Thursday, September 03, 2015

A Flame in the Night: Chapter 2

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~ 2 ~

Melrose, Scotland

Edward walked along slowly, savoring the smell of the cool, fresh air.  It was a good life, and he was happy to be living it.  He smiled, looking up at the canopy of the heavens stretched out above him.  The sky was a dim blue, just brightening with the dawn and free of clouds, bringing a cold breeze from the north to the lowlands of the Tweed River.  The thin grass rustled gently around his feet and in the distance the chattering song of the morning birds could be heard.
He sat down on the hillside to watch the meandering course of the river beneath him, running towards the sea.  It was that sea that he had left behind not more than a year ago.  That sea, so full of trouble and adventure, of dreams never fulfilled.  The father abbot had not been pleased with his decision to leave the monastery of the Holy Island, but with each passing day the wisdom of his choice became clearer.  He had never felt that he was in the right place as a monk, and he yearned to serve God among the common people. 
“Use me, Lord,” he breathed.  “Here I am.”
He sighed, directing his thoughts once more to the river below him.  The water of the river tumbled over the smooth faces of the rocks, swirling and eddying and bubbling in a mesmerizing display of force.  At that moment, the cry of someone climbing the bank echoed over the sounds of the river.  He glanced up to see the grinning visage of a thin young Scot peering at him.  The man’s angular face was unshaven, covered with a thick red stubble that accentuated the jutting line of his jaw.  His eyes were intense, gleaming with pleasure.
“Hello, Malcolm,” Edward greeted his friend with a smile.  “You’re up early.”
“Aren’t I?” Malcolm smiled, pleased with himself.  “I had to talk with you, Edward. I have a feeling the warband may be called together again.”  Malcolm was never one for simple bantering to while away the hours; he cut straight to the matter at hand.
“You cannot mean that William is going to war again!”
Malcolm shook his head.  As the leader of the warband from Melrose, he was well acquainted with military matters.  Even though slightly younger than Edward’s twenty-five years, he had already proved himself admirably in the service of William the Lion, the king of Scotland.  Melrose was a small town, nestled in the shadow of a great abbey, and most of its fighting men were merely farmers or merchants by trade.  Malcolm himself kept a small farm near the hills, and rarely ever would he be called upon for his services as the local military leader.  “The new king in England, Coeur-de-Lion, is calling all his men to the Crusade.”
“And the King of Scotland is one of his men, hmm?”
Malcolm shrugged.  “He was.  There’s a rumor going around that this new king will do anything to get enough money for his Crusade.  Even selling Scotland back, or so everyone has been saying.”
Edward nodded, his eyes wandering over the heather-covered landscapes of the marches surrounding the Tweed.  “That would probably be for the best.”
Malcolm laughed, his blue eyes twinkling happily.  “I would never expect that thought from an Englishman!  Have you no patriotism of your own?”
Edward shrugged.  “My father raised me as a Saxon, Malcolm.”
“Ah,” the Scot smiled brightly.  “And you do not care for these foreign kings then, am I right?  Invaded from Normandy, if I remember.”
He nodded, a wry smile crossing his face.  “Quite correct.  My brother doesn’t care for the Normans, either, but he expresses it…well, in a more unique way.”
“I remember!” Malcolm laughed.  “You’ve told me about him before.  Alfred, right?  The one who rides around with his friends burning things down?”
Edward smiled wistfully. “Yes, that’s just about right.  I have good reasons for not going back to England to visit my family.  He’s the only one I have left.”
Malcolm chuckled slowly, shaking his head.  “You amaze me, Edward.”
“Oh?  How so?”
“Well,” the young warrior reclined back against the rocky ground.  “First, you leave a nice, warm home in Lindisfarne monastery to come here.  All the brothers in the abbey here dislike you because the people take better to your work than to theirs.  Why would you come just to labor here with us?  I cannot imagine it is much of a pearl for such a gifted man of the cloth.”
“The rewards are priceless, Malcolm.  Our Lord did the same thing, didn’t he?  He left heaven to come and make himself a servant.  I only help those who are in need, and try to tell them about God’s love.  I am serving the greatest Master, Malcolm, and I never go hungry or without a roof over my head.”
