Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 15

 © Matthew Burden, 2001
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The following morning was cool and blustery, with a biting wind sweeping down over Raymond’s fields.  The sky was gray, a gloomy portent of winter.  Hannah pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders as she walked down the little path.  Her legs were still sore from the days of riding and walking through endless miles of woods and moors.  She sighed, gazing ahead to the little pond, where already some of the children were stirring from their tents.

Raymond had gone down several minutes earlier, and she followed him, leaving Edward still slumbering in the house.  The little dirt path was rutted with the tracks of wagons, still slick with mud from the morning dew.  The cluster of tents hugged the shore of the pond they had passed the night before on.  

Four young boys were running and wrestling on the shore, their laughter carrying over the empty fields.  Raymond was standing over them and chuckling, while Felice was leaning over the two young girls and speaking to them in low tones.  Hannah could not help but smile at the scene, and was drawn back to happy times with her own family, now only a distant memory. 

After a few minutes, Raymond laughed heartily and slapped the oldest boy on the back.  “That’s enough, Peter,” he smiled.  “Go get yourselves cleaned up, and we’ll make breakfast for you.”

The four boys gave a shout and raced into the pond, clothes and all, splashing each other all the while.  Hannah continued walking up, still unnoticed.  She stood beside one of the tents, watching while Felice and Raymond laughed together, stirring a large pot over the campfire.  The two little girls, no more than six or seven years old, were kneeling on the shore and washing their hands and faces.  One of the boys splashed them playfully, and they returned the barrage with a flurry of giggles, forcing him to run back to where the other boys were still swimming around.

“All right, come over here!” Raymond called to be heard over the commotion.  The boys ran out of the pond, standing soaking wet around the fire.  When all six children were gathered close, Raymond spoke to them.

“Did you have fun out here last night?”

Their heads nodded in unison.

“Good,” he said.  “Because today we’ll start bringing the grain in.”

There was a chorus of complaining groans from the children.  Hannah couldn't help but smile.

“But first,” Raymond continued, “I am going into town with the two strangers this morning.  So the rest of you,” he smiled, “won’t have to start until this afternoon.”

One of the little girls spoke up, her small voice rising over the boys’ murmurs.  “Do we get to help this year?”

The old knight grinned broadly, kneeling down to her.  “Certainly.  Would you like to help Felice with her part?”

The two girls both nodded vigorously.

“Good,” he said, “so the boys and I will do the rest of the field work.”

Peter, the oldest boy, called out.  “I have a question, too."

“All right, Peter, I’m listening,” Raymond stood, his arms folded across his chest.

“When do we eat?”

The knight laughed, turning to Felice with a wink.  “In a few minutes, Peter.  But first, I’m going to tell you a story.”

The two girls and the youngest boy sat forward with interest, but the other three tried unsuccessfully to contain their looks of boredom.  Hannah grinned at their reactions while Raymond began to speak, standing in front of the crackling fire.

“Look out there at our fields,” Raymond said, gesturing broadly with his arm.  “How long will all that grain last, do you think?”  He looked at them for a moment, his eyes gentle.  “Not more than a year, the way you eat,” he laughed.  “But when we die, even if we have a lot stored up, how much can we take with us?  None of it, right?  Jesus told us to store up our treasures in heaven, because that is our real home.  We can do that by helping each other and praying and following Jesus’ commands.”

The young boy raised up his hand slowly, uncertain if the talk was over.  “My mother told me that once,” he said, tears welling up in his big, dark eyes.  “Will she be there?  Up in heaven?”

Raymond smiled and nodded.  “I’m sure she will be.  We just have to keep thinking about what heaven will be like when we get there.  It will help us stay focused in this life here.  The best is yet to come, dear children.  Never forget that.  The best is yet to come.”  He paused, looking at them.  “All right, that’s enough talk for one morning.  Go get your breakfast.”

The boys cheered and rushed up, eager for their portions, but Raymond stopped them with a good-natured smile.  “Where are your manners, boys?  Let the girls go first.”

