Son of the Morning (Prologue)
THE STONE WALLS OF THE SECRET UNDERGROUND CHAMBER were cold and dank, the chill penetrating wool and linen and leather, going straight to the bone. Two smoking torches provided the only illumination, and too little heat to make any difference. The pair of men revealed by the flickering light paid no attention to the cold, however, for such discomfort was of small matter.
The first man was standing, the other kneeling before him in a posture that should have been submissive, had it not been obvious that such an attitude was alien to that proud head, those broad shoulders. The man who was standing looked frail in contrast with the vitality of the other, and in fact the kneeling man's head was level with the chest of the first. Valcour was, indeed, frail in comparison to the warrior he had once been, and to the man who knelt before him, but age and despair had taken their toll. He was fifty-one, long past the age of vigor. His hair and beard were more gray than brown, his thin face lined from the burdens he had endured. It was time to pass along the responsibility, the duty, that had been his for all these long years. They would be safe with this fierce young lion, he thought. There was no better warrior in the Order, which was the same as saying there was no better warrior in Christendom, for they were-had been-a brotherhood of warriors, the best of the best, the cream skimmed fromEurope 's battlefields and tourneys.
No more. Just two months past, on Friday, the thirteenth of October in this year of Our Lord 1307, a day that would surely be remembered through the ages as a day of darkness, Philip IV of France and his puppet, Pope Clement V, had given in to their greed and in one fell swoop effected the destruction of the greatest military order ever to exist: the Knights of the Temple. Some of the brethren had escaped, but others had already died horrible deaths, and more deaths would follow as those captured refused to recant their beliefs.
The Grand Master had received mere moments of warning, and had chosen to use those moments to secure the safety of the Treasure rather than of himself. Perhaps Jacques de Molay had sensed the approach of catastrophe, for he had already spoken with Valcour several times about keeping their enormous fleet of ships out of Philip's hands, but above all his concern, and that of the great warrior Geoffroy de Charnay, had been the safekeeping of the Treasure. After long hours of consideration the Guardian had been chosen: the true and fierce warrior, Niall of Scotland. He had been chosen very carefully, not just for his prowess with a sword, which was unrivaled, but for the protection that came with his very name. The Treasure would be safe inScotland .
The Grand Master hadn't been certain his choice was the correct one, even given Niall's connections. There was something untamed and ruthless about the Scot, despite his unswerving loyalty to God and the Brotherhood, and the oaths he had sworn to both. Some of those oaths had been given unwillingly, the Grand Master was certain, especially the oath of chastity. Niall had been forced into the Brotherhood, for of course a monk could never be king; a king must have at least the possibility of children, for kingdoms were built on continuity. His illegitimacy should have been an insurmountable barrier, but even at a young age Niall had been tall and proud, intelligent, cunning, ruthless, a born leader; in short, he had all the characteristics of a great king. The choices had been simple: kill him, or make it impossible for him to be king. Niall was loved by his father and half-brother, so there had really been no choice. The young man would be a servant of God.
It was a master stroke. Should Niall renounce his vows to theTemple , that too would render him unacceptable for the crown, for he would be dishonored. No, putting young Niall into the protection of theTemple had at once saved his life and now and forever removed him from consideration for the Scots throne-such as it was.
But if Niall had been unsuited for the life of a monk, he had been perfectly suited for that of a warrior. He had taken his lust for female flesh and turned it into fierceness on the battlefield, and if his eyes sometimes lingered overlong on that which was forbidden to him, still, to the Grand Master's sure knowledge he had never broken his vows. He was a man of his word.
That, and his fighting ability, was what had finally convinced de Chamay to choose Niall as the next Guardian, and though the Grand Master was the head of the Order, de Chamay was undoubtedly the most powerful Knight. Moreover, de Charnay had borne the responsibility for the safety of the Treasure for many years, and his was the final say. His choice was Niall of Scotland, and Valcour agreed wholeheartedly. The Scot would safeguard the Treasure with his life.
"Take them," Valcour whispered now to that bent black head, feeling the younger man's bitter rage and knowing no way to ease it. "No matter what happens, the Treasure must never fall into the hands of others. The Brotherhood has devoted itself to the protection of our God and His followers, and we must not falter in our duty."
The cold stone floor was hard beneath Niall's knees, but he scarcely noticed it. His thick black hair, cut short as was required, gleamed with sweat despite the chill of the underground chamber. Stearn drifted from his body. Slowly he lifted his head, his eyes stark, and as black as night with bitterness. "Even now?" he asked, the bite of betrayal in the deep, softly burred tones of his voice.
