Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 21

© Matthew Burden, 2001
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They had been on the trail two days by the time they rode into sight of the walls of York.  The town was sprawled out at the base of the castle, covering the landscape in a broad network of streets and shops, homes and fields.  It was a dull day with an overcast sky, and the air hung silent in fearful expectation.  Malcolm and Oswald had fallen to the rear as they rode, with Edward and Hannah leading the way side by side.

The walls of the fortress rose up, tall and forbidding over the road.  Even as they approached the gate, Edward could feel a terrible uneasiness settle over him, a dark shadow of gloom that blocked out whatever sunshine he had held in his heart.  He shuddered, suddenly realizing how cold it had grown.

“What has happened here?” Hannah whispered.  They could feel the stares of the people on them, but they did their best to ignore it.

Malcolm frowned, turning to glance over his shoulder before regarding the castle again.  Clifford’s Tower, one of the promontories that dominated the fortress, stood before them, its wooden walls dark and uninviting in the cold gloom of the day.

“I see nothing out of place,” Oswald commented, stopping beside Edward.

“Perhaps it's only a feeling,” Hannah sighed as she drew her cloak close about her.

“Come, Edward,” Malcolm pressed, with a hint of urgency, “let us enter in.  We shall reach London no sooner if we stare at these walls for days.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “you’re right.”  Dismounting, he walked up to the gate and rattled the thin portcullis that barred the way.

Within moments, a soldier appeared, his countenance grim and drawn.  His eyes were glazed, as if he had only just awoken from sleep.  “Yes?  Who are you, sir?”

“I am Edward, from Melrose.”

The soldier’s expression remained unchanged.  “And your purpose?”

“We are seeking a knight by the name of Justin of York.  Would you know him?”

“There are several by the name of Justin that have served with us.  What house is he from?”

Edward turned to look at Hannah, who shrugged helplessly.  “He was tall, with a full blond beard,” she said.

The soldier regarded her with a stare that appeared almost hostile.  “I see.  I will speak with my commander about this.  Perhaps we can help, perhaps we cannot.  Please wait.”

“Please, sir,” Edward spoke through the portcullis, “how long will it take?  Should we be left out in the cold for only a few minutes, or would it be advisable for us to come back for an answer this evening?”

He paused, his thin lips drawn into a tight line.  “Return at sundown,” the guard said stiffly, “and I will be able to tell you what we know.”

~ ~ ~

The knock resounded through the darkened chamber, echoing back and forth in the stillness.  When no response came, the door swung open a little, allowing a ray of light into the room.

“Sir?” the guard spoke.

“Yes, enter,” a voice came from within.

“Have I disrupted your prayers, sir?”

“I was not praying,” the voice answered sharply.  “I was in thought.  An escape from such thoughts is most welcome.”

The guard managed a nervous smile.  “I knew you would want to hear, sir, before I reported to my commander.  I was just at the gate.  A party appeared at the north gate.  Three Scots and a Jewish woman, traveling together.”

“A strange company indeed,” the voice commented.  “But of what interest is this to me?”

“They were asking for news of Justin of York, sir.”

“The one that fled several months ago?”

“The same, sir.  I knew you were desirous of news of Sir Justin, so I thought you might wish to know what the purpose of these men are.”

“And shall I be able to see them?”

“Perhaps,” the guard allowed.  “I might be able to arrange it when they return for an answer….”

The voice swore in French, and several golden coins landed at the guard’s feet.

“I will bring one of them directly here, sir.”

“Very good. My masters will be most pleased should I be able to recover it.”

“Recover what, sir?” the guard asked, still standing in the open doorway.

“Nothing, nothing.  Begone now.  I shall be waiting.”

~ ~ ~

The three men sat back, watching somewhat uncomfortably.  The Jew that had taken them in for the afternoon was a small man with a bushy gray beard, but his eyes shone with determination.  Hannah had introduced him as Joseph, a family friend.  His house was small, but rusticly comfortable.  They each had a small chair of hand-carved wood to sit on while they conversed quietly, waiting until they would be able to return to the castle.

“Yes,” he said in his gruff voice.  “We have been worried for a while that something might erupt from the London riots, but nothing serious has come our way yet.”

“That's good,” Hannah replied.  “I have had my share of trials over the aftermath of the riots.”

“Yes, I know,” he bowed his head.  “I heard news about many of the usurers from across the land.  You have my sincere condolences.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“But I fear that there may be more trouble when the King leaves.  He has issued a decree against any persecution of our people, but,” he sighed, “that decree may leave the country with him when he goes to the Holy Land.”

