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, April 21, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 33



Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
 (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)

~33~

They woke with the dawn and prepared to travel south once again.  The day was clear, but had a sharp, cold wind blowing down from the north.  It howled around them, biting into their cloaks with yet another reminder of the oncoming winter.
They had decided to travel directly on the main road, despite Alfred’s advice to stay as far away as they could.  With luck, they hoped to be able to reach London long before the brigands came after them again.  Hannah and Justin led the way, followed by Edward and Alfred, who was still limping painfully, with Oswald bringing up the rear.  Despite the time of year, they still met a fair number of travelers along the road, making their way back and forth between the villages.
Hannah turned back to listen for a moment to the conversation between the two brothers, then shook her head in wonder.   
“It is a change beyond anything I would have believed possible, Justin,” she said quietly.  “I am still not sure whether to trust him or not.”
“Oh, I think he’s fairly safe,” Justin replied.
She shrugged.  “I don’t know.  If you could have seen him before—he was so hateful and violent, so ready to kill anyone who stood in his way.  And now he suddenly turns around and decides to help us? It doesn’t make sense.”
Justin grinned at her.  “It makes perfect sense to me.”
She let out a sigh. “Well, perhaps you could explain it to me then.”
Justin walked a ways further before responding, pursing his lips in thought.  “Are you faithful to your religion, Hannah?”
She shrugged.  “My father was.  Since his death, I...I don't know.”
He nodded, then breathed in deeply.  “I must confess to you, Hannah, I have not had many dealings with Jews.  In fact, I avoided them for the most part.”
She brushed back a lock of her dark hair and looked up at him.
“Does that surprise you?” he asked.
“No,” she replied in a soft voice.  “It is a thing I have come to expect from Christians.  I cannot count the number of times I have been given those dark, cold stares of hatred.”
“Hmm,” he murmured.  “A tragedy, that.”  He reached up with his forefinger to scratch his beard, then looked at her again.  “Perhaps some day you will be able to forgive my people for this.”
“Perhaps,” she replied, allowing her eyes to wander back to the surrounding landscape.  It was beginning to change to a dull brown hue of winter under the powerful hand of the biting frost.  “But my people are all too familiar with tragedies.”
Justin tilted his head slightly.  “Did you realize that the first time I ever set foot on Jewish land was to give the robe to your father?  And that was only to save my own life. Selfish, is it not?”
“You seem far from selfish now. What turned your heart?” she asked.
At this, he broke into a wide grin.  “That is a chapter of my life that I have revealed to very few. But perhaps hearing it will help you to better understand.  After I delivered the robe to you, I returned back to my post at York.  But as the weeks went by, I felt the pressure more and more from both the Templars and the Druid nobles to surrender the information I possessed.  I must say, I was terribly afraid for my life.  The Templars had chased me all across Europe in an effort to seize the robe, and during that time I became well aware of their tainted purposes.  The Druids, too, had been on my heels since I set my feet on English soil, and I barely escaped them in the end.
“So I deserted my post and fled westward, across the sea toward Ireland.  I found refuge among the monks of Iona.  I cannot describe to you, Hannah, the peace that I discovered there.  They explained to me the messages of life that I had never before understood and showed me the wonderful mercy, grace, and love of God.”
She nodded, listening to the story, but maintaining an ever-watchful eye on the road before her.
“While I was there, my anam cara, my soul-friend, warned me of the complacency of living behind walls of brick.  There is a harvest field out in the world, and God is hard-pressed to find laborers for it—there are so few who are passionate for the Lord now, and those who are often devote themselves to solitude.  So he and I set out together to England, but parted ways once we reached this side.  Hearing of the massacre in London, I journeyed down to the woods of this region and have been living here for several weeks, wondering what service God was calling me to.”
“What happened to your friend?”
“He went to take over a priestship in the Welsh country, or so he told me.  He was greatly concerned about the Jews as well, and wondered how widespread the damage was.  When this is all finished, I may venture the trip out west to see how he has fared.”
She nodded.  “So what changed your attitude toward my people?”
