Thursday, February 04, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 23

 © Matthew Burden, 2001
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Jonathan swore and kicked his horse, charging through the mist that hung over the road.  The other two followed, pounding their way beside him as they raced south.  “Templars!” he spat into the wind.
Alfred came up beside him, leaning over as they rode.  “It’s better to forget it now and go back to Northampton, Jonathan!”
The one-eyed brigand remained silent.
“If the Templars have possession of the robe,” the leader continued, “then we have no more chance to take it.”
Jonathan looked at him coldly, still charging down the road.  “I’m riding on!” he shouted in Alfred’s face.  “You may do what you like!”
The leader fell silent, the drumming of hoofbeats shattering the still air.  “Hold up for a moment, Jonathan,” he shouted across to the other man.
The brigand reined in his horse and sat waiting for his leader’s instruction.
“Are you going to continue trailing them?” Alfred asked.
He nodded.
“And you?” he asked the other brigand, who also nodded.
“All right,” Alfred continued.  “I will ride around them when they retire for the night, and make for Northampton.  If I can muster our men in time, we should be able to trap them between us on the road.  Surely we have enough men to overcome six Templars and two knights,” he reasoned.
Jonathan nodded, pulling on his beard.  “Twenty men,” he said dryly.  “And we will lose at least half.”
“You were the one who seemed so set on going after this robe.  Are you backing down now that they have help?”
Jonathan smirked.  “It’s still worth it."
Alfred narrowed his eyes and nodded.  “Very well, then,” he sighed.  “I will ride on.  Farewell, friends; hopefully we will see each other again.”
~ ~ ~
The Count held up his hand.  “Listen,” he hissed.
Edward cocked his head to hear the sound that the Templar’s ears had picked up.  Suddenly, he felt the steady pounding in the earth, like the war-drums of an army beating a frenzied retreat.  In an instant, a rider flashed by, his brown cloak streaming out behind him.  His jaw was set, his brown beard and dark, hard eyes unmistakable to the companions.
“Alfred?” Edward breathed, watching as his brother disappeared into the gloom.  Just as it seemed he was about to vanish once more along the trail, he heard a shout and a splash, then silence.  No sound of receding hoofbeats, only dead silence.  Malcolm nodded to Oswald, who drew his sword and dismounted, walking carefully forward through the fog.
It was only a few moments before he came jogging back, his sword re-sheathed.  “It looks like his horse slipped,” he explained.  “He must have fallen and knocked himself out.  He’s still over there.”
Edward leaped from his horse and dashed off into the mist.
“Wait, Edward!” Hannah cried, prodding her horse after him.  
They stopped at the edge of a steep declivity sloping away from the roadway.  In the mire at the bottom of the narrow ditch, Alfred lay unmoving, the fallen horse still thrashing about, trying to loose itself.  Using his knee to slide down the muddy embankment, Edward clambered past the horse to where his brother had fallen.
His beard and clothes were splashed with mud, his face bruised and bloodied from the fall.  “Alfred,” Edward gasped, kneeling down beside his brother’s still form.  “Can you hear me?”
For one long, agonizing moment, the brigand did not reply.  Finally he gasped out, “I hear you, Ed.”
“Can you rise?”
The brigand drew a long, ragged breath and heaved his body up, cradling his sword arm gently.  
“Edward,” he mouthed, but no sound came out.  The huge man’s eyes fluttered, then closed, and he began to fall back into the mire again.  Grasping Alfred’s shoulders with all the strength he could muster, Edward hauled him halfway up the bank before dropping from sheer exhaustion.  Calling out, he had to use Malcolm’s help to drag the unconscious brigand up from the ditch.
Edward sighed and sat down on the roadside, carefully examining his brother’s wounds.  Malcolm shot him a meaningful glance.
“You knew he would be following us, didn’t you?”
“As did you,” the other replied.  “You think I did not notice your careful rearguard all the way from Newcastle?”
“How many men does he have?”
Edward shrugged.  “When we chased them away there were only two with him, right?”
Malcolm nodded.
“But he told me he had more,” Edward continued.  “At Northampton…I remember him mentioning that he had another score of men awaiting him.”
“Northampton?  That’s not far from here, Edward.  Do you suppose he was going to rally his men against us?”
“Could be. If he had been following us, no doubt he saw the Templars join us.”
“And that was when he decided he needed more help,” Malcolm concluded, nodding grimly.  “And so there are several groups now that desire the robe we bear,” he whispered, glancing over his shoulder to where the Templars were still huddled together, conversing in low tones.
“But none of them know for certain that we have it,” Edward said, raising himself to his feet with a grunt.  “And we must remember that Hannah’s uncle is still in danger.  He is the only family she has left, except for her baby brother.  We must be careful, and do this for her sake.  Surely there must be some man of high values who would be a worthy protector of the relic.”
