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“You don’t understand, Sir Thomas—I must return,” the Sheriff’s face was flushed as he faced the captain of the Newcastle guard. “There are matters that must be attended to.”
Thomas’ eyes narrowed with suspicion, never breaking his locked gaze with the Sheriff.
“Aye, sir,” he said slowly, inflecting clearly so that the officer would have no trouble catching the disapproval that clung to each syllable.
The Sheriff frowned, tugging at his gray beard. “I don’t believe we have much chance of catching these men. The best we can hope for is to drive them far enough away so they don’t try to return and plague us again. So I’ll leave you in command of six of the men. Your choice.”
“Yes, sir,” he breathed through gritted teeth.
The Sheriff sighed and stretched before mounting his gray charger. “If my troop rides quickly, we can be back at last night’s campsite before all the light goes on us. Pick your men.”
Thomas nodded and quickly selected his six, the best men of the guard, then bid the Sheriff farewell. As the troop galloped out of sight on the eastbound path, he shook his head and turned to the others.
“All right, I suppose we’d better make camp here and wait until morning to go after them again. Unless they rode through the rain, we can’t be too far behind. But Raymond, you’d better go out scouting again just to make sure. If you find them tonight, we may even have a chance of finishing this by dawn.”
Raymond nodded and turned, stepping quietly out into a low, bushy growth and disappearing from their view.
~ ~ ~
Michael grimaced, looking down with contempt from where he sat astride his black horse. The young man gazed back up at him with fear-filled eyes.
“Please, my lord. That’s all I know.”
“Indeed?” Michael leaned forward, searching the boy’s eyes with his icy gaze. “And that’s all you told the others?”
“The knights, boy. The ones with the white cloaks—they did talk to you, did they not?”
“Oh, aye,” he nodded, his terrified eyes still fixed on the dark-cloaked figure before him. “The ones with the cross on their tunics? Yes, they asked me the same questions.”
“Hmm,” Michael mused, glancing thoughtfully at the rain-soaked land around him. A crow hovered high overhead, croaking its harsh call to the heavens. “And did you discover any of their names? Where they were from?”
He shook his head slowly. “They said that they were the Poor Knights of Christ.”
Michael smiled wryly, nodding as he turned his horse in a tight circle around the frightened youth. “And you know nothing about these Poor Knights?”
Again, he shook his head, tears now filling his eyes. “Please, master, I know nothing. Can’t I go yet?”
“You were the last one to see that knight before he disappeared nearly two years ago,” he said, his voice grave. “Many seek the knowledge of what happened to that man.”
“But my lord, he returned to York afterward—surely others saw him there.”
“Aye,” Michael nodded, scanning the trees and the empty countryside. “But we are more concerned with what he left here—he didn’t stay in York for long, and now no one seems to know what has become of him. What he did here holds the key to that secret. Listen, boy, if these Poor Knights ever come to you again, I don’t want you to tell them anything more—deceive them if you have to. Especially if they come from York—the Poor Knights there seem to be far too interested in this matter for their own good. They are the enemies of everything that is good in England. Do you hear me, boy?”
“I won’t say anything about it, sir. I swear it. Please, can I go home now?”
“Go on, then,” he growled menacingly. “Away with you!”
The boy needed no further incentive, and immediately bolted, running as fast as his legs could carry him. He never looked back, but sprinted with all his might away from his interrogator.
Michael watched him race away, a twisted grin on his face. “Still nothing,” he breathed softly. “The trail has been cold too long.” He glanced up at the sun, now setting toward the distant western horizon. “And now, to Newcastle,” he said, driving his heels into the ribs of his steed, “and may your God protect you, dear Sheriff.”
~ ~ ~
Edward crouched down behind a low bush, hoping desperately that he wasn’t visible. His heart pounded hard in his chest, so hard that he thought the men of Newcastle might be able to hear it. Why didn’t I just stay in Melrose? He sighed, quickly scanning the little glade before him. Six. Six knights, all making camp. With a shake of his head, he drew a deep breath and began to crawl carefully back the way he had come. He made his way slowly, cautiously through the dry underbrush until he was well out of earshot of the soldiers’ camp. Then standing up, he began jogging back over the two miles toward the caves in the riverbank, praying that he would find them still there. The sun was setting in the west, though, and he knew they had most likely moved on without him.
