Godfrey’s queen had been dead for a year. Her passing had been a sad event but not a disaster. She had left him four healthy daughters and near the end, two sons. The line was assured. As a king with much to do and as a husband who had grieved long enough, Godfrey chose to rank the affairs of state over affairs of the heart and view the queen’s demise as timely. It released him from the world’s claim, wondering how to please his wife, and freed him to please only God.
He had inherited an inclination toward the religious life from his father, along with a kingdom full of saint’s bones and body parts. In his later years, Gerald the Unsteady had seized upon devotion as an excuse to dismiss himself from a less than perfect world. His son, however, considered devotion a foundation for making that world more habitable.
Wealth alone did not make a king – nor fealty – nor blood. Godfrey believed that privilege must rest upon true piety. And so he chose chastity for the remainder of his days, resolving to become as absent in body but present in spirit as St. Paul.
“St. Paul was a virgin,” Isidore reminded him. “Or so they say.”
“I shall be better than a virgin.”
“There’s nothing better than a virgin, my lord. They are first on the list to be saved.”
“I am practiced enough to know what I preach. That ought to count for something.”
They were standing in the palace mews in a room next to the hawks’ apartment. There was not a hawk or falconer in sight. The birds had been taken from their blocks and perches and carried outside for their twice-weekly bath. Godfrey had summoned Isidore to the deserted mews to ensure privacy while he confided to his friend that he intended to be celibate in order to prove his mettle as a motivating moral force.
Isidore suffered misgivings. In his mind there was a vague connection between a king’s virility and a good crop.
“Some say the Apostle castrated himself.”
Godfrey choked on airborne flecks of grain. “That would be extreme,” he said and turned to fiddle with the falcons’ plumed leather hoods hanging from pegs on the wall.
“Yes it would.”
“I am a defender of the Faith, not its founder.”
“I wonder,” said Isidore in a teasing mood. “Would you compare favorably to a pope? When a beautiful lady kissed the ring on the exalted Leo’s hand, he felt his membra virilia rising, at which point he recalled the words: If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off. This he did without hesitation.”
“The Holy Mother restored his—hand.”
“So they say.”
Godfrey’s fingers moved from fidgeting with the plumed hoods on the wall to sorting through a box full of swivels, leashes, jesses and bells. “I am not a pope,” he said above the jingle and clink. “Thank God. A king has more mettle than any pope that ever lived.”
With a grin, Isidore persisted. “There are so many precedents for what you propose. One thinks immediately of St. Paul the Hermit. The emperor Decius had him shackled to a rack and commanded a harlot to kiss and caress him everywhere. Poor fellow! He was in no position to cut anything off. But where there’s a will there’s a way and where there are saints there seems to be no end of ways to mutilate the human anatomy. He bit off his own tongue and spat it at the whore.”
Godfrey shut the lid on the box of leashes and bells, sighed deeply and replied, “I never said I would be a saint.”
Isidore wished him well. The noisy return of the palace falconers saved him from having to dispense any more advice, a lucky thing, as the very concept of celibacy eluded him, to say nothing of the means by which to achieve it.
To the extent to which he felt capable, Godfrey vowed to have no commerce with a woman. The young widow at court whose white glowing brow and perpetually parted lips had seemed only pleasant to him now threatened to undo him. He packed her off to a convent where she continued to live splendidly but well beyond his reach. He avoided the public revels that did not require his attendance and spent most nights alone in his chamber committing to memory pertinent passages from St. Augustine’s Confessions.
A king, however, could not live in full retreat from the world. Unlike his father, Godfrey knew that he would have to divide himself equally between contemplation and duty. He strove to live a simple life within reasonable limits, careful to endanger neither his health nor his sovereignty. He attended Mass twice a day instead of once, fasted on feast days and walked everywhere with a priest at his side. He struck wine from his diet and confined himself to native beer. He began refusing meat.
Frederick was pleased. In his mind a ruler’s primary obligation was to correctly execute the customs of his people and in Crossley Ho, these were the rites of Christendom. To add to the king’s spiritual mettle, Frederick offered to instruct him in the methods of meditation and deep breathing that he had learned in the steep mountains of Cathay.
Godfrey declined. His tolerance for new ideas did not extend to the godless teachings of a people that had been conquered by the Tartar scourge of hell. He replied irritably that while Frederick’s sons could never be legitimate, as he could not possibly marry both the women who had produced them, the children could at least be baptized.
Godfrey added, “Even a woman who smothers her unwanted baby in the dead of night will perform a little baptism before the deed.”
