Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 4

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~ 4 ~

       They awoke with the dawn, stirring to the quiet sounds of Mary preparing breakfast for them.  After eating their share of the porridge and taking along several loaves of waybread with them, Malcolm and Edward stepped outside, bathed in the light of the morning sun.  The air was sweet, but had a slight nip to it, smelling heavily of dew and grass as they walked toward the road and stopped for a moment, facing the abbey.
The brothers were undoubtedly already awake and probably had begun their day’s labors, toiling away behind their walls.  Malcolm turned and smiled to his friend as they turned their way toward the center of the village, treading quietly, wordlessly to the east.  The orange globe of the sun hung over the horizon, its rays melting away the morning mists.
They walked through the bustle of the village square, where the market was already open and full of people eager to find the best bargains before their friends arose.  Every so often, Malcolm would stop at the door of a house and knock, then continue walking.  Each time he did this, one of his warriors would issue from the within and join them.  By the time they came to the open fields again, a dozen young men had fallen in rank behind him, their ruddy faces glowing eagerly for the journey ahead.
Malcolm smiled fondly at them.  All of those who had joined were his age or younger, the devoted youths who had become close friends with both Edward and their war-captain.  Even the youngest man, Alasdair, gazed back stalwartly, ready to serve his leader in any way required.  Malcolm drew himself up, taking in a long breath before speaking to them.
“Most of you know this,” he said, looking down at them from his mount, “because of what Oswald has told you.  What we must do is see our friend safely to the borders of the English Northumbria.  As you all know, the roads have been more and more dangerous as of late.  Our beloved Edward must go and meet his brother, so we will see to his safety at least that far.  And if he does not return within two weeks, as he said, we will go and look for him.  Are all agreed to this?”
A chorus of hearty affirmation rang out as the men grinned at the young ex-monk, slapping him amiably on the back. 
“Malcolm,” said Edward, “you needn’t come after me.  If anything unfortunate happens with my brother, then you will probably not be able to find me.  We must leave it in the Lord’s hands.”
“Whatever you say, brother,” Malcolm said to him, then turned to wink at his troops.  “Let’s be on our way.”
Shouldering a sack of provisions, he led the way with Edward at his side, tromping off down the southeast road.  Although he did not believe an armed escort was necessary, Edward was pleased to have the company.  They bantered about foolish things, enjoying themselves in the beauty of the day.  They followed the line of the river until sunset, when they camped out along the banks, throwing up several canvas tents between the trees.
Oswald built a large fire and the men huddled around it, watching the stars come out above them.  Eating from the rations of hard biscuits and smoked meat in Malcolm’s sack, they talked for a good while into the night.  Before retiring, however, they all listened attentively to some of Edward’s instruction and departed to their slumbers with a prayer.  It was a good feeling, Edward reflected, to have such dear friends who cared enough to make special efforts for his welfare.  The next few days would dawn bright and promising, with the hope of good companionship and an adventure before him.
~ ~ ~
Weary in body and soul, Hannah turned her small mare from the road toward the twinkling lights of a village to the east.  She rode along what appeared to be some sort of farm-trail—clearly not the main avenue into the village, but it seemed to be leading her in the right direction.  The sky above her was free from any clouds, and the stars were beginning to show their faces against the deepening blue of the dusk sky.  Samuel had fallen asleep and was leaning against her arm, his lips working as he dreamt.
She had replayed in her mind the past two days so much that they became the only reality she had left, and she often found herself daydreaming to escape it.  By the time she came into the main thoroughfare of the quiet hamlet, she was struggling to keep her eyes open.
The village was a farming community and had little to offer in the way of resources for travelers.  She had almost given up hope when at last she spied a small inn near the end of the row of buildings.  It was in poor condition, its painted sign half-worn away from exposure to the wind and rain.  “Oh, Samuel, I don’t know,” she muttered, eyeing the place suspiciously.  Looking in a window-slit that had been cut in the wooden wall, she saw several men loitering around a table, each pulling down long draughts of drink.
She groaned inwardly.  Normally, she wouldn’t even have considered an establishment that looked like that, but she was too tired to try to go any further that night.  She shook her head and rode behind the building, hoping to find some sort of stable behind the inn.  There was a stable there, but in fact it was little more than a run-down shack with hay strewn around haphazardly. 
Sighing heavily, she dismounted and tethered the mare within reach of the hay, careful not to awaken Samuel with the motion.  She walked back to the front of the inn and entered, steering wide around the table of drinkers, who followed her with their eyes.  She looked around for any sign of the owner, but could find none.  Closing her eyes to gather her strength about her, she gritted her teeth and turned back to the table of men.
