moved a little more as the first of the crows landed on the bright thatch of hair that topped the corpse’s head. Twisted under the noose, caught by the violence of the tightening rope, was the boy’s cap, the colourful peacock’s feather that had once jauntily adorned it now hanging crushed and bedraggled. As the crows began their feast, it was loosened and fluttered slowly to the ground.


Lincoln castle stands high upon a hill, overlooking the surrounding countryside. Sharing the summit is the cathedral and below the castle and church, on the southern slope of the hill, the town of Lincoln spills like dregs from an ale cup until it reaches the banks of the Witham river.

The bail of Lincoln castle is large and, on this late autumn morning, was busier than usual. King John, recently crowned monarch of England in May of the year before, had sent warning of his intention to visit Lincoln and meet there with the king of Scotland in mid-November. Feverish preparations were being carried out for his visit. Not only the king and his retinue would need to be catered for, but also the large number of guests that would flock to show loyalty to their new monarch. Provisions needed to be readied, sleeping accommodations prepared and entertainments arranged. Every servant, from lowest kitchen scullion to high steward, was engaged in the task.

Amidst the scene of this ordered confusion the soldiers in the garrison of Lincoln castle kept to their usual routine. Inside the barracks, a long timbered building set hard against the inner wall of the fortress, the men-at- arms went methodically about their duties. Some recently come off night shift were sleeping, others sat on pallets rubbing goose grease into leather boots or wrist guards, and one was plying a heavy bone needle threaded with gut in an attempt to repair a rip in a leather tunic. There was a low hum of desultory conversation.

In front of a brazier of burning coals set in the farthest corner away from the barracks door, Bascot de Marins, a Templar knight, sat warming himself. Beside him, huddled on the floor, was his young servant, Gianni. Both were cold. They had been in Lincoln only eleven months, having arrived at the onset of the previous year’s winter. Although at that time they had both been in ill health, a year of good food and plentiful exercise had seen them well on the way to recovery. Except for this curse of feeling the icy fingers of winter deep in their bones.

Bascot looked pityingly at Gianni. The boy was a mute and even though he could not voice his discomfort, it was readily apparent for, despite the thick undershirt of lambskin he wore beneath his jerkin and the old cloak of Bascot’s that was wrapped around his shoulders, he was visibly shivering. The Templar scooped more charcoal into the brazier and urged Gianni to move closer to the fire.

A broad stocky figure entered the building and walked towards them. “ Hola, de Marins. Does the weather already chill your bones?” Ernulf, serjeant of the garrison, was clad only in a jerkin of leather and summer hose. “It is mild yet,” he admonished, “not even a touch of frost. What will you do if snow comes?”

He had been grinning as he walked up to them but, noting Gianni’s distress, his tone changed from derision to concern. “Still not used to our English weather, are you, lad?” he asked, remembering the boy came from the warm climes of Italy. “It will take a little while for the humours in your body to adjust, but they will, never fear. Wait here a moment. I will get something to ease your discomfort.”

Moving to the back of the barracks, Ernulf went to a small room partitioned off from the rest of the communal space shared by the garrison. As he rummaged in a large chest he cursed himself for not recalling the plight the Templar and the boy had been in when the pair had arrived the year before. Bascot, an eye lost and an ankle smashed during eight years of captivity by the Saracens in the Holy Land; and the boy, a waif picked up by the Templar during his long journey home, thin as an arrow shaft and recovering from malnutrition. They were much improved, but still-he grunted with satisfaction as he found what he had been looking for and went back to the brazier.

“Here’s what you need, lad,” Ernulf proclaimed, waving in the direction of the Templar’s servant an object that looked like one of the stuffed pig’s bladders children use to play foot-the-ball. Unwrapping the bundle, he jammed the outer portion on the boy’s head. It turned out to be a large cap, two pieces of leather sewn together and coming down over the ears, the inside lined with the soft fleece of a lamb. He then produced two strips of thin calfskin, each sewn on one side with patches of rabbit fur.

