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, June 30, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 43



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

~43~



        “I’ve had enough of these Druids or brigands or whoever is behind all this,” Malcolm muttered as he continued the slow elbow-climb up the pipe.  Several times he almost slipped, but he knew he would not have fallen far before his own girth would have stopped the descent. He coughed, taking quick breaths through his cloth filter.

He shook his head.  “How many times have I been taken prisoner since I left?  Three?  When I get home, I’m never leaving Melrose again.  I’ll get up early every day to sit on the bank with Edward and then go and work the fields.  Maybe I should resign my commission to the King, too.”  He thought a moment, then shook his head.  “No.  Actually, when I get home, I’m just going to sleep for a month.”

As he was talking, his head bounced painfully against something directly above him in the shaft.  He spread his feet against the sides so he could free one arm, then carefully reached up and felt above him.  Not a blockage--the pipe was turning. He reached around until he could feel the new passage, praying that it would not be any narrower than the one he was already wedged in.  He did not relish the thought of having to make a return trip into the fire below.

        The opening was opposite of the direction he was facing, so he had to shift his weight slowly and rotate his position until he was facing the other side.  It was still as black as the blackest night, but at least this new passage was not vertical.  Rather, it was nearly horizontal, and, once he had worked himself into it, he found that it was even slightly wider than the previous shaft.  The smoke around him grew thicker, and he realized that they must have put on wood that would produce heavier, oilier fumes.

He was able to move faster now in a prostrate crawl, shoving himself ahead with his hands and his knees.  It took him a few minutes, but before long he had the distinct impression that the tunnel was widening more and more.  The smoke clung to the top of the passage, so Malcolm kept his face pressed near the bottom.  Suddenly, he emerged into an open space that was swamped with smoke.  After feeling around for a few moments, Malcolm realized that it was a junction of several shafts, and that the increased smoke was produced by other fires burning throughout the manor in an effort to evict him.

He began to cough and his eyes were watering heavily, so he shut them.  Without any light, he really had no need of his vision anyway.  After feeling the walls for a few minutes, he discerned that there were two types of shafts in the junction: the horizontal ones, that brought smoke in, and four others that led upward at an angle.  When he placed his hand in these pipes, he could feel a slight draft against his skin.

“Lord, help me choose the right one,” he whispered, then shoved his body into the shaft on the far right.  It was as narrow as the first shaft had been, but he quickly began to make his way upwards.  The smoke seemed to be much thinner in that tunnel, but the draw from outside also seemed to be weaker.  He could still see no light when he opened his eyes, but he was confident that it would lead him outside eventually.  He felt a warm trickle on his chest, and stopped to trace it to its source: his elbows were chafed and bleeding heavily.  He paused for a moment, and, freeing one limb at a time, he bandaged both arms before continuing on.

His body cried out against the protracted effort, but he forced himself to go on.  He was a soldier, a Scot.  Conquer or die.  But whatever would come, he had a deep comfort that fell over his soul.  Be at peace, it whispered to him, I hold your future in the palm of My hand.

        He opened his eyes, and at first he thought he was imagining it, but—wasn’t that light?  It was merely a faint glimmer a fair ways up the shaft, but it was there nonetheless.
~ ~ ~

The cell they had been placed in was walled off on two sides by the stones of the manor and on the other two sides by massive iron bars, as if two great portcullises had fashioned the room.  Hannah was sitting in a corner, still dazed by their change of fortune, Oswald was gazing quietly through the iron barrier, and Alfred was trying to bend the massive bars with his own strength.  Stephen and Thomas were standing close to the door, ready to leap at anyone who dared to come close enough to unlock it.  Edward was calm, knowing all too well what this was about.

Alfred shook his head in anger after realizing that he could not budge the bars.  He gave them one parting blow before joining his brother in the center of the cell.

“It’s my fault we’re here,” said Edward, loud enough for his companions to hear.

Alfred grumbled.  “This is no time for a pity session, Ed.  We’re in this mess; let’s try to see if we can get out.”

“But I should have seen it coming. Last night when I went to the nobleman to speak to him about Hannah’s situation, I saw something.”

“What was it?” asked Oswald

“A ring. And on it was the symbol of the Druidae.  You remember it, don’t you?  We’ve seen enough of them before. I should have warned you, but I fell asleep.  So yes, I’m afraid it’s my fault.”

