© Matthew Burden, 2001
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Michael sat back, sipping his wine quietly in the stillness of his chamber in York. He had left the affairs of Newcastle with some of his associates in the region and raced south again, glad to be returning home after his long sojourn on the northern marches. He chuckled softly, throwing his head back to quaff the last mouthful of the drink before rising from his seat. He stood and strode over to the window, throwing the wooden cover back to reveal the darkness of nightfall. He shook his head, replaced the cover over the window, and proceeded to where the fire was burning low at the hearth.
As he bent down to pick up the iron poker, the door of his chamber flew open and a young guard rushed in, his eyes gleaming. “Sir!” he cried, rushing over to where Michael was stooping.
The young noble smiled cockily as he rose to face the guard. Being the nephew of the Duke had certain advantages. “Yes, what is it?”
“I was in your uncle’s audience chamber, sir,” he explained quickly, his breath coming fast, “I heard that a group of travelers has arrived at the gate looking for Sir Justin.”
“It’s about time we had news of this. Tell me, who was it that met them at the gate?” When he heard the answer, he frowned. “If this is true, then that accursed Templar has already seen them. Quick, go and post yourself near the gate to see if you can catch a glimpse of them again. We will want to trail them.”
The guard nodded, but Michael spoke up once more before he left. “What message did my idiot uncle give to them?”
“He merely said that Sir Justin had deserted several months ago, sir.”
“Good,” Michael nodded. “It is a safe answer. Perhaps the old man is learning.”
The guard nodded and stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him. As soon as he was gone, Michael stepped back to the window and ripped the cover off. Gazing out into the darkness, he could just barely make out a small grove of oaks on a distant hilltop. Nodding his satisfaction, he picked up a torch, dipped it in oil, and set it in a sconce on the windowsill so that it could be seen from outside. This done, he held a flaming brand from the fire to it, setting it ablaze. The signal had been sent. Now all that could be done would be to wait for them to come to his chamber.
~ ~ ~
Edward and Oswald were standing outside the little house, listening to Malcolm tell about the strange encounter within the castle keep.
“And none of them know where he is?” Edward asked.
“Apparently not,” the Scot sighed. “The guard gave me a message as I was leaving. The Duke has apparently claimed that Sir Justin deserted several months ago. The Templar gave me a more complete story. But…it still feels as though they are hiding something. The Templar was very vague, and I left with more questions than I had before.”
Oswald shook his head. “There are forces at work here that I don’t think we want to become entangled with.”
Edward nodded, regarding the loyal knight. “So should we just keep on a course for London then?”’
Malcolm frowned. “I suppose that is what we would have to do, but there's a problem. If anyone, even a buyer we seek out, discovers that we have this robe,” he leaned in, speaking in hushed tones, “then they might try to take it from us without compensation, and Hannah’s uncle would die.”
“Yes, and we must be certain it lands in the hands of a Christian who will be able to protect it,” Edward added. “It seems likely to me that it was the whole affair concerning this robe that trapped Sir Justin and eventually overcame him. Hopefully the robe’s claim alone will be enough to convince someone to purchase it.”
“Well, apparently we're not the only ones who believe it could be the true robe,” said Malcolm. “I think we should leave tomorrow and forget about Justin of York. Or else we will be in a situation where the Templars know of it and your brother’s brigands know of it, and both are seeking after it. And it seems there may be even a third party, perhaps the worst, which is also seeking after our relic—whoever it was that drove Justin away. It's not an ideal situation for four travelers in strange country.”
Edward glanced over his shoulder into the window of the little home, where he could see Hannah speaking with the women of the house. Turning back, he sighed. “Do you think the Templars would aid us?"
The other two knights regarded him with raised eyebrows.
“Surely they can protect it adequately, and their preceptories have enough wealth to provide the ransom.”
Malcolm shook his head. “I would consider it too risky. While they may be Christians, I don't know that I would trust them with the knowledge of the robe. If they knew of it, they might attempt to force it from us. It's better to seek out a single buyer.”
“But what single buyer would be able to adequately protect such a treasure?” Oswald wondered aloud.
At that instant, Malcolm turned around, his neck craned to see the castle wall. “What do you suppose that means?” he murmured, pointing to a torch blazing against the dark rampart.
“It’s a signal of some sort,” Edward said. “But I can't imagine it would concern us. Come, let’s go inside. I’m far too weary to debate these things any further. And if we are to set out tomorrow morning, we ought to get some sleep.”
~ ~ ~
Michael trembled, but whether it was brought on by fear or excitement he could not tell. Three shadowy forms came into the room, their dark cloaks blending in with the blackness of the night. The fire had long since died down, and it added an air of mystery to the setting as the three men stood before Michael.
“We saw your signal,” one man said, his voice soft, almost gentle in the still air.
“Yes,” Michael nodded. “I have news, my lords. I know my reports from Newcastle were of little use, but the robe that Sir Justin brought may not be out of our hands yet. Four travelers were at the gate today asking of his whereabouts. I thought perhaps they might know of the robe.”
“And the Templar?” the speaker asked.
“I am quite certain he knows of them as well.”
“That makes it more difficult,” one of the other men said.
