Thursday, July 07, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 44

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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Henry sat idly, staring at the fire blazing before him.  He poked the embers every so often, urging every last gasp of smoke that he could up the shaft.  In his mind echoed the words of the prisoner, shouting at the lady of the manor.

He shook his head, quieting the thought.  He was a moral man, a Christian man.  But…how could he trust them, strangers who came in the night?  And how could he even contemplate turning against his own master?

He frowned.  On the other hand, the man’s words made sense—Druids.  It would explain much of what he had witnessed over the previous months.  He rose and stretched, casting a wary glance over the room.  Carefully, he stepped out into the corridor and began making his way toward the center of the manor.  

He was uncertain where the nobleman was, and he took great care to move inconspicuously through the hallways, sometimes meeting fellow servants.  After what seemed like a great length of time, he reached his master’s study and placed his hand against the cool wood.  It swung inward with a creak, and he breathed a sigh of relief to find the room vacant.

He crept slowly over to the great table and made his way toward the far end, then eased open a tiny drawer that had been built into the wooden frame.  The room was blanketed in an unearthly hush, which made him all the more nervous.  With a gentle hand, he lifted the ring of iron keys from its place and tucked them beneath his belt.  He turned and began to make his way back down the table when suddenly his eye fell on a figure standing in the doorway.

The nobleman frowned darkly at him, his fists resting on his hips.  “Henry--just what are you doing?”

Henry stopped cold, his throat closing with fear.  He squared his shoulders, though, putting on a brave face in what he knew was coming.

“Give me the keys, my boy,” he said, and Henry placed them in his palm.  “And since you feel so close to our prisoners, you will be sharing a room with them until my friends arrive.”

“My lord,” said Henry, “they are innocent, and you know it as well as I do.”

The nobleman slapped Henry across the face. “Come with me,” he said.

As they walked down the stairs, Henry could not help but let a single tear escape and trace its way down his cheek.  As he stepped down, words began coming to his mind, words he had learned long ago as a boy sitting at his mother’s feet.  

“The Lord is my shepherd,” he whispered.  “I shall not be in want.  He leads me beside the still waters; he makes me lie down in green pastures. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” he spoke louder now, with conviction, “for Thou art with me.”

Just before they reached the bottom of the stairs, the master spun him around, glaring in his eyes.  “You think you’re better, don’t you?” he nearly spat into the servant’s face.  “By all means, you can stand up and do the right thing, and now you think I’m a consort of evil!  Listen to me, I have no choice in the matter!  I must do as I have been told!”
The noble clenched his teeth in anger and shoved Henry into the corridor that led to the cell.  He ran forward and unlocked the door.

“Come on, get in,” he said, shoving the youth within.  As soon as Henry was inside, the noble slammed the door shut and spun the key in the lock.  “I didn’t want to do that, Henry, but you must learn to maintain your loyalties.”

The six prisoners smiled at the new addition to their group as the noble retreated toward the stairs.   
“So,” Alfred said with a chuckle, “you thought you could save us?”

Henry shrugged.  “I’m only sorry I couldn’t do better.”

“It’s enough," said Edward. "The Lord honors the heart that is open to His working.  I’m afraid you’re in something quite over your head, but we’ll try to help you.  If we have any chance, that is.”

Oswald looked at the servant with hopeful eyes.  “Do you know what happened to the Captain—to Malcolm?”

“Oh! Do you mean the other Scot?  Well, he barricaded his door and then climbed up the smoke-shaft!  As far as I know he hasn’t come out—”

“Ow!” a shout resounded from the stairs, drawing all seven back to the bars to see what had happened.  In an instant, a figure appeared, swathed in black garb from head to foot.  Even his skin was colored black, like the stories they had heard of the distant Nubians.

Seeing the five sets of eyes on him, the man flashed a bright, broad grin.  “That man’s got a jaw of iron,” he groaned, cradling his hand gingerly.

“Malcolm!” Oswald shouted.  “How did you get here?”

“Well, I must admit, it was no easy task, but I made it.”  He held up the ring of keys in one hand.  “And it seems I made it back just in time.”

