Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 8

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~ 8 ~

            The little horse was lathering and panting for air when they finally began to slow.  The mare had been able to match pace with the stolen Norman stallions, which surprised Edward.  More than once during the ride he thought he would certainly fall behind and be apprehended by the pursuing men of Newcastle.  He dismounted, patting the mare gently on the shoulder as she lowered herself to the ground, heaving for breath.

The brigands milled around the little glade they had halted in, laughing and joking.  Edward tilted his head, trying to hear any sound that the soldiers were still on their trail.  Alfred knelt down, pressing his ear to the ground for a long moment.  When he rose, he flashed a bright grin at Edward.   “They’ve stopped.  We’re safe for now.”

Hannah was still mounted on Alfred’s horse, watching the proceedings with disdain.  Jonathan glared at Edward for a long moment, then drew close to Alfred, whispering something in his ear.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head.  “They have at least twenty fighting men; we have six.  We need everyone here to guard the camp.  Three shifts—two men awake at a time.  If they try to ambush us at night, we split up and lose them in the woods.”

Jonathan nodded and was about to turn away when his eyes caught something.  “Hey!” he shouted, pointing at Hannah, who had been slowly backing the horse away from the group, back into the forest.

At his cry, she slapped the stallion and dug her heels into its sides.  “Go!” she yelled, and the gray steed lowered its head and began to charge further west through the bracken.

Alfred swore, motioning Jonathan onto his horse.  “Bring her back!  She probably doesn’t even know how to ride!”

As Jonathan’s horse crashed through the brush after her, Edward rushed up to his brother.  “Just let her go, Alfred. I'll help you in whatever way you need.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “Well, well. It's too late now. Jonathan's already gone after her."

“That man hates me,” Edward pressed, thrusting his finger in the direction they had taken.  “He’ll probably kill her just to spite me.”

Alfred shrugged.  “Well, I don’t expect him to be friendly with her, but he’ll bring her back.  I gave him an order.”

“He won’t hurt her?”

The brigand laughed, slapping his brother on the back.  “So much concern for a Jewess, Ed?”  He leaned in close.  “Almost enough to make me believe she really is your wife.  But,” he sighed, throwing up his hands, “who knows what he’ll do to her?  All I care about is whether or not she comes back.”

~ ~ ~

Hannah’s heart was beating so hard she could hear it pounding in tempo with the stallion’s hoofs.  They plowed through thick clumps of bracken and beneath the spreading boughs of ancient oaks, charging north and west through the thick woods.  Her hair flew out behind her as she ducked beneath branches that seemed to spring out of nowhere to grasp at her.

She could hear the sound of another horse following her, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off her path for a moment to see who it was.  

        Though she had only been riding for a few minutes, she found the trees beginning to thin, giving way to low bushes until she finally broke out of the woods onto the heather-covered moors of Northumbria.  Seeing the open expanse spread out before her, she gave the horse its lead and clung to him, her lips working in silent prayers all the while.  The gray charger stormed over the rolling terrain, leaving the woods of the Tyne far behind.  The sun was setting behind the distant highlands of Cumbria, showering the land with a glorious array of orange light.

        But no matter where she fled over the broad moors, her pursuer always followed close behind.  She turned slightly in her saddle to see the face of the one-eyed brigand glaring hard at her.  His brown stallion was only a few yards behind her now.  Hannah gritted her teeth in desperation, directing her mount down into a deep ravine.

         It raced down the steep bank, its hoofs clattering down toward the shallow stream at the bottom.  The brigand didn’t follow her, so she drew to a halt and glanced up at where her pursuer was sitting motionless astride his horse, watching her.

        “You’re to come back with me,” he growled.  “If you come now, I promise I will not hurt you.”

        She narrowed her eyes, pushing a wisp of dark hair away from her face.  The brigand was now only visible as a silhouette against the setting sun, but she could still make out the malicious hatred in his eyes.   
        “What is the word of a thug like you?  You have no respect for life, nor for my safety.”

        “No,” he snarled.  “And I would sooner kill you than bring you back, but I have my orders.  The master still has need of you.”

