It was another fair day outside. A shower of rain had fallen earlier, but it had been brief and the ground was only slightly damp underfoot. Thorey had answered the summons quickly and was waiting for them outside the building that housed the castle kitchen. He was a small man, with sunken cheeks and a sharp nose, and was wrapped in a cape made from rat skins. On his head was a peaked cap of the same material. In one hand he held a metal cage containing a large black rat, and at his feet were two small dogs of a terrier breed; both were white in colour and had contrasting dark patches of fur about their ears and eyes. They watched intently as their master set the cage containing the rat on the ground, with their ears pricked and bodies alert as they waited for Thorey to loose the rodent and give the command to kill.

When Ernulf arrived with the honey pot, a container that held about two pounds of the sweetener, and the bread, Bascot gave the catcher his orders. “Smear some of the contents of that pot onto the bread and feed it to the rat.” At Thorey’s questioning look, he explained, “There is a possibility that the honey is noxious. Do not let your dogs near it.”

Thorey’s dark eyes narrowed at the warning, but he made no comment and gave a command to the two terriers to go a few paces away from him. The dogs swiftly obeyed, but their concentration remained focused on their master as he took a piece of the bread and, using a spoon given to him by Ernulf, scooped some of the honey onto it. He pushed it through the iron bars of the cage. All waited and watched with morbid fascination as the rodent first sniffed at the morsel then turned it over and over in its tiny paws before beginning to nibble at the bread.

It was not long before the honey’s deadly effects became apparent. Soon the rat began to shake and twitch, then froth bubbled from its mouth and it began to convulse. The spectators watched in awestruck horror as the rodent suffered one final, and obviously painful, spasm and fell onto its side, dead. Shocked gasps broke out from those who had been watching, and the sempstress, Clare, gave a heartrending sob.

Nicolaa, too, was shaken by what she had witnessed. “There can be no doubt that the honey in that pot is contaminated,” she said in a voice that struggled with disbelief, “but it is far too toxic to have been caused haphazardly. This has been done on purpose, with malicious intent.”

She swung around to where Gosbert was standing. “That honey has been poisoned, cook. If I had not been too ill to eat the cake, it is I who would have died, not Ralf.”

The cook fell to his knees, his plump face terror stricken. “Lady, I swear by the precious blood of Our Saviour that I did not know the honey was tainted. I would never contrive at your death, never. Please believe me, I beg of you.”

Nicolaa regarded the cook for a moment, and his assistant, Eric, who was staring at the rat in stupefaction, as though he could not believe it was dead.

“I would like to believe you, Gosbert, but your innocence must be proved before I can do so.” She made a motion with her hand, and Ernulf ordered two of his men to seize Gosbert. “Until it is, you will be kept confined and under guard.”

As the cook was dragged across the bail towards the holding cells, Bascot gave Ernulf further instructions, the Templar’s thoughts leaping to the significance of what they had just witnessed. “All of the honey pots in the kitchen, Ernulf, both sealed and unsealed, must be brought out into the bail so that Thorey can test the contents. If there are not enough vermin for the purpose, obtain more from rat catchers in the town.”

He glanced at Nicolaa and she nodded, adding, “If that becomes necessary, Ernulf, you may tell the town catchers they will be recompensed out of the castle coffers for their assistance.”

As Ernulf hastened away to comply with the order, Nicolaa stood with Bascot and gazed at the dead rat.

“It seems it is not pestilence that has come to afflict us, lady, but a poisoner,” Bascot said to her softly.

Nicolaa drew a breath and shook her head slightly, as though she could, by doing so, erase the evidence that lay before her eyes. “I cannot believe that the person who did this is my cook, de Marins. But if it was not him…”

“Then the poisoner is still amongst us and free to strike again,” Bascot finished. He looked at the crowd of household staff who had gathered to watch the testing of the honey. All were standing and looking at the rat, apprehension for their own well-being dawning in their eyes. Was Nicolaa correct in her assumption of Gosbert’s innocence? And, if she was, was the guilty person there amongst the household staff, hiding his or her culpability behind a pretence of horror?

“The truth of this matter must be discovered, lady, and it must be done quickly,” Bascot said. “This attempt on your life failed, but if you are right and it was not your cook who made it, then you are in grave danger. And so is the rest of your household.”

Nicolaa nodded as she, too, surveyed the distressed faces of the watching servants and wondered if one of them had been responsible for poisoning the honey. “Attend me in my private chamber, de Marins. It is best we discuss this matter in confidence.”


The room to which Bascot followed Nicolaa was the chamber where she administered the many details involved in managing the large fief she had inherited from her father. It was sparsely furnished, containing a large oak table laid with sheets of parchment, quills and an ink pot, and a small desk at which John Blund sat when taking dictation. On one side, against the wall, was a stand to accommodate jugs of wine and cups. Clare had trailed behind her mistress and the Templar as they climbed the tower stairs to the chamber, bringing with her the pot that contained the contaminated honey, which had been wrapped in a piece of straining cloth taken from the kitchen. As they entered the room the maid began to weep, silently, and looked near to collapse.

“Clare, you may leave us now,” Nicolaa said to her attendant. The castellan’s face was ashen, but her voice was steady as she spoke to the girl. “You have my permission to absent yourself from your duties for the rest of the day.”

The maid placed the pot of honey on the table and left the room. Once the door was shut, Nicolaa explained the reason for the maid’s distress. “I recently gave Ralf and Clare permission to become betrothed. His death was a great blow to her. The realisation that she was the unwitting instrument of his demise is, I fear, more than she can stand. I hope that time will ease her suffering, even if it does not eradicate it.”

Bascot nodded in commiseration and, as he did so, noticed that Nicolaa was almost as distraught as the maid. Accustomed to her usual demeanour of quiet efficiency, it gave him a start of dismay to realise that she was having difficulty maintaining her equanimity. In the eighteen months Bascot had been in Lincoln, they had together faced, and solved, the mysteries surrounding two previous incidents of murder, but neither of those had included an attempt on the castellan’s own life. He feared that this time, and in her debilitated state, the shock of coming so close to death had put her near to using up the reserves of her considerable inner strength. Pouring them each a cup of wine from the flagon on the table, he remained silent for a few moments, giving her time to recover from the awareness of how close she had come to death.

That hope was realised when, after taking a sip of the wine, she said, with a faint touch of her usual asperity, “I cannot-and do not-believe that Gosbert is responsible for this crime. He has been in my retinue for nearly twenty years, since the time my son, Richard, was a babe. If he had ever harboured any ill feeling towards me, I would have been aware of it long before now.”

“It may be that the honey was, perhaps, poisoned before it was sealed, in which case, as you say, Gosbert would be innocent,” Bascot opined.

“Yes,” Nicolaa agreed. “It would be a simple matter to open a jar, contaminate the contents and then replace the stopper and wax seal. And it could have been done at any time, either while it was in the kitchen or before it was delivered to the castle store.”

She pointed to the honey pot, which had been finished with a highly coloured amber glaze. “The glaze on that jar is used to denote that it is the best grade of honey, one that would only be used in a dish that is served to those of higher rank. Whether that is an indication of the poisoner’s intent to murder myself, a member of my family or one of the household knights remains to be seen. We shall have to await the results of Thorey’s testing to see if any more jars have been adulterated, and if so, of which grade.”

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