© Matthew Burden, 2001
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Thomas, captain of the Newcastle guard, frowned and glared up at his captor. The gag inched down his throat every time he tried to swallow, and his mouth was so dry that he could no longer move his tongue. His wrists were chafed and raw from the ropes that bound him. Waves of pain threatened to overpower him every instant as he lay gasping on the turf, grateful for the reprieve from the nearly incessant marching.
Alfred chuckled softly, shaking his head. “Tomorrow by noon,” he winked at his companion, “we will be back at the city. And there I suppose I will have to decide what to do with you.”
The knight grimaced. He tried to speak, but the words only came out as muffled grunts through the gag.
Alfred sighed. “It would do me good to hear your curses, I think,” he laughed, placing his hand on the gag. “But if you give one cry for help, I’ll run you through. Do you understand?”
Thomas glanced over at the brigand’s keen blade and nodded. With a snap, Alfred drew the gag away and threw it into the bushes. Thomas drew a deep breath, grateful to be rid of the rag. His jaw was swollen and stiff, but he managed to work his lips so that hoarse whispers could be heard.
“What are you looking for?” he gasped out at last, curiosity having overpowered his hatred. “And why was it so important?”
Alfred was silent, his eyes staring blankly down at the piece of wood he was whittling. He turned it over in his hands, his long dagger working quickly. He held it up to the light, examining it as if he had not heard the knight’s question.
Thomas swore and spat in his direction. “I knew the man you killed! He was a dear friend!”
Alfred shrugged carelessly, a mirthless smirk curling his lips. “A Norman. He is of no more account to me than a Jew.”
Thomas shook his head in hateful wonder. “A pity your race did not die out ages ago! You are destroying the very England you claim to love.”
Alfred looked up, his eyes blazing bright. “My England is one that is free of these Norman swine! Your injustice and hatred has poisoned this place! If there is one thing that I am, first and always, it is a defender of the England I love and a protector of the heritage I have been born into!”
Thomas raised his brow disdainfully. “Savage barbarians, the lot of you! If we had not come, you would still be playing with your dogs in the mud beneath some pitiful little weed hut!”
Alfred rose up with a shout, his sword whistled through the air, and its point came to rest against the knight’s throat. “I would remind you, Norman,” he measured each word carefully, hatefully, “that I have the sword, and I have little tolerance for the proud and foolish ways of your people. It would be nothing to me to kill you here and now.”
Thomas burned with rage, but the warning had sobered him. “If you kill me, Saxon,” he said slowly, his eyes holding Alfred’s, “I die for my beloved England. This place is my home, too, even if it was not the home of my fathers.”
Alfred did not move for a long time, his eyes burning into the knight’s gaze. After a while, though, he drew back his sword and sheathed it.
“Enough talk,” he said after a moment, retrieving the gag from the ground and wadding it forcefully into his prisoner’s mouth. “I have had enough of your curses.” With a grimace, he sat back down and began hacking madly at his whittling-block, waiting for dusk to fall.
~ ~ ~
Malcolm rode swiftly, watching the sun sink below the western horizon. He had been fortunate enough to bribe the stable-master into allowing them to borrow some horses, which they put to use in their search for Edward. They had been skirting the edge of the forest all day long, and had seen no sign of activity. He was on the verge of giving up and turning back to the city.
The air hung in pensive silence around them, brooding. He tilted his head and listened carefully. The faint sounds of brush crackling began to fill the air. Something quite large was making its way through the bracken.
In a flash, five riders burst out from the foliage nearly a hundred yards ahead of them, their swords bared and gleaming in the sunlight. Most were young men, but they wore the light mail armor of knights, their faces set and angry as they approached.
“Arms ready, men!” Malcolm shouted, but he never drew his own sword. He could feel his young, rustic warriors waiting tensely behind him as he watched the riders draw up to him. They stopped nearly twenty yards away, regarding the party of Scots with a questioning glance.
“Greetings,” Malcolm offered, bowing as far as his saddle would allow. It was obvious by the dress of these men that they were English soldiers, and not the brigands they so desperately sought to find. Even so, they might be able to work this chance encounter to their advantage.
One rider drew close, peering carefully at Malcolm. He was a man of older years than his companions; gray beginning to show at the edges of his hair. “Greetings,” he replied slowly. “I am Stephen of Newcastle. Who might you be?”
“Malcolm of Melrose,” said the Scot, flashing an easy smile to put off any suspicions. Sensing the knight’s confusion, he immediately explained. “I'm looking for a friend. He was said to have been captured a few days ago by a group of brigands.” Malcolm caught the glances that the English knights exchanged, and continued. “He was with a young woman with dark hair. Have you seen him?”
Stephen nodded. “Yes, I saw him. He was riding with the very brigands we've been chasing through these accursed woods.” His scarred muscles stood out from his arms as he gripped the hilt of his sword in anger. “But who can say where they are now?”
