The Templar Legacy (Page 44)
DE ROQUEFORT FOUND THE GIVORS ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE, WHICH was clearly denoted on the Michelin map, and approached with a measure of caution. He did not want to announce his presence. Even if Malone and company were not there, Cassiopeia Vitt knew him. So on arriving, he ordered the driver to slowly cruise through a grassy meadow that served as a car park until he found the Peugeot matching the make and color he remembered, with a rental sticker on the windshield.
"They're here," he said. "Park."
The driver did as instructed.
"I'll explore," he told the other two brothers and Claridon. "Wait here, and remain out of sight."
He climbed out into the late afternoon, a blood ball of summer sun already fading over the surrounding walls of limestone. He sucked in a deep breath and savored cool, thin air that reminded him of the abbey. They'd clearly risen in altitude.
A quick visual survey and he spotted a tree-shaded lane cast in long shadows and decided that direction seemed best, but he stayed off the defined path, making his way through the tall trees, a tapestry of flowers and heather carpeting the violet ground. The surrounding land had all once been a Templar domain. One of the largest commanderies in the Pyrenees had crowned a nearby promontory. It had been a factory, one of several locations where brothers labored night and day crafting the Order's weapons. He knew that great skill had gone into compacting wood, leather, and metal into shields that could not be easily split. But the sword had been the brother knight's true friend. Barons often loved their swords more than their wives, and tried to retain the same one all of their lives. Brothers cradled a similar passion, which Rule encouraged. If a man was expected to lay down his life, the least that could be done was allow him the weapon of his choice. Templar swords, however, were not like those of barons. No hilts adorned with gilt or set with pearls. No end knobs capped in crystal containing relics. Brother knights required no such talismans, as their strength came from a devotion to God and obedience to Rule. Their companion had been their horse, always one with quickness and intelligence. Each knight was allocated three animals, which were fed, combed, and tricked out each day. Horses were one of the means whereby the Order flourished, and the coursers, the palfreys, and especially the destriers responded to the brother knights' affection with an unmatched loyalty. He'd read of one brother who returned home from the Crusades and was not embraced by his father, but was instantly recognized by his faithful stallion.
And they were always stallions.
To ride a mare was unthinkable. What had one knight said? The woman to the woman.
He kept walking. The musty scent of twigs and boughs stirred his imagination, and he could almost hear the heavy hooves that had once crushed the tender mosses and flowers. He tried to listen for some sound, but the clicking of grasshoppers interfered. He was mindful of electronic surveillance but had, so far, sensed none. He continued to thread a path through the tall pines, moving farther away from the lane, deeper into the woods. His skin heated, and sweat beaded on his brow. High above him, rock crannies groaned from a wind.
Warrior monks, that's what the brothers became.
He liked that term.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux himself justified the Templars' entire existence by glorifying the killing of non-Christians. Neither dealing out death nor dying, when for Christ's sake, contains anything criminal but rather merits glorious reward. The soldier of Christ kills safely and dies the more safely. Not without cause does he bear the sword. He is the instrument of God for the punishment of evildoers and for the defense of the just. When he kills evildoers it is not homicide, but malicide, and he is considered Christ's legal executioner.
He knew those words well. They were taught to every inductee. He'd repeated them in his mind as he'd watched Lars Nelle, Ernst Scoville, and Peter Hansen die. All were heretics. Men who'd stood in the Order's way. Malice doers. Now there were a few more names to be added to that list. Those of the men and women who occupied the chateau that was coming into view, beyond the trees, in a sheltered hollow among a succession of rock ridges.
He'd learned something of the chateau from the background information he'd ordered earlier, before leaving the abbey. Once a sixteenth-century royal residence, one of Catherine de Medicis' many homes, it had been spared destruction in the Revolution due to its isolation. So it remained a monument to the Renaissance--a picturesque mass of turrets, spires, and perpendicular roofs. Cassiopeia Vitt was clearly a woman of means. Houses such as this required great sums of money to buy and maintain, and he doubted she conducted tours as a way to supplement the income. No, this was the private residence of an aloof soul, one that had three times interfered in his business. One that must be tended to.
But he also needed the two books Mark Nelle possessed.
