Thursday, June 02, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 39

Copyright Mathew Burden, 2001
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        The room was lit with a single torch, leaving the corners shadowed in darkness.  He sat on the small wooden chair that faced the doorway, his fingertips tapping.  His eye was closed, as if he were merely taking a nap.
Footsteps resounded in the corridor, followed by the sound of heavy breathing as a messenger entered the chamber.  “Sir!”
“Yes, what is it?”
“I saw them."
Jonathan rose from his chair, his one eye now open and gleaming brightly.  “Where?” he rasped.
“They were entering the city from the south.  We traced them to an inn near the bridge.  Alfred's still with them.”
“How many were there?”
“Seven that I could see. Four knights, Alfred and his brother, and the Jewess.”
Jonathan’s face lit up.  “Good. And we have eighteen.”
The brigand nodded and began to leave, but stopped short before he reached the door.   
“Sir…what will be done with Alfred?  Most of the men still count him as a friend.  He was the one who brought us all together in the beginning.”
Jonathan looked at him sharply, his lips turning into a frown.  “We will do what must be done. Our plan has no room for traitors.”
~ ~ ~
Edward sighed and collapsed onto a straw mattress.  Since the small chambers of the inn could only accommodate two people at once, they had allowed Hannah to have her own chamber, while the men split up into three separate groups.
Although Malcolm was not staying in the same room as Edward, he had joined him for a brief conversation before they retired for the night.  
“Justin and the Jew haven’t returned yet,” he commented.
Alfred nodded.  “But they were searching the area furthest away.  It makes sense that they would take longer to return.”
“Or perhaps they’ve fallen into trouble," said the Scot.
Edward shook his head.  “I fear my hair will turn gray before I’m twenty-six,” he groaned.  “Do you remember, Malcolm, how peaceful it was in Melrose?”
He nodded.  “It will be good to be home when we are done here.”
Edward smiled wistfully.  “I would sit out every morning on the banks of the river and watch the sun break the mist off the east-marches.”
Malcolm laughed.  “I always thought you were crazy for it, too.  I much prefer the comfort of my bed that early in the morning.”
Alfred chuckled and rose to glance out the window-slit into the streets below.  “It’s getting dark,” he noted.
Edward drew a deep lungful of the stale air that clung to the chamber.  “I suppose if our friends do not reappear by morning we'll have to go looking for them.  Why is it that nothing can ever go smoothly for us?”
Malcolm laughed and took Edward by the shoulder.  “I remember something you told me once in your teachings.  ‘Suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope.’”
“I suppose,” Alfred replied with a smile, still gazing out into the street.  “But I believe that by now we should have enough character and hope to last us a lifetime.”
The Scot grinned.  “Well, I suppose I should be returning to my own bed.  I only hope we can set out soon on the road for home.  Good night, my friends.”
“Good night,” Edward replied.  “Come on, Alfred.  You should probably get some sleep as well.”
Alfred appeared frozen at his place by the window.  “There’s a good deal of commotion in the street below,” he whispered, watching the dim silhouettes of several riders approaching the inn.
Edward chuckled and pulled him away from the window.  “Stop worrying.  There’s no way that anything more could happen to us in one night.  No one has that much bad luck.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in luck."
His brother shook his head.  “In truth, I don’t.  After what we’ve gone through, could you believe in luck?”
“Probably not,” he replied.   
He was about to make another comment when his words were cut off by the sound of several footsteps marching quickly down the hallway.
~ ~ ~
Justin was half-asleep, allowing his body to rest while his mind raced.  He knew that he would have to escape somehow, but that was a harder task the second time.  They would be watching more carefully—much more carefully.  He counted off the seconds between each time a guard would walk by his door, until he had discerned the system.  Every fifty-four seconds, the guard would walk by, peer in the door, and continue on.  Fifty-four seconds later, he would return from the opposite direction and repeat the procedure.  The guard would change every third hour, and sometimes he could hear snatches of conversation during these changes.
While he was straining to hear one such discussion, though, the door of the cell smashed in, creaking angrily on its hinges.  The Count swore as he marched into the little cell, leveling a quick blow at Justin’s legs.  The prisoner groaned and drew himself into a sitting position, the pain beckoning him once more to the torture of full consciousness.
“Good morning,” Justin said in hoarse whisper.
“It’s still nighttime,” the Templar said, his eyes blazing.
“Then why are you waking me up?”
He held up the long piece of purple cloth in front of Justin.  “Do you recognize this?”
Justin squinted his eyes.  “The robe?”
The Count chuckled softly.  “Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?”
He shook his head, still disoriented from his lack of sleep and the abrupt interruption.  “Notice what?”
The Templar Preceptor gritted his teeth and leaned in toward Justin, to point where their noses were nearly touching.  “Tell me where the real one is—the one you took from the Holy Land.”
“Isn’t that it?”
The Count slapped him across the face.  “I will not tolerate your games!  Where is it?”
“I’m telling the truth,” Justin replied evenly, with as strong a voice as he could muster.  “If that isn’t it, then I don’t know where it is.”
The Count smirked.  “I was examining this a moment ago, preparing to send it to the office of the Grandmaster.  But when I held it up against the light of my lamp, I noticed something strange on this corner.”  He held it up for Justin to see. “There is a seal printed cleverly in the cloth--the seal of an English tailoring guild! Now, you and I both know that there were no English tailors during the time that the true relic originated.  So I ask you again—where is it?”
Justin frowned, searching his memory for any possible time when they could have been switched.  The only answers he could come up with would put his friends in danger, so he decided to avoid speculation in that area.  
“Perhaps I was bearing a false relic the entire time.”
