Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 6

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~ 6 ~

The Sheriff paced before his desk, his hands toying with a small length of rope.  Why must I be put through this torture again?
He opened the door a crack and looked out to see the impassive face of one of his soldiers standing there.  “Stephen—my guest hasn’t arrived yet, has he?”
“No, sir,” the warrior responded, his brown eyes staring straight ahead.  “I’ll bring him in as soon as he arrives.  There’s no need to worry.”
The Sheriff instantly straightened his posture and cleared his throat.  “Oh, I wasn’t worried.”
“Of course not, sir.”
“It’s just that this is a very important meeting.”
“I understand.  I’ll usher him directly in.”
“Thank you,” the Sheriff nodded, shutting the door again.  He collapsed into a chair, his eyes scanning a tapestry that hung down the north wall of the room, but without actually seeing it.  He wasn’t certain how long he sat there, trying to keep his mind from worrying about the inevitable, but he began to grow very weary.  At last, when his eyelids had grown far too heavy to remain propped open much longer, a soft knock sounded on the door.
He leapt to his feet, his heart picking up the tempo of a war-horse in full charge.  “Yes, enter!”
The door swung open slowly, and once again the tall form of Michael stepped into the room, his black cloak rustling as he moved toward the officer.  He wrinkled his nose in distaste as he scanned the room, not even addressing his host.  The silence became oppressive, hanging like a ponderous weight between them.
Finally, the Sheriff spoke up, his voice sounding a good deal more confident than he felt.  “Master Michael…I see you made it safely back from your trip.”
Michael flashed a crooked grin.  “Hoping I would get lost on the way, Sheriff?  I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
The Sheriff chuckled and quickly ushered Michael into a chair, where he sat slowly, gazing through the window-slit.  “So, my dear friend, do you have anything to report?”
He groaned inwardly, but nodded.  “We finally found something that seemed rather strange and investigated it, but…”
“Wait,” Michael waved his hand.  “Go back.  Tell me all the details.  Sources, times, hard facts.”
“Alright,” he replied, sitting down behind the wooden desk and pulling a parchment from beneath a stack of vellum sheets.  His eyes scanned the document as he spoke.  “Two days after our last meeting, one of my men had a chance discussion with one of the merchants in the marketplace.”
“Which one?”
He searched the document.  “It doesn’t say.”
“You’ll have to find that out.  Go on.”
“Apparently the usurer and his family have gone to London for the King’s coronation.”
Michael chuckled sadistically.  “I heard about that.”
“Yes,” the Sheriff mumbled, moving on with his story.  “Anyway, my servant and the merchant fell to discussing the Jewish community, and he came across this piece of information.  It seems that the usurer had been sending letters every month or so to a nobleman who lives in Northampton—apparently the merchant didn’t provide the nobleman’s name.”
Michael raised his eyebrows, looking extremely bored.  “That’s it?  Regular correspondence between a Jew and some nobleman?”
The Sheriff swallowed nervously, knowing he would have to explain quickly.  “We checked in the marketplace and found another merchant who knew the usurer.  According to him, he was the one who would bear the letters from here to Durham, where they would be given to another contact.”
Michael was silent, his face grim and focused.
“We asked him when he began delivering these letters, and he told us that the usurer first approached him in April of last year—I believe that’s only a few months after your men lost track of your target.”
The dark-cloaked guest stood, his lips pursed in thought as he walked over to the window, his hands clasped behind him.  
“It’s possible,” Michael said after a long moment.  “On the other hand, it could be a coincidence—it could be any number of things.”
“Yes,” the Sheriff cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.  “We searched their home and found nothing of significance—no letters or other documents that might point to the knight who had passed this way.  When word of the London riot came through, the townsfolk assumed the usurer wasn’t coming back, so they ransacked the house.  I’m afraid there’s little left now, but we didn’t find much to begin with.”
Michael nodded and left his post at the window, making his way back to the door.  “Well, it’s not much, Sheriff, but at least it’s something.  We’ll check into the Northampton connection.  I’ll be back in three days—keep watch over the city for the usurer or anyone connected with him—they might still come back.  If they do, bring them in for questioning.”
“Yes, Master Michael,” the Sheriff nodded, bowing slightly at the waist as his guest departed.  As soon as the door closed once more, he collapsed into his chair, running a shaking hand over his sweat-beaded brow.
~ ~ ~
Edward awoke, hearing the movements of someone else in the house beside him.  He opened his eyes slowly, but didn’t move.  Perhaps the man on the road has found me…
It sounded like the person was rummaging through the shambles of the destroyed house, to which Edward had returned.  Carefully, soundlessly, he turned his head to see who his early-morning visitor was.  He turned to see a pair of deep brown eyes watching him carefully, framed by long strands of dark hair.
“I was afraid I had awoken you,” Hannah said, placing a hand against her forehead.
“That’s alright,” Edward responded, stretching as he rose.  “I really don’t mind.”
She laughed.  “Oh, you think I was concerned about your sleep!  I simply didn’t want you following me again today!”