“You may not like the answer, but it is the only one I can give—Christ has changed me.  Before, I was like everyone else.  I listened to the words of the priests, but I did not hear them.  But at Iona, I realized the wonderful promise of Christ in my own life, and since that time I have never been able to control the astonishing outpouring of love and joy in my soul.”
“And you think that’s what is happening to him?” she pointed back to where Alfred was limping along.
Justin nodded.  “He has merely taken the first small steps of a wonderful journey.  That is what has begun to change him, and it will continue to do so as he surrenders his life to Christ.”
She shook her head.  “I still do not understand.”  With a deep breath, she looked around at the trees and the fields surrounding them.  “But someday, I think I will.”
~ ~ ~
It was nearing noontime when they retired to a small grove by the wayside to take their midday meal.  They had covered a fair distance in the time, and were rather tired, both from the strain of the walk and the stress of the previous days.  Edward and Alfred had stayed back in a small town less than a league behind them along the road.  Despite the former brigand’s repeated comments that he was feeling fine, his brother had demanded that they seek to find a way to extricate the arrowhead from the still-fresh wound.
The rest of the group marched off again to wait for them in the peaceful shade of the grove.  They had no idea how long such a procedure would take, but they felt safer when they were well out of sight of travelers on the road.  After a while of waiting, though, Justin remarked that they were running frightfully low on provisions and made the suggestion of going quickly back into the village to purchase enough supplies to get them to London.
Oswald decided to remain with their packs while the other two ventured back toward the markets.  It was a short walk, but beneath the beating strength of the hot sun, Hannah tired quickly.  She decided to enter a small cobbler’s shop while waiting for Justin to conclude his errands.  She watched the proceedings within the shop with dulled interest for a few minutes, grateful just for the shelter from the sun.
“Is there something you need?” a young woman spoke, glancing up from her task of sewing several pieces of stiff leather together.
“No,” Hannah replied with a smile.  “I’m merely waiting for a friend.”
The woman nodded, her eyes fixed back on her work.  “Are you just passing through, then?  My father and I do not see many people come through our shop who are not from the area.”
“Yes, we’re just going through on our way to London.”
“Oh,” the cobbler’s daughter responded cheerfully.  “Are you visiting relatives there?”
Hannah sighed heavily, a frown pulling down the corners of her mouth.  “I’m afraid so.  I live in Newcastle, but my uncle was taken prisoner in the coronation riots against the Jews.  My friends and I are on our way to seek his freedom.”
She smiled.  “Well, I wish you luck, then.  We did not have any riots in our town, but we certainly heard stories of several, from London and Lincoln and several other cities nearby.”
Hannah nodded, not really wishing to pursue a conversation on the subject.  After a while, their talk turned to lighter subjects, and it was not long before Justin returned, his arms bearing a burlap sack loaded with their provisions.
“Thank you,” Hannah called out to the daughter as she walked out of the peaceful little shop.
“You’re welcome!” came the reply.  “And good luck!”
~ ~ ~
The village that the two brothers had halted in did indeed have an aged apothecary, who, by his own account, also served as a physician when none other could be found.  The tiny shop was small and dusty, its shelves lined with numerous jars of powders and crushed herbs.  As Alfred sat down on an old wooden cot with a groan, the apothecary leaned over with interest. 
“Arrowhead?” he asked, his pale eyes glancing up at Edward, who nodded.
“You’re not to use any magic potions on me, do you hear?” Alfred said firmly, gritting his teeth in pain.
The elderly man laughed.  “I suppose to the ignorant people of these parts, I would appear to be a magician.  Is that what they told you?”  Without waiting for a response, he continued, shuffling over to a low shelf, where he carefully selected a small bowl of herbs.  “No, it’s all synergy, my boy—synergy and science.  Using God’s creation to help heal mankind.”  He sighed, working a small mortar and pestle in his hands over the fragrant leaves.  “Very few understand it, though,” he pursed his lips in thought.  “Someday, though, wisdom will see a new dawning.  And eventually even all of this,” he motioned to his collection of powders and herbs, “will become obsolete.”
Edward rolled his eyes, eager to be away from the eccentric old man.  “How long will this take?”
