Son of the Morning (Chapter 6)

GRACE BROKE INTO A HOUSE. She had chosen a hiding place well before dawn, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood where there weren't likely to be security systems, only nosy neighbors. She had watched the houses, picking out the ones that didn't have toys, bicycles, or swing sets in the yards. She wanted a house without children, a house where both husband and wife worked and no one was at home during the day. Children would complicate the issue; they got sick at inconvenient times and disrupted schedules.

The darkness had barely begun to lessen when the houses began coming alive, windows brightening with lights, the muted sounds of radios and televisions seeping through the walls. The scents of coffee and bacon teased her. She didn't know what day it was, weekday or weekend, if children would be going to school or playing in the yards and street all day. She prayed for a weekday.

People began leaving, the exhaust of cars and pickup trucks leaving plumes behind in the chill morning air.

Carefully Grace took note of how many people left each house.

Finally she selected her target. The husband left first, and about twenty minutes later the wife drove off with a clatter of lifters marking her progress.

Still Grace waited, and her prayers were answered. Children began appearing, carrying books and backpacks, their voices loud with a shrill giddiness induced by the approaching summer vacation. These past few days of chilly weather hadn't cooled their enthusiasm. Soon school would be out, the weather would be warm, and a long summer stretched before them. Grace envied them the simplicity of their joy.

The bus arrived, the street emptied. Silence ruled the neighborhood again, except for the occasional departure of a few whose workdays didn't start until at leasteight o'clock .

Now was the time, when the street was mostly empty but there was still enough customary noise in the neighborhood that people were less likely to notice the little extra noise made by the breaking of glass.

Grace slipped around to the back of her targeted house, concealed by the neatly clipped hedgerow that separated the property from its neighbors.

As she'd hoped, the upper half of the back door was glass panes. Someone was still home in the house on the left, but the curtains were drawn so no one from that side was likely to see her. The house on the right was a 'fifties-style ranch, with a longer length but shallower depth than this one; anyone looking out a window wouldn't be able to see the back of this house.

Hoping for an easy way in, she looked around for a convenient place to hide a key. There weren't any flowerpots, and the doormat yielded nothing. Breaking the glass was more difficult than she'd expected. Television and the movies made it look so easy, panes shattering at a tap from a pistol or a blow from an elbow. It didn't work that way in real life. After bruising her elbow, she looked around for a harder weapon, but the yard was neatly kept and no handy rocks were left lying around. There were bricks, however, carefully laid to form the border of a flower bed.

With the red sweater held over the glass to muffle the noise, Grace pounded the brick against the pane until it shattered. After replacing the brick, she took a deep breath, then reached in and unlocked the door. It took every nerve she had. Walking into that strange, silent house shook her. When she put her foot over that threshold, she officially became guilty of breaking and entering, she who had always been so conscientious that she'd actually obeyed the speed limit.

She wasn't there to steal anything, except hot water and a little electricity. The close call in the grocery store had made it imperative that she begin blending in with the population, and also work up some disguises. She could no longer look homeless; she had to look… homogeneous. Blend inor die.

Her heart pounded as she stripped out of her filthy clothes and put them in the unknown lady's washing machine. What if she had miscalculated, what if either the ladyor her husbandhadn't left for the day, hadn't gone to jobs, but instead one of them was just on an errand and would return any minute? At the very least the cops would be called, if a strange woman was found naked, and showering, in their house.

But she hadn't dared try to rent a motel room, assuming no one would let her take a room the way she looked and smelled, even if she paid cash. And perhaps Parrish's men were checking motels; a clerk would definitely remember her. Just this once she needed to take a bath and wash her clothes where she couldn't be seen, where no one would notice her, and after this she would look more respectable. She would be able to go into alaundromat and wash her clothes, to go into stores and buy the things she needed to disguise her appearance, to lose herself in the immense sea of respectability.

She should have hurried through the shower. She knew she should, but she didn't. She stood under the spray of water, feeling the grit wash off her skin, feeling her greasy hair soak up the moisture. She shampooed twice, and scrubbed herself until her skin was bright pink allover, and still she didn't want to get out of the shower. She stood there even when the hot water began to go and the spray grew chilly. She didn't turn off the water until it was so cold she'd begun shivering, and she did so then only because she'd been cold for three days and she was tired of it.

