Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 24

© Matthew Burden, 2001
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Edward would not consent to leave his brother behind, so the Templars allowed him to be woken up.  The Count stood beside Malcolm, looking down at the unmoving form of the brigand.
“Wretched Saxon scum,” he muttered under his breath.   
Malcolm looked at him with a questioning glance, but did not respond. 
It took several minutes before Alfred let out a low moan and opened his eyes.  The Count stepped forward and removed Alfred’s sword from his belt.   
“I’d feel a bit more comfortable if he wasn’t wearing this,” he explained.
As soon as he saw the group of Templar and Scottish knights looking down on him, he scrambled back and jumped to his feet.  His hand groped vainly for his sword.  Turning, he prepared to dash out into the refuge of the fog, but a voice behind him forced him to stop.
“Alfred!” Edward shouted, running up beside him.  The two men regarded each other for a moment, and then Alfred sighed. 
“I have to go on, Ed.  You don't understand it yet, but it has to be.  For England.”
“Is it worth the price, Alfred?  Is it worth destroying everyone who loves you?”
The big man did not respond, but merely stood planted firmly in the middle of the road, his arms crossed.   
“There is nothing left for me,” he managed to force out through clenched teeth.  "And you of all people should remember that."
"What you did to our father? Oh, I remember. But there's someone else, Alfred--you still have a brother who cares for you.”
There was no change in Alfred's expression. 
“Farewell, Edward,” he said hoarsely, then turned and sprinted to the fog-enshrouded woods.
~ ~ ~
         Alfred ducked behind a tall oak to catch his breath, glancing behind him to make certain that he was not followed.  Exhaling heavily, he wiped the mud from his face and sat back, suddenly exhausted.
        He sat there, motionless, his eyes staring blankly into the mists. Every so often, a flash of pain crossed his features. And then, finally, he leaned back his head against the hard bark of the oak tree, groaned, and stood back up.
         "Very well," he muttered. "So be it."
         And with those quiet words, breathed into the silence of the forest, he started walking back to his brother.
~ ~ ~
Edward wasn't certain at first whether it was a trick of the fog when he saw Alfred reappear, stepping purposefully out from the woods.  
“May I speak to you alone for a moment, Ed?” he said stiffly, as if he had rehearsed it.
Edward nodded, and motioned for his friends to withdraw.  Malcolm threw him a look of caution, but nodded and walked back down the road to where the remainder of the Templars were still working at the side of the ditch, attempting to extricate the fallen horse without injuring themselves in the process.
Edward waited for his brother to speak first, looking him in the eye.  Alfred dropped his gaze, mumbling something to himself before beginning.  
“Perhaps I could accompany you for a while, Edward,” he said, his voice registering it as a demand rather than a suggestion.
“Of course,” said Edward.  “I’d be glad to have you join us.  You know this area better than I do.”
“And your friends?”
‘They will not trust you, but neither will they complain.  I will see to that.
Alfred nodded, uncertain of what to do next. Clearing his throat, he stepped past his brother and jogged to the ditch to help haul his horse from the mud.
The poor beast, though frightened from its ordeal, was unharmed, and calmed considerably when Alfred took its reins again.  As the brigand wiped the mud from his mount, the others in the group fell into a deep silence, watching his every move, trying to discern his motives.  At last, Malcolm sighed deeply.
“Well, come on,” he smiled half-heartedly at the Count, “we will not draw any nearer to London waiting by the roadside.  Come, let’s ride.”
The Templars mounted their horses and fell in as a rearguard to the other five riders, who went along slowly, an aura of heavy stillness having fallen over the countryside.  Had there been Druids lurking among the trees, following their every move, none of them could have seen it for the thick blanket of fog, which the overcast day could not drive off.
~ ~ ~
Darkness had fallen suddenly over the land, bringing with it a light drizzle that chilled them as they set up a hasty camp beneath a grove of oaks.  Edward was fast asleep, curled up in a thin blanket beside where Malcolm lay, the Scot’s clear eyes untouched by any sign of fatigue.
Alfred was sitting up, his back against the trunk of a large tree.  His eyes were closed, seeming to be asleep, but Malcolm could tell he was not.  He didn't know what the brigand was planning, but he feared him.  He had already witnessed the harm that the man had inflicted on Newcastle, and he did not wish to allow him a second opportunity.
The Templars had set up a separate camp several hundred yards distant from them, just within sight to the north.  Malcolm smiled grimly, pondering the mysterious presence of the knights.  They had some other agenda behind their guard, but he was uncertain as to what it could be.  But he knew this much: there was one binding link between them all--the robe that Edward bore toward London.