“Wrap these bindings around your feet and wear them under your boots,” he said to Gianni. “Take it from an old campaigner, keep the head and feet warm and the rest of the body will be content. Those have served me well during many a long night’s shift of duty.”

Bascot laughed. Ernulf was as crusty as most old soldiers but he was, for all that, a man who cared for his fellow human beings, especially children and women. Gianni looked at the serjeant in silent surprise, his lips curving in a smile of thanks as he pushed the cap farther over his mop of dark brown curls until the brim came down almost to his nose. With caressing fingers he rubbed the rabbit’s fur on the bindings, then promptly sat down on the ground, removed his boots and began to wrap his feet and ankles in the warm covering. Every few moments he would look up at Ernulf and mime his pleasure by loudly clapping his hands.

The serjeant pulled up a stool and sat down beside Bascot. Against the wall a couple of grooms from the stables were munching on sour winter apples and drinking small mugs of ale. Ernulf called to one of them and told him to fetch a wineskin from his quarters. When it came, he offered it to Bascot. As the Templar took the proffered flask, Ernulf studied the countenance of the man seated on the other side of the brazier. The dark leather of the patch that covered the socket of his missing eye and the permanently sun-browned hue of his skin made, by contrast, the colour of his remaining sighted eye shine like a shard of blue ice. His dark hair and beard were prematurely threaded with strands of grey. Captivity in the hot lands of Outremer had taken its toll, and even though Bascot had regained lost flesh and muscle during the time he had been in Lincoln, he still seemed weary. And still felt the cold. The serjeant knew only the bare bones of the Templar’s history, but he knew enough to surmise what the man had suffered. Even though Bascot never spoke of his time as a prisoner of the infidel, or of the grief he must have felt when he returned to England and found that all his immediate family had died in his absence, there was pain written large on the Templar’s lined face. The only time his expression softened was when his glance rested on the lad he had rescued from starvation. The relationship between them was more that of father and son than master and servant.

The wine was thin stuff, but warming, and both men felt better for having taken a long pull from the depths of the skin.

“Bit of a ruckus up at the hall this morning,” Ernulf remarked conversationally, but with a slight frown furrowing the space between his grizzled eyebrows. “Seems one of the squires from William Camville’s retinue got himself hanged out in the woods. A forester found him in the sheriff’s chase, right next to a deer that had been unlawfully slain and butchered.”

William Camville was brother to Gerard Camville, sheriff of Lincoln and husband to Nicolaa de la Haye, the hereditary castellan of Lincoln’s fortress. Bascot had met William only a couple of times before the baron’s recent arrival a few days earlier, but he had been acquainted with another Camville brother who had accompanied King Richard on his crusade to the Holy Land in 1190. William had come to Lincoln with a small retinue, an early arrival of the large number of guests expected to pay attendance at King John’s visit.

“What was the boy doing out in the woods?” Bascot asked.

Ernulf shrugged. “Nobody knows. He’s been missing since last night but no one took much notice. Thought he was out on the prowl for women or mischief of some kind or another, like most boys his age. Whatever he was up to out there, it’s most likely he came upon the poachers and got killed to prevent his witness to the deed. That’s what the sheriff thinks, anyway.”

“And Lady Nicolaa?” Bascot asked the question with a touch of amusement. Ernulf was devoted to his mistress, and had been in service to the Hayes since she was a small child. Anything that distressed her, in turn, discomfited Ernulf.

“’Tis her husband’s business. His and his brother’s. My lady has no call to be involved, not unless it reflects on the security of the castle.” Although the serjeant had spoken firmly, his next words betrayed his lack of confidence in his statement as he added, “But, for all that, we both know she’ll be troubled by the matter. And scarce has need of it. She’s been up before dawn every day this last sennight seeing that all is prepared for the king’s visit. Since William of Scotland is coming here to pledge homage to King John, all must be in order and reflect well not only on

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