Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 37



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

~37~

“Another grain deposit?” the jail-master asked incredulously.  “The last one came in only two days ago.”
“I don’t know about that, sir,” Malcolm replied, his head bowed.  “We just do what they tell us to do.  Perhaps they had you mixed up with another prison.”
“Not likely,” the keeper replied.  “Who is your superior?”
“We work for Sir Thomas of the King’s supply base,” Stephen said quickly.  “We distribute food to most of the forts directly under the King’s control.”
“Well, then you’ve taken a wrong turn,” he replied, perplexed.  “This building has been controlled by the Templars for the past several years.  All of our grain comes from them.”
“Oh, then you haven’t heard any of the new developments?” Thomas asked.
“What new developments?”
“Many of the Templars will be going along with King Richard to the Holy Land after the winter.  Because of this, they have thrown all of their resources in with the King’s men, so all of their normal functions will now be proceeding through the King’s offices.”
The jail-master raised a skeptical eyebrow.  “Is that so?  The Preceptor himself was here not long ago.  I’m certain he would have informed me of any such changes.”
The three men stood in silence for a long moment, then Thomas muttered a curse.  Leaping forward, he laid a blow directly across the wiry man’s chin.  He fell instantly to the ground, unconscious.   
“We should have tried that first,” he growled, then seized the keys and charged down the dark corridor.
Malcolm groaned and looked to Stephen, who shrugged. 
“We were trying to do this without having an entire legion of the Templars on our tail!” he hissed after Thomas, but the knight paid no heed.   
Sighing, the two men raced after the captain, hoping they would be able to avoid any further detection.
~ ~ ~
“What do you want with us?” Edward finally worked up the courage to ask, taking a sheltering stance between Michael and Hannah.
Michael continued walking as if he hadn't heard the question.  They were following an old footpath up a small slope, walking eastward toward a ridge in the distance.   
“All that will be made evident in time, my friends," he said at last. "We still have many miles left to walk and only a few hours to get there.”
The sun was setting behind them, casting long, eerie shadows on the ground.  Michael walked ahead and rarely ever looked back, supremely confident that his prisoners would have no way to escape him. 
Edward’s mind raced as he wondered why the fanatical young man had taken them.  Of course, he knew there was only one answer, and it frightened him.  The only possible explanation was that Michael also desired the robe for himself, and Edward knew that he would have to find time to speak to Hannah alone before Michael decided to search them for the relic.  Unless she knew completely what had already taken place with the robe, their safety would be in even greater jeopardy.
The night was falling around them, and they watched the sky turn from blue to lavender to deep purple as the tiny pinpoints of starlight broke through.  A chill wind began to blow over them.
Every so often, Edward would slow his pace to see if he could lengthen the gap from Michael and give them a better chance to escape.  But each time he did so, the youth would shout out a harsh command without even turning to look at them.  Even though he never observed them directly, the Druid youth seemed to be oddly aware of all they were doing.  Something told Edward that even if they attempted to escape, they would be doomed to fail.
A crescent moon had already risen above the benighted countryside by the time that Michael decided to stop the march.  They were in the center of a vast fallow field, standing beneath the spreading boughs of an ancient tree.  Its twisted roots embraced the fertile ground around it in a clasp that had been held for centuries.
“This is one of the holiest sites in all England,” Michael breathed in an ominous tone.  “In ancient times, sacrifices were often made here by the local priests.”
“Druids,” Edward noted.
“Whatever the name, this place stands as a monument to England’s past—a past that will never be forgotten.”
“A past of idolatry and superstition,” Edward replied quickly, hoping to raise Michael's anger enough to create a window of escape.  “It would be better left in the mists of time than disturbed to plague the present.”
Michael smiled, leaning forward into Edward’s face.  “You’re afraid of us, aren’t you?”
“No,” Hannah spoke up defiantly, surprising both men.  “No, we’re not afraid of you.”
