Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 17

 © Matthew Burden, 2001
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          The Sheriff opened the door of his office, peering out into the gloom of the corridor.  A single torch fluttered in its sconce a few paces away, but it only provided a dim ring of light.  The rest of the hall was shrouded.  He tried to steady himself against the doorpost, then took a single step out of the room and into the darkness of the corridor.  As soon as he did, he felt an overwhelming chill of fear wash over him.
          “Hello again, dear friend,” a voice whispered from the darkness.
          The Sheriff closed his eyes to try to regroup his shattered courage, but he could not.  “Michael?  Is that you?”
          No response came in the dark, empty hallway.
          “Listen,” the official choked out, his eyes darting back and forth.  “I want no more of this.  We can’t find anything for you.  Just leave me alone.”
          He could imagine the youth grinning wickedly at him from some dark corner, though he still saw nothing.
         “Leave you alone?” the voice repeated.  “Leave you alone?”  This time, the tone grew harsher.  As if stepping out from the very darkness itself, Michael appeared before the Sheriff’s face.  He was a young man, but he had perfected the art of arousing fear in others.  “I’m afraid it’s far too late for that, my friend.”
          “Too late?  What do you mean?  I haven’t given anything to you.”
          “Quite right,” Michael smiled grimly.  “And yet we have given so much to you.  Have you forgotten how you became the Sheriff of Newcastle?”
          The official closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as if to will away the memories of that terrible night when he had approached these men of power.
          “Yes, you remember it, don’t you?” Michael continued, the same twisted smile still lingering on his lips.  “We raised you from that hovel of a town and set you up here, in the shadow of the Crown itself—shall I tell you how we disposed of the former Sheriff in order to make room for you?”
          “No,” the shorter man shuddered.  “No, don’t tell me.”
          “You see, Sheriff, you are inextricably bound to us.  And the fate of our quest will determine your fate.  So act carefully.”
          The older official quailed, backing up until he was pressed up against the cold stone wall of the corridor.  “But we’ve found nothing.  There’s nothing to find.  And now the Jews have been plundered again.  If there was anything here, it’s long gone now.”
          “You try my patience. I am in no mood for this.  I have heard of a disturbance in the town.  Tell me about it.”
          The Sheriff struggled for breath for a few moments, then nodded.  “Yes—a group of Saxon outlaws raided the Jews and killed the Armorer a few days ago, then fled into the woods.  We pursued, but to no avail.  They’ve been driven back.  And then a whole group of Scottish men showed up here, searching for something as well.”
          Michael’s brow furrowed in thought.  “Where are these men?”
         “Down by the river, near the bridge."
         Without another word, Michael whirled on his heel and stalked off down the hallway, his black cloak billowing out behind him.  The Sheriff let out a sigh of relief and shuffled back into his office.  He ran a trembling hand over his sweat-beaded brow.
         “I can’t do this anymore,” he gasped.
          With a grunt, he drew a long, thin dagger from his belt, watching as the orange glow from the brazier glinted off its razor-sharp edges.  “This must end now,” he whispered, entranced by the blade.  “Beware of entering these halls again, Master Michael."
~ ~ ~
          Hannah looked on with a smile as the three men entered the house, the first two graciously and the third looking rather ill at ease.  Ruth leaned over to her and whispered in her ear.  “Would one of these be your protector, then?”
She smiled, blushing slightly. “The first one,” she whispered back.
Ruth stood and bid the men to take up the remaining seats around the table.  Raymond and Edward nodded their heads humbly and pulled out chairs to sit in.  Stephen closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath before sitting stiffly, as close to Raymond as he could.
“Edder!” Samuel shouted as he leapt forward to stretch his little arms around Edward’s legs.
“Hello, Samuel,” he chuckled, ruffling the boy’s hair.  “I’m surprised he remembered me,” he remarked to the two women, who smiled.
“He remembers a good deal,” Ruth said softly, and her face fell as she said it, turning to Hannah.  “He remembers too much.  He’s been asking...he’s been asking about his father.”
Hannah nodded, taking her brother’s hand in her own.  She seemed about to speak, but could not find the words, and an uncomfortable silence settled over the room.
“I remember when some of my own boys were that age,” Raymond chuckled, lightening the mood again.
“You have children?” Ruth leaned forward.
Raymond nodded.  “Well, they’re not really mine.  They’re orphans that my daughter and I have taken into our home.”
“That’s wonderful!” Ruth exclaimed, her eyes bright with joy.
Raymond nodded with a grin.  “It is as much of a blessing to us as it is to them, my lady."
Jacob spoke up, his voice soft with the timidity of conversing with strangers.  “You two are from the castle, aren’t you?” he asked Raymond and Stephen.
The two men nodded in unison.  “I actually live on a farm further out in the moors, but I work as a knight along with my brother,” Raymond replied.