Malcolm frowned, spreading his hands. “We would be pleased to offer our assistance in helping you. Are these all the knights Newcastle can boast?”
Stephen smiled grimly. “No. Several of them have already returned to the city with the Sheriff, and two others are still out in the woods, our leader included. He was captured by one of the brigands earlier today.”
“How many are there?”
“Four now, not including your friend,” Stephen replied, scanning the woods. “We think they've split up. We have no idea where the group of three is, but the other one is probably somewhere nearby, holding our captain prisoner. We have been scouring these woods all day long.” The weariness in his voice was noticeable. He was not accustomed to command or to rescue missions, and the strain was bearing down on him.
Malcolm nodded, the commander within him taking control. “I see. Tell me, where were the brigands heading when you encountered them today?”
“East, back to the city.”
“Would it not seem plausible, then, that both groups of brigands are still making for the city? Perhaps they have some unfinished business in your town.”
“I pray not,” said Stephen. “But if they dare show themselves at Newcastle, they will be cut apart by the Sheriff’s men.”
Malcolm tugged his beard thoughtfully. “Well, we are at your service if you want our help, Sir Stephen. The decision is yours.”
The knight bowed in return. “I accept your assistance,” he replied, “as well as your counsel. Come dawn, we will ride together for the city, and there begin our search again. But on my father’s grave, I swear that if they harm our captain, I will make their suffering unbearable.”
Malcolm nodded and dismounted, motioning for his men to do the same. “Some more of my men may be joining us soon,” he said, remembering the remainder of the Melrose contingent that Alastair had gone to rally. “I swear we will find these brigands or die in trying. It seems we both have dear friends whose lives hang in the balance.”
“I am sure we will discover them quickly, Sir Malcolm. And I am grateful for your aid. I would be a fool to dismiss the help of such men of honor. I know,” he smiled, “for I’ve fought the knights of Scotland before.”
Malcolm chuckled, shaking his head. “We are not here for Scotland, Sir Stephen. We are here for our friend. And I fear we are not great knights, as you are. Merely a group of farmers ready to fight for what we hold dear.”
“Well, with such noble soldiers riding in this brave pursuit, how can we fail?”
“Indeed, we cannot,” Malcolm spoke with determination. “I would give up my life before I gave up Edward’s.” The Scots all nodded in agreement, and stepped forward to help the English soldiers set up camp.
~ ~ ~
Hannah squinted into the darkness and plodded on, following Edward’s footsteps. The moon was half full, shedding a dim, unearthly glow on the surroundings. Every once in a while, though, it would duck behind the looming form of a cloud and be blotted out. In those times it became ever more difficult to follow the two men, as all was shaded in nearly complete darkness. The sounds of the woods that surrounded the little footpath seemed amplified, and every rustle of the trees made her heart jump. She frowned and gazed resolutely ahead, watching the sack that Edward was carrying swing across his back like a steady pendulum.
She could still hear the words of Eleazer echoing in her mind from the distant depths of a London prison. Don’t weep, Hannah. This is a time for courage. She brushed a tear from the corner of her eye. How many days had passed since she left London? How many days were left before Eleazer was to die? She tried to remember, but they all blurred into one mass of terror and confusion. Why was she forced to live like this, to fight for every small comfort in her life? Surely there was a better way.
She shook her head, steeling her mind against the thoughts of despair that threatened to engulf her. She had a task to do, and she would succeed or die trying. She had never allowed herself to contemplate failure, and it was not within her to do so now. She was stronger than that, strong enough to rise above the drowning tide of hatred. Surely Edward was right. She would still find a buyer for the robe, and save her uncle. There was no other possibility that she allowed to encroach on her mind.
Her thoughts carried her away as she walked, and soon she was no longer walking on that lonely path in the woods, but back in her youth. She was running over the heather-cloaked hills with her mother, laughing. They were embracing, holding one another. Who cared what the world said? Let the others scorn and swear and tear themselves into a bloody rage! As long as they were together, nothing else mattered. Together….
Her reverie was broken when she noticed Edward slow his steps, stopping behind Raymond, who stood in the middle of the path.
“Do you see that?” he asked, pointing to where a single pinpoint of light was shining ahead of them.
“Yes,” Edward nodded, stepping aside to allow Hannah a place beside him.
“That’s a campfire,” he said, smiling at them in the dim light. “Tonight was the night that Felice and the children were going to camp out at the edge of our pond, right down there. The house is not even a quarter-league beyond it.”
“Good,” said Hannah, rubbing her aching legs.
The two men smiled at her and continued on walking, Raymond at a brisker pace now that he had his home in sight. She followed directly behind Edward, eager to be able to sleep in a real bed for the first time since she had left London during those days of horror and tragedy.
