John’s dark eyes sparkled as he enjoyed the obvious discomfiture of the Templar. It amused him to see that other men besides himself might be prey to the horns of a dilemma. “The fief is a small one, as you know. It can be ably managed by a castellan of your choosing, but meanwhile you would enjoy the revenues and ultimately have an inheritance to leave any son you may have or”-here the king paused and held Bascot’s eye with his own-“to any male you have chosen for your heir.”

John paused to give weight to his last words, then he continued. “The condition is that you remain in the service of Lady Nicolaa, as a senior knight in her retinue, with liberty to visit your fief when necessary. You will be recompensed for such service out of her own coffers, and well above the usual rate for a household knight. Not only will you have a fief, its revenues and a good salary, but a legacy to pass on as you choose.”

The king laid the paper down on the table. Bascot could see the royal seal dangling from it, thoughts of the benefits to Gianni leaping to his mind, as, he was sure, the king knew they would. John watched him with amusement.

“Well, de Marins,” he said finally. “Is it worth a vow or not?”

After dusk that night Bascot walked across the bail to the old keep where he and Gianni had their quarters when the castle was not filled to capacity with guests. Slowly he climbed the stairs, up three floors and past his usual chamber, then through the archway that led to the ramparts and onto the guard walk that circled the inner side of the wall. It was bitterly cold. The rain had stopped and the wind had stilled. Above was a clear winter sky, stars shining in pinpricks of hard light, looking as though they had been punched into the blackness with the point of a lance. Already, ice was forming on the battlements.

Bascot leaned into one of the parapet’s embrasures, pushing his shoulder against the stone merlon at his side. Not far from him, one of Ernulf’s men-at-arms was pacing his duty round. He saw Bascot, saluted, then turned about and retraced his steps. Something in the stance of the Templar told the guard that Bascot had not come up onto the ramparts to pass a few moments in idle chatter. He wanted to be alone.

Below the castle, spreading south, Lincoln lay like a reflection of the sky, darkness pervading with the occasional glimmer of light from a torch or candle. Bascot threw back the hood of his tunic, felt the icy air swarm onto his neck and ears with the snap of a wolf bite. Reaching up, he undid the thong of his eyepatch and let the leather shield fall loose. Only in solitude did he remove the cover from the pit of ruined flesh that had once been his right eye. Now he welcomed the freedom from constraint.

King John’s words echoed in his mind. Was his father’s fief worth breaking the vows he had taken when he joined the Templars? Poverty, chastity and obedience. He had made those vows not only to the Order, but to God. Even though not now an active member of the Templars he had, for the most part, kept to his promise of poverty, breaking it only for the expenditure of small gifts for Gianni. As for chastity, his thoughts had succumbed to temptation, but his body had not. Obedience was the hard one, for he had not obeyed his senior Templar officers, not since the day he had returned to England and found that his family had all perished during those long years he had been a captive of the Saracens. It had been the compassion of the Order that had kept him in their ranks, not his own honour. What was the wording of the oath? “To obey his Templar Master, or those to whom the Master has given authority, as though the command had come from Christ Himself.”

He looked down on Lincoln town, then up into the night sky. Crystals of ice were beginning to form on his hair and beard and his ears burned with the cold. Silently he prayed for guidance. What was God’s purpose for him? He begged for aid from heaven, some sign that would tell him what to do. But there was no answer.

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