The moon hung in the clear sky like a perfect white orb, bathing the town with brilliant light. On the steps of the Templar cathedral, a contingent of knights kept solemn vigil, barring entrance to all but members of their Order. Some shivered from the midnight air and with each breath, small vapor clouds rose. Across the courtyard, horses pawed the ground and tossed their heads, rattling bridles that broke the unsettling silence.
Within the magnificent cathedral, Solomon of Avorone stood behind Jacques DeMolay, holding the Grand Master’s sword and shield while he knelt in prayer. Gaunt-faced, the aide glanced at the chaplains about him, to the gold crosses they held and the swords on their belts. Men of God, soldiers of Christ.
“Amen,” DeMolay said. He kissed the Bible on the altar and looked to the life-sized crucifix on the wall. Its fine craftsmanship made him almost expect to hear moans pass from Christ’s lips. His thoughts weighed heavily upon him.
DeMolay rose, straightened his white mantle, and gently touched the red cross emblazoned over his heart. He gazed at the assembled knights as he took the sword and shield from his aide. They stood in silence, their battledress mantles forming a sea of white and red. At the rear of the cathedral, the Beauseant, the white and black banner that had led these brave men into battle, waved from a tall lance.
The loyalty in their eyes made DeMolay struggle with his decision. A single command would hurl them into war against King Philip, but such an act also meant the Order’s death. His thoughts became a prayer: God forgive me if I have chosen wrong.
He squeezed his sword’s hilt and spoke in a resonant voice. “Knights of the Temple of Solomon, for two hundred years we have fought in God’s name. Now, Philip the Fair seeks our eradication. He accuses us of heresy and orders our arrests so he may rob our treasury.”
A clamor arose. Knights shouted protests in unison. “Death should come with honor by the sword, not upon the Inquisition’s rack!” The outcry grew deafening.
Grand Master DeMolay held his hands high. “Hear me, Sir Knights! In the end we will be victorious, proven innocent of all charges. But we must fight the Inquisitors with our faith. To raise a single blade against the Church will only destroy all we stand for.” The Grand Master drew a deep breath and lowered his voice to a cold tone. “The King of France will never touch our true treasure.”
Tension settled across the cathedral. DeMolay nodded to his trusted aide. The blue-eyed knight understood and with a chaplain’s help, removed the altar’s marble top. Reaching inside, the Grand Master reverently lifted a wide, square, flattened pouch, no thicker than half a man’s finger, and made through careful folds of darkly tanned leather
A simple gold hasp kept it bound closed, and on both sides of the lock, carved into the leather, were the Order’s double-armed cross patee emblem. At the sight of the pouch, every knight knelt and bowed his head.
Passing the timeworn pouch to a chaplain, DeMolay took a well-wrapped bundle from a nearby knight. He opened it and raised a long, narrow cloth for all to see. Confusion passed through the assembly as the cloth’s markings came into view. Eyes flared. A thick-bearded knight in the front row whispered, “The Shroud!” His words swept through the ranks on the lips of every soldier like a wave.
“No,” DeMolay yelled, shaking his head. “A reproduction. Bait for the Dominican hounds.” He folded the replica and passed it to a nearby knight. “Conceal this within the church walls in Lirey. Let the King have what he wants.”
The knight tucked the bundle under his arm, heart pounding as he stepped back into the ranks.
DeMolay motioned his aide forward. “Solomon, your courage and wisdom have always been worthy of the great king’s name you bear. For the sake of our Order, will you accept the highest responsibility?” The words tore at his heart.
Brow furrowed, Solomon stared into the Grand Master’s dark eyes. “My vows have never changed. Unto death I am God’s servant and will guard the Order’s secrets.”
A warm smile formed as DeMolay nodded. “Select twenty knights and have them lay their swords and shields by their feet. You do so too, Sir Knight.”
Puzzled, Solomon turned to the brotherhood and studied them carefully. The wonderment of what fate lay ahead appeared on his face as he pointed to each knight. When the last man was chosen, the blue-eyed aide moved into their rank. DeMolay took the sacred pouch from the chaplain and walked toward these knights, each a blooded veteran of Crusade campaigns.
“Strip away your mantles and clothes, and kneel.”
Commanding a knight to remove his sword and mantle while the Order was assembled meant banishment in disgrace. Eyes filled with questions. The selected men obeyed.
The Grand Master laid the precious leather pouch in Solomon’s hands. He withdrew his sword and somberly looked down the line of knights. “Tonight you will leave to form a new order, secret and separate from ours—one only to serve God and to protect the holy Burial Shroud of Jesus. No one, not even myself, is to know your destination for fear that in the days ahead under the pain of the Inquisition’s torture we would speak it against our will.”
Dumbstruck, the twenty-one knights stared at DeMolay as if their ears had deceived them.
DeMolay stood before Solomon. He pressed the point of his sword into Solomon’s chest, above the heart. “In the name of God and with your blood, do you swear to serve Him and forever protect the Holy Shroud you now hold?”
“I do.” As Solomon spoke, DeMolay’s sword pierced his flesh and sliced a cross patee into his chest. Beads of sweat formed across Solomon’s forehead. His body drew taut then relaxed as the blade withdrew. Passing the sacred pouch to the next man, Solomon looked with pride upon his crimson cross and the blood trailing down his chest.