Soon they were at the edge of the pond, and could see the embers of a campfire burning on the opposite side, near a cluster of makeshift tents. They were little more than thin sheets of canvas and animal skins stretched out over several wooden poles, but enough to protect from the wind and the rain if needed. Raymond smiled gently, halting to look over the scene. He placed his hands on his hips and drew a deep lungful of the night air. Near the fire, a solitary figure was hunched over the coals, facing away from the travelers.
Raymond leaned over to Edward, whispering in his ear. “That’s Felice. I’m not surprised she isn’t sleeping. I had told her I would be back earlier today. She must have grown worried.”
He walked along the edge of the pond, stepping carefully so as not to disturb the sleeping children in the tents. He was not even half way around before his daughter heard the furtive footsteps and glanced up at the three companions.
She saw Raymond at the fore and rose up to meet him with a relieved smile. She was of medium height, with a fair face and long brown hair. Raymond caught her in a tight embrace. The gentle scene was cast in the warm glow of firelight, the bright illumination of a hundred flames lighting their happy faces. Hannah watched with wonder and with sorrow, remembering her own father.
“Felice,” Raymond smiled. “I trust you have not worried too much about me.”
She tilted her head, adopting a motherly attitude as she shook her finger at him. “I went into the city and heard about the attack. Of course I was worried!” She embraced him again. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”
Raymond chuckled. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years, Felice.”
“And that fact never causes me to worry less. I wish you’d give it up and stay with the farm.”
“I know. Someday I will. How are the children doing?”
Felice shrugged, brushing a strand of hair back from her forehead. “Well enough. I tried not to let them see I was worried, but they’ll all be glad to see you back.”
Raymond nodded. “Bring them up to meet me in the morning,” he said. “My friends and I will sleep at the house tonight.” He turned to them with a smile. “Friends, this is my daughter, Felice.”
Edward bowed. “Edward of Melrose.”
Hannah forced a weary smile. “Hannah, from the city.”
Felice looked at her with kind compassion. “I know you,” she said. “I’ve seen you in town, but when I heard of the riots I feared you might not return. It is a comfort to see you safe.”
A pained expression flashed across Hannah’s face, and Felice changed the subject. “Well, you must be tired and hungry. I’ll go back with you to prepare a place.”
She turned and led the way further up the path, through the center of broad fields of ripening grain. In the distance they could see the dark hulk of the farmhouse, a large structure that stood sheltered against the boughs of the forest. They arrived in a few minutes, and the weary travelers were ushered inside. It was cold and dark inside, but a small flame was lit in the hearth and they all stood around it, reveling in its healing warmth. It was not long before Felice had stoked it up to a blazing fire and set a pot of stew warming over it.
“The children weren’t very hungry tonight,” she said, “so there should be enough for all of you.”
“Thank you, Felice,” said Raymond. The young woman nodded again to the two guests before retreating outside to rejoin the camp at the pond.
Hannah smiled at the aging knight. “Your daughter is very beautiful. How old is she?”
“She is just turning eighteen,” he replied with a smile. “I don’t know what I would do without her. She is a true blessing to me.”
Edward nodded, wolfing down large gulps of the hearty venison stew. He only stopped after the contents of his bowl were gone, sitting back with a contented sigh. “So you give a home to orphans here?”
Raymond nodded. “Most of them stay a few years with us before some relation claims them. Some have no one else, and we will be the only family they have all their lives.”
“That is a true wonder," said Hannah. "If only all men could care about others the way you do.”
He nodded sadly. “It’s a hard world we live in, Hannah. But the only way to survive in it is through love. And there is one love that I have that I would certainly perish without—the only love that makes my life worth living.”
Her brow furrowed in puzzlement.
“My Lord and Master has overcome the world," he explained. "What can I fear from it?”
She shook her head, brushing her hair back behind her ears. “You still have death and pain and sorrow. Just like the rest of us.”
“Yes, that is true. But in the end, all those things will be nothing compared to the joy I have. I know that whatever happens, my soul is safe in the hands of Christ, and not even pain or sorrow can take me from that. For me, death is but a gate by which to enter into my Savior’s unceasing presence of glory and love. It is the only way to truly experience the freedom of life.” He grinned openly, unable to contain his joy. “I know it doesn’t make much sense,” he spoke softly. “It never will, not until you see for yourself. All I can tell you is what I know is true for me. And I know it can be true for you, too.”
Hannah leaned back, shaking her head while casting a quick glance at Edward. “Sometimes I wish I had the kind of faith you two have." She paused, as if she was about to say something else, but rose instead and yawned.
Raymond stood up and pointed her to where a small mattress had been laid out. She walked over to it and reclined, gently giving her sore muscles rest. As she closed her eyes, her thoughts were running over the words she had heard. As the heavy hand of sleep overtook her, she could still hear Raymond’s deep voice echoing, speaking to her: safe in the hands of Christ…glory and love…the only way….