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, July 21, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 46



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

~46~



He was floating…It was a strange feeling, as if he were not merely floating upon something, but as if he himself were suspended in a medium of nothingness.  He was blind, or at least he felt blind; everything was shaded in absolute darkness.  He swam, flew through the vast void before him, and it uplifted him, held him, wrapped itself around him like the comforting warmth of a cloak.

And then—there, in the distance—light?  It was only the faintest trace, the smallest hint of anything that did not fit in against the vast sea of darkness around him.  The more he stared at it, the brighter the light grew, until it was unmistakable.  It shot out towards him in one straight beam and enveloped him.  He wasn’t certain how, but he gained the distinct impression that he was moving toward the source of the light, but whether quickly or slowly, he couldn’t judge.

He heard a voice above him, singing faintly, a beautiful voice.  Its harmony seemed to intertwine with the light in a way that he could not explain, but it touched him to the deepest part of his soul, and one thought filled his mind.  I’m going home.

The light grew steadily brighter and brighter until he thought his eyes would burst from the intensity.  And the song continued…He could almost see what was beyond the light, but…too bright.

And the song continued.

~ ~ ~

His eyes snapped open, blinded by the sunlight streaming in from the window above his bed.  His head throbbed with pain, as if someone was constantly pounding at his temples with a pair of mallets.  He closed his eyes again, the memories coming back like a flood.

        Rain was all around him; thunder rumbling like the growl of a hungry beast, hungry for his blood.  If I die, I die for Christ.  Michael, his face twisted into a grimace of utter rage and contempt.  Bright steel flashing, biting deep into his side.  Michael above him, weeping, crying out, hurting.  Oh, that I could comfort him.  But I’m dying…I love you, Hannah…

He opened his eyes again, looking around the room.  The song—where was it coming from?  He could hear it, a beautiful voice hovering like an angelic chorus above him.  And there she was.  Her face was turned away from him, but he could tell it was her: the raven-black tresses, the voice.  But what was she saying?  He couldn’t understand.  There were words, many of them, flowing together in a beautiful web of melody that entranced him.

“I meant it, you know,” he rasped.

“Edward!”  She was immediately at the bedside, her hand against his brow and a worried look on her face.  “Do you feel all right?”

He tried to laugh, but it hurt too much and came out sounding more like a facetious groan.  “What a question!  Of course not!  My head is about to implode, and I dare not draw any breath deeper than a small pant for fear I’ll burst my lungs!”

“Well,” she smiled worriedly, “you’d better get some more rest then.”

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied, throwing himself into a sitting position.  A wave of pain from his left side caused him to double over and slowly recline back onto the bed.  “Okay, I was wrong,” he gasped, his voice thin.  “Maybe I will lie here a while longer.”

She fixed a motherly glare on him.  “See that you do.”  She paused, sitting down next to him on the bed.  “What did you mean?”

“What?”

“What did you mean—you said just know that you meant it. What were you talking about?”

“Oh,” he said, releasing a long, drawn-out breath.  “I meant—what I told you the last time I saw you.”  He caught her gaze and held it, studying her eyes for a long moment.  With the light shining down around her, she truly did appear to be a angelic vision beside him.  It was an instant that he longed to hold onto forever, but like all moments do, it slipped through his fingers and disappeared.

Her brow furrowed.  “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’ve been thinking, Hannah.  I thought I was ready to die for Christ.  But then I wondered, have I really even been living for Him?  This whole time, we’ve run into so many people, all different from each other.  But—the whole way, what were we thinking of?  Family, protecting ourselves, protecting each other—these are all good things, but…what weren’t we doing?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t understand.”

He smiled gently, rubbing his temples.  “I’m not so sure I do either—I’m still a little muddled from it all.  But I’ve been wondering…if Christ had been traveling with us, what would He have done?  I think He would have done all that we did, but He would have done more, too.  He would have stopped on the roadside, in the inns, everywhere, just to talk to people.  People were so important to Him, because He knew that there is nothing on this earth worth anything near as much as the price of one soul.

