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, October 22, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 9



 (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)

~ 9 ~

          Thomas, an officer of the sheriff of Newcastle, stood straight and tall beside his horse, his eyes sweeping over the soldiers’ camp.  He gripped the carved hilt of his sword absently, waiting.  His hair was graying near the edges and balding on top, but holding his sword made him feel like a young man again, ready to take on a hostile world. 
          A brilliant display of sunlight was bursting through the forest, its rays driving away the swirling mists that clung to the surface of the river.  The air was cool and fresh, heavy with the fragrance of clover and morning dew.  Birds chirped happily from their roosts in herald of the breaking dawn.
He nodded to Stephen, third in the chain of command, who was carefully rearranging the items in his saddlebag in anticipation of another day of riding.  Sighing with resignation, Thomas made his way over to where the Sheriff was snoring loudly, his mouth wide open.
“Sir,” Thomas said gently.
The Sheriff didn’t move, so Thomas leaned down closer to him.  “Sir!” he practically shouted, but his attempt was lost in the raucous snoring and a chorus of laughter from the watching men.  So he prodded the slumbering officer with the toe of his boot until eventually he began to awaken.  The snores ended in a quick flurry of grunts and throaty mumblings.  After a few moments, his eyes flew open to see Thomas looking down at him, a slight expression of amusement on his usually solemn face.
“What’s all this, Thomas?” he leapt to his feet, squinting in the bright light of early morning.  “The sun’s up!  We should have awoken an hour ago.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas smiled knowingly.
The Sheriff shook his head, running a hand over his iron-gray beard as he yawned and stretched.  “And the previous sheriff said you were his best man.  How sad.  I still don’t understand why we didn’t attack them by night.”
Thomas pointed out into the woods.  “They undoubtedly had sentries posted.  They could have scattered and we would have lost them in the night.  It’s better to track them until we can corner them in a place without any escape routes.”
The Sheriff nodded to appear as though he had considered it before.  “And where will we find such a place?  Do you know the region?”
“I do, sir.  If we ride hard today, we may be in position by this afternoon.”
“And how do you know these outlaws haven’t already broken camp and left?”
“I sent my brother Raymond as a scout.  He’ll be back to tell us when they leave.  Or if they are late sleepers, we could always spur them on today’s ride with our blades.”  He smiled, deftly twirling his sword from hand to hand.
The Sheriff grunted and shook his head.  “With our luck, they captured your brother and are already miles beyond us.”
“I have no doubt Raymond will return with a report soon, sir,” he responded, then turned and began making his way to where Stephen was scanning the woods, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Sir Thomas,” the Sheriff called him back as if on an afterthought.  Leaning in confidentially, he whispered to the knight.  “What do you suppose these outlaws were after?  They seemed to be targeting the Jews.”
The knight’s brow furrowed in thought.  “I don’t find that unusual, sir.  It was probably just another outbreak in the aftermath of the London riots.  It wouldn’t have even concerned us if they hadn’t struck down the armorer.”
“Yes, we shall miss him,” the Sheriff said.  “And his death will be avenged.  But did you not have the impression that they were searching for something—something they thought the Jews might have?”
Thomas spread his hands and shrugged.  “I have no idea, sir.  I suppose it’s possible.  Why do you ask?”
The Sheriff’s eyes scanned the group of soldiers cautiously, as if he was about to reveal a great secret and he didn’t want anyone but Thomas to hear.  After a moment’s silence, though, he shook his head.  “No reason.”
Thomas narrowed his eyes at the response.  He nodded and made his way over to Stephen, who greeted him with a solemn nod.  “Are you ready for the ride today, sir?”
“Yes,” Thomas replied.  “We might catch them by this afternoon if luck is on our side.  Stephen,” he said, in a tone that made clear he was broaching a new subject.
“What is it, sir?”
“The Sheriff," Thomas lowered his voice. "He’s only had the post for a few weeks, I realize that.  But do you have the impression that he is acting very strangely?”
“Strangely?”
“Well, he seems secretive.  Almost paranoid sometimes…have you ever had that feeling about him?”
The younger soldier nodded, his face impassive.  “He does have certain affairs that he tends to keep undisclosed. He often has a guest by the name of Michael come to his office.  I have no idea what sort of business they have with one another, but I have observed this much—he seems frightened of this Michael.”
Thomas nodded, scratching his chin.  “All right.  I’ll have to keep my eyes open.  Something isn’t right.”
Stephen shrugged, turning back to tending his horse.   
