(Enter to Win below the Chapter Excerpt)
Chapter Excerpt #10 of 10
When would his past stay in the past? Though a blazing fire added ambiance to the dining room, none of its warmth reached Gabe while he waited at the table for dinner. He glanced through the large carved arch and listened. Louis spoke on the phone in the library, giving Gabe time to collect himself from the distressing afternoon.
Rinaldo set another platter on the table. When the call was finished, Louis entered the room and commenced with dinner. He seemed at peace compared to his anguish in the chapel this afternoon.
At least one of them was. In spite of the nervous twinges in his stomach, Gabe managed to consume a good portion of each course. Having overheard Louis’ prayer, he realized he still knew very little about his grandfather. After taking a long drink, he asked, “How did you injure your leg?”
Louis shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “As a young man, I had no common sense and thought I was indestructible. I took it upon myself to break my own horses until one of them broke me.” He bit into a crust of bread, chewed, and swallowed. “My pride suffered more than my leg.”
The simple explanation caught Gabe off-guard. This man embodied everything his father was not. He took failure in stride. Did not cast blame.
Rinaldo cleared their dishes and left the room. Gabe met the old man’s anxious eyes. Louis spoke in a low tone. “I know your father tried to poison your opinion of me. Nevertheless, I let you tell your story, now will you let me tell mine?”
Gabe nodded. He wanted to know what his grandfather had done that was so horrific his father had shut him out of their lives. Ralph had been mute on the subject when he had visited. As far as Gabe could see, Louis was kind and generous. Do I really want to know? His gut tightened. The truth could ruin everything.
Louis cleared his throat and began. “There is a hill south of Siena called Montisiepi. In 1185, the Pope ordered a chapel built on its crest around a miracle—the authentic sword in the stone.” He must have caught Gabe’s smirk, for he was quick to add, “You do not have to take my word for it. You could drive there tomorrow.”
After letting that settle, Gabe asked, “When you say stone, you mean it was cemented into the ground?”
“No. The stone is solid and the story is of the purely miraculous variety—unless some scientist can explain how the solid rock melted in that one specific place just in time for Galgano Guidotti to stick his blade into it—then immediately became solid again. So far, no assertions of that kind have been made.”
The confidence with which he spoke silenced Gabe’s logical retort.
“Through the centuries, people have gone to Montesiepi to try to pull the sword out. The legend was added to the King Arthur tales—a year ‘after’ Galgano’s miracle. A few years ago, vandals used a sledgehammer and broke off the hilt. However, they were caught, and the sword studied. Scientists verified it as twelfth century and reattached it to the blade. It is now protected with a transparent cover and iron bars.”
Banking on a scientific explanation, Gabe let it go. “That’s fascinating. I never considered the legend beginning anywhere besides the British Isles—or that the idea could have come from some historical…story.”
“Of course, there is still a measure of disagreement on that issue.” Louis’ eyes twinkled. “However, that is only the starting place of my story.”
Hmm. With the beginning this eccentric, Gabe braced himself for the rest and downed the last of his hot tea.
“As the patron of the family, all of these treasures have passed into my care.” He gestured at the paintings and fine antiques. “Along with the tangible things, there are also the intangible. These are what matter most. The history of every family member—along with their deeds, good or bad—has contributed to who we are.”
He peered at Gabe. “Your father was headstrong, as you well know. He wanted nothing to do with his heritage, nothing to do with fulfilling his responsibility and passing these glorious stories to you and to your children’s children. Gabriel Russo Dolcini, it is vital that you know these things.”
The conte looked so intent, that Gabe nodded his head. He let out the breath he had been holding and leaned forward. “Tell me.”
With evident relief, Louis smiled, easing years off his tired face. Clapping his hands together with anticipation, he rose to his feet. “Come with me.”
Gabe followed the straight-backed man through an arched entry. Steps led downward, disappearing into the shadows. His grandfather flipped a switch that lit the sconces lining the stairwell. A host of carved brass snakes coiled around metal torches that illuminated the steps. With care, Louis grabbed an iron rail that was hammered into an elegant twist, and ambled down two sets of stairs. Gabe readied himself to steady the older man should he falter, but he never did. Soon, they were in a subterranean part of the palazzo that he had not yet explored.
They reached a massive oak door somewhere below ground, and Louis unlocked the ancient deadbolt with a brass key. Short of breath, he turned. “I must ask you something of gravest importance.” He studied Gabe’s eyes. “Before I expound upon the mission entrusted only to our family as the Custodi, the Keepers, you must promise to hold secret all that I show you. Will you keep this vow of silence?”
Though it seemed a bit cryptic, Gabe saw nothing particularly sinister about the request. He had never been a gossip. “Certainly.”
His grandfather nodded, and his broad shoulders relaxed. They entered a cold room furnished with dark antique furniture. Natural stone tables had serpent-like beasts carved on their wooden legs, creating the creepy sense of something slithering up one’s shins.
