The Templar Legacy (Page 52)
THE TESTIMONY OF SIMON
I have stayed silent, thinking it better for others to preserve a record. Yet none has come forward. So this has been written so that you will know what happened.
The man Jesus spent many years spreading his message throughout the lands of Judea and Galilee. I was the first of his followers, but our number grew since many believed his words possessed great meaning. We traveled with him, watching as he eased suffering, brought hope, and stirred salvation. He was always himself, no matter the day or event. If the masses lauded him, he faced them. When hostility surrounded him, he showed no rage or fear. What others thought of him, said, or did never affected him. He said once, "All of us bear God's image, all are worthy to be loved, all can grow in the spirit of God." I watched as he embraced lepers and the immoral. Women and children were precious to him. He showed me that all were worthy of love. He would say, "God is our father. He cares, loves, and forgives all. No sheep will ever be lost from that shepherd. Feel free to tell God all, for only in such openness can the heart gain peace."
The man Jesus taught me to pray. He talked of God, the final judgment, and the end of time. I came to think that he could even control the wind and waves since he stood so afar above us. The religious elders taught that pain, sickness, and tragedy were God's judgment and we should accept that wrath with the sorrow of a penitent. The man Jesus said that was wrong and offered the sick the courage to become well, the weak the ability to grow a strong spirit, and nonbelievers the chance to believe. The world seemed to part at his approach. The man Jesus possessed a purpose, he lived his life to fulfill that purpose, and that purpose was clear to those of us who followed him.
But in his travels the man Jesus made enemies. The elders found him a threat in that he offered different values, new rules, and threatened their authority. They worried that if the man Jesus was allowed to roam free and preach change, Rome could well tighten its grip and all would suffer, especially the high priest who served at Rome's pleasure. So it happened that Jesus was arrested for blasphemy and Pilate decreed he should ascend the cross. I was there that day and Pilate drew no joy from the decision, but the elders demanded justice and Pilate could not deny them.
In Jerusalem the man Jesus and six others were taken to a place on the hill and bound by thongs to the cross. Later in the day, the legs of three of the men were broken and they succumbed by nightfall. Two more died the next day. The man Jesus was allowed to linger until the third, when his legs were finally broken. I did not go to him while he suffered. I, and the others who followed him, hid away, afraid that we might be next. After he died, the man Jesus was left on his cross for six more days while birds picked his flesh. He was finally taken from the cross and dropped into a hole dug from the ground. I watched that happen, then fled Jerusalem by way of the desert, stopping in Bethany at the home of Mary called Magdalene and her sister, Martha. They had known the man Jesus and were saddened by his death. They were angry at me for not defending him, for not acknowledging him, for fleeing when he was suffering. I asked them what they would have had me do and their answer was clear. "Join him." But that thought never occurred to me. Instead, to all who asked, I denied the man Jesus and all that he stood for. I left their home, returning days later to Galilee and the comfort of that which I knew.
Two who had traveled with the man Jesus, James and John, also returned to Galilee. Together we shared our grief over the loss of the man Jesus and resumed our life as fishermen. The darkness we all felt consumed us and time did not ease our pain. As we fished on the Sea of Galilee we talked of the man Jesus and all that he did and all that we witnessed. It was on the lake, years ago, that we first met him as he taught from our boat. His memory seemed everywhere upon the waters, which made our grief even harder to escape. One night, as a storm swirled across the lake and we sat on shore eating bread and fish, I thought I saw the man Jesus upon the mist. But when I waded out I knew that the vision was only in my mind. Every morning we broke bread and ate fish. Remembering what the man Jesus once did, one of us would bless the bread and offer it up in praise of God. This act made us all feel better. One day John commented that the broken bread was so like the broken body of the man Jesus. After that, we all started to associate the bread with the body.
Four months passed and one day James reminded us that the Torah proclaimed that one hung upon a tree is accursed. I told him that could not be true of the man Jesus. That was the first time any of us ever questioned the ancient words. They simply could not apply to one so good as the man Jesus. How would a scribe from long ago know that all who were hung upon a tree were accursed. He could not. In a battle between the man Jesus and the ancient words, the man Jesus was the victor.