It was such a relief to feel clean again that she almost wept. Almost, because somehow the tears wouldn't quite come. Had she cried for Ford, for Bryant? She couldn't remember. She had crystal-clear memories of a lot of things about that horrible night, but she couldn't remember tears. Surely she had cried. But if she hadn't… if she hadn't cried for them, then she couldn't cry for something as ultimately mundane as being clean. Crying for less would minimize them, and that she couldn't bear.

Roughly she rubbed the towel over her bare skin, then wrapped the damp fabric around her head. She didn't want to abuse the owners' unknowing hospitality any more than necessary, and using two towels instead of one was a definite luxury.

Then, almost trembling with eagerness, she unzipped the duffel and took out her new clothes. The jeans and sweatshirt were very wrinkled, the denim jacket less so. Grace peeled the hard plastic bubble away from her kitchen knife and tested its sharpness by cutting the tags off her purchases. The knife easily sliced through the plastic loops and she thoughtfully regarded the shiny blade. Not bad.

She tossed the garments into the clothes dryer to get out the wrinkles, and brushed her teeth while the dryer did its thing. She eyed her reflection in the mirror, a little puzzled. She looked different, somehow, and it wasn't just the exhausted starkness of her expression. The pallor was expected, as were the circles under her eyes. No, it was something else, something elusive.

Shrugging aside her puzzlement, she turned her attention to more practical matters. Her long hair took forever to dry on its own, so she used the blow dryer lying next to the sink.

Her thick braid was too identifiable. She should cut her hair. She thought of looking for scissors, but the thought didn't transfer itself into action. Ford had loved her long hair, he had played with it

The pain was like a mule kick in the chest, destroying her. She sagged against the wall, her teeth clenched against a keening wail as her body doubled over from the impact.Ok:. God oh God. '

She could feel herself shattering inside, the enormity of loss so overwhelming that surely she couldn't keep living, surely her heart would simply stop beating from the stress. Except for the savage need for vengeance against Parrish, she had no reason to live. But her heart, that sturdy, oblivious muscle, didn't feel her grief and continued without pause its preordained pumping mission.

No. No. She couldn't do this. Grieving was a luxury she couldn't afford; she had known from the beginning it would tear her apart. She had to put it away until after she had taken care of Parrish, when she could approach Ford's memory, and Bryant's, and say, "I didn't let him get away with it."

Drawing in deep, shuddering breaths, she straightened her aching body. The pain was real, so intense it actually permeated her muscles. With shaking hands she finished drying her hair, though she was at a loss what to do with the thick mass exceptrebraid it. For the time being she left it loose, hanging down her back, and retrieved her clothes from the dryer.

The garments were hot, almost too hot, but she relished the heat. Quickly she pulled on clean panties and socks, then dressed before all the heat could dissipate. The sweatshirt felt like heaven; she sighed as the warmth enfolded her. Her bra was in the washer, but she didn't really need one. She'd never been bosomy, and the sweatshirt was thick.

The jeans were loose, almost too loose to stay up. She'd chosen her usual size, but perhaps the label was wrong. Frowning, she unzipped the fly to check the inside tag. Nope, the size was right. The cut must be unusually large, unless she'd somehow lost about ten pounds. Realization dawned. After four days without food, without much sleep, walking all night long, under constant stress, of course she had lost weight.

Reminded of the need to eat, she got her loaf of bread, now sadly mashed, and the jar of peanut butter. After resetting the washer to put her filthy clothes through one moresudsing , she sat down at the battered kitchen table and smeared the peanut butter on one slice of bread. An entire sandwich would probably be wasteful, because her throat was closing up at the prospect of eating half of one.

With the help of a glass of water, she doggedly began eating. Swallowing was an effort, and her stomach, accustomed to emptiness, lurched in sudden nausea. Grace sat very still and concentrated on not vomiting. She had to eat or she wouldn't be able to function, period.

