Greg Stermolle

18071 Rawhide Ct

Tehachapi, CA



Greg Stermolle

Tall, gray, moss-covered walls loomed in the distance like snow-laden peaks of an insuperable mountain range. Jutting out above the enormous wall were battlements and spires poised to rain lame death on the approaching army. The massive gate of St. George stood gallantly, not a half mile from the first tent of the Crusader camp, just one more obstacle in pushing through the siege of Antioch.

"Phillip, are you coming?" Stephen said in his mischievously gruff voice. It had rained two days before and the ground was still damp. Men and horses clad in battle armor traipsing across the grounds, crushed the grass and made a mud pit out of the encampment. "Or, do you prefer your wooden throne to the company of good friends?" Phillip sat hunched forward on a wooden bucket turned upside down; hoping the last vestige of warm sun would penetrate through the armor and padding he wore. As he approached, Stephen roughly laid his hand on Phillip's stooped shoulder. The chainmaille on his glove clanged against the armor on the younger man's shoulder. As Phillip turned his head, Stephen found himself staring into the eyes of a man wavering on the edge of defeat. Dark sunken eyes, thick matted beard, scraggly black strands of hair that looked more like leather fringe, and battle scars across his cheek and nose in various stages of healing; brought a sob to Stephen's throat.

"Going where?" Phillip said, turning back to the great walls, spires, and dining halls of the great city.

Stephen withdrew his hand and started to move between his friend and the ruinous wall. "Peter the Hermit is going on again about his visions, and the grace of God, and how good we have it in this, the holiest of lands. It should prove to be a good laugh if nothing else, my friend. At least you can stop brooding over that god-forsaken wall," he said, nodding over his shoulder.

"It is not the wall, nor the city that has brought about this mood." Phillip replied, his French accent fading to a grim sigh.

"So what has my friend so enslaved in melancholy?"

A long silence ensued. "Do you ever feel like God has forsaken us, or perhaps he does not have the power we once thought he had?"

"What do you mean? God has brought us this far."

"Yes, but what if he did not have power over all things. What if evil has the same power and this really is THE fight for the righteous, not simply a fight for the Holy Land? And if we fail, the world will fall into darkness!"

"That is very near blasphemy, Phillip."

"Yes, I know. I feel the evil one pulling against my heart."

"Well, perhaps you should come, and hear the sermon."

A meager grin crept through Phillip's lips. "Always the merchant, I do not believe Peter likes me, Stephen. I think perhaps he may have been acquainted with the abbot of the Azincourt monastery. I shall regretfully decline this time." He said, pulling at the scraggly beard covering his jaw, chin, and upper lip. Then he stood up and awkwardly trudged around to the front of his tent.

"What, that old business? I do not think Peter had many friends in Azincourt, let alone acquaintance's with Abbots. Besides, I do not believe him the type to care either way. You took the crusader's oath, you fight for God. You are welcome at any table in the land." He said, peeking around the side of the tent. "Your leg is still bothering you?" He asked, watching Phillip lumber along. Then with a grin, he bent down and picked up a wet clod of dirt.

"No my leg is fine. I just need some rest. And time to pray. Someone needs to find us a way out of this impasse we have created for ourselves. Do enjoy your self though," he said, pulling his right leg to his chest. He had fallen from his horse during a raid for food in a town to the east several days earlier. Their small force was ambushed by Turk soldiers. As he fell, Phillip's right boot caught in the stirrup and twisted his knee before jolting him to the ground. The cold didn't help matters and the pain constantly persisted, increasing all the more during the early dawn and late evening hours.

Stephen heaved the clod of dirt over the tent in the direction of his friend, hoping to score a hit and cause the younger man to give chase. But the clod missed and splashed in the puddle of a hoof print.

"Good thing you are a better shot with the bow than you are with clumps of dirt, Stephen," Phillip said, in a playfully acerbic tone.

"Well, if being a bump on a log suits you," Stephen began, but stopped as a darkly robed, hooded shape seemed too materialized from the shadow of a large tree. Stephen straightened his body, set his shoulders, and took in a deep breath. "Aryell," he said, bowing ever so slightly. He watched the hooded man as if Judas the betrayer had just entered the camp. The men tolerated the hooded man because he was a friend of Phillip, who was well liked. But in secret, most were more than cautious about his intentions.