Frederick did not feel obligated to relieve his sons of sin. He had learned to regard Adam’s fall through foreign eyes. And yet charred bits of hell remained embedded in his mind. Delivered into one world but educated in another, there were moments when his judgment felt pinched between the two. His solution was to suspend judgment altogether until some future time. Until then, when called upon to act, he would elect whatever seemed appropriate to the moment at hand.
He arranged to have his sons baptized, although he failed to mention to his brother that his purpose in doing so was to establish their right to inherit, not save their souls.
Having secured the support of Frederick and Isidore, the king desired an audience with the Archbishop of Gill. In an effort to appear unassuming, he did not summon Julian Chalke to the palace but called upon him instead.
With its rich larder, elaborate hangings and candlesticks, Chalke’s house was suitably appointed for a king’s visit. There was not much in the way of furniture, however, which also made it a fit model of austerity for a prelate who was known to wear a hair shirt on festive occasions and whose cathedral housed the Crown of Thorns. This most sacred object had been sealed up inside a reliquary chest of gilded silver and the normally staid archbishop would easily have died defending its authenticity over three other Crowns of Thorns in France.
Over a spice-laden supper in Chalke’s spacious hall, Godfrey laid out his plans for his city on a hill. The archbishop listened with all the gravity of his office but kept his thoughts to himself. While Godfrey’s ambition did not surprise him, it did aggravate the slow intestinal burn he had been feeling since his recent conversation with Brattlebane.
Somewhere it was written that the Antichrist would establish an age of reform and messianic peace before the end of time.
Although supper had remained cordial, a postprandial game of chess turned into a tense debate over whether the Theological Virtues could be distinguished from the Intellectual and Moral ones. And because Godfrey failed to see a very great difference between God’s word and the laws of man, Chalke went to bed grinding his fingernails between his teeth.
Whether he considered this king a serious candidate for the Antichrist became irrelevant. There was cause enough to fear him. Godfrey had displayed a greater concern for the realization of virtue than for the remission of sins. An archbishop could hardly support a man whose good intentions threatened to create a world that would have no need for salvation.
Godfrey returned to Gloriette painfully aware that the evening had not gone well. In the ringing silence of his private chapel and without the benefit of a priest, he searched his heart. It seemed to him that sin ought to be voluntary and not innate. Man should be at liberty to commit it or avoid it, not carry it around with him like an unwanted legacy or an organ of the body or a growth of warts. He decided that the city on a hill must begin with each person becoming good by his own effort.
It was certain that at some point the Church would feel compelled to interfere with his plans. Godfrey’s first task, therefore, was to make an impression, to travel widely and in style, turning routine tours of inspection into a majestic sweep throughout the land. The fact that his impact would stand in direct proportion to the wealth of his processions depressed him. Having just renounced the pleasures of the world, he longed to distance himself from its treasure as well. But revenue and status were indispensable to a king who hoped to matter. As Godfrey stepped closer to the brink of his dream, he understood that he would need a tumbler’s sense of balance. He would have to walk the middle way between external baggage and eternal good, between the world’s business and God’s.
He made up his mind to convene a great parliament at Gloriette before the year was done. Until then he would ask his people to ponder in their hearts the true meaning of the words: love thy neighbor as thyself.
Frederick respectfully agreed that his first contribution to the cause should be an army that could be assembled at a moment’s notice. This army would consist of a citizenry trained in the longbow and the pike, a well-paid infantry and a contingent of mounted knights whose loyalties did not hinge on the slippery treaties or violent mood swings of their lords.
His second contribution would be discipline. This meant restraining knights at large from looting their own lands. To absorb their heated aggressions and maintain a forum for spoils, Frederick instituted a round of lavish tournaments that pitted whole armies against each other instead of individuals, a type of joust guaranteed to send bishops into convulsions.
The Church more readily approved of his second diversion for the warrior class: learning how to read and write. The knights bucked and brayed like mulish boys, which most of them were, until hearing that it was not pimply-faced clerics who would give instruction but well-bred ladies of the court. Love and literacy flourished.
Meanwhile, Isidore Witt pondered the matter of his own contribution. As the king’s chief astrologer he could serve the cause with guidance from the stars. And yet there were others who could do this almost as well as he. He began with wondering how to make his service unique and ended up preparing for the adventure of his life. He would travel north at last and seek out the Immortals.
Godfrey blanched at the thought of losing his most trusted advisor during this crucial time, but Isidore argued that the formation of an ideal philosopher-state presented as many problems as it did possibilities. The Immortals were hoarding the wisdom of the ages, he said, having lived through most of them. They would have invaluable advice.
The king reminded him of his obligations. Isidore could think of only one that really mattered, his nephew. He asked the king to make Harry his ward.
The king agreed, even though it meant releasing Isidore from the one charge that could have kept him home.
