Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 45

Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
 (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)


The pounding of hoofbeats exploded around them like the rumbling peals of the drums of war.  The brigands and Druids began wheeling their horses around in fright as shouts rose up to join the cacophonous clamor.  But Michael stood poised and straight, like a statue, above Edward's fallen form.

Hannah’s cry rang out above the sounds of the tempest as she caught Edward’s body in her arms, sinking to the ground with him.  In an instant, the other six men stood ready as one, their arms crossed defiantly over their chests.

“So who shall be next, Michael?” Malcolm cried out. “The day of judgement has come; make your choice!”

Michael’s sword wavered with indecision; his eyes cast a quick glance to see what was happening to his horsemen.   
“What’s going on?” he wondered aloud, sounding like  a frightened child in the midst of a storm.  “None of you can fight me?” 

“You!” he pointed at Malcolm.  “You have a sword!  Draw it, and let us fight together!”

But the noble war-captain stood his ground, his hands still empty.  “I stand by what Edward said,” he shouted above the pounding rain.  “Meek as lambs led out to the slaughter!  If you want to kill us, nothing we can do can stop you!”

Michael gazed at them, terrified.  “What kind of men are you?” he said.  “Defend yourselves!”

Michael took one more look at where Edward lay, and the sword clattered out of his hand, landing on the rain-soaked ground.  Both of his hands came up to his face, and he sank slowly to his knees.

“What’s going on?” he muttered, his face etched with pain.

Malcolm and Alfred reached out to touch his shoulders, to take control of the tortured youth.  As soon as their hands reached him, though, he screamed and shook them off, leaping to his feet with a crazed gleam in his eyes.  Screaming to the storm, he ran away from the scene, flying over the fields as fast as his feet would carry him, until his figure was lost to their view.

In the distance, nearer to the manor, was a sight that caught the attention of all four men.  Malcolm had been about to turn back to tend to Hannah, but a flash of lightning illuminated what was occurring on those fields.  
 The horsemen had seen another set of riders bearing down on them, and had left Michael to prepare to meet it.  And in that instant, Malcolm witnessed the two forces clashing against one another, more than a score of brigands and Druids being met by a dozen knights, their swords upraised.

And in that flash of lightning, Malcolm saw the banner that floated lightly above those fields, the banner that he had thought he might never be able to see again: the twisting form of the Rampant Lion of Scotland.  In the grim faces of those hardened warriors, he could see the visages of his own friends and neighbors, the knights of Melrose. Taking their lead from Justin and the Count, they had tailed the Saxon-Druid mob all the way from London to that lonely country estate.

Had the circumstances been any different, Malcolm would have let out a whoop of joy.  But even as he watched, he could see that the superior numbers of the brigands and Druids threatened to overwhelm his men.  But none had fallen yet, and they continued to fight bravely against the savage defense put up by the Saxon patriots and their comrades.  
Malcolm spun on his heel and returned to his fallen friend. Hannah was lying beside him, tears streaking down her face.   
“Why?” she whispered.  “Why did you do it?  Is that one robe really worth a man’s life?”

Edward shook his head.  “It wouldn’t…it wouldn’t have mattered,” he gasped.  He placed a hand on his abdomen and groaned, his eyes closed tight.  “O Lord Jesus,” he breathed heavily, “accept the sacrifices of my suffering.”

“No,” she whimpered, “no.  You can’t leave me here.  Not now, not after all that we’ve gone through.”

He opened his eyes, meeting her gaze with a look of profound longing.  “I’m sorry, Hannah,” he coughed.  “I’m sorry it could not have been better.”  He raised his hand to his eyes, watching the rain wash away the crimson covering of his own blood.  “Remember me, Hannah.”

“No,” she persisted, holding his hand tightly against her cheek.  “Remember how you found me?  How you showed me that life is worth staying alive for?  Don’t surrender it so easily!”

Edward smiled weakly.  “I may not…not have much choice.”

“Don’t give up,” she whispered in his ear.  “You can fight it,” she reached up to wipe the tears from her face.  “Whenever I wanted to give up, you stood beside me and pulled me along!  Think of what remains for you, for us, Edward!  We can still be a blessing to so many in this world!  The Lord is not done with us yet!”

He sighed and closed his eyes, the pain evident in his expression.  He could feel the tendrils of unconsciousness reaching for him, grasping at him, pulling him down.  Just before darkness flooded his vision, he reached out with one last spurt of strength to touch her face.  
“I love you, Hannah.”

He collapsed, his arms falling down across his chest as he lay there beneath the raging storm.

~ ~ ~

Malcolm rushed up to Alfred. “Can you take care of Edward?  I must look after my men.”

The big man nodded slowly, his expression blank with sorrow.

