Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 16

© Matthew Burden, 2001
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~ 16 ~

          Alfred crouched low behind the bush and swore.  “Those accursed Scots!” he spat.  “Where did they come from?  It’s bad enough to have every one of the men of Newcastle on our tail, but now all the tribes of the north are descending on us!  And now we can’t go back out and retrieve our horses, either!”
Jonathan nodded, holding his sword out and ready should one of the searchers come too close.  The leader shook his head and sat up, pouting.  “How are we to know what's happening in the city if we are always pursued?”
Jonathan pursed his lips, but did not respond.  His one good eye darted back and forth, keeping a vigilant watch on the six Scots as they smashed through the forest, searching for any sign of where the Saxon outlaws could be hiding.
“For all we know, the Jewess could be back in the city by now, and already have the robe!  It must have been here all along, and I’ll wager anything that they came straight back here to pick it up.”
Jonathan nodded.  “They must have landed further to the east, because we reached the city, and their boat had already passed by.”
It was the first Alfred had heard of it.  “You saw them?”
“Aye, they were on the river with someone else yesterday.  We tried to shoot them down, but they got away.”
“To the east of the city, you say?  Well then, they've probably only been on land since last night.  If we were to leave this place and circle around the city to the east, do you think we might catch them?”
Jonathan scratched his chin.  “Maybe,” he replied after a long deliberation.  “It depends on how far east they went and whether they planned to return to the city right away.”
Alfred shook his head.  “I’ll bet they won’t.  They saw your group, and they know you’re here, so they wouldn’t risk coming back so soon.  If I know my brother, he will wait at least a day before trying to go back in.”
“I’d say it’s a better chance at success than we have here,” Jonathan offered.  “We’ll have to cross a stretch of open moors, but I don’t think they’ll be watching that area right now.”
Alfred nodded and motioned to the other two.  They all huddled around him as he explained the plan, and they nodded their agreement.  Anything was preferable to standing at bay like a trapped animal.  Crawling along the ground until they were well away from the Scots, they made their way slowly, staying within the woods until they were well past the looming structure of the castle.
~ ~ ~
Edward had tried to talk them out of returning to the city so quickly, but Hannah would not wait any longer.  She had been too long away from little Samuel, and longed to be in the company of her old friends. 
The three trudged along the dusty trail together, comfortable with one another’s company.  Hannah led the way, followed by Raymond who hung back with Edward, amiably conversing about the harvest.  Edward enjoyed speaking with the knight, and found the perspective wise and refreshing compared to the dark world of persistent danger that he had been living in for the past few days.
It was not a long walk to the city, but it was made miserable by a chill wind that blew down over them, snapping at their cloaks while they made their way back west.  In less than an hour, they came within sight of the rising walls of the castle, and Raymond slowed their progress, bringing them into a small huddle as they discussed what would occur ahead.
“Now,” he said, “those brigands who attacked us yesterday must be at the city by now.  I would say there’s a good chance that they're watching from the edges somewhere.  So how should we go about this?”
“I need to get to the house of Ruth," said Hannah. "It’s near the southwestern corner of the village.”
Raymond pursed his lips.  “And I need to get to the castle to report back in.  My suggestion would be this,” he said after a momentary pause, “that all three of us travel up the main avenue to the castle.  After that, we can find out if my brother’s men have returned yet.  If they have, we can certainly enlist their protection should the brigands break out to attack us again.”
Edward nodded.  “That sounds safe enough.”
Hannah consented, allowing the knight to lead the rest of the way to the city.  They arrived and traveled down the broad street, amidst the bustle of the crowd, to where the gates stood open.  Raymond jogged into the courtyard with Edward, leaving Hannah in the village square.  He made his way straight up to the Sheriff’s chamber, where he found him behind his desk, idly gazing at the small brazier of coals.
“Sir!” he called, bursting through the doorway.
The Sheriff glanced up, startled, and nearly leapt from his seat when he saw Raymond’s smiling countenance.
“Sir Raymond!”  he exclaimed, regaining himself.  “They told me you had been lost in the woods.  We feared you had been captured along with your brother!”
“Thomas has been captured?” he asked, leaping forward to grasp the shorter man by his shoulders.
“Yes,” the Sheriff replied, shaking off the firm hold and sitting back down.  “Stephen and the others returned not long ago.  He just left here, wanting to continue the search for you two.”
“Yes, yes, we must search for him!” the knight exclaimed, already on his way to the door.
“I did not allow him to continue,” the sheriff said with a sigh.  “And I fear it sat ill with him, but no matter.  We know as a certainty that Sir Thomas has been captured.  I would not wager heavily on the mercy of those cutthroats.”