        “Indeed,” she nodded, urging her horse to a slow walk following the stream.  “I have no further interest in remaining his captive, so if you will send him my regrets, I will be on my way.”

        “And your idiot husband?  You would leave him in our hands?”

        “He is a resourceful man,” she replied quickly.  “I have faith he will be able to see the matter through.”

        “Not if my blade has any say in it,” he chuckled grimly, holding up his sword so that its keen edges caught the last rays of the fading light.

       “He is your master’s brother,” she said, still moving along the bottom of the gully, every movement matched by the brigand on the banks.  “He would not allow any harm to come to him.”

        “Alfred has great respect for your husband’s Saxon blood,” the brigand admitted.  “But if he persists in such foolishness, even Alfred will not keep back from drawing that blood.”

        “I don’t believe you,” she said.  “I know my husband would have wanted me to escape.”

        The brigand spurred his mount on in order to stay even with her as she continued to follow the stream.  “You have a choice before you, Jewess.  You can either come back with me,” he said, then winked his good eye.  “Or you could risk spending the night out here with me.  All alone.  Alfred wouldn’t mind, so long as I had you back by morning. Choose whichever one you wish. But you won’t get out of this ditch without having me catch you.”

        “Well, we’ll see,” she muttered under her breath, snapping the reins and driving her heels into the horse’s ribs.  The stallion dashed off along the bottom of the little gully, its hoofs throwing chunks of sod into the air behind it.  The brigand had seen it coming, though, and was matching her pace along the embankment.  She frowned and was about to turn her horse to try and ford the rushing stream, but as she began to slow, her pursuer’s horse launched itself down the bank toward her.

        She pulled up sharply, but her horse was spooked by the flurry of motion around it, and it reared up on its hind legs, its hoofs thrashing the empty air.  With a cry, Hannah felt herself slide from the saddle and topple down to land in the cold flow of the rocky stream.  

       Before she could regain her feet, she felt a strong grip clamp down on both wrists, dragging her up from the water.  With one arm, the brigand hauled her up so she was sitting behind him on his mount.  Holding the reins of his own horse in one hand and Alfred’s in the other, he turned his head and shouted at her.

        “Hold on tight!  You could try to jump off, but I believe it would kill you.”  With that, he spurred his mount up the bank before setting off over the fields they had just crossed a few minutes before.

~ ~ ~

        She sat dejectedly, glaring directly at Alfred, her eyes like ice.

        “You know,” Alfred leaned over toward his brother, who was sitting idly in the grass a few yards from Hannah, “I don’t think your wife is overly fond of me.”

        “Understandably,” Edward replied dryly.  “Though it may surprise you, she wasn’t hoping to be kidnapped by a ruthless band of marauding idiots.”

        Alfred threw back his head and laughed.  “Marauding idiots?  What a clever name.  I’ll have to put that on the banner of England—once we drive out the Normans, that is.”

        “Well,” Edward huffed his breath, “if you did take over, it would be an apt description of the realm.”

        The huge brigand stretched and sauntered over to join three of his men, who were holding a quiet discussion near the horses.  The remaining two were standing at the edges of the glade, scanning the surrounding woodlands for any sign of the men of Newcastle they had been evading.  As soon as his brother left, Edward moved slowly over to where Hannah sat, her jaw clenched in anger.

         “I don’t feel like talking, Edward of Melrose,” she said, her voice brimming with rage.

        “Can I untie your wrists then?” he asked, glancing down at the ropes that Jonathan had used to keep her hands behind her back.  She had been struggling against the knot, chafing her skin raw beneath the bindings.

        “Will your brother let you?” she whispered, her brow furrowed as she leaned toward him.

        “Probably not,” he replied, shrugging.  “Turn around.”

        She shifted slightly, allowing him to work on the knot while the brigands were turned away.  It took several minutes, but eventually he was able to loosen the ropes enough so that she could slip her slender hands out.

        “There,” he said, dropping the knotted length of rope to the ground.

        “Thank you,” she responded softly, rubbing her sore wrists with a grimace of pain.  “You know I’ll have to try to escape again, don’t you?”

        He nodded, casting a wary glance toward the sentries.  Both seemed intent on their tasks and oblivious to the conversation between their two captives.  “But you may want to be a little more cautious next time—they won’t be as merciful if you’re caught again.”

