Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 18



 © Matthew Burden, 2001
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 ~18~

 Seated behind Stephen, Thomas’ leg bounced painfully with every stride the horse took.  They dashed down the now-deserted streets of the village, winding their way up to the gates of the castle.  Rushing into the courtyard, Stephen dismounted and helped his captain down after him.
Thomas tore a strip of leather from the saddle and bit down on it as he hobbled to keep up with the other knight.  Clenching his teeth against the leather, he was able to ignore the pain in his limb.  They raced up two flights of stone steps, to where the Sheriff’s chambers lay.  Bursting in past the great wooden door, Thomas grabbed an unlit torch from its sconce and quickly ignited it to light up the room.
The Sheriff was slumbering on despite the entrance of the two knights, his fist gripping the hilt of his long dagger against his chest.  His deep, throaty snores seemed to shake the room, and Thomas leveled a quick kick at the mattress with his good leg to shake the commander awake.
“What is it?” he murmured softly, still half-asleep.
“Wake up, sir!” Thomas shouted.
The Sheriff yawned and opened one eye, regarding him for a moment with a look of dull incomprehension.  “Thomas?” he said at last, rising up into a sitting position.  “I thought you were dead.”
“Well, I’m not, sir,” he replied.
“I can see that,” he harrumphed loudly.  “Now what’s all this about?  It can’t be morning yet.”
“No, sir,” Thomas spoke, now clutching the leather strip so tightly in his fist that the pressure made his knuckles turn white.  “We know where the brigands are, and they have attacked my brother’s farm.  I would like to ask that you let the knights come out with us.  There are only four of these outlaws, and with the extra support it will be no problem for us to trap them where they stand.”
The Sheriff sighed lengthily.  “What of those Scots running about, Stephen?” he glanced at the other man.  “Haven’t you already recruited them?”
The knight nodded.  “Yes, some are already there, but I’m sure they can use all the help they can get.”
The Sheriff shook his head.  “I think you should have enough to handle it, Thomas."
“But sir,” the knight began, not in the mood to deal with his commander’s strange logic.  “Just let me take the men.  You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“So now you think I'm not an able leader, is that it, Thomas?  Do not presume to dictate to me!”
“Forgive me, sir, but surely—”
“Surely it can wait until dawn,” the Sheriff interrupted.  “My men have been racing around the countryside for the past five days because of all this foolishness.  They need their rest, and none of them will be any too happy to rush off in the middle of the night for one of your petty crusades!”
“Sir,” Thomas said with a strained voice, “they know Raymond.  They will want to help him.  They’ve all been out to his farm and seen what he does there!  No one but the brigands would suffer unwillingly if you allowed me this.”
“I said no, Thomas, and that’s final.  The men need their rest.  You may muster them in the morning if they are not required here.”
“Sir, I must respectfully demand these men tonight.  You would be a fool not to allow it, and an unworthy commander!” Thomas’ face flushed violently.
“I said no, Thomas, and you will obey my order!  You may have them in the morning, but they will not be good for anything if you tear them away now.  The answer is no!”  So saying, the Sheriff drew a deep breath.  “Good night, gentlemen.”
Thomas stepped forward, as if about to strike him down right there.  Stephen came between the two with a quick step, but Thomas pushed him aside.  Glaring directly at the Sheriff, he shook his head as if deciding otherwise and stomped out of the room, oblivious to his wound.
Stephen caught him in the hall, holding him by the shoulders.  “What do you intend to do, Thomas?”
“I’m going to muster the men.”
“You can’t, sir!” Stephen nearly shouted.  “It would be better to go to Raymond’s by ourselves and then muster them in the morning if they’re needed.”
“I have to do this, Stephen,” he replied.  “Those children are family to me, and if I have help for them in reach, I’d rather kill myself than fail to provide it.”
Stephen released the knight, looking him in the eye.  “This will be the last time you bear the sword under the banner of Newcastle if you do this, Thomas.”
He nodded stiffly, his dark eyes aflame.  “For Raymond’s sake, it is a sacrifice I am willing to make.  The men have no such order.  If they come, it is of their own volition, and the consequences will fall on me.”
Stephen sighed heavily and gripped the hilt of his sword, standing tall in the dim corridor.  “I’m with you, sir.  If this must be the last time we bear the sword together, let us make it a time to remember.”
Thomas smiled weakly and set off down the corridor again. 
~ ~ ~
The wind screamed at the four riders as they raced down the darkened trail.  The fierce staccato of hoofs pounded out a warning signal into the night air.  It felt like forever before the little house appeared in the midst of the vast expanse of fields.  The dark forms of clouds had come in again and blocked out the gentle light of the moon, leaving the entire countryside in terrible blackness.
