Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 12

© Matthew Burden, 2001

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The next morning dawned bright and clear, with a brisk wind from the west that swept down, cool and fresh, from the distant Cumbrian hills.  Edward stumbled out of the little cottage, squinting bleary-eyed at the little glade, which was lit by a brilliant display of morning sunlight.  Raymond was already outside, squatting beside the fire.  The hermit Frederick was standing hunched-over beside him as he poked the burning logs with a long stick.
“Good morning!” the knight hailed him.  “Did you sleep well?”
“That was the best sleep I’ve had in days,” he said with a slight chuckle.  “My compliments to the host.”
Frederick stood up straight, beaming a smile.  “You flatter me, Edward of Melrose!  Surely a simple hermit’s hut isn’t all that pleasant.”
“Well, after sleeping on the bare ground, I can say that your deerskins seem as fine as the beds of the king.”
Raymond laughed, holding a wooden bowl towards him.  “Eat something, my friend.  We will need strength for our little voyage today.”
He accepted the dish and spooned a mouthful of the porridge into his mouth.  He breathed deeply of the fresh morning air as he ate, his gaze taking in the idyllic riverside view.
“So when do we leave?” he asked.
“Ah!” Frederick smiled, holding up a finger and shuffling off towards the cottage.  “After I pack a few provisions for you!”
Raymond rolled his eyes and shouted after the old man.  “You really don’t need to give us anything more, my friend!  We’ll be fine!”
“Nonsense!” came the reply.  “You can never be too prepared for something of this magnitude!”
The two men laughed as they watched the hermit disappear into the cottage, beginning his search for any provisions he could send with his friends. 
Edward cast a quick glance around the little glade.  Raymond caught the action and smiled.
“She’s down by the riverbank,” he answered before the question could be given voice.
Edward nodded.  “Thanks,” he said, making his way away from the quaint little cottage.  He parted the thick, bushy vegetation that barred the way down to where the Tyne swept by in its swift, smooth track to the sea.  Glancing around, he searched the banks for any sign of Hannah until he spotted her about thirty paces upstream.  She was sitting quietly on a large rock which jutted out from the earth of the bank, slick with morning dew.  Her eyes were staring far beyond the opposite riverbank, into something only she could see.  She heard his footsteps and turned around, startled.
He found a dry rock nearby and sat down.  “What were you thinking about?”
“I was thinking about Eleazer,” she replied.
For an instant, a flash of jealousy burst into Edward’s mind, clouding everything.  Is her heart still the captive of some other young man?  He rebuked himself quickly for it, trying to harden his will into becoming more emotionally unattached to her.  “Ah,” he said, at last remembering their earlier conversation.  “Your uncle.”
She nodded, her dark eyes searching his.  "I told you he was in prison and that I wanted to get him out, but I didn’t tell you this—he will be executed if I don’t come up with enough money by December.”
Edward closed his eyes and swallowed.  “How much will it take?”
“Two hundred zecchins.”
“Two hundred!”
She nodded, her face downcast.  “My father only had eighty-some hidden away.”
Edward shook his head slowly.  “Is there nothing else your father had that was worth anything?”
She nodded, but said nothing.
In an instant, it struck him.  “Of course.  The robe.”
She nodded a second time.  “I had intended to sell it to the same nobleman my father had been in contact with.”
Edward sighed, resting his forehead in the palms of his hands.  “And now, it seems, my brother has ruined that option by killing the noble.”  
For the next few minutes, silence descended upon them as he sat, silently wracking his mind for a solution.  He drew a few deep breaths, then looked up and locked his gaze with hers.  “I will go with you, Hannah.  Together, we can find a buyer for this robe.”
“No,” she shook her head.  “No, I can’t let you do that.  You have your own life in Melrose.  And besides, you said the robe was probably a fake anyway.  I can find another way to free my uncle.  I can’t ask you to risk your life for my sake.”
“You don’t have to ask, Hannah.  I offer it freely, unless you don’t want my help.”
She furrowed her brow in frustration.  “I don’t understand you!” she cried.  “Yes, I want your help, but I don’t want you to get into this mess on my account.  So the answer is no—I can’t accept your assistance!”
He scratched his grizzled jaw, wondering what to do.  He believed that it was his ordained purpose to accompany her on this journey—the dream he had had was proof enough of that—but in her stubbornness, she wasn’t about to allow him to do so.
“All right, let’s make a deal, Hannah,” he breathed after a moment.  “This whole affair is my concern so long as my brother is involved with it.  So I will accompany you until any danger from him has passed.  After that, the decision is yours.”
She paused for a moment and pursed her lips in thought.  “Agreed,” she nodded, then smiled.  “You’re a very persistent man.  I don’t quite understand it.”
