Thursday, January 07, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 19

© Matthew Burden, 2001
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The knights of Newcastle had been unable to catch the fleeing brigands, and came up with only a vague trail that wound around for miles through the woods and the heather-sloped moors.  Edward was forced to retire from the house the next day because of his pledge to Hannah, who returned with him to help tend to the young ones.
Raymond paced around most of the day speechless, his mouth set in a firm line, his jaw clenched.  It was disquieting thing for Edward to see this man, once so full of life and joy, now shaken by this a blow.  Felice had awakened, but she spoke very little for most of that first day, aside from soft assurances that she was all right.
It was early during the afternoon of the second day that Edward decided to draw himself away from the house and go out to the woods.  Stepping beneath the trees that grew close together all the way down to the river, he sighed.  The air was cool and fresh, and he exulted to be alone in the beauty of nature.  He shook his head slowly.  So many terrible things had happened throughout the past week that it seemed one long, unstoppable nightmare.
Sinking to his knees, he bowed his head.  How long had it been since he had taken the time to pray?  He couldn’t remember a time since the first night of running from Newcastle. He stayed there kneeling for what seemed like only a few minutes, but when he emerged, considerably lightened in his soul, he found to his astonishment that the sun was already well on its way toward its resting place against the distant backdrop of the Cumbrian highlands.
He had not found definite answers to all of the questions that plagued his mind, but he found that a deep inner peace had settled over him once more.  He knew then what he had to do.  Instead of attempting to play the hero and save all those in need, as he had been doing for the past week, he was merely to continue the work he had begun in Melrose: to love and to guide by example of humble service.
Making his way slowly back to the house, he stopped for a moment to look across the fields, still torn up from the riders’ charge on the night of the chase.  The trampled crops still stood there, waiting for some strong arm to begin gathering them up.  It could be days before Raymond and his sons would be able to turn their attention back to the harvest.  Stooping down to grasp a discarded scythe, he began to step into the field, swinging his arm in low, smooth swipes across the stalks.  He watched as the full heads of grain fell to the ground beneath his feet.  After he had cut for several minutes he went back, and retrieving a basket from the side of the trail, he began to collect the grain he had cut.
He repeated this process for some time, breaking into a sweat despite the cold of the evening.  Once the basket was full, he hefted its weight and marched back to the house, proud of the fruit of his day’s labors.  The sun’s brilliant disc had begun to slip behind the distant hills as he approached the lodge-house.  As he stepped in the door, he flashed a quick smile to Raymond, who looked back at him without expression. Edward stepped towards the hearth, where Hannah was stooping low over the fire.
The house was fairly empty now, since the children had been borne back to Newcastle with the Scots.  Malcolm had always astonished Edward with the easy way he related to children, and if anyone could get them to overcome the trauma of that night, he was the one.  Felice was not to be seen, and Edward wondered where she could have gone off to.
He set the heavy-laden basket down and sat beside the fire to watch Hannah as she worked.  
“What have you been doing?” she asked after a while.  “I wondered where you were.”
He pointed to the basket. “I brought in some of their grain.  It’s ready for the harvest.”
His eyes followed her as she walked across the room to retrieve a bit of spice.  “If I was in Melrose now, I would be helping with the harvest there.  Soon it will be autumn, and the frosts will start to come.”  He smiled, the memories springing back into his mind.  “Whenever the frost started to come at Lindisfarne and the wind grew colder, the brothers would all help bringing in the produce from the gardens.  It's a sort of work I enjoy doing.”
She smiled.  “My father had no crops,” she said.  “But this time of year was always special to us.”
“Why is that?” Edward prodded, pleased at being able to sit and listen to her.  It seemed that after all the hardship she had undergone the past weeks, that she had finally been able to leave her mourning behind when faced with the reality of someone else’s tragedy.
         “The beginning of autumn is the time of some of our holiest days. My father and uncle loved the Torah, and observed the calendar very carefully.  Especially Yom Kippur.”
“What does your uncle do for a living?”
“He is a rabbi,” she said with a slight, wistful smile.  “He would travel around Northumbria and Durham visiting the Jews and instructing them.”