After a minute or so she took a sip of water, and another small bite.

By the time the washer had gone through its cycle again, she had managed to eat the half sandwich.

She washed the glass and returned it to the cabinet, cleaned the table of any crumbs, washed her knife, and put the bread and peanut butter back into the duffel. The knife… she tried putting it in her belt loop, but the handle wasn't big enough to prevent it from sliding through. She didn't want to put a naked blade in her pocket, but neither did she want to wrap it up so securely that she'd have to waste precious time unwrapping it if she needed the knife in an emergency, such as fighting for her life.

She needed one of those knife scabbards, the kind that slipped over a belt. Come to that, she needed a belt with or without a scabbard, because the jeans were seriously loose.

What shereally needed was a switchblade, so she wouldn't have to worry about belts or scabbards.

It struck her that she had come a long way in four days, and not just the distance betweenMinneapolis andEau Claire . Four days ago she couldn't even have thought of using a knife on anyone, even to defend herself. Today she wouldn't hesitate.

Going back into the kitchen, she unrolled a couple of paper towels and folded them twice before wrapping the bulk around the knife blade and sliding it into her front right pocket, leaving the handle sticking out and covered by the sweatshirt. If she needed the knife, it would slide right out. She'd have to be careful and not puncture herself before she could get something safer, but for now she felt better.

That done, she put her clothes in the dryer along with the bath towel she had used, threw in a sheet of fabric softener, then returned to the bathroom to do something with her hair. As she passed the open duffel she automatically glanced at it to reassure herself of the computer's safety, and the sight of the bulging bag stopped her cold. A hunger grew in her, a need that had nothing to do with food or warmth. It wasn't physical at all, but it gnawed at her just the same. She wanted towork. She wanted to sit for hours poring over text, making notes, referring to her language programs, tapping in information. She wanted to find out what had happened to Niall of Scotland, all those centuries ago.

The battery pack was weak, almost depleted. She could have been recharging it while she showered, but she'd let an hour go by. Still, she could set up the computer and work on the household current, just until her clothes were dry.

She resisted the urge. She might have to leave in a hurry, and she didn't want to make things more difficult by having her belongings scattered about. If she began working she might lose track of time, which had happened more than once, and she had things to do today. She had been traveling at night and hiding during the day, but that had to change. They were hunting her at night, they knew that was when she'd been moving, so she had to alter her habits as well as her appearance.

Using some bobby pins she found in the bathroom, she twisted her hair up and pinned it on top of her head. Knowing from experience that the slippery strands would soon slide right out of the pins, she jammed the baseball cap on her head to hold everything in place.

It wasn't much of a disguise, but added to the change of clothes it just might do. She needed sunglasses and a wig, two items she intended to acquire as soon as possible, and she would be able to vary her appearance. She made a mental note to look for a knife scabbard, too.

The men following her would expect her to keep moving, to follow her previous pattern. She didn't intend to do so. After bettering her disguise with a wig, she would rent a cheap motel room there inEau Claire and stay for a couple of days. She needed to rest, she needed to stabilize, and she needed to work. More than anything, she needed to lose herself in work.

The plan worked. After tidying the house, removing all signs of her invasion, she let herself out and locked the door, then tossed a rock through the window to provide an explanation for the broken glass. It took her a while to find a store that sold cheap wigs, and an equally long time trying them on before she managed to slip the frizzy blond one under her sweatshirt. She bought one, a dark red pageboy, and while the clerk was ringing up the sale she slid the money for the blond wig under the edge of the cash register. If the men following her were really good, they might connect her to the red wig, but no one would know about the blond one.

She was wearing the blond wig when she rented a room. The motel was only a step above sleazy, officially in the rundown category, but the plumbing worked and the bed, though the mattress was lumpy and the sheets dingy, was still a bed. Except for her nap under the car she hadn't had any sleep, but she resisted the urge to lie down. Instead she took off the itchy wig and set up the laptop on the rickety table and forced herself to stay awake by plunging into the intricacies of language use that had died out before Christopher Columbus was born.