Our grief continued to torment us. The man Jesus was gone. His voice was silent. The elders survived and their message lived. Not because they were right, but simply because they were alive and speaking. The elders had triumphed over the man Jesus. But how could something so good be wrong? Why would God allow such good to disappear?
Summer ended and the feast of the Tabernacle came, which was a time to celebrate the joy of the harvest. We thought it safe to travel to Jerusalem and take part. Once there, during the procession to the altar, it was read from the Psalms that the Messiah shall not die, but shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord. One of the elders proclaimed that though the Lord has chastened the Messiah sorely, He has not given him over unto death. But rather, the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. In the Temple we listened to readings from Zechariah, which told that one day the Lord would come and living waters would flow from Jerusalem and the Lord would become king over all the earth. Then one evening I came upon another reading from Zechariah. He spoke of a pouring out from the House of David and of a spirit of compassion and supplication. It was said that when we look on him whom they have pierced, we shall mourn for him as one weeps over a firstborn.
Listening, I thought of the man Jesus and what happened to him. The reader seemed to speak directly to me when he spoke of God's plan to strike the shepherd so that the sheep may scatter. At that moment a love took hold of me that would not let go. That night I journeyed outside Jerusalem to the spot where the Romans had buried the man Jesus. I knelt above his mortal remains and wondered how a simple fisherman could be the source of all truth. The high priest and scribes had judged the man Jesus a fraud. But I knew they were wrong. God did not require obedience to ancient laws in order to achieve salvation. God's love was boundless. The man Jesus had many times said that, and in accepting his death with great courage and dignity, the man Jesus had given one final lesson to us all. In ending life we find life. Loving is to be loved.
All doubt left me. Grief vanished. Confusion became clarity. The man Jesus was not dead. He was alive. Resurrected within me was the risen Lord. I felt his presence as clearly as when he once stood beside me. I recalled what he said to me many times. "Simon, if you love me you will find my sheep." I finally knew that loving as he loved will allow anyone to know the Lord. Doing as he did will allow us all to know the Lord. Living as he lived is the way to salvation. God had come from heaven to dwell within the man Jesus and through his deeds and words the Lord became known. The message was clear. Care for the needy, comfort the distressed, befriend the rejected. Do those things and the Lord will be pleased. God took the man Jesus's life so that we could see. I was merely the first to accept that truth. The task became clear. The message must live through me and others who likewise believe.
When I told John and James of my vision they saw, too. Before we left Jerusalem, we returned to the place of my vision and dug from the earth the remains of the man Jesus. We took him with us and laid him in a cave. We returned the next year and gathered his bones. Then I wrote this account which I placed with the man Jesus, for together they are the Word.
MARK WAS BOTH CONFUSED AND AMAZED. HE KNEW SIMON.
He'd was called first Cephas in Aramaic, then Petros, rock, in Greek. Eventually he became Peter and the Gospels proclaimed that Christ said, Upon this rock I shall build my church.
The testimony was the first ancient account he'd ever read that made sense. No supernatural events or miraculous apparitions. No actions contrary to history or logic. No inconsistent details that cast doubt on credibility. Just the testimony by a simple fisherman of how he'd borne witness to a great man, one whose good works and kind words lived on after his death, enough to inspire him to continue the cause.
Simon certainly did not possess the intellect or ability to fashion the type of elaborate religious ideas that would come much later. His understanding was confined to the man Jesus, whom he knew, and whom God had reclaimed through a violent death. In order to know God, to be a part of Him, it was clear to Simon that he must emulate the man Jesus. The message could only live if he, and others after him, breathed life into it. In that simple way, death could not contain the man Jesus. A resurrection would occur. Not literal, but spiritual. And within the mind of Simon, the man Jesus had arisen--he lived again--and from that singular beginning, during an autumn night six months after the man Jesus was executed, the Christian Church was born.
"Those arrogant assholes," de Roquefort muttered. "With their grand churches and theologies. Every bit of it is wrong."
"No, it's not."
"How can you say that? There's no elaborate crucifixion, no empty tomb, no angels announcing the risen Christ. That's fiction, created by men for their own benefit. This testimony here has meaning. It all started with one man realizing something in his mind. Our Order was wiped from the face of the earth, our brothers tortured and murdered, in the name of the so-called resurrected Christ."
