The Girl and the Guardian - Chapter One

“What will follow is Hidden”

One autumn morning not so long ago (though it seems like another age altogether – perhaps it was?) I sat, trembling with excitement, at the cluttered oak desk in my cosy little study in Oxford, England, ecstatically poring over a very old manuscript which I had (I guiltily confess) stolen. Humming along to the Gregorian chant playing on my old gramophone, nervously jiggling my foot until the empty teacups on the desk rattled, I cleaned my glasses on my tea-stained shirt, mentally savouring the moment. What fateful secrets might be hidden on the fragile piece of paper I held in my hands?
My name is, shall we say, Christopher Hill. I was (and theoretically still am, against increasing odds) struggling to finish a PhD in medieval history, on the mysterious doings of the nine founders of the Knights Templar. The official course has been a long, exasperating, nervously exhausting journey through the maze of academic requirements, endless study of papers in journals arguing with previous papers on points of little import, when all along (I freely confess) I wanted only to pursue my deep passion, which was to uncover the true historical core of stories that had fascinated me since boyhood, of the Knights of the Round Table, the Lady of the Lake, the Holy Grail, Merlin, Excalibur, Camelot, Avalon, and of course, the Knights Templar.
Ah, those Knights Templar! Step by step, this quest of mine had inexorably led me (against the urgent professional advice of my thesis supervisors) to investigate the alleged esoteric doings of that controversial Order, a subject beloved of ‘cranks’ of every stripe, most of very dubious historical integrity. A subject, in a word, to be avoided by the prudent academic, lest he be tarred with the same brush as the ‘flakes, cranks and loopies,’ and fail to be accepted by the all-important Journals. As my father always reminded me, the reality for us academics is, ‘Publish [in the approved scholarly Journals] or perish.’ But I was never one to be put off by ‘realities’, as my father often complained. And as it turned out, it is a very good thing that I was not.
Back to the Templars. These knights were a unique order of warrior-monks, who wore white mantles emblazoned with a red Maltese Cross and grew their beards to distinguish them from lesser fraternities. Answerable only to the Pope, and mysteriously exempt from taxes, their Order became extremely wealthy and influential, but the individual knights were bound by a vow of poverty (this much at least is well-documented and accepted by all historians).
The intriguing account commonly circulated by the Templar enthusiasts, but dismissed by academic historians (at least, those who publish in Journals, especially since the whole subject became extremely popular thanks to certain fiction books based on ‘dodgy’ research), claims that these first Templars had not been in Jerusalem to protect the Christian pilgrims (their ostensible aim), but were on a secret mission to find certain lost treasures of the Temple. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams (so the story goes), stumbling upon the hidden entrance to the tunnels beneath the old Temple site. These caves were once the underground stables for the warhorses of King Solomon, but they had long been sealed off. When the Romans laid siege to the city and the priests knew it was doomed, they hid all the ancient treasures of Israel, including the golden Ark of the Covenant containing the mysterious Tables of Testimony (and other treasures amassed from foreign lands, especially Egypt), in the secret caves beneath the Temple.
The successful knights, the story continues, were then summoned back to France by their patron, the Cistercian Abbot, St Bernard de Clairvaux. They obeyed, returning with the most valuable of the treasures, and a secret council was held.
At this point all the sources (those in circulation, if they are not simply copies of each other) end, leaving many tantalising questions unanswered.
But I, like many before me, could not let it rest there. In a strangely compulsive quest for new sources, arcane or mundane, that might throw new light on the origins of this mysterious Order, I travelled to an area hitherto unaccountably neglected by Templar historians: the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France. I had read (in a book most definitely not on the Required Reading list in the department: The Templar Revelation, by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince), that over thirty percent of all Templar sites in Europe were to be found in this one small region, yet many key sites had never been archeologically investigated. But, as Picknett and Prince found, there are in the Languedoc certain unfunded (therefore labelled ‘amateur’) research groups of apparent integrity which have made some startling discoveries (unpublished, of course, in the Journals, though very well documented). It was to one of these that I went, spending the last of my departmental funding to do so, and risking disciplinary action when I returned.
Through the help of this group, I made my first big discovery, in a dusty local archive in one of the small, remote mountain villages of the region (I will not name it yet, to preserve the integrity of the research there. The custodian was most concerned to avoid a rush of ‘barbarian’ treasure-hunters). The document I found was an old letter, tucked into the back of a devotional diary kept by one of the Knights of the outer circles. It was written on a small sheet of rough-edged rag paper, in a small, neat hand, and only took up the first third of it. The writer, I began to realize with rising excitement, had been privy to secret documents reserved only for the immensely secretive inner circle, those of the ‘Third Degree.’ She (yes, a woman: that is one of the surprising facts uncovered by the ‘amateurs’: there were many women in the Order, at least in the earlier years) – she had felt the need to write to her mother, explaining her imminent departure. Roughly translated from the old French the letter read:

Dearest mother,

May the Lady forgive me, I who am the least of your daughters but the greatest in grief to you! I must write this, lest he whom I will not name, presently ravaging the Languedoc in the name of Christ, takes us also, and the secret is lost. Also, so that if we disappear you will know that we have embarked upon a long voyage, with little hope of returning, but a great hope of finding a new and better World in which we may begin anew, free from oppression.
My Beloved has told me things about the Order I had not dreamt possible, and confessed to me his desire to leave these troubles and seek that better World for our children.
Against his wishes, I have decided to write these words to you in case we do not live to see our hope fulfilled. My Beloved wishes us to follow Gondemare. Who knows if we can persuade the others to spare a ship? What will follow is hidden. For none know the future. Alas for us that we should live in such times!
Farewell from across the water,

Your loving daughter.

