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, March 10, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 27



 © Matthew Burden, 2001

                                   (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)

~27~

The little wagon rolled up the trail toward the run-down house of David.  In its prouder days it had been a manor that oversaw a good deal of the fields surrounding Northampton, but now its importance had dwindled to a few mere acres in the woods.  It was smaller than the manor that the Druids had occupied before its destruction, with a wooden roof that appeared as though it might collapse from rot at any moment.
The riders drew to a halt, and Alfred jerked his head around to see what was happening.  A tall, lean Saxon standing guard at the gates commanded them to halt.  Seeing Alfred bound in the cart, he raised his eyebrows involuntarily.  Alfred nodded slowly to him, and he bowed to the Druids.  As he did so, several more guards rushed out of the house, their swords in hand.
“Is this is the house of Lord David?” Michael asked in a commanding voice.
The Saxon guard laughed, then shook his head.  “I’m afraid you’ve come too late for his funeral, gentlemen...but perhaps not too late for your own.”
At this, the guards leapt forward, dragging the riders from their mounts without giving them any chance to react.  One jumped up into the cart and swiftly cut the bonds holding his master.  Alfred stood up in the cart, smiling grandly at his men.  The five Druids regarded him darkly, but he didn't care.  They could curse him with all the curses they knew, and he still wouldn't care.  England was his.  With a relic at the head of an army, throngs of Saxons would join behind him in a holy quest to rout the Normans from their land.
“Did you really believe I had ever seen—what was his name—Justin?” he laughed, and the Druids dropped their gazes.  “A merchant of vellum sheets!” he chuckled.  “What sort of fool would believe that?  I will say this, though.  The robe actually is here—in Northampton, just as I said.  At least,” he grinned broadly, “it is now, thanks to your efforts.”  He drew the tattered purple garment from beneath his cloak, holding it high above the heads of his men.
Like a victor standing triumphant over the field of battle, he held it aloft for all to see, an ancient, holy banner catching the evening breeze.  As golden light showered down over him, he shouted with all his might: “England!”
His men shouted after him, until all the hills of Northampton were echoing the cry of those Saxon hearts: “England!”  Above that field waved the one prize they had sought, and now the dream was theirs, and the hearts of their countrymen with it.
~ ~ ~
“Listen to me,” Michael protested, looking up from where he was shackled to the floor.   
Alfred leered down at him with pleasure. “And why should I?” he smirked.  “I am merely repaying in full the hospitality you showed me.”
Michael shook his head.  “There is more, much more to all this.  More than you can imagine.”
The huge man chuckled, still amused with the irony of the situation.  “How so?”
“We are Druidae,” he said, ignoring a warning glance from one of the older men.  “We are men of power and influence.  If you truly wish to unite a Saxon England, there is a better way.  That robe represents everything foreign, Christian and Norman both.  Neither are truly English.  The way of the Druids is the old way, the way of the mighty deeds of old.  It was not just a religion; it was a way of life, a philosophy, a system of government.  Shall we not turn this nation back to its roots, the very roots that the Saxon kings first embraced?”
Alfred smiled sardonically.  He was enjoying the conversation. “The England my fathers knew,” he replied slowly, “was Anglo-Saxon and Christian.  The Druid way was the way of the first people, a people too weak to hold the land.  It's no wonder the Saxons trampled them into the dust.  You can lay down your Celtic conceit, Druid. Your words mean nothing to me.  I am Saxon, and Saxons are Christians.  It is the way of things.”
Michael would not give up.  Frantic to be released, he continued to plead, his dark eyes flashing violently.  “You would have greater power to accomplish your goal if you handed the robe over to us.  The spirits of the land have demanded a sacrifice to return the nation to them.  Burning it on their altars would be an act which places them back in control, and nothing would be able to stop the force behind it.  No Norman, nor anyone else, could stand against it, I swear!”
Even as he was speaking the other four Druids let out a collective groan, but the youth paid them no heed.
Alfred grinned brightly.  “Do all Druids think with their tongues, boy?” he laughed loudly.  “I may not live a perfect life, but I believe in the power of the Christ that my fathers believed in.  And all of England believes in it, too.  All those poor masses out there, leaning on every word of the priests, they believe with all they are in the power of God.  Your dream is dead, boy.  With this relic before me, men will swarm from every corner of the earth to join my force.  With this robe, my cause will not be a hopeless fight against the past.  It will be a holy war, a crusade inspired by God himself!  Do not think I am so foolish as to pass that up!”
Michael lowered his eyes.  “If you knew the power of those you have captured…” he growled.
“Michael!  Be silent!” the oldest Druid snapped quickly, a look of annoyance on his face.
Alfred nodded his head.  “Perhaps you should listen to your counselors, boy,” he winked.  “They may yet save your neck from the sword.”  Laughing, he stepped out of the little cell and slammed the door back in its place.
~ ~ ~
Edward frowned, looking at the branches they had gathered to make a fire.  The dead boughs were slowly consumed by the licking flames, until only charred skeletons remained where once verdant life had flourished.   
They had found no sign of Malcolm, and Cedric was pressing them to move on toward Northampton.  Edward had spoken with him as the evening fell over the site of the burned manor.  Both knew by that time of the theft of the robe, and Cedric considered it of utmost importance to retrieve it.  Edward could not resist his logic, but something still cried out from within him not to desert his friend.
His eyes wandered back to the blackened remains of the north wing.  Was that where Malcolm had fallen, in a fiery inferno, apart from all his friends?  He hung his head in defeat.  Malcolm had been a good friend, and it was for Edward’s sake that he had come on this journey.  Oswald sat silently, his muscles tense, his arms rigid as he gazed at the night sky.