"The effect is the same. The Church was born."
"Do you think for one minute the Church would have flourished if its entire theology was based on the personal revelation of one simple man? How many converts do you think it would have obtained?"
"But that's exactly what happened. Jesus was an ordinary man."
"Who was elevated to the status of a god by later men. And if anyone challenged that determination, they were deemed a heretic and burned at the stake. The Cathars were wiped from the face of the earth right here in the Pyrenees for not believing."
"Those early Church fathers did what they did. They had to embellish in order to survive."
"You condone what they did?"
"And we can undo it."
A thought occurred to him. "Sauniere surely read this."
"And told no one."
"That's right. Even he saw the futility of it."
"He told no one because he would have lost his private treasure trove. He had no honor. He was a thief."
"Perhaps. But the information obviously affected him. He left so many clues in his church. He was a learned man and could read Latin. If he found this, which I'm sure he did, he understood it. Yet he placed it back in its hiding place and locked the gate when he left." He stared down into the ossuary. Was he looking at the bones of the man Jesus? A wave a sadness swept through him as he realized all that remained of his father were bones, too.
He locked his gaze on de Roquefort and asked what he truly wanted to know. "Did you kill my father?"
MALONE WATCHED AS STEPHANIE HUSTLED TOWARD THE LADDER, a gun from one of the guards in her hand. "Going somewhere?"
"He may hate my guts, but he's still my son."
He understood she had to go, but she wasn't going alone. "I'm coming, too."
"I prefer to do this alone."
"I don't give a damn what you prefer. I'm coming."
Henrik grabbed her arm. "No. Let them do it. They need to resolve this."
"Resolve what?" Cassiopeia demanded.
The chaplain stepped forward. "The seneschal and the master must challenge each other. His mother was involved for a reason. Let her be. Her destiny is below with them."
Stephanie disappeared down the ladder and Malone watched from above as she hopped to one side, avoiding the pit. He then followed her down, lamp in one hand, gun in the other.
"Which way?" Stephanie whispered.
He signaled for quiet. Then he heard voices. From his left, toward the chamber he and Cassiopeia had found.
"That way," he mouthed.
He knew the path was free of traps until almost to the chamber entrance. Still, they inched ahead slowly. When he spied the skeleton and the words etched into the wall, he knew just ahead they'd have to be cautious.
The voices were clearer now.
"I ASKED IF YOU KILLED MY FATHER," MARK SAID IN A LOUD TONE.
"Your father was a weak soul."
"That's not an answer."
"I was there the night he ended his life. I followed him to the bridge. We talked."
Mark was listening.
"He was frustrated. Angry. He'd solved the cryptogram, the one in his journal, and it told him nothing. Your father simply lacked the strength to carry on."
"You know nothing of my father."
"On the contrary. I watched him for years. He moved from issue to issue, never resolving a single one. It brought him problems professionally and personally."
"He apparently found enough to lead us here."
"No. Others found that."
"You made no attempt to stop him from hanging himself?"
De Roquefort shrugged. "Why? He was intent on dying, and I saw no advantage in stopping him."
"So you just walked away and let him die?"
"I didn't interfere in something that did not concern me."
"You son of a bitch." He took a step forward. De Roquefort leveled his gun. He still held the book from the ossuary. "Go ahead. Shoot me."
De Roquefort seemed unfazed. "You killed a brother. You know the penalty."
"He died because of you. You sent him."
"There you go again. One set of rules for yourself, another for the rest of us. You pulled the trigger."
"Lay the book down."
"And what will you do with it?"
"What the masters in the Beginning did. I'll use it against Rome. I always wondered how the Order rose so quickly. When popes tried to merge us with the Knights Hospitallers, over and over we stopped them. And all because of that book and those bones. The Roman Church could not take the chance of either being made public.
"Imagine what those medieval popes thought when they learned that the physical resurrection of Christ was a myth. Of course, they couldn't be sure. That testimony could be as fictitious as the Gospels. Still, the words are compelling and the bones hard to ignore. There were thousands of relics floating around then. Pieces of saints adorned every church. Everyone believed so easily. No reason to think these bones would have been ignored. And these were the greatest relics of them all. So masters used what they knew, and the threat worked."
