escape from the Saracens. Bascot had, over time, become as fond of the boy as if he had been his own true son, and he was now concerned that, if he rejoined the ranks of the Order, not only would the boy be rendered destitute but also that the affection between them would be lost forever.

“Forgive me, Bascot, for my harsh words,” d’Arderon said in a placatory tone. “I do not mean to denigrate the boy, but forswearing the vows you took when you joined the Order is no light matter. I do not wish you to embark on a course you will later regret.”

Bascot’s manner softened. He had a great liking for d’Arderon and knew his sentiments were genuine. “I know, Preceptor, and I appreciate your concern.”

D’Arderon reached out and took a small leather bag from a pile of similar pouches stacked in a corner of the room. They contained al-Kandiq, boiled sweets made from canes that grew in the Holy Land and were imported to England by the Templars. The anglicised version of their name was candi. The preceptor knew that Bascot was fond of them, as he was himself, and he opened the sack and tossed one to his companion.

“When do you intend to let Thomas Berard know of your decision?” d’Arderon asked.

“It is not something that can be dealt with in a letter. I prefer to tell him personally.” Bascot’s face had a withdrawn look as he said this, and he paused a moment before going on. “As you know, Lady Nicolaa’s husband, Gerard Camville, and their son Richard are in London for the spring session of the exchequer, which Camville is attending in his capacity as sheriff. Since they took most of the household knights with them, Lady Nicolaa has asked me to delay my journey until her husband and son return, which should be before the end of the month. Once they are back, I will go to London and seek an audience with Berard.”

D’Arderon rose from his seat, came to where de Marins stood and clasped him by the shoulder. “I will be sorry for your leaving our brotherhood, Bascot,” he said, “but will pray in all earnestness for God to help you in your new life.”

Bascot’s heart was heavy as he left the preceptory and walked through Eastgate to cross the grounds of the Minster on his way back to the castle. He had not been completely honest with d’Arderon. The truth was that he really did not want to resign from the Templar Order. King John had offered him the return of his father’s fief as a reward for his assistance to Nicolaa de la Haye in solving two separate cases of murder the previous year, one the death of four people in an alehouse and the other the killing of a squire in the retinue of the castellan’s brother-by- marriage. Lady Nicolaa was a good friend, and loyal subject, of the king, and when John had discovered how much value she placed on Bascot’s service, he had made the gesture as a mark of royal favour. Had it not been for Bascot’s concern for Gianni’s well-being, he would have refused the monarch’s offer without hesitation, for the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience he had sworn when he joined the Templars had not been taken lightly. But if he had to choose between endangering his immortal soul and placing Gianni’s future in jeopardy, he preferred to sacrifice his own fate rather than the boy’s. He had come to love the lad dearly; there was no other option than to put the boy’s interests before his own.

King John had made his offer last year, in November. Bascot had spent the intervening months pondering how to respond. He knew that he could not delay his decision indefinitely. Not only would the king expect an answer soon; it had been eighteen months since the Templar master had sent Bascot to Lincoln, and an undertaking to either return to the Order or leave it could not be deferred for much longer. It was only because of Gianni that he had not returned to their ranks before this.

It had not been until the boy was captured by brigands the previous summer, and his life threatened, that Bascot had realised the depth of his affection for the lad. Had Gianni been a true son of his own loins Bascot could not have valued him more, and he would not forsake the youngster now, no matter the cost to himself.

As he left the Minster and crossed the old Roman road of Ermine Street, dodging between carts and travellers on horseback making their way to Newport Arch, the northern exit from the town, he reflected that a future in Lincoln would not greatly displease him. He had considerable respect for Nicolaa de la Haye; she was diligent and efficient in the duties she undertook in running the large fief she had inherited from her father, and as an added bonus, he liked her as well. The town itself was a prosperous one, with the usual wrangling between royal authority and some of its citizens-especially those that belonged to a guild-that occurred in any community of a moderate size, but Bascot had come to feel at home here and had made friends among the staff of the castle and some of the town’s inhabitants. If only he could find a way to reconcile himself to gainsaying his vows, he would be content.