He shrugged, squinting his eyes to look at the raw flesh surrounding the wound.  “It depends on how cooperative my patient is. Do you have a strap of leather?”
Edward nodded and carefully cut a section of his belt off using a small knife that Malcolm had given him.  The apothecary handed it over to Alfred.  “Put this between your teeth and clamp down.  It will help you manage the pain better.”
The process of extracting the stubborn arrowhead turned out to be long and gruesome.  After nearly an hour of painful digging into the flesh of the wound, the apothecary was able to extract it.  Alfred, between his heaving breaths and groans of pain, was praying that he only lived long enough to be able to walk out of that little room.
The old man carefully bound the wound, bleeding anew, with a clean linen poultice.  “Leave the bandage on for several days, my friend,” he instructed, smiling slightly.
“Can I walk on it?” Alfred said, slowly rising and testing his weight on the tender leg.
“I don’t know, really,” the old man chuckled.  “I rarely do this sort of thing.  Most people who take an arrow aren’t as fortunate as you are.”
Alfred groaned and nodded, placing the chewed-up strip of leather in his mouth again.  “I can make it,” he grunted to Edward.
“Good,” his brother chuckled sympathetically, “because I wasn’t planning on carrying you.”  As they exited the shop, he turned long enough to throw a sack with a few small coins to the apothecary.  “Thank you, sir!”
“And thank you!” the old man replied from his workbench, already hard at work again. 
They hobbled quickly out into the dusty street, turning to follow the southbound road through the market square and then on toward London. Unnoticed, from the northeast corner of the square, a pair of eyes, haunted and incensed, followed their movements until they at last rounded a corner and drew away from the observer's line of sight.
~ ~ ~
As the two men walked slowly down the dusty street, Edward sighed.  He glanced over at his brother, hobbling along while trying as hard as he could not to display any hint of pain.  Edward smiled, knowing that the past few days had seen the beautiful fruition of years of prayer for Alfred.
“Don’t push it too hard,” he warned.
Alfred grunted and shook his head.  “I still do not understand the whole matter of the Templars and Cedric—or Justin—but I do not wish to see them again.  No doubt they will follow us along this route.  We must make haste.  Don’t worry about me.”
“Very well,” Edward allowed.  “Just don’t strain yourself too much.”
He grunted in response.  “Are we going to rejoin the others yet?”
“No, first we must visit the local tailor.  Do you still have the robe with you?”
He nodded.
“Good.  This should not take long,” he said, ducking low to enter the small shop they had come to.
It was an hour before they emerged, and by that time they had become truly concerned of the precious moments slipping away in the race to London.  Walking as quickly as Alfred’s wound would allow, they made their way to the little grove and rejoined the remaining group.  Immediately they were greeted by Oswald, who came rushing up to give a report. 
“Malcolm and the two knights passed here nearly an hour ago,” he reported breathlessly.  “I called out, but we were too far away from the road to be heard.”
“Then we shall meet again in London,” Edward responded.
“Or they may double back to look for us,” the Scot suggested.  “It is still several days’ march to London with a wounded man.”
Edward nodded.  “But if we remain on the main road, we may be overtaken by a troop of Templars or by Jonathan’s band.”
“The Templars also passed by while we were resting--that's why I didn't chase after Malcolm along the road.  All six were present, and it appeared they were making great haste.”
“Then they may not have been searching for us,” said Edward.
Alfred chuckled wryly.  “No, but I’d be willing to wager that they’re setting up a trap for us in London.  And my men cannot be far behind.  I can't believe that Jonathan would give up the chase so easily.”
Oswald nodded, turning to look at the other two, who were talking quietly as they watched the road.  “Then we cannot use the main thoroughfares of travel,” he sighed.  “Which will make the trip even longer.”
“Yes,” Edward agreed.  “So we must be off.  There’s no use wasting time standing here among the trees.”
So the group set about preparing for a long march southward.  The day was clear and fairly warm, and they traveled several leagues under the peaceful shade of leafy boughs before emerging onto a wide, open field. Ignoring questioning looks from the laborers busy at taking in the harvest, they quickly traversed the field and continued on, at last setting camp an hour after sunset near the bank of a small brook.