The rest of the page was blank – not even a signature. Wiping away tears which threatened to fall on the paper, I turned the letter over; the back was also blank. I wondered sadly, nervously, why the letter had not been sent; perhaps the presence of what looked like bloodstains on it and the cover of the book was all the explanation I needed – or would get.
‘So,’ I thought, ‘another cryptic manuscript, yet another tragedy from the past, leaving yet more unanswered questions!’ Of course, my father, a crusty old ‘Don’ in the Psychology Department at Oxford, would have said that is how they are best left, as they have no answer, being ‘merely the projection of our human need for mystery upon a perfectly mundane world.’ But I knew he was wrong, in my bones I knew it. I felt that all he thought he knew of the world was suspect, because it was filtered through his scepticism, which is merely a bias for the known and against the unknown. A bias based on fear…
I myself had known fear of the unknown in earlier years, having had a complete nervous breakdown, and suffered numerous delusions (so I am told) before re-emerging with catastrophic memory loss, sane but afraid of a relapse into a condition I could not even remember for myself. I am to this day quite unable to recall my life before the age of fifteen, but must rely on photos and family lore (not readily forthcoming: my father – and mother – wish that I would not try to ‘dig up the past’, but instead ‘look forward to the future.’ But I feel strongly that the key to the future is often to be found only by walking the Labyrinth of the past, and solving its puzzles.
However, I must confess that as I followed my own advice and delved deeper, I began to be troubled by strange dreams, only remembered in vivid fragments, which left me nervous, headachy and (one might say) somewhat paranoid the next morning, reaching shakily for the aspirin washed down with strong tea. Tea helped, usually; at least it was milder in its effects than the strong instant coffee I had once been addicted to. Cycling also helped. The aerobic exercise and the fresh air cleared my head and lifted my spirits.
I had begun to notice, or imagine I noticed, certain resonances between the dreams and the things I was researching. The dreams did not, as one would expect, merely reflect the things I had learned during the day; they went beyond them, giving me glimpses into strange realms both wonderful and alarming, which always somehow felt connected to the matters I was researching. I said nothing of the dreams to my father – I knew what he would say, and did not want him recommending drugs to me, or worse still, a voluntary internment in a psychiatric ward. On the rare occasions when my parents visited, I tried to keep my facial grimaces (a side-effect of the growing nervousness I was experiencing) to a minimum. Also the foot-jiggling when sitting on the couch having tea, trying unsuccessfully to make small talk and avoid mentioning the Templars...
To return to that dusty archive office: there I was, shaking, wrung with emotions I did not fully understand, in my hand a letter which referred to a planned expedition of which the accepted histories of Templar doings say nothing. Where were they planning to go? What did she mean by ‘follow Gondemare’? What secret prompted this Templar couple to risk all and sail into the unknown, leaving the only World they knew? I leaned back in the creaky old chair at the small reading desk, and pondered. Why did the woman speak of the secret being lost if she did not write that letter? What secret? There was nothing in the letter that would…. I re-read it, slowly this time, pondering each phrase.
Suddenly one phrase stood out as if illuminated. My heart skipped a beat. Of course!

What will follow is hidden.

Looking at the blank page, glowing in the light that slanted from the small window of the office, I was overcome with curiosity, not to say greed for knowledge. I did something for which I later castigated myself endlessly, though at the time it seemed the only thing to do: I carefully slipped the precious letter under my woollen undergarment (it was freezing in the Languedoc at that time, though normally mild compared to England), and walked out of the archive office, trying not to bend and damage the brittle paper.
I am not a thief, in any way shape or form, and I hate theft as a violation of a person’s – or a nation’s – very being. I think all national treasures should be returned to the countries of origin, whatever the risks to them there. They should be where they were created to be. Elgin’s marbles for example – what a scandal! They belong to Greece, not England. Yet here I was, removing such a treasure from its native land. I was no better than Elgin. So I trembled with guilt and disturbance to my very psyche, and grimaced uncontrollably for a while when I got out of that place. I hesitated and almost turned back and owned up. But other forces were at work in me, and I walked on, straight to the nearest café, where I had a very strong cup of tea. I then took the first available bus to the nearest airport.
On the flight back to England, I could think of nothing but the letter, and what I might find when I examined that blank space. I was sure that it would contain a hidden message, written in invisible ink. Perhaps it would also be coded; the Templars used many devices such as this to preserve their secrets. ‘What will follow is hidden’ – I kept hearing those words over and over as I sped homewards.

More coming soon...