Edward hastened to catch his friends, but Raymond rode like the wind and was out of sight before the first bend in the road.  When the other three at last rushed down the final stretch leading up to the house, they saw Raymond dismounting, surrounded by four of his children.
As they drew up, they heard the frightened voices all crying out at once, begging their father to save them.  Malcolm dismounted first, followed by the others.  They raced up to the little cluster, concern etched on their faces.
“Oh,” one of the little girls cried, “you have to save them…you have to!”
“Who?” Raymond asked, turning to one of the boys.  “Who’s in there?”
“Kurt,” he blurted out.  “Kurt’s in there with them!”
“And Felice,” added the girl.
“Felice?” Raymond’s breath caught in his throat.
“It was just us two and Kurt they trapped,” the second girl explained.  “But after Peter ran off, the men said they would kill all of us, so Felice, she agreed to go to them if they let us go.  But they only let us two out, and they still have Kurt.”
“No,” Raymond gasped out, barely above a whisper.  “No, Felice, no.”
He made to rush up to the house, but Malcolm stepped up and restrained him.  At a nod from his commander, Oswald crouched low to the ground and made his way close to the house.  Raymond was near weeping, his muscles tense as he strained half-heartedly against Malcolm’s hold.  Edward simply looked on and shook his head, not believing what was occurring.
Oswald came back after a few minutes, his brow furrowed.  “I couldn’t hear much,” he said, “but there’s a fight in there.”
Suddenly, a loud crash sounded from a house and the scream of a woman pierced the night.
“No!” Raymond leapt up, charging at the door again.  He nearly reached it, but was dragged down a few paces from it by Malcolm and Oswald together.
“Stop it!” Malcolm hissed, his leadership taking over.  “We need a plan.  If we charge them without knowing where they are in the house, at least one of us will die!”
Edward rushed up to them, breathing heavily.  “Let me talk to them,” he said, his eyes blazing.  “He’s my brother.  He’ll listen to me.”
Malcolm gave a quick nod of assent, and Edward walked up to the door, rapping loudly against the boards. 
“It’s Edward!” he shouted.
There was a low murmur from within, then came another shout.  “Stand clear of the door, or I’ll shoot you down!”
Edward looked up to see the leather flap of the loft window pulled back, and the sharp point of an arrow aimed dead at him.  Sprinting away from the door, he pulled the others back to a safe distance.
Breathing heavily, the four men sat down together in the grass. No other sounds issued from the house, but the leather flap stayed back, and they could see a pair of eyes staring out at them in the darkness.
“That didn’t work,” said Malcolm.  “So we need another plan.  Raymond, how many entrances are there to that house?”
“Two,” he whispered hoarsely.  “But there are four men in there.”
“All right,” Malcolm continued.  “We’ll assume that both Felice and Kurt are still alive, so we have to find a way to get in there.”
Edward spoke up.  “I think they only have one archer, maybe two,” he said, “and he's up at the loft window.  The others probably just have swords.”
Oswald nodded.  “Perhaps we can use the darkness to keep their archer from spotting us.  If two of us charge each door, we might be able to overpower them.”
Malcolm shrugged.  “It might work, except that the front entrance is fully visible from the loft.”
Raymond kept his eyes down as he spoke.  “But the rear entrance cannot be seen from the loft window, not even on the inside.  If all four of us were to charge it, perhaps we could…”
“It’s dangerous,” Malcolm said.  “But I’d be willing to try it if the rest of you are.”
The three men nodded and stood, regarding the patch of light that still showed from the window.   Just as they were preparing to work their way around the building, though, the front door opened, allowing a beam of light to stretch out into the darkness.
“Edward!” Alfred called out from the doorway.  “Come here! Alone!  I will bargain for their lives!”
Edward looked at Malcolm, who nodded.  As he stepped onto the trail leading up to the door, he could hear the other three slip into the tall grass to find their way to the rear.  If he could hold his brother’s attention long enough, it would provide them a better chance of storming the house.
“Alfred,” Edward said as he approached, holding out his hands to show he bore no weapons.  “What is the meaning of this?”
The huge man beckoned him closer.  “Tell me where the robe is, and they can go.”
“Don’t the lives of innocent children mean anything to you?”
“Children of a Norman,” he shrugged.
“Most of these children are Saxon, Alfred.  They are orphans.  Would you really harm them?”
“Tell me where the robe is."
“This thing has cost too much in blood already.  Can’t you give it up?  Leave now, and I will see to it that you will not be pursued."
