Divine Protection

By Michael Leach

Jean Verdi walked purposefully down the archaic streets of Paris. His pace was swift, if not presumptuous, for the distinguished gentleman he obviously was. The elegant attire enveloping his body indicated his wealthy stature beyond doubt. Black hair was tied back in a neat ponytail behind his head, a popular style amongst fourteenth-century Parisians. A top hat adorning his handsome face was tipped in a congenial manner as he greeted passers-by. This middle-aged man managed to blend in with the masses of people walking along the cobblestone paths. His appearance, like his nobility, was impeccable.

The heat of the morning was unexpected, causing Jean to perspire beneath several layers of clothing. He undid the top of his bulky coat in an attempt to cool himself. In doing so, he inadvertently revealed something that shimmered enchantingly in the mid-morning sun. From around Jean’s neck, a red-colored cross necklace dangled and bobbed over elegant ruffles. It appeared to be the same as an ordinary cross, except that all four of its arms were noticeably curved. Was this cross in fact the symbol of the infamous Order of the Knights Templar? It was difficult to tell.

As time passed, the temperature of the morning gradually continued to rise. A single drop of sweat trickled down the side of one of Jean’s cheeks. He wiped it discreetly from his face, before slowing his pace considerably. He stared strangely at the liquid resting on his finger as recent memories coalesced in front of his mind’s eye.

Jean’s thoughts were instantly focused once more on the events that had transpired three days earlier. He vividly recalled the apprehension he had felt whilst in his estate at Le Mans. An anonymous individual had delivered a letter to him just before sunrise. The letter had been slid surreptitiously under the front door, going unnoticed for some time. Eventually, the sight of the letter prompted Jean’s muscle-bound servant to retrieve two broadswords and join his master for an extensive search of the grounds. All that the pair found were smears of crimson blood along a section of tall, spiked iron fence. The blood still glistened in the light of the rising sun. Returning indoors, Jean hurriedly retrieved a letter opener and cut away at the mysterious white envelope. Scrawled in the exact center of the letter therein was the word ‘Paris’. He was clueless as to what this was supposed to mean. It was only when he was about to discard the seemingly pointless message that he realized the true purpose of the letter. Stamped on the envelope in irregular-shaped red wax was a seal. Jean recognized the symbol instantly as one that defined the course of his adult life – it was a Templar cross. The anxiety he felt inside resulted in sweat coating his face as it did now. Jean believed that somebody in Paris was in grave danger.

The now-distressed gentleman was interrupted from his introspection as he walked blindly into an elegantly-dressed lady. Both of them recoiled, the lady more violently than Jean. She cried out in surprise as she stared reproachfully at the individual standing awkwardly before her. Forgetting his manners amid his mental turmoil, Jean ignored the lady and kept maneuvering his way through the serried crowds. His dawdle transformed into a swift jog as he considered just how important his presence in Paris was.

* * * * *

An eerie silence filled the almost deserted nave within the Notre Dame Cathedral. This ornate example of Gothic architecture continued to amaze Parisians, even though a century had passed since its construction was completed. Huge piers rose up towards the vaulted ceiling, watching vigilantly over the cathedral’s most sacred space. Lifelike statues of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus stood amidst a small army of stone angels, kings and saints. Beautifully-designed stained glass windows allowed scarce amounts of light to filter through them in order to illuminate the darkness. The only other sources of light evident in the whole area were several lit candles blazing away upon a central stone altar. Before the altar, many aisles of wooden pews utilized a majority of the nave’s space. For centuries, these sturdy rows of furniture had provided rest for the Godly. On this day, it seemed their purpose was completely opposite.

Seated in the front row of pews, seemingly in prayer, was Dragus Maldetti. His head was bowed, displaying long, disheveled strands of pure-white hair. A long scar encrusted the old man’s left cheek from the corner of the mouth to just below the eye. Bloodied cloths covered parts of Dragus’ right lower leg and right forearm, with traces of yellow Soldier’s Woundwort evident on the surrounding skin. A tattered brown robe cloaked a majority of his large, muscular body. The life of a soldier had rewarded Dragus with immense physical strength, but had stripped him of almost all humanity. He had spent the past decade exploiting his latest position as a Roman Catholic Inquisition soldier, often acting unscrupulously and without a priest’s supervision. He was a renegade bounty hunter rather than a champion of the Catholic faith.

Dragus continued to sit alone in silence as he had done all morning. His thoughts were not on God, but instead on something most sinister. Thoughts relating to the fall of the Knights Templar replayed themselves continually within his twisted mind.

The Order of the Knights Templar was abolished exactly nine years ago on this day – October 13, 1307. The inquisition was instructed to hunt down all members of the order so as they could be punished for alleged heresy and immorality. A majority of captured Knights Templar were cruelly tortured. Ultimately, they were resigned to live out their remaining years in disgrace, serve lifelong prison sentences or, in cases where members did not confess to alleged crimes, burn at the stake. It seemed that a small number of knights, however, had somehow evaded contact with any inquisitors. These lucky individuals were still leading charmed lives comfortably in many European countries. Their skills at hiding had allowed them to live as free men for nine years longer than their unfortunate brothers.