Hannah nodded somberly.  “I have seen more of the violent feelings of England erupt against us in the past month than I have in the entirety of my life.”

“Did you hear what happened to Benedict?” Joseph leaned forward.  When she didn't respond, he continued.  “He kept changing his decision on whether to call himself a Christian or a Jew, and he was in some awful trouble when he called himself a Jew before the King.”


“Well, because he had formerly claimed to be a Christian.  The leaders took it as apostasy.”

“And where is he now?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed.  “I've heard no news for several days, but what I heard before does not bode well for him.  I hope his wavering does not endanger our entire community.”  He glanced up at the three men, who were sitting silently, waiting for the sun to set so they would be able to continue back to the keep for the answer.   “How sit the affairs of Scotland?” he asked, attempting to make idle conversation.

“King William is hoping he may be able to purchase back his sovereignty,” Malcolm spoke up, his eyes lighting.

“Really?  Would Couer-de-Lion allow that?”

“It is said he is willing to sell it back to raise money for his Crusade,” Oswald spoke.

“Ah, I should have guessed,” Joseph sighed, nodding glumly.  “I fear our isle may be in for some difficult times when the throne is vacated.  We must pray it will not be for too long, else the Jews will have little refuge.”

“Do you really think it will be all that bad for your people when the Crusaders leave?” Edward asked. 

“Perhaps,” the Jew said, staring at the wooden floorboards at his feet, deep in thought.  “It is only his edict that keeps many Christians from slaying us all.  We are seen as less than nothing, the Christ-killers, and without the King’s protection, we may have to seek out a home in another land.  Surely you must have seen some of this terrible rancor.”

“Some,” he admitted.  “But we are much more isolated from these affairs in Scotland.  I suppose you do not have very many Christians entering your home, as we do now.”

“No,” he chuckled.  “If they come here, it is only for thievery.  It seems they believe they are serving God by harming us.”  He shook his head.  “It’s a warped, twisted world we live in.  But I'm grateful that there are still a few men who have not dismissed our entire race as worthy only of death.”

Oswald nodded, stretching his arms as he stood up.  “The sun is nearly set,” he reported, glancing out the westward window, which showed the orange streams of light spurting up from the edge of the horizon.  The four friends stood, and, bidding their host farewell, they made their way back up to the gate.

They found the same guard already there, awaiting them.  He leered at them for a moment, his unshaven jaw displaying a crude smirk.   
“I only need one of you,” he said.  “One of the commanders would like to speak to you.  He may be able to tell you something about Sir Justin.”

Edward was about to volunteer, but Malcolm gripped his shoulder.  “Something doesn’t seem right about this, Edward,” he whispered in his ear.  “Let me go.”

He was about to protest, but the stern look in the Scot’s eyes kept him silent.  “We’ll wait here,” he said softly.

“No, you’d better not.  It’s dark out, and you should get Hannah inside.  Why don’t the two of you return to Joseph’s house, and have Oswald await me.”

Edward was not pleased with the command, but he knew his friend was right.  He nodded and took Hannah by the arm.  “Malcolm will go for us. We should return to the house of your friend.”

“But shouldn’t we wait for him?  It can't take too long to meet with the commander, can it?”

“I don’t know,” he responded, gesturing at the darkening sky, “but it is quickly becoming night.  I don’t think we should stand out here by the gate for too long.  Oswald will remain, but we should go.”

Malcolm stepped forward, his arms crossed over his chest.  “I will go,” he spoke quickly.

The guard narrowed his eyes and opened the gate.  “This way,” he motioned, leading him into the dark tower.  They walked down several corridors, lighted by the flickering luminescence of a few torches set in scones along the wall.  They reached a stairway and, following it downward for one flight, stopped before a heavy wooden door, blackened with age.

Rapping heavily on the old wood, the guard shouted within.  “Sir!  I have one of them, if you would still like to speak to him!”

There was silence for a moment as the echoes of the shout died away.  Suddenly, in a voice so low that it startled Malcolm, a response came:  “Send him in!”

The Scot tried to calm himself despite the fearsome appearance of the place.  He had traveled to York once before, but never had he seen the grim lower parts of the fortress.  It was a stark contrast to the rolling highlands of the north and the low marches of the Tweed.  The guard pressed against the bulk of the door with his body, forcing it open.

