Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 32

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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         The six horsemen raced up beside them and surrounded them with ease, trapping all five in a tight ring.  Cedric was sprinting breathlessly, but he looked to the side to find a massive bay stallion beside him, its legs pounding the earth in a vicious staccato.  Edward groaned when he saw that Oswald and Hannah weren't going to make it.  Already three knights had reached them and began herding them back toward the main group.  The circle quickly became smaller as the knights forced the five friends together.  Alfred shook his head, looking up with unbridled malice at the lead Templar.
The Count gazed back at him and smiled condescendingly.  “Give me the robe."
Cedric smiled innocently and stepped forward.  “I know I have a wonderful taste in fashion, gentlemen, but I brought no spare one to wear.  I am flattered, of course—”
“Not your robe, idiot!” the Count shouted.  “This man knows what I am speaking of.”  He glared down at Alfred.
“Let me tell you something,” Alfred raised his voice, pointing back toward the manor.  “In just a few moments more than twenty Saxon warriors are going to ride out here from that place, and they will not be very selective of whom they kill.  Help us escape them, or at least let us go.  Why must blood be shed here today?”
“Just give me what I want, and you may go!” the Count roared.
Edward sighed, beginning to feel the weight of pressure on him.  Was that one relic truly worth their lives?  Surely they could find some other way to redeem Hannah’s uncle.
“No,” Cedric said firmly, both to Edward and the Count.  He walked up to the Templar slowly, a grin spreading over his face.  “You never recognized me, did you?  But your scheme has failed.  Even now, I still stand between you and your masters’ prize.  Well, I say it shall not fall into the hands of evil purposes, not again.”
“Justin,” the Count growled, his eyes widening with the realization.  “This cannot be.”  He frowned quickly, and then, with an unearthly shout, he pulled his sword from the scabbard.  It answered with a metallic ring, its polished edges gleaming.  He charged forward, but Cedric leapt out of the way and began shouting to the other Templar knights.
“How much do you know of your Grand Master’s evil design?  Has your Preceptor told you that your Order is rooted in ancient mysticism and devilish wisdom?  Some day it will be revealed to the world!”
“Silence!” the Count screamed, wheeling his horse about madly.  The young knights sat looking on, perplexed by this strange turn of events.
“Hear me, knights!” Justin cried.  “Yours is not a brotherhood of Christ, it is a brotherhood of blood and secrets!  Already your Order has broken its own vow of poverty!  How long will it be before its mask of allegiance to the Church falls by the wayside?”
“Silence, I said!” the Count shouted.  “Attack this speaker of lies!” he barked at his men.  “Remember your vows!”
In the distance, the low thunder of horses’ hooves came, but it was impossible to tell from what direction.  The sound seemed to be emanating from all around them.
“Yes, remember your vows!” Justin cried, dodging the Count’s repeated blows.  The sword continued to slice past him harmlessly.  “Vows to protect Christian men, not to slay them in cold blood!”
The Count swore and grabbed Hannah’s wrist in a desperate move, dragging her up onto the mount behind him.   
“No!” Edward cried.
Justin faced the Count with fire in his eyes, his tone firm.  “Another vow cast off so quickly, my friend?  Whatever happened to chastity?  Or have your masters told you to begin seizing any women you please?”
“You will die, blasphemer! The robe belongs to the Temple!”
“The robe belongs to the Church!” Justin fired back.  “And I would be loath to surrender it into your hands.  See, even now the judgement of God descends on you!” he pointed in the direction of the manor, where a score of horsemen were charging out over the plain.
“And on you as well,” the Count snarled.  “Shall we die together?”
At that instant, though, Alfred leapt forward with a shout.  He knew what would happen if his men caught them, so it was well beyond time for a last-ditch effort at escape.  Blood began streaming down his leg again, but he ignored it, gritting his teeth against the pain.  The Count attempted to turn away from his charge, but was too late.
“Jump, girl!” Alfred shouted, plowing forward against the bulk of the Count’s stallion.  The horse tried to sidestep in an effort to escape the force of the blow, but its legs folded under it as it tripped over a low bush.  It toppled over with a frightened neigh, pinning the Templar against the ground.  The Count let out an agonized scream as he tried to wrench his leg out from beneath it.  Hannah leapt free and raced over to where Edward was standing.  Alfred staggered back up, nimbly dodging the flailing hoofs as he walked away.