Louis stopped at one end of the room in front of a huge mirror that covered a six-by-ten-foot section of wall. The frame sported gilded birds of prey, their talons and beaks aimed toward their unsuspecting quarry. Gabe shivered as a chill passed through the room and into his body.
Sliding the leather toe of his expensive Italian shoe under a section of the mirror’s frame, Louis pressed upward, initiating a series of clicking noises. “Just like in the movies,” he grinned, then pressed the place again. He moved aside while the mirrored wall swung outward, allowing them to step over the threshold and pass into a large hidden room. Once inside, he switched on an electric candelabrum and closed the door with a lever.
In the ample glow, the nearly empty, castle-like room seemed to swallow them. A desk, two chairs, and a large globe, floating in its iron support, huddled together in one spot. On one wall, tall wooden shelves stood empty except for a few dozen books, stacks of paper, and small art objects.
All the architectural elements in the room—the floors, walls, and arches that held up the domed ceiling—were made of icy stone. The room retained a constant chill, and Gabe imagined he had landed in the middle ages. It was sinister. And fabulous. “What is this place?”
“This is where I keep those valuables I was speaking of—our family ancestry, ancient legal documents, and histories of objects we have acquired…or protect.” I added this outer wall for safekeeping some years ago. He touched a thick leather book on a near shelf. “Our military records are here, with all their history.”
Gabe leaned his head to one side for clarification.
Pride beamed from Louis’ face. “One of our ancestors served as a Templar Knight.”
“You approve of the Knights? Weren’t they responsible for the wars, greed, and heresy of the medieval period?”
A shadow of disapproval passed over the older man. “There was much envy leveled against the Templars. And it is true that some deviated sharply from their vows. Later, when they became rich and powerful, there existed even more self-interest and corruption. But who of us has not wrestled with that?”
Gabe cleared his throat. “Yes, but I don’t go around killing, pillaging, and dealing in the occult.”
Louis’ eyes held Gabe’s with firm conviction. “The heresy charges were invented by evil men to discredit the Templars and steal their fortunes.”
Gabe masked a shrug of disbelief. No sense arguing, as neither of them had been there.
Continuing his story, Louis said, “The majority of the Templars, in contrast to the crusaders, were pious and humble. They were pure in their motives to protect Christ’s people from bandits on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And to guard articles pertaining to Christianity.”
Again, Gabe felt perplexed that Louis held such a biased opinion. “Where does our family fit into all of this?”
Louis leaned his forearms on the back of a chair and clasped his fingers. “Like other noblemen of the day, your ancestor, Antonio Dolcini, left his family to join the Knights Templar. Beginning in 1177, he spent two years defending the Holy Land, but was appalled at the violence he found there. To add to his grief, charges of heresy and pagan worship had been directed at the Templars. He wrote to his wife about the moral decay in Jerusalem.
Louis’ eyes closed while he quoted one of Antonio’s letters. “We guard a solemn secret. That which has touched our Lord fills us with the hope that our broken bodies shall also be caught up in the resurrection. Yet the very object we protect with our lives and secrecy brings these charges upon us.”
“You’re speaking of the Holy Grail or lost Templar treasure?” Doubt laced Gabe’s words.
Gabe parried. “My studies of ancient myths show that the Holy Grail—just an ordinary cup really—was tracked to Spain, long before the time you are speaking of. It was then moved to Valencia in the fourteenth century.” He cocked his head. “Where it still resides.”
His grandfather donned a patient expression. “Please, sit down.” He motioned toward one of the burgundy and gold brocade-covered chairs. A screech reverberated off the walls as Gabe dragged the chair over the rough, mottled stone.
The conte sat down in the opposing chair and continued. “Many stories exist. The first Templers spent years digging under the Temple Mount in the bowels of the mountain. They were guided to the exact locations where many important items were hidden.”
“You don’t really believe they found the authentic Holy Grail?”
“I am saying that Antonio brought back from Jerusalem what he described as, ‘the desire of every Templar.’” His grandfather held his head high.
Gabe turned his gaze toward the enormous stones, cut to fit precisely together in the walls of the bleak cellar. He considered the conversation. In the faculty room, he had listened to Howard’s scorn when teaching classes on ancient religious art and relics. Gabe remembered pitying the excitable freshmen.
Howard had mocked, “I can’t comprehend that there are still those who believe in the possibility of the Grail’s existence—or God’s existence for that matter.” Howard described his delight in dashing his student’s hopes and ridiculing their faith with the historical facts at hand. “You’d think we still lived in the age of superstition and idol worship.”
Gabe agreed with Howard, but this was his grandfather, and a man who held his artistic career in his hands. He decided to use logic and questions to bring the deluded man around to reason. “When you said they were guided, what did you mean?”
A smile seeped out from under the corner of Louis’ short, white mustache. “They had a map.”