The Count shook his head, his arms still quivering with anger.  “No!  The Order does not pursue deceptions halfway around the world!  The true one is here, somewhere.”
“Why do you want it?”
The Templar’s anger turned directly on Justin.  “We are not discussing that!  Tell me where it is!”
“I know why you want it.  You style yourselves as defenders of relics, but in fact you fear them, don’t you?  You know that Christian men would quickly fall behind a leader bearing a holy relic.  Rather than having these relics used against you when your day of reckoning comes, you hide them away in your preceptories so that they become mere shrines, empty and powerless.”
With a countenance darkened with fury, the Count began striking the weakened prisoner over and over.  Justin doubled with pain, a blazing display of light dancing before his eyes.  He fell heavily back onto the stone floor, curling up in a ball to protect himself.
After a few minutes, he heard the Count swear and march out of the room.  As he fell once more into a tortured half-sleep, he welcomed the cold blackness of his cell.  It comforted him, dulling the pain of his wounds to the point of forgetting who and where he was.  He knew the Count would return in time, but until then he resolved to spend time fighting in the only way that remained.  Without even the strength to lift himself to his knees, he stretched out on the floor with his face heavenward.
Tears ran down his face as his prayers took him beyond the confines of the prison, to the one place in which comfort could still be found for him.  
 “Lord,” he rasped, his voice hoarse.  “I lift up the Count to you, for in this moment, he is in far greater desperation than I am.  Lord, have mercy on that man, and give me the strength to love him in the same way that you do….”   
His whispered prayer trailed off into silence as he drifted slowly into the calming embrace of sleep.
~ ~ ~
The frenzied conversation outside gripped Edward with fear.
“No!” they heard the innkeeper’s squeaky voice exclaim.  “I cannot allow you to simply barge in here like this!”
“I told you, old man,” came a deeper voice.  “I have urgent business with your guests.”
Alfred leapt up from his mattress.  “That’s Jonathan,” he hissed, pulling his brother to his feet.  “Let’s go.”
The inn was constructed in such a way that most of the rooms were interconnected with one another by a system of small doorways so that, if one knew the other guests, one could walk the length of the inn while avoiding the main corridor.  Since their room was on the end of the row, they burst through the little door into the next chamber, where Thomas and Stephen were already asleep on their mattresses.
Edward closed the door behind him as Alfred woke the two knights and pulled them into the third room, Hannah's.  She was still awake, and had been listening through the door to the conversation between the brigands and the innkeeper.  She followed the four men into the fourth chamber, where the two Scots were already waiting for them.
They had no idea who was in the room beyond them, but they pushed through anyway and found that it was unlocked.  It was an empty chamber, and, rather than lingering there to be discovered, they continued moving through several more deserted rooms before coming to a locked door.
Alfred rapped loudly on the wood, hoping that the brigands in the hallway would not hear.  “Who is it?” came the voice of a woman from within.  “What do you want?”
Hannah spoke up quickly, hoping the occupant would be more willing to trust a woman’s voice.  “My friends and I are being pursued by outlaws who have overrun the inn.  We must reach the far stairwell without going in the corridor.  Can we pass through your chamber?”
“Outlaws!” the voice resounded in a shocked tone, as if she had been offended by the very thought.  The latch clicked and the bolt was drawn back to unlock the door.  It swung open silently to reveal a graying matron, her dark eyes looking them over carefully.  “Very well,” she harrumphed, gathering a long dark robe around her shoulders as she stood aside to let them by.
The seven friends rushed quickly through her room, and opened the door on the other side to find another empty room.  Just as they were about to pass through, they heard the woman speak up again behind them.
“One moment, please.  I’m coming with you.”  The authority her voice carried left no room for doubting that she did indeed intend on accompanying them.
“What?” said Alfred, whirling.  “We don’t have time to waste here!”
She placed her hands on her hips, staring directly into his eyes.  “It would not be decent for you fine folk to leave me in the hands of outlaws! My husband does expect to see me again in one piece, you know!”  As she spoke, she was gathering up her possessions into a small traveling bag which she slung over her shoulder.
“All right.  I’m ready to proceed now,” she nodded.  Just as she spoke the words, shouts rang out down the hall, and they could hear doors opening and slamming shut again.
         “Come on!” Malcolm said, pulling them through the empty room through the final door, where they found the darkened stairwell.  They raced down the steps and burst out a wooden door into the darkening twilight.  Without even stopping to catch their breath, they began racing down a side street, hoping to lose their pursuers in the darkness of the London dusk.  They ran for several minutes without stopping, when finally the lady held up a hand and shouted that they stop.
         The young travelers gathered around her, and she smiled at them while trying to catch her breath.   
        “Come now, friends, this simply isn’t a dignified escape.”
Alfred shrugged, exasperated.  “What would you suggest, my lady?”
She gazed back on him with an expression of mixed pity and revulsion.  All in all, he still looked very much a brigand.   
“My husband owns a manor not so very far from here.  That’s where I’m heading, and I certainly don’t intend to run the whole way.  And of course, you are all welcome.  You and your friends saved me from outlaws, didn’t you?  And after what I’ve put you through, the least I can do is be somewhat hospitable.  Come.  I know the master of a set of stables near here.  I wouldn’t trust another inn tonight anyway.”  So saying, she took the lead and began walking toward the eastern outskirts of the city. 
         No sounds of pursuit echoed behind them, and they were grateful for that at least.  Edward walked beside Hannah in silence, wondering when their lives would ever return to normal.  Up to that point, the robe had been nothing but bait for power-mad assailants set on destroying them.   
        “Just bring us home safely, Lord,” he prayed, his breath forming puffs of steam in the cold air.