Hannah smiled companionably at Edward as they sat there, listening to the conversation.  She was so relieved to be back among friends and out of the immediate focus of danger. She still had difficulty understanding his involvement in what had occurred, but she knew this much: she was grateful for his presence.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable conversation, each group wondering what would or would not offend the other, Stephen made an excuse to take leave of the group.  Raymond, the only one who had seemed perfectly content with the friendly discussion, sighed and took his leave of the hostess before following his friend out the door.
Edward made to get up, too, out of mere politeness, but Hannah laid a gentle hand on his arm.  “Don’t go yet, Edward.   There is yet another thing I would discuss with you.”
He looked at her long and hard, knowing what she was speaking about.  He knew that this was where the robe was being hidden, but up until that point Hannah had expressed that she did not want to put him in danger.  But now that it was clear his resolution was to go with her and see the dangerous action through, he could see most clearly that she, too, wished him to accompany her.
“I hear you helped our Hannah after the raid here,” Ruth said, smiling gratefully at him.
Edward nodded.  “I knew too well what brigands do, and I could not allow it done to her.”
Ruth smiled and patted his hand.  “I wish there was some way we could reward you, sir, but—”
“I need no reward,” he replied quickly.  “It is reward enough meeting all of you.”
Jacob grinned warmly at this and sat beside him at the table.  “So,” he said at length, studying the Saxon’s reaction.  “I assume you two know something we don’t.”  He raised a questioning eyebrow at Edward and Hannah, his keen mind having cut to the center of the issue.
Hannah sighed.  “You still have the robe I gave you, Ruth?”  The woman nodded.  “Good,” Hannah continued,  “because I will have need of it on my return journey to London.”
“London!” Jacob shouted, standing up again.  His face was flushed as he pressed his questions.  “Why, Hannah?  I’ve heard what they’re doing to Jews down there!  You can’t go!”
She bowed her head and waited until he was done to continue, looking at Ruth.  “Uncle Eleazer is alive,” she said.
“Alive?” Ruth repeated.
“He is alive, but in prison. They will execute him in December unless I can come up with a fee of two hundred zecchins.”  She looked around at their shocked, speechless faces.  “I have only eighty-seven.”
“But what does this have to do with that old rag?” Rebecca spoke up from where she had been sitting in the corner.
“That,” said Hannah, “is supposed to be a holy relic of the Christians.  I am hoping I can sell it to purchase Eleazer’s freedom.”
Silence hung in the air for a long while.  At last, Jacob spoke up.  “You can’t go alone, Hannah.  It’s nearing winter, and it’s far too dangerous for any Jew to travel these days.”
“I am going with her,” said Edward. “I have pledged it.”
Jacob shook his head with a frown, an accusing finger pointed at Edward.  “How do we know that you’re not just someone who would kill Hannah and rob her of this thing?”
“Jacob!” Ruth snapped, but the youth kept going.
“How are we supposed to be able to trust you?  I demand a proof of your integrity, sir!  Do not take offense, but this is a matter too important to deal with lightly!  I cannot let Hannah go running across England with a man I know nothing of!”
Hannah stood, facing her friend across the table.  She spoke in clear tones, her words edged with a sense of firm control.  “You have my word, Jacob, and leave it at that.  I would trust Edward with my life, for he has already proven himself true.”
Jacob huffed and sat back down, breathing hard.  After a long, uncomfortable moment, he shook his head.  “Forgive me, sir,” he said at last.  “These are trying times for me.  Would that I could go with you."
“It’s already forgotten,” Edward said. 
Hannah whispered something to Ruth, who stood and walked over to a small wooden cabinet, from which she produced the tattered purple robe.
Hannah took it in her hands and looked at it for a long moment before turning and depositing it with Edward.  He took it, holding it up against the light.  It was not a beautiful thing to behold, but the mere possibility of its significance sent shivers running up and down his spine.   
This could be the very robe… His thought trailed off as he held it in his hands, feeling the fabric in his fingers.  He felt utterly unworthy, convicted of everything evil in his life.  Who am I that I should hold this? he wondered.
Still standing, Hannah turned to Ruth.  “What day is it today? I’ve lost track lately.”
“It’s the fourteenth of September. But it matters little.  We must set out immediately.  You never can tell how long travel will take these days.”
“We?” Hannah repeated.  “It’s far too dangerous for you to come, Ruth.  Besides, I need someone I can leave Samuel with while I’m gone.”
She sighed and shook her head, then reached out and pulled Hannah into a close embrace.  “You are so brave, Hannah.”
The young woman was surprised at the remark.  She had felt terrified and shocked during the past few weeks, but never courageous, not even once.  
 “I will leave tomorrow,” she said.  “It may take a week to ride to London, but I would rather not risk going too much later, not with Uncle Eleazer’s life at stake.”
Ruth nodded, holding Hannah out at arm’s length as if to look at her one last time.  “You will stay with us tonight, of course."
“Of course,” said Hannah, “but first I’d like to take a walk with Samuel."
