Authors: James Becker
Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland
Toscanelli and his two companions moved carefully forward through the clouds of dark dust that the rockfall had produced, heading toward the narrow entrance to the cavern. They had all tied handkerchiefs around the lower part of their faces in an attempt to keep the worst of the dust out of their mouths, but even with the cloth in place, they all seemed to be breathing as much dust as air.
“This is just a waste of time,” Mario said. “That rockfall must have blocked the entrance completely, but at least it’s saved us having to kill the two targets. They’ll just die a long and painful death inside the chamber.”
“We’re going to check it anyway,” Toscanelli snapped. “And those two seem to have the luck of the devil, so until I see their dead bodies we’re going to assume that they’re alive and that there is another way out of that cave. This job isn’t finished until I say it is.”
As they’d expected, the narrow part of the tunnel was now blocked with rocks, but because the entrance into the larger cavern was so narrow, they were all fairly small, apart from the large boulder that had been used to trigger the booby trap. But only about half of that rock projected above the floor, the remainder having sunk into the pit excavated by the Templars centuries earlier, and stepping around or over it was easy enough.
“Shift enough of the smaller rocks so we can move around here,” Toscanelli ordered, and the three men set to work, lobbing or rolling rocks out of the narrow section of the tunnel and into the wider area down which they had just walked.
It was hot, hard, and dusty work, but within about twenty minutes they had cleared a path all the way to the end of the tunnel, and for the first time they could see the full extent, and the impressive effectiveness, of the trap the Templars had constructed.
* * *
Shifting the chests was heavy work, but the prospect of getting out of the cave added strength to their arms.
Mallory positioned his flashlight on one side of the tunnel, where the beam illuminated the pile of chests, and then he and Robin grabbed hold of the ends of the chest on the top left of the group. The wood was old—obviously—and the metal strengthening bands that ran around it were speckled and discolored by rust, but the structure itself was perfectly sound. Mallory maneuvered the end of the chest far enough for Robin to be able to grab the other end, and together they manhandled the
heavy container out of position and lowered it to the ground.
Then they both turned to look back at the section of the tunnel wall they’d exposed, Robin taking out her flashlight to illuminate it.
There, now visible that the chest had been moved, was the upper part of a dark semicircular opening, very obviously the entrance to another, much lower and narrower tunnel that promised a potential escape route from the cave.
“Now, that is a beautiful sight,” Robin said, altering the position of her flashlight to shine the beam into the exposed opening and deeper into the cavity. “It looks like it goes more or less straight, but we’ll only be able to see properly once we shift the rest of these chests.”
“No sign of daylight at the other end, I suppose?” Mallory said, hopefully peering into it.
“Not that I can see,” Robin replied, briefly extinguishing her flashlight and also looking down the tunnel.
With the first chest removed, shifting the others took only a matter of minutes. They laid them along the sides of the tunnel and then they both shone their lights into the exposed opening. It was only about half the height of the tunnel they were standing in, so they would both have to crouch to walk along it, and it seemed to extend at least as far as their flashlight beams would shine.
“There’s no guarantee that it is the way out of here,” Mallory said, “but I can’t think of any other reason for it being here. And the tunnel was obviously either constructed or modified by the Templars or by somebody
else because I can see chisel marks on both sides of the opening.”
“So, do we go down it right now, or do you want to look at the chests first?”
“The chests are the end of the trail we’ve been following, so I definitely want to see what’s inside them. Then we can decide if whatever’s in there is worth coming back for, once we’ve got ourselves out of here. And there’s still that smaller chest to look at,” he added, pointing at the one chest they hadn’t shifted because it wasn’t directly in front of the cave opening, but over to one side of it.
“We could probably take that one with us,” Robin suggested. “It’s small enough that we could carry it between us.”
They walked over to the larger chests and stopped in front of one of them.
“What we don’t do,” Mallory said, looking at it, “is just open the lid. Remember what happened on Cyprus. There may well be a booby trap or something built into it.”
They each took one end of the box and moved it clear of the wall so that they could walk all around it. It was about four feet long, three feet deep, and the same in height. Plain and undecorated iron bands reinforced both the lid and the base, and there did not appear to be a lock to secure it, only a kind of over-center catch held in place by a rusty bolt.
“No lock,” Mallory said. “Maybe these chests were in constant use when the Templars were active, documents being removed, inspected, and replaced all the time, and
having a lock worked by a key would just have slowed everything down.”
“Perhaps their security was where the chests were stored,” Robin suggested. “If they were in an inner chamber of the Templar preceptory or commandery, nobody except the Templars themselves would have had access to them, so they might have thought that a lock was simply superfluous.”
Mallory bent down in front of the chest and carefully slid the bolt to one side, then freed the catch. While Robin moved a few feet away for safety, he moved behind the chest, reached over it to grasp the catch, and then lifted the lid.
Almost disappointingly nothing else happened. Unlike the chests they had already discovered in the cave on Cyprus, there was no brutal antitheft mechanism built into the lid. Mallory stepped back around to the front of the chest. Robin joined him and they both looked inside the box.
It was almost full of documents of various sorts. They could see parchments, some folded, others rolled and probably originally secured with leather ties, a couple of slim codices, a large number of papyrus scrolls, and even a handful of documents written on paper. Robin pointed them out to Mallory.
“They’re made of paper?” he asked. “I thought that was a later invention and didn’t reach Europe until about the fifteenth century. Gutenberg and the Bible and all that.”
