The long-awaited sequel to A Column of Fire, The Armor of Light, heralds a new dawn for Kingsbridge, England, where progress clashes with tradition, class struggles push into every part of society, and war in Europe engulfs the entire continent and beyond.
The Spinning Jenny was invented in 1770, and with that, a new era of manufacturing and industry changed lives everywhere within a generation. A world filled with unrest wrestles for control over this new world order: A mother’s husband is killed in a work accident due to negligence; a young woman fights to fund her school for impoverished children; a well-intentioned young man unexpectedly inherits a failing business; one man ruthlessly protects his wealth no matter the cost, all the while war cries are heard from France, as Napoleon sets forth a violent master plan to become emperor of the world. As institutions are challenged and toppled in unprecedented fashion, ripples of change ricochet through our characters’ lives as they are left to reckon with the future and a world they must rebuild from the ashes of war.
Over thirty years ago, Ken Follett published his most popular novel, The Pillars of the Earth. Now, with this electrifying addition to the Kingsbridge series we are plunged into the battlefield between compassion and greed, love and hate, progress and tradition. It is through each character that we are given a new perspective to the seismic shifts that shook the world in nineteenth-century Europe.
Release date: September 26, 2023
Print pages: 750
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The Armor of Light: A Novel
Until that day, Sal Clitheroe had never heard her husband scream. After that day she never heard it again, except in dreams.
It was noon when she got to Brook Field. She knew the time by the quality of the light gleaming weakly through the pearl-gray cloud that sheeted the sky. The field was four flat acres of mud with a quick stream along one side and a low hill at the south end. The day was cold and dry, but it had rained for a week and, as she splashed through the puddles, the sticky sludge tried to pull off her homemade shoes. It was hard going but she was a big, strong woman, and she did not tire easily.
Four men were harvesting a winter crop of turnips, bending and lifting and stacking the knobbly brown roots on broad shallow baskets called corves. When a corf was loaded the men would carry it to the foot of the hill and tumble the turnips into a stout oak four-wheeled cart. Their task was almost done, Sal saw, for this end of the field was bare of turnips and the men were working close to the hill.
They were all dressed alike. They wore collarless shirts and homespun knee-breeches made by their wives, and waistcoats bought secondhand or discarded by rich men. Waistcoats never wore out. Sal’s father had had a fancy one, double-breasted with red and brown stripes and braided hems, cast off by some city dandy. She had never seen him in anything else, and he had been buried in it.
On their feet the laborers had hand-me-down boots, endlessly repaired. Each man had a hat and all were different: a cap of rabbit fur, a straw cartwheel with a wide brim, a tall felt hat, and a tricorne that might have belonged to a naval officer.
Sal recognized the fur cap. It belonged to her husband, Harry. She had made it herself, after she had caught the rabbit and killed it with a stone and skinned it and cooked it in a pot with an onion. But she would have known Harry without the hat, even at a distance, by his ginger beard.
Harry’s figure was slender but wiry, and he was deceptively strong: he loaded his corf with just as many turnips as the bigger men. Just looking at that lean, hard body at the far end of a muddy field gave Sal a little glow of desire inside, half pleasure and half anticipation, like coming in from the cold to the warm smell of a wood fire.
As she crossed the field she began to hear their voices. Every few minutes one would call to another, and there would be a short exchange ending in laughter. She could not make out the words but she could guess what they were saying. It would be the mock-aggressive banter of workingmen, jovial insults and cheerful vulgarity, pleasantries that relieved the monotony of repetitive hard work.
A fifth man was watching them, standing by the cart, holding a short horsewhip. He was better dressed, with a blue tailcoat and polished black knee boots. His name was Will Riddick, he was thirty years old, and he was the eldest son of the squire of Badford. The field was his father’s, as were the horse and cart. Will had thick black hair cut to chin length, and he looked discontented. She could guess why. Supervising the turnip harvest was not his job, and he felt it was beneath him; but the squire’s factor had fallen ill, and Sal guessed that Will had been drafted in to replace him, unwillingly.
At Sal’s side her child stumbled barefoot across the boggy ground, struggling to keep pace with her, until she turned and stooped and picked him up effortlessly, then walked on with him in one arm, his head on her shoulder. She held his thin, warm body a little tighter than she needed to, just because she loved him so much.
She would have welcomed more children, but she had suffered two miscarriages and a stillbirth. She had stopped hoping and had begun to tell herself that, poor as they were, one child was enough. She was devoted to her child, probably too much so, for children were often taken away by illness or accident, and she knew that that would break her heart.