“But sir!  We cannot simply give him up as lost!”
“I’m sorry, Raymond.  It’s in his own hands to escape now, if he still lives.”
The knight shook his head, nearly pale with rage.  “Where is Stephen?” he growled, his fists clenched tight.
“I have no idea, really.  He may have run off again with those infernal Scots he’s befriended.  They’re down by the river now.  Came several days ago to search for one of their friends, as I recall.  As long as they make no trouble, it’s fine with me.”
Raymond nodded and rushed out of the room, followed by Edward, who matched his stride.  “These Scots he mentioned,” the knight said, “are they friends of yours?  From Melrose?”
Edward nodded.  “That would be my guess."
“Then let’s go find them.  Perhaps they may be of some help to us.”
~ ~ ~
Edward raced down the bank, shouting to the figures milling about by the water’s edge.  “Malcolm!” he laughed, running to embrace his startled friend.  “Malcolm, my friend!  You should not have come after me!”
The tall Scot smiled brightly, taking Edward by the shoulders and looking him over.  “I was afraid of what might happen to you, Edward.  I had to come.  Thank God you’re all right.”
Edward smiled and turned to where Oswald faced him, grinning brightly.  “And I know you must have been the voice of wisdom for your leader here,” he sighed with a chuckle.
The young soldier shrugged.  “Well, we seem to have made it down here without getting into too much trouble.”  He reached over to pat his friend on the shoulder.  “I’ll go call the others back from the woods."
Malcolm nodded.  “Yes, no doubt they’ve long since fled this place.”
Raymond let out a low gasp and ran to the form of his brother stretched out on the grass.  “Thomas,” he rasped, his voice choking, “I thought you had been captured.”
His brother smiled weakly.  “There’s never been a man who could hold me for long.”  He patted the bandage gently.  “But this time, I won’t get away without a scar.”
Raymond continued to speak with him while the others gathered around Edward and Malcolm to discuss what had happened.  After all accounts of the chase had been given, they set about making a camp on the bank.
Malcolm sighed, turning to where Edward sat beside him.  “Well, I suppose we should be returning home soon.  If we don’t, the crop might fail on us.”
Edward nodded thoughtfully, turning to glance at where Hannah was standing, watching the river.  “Yes, you should go back.  Many of you have farms to tend to, after all.”
The Scot followed his friend’s gaze, a slight smile turning the corners of his mouth.  “And then…will you be coming as well?”
Edward allowed the question to go unanswered for a long moment as he ran a hand over the long grass next to him.  A breeze ruffled his hair, and he breathed in deeply, thinking of how he could possibly explain the situation to his friend.
“I will be returning, of course.  But I may wish to remain here for—well, for a few more days.”
Malcolm shook his head.  “Of course, it is no affair of mine what you do,” he said, “but I would be much comforted to know that you will not be in danger for the rest of your sojourn.”
Edward stood, brushing the dust from his trousers.  He would not allow his gaze to meet his friend’s.  “I can't promise that, Malcolm.  My brother is still around here, and I may have to meet him again before this thing is resolved.”
“What must you resolve?”
“There are old wounds that have been reopened.  I can't leave them that way.  Much as I do not wish to, I feel I must find a way to speak to him again.”
The Scot shook his head with an expression of firm disapproval.  “You can't be serious!  He nearly killed you with this last run through the woods!”
“I know. But he doesn't know that he has my forgiveness.  He may not even care, but he needs to hear it as much as I need to say it.”
Malcolm smiled, knowing there was more to the tale.  “You don’t know where your brother is.  He's probably hiding and on guard to kill anyone who goes near him.  And still you want to seek him out?  If the knights of Newcastle and Melrose together could not find him, how will you?  Unless…” the knight shook his head.  “You have some dangerous idea up in your mind, don’t you, Edward?  You think you can bait him in somehow.”
Edward shook his head.  “I don't need to bait him in.  I know what he’s after, and I know where it is.  I know I'll see him again.”
Malcolm wasn't smiling any more.  “Edward, tell me.  We’ve been friends for several years now, and I know I would trust you with any confidence.”
“I can’t,” he confessed with a pained expression.  “I know you and your men would want to stay with me, but the fact is that you’re needed at home more than I need you here.”
“There are enough young men at home to take in the harvest in time.  How much will thirteen men be missed?”
“They will be missed sorely enough by their families, I imagine.  Besides, the frosts may come earlier this year.  There’s no way to tell.”
Malcolm was silent.
“All right,” Edward sighed at last.  “I would consent to having only two of you stay with me, if you like.  The others are needed at home, and we both know it.”
