Thursday, November 05, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 11

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~ 11 ~

         Shouts rang out behind them, breaking the peaceful stillness of the morning woods.  After a few moments, the dull, drum-like roll of hoofs pounding against the soft turf could be heard in the direction of the river.  Hannah and Edward halted, listening nervously to the sound of the mounting pursuit.
“It’ll be all right,” Edward whispered, trying to hide the quavering in his own voice. “I won’t let them find us.”
She smiled slightly, raising an eyebrow.  “Of course you wouldn’t let them find us,” she replied softly.  “But they may find us anyway.”
“Let’s hope not,” he said.
Raymond, trailing them from a distance of about ten yards, caught the comment and halted, his brow furrowed in thought.  
“Are they trying to escape the brigands…?” he mumbled to himself.   
He stood there for a moment, his mind fraught with indecision before breaking out in a jog towards Edward and Hannah.  He covered the distance in a few moments, and both whirled around in shock to see the broad-shouldered soldier racing toward them.
“Run!” Edward hissed, pushing Hannah along ahead of him as he bolted away from Raymond’s charge.  They crashed through the bushes and bracken, breaking off branches and stumbling over the uneven terrain.  Raymond pursued, easily matching their pace with his long, loping stride.  Though he could have quickly overtaken them, he maintained a distance of about three yards, calling out to them all the while.
“Wait, sir!  I’m a knight of Newcastle!  Halt, I tell you!”
Heedless of the warnings, Edward charged on, hoping that soon their pursuer would, by some miracle, give up and go away.  He’ll probably kill us as brigands as soon as he reaches us, he thought grimly, wondering how much longer he could maintain the pace.
“Stop!” Raymond shouted, chuckling now as he ran.  “I won’t hurt you!  I simply wish to speak to you!”  They ran on for a few more moments without Edward or Hannah offering a response.  
But when it became clear they wouldn't outrun him, Edward heaved a sigh and stopped.  Turning with his arms crossed, he regarded the smiling warrior with a suspicious glance.  He was a large, muscular man wearing leather breeches and a chain-mail vest.  At his side hung a long broadsword, encased in a sheath of plain leather.  He had a full head of hair, graying slightly at the edges, and a well-trimmed beard streaked with silver.  His arms were scarred but strong, displaying the effects of years with sword and plow.
Raymond mimicked Edward’s position by crossing his arms over his chest and narrowing his eyes.
“What are you doing out here?” Hannah demanded, in no mood to watch the middle-aged soldier prolong their conversation with some foolish charade.
“If I tell you, will you tell me?”
Edward nodded slowly, still uncertain what to make of the strange soldier.
“Good,” Raymond said, clapping his hands together.  The ominous thunder of the brigands’ search still echoed throughout the forest.  “Well, I’m Raymond of Newcastle, and I’m here to catch some brigands—brigands of your acquaintance, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Well, I think you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere,” Hannah said, her face flushed with anger.  “They’re all back that way, just waiting for you to capture them.”
He cocked his head to one side, still smiling.  “It doesn’t sound to me like they’re waiting very patiently.  In fact,” he paused, stooping low to place a hand against the earth, “some are coming in this direction.”
Edward and Hannah exchanged a nervous glance.  Raymond rose again, his penetrating gaze moving from one to the other.  “So if you really don’t wish to be captured by your dear friends, perhaps we should move on.  West, I would urge.”
Hannah took a step back toward their northbound flight, but Edward’s feet remained planted firmly.  “What makes you think we’re running from them?”
Raymond shrugged.  “I suppose we could wait for them here and hope they’re in a mood to join this battle of wits we seem to be having." He raised an eyebrow and tugged at his beard.
“Come on,” Hannah pulled at his sleeve.  Edward broke his stare and followed her, quickly matching their earlier pace once again.
“You’re still going north,” Raymond noted, following close behind.  He listened to the shouts and hoofbeats.  “Closer,” he hissed, and as he said it Edward thought that the volume of the brigands’ pursuit increased.  “Closer,” he warned again, and by that time it sounded as though their horses were only a few feet behind.  “I suggest we break west soon,” Raymond called out to Hannah.  “I do believe we are about to be trampled.”