So rash acts were out of the question.
The day was fast falling, deep shadows already starting to engulf the chateau. His mind whirled with possibilities.
He had to be sure they were all inside. His current vantage point was too close. But he spied a thick stand of beech trees two hundred meters away that would provide an unobstructed view of the front entrance.
He had to assume that they expected him to come. After what happened in Lars Nelle's house, they surely realized Claridon was working for him. But they might not expect him here this soon. Which was fine. He needed to return to the abbey. His officers were awaiting him. A council had been called that demanded his presence.
He decided to leave the two brothers in the car here to watch. That would be enough for now.
But he'd be back.
STEPHANIE COULD NOT RECALL THE LAST TIME SHE AND MARK had sat and talked. Perhaps not since he was a teenager. That was how deep the chasm between them ran.
Now they had retreated to a room atop one of the chateau's towers. Before sitting, Mark had swung open four oriel windows, allowing the keen evening air to wash over them.
"You may or may not believe this, but I think about you and your father every day. I loved your father. But once he came across the Rennes story, he changed his focus. That whole thing took him over. And at the time, I resented that."
"Which I can understand. Really, I can. What I don't understand is why you made him choose between you and what he thought was important."
His sharp tone bristled through her, and she forced herself to remain calm. "The day we buried him, I knew how wrong I'd been. But I couldn't bring him back."
"I hated you that day."
"Yet you just flew home and left me in France."
"I thought that was what you wanted."
"It was. But for the past five years I've had a lot of time to reflect. The master championed you, though I'm only now realizing what he meant by a lot of his comments. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, Whoever does not hate their father and mother as I do cannot be my disciple. Then He says, Whoever does not love their father and mother as I do cannot be my disciple. I'm beginning to understand those contradictory statements. I hated you, Mother."
"But do you love me, too?"
Silence loomed between them, and it tore at her heart.
Finally, he said, "You're my mother."
"That's not an answer."
"It's all you're going to get."
His face, so much like Lars's, was a study in conflicting emotions. She didn't press. Her chance to demand anything had long passed.
"Are you still head of the Magellan Billet?" he asked.
She appreciated the change in subject. "As far as I know, but I've probably pushed my luck the past few days. Cotton and I haven't been inconspicuous."
"He seems like a good man."
"The best. I didn't want to involve him, but he insisted. He worked for me a long time."
"It's good to have friends like that."
"You have one, too."
"Geoffrey? He's more my oracle than a friend. The master swore him to me. Why? I don't know."
"He would defend you with his life. That much is clear."
"I'm not accustomed to people laying down their lives for me."
She recalled what the master had said in his note to her, about Mark not possessing the resolve to finish his battles. She told him exactly what the master wrote. He listened in silence.
"What would you have done if you'd been elected master?" she asked.
"A part of me was glad I lost."
She was amazed. "Why?"
"I'm a college professor, not a leader."
"You're a man in the middle of an important conflict. One that other men are waiting to see resolved."
"The master is right about me."
She stared at him with undisguised dismay. "Your father would be ashamed to hear you say that." She waited for his anger to come, but Mark merely sat silent, and she listened to the rattle of insects from outside.
"I probably killed a man today," Mark said in a whisper. "How would Dad have felt about that?"
She'd been waiting for a mention. He'd not said a word about what had happened since they'd left Rennes. "Cotton told me. You had no choice. The man was given an option and he chose to challenge you."
"I watched the body roll down. Strange, the feeling that goes through you knowing you'd just taken a life."
She waited for him to explain.
"I was glad the trigger had been pulled, since I survived. But another part of me was mortified, because the other man hadn't."
"Life is one choice after another. He chose wrong."
"You do it all the time, don't you? Make those kinds of decisions?"
"They happen every day."
"My heart is not cold enough for that."
"And mine is?" She resented the implication.
"You tell me."
"I do my job, Mark. That man chose his fate, not you."
"No. De Roquefort chose it. He sent him out on that precipice, knowing there'd be a confrontation. He made the choice."
"And that's the problem with your Order, Mark. Unquestioned loyalty is not a good thing. No country, no army, no leader has ever survived who insisted on such foolishness. My agents make their own choices."