He grinned, spreading wide his arms.  “Well, if fate has slung us together once again, who am I to resist it?”
She shook her head.  “I’m departing on a journey soon, Edward of Melrose.  One that I can’t have anyone else on.”
“Today?” he glanced through a crack in the wall to see the first rays of pale sunlight streaming over the quiet city.
“Tomorrow,” she replied.  “I will spend another night with my friends before setting off again.”
He smiled.  I still need to find out who she is…what the dream means.  “Well then, we have an entire day.” 
“Yes,” she returned a halfhearted smile.  “An entire day for you to seek your mystic purposes once again.  Perhaps this time they will not be so elusive.”
She was sitting on the floor, carefully sifting through some tattered pieces of clothing.  Her hands touched one, a simple blue robe with a white sash.  She held it up in the light for Edward to see.  “I can remember my mother wearing this,” she said, her eyes glazed as she wandered down distant paths of memory. 
He was unsure how to respond, so he nodded, watching as she carefully folded the robe and tucked it under her arm.
“She died giving birth to Samuel,” her voice sounded hollow.  “It was a terrible time.”
“I’m sorry.”
She looked at him, her tear-brimmed eyes questioning.  “Are you really?  The death of one Jewish woman?”
He nodded.  “Even though I didn’t know her, I can see the pain it caused you…how much you loved her.”
She smiled wistfully.  “Maybe I misjudged you, Edward of Melrose.”
After a few moments of silence, she stood and began to walk toward the doorway.
“Where are we going?” Edward asked, following.
“Well, I’m going back to the cave.  I have no control over where you go, but I will not stay here,” she leaned in close, “under watchful eyes.”
“Watchful eyes?” he whispered back.
“There’s a man outside,” she responded quietly.  “He’s been watching you.  I saw him in the woods yesterday, too.”
Edward’s breath caught in his throat and he fought the impulse to turn and search for his stalker’s vantage point.  “What does he look like?”
“A little taller than you, red hair, plain traveling cloak.  Although I’m curious, I won’t ask why a wandering mystic who’s meeting his brother would attract such a covert audience.”
“Yes, better if you don't ask,” Edward replied, as he quickly followed her out of the house.  “Red hair? It’s probably a Scot, but I can’t imagine why he’s following me.”
“I wouldn’t worry. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to be noticed.”  They walked silently for a few moments, finding the little path and setting off toward the riverbank.  “So tell me—what exactly does a mystic do besides searching for purposes that can’t be seen?”
He frowned, stumbling over a root in the pathway.  “Well, I’ve never really been called a mystic before yesterday.  It was all about a dream I had a few days ago—I think it might have something to do with this situation.”
“You dream prophetic dreams?” she wondered aloud. 
“I never have before,” he replied, casting a glance over his shoulder to see if he could catch sight of any follower.  “But something tells me this dream is different.  I can’t explain it.”
“Then maybe I can be a Joseph or a Daniel for you.  Tell me about it.”
Immediately, Edward tensed.  I have to redirect this conversation somehow.  I can’t let her know it was about her.  “I really don’t think I should.  It’s just fragments—a scene—it would be too difficult to describe.”
“All right,” she nodded as they broke out of the woods into the brush that surrounded the swirling waters.  The lilting song of a sparrow added to the hushed whisper of the river, bringing a smile to Edward’s lips.
He watched as she ducked inside the cave, but he didn’t follow her inside.  Instead, he stood with his hands clasped before him, his eyes tracing over the gentle landscape of the opposite bank.
Tell her.  It came as a quiet whisper, a tender voice echoing within him.
Tell her what?
            Her wounds are deeper than they seem—she’s afraid.  She needs to hear what you can tell her.  Faith is the only hope she has left.
Edward groaned.  He wasn’t sure if he was debating with his own conscience or with God’s inner promptings, but either way he didn’t like it.  It won’t work.  She’ll back away from me, hate me.  She’ll be offended!
He nodded, satisfied that he had resolved the argument within himself, then sat down on the grassy bank while he waited for Hannah to reappear. 
Inside, she carefully retrieved the second leather pouch that contained the letters, which she had left from the previous day.  After scanning the letters once more, trying to memorize every last detail, she laid the heap in the middle of the cave floor.
“Hmm…I should have brought something to light a fire with,” she said.  She stepped out of the cave and paused for a moment as her eyes adjusted to the gathering brightness of the morning.  “Do you have a flint?” she called out, but just as her voice faded away, another sound came rushing over the riverbank.  It began as a low rumble, like distant thunder, then suddenly broke out into the frighteningly familiar sound of hoofs smashing into the earth at full speed.
“Oh no,” Edward breathed, running up to the mouth of the cave, where Hannah still stood dumbfounded.
“Your brother?” she whispered, her eyes wide as she watched the path.
“I’m afraid so,” he replied with a grim shake of his head.  