“No, paper is much, much older than that. It was
probably invented in China in the early part of the third century and the discovery slowly migrated west along the Silk Road, but by the late twelfth century we know there was at least one paper mill working in France and another one in Spain. Obviously parchment was still the most popular medium for writing because it was so readily available, but the use of paper became more common once the industry was established because it was a lot cheaper to produce. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, paper mills started to appear all over the place, usually outside the larger towns. This was because they were so noisy and smelly—the water-powered trip-hammers beating the pulp created quite a din—that medieval law usually required them to be located outside the city limits.”
“You know a lot about paper,” Mallory pointed out.
“Old books, my dear. I buy them and I sell them and they’re made of paper, so of course I know about it. It’s the biggest part of my business. Now let’s see what we’ve got in here.”
While Mallory held his flashlight steady, Robin picked up a piece of folded parchment and opened it. The material was still quite supple, so presumably the conditions and environment in the cave were conducive to its preservation.
“It’s written in Latin, obviously,” Robin said, her eyes tracing the first few lines of the document.
Mallory leaned closer to her to see it better. The ink on the parchment was somewhat faded, but the text was still perfectly readable.
“It’s part of a short-term loan arrangement, by the
looks of it,” Robin said, studying the text. “This states that a man named Anselm of Paris deposited a quantity of jewelry and other assets at the Paris preceptory—there’s a list of the various items here with their assessed values—in March 1275 and received a cash sum in return. He completed some kind of business transaction, which isn’t specified in this document, presumably because the Templars weren’t interested in what he did with the money because they had the assets to cover the loan. Anselm then reclaimed the assets just over two months later. The Templars charged him a fee, so he repaid more than he’d borrowed, and that was the end of the transaction.”
“So it’s basically a record of a completed transaction,” Mallory said. “Just a document to keep their records straight.”
“Pretty much, yes,” Robin replied, picking up another piece of parchment. She looked at it for a few seconds, then nodded. “This is another one, another completed transaction that’s quite similar, though the amount of money lent by the Templars to this man was a lot less.”
A third and a fourth record revealed information that was very similar, assets being deposited in exchange for ready cash, sometimes for gold, and those assets then being recovered by the individual involved at a later date, with a fee charged for the loan. The documents were certainly interesting from a historical perspective, but as each referred to an ancient completed transaction, they had no other value and certainly no relevance to the present day.
“Interesting, but not valuable,” Robin said, replacing
the last piece of parchment they’d looked at. “Unless you’re a Templar researcher or medieval historian, of course.”
They quickly examined the contents of the other five large chests, picking three or four documents from each of them for Robin to examine. But each piece of parchment, paper, or vellum she looked at contained broadly the same kind of information: the record of some kind of completed transaction, the deposition of assets in exchange for cash, followed sometime later by the recovery of those same assets, or the deposit of funds in one Templar preceptory or commandery and the issue of equivalent funds, less the Templars’ equivalent of a bank charge, in another establishment, sometimes in a different country.
“Just like a bank draft or a bearer bond,” Robin commented. “A way for a businessman to deposit the money he needed for some kind of deal in one place so that he could travel the roads in safety because he was carrying nothing of any value, and then draw out the funds at his destination.”
“But these have no value today, obviously. I was hoping we’d find some of the records of the land grants and deeds that we know the Templars were given by new recruits and people who supported the order. But I think we should take some of them with us, just in case there’s anything on them that we’ve missed. And they’re interesting historical records in any case.”
Mallory opened up his rucksack and stuffed as many of the ancient deeds into it as it would take.
“So that just leaves the smallest box,” Robin said. “Maybe what’s in that will be more interesting.”
Mallory lifted up the final box—it was heavier than it looked, but not too weighty for him to manage—and placed it on top of one of the larger chests. For a few moments, he and Robin just looked at it; then Mallory stretched out his hand and attempted to lift the catch that held the lid shut. Unlike the other chests, this catch was slotted into a large and quite ornate lock on the front of the box, and as soon as he tried to free it, he knew it was locked.
“That’s a bit of a bugger,” he said, “but I have got a few tools in my bag that might shift it.”
He fished around in his rucksack and pulled out a plastic box containing a number of slim black steel tools, each shaped somewhat like a flattened letter
“What are those?” Robin asked. “Lock picks?”
“No. They’re double-ended Allen keys,” Mallory replied, “but you’re right: they do look like lock picks, and they work in a very similar fashion.”
He shone his flashlight at the fairly large keyhole, selected one of the smaller Allen keys, and began probing the lock, trying to deduce which pieces of metal the tool was touching were the tumblers, and which were the wards.
“It feels like a fairly simple lock,” he said, “and the key was probably a basic design.” He put down the tool he’d been using and chose a larger key to insert into the keyhole. “Let’s see if this does it.”
He turned the Allen key around and slid the end into the lock, then rotated it gently. When the end made contact, he tried turning it, but it wouldn’t move.
“Probably hitting one of the wards,” he said, almost to himself.
He moved it very slightly, felt the end of the key slip off one piece of metal, and tried again. This time, he managed about a quarter of a turn before it stopped, and no matter what he did, it wouldn’t turn any farther.
“I think it needs a smaller one,” he said, selected an appropriate size, and inserted it into the ancient lock.
This time, the Allen key turned easily through a quarter turn and then, after a slight hesitation, continued to turn. There was a distinct click as the key completed the turn.
“It’s open, I think,” he said.
“Now be careful. I’ve got used to having you around.”
With a glance at Robin, Mallory stepped back from the chest, took out his crowbar, placed the curved end of it under the catch, and twisted his wrist. The catch popped open with a complete absence of drama or unexpected events.
“Stand well back,” Mallory said.
He moved around the chest until he was standing behind it. Then he changed his grip on the crowbar so that he was holding it by the point, reached over the chest and hooked the curved end under the front of the lid, and slowly lifted it. The lid moved slowly, the hinges protesting audibly at being disturbed after over half a millennium of stasis.