“Is the innkeeper here?” she asked in a commanding tone, her eyes flashing a warning to them.
There were four of them there, and they grinned unashamedly back at her.  One of them stood up, chuckling slightly while he ran a calloused hand over his unkempt beard.  “You don’t need an innkeeper miss,” he winked at her.  “You could always come home with me for the night.”
Hannah glared at him, shaking her head in disgust.  “Where is the innkeeper?” she repeated firmly.  “If there is none, I’ll move on.”
“Ah, I think he’s in the back,” one of the younger men volunteered.
“Thank you, sirs,” she said, inclining her head before walking into the next chamber.  She had to pause for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust because the lighting was considerably dimmer in the inner room.  A single candle was the only source of illumination, providing a small ring of light around a short man who sat hunched over a parchment.
“Excuse me, sir,” she spoke quietly to gain his attention.
“One moment, please,” he responded, adding a few last touches to his writing.  It surprised Hannah to find a literate man in the small farming community, but it appeared that this man was exceptionally so.  Scrolls and parchments lined the little room on shelves that ran as high as the ceiling.
At last he looked up, regarding her coolly in the dim light of the candle.  He was an older man, with wisps of graying hair still clinging stubbornly to his balding dome.  “What can I do for you, miss?”
She began to ask for a room, but curiosity overcame her.  “Are you a scribe of some sort?”
He smiled, shaking his head slowly.  “More of a student of history.  Most people would see me as quite eccentric, I fear.  But this is my love,” he gestured to the dusty stacks of documents around him.  “I observe and listen, writing down the happenings here at home and what we hear of the events abroad.  Sometimes I delve into years gone by.  I’ve just been documenting the first reports of what we’ve been hearing from London.”
“Ah,” she nodded, sighing heavily.  “I’ve just come from London.”
“Really?” he leaned forward with interest.  “Splendid!  You can tell me all about it!”
She closed her eyes, mustering whatever strength remained within her to fight off the barrage of violent memories.  “I’d rather not, sir,” she responded, tears welling up despite her efforts to restrain them.
“Oh,” he said, easily reading the pain in her expression.  “Then you were not only an observer—a victim of some of these stories, perhaps?”
“Yes,” she said, shifting her position uncomfortably.  “I was wondering, sir—I’ve been traveling some time, and my brother and I need someplace to sleep for the night.  Do you have some rooms left?”
He nodded, his lips pursed in thought.  “It’s generally not my practice to give refuge to Jews, but in these circumstances I might be able to arrange something.  But my inn isn’t set up in separate rooms—I have one large room upstairs with several beds.  There are already two others there, but they shouldn’t bother you.”
She drew in a deep breath.  “All right.  How much will it cost?”
He shook his head.  “No charge, miss.  But grant me this one favor—don’t tell anyone here that you are Jewish.  That would ruin my business reputation.  It just isn’t acceptable.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, turning and walking into the main room again, where she was able to find the rough wooden steps that brought her up to the second floor of the building.  In the dim light of two beeswax candles arranged at separate ends of the room, she made out the forms of two young men on the nearest beds, already snoring loudly as they slept.  She made her way to the furthest bed and stretched out there, carefully placing Samuel beside her, near her head.  He was still asleep, his small hands curled into tiny fists at his sides. 
“Sleep well, brother,” she whispered before drifting off.
~ ~ ~
When she awoke in the morning, she saw that another man had also come in from the highway for the night.  He was already up, buckling a sword-belt around a plain brown tunic.  The noise of his movements awakened her, so she lay still for several minutes, watching as he prepared to leave.
He hefted a large sack over his shoulder and made to leave, but as he turned, he caught Hannah’s gaze resting on him.  “Good morning,” he grunted, and made an attempt to straighten his ruffled hair. 
“Good morning,” she responded, not daring to move.  He was wearing a uniform of some sort, a brown cloak with a white Latin cross stitched over his heart.
He bowed.  “I would stay to speak with you, my lady,” he said with a gracious smile, “but I must be off.  My soul compels me.  Surely you’ve heard—the Lord is finally wreaking out His just vengeance on that vile, blasphemous race of Christ-killers.”
She nodded slowly.  “I’ve heard.”
“And that is the glorious cause I go now to champion,” he said proudly, bowing once again before making his departure down the stairs. 
Hannah let out a long breath, trying to hold back the sobs that began to well up from deep within her.  But it was to no avail, and she began to cry as she lay there, lonely and afraid.