“Well,” said the young Scot, “if I do go to the Holy Land, I shall miss you dearly.  It is not often that we find such amiable companions in Englishmen.”
 “I’ll miss you, too.  And I will pray for you, should you get called away.  Most crusaders leave voluntarily as I understand it, but I suppose it’s possible that you could be ordered.  It is a dangerous world, even if you think you are fighting on God’s side.”
        “Let’s not get into that again,” Malcolm sighed.  “Perhaps it is a sin to kill another man, but I still think it is better than dying yourself.”
Edward was silent, looking out at the river.  They stayed there for a long time, watching the sun rise over the east-marches as it began its daily journey across the heavens.  The silence was deep, but not uncomfortable—they were content as friends, knowing that any spoken word would not add to that contentment.  After a while, Malcolm sighed and brushed the dust from his bright tunic, rising up to stand before his friend. 
“Well, I cannot tarry here any longer, Edward.  I’ll leave you to your prayers.”
He rose and began making his way back up the dusty road to the town, raising his hand in a final salute to his friend.
“Edward!” the shout rang out over the banks, accompanied by the swift drumming of hoofbeats.  Malcolm halted in his tracks, raising a quizzical eyebrow at Edward as he stood to meet the rider.  Both men looked expectantly up the road as a single man on horseback materialized out of a cloud of dust.  Rushing up to the roadside, Edward stood to look with his friend at whatever commotion would present itself so early in the morning.  The rider slowed, pulling up next to them.  He was seated on a great bay stallion with the vivid device of the Rampant Lion embroidered in the riding blanket. 
“Oswald!” Malcolm hailed him, recognizing one of his younger warriors.
The young man nodded to Malcolm, but turned to address Edward instead.  “You’d better come quickly.  There’s a man not far off that was beaten down by some brigands.  He’s hurt pretty badly.  The brothers in the abbey are at prayers right now, and we haven’t a doctor.  We thought maybe you knew something that could help him.”
“I might.  Could you take me there?”
Oswald nodded, pulling the young cleric up behind him.  Turning, they raced back down the road the way he had come.  Malcolm followed, jogging behind them along the path.  The town was small, merely a cluster of homes and shops set in the shadow of the abbey.  It was not long before they reached the far side of the settlement, where a ring of townsfolk had already assembled around the scene.  Edward muttered a quick prayer as he leapt off the stallion and pushed through the circle of onlookers. 
The scene that lay there caused a gasp to issue from his mouth.  The scent of blood filled the air, bringing a surge of bitter bile into his throat.  Two of the older men and one of the women were kneeling beside an unmoving form.  Their hands were already stained crimson from trying to bandage the man’s wounds.  A little ways further, down in the gully, the body of a dead horse was lying where it had fallen in the mud.
Edward shook his head and stepped up to the prostrate victim.  His face was splattered with his own blood, his eyes closed serenely.  He was an older man, with a ring of silver hair arranged in the clean-cut tonsure of a monk.  A long, ragged wound traced across his shoulder and down his right arm.  He was not responding to the gentle prods of the others, apparently unconscious from the shock and loss of blood. 
“Oh no,” Edward whispered, recognizing him instantly.  “James?  Can you hear me?”  Tears sprang into his eyes as he looked at the bloodied form of his old friend from the monastery.
“All right,” he said, drawing in a deep breath through his teeth.  “Let’s carry him over to Malcolm’s house,” pointing over the fields to a small lodge.  “Mary,” he spoke to Malcolm’s young wife, standing at the edge of the circle, “run home and prepare a bandage and a bed for him, please.”
She nodded.  “Of course.”
Edward called down a few more men, and they gently lifted the wounded monk up on their shoulders, bearing him solemnly towards the lodge-house.  Once they had arrived and laid the monk down on the prepared pallet of deerskins, Edward ushered everyone out of the house save Malcolm and his wife. Then he knelt down to inspect the monk more closely.
“Heat me a knife, Malcolm.  I have to close this wound.”
~ ~ ~
The smell of seared flesh still lingered in the room several hours later.  Edward was sitting next to the pallet, speaking in gentle tones to his unconscious friend.  When they had closed the wound with the knife, he had awoken with a scream, only to drift back into a troubled delirium.
