The Templar Legacy (Page 4)

5:00 PM

THE SENESCHAL KNELT BESIDE THE BED TO COMFORT HIS DYING master. For weeks he'd prayed that this moment would not come. But soon, after ruling the Order wisely for twenty-eight years, the old man lying on the bed would achieve a well-earned peace and join his predecessors in heaven. Unfortunately for the seneschal, the tumult of the physical world would continue, and he dreaded that prospect.

The room was spacious, the ancient stone-and-wood walls free of decay, only the pine-hammered ceiling beams blackened by age. A solitary window, like a somber eye, broke the exterior wall and framed the beauty of a waterfall matted by a stark gray mountain. A growing dusk thickened the room's corners.

The seneschal reached for the old man's hand. The grip was cold and clammy. "Can you hear me, Master?" he asked in French.

The tired eyes opened. "I am not gone as yet. But soon."

He'd heard others in their final hour make similar statements and wondered if the body simply did exhaust itself, lacking the energy to compel lungs to breath or a heart to beat, death finally conquering where life had once flourished. He gripped the hand tighter. "I'll miss you."

A smile came to the thin lips. "You have served me well, as I knew you would. That's why I chose you."

"There will be much conflict in the days ahead."

"You are ready. I have seen to it."

He was the seneschal, second only to the master. He'd risen fast through the ranks, too fast for some, and only the master's firm leadership had quelled the discontent. But death would soon claim his protector and he feared open revolt might follow.

"There is no guarantee I'll succeed you."

"You underestimate yourself."

"I respect the power of our adversaries."

A silence washed over them, allowing the larks and blackbirds beyond the window to announce their presence. He stared down at his master. The old man wore an azure smock besprinkled with golden stars. Though the facial features were sharpened by his approaching death, there remained a vigor to the old man's lean form. A gray beard hung long and unkempt, the hands and feet constricted with arthritis, but the eyes continued to glisten. He knew twenty-eight years of leadership had taught the old warrior much. Perhaps the most vital lesson was how to project, even in the face of death, a mask of civility.

The doctor had confirmed the cancer months ago. As required by Rule, the disease was allowed to run its course, the natural consequences of God's action accepted. Thousands of brothers through the centuries had endured the same end, and it was unthinkable that the master would soil their tradition.

"I wish I could smell the water's spray," the old man whispered.

The seneschal glanced toward the window. Its sixteenth-century panes were swung open, allowing the sweet aroma of wet stone and verdant greens to seep into his nostrils. The distant water roared in a bubbly tenor. "Your room offers the perfect venue."

"One of the reasons I wanted to be master."

He smiled, knowing the old man was being facetious. He'd read the Chronicles and knew that his mentor had ascended by being able to grasp each turn of fortune with the adaptiveness of a genius. His tenure had been one of peace, but all that would soon change.

"I should pray for your soul," the seneschal said.

"Time for that later. Instead, you must prepare."

"For what?"

"The conclave. Gather your votes. Be ready. Do not allow your enemies time to rally. Remember all I taught you." The hoarse voice cracked with infirmity, but there was a firmness in the tone's foundation.

"I'm not sure that I want to be master."

"You do."

His friend knew him well. Modesty required that he shun the mantle, but more than anything he wanted to be the next master.

He felt the hand within his shiver. A few shallow breaths were needed for the old man to steady himself.

"I have prepared the message. It is there, on the desk."

He knew it would be the next master's duty to study that testament.

"The duty must be done," the master said. "As it has been done since the Beginning."

The seneschal did not want to hear about duty. He was more concerned with emotion. He looked around the room, which contained only the bed, a prie-dieu that faced a wooden crucifix, three chairs protected by an old tapestried cushion, a writing desk, and two aged marble statues standing in wall niches. There was a time when the chamber would have been filled with Spanish leather, Delft porcelain, English furniture. But audacity had long been purged from the Order's character.

As from his own.

The old man gasped for air.

He stared down at the man lying in an uneasy slumber of disease. The master gathered his wind, blinked a few times, then said, "Not yet, old friend. But soon."