he cannot be dead! I left him just a few hours ago and he was hale and hearty. How can he have become so ill in such a short space of time?”

Martin stood up and shrugged, his attitude dismissive. “Most likely he ate some tainted food. It is sudden, I admit, but rancid meat or an egg that has been kept too long can sometimes have an abrupt and virulent effect.” He paused in thought for a moment, his brows drawing down in concern. “I have had no other reports of sickness among the household, but if Ralf ate something at table last night, a dish that contained an ingredient that was unwholesome, I had best alert…”

“No, Martin, that is unlikely,” Blund interrupted. “Ralf did not usually take his evening meal with the rest of us, and did not do so yestere’en. He has lodgings in the town, and meals are included in the rooming fee. If it was rancid food that caused this tragedy, it was most likely in a dish that was served there, or in the contents of a pasty he bought on his way home.”

Blund looked down at the clerk and reached out a hand to smooth the thick mat of auburn hair from Ralf’s pallid brow. “So quickly dead! If only I had not left him by himself this morning to attend my goddaughter’s christening. I was gone for just a few hours, but… it is sad to contemplate that he was all alone when this illness overtook him.” He waved a hand at the upset lectern and scattered writing implements. “He must have been in great pain to have caused such a mess.”

Bascot looked around the empty room. “You have two clerks, do you not, Master Blund? Where is the other one? Why was he not here when Ralf was taken ill?”

The secretary looked at the Templar with eyes that were glazed and gave his answer absently. “Lambert is below, in the hall. I saw him as I came back to the castle. He had come to tell me that his hand was sufficiently healed for him to return to his duties.”

Martin explained to Bascot. “Lambert took a tumble down a flight of stairs a few days ago and sprained the wrist of his scribing arm. He has not been in the scriptorium since then, and would have been absent this morning.”

The leech rose to his feet. “I am sorry for Ralf’s loss, Master Blund,” he said, his ruddy countenance set in lines of solemnity. “Does he have any relatives that must be informed?”

“No,” Blund replied. “Ralf was an orphan, left in the care of the Priory of All Saints when he was only a small child. That is how he came to his duties here; I was looking for a young lad to train as assistant, and the prior recommended him. And now, so soon, he will be returned to the care of the church, to be buried.”

Martin gave a commiserating shake of his head and turned to Bascot. “There is no more I can do here. With your leave I will return to the hall and ask the chaplain to attend the body. I shall also tell Lady Nicolaa of Ralf’s death, and how he came by it.”

The Templar gave his assent, and Martin left the room, shooing downstairs the flock of servants that had gathered in the doorway until only Gianni remained, his eyes wide and frightened. Bascot helped the distraught secretary to his feet and set him on a stool. In the silent and oppressive atmosphere of the scriptorium they waited for the priest to arrive.


The second fatality occured in the early hours of the next morning. Ernulf gave Bascot the news as he and Gianni were going to the castle chapel to attend Mass.

“I was just coming to get you,” the serjeant called out from the steps of the forebuilding that led up to the keep. “There’s been another death, from the same sickness as the clerk.”

“Another?” Bascot echoed in disbelief. “Who?”

“Sir Simon,” Ernulf replied. “Breathed his last not two hours since, just after Matins.”

Simon of Haukwell was the knight whose duty it had been to train the squires of the Camville retinue. A dour and taciturn man, he nonetheless had the respect of the boys who wielded lance and sword under his direction, for while he had little patience with careless mistakes, he was also unstinting in the time he spent in ensuring his charges did not make them.

“Then Haukwell must have eaten the same tainted food that the clerk did,” Bascot concluded, “despite the fact that Blund said the clerk didn’t take his meals at the castle board.”

Ernulf nodded. “Seems likely, but if so, we don’t know what it was.” The serjeant rubbed a hand over his face, which was grey with tiredness. “Lady Nicolaa has been up since before Prime with the disturbance, and she’s already worn out from that rheum that’s ailing her.” Concern for his mistress’s well-being, Bascot suspected, was adding to the serjeant’s fatigue. He had been devoted to her since she was a young girl and was ever-conscious of her welfare.

“What is Martin’s opinion?” Bascot asked.

“He’s insisting that both the clerk and Haukwell ate some victual that was rotten, but there’s one or two of the servants as saying it’s a pestilence that’s come amongst us.”

The fear in Ernulf’s eyes was reflected in Bascot’s own. It had been a pestilence that had taken the lives of the Templar’s family while he had been in the Holy Land. It was a scourge that no mortal man could combat. Gianni moved a little closer to his master’s side.

“Aye,” Ernulf said, “ ’tis to be hoped the leech’s claim is a true one. If it is not…” He did not go on to voice his dread of the alternative, saying instead, “I’ve just taken the cook and his assistant into the hall and they’re both denying they served anything tainted. Lady Nicolaa sent me to fetch you. She wants your help in trying to sort the matter out.”

“I’ll come at once,” Bascot said, and he and Gianni followed Ernulf into the hall.

Inside, Nicolaa de la Haye, a small, plump woman who had about her an air of calm authority, was seated at the table on the dais. Behind her chair stood one of the castle sempstresses, Clare, a young, fresh-faced girl who had been attending her mistress while Nicolaa had been indisposed. The flesh around the maid’s eyes was puffy, and it looked as though she had been weeping.

At the table with Nicolaa were John Blund and Martin. The leech was obviously angry, his usual high colour flushed an even deeper red, and he was drumming his fingers impatiently on the table as he looked at the two men standing below him on the floor of the hall. One was the cook, Gosbert; the other his assistant, Eric. Between the two of them they either prepared or supervised the preparation of all the food that was served to the castle household.

“De Marins,” Nicolaa said when Bascot came up to her, “has Ernulf told you that Haukwell has died, and from a similar sickness to that which took the life of Master Blund’s clerk?” The castellan’s voice was hoarse from her ailment. Her diminutive frame was slumped with weariness, and her slightly protuberant blue eyes were red-rimmed and watery. As she spoke she dabbed at her nose with a square of soft linen that had been tucked in her sleeve.

“He has, lady,” Bascot assured her, “and also that you are trying to discover the cause of the affliction.”

“Then please take a seat up here.” She motioned to the empty chair beside her. “I have need of a clear head to assist me in this task. I am afraid my faculties are somewhat dulled at the moment.”

Leaving Gianni standing with Ernulf, Bascot mounted the dais and took the seat she had indicated, looking out over the people gathered in the hall as he did so. At the back were a few of the household staff including Eudo, the steward, alongside some of the men-at-arms that had just come off duty. At one side, near the huge unlit fireplace, the squires who had been in Haukwell’s care-five in number-had gathered to watch the proceedings. The knight who held the post of marshal, Gilles de Laubrec, was standing beside them, his arms crossed over his burly chest and a scowl on his normally amiable face.

Bascot studied the two men who were being interrogated. The cook, Gosbert, was the older of the pair; a man of short stature and rotund proportions topped by a completely bald head. His attitude was one of indignant truculence, while his assistant, Eric, who was much younger, taller and more muscular in build, stood at his side and was casting nervous glances at the leech. Both of them wore voluminous aprons of rough linen that were heavily stained with smears of blood and grease.

Once the Templar had taken his seat, Nicolaa said to him, “Gosbert has declared that nothing in his kitchen is tainted, but Martin in insistent there must be at least one victual that is rotten. And John Blund says that the clerk

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