Grace loved her work. She loved losing herself in the challenge of accurately putting together the torn or shattered remnants of early man's painstaking efforts to communicate thoughts, customs, dreams-reaching out to the future with hammer and chisel, or with quills dipped in dye, and in the act of creation going beyond the forevernow of time, setting down the past for the sake of the future, uniting the three dimensions of existence. Writing had begun when mankind began thinking in abstracts, rather than just physically existing. Whenever she studied a worn, broken piece of stone, puzzling over the figures so roughly etched into the surface and almost worn away by time and the elements, she always wondered about the writers: who had they been, what had they been thinking that was important enough for them to crouch for hours over a bit of stone, legs cramping, back and arms aching, as they cut the images into the stone with little more than the sharpened edge of another piece of stone?

These documents about the mysterious Niall of Scotland were much more sophisticated than that. They had been written with -ink on parchment, parchment that had survived the centuries remarkably intact, though not unscathed. She would love to get her hands on the originals, she thought. Not because they would be any plainer; no, it was always best to work with reproductions, to avoid additional damage to the ancient parchment. There was just something unusual about these papers, though in archaeological terms they were far too recent to be of interest. Seven hundred years was nothing to a science devoted to deciphering life from millions of years ago.

There was such a hodgepodge of languages here! Latin, Greek, Old French, Old English, Hebrew, even Gaelic, yet; the documents all seemed to be connected in some way. She wasn't proficient in Gaelic, and deciphering the documents written in that language would take considerable research and study on her part. She was better in Hebrew, better still in Greek, and completely at ease in the other three languages.

She had worked before In the Old French sections; this time, after inserting the CD, she pulled up a section in Latin. Latin was such a tidy, structured language, extremely efficient; easy reading, for her.

Five minutes later she was rapidly making notes, her: brow furrowed in concentration. She had underestimated the age of the documents by about two centuries. The oldest of the Latin papers seemed to have been written in the twelfth century, which would make them almost nine hundred years old. She whispered a phrase, testing it on her tongue: "PauperesCommilitonesChristiTempliqueSalomonis ." The syllables rolled with a measured cadence, and a chill ran up her back.The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and theTempleofSolomon. The Knights of theTemple . Templars.

What she'd read in the library's files came back to her. The Templars had been the richest organization in medieval society. Their wealth had exceeded that of kings and popes; they had, indeed, operated the first rudimentary banking system inEurope , handling the transfer of funds and extending loans to kings. Their original reason for existence had been to protect the Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Lands, and the warrior monks had become the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force of their time. They had been so feared and respected on the battlefield that they were never ransomed when taken prisoner by the Muslims, but put to death immediately.

They had, for a time, been quartered on the site of King Solomon'sTemple inJerusalem . During that time, they had evidently done extensive excavation on the site, and from that time until the Order had been destroyed, they had been the most powerful and wealthy force inEurope . Their treasure, supposedly taken from the ruins of the greatTemple , had been rumored to be enormous.

Their treasure had been their downfall. Philip of France, in debt to the Templars, had devised a unique way of repaying the debt: he and Pope Clement V conspired to have all the Templars arrested and condemned for heresy, a charge that allowed the property of the charged to be confiscated. In a surprise move against the Knights on Friday the thirteenth, in October of 1307, thousands of Knights and their retainers had been arrested, but no treasure was found-or had ever been found. Moreover, shortly before that, the Grand Master of the Knights had ordered many of their records destroyed.

Or had he? She seemed to be looking at some of them right now.

The name jumped at her again. Niall ofScotland . Her pen dug into the paper as she wrote out the translation. "It has been ordained that Niall of Scotland, of Royal blood, shall be the Guardian."

Of royal blood? She hadn't been able to find a Niall inScotland 's history, so how could he be of royal blood? And what had he been guardian?Had it been a political position or a military one?

She needed a library. She would prefer the Library of Congress. She could get into it with her modem and computer if the motel room had a phone, which it didn't. Tomorrow she would find a library inEau Claire and do what research she could, make notes of the books she would need. She would like to find a Gaelic/English dictionary, because the papers written in Gaelic would likely be the most informative about this Niall of Scotland, but theEau Claire public library might not have such an exotic item in its inventory.