“Come on, James,” Edward sighed as he mopped the wounded man’s brow with a cool cloth.  “Talk to me.”
Malcolm stepped forward, a frown on his face.  “Is it working?”
“No, not yet.”
“Perhaps we should offer more prayers for him,” the Scot suggested.
“Yes,” Edward said, sliding over to allow room for his young friend to kneel beside him.  “Why don’t you begin?”
Malcolm nodded and bowed his head. He made the sign of the cross and recited the Pater Noster before beginning his own prayer. “Lord Jesus, we ask that you would bring this man back to us, this servant of yours.  We remember the story of the good Samaritan neighbor that Edward has told us.  Lord, we have tried to help this man all we could.  Please bring him back to us—”
“Amen,” a weak voice interrupted.  Both men looked up with surprise to see the monk smiling at them. 
“James!” Edward smiled brightly, leaning forward to kiss his friend on the brow.  “How do you feel?”
“Not that well,” the monk replied in a hoarse rasp, coughing loudly.
“Well, we’re glad you woke up,” Malcolm grinned.  “You must be hungry, hmm?”
“I’m famished,” James said, struggling to rise up off the pallet.  Edward put a hand on his chest, forcing him back down.
“Be careful, James.  You don’t want to reopen your wound.”
He nodded, lying still until Mary brought over a steaming bowl of warm broth.  Tilting his head up slightly, he allowed Edward to feed him.  After he was done, he put his head back down with a sigh.
“Well, James,” Edward smiled after a minute, “are you feeling all right now?”
“Of course not,” he replied with a grim chuckle.  “But I have a feeling I’ll recover.  Next time I’ll just have to be a little more wary on the road.”
“What made you ride all the way from Lindisfarne?” asked Edward.
“Oh,” he said, reaching down inside his blood-encrusted robe.  “I had to bring you this.”
He held out a rolled-up parchment, sealed with clear wax that lacked any insignia. 
“Who is it from?” asked Edward, breaking the seal.
“I don’t know,” the monk replied, coughing again.  “A messenger arrived with it a few days ago at the abbey.  We told him where you were, but he seemed in a terrible hurry to get back to wherever he came from, so I had to deliver it the rest of the way.”
Edward shook his head.  “Then it is for me that you bear this wound?  Forgive me, my friend.”  Unrolling the parchment, he held it out at arm’s length, studying it carefully for a moment.
“Read it to us,” Malcolm suggested.
He cleared his throat to read it aloud.  But as his eyes traced over the first line, his face went pale.  “Alfred?” he whispered.  “What does he want with me?”
“Yes, read it to us,” James urged, leaning forward with interest.
“My dearest brother Edward,” he began, reading slowly and carefully.  “The King you serve has left his train in a new castle on the Tyne, in Northumbria of the Saxons.  Not a stable, but a usury-house will be his home, in the abode of the Jews.  Meet me there, I pray, for what we discover may shake many a good man and aid the Saxons mightily.  As brother to brother, I implore thee to meet me there: your services I might need before I can truly use such a thing.  My group will be setting out from Northampton on the sixth of September.”
There was silence for a long moment as the Scot and the Lindisfarne monk raised their eyebrows, trying to decipher the strange message.  “Well,” Malcolm chuckled.  “Your brother isn’t the clearest of writers, is he?  What does it mean, Edward?”
He frowned.  “Well, what’s immediately obvious is that he had someone else write it for him.  I don’t think he knows his letters. As for the meaning, I’m not certain.  He might have suspected that someone else would try to read the letter, so he hid the message.  Apparently he wants me to meet him somewhere along the River Tyne.  From what he says here, it looks as though he will be riding to the city of Newcastle.  I have no idea what he means by ‘the abode of the Jews.’”
James frowned slightly, tilting his head.  “What about the first part of it?  What does that mean?”
Edward shook his head.  “I don’t know what King he is speaking of.  Not King William or Coeur-de-Lion, I would think. Perhaps Christ, but…I don’t see how that would fit.”
“Will you go, then?” Malcolm asked.
