Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 13

                                                                                                                         © Matthew Burden, 2001
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Thomas clenched his teeth as his blade clashed with the brigand’s heavy broadsword.  The other man cursed and lashed back, swinging his sword like a battle-ax.  The light of furious hatred glowed in the Saxon’s eyes, his lip curved in a bitter sneer.
“Die, Norman dog!” he spat, bringing his sword down hard against Thomas’ breastplate.
The knight had been attempting to wheel his horse around and was caught off guard by the quick blow, ripping the breath out of his lungs.  He felt the cold steel bite into his flesh, and he cried out, falling from his horse to the hard earth.  His body screamed out against him, waves of dizzying agony spreading across his vision.
He struggled to his feet as fast as his body would allow, sword raised for another salvo of blows.  His training rushed back to him in an instant, calculating every advantage, every possibility.  Fighting a man on horseback was not a promising scenario, but he had little choice in the matter.  The other knights had been drawn away, all engaged against the remaining two brigands.  His assailant backed off for a moment, glancing aside to see how his companions fared.  In that same instant, both of the other brigands were cut down, the Normans’ advantage of numbers winning out.
He swore again and charged at Thomas.  Thomas held his shield ready to meet the blow, his sword waiting to return the gesture.  But, in an unexpected move, the Saxon smiled cruelly and rode past his shield, bringing his boot up to meet the knight’s chin.  Thomas crumpled unconscious at the blow, and the Saxon’s arm shot out to grip his own.  The brigand hauled his prisoner into position behind him, then set off into the woods before the remainder of the knights realized what had happened to their captain.
~ ~ ~
The boat rocked slightly from side to side as they set out from the little dock, turning to wave at Frederick before continuing on.  Hannah gripped the gunwales tightly at first, unaccustomed to traveling by boat.  The river was fairly low, but not rough, so it carried them along quickly toward Newcastle.  Raymond was kneeling in the stern, his hand on the long rudder-pole.  Edward sat in the middle, his hands ready on the oars in case they were needed.  But the river was gentle enough, and the sky clear.  The journey, it seemed, would prove to be uneventful.  Nevertheless, they kept a keen eye on both banks of the river, hoping that they would slip undetected past both the brigands and the watchful Templar knights.
As they rode along, Edward’s mind wandered back to the conversation he had had with Hannah.  They had not spoken since, and it was obvious that the discussion was still troubling her.  
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Raymond interrupted his thoughts.
“Yes,” Edward replied absently.  “Yes, it certainly is.”
The knight smiled.  “I can’t wait to get home,” he confessed.  “All this conflict becomes tiresome after a while.”
“I know what you mean.  I have always been a man of peace myself.”
“Oh?  You’ve never fought?”
He shook his head.  “I’ve often felt I needed to fight to survive, but—no, I never did.  Not since I left my father’s house, anyway.  It seemed to me that the life of Christ was one of peace.”
“What have you been doing, then?  Have you always been a missionary?”
“No,” he tilted his head, leaning back to study the sky.  “No, I was a monk for a few years.  At Lindisfarne.”
Raymond smiled and nodded.  “I have often felt like becoming a monk, but…well, I would not be able to do the things I do now.”
Edward raised a questioning eyebrow, so Raymond continued.
“First, I had my wife.  After she died, I would have considered joining the brethren, except for the fact that I had to look after Felice, my daughter.  And then I began to care for the parish’s orphans.  If I was a monk, I would not be able to serve God the way I do now.”
That’s rather why I left, too," said Edward. "Some men are called to a life of prayer alone, but my vocation was something different--to speak the grace of the Gospel to the least of Christ's little ones, and to help them walk in his ways.”
“It appears we are brothers of the same heart, Edward.  Were it not for Felice, I may have long since taken up holy orders and left to preach the Gospel in some other place.”  He sighed.  “I’m not complaining, mind you. I love Felice dearly, and have never regretted an instant I spent with her.  But now she is nearly grown.”
Edward smiled, watching the love in the older man’s face.  He did not understand, and perhaps he never would, these feelings of love for one's own child.  He had seen the same love in his father’s eyes once, and he had felt its warmth, but he did not know it for himself.
“Well,” Raymond shrugged, “I must confess, the only things I know of Melrose come from the battles years ago.  What are things like there?”
“It's a fine town. It’s built to serve the abbey there, so for the most part it’s quiet and orderly.  It’s very peaceful, and the people are open and warm, and above all stubborn. But they are wonderful people, especially my young friend, Malcolm, and his wife.  He’s the leader of the local warband, but he has a great heart when it comes down to things that matter.”
Raymond nodded.  “I would like to meet him sometime.  Perhaps when this whole affair is ended, we will have time for all of that.”
Edward nodded, turning to gaze back over the rippling waters.  “When this is ended, I think my life will never be the same again.”  He sighed, turning to look over at Raymond.  Though he had only known the knight for one day, he already sensed he had found a man he could confide in.  “My heart is breaking for my brother,” he said.  “He has no idea of the true consequences of what he does.”
“There are old wounds between you?”
“Old wounds, now open and raw once again.  I only hope I can find it in myself to forgive him.  So far I’ve failed miserably on that count.  I can’t seem to discipline myself to hold my tongue.”
“I will offer a prayer for you and your brother when next I pray the hours," said Raymond.