"Good morning Stephen," he replied, the words coming from somewhere deep within the shadow of his hood.

Stephen felt the goose flesh clamber up his arms and around his neck. He tensed the muscles around his throat and crossed his arms over his chest to hide the discomfort. "Ok, Phillip. If you should change your mind, the meeting is in the great tent near the stables." Phillip didn't answer.

When Stephen was out of earshot, Phillip turned to the Aryell and said, "You should not try to make things worse between yourself and the other men."

"I do not try."

Reaching into his tent, Phillip pulled out his sword and a sharpening stone and walked back to the rear squishing through the mud. "They fight alongside you the same as I." He said, looking back over his shoulder.

Aryell followed, his hands crossed over his stomach and hidden in the sleeves of his robe. "I am not here for them."

"Stubborn mule," Phillip said, studying the edge of his sword. "Besides, he is a good man and a loyal friend. And I do not like my friends bickering." He laid the sword across his lap and began running the stone over its edges.

"Oh, so you consider the two of us friends now?" Aryell said, his voice laced with sarcasm. He came around the side of the tent, more floating over the muddy ground than walking on it; his hood tilted in Phillip's direction.

Without looking up from his sharpening, Phillip said, "According to you, we are stuck together, so it makes little difference."

The Aryell nodded and then turned back to the daunting scene of the massive wall to the east. "You seem more disconcerted today that usual. Did something happen?"

"I am very hungry." Phillip grumbled.

"You were hungry yesterday." Aryell replied, still staring off into the distance.

Phillip stopped his sharpening and looked up at the hooded man. "As an all-powerful being of God, you are quite bothersome."

"Yes, I have heard that." Aryell said, almost sadly. "But you still have not answered my question."

Phillip let out a long sigh as he ran the leather strap over his sword. "Guierre should have been back from his raid two days ago. Now, nearly all of our food is gone. Word is spreading that a Turkish army is marching from the East. More men desert each day. If we do not find a way into that city soon, I am afraid all will be lost, and this long journey will have been for not."

"Do not lose faith. God controls all."

"Does he? I feel my faith failing in these desperate hours. What will happen to this world if we fail?"

"You will not fail unless God wills it. Men worry too much about the world. God alone has control, and what occurs, is done in concordance with his will. You can do no more, than live for him and for his glory. Go has not forsaken you. I am here as your advocate, even after you were removed from the church, and then joined this crusade. That alone should be testament enough for you. You, more than anyone in this army, should realize the power, and the love of God."

"I do, believe me, Aryell. I pray my thanks to God every day I watch the sun rise over those hills. And then again each night as I watch it retreat again behind those walls. But why does he cause us to despair? Why does he carry us to the limits of our faith?"

"Despair is a human emotion, not something of God. Not even the Angels know the mind of God, Phillip. But what is more cherished, something given, or something fought for and won with victory? Rest assured, even in the darkest hour, and especially when you think him departed from your heart, his legions stand watch over you. Men are so concerned with feeling and seeing, where is he faith? He never leaves, Phillip, ever."

"I just wish I knew where this was going." But as he said the words, he heard the rustling of feathers as if a giant bird were spreading its wings beside him. Phillip looked over and watched the back of Aryell's robe change shape and become two great wings like those of an eagle, perfect and strong, silky white feathers glistening in the failing twilight. "Where are you flying off to?" Phillip asked, slowly rising to his feet and securing his sword in its scabbard.

"I shall be back by morning, Phillip. Pray for my safe return. If by the grace of God, I am successful, more than one for your prayers will be answered this night." And with a mighty beat of his powerful wings, the archangel Aryell, leapt into the air and soared off into the dark evening sky.