“Perhaps,” Malcolm allowed.  “But finding him is the more difficult matter.”
Edward nodded and raised his arms out above his head to stretch his weary muscles.  Gazing down at his brother’s unmoving form, his thoughts were snatched away in an instant to that most terrible of times nearly ten years before.
~ ~ ~
The shouts of the madmen echoed down the corridors; the screams of the servants could be heard lingering in the cold night air.  Edward, a boy of fifteen years, was huddled in a corner with Helen, a serving-girl only several years older.  They clung to each other, shuddering each time one of the screams echoed throughout the hallways.  Fear seemed to consume him in a chilling wave.  He was only glad that he was not alone; Helen was with him.
“God help us,” she whispered, a tear flowing down the soft curve of her cheek. 
Edward turned his head to look at her, wondering what they could do.  He cursed himself inwardly at his weakness, longing to have the courage to rise up and face the brigands that were sacking his father’s house.  The thin fingers of his left hand gripped a small club so hard that he began to lose feeling in them; his right was holding tight to Helen’s.  Each time a shout or scream was heard, Edward could feel his muscles tense with involuntary fear.
After several minutes, though, it was Helen who finally made an attempt to leave the hiding-place.  The chamber had been quiet for several minutes, and, although they could not see all of it, they assumed it was once again empty.  As she rose and squared her shoulders, preparing to step out into the light, she gasped.  She tried to hunch back into her position next to Edward, but it was too late. She had been seen.  Out of nowhere a monstrous figure appeared, his thick beard dripping with sweat.  
With a brutal heave, the attacker ripped Helen out from the niche in the wall and slammed her down against the floor.  Edward’s pulse pounded in his ears, his heart was racing wildly.  He heard the awful sound of her impact, and the whimpered scream that escaped as the ruffian began to beat her.
Noble Helen, beautiful Helen.  Edward watched as she was tortured on the floor, her screams cutting deep into his heart with more force than any brigand’s sword.  He pressed himself against the cold stone wall of the niche, praying that God would give him the bravery to save her. 
She had been his companion since childhood, and Edward had secretly adored her.  Although she was but a servant and he the son of a Saxon noble, there was something deeper than friendship that had begun to spring up between them.
Edward’s muscles tensed and he closed his eyes tight, heaving out a quick breath.  “Lord, have mercy,” he whispered hoarsely before rocketing himself out of his spot, barreling his small frame in the brigand’s side.  His head snapped back with the force of the impact, but he pressed on, pummeling the attacker’s side with all his might.
Surprised by the unexpected flurry of blows that descended on him from nowhere, the large man was unable to turn around quickly enough of deflect the brunt of Edward’s charge.  Each time the youth struck, he let out a wild, inhuman shout, raging like a beast against the massive wall of flesh before him.  He fought until his knuckles were raw and bleeding, dodging back and forth around the brigand’s bulk, and bruising his undefended side whenever he could land a blow.  His eyes burned with the fury of utter hatred, and at last all fear had been purged from his mind.  There was nothing of himself left, no fear of bodily harm.  Nothing but Helen.
At last the brigand spewed out a string of loud curses and drew a dagger from his belt, flailing wildly at the dodging youth.  Edward leapt aside from a misplaced slash and immediately stepped back into the defenseless gap while the brigand tried to control his swing.  Closing his eyes, he drove his boot up hard against the attacker’s stomach.
The huge man stumbled back and released the dagger, the wind knocked out of him.  As his lungs heaved to regain his breath, Edward leapt forward and landed on top of him, beating him with a strength born of desperation, tearing at his beard until his face was bloody and scratched.  The brigand gave a shout and heaved the youth away.  Edward landed hard on the cold stone floor.  But as he rose to his knees again, his hand touched the cool metal of the dagger that the attacker had dropped.  The huge man was roaring with anger and marching across the room to finish off the two young victims.  Just as he stooped down to grasp Edward’s shoulder, the young man whirled and, with a shout, drove the dagger toward the man’s face.  It cut a long gouge down from the brigand’s forehead, through his eye and into his cheek.
The burly ruffian let out a shriek of pain.  He brought his hands up in a vain effort to stop the rush of blood that was streaming down his face.  With an enraged shout, he leveled one final kick at the youth, then turned around and ran out of the room.
Edward slumped over, breathless.  The skin on his knuckles had peeled away, leaving a painful, bloody patch of flesh.  Hearing a low moan beside him, he turned to see Helen, still stretched out on the stone floor of the little chamber.  Her clothes had been torn and slashed, her face and arms bruised horribly.   
“Edward,” she said, her breath coming labored.
“Yes, I am here,” he replied, placing his face over hers so that he could hear her words.