"Just the opposite. Too many people who believe nothing. Lots of questions exist in the modern mind and few answers in the Gospels. That testimony, though, is another matter. It would make sense to a great many people."
"So you're going to be a modern-day Philip IV."
De Roquefort spit on the ground. "That's what I think of him. He wanted this knowledge so he could control the Church--so that his heirs could control it, too. But he paid for his greed. Him and his entire family."
"Do you think for one minute you could control anything?"
"I have no desire to control. But I would like to see the faces of all those pompous prelates as they explain away the testimony of Simon Peter. After all, his bones rest at the heart of the Vatican. They built a cathedral around his grave and named the basilica for him. He's their first saint, their first pope. How will they explain away his words? Wouldn't you like to listen as they try?"
"Who's to say they're his?"
"Who's to say Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John's words are theirs?"
"Changing everything might not be so good."
"You're as weak as your father. No stomach for a fight. You'd bury this away? Tell no one? Allow the Order to languish in obscurity, tainted by the slander of a greedy king? Weak men like you are why we find ourselves in this situation. You and your master were well suited to one another. He was a weak man, too."
He'd heard enough and, without warning, raised his left hand, which held the lamp, angling the bright bar so that its strongest glow momentarily flashed in de Roquefort's eyes. The instant of discomfort caused de Roquefort to squint, and his hand with the gun dropped as he raised his other arm to shield his eyes.
Mark kicked the gun from de Roquefort's grip, then rushed from the chamber. He emerged from the open gate, turned back toward the ladder, but took only a few steps.
Ten feet ahead he saw another light and spotted Malone and his mother.
Behind him, de Roquefort emerged.
"Halt" came the command, and he stopped.
De Roquefort stepped close.
He saw his mother raise a gun.
"Get down, Mark," she yelled.
But he stayed standing.
De Roquefort was now directly behind him. He felt the barrel of the gun at the back of his head.
"Lower your weapon," de Roquefort said to her.
Malone displayed a gun. "You can't shoot us both."
"No. But I can shoot this one."
MALONE CONSIDERED HIS OPTIONS. HE COULDN'T GET A SHOT AT de Roquefort without hitting Mark. But why had Mark stopped? Allowing de Roquefort the opportunity to corral him.
"Lower the gun," Malone said quietly to Stephanie.
"I would do as he says," de Roquefort made clear.
Stephanie did not move. "He's going to shoot him anyway."
"Maybe," Malone said. "But let's not provoke it."
He knew she'd lost her son once through mistakes. She was not about to have him taken from her again. He studied Mark's face. Not a speck of fear. He motioned with his light at the book in Mark's grasp.
"That what this was all about?"
Mark nodded. "The Great Devise, along with a lot of treasure and documents."
"Was it worth it?"
"That's not for me to say."
"It was," de Roquefort declared.
"So what now?" Malone asked. "Nowhere for you to go. Your men are down."
"Some. But your chaplain is here with a contingent of knights. Seems there's been a revolt."
"That remains to be seen," de Roquefort said. "I'll only say it one more time, Ms. Nelle, lower your gun. As Mr. Malone correctly notes, what do I have to lose by shooting your son?"
Malone was still assessing the situation, his mind checking off options. Then, in the ambient glow from Mark's lamp, he spotted it. A slight depression in the floor. Hardly noticeable, except if you knew what to look for. Another floor trap spanning the width of the passage and extending from where he stood all the way to Mark. He cut his gaze back and saw in the younger man's eyes the fact that he knew it existed. A slight nod of the head and he realized why Mark had stopped. He'd wanted de Roquefort to come after him. He needed him to come.
Apparently it was time to end this.
Here and now.
He reached out and wrenched the gun from Stephanie's grasp.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
Back to de Roquefort, he mouthed, "The floor," and he saw that she registered what he'd said.
Then he faced their dilemma.
"Wise move," de Roquefort said to him.
Stephanie went silent, apparently understanding. But he doubted that she really did. He turned his attention back across the passage. His words, meant for Mark, were said to de Roquefort.
