Thursday, April 07, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 31

 Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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~ 31 ~

         Alfred remained in a pensive mood throughout the following day, and it created some confusion in his ranks.  The sun had barely risen over the rim of the world by the time Jonathan had made the first confrontation with their leader.  
“Sir,” he began in a measured tone, his eyes fixed firmly on Alfred’s. “I think it would be wise to follow the Druids.”
Alfred held his gaze for a moment, then let out a loud peal of laughter.  “Wise? Jonathan, my friend, neither you nor I have ever considered wisdom in one decision of our lives!  But go on, give me your reasoning.  Let me see if drinking and fighting have entirely dulled your logic.”
Jonathan cleared his throat to reply, but as he did so, Alfred let out a heavy sigh, cutting him off with an entirely different subject.
“I have been thinking much of late, Jonathan.  And as my right-hand man, I would desire your opinion of the matter.”
Jonathan raised a skeptical brow. “Never have I been considered an adviser, but I shall do my best.”
Alfred eyed him discerningly, then nodded.  Very well.  It is not often I let anyone into my confidence in such matters, but I believe it may have some importance beyond what we can foresee.”  He rose from his heavy wooden chair and paced over to the rock-hewn window.  “Tell me, Jonathan…have you ever been a religious man?”
Jonathan began to chuckle, but seeing no expression on his leader’s somber face, he stopped himself.  “I must confess I never have been, sir.  The only religion in my life came from my mother, and nothing beyond that.”
“My father was a devout Christian, and my brother as well,” Alfred mused.
“Perhaps it would be better if you forgot about your father.  It is a new life now—a new Saxony.”
“A new Saxony,” Alfred repeated, his eyes still fixed on something far off, outside the window.  “A new England.  It is the dream I have chased my entire life.”  He sighed wistfully.  “But is it worth the cost?”
Jonathan frowned, then slowly and deliberately drew his sword.  Light glinted off the keen metal blade as he held it out into the ray of sunlight.  
 “Look at this, sir. War is all we know, all we do to keep alive.  It is a simple life, and one we understand.  But if we try to step beyond these boundaries,” he said, allowing the sword to drop to the stone floor with a resounding clang, “then we have nothing left to call our own.  Let us not look into other possibilities, sir.  It is far too late to turn back.”
“Is it? I wonder.”
“And even if somehow you were to persuade the men to give up their dream,” Jonathan continued, “where would we go?  We are known outlaws in these parts, and certainly no one would take in a band of Saxon criminals.  We know no trade but the one we have taken up.”
Alfred nodded.  “I know, and I have considered it.  But perhaps we must begin to consider what would be the right thing—the best thing--for England.”  Jonathan did not respond, so he continued.  “I have told no one else this, Jonathan, so you must not violate my trust until I have decided what I am to do—I have been considering the measure that my faith has upon my life.  You see, the Druids tried to tempt me, using their worldly power to help me reclaim this land for our people.  And in exchange, they would set up their ancient spirit-worship.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“I told them that the England my grandfather knew was Saxon…but it was also Christian!  If my allegiance is to a Christian Saxony, Jonathan, how am I to drive out the Christian Normans?  Is not that a division of loyalties?”
        Shock registered across Jonathan’s face.  “What?” he growled.  “Apparently none of these Christian Normans had the moral scruples you do, sir!  A century ago their swords were stained with our fathers’ blood!  Retribution must be made; eye for eye, tooth for tooth!”
“I cannot defend their actions,” Alfred said, remaining calm, “nor am I attempting to.  But within myself, I know that I cannot serve the Lord of peace while destroying his children.  It is…it is not right,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Not right?” Jonathan repeated, his voice edged and hard.  “Was it not your voice that called us years ago, that told us that freedom is worth dying for?  How can you turn your back on that vision now?”
“Perhaps there is a greater freedom that we are called to fight for.  A freedom not of chains and swords, but of the spirit.  Don’t you see?”
“Yes,” he spat out the word with anger and bitterness.  “I understand that you are a traitor to our cause, the very cause that you yourself worked so hard for.  Now, when we are on the verge of success, you would desert us!”
“Jonathan, my friend,” Alfred soothed, “think about the England we know.  The people are learning to be content under the Normans.  They do not want our help.  What could we do for them except call them to die in an unholy war?”
“You have listened too long to your brother,” Jonathan sneered.  “Be off then, and follow your ‘Lord of peace.’  I shall have nothing to do with it!”
