our king, but on Lincoln. She has no want of any of this trouble.”

Bascot agreed with the serjeant, then leaned closer into the warmth of the brazier, smiling at Gianni’s look of contentment beneath the brim of Ernulf’s hat. He was just beginning to feel some benefit from the charcoal’s warm glow when a young page came to the door of the barracks and ran over to where they were sitting.

“Lady Nicolaa bids me greet you, Sir Bascot, and asks that you attend her in her private chamber,” the youngster said.

Bascot stepped out of the barracks and began to thread his way across the ward. Lincoln castle possessed two keeps, one newly built, which the sheriff and his wife used as a principal residence, and another older one that was used as an armoury and had a few sleeping chambers above. There was a host of other buildings inside the protection of the castle walls-storehouses, stables, dairy, kitchens, mews, smithy, as well as sheds for coopers and fletchers. In and out of all these buildings people moved as they carried out their duties. A line of carts ran right across the bail from the main gate, each heaped with baskets of nuts, root vegetables or dried apples, all of which were to be added to sacks of grain already stored in the lower section of the keep. A bevy of household servants was clambering over the carts, inspecting the contents as they checked to see that all were in good condition and had been tallied. Cattle lowed in makeshift pens and chickens and geese registered protest at their incarceration from the inside of cages piled haphazardly nearby. In a far corner, out of the main swirl of dust, a washerwoman was hard at her task, draping bedclothes and napery on poles after extracting them from the huge tub of water mixed with wood ash and caustic soda in which she had washed them. The fabric flapped and swirled in the breeze created by the people milling about. Over all this cacophony the clang of the smith’s hammer rang out and smoke from fires used for drying fish lent a tang to the air that caught in the throat and brought tears to the eyes.

The forebuilding of the new keep was reached by a steep flight of wooden stairs and, as Bascot approached them, his attention was caught by a group of men gathered in front of the stables. Gerard Camville-booted, spurred, and wearing a hooded shirt of mail-stood watching as one of the grooms led a huge destrier from the stable. Beside Camville was his brother William, similarly clad in mail. Both men were armed, swords in serviceable leather sheaths hanging from belts slung on their hips. In physical appearance they were as unalike as two brothers could be. Gerard was a man of immense girth, with muscle swelling at shoulders and thighs, his black straight hair cut high at the nape. His brother was taller and slimmer, with sandy-coloured locks that fell in roughly cut curls onto his shoulders. Their hair now covered by hoods of mail, the one similarity between them was apparent. This was in their expression, a forward thrust of the jaw that warned of an unruly temper and an irascible nature. Accompanying them were half a dozen knights, mostly from the castle’s household. Horses had been brought for all, and it was only moments before the contingent was mounted and sweeping across the bail towards the gate in the western wall of the castle. As the horses passed they threw up a wake of dust and feathers, carving a path through the press of servants and carts, heedless of anyone or anything in their way. A horn sounded as the huge iron- bound gate was flung open and, without pause, the sheriff and his party rode through.

Bascot climbed the steps up to the forebuilding and went into the keep, cursing the ache in his ankle. The injury was better than it had been a few months ago, mainly due to the acquisition of a new pair of boots made by a cobbler in the town. The shoemaker’s skilful fingers had inserted pads that protected and strengthened the ill-knit bones, but stairs still caused Bascot pain. Once inside the hall, he took a moment to ease his leg before tackling the winding flight of stone steps that led to Nicolaa de la Haye’s chamber at the top of a tower built into a corner wall of the keep.

Inside the hall was almost as much turmoil as outside in the bailey. The steward of the Haye household was overseeing the placing of kegs of ale and tuns of wine into the buttery, while several minions ran at his direction with supplies of candles, wooden platters, and containers of salt and spices. Bascot was relieved to reach the relative quiet of the stairwell, even though he faced another climb.

When Bascot reached the top of the stairs, he knocked lightly on the door in front of him. Nicolaa’s voice bidding him to enter came swiftly and when he went into the room, he found her seated behind a large wooden table with a sheaf of parchment in front of her. She was a small plump woman with delicate hands and a face relatively unlined by time. Only the few grey strands that threaded the margin of copper-coloured hair showing at the edge of her coif gave a clue to the fact that she was mature enough to be mother to a son almost as old as Bascot. Now she looked unusually weary, her skin tinged with the pallor of fatigue.

