Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 41

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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As they walked down the narrow corridors of the nobleman’s manor, Edward noticed that it appeared they were going down—not as in a stairwell, but merely a gentle declivity that stretched out until he was quite certain that they were beneath the level of his own chamber.  They finally came to a stretch of chambers that resembled dungeon cells more than any sort of guest quarters.  The servant halted at one of the doors, a thick portal of rough, unfinished timber.
“She’s in here?” Edward asked, unable to disguise the incredulity in his voice. 
He nodded in return, rapping quickly on the wood three times.
“Yes?” Hannah’s voice came from within.
“One of your friends is here to see you.”
The door opened slightly as Hannah peered out into the corridor.  Her face brightened instantly.  “Edward!  Yes, come in!”
Once the door was firmly closed behind them, he surveyed her quarters with shock.  If his quarters could be called kingly, hers were bordering on the lowest level of poverty.  She, too, had been provided with clothing, but hers was only a simple white tunic of rough fabric.
Her chamber was lit with a single torch that sputtered and sparked angrily from its sconce on the wall.  It was perhaps a quarter of the size of his room, but without any of the colorful draperies or pleasant fragrances.  In fact, it felt rather musty, and Edward shivered as he stood there.  Her only furniture was a small bed with a straw mattress and a rough-hewn desk and stool.  
From the look on Edward’s face and by the rich garments he wore, Hannah had no difficulty interpreting the situation.  
“Don’t let it trouble you,” she said.  “My people have become accustomed to such treatment.”
Edward frowned.  “It’s not right.”  His face began to become flushed with anger.  Hannah could not help but laugh as she watched him.
“What are you laughing at?”
“I was just thinking—you’ve changed a great deal from when I first met you.”
He cocked his head curiously.  “Really?”
“Do I have to remind you what you told me at the cave?  Perhaps the Jews deserve God's wrath for rejecting Christ...But even a Jew's life must be worth something.’”
He shrugged sheepishly, looking into her eyes.  “I didn’t really know what I was saying.”
“And neither does our host,” she replied.  “Don’t be such a harsh judge of his character.  He's just a believer in the lies that our society feeds him.”
Edward nodded.  “I suppose that’s true.  But even so, it's no excuse.  On Judgment Day, the argument that ‘I was just following society’ will carry very little weight.”  He removed the silky blue mantle from his shoulders and handed it to her.  “I’m going to speak to our host about this.”
“Edward, I think it's best to let it go.  We are guests, and we must accept whatever hospitality is offered us.  We'll only be here one night, and I never expected anything more than this anyway.”
He shook his head.  “Do you think I’d be able to sleep in peace in that fine bed knowing that you're down here?”
She rested a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Edward, I’m fine here.  Don’t worry about me.”
“If not for you,” he breathed, “let me do this for myself—for my own conscience.”
She sighed.  “Did you know you can be very stubborn when you have an idea stuck in your head?”
He flashed a quick smile as he opened the door.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He ducked out into the corridor quickly, leaving Hannah standing alone in the chamber.  She smiled faintly, pulling the mantle he had left her about her shoulders.
~ ~ ~
They had dismounted and were no longer on the road to London, but instead took refuge beneath the sheltering boughs of an oak.  It had become obvious to both that they would be unable to continue any further until they had reached some sort of mutual agreement.
Justin sensed a change in the Count’s behavior.  No longer did he seem the aggressive antagonist, but rather as a man of troubled soul.  Whereas in the past the Count had only been a passionate zealot for the Order, now it seemed that even he had doubts.  Perhaps Justin’s prayers for the man had truly been heard and answered.
“If you had doubts about the morality of the Order,” Justin asked, “why did you wait until now to bring it up?  Why play a willing puppet for your masters?  And why torture me, only to bring me out here and show more kindness and respect than I ever imagined possible from you?”
The Count was seated on the mossy ground, his back resting against the broad trunk of the tree.  His eyes were vacant, staring off into the benighted distance.  “You must understand the pressure of my position.  As a nobleman and as a Preceptor, I had a great deal of influence both within the Order and outside of it.  With added power comes compounded responsibility.  If I had disobeyed even one order from the Grandmaster, no matter how small, it would have cast severe doubt on my loyalty.”