Phillip spent the rest of the night on his knees at the foot of his bed. Having once been a monk in the Azincourt Monastery, the power of prayer had shown its virtues of healing and ameliorationmany times over. The most powerful of which he felt in the waning hours of the night. A presence filled his tent, he felt it swirling around him, giving him strength and renewing his conviction. Phillip had already been blessed with a living, breathing, flying, and fighting guardian angel, a paladin of justice on the battlefield. But this presence in the tent, what he felt was in his heart and in his soul. God visited him in the tent, stood behind him and laid his hand on his shoulder as he knelt in prayer. They prayed together for the safe return of Aryell and that he may complete his task. Phillip prayed for his fellow pilgrims, and that their prayers for food and victory would soon be realized. And finally, they prayed for the leadership of this, the first of armed pilgrimages to the Holy land. That they may lead in the footsteps of the Almighty.

The next morning, Phillip woke to a significant commotion in the east portion of the encampment. He burst from the doors of his tent, sword and shield in hand. The cross of God stitched on the left shoulder of his tunic, but without the chainmaille and padding, it looked more like a robe, hanging almost to his feet and the arms nearly to his hands. His wooden shield was painted very plain, a sign he was poor and did not represent a family or province. Every piece of equipment he wore was borrowed or pillaged from fallen warriors. Most was old, and in bad repair. Stephen had supplied him a good pair of boots and a strong sword. The shield he had taken from another monk who had left the church and taken the oath, but was killed during the battle for Nicea. Phillip repainted it, red on the right half, white on the left.

"Before you go, I have good news," Aryell said. He was leaning against a tree nearly twenty meters away, but Phillip had heard his voice as a whisper in his ear. Aryell skimmed over the muddy ground and came face to face with him.

"Do you know what the commotion is about?" Phillip asked, chomping at the bit to join his companions.

"A good number of knights are ready to leave. You need to go and stop them."

"Ok, what shall I tell them?"

"Tell them the keeper of the St. George gate is a Christian."

"There are lots of Christians in Antioch."

"This one controls the gate during the midnight watch. He hates the Turkish ruler Yaghi-Siyan, and wants a Christian ruler. I convinced him he could be the tip of the spear of God."

Phillip's eyes grew wide. "He will allow us passage into the city?"

"A small force, along with the loyal Christians already inside, will easily take the battlements. Once the gate is opened, the army will be free to enter the city."

"You sound almost sad. These are the enemies of God, are they not?" Phillip said, sheathing his sword and laying his shield against the tent.

"Anyone who persecutes Christians is an enemy of mine. But when your army enters the city, many innocents will be killed along with the enemy, even some Christians."

The color left Phillip's face. "How do you know this?"

Aryell reached up and pulled back the hood of his robe. His face was young and perfect, skin pulled tight over taut muscles in his jaw and neck. His hair short, like the thick spring grass, but as golden yellow as wheat stalks just before the harvest. Phillip could see the powerful, ropey muscles covering the man's large frame, but his vision settled on the angel's cold, blue eyes. The spiritual fire of love and zeal writhed like a ferocious hoard ready to set loose annihilation upon the enemies of God. "I have fought many battles next to many men beneath God's banner of righteousness. His love is patient and kind, and he has a special love for those who go into battle for him; the warriors who battle for others, for the weak who can not defend themselves; those warriors who truly carry God in their hearts. But men like that are as numerous as four-leafed clovers. The hearts of men are easily swayed by the evil one; not all in this army are righteous."

Phillip saw the conflict in the eyes of the angel, said, "If it is as you say, God controls all, Aryell."

"Spoken like a man starting to embrace his faith again. Make sure these men are ready. The main force will march west at noon, making for Nicea. A small force will stay behind, and assault the wall under cover of darkness." Aryell pulled the hood back over his head and started back for the tree.

Phillip studied the ground for a moment, too concentrated on what he had heard to see a single thing he was looking at. "The men will not take this information lightly. I do not think many will believe it."

"Go to Bohemond first. He is scheming for the crown. He will make the others listen. Now GO!"

Phillip, still brooding over this turn of events, was startled by Aryell's harsh reply. He staggered for a moment then headed off to find the rich and powerful Bohemond. And found him, pacing in front of his richly furnished tent. Bohemond was muttering to himself, something about the traitorous Byzantines not sending the promised reinforcements when Phillip laid this salvation in his lap. He was overjoyed, and after a short outburst of emotion, set to scheming once again.