“What is Yom Kippur?” he repeated the words.  It seemed to him he had heard of them before, but he didn’t know where.
“The Day of Atonement,” she responded, sampling a bit of the broth she had been working on.  “In ancient times, the High Priest would go into the Temple and make a sacrifice to cover the sins of the people.”
“Did it work?”
She looked at him quizzically.  “Did what work?”
“The sacrifice.  Did it really cleanse the people of sins?”
She shrugged.  “I suppose so.  But now there is no Temple in Jerusalem, and such things can no longer be done.  We would always first go through a mikvah, a ritual bath, and then participate in a fast for the entire day.  From the evening of Yom Kippur through the following day, we would gather with the other Jews for a special service.  It was a time my father loved: one in which all of our people could gather together and simply be Jews, without shame or fear.”
Edward nodded.  He had heard many terrible things about the Jewish customs throughout his life, but what he was hearing now did not seem to match up with those rumors.  It came into his mind that perhaps an entire race had been misjudged rather harshly. 
She looked at him, and he returned her gaze.  “I have not been keeping the Sabbath lately,” she said at last, as if making a deep confession.  “My father would be angry with me.”
Edward was silent, considering these things.  He had read through the Scriptures, and written portions of them many times in the monastery scriptorium, but he had never truly realized the extent of God’s love to the Jews until he had met Hannah.  
         Rising, he stretched and walked over to where Raymond was sitting, staring into nothingness.  Touching the man’s tense shoulder, Edward walked back into the gathering dusk, knowing Raymond would follow.
It was actually several minutes before he emerged to join Edward, his arms crossed over his chest.  He tried to smile, but it was a mask of happiness for a broken man.
They stood together for a long moment, gazing out over the fields and the darkening sky.  “A storm is brewing in the south,” Edward said, taking in a deep breath of the cool breeze.
Raymond nodded, looking at the bright bank of clouds where the sun’s setting glow could be seen against the formidable darkness of the rest of the sky.
“How is Felice doing?” Edward asked at last.
“It is difficult,” he said. "But if not for your brother, it could have been much worse. She will be herself again soon."
“It was a brave thing she did. She may well have saved the girls’ lives.”
Raymond nodded solemnly.  “Yes, it was. She is strong, like her mother.”
Edward waited for him to continue.  
"As for me, though..." he continued, "well, the fear of that night is not easily forgotten. 
The faint sound of music drifted to their ears, and both men strained to hear it.  After a few moments, the melody rose again on the breeze, the light, willowy voice of a woman.  Raymond nodded.  “She goes down to the pond and sings,” he smiled.
“It’s one of the Psalms,” Edward noted.
Raymond smiled at him.  “The priest teaches us portions of Scripture in Norman French and in Saxon English, since not many of us in these parts are fluent in Latin.  Felice loves the words, and memorizes them.  They are what give her comfort in times like these.”  The father raised up one hand to wipe away a tear from the corner of his eye.  “They have even given her the strength to sacrifice herself for the other children, and to forgive the men who would have seized that sacrifice.”
Edward smiled.  “Only through forgiveness will this matter ever lie at peace.”
“I know.  I only pray that God gives me the ability to do the same, even to those men who terrorized by children, assaulted my daughter....It is a faith of love we hold, is it not, Edward?”
“Yes, the greatest love."
“Then that is what I must do,” the knight nodded his head decisively.
Edward began to weep, hearing the very desires of his heart spoken aloud by the brave knight.  Throughout all of his conflicts with his brother, this was the first time he had heard so clearly what he had felt all along.  And he wondered at the faith of that family, daughter and father.  They had discovered in only two short days what it had taken him all his life to realize: the true meaning of forgiveness and love.
Embracing Raymond, he held him close, as one brother to another. The notes of Felice’s song washed over them as they stood there together.  There was a love present that ran deeper and stronger than the swift-cutting knife of hardship, and both men could feel it.   
As the sun finished its cycle, breaking through the western clouds before disappearing, it showered a brilliant, fiery display of light over them.  And as they turned to go back to the house, the sun slipped beneath the edge of the horizon, and the storm-clouds of Durham were fast boiling in the distance.