Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 5

(See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)

~ 5 ~

Edward’s legs ached and his stomach twisted with hunger as he walked along, hoping with every step that he would break out of the heather-cloaked moors to see the valley of the Tyne before him.  He had left his friends behind at the border of the Scottish lowlands, and was now making his way alone to meet his brother.  He walked for hours without respite, the sun tracing its way slowly over him in its daily arc across the heavens.  The terrain looked all the same, and he quickly tired of studying it.  Mile after mile of heather and thyme, an undulating sea of vegetation that stretched across the land.
        How long has it been since I traveled through this country?  Not since I left my father’s house…not since that night…
He shook his head, forcing the memories back.  Exhausted, he threw himself down onto the ground beside the road, watching a raven slowly mount the air currents above.  It peered down at him, squawked one long, discordant cry, then flew rapidly southward.
“Lord, help me,” he breathed, forcing his muscles to pull him back up again.  As he rose to his feet, though, he caught some movement at the corner of his vision.  He turned his gaze quickly northward, but whatever it had been was gone just as rapidly as it had come.
After he had set off again and walked another few leagues, he turned again to peer northwards.  Miles behind him, barely visible, was the form of a man following the same way.
        Relax.  It’s probably just another traveler.
So he sat down once again beside the road to see who it could be.  The minutes stretched on and on, until he was certain that the follower must have turned aside as well.  Well, I don’t have any time to waste sitting here, he thought to himself, and he made his way southward once again.  He proceeded at a quicker pace now, trying to force aside speculations about who might be behind him.
It was late afternoon by the time he came within sight of the rising towers of the castle and its little town.  His shadow was growing ever longer, so he pressed on into the heart of the city, keeping watch for anything that could be called ‘the abode of the Jews.’
Newcastle was a fairly small town, and its most noticeable feature was the bastion from which it took its name.  Its great stone walls were positioned on the crest of a hill, high above the town that supported it.  It thrived on the trade from the river and on several small fiefdoms scattered about the Northumbrian countryside.  The road that Edward had followed from the border continued on through the city and over an old Roman bridge, where the province of Durham began.
Edward elbowed his way through the market-day crowds, his eyes scanning every house and shop.  It was not until he came to the southern outskirts of the town that he finally reached the building he had been looking for.  But as soon as his eyes fell on it, he knew something had gone terribly wrong.  The handsomely painted sign had been slashed and partially burned. The house itself was in shambles.  Running up to it, he looked inside, past the broken door.  Planks had been smashed in, leaving gaping holes in the walls.  Three beds were arranged within, but the mattresses had been slashed and ripped open, and most of the furnishings of the room had been stripped away.
Alfred? he thought as he looked around in shock.  Was it possible his brother had done this?  No, Alfred left Northampton on the sixth.  He couldn’t be here before late tonight.   
“Well, my brother,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair.  “It appears someone has been here before you.”
His legs were aching from the long march, so he gingerly let himself down on one of the slashed beds and reclined on the torn padding.  His exhausted mind allowed his eyes to close, but he did not sleep.  If the raiders decided to come back to the house, he would have to be alert.
~ ~ ~
The battered door swung in slowly, creaking in an ominous tone as it threatened to release from its last remaining hinge.  Edward drew his breath in sharply, lying as still as he could on the bed.  He opened his eyes to see the silhouette of a woman standing in the doorway, framed against the golden tinge of the evening sky.
She drew in an involuntary gasp as her eyes swept over the rubble within.  Her gaze never fell on the corner where he lay, and he remained perfectly still, not wanting to startle her with an abrupt appearance.  He watched with interest as she stepped further inside and turned slightly so that the light from the open door illuminated her face.  In that instant, he felt the blood freeze in his veins.  That countenance had been burned in his mind, but he had never actually expected to see it with his own eyes.  The dream…she was the one…
Her eyes flooded with tears, but she bit her lip and choked them back.  “Oh God,” her voice sounded small and hollow in the smashed room.  “What do I do now?”
Edward’s heart burned with pity for her, but still he made no move, watching as she sank to her knees.  Her fingers traced over the torn edges of a bright tapestry, its remnants slashed and in tatters all over the floor.  Just then, a child’s cry rang out from outside the house.  She drew a deep breath and brush away the tears from her cheeks.
“Han!” the cry came again, this time with a rising note of fear.
She sighed, pushing her long black hair away from her face as she rose.  “I’m coming, Samuel.”
After throwing one last glance around the demolished room, she made her exit.  Edward leapt up from the bed and rushed over to the far wall, where he peered through a crack in the beaten timbers.  He saw her walk over to a small brown mare and take its reins, stooping down to pick up a little boy, who held his chubby arms out pleadingly to her. 
“Quiet, Samuel,” she said, barely loud enough for Edward to hear.
“Home,” he pleaded, pointing to the ravaged building.
“No,” she said, shaking her head as she began to walk toward the river.  “We’ll sleep in the cave tonight.”
