Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 42

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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Edward stared at the ring for a long moment, then rose.   He bowed stiffly, taking an instinctive step backward.   
“Forgive me any grief I have caused you, sir,” he said.
Edward turned on his heel and walked back out of the room.  Henry, the servant, seemed to materialize out of nowhere, guiding him back down the hallways to his own chamber.
As soon as the door closed firmly behind him, he fell on his knees, a thousand prayers echoing through his mind at once.
~ ~ ~
The Count was lying down in the grass, his face turned up to the stars above.  Justin had led him, along with the old peasant woman, back down the stream-side trail to her little hovel, where her relative was lying on his sickbed, death's pallor closing in on him. Justin had gone into the hut with the old woman, but the Count had remained outside. He watched the stars; he listened to the voices from within the hut; and he pondered what he had seen. 
There was something about the instinctive mercy of Sir Justin that he could not shake out of his mind. He summoned up all the gruff energy of his duty-driven Templar persona, but it could not uproot the nagging thought that there was something in this situation that he was missing, something that Justin had, and that he, the Count, the Templar Preceptor, needed desperately. It was a deep-rooted sensation in the bottom of his heart, and it brought him back to the days of his youth, to one particular feeling that he had had when he used to walk into his little parish church as a boy--something evoked by the crucifix and the incense, something that he still couldn't quite place.
"O Lord, make haste to help me," he prayed aloud--a simple prayer that had been taught him long ago by his village priest.
"He will, you know," said a voice nearby.
The Count turned his head to see Justin framed in the light coming from the doorway of the ramshackle hut.  Standing there with light flooding around him, he appeared as a very messenger of God.  “Were you listening to me?”
Justin nodded slowly.  “I’m sorry.  I couldn’t help but overhear.  I can leave if you’d like me to.”
“No, no, it’s all right. How are they doing inside?”
Justin stepped forward and sat down in the grass beside the Templar.  “The old woman’s asleep, and her relative looks as though he will make it.  Death would have found him tonight if it hadn’t been for our help.”
The Count nodded solemnly.  “Do you know, even yesterday I would have simply shrugged it off if someone had informed me of the death of a peasant farmer.  But now—something’s different. That one life in there, that not long ago seemed less than worthless to me, now carries the weight of heaven with it.”
“That's because you’re learning to see through the Lord's eyes. This land, this world, has been looking through man’s eyes for far too long.”
“And it has never realized how blind it really is,” the Templar finished.
~ ~ ~
Edward worked up enough courage to confront the servant with what he had seen, hoping the young man would give away some clue as to his master's intentions.  He opened the door, not surprised to see Henry standing at attention there. 
“Do you need something, my lord?”
“Yes. Come in here, please.”
After Henry had entered, Edward spoke, carefully watching the servant’s expression.
“Henry, as I was speaking to your master, I noticed a ring he wore.  It’s been bothering me—I’m almost certain I’ve seen the symbol on it before, and I was hoping you could place it for me.  I couldn’t sleep, and it just kept coming back to my mind.”
Henry shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other.  It was only a slight change, but dramatic when compared to the absolute poise he had been exhibiting before.  “It’s—it was given to him by some friends.”
“But do you know what it means?  I’m sure it means something…”
He cleared his throat, casting a wary glance around the room.  “As I warned you earlier, we do not discuss that matter openly.”
“As you warned me earlier…Do you mean that the symbol has something to do with all the wealth he has acquired?”
“I…I really shouldn’t be discussing this with you.”
“Henry, do you know your master very well?”
“Not very well.  He hired me nearly nine months ago."
"That's long enough to get to know the workings of a place."
"Yes, after a fashion. Long enough to know what to keep my nose out of, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh—well, if you're wondering if you have anything to fear, sir, I think I can put your mind at ease. You're not in any danger. If you had run afoul of the master's friends, then matters might be somewhat different. But there's nothing to worry about. My master is a good man.”
He looked as though he was about to return to his post, so Edward quickly put himself in front of the door to block the exit.  “Just allow me to clarify for a moment--it sounds to me as if you've implied that these friends call on your master to do duties, and they pay him in return?”
The servant frowned, noticeably annoyed.  “After a fashion, yes. But he doesn’t actually know them that well.”
“Then what motivates him to help them?  Greed?”
Henry looked squarely in Edward’s eyes.  “Rather fear, I think.”   
With those ominous words echoing in the room, the servant slipped past Edward and closed the door behind him.  Edward walked over to the window and looked out to see the first tinges of dawn touching the edge of the world.  The sun would rise shortly, and when that occurred, they would make certain that they were well away from that house and making their way back to the city to meet Justin.  But there was still a bit of time before they could leave without raising their host's curiosity, and he hadn't yet caught a bit of sleep. He sank onto the lavish bed with a sigh.  Sleep came upon him quickly, so he did not witness the sounds of a lone messenger approaching the manor’s gate.
