Thursday, June 09, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 40

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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They reached the noblewoman’s manor before midnight.  It was a large structure, dominating the rolling fields of the surrounding fiefs.  Inside, the pleasant smells of roasting meat and rising bread greeted them.  Although the manor was cold because of its stone construction, the main hall was warmly lit by a large fire burning in a hearth that stretched over a length of ten feet.
The corridors were dark, but the ambiance made up for the lack of physical lighting.  All of the servants were well-mannered and pleasant, and the lord of the manor himself was the most congenial host any traveler could wish for.  He was an older man, somewhat stout, with a balding head.  His eyes were poor, and he was forced to squint at them as he spoke, but the breadth of his smile made up for it. 
Even though they didn't wish to offend their host, they were forced by the weight of fatigue to surrender to the need for sleep and depart relatively quickly to their respective chambers.  Unlike the simple inn, they were afforded all the care they required and more besides.  Each one was given their own chamber as well as a personal servant to look after their needs for the night.  Although the lord and his lady were not the most powerful of the nobles of England, their house was beyond comparing to any others they had witnessed.
Edward was one of the first to depart from the company gathered in the main hall.  He followed the servant to his chamber.  The servant was a young man, perhaps only twenty years old, but he seemed to have gained an air of utmost discipline.  He walked with a clipped stride, his back ramrod straight, his shoulder-length brown hair pulled into a neat ponytail.
He stopped abruptly before a doorway made of lacquered oak and swung it open, allowing Edward to step within.  Edward gasped, surprised to find that it was furnished with the most luxurious accommodations he had ever seen.  He had been well accustomed to the simple arrangements afforded to a monk while at Lindisfarne: a small cot, a desk and stool, and a single candle.  What he saw in those guest quarters, though, nearly took his breath away.  Fine cloths of damask and silk hung in exquisite draperies from the walls.  The bed itself was nearly as large as his cell had been at the monastery, and a warm hearth-fire illuminated many costly items displayed around the room.
Edward could not contain a low whistle.  He turned to the servant, who smirked back at him with evident pleasure at his surprise.  “Your master is certainly a wealthy man, isn’t he?”
The servant nodded.  “He is not well known across the land, but his power stretches further than most would imagine.”
Edward’s eyes continued to roam around the room.  He breathed in deeply, savoring the smell of the gentle fragrances that filled the air.   
“And he is able to attain all of this from only his holdings?”
The servant shot him a warning glance as if to say, Don’t press any further in the matter.  It surprised Edward.  In this house, that seemed so open and warm, there were apparently some secrets that were not to be broached.
“Do you have everything you require, my lord?”
Edward could not resist a grin.  He had never before been referred to as ‘my lord.’  “Yes, everything is quite beyond what I could hope for.  Thank you.”
The servant nodded, his face once again revealing nothing.  “If you need anything, sir, please call me.  I will be in the hallway outside.”
Edward was stunned.  “All night long?”
The servant nodded, as if it was a very ordinary arrangement.  “All night long.”
“Don’t you sleep?”
“Not tonight,” he replied.  “The Master has given his orders.”
Edward shrugged, immediately feeling sorry for the youth.  “I’m certain I won’t require anything else.  You are free to go.”
“Thank you, sir,” the servant replied as he backed out of the doorway. He closed the door firmly, leaving Edward standing in the middle of the luxurious chamber.
Immediately, Edward felt terribly out of place.  He was afraid to go near such finery with the fear that he would dirty it with his dusty traveling clothes.  As if his mind had been read, his eye fell on a neatly-folded stack of clothes on the edge of the bed.  He picked them up gently, running his hand with wonder over the smooth fabric.  There was a rich mantle and along with it a white linen robe and an accompanying blue sash.
He quickly went to the door and opened it to find the servant standing rigidly against the wall, his eyes staring straight ahead.
“Um…sir, are these for me?” he showed the garments in question.
The servant turned and fixed on him a gaze of mingled amusement and incredulity.  “Of course they’re for you.”
