Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Flame in the Night: Chapter 3

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~ 3 ~

Edward looked up at the stars. “What am I to do, God?” he whispered.  “My brother is not a man I can trust.”
He smiled wistfully.  No answer ever came to him audibly, and most did not come instantly.  But they would come.  God had never once failed to hear his cry, and always made His will known in time.  He lay there in the grass, wondering where such a path would lead him.  He did not remember drifting off to sleep, but slowly his thoughts led him away, away, until he was no longer in the conscious world and the thoughts that possessed his mind did not spring from him.
A young woman in a bloody mantle—where are you going?  She was running, running, her feet flying.  Then she was before him, standing, crying.  She held out her hands, but he could not touch them.  Her eyes were dark, pleading, calling.  Who are you?  A star in the heavens came down and kissed him on the brow—he felt the burning touch of the hand of God.  Called—but where?  There she stood again, dying.  He could not see her wounds, but they were there…real and terrible…and they were killing her.  No!  Don’t die!  Who are you?  Please don’t die!
“Edward,” Malcolm smiled, shaking his friend gently.  “Edward, get up.  You should come inside and sleep.  There is a storm brewing in the distance.”
Edward’s eyes snapped open, and he leapt to his feet. “A storm?” he glanced up, breathing deeply of the rising wind.  “From the south-east.  Hmm.”
“Yes,” Malcolm said.  “It came up from Northumbria this evening. Come on, let’s go in.”
“Yes,” Edward said, following his friend.  “Of course.  From Northumbria.”
~ ~ ~
It was dark by the time Hannah found the prison, and already she was becoming aware of the dangers that lurked on the streets at night.  It had taken some pleading with the guard to admit her to visit her uncle, but at last he took pity on her and let her in.
“The ones that were taken from the riots are below,” he said gruffly.  “You can look for him there.”
“Thank you,” she replied, holding Samuel close to her.  The stone stairway leading down to the lower sections was dark and slick with moisture.  The area below was lighted with a single flickering torch, and she could not see much at all.  She could feel, however, dozens of pairs of eyes looking her over, boring into her.  She shuddered and stepped toward the chambers, trying to peer through the gloom.  The stench of sweat and excrement permeated the dungeons.
“Uncle Eleazer?” she called.  “Are you in here?”
No reply came.  She called the name again, but the result was the same.  Sighing deeply, she wiped a tear away from the corner of her eye and began to head back toward the steps.  Just then a voice called out to her. 
“He’s here,” a gravelly tone echoed in the dark chambers.  “He was asleep.”
Her breath catching in her throat, she rushed over to the voice, trying to see her uncle.  It was a moment before she could discern his form stumbling up to her, his silver beard visible in the torchlight.  “Hannah, thank God,” he rasped, coughing painfully.
“Uncle!” she gasped, trying to embrace him through the bars, but unable to do so because of Samuel.  “What are we to do?” She began to cry.
“Don’t weep, Hannah,” he said, holding her shoulders.  “This will be a time for courage.  How much money do you have with you?”
“Only a few zecchins,” she replied, wiping a tear off of her cheek.
Eleazer nodded sadly.  “The new king has a great need of money, it seems.  His officials have set the price for my release at two hundred zecchins by December first, or else I will be executed.”
“Two hundred!” she gasped.  “But why?”
He sighed.  “I struck a captain of the knights and broke his jaw.”
“Oh, there must be some way I can get the money. How much did my father have in the caves at home?”
“Not enough. There is one way to do it, but…it may be too dangerous. I hesitate to ask it of you, especially now that you must care for Samuel alone.”
“I will do it,” she said stubbornly.  “Tell me what it is, Uncle.”
He shook his head, his voice firm.  “No, no. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. I can’t let you give up your life, and Samuel’s too.  You must go home and—and get a husband.  Go home, raise a family, and live out your life, Hannah.  Don’t worry about me.”
She frowned and shifted Samuel from one arm to another.  “No,” she replied in the most commanding tone she could find.  “I won’t do it, Uncle.  Samuel and I need help soon.  We can’t wait for a husband.  You must tell me your idea.  For our sake, Uncle.  You’re our last hope now.”
He shook his head.  “You are so much like your father—so foolishly stubborn!  Forget that I said anything.”
“I’ll stay right here in this dungeon and die of hunger if you don’t tell me,” she began to cry, her tone rising angrily.  “I don’t care how I do it!  I’ll get you out.  Maybe I can sell my body on the streets, Uncle!”
“Stop it, Hannah!” he shouted, then sighed and ran a hand across his weary eyes.  “All right, I’ll tell you.  But if it becomes too dangerous, you must promise me you will forget about it.  Promise me, Hannah.”  He reached between the cold, rusted bars to place a hand on her shoulder.
“Very well.  I promise.”
