Nearly 800 years before Everest Pearmain was buying aniseed balls from Winnie Wetherspoon, dawn was breaking on an unseasonably cold April morning.
It was the year 1252, and fifty-three hungry, bedraggled, and exhausted men were catching their first glimpse of the familiar white cliffs, after two long years of absence. They were the last survivors of a force of 10,000. Proud soldiers once but now, partially clothed, dirty, unshaven and crammed, sardine-like, inside a battered and leaky French fishing boat, inching its way across the grey English Channel towards Dover, they looked more like desperate, dishevelled pirates. Unfortunately, they also smelt a bit sardine-like.
A handful of swords, daggers and shields scattered in the dirty water swilling around the bottom of the boat gave a clue to their former status. But they had ceased to be a fine fighting force long ago.
The oarsmen got a second wind now they could see that home soil was within touching distance and with a last, energy-sapping effort the boat reached the safety of the harbour.
The handful of guards on duty at the port emerged tentatively from their barracks to investigate this curious arrival. One of the boatmen, slightly taller than the rest, with straggly red hair and unkempt beard, a bejewelled broadsword in hand, disembarked onto the wooden jetty and did his best to stand upright.
There was something in his eyes and his bearing that caused the men to stand up a bit straighter. He spoke in a quiet, raspy voice.
“I am your King and I have returned. Send word to the castle and bring transport for my men and our cargo.”
The men, taken aback slightly by the fishy whiff, took a long look at the dishevelled man before them and were not fully convinced. But the sword he was leaning on looked vaguely familiar, so they thought ‘better safe than sorry’ and did as they were commanded.
It took fifteen men to remove their cargo from the bottom of the boat and load it, still wrapped in an assortment of sacking and sheets, onto a horse and cart.
After three days’ rest and recuperation at the castle, high on the hill, overlooking the town, King Aelfred and his men were fed, washed and re-clothed and made ready for their last journey together. Aelfred led them out of the castle gate, looking slightly more regal now with his hair and beard neatly trimmed and sitting astride a large black stallion. His men followed on an assortment of borrowed horses and open carts.
In the middle of this rag-tag train, was their mysterious cargo, on its own carriage, pulled by two huge shire horses.
After five days steady travel they reached the King’s Palace at Winchester. Word had travelled quicker than they had, and they were greeted as conquering heroes by crowds, lining the streets. They didn’t feel like conquering heroes, but they all knew, or at least hoped, that they had achieved a greater victory. Greater than the mere winning of battles.
A day of feasting and speeches followed, during which they did their best to appear appreciative. A few days later their final act together took place.
The carriage with its cargo made one final journey to the King’s chapel in the grounds of the palace where it was finally unwrapped and placed in a specially dug circular recess in the floor. It was surrounded by a gilded cage.
The large round stone, which had travelled with them all the way from the desert of North Africa to what would turn out to be its penultimate resting place, gave off a sparkling glow in the candlelit building.
The stone had been the centrepiece of the high altar in the Temple of the Sun God, which rose magnificently from the desert outside the ancient city of Memphis in Northern Egypt. It was said to be one of a pair, but the location of its twin was not revealed to the crusaders.
It was about six feet across and six inches thick and appeared to glow from deep inside. The upper surface was smooth and polished but not reflective as such. It seemed you could see into its crystalline structure, but it wasn’t see-through. It was like no material any of them had ever seen before and must have been of great age, but there were no chips, no scratches and no scuffs upon it.
It had been given to them as a token of peace after a long and private meeting in the ruined temple between Aelfred, and one of their former enemies, the Sultan of Lower Egypt. It was said to have a great power that could be used for good but to those now assembled in front of it, it merely represented the futility of the war they had waged for the previous two years. They remembered the friends they had lost and the enemies they had slain, for reasons that they could no longer fully remember.
The King touched his sword on the shoulder of each of his fifty-two survivors and bestowed upon them the title ‘Knight of the Sunstone’. Each man took away a richly embroidered purse with enough gold and jewels weighing it down to enable them to rebuild their lives.
In return, each one promised to spread the message of the pointlessness of war and to make a pilgrimage to the chapel once a year to remember how and why the Sunstone came to be in this place. They were charged with the responsibility of passing that remembrance onto the next generation, so that the foolishness of a less-enlightened age and the sacrifice of their friends and enemies would never be forgotten and never be repeated.
Over time the Knights of the Sunstone fulfilled their promise and thanks to their efforts, and others like them, their world gradually became a better place. The Sunstone itself gently passed into history and faded from memory.They couldn’t know that, many years later, its rediscovery by one of their descendants and its subsequent removal to the village-town of Mucklebury, would set in train a sequence of events that would threaten the hard-won tranquility which their sacrifice had helped to achieve.