“I want the robe,” Alfred spoke in low, measured tones.  He was holding onto the doorpost to remain upright, as if he were in danger of keeling over.  It was difficult to discern in the darkness, but Edward thought he could make out a large black bruise over a good part of his face.
“And what of the young woman you have inside?  What do you need her for?”
Alfred was silent for a long time, his lips pursed into a thin line.  “Your brother is still a man of honor, Edward, regardless of what you might think of him."
“I'm glad to hear that," said Edward, but didn't quite know what Alfred meant by it. So he pressed on: "Why don't you just leave this life of violence behind you?  You can still go home with me.  You can start over and forget all the wounds of the past.”
“They cannot be forgotten--by either of us.”
“There is forgiveness, Alfred.  Let me show you the way, and I will stand by your side.  There are greater things to be done than the destruction of everything Norman.”
He shook his head.  “There is no cause more worthy.”
A chill wind began to blow down from the north, snapping at Edward’s clothes.  “Look at you!” he cried to his brother.  “Look at what you are doing!  Even in the eyes of other Saxons, you are no more than petty thugs!  Is this truly what you want from life?  There's no way four men can rout an entire nation from England!  You’re fighting a losing war, Alfred.  The only victory in life can come from the freedom of Christ!  Come with me, my brother!”
Alfred looked coldly at him. “You don’t understand.  I have more men, at least a score still in Northampton.  If I had this robe, it would give a new power to our mission.  Think of what I could do with it!  We might yet see a Saxon England!”
“Saxon England died over a century ago, Alfred!  And the first blood that stained your hands was Saxon!  How many lives would you destroy with this thing?”
“Norman lives are of no account to me,” he waved it off.
“All life is precious to God!” he shouted.
Alfred shook his head.  “There are some things that would never be settled between us, Edward, and you know it as well as I.  Even if I were to leave my duty and join you in a life of goodwill to everyone, there would still be that one seed of discord that you have never allowed me to forget.”
“It doesn’t need to be that way any longer. I have forgiven you of that.  I no longer hold it against you!  You are my brother, and if we can not stand for each other, who can?”
Alfred was silent for a long time, regarding his brother through the gloom of the night.  At that instant, though, a sound drifted up on the wind, catching the brigand’s ear.  He tilted his head, trying to catch the sound again.  Edward watched his brother as the sound of a troop of horses, riding like madmen, could be heard approaching from the west.
“Go!” Alfred turned to shout back into the house, shoving two other forms out ahead of him.  “Fly!  Fly!” he barked as they began sprinting across the field, into the darkness.  Alfred stood there as if undecided, listening to the sound of the horsemen. 
“Stay with me, Alfred,” Edward urged his brother.
Alfred bit his lip and shook his head, then dashed off after his men just as the first line of knights broke out over the fields.  They saw the fleeing brigands and gave a whoop, charging towards the fugitives.  Without staying to watch the hunt, Edward turned and rushed inside the house to find his three friends already inside.
Edward’s breath drew in sharply at what he saw.  One of the brigands lay dead in a puddle of his own blood in the center of the floor.  Felice was lying still on the floor, stretched out beside the brigand. Kurt, a boy of only eight years old, was huddled in a corner, crying.
Running over to the boy, he cradled his head in his arms while he watched the three other men. Raymond was kneeling over Felice's unmoving form, his hand feeling for a heartbeat and his face bent low to feel her breath. After a long, agonizing moment, he sat up and gave a sigh of relief. 
After a while, Kurt sniffed and raised a grubby hand to dry his tears.  “Can you tell me what happened here?” Edward asked gently.
The little boy nodded bravely. “Right after Felice came in it started,” he began.  “They threw her on the floor, so hard that she stopped moving. One of the men went to get on top of her, but the big one, the leader, he didn’t like that, and he told them to stop.  But the others didn’t pay any attention to him.  So the big one,” he brushed a tear back again, “the big one started to fight.  He killed one of them right there, his own man! Then the other two left Felice alone, but I thought she was dead."
“It’s okay,” Edward soothed in a quiet voice.  “It looks like Felice will be fine, and those men all gone now; everything will be fine.”
Edward held the crying boy for a few more minutes, trying to wrap his mind around the story. Alfred had clearly taken the house in order to have hostages to bargain for Hannah's relic, but the others in his band had wanted Felice for other purposes. And Alfred, the prodigal brother that he had despised so long, had defended her to the point of taking one of his own men's lives. Edward shook his head and cast a glance toward the open doorway, where the sounds of the chase had long since faded away. Perhaps there was hope for his brother after all.

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