Thursday, March 03, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 26

© Matthew Burden, 2001

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Malcolm woke with his head pounding, his face pressed against something cold.  He found himself stretched out on a stone floor, with only one flickering torch providing light to the chamber.  He had been stripped of his mail armor and his sword, leaving him with only a thin linen tunic.  
He tried to recall how he had arrived there, but he couldn’t remember.  He had chased Alfred into the woods—then what?  He shook his head, stood, and pressed his weight against the closed door of the chamber. The room was completely without windows, and the door had been locked from the outside.  All he had was the one torch for light and a small mattress of hay.
The walls were made of wood, the remnant of the old structure, but parts had been redone in stone.  He examined the wooden sections of the walls, hoping for an area of weakness that he could pound his way through.  When this was done and the cell was proven sound, he pressed his ear against the door in the hope that someone would walk by.  He continued for about an hour before he gave up and slumped down on the hay mattress.  It was growing mold around the edges, and a mouse squeaked as soon as he rested his weight there.
His mind raced as he sat there, wondering where he was and why.  It was clear that he was a prisoner and not a guest; the locked door was evidence enough of that.  He wondered what had happened after he stepped into those dark woods.  After a while his thoughts wandered off to Hannah and Edward, and how they would manage to release her uncle without the robe.
         Just then he heard voices in the hall outside, speaking in Saxon.  Straining, he listened to the two voices, one sounding much younger than the other.
“Should we get him yet?”
“No, no,” the older voice murmured.  “Not until we decide what to do about the other one.”
“I think we should at least check on it.  It’s too great an opportunity to pass up.”
“Perhaps.  But we have no use for this one.”
“Unless he knows something more about it, or something different.”
“Well, let’s ask the others.  But I for one do not relish taking him on.  It was difficult enough trying to put him under.”
As their footsteps passed his chamber, a wild, frantic idea entered Malcolm’s mind.  At first he tried to laugh the thought off, but it persisted.  The voices receded down the hallway, and just as they were about to disappear from the hearing range of the cell, Malcolm leapt up shouting.  He tore off a piece of his mattress and held it up to the flame.  It caught instantly, and he dropped it onto what remained of the hay in the corner.
Pounding against the door, he shouted “Fire!” over and over.  Since the structure was partially built of wood, there was no way they could allow such a hazard to proceed unchecked.  Just as he expected, he heard two sets of footsteps racing quickly back to the door.  Pulling with all his might, he was able to tear the torch from its placement.  Stepping up to the door as the bolt was drawn back, he wielded the flaming torch like a club.
The door flew open and two men stepped up, looking in shock at the room.  And there before them stood the tall Scot, the light of vengeance burning in his eyes.  With a shout, he swung the torch at the two men.  The younger man was able to dodge aside from the force of the blow, but the flame caught the long gray beard of the other man, which ignited instantly.  Screaming like a man pursued by demons, he ran down the hallway and disappeared, leaving a trail of black smoke behind him.
The black-haired youth glared at the Scot as they faced each other, each waiting for the other to make a move.  Seeing that face brought Malcolm back to the memory of the oak grove.  Druids.  Forcing the young man back by prodding with the torch, Malcolm was soon able to back him against a wall.  Pulling his fist back, he leveled a quick blow at the youth’s chin.  He crumpled instantly to the floor, unconscious from the blow.
Malcolm nodded grimly and looked back at the cell, now almost completely ablaze.  Let this wretched place burn, he thought as he ran down the hallway, searching for a way out.
~ ~ ~
        Cedric laughed when he saw the Templars gathering by the little fire in the light of predawn.  When he matched gazes with the Count, he lowered his head and placed a hand on his beard, as if to assure himself it was still there.  
        The Count looked him over for a long moment, his eyes narrowing slightly.  “What is your name, sir?”
       “Cedric,” he said, deepening his voice.
        The Count nodded slowly, but kept his eyes on him as he introduced himself to Hannah.
        Hannah smiled as he placed a kiss on her hand.  “I remember you, Sir Cedric,” she said with a grin.
        “Oh?” he arched his eyebrows.  “How so?”
        “I am Hannah.  My father was Joel of Newcastle.  Don’t you remember him?”
        His eyes widened suddenly, and he shook his head, winking so that only she could see.  “No, no, you must be mistaken.  It has been some time since I have wandered from these woods, and seldom that far north.”
        She accepted the explanation for the time, nodding slightly. 
