Thursday, October 08, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 7

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~ 7 ~

         Alfred and his men engaged in a quick conference on the bank, drawing a little ways away from where Edward and Hannah stood, still shocked by their dramatic encounter with the brigands.
         “I can see why you weren’t very enthusiastic to meet your brother,” she said quietly.  “And I must say, I’m glad you seem to be shaped from a different mold.”
         Edward nodded, running a hand over his forehead as he heaved a great sigh.  “Alfred knew it was a lie.  He was just playing with me.  Even if I had a wife, I would have been crazy to bring her along to meet him.  He knows that.”
         Hannah shrugged.  “Well, as far as chivalrous heroics are concerned, you did very well.  In terms of rational behavior, it didn’t strike me as the best thing you could have done.”
         He nodded, turning to look full at her.
         “But I am grateful for it,” she continued.
         “I’m glad it worked for now.  But you should go now, while they’re distracted.  This isn’t your affair.”
         “Are you sure?” she asked.  “If they see that I’ve gone, they might hurt you.”   
         This pleased Edward, but he knew what needed to be done.
         “No, you should go.  I knew there would be danger when I decided to come.  I can handle it.”
         “All right, Edward,” she smiled as she walked past him.  “I hope you discover the purpose you seek.”
         Edward turned to watch her go.  She walked straight, with poise and grace that spoke of more confidence than he could imagine having in her situation.  The wind rustled through the leaves of the forest, hitting him full in the face as she approached the line of trees. 
         Just then, a shout rang out from further down the bank, and he groaned inside.   
         “Where’s your wife going, Ed?” Alfred shouted.  
          Hannah stopped and turned at the cry, an expression of annoyance written on her face.
         “She’s going into the market,” Edward responded.
         “We have provisions,” said Alfred, his tone rising in warning.
         “We prefer to buy our own."
         “Ed, you’d better tell your wife to stay here.  If she goes, there could be some unfortunate consequences.”
         “Why should you control her fate?  Let her go!”
         “I’m warning both of you!” Alfred shouted, drawing his sword.  “She stays!”
         Hannah sighed and returned to Edward’s side.  They both sat down on the trail between the brigands and their horses, waiting for anything new to develop.  The horses whinnied at them, pulling at their tethers to try to reach more grass.  A pair of ducks flew quietly overhead, making their way westward, toward the headwaters of the Tyne. It seemed like an eternity, but by the time the sun had risen to its zenith, the brigands had broken their council and were scouring the riverbank for something.
         “Do you suppose they’re looking for the cave?” Hannah whispered to him.
         “Probably,” Edward grinned.  “But I don’t feel obligated to point it out to them.”
         “Nor I,” she replied, scanning the edge of the river with her dark eyes.  “Our friend has returned,” she said, nodding to a point where the line of trees dipped down toward the rocky shelf that bordered the water.
         Edward peered in the direction, trying to see what she saw.  “I don’t see anything.  Is he still there?”
         She nodded.  “He’s looking right at us, but he’s not moving.”
         Just then, Edward saw something that shocked him even more than the meeting with his brother, but this was a more pleasant surprise.  He looked at an area shaded by an overhanging tree and detected a wide grin beaming toward him and a hand waving to seize his attention.
         “Malcolm!” he whispered under his breath.  “What is he doing here?  Has he been following me the whole time?  How did I ever get such foolish friends?”
         “I was wondering the same thing,” said Hannah with a grin.  “What’s he doing?”
         Edward stretched, making certain that the brigands were still preoccupied.  “He’s my best friend.  He knew there was some danger involved in this meeting, so he probably came to keep an eye out for me.”  He quickly nodded and smiled, trying to get across the message that he was fine for now.
         At that instant, Alfred approached them, his expression grim.  He knelt down before where they were sitting, searching each of their faces for any hint of deceit.  “I need to know if you have any connection to the usurer that lived in the city,” he said to Hannah.
         “He and his family went to London for the coronation,” she replied.  “From the reports I heard of what happened there, it’s doubtful that any could make it back.”
         He nodded, absentmindedly pulling up clumps of grass as he spoke.  “But you must have known him in some manner—did he have anything down here along the banks?”
         “Like what?  A boat?”
