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, May 12, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 36



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

~36~

“Take their swords!” the Count shouted, his booming voice echoing in the cell.  The other eleven Templars rushed forward, quickly disarming Oswald, Justin, and Alfred, despite their halfhearted show of resistance.
“Now,” the Count continued, leering happily, “I trust you have enjoyed your brief reunion, for it will not last much longer." He gazed around the room for a long moment. "I suppose you know why I have done this."
Hannah shook her head.  “How did you know that we would be coming for my uncle?”
He scowled and tugged on his beard.  “What a vile, contemptuous race,” he muttered, spitting her direction.  “Why does she ask how we know these things? We know many things indeed.”   
After a few moments of silence, he sighed.  “The cobbler's daughter was hesitant to admit what she knew--she even had the temerity to claim that it was dishonorable to give out such information, as if you had been a friend. But in time,” he grinned sardonically, “she came to understand my point of view--with a little persuasion, of course.”
Hannah grimaced.  She couldn't blame the cobbler's daughter for what had happened.  If blame was to be found anywhere, it was with herself, and she knew it well.  She should have been more careful than to speak so openly about their plans, even to well-meaning strangers.  
“And now,” the Count continued, pacing proudly before them, “you will give me the robe.”
Immediately, Alfred began to back away, behind the protection of his companions.   
“Why do you want it?” Edward asked, walking up to the Templar.
He chuckled softly.  “It is a holy relic.  It should be placed under our protection, of course.  It is not to be in the hands of some devilish thieves.”
The Count sighed and motioned to his men.  “Search them.  The large one first.”  He pointed at Alfred, who was still behind the human shield his companions had created.  “Please, my friends,” the Templar sighed dramatically.  “I do not desire to kill you.”
“You would spill Christian blood for this thing?” Edward asked.  “Even if it is real, is it worth the price of murder?”
“It is a testament to the passion of our Lord.  Any Christian man would give up his life for it, and so will you if you do not quickly get out of the way.”  All eleven Templars drew their swords in unison at a nod from the Count.
Edward raised his hands in surrender and slowly withdrew, a worried look on his face.  The Count grinned eagerly as the others also stepped out from where Alfred had been standing.  
 “Search him,” he commanded, and immediately the soldiers were tearing apart Alfred’s tunic.
After a few moments, one of the Templars held up a clutch of fabric, and the Count snatched it from his grasp.  He held it up to the light of one of the torches, the light of greed dancing dark in his eyes. Then slowly, with an evil tone growing in his voice, he began to laugh, until the sound filled the chamber.  
Folding it carefully, the Count tucked the ancient cloth beneath his own tunic, then bowed nobly to the prisoners.  
“I have what I came for,” he said with a smile.  “Now, as for you, Sir Justin, I suspect you know what will become of you soon.”
“I have a fair guess."
The Count nodded, satisfied.  “And as for the rest of you,” he shrugged, motioning his men back toward the doorway, “I leave the matter in the hands of the King.”
As the lock clicked back in place, the chamber descended once more into darkness.   
Oswald frowned, shaking his head.  “All that work,” he sighed.  “It took so long to bring that robe here, and now, just like that, it’s gone.”
Edward cast a concerned glance toward Alfred, who shrugged.  “I’m certain we can find some way to manage the situation.”
Justin nodded.  “Of course, there's always a way.  But now I’m afraid it’s out of our hands.  We can only put our trust in the Lord.  If He sees fit to deliver us, nothing will be able to stop Him from doing so.”
~ ~ ~
Thomas and Stephen looked up as Malcolm strode in, a smile on his face.  “They’re here.  The guard at the prison told me they came for the girl’s uncle.”
Thomas stood, stretching his stiff muscles.  “When?”
“That was yesterday, near nightfall.  They were directed to go to the smaller prison, south of here.”
“Good!” Stephen said, leaping up beside his captain.  The days of inactivity and waiting had worn down on the two adventuresome men.  “We will either meet them there, or on the road.  Let’s go.”
“Yes, we should go,” Malcolm agreed, quickly fixing his sword-belt about his waist.  “Our friends may already be in need of us.”
~ ~ ~
        The Jail-master sneered down at them, his short sword out and ready to combat any sign of attempted escape as he opened the door.  “Make room, boys!” he shouted, his voice resounding through the cell.  “You’re going to have some company!”