As he entered the huge portal that was the eastern gate into the bail, the cathedral bells began to toll the midday hour of Sext. He raised a hand in greeting to the guard on the castle gate and went into the huge expanse of the ward. The place was a beehive of industry, for with the coming of spring, the grime that had collected over the winter months was in the process of being cleansed. Thatch on the roofs of outbuildings was being replaced, carts laden with ordure from the middens were being trundled out the western gate and servants were using metal scrapers attached to long wooden poles to level the furrows that had been scored by harsh winter weather into the hard-packed earth of the bail. Atop the walls, guards paced along the walkway that lined the inside of the parapet.

From across the ward, Bascot saw the small, slight figure of Gianni racing towards him, the mop of dark curls on the boy’s head bouncing as he ran. The lad had been standing in company with Ernulf, the grizzled captain of the castle guard, at the door to the barracks and had seen Bascot’s return. The Templar felt a surge of pride as he watched Gianni approach. The youngster had been emaciated and dispirited from hunger when he had first encountered him; now the muscles on his slender frame were beginning to swell with health, and his countenance was clear and untroubled. Bascot knew that his decision to leave the Order and stay with the boy was the correct one.

As it was nearly time for the midday meal to be served, the pair made their way across the bail and into the hall. Inside the high-ceilinged chamber, trestle tables had been set up and were in the process of being laid with cloths in preparation for the serving of food. Only the table that was fixed permanently on the dais at the far end of the hall had been left bare of napery, for Lady Nicolaa had been indisposed by the debilitating effects of a rheum for the last few days and had been taking all of her meals in her bedchamber.

Just as the Templar was starting towards a seat above the huge saltcellar that designated the separation of higher rank from lower, a commotion broke out as a manservant came rushing through the door that led to the spiral staircase in the northern tower of the keep. The lackey looked frantically around him until he spotted Martin, the castle leech, preparing to take a seat at one of the tables, and then ran in his direction. “You must come at once, Martin,” he yelled. “Ralf is terribly ill. Master Blund fears for his life.”

A shocked silence followed the servant’s shout, and Bascot made haste to follow the burly figure of Martin as he ran to the door from which the servant had emerged. Ralf, Bascot knew, was one of two assistants to John Blund, Nicolaa de la Haye’s elderly secretarius, and carried out his duties in the scriptorium, a small chamber located at the top of the tower whose staircase he now began to climb. Cursing the awkwardness of his injured ankle, Bascot followed Martin up the stone steps as fast as he was able, Gianni pattering close behind.

The door to the scriptorium was open, and a fetid smell pervaded the air at the top of the steps. Inside the room, Bascot could see Blund kneeling beside the prone figure of his clerk and speaking urgently to Martin. Behind the two men, the chamber was in disarray, one of the three lecterns that lined the far wall was toppled over and there were ink, parchment and quills lying scattered on the floor around it, as though the desk had been suddenly overset. The open-faced cupboard with shelves that held piles of parchment seemed undisturbed, but below it, a ewer was lying on its side and the liquid it contained was seeping out into a puddle on the floor. Above the ewer, on one of the lower shelves of the cupboard, was a metal tray, on which was set a wooden drinking cup and the crumbled remnants of some type of confectionary.

Motioning to Gianni to stay outside in the hallway, Bascot entered the chamber. Ralf, a young man of about eighteen years of age, was lying just a few feet from the entrance, and it was from his body that the rank odour emanated. Bloody vomit was spattered over the front of his gown and clumped in patches at the corners of his mouth. A stain on the floor beneath him gave evidence that he had soiled himself. His limbs were flaccid, and his head lolled to one side, eyes half closed. As Bascot approached, the young clerk gave a great convulsive shudder and, with one last expulsion of air, ceased to breathe.

Martin leaned over the lad and placed a hand on his chest, feeling for a heartbeat. He looked up at Bascot and gave a slight shake of his head. “He is gone, I am afraid.”

The elderly secretary stared at the leech, the expression in Blund’s faded blue eyes uncomprehending. “But

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