.
“Master?” whispers his squire.
Sir Cristian looks down and sees fear in the boy’s eyes. He smiles sadly and raises his hand as if to say, Give me a moment. Trust me. All will be well.
His squire shuffles his feet; he is frightened of what this night might bring. He looks to his master for comfort and reassurance. He feels helpless.
The knight is thinking, playing this game in his mind’s-eye. Death will come this night. To whom and how is yet to be determined, but men will die. He wishes it was not so, but such is life in the cauldron of a king’s court.
He looks heavenward; alas, the Christian God gives no sign to soothe his troubled thoughts. Is it too much to ask? All he seeks is one night with his king. He’d made a promise many years before that he would spend this last night with his dead king before the funeral slab cut off all light leaving his friend alone forever. Only death could release him from his vow. He needs time to bring order to his turbulent mind. Yet time is the one thing he lacks.
A deep shuddering sigh shakes his frame as he speaks seven words that reverberate off the walls of the holy place, eliciting an instant reaction,
“Begone, priests. Leave me with my King.”
His words echo, melding with the sound of the bell, coming back the same but weaker.