He yawned, closing his eyes for a moment as he allowed the heat from the dying coals to wash over his face.  His eyelids began to feel heavy, and his mind wandered from the journey.  He thought of his farm in Melrose, near the outskirts of the town.  He thought of Mary, and how he had met her near the walls of the abbey.
He murmured in his reverie, opening his eyes slowly to gaze at the flickering embers.  As he glanced up, a shadow passed over his form and he let out a low gasp.  Even as the air escaped his lungs, he knew it was too late.  He saw Alfred’s glowering countenance leaning over him before all descended into darkness, leaving only pain in the empty night.
~ ~ ~
Malcolm’s eyes fluttered open.  Looking up, he could see the embers of the fire still glowing brightly.  Placing a hand against his head, he leapt up to see the last shadow of Alfred’s dark form retreat into the woods.  Overcome with a wave of dizziness, he tripped against Oswald, sleeping near the perimeter of the camp.
The knight mumbled in his sleep and turned over, but did not awaken.  Malcolm raised himself to his feet again and walked over to Edward’s horse, knowing what he would find even before he looked.  The saddle-bag had been torn open, its articles strewn about the campsite.  Malcolm shook his head, feeling the cold night mists against his face.  Drawing his sword, he began to dash to the point where he had seen Alfred disappear.
“Oswald!” he shouted as he ran into the woods.  “Oswald, follow me!”
The darkness of the forest closed in around Malcolm, shading him from the starlight of the night sky.  His head still throbbed from the blow, but he ran on, squinting to try to make out the shadowy form of the fleeing brigand.  Stumbling over roots, he ran as fast as he dared.  Slowly, he began to gain on the larger man, closing the distance between them.  His mind was focused on the race, knowing the fate of Hannah’s uncle depended on his next actions.  He knew that Oswald was behind him, ready to help him at the end of the chase.
Suddenly, Alfred stopped still, looking around him suspiciously.  As Malcolm came running up, his fingers still closed tightly around the hilt of his sword, he slowed to a jog as a wave of fear washed over him.  Alfred was standing stock-still about twenty paces from him, in the center of a grove of ancient oaks.  The crowns of moss-covered stones poked up from beneath the turf, forming a simple ring around the brigand.  Malcolm could sense another presence with them as he entered the grove, his eyes still fixed on Alfred.  It was a dark, mysterious feeling of impending doom.  Shuddering, he tried to force it from his mind and walked up to the brigand.
At that instant, he saw several black-cloaked figures step out from the deep shadows of the trees, encircling the two men in the grove.  Malcolm looked at them for a long moment, holding his sword at ready, waiting for an aggressive move.  He smiled grimly, seeing in the distance the bobbing light of a torch coming towards the grove.  Oswald was not far behind.  But the smile vanished from his face as one of the men stepped into a moonlit spot and smiled at him.  He was a young man with dark hair and sparkling eyes, his smile one of triumph.
“You will come with us,” he addressed the two men solemnly, then stepped forward until he was standing before Malcolm.  The youth was a half-head shorter than the towering Scot, but it did not seem to bother him.   Flashing his smile once more, the youth spoke in a whisper.  “And perhaps you may live to see the day once more.”
~ ~ ~
Oswald held the torch high as he entered the grove, looking wonderingly at the empty ring of stones.  He was certain he had seen his captain run into the circle, and he knew he saw at least one other man with him before some strange darkness had blocked his view.   
Shaking off a feeling of utter fear, he shouted out:  “Malcolm!”  No response came to his cry, and he shouted it again.
Shaking his head, he inspected the turf of the deserted grove.  He could make out the imprints of several sets of boots in the muddy ground, but they disappeared over the moss that ringed the trees.  Unable to determine even a direction to follow, he stood confused, uncertain of what to do.  He looked up at the stars, blazing down through the canopy of leaves above him.  His breaths made puffs of steam in the cold air, and he slowly jogged out of the grove, longing for a gasp of fresh air.  There was something stale and ancient about the oaks, something he wanted nothing more than to be away from.  Turning back to the last tree on the edge of the grove, he saw a mark scrawled in the bark: a three-armed spiral, winding out in never-ending tendrils.  Shaking his head, he drew his cloak tight about his shoulders.
Running away from the trees, he looked up to see a bright sky full of stars, and the large, pale face of the moon gazing back down on him.  He breathed out a quick prayer for his friend’s safety, then raced back to camp to enlist the Templars’ help in the search.