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, January 14, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 20



© Matthew Burden, 2001

                                                                  (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)


~20~

          It was on the morning of the third day following the charge that the Sheriff finally found the initiative to confront his men.  He had been waiting in fear, dagger ready for countless hours, but to no avail.  He had seen no sign of Michael since he had set out towards the river that terrible night.  Thus for two days, the knights of Newcastle had been all on edge, awaiting the coming discipline for their second failure to apprehend the brigands.  The knights were all assembled, their arms crossed as they stood watching their commander.  The Sheriff paced back and forth before them like a caged animal.   
        “Sir Thomas, Sir Stephen, remain with me,” he growled.  “The rest of you get out.  You’ll be on guard duty until you're relieved.”
The men did not complain, but marched quickly out of the room, offering sympathetic glances to the two knights as they filed past.  
"Tell me, Thomas,” the sheriff said, looking directly into his face.  “Did I, or did I not order you to wait until morning to muster the men?”
“You did, sir,” he replied, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
The sheriff pursed his lips and nodded, turning to walk in front of Stephen.  “And you, Stephen.  If memory serves me correctly, you heard the order as well.  Is that not so?”
“You are correct, sir."
“I am Sheriff of the Newcastle Guard,” he breathed into Stephen’s face.  “And I will not have my orders mocked!  Is that clear?”
“Most clear, sir."
“Did you not even try to dissuade Sir Thomas from breaking my order?”
Stephen hesitated.
“Well?”
“I tried at first, sir.  But Sir Thomas is a convincing debater.”
“This is not a matter logic, Stephen, it is a matter of honor and respect!”
“So you disobeyed me. And more, you failed once again to bring back the Saxon brigands.  Isn’t that right, Thomas?” he turned back to the first knight.  “From the men’s report, it is obvious that out of the four, three escaped, and the other one was dead when you arrived.  Your little parade did nothing!”
“The brigands fled when they heard us approaching, sir.  Had we not come, they would have attempted to remain in the house, and one of our own may have died.”
“It is of no consequence, Thomas,” the sheriff replied, scratching his cheek with a long finger as he regarded the two knights.  “My order should have stood, regardless of the circumstances.  It is foolhardy to leave an entire castle defenseless for the sake of rounding up a few brigands.”
Thomas knew more than to argue the point with his commander, so he merely stood waiting for the judgement to come.
“So now I am faced with a dilemma, sirs,” said the Sheriff.  “Although I cannot say that my superiors will approve of your decision, I am almost certain that they would not look favorably if I simply dismissed the two best warriors under my charge.  But on the other hand, I cannot allow you to go unpunished for this offense.”
The two men stood stalwartly, neither moving at all.
“Therefore,” he said, placing his hands behind his back and standing straight, “I will give you a task that will relieve you of your duties here for at least a time.  You, both of you, will take this message and deliver it to my cousin, Robert of Canterbury.” 
He held out the roll of parchment, but neither man made any motion to accept it.   
“Immediately,” the sheriff growled.
Taking the parchment, Thomas bowed his head respectfully, although he burned at being given such a menial chore.  
“Sir,” Stephen spoke up.  “Thomas took an arrow in the leg only a few days ago.  He is not fit for such a long trip.”
“If he had the strength to go chasing brigands in the dead of night, then he has the strength to ride to Canterbury and back.  I’ll expect your return before the end of the month.  That way, we can have this whole matter quickly straightened out.”  
Stephen nodded and strode out of the room, followed by Thomas, clutching the scroll in his hand.
~ ~ ~
Raymond smiled, shaking Edward awake by the shoulder.  “Rise, my brother.  The sun is already up.”
Edward shaded his eyes from the dazzling wash of sunlight that issued through the door.  He saw the forms of Malcolm and Oswald outside, speaking in low tones.
Rising from the thin pallet, he stood and stretched, his weary body complaining against the action.  “It feels much too early,” he said with a grin.
“The storm passed by in the night,” said Raymond. "Come, let's join your friends."
Malcom noted his approach with respectful nod.   
“Good morning, Edward. Hannah believes this would be a good time to begin our journey to London, and I agree with her.  It’s difficult to tell what sort of weather will come with the harvest time.”