Malcolm stepped in to find a room brightly lit with oil lamps.  He blinked, his eyes adjusting from the dim gloom of the stairwell.  A single man was in the room, standing straight and tall near a desk piled high with vellum parchments.  He was cloaked in a spotless white tunic, with but one design on it: a blood-red Latin cross stitched directly over his heart.  He was built heavily, but stood nearly half a head shorter than the war-captain of Melrose.  A beard of brown mixed with flecks of silver hung down from his chin.

Malcolm bowed stiffly as the heavy door thumped closed behind him.

“Greetings, friend,” the man said in Norman French.

“Greetings,” he replied in the same tongue, “I am Malcolm of Melrose.”

“Yes, I should have guessed,” he mused.  “Forgive me if I cannot render my former name to you.  I was a Count of Flanders.”

“And what are you now?” Malcolm queried.  “I can see by your dress that you are not the master of this fortress.”

“Have you not seen this design before?” the Count asked, pointing to the red cross.

“I have seen it,” he replied, “but I don’t know its significance.”

“Ah,” the Count shrugged.  “I am a Preceptor of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon."
"A Templar?"
"Ah, so you have heard the name? Yes. It is a new Order, born from an alliance of knights in the Holy Land.  I am sworn to poverty, chastity, and other such requirements.  As such, I am no longer a Count, since I cannot hold property.”

Malcolm nodded, still standing stiffly in front of the doorway.

The Count did not offer him a seat, but rather stood, examining him carefully.  “If you will permit my curiosity, why is a Scot seeking Justin of York?”

Malcolm coughed uncomfortably.  “I am journeying south with some friends, one of whom knows him.  We thought perhaps he might aid us on our quest.”

“A quest, you say?”

“Perhaps it was a poor choice of words.”

“Perhaps,” the Count tugged thoughtfully at his beard.

Malcolm looked at him for a long moment, wondering why he had been summoned to the Templar’s chamber.  “Is there anything you can tell of the whereabouts of Sir Justin? Is he not in York?”

“Oh, he is no longer here, no,” the Count said, seating himself slowly at the desk.  “He has not been seen for several months.”

Malcolm frowned.  “Do you have any idea as to where we might find him?”

“Ideas?  Oh certainly, I have many, many ideas.  How many you would have the courage the follow, though, is another question.  Yes, another question entirely.”  The Templar gazed at Malcolm for a long moment, his dark eyes betraying nothing.  “But you should know this: you are not the only ones who are seeking him.  There are many, and who knows but that some may have already found him.”

“Forgive me, sir,” said Malcolm, “but much of this fails to make sense to me.”

“Of course,” he managed a weak smile.  “Many are the times that I fail to understand all of it.  Allow me to explain, Sir Malcolm.  Sir Justin returned to us a little more than a year ago.  He stayed for several months, but each day I noticed that he was growing more and more fearful, as if he felt some dark…some dark evil was about to snatch him away.”  The Count sighed.  “I questioned him often, pressed him for answers to his condition, but this only made him more suspicious of me.  My superiors were—concerned for him.  Then one day, he rode off, and I have not seen nor heard from him since.  I was hoping that perhaps you would have more recent news of him.”

“I fear I do not. What I heard came from before his return to York.”

“What was it you heard?” the Count’s brow furrowed, his eyes narrowing in thought.

“Nothing of terrible importance,” he lied.  “It was only something about a visit to Northumbria, that’s all.”

The Templar’s eyes widened suddenly.  “Northumbria, did you say?”  He did not even wait to hear a reply, but continued on, rambling under his breath.  “Yes, of course, we knew that he went north!  If he had stopped in York first, he would have been seen.  Perhaps we are closer to the truth than we know.”

Malcolm listened intently, still uncertain of the strange events he had become entangled in.  The Templar leapt up, his eyes aflame as he dug through a heap of parchments before coming up with the one he desired.  Squinting at the markings on the page, the Count nodded to himself, still muttering.  “Of course he didn’t have it, we knew he didn’t.  But where he left it, yes, that was the question.”

“Well, Sir Malcolm,” the Templar sighed, “I’m afraid I can do little to further your search.  I have been hoping to find Sir Justin for quite some time, without any results.”
Malcolm nodded his head and bowed in respect before exiting the room.  As he closed the heavy door and began to walk back up the dimly-lit stairs, he shook his head.   
         “Better to get to London now and do what we can with it,” he whispered, jogging back down the corridor toward the gate.