The Last True Templar
It seemed as if the entire city had come for the execution. Massive crowds lined both banks of the Seine, straining to view the stake set into a pile of logs on the tiny island of Île aux Juifs. A man holding a flaming torch waited for the command to do his duty.
In the fading light of dusk, the four men tied back-to-back around the tall post looked unafraid, even serene. They knew the horror that was to come and that insufficient fuel was deliberately used to ensure a slow and agonizing death. But they seemed at peace with their decision to recant the false confessions that had been tortured out of them. For this reversal, they’d been branded lapsed heretics, the most heinous crime imaginable.
Domenico Ramberti stood on the southern bank of the river, forcing himself to control the shivering and coughing that had racked him on and off for the last six months of his long journey. Although he had occasional bursts of energy, today he felt older than his forty-eight years. But if Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, could maintain his noble bearing while he met his fate, Ramberti could keep his composure as well.
Many of his fellow knights had been tortured over the past seven years, ever since that dark Friday the 13th in 1307 when King Philip had ordered the simultaneous arrest of all Templars across France. Ramberti had escaped only because he had been in Italy at the time. Since then, he’d done everything he could to preserve his beloved order, but now he was here to witness the coup de grâce.
After this day, Ramberti would be the last true Knight Templar.
Molay, in his seventies, balding with a rim of white hair and a long flowing beard, stood straight atop the pyre, maintaining the dignity for which he was renowned. The marshal’s cry to carry out the sentence was loud enough for all to hear. Molay didn’t debase himself to watch as the executioner dipped his torch to the kindling, setting the logs ablaze.
Above the growing flames, Molay shouted something. The crowd grew still, eager to hear his final words. His voice carried across the water, strong and clear.
“God knows that the hearts of the Templars are pure. He knows who is in the wrong and has sinned. God will avenge our deaths. Make no mistake, all who have borne false witness against us will suffer because of what has been done to us.”
The curse caused many of the spectators to gasp and whisper, but they kept listening. The flames grew, and black smoke belched forth. By now, Ramberti could feel the heat of the fire himself. To Molay the inferno must have been unbearable, and yet he continued to speak.
“I call for His Holiness Pope Clement to join me within a year and a day before God, where he will have to answer for his vile betrayal. I not only summon His Highness King Philip to the same fate, but his descendants likewise to fall and his family line to come to an inglorious end. At the last, the world will know the truth about our innocence. The brotherhood will be reborn, and no one will doubt the nobility and virtue of the Knights Templar.”
As his final words rang out, the thick smoke obscured the men who so bravely endured their torture, sparing Ramberti from watching his beloved Grand Master being burned alive.
He could only hope that Molay’s curse would come to pass. The king, who owed a fortune to the Templars, had concocted the false accusations that brought down the order so that he could wipe his debt clean and seize the vast holdings of the Templars for his own. The pope, a weakling and a fool, had succumbed to Philip’s threats and joined him in condemning the Templars, disbanding them completely in 1312 and handing over what remained of their holdings to the rival Knights Hospitaller.
But Ramberti knew something they did not, the real reason that Molay had finally recanted his confessions to fabricated crimes such as denying Christ and desecrating the cross. He had informed Molay that the resources to restore the Templars to their past glory were now well hidden from the French king, waiting only for the right time and worthy champions to restore the order’s rightful place in the world.
Ramberti’s determination to safeguard the remaining Templar wealth had grown into an obsession that consumed his every waking minute. Despite the danger, he had braved terrible hardship and illness, and had even forsaken his own family to come back to Paris to deliver the news to the Grand Master that the treasure was safe, giving Molay and his men the peace of mind to at last deny their false admissions of guilt so that they could face death as faithful Knights Templar.
Ramberti stayed long enough to pay his respects. He turned to melt into the throngs who had already grown tired of the spectacle and were receding from the shore.
He stopped abruptly at the sight of a face he thought he’d never see again. It was Riccardo Corosi, the young man who had betrayed everything the Templars stood for and doomed the Order. Three stout men-at-arms stood to either side of him.
“You shouldn’t have come back here,” Corosi said. “I was hoping you had given up on your deluded quest to save the Templars, but I suspected you’d remain loyal to Molay until the bitter end. Now you leave me no choice.”
“No matter what you do to me, the Templars will rise again. Loyalty is one of our sacred creeds, but you’ve betrayed every oath you’ve ever taken. You’re nothing but a petulant child.”
“And you’re an old fool living in a dream world. The Templars have been extinguished forever.”