Valcour smiled thinly. "Especially now. We serve God, notRome . Methinks the Holy Father has forgotten there is a difference."
"The concept should come easily to him," Niall all but snarled. "He does not serve God, but rather licks Philip's arse every time the king presents it." His night-dark gaze wandered over the collection of artifacts that had been spirited out of theTemple inJerusalem more than a century before. He studied them, and felt his bitterness growing. Good men had died horrible deaths protecting these… things. The King of
France and the Holy Father were so intent on stripping the Order of its more earthly treasures, of gold and silver, but the Brotherhood's secretiveness centered around these things rather than mere gold. Oh, there was gold aplenty-Niall had it. But its only purpose was to provide for the safekeeping of the real Treasure, this disturbing and powerful group of
Things. A cup, plain and scarred. A shroud, with its secrets embedded in the very fabric. A throne, unsettling and pagan-,–or was it? A banner, rich and compelling despite its age, reputed to hold strange powers in its frayed threads. And an ancient text, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Greek, which told of a secret, and of a power beyond belief.
"I could go back," Niall said, thinking of the text. He lifted his merciless warrior's gaze to Valcour. "Both Philip and Clement could fall under my sword, and this could be undone as if it never was, and our brothers would live."
"Nay," said Valcour. His face had the drawn, exalted look of someone who has gone beyond horror, beyond fatigue. "We must not risk discovery for our own sakes.Only for the sake of God may the secret be used."
"Is there a God?" Niall asked bitterly. "Or are we but fools?"
Valcour's thin, bloodless hand lifted, gently touched Niall's head in both a benediction and a restraint. He felt the steamy heat emanating from the warrior's muscled body, for Niall had just discarded his helm and still wore heavy armor. Would that he had a fraction of Niall's great strength, Valcour thought tiredly. The Scot was like iron, neither breaking nor wearing down no matter the hardships he faced. His sword arm was tireless, his will unswerving. There was no greater warrior in the Lord's service than this formidable Scot with royal blood running through his bastard veins. Not just noble, butroyal. 'Twas that blood that had won him entrance into the Order, for legitimacy was a requirement. Wisely, the Grand Master had decided that, in this case, blood ties were more important than rules.
And because of that blood, Niall would be protected. Clement would not be able to lay his bloody, greedy hands on the Scot, for he would be safe in his homeland, among the craggy mountains of theHighlands .
"We believe," Valcour finally said, in simple response to Niall's question. "And, believing, we've sworn our lives to protect. You are released from all your other vows, but on the blood of your brothers, you must swear to devote your life to the guardianship of these holy relics."
"I swear," Niall said fiercely. "But forthem. Never again forHim. "
Valcour's eyes were troubled. Loss of faith was a terrible thing-and a common one, in these days of horror. More men would lose their faith, or their lives. Not all Brothers had remained true; some of them had turned their backs on the Order, and the God, they had served so faithfully but who had allowed this ungodly thing to happen to them. Friends, brothers, had been tortured, dismembered; burned at the stake, the Order shattered-all for the love of gold. It was difficult to believe in anything except betrayal, and vengeance.
And yet Valcour tried to keep a small, central part of himself pure, to keep his belief enshrined there, for without belief there was nothing. If he didn't believe, then he had to accept that so many good men had died in vain, and that he could not do, could not live with. So, because the alternative was so unbearable, he believed. He wished Niall could have that comfort, but the Scot was too uncompromising, his warrior's heart seeing only black and white. He had been on too many battlefields where the choices were simple: kill, or be killed. Valcour had fought for the Lord, but he had never been the soldier Niall was. The heat of battle did tend to make one's vision very clear, to distill life down to the simplest of choices.
The Order needed Niall, to fulfill its greatest, most secret vow. The Brotherhood was at an end, at least in this incarnation, but its sacred duty would continue, and Niall was the chosen protector.
"For whatever reason, then," Valcour murmured. "Guard them well, for they are the true treasures of our Lord. Should they fall into the hands of evil, then the blood of our brothers will have been shed in vain. So shall it be, then: if not forHim, forthem."
"With my life," said Niall of Scotland.