A meeting of the commanders was called by Bohemond, in which he took credit for securing a spy within the city and recited the plans Phillip had relayed to him. The other commanders were skeptical at first, but with nothing really to lose, they eventually voted unanimously to employ the spy and attempt to take the city during the night.

The encampment spent most of the day preparing to move; at least that was how it was to appear to the spotters in Antioch. Sixty knights, however, sharpened their swords, greased their armor, and prepared to assault the impregnable fortress. That is, sixty knights and one ambassador of the sword of God.

As the sun settled behind the lower spire of the west tower, the Army was ready to move. They set out west in the direction of Nicea, the last secure location at which they could mount a defense from the encroaching Turkish army. They would not get far.

Bohemond appointed himself captain of the small raiding force. "Remove all your armor, maille, anything that makes noise. Put it in those three carts. After we secure the gate, it will be brought back for the battle." The men grumbled but the veterans agreed and were the first to remove the coveted maille.

"So, how exactly are we to get inside?" One of the lower knights asked.

Stephen brought up five giant grappling hooks tied to thick lengths of knotted rope. "The Armenian spy has agreed to abandon his tower after the third watch. Then, we climb." The twinkle in his eye told of a man poised to crown himself king of a city.

When the raiders were prepared, the group moved to a gully near the St. George gate and settled in as the watchman called second hour. Most prayed, a few of the older veterans slept, but Bohemond was the only man bubbling with anticipation. "God has granted us a wonderful reward for our devotion to this war against his enemies. He has chosen to bless me with this knowledge and it is only right I should be made king after our victory."

Stephen and Phillip sat against a small mound of dirt close enough to hear Bohemond glorify himself to the other knights. "You know, I have heard it was not Bohemond at all who secured this spy," Stephen whispered, inquisitively eyeing his friend.

Phillip grinned, shuddering a little in the cool evening breeze. "Who would know such a thing?" Phillip asked, not looking up from his Bible. Aryell sat a short distance away and also turned his attention to hear the conversation.

"A squire of mine heard another man tell Bohemond of this same plan. This squire was preparing my horse and has no reason to lie." Stephen cut a sliver of apple and handed it to his friend. "Bohemond will make himself king. But I do not believe he deserves it." He said, then cut another piece of apple and offered it to Aryell who declined.

Phillip took another piece of apple and chewed quietly. "My concern is for the safety of my Christian brothers, and the success of the army bearing the cross of the Son of God. It matters not who gains status or glory through this struggle. I fight for the glory of the almighty God. It is he who gives me strength in trouble times, not the praise of men."

"You are a righteous man Phillip," Stephen said, "as much as any other man here." He clapped his friend on the shoulder and looking at Aryell, saw the hooded man nod, and as he did, a small sliver of light penetrated the cover of his hood and illuminated the bottom of a contented smile.

The three sat in silence until the third hour was called from within the great city wall. The small band was instantly abuzz with an eagerness for battle. All sixty knights crept to the edge of the gully awaiting the sign. "May God grant us victory," Stephen said to Phillip and Aryell, both crouched on his right.

"His will be done," Aryell hissed, as a torch was tossed over the wall.

In unison the small band vaulted from the gulley and toward the wall. Five men, the smaller of the knights, and Aryell, immediately took the hooks and began climbing the wall, one brick at a time. Moss covered a good portion of the bricks and combined with the evening dew, made for a treacherous climb. One man lost his footing halfway up and plummeted to the ground. His leg broke at the thigh as he hit the ground, but he remained silent so as not to give away the assault. Aryell was the first to the top, set his hook and tossed the rope down to Phillip. Phillip grabbed the rope and began pulling himself up, Stephen close at his heels. When the entire force was over the wall, twenty men were sent to the left to secure the next guardhouse, another twenty were sent to the right guardhouse, and the last twenty were sent to secure the gatehouse at the base of the wall. Aryell, Stephen, and Phillip went right.