“You are well come, de Marins. Be seated. I know the stairs are a trial to your leg.” Her voice was calm but Bascot had come to know her well enough to recognize the edge of worry in it.

“You have heard of the death of the squire?” she asked without preamble. When Bascot nodded, she rose from behind the table and went to where a small flagon of wine sat on a side table and poured them both a measure. As she handed the cup to the Templar, she said, “There is no doubt it was murder, but even apart from that it is a most distressing death, not only for the manner of it but because of the boy’s connections and the impending visit of the king. That he was in my brother-by-marriage’s retinue also causes an added difficulty.”

Bascot remained silent as she continued, “The boy, whose name was Hubert de Tournay, had just passed his seventeenth birthday. He was put in William’s household to train as page and squire some years ago and has remained there ever since. But he is, or was, a distant relation of Eustace de Vescy who, as you will probably know, is married to Margaret, illegitimate daughter of William, the king of Scotland. Since the Scottish king is coming here to meet our own king, and hopefully settle the differences between them, it would be disastrous if de Vescy decides to make an issue of this boy’s death at a time when relationships are already strained between our two countries.”

“Is de Vescy liable to do so?” Bascot asked.

Nicolaa had remained standing while she had been speaking. Now she returned to the chair behind the table and sat down with an audible sigh. “I do not know, de Marins, but I do not like de Vescy, nor do I trust him. He seems to be complaisant towards King John, but these northern barons are often fickle and prone to make trouble. I have no grounds for doubting de Vescy, but the feeling is there and I cannot rid myself of it.”

Nicolaa and her family were noted for their loyalty to the reigning monarch. Her husband did not possess such a reputation, for he had rebelled against the chancellor left by King Richard to govern the country while he was on crusade. His partner in that defiance had been John, then prince. Now that Richard was dead and John on the throne, their former liaison had not endeared the king to his one-time coconspirator but had rather made the new monarch distrustful of him. If trouble arose during John’s visit to Lincoln, it would not take long for his overly suspicious mind to include Gerard Camville in the blame. Hence Nicolaa’s concern.

“I would like the mystery of this death cleared up, de Marins. My husband believes the boy was up to some prank or other and got himself caught by outlaws in the wood. He has gone now to scour the area where the boy was found, but if the outlaws were indeed the culprits they will be long gone, most likely into Sherwood Forest. The eastern edge of the forest spreads down to the Trent river not far from where the boy was found. Gerard will not find them if that is the case. Sherwood is thick and dense. It provides ample cover for any outside the law to evade a pursuer.”

“Do you not agree with your husband’s opinion, lady?” Bascot asked. He had heard the doubt in her voice.

“I would wish it so, for it would provide an easy solution to what could become a difficult situation. But unless my husband can find the outlaws who killed the boy, and provide proof that they are guilty, it might well be said that he has merely taken the most expedient way of explaining the murder. Especially since the body had not been stripped of clothes or dagger, which outlaws most assuredly would have done. And why was he killed by hanging? Again, outlaws would have carried out the deed as quickly as possible, most probably with a knife or cudgel, and left the body on the track, not taken the time and trouble to string him up from a tree. No, I do not think it likely that the murderer is to be found amongst the wretches in Sherwood.”

Nicolaa took a sip of wine before she continued, “The manner of death suggests a punishment, a reprisal for a serious misdeed on Hubert’s part. The boy had a reputation as a troublemaker. He was not well liked by the others of his rank in William’s household, and even William himself says he found the lad disagreeable. Hubert was, apparently, prone to boast of his connection with de Vescy and that he was therefore privy to information denied to the rest of the squires in William’s household. He also made no secret of his opinion that Arthur of Brittany, Richard’s nephew, should be king, not John, and hinted that there are more supporters for Arthur’s claim to the throne than are publicly known. And, of course, he intimated that he knew their identities.”

“It sounds as though he was an impudent, and imprudent, young man,” Bascot replied.

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