At that moment, Raymond burst from the bushes, breathing heavily.  “They’ve broken camp, sir!” he saluted the Sheriff.  “I heard the leader say they would follow the river.”
“Good work,” the Sheriff nodded brusquely.  “All right, men, mount up!” he shouted.  “Quickly now, or we’ll lose them!”
He led the way, his gray charger plunging down the thin trail.  The others followed at a swift gallop, riding single file towards the west.  Thomas smiled grimly as he rode, his eyes scanning the brush to either side.  He had known the Armorer and his family, and he longed to see the brigands brought to justice. Even after so long, some of the Saxons needed to be taught who the rulers were.  And they were going to teach that very lesson to these brigands.
~ ~ ~
Edward grimaced, thrusting out an arm to deflect a low-hanging branch before it slapped him in the face.  Hannah sat behind him on the mare, her arms wrapped tightly around his waist.  They rode along quickly, the rough staccato of hoofbeats forming a familiar pattern that broke the early morning stillness.  The leaves on the trees still glistened with droplets of dew, shining out like millions of tiny crystals.  In the distance, the peaceful trill of a sparrow could be heard over the sound of the chase.
What a deceptive beauty, he thought as he looked at the wonders of nature flying past him.  How can this world seem so peaceful and yet be torn apart by such brutality?  
          Just then, he heard Hannah’s voice speaking behind him.  “You know, Edward of Melrose, you are the one redeeming grace of your people.”
          He turned his head, uncertain if he had heard her correctly.  “What do you mean?” he shouted back.
          “Never have I met an Englishman that has cared in the least for a Jew—Saxons and Normans both.  Englishmen killed my father, and Englishmen have offered nothing but reproach all my life.  But you—you’ve saved your people from my complete hatred.  Good can come from even such a vile race.”
          “The good does not come from me, Hannah.  It’s only because of what Christ did for me that I can display any kind of love at all.”
          He could hear her chuckle softly.  “Christ made you different?” her voice was filled with clear, almost scoffing, disbelief.  “Then why has he neglected his work in the hearts of your countrymen?”
          He shook his head, forcing the mare to take a sharp corner in order to stay with Alfred’s lead.  “Not all men who claim the name of Christ follow him in action,” he replied.  “I have worked for many years in showing such men the power and the grace that lies behind their beliefs.”
          She was silent for a long while as they rode along.  “So,” she spoke up after some time, “does your Christ love Jews as much as Englishmen?”
          He groaned inwardly.  God, why did she have to ask that?  “I don’t know,” he admitted with a sigh.  “The Jews have rejected the covenant of God by crucifying his Son.  And yet…I’m just not sure.”
          “I thought as much,” her voice was tinged with bitterness.  “I want no part in that kind of faith.”
They rode on, never stopping for more than an instant.  By the time noon had come, Hannah’s little mare was heaving for breath, nearly ready to collapse from exhaustion again.  It was only a few minutes later, though, that Edward felt the first few drops of rain hit his face.  Looking up, he saw dark, frowning clouds above them, heavy with rain.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, and the wind picked up, lashing out at the trees.  A flash of lightning burst out in the sky to the north, followed instantly by a booming roll of thunder that seemed to make the earth itself tremble.
As if a celestial knife had slit open the clouds, a torrent of drops poured down on them.  Nevertheless, they continued their reckless charge.  They continued riding for nearly an hour, and the rain never relented.  By that time, though, Alfred had thought better of riding further in the mud, and turned down towards the riverbank.  They had to ride for another few minutes before coming on a high bank with several shallow caves, where they pulled up to rest from the fury of the elements.
Edward sat there, shivering between Hannah and Alfred in one of the larger caves.  The other five brigands were hiding in smaller caves all along the bank, waiting for the storm to stop.
After a while, Alfred sighed.  He had not spoken to his brother since the night before, for the weight of Edward’s unspoken accusations always lingered between them.
“Edward,” he said after a moment, “once these rains stop, I’ll need you to do me a favor.”
Edward was silent, not even bothering to acknowledge his brother’s presence.  After a few minutes, he replied evenly.  “No.”
Alfred smiled slowly.  “Don’t forget, Ed, I still know something about your Jewess that the others don’t.  We both know she isn’t your wife.”  At this remark, Hannah laid a hand on Edward’s shoulder, glaring at the brigand. 
His brother sighed.  “What is it you want?”
“This rain may have forced the Sheriff’s men to turn around and leave us.  I want you to go out back east for a while.  If you don’t come across them after a few hours, come back here.”
“And why can’t one of your men do it?”