~ ~ ~
Malcolm heard the pounding on his chamber door and smiled, watching the futile attempts of his assailants to break through the massive barricade he had constructed.  After having traveled with Edward for weeks, he had started to get used to the terrible circumstances that perpetually befell them.  In that light, he had slept only for the first few hours after the meal and then arose to keep watch.  It was nearing daybreak when he heard the hushed voices of the lord of the manor and a messenger speaking in the corridor.
“But why?” the noble was saying, his voice pitiful.
“You don’t need a reason.  You know the payment if you do it, and you cannot imagine the penalty if you do not—do you need more incentive?”
“But taking them prisoner—they are my guests!  It would be an offense against chivalry!”
This outburst was hushed by the messenger, who spoke in a soothing voice, almost hypnotic.  “But you followed the first order, didn’t you?  You went out searching for them, and your own wife was the one who found them.”
“Yes,” the noble replied, aggravated, “and I’m having difficulty explaining to her why I sent her out to find them.  She doesn’t believe me.”
“That is no concern of ours.  You will follow our orders, and we will return for the prisoners later today.”  With that, the messenger’s voice broke off, and Malcolm could hear his footsteps receding down the hallway.  He heard the nobleman sigh and begin speaking one of his servants.
“All right, go start cleaning out the cells below.  We’d better do this before they start waking up.”
Malcolm had to rush to pile enough furniture against the door before they came for him.  Luckily, the room had been furnished to the extreme, and there were more than enough objects at his disposal.  If they were coming into his chamber, they would have to find some other entrance.
Malcolm shook his head as he watched them continue to pound against the solid wood of the door.  Why can’t we, just once, find someone who doesn’t want to take us hostage? he thought with a chuckle.  For a holy relic, the robe certainly managed to bring out not only the worst in people; it also brought out the very worst people themselves.
“I can’t get in!” a voice shouted from the corridor.
“What do you mean?” the angry voice of the noble responded.
“It’s the Scottish knight, my lord.  He’s blocked the door!”
It only took a few moments for the reply to come.  “Torch it!”
“Yes, my lord.”
The only other portal to the outside was the tiny window slit.  Malcolm cocked his head, looking at it carefully.  It was terribly thin, but he might be able to force his body through.  He poked his head out to examine the possibilities that awaited him outside, but one glance told him it was impossible.  The drop would be long, with large, uneven rocks there to greet him at the bottom.  He looked up, hoping for some ledge on the face of the manor that he could use, but nothing was there except flat gray walls of stone.
He pulled his head back inside as adrenaline flooded his system.  The first faint wisps of smoke were curling into the chamber.  It was the smoke that brought a new idea into his head, and he rushed over to examine the possibility.  It was not often that he was in a chamber that had its own private hearth, so he had not considered the possibility before.  Surely there must be some sort of chimney or smoke-hole…
Why is it that I’m the one always stuck in burning manors? he wondered.  
There was indeed a shaft for smoke above the hearth, but it was incredibly narrow and seemed to rise vertically up out of the room.  He glanced one last time toward the door before wedging his shoulders up the pipe.
It was even more cramped than it had looked at first, but he was quickly running out of options.  By shifting his weight back and forth from elbow to elbow in a rocking motion, he was able to ascend slowly, until his entire body was wedged in the pipe.  He looked above, but all that greeted him was darkness.  There was no way to tell how far the pipe went, or whether it took any turns before emptying itself somewhere outside.   
He continued the agonizing climb for what seemed like hours.  Even if he had wanted to turn back, he was so tightly pressed against the sides that it would take him nearly the same length of time to go back down.
After what seemed like an eternity, he heard the sound of voices coming from the chamber beneath him.  They were muffled and seemed far away, but he was still able to discern most of the conversation.
“Where is he?”
“Well, he couldn’t have jumped out of the window, my lord, it would have killed him.”
“Then search the room!”
“Yes, sir.”
After a few minutes: “No sign of him, sir!”
Malcolm couldn't hear the noble's angry reply, but one voice carried over the others to send waves of fear running down his spine.   
“Over here, my lord!  There are footprints in the ashes!”
“He went up the smoke-shaft? How many places does it come out at?”
“Several, I believe, sir.”
“Well, set up archers guarding all of them.  Tell them to shoot on sight.  Meanwhile, we’ll build a few fires and smoke him out.”
Malcolm felt like cursing, but he clenched his teeth and muttered a quick prayer.  Despite his aching muscles, he pressed on, doubling his speed up the shaft.  Perhaps he could reach one of the exit-points before the archers were in position. 
Chunks of ash and soot fell in his eyes and on his face, and it was not long before he smelled the first hint of the fire below.  He was glad the pipe was so narrow though, because his own body was able to block most of the noxious fumes.  From far below him, he heard a mocking voice chant up at him.
“You can run, my friend, but there’s nowhere to go!  Fire or the sword, the choice is yours!”
Malcolm tore off a strip of his clothing to hold over his mouth and nose and slowly made his way farther up the interminable length of the smoke-shaft.