“Now!” he shouted to the remaining Templars.  “What will it be?  Flee with us or die!”
The knights stood still, wondering what to do.  Their captain had been attacked, but he had seemed a madman himself.  As the thundering hosts of brigands approached, death seemed inevitable.  The Templars, seeing they would be cut down in moments unless they regrouped, turned to face the oncoming charge.  One of them raised his sword high, his eyes locked on the onrushing cavalry.  
“For the Temple and the Church!”
~ ~ ~
         On the southern end of the ridge, three sets of eyes watched the scene unfold before them.  The trees that surrounded them rustled slightly in the breeze, their long boughs shadowing them from the sight of those on the field.  Two horses were standing ready, already lathering from their long ride--and on them, the watcher and two knights. The knights sat ready on their mounts, prepared to ride out with the tactic they had improvised upon arriving at the scene with their companion.  
        When there were still a hundred yards between the two forces, the watcher hissed “Now!” into the knight’s ear.   
        The knight nodded, driving his heels into his horse’s ribs.  The two horses tore out of the safety of the trees, racing like the wind toward the narrowing lane between the brigands and the Templars.  The first knight laughed out loud, enjoying the feeling of the wind in his face and the smell of battle before him.  The second followed close to his commander, worry written across his brow as he kept a discerning eye on both cavalries.
        As they neared the onrushing line of brigands, the watcher let out a loud, earsplitting whoop to draw their attention.  He drew out a large piece of purple cloth and waved it dramatically over his head, allowing it to flutter in the breeze as they rode down the narrow path that remained between the two lines of warriors.  They continued their charge beyond the scene, never slowing for an instant.  
        Then the watcher replaced the cloth beneath his cloak and muttered, “Let’s hope that will be enough.”
~ ~ ~
         Edward heard the cry and glanced back. 
         “He’s got the robe!” came the shout from several Saxon throats at once.
         Edward was able to catch a glimpse of two horses, riding like the wind.  On one of the horses, a man seated behind the rider was waving what appeared to be the robe, displaying it for both sides to see.  But it was not the sight of the robe that astonished Edward, for he knew where the true one was, but rather the sight of the fair Scottish countenance beneath it.
         “Malcolm!” he shouted, a grin lighting up his face.
         As soon as the two riders dashed out over the fields in a northwesterly direction, the Saxon horde wheeled around to follow them.  
         In the same instant, the Count, who had extricated himself from beneath his mount, limped forward and likewise commanded his troops to pursue the two fleeing horses.  In less than ten seconds, the five escaping friends, the objects of a murderous hunt just moments before, were left standing virtually alone in the corner of the field.  In the distance they could still hear the rumble of hoofs rapidly making their way northward once again.
         “It was Malcolm!” Edward laughed, urging his friends on.  “He's given us the chance to escape!  Let’s go quickly now, before they discover what really happened!”
         They raced up the final fifty yards of the slope and down the other side.  As soon as they had all made it a safe distance into the shelter of the tangled wood, they collapsed from exhaustion.  Oswald and Edward were laughing with joy at seeing their friend alive and safe, and the other three joined in the chorus of laughter despite their pain and weariness.
         After a while, Alfred spoke up.  He had been re-bandaging his wound so that the blood flow ceased, but it was obvious that he was beginning to feel faint from the taxing escape.   
         “It is still unsafe here.  No doubt Jonathan will soon come to the conclusion that the riders were working with us and he will send out men to trace us.  We must move on.”
         “But where will Malcolm expect to meet us again?” Oswald asked.
         Edward frowned.  “On the road to London, I suppose.”
         Justin nodded.  “And that is also where the Templars will search for us.  I’m afraid this is far from over.  I doubt I will ever be safe again, now that I have shown myself to the Preceptor.”
         Edward sighed.  “Which leads us to another dilemma.”
         “What is that?” Alfred asked.
         “Well, if we are to sell this to redeem Hannah’s uncle, we would be putting the buyer in mortal danger.”
         Justin shrugged as the company rose and began to move on.  “We’ll have to worry about that when we reach that stage, I suppose.  For now we should concentrate on reaching London.”