Malcolm accepted this response and set off.  Oswald dashed close after him, both men closing quickly on the conflict.  It appeared to be a stalemate, but an uneasy one.  The Scots were doing well in parrying the blows, but eventually the superior numbers would be the deciding factor in the fight.  The backs of the brigands and Druids were turned to him, oblivious to the coming assault by the two men.  Malcolm had his sword drawn and ready, and Oswald held his fists clenched in preparation for whatever was coming.

Malcolm came quickly up to the surging line of horses and men, the clash of steel ringing out over the rain-soaked fields.  Using the momentum of his charge, he vaulted up behind one of the Druids, landing squarely behind him in the saddle.  With a quick clout to the head, the Druid sank into oblivion and was laid to the ground by the Scottish captain.  Taking his newly-acquired steed, Malcolm wheeled his mount and picked up Oswald before the brigands around him realized what had happened.

Digging his heels into the horse’s ribs, he charged around the line of battle, until he was facing it from the other direction, with his men surrounding him.  The sight of their leader brought new energy into the struggle as the Scots raised up a war cry that roared above the tumult of the thunder.  Mud splashed around them; lightning lit up the sky. 

Yet the Scots were still losing, slowly but without doubt.  They might take some with them, but on that day, Malcolm knew that the brigand’s blades would run red with the fires of their vengeance.  But to retreat—would it leave Alfred and the others open to attack?  No, they had to consolidate and make their stand there.  Whether it meant life or death, they were fighting for something greater. They were fighting for their friends, they were fighting for a Christian realm, and they were fighting against the death-whip of evil.

Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the line of brigands and Druids began to close around them, to outflank them, and there was nothing they could do.  It was not long before the line had consolidated into a ring around them, cutting off all avenues of escape.  Malcolm shook his head slowly, grimly, back and forth as he surveyed the line of opponents, preparing for the final, crushing charge.

“Hear me, men!” Malcolm shouted above the din.  “We fight today for honor and righteousness!  Let us make it a fight to remember!”

“Aye!” a chorus of deep voices responded, their swords held up high.  But just as the sound of their shout receded into the darkness, another sound met their ears, a sound both terrible and wonderful, bursting over the fields and the mountains.

A shout returned from the west, a shout that chilled Malcolm’s blood.  All eyes turned to the ridge that rose in the west, and the drumming of a hundred hoofs broke over the scene.

Vive Dieu, Saint Amour!

        Malcolm groaned inwardly.  It was the war-cry of the Templar Knights.  His recent experiences had taught him to count the Templars as his enemies. But then he paused, looking again over his assembled warband. Sure enough, there among them were Sir Justin and the Count. So if the Count, a Temple preceptor, were on their side, then perhaps the battle cry sounded hope for them, and not despair.
        More than a score of them poured over the ridge, knights and arms-sergeants alike, their white and brown mantles fluttering in the wind.  They swept down over the fields, their swords out and ready, their eyes lusting for a battle.

        The brigands glanced nervously at one another, all eyes falling to Jonathan, who sat upon his horse with a grimace.  The Templars were only about a hundred yards away, closing quickly on the little cluster of warriors.   
        “Withdraw!” he shouted, wheeling his horse about with a shout.

        The brigands followed their leader, charging toward the east with the Druids following close behind them.  As the Templars swept by, the Count stood up, shouting his orders to them.

        “Pursue!  Ride, my friends, ride!”

        They answered him with a shout, spurring their mounts even faster after the fleeing outlaws.  Within the space of a few moments, both groups had vanished from their sight, only the receding sound of hoofbeats any reminder of what had just ensued.

        Malcolm sighed, drained of all his strength.  He dismounted slowly, dropping to his knees on the field to offer up a quick prayer of thanks.  His men did likewise, making the sign of the cross over their chests.

        Malcolm rose slowly, his entire body crying out against him.  He wanted nothing more in that instant than to cast himself down on that field and unburden his soul of tears.

        “How many?” he asked in a whisper.

        “Sir?” his lieutenant responded, eyes downcast.

        “How many were lost today?”

        “One of ours, sir, and three of the enemy fell.”

        “Who was it?”

        The Scottish warrior’s face twisted in pain.  “It was young Alasdair, sir.”

        “Alasdair!” Malcolm groaned. 

        “We—we tried to make him stay behind, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  He rode out with us anyway.”

        Malcolm nodded in resignation, his heart breaking.  “Very well.  This is a day for laments, my friend.  We have won the victory, but at what price did it come?”

~ ~ ~

        “He’s alive,” Alfred said, nodding to the worried men who had gathered around him.  “Alive, but barely.  It’s hard to tell what will happen. The servants have bandaged the wound and it looks like the bleeding has stopped, but…we can’t be sure.”

        Malcolm breathed a sigh of relief, sinking down from exhaustion into a seat behind him.  “Is he awake?”

        “No,” Alfred responded, rubbing a hand over his weary eyes.  “Hannah’s in there with him now with one of the servants.  They’ll tell us when he comes around.”

        “And the nobleman?” Malcolm pressed.