It took nearly half an hour before he ran up to their camp, only a mile or so beyond the caves they had rested in earlier. He burst into the middle of a ring of five brigands, glancing around breathlessly. The five outlaws gazed back at him, their expressions revealing silent, mocking laughter.
"Where’s Hannah?” he gasped, whirling to face Jonathan.
The one-eyed brigand scowled at him, spitting at his feet. “Why should we care what becomes of a Jewess?”
Edward’s fists clenched and he had to restrain himself from lashing out at the man.
He closed his eyes and exhaled before responding. “All right, Jonathan. Please tell me where she is. Is Alfred with her?”
He nodded, winking maliciously. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he grinned. “Alfred seems to have an eye for your wife—went down together to the riverbank a while ago. They’re down there now—all alone.”
Without stopping to think, he bolted, sprinting full-tilt toward the south, hoping to find them along the stretch of the benighted riverbank. “God, protect her,” he breathed as he ducked under a low branch, dashing toward where the shimmering waters danced along beneath a gentle moon.
~ ~ ~
She bowed her head, not even looking him in the eye. “What is it you want from me?”
Alfred flashed a cocky smile. “Besides the obvious, you mean?” he laughed as she drew her cloak tighter around her shoulders. “Fear not, Jewess. If I were to do that, my brother would quickly leave behind all charades of peace and kill me where I stood.”
“And I would willingly help him,” she whispered.
He laughed again, reaching out to run a hand along her dark hair. She shoved him away. “Perhaps I should warn you," he said, "that all of Edward’s romances tend to end in tragedy.”
She shrugged, wondering if she would be able to outrun him. “I assure you, then—this one will not. Unless by tragedy you mean that we will have to kill you and your men.”
“You are a very bitter woman, did you know that?”
“There are some things that are worth holding grudges against,” she replied quietly.
“Well, anyway,” he brushed aside the comment. “Yes. Actually, I didn’t even know the poor boy loved the girl until after we had killed her. After that, he decided to run away,” he sighed, “and so forfeit a place in our glorious re-conquest of England.”
She clucked her tongue sarcastically. “It seems to me you have a long way to go yet before you ever see the crown in Saxon hands again.”
He frowned and grasped her arm, noticing that she had begun to inch away from him. “Perhaps,” he growled. “But if we find success in our mission here, I will see it within a few short years. That is a promise.”
“And one that I hope you will break,” she said, glaring hard at him.
“What were you doing down by that cave?” he asked, cutting directly to his interrogation. “Surely you knew the cave was there.”
“What makes you think that?”
“A Jewish girl, sitting just outside the cave of a Jewish usurer? It seemed more than coincidence to me.”
“What does it matter?” she asked coldly.
“Allow me to explain, my slow-witted friend,” he replied. “A few weeks ago, my men raided the house of a minor nobleman in Northampton. We killed the men and began using the manor as a base of operations. It was only a few days later, as I was going through the noble’s letters and forms, that I found some very intriguing correspondence that had taken place between him and the usurer in this very town. The letters point to something of great value that was hidden here, which the noble was preparing to buy. The cave we found you near contained the other half of that set of letters. So all I need to know is—where is the priceless object of which they speak?”
She looked at him in silence, trying as best she could to put on a carefully neutral expression. “This is all very interesting, but I’m afraid…”
“You know nothing of this?” he pressed, his eyes intense.
She shook her head slowly. “In all candor, I think you’re insane.”
“That’s beside the point,” he growled, and kept his gaze hard toward her. “I don’t believe you,” he whispered after a moment.
“I don’t believe you,” he repeated. “You know more than you’re telling me. Perhaps even the location of what we seek. And do not be fooled.” His voice drew low, deep with warning. “We will find it.”
She sighed, rolling her eyes. “I still say you’re insane. Of course there’s bound to be something of great value in a usurer’s stash! What is so special about that?”
He leaned forward with interest. “And yet we scoured the cave and found nothing. Which says to me that someone has removed it.”
She tried to remain calm, but a flicker of fear passed over her features, and Alfred nodded, sensing he was drawing near to the truth of the matter.
“Yes…you took it, didn’t you?”
“Took what?” she feigned ignorance.
“A robe—a very old robe that you just might have.”
Hannah was silent, staring at him without expression.
“So where could this thing be?” he wondered aloud. “I’ve already searched your saddlebag, without finding anything. In my mind, there is only one other possibility.”