Dragus had one recurring desire within that obsessive mind of his: he wanted to play an integral part in the final chapter of the Order of the Knights Templar’s destruction. Achieving this malevolent goal would provide him with wealth, fame and satisfaction of the liked he had never experienced. Time was running out though. The sixty-two-year-old man craved the opportunity to relish these auspicious rewards before his life ended.

Out of desperation, the furtive individual had dedicated the better part of two years to tracking down Jean Verdi. This man was one of the few surviving Knights Templar in France. He was a courageous individual, a man who other knights rallied around following the death of the last Grand Master two years earlier. Dragus had written to Jean in a discreet code that only members of the order could comprehend. He then travelled all the way from Milan to Le Mans in order to hand-deliver the letter. This letter was essentially an invitation to Notre-Dame; one that Dragus knew would be accepted. Jean would travel unsuspectingly to the great cathedral, intent on a harmonious reunion with a surviving knight like himself. Instead, there was every chance that the complete eradication of the Knights Templar would be foreshadowed by the death of yet another of its members. This could be seen as a fitting way to mark the nine-year anniversary of the order’s abolition.

As the sun approached its zenith, Dragus sensed that the time of Jean’s secret assassination was imminent. He raised his head ever so slowly. Reaching into his robe, he pulled out a necklace with a medallion and a cross. The medallion contained an image of Saint Peter of Verona, the Patron Saint of Inquisitors. He ignored this and took a moment to glare pensively at the cross. It was undoubtedly a Templar cross.

There is no deception here, Jean, Dragus thought to himself. I may have used false documents to enter the order mere days before its abolition, but I still went through the same initiation ceremony as you. Never mind all that has changed since then. I trust that you will continue to follow the sacred rites and meet me here, brother to brother, at noon on the third day after summons. The old facial scar lifted upwards with a malicious smile.

Dragus’ eyes then diverged almost instinctively towards the very front of the nave. The old man let go of his necklace and continued to look ahead. He saw, as he had numerous times in the past, the resplendent form of the primary stained glass window. The striking biblical scenes depicted therein told their ancient stories radiantly before him. Although it was only a few minutes before noon, Dragus became transfixed by the sight. It touched something deep inside the man in a way nothing had been able to for decades. He felt peace, serenity and love begin to rage in one powerful torrent within the very inner depths of his soul. For the first time since his youth, Dragus was experiencing the warm glow of real emotion.

The scoundrel despised the unusual sensation he felt inside. He leaped up and cried out in rage, as if these actions would dissipate the waves of emotion afflicting him. Both his face and the cloth around his lower leg reddened. Dragus’ body seemed to be staging a battle between darkness and light. In the heat of this battle, the man’s actions were no longer governed by clear, conscious thoughts. Drawing his broadsword from its scabbard, Dragus charged towards the source of his anger – the primary stained glass window. In one fluid motion, he flung the large steel weapon in the direction of the nave’s sacred focal point.

The unmistakable sound of shattering glass resounded throughout Notre-Dame cathedral. It was followed shortly by the clatter of steel and glass on cobblestone. Dragus Maldetti was no longer just a scoundrel; now he was a sacrilegious vandal as well.

Every muscle in Dragus’ body froze. A thick veil of incredulity and regret had suddenly engulfed his mind, forbidding any further movements or sounds. The sensation was even more unwelcome than the warm feelings stirred up by the now-broken window. As the old man stood still by the nave’s altar, the statues in his line of sight seemed to pass judgment on him. His eyes met those of a stone saint, followed by the Virgin Mary, and then Jesus Christ. The feelings of shock and regret intensified enormously. The blood drained from his face, threatening to never return.

Time seemed to stand still there at the scene of the crime. The seconds crept by slowly until an extremely loud noise erupted from overhead, piercing the silence. Notre Dame’s bells were heralding the arrival of noon in Paris. The sound broke Dragus out of his daze, before leading his mind towards its inevitable conclusion. Dragus finally managed to register the enormity of his crime against God and the cathedral.

What have I done, and why now? Dragus thought to himself. He knew all about the severe punishments pronounced for an act as shameful and foolish as vandalizing a place of worship. Someone could enter the cathedral or descend a tower at any moment – the bell ringer perhaps, or a worshipper, or maybe even a soldier. The summoned knight, Jean Verdi, would no doubt arrive soon too. Dragus felt utterly powerless without his broadsword. He briefly considered retrieving it, but thought it might already be implicated in the act of vandalism. He would now struggle to defend himself, let alone assassinate a young hero of the Order of the Knights Templar.

Dragus closed his eyes and stifled a cry of frustration. His nefarious plan had completely backfired.

Now keenly aware of his predicament, Dragus began to panic. His frenetic mind abandoned the thought of assassination and focused instead on self-preservation. He needed to get out of Notre Dame immediately. With the air of a frightened child, Dragus fled from the vandalized scene as fast as his injured old body allowed. The would-be assassin ran down the cathedral’s front steps just as the bell tolled for the twelfth and final time. It was like the sound of trumpets from on high.

Only seconds later, Jean Verdi walked solemnly into Notre-Dame cathedral. He was alone; he was safe from danger.

______________________________________________________________

Michael Leach wears several hats. He is a health researcher, freelance academic editor, creative writer and long-time history buff. Currently, Michael is based in The City of Churches (i.e. Adelaide), where he is completing a PhD in Pharmacy at the University of South Australia. His poem ‘Longitudinal’ was recently accepted for publication in The Medical Journal of Australia.

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