“All right,” he said, stooping in to whisper in her ear.  “Do you remember the old garment that the Norman knight gave you just after your mother died?”
She nodded.
“You must go back to Newcastle and get it.  Your father had been making discreet arrangements to sell it. You should be able to find some letters that tell who was planning to buy it from us.  His name is David, and he is an official in Northampton.  You must take the relic to him and collect the payment that was agreed on in the letters.  If he does not pay you enough, see if you can find the knight who brought it to us in the first place: Justin of York.  He might be able to help you, if he’s still alive.  The sale of the garment should be more than enough to pay for my release.”
She nodded.  “I can do that, Uncle. But why would it be dangerous?”
He glanced around nervously.  “If anyone was to discover what that garment was, they would not think twice about killing you and Samuel to get it.”

She raised a curious eyebrow. “What is it, then?”
“Better that you don’t know. In any case,” he dropped his voice to a whisper and cast a glance at his cellmates, “I couldn’t tell you here.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll find the old cloak, sell it, and then come back here and free you. You’ll see me again, Uncle, hopefully well before December.”
“Take care on the roads, Hannah.  From what I’ve heard, it seems that the new king, Richard, didn’t really order the massacre of the Jews.  But rumors like that are hard to stop, and people may still be on the lookout for us and our people. Be very cautious, and do not sleep out in the open, Hannah.”
Samuel woke from his slumbers and began to cry. 
“He’s hungry,” said Hannah.  “What will I feed him with?  We lost his food yesterday.”
“I don’t know. But you’re brave and resourceful, Hannah. You can find food for him along the way.”
“All right.  I’ll leave tonight, Uncle.”
He nodded slowly, tears welling up in his eyes.  “God bless you, Hannah,” he said, kissing her hand through the bars.  “My prayers go with you.”
“I will come back for you,” she said, her eyes flashing a deep resolution.
“I know you will,” he smiled, watching her go back up the stairs and disappear onto the ground level of the prison.
~ ~ ~
The Sheriff of Newcastle sat idly behind his desk, staring into the dancing flames of the small fire burning in a brazier beside him.  He stretched with a groan and rose to glance out the small arrow-loop that served as a window for the stuffy chamber.  Outside, the storm continued to unleash its fury on the land, sending torrents of rain down on the castle.  Through the steady downpour he could make out the dim outline of the town of Newcastle, dwarfed by the towering bastion above it.
He had been waiting since the earliest light of morning afforded a dim gray light, but still his guest had not arrived.
Which is fine with me, he thought, shuddering as he turned away from the window.  He was about to take his seat again when he heard the telltale sound—the soft, careful scuff of footsteps in the corridor, approaching his chamber.  He hurriedly sat down in his chair and pulled out several parchments to pretend he had been working the morning away.
He tried to grasp his quill-pen to write, but his fingers were shaking so much that it made it impossible. 
Just then, a knock sounded on the door.  Once, twice, three times—the same gentle knock he’d heard many times before, as well-cloaked in secrecy as the man who stood behind the door. 
“Yes, enter,” he called, trying as hard as he could to sound composed.
The door creaked open slowly, laboriously, to reveal a thin man standing in the corridor, a black cloak pulled around his shoulders.  He was garbed in worn-out leather pants and a thin white shirt, barely visible beneath the dark mantle.  But it was the man’s face, not his clothing, that caught the Sheriff’s attention.  It was angular, with dark, aquiline features that accentuated the dark eyebrows and beard.  His eyes were a soft brown that appeared almost gentle and unassuming.  But the Sheriff knew better.  Many were the times he had cursed the day that first brought that face into his chamber.
He stepped inside the chamber with his measured tread and silently closed the door behind him before turning to face the Sheriff.
“Well?” he asked, his voice quiet.
The Sheriff fidgeted, his mind racing.  “Would you like to sit down?”
“No,” the man replied evenly, crossing his arms over his chest.  His cloak was sodden with rain, but he didn’t venture to remove it.  His dark eyes kept their gaze straight on the official, pinning him with their hypnotic power.
“Ah, Master Michael, I’m afraid—”
“I don’t want any of your excuses!” his voice became firm, interrupting the Sheriff, who sat dumbfounded, his mouth working silently.  “Have you been searching?”
The Sheriff spread his arms helplessly.  “Everywhere,” he managed to choke out of his constricted throat.
Michael’s eyes narrowed, trying to weigh the answer.  “And what have you found?”
The Sheriff glanced back at the window, wishing it were wide enough to jump through.  His stomach was churning with the same inexplicable dread that plagued him whenever he met with the man. 
“Master Michael, no one knows anything about this matter.  I’ve asked everywhere.”
“Or at least they pretend not to know,” he replied, tapping a pensive finger against his lips.  “Anyone who knew about it would want to conceal it.  You must be able to read past the masks that people put up.” 