She stared at him evenly.
“Tell me,” he smiled slowly, “would you be wearing it?” So saying, he reached out and ripped the thin cloak from her shoulders. She screamed and began beating him with her fists. But his iron grip held her firm, and a grubby hand clamped over her mouth.
~ ~ ~
Edward froze, listening to the frightened scream ring out over the bank. “Hannah?” he shouted, his feet beginning to fly again over the rough terrain. His heart was beating fast; a red haze of fury descended over his vision. Raging, he burst from the brush to find Hannah struggling in his brother’s arms, her riding cloak torn and lying around her ankles.
Roaring incomprehensibly, he launched himself at his startled brother. His fists pounded against Alfred’s face, driving all the impetus of his charge in the huge man’s broad chest. Alfred was caught off guard by the flurry of blows from his brother. But soon he was able to regain control, using his brute force to restrain Edward’s attack. Hannah was weeping, her tear-streaked face buried in her hands, her legs curled beneath her as she sank to the wet ground.
Edward scowled in utter fury, shaking himself in an attempt to break free from Alfred’s grip. “What were you doing to her?” he screamed at him.
Alfred released his brother momentarily, but as soon as he did, the ready fists began pummeling him again. With a great heave, the brigand sent the smaller man flying back against the rocks. Edward lay there for a moment, bruised and aching.
Alfred snorted contemptuously and walked back up the camp without replying to the incensed query. As he watched him go, Edward’s mind began to clear, and he immediately turned to where Hannah was sitting, pouring out her tears onto the rocks.
“Hannah,” he gasped, running up to where she was sitting, “I should not have left you with him.”
He sat there for a long moment, letting her cry onto his shoulder. Darkness descended around them and the stars had all come out by the time she looked back up at him. He held her gently, afraid she would crumble in his arms. All of her strength of will had fled in the terror of the moment, and the memories of the pain of the past weeks rose back up in that instant to haunt her once again. She prayed desperately for the strength to compose herself again, but it didn’t come, and she remained there, weeping in Edward’s soothing embrace.
After a few minutes, she sat up on her own strength and shrugged her riding cloak back over her shoulders, drying her tear-stained cheeks with the sleeve. “I’m sorry, Edward,” she apologized, her breath still coming in the rhythm of dry sobs.
“Shh,” he said, laying a comforting hand on her arm. “There’s nothing to be sorry for, Hannah. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have returned sooner.”
She closed her eyes, nodding slightly. “You came just in time. An answer to prayer. It’s just that…” tears sprang into her eyes again. “When he attacked me like that, it reminded me of what happened in London.”
He sat quietly, willing to listen as she began to pour out her heart about the events of the past few weeks. Through her tears, she explained about the loss of her father and the imprisonment of her uncle and the long, lonely ride home in a final effort to regain some hope for the future. “I just don’t understand it, Edward,” she said softly as tears began to spring into her eyes anew. “Why?”
He wanted to look away, to bury his fears, his doubts, to show her a side of him that he wished existed: a part of him that could stand up for her and heal her pain, a part of him that could give her the answers.
“I don’t know,” he rasped. “I don’t know.”
She shook her head. “You weren’t there at London,” she said softly, allowing the sobs to rise up to wrack her chest again. “You don’t know what it was like. They slaughtered us like—like animals. Why?”
Edward shook his head, trying to hold back his own tears. “Only God knows, Hannah,” he said softly.
She was silent, but her eyes were cold. “My father believed in God,” she gasped out, then shook her head. "I'm not sure that I do."
Edward stood and faced her. “We don’t always understand the way He works, Hannah. But I know this much: His love never fails.”
She shook her head. “His love has failed His chosen people,” she replied, her voice hollow. Edward knew it would do nothing to press the point while she was still angry and confused, so he let it pass.
They sat together on the bank in silence, trying to make sense of the pain.
“So anyway, that’s why I have to return to London,” she explained in a whisper, drying her eyes again.
He nodded, looking deep into her dark, red-rimmed eyes. “I’m so sorry, Hannah,” he breathed. “Sorry that you had to be dragged into this business with my brother. But I know we can make it out.”
“Tonight,” she nodded, regaining some of the strong timbre in her voice. “I’m not going back up there,” she pointed in the direction of the camp.
