Monday, May 5, 2008

The Warriors - Chapter 1

The Warriors

(Bethany House April 1, 2008)

Chapter 1

Tower of Constance, Aigues – Mortes, Provence, France– a.d. 1 3 5 3

The condemned lay hunched over the dungeon floor to carve his last words, using a beak pried from the carcass of a seagull. He breathed deeply and bent even lower, blowing dust off the letters, when something caused him to freeze.

He cocked his head to one side. Slowly closed his eyes. Then exhaled the breath, slow and trembling.

It was not a new noise that had alarmed him, but rather a new quiet. The ringing of hammer blows outside had ceased. He nodded faintly, absorbing the terrible truth.

The carpentiers had finished his execution stake.

He glanced over at his three brethren huddled in the cell’s far corner and staring darkly at the stone floor. None had uttered a word since hearing their friends’ death howls the day before. This morning their gazes were hollow with fear, for fresh sounds of doom seemed everywhere. From outside their window slits floated the growing clamor of a mob surrounding the gallows. From the guards’ room below he could hear the clanging of swords and the curses of returning soldiers.

The hour of their death was upon them.

He sighed and fought back a misting in his eyes. The men’s wasted appearance would never betray it, but they were the last known members of the once proudest and most feared military order in the world: The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ, Knights of the Temple of Solomon.

Knights Templar.

How far the mighty had fallen! Only a century ago, his forebears had sailed as heroes in the king’s own ships from the quays of this very town, Aigues-Mortes, as crusaders sworn to the recapture of Jerusalem. The king himself, along with his cardinals, had stood by, tossing them tearful waves and bids of “Godspeed.” The same offices that today condemned their order as devil worshipers and deviants, slaughtered its members and hunted down all who refused to flee until only these four doomed men remained.

He shook his head and willed himself not to sully his final moments with bitter thoughts.

Reading again what he had written, he caressed the words with his fingertips, then bowed his head for a long moment. Thankfully, the limestone had proven softer to pierce than he had thought possible, allowing him to inscribe the words of this most important message over the course of the last three days. He carefully turned the stone over, concealing his work, then returned it to its place in the floor with a dull thud. The soldiers would notice nothing amiss.

As to who would ever read his words and when, he would leave that task up to Almighty God. He who had inspired them would surely bring a reader in due time.

Forty minutes later, the carver of the message did indeed burn alongside his three fellow Templars, staring calm and upright through the flames even as his brethren writhed and lofted stomach-churning howls.

Some of those watching testified that, during his horrific final moments, the man looked heavenward with the beatific smile of a saint. A few of those near the front fell to their knees and began crossing themselves in repentance of their earlier taunts.

Finally it was over. Within the hour, farmers had carted off the charred remains and fed them to their swine. Peasants looted the pyre for kindling. By evening, coastal winds had chased off the remaining ashes and swept them into the nearby marshes of
the Camargue. Three days later, the dead man’s odd demeanor had been exhausted as conversation fodder. A week later it was forgotten.

Years passed, too numerous to describe. Prisoners came and went, as did many more such executions. Through it all, the dead man’s hidden message went undiscovered. Yet somehow, against all logic and human reason, an awareness of its existence seemed
to linger through the ages.

Only the Tower itself survived the passage of time intact. Eventually, the structure’s dark renown would spread across Provence and all of France, whispered of as the bleakest of earthly hells, its only abundant feature the misery of those inhabiting that dreaded second floor.

The Middle Ages dragged on, and the Tower’s oppressive presence worsened still. Centuries flowed around the dismal sight of the pale, weather-stained edifice thrust up into fog and clear blue sky alike as a soaring rebuke to the very notion of mercy.
Indeed, every era of the second millennium would dawn upon the Tower, confining some wretched soul or other, usually of marginal guilt—petty thieves, indigents, prisoners of conscience, the royally disfavored, the politically unfortunate. Most would leave as withered cadavers laid out on slat boards, swathed under heaps of the town’s famous sea salts.

Years after their imprisonment, Tower survivors would find it difficult to describe the place’s horrors. They would struggle to capture the density of the resignation that seemed to drip from its chamber’s ceiling. Or the depth of gloom that clung to its barren limestone walls. Or a despair even more pungent than the brinescented winds that flowed through its narrow windows from the swamps and salt beds around Aigues-Mortes.

A name that, in the old Provençal, fittingly meant Dead Waters.

With a very few of its inmates, however, the Tower and its notorious bleakness had wrought a far different, even opposite effect. The grim atmosphere seemed to focus hearts and minds on eternal things. It appeared to wear away the barriers separating
this world from the next. And, in one or two cases, it seemed to provoke astonishing manifestations of the spiritual.

It happened in the case of the Templar and his mysterious inscription in the floor stone. It also happened nearly three hundred years after his death, when the Tower was converted to a women’s prison.

During this period, the Tower housed the inmates for whom it would become most famous: a group of Huguenot women, including the heroines Marie Durand and Anne Salieges. The latter would be remembered for surviving a seventy-one-year imprisonment, begun when she was an infant in her mother’s arms.

The former was celebrated for carving RESIST in the Tower’s stone with her adolescent fingernail and for nurturing the prisoners’ defiance.

Every morning, the Chief of the Watch would grumble up his obligatory offer of clemency in exchange for the women renouncing their Protestant faith. Every morning, Marie would shout down their refusal.

They would be released decades later, broken and stumbling old stalwarts, yet Marie Durand’s engraving would remain to become one of the most celebrated ever left by a woman’s hand.

But the other, far longer and more provocative message, carved and hidden in that same chamber by a Knight Templar three centuries before, would lie undetected and yet supernaturally whispered about for eons.

Translated, its opening lines would read as follows:

A Call to War

The stillness and solitude of this place have sharpened my sight and allowed me a wondrous revelation. I have been shown things of which most mortals know but a glimpse. I have beheld the battlefronts of a vast and ancient war.

I may be called a soldier, yet in the face of this war I know nothing. I am less than a spectator. This is a war beyond all things, beyond all conflicts, beyond time itself.

Do not be deceived, for although my words may bear the ring of legend, they describe
truth of a supreme order. Truth so monumental that by comparison the reality of our present travails, the urgency of our earthly Crusades, are as trifling as the grains of salt upon these nearby shores. Truth of such magnitude that it could alter the course of a conflict which has engulfed heaven and earth since before the dawn of history.

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