Alfred shrugged.  “You’re more expendable to me.”
Edward turned, his eyes searching his brother’s.  After a moment, his gaze dropped disappointedly.  “I see.  If I do this, I’m taking Hannah with me.”
Alfred shook his head with a smile.  “She stays here.  I want to make certain you come back.”
         Edward grimaced, but did not reply.  Instead, he turned to watch the river.  And the rain kept coming down.
~ ~ ~
          Thomas frowned, his back pressed hard against the rough bark of a tree as he waited for the rains to subside.  His brother Raymond lounged beside him, idly toying with his sword.  The company had remained together well past noontide, and were waiting out the storm beneath a small grove of trees that grew next to the riverbank. 
The Sheriff, though, was beginning to grow weary with the chase, and found himself entertaining thoughts of returning to Newcastle.  It was absurd, after all, to go after any sort of criminal in such terrible weather.  A more pressing reason, though, was the memory of Michael’s promised return, which lingered like an icy threat over his mind.
Raymond sighed, glancing over to his brother.  “I still don’t understand why we didn’t just rush their camp last night,” he said.  “We knew where they were, after all.”
Thomas shrugged.  “It’s better not to take chances, Raymond.  If we had scattered them in the dark, they could have fled for miles, and we would have no way to track them until the sun rose again.”
Raymond sighed again, scratching his head.  “What do you think they were doing anyway?”
“The brigands?  Well, I suppose they were just raiding the Jews again.  There seems to be a lot of that going on.”
“Yes,” Raymond agreed quietly.  “The priest doesn’t seem to approve of it.”
“Since when have Saxon priests approved of anything good?” Thomas chortled.
“Well, I’m not so sure,” the younger brother said, his eyes distant.  “I never minded the Jews much.  They kept to themselves for the most part.”
“You’re the only one who didn’t mind them because you’re never in debt.”
“Quite true,” Raymond grinned, smiling lightly.  “You would be wise to follow my example.”
Thomas shrugged, huffing loudly.  “There are some things worth the money it takes to purchase.”
“Well, I never seem to be in desperate need, do I?”
“Only in need of some common sense, my brother.  I wouldn’t worry about it.  We’re here to avenge the death of a Norman, remember?  The Sheriff couldn’t care less about the abuses set on the Jews.”
Raymond did not comment, but continued to stare out from beneath the tree, reaching up every so often to brush off droplets of water that fell into his thick hair.  After a while, Thomas laid back against the wet turf, closing his eyes against the rain. 
“I too, find part of myself wishing to return,” he said.  “Better to be safe and dry in the castle than to be drowning to death out here.”
“Perhaps,” allowed Raymond.  “But there is some merit to completing out task with honor, I suppose.”
“Does your daughter fare well in the house when you are gone?” Thomas asked.  “She is alone, isn’t she?”
Raymond nodded slowly.  “Felice?  Yes, but she is old enough to take care of herself for a few days.  Ever since Anne passed away, she has taken over and grown right up.”
“I have not been out to your farm enough lately,” said Thomas.  “I suppose my duties at the castle have me tied down.  Tell me, Felice is turning eighteen soon, isn’t she?”
Raymond nodded.  “Next month.”
Thomas shook his head with a grin.  “How time slips by.  We’ve been fighting together as men of war for twenty years now, Raymond.  And it never gets any better.”
“I’ve had enough of war myself, what with King Henry’s feud with William.  I’d be content to settle back and farm my land.”
“I wouldn’t.  I’m getting older, Raymond.  I need something to make my blood run swiftly again--a good fight now and then.  It makes me feel young and alive.”
“Well, if these rains let up, you may just get your wish.”
~ ~ ~
          Edward frowned, watching as the rain faded into a misty drizzle floating over the surface of the river.  Hannah was resting against his shoulder, her eyes closed.  He moved slightly, trying to see whether Alfred was still watching him from the other side of the cave.  The motion awoke Hannah, who smiled and smoothed the hair back from her face.
“It’s stopped raining,” she murmured softly.
Edward nodded, his eyes fixed on the southern bank of the river.  He leaned down slowly, until his lips were next to her ear.  “We have to get out of here.”
She looked hard into his eyes.  “But your brother--he's going to make you go scouting for him.”
He risked another glance over to where Alfred was staring blankly over the wet rocks.  “After I come back, then,” he whispered.  “We’ll slip away into the night.  I think we’ll be able to do it.  I’ll—I’ll take you back to Newcastle.  Maybe we’ll be safe there now.”