 The forest greenery parted as a burly rider astride a great gray charger broke out and shouted loudly.  He wore a grimy leather jerkin over a plain shirt that might have been white at some time in the distant past.  His thick brown beard framed a square jaw that jutted forward with confidence, displaying a bright smile of crooked teeth.  His eyes sparkled merrily as he saw them standing by the cave.
He rode up slowly, then turned in his saddle and gave a shout.  “Come on out, boys!”
Immediately, five other stallions burst out from beneath the shade of the trees, each bearing a man of similar girth and strength.  The leader smiled proudly, turning to see Edward’s reaction.  He dismounted, patting his horse gently on the nose before walking up to them.  His face gleamed with sweat, his chest heaving from the exertion of the ride.
“Well, here’s my long lost brother!” he spread his arms wide.  “What’s the monkish life like, Ed?”
"What’s the meaning of all of this, Alfred?  And where did you steal the horses?”
Alfred threw back his head and released a loud belly laugh.  “It’s been, what, ten years?  You don’t think that in that time I could have bought my own mount?”
Edward thought a moment, then shook his head.
The five other brigands tethered their horses near the trees, returning to stand behind their leader.  All in all, they looked a ragged crew, but a dangerous one.  A sword hung at each side, a dagger tucked beneath each belt.  The brigand who stood at Alfred’s right was slightly older than the others, his beard beginning to gray at the edges.  A ragged scar traced from his forehead to a patch that covered his left eye and on down his cheek.  At the sight of the wound, Edward gritted his jaw.  The memories came back too quickly, too painfully, and he strained to hold back the tide.
             Alfred noticed Edward’s distant stare and turned his one-eyed lieutenant.  “It seems my brother remembers you, Jonathan.”
“And I remember him well,” he growled, self-consciously rubbing the lower edge of his scar.
“Memories better left behind for now,” Alfred spoke sternly.  “Agreed?”
Edward nodded sullenly.
“Agreed,” Jonathan nodded.  “For now.”
“Good,” Alfred clapped his hands together.  “Well, Ed, what is this charming gift you’ve brought out for me?”  He leaned in toward Hannah’s face, winking at her.  “Some sort of peace offering?”
Hannah had to wrinkle her nose as the foul odor of garlic and alcohol washed over her.  “I think not,” she protested, taking an involuntary step backward.
“Oh, she’s a fiery one, isn’t she?” he smiled at Edward.  “That’s the way I like them.  Jonathan, take her back by my horse.”
Jonathan stepped forward, but Edward quickly thrust his body between them.  “What do you think you’re doing?” he spoke angrily to his brother.  “Do you just go around abducting any girl that strikes your fancy?”
He shrugged.  “This line of work does have some benefits, Ed.  You should have considered that before running off.”
“I would rather die than become a lawless coward like you,” he breathed heavily.  “I won’t let you touch her.”
Alfred placed a thoughtful finger against his lips.  “But who would miss her?” he wondered aloud.  “She’s a Jewess, isn’t she?  Worthless trash—might as well find some use for her.”
Edward clenched his fists, livid with rage now.  “You are the basest man I have ever known,” he spoke through clenched teeth.  “You’ll have to hew me down to get her.”
Immediately, Jonathan’s sword rang from it’s scabbard, sunlight dancing off its polished edge.  “Don’t tempt him,” Alfred chuckled.  “He’s been waiting to take a piece out of you for years.”
“Get out of here, Hannah,” Edward said, motioning her away with his hands.
“Edward, you have no sword,” she protested.  “I can’t let you die for my dignity—it’s not worth it.”
Alfred laughed aloud.  “You should listen to such wise counsel, my brother.”
Edward shook his head.  “Surely you can see this is wrong, Alfred.  People are not merely playthings for your amusement—not even Jews.”
“Well, naturally, Ed, but I have to be practical here.  If I stopped to ponder the morality of my decisions, I would have to find another line of work, and that’s just not very easy to do these days.”
“You’re nothing more than a swaggering boy with a sword and a delusion of strength,” Edward spat.
Alfred chuckled, motioning Jonathan to put up his sword.  “All right, Ed.  Give me one good reason not to take her.  The authorities probably wouldn’t bother with the disappearance of one Jewess, so why should you care?”
“Because—Hannah’s my wife.”
Standing behind him, Hannah tried to conceal the surprise she felt.  Silence hung over the group for a long moment, the wind blowing through and ruffling their clothing as they faced each other.
“Can monks have wives?” one of the brigands whispered to his companions, who shrugged helplessly.
Alfred nodded, another smile spreading across his face.  “Well, I have to give you credit for that one, Ed.  If she is your wife, I pity you—after all, she is a Jewess.  And if she is not, it is enough of a lie to make me begin to respect you.”
“Oh, thank you,” he replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.  “I suppose now you’ll tell me why you made me come all this way.”
Alfred’s eyes narrowed with thought.  “No, I don’t think so.  Not until I have it in my hands.”
“Have what in your hands?”
Alfred shoved his way past him toward the concealed cave-mouth.  “You’ll find out soon enough, Ed.  You’ll see, and then you’ll understand.”

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