Moving along the line, DeMolay repeated his question and awaited the answer. When the last man bore a cross patee, the Grand Master sheathed his sword and carried the sacred pouch to Solomon.
“Rise, brothers,” DeMolay said in a resounding voice. The night thundered as Templars throughout the cathedral clapped their shields in honor.
Humble peasant clothes were brought and the men dressed. They walked to the door. Solomon paused to look at his brethren, knowing he would never again see them alive. He stared at the Grand Master and started to speak. Words failed him. He raised a hand in salute and followed by his men, left the cathedral with the leather pouch clutched to his heart.
Before sunrise, the King’s soldiers rode into town and lined the streets outside the cathedral. They sat grim-faced upon their horses, waiting for DeMolay to appear. At first light, the soldiers arrested the Grand Master and two hundred knights and threw them into Philip the Fair’s dungeons.
* * *
March 18, 1314
The poor and the rich filled the public square so thickly that the King’s soldiers had to forcibly clear a path to the woodpile. News of DeMolay denying his confession meant a fiery spectacle and the peasants left fields for miles around unattended.
Dominican priests proudly led the procession through the crowd then came soldiers flanking a half-naked prisoner. Hair matted and filthy, body splotched with purple bruises, fresh wounds, viciously made by a whip, bleeding while old ones across his skeleton-like torso were caked with dried blood—DeMolay no longer held any resemblance to the great leader he had once been. He stumbled, fell, and did not have the strength to lift himself. A guardsman smirked and viciously jerked the prisoner to his feet by the rope about his neck.
At the sight of the soldier’s glee, a gaunt-faced man within the crowd lunged at him. Friends immediately grabbed his arm and held him. Tears welled in his blue eyes as he helplessly watched DeMolay stagger toward the oil-soaked pole at the center of a dense ring of firewood.
Father Tomás, the head Inquisitor, unfurled a parchment and pompously read aloud the royal decree of execution. Onlookers surged forward.
“Burn him!” yelled an obese, dirt-stained woman.
Others echoed her words. Soon, angry shouts masked the Dominican priest’s voice. Soldiers hurriedly tied DeMolay to the pole, checked their knots, and closed the circle of wood about him as they left.
A burly, filthy man, head and shoulders covered with a black hood, walked to the mound and stood holding a burning torch. He stared at the townspeople through the hood’s eyeholes, never blinking as he awaited his orders.
“Heretic Jacques DeMolay, for worshiping Satan and other crimes against God, you are to be burned at the stake by order of the King of France, Philip the Fourth,” the priest shouted. Gradually the din of outcries settled and Tomas’s voice carried across the square. “Have you any final words?”
The townspeople grew quiet.
Grand Master DeMolay’s knees buckled but the ropes tightly binding him to the pole kept him upright.
In the crowd, the tall, blue-eyed man stared at DeMolay and felt his soul shred. Dear God, what have we done to deserve this?
Arms pulled hard behind him, the Grand Master bravely lifted his head and scanned the surrounding throng. He recognized Solomon. Their gazes locked and life briefly shined in DeMolay’s eyes.
Throat dry and sore, DeMolay tried to speak. His words were unintelligible. He swallowed twice to work moisture into his mouth. As he did, he looked at the crowd and saw more familiar faces. The somber men stared at him, their eyes wet and glistening. DeMolay’s lips slowly moved, yet no sound came. Vague nods answered him. A faint smile appeared on the Grand Master’s cracked lips.
Father Tomás motioned to the black-hooded executioner and fought his excitement as he watched the torch lower to the kindling. “Prisoner DeMolay,” he shouted, “Today you will burn in Hell for your heresy. May God have pity on your soul!”
The hay erupted into flames. Fire swept through the mound as dry kindling caught and became an inferno. The mound shifted, wood crackled, and embers shot skyward. Flames rose into a dancing wall about DeMolay. Onlookers fell back from the intensity of the heat.
From within the roaring inferno came a scream that pierced every listener’s soul. It grew louder to become a haunting voice. “Death to the Pope and King! My curse upon them!” Engulfed in flames, skin peeling as it burned from his face, DeMolay appeared to be staring at the Dominican priest through the gaps in the whipping flames.
Onlookers drew further back from the bonfire’s heat. Those closest to the blazing mound raised hands to protect their faces from being scorched. The weight of the piled wood shifted again, crackled, and crashed inward onto the blackened torso against the fire-streaked pole.
Throughout the square came a maddening mixture of gasps, sorrow-filled cries, and jubilant shouts. The gaunt-faced man in pauper’s clothes stared at the inferno for several minutes then closed his blue eyes. He slid a hand beneath his ragged shirt, touched the scar on his chest, and turned from the roaring fire.
Seeing Solomon leave, twenty men pushed their way through the crowd to follow him.
* * *
Within five weeks of DeMolay’s execution, Pope Clement V died. King Philip IV died seven months later. Both were found in their beds, mouths agape, eyes staring out in terror as if they had seen ghosts.
Nine months later, on a full moon night, Dominican priests were awakened by a horrid scream echoing through their monastery. They rushed to Father Tomás’s room and found his bed in flames, his body charred beyond recognition.
In all three deaths, servants discovered a red cross cut from a Knights Templar battledress mantle. Rumors ran rampant of their presence, about holy assassins and the vengeance of God, but fear quelled any further investigations.
And Solomon’s men became shadows within history.
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