With that warning, she heeded his advice and quickly turned to the left, smashing a trail through the thick brush.  They ran until their lungs burned for air.  They flew by trees and bushes that tore at their legs and clothes, scratching them mercilessly.  When they finally collapsed on the soft turf, the sounds of pursuit had died away and the sun had already risen half way to its zenith.
Raymond lay on his back for a long while, his chest heaving for breath.  When he sat up, he saw Edward and Hannah regarding him curiously.   
“I suppose your young bodies don’t hurt after a run like that,” he groaned.  “My back will be aching for a week.”  His two newfound companions remained silent.  “You don’t talk much, do you?” he chuckled.
“We need to get back to Newcastle,” Hannah said, not feeling inclined to return his smile.  “Without being found by those murderers again.”
“Hmm,” he said, toying with his beard again.  “I thought as much.  I could help you, I suppose, providing that you gave me sufficient reason to believe that you weren’t part of that group to begin with.”
"Very well.  My name is Edward of Melrose.”
“Not a native Scot, though,” Raymond replied.  “You have a Saxon accent.”
He nodded.  “I was born in Peterborough before I went and joined the brothers at Lindisfarne.  Now I live as a missionary among the Scots.”
“A most noble cause!” Raymond grinned, clapping his hands together.  “And you,” he turned to Hannah.  “I know I have seen you before.”
“I’m Hannah,” she replied.  “The daughter of Joel.”
“Ah, yes. Joel the Usurer.  This is fair news indeed! When we heard the news of London, I feared the worst!”
Immediately, he could see the error of his words.  Tears welled up in Hannah’s eyes despite her efforts to remain composed.   
“Apparently your people were not slow to take advantage of that situation,” she said, her voice full of bitterness.
The warrior watched her for a moment, his gaze soft and compassionate.  “Forgive me,” he said quietly.  “You’re right, of course.  Were I any kind of Christian man, I would have set my shoulder to the work of repairing what they had destroyed as soon as I had heard of it.”
Hannah’s brow furrowed, uncertain what to make of the strange interloper.  “Don’t think any more of it,” she said.  “None will inhabit that house again.”
Raymond dropped his gaze and remained silent for a moment.  “Forgive me for prying,” he whispered.  “The priest and I have prayed for your family since we heard the first reports from the south.  Have you lost all?”
She began to cry again, and immediately Raymond reached out, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.  She shook it off.  “I don’t wish to speak of it."
“I’m sorry,” he said.  “You needn’t tell me anything about it.  Just know that my prayers go with you, Hannah.”
They sat in awkward silence for a few more moments before Edward spoke up.  “I think we’re safe now,” he tilted his head to try and catch any sounds deeper in the forest.  “I can’t hear anything out there.”
Raymond leaned forward with interest.  “Well, you’ve both earned my trust.  But I must confess, I’m rather intrigued by this situation.  Why are the brigands so intent on capturing you?  Surely they must know that their search for you would put them in danger from the Newcastle guard.”
Edward paused, looking over at Hannah, who shook her head slightly.  “Um…” he searched for an answer.  “Well, I’m the leader’s brother.”
Raymond processed the answer for a moment.  “That really didn’t make anything clearer for me,” he remarked with a shrug.  Seeing that Edward was offering no further information, he quickly changed the subject.  “So, how were you planning on returning to the city?”
“We thought we would strike for the open moors and circle back around from the north,” Hannah offered, using her fingers to brush a snarl from the ends of her long hair.  “It was our hope that the brigands would follow the river back in their search.”
“Well, it looks like they split up and are going both ways,” Raymond said, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his bearded chin.  “It’s too dangerous to go east.  We’ll have to go further west.”
“Wait,” Edward said, shaking his head.  “Going west will only take us farther away from the city.”
Raymond pursed his lips, studying the thin, wispy clouds visible through a break in the trees above.  “We’re several days away from the city on foot anyway,” he explained.  “Are either of you hungry?” he asked suddenly, breaking the line of conversation.  When both had nodded, he rubbed his stomach.  “Me too.  Oh well.  I guess that’s one of the things you have to deal with when you’re running from murderous outlaws.”
Edward prodded him back on subject. “Perhaps you could explain why going west would help us.”
“It’s the safest way.  And probably the quickest, too.  Now, there will be another group of these brigands along the river, but I think we can pass them without too much difficulty.”
“On the river, you mean?” Hannah asked.  “With a boat?”
