Part One Grace
THE STONE WALLS OF THE SECRET UNDERGROUND CHAMBER were cold and dank, the chill penetrating wool and linen and leather, going straight to the bone. Two smoking torches provided the only illumination, and too little heat to make any difference. The pair of men revealed by the flickering light paid no attention to the cold, however, for such discomfort was of small matter.
The first man was standing, the other kneeling before him in a posture that should have been submissive, had it not been obvious that such an attitude was alien to that proud head, those broad shoulders. The man who was standing looked frail in contrast with the vitality of the other, and in fact the kneeling man's head was level with the chest of the first. Valcour was, indeed, frail in comparison to the warrior he had once been, and to the man who knelt before him, but age and despair had taken their toll. He was fifty-one, long past the age of vigor. His hair and beard were more gray than brown, his thin face lined from the burdens he had endured. It was time to pass along the responsibility, the duty, that had been his for all these long years. They would be safe with this fierce young lion, he thought. There was no better warrior in the Order, which was the same as saying there was no better warrior in Christendom, for they were-had been-a brotherhood of warriors, the best of the best, the cream skimmed fromEurope 's battlefields and tourneys.
No more. Just two months past, on Friday, the thirteenth of October in this year of Our Lord 1307, a day that would surely be remembered through the ages as a day of darkness, Philip IV of France and his puppet, Pope Clement V, had given in to their greed and in one fell swoop effected the destruction of the greatest military order ever to exist: the Knights of the Temple. Some of the brethren had escaped, but others had already died horrible deaths, and more deaths would follow as those captured refused to recant their beliefs.
The Grand Master had received mere moments of warning, and had chosen to use those moments to secure the safety of the Treasure rather than of himself. Perhaps Jacques de Molay had sensed the approach of catastrophe, for he had already spoken with Valcour several times about keeping their enormous fleet of ships out of Philip's hands, but above all his concern, and that of the great warrior Geoffroy de Charnay, had been the safekeeping of the Treasure. After long hours of consideration the Guardian had been chosen: the true and fierce warrior, Niall of Scotland. He had been chosen very carefully, not just for his prowess with a sword, which was unrivaled, but for the protection that came with his very name. The Treasure would be safe inScotland .
The Grand Master hadn't been certain his choice was the correct one, even given Niall's connections. There was something untamed and ruthless about the Scot, despite his unswerving loyalty to God and the Brotherhood, and the oaths he had sworn to both. Some of those oaths had been given unwillingly, the Grand Master was certain, especially the oath of chastity. Niall had been forced into the Brotherhood, for of course a monk could never be king; a king must have at least the possibility of children, for kingdoms were built on continuity. His illegitimacy should have been an insurmountable barrier, but even at a young age Niall had been tall and proud, intelligent, cunning, ruthless, a born leader; in short, he had all the characteristics of a great king. The choices had been simple: kill him, or make it impossible for him to be king. Niall was loved by his father and half-brother, so there had really been no choice. The young man would be a servant of God.
It was a master stroke. Should Niall renounce his vows to theTemple , that too would render him unacceptable for the crown, for he would be dishonored. No, putting young Niall into the protection of theTemple had at once saved his life and now and forever removed him from consideration for the Scots throne-such as it was.
But if Niall had been unsuited for the life of a monk, he had been perfectly suited for that of a warrior. He had taken his lust for female flesh and turned it into fierceness on the battlefield, and if his eyes sometimes lingered overlong on that which was forbidden to him, still, to the Grand Master's sure knowledge he had never broken his vows. He was a man of his word.
That, and his fighting ability, was what had finally convinced de Chamay to choose Niall as the next Guardian, and though the Grand Master was the head of the Order, de Chamay was undoubtedly the most powerful Knight. Moreover, de Charnay had borne the responsibility for the safety of the Treasure for many years, and his was the final say. His choice was Niall of Scotland, and Valcour agreed wholeheartedly. The Scot would safeguard the Treasure with his life.
"Take them," Valcour whispered now to that bent black head, feeling the younger man's bitter rage and knowing no way to ease it. "No matter what happens, the Treasure must never fall into the hands of others. The Brotherhood has devoted itself to the protection of our God and His followers, and we must not falter in our duty."
The cold stone floor was hard beneath Niall's knees, but he scarcely noticed it. His thick black hair, cut short as was required, gleamed with sweat despite the chill of the underground chamber. Stearn drifted from his body. Slowly he lifted his head, his eyes stark, and as black as night with bitterness. "Even now?" he asked, the bite of betrayal in the deep, softly burred tones of his voice.
Valcour smiled thinly. "Especially now. We serve God, notRome . Methinks the Holy Father has forgotten there is a difference."
"The concept should come easily to him," Niall all but snarled. "He does not serve God, but rather licks Philip's arse every time the king presents it." His night-dark gaze wandered over the collection of artifacts that had been spirited out of theTemple inJerusalem more than a century before. He studied them, and felt his bitterness growing. Good men had died horrible deaths protecting these... things. The King of