Malcolm laughed.  “Now how am I to do that?  My men are as suspicious of all this as I am, Edward.  If two of us stay with you, the others will not return without good explanation.”
Edward smiled.  “And I leave that task in your capable hands.”
Malcolm shook his head with a grin, walking off to where his men were assembled.  Edward stood for a long moment, watching the others mill about.  Raymond and Stephen were crouched near their wounded captain, concern etched on their faces.  Hannah stood a little ways off, lost in her own thoughts.  After a long while, Raymond rose, stretched, and walked over to her.
“My lady,” he spoke softly, coming up behind her.
She turned and regarded him without emotion.
“As it seems we are well protected from an ambush for now, at least, it is one of the best times we might have to go and find your baby brother.”
“Yes,” she agreed, at once ready to start back towards the town.  “I'll go now.”
“I will accompany you, then,” said Raymond.  “Just to be safe.”
The two walked back up the embankment together, followed close behind by Edward and Stephen, leaving the others in the camp by the river as afternoon wore on towards evening.
~ ~ ~
Hannah raced up the dusty lane, her dark hair blowing out behind her.  The three men followed, swords at ready should the brigands still be about.  
Hannah stopped in front of the small house and rapped quickly on the thin boards of the door.  When no one appeared for several moments, she rapped again, harder this time.  “Come on, Ruth,” she whispered.
After a long moment, the door opened to reveal a young man standing, hunched over, peering at her from the dim interior.
“Hannah?” the teen said, barely above a whisper.
“Jacob!” she cried, running into the doorway to embrace her friend.  He groaned lightly, and she stepped back, sympathy in her eyes.  He held a hand over the bandage wrapped around his torso.   
“It still hurts you?” she asked gently.
“Aye,” he grimaced.  “It’s healing slowly.”  He reached forward to embrace her again, taking care for his wound this time.  “I’m so glad you’re safe,” he choked out, tears welling up in his eyes.  “When we saw those men…well, we feared the worst.”
She nodded, glancing past him into the house.  He stepped aside, allowing her to come in, while the three men stood respectfully outside.  A single lamp illuminated the interior of the one large room that made up the building where Ruth lived with her younger sister and brother. 
“Oh, Hannah!” the older woman started up out of her seat as soon as she saw the young woman in the doorway.  “Hannah, darling, you’re safe,” she hugged her close, and Hannah smiled.  Ever since her own mother had passed away, Ruth had been the only one who had stepped in and filled a piece of that great, lonely void.
After Ruth released her from the embrace, she stood back, looking the young woman over.  “You’re all right, aren’t you, dear? We saw those men take off with you.  Jacob would have gone after them if it wasn’t for his wound.”
She nodded, her eyes brimming.  “I’m fine now, Ruth.  One man…he protected me.”
Ruth wanted to press the matter further, but she could see that it was not the time to do so.  The fear was too real, still too near to bring it up again.  In the corner, the younger woman, Rebecca, held out Samuel and pointed at Hannah.
“Look, Samuel!” she smiled at the laughing little boy.  “Look, it’s Hannah!”
“Han!” the boy let out a squeal of delight, waving his chubby arms.  Rebecca set him on the ground, and he ran over to her with slow, tottering steps.  “Han!” he shouted again as she bent to pick him up.
“Hello, Samuel,” she laughed, holding him up to her face.
“’Lo,” he replied quickly, reaching out to feel her hair.
She smiled, tracing her fingertips across his cheeks.  “Have you been a good boy for Auntie Ruth?”
“No!” he said.   
Hannah laughed, which set Samuel to laughing too.  She set him back on his feet, and he ran in circles around her feet as she tried to walk over to a low stool to sit down.
While the three women sat around the table, Jacob swung the door open again and looked out at the three men.  “You can come in if you like, sirs.”
Edward smiled and stepped up into the doorway, grateful to be out of the gathering chill of night.  Raymond chuckled, glanced at the other knight, and began to follow.  Stephen’s hand grasped him by the arm, though, and held him fast.
“A Jew’s house, Raymond?  It's not proper.”
Raymond paused, looking his friend in the face.  “If Saint Peter invited you into his home, would you go?”
“Of course."
“Then you should have no problem entering the house of a Jew.”
Stephen sighed, glancing uncomfortably to where Jacob stood looking on.  
“Saint Peter was a Christian.  There’s a difference.”
        “He was Jewish by faith before he met our Lord, and still Jewish by blood afterward.  And Christ did not shy away from his company.  Why should we?”  He flashed his broad grin again and stepped into the house.  Stephen sighed and, after looking about quickly to make certain no one was observing him, he followed his friend within.