She had named him Christopher, but when he was learning to talk he had mangled his name to Kit, and that was what he was called now. He was six years old, and small for his age. Sal hoped that he would grow up to be like Harry, slim but strong. He had certainly inherited his father’s red hair.
It was time for the midday meal, and Sal was carrying a basket with cheese, bread, and three wrinkled apples. Some way behind her was another village wife, Annie Mann, a vigorous woman the same age as Sal; two more on the same errand were approaching from the opposite direction, down the hill, baskets on their arms, children in tow. The men stopped work gratefully, wiping their muddy hands on their breeches and moving toward the stream, where they could sit on a bed of grass.
Sal reached the path and let Kit down gently.
Will Riddick took a watch on a chain from his waistcoat pocket and consulted it with a scowl. “It’s not noon yet,” he called out. He was lying, Sal felt sure, but no one else had a watch. “Keep working, you men,” he ordered. Sal was not surprised. Will had a mean streak. His father, the squire, could be hard-hearted, but Will was worse. “Finish the job, then have your dinners,” he said. There was a note of disdain in the way he said your dinners, as if there was something contemptible about laborers’ meals. Will himself would be going back to the manor house for roast beef and potatoes, she thought, and probably a jug of strong beer to go with it.
Three of the men bent to their work again, but the fourth did not. He was Ike Clitheroe, Harry’s uncle, a gray-bearded man of about fifty. In a mild tone he said: “Better not overload the cart, Mr. Riddick.”
“You leave it to me to be the judge of that.”
“Begging your pardon,” Ike persisted, “but that brake is about worn through.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the damned cart,” Will said. “You just want to stop work early. You always do.”
Sal’s husband spoke up. Harry was never slow to join in an argument. “You should listen to Uncle Ike,” he said to Will. “Otherwise you could lose your cart and your horse and all your bloody turnips, too.”
The other men laughed. But it was never wise to have a joke at the expense of the gentry, and Will frowned blackly and said: “You shut your insolent mouth, Harry Clitheroe.”
Sal felt Kit’s little hand creep into her own. His father was getting into a conflict, and young Kit sensed the danger.
Insolence was Harry’s weakness. He was an honest man and a hard worker, but he did not believe the gentry were better than him. Sal loved him for his pride and his independent thinking, but the masters resented it, and he was often in trouble for insubordination. However, he had made his point now, and he said no more, but went back to work.
The women put down their baskets on the bank of the stream. Sal and Annie went to help their men gather turnips, while the other two wives, who were older, sat with the dinners.
The work was finished quickly.
At that point it became obvious that Will had made a mistake in leaving the cart at the foot of the hill. He should have stationed it fifty yards farther down the track, to give the horse room to pick up speed before tackling the slope. He thought for a moment, then said: “You men, push the back of the cart, to give the horse a start.” Then he jumped up on the seat, deployed the whip, and said: “Hup!” The gray mare took the strain.
The four laborers got behind the cart and pushed. Their feet slipped on the wet path. The muscles of Harry’s shoulders rippled. Sal, who was as strong as any of them, joined in. So did little Kit, which made the men smile.
The wheels shifted, the mare lowered her head and leaned into the traces, the whip cracked, and the cart moved. The helpers fell back and watched as it headed up the slope. But the mare slowed, and Will yelled back: “Keep pushing!”
They all ran forward, put their hands on the tail end of the cart, and resumed. Once again the cart picked up speed. For a few yards the mare ran well, powerful shoulders straining against the leather harness, but she could not keep up the pace. She slowed, then stumbled in the slippery mud. She seemed to regain her footing, but she had lost momentum, and the cart jerked to a halt. Will lashed the beast, and Sal and the men heaved with all their might, but they could not hold the cart, and the high wooden wheels began to turn slowly backward.
Will hauled on the brake handle, then they all heard a loud crack, and Sal saw the two halves of a snapped wooden brake pad fly off the left rear wheel. She heard Ike say: “I told the bugger, I told him.”
They pushed as hard as they could, but they were forced backward, and Sal had a sick feeling of imminent danger. The cart picked up speed in reverse. Will yelled: “Push, you lazy dogs!”
Ike lifted his hands from the tail and said: “It won’t hold!” The horse slipped again, and this time she fell. Parts of the leather harness broke, and the beast hit the ground and was dragged along.
Will jumped down from the seat. The cart, out of control now, started to roll faster. Without even thinking, Sal picked up Kit with one arm and jumped aside, out of the path of the wheels. Ike shouted: “Everyone out of the way!”