The two young girls stepped in front of them with teasing smiles as their bowls were filled with porridge.  Hannah turned back to the lodge house to wake Edward.  There were only four hours left of the morning, so if they were going to go back to Newcastle, they needed to be quickly on their way.

~ ~ ~

Thomas grimaced as the brigand dragged him along by a leather leash he had devised to keep the Norman captain from escaping.  Before he could react to the last lashing tug, he was thrown down onto the ground face-first.  His eyes and nose were filled with dirt, and he felt hot tears pour down his face.  He could hear Alfred rustling through the bushes, but didn't have the strength to lift his head to see what had caused the disturbance.

“Shh,” Alfred hissed down at him when he tried to rise.

“What is it?” he mumbled through the gag.

Alfred kicked him in his side.  “Quiet, fool!  We’re near the city.  If you make any sound at all I’ll slit your throat right here!”

Thomas resigned himself to silence.  His mind raced, wondering how to break away from the brigand’s watchful guard.  If he tried to move, Alfred would simply keep him still with the leash.  He worked his tongue, trying to force the soiled cloth from his mouth.  After several minutes of this without progress, he gave it up, his jaws aching from the pressure of the gag.

Slowly, he turned himself onto his back without a sound so that his tied hands were beneath him and out of Alfred’s line of sight.  Working quickly, he began to move his fingers, reaching to get at the knot that held his wrists together.  He kept at it, trying not to attract Alfred’s attention while he worked.  At first he hadn’t even been able to reach the knot.  As they had walked, though, he had spent every moment carefully working the ropes down closer to his knuckles.  He pulled with all of his might on a loose end, hoping it would release the knot. 

Alfred was still at the line of bushes, peering over them to the edge of the city.  After a few minutes of this vigil, the brigand let out a long, twittering whistle that most would have mistaken for the call of a bird.  A moment later, another whistle came back, very close to where they were hiding.  Alfred smiled confidently as he turned to his captive.  “Well, Captain, it seems your stay with me may be drawing to a close.”

Thomas tried to focus on what the brigand was saying, but he couldn't.  His mind was already conjuring up wild escape schemes as he felt the last pressure from the cords slide down and away from his wrists.  He heard the soft tread of footsteps approaching from the other side of the bushes, and he knew he would have to act quickly.  In a golden window of opportunity, Alfred stepped close to him, a leering grin on his face.  Thomas glanced up once to make certain the brigand’s sword was not bared.

As soon as he saw the weapon still hanging in its scabbard, he lashed out.  His arms were weak and sore from his captivity, but sheer desperation willed them to quickness and strength.  Pulling Alfred’s legs out from under him, he leapt on the brigand as he fell.  As the two men grappled together in the bushes, Thomas reached up and pulled the gag from his mouth.  Alfred was a good deal stronger than he was, and he could clearly see that in such a contest of brute force, he would come out on the losing side.  The whistle came again, and Thomas smiled grimly.  The other brigands did not yet know exactly where they were, but they were too close for comfort.  If they had not been so near to the edge of the city, Alfred would have broken off the struggle to call out for his companions.

Thomas felt the rock-hard muscles tense beneath his grip, and he knew that very soon the brigand would throw him off and be able to draw his sword.  Thinking quickly, he latched one fist in Alfred’s thick brown beard and pulled with all his might.  The brigand groaned and brought both his hands up to attack Thomas’ fist.  With one smooth motion, Thomas brought his free hand down and with it drew Alfred’s sword from the scabbard.  Then Alfred swung his fist and smashed it against Thomas’ face, knocking him back so that he would have no chance to use the sword in such close quarters.

Thomas fell backwards and rolled into a bed of ferns before regaining his footing.  Alfred was standing too, his lips pursed to give the responding signal to his men.  The knight held the sword at ready, unsure what his next move should be.  Alfred let out the whistle, and before Thomas could react, he heard the sound of several men breaking through the growth towards them.