He inserted the key that Henry showed him and turned it, pleased to see the door swing noiselessly open.  
 “Now,” he said, wiping some of the soot off his face, “let’s see if we can find our way out of here.”

~ ~ ~

Justin felt ill at ease as they rode along a safe distance behind the departing brigands.  After the spectacle of the strange knights at the bridge, they had made their way to the southern gates of the city, where they managed to spy a few of Jonathan's brigands setting out on a country road. Cautiously and quietly, they followed.

Clouds of dust rose beneath the hoofs of the lathering stallion, but the Templar pressed on.  
“I wonder how much farther it is,” he muttered, looking up at a sky darkening with ominous thunderclouds.  “What about the other riders? Are they still behind us?”

Justin craned his neck around, squinting back along the road to the north until he could make out the forms of at least a dozen horsemen pursuing them.   
“They’re still there,” he replied.

“Good,” the Templar grinned.  “Maybe this will work after all.”

~ ~ ~

Henry raced down the deserted corridors, squinting his eyes in an effort to block out as much of the smoke as he could.  The others followed close behind him in a tight formation.  

“You’re sure this is a way out?” Malcolm called up to him, shedding clouds of ash from his body with each step he took.

“Yes,” said Henry.  “It leads through the wine cellars and then back out near the pond.  It isn’t used much, so maybe no one will be watching it.”

Behind them, Hannah ran quickly beside Edward, her long hair flying back.  “You know,” she gasped between breaths, “I think I may be getting used to this sort of thing.”  Then she laughed.  “Not that I enjoy it.”

“Of course not,” said Edward.  “But when I get home, I’m just going to sit around and do absolutely nothing for an entire week!”

“That sounds wonderful to me,” she replied.

“You two are both going soft!” Alfred bellowed, a little louder than prudence would have dictated.  “I used to do this every day!  At least now I’m on the right side.”

It wasn't long before the gray blur of stone flying by slowed and consolidated into individual sections, and they stood before a heavy oaken door.  
“This should bring us to the cellars,” Henry said, pushing against it.  The door didn’t budge, and the youth banged against it in frustration.  “I’m afraid it’s locked."

“Then stand back,” Alfred spoke with authority, and immediately a path was cleared for him.  He walked backwards several paces, measuring the distance it would take him to build up enough force.  When he had found the spot, he knelt down, facing the door with determination gleaming in his eyes.  His nostrils flared and his muscles tensed before sending him springing up and hurtling down the hall.  He moved swiftly for a man of his substantial girth, racing headlong toward the wooden barrier.

In the final moments of the charge, he tilted his body so that the brunt of his blow would be behind his shoulder, and he gave a loud shout before slamming into the wood with a resounding thud.  The door remained where it was, but Alfred sank down to the floor with a groan, cradling his shoulder.   
“Yes, it’s certainly locked,” he said, biting his lip.  “Why don’t we find another way out?”

Edward would have burst out laughing at the scene if it wasn’t for the look of pain on his brother’s face.

Henry nodded in resignation.  “All right, then.  There are two other exits that we might be able to reach: the postern and the main gate.”

“I say we go for the postern,” Oswald volunteered.  “If the Druids are coming soon, my bet is they’ll be coming through the main gate.”

Malcolm nodded, slapping his fellow soldier on the back.  “That’s my vote, too.”

“It does seem best,” Henry replied.  “Of course, we’ll have to go back through the main hall.”

Alfred chuckled, still holding his elbow.  “Well, no one ever told us that escaping from a band of power-mad Druids would be easy.  Let’s go.”

They set off again, matching their earlier pace back down the corridors.  The smoke was growing constantly thicker in the halls, and many of the servants were wandering about aimlessly, uncertain of what to do with their master nowhere to be found.  They turned and looked with upraised eyebrows at the strange crew racing past them, but no one intervened.  They must have appeared particularly frightening as they flew by, their eyes wild with the danger of the escape.

In a flash, they broke out into the main hall and were greeted with a terrible sight: Michael, the young Druid, and Jonathan, Alfred's old lieutenant, were standing at the head of the table, leering at them.   
Henry, however, could see no one else in the chamber, so he pressed on, never slowing his pace for an instant.