He shrugged.  “We could just find some deadwood and float down on that, but boats usually work better.”
“I’m assuming you know of somewhere to the west that has a boat, then.”
“Quite right,” he said, quickly rising to his feet and pulling the other two up behind him.  “I have an old friend who lives as a hermit out on the riverbank a few leagues from here.  He owns a small boat.  Large enough to hold three passengers, and perhaps small enough to escape notice of a hostile party on the banks.”
Hannah smiled, nodding her assent.  “And that way, we can avoid both parties and make it back to the city before they do.”
“I don’t think so,” Edward said, shaking his head.  “If we have to walk a day’s journey to this hermit’s house and then ride the river back, they will already have returned, and will be watching the village.”
“He’s right,” the knight nodded, slapping the hilt of his sword.  “Therefore, I propose we travel a short ways beyond the city before leaving the river.”
Hannah tensed, watching him closely.  “Where would we go?”
“To my house,” Raymond replied.  “It is large enough, and fairly out of the way.  We will not be noticed, save by the occupants.”
“Can you trust your servants?” Edward asked, then blushed at the question.  “Forgive me.  It is a bit nerve-wracking to be chased down by men seeking your death.”
Raymond waved it off.  “Of course.  One cannot be too cautious in such times.  In all truth, though, I have no servants, and only one daughter.”
“Then who else lives there?” Hannah asked.  “You did say ‘occupants’.”
Raymond nodded.  “Six other children, all under twelve, live there now.”
At Edward’s inquiring glance, he continued.  “The Father priest in the village always sends the orphans and those in need to my house.  My daughter and I are more than happy to help them.  The number changes from time to time, although these six have been with us for several years.”
Edward smiled, leaning over to whisper into Hannah’s ear.  “I think we can trust him.”
She paused, then nodded.  “We would be honored if you would lead us to your house.”
Raymond bowed low.  “The honor is mine.  In all truth, I am supposed to be on duty with the men of Newcastle who are hunting your pursuers down.  Perhaps my brother can carry on with my absence for a time,” he pursed his lips, then shrugged.  “Come then.  It is a long walk, but if we set out now, we may reach the hermit’s house by the time the sun sets.”
~ ~ ~
         Alfred swore, charging through the last few yards of brush before coming out onto the broad clearing of the moors.  The two riders followed him, pulling their mounts to a halt as they waited for orders.
“Gone,” Alfred growled after a while.  “How could we have lost them?”
“Maybe the soldiers got them,” one brigand suggested, shaking his head.  “But I don’t see why they’re so important.  It’s just as well that they’re gone.”
Alfred shot a dark look at his companion.  “The girl knows where the robe is, Stan.  I would have learned it last night were it not for my brother.”  He spat on the ground.
“All right,” he sighed after a while.  “Let’s split up and go back in.  Be back out here by sundown.  If we haven’t found them by then, we’ll ride back to the city—that must be where they’re going.”
“But the Normans,” the other protested.  “I heard them following us earlier.”
“A curse on the Normans!” Alfred shouted, striking the brigand on the arm.  “We will do as I say.  If you get caught by those fool knights, then you well deserved it!”
Turning, he charged back in without another word, riding swiftly off on a westward slant.
~ ~ ~
The last light of day was filtering down through the thick foliage when at last they broke out of the bushes near the riverside.  To their left, the sound of the rushing flow of the Tyne carried through the forest.
Raymond turned around with a reassuring smile.  “We should be there in just a couple of minutes.”  
 True to his word, they came within sight of the flickering light of a small campfire after walking only a few hundred yards more.  Yet before they stepped out into the clearing, Raymond suddenly froze and held up a hand to caution them from making any noise.
Slowly, so as to not make a sound, Raymond knelt behind a low hedge, peering out towards the fire.  Edward drew up alongside him, trying to make out what the knight’s keen eyes had picked up.  They crouched there in silence for a long moment, waiting to see any sign or reason to explain Raymond’s cautious approach.  Then Edward heard it: the jingle of bridles and the impatient stamping of a stallion’s hooves.  His breath caught in his throat, and he leaned forward, squinting his eyes to make out what was occurring in the clearing.