The men scattered just as the cart swerved, then turned over sideways. Sal saw Harry crash into Ike and they both fell. Ike tumbled to the side of the track, but Harry fell in the path of the cart, and it landed on him with the edge of the heavy oak flatbed on his leg.
That was when he screamed.
Sal froze, cold fear gripping her heart. He was hurt, badly hurt. A moment went by when everyone stared, horrified. The turnips from the cart rolled across the ground, and some of them splashed into the stream. Harry cried hoarsely: “Sal! Sal!”
She shouted: “Get the cart off him, come on!”
They all got their hands to the cart. They lifted it off Harry’s leg, but its rise was made difficult by the big wheels, and she realized they had to raise it onto the wheel rims before they could roll it upright. “Let’s get our shoulders under it!” she yelled, and they all saw the sense of that. But the wood was heavy, and they were pushing against the upward slope of the hill. There was a terrible moment when she thought they were in danger of dropping the cart, and it would fall back down and crush Harry a second time. “Come on, heave!” she shouted. “All together!” and they all said: “Heave,” and suddenly the cart tipped over and came upright, its far wheels landing with a crash.
Then Sal saw Harry’s leg, and she gasped in horror. It was flattened from thigh to shin. Fragments of bone stuck out of his skin, and his breeches were soaked with blood. His eyes were closed and a terrible moaning sound came from his half-opened lips. She heard Uncle Ike say: “Oh, dear God, spare him.”
Kit began to cry.
Sal wanted to cry, too, but she controlled herself: she had to get help. Who could run fast? She looked around the group and her eye lit on Annie. “Go to the village, Annie, as fast as you can, and fetch Alec.” Alec Pollock was the barber-surgeon. “Tell him to meet us at my house. Alec will know what to do.”
“Keep an eye on my children,” said Annie, and she set off at a run.
Sal knelt at Harry’s side, her knees in the mud. He opened his eyes. “Help me, Sal,” he said. “Help me.”
“I’m going to carry you home, my dear love,” she said. She got her hands under him, but when she tried to take the weight and lift his body, he screamed again. Sal pulled back her hands, saying: “Jesus, help me.”
She heard Will say: “You men, start putting the turnips back in this cart. Come on, look lively.”
She said quietly: “Someone shut his mouth before I shut it for him.”
Ike said: “What about your horse, Mr. Riddick? Can she get up?” He went around the cart to look at the mare, distracting Will’s attention from Harry. Sal thought: Thank you, clever Uncle Ike.
She turned to Annie’s husband, Jimmy Mann, the owner of the three-cornered hat. “Go to the timber yard, Jimmy,” she said. “Ask them to quickly knock up a stretcher with two or three wide boards that we can carry Harry on.”
“On my way,” said Jimmy.
Will called: “Help me get this horse up on its legs.”
But Ike said: “She’s never going to stand again, Mr. Riddick.”
There was a pause, then Will said: “I think that might be right.”
“Why don’t you fetch a gun?” said Ike. “Put the beast out of its misery.”
“Yes,” said Will, but he did not sound decisive, and Sal realized that underneath his bluster he was shocked.
Ike said: “Have a mouthful of brandy, if you’ve got your flask about you.”
While he was drinking, Ike said: “That poor lad with his leg crushed could use a drink. It might ease the pain.”
Will did not reply, but a few moments later Ike came back around the cart with a silver flask in his hand. At the same time, Will was walking briskly away in the opposite direction.
Sal murmured: “Well done, Ike.”
He handed her Will’s flask and she held it to Harry’s lips, letting a trickle flow into his mouth. He coughed, swallowed, and opened his eyes. She gave him more and he drank it eagerly.
Ike said: “Get as much as possible into him. We don’t know what Alec will need to do.”
For a moment Sal wondered what Ike could mean, then she realized he thought Harry’s leg might have to be cut off. “Oh, no,” she said. “Please, God.”
“Just give him more brandy.”
The liquor brought a little color back into Harry’s face. In a barely audible whisper he said: “It hurts, Sal, it hurts so much.”
“The surgeon is coming.” It was all she could think of to say. She felt maddened by her own helplessness.
While they waited the women fed the children. Sal gave Kit the apples from her basket. The men started picking up the scattered turnips and putting them back in the cart. It would have to be done sooner or later.
Jimmy Mann came back with a wooden door balanced precariously on his shoulder. He lowered it to the ground with difficulty, panting with the effort of carrying the heavy object half a mile. “It’s for that new house going up over by the mill,” he said. “They said not to damage it.” He put the door down alongside Harry.