         “Another storage house, or a cave, or something of that sort.”
         “I suppose it’s possible,” she tilted her head slightly.
         He frowned and was about to press another question when one of the men shouted.   “There’s something here, sir!”
         Edward glanced up to see the brigand disappear into the hidden entrance of the cave.  He returned a moment later, clutching a handful of parchments, which he deposited quickly into Alfred’s eager hands.  The leader handed the papers to Jonathan, who scanned the documents with haste.
         “This is the place!” he let out a whoop of joy, holding the papers aloft.  “Now all we have to do is find it.  Go in and scour every corner of that cave, boys!”
         With a shout, four of the men rushed into the little space, but soon found that only three could fit.  They pushed and shoved each other in their eagerness, sweating heavily, their muscles straining as they dug through the soft earthen walls of the cave, often pulling out large rocks and heaving them from the opening.
         After several minutes of the chaotic search, they came out looking twice as grubby as when they entered.  Their muscular arms were covered in dark soil, their greasy hair hanging limp with sweat.   
         “There’s nothing else there, sir.”
         Alfred swore, then assembled his men with a swift command.  “Very well, men.  We thought this might happen.  As you saw, the usurer’s house has been plundered.  I can only assume that our prize was taken along with it.  Therefore, we will sack the town.  Jews first, so we don’t provoke the Sheriff’s men to action too quickly.  If they don’t have anything, we move on to other targets.  You know what to do.”
         Hannah stiffened, her mind rushing back to the blood-bathed streets of London.  “Oh God, not again,” she whispered.  “Not my friends.”
         Before Edward could object, the brigands were racing toward their mounts.  They charged off the way they had come, their voices raised in a Saxon war-cry.  The sound rang over the river, echoing back with a terrifying resonance that froze Edward’s blood.
         “No,” he gasped, racing after them on foot.  Hannah followed immediately after him.  They burst out at the usury-house, and both leapt on Hannah’s mare, which was still tethered there.  “Where do the other Jews live?” he asked, having lost sight of the brigands.
         “Down that street,” she pointed, and Edward urged the little horse to a swift gallop down the narrow lane in pursuit of his brother.  Hannah clung to him, but she was lost in memories that she wished she could leave behind forever.  But there she was again, charging down the streets of London with Eleazer, blood and fire meeting her gaze everywhere she looked.
         “I see them,” he responded, riding past a distraught woman, screaming as she tried to pull her children out of the street.  Ahead of them, families of Jews were standing in the middle of the street, watching with pain-filled eyes as the brigands tore through their homes.  Alfred was still mounted astride his gray stallion, keeping a watchful eye on the crowd as his men did their work.
         Edward pulled up next to them, and as soon as he did, Hannah dismounted, running over embrace her friends.  Edward looked over to find his brother’s eyes locked on his.
         “Why do you want me here?” he asked through clenched teeth.
         “That will become clear in time,” said Alfred.
         “I would have rather forgotten that I even had a brother,” he responded, turning his head away to hide the tears that flooded his eyes.
         The brigand nodded.  “I’m sure that’s true. But I will need you later.  Even if you choose to forget, I will never forget I have a brother, a man of true Saxon blood.  There will always be a place for you among my men if you want it.”
          “You know I will never agree to become one of your highwaymen,” he growled.  “I’m seriously considering leaving for Melrose again right now.”
          Alfred smiled at him, his eyes sparkling maliciously.  “Oh, you’ll stay.  I know you will.”
         Just then, a scream echoed down the street, and both men turned to see what was happening.  The brigands had finished searching the Jew’s houses without any success, and two of them had taken to terrorizing several of the families.  They prodded them with their swords, laughing and shooting off obscene comments at them.
         “Anything?” Alfred shouted to them.
         “No, sir!” one shouted back.  “Do we proceed?”
         “Yes, go on!  But don’t do anything rash!”
The words fell on unhearing ears, though, as the five brigands grouped together and raised another shout before charging down a second street.  The Jews, still terrified with Alfred watching them, seemed relieved to have the looting intruders gone for the moment.  A woman rushed up to Hannah, tears streaming down her cheeks, her dark hair flying out behind her.