Bohemond had told everyone the wall guard would be depleted since the city had watched the enemy army march east. But in fact, the guard had been doubled in anticipation of a surprise attack and the guardhouse to the right was teeming with armed Turks. The twenty men inched along the wooden planks until they were spotted by an archer on patrol. He let out a frightened scream that brought the defenders to the battlements. The men who filed out were confused, squawking incoherently upon finding the countryside in front of the city coming alive with approaching knights clad in battle armor. But fear pulled their faces into looks of horror when Aryell let out a roar that shook the wall to its foundations. He took out his giant sword etched with seraphic pictorials and written praises to God in one hand, and giant spiked morning star in the other. "Glory be to God!" He yelled as he waded into the wall guards like a shark swimming into a school of tuna; slashing, rending and smashing his way across the wall. The other twenty knights followed close behind, incited by his strength and zeal.

While fighting two men armed with lances, Stephen got turned around, his back to a pair of encroaching Turkish soldiers with swords. Aryell saw this and pushed him down as the two men attacked. He blocked both swords with a single swipe of the morning star, cleaving one man in half with his own blade. Then he kicked the other man who fell over the edge and plummeted to his death at the base of the wall. Stephen sat stunned for a moment, watching this mammoth figure fighting with the strength of twenty men. He blocked another attack with his sword and caved in the man's chest with a powerful swing of the morning star. The sword blocked and cut while the star countered and shattered bones. Stephen finally rose to his feet and continued the battle.

A small force of Turks heard the fighting on the parapet on climbed up the scaffolding to repel the enemy. Phillip was battling a man with a curved scimitar. One of the climbers reached up and caught Phillip by the foot, sending him crashing down in the wooden walkway. The man with the scimitar took full advantage by bringing his weapon above his head for a killing stroke. The man screamed as he brought his weapon crashing down toward Phillip's face. Just before he felt the blade cleave his face, Aryell blocked the scimitar with his sword letting out a harmonious reverberation followed by the smell of burnt ozone as the two hunks of metal clanged a hair's width from his brow. Phillip stared at the blade for a moment, he felt the heat and in the mirror finish, saw the majesty of heaven and the fiery wrath of God. Then the blade was whisked away and with a vanquishing blow, the archangel sent two Turkish soldiers cascading over the edge of the wall.

"MOVE!" Aryell shouted, breaking through Phillip's stupor. "The day is nearly won!"

The twenty men, including Bohemond, who stormed the gate house, easily succeeded in taking and securing the gate. As the army reached the gate, it opened and the Christian army entered just before daybreak. They were joined by many Christian's who had stayed in the city through the Turkish subjugation. "Kill the Turks," said Bohemond and his supporters. "They killed Christians, they are the enemy." Then they started to chant, "Kill them ALL!"

The ensuing extermination took most of the day. Every Muslim in the city was killed by Bohemond and his men. The destruction was brutal and perfectly complete. The leaders of the Crusading armies were not happy with the renegade general, but he was allowed to finish his work. However, when he laid claim to the throne of the city, they had heard enough and in secret went to scheming his demise.

When the killing finally stopped, Phillip found Aryell in one of the spires of the west gate. "Why was he allowed to continue," Phillip asked, in a small voice barely breaching his lips.

"As I said, not all men are righteous. But do not despair Phillip. He will be punished for his sins."

Stephen also found the two men sitting in the spire. "The Turkish army just crested the horizon. They will be here before daybreak." He said it as a matter of little consequence, and then turned to face Aryell. Ropey muscles bulged against the burlap material of the robe as Stephen studied the bulky frame, not a spot of blood visible anywhere on the big man. "You surely saved my life on the wall. If by my sword or my life,"

"No," Aryell said, "Give your thanks and the glory to God and no one else. It was he who granted us victory."

Stephen uncomfortably shifted his weight and said, "We have not always been,"

"Do not say another word nor give it another thought. Like Phillip, I fight for the glory of God and his Son. I fight for love and I fight for the righteous."

Stephen opened his mouth to speak but could not find the words to express his feelings. All three men stood at the railing watching the encroaching army marching over horizon in waves of glimmering metal and noisy flesh. The sun had just begun to sink at their backs. The darkness came down the countryside like an approaching storm. Phillip pushed himself away from the ledge and cinched up his belt. "I am hungry again," he said, catching a whiff of the fragrant countryside in his nostrils.

"Eat now; it may be some time before the next meal comes." Aryell said also leaning away from the ledge. "I fear tomorrow will prove to be a very long day."