Edward shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  My brother is a ruffian and a brigand—a thoroughly dangerous man.  I cannot imagine that he has found anything which he would put to good use.  As far as I know, his only thoughts are about his own wealth and his goal to destroy everything Norman.  But, then again,” he glanced at James, “your sacrifice to bring me this is too great to throw away.”
The wounded man shook his head.  “Do not place your life in peril for my sake, Edward.  I did what I had to do, and I am not sorry I did it.  You are a loyal friend.”
Edward nodded absently, shoving the scroll into his robe.  “I will think about it,” he said, looking out the open door.  The next days, he knew, would be plagued with thoughts of his brother, unpleasant as the matter was.  And much as he tried to drive the thought out of his mind, it kept on emerging: What has he found?
~ ~ ~
        Hannah looked up from the mud of the riverbank to see the bright sky of daylight fading fast against the orange glow of sunset, wisps of lavender clouds hovering over the horizon.  It had been several hours since the last of the shouts and screams died down to an impenetrable silence.  She had been sitting there for all of the dark night and the entire day that followed with the horse and her tiny brother, now asleep in her arms, safe under an overhang in the bank.  She sighed, looking out to where the water swirled slowly by, on towards the sea.
Was it over?  Could she really come out?  Did she ever want to?  Perhaps it was better to remain beside the river and slowly starve to death.  At this, the low rumbling of her empty stomach caught her attention again.  She had not eaten for an entire day, and neither had little Samuel.  If they had to starve, at least they would starve together, as a family.
She sat silently, wondering if she should pray or not.  Father would have prayed, she thought to herself with tears welling up in her eyes.  But father is dead.  His prayers didn’t help him.  She rose slowly.  No, the only help she would get would have to come from herself.  If the God of the Jews would not help them, then they would have to get on by themselves.  Perhaps there is no God after all.  If there is, and he is a Christian God, then he is barbaric and cruel, and I would rather die than serve him.  If there is a Jewish God, then he no longer cares for us.
Holding the sleeping child gently against her chest, she rocked him for a moment, then kissed him on the head.  How old was he?  No more than twenty months, she recalled.  Their mother had died in January of the winter before last in childbirth, so he couldn’t be any more than that.  “How will I feed you now?” she whispered to his sleeping form.  They had been feeding him porridge and occasional soft fruits, but all their supplies had been lost during the massacre.
She mustered up her courage and mounted the horse, urging it back up the little path towards the place where Eleazer had fallen.  The dirt path was darker this morning, a steady trickle of blood having coursed down it from the homes of the Jews.  Coming into the charred street, she gazed around with tear-filled eyes.  She was startled from her thoughts at the scream of an old woman hobbling down the street towards her.  Hannah urged her mount up to meet the old woman, greeting her with a nod.
The old woman bowed her tear-streaked face.  “Dust,” She croaked after a moment.  “Our people have gone back into the dust.”
Hannah nodded, tears beginning to flow down her face.  “How long have you been here, mother?”
The old woman shook her head sadly.  “All my life, young one.  My boys died here last night—my boys!”
“You were here the whole time?”
The old woman nodded.  “I saw you come through, too.”
“Did you see where they put my uncle, Eleazer?  He was with me.  I’d like to see him once more before I…” her sentence was broken off as her eyes welled up with tears.
“The man you were with? Yes, I saw him.  He fell off the horse, then struck one of the men.  The others wanted to kill him, but one of them, an officer of some sort, said: ‘No, boys, there will be no more killing.  Take him to the prisons.’  And that was it.  He was still alive when they took him away.”
Hannah felt a rush of relief. “Oh, thank you.  You have given me hope again, mother.”
The old woman smiled wistfully.  “That is good.  Hold on to your hope.”
Hannah felt ashamed of only thinking of herself.  “What is your name?  Perhaps when my uncle is released, we can help you.”
“My name is Rachel,” she said with her head bowed.  “But you need not return.  I will be fine.  Don’t worry about me.  You must take care of your little one.”
Hannah nodded and remounted, turning to ride off again.  Before she reached the end of the street, she turned back and looked at the woman again.  She was facing one of the charred houses, her face buried in her hands.  Rachel…What was it Father had once said?  Hannah kissed Samuel lightly, speaking softly.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, for they are no more.”