“I know what you really want, Riccardo.” Ramberti drew his sword. “I won’t let you take me alive.”
By now some of the gathered crowd had stopped to watch the unusual confrontation.
“Despite how you’ve wronged me,” Corosi said, “I’ll grant you a quick death if you tell me what I want to know.”
“After I raised you and taught you the importance of a knight’s honor, the best you can offer me is a quick death?”
Corosi barked a derisive laugh. “All I ever wanted was to be your knightly ideal, until the moment you betrayed me and I realized that every word from your mouth was a two-faced lie. But let’s not talk in front of all these people. We should have some privacy.” He nodded at his men. “Remember, I need him breathing.”
The men-at-arms advanced on Ramberti. Even if there was a shred of devotion left buried in Corosi for his former mentor, he’d order his men to batter Ramberti into submission with the flats of their swords and haul him off to some dungeon for questioning under torture.
At his best, Ramberti might have successfully fought off six men, but in this weakened state, his defeat was inevitable. He couldn’t let himself be captured, not with the secret he held. He didn’t trust himself to withstand the brutality that he knew was in store for him.
He charged at the men, screaming and swinging his sword wildly. He hoped one of them would lose his restraint and strike him down in one deadly blow.
But the men were disciplined. They spread themselves out, blocking his thrusts but not going on the offensive, obviously planning to wear him out. Corosi watched from afar, keeping a careful eye on the proceedings.
Ramberti coughed from the exertion, which gave him an idea. He played up the spasms, hacking violently before pausing to seemingly catch his breath.
“You must have fallen ill on your long journey, old man,” Corosi said, casually edging toward the circle of men surrounding Ramberti.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Ramberti said, spitting a gob of blood on the ground.
“You didn’t hide the treasure in France. You’d want to get it as far away from King Philip as you could.”
“I would be less worried about the treasure than about the king’s letter to the pope that I took from you.”
Corosi couldn’t hide his fury and came even closer. “I will find out what you know. You will be begging to tell me.”
Ramberti stood straight, as if gathering the last of his strength, and launched another flurry of strikes against the men-at-arms. He then feinted in the direction away from Corosi. While the men were adjusting to his move, he dived past their feet in the opposite direction, rolling and jumping up toward the shocked Corosi, whose drawn sword had been languishing by his side.
Ramberti brought his sword down with all his might. Corosi was able to counter the blow but fell backward, dropping his weapon. Ramberti leaped upon him, putting his knee on Corosi’s chest. They wrestled with the hilt of his sword as Ramberti forced the edge of the blade to within an inch of Corosi’s throat, the weight of his body overcoming the strength in Corosi’s sinewy arms. Abject terror flared in the traitor’s eyes.
“Kill him!” Corosi shrieked. “Kill him now!”
Ramberti went rigid as he felt something slam into his back like a hammer. His arms went limp, and he looked down to see the point of a sword protruding from his chest.
The blade was withdrawn, and Ramberti fell on top of Corosi, who pushed him off. Corosi scrambled to his feet, his tunic covered in Ramberti’s blood. Corosi looked horrified at what he had done.
Surprisingly, Ramberti felt no pain, just a coldness enveloping his body. But he knew he had accomplished his goal. His life was ebbing away. No torture could touch him now.
Corosi, apparently realizing his mistake, bent down and shook Ramberti by the shoulders.
“Where is the treasure?”
Ramberti shook his head in disappointment. “I loved you like a son.”
A fleeting expression of regret on Corosi’s face showed that the words wounded him.
“And you were the one who cast me away in favor of Matteo. Now tell me where you’ve hidden it!”
“You’ll never find it. You’re not worthy.” Ramberti was getting light-headed and dizzy. “Only Luciana and Matteo are.”
“Matteo is dead. I killed him myself.”
“No,” Ramberti lamented. “They were to be married.”
Corosi shook his head. “I destroyed all of your plans. Your beloved daughter didn’t marry your favored pupil. I convinced her that Matteo betrayed you. After that, it was easy to persuade her to marry me. The generous dowry you left her before becoming a Templar is now mine. I have already used it to begin building my banking empire. I suppose I should thank you, Father.”
Ramberti closed his eyes, with Corosi’s jeering face as his final horrid vision. Despite Molay’s dying pronouncement that they would someday rise victorious, the Templars would be doomed if no one were able to vindicate them by finding what Ramberti had hidden. As he took his last breath, he clung to hope that what Corosi said was a lie.
Because if his words were the truth, the trail Ramberti had left for Matteo and Luciana would never be followed, and the treasure of the Templars was lost to eternity.