A moment of strained silence passed.
"You're right," he finally muttered. "Dad would be ashamed of me."
She decided to risk it. "Mark, your father's gone. He's been dead a long time. For me, you've been dead five years. But you're here now. Is there no room within you for forgiveness?" Hope laced her plea.
He stood from the chair. "No, Mother. There's not."
And he walked from the room.
MALONE HAD TAKEN REFUGE OUTSIDE THE CHATEAU, UNDER A shady pergola overgrown with greenery. Only insects disturbed his tranquility, and he watched as bats fluttered across the dimming sky. A little while ago Stephanie had taken him aside and told him that a call to Atlanta, requesting a complete dossier on their hostess, had revealed that Cassiopeia Vitt's name did not appear in any of the terrorist databases the U.S. government maintained. Her personal history was unremarkable, though she was half Muslim and these days that raised, if nothing else, a red flag. She owned a multicontinent conglomerate, based in Paris, involved in a broad spectrum of business ventures with assets in the billion-euro range. Her father started the company and she inherited control, though she was little involved with its everyday operation. She also was the chairwoman for a Dutch foundation that worked closely with the United Nations on international AIDS relief and world famine, particularly in Africa. No foreign government considered her a threat.
But Malone wasn't sure.
New threats arose every day and from the strangest places.
"So deep in thought."
He looked up to see Cassiopeia standing beyond the pergola. She wore a tight-fitting black riding habit that suited her.
"I was actually thinking about you."
"I wouldn't be." He motioned to her outfit. "I wondered where you disappeared to."
"I try to ride every evening. Helps me think."
She stepped under the enclosure. "I had this built years ago as a tribute to my mother. She loved the outdoors."
Cassiopeia sat on a bench opposite him. He could tell there was a purpose to her visit.
"I saw earlier that you have doubts about all this. Is it because you refuse to challenge your Christian Bible?"
He didn't really want to talk about it, but she seemed eager. "Not at all. It's because you choose to challenge the Bible. Seems everyone involved in this quest has an ax to grind. You, de Roquefort, Mark, Sauniere, Lars, Stephanie. Even Geoffrey, who's a bit different to say the least, has an agenda."
"Let me tell you a few things and maybe you'll see this is not personal. At least, not with me."
He doubted that, but he wanted to hear what she had to say.
"Did you know that in all of recorded history only one crucified skeleton has ever been found in the Holy Land."
"Crucifixion was alien to the Jews. They stoned, burned, decapitated, or strangled to accomplish capital punishment. Mosaic law only allowed a criminal who'd already been executed to hang on wood as additional punishment."
"For he that is hanged is accursed by God," he said, quoting Deuteronomy.
"You know your Old Testament."
"We do have some culture back in Georgia."
She smiled. "But crucifixion was a common form of Roman execution. Varrus in 4 BC crucified more than two thousand. Florus in AD 66 killed nearly four thousand. Titus in AD 70 executed five hundred a day. Yet only one crucified skeleton has ever been found. That was in 1968, just north of Jerusalem. The bones dated from the first century, which excited a lot of people. But the dead man was not Jesus. His name was Yehochanan, about five and a half feet tall, twenty-four to twenty-eight years old. We know because of information inscribed on his ossuary. He'd also been tied to the cross, not nailed, and neither of his legs was broken. Do you understand the significance of that detail?"
He did. "Suffocation was how you died on the cross. The head would eventually droop forward, and oxygen deprivation set in."
"Crucifixion was a public humiliation. Victims weren't supposed to die too soon. So to delay death a piece of wood was attached behind the abdomen that could be sat on, or a piece at the feet that could be stood upon. That way, the accused could support himself and breathe. After a few days, if the victim had not exhausted his strength, soldiers broke the legs. That way he could no longer support himself. Death came quickly after that."
He recalled the Gospels. "A crucified person couldn't defile the Sabbath. The Jews wanted the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals executed with Him down by nightfall. So Pilate ordered the legs of the two criminals broken."
She nodded. "But when they came to Jesus, and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. That's from John. Ever wonder why Jesus died so quickly? He'd only been hanging a few hours. It usually took days. And why didn't the Roman soldiers break His legs anyway, just to be sure he died? Instead, John says, they pierced His side with a lance and blood and water poured forth. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke never mention this happening."