“I agree,” he said. “But first—I still don’t understand what Alfred wanted with you down here. My brother is a terrible person, but he is not such a base man that he would try to…”
She shook her head. “No. He was looking for something—a priceless object he thought I might be hiding from him.”
“The king I serve has left his train in a new castle on the Tyne,” Edward whispered.
“It’s from the letter that Alfred sent to lure me down here. At first I thought he might be speaking about a relic of sorts that he thought he had found, but I still have no idea.”
“You’re right,” she said quietly, glancing around to make certain that no one was eavesdropping on the conversation. “It’s a relic. A knight from York gave it to my father nearly two years ago, bidding him to protect it. We never heard from him again, except in a single letter that told us what the relic was, so my father made preparations to sell it to a nobleman from Northampton named David. But apparently your brother and his men killed David and found my father’s letters, and now have come to take this thing for themselves.”
Edward’s eyes narrowed with concentration. “What exactly is this relic?”
“A robe—a very ancient robe that the knight bore back from the Holy Land. Apparently he was being chased by someone else who sought it, so he left it with us. From his letter, it is the robe that your Christ wore before his death—a robe given to him by a king.”
“Herod’s robe,” he breathed, nodding slowly. “If it is true, this would be one of the greatest treasures in all Christendom.”
She glanced at him. “You don’t believe it’s genuine?”
“There’s a good chance it’s not,” he admitted. “Most likely there are a dozen other robes all over Europe with the same claim. With all the pieces of the True Cross that have come back from the Holy Land, one could build an entire fortress. But the claim alone might make it great enough to bring the bearer into great power—or great danger, I suppose. And you know where this is?”
She nodded, but didn’t specify anything.
“Did Alfred find out that you know about it?”
“No,” she replied. “But he suspects it.”
Edward nodded. “Then he will not easily let you go. We’ll have to be careful.”
“He’ll probably expect us to take the river back toward the city,” she said. “Perhaps we should strike north and break out of the woods before turning back east.”
“Or we could go and surrender ourselves to the protection of the men of Newcastle,” he offered.
She frowned. “I’d rather not. For all they know, we’re part of the band of brigands. I don’t want to trust my life to them if they wouldn’t even come to the protection of the Jews when we were being raided."
“All right,” he sighed, rising and offering a hand to pull her to her feet as well. “Then we’d better begin before Alfred returns. North, then east.”
They walked slowly back up the bank, the shadows of the woods adding a cloak of secrecy around them. They avoided the brigand’s camp, walking instead past it, and on through the forest, towards the open moors of Northumbria.
~ ~ ~
Raymond crouched silently beside a wide expanse of bracken. Dawn was coming within the hour, and he had only located the brigand’s camp a little while earlier. He was only beginning to grow weary, since he had slept much of the afternoon during the rain. But as the dim shadows of dawn began to seep into the forest growth, he could feel the gentle urges of his body pulling him toward sleep. As soon as his ears caught the sound of careful footsteps, though, his focus snapped back instantly.
He listened, peering into the gloom. There it was again, the sound of several pairs of feet quietly treading the forest floor. Every so often he would hear a twig snap or a rustling of leaves, and each time the sounds drew nearer. Trying to breathe softly, he watched intently as two shadowy forms passed by him quickly, walking north through the woods. As they passed within a few paces of him, a single ray of moonlight fell on their faces, and he recognized them as having been with the brigands.
He waited until they had passed by, then began to trail them. It was best to know what the adversary was up to at all times. He might be able to overpower them, but he could also alert the brigands to his presence by doing so. He frowned, turning to see a dim, graying horizon through the trees. He would have to try to be back to the camp by dawn in order for the early raid to commence against the brigands’ camp.
~ ~ ~
Alfred yawned and rose, scanning the campground in the dim light of pre-dawn. His eye fell on the empty spaces where Edward and Hannah had laid their gear. He stood there for a moment uncomprehendingly, still fighting off the last holds of sleep from his mind. The chill of the river mists made him shiver violently, as he walked over to their vacant spots, his mind still dull.
Alfred swore and pulled his men to their feet. “Jonathan,” he barked in the brigand’s face. “Edward and his cur are gone! Take two men and follow the river back to Newcastle. I’ll take the other two and circle north. We have to find them before they can reach the city!”
Jonathan nodded and sleepily motioned two of the others to follow him. In a matter of minutes, the brigands were mounted and riding noisily through the forest, their wearied eyes peering into the early morning gloom.