TheChicago library system probably would, though, given the Irish heritage of such a large part of the city's population.New York ,Boston … those were other likely places accessible by computer.

She ejected the CD and carefully stored it, then exited the program. The computer was great, but she wanted the feel of paper in her hands, to give her the illusion of handling the originals. She pulled out the thick sheaf of copies, tracing her finger over the slick, smooth texture of modern paper. These too would fade over the centuries; sometime in the future other people would puzzle over the remaining scraps, trying to piece together what twentieth-century life had been like. They would try to restore videotape and retrieve the images from it, they would have CDs, books, disks, but only portions of the vast number would survive the centuries. Languages would have changed, and technology would be vastly different. Who knew what present time would look like from a distance of seven hundred years?

She stopped at a sheet written in Old French. Taking her magnifying glass to help her see the faded marks more clearly, she began reading. This page was an account of a battle; the handwriting was thin, spidery, the words crammed together as if the writer had wanted to make use of every inch of paper.

"Though the enemy numbered five and Brother Niall was but one, yet he slew them all. His mastery of the sword is unequaled among the Brethren. He fought his way to the side of Brother Ambrose, who lay sorely wounded, and lifted his fallen fellow Knight onto his shoulder. Burdened by Brother Ambrose, he slew three more of the enemy before escaping, and bearing the wounded Knight to a place of safety."

Grace sat back, restlessly running her fingers through her freed hair. Her heart was pounding. How could an ordinary man have done that? Outnumbered five to one, Niall had nevertheless killed all five opponents and rescued his fellow Knight. Then, carrying a grown man who had been wearing chain mail and probably weighed, armor and all, more than two hundred fifty pounds, he had still managed to kill three more opponents and escape with his burden.

What kind of man had he been? A powerful one, both in battle and in authority, but had he been mean-spirited or generous, jolly or dour, quiet or boisterous? How had he died, and, more important, how had he lived? What had led him to become a warrior monk, and had he survived the destruction of his Order?

She wanted to keep reading but a yawn took her by surprise, and weariness swamped her. She checked her watch, expecting to see that about an hour had elapsed, but instead more than three hours had gone by. It was late afternoon, and she didn't know how much longer she could stay awake.

Why should she? This was the safest she had been in four days, hidden behind the disguise of a blond wig and a fake name. She was clean and warm; there was water to drink, food to eat, and a working bathroom. There was a bolted door between her and the rest of the world. The sheer luxury of it made her almost boneless with relief.

The temptation was more than she could withstand. After carefully repacking the laptop and the papers, and making certain her money was secure, she turned out the lights and slipped off her shoes. She couldn't relax her guard more than that, not after four days of only fitful naps, but that was enough.

A sigh shuddered from her lips as she stretched out on the bed. Every muscle in her body ached from the release of tension, the chance to relax and rest. Turning on her side, she curled into a ball and hugged the pillow to her, and then she slept.

She dreamed of Niall. The dreams were chaotic, turbulent, full of swords and battlefields. She dreamed of a castle, a great dark one, and the sight of it sent shivers of dread through her. The people whispered about the castle, and about the lord who lived there. He was a ruthless, brutal warrior who slew all who dared cross him. Decent folk kept their daughters away from the castle, for otherwise the lasses lost their virtue to him, and he wed none of them.

She dreamed of him sitting sprawled before the huge fire in the great central hall, black eyes narrowed and unreadable as he watched his men drink and eat. His hair was long and thick. braided at the temples.

A saucy wench plopped herself in his lap, and in her dream Grace held her breath, afraid of what this dream Niall might do. He merely smiled at the serving wench, a slow curve of his mouth that made Grace's breath catch yet again. Then, in the way of dreams, the image shifted and moved on, and she slept more peacefully.

He felt it again, that sensation of being watched. Niall lifted the wench from his lap with a promise of more attention when they were abed that night, but his alert gaze was moving around the hall. Who watched him, and why? He was lord of this castle and as such was accustomed to people looking to him for answers, for approval, or just to measure his mood. A lot of people looked at him, and to him, but this was different.