Michael gritted his teeth and prepared to place another blow across her face.  Edward leapt out to block the blow, but Michael anticipated the move and drew his sword in one quick, fluid motion.  “Perhaps you should be afraid,” he chuckled.
Hannah shook her head.  “Our God has power greater than all the forces of evil.”
“Your God!” he scoffed.  “One need only to look to the Jews, His chosen people, to see how powerful He is!  There is no other branch of mankind so weak and so despised as the seed of Abraham!  If your God had any power at all, He should consider using some of it to protect the people He promised to hold! And it doesn’t really matter anyway. Whether or not your God exists, He is a foreign presence—not a god of England.  And with the sacrifice of the robe, His defeat in this land will be assured.”
“What robe?” asked Edward, confusion written over his face.
“I won’t waste time arguing with you. Give it to me.”
Hannah and Edward looked at each other, eyebrows raised in question.
“I know you have it,” he growled through gritted teeth.
“Actually,” Hannah said, a note of fear lingering in her vocie, “the Templars have it now.  They took it soon after we were put in prison.”
Michael swore violently, kicking up a large clump of sod.  “I knew it,” he muttered, shaking his head.  “I knew it.  Why else would they be in a prison?  Just simple travelers, after all." His voice descended into a strange, self-deprecating laugh. "Just simple travelers!”
Edward reached out carefully and placed a hand on Michael’s shoulder, uncertain whether the youth still retained any shred of sanity.  As soon as his hand touched the dark cloak, Michael shuddered and withdrew.  His sword slid out again with the whisper of steel, and he began screaming.   
“No!  Don’t touch me!  I need it!  England needs it!  You must find it for me, bring me to it!”
Edward tried to be cautious, knowing now that the Druid zealot was entirely unpredictable and terribly dangerous.   
“Very well.  We will try to find it—if you release us.”
Michael stared hard into his eyes for a long moment, then shook his head.  “No,” he muttered, “too risky.  Much too risky.  You are crafty ones, aren’t you?  Think I will let you walk away?  Well, what if I told you that I don’t believe you?”
“Your belief cannot change the truth,” said Hannah, looking at the youth now with a sense of compassion. 
“No,” Michael replied as his breathing slowed.  He seemed to be regaining control, returning to normal.  “No, but perhaps my suspicions can reveal the truth for me.”
“What do you mean?” asked Edward.
“I don’t think the Templars actually took it from you.  You’re just making the story up so that I'll let you go.”
“And what if I told you that one of the other members of our group has it?  Is that the truth?  Or that we were placed in prison because we tried to sell a holy relic for profit?  Would that be true?”
“No,” Michael smiled wickedly.  “If either were true, you would have told me these at the beginning to try to dissuade me.  Therefore, either you have it or the Templars do.  Tonight I will be able to determine which.”
Edward regarded him calmly, hoping his carelessness would frustrate Michael.  “And how do you intend to do that?”
“I must reason it out,” he replied with a smirk.  “The question becomes, where would they hide such a valuable relic?  Certainly with them; to leave it elsewhere would be folly.  But then, with whom?  Probably not one of the others, since you would have already pointed that out to me.  And as for you two—my guess would be you.”  He pointed to Hannah.
“Why me?”
“Frankly, because most men would not suspect a simple Jewess of bearing a relic worth more than most of the fortunes in Christendom.”
Hannah took a slow step back, and Edward interposed his body between the two.  Michael brought up his sword point to Edward’s neck.   
“Step away, or you will die.”
Edward felt the razor-sharp edge of the blade resting against his skin, and waves of panic threatened to drown him.   
“I won’t let you touch her,” he said quietly.
Michael’s lip twisted down, the muscles on his arm tightening threateningly.
“Edward, don’t,” Hannah protested, trying vainly to pull him aside.  “I’ve already seen enough of those I love slain.  I don’t want you killed for my sake.”
Michael stood watching their interchange with ill-disguised interest, his brow furrowed in thought.  He had allowed Edward to turn around and face Hannah, but still kept the edge of the blade poised over his neck. 