Edward turned to Raymond, holding him out by the shoulders.  “Will you be able to manage the harvest without us?”
He nodded.  “We do it every year.  The boys will be sorry to see all of you leave, but I have no doubt we will be fine.”
“But what about your brother?” Oswald spoke up.  “Can we expect any more trouble from him?”
Edward shook his head.  “I wouldn’t think so, but it’s difficult to say.  They're after the robe that I told you about.  I have no idea whether they've fled or whether they still remain, waiting to see if this thing will appear.”
Malcolm nodded.  “I only know what you have told me about this, Edward, which isn’t much.  What’s our plan for delivering this thing to London?”
“We'll take it as far as York by ourselves.  There Hannah thinks we can find the knight who first delivered it to them.  In London, her uncle stands under the threat of execution unless we pay to deliver him from an unjust sentence.  The robe, when delivered into the proper hands, will furnish enough for that.”
“I know nothing of Jews, my friend,” said Malcolm, “but what I have heard does not favor them greatly.  Is it truly worth giving up this holy relic to save one man’s life?”
Edward sighed and looked at him.  “I think it is a worthy cause.  I have learned much of Jews these past weeks, and it seems that our people may have misjudged them.  If this is indeed the robe that Herod gave to Christ before his passion, then it belongs in the hands of someone who can protect it properly, with the Church or the Templars, perhaps.  The knight from York should be able to add some credibility to its claim.  If not, we shall have to find some other way to free her uncle.  He is the only one she has left.”
The two Scots nodded their slow approval of the plan, and Edward went back in the house to usher Hannah out into the sunlight.  The sky was blue and inviting, with only a few puffs of white clouds remaining.  All in all, it was fine traveling weather.
~ ~ ~
Jonathan stooped low, watching the road carefully.  His one good eye swept back and forth, keeping a close watch on the southbound path.
“We have no idea what they’re doing, Jonathan,” Alfred said, sounding thoroughly bored.  “It would be better to give it up for lost and return to Northampton.”
The brigand gave a quick shake of his head.  “They will be coming this way.  I know they will.”
“Oh really?” the other asked.  “The girl lives in Newcastle, and my brother is from Scotland.  Where did you get the idea they will be traveling south?”
“They had been planning to sell it to the Norman we killed down there, weren’t they?  I think they’ll try again.”  He looked up to where Alfred stood glowering over him.  “One more day,” Jonathan said.  “If we do not see them by then, we can go.  Agreed?”
“Oh, all right,” the leader fumed.  “But just one more day.”
~ ~ ~
Edward sighed, throwing back his head and breathing deeply of the cool, still air.  He turned back to look at the little house, where Hannah was saying her farewells before leaving for the journey.  Samuel had been inconsolable when he heard the news that his sister was leaving for yet another trip, and that had made it especially difficult for her.
Malcolm and Oswald were already mounted, impatiently awaiting the departure.  Hannah rushed out of the house, a smile lighting up her face.   
“Here,” she said, gently placing the package containing the robe in Edward’s arms.  It had been wrapped in a cloth bag along with several other pieces of clothing that they hoped would allay any suspicion should the package be taken from them.
Edward tucked the package into his saddle-bag, helping Hannah mount her horse before climbing onto his own, a roan stallion that had been provided by Raymond.  Malcolm led the way, turning his horse down the dusty little street that led southward.  It didn't take them long to cross the river and continue on into the region of Durham, following the road toward the province of York and beyond that, London.
The sky was a pale blue dome, the wind now having swept it free of any of the clouds.  The air was cool, despite what meager warmth the sunshine provided.  A breeze was stirring from the south and it caught them in the faces as they rode at a fair pace towards York.
~ ~ ~
“Can't you see them coming?” Jonathan exulted.  “Look!  They've just come across the river.  Didn’t I tell you so only a few moments ago?”
Alfred was silent as he watched the riders, still approaching from the north.  “And how are we to know that they have the robe?” he mused.
“Why else would they venture south? Is it possible that they don't know that we already killed their buyer in Northampton?”
“It is possible,” he allowed, “but not likely.  My brother is crafty.  I would imagine that he reasoned it out.”
They paused to wait for the four riders to pass by.  After they had gone past, Jonathan swore and spat on the ground.  “Your idiot brother is still with her, Alfred, and two of his Scots as well.  It will be difficult for us to do anything to them unless we can reach Northampton before they do.”
