did not eat any of his meals here at the castle, so even if Martin is correct, it seems impossible that both Ralf and Haukwell were made ill by a common food. We appear to be at an impasse.” She did not speak of the fear that the deaths may have been caused by a pestilence, but the implication hung in the air all the same.

Bascot considered the problem for a moment and then addressed the cook. “Gosbert, it is not uncommon for one of the knights, when he has been detained by his duties, to be unable to attend the board at mealtimes. I have often been delayed myself. On such occasions, I would send my servant to the kitchen for some food to stem my hunger. Are you quite sure that did not happen last night with Sir Simon; that you served nothing to him that was quite separate from the meal that was sent to the hall earlier?”

The cook looked at Eric, and the assistant shook his head in negation. “No, Sir Bascot,” Gosbert declared. “We did not.”

There was a sudden movement amongst the group of squires as Thomas, the eldest, and the one who had most often attended Haukwell, started to speak. De Laubrec gripped his arm roughly and gave him a curt command to be silent.

“I will not, Sir Gilles,” Thomas said defiantly, and before the knight could make further protest, he called out to the Templar. “The cook lies, Sir Bascot, he did serve Sir Simon something that was not given to anyone else.”

The heads of everyone present turned in the squire’s direction, and Bascot motioned to de Laubrec to release the lad and bade Thomas to come forward. He did so, standing erect and tense in front of the dais. He was a lad of about seventeen years of age, with auburn hair and a spattering of freckles on his face that stood out like drops of blood against the whiteness of his skin.

“What other food was given to Haukwell?” Bascot asked quietly.

“It was not food, it was a drink,” Thomas replied. “Sir Simon always had a jug of honeyed wine before retiring every night. After we had all eaten, he sent me to the kitchen to fetch it. He had one cup when I first brought it and then two more after we had spread our pallets in the corner of the hall where he slept alongside the rest of us. It was soon after he had lain down for his night’s rest that I was woken by the sound of his purging, and shortly afterwards he was dead.”

Thomas’s voice faltered slightly as he said the last words, but he kept his composure and turned to face the cook and his assistant. “I have been thinking about it ever since. If, as the leech says, it was something Sir Simon ate or drank that killed him, it could only have been the wine. And he was the one,” the squire pointed an accusing finger at Eric, “who gave me the flagon.”

A murmur rose amongst the spectators, and Eric stepped back a pace in stunned surprise. “But… but, it could not have been the wine,” he protested. “The cask was one that had been broached two days before. It has been served to Sir Simon, and others, throughout all the meals that have been prepared.”

“It was only after he drank the wine that he complained of pains in his stomach and began to purge,” the squire maintained stubbornly.

“Even if the wine had soured, Thomas,” Bascot said patiently, “it is unlikely it would have done more than make Sir Simon queasy. It certainly would not have caused his death.”

“Besides, Thomas,” de Laubrec interjected, “I drank the same wine as Haukwell, and as you can see, it did not make me ill.”

The squire’s response was quick. “But, Sir Gilles, you had wine that had not been sweetened. I brought Sir Simon the honeyed wine in a separate flagon from the others.” Again he pointed at Eric. “That scullion could have poured the wine into a filthy jug or mixed it with honey that had turned putrid.” As he spoke, Thomas was growing more and more heated, frustrated by the obvious scepticism of Bascot and de Laubrec, but he drew a deep breath and continued doggedly. “Sir Simon was in good health and spirits until he drank the wine,” he insisted, “so it must have been the cause of his sickness.”

Despite the doubting looks that had appeared on the faces of those who were listening, Martin gave his support to the squire’s assertion. “Although it is true that neither wine nor honey is likely to deteriorate into a state of such foulness, Thomas makes a valid point in saying that the containers in which they were served, or had been kept, could have been tainted.” The leech glared at the cook and his assistant. “Slovenly habits are often the cause of sickness. A dead mouse in the wine tun or insects in the honey-all manner of pernicious substances can invade the area where food is prepared if it is not properly overseen. The squire’s charge could well have merit.”

Eric was quick to defend himself, although his voice shook slightly as he spoke. “The flagon was clean,” he insisted. “And so is the rest of the kitchen. Master Gosbert would not allow it to be otherwise. And some of the honey with which I sweetened the wine had already been consumed. It could not have been tainted.”

“What Eric says is true,” Gosbert confirmed, drawing himself up to his full short height and returning Martin’s glare. “I do not allow laxity in the kitchen. I am most particular that all of the work surfaces and the vessels we use are scoured regularly. And, as for the honey,” he turned his eyes to Nicolaa and said confidently, “lady, it was your own good self that had already eaten some. It was in the marchpane I laid atop the simnel cake I sent to your chamber. It was from a new jar that I opened especially to make the topping and must have been wholesome, otherwise it would have made you ill as well.”

Nicolaa’s brows drew down into a frown. “Simnel cake? I have had none such.”

The cook took a step towards his mistress, his speech earnest now. “But I sent one of the serving maids up to your chamber yesterday morning, early, with a platter on which it was laid. The maid did not bring the cake back; if you did not eat it, somebody else must have.”

At Nicolaa’s look of confusion, her attendant, Clare, spoke quietly to her mistress. “You were sleeping, lady, when the maid came with the cake,” she told her. “I knew your throat had become very sore, and you were having difficulty swallowing. I did not think you would be able to eat any of the cake, so I told the maid to take it away.”

“But Gosbert says she did not return it to the kitchen. Do you know what she did with it?”

“Yes, I do,” Clare replied, her voice tremulous. “I thought the clerks in the scriptorium might enjoy it, so I told her to take it there.”

Nicolaa looked at her secretary. “Was this cake there when you returned and found Ralf ill, Master Blund?”

“No, lady,” Blund replied, “it was not, but there was an empty platter in the chamber. If that is the same one on which the cake was served, then it had been consumed while I was absent.”

“And, since your clerk was in the scriptorium alone yesterday morning, it would be logical to assume that he was the one that ate it?” Nicolaa persisted.

Blund nodded his head sadly. “Yes, lady. He would have done. He had an especial liking for sweet confections.”

Martin leaned forward and said triumphantly, “And it would appear that only Sir Simon and the clerk were served food or drink which contained honey that came from this pot. If it has become tainted in some way, then I am correct. Food from the kitchen was the cause of these deaths.”

The horrified silence that followed his words was broken by Thomas, who leapt forward and would have attacked both Gosbert and Eric with his fists if de Laubrec had not grabbed the lad and restrained him. “I knew I was right about the wine,” the squire shouted as he struggled against the knight’s viselike grip. “ Those filthy cooks poisoned Sir Simon!”

A babble of voices broke out in agreement. Bascot stood up and gave a stern command for order. As the room fell silent, he said, “It would seem that it is possible-and I repeat, only possible-that we have discovered a substance that may have been the cause of these deaths. The honey must be tested before we can be certain.”

With a glance at Nicolaa for a nod of permission, he came down from the dais and onto the floor of the hall and called to Ernulf. The serjeant came forward at once. “We will need the help of Thorey, the castle rat catcher, for this task,” Bascot said to him. “Have one of your men fetch him and tell him to bring one of the live rats he uses to train his dogs to the bail, and wait outside the entrance to the kitchen.”

He motioned to Gosbert. “You will then take the cook to the kitchen and have him show you the pot of honey that he used, and bring it and some bread on which to smear it, to the catcher. We will have Thorey feed it to the rat and see if it dies. That should prove whether or not the honey is at the root of this mysterious illness.”

As Ernulf left the hall to carry out the instructions he had been given, Nicolaa came down from the dais and accompanied Bascot in leading the group from the hall.

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