“And the idea of bringing me out here in the middle of the night?”
“It was on my own initiative.  Though I may not completely understand or agree with my orders, I am a Templar Knight.  And as such, it is my duty to find that robe.”
Justin pursed his lips, stretching his bruised muscles.
“Most of them don’t have a clue as to what this is all about,” the Count continued.  “The other Templars only know what we choose to tell them.  Only a few see the complete picture."
“Like you?”
He shook his head and sighed.  “No.  I don’t know everything.  Only the Grandmaster and his inner circle.  But I know enough…enough to make me believe that I don't want to know anything further.”
Justin’s eyes narrowed with suspicion, but he kept listening.
“I don’t know if they have any dark or sinister master plan,” he continued quickly, carefully watching Justin’s expression.  “But I do know this: they serve their own ends far before they serve the Church.”
The knight shook his head, trying to understand.  “Why are you telling me all this? Surely you know it will not make me more inclined to surrender the robe to the Templars.”
The Count looked up at him.  “As I said before, you are a man of honor.  I can see that. At times I feel as though my life is trapped by this web of intrigue, and I can see the injustice that has been wrought against you because of it. You're also a smart man, though, and I'm hoping that by being honest with you, you will see that the robe is a potentially dangerous item in the wrong hands, and that there is no safer place for it to be than locked away in a Preceptory, regardless of what my masters' motives might be, rather than out there and being used to incite a mob.”
Justin stroked the stallion’s mane as he thought, gazing out into the darkness.  “I hope you will not take offense at this,” he spoke quietly, “but in all prudence there is another possibility I must consider.”
The Count nodded knowingly.  “Calculated deceit,” he offered.
“Naturally. One must ask himself—why does this man, once so violently opposed to me, take me out and bring me, a prisoner, into his confidence?  Why would he appear friendly to one who was once an enemy?”
“You must be saying to yourself, ‘Perhaps he really hasn’t changed—he’s only trying to win my confidence and use it to his advantage,’” the Count said.
“And, after what you’ve been put through these last few days, it would be the most logical assumption available.”
“And you won’t try to defend yourself from such a charge?” Justin asked.
“How could I?  What could I possibly do under these circumstances that could prove I’m not a diabolical schemer?  Either way, I still have an obligation to the Order of the Temple.”
Justin laughed.  “So we’re still stuck here with nowhere to go.”
“So it seems,” the Templar agreed.   
Justin stretched himself out on the soft ground, his tortured body wracked with pain.  He didn’t know how long he lay there, minutes or hours, nor whether he had fallen asleep or not.
When he opened his eyes, the night was still lying heavy over the land, but the Count was nowhere to be seen.  His dark stallion, however, was still tethered nearby.  At the sound of angry voices, Justin rose to his feet, grimacing in pain.  He stretched with a groan and set off to find the source of the voices.
About a hundred yards from the tree, to the east of the road, a small brook ran quietly on its way toward the Thames.  Straining his eyes, he could barely make out the silhouettes of two people on its banks.  One was larger, heavily built, and was at that moment releasing a string of expletives at the second person.  From the sound of the voice Justin immediately recognized the Count.
The second figure was much shorter, almost hunched, cowering before the vicious verbal assault.  Justin drew a deep breath and shook his head.  He had wondered how long it would take for the Count’s true nature to show through again.
It took him some time to cross the distance, carefully extending his shaky legs for each step.
“No, I don’t care what your cousin’s-nephew’s-brother’s-whoever-he-is has!  I have important business, and you’re wasting my time!”
Justin was near enough now to see that the Count was facing down a grandmotherly old woman, her wrinkled face streaked with tears.  She wore little more than rags, and she wrung her hands fretfully as she listened to the Templar’s explosive response.
“Please, m’lord,” she whimpered pitifully.
He threw up his hands in exasperation.  “I don’t have time for this!”  He was about to turn around and make his way back to the tree when he felt a strong hand clasp his shoulder.
He turned to see Justin’s bearded countenance regarding him coolly, his eyes sparkling in the dim light.   
“How can you prove a change of heart?” Justin echoed their previous conversation.  “By living as Christ lived.”