“And, Hannah,” Edward’s eyes met hers, and he nearly began crying, “I know that I’ve tried to follow in the footsteps of my Lord.  I’ve gone out and left behind all I have, I’ve tried to show love to others, I’ve given up my own life to help them, but still—I don’t think I ever trusted the Lord the way He intended it to be.  I’ve only been working with half the picture, thinking I could bring it to fruition in my own strength.  And it’s a lie, Hannah.”

She nodded understandingly, but did not interrupt, listening raptly to the confession.

“I look around me, and I see that I’ve surrounded myself with friends, and they love me because I’ve been showing them earthly love in the Lord’s name—providing for them and helping them.  That’s good, but I need to be every moment the way I was with you, and the way I was with Alfred—fighting for your salvation.  And when I thought about it that way, a conviction gripped me that chilled me right to my bones.  Hannah—I’ve only reached out with the gospel of hope to those that I cared enough about, and it’s so wrong!  God’s love is not limited to family or to earthly love, and I have been denying the opportunities I’ve had to share it with others, with people I normally wouldn’t approach.  That’s what Christ did, isn’t it?  He went out to the tax collectors and prostitutes and showed them enough love not only to help them in this life but to try to offer them salvation!”  His eyes were alight, his face bright.  “That’s what it’s all about, Hannah!  I can’t just go around making friends by doing good deeds!  I have to trust God to give me strength as I speak about His greatest love to even the lowliest of men!”

Hannah nodded.  “I have thought of some of these things as well. If there’s one thing that we’ve seen on our journey, it is that our country needs to see Christ as He truly was."

Edward smiled and nodded, tugging at the silk drapes that hung down beside the window.  “Look at all this,” he said, pointing around the room.  “All this wasted wealth!  This is not how it was meant to be!  Think how much this could do out among the common people!”

Hannah nodded.  “Think how much two lives lived boldly for Christ can do out among the common people!”

He grinned against the pain.  “It’s an adventure, Hannah.  It’s frightening, but exciting at the same time.  Sometimes I think I’ve had enough excitement for one lifetime, but then I think about that life—a life lived out for the love of the Savior.  The greatest adventure of all—do you think you’re up for it?”

She smiled broadly, and with that smile Edward felt as if a chorus of anthems broke out in his head.  “Not by myself,” she said.  “If we’re in this, we’re in this together—and with Christ.”

Edward could not help but laugh for joy.  “Together, then.”

Hannah smiled at him, leaning over to place a kiss on his forehead.  In response, he reached up, trailing one finger down the soft curve of her cheek.  It was a simple gesture, but one that spoke more eloquently than any words between them could.

“I thought I was ready to be a martyr,” he said softly.  “To be at home with the Lord by dying in His service—someday, perhaps.  But for now,” he smiled broadly at her, “I’m glad I’m still here.”

~ ~ ~

They had been there nearly a week, and Edward was already up and walking, burning to be back on the road for home.  He paced around the main hall like a caged animal, suffering through the pleas by his friends that he go back and rest.  Malcolm would always be the first to give up when they tried to persuade him to lie down; he knew how stubborn his friend was.  Finally, the group of friends allowed Edward to push them into scheduling a departure, which brought sighs of relief to many of the household servants.

The main hall had been left in disarray by the men who would gather there each and every day to discuss their former adventures or what might be still to come.  Swords and bucklers had been left lying out on the table, along with more goblets than any of the servants wanted to count.  A fire was kept continually burning, since the room was used by someone almost continuously, even during the night.  It was often that Edward would sit up many long hours discussing with anyone who cared to listen about a particular passage of Scripture he had been pondering.  Often, he would have a fair-sized crowd from both his own friends and the noble’s household that would come to listen and discuss for hours on end.

Eventually the appointed morning came, and Edward rose early to prepare.  So early, in fact, that no one else in the house was awake save a few of the servants who were preparing a meal.  He waited in the main hall until Justin and the Count wandered in, their faces fixed as if they had been pondering something for quite some time and were now finally ready to tell someone else.

