© Matthew Burden, 2001
“Where is he?” the Count demanded, rising groggily from his slumbers.
“He ran into the woods and disappeared, sir!” Oswald explained again, pulling the Templar up.
“Disappeared?” the knight shot a quizzical glance at him.
Oswald sighed, running a hand through his short brown hair. “He was chasing after the brigand who joined us, sir. I saw him enter a grove, and saw at least one other man with him, but when I arrived only a few moments later, there was no trace of anyone.”
“A grove?” the Count repeated as he strapped his sword-belt on, kicking one of the other knights to awaken him. “Was it an oak grove?”
“Yes, yes!” he said urgently, practically pulling him along. “It was an oak grove, with a ring of stones inside it! Come, we haven’t much time!”
“Wait, my young friend!” the Templar shook his head. “I’m afraid it will do no good. I can go look at the site myself, but it sounds as though your friend has met the Druids that were following us from York.”
Oswald shook his head. “But they are men, even as we are, sir! They can't vanish into the air as they please. Come, they are still out there! We can find them!”
The Count looked at him sympathetically. “Oh, be assured that they are still out there. But as to finding them—that is a different matter, a different matter altogether.”
“Please, sir, come help me search. It may do no good, but Sir Malcolm is my friend and my leader. I cannot leave him out there.”
The Count’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know why he was pursuing the brigand?”
Oswald nodded, but remained silent for a long moment, uncertain of how much to reveal. Drawing a deep breath, he spoke at last. “There was something stolen from our camp…something of great value.”
The Count nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up into a slight smile for an instant before turning to his companions, who all nodded, knowing what the order was before it was given.
“Well, we tend to leave the Druidae alone for the most part,” he sighed, “and they do not cause too much trouble. But I am an avowed defender of the Church, and these are its enemies. We will combat them, fear not.”
Oswald nodded slowly, hoping he could trust the knights. “Come, then,” the Scot prodded. “Let's go searching.”
“It’s no use now, my friend. The Druidae can move swiftly at night. They are at home in the forests, and the woods will shield them. It's best to wait until morning. There are only so many havens they have in these parts.”
By this time, Edward had risen and was standing near the dying fire, listening intently to the conversation. He had already seen the torn saddlebag and the absence of his brother, and had realized in an instant what had happened.
“But will Malcolm be safe?” Oswald asked.
The Count shrugged, settling himself back onto the ground. “It is said that in ancient times, the Druidae would sacrifice men, but I do not think they still do such things. If he cooperates with them, whatever their purpose, I am certain he will survive at least long enough for us to find him. You Scots are hardy men, bred strong.” He smiled whimsically. “Hard to kill off, I would imagine. We will pursue them in the morning.”
Oswald shook his head and strode quickly back toward the main camp, where Edward stood ready. “Are you up for searching tonight?” the Scot growled.
Edward nodded his silent assent. Hannah was awake, and she began clearing the mess from the saddlebag, not willing to let her fear to show to the two men.
“Follow me,” said Oswald, retrieving his torch and marching back toward the trees.
“Be cautious, friends!” the Count called out behind them. “The Druidae have a cloak of darkness! They will be watching you!”
The two men did not reply, but continued their march until they vanished into the blackness of the forest.
~ ~ ~
The trees rose like specters from the mossy ground, their gnarled roots stretching out like the withered hands of an ancient giant. There was no wind, no breath of air to stir the leaves as they marched under canopy of foliage. They had not taken more than thirty strides into the darkened wood before they saw a bright set of white teeth flash a brilliant smile before them, and a clear voice greeting them.
Oswald’s sword rang out in an instant. “Who goes there?”
A laugh greeted their ears. “Cedric! And you?”
“I am Oswald of Melrose. What do you want with us?”
A low whistle sounded from before them. “Are the Scots invading the land?” the stranger chuckled. “I have heard so little from the news of the world since last week, who knows what could have happened?”