“Edward,” she said again, a final sigh before the breath passed from her lungs.  Her eyelids fluttered, then closed slowly, her lips forming the easy smile of someone content with life.  Content with life, but life had left her.
He looked at her for a long time, unbelieving, studying her face.  He knew she was dead, and yet his mind would not accept it.  He watched her eyes for some sign of an awakening, of the breath returning to her empty body.  The smile on her face was otherworldly, and seemed completely out of place.  There she lay, bruised and beaten, ravaged and terrorized in her final moments, and still she had found some deep inner well of strength to leave life with the light of a smile.
Edward began to weep, cradling her head against him, and whispering in her ear as they had done so often in their childish games.  He longed for those days again, bright, happy days of peace and joy.  And now there he was, holding his one true friend in his arms, dead.   
With a scream half of pain and half of sorrow, he stood up, and, seeing the discarded dagger, snatched it up and dashed madly down the hall, searching for the coward who had destroyed his life.
Following the flickering light of a torch down the corridor, he turned the corner into his father’s chamber.  As he reached the doorway, he stopped, perplexed, and gazed within.  Several of the brigands had gathered about his father’s bed, their long daggers exposed.  Another brigand, the leader, stood looking on, his back to Edward.
He could hear his father’s voice, small and afraid, pleading with the strange men, the fearsome demons of violence that had descended on them.  Edward watched in speechless horror as the leader nodded his head, and he saw the daggers flash down.  He turned his head so as not to see the death-blow given to his beloved father, so ill and helpless.  A silent scream racked his throat, and he fell to the stone floor in shock, the dagger clattering to the stone floor.  The leader turned at the sound, and Edward gazed up at the face he knew so well, the face he revered, the face he admired, trusted, and looked up to.
“Alfred?” he gasped out.  “Alfred, my brother…” his voice was weak, with the sorrowful timbre of a man betrayed.  “What is this?”
Alfred spoke, the same deep voice that had laughed with him in childhood and instructed him in the ways of being a man.  “It is what had to be, Edward,” he said, almost as if he were sad at the unavoidable purpose he faced.  But his eyes, his eyes raged with a strange gleam, a gleam not of regret but of lust—the lust of power.
Releasing a mighty shout of pain, Edward turned and sprinted back down the hallway and out into the cool night air.  He ran past the bodies of dead servants and did not turn aside for the whimpered pleas of the dying.  Finding his horse in the stable, he saddled it and rode out into the starless night, his raw throat screaming at the heavens.  All he wanted was to escape the nightmare and to return in the morning to find all as it should be.  Urging his steed north, he raced like the wind, hoping to outpace the pain.  
It was several days later that he collapsed, sleepless and starving, on a cold expanse of a northern shore unknown to him.  And as he gazed out at the black waters, wondering what it would feel like to drown, he saw across the bay the twinkling lights that beckoned him to go on.  He swam beyond the point where he could feel his muscles giving out.  He felt the deep currents tugging at him, claiming him as their own, but he denied them, pressing his weary body ever further.
His limbs were numb, but still he found the power to move them, gliding through the stiff waves toward the banks of a little island.  When he was at the point of giving in, his mind wavering on the brink of unconsciousness, he felt a strong grip take him by both arms, whispering encouragement in his ears before he lost all consciousness.   
He awoke the next morning on the shore of the island, breakers foaming over him.  His clothing was tattered and torn, but he was still alive.  He glanced around, but no sign of his midnight rescuer could be seen.  He moaned, commanding his weary muscles to raise him to his feet. 
Climbing up a steep path, he fell at last at the gate of the monastery of Lindisfarne, wishing nothing but death and yet forced to press on in a life that bore him no hope.  He did not know why God had not let him drown, but it was as if a deep voice was beckoning him in a still, quiet manner, tugging at his heart.  Though he knew that freedom from his pain would only come from death, his heart bore him onward, to something it spoke to him of, something greater.
~ ~ ~
Edward shook his head, clearing his mind of the awful thoughts that returned like a flood.  Since his time at Lindisfarne, he had found his purpose in life.  It had given him joy, yes, even solace from the memories of that night.  He had found healing in the awesome power of Christ, and, as he gazed at his brother, he felt at last that final grudge that he had borne between them was wiped away.  What he had told his brother at Raymond’s house was finally true: he had forgiven him, fully and completely.
The memories of the terror-filled night had all been washed away, into some past life.  They were no longer part of him, nor could they dictate his course in life.  He was his own man, and he had determined not to let any earthly thing be his master: not the past, not the future, not any man, not any force of evil. 
Kneeling down to wipe the mud from his brother’s face, he looked up at his friend.  “He needs to know, Malcolm.”
The Scot looked down with sympathy.  “What’s that, Edward?”
        “He needs to know how much I still love him. He needs to know that we are still brothers.”