Turning, he began to run back the way they had come, crashing through the brush as fast as his stiff legs would move him.  He was smaller than the brigands and he hoped it would give him enough of a speed advantage to outrun them in the tangled woods.  He lashed with the sword at protruding branches as he ran, his lungs already heaving for breath.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw a break in the trees to his left, and sprinted for it.

The sounds of the brigands still echoed through the woods as he came out, finding himself on the banks of the river where it came near to the town, only a few hundred paces to the east.  He stopped for a moment, wondering what to do.

In that instant, though, an arrow whizzed past his ear.  He ducked and ran towards the river, tracing an erratic path over the bank so that the archer would not be able to strike.  He sprinted madly, splashing into the shallows and leaping out into the quick-moving current.  He felt the cold water meet his skin and he gasped involuntarily at the icy shock.  Taking a deep breath, he dove down into the river, where the current swept him downstream with a force he could not fight.  When at last his breath ran out, he kicked hard and burst through the surface.  Realizing he had lost the sword on his dive, he looked about in sudden fear, hoping the brigands had decided to give him up as drowned.

Just as he began to swim toward the Newcastle shore, though, he felt a searing pain rip through his leg.  It went limp, and needles of pain shot up through his body.  He tried to continue swimming using merely the force of his arms, but it was to no avail.  The current was too strong, and he found himself being swept further downstream.  He looked behind and saw a stream of blood darkening the waters in churning crimson waves, flowing from where the head of an arrow was buried in his thigh.

He swore and turned again, thrashing with all his might to escape the river’s grip.  After a few agonizing minutes that got him nowhere, he gave up from exhaustion, watching the town slip by.  “God, help me,” he breathed at last, feeling the undertow beginning to pull him beneath the rippling surface.

He heard faintly the splashing of someone wading out, and he groaned inwardly.  These brigands simply would not let him die as he was.  He didn't open his eyes, even when he felt a strong hand grip his collar and haul him out of the water and to the shore.  He didn’t even move, too weak to resist.

He could tell he was lying on the shore, and heard the voices of men echoing above him.  The pain was growing numb in his leg as he began to drift off to a faint sleep.  Suddenly, a sharp pang woke him.  It felt like a knife tearing out his leg, ripping his flesh to pieces before he died.  He screamed, his eyes snapping open as his hands gripped the gaping wound on his leg.

A young man, his freckled face showing an expression of pity, was gently trying to work the stubborn arrowhead out of his muscle.  Thomas swore violently and threw himself back down against the bank, writhing in pain.

“Hold him!” the voice shouted, and he felt two strong pairs of arms clamp down on his shoulders and another on his legs.

“Just let me die, swine!” he screamed, breathless from the pain.

“We’re trying to help you,” the voice responded calmly.  “Just lie still.”

Thomas threw his head from side to side, his teeth clenched tightly.  With one last tug, the arrow came out, and Thomas nearly blacked out as vicious waves of pain attacked his body, coursing through him like lightning.

“There,” the voice said.  Thomas could feel a dull pressure bearing down on his leg.

“He’s losing too much blood,” the voice came again, now tinged with an edge of fear.  “Get me another clean cloth.  The rest of you pray hard, or we’ll lose him.”

Thomas screamed once more as blackness descended over his vision, and he fell back limply, his body wasted from pain and exertion.

~ ~ ~

Thomas awoke, surprised to find himself alive.  He groaned, turning on his side as a wave of faintness washed over him again.  Opening his eyes, he strained to see beyond the blurry haze that dominated his vision.  How long had he slept?  Hours?  Days, perhaps?  He couldn’t tell.  Sighing, he was able to discern that he was still lying on the grassy bank that he had been dragged up on earlier.  Stretching his hand down, he could feel a tight wrap of linens bound around his injured leg.  He cursed softly, closing his eyes again. 

“I think he’s awake,” a gruff voice resounded somewhere above him.  Brigands?  He tried to remember, but couldn’t.  No, the brigands would have let me die.

He strained to open his eyes and look up at the source of the voice.  It was a young man with brown hair, leaning over and studying him carefully.

“How are you feeling?” the man asked him, his voice thick with a lowland Scottish accent.