“Please, sir! Are you...are you one of the Druidae? Where did you take my friend?"
They heard him laugh again. "A Druid? Are there Druids in these woods? Sweet mother of our blessed Lord, I must be more careful!"
"Did you not see someone pass by here a few minutes ago?”
“Of course,” laughed the voice. “I see everything. Yes, yes, including even your friend and the horridly ghoulish gentlemen who abducted him. I know them, of course. I know they like to play at their old pagan rituals. It's an amusing pretension. But it makes for quite a bit of action for a lonely night in the woods."
He stepped forward so that the light of Oswald’s torch fell on his face.
Edward studied the man's expression. The bright, carefree smile seemed out of place in the dark forests. He was a thin man, clad in a light suit of brown cloth, with naught but a dagger under his belt to serve as a weapon. His eyes were dark, but they glinted with a strange fire in the torchlight. His face had deep lines of wisdom, but without a touch of worry. He ran a hand over his short black beard, which gave his face an angular impression and served to make him appear terribly gaunt. His hair was black, but only for a certain length. Nearer to the roots it was showing a definite blond, which made Edward wonder if the man had gone to great lengths to try to color his hair.
“Yes,” he said in a low voice that carried undertones of deep, sonorous quality. “Four of them, I counted, not including the two poor fellows they apprehended.”
“Do you know where they went?” Edward asked, shuddering suddenly against the chill of the night.
“Oh, certainly. They fled westward.”
“Can you help us?” Oswald pressed. “We must search for them.”
Cedric, the lighthearted stranger, paused, looking at the two men for a while without speaking. Then drawing a deep breath, he shrugged. “Best to go after them in the morning. I know where to find them.”
“They will be about a day’s journey west of here, and they shall remain there for some time. It's one of their ancient holy places, and a figurehead noble of theirs owns a manor nearby. Your friend will be with them.”
Edward sighed. “Will you guide us in the morning, Sir Cedric? This country is not familiar to us.”
Cedric flashed his bright grin once again and bowed at the waist. “I would be honored to."
~ ~ ~
Alfred sat motionless, his eyes fixed ahead. The hall he had been placed in was of ample size and comfort, full of the most lavish decorations. It rose a good thirty feet over his head in a grand dome held up by beams of lacquered timber. At the opposite end of the hall, a fire burned brightly, shedding warmth and light over the entire room. Hanging from one wall was a large tapestry bearing the mark of the house: two white bulls and an oak tree, set on a field of green.
Before him was a long wooden table, set with four goblets of rich wine, one for each of the four men who had taken him captive. He sat stiffly in the chair, his wrists bound behind the tall wooden back.
He cursed himself inwardly for his lack of perception the night before. Four men, small men, had been able to take him away, and none of them were a match for him physically. Accursed magicians, he thought to himself, staring darkly at them. He had felt their power in an unspeakable sense of dread the night before, but that day, as they sat together in the well-lit manor, he could see they were only men.
The young one spoke, after a nod from an older man with an iron-gray beard. “What is your name?”
Alfred glared back at him, his mouth shut. The robe he had stolen was safely hidden away under his cloak, and he felt much safer knowing that they did not have it in their possession.
“Come now, sir,” the youth prodded, his eyes sharp. “We have ways of learning what we need to know.”
“And tactful discussion will not be one of them,” Alfred smirked.
The youth gazed at him for a moment, then asked again: “Name?”
“Richard Plantagenet. Coeur-de-Lion. King of England.”
“I can see as well as anyone that you are Saxon, sir,” the youth arched his eyebrows. “Come now, give us your name.”
Alfred shook his head.
Sighing, the youth stood up from his seat at the table to see Alfred more clearly. “I am Michael,” he said. “You will speak only to me. Do you understand?”
Alfred turned instantly to the man with the gray beard. “I’m not certain I understand what he’s trying to say.”
Michael rolled his eyes and drew attention back by slamming his fist against the table. “Do you know anyone by the name of Justin of York?”