“My friends,” Michael began to say, raising his wineglass, “I’ve been expecting—ho, there!  Where are you going?”

The eight friends flew by them, leaving the Druid and the brigand looking at their fleeting forms as they rushed into another set of corridors.   
“Jonathan,” Michael said slowly, “they must be heading for another gate, hoping they can escape.  I’ll follow them, and you bring the rest of the men from the main courtyard to catch them.”

The brigand bowed.  “What about the men we saw following us?  They have not arrived yet.”

The young man shrugged.  “Then we’ll deal with them when they get here.  Go.”

By the time Michael started after them, the eight friends could see the light of the postern gate ahead.

“Henry,” the guard called out, astonished.  “What’s going on?”

“I haven’t the time to explain,” he shouted as he ran. He sped outside, where a light drizzle was beginning to fall.  The others followed him as he turned south, sprinting over the fields toward a set of peasant huts in the distance.  Behind them, they could hear the shouts of the archers positioned on the walls.

When they were about halfway to the huts, they felt the dull drumbeat of hoofs pick up behind them, a terrible staccato that sounded the death of their escape.  It was only a few moments before they were overtaken by a band of two dozen riders, brigands and Druids alike.  They formed a tight ring around the eight escaping prisoners, holding them in with expressionless faces. 

Thunder broke out from the clouds overhead as Alfred looked from one man to another, examining their faces.  He had found and trained most of them himself, had inspired them with his very own dream.

“What sort of unholy alliance is this?” he shouted as the heavens let loose their fury in cascades of rain.

“We do not hear the words of a traitor,” Jonathan said slowly, clearly.

“What do you want from us?” Malcolm asked, his skin now mottled with black as the rain began to wash away the soot.

“I think we all know the answer to that question,” a young voice called out. Michael caught up to them and squeezed his way into the circle.  He walked deliberately up to Edward, stopping just short of his face.  “Give me the robe.”

Edward could not help but smile.  “We were merciful to you once, Michael. Perhaps this time you will not get away so easily.”

The young Druid threw his head back and laughed.  “Now, I think the circumstances are dramatically altered.  You have nowhere to run, my friend.  Your little quest has ended here.”   
Lightning cracked over the manor, followed by the slow, resonating boom of thunder.

In the darkness and the lashing rain, Edward saw the circle begin to close, tighter and tighter.  The grim faces of the brigands and Druids gazed down on him impassively.  And in that moment, with the storm raging around him, he saw not what they appeared to be, nor what they could do to him.  He saw what they really were, in the depths of their hearts: lost souls crying out for a home, screaming against the night for a purpose.

“I cannot give a holy thing over for the use of evil," Edward said firmly. "So if we must die, we die for Christ.”

“I will not make a martyr of you!” Michael screamed.

“Whatever you do, the world will remember what happens on this field.  All the hosts of heaven stand witness this day, and whether we live or die makes little difference to us.  We know where our home is.  Do you?”

Michael bit his lip so hard that blood began to trickle down his chin.  “I will flay you alive,” he growled.

“Michael,” he responded, his voice soft, calm against the rain.  “Christ does love you. He loves all of you. We stand as witnesses to the life He brings.  Do you think murdering us will stop that witness?  No, I tell you, it will spread it even faster, until all of England knows his love.”

No one moved.

“If you intend to kill us,” Edward said, “then I am willing to lay down my life even now, just as Christ laid down his own life.”

“You would give up your lives for that one piece of cloth?”

Edward shook his head slowly.  “But you and I both know that we have far too much knowledge to just be set free.  You fear us now, because we know who you are.  And the truth is, you will kill us anyway.  So here I stand,” he spread his arms.  “I have lived for Christ, and I shall gladly die for Him, with His praises on my lips.”

Michael screamed, as if some demon had taken possession of him and was whipping him into a tormented fury.  “I will not make a martyr of you!  You die because you dared to face us, nothing more!”

Thunder rumbled ominously overhead.

“It’s either martyred or delivered,” Edward responded.  “I suppose the choice is up to you.”

The thunder continued its dull roar, never ceasing, sometimes even seeming to rise in volume as it stretched on.

“I will choose neither,” Michael said, drawing back a bared blade.

And the thunder broke out all around them.