Now Harry had to be moved onto the improvised stretcher, and it was going to hurt. She knelt beside his head. Uncle Ike stepped forward to help, but she waved him away. No one else would try as hard as she would to be gentle. She grasped Harry’s arms close to the shoulders and slowly swiveled his upper half over the door. He did not react. She pulled him, an inch at a time, until his torso was resting on the door. But in the end she had to move his legs. She stood over him, straddling him, then she bent down, grasped his hips, and moved his legs onto the door in one swift movement.
He screamed for the third time.
The scream tailed off and turned to sobbing.
“Let’s lift him,” she said. She knelt at one corner of the door, and three of the men took the other corners. “Slowly does it,” she said. “Keep it level.” They grasped the wood and gradually lifted, swinging themselves under it as soon as possible, then balanced it on their shoulders. “Ready?” she said. “Try to keep in step. One, two, three, go.”
They headed across the field. Sal glanced back and saw Kit, dazed and upset, but following her close and carrying her basket. Annie’s two small children were trailing behind their father, Jimmy, who was carrying the back left-hand corner of the stretcher.
Badford was a big village, a thousand residents or more, and Sal’s home was a mile distant. It was going to be a long, slow walk, but she knew the way so well she could probably have done it with her eyes closed. She had lived here all her life, and her parents were in the graveyard alongside St. Matthew’s Church. The only other place she knew was Kingsbridge, and the last time she had been there was ten years ago. But Badford had changed in her lifetime, and today it was not so easy to go from one end of the village to the other. New ideas had transformed farming, and there were fences and hedges in the way. The party carrying Harry had to negotiate gates and winding pathways between private kingdoms.
They were joined by men working in other fields, and then women who came out of their houses to see what was going on, and small children, and dogs, all of whom followed them, chattering among themselves, discussing poor Harry and his terrible injury.
As Sal walked, her shoulder hurting now under the weight of Harry and the door, she recalled how her five-year-old self—called Sally then—had thought of the land outside the village as a vague but narrow periphery, much like the garden around the house where she lived. In her imagination, the whole world had been only slightly larger than Badford. The first time she had been taken to Kingsbridge she had found it bewildering: thousands of people, crowded streets, the market stalls crammed with food and clothes and things she had never heard of—a parrot, a globe, a book to write in, a silver dish. And then the cathedral, impossibly tall, strangely beautiful, cold and quiet inside, obviously the place where God lived.
Kit was now only a little older than she had been on that first astonishing trip. She tried to imagine what he was thinking right now. She guessed he had always seen his father as invulnerable—boys usually did—and now he was trying to get used to the idea of Harry lying injured and helpless. Kit must be scared and confused, she thought. He would need a lot of reassurance.
At last they came within sight of her home. It was one of the meaner houses in the village, built of peat and the interwoven branches and twigs called wattle. The windows had shutters but no glass. Sal said: “Kit, run ahead and open the door.” He obeyed, and they carried Harry straight in. The crowd stayed outside, peering in.
The house had only one room. There were two beds, one narrow and one broad, both simple platforms of unvarnished planks nailed together by Harry. Each was covered by a canvas mattress stuffed with straw. Sal said: “Let’s put him down on the big bed.” They carefully lowered Harry, still lying on the door, onto the bed.
The three men and Sal stood upright, rubbing sore hands and stretching aching backs. Sal stared down at Harry, who was pale and motionless, hardly breathing. She murmured: “Lord, please don’t take him from me.”
Kit stood in front of her and hugged her, his face pressed into her belly, which had been soft ever since his birth. She stroked his head. She wanted to speak comforting words but none came to mind. Anything true would be frightening.
She noticed the men looking around her house. It was quite poor, but theirs would not be much different, for they were all farm laborers. Sal’s spinning wheel was in the middle of the room. It was beautifully made, precision carved and polished. She had inherited it from her mother. Beside it stood a small stack of bobbins wound with finished yarn, waiting to be picked up by the clothier. The wheel paid for luxuries: tea with sugar, milk for Kit, meat twice a week.
“A Bible!” said Jimmy Mann, spotting the only other costly object in the house. The bulky book stood in the center of the table, its brass clasp green with age, its leather binding stained by many grubby hands.
Sal said: “It belonged to my father.”
“But can you read it?”
“He taught me.”
They were impressed. She guessed that none of them could read more than a few words: their names, probably, and perhaps the prices chalked up in markets and taverns.
Jimmy said: “Should we slide Harry off the door and onto the mattress?”
“He’d be more comfortable,” Sal said.
“And I’ll be happier when I’ve returned that door safely to the timber yard.”
