The Templar Legacy (Page 20)


2:00 PM

THE SENESCHAL SWUNG THE IRON GRILLE INWARD AND LED THE cortege of mourners through the ancient archway. The entrance into the subterranean Hall of Fathers was located within the abbey walls, at the end of a long passageway where one of the oldest buildings butted rock. Fifteen hundred years ago monks first occupied the caverns beyond, living in the sullen recesses. As more and more penitents arrived, buildings were erected. Abbeys tended to either dramatically grow or dwindle, and this one had erupted with a burst of construction that had lasted centuries, continued by the Knights Templar, who quietly took ownership in the late thirteenth century. The Order's mother house--maison chevetaine, as Rule labeled it--had first been located in Jerusalem, then Acre, then Cyprus, finally ending here after the Purge. Eventually, the complex was surrounded with battlement walls and towers and the abbey grew to become one of Europe's largest, set high among the Pyrenees, secluded by both geography and Rule. Its name came from the nearby river, the falls, and an abundance of groundwater. Abbey des Fontaines: abbey of the fountains.

He made his way down narrow steps chipped from rock. The soles of his canvas sandals were slippery on the moist stone. Where oil torches once provided light, electric sconces now lit the way. Behind him came the thirty-four brothers who'd decided to join him. At the bottom of the stairs, he padded forward until the tunnel opened into a vaulted room. A stone pillar rose from the center, like the trunk of an aging tree.

The brothers slowly gathered around the oak coffin, which had already been brought inside and laid on a stone plinth. Through clouds of incense came melancholy chants.

The seneschal stepped forward and the chanting stopped. "We have come to honor him. Let us pray," he said in French.

They did, then a hymn was sung.

"Our master led us well. You, who are loyal to his memory, take heart. He would have been proud."

A few moments of silence passed.

"What lies ahead?" one of the brothers quietly asked.

Caucusing was not proper in the Hall of Fathers, but with apprehension looming he allowed a bending of Rule.

"Uncertainty," he declared. "Brother de Roquefort is ready to take charge. Those of you who are selected for the conclave will have to work hard to stop him."

"He will be our downfall," another brother muttered.

"I agree," the seneschal said. "He believes that we can somehow avenge seven-hundred-year-old sins. Even if we could, why? We survived."

"His followers have been pressing hard. Those who oppose him will be punished."

The seneschal knew that this was why so few had come to the hall. "Our ancestors faced many enemies. In the Holy Land they stood before the Saracens and died with honor. Here, they endured torture from the Inquisition. Our master, de Molay, was burned at the stake. Our job is to stay faithful." Weak words, he knew, but they had to be said.

"De Roquefort wants to war with our enemies. One of his followers told me that he even intends to take back the shroud."

He winced. Other radical thinkers had proposed that show of defiance before, but every master had quelled the act. "We must stop him in conclave. Luckily, he cannot control the selection process."

"He frightens me," a brother said, and the quiet that followed signaled that the others agreed.

After an hour of prayer the seneschal gave the signal. Four bearers, each dressed in a crimson robe, hoisted the master's coffin.

He turned and approached two columns of red porphyry between which stood the Door of Gold. The name came not from its composition, but from what was once stored behind it.

Forty-three masters lay in their own locoli, beneath a rock ceiling, polished smooth and painted a deep blue, upon which gold stars spangled in the light. The bodies had long ago turned to dust. Only bones remained, encased within ossuaries each bearing a master's name and dates of service. To his right were empty niches, one of which would cradle his master's body for the next year. Only then would a brother return and transfer the bones to an ossuary. The burial practice, which the Order had long employed, belonged to the Jews in the Holy Land at the time of Christ.

The bearers deposited the coffin into the assigned cavity. A deep tranquility filled the semi-darkness.

Thoughts of his friend flashed through the seneschal's mind. The master was the youngest son of a wealthy Belgian merchant. He'd gravitated to the Church for no clear reason--simply something he felt compelled to do. He'd been recruited by one of the Order's many journeymen, brothers stationed around the globe, blessed with an eye for recruits. Monastic life had agreed with the master. And though not of high office, in the conclave after his predecessor died the brothers had all cried, "Let him be master." And so he took the oath. I offer myself to the omnipotent God and to the Virgin Mary for the salvation of my soul and so shall I remain in this holy life all my days until my final breath. The seneschal had made the same pledge.

He allowed his thoughts to drift back to the Order's beginning--the battle cries of war, groans of brothers wounded and dying, the anguished moans born of burying those who'd not survived the conflict. That had been the way of the Templars. First in, last to leave. Raymond de Roquefort longed for that time. But why? That futility had been proven when Church and State turned on the Templars at the time of the Purge, showing no regard for two hundred years of loyal service. Brothers were burned at the stake, others tortured and maimed for life, and all for simple greed. To the modern world, the Knights Templar were legends. A long-ago memory. No one cared if they existed, so righting any injustice seemed hopeless.

The dead must stay dead.

He again glanced around at the stone chests, then dismissed the brothers--save one. His assistant. He needed to speak with him alone. The younger man approached.

"Tell me, Geoffrey," the seneschal said. "Were you and the master plotting?"

The man's dark eyes flashed surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Did the master ask you to do something for him recently? Come now, don't lie to me. He's gone, and I'm here." He thought pulling rank would make it easier for him to learn the truth.

"Yes, Seneschal. I mailed two parcels for the master."

"Tell me of the first."

"Thick and heavy, like a book. I posted it while I was in Avignon, more than a month ago."

"The second?"

"Sent Monday, from Perpignan. A letter."

"Who was the letter sent to?"

"Ernst Scoville in Rennes-le-Chateau."

The younger man quickly crossed himself, and the seneschal spied puzzlement and suspicion. "What's wrong?"

"The master said you would ask those questions."

The information grabbed his attention.

"He said that when you did, I should tell you the truth. But he also said for you to be warned. Those who have gone down the path you are about to take have been many, but never has anyone succeeded. He said to wish you well and Godspeed."

His mentor was a brilliant man who clearly knew far more than he'd ever said.

"He also said that you must finish the quest. It's your destiny. Whether you realize that or not."

He'd heard enough. The empty wooden box from the armoire in the master's chamber was now explained. The book he'd sought inside was gone. The master had sent it away. With a gentle wave of his hand he dismissed the aide. Geoffrey bowed, then hustled toward the Door of Gold.

Something occurred to him. "Wait. You never said where the first package, the book, was sent."

Geoffrey stopped and turned but said nothing.

"Why don't you answer?"

"It is not right that we speak of this. Not here. With him so near." The young man's gaze darted to the coffin.

"You said he wanted me to know."

Anxiety swirled in the eyes staring back at him.

"Tell me where the book was sent." Though he already knew, he needed to hear the words.

"To America. A woman named Stephanie Nelle."