        “Well,” Cedric said with an air of happiness, “shall we begin?  If my guess is correct, they will be residing at their manor in the west—about a day’s journey by foot.”
        “I concur,” the Count interjected.  “We’ve known for some time that these areas are a hub of Druid activity.  They still congregate at some of their sacred hills and groves.”
        Cedric nodded and prepared the horses, careful to keep away from the Count’s prying glances.  When all were mounted, they began by striking west on a smaller trail.  Cedric rode in the lead on Malcolm’s horse, and Oswald rode beside him, leading Alfred’s riderless steed by the reins.  Hannah and Edward rode close behind, and the Templars rode even further behind, providing a rear guard for the company.
        They traveled at a quick clip under a bright autumn sun.  Most of the land they passed was forest, but every so often they would come across a wide expanse of hills and fields, dotted with serf farms and villages.  It was nearly noon when Cedric began to slow his horse.
        “Do you see that hill?” he pointed to a small rise in the distance, barely distinguishable from the surrounding terrain.  “That’s an old Druid shrine, or so I’ve heard.  Their manor is about a league beyond it.”
        “What’s that?” Oswald gestured, and it took several moments for the others to see what he was pointing to.  Drifting on the wind above the hillock was a thick plume of light gray smoke that blended in with the clouds on the horizon.
        Cedric’s brow furrowed.  “We’d better go and see,” he said, starting his horse to a quick gallop down the little road.  Within a few minutes, they had circled around the hillock and came into view of the manor, set in the midst of its fields.  The entire northern wing of the building was engulfed in flame, and the blaze was quickly spreading to other parts of the structure.  They remained still, stunned, as half of the wing collapsed in a roar like a thunderclap and a shower of sparks.  
        “Were they in there?” Edward asked hoarsely.
        Cedric did not reply, but urged his mount down the slope toward the manor.  A small group of servants was huddled in the field, watching it burn.  Cedric rode up to them, greeting them in the common tongue.
        They bowed in turn as he dismounted and joined them to watch the fire.  “How many got out of there?” he asked after a moment.  
        “All of the servants,” one of them replied.  “Master got out, too, with four of his friends and a prisoner.”
        “Just one prisoner?”
        The man who had been speaking looked at his fellow servants, who nodded their assent.  “One prisoner.  A huge man, with a thick beard.”
        Cedric turned to look at Edward.
        “That’s Alfred,” he nodded.
        “But what about Malcolm?” Oswald asked, his eyes fixed on the burning building.
        Cedric turned back to the man, the light of urgency blazing in his eyes.  “There was another friend of ours in there.  Are you certain he did not escape?”
        The man frowned.  “Was he tall, with red hair?”
        Edward nodded.
        “I’m sorry, sir.  The last report I heard was that he was locked in a chamber in the north wing.”
        Oswald began to jog toward the building, but Cedric raced up and stopped him, holding him firmly back.  “It’s too dangerous,” he warned.
        “I don’t care,” he growled.
        “Come back, Oswald,” Edward called, stopping the Scot in his tracks.  “If he escaped, then he did so on his own.  If not, then it will do us no good to go after him.  The north wing is gone.”
       The young knight whirled around, his face flushed with anger.  “Then what are we to do?”
        “We can search the grounds for him,” Cedric said.  “But it’s far too risky to venture inside now.  The whole building could collapse at any instant.”
        Oswald sighed, slumping his shoulders dejectedly.  He turned back to the burning building and stood silent for a while, watching as the bright orange flames consumed the last portions of the north wing.  
~ ~ ~
        Alfred was glad that it was only a few hours’ ride to Northampton, for he did not relish the thought of going through a night of darkness with the five Druids.  They seemed normal enough when not gathering for their mystical incantations.  The lord of the manor had joined them in the search for the robe, along with all the other four, including the oldest one, despite some raw burns on his face, and the youngest one, who bore a deep purple bruise on his chin.
        They had bound him and placed him in a small wagon, which they were pulling at frightening speeds along the little road.  He wondered for an instant what had happened to the Scot, but he had a fair guess.  Malcolm had been rendered unconscious before being brought to the manor, and had probably been cremated in that same state, with the burning building as his final resting-place.
        For an instant, he felt a flash of guilt at having caused the Scot’s death, but it passed quickly.  How many men had he killed?  The count was too high for him to recall.  And there would certainly be more to come.  Beginning with these filthy magicians, the thought to himself.