Sal went to the other side of the bed and knelt on the earth floor. She put out her arms to receive Harry when he slid off the door. The three men took hold of the other side. “Slowly, gently,” Sal said. They lifted their edge, the door tilted, and Harry slid an inch and groaned. “Tilt a bit more,” she said. This time he slid to the edge of the wood. She got her hands under his body. “More,” she said, “and pull the door away an inch or two.” As Harry slid, she eased her hands and then her forearms under him. Her aim was to keep him as near to still as possible. It seemed to be working, for he made no noise. The thought crossed her mind that silence was ominous.
At the very end they pulled the door away a little too sharply, and Harry’s smashed leg landed on the mattress with a slight thump. He screamed again. This time Sal took it as a welcome sign that he was still alive.
Annie Mann arrived with Alec, the surgeon. The first thing she did was check that her children were all right. Next she looked at Harry. She said nothing, but Sal could tell that she was shocked by how bad he looked.
Alec Pollock was a neat man, dressed in a tailcoat and breeches that were old but well-preserved. He had had no medical training other than what he had learned from his father, who had done the job before him and bequeathed him the sharp knives and other tools that were all the qualifications a surgeon needed.
He carried a small wooden chest with a handle, and now he set it on the floor near the fireplace. Then he looked at Harry.
Sal studied Alec’s face, looking for some sign, but his expression gave nothing away.
He said: “Harry, can you hear me? How do you feel?”
Harry made no response.
Alec looked at the crushed leg. The mattress under it was now soaked in blood. Alec touched the bones sticking out through the skin. Harry gave a cry of pain, but it was not as terrible as his screams. Alec probed the wound with a finger, and Harry cried out again. Then Alec grasped Harry’s ankle and lifted the leg, and Harry screamed.
Sal said: “It’s bad, isn’t it?”
Alec looked at her, hesitated, then said simply: “Yes.”
“What can you do?”
“I can’t set the broken bones,” he said. “Sometimes it’s possible: if just one bone is broken, and it’s not too far out of place, I can sometimes ease it back into the right position, strap it up with a splint, and give it a chance to heal itself. But the knee is too complex and the damage done to Harry’s bones is too severe.”
“So . . . ?”
“The worst danger is that contamination will enter the wound and cause corruption of the flesh. That can be fatal. The solution is to amputate the leg.”
“No,” she said, her voice shaking with desperation. “No, you can’t saw his leg off, he’s suffered too much agony already.”
“It may save his life.”
“There must be something else.”
“I can try to seal the wound,” he said dubiously. “But if that doesn’t work, then amputation will be the only way.”
“Very well.” Alec bent and opened the wooden chest. He said: “Sal, can you put some wood on the fire? I need it really hot.” She hurried to build up the fire under the smoke hood.
Alec took from his chest an earthenware bowl and a stoppered jug. He said to Sal: “I don’t suppose you have any brandy.”
“No,” said Sal, then she remembered Will’s flask. She had tucked it into her dress. “Yes, I do,” she said, and she drew it out.
Alec raised his eyebrows.
“It’s Will Riddick’s,” she explained. “The accident was his fault, the damn fool. I wish it was his knee that got smashed.”
Alec pretended not to hear the insult to the son of the squire. “Make Harry drink as much as possible. If he passes out, so much the better.”
She sat on the bed beside Harry, lifting his head and trickling brandy into his mouth, while Alec heated oil in the bowl. By the time the flask was empty, the oil was bubbling in the bowl, a sight that made Sal feel ill.
Alec slid a wide, shallow dish under Harry’s knee. A horrified audience watched with Sal: the three laborers, Annie and her two children, and a white-faced Kit.
When the moment came, Alec acted with swift precision. Using tongs, he lifted the bowl from the fire and poured the boiling liquid over Harry’s knee.
Harry gave the worst scream of all, then fell unconscious.
All the children cried.
There was a sickening smell of scorched human flesh.
The oil collected in the shallow dish under Harry’s leg, and Alec rocked the dish, making sure some of the hot oil seared the underside of the knee to make the seal complete. Then he removed the dish, poured the oil back into the jug, and stoppered it.
“I’ll send my bill to the squire,” he said to Sal.
“I hope he pays you,” Sal said. “I can’t.”
“He ought to pay me. A squire has a duty to his workers. But there’s no law that says he must. Anyway, that’s between me and him. Don’t you worry about it. Harry won’t want to eat anything, but try to get him to drink if you can. Tea is best. Ale is all right, or fresh water. And keep him warm.” He began to pack his things into the chest.
Sal said: “Is there anything else I can do?”
Alec shrugged. “Pray for him,” he said.
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