The third brigand nodded his agreement, but remained silent.
“Perhaps it's best to let them go their way in peace,” Alfred spoke quietly.  “We've already lost three men in this endeavor.  How many more can we lose over this one thing?”
“As many as it takes, sir,” Jonathan replied, his tone icy.  “And do not forget, one of those three was by your own hand.  A good leader never gives up, nor does he slaughter his men.”
“If you doubt my authority, Jonathan, we can thrash this out right here.  Do not forget by what manner of foolishness you lost your eye.  I can do it to you again.  You're fortunate I don't kill you now for the blow you gave me earlier.”
“Let’s not discuss it further; we need to go,” Jonathan huffed.  “We don't know where they're going, so we have to follow them.”
“We'll follow them for now, Jonathan,” said Alfred, gripping the other’s arm in an iron hold.  “But I will ponder these things.  And if I do decide against it in the end, you will obey.”
He did not reply, but shook off the grip and stepped out of the bushes onto the roadway.  
 “Let's just go and see if we can find some horses to steal," he growled.
The three men walked quietly, trudging along with their cloaks pulled tight around their bodies to ward away the brisk wind.  
~ ~ ~
After seeing Thomas and Stephen off, the Sheriff of Newcastle smiled grimly.  Robert of Canterbury was a powerful man, and his letter was more than simply a means of disciplining his two wayward commanders.  It was a plea, a final hopeful thrust to walk away from the whole dreadful business with his head still firmly attached to his shoulders.  And as he sent the letter on its way, he did feel considerably renewed in spirit, as if a great burden had been lifted from his back.  This was added to by the pleasant absence of Michael over the past few days, and the Sheriff fervently hoped that somehow the Scots or the brigands had made a swift end of the powerful young man.  
He wandered through the village for several minutes after the departure of his knights.  Humming a carefree tune to himself, he made his way to a tavern on the northwestern edge of the town called the Old Boar. 
         He opened the door and stumped his boots noisily in the threshold to pound off the mud that was still caked there from his adventure in the woods earlier that week.  The keeper of the tavern hailed him with a broad grin.  
         “Worthy Sheriff!  Can I draw some beer from the cellars to wet your tongue?”
“No,” he smiled.  “Is Julia here?”
The keeper shrugged.  “She’s in the back room.”
But just as the Sheriff made to walk past him into the curtained sections behind, he noticed a dark-shrouded man sitting in the corner of the tavern. Like a wraith in a nightmare, the man stood up slowly and then, with an obvious pleasure in the terror he inspired, he reached up and dropped his hood. The fierce, aquiline features of Michael showed darkly in the dim light.
"Sheriff," he said, and the sheriff stumbled back against a table.
"How...how did you know I'd be coming here?"
Michael offered no explanation, but simply shook his head. "I heard that you've failed me again."
"You simply don't understand," said the sheriff.
"No, I understand too well. You are the most incompetent servant who ever sought the help of our ancient order. You disgrace us with the filth of your presence.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” the Sheriff managed to choke out. 
“You knew that those Saxons were after the very prize we seek!  And yet you commanded your men to give up the search for them.  Those outlaws may have had the answers we needed, and you, in your foolishness, let them slip away.”
“Please, Master, I didn’t know,” the Sheriff said, his hand grasping for the hilt of his dagger.  “I thought they were only—”
“Silence, imbecile!” Michael roared.  “Do you know what we do with men who betray our trust—who use us for advancement and then foil our plans?”
The Sheriff’s eyes grew wide with horror.  “No, please…”
“I’m sure the next Sheriff of Newcastle will be more cooperative,” Michael said coolly.
At that, the Sheriff could take no more.  Summoning all his strength from the wells of hatred stored up inside him, he released a cry of fury, leaping to his feet and plunging the dagger upward.  But Michael moved out of his path, and as the Sheriff’s swing threw him off balance, a thin sword appeared from beneath the folds of the youth’s black robe.  Before the official could regain his balance, he felt the cold sting of the blade in his side and knew it was over.  He collapsed with a pitiful whimper, and Michael dispatched him with a final stroke.  
 “May the gods of the underworld plague you forever, swine,” the dark-cloaked youth growled through clenched teeth.

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