As the Templar watched, dumbfounded, the knight hobbled over to the frightened peasant and, with a warm smile, laid his own tattered traveling cloak over her trembling shoulders.
~ ~ ~
 The chamber he was brought to was large and grand, with a massive table of finished wood dominating the space.  At the far end of the table, the nobleman was still awake, scribbling on a parchment with a long quill pen.
“My lord,” the servant bowed at the waist, drawing the noble’s attention away from his work.
“Yes, Henry, what is it?” he mumbled, still working at a feverish pace.
“One of you guests would like to speak with you, sir.”
His head jerked up, and he squinted across the room with a broad smile.  “Of course!  Come in, sir!  Take a seat here,” he gestured to a chair close to his side.
Edward bowed and walked across the room to take the proffered seat.  As he looked into the cheery face of his host, though, a terrible feeling of uneasiness swept over him, to such an extent that he nearly forgot his anger at Hannah’s situation.  It was as if a dim shadow, impenetrable and yet indiscernible to the eye, hung over the spacious chamber.  He shuddered, and glanced over his shoulder at an impulse, a thought that someone was standing behind him, watching him closely.  Of course he found the space empty, and felt quite foolish, but the nagging premonition continued that all was not as it should be.
The noble was unaware of his guest’s discomfort; his attention was still riveted to the documents before him.  After a few more moments of squinting at the parchment, he breathed deeply, exhaling through his nose and producing a long whistling noise.
“Thank you for your patience, my friend,” he said, sitting back.  “I was merely finishing a few small transactions.  Now, what was it you wished to discuss?”
Edward fought the urge to spin and look once again over his shoulder, so deep was his instinct that someone was watching him.  
“I’m sorry, my lord,” he stammered, “but could we meet somewhere else?”
The noble smoothed the front of his red tunic, fixing a perplexed glance on Edward.  “Is something making you uncomfortable?”
Edward nodded. “Please don’t ask me to explain.”
He raised both eyebrows slowly and shrugged.  “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to speak to you somewhere else.  Come.  We’ll proceed back to the main hall.”
He rose and ushered Edward back into the expansive chamber that formed the heart of the manor.  After sitting down once again near the hearth, the noble leaned forward with sincere interest, his elbows resting on his knees.  His hands were clasped together tightly, almost as if he were in a position of prayer.   
“So what is this concern of yours?”
“I was simply wondering…and please do not be offended by this sir, but…why are my quarters so much more extravagant than Hannah’s?”
He looked up quizzically.  “Is it too much?  I could have you moved into simpler—”
Edward shook his head quickly.  “Perhaps I worded the question badly.  My quarters are fine.  Why can’t Hannah be afforded at least some better treatment than what has been given her?”
“Forgive me, sir, if I was wrong.  I thought she was a Jew…”
“She is.”
“Oh.  Then…what’s the problem?  Those are the standard chambers for bondservants or Jews.”
Edward nodded slowly.  “I know.  I suppose I was only hoping that you might see it differently.”  He shook his head sadly.  “I cannot blame you for the oversight, sir, but I have an obligation to tell you what I've learned over the past few weeks.  Our nation, our culture, has been terribly wrong.  We are not carrying out the will of God by being spiteful to the very people that he chose to bring forth the Christ. This is not the way it was meant to be.”
The noble leaned back as if he had been slapped in the face.  “They…” his voice was hoarse, “they brought our Lord to be killed.” 
"Some of them. Others of them were the holy apostles themselves, and the Blessed Virgin whom we venerate. What we may feel about the Jews around us is quite beside the point--but ought we not to love them, simply because God himself has loved them so lavishly?"
“I am not a base man,” the nobleman said slowly, enunciating carefully.  “I will not turn away anyone who comes to me, no matter their race.  But it is beneath the dignity of any code of chivalry to afford honor to a Jew. I'm afraid that's the end of the matter for me.”
Edward sank back into his seat.  He clearly wasn’t going to gain any ground in his discussion. An ominous silence hung over the room, and Edward was about to break it when he caught sight of something that drew his breath away.  Standing out on the noble’s finger was a ring of solid gold, and on its head had been crafted a symbol that Edward had seen before: the three spiraling arms of the Druid seal.