“Justin of York? Yes, I recall such a man,” he said, and his four interrogators sat up stiffly. “I met him…two weeks ago, I believe.”
“Where?” Michael asked, his voice hoarse.
“Paris,” Alfred replied. “I was there to do business, you see. I’m a merchant of sorts, shipping goods back and forth with a distributor among the Franks. I was there to fulfill a contract on one particular shipment of vellum sheets when I met him.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed. “What was he doing in Paris?”
“He was making his way to the Holy Land, or so he said. I’m afraid he will make it no further than the Seine.”
“Why do you say that?”
Alfred flashed a slight smile. “It’s quite a lengthy tale.”
“We have plenty of time.”
Alfred nodded. “Now, naturally, I've never learned much of the French speech, so I had brought along my assistant, Warren, who knows both French and Latin. I've never been good at learning new tongues, you understand. Now Warren had gone down to the docks on the river to oversee the unloading of the shipment, so I made my way to a small tavern and managed to order a drink. As I was sitting there, I saw a man beside me, fitted out like a warrior. Seeing I was Saxon, he greeted me in my own tongue, and we fell into a conversation.”
Alfred smiled inwardly, savoring his jest. All four men were leaning forward in their seats, eager to catch every word.
“Well,” he continued, huffing for emphasis, “it turned out that he was not in a wonderful temperament, for he immediately began slandering my people, the Saxons. Now you must understand, I have never favored Normans, especially ones who think too highly of themselves. If any of you are Normans,” he smiled at them, “I would be happy to slander your people as much as I can. In any case, his remarks drove me to the point of anger. And when I am angry, nothing can stand in my way.”
Alfred accentuated his point by frowning grimly, a crazed, frenetic gleam appearing in his eyes.
“I challenged him to a duel, and he began speaking of horses and lances and such, but I stopped him short. I told him we would duel as Saxons dueled. Two men, two swords. We both departed from the tavern in a rage and left the town toward a field further from the river. Well, he was not as good a fighter as he boasted, or so it seemed to me, for after only ten strokes he was dead. I suppose they buried him, but I’m not certain. I left the city that afternoon and returned to England.”
Michael nodded, leaning down for a quick conversation with the leader. He straightened and looked Alfred in the eyes. “How tall was he?”
“Before or after I chopped off his head?"
Michael frowned. “Before, of course.”
Alfred fought for an answer, hoping he could keep the lie turning in their minds. “He was nearly as tall as I am.”
Michael pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully.
“What color was his hair?”
“I couldn’t see it. It had been cropped short, and he wore a leather cap.”
Michael shrugged and glanced at the leader, who nodded slowly. Alfred tried to discern the meaning of the nod, but hoped it was favorable. Surely they wouldn’t kill him for having a little fun.
“Did he mention a robe, even once?”
Alfred hid his surprise well. “Now that you say it, I believe he did.”
“Can you tell us what he said?”
Alfred frowned. “He spoke of it as if it were a holy relic. He was drunk, or else I doubt he would have discussed it with me, but it seemed to be weighing heavily on his mind. He told me that he wished he could have it, but he didn’t tell me why he couldn’t simply go back and retrieve it himself. He said it had been sent to Newcastle.”
“Newcastle? On the Tyne?”
Alfred nodded, then stopped. “He said that’s where it was sent, but he seemed to believe it was no longer there.”
“Did he say where he thought it was?”
Alfred nodded vigorously. “Northampton. He said it was at Northampton, at the house of a nobleman named David.”
Michael smiled. “Very good, sir. Thank you. Your help may be invaluable.”
Alfred couldn't resist a slight smile as the four men clustered in a huddle beneath the tapestry of the two bulls. He was surprised they had believed him. Now there was the chance that all of this could turn to his own fortune in a few days. Especially if they went to Northampton. They would pay for taking him a prisoner. Yes, they would pay in blood.