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~ 29 ~
The room was dark, save for one stream of light that flooded through a window cut in the stone wall of the manor. The light seemed to be confined to its own beam, though, shedding no illumination on the rest of the room. But even through the gloom Edward could sense someone watching him from the far end.
“Greetings, brother,” the deep, resonant tones came from the dark recesses of the room. After a few moments, Alfred stood and stepped into the patch of sunlight, facing his brother with a firm gaze. “Why have you come?”
Edward paused for a long moment, looking around the room. “This is what you have sacrificed your life for?”
Alfred put up a hand. “I will not listen to your preaching. You and I are very different, Edward, and it will always be that way. I know you can't understand that, and I accept it. But nevertheless, I have chosen my course in life, and you have chosen yours. Let us leave it with that. The matter is closed.”
“Even God can open closed doors, my brother. There is so much that could be yours. Treasures beyond your imagination.”
Alfred laughed heartily, and the laughter shook the room. “Ed, your path in life is the way of penniless monks and idealistic dreamers! The treasures of piety are nothing that I desire!”
“They are not treasures of this world, Alfred. This world is transitory and fleeting; everything will burn. Remember that. It is better to store up for something that will last forever than—”
“I do not wish to hear any more,” he interrupted. “You have a dream of what you can do for God, and that is good. I have a dream of what I can do for England. For my homeland, and yours as well.”
“My homeland is not of this world, Alfred. It is in a far, far better place. And what could you do for England but fill its rivers with corpses and its soil with blood?”
Alfred’s fist flew out, catching Edward on the jaw. “That is enough!” he shouted.
Bending low, the brigand sighed heavily. “Edward, you just don’t understand. I have been working toward this for all of my life, and now, at long last, I have it within my grasp!” His eyes took on a frenetic gleam. “I can save England, return her to Saxon rule!”
Edward groaned, holding his jaw. Pain throbbed through his skull, spots of light dancing before his eyes. But despite the pain, he could not stop the words. “Have you forgotten your histories, brother?”
Alfred straightened up, a puzzled look on his face.
“What happened to the Britons when our forefathers first came to this land?”
“They were crushed,” the brigand smiled. “And England became Saxon.”
“Why were they crushed, Alfred?” he asked, his eyes fierce.
Alfred did not respond.
“They were defeated because they resisted! Now look at the Saxons! We are beginning to merge with the Normans now; we are not being destroyed by them! Not unless you get in the way!”
“It’s all the same,” Alfred protested. “If we lose our identity as a people, the Saxons are dead!”
“No, they are a part of the greater whole. Norman is nothing, Saxon is nothing! Together we are becoming one people, we are becoming English! No one can stop it, and no one can change it. No one can say if it is better or worse; the fact remains that we are all Englishmen!”
Alfred frowned. “Our father raised us both to be men proud of our race, Edward. And I have not forgotten it.”
“Neither have I, Alfred. But there has been a change. The Saxons my father knew were men of honor and valor. They were men of principles, men who lived their lives to a Christian standard! That is something to be proud of! But now, your brood of fire-breathing Saxon outlaws has made me ashamed! How can I take pride in a race of cold-blooded murderers?”
Alfred prepared his fist and swung for another blow, but this time Edward saw it coming and dodged out of the way.
Breathing heavily, he continued. “Forgive me if I angered you, my brother. But you must realize this—race is nothing. Nothing, Alfred! In God’s eyes we are all the same, every one of us, whether we be Saxon or Norman or Scot or Frank or anyone else! Your crusade against Normans is a crusade against Christians! The Body of Christ cannot attack itself! Listen to the higher calling, my brother! There is an allegiance greater than the ties of national pride, there is an allegiance to the family of God!”
Alfred breathed heavily and slumped down against the cold floor, defeated. He could feel it again, the gentle tugging of his conscience on his heart, a feeling he thought he had tamed years ago.
“What is it you want from me, Ed?”
“What is it…” Edward’s voice echoed hollowly, choked by tears. “I want us to be brothers again, Alfred. I want to be able to look up to you again, to be proud to call you family. I want to be able to show you the wonderful things I’ve discovered in life. Come with me, Alfred. Come and see what God can do in a willing life. It's an adventure more exciting than anything the world can offer, a journey that would purify and strengthen you in ways you cannot imagine.”
“Please, just tell me why—why you are here, Edward.”
Edward stepped up to his brother, still kneeling on the floor. He looked into his brother’s eyes, but the brigand looked away. In that instant, Edward knew not to press it any further for the moment. A great change was beginning to occur in Alfred’s life, but it was not to be hurried or forced to the surface. It would come in its own good time.
“You remember Malcolm, don’t you?”
“The Scottish captain. Yes, I remember.”
“The night you left us, he followed you and was captured by the Druids. We followed them, and arrived while the manor was burning. The servants seemed to think that Malcolm had not escaped. Do you know what happened to him?”
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Ed. I don’t know.”
Edward’s shoulders slumped. “Then it’s true? He wasn’t taken out with you?”
“No, he wasn’t with us. But…” his eyes lit up, and he chuckled slightly. “I persuaded the Druids to come here, and then I took them prisoner. I still have them. Perhaps they can tell you something.”
Edward nodded. “Very well, then. That’s all I ask.”
Alfred’s eyes narrowed. “That’s all?”
Edward shook his head. “It's your decision to make. We could certainly make use of it. We could give Hannah a chance to lead a normal life, we could give her some family to cherish once again. But even without it, I have confidence that God will provide a way. One way or another. He is the molder of hearts, Alfred. If this thing is of God, He will give us success. Whether that comes from you or some other source, I cannot say. It's your decision, and I cannot make it for you.”