Alfred almost swore, but was able to hold it back.  “How did we get stuck with Druids again?  Surely they don’t hold sway over every noble in the country.”

Oswald shook his head.  “Of course not.  This was planned.  Don’t you see?  You told me that you left the boy, Michael, as he was.  No doubt he arose and called in his reinforcements from the area.  They were looking for us, and that woman was lucky enough to run into us first.  It all makes sense.”

Edward tilted his head.  “I suppose.  Still, it makes me wonder what they’re going to do to us.”

“And where Malcolm is,” Oswald said.

“I’d say it’s a good sign that he’s not locked up with us,” Alfred said grumpily.  “Maybe he was smarter than the rest of us and escaped.”

“I hope so,” the Scot replied.

They heard footsteps coming from the stairwell near their cell, so they lined up against the iron bars to see who it was.  It was not long before the servant, Henry, and the noblewoman walked into view, discussing something that commanded their full attention.  As they approached, Edward was able to pick up some bits of the conversation.

“…up the smoke shaft…not since dawn this morning.”

“He hasn’t?”

“No,” Henry replied.  “…fires going all over…positioned at the exit…shoot on sight.”

She shook her head and clucked her tongue as if a great tragedy had befallen them.  By that time, they were close enough to the cell that they halted their conversation to approach the prisoners.

“Henry!” Edward called from behind the bars.  “What’s going on?  Why have we been taken prisoner?”

The servant shrugged helplessly.  “A messenger came by and told us to.  I told you, if the Master’s friends have been looking for you…”

“Henry!” the lady snapped.  “Keep quiet!  Your tongue will be your death, boy!”

“Your Grace,” Edward turned his attention to her.  “You must know we have done nothing against your husband.  Have mercy on your guests, whom you invited into your house.  Don’t you remember that we saved you from the brigands in London?  Have you no sense of gratitude?”

She sighed, a hand placed against her chest.  “My dear sir, do not assume that I had anything to do with this.  Mark my words, my husband did send me out looking for a group of outlaws, but I never took him seriously!  Even after meeting you, I never assumed for an instant that you were the ones he was looking for!”

“Outlaws! Your Grace, what have we done?  What charges can you bring against us, any of us?  We are simple travelers and devout Christians.  I beg you, in the name of our Lord, release us!”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, casting a glance toward Henry.

“Don’t you know who these men are, Your Grace?” he persisted.  It was his last hope of escape, for he doubted that he would find any sort of mercy at the hands of the Druids.  “The men who control your husband are the Druids, my lady.”  At this, Henry’s gaze came up and locked with Edward’s.  “They are evil, pagans, bent on returning this Christian land to its former demonic oppression beneath the yoke of their power.  They lust only for their own goals!  You cannot for a moment believe that you are doing what is right by turning us over!”

The noblewoman sighed and shook her head.  “I do not agree with what has happened, but I have no power to change it.”  Before Edward had a chance to object, she continued.  “My husband could be hurt if he does not follow.  Perhaps one day he will be able to throw off their hold, but it will not be today. I’m sorry.”

She turned on her heel and made her way back to the stairs.  “Come, Henry.  We must tend the fires.”

“Please, Your Grace,” Edward shouted until her image was lost from his sight.  

~ ~ ~

“I don’t understand,” Justin said, scratching his head.  “We had agreed to meet here, at this inn.  I would think at least one of them would be waiting for me here."

“Well, perhaps the keeper knows whether or not they came,” the Count suggested.  

When Justin asked the keeper about his companions, he frowned distastefully.  “Oh, yes, yes,” the innkeeper said, touching a bruise on his face.  “Your friends were here last evening, but they had to leave—rather quickly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Some visitors came looking for them. Big brutes, swords.  I think your friends got away, but I’m not sure.”

Justin frowned.  “Brigands.  Well, that complicates things.  It appears that Alfred’s lieutenant was able to follow us from Northampton.”

The Count nodded.  “And so now what?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe we could check with the gateposts of the city and inquire about any unusual happenings.”


They were about to exit the inn when a large man appeared with a silly grin on his face.  He leered close to Justin’s face, close enough for him to catch the strong scent of liquor. 

The man ran a hand down his scraggly beard and burped loudly.  “What is this, an invasion?” he shouted.

Justin rolled his eyes and was about to leave when the man spoke up again.  “Hey, you!  Watch yourself!  Whole blunch—bunch—of men down by the bridge, just saw ‘em.  Big swords, and not too happy!  Nope!  Steer clear o’ there!”