Edward blushed, knowing he must appear quite foolish, and retreated back into the room.  After donning the expensive clothes, he returned to the hallway to ask a question of the servant.
“Do you think you could lead me to the quarters of Hannah—the young woman who was traveling with us?” Edward asked.
The servant appeared as if he were attempting to stifle a chuckle.
“To talk to her,” he clarified.
“Of course,” the servant smiled.  “Follow me, please.”
~ ~ ~
“Get up!” the voice roared.
Justin mumbled, still holding on to the final fleeting moments of sleep.
“I said get up!” the voice was practically screaming now.  A blow landed in the small of Justin’s back, and he groaned as waves of pain washed over him.  His eyes snapped open to see the Count glowering down at him, his mailed fists clenched.
“Come to finish me off, my friend?” Justin chuckled humorlessly, dragging himself into a sitting position.  His cloak was covered with the grime that coated the cold stones of the cell floor.  The stench was incredible, but Justin had learned to ignore it.  With bleary eyes, he turned his haggard visage to regard the infuriated Templar.  “You’d better have a good reason for interrupting my nap.”
“Stand up, you fool!  You’re coming with me!”
Justin bent his legs and pushed himself up, gritting his teeth against the pain.  He stumbled forward, nearly toppling onto the Count as he straightened his stiff muscles.  He was overtaken by waves of dizziness and nausea, but he forced his mind to retain control.
“Are you going to kill me?”
The Count grimaced.  “Perhaps, but not immediately.  Now come.”
Justin reached out an arm to stop him from walking out of the cell.  “Before we leave, I must tell you something.  I am here for my Lord.  And if I die, I die for Christ.”
He chuckled sardonically.  “If you die, Justin, it is on account of your own stupidity.  I will not make a martyr of you.”
“If my death would allow but one more to enter the kingdom of heaven, I would gladly surrender my life.”
The Count looked at him for a moment as if trying to understand, then shrugged.  “Come.  You will help me find your friends.”  He dragged Justin out into the corridor.
“What makes you think I'll help you?”
“Because you are an honest man—a man of scruples.”
“And what would that make you?” Justin wondered aloud.
“By you?  Misunderstood.”  
By that time, they had reached the preceptory stable.  The Count mounted a dark stallion and pulled Justin up behind him.
“I think you’ve gotten the wrong idea about the Order,” the Count said as they rode past the outer gates and into moonlit night.  “Many of us do, in fact, serve the Church to the best of our abilities.  We protect pilgrims and holy relics, and we offer our lives beside the best men of Christendom for the Holy Land.”
“But the grandmaster and the higher officials—they know better, don’t they?”
The Count sat silently for a while, listening to the steady clip-clop of the horse’s hoofs on the packed road.  He sighed heavily.   
“There is more to the picture than we present. And you were right, after a fashion—we want the robe because we do fear its power.  Such a thing could even cause Christian nations to rise against one another.  Better to leave it in the hands of those who can protect it.”
Justin breathed deeply of the chill air.  Above them, the stars shone gently with celestial light as they moved through their unending courses.  “But better yet if those hands are faithful to the Lord.”
“So you believe it to be genuine?”
“Do you?” Justin retorted, giving away nothing.  “I have seen no angelic visions, no miracles or wondrous signs from it.  All I know is what I have been told.”
“And so it is nothing but an ancient rag with a claim attached to it.”
Justin nodded in silent agreement.  “But even so, it's still worth much.”
“Indeed,” the Count replied, his voice edged.  “And you would have allowed that prize to be given up for a Jew.  It is an act of heresy that defies belief, especially from a man so devoted to his faith.”
“Why do you call it heresy?”
“All Christendom knows that the Jews are nothing more than a curse upon the face of the earth—a vile and blasphemous race.  In no other people in the entire world has there been so many base and contemptible attributes gathered together as in the children of Israel.”
“So they say,” he mused.  “But they are God’s chosen people.”