         They marched off at an easier pace, striking east toward the road that would lead them to London.
~ ~ ~
         Stephen laughed and raced ahead of Thomas as they rode down the wide trail.  Malcolm, still seated behind Thomas, joined in their laughter.   
        “That was something we don’t get to do very often up in Newcastle!” Thomas roared.
        “Hopefully it worked,” Malcolm replied.
        “Those brigands are so lost it will take them days just to find their way back to their manor!” Stephen shouted.
         The sun was setting to their left as they continued on toward the ruins of the Druid estate.  From there they would cut back across to the main road and make their way south again.
         Malcolm smiled.  “I cannot thank you two enough for all of this.  Are you certain your sheriff back in Newcastle won’t mind?”
         “Oh, he’ll mind,” Thomas laughed.  “There’s no escaping that.  He did give us a date to be back by, but I can’t quite remember it,” he grinned and winked at Stephen.  “When was that, anyway?”
        “I haven’t the slightest clue,” he grinned.  “We have delivered his letter, and I expect he will be in a fair deal of trouble himself when the crown officials discover how he handled the matter of the brigands.”
         “But what about the Druid you were telling us about, the one you followed?” Thomas asked.  “Could he still trouble us?”
         Malcolm frowned and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I lost track of him several hours before meeting you on the road.  It was only from his general direction that I was able to guide you to the brigands’ manor.”
         “And just in time,” Stephen said, shaking his head.  “That was some quick thinking on your part, my friend.”
         Malcolm smiled.  “It was rather good, wasn’t it? So now it’s off to find Edward again.  And hopefully the Druid will not reach him before we do.”
         Thomas nodded.  “Well, they are without horses.  With luck, we may overtake them tomorrow, perhaps before the brigands or the Templars are able to regroup.”
         Malcolm nodded, watching the sun set in the distance.  Its radiant display of red and orange lit up the sky in a brilliant display of light, reminding him of his experience on the Druids’ hill.   
         “Thank you, Lord,” he breathed out.
~ ~ ~
         Edward and his friends made their way to the roadside by the time twilight descended, and set up camp beneath the protective cloak of an arm of the forest.  They did not light a fire for fear of their pursuers, but instead sat in the darkness, speaking in low voices until they finally drifted off to sleep.
         They had agreed to sleep in shifts, always allowing at least two members of the party to remain awake.  The first shift fell to Edward and to Alfred, who sat in silence for a long while, listening to the rhythmic breathing of the other three.
         Alfred groaned, turning his leg to a more comfortable position.   
         “We should have that arrowhead removed before the flesh seals over it,” Edward said.
         “I’ll be all right,” he protested, but his painful breathing spoke otherwise.
        “In the next village there will be a doctor, I'm sure. We can afford to stop long enough.  After all, you risked your life to help us escape.”
         Alfred grunted, but did not reply.
        “Why was that?” Edward asked.  “Why did your men turn on you?”
         “Yes, I suppose I owe you an explanation,” Alfred said after a long pause.  He looked up, catching glimpses of the starlight shining down between the great, spreading boughs of the trees above them.  “I told Jonathan that I felt a division of my loyalties.  I had realized that…that I could no longer pretend to serve the Prince of Peace and at the same time be a murderer—even for the sake of freedom.  So I made a choice.”
         Edward could not help but chuckle.  He wiped a tear away from his eye.  “I have been praying for you, my brother.  Ever since that night that I rode off for Lindisfarne.”
         “It was the blackest time of my life,” Alfred said hollowly.
         “And mine. But all that is behind us now.”
          Alfred nodded, but remained silent for several more minutes.  “Do you remember,” he said at last, “that night at your friend’s farm in Newcastle—you offered me the chance to give up the life of a brigand and to join you, and have you teach me the ways of the Lord?”
         “I remember,” he replied.
         “Is that offer still open?”
         Edward could not stop the tears at that point. He leaned over to embrace his brother, an act he never thought he would be able to do.  Alfred stiffened at the embrace, but then reached around and clasped his brother tight.
         “Thank you,” Alfred whispered as he released him, “for your forgiveness."
        Edward smiled. "I, too, have been forgiven much. Render your thanks to Christ."
        "Aye, then. To Christ."