MARK KNEW THIS WAS IT. THE MASTER HAD WRITTEN TO HIS mother that he did not possess the resolve needed to complete his battles. Starting them seemed easy, continuing them even easier, but resolving them had always proven difficult. Not anymore. His master had formed the stage and the players had acted out the script. Time for the finale. Raymond de Roquefort was a menace. Two brothers were dead because of him, and there was no telling where it all would stop. No way could he and de Roquefort exist within the Order together. His master had apparently known that. Which was why one of them had to go.
He knew that just a step ahead was a deep gouge in the floor, the bottom of which he hoped was lined with bronze stakes. In his rage to hurl forward, unconcerned with everything around him, de Roquefort possessed no idea of that danger. Which was precisely how his enemy would administer the Order. The sacrifices that thousands of brothers had made for seven hundred years would be wasted on arrogance.
When he'd read Simon's testimony he'd finally been provided a historical affirmation of his own religious skepticism. He'd always been troubled by biblical contradictions and their weak explanations. Religion, he feared, was a tool used by men to manipulate other men. The human mind's need to have answers, even to questions that possessed no answer, had allowed the unbelievable to become gospel. Somehow a comfort came in believing that death was not an end. There was more. Jesus supposedly proved that by physically resurrecting Himself, and offering that same salvation to all who believed.
But there was no life after death.
Instead, what others made of your life was how you lived on. In remembering what the man Jesus said and did, Simon Peter realized that his dead friend's beliefs were actually resurrected within him. And preaching that message, doing what Jesus had done, became the measure of Simon's salvation. None of us should judge anyone, only ourselves. Life is not infinite. A set time defines us all--then, just as the bones in the ossuary showed, to dust we return.
He could only hope that his life had meant something and that others would remember him by that meaning.
He sucked a breath.
And tossed the book at Malone, who caught it.
"Why did you do that?" de Roquefort asked.
Mark saw that Malone knew what he was about to do.
And suddenly so did his mother.
He spotted it in her eyes as they shimmered with tears. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry, that he was wrong, that he shouldn't have judged her. She seemed to read his thoughts and took a step forward, which Malone blocked with his arm.
"Get out of the way, Cotton," she said.
Mark used that moment to inch forward, the ground still hard.
"Go," de Roquefort said to him. "Get the book back."
But instead of walking toward Malone as de Roquefort ordered, he ducked to avoid the gun barrel at his head and whirled, ramming his elbow into de Roquefort's ribs. The man's muscular abdomen was hard and he knew he was no match for the older warrior. But he owned an advantage. Where de Roquefort was readying himself for a fight, he simply wrapped his arms around the other man's chest and revolved them both forward, propelling his feet off the ground and sending them down to the floor that he knew would not hold.
He heard his mother scream no, then de Roquefort's gun exploded.
He'd shoved the hand holding the weapon outward, but there was no telling where the bullet had gone. They crashed into the false floor, their combined weight enough to obliterate the covering. De Roquefort had surely expected to hit hard earth, ready to spring into action. But as they slammed into the hole, Mark released his grip from around de Roquefort's body and freed his arms, which allowed the full force of the stakes to grind into his enemy's spine.
A groan seeped from de Roquefort's lips as he opened his mouth to speak. Only blood gurgled out.
"I told you the day you challenged the master that you'd regret what you did," Mark whispered. "Your tenure is over."
De Roquefort tried to speak, but the breath left him as blood spilled from his lips.
Then the body went limp.
"You okay?" Malone asked from above.
He raised up. His shifting weight caused de Roquefort to settle farther onto the stakes. Grit and gravel covered him. He leveraged himself out of the cavity, then swiped away the grime. "I just killed another man."
"He would have killed you," Stephanie said.
"Not a good reason, but it's all I've got."
Tears streamed down his mother's face. "I thought you were gone again."
"I was hoping to avoid those stakes, but I didn't know if de Roquefort would cooperate."
"You had to kill him," Malone said. "He never would have stopped."
"What about the gunshot?" Mark asked.
"Whizzed by close," Malone said. He motioned with the book. "This what you're after?"
Mark nodded. "And there's more."
"I asked before. Was it worth it?"
He pointed back down the passage. "Let's go have a look and you tell me."