“I cannot go my own way, Hannah.  I must go God’s way.  Perhaps we have all been brought together for a purpose.  Now that I know what is at stake, I can’t leave you alone, while my brother would slay you in an instant for the robe.  The Lord will protect us.”
She turned away, her eyes clouding with tears.  “Again, you bring God into this,” her voice carried a hint of bitterness.  “God did nothing to protect my father.  Why not, Edward?” her voice rasped through a wave of emotion that swept over her.  “Why would he not save his servant?  You do not doubt your faith because you have never seen anything to cause you doubt.”
He shook his head.  “My father was a God-fearing man, Hannah.  But I saw him slain at the order of my brother.  I didn’t understand it then, and I still don’t now.  But I do know that God’s love never changes, and I would die for Him if He asked me.”
She shook her head with a wistful smile.  “I wish I had your faith.  I have heard the teaching of rabbis and the scriptures my father taught me, but still I have never had proof that there is a God.”  She sighed heavily, leaning back.  “The God of wrath and vengeance that was told of by the prophets seems to have fallen asleep, and His children are dying.”
“No, Hannah,” he said quietly. “All mankind has the chance to come into the family of God.”
Hannah looked at him sharply, searching his gaze.  “Are you saying that your Christian God still has room for Jews in his plan? That's not what the rest of your countrymen seem to think.”
He broke his gaze with her and stared at the rippling water of the river for a few moments.  “It’s difficult to explain.  I have been thinking about this ever since I met you.  Saint Paul said that salvation is first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  God’s love never changes, Hannah—even after thousands of years.”
She shook her head.  “It’s too confusing.  We were once His chosen people…but now, who can tell?”
“God still loves the Jews, Hannah,” Edward spoke softly.  “Most Christians don’t see it, though—I know I never realized it before.  We Gentiles are only grafted into the tree that is the nation of Israel.”
“And where does that leave me?” she wondered aloud.  “Israel has left a legacy without a home, without a hope, the object of scorn of every man on earth.”
“Well, I don't know why all of that has happened. But I do know that when God became a man, he chose to become a Jew, and he died for the redemption of all men—Jews included.”
She was silent for a long moment.  “Perhaps he was a fitting Savior for the Gentiles,” she said after a while, “but my people need a Messiah to deliver us from the bondage of physical chains,” she spoke clearly, looking at him, “not spiritual ones.”
“Everyone has sinned, Hannah, you know that.  But the animal sacrifices your people trusted in so many years ago have ceased. Who takes away your sins now? Scripture tells us that Jesus shed his blood as the atoning Passover lamb for everyone, and his sacrifice will never fail us.”
She shook her head.  “And you have no worries?  Nothing bad ever happens to you, Edward?”
He smiled warmly, his eyes shining.  “Of course I have troubles!  Look at me--on the run from a murderous brother, a refugee in an endless forest, sleeping in huts and on the ground! But none of that really matters--I know what awaits me at the end.  If I face trials, I know that I will come through them refined, and better able to serve Him.”
She looked at him for a long while, listening to the river rushing past them.  Slowly, without another word, she turned away and walked back up the bank toward the cottage.
~ ~ ~
Thomas, captain of the sheriff's guards, sighed, and ran his palm along the length of his blade.  The sun was rising in the east when he left his slumbers, waking each of his men in turn.  Raymond had still not appeared, so it seemed he would have to find his own way back than be able to join their troop on their ride back toward the city.  This gave the captain some cause for worry, but he was confident that his brother could handle any situation that might arise.
They broke camp about an hour after sunrise, and proceeded east towards Newcastle, skirting the edges of the forest as they returned.  It was near high noon before they began to hear the shouts and hoofbeats echoing behind them.  Thomas slowed for an instant, glancing behind him to see who was following.  Although the horizon was clear up to a large ridge they had recently passed, the sounds were becoming ever louder.
“Quick!” he directed the knights.  “Hide in the woods!”  He dismounted, pulling his horse into the thick brush of the forest.  He crouched down behind a thick hedge, peering through the branches to see if the riders were indeed the brigands, as he assumed them to be.
Within a few minutes, the hoofbeats began to slow, pulling up at a point just outside of the woods.  Thomas could see three riders, all large men with bushy beards.
“The knights’ tracks end here, sir,” one spoke up, gazing warily into the trees.  “They must have gone back into the woods.”
The rider in front nodded slowly, gazing right at where Thomas was hiding.  “All right,” the brigand said at last.  “Let’s move on, then.  If we ride hard and they are well into the forest, they won’t be able to catch us.  Come on.”