“Edward,” Justin said, his hands clasped behind his back.  “Since we are all leaving this place soon, we thought it would be prudent to consider what was to be done with the robe.”

He nodded with a slight smile, reaching down into the hidden pocket in the inner lining of his cloak.  Within the space of a few moments, the garment was out in the light, and all three men were gazing at it in open wonderment.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Edward mused as he rubbed the fabric between his fingers.  “That one piece of clothing could cause so much trouble when it is a reminder of the best thing that ever happened to us.”

The Count reached forward and gently took the robe from Edward’s hand.  He held it up to the light, his arms trembling with holy fear.  
“It helps us remember, though,” he whispered reverently.  “Whenever we see it, we cannot help reflect on that one ultimate sacrifice, on our Lord, broken for our forgiveness. I made a pledge to the Lord that on the day I was able to hold this in my hands, I would follow Him wherever He led me…even if it meant renouncing my vows to the Temple.”

Edward watched him for a long moment, a beam of light falling directly on him from a window-slit cut high in the wall.  “And where is He leading you?”

The Templar shrugged, breaking into a broad grin.  “I’m still not certain, but I’ve reasoned this much out: if the Lord wants me to do something, He won’t hide it in mysteries.  If He calls me somewhere, I’ll know it.  But for now, I think I will remain with the Templars.  I may be able to use my high position to begin to shift the tide.  Perhaps one day the Knights Templar will be the kind of men they claim to be.”

“And you?” Edward directed the question at Justin.

The knight shrugged.  “To most of my old acquaintances I am dead or lost, and I see no reason to change that impression.  I think…” he halted, glancing at the Count.  “…I mean, if Hannah agrees, since she has recovered her uncle…”

Edward nodded, looking at the robe.  “I think it is yours by right.  It was your blood and sweat that brought it this far from the Holy Land, and it has only brought trouble on us.  Do you think you can find a safe-house for it?”

Justin nodded.  “I think so.  The monastery at Iona would certainly be willing to conceal it, at least for a time.  If not, I will simply continue the work I have begun.”

The Count nodded.  “And I hope to be able to slow down the Templars’ pursuit from the inside.  Whether it is the true robe or not, we have decided that it cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of the Templars—not until we know for certain that their allegiances are true.  At the same time, we must continue to protect it from those who would use it for their own gain.”

Edward nodded somberly.  “It’s dangerous, I’ll admit, but if anyone can be able to protect it, I’m certain you two can.  So if I have a vote, I’ll cast it towards your plan.  But I think Hannah should be the one to decide.”

Justin nodded.  “I agree.  This entire escapade has all been done for her, and by my agreement with her father, the robe is hers.”

Hannah suddenly stepped out of the shadows of the doorway, where she had overheard the dialogue.  The light fell on her hair, a glistening cascade of midnight black.  “I agree,” she said quietly.  “But—let me hold it once more before you leave.”

The Count carefully laid it across her outstretched arms, and she lifted it up against the light, a smile on her lips.   
“When I first saw this robe, I joked with my father that in ages past, it might have been the royal garment of the greatest king.  And now I can see how correct that statement was.”

She smiled again, and handed the robe back to Justin with a nod.

The two men bid their hasty good-byes and proceeded out to the courtyard.

Justin bowed to Edward and Hannah as they stood on the portico, watching them in the dappled sunlight of early morning.

“Wherever you go, my friends,” Edward’s voice broke, “remember that you are the King’s ambassadors.  Never let a day pass when you do not testify to the One who has saved you.”

Justin nodded.  “We will remember, dear friends.  We ride out today under His banner, and none other.  Into the darkness, my dear Count!” he cried as he wheeled his mount.  “May the Lamb accept the tribute of our suffering!”

“Unto the King!” the Count let out an exultant shout.  “We ride!”   
With that, the two horses charged away from the manor and towards the west, their figures blazing in the flaming light of the rising sun at their backs.  As they faded from sight, the wind brought back whispers of laughter and song.  The adventure was only beginning.

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