Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
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“Alfred?” Edward gasped, reaching up to wipe the blood from his face. “How did you get here?”
Alfred smiled and regained his feet, quickly depositing Michael’s sword in his own belt. “We had a little surprise down at the prison,” he said, his chest still heaving for breath after the exertion of his run. “Your Scottish friend and two of the Newcastle knights set us free—all of us. We didn’t know what direction you had been taken in, so we all split up to search for you. I was lucky enough to find the footpath that led here. Now we’d better go back and find the others before the Templars figure out what happened. What should I do with this one?” He pointed to the unconscious form of Michael stretched out on the grass.
Edward produced a quill and thin piece of parchment from beneath his cloak. Using the moonlight to write a quick message, he folded the parchment and placed it in the youth’s outstretched hand.
“Leave him,” he said, and began to make his way back down the trail.
~ ~ ~
As they walked back in the direction of the prison, Edward was holding a soaked rag to his wound in an attempt to stop the blood flow.
“I should tell you something, Hannah, since it is your concern,” he said. “We still have the robe.”
She glanced up, confusion furrowing her brow. “But I saw the Templars take it.”
Edward grinned and shook his head. “No. Alfred and I assumed that we would probably have to face at least one of our enemies along the way, so we had a replica made. When we went to the apothecary to treat his wound, we also stopped at the tailor shop and had him design the copy, complete with stains and rips.”
“But if the replica is an exact duplicate, why would anyone believe that we have the true robe, and not the Templars?”
Edward nodded. “On one corner of the fabric the tailor lightly imprinted the seal of his family, at our request. It can only seen when the cloth is held up to the light, but it is enough to make a distinction between the two. Alfred was the bearer of the fake, and I've been carrying the true robe.”
Hannah shook her head in amazement. “And so in the prison, Alfred kept retreating because he wanted the Templars to believe that he was the one who had it.”
“Exactly. And I stood forward as if to guard him. We knew that they would search Alfred first.”
“Then it has all worked out to a fine ending,” she smiled. “My uncle is free, we are safe for the moment, and we still possess the robe.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt you,” Alfred called back, “but we still have an issue or two left to resolve.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Templars will not simply allow their prisoners to prance off into the night,” he replied, his eyes furtively scanning the path ahead. “Especially Justin. He seems to know too much.”
“But do they know who we are?” Hannah wondered aloud. “Would they know where to find us?”
Alfred glanced back, nodding somberly. “When I was in command of my brigands, I always steered well clear of any Templar holdings. They have methods of discovering secrets that no one else can. And they have been traveling with you ever since York. No doubt in that time they discovered not only who you are, but also where you come from and what you plan to do.”
Edward frowned. “Well, we can't allow them to have Justin. We've always sought to protect each member of our group, and we won't stop now. Tell me, did you set up any sort of rendezvous after the jailbreak?”
Alfred nodded. “It's a safe distance away, in London. We didn’t know how long it would take us to find you, so we set the time to meet at sundown tomorrow. That should leave us sufficient time to travel back to the city without using the main thoroughfares.”
~ ~ ~
Eleazer shook his head as he trudged in Justin’s footsteps. The sun was beginning to show over the eastern horizon, showering the fields in golden light. The smell of the morning dew quickened his senses, despite his fatigue after the long night of searching. They had decided to journey south in search of Hannah and Edward, while the others covered the remaining possibilities. The two knights, Thomas and Stephen, were scouring the land northward toward London, Alfred had ventured off alone to the east, and the two Scots were searching the west.
“Perhaps we should turn back,” Eleazer suggested.
“We still have time,” said the knight, without even taking his eyes from the ground.
“But we have no idea where to look. It’s possible that someone else found them.”
Justin nodded absently. “The young man who took them was one of the Druids—we’ve seen him before. Their sacred places are generally located in forests and groves, sometimes on hills.”
“Well, we’ve already searched most of the hills in this area. They couldn’t have gone much further than this unless they had a horse, and then they would be out of our reach anyway.”
“I suppose,” the knight sighed. “Very well. If we turn back now, we should have time to find our way back to the city with relative ease.”
Just as they turned back to the north, they saw a cloud of dust forming from the pounding hoofs of several horses approaching them.
“Should we hide?” Eleazer wondered nervously.
“Probably,” Justin said with a curious expression, “but we're in the middle of an open field. They would find us either way.”
It was only a few moments before the riders appeared, marked by their flowing white robes—Templar knights.
“These two are ours,” the lead rider shouted. “I recognize the Jew. Take them!”
~ ~ ~
He felt the hard heel of the boot smash into his back over and over again until the pain simply seemed to melt away. His head was pounding, and the painful rhythm of the blows seemed to echo into a familiar pattern that began to seem more and more natural, until he could not remember any other way.
“Stop, that’s enough!” a voice shouted. “In time, torture becomes ineffective.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant replied, quickly exiting the small cell.
“Well, my friend,” the Count smiled and knelt down to where Justin’s glazed eyes could see him. “It seems your insurrection has placed you and your friends back where you started. But this time, we may not be as gentle.”
Justin opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was dry. Blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth, and all he could manage was a low groan.