“They were God’s chosen people,” the Count corrected.  “But when they refused to accept Christ, the Church replaced them.  Even the most simple-minded student of the faith knows that.”
Justin shook his head and sighed, his eyes scanning the darkened countryside.  “I’m not so certain.”
“Even so, you would trade a relic—an item so holy that many worthy men would die for its protection—for the life of one man?”
“Are you a student of the Scriptures, my friend?” Justin asked.
The Count shook his head.  “I have not read them since I joined the Order.  I had considered becoming a cleric, but….” his words faded off into the night. 
“According to the Scriptures, why did Jesus die?”
The Count sighed and shook his head.  “I don’t really want to discuss this right now.  Let’s just look for your friends.”
“Answer the question: why did he die?”
He rode in silence for several moments before responding.  “He died to take our sins—he paid the judgment-debt for our souls.”
Justin nodded.  “The one thing most important to him in all the universe was the souls of his children—important enough to give up his own life.  Now, I don’t know if Eleazer will ever see the light and follow Christ, but we are giving him the opportunity to make that decision before it’s too late. If that same prize was worth the Lord's own life, then surely it is worth any relic, no matter how holy.”
The Count turned slightly in his saddle as they rode towards London.  “Then I will strike a bargain with you, Sir Justin.  If you deliver the robe, the true robe to me, I will release the Jew.”
“Do you know what your Order would do with it?”
“I give you my word that we would not harm it in any manner.”
“No, you would do worse.  You would protect it, certainly, but you would also set it up as a shrine.  Such shrines strip the people of their hope.  They begin to lean more towards belief in the object that they can see with their eyes rather than the God that can only be seen through the eyes of faith.  And whoever is the keeper of the shrine would gain much power through the people.  Is that really what you want for your Order, my friend?  Do you want to be part of a group that would separate the people from their simple faith?”
The Count was beginning to grow angry.  “I made an oath, Justin, and I know far too much to be able to turn back now.  Even if I wanted to, I could not leave the Order.”
“Then neither can I help you,” he replied softly.
~ ~ ~
Jonathan was in an irate mood.  Their search of the inn had turned up nothing, save the knowledge that his former leader had once again escaped his grasp.  He paced back and forth in the dimly-lit room, tugging at his beard.  They had embroiled themselves too deeply in the matter to retreat, but he had no idea what his next move should be.  The chair in the corner went unoccupied, for he was too perturbed to sit down for any length of time.  The oily smoke from the torch and a constant, nagging, drip-drip sound only served to amplify his anger.
Once again, he heard the dull thump of footsteps in the corridor.  He was about to shout at them to leave when the door swung open and a young man entered.  He had black hair and appeared haggard, as if he had not slept for several nights.  One of the Saxons marched in behind him and bowed to Jonathan in respect.
“My lord, a visitor.”
“I can see that,” he responded dryly.  “You may leave us.”  As soon as the brigand had closed the door, Jonathan turned to the young man.  “Who are you?”
“Michael of York. I had the good fortune of running into your little raiding party last night, and I was able to trace you back here.”
Jonathan’s good eye narrowed.  “Then you know us?”
He smiled in return, and the sight of it chilled the brigand to the bones.  “You could say that we’ve had a prior meeting of sorts.”  He paused, allowing Jonathan to search his memory for the incident.  “And I’m prepared to make the same offer to you that we made to your former leader.”
A keen smile spread slowly across the brigand’s face, and he motioned to the chair in the corner.  “Have a seat, my friend.  I believe I know your business, and it may be that my response will be more favorable to you.”
Michael nodded in return, and took the proffered seat with a satisfied sigh.  “And so in this room begins the affiliation that will shape England for centuries to come.”
“We shall be a Saxon nation,” Jonathan said, his words echoing in the room.
“A Druid nation,” Michael added.
The two men reached out in a mutual handshake of agreement.  
 “And we shall not be stopped,” Jonathan spoke, his voice rumbling in the dark corners of the chamber.