Justin followed the Count, then turned to him as they prepared to mount the stallion.  “Did you hear what that man said?”

“Who, the drunk one?”

“Who else?”

“Yes, of course I heard him.  He’s obviously had a little too much to drink.”

“Maybe not,” the knight replied firmly.  “I’d like to go down to the main bridge and see for myself.”

“Do you think it’s our Northampton acquaintances?”

“It could well be.  Anyway, it’s the best clue we have to where our friends might be.”

They rode slowly through the congested streets of London, until they broke out of the final street into the broad avenue that stretched over the bridge.  A throng of people had gathered, and in its center was a sight that took the breath away from the two men.

“What in the name of heaven is all this?” the Count wondered aloud.
There, gathered in the midst of a crowd, was a set of unknown knights--not brigands, not Druids, not Templars, and not the crown soldiers of London. 
"Ah," said Justin with a smile, "I think fortune may be paying us a kinder turn at last." 

~ ~ ~

Malcolm twisted his body painfully to the right until he was facing the new passageway, once again proceeding horizontally.  Now he could see the source of the faint glow he had been following, only about twenty yards away.  He quickly crawled forward and flopped over when he had reached his goal, his chest heaving for breath in the thin air.  He lay there for several minutes, regaining some small measure of strength before the final push toward freedom.

When he finally felt ready to continue, he turned and faced the final few feet of the tunnel.  As he approached, the exit looked very, very small, and he began to worry that he would not be able to make his way out.  He came up against the end of the tunnel to find that it had been sealed off long ago with a large stone, leaving only a few small openings--small enough to fit his fist through, but no more.  He groaned heavily.  He didn’t want to have to go back down and face another tunnel, but he had little choice.

But as he lay there looking at the rock, a thought occurred to him.  If it was a sealed pipe, that probably meant that there would not be an archer guarding it on the outside.  This thought gave Malcolm one final surge of hope, and he began examining ways he could move the ponderous stone from its resting place in the manor wall.  He breathed a prayer of thanks that he had been able to recover a short sword from the Templar prison before they left.  He drew it out at that moment, and began using it to pry at the stone.

The rock was at least as wide as he was at the shoulders.  It would take a great effort to persuade that boulder to budge.  He wedged his sword into a crack beneath it and began rocking his weight against the handle, hoping to move it.  He worked quietly, not wishing to attract the attention of any archers that might be poised in the area.

He pressed his weight against it again, but the result was the same.  Nothing.  He placed both hands against the smooth stone face and pushed, but nothing happened.  He pushed again and again, until he thought his muscles were going to fail him from sheer exhaustion.  Some smaller rocks had been wedged around the large stone to keep it in place, so he resolved to work on these first.

The smaller stones actually moved out of the way fairly quickly, although Malcolm had difficulty finding room for them in the cramped tunnel. Grunting and groaning, he pressed all the power of his muscles against the stony face.  It wouldn’t budge.
He was about to give up and try another smoke-filled passage when something within him said, Try again.  He tried again, and came up with the same result.  Try again.

“Lord, I’ve already tried many times. It’s not going to move.”

Try again.

        He sighed deeply, and bowed his head.  “Well, it’s going to have to be in your strength, Lord, because I have nothing left to give.”

He placed his hands against the rock, and despite his screaming muscles, he kept on pushing and pushing until…it moved.  He felt it shift suddenly before him, so he kept pushing, straining.  But he didn’t need to anymore.  As soon as that boulder moved the first inch, it seemed to slide the rest of the way of its own accord, as if it had been greased to slide out of the shaft.  With one great heave, Malcolm shoved it out of the shaft and winced when he heard it land with a loud thud on the ground below.

He remained lying there for several minutes, listening for any shouts, footsteps, arrows aimed down the shaft, anything that would suggest that the boulder’s fall had been noticed.  It seemed inconceivable that guards could miss something so obvious, but he wasn’t about to argue the point with them.

As he crawled out to the ledge of the shaft and looked out over the sunlit fields, he heard the voice once again within him, calm and quiet.  My strength is sufficient when you have nothing left to give.

        Malcolm felt like shouting for joy, but prudence and wisdom kept him from doing it.  He simply smiled up at the bright sun shining above him and whispered, “Thank you, Lord.”

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