Edward watched them from his lookout until they disappeared from view, turning west and proceeding upriver along the bank.  When he was fairly certain that he was not being watched by anyone in the town, he slipped out of the house and followed her path down toward the river.  He found a faint trail that pressed through the underbrush, barely discernable unless you knew what you were looking for.
He scanned the area ahead, but saw no sign that she had turned around or had paused.  Eventually he came upon what appeared to be a shallow depression in the face of a large boulder.  He would have been fooled and proceeded past it except for the fact that the young woman’s voice seemed to be coming from inside the rock.  A large patch of lichen covered an entire face of the boulder, and it did not take long for Edward to discern that this was nothing more than a cleverly hidden doorway.
Still not certain why he was there or what he was doing, he sat down outside the mouth of the cave, glancing back down the trail.  For an instant, he thought he saw the shape of a man dart quickly behind a stand of trees and once again the memory of his phantom follower on the road came back to him.  After staring hard at it for some time, he decided it had been merely a trick of the light among the dancing leaves.
 Inside, Hannah was still unaware of her follower.  She sat down wearily on the hard-packed dirt floor, weeping softly.  Who could have done that?  We have been in this city for years, and no one has ever… 
“We have no home, Samuel,” she said softly, stooping down into a corner of the little cave to pick up a candle.  Using a small piece of flint, she was able to light the candle, shedding light around the room.
“If there were riots here," she mused to herself, "I wonder what happened to Ruth. Perhaps we should have looked in on her house.  I haven’t eaten in…how long has it been, Samuel?”  The little boy gazed calmly back up at her with his dark, innocent eyes.  She laughed softly.  “Well, you wouldn’t know, would you?”
She shook her head, running a hand through her dusty hair.  Now, where was it?  Clambering over a few large rocks in the back of the cave, she easily found the little hollow and dragged out the contents: two leather pouches, exactly identical.  She crawled back to her sitting spot and carefully emptied the first one.  Hundreds of coins of all types fell onto the floor in a glittering shower.  She looked it over carefully.  How much?  Certainly not enough to free Uncle.
She smiled at Samuel, who reached out to play with some of the small coins.  Shaking her head, she carried him to the other side of the cave so he couldn’t try to eat them.  Kneeling in the dirt, she began to sort and count the coins, hoping against all possibilities that there would be enough.  It took several minutes, but when she was done, she sat back, a depressed frown on her face.  Eighty-seven.  Not enough.
         “Well, Samuel,” she grinned at her brother, “we may be going to Northampton.  Let’s see.”   
         She took the second pouch and carefully removed the contents into her lap: old cloth and parchment.  She smoothed out the wrinkles in the ancient garment and refolded it.  When it had been neatly placed beside her, she took a look at the other object: a scroll of several parchments, all rolled together.  With a deep breath, she unrolled the first, holding it up to the candle to read it.  Her father had taught her to read, but the handwriting she found was strange, and the spelling followed no logical pattern.  It took her a while to decode it, only to find that there were three more letters, all in the same hand.
By the time she was done, her mind was reeling from what she had read.  Placing a steadying hand on the ground, she tried to breathe deeply, looking at the garment.    
“Strange,” she whispered to herself, lifting it up before the light.  It was obviously very old, and had at one time been a shade of dark purple--patches of the original hue still remained.  Most of it, however, had paled from exposure, making it nearly white.  It was torn in many places and soiled with several dark stains.  All in all, it did not look very valuable.
Where can I hide this? she thought, gazing around.  If she were to travel to Northampton with it, and if it were as valuable as the letters claimed, it would have to be somewhere no one would expect.  After a few minutes, her eye fell on her little brother, and a slight smile crossed her face.  Well, perhaps it is the only way.
        Stepping over, she lifted up her brother, who gurgled happily at being the center of her attention again.  She glanced worriedly at the new linens around him.  She sighed, wrapping the garment in an outer layer around his body.   
        “If you get this wet,” she laughed, “you must promise not to tell the Christians about it.  They’d probably kill you.”
The toddler laughed again, reaching out to touch her cheek.  She glanced down, checking it once more.  Not your ordinary child's robe, but it might work.  She smiled again, kissing him lightly on the forehead.  “Soon we will have Uncle back with us, Samuel.  Then we can be a family again.”
She attached the money-pouch to her belt and covered it with her cloak, then sighed, patting the mare’s nose gently as it grazed on the grass that was growing just inside the mouth of the cave.   
"Well, it’s almost sundown now.  We will wait until tomorrow to set out.”
~ ~ ~
Edward yawned, looking out at the river close below him.  It swirled around in sun-dappled eddies near the shore, showering a million sparkles of dancing light over the banks.  The orange rays of the setting sun cast the entire scene in a fiery display.  He watched the river and the sundown as he waited, wondering what he could possibly do next.
He heard the girl’s voice every so often from the cave, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying.  At one point he thought he heard the cry of the child again, but he wasn’t sure.  He frowned, watching the sun sink down to the west.  Whoever she was, she had some connection with the usurer, and was therefore in danger from Alfred.