She made no comment at first.  After the rain had stopped completely and the sun had broken through the clouds, she leaned back up to whisper into his ear.  “I need to get to London,” she hissed.  “Soon.  If we can get out of this tonight, that would be best.”
He recalled that she had said she needed to depart for some sort of quest, but until that moment he had not considered being a part of her venture.  London was leagues upon leagues away.  Escorting her back to Newcastle and then returning to Melrose was one thing, but seeing her across the country was another.  But, then again, how could he refuse when he was aware of her situation?  He couldn’t just send her wandering across so many hostile miles alone.
Seeing his confusion, she shook her head.  “Perhaps I should not have told you.  You mustn’t worry about me.”
He averted his gaze, looking up to where the sun had begun to shine into the mouth of the cave.  “We’ll speak more of this when I return.”
They sat in contemplative silence for a long while, then Alfred spoke up. “Well, Ed, I would say it’s time to be off.  We’ll wait here until sunset, then move on.  With or without you.”
~ ~ ~
“Someone’s coming,” Oswald hissed, and instantly the rest of the men of Melrose were clustered around him.  The flickering light of the campfire cast a ring of dim light around where they had been waiting near the border.  The sounds of even footsteps came over the gentle hush of the night, and eventually they could make out the dim silhouette of a man jogging toward them, his shoulders low with weariness.
As the man entered the circle of firelight, they glimpsed the haggard countenance of Malcolm, his eyes bleary and his jaw covered with a layer of thick red stubble.  “Sir!” Oswald exclaimed, catching him as he collapsed, his chest heaving for breath.  The farmer-soldiers looked down, concern etched on every visage, as they waited for their leader to speak.
Eventually Malcolm had the strength to sit up and down a long draught from Oswald’s wineskin.  Still breathing heavily, he looked up at them.  “I fear Edward has fallen into trouble,” he reported.
“What trouble?”
“I’m not sure,” he shook his head as he took another gulp.  “He met with his brother’s brigands and they were all chased into the woods together by the knights of Newcastle after a raid on the town.  I think he might have gotten mixed up in something that he hadn’t counted on, but I can’t say what.”
“What can we do?” Oswald knelt down beside his captain.  “If they are in hiding from the authorities, we can’t go in without knowing what has happened there.”
“True,” Malcolm replied, stretching out on the ground and gazing up into the faces of his comrades.  “But I would be loath to leave my friend in danger.  No matter what the cost.”
“I’m with you, sir,” one stated boldly, and the others followed in suit.
Oswald nodded, placing a gentle hand against Malcolm’s shoulder.  “You know we would all lay our lives down for Edward.  But it was his wish that we remain out of this conflict, even if trouble would befall him along the way.”
“But if he truly ran into some unexpected problem,” one of the men broke in, “than I doubt that he would turn aside our aid.”
Malcolm smiled.  “I cannot order any of you to join me in this venture.  You must each decide.  But I plan to return and help Edward in any way I can, and I would welcome your company.”  
All four men were quick to give their assent.  The captain nodded.  “Unfortunately, five men on foot, even with pikes, may not be enough.  There were six brigands and though I pray we will not have to defend ourselves against the Newcastle knights, we must be prepared for that possibility as well.  Alasdair,” he pointed to the youngest of the group, a youth who had joined Malcolm’s command only a month before.  “You would render the mission a great measure of aid if you would return to Melrose and rally any other men who wish to come.”
The young man looked disappointed, but he nodded.  “I’ll do it, sir.  In fact, I’ll begin back this moment.”  He broke off from the cluster and slung his pack over his shoulder, setting out on the westward road at a quick clip.  At the edge of the ring of firelight, he halted and turned back to his commander, raising an arm.  “We’ll join you soon, sir!”
“Godspeed, Alasdair!” Malcolm called out after him, watching as the form of the thin young man was lost to sight.  As soon as the sound of his footsteps had receded into the still of the night, Malcolm raised himself to his feet, a painful grimace on his face as he accepted the offered hands of his comrades.
“Come,” he said.  “We would do well to imitate young Alasdair’s enthusiasm.  I wouldn’t waste a moment while Edward remains in peril.”
“Sir,” Oswald crossed his arms, shaking his head slowly.  “You will be in no shape to help him if we have to hold you up in the fight.  We would be better off to rest tonight and gather our strength before setting off.”
The other men nodded at this, adding their agreement to the soldier’s suggestion.  Malcolm stood uncertainly for a moment, then grumbled under his breath and sank to the ground again.  “Your wisdom comes at the most annoying times, Oswald."

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