There was an old man, cloaked in a long, gray robe, who stood on one side of the crackling fire.  He was slightly hunched, and his white beard hung from his chin in unkempt wisps.  But even with his apparent frailness, his voice carried an uncommon note of confidence.
“I say again, sir.  I know nothing about these events in Newcastle.  I haven’t spoken to anyone for over a month.”
Another man stepped into Edward’s line of view.  He was a tall man, with a neatly-clipped beard of iron gray.  His cloak was spotless white, save for a bright red cross over his heart.  A sword hung at his side, its gleaming length reflecting the orange light of the setting sun.  Even though he only saw him for a moment, Edward could not help but note the proud grace with which he carried himself, the brash arrogance that rang in his voice.
“The stakes here may be higher than you might think, old man,” the knight warned, pointing a finger at the hermit.  “If any news comes your way, you must make every effort to bear it to us.”
“What is it that the Poor Knights of the Temple seek so desperately in these regions?” the hermit responded, undaunted by the young knight’s commanding presence.  “Shouldn’t you be off protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land?”
“Watch your tongue, fool,” the knight muttered, signaling to another man beyond the range of Edward’s view.
“Perhaps it is you who should watch your tongue,” came the quick reply.  “The Scriptures say that anyone who says ‘You fool!’ is in danger of the fire of hell.”
The knight sighed and shook his head.  “If you have nothing for us, then, we will be on our way.  According to reports, the ones who caused the disturbance headed upstream, so you may well encounter them.  If so, find me immediately!  If we learn that you have withheld anything from us, the punishment will be severe!”
The hermit crossed his arms.  “You would punish an old man, whose one desire is to seek the Lord in a life of solitude?  I think perhaps you have forgotten that you are to be monks as well as warriors.”
“I will not argue the point with you,” came the brusque reply.  “You have our warning.  If you heed it and need to find us, our men will be watching the river and the city closely.  Farewell, hermit.”
There came a rapid cacophony of hoofbeats as the knight and his fellows left the clearing.  Raymond and Edward remained in their crouched position for a few minutes even after the final echoes of the knights’ retreat faded.  Hannah sat behind them, her brow furrowed in confusion as she waited for either of the men to react to the situation.
Slowly, Raymond stood and began to walk toward the clearing once again.  “I wonder if these Poor Knights are still watching this place,” he murmured aloud to the other two, obviously concerned with the unexpected encounter.  Pushing a branch out of the way, he leaned forward and whispered toward the clearing.
“Frederick!  It’s Raymond!  Is it safe to come out?”
The hermit whirled, his eyes searching the treeline as he struggled to contain his surprise.  “Raymond?  Yes, I think they’re gone!  Come out, my friend!”
The large soldier practically ran the last few paces, falling into the embrace of his old friend, who was now beaming a broad smile.
“Raymond, it’s been far too long!”  His eyes wandered to Edward and Hannah, who stepped out of the forest cautiously, peering around the little clearing.  The campfire burned bright and clear, illuminating the hermit’s little habitation set high upon the riverbank.  On the other side of the little glade was a tiny cottage, its thatched roof adding a touch of simple charm.  “And you’ve brought guests!  Splendid, splendid!  Sit, my friends!” he motioned to a few uneven stumps situated around the fire.
“We can exchange greetings in a moment, Frederick,” Raymond said, sitting.  “But first tell us what that was about—who were those men?”
The hermit shrugged, tugging thoughtfully at his beard.  “I don’t know any of them personally.  I don’t think they’re from around here—I thought I picked up a Welsh note in his voice.  Anyway, they’re Templars, looking for something hereabouts.”
“Templars?” Edward repeated the strange word.
“An order of knights that has grown in fame these past few years,” Frederick explained, his large dark eyes reflecting the dancing firelight.  “They originated in the Holy Land as a means of protecting pilgrims.  In the last few years they’ve begun building their preceptories all over Europe, and their power and wealth continue to grow.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Raymond nodded, leaning forward with interest.  “They are called the Poor Knights of Christ, aren’t they?”
“They have many names,” the old man replied.  “They are said to be the greatest warriors alive.”
“What do they seek here?” Edward pressed, catching Hannah’s gaze for an instant.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.  “But something they consider of great value, apparently.  I’ve noticed that their presence has been growing in these parts in the past year and a half.  Apparently there was a disturbance of some kind in Newcastle that caught their attention, and they were seeking information about it.”