Michael nodded, waiting in silence as his visitors discussed the matter in low whispers. All three were wearing hooded cloaks, but the center one bore a distinguishing mark. From his neck hung a bronze amulet showing a three-armed spiral twisting out from one central point. It was a simple symbol, but it transfixed Michael as he watched them.
“Michael,” the first one spoke up as soon as their hushed colloquy ended. “You must keep watch for us tonight, and accompany us tomorrow. We will have to trail them to ascertain if indeed they know of this prize.”
He bowed his head at the command, and they prepared to leave, but he stopped them with another question. “Do you think it will be enough to restore Britain to the ways of the Druidae?” he asked.
Silence hung heavy for a long while.
“No,” the third one rasped. “But it will give us somewhere to start.”
~ ~ ~
The next day dawned even darker than the one before, with a full cover of dark clouds blanketing the sky. Despite the threatening elements, however, the four companions set off again, eager to draw themselves away from the intrigue surrounding the fate of Justin of York. As they found their way back to the main southbound road, a drizzle began to fall. It was not long before their cloaks were soaked through, and they began to feel rather miserable.
Malcolm pressed them on, constantly checking the road behind to assure himself that there was no one in pursuit. But their pace was slow, and by the time they stopped in a small grove to take their noon meal, they had not ventured far from the city. It was only as they began to rise and make their way back to the road that they heard the rolling sound of horses in full stride bearing down on them from the north.
Like phantom silhouettes, six riders burst out of the fog and reined in before them. All six were arrayed in the white cloaks of the Templars, their naked blades swinging at their sides.
“Sir Malcolm!” the head rider called, and the Scot recognized him as the same Templar who had greeted him the day before.
“Greetings, Count,” Malcolm bowed. “What brings you here?”
“You have been followed,” the Templar breathed heavily.
“So it seems."
“I did not mean by us, Sir Malcolm. There is another group of riders that has been trailing you. Have you not seen them? They've been riding along the roadside to the west and north of you since you departed the city.”
“We've seen no one since you appeared. How can you be certain they're following us? Maybe they're just traveling in the same direction.”
“They ride cloaked,” the Templar said, “and hold to the edge of the forests. If I had not encountered them before, I would not have been able to distinguish their presence either.”
“And who are they?” Edward addressed the preceptor.
He regarded the other five knights, who each nodded in turn. “Very well,” he sighed. “Not many people know of their presence, and that is perhaps a good thing. They are the Druidae.”
“Druids,” Edward murmured. “Of Druids I know, but only from the lore of ancient times. So they still exist?”
He nodded somberly. “They are a disease to Christian England,” he intoned, “a grave enemy of the faith. They are few in number, but great in power. Some of the lords themselves are members, and the lords who are not are often intimidated by their cruel mystery.”
“I thought England was rid of pagans years ago,” Edward said.
The Templar nodded. “The Saxon kings became Christian centuries ago, it is true, but there are still some who wait, lurking in the dark groves and longing to see Britain restored to its former taskmasters. They thirst for a Britain of old, when their petty gods of nature ruled supreme. It is a delusion, and a dangerous one. And they are after you.”
The last words hung menacingly in the air. “Why would they want us?” Hannah asked.
“It was perhaps foolish of you to inquire after Justin of York, my friends,” his voice was grim. “There is much to the story that you do not know, and hopefully that you will never have the displeasure of finding out. Let it simply be said that the Druidae were the ones who hunted Justin down, and it was their treachery that forced him to run out into the wilderness.”
“But surely they must be after something,” Malcolm pressed, eager to find out how much the Templars knew. “What was it about Justin that makes them so afraid?”
“Justin,” the Templar sighed, looking at the four travelers, “had in his possession a certain…object, yes, an object of great import. And somehow he lost it, or hid it, no one knows which. It is something that the Druidae hope would give them a wedge of power over Christians and perhaps begin the process of leading England back to their ways. Ever since Justin disappeared, they have been searching for any scrap of information that might tell them what happened to the object in question.”
Edward gave him a penetrating look. “And you—the Templars—what is your concern in this matter?”
The Templar smiled. “We have been given a quest from the Grand Master of our order to find and secure this object before they do, and to obstruct them in any way necessary from finding it.”
“And you think we have this thing?” Hannah pressed.
“No, my lady. I thought that at first, but after speaking with Sir Malcolm I am fairly certain that you know nothing of the events in which you have become an unwilling part. Although I would like to know more of your relation to Sir Justin, my primary concern is that you be protected from the Druidae on your journey. No, if I thought you had this object, my friends, have no doubt that I would have called out every Templar in the realm to find you.”
“Then I suppose we have no recourse but to accept your protection, sirs,” Edward said.
The Templar nodded and allowed them to take the lead down the road as they set off again. As they rode, Edward could hear the Knights of the Temple whispering among themselves. Although he could not make out any part of the conversation, nagging doubts kept surfacing in his mind, never giving him peace. Something did not seem to fit in with the Templars’ story, but he couldn't pin down the feeling. It was just a premonition, an awful, terrible sense that logic would not verify, but that would not leave him despite his efforts to clear his mind.
Whispering to Malcolm, he spoke nervously. “I'm not certain of the veracity of these knights. They have something that they haven't told us, something very important.”
“I know,” his friend replied with an uneasy voice, “I know.”