He shook his head.  “Who are you?”

“My name is Oswald of Melrose. We saw you trying to swim to shore.  I brought you up.”

“Why are you here?”

“One of our friends has been captured by the brigands who shot you.  We’ve come down to look for him.  We couldn’t catch them before they ran back into the woods, though.”

“How many of there are you?” he asked, his interest piqued.

“Thirteen in all,” Oswald said, gently testing the bandage.  “Our leader is at the castle now speaking with the Sheriff.  We came down here to rest our horses, and then we saw you.  How do you feel?”

Thomas tried to sit up, but a firm hand held him down.  “Where do you think you’re going?  You need to rest.”

“I have to go to the castle…to speak to the Sheriff.  I am the Captain of the Newcastle guard.”

Oswald nodded.  “The Captain?  They said you had been captured.  All right, I’ll send one of my men to the castle to tell them you’re here.  But now you have to rest.”

Thomas nodded and closed his eyes again, hoping he might be able to escape the relentless throbbing pain through the heavy silence of sleep.

~ ~ ~

Malcolm frowned at the Sheriff, who glared back at him with ill-disguised disinterest.  The Scot had accompanied Stephen back to the castle, and had been relieved to see that the rest of his men had arrived from Melrose, driven on by young Alasdair's enthusiasm.  He was discouraged by the lack of results that came up from their search of the woods, but he was not ready to give up.

“We can’t just give him up for dead, sir!” Stephen was at the point of rage, nearly bellowing at his commander, who sat placidly, observing his reaction with a calm air of distaste.

“Thomas knew the risks when I left him out there, Stephen.  He took the best knights with him.  There is nothing else we can do.  If he has been captured, there is no use endangering more men over it.  My guess is that he is long dead, and that the brigands have fled the province.”

Malcolm stepped forward.  “I would caution you there, sir. It seems to me that the brigands were looking for something when they attacked.  Unless they found it, it would be wise to assume that they will return.”

The Sheriff scratched his grizzled jaw for a moment and yawned slowly.  “Yes, well, I suppose it’s possible.  More likely that it was just another random attack on the Jews.  You can post a guard around the city if you like, but I think it’s time we gave up tromping about the countryside with false hopes of justice.  Thomas is dead, and Raymond with him.  Let us leave them to their rest.”

Stephen let out a growl of contempt and stormed out of the room, his step firm.  Closing the door behind him, Malcolm followed the Norman for a few paces as they marched down the stone corridors.

“Where are you going?” Malcolm asked, seeing him making for the stables.

Stephen frowned and gazed southward.  “The Sheriff has denied me permission to go on searching, so I have to seek out a higher station in this matter.”

“Where would that be?”

“Newcastle is controlled by the crown, so the Sheriff is the highest authority here right now,” he explained.  “But in Durham or Tynemouth, I may be able to find a higher officer of the crown who will see fit to intervene. Thomas and Raymond were good men, the best I ever served with.  I will not leave them to fate’s fickle hand.”

He was about to set his charger rushing through the gates when one of Malcolm’s men jogged up, sweating heavily.

“What is it?” Stephen asked the messenger, seeing the expression of worry written all over his face.

“The Norman captain, sir, we found him in the river.  He’s wounded, but he’s alive.  He wanted the Sheriff to know.”

Malcolm shook his head.  “The Sheriff wouldn’t care.  Where is he?”

“He’s still on the banks, sir.”  As soon as this information came out, Stephen set his horse to a quick gallop toward the river.   
The messenger turned to Malcolm again.  “He took an arrow in the leg, sir, but Oswald and Alasdair bandaged him up.  I think he’ll be all right.”

“Did you see the brigands?”

“Yes, sir, very close to the city.  They ran back into the woods when we gave chase.  Six of the men are still searching after them.”

“How many?”

“Four, sir.  No sign of Edward or the girl that you saw with him.”

“Four,” Malcolm mused, turning a frown.  “That’s all of them.  So Edward either escaped, or….”  He broke off the thought and began walking after Stephen, down to the banks of the river.