Taking Samuel by the hand and motioning Edward to follow, she stepped outside, into the gathering twilight.  The cover of the clouds had blown over, and pinpoints of starlight were beginning to shine over the village.  Hannah walked beside Samuel, who was unusually quiet, watching the dark street with wide eyes.  Edward walked a little bit behind as they made their way back toward the river.  The trees that grew in the Tyne basin stretched their long branches overhead, shading the path from the light of the crescent moon.
They walked a long way before Hannah broke the silence.  “I hope Jacob did not offend you.  He is a dear friend, but he can be headstrong at times.”
Edward came up beside her.  “It was no problem.  I can understand how he would be afraid…and concerned for you.”
She did not reply, but walked on for a long time, until they were nearing the banks of the river.  At last she spoke up again, her brow furrowed as she turned and looked at him.   
“Thank you for being willing to come with me to London."
“There is nothing I would rather do."
They stood in silence for a long moment, until Samuel began tugging at Hannah’s skirt.  “I wanna go river,” he said in a pleading voice.
With a sigh, Hannah broke off and allowed her brother to pull her along to the riverbank.   
Several of the soldiers were still milling around there in the dim light.  Thomas was standing, testing his bandaged leg gingerly, and leaning on his brother Raymond’s arm.
“Don’t put too much weight on it,” Stephen warned from where he stood watching their progress.
Malcolm and Oswald were standing a little ways off, speaking in low tones as they gazed across the river.  Edward walked up to them, smiling brightly.
“You were able to send the others off, Malcolm?”
The Scot laughed and slapped his partner on the back.  “I never could have done it, but Oswald here was able to make them think that you were only staying here for a few more days.”
“Oh really?” he chuckled.  “How did you do that?”
Oswald blushed slightly, and shook his head.  Malcolm smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Come on,” Edward grinned.  “There must be something you’re not telling me.”
“Well, I never actually told them anything,” Oswald began.
“Just a friendly hint,” Malcolm added.  “They picked up on it fairly quickly and went their way.”
“Picked up on what?”
“I just…”
“Noticed,” Malcolm offered.
“Yes, I just noticed, out loud, in front of the much time you had been spending with Hannah.”
Malcolm laughed at the expression that crossed Edward’s face.  “A few minutes later, when we told them that we were going to stay a few more days here with you, they all agreed that they could return home.”
Edward shook his head, hoping his blush wouldn’t show in the moonlight.  “You two,” he chuckled, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
“Take us to London, of course,” Malcolm laughed, patting him on the shoulder.  “After all, we can’t leave you unsupervised with this girl!”
Further up the bank, Thomas groaned as he tried to take a step on his own.  Raymond was able to catch him before he toppled over onto the grass.
“Those accursed brigands!” he swore.  “If I had but one more chance, I’d slay every one of them.”
“Come now,” Raymond chided.  “It’s over and done with.  You’ll never see a trace of them again.  Sit down and rest.”
“I could sit here on this bank until I die if I wait for a miraculous healing to come on its own,” he brushed the suggestion off.  “It’ll heal faster if I work it again.”
Raymond looked dubious, but he knew not to contradict his brother.  
At that instant, a small form raced down the embankment, breathless, and crashed down in a heap at Stephen’s feet. The knight picked up the thin young man, who was breathing heavily and almost unconscious from exhaustion.   
“I think it’s one of yours, Raymond,” he said, motioning his friend over.
Raymond allowed Thomas to stand free for a moment as he knelt down to look at the boy.  “Peter. Peter, it’s Raymond.  Can you hear me?”
“Raymond…” he breathed heavily.  “You have to come home…now.”
“Why, Peter? Is something wrong?”
“Four men,” he held up his fingers, “I don’t know where they came from.  They were at the field while we were working.  Trapped some inside the house, the rest of us, we didn’t know…we didn’t know.”
“You did the right thing,” Raymond said.  Rising quickly, he raced over to where his horse was tethered.  “I have to go home,” he shouted to the others.  “The brigands!  The brigands are at my house!”
Thomas began walking stiffly, spewing obscenities all the while.  “I’m coming, Raymond!” he shouted.
In an instant, Malcolm, Oswald, and Edward had all leapt on the steeds tethered nearby, ready to follow Raymond.  
 “Hannah!” he shouted to her.  “Go back to Ruth’s house!  I’ll be back tomorrow!”  With that, he raced after the other two, already well on their way.
Stephen rushed over to where Hannah was standing, forgetting his prejudices in the need of the moment.  “Would you take the boy with you?” he asked, leading Peter over to where she was standing.
“Yes, of course,” she choked out in the moment before Stephen raced back to Thomas.
“Come, sir,” Stephen said.  “You’ll ride with me.”
“Very good,” the Captain replied, allowing the husky knight to help him onto the horse.  “Let’s go to the castle first.  The Sheriff should allow us to call out the knights.  After that, we can all ride down to Raymond’s together.”
           “Yes, sir,” Stephen replied, wheeling his mount and dashing off down the benighted dust street, until the three others were left standing silently on the edge of the riverbank, completely alone in the darkness of the night.