As he spoke, a line of prisoners came shuffling in, their heads bowed in the pervasive despair of captivity.  Some of the stronger prisoners were bound with manacles, and the ones without were in no condition to pose a serious threat.  After about a dozen of the inmates had joined them in the now-cramped room, the door was slammed shut, flooding the cell with total darkness again.
The new prisoners cast themselves to the ground with groans and grunts, not even bothering to acknowledge their new companions.  They were all men, covered in filth and sweat, with their tattered, knotted beards bearing testimony to the harsh prison life they had suffered.  
Hannah glanced over to Justin, who sat beside Oswald with a depressed frown on his face.  “Is something wrong?”
The warrior sighed, glancing around the chamber.  “I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here.”
“Do you think there's any way?”
“When I was in the Holy Land,” he said slowly, “the commander of my cavalry unit told me something.  He said, ‘You must always anticipate the possibility of defeat before a battle to become more prepared, but if that comes upon you, you must never believe it.’”  Justin smiled.  “There is always a way out.  We just have to find it.”
The taciturn Scot beside him nodded his agreement.  “Yes, this is true.  Never resign to defeat.”
“But suppose it is the will of the Lord that we remain captives—that we are chosen to suffer for His name.”
Both men seemed surprised, as if they had not even considered it.  “I suppose it is a possibility,” Justin allowed after a moment of silence.  “But—why would He have provided for us and protected us every step of the way just to leave us in the hands of enemies now?  We have not even accomplished what we were coming here to do.”
“No,” she nodded, “but perhaps He has accomplished in us what He sought to do.”
Oswald cocked his head, his eyebrows raised in thought.  “What do you mean?”
Before she responded, she allowed her eyes to drift around the cell.  The dark and clammy stones mocked them, the chains hanging from the walls in triumph.  In the eyes of the other prisoners there was only despair, callused indifference to life.  They were empty eyes, without any glimmer of hope or joy in those vacant depths.  They had nothing left that could promise them a better future, only the grim realities of the prison that surrounded them.
She turned back to the two men who were awaiting her explanation.  “Perhaps God did not bring us together so that you could help me.  I think now that His purpose was to lead me to an understanding of his love, offered in Christ, and it feels like that mission is near its completion.”
“And so,” Oswald said slowly, his voice resonating in the corners of the room, “you believe that this is the end—that we shall go no further.”
“I have no answer to that. But if I have understood it correctly—every moment we have, every second we are alive—grants us an opportunity to live for our Lord.  And whether those moments come in the depths of this jail or in freedom makes little difference.”
Justin sighed heavily.  “I believe you are right, Hannah.  If we survive this, it is by our Lord’s good pleasure, and if we die, we must resolve to die for Him and for Him alone.”  His eyes danced with fire as he spoke.  “Most of the apostles were martyred for their faith—but until now I had always thought that the Lord would provide a way out for us.”
Oswald shook his head.  “Edward taught me this long ago: our Lord never promises safety for us.  He often talked of being counted worthy enough to die for the name of Christ.”
Hannah nodded and stood.  “Then until that day comes,” she said with resolution in her voice, “let us live unreservedly for Him.”  She walked quickly over to where Edward stood, speaking in low tones with his brother.  After waiting patiently until they were done their conversation, she leaned forward and whispered in his ear.  
“I’m ready now,” she smiled, her eyes bright.
Edward looked at her, astonished for a moment as a slow grin spread over his face. “All right,” he said, quickly brushing a tear from the corner of his eye.  “Let’s pray then.”
And there, with all the prisoners looking on, they knelt in the filth of the prison floor and clasped their hands together.  
~ ~ ~
Malcolm and the two knights paused in confusion as they watched the line of Templars exiting the prison.  They marched out, one after the other, their white and brown mantles ruffling in the breeze.  The last Templar to emerge carried himself straight and proud, his chin upraised with triumph so as to leave no doubt concerning his noble bearing.
“Well, that doesn’t look good,” Thomas muttered.  “Weren’t those the ones that chased us from Northampton?”
Malcolm shrugged.  “It’s a possibility.  Templars look all the same to me.”
“So our friends are prisoners,” Stephen said with a shake of the head.  “Why does it always fall on us to rescue them?”
Malcolm laughed.  “We don’t even know if they are here or not, Sir Stephen.  Perhaps we should at least find that out before we charge the gates.”
“Why did they come here in the first place?” the knight responded.  “They were only asking for trouble.”
“It’s for the girl, Stephen, and you know that.  That uncle is the only family she has left.”
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of,” he said dryly.  “To exchange one of the holiest relics in all Christendom for the life of the Jew could be considered heresy.”