Isidore did have other obligations. Three prominent families were expecting natal charts to be drawn up as soon as the births took place. Also, a committee of physicians was awaiting his opinion on a treatise called De Urina Non Visa, which employed astrology for analyzing the color and condition of a patient’s urine, thus saving a man from having to actually look at it. And the king himself had commissioned a great work with a ready-made title and theme, Sapiens Dominabitur Astris. But none of these labors appealed to Isidore, not even the king’s interest in addressing the discrepancies between the doctrine of free will and the argument for predestination implicit in the science of astrology. Isidore agreed with Godfrey that the wise man should rule the stars and not the other way around, but whenever he sat down to make the point for posterity, within half an hour he found something else to do.
Isidore lacked a conventional sense of vocation. As the second born son of nobility, he was landless but he had yet to experience any inclination towards marriage or war, through which property could be acquired. The mere thought of his other options, a life in the Church or a position at a university, left him gasping for air.
Since childhood he had entertained notions of becoming a philosopher, a sorcerer or a sage. Philosophically he admired the Romans who had noted that it was not things that disturbed a man but his judgment of things. The Stoics believed in an orderly cosmos, a universal calm, which they sought to emulate by perfecting their own powers of reason and accepting events with aplomb. And yet, as much as he admired them, Isidore could not wholly relate. They lacked ecstasy. Their emphasis on self-control failed to accommodate his rhapsodic nature. He lived by their code as best he could but he looked elsewhere for enlightenment.
When called upon to act, he emptied his mind and asked himself the question: what would Socrates have done? And because his mind remained empty and no answer ever came, he was forced to conclude time and again that he lacked the makings of a sage.
As for sorcery, he had touched but lightly on the fields available to him. There was alchemy, necromancy and the art of illusions. There was the science of images and the science of mirrors. His skill in the science of judgments provided him with patronage and an income but no discipline provided a vessel for his extraordinary passion.
Isidore could not conform, not even to the advice of his philosophical fathers, whose sense of duty had involved them in public affairs. He felt compelled by a maddening yet marvelous call to remove himself from society altogether. He wanted to go away. He wanted to go far. He envied the freedom of the birds and the cold serenity of the fixed stars.
Isidore had first heard about the Immortals at the age of ten. Known as the Shining Ones, they were said to live far north on the plains of the Fortunate Isle. The possibility that they might actually exist had unbalanced him. It was not that he had grown up demented or socially inept but he had never felt completely present in the world.
People attributed his random fits of withdrawal to the behavior symptomatic of a second son who could never inherit, but in truth he suffered from a firm resolve to make no major decisions until he had consulted with the men who had seen everything. And now suddenly the opportunity, the excuse, was there.
Godfrey let him go for two reasons. First, he could not encumber his friend’s spiritual exertions, however misguided. And second, having just forsaken French wine, sex and gratuitous riches, he was being encouraged by his priest to renounce astrology as well.
It did not escape Godfrey’s attention that the search for Immortals also bore the taint of idolatry. Troubled, he turned to his brother for advice. Frederick was abrupt. It was difficult to become immortal, he said, but not impossible. If a man could manage to live in harmony with the fundamental ways of the universe, retain his breath, avoid spicy foods and enjoy intercourse without spilling his seed, immortality could be achieved.
Distressed by the apparent fact that neither Frederick nor Isidore subscribed to a Christian God, the king withdrew to his chapel and interceded for their souls.
Isidore never doubted that he was doing right until it was time to take leave of his brother’s only son. He carried the boy up the gatehouse steps to the top of the city, perhaps for the last time, and waved his hand at the road pointing north.
“Little?” he said. “I must go to the end of that road, possibly to the end of the world. There will be no end to the wonders of that place.”
Harry stood on his toes and looked for the paradise beyond the horizon. He saw blue sky and green fields, meadows and hills–acres of heaven and earth–but not the place of wonder in between. Sadly he asked, “Will my mother be there?”
Isidore’s heart began to hurt. “I will look for her,” he said. He took Harry’s hand into his own and squeezed. “Actually, I have no idea what I will find. Little? If you want to be alone in the world, set your course for the unknown. Nobody wants to go there.”
“Here be dragons,” said Harry.
Harry presented his uncle with nine blades of yarrow. “These are for you,” he said. “From Bregoswith and me.” Bregoswith was Harry’s nurse. “She says to put them in your shoe under the heel of your right foot and they will keep you safe from harm.”
Isidore looked hard at the horizon. He was trying not to weep. He was wondering how to pool the sum of all life into a single moment of parting.
“Little?” he said. “The world is a living thing. Its first principle is reason, which pervades the air we breathe and the space beyond the stars. When divine, we call it God. When creative, we call it Nature. When it moves, it is Providence and our duty is to obey.”