Alfred did not respond, but held his friend’s eyes for several long moments.  He sighed and looked down at the floor, where the fallen sword still lay in a square of sunlight.  As he looked at it, a voice entered his mind.  It was a voice he had not heard in years, and one that he himself had silenced.  His father’s words filled him, and he could remember those times of contentment when they would all gather by the fireside and listen to him read Latin verses and then translate them into Saxon for the children.
Stooping to Jonathan’s feet, he picked up the sword and held it in his hands, examining its gleaming length carefully.
“I think it is time that I beat my sword into a plowshare,” he said, breaking into a light grin before handing the sword, handle first, to Jonathan.  “And perhaps some day you will follow me.”
Jonathan took the blade and re-sheathed it.   
“I will have no part in the destiny of fools,” he breathed menacingly, then turned and stormed out of the chamber.   
The sound of his receding footsteps lingered in the hall for several moments, but, strangely enough, it didn't bother Alfred.  A feeling of peace had come upon him, unasked for but not unwelcome.  He knew trouble would be imminent, but he also knew that he had at last taken the first step of a journey in the right direction.
~ ~ ~
Jonathan marched, enraged, onto the wide field that lay before the manor.  Most of the brigands were present, some dueling with their swords, others sleeping in the grass.  In the distance, the small camp of Templar knights could still be seen, ever vigilant.
Jonathan strode to the center of the Saxon warriors, shouting to be heard over the din.  “Hear me, brothers!” he cried, raising his sword up high. “We are being betrayed by our own commander!”
Murmurs of disbelief ran through the mob, and several shook their heads disapprovingly.   
“Be quiet, Jonathan,” one of them roared. “You must be drunk!”
“I assure you I am quite sound of mind,” Jonathan shouted.  “But I doubt that Alfred is!  Have you not wondered why he has invited his own brother’s group of knights within the manor?  I tell you he has listened to his brother’s preaching for too long!  He told me that a Christian Saxon cannot kill another Christian, even if he be Norman!”
Shocked whispers raced through the assembled brigands.  “Can this be so?”
“Indeed!” Jonathan shouted.  “He has converted himself into a man of peace, or so he says!  He told me that he will beat his sword into a plowshare and give up his dream of a free Saxon England!”
“Never!” one of the brigands cried.
“Hear me, please!” he continued.  “I have no doubt that he intends to take the robe itself, the very relic that we spilled our blood for, and use it to his Norman-loving purposes!  He would take its power to meld our people with the Normans!”
An earthshaking rose from the Saxon throats, and Jonathan smiled.  
“Come,” he shouted into the din, “let's go up and take it, before he turns it to weak pursuits!”  Immediately every Saxon was running full-tilt toward the manor, some with their swords already bare.
~ ~ ~
The Count’s eyes opened wide as he absorbed the words shouted from the other end of the field.  
“They have it,” he whispered, only half believing it.  “They have the robe.”
One of the knights approached him, his white tunic fluttering in the breeze.  “What’s all the commotion, sir?”
“The leader of these brigands has somehow found the robe,” he answered softly, standing in a daze.
“Are you certain, sir?”
The Count nodded and whirled around on his heel, determination in his eyes.  “Saddle your horses, my friends, and prepare your swords.  It will not be an easy fight.”
~ ~ ~
Alfred stepped into the dining-chamber and bolted the door behind him.  Edward stood to meet him, his brow furrowed.  
“Alfred?  What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Alfred said, flashing him a quick grin.  “Well, actually, quite a few things.  But don’t worry about it.  I’m sure I can come up with something.”
Edward was taken aback.  He could tell that his brother had changed since last seeing him the night before, but he could not say how.   
“Are you in danger?” Cedric asked, watching Alfred press his ear to the door.
“Oh yes,” Alfred said without even glancing up.  “In fact, we all are.”
Hannah took hold of Edward’s arm.  He looked into her eyes and saw the light of both fear and anger blazing at once.  She was strong and brave, but she had gone through enough trials to know the terrible taste of horror.  If they fell to some attacker outside, she knew well enough what would happen to her.  Edward tried to give her a reassuring smile, but he felt no confidence whatsoever.  The four friends looked at each other, thoroughly bewildered, but Alfred volunteered no information.
After a few moments, the brigand-leader looked back up and wiped the sweat off of his brow.   
“I was afraid of this.  They’ve come to look for me,” he muttered, and rushed to the window.  Leaning out, he peered down to the ground.  “Edward, come here,” he said, motioning his brother beside him.  “Look down there.  How much of a drop is that?”