While Justin and Oswald broke out the rations for a small meal prior to retiring for the night, the other three wandered down toward the swift-moving waters of the stream.  The air was humid but cool, with a refreshing vigor that quickened their senses.  Alfred lowered himself wearily onto a moss-covered stone, painfully stretching his tired limbs. 
Hannah knelt down by the water’s edge, her eyes carefully observing the two brothers as they sat silently, side by side.  Despite the reassurances from the others, she could not bring herself to trust the former outlaw.  In her mind the vision was still fresh of that terrifying day when they came upon the cave, and she knew without a doubt that she would have been lost had it not been for Edward’s heroic stand in her defense.
But as she watched Alfred, she noticed that indeed something had changed about him—he was quieter, gentler, and more at peace with the world.  The fiery, brash warlord had disappeared, and in its place a different fire had settled on his soul.  It was one she had seen in Edward and his friends, but one that she could not reconcile to the fearsome presence of the brigand.
She still remembered that terrible moment on the banks of the Tyne when he had confronted her about the robe.  And yet there before her sat what seemed to be a different man—similar, but not the same.  This was not the same man who had kidnapped her and threatened their lives over and over, not the same man whose followers had tried to ravish the pious daughter of Raymond of Newcastle.
As she watched them, they began to converse in low tones, smiling all the while.  It was as if the topic of their dialogue was so real to them and so wondrous that they could not hold back the flood of emotions welling up within them.  Even Alfred, once so cold and vile and cruel, nearly shone with the light of his smile as he spoke.
He whispered something to Edward, who responded with a slight nod of the head.  “Yes, my brother.  Have you never heard the story of the calling of the apostles by our Lord?”
Alfred shook his head, leaning forward intently.
“They were called to give up everything—absolutely everything—and to follow Christ with all of their hearts.  Can you imagine what it would have been like if they had refused and had instead gone back to their boats?  Obedience is essential to the Christian life.”
“Christ is a hard taskmaster,” Alfred chuckled.
“It may seem difficult, and rightly so.  Walking after the footsteps of Jesus is no easy task.  He has called us to lay down out very lives for the sake of his calling on us.  We were born to seek out the will of God and to do it without question or hesitation.”
“That I understand,” Alfred responded, peering at the brook through the gathering gloom.  “As a leader of men, I can see how orders must always be obeyed no matter what circumstances may arise.”
“Yes,” the other nodded.  “But there is something just as important to remember—when we come to that point of surrendering everything up to Christ as King—though the task is trying, the rewards are greater than our wildest imaginings.  He instills in the soul a peace and a humble confidence that is beyond any description—a joy that runs deeper than the deepest sorrow.  It is at that point that the Spirit of the Lord himself takes full control of everything we have—only when we surrender it to him.  And that responsibility and satisfaction is the most wondrous experience available to mortal man.”
“And all we need do is surrender ourselves up?”
“It is no easy task, Alfred.  It could take a long time of prayer and soul-searching and the confession of sins to humble the pride of our human spirit and make room for the Holy Spirit to invade our hearts and make his tabernacle among us.  You were sealed with that Spirit when you pledged your homage to Christ as your Lord, but this acceptance must manifest itself.  Christ can only be Lord in your life when he is Lord of all of your life.  Only then, through a pure and willing heart, can the Holy Spirit do his mighty work.”
“And you will help me, Ed?” Alfred asked, and on his voice was a hint of something that Hannah never expected to hear from him.  It was a trace of fear, but not a fear of death or horror; rather, a fear possessed by an awestruck excitement in the presence of ineffable holiness.
“I will help you, Alfred,” he smiled brightly through misted eyes.  “We shall pray for one another, and together we shall pursue and follow God’s will in everything we do.”
Hannah slowly rose and made her way back up the bank, but her mind was filled with questions, and the answers eluded her.  No matter how hard she tried, she could not understand the transformation that had come upon the brigand.  Whether or not they would see the completion of their journey, she knew that she had been led onto a road of life that would hold her captive until she realized where it was bringing her.  And she had begun to form an idea of that final destination—but the thought of it was too wonderful and too terrible for her to dwell on it.

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