        “Well,” Alfred responded with a chuckle.  “The servants saw most of what happened out on the field, and they seem to understand.  They agreed to keep him in bed until we were done here, and his wife agreed.  He won’t bring us any more trouble.”

        “Good,” the Scot nodded, turning to survey the crowd that had gathered around the long table.  There were a few servants there, focused on their work of tending the fires or keeping the wine-glasses of their guests filled.  Most of the assembly, though, appeared to be nothing more than a ragged band of travelers longing for home, and indeed they were.

        Malcolm and Oswald still wore their simple traveling cloaks, long since faded from exposure and torn in several places.  Justin and the Count sat to the right of the two Scots, both of their tunics encrusted in a layer of mud.  Thomas and Stephen, the knights of Newcastle, were also wearing traveling cloaks, but in better condition than those sported by Malcolm and Oswald.  Their faces were haggard, though, thick with stubble.  Across the table from those friends sat an entire row of the knights of Melrose. Their faces were grim, mirroring the attitudes of those across the table.  Edward had been their friend in Melrose, and his fall came to a shock to all of them.

        Malcolm cast a keen eye over his troops, wondering if they would accept an order to start back to Melrose.  In his heart, he knew they wouldn’t.   
        “So,” he breathed, taking a long sip of wine.  “I’m intrigued by this whole affair.  How on earth—and why—did you come to find us?”

        The lieutenant cast a glance to the others, a slight smirk coming over his face.  “When you sent us home at Newcastle, it was with the impression that Edward wished to remain there a few more days for—I believe it was romantic reasons.”

        “Yes, I think we did hint at that,” Malcolm chuckled, running a hand over his windblown hair.

        “Well, after a week had gone by, we assumed that something else must have gone wrong.  Some of us volunteered to go and find out what had happened, even though we thought we would meet you on the road.  There were so many, in fact, that I had to order most of them to stay behind and tend the harvests in case it took us longer than we expected.  In all truth, it was not easy to follow you, and we had to ride hard.  It was fairly easy to learn in Newcastle that you had encountered some trouble and then gone south, toward York. When we reached York, we asked for you at the gate, and the guard took us and had us questioned by an officer of the Templars.”

        The Count chuckled at that, but did not interrupt the story.

        “We ran into some confusion in the vicinity of Northampton—some of the villagers claimed you had left the road and gone to the west, others claimed you kept going south, and most had no idea at all.  By the time we reached London, we had no idea if you were anywhere around there at all.”

        “And that’s where we found them,” Justin smiled.  “You should have seen it.  A dozen Scottish knights, openly displaying the seal of Scotland, riding through the streets.  They attracted quite a bit of attention.  It didn’t take us long to deduce that they were looking for you,” he nodded to Malcolm.

        “But there’s one thing about all of this I don’t quite understand,” Thomas ventured, his eyes flashing with open curiosity.  “Just a few days ago, we were running away from the Knights of the Temple, but now one has become a trusted friend and the others saved us on the battlefield.”

        The Count cleared his throat.  “After the jailbreak, we found Sir Justin and the Jew and returned them to some of our security cells.  We discovered,” he glanced at Alfred, “that the prize we retrieved from you was not genuine, so I took Justin out by night so that he could direct me to the original.  He refused, stubborn man that he is, and we were brought to talk over many of the things we had gone through.  During the course of the conversation, I realized that I had been in the wrong.  A turning point, if you might call it that.”

        “That simple?” Thomas asked, his eyebrow raised with doubt.

        “That simple,” the Templar responded, holding the gaze.  “I know it's difficult to believe me, considering the things I have done, but as a friend once told me,” he patted Justin on the back, “I can prove a change of heart by living as Christ lived.  I intend to do that to the best of my ability."

        “But,” Malcolm interjected, “during the battle—how did the Templars know where we were?”

        “We followed the brigand-Druid band out of London,” the Count explained.  “As we passed the gates, I hired a messenger to ride to the preceptory and tell the knights to join us as reinforcements along the Canterbury road.  They must have heard the sound of the fight, for they arrived just in time.”

         “Well,” Malcolm glanced at the Newcastle knights, “I assume you two will be riding back fairly soon.”

         Stephen glanced at his captain and laughed.  “You must be joking!  Knowing the kind of trouble you get yourselves into, you’ll need as much protection as you can get every step of the way.”

        Malcolm cast a glance toward his lieutenant, who smiled.  “That goes for us, as well, sir.  We don’t leave until you do.  How could we explain being gone for so long and then coming back without you?”

        The captain of Melrose looked at Oswald.  “It seems we’re surrounded again, my friend."

        “Well,” said the Count, rising to his feet, "it seems that we have been drawn together by most extraordinary circumstances.  I still have a pledge here to complete that I made to the Lord, so you will see me again.  But for now, I must return to the preceptory to release the Jew.  I expect he’ll be fairly surprised.  Until we meet again, my friends,” he raised his wine-glass high.

        “And may we never see another day like today,” Malcolm whispered.