         “Hannah!  Hannah, come quickly.  It’s Jacob.”  She grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her toward one of the houses.  It was a small building, with one door and only two tiny windows facing the street.
         As soon as they entered, Hannah drew in an involuntary gasp.  A young man was lying in the middle of the floor, a dark red spot slowly spreading on the front of his tunic.  Ruth, the woman who had brought Hannah in, knelt at his side and motioned her to follow.  Rebecca, a young woman about Hannah’s age, was holding Samuel, who was crying loudly, tears streaming down his little cheeks.
         “No,” Hannah said, feeling at last the heartfelt sobs welling up within her.  “Did they do this?”
          “Yes,” Ruth said.  “We…we don’t know if he’ll….” her words were cut off as she began to weep.
          “Jacob,” Hannah said gently, her eyes swimming with tears as she ran her hand over his cheek.
         “Hannah,” he said, his voice weak.  He coughed violently, groaning in pain.  “I…I tried to keep them out, but…” he shook his head.  “They didn’t find it, though.”
         “Jacob,” she said, biting her lower lip.  “It wasn’t worth your life.”
         He smiled wryly, his teeth gritted with pain.  “It’s just a scratch.  I’m not dead yet.”
         She shook her head, tears now flowing down her cheeks.
         “Don’t cry for me, Hannah,” he said, his voice growing weaker as his eyes began to close.  “I’ll be all right…but I'm so tired.”  His eyes closed, his breathing slowed, and he slipped into unconsciousness.
         “Get a bandage around that wound,” Hannah said, a timbre of determination coming back into her voice.  “I have to go stop this.”
          “Hannah, don’t go!” Rebecca shouted after her, but she didn’t stop until she had reached Alfred.
         She strode right past Edward and grabbed Alfred by the sleeve of his tunic so he had no choice but to look at her.   
         “Listen to me, you madman!  Your men almost killed one of my friends.  Stop it now!”
         Alfred smiled and shook his head.  “The death of Jews is a triumph for Saxon England,” he replied, enjoying the look of pain that crossed her face.
         She was about to respond when the harsh call of a trumpet burst out over the city.  Alfred swore, glancing up toward the castle.  “That’s it, then,” he said, loosing another quick curse.  “They’ve attacked one of the Sheriff’s friends.”
         Edward looked at him, confused.  “What’s happening?”
         Alfred shook his head, listening as the harsh sound of hoofbeats pounded toward them.  “My boys got a little out of control.  The Sheriff’s men will be coming for us shortly.”
         The five brigands appeared from around a turn in the street, riding at full speed toward the western edge of the city.  “Well, I’ll wish you luck,” Edward said.  “But I’m staying here.”
         “No, you’re not,” Alfred said, grabbing Hannah by the wrist and hauling her up behind him.  In an instant, he was riding off after his men.  Edward felt like swearing, but he restrained himself and set off after his brother.
          If I got Hannah into this situation, I’m going to get her out too.  He gripped the reins of the little mare tightly, urging her on after the charging stallions disappearing into the brush.  Behind him, the shouts of the Jews and the dull, quaking peals of the pursuing soldiers of Newcastle echoed over the land.  
         I never should have come, he thought.  
         But something rebuked him—there was a reason he was there.   
         “God, help me see what you have for me here,” he whispered, ducking beneath a low-hanging branch as the mare began to plow her way through the forest undergrowth on the trail of the brigands.

                                                              ~ ~ ~

           Malcolm crouched beneath the shading bough of an oak tree, watching as the mounted soldiers swept past him into the woods of the Tyne basin.  He shook his head grimly.       
          “This is not good, Edward,” he whispered.  “How did I know you would get into something like this?”
           Well, I have no horse, he reasoned.  There’s no way I can help them alone.  I’ll have to return to the border.  Oswald and the men should still be there.
          Drawing in a deep breath, he brushed off his tunic and walked quietly into the chaos of the streets of Newcastle.  People were milling about in the roadways, trying to understand what had just happened.  He managed to push his way through the crowds until he reached the road that led north toward Scotland.
          “Give wings to my feet, Lord,” he breathed.  “And keep your hand on Edward until I return.”  Filling his lungs with the cool summer air, he began to run back the way he had come.