“It will be good weather tomorrow, I think,” Edward mused, trying to divert the Scot’s thoughts from his lost commander.
The knight nodded, but said nothing.  They sat in silence for several long minutes before Hannah strolled up beside the fire and sat down across from them.  Oswald remained transfixed, his eyes staring blankly into the void of the sky, but Edward held his eyes toward Hannah.  She adjusted the folds of her dark cloak as she sat, her eyes glistening in the light of the fire.  Her gaze found and captured Edward’s, the fire burning brightly between them.
He longed to speak to her, to hear her voice and to know her thoughts.  But no words were necessary.  Their eyes spoke deeper than anything they could have said, and they both felt the pain of the other.  Edward marveled at her as he sat there.  She had gone through a terrible, traumatic life filled with hatred and pain.  Yet still she was strong.  There was a sense of courage, an unbreakable spirit of life about her that he could not deny.
After what seemed like only a few short, blissful seconds of looking into each other’s eyes, she broke the gaze and turned her attention to the fire.  “Come walk with me, Edward,” she said at last, barely a whisper above the crackle of the burning branches.
They rose in unison and made their way around the edge of a rise until the fire was out of sight.  Edward felt uncomfortable, uncertain of what to do or say.  All of the confidence, the sure calm that he had built up was stripped away whenever they were alone, and he felt as if his defenses were down.
She seemed content with his silence, though, and they walked together over the short grass, breathing deeply of the cool night air.  At last she turned to him, her eyes sparkling in the dim light of the half-moon.  She studied his face for a moment, then smiled sympathetically.  “You look worried.”
He nodded, but could find nothing to say in response.
“Cedric isn't worried,” she continued.  “And he is perhaps in a worse position than we are.”
Edward smiled.  “I find Cedric a bit eccentric, to tell the truth.  And he doesn't know all that has happened.  It is a serious affair.”
“Far too many things in life are."
He shook his head and grinned.  “Life is not always as simple as we make it out to be, Hannah.  You of all people know that.  We need something to give us solace from the pain that attacks us.”
“And for you it is your faith."
They continued walking for a ways before sitting down near one of the farm-trails.  “And where is it that you run for comfort in life, Hannah?”
She sighed and turned away so that he wouldn't see the tears that sprang into her eyes.  “Before, I would have said that my family is what brings me solace.  But that has been taken from me, and my faith with it.  The search for answers to that one question, Why, brings me no relief.  Only, I suppose, the frail dream and hope of a better future.”
         They sat quietly for quite a while, the absolute stillness creating an aura of peace around them.  It was a feeling they had seldom had since their lives had both been turned upside-down, and one they relished, for they knew that it would not last long.
“There have been times,” she said at last, “when I have wished I could take my own life. But something always held me back.  You can never know what it is like to go through life hated and lusted after at the same time.”  She drew a ragged breath.  “I have felt worthless…unclean…for so long.  Too long, Edward.  I can hear my soul crying out for something more, searching for answers on this dark void of a world, but nothing is there for me.”
She turned and looked at him.  “This probably sounds very foolish, doesn’t it?”
“No,” he whispered.  “Go on.”
She shook her head, looking up at the bright points of starlight.  “I've often wished that I could fly.  To glide away and leave all these troubles behind, and never return.  To go and look at the beauty of the world and forget the hate and strife of mankind.”  She rose, and Edward looked up at her as she spoke.  “Love isn't the answer, is it?  Neither is peace.  They are just tastes of things that man will never be able to find on his own.”
He rose and placed his hands on her shoulders, so that she could not help but look at him.  “There is a way,” he said softly.
She watched his expression carefully.  “And you think that you have the answers to life, Edward?  To all the complexities, all the pain and trials?”
“No,” he responded gently.  “But I know who does.  And I have put all of my trust in Him.  He is the only reason that I've been able to fight my way through life.”
She narrowed her eyes, as if trying to look through him, to see what was hidden behind his resolve.  “There is something different about you,” she said.  “Something that I have seen only in you, in Raymond, and in your friends.  And I have thought about it....I cannot imagine what you have sacrificed for me. This is my search, Edward, not yours.”
“And yet I will be beside you every step of the way.  I am a friend that will not leave you.”
She smiled. “I'm grateful for your friendship. It's the only thing that kept a glimpse of hope alive in me these past weeks.  I would be lost without your guidance.”
He chuckled.  “I look to One greater than myself for guidance, Hannah.  He is the well of living water that never can run dry.  I know that as a Jew you have felt the weight of hatred bearing down on you,” he paused, choosing his words carefully.  “But there is a Deliverer from the pain...an answer beyond our comprehension.”
She smiled wistfully.  “I will think about it, Edward.”
“That’s all I ask.  And I shall pray about it—for you.”
“Thank you,” she said softly.
The fire was dying out as they rejoined Oswald, still holding his vigil of the night sky. Edward sat in silence beside him.   
Hannah withdrew, watching them for a time from a hollow near a tree before turning away. She looked up at the sky, and raised up her arms.
“God of my fathers,” she whispered, “hear me tonight.  Show me, Lord; show me the way.  I cannot find it on my own.” 
 She stayed there for a long while, eventually sitting down on the soft moss, before exhaustion overtook her body and she fell into a deep slumber.  The stars circled in their paths above her, following the joyful dance their Master had set for them at the beginning of time.  Whatever changed in the world, some things would always be constant, radiating out from an eternal heart of love.  And she was just beginning to understand.

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