Raymond nodded.  “It is because of those events that we are out this far, my friend. But I don’t understand why the Templars would take note of it.”
“Nor I,” the hermit replied.  “And I’d rather not know, for it might prompt them to come visiting again.  But tell me—are you in any danger?”
“I don’t think so. Not at present, anyway.  There’s a group of Saxon brigands roaming the woods, and my two new friends here barely escaped them.”
“Thanks to your aid,” Edward put in with a grateful nod.
“Anyway,” Raymond continued, “we need to find a way back downriver, and we were wondering if we might borrow your boat.”
“Certainly, Raymond. You know I would never withhold anything from you.  But I’m being a poor host—I haven’t even learned the names of my guests.”  He stood and bowed low to Edward and Hannah.  “I am called Frederick, as you have no doubt surmised.  If you are friends of Raymond’s you are friends of mine.”
Edward bowed in return.  “I am Edward of Melrose.”
“Ah,” Frederick said with a smile.  “You are not a Scot though, are you?”
“No sir,” he replied.  “A Saxon.”
 Frederick nodded, his eyes twinkling merrily in the firelight.  “And you?”
“Hannah,” she said softly, without lowering her eyes.  She had not been one to trust any man so quickly, especially not after what she had witnessed in London.  Although this Frederick appeared amiable enough, as much so as Raymond, she felt it was better to be wary about strangers.
“From Melrose as well, I presume?” he grinned broadly.
“No,” she blushed.  “Newcastle.”
“Well then,” Frederick laughed, rushing around to the far side of the fire to drag a small iron pot from the coals.  “I wasn’t really expecting visitors, but there should be enough here for everyone.”  He led them over to a spot near the shore of the river, where several rocks had been arranged as sitting-stones, facing the swirling waters.  They each sat in silence and ate the thick stew together, carefully taking turns spooning out portions into some small wooden bowls Frederick provided.  The stew was rather tasteless, but it satisfied their hunger better than anything they’d eaten in the past few days.
After a while, Raymond and Frederick began a conversation, exchanging news about the knight’s daughter and the orphans he raised, as well as the local occurrences of Newcastle.  Slowly, the conversation turned toward the brigands’ raid and their reasons for venturing out into the woods.  As the tale unfolded, Frederick’s bright expression fell into a dismal frown.
“These are unhappy tidings you bring. Was anyone hurt?”
“The armorer was killed,” he responded.  “And there may have been some injuries to the Jews as well,” he glanced at Hannah.
Frederick closed his eyes, his fists clenching tight.  “Sad news, indeed. I hear so little from the city out here in my solitude.”
“How long have you been out here?” Edward asked the hermit.
The old man shook his head as if to clear it, then smiled weakly.  “Nearly three years,” he said, his eyes staring beyond, into memories long gone by.  “I was the priest in Newcastle since Raymond here was a boy, but finally I decided to spend my last years out here, in the peace of these woods.”  After a long moment of silence, he sighed again.  “Well, I will do all I can to help.  You may certainly use my boat and I can give you all the provisions you require.  Or perhaps you can remain with me for a few days?” he suggested.
Raymond shook his head.  “Only tonight, I’m afraid.  We will be heading back down to my house in the morning.”
“Of course, my friends,” he nodded.  “You are always welcome here.  I pray that you will make it back without trouble.  Oh, if only I were as young as you, I would come along.”
“Don’t you dare!” Raymond laughed.  “You would come, if you thought you could get away with it.  It’s too dangerous.”
Frederick shrugged with a halfhearted smile.  “I had to try.  Tomorrow, then.  Well,” he yawned, “I’m nearly ready for sleep.  I’ll go and prepare a few blankets for you.”
He turned and walked back up the bank to the cottage, his frail form stooping with weariness.  The other three remained seated on their stumps, thinking quietly while the stars came out above them.   
Raymond glanced up at last, looking at the rising moon.  “Fair weather tomorrow,” he murmured.  “Perhaps we shall all make it—but to run a gauntlet between watching brigands and Templars, we may need a miracle.”
“Then we shall have to trust God to provide one,” Edward answered, and the jovial knight flashed a smile of agreement before bounding up the bank toward the little hermit’s cottage.
         “Yes, God, help us,” Edward breathed, turning to look at the river once again.