"What's your point?"
"Of all the tens of thousands who were crucified, only one skeleton has ever been found. And the reason is simple. In Jesus's time, burial was deemed an honor. No greater horror existed than for your body to be left for the animals. Each of Rome's supreme penalties--burned alive, cast to the beasts, or crucifixion--had one thing in common. No body to bury. Crucifixion victims were left hanging until the birds picked their bones clean, then what was left was tossed into a common grave. Yet all four Gospels agree that Jesus died in the ninth hour, three PM, then was taken down and buried."
He began to understand. "The Romans would not have done that."
"This is where the story gets complicated. Jesus was condemned to death with the Sabbath only a few hours away. Yet He's ordered to die by crucifixion, one of the slowest ways to kill a person. How could anyone think He'd be dead before nightfall? Mark's Gospel says even Pilate was puzzled by such a quick death, asking a centurion if everything was in order."
"But wasn't Jesus mistreated before He was nailed to the cross?"
"Jesus was a strong man in the prime of his life. He was accustomed to walking great distances in the heat. Yes, he endured the scourge. According to law, thirty-nine lashes were to be given. But we're not told anywhere in the Gospels if this number was administered. And after his torment, he was apparently strong enough to address His accusers in a forcible way. So little evidence exists of any weakened condition. Yet Jesus dies in a mere three hours--without His legs being broken--His side supposedly pierced by a lance."
"The prophecy from Exodus. John speaks of it in his Gospel. He said all those things happened so Scripture would be fulfilled."
"Exodus speaks of Passover restrictions and that none of the meat may be taken outside the house. It had to be eaten within one house with no broken bones. That has nothing to do with Jesus. John's reference to it was a weak attempt at continuity with the Old Testament. Of course, as I said, the other three Gospels never even mention the lance."
"I assume your point, then, is that the Gospels are wrong."
"None of the information contained within them makes sense. They contradict not only themselves, but history, logic, and reason. We're left to believe that a crucified man, without His legs broken, died within three hours, and was then afforded the honor of being buried. Of course, from a religious standpoint it makes perfect sense. Early theologians were attempting to attract followers. They needed to elevate Jesus from a man to the god Christ. The gospel writers all wrote in Greek and would have known their Hellenic history. Osiris, the consort of the Greek god Isis, died at the hands of evil on a Friday, then was resurrected three days later. Why not Christ, too? Of course, for Christ to physically rise from the dead, there would have to be an identifiable body. No bones picked clean by birds and tossed into a common grave would do. Hence, the burial."
"This is what Lars Nelle was trying to prove? That Christ did not rise from the dead?"
She shook her head. "I have no idea. All I know is that the Templars knew things. Important things. Enough to transform a band of nine obscure knights into an international force. Knowledge was what fueled that expansion. Knowledge that Sauniere rediscovered. I want that knowledge."
"How could there be any proof of anything, one way or another?"
"There must be. You've seen Sauniere's church. He left a lot of hints, and they all point in one direction. There must be something out there--enough to convince him to keep the Templars looking."
He noticed that evening had finally dissolved into darkness, the surrounding hills and forest a mass of silhouette.
"We have company," she whispered.
He waited for her to explain.
"On the ride, I worked my way up one of the promontories. I spotted two men. One to the north, the other south. Watching. De Roquefort found you quickly."
"I didn't think the trick with the transponder would slow him down long. He'd assume we'd come here. And Claridon would show him the way. They spot you?"
"I doubt it. I was careful."
"This could get dicey."
"De Roquefort is a man in a hurry. He's impatient, particularly if he feels cheated."
"You mean the journal?"
She nodded. "Claridon will know it's riddled with mistakes."
"But de Roquefort found us. We're within his sights."
"He must know precious little. Otherwise, why bother? He'd simply use his resources and search himself. No, he needs us."
Her words made sense, as had everything else she'd said. "You rode out expecting them, didn't you?"
"I thought we were being watched."
"You always so suspicious?"
She faced him. "Only when people mean to hurt me."
"I assume you've considered a course of action?"
"Oh, yes. I have a plan."