 “I’ve—I’ve been trying, believe me.  But it’s been so long…nearly two years now—no one would remember anyway.”
“Nothing?” Michael leaned forward, leaning against the desk and staring straight at him.
“I’m afraid so. No one remembers any knight by the name of Justin coming through, nor any of your Templar friends.  They simply weren’t here.”
“So you doubt my word?” Michael whispered the question, his eyes sparkling with an inner fire.  Before the fear-stricken Sheriff could respond, he continued, abruptly standing straight again.  “They were here.  We know it.  I don’t care if any of your addled herd remember them, because they were here.  And it was not far beyond here that they turned back empty-handed.  They had lost their prey, and when he returned where he belonged, he no longer held the prize.  Which means he left it somewhere up here—probably right in your little town.”
“I’m sorry,” the Sheriff managed to say, but he couldn’t hold his gaze with Michael’s eyes anymore.  “Maybe it was destroyed….”
“We are not to be toyed with, Sheriff. We’ve given you ample time to do your task, and still you dare to face us with empty hands.  This will not be pleasant for you.”
The Sheriff gave an involuntary shudder. “Please.  Give me one more chance.  I’ll find it.  Maybe it is here, after all.”
Michael clenched his jaws, frowning at the official.  “All right.  One more chance.  I’ll be back in a few days.  Be ready for me.”
With that, he turned and marched out of the chamber, his black cloak billowing out behind him. 
~ ~ ~
Edward sighed, gazing around the stout lodge-house.  It had been raining since the night before, and it showed no signs of letting up any time in the immediate future.  He smiled over to his friend from Lindisfarne monastery, the old monk James, who was sitting up and testing his arm gently.
“How does it feel?” he called.
“All right,” the monk smiled.  “Not the best it’s ever felt, but I think it will be better soon.”
“Yes,” Malcolm added from where he sat at the board.  “You’ve healed very quickly, it seems.”
“The Lord is good to us,” Edward smiled.
“And what about you, Edward?” James asked.  “Have you decided what to do about that letter?”
He nodded, looking at the door.  “I will go.  I prayed about it last night, and I feel fairly confident that that is where I should be.”  He glanced over at the others.  “I may have deciphered some of it, too.  What seems most likely to me is that Alfred has found what he thinks is a holy relic.  I suppose he thinks I will be able to tell whether it is genuine or not.”
Malcolm nodded.  “That makes sense.  How long will it take?”
Edward shrugged.  “Traveling to Newcastle...a few days, I would think.  I would say that I should be back here within two weeks or so.  If it turns out that I am absent longer, start praying for me, because something has gone wrong.”
James shook his head slowly.  “You really don’t trust your brother, do you?  What happened between you two?”
“It’s still painful,” said Edward. “He had something to do with my father’s death.”
The other two men nodded and said nothing more on the subject.
“So when will you set out?” Malcolm asked.
“As soon as this storm ends.  It should be clear weather for a while once this has passed.”
“Well,” the young Scot glanced at James, “the roads are more dangerous these days, with brigands and such.  I’m sure I could get a few men from the warband together who are willing to ride out for your protection, Edward.”
“No.  Alfred wouldn’t like having others there, especially not if he thinks he’s found something valuable.”
“At least to the border, then,” Malcolm persisted.  “We can walk down as a company, and you should be able to make it from there to Newcastle on your own.”
Edward sighed.  “Very well.  If you think it is best.”
The Scot nodded, satisfied as the lodge once again descended into silence, save for the pounding of the rain and the crackling of the peat fire at the hearth.  Edward stared hard at the door, the face of the girl from his dream coming back to him.  He was not a dreamer of prophetic dreams; in fact, he rarely could remember anything from his slumbers when he awoke.  But something inside told him that this dream was different, that it was somehow relevant.  Who was she…?
~ ~ ~
They had not set out the night before, because Hannah had thought it safer to avoid traveling at night.  Instead, they made their way back down to the riverbank and slept one more night there, beneath the overhang.  The morning dawned bright and clear.  As she rode away from the city, she looked back over her shoulder, remembering how she had seen it as she walked in two days before.  How much had changed since then?  Her world had been turned upside down.
Much as she tried, she could not get the image of her dead father out of her head.  Bending slightly, she kissed Samuel as she rode.  “You are all I have left, brother.”
He stirred and awakened, gazing up at her.  She had fed him with some berries before they left, so she hoped he would not be hungry for at least a few hours.  She smiled, rubbing his back tenderly.  “We must work together, Samuel.  Perhaps, despite it all, you may have the chance to grow up in a world of peace.  That is what we must work for.”
He gurgled happily and laughed, grabbing at the reins as they rode northwards, back towards Northumberland.