“At least three times my height,” Edward replied, turning to his brother.  “But I don’t understand.  Who’s come to find you?”
“No time to explain,” said Alfred, racing to the east window to see if it provided a better route.  “Let me say, though, that if we stay here it is quite possible we will never live to see another day.”
The four friends stood stunned for a long moment, then leapt to work, helping Alfred devise a way of escaping through the window.  
“I could easily drop that distance,” Cedric said, looking down.  “It’s soft ground below.”
“Yes, I suppose most of us could,” Alfred replied.  “But what about her?”
“I can do it,” Hannah replied bravely.
Edward began to disagree, but at that moment, a loud pounding began on the large oaken door.   
“Alfred!” Jonathan’s voice came through.  “Alfred, we know you must be in there.  Give up the robe, and we will allow you to live!”
“Hmph,” Alfred grunted, and shook his head.  “Where did my men learn to speak with a forked tongue?”
The pounding became more insistent, and the old door began to groan on its hinges.   
“All right, then, we’ll have to go for it,” said Alfred.  “You go on ahead, and I’ll come last. I’ll hold them off if I need to."
Cedric climbed onto the sill.  Dangling down, he released himself, landing squarely on his feet at the bottom.  As soon as he was clear, Oswald followed his example.  Hannah went next, allowing Cedric to catch her before she hit the turf at the bottom.  Edward clambered onto the windowsill, and as he did so, he heard the terrible sound of splintering wood.
Dropping quickly down, he landed hard on his feet and tumbled onto his back, quickly rolling out of the way.  Alfred was already on the sill, and he leapt out as soon as Edward was clear.  The huge man landed with a painful crack in his joints, but he pulled himself up and began running, pushing the others ahead of him.
“Fly, my friends, fly!”
Behind him they could hear Jonathan’s voice shouting from the window.  “There they go!  After the traitor!”  A terrible shout arose from the manor, followed by the sound of arrows whizzing through the air after them.
“Weave as you run!” Alfred shouted.  “Back and forth!  They won’t be able to hit you!”
The five figures sprinted in a zigzag pattern across the open fields toward a small bluff that rose in the eastern distance.   
“There's a forest beyond that ridge!” Alfred huffed as they ran.  “Perhaps we can make it.”
Their feet pounded against the soft ground, the wind blowing against their faces.  Edward’s heart beat with fear inside him, but also with a joyful thrill that he couldn't explain.  Merely to see his brother running alongside him caused chills to run down his spine.
He continued zigzagging through the field, hearing the sound of arrows thudding into the ground around him.  Just as he thought they were within reach of the bluff, an agonized shout reached their ears, and they heard the sound of Alfred hitting the ground hard. Edward and Cedric doubled back to reach him.  
“Oh,” Alfred groaned, rolling back and forth on the ground.  Blood was spurting up from the back of his calf, where an arrow had found its mark.
“Go on!” he shouted through clenched teeth.  “It’s over for me.”
Edward grimaced and took his brother’s wrist.  
“No, Edward,” Alfred breathed heavily.  “They’ll be coming any moment.  Just—get to safety.  Here,” he reached inside his jerkin and held out the tattered purple robe. “Go save the girl’s uncle.”
Cedric grabbed his other wrist.  “We will not leave you with those cutthroat murderers!”
“You forget already," Alfred smiled through clenched teeth. "I created those cutthroat murderers. It's no less than I deserve, my friends. Go on.”
Edward looked down at his brother’s pained face and he could not stop the flow of tears that poured down his face.
“Forgive me, Ed,” Alfred gasped, clutching at his wound.
“I already have."
“Then go."
Cedric frowned.  “I hear no one following yet.  You still have time.  Come, can you stand up?”
Alfred grimaced and broke off the protruding shaft, then heaved himself up with a massive effort of strength.  As he stood though, the blood began pouring out anew.  Cedric tore off a long strip of cloth from his tunic and tied it around the wound.
As the three men began to walk toward the bluff, the first sounds of pursuers began to rise.  In front of them, Oswald and Hannah were still sprinting, but were still several hundred yards away from the ridge.  Turning, Edward saw several horsemen chasing after them.  For an instant, his heart rose--it was not the Saxon brigands in pursuit. But then the sunlight caught the edge of a blade, and Edward felt a thrill of fear.
Six Templar knights were riding toward them with incredible speed.  And their swords were drawn and raised for the kill.