“Yes,” the Templar said, his bearded face showing a mask of mock sympathy. “It must be terrible—to go to all that trouble to escape, and then find that you are all back in our clutches. A hard lesson to learn, no doubt, but an important one. No one can escape us, Sir Justin, not even you.”
“A lie,” the knight whispered.
The Count laughed, rising up to his full stature again. “Are you accusing me of deceit?”
Justin nodded. “You don’t have the rest…you can’t.”
The Count shrugged helplessly, leaning against the cold stone wall of the cell. “I’m sorry I can’t be the bearer of better news, my friend. It was a fairly simple task to round up your fellow criminals and return them to their cell.”
“How many?” he choked, wondering if the Count knew about Malcolm and the two Newcastle knights.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t count them. But I saw their faces as they were brought in—all were accounted for.”
“You’re a poor liar, sir,” Justin said, his eyes closed.
“Oh, not all of them are getting the special treatment you’ve received. You’re one particular case that merits our highest interest.”
“I’m glad I could help,” he replied. His mouth was terribly dry and he ached for a drink of water, but he would not give his captor the pleasure of his asking.
“Tell me,” the Count began pacing slowly, rubbing his beard in thought. “How did you manage your escape?”
Justin managed a weak chuckle. “You mean your beloved Templars can’t figure it out?”
The Count frowned. “I can bring the sergeant back in for more discipline if you will not cooperate. In any case, we are questioning the others as well. Someone will tell us, I am certain of that.”
Justin raised a hand to his pounding head. He only wished he could drift off into sleep and leave the bothersome Templar out of his dreams. He had known this day was coming ever since his return from the Holy Land, but he never knew in what manner it would come. A rat scurried up to his face, sniffing with interest, but he lacked the strength to push it away.
“There, you have some cellmates after all,” the Count laughed. “Perhaps you vermin will destroy each other and save me the effort.”
“What do you want with me?”
The Count sighed, shaking his head. “You have knowledge that is dangerous to the Order,” he said. “Only a select few in the highest offices of our leadership know what you seem to have discovered by chance. Perhaps one day it will come out in the open, my friend. But by that time, we plan to be too powerful to conveniently removed, too engrained in the system to be evicted. So tell me…how did you discover these things?”
Justin shook his head with a halfhearted smile. “So you admit that they are true?”
“That what is true? I should know precisely what you accuse us of before I confirm or deny it.”
The knight closed his eyes, seeing in his mind the pale face of the young priest that had given him the robe. He had been wounded terribly, but had courageously overcome all odds to escape and bring the precious relic away from those who wished to abuse it. Justin remembered every word that the priest had told him before he died on that blood-drenched foreign soil.
“Your order protects pilgrims and fights alongside the armies of the West in the Crusade.”
The Count nodded. “And you find something wrong with that?”
“No. But I also know that your order was founded out of greed—out of a lust for the fortune that could come from the sacred treasures beneath the Temple. And who knows what you found—some say it is the ancient secrets of Babylonian mysticism. But whatever the cause, I know that the Templars have a diseased root and that some day they will wither and perish.”
The Count scowled. “You are dangerous,” he mused, tugging at his iron-gray beard. “Though thankfully not as dangerous as some of my friends feared.” He leaned close to Justin. “You must understand, I do not dislike you, Sir Justin. You are merely a threat. You have acquired the key to a great many secrets that are of grave import, and if you discover even one, I will have no choice but to execute you.”
“That’s a delightful thought,” he responded dryly. “But if you kill me, I die for my Lord.”
“If you die, you die on account of your own stubbornness, Sir Justin.”
“I will die in an attempt to save the Church from the threat of your Order.”
“Now, Justin, I believe you’re stretching things a bit out of proportion. Most of the men in our Order are Christians of the same caliber as yourself. They are humble and zealous, eager to serve their Lord and to protect the Church. Would you bring all of them down along with the few that you seek to destroy?”
“They deserve to know the truth. For them, the Order is most likely a wondrous place in which to grow in Spirit and in truth. But if these dark secrets exist for much longer, the diseased root will cause the entire tree to wither.”
“It is pointless to argue any further,” the Count sighed. “Tell me the names of your sources, and I will let you walk out of here.”
“After what you’ve done? I'll be lucky if I can manage a weak limp away from here.”
The Templar smiled. “Tell me what I need to know, my friend,” he spoke in a tone that grew ever more foreboding.
“All right,” he sighed. “While I was in the Holy Land, I was met by a priest on the run from a group of Templars. He was dying, so he delivered to me a certain package with instructions to take it safely to England, and he also told me what I know of your Order. From your own words, I know now that what he told me was true.”
“What was his name?”
“I have no idea,” Justin replied, reaching up to wipe a spot of blood away from the corner of his mouth. “He died there, I left only a week later to return to England.”
The Count kicked him in the back, and waves of pain shot up and down Justin’s spine. Hot tears flooded his eyes, and all that could escape his throat was a dull groan.
“You’re lying,” the Count said with a visceral snarl.
“Am I?” Justin murmured as his vision began to descend into blackness. “I thought…it was the truth."