"Three more Knights have found their way here since last you visited," Niall murmured to his brother as the two men sat before a crackling fire in Niall's private chamber. A tall, thick tallow candle sat on the
table where they had recently filled their bellies, its flame adding to the golden glow of the hearth fire. Except for that, the chamber was in shadows, and delightfully warm. No drafts crept through the stone walls to stir the air with icy breaths; the cracks and crevices had been carefully daubed with clay, and the tapestries were thick and heavy. The door to Niall's chamber was stout, and securely barred. For all that, the two men kept their voices low, and spoke in French, so that if they were somehow overheard they wouldn't be understood. None of the Scots servants spoke the language; most of the nobility did, but here in this impregnable fortress, in a remote comer of theHighlands , they had only the servants and men-at-arms with whom they had to concern themselves.
Both held heavy goblets filled with fine French wine, and now Robert sipped his in contemplation. He had seated himself in a huge, carved wooden chair, while Niall had drawn up a heavy bench and placed it at an angle to the fire, so that he faced his visitor rather than the flames. Robert watched the dancing flames as he drank his wine; when he glanced back at Niall, it took a moment for his vision to adjust, and suddenly he realized that was why Niall had placed the bench as he had. Even here, in his own castle, secure in his own chamber with his brother, Niall's instincts were those of a warrior and he had protected his vision. Should an enemy somehow take him unawares, he would not be hampered by limited sight.
The realization made Robert's mouth curl wryly. After years of battle with the English, he too had learned to protect his night vision, but here in this safe place he had allowed himself to relax. Not so Niall. He never relaxed; he was eternally vigilant.
"Have any of the Knights sought other refuge?" "Nay. They remain here, for there is no other certain refuge. Yet they know they must go, soon, or by their very number they could bring to Creag Dhu the attention they wish to avoid." Niall's black gaze was piercing as he stared at his brother. "I have not asked for myself, for I have no wish to add to your troubles, but for them I must know: do you intend to enforce Clement's edict against us?"
Stung, Robert drew back. "Ye ask that!" he growled, angered enough to speak in Gaelic, but Niall's gaze didn't waver and after a moment he reined in his temper.
"You need the alliance withFrance ," Niall said calmly. "Should Philip discover my identity, he would stop at nothing to capture me, including joining his forces to Edward's. You cannot risk that." What he didn't say was,Scotland needed the alliance; the distinction wasn't needed, for his brotherwasScotland , all her hopes and dreams personified.
Robert drew in a deep, calming breath. "Aye," he admitted, returning to French. "It would be a crippling blow. But already I've lost three brothers toEngland 's butchery; my wife and daughter, and our sisters, have been captives for three years already and I know not if I'll ever see them alive again. I'll not lose you, too."
"You scarcely know me." " 'Tis true that we were not much in each other's company, but Ido know you," Robert disagreed. Know him, and love him. It was that simple. None of his other brothers could have challenged him for the crown, but he and his father had known from the time Niall had been a tall, sturdy lad of ten that this illegitimate half-brother had the stuff of kings, uncommonly gifted with the boldness and intelligence that were Robert's own characteristics. ForScotland 's sake, they could not risk an internal struggle between the brothers, and even had Niall grown up to prove loyal, such was his personality that folk would have flocked to him anyway. The circumstances of his birth had been kept secret, but secrets had a way of outing, as Niall himself had proven at that time by boldly approaching Robert and asking if 'twas true they were brothers.
It wasn't unusual for aspirants to the throne to clear the way by killing those who might challenge them, but neither Robert nor his father, the Earl of Carrick, had been able to tolerate the thought. It would have been like extinguishing a bright flame, leaving them in darkness. Niall burned with life's force, full of joy and deviltry, drawing people to him like a lodestone. He had always been the leader among the younger lads, fearlessly taking his followers into mischief and then just as fearlessly taking the blame onto his own shoulders whenever they were caught.
By the time he was fourteen, the lasses had begun following him, too, with their bright eyes and lissome bodies. Already his voice had deepened, his shoulders widened, his chest broadened as manhood settled easily on his tall frame. He had proven himself unusually adept at arms, and the constant practice with heavy swords had further strengthened him. Robert doubted the lad had spent many nights alone, for it wasn't just the young lasses who had pursued him, but the older ones as well, including some who were wed.
He had changed, though. Robert wasn't surprised, given the treachery that had befallen the Templars. His magnetism hadn't lessened, but it was harsher now, his black eyes remaining grim even if his lips smiled. As a lad he had been restless with inexhaustible energy, but now he was a man grown, and a fearsome warrior. He had learned the art of patience, and his stillness was like that predator waiting for its next meal.
Now Robert said deliberately, "Scotlandwill not join in the persecution of the Templars." Again Niall's gaze bored into him, like a black sword in its sharpness. "You have my gratitude… and more, should you care to use it."