“Thank you.  I think you must be an answer to my own prayer.  How I have needed a true brother beside me to strengthen me in these days.”
~ ~ ~
Thomas bit hard into the grimy rag that bound his mouth, hoping to tear it apart.  The Saxon was standing quietly by a tree, watching him with amusement.
“Leave it, Captain,” the brigand spoke mockingly.  “If you keep it up, I would derive too much pleasure in slaying you.”
Thomas tried to curse him, but the gag forced the oath out as an incomprehensible snarl.
“Now, now,” he laughed coldly.  “If you’re lucky and your men are wise, you may live to see a few more years yet.  But,” he stalked over, delivering a savage blow at the knight’s face, “if you don’t cooperate with me, I will spare no time in killing you.  Do you understand?”
Thomas stared back at him with fire in his eyes.  The Saxon shook his head and turned away.  Thomas tried once again to stretch his fingers and reach the knots that bound his wrists, but it was to no avail.  He laid back quietly, his eyes studying his captor, hoping for some window of opportunity to escape.
~ ~ ~
Hannah jerked back and shook Edward’s shoulder.  After a moment, he looked up with a smile, which immediately faded away upon seeing the distress in her face.  He followed her gaze toward the north bank, where a group of riders was moving quickly over the terrain towards the city.
He drew in a quick breath as he recognized the heavily-built forms of his brother’s men.  There were only three of them, and no sign of Alfred, but he knew it was best not to take chances.  “Quick, get down,” he hissed to the other two.  The three companions quietly lowered their bodies into the belly of the little boat so that no one could be seen occupying the craft.
Nevertheless, only a moment went by before a shout went up from the shore.  
“Is there anyone in it?” one voice called over the steady drumming of the hoofs.
“I can’t see,” another responded.
“Wait,” said the first voice as the hoofbeats slowed.  “I have a…” the words were lost to Edward’s ears as the rushing river drew them away from where the riders had halted.  He raised himself up to a point where he could glance back over the stern of the ship, his eyes scanning the shoreline with Raymond’s. 
         Within a few seconds, though, the brigands appeared behind them, riding hard again.  The lead rider had a longbow in his on hand, his other on the reins.  But notched against the string was a long arrow, its tip wrapped in an oil-drenched cloth, already blazing bright with flame.  Raymond took hold of the rudder and tried to steer the little boat near to the far shore.
Hannah leaned forward, whispering into Edward's ear.  “There are three of us.  Maybe we could fight them off.”
“They have bows, Hannah.  We’d be dead before the boat hit shore.”
She frowned and slumped back into the curve of the boat.  “What’s to stop them from raining arrows down on us anyway?”
He risked peeking over the edge one more time.  He could see that the motion of the boat away from them had forced them to realize their situation, and they were riding along quickly, trying to come to a good vantage point from which to fire the first of their flaming projectiles.
The river rushed around a bend, coming up on a large bluff that hung out over the water’s edge.  Edward shook his head when he saw this.  The riders would reach it first, and they would take advantage of it.  He could now see two of the flames burning as they rode along, and he knew it would not be long before he would have to ward them off.
Thinking quickly, he stripped off his outer robe, holding it at ready.  If he could hold off the first two arrows, the brigands would have to halt their chase to be able to light new ones.  
He kept a close watch on the riders as they approached the bluff.  He watched them slow to a stop as they reached it, the column of dust behind them whisked away by the wind.  Raymond was sitting upright now, his eyes flashing back and forth between the riders and the river, his hand fastened firmly to the rudder-stick. 
The first arrow was released from its bowstring with a snap, a thin trail of smoke following its downward course.  It fell too short by several yards, immediately doused by the current as it landed with a hiss.  
As the second shot came, Edward could see that it was more on target than its predecessor was.  Holding out his cloak as a net, he stood off the side.  As soon as the arrow hit the thin fabric of his cloak, it erupted into flame.  Without thinking twice, he heaved it over the side of the boat, where it floated for a second, then sank beneath the rippling waves.
Edward glanced at Hannah, who smiled nervously, her eyes going back to the riders again.  He followed her gaze, and saw the two archers stringing normal arrows on, still riding slowly, keeping within sight of the boat. 
Hannah lowered herself back down as the first two arrows whizzed over their heads, splashing into the water on the opposite side.  Edward hunched down as far as he could and began working the oars, adding whatever extra speed was possible to the little boat.
“Pray, Hannah,” he said as he grunted against the weight of the water.  
He kept a close watch on the riders, but was encouraged to see that the boat was slowly leaving them behind.  Every so often he had to yell a word of warning for Raymond to duck.  Once he had to leap out of the way himself, and very nearly capsized the boat as the arrow buried itself into the tough wood.
It was not long, though, before the brigands vanished around a bend in the river.  They kept up the same rigorous pace for the better part of the afternoon, but saw no more of their pursuers.  As the sun was setting hours later, the shimmering hearth-lights of Newcastle began to come into view in the distance.
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief.  “How much farther is it now, Raymond?”
The knight tilted his head, analyzing the distance.  “We’ll disembark in a few minutes, I suppose.  Then we’ll have to walk a ways to my farm, but we should reach it before midnight sets in.”
“Good,” Edward replied, his eyes fixed on the city.  “I am well ready to bid this river goodbye.”