        He lay back against the cart as they rode on, but it jounced about uncomfortably.  He worked on loosening the knots that held him, but he was unable to make any progress.  They had still not searched him, and the robe remained hidden.  He smiled at how easily they were falling into his improvised trap, and he only hoped that his men would be ready when they arrived.
        The house of David was a small holding on the far outskirts of the town, well out of the notice of the people.  David himself had been an aged recluse with very few relations, so it had provided an ideal hideout for the brigands, and they had remained relatively undisturbed.  What a triumph it would be to ride in as a prisoner and soon turn conqueror on his captors, having returned with the greatest prize in all of England!
~ ~ ~
        Cedric drew Hannah aside while Edward and Oswald joined the Templars in searching the grounds for any sign of Malcolm.  She sat on a stump near the edge of the field, watching as the last fires flickered among the charred ruins of the manor.  Cedric approached slowly, his hands clasped behind his back, his expression one of thoughtfulness.
        “What's on your mind?” she greeted him as he stepped close to her.
        He sighed and sat down, his eyes following her gaze to the ruins.  “Only one thing has consumed my thoughts since I saw you.  I suppose you can guess what it is.”
       “I suppose I can,” she replied, waiting for him to come to the point.
        “The Templars have been looking for me for over a year,” he said, “and the Druids as well.  It is most dangerous for me to be out here.  I was lucky that the Count cannot see beyond my ill-disguised hair.”
        “Justin,” she began, turning to him, but he cut her off.
        “Cedric.  I am Cedric now, and always.”
        “Very well, Cedric,” she said.
        “Was the transaction made?” he asked, glancing about quickly to make certain no one was eavesdropping on their conversation.
        “I’m afraid not,” she said, tears forming at the corners of her eyes.  “My father was killed in the riots and the other nobleman was slain by the brigand that the Druids captured.”
        Cedric looked up, his eyes alight with fear.  “And the robe?”
        “We were bringing it down to London to find a buyer who can protect it,” she explained.  “And with the money we were going to pay to release my uncle from an unjust death sentence.  But now….”
        His eyes remained fixed on her face.  “Yes?  Where is it?”
        “It was taken last night,” she said, without looking at him.  “The brigand stole it.  He desires that it should give him power with which to reclaim a Saxon England.”
        “And the Druids?  The Templars?  The Scots?  Where do they come in?”
        She sighed.  “The Druids and the Templars also desire the robe, and have followed us from York, because we asked for you there.  I suppose they thought we knew where you were.”
         “And they thought I might still have the robe.  I still don’t know how they found out about it.”
        “And the Scots are my friends and defenders.  They have agreed to see me to London and to aid me in releasing my uncle.”
        Cedric nodded slowly.  “And now either these Saxon brigands or the Druids hold it in their hands.  Not an ideal situation.”
        They sat in silence for a long while.  Hannah sighed, stretching her arms out above her head.  He looked at her and smiled slowly.  “Do you know that when I first visited your house last year, Hannah of Newcastle, that I was as frightened and disgusted by Jews as everyone else?”
        She nodded, but could not look at him.  “I have often wondered why my people are the brunt such hatred.”
        “I thought about it a good deal as well while I was on my wandering of late.  I went to a monastery in the west for some time, and have lived a hermit’s life in these woods for several weeks.  But when I heard about the riots in London, well—” he shook his head.  “You must be an awfully brave woman.”
         She looked at the ground.  “I try to forget what happened.  I do what I have to.  I’m building myself another future.”
        “A commendable pursuit,” he nodded.  “And I can think of no greater cause to which the robe could be put.  Christ himself laid down his life for mankind, did he not?”
        Hannah shrugged.  “If that is what you believe.”
        “It is,” he responded quickly, with a smile.  “Would it not be to His purpose to use Herod’s robe of mockery to save another?”
        She smiled wryly at him.  “Do you believe it’s real?”
        “Does it matter if it is or not?” he asked, grinning.
        “Not to me,” she responded.  “But to a Christian?  I would think so.”
        He shrugged. 
        “So we will have to go after it?” she prodded.
        “Are you up for it?”
        “Do I have a choice?”
        “I don’t know.  But someone has to retrieve it.  The robe may or may not be true to its claim, but the claim is enough to do considerable damage in the wrong hands.”
        The crackling logs of the manor sent up a shower of sparks, lighting up the afternoon air.  Cedric knew it would take a miracle to bring the robe successfully to London, but miracles, he thought, were perhaps not so hard to come by as they might seem.