What Niall had left unspoken hung heavily in the shadowed room. The watchful black gaze never wavered, and Robert lifted his eyebrows. "More?" he asked, sipping again at the wine. He was curious about what "more" would entail. He scarcely dared to hope… perhaps Niall was offeringgold. More than anything,Scotland needed gold to finance its battle to resist English domination.
"The Brethren are the best soldiers in the world. They must not gather here, yet I see no need for their skills to go unused."
"Ah." Thoughtfully, Robert stared into the fire again. Now he knew Niall's goal, and it was tempting indeed. Not gold, but something almost as valuable: training, and experience. The arrogant, excommunicated Knights no longer wore their red crosses, but essentially they were still exactly what they had been before the Pope and the King of France had conspired to destroy them: the best military men in the world. This endless war withEngland was stretchingScotland 's poor resources so thin that they were, at times, literally fighting with their bare hands. As gallant as his people were, especially the wild Highlanders, Robert knew they indeed needed more: more funds, more weapons, more training.
"Blend them in with your armies," Niall murmured. "Give them the responsibility of training your men. Consult with them in strategy. Use them. In repayment, they will become Scots. They will fight to the death for you, and forScotland ."
The Templars! The very idea was dizzying. Robert's fighting blood sang through his veins at the idea of having such soldiers under his command. Still, how much could a handful of men do, no matter how well trained? "How many are there?" he asked doubtfully. "Five?"
"Five here," Niall said. "But hundreds in need of refuge."Hundreds. Niall was proposing to makeScotland a place of sanctuary for the Knights who had escaped and gone into hiding alloverEurope . If they were caught, they had the choice of betraying their Brethren, or enduring torture before being burned at the stake. Some had cooperated and lost their lives anyway.
"You can bring them here?" "I can." Niall rose from the bench and stood with his broad back to the fire, his massive shoulders throwing a huge shadow across the floor. His thick black hair flowed over his shoulders, and in the Celtic fashion he had plaited a small braid to hang on each side of his face. In his hunting plaid kilt and white shirt, with a knife thrust in his wide belt, he looked every inch the wild Highlander. His expression was grim. "What I cannot do is join them."
"I know," Robert said softly. "Nor would I ask it of you. I seek no details, yet I know that you are in greater danger than those you wish to aid, and not just because you are my brother. Whatever mission theTemple has charged you with is one no lesser man could accomplish. If ever you need my aid, or that of the Knights you wish to put at my service, you have only to send word."
Niall inclined his head with a motion that conveyed acceptance, and yet Robert knew that day would never come. Niall had forged a stronghold here in the wildest, most remote part of theHighlands , the rugged northwest mountains, and he would defend it against all threats. He had gathered about him a strong force of disciplined knights and men-at-arms, and turned Creag Dhu into an impregnable fortress.
Already the country folk whispered about him, even as they gathered closer to Creag Dhu for his protection. They called him Black Niall. The Scots tended to name as black anyone with dark coloring, but the whispers about Niall said that it was his heart so described, not just his mane of hair andmidnight eyes.
Robert, who knew Niall's ancestry, could see the resemblance between his half-brother and his own best friend, Jamie Douglas, the infamous Black Douglas, and the coincidence of coloring and name made him uneasy. Niall's mother had been aDouglas ; he and Jamie were first cousins. Jamie was tall and broad-shouldered, though not as tall or strongly built as Niall. Should anyone see them together, would the resemblance be noted? Would it then also be noticed that Niall had the great physical strength of the Bruces, as well as the almost unholy handsomeness for which Nigel, another of Niall's half-brothers, had been so famous? Bruce and Douglas blood had combined in Niall to form a man of unusual looks and force, the type of man who strode the earth only once every hundred years or so. He did not go unnoticed. For his own safety, and for the sake of the mission charged to him by the ravaged Order, no one must ever know that the infamous Black Niall was the beloved half-brother of the King of Scotland, and the bastard son of the lovely Catriona Douglas, forCatriona's husband still lived and would stop at nothing to kill the result of his wife's infidelity.
Niall was also a Templar, excommunicated, and by order of the Pope under a penalty of death should he ever be captured. On the surface, his existence was precarious indeed.
On the other hand, it would take a fool to try to breach Creag Dhu's defenses. The Order had chosen its champion well.
Robert sighed. There was naught he could do for his brother except respect his secrecy, and offer his kingdom as sanctuary to the scattered, persecuted Knights. Little enough, given whatScotland would gain in return.