This was … watching. There seemed nothing amiss in the hall. The air was smoky, the men loud. Laughter spilled from one bench and others turned to hear the jest. The serving wenches moved about, filling cups, fielding advances, bestowing smiles or frowns depending on how welcome was each advance. All was normal.

But still he felt that presence, the same one that had pulled him from his bed a few nights past. There was a softness that made him think it was a woman who watched him. Perhaps she found him to her liking, but she was shy. She couldn't come to him boldly as most of the wenches did when they wanted a night of hard riding. She merely watched, and yearned.

But, looking around, he could find no lass who fit that description, and he scowled in frustration. If indeed a woman watched him, he would know her identity. Perhaps she had no reason other than a lass's soft feelings, but Niall never forgot the Treasure he had sworn to protect. Any unusual occurrence heightened his alertness, and his hand unconsciously sought the blade at his belt. His black eyes narrowed as they swept the smoky hall, probing the shadows, reading men's expressions in an instant, and passing on if nothing was amiss. The women, too, were carefully judged.

Again, he found nothing unusual. But twice now he had felt himself watched, felt that other presence. He did not think it mere imagination. Niall had fought too many battles against foes both open and unseen, and he trusted his warrior's instincts which had grown even more acute over the years.

His probing regard of the hall had been noticed, and the noise of many voices was quieting, uneasy glances sliding his way. Niall was aware of the whispered tales that had spread over the years. He was Black Niall, a warrior so fearsome he'd never been defeated in open fight, so canny he'd never been taken unawares. His own men trained with him, knew he bruised when hit, bled when cut, knew he sweated and groaned and cursed just as they did, but still… why was he so vigorous at an age when most men were losing their teeth and becoming graybeards?It was as if the hand of time had left him untouched. His hair remained black, his body strong, and illness didn't touch him.

He sometimes wondered, uneasily, if Valcour had damned him to immortality by appointing him Guardian of the Treasure for which so many of his brothers-in-arms had died.

He didn't like to think so. He would do his duty, uphold his vow, but he did it with bitterness. He guarded God's treasures, but God had not guarded the guardians. Niall had not prayed, had not been to mass or confession, in more than thirteen years. His belief had died on a black night in October, along with so many of his friends, his brethren.It was for them he remained on guard, for otherwise they would have died in vain.

But he did not want to spend eternity guarding the secrets of a God whom he no longer worshipped. What a bitter joke that would be!

His mouth twisted with cold amusement, and restlessly he rose from his chair. His gaze sought and found the wench who had whispered so naughtily in his ear, and with a motion of his head he directed her toward the stair, and his chamber. As always, when the blackness of spirit was upon him, the relief he sought was in a woman's body.

As soon as he'd stood, a woman had moved forward to remove his cup, and now he heard a hissing sound from her.

"What ails you, Alice?" he asked without looking around. "Have a care with that lass," she grumbled, earning an amused glance from him.

"Why is that?" He was fond ofAlice . She had worked in the castle from the time of his return, a widow who had desperately needed even the most sinister of shelters for herself and herbairns . She was roughly his age, but was now a grandmother. Having been blessed with rather stringent common sense, over the years she had gradually assumed responsibility for household matters, and he was pleased with the situation. "

She settled her cap more firmly over her springy gray hair. "She saysye'll wed 'er, if she catches yerbairn in her belly." Niall's eyes grew cold. Marriage and children were not for him, not with his life dedicated to guarding the Treasure. The women who shared his bed knew from the outset that he would not wed them, that he was interested only in bed sport, and he had always taken care that they were experienced in the ways of avoiding conception. It annoyed him that a woman, no matter how saucy or pretty, should try to trap him in such a way. WithAlice 's warning, however, he wouldn't let it happen.

He nodded briefly, then took himself up the stairs to rid his bedchamber of the untrustworthy wench. Before he left the hall, however, he took one last look around, hoping to espy the woman who had been watching him, whose feminine concentration he had felt. There was nothing, but he knew she had been there. He had felt her. He would find her.