Alfred was silent, pondering these things. After a long while, he nodded. “Well, I'll lead you to the Druids now. Perhaps I can make them talk for you.”
“Thank you,” said Edward.
~ ~ ~
As Alfred thrust open the wooden door and stepped into the dim chamber, his face froze. “What manner of devilry is this?” he whispered, his voice hoarse.
Edward rushed up and stood beside him, taking in the scene. Three guards were slumped against the wall as if sleeping peacefully, weak smiles on their faces. But in the center of the room, where the prisoners had been shackled down, there was nothing but a pile of empty chains. Rushing over to the chains, Alfred bent down and swore, kicking them hard. Picking one up, he showed it to Edward.
“Cut clean through,” he said, running his finger along the smooth edge.
Edward nodded and walked over to the guards, shaking them lightly. After several moments, all three awoke and looked up. Immediately, the smiles disappeared and they leapt to their feet, swords in hand.
“Where are the prisoners?” one of them demanded.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Alfred growled. “What happened? Did you fall asleep?”
The guard shook his head. “No sir, absolutely not. I remember standing at my post, fully awake, and then….”
“Nothing, sir. I didn’t fall asleep, I would have remembered that. I wasn’t even a bit tired. One moment I was standing and awake, the next—nothing.”
The other two guards nodded in unison.
“And it happened to all three of you at the same time?” Alfred was incredulous.
“I suppose. I would have heard if anyone else fell to the ground, but I didn’t.”
“Nor I,” said one of the others.
“Druids,” Alfred muttered under his breath. “Some wretched spell, no doubt.”
“Perhaps they were all knocked out together,” Edward offered. “Do you have any pain?”
“A slight ache in my neck, but nothing more,” the brigand replied, and the other two responded likewise. “But I would have heard someone approaching me,” he protested further.
“Would you?” Alfred wondered aloud, recalling with a shudder the feeling of having someone else in the hallway that night, watching him. “It’s black sorcery by my reckoning. Well, hopefully we've seen the last of them.”
Edward shook his head. “It was the robe they desired, brother. If you still have it, then they will return for it. It’s a marvel they weren’t able to snatch if from you, if they sneaked past your guards so easily.”
“No, I still have it....But how can we defeat wizardry like this, if they come back? The evil spirits are aroused against me, brother, and my life may be forfeit to their power.”
“Alfred,” Edward laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Their power is nothing. What they offer is a cheap imitation of the Light, and it can never stand against that Light. We have no need of these,” he continued, drawing Alfred’s sword from its sheath. With a clatter, he dropped it to the floor. “Our God shall do battle for us.”
~ ~ ~
The five of them sat around the little table, eating their repast in silence. The Templars had refused to even step within the Saxon house, much less partake a meal with the commander of the brigands. Instead, they set up a small camp several bowshots from the manor and stationed guards around the tents. Hannah had reluctantly agreed to go with them, at Edward’s insistence. Oswald also accompanied them, though his hand rarely strayed from the hilt of his sword. Cedric had accepted the invitation immediately, following Edward up into Alfred’s chamber, now lit with several torches set around the room. The remainder of the brigand forces were gathered in the main hall, eating their fill of what little remained of the plundered manor’s cellar.
Even Edward did not know what to expect his brother to do, with everything that had transpired that afternoon. Alfred kept quiet for the most part, playing a reticent host while the others ate in uncomfortable silence. Hannah was wary, constantly throwing glances over her shoulder to assure herself that no other brigands remained in the room. The memories of the ride through the Northumbrian wilds were still too fresh in her mind to give her any peace.
Edward watched his brother’s reactions carefully. He was obviously deep in thought, his brow constantly furrowed, his eyes unfocused and wandering. When at last the meal was completed, he rose and quaffed back the last of his wine.
Before turning away, he murmured five words to break the silence of the night. “I will consider it, Edward.” After this, he walked slowly out of the room and closed the door.
Edward rose, shocked beyond words. In all of the dreams of his past, with all of his experiences with his brother, never had he imagined those words. His brother was made of iron and stone, and never before had Edward even witnessed the slightest ray of hope that he was changing. And yet, with those words, the world was transformed in an instant. There was still the possibility of seeing Alfred awaken to the reality of his faith, still the hope that they could live as brothers and friends once again. Even though the words were no commitment, they betrayed his inner battle.
Stepping away from the table, he fell to his knees, oblivious of his friends’ perplexed stares. The deepest cry of his heart, repeated countless times for years, was beginning to show its fruit.
“Thank you, God,” he whispered, his eyes bright with tears.
In that moment, Edward felt a peace and a passion flow over his soul like a flood. All those years, all those prayers had not gone in vain. Despite all the harsh words and the feelings of bitterness, God was beginning to do a mighty work in Alfred’s life, and the heart that had once seemed cold and hard as iron had been melted and made ready for the refiner's fire. It was a wonder beyond words, and at that moment the only desire that rushed through Edward’s spirit was a prayer for his brother.
As Edward came back to himself, Hannah looked at him with a wondering gaze. Seeing it, he smiled and gave a shake of his head.
“We are being changed, Hannah, all of us. God is calling us to put all of our trust in Him, and I am seeing now that only by His strength will we be able to do this thing together.”
Hannah smiled, her eyes, too, brimming with tears. “All right,” she nodded. “Together. And with Him.”