" 'Tis time I take my leave," he said, draining his goblet and setting it aside. "The hour grows late, and the lovely wench waiting for you below may become impatient, and seek another's bed." Niall had completely discarded hisTemplar's vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but most particularly chastity. Robert wondered now how his brother had ever endured eight years without a woman, for even though he was a man himself, he could still see the burning, intense sexuality of Niall's nature. If there had
ever been a man less suited tomonkhood , Robert couldn't imagine it.
Niall's mouth quirked. "Perhaps," he said placidly, without a shred of either jealousy or doubt, for there was no likelihood Meg would do so; she was thoroughly enjoying her current status as his favorite, though by no means only, bedmate.
Robert laughed and clapped his hand to the broad shoulder. "As I ride through the cold night, I will envy youyour ride between warm thighs. God be with you."
Niall's expression didn't change, but Robert was instantly aware of a sudden coldness, and intuitively he knew his last remark was what had elicited that reaction. Troubled, he tightened his hand on his brother's shoulder. Sometimes faith was all folk, be they common or king, had to sustain them, and Niall had turned his back on that bulwark as the Church had turned her back on him.
But there was nothing to be said, no comfort to be offered except the promise he had already made. "Bring them here," he said softly. "I will make them welcome." Then Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots, pressed on a certain stone to the left of the great hearth, and a whole section opened inward. He took up the torch he had left just inside the hidden way, and held it into the fire until it was once more flaring brightly. He left Creag Dhu as he had entered it, in secret.
Niall watched as the door closed, immediately becoming invisible within the stonework. His face was impassive as he took the goblet his brother had used and wiped the rim clean, then filled it again with the fine wine. His own goblet was still nearly full; he set both of them beside the bed, then unbarred his door and went in search of Meg. His mood had darkened, despite the sanctuary Robert had offered to the fugitive Templars. The rage was always there, controlled after two years but never weakening. Damn Clement, damn Philip, and most of all, damn the God whom the Knights had served so faithfully, but who had abandoned them when they needed Him most. If he went to hell for such blasphemy, so be it, but Niall no longer believed in hell; he didn't believe in anything.
He would work out his black mood on Meg's lush, willing body, wrapped tight by her arms and legs. The rougher the love play, the more she liked it.
Finding Meg was no effort; she was lurking near the bottom of the huge, curving stone stairway, and came forward with a smile when he appeared at the top. Niall halted, merely standing there, waiting. Meg lifted her skirts and hurried up the stairs, the flickering torchlight intensifying the flush in her cheeks. Niall turned before she reached him, striding back to his chamber. Her quick, light footsteps followed, and he could hear her breathing as it too quickened, both from her exertion and from anticipation.
She was already shrugging out of her shawl, tugging at the laces to her bodice, as she followed him through the door to his chamber. He shut it and watched as she feverishly shed her clothes, revealing the lushness of her body to him. His shaft rose hard and pulsing, tenting the front of his kilt.
She spied the two wine goblets and a pleased smile curved her lips. He'd known she would take it as an expression of hisbesottedness with her, but let her think what she liked, rather than suspect he'd had a secret visitor, or that it was none other than the King himself. Though he was willing to soothe her ego with small gestures, and more than willing to return twofold the physical ease she gave him, his only interest in her was for the pleasure he found in her soft, bountiful body.
Naked, she took up one of the goblets and sipped the wine, doubly gratified to find it contained a fine vintage rather than the sour, watery ones to which she was more accustomed. The firelight played over the full curves of her bosom, turning her dark nipples to the color of fine wine themselves, deepening the shadows of her navel and the full nest of curls between her thighs.
He didn't want to wait. He approached and took the goblet from her hand, setting it down with a thud that sloshed some of the red liquid over the rim. She gave a little squeal of surprise as he lifted her and tossed her onto the big bed, but the squeal turned into laughter as he landed on top of her.
He kneed her thighs apart. "Are ye no going to remove yer boots, at least?" she asked, giggling. She reached up to tug at the laces of his shirt.
The smell of her was dark and rich, female. His thin nostrils flared, drinking in the scent. "Why?" he asked in a reasonable tone. "They're on my feet, not my cock." The giggles turned into full-scale laughter. Niall reached beneath his kilt and grasped his erect rod, guiding it to her wet cleft.
He surged forward, sheathing himself, shuddering with relief, and Meg's laughter died a quick, strangled death as her body absorbed the force of the thrust.
The darkness within him receded, pushed back by sheer delight. So long as he had a woman in his arms, he could forget the betrayal, and the crushing burden of responsibility that weighed on his shoulders.