As soon as the riders had disappeared from sight in a cloud of dust, Thomas stood and jogged back out of the woods. Had it been the full complement of brigands, he would have been more cautious. But three men riding alone--he knew he was match enough for that. Quickly mounting, he looked back to make certain that his men were behind him.  With a quick nod, the knights spurred their horses on for the chase.  As soon as they had begun riding, a shout came up from the brigands ahead of them.  The ground flew by under them with stunning speed.
Thomas threw back his head, smiling grimly.  This was what he loved, what kept him alive.  To feel the wind whipping his face, the cold steel of sword in hand, his heart pounding to the beat of battle.  Slowly the knights drew nearer to the flying brigands, until he could see the glimmer of swords at ready from the company in front.  He shouted aloud to his men.  “Draw!”  The sound of swords ringing from their sheaths filled the air, one crisp metallic note drowning out the pounding rhythm of the horses.  With a final shout, Thomas and the knights of Newcastle were upon their prey.
~ ~ ~
Oswald and the men of Melrose halted just on the outskirts of the town, turning to take in the view.  Malcolm was beside him, pointing up the river.  “They rode off that way several days ago.  Who knows where they could be now?”
He shrugged at Oswald, then faced the others.  “We’ll go into town and ask around.  We must make certain, though,” he raised his voice so all the riders could hear, “that no one thinks we are here on Scotland’s behalf.  We don’t need to start another war.”
Oswald chuckled.  “Anyone can tell easily that we are Scots.”
“But we do not ride for Scotland now,” Malcolm spoke firmly.  “We ride for our friend, and him only.  We must be careful not to offend any of the English nobles.”
The young leader began walking into the main road leading to the center of the town.  Above the little village, the great castle rose in rough, magnificent strength, its dark shadow cloaking the land behind it in darkness.
They stood straight and tall, and the townspeople stared at their martial procession.  They kept to the main avenue, walking past the craftsmen’s shops and the church, towards the gate of the great castle.  The massive wood-and-stone structure of the gateway stood before them, brooding in silent watchfulness.  The four knights looked up, their keen eyes flashing quickly over the huge defenses.  They saw relatively few such wonders in the lowlands of the Tweed.  Malcolm was hoping that they might be able to borrow some horses, perhaps even muster up some aid from the knights of Newcastle.
He strode up to the lowered portcullis.  Rattling the bars twice, he shouted into the courtyard, hoping an attendant would hear his cry.  In a few moments, a guard rushed up to the gate.
“What is it?” he asked, raising his eyebrows at the sight of the four strange men.
“May we speak with the lord of this castle?” asked Malcolm.
The soldier grimaced and shook his head without replying.
“What about the sheriff then?  Is he here?”
The soldier nodded slowly.  “He is.  If you give me your names, I can request an audience for you.”
“Very well.  I am Malcolm of Melrose, and these are the men under my command.  We are looking for our friend.”
The guard shrugged, then turned and walked back into the courtyard.  It was several minutes before he returned.  He ducked into a side door.  After a moment, a grinding sound was heard, and the portcullis began to rise.
They walked inside in single file, halting as they came into the main court.  It was fairly expansive, with the stables set off to one side.  The soldier from the gate appeared again and led them up a set of narrow stairs that opened into a long corridor running the length of the castle.  The soldier paused at an open doorway and rapped against the stones with the handle of his sword to announce their presence.
Malcolm stepped forward into the chamber, followed by Oswald, while the other two remained outside.  A smaller man with an iron-gray beard stood from behind a desk, extending a hand with an easy smile.
Malcolm smiled back and shook his hand, standing stiffly as he waited for the sheriff to begin.  “Well,” the officer began after a moment.  “From Melrose, hmm?  No trouble, is there?”
“No sir, not there.  We came in search of a friend.”
“So I’ve heard,” the sheriff raised his eyebrows.  “Well, I don’t know how much we can help you, but we might as well try.  Who is he?”
“Edward of Melrose.  And I think I know where they are.”
The sheriff waited patiently for him to continue.
“The brigands that attacked your town a few days ago,” he began, watching the sheriff’s expression, “our friend was among them.”
The sheriff shook his head.  “I cannot help you.  Those men are outlaws, and if they are seized, they will be executed.  My men are still out searching.”
“But he's not one of them.  He was an unwilling captive.  I was here when it happened.  He was trying to help the woman they seized--the young Jewess.”
“I see,” the sheriff nodded.  “Well, you’re welcome to go help my men look.  They’re up west, somewhere along the bank of the river.”
Malcolm bowed and turned on his heel.  It was no more than he had expected, but far less than he had hoped for.  The other two knights snapped to attention as he walked back into the corridor.
“Any word, sir?”
“Not much,” he replied.  “If we are to find Edward, we will have to do it ourselves.  Pray that we find him before the sheriff’s men do, though, or he may be slain on sight.”