        She raised her eyebrows, a hint of a smile curving her lips.  “If I’m caught, Edward.  Tonight.  It will be easy enough.  Once I get in the woods, there are a thousand hiding places.”

        “Except for the fact that there will be sentries posted all night,” he replied, his eyes examining the glade.  “Perhaps you should wait—I might be able to create an opportunity for escape, but I need some time to plan it.”

        “You’ve already done enough to try to protect me,” she said, her voice firm.  “You needn’t do more.  I can handle my own escape.”

        “Really?  You’re lucky that Jonathan actually showed some uncommon restraint in his pursuit tonight.  No, it’s on my account that you’re in this mess at all.  I’ll get you out.”

        She laid down on the mossy ground, her eyes examining the broad expanse of the star-strewn heavens above.  “You shouldn’t feel pressured to help me.  It’s your brother’s fault, not yours.  I’ve been in worse situations.”  As she said the words, a slight shudder ran through her body at the memory.

         Edward could not help but gaze at her while she watched the night sky.  After reflecting on the situation for some time, he sighed, running his hands through his hair.  “I am at a loss to know what to do here, Hannah,” he admitted.

        She turned her head slightly until she could see his face.  His eyes looked hollow, his unshaven cheeks sunken in distraught contemplation.  There was a sense of desperation in his face, an uncertainty that she had not detected there before.  Though she had been through a great deal of pain, the one thing that she had always been able to rely on was her family. 

        “What happened between you and your brother?  And with Jonathan?”

        He sighed.  “You might have noticed,” he chuckled humorlessly, “that my brother is something of a fanatic.”

        Hannah nodded, waiting for him to continue.

        “Our father raised both of us to be proud of our Saxon heritage.  We came to see the Norman presence in our land as a terrible occupation.  Alfred was ten years older than I, and I adored him.  He taught me how to be a man—at least I thought that’s what he was teaching me.  When I was still only a boy—fourteen, perhaps—Alfred returned to our home with a band of ruffians he had gathered to follow his dreams of rebellion.  He…” Edward’s voice cracked, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks.  “No, I can’t talk about this.   I’m sorry.” 

        “Very well,” she said quietly.  “I will give you the time you want.  Plan an escape for me.  But if you do not, I will make my own tomorrow night.  I am on a quest, and time is something that I do not have the luxury to waste by romping around the woods with a group of Saxon outlaws. But if you’ll permit my curiosity, Edward—why did you come back, if these memories are so hard for you to deal with?”

        He clenched his jaw, sprawling out on the grass a few feet away from where she lay, exhaling hard.  “I can’t run from the past forever.  I suppose some of it was curiosity, wondering what my brother was doing here.  Part of it was the Lord’s prompting—of that I’m certain. And I suppose I also wanted to test myself.  I wanted to see if I could ever live beyond what happened so long ago.”

        He paused and shook his head.

        “So far, I’ve failed miserably,” he admitted. "I just can’t seem to be able to find it within myself to forgive them,” he looked at the brigands.  “I was hoping it would be different.”

        She looked at him, his profile illuminated by the dim starlight.  “Why forgive?  If they’ve done wrong, they don't deserve an acquittal from you.”

Edward shook his head.  “No, I can't acquit them. I'm not their judge. But I can let go."

        “No, Edward,” she said, speaking with fire in her voice.  “Hide these feelings in your heart and never let go of them—they give strength.”

       He shook his head.  “A corrupting strength.  It would sour my soul.  The Lord desires forgiveness and mercy in His people.”

        “Eye for eye, Edward,” she said.

        “Don’t tell Jonathan that,” he cracked a wry smile.

        “And tooth for tooth,” she continued.  “Do you remember the act of Phinehas?  When evil had corrupted Israel, he had to commit violence to make it right, to purify the nation from its sin.  Your brother has corrupted your family in the same way.”

        “So you think I should drive a spear through his heart?” Edward asked grimly.  “I can’t believe that would be the Lord’s will for me.”

         She turned her head away.  “If not for vengeance, some would lose their reason for life.”