Edward took her by the shoulders and looked deep into her eyes, now shedding tears down her cheeks.   
“But if I stand aside, how do we know what he will do to you?  We both might be plagued by that decision for all our lives!  I care too much for you to allow anyone to hurt you.”
“Edward,” she spoke softly, pulling his face toward hers.  “If you die, he will still search me to find the robe.  But if you do not, at least we will still both be alive…together.”
He reached out and brushed aside the tears from her cheeks, and with his other hand held a lock of her long, dark tresses.   His heart pounding hard against his chest, he leaned forward until their faces were almost touching and they were breathing one another’s breath.   
“I’m sorry, Hannah.  Maybe one day you will be able to forgive me for this.”
He straightened and turned, his face set as he regarded Michael coolly.  Despite his hard countenance, though, he could not help releasing a single tear from the corner of his eye.  It sparkled dimly in the moonlight, tracing a silver streak down his jaw.  
 “I will not move, sir.  When I met Hannah I made it my duty to protect her from harm.  I will honor that pledge, in death if I must.”
Inwardly, Edward was frightened.  Terribly frightened.  The thought of dying on that lonely ridge scared him beyond what he could describe.  But even then, something shouted boldly within him that he was dying for a cause, so that through his blood Hannah might have the chance for a better life.  He only prayed that she would waste no time, but begin to flee immediately and so preserve her own safety.
Michael glared at him for what seemed to be an interminable length of time before sighing resignedly.  
“When my masters told me that Christianity is a weak religion of love, I thought our crusade to bring England back would be harder than I first anticipated, and I was right.  Love is a powerful opponent--it makes even foolish choices ring with courage.”  He shook his head slowly, but kept the sword poised where it was.  “Very well, I'll make a bargain with you.  Give me the robe right now, and I will neither kill you nor harm her in any way.”
Edward paused, mulling over the options.  He still possessed the true robe, although neither Hannah nor the Templars knew it.  Now that they knew where Hannah’s uncle was, surely there was another way of seeking his liberty.  But to surrender the robe, quite possibly a sacred relic and a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, to a pagan ritual—it was unthinkable.
Hannah’s voice echoed from behind him, and from the muffled sobs between the words he could tell that she had been weeping for him.  “I told you—the Templars have taken it.”
Michael stepped to the side to peer around Edward and catch a glimpse of Hannah to see if there was any deceit in her face, but as he did so, his sword wavered for a moment.  Edward took the chance and dodged beneath the blade, catching the unsuspecting youth in a quick tackle.  Michael was knocked to the ground beneath the blow, but he kept his grip on the handle of his sword.  Flailing wildly, he was able to strike Edward’s back several times with the flat of his blade.
Edward was never a violent man, but he fought now with desperation to save one of the few people he held dear.  Gritting his teeth to ward off the pain of the blows landing firmly on his back, he pinned down the young man’s hands.  Hannah rushed forward and began trying to pry Michael’s fingers off the sword handle.
Michael swore and lashed up with his head, placing a blow squarely on Edward’s nose.  Edward groaned and rolled to the side, his hands going up to stop the flow of blood that began running down his face.
Michael seized the momentary advantage to rip the sword out of Hannah’s hands and throw it at Edward.  He saw the blade whirling through the air at him and rolled to the side, but the passing edge nicked his arm, opening a small wound near his shoulder.
The Druid leapt to his feet as fast as he could and proceeded to pick up his sword again.  Holding it over Edward’s prone form, he laughed.  
“Courageous folly, indeed.  I was on the verge of deciding to let you live, but now I have no choice.”
Michael was about to bring the blade down on Edward’s chest when he caught a flurry of motion in the corner of his eye.  Before he could do anything, he was enveloped in a crushing embrace that threw him to the ground.
“Not to my brother,” Alfred growled, smashing the youth unconscious against the gnarled roots of the old tree.

No comments: