Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 28

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“There's nothing left for us here,” the elder chided Michael.  “Why do you risk everything we have accomplished for the chance at something already beyond our grasp?”

“There's still a chance there, sir,” the young noble protested, his head resting uncomfortably on the cold stones of the floor.  “This man, he is eager to win his dream at any cost.  And we can help.  I know we can!”

“But is his England the same one you want, Michael?” the elder looked at his protégé.  “Would you be satisfied in a land of Saxons?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.  He rattled the chain that held his wrists down, working his muscles against the restraints.  “Race means far less to me than what I have learned from you.  There are deeper things that I have seen, things that still chill my soul.  This ancient secret that we hold will one day again rule, sir, and you know it as well as I.”

“Perhaps,” the elder mused, stretched out motionless beside Michael.  “But there is a dangerous power in the Christian faith as well: the power of love.  Many men would rather follow a God of power and love than our gods of power and mystery.  There is something in our belief that inspires fear in the hearts of men.  And fear is powerful.”

“More powerful than love?”

“What do you think, Michael?”

He waited for a long while before responding.  “I think perhaps it will be a harder battle to win than we have thought.  But we must still get the robe.  It is not enough to secure the victory, but it is a battle won on the road of conquest.”

The elder sighed.  “May the gods have mercy on us.  It is an ancient wonder, a foreign wonder that we are fighting.  Who can say which shall prove stronger in the end?”

~ ~ ~

Cedric frowned, casting a cursory glance over the surrounding woods.  He saw none of the dim shapes he feared and no sign of any spies lurking about.  Even so, it was difficult to tell.  The Druids, feared among a Christian people, had become masters of secrecy by necessity.  He had been in hiding so long that it had become second nature to examine his surroundings with care.

Jogging quickly back to where Edward was standing, he flashed a bright grin.  “So to Northampton we go, sir?"

Edward smiled weakly.  He did not know the man well, and he certainly did not understand him.  His constant joy was both comforting and disquieting for Edward.  “I suppose.  Although in all truth I would feel far better if we stayed to search for Malcolm then proceeded to London to find some other means to release Hannah’s uncle.”

Cedric smiled sympathetically, but directed the conversation to another course.  “You have resolved the issue of her race, haven’t you?  And the Scots as well—they seem to follow your example in the matter.”

Edward shrugged.  “We do not know many Jews personally.  Though what we have heard about them is seldom good, I am not in a position to judge such rumors against them.”

“Fascinating. It is not often I have met a man who has even made an effort to examine the matter for himself.  But what would you say to those who claim that the Jews murdered our Lord?”

Edward frowned and continued strapping down the bags of food to his horse.  “I was once a monk at Lindisfarne, Cedric,” he said slowly.  “I worked in the scriptorium and wrote the words of the Scriptures hundreds of times with my own hand.  Though it was a Jewish council who sought His death, it was a Roman decree and Roman soldiers who fulfilled the act.  I do not trust my own wisdom in the matter to say the fault rested with one or the other, but I do know this: that Christ himself, and the Blessed Virgin, and all the Disciples—all were Jews by race.  I do not believe that we can condemn Jews for the vices of all mankind.”

“Oh,” he grinned.  “So you would rather say that the sins of all the world are responsible for the death of Christ rather than pointing fingers at any one group.”

Edward thought for a moment, then nodded.

“In that case,” Cedric said, “should we not, as Christians, be ministering to the Jews in the same measure as we minister to the rest of the lost?”

“I suppose,” he allowed.  “They are the chosen people of God, and I believe they still hold a special place in his heart.”

“A remarkably different viewpoint,” he smiled.  “I discussed it with one of the Templar knights that accompanied the Count, and he had no high regard for Jews, to be certain.”

Edward sighed.  “It is understandable, Cedric,” he replied.  “After all, we have been conditioned in Christian England to hate them, both as moneylenders and as Christ-killers.  It is only due to my contact with Hannah that I have been able to form other ideas on the matter.  If you had asked me the same questions a month ago, I would have been most uncertain of where to stand.”  He paused, turning away from his horse to look Cedric in the eyes.  “What do you believe?”

He grinned, a broad, bright smile, and shook his head.  “Are we ready to ride?” he asked.

Edward’s eyes narrowed at the quick shift in subject. “I’m ready.”

“Good.”  Cedric sighed, gazing around at the verdant hillsides, bordering the golden fields, their crops already mostly secure for the winter in grain-stores.  The sky was blue and untouched by any hand of white cloud over its vast dome.  But the circumstances told a different story, a story dark with dire conclusions.  And in that instant, Cedric frowned, and Edward saw the expression touch his face.  “Then we must be going.”

~ ~ ~

Alfred was afraid.  Though he believed England was at last within his grasp, there was still a bitter, gnawing feeling of terror welling over his soul.  He could not allow his men to see the failing, so he hid it well, putting on a courageous air.  Jonathan and the last brigand from Newcastle had finally rejoined them, surprised to find Alfred there.  In a council between the two leading Saxons, they agreed on a course of action through which they might have the best chance of success.

Richard, the new Norman king, was still resolved to leave with his knights for the Holy Land in the spring.  Until that time, their little band would have to be the mouth of the new revolution and find a way to contact the Saxon nobility.  When the king had gone, the nation would be put under another leader, hopefully a weaker one.  It was at that time that their army would march forth and capture London from Norman rule.

But still several questions plagued Alfred’s mind, and he found he could not sleep that night because of the worries that assaulted him.  The Druids were foremost on his mind, and though he tried to dismiss them from his thoughts, he could not.  A mystic order clothed in secrecy, he had seldom heard of them in his lifetime.  Every so often, rumors would drift about of Druids in the land, but they were always only rumors, legends from England’s dark past.  Or so he thought.

        He sighed and rubbed his eyes slowly, wearied and longing for an easier solution to his dilemma.  He heard something move beside him and sat up, peering into the darkness.  It had only been a quick shuffling, like the scuff of feet moving carefully past.  For an instant, he thought he saw a shadowy figure move out of his chamber, but by the time his eyes adjusted to what light there was, the doorway was empty.

He sat still for a long while, breathing softly, listening for any sounds that might support the presence of whatever he had noticed. Placing a hand beneath his leather jerkin to assure himself that the robe remained safe in its place, he rose to his feet.  Careful not to disturb any of his men from their sleep, he made his way out into the corridor, his feet brushing silently against the worn stones.  The dim light of a single torch at the end of the hallway caused him to stop in his tracks until his eyes adjusted.  Usually, the sentries would not leave any of the torches burning within the manor during the night, but it was no doubt a simple oversight.

He attempted to calm himself as he walked, but he could not help but wonder what lurked in the shadows.  He chuckled slightly, shaking his head.  It had been years and years, another lifetime, since he had been afraid of the dark.  But now it was another matter.  What concerned him was what the darkness contained, what it had cloaked for centuries and was now bringing to light at last.

He sighed, convincing himself at last that it had merely been a trick of the flickering torchlight.  Quickly snuffing out the torch and watching the thin stream of smoke rise up from its blackened head, he sighed.  Turning, he returned to his bed once again, having set the thoughts out of his mind.  But as he walked down the corridor, he failed to glimpse the two eyes watching him from the dark corner—two eyes, watching, waiting, hoping to find a way to accomplish their purpose.

~ ~ ~

Edward frowned as he gazed over the small tracts of land that surrounded the city of Northampton.  “Have you ever been in this area before?” he asked Cedric.

“Not for long enough to become well-acquainted with it,” he replied.  “I suppose we’ll have to go down into the village to ask directions to the house of David.”

“It’s to the east,” the Count spoke up, motioning beyond a line of short hillocks that framed the morning sun.

Riding slowly, the troop made their way toward the little hills in silence, not knowing what to expect.  Too many things had already gone awry on their journey.  Even amongst themselves, trust was not secure.  The Templars kept to themselves for the most part, and rarely did anything but follow silently, patiently.  The other four confided in each other often, even though Oswald had still not decided how much trust to put in Cedric, a madman who had seemed to simply materialize out of the mist and the woods.

As they neared the crest of the first of the hillocks, Edward began to grow nervous.  “Shouldn’t we be a bit more cautious?”

“Why?” Cedric asked.

Edward cast a confused glance over at Oswald.  “Well—because my brother’s men will know that we are approaching unless we do it a bit more carefully.”

“It’s too late for that, Edward,” Cedric smiled.  “There was a sentry posted on this hill when we first left the road.  They know that we are coming.”

Edward sighed heavily, and Oswald scowled.  “So we’re just going to march in and allow them to capture us?” the Scot fired.

“Of course not.  We’re a sizeable enough number, I should think, to dissuade them from trying to greet us with force.”

Edward grimaced as Cedric winked at him.  He was not certain who this man of the woods was, but he had learned to trust his leadership in Malcolm’s place.   
“My brother is a dangerous man,” he warned.  “I do not doubt that these men may indeed try to intimidate us by force.”

“Then we must take care not to be intimidated,” Cedric smiled.

The Count rode up until he was beside Edward.  “I must agree.  It is best to go in with a show of our strength, to teach these criminals a lesson before they get the better of us.  We must show absolute confidence.”

“Then with confidence we may go down to our graves,” Oswald interjected, his hands balled into fists.

Cedric shrugged.  “Well, we have very little option in this matter, my friends.  I've never attempted to find my way into a house guarded by a warrior band by using covert tactics, but I cannot imagine that it would be a simple task.  Perhaps the Druids are yet in control here, and if so, then it may make our task easier.  But if not, we will have to hope that one brother will choose not to harm another.”

Edward looked down and nodded.  “Perhaps.  Perhaps we may yet find mercy under my brother’s hand.”

Hannah frowned.  “I doubt it highly,” she said.

The Count turned in his saddle to glare at her.  “Keep your tongue, Jewess.”  Paying no attention to her pained reaction, he turned back to Cedric.  “I still see no reason to chase after these Druids.  It was quite obvious that your friend was not with them.  What do you hope to obtain from the brigand?”

No one responded to the question, until Edward sighed.  “If you think our plans ill-advised, you are most welcome to leave us and go about your business.”

The Count paused for a moment.  “Do you have any idea why the Druids might have wanted your brother or the Scot?”

Edward frowned, wondering how to bypass the question.  “Why do you suppose the Druids had been following us at all?”

The Templar tugged his beard thoughtfully.  “Perhaps you do not know. This man named Justin of York rose as a threat to the Druids before disappearing some months ago.”

“Why was he such a threat?” Edward pressed, wondering how much the Count would reveal about Templar interests in the matter.

“I don’t know. But your friend Malcolm very unwisely went about asking for Justin.  No doubt this attracted the Druids’ attention.”

“That must be why they captured him, then,” Edward replied, relieved he had forced the Templar into answering his own question.  “And I still hope that we will find Malcolm here. Come, let’s go.”

Edward rode to the fore, finding his place beside Cedric.  The Count joined them, and they rode three abreast over the bluff.  The hillock was covered with a carpet of lush green grass, a remnant of one of the old manor’s forgotten fields.  The sun shone down warm upon them, and it raised their spirits slightly.

As they began to descend onto the field surrounding the house, he caught his first glimpse of the men under his brother’s charge.  Many appeared to be of the same mold as Alfred: large, muscular men with long beards and fierce gazes.  Some were smaller, but all showed a wiry resolution of unmatched hostility.

There were half a score of these men that stood idly in the sunlight, watching unconcernedly as the troop approached.  Slowly, four of them stepped forward into the path, arms folded across their chests.  The other six formed a wide semicircle around the riders, their suspicious glares revealing nothing but icy determination.  Showing an uncommon confidence in the superiority of their forces, they did not even bother to draw their weapons.  Several Templar knights and a Scottish warrior posed no threat to them.

“Greetings!” Cedric flashed them a smile and bowed slightly, a courtesy they felt no obligation to return.

“What is it you seek here?” one of them spoke up.  Edward recognized him instantly by the ragged black patch covering his right eye.

“You must allow me to see your leader,” Edward answered.

Jonathan looked at him closely, then nodded in recognition.  “And why do you need to see him?  He cares little for family, as you know.  He will not be pleased to see that you have followed him here.”

“I don’t care if he is pleased or not.  Please, I must speak to him.  One of my friends is in danger, and I must find out if he knows anything of his fate.”

Jonathan chuckled.  “And suppose we choose to detain all of you, and then he might speak to each of you in turn.”

“We would hew you down like the Saxon dogs that you are!” the Count growled.  “We will be detained by no man.”

As soon as the words had been spoken, a ring of brigands encircled the riders.  The sound of swords being drawn filled the air as the Templars quickly displayed their weapons, hoisting their Latin-cross shields high.

“Wait!” Edward shouted, jumping down from his mount to stand before Jonathan. 

As he walked forward, Cedric leaned over to the Count with a grin.  “Perhaps it would be better, my dear Preceptor, if you kept your martial thoughts to yourself.”

Jonathan watched with a half-cocked smile as Edward approached him.  “You’ve taken up company with foolish men, my friend,” he said.

“We want no harm to come to your men,” Edward said quickly.  “Bring my brother out, please.  The cost is far too high for either of us should this come to bloodshed.”

Jonathan paused, then shrugged.  “Very well.  You may go inside, but we’ll keep your friends here until you are done.”

“And you will not provoke them to violence?”

“We will not strike the first blow,” Jonathan assured him.

“Very well,” Edward sighed, nodding quickly.  Stepping past the ring of brigands, he entered into the first dim antechamber of his brother’s Saxon fortress.