Should I tell her?  He sighed, running a hand over his face slowly.  It was such a difficult decision.  He hoped that his brother would find the usury-house destroyed and return south, but he knew not to be too expectant.  It was more likely that Alfred's brigands would try to attack the village if they thought that what they wanted had been plundered away.
His mind wandered back to his mysterious stalker on the road, but even though he had seen no sign of him for hours, the nervous feeling had not left.  Again he glanced back at the woods through which he had come, his mind conjuring up images of dark eyes peering back at him from beneath shaded boughs.  He shuddered and rubbed his arms vigorously to ward away a growing chill.
Just then, a small gasp echoed from the mouth of the cave.  He glanced over to see the young woman standing there, her mouth open in surprise as she watched him.   
“What…” her voice sounded firm, but strained.  Her eyes held his, and he could see the fear in them.  “What are you doing here?”
As he looked into her eyes, though, he was speechless.  The memory of his dream came back to him, flooding him with questions.  She had been dying in the dream…
“Who are you?” she asked, and this time her voice was barely above a whisper.
He stood up, dusting off his tunic.  Her dark eyes continued to hold him.  And what he saw there caused his spirit to cry out, to want to comfort her.  
“My name is Edward,” he said, holding her gaze.  “From Melrose of Scotland.  And you?”
Her brow furrowed as she processed the name, searching her memory to see if he was there.  She drew a deep breath, regaining some of her composure and authority.  
“My name is Hannah.  But as for you, Edward of Melrose—why are you here?”
Instead of answering the question, he pressed one of his own to gauge her reaction.  “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”
For an instant, horror flooded her face, but she quickly recovered.  “If I am, sir, what does it matter to you?”
“Forgive me.  I meant no harm to you.”
“Very well, then, Edward of Melrose.  Perhaps you should move along.  After all,” her voice resounded with scorn, “it certainly wouldn’t be proper for you to speak to a Jewess.”
“So I understand,” he replied.  “But I haven’t come here to speak to you.  I’m meeting someone. My brother, actually, though I wouldn't mind if we miss end up missing each other.”
“You're meeting him here?” she motioned with her hand to the brush-covered banks.
“No, I was actually supposed to meet him at the usurer’s house.”
“The usurer’s house is in the village,” she pointed back down the path.
“I know."
“Then—why don’t you go back?” she pressed bluntly.
“I think that I have a purpose to fulfill here,” he said, pursing his lips in thought.  “I’m not sure what it is yet.”
She wasn’t sure how to respond for a moment.  Edward reflected on his own statement and blushed at how ridiculous it sounded.
“You’re probably wondering if I’m some sort of crazed wandering mystic.”
She nodded, a hint of a smile forming at the corners of her mouth.  “But if you’re just waiting here, then I’ll be on my way.”
“No, wait,” he said, blocking the path.  “The roads probably aren’t safe—not with my brother on them.”
“So I should wait here with you until your dangerous relatives arrive?  That wouldn’t exactly be the height of wisdom, would it?”
He couldn’t help but smile at her dry analysis of the situation.
“The roads are never safe for Jewish women,” she said, glaring straight at him.  “It’s something that I have to deal with—I can’t live my life in worry, sitting around with, as you put it, a crazed mystic.”
“But the sun has almost set,” Edward protested.  “Surely you’re not planning to travel by night.”
“I have some friends in town,” she said, ducking quickly back in the cave.  She came out again with the small boy in her arms, her brown mare following behind.  “So I will be going now, Edward of Melrose.  I wish you luck with your brother.”
She stepped around him and made her way back down the little footpath.   He watched her move off for a long moment, wondering what to do.  
Heaving a great sigh, he began to follow her.  When she reached the edge of the woods, she turned around and raised an eyebrow at him.  “I don’t know what this purpose is you’re looking for, Edward of Melrose!” she called back.  “But I can assure you, it doesn’t include me.  Leave me in peace.”
He smiled, accelerating until he was walking beside her.  “I’m not so sure of that,” he said.
She brushed aside a branch from the path.  “Why must you plague me?” she wondered aloud.
“If you must know,” he said, smiling down at Samuel’s wondering gaze, “I was concerned about you.”
“About a Jewess?” she laughed bitterly.  “Perhaps Melrose has never heard of the social rules that classify all Jews as worthless.”
“I know of the common thought,” he said.  “And I happen not to share it.”
“Really?” she smiled--a genuine smile of bright surprise.  “Perhaps I should enjoy the company of crazed mystics more often.”
He began to muse out loud.  “Perhaps the Jews do deserve God's wrath for rejecting Christ, for having him killed. But it strikes me that Christ himself chose Jews to build his church.”
She tilted her head slightly, her eyes scanning the path ahead of them.
“So even Jews must be worth something,” he continued.  
She let out a sigh and shook her head as they broke out of the sheltering foliage into the openness of the town.  “Well, Edward of Melrose, I will bid you goodbye.  Perhaps I shall see you again, perhaps not.”
“Goodbye,” he said, standing next to the shattered frame of the usury-house as he watched her lead the horse down the narrow street.  
“And I know we shall meet again.”
 

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