Harry looked enormously solemn to make up for the fact that he had no idea what his uncle had just said.
“Little? The world is alive. It is made not only of substance but of soul. And the spirit housed within each individual is but one piece of the whole.”
The boy nodded gravely. “If you say so, Uncle Izzy, then it must be true.”
Isidore knelt and kissed his nephew’s brow. “Pay attention to your manners and your prayers. Eat but little and learn whatever you can.”
Harry squared his shoulders. It was something he had learned to do when his father had died, something he had perfected when his mother fell mortally ill, because men nodded approvingly and women wept at the sight of him manfully enduring his losses. He found himself doing it again, this time not for approval but for distraction, to avoid asking his uncle if he was planning to return and even if he planned it, would it be so.
The king asked the archbishop to make a ceremony of Isidore’s exit from the city and a holy quest of his search for immortal beings. Chalke peevishly declined. Lacking the energy to explain how pagans had managed to find eternal life, he refrained from distinguishing the king’s astrologer even with the charge of blasphemy. He charged him with imbecility instead and, on the day of Isidore’s departure, refused to leave his bed.
The court, however, turned out in full force and full flower — knights and their ladies and the king himself — to God speed him and God bless. This was an indication of their affection for Isidore, as not one knight or lady or the king himself believed the Immortals existed. They had heard the rumors but still they could not imagine a race of very tall, very pale people who walked barefoot in the frozen north and lived and lived forever on.
Beyond the palace gates Isidore found, if not a greater faith, then at least a greater fuss. Except for those of the archbishop’s tall cathedral, all the bells of all the churches in the city rang, a show of defiance that Chalke wisely chose to ignore. The streets had been strewn with rushes for Isidore to walk on. He carried Harry in his arms. The king strolled at his side followed by members of the court gaily dressed in scarlet, vair and particolored hose. Isidore was dressed in drab shades of white and blue-gray. Long-sleeved and warmly cloaked for travel, with a satchel that bulged and hung from his shoulder and a pilgrim’s staff gripped in one hand, he looked solemn by comparison, solemn and in the opinion of many, doomed.
It was spring, when just a hint of violet in the gray-faced gardens of the city seemed reason to rejoice. Second-story windows filled with the waving hands of merchant wives and daughters. They had hung quilts, pillow slips and leather shields from the window sills while the wealthier citizens had draped their doors with gold cloth to mark the passage of a man who would willingly, inexplicably, cast himself from their midst.
The people crowded together inside their own safe enclosures—porches and balconies, courtyards and walled gardens, market stalls and the bosom of family—to see him off. They admired him. They feared him. Only the truly devout traveled alone in the desert waste beyond the city; the devout, or the sadly insane.
Thrilled on by a band of military trumpets, tabors and pipes, the people walked him to the north gates of Gill. To fortify his blood, Godfrey presented Isidore with a bottle of red Gascon wine and to protect him from bodily harm, a tiny bone saved from the Eleven Thousand Virgins martyred with St. Ursula at Cologne.
Isidore gave up his honored place at Gloriette and delivered Harry into the arms of the king. It was then that Harry abandoned all hope of being brave. He burst into a tantrum of tears. Isidore’s own pent-up tears let loose and then the king began to weep. He pledged to raise the boy as his own, which made Isidore weep the more and so piteously that Harry endeavored to console him, which reduced everyone else to sobs.
With the city behind him, Isidore rode triumphantly through the countryside on top of an ox festooned with the first blossoms of spring. The simple folk thronged the muddy road to see the pilgrim pass. They had come in search of diversion, but when they beheld the rosy flush of his face, his golden hair and the willowy grace of his form, when they were told of his quest, they made him the embodiment of a season, the season, when the sun and all that it touched grew fat and lived again. Winter was over and the war was done. He left a silliness in his wake, a mad feasting scraped together from the food, drink and spiritual wonder that had not been plundered or lost.
The country folk had faith in the magical forces he rode to meet. They understood his need and they cheered him on as though to say, “Go! Go and see the mystery! Until you have seen, you have no life among us! This can never be your home!”
At the border they deserted him, as he knew they would. He had reached the land directly north of Crossley Ho, a pit called Gutmoor, where gods and other embodiments were expected to travel alone.
Isidore gazed apprehensively into the darkening wood, the vastum, the forest that had died. He looked homeward, back to the promising green. The cordial meadows of Crossley Ho ended precisely at this point, breaking abruptly into a swampland of brush asphyxiated by briar.
The starved limbs of trees hung twisted over his head in a crucifixion of slow demise. It made him think of oblivion, abode of the dead. Again, he thought of home.
He thought of the Shining Ones and pressed on.
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