“But you forget, Stephen,” Thomas interjected, his voice stern, as if he was giving an order.  “The relic belongs to the girl.  To force it from her would be wrong, and therefore it falls to her to decide its fate.  She has chosen, and we aid her in Christian love.”
“Yes, sir,” the knight replied dryly.  “As long as we see the robe safely in Christian hands, I shall have no quarrel with the matter.”
Thomas nodded and turned to Malcolm, who was smoothing out his wind-blown hair with his fingers.  “It makes me wonder, though, why the Templars cannot be trusted.  They are the guardians of many such relics.”
The Scot regarded him for a moment.  “I must admit that I don't fully understand it either.  But Justin, the knight who brought the robe back from the Holy Land, considered it of utmost importance that it be kept from their hands.”
The three men turned back to the small prison, their faces set.  They all understood well enough the importance of their next actions.  If it were true that their friends were being held prisoner, then it was of utmost importance that the jail-keepers could not know of their presence.  If it were discovered that the prisoners had knights set on their release, whoever had captured them would almost certainly remove them from all hope of aid.  On the other hand, if they were not being held prisoner, there would be no way to ascertain this save by inquiring of the jail-keepers.
Stephen cleared his throat nervously.  “Perhaps I have a solution,” he offered slowly, cocking an eyebrow to his captain.
“Yes, let’s hear it,” Thomas said.
“When I served as squire to a nobleman in Durham, part of my duty was to help oversee the workings of the dungeon.  This prison may be based on the same system.  On each Wednesday at sundown, several squires would bring in bags of old grain which would be used to feed the prisoners.”
“And today is Wednesday,” Malcolm remarked, looking up to where the sun was positioned in the sky.
Thomas shrugged, pursing his lips in thought.  “I suppose it might work."
Malcolm nodded.  “If it’s the best we have, I can see no other option.  Now we are left with but one matter—where do we find the grain shipments to bring to the prison?”
~ ~ ~
Edward and Hannah embraced as they rose, their faces streaked with tears.  As they held each other close, she whispered into his ear.  
 “Thank you,” she breathed.  “Thank you for caring enough to help me find this love.  You were the only one in a world gone mad who offered me anything but hatred and despair.”
Edward wished he could respond, but no words came to him.  He merely held her, inwardly rejoicing at the step she had finally taken.  
“They are celebrating in Heaven’s courts because of you, Hannah,” he smiled.
She laughed happily, oblivious to the curious stares of their cellmates.  “It hardly seems possible,” she said, “that anyone could love me that much.  But it’s true.  I can feel it.  And at last I am at peace.”
She let go of the moment to cast a glance around the darkened chamber.  Eleazer was still sitting, his eyes fixed to the opposite corner of the room, unwilling to meet her gaze.  Oswald was kneeling by the door, his ear pressed to the wood as if to eavesdrop on a conversation occurring beyond the barrier.  The row of new prisoners returned her glance, their eyes reflecting the empty hopelessness of years of suffering.  
Just as she was about to turn back to Edward, Oswald leapt away from the door as if shocked.  “Someone’s coming,” he hissed.  “It’s not the jail-master.”
The lock ground slowly in the great oaken door, and it swung without creaking on its iron hinges.  Illuminated by light in the doorway stood a young man, his dark eyes blazing with anger and triumph at the same time.  He held a sword outstretched, its blade ready to strike down any who dared to make a move toward him. It was Michael.
“You two!” he shouted at Hannah and Edward.  “Come with me.”
As soon as the words left his lips, though, Oswald shouted a Scottish war-cry and leapt through the air toward him.  Michael was startled, but he remained in control of his instincts, and brought the flat of his sword down hard across the knight’s back.  Oswald groaned and hit the ground, his fists clenched tightly.
“I will not be so merciful next time,” the young Druid warned, a stern timbre in his voice.  “Now, will you come peacefully?”
Edward nodded, stooping to place a reassuring hand on Oswald’s head.  “We will come.”   
They followed him out of the cell, wondering where he might be taking them.  Their hearts were beating hard in fearful anticipation, but Edward glanced over and nodded comfortingly to Hannah.  “It’ll be all right,” he whispered.
Michael slammed the cell door shut and locked it in place.  Walking up to them, he slapped Hannah hard across her face.  She fell with a muffled scream, and Edward caught her to keep her from landing on the stones